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First Blood (1982)

First Blood (1982)

  • Score: 4/5
  • Genre: 4/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Definitely.
  • Did it move me: At times.
  • Rewatch:  Yes.
  • Art/Pop: Pop, with some darkness
  • Noteworthy/Significant: Seed film for the 80s action blockbuster genre

There are the Rambo movies, the many sequels of First Blood. They are cheesy 80s style action films (whenever made) of varying quality, but none of any particular quality. Then there is First Blood, which is a different kettle of fish. I notice that it has been rebranded as Rambo: First Blood, which is a patent shame. The Rambo movies are crap — big budget, sometimes enjoyable, and even influential crap, but crap nevertheless. First Blood is a great movie.

Sylvester Stallone, who rose to fame only a few years earlier for his wonderful work on the original Rocky (for which he received an academy award nomination), plays John Rambo, a Vietnam vet who has been wandering the country trying to re-connect with his old war buddies after facing the unfortunately normal re-assimilation-into-civilian-life problems that seemed to have struck the Vietnam-era soldiers the hardest, probably due to the difficult circumstances surrounding the war and the country’s politics in the 1970s. Having just watched his last chance to reconnect fizzle with the news that the last comrade he had to track down succumbed to cancer from Agent Orange, Rambo finds himself hassled by a small town Sheriff as a perceived vagabond and drifter, an assessment which is not completely untrue. The situation soon spirals out of control.

What makes First Blood different from its kin, and certainly its sequels, is the unexpected nuance and subtlety that is there if you only look for it. One would expect this to be easy: good guy misunderstood vet vs. bad guy small-minded corrupt local cops. 

Except that while Brain Dennehy’s Sheriff Will Teasle could have easily been a paper cutout “bad sheriff” he is not. He makes mistakes, but he clearly means to do good for his town. He is judgmental, but in a human foible way. Missteps by him and his men are compounded by very human reactions in a quickly escalating crises where cooler heads do not have time to prevail. The simple truth is that as mildly wrong as Sheriff Teasle’s initial act is, Rambo is depressed, despondent and looking for something to bounce off of. While there is one particularly bad cop on the force, most are just regular Joes. If anything, the film seems to show more cynicism toward the larger entities, including the National Guard, the Feds and and the media, something that is reflective of the era and still resonates today.  Richard Crenna’s DC military officer comes across as an almost intentional stereotype of Washington arrogance, and the scenes between him and Dennehy’s Sheriff Teasle are particularly well-played. 

The action stands the test of time. Coming from the pre-John Woo/Matrix days, it is not super flashy, but has a grit to it that is engaging and visceral. 

Don’t get me wrong, this film does not have the impact of something like The Deer Hunter, but it also is more action-oriented, mainstream and accessible. A powerful, well-edited and and engaging mix of message and entertainment. 

Review Date: 07/07/2019

Across the Universe (2007)

Across the Universe (2007)

  • Score: 3/5
  • Genre: 4/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Mostly.
  • Did it move me: At times.
  • Rewatch:  Probably, but not for a while.
  • Art/Pop: Actually, a nice mix
  • Noteworthy/Significant: A modern rock musical.

Director Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe is retro on several levels. It exists in a self-created world of Beatlemania music, but then looks even further back, to traditional Movie Musicals, and re-imagines them through a post-MTV kaleidoscope, echoing the directorial focus on color, composition, and choreography within the context of a charming romantic caper that powered many a Saturday evening date night for past generations.

Jim Sturgess plays Jude (all the character names come from Beatles songs), a young working class Brit (from Liverpool, of course), who decides to jump the pond to America to track down his father, an American WWII GI who abandoned Jude’s pregnant mother in England when he returned stateside. While pursuing this quest – a quest resolved very quickly in first few minutes of the film – he meets and befriends young college student Max, played by Joe Anderson, and begins a relationship with Max’s sister Lucy, played by Evan Rachel Wood. The film follows them from adventure to adventure across the major events of the late 1960s and the anti-war counter culture.

There is precious little dialog, and the movie is essentially a very, very long string of musical set pieces. The actors all sing versions of the Beatles songs, together with special cameo guest stars including Bono and Joe Cocker, and are usually accompanied by music video-meets-traditional-musical montages of dances, psychedelic effects, etc. Many are pleasing and artistically interesting.

However, and I cannot believe I am saying this, even a band as universally loved as the Beatles can get tiring after a while, and as the movie moves on there is an increasing feeling of scenes being set up so that a song they want to use makes some sense. As a result, I wavered on the above average genre score, but this is an ambitious undertaking and there are enough interesting set pieces and scenes to warrant it. At many times, Across the Universe is a very beautiful film to watch — just not all the time.

Review Date: 06/29/2019

Funny Face (1957)

Funny Face (1957)

  • Score: 3/5
  • Genre: 3/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Mostly.
  • Did it move me: A little.
  • Rewatch: Once is enough, but could.
  • Art/Pop: Mostly Pop
  • Noteworthy/Significant: Nothing I am aware of or saw.

Funny Face is a perfectly serviceable Musical / Romantic comedy of the old school. A very obviously aging Fred Astaire and a young Audrey Hepburn make a bit of an odd couple even from the early scenes (she was actually in her late 20s, but looks much younger in the film). However, they are both professionals who get on with it well enough. Kay Thompson does a great job as the diva magazine editor, decades before The Devil Wears Prada and its ilk.

The thing that gets me with films of this era is the level of thought and detail that goes into shot composition, color scheme of walls, costumes, props, and movement. It is sometimes in little things: walking through Paris, Fred & Audrey stop by a wall to talk and there is a large red and white poster which subtly echoes the white with red-accent-under-the-collar coat that Fred is wearing. It is just a small, easily missed detail, but I’m sure someone planned it, and I appreciated it. There are many scenes of talking where the composition of the bodies and the faces against a background follows traditional principles and is soothing and pleasing. There is a place in the world for the modern ADHD driven obsession with having “authentic” settings, and  perspective and camera changes every 17.2 milliseconds, but watching films like this makes you remember that once filmmakers saw films also as a series of exquisite paintings. Don’t get me wrong, the work in Funny Face is not quite that good, but the thought is there, all right.

The music is fine but not outstanding; the limited use of Gershwin music just seems patched on and somewhat out of place, as if they ran out of material and needed something recognizable for marketing purposes. The dancing is good but not great, with the possible exception of a scene in a dark Jazz bar where Hepburn does a fun routine. I also like the proto-Emo look of many people here and at the later scene in the philosopher’s house. Paris is beautiful, what little we see of it, and there are lots of great nostalgia moments with TWA prop airplanes and funny French cars.

If you are looking for a film to introduce a modern or more casual movie watcher to this genre, Funny Face would not be my top pick (Singing in the Rain probably would), but it is at worse inoffensive, and the small handful of quality moments between Audrey & Fred, and the energized nod-and-a-wink performance of Kay Thompson (who was the standout here) make it worth a viewing.

Review Date: 06/28/2019

Heat (1995)

Heat (1995)

  • Score: 4/5
  • Genre: 4/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Yes.
  • Did it move me: Mostly.
  • Rewatch:  Looking forward to it.
  • Art/Pop: Surprisingly arty for a big budget cop flic.
  • Noteworthy/Significant: In retrospect, not much.

I remember the considerable buzz, likely promoted by the filmmakers, when Heat came out, about the first on-screen meeting between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, two of the top actors of their generation. I also remember the counter-buzz when viewers realized they only shared two scenes in a long movie, especially long for its time. This gave the whole film a shroud of being good but okay, perhaps a bit disappointing; as a result, I never made seeing it a priority. What a mistake that was.

There are traditional cop films: cops track down and stop the bad guys. Then there are heist films: charismatic bad guys with spirit plan great thefts and pull them off. In the cop films, you root for the cops, for whom you know it is 95% likely they will get their men (and women), the only mystery being how; in Heist films, you root for the “bad guys (and gals)”, for whom you know it is 95% likely they will pull it off, the only mystery being how. Fairly often in Heist films, they will have the bad guys stealing from other bad guys just to make it that much easier to root for them.

Heat utilizes the gravitas and familiarity of its two leading men to blur these closely-related but distinct sub-genres and create something rare in crime films: uncertainty and unpredictability (see also, 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, curiously enough starring a much younger Al Pacino). I watched Heat with a friend of mine; about halfway through, she turned to me and said “I really want them to get away with it, is that wrong?”

Blending two incongruous genres is not the only magic trick in director Michael Mann’s bag: Heat builds slowly, laying out a large series of different, seemingly unrelated, plot threads one by one, breathing and taking its time, while continuing to be engaging. I remember thinking about 45 minutes in “How can this be going so slow, yet I am completely engrossed?” The answer, of course, is: really good writing, directing, and acting.

A dark film, much of Heat seems to take place at night, with a noir-ish, almost Blade Runner-esque vision of LA, reinforced by a mostly ambient electronic soundtrack by a series of pioneering electronic artists, including Brain Eno, William Orbit, Steve Roach and Moby. These decisions create a somewhat timeless, otherworldly universe for the story to unfold in, which in itself becomes an interesting juxtaposition to the direct and authentic dialog and characters: there are few characters in the film who are not gray.

The supporting cast also deserves kudos, and is remarkably star-studded: Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, Jon Voit, Tom Sizemore, a young Natalie Portman, Mykelti Williamson, Danny Trejo, William Fichtner, and a series of fun-to-spot cameos including Hank Azaria, Henry Rollins, Jeremy Piven, and rapper Tone Loc.  

Toward the end, Heat slides toward convention, an unfortunate, if slight, disappointment that does not undermine its accomplishments.

Review Date: 06/23/2019

Captain Marvel (2019)

Captain Marvel (2019)

  • Score: 3/5
  • Genre: 3/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Yeah.
  • Did it move me: Ehhh, a little?
  • Rewatch:  Eventually.
  • Art/Pop: It dreamt of art, but it was only a dream.
  • Noteworthy/Significant: See review.

This is the first female-led marvel Superhero film. Have you got that? This is an important film. Really!

Or maybe not. As a white male one-time-in-my-youth comic book nerd, let me state that I have absolutely no issue with Captain Marvel being a woman. I just long for the day when Captain Marvel can unselfconsciously be a woman. Which apparently is not yet today (see paragraph 1, above, and let’s all cross fingers for Scarlett’s first foray, or (ultra cross fingers), Jessica Jones on the big screen). 

This is a fine movie. I enjoyed it. It is just remarkably average for its genre. Our man Sam seems to be having fun pretending he is in his 30s again. Jude Law seems happy to be merely acting. Annette Bening is wondering how she ended up in a Superhero movie, but is a good sport and going along for the ride. 

I think the most interesting thing was the movie’s eventual portrayal of the Skrulls, which is a rather geeky thing to find interesting, and of course Djimon Hounsou is always great.

Not sure what else to say. I mean, it’s fine. Really.

Review Date: 06/22/2019

Tommy (1975)

Tommy (1975)

  • Score: 2/5
  • Genre: 2/5
  • Did I enjoy it: As a critical experience.
  • Did it move me: Far less than I expected or hoped.
  • Rewatch:  If & when NY legalizes marijuana, and I am feeling bored or masochistic.
  • Art/Pop: It really, really wants to be Art, but it’s just druggy.
  • Noteworthy/Significant: Cult classic, or at least it used to be.

Given my love of music and film, how I got to my age with never managing to see classic rock group The Who’s influential (nay, culturally iconic!) “rock opera” Tommy is itself a question of deep sociological significance, like surviving the 70s without hearing the Oscar Meyer Weiner jingle. How unexpected it was to discover that was Kismet, not bad Karma.

Bereft of acid or other mind altering substances, and over 40 years after its release, what is left is 90% songs you have never heard before, half of which sound like 60’s tripe knock offs of Mrs. Brown You Have A Lovely Daughter (don’t ask, the title should be enough), a string of barely connected set pieces forming a loose amateurish narrative, and tons of unintentionally interesting observations and scenes, like Jack Nicholson as a singing professor and 60s icon Ann Margaret rolling around in skimpy cloths in imaginary Heinz Baked Beans. At least I now know why the post WWII set thought she was hot, so I guess I’ve got that going for me.

My other game was seeing how many set scenes were weak knock offs or inspirations from better films, like the wired up pre-awakening Tommy looking like a Rocky Horror Picture Show homage to A Clockwork Orange meets La Jetee, and did I detect an If… reference in Daltry peering down at the kids from rooftops, or was that merely my mind wandering? It’s okay, since he became Jesus Christ Superstar in the end.

I do like that the film uses unique, rather than studio, versions of the songs, sung by the actual actors (or as alternate takes by Daltry), which is a nice touch, and gives us neat stuff like the young Elton John’s Pinball Wizard.  And the actors seem to be trying (the surprise Tina Turner appearance was fun, if overwrought), even Roger Daltry, bless his heart, but what the hell can you do spending an hour sitting on the bar of a sit-hang-glider on a sound stage, looking at your feet and lip-synching? Oh, was that only ten minutes? Oops.

Within seven years we would have both Pink Floyd’s stunning The Wall and The Who’s own vastly superior Quadrophenia.  Films like The Beatle’s A Hard Day’s Night survive the decades as cheesy fun. Tommy is just cheese.

Review Date: 06/22/2019

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Erin Brockovich (2000)

  • Score: 4/5
  • Genre: 3/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Yes.
  • Did it move me: Somewhat, but not in a lasting way.
  • Rewatch:  Someday/maybe.
  • Art/Pop: Pop
  • Noteworthy/Significant: Julie Roberts only Academy Award

Having just watched Erin Brockovich for the first time in 2019, I can say it has held up remarkably well. Erin Brockovich is a loosely-based-upon-real-life story of a young divorced mother desperate for work who gets a job with a local law firm, only to become the key to uncovering what would become a landmark tort case against utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric for slowly poisoning the residents of a small town in California.

Brockovich is a hyperactive, obsessive compulsive sort whose vim, vigor, and sass substitutes for experience as she successfully brute forces her way through the momentous levels of research and paperwork required to put together and try a case of this sort, all to the initial dismay and aggravation, but eventual respect, of her boss, coworkers, friends and family. Aaron Eckhart turns in an enjoyable performance as her heart-of-gold biker neighbor who strikes up a relationship with her.  

While Julia Robert’s performance at times feels a touch too much, her heart is in the right place and suave industry veteran Albert Finney plays a fine counterpoint as her lawyer boss. The script, a limiting factor for both of them, panders too much to expectations and Hollywood tropes. There also seems a sense of disconnection in the overall story arc. It gets there, but in a sort of juttery way. Yes, I know that is not quite a word. 

This results in a rare inverted result for me: A higher primary score than a genre score. Erin Brockovitch really is only average as far as this type of legal film goes (Travolta’s A Civil Action, despite its own faults, far surpasses it), but the general accessibility of it and the big name talent (including Soderburgh as director) give it a strong all-audiences appeal that I cannot ignore. I just expected more.

Review Date: 06/20/2019

The Hateful Eight (regular & extended) (2015/2019)

The Hateful Eight (regular & extended) (2015/2019)

  • Score: 4/5
  • Genre: 4/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Very much so.
  • Did it move me: Yes.
  • Rewatch:  Without a doubt.
  • Art/Pop: Both, baby!
  • Noteworthy/Significant: The Tarantino Western.

Some directors have such a distinctive and strong hand, the joy of being brought into their world can overshadow the individual faults of any particular trip. The Hateful Eight is not a perfect movie, but it is oh-so-fun to watch, with a wonderful collection of actors interacting in what is functionally a play.

I say that because despite some beautiful scenes shot in Colorado, the whole film (barring one or two quick scenes) takes place either inside a stage coach or in the main location: “Minnie’s Haberdashery,” a one-giant-room trading post. This is a film that could easily be staged in a theatre. The focus remaining squarely on the tension of the character interactions and the unraveling of the mystery, the hallmark of this kind of approach, was a wonderful change from most of the recent films I have seen. 

A bunch of dark individuals on seemingly separate paths end up stranded in a Rocky Mountain retreat (the aforementioned Haberdashery) by a blizzard in what appears to be the late 1800s (post Civil War). Weird coincidences, unexpected connections, and hidden plot machinations abound as they interact. It is, in a way, Tarantino’s version of Deathtrap, or Murder on the Orient Express, by way of Sergio Leone, with extra blood and violence, bien sûr!

Kurt Russell chews up lots of scenery in what appears to be a partial, twisted-but-loving homage to the Duke. And what can one say about Jennifer Jason Leigh, who deserved to end up a superstar actress but never quite broke through into that sphere, yet is markedly more talented than so many of her peers who did? She’s a joy. Period. (If you have never seen Ms. Parker and the Vicious Circle, make it next on your viewing list and thank me later). I can’t even judge Samuel L Jackson anymore, because he is so familiar, dependable, and easy to watch.

In fact, everyone does a great job, and they even don’t all sound like Quentin Tarantino for once! That, of course, is one of my biggest pet peeves about Tarantino: there are too many scenes in too many movies where you can actually hear his voice in the delivery of the actors, as if they’ve been coached to the point where they are (unconsciously, probably) emulating his cadence. Not that that actually happens (the coaching), perhaps it is just unavoidably implicit in the dialog itself. Who knows. But here, that negative is almost unseen, with rich individual voices for so many of the characters.

Yes, it is violent – his films always are, but this one is mostly tame except for everyone taking a shot at Jason Leigh’s character at one point or another, and then the final lots-of-people-getting-killed-at-the-end, which is Episode 4 in the Extended edition.

Speaking of which, I honestly could not spot what specifically was added: there were no cut subplots that I could detect (I did not watch them back to back). It felt like there were just extensions on many of the scenes, particularly in the beginning. Yes, there are diminishing returns on that extra slice of pie, but if it is good pie, who can resist?

If you hate Tarantino, this will not sway you over, but it is definitely on the more accessible side of the spectrum for his films, with less of the hyper violence that so many have. It’s a lame way to end a review, but simply put: Damn, I really liked it.

Review Date: 05/22/2019

The Wandering Earth (2019)

The Wandering Earth (2019)

  • Score: 3/5
  • Genre: 3/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Mostly.
  • Did it move me: Mildly.
  • Rewatch:  Probably once, eventually, but I am not calendaring it in.
  • Art/Pop: Pop
  • Noteworthy/Significant: Chinese Sci Fi.

The Wandering Earth is a big budget Chinese Sci Fi spectacle. Based loosely on a story by a young, well-regarded (Hugo award winning) Chinese science fiction author, it tells the story of a planet facing extinction by an unexpectedly early transformation of our sun into a red giant, which will result in the Earth and most of the solar system being destroyed. Given about a century’s warning, the Earth bands together around a crazy plan to turn the entire planet into a generation ship by circling the planet with giant engines that will push it out of the solar system and all the way to a nearby star, arriving over a hundred generations later, while the surviving population hunkers down in underground cities.

The overall production and effects are top notch and the equal of a top line Hollywood production, so plenty of kudos to the Chinese film industry. This film moved me in ways that were not directly tied to its actual content, and this was one of them: that this film was made at this level of production quality promises hope for a new source of action-adventure-sci fi films. While on one hand they were clearly using Hollywood as a blueprint for the film, there are definitely shades of difference in outlook and approach of the characters and the point of view that were welcome and fun to observe. For example, about 3/4s of the way through the film I contemplated something especially dark happening, that I would have never even considered a possibility in a mainstream Hollywood film. It didn’t, but damn, it was fun while it lasted. 

Still. Still. It was good, but other than scope of production I did not find it particularly above average. It was not as smooth as it could be. It was not clear at all times where they were going and for what purpose. Some of the characters reminded me of stereotypical characters you would find in a Japanese Anime. I watched it dubbed, which was fine. I usually prefer subtitles, but I am more accepting of dubbing with Chinese because the fundamental nature of the differences between Chinese languages and European, primarily, intonation being a key dynamic of primary meaning generation; this means that it is more difficult to pick up the emotional quality of the speakers like you can as a native English speaker with a related romantic or germanic language (with exceptions: I always watch Ang Lee’s gorgeous Eat Drink Man Woman subtitled). The dubbing was pretty good, though, especially with several of the main characters, so I was not significantly distracted by it. 

I think this a must-watch for serious genre fans as I think it is a noteworthy, even important, movie for what it signifies, but it lacks the type of engaging characterizations and interpersonal struggles that gives films like Interstellar greater depth and universal appeal, so it will be a tough sale for average viewers.

Review Date: 05/19/2019

Ocean’s 8 (2018)

Ocean’s 8 (2018)

  • Score: 3/5
  • Genre: 3/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Mostly.
  • Did it move me: Not really.
  • Rewatch:  Unlikely, but it wouldn’t hurt me.
  • Art/Pop: Pop.
  • Noteworthy/Significant: Not much.

Ocean’s 8’s attempted fresh take on the heist genre, having a group of women instead a group of men (or primarily men), mostly succeeds. Sandra Bullock, while lacking the inspiring fire of her best performances, such as in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, is nevertheless her eminently watchable and dependable self, playing the recently-released-from-prison sister of George Clooney’s Danny Ocean from the earlier films. 

While the entire cast does well, Cate Blanchet really shines as Bullock’s primary old friend/co-conspirator who helps build the team around them to accomplish the heist goal of stealing a famous and ultra valuable Cartier necklace during a huge media-swamped annual Gala in  NYC. Perhaps its unfair, but I simply expect a great performance from Helena Bonham Carter, truly a traditional, old fashioned, hard-core, do-anything actress; on the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by pop singer Rihanna, whose turn as a street hacker I didn’t realize was as convincing as it was (some technical hacker issues aside, which has nothing to do with her performance but the script) until she appears suddenly in fancy dress at one point toward the end of the film and I was surprised by the transformation. Of course, it raises the question of how a young street hacker could so effectively pull off the swagger of a diva, but we’ll let that pass.

This is an easy to watch film, and one that I would generally recommend to anyone who likes the genre (and it is family friendly to boot). That said, despite its budget and talent,  it’s only average at best for a heist movie. I never felt any sense of tension in the build up and execution, despite the perfunctory handful of unexpected challenges or twists. While it is a rare heist film that does not end in the heist succeeding, the art of filmmaking is creating tension despite that fact, which Ocean’s 8 fails at. It also needed more character exploration, something that it seems could have been done without impact on the film’s pacing, and maybe even added some more tension.

Review Date: 05/16/2019