Fall Movie #11 – Parker (Taylor Hackford, 2013): This is a solid “B” action film; nothing extraordinary, but still entertaining. It is a combination of a heist film and a revenge film – again not a sterling example of either genre, but not bad either. Jason Statham is playing the sort of taciturn crook with a sense of honor he has been playing for years. Jennifer Lopez is his “partner’ (but not, refreshingly, his romantic interest) and, like Statham, is good but not anywhere outside her normal comfort zone. Decent supporting turns by Michael Chiklis, Patti LuPone, and Nick Nolte add to the film. The action scenes and cinematography are – again – good but not outstanding. A lot of the reason I’m damning this with faint praise is that the movie is an adaptation of a novel from the series that also produced the 1967 movie “Point Blank” directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin in the role Statham plays here (different character name due to legal stuff, though). I like Statham and Taylor Hackford has done some great movies (“Ray” and “An Officer and a Gentleman” among others). Still this isn’t one of the best efforts from either of them. On the other hand, “Point Blank” is one of Boorman’s best and Lee Marvin – who I would argue is one of the best action film stars ever – is in one of his best roles it it. That is a heck of a shadow which “Parker” never climbs out from. It is definitely worth checking out if you are in the mood for that sort of film, but it does seem to have a lot of unrealized potential.
Fall Movie #12 – Masculin-Feminin (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966): In case you’re not familiar with Godard, let me start by saying that making an attempt to write a narrative review of one of his movies is an exercise in futility. This movie is subtitled “15 Specific Events” – which is what it is, and the events aren’t in any particular order. Godard’s movies (the ones I’ve seen, anyway) don’t tell stories so much as illustrate themes by elaborating on moments. He didn’t really deliberately structure his movies as much as improvise them. This film is built around an affair between Paul, an ardent and pretentious would-be revolutionary and intellectual played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, and Madeline, an aspiring pop singer played by Chantal Goya (a real “Yé-yé girl” – look it up; it’s kind of fascinating). The film is episodic, non-linear, filmed in natural light – all the Godard favorites. He also just drops in these great random moments including episodes of women killing men, odd moments of conversation, a film-within-a-film that spotlights the voyeurism of movies, and a brilliant “interview” with a vapid teen celebrity played by the awesome Anna Karina. It is merciless and hysterical in its satirical treatment of everything from consumerism to intellectualism. Finally it all comes back to masculine and feminine. The film also does a great job of depicting Paris in the mid-60s with its love-hate relationship with America, its own racial issues, and the simmering politics that were about to explode in the following years. In one of the inserts he has between the chapters, Godard says (in what is probably the film’s most famous quote) that the movie could be called “The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola”. I don’t think I can sum it up any better than that. This is just fantastic.
Fall Movie #13 – Rampart (Oren Movemen, 2011): This is a character study of a “dirty” cop in the aftermath of the Rampart scandals in Los Angeles. I put dirty in quotes because this isn’t as simple as some films of this sort, and it isn’t as simple as some reviewers have tried to make it. Woody Harrelson gives a fantastic performance (another of many in recent years) as a brutal cop who literally can’t see the damage he is doing until the end. He is held up by others in the film as an example of everything wrong with the LAPD – and he is. He is brutal, he is uncontrolled, and he is corrupt. He is a racist, but he honestly doesn’t realize he is one. That is the most compelling thing about this. This guy is not some unrelieved villain – but he isn’t just a good guy pushed into the dark either. He is complicated and deeply flawed. We can really see this in his family life – they love him, they hate him, they’re afraid of him, and they have all been damaged by him. We never really learn why – we just see the results. I kept wanting to find reasons to excuse him, but the movie wouldn’t let me. Every human moment is followed by one of violence. It is his very humanity, though, that makes his downward spiral so difficult to watch and so impossible to turn away from. The cinematography is stylish and interesting, contrasting deep blacks and neon colors at night with the blinding light of day. Still, the film is not without flaws. The story gets a bit pointlessly murky at times and the suggestions of a conspiracy to make Harrelson’s character a scapegoat for the LAPD’s sins seems a bit ham-fisted at times. Still, the virtues outweigh the flaws. This isn’t fun, but it is well worth seeing.
Fall Movie #14 – Dig! (Ondi Timoner, 2004): I’m really not very knowledgeable about music, although I’ve been learning things in the last couple of years. This documentary centers on seven years in the lives of two bands; The Dandy Warhols (who I knew only from the theme to “Veronica Mars”) and The Brian Jonestown Massacre (who I knew only from the opening music for “Boardwalk Empire”). This is significant because I’m not at all able to judge anything about this movie on the basis of knowing anything about the two bands. After having watched it, I’m curious about them because there really isn’t enough of any of their songs to get much of a sense. But that isn’t really what this is about, anyway. On a superficial level this deals with a “love-hate” relationship between the two bands – contrasting the relative commercial success of The Dandy Warhols with the complete lack of anything like that for The Brian Jonestown Massacre. At this level, the film does a very able job of depicting what commercial music is like. On another level this film centers on BJM founder and front man Anton Newcombe and his struggles with the entire world. We are repeatedly told he is a genius by almost everyone in the film, including him. Frankly, I had to just take that on faith in that, again, I never heard enough of the music to tell one way or another. Still, it wasn’t hard to believe from what I could see. That he has a lot of problems, including next to no impulse control, we get to see quite clearly as he flirts with death and fights with everyone until he drives them all away. Finally, we are presented with the contrast between the beyond erratic Newcombe and the image-conscious and very ambitions lead from the Dandys, Courtney Taylor-Taylor (he hyphenated his own last name – I think that may tell you as much about him as the whole movie does). I think this level is the film at its best. It could easily have shown a simple contrast of the insane Newcombe and the sane Taylor-Taylor – or it could have shown an equally simple contrast between the artistic integrity of Newcombe and the “sell-out” Taylor-Taylor. Instead it leaves you in the center of all of that; asking questions about the meaning of things like ambition and integrity and the places where art and commerce dissolve into one another. It was very interesting and well worth seeing.
Fall Movie #15 – Marooned (John Sturges, 1969): I watched this movie a couple of days ago, but am just writing something now. This has been a favorite of mine since childhood. First, it was directed by John Sturges who was one of the greats – “Bad Day at Black Rock”, “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”, “The Magnificent Seven”, “The Great Escape”, and “Ice Station Zebra” – among many others. It stars Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen and Gene Hackman – among many others. It is more of a techno-thriller than a science fiction film in that it depicts a tragic space mission gone wrong but uses the existing technologies (or a couple of things that were in development in 1969, like Astronaut Maneuvering Units and Skylab). By today’s standards the movie is slow and the Academy Award winning visual effects are frequently a bit dated. Still, the movie builds to a tense conclusion that I would argue still holds up today. Even if it weren’t as good a film as it is, it still has Gregory Peck in it, which means an automatic injection of sheer awesomeness. I’m not much of a fan-boy and could really not care less about meeting actors – but I would have loved to have shared a couple of pricey single-malts with Gregory Peck.
Fall Movie #16 – The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959): My journey through French New Wave continues. This is a beautiful and painful film about adolescence – one made more so by the knowledge that the events closely resemble Truffaut’s life. This is one of the foundational films of French New Wave and you can see it all here: shot on the streets with an artistic artlessness, the deep sense of authenticity that runs through it all, the use of fragmented editing in some places contrasting with long slow cuts in others, the way the camera will shift away from the story to show the world it is happening in – all of these are going to show up again and again in the decades to come. I was really struck by scenes where Truffaut uses music that is almost stereotypical of the romantic view of Paris in contrast with events that are either mundane or very bleak. All of this leading to the famous final shot with the zoom into a still frame – something that is now a video cliché but was startling and new then. Here, like with “Stagecoach”, “Psycho” and, “Breathless”, I keep wondering what it must have been like to experience this movie without having already seen decades of other films (and TV shows and even commercials) that have drawn from what it was pioneering. Then I wonder which things I’ve seen that will cause someone to ask the same question in fifty years or so.
Fall Movie #17 – Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006): I saw Eastwood’s depiction of this battle from the American side, “Flags of Our Fathers,” many years ago and thought it was pretty good, but never quite seemed to come together for some reason. I wouldn’t give that criticism of this film – it is excellent. The performances are great, the story is moving, and the film is well crafted overall. Ken Watanabe is great as always. The cinematography is – not surprisingly – identical to “Flags of Our Fathers” and is effective; although the techniques used by Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski in “Saving Private Ryan” are almost becoming visual clichés by this point and that is what we see in the battle scenes here. This film is respectful of the Japanese soldiers while still not shying away from the militarist sentiments that had created the war. The Americans are shown in a similarly balanced fashion. What comes in the end is a movie that respects the soldiers, but not the military or the war. This is very worth seeing.
Fall Movie #18 – Outlander (Howard McCain, 2008): I don’t remember adding this to my Netflix queue, but I must have since it is on there and this thing arrived in the mail a few days ago. The best I can say for it is that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. This is a basic Beowulf reworking, but the monster is an alien and the hero is a space-warrior-dude (Jim Caviezel being very tortured and Jim Caviezel-ly). You have probably seen every element of this before. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t good either. The highlights are John Hurt and Ron Perlman, of course, and production design by Weta. The scenery is New Zealand, so quite beautiful. Also the female lead – Sophia Myles – is only put into peril twice and kills her “im-peril-er” each time – then she scored a solid assist on the big boss fight at the end. Outside of that there is not a single surprise in the entire film. If you are in the mood for a SF-Fantasy mash-up, this isn’t bad. Just don’t expect too much.
Fall Movie #19 – Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013): No “spoilers” here. This movie is great. The director of “Children of Men” is very much in evidence in this movie. Like there he does a brilliant job of placing adrenaline-filled action sequences into stunning cinematography. He moves effortlessly from moments of tense action to moments of serene beauty and back again and melds them all into a wonderful whole. Again like his earlier film, he explores issues of hope and faith without being maudlin or overly sentimental. His efforts are completed by fantastic technical work (this really should get an Oscar for visual effects, next “Hobbit” movie or no) and excellent performances by George Clooney and especially Sandra Bullock (who reminded me in this film that she can do good work that isn’t light comedy or schmaltzy drama). Finally, the visuals are complemented with a good musical score that gets most interesting when it moves away from heavy orchestra and by some fantastic sound-editing (again, this should be at least an Oscar nominee, if not the winner, for this category – but since most Academy members are actors who wouldn’t know good sound editing if it came up and stuck an icepick in their ears, I’m not sure of anything.) Drop what you are doing and go see this movie RIGHT NOW!
Fall Movie #20 – The Magic of Méliès (Jacques Mény, 1997): This is a collection of several of Méliès films including “The Impossible Journey”. Watching these is fascinating. You can see the influence of his background in stage magic in the theatricality of the performances. The selection also features many of his innovations such as the use of dissolves, stop-motion animation, and hand-tinted film. These were interesting as film history and just fun to watch.