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Archive for June, 2015

2015 Summer Movies #5

Posted by Gerald on June 30, 2015

Summer Movie #41 – Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941): Walter Pidgeon plays a big-game hunter who winds up looking at Hitler through a rifle scope sometime shortly before the war and then spends much of the rest of the film trying to escape Nazi agents. Joan Bennett plays the spunky English girl (heavily suggested but never actually named a prostitute) who winds up helping him while delivering lines in a terrible “Cockney” accent.  The movie is also notable for featuring a young Roddy McDowall in his first Hollywood movie (he had just been evacuated from England due to the German bombing). Lang is a great director as always and here is highly motivated as he makes the first of his explicitly anti-Nazi films. The film is exciting and takes a couple of unexpected turns. I’m not sure the “we will prevail” ending quite works, but it does have the benefit of being one of the most straightforwardly vengeful versions of that theme I’ve ever seen in a wartime film. Frankly, after watching that ending I’m pretty sure Lang would have really appreciated Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds”.

Summer Movie #42 – Gog (Herbert L. Strock, 1954): Strock, who went on to make films such as “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” and “The Crawling Hand” is directing the third of Ivan Tors “Office of Scientific Investigation” trilogy – in 3D, no less.  Richard Egan plays a scientist/government agent dispatched to a secret lab to investigate strange happenings.  About 1/3 of the way through the movie he encounters a German scientist running a huge computer (N.O.V.A.C.) that, along with running the whole base, operates two robots called “Gog” and “Magog”.  “Gog” is the name of the movie.  It also has somewhat dire Biblical associations.  Hmmm… what could be responsible for the mysterious deaths at the base?  I wonder?  This is exactly what it looks like – a government agent hero, lots of science-ing, a smidge of condescending sexism (one the one hand – numerous women shown as being competent in scientific and technical areas, on the other hand they are all underdeveloped secondary characters and the men make cringe-worthy comments right to their faces – so not that different from today, really), and lots of incorrect use of scientific and technical jargon (“If the control rod is removed from the reactor it will explode!”).  I love this stuff, wart and all, so it was fun.

Summer Movie #43 – The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (Henry Hathaway, 1951): James Mason stars as Erwin Rommel in this biopic.  The movie mostly concentrates on Rommel’s growing disillusionment with Hitler after 1942 leading to his involvement in a plot to remove Hitler from power in 1944 – involvement which led to the general’s death.  Mason is good in the role and Jessica Tandy is also good as his wife.  The directing is competent, but there is little of great note.  One problem is an over-reliance on stock footage in some scenes – for example the narrator mentions the D-Day invasion and then we are treated to several minutes of footage of Normandy over swelling music.  These sorts of scenes actually take away from the more human drama of The fall of Rommel.  The movie also plays heavily into the mythologizing of the general which the British, in particular, seemed prone to.  Not bad if you are into WWII movies, but also not one of the best of those, either.

Summer Movie #44 – Khyber Patrol (Seymour Friedman, 1954): Richard Egan is an American (well, “Canadian”) serving as an officer in an Indian lancer regiment.  Raymond Burr is a duplicitous Afghan officer.  You have political intrigue, you have a love triangle, you have Maxim guns, you have harem girl spies, you have an Afghanistan that looks a lot like southern California, you have lots of white guys playing south Asians.  You can guess the end of the movie right now.

Summer Movie #45 – The Beast with a Million Eyes (David Kramansky, 1955): I do miss Mystery Science Theater 3000.  This movie was co-produced by Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff and if you know those names, you know everything about this movie.  This was the third of a three picture deal Corman had and he only had $29,000 to make it.  It has a decent concept – an alien invader who works by taking over all of the minds of all of the life forms. After that, all of the creative power of this film was pretty much spent. Sometimes they say that every dollar of a budget is on the screen.  In this movie, most of the dollars probably went for wages, hotel rooms, and food.

Summer Movie #46 – Never on Sunday (Jules Dassin, 1960): In this film Jules Dassin plays an uptight sophomoric (in the full meaning) American from Middlebury, Connecticut (Dassin’s actual home town).  Arriving in Greece he meets a prostitute played by Melina Mercouri and entranced by her beauty and love of life immediately decides to change her.  This is half romantic comedy and half clash of cultures.  The film was widely acclaimed and rightly so – it is full of the joy of life and doesn’t have a mean moment in it.  Somehow this just seemed really appropriate on a weekend where it seems like the Greeks have decided to trigger an economic meltdown.  They’ll make it through – they always have.

Summer Movie #47 – Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953): I’d never seen this before and I’m sorry, but how perfect is this movie?  Take one of the best directors ever, add two screen legends in Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn (in her first starring role), then mix in impeccable camerawork and the city of Rome.  An absolute classic film results.  Frankly, if you can’t find something to love in this movie you need to check when your soul was removed.  Evidently in the 1970s Peck and Hepburn were approached about a sequel.  Luckily that didn’t happen.  Outside of anything else, it would have ruined a perfect ending.  Peck, standing alone in the audience hall, not really hoping she’ll come back but staying because he wants her to.  Then the long tracking shot of him walking slowly down the length of the room, turning to look back with that air of no hope but desire, then he turns, that slight smile, and he leaves.  Any ending where they wound up together would have been false.  Perfect.

Summer Movie #48 – War of the Worlds (George Pal, 1953): I’ve seen this several times and watching it is the equivalent of eating junk food.  The only “nutritious” parts of the movie are the Oscar-winning special effects.  Otherwise we can learn a few things from this film: 1) There are NO black people in southern California; 2) Women have two speeds – sweet subservience and totally losing their shit; 3) Martians hate historical monuments; and 4) Martians may have advanced knowledge of physics and engineering but their understanding of biology is at about the level of Jenny McCarthy.  I remember watching this as a kid and thinking during the early scene where the Martians blew away three guys waving a white flag – “Why would Martians know the first thing about what a white flag means on Earth?”  Later, when they kill a minister showing them a cross, I thought “How would they know what a cross is?  All that happened on Earth.”  Thus began my road to understanding the interpretive nature of symbols and becoming an atheist.

Summer Movie #49 – What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015): One of the toughest things to do well in any biography of a celebrated artist is to walk the line between telling the story and praising the subject.  This documentary does that extremely well.  You see why Nina Simone has the place she has in music history and the history of the Civil Rights struggle.  You also see a flawed person who willingly remained in an abusive relationship (and the interviews with her ex-husband are disturbing) for quite some time, who had a mixed track record as a mother, and who was seemingly driven by many demons.  This also does a good job of showing the impact mental illness can have on a person and those around them, but without fully allowing that illness to serve as an excuse for every short-coming.  This is not a fun story, nor is it falsely uplifting in that “VH-1 Behind the Music” style that is so common.  What triumph there is here is well-deserved, and this documentary is well worth watching.

Summer Movie #50 – Point and Shoot (Marshall Curry, 2014): This is a documentary about Matthew Curry, who went on a self-described “crash-course in manhood” which led him to a motorcycle journey across the Middle East that included time as a journalist embedded with US troops in Iraq and then took him through Iran to Afghanistan and finally Pakistan – then the real story began.  He eventually went to Libya and fought in the revolution against Qaddafi and spent five months as a POW.  As I often do, I read some of the reviews of this movie and almost all of them seem to miss the point.  This isn’t really an adventure story, nor is it an attempt to talk about the geopolitics of the Middle East.  This is about the American urge to reinvention.  It is about the line between identity and what we want to portray to others, especially in the era of cellphone video and social media.  It is also about an individual experience of war.  The movie doesn’t condemn or celebrate, it just explores one really complex story and one that is very worth the watching.

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2015 Summer Movies #4

Posted by Gerald on June 21, 2015

Summer Movie (additional) – Carlos (Oscar Assayas, 2010): I’m not putting this in my movie count because it is technically a TV miniseries.  This tells the story of the terrorist “Carlos” (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) from the time of his first attacks in the early 1970s until his arrest by the French Secret Service in 1994.  Despite its nearly six-hour length, it never lagged or seemed bloated.  Edgar Ramirez does a great job portraying Carlos as being on the one hand very charismatic but on the other quite vain and abusive – especially to the women in his life.  Carlos is neither shown as hero or villain, but as a violent man whose reputation was frequently used by others for their own ends.  One of the most fascinating things about this miniseries is how it depicts the international links between terrorist groups in the 1970s – a time when strikes centering on the Palestinian struggle were being carried out by German and Japanese radicals.  It is also interesting for how it weaves in the growing power of Islamism in these Arab states during the 1970s and 1980s.  Very worth watching.

Summer Movie #31 – Breaking News (Johnnie To, 2004): This is a Hong Kong action film by the always excellent Johnnie To and starring one of his frequent leading men Nick Cheung.  This has all the hallmarks of the better films of this genre.  Like many of To’s later films this operates on a couple of levels.  At base it is a an actioner about an armored car robbery leading to a manhunt – with a fanatically determined police inspector played by Cheung leading his unit in pursuit of the cool and villainous Richie Jen (an actor who looks remarkably like a Chinese version of the American actor Billy Drago) – that culminates in a gun battle and hostage situation in an apartment building.  On another level this movie is about media in the digital age.  A police commissioner played by Kelly Chen winds up in a battle via the internet with Jen’s character over control of the narrative of the events in the apartment building.  She is trying to build positive PR for the department by feeding carefully edited footage and images to the media, he counters with his own cellphone pictures of police defeats and missteps.  There is a wonderful scene where both sides “break for lunch” and make sure the media sees it as a way of trying to humanize themselves.  This ends with a great chase scene where Cheung’s relentless pursuit becomes almost comical in its intensity.  I loved this.  I’ve not been doing the Hong Kong films for awhile – I think it is time to get back to those.

Summer Movie #32 – Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, 2013): This is a thriller about revenge and family.  However, what makes it brilliant is that it isn’t a macho power fantasy.  While remaining very tight and suspenseful, it never lets you forget that violence is ugly and that revenge is a very uncertain endeavor.  The cinematography is beautiful, the editing is spot on, and the performances are excellent.  Probably the best thing, though, is the writing.  You discover these characters through real dialogues and action.  At no point do we have a scene that is there just for exposition.  The filmmakers trusted the audience to be able to fill in the gaps themselves.  An intelligent film, but not always easy to watch – this one is very good.

Summer Movie #33 – Thief (Michael Mann, 1981): This was Mann’s directorial debut and it has most of the hallmarks for his career overall – visual style, prominent use of music to set the tone (in this case the score was from Tangerine Dream), all in service to a neo-noir story.  The performances are good – James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky,…  The film also marks the debuts of both William Petersen (as a bartender) and Dennis Farina (as a goon) as well as an early dramatic role for Jim Belushi as Caan’s younger partner.  It also features an unfortunately underdeveloped role for Willie Nelson as Caan’s mentor.  The story is a decent version of a standard – the criminal who wants to move on to the “straight” life after one big score.  It has good characters and dialogue but does suffer from being a bit predictable – of course the Big Gangster Boss (Prosky) is not going to let the Master Thief just retire and of course the Master Thief’s Young Partner is dead as soon as we see him joyfully frolicking in the surf with his girlfriend as they celebrate the big score, etc…  Like many of Mann’s projects, though, the fact that you don’t need to really think about the plot gives you more time to enjoy the massive loads of style.  Here he adds to his later repertoire a visual fascination with machinery that rivals the opening credits of “Twin Peaks”.  All in all, this is well worth watching.

Summer Movie #34 – The Double (Michael Brandt, 2011): This is a spy thriller with a couple of decent twists and action scenes that are outweighed by plot holes and general mediocrity.  I didn’t think it was as bad as most of the critics seem to have, but that doesn’t mean it is good.  If you want 90 minutes of spy drama, this is one – but there are far better out there.

Summer Movie #35 – Suddenly (Lewis Allen, 1954): This is a decent suspense film with Sterling Hayden as a town sheriff and Frank Sinatra as a would-be Presidential assassin.  The film has a sort of film noir sensibility without fully embracing that genre and also feels claustrophobic in that most of it occurs in a single house where Sinatra and his flunkies (including frequent Jay Ward and Rankin/Bass voice actor Paul Frees) hold a family hostage as they await a train carrying the President.  Hayden is rather under-used as the typical stalwart hero.  All the fun stuff goes to Sinatra as the vain sociopath gunman.  The film is also interesting to watch because of its theme; a Presidential assassination set some nine years before Kennedy in Dallas.  There is also an interesting subplot from a modern perspective about how the mother of the hostage family is keeping her son from playing with toy guns because of her husband’s death in World War II.  This, of course, is roundly condemned by the male characters, especially Hayden’s sheriff, who see that as both emasculating the boy and stunting him in learning to be prepared to fulfill his duty to defend America when he grows up.  This is pretty good, but also very much a product of its time.

Summer Movie #36 – Malta Story (Bruce Desmond Hurst, 1953): I’m planning to watch some Alec Guinness films.  This is one.  Guinness stars with Jack Hawkins, and Anthony Steel in a story about the heroic defense of Malta during WWII.  Upper lips remain stiff, quips fly between chums, the Maltese are appropriately subservient, and the Germans are faceless and evil.  Spoiler – the British win.  If you enjoy incredibly traditional war films (and I do at times, despite the snark) this is good.  If you want something more, you will not find it here.

Summer Movie #37 – Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963): This is one of those movies that just seems to distill the early 1960s into a single movie – Donen directing what some people have called the greatest Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock didn’t make, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, a supporting cast that included Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass (who was in every movie in the 1960s, I think), and the music was done by Henry Mancini.  The movie is at times a thriller and at times a screwball comedy – a feeling strengthened by the presence of Grant who was a master of both.  The directing is tight and the performances are predictably wonderful.  For me the only things that didn’t work were the last two plot twists (in a film with several).  The reveal of who was the murderer was spoiled for me in that I had figured it out about twenty minutes into the film (and pretty much anyone who has viewed some thrillers would do the same).  There is also a twist right at the very end that I thought was just false – the movie hadn’t earned it and it soured the ending for me.  I think all of the Hitchcock comparisons really come down to Grant being in the film – Donen could be a fine director (“Saturn 3” notwithstanding) but he was no Hitchcock.  Still, the virtues of this film far outweigh the faults.  It is fun, exciting, and enjoyable.

Summer Movie #38 – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014): This is tagged as “the first Iranian vampire Western” – which describes it, yet doesn’t.  The film is in Persian and has an Iranian cast and is described as being set in the “Iranian ghost town” of “Bad City”.  However, it was actually filmed in southern California.  It has many scenes and tropes one would associate with Westerns, and the southern California location adds to that, but it is more a story about an underworld of pimps and whores, drug addicts and drug dealers, than it is a traditional Western.  The central character, the eponymous “girl” is a vampire, but this really isn’t a “vampire movie”.  That tag would suggest some campy send-up.  Instead the humor is sly and the film is self-consciously stylish and evocative of film genres without belonging to them.  The movie it reminds me of the most, although it is VERY different, is Kathryn Bigelow’s first directorial effort, “Near Dark”.  That was a noir-ish and heavily violent vampire story set in the modern (1980s) west.  It is a favorite of mine and the best parts of it are echoed in this film.  This movie also leaves the viewer with a lot of blank canvas upon which to fill in their own parts of the story.  It doesn’t always work, some parts are to obviously “artsy” for the films own good – but still this is brilliant.  It is one of those movies that movie makers are going to talk about.

Summer Movie #39 – Desert Sands (Leslie Selander, 1955): I recently read an observation that maturity in assessing art comes when one can distinguish between liking something and something having merit.  I liked this, but it has no merit.  Ever since reading “Beau Geste” I’ve had this thing for Legionnaire stories.  This is a classic Hollywood Legionnaire movie – meaning it is a western in disguise.  Ralph Meeker leads a group of white guys in defense of a Legion outpost against a group of “Arabs” entirely played by white guys (led by John Carradine).  Marla English, despite being both pale and blue-eyed, plays the stereotypical “fiery princess” who winds up switching sides and helping the Legionnaires because of Ralph Meeker’s overwhelming maleness.  The defense of the fort plays almost exactly like the movie “Zulu”.  It was fun.  It was also a piece of crap.

Summer Movie #40 – Intimate Enemies (Florent Emilio Siri, 2007): This is a French film that deals with the psychological trauma of war as experienced by the French soldiers who fought in the “undeclared war” in Algeria (1954-62).  The film is powerful, but more for the subject matter than for the way it was handled.  Frankly, the movie is very evocative of “Platoon” (Oliver Stone, 1986).  You are following a fairly decent man through the horrors of a brutal insurgency. Much like “Platoon” we see the atrocities committed by both sides, but for the protagonist’s side we also get to see the soldiers as human beings.  The enemy is presented as mostly faceless and brutal (although this movie does make more of an attempt to personalize the other side by presenting a few characters who support the FLN).  The best part of this movie, and the most difficult to watch, it the way it depicts how a decent man can become a monster.  The weakest part of the movie is an unfortunate tendency to rely on some fairly familiar tropes from war films generally.  Not a flawless film, but certainly worth the seeing.

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2015 Summer Movies #3

Posted by Gerald on June 1, 2015

Summer Movie (additional) – La voyage dans la lune (Gorges Melies, 1902): This is the restored version that was released in 2011 and premiered at Cannes that year.  It is notable for the restored original hand-tinting that created color on some elements.  It also has a new musical score composed by the band Air.  This version is mostly interesting as an example of film history.  The color is an interesting element for the time.  The score varies from distracting to somewhat interesting – but frankly doesn’t add much to the experience in my opinion.  This is currently streaming on Netflix.

Summer Movie #21 – Get the Gringo (Adrian Grunberg, 2012): This one was surprisingly good. Mel Gibson (who co-wrote and produced) is back to playing the sort of character he’d done so well over the years – a sharp, funny, slightly crazy and dangerous anti-hero. The filmmaking channels a lot of Sam Peckinpah; over-the-top violence, very efficient scenes, etc… (even some playing with multiple timeframes within scenes). The story – a thief turning the tables on the crime bosses who oppose him – is reminiscent of “The Getaway”. A good movie, but it isn’t without its flaws, including a fairly stereotypical view of Mexico, a rather forced plot involving a kid and his attractive mother (who, it should be noted, was at least played by an actress who was somewhat close to Gibson’s age – her 40s to his 50s), and a rather improbable ending. Still, it is a fun crime drama and wirth your time if you like that sort of film.

Summer Movie #22- The Invisible Front (Jonas Ohman & Vincas Sruoginis, 2014): This is a documentary where the subject matter is much more interesting than the film itself.  The subject is the Lithuanian resistance to Soviet occupation up through 1953 and focuses on one leader, Juozas Luksa.  It is a compelling story and shows a side of the Cold War that we rarely see in the West – the resistance of the people inside the Soviet bloc and, in particular, their desperate hope that the US would come to help them.  The film itself is a bit dull – long interviews and narration over mournful cello and piano music.  However, we get an inside view of the Soviet takeover – the resons people resisted and the reasons some cooperated.  Well worth seeing if you have an interest in the history of this period.

Summer Movie #23 – The High and the Mighty (William Wellman, 1954): Here is the prototype of the 1970s and 80s disaster films.  You have a group of rather fabricated characters brought together by being on the same public conveyance which has a crisis during which personal issues are explored or resolved until in a moment of competence porn the main character somehow saves some or all of them.  This, “The Poseidon Adventure”, every “Airport” movie…  Probably the most interesting thing about this is that it is kind of an ensemble picture.  Although John Wayne is the big star, there really isn’t a clear “leading man” distinction between his character and Robert Stack’s.  Otherwise, the movie is best seen as an historical relic – the men are men, the women are gendered stereotypes, and the non-white people are funny and non-threatening.  The movie itself manages to take about ninety minutes of action and spread it out over two and three-quarters bloated hours.  Especially edifying filler is provided by the several minutes of watching Wayne and the passengers forming a human chain to pass luggage to the rear of the plane and by the final scene where a few pointless minutes are spent as each pair of passengers leaves the plane to the accompaniment of the same swelling musical notes (by the third time it is repetitious; by the fifth annoying) to indicate drama in a scene that has none – everything is resolved.. the movie is over… we’d like to go home now… please…

Summer Movie #24 – Apur Sansar (Satyajit Ray, 1959): This is the third film of the “Apu Trilogy” chronicling the childhood and early adulthood of a Bengali man.  This movie again shows Ray’s skill as a filmmaker with beautiful shots and brilliant editing.  This film continues many of the themes of the earlier films, such as tragic loss and how to find meaning in the most ordinary moments of life.  These movies aren’t fun, they are beautiful.

Summer Movie #25 – Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980): Because sometimes you just have to watch it.  It is somewhat unbelievable that this campy wonder was directed by the same guy who wrote and directed the amazing “Get Carter” (the 1971 version with Michael Caine, not the limping re-make with Sylvester Stallone.)

Summer Movie #26 – The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961): This is one of the great movies.  It is beautifully staged, shot, and edited. It features great performances by George C. Scott, Piper Laurie, and – of course – Paul Newman.  Jackie Gleason is also really impressive during his scenes as “Minnesota Fats” that bookend the film, just in silently conveying the sense of a man at the top of his game, but who is also under the thumb of men like Scott’s character.  It is notable for addressing one of America’s defining characteristics, the worship of winning.  Here we have an American protagonist who can be a “winner”, but comes to realize, through tremendous personal loss, that victory is meaningless if you have to destroy everything else about yourself in pursuit of that.  The triumph here is to forget his dreams and embrace real life – which is not the thing that the American Dream, or its Hollywood portrayals, has ever fit well with.  Watch this!

Summer Movie #27 – His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940): I had never watched this before.  Cary Grant at his cynical best, Rosalind Russell caught between patriarchy and patriarchy, Ralph Bellamy as the hapless straight man and lots of really snappy dialogue.  What surprised me about this was how dark it is – murder, attempted suicide, the heartlessness of the press, political corruption, etc…  It is also interesting how the “happy romantic ending” seems to strongly suggest that Grant and Russell’s characters will wind up exactly where they were to begin with – divorced and resentful – because they can’t help but be who they are.  There was more to this than I expected.

Summer Movie #28 – Five Minutes of Heaven (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2009): This is an excellent drama about the aftermath of violence – in this case the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  It depicts the historical killing of James Griffin, a 19-year-old Catholic, by Alistair Little, the 17-year-old head of a cell of the Ulster Volunteer Force, in 1975.  The latter half of the film dramatizes a meeting between Little and Joe Griffin, the younger brother of James and a witness to the murder, some thirty years later. The movie is well-shot and directed but the real power comes from the performances of Liam Neeson as Alistair Little and James Nesbitt as Joe Griffin.  The movie deals with guilt and acceptance without becoming falsely sentimental or succumbing to platitudes.  A interesting side-note for me was that the 1975 version Little was played by Mark Davison (or Mark Ryder) who played Cesare Borgia in the 2011 Tom Fontana series “Borgia” and one of the members of his cell was played by Diarmuid Noyes, who played Alessandro Farnese in the same series.  I also found the film interesting in that it is one of the few times I’ve seen a depiction of the terrorist acts performed by Ulster Protestants in a movie about Northern Ireland.

Summer Movie #29 – Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952): Not the Marx Brothers movie – this is another screwball romantic comedy from Hawks and starring Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers.  It plays a lot like “Bringing Up Baby” in many ways, but doesn’t work quite as well.  However, a lesser effort from Hawks and Grant is still going to outshine many other people’s best film.  Marilyn Monroe is good in a supporting role, but somewhat under-utilized.  I think the best parts of the movie are the scenes where Rogers gets to show her comedic skills (and the one scene where she dances, of course).

Summer Movie #30 – Stand Off (Terry George, 2011): This was a Netflix recommended movie that I watched on the spur of the moment.  I did not realize going in that it was set in Belfast and that I would, therefore, be following up a Howard Hawks/Cary Grant screwball comedy with a movie set in Northern Ireland for the second time in two days.  The film is a crime dramedy starring Brendan Fraser that centers on a botched robbery.  It tries to deal with the relationships of father and sons and ends on a life affirming note (it is one of those movies where the closing credits play over jangly guitars while we see “candid” shots of the stars of the movie being all warm and affectionate).  Even with a decent performance by Fraser and the presence of Colm Meany and David O’Hara, the best that can be said for the film is that it is profoundly okay.

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2015 Summer Movies #2

Posted by Gerald on June 1, 2015

Summer Movie #11 – The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (Mike Fleiss, 2014): As the title suggests, this is a biographical documentary about Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead.  It is mostly made up of current interviews with Weir made for the movie along with interviews with family members, band members, etc…  It is a decent documentary – informative, but not filled with revelations or insights.  It is at its best when Weir is talking about music or just telling stories.  When it tries to get emotional – particularly around Jerry Garcia’s death, it can be a bit forced.  If you enjoy music documentaries or are interested in the band itself, this is worth checking out.  Also worth checking out for a short but prime moment of Sammy Hagar (who is interviewed in the movie for maybe five minutes total) demonstrating what an egotistical ass he can be.   You have to appreciate people for their gifts, and that is his.

Summer Movie #12 – Aparajito (Satyajit Ray, 1956): This is the second film in Ray’s acclaimed “Apu Trilogy” and it is a thing of beauty.  Like Pather Panchali it is composed of one perfect shot after another with the music of Ravi Shankar providing the accompaniment.  The story is remarkable for its depiction of the relationship between the boy Apu and his mother as he goes from childhood to later adolescence.  Rather than succumbing to genre stereotypes of cloying sweetness, we see a son who loves his mother, but also takes her for granted and feels – rightfully – a bit stifled by her possessive love.  The mother is played fantastically by Karuna Banerjee as loving, but also driven by her own fears of poverty and abandonment to be less than an image of maternal perfection.  I was struck by the similarity to Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” in that both films were willing to depict loving but imperfect relationships between loving but imperfect people.  Add to that Ray’s abilities as a filmmaker (Akira Kurosawa later acknowledged that the committee at Cannes was right to award this film over his own “Throne of Blood”) and you have a beautiful, though melancholy, masterpiece.

Summer Movie #13 – Snatch (Guy Ritchie, 2000): This is Guy Ritchie’s second film after 1998’s “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and shares many similarities with that film.  It is a British crime story with a lot of comedy.  The editing and pace are quick and the cinematography is stylish.  It has a circular plot and convoluted lines of causality which lead to a lot of the comedy.  I loved the first movie and this one is more polished.  It is films like these, and his 2008 film, “Rocknrolla” that give me hope for his upcoming adaptation of “Man from UNCLE”.

Summer Movie #14 – Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (Drew DeNicola & Olivia Mori, 2012): This is a great documentary about one of the great “cult” bands in American music.  The filmmakers use extensive interviews and the music itself to good effect – telling the story of the band and its members, but also weaving that into the larger stories of the Memphis music scene, the story of Stax Records,  and the wider evolution of rock music.  I immediately fired up “#1 Record” (which I’m listening to right now) just because I had to.  I think that is the best result a music documentary can hope for.

Summer Movie #15 – The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977): This was Weir’s follow-up to 1975’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and shares some similarities with that movie.  It is very hard to categorize, much like “Picnic” and Weir’s first film “The Cars That Ate Paris”.  It looks like a thriller or a supernatural horror film, one one level, but also like a murder mystery on another (very superficial) level.  I’d argue that it is really an examination of the meeting of Aboriginal and European culture (a theme from “Picnic”) wrapped around a rumination on prophecy.  Richard Chamberlain does a great job portraying an attorney who finds himself cursed with apocalyptic visions.  David Gulpilil is equally effective as a “Tribal” Aborigine who is accused of murder and who also tries to help Chamberlain’s character understand a reality he is totally unprepared for.  The music score makes wonderful use of Aboriginal instruments throughout – but, in one of the films few missteps, occasionally switches to electronic music that just doesn’t work well at all.  Like many of Weir’s films before “The Year of Living Dangerously,” this is best enjoyed if you can appreciate a movie that asks more questions than it answers.  I really liked it.

Summer Movie #16 – Smoke Signals (Chris Eyre, 1998): I added this to my Netflix queue some time back after seeing it mentioned in a film documentary.  I’m very glad I did.  This is an acclaimed indie film and unique in that it was an entirely Native American production (producers, screenwriter, director, actors, and technicians).  It uses a journey by two young men, Victor and Thomas, to claim Victor’s fathers body to tell a story of the lives of American Indians in the 20th century and the relationships between fathers and sons.  All of this is done with a quirky sense of humor and some moments of real drama.  If you’ve ever been a son, or know someone who has, this movie is well worth the seeing.

Summer Movie #17 – Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Kenneth Brannagh, 2014): This was a decently directed but thoroughly ordinary action thriller.  Chris Pine is suitably charming and brave as the hero and Kenneth Brannagh is suitably threatening and ruthless as the villain.  The action sequences are fine, but not really that interesting.  The story suffers from too many contrivances – the worst being the rather paper-thin pretext upon which they plunge Kiera Knightly, as the future Mrs. Ryan, into the middle of Jack’s mission.  Actually, for me, the worst part was the overall plot – in which the evil Russian government is using an evil Russian corporation to artificially inflate the value of the dollar so that they can then crash the dollar in the aftermath of an evil Russian 9/11 style terror attack (undertaken by evil Russian sleeper agents).  This plot has the twin problems of making no sense on a level of economics while requiring that the heroics in the film are primarily about saving Wall Street from a terrorist attack.  There are some good scenes in here – Pine is decent as an analyst forced to be a field agent, Knightly is good overall, and the movie is really at its best when Brannagh is being bleak and ruthless.  Also, Mikhail Baryshnikov makes an uncredited appearance as an evil Russian minister.  He doesn’t get to do much, but it was interesting seeing him on screen after so many years.  If you like action films, there are worse out there – but there are better too.

Summer Movie #18 – The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim, 2011): This seems to be my summer for Australian films and for movies with themes concerning fathers.  Willem Dafoe plays a professional hitman or hunter (his background is left vague) who is hired by a biotech firm to track down the last example of a Tasmanian Tiger, obtain samples, and then kill it to ensure no other firm gets its DNA.  The movie is more complex, though.  It deals with his relationships with people in the area of Tasmania where he is hunting as well as the struggles between environmentalists, corporate interests, and local people.  Much of the film shows Dafoe moving and hunting alone in Tasmania (where the film was shot) affording opportunities for a lot of beautiful shots of that wilderness area.  This is an action film in some ways, but it is also character-driven, and even philosophical.  It has been showing up on my “recommended” list from Netflix for a long time.  Good job, Netflix!

Summer Movie #19 – Robocop (Jose Padilha, 2014): So I finally watched it.  This is a well paced and well made sci-fi action film that, unfortunately, suffers by comparison with the original.  I think Padilha is to be commended for not trying to recapture the biting and multi-layered satire that gave the original its distinct tone, but that leaves this a good film trying to “reboot” a great one.  There were decent performances all around, although even the casting of the wonderful Michael K. Williams didn’t lessen my disappointment that they changed the Lewis character from a woman to a man.  I always thought one of the many virtues of the original was casting a woman in the “partner” role and then resisting any temptation to inject romance into the partnership.  The action sequences are well done.  The cinematography is, well, competent – nothing outstanding.  Again, this is a fun and well made movie.  If I had never seen the original I might have been less disappointed by it.  However, the movie makers do deserve one final kudo for using the cover of “I Fought the Law” by Green Day (although the Clash would have been even better) for the closing song.  Worth seeing, but not great.

Summer Movie #20 – Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (Mike Myers, 2013): This is a documentary produced and directed by Mike Myers about his agent, Shep Gordon.  Gordon also played a major role in making Alice Cooper into, well, Alice Cooper.  He also managed Anne Murray, Teddy Pendergrass, Sylvester Stallone… and on… and on… He also played a major role in launching Emeril Lagasse’s career and the whole modern “celebrity chef” thing.  This is a fast and entertaining documentary built from lots of interviews.  Well worth seeing for the stories alone.

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