Virtual Bourgeois

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Archive for August, 2015

2015 Summer Movies #8

Posted by Gerald on August 9, 2015

Summer Movie #71 – Mission: Impossible 3 (J.J. Abrams, 2006): With this movie the franchise got back on to firmer ground. The film is more about the technology and the capers than the big action set pieces. It has a number of tightly plotted (and edited) sequences that feel like Mission: Impossible, as opposed to “insert generic action franchise”. Keri Russell’s short appearance foreshadows her excellent work on “The Americans” (which you should be watching, if you are not already). I’d forgotten that Johnathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q both appear as part of Ethan Hunt’s team for this one. Philip Seymour Hoffman was wonderful as the villain. Finally, this film has to have the most MacGuffin-ish MacGuffin in the history of stories. The whole plot centers around the “Rabbit’s Foot” – people die, kill, kidnap, torture, and offer to pay vast sums of money for this thing. Yet, at the end of the movie you’ve got no clue as to what it is supposed to be – which is the point. It drives the plot, but what it is matters not at all. I had fun. One more before I go see the new one.

Summer Movie #72 – Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999): This is one of my favorite moves – the Gulf War era’s answer to “Kelly’s Heroes”.  I love how Russell takes comedy and drama and slams them into each other in this (common for his movies, but I think it is exceptionally effective here).  I also love the cinematography – great photography, beautiful processing, and innovative technique.  It has great action sequences that are very different than anything else out there – you just don’t see many battle scenes played with Peter Cetera crooning in the background.  It is to my mind the best depiction of the “media war” done on film yet.  This is also the movie that convinced me George Clooney could really act.  If you’ve not seen this, treat yourself soon.

Summer Movie #73 – Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986): Lately I’ve been watching a lot of 1980s action movies and I’ve been watching the Mission: Impossible franchise.  At the center of that particular Venn diagram is one movie – “Top Gun”.  Roger Ebert really summed up this movie when he said, in effect, that it was hard to review because the good parts are overwhelmingly good, but the bad ones are unrelentingly bad.  Really when there are planes, it is awesome, when people talk it is terrible.  You really could just watch the opening credits part – almost pornographic shots of aircraft being readied for launch over the Harold Faltemeyer them, then launch and Kenny Loggins – and skip the rest of the movie.  Here are some question that occurred to me this time:

  1. Does Hong Kong really produce “rubber dog shit” and are there people who pay airfreight to have it shipped in cargo planes?  If so, why?
  2. Is it possible that Tony Scott didn’t realize he was making gay porn?
  3. Did that aircraft carrier not have any pilots aboard until “Maverick” and “Iceman” were flown in special?
  4. When “Maverick” asks permission for a flyby after his big victory at the end, he is informed “the pattern is full”.  Full of what?  The whole setup for the preceding fifteen minutes of the film is that there were no other planes flying during the big dogfight except the two stars – and one rescue helicopter.

Still, for some reason I wound up watching it, and probably will again someday.

Summer Movie #74 – Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990): I’ve never understood why this film enjoys the popularity it does with some people.  I think Verhoeven was effectively blocked from making a much more interesting film about the slippery nature of reality by the presence of Schwarzenegger and Schwarzenegger was asked to do things he simply doesn’t have the acting chops to pull off.  I still like it, but I don’t think it measures up to, say, “Robocop” or “Starship Troopers” on the one hand or to “Conan the Barbarian” or “Running Man” on the other.  I also do not get why Jerry Goldsmith’s score for this is so well-regarded.  Again, I love his work but don’t see this as his best.  It sounds to me like someone took James Horner’s score for “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and mixed in elements from Basil Poledouris’s score for “Conan the Barbarian”.  Maybe it is the mixture?  I don’t know.  Still, this movie has a bartender throwing a machinegun to a three-foot tall hooker so she could mow down a bunch of guys in tac armor, so I have to love it a little bit.

Summer Movie #75 – Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011): I really enjoyed this movie.  Bird, who had made his reputation with animated films (“The Iron Giant”, “The Incredibles”…) built a fast-paced action thriller that hit all the spots for this franchise – intricate caper scenes, exotic locations, high-tech wizardry, all the good stuff.  I also liked that the script paid attention to events in the previous movie and the film featured cameos from some of those actors.  Simon Pegg becomes the new “Barney”(and also “Scotty” in Abrams second big franchise – always the tech guy and comic relief).  Jeremy Renner does a good job doing a two-hour audition reel for the Bourne films and for the Avengers.  No high art, but a good example of what it is.  Now I’m ready for the new one… and this is it for the summer 2015 movie reviews.


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2015 Summer Movies #7

Posted by Gerald on August 2, 2015

Summer Movie #61 – Tears of the Sun (Antoine Fuqua, 2003) I was in a mood, so I watched this again.  No new reactions, except that a competent filmmaker can manipulate your feelings, but a great filmmaker does so without letting you know it is happening.  Fuqua is competent.

Summer Movie #62 – The Wild Geese (Andrew McLaglen, 1978): Again, I was in a mood, so I watched this again.  No new thoughts at all.  See my review from last summer.

Summer Movie #63 – Blood Diamond (Edward Zwick, 2006): And the mood to watch action films set in Africa continued, so I did.  I like this movie, but again had no new insights about it since my last review.

Summer Movie #64 – Mission: Impossible (Brian DePalma, 1996): DePalma has made a number of memorable movies, but this is the only one I really enjoy watching and re-watching.  I think the whole modern spy action movie genre (Bourne, etc…) was started with this movie.  Of the various films in this franchise, it is my favorite because it is the closest in feel to the TV series.  There are big action sequences, but it is mostly a caper film.  I’m even willing to forgive them for making Jim Phelps into a bad guy, mostly.

Summer Movie #65 – Mission: Impossible 2 (John Woo, 2000): I just rewatched this for the first time since seeing it in the theater and my opinion remains unchanged.  It doesn’t work.  I love John Woo’s movies, overall – but not this one.  The story is basically fine.  The acting is competent, although both Ving Rhames and Bendan Gleeson are completely wasted, and this goes double for Anthony Hopkins, who might as well have not appeared onscreen at all.  I’ve got to lay this one at the feet of the director.  His style didn’t fit the story.  The over-the-top action he is so well-known for seemed cartoonish here (and not in the good way).  Also, the last scene, with Tom Cruise and Thandie Newton wandering off into an Australian street fair to have a romantic getaway felt completely false.  It was too happy.  It was as if David Lynch had used his ending for “Blue Velvet” without layering in any of the dark and fake hints (that mechanical bird is still one of my favorite things ever).  Yes, I’d rather talk about that movie than this one, but this was the one I watched.

Summer Movie #66 – Conan the Barbarian (John Milius, 1982): One of the surprising things about the Netflix series Sense8 is that it has an ongoing set of references to 1980s action films.  Having watched the first season of that, I felt a need to watch some, and started here.  Why does this movie work?  The story is a set of cliches, the acting rarely rises above the competent and often doesn’t reach that mark – although Mako is fun and his narration really sets the tone, James Earl Jones is quite good, and William Smith is always interesting even if he is only onscreen for a few minutes.  Also, Max von Sydow just can’t help but be good, and he seems to really enjoy doing these cheesy genre roles.  I think some things make this into a film worth watching.  First, Milius just knows how to pace an action film and brings that gift here.  The cinematography is quite striking. Finally Basil Poledouris created a beautiful score that fits the visual style and the story well.  I do love this movie, even with its flaws.

Summer Movie #67 – The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984): Many people rightly discuss Cameron in terms of his use of special effects, but I think that does him a disservice.  This guy is not Michael Bay.  Bay builds movies to support special effects, Cameron uses special effects to support his stories.  I think this is clear in this movie.  While it has some effects, what he does very well here is create tense scenes.  Most of the film is in tight shots and close quarters, it makes you feel tense and claustrophobic.  Then when he opens things up, it is a relief.  He also shows he understands pacing here – how long to keep the tension building and when it needs to break.  I’m not saying he is Hitchcock, I’m just saying he deserves more credit than he often gets.  Finally, I like villain Arnold Terminator much better than hero Arnold Terminator.

Summer Movie #68 – The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987): How perfect is the cheese of this movie?  It is all of the 1980s in one spot.  Harold Faltermeyer (“Beverly Hills Cop”, “Top Gun”) did the score.  The closing song is sung by John Parr who sang the theme song from “St. Elmo’s Fire”.  You’ve got Arnie, you’ve got Maria Conchita Alonzo, you’ve got Yaphet Kotto, you’ve got cameos by Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa.  Finally, you have Richard Dawson playing the evil version of himself from “Family Feud” while surrounded by the Solid Gold dancers.  All of this against a backdrop of neon dystopia in a screenplay based on a story by Stephen King… and the movie is directed by Starsky of “Starsky and Hutch”!  Yes, it sucks (except for Dawson, who is brilliant) but who cares?

Summer Movie #69 – Bloodsport (Newt Arnold, 1988): Golan/Globus, Canon Films, Jean-Claude Van Damme. – you pretty much have the whole movie there.  This is pure popcorn trash.  You’ve got the young “American” (this is one of several Van Damme films where they do some creative screenwriting to explain why this dud with the Belgian accent is actually American) who grew up being taught by a Japanese master of ninjitsu and then goes to fight in a big martial arts deal to honor him – based on “true events” in the life of the film’s fight coordinator, Frank Dux (you get over two minutes to read about him just before the final credits roll).  This has every cliche in the book – the buddy (Donald Gibb – “Ogre” from Revenge of the Nerds and from about a thousand other movies – this guy has worked), the hot blonde reporter (Leah Ayres), the bad guy who the hero has to beat because he hurt the buddy and is all evil and stuff (Bolo Yeung), the training montages, the moment of crisis, etc…  The film has somewhat pedestrian fight scenes that really just exist to showcase individual moves, usually shown in slow-motion (here Van Damme does a combo ending in a helicopter kick, etc…) much like the “story” of this movie only exists to showcase the fights – like the “story” in a porn film exists just to organize the sex.  The only really good things about this are the location – Hong Kong just always looks good on film – and that it gave a minor role to Forest Whitaker, who is not interesting at all here but it gave him a paycheck so he could eventually go on to do good movies.  If you can appreciate the athleticism of the fight scenes, the ineffable je ne sais quoi of Jean-Claude Van Damme, or the almost textbook exercise of genre this movie represents, watch it – otherwise avoid.

Summer Movie #70 – Von Ryan’s Express (Mark Robson, 1965): Robert E. Lee is widely, and probably falsely, quoted as having said “It is good that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.”  (there are several variants – see “falsely”).  Whatever the provenance, that quote sums up many major studio war films in the 1960s.  They are structured and shot like classic action-adventure movies (a hero, a sidekick, a villain, exciting stunts, etc…) but also contain darker moments influenced by the growth of the more anti-war war films that began to appear (again) in the 1950s.  This is a classic that falls perfectly into that sort of movie.  It is exciting and fun, but also has moments of darkness – especially the ending.  Mark Robson directed other films of this sort, as well as “Peyton Place” and, two years after this “Valley of the Dolls”.  The performances by Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard make up most of the film.  Wolfgang Preiss appears as the major personal antagonist – I think there was a law that he had to play a German officer in every big budget WWII film between 1960 and 1960.  Jerry Goldsmith contributed another of his great movie scores.  This film also featured a young James Brolin in one of his first credited film roles.  I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never seen this before, but I’m glad I finally did.  BTW – MST3K is wrong in quoting Trevor Howard’s line – it wasn’t “Run, Von Ryan!” it was “Come on, Von Ryan!”  You’re welcome.

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2015 Summer Movies #6

Posted by Gerald on August 1, 2015

Summer Movie #51 – The General (John Boorman, 1998): No, not that one – this is a biographical film about Martin Cahill, an Irish crime boss who was assassinated by the IRA in 1994.  Brendan Gleeson is great as Cahill and Jon Voight turns in a good performance as a police officer trying to bring him to justice.  This film is not one of the stylistic masterpieces that Boorman is best known for – it is generally pretty spare and straightforward.  The film can’t seem to decide if it wants to depict Cahill as a Robin Hood-like example of the Irish independent spirit, or a ruthless thug – and to my mind doesn’t do a good job of navigating between those extremes.  Perhaps the ambivalence is a reflection of Boorman’s attitude (he also wrote and produced the movie).  Boorman was a victim of one of Cahill’s burglaries – and this burglary is dramatized in the film.  We see Cahill break into a house and steal various items, including a child’s toy train (which he later gives to his daughter) and a gold record – Boorman’s copy of the gold record for the soundtrack from “Deliverance”.  I was left equally ambivalent about this movie.  I’m not sorry I saw it, but I can’t really recommend it either, unless you just love Brendan Gleeson.

Summer Movie #52 – Diplomacy (Volker Schlöndorff, 2014): This adaptation of a play dramatizes the efforts of a Swedish diplomat, Raoul Nordling, to convince the commander of German forces in Paris at the end of the occupation, General Dietrich von Choltitz, not to destroy the city before it could be taken by the allies as he had been ordered by Hitler.  The movie plays out almost entirely as one conversation between the two over the course of one night.  The performances are great and it manages that trick of building real tension even though we know the ending.  Well worth checking out – just be ready to read a lot of subtitles.

Summer Movie #53 – Carve Her Name with Pride (Lewis Gilbert, 1958): This is a British dramatization of the wartime service and execution of SOE agent Violette Szabo, played by Virginia McKenna.  This is a decent war adventure film of the classic style done by a skilled director (Gilbert had a successful career that included “Alfie” and three Bond films).  It is certainly a genre exercise and both romanticizes and whitewashes the real story.  If you are a fan of this sort of film, it is certainly worth the watching.

Summer Movie #54 – Love and Mercy (Bill Pohlad, 2014): This is an excellent musical biopic about Brian Wilson that doesn’t follow the general pattern of musical biopics.  Rather than a single narrative the movie switches back and forth between two key periods in Wilson’s life and uses two actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) to play him at these stages.  Paul Giamatti is wonderfully creepy as Dr. Eugene Landy, who basically held Wilson as a prisoner for many years.  The film does a wonderful job of depicting genius and insanity.  You owe it to yourself to see this movie.

Summer Movie #55 – X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, 2014): I almost felt a sense of responsibility to watch this one, as opposed to any real desire – but I’m glad I did.  This might be the strongest entry in the X-Men franchise so far.  It had a lot for the Marvel fans, a good story, and decent pacing.  The performances were good overall and I found myself able to see past the action set-pieces (which were well-done) and actually care about what was happening to these people.  Maybe the reason is that this story centered on the idea that these are damaged people in many ways and explored how their damage could lead to heroism or treachery alike.  If I have a criticism it is the one common to most summer tent-pole action films – there is precious little time to really develop the character and sub-plots.  Still, Singer made good use of what time he had.  This was quite well done.

Summer Movie #56 – A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbjin, 2014): This was the last of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s film to be released during his lifetime – dammit.  It is an excellent spy thriller based on a John Le Carre novel of the same name.  I love these sorts of films – subtle intricate plots about deception and betrayal.  This is completely lacking in “Bourne” style action sequences – it is about mood, character, and tension.  The performances were great, especially Hoffman who plays one of those Le Carre characters with a lot going on underneath, but very little of it reaching the surface.  An excellent movie.

Summer Movie #57 – The Expendables 3 (Patrick Hughes, 2014): It is the third Expendables movie.  One-liners were delivered, things were blown up, hordes of faceless enemies were dispatched, more things were blown up, martial arts sequences were sequenced, more things were blown up…  This franchise has always been about the stars.  This time the cast included Mel Gibson channeling the crazy for artistic purpose, Harrison Ford, Kelsey Grammer, and Antonio Banderas who was quite entertaining as he chewed scenery with delight.  If you can appreciate these for what they are, this is worth the seeing.  If you can’t it is worth avoiding.  Personally, I loved it.

Summer Movie #58 – PTU (Johnnie To, 2000): This is a well-known Hong Kong action film from one of the best directors of the genre.  It basically follows a “Police Tactical Unit” through an evening of patrol that gets wound up with the loss of a detective’s gun (I can’t help but think there is some homage to Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog” there) and interwoven with a Triad murder and other elements.  The film is filled with noir style and delves into themes like corruption and police brutality before ending in a climatic shootout that seemed steeped in Peckinpah and Woo.  The only down side is that the narrative itself is so murky as to be impenetrable in places.  I’m not sure if that is deliberate or just a failure of translation or cultural transmission.

Summer Movie #59 – Rough Riders (John Milius, 1997): Ah, John Milius… has any other director ever made imperialism seem like so much fun?  Which is why Theodore Roosevelt – a man who gloried in American expansionism and who saw war as a crucible from which true manhood emerged – has been such a perfect subject for him, both here and in 1975’s “The Wind and the Lion”.  Having just finished a biography of TR, I was prompted to dig out the DVD of this, which I got some years ago but hadn’t watched (I did see this back when it aired on TNT, though).  This “miniseries” (it really is just a long movie in structure) is clearly the work of the same man who gave us the (much superior) “The Wind and the Lion”.  It simultaneously presents American imperialism as an outgrowth of greed and as a wonderful adventure.  Tom Berenger did a much better job of capturing the real TR in this film than Brian Keith (who appeared in this as William McKinley) did in that older one.  He got TR’s earnestness, his energetic and overwhelming charm, and things like his speech patterns – but Keith’s version was more fun.  Fun, that is the problem for me.  I love that older movie and can like this one, until I start thinking.  Brian Keith as TR in “The Wind and the Lion” delivers a line that expresses an idea one can also see behind this film’s depiction of the Spanish American War.  He says the the world will never love America “because it has too much audacity… and can be a bit blind and reckless at times…”.  Here we have the comforting lie we Americans can tell ourselves about our brand of imperialism – that it is just us overreaching a bit.  This makes the thousands of dead and the concentration camps in the Philippines after 1898 into the equivalent of a teenager going for a joy ride.  We meant well when we went into Cuba, so subjecting the island to decades of oppressive dictatorships that we supported in the name of maintaining American business interests (not to mention fifty years of undeclared war when they had the “audacity” to throw out our chosen guy) was just a youthful indiscretion.  Boys will be boys after all.  Milius has done exciting and interesting action films, but they support a philosophy which makes us feel good about American dominance, and whose toxic remnants are “extraordinary rendition” and Abu Ghraib.  I wish I hadn’t realized this.  I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to watch his work again without this being all I see.

Summer Movie #60 – Sharknado 3: Oh Hell, No! (Anthony C. Ferrante, 2015): As anyone who reads these would know, I loved the first two movies in this franchise.  They managed to walk a fine line between schlock and self-parody with real aplomb.  This one didn’t work as well.  It is obvious now that SyFy sees a cash cow so they are trying too hard to manufacture a cultural moment, and not doing well.  There was too much product placement, too much barely concealed corporate synergy.  Also, if you are going to put Ann Fucking Coulter in front of me as the Vice-President of this country in a movie about tornadoes filled with sharks, I want to see her gruesome death, and I didn’t.

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