Summer Movie #21 – Emma (Douglas McGrath, 1996): Okay, so sometimes I like watching romantic comedies, even light-weight Austen adaptations (I don’t mean all Austen adaptations are light-weight, but this one is). There, I’ve said it. The truth is revealed. As for the movie itself, I’ve really got little to say. It is a competently executed rom-com period piece. Jeremy Northam is, as always, great to watch. It is always funny to me that while watching these sorts of things I’ll laugh and even be a bit moved via blatant manipulation, while at the same time growing increasingly angry at the British class BS that pervades the character’s outlooks (again, not talking about Austen novels here, but movie adaptations of them). I’ll be happy that someone just got that proposal she hoped for while also wanting to see everyone involved being guillotined. Weird. Not the movie, but me.
Summer Movie #22 – Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1995): This is an extremely solid film from director Ang Lee, a man who seems able to work in every genre there is, with an excellent screenplay adapted by Emma Thompson (who also starred). I felt it did a great job of conveying social commentary without that taking over the film. A series of good performances from Thompson and the rest of the cast help make this an old favorite of mine for when I’m in the mood for this sort of film.
Summer Movie #23 – Bathory: Countess of Blood (Juraj Jakubisko, 2008): This is an odd fantasy film loosely based on Erzsebet Bathory, the 16th century Hungarian countess who is reported to have tortured and killed hundreds of girls and bathed in their blood. This movie is an odd mish-mash of fantasy, romance, crime-drama, and historical biopic. It recasts her story as one of a sort of proto-feminist hero who was the victim of an elaborate and murky conspiracy by Hungarian nobles, the Catholic Church, possibly the Habsburgs, and maybe others. Anna Friel (Chuck from “Pushing Daises”) does a good job with her character. Overall, the story is really unfocused – it just can’t quite seem to decide what it wants to be. It is visually interesting, though, especially during a period where the main character is being drugged and losing her ability to differentiate dream and reality. Not great, but not bad either.
Summer Movie #24 – Incident at Oglala (Michael Apted, 1992): This documentary deals with the case of Leonard Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement who was convicted of the 1975 killing of two FBI agents during a gunfight on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The documentary does an excellent job of putting these shootings against the back-drop of years of violent incidents on the reservation. It chronicles the arrests and trials of all involved and delves into the various issues that continue to make it controversial. People on all sides of this are interviewed. The film strongly hints at the idea that Peltier was a convenient scapegoat. If there is an equally compelling narrative to be had from the prosecution’s side, it is absent here (and may not exist at all). I was struck by the thought that the same “self-defense” argument the defense team, led by William Kuntsler, used in the trial of the other two men charged in this matter is the same rationale that would be used by Cliven Bundy and similar figures. I think there is something there about the violence inherent in imperial expansion and its legacies – but that wasn’t addressed in this film. Instead this is a documentary that tries to be fair, but doesn’t really pretend to be balanced. Well worth checking out.
Summer Movie #25 (Kubrick Film Festival #9) – The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980): Once again, this is a Kubrick film that received mixed reviews, from reviewers and audiences, when it premiered and is now widely regarded as a classic. It received two “Razzie” nominations, one for Worst Actress for Shelley Duvall and one for Worst Director for Kubrick. I have a friend who is a big Stephen King fan who all but spits anytime this movie is mentioned. Again, as with every other one of Kubrick’s adaptations, he wasn’t so concerned with remaining faithful to the original work as much as he wanted to explore certain ideas that it inspired in him. Here again we have a story that shows human weakness – Jack Torrance is defined by his weaknesses, he is an alcoholic, he can’t control his temper, he can’t even seem to find the discipline to do his writing. Wendy is cowed, fearful, somewhat ignorant, and possibly traumatized before she even gets to the hotel. Danny suffers from the most universal weakness of all – he is a child and therefore has little control over his world, but then, the adults don’t seem to have much control either. Much of the debate over the film seems to be over whether this is about exterior supernatural forces which over come a man (as in the novel) or if this is really about the internal demons that consume him. I’m not sure this movie actually draws any distinction between the two. Instead it leaves an ambiguous space that invites the viewer to fill in the gaps with their own judgment – like to what extent Barry Lyndon or Alex are victims or villains, or what the transformation of David Bowman really means. King usually gives a nice sense of what has happened and why. Kubrick frequently leaves you wondering how much of what you just saw was meant to be real? On a level of film-making, this is another artistic triumph. We have an iconic performance from Jack Nicholson (one of the few actors who can lay claim to more than one of those). Shelly Duvall frequently comes in for criticism, but I think her hysteria and terror were vital counterpoints to Nicholson’s depictions of menace and growing insanity. The long soaring helicopter shots at the beginning that become the long steadicam tracking shots that make up so much of the film are now similarly iconic. I wonder if his use of them in much of the film wasn’t almost preparation for the final scenes in the snowy maze and Jack chases Danny? As always, Kubrick the photographer brings his eye to precisely constructed images. The sets, with rooms that make no sense and frequent shifts of where things seem to be in relation to one another heighten this sense of unreality and insanity that pervades the film. As in “2001”, Kubrick uses music and sound to enhance that sense that we’ve left the real world behind somewhere. I think nothing is more telling about this movie than the fact that Kubrick screened David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” for the cast and crew to give them a sense of the feeling he wanted the film to evoke. Brilliant.
Summer Movie #26 (Kubrick Film Festival #10) – Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987): This is the first Kubrick film I saw in a theater at the time of its release. It is also the first where I had read the source material, the Gustav Hasford novel “The Short-Timers”, before seeing the film (I’d actually read it back when it was first published in the early 80s). Like his other adaptations, again Kubrick is more interested in exploring certain ideas the novel raises than in faithfully re-creating the book. Again, he and the author wound up at odds over the final product. We again see the experimenter in Kubrick in this film, but unlike many of his earlier works the experiment here isn’t about visual story-telling. While the cinematography and camerawork are everything one would expect from this director, we’re not seeing anything new here. Instead he is experimenting with narrative structure. We have two separate stories joined by common characters and, I would argue, common themes. Many reviewers love the first story and hate the second, seeing it as unformed and chaotic. I think there is another possible reading here. Like with “The Shining” Kubrick is telling a story about the “duality of man” – as referred to by Joker in the film. In the first movie the darkness inherent in man is brought to the surface – either by his weakness or by the supernatural – in either case forces he cannot control. In this movie the darkness is deliberately brought to the surface by the training we see in the first half. Again, though, there is a force that cannot be controlled (by the individual) here: war. We see how an institution, the Marine Corps, develops which tries to make “indestructible men” – men who can stand up to the uncontrollable, to the forces larger than the individual. The second half of the movie shows what happens when these “indestructible men” meet the uncontrollable force – they are destroyed. They become erratic and insane or simply armor themselves in brutality – as they were trained to do. I think many of the negative reviews of this movie are based on another element of experimentation in the film. Kubrick wanted to play with the war film. First this isn’t a narrative of a battle or of a man’s journey through war. It is a pair of episodes that explore a theme – almost like a composer who does a series of variations centered on a certain musical theme. He didn’t make a heroic film of the classic type. He didn’t make an anti-war film – after all he had already made one of the classics of that type with “Paths of Glory”. He didn’t make an emotional examination of the humanity of the soldiers like “Platoon” or a surreal commentary on the madness of war like “Apocalypse Now”. Instead he used the war film to examine these ideas we keep seeing in his films, the limits of humanity in the face of larger forces and the darkness in the human soul. Brilliant.
Summer Movie #27 (Insomnia Special) – Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut (Ridley Scott, 2005): Let’s just start with the fact that as a depiction of the history of the events surrounding Saladin’s reconquest of Jerusalem, this is filled with factual inaccuracies and a fair number of misrepresentations of the times – and, as always, Ridley Scott really wants there to have been explosive artillery on pre-modern battlefields (see also the opening moments of “Gladiator”). I think this is defensible in that Scott wasn’t making a documentary and that any theatrical film has to consider audience before any other considerations, but still there it is. As far as a piece of dramatic film-making the director’s cut version is a substantial improvement over the theatrical release. Scott added 45 minutes of additional scenes to the DVD release (which was released without advertising support from the studio) and put it into “roadshow” format. In an introduction, Scott says this version is what he really had in mind for the final film (by contrast, in his introduction for the director’s cut of “Alien” he says the theatrical version was what he had in mind and the “director’s cut” is more of an alternative view). The additional time fleshes out most of the characters and their motivations to a much greater degree. The pacing and flow of this version are much superior. I really didn’t like the theatrical version when I saw it, but I do like this. If you were as disappointed as I was, give this version a try. It isn’t by any means without flaw, but it is certainly worth the viewing.
Summer Movie #28 – The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012): I just saw this again for the first time since seeing it during its theatrical run (when I also wrote one of my mini-reviews). I’m only revisiting this because I had a more positive reaction this time. Possibly this is because I’ve since read all of the novels (but I don’t think so), or because I just recently saw and reviewed the sequel “Catching Fire” (more likely), or maybe I’m just in a different mood (could very well be). I still think it is a fairly standard action film enlivened by a few good performances (Jennifer Lawrence and Woody Harrelson, in particular) but I guess I’m more forgiving of where I think it falls short. Here is where I think it falls short – this is going to be unpopular – it isn’t violent enough. The violence of the novels is shocking and transformative, not just on the audience but on Katniss and Peeta (and on Haymitch – more there in a minute). The film strives to show this, but in a way not much beyond any other action film. This violence needed the visceral punch of a “Battle Royale” or an “Oldboy” (the real one). The closest we get to really feeling this is the death of Rue, and that wasn’t enough. This needed to be an unrelenting assault and not a roller-coaster ride. Unfortunately, it is shot and cut like a typical action roller-coaster ride. The film keeps pulling punches, sometimes by omission. We meet Haymitch, the drunken former victor and mentor, and see some of the cost of the games, but, again, not enough. The reality (seem clearly in the books) is that what is destroying Haymitch is that every year since his victory he has escorted another pair of young tributes to the Capital, trained and mentored them, and watched them die, year in and year out throughout his adult life. That is a devastating thing that should have been made manifest in film. Woody Harrelson could have run with a scene like that and it would have made the consequences of all of this more horribly real. The failure to carry through with this sort of element in the film is why it fails, for me anyway. Still, I guess I just feel more generous now. They took a major property and made a decent action film that even had some character development in it, which is more than Michael Bay would have done. So, I’d argue it was good – but it could have been great.
Summer Movie #29 – Kick-Ass 2 (Jeff Wadlow, 2013): I loved the first “Kick-Ass”. I loved the stylish candy-colored hyper-violence of it. I loved the loving dysfunctionality of Big Daddy and Hit Girl. I was prepared to be disappointed by the sequel, but overall it was better than I expected. Still, it wasn’t great. Most of the humor fell flat and many of the characters just weren’t very interesting. Like the first movie, the thing that really worked was Chloe Grace-Moretz as Hit-Girl. The parts of the movie that trace her adventures trying to be a normal girl were good (save for the bodily-function vengeance sequence). Her fight scenes were the best in the movie. Basically, if they had made “Hit-Girl” instead of “Kick-Ass 2” they would have had a stronger film. Also, in the same way her father’s death overshadows much of this movie, the lack of Nicholas Cage doing a great Batman impersonation is really missed here. Most of the rest of it was okay, but not great. If you are in the mood for a violent comic-book of a movie, this is worth checking out. If you are looking for the visual style and subversiveness of the first one, you won’t find it here.
Summer Movie #30 – The Delta Force (Menahem Golan, 1986): Lee Marvin and Chuck Norris lead the Delta Force to rescue a hijacked plane flown by Bo Swenson. Yes. Even though Lee Marvin was pretty much in “I’ll growl stuff so you’ll give me a check” mode he still out-classes Norris effortlessly. Chuck, however, is given a rocket and machinegun equipped motorcycle right out of a James Bond movie. This was his last film. It provides the kind of subtle analysis of the geopolitics of America’s role in the Middle East that one would expect of a Golan-Globus production. The almost comically evil terrorists are led by Robert Forster in make-up and doing a thick “Arab” accent during the long dark tunnel that was his career between “Medium Cool” (1969) and “Jackie Brown” (1997). Among the hostage passengers are married couples Joey Bishop & Lainie Kazan and Martin Balsam & Shelly Winters. Martin Balsam, unsurprisingly, provides the only real emotional moment in the film. Also aboard are kindly heroic priest George Kennedy, young nun Kim Delaney (who looks about 19 here), and stalwart mom Susan Strasberg. Running things from the Pentagon is general Robert Vaughn. If all this isn’t enough to make you want to watch this movie, chances are you would really hate it. I loved it.