A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 589 – A History of Violence

A History of Violence – October 10th, 2011

This is yet another good example of an exceptionally made movie that doesn’t interest me in the least. It’s simply not my taste, no matter how well done it is. Sort of like how I mostly prefer sculptures to paintings. It’s not a question of the skill involved in creating the piece of art in front of me. It’s a question of personal preference and interest. It’s frustrating at times, because technically speaking, I spent this evening watching a good movie. But subjectively speaking, I didn’t enjoy that time. I didn’t actively dislike it either, but when I spend an hour and a half watching something I’m not interested in and not particularly enjoying that feels like time not well spent. And I can’t even really complain about it. So what do I say in a review? This movie didn’t capture my interest but you might want to see it anyhow?

This is actually a problem I have with reviews as a concept. I certainly don’t think that every movie is a great movie just waiting for the right reviewer, but at the same time I think that some genuinely good movies (and books and plays and television shows and so on and so forth) will end up being reviewed poorly by someone who simply didn’t enjoy it because it’s not to their taste. I can’t honestly claim to be a movie snob, what with my adoration of Sharks in Venice, but I can recognize the difference between a good movie and a bad movie (and a good-bad movie and a bad-bad movie). This is a good movie. This is a movie full of impeccable acting and excellent writing and deftly handled direction. I just wasn’t interested.

I’m not sure entirely why this specific movie didn’t interest me. It’s the same thing as No Country for Old Men. Why not that movie? I liked The Limey quite a lot, and I’ve got to say it’s not that far off from this and No Country for Old Men in terms of general tone. There’s a lot of quiet introspective bits and meditation on the nature of violence and its consequences and the lives of the people involved. It’s not just that I liked the lead actor better. I mean, Terrance Stamp is fantastic, but I like Viggo Mortensen too, and he was fantastic here. Perhaps it’s that this was more of a character study than a story. There are story elements involved, but it seems to me that the point of the movie isn’t the specific story and the events that occur in it, but how those events affect the main character and how he relates to the world.

The movie centers around a man named Tom Stall. I would say that it focuses around him and his family except the family focus is all directly related to Tom’s actions near the beginning and the revelations said actions bring. What Tom does and who he is and was affect his wife and his children, but they themselves are not the focus. It’s all Tom and the ripples he causes. Because Tom efficiently and ruthlessly took down two assailants who attacked him and his staff at the diner he owned, as if he knew what we has doing, despite his mild mannered midwestern family man persona. What’s interesting to me about this movie is that until about a third of the way in, or maybe as much as half of the way in, it’s still up in the air exactly what this means. Serious men in a big black car show up when Tom’s face becomes nationally known. They think he’s someone they know. Someone with a different name and a different past. And he tells them he’s not. It’s a case of mistaken identity. And until a point where it’s made clear whether or not he’s telling the truth? It doesn’t really matter.

I almost think I’d have liked it better if the story had left it up in the air. If the point hadn’t been “is he or isn’t he” but rather “whether he is or not, these things happened”. Because once you know, that changes things. It becomes less of a meditation on the nature of violence and its impact on people, which I could find very interesting, and pulls it very much into the specific character study of Tom. Unfortunately, it gives us very little of his actual background. Apparently the source material has a good deal more background for him and I might actually look that up and check it out. As it stands, it hovers a bit between character study and ensemble. I want the ensemble, but it doesn’t give it to me. I want the character background if it’s a study we’re getting and it doesn’t give me that either. It’s a snapshot of a turning point in a man’s life and it just doesn’t do it for me.

In case you care about such things, I’m about to spoil the mystery. Some ways into the movie, after Tom has killed the two assailants in the diner and dealt with numerous threats to his family, we learn that yes indeed, Tom Stall is hiding a very nasty path. He’s from Philadelphia. He has mob ties. His older brother is still in the mob. His real name is Joey Cusack and when he left the mob and left Philly he took a new name and started a new life and tried to leave his violence in the past. Clearly that only worked so long as he never had to defend himself or anyone else. When called on to deal with a dangerous situation he went right back to the violence he’d known for years. And once you know this about him? Once you know that he has this horrible past where he did terrible things it changes the whole scenario. Now he has to go to Philadelphia and confront his brother and make sure no one ever threatens his family again. And this is why I say it isn’t about Tom and his family in the midwest and how violence affects them. It is about him and how he copes with being the violent person he used to be after years and years without it.

Were I writing academically I’d probably spend some time focusing on how the people around Tom – who’ve always known him to be a fairly peaceful and kind person – are affected. Because that’s an important part of the movie’s point. His son, who is routinely picked on by some of the school’s bullies, takes his father’s actions as permission to fight back, breaking another boy’s nose in the process. His wife distances herself but also finds herself drawn to him even as she’s disgusted by him and herself for being drawn. People in town celebrate Tom’s actions while he is understandably worried by them. It’s clearly a major theme. The thing is, because it comes off as more of a character study to me, I’m just not inclined to delve too deeply into the reactions of others because we never really get to know them otherwise. The one person we get a little more depth from is Tom’s wife, Edie, played by Maria Bello. And she is excellent in the role. Still even there we see her not on her own, but always in relation to Tom.

I’m not saying that any of this is bad. I’m just saying that I think it might be part of what kept me from getting invested in the movie, regardless of how well it was made. And that might not hold true for other people. As I said in the beginning, it’s a matter of personal preferences. So while I can watch this and appreciate the acting and the writing and the directing and the cinematography and everything about it that was so well done, that doesn’t mean I’m going to like it. And I maintain that that’s a valid reaction to a movie. A movie doesn’t have to be good for me to enjoy it, but likewise it doesn’t have to be bad for me not to.

October 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

A History of Violence

October 10, 2011

A History of Violence

I bought this movie for a couple reasons. It had a cool looking preview with Vigo Mortensen and Ed Harris. It’s based on a comic book (and and as you know I buy everything that’s based on a comic book, be it worth while or not.) And as was often the case it was pre-viewed at the Blockbuster where I worked so I figured well, why not? As we watched the opening credits I was interested to see that it was directed by David Cronenberg, famous for making great horror movies in the eighties like the re-make of The Fly, Scanners and Videodrome. I was even more interested to see that the music was composed by Howard Shore, who created the amazing, vast, epic score for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

This is a movie about a man’s past catching up with him. Tom Stall is a simple man who owns a diner in the quiet middle America town of Millbrook. He has a wife and two children. He has a piece of crap pickup that won’t start. He is as completely typically all American as all get out. When a pair of completely cold blooded killers show up in his diner though and try to rob the place and threaten to kill his staff he lashes out, killing both of them. He’s all over the news after that, and a mob boss from Philadelphia shows up in town threatening him and his family because this boss thinks that Tom is Joey Cusack – the son of a rival mobster and an accomplished hit man.

Of course Mr. Fogarty is right. Tom Stall is Joey Cusack, or at least he was, and this movie is about what happens when his life of crime runs smack into his peaceful rural existence. He’s never told his wife, or his children, or anybody in town who he used to be, and when they start to figure it out it begins to tear them apart.

I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised by this movie. It wasn’t at all what the cool previews had led me to expect. I thought this was going to be a guns-a-blazing modern western with one man killing the entire Pennsylvania mob to protect his family. It’s not that movie though. Oh, sure, Tom does eventually kill a whole lot of guys, but it’s not a thrill-packed action adventure. Instead it’s a much more introspective look at the destructive nature of violence, though in the end I’m not sure what the moral is meant to be. It seems to ask if there’s a way to kill enough bad guys to earn the right to earn a peaceful life, but it doesn’t offer an answer to that question.

Rather than an over-the-top action film what Cronenberg delivers here is an intense character study. This is a movie about repercussions. It’s a movie about extreme violence that tries hard not to glorify it. For the most part I think it succeeds, too, and it’s thanks to some restrained direction (according to the trivia on IMDB Cronenberg edited heavily to keep the film more grounded in reality and less actiony. The success of the movie is also due to some fantastic performances. Vigo Mortenson is of course fantastic. I’ve come to expect a deep and nuanced performance out of him with what could have been relatively simple roles and he does not disappoint. Then there’s Ed Harris, who is wonderfully creepy as mob boss Carl Fogarty. Near the end of the film the always astonishing William Hurt shows up in a very short but Oscar nominated appearance as Joey’s made-man brother Richie. The most powerful performance in the movie, however, and the role that really drives the plot and makes the movie work is Maria Bello as Tom’s unsuspecting wife Edie. She is the one most tortured by the revelation that the man she married is not at all the man she thought he was, and Maria completely sells this powerful emotional story.

As for Howard Shore’s score, well it really does a great job of building the tension in the movie. If you’re paying attention (which I was) you can tell that it’s the composer of the Lord of the Rings score, but he reigns himself in in much the same way that Cronenberg does. This is not a bombastic or epic movie. It is a little intimate character study of a movie (with a couple cool action scenes.) Shore keeps the music simple, presenting us with a pleasant theme for Tom’s simple home life and a tense driving theme for Joey’s world.

My only complaint, aside from the one about this completely not being the movie I was expecting from the advertisements, is that Cronenberg lays it on pretty heavily at the start of the film when establishing just how idyllic Tom’s country home life is. We get to see a cute romantic sex scene between him and his wife. We see his daughter having a nightmare (and the whole family comforting her.) We see his son bullied at school. It’s almost excessively perfect. I know that Cronenberg is trying to stress just how much Tom has to lose, but by making it almost unbelievably wonderful he robs the film of some of its gritty realism. It brings the movie into a sort of heightened cinema reality that seems somehow less impactful.

October 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 585 – Taken

Taken – October 6th, 2011

I’ll come right out and say it: I hated this movie. I hated every second of it. I came out of the movie feeling like I’d just been told the world hates me and wants to assault me and rape me and it’s my own damn fault if anything happens to me because I didn’t have a man watching me. That is the lesson this movie imparts. And it is vile. It is so vile that this movie has taken top honors in our collection as Movie I Hate The Most. I really thought Death Proof was going to walk away with that one since it’s held the top position for so long now, but no. This movie just waltzed in and swept it away. Congratulations, Taken, for being more hateful than Tarantino’s loving portrayal of women being brutalized. At least at the end Tarantino gave a different group of women the agency to exact revenge on their own.

Let me tell you a little story. When I was 17 I got a chance to spend three weeks in England as part of a school exchange. The other students who’d gotten into the exchange were friends with each other and carpooled with the faculty chaperon but I was more than a bit of an outsider in the group. I didn’t really socialize with any of the other girls and I’d barely ever spoken to the chaperon and I later learned that she tried to get me kicked out of the group because I wouldn’t mesh well with the others (there were no other reasons and since there were no other reasons she didn’t have much of an argument for it, so I went anyhow). So once we got to England I ended up spending a lot of time wandering London on my own. Granted, that wasn’t the safest thing to be doing, but I wasn’t precisely unfamiliar with cities and I wasn’t precisely naive about dealing with strangers. And you know what? Despite being on my own and young and fairly attractive according to general social norms, I was never once kidnapped, addicted to drugs and sold as a sex slave to the highest bidder. This, despite not having my father with me to fend off any would-be assailants. I’m not saying it’s an impossibility. I’m just saying it’s not the foregone conclusion this movie suggests.

Because in this movie? It is a foregone conclusion. Every single woman in this movie is either a victim of assault or an innocent protected/shielded by strong men. The victims are victims because they didn’t have strong men to protect them and are being used by evil men. That’s how the world works in this movie. And the only person who seems to get that (aside from the scores of evil men who do the kidnapping and raping) is former spy Bryan Mills, whose teenage daughter wants to go to Europe with a friend. His ex-wife, now a pampered housewife who is clearly supposed to have no real world experience whatsoever, convinces him to sign some paperwork that’s required for the still underage daughter to leave the country. And leave she does, with a friend who’s been overseas before. But as they’re both silly girls and have no man to take care of them, they are soon abducted. All Bryan has to go on is his daughter’s last known location and a frantic phone call she made when she saw the kidnappers enter the apartment she and her friend were staying in. The rest of the movie is scene after scene of Bryan being a bad ass former spy hell bent on getting his daughter back and scene after scene of the horrible things that happened to other young women who were presumably not under the protection of a man.

For all that Maggie Grace gets second billing after Liam Neeson for her role as daughter Kim, she gets barely any screen time post-kidnapping. Because really, she’s not a character in the movie. She’s an object. An object of great importance to Neeson’s Bryan, but an object nonetheless. Had this movie been about Neeson going after someone for some other reason and being a bad-ass? Had it been about, say, Helen Mirren in the same position? I would have found it a lot more enjoyable. For one, it really is cool to see Neeson be a bad ass. He does steely determination so very well and I don’t at all mind watching a man in his 50s kick some criminal butt. But stop for a moment and imagine someone like Mirren in the same role. Imagine it’s Kim’s mother coming after her, breaking people’s arms and smashing in their faces. I’d go see that in the theater! But this isn’t that movie. This is a movie that seems to be saying that men do things and women have things done to them. And that makes me sick.

What really hammered it home to me that this movie’s attitude towards women wasn’t just an unpleasant but hard-to-avoid consequence of the story’s particulars was a scene involving a former associate of Bryan and the former associate’s wife. Said associate was once a spy as well, but now he’s working a desk job. He’s gone soft and allowed himself to be bribed and has turned a blind eye to some nasty dealings. And when Bryan makes it clear he knows this associate knows something important, who does he threaten? The associate’s innocent and naive wife. In fact, he doesn’t just threaten her. He shoots her. Really, he’s not that far away from the evil men who took his daughter. So long as the woman isn’t related to him or useful to him, she’s fair game. How does that make him different from the men he’s been hunting this whole time? The answer is, it doesn’t.

I cannot fault the acting or the set dressing or the fight choreography. All were excellently done. The action scenes are great and indeed, if all I’d ever seen of the movie was Liam Neeson taking people down? I would have said it was a perfectly decent action movie. The hateful attitude towards women aside, the tension in the plot is built up well too. From the phonecall where Bryan tells his daughter what to do as she’s being grabbed to his piecing together of clues to where she’s been taken, it’s a tense thriller and that’s done well. But that nasty tone is present throughout and I just can’t overlook it. Not only that, but I don’t want to overlook it. I don’t want to accept that it’s a reasonable thing for a movie to do. I hated this movie. I hated it deeply. And unlike Death Proof I don’t think it hates me back. I think it doesn’t see me as worth hating because I’m not worth much of anything to it. And that is just as bad.

October 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Taken

October 6, 2011

Taken

I’m curious about this movie. I bought it because I had heard it was a cool thriller about a guy killing bad guys to rescue his daughter. I have been looking forward to seeing it for months because I just wanted to see Liam Neeson kicking bucketloads of ass. Like Danny the Dog this is a film written by Luc Besson. I think I know what to expect from such a film. Every time I’ve suggested watching it, though, Amanda has been strangely reticent. She really doesn’t want to see this movie and I’ve not been sure why.

The set up for this movie is so straight forward and simple. Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a retired CIA spook who sometimes has an Irish accent and sometimes does not. He’s living a sort of sad lonely life, trying to re-connect with his teenaged daughter. She’s just turned seventeen and is spoiled rotten by her mother’s new husband who is some kind of oil magnate. His ex-wife will barely let him see the girl, though and all his memories of her are sadly out of date. She’s not the little five year old who used to want to be a singer any more. He’s just a hardened man with a mysterious history of special ops. All we really know about him is that he’s dangerous and good at what he does.

Mills has grave misgivings when his daughter tells him that she’s planning a trip to Paris. Now normally this would not be much of an issue. He is clearly overreacting. Teenagers go on trips to Paris all the time. If this were any movie but this one he would just be a paranoid and somewhat controlling absentee father. Of course that would not make much of a movie. So almost as soon as her plane lands she is abducted by a ring of Albanian sex merchants whose MO is to kidnap women, addict them to drugs and sell them into slavery. There’s no particular reason that she is targeted – she’s just a young girl on her own in Paris. It’s just bad luck.

Bad luck mostly for the Albanians. And everyone connected with them. The whole rest of the movie is just about Mills killing everybody between him and his daughter. He’s not a subtle operator. He’s an unstoppable killing machine who leaves destruction in his wake. Which is, of course, the appeal of the movie.

I can see where Amanda’s objection to the movie comes from. The world portrayed here is an ugly and brutal one that hates women. There’s no denying that every female in this movie is a victim, and the whole driving force of the film is provided by constant reminders that somewhere out there Mills’ innocent daughter is being abused in unspeakable ways. We see the horrifying fate that lies before her in no uncertain terms, and most of the other girls in this movie (who are not lucky enough to have an unstoppable CIA killer for a father) do not appear to get rescued. Dreadful and awful things are happening to women in this movie, and I can see why it makes Amanda feel angry. It also makes her angry that it is implied that these women cannot help themselves but must wait passively for a man to come along and save them.

I don’t think that is the intent of the movie though. Perhaps it’s an unfortunate implication, but it doesn’t appear to me that the fate of these women is ever portrayed in a salacious manner. It’s never meant to be erotic or appealing. It’s all there to give Mills a reason to be an uncompromising badass and to vilify the many, many people he has to kill on his mission. He’s going to maim, torture and kill just about every person he meets in this movie, and frankly you want to see this righteous vengeance meted out to these despicable, awful people.

I have to admit that for the most part I enjoyed seeing Liam Neeson kicking ass for an hour and a half. His character thinks nothing of walking into a room full of armed slimeballs and killing every one of them with his bare hands, and like I said, the folks he kills here are people you want to see killed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I enjoyed the movie as a whole, because the atrocities that you witness as his motivation are not fun at all, but it’s cool to see him going all Jack Bauer all over the place. I even bought that this older gentleman could easily mop the floor with all these young mobsters – he’s just so steely eyed and determined. My one complaint about Neeson would be his wandering accent. Why is an Irish ex-pat a CIA covert operator? And why, when he’s pretending to be a French police officer (speaking English for some reason) are the Albanians not even the least bit suspicious?

As we watched Amanda proposed that a gender-swapped version of the film might be more viewable. She would rather see a story about a kickass unstoppable woman killing rapists and pimps, and do you know what? I’d really like to see that movie too.

October 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 580 – Toy Soldiers

Toy Soldiers – October 1st, 2011

Have I admitted yet that I had a bit of a thing for Wesley Crusher when I was a kid? Because I totally did. When Star Trek: The Next Generation started airing I was just the right age to develop a crush and I already had precedent when it came to crushing on math/engineering geeks what with my thing for Adric on Doctor Who. So anyhow, Wesley Crusher. Loved the character. And subsequently loved the actor playing him: Wil Wheaton. I never bought teen magazines with those cheesy covers and posters and whatnot, but I did stop whenever I saw him on my television screen. This continued for years. And that is why prior to tonight I had already seen this movie in full. After all, he plays one of the main characters! We’d considered saving this for Wheaton’s birthday (we would have watched it during PAX East this year but he wasn’t in attendance) but then we realized we’re going to be done with the project by then. So! Here we go!

This movie baffles me, really. Mostly because it has this cast full of fresh young actors hot off the pages of Teen Beat (check it out), and yet it’s an action movie with a drug-running crime syndicate coming up out of Mexico to take a boarding school full of kids hostage. The genre says “market me to teenage boys” but the cast says “girls will swoon” and I don’t have nearly enough faith in the movie industry to think that someone intentionally made an action movie for teen and pre-teen girls or teen and pre-teen gay boys. Not that it wouldn’t be appealing! I mean, the main cast spends a considerable amount of time standing around in their underwear. I’m just saying, much as I appreciated it, I don’t for one minute believe that sort of thought was put into this movie. At best, I can imagine the studio figuring girls wouldn’t mind going to see it with their dates. Maybe I’m wrong. If so? I salute you, TriStar. Way to buck the system.

Anyhow, this is indeed an action movie. Crime lord Luis Cali opens the movie by taking over a courtroom in somewhere I assume is central American and holding innocent people hostage while demanding that his father (also a criminal) be released. Turns out his father had already been extradited to the US, so he kills some hostages and takes off to go to the US and take some more hostages there. He heads for the boarding school where the son of the judge on his father’s case is currently a student. But once more he’s beaten to the punch and the judge’s son has already left school and is in a safe house somewhere. He takes over the entire school to get his hands on the kid, so when said kid isn’t there he simply decides to stick around and hold the entire student body and faculty hostage instead. He gives the government a limited amount of time, after which he says he’ll start executing students. He sets up a series of charges that he can detonate remotely and puts his men on the rooftops to keep an eye on the entrances to the school. And then he settles in, with the headmaster (played by Denholm Elliott) babysitting the boys in between hourly counts to make sure no one’s escaped.

So where are the aforementioned teen stars? They’re the rebellious students of the school, of course. Billy Tepper, played by Sean Astin, is the underachieving leader of the group. Wil Wheaton plays his roommate, Joey Trotta, and together with their friends Snuffy, Ricardo and Hank they play pranks and get in trouble. I’ll be flat out honest here and admit I don’t at all remember what distinguishes Ricardo and Hank from the others aside from that they’re the token ethnic characters. Snuffy’s got allergies (hence the nickname) and tends to be more cautious and nervous than the others. Really, it’s Billy and Joey who are the ones given the most character background, Billy because he’s the main character and Joey because his family is a key part of the plot later on.

The rest of the movie involves Cali and his gang threatening people and Billy and his gang making plans. Louis Gossett Jr., the school’s Dean of Students (I assume) was in town when Cali showed up, so there will be no badassery from him. Which is kind of funny. You see Louis Gossett Jr. and you see him set up to be this sort of tough love faculty member who’s wise to all the tricks Billy & co. pull and he’s Louis Gossett Jr.! And then he spends most of the movie pissed off in a tent while the military monitors the school. Poor guy. Meanwhile, inside the school the boys are scheming. They’re sneaking through air ducts to count the number of gang members and weapons. They’re drawing portraits of their captors. They are, in short, gathering intelligence in the hopes of an eventual revolt. Using his prank-based knowledge of the school, Billy escapes to bring said intelligence to the military and the Dean. He makes it back just in time for the hourly count.

You would think, given the set-up, that the outcome of all of this would be that the boys would successfully manage to overthrow the baddies and retake the school, right? Yeah, that’s not in the cards. Instead there’s a whole additional plotline where Joey’s father – who, it turns out, is a big time mob boss and played by Jerry Orbach – tries to make a deal and get Cali’s father out, then has him whacked instead when Bad Things Happen in the school and he gets wind of it. It’s sort of out of left field, except that Joey’s resentment of his father’s mob ties is played up a few times beforehand.

It’s a bit of a roller coaster towards the end, and I don’t mean the sort that makes you wet your pants or scream strings of obscenities for the entire ride. I mean the sort that’s fun and whips you around a little and sends you up and down and around a corner or two, but which ultimately wasn’t all that scary. There are several bits that seem like the movie’s coming to an end except then it doesn’t and more happens after. But in the end it’s really not a bad movie. A little strange, a little sloppy, but fun all the same.

October 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 579 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – September 30th, 2011

I admit, I have fallen way way behind with my reviews. I’m writing this almost three weeks after seeing it. It’s not easy writing a substantial review every day even when the movie really deserves one. It’s almost harder when the movie deserves something good. If I’m tired or not terribly sharp or just cranky, then whatever I write is going to be crap. And that feels so unfortunate to me. But then I get hung up on whatever review I stopped at, and if it’s something I’m having trouble writing about, I don’t go on and write others. Not easily. I sit there and stare and wonder just how to say what it is I want to say. Fortunately, I made some notes here, so I can remember a few of the points I wanted to make. And this isn’t the review I got hung up on, so hopefully I’ll get back on track soon.

I remember when this came out I was working at the video store in Pennsylvania. It was a huge big deal, this gorgeous wire-fu movie with a romance and action and a sweeping story of struggle and yearning. And the cast! Michelle Yeoh and Yun-Fat Chow got the most attention when I heard the movie spoken of, but Ziyi Zhang gained steam quickly because she’s fucking awesome. And it came very very close to being overhyped to me. It was like The Matrix, where every person who came into the store would ask if I’d seen it and if I said yes, they wanted to have deep and insightful discussions and if I said no I got a long diatribe on how much I needed to see it and how it would change my life. So, I avoided it. For a little while. I don’t remember what made me break down and watch it, but I did. And I was so glad I did, because it is indeed a beautiful and beautifully made movie.

The thing is, I don’t really want to have deep and insightful discussions about this movie. I just want to appreciate it. The fact of the matter is that I do not know nearly enough about the culture(s) portrayed here or the time period they’re portrayed in to feel comfortable viewing this movie from anything but a modern and decidedly white US perspective. But then again, I think that might well not be a bad thing. I’m curious just how much of the movie’s content is modern commentary on women’s lives in an earlier time period. I don’t doubt that women did at times stand out and go against the grain, but I don’t know just how prevalent that was in this time and place. If much of the point of the movie is that the women in it have been outsiders (and that is key to the plot), then of course there will be women in it who try to break in.

The story follows four or five main characters as their lives converge around a legendary sword. Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat Chow), a martial arts master who hopes to retire from a life of combat brings his sword, the Green Destiny, to the supposed safe-keeping of a friend. He entrusts it to another friend, Yu Shu Lien, for the journey. Yu Shu Lien is also a skilled martial artist but was not trained like Li Mu Bai because she is a woman. The two have long been interested in each other romantically but due to social and cultural traditions, they’ve never spoken of their feelings. While Yu Shu Lien is visiting the friend the sword is being given to, the sword is stolen by a masked thief who displays amazing martial arts skills. Eventually it’s revealed that a young woman, Jen Yu, is the culprit, but she’s a noblewoman due to be married soon. Her teacher is her nurse, a woman made bitter by rejection from the best martial arts school because of her gender. And so the movie goes, with Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien (along with a few others) facing off against Jen Yu and her teacher, Jade Fox.

Ostensibly, the impetus for it all is the sword, which is pretty awesome I will admit. But really the impetus for it all is society and the restrictions it places on the women in the movie. Jade Fox took on Jen Yu because she wanted an apprentice to help her get revenge for being excluded. Jen Yu wants a life of adventure that she could never have under the societal restrictions she’d be held to as a married noblewoman. She’s had a taste of that life before, living in the desert when her family moved for a time. She ran off after a group of bandits and ended up falling in love with their leader, Lo. But she had to go back eventually and found herself trapped. And then there’s Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, who seem at first to be the focus of the movie but end up a tragic side note to Jen Yu’s story.

Now, I did a little poking around when we watched this and came across some scholarly opinions. But I reject the interpretation that claims that Jen commits suicide in the end and that it’s a sign of her hopelessness in regard to freedom in a patriarchal society. That interpretation seems to completely miss the more fantastical bits of the movie and the direct reference to a legend told by Lo earlier in the movie. The way the legend is told, anyone who reaches the top of one particular mountain can make a wish and dive off. The young man in the story made his wish, dove off and flew away, knowing his wish had come true. So when Jen tells Lo to make a wish and then dives off, there is some ambiguity there, but I don’t see it as helplessness. The ambiguity is more as to whose wish will be fulfilled. Lo is the one with the faithful heart mentioned in reference to the legend, so perhaps it will be his wish. But Jen is the one who dove, so perhaps it will be hers. And perhaps they’re one and the same. That’s the unknown, and as she flies away, Jen is clearly at peace with whatever the outcome will be. She spent the whole movie railing against authority and fighting for the right to make her own choices. She made a choice in the end. What it was isn’t important.

The story is a sad and beautiful one, with a lot of little stories woven together to make a whole. But I realize I haven’t even touched on the visuals. Obviously the acting is superb or the story wouldn’t hold up as well as it does, but the visuals truly complete the movie. And I don’t just mean the backgrounds and settings, though those are amazing and lush and real in a way many movies fail to make one feel from the other side of the screen. I also mean the fight scenes, which are plentiful and impressive. In a movie where part of the story hinges upon the physical skills of the main characters, this also has to be spot on in order for the story to work, and it does. It is a gorgeous movie from top to bottom, inside and out.

September 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 578 – Battlestar Galactica: Razor

Battlestar Galactica: Razor – September 29th, 2011

Unlike the previous two nights’ movies, this was made to actually be a movie, albeit one that depends upon a television show to make any sense whatsoever. It tells about a whole chunk of time that the show skipped over to keep things moving and also goes back in time a bit, telling a related story from the first Cylon war. And it is perhaps some of the darkest stuff the franchise put out once the reimagining went on the air. Make no mistake, this is bleak and nasty stuff. It serves the dual purpose of showing how a certain new group of characters came to be the way they were when the Galactica encountered them, and making it clear that no matter how bad things got on the Galactica, they weren’t like this.

I honestly wasn’t sure when this aired in relation to the series. The show had some gaps here and there, including a hiatus in the middle of season 2 just after one of the most brutal episodes of the series up to that point. That episode, Pegasus, introduced a new ship to the fleet, a newer Battlestar that had survived the initial attacks. The Pegasus, commanded by Admiral Helena Cain, was a far different thing from the Galactica, and Cain herself was a far different commander than William Adama. But then the show kept going after the break and I didn’t think this aired that early and I was right. Looking it up, I see that it aired after the end of season 3, long after we’d seen the eventual fate of the Pegasus and many of her key crewmembers. You know, just to remind us all of what had been going on.

The movie begins with Lee Adama taking command of the Pegasus after Cain has been killed. Well, to be accurate, the Pegasus had two other commanders, but neither fared well. The focal figure of this movie isn’t one of the people we already knew, though Lee and Kara are both very important to the plot. The main character here, however, is Kendra Shaw, a young woman who had been assigned to the Pegasus as Cain’s assistant. Not long after she arrives the Cylon attacks commence and she’s suddenly in a far more deadly situation than she ever imagined. She’d considered the post as a stepping stone to a more prestigious position in the Fleet. Obviously that never happened. So we see her story, from meeting Cain to seeing her make the hard decisions in the opposite direction from what William Adama was doing in the main series. This is the story of how it might have been, had Adama been a slightly different man, had he not been surrounded by the people he was surrounded by.

Where Adama listened to President Roslin’s suggestion that they take the civilians they could and run? Cain stripped the civilian ships they found of both equipment and useful crew and continued the fight, using guerrilla tactics and if anyone questioned her or tried to stand in her way, she shot them in the head. That’s a good way of commanding order, I suppose, but it makes for a grim situation. She does this with purpose, though, and that purpose is survival. Not necessarily survival of the human race, but survival of her ship and her crew for the purpose of killing as many Cylons as possible. And she is brutally ruthless about it. You could probably take the events on the Pegasus point by point and compare them to the Galactica. It’s a stark comparison.

The movie flips between the prior events on the Pegasus, flashbacks to the first Cylon war, and present day where Lee has put Kendra in place as his XO to try and prove that he respects the Pegasus crew. As the crew goes on a mission to find a missing Raptor crew and an old ship from the first Cylon war with some sort of experimental tech the Cylons were butchering humans for, we go back and forth. Kendra and Kara butt heads, Kendra questions everything, Kendra remembers what brought her to this time and place. And I like Kendra. She’s an interesting character who’s had to make some compromises between her survival and her morals. She’s done things she regrets, but she’s had to keep going and not let those regrets engulf her. And they almost do, but she still keeps going. I don’t think Kendra really has an analogue on the Galactica crew. Dee, perhaps, but I almost feel as though she is a stand-in for almost every minor or unnamed character on the Galactica. People who might seem like perfectly ordinary human beings with the morals and moral failings one expects, but who, when faced with someone like Cain, might do unthinkable things. One of the things I loved about Battlestar Galactica was that it wasn’t an easy show. It made its characters make difficult decisions and it made them deal with the consequences. And Kendra is like a poster child for difficult decisions and consequences.

She also acts as a bit of a foil for Kara. Now, I’ll be frank: I love Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace and I love her for her entire character, flaws and all. But because she’s such a key character in the show and because she often steals the spotlight, it’s easy to look at anyone opposing her and dismiss them. This is a mistake. Look at Tigh, for example. He turned out to be one of the biggest bad-asses on the crew. So I like when people Kara butts heads with turn out to be just as strong and just as skilled and just as stubborn as her.

The other thing I really like about this episode is the combination of past and future around the present storyline. As the team from the Pegasus goes after their missing people they discover something that was created in the past, but which ends up playing a fairly sizable role (in concept) later in the show. There are also a number of callbacks to the original series, with classic-style Cylons showing up once or twice. The only unfortunate part about that is that the
foreshadowing done in this movie never really played out very well for me. The movie ends with a mysterious character we know very little about giving a prediction of doom for the human race that involves a major character from the show. And technically I suppose it does play out. But any time you have to qualify something like that with “technically” it’s a bad sign. It’s a matter of the terminology being technically true but annoyingly misleading. It’s not clever and it’s part of my eventual disappointment with how poorly planned the end of the series seemed to be. There was so much foreshadowing, including the end of this movie, and it felt like they had to find a way to make it all fit together and it didn’t. Ultimately, I do enjoy this movie. I just have to ignore where the climactic prophecy actually ended up leading to.

September 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 577 – Battlestar Galactica (miniseries)

Battlestar Galactica (2003) – September 28th, 2011

Watching this tonight made me angry. And I find that annoying in turn. Because I typically don’t get angry about television shows. I ignore the ones I don’t like and I enjoy the ones I do like and when the ones I do like go downhill (i.e. Heroes) I just stop watching. And you know what I did with this show when it started to go downhill and bore/irritate me, and I started to suspect it wasn’t going to end at all satisfactorily for me? I stopped watching it. And I was happier for it. My mother, on the other hand, kept watching. I feel a little bad about that since I’m the one who got her hooked and in the end she just couldn’t stop. She chided me for “quitting” and not seeing the show out to the bitter end. And then when it ended she told me she didn’t want to talk about it. She likened it to The Prisoner (the ending of which she also hated). And she never again called me a quitter.

I was doing just fine in regards to Battlestar Galactica, the show, until we decided to put this in following Caprica last night. We’d planned on Caprica and Battlestar Galactica: Razor because they were both movie-length specials. But then Andy suggested we add this in between them, since it was a miniseries special that acted as a pilot for the series that followed. It was on the long side, yes, but we’d had theatrical releases that were longer, so why not, right? And then I realized it was going to make me angry, because rewatching the beginning of the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica just served to remind me that it started so very strong. It came out swinging and for the first two seasons it didn’t let up and watching it again, seeing it start and seeing all of these characters that I became fascinated by and knowing where it’s headed? That made me sad and angry.

This miniseries held such promise. It begins with an explanation that the humans created the Cylons, a race of thinking machines, to serve them. But then the Cylons rebelled and when the war between humans and Cylons ended, the Cylons left. They’ve been gone a long time when we come in, but now they’re back. We meet them by seeing a couple of shiny centurion models, and then we meet Six. She’s a blond bombshell in a red dress and she’s a Cylon and she destroys the station she’s on. Gut punch right there: The Cylons look like humans and they’re going to try and kill the entire human race. Which they attempt to do not long after, detonating vast numbers of atomic bombs on the surfaces of the twelve colonial worlds. They exploit a back door in the defense systems of the colonies and the ships of the colonial fleet, left there for them by one of their own.

The Battlestar Galactica, an old military ship due to be decommissioned and turned into a museum, survives the attacks because its computers were far too old to run the new (bugged) software. It’s a holdover from the first war, when networking meant being vulnerable to Cylon attack. And by the end of the first section of the miniseries we know that the Galactica is going to have to stay in fighting form for the foreseeable future. The miniseries is largely interested in setting the stage for the rest of the show, but as it was the very beginning and done in three installments, each section does have a beginning and end and a point. We see the Galactica’s crew form up and work to return the ship to readiness. We meet the characters who will fill the series and discover some of their issues. There’s Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace, an excellent pilot but prone to violent outbursts. There’s William Adama, the ship’s commander and his first mate, Colonel Tigh (who has a drinking problem and longstanding enmity with Starbuck). There are more pilots and officers and a few civilians. There’s Gaius Baltar, a brilliant scientist who was also responsible for unwittingly allowing the Cylons access to the defense systems. And there’s the imaginary Six who shows up only to Baltar, the apparent ghost of his former lover. There’s the new president of the colonies, Laura Roslin (formerly the secretary of education but everyone above her is now dead). The miniseries introduces all of them in bits and pieces, showing them instead of telling about them. And the acting from each cast member is superb.

Looking back on it, I’m amused to see how some of these people started out. Tigh, in particular, has an amazing character arc that starts here with his drunken belligerence and ends somewhere totally unexpected. As we’re shown how everyone works (or doesn’t work) together, we’re given a good sense of how some of these relationships are going to shake out, at least in the short term. The show’s big strength there is that it becomes clear even midway through the miniseries that things will not always end up going in the direction that the show seemed to be pointing. I loved that. I loved it so much. Because I felt like the show did an amazing job introducing these characters and making me care about them and then throwing them for loops that did interesting things to them without being gratuitious.

Take Starbuck, for example. I love her. Watching Katee Sackhoff in this, seeing her character develop strong right from the start where she’s jogging through the ship, I absolutely fell in love with her again. She’s so central to the whole thing and I adored her. And knowing that in the end all the things they did with her just seemed so… lacking? That’s frustrating, at the very least. But it’s still impressive to me, how well this introduction works. It lays everything out and makes it clear that there will be hard decisions and people will die. Faced with the choice of standing and fighting a losing battle or running and hiding and protecting the rag-tag group of civilian ships that survived, Adama seems torn. And the trouble is that no matter what choice he makes, there will be consequences. He ends up going with saving as much of the civilian fleet as possible, but notice I didn’t say all of it. And it’s all the product of the combination of people who are there to influence him, along with who he is as a person. Beautifully done.

The miniseries ends on a potential high note. The survivors have supplies, they have some cohesion. There’s a military presence to help with defense and a political presence to keep things organized. They’ve identified not only the external threat but at least some of the internal threat. And Adama ends by giving a rousing speech to the fleet, telling them that he’s going to lead them to the mythical thirteenth colony: Earth. And everyone cheers “So Say We All” and it’s all very heartening. Except, as we learn after the speech, it’s all made up. He has no idea where they’re going. It was a morale booster. That’s all. The threat is still out there and they apparently have a plan whereas the humans really don’t. And someone we know is something entirely different than we’ve been led to believe. It’s a hopeful ending, but a tense one at the same time, promising difficult decisions and shocking reveals that seem to be leading somewhere. I just wish that they had led somewhere better and I’m angry that the vast and amazing potential on display in this introduction wasn’t squandered by the middle of season three.

September 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 573 – The Return of the King (1980)

placeholderThe Return of the King (1980) – September 24th, 2011

Where do I even begin? I’d seen this ages ago and unlike the other two animated adaptations, this one just didn’t stick with me. I had vague memories of songs and unpleasantness and that was about it. Now I know, I must have blocked it out of disappointment. It’s a truly sad conclusion to the animated trio of movies and I’m going to have to watch the new version of the last book several times to get this thing out of my head. And while I’m more than happy to re-watch the new adaptations any time, it’s a sad state of affairs when one is watching them to clear out the memory of Meriadoc Brandybuck as voiced by Casey Kasem. Never should one have to wonder if Merry is going to say “zoinks,” though I suppose Hobbits do tend to smoke a lot so there is that to consider.

We really only bought this because it seemed silly to have the animated versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and not the conclusion. I don’t know, now, why that was so silly. We should have known better, really. Andy had a much clearer memory of it than I did and we still purchased it. Maybe he likes it better than I do. All I can say is that about five minutes in I started to tune out. Why? Because it became apparent that this movie was picking up from The Hobbit, character designs, singing and all. And while that style worked okay in a story that was intended for a younger audience, and the songs in that were taken from Tolkien’s writing, I honestly think it is terribly ill-suited to this story. And these songs? No. Not Tolkien. No.

It’s an odd sort of follow-up, having to deal with the strange pacing of the Bakshi movie that preceded it. After all, the last one ended in the middle of The Two Towers, with Helm’s Deep dealt with but the travels of Sam, Frodo and Gollum only just beginning. And on the flip side, since they had all that stuff from The Hobbit this version picks up from that too. I mean, why bother actually animating what was going on in this story when they could make flashback montages? Apparently it was always intended to be made as a sequel to The Hobbit, regardless of the Bakshi film, which I just find bizarre. Sure, let’s omit the entire first two books. That sounds like a grand idea.

There are some events in this one from the second book, but for the most part it is an extremely truncated version of The Return of the King. It’s heavily narrated and contains quite a few songs, making it feel more like an animated musical Cliff Notes version of the book as opposed to an actual adaptation. I’d go over the plot, but like I said, I tuned out. I know things happened, but I don’t really care. And I don’t think the movie much cared either, given the aforementioned narration. I do recall that a lot of time was spent on Sam carrying the One Ring and considering what he might do with it, making the world one huge garden full of beautiful plants. So instead of a Dark Lord they would have a Gardener? Not dark, but green and bountiful as the harvest? Riotous as the vines and stronger than the roots? All shall weed and despair? Whatever. I rolled my eyes whenever the movie tried to make it this big damn hero moment.

The movie does seem to focus mainly on the Sam and Frodo aspect of the story, but there are bits from the rest as well. The battle at Minas Tirith and Denethor’s madness and all that is indeed in there, but it has so much less impact in this movie than it should because there’s no real lead-in to it all. Who gives a damn that Eowyn pulls off her helmet and reveals herself to be a woman when facing down the Witch King in the Battle of Pelenor Fields when we weren’t ever really given any time with her prior to that? The whole Gondor aspect of the plot feels so much less for the lack of time spent on it. And this isn’t a long movie at all. It’s under 100 minutes all told, so the lack of details and plot was clearly intentional. Someone decreed that they didn’t matter so much and weren’t connected to The Hobbit so they didn’t have footage to do flashbacks from so they’re not there.

I just can’t bring myself to take this movie seriously. The songs alone would disqualify it but then there’s the goofy looking character design and the complete lack of several major characters and plot points. And yet they kept in things like the Mouth of Sauron. Come on, the Mouth of Sauron is supposed to be scary, as are the Orcs. How am I supposed to take either one seriously when they’re done by Rankin and Bass? I just can’t do it. Maybe if I could have forced myself to keep my attention on the screen I’d have found more positives to say about the movie, but I couldn’t. And that should be damning enough, really.

September 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 572 – The Lord of the Rings (1978)

The Lord of the Rings (1978) – September 23rd, 2011

Following last night’s movie, we move on to a very differently done adaptation of Tolkien’s works. Instead of the very cartoonish style of Rankin and Bass, we have here the rotoscoped animation from Ralph Bakshi. I know it’s got a very mixed reputation and to be honest, I’m not really a zealot about it in either direction. That being said, I do like it. I vastly prefer the newer Peter Jackson version of the story, but I don’t dislike this. I will grant, however, that it is an odd taste and I am well aware that my opinion will not be shared by many others.

I first saw this movie long before I knew what rotoscoping was. I watched it and for some reason I really liked it, odd as it is, and so it remained in my head that it was something I enjoyed even long after the last time I’d seen it. Some years later I learned about rotoscoping and what it meant and how it was done. Personally, I think it’s fascinating and produces some very odd stuff. I don’t know if it was the best choice of medium for this particular story, but there are some bits and pieces that I think work very nicely. Oh, it’s far from perfect, and I have some very specific issues (such as the actor who played Gimli being only slightly shorter than the actors playing the humans and elves and this not being adjusted in post), but I don’t have any real hate for it.

The biggest issue I have with this movie is that while it does tell the story fairly well, it’s paced horribly. Part of it is that the original book is incredibly dense. Even the incredibly long special editions of the new versions are missing whole chunks of story and entire characters, so it’s no shock that the story is compressed more than a bit in this animated version and that certain things were lost. But add to that the odd choice to carry the story out of the first book and into the second and it just feels off.

I won’t go into detail about the story, since really, I don’t think I have to. The basic points are all ther. Bilbo Baggins decides to leave the Shire and handing over his home and the One Ring to his nephew, Frodo. Gandalf later realizes what the ring Frodo has actually is and sends him and his friends off to Rivendell. Once at Rivendell a fellowship of Gandalf, the four Hobbits, two men, an elf and a dwarf is formed to take the ring to Mordor to destroy it. Action ensues. But where the original book ends with Frodo and Sam parting ways with the rest of the fellowship after Boromir tries to take the ring, this movie continues. We follow Frodo and Sam and see them realize that Gollum has been following them, then we see them capture him to force him to be their guide to Mordor. We also follow the rest of the fellowship. We see Merry and Pippin meet up with Treebeard and remeet Gandalf and we travel to Rohan and see the confrontation between Gandalf and King Theoden. And finally we see the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Well, not finally. I believe the Frodo and Sam bit is the actual end of the movie.

Consider that for a moment. If you’re not terribly familiar with the original books it might not sound like a bad thing. After all, why not end with a big climactic battle? The trouble is that the big climactic battle is actually the big climactic battle from the first half of the second book in the trilogy. In the new versions it’s the climax of the second movie. Here it happens and then there’s no follow-up to it. I believe this was done in the hopes of making the trilogy into a pair of movies, each handling roughly a book and a half. But then the second movie never got made. Not by Bakshi, anyhow. This wasn’t a two movie deal or anything. So when it didn’t meet with critical raves the second proposed movie never got funded. Instead Rankin and Bass took up the reins again and we got tomorrow’s movie. Alas.

Here’s the thing: I think the semi-realistic, dreamlike and sometimes very dark animation style of the rotoscoping works. It’s a stylistic thing and somewhat a matter of taste, but I do find it interesting. Some day I’m going to have to go back and watch the movie far more carefully than I did this evening as I’m not sure if this was intentional or simply a side effect of the rotoscoping process, but there’s a tendency for the darker parts of the movie to have more texture left over from the original live action footage. And I can see how that could be used very interestingly indeed. The goblins and orcs, for example, tend to show up in darker lighting than the more heroic characters, so they end up with more artifacts from the live action, making them grittier and more shadowy. The heroes, on the other hand, are shown in brighter lighting, resulting in less texture and a more solid appearance. And I can see how this side effect of the process could be used artistically to portray the differences between the heroes and the villains. Unfortunately, I suspect not quite enough thought or effort went into it to achieve such a thing. Still, it’s one reason I really do like the rotoscoping.

There are quite a few changes made to the story, which is only to be expected. In this version it’s Legolas who meets them after Frodo is stabbed by one of the Nazgul. It’s actually supposed to be an elf named Glorfindel, who’s got a huge history associated with him from The Silmarillion but who is otherwise not really crucial to the story of Frodo and the fellowship. It makes perfect sense to me to have changes like that. What I’m not terribly fond of is the visual depictions of the humans in the movie. They’ve got a very barbaric quality to them, with both Aragorn and Boromir wearing tiny little tunics with no pants or leggings and Boromir wearing a helmet with horns on. The lack of pants had me giggling far too much, what with the “Gondor needs no pants” thing that came from the meme where key words in famous movie lines are replaced by the word “pants”. But it’s also bizarre to me. Apparently Aragorn is the Pantsless Ranger. Me? I’d want something on my legs if I was going mucking around in the woods in all seasons.

That being said, my issues with the movie are mostly small things. They’re certainly not enough to quash my enjoyment of it. It’s entirely possible that said enjoyment is driven by nostalgia, but watching it tonight with a more critical eye than I did when I was a kid, I still have to say I think it’s a solid movie. I don’t expect everyone to like it. I do expect that the animation style will turn some people off by its very nature. But I don’t really care. I just wish that the second movie had been made to follow this one and made by the same people. The dark semi-realism of the animation here is, in my opinion, far more suited to the story than the cartoonish goofiness of Rankin and Bass. But that’s a complaint for tomorrow.

September 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment