Thursday, July 23, 2015

Film Friday: The Sting (1973)

The Sting is one of my favorite heist films, though I can’t honestly say that it holds up today as a heist film. For that, it is too slow, too simple, and too obvious. What makes this film such a joy to watch despite this, however, is watching Paul Newman, Robert Shaw and Robert Redford try to outwit each other.

Plot

Robert Redford is Johnny Hooker, a small time grifter during the Great Depression. As the story opens, Redford cons a man out of the money he is carrying. It turns out to be $11,000. Even worse, it turns out that the money belongs to crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Lonnegan kills Redford’s partner in retaliation and sends out his winged monkeys to kill Redford.
Redford flees to Chicago, where he meets Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). Newman is a once-great conman who is now hiding from the FBI. Redford and Newman decide to work together to pull off a phony off-track betting scam known as “the wire” to get even with Lonnegan.

How this works is that Redford will entice Lonnegan into the scam by pretending that he works for Newman. Newman is running an illegal off-track betting parlor. But Redford has a way to supposedly defraud his boss Newman, by getting the results of the races phoned to him by a Western Union employee before the race gets called over the radio. How exactly they will use this to trap Lonnegan and then to escape his clutches, I will leave for you to discover. Suffice it to say that there are many twists and turns and many of the characters you are shown turn out not to be who they claim to be.

Why This Film Is Worth Seeing

It’s actually difficult to tell you why The Sting works. The reason for this is that The Sting worked for a different reason in 1973 than it works today. Let me explain.
Heist movies are rather a specialized set of films. What you need are the coolest actors of the generation, some sort of scheme that sounds impossible except for the extraordinary expert skills of the “good guys,” a bad guy who is bad enough to make the “good guys” (who are usually shady thieves) seem nice, and a lot of twists. Fortunately, you can cheat on all of this and your audience won’t care, so long as everything is hyper-stylized to be as cool as possible.

In 1973, heist films were still relatively new and unsophisticated. Prior to this, you had films like Ocean’s 11 (1960) which followed this formula, but the twists were mild, and The Italian Job (1969), which wasn’t stylized and didn’t really have the kind of cool cast typical of modern heist films. The Sting was really the first film to put it all together, and in 1973 this film must have seemed amazing. For the first time, you had a cool cast of near-superhero conmen, a villain you truly hated, a cool stylized plot, unforeseeable twist after twist (at a time when twists were rare), and an iconic soundtrack. That is why this film was so popular.

Over time, however, heist films have become much more sophisticated. The schemes have become more complex, the twists have become tighter, and as a whole, these films have adopted a much faster pace and greater energy. Compared to modern twist films, The Sting feels slow, simple and lazy.
But the thing is, this film stands up in the modern era for a different reason. What makes The Sting work today is the relationship of the characters and the performance of the actors. Newman is amazing as the ultra-cool conman. He’s so good in this role that he stands up there with Frank Sinatra in the pantheon of cool, and watching him on screen keeps making me wish he had made more movies. His relationship with Redford, which continues here from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, shows amazing chemistry.
Newman and Shaw have equally amazing chemistry, though it’s more anti-chemistry. Indeed, Shaw is pure menace and he and Newman truly come across as if they hate each other. What’s more, Shaw does such a good job of making you hate him with little things like being huffy and snippy, that you come to loath him on a personal level and you want to see him brought down. You relish seeing him tricked.

Redford is really good in this too, though he shows again that he is a lightweight compared to Shaw and Newman. He is the pretty boy actor of his generation next to two of his generation’s finest giving some of their best performances. Fortunately, as with Three Days of the Condor where he played a perfectly fitting role of an outmatched amateur, here he plays the perfectly fitting role of the arrogant grifter who doesn’t realize how far out of his league he really is. In other words, the role fits him, which lets his acting style work.
It is the relationship of these three and how they keep gaming each other throughout which makes this film such a joy to watch. It’s not the scheme, which is rather simplistic and somewhat dull once you know the twists. It’s not the feel of the movie itself either, as what was stylized and cool in 1973 feels almost made-for-TV lame today. But the tricky interaction of these amazing actors is just not something you can find anywhere else nor can you find it duplicated anywhere else.

That is what makes this film such a classic.

Thoughts?
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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Toon-a-Rama Tuesday: Inside Out (2015)

By Kit

Inside Out feels like a return to form for Pixar. After a run of movies that, whatever their merits, seemed to lack the Pixar Touch, we have Inside Out. Which, like all the great Pixar movies of the 2000s, gives us the full gamut of our emotions while weaving a story that imparts valuable lessons. In this case, it is a parable on the importance each of our emotions, even our “negative” ones, play in making us well-rounded, emotionally healthy human beings.

The Plot

Inside Out is about an 11-year old girl named Riley and the 5 emotions that live inside her head (along with everyone else’s): Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Their job is to take care of you. They operate a little control panel inside the “Headquarters” room governing your reactions to the world around you, fear keeping you out of danger, disgust keeping you from being poisoned (“physically and socially”), Joy keeping you happy, etcetera.

So far, Riley’s life has been pretty happy, largely due to Joy’s work as the leader of the 5 emotions. She has a good relationship with her family and friends, she’s honest, and, due to living in Minnesota, is an avid hockey fan, even playing on the local kids’ hockey team. For the most part, the other emotions are kept in check, with Anger, Disgust, and Fear never taking too much control. Only Sadness (The Office’s Phyllis Smith) is kept away, largely because Joy (Parks and Recreation's Amy Poehler) does not want her dour attitude dampening how happy things are for Riley.

However, as anyone who knows story-telling can predict, the pleasant life is disrupted when Riley and her family move to San Francisco, leaving behind her friends and her life in Minnesota for a world of dead rats and broccoli-pizzas. Joy tries to keep things happy but in an empty house with a very-late moving van and a dad who is busy with work, it becomes increasingly difficult.

Soon, a fight of-sorts between Sadness and Joy that causes them to be sucked out of the headquarters and sent into the maze of Long Term Memory. Thus Joy and Sadness are forced on a journey to headquarters taking them all over Riley’s mind while Fear, Disgust, and Anger must take the helm

Why it’s Great

Now, you may or may not have noticed this, but in that description of the plot nowhere did I mention a villain. That is because there is not one. Instead, it is natural obstacles, the choices the 5 emotions and RIley make in response to those obstacles, and the consequences of those choices that drive the plot. Bad decisions create obstacles while good decisions remove or overcome them. The closest the movie comes to a villain would be a clown when she was little, but even he only appears for a few minutes.

This means the tension is not a simple “Will they escape Villain X” but “Will they learn the lessons they need to learn in time to make the right choices?” They are the makers of their own misfortune. If they want to make it back, they have to grow.

Further, the decisions of the 5 characters, and thus Riley, make sense because of the way the 5 emotions are drawn. The emotions each of the five represents are reflected in their personalities. Joy is a happy, eager, go-getter who is always ready to find the good in things, Anger is a hot head who wants to rush in and put his foot down in reaction to any slight, and Fear sees danger everywhere.

Thus, each of the characters act in ways that are natural and their choices, whether comical or serious, make sense even when they cause problems. For example, Joy’s insistence on keeping Riley happy all the time and her unwillingness to let Sadness take the helm even when she is needed makes sense in light of Joy’s personality but it makes it harder for Riley to adapt to the difficult circumstances caused by the move.

And all of this occurs against the backdrop of a beautifully imagined world, reminiscent of a video game The Sims, but without the sanctimonious “satire” —and smarter. You have Personality Islands branching off from the headquarters, you have memory balls formed from your life experiences, both big and small, with “Core Memories” being the big ones, and a variety of theme park-like lands such as “Imagination Land’ and “Dream Pictures”, a studio where her dreams are “filmed” and “broadcast” live to headquarters.

The 5 main character, as I mentioned above, are well drawn and, I should add, fantastically voiced. I already mentioned Poehler and Smith, who are both great, with Poehler giving a delightful cheer to her role and Smith providing a modern-day, blue Eeyor-like character, but special mention should go to the other 3 as well, Bill Hader as Fear, Mindy Kaling as Disgust, and Lewis Black as Anger.

Hader’s Fear is fun and Mindy Kaling is great as a Disgust who is modeled after that somewhat snooty high school queen who always knows the best fashion. But my favorite was Lewis Black. Yes, you read that right, Lewis Black is in this one, and he is excellent. In fact, the animation captured his mannerisms so well you’ll wonder if it was rotoscoped.

The only flaw I can think of is that Riley is not the most interesting character, as she seemed to be drawn to be a very, very normal, average girl to the point of, ironically, lacking a real and identifiable personality. But the same sort of goes with the rest of the human characters. It is a bit like the Toy Story Trilogy, where Andy and his mom were beyond bland but it didn't matter because the focus was on the toys. Though Riley and her parents play a much larger part in Inside Out the story than Andy and his mom, the focus is still on the small main characters who we are following, so the film works.And, given what works works brilliantly, this is a minor quibble.

This is a fantastic movie and a must-see. It reminds us of how far Pixar, and film in general, including animation, can take us into the depths of the human heart and mind. It touches on fascinating ideas about how our emotions are needed to make us whole, ideas that afterwards can result in some meaningful contemplation by oneself or discussion with others, particularly children. And it does this while telling a fun and touching story about 5 memorable characters.

It’s a Pixar Classic.

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Monday, July 20, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Thor (2011)

By Kit

Sorry for the long wait, folks. Last week was rather hectic. Forgive me if I come late. If I run out of days in the summer I might continue it next year or continue it into the fall as Marvel Movie Mondays or something. We'll see.

Thank you to everyone for your support so far. This is my first time doing a series like this and I know my delays have tested your patience. So, thank you.

Anyway, on to Thor.

Plot

A long time ago, when Marvel still released movies via Paramount instead of Disney, the Frost Giants from Jotunnheim waged war upon mankind and threatened to unloose a second Ice Age. However, they were stopped by a race called the Asgardians, they are from Asgard, led by Odin (Anthony Hopkins). We flash forward to a ceremony where Thor is receiving his hammer, Mjolnir.

Meanwhile, a group of frost giants are sneaking into Asgard to steal an item that Odin took from Jotunnheim. They are stopped by Odin lickety-split, but, despite Thor’s insistence, he refuses to retaliate by starting a full-on war against the Frost Giants.

Thor meets up with his fellow young Asgardians; his brother Loki, Sif, Fandral, Hogun, and Volstug, and convinces them to join with him in going to Jotunnheim to seek retribution. Loki tries to talk him out of it but eventually agrees. They leave for Jotunnheim and start a brawl which goes well at first until things turn and they are nearly curb-stomped only for Odin to show up and save their hides.

Back at Asgard Thor is banished to Earth, deprived of his powers and his hammer, which is also thrown to Earth with Odin casting a King Arthur-esque spell on it that says only someone who is worthy may wield it. Thor arrives on Earth and is hit by a car driven by Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), and intern Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), who are studying some kind of vortex thing.

Thor is taken to a hospital where he is subdued pitifully (and comically) by a doctor with a sedative. The hammer, meanwhile, has landed in the desert, not far from where he landed, causing a massive crater. A huge crowd soon develops as a bunch of men try to wield it (none are worthy) until SHIELD rolls in led by Agent Coulson from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and sets up a camp there.

After the agents seize Jane's equipment, Thor learns about the hammer and decides to go into the SHIELD compound to retrieve it. He beats up half the guards, which is observed by a by a sniper using a bow-and-arrow codenamed Hawkeye. Thor reaches the hammer to discover he can't wield it and sinks into despair. Foster and Selvig come to retrieve him and Coulson (for some reason) lets him go. Thor, Selvig, Foster, and Darcy start hanging out.

Meanwhile, Loki, who discovers something about his past, may be up to no good. Shocker.

Is it Good?

It’s fun.

Ok, that is not high praise. Saying “It’s fun” in reply to the question, “Is it Good” sounds a lot like saying “She has a nice personality” when asked “Is she pretty.” Re-watching this movie I found it was not as good as I remembered it, but it was still fun.

Let me explain the problem.

Unlike other movies which ramp up the tension in the main plot in every scene with bombastic action this movie took a different approach. We have a lot of action in the first and third acts but the Second Act, aside from the scene where he punches through a dozen SHIELD agents to retrieve Mjolnir, is mostly humor and character development —or, rather, attempts at the two.

The second act of Thor is basically one, long fish-out-of-water Rom-com about a Norse God.

Actually, come to think of it, the whole movie Thor is just that. You have the female lead, her female friend, her parent figure, and the handsome, dashing young man who occasionally appears shirtless. It’s Kate & Leopold but with a slightly more interesting ending (the very end). Someone should do one of those mash-up trailers, you know, like the one that guy did to make The Shining look like a family comedy, but instead make Thor look like some cheesy Romantic Comedy.

Which means that your enjoyment of this movie will be whether you enjoy a romantic comedy built around a Marvel comics character and whether you think there is any chemistry between Thor and Jane Foster. (I found them ok in this movie)

Now, why didn’t I like it this time?

When I first saw it, I loved it. Now? Eh. I enjoyed seeing the God of Thunder getting tased and hit with a car, among other injuries. But now, I think I have seen it so many times that the jokes, which are for the most part, ok, were just not as funny as they used to be. Or maybe I was not in the right mood.

But you may enjoy it, again, I did the first time I saw it.

Interestingly, I still prefer the middle section to the opening and the climax. The opening has always been rather boring for me. Heck, the fight scene in the middle when he storms the base is, not only the best fight scene in the movie, but by far the best scene in the movie, though that might largely be because of Hawkeye and Coulson. On second thought, it might be one of the best fight scenes in a Marvel movie. Period.

Anyway, that’s about it. The Cast is good. Idris Elba is awesome as Heimdall. Ditto with Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Hiddleston as Loki. Hemsworth is Thor. The girl from Two Broke Girls is good.

So, in sum, right now I’d rank it low on the list. Maybe at the bottom. Of course, the list won’t be finished until I finish the Summer of Marvel (and the clock is ticking).

The Summer of Marvel will return on Monday with Captain America: The First Avenger!

“We drank, we fought, he made his ancestors proud.”


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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Film Friday: The Exorcist (1973)

When is a terrifying horror movie not a horror movie? When it’s one of the greatest films of all time and it was made in the 1970’s. As we’ve mentioned before, the films of the 1970’s were different. They tended to be contemplative and involved solid storytelling rather than being about quick emotional triggers. The jokes took time to develop. Love was the goal, not sex. And when it came to scary movies, filmmakers strove for building psychological terror rather than quick shock. The movie that demonstrates this best was The Exorcist.

The Plot

The Exorcist begins with a character you won’t even see again until near the end of the film. The film starts with Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) on an archeological dig in Iraq. In a scene that involves more sights and sounds than words, you see Merrin uncover an amulet which resembles a demon Merrin defeated in an exorcism years ago. The exorcism lasted several days and nearly killed Merrin. The demon he exorcised was called Pazuzu.
The movie then switches to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is here to film a movie at the Georgetown University campus. Her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) plays with a Ouija board and soon strange things begin to happen at their home. These are very minor at first. In fact, they are mistaken as just being rats. But soon Regan begins to show signs of potential mental illness. MacNeil has her daughter evaluated by every specialist she can find, but none of them has an answer. They finally suggest an exorcism as a sort of placebo because Regan has begun to claim she is possessed.

As this story progresses, we simultaneously meet Father Damien Karras. Karras is a priest and a psychiatrist. He is a firm believer in modern science and he disbelieves things like exorcism. In his story, Karras's mother dies without Karras being able to help her and that causes him to lose his faith in God.
With her doctors having told her to seek an exorcism, MacNeil seeks out Karras, whom she has seen at the film set. She now believes that Regan is possessed and that Regan has killed her director Burke Dennings. Karras tries to dissuade her from pursuing exorcism, but ultimately agrees to see Regan. He meets with Regan several times and starts to believe that she may actually be possessed, even though the demon within her gives both evidence of his existence and evidence that he is being faked by Regan. Ultimately, however, Karras decides to do the exorcism.
To do this, he needs the permission of the Church. The Church assigns Merrin to help Karras. They then do the exorcism, which involves several truly iconic moments in film.

What Made This Film So Special

The Exorcist is perhaps the best example of how 1970’s films were different than today because there are so many films we can compare to it. Indeed, you can’t really find a modern exorcism movie which isn’t essentially a direct copy of The Exorcist. Yet, all of them fail to live up to the original. And the reason all the imitators fail, despite having so many advantages, such as having a success to study and the benefit of being able to go further in terms of effects and scares with modern audience, is exactly what makes The Exorcist the great film it is.
Unlike the modern copies, The Exorcist takes its time, but it does so with a purpose. This is something too many modern directors don’t understand: time does not equal drama, careful use of time does. Consider the sequence where Pazuzu possesses Regan. This begins so slowly that the audience could be forgiven for not even knowing what is happening at first. Indeed, at first, it seems like a game where Regan is talking to an imaginary friend over the Ouija board, and then MacNeil thinks there are rats in the ceiling. Soon, Regan’s behavior starts to grow stranger. At this point, the film cleverly leaves the door open for this being either something demonic or simply Regan having a mental condition or possibly a seizure condition. At the same time, the director slowly isolates MacNeil. By the time we know for sure, MacNeil has no friends outside her home and Regan is showing supernatural signs of being a prisoner in her own body... she has become bait for Merrin and Karras.
All of this is vital because the point to this story is not the possession itself, it is the horror caused by the possession. Specifically, it the horror MacNeil faces as her daughter succumbs to a condition MacNeil cannot treat which terrifies us as we translate it to our own children. It is the horror of being Regan who becomes a prisoner in her own body which makes us shudder at being in her condition. It is the horror Karras feels when Pazuzu taps his guilt over his mother and what Karras must do to save Regan which makes us sick as we ask if we could do the same thing. That is where this film works and it is through the slow build that the film makes this real. The modern copies don’t get this. They think the horror comes from making the demon seem as evil as possible, but the demon is irrelevant here... a mere Macguffin. Indeed, this film could almost end with the possession being faked and be just as terrifying because it sells us a drama of a mother, a little girl, and a priest who endure extreme suffering. The copies would be a joke without the demon, since that’s really all they offer.
What's more, another key distinction is that this film actually cares about the character stories. Consider Karras’s issue with his mother. We are essentially given an entire movie about that story before Karras ever meets with Regan. The reason is that we are meant to be pulled into who this man is and what his problems are long before we are shown the monster who will exploit his weakness. The copies generally replace this entire movie of story with a montage of someone the priest loves dying and then the priest telling his boss that he’s lost his faith. That gives you the form, but nowhere near the substance of The Exorcist which is why you can’t even remember the names of the copy-cat priests, but you remain haunted by Damien Karras’s story long after you have seen the film.

This film worked because it was a story about several people who endure horrific choices and incredible suffering. It was not a film about two priests fighting a demon. That is what makes this film so unforgettable, so re-watchable, and why none of the copies have ever approached its quality.

Thoughts?
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Friday, July 10, 2015

Summer of 70s: Superman: The Movie (1978)

By Kit

"You will believe a man can fly." —movie tagline

Remember when DC made fun superhero movies? None of that angst and moody stuff, just sheer fun at a movie theater? And Marvel was struggling just to get a (watchable) movie out? Well, today’s Summer of 70s pick, Superman: The Movie, is the quintessential fun superhero movie. It is also progenitor of the superhero movie genre. All of the great superhero movies came after it. Burton’s Batman, Raimi’s Spider-man, Nolan’s Dark Knight Saga, and all the Marvel movie series owe their existence to this movie.

The Plot

I’m going to be brief. Moreso than usual.

The movie begins on Krypton, where Jor-El on the planet Krypton warns his fellow members on the Council of Krypton that the planet is going to explode and they must leave it immediately. You know the story, they refuse to listen so he and his wife decide to save their only son, Kal-El by sending him to the planet Earth.

He arrives on Earth where he is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who realize he is very special when hee, a 3-year old, lifts Jonathan’s truck up with his bare hands. At age 18 he is already showing powers and after Jonathan Kent dies of a heart attack he leaves. At Jonathan’s funeral he says, “All those things I could do, and I couldn’t save him.”

He then journeys to the Fortress of Solitude where takes lessons from Jor-El, learning about various things and leaves it in 12 years later dressed as Superman. He arrives in Metropolis where he takes a job as a reporter alongside Lois Lane, played by Margot Kidder, who finds him to be a nice but strange man but falls head-over-heels with his Superman alter-ego when he saves her from falling to her death out of a helicopter. An act which turns Superman into a hero and, since he has a crush on Lois, gives her an interview and, afterwards, takes her flying.

Meanwhile, the criminal mastermind Lex Luthor is plotting the crime of the century, that involves buying lots of land in the middle of California and hijacking a nuclear warhead.


Why It Works (And is Still Awesome 35+ years on!)

This movie has problems that detractors love to list, the two biggest being Superman being over-powered at the end and possibly the handling of Lois Lane. And I can see their criticisms, but I don’t care because the movie works.

First, the cast is iconic. They fit their roles to a T. It has been said a thousand times but I have to say it again, Christopher Reeve is Superman. He moves deftly between Clark Kent and Superman, making you believe that (1) they are the same person and (2) people could actually be fooled by it. Unlike Superman Returns, they don’t need a scene to point it out.

Margot Kidder nails Lois Lane. In the hands of any other actress (and a lesser director) Lois Lane would’ve come across as little more than a ditzy air-head who misspells words and falls madly in love with the first superhero she sees but Kidder and Donner give her something else. Instead we get a woman who is a brilliant reporter, going to many lengths to get a story (sometimes to her own physical detriment) and often so focused on getting the story and telling it that little details, like proper spelling and keeping her eye on the road, just slip her mind completely.

The villain is great. Hackman’s Lex Luthor is a brilliant criminal mastermind, but he’s also vain, egotistical, and arrogant and every bit of it comes through in Hackman’s performance. He’s a man in love with his own brilliance. He’s stuck in a world full of little minds who can’t appreciate his genius.

The supporting cast is also good. Marlon Brando brings a weight to his role as Jor-El, Ma and Pa Kent have a warmth and kindness to them, Chief Perry White of the Daily Planet is what you think of when you think of a boisterous and brash newspaper editor (who has some funny scenes), and Luthor’s two not-very-bright henchman, Otis and Miss Tessamacher, are fun to watch and their comedic chemistry with Hackman is perfect.

I could probably write a whole book One thing that is overlooked is just how funny this movie is, the scenes at the Daily Planet have the snappy dialogue reminiscent of movies like His Girl Friday. And the movie was made back when filmmakers still framed their shots theatrically, which gives the movie a bit of an epic feel. Something directors don't do anymore.

Now, before I hit the movie’s two biggest flaws, I want to say something about John Williams score. A great score cannot save a movie, if it could, Kevin Costner’s Waterworld would be ranked on AFI’s list of Top 100 Films, but it can give a good movie a nice boost. A good soundtrack for a good movie is a lot like the whipped cream on a milk shake; it makes something is already enjoyable and add an extra layer of delight.

And this score, well, there is no other way to say it, the moment you here the theme blare out in full orchestra in the opening credits to the word “Superman” you want to tie a red towel around your neck and zoom around like a little kid pretending to be Superman. As cheesy as it sounds, this score makes you want to cheer. It is hard to think of a score in recent memory that actually makes you want to cheer like this one does.

Another home run for America’s grand maestro.


The Two Big Flaws

A two flaws, both contain MAJOR SPOILERS so don’t continue if you don’t want the movie spoiled. Many people complain about Lois’ reporting of Superman’s inability to see through lead and Superman turning back time by flying around the world super-fast. For the first, yeah, I don’t have much of a defense, today it makes both of them seem rather dimwitted (criminals read papers too, you know?) but it’s a minor gripe compared to how much of the movie works. It is also worth remembering that this movie was really the prototype superhero movie.

As for the latter, I have some mixed thoughts on it. In terms of its depiction of Superman as the comic book character, it is very stupid (why doesn’t Superman do this more often?) but in terms of the story that the movie was telling, I think it works. During that scene Superman stops a nuclear missile and then proceeds to not only save a school bus, stop a flood by pushing rocks in front of the surge, and single-handedly stop the Western coast of California from falling into the ocean.

The scene builds up the idea that Superman is becoming a god-like being who can seemingly bend nature to his will. Then he discovers Lois is dead. And what happens next was also foreshadowed when he told Martha Kent at Jonathan’s funeral, “All those things I could do, and I couldn’t save him.” Again, he can stop a state from falling into the Pacific but he can’t save someone he loves. He decides he will, and bends the laws of

He is not longer god-like, he is a god.

Lois even mentioned during the scene when she and Superman are flying together when she describes flying with Superman like “holding hands with a god.”

So it depends on whether you like this particular handling of Superman or not.

"You've got me? Who's got you?"
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Monday, July 6, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Iron Man 2 (2010)

What can I say about Iron Man 2? I liked it. Hmm. Now what am I going to talk about for the rest of the column?

Plot

Some dude in Russia, Anton Vanko, sees the disclosure on the news that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is Iron Man. He starts building his own arc reactor, which is the thing that powers the Iron Man suit, so he can prove that Iron Man isn’t invincible.

Back in the US, Stark grows despondent and reckless when he realizes that he is dying because the reactor in his suit is poisoning him. He hands his massive company over to his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and he starts having wild parties and doing stupid(er) things. He even decides to compete in the Monaco Grand Prix. During that race, however, he gets attacked by Vanko. Stark defeats Vanko, but Vanko attracts the attention of Stark’s rival Justin Hammer, who breaks Vanko out of jail so he can build a line of armored suits for his company.
In the meantime, Stark gets drunk and angers everyone at a party he throws. He needs to be subdued by Air Force Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who confiscates an armored suit for the government; so far, Stark has refused to part with them. At the same time, Stark learns that his new assistant is really Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and he meets Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of SHIELD, who claims Stark’s father was a member of SHIELD and wants him to join too.

Soon, Stark cures the problem of the arc reactor poisoning him. He then learns that Hammer has created heavily armed drones he intends to show off for the government, but Vanko arrives and they fight to end the movie.

Why I Liked This Movie

Hmm. Ok, stick with me. By and large, I’ve found that I like sequels better than originals in the “franchise” genre, i.e. the genre where “properties” are put on film with the hope of being able to milk an existing fan base through three or four movies and some spin-offs. The reason is simple. The first film in every franchise series is invariably an origin story, especially in the comic book universe, and origin stories suck. It’s in the sequel that the writers normally first get the chance to offer real stories.
Iron Man 2 is not an origin story. The writers don’t waste time trying to explain who Tony Stark is or how he ended up in the suit. Instead, they get to focus on the next step in the story. That gives this film an instant boost because it adds the element of the unknown because the story isn’t following a tired formula that everyone follows. This is unchartered water.

What’s more, the Marvel universe is much more prone to interesting movies than the regular comic book fare because Marvel likes to delve into the heroes in the story and what makes them tick. That shifts a significant portion of the screen time from seeing useless CGI punches being tossed to seeing the writers make the characters interact. The end result of that is that the characters tend to be much more interesting, the dialog is less transactional (“I will stop you now”) and more about who these people are and how they interact, and you end up caring more for the characters.

Trust me, nothing spells “soul death” like watching Superman trade punches with another cardboard villain who can’t be harmed physically for forty f*cking minutes!!! Arggg! Fortunately, you will never find that in Marvel films (excluding the Hulk crapfests): “Hulk smash pixels until you slit your wrists with popcorn bucket!”
Anyways, Iron Man 2 is a movie I enjoyed for these reasons. It is populated by real characters with different personalities and different goals whose interactions are often endearing or humorous. There were few fight scene to bore me, none were all that long, and none of them felt really pointless. The actors were perfect too.

Paltrow is an excellent foil for Downey Jr. Cheadle evokes a lot of sympathy because you know he’s a good guy and he’s being held back by Downey’s irresponsibility. Johansson is hot... and is in this movie. Rockwell is slimy as Hammer and you really despise him. Even Vanko, who is rather clichéd, is enough of a brooding presence that you at least get a sense of menace whenever he is on screen – too often villains just prance around and act melodramatically; not so here.
Ultimately though, the guy who sells this movie is Downey Jr. Stark comes across as simultaneously inspiring and annoying as hell. You want to punch the guy. He’s such a genius with such a potential to save the world, and yet he acts like a spoiled child who is more interested in fart jokes than achieving his potential. THAT SAID, HOWEVER, (here is the key), he’s not a slacker. Stark is an ass and an annoyance, but he’s also a brilliant scientist with a strong sense of responsibility. He works hard. He bathes. He does take his responsibilities seriously... too seriously at times actually. Nothing about him is the pathetic modern slacker that these films jam into the hero roles (cough cough Green Lantern, Green Hornet, etc.). He really is a hero.
Unfortunately, he’s also a bit of a control freak in the worst possible sense. Indeed, Stark doesn’t trust anyone else to handle the suit and he is rather fascist in his outlook, thinking that he can impose order on the world to make it a perfect place.

All of this makes him a genuine contradiction and easily the most complex and unpredictable character ever written in the comic book film world... and Downey Jr. is 100% believable as him. In fact, thinking about it, I can’t imagine another actor who could handle this role. Most would try to hero-him-up and give him a secret pain which is keeping him from being perfect. Some would slacker him down into Van Wilder. Others simply would never present themselves as having a dark, a-hole side. And others would make him into manic depressive Batman who wants the world to die so its misery ends.

Only Downey Jr. can balance the good with the bad, the responsibility with the obnoxiousness, the self-pity with the nobility, and give us this unique Tony Stark. Only Downey Jr. revels in the complexity and doesn’t try to make Stark into a one-note antihero.

That is why I like this film.

Thoughts?
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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Summer of 70's (Bonus Round)

While we’re doing the Summer of 70’s films, I wanted to be sure to mention some films that I would definitely add to the list but which have already been reviewed at the site. Here is a list of those film you should add to your film library:

Soylent Green (1974). This is a great dystopian film based on a very faulty premise. The premise is that the human race would keep breeding and breeding until there are so many of us that the world simply collapses in a dead, polluted mess. Now those who are left are starving, and their leaders have turned to the unthinkable to feed everyone. The story itself is about NYC Detective Thorn who is investigating the death of a food company executive and comes to discover the truth. This film does an excellent job of presenting its mystery and an even better job of making you feel like you are living in this forsaken hell hole.

Vanishing Point (1971). This barely known film is essentially one long car chase. You had a lot of these in the 1970s. What makes this movie work so well is the divine overtones as the hero seems to be guided by a blind radio DJ who can see more than a human could and a fascinating ambiguous ending... plus a great soundtrack.

Alien (1979). This is simply the best horror-science fiction film ever made.

Deliverance (1972). This seemingly simple tale of four city-folk from Atlanta who go rafting on a dying river in hillbilly country effectively defined the urban, rural split that still influences much of our culture and our politics today as the panicked snooty elitists start killing what they think are butt-raping hillbillies... but might not be.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). This musical could be the first true “cult film” and it’s something everyone should see at least once to understand the same subculture that gave birth to modern cos-play.

Rollerball (1975). Perhaps the most conservative film of the 1970s, this film brings a strong warning against collectivism to the big screen by telling us that the collectivists cannot afford to allow a single talented athlete to give people the idea that they can succeed through individual effort.

Smokey and the Bandit (1976). Although seemingly just another car chase film, this film announced to the country that the American South had moved beyond Jim Crow and joined the modern world. I think it is no understatement to say that this film heralded the South’s rise as an economic and political power that rivaled any other part of the nation and saw the sunset of the once-dominant Northeast.

Silver Streak (1976). This film wasn’t really consequential, but it is perhaps one of the top comedies of the 1970s and I would say that it was a high-water mark for Gene Wilder. It was also Wilder’s first collaboration with Richard Pryor.

Make sure to check these out, and enjoy the films! Anything you would add to what we've already reviewed? And why?
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Monday, June 29, 2015

Summer of Marvel: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

"HULK SMASH!

By Kit

We're back!

Following up their big-hit Iron Man later that summer Marvel released their attempted reboot of the Hulk. The Hulk had previously been made into a film in 2004 to much disappointment, widely seen as too pretentious and too dreary by many. So in 2008 they decided to add more action and less drama, but still retain some.

Does it work? Let's see.

The Plot

The movie begins with an opening credits montage giving us a little back story on what has happened; Bruce Banner was doing tests for a military project led by General Ross alongside Ross’ daughter, Betty, who he has a thing for. Something goes wrong, he turns into a giant monster, severely injures Betty Ross and is forced to go on the run from General Ross.

The movie then picks up with him in Brazil, working at a factory that bottles a type of green soda (the color green pops up a lot in this movie) and he is well-liked by floor manager who often has him fixing broken-down devices. When he is not working he often works on ways to manage his anger and communicates online with a mysterious Mr. Blue, who might know of a cure.

Unfortunately, a bit of his blood falls into a bottle where it is shipped to America and consumed by Stan Lee, who contracts gamma radiation poisoning/sickness from it, which, after tracking it to the factory it was made, alerts General Ross to Banner’s likely whereabouts. He promptly sends a squad of soldiers led by Russian-born Brit special ops guy Emil Blonsky —neglecting to inform them of Bruce’s unique “condition”.

They go in and try to grab Bruce while a group of local thugs are messing with him. Eventually, both push Bruce far enough that he snaps and you know how that song and dance goes. What follows is a mostly-in-the-dark fight scene (smart decision, I should add) where the Hulk takes out both the local thugs and Blonsky’s soldiers one-by-one. The hulk flees and Bruce soon finds himself waking up in Guatemala (the Hulks runs far) where he decides to head back home to Culver University.

Arriving there he meets up with an old friend who tells him his old girlfriend Betty is dating some guy played by Phil Dunphy from Modern Family. Bruce decides to get into the computer lab and hack in using Betty’s password to get the information on the research back when the experiments went wrong. He does and returns to his old friend’s place —where Betty is there with her boyfriend.They see each other.

Meanwhile Blonsky is filled in by Ross on what Banner was doing, apparently, unbeknownst to him, he was working on trying to re-build the old Super-soldier serum from the 1940s. Things were not going well but he was sure he was onto something so he went ahead with a test and things went wrong or something like that. Blonsky decides he wants a bit of that and Ross agrees.

Meanwhile, Bruce and Betty are catching up at the Quad when the military arrives, having been informed by Betty’s ex-boyfriend. Bruce gets put in a corner and Hulks out and tosses a few humvees like a two-year old tosses little toy cars. That is, until Blonsky arrives who manages to put up a decent fight dodging his blows due to the super-soldier serum until the Hulk eventually knocks him out of the fight, breaking all of his bones. The Hulk then flees with Betty.

After returning to his human form Betty and Bruce decide to travel to New York City to meet up with Mr. Blue, or Samuel Sterns, a.k.a., “The Leader” in the comics (but not yet), in order to see if they can develop a cure. Meanwhile, Emil Blonsky quickly heals and is ready for another go, though now slightly unhinged.

What ensues is a race to get the cure, which has limited success, and Blonsky becoming the Abomination, a Hulk-like monster but with protruding bones , and a fight between the Abomination and the Hulk in Harlem.



Is it Good?

It's a mixed bag.

This movie was a bit better than I remembered it being, though still nowhere near as fun as the rest of the Marvel movie canon. The movie is a mixed bag. It has a strong performance from Ed Norton, the humor, like in all Marvel movies, is very good, and the movie has very fun fight scenes. But outside of that it struggles. The CGI of the Hulk still needs work and the villains are clichéd Hollywood military stereotypes you’ve seen a thousand times before.

First, the lead.

Ed Norton is very good. He gives us a Bruce that is likable but modest and unassuming. After watching this I have to say that he’s a better Bruce than Mark Ruffalo, not that Ruffalo is bad (he’s very good, actually) just that Norton is better.

Unfortunately, when he turns into the Hulk we see the movies first big problem. For reasons of either insufficient tech or insufficient money, the CGI for the Hulk, though a big improvement over 2004, is still not quite up to the level it would be in Avengers, let alone Avengers 2. He still looks a bit too much like a giant Shrek and at times I felt he looked a bit like a green, juiced-up young P.J. O’Rourke for some weird reason. Though, again, it is still an improvement over 2004.

Fortunately, if you can get past the CGI issues, the fight scenes are a lot of fun. The movie builds up anticipation for the Hulk each time, bringing us to the point that we are almost begging for the Hulk to appear, and unleashing him on the whoever has been asking for whooping. And the fight scenes, like with much of the pre-Avengers Marvel movies, are not the over-the-top destruction fests that now seem to dominate the genre. Today, the entire campus would probably be leveled, but here, we just have a simple fight scene on a quad between the Hulk and the military.

On the topic of the military, it is there we come to the movie’s most annoying weakness. This one has a slew of liberal, anti-military, Hollywood clichés.

Here are three questions that popped into my mind while watching the movie:
—Why the hell doesn’t General Ross tell the squad he sends after Banner at the beginning of the movie that the guy they are hunting can change into an enormous green rage monster at the turn of a second? That seems like something you want to bring up in the pre-op briefing. But I’m just a civilian so what do I know.
—Where the hell is the Congressional oversight on this? Two years later in the movie Iron Man 2 Congress would be trying to rip Stark over not letting the government have his suits but General Ross is able to do whatever he wants. Oh, and FYI, in-universe, Iron Man 2 occurs in the same week as this movie.
—On the subject of General Ross doing whatever he wants. Apparently full battalion, with machine guns-armed humvees, is able to just roll onto a college campus? Posse Comitatus Act, anyone? I’m pretty sure that requires at least an act of Congress to approve.

Yeah, this is not the worst handling of the military in a movie but coming on the heels of the fairly pro-military Iron Man and in a film series that has generally been pro-military, it was and still is quite jarring. The only real redeeming factor here is that William Hurt actually gives a pretty decent performance as General Ross, making him into a sort of Captain Ahab who has this mad obsession with the Hulk. You kind of feel sorry for the guy. Kind of.

As for the rest, the humor that is now trademark to the Marvel movies is funny. The side-performances are mostly ok, Liv Tyler is good in some scenes but there were a few I felt she was lacking. There are also some pleasant touches to the 1970s series, the best being the use of the iconic “Lonely Man Theme” as Bruce is traveling to the United States.

So, in all, the movie is ok. Not near the top but if you can get past the still-troubled CGI and the clichéd military then you will probably have a fun time watching it.

Summer of Marvel will return with a review of Iron Man 2, this time written by Andrew Price.


Bruce: "I can't get too excited."
Betty: "Not even just a little excited?"
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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Film Friday: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is an amazing and fascinating film. Normally, I don’t review films that have been written about this much, but this time I think it’s worth it. Close Encounters is the film I think of when people talk about the 1970’s film renaissance, when I think of Spielberg’s real talent, and when I think of films done right. This is a film you should see and appreciate.

Plot

Close Encounters involves the convergence of two separate but related stories. The first story unfolds in small vignettes that take their time to explain what is going on. In the first vignettes, a group of men race through the desert to find a collection of World War II era fighter craft, Grumman Avengers, in pristine condition. We don’t know this yet but these are the planes belonging to the doomed Flight 19 which vanished without a trace off of Florida. In the second, the same men find a ship, the SS Cotopaxi (which sank on her way to Cuba), in the sand dunes of the Gobi desert. In the third, an air traffic controller hears two planes report seeing UFOs flying near them. In the forth, the men are in India, where they seek villagers who claim to have seen something in the sky. These villagers provide the men with a series of musical tones which the men conclude are a form of communication.
Each of these vignettes builds the puzzle and brings us to the conclusion that aliens are seeking to communicate with the human race and they have chosen Devil’s Tower, Wyoming as their place of contact.

The second story, which is interspersed between these vignettes, involves Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, an electrical lineman from Indiana. Roy is out looking to fix a downed wire when he has a close encounter which sunburns half his face. This piques his interest and he starts to investigate UFOs. In the process, he meets a single mother named Jillian, who also has had a close encounter. Her son will be kidnapped by the aliens while she is in the house.
As Roy investigates, he becomes increasingly erratic in his behavior. This causes his wife to take their three children and leave him. The specific event that causes her to leave is when Roy starts dumping garbage in their living room so he can build a life-size model of Devil’s Tower. He feels compelled to do this even though he doesn’t even know that it’s Devil’s Tower until he sees a report on the news that the military is evacuating the Devil’s Tower area because of a supposed nerve gas spill. Roy is drawn to the area and, believing the military story to be false, he makes his way there.
At the foot of Devil’s Tower, the two stories converge as Roy is picked up trying to sneak into the area. There the men from the vignettes question him and try to send him away. But Roy escapes and reunites with Jillian, who also has been drawn here. They make their way up the mountain until they find the secret landing base the government constructed. Soon enough, the aliens arrive.

What Makes This Film So Awesome

Close Encounters is an awesome movie. It’s beautiful shot. It’s incredible well written. You really care about these characters. The plot is engaging. The mystery of what is going on is fascinating the first time through and still engaging even when you know how it will turn out. The movie has iconic music and sounds. It has amazing special effects too, blowing away those of today.
The movie is historically interesting too. For one thing, this film allowed science fiction to grow up. Before this, science fiction was about spaceships and laser guns and battling aliens. This was the first film that foreswore that and said that science fiction could be a character drama about how we finally make contact with an alien race. Indeed, the film’s view of realistic aliens as peaceful is essentially groundbreaking.

It’s also historically interesting because of the way it influenced UFO believers. Before this film, UFO abductees all over the world reported seeing very different aliens. But after this film, they all saw the small gray eunuchs with large heads and large eyes. So in a way, this film unified the UFO story, which has made the industry stronger... even though it should be discrediting.

Anyway, what makes this film so fantastic is the way Spielberg handled it. This was probably the film that cemented Spielberg’s empire, coming on the heels of Jaws and being a world wide mega-hit, and the reason why is that Spielberg was at the top of his game. This was Spielberg before he succumbed to commercialism and before he started using shortcuts to generate emotion. This was Spielberg when he took his time and told the story as it should be told.
What Spielberg did so well can be seen in the characters. First, and most importantly, he takes his time. Spielberg never rushes. This is so rare in modern cinema, where every second that can be removed from a film is for various reasons. Secondly, there are no villains. Some want to see the military as villains, but they aren’t. The military chases everyone out of Wyoming and tries to keep Roy and Jillian from getting up the mountain because they want to avoid a chaotic first contact. Notice that they never use violence to stop these people, and there are no armed soldiers or weapons at the landing site. Doing a film without a villain is a rare achievement in modern cinema because it is harder to write conflict without a villain.

The real key, however, is in the wide array of characters who get solid screen time. Roy is the everyman skilled laborer. His wife (Terri Garr) is the frustrated wife. Jillian is the overwhelmed single mom. David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) is a cartographer who is enlisted in the search for clues because he can translate French into English. Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) is a French scientist and specialist in UFOs who leads the search for clues. Other prominent characters include an Air Force officer assigned to Project Blue Book, the Army commander in charge of clearing out Wyoming, air traffic controllers and the pilots to whom they speak, police, co-workers of Roy, Roy’s kids, a UFO crank, the men in charge of communicating with the aliens, and so on. Each of these characters feels real to us because we learn tons about them. In fact, we know more about them than we know about the lead characters in most modern films, and that makes the film feel real.
What's more, Spielberg gives us this wealth of information in only a few clever moments or lines of dialog. Consider Roy’s wife Ronnie. She seems like a loving wife on the surface, but we quickly see that she’s rather lazy, from her wardrobe, and she’s more concerned with appearances than with Roy’s problems as she tries to hide his sunburn and get him to stop talking about it. And, most tellingly, she blows up at Roy at the very moment where he asks her for emotional help. This tells us so much about her and it explains why Roy acts so erratically. As an aside, she would not exist in a modern remake except as an off-screen ex-wife.

Now take Laughlin, who is a sort of narrator for the vignettes. He never tells us anything about his life, except that he was a cartographer who also speaks French. But we soon learn that he’s rather meek, that he’s amazed by what he’s seeing and wants to believe, that he’s a kind man, that he never once worries that the aliens might be a danger, and that he’s rather bright. We learn this in an intensely clever scene where he solves the key mystery. In this scene, Laughlin realizes that the signals sent by the aliens represent coordinates on a map. In most movies, he would blurt this out and the scene would end. But Spielberg doesn’t do this.
Instead, we see Laughlin figure it out. He takes a moment to be sure of what he thinks he’s found. Then, rather than slamming this in the faces of the supposed geniuses who are debating all around him, he politely turns and says, “excuse me.” Then he humbly explains his conclusion. And then, having solved the key mystery, he goes right back to being a simple interpreter. This tells us so much about his character. And again, this is exactly the kind of character films no longer use because they want the main character to handle everything and they don’t care about letting you get to know the minor characters.

In fact, while we are talking about that scene, I think the brilliance of that entire scene deserves mention, as Spielberg converts a scene involving men talking into an action scene. He does this by having all the characters talking over each other and moving their arms around, which gives the impression of motion. Then, rather than grabbing a map, they find an enormous globe, which they free from its holder rather than carry back to their room and they let it roll toward the camera as they chase it. Again, this gives a sense of motion and urgency, and strangely it makes the audience tense as they wait to see if the men can catch the globe, just as it's tense waiting to see if Laughlin can interrupt them to be heard - in a similar moment, Roy is distracted by his wife as the television shows Devil's Tower in the background and it feels very tense as you wait to see if he will turn around in time to see it. Finally, rather than just finding the spot on the map, we watch two fingers trace the longitude and latitude lines until they connect, giving the audience a feeling of a race and a treasure being found, and then suddenly the room explodes in voices again.

The end result is that a scene which essentially only involves some men pondering the meaning of some numbers and looking it up on the map, turns into an action scene with a dramatic punch. Spielberg does this throughout the movie. This is what Spielberg used to do so well and which so few others ever managed to copy - make boring moments into heart-pounding scenes filled with real characters. Sadly, no one does this today. This is why this film is so amazing.

Thoughts?

As an aside, notice that the rolling globe and the tracing of lines will appear again in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Film Friday: Three Days of the Condor (1975)

I’m not a fan of Robert Redford. I don’t think he’s a great actor. His timing feels like he’s acting. His characters are too perfect. And he’s too pretty for most of the roles he plays. That said, I really like him in Three Days of the Condor. Condor strikes me as one of the few genuinely interesting and engaging spy films out there. Too bad it’s utterly without substance, but it’s still a good film and you should see it.

The Plot

Robert Redford works for the CIA in a satellite office in New York. His code name is Condor. He’s a reader whose job is to read books, newspapers and magazines from all over the world and look for hidden meaning within them. In performing his duties, he comes across a pulp thriller with strange plot elements which has been translated into an unusually large number of languages, with a particular emphasis on oil producing countries. He files a report with CIA headquarters.
As Redford waits for an answer to his report, he is sent out for lunch. When he returns to the office, he discovers that everyone has been killed. He quickly calls the CIA’s New York headquarters for instructions and is told that he will be picked up to be debriefed. The meeting, however, is a trap and his supposed rescuers try to kill him.

What follows is a cat and mouse game between Redford and a contract killer named Joubert (Max von Sydow) as Redford tries to solve the riddle of who at the CIA has been trying to have him killed. In the process, he kidnaps and befriends Faye Dunaway, who needs a boyfriend.
What Makes This Film Stand Out

Condor is a fascinating film that you all should see. Let me start with the criticisms, however. First, little about the film makes any sense once you stop to think about it. In fact, take the underlying premise, that Redford has spotted some secret plan in published books. This is nonsense. Why in the world would the CIA or anyone else put their plans into published books for the world to stumble upon?

Moreover, why would they communicate with whomever they are supposedly communicating with in this manner? Consider that it takes months to get a book published. And it probably takes even longer to get it translated and published in other countries. Wouldn’t it be easier to call these people or send radio communications or even make cryptic announcements on the news?
Why the CIA decides to kill Redford’s entire department makes no sense either. In movie terms, I guess it does, but in real life what Redford has stumbled upon sounds like it would be more easily covered up with a “Good work! We’ll take it from here!”

The film also suffers from too-convenient-itis, as all the characters act in ways they need to for Redford to survive. It also tries to skate by with a near total lack of substance. What is the CIA's plan? SomethingsomethingOIL! Who is Joubert? He’s a hired killer from somethingsomething. Why does the CIA use him? Somethingsomething. Even the ending is kind of ambiguous as to what really happens. In effect, the whole film is ephemeral. There is an evil plot, worthy of someone at the CIA killing CIA employees for finding out about it. They hire a mystery guy who gets instructions to kill Redford, except when it would end the film. In the end, some or all (maybe?) of the bad guys get killed and the plot is foiled... or not.

That said...

I really do like this film, and the reason is that this film provides the atmosphere of a genuine spy story, and there simply aren’t very many of those out there. Indeed, this film has all the elements we love about spies. You have the secret shop hidden right in the middle of the city as something else. You have the cool assignment of searching for hidden meanings in books. You have the clean up team of contract killers who wipe out an entire division without anyone knowing. You have the “who can you trust” paranoia that adds genuine tension to these films. You have the cool foreign assassin who would rather talk about the craft than shoot the hero dead, and he delivers a truly memorable speech about how the CIA will one day kill Redford. And the hero must use extraordinary skills to solve the problem they face.
All of this is excellent and you just can’t find it anywhere else. Indeed, despite the Cold War, there was almost nothing done by Hollywood that addressed spies in any realistic and interesting way. Instead, you had James Bond being a Playboy or John le Carré’s depressing and slow stories that feel like you are watching accountants try to find a mistake in a tax return.
What’s more, the characters in this story are likable and intriguing. Max von Sydow plays the mythical contract killer who follows an honorable code which almost makes him a good guy. This is not a man who will kill the unsuspecting and unprepared and we like him for that and we find him mysterious in a way which makes us want to know him better... despite the fact that he’s a cold-blooded killer. Faye Dunaway plays the kind of woman most men want to meet. She’s cold and hard at first and quite strong, but the more Redford gets to know her, the more you see the broken heart and the woman ready to give her all for the right man. She is not a cardboard character like most women on film today.
Redford is the key though. Redford simply can’t play a gangster or a miner or a construction worker because he’s too pretty and you can’t picture him ever getting dirty, but he fits perfectly as a bright young academic who finds himself terrified as he ends up stuck in the middle of a mess because of his naiveté. He’s also believable as the man who could seduce Faye Dunaway without even trying to seduce her, and he comes across as smart enough to believe he could learn what he needs to know on the fly. Further, he is rather likable in this film because for once he doesn’t play a know-it-all, he plays the guy who knows nothing and better learn fast.
Each of these characters is likable and interesting and they do an excellent job giving you a reason to care about the cat and mouse game that is taking place, and that is what drives this film.

So would this film still be worthy of recommending if there had been competing spy movies? Absolutely. This film has a strong atmosphere that pulls you into the world of spies very effectively. It has likable characters and a memorable plot. It is worthy of seeing. The fact that there really is no competition really only enhances that.

Thoughts?
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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Film Friday: The Bad New Bears (1976)

One of my favorite films of the 1970’s is The Bad New Bears. The Bad New Bears more than any other film encapsulates the free spirit of what it was like to be a kid in the 1970’s. It’s also hilarious!

Plot

The Bad New Bears is the story of an odd-ball youth baseball team that rises up to challenge the perfect team. The story begins when a city councilman wins his lawsuit against the Southern California Little League challenging the exclusion of the least athletically skilled children. To settle the suit, the League allows the councilman to form another team, the Bears, for these less than gifted kids and they will get to play.

Naturally, the team is a mess. Their pitcher is near-sighted. Their catcher is the immobile fat kid. They have two Mexican kids who can’t speak English. Their shortstop is a small kid who is prone to violence against bigger kids. They even have a kid, Lupus, who is so withdrawn that it seems to be a mental condition; he's afraid to swing the bat. One player describes the team as “a bunch of Jews, spics, niggers, pansies and a booger-eating moron.” Even worse, the coach who has been chosen to lead this team of misfits is former minor-league ball player and current alcoholic Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau).
Buttermaker is a bitter old man who works as a pool cleaner and has no sense at all how to deal with children. He is politically incorrect and liberally insults the kids. He drives the entire team around in his beater convertible with the top down and without seatbelts. He drinks beer as he drives and, at one point, he even lets the kids drink his beer. He even gets a bail bonds company to sponsor the team.

The team’s first game is a disaster and they are forced to forfeit after a humiliating beating. After this, Buttermaker decides to add some talent to the roster. Specifically, he finds Amanda (Tatum O’Neal), the eleven year old daughter of one of his former girlfriends, who is a pitching savant. She refuses at first because she wants to torture Buttermaker a bit, but eventually she agrees. He also adds Kelly, a motorcycle-riding, smoking troublemaker. Kelly can run rings around the rest of the team and Buttermaker wants him to do so. Unfortunately, this creates ill will and Buttermaker must learn to trust the kids to rise to the occasion rather than relying on Kelly. Naturally, the Bears begin to get better bit by bit and eventually they end up playing the evil Yankees and their even more evil coach (Vic Morrow) for the little league pennant.
What Makes This Movie So Great

This is a fantastic movie on many levels. First, Matthau puts in another excellent performance. He truly is an amazing actor at presenting unlikable characters and making them sympathetic. I would dare say that he is vastly underrated as an actor. The film is also very well written and delivers a great many surprising moments, something you really don’t expect from a sports film. Indeed, while this film is a formula sports film in many ways, it never feels like it because it diverges from the formula more than enough to feel like a genuine story.
It is heartwarming too, but without being saccharine as so many other heartwarming films are. These kids come to respect each other and with that comes a sense of camaraderie. They aren’t forced to present a fake love for each other as other similar films require. Indeed, they keep right on insulting each other right up through the end. And the comedic timing is excellent, especially as so many of the best lines are spoken by child actors. Modern kids films tend to be slicker than this one, but they never feel as real.

Further, this film is an amazing time capsule of a film. The 1970’s were a high-water mark for great times to grow up. By the 1980’s, kids became latchkey kids as divorce soared and yuppie parents had only single children and even then traded their time with them for that second BMW. This was also the beginning of the obsession with safety and childproofing childhood. The 1990’s were beset with the peak of hateful feminism and fringe religious nuttery. Little girls either became little boys or submissive sister-wives and boys were told to play with Barbie. At the same time, racial tensions and de facto segregation were stoked by things like the OJ trial. Anyone raised in the 2000’s grew up paranoid of terrorism. The 1970’s had none of that. We grew up eating sugared cereal, riding bikes without helmets, telling dirty and racist/sexist jokes with our minority friends, driving in convertibles without seatbelts and rocking out to a musical and cinematic golden age. This film captures that spirit like a time capsule. In fact, I can’t think of a film that better presents an era than this one.
Indeed, look at how little of what happens in this film would be acceptable today. An entire baseball team rides around in Buttermaker’s broken down convertible without seatbelts. Today, that would be a crime, but our pee wee football did that and no one complained. Buttermaker lets the kids drink beer. That happened to. No helmets on bikes? We didn't even own helmets! A twelve year old with cigarettes? The victory parties are held at Pizza Hut? They tell racial jokes and say cutting, nasty things to each other? Yeah... we did all of that, and not only did we live to talk about it, but we got along and we had a great time.

Notice what’s missing too. There are no “hockey dads” who are ready to shoot each other dead over playing time. The kids throw punches without the cops being called. Nobody’s taking growth hormones or steroids. No one is whining about safety or peanut allergies or the fairness of keeping score. The “villain” is an opposing coach who is pushing his own son too hard... not a sniveling businessman trying to destroy the environment by sabotaging the Bears somehow. This film presents a time when people enjoyed life without worrying about the most hypersensitive prick and/or prickette in the room.
Even more importantly, there is on more thing missing: cynicism. Let me repeat that... there is a total lack of cynicism. This film revels in the joys these kids get when they realize that they can succeed if they try hard enough as a team. That makes this such a fun and happy film. Kids sports films today exist largely to send messages. Those messages are cynical stories declaring that girls are just as good as boys athletically or even more cynical stories about blacks and whites coming together in total harmony if the white racists just learn to do a little hip hop (Remember the Titans... cough cough). They are stories that push trendy theories about how children must act in a supposedly perfect world and which warn everyone to be terrified of causing offense. Bears wasn’t selling any of that crap. What Bears told us was that these losers didn’t have to be losers if they could learn to trust and respect each other. It didn’t ask any more of them. They didn’t have to solve the world’s problems or save the environment or find a way for people of all colors, genders and religions (except Islam) to coexist. They just had to learn to work together to play baseball, that’s it. And because of that, this feels like a fun and happy and genuine story rather than a political message acted out in a motion picture.

Finally, perhaps the most important thing this film has going for it is that it’s just a fun film. So many films today, especially formula films like Bears, just aren’t very fun. In fact, check the remake which is full of cruelty and spite, but entirely devoid of fun.
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Sunday, June 7, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Hiatus

Due to summer classes causing a change in my daily schedule and tests on nearly every Monday in June, a blu-ray being sent to the wrong location, and being locked out of my apartment for 3 hours (but mostly the first one) the Summer of Marvel is being put on a temporary hiatus. It will be resuming June 29.

In the meantime, click below for some youtube mashups/music videos set to the movies.

Iron Man: "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath
LINK

AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" music video for Iron Man 2:
LINK.

Thor: AC/DC's "Thunderstruck"
LINK

A rather funny parody of the Captain America trailer featuring two songs from Team America; "Buck o' Five" and "America, F*ck Yeah!". Very much Not Safe For Work, obviously.: LINK

The opening to the 70s Hulk show set to clips from 2008's The Incredible Hulk":
LINK

2012's Avengers set to the opening of the cartoon, Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes:
LINK

And an updated one for Age of Ultron LINK

Have fun.
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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Film Friday: The French Connection (1971)

Today we come to The French Connection. The French Connection is a fascinating film that has been recognized by many as one of the best films of the 1970's. Its hero, Popeye Doyle is also routinely voted as one of the top movie heroes, though I find that somewhat questionable. Interestingly, Doyle will become the model for all future cops. Let’s discuss.

Plot

The French Connection begins in France, where rich French criminal Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is visiting the docks. Charnier runs the largest heroin smuggling ring in the world. He’s working on a plan to bring millions of dollars in heroin to the United States hidden inside the car of his friend Henri Devereaux, a French television personality. The idea is to hide the heroin inside the car's frame or lining. After the car gets shipped to the US, the car can be taken apart and the heroin removed. The heroin can then be passed along to various distributors.
Meanwhile, in New York City, we meet two cops: Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider). Doyle and Russo are on the narcotics squad and they go around the city busting pushers and users. In one early scene, we see them chase down a suspect with Doyle dressed as Santa. In another, Doyle and Russo shake down a bar full of black patrons, each of whom seems to be carrying drugs. Finally, we are shown that Doyle is very unpopular with the other detectives because he is blamed for the death of another cop. He and his superiors do not like each other either.

The two stories begin to merge when we are told by an undercover cop during the bar shakedown that all the drugs have dried up on the street. There is almost nothing to be bought or sold at the moment and no one has any idea when more is coming. Doyle and Russo pass this on to their commander, and go to a bar for the night. As they sit at the bar, they see a table packed with mobsters and attractive. Doyle's instincts tell him that there is something "wrong" with that table. He decides to investigate.

By investigating the people at the table, Doyle learns of a connection between the mobsters and lawyer Joel Weinstock, who acts as a go-between between the mob and Charnier. Indeed, Weinstock’s chemists checks a sample of the heroin for purity and advises that what is being bought is worth $32 million on the street. Following Weinstock leads Doyle to Charnier, who is trying to sell his heroin to the mob, who will distribute it.
What follows is a rather clever, interesting and at times tense battle between Doyle and Charnier, wherein Doyle tries to catch Charnier with the drugs, while Charnier tries to kill Doyle and then escape him.

What Made This Film A Classic

There is so much for which to commend this film. Doyle is a fascinating character. Charnier is a fascinating villain. This was one of the first films to look at the drug trade in a serious way and that made it rather interesting. The scheme used by Charnier is clever and makes for a good mystery toward the end of the film. The film is gritty rather than glossy, which gives it a fascinating ambiance. That ambiance is enhanced both by the setting being a decaying New York (indeed, the police station almost looks like something out of Mad Max) and the comparison between the cold, hard life of Doyle and Russo and the luxury in which Charnier surrounds himself. All of that makes for a great viewing experience.
What really made this movie standout, however, was Doyle. Doyle is an interesting character. On the one hand, he's a total jerk. He's abusive in a way that would not be tolerated today even by the worst police departments. We see this in particular in the bar shakedown scene where he threatens with violence and false allegations, where he leaves the appearance of having beaten a patron (who is actually an undercover cop – as an aside, we have already seen Doyle beat another suspect he arrests), and where he appears to steal either drugs or money from the people he shakes down. That makes him an abusive, corrupt cop and a truly unlikely hero.

It's possible too that he's racist, but it's more likely he hates everyone equally. He's a bad cop too in that he plays vague hunches and becomes obsessed with them to the point of needing to be ordered to abandon the hunch, he ignores orders and doesn't care at all about procedures, and he focuses on crimes the department isn't focusing on. None of his arrests would withstand legal scrutiny today, and it's even less likely they would have withstood the more liberal justice system of the 1970's. It is also suggested that these misbehaviors led to other officer(s) being hurt or killed, which seems to be why the other cops don't like him.
So why does the audience connect with this train wreck of a cop? Why has he become one of the favorite film heroes of all time? I suspect there's only one reason and it is the reason that makes this film work: Doyle is right. His instincts have led him straight to the biggest heroin deal in history and he's latched onto it like a pit bull to a BBQ-sauce-covered child. There is something about the guy everyone claims is wrong, but who is really right and who fights to prove that which attracts us as viewers. It comes from our love of the underdog, from our love of getting things right, and I think it comes from the fact that so many of us think we are right even as society tells us repeatedly that we are wrong. We want to believe that we know something THEY don't and Doyle represents us in that. He acts the way we wish we could, by flipping his middle finger at everyone else and doing what needs to be done.
Now, there are a lot of reasons why this type of behavior, especially in a police officer, should offend and bother us all, but it doesn't seem to stop us. I think the key in creating this kind of thinking is that Doyle is right. If he had been wrong, I doubt he would be viewed as a hero by anyone. What’s more, I get the sense that society loves to philosophize about abusive cops, but is in reality happy to allow abuse so long as “the right people” are getting the abuse... which speaks volumes about humanity.

Interestingly, Doyle became the template for so many future movie cops. In fact, he became the only acceptable template for cops in modern films: the rebel who plays by his own set of rules and stares down his screaming captain to get the job done! You will see this character over and over in films like the Lethal Weapon franchise, and Doyle was the first. Guys like Steve McQueen in Bullitt played something similar, but never took it to the point of being openly hostile to his superiors. Hackman takes it to that extreme. His Doyle is a wrecking ball and he doesn't care.
At the same time, by the way, it must be noted that Doyle's character wouldn't be that interesting if Charnier wasn't an exceptional villain. Rich, powerful, ultra-smart and with ice water running through his veins, Charnier comes across as a worthy challenge for Doyle. Charnier isn't some cardboard character who will act stupidly at the wrong times to let Doyle win, nor will he devolve into insanity nor will he shoot his henchmen. He is the scariest of villains: extremely competent.

Thoughts?
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