Welcome back to the latest installment of Ask the Critic, the forum where we tear down the wall between the readers and the reviewer. This week, you wanted to know about movies that have flown under the radar this year, films I might have been too harsh (or too easy) on the first time around, and some EW-approved tips for the pint-sized cinephile in your lives. So let’s get to it…
What’s the most overlooked/underrated movie so far this year? —@nikkiluscombe
Nikki, I can think of a few right away. But the one whose lack of love still leaves me scratching my head has to be writer-director Dan Fogelman’s Danny Collins. Otherwise known as the Al Pacino movie for people who’ve given up on Al Pacino. Released back in the multiplex doldrums of April, this modest but hugely satisfying indie, which also features beautifully realized performances from Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner, and Christopher Plummer, seemed to mysteriously vanish from theaters after a month or so with the same deafening silence with which it arrived.
For those who don’t know the story, Pacino plays a Neil Diamond-esque singer who was once such a promising songwriter that John Lennon wrote him a fan letter. Problem is, he never received it. Now, in his sad-sack old age, draped in gold chains, playing to blue-haired groupies, and estranged from his grown son, he finally gets his hands on the letter and undergoes a late-life crisis about the path he gave up for an easy life of wealth, oldies-circuit fame, and booze – lots and lots of booze.
Danny Collins made a hair over $5 million at the box office and got a few positive reviews, but mostly it was met by utter indifference, which mystifies me. As a movie lover who wants to see more movies like this one (read: poignant, smart movies about real people grappling with real problems that have nothing to do with infinity stones or the fate of Ultron), it also frustrates the hell out of me. It’s the kind of mid-pricepoint, grown-up cinematic experience that Hollywood no longer seems interested in bankrolling on a regular basis. This is a relatively new and depressing development. As recently as a decade ago, movies like Danny Collins accounted for a sizable chunk of the major studios’ slates every year. Now, when every movie either costs $200 million or $200,000, these CGI-free human dramas are as extinct as the woolly mammoth. I get that if you’re a bean counter working for a giant, publicly-traded company like Sony or Paramount, you’d take one look at the bottom line of the ledger on a movie like Danny Collins and think: that isn’t a business I want to be in. But it is a business. And guess what? It is the business you’re in! Making and distributing movies in the 21st century can’t just be about separating teenagers from their babysitting money with eye-candy junk food, can it? There has to be some ambition – some aspiration beyond franchises, sequels, remakes, and pre-sold low-hanging-fruit widgets.
I worry that the lesson taken from the paltry performance of a Danny Collins just further reinforces the sort of doomsday thinking and dire trends that have turned Tinseltown into an industry of fear. The Oscars, to some degree, offer a year-end corrective to all of this. It’s when the studios get a pat on the back for making one or two non-blockbusters a year instead of one or two every couple of weeks. So, yes, go watch Danny Collins. (It’s on Netflix.) I think you’ll like it. Plus, it’s an opportunity to see one of American cinema’s greatest treasures, Pacino, give his best performance since 1997’s Donnie Brasco.
Ever want a mulligan on a review you wrote? Has there ever been a movie you raved about or rejected in print, hours or days after seeing it for the first time, that you now have second thoughts about, years later? –DocHolliday
Like everyone, critics are fallible. I’ll often see a movie on a Monday night and go back to the office to bang out five or six hundred words so that it can make it into the magazine before its Tuesday close. I’m not complaining. It’s just that sometimes you don’t get a lot of time to let the moviegoing experience really marinate. Unlike Pauline Kael, who claimed to never watch the movies she reviewed a second time, I wish I could see every movie I review a second or third time (unless it’s a Human Centipede flick or anything where Aliens fight Predators). I’ll often sit through a film a second time weeks or months after it comes out and my review has been published and realize that I may have been too kind or too harsh. It happens. It’s rare to have a complete reversal of opinion; usually you just want to tweak a movie you gave a B- to a B, or a C to a C-.
I think I was probably too kind to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which I gave a B but found exhausting the second time around. Still, the one that I think I probably was the most unnecessarily hard on was Inherent Vice. I gave Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s stoner-noir novel a C when it came out back in December. I still think it’s a flawed movie that’s frustratingly shapeless and discursive, but it’s also a more interesting film than I probably gave it credit for being in my original review. Looking back, I’m sure the reason I was so tough on it had something to do with how high my expectations are with Anderson’s films. I’m a real sucker for his movies, especially Boogie Nights and Magnolia, which I adore. (Plus, he’s the only director who ever managed to get an interesting performance out of Adam Sandler with Punch-Drunk Love.)
Seeing Inherent Vice a second time recently, I realized that a lot of the things that I found maddening and too loosey-goosey the first time around annoyed me less. I was able to sit back and give myself over to the film’s zonked rhythm and shambling pace and experience it like a piece of jazz. I still don’t think I would give it an A, but I certainly would have graded it better than a C.
You have kids? If they are 10 years old, what are the three movies you most want to watch with them for the first time? –HammyTime
I do have kids, HammyTime, thanks for asking. Twin boys, as a matter of fact, who are closing in on their second birthdays. At that age, it’s a little premature for kicking off their movie education, but it’s obviously something I’ve given a lot of thought to as I’m changing diapers and it’s something I’m really looking forward to (unlike changing diapers). I’ve already plotted out a timeline in my head for when they should get their first taste of Pixar’s gateway drugs, and at what age I will be able to experience what I expect to be one of my greatest moments as a father: the first time I throw on Star Wars for them. (I’ve also wondered whether I can still give the boys back to the hospital if they’re not as smitten with the original trilogy as I hope they will be – and yes, I will begin with the original trilogy. I’m not a goddamned heathen!). So, obviously, if your 10 year olds haven’t made the acquaintance of Luke, Leia, & co. yet, I’d queue that bad boy up, stat. You’ve asked for three, but that seems too difficult. So here’s a bunch:
— The Goonies: Indiana Jones for kids, plus Chunk and “The Truffle Shuffle”
— The Harry Potter series: Read the books with your kids first, then let them see their little wizard imaginations come alive onscreen.
— Classic Loony Tunes shorts: Because you’re never too young for Bugs, Daffy, and the unsung sadist of the Warner Bros. stable of ‘toons, Foghorn Leghorn.
— Home Alone: The ultimate kids’ fantasy — no babysitter and a gigantic fort from which to repel adult invaders
— School of Rock: Because kids are never too young (or too old) to learn to loosen up, learn about Black Sabbath, and have a little fun with the ultimate grown-up kid, Jack Black’s “Mr. Schneebly.”
— Willy Wonka: Not the Johnny Depp version, please. A snozzberry-flavored confection that shows that brats are punished and the good are rewarded.
— Elf: The closest thing we have to a modern-day holiday kiddie classic
— Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The movie equivalent of a visit to a theme park as mite-sized kids battle giant Cheerios, dogs the size of a T-Rex, and a backyard as thick and foreboding as the Amazon
— Freaky Friday: Maybe, just maybe, your kids will appreciate that their parents were once kids too.
— The Karate Kid: Again, the original is the one to go with. Tween movies have never been this empowering before or since.
— Raiders of the Lost Ark: Temple of Doom may be too scary, but the original is Spielberg’s most rollicking adventure. Plus, it makes being smart look heroic.
— The Wizard of Oz: Duh
— E.T.: Sometimes your best friend can come from a galaxy far, far away.
— King Kong: The 1933 original is still a herky-jerky, stop-motion wonder and a perfect first piggy-toe into the world before movies were made in color.
— Iron Giant: Along with E.T., you won’t find a sweeter fable about friendship.
— Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein: Every kid deserves to spend a rainy afternoon in the company of grown-up knuckleheads minus the hammer-to-the-head copycat mayhem of the Three Stooges.
— And if you’re the kind of parent who regards the ratings system as something to be ignored, like mine were: Jaws. But please, no follow-up hate mail if this one ends in tears or nightmares.
Join us again next week and don’t forget to email your movie questions and opinions to me at CriticsMailbag@ew.com or send me a tweet at @ChrisNashawaty, or just comment below.