Reviews

Review: Mad Max Fury Road

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I am baffled by the level of hype surrounding director George Miller’s return to the Max Max mythos. As of this morning, Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator website, is showing Fury Road has a 98% positive rating, out of 211 reviews counted. That’s highly unusual; I’d wager most films don’t crack 75% on that thing. Meanwhile, the fanboy gushing on social media has become frankly kind of embarrassing. One of my Facebook friends actually compared seeing this film to losing one’s virginity; he said something to the effect of, “You know going in that’s going to be good, but it turns out to be so much more than you imagined.” Um, yeah… okay. I saw Fury Road last night and, well… it wasn’t like that.

It’s an okay movie. It’s well-crafted and entertaining enough, and the visuals are frequently quite beautiful, if stark. It has some interesting ideas underlying the mayhem. But overall I just don’t see what everybody is losing their damn minds about. The only thing I can figure is that it’s been so long since anyone saw a movie with real stuntmen facing real danger on real machines, in service of action scenes that are actually intelligible, that people are getting kind of drunk on the idea. Or something.

I should probably stipulate that I am a big fan of the original Max trilogy that starred Mel Gibson, especially The Road Warrior, or Mad Max 2 as it’s known in much of the rest of the world. But this isn’t another case of me stamping my feet and getting in a snit over one of my personal touchstones getting remade by the insatiable Hollywood branding machine. Honest. I really tried to keep an open mind with this one, and in any event, it’s never quite clear if Fury Road is meant to be an out-and-out reboot anyhow. There’s nothing in the film that suggests this Max is the same character that Gibson played, but there also isn’t anything to suggest that he isn’t. There are some nice callbacks to the earlier films — I especially liked a subtle one that I’m willing to bet most viewers missed, involving a little hand-cranked music box, which was one of my favorite bits in The Road Warrior — but these are more echoes than specific references to any events from Gibson’s trilogy. And while Fury Road doesn’t fit anyplace in the timeline of the originals, I never got the sense that this one was intended to displace the earlier films either. Rather, it’s just… another Max Max story. Perhaps it’s best to think of it as an alternative Max story, maybe a glimpse of the Max from a parallel universe or something.

I suppose that’s my issue with the movie, now that I think about it. It never feels like it’s happening in our world. Everything is too outlandish, too over-the-top. The original trilogy — well, the first two, anyhow — had a fairly modest scope, in part because of their limited budgets, but also because of the stories they were telling. They were human-scale stories, and that was a big part of what I’ve always liked about them. I’ve always been able to imagine the people in those stories were once backyard hot-rod enthusiasts like my dad, forced into doing whatever they could to survive as the world fell apart around them. It felt real, in some way, or at least plausible, and that was what made it all so powerful… and so frightening. Fury Road, by contrast, is consciously designed to be epic; George Miller cranked the knob up to 11… and then broke it off. The vehicles, the costumes, the bad guys’ lair, the landscape… none of it looked recognizably devolved from our modern-day civilization so much as the phantasmagorical fantasy of a half-insane gearhead tripping on ‘shrooms while listening to an Iron Maiden album. I’ll be honest, the production design in Fury Road reminded me less of the classic Mad Max trilogy than Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zonewhich, as I recall, was widely panned back in 1983 for being derivative of, yes, The Road Warrior.

And then there’s Tom Hardy, the actor who’s replaced Gibson in the title role. A number of my friends are just ga-ga for this guy, but again I’m the odd man out in that I just don’t see the appeal. Perhaps it’s not fair to judge him based on this movie, as Max is pretty underwritten in Fury Road — I think he has a dozen lines of dialog, maybe? — but I can’t detect much in the way of charisma or magnetism coming from him. As Max, he’s a far more anonymous presence than Gibson was. It’s not that I can’t abide another actor assuming the role; it’s that Hardy brought nothing to the role, in my opinion. He was just… there.

I’m not saying Mad Max Fury Road was a bad movie. It’s not. But I never once felt the adrenaline surge I still experience while watching The Road Warrior. And I doubt I’m going to want to see it again, or remember much about it a year from now. So when I read all the breathlessly enthusiastic comments out there in the InterWebs, when I hear people saying it’s the best movie of the year so far and they just can’t get over its awesomeness, I wonder if I saw the same movie everybody else did.

I suppose this is just one more example of how out of touch with popular culture I’m becoming. I’ve been out of sync with my peers a lot over the past couple of years, liking things other folks say are mediocre, not liking the stuff everybody else is wetting themselves over. I don’t understand what’s happened, where and when I disconnected, and it troubles me. I don’t like being the cranky dissenter all the time. I don’t like feeling like everybody else is in on something that I’m incapable of perceiving. But I guess there isn’t much I can do about it. You like what you like, right?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch a real Max Max movie…

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Quick Takes: Emulsion

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How I came to see this odd little film will take a bit of explaining, so if you’ll bear with me…

My lovely Anne’s all-time favorite books are Diana Gabaldon‘s Outlander series, a sequence of eight (and counting!) doorstop-sized tomes and various shorter ancillary works that combine time travel, historical adventure, and bodice-ripping (or perhaps I should say “kilt lifting”) romance against the backdrop of Scotland’s Jacobite Revolution and its aftermath. The first book in the series has now been adapted into a television series for the Starz cable network; it debuted about a month ago and stars a young chap named Sam Heughan as hunky highlander Jamie Fraser.

Anne and I have only seen the first episode of this Outlander series, because we don’t have cable and Starz has elected to keep the series off the legitimate streaming services, for some reason. (I’m sure we could find it somewhere out there in the InterTubes, but as you all know, I’m an analog kind of guy, which means I’m not very skilled at tracking down such things.) But this hasn’t prevented Anne from getting involved with a local Outlander fan group on Facebook. Recently, a member of that group proposed trying to arrange a screening of a film Heughan made a couple years ago, a British indie project called Emulsion, for Salt Lake-area fans. It turns out there’s an online service that will set up one-time screenings of such obscurities if you can pre-sell enough tickets to make it worthwhile. Who knew, right? Anyhow, getting Emulsion here required several people to buy more seats than they in fact had bodies to fill, but in the end, the effort succeeded. Tuesday night, I was one of only four or five men in an auditorium otherwise populated by women, watching a movie I otherwise probably never would’ve heard of, let alone bothered to see. (Hey, Anne has supported me in my fannish interests so often over the past 20 years, the least I can do is return the favor once in a while!)

Written and directed by Suki Singh, Emulsion is basically a modern-day film noir, in which Heughan plays a young man whose wife disappeared from their car in a parking lot — or car park, as they say on the other side of the pond — while he was making a phone call. A year later, we find him still obsessively trying to figure out what happened to her… when he’s not just plain obsessing over her. The movie is visually striking, even beautiful in its way — that’s no surprise considering Singh’s background in commercials and music videos — but it’s also pretty damn baffling and deeply unsettling in a way that’s hard to articulate.

Of course, noir films almost always hinge on the idea that things are not what they appear, and this often makes them confusing to watch. For example, I defy anybody to explain The Big Sleep to me in a way that makes sense, and yet it is widely considered a film classic (by me too, for the record). And unlike The Big Sleep, Emulsion actually does provide answers at the end, and they actually do make (some) sense of what we’ve just seen. But the real question when you’re watching a film like this is not so much whether the conclusion makes sense but whether it satisfies. Was it worth taking this journey that left you scratching your head at every stop? The Big Sleep makes the journey worthwhile by being so damn stylish and entertaining along the way that the muddled story ultimately isn’t all that important. Emulsion, though… I’m just not sure the payoff is worth the 89 preceding minutes of “WTF?” As I quipped to our friends when the house lights came up, it was like watching a feature-length ad for Calvin Klein Eternity.

But I will give credit where it’s due: Sam Heughan wears an old-fashioned three-piece suit and hat well. He’s a fine-looking man.

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Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

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This entry is far beyond its window of relevance, considering there’s now probably only about a dozen people left on the planet who haven’t seen it yet, but for whatever it’s worth, I really, really enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest entry in the interconnected film franchise that’s come to be known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was everything I hoped it would be, and everything I’ve been craving for a while: a feel-good space adventure with likable heroes — hey, remember those?! — and a healthy sense of humor, balanced with just enough pathos and epic scope to keep the whole thing from tilting over the edge into outright comedy.

While I enjoyed the story and characters, honestly, a lot of the appeal for me was the environment of this movie. Like its distant ancestor, the original Star Wars, Guardians drops the viewer into a fully realized, busy, populated universe where it feels as if every individual on the screen has some life off the screen. We get the feeling that there are a billion stories in this universe and we’re only focusing on this one handful of characters for a while, that we could easily shift our focus to those guys over there and it would turn out to be just as entertaining. That sounds like no big deal, but it’s a trick very few sci-fi movies — very few movies in general, when you think about it — manage to pull off. I found myself really appreciating the sensation of verisimilitude, the feeling that I could crawl inside this movie and walk around and meet people. And since I had absolutely no background with this property going in, I also had the pleasure of discovering something entirely new. As much as I’ve enjoyed the other Marvel films — Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, as well as the X-Men movies (same comic-book publisher, different movie studio) — I already knew who those characters were and the rough outlines of their most famous adventures, so the pleasure I felt with those movies came from seeing how successfully they brought life to the familiar. Guardians, on the other hand, was a clean slate for me, and I dug the things it filled up with.

In addition, I liked the overall look of Guardians. It’s kind of a weird observation, but I was deeply struck by the way one of the main locations, the planet Xandar, was such a bright and sunny place, where the police aircraft are a shining gold and citizens wear brightly colored clothing. Such a refreshing change from the desaturated, grayscale visuals and perpetual nighttime setting of so many science fiction films in recent years.

I have to mention the soundtrack, naturally, which consists mostly of upbeat, bubblegum-flavored pop tunes from the 1970s. Kudos to director James Gunn for choosing just the right songs to evoke a mood, and for working with that old music I love so much instead of ironically mocking it.

About the only complaint I have with Guardians is one you’ve heard before, which is that the big action scenes are unfortunately cut in the jittery, zoom-in/zoom-out, lots-of-crap-flying-around, which-way-am-I-supposed-to-look style that’s been the vogue for the past decade or so, ever since those damned Bourne movies. I hate to admit this, because I’m fairly certain it’s a sign I’m getting old, but I simply can’t tell what the hell is going on in action scenes these days. Guardians wasn’t as bad in this regard as other flicks I’ve seen, but there were a couple of shots (mostly in the segment involving a dogfight in and around a place called Knowhere) that I had a lot of difficulty following.

Still, that’s nitpicking compared to the overall level of joy I received from this film. Honestly, how could I not love a space movie that references the Kevin Bacon classic Footloose? Am I right? And of course the cameo everybody’s been talking about absolutely made my night. Whoever thought we’d see that guy on the big screen again, in any form?

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And Now for Something…

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When I was about fourteen or thereabouts, my best friend was a kid named Kurt Stephensen, who lived a couple doors up the street from me. I suspect this convenient proximity was the major reason we became friends in the first place, but no matter… we shared a lot of good times at a fairly pivotal age, the time when we’re most open to discovering and adopting new tastes. While I can’t speak to any influence I might have had on him, I know he contributed a great deal to my developing aesthetic, particularly in the areas of music and comedy.

I don’t recall which of us was the first to become seriously obsessed with comedy as a thing, a fandom, to use a modern term that didn’t exist when I was fourteen. Possibly we came to that place independently, and our mutual interest in it was one of the things we bonded over. But however it happened, there was a period when Kurt and I collected and swapped comedy routines like other kids collected baseball cards or comic books. George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, and Robin Williams were our heroes, their records and VHS concert tapes our totems. They were our mentors in wordplay, attitude, and innuendo, our spirit-guides to the often baffling adult world we were still grappling to fully comprehend, and frankly they were our relief valves, too. Their irreverent voices and funhouse-mirror perspectives — not to mention their naughtiness and outright vulgarity — were a transgressive antidote to the alienation we often felt growing up in buttoned-down, uptight Mormon Utah.

And then there was… Monty Python.

Kurt was very definitely the one who introduced me to the seminal British comedy troupe. I’d never heard of them; in fact, my ignorance of them was so complete that the first time he mentioned their name, I asked, “Who the hell is he?,” mistakenly believing this Monty person to be a single individual. My familiarity with British comedy at the time consisted of Benny Hill and a couple of decade-old sitcoms that were running on our local PBS affiliate, Good Neighbors (a.k.a. The Good Life) and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (all of which I loved, incidentally). Monty Python’s Flying Circus was on PBS as well (very late at night, I might add!), and at Kurt’s urging, I checked it out.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of the show at first. I’m not ashamed to admit that I flat-out didn’t understand much of it. Many sketches didn’t strike me as funny so much as just plain weird. But the bits that connected… oh, those were good. And the Python movies — Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life — were much better, in my opinion, especially Holy Grail, which still has the power to reduce me to tears. Gradually, with time, repeated viewings, and a deepening grasp of British history and culture (not to mention my own), I too became a Python fan… although nothing they’ve done has ever made me laugh quite as hard as the time my old buddy Kurt, with a wickedly mischievous gleam in his eye, recited Eric Idle’s “Penis Song” verbatim.

I’ve been reminiscing about those days with Kurt a lot this week, ever since Sunday afternoon when Anne and I saw Monty Python Live (Mostly), the last of 10 on-stage performances the surviving Pythons delivered this month in London. No, we didn’t hop a plane and go to London in person (although that would’ve been awesome); the show was broadcast in real time to movie theaters all across the globe, so we were able to see it from the comfort of our regular cinema in suburban Utah, which is pretty awesome itself, when you think about it. And more than a little absurd, too. Our species has devised this amazing 21st-century communications technology that enables us to beam a high-definition video signal around the world, and we’re using it to watch 70-something-year-old comedians perform 45-year-old material. Absurd indeed!

As you may have gathered, Live (Mostly) was essentially a medley of greatest hits from the old Flying Circus program. Some of them updated to be a bit more current — for example, the aforementioned “Penis Song” now has new verses that celebrate the female genitalia as well — and the whole thing was stitched together by video clips from the old days and song-and-dance numbers performed by sexy young people. While many reviewers cast a jaundiced eye on the show, complaining that the Pythons were cynically rehashing the same old stuff to make a fast buck off nostalgic fans, I saw it as more a celebration of their legacy. Yes, the guys are old now, a long way from the peak of their powers (a line of 20 dancers performed John Cleese’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” moves, presumably because he no longer can). And yes, they blew their lines from time to time. And I can’t deny there was something ridiculous about seeing these antiquated duffers performing some of this material (John Cleese in drag was never a pretty sight, and it’s far worse now, while Eric Idle’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink routine is… odd… coming from a geezer). But there was also a pleasant warmth underpinning the proceedings, and my overall impression was that they were really enjoying working together again. My understanding is that the Pythons have had rocky personal relationships over the years, and there were rumors going into this show that they never got along and never liked each other, but you wouldn’t have known from the energy they were radiating on this stage. In particular, Cleese and Michael Palin — my favorites of the bunch, for what it’s worth — had the easy fellowship of people who’ve been through thick and thin and come out the other side with a shared wisdom and affection for each other.

A number of surprise guest appearances, from Stephen Hawking to Warwick Davis, enlivened the show, and even the late Graham Chapman, the sixth Python, who died way back in 1989, was present in the form of video clips from the old days. Of the five surviving Pythons, Eric Idle was the most polished, which is no surprise as he’s been more or less constantly immersed in the old material for years, between his solo tours (Anne and I saw him in person a few years back) and his adaptation of Holy Grail into a musical stage show, Spamalot!. Michael Palin retains his boyish demeanor and energy, but occasionally seemed a little flustered, especially during his signature “Spanish Inquisition” sketch. (Honestly, though, that one always had a manic air to it; it’s really not one of my favorite Python routines.) Terry Gilliam seemed rather uncomfortable being in the spotlight after many years behind the camera as a film director, but then, his contributions always were primarily behind the scenes anyhow. (He was the animator behind all the warped little interstitials that have always been a Python trademark.)

It was Cleese and Terry Jones who appeared the creakiest to my eye, and they were the ones who notably blew their lines a few times (causing Cleese to ask “Where were we?” to an uproarious response). But this show wasn’t about getting the lines right; I daresay the audience knows them better than the Pythons at this point anyhow. This show was about seeing the band together again, for one last time. (Supposedly this was the final time the Pythons ever plan to perform together.) Even Carol Cleveland, the so-called “Python girl” who appeared in so many of their classic sketches and, most memorably, played Zoot, the sexy nun who menaces the chaste Sir Galahad in Holy Grail, showed up to do her parts. (She still has fabulous legs!)

In the end, Live (Mostly) was like a family reunion. Hearing “The Lumberjack Song” and “Spam” and “The Dead Parrot Sketch” for the umpteenth time was pleasurable not because of the material itself, but — like those stories of our parents’ first meeting, or Uncle Joe’s war exploits — because we find value in the ritual of telling the familiar old stories, and of spending time with the tellers. And when the show wrapped up with a bittersweet rendition of the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” I was both smiling and a bit teary-eyed. It felt like Anne and I had witnessed something truly historic… the end of an era. The last opportunity we’d ever have to re-enact that ritual. I’m glad we chose to take it.

It’s been a long journey from my old buddy Kurt’s basement…

 

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Movie Review: Godzilla (2014)

 godzilla-2014_chinatownI’m not a Godzilla fan the way some people are Godzilla fans. I can’t discuss the three eras of Godzilla filmmaking with any degree of expertise (although I suppose the fact that I know there have been three distinct eras in the history of this long-lived franchise says something about me, doesn’t it?). I don’t know the names of all the Big Guy’s adversaries and allies. And I can’t even keep the titles of all the individual movies straight in my head; the ones I have seen out of the 30 or so produced since the character’s first appearance in 1954 all blend together into a big kaiju-shaped blob in my mind. (Hell, I didn’t even know the term “kaiju” until I saw Pacific Rim last year.)

Nevertheless, Japan’s favorite movie monster occupies a warm place in my heart. I have fond boyhood memories of staying up way too late to watch his adventures on Nightmare Theater, Salt Lake’s local creature-feature show. Later, when the start-up channel KSTU launched its Saturday-afternoon Sci-Fi Theater with a seemingly endless package of cheap Japanese imports, I whiled away a lot of happy hours when I should’ve been outside playing in the sunshine. One of my favorite sweatshirts for a time featured an image of old Gojira (his original Japanese name) in a tuxedo shirt and tailed coat, with a tophat perched on his scaly cranium and a diamond-topped walking stick in his hand, er, claw, all summed up with the caption “Dressed to Kill.” And I’ve had a tiny articulated action figure version him (complete with roar!) sitting on my desk for something like 20 years now. Yes, the G-man and I have a history together.

Which is probably why I approached his latest feature-film adventure with a fair amount of trepidation. The last time an American production company got its hands on this property, we ended up with that god-awful 1998 train wreck that starred Matthew Broderick. Title aside, there was very little in that movie that resembled the Godzilla I know. Not the creature’s appearance, not its behavior or origin, not the rhythms of the story (the formula, if you will)… nothing. And that includes the sheer entertainment factor. Whatever else you may say about the old zipper-up-the-back Godzilla flicks, they were fun. The ’98 movie, on the other hand, was a complete slog. So I was concerned about another American attempt to reinvent this quintessential Japanese character. Would this one understand who Godzilla is and what he’s about? Even more of a worry: given the current popularity of grim, brooding storylines, would this one be any damn fun to watch? It was difficult to tell from the trailers

Well, I’m happy to report that this long-time casual Godzilla fan, at least, was completely and thoroughly pleased by this movie. This is my Godzilla, no question.The protagonists are American, the battlegrounds are on American soil instead of Tokyo, and the special effects are stunningly realistic… but this is recognizably the same creature who stands watch over my keyboard even as I type this.

The storyline will be familiar to fans of the series: a Japanese nuclear plant experiences an accidental meltdown that’s later revealed to have been caused by a gigantic creature of some kind taking up residence in the reactor. Fifteen years later, the creature emerges from its chrysalis and begins journeying across the world to meet up with a mate, leaving devastation in its wake. Human military might and scientific knowledge isn’t enough to stop them. Enter a third giant creature, the “alpha predator” Godzilla, who is hot on the trail of the other two kaiju. The three of them, along with the U.S. military and our various human protagonists, are on a collision course for an epic smackdown in the middle of downtown San Francisco. But is Godzilla on our side, or his own? Is there even a difference?

The film works in large part because of director Gareth Edwards’ skill at building suspense. Even though the story largely adheres to an old formula, he generates a genuine sense of curiosity and dread about what’s happening and where it’s all leading. He also cleverly keeps his titular monster/hero mostly hidden for the first two-thirds of the film, showing only glimpses of his body until a final reveal — complete with a theater-rattling updated version of his signature roar — that frankly brought tears to my eyes because it was just so right.

I’ve read some complaints that the characters are one-dimensional and the human drama is thinly sketched, that in the end this is just another big, stupid, special-effects-driven blockbuster with no heart or brain underneath the pretty wrapping. Personally, I disagree with all of that and wonder if these critics saw the same movie I did, but hey, let’s be honest: this is a Godzilla flick. What did those people expect? What I expected — or at least hoped for — was a fun time at the movies watching some giant monsters duke it out. And I got it. At the film’s climatic moment, when, in true Godzilla fashion, the Big G has finally had enough of getting kicked around and his fins start to glow in preparation for his unstoppable hold-out weapon, the atomic fire breath, I let out an involuntarily “YEAH!,” even as my inner twelve-year-old squealed with delight. And for the record, so did my lovely girlfriend Anne, who has no particular knowledge of or affection for Godzilla beyond this movie. For whatever that’s worth.

That’s what movies like this are really about. Not characterization or dialog, not finely nuanced explorations of the human condition, but simply making us feel for a few fleeting moments like the little kids we used to be, sitting on our knees in front of our giant console televisions on sunny Saturday afternoons, completely absorbed in a story about good guys and bad guys that leaves us breathless and happy. One of the early ad campaigns for Star Wars, way back in the ’70s, used the tagline “It’ll make you feel like a kid again.” And that was seen as a good thing. Somewhere along the line, we’ve become way too serious for our own good.

Bottom line: Godzilla effectively captured the spirit of the classic Japanese series and wedded that to cutting-edge special effects and an American sensibility. It appealed to the kid in me and made me happy. I walked out of the theater feeling completely energized and ready to go on the ride again. Highly recommended.

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Buen Camino

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Every once in a while I encounter a story — most often for me, it seems to be in the form of a movie, although that’s probably just because I see more movies than I manage to read books — that feels so truthful, so honestly revelatory of some ineffable aspect of what it’s like to be human, that I am gripped by an intense pang of envy. I find myself wishing that I had written it myself, and I feel some level of annoyance that I didn’t, as well as a great deal of insecurity and futility because I doubt my abilities to ever affect a reader (or a viewer, I suppose) as deeply as I’ve just been affected myself. This reaction goes beyond merely liking or responding to the story; that happens all the time. No, this is the rare occasion when I feel like the story is in some way mine, that through the telling of it, I’ve somehow lived it personally. Hemingway’s famous short story “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” is like that for me. Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical movie Almost Famous was, too. And so was Robert Redford’s gorgeous film adaptation of Norman MacLean’s novella A River Runs Through It. And now tonight I’ve just encountered another story like that: a film called The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez (yes, that Emilio Estevez, Mr. Young Guns himself) and starring his father, Martin Sheen.

It’s a simple story about a father who journeys to France to retrieve the body of his late son, who has died in an accident while walking the Camino de Santiago, a.k.a. The Way of St. James, an ancient pilgrimage trail that runs through the Pyrenees to the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela. In a moment of inspiration, Tom — Sheen’s character — has his son cremated and embarks on the pilgrimage himself, carrying the ashes with him so his son can, in essence, complete his journey. Along the way, Tom reluctantly picks up three companions, each of whom are traveling the Camino for their own reasons. And he begins slowly to understand just what it was that made his son tick.

It’s a beautiful movie about fathers and sons, and seeing the world (both literally, in terms of travel, and metaphorically, i.e., “smelling the roses”), and most of all it’s about connecting with other human beings. Sheen delivers an impressive, very moving performance, seemingly without doing much of anything at all. Emilio Estevez meanwhile, demonstrates great skill with visual composition and also pacing… the film is leisurely without ever seeming boring, and it does a handy job of conveying the mental aspect of a long journey, how you gradually let down and let go.

I don’t know what else to say about The Way, except that it’s just plain good. And that I hope to someday write something that’s just a fraction as good. Seek it out.

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Movie Review: Jack Reacher

JACK REACHERJack Reacher is the kind of movie I rarely encounter these days: a tight, comprehensible action/detective thriller with both a heart and a brain, as well as some unexpectedly snappy dialogue that occasionally rivals the great exchanges of a classic 1940s noir. Tom Cruise plays the title character, a former military policeman who now exists as a vagabond, roaming from place to place in search of an understanding of what it is he spent his former life defending (i.e., he’s looking for America, as they used to say), and although he doesn’t invite trouble, it tends to find him anyway in the form of crimes to be solved and innocents to be protected. If that sounds familiar, it’s because this film is yet another variation on the theme that defined so many of the 1970s and ’80s television series I’ve always loved, a dude wandering around helping people, and I thoroughly enjoyed it every frame of it.

In large part, that’s because I was given the opportunity to actually see every frame. Jack Reacher eschews the hated shaky-cam cinematography and Cuisinart school of editing that has ruined other recent action films for me in favor of a more old-fashioned look. Fight scenes make sense, action is sequential and easy to follow (although no less visceral or brutal), and a car-chase scene between Reacher in a vintage Chevy muscle car and some Russian-mobster baddies in an Audi R8 is pure adrenaline-soaked pleasure, with no apparent CGI or editorial trickery, just two actual cars battling it out on real streets.

The movie is adapted from the ninth book in a series of novels by the author Lee Child. In an echo of the controversy when Cruise landed the role of Anne Rice’s Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, many of Child’s fans have been grumbling about his casting — the literary Reacher is apparently a very different physical type — but I thought Tommy-boy inhabited the character well. In fact, this is the most I’ve enjoyed his work in a very long time. The slightly creepy blankness he’s displayed in most of his recent films is absent here, and I was reminded of the talented, charismatic movie star I used to think he was before he became the Church of Scientology’s couch-jumping poster child.

Honestly, I’d love to see him play this character again. I never really got into the Mission: Impossible series, but I wouldn’t mind Jack Reacher becoming an ongoing franchise…

 

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Quick Take: Moon

moon_screenshotI’m a few years behind in seeing Moon, the 2009 indie science-fiction film directed by Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie!), but wow, what a great little movie. Sam Rockwell, perhaps best known for Galaxy Quest and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, turns in a bravura performance (or is that two performances?) in a virtual one-man show about the lone occupant of a lunar mining base who’s beginning to question his sanity as the end of his three-year tour approaches. It’s essentially a character study wrapped up in a mystery story that brilliantly expands on some of the ideas explored in my beloved Blade Runner — specifically questions of identity and whether we can trust our own memories, and what a person might go through emotionally when those things turn out to be… unreliable. I feared for a time that this was going to turn into one of those “mindf**k” stories that I have so little patience for, but in the end all is explained and logical and satisfactory. It’s a moving, very human story with plausible sci-fi underpinnings. And honestly, I think Moon looks every bit as good as this year’s Prometheus in terms of production design and FX, and it was done on a fraction of the budget using old-school miniatures instead of CGI.

Highly — and I do mean highly — recommended.

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Quick Take: Cop Land

I missed James Mangold’s Cop Land when it was first released 15 years ago, but I recall being curious about it, because everyone was talking back then about Sylvester Stallone’s uncharacteristic performance. I finally managed to catch it this morning, and it turned out to be a good movie, if not quite an outstanding one. A story of corrupt New York cops and a small-town New Jersey sheriff who could’ve been one of them but for a chance act of heroism when he was a teenager, it suffers a bit from being somewhat familiar stuff. In fact, it reads like a second-tier Scorsese flick (the presence of Scorsese regulars Harvey Keitel, Robert DeNiro, and Ray Liotta, as well as the grittily realistic East Coast settings, no doubt contributes to that feeling) with a dollop of High Noon thrown in for good measure. But don’t misunderstand: It is well worth your time if you haven’t seen it, a solidly entertaining character study and cop thriller.

As for Stallone, well… all the buzz back in ’97 was completely deserved. I’ve never cared much for the man, to be honest, but this film is a genuine revelation. In Cop Land, he proves that he really can act (and no, I’ve never seen Rocky, which is usually offered up as a counterpoint when I say that). Here he plays a man who is pretty much the polar opposite of his usual on-screen persona. Instead of a swaggering, macho cartoon superhero, Freddie — the New Jersey sheriff — is a regular guy who’s been almost completely beaten down by disappointment and the feeling that he just wasn’t good enough to get what he wanted out of life. He’s overweight, wounded, tentative, complacent, the kind of man who takes a lot of shit and just smiles his way through it, even though something inside him twinges every single time one of his so-called friends cracks a joke at his expense or asks him to look the other way. He’s immensely likable and sympathetic in this part — we all know somebody like this, and I think many of us can identify with him, too. In the memorable words of DeNiro’s character, he’s a man waiting for something to do… and of course we all know that in the end he’s going to rise to the occasion and do it. What a shame this movie didn’t propel Stallone’s career onto another path as a true character actor, and that he’s instead had to pump himself up on steroids and just keep doing the same old schlock…

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Quickie Movie Review: Son of Kong

Son-of-Kong

Old black-and-whiter for this Sunday night’s entertainment: Son of Kong, the sequel to the all-time 1933 classic King Kong. Obviously made much more quickly and cheaply than its predecessor (Son was in theaters only nine months after the original!), the movie nevertheless surprised me with an unexpectedly realistic portrayal of the consequences of the events of King Kong. As Son begins, Carl Denham, the entrepreneur and adventurer who captured Kong and brought him to New York, is being sued every which way to Tuesday and is up on criminal charges related to the deaths and property damage caused by the giant ape’s rampage, so he splits the country with his friend and sidekick Captain Engelhorn aboard the SS Venture, the tramp freighter from the first film. After various misadventures (read: failures), the two find themselves drawn back to Skull Island in search of a treasure that might pay off their debts…

Of course, much of that thoughtfulness and grown-up sensibility goes out the window once they encounter “Little Kong,” who is played much more for laughs than his daddy was. And then the island spontaneously crumbles into the sea for no apparent reason. Even so, the ending still brought a tear to my eye. Overall, a satisfying little adventure movie that I’ve somehow never gotten around to catching. Fans of Indiana Jones and/or Tales of the Gold Monkey ought to give it a look; if nothing else, you’ll recognize the atmosphere…

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