Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

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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2015 Summer Movies #1

Posted by Gerald on May 25, 2015

Summer Movie #1 – Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015): SPOILER-FREE  In case you were worried that years of making movies like “Babe” and “Happy Feet” had dulled Miller’s edge – don’t, the guy who made the original Mad Max is still there.  In some ways this movie feels more like a sequel to that original film.  The Max we meet at the beginning doesn’t feel like the guy who helped the people in “The Road Warrior” or saved the kids in “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.”  This guy is mad – as in insane.  Tom Hardy does a decent job, but this is really Charlize Theron’s movie – and that is not a bad thing at all.  The wasteland here is even more horrific than in the earlier films, but it is also beautiful.  Some of the shots are like John Ford – if he embraced hyper-violence and decided to do a movie set in hell.  Miller managed to do something rare, for me anyway, in this movie.  It is an almost constant violent car chase from beginning to end (all the action in the movie basically takes place over two days), but at no time did I find myself so dulled by the stunts (practical, for the most part) and explosions that I lost interest.  If you loved the first two movies with that strange visual sensibility and insane 1970s Australian film violence, you’ll love this movie.  BTW – Parents, you might not want to take the kids to this one.

Summer Movie #2 – The Cars that Ate Paris (Peter Weir, 1974): There is a straight line to be driven from this movie to the other one I saw today (Mad Max: Fury Road) – and probably driven with in a car covered with spikes.  This movie is weird and stylistic and weird and brutal and weird.  Peter Weir made this (his first feature film) the year before “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and it is every bit as enigmatic, and even – in spots – as lyrical.  The plot, to the extent that it has one, centers on a remote Australian town which causes traffic accidents and then profits from the victims and their cars (including the efforts of a Dr. Mengele-like figure who does unspecified “experiments”).  I couldn’t help but think about the old tales of coastal “wreckers” who lured ships to their destruction in order to profit from them.  It just gets weirder from there.  In a way this is the Australia of “Mad Max” (the original, not the sequels) – towns on the outer fringes of a seemingly decaying society where ruthless violence is the norm and which the movies personify using cars.  In both films, the cars becomes the monster of a monster movie – except you never forget it is men operating those monsters.  All this symbolism, though, is hidden between an exterior of black comedy.  Through most of the running time of this film it has moments that work and moments that don’t, but stick until the ending and you’ll see some genius.  For those who know some Australian film, look for appearances by John Meillon and Chris Haywood.  There are some “Mad Max” connections in the cast as well:  Bruce Spense (the Gyro Captain in “The Road Warrior” and Jedediah the Pilot in “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome”) and Max Phipps (the Toadie in “The Road Warrior”) both have significant roles.  If you can love a movie for being enigmatic and weird, and especially for being Australian, check it out.

Summer Movie #3 – I Shot Jesse James (Samuel Fuller, 1949): This was Fuller’s directorial debut and he also wrote the film.  At first glance this looks like a standard western, but it has some significant elements to it.  First, even though Fuller depicts James (played by Reed Hadley) as an affable man with a devotion to his wife, we also see him gunning down tellers in a bank and later hear about the toll his life took on the wife he was devoted too.  Fuller doesn’t seem to buy into the “Robin Hood” version of Jesse James that was frequent in Hollywood films and was celebrated in the “Ballad of Jesse James” which is used throughout this movie.  Robert Ford, the man who killed James and who is played by John ireland, is depicted as a guilt-ridden and not very smart man who did something he is simultaneously celebrated and despised for.  His motivation was love – but unlike many Hollywood films, that is never enough to justify shooting his friend in the back, nor is it enough to save Ford in the end.  It is interesting that top billing for the film went to Preston Foster, who played the man who shot Ford, john Kelley.  Kelley’s character is a standard Hollywood western hero in many ways.  What makes this interesting is that it is clearly Ford who is the protagonist of the film.  The result is a more complicated film than most westerns of the day – a film about choices and guilt and how even the best intentions can lead to a man’s destruction.

Summer Movie #4 – The Baron of Arizona (Samuel Fuller, 1950): Another western and another film written and directed by Fuller, this time telling the, heavily fictionalized, story of James Reavis who forged documents to support an attempt to lay claim to the then territory of Arizona.  Again this is a western that isn’t really a western.  It is more of a heist movie, following Reavis’ elaborate plan until it is foiled by the work of a government agent played by Reed Hadley and undermined by love, in a very Hollywood plot.  The most interesting thing about this movie is that Reavis is played by Vincent Price in one of the only major non-horror roles of his film career.  There is also something here that we see in a lot of Fuller’s films – moral ambiguity.  Reavis is a conman who convinces a young girl she is the Baroness of Arizona and then has her raised and educated to assume that role.  He then marries her to cement his own claim.  However, he is presented as actually falling in love with her, and she with him.  On the other side we have angry ranchers and business owners who are ready to either sell-out to protect themselves or commit murder to save their property.  Griff – the government agent – is the only traditional “good guy” in the film and much like John Kelley in “I Shot Jesse James” he is one of the least developed of the major characters.  One thing that is very clear from these two movies though – they are very entertaining and Fuller is showing promise of the filmmaker he is to become, but he has no idea how to write female characters.  Still, this is 1950, so he’s not alone in that then (nor today, for that matter).

Summer Movie #5 – The Steel Helmet (Samuel Fuller, 1951): This is generally regarded as one of the best war films ever made.  Fuller wrote, directed, and produced this movie in 1951 and it was the first film about the Korean War.  The best thing about this movie, and about much of Fuller’s work, is how it tells an exciting war story without romanticizing either war or the soldiers who fight.  Fuller steadfastly refuses to allow the audience to look away from what war makes men do, but also refuses to take the easy road of condemnation.  These men aren’t heroes.  These men aren’t villains.  War isn’t a heroic quest.  War isn’t just hypocritical exploitation.  The same ambiguity he brings to war, Fuller also brings to his examination of racism.  He uses a North Korean POW to issue a bill of indictment of American racism, and every item is true.  He also issues no defense or obfuscation – his only answer is that racism in America is an issue for Americans to solve, not outsiders.  It isn’t fully satisfying, but it isn’t supposed to be.  All of this is packaged inside what could easily be a fairly trite story, but that Fuller’s directing and many good performances transform into an exciting and powerful film.

Summer Movie #6 – Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller, 1963): Another Fuller “cult classic”.  Roger Corman is so often held up as the low-budget auteur of American film, but I think that title needs to go to Fuller.  Like the other films of his I’ve just watched and written about, he shot this in less than two weeks for almost no money.  Fuller doesn’t deal much in subtlety, and this film might be his least subtle – yet it still has layers to it.  On top it is a fairly trite story of a reporter (Peter Brock, basically competent as always) faking mental illness to get s sensational story about a murder in an asylum.  But then we have the relationship with his girlfriend (Fuller’s then-wife, Constance Towers) which is used as part of the plot to get him committed (with a lurid claim of incest and the lie that she is his sister) but which seems to be somewhat abusive and codependent in “reality.”  Also, the scene of her doing a striptease – her job – while singing a lyrical song about love – her passion – is just the beginning of the weird psycho-sexual elements in this movie.  Then we have the inmates, depicted with scenery-chewing obviousness by a cast of B-actors.  But under that we have wonderful scenes using color stock-footage (in a black-and-white film) to show their inner reality and also some wonderful acting by James Best (I never thought to write that sentence), Hari Rhodes (who is exceptional in this), and Gene Evans (who Fuller introduced in “The Steel Helmet”).  Adding a further layer, in each case their insanity can be laid at the feet of elements of American political culture (racism, nuclear arms, the Korean War, etc…)  Finally, while not a constant in his work, Fuller once again is dealing with the destructive power of ambition here.  Check this out.

Summer Movie #7 – Pather Panchali (Santyajit Ray, 1955): I’ve been hearing about Ray and the “Apu Trilogy” for a long time and this was everything I had hoped for.  It was by turns funny and heart-rending in its depiction of a events surrounding the life of a young boy growing up in Bengal.  There is no melodrama here, just the drama that happens in people’s lives.  I know people have drawn comparisons to Italian neo-realism, but what I kept thinking of were the films of Yasujiro Ozu.  The cinematography is beautiful.  This is a new restoration by Criterion and it is well worth the seeing.  I’m really looking forward to the other two parts.

Summer Movie #8 – Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014): “Starship Troopers” was one of my favorite novels when I was a kid (I also love the movie, but for very different reasons).  I wish there was an adaptation of that novel that was more like this movie – more earnest and less satire.  This movie was much better than I expected it to be.  It has a good story with enough character development to raise it above most modern action/sci-fi films and both Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt give good performances to support that story.  The action scenes are well-paced and interesting.  The movie has some real moments of both humor and drama.  The aliens visual design is good and they are an interesting take on the alien invader theme.  The battle suits are very good.  No, this is not ground-breaking cinema, but it is a cut above many action movies and deserves a better reputation than it has.  If you like this style of movie at all, you owe it to yourself to check this out.

Summer Movie #9 – The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1964): I’d be surprised if this movie isn’t one of David Lynch’s inspirations for “Twin Peaks.”  Fuller’s love for the lurid is on full display here – prostitution, molestation, and small-town hypocrisy.  All of this was a showcase for some powerful performances, especially by Constance Towers) displayed in a movie that is by turns lurid, sensational, and surreal.  The story is, frankly, weak.  What saves this movie is its style and direction.

Summer Movie #10 – Let the Fire Burn (Jason Osder, 2013): This is a documentary about the 1985 confrontation between the City of Philadelphia and members of the group MOVE.  A fire resulting from a police explosive dropped on the roof to clear a bunker the MOVE members had constructed there and the ensuing decision on the part of city officials to “let the fire burn” led to the deaths of seven MOVE members (including that of its founder, John Africa) and four children living in the house, as well as the destruction of 65 homes in the neighborhood.  Osder keeps this both visceral and immediate by not using any latter day interviews or analysis.  The whole of the movie is constructed from contemporary news reports, film of the commission of inquiry the city held, and a tape of a legal deposition of the only child to survive the fire.  The result is a frank and somewhat negative view of the movement, but is absolutely damning in its view of the city government, particularly the police.  However, what is damning here isn’t what others say, but what these people say about themselves and the film of their actions before, during, and after this tragedy.  In light of everything happening today (Ferguson, Baltimore, what have you…) this film is even more significant than it was at the time of its release.  Watch it.

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2014 Movies #3

Posted by Gerald on May 23, 2015

2014 Movie #21 – Machete Kills (Robert Rodriguez, 2013): What can I possibly say that the movie didn’t with “Machete Happens”. I think this is the sort of thing you either love (as I did) or you think is the biggest waste of time and money you’ve ever seen (most same people who have taste). Basically, Machete is back, but this time in what was clearly a James Bond-inspired adventure (pretty much “Moonraker”). Mel Gibson has rendered himself an outcast, but he did a great job as a Bond villain. Walter Googins, Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas all played the same character and it was wonderful. I just can’t wait for “Machete Kills Again… in Space”. Seriously, at one point Machete grabs a guy by the neck, stabs a power-box with his favorite weapon, and thus electrocutes his enemy by using his own body to conduct the electricity. If that doesn’t make you giggle with delight, this is the wrong movie for you.

Summer Movies #1 – #50 – see those posts

2014 Movie #72 – The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box (Jonathan Newman, 2014): This is a good example of a poor movie that has the ingredients for a better one – especially in terms of casting.  Sam Neill is good, as always, as the villain but other members, especially Lena Headley, are just wasted.  The young actor playing the lead has a certain gravitas, but no spark.  I think this wanted to be more fun than it was.  It is an attempt to create a YA adventure franchise based on some novels I’ve not read.  It has a strong air of steampunk and Victorian adventures, but just never really comes to life as either of those things.  All through it I kept thinking about The Mummy films – and how I should have just re-watched those.  This isn’t bad, just flat.

2014 Movie #73 – The Getaway (Sam Peckinpah, 1972): This is a good but not flawless movie.  Ali McGraw was early in her career and has been (justly to my mind) self-critical of her work on the film.  Although this is one of Peckinpah’s best known and most successful films, it isn’t one that fully demonstrates his style as a director.  That isn’t to say his style is absent – there is an excellent opening sequence that uses Peckinpah’s inter-cutting and shifts in narrative time, and his use of intercuts with different speeds is there in several of the action shots – but overall this is a pretty conventional, though well-made, action film.  That it works as well as it does is a bit of a miracle if you read about the production, which featured the beginning of the affair (and eventual marriage) of McGraw and Steve McQueen, lots of drunken arguments between star and director, and just a lot of drama all the way around.  I want to go back and revisit some Peckinpah films and watch the few I’ve not seen.

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2015 Spring Movies #1

Posted by Gerald on May 23, 2015

Spring 2015 Movie #1 – Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014): I’m not sure it is possible to make a movie about King that doesn’t smack of hagiography, but this film doesn’t allow that aspect to take over. You see a remarkable man with some flaws depicted in a film that is well-paced and nicely constructed. It also has a short scene that explains how the actual process of denying the vote to people worked that is frustrating and wonderful. Very good.

Spring 2015 Movie #2 – Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (Nathan Zellner, 2014): Imagine a Coen Brothers film (this whole movie is a sort of homage to “Fargo”) that is less about what people will do under extreme circumstances than it is about the interior experience of going mad. Throw in metaphors for consumer culture, colonialism, and then stir in the oddness of America as experienced by an outsider. Finally add just a pinch of Terence Malik’s cinematography. What do you get? I’m still not sure, but I’m fairly glad I saw it.

Spring 2015 Movie #3 – Knights of Badassdom (Joe Lynch, 2013): This is a comedy with some horror elements about LARPers (Live-Action Role-Players). It has some real humor, especially if you have known these people, or, possibly been one of them. The film-making is competent and the cast is adequate to good. Peter Dinklage is fairly wonderful when he is on-screen. Steve Zahn is predictably good as an underachieving but basically good sort – the role that is kind of his wheelhouse, really. The biggest failing of the movie is that it unfolds with a clock-like predictability. If you have watched either rom-coms or horror films, you pretty much know how the movie will end within the first fifteen minutes and it does not fail to hit ever box on the checklist of genre expectations. Worth it if you are looking for a comedy and are a nerd of my level – but only if you don’t have to pay anything extra.

Spring 2015 Movie #4 – Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (Wei Te-Sheng, 2011): This is a Taiwanese historical epic that chronicles the resistance of Taiwan’s aboriginal people to Japanese occupation. I saw the edited international edition that clocked in at 2 ½ hours rather than the 4 ½ hour original two-part version. Thank goodness. The movie featured some rather stilted speeches and rather poor anthropology surrounding an endless and gruesome set of battle scenes featuring a LOT of be-headings with traditional weapons. I can’t recommend it unless you are just really into Taiwanese aboriginal weaponry and what it can do to a human body.

Spring 2015 Movie #5 – The Knives of the Avenger (Mario Bava, 1966): This plays less like a “sword-and-sandal” epic than it does a spaghetti western. Cameron Mitchell stars as a Viking prince who is seeking vengeance and usually kills people by throwing knives at them. I liked it, but then I seek movies like this out in certain moods. Still, you’re reading my reviews, so what does that say about you?

Spring Movie #6 – Bhutto (Duane Baughman, 2010): This documentary about Benazir Bhutto was made not long after her assassination. It is assembled from many interviews and news broadcasts. It manages to put together a coherent narrative of Pakistan’s history after 1953 and how complex the political situation is there. The film also very capably ties that narrative into the stories of Afghnaistan, the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda. This is REALLY good. If it has a flaw it is that it is fairly partisan. While Bhutto’s detractors are given some time on-screen, it isn’t much compared to that given to her friends and supporters. Despite that, though, this gives a lot of useful context to this story while also giving us some sense of the humanity of this woman and of her story. Very good.

Spring Movie #7 – The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption (Roel Reine, 2012): Outside of the pleasure of watching Billy Zane chew scenery, this movie has nothing.  I watch these things so you won’t have to… so don’t.

Spring Movie #8 – The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy, 2003): If you are a fan of Peter Dinklage and you’ve only seen him on “Game of Thrones” or his limited runs on some TV shows, you haven’t seen half of the acting he can do.  Watch this.  It is a quiet film about damaged people who aren’t just their damage and how friendship makes life worth living – but doesn’t fix every problem.  McCarthy shows a willingness to let awkward moments be awkward without fake resolutions.  This is a comedy that is very sad at times and has a happy ending that isn’t fake.  Great movie – you will feel better for having seen it.

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2014 Summer Movies #4

Posted by Gerald on August 9, 2014

Summer Movie(s) 31, 32, & 33 (Bluray collection edition) – Mad Max, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (George Miller, 1979, 1982, & 1985): I marathoned through the whole trilogy today. Since I just reviewed these last year, I’m going to keep this short. The bluray transfer of “Mad Max” is beautiful given that they had to be dealing with awful prints. I think this movie is more intelligible with the original Australian voices than the dubbed American ones used for the first release here. In “The Road Warrior” I’d never noticed that Max and the Feral Kid have identical streaks in their hair. Although in terms of production values the third movie dwarfs the others, I also think it is the weakest of them. The first two movies feature an odd rough camera style that is missing in the more polished third. The first two have a certain style that says they are products of the early Australian exploitation film industry. The third is smoother, but less interesting to watch.

Summer Movie(s) 34, 35, 36 (colon-related insomnia edition) – Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen (Steven Soderbergh, 2001, 2004, & 2007): No major insights came to me while re-visiting this series.  Ocean’s Eleven is comfort viewing for me.  I love it and watching it makes me feel better when I’m upset or depressed.  I know this is heresy to many, but I consider it a better film in almost ever regard than the 1960 original (although I have much love for that movie as well).  Ocean’s Twelve I disliked in the theater and hadn’t watched since that initial viewing.  I bought the dvd simply because I am a somewhat obsessive completist when it comes to movie and TV series.  I have to say that, while I still consider it the weakest of the offerings, I feel more forgiving of its flaws and more appreciative of its virtues from this second viewing.  I still think it is overly complicated, rather self-indulgent, and suffers mightily from not being set in Las Vegas.  However, it is fun in many ways and the performances are still good.  Ocean’s Thirteen is a movie I enjoyed and which I almost always watch after a viewing of the first movie.  Since I had only watched the second once, I hadn’t made several of the connections it makes with the third film.  Also, I just really like Ellen Barkin.

Summer Movie(s) 37, 38, 39 (inspired by playing Jagged Alliance 2 edition) – Dark of the Sun (Jack Cardiff, 1968); The Wild Geese (Andrew V. McLaglen, 1978); The Dogs of War (John Irvin, 1980): Along with my copies of “Zulu” and “Zulu Dawn”, I like to call these my “White People’s Problems in Africa” collection.  Dark of the Sun, and action-adventure story set during the Congo Crisis and starring Rod Taylor as a mercenary, is hands down the best of these films and the most grounded in some sense of reality.  It was condemned at the time for its extreme violence, but by modern standards it is really not shocking at all.  This film is a favorite of Martin Scorsese (who calls it a “guilty pleasure”) and Quentin Tarantino, who used portions of its score (an interesting jazz composition) for “Inglorious Basterds” (where he also had Rod Taylor in a cameo as Winston Churchill).  The Wild Geese was a big-budget action adventure story starring Richard Burton and Richard Harris at the height of their alcoholism and Roger Moore taking a break from being James Bond.  Most of the film is a fairly uninteresting military drama directed by the man who did “The Devil’s Brigade” and who recycled many of its tropes for this film.  It gets more interesting towards the end, though – if you ignore the last few minutes.  The Dogs of War is a very loose adaptation of a fairly good Frederick Forsyth novel.  It stars Christopher Walken who, despite his considerable talent, was just an odd choice for the leader of a band of mercenaries.  These last two films are connected in that both feature South African actor and playwright Winston Ntshona as two versions of the same character – a reforming politician who was deposed by an African autocrat and then imprisoned.  I like these movies in spite of themselves, but the only one of the three I’d recommend to anyone else would be “Dark of the Sun”.

Summer Movie(s) 40, 41, 42, 43 (Dolph Lundgren film festival edition) – Red Scorpion (Joseph Zito, 1978); Men of War (Perry Lang, 1994); Bridge of Dragons (Isaac Florentine, 1999); The Expendables 2 (Simon West, 2012): My attempt to catch up on my July movies continues.  Lundgren is an interesting guy.  By most accounts he is a fairly smart man (and educated – he has a masters in chemical engineering).  Each of these films actually has something character-driven about it even though each is a type of “B”-movie (including The Expendables, which is a celebration of 80s “B’-movies).  The three where he played the lead all have stories centering on warriors who come to believe they aren’t doing the right thing and dealing (usually violently) with the results of that realization.  Red Scorpion is a “B” (at best) movie produced by Jack Abramoff (yes, that guy) and generated controversy in that it was shot in Namibia while that country was under the control of the apartheid state in South Africa.  Men of War features a script originally written by John Sayles.  The director, Perry Lang, was in three of Sayles’s movies.  It has an interesting cast including Catherine Bell and Trevor Goddard who would both go on to work together again in the TV series JAG.  Bridge of Dragons is an odd, almost fantasy film with strong elements of allegory – and lots of fight scenes.  I’m not sure it works, but it is interesting in any case.  I reviewed The Expendables 2 last year, but I think I enjoyed it more on a second viewing.  I often feel a sense of respect for actors who are willing to take on the role of the jerk in a particular ensemble, and Lundgren does that in this film, so kudos to him.  If you really like action films for their own sake, these are worth checking out.

Summer Movie #44 – Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014): Marvel does it again.  This time, though, there are no superhroes (we do have some supervillains, though).  Instead they dug out one of the more obscure (to non-comic book folk – i.e., most of humanity) pieces of the Marvel universe.  The film has enough character development so it doesn’t feel mindless, but is still light enough to just be fun.  The cast is good overall, but Chris Pratt really makes it work.  When he is being a goofball, you buy him as a goofball, when he is being a hero, you buy him as a hero – and you can see how these are both sides of the same person.  I don’t want to get into spoiler territory so I’ll keep this short.  Do Not Miss This Movie.

Summer Movie #45 – Get On Up (Tate Taylor, 2014): I think “VH-1 Behind the Music” has created a movie genre.  The musician/band begins in some level of deprivation (or flat out poverty).  They meet important people and have significant events that shape them as an artist.  Success comes hard, but proves a new test of their character – one they often fail.  In the end, the music triumphs.  Think of “Walk the Line” or “Ray”.  Being part of a genre doesn’t mean a movie is bad – it just means it is going to take a certain shape one can anticipate going in.  The friend I saw this with summed it up by saying (paraphrasing) “This was the movie I wanted to see, and I saw it”.  This is a well-executed music biopic.  Chadwick Boseman is excellent as James Brown.  The film uses narrative jumps in time to good effect to bring events of Brown’s life into focus based on earlier ones.  The music is predictable but good.  If you like music biopics (I do), this is a good one.

Summer Movie(s) #46 & #47 – Red Dawn (John Milius, 1984) & Red Dawn (Dan Bradley, 2012): I’m not someone who assumes remakes are always inferior to their predecessors, because that is nonsense.  However, in this case, the remake of “Red Dawn” isn’t just different, it is inferior.  The inferiority can be summed up by comparing two scenes.  At the end of the original Red Dawn, the Eckert brothers (played by Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen) launch a suicidal attack on the Russian and Cuban garrison in town to allow the only two surviving members of their group to escape the area alive.  This is the culmination of the film showing the desperation of resistance fighters facing a superior foe.  It is also the last act of a story about the human cost of war.  The last scene of this is the older brother holding the corpse of his younger brother and talking to him as he himself is dying, all of this in a silent snow-covered playground they had played in as children.  The remake ends with an attack to seize some magic piece of technology that is going to allow the Americans to turn the tide of the war.  The older brother is killed, but the younger brother goes on to lead the growing band of resistance fighters in a triumphant raid on a prison camp freeing hundred of people.  The older movie is a piece of Reagan-era propaganda, but is also a well-crafted study of how war destroys the good and the bad alike.  The remake is less overtly political, but is also a superficial action piece with no real human depth at all.  Please let me spare you this one – I’ve watched it so you don’t have to.

Summer Movie #48 – Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent, 1970): Before there was Skynet and its Terminators, there was Colossus.  This is another treatment of the “Frankenstein” theme (and a self-conscious one in that the film references that novel) of human hubris creating a superior monster – in this case a supercomputer that uses its control of defense systems to take over the world.  In this case, doing so with an eye towards establishing a benevolent, but absolute, rule where humanity would be controlled for its own sake.  The film ends with a statement of defiance, but against a world firmly under the thumb of Colossus.  This is all executed with the spare (hell, bleak) style of early 70s films that I love so much – very reminiscent in some ways of Robert Wise’s adaptation of “The Andromeda Strain” which would come out the following year.  I put this movie in my Netflix queue back when I first got the service and it has been on “very long wait” status ever since.  I’ve got a long history with this, in that I read the novel it was based on back in the 1970s and it was a favorite of mine.  It falls into that genre of “science fiction thrillers” that was once dominated by Martin Caidin and Michael Crichton.  I didn’t see this very faithful movie adaptation until finding a VHS copy for rent in a shop in Iowa City in the early 1990s.  This was my first chance to revisit it.  Certainly the films depiction of technology shows its age (teletype machines, massive transistor driven computers, etc…) but the underlying themes actually hold up.  One key element in both the movie and the novel is that the American defense system (“Colossus”) and its Soviet counterpart (“Guardian”) have to establish a mutual communication protocol and data links to create the situation of the rest of the story.  This is, in a way, a forecast of the internet from a 1970 movie adaptation of a 1966 novel.  Great movie.  Here is the bad news – Wil Smith is doing a remake whose script is being revised by the guy who wrote “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Men in Black”.  How many more science fiction classics can that man profane?

Summer Movie(s) #49 & #50 – Kill Bill vols. 1 & 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003 & 2004): Nothing new to say.  I love these movies.  This time I was mostly watching just for the music.

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2014 Summer Movies # 3

Posted by Gerald on July 28, 2014

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.

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Reflections on my Boston Trip (June 2014)

Posted by Gerald on July 1, 2014

As I settle back into NC life, I’ve got a few things I’m taking away from this trip:

1) Park and Go is awesome. Seriously, if you are doing long-term parking at an airport, check this out and see if it is available. The shuttle picks you up from your car and returns you to it at the end of your trip; there is someone there to help if you have a dead battery, etc…; and it is cheaper (at least at Charlotte) – especially if you book and pay in advance.

2) I’ll never fly without an iPod again. Having Gillian Welch, Neko Case, John Vanderslice, and The Decemberists with me made wedging myself into those munchkin-sized coach seats and dealing with the crowds in airports far more tolerable.

3) Speaking of munchkin-sized coach seats, I’m in much better shape than the last time I flew up to Boston. I didn’t have the humiliation of asking for one of those extenders for the belts and my (still) fat ass actually fits in the seats (I’m still too tall for them, though). Also, I had no real problems spending two days doing lots of walking (except for some blisters). That said, I need to get back on my regular exercise schedule before I slip back much more.

4) I’m an irredeemable beer snob (no surprise there). The visceral sense of horror and rejection I experienced when listening to the guy at the Harpoon brewery extolling the virtues of their new cans (*shudder*) is hard for me to put into words. I’ve also come to like the smell of wort.

5) Speaking of beer, I experienced two rye beers during the trip and both were quite good. They have a sort of light and spicy flavor that goes well with warmer weather.

6) The weather was great. Even when it hit 90 on Monday, the humidity was nice and low (by the standards of the swampy south – the realities of which I think my hosts might have forgotten in their years in Beantown). This was driven home as I exited the plane in Charlotte and had to chew the air before breathing – and it really wasn’t that bad for a summer night in NC.

7) In terms of security checks, it is only slightly harder to get on a plane than to get on the USS Constitution. On a related note, had I been a sailor in the early modern era, I’d have died from terminal head trauma before any scurvy, etc…

8) I may be allergic to Paul Revere. I’m certainly allergic to his house.

9) There is a lot to be said for being in a major college town during warm weather.

10) Trips are good. I need to take more of them.

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Summer Movies 2014 #2

Posted by Gerald on June 14, 2014

Summer Movie #11 (Kubrick Film Festival #5) – Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964): It is impossible for me to come up with much to say about this that hasn’t been better said by other people.  It isn’t many movies that can be said to define the tone of an era, but this so perfectly captures the insanity of the Cold War that it has that sort of definitive nature.  I guess what strikes me most strongly is that behind the over-the-top caricatures and comedy are scene that are chillingly real.  Except for a couple of minor lines, everything in the B-52 is played absolutely straight.  The scenes there and in the assault on the airbase (the exteriors, not what happens in Ripper’s office) are shot with handheld cameras (something you don’t see much of in Kubrick’s work) and film that looks like newsreel footage which gives them an ultra-realistic feeling (again, Kubrick is not Goddard – he has a completely different esthetic).  I think that is one of the key’s to the movie’s success as a piece of art – the comedy is grounded in a horrible reality.  It isn’t just the subject matter that is “black”.  I was also interested to learn that George C. Scott was, in essence, tricked into playing his role in so over-the-top a fashion.  Kubrick encouraged him to be outrageous for “practice” takes which he promised he would never use – and then used them.  Kubrick always seemed very comfortable with manipulating his actors in any way he felt added to the film.  Many of his actors (such as Scott) never forgave him for how he got the results he wanted.  There is a useful debate to be had here about the ethics of all of this.  Still, as far as the end product – Brilliant.

Summer Movie #12 (Kubrick Film Festival #6) – 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968): Probably unsurprisingly, this is the first Kubrick film I had any real experiences with (I vaguely remember seeing “Dr. Strangelove” on TV – at least I remember seeing Slim Pickens riding the bomb – but I was too young for it to have any real impression beyond that). My personal experiences with this movie seem to parallel its cultural history. When I first saw it, I was a kid who loved “Star Trek” and watched anything with a spaceship in it (neither of those things has really changed) and I had no frame of reference for this – so I rejected it. It was slow, boring, made no sense. There is a story that Rock Hudson (I believe) walked out of the premiere saying “Could someone tell me what the hell that was about?” That summed up my initial reaction. I loved the spacecraft – and that was it. Then I came back to it older and with some understanding of film and was mesmerized by it – as I have been ever since. I think it is Kubrick’s most obviously experimental film – he is trying to create an entirely visual and auditory experience. The narrative, and especially the dialogue, is secondary to the experience of watching and hearing the rest of the movie. Hence, attempts to “explain what it means” are doomed to failure. Kubrick never liked talking about his work in those terms at any point, but even less so here. He once said something to the effect that had Leonardo Da Vinci written “she’s smiling because she is keeping a secret from her lover” at the bottom of the Mona Lisa, it would have destroyed the experience of seeing it. Same thing. Still, that doesn’t mean the viewer shouldn’t try to interpret it, it just means that Kubrick shouldn’t, and so he didn’t. Like any great work of art, I see different things each time I encounter this movie. This time, like with the other films I’ve seen so far this time, I keep coming back to themes of human ineffectuality in the face of larger force. In “The Killers” it was how the elaborate plans of the criminals were destroyed by human weaknesses and sheer chance. In “Paths of Glory” it was how the war rolled over everything before it. Even “Spartacus” shows a powerful man who succeeds in destroying his enemies, but can’t destroy what they stand for. In “Lolita” Humbert is driven to his destruction by his urges and fears despite desperate attempts to control Lolita and his relationship with her. In “Dr. Strangelove” the whole world is destroyed by the machinery it built but couldn’t control. Here, we have the story of human evolution driven by an unknowable force (fate?) represented by the monolith. What humans do in response is to throw their bones up in the air – until they stay there. Confronted with the monolith, the humans on the moon are as mystified and unable to control the forces there as the australopithecines at the beginning of the movie – and David Bowman is reshaped by it without his own volition at the end. In between we see that when Man tries to make God in his own image (HAL) that image carries all of man’s flaws. One last, minor, thing – I had noted earlier that Gareth Edwards used one of the Ligeti scores in “Godzilla” that Kubrick used to such memorable effect here – and the result was the best scene in that movie, to my mind. That can’t be an accident. Brilliant – maybe even transcendent.

Summer Movies #s 13 & 14 (Insomnia Special) – The Mission (Roland Joffe, 1986) & The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann, 1973): I really enjoy “The Mission” as a drama, but it is worth noting that the Jesuits did not resist the transfer of the Reductions that led to the Guarani War, nor did any fight on the side of the Guarani or remain with them after the transfer.  The actual fighting is less a depiction of the Guarani War than of events over a hundred years before.  People in reality are frequently less inspirational than in screenplays.  “The Day of the Jackal” is one of my all-time favorite films.  It is a suspenseful movie despite the fact that you already know the outcome (given that DeGaulle was not assassinated, the plot is going to fail).  I’ve not seen the 1997 movie “The Jackal” which I understand has no similarity to the original movie at all.  Director Fred Zinnemann successfully fought the studio to make sure the titles were different and author of the original novel Frederick Forsyth refused to allow his name to be used.

Summer Movie #15 – Restoration (Michael Hoffman, 1995): I’ve been on a bit of a period-piece binge of late and this has been sitting on my Netflix queue for awhile.  I’d actually seen large portions of it on cable, but I never watched the whole thing beginning to end.  Now I have.  Despite a wonderful cast (Robert Downey, Jr., Sam Neill, Polly Walker, David Thewlis, a woefully underused Ian McKellan… uh, and a miscast Meg Ryan), this thing just didn’t work for me.  When it tries to be comic it feels flat and uninteresting.  When it tries to be dramatic, it is sentimental (to the point of cliche) and manipulative.  The only character in the movie I felt anything for was Lulu, the king’s spaniel.  Mixing comedy and drama is hard, and I just don’t think it worked here.  It is, however, quite beautiful.  The art design and costuming won Academy Awards, and seemingly deservedly so.  Certainly the designers did their research and there was a solid depiction of Stuart-era London here.  Unfortunately, that was all there was.

Summer Movie #16 – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson, 2013): This is the first of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies that I didn’t see in a theater.  That wasn’t intentional – I just screwed up making plans, but still – that wouldn’t have happened with the LotR movies.  Much like the first Hobbit film, I liked this movie, but I didn’t love it.  It is well-made, well-acted, and looks beautiful – but something is just missing in these for me.  I was repeatedly moved to tears by the first movies – tears of sorrow and of joy.  Neither of the Hobbit films has had any such impact on me.  I honestly don’t know if it is them or me.  As I think I wrote after the first one; when I walked out of all three of the LotR movies, my first thought was “I want to go right back in there and see that again – now!”  I just don’t feel that way about these movies at all.

Summer Movie #17 – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013): Here is another movie I had intended to catch in the theater and just didn’t for various reasons.  I thought the first of these movies was okay, but was still just a fairly ordinary Scifi actioner with two bright spots – Jennifer Lawrence and Woody Harrelson.  I like this one better.  I thought all of the characters were more interesting here than in the first one with one major exception.  I don’t care much for Donald Sutherland’s turn as President Snow.  He isn’t very menacing in this and the air of decadence that surrounds the character in the books is wholly missing.  I’m not sure if this is a failure of writing or acting – or both – but I don’t think it is working.  Overall, I thought this one was more worthwhile than the first, but I still didn’t think it was great.  Also, on a completely personal note, I can never forgive the director, Francis Lawrence, for the horrible 2005 adaptation of “Constantine”.

Summer Movie #18 (Kubrick Film Festival #7) – A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971): This was the first Kubrick movie I saw when I was old enough to have some idea of what it meant, and it had a profound influence on me.  It made me ask myself a question that my upbringing had never prepared me for – can there be any morality in the absence of choice?  Because this film was, along with “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Wild Bunch”, seen as one of the films that began the aestheticisation of violence in movies, I think many people don’t ever see beyond that.  I don’t think Alex is ever meant to be “sympathetic” – I think he is meant to be a charming monster.  The thing is that he is a monster in a monstrous world.  That is one of the thing I admire about this movie – there is no easy answer about good guys or bad guys here.  Nor do I agree that the violence is either excessive or gratuitous – I think it all comes back to the fact that this is Alex’s story about himself.  He sees violence as beautiful, so the violence looks beautiful.  There is a lot of violence, but the vast majority is either done by Alex or at his instigation – it is everything about him.  He is violent and then violence is practiced upon him.  All of this, though, is to set up the next level – the story about morality and free will.  Alex is a monster who is conditioned to not act like a monster.  He stops being violent because he has no choice.  Is that redemption?  Both Burgess and Kubrick say no, but then they part company.  Burgess evidently believed there was redemption out there for Alex – seen in the “final chapter” that wasn’t in the early American versions of the book – which was the one Kubrick used for the adaptation.  Even upon hearing about it, though, Kubrick left it out – of course.  He doesn’t believe Alex can redeem himself and that echoes this theme I keep seeing in these movies about the limitation of human will and human choice.  The state can’t make Alex a “good person” by force, and Alex can’t be anything except what he is – a charming monster.  Visually the film is precise (in its camerawork and editing) and beautiful.  As a story it is disturbing and though-provoking.  Brilliant.

Summer Movie #19 (Kubrick Film Festival #8) – Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975): I first saw this movie on HBO and, much like my initial reaction to “2001”, I didn’t like it.  Again like “2001” my experience echoed that of most film critics – I initially hated it and later came to love it (of course, I was a teenager and they were supposed to be pros and stuff).  I believe that, despite the very different subject matter, this movie and “2001” are more similar than not.  In both cases the story isn’t in the dialogue, it is in the images.  The big difference here is that the actors are a much more significant contributor to those images in “Barry Lyndon” than in “2001”.  If you aren’t prepared it seems slow – well it is slow.  This is really a three hour painting.  Kubrick was always precise in blocking his shots and camera movement, but here the camera is often still, or only moving in graceful slow pivots.  The cinematography is full of lush colors and liberal use of natural lighting.  For this movie, Kubrick famously experimented with ultra-fast lenses developed by NASA for the Moon missions in an attempt to minimize his use of electrical lighting.  The result is a movie filled with shots that look like a Baroque painting.  These techniques have become fairly common in later “costume dramas” so that it is easy not to realize how innovative they were at the time.  This sort of work is probably why Martin Scorsese calls this his favorite Kubrick film.  Watch this and then watch “The Age of Innocence” and the influence will stand out (although I think Kubrick did a better job – shocking, I know, that I’d be expressing a preference for Kubrick – of creating delicate tension without it feeling like the movie just wasn’t moving at all).  I think it is remarkable that it took many people decades to realize the level of this achievement. I think another element that led some (including me) to dislike the film is that the story refuses to be a Hollywood costume drama.  It isn’t a biopic, it isn’t a morality tale, it isn’t a romance, and it isn’t a “bawdy romp”.  Barry, like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange”, is a charming monster.  His monstrous nature, though, is less about his violence than his nearly complete selfishness.  Still, Kubrick won’t just let him be a simple villain.  He is victimized by the economic, social, and political structures of the world he is part of and his downfall at the end is, to a certain extent, the victory of that system in crushing an upstart.  We can see in his rise and fall the struggle of “Spartacus” but to much more self-serving ends.  But like Spartacus, he loses.  Again, I think we can see a story here about the inability of a single person to completely change the world – the opposite of the heroic film mythology so beloved of Hollywood… and of most movie fans.  Brilliant.

Summer Movie #20 – Swashbuckler (James Goldstone, 1976): I watched this movie many times on HBO back in the late 1970s.  It is one of those attempts by a studio to revive one of its past glories and so features every trope and cliche the swashbuckler movie ever showed.  It is a competent but not very original contribution by a director with a varied filmography that included the 1972 James Garner vehicle “They Only Kill Their Masters” and the on-air pilot for the original Star Trek, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.  The most notable thing about this is the cast.  Robert Shaw, a year off of “Jaws”, and a young and fierce James Earl Jones lead the cast and make this movie watchable by the evident pleasure they are having chewing the scenery.  Genvieve Bujold plays the feisty nobleman’s daughter and Shaw’s love interest.  The movie also features a young Anjelica Huston as the evil Governor’s mistress (credited only as the “Woman of Dark Visage”), a young Beau Bridges as the bumbling commander of the guard, and Trinidadian actor Geoffrey Holder (best remembered as Baron Samedi from “Live and Let Die” and the 7-Up “uncola” commercials) as a sort of assassin.  Also present are a host of familiar faces from the 1970s, most notably Avery Schreiber, an actor whose career is inexplicable in modern terms.  Peter Boyle plays the evil governor.  As always he is good at what he does, but to my mind was wrong for this role.  The governor is presented as this decadent, even foppish, but still deadly character.  Boyle just doesn’t fit the part despite his skill.  I see this as another example of how mainstream Hollywood just couldn’t quite seem to figure out what to do with him.  Nothing in the story or film-making is surprising or unusual.  If you enjoy swashbuckler movies just for being what they are – as I do – you’ll enjoy it.  If the genre holds no inherent appeal for you, I’d avoid this.

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