LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD
Well above my expectations. That it's as good as it is, despite some glaring weaknesses, speaks volumes to Bruce Willis' charisma. It's not really a Die Hard movie, but plenty of fun nevertheless.
Two things bothered me:
1) The vacuum of faithful D.C. details was just egregious. A tunnel with a toll booth? A downtown street called Concord St.? 14th Street running east-to-west?!? Have you people ever BEEN to Washington? I won't even get into the invalid license plate numbers given for the escape vehicle.
2) Similarly, the environment isn't nearly as much of a character as it is in the three previous entries. They keep moving around the mid-Atlantic region... Jersey, Washington, West Virginia, Baltimore... why??? There is no need for it. The first movie took place in one building. The second took place in one airport. The third, up until the tacked-on ending, took place in one city. (Die Hard With A Vengeance is a shining example of geography as a distinct character.)
If you want an explanation as to why this entry doesn't stand up to the first three, there you go. A total lack of regard for environmental detail. Take the setting seriously, and the story will carry weight. Don't, and you'll end up with a forgettable movie. Live Free or Die Hard doesn't, and it shows.
overall: 3 1/2 Washington streets assigned the wrong fucking cardinality out of 5
Great musical, and outstanding production (sets, music, photography)... but not a great overall movie. The storytelling in the second half is too messy. Years fly by, characters disappear into the background, there's no lead story to follow... just kinda pointless.
Maybe it's a problem with the "leads," which I'd use lightly. Jamie Foxx, though effective, didn't bring anything to the table; neither did Beyoncé, despite putting in a great effort. Meanwhile, Effie and James "Thunder" Early blow everyone else off the screen, for the most part. The second act's failure is due in no small part to the reduced role of those two characters, beyond the excellent "One Night Only" and "Jimmy Got Soul" beats that are easily the back end's highlights. (To say Jennifer Hudson is worthy of her Oscar is a gross understatement; for Eddie Murphy to lose to Alan Arkin is an absolute joke.)
Basically, from the bring-the-house-down "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" moment through the finale, there was nothing particularly moving or devastating other than "One Night Only." Given that the story comes to rest on Deena and Curtis, I would have liked to see more from them.
overall: 3 thinly-veiled portraits of Berry Gordy out of 5
THE GOOD SHEPHERD
As dry throwback movies go, this one's a big winner. Unflinching, thought-provoking stuff. Matt Damon's unsentimental performance is up there with his best. The movie's climax is a legitimate make-you-gasp messed-up moment.
It's a tough movie to love, though, because of the subject matter. I could not relate to any of the main characters: Edward damages his personal life at every possible moment; his wife and kid, who were forced upon him, also suck; his coworkers are a bunch of Skull & Bones/Ivy League/scum-of-the-earth CIA cronyist assholes. And they're all pricks. The portrayals are all impeccable, but watching their cold, distant machinations is disconcerting. (It's no accident that the "mistake" around which the film revolves is a scene of passion and intimacy.) Just as they hold each other at a distance, the film holds us at a distance as well.
And that's why films like this are such a difficult proposition. The point isn't that Edward Wilson is a prick who should have spent more time with his family. The point is that the CIA needed a cold-hearted prick like him to get off the ground. How could anyone tell that story while making Wilson at all sympathetic? There's no way around it.
I'm not saying the film is bad for that reason; far from it. But I am saying it doesn't speak to me the same way a similarly-themed film, Munich, did. (Quick aside: same screenwriter, Eric Roth. He does an outstanding job in Munich with the same "patriotic antihero" angle, and with better results. The tepid reception of that film still astounds me.) So despite acknowledging its quality, I can't say The Good Shepherd is a great film. But it's very, very good.
To close on a positive note, there was indeed one lovable part of the movie: making Joe Pesci look exactly like a little old Italian guy. That was honestly my favorite part of the movie. Yeah, he actually is a little old Italian guy now, but it's great to see an old face look so weathered. Big, bulging nose, balding head, old-man sunglasses... just perfect.
overall: 4 blueblood scumbags out of 5