Summer Movie #62 – Dark Passage (Delmer Davies, 1947): This is the third of the films starring one of the great Hollywood on- and off-screen couples, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It is directed by one of the all-time great writer-directors in Davies. It also features a really interesting idea in that the first third of the film is all shot POV from Bogart’s character’s perspective. It features good performances overall and effectively uses San Francisco as almost another character in the film. All of that said, I can’t say the story seems very impressive to me. The characters frequently seem to have weak or muddled motivations – and not in a realistic way reflecting human confusion. Several people assist Bogart’s escaped convict, at considerable risk to themselves, for no better reason than he just seems like he’s a nice guy. The actual murderer, played by Agnes Moorehead, seems to have committed two carefully planned murders for no other reason than being really vindictive. None of this is impossible, but it just didn’t ring true for me. The ending also rang false – he just escapes and then they meet in Peru and dance. Roll credits. I know quite well that this is a typical Hollywood ending, but it just SUCH a typical Hollywood ending. Maybe I’ve just watched too many heavy films recently. This is definitely worth seeing, but I can’t say I’m carrying much away from this one.
Summer Movie #63 – The Expendables 2 (Simon West, 2012): It’s better than the first movie, which isn’t saying all that much. At least it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously. If you go in realizing that this is an exercise in creating big action sequences studded with self-referential one-liners and interspersed with moments of pure movie cliché, it can be fun. Whedonverse connection: Charisma Carpenter is back in this one, and is completely wasted here. Sylvester Stallone’s performance makes you realize the quality of Bruce Willis’s; while Arnold Schwarzenegger’s does the same for Stallone’s; Jean-Claude Van Damme’s does the same for Schwarzenegger’s; and Chuck Norris’s makes one appreciate every other actor in the film, including the extras. In a movie where you really have to turn your brain off within the first ten minutes, or just stop watching it, Norris’s appearance strains credibility. He shows up for no reason at all, except to provide a thin justification for an escape by our heroes and an opportunity for some “Lone Wolf” lines. Still, if the idea of an entire movie whose sole purpose is to put Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Norris on-screen for a big gun-fight is appealing to you (it certainly was to me), this movie is going to be fun. I’m glad I saw it… on Netflix.
Summer Theater Movie #9 – Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012): Wow. In this documentary Polley uses the story of discovering her biological father and the wider tale of her parent’s marriage, her mother’s affair(s), and everything connected to that as just a launching point for talking about family and the constructed narratives of our lives. It is brilliant. She combines interview, narration, and constructed “home movies” to blur the lines of truth and memory – and thus show there really are no lines. It is painful, funny, emotional, but not falsely sentimental. It is supremely human. I think I’ve got a lot more to say about this, but I’m going to need to think about it a bit, first. Go see this movie as soon as you can.
Summer Movie #64 – The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012): The July of Whedon continues (I’ll now need to re-watch “Serenity” – darn). I liked this even more the second time – which I can’t say has been true of any of the other superhero movies, although I’ve liked most of them. Whedon has a gift for telling stories about heroes in a way that strongly speaks to me. It is the theme that runs through “Buffy”, “Angel”, and “Firefly.” I think “Dollhouse” was getting there, but not quite. I actually think the best hero role in that series was Felicia Day’s character in “Epitaph One” and “Epitaph Two” – but I digress. Here are a few random observations from this viewing of the movie:
I think that this attempt to tell a Hulk story worked better than either the 2003 Ang Lee movie or the 2008 Louis Leterrier movie is that it concentrated on the idea the Banner needed to accept that part of himself rather than overcome it. He can’t tame the beast because the beast is him. It also addressed the idea that the same rage and power he fears is what makes him able to do things other can’t – it makes him a hero.
I heard more of the jokes this time than last.
I agree with my good friend Steve that the extended shot during the fight in Manhattan was exceptional. It was great in that it looked fantastic, gave you a real sense of the fight, and still told a character story. Each of the heroes has his or her actions multiplied by cooperation with another – it visually tells the story of them becoming one team in a way no amount of dialogue ever could. Also, it ends with Hulk punching Thor in what might be the best visual joke in a film full of good ones.
Damn, I love this movie!
Summer Movie Update – Marvel Double Feature of Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011) & Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011): I’ve reviewed these before, so I’m not including them in the count for the summer movies. I was inspired to watch them by my viewing of “The Avengers” last night. When I first heard about both of these movies, I had severe doubts. In both cases, I was completely wrong. Branagh pulls off an effective epic and I think the costumes even work – at least for the stuff on Asgard where everyone is dressed like that. Johnston tells a great adventure story and doesn’t get lost in the action. He also sticks a very serious ending. What struck me watching them back to back is how each is about the main character finding what is heroic in himself, but in completely opposite ways. Thor is stripped of his power, and thus learns humility and self-sacrifice. He begins as an obvious hero, but has to learn how to take the true journey by setting others first. Steve Rogers begins with no power, has it handed to him, and then has to learn both its potential and its limitations. Much like Peter Parker in the Spiderman movies, he isn’t an obvious hero but has one inside him. These movies are fun and uplifting. “Captain America” also manages to be patriotic without being jingoistic – which is no mean feat. I’ve now watched both of these a couple of times through, and I still enjoy them (as I did re-watching “The Avengers”). I’ve never gotten much out of repeat viewings of and of the, much more successful, Spiderman or Iron Man movies (full disclosure, I haven’t re-watched either “The Amazing Spiderman” or “Iron Man 3” – so those could be different). These three movies just make me feel better after watching them.
Summer Movie #65 – Triad Election [also Election 2] (Johnnie To, 2006): This film is a “sequel” to To’s 2005 film “Election” which I watched earlier this summer (Summer Movie #12). Like that film, this is a stylish gangster drama centering on the election of the chairman of one of the triads. It follows the (surviving) characters from the first film. The man who won that election (Lam Lok, played by Simon Yam) is refusing to step down. His main rival and eventual ally, in that film (Jimmy Lee, played by Louis Koos) is again running for the office. Wackiness ensues. It is quite powerful and actually made me think of “The Godfather” several times. The film also features one of the most brutal on-screen killings I’ve ever seen – one as gruesome as the famous chainsaw scene in DePalma’s “Scarface” but more effecting because it is not played over-the-top and the man doing it is more like Michael Corleone and less like Tony Montana. Louis Koos also plays the scene with the restrained emotion of Al Pacino in “The Godfather” and not with the scenery-chewing buffoonery of Al Pacino in “Scarface”. But I digress. This is an excellent movie and has gone further to solidify my admiration for Johnnie To. He is not as well known here as John Woo, but he should be.
Summer Movie #66 – Z (Costa-Gravas, 1969): This film (which is in French) is a fictionalized account of the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, a center-left Greek politician. This assassination set in motion a series of events which culminated in the military coup in Greece in 1967. Costa-Gravas tells this story in two parts – the assassination itself and then an investigation by a magistrate who uncovers the plot behind it. The film is tense and engaging, but also filled with moments of dark humor (not many films feature jokes about the Dreyfus Affair). One interesting thing he does is to insert moments of memories into scenes, but without any of the standard visual cues (slow dissolves, soft-lenses, changes in lighting, etc…) that usually mark them. Instead they are cut right into the scene, which gives them a powerful sense of immediacy. The film ends on a realistically dark note as we see that while the magistrate uncovered the plot and indicted those involved – leading to political resignations and a shift in elections. Political violence undoes all of it, culminating in a coup that leads to the arrests, and sometimes deaths, of the film’s protagonists. This was just excellent and it is one of the few films to be nominated for Oscars both for Best Foreign Film and Best Picture. I think I’m going to revisit another of Costa-Gravas’s films, “Missing” which I saw many years ago but not since.
Summer Movie #67 – A Technicolor Dream (Stephen Gammond, 2008): This is a documentary about the London Underground scene and centers on Pink Floyd. The subject is more interesting than the documentary, which is mostly conventional interviews (of varying quality) and contemporary footage. If you find it difficult to take 60s psychedelic culture seriously, this will not change your mind. If you are interested in it, there is something to get from this. Probably the biggest thing one carries away from this film is the not very original insight that Syd Barrett was everything for Pink Floyd in this period and that the other members were quite uninterested in the politics and culture of the underground movement. This was not bad, but not great either.
Summer Movie Update – The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987): My friend Richard Edwards likes to say of Brian Keith’s performance as Teddy Roosevelt in “The Wind and the Lion” that if that character isn’t what Roosevelt was really like, it should be. That is how I feel about Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Al Capone in this movie. I’ve seen it too many times to add it to the summer movie count, but I do love it. Sean Connery’s Oscar-winning performance, the beautiful cinematography, the Armani suits, De Palma’s version of the Odessa Steps Sequence – I just love it every time. I’ve been playing a game called “Omerta: City of Gangsters” where you take on the role of a mobster trying to get control of Prohibition-era Atlantic City (no “Nucky” Thompson, though) and it put me in the mood for a gangster flick. This was it.
Summer Movie #68 – Plunkett and Macleane (Jake Scott, 1999): The director of this movie is the son of Ridley Scott and this, his first film, is solid evidence that directing skill is not inherited. I like movies about 18th century highwaymen, the brutality of the British class system, all that stuff – not this one, though. It isn’t so much bad as unfocused and dull. This film wastes decent performances by some good actors (Robert Carlyle, Albert Finney, Liv Tyler, and more) on walking stereotypes (The Working Man Forced Into A Life Of Crime, The Corrupt Nobleman, The Fiery Noblewoman Who Could Not Be Tamed, etc…) and a predictable script. If you would like to see a swashbuckler with the experienced guy, the young guy, and the spirited woman who all go have adventures together, check out “Nate and Hayes” (Ferdinand Fairfax, 1983) – which is fun. If you want a nice mix of adventure and the whole commentary on the brutalities of 18th century England thing, see “Rob Roy” (Michael Caton-Jones, 1995) – which is good (but fairly inaccurate). If you want to see a period piece about rogues and the social system of 18th century England, see Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” (1975) – which is awesome. Oh, and if you would like to see someone direct a well-shot period piece for their first feature film – see Ridley Scott’s “The Duelists” which won him a Best Debut award at Cannes in 1977 and is similarly awesome. Skip this movie.
Summer Movie #69 – Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937): Yet another classic that I’m just now getting around to watching. This film is brilliant. Renoir lays the foundation for almost every “POW escape” film that would be made for the rest of the 20th century. Not content with this he uses a lens of humanism to examine the end of the old class system in Europe, anti-Semitism, and to critique the rising nationalism and fascism of his day. He manages to do all of this while telling an entertaining story and avoiding any overt “preaching”. I had the same reaction seeing this that I did with “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane” – this movie really is every bit as good as I was told it would be.
Summer Movie #70 – The Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003): This is an academy award winning documentary about Robert S. McNamara. It is visually interesting and the subject is fascinating. Morris manages to show parts of McNamara that explain a lot about his time in Washington. Interviews with McNamara himself provide much of the film and he comes across as a brilliant enigma – by turns insightful but oblivious; open but defensive; open to his errors but unwilling to fully accept responsibility for them. You also see quite clearly a man who thinks a lot about presentation; of himself and of the truth. You see footage and hear tapes where he is divorcing the reality of the war from its presentation to the American people. I don’t think this film either absolves or indicts McNamara, and that is its strength.