A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 566 – Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir Dogs – September 17th, 2011

One of the really fantastic things about this project is that it’s made a reason for me to put in movies that I’ve always meant to watch but never got around to. I’ve mentioned more than a few like that since we started the project and there are a couple more on the list. This movie is one of them and I cannot for the life of me pinpoint a reason why I hadn’t seen it before now. It’s not that I have an aversion to Tarantino or to movies with lots of blood or violence. I love the first volume of Kill Bill after all, and that’s a Tarantino movie that had to have a scene done in black and white because of the rating it would have gotten had the blood in it been in color. No, I haven’t liked all of his movies and yes, I think he’s gotten a little too far up his own ass in recent years, but that isn’t why I haven’t seen it. I haven’t seen it simply because I’ve just never made the time. And that’s part of what this project is for: Making the time to watch what we own.

Of course, I’m watching this while visiting the same friend I mentioned in my review for The Ninth Gate yesterday, so I’m not watching the copy I own. But still, at home Andy is watching our copy and I’m watching the same thing, so it works out in my mind. Anyhow, this was a new experience for me and at the same time not as new as many of the other things I’ve watched for the first time for the project. Mostly because this movie is a bit of a pop culture touchstone by now. You don’t need to have seen it to know the whole “men in suits walking with purpose” thing. You don’t need to have seen it to know the Mr. [color of choice] thing. These are frequent references now. They show up all over the place. They are, in a word, ubiquitous.

After watching this I commented that this movie is almost ur-Tarantino. It has everything I expect from him except a foot fixation. Slightly retro pop culture? Yup. Catchy soundtrack? Yup. Badasses discussing something slightly nerdy? Yup. Non-linear storytelling? Oh yeah. A bit of the old ultraviolence? Of course. What’s amusing is that it’s so early in his work. It’s like every time he makes a movie he looks back at this and says “How can I incorporate a touch of Reservoir Dogs into a new setting?” And then he does it. I’m not saying he makes the exact same movie every time, but watching his movies, you can get a definite sense of common themes. So while I’d never seen this before, in a way I’d seen it in every other movie of his I’ve ever seen before. Which is pretty funny, when you think about it.

It’s a simple movie, plotwise. It’s a heist movie, but with everything on screen taking place either before or after the heist, never during it. In fact, you never see the heist actually happen and it takes most of the movie before you even get to see the events immediately after it that caused what’s going on when the movie starts. And I do have a fondness for nonlinear storytelling and starting in media res. Tarantino seems to like it too. He does it a lot. So we begin with the heist about to happen and a breakfast conversation on the meanings of song lyrics and an argument over social rules like tipping waitstaff. It’s not made clear at the time who these people are or what they’re about to do. We can tell they’re mostly not closely associated but they’re mostly dressed alike and they’re clearly about to do something together. And then the heist is in the past and two of our main characters, Mr. Orange and Mr. White, are in a car. Mr. Orange has been shot in the gut and Mr. White is assuring him that he’s not going to die. They arrive at a warehouse of some sort and are soon joined by Mr. Pink. White and Pink discuss Orange’s status and the botched heist. They agree there must be a rat amongst them.

The rest of the movie bounces between various members of the crew at the warehouse, discussing the heist and arguing about what to do now that it’s all gone south and trying to figure out who the snitch was and flashbacks introducing us to the characters more and showing how they all came to be working this job. Two of them don’t figure in much. Mr. Blue and Mr. Brown are dead by the second scene and their backgrounds aren’t explored. But we do get some backstory on Mr. White, who has a long history with Joe (the man in charge). We get backstory on Mr. Blonde, who it seems has worked for Joe in the past and did time when he was caught and wouldn’t give up Joe’s name. And after we watch the surviving members of the crew argue and threaten each other and torture a cop Mr. Blonde has kidnapped and see Mr. Orange kill Mr. Blonde, we get Mr. Orange’s backstory.

Mr. Orange’s backstory is unique in two ways. One, he’s the snitch. He’s an undercover cop on loan from one jurisdiction to another after getting an associate of Joe’s to vouch for him. So we find out all about that. But then because he isn’t what he appeared to be we also get his attempts to get in good with Joe and the rest along with his talks with the cop he’s working for who gives him what he needs to work undercover. So he gets a good deal more time on screen than anyone else. After seeing him shot, slowly dying on the floor of the warehouse, we get to know him and see how he got there. After all, he didn’t get there because he was a criminal trying to steal diamonds. He got there because he was trying to stop criminals stealing diamonds and things didn’t go as planned.

I have to commend both Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel here. Because the two of them are really the heart of the movie, if this movie can be said to have a heart. Keitel as White reassures Roth as Orange, giving him tips and pointers, helping him run through the plan to make sure he knows his part in it. He assures him he’s going to be okay after he gets shot. He argues that they should take him to a doctor. He’s taken Orange under his wing. Which is what makes the climactic shoot-out all the more effective. For all its shooting and torture and blood and dark humor and catchy music, this movie does have a serious core to it. But since it’s Tarantino at the helm, that serious core is surrounded by everything else. It’s what makes a Tarantino movie a Tarantino movie. I think what makes it clearer that this is early work of his is that the serious core does often take a back seat to the heist plot and the soundtrack and the joking around. But even so, it’s certainly an impressive early work.

September 17, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 357 – Mission: Impossible II

Mission Impossible II – February 20th, 2011

I am so very conflicted about this movie. On one hand I appreciate a lot of what it did with poking at the conventions introduced in the first movie and on the other hand I want to slap it so very hard for being full of crap. On one hand it doesn’t make the same mistakes the first movie did, but on the other hand it makes all sorts of new mistakes! On one hand I enjoyed the action and effects and on the other hand I just wanted that last fight scene to end because oh my god it felt like they’d been fighting for hours.

You know the original cut of this movie was over three hours long? It’s directed by John Woo (which is oh so obvious in a few scenes near the end) and apparently had a lot more action. Started out with an R rating and cut/softened the action to bring it down to a PG-13. Just the thought of there being longer action scenes makes me boggle a bit. They already feel like they take a year each. And while for some of them that’s fine – they’re fast-paced and move a lot – others just feel a little much. I don’t need my fight scenes to be in real time, okay? I get that John Woo does some gorgeous action, I just think maybe sometimes the slow motion causes said action to feel less actiony. Only slow-mo pads the film.

That being said, I do think this movie is largely a step up from the first one. Andy gave me a little insight into the television show formula this morning and having heard it, I can see where the first movie went wrong. It tried too hard to keep the basic formula while at the same time making everything more dangerous and serious and it just didn’t work out the way they needed it to. This movie seems to be a little less split, and if it doesn’t quite have the right formula or mood for the show, well, personally I’m willing to cope since it’s far more cohesive in terms of its tone. And while I did itch to slap Ethan a few times in the beginning, I found his anger and determination far more believable in this one. He smiles less, which is good because the grin doesn’t suit the majority of the movie’s scenes. And while he’s still somewhat cocky, he’s also down and dirty, so it’s balanced. I like his team (yay Ving Rhames!) and I like the plot too, even if it is full of holes.

The basic story is that a rogue agent (another rogue agent! don’t they vet these people?) has absconded with a top secret antidote to a super virus named Chimera, but he doesn’t have the virus, so he’s trying to get a hold of someone who does. In obtaining it he killed an associate of Ethan’s as well as a whole plane full of people. Ethan is called in to assemble a team and get the antidote back. Enter Nyah, a thief whom Ethan is told he must recruit onto his team. Turns out Nyah is the rogue’s ex-girlfriend and they’re going to use her as bait. And what follows is pretty much action scene after action scene as Ethan and the rogue (Sean) are pitted against each other not just in the fight for the virus and antidote and whatnot, but for Nyah. Now, I have some issues with the virus, since it apparently has an incubation period of 20 hours, during which it’s not communicable, but after those 20 hours apparently it is? It’s not entirely clear and while I suppose the doctor who created it and infected himself with it to carry it to the CDC in Atlanta, GA from Sydney, Australia could have dosed himself with the cure if, you know, the flight got delayed or heaven forbid had to circle while waiting for a gate, that seems a little, I don’t know, ridiculous. But that’s me bringing pesky reality to the table (Andy had some things to say about wire transfers, so really I think this whole movie is making some very low estimates about the amount of time things take).

My other major issue with the movie is the treatment of Nyah. So says Ethan’s boss when Ethan questions using an untrained civilian to infiltrate Sean’s gang: “To get into bed with a man and lie to him? She’s a woman, she’s got all the training she needs.” Um. Ow. That right there is a nasty little bit of writing. Womanhood reduced to sex and lies. That’s not insulting at all! It instantly made me hate the scriptwriter for this movie with a fiery passion. Andy got my hopes up by telling me the romantic interest in this movie was played by Thandie Newton. And I like Thandie Newton. And then the movie basically makes her bait and has her reduced to walking sex. Her role isn’t one of competence. It’s one of seduction. While the first movie had this too, it also had several very competent female agents who only got killed because one of their teammates set them up. And I appreciated that. And they teased me! She starts off so well, giving Ethan some attitude and kneeing him in the chest and getting her job done. All to be reduced to a sexy damsel in distress. Very disappointing.

There’s an awareness here of the problems in the movie. Ethan himself is incredulous and pissed off that he’s been set up by his superiors to recruit Nyah on false assumptions. He thought they needed her skills as a thief but no, she’s just there to be sex bait for the bad guy. And Ethan knows that’s total bullshit and he calls his superiors on it. And he goes through with it anyhow because it’s how he’s been set up to do the job but it’s clear that he hates it. And while the superior who set it up clearly thinks little of Nyah overall, otherwise the bad guys are the ones badmouthing her and treating her like crap. Ethan gets to be righteously angry and vengeful for the way Nyah’s treated. So, yeah. The movie seems to get that there’s a problem here. And yet it set the problem up in the first place and it doesn’t follow through on calling it out. Then again, the whole movie seems to be winking a little at the audience, from jokes about Ethan’s cocky smile to mentions of his penchant for wire work.

Like I said, I’m extremely conflicted. The nasty attitude towards Nyah made me cringe, but aside from that one hideous line from Ethan’s superior, it’s all Sean and his gang. The movie knows it’s setting its female lead up for a crap role. And it knows that its hero can stand to be prodded a bit. It’s still massively over-the-top, which is fun to a point, and it’s got some great effects and fights. The plot is full of holes and I can only imagine what the full length cut was like, but for all that, I’ve got to say I enjoyed it. Once I accepted that Nyah wasn’t going to be allowed to be a badass, that is. Still disappointed by that, but hey, she got to slap Sean, so that’s a point in the movie’s favor.

February 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Mission: Impossible

February 19, 2011

Mission: Impossible

I loved the old Mission: Impossible shows as a kid. The were broadcast late at night on channel 38 (or was it 68?) That’s when I got most of my sixties spy show viewing done. The Saint. It Takes a Thief. That sort of thing. I even watched the new Mission Impossible that was on TV in the late eighties very briefly (during the same writer’s strike that caused the first season of Star Trek TNG so much trouble.) I didn’t see an awful lot of episodes, but I saw enough to understand the hook to the show. In every episode Mr. Phelps will be given a mission for his IMF team. If any of them are captured or killed the secretary will disavow any knowledge of their existence. They will have some complex plan to extract information from a foreign agent or some such and just when it seems that their plan has gone awry and everything is lost it will turn out that the disaster in the third act was part of the plan the whole time.

This movie pays homage to the show with a number of references, but it is really a completely different beast. I was delighted by the fact that there’s still a tape that self destructs and a Mr. Phelps and a complex plan. They even prominently feature the classic theme song. At the very start of the movie there’s sort of a quick episode of the TV series, or at least what feels like the conclusion of an episode as we get to see the IMF team accomplishing one of their missions. But very soon it becomes clear that these little nods at the start are all we’re getting of the old TV show – the movie is a more action oriented production. Something goes disastrously wrong with an IMF mission and this time it’s not actually part of the plan. Our hero is IMF team leader Ethan Hunt, one of the only survivors of the mission gone bad. He must find a way to use his super-spy skills to discover who betrayed his people.

Brian De Palma is more closely associated in my mind with gritty grime dramas (such as Scarface and The Untouchables) but he does a good job putting together a summer action flick here. My memories of the movie before I put it in to watch this evening had been distilled into the two big set-pieces. The hanging-from-the-ceiling break in at CIA headquarters in Langley where Ethan steals the crucial bait he needs to flush his enemies out, and the fight on the roof of a bullet train headed from England to France. The whole movie is an excuse to make these two scenes happen, and that’s okay with me because both of these iconic scenes are worth the price of admission.

I’m not overly fond of Tom Cruise in this movie though. He plays Ethan with a kind of manic energy that really gets on my nerves. It’s the crazed grin that bugs me most. I think it’s intended to show that he is not intimidated when facing dangerous situations but it makes him seem inappropriately happy and kills the tension in a couple scenes. The rest of the cast, however I have no complaints about. My favorites are Ving Rhames (who is in tomorrow’s movie as well) and Jean Reno. (For the second time in just a couple days I wish that we had Ronin to watch.)

What I like most about this movie, though, is that it launched a most unusual franchise. Every new movie in this series is a surprise to me. It’s like a strange sort of rite of passage for extraordinary directors, or perhaps an exclusive club of some sort. I never would have expected Brian De Palma to make a summer action movie starring Tom Cruise but here it is. And it was followed by John Woo, then by J. J. Abrams. There’s a fourth movie in production right now which will be the live-action debut of the inimitable Brad Bird. Unbelievable. I’ve seen the second movie in the series – the John Woo one – several times because it’s so silly, so over-the-top and so very John Woo. I can’t wait to watch it again tomorrow.

February 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 346 – Snatch.

Snatch. – February 9th, 2011

Perhaps tonight was not the best night to watch this movie. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but reviewing it feels monumentally difficult when one is nursing a headache. It’s full of twists and turns and a large cast of characters who are all involved with each other in different ways and it’s a wee bit convoluted and yeah. A headache? Does not help. I watched it. I enjoyed it. I will review it. But I will not attempt to recap the plot. Or plots. Or plots that are actually a single plot. I will most assuredly forget characters and moments because the movie bops between points and people like a flea in a kennel.

The movie’s stories center around a diamond and a boxing match (or really, a series of boxing matches, but boxing is key here). Ostensibly our main characters are Turkish and Tommy, two managers for boxers who participate in illegal fights. And in their efforts to get into the scene and make a bit of money off of it, they end up involved in way way more than they ever wanted to be. Because the guy they have to deal with, Brick Top, is a sociopath who has folks who’ve run afoul of him chopped up and fed to his pigs. And Brick Top is in a foul mood because the bookie office he runs was hit by a trio of totally inept thieves who really run a pawn store. They were hired to do something so foolish by a gangster who wanted to get a hold of a gigantic diamond, which was in the custody of a thief with a gambling problem, who was supposed to be at the bookie’s. And I haven’t even touched on the bit with the dog and the Irish Travelers and the variety of hit men, thugs and cons going on.

There’s a whole subplot with Turkish and Tommy needing a caravan and then needing a fighter after their man was knocked out during a deal for said caravan. Which involves Turkish and Tommy with Mickey, who is one sly bastard. And since Mickey won’t play along with Brick Top’s plans, things go bad very quickly. And eventually, with a lot of swearing and violence, the two plots converge and people die and people get threatened and bodies are stuffed in car boots and stupidity runs rampant and the diamond changes hands a bunch of times and everyone’s after it except Turkish and Tommy, since they don’t know about it and just want to get through the planned fight without getting killed and fed to the pigs.

Really, Turkish and Tommy could have avoided a whole lot of fuss if Tommy had just flat out bought a decent caravan in the first place instead of trying to make a deal with Mickey. And the diamond plot, well. Okay, there was no avoiding the diamond plot. Everyone involved in it is greedy and either dangerous or foolish, which is a rotten combination for all. But Turkish is our narrator. He’s the one telling the story. So it feels a little odd that his part in it all is almost a bystander role. I mean, sure, he’s the one who tried to deal with Brick Top in the first place, but he’s not the one who lost their fighter, which was the catalyst for that whole plot. What does he have to do with the pawn shop guys? Or the diamond thief and his contacts? Absolutely nothing (well, at least not for the vast majority of the movie). He’s an odd narrator, and I can only assume he’s got the role because he’s one of the few sympathetic characters in the movie. Though to be honest, it could have been really interesting to have the movie narrated by one of the sociopathic killers. Turkish isn’t a sociopath. He’s just looking to make money and hopefully not die.

Really though, while I enjoyed a lot of the movie, I did find myself wondering who I was supposed to actually like. Tommy’s a bit of a tool. Mickey’s fun, in a ruthless sort of way, but he’s also screwing with everyone around him. Brick Top, Rosebud, Bullet Tooth, Franky, Boris? They’re all ruthless murderers who’d as soon as kill you as look at you. The pawn shop guys? Vinny, Sol and Tyrone? They seem like nice enough guys, especially in comparison to the other crew I mentioned, but you can’t help but headdesk at how clueless and out of their depth they are. And it’s obvious from the start that they’re headed for trouble. Which leaves the diamond sellers, who are also a bunch of cold and ruthless guys, but they hire other cold and ruthless guys to do the dirty work. And that leaves Turkish. It’s tough to get invested in him, even if I like him fine. There’s just not much to get invested in. Why should I care if he survives? Just because he’s not a vicious murderer? Eh.

But really, I did enjoy the movie. It moved all over the place and at a good clip, but that’s the style of it, so I think it worked. There were a lot of characters and plot points to keep track of, but the performances were great fun and the writing was snappy. It all does come together, which is impressive. Every single actor in this movie sold their parts to me. I don’t know if I could pick any one out, aside from Brad Pitt as Mickey, because they all really got into their parts and played well off of each other. It has flaws, but I enjoyed it anyhow.

February 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Snatch.

February 9, 2011

Snatch.

Back before he made the thoroughly and unexpectedly enjoyable big budget Sherlock Holmes action movie Guy Ritchie was known for two things. Making the forgettable Swept Away with his wife Madonna and breaking into instant superstardom with a pair of gritty, humorous, and heavily accented movies about British gangsters. We don’t own Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, but we do own the spiritual sequel Snatch. True, this movie doesn’t have any characters in common with the other, but they share much, from the colorful and dangerous world they take place in to the strange synchronicities that characterise their plots. Both of them are stylish, cleverly made movies about horrible things happening to horrible people with a few innocents and affable screw-ups caught in the crossfire.

It would be difficult to summarise the plot here without just going scene by scene through the entire movie. It’s a fast paced heist film with two main story lines that somewhat overlap and come together at the end in a madcap collision full of brutality. Plot A is that of our narrator Turkish, who is a struggling boxing promoter trying to make an honest living in a dangerous world full of seedy gangsters. He and his brother Tommy are trying to organise a fight for their up and coming star when an unpredictable and incomprehensible Gypsy named Micky puts their fighter in the hospital. This gets them into trouble with Brick Top, the ruthless gangster who is backing (and rigging) the fight.

The other plot in the movie follows a stolen 86 carat diamond. It is stolen by a Ukrainian mobster who brings it to London to fence it. He is set up by his compatriots who hire a Russian arms dealer to get it from him (without causing an incident if possible.) The Russian in turn hires a pair of eager but clueless pawn shop owners (and their friend the getaway driver) to steal the case with the diamond but make it look like a simple holdup of a bookie. (They’re the comic relief.) The bookie works for the above mentioned Brick Top, so he and his goons get mixed up with things as well. And there’s the American buyer for the diamond who has come to London to find out what happened to the man who was trying to fence it. So that’s three ruthless, psychopathic mobsters – and the comic relief – all trying to get the diamond. Suffice to say that it gets messy.

This movie has a dark sense of humor. Actually, that’s not going far enough – it has a pitch black sense of humor. I grinned at some parts of it (like the unflappable woman in the bookie’s office) and I laughed out loud at others (such as the totally unkillable Russian Boris.) I felt a little guilty sometimes because what I was laughing at was so horrible, but I laughed all the same, because this movie is actually really funny. From Brad Pitt’s completely incomprehensible accent (apparently he created his own dialect for the movie and even other characters cannot understand what he is saying half the time) to the bumbling trio of would be thieves to the squeaking dog (it swallows a chew toy) there are running gags littered throughout the film.

It’s also a movie full of steely eyed brutal murderers who don’t even blink at the thought of killing people who inconvenience them. Things continually go bad for our hapless heroes Tommy and Turkish and there is a real sense of danger, because at any moment they could be killed in any number of gruesome ways. There’s a sense of tension which makes it easier to laugh at the gallows humor – because it’s such a relief to see some of the nefarious murderers in the movie getting theirs. All three of the main killers in the movie (Brick Top, “Bullet Tooth” Tony and Boris) have a sense of real menace to them. Killing, for them, is just a part of doing business, and each gets at least one moment in the film where they get to demonstrate unequivocally that they are not to be messed with.

The performances are what sells the movie. I bought it for Brad Pitt as Mickey. I love both his character (who steadfastly refuses to back down from or lose a fight,) and his completely crazy accent. But everybody here seems to be having a great time as well. In particular I loved Alan Ford as the sinister Brick Top. He’s the driving force in much of the movie and his angry sneer, giant askew glasses and quiet ruthlessness completely sells the character. For the movie to work you have to buy the fact that pretty much everybody in this slimy underworld wets their pants when Brick Top walks into the room, and Ford is really able to sell that notion. Then there’s Rade Serbedziga as Boris. He’s completely unhinged and insane and he steals every scene he’s in. His character’s off screen death (if, indeed, he actually does die) was one of the bits in the film that actually made me laugh out loud. Jason Statham is an actor I associate with guilty pleasure action films, so it’s fun to see him in a role where he almost never goes on a rampage and never once gets in a car chase.

This is not a nice movie. It has a lot of nasty characters and takes place in a world I wouldn’t particularly want to visit. It is funny, though, in its own way. It is directed with style and flash. And in the end most of the bad guys get what’s coming to them and most of the good guys do too. I’m tempted to buy Lock, Stock as well so we can review that, but really you could just change the character names from this review, so maybe I won’t.

February 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Inception

December 31, 2010

Inception

For our last movie of 2010 we wanted a really great one. With typical lack of forethought we watched our only New Year’s movie (Strange Days) many months ago, so we had to just pick from what we had available. Thankfully we had purchased Inception a few days before Christmas while we were shopping for presents for my nieces, so we had this to look forward to.

When we first decided to review Inception, a few days ago, I dreamed about the movie. Or rather, I dreamed that I was part of the movie. I was an extractor inside a dream setting traps and playing tricks and generally being badass. This movie means a lot to me because I have always held dreams in high regard. I love dreaming, because in my dreams I am always a super hero or a god or just generally the center of the world. My dreams are epic adventures. A reoccurring theme of my night-time wanderings is that I discover wondrous treasures in the mundane surroundings of my real life. There are hidden secret passages behind the walls of my grandparents’ home. My digital pocket watch has a secret series of button presses that unlocks a vast quantity of previously undiscovered video games. And of course I can usually fly. So a movie about people entering each other’s dreams and having adventures there is bound to pique my interest.

Then again, this is only nominally a movie about dreams. The dreams portrayed here are fairly rigid, with clearly delineated rules. Nobody has super powers. The thing about dreams is that they don’t actually make sense. Every once in a while I’ll have a dream that seems to have a relatively sane narrative thread, but when I recall it in the light of day it never quite holds up. It’s not just that dreams are constantly filled with strange juxtapositions of disparate memories (which is, I believe, their defining feature and actually their purpose) but that they involve creations that almost cannot be defined by the waking mind. It’s easy to cope with a dream that involves unfamiliar places or events, but then there are the truly deep and moving dreams (for me at least) that involve entire artificial memories. You are in a place, caught up in some epic struggle, and your mind provides you with the whole mythology and background that is involved. I don’t think you ever “live out” this background in your dream – it is simply there. A whole alternate world contained in your dream-memories. How can something like that ever possibly be captured on film?

No, after much consideration I think that the dreams portrayed in this movie are not actually dreams at all. The movie is actually about ideas. It’s right there in Leonardo DeCaprio’s first dialog as Cobb. An idea is an insidious thing like a virus. It can worm its way into your brain and come to define who you are.

There are a whole lot of stories going on here. There’s the whole notion of trying to plant an idea deep enough into some body’s mind that they think they came up with it on their own. There’s Cobb with his guilt over his wife’s death. There’s the whole notion that it can be almost impossible for a dreamer to tell that he or she is dreaming at all (a frequent occurrence for me since I often find it amazing that I should have suddenly discovered the secret to flight or something else unbelievable – so I wonder if I am actually dreaming, only to dismiss this because it feels too real. Right until I wake up.) There’s a heist film with a crew coming together to pull of an amazing feat against insurmountable odds and pulling it off even when all appears to be lost. And what’s amazing is that every level of the film really works.

This is Christopher Nolan at his most impossibly talented. He has a great crew of actors who can do deep drama and impressive action and blend it all seamlessly together. He playfully flips through the multiple levels of dreams as the action climax last fully half of the whole movie. He has action set pieces combined with emotional revelations and very Nolanesque brain twisters as well. How can the same movie contain both the visually stunning rolling corridor fight scene and Cobb’s painful struggle with the literal embodiment of his unresolved guilt regarding his wife?

The funny thing for me is that the whole movie seems to me to be a blueprint for inserting an idea into an audience’s mind, but there is no idea to place. The best way to plant the seed of an idea is to make it part of a story. A story we want to believe about ourselves or the world we live in. Nolan understands this. The dreams his characters use for extraction or inception are not very dreamlike, but they are very much narrative devices. They are stories built to entrap people so that something can be done to their psyche. And, really, isn’t that what all the best stories do? They touch us and in some way they change us. But like dreams within dreams there’s a recursion to this movie. It’s a story about stories. And maybe that’s what it’s meant to be. It makes you question your own reality and your own beliefs, which is a healthy thing I think. Perhaps by saying that people can implant the seed of an idea in your mind Christopher Nolan is trying to make us look harder at the roots of what we have come to accept to be true. maybe this movie is not so much an inception as an inoculation.

Of course like any dream, or like the infamous last shot in this movie, all of this is very much open to personal interpretation. I fully accept that what is deeply personal and undeniably true for me might well make no sense to somebody else. That’s the curse and blessing of individuality after all.

December 31, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 206 – A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda – September 22nd, 2010

I don’t recall precisely when I first watched this movie, but I suspect it was with my mother. My family were huge fans of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, after all, and this is one heck of a John Cleese movie, not to mention Michael Palin. But the thing is, the cast member I always remember the best is Kevin Kline as the utterly ridiculous Otto. Sadly, Kline does not wear thigh high leather boots in this movie, but he does have a sort of manic gleam in his eye and he does steal pretty much every scene he’s in. Not an easy feat when that screen is shared with Cleese, Palin and Jamie Lee Curtis, but he does it. It’s amazing.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the plot because really, at the core, it’s a heist movie that focuses on the aftermath of the heist rather than the heist itself. It involves double and triple crosses and multiple attempts to kill off a witness. There’s burglary and perjury and the deaths of several small animals. And all of that could be played seriously, or at least semi-seriously, like the Oceans movies. But it’s not. Every bit of it is comedy waiting to happen. Every one of the four leads is comedic gold. So it’s not the plot so much as the characters.

First we have Wanda. Wanda is an American woman in London with her lover, George, to steal some diamonds from a bank vault. Helping them out is Ken, who seems to be a sort of jack-of-all-trades criminal who also has a love of animals and a rather extreme stutter. They need a weapons man and bring in a man Wanda claims is her brother, Otto. Except Otto is actually another lover of hers. They pull off the heist right in the beginning of the movie, then Wanda and Otto turn George in and plan to make off with the diamonds. But George hid them and gave the key to Ken. Ken hides the key and Wanda and Otto have to figure out where the diamonds are. So Wanda gets in close with George’s barrister, Archie. See what I mean about the double crossing? That’s the set-up for the whole movie. Wanda double crossing George with Otto, then double crossing Otto with Archie, and poor Ken’s all loyal to George, but dealing with Wanda and Otto. It totally could have been made serious. Suspenseful. Tense.

Instead we’ve got Otto loudly announcing an Italian menu to Wanda because the sound of the language turns her on, juxtaposed with a scene of Archie and his wife blandly getting ready to go to sleep in their matching twin beds. We’ve got Otto getting jealous of Wanda’s supposedly feigned affection for Archie and pulling faces while spying on them. We’ve got poor Ken, who loves animals dearly, being assigned to kill off the only witness to the robbery and accidentally getting her dogs instead. One by one. Oh sure, there’s more than a fair deal of comedy of embarrassment here. More than I can handle, actually, so I had to leave the room during one scene where an innocent family walks in on a naked Archie who was prancing around speaking Russian (turns out it’s not just Italian she likes). But a lot of it is flat out physical comedy.

Otto himself wouldn’t be nearly as funny if it was just a matter of reading his lines out. It’s in Kline’s delivery. It’s in his entire physicality, which figures into how he says everything. The Italian is spoken with grand gestures of the hands and arms. He hops and jumps and sneaks. Every movement is like watching a rubber band bend and snap and pull and twist. It adds something to it when he shouts “ASS-HOOOOOOOLE!” or insists that he’s not stupid or offers poor Archie some of the most violent apologies ever filmed.

There are some indelible images from this movie. The poor dogs and Ken’s reactions to every unfortunate miss he makes have stuck with me for ages. Otto leaping onto the bed while speaking nonsense Italian will crack me up every time. Even though I can’t watch it now, the naked Archie scene has been burned into my memory from my first viewing. And then there’s the apologies. Otto has already assaulted Archie once and Wanda demands he go and apologize since Archie is their key to finding out from George where the diamonds are. But when Otto goes to apologize, he mistakes Archie for a burglar and beats him up. Then realizes who he is and apologizes. Then beats him up. Then apologizes. It is one of those scenes you just know. It’s a reference that’s impossible to put into text because the reference is all in the delivery. It’s all Kevin Kline.

Like I said, the movie is full of great people. Cleese as Archie, Curtis as Wanda, Palin as Ken. Tom Georgeson as George Thomason (love that) is great as well, as is Maria Aitken as Archie’s wife, Wendy. I was very proud of myself for spotting Patricia Hayes as the unfortunate Mrs. Coady (the witness). And I think it’s worth noting that out of the cast who make multiple screen appearances, Mrs. Coady, George, Wendy and Archie’s daughter Portia are all played quite straight. They don’t pull faces or do any physical comedy. When George realizes that Wanda’s double crossed him he does lunge across the courtroom, but it’s not slapstick when he does it. Wanda climbing behind the judge is, but George trying to get past him to her isn’t. It’s wonderfully done, keeping the comedy and ridiculousness in the four main characters while the rest of the cast – and the rest of the world – goes about its business as normal.

This was a tough review to write. It’s one of those movies where I just want to catalogue all the funny bits and talk about how funny they are. But that’s not a review. I sort of did it anyhow, but I tried to do a bit more than a simple list. And besides, I can’t really express the best bits – Otto and Ken chief among them – in text. You just have to put the movie in and let it speak for itself.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

A Fish Called Wanda

September 22, 2010

A Fish Called Wanda

We put this in tonight because of Kevin Kline. Having so recently watched his Pirates of Penzance we very much wanted more crazy Kline humor. But when I first saw this movie I didn’t know who Kevin Kline was. Or Jamie Lee Curtis. (Yes, the woman from the yogurt commercials used to make movies back in the eighties and nineties.) I watched this for John Cleese and Michael Palin. It is the best thing they have done since the days of Monty Python.

This movie is a comedy heist film. I was going to say that it is a comedy based on heist films, but that’s not altogether accurate. It’s a serious movie about a jewel heist and the complete lack of honor among thieves, and it sort of has romance parts. There’s peril, mayhem and even murder, of a sort. It takes itself seriously and is never a spoof. Which makes it all the more hilarious. Amanda could tell you more about the types of comedy it employs. (She took a course in college you see.) It uses the rule of threes. It has quite painful comedy of embarrassment parts. It has the insane over-acting, physical humor and general clowning about of Kevin Kline. It has vulgarity and nudity. The whole thing is wonderfully written and acted.

What chiefly grabs me as I watch this for the umpteenth time tonight is how well plotted it is. It’s got betrayals and back-stabbings and plot twists, but it all flows so effortlessly from point to point. The movie starts with a jewel heist. Georges is the brains, his mate Ken does most of the work, Wanda is his moll and acts as getaway driver, and Otto is the muscle. No sooner have they escaped with the jewels and locked them up than the betrayals begin. Otto and Wanda turn Georges in for the robbery, but not before he manages to move the stolen loot to a location known only to him.

For the most part the action follows Wanda. She’s a femme fatal type who uses her sexuality to twist every man in the movie around her finger and ultimately she’s the one with the most devious plans. From the start she’s been sleeping with both Georges and Otto (though she claims to the rest of the crew that Otto is her brother.) Then she starts to seduce Georges’ lawyer Archie in the hope that he’ll find out where the jewels are and reveal the location to her. But Archie is so disarmingly honest and so completely unlike everybody else she has to deal with that she finds herself falling for him. Or at least that’s how it appears.

John Cleese wrote the screenplay and plays Archie Leach. It’s great to see him playing the straight man most of the time. He doesn’t have the kind of crazy antics that he used to on Monty Python or Fawlty Towers. He’s just a downtrodden man trapped in a loveless marriage with a spoiled daughter (played by John Cleese’s actual daughter I believe.) When the beautiful Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) throws herself at him he becomes completely besotted. It’s very much a midlife crisis thing. He also gives himself some of the best speeches. He gives a lengthy and wonderfully worded apology at one point, and he has a heartfelt monologue about how awful it is to be British and always be terrified of being embarrassed by the slightest thing – after which of course he is subjected to the most humiliating scene in almost any movie ever.

Ken is played brilliantly by Michael Palin. The character is afflicted by a horrible stutter, which Palin captures wonderfully. Stutters on film are often so poorly done. So clearly scripted. The way that Palin presents Ken as so frustrated by his own inability to communicate is wonderful. It’s never stated outright, it’s just in the performance, in the expressions. Ken is a sympathetic and uncomplicated fellow who would rather simply be with his fishes than mixed up with all these people. He’s an animal lover, you see, and doesn’t much care for humans. (You do have to wonder how he got sucked into this scheme. I suppose he just likes to do stuff for Georges.)

Jamie Lee Curtis plays Wanda as a very canny and intelligent woman. You can practically see the gears turning in her head as she works schemes within schemes. It must have been fun to have such a character to play. She’s a seductress, but a clever one and also an actress herself. When she first spies Archie she pulls out a pair of glasses and pulls off her earrings and transforms from a mobsters moll to an American law student in just seconds. She never seems to be at a loss for what to do and adapts to every twist with lightning speed.

Then there’s Otto. Oh, Otto. He’s just the dumb weapons expert and safe cracker, but don’t call him stupid! Kevin Kline delivers such a completely amazing performance that he easily steals every scene he’s in. The character is such a buffoon and the way that Kline portrays him is so wonderful that you find yourself looking forward eagerly to his next appearance on screen. He, too, gets a memorable apology scene. He has an overblown sex scene that is inter-cut with shots of Archie and his wife preparing for bed. It’s fantastic physical comedy. He even has a running-gag style catchphrase – which is not to be quoted in a family friendly blog but is nonetheless useful in my day-to-day life. Particularly when driving.

I am not surprised to note that Kevin Kline won a best supporting actor Oscar for this role. It’s memorable, hilarious and fun. And as I mentioned it was the whole reason we put this movie in to watch tonight in the first place.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 43 – Ocean’s Thirteen

Ocean’s Thirteen – April 12th, 2010

Back to the heist movies tonight. Now, this movie starts with a shitty thing happening to Reuben. And I hate seeing shitty things happen to characters I like. But instead of what the second movie does – kicking every single character in the ribs and then making them work to get back on their feet – it gets everyone else together to team up and get revenge. And I do like me a good revenge plot. See, a casino developer named Willy Bank has screwed over Reuben and the crew gets together to first offer Bank a chance to make things right, then ruin his new casino and hotel when he refuses. When it comes to the ruining, that’s where things go over the top. They’re out to bring him down and bring him down hard and the viewer is meant to enjoy every unbelievable moment of it. I’m willing to put up with the ridiculously over-the-top unrealistic stunts the crew pulls in this movie, because it’s done on purpose.

And ooh boy, the stunts are over-the-top. The flipping dice and the Malloys and the strike in Mexico? The Greco? The magnetron phone? The Chunnel drill? There’s more. Lots more. Everything in this movie, really. Seriously, it’s ridiculous. It’s hilarious. And they knew it when they wrote it. The movie is a hell of a lot more light-hearted than the last one was. It may be a matter of Reuben’s health, but no one’s out to kill them. No one’s aiming for their heads. They’re in charge and you know it and they know it and the only guys who don’t know it are the guys you don’t like. I’m all for that. The one guy who gets screwed over and doesn’t deserve it is the poor hotel reviewer they mess with to ruin the hotel’s reputation, but they pay him back (even if he doesn’t know it) and they make a point of saying they feel bad about it.

Really, I sort of feel like I shouldn’t like this movie as much as I do, but it’s fun. It gets back a lot of the spirit of the first. Maybe it’s because this one’s set in Vegas again instead of a variety of European locales. Maybe it’s the revenge/fun thing instead of the life-or-death thing. Maybe it’s because while they hit snags and impossible tasks, you never get the impression that they actually can’t do it. There’s no one actively out to screw them over. The screwing over already happened. Andy mentioned to me the other day that he’d heard that the script for Ocean’s Twelve wasn’t originally supposed to be an Ocean’s movie. I think it shows. Not that the middle movie is bereft of all humor and spirit, but it just doesn’t feel right and this one does. The laughable and unbelievable stunts play okay to me because they’re played with the slick humor I love. The characters are all still great performances, including Benedict (brought in to help fund the revenge because he hates Bank too) and Roman, who make the titular Eleven into the titular Thirteen. They bring back cameos from Bruiser and Toulour (both of whom get precisely what you want them to get) and have yet another trick from Linus’ family, which I love.

Now, this one isn’t as good as the first, but it’s definitely miles and miles better than the second. It all plays as larger-than-life as Bank’s casino, and while it’s got a few rough moments (for example, much as I love Don Cheadle as Basher, his encounter with Bank makes me cringe a tiny bit), for the most part they pull it all off pretty dang smoothly.

April 12, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 41 – Ocean’s Twelve

Ocean’s Twelve – April 10th, 2010

***WARNING: Spoilers. While this movie is six years old, it is a heist movie and it has a lot of twists, so if you haven’t seen it and plan on watching and don’t want to know some of the reveals, don’t read. Okay. Warning over.***

Sigh. You know, after watching Ocean’s Eleven and loving it, I was all excited about the sequel and prepared to thoroughly enjoy it. And then I didn’t. It’s just got too many moments that make me cringe and not enough that make me grin. For example, while I know it’s crucial to the plot that everything go to hell for every single member of the original crew, and I know that it’s supposed to create dramatic tension and make me want to root for them. After all, what fun would it be to see a bunch of guys with everything go after something more? Except I already want to root for them. I already like them. I don’t enjoy seeing crappy things happen to characters I like. So the beginning of the movie, which I’m sure was meant to be a schadenfreude reintroduction to all the guys from the first movie, just makes me wince. Also wince-worthy is some comedy of embarrassment, but hey, that’s my hangup. This won’t be the last review I mention my discomfort with it in.

My other major issue with the movie is that it’s way too self aware in a not-so-cute way. It’s trying too hard. The guys talking about being annoyed about being referred to as “Ocean’s Eleven,” as if Danny owns them. The heist within a heist. The rival with an ego. Involving Tess and the whole “Doesn’t she look like Julia Roberts?” schtick. It’s just too much. The movie’s mired in its own conceit.

The heist is incredibly complicated. It’s as if the writers went “Hmm, the last one was brilliant because of how much it involved and how complicated it all was. Let’s double it. Or triple it! And it’ll be twice or three times as good!” That’s not how it works. I mean, they start out getting cornered by Benedict, who wants his money back and was tipped off by a rival thief who’s upset that Danny’s crew is being called “The best” when that’s what he considers himself. So then they have to pull jobs to make back what they’ve spent in the intervening years. So there are little heists. And meanwhile the rival is pulling the jobs ahead of them to prove how good he is. Except the big job is one they pulled before he pulled it before them. And it all turns out to be a set-up by a real master criminal who wants to meet his daughter who’s a special agent who tracks down master criminals and dated Rusty for a while. And I’ve massively simplified the whole deal by a ton. Oh my god, so much going on in this movie. Too much.

Now, I will say, in the movie’s defense, that the characters are very very in character when they’re introduced. Seeing where they all ended up post-heist is fun and things like Turk and Virgil’s intro just work really well character-wise. Actually, Turk and Virgil are fantastic through the movie. Their dialogue is genuinely funny. And there are some great individual scenes. The introduction of Eddie Izzard’s character, Roman, is great, and I look forward to his involvement in tomorrow’s movie. The Caldwell family reveal is fantastic. I love the acrobatics through the lasers so much that I tracked down the music that plays during the scene (it’s “Thé à la menthe” by Nikkfurie/La caution – I’ve seen it credited to both in different places – and apparently has lyrics too, but I’ve never heard them). I do love Catherine Zeta Jones’ character, Isabel. She’s a kickass lady and while for the majority of the movie her plot with Rusty is just a matter of support for the heist plot, I like it quite a lot. All that being said, it’s just not enough to make the movie as much fun to watch as the first was. Or the third will be tomorrow. It’s just too serious about the whole thing. It’s missing the light-hearted spirit, even if it does try incredibly hard to get laughs every chance it gets.

April 10, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment