Empire of Light (2022) – dir. by Sam Mendes
Empire of Light, like James Gray’s Armageddon Time, is one of those prestige late in the year movies that doesn’t seem to have connected with audiences or critics. They both look incredible, feature some impressive acting and tackle weighty themes. For Empire of Light, maybe it got lost in the ‘director makes a nostalgic film about the power of cinema’ scrum that also featured Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and Alejandro G. Iñárritu Bardo: False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths (a movie which, try as I might, I was unable to finish).
In Empire of Light, the movie is half nostalgic cinema and half relationship melodrama (albeit a successful one). Is the term melodrama a slight? I don’t think so, I love a good melodrama.
Here it’s a romance between Hilary (Olivia Colman) and Stephen (Michael Ward). They make for what society would consider an odd couple because of differences in age and race, this being a period piece film in a small town where glances are sideways and judgments are loud. This section of the film is reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), one of the best melodramas I’ve ever seen.
Is that a melodrama? I don’t think I know what makes one anymore, but no matter, it’s a great film.
I think Empire of Light suffers from the feeling that you’re being hit over the head with its message, first about prejudice, second about cinema. I can see how people might roll their eyes and say “we get it, we like Stir Crazy too but C’mon.” I mean, the end of the film has Hilary sit in a theater and let the movie wash over her like a baptism. Her eyes glisten, she looks like she’s about to be risen to heaven, but is she watching Ordinary People or Porky’s?
But hey! It’s a film that is romantic about cinema. And I like movies, so I enjoyed it, even if the first half of the film is dastardly slow. It’s a beautifully-crafted film about movies and escapism.
Missing (2023) – dir. by Nicholas D. Johnson, Will Merrick
Okay, so the best thrillers right now are these “screen” movies, wherein the entire film is told through the perspective of a phone or a computer, usually a computer. I don’t know why, they just work. They are hyper “in the moment,” insofar as capturing social media, the internet and the manic energy of how we consume and spew out bits and pieces of information.
It also helps that the twists and turns in Missing are outrageous and effective. It’s just a fun movie.
The co-directors of Missing were co-editors on 2018’s Searching starring John Cho, another movie about the search for a missing person filmed entirely through computer screens.
Marlowe (2023) – dir. by Neil Jordan
Not much to say about this one other than that it’s nice to see a noir on the big screen again. It’s well-made but hardly inventive, and in the end I have no idea what happened. But that’s kind’ve the thing with detective movies of this ilk.
They should make more of these.
Private Benjamin (1980) – dir. by Howard Zieff
Private Benjamin is more Stripes than G.I. Jane. It follows Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn) as she searches for meaning and empowerment after the sudden death of her second husband (Albert Brooks) on their wedding night. It’s a role for which Hawn was nominated for an Academy Award, one of those things that feels… huh.
She’s great in the movie! Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid movie that does touch on certain themes that seemed to be in the air at the time, about breaking traditional gender norms (9 to 5 being another example, also Mr. Mom). But it’s all packaged in such a boiler plate script, what basically amounts to a summer camp movie.
And again, none of that’s bad or wrong, it just felt like there could’ve been more here.
Judy’s second husband dies on the night of their wedding (one of the funnier moments of the movie, oddly), and as she stumbles around trying to make sense of why she feels the way she does (she followed all the rules but feels like she’s lost something) she is talked into joining the army by Harry Dean Stanton.
Of course she is a fish out of water but she proves herself and earns the respect of the people around her. She also falls in love with a Frenchman named Henri, and that romance becomes the driving force of the third act.
This is a movie with something to say but which feels constantly reigned in by genre expectations. The best scene in the movie occurs about halfway through when a group of soldiers, led by Judy, sit around a campfire and just… talk. It’s the only scene in the movie that feels free from plot expectations and it’s by far the most human and affecting scene. It’s about these characters breaking free of society’s expectations, and so much of the film deals with the limits imposed on them (in one scene a drill sergeant who literally sexually assaults Judy and it’s played for… laughs? It was hard to tell).
But in that campfire scene, that’s where the magic lives.
Doc Hollywood (1991) – dir. by Michael Caton-Jones
This was an HBO recommendation after I watched Private Benjamin so what the hell.
Doc Hollywood, like Private Benjamin, is so faithful to what audiences would expect of it. By that I mean, you watch the trailer or read the log line and you know exactly what’s to happen.
Michael J. Fox plays an arrogant prick named Ben Stone who has aspirations of making it big in LA as a plastic surgeon. On his way to LA, in his flashy red convertible, he crashes his car and ends up in Grady, a magically quaint southern town where everyone knows each other, the accents are thick, and yeah basically everyone is there to serve as spiritual guides on his unexpected journey towards self-actualization.
I will also say that in some cases these plot mechanics can be extremely satisfying and grounding, like listening to your favorite song. Other times they can feel tired. Here it’s a bit of both.
Fox does well playing a prick but if you like the movie it’s probably because of the supporting cast (Woody Harrelson, Bridget Fonda, David Ogden Stiers and so on).
Oh, and if Grady does exist, then I will be booking an airbnb there shortly.