A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

April 30, 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Another Marvel movie, another opening night, and at long last another review for my long dormant review blog.  I went in to Age of Ultron fairly confident that it was a good movie because people whose opinions I trust had already seen it and confirmed that it was in the top four or five marvel movies with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy and the first Avengers movie.  At the same time, however, there was this nagging worry at the back of my mind that perhaps the weight of the franchise is getting too great for any movie to hold it up.  As is almost the refrain when reviewing a Marvel movie at this point though it was true once more: there inevitably must be a film in this universe that disappoints, but this one is not it.

There is NO WAY that this movie should work.  It is the result of an enormous production machine with so many moving parts that it’s hard to even conceive how vast the enterprise is.  It was in pre-production before Winter Soldier was done filming.  During the closing credits I stopped counting after the 7th or 8th FX production house was listed.  Many of the action beats must have been mapped out and already in production long before the plot was finalized.  The Marvel Cinematic universe as a whole is the filmic equivalent of the pyramids at Giza: an edifice so intimidatingly huge that it’s almost impossible to believe it was crafted by human hands.

Beyond all of that though there’s the scale of this movie alone to consider.  The MCU has reached a scale where its tentpole movies have tentpoles.  This Avenger’s film caps the second wave of films bringing the crew back together for another round of world-saving, sure, but it also has to lay the groundwork for the third wave.  We have plenty of returning heroes.  There’s Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye.  The first Avenger movie established that this team could work in a film, so it’s no surprise that for this movie they are a joy to watch as they battle foes and banter amongst each-other.  But add to all these folks several other bit players from previous films and three new super powered individuals and you have a formula for disaster.  How can you possibly have so many characters in one film, providing each with at least a couple well-timed quips and a chance to show off their powers, and not have it simply collapse under its own weight?

Part of it is that the movie doesn’t give itself time to sag.  From the in-media-rez opening battle (which feels like it contains more action in one scene than the entire first Captain America movie – particularly since it so deliberately echoes the tone of some of Cap’s escapades) to its far larger than life city destroying ending there’s hardly a moment when some kind of adventure isn’t going on.  Even the more quiet moments serve double duty moving the plot forward and giving us some greater insight into the Avengers as a team and as individuals to better set the stakes for the inevitable big showdown.

The one exception is a vital piece of quiet before the storm just before the start of the third act that provides some of the best character development so far for a couple of the least utilized parts of the team.  The surprising heart of the movie is the non-powered Clint Barton/Hawkeye who here shows that he’s perhaps more of a hero than most of his companions because he’s not super at all – just pretty damned good with a bow and arrows.  Black Widow also gets some much needed backstory during this lull and shows herself both to be more human and more frighteningly competent at her particular skillset.

The other thing that saves this film from itself is the titular villain.  Ultron has many of the best moments in the film because he’s such a surprisingly human foe.  He’s such a startlingly honest, simple, and almost literally broken character that it’s hard not to feel some degree of sympathy for him.  All this for a character that is entirely CGI.  Add him to the list with Groot, Rocket, and Golem of startlingly touching characters rendered almost entirely in a computer.

I only just saw the movie a couple hours ago so I’m not going to make any sweeping statements about its lasting merit or how well it will hold up with time, but on that first viewing I was not disappointed.  It has references for Marvel fans that hint at things to come.  It has plenty of amazing action.  It has touching moments of character development.  Ultimately it did its job and left me wanting more.  Oh, and it left me wanting that “hulkbuster” Lego set.  I wish that wasn’t sold out.

Advertisements

April 30, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Pacific Rim

When I was in second grade all the children in the yard during recess were Jedis, Smugglers or Princesses. This year I predict that every second grader at recess will be a Jaeger Pilot. Fantasy/horror artour and filmic visionary Guillermo Del Torro has wonderfully crafted the perfect fantasy adventure for this generation, and it was a delight to see what he can do with a truly big budget summer blockbuster. 

Like Star Wars back in my youth this is a familiar feeling fantasy adventure that takes fondly remembered tropes and vividly re-creates them with a giant budget and the best visual technology of the modern day, except that whereas Star Wars was an homage to the sci-fi serials of bygon days (particularly Flash Gordon) with a smattering of Samurai thrown in (mostly The Hidden Fortress) this movie takes its inspiration from the Japanese Kaiju monster movies that I so loved as a child and the many Mecha anime that came from that same country. It’s easy to see Godzilla, Rodan, Neon Genesis, Big O, and so many other familiar things that contributed to this movie.
The whole project has a familiar and well worn feel to me. The plot (involving a dimensional rift under the Pacific Ocean that unleashes giant monsters on the world and the giant mechanical warriors the world builds in response) offers nothing particularly revolutionary or new. The one gimmick that really sets it apart is a clunky bin of whimsy that has it established that piloting a giant robot (a Jaeger in the world’s parlance) is too taxing a job for a single human being so two or more pilots must work in tandem to fight effectively. This makes no logical sense, but it drives the plot and stresses the whole “only together can we win” feel of the film. Really, if to demand logical sense from a movie about giant monsters and robots beating each-other up this might not be the movie for you.
It IS, however, the movie for me. For anybody who wants a simple summer smash-em-up with a kind heart and a familiar tone. It’s very appeal to me lies in its simplicity.
Amanda and I have a large collection of “comfort movies” that we can turn to after a stressful day. Films like The Princess Bride or Buckaroo Banzai that we can put on any time and watch again and again. So simple and familiar are the plot and characters of Pacific Rim that I felt as though it was a comfort movie on my very first viewing. All these people are so instantly familiar. The hard-nosed military commander with a heart. The capable but insecure co-pilot with a mysterious past. The head-strong young pilot who fights with the protagonist but will come to depend on him. Even the characters themselves at times seem to know exactly how the world they inhabit works, as when the disillusioned pilot who is Earth’s last hope flat out asks his commander why he is not paired with the candidate that is CLEARLY most qualified.
Even on that first viewing this movie felt like coming home. It’s like Del Torro drifted into my mind and made a movie for that seven year old kid who used to try to use the force to move rocks on the playground. A riotous delightful celebration of everything that epitomizes cool and awesome. I mean. Giant monsters fighting giant robots. What more do you need?

July 13, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

Malibu Shark Attack

August 19, 2012

Malibu Shark Attack

According to Marian Call it is Shark Week again (just try getting that song out of your head!) Even though we’re not doing our movie a day project any more we couldn’t let this special week go by without watching a cheesy shark movie. It’s an annual tradition.

Today’s movie is one we actually wanted to watch last year, but it wasn’t out yet on DVD at the time. Amanda had tuned through part of it one morning and called out to me from the living room. “Andy! You’ve got to see this fake CGI wave!” It quickly became apparent as she watched that this movie was an almost perfect amalgam of all the shark movie tropes we’ve come to love after all the awful movies we’ve watched.

Paper-thin two dimensional characters that nobody cares about? Check. Badly computer animated pre-historic sharks released by a natural disaster? Oh, yeah. Sections of the score and even some of the action blatantly ripping off (or paying “homage” to) parts of Jaws? You’d better believe it. In fact I don’t think there’s an original moment in this entire movie – which is why it made such perfect viewing tonight.

Our shark attack victims are the workers at a lifeguard station on a beach in Malibu. There’s the hunky young guy (who look like Casper Van Dien and Neil Patrick Harris had a baby and sounds like he struggling not to let his Australian accent creep through.) There’s an annoying and prone to hysterical screaming teenaged girl who is doing community service cleaning the beach. There’s the ruggedly handsome ex-Navy Seal, his ex-girlfriend with the gravelly voice, and her new ruggedly handsome beau who is doing an overhaul on some beachfront property. There’s the gruff foreman in charge of the home update team. There’s the Science-minded lifeguard who is working on her doctorate (in marine biology of course) and her brand new fiance. And a few other pieces of shark-food who hardly even have names much less characters.

During the opening credits we are treated to a computer animated underwater volcano (which puzzled me greatly because you wouldn’t think it would be hard to license some stock footage) and inter-cut with all the establishing our characters stuff is a series of shots that imply some sharks are going to attack. Oh, and a whole lot of young women in bikinis. (Apparently this all takes place in a Logan’s Run style dystopia where nobody is allowed to live past thirty years old, and for some reason most of the male population of the planet has been wiped out because there are probably five women on this beach to every man.)

The character establishing stuff drags on a little too long – especially given how little there really is to establish – but soon enough we get to the actual movie as a couple divers and a para-sailer are gruesomely killed by the dreadfully animated sharks. Soon the poorly animated sharks are joined by a hilariously poorly animated tidal wave and our gathering of survivors are stranded in their life-guard shack and half-renovated home with water all around and no hope of rescue. Then it’s just a matter of waiting to see who gets eaten first and how many poor souls make it through the night alive.

This movie is embarrassingly awful. By the end I was feeling bad for the actors trapped in the movie far more than for the characters they were portraying. They give it a really good try, but there’s just not much to work with here – even by made-for-TV disaster movie standards. The sharks (which we are told are fast enough to overtake a jet ski) move slower most of the time than their prey who are hip-deep in water. The animation looks laughable and is frequently recycled.

I will take back, though, my earlier comment about there being nothing original in this movie. I don’t think I have ever seen a movie where people chop up sharks with power tools – that was hilarious and fun to watch. I won’t say this movie was as wonderfully awful as Sharks in Venice – or that it was as fun to watch as Sharktopus – but it is, at least, exactly what we were expecting to see when we put it in. A low budget by-the-numbers shark attack movie. Perfect for Shark Week.

August 19, 2012 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 1 Comment

Machete

June 9, 2012

Machete

There is nobody on the planet who knows how to make a better action movie than Robert Rodriguez. He has a very pure sense of the melodramatic zeitgeist of low budget gorefest good times. His half of the Grindhouse film he made with Quentin Tarantino was a prime example. Planet Terror was a rollicking good time filled with over-the-top moments and with a fantastic sense of self-aware humor. In the middle of Grindhouse, as part of the faux seventies flavor of the film, there were a couple of make-believe trailers for films that didn’t exist – and one of them was for the gore filled revenge film “Machete.” Let’s start there: that trailer absolutely rocks.

The trailer played out the plot of a formulaic grindhouse action film that seemed instantly familiar. It was a Charles Bronson style revenge film. A “They should have made sure he was dead” plot about a deadly man with nothing to lose hunting down the men who set him up as the fall guy in an assassination attempt. It was was filled with awesome action and humor moments. Machete leaping out a window of a high rise hanging from a rope and smashing through the window beneath that. Cheech Marin as a vengeful priest. Machete on a motorcycle with a minigun mounted between the handlebars riding out of a giant fireball. I don’t know anybody who saw that preview who didn’t immediately want to see the actual movie (which, of course, didn’t even exist – which was the whole joke.)

The challenge Rodriguez had when he decided to expand that ultra-awesome trailer into a feature film was to find a way to put all those iconic story beats from the trailer into a coherent whole and deliver on the promise of the preview. Unfortunately I have to admit that in many ways it doesn’t feel to me that the film is as much fun as the trailer. It’s clever and entertaining but it also feels watered down, burdened by its own plot and constrained by the compromise of trying to work within the restraints of what was already established about the film by the faux-preview.

What appears to be the biggest problem is that Rodriguez hasn’t made the movie the preview was about. The preview was for a totally cliche seventies revenge film. That’s what I was gleefully anticipating when I bought this DVD. The movie starts out really strong in this mode with a hilariously gore-filled pre-credits sequence showing Machete as a federal agent in Mexico on a one-man rampage against a local drug lord as he storms a hideout in an attempt to rescue a girl (who it is implied is maybe his long lost daughter?) She betrays him and he has to watch helplessly as both she and his wife are killed by the drug kingpin (played fantastically by Steven Seagal attempting a Mexican accent) and Machete is left for dead in a burning building. Everything about this pre-credits bit delivers on the promise of the preview – perfectly catching the feel of the Grindhouse aesthetic from the deliberately poor editing to the cheesy blood spurting special effects to the gratuitous nudity. This was the movie I was looking forward to watching.

After the credits, though, it becomes an entirely different beast. The movie becomes one about the plight of Mexican immigrants in the southwestern US. The bad guys are not so much the evil Mexican drug lord (though he does still play a part) but are a corrupt senator, a group of racist redneck militiamen, and an evil political adviser. I can totally see where Rodriguez is going with this movie – and I respect it and want to see that film. It’s almost a companion piece to Once Upon a Time in Mexico – with its populist uprising against entrenched corruption theme. It just never quite works with the premise laid out in the pre-credit sequence or the trailer. It’s as though Machete got somehow transported out of his own movie and inserted into a completely different film. The real hero of this movie is the revolutionary leader Luz who by day helps immigrants get papers and jobs from her taco truck and by night runs the “network” to give a better life to the downtrodden. Michelle Rodriguez Is fun to watch in the role, and the real pivotal moment of the film for me is when she finally takes up the role of the mythical “She” – a legend she has created to inspire the people. I would totally have watched THAT movie – a kind of female Zorro film. But instead it has to be contorted to fit all the moments from the Machete preview into it. There’s a clash between these two movies that are trying to co-exist, and as a result both are weakened.

Another weakness of the movie is that it feels a little worn out in places. There are some scenes that feel as though they are recycled and re-purposed from other Rodriguez films. There’s the shootout in the girlfriend’s home that cribs from El Mariachi. There’s the assault on the church that feels as though it’s the same scene from Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Even the climactic battle in the redneck compound feels like a watered down version of the populist uprising that caps Once Upon a Time. It was always fun to see Machete finding new ways to stab badguys (and there are a couple great moments – like when he steers a car from the back seat by twisting the machete he’s stabbed into the driver) but that’s not quite enough to really make the movie work.

There’s also the matter of Machete’s supposed love interest. Jessica Alba plays a good hearted but misguided immigrations and customs agent who is investigating Luz and the network. There is much talk of how she is “betraying her own people” and she has a sort of smeared in shoe-polish look that is meant to imply that she’s Mexican but it really, really didn’t work for me. Okay, so Amanda informs me that she does have Mexican heritage, but in the film she appears about as Mexican as Charlton Heston. Some of the stunt casting in the movie is a lot of fun, like Steven Seagal as the drug lord or Robert DeNiro as the southern senator (one of my favorite bits of his is when he drops his southern drawl and admits that he’s not even from those parts and doesn’t even like it there) but Alba never worked for me. There’s also no chemistry whatsoever between Alba and the always awesome Danny Trejo. One of the recurring jokes of the plot is that all the women in the film fawn over Machete and throw themselves at him. He, in turn sort of stoically and resignedly gives in to their advances. I like the humor of a hero who is not so much a womanizer as cursed with irresistible animal magnetism – and I see potential there for some pathos even since he’s lost everyone he ever loved, but it does not make for any kind of romantic sub-plot. And yet the movie tries to imply that there is a romance there. Very odd.

Ultimately my biggest complaint about this movie is that it shows so much promise but can’t deliver on it. I see so much here that I really WANT to love. Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin have been almost running gags in Robert Rodriguez’s work – appearing in cameos and supporting roles in almost every one of his films. Here, finally, they get big leading roles, and I was all ready to cheer and gloat. That the movie doesn’t provide the thrills I was expecting based on the trailer and even based on the first ten minutes of the movie almost feels like a betrayal. In the end I didn’t feel that Machete got his revenge for the death of his wife – even if all the bad guys ultimately did end up dead. Maybe my expectations were set too high – or were mis-directed by the promise of the trailer. Maybe it’s an impossible task to take a minute and a half of awesome iconic moments and build an hour and a half long movie out of them. This is not the movie I was hoping it would be though, and that left me feeling a little sad.

June 9, 2012 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Hercules (1983)

May 13, 2012

Hercules (1983)

When Amanda and I attended Pax East last month we were treated to a new episode of Moviebob’s Big Picture that featured a movie we desperately needed to add to our collection. Go ahead – watch it for yourself. Before we even left the theater I had gone online to order this movie so it would be waiting for us when we got home. Today we found the perfect opportunity to watch it while visiting our friend A.

Even with Bob’s summary we found ourselves overwhelmed by this movie’s cheesy glory. As the movie began we were astonished and delighted to discover that the Peabody Award winning MST3K episode “Outlaw of Gor” blatantly stole its soundtrack from this movie. It adds so much to the experience of watching this when the music reminds you constantly of a Mystery Science Theater episode. Indeed I think a familiarity with MST Hercules movies in general enhances the viewing experience. As does a modicum of knowledge about the actual Greek myths that have virtually nothing whatsoever to do with this movie.

I’m used to movies playing somewhat fast and loose with mythology to make them more cinematic. I enjoy things like the Clash of the Titans movies for example. This film however only uses some names from Greek mythology and sticks them in a silly Italian Eighties sci-fi fantasy.

This film takes a long time to get going. Mostly because there’s so much unnecessarily silly mythology to explain. The prologue explains at length about the creation of the universe from chaos and the gods who live on the moon manipulating the world of men.

Lou Ferrigno stars as the mighty Hercules, who in this version of the tale is not son of Zeus but a kind of avatar of godly power transported into a human child and raised by adopted mortal parents. (I think it is cribbing from the very successful Superman movie there.)

When Herc’s parents are killed (one by a bear and one by a giant robot locust) he sets out into the world to find out why he is cursed with super strength and hunted by monsters. He eventually wins the love of the princess Casseiopea, who is promptly kidnapped by Areana, daugher of nefarious King Minos of Atlantis. Minos and his minion, the sexy alien Daedalus, are trying to overthrow the gods with science – or something.

One fantastic trait of this movie (one of too many to individually highlight) is the delightful level of acting on display. Lou is not by any stretch of the imagination a great actor, but his pure enthusiasm for the role is infectious. The collection of scantily clad Italians he is surrounded by deliver exactly the kind of heavily dubbed over-acting I’ve come to expect from such films. Add to the crazy wide-eyed capering some wonderfully Eighties costumes (some of which the ladies barely fit into) and some of the most delightfully cheesy “special effects” and you have a magical wonderland of a movie. The monsters Herc fights are all stop-motion-animated robots clearly designed for their appeal as toys for children. Everything in the movie sparkles and flashes with effects added in post. There’s a heavily over-used electronic synthesiser foley effect that is meant to imply that something magical is happening but which gave our friend A flashbacks to Xanadu. You can almost hear producers Golan and Globus in the meetings that the movie came from. “Superman is popular – let’s make our movie look like that. And have lots of Star Wars stuff in there too – like a glowing sword fight. The kids today love robots – lets have some of those in there and we’ll make a fortune selling little plastic toys!” The result? Hilarity!

Honestly I am astonished that until this year I didn’t even know this movie existed. It is so astonishingly and hilariously bad. Everything from the writing to the acting to the design to the effects is laughable. It has instantly become one of my favorite movies ever. Thank you Bob.

May 13, 2012 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

TrollHunter

December 3, 2011

TrollHunter

We decided a couple weeks ago to watch this movie tonight specifically. Today Amanda and I attended the annual Yuletide Festival presented by the Boston branch of the Swedish Women’s Educational Association. It’s a traditional family outing with her parents and some of our closest friends that we look forward to each year, and it marks the start of the Christmas season for us. It also puts us in a Scandinavian mood, what with all the Swedish culture and traditions. We get meatballs with lingenberries. I have Glögg and Julmust. This year Amanda’s mother bought a big book full of gorgeous pictures of the Swedish countryside. This year we get to follow that up with a movie with a uniquely Scandinavian flare – this strange faux documentary about Norway’s only licensed troll hunter.

In many ways this movie is clearly inspired by The Blair Witch Project in that it is presented as found footage of an ill fated expedition, but this movie has a great tongue in cheek humor to it that makes it a different sort of beast. It follows a trio of college students who are trying to get an interview with a mysterious man who they suspect is a notorious bear poacher. It is explained through news on the radio and interviews with local authorised bear hunters that although there have been killings and mauling of farm animals attributed to bears in the wilds of Norway only these few professionals licensed by the government are allowed to actually kill bears, and the hunters are upset because lately they suspect this individual in a beat up white range rover of killing bears without a license.

The three youths – journalism students and film makers from a local college – track down the poacher at a RV camp where his trailer is abandoned each night as he drives off to do whatever is that he does each night. He doesn’t want anything to do with the kids, but they doggedly follow him into the woods one night where they are attacked by some creature in the darkness that bites one of the trio, at which point the grizzled poacher reluctantly agrees to let them tag along with him and explains just what exactly it is that he does. He hunts trolls.

At first of course the students are skeptical, but very soon they have an encounter with their first giant nocturnal monster and they come to realize that everything the hunter, Hans, has told them is true. He warns them that trolls can smell the blood of a christian, so none of them had best believe in God or Jesus. He gives them troll musk to coat themselves in so as not to frighten their quarry. Trolls can be killed, it turns out, by using UV light because they either ossify, turning to stone, in sunlight or explode. The reason that nobody knows any of this, aside from what they’ve heard in fairy tales as children, is that the Norwegian government covers up all information about trolls. Hans is dogged by an official stuffed shirt who makes sure that nobody ever discovers what it is that he does for a living, planting dead bears at the scenes of troll-related carnage and creating flimsy cover stories. Hans is fed up with the ignominy of his job, the awful hours and the lack of recognition, so he has decided that he might as well let these students collect their footage and make their film to let the world know the truth.

It’s when the trolls start to actually show up that the movie really starts to be fun. It’s not just that the special effects are cool and the design for the trolls themselves are a great combination of big-nosed classic illustrations and gritty realism (though they are.) What really makes this movie special I think is the sense of Norwegian civic pride to it. When the students have their first big encounter with a troll they’re not just terrified and exhilarated by the danger and thrill of their adventure – they’re exuberant to discover that trolls really are real – all their childhood stories had a basis in truth!

There’s a sense that the trolls are not just dangerous wild predators that eat anything they can get their hands on (though they are partial to rocks apparently) but that they are also precious national treasures. They’re mysterious and majestic in their own odd way. Over the course of the movie we get to see a number of different types of troll, and we learn all about them. They can grow to be as much as 1200 years old. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some travel in packs, some wander alone. There are rivalries between the woodland trolls and the mountain ones.

I understand that there is an American re-make of this movie in production now. I have to admit that I don’t think that there’s any way a re-make can capture what it is about this movie that makes it work as well as it does. This movie thrives on the gorgeous Norwegian landscapes, the lore and traditions, the sense that trolls are part of Norwegian culture and national pride. I can’t imagine that the movie would work at all in any other country, much less without the original Norwegian and subtitles. I’m so glad we have this version and that we watched it tonight. Happy yule everyone!

December 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Movie 634 – Medium Cool

Medium Cool – November 24th, 2011

I first saw this movie as part of a film class in high school. It was the same class I watched The Rules of the Game for. The Deerhunter too, though we don’t own that one. This movie is the one that’s probably stuck with me the most. Enough that there are bits and pieces of it I still remember over a decade after last seeing it. And it’s a weird one, but well worth watching. The trouble is, it’s kind of hard to find. We had to buy it on VHS as the DVD copies were well out of our price range. We did get a mint-in-shrinkwrap copy (still sealed with its stickers and everything), but a VHS nonetheless. If you’re at all interested in the work of Marshall McLuhan, violence in media or protest culture in the 1960s in the US, you should see this.

One of the most disorienting things for me when I watch this movie now is the soundtrack. The vast majority of it is exactly as I remember from my first viewing. There is one notable exception, however, and it is so incredibly jarring that I think it bears mention. Violence and how people respond to it is a major theme of the movie. There’s a scene towards the beginning of the movie where the main character takes a date to a roller derby game where violence is a spectacle. In the original version of the movie, Merry Go Round by Wild Man Fischer plays over this scene. The bizarre nature of the song makes the scene feel like it’s part of a strange alternate world. It’s a slightly aggressive song in that it’s mostly shouted, but also repetitive (which is emphasized by its subject: the merry go round). In the home release? Paramount didn’t have the distribution rights for the song. So it’s replaced with the Harlem Globetrotters theme. Which, as one might think, changes the tone entirely. If you do watch this, and you find a version that doesn’t have Merry Go Round? Pull up this video and mute the damn whistling during the roller derby and play that instead.

The story is a little disjointed and I’d always wondered why, but doing a little reading up on the movie explained it. Originally Haskell Wexler went to Paramount proposing to make a movie about a boy moving to the city from Appalachia. Then the Chicago Democratic National Convention was going to be in town and Wexler shifted gears, morphing his original concept into a piece of cinema verite about media and violence and observation versus involvement and the time and place the movie was filmed in. So while we do still have a young boy – Harold – in Chicago, the story is more focused on a television cameraman named John who prides himself on never getting involved in what he films. Through the course of the film he becomes more involved in the world around him and finds out that the footage he’s been filming has been given to the FBI. After that he ends up involved with Harold’s mother, Eileen, and the movie concludes with John and Eileen in the midst of the riots during the convention, looking for Harold, who’s gone missing.

While Harold, Eileen, John and several other characters were played by actors and spoke scripted lines, they were often filmed in undressed streets and sets and the movie is chock full of documentary footage of various events and places. Wexler had a suspicion that something would happen at the convention and so did the US Army. Some of the footage in the movie was filmed during training drills for soldiers, practicing what to do in a protest riot situation, with the actor playing John present in that footage. John is a character, pretending to film, while Wexler films him, but he’s also being filmed with a bunch of soldiers who are not actors, going through training exercises that aren’t fictionalized. There’s a lot of improvisation and a lot of real people not playing roles. The movie doesn’t just follow the linear story but also goes off on tangents, bringing in bits and pieces about race, violence, class, etc. It’s very much a two hourish snapshot of Chicago in 1968.

I recently got a copy of the DVD from work and got to listen to the commentary. One actress is asked if they got along on set and she said yes, because they felt they were “there for a higher purpose” to show some sort of truth about what was going on in the world at the time, even if they themselves didn’t fully understand it. They trusted that Wexler had a view for the movie and for what he wanted to say with it. I find that to be a fascinating statement. It seems to be a sign of the times, of a sort. They all knew there was something big going on. Something important and something worth talking about and presenting to the world. But they couldn’t quite articulate it on their own, for the most part. Not that I think it’s unique to the 1960s in the US. I think it’s something that happens in every generation, whenever there is upheaval. But it also says something about this movie. It puts its time and place out there for you to see, in a combination of documentary and staged scenes, to tell what Haskell Wexler saw as the truth of it all, in its messy glory. It’s a collection of bits and pieces that form a portrait of the times. Wexler keeps the pauses and awkward moments because they provide a sort of meta filmmaking. An acknowledgement that this is fiction while at the same time pointing out just how real so much of it is.

The commentary also talks about how the movie was originally rated X, ostensibly because of nudity and language, but truly it was a “political X.” The language and the nudity (the latter of which Wexler offered to take out and the former of which they tried to compromise on) weren’t really the issue. The politics were the issue. Given that the movie not only showcased racial tension, class struggle and the riots around the convention, I’m honestly not shocked. I mean, the scene where John goes to talk to a cab driver and ends up being confronted by a group of African American men and women who want to talk about race? That scene makes me uncomfortable. And it should. It’s not meant to be a comfortable scene and it’s not meant to be a comfortable situation. That is the point. In the commentary they mention how the impassioned speech made at the end of that scene was written by Wexler, but it came through as genuine enough that other people on set, who had been improvising many of their own lines, congratulated the actor who gave the speech, thinking it was his own. It felt true to them. It felt real. And given how uncomfortable it makes me in the here and now, I would guess that the people in charge of film ratings at the time were positively terrified by its implications. And that’s not even the most dangerous of things this movie does.

This movie doesn’t shy away from showcasing the uglier sides of things. Not just the dramatic, like the riots, but the everyday ugly of poverty and prejudice and violence and sexism. The things that grind people down or put neverending pressure that ends up causing explosions. Presenting those things, putting them out there as things that exist, things that affect us, instead of ignoring them or covering them up or pretending they don’t exist? That’s dangerous. Acknowledging that things are not perfect? That’s dangerous. Of course this movie was rated X to start with. It’s not that it showed a woman’s breasts or a man’s butt or taught people any new obscenities. It’s that it showed flaws in the world we live in. Hell, that still gets people worried now. And as the movie ends we hear the crowd chanting “The whole world is watching.” And we still are.

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

Movie 625 – The Wrestler

This is technically a placeholder, since it’s not a full review, but to be honest? I don’t know if I will ever write a full review of this movie. Watching it made me so depressed I don’t think I have the words to describe it. And really, that means it was incredibly well-made. It’s just that it’s a well made movie that did an excellent job of making me feel every bleak and hopeless moment shown on screen. And one scene in particular will haunt my dreams for years to come. Because nothing quite hammers it home for me like scenes of the main character sitting in a mostly empty VFW hall amongst a handful of other old wrestlers sporting the injuries their profession gave them, waiting for a few fans to trickle in and pony up for a signature and a snapshot. Just thinking about it makes me want to pull the covers over my head and not leave bed for days. That sort of thing, with people sitting in an empty room, waiting and hoping for someone to show up and care? That is something that hits my core. Just thinking about it in concept makes me want to cry.

So. Consider this my review of the movie. It was excellently made, well-written, superbly acted and I wish to all I hold dear that I had never ever seen it.

November 15, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

November 12, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Back when Amanda and I reviewed all the Harry Potter films back to back in a single week I said that the movie before this one was not much of a movie in its own right. The first movie feels incomplete, ending on a cliffhanger with almost nothing resolved. Ultimately I have to say that I think this was the correct choice, because by getting all that groundwork laid and out of the way the film makers allow this last film to be a rousing, powerful conclusion to the series. There’s so much last minute plot exposition that takes place in the last Potter book that it would have left this movie feeling unwieldy and bogged down if an attempt had been made to fit it all into a single film. As it is the movie suffers somewhat because there are so many tangled plot threads to unravel and resolve.

In book six Jo introduced the Horcruxes which contain pieces of Voldemort’s soul and keep him immortal as long as they continue to exist. Before he died Dumbledore only managed to destroy one (the ring) and Harry had destroyed one (the diary) but they failed to destroy the amulet, so there’s four or five Horcruxes left to be found and destroyed all in the last book. Then there’s the Deathly Hallows – the Resurrection Stone, the Invisibility Cloak and the Elder Wand – introduced in book seven. Not to mention the resolution of Snape’s story arc, the final reveal of Dumbledore’s plans, and the various character romances. The story of the Elder Wand alone was convoluted and confusing to me when I first read this book and I had grave doubts about the ability of the film makers to present it in a way that made sense, much less all the other stuff involved in this movie.

With all this in mind I think that director David Yates and his team did an admirable job creating a satisfying and appropriate conclusion to the Harry Potter series. Given the source material they had to work with the movie they have crafted is better than I had let myself think it would end up being.

By necessity much of the plot is elided, truncated and abridged. We find out nothing about the origins of the Elder Wand for example, and many of the side plots from the books have disappeared (such as the evil werewolf Fenrir Greyback who made Remus Lupin a werewolf and attacked Bill Weasley.) The result is a sort of intense and distilled rendition of the seventh book, which makes for great viewing and packs a pretty good punch.

Much of the power of this movie, I would argue, is derived from an inescapable sense of finality. There really has never been a franchise like Harry Potter. This movie represents the culmination of a meandering story involving a core set of characters that have become familiar over the course of more than a whole decade. I think that it is inevitable that after such a build up this movie would have a lot of power to it. Which it does. Watching this movie is like saying goodbye to old friends. Somewhat like the bittersweet farewells at a high school or college graduation.

So goodbye Harry, Ron and Hermione. Goodbye Snape, Dumbledore and Hagrid. Goodbye Flitwick, Slughorn and Trelawney. Goodbye Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. For all the issues I might have with you I have loved getting to know you over the years, and I’m going to miss you.

November 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

The Mask of Zorro

November 9, 2011

The Mask of Zorro

About a year ago we picked up The Legend of Zorro as part of a big lot of movies we bought. Only when we went to watch it one night did I realize that it was not, in fact, this movie (which I enjoyed in an innocuous way back when it first came out on DVD) but its sequel. I didn’t mind owning that sequel, but it seemed foolish to watch that and not this movie first. So it has languished unwatched on a shelf until we eventually picked up this movie.

Of course I have always loved Zorro. I remember watching the old Errol Flynn version as a lad and enjoying the swashbuckling fun. Who wouldn’t enjoy a masked warrior for the people with a sword who slices his iconic Z into his victims? Clearly inspired by Robin Hood, and just as clearly the inspiration for Batman. He is the ultimate outlaw, a champion of the common man, his alter-ego a dashing playboy.

Of course this movie is not so much a big budget re-telling of the classic Zorro story as a sequel in its own right. It’s sort of Zorro TNG. It starts out with Zorro’s triumphant victory as he leads the people of California in their successful revolution over the evil Spanish governor who has held them under his bootheel. After Zorro, actually the suave Don Diego De La Vega rides triumphantly into the sunset to re-join his young wife and his newborn daughter he finds himself confronted by the deposed Don Rafael Montero, who has guessed his secret identity. During the confrontation De La Vega is captured, his wife is killed and his daughter is taken by Montero to be raised as his own.

Twenty years later Montero returns to the shores of California from his exile in Spain with a nefarious plot to regain power. De La Vega breaks out of prison and soon finds a drunken young thief bent on vengeance upon the sadistic army captain who slew his brother. He takes this young but inexperienced and unpolished lad in as his apprentice and trains him through a quick montage to be the new Zorro in his place.

I enjoy this movie a lot. I first owned it when I got it from some Columbia House DVD club I belonged to in the late nineties, and I watched it a few times back then. In the end though I eventually sold it during some purge of my collection because, let’s face it, this isn’t a very spectacular movie. I would say that it is a movie well aware of just how utterly unambitious it is.

There is not a shocking or surprising moment in this entire film. It is Utterly predictable and plays out like one long series of cliches strung together to make a single plot. What amazes me is how little I end up caring. The movie doesn’t have to do any dramatic heavy lifting or involve any cool plot twists – it just had to create a plausible excuse for a series of action scenes, sword fights, cool stunts and snappy dialog. In that regard it succeeds wonderfully in every way.

There is an impressive amount of high difficulty stuntwork in this film. Acrobatic leaps and bounds, flips, dives and jumps from great heights. One chase scene in particular, as Zorro defeats a whole cadre of soldiers by knocking them off of their horses in creative ways, involves some of the greatest trick riding I have ever seen. The sword duals are plentiful and enjoyable.

Also enjoyable is the great cast the producers have brought in to fill the space between stunts and swordfights. Anthony Hopkins plays Zorro the elder with his usual panache. In the role of his daughter, raised in Spain by his mortal enemy is Catherine Zeta Jones, and she has just the right combination of sultry bravado and believable innocence. Then there’s Antonio Banderas. If ever there was an actor born to play Zorro this is he. I never really bought the notion that he learned to imitate a suave Spanish aristocrat in a single afternoon, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch him trading quips and crossing blades with everybody else in the film. Hopkins lends the film a sense of gravitas and Banderas provides that essential sense of fun.

In no way is this a great movie, but there’s no denying that it can be an entertaining way to spend a couple hours. Maybe not worth owning, or worth buying twice as I now have, but nonetheless perfectly entertaining mindless fun.

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