'The Man from the Train'Bill James’ The Man from the Train is an ugly book, but for the most part you shouldn’t read that as a criticism. It’s ugly in three ways, and two of those were certainly unavoidable given the subject — the murders of more than 100 people in the early part of the 20th Century.

But the third way could have been mitigated to at least some degree. It would have been an admittedly difficult task, but the book — admirable though it is in several ways — is fundamentally unsatisfying.

Patricia Clarkson and Amy Adams in 'Sharp Objects'Adapted from Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, HBO’s Sharp Objects is a whole bunch of greatness that, finally, amounts to not much of anything. As an atmospheric mystery story, it’s elliptical right up to its closing moments and beyond, but it’s so pleased with how wholly it fooled the audience that it expects nobody will notice the obviousness of its cheats. As the portrait of a family, it crosses a line from awful parenting to horror, shifting in the process from heartbreaking to faintly ridiculous. And as a character study of Camille Preaker — the alcoholic, self-mutilating journalist played by Amy Adams with a compelling rawness — it ultimately just doesn’t care.

Sissy Spacek in 'Castle Rock'Hulu’s Castle Rock was inspired by the works of Stephen King, and the show takes pleasure in giving the author’s fans as many references as possible. Here’s Alan Pangborn. Here’s Alan Pangborn digging up a dead dog to make sure it’s still dead. Here’s a Torrance — Jackie Torrance, no less. Here’s Shawshank. Yes, they’re talking about Cujo. Yes, that’s same guy who played Pennywise in last year’s It, and of course that’s Carrie White, and she looks quite a bit like she did forty-odd years ago. Etc.

But the series has also been adamant about forging its own identity. Rather than stitching together existing narratives, its starting point is the idea that King’s fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, has seen so much horror that there must be something seriously amiss. What other terrible things could happen there? So the show’s inaugural season has primarily concerned itself with the nature of The Kid — an ageless blank slate who was kept in a cage for decades in the bowels of Shawshank — and thrown a couple other paranormal curiosities in orbit around it. (The tone is one of dark mystery, but it’s barely creepy and absolutely not scary — none of which is a complaint.)

So when seventh episode “The Queen” immediately felt very familiar, I guess we shouldn’t have been too surprised that it drew not from King but from a famously excellent episode of another TV show whose DNA had been plainly evident in this one. And then from a great movie.

Divisive, indeedI won’t be coy. The genesis for this piece was the hypothesis that The Last Jedi was not “divisive,” despite that word being attachedseemingly by law — to nearly every mention of the movie in the eight months since its release.

I was wrong.

black-panther.jpgLike many people, I had an immediate negative reaction to the announcement last week of a new Achievement in Popular Film category for the Oscars. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can’t seem to do much right with its signature awards, and now it’s taking a hammer to the related problems of decreasing relevance and dwindling television audiences.

But even initially, I was more amused than offended. And as I thought about it, I grew to like the change and see it as a worthy and noble effort.

Can we get some Oscar love for the 'Wonder Woman's of the world?The Academy Awards’ process for choosing its Best Picture nominees isn’t broken, but it could easily be better. A system that has room for Amour alongside Argo and Brooklyn next to Mad Max: Fury Road is doing something right, even when widely acknowledged stinkers also get nominated.

But the Academy could enact two reforms — one simple, one more fraught — that would address some shortcomings.

last-jedi-box-office.jpgThe Last Jedi is clearly an abysmal failure.

Take it from Rob Cain, who on December 22 published an article on Forbes.com with the headline “Last Jedi Grosses Are Collapsing with the Worst Daily Holds of All Nine Star Wars Movies”.

But Cain’s chosen lens has several flaws.

last-jedi-1.jpgWriter/director Rian Johnson gives Star Wars fans just about everything they could want in The Last Jedi, assuming they didn’t require it to follow the story beats, narrative cleanliness, and relatively consistent tone of The Empire Strikes Back.

That, of course, means that Johnson has given a large number of fans what they didn’t want.

Yet The Last Jedi is slavish to the actual spirit of Star Wars in a way that’s charming even as it basically begs for backlash. To my eyes, it’s charming almost because it begs for backlash. Johnson embraces even the weakest elements of the franchise, and mostly succeeds in making them work.

Roger EbertIn 2010, at the age of 67, Roger Ebert reviewed The Human Centipede (First Sequence) — a horror flick that seems to exist primarily to make viewers vomit. As a professional movie critic for more than four decades, Ebert could have been forgiven for skipping it altogether. Curt dismissal was another perfectly reasonable option.

A charitable senior-citizen writer might have picked the movie apart on moral, narrative, or aesthetic grounds, or used it as a launching point for a screed against the depravity of contemporary culture or the torture-porn genre.

But Ebert turned in a no-star-rating review that begins with an earnest rumination on the path to mortality: “It’s not death itself that’s so bad. It’s what you might have to go through to get there.” And he says that within the writer/director, Tom Six, “there stirs the soul of a dark artist.”

Ebert was interested in the movie, curious about its method and meaning. Ultimately, he didn’t interpret or judge it — “It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine” — but it’s clear he thought this film that most people would find inherently repulsive or worthless deserved consideration.

tdkr-prison.jpgDepending on how you choose to count, there are either three or four Batman resurrections in The Dark Knight Rises.

Superheroes — and especially Superman — have long been seen as Christ figures, and from its title to its returns from the “dead,” The Dark Knight Rises appears to impose that connection on Batman. Aside from the obvious savior similarity, the comparison is knotty — but worth exploring.

Close