Tuesday, December 29, 2015

New Release! The Hateful Eight (2015) [Spoiler Free!]

Director: Quentin Tarantino

I put on my movie geek hat and took in the limited "Roadshow" special release of this movie. More on that after the actual review.

The Hateful Eight evoked a reaction in me similar to those I had to Tarantino's previous two films, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. It's a movie that shows outstanding technical skills and acting, along with Tarantino's distinctively energetic and sly dialogue. That said, also like the previous two movies, The Hateful Eight does not quite stack up against its director's earliest and most beloved movies.

The setup and story are strong. Roughly 10 to 20 years after the U.S. Civil War, the grizzled bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) is transporting the prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a small town in Wyoming to face justice. To seek shelter from an impending blizzard, Ruth heads for Minnie's Habberdashery, a small isolated store where the two can wait out the storm. On the road to the Habberdashery and at the shop itself, Ruth and Domergue find themselves among several other men of strange or mysterious backgrounds. The wary Ruth is highly suspicious of all of them, as Domergue's bounty is a staggering $10,000. Ruth must deal with the reality that he and his captive must spend a few days among seven men, any one or several of whom could be looking to kill Ruth and free Domergue.

Many will find the first 90 or so minutes of the movie slow, as they rely heavily on dialogue to reveal the tale and the characters involved. I actually found the carefully-measured buildup to be brilliant. The intrigue of learning just who each colorful character is and what their possible motivations may be is the stuff of highly skilled writing. This is where Tarantino's ability with characters, pacing, and dialogue are at their sharpest. There are plenty of built-in tensions between figures who dislike and mistrust each other immediately, whether due to racism, greed, or assumptions based on hearsay. From the moment Ruth and Domergue come across their first stranger, we viewers are just waiting for any one of the several shady and dangerous men to tip his hand or unleash hell. This growing sense of possible mayhem carries much of the first half of the movie.

Of course, things become "Tarantino" during the final few Chapters (there are six, in all). If you're not sure what this means, then there's no use in my explaining. Suffice it to say that things go completely haywire. With abandon. In all honesty, I found these final sections of the movie less interesting than the buildup. They are masterfully executed (pun intended), and Tarantino once again exhibits his adeptness with intense action scenes. However, anyone familiar with his movies can hardly find the resolution very surprising or particularly creative. There are also a few meanderings in the dialogue and narrative that dull some of the film's power in a few places.

Walton Goggins as Sheriff Chris Mannix. Goggins plays
the character with brilliant shifts between posturing bravado
and terrified desperation. It is arguably the best among
many great performances in the movie.
The acting is amazing. I know to expect great things from Samuel L. Jackson, who has been a mainstay on U.S. movie screens for over two decades now. What continues to impress me is how Tarantino can coax outstanding performances from relatively unknown or semi-forgotten actors. Primary and secondary parts alike are played with brilliant energy and fun by the likes of Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern, among a few others. The surprising standouts, though, are Jennifer Jason Leigh and Walton Goggins. Leigh positively exudes nastiness as the unrepentant criminal Daisy Domergue. Goggins puts on an Oscar-worthy performance. Unfortunately, to say more about Goggins may give away some of the plot, so I will resist.

During this initial week or two or release, The Hateful Eight is only being shown in select theaters in a special "Roadshow" style. This entails being shown on a "super wide screen" format - a 70mm camera only used long ago for a few massive epics such as Lawrence of Arabia. This presentation also includes an old-school musical overture to start the picture, as well as a 10-minute intermission. There are also the added bonuses of zero previews and a nice little commemorative booklet. It was certainly fun to take part in something like this, but it is hardly imperative for most movie-goers.

However you choose to see it, The Hateful Eight is one that will certainly please fans of Tarantino. I doubt that it will change anyone's opinion of him, either way, as a filmmaker, but it is another strong effort by one of the United States's most singular talents.

Overall Thoughts on Tarantino's Filmography

Watching The Hateful Eight had me reminiscing on my relationship with Tarantino's movies. I did a much longer post on Pulp Fiction several years ago, including brief thoughts on every film that Tarantino has either written or directed. My general feelings remain the same. What used to be my borderline-obsession for the man's movies has cooled to a measured appreciation and curiosity, with a dash of over-familiarity.

Tarantino is still sticking with what he knows and loves: hard-boiled characters, Westerns, and insanely bloody action. I can't fault him for staying well within his comfort zone, as it's led him to create some excellent movies. That said, I still cannot shake the feeling that he is capable of more. The main source of this opinion is the movie Jackie Brown, which is easily Tarantino's most understated (and underrated) movie. Yes, it involves criminals and cool customers, right in keeping with every film he has made. However, Jackie Brown showed that Tarantino is more than capable of telling a much more realistic tale about characters who feel much more human than the more mythic or comic book-ish figures which populate nearly all of his films. That movie showed that Tarantino does not need to rely on massive bloodletting, over-the-top characters, or completely outlandish scenarios to create a great movie.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not asking to see Tarantino do a rom-com or a sentimental biopic, just as I wouldn't ask for a hip, stylish, and ultra-violent crime movie from Ron Howard. I just think that he has the capacity to tread a few cinematic paths that veer away from those that he has already tread so thoroughly. He is still a relatively young director, so I do have hope to someday see what else he can create. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) [Spoiler Free first section]

I did a long review of A New Hope several years ago here, during my trip through the "All-TIME 100" great movies list. 

[Spoiler Free Section]

Director: J.J. Abrams

Extremely satisfying for fans of all types, if not exactly a life-changing experience of adventure movie viewing.

I am of the generation that first fell in absolute love with the Star Wars movies as only Generation X could have. The original trilogy came out when I was between the ages of two and eight, which are almost exactly the ages when colorful fantasy movies involving space travel, robots, and strange creatures were likely to firmly imprint themselves on a person's brain. It did for me.

Like a lot of people, I found the second trilogy a nearly-traumatic disappointment. Yes, there are a few redeeming qualities to them, but I agree with the many who feel that George Lucas completely lost touch with what made his originals so iconic.

As the hype for The Force Awakens mounted to unprecedented levels, I refused to see or watch any trailers or listen to or read any criticism. I knew that J.J. Abrams was directing it, and I had mixed feelings about this. I appreciated his Star Trek reboots, but I wasn't crazy about his heavy leaning on the earlier TV shows and movies. There were far too many coy "homages" to characters, creatures, and plotlines which were familiar to Trekkies from the decades-old classic stories. My fear was that Abrams would do the same thing with The Force Awakens.

Fortunately, my fears were (almost) completely unrealized. The Force Awakens does certainly take several key parts of the templates used in the original trilogy as its materials. The very basic plotline will be one that is extremely familiar to devotees of the Episodes IV, V, and VI, and there are certainly landscapes and scenarios that are equally familiar. However, Abrams and co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) injected enough new material to make the story feel adequately fresh.

An early scene with Rey and the droid BB8 on the planet 
Jakku. If this seems an awful lot like early moments in 
A New Hope, then your head's right in the place that 
director J.J. Abrams wants it.
The familiar faces are all good to see again. Blessedly, the story does not rely too much on older characters or nostalgia for their past exploits. Characters like Han Solo and others serve nicely to bridge the gap into a new tale with new players. And the new blood looks great. The handful of new, young characters all had me itching to see more of them in future installments of the series. These were not just retreads of our old favorites. While there may be a few superficial similarities here or there, characters like Rey, Finn, and Poe are novel enough that they should be more than capable of putting their stamp on this new trilogy in the epic series. Abrams made some great casting choices as well, selecting actors who are not only talented but also relatively unknown.

Another extremely gratifying part of the experience is how Abrams returned to the look and feel of the original trilogy. Rather than the horrendous, A.D.D., hyper-polished, CGI video game aesthetic prevalent in Episodes I through III, The Force Awakens revives Lucas's original vision of a "worn down universe," where many buildings and machines look decades or even millenia old. There are also many expansive long shots with negative space, and the general pacing is more measured than the often frenetic speed of the prequel trilogy. With more time and physical space to take things in, we viewers get a chance to drink in the world and truly escape to it, rather than constantly trying to catch up with an overload of visuals moving at breakneck speed.

I really enjoyed this movie, and it's clear that Disney handed this beloved tale to the right director. It's not flawless, but given the insanely high amount of things that could have gone wrong (as George Lucas himself fell prey to), the movie is a great entry. I do have my little gripes (detailed below, along with spoilers), but I plan to see it at least once more in the theaters, and I will eagerly await the next two episodes.

[Spoiler Section. Be Warned!!!]

Getting into the story allows me to get into the details and a few of the little issues I have with the movie. 

I could accuse Abrams and Kasdan of playing it safe by using the basic stories from Star Wars and Return of the Jedi to form the plot. A young orphan of mysterious origins on a desert planet is brought into the machinations of forces battling for galactic supremacy. Said orphan is forced to uncover and face her history with an evil overlord to whom she may be related. She is forced to make several new friends who will help cripple a planet-destroying base used by an oppressive army seeking to wipe out all forms of resistance. This is all well-worn territory, to be sure. I can mostly excuse it because this movie is clearly meant as a transition from the original trilogy, but I still think that the story could have been a little more daring and creative.

The new faces of the Star Wars series: Poe, Rey, and Finn.
I definitely think they can make this new trilogy a
worthwhile addition to the grand series.
I was, however, happy that the details were fresh enough to keep the movie from seeming dull. The new "Luke," the young scrap collector Rey, is a really strong character. In fact, she immediately shows an authentic grit which Luke took much longer to acquire. The other two primary new characters, Finn and Poe, are more original. Finn, a defected stormtrooper from the Empire holdover group The First Order, is a completely new idea for the film series. Poe, though not garnering a tremendous amount of screen time, has a genuinely warm and humane feeling about him. None of these three feels like a cut-out, and the first two show a nice amount of depth, which I sense that Poe will also exhibit if he becomes more integral in future episodes.

I'm not yet completely sold on Kylo Ren as a menacing villain, but there is promise that he may very well become one. With the Supreme Leader Snoke (awful name, by the way) stating that he will "complete Ren's training," there is potential for Ren to become a true menace on par with past Sith Lords like Vader and Sidious. I was pleased with the turn of having him reveal his face in the middle of the picture, rather than use the mask and his identity as a tired device of mystery to be dragged along for two or three movies. We do still have the McGuffin of Rey's parentage to wonder over until the release of Episode VIII, and that is plenty.

One aspect of Finn's character that does nag me is how well-adjusted he is. According to his story, he was kidnapped by the First Order as a young child and forced into stormtrooper training. He was even stripped of a name and given a mere alpha-numeric designation, including the "FN" from which his human name is derived. If this is the case, then he has been part of a machine-like system whereby almost all sense of individuality is wiped out. Given that Finn has been a part of this system for nearly his entire life, I found his light sense of humor a bit out of keeping with his background. The First Order didn't strike me as very fertile soil for light-hearted jokes. Fortunately, the humor itself is effective, and it makes for a far better prospect than attempting to make him some sort of dark, brooding character whose inner turmoil defines him. We have Kylo Ren for that.

I was very impressed with the handling of the old guard. Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Leia are a part of the story, but they are fortunately not the story. It would have been far too easy for Abrams and Kasdan to showcase the old, familiar faces in order to stroke the nostalgia of old fans. They didn't. Their parts in the greater framework of the new characters' tales feels mostly organic and blessedly understated, especially in the case of Leia.
Old favorites like these two pirates are handled very well.
Their measured presence serves to enhance rather than
overtake the story from the new, young protagonists. 

I found a lot of the humor very solid and in sync with the light tone of the original trilogy. There are some solid sight gags and little one-liners that would have been right at home in any of Episodes IV through VI. I did, however, feel that there were a few lines that had a slightly more modern feel which were a tad off-beat. Finn's quick probing to see if Rey has "a boyfriend? A cute boyfriend?" is funny, but I can't shake the sense that the word "cute" has no place in the Star Wars universe. This was one of a few moments of such banter. Fortunately, there were no serious breaks of tone or context, and the lines themselves were always amusing, thanks mostly to actor John Boyega's deliveries and timing.

(Double-Major Spoiler Alert!!) I was satisfied with Han Solo's ultimate fate. It's never fun to see a beloved character die, but Solo's death at the hands of his son is another turn which invigorates the Star Wars epic. My hope is that this is the first major step towards Ren becoming a truly and unrepentantly evil Sith Lord. We've already seen the "redemption" storyline with Anakin/Darth Vader. It would seem more than a little tired to simply retell that story.

Going Forward

I am very excited about the next installment. Abrams did such a quality job, that I am disappointed that he won't be returning. However, I am excited that Rian Johnson is directing Episodes VIII and IX. Johnson has given us some great modern films, including Brick and Looper. He's a highly skilled director who I feel is unlikely to make a hash of this major project. I can't be sure that he will approach these movies with the same passion and affection that a devoted fan like Abrams did, but I'll be very happy to pay up and find out. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Retro Trio: Massacre Gun (1967); The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001); Blades of Glory (2007)

Massacre Gun (1967)

Original Japanese Title: Minaogoroshi no kenjuu

Director: Yasuharu Yasebe

At a glance, Massacre Gun has all of the sheen and polish of the slickest, finest noir crime films. Unfortunately, there is very little beneath the stylish exterior.

The movie follows Ryuuichi (Joo Shishido), a highly trusted lieutenant in the yakuza - the organized crime cadre in Japan. Ryuuichi is loyal enough that he even kills a young woman whom he has been leading on, at the orders of his bosses. This stuns his two younger brothers - Eiji, who is an aspiring yakuza, and Saburo, an up-and-coming boxer. When Ryuuichi decides to leave the life of a yakuza, his bosses begin to apply pressure on him to stay. Things soon escalate from minor skirmishes into all-out warfare between the brothers and Ryuuichi's former employers.

The basic story certainly has the makings of a decent crime tale. The execution, however, is often poor. The characters often act foolishly or completely predictably. It is thoroughly clear from the first 5 minutes that Ryuuichi is the "calm, quiet, thoughtful loner" - an archetype loved by many tough-guy movie fans, including Japanese cinema-goers. The only remote twists are when he decides to turn against his bosses, and when he decides to go completely "massacre gun" on them after they go too far. Aside from these, the plot and characters are fairly paint-by-number. Eiji is the typical hot-head, and Saburo is the kind-hearted prospective boxer who "coulda been a contender" if not for the interference of the mafia (On the Waterfront, anyone?). The mob against which the brothers fight is composed of completely one-dimensional, cardboard cutout gangsters, complete with cliche one-liners and hard stares. Whenever the movie attempts to do something original, it was a bit ill-conceived, such as when the brothers intimidate an opponent by dropping bowling balls on his foot - a foot which, inexplicably, the guy never tries to move. The movie has more than a few such scenes in which the aesthetic was more important than any attempt at organic plot progression. Once you've seen a Scorsese-directed mob torture scene, pretenders are embarrassingly weak-willed.

Perhaps the movie would have been more compelling had the dialogue been more original or the acting been more subtle. Neither was. I can't recall a single line of dialogue which stood out or wasn't predictable. Similarly, the acting was typically exaggerated for many Japanese films, whereby far too many of the actors are trying to deliver their lines with their entire bodies, all of the time.

Massacre Gun is a curious entry into the noir film canon. If you're looking for something of the depth or artistry of classics like Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, or even more mob-centric movies like The Killers, you're bound to be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you simply enjoy the look and general style of hard-boiled crime films, then this one is worth a viewing.

The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)

Original Japanese Title: Katakuri-ke no koofuku

Director: Takashi Miike

A very strange one that amuses, in its way.

From what I've heard, this movie released with a decent amount of buzz back in 2001. It was being called "an instant cult classic," and similar. Had I known of this hype around the movie, I probably would have been disappointed by it. Fortunately, I knew very little, so I was able to enjoy it for what it was and not what others were telling me it was supposed to be.

The movie follows the Katakuri family, a sextet of Japanese spanning four generations, as they attempt to get their new bed and breakfast to make a profit. The problem is that the B&B is isolated from any kind of attractions and main roads. Making matters far worse is that once a few travellers do show up to stay, they all seem to die horrible deaths, including suicide, heart attack, and asphyxiation under a sumo wrestler, to name a few. Amid all of the death and fretting over economic viability, the Katakuris experience the typical dramas of a sitcom family. The father and mother work hard to support the family. Their son is a typically-disaffected young man, and their daughter is a dreamy, flighty romantic.

Frequently, the Katakuris sing. In a bizarre homage to The Sound of Music, the characters will often break into song and dance numbers about their emotional plights or the grim circumstances of macabre deaths around them.

You can imagine that this all makes for a very peculiar movie. When you add in the fact that the movie periodically shifts into claymation for no discernible reason, then you have a truly unique viewing experience. It's not exactly a great one, but it is unique. My wife and I definitely got a good amount of laughs from the movie, though we were in agreement that this was likely because we had no expectations going in. The movie was clearly filmed on a very low budget, and director Takashi Miike, who directed the brilliant 13 Assassins and about a million other movies of varying quality in the last 25 years, was throwing all kinds of things against the wall in this one. Some of them stick, while others simply slide down the wall and end up in a sloppy puddle on the ground.

Blades of Glory (2007)

Directors: Josh Gordon & Will Speck

This is a Will Ferrell movie that delivers the laughs more consistently than many of his others.

The world of figure skating had long been ripe for parody. In 2007, Blades of Glory got it very right. The two leads, Will Ferrell and Jon Hader, play Chazz Michael Michaels and Jimmy McElroy, two parodies on ice. Michaels is the oversexed "bad boy" of skating, while McElroy is the polished, effeminate, squeaky-clean pretty boy. The two are bitter rivals who are thrust together as a pair after being banned from the sport for fighting on the ice. It's a set up that easily could have fallen completely flat, if not for solid comedy writing and great acting.

I generally like Will Ferrell, though many of his hit movies are mediocre at best. Talladega NightsGet Hard, and Anchorman are a few examples of his movies that provided me with just enough laughs to justify watching them once, but I've never felt the urge to go back to them. Blades of Glory, however, holds up well, even after seeing it three times. The lines are great, and the gags hit far more often than most parodies. When it's not Ferrell's hilarious over-confidence, it's Craig T. Nelson's showing of a decapitation during a pairs skating performance in North Korea. Or Rob Corddry's cameo as the over-serious manager of a second-rate kids show on ice. Since the movie doesn't solely rely on Ferrell's comedic magnetism, its humor can hit you from different directions.

This is a goofy comedy that I'll return to every year or so and thoroughly enjoy, as ridiculous as it is and should be. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2007)

Hellboy (2004)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Flawed, but singular and fun.

Hellboy is a curious entry into the world of film adaptations of comic book superheroes. Noted horror/fantasy/science-fiction director Guillermo del Toro went against the then-forthcoming grain of comic book movies when he opted to adapt the little-known cult comic, Hellboy, created and drawn by Mike Mignola. It ended up being a strong pairing of creative forces.

Hellboy quickly introduces the title character as a baby demon pulled into our world at the end of World War II. He was meant to be one of several diabolical, Lovecraftian monsters drawn down by the mad monk Rasputin in order to wreak havoc on Earth. Rasputin's plot is initially foiled, but not before the young demon is found by a platoon of U.S. troops. He is dubbed "Hellboy" and taken under the wing of  Professor Bloom, an expert on the occult and attache to the Allied platoon who finds Hellboy. Over the next several decades, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is raised by Bloom into a massive, red-skinned, long-horned, amazingly strong force against supernatural attacks on mankind.

The movie still feels unique, even amidst the modern deluge of superhero, fantasy, and science fiction films. While it certainly hits all of the familiar marks of those genres - a threat to the world; dazzling superpowers; large-scale battles - Hellboy does it in its own ways. The "superteam" whom Hellboy works with is made up of oddities and outcasts, but very sympathetic ones. There are plenty of amusing quirks in the film: Hellboy's love of cats and beer; his often misplaced confidence; the strange and damaged super beings who comprise Hellboy's team. These all make it feel rather different from nearly all other action fantasy movies. Also, being a Guillermo del Toro movie, the horror elements are done very well, though they are softened with much more levity than his graver films like Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone.

Hellboy's main weakness is that it doesn't completely flesh out all of its elements. The relationships between Hellboy and his team have some fun and interesting dynamics, but their history is never explored enough to become truly gripping. The Rasputin character is interesting in his potential power, but he is little more than a one-dimensional bad guy looking to rule the world. The brilliant Ron Perlman does as much as possible with the script, but the gags and one-liners can be hit-or-miss. These are a few of the areas of potential which went untapped in the film.

This is still a fun movie, and definitely one which fans of superhero flicks should watch or regularly revisit. It's a great alternative to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which I love) and its competitors.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Arguably an improvement on the original in several ways, despite exhibiting some of the same weaknesses. In short, it's another fun chapter in the off-beat superhero series.

All of the strengths of the first film remain intact here. The title monster hunter is still as fun and snarky as ever, and his teammates are still quirky misfits that wouldn't be found in other blockbuster superhero movies (except maybe Guardians of the Galaxy). The visual effects are strong, and del Toro still opts for costumes and make-up over CGI whenever possible, a choice which I hold in very high regard.

The leg up that this sequel has is that the villain has more depth that the first film (or most other action and adventure films). The back story here is that many millenia prior, the world was ruled by a race of elves, which had built an army of hulking mechanical warriors - the titular "Golden Army," which was reputed to be unstoppable in battle. Despite commanding this force, the king of the elves was betrayed, and the key to the army was lost to time. That is until our story begins, when the exiled elf Prince Nuada decides to track down the key, use it to reclaim the Golden Army, and reclaim dominance over Earth. Nuada actually evokes more sympathy than most villains, which adds a bit of richness far too often lacking in such movies (I'm looking at you, Marvel Cinematic Universe).

The playful sense of wonder is on full display here. As Hellboy and his crew track Nuada's whereabouts and uncover his plans, we get plenty of great set pieces, odd monsters both large and small, and an ever-deepening mythology which never takes itself overly serious. While the relationship between Hellboy and his teammate Liz often has a screwball feel which I can do without, this is still a great fantasy action movie that's well worth watching every year or two.

As of writing this, we are now eight years into the "Hellboy 3" rumor cycle. I, for one, would gladly go and watch another of these films. While the MCU's Guardians of the Galaxy was widely lauded for being a fun, anti-establishment departure from its MCU brethren, people seem to forget that many of those charming elements in Guardians had already been done by del Toro in his Hellboy movies ten years prior. We could use a few more pure popcorn movies that are high on fun while lying a tad outside of the box. Another Hellboy would give it to us.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Before I Die #560*: Atlantic City (1980)

*This is the 560th of the 1,172 films on the "Before You Die" list which I am gradually working my way through. There was a jump between film #553, 3-iron, and this one since there were 10 new films added to the list this year. I had already seen 6 of them; hence the jump to #560.

Director: Louis Malle

An unusual blend of crime and wistfulness that makes for interesting viewing.

Atlantic City takes place roughly in the year it was released, 1980. True to history, the setting is an Atlantic City that is attempting to come back from decades of hard times, following the boom of the 1900s through the 1930s. Reflecting this attempted revitalisation is the movie's protagonist, Lou (Burt Lancaster), an aged former criminal who subsists by running small-time lottery numbers for a local dabbler in criminal activities. Lou had been around during the boom times during and immediately after Prohibition, when he had some contact with the gangsters who would become some of the most infamous in U.S. history, including Nucky Johnson and Lucky Luciano. Whereas those more notable figures are all dead or in prison, Lou remains to languish in Atlantic City.

Lou's opportunity for revival comes in the form of an accidental run-in with the drifting, estranged husband of his neighbor, Sally (Susan Sarandon). Sally's husband has stolen a bag of cocaine, which he needs Lou's help to sell. Lou sees this as a rare chance to make some real money and be an authentic gangster, if only for a little while. Lou must navigate some troubled waters in order to realize his modest dreams of success. There are vengeful mobsters lurking about, and Sally has some concerning personal troubles of her own.

The veneer of the movie can be a bit drab. Some of this is the dilapidated setting of a worn out city. Buildings are falling apart; wallpaper is peeling; and people's clothing is often garish or simply unattractive. Much of this was clearly intentional, though some is merely the product of outdated styles from 1980. It can make the movie a bit hard to watch after an hour or so. It doesn't help that the dialogue doesn't offer the actors much chance to do anything organic or interesting. It isn't bad, per se, but neither is it particularly interesting.

Amid the sad urban blight and garish neon lights, Lou and
Sally find odd sorts of comfort with each other. It may be
fleeting, but it does pack emotional punch. 
Once you get past these flatter aesthetic elements, though, the story is well worth taking in. Unlike nearly all other gangster movies, this one is a very subdued study of character. There are no criminal masterminds or powerfully cunning kingpins here. Lou is a D-grade wannabe thief from the past who is still clinging to a faded dream of criminal glory. Burt Lancaster plays the part extremely well, and Susan Sarandon's turn as his love interest, Sally, matches him well. There is an interesting uncertainly as to the resolution of Lou and Sally's tale, as the third act teases multiple possible outcomes, several of which could have been satisfying. The actual finale was a rather atypical one, which I appreciated.

Though I may never watch this movie again, it was well worth viewing once. It stands as a very different entry into the library of gangster movies, making it a must-see for fans of the genre.

That's 560 down, only 612 to go before I can die. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Idiot Boxing: Jessica Jones (2015)

Marvel's Jessica Jones (2015)

Bold and worthy of respect in many ways, if not exactly a masterpiece.

As a devoted geek for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I was greatly anticipating this Netflix-exclusive series. Prior to Jessica Jones, Netflix allowed the creators of Daredevil the freedom to create a series that, while part of MCU canon, could tell a darker superhero story in a more measured, mature fashion. Jessica Jones took this lead and ran with it.

As the trailer indicates, this series delves deeper and darker than anything the MCU has done before. The titular protagonist does possess the superpower of greatly enhanced strength, but she is a mess of a human being. Jones is a private investigator who, true to the PI character type in classic noir tales, drinks hard and has zero tolerance for complications. Once Jones's alcoholism and toughness are established (this takes all of about 2 minutes), the series is given over to how she came to such straits. We gradually learn about a horribly dark period in her life, one which helped shape the overtly apathetic, degraded gumshoe. When the person responsible for this horror, initially known only as "Kilgrave," returns to Jones's life, she is compelled to revisit and attempt to cope with trauma that she has long been trying to drown with booze.

The title character may not look like the typical
superhero, but her low-key approach to flexing
her considerable muscle is a big appeal of the show. 
There is much to Jessica Jones that plays like the procedural crime dramas which have been all the rage on network television for the past decade. While this can be a weakness at times, this show has the ace up its sleeve of having a few super-powered main characters. In the case of the arch villain, this adds the kind of spice that no typical "real world" TV show can emulate. The cat-and-mouse between Jones and Kilgrave is often packed with plot twists and tension which can only happen when the opponents possess supernatural abilities. Interestingly, much like George R. R. Martin's use of magic in his Ice and Fire series, these powers are used deftly and sparingly, only to enhance the more human tale, rather than being the tale itself.

A major element to the series, and the one that has received many of the well-deserved praises, is the gender issue. Jessica Jones can be seen as a metaphor for female empowerment on many levels. Even if a viewer chooses not to read this much into it, the simple fact is that this series features dynamic female characters far more prominently than most TV shows, and definitely far more than anything the MCU has done to date. Yes, there have been female superheroes like Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Sif, and a handful of others. However, these have always been relatively minor roles who have played second or third fiddle to male leads like Captain America or Thor. In Jessica Jones, nearly every major player is a woman, some of whom are admirable and heroic, and some of whom are despicably selfish and cunning. In fact, there are only three notable male roles: the villain Kilgrave; and Luke Cage and Will Simpson, who are both removed from the playing field before the ultimate resolution of the story.

Jessica and one of the few male main characters, Luke Cage.
A show that features a variety of female main characters is a
very welcome addition to the MCU. 
Another laudable aspect of this series is something that it avoids - being an "origin" story. The MCU, as with nearly every other superhero movie, has often relied on the origin tale as the go-to formula to launch new movie series. Much to its credit, Jessica Jones eschews this approach. We very quickly see what she can do, but there is virtually no explanation as to how she obtained her prodigious physical strength. In fact, when the character is asked about it, she simply responds, "Accident." That's all we get. Clearly, the show-runners wanted us to focus on issues far more relevant to the character's current situation. Rather than ask us to simply marvel at Jones's physical powers, we are asked to take a hard, thoughtful look at her damaged psyche and how it influences her decisions and actions.

There are certain points in the 13-episode run where the story drags a bit, to the point that I felt the series was probably 2 or 3 episodes longer than it needed to be. Also, some issues are resolved in ways that, while satisfying in terms of basic storytelling, are not terribly imaginative. As a complete work, though, the strengths of the show far outweigh the weaknesses. To date, this is the boldest work that MCU has crafted. My hope now is that they build on this and continue to explore other styles and themes, both in their TV series and in the feature films. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Analyze This (1999); Federal Hill (1994); The Valachi Papers (1972)

Analyze This (1999)

Director: Harold Ramis

Worth a watch, but mostly underwhelming.

Amazingly, I had never seen Analyze This before now. Perhaps I would have found it more amusing shortly after its release in 1999. As a first-time viewer in 2015, though, the movie did only so much to recommend itself.

The movie focuses on Doctor Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal), a Manhanttan psychiatrist with a rather run-of-the-mill clientele. That is, until he accidentally runs across Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro), a mafia don of legendary proportions and with an infamous violent streak. Vitti enlists the unwilling Sobel to cure him of his panic attacks and general stress levels. The more Sobel seems to protest wanting anything to do with the notorious Vitti, the more Vitti demands Sobel's help.

The movie does, as you might imagine, have some solid comedic moments. The best are the wry, sarcastic dialogue between Sobel and Vitti, often the result of Sobel's passive aggression or Vitti's matter-of-fact way of speaking on the horrifying brutality in his business. This is when the writing was at its sharpest, and it is also when Crystal and De Niro are at their best. However, I found much of the humor to wander much to deeply into the realms of farce and caricature. Far too often does Vitti seem too idiotic to run a shoe-shine stand, much less a major crime syndicate. There are also a few times, especially towards the end, that director Harold Ramis allows Billy Crystal to get overly clownish, breaking out a few of his sillier impersonations, in essence being "Billy Crystal." Such moments break up any consistency of characters or tone.

As full-disclosure, I should mention that I am not much of a Billy Crystal fan. There are times when I've found him funny, but not often and never consistently. I must also confess that, as amazing an actor as Robert De Niro is, he has long since crossed over the line into self-parody, and his late-phase career is a pale comparison to the first few decades of his acting life. In retrospect, Analyze This was one of, if not the, first step into this less impressive territory. If you don't mind Crystal or haven't been put off my De Niro's goofier roles of the last decade, you probably won't take exception to the movie the ways that I did.

Analyze This had enough laughs to make it a worthwhile one-time viewing. However, in the wake of better mafia comedies and The Sopranos, it now seems a bit out of date. I have no intention of watching the follow-up, the less-well received Analyze That.

Federal Hill (1994)

Director: Michael Corrente

A somewhat rough exterior, but what's underneath is actually impressive.

Federal Hill follows five friends who are natives of the Federal Hill area of Privdence, Rhode Island: the connected mobster Frank, the wild but gifted cat burglar Ralph, the low-level mafia soldier Joey, the romantic and handsom Nicky, and the foolish and irresponsible Bobby. These five young men's lives reach some very serious crossroads when Bobby gets $30,000 into debt to a counterfeiter, setting off a chain reaction that affects his four friends.

It takes some patience to get past the amateurish and unispired surface features of this movie. While some of the actors are fine, others are lackluster in their stiffness. The dialogue is rather dull much of the time, and it is sometimes flat-out awkward. Once I got beyond these things, though, the story itself was pleasantly complex and surprising. Just when it seems that the five friends all fit into neat and boring stereotypes, nearly every one eventually shows an added dimension. The loud-mouthed and xenophobic Ralph unexpectedly shows some compassion for a few friends. The seemingly sex-driven ladies' man Nicky shows true love and dedication to the "out of his league" blue blood Wendy.

The plot itself is actually very solid. In contrast to the large-scale, epic crime stories we see set in the New York Cities and Las Vegases of the world, and involving criminals of legendary status, Federal Hill gives us a more authentic-feeling , blue-collar type of crime story that has ramifications for the criminals and non-criminals alike. The pace and rhythm of the tale are measured and executed well, with nary a wasted, rushed, or belabored scene. This was clearly director Michael Corrente's strength.

If Federal Hill had had a more talented cast and dialogue-writer, this would probably be an absolute classic. As it is, it's a strong movie that simply requires viewers to see beyond the lackluster facade.

The Valachi Papers (1972)

Director: Terence Young

The potential was there, but this film suffers from questionable execution and extremely poor timing.

The Valachi Papers was one of the bolder attempts to tell the "real" story of the most infamous, real mafia figures in the United States in the 20th century. The was constructed based on the testimony and autobiography of Jospeh Valachi, a mafia soldier who had, between 1928 and the 1960s, worked with and for some of the most powerful Italian organized crime figures in the country. Valachi was eventually captured and offered one of the very first testimonies to air some of the esoteric inner-working of the Sicilian mafia, or la cosa nostra - the self-styled term which Valachi revealed to the public.

A simple synopsis of the movie seems familiar and very intriguing - a low-end criminal meets members of the mafia in prison in the late 1920s, and he eventually works his way into a job as a trusted member of the organized crime syndicate. He is present for many of the violent power plays and machinations which have since become of the stuff of American mafia lore. However, when the times change and the good times start to go bad, dirty laundry is aired and heads roll, literally and figuratively.

If this all sounds a bit like The Godfather series, this is because it is. Many of the facts revealed through Valachi's story were source material for Mario Puzo's novel and Francis Ford Coppolla's movie. Whereas The Valachi Papers has far more of the facts on its side, the fictitious Coppolla movie had brilliant screenwriting, a world-class cast of actors, and a phenomenal director. The Valachi Papers had none of those things, and it results in a vastly inferior film.

The movie does have a few things going for it. The time periods and intrigue of the functioning of shadowy mafia are the clear strengths. Gaining an understanding of how such a large, long-standing criminal syndicate is usually engaging, and this is true with The Valachi Papers. Unfortunately, I felt forced to suffer through some incoherent transitions between eras, often having more questions raised than the film could possibly answer, and the wooden acting of the star, Charles Bronson.

This film is probably one that is a "must" for nearly any aficionado of mafia movies, but it's also one that any such aficiondo would say pales in comparison to many of its ilk.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Documentary Series Review: ESPNs 30 for 30 (2009 to present)

I'm a maniac for sports, and I love good documentaries. It follows that ESPNs massive 30 for 30 series of sports documentaries done by different directors on a vast range of topics would appeal to me. Over the past several years, I've seen nearly every single one of the seventy-three films released, and the series as a whole has been excellent. It would take an insanely long post to go over the individual films, but here are the highlights and lowlights as I see them. You can assume that any of the films not specifically mentioned are quite good, if not my absolute favorites.

30 for 30 Volume I (2009 to 2010)


The Legend of Jimmy the Greek. This chronicles the rise and fall of the man who brought sports betting to the national consciousness of the United States. Jimmy was a street guy with a knack for picking winners as a young man, and he created and sold his own persona to a national audience on one of the very first sports talk TV shows in the 1970s. It's a gripping look at the rise of sports gambling, a man in the middle of much of it, and how a racially insensitive, though scientifically logical, remark began his fall out of public acceptance.

The U. Following the Miami University football program's rise to national dominance during a time when college sports was just becoming a cultural and commercial juggernaut. The football part of the film is interesting enough, but the connections between the players, the program, and the local Miami community make this a study of social values as much as sports fandom.

Miller's antics used to drive me nuts.
This doc showed me just how funny
he was, though.
Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks. I'll admit it. I mostly love this film because Reggie Miller was a hilarious trash-talker who loved getting under the skins of equally annoying opponents. Miller's recounting of his various scuffles, his inferiority complex caused by being the younger brother to the greatest female basketball player of all time, and his mind-game tactics is endlessly entertaining. Of course, if you simply hate Reggie Miller, you'll want nothing to do with this film. He actually used to annoy the hell out of me during his playing days, but this film helped endear him to me a lot more.

The 16th Man. The powerful story of South Africa's championship run during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, held in their home country. The tale of what this team meant to a country still trying to come to grips with the abolition of apartheid is incredible. Much time is given to then-president Nelson Mandela's connection to the team, and the ways that he viewed them as a source for national healing rather than division. This story was dramatized in the Clint Eastwood film Invictus, which I haven't seen, but I doubt it can be as moving as this documentary.

The tragic story of Andres Escobar made for my favorite
doc in the 30 for 30 series so far. 
The Two Escobars. My favorite of Volume I. This is the tragic tale of Andres Escobar, the brilliant Columbian soccer star who had the horrible misfortune of kicking the ball into his team's own goal during the 1994 World Cup held in the U.S., resulting in his team's loss and unexpected early exit from the tournament. He would then be gunned down by vengeful thugs a few weeks later in Colombia. The film documents the deep and long-running connections between the all-powerful drug cartels and the national soccer league teams in the country, connecting some curious dots between Andres and the "other Escobar" - notorious drug lord Pablo. Fascinating, chilling, and heart-wrenching, to say the least.

Once Brothers. The story of Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac, two great basketball players who were friends and teammates on the Yugoslavian men's national team. The team was one of the best in the world, before the country was torn apart by civil war in the early 1990s. This war separated Petrovic and Divac for years, though both went on to play in the NBA. Divac had a very long and successful career, while the supermely talented Petrovic had his highly promising career and life cut short when he was killed in an auto accident in 1993. The film, done with oversight by the NBA, has incurred criticism for its omissions and inaccuracies, but the basics of the story are still very moving, and they show how sports can reflect, connect, or divide the societies and cultures that value them.


The House of Steinbrenner. This whole thing was essentially a puff piece love letter to the New York Yankees. I love baseball and its history, but all but the most devout Yankees fans are likely to find this glossy piece a bit nauseating. You might as well just buy a "History of the Bronx Bombers" DVD set and not bother with this one.

ESPN Presents (Aired from 2011 to 2012)
The film Renee, about a transgender woman who fought for
the right to play on the women's tennis tour, is one of the most
fascinating of the "Presents" series.

These were thirteen other documentaries that were made but not included in Volume I of the series. I've seen all except the two films
Goose and Right to Play. Curiously, nearly every one of the eleven that I've seen is excellent, leading me to wonder why they weren't included in the original volume over weaker entries. The only three that were not outstanding were Charismatic, The Dotted Line, and Roll Tide/War Eagle. None of these was a "bad" film; they just suffer from being in the same group as so many other great films.

Volume II (Aired 2012 to June 2015)


Survive and Advance. It mostly follows the North Carolina State basketball team's improbable and amazing run towards the National Championship in 1983. This story is fascinating from a sports angle, but what makes the documentary is how it also tells the story of the team's larger-than-life coach, Jim Valvano. Valvano was a boisterous, funny, endlessly energetic man who practically willed his team to win through positive visualization and faith, rather than the dogged dictatorial style of coaching often associated with high-level athletics. Valvano's eventual losing battle against cancer puts a sad but inspiring note into this tale. I would challenge anyone to watch this whole documentary and not get choked up at some point.

Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau. As much an anthrolological documentary as a biographical account, this tells the story of Eddie Aikau, the first native Hawaiian surfer to compete on the world stage in the sport that his ancestors had invented. I had never heard of Aikau before this documentary, but I was enthralled by what kind of person he was and just what he meant to his native Hawaii.

If, like most of America, you had written off Maurice
Clarette (left) as an idiotic thug, then the film
Boys may very well change your opinion.
Youngstown Boys. The tale of two guys from Youngstown. Ohio - running back Maurice Clarette and head coach Jim Tressel - who resurrected the Ohio State football program in the early 2000s, only to have it come crashing down. Like most people, I had last heard of Clarette being put in jail after driving drunk in a car filled with firearms. This documentary paints a fuller, updated picture that I found highly moving. It reminded me not to simply judge a celebrity by the headlines his actions may inspire.


There's No Place Like Home. To date, this is the only 30 for 30 film that I stopped watching before its end. It traces the efforts of a University of Kansas alumnus and basketball fan to raise enough money to allow UK to purchase basketball inventor James Naismith's original rules for the game, written on the original piece of paper. The fan in question has some rather serious priority issues, which are disturbing enough, but once I saw the disingenuous tactic he started to use to hit up wealthy alumni for money, I couldn't stomach the film any more. A hardcore Jayhawk might love the show; the rest of us are likely to find it dull at best and highly annoying at worst. I was frankly surprised that the people in charge of the 30 for 30 series gave this one the thumbs up.

The Day the Series Stopped. This one details the day in 1989 when, right in the middle of game 3 of the World Series of baseball between the Oakland Athletics and San Fransisco Giants, a massive earthquake struck the Bay Area. The film isn't really a terrible one, but it is only loosely a "sports" documentary. It rightfully focuses more on the actual victims of the disaster, but this makes it seem far more appropriate for the History or Discovery Channel, rather than in the middle of an ESPN sports documentary series. This, coupled with some odd decisions in terms of visuals and editing, made this 50-minute film a bit of a chore at times.

ESPN has begun airing its third season of "30 for 30." I'm sure I'll work my way through those, as well, and will give a run-down once they've all been aired over the next few years.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Idiot Boxing: Orphan Black, Seasons 2 and 3 (2014-2015)

Orphan Black: Season 2 (2014)

The plot gets twistier. A few more clones come out of the woodwork. And things get markedly more visceral. In short, it's still pretty good fun.

Season 2 of the series picks up with Sarah's daughter, Kira, recovering from a rather grave car accident. The sinister company Dyad has a few more of its tendrils revealed, one in the form of the clone Rachel. Rachel is a cold-blooded, calculating, high-ranking member of Dyad, and she is the only clone who has been self-aware from the very beginning. Figuring out her exact motives remains unclear for most of the season, but her ruthlessness underlies many of the more gripping elements of the story.

Sarah Manning remains the protagonist, though the other clones get plenty of time. Sarah often remains on the run from Dyad, even getting help from Kira's father, the extremely resourceful (and of course, impossibly handsome) Cal. While Sarah evades her pursuers, other clones deal with all manner of other obstacles. Large portions of season two feature the stories of Alison and Helena, two pieces of the overall story which are wildly different but equally engaging. Helena's is a tale mostly composed of horrific incidents made occasionally comical due to Helena's odd detachment. Alison's is a tale mostly composed of comical incidents occasionally made horrific due to Alison's increasingly dark compulsions.

The breakneck pace and solid direction of the first season continue right into the second. There are, however, a few aspects which are not the most appealing. One is that some characters' actions simply do not hold up to closer scrutiny. One of several examples is Cosima's infuriating soap opera romance with Delphine, who hardly seems alluring enough to compell a hyper-intelligent woman like Cosima to repeatedly act like such a dope. Another bothersome aspect is the increasingly graphic nature of the violence in the show. While there are certainly a few gut-wrenching scenes in the first season, season two brings us far more in the way of torture scenes, squirm-inducing medical procedures, brutal fights, and bloody deaths and attacks. Such things don't necessarily repulse me, but there are times in season 2 when they border on feeling gratuitous.

After this season, I still enjoy where the show is going. I do fear, however, that things may grow beyond the control of a good TV series. For now, I look forward to where it all leads in Season 3.

Orphan Black: Season 3 (2015)

Even more clones?? This is the season when I've started to grow a tiny bit weary of this series.

The major cliffhanger at the end of season 2 was the revelation that Sarah and her "sisters" are not the only batch of clones running around in the world. There are male clones all over the place as well, and several of them seem very deeply involved, mostly as soldiers, with the entire cloning program and its shadowy origins. Season 3 is mostly dedicated to various male and female clones' pursuit of one another, as well as a cure to the various genetic ailments which are killing several of their kind.

Production-wise, the show hasn't lost a single step. The acting is still phenomenal, and the look and feel of the characters and environments are as evocative and coherent as ever.

Season 3 does begin to uncover a few answers to some of the larger questions raised in the first two seasons of the show. I do get the sense that the "expansion" phase of the tale is complete, and we are now ready for the "resolution" phase to begin. This is a relief, as I'm not sure I could take much more of the "add a clone" pattern that was fascinating in the earliest episdoes but had become a somewhat tired element of the show. At this point, however, I was hoping to get a bit deeper into the ethical questions underpinning the science of human cloning. While there is a dash of this, the show is still mostly driven by plot and tense action. These elements are still strong enough to make the show interesting, but I'll be hoping for some sort of shift in tone next season.

Based on the general pattern in seasons 2 and 3, anyone in
a hospital is bound to get tormented, tortured, and very
likely killed in some brutal manner.
This season does, unfortunately, continue the unappealing trend of increasingly graphic violence and grotesque shock visuals. I'm certainly not above the use of such moments when they punctuate key points in a story, but some of the images in this season struck me as gratuitous.

Maybe I haven't done myself a favor by watching the entire 3-season, 30 episode series in the relatively short span of about 2 months. Still, I can't help shake the feeling that some of the intelligence and commentary hinted at in the very earliest episodes has fallen by the wayside in this series. I still appreciate the humor and acting in the show, and the intensity and grit of characters like Sarah and Helena  are compelling. All the same, the show has become more focused on tension and suspense than on character exploration or thoughtful science fiction. It has not gone completely off the deep end, by any means, but it is headaing that way. Fortunately, there is still time to bring it back to a place where we will be left with more food for thought than simply seeing a bunch of male and female clones duke it out for mere survival. This show started with much more promise than that. I hope that season 4 start fulfilling more of that promise than I received in this latest season. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Before I Die #553: 3-iron (2004)

This is the 553rd I've watched of the 1,162 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through...

Original Korean Title: Bin-jip

Director: Ki-duk Kim

A captivating and wonderfully unique film, even if it is one with a somewhat whimsical resolution.

3-iron follows Tae-suk, a young drifter who breaks into people's homes while they are away on vacation. The incredibly crafty Tae-suk never steals more than a little bit of food and a bed for the night, and he always repays by thoroughly cleaning the dwelling and fixing any malfunctioning machinery they may have. This odd little ghost one day breaks into the home of a wealthy, bullying businessman, whose wife, Sun-hwa, Tae-suk finds beaten and alone. Tae-suk becomes taken with Sun-hwa to the point that he confronts her husband and beats him by pelting him with golf balls. Tae-suk and Sun-hwa leave together and become partners of sorts, continuing the pattern of using others' homes with the least amount of invasiveness possible. Serious problems do arise, though, once the couple eventually are captured by police.

Sun-hwa looks on as Tae-suk whiles away some time with
his own strange form of golf practice. Their peculiar,
meditative relationship is hypnotic.
This movie is far more artistic than a mere plot synopsis can convey. The most immediately amazing thing is that the protagonist Tae-suk does not utter a single word during the entire movie. Given that he is in nearly every scene, this is quite a feat, and it meant that director Ki-duk Kim had to rely on a lot of visual storytelling. He does this in a fashion that would impress every major director, right back to the silent film era. Through nothing more than careful direction and camerawork, the odd behavior of the wordless Tae-suk is given meaning that becomes deeper and more profound as the film spins on. By film's end, Tae-suk becomes a sort of transcendent, soulful evolution of the classic "Little Tramp" character of Chaplin's. I'm no great fan of Chaplin, but I found Tae-suk to have all of the charm are far more depth than the Tramp ever did.

The movie is probably not for those who do not enjoy "foreign movies," to use the stereotypical pejorative form of that phrase. 3-iron is slow, subtle, heartfelt, and admittedly a tad sentimental. Some viewers may just see the actions of Tae-suk and Sun-hwa too peculiar to find enchanting. As one who enjoys visual storytelling, I thoroughly enjoyed this rather singular tale.

That's 533 down. Only 609 films to go before I can die.