Thursday, May 28, 2015

Film Friday: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is one of my favorite films of the 1970's. An early heist film, Pelham stars one of my favorite actors and it possesses the very types of characters, plotting, smart writing and pacing that made the 1970's perhaps the best decade for films. If you haven't seen this one, you should.

Plot

Pelham begins with a group of men boarding a subway train. These men are a strange mix of middle-aged men and old men. The leader of the group is British mercenary Bernard Ryder aka “Mr. Blue,” played by the vast underrated Robert Shaw. Shaw is an amazing actor with incredible range who deserves to be mentioned in any discussion of the greatest actors of all time. He leads a group that includes a man who comes across as a bloodthirsty thug (Hector Elizondo as Giuseppe Benvenuto aka “Mr. Grey”), an old guy who talks too much (Martin Balsam as Harold Longman aka “Mr. Green”) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman). Balsam is a former motorman who worked for the New York City Transit Authority driving subway trains until he was busted for drugs.
The target of their scheme is a subway train identified as Pelham 1-2-3 because of its destination and scheduled time of arrival. Interestingly, they actually hijack the train from the platform itself. From there, they take it and the passengers out into the tunnel and stop the train. They decouple most of the cars and move off to another part of the tunnel with the part of the train they are keeping. Then they call the tower to make their demands.

Meanwhile, Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) is going through his day. Today features a tour of the Transit Authority command center for visiting Japanese dignitaries, who run the Tokyo subway. They apparently don't speak English, so Matthau's tour is rather a waste. As Matthau finishes the tour, he hears the hijackers' call coming over the radio. He takes command of the situation and also bring in the transit police. This begins a cat and mouse game between Matthau and Shaw as Shaw tries to force Matthau to give him the money he demands and Matthau tries to solve how Shaw plans to escape from a closed tunnel.
What Makes This Film Work

Pelham is a great film that has stood the test of time. It has been referenced in popular culture, it still gets played regularly on multiple channels, and there was even a sequel made -- the remake wasn't bad, but is forgettable. So what made this film so good? The characters.

Before we address the characters, let me point out a few things. First, this film is really well written. The story itself is very clever. For one thing, consider the scheme itself. Who would ever think to hijack a subway train? Not only do subway trains generally have nothing of value on them, but talk about a trap! Unlike hijacking a plane or taking something from a fixed location and then trying to get away on foot or by car or whatever, a subway train is stuck on a track. It can only go to a handful of places and the tower will know exactly where it is headed at all times. What's more, even after you leave the car, you still need to leave the subway itself, which is easily flooded with cops. So taking a subway is already a fascinatingly unique and clever idea.
Moreover, the film parlays this into a fascinating mystery: how do they plan to escape? In that regard, Matthau is key. He is presented as an expert in everything subway, and he presents us with the mystery, talks us through it, explains what we need to know, and eventually solves it for us. This gives us a bond with a very likable character and it gives a mystery which keeps us focused intensely as we try to guess their plan.

Secondly, the film gives you a really good insight into the world of running a subway. Films that do that are always appreciated because it helps the audience feel like they are being immersed in a new, yet very real world. It's the same instinct that draws us to documentaries, and here it acts as a bonus in the film.
The film also is very cleverly written. In particular, the film is excels at presenting action through words. For example, at one point Shaw tells the passengers that he is holding a machine gun which shoots 800 rounds a minute: "And that means that if every one of you rushed me all at once, not one of you would get any further than you are right now." Think about this line for a moment. Most movies would have had him shoot off a couple rounds. But not only is that clich├ęd, but it doesn't really paint an image: shooting into the air reminds us that this is a gun, but that’s it. Shaw's line makes us think of each of the passengers being mowed down under a spray of lead. That image make Shaw much more terrifying than if he just shot into the air. And the way he delivers it reminds us how cool Shaw is under pressure. He is no ordinary criminal.

The whole film is full of lines like this.

Now let's talk about the characters. Few heist films give you much in the way of characters. What they really do instead is sell you the actors. Yes, there might be some back-story presented to fill in the characters (and the target will be presented as sufficiently odious that the audience comes to believe that stealing from them is the good moral choice), but what they really sell you is the chemistry between the actors.
Pelham is different. Here, the guys running the heist are the bad guys. They make no bones about it. And there is no chemistry between them – they are an unpleasant lot. You have Shaw, who is presented as a mercenary who worked in Africa. He thinks he lives by a moral code, but he doesn’t. He mistakes his cold-blooded nature for nobility. You have Elizondo who is presented as a psychotic. And you have Balsam who is presented as a greedy old motorman who can’t keep his mouth shut and who thinks he has the right to steal from the city because the framed him for drugs. He is not meant to be a criminal, but he is hopelessly bitter. You never do learn how these men got together or who planned this, but you learn loads about them as the story runs. Even better, you don't learn it in flashbacks or even with direct discussions, you learn it in off-the-cuff comments and the ways their characters react. The end result is a fascinatingly real group who are held together by the sheer will of Shaw and are as dangerous to each other as they are to the hostages they take.
On the other side, you have Matthau. Matthau was huge in the 1970's and the reason is that despite his Droopy Dog personality, Matthau was an everyman who acted like the world had worn him down, but who was ready to be the hero at a moment's notice. He still cared about right and wrong, even though he talked like he didn’t, and he was extremely competent at his job when he needed to be. Those are thing we respect and want in our protagonists. Moreover, Matthau brought excellent comedic timing to the role, and his personality is disarming. Indeed, he is one of those rare types who could talk back to the deadly serious Shaw and the audience knew Shaw would respect his wisecracks.
What's more, every character in this story brings something to the table. All the bit characters who normally exist only to further the plot come with complete personalities here. You have the Jewish passenger who is likely a concentration camp survivor, the trainee conductor on his first day, the sexist who reluctantly let women into his department, the grumpy old dispatcher who struggles to suppress his anger at the death of his friend, the mayor who has given up his chance at re-election, the slimy political consultant, the cop who found a job that lets him read his newspaper in peace and now must face a truly unexpected scenario, and so on. Unlike modern movies, this isn't a movie of main characters surrounded by props, this is a film populated by real people. And that makes the film feel so much richer and it raises the stakes for the battle of minds between Matthau and Shaw.

All of this makes this one of those films that is truly rare today. It is an intensely clever film about a battle of minds and wills between two top men in a very real world. There is no cartoon action, no cartoon villain, and nothing gets dumbed-down.
On a final note, as is so often the case, the setting itself plays an interesting role here. I've already noted how this film educates you about the inner workings of a subway, but at the same time it gives you a glimpse of New York City in the 1970’s. This was the decade of the Apple in Decay when New York was going broke and everything was running down. This film presents that sensibility very well, but simultaneously makes it clear that as bad as things seemed, there are still good people who stand ready to do the right thing. It makes for a fascinating contrast... something modern films rarely understand.
Thoughts?
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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Summer of 70's

With June almost upon us, it's time to announce our plan for the summer. While Kit continues his Marvel series (I will chime in too), I have decided to focus Fridays on some of the best films of the 1970's. This is the Summer of 70's and these are films you should all see... assuming you haven't. This will include films like The French Connection, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and The Bad News Bears. We'll hit upon science fiction, drama, comedy and paranoia. It will be fun. So put on your bell bottoms and grove along for the ride!
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Monday, May 18, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Iron Man

By Kit

"I am Iron Man".

Now that we got the most recent Marvel mega-hit out of the way it is time to go back to the beginning. Back to where the whole thing began. Back to 2008, when Marvel Studios released the first live-action movie that kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe and launched one of the biggest money-making franchises in movie history, Jon Favreau's 2008 movie Iron Man


So, let's dive in!

The Plot

The movie begins with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) in Afghanistan riding in a Humvee with a group of soldiers, making small talk, when BOOM! —they are ambushed, he is hit by a shell made by Stark Industries, and wakes back up now a hostage of terrorists.

We promptly flash back 36 hours to an event held honoring Tony Stark. Now, this flashback does a great job introducing the main set. By the time we get back to Afghanistan we have gotten a good sense of who all the main characters are. In the space of about 5 minutes we have Tony Stark standing up said event to go gambling at a casino, fending off questions from a sexy blonde reporter with delicious snark, taking said sexy blonde reporter back to his (very nice) California house for sex, and spending the morning after (away from her) in his basement working on his next invention.

In this time span we also meet Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his assistant who brings the blonde reporter (now covered in just a bed sheet) her clothes. The reporter makes a snarky comment about her still "Mrs. Potts replies that she "does anything and everything Mr. Stark requires, including, occasionally, taking out the trash." Cut to Stark in basement.

A subsequent conversation between Pepper and Tony in the basement pretty much confirms this, along with telling us that Stark is very dependent upon Pepper in order to function as the head of a major company; when he realizes he forgot her birthday he tells her to buy something for herself. She replies that she already has, and it is very nice.

Then a plane trip with Rhodey gives us their relationship. Rhodey is playing the cool-headed friend, refusing a drink from a waitress, saying he can’t drink tonight. We then cut to the waitresses dancing around a stripper pole, Rhodey, now drinking, leaning on Tony and complaining about his boss.

It is scenes like these that keep bringing people back to the the Marvel movie series. While DC persists in being as angst-ridden as possible, the Marvel movie fill their movies with little, fun moments between the cast. Instead of the depressing, dreary stuff that fills the DC universe in the Marvel universe we have moments like these; moments that make us want to spend even more time with the characters.

Anyway, back to the story. He goes to Afghanistan, shows off his new weapon, the Jericho, the a group of officers and generals, rides the convoy, gets captured the terrorist group Ten Rings. He is saved by a man named Yinsen, a doctor held hostage by the terrorists, who has put a device in his chest that keeps the shrapnel from moving into his heart.

They are told by the leader of Ten Rings to build the Jericho missile for them. Instead, Tony and Yinsen build an Iron Man suit, which Tony uses to break free and escape (SPOILER: Yinsen dies), while killing a bunch of terrorists in what is still one of the MCU’s best fight scenes.

He returns and decides to hold a press conference (after getting an American cheeseburger) announcing that Stark Industries is getting out of the weapons business. Pepper, meanwhile, is greeted by a strange but funny man named Agent Coulson who tells her, and later Stark himself, that Mr. Stark needs to be “debriefed” about his escape by the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division.” (Spell out the capital letters) Moving on.

Stark, who everyone now thinks is suffering from PTSD, starts working on upgrading the suit from the bulky iron husk to a more sleek, ergonomic design. He even adds red. And, after learning about Stark tech being sold to the Ten Rings, he goes off to a town they have been massacring civilians in to dish out some justice. Awesomely.

So, now, Tony must stop the guns being shipped and save his position at the company.

So, now, Tony must stop the guns being shipped and save his position at the company.

Why It's Awesome

From the moment we saw the trailer where Tony Stark blew apart terrorists to the tune of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” we knew this would be awesome and it is.

There are three big reasons:
1.) Downey
2.) Favreau
3.) Paltrow

Downey is an absolute joy to watch. He owns every scene he is in. Before this movie he was a washed-up actor, after this movie he is one of Hollywood’s biggest leading men. He’s funny, witty, and charismatic. He is the slightly-narcissistic, self-absorbed playboy with a heart of gold we all know and love and we root for him.

The chemistry between Downey and Paltrow is great. It ain’t Bogey and Bacall but it’s good and its fun. They are probably the MCU’s best couple, maybe second best (I’ll mention their competitors later). Pepper knows that Stark needs her and Stark knows and she knows that Stark knows it. But, deep down, she cares for him. This almost husband-and-wife relationship comes across in nearly every scene they have, making their scenes a highlight of the movie. They're a great couple.

Favreau’s direction is great. Giving the movie a fun, irreverent attitude that would come to define the over-all series; no matter how dark things get for the heroes, they’ll still give you a laugh. He provided the basis by which all future Marvel movies would be judged. At least until 2012's The Avengers.

The only big flaw is the villain, who, SPOILER, is Obadiah Stane. And he's the typical greedy, corporate villain playing both sides. Been there, done that, seen it. Weak villains with vague motivations are a problem for Marvel movies and, unfortunately, this is no exception. There are also some plot holes (how did he just stroll into that Ten Rings camp?) but they are nit-picks.

So, despite a few flaws (Obadiah's movie provided a fun, thrilling launch for the MCU. I recommend it.

Next Week on Summer of Marvel: The Incredible Hulk.

Blonde: "Hey, Tony. Remember me?"
Tony: "Sure don't."
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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Film Friday: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Let’s talk about John Carpenter’s second film: 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13. This is one of those films that film-buffs love, and deservedly so. Indeed, this film is fascinating in so many ways. What interests me, however, is just how deeply conservative this film is, especially given the fact that Carpenter is rather liberal.

Plot

Heavily influenced by Howard Hawks’s westerns, particularly Rio Bravo, Assault on Precinct 13 involves exactly what the title suggests. As the story opens, newly promoted Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is ordered to oversee the Anderson Police Precinct in the Anderson ghetto of Los Angeles for the night. The station has been moved and only a handful of staff remain at the Anderson Station to shut it down.
As background, we are told that a ruthless gang, who call themselves Street Thunder, has stolen automatic weapons and is now in a war with the police. After seeing a group of gang members gunned down, we see the multiracial leaders of the gang swear a blood oath and then drive around looking for people to kill.

Meanwhile, we see two other subplots unfold. First, a group of prisoners, including multiple-murderer Napoleon Wilson, are being transported from one prison to another so he can wait on death row. One of the three prisoners becomes sick and their bus stops at the Anderson Station.
The second subplot involves a man who takes his daughter into the Anderson ghetto with the intent of asking their housekeeper to move in with them. I suspect Carpenter makes a gay reference here but I have no proof (the man and his daughter plan to tell the housekeeper that they have a spare room now that his male roommate is dead). As the man stops to call for directions, his daughter sees an ice cream truck. She goes to get ice cream, but the gang leaders stop and kill her and the ice cream peddler. The girl’s father races over, grabs the gun the ice cream peddler had in his truck, chases the gang bangers, and kills one of them. They then chase him until he runs into the Anderson Station.

A siege begins, with the gang cutting off the power and phones to the Anderson Station and periodically trying to rush the building. It is a hopeless fight the defenders must win, though they are short on ammunition and people.

Why This Film Works

This is such a fascinating film to me on many levels. For example, on a purely technical level, this film is awful. Much of the writing is stilted and ridiculous. The actors are often wooden. The action is poorly staged. The plot is far-fetched. And so on. Yet, this is a really good film.

What works here are the “buts” to each of the complaints I just listed. The visual style is muddy and pedestrian and the action is poorly staged, but it makes the film feel honest in a way that smoother choreography and artistic shots of doves flying through windows as the heroes draw their guns in slow motion simply cannot provide. The actors are often wooden, but at other times they are brilliant. Co-leads Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston in particular provide some very subtle, excellently done moments that say so much more than the dialog conveys. A good example of this is how Joston, who goes through the whole film asking for cigarettes, conveys subtle shock when Stoker becomes the first cop to apologize for not being able to provide a cigarette. His shock at being treated with respect tells us reams about Stoker’s character as a genuinely good guy.
Continuing, the plot is definitely far-fetched, but it’s not implausible or so unlikely that you doubt it. What’s more, the plot is streamlined and provides just enough explanation to understand the film, but not enough to make the film feel convoluted. The writing is interesting too. Much of it is stilted and kind of silly:
Convict: “Aren’t you going to wish me good luck?”
Cops: “Good luck.”
Convict: “Two cops wishing me good luck? Now I know I’m doomed.”
But much of it is rather clever and much of it is funny. Joston in particular tells good stories throughout and he has some witty lines, such as when the woman who falls for him asks what to do with her final bullets:
Leigh: “I have two shots left. Should I save them for us?”
Joston: “Save ‘em for the first two assholes that come through that vent.”
Leigh: “What do I use on the rest of them?”
Joston: “Then you have to wing it.”
What really makes this film work, however, is the three male leads. Each of these guys Austin Stoker (Lt. Ethan Bishop), Darwin Joston (Napoleon Wilson) and Charles Cyphers (Special Officer Starker) are treated as leading men rather than supporting actors. Each has a strong back-story, gets solid screen time, and has lines which make them the focus of the story when they are in it. And each actor takes these opportunities and handles them perfectly. The result is that you end up with three strong stories that intertwine to form the main story rather than one story with some minor characters providing filler. This makes for a strong film because you are constantly interested in what is happening.

Conservative? Oh Yeah!

For those who haven’t followed Carpenter’s career, there is a definite liberal bent, particularly as it relates to the issue of feminism. This came in large part from his producer Debra Hill, but Carpenter ran with it voluntarily. He’s also done some anti-Reagan work, some pro-environmental work and he’s done some bizarre smears against religious conservatives. So one would assume that his film about a multiracial gang arising in the ghettos of Los Angeles would tread heavily into liberalism and liberation theology. Interestingly, however, it doesn’t. Instead, it presents full-on conservatism. Observe...
The story involves a mixed-race gang of “youths” who have gotten their hands on automatic weapons and are now considered a menace. This gang arose in the ghetto. The standard liberal treatment for this is that the gang was formed because of a combination of white oppression and economic hopelessness. None of that is the case here, however. Instead, the only clue we get as to why the gang formed is that several of their leaders dress in Marxist garb similar in appearance to what Che Guevara wore. That’s highly unusual because (1) it fails to imply that the gang was forced to turn to crime by evil rich whites, and (2) it implies that Marxists are indeed dangerous. With this being the 1970s and Liberation Theology and “root causes” policing being so prevalent, this is a significant jump to the right.

What’s more, compare the gang to what is going on inside the station. Bishop is black and he too came from Anderson. Liberation Theology says that such people must be on the side of the revolution, only Anderson is presented as firmly pro-law and order. He is even shown to believe in heroism, another thing the left was trying to eliminate. What’s more, the police side is a multiracial group who mix freely, never judge each other on the basis of race, and let a black man lead the group. These are all things leftists tell us cannot exist in the real world.
Moreover, as a direct blow to the root causes argument, we are told clearly but indirectly that the reason Bishop is such a sterling character despite growing up in a ghetto is because his father instilled in him strong values including respect for his mother. Again, liberals routinely claim that minorities cannot overcome their root causes. Carpenter says the opposite here. Bishop even notes that “no one got me out of Anderson, I walked out on my own.” Again, self-help is an illusion in liberal circles.

Further, the gang appears to be leftists. Yet, they are interestingly shown to be vicious and without any noble principles. They kill blacks, as well as whites. They kill a little girl for no reason at all. Their first killing is an ice cream truck driver, i.e. a working man. At the police station they kill cop and crook indiscriminately even though liberals would tell us that the crooks are only locked up because the police are an occupying army used by the privileged elite to keep order.

Finally, Napoleon Wilson becomes a hero in this film, but there is no suggestion that his crimes should be forgiven just because he proves to be a good guy. Nor does he ever disclaim his own actions or their significance. In fact, he doesn’t even bother to explain them even as people ask: the message to that is that intent doesn’t matter, only the act matters. That’s highly conservative.

It’s interesting to me that a leftist director could create a film that is perfectly set up to be very liberal, but ends up being strongly conservative in values.

Thoughts?
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Monday, May 11, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Age of Ultron

By Kit
"There are no strings on me."

Well, it is time for the Summer of Marvel and today we start with Marvel's most recent release, Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. Now, I am still a bit too stuck in the post-theater viewing HOLY-COW-THAT-WAS-AWESOME-MOOD to give it a truly discerning and honest evaluation, but I will give it my best go. But, in short: It is well-worth the $10 to see it.

So, let's get this thing started!

SPOILERS!: Though I will avoid giving some big spoilers for the movie, there are some pretty big spoilers for Captain America: Winter Soldier, but if you read Andrew's review then you should be mostly fine, however there are some things he left out.

The Plot

The movie opens with all the Avengers attacking one of the last HYDRA outposts in Sokovia to retrieve Loki's scepter (don't ask). They succeed but run into two twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in the comics, who have the powers of super-speed and telekinesis/telepathy/give people weird visions/dreams, respectively. They don't do much here aside from Pietro knocking Hawkeye off his feet and Wanda giving Tony a vision of the rest of the Avengers dead, which causes him to make some rather stupid decisions throughout the rest of the movie.

The Avengers grab the scepter and bring it back and the Avengers decide to hold a party to celebrate a successful victory. In the meanwhile, Stark and Banner decide to use some of the tech they picked up at the HYDRA base to develop an AI called Ultron, which will be used to create a shield to protect the earth from another alien invasion. Oh, and they do this without telling the rest of the team.

So, the party goes well with the audience learning about the various. Thor and Stark, explain why Portman and Paltrow are not in the movie, discuss their girlfriends' achievements, Thor and Steve Rogers drink some Asgardian alcohol "not fit for mortal men" with Omaha Beach veterans, and we learn that Black Widow, or Natasha, and Bruce Banner are in a weird relationship. Natasha has developed a rapport with Banner and, as is depicted in the opening fight scene, is responsible for bringing Bruce out of Hulk mode, and are romantically attached to each other but Bruce, due to his habit of turning into a "giant green rage monster", is quite hesitant. More on this in the "My Thoughts".

The revelries die down and people disperse as the gang plays a (hilarious) contest of "Who can pull Thor's hammer" until things are rudely interrupted by an Ultron who has awoken, become sentient, whacked Tony's computer butler JARVIS, and now wants to do something evil that involves destroying the Avengers. He fights them, they destroy his current robot body but he has plenty of other ones and leaves the Avengers Tower and joins up with the Maximoff twins who hate Stark.

So the Avengers must hunt him down and stop him from remaking the world "better".

My Thoughts

Again, I still can't give a completely discerning view of this but let me give it a shot. I don't think it is quite as good as the original but that is more because the original was ground-breaking in the way it brought together a group of characters from different movie series and threw them together. But it still works, albeit with a few glitches.

The humor here does not work quite as well as it did in the first one. That's not to say there aren't moments when it doesn't work, it works 90% of the time but it falls flat a few times. The biggest example being when Tony and Thor are discussing their respective girlfriends, comparing their successes in their respective fields in a game of "My girlfriend is cooler than your girlfriend." Yeah, its boring.

But for the most part, the humor still works.

Some characters, especially Clint and Natasha are given a tad more development and backstory. Clint has a family and a farm and we learn a bit more about what Natasha went through when she was being made into the Black Widow, both from her dreams and her dialogue with Banner.

On the subject of Banner and Natasha, that is one part of the movie I am still not sure wether I think it is a stroke of genius or a truly terrible decision. Its not that the actors have terrible chemistry or that they make a poor match, the movie does a good job

But enough with the negatives. The movie is a lot of fun. The fight scenes are cool. Ultron is a great villain, played brilliantly by James Spader, and actually providing some of the best jokes in the movie. His only flaw was that I could never really figure out his goal was or why he wanted to do it. Something about "changing humanity" involving destroying it. But he is not alone in the MCU in having a poorly-explains end-game and he is far from the worst in that regard.

There is another new character, Vision who, well, I can't say a whole lot about him because he didn't get a whole lot of screen time. But, what I did see showed a great deal of potential. A character who is deeply compassionate, probably more so than the rest of the Avengers, yet willing to do what is necessary to preserve life.

Now, the true highlight of the movie is the twins, Pietro and Wanda, performed by Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. They have a ying-yang quality, with Pietro being the funny, wise-cracking jokester and Wanda the darker, more serious one. Their chemistry is very good and they are quite likable. Also, their switch to the Avengers (let's face it, you knew that was coming) is played well enough that it feels rather naturally.

Interestingly, these two characters allow me to pass a much harsher verdict on the director, producers, and writers of Godzilla and the movie, itself. Why? Because in that movie you had two main characters, a husband and wife, played by the same two actors, who were unbelievably wooden and boring. Now, having seen those two actors play fun and at least moderately engaging characters, at least if given the right script and direction I can safely say it was not the fault of the actors but the director, producers, and writers of Godzilla.

So, there it is. A fun movie that, while not as quite as good as the first, still brings what a good popcorn movie needs: Fun.

Next Week: Iron Man (2008).
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Friday, May 8, 2015

Film Friday: 2010 (1984)

With us touching upon the unique career of Roy Scheider, I thought it was appropriate to finally finish the Peter Hyams sci-fi trilogy: Capricorn One, Outland and now 2010. I view Outland as a masterpiece. Capricorn One is a good but not great and has been unfairly forgotten, especially against today’s dearth of worthwhile films. Then there is 2010. 2010 is simultaneously a strong, entertaining film and a complete and utter disappointment. Let’s discuss.

Plot

Here’s the background: 2010 is the supposed continuation of 2001. After killing his crew, the HAL 9000 brought the Discovery One into orbit around Jupiter. The US is planning to eventually go get it and find out why HAL went rogue.

As the story opens, Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) is approached by a Russian agent. The man advises Floyd that the Discovery’s orbit is decaying faster than expected and that HAL will be destroyed in a crash with Jupiter’s moon Io before the Americans can get there. He also tells Floyd that the Soviets are preparing to launch a flight to get to HAL first. The problem is that the Soviets lack the ability to restart the Discovery and get information out of HAL. That is why the agent has approached Floyd, because the Russians want Floyd to go with them.
Of course the trip almost doesn’t happen because tensions between the Soviets and the Americans are so high that war seems inevitable and no one wants to help the Soviets get to HAL. Ultimately, however, an agreement is reached and Floyd and two other Americans ride along on the Soviet ship, the Leonov.

As they approach Jupiter, Floyd is awoken early by the Russian crew. Telemetry from Jupiter’s moon Europa shows something incredible: the possibility of life. Unfortunately, tensions are running even higher at home and the Russians have been ordered not to cooperate with Floyd. They try to land a probe on Europa, but it gets destroyed.
Soon enough, the Leonov comes to the Discovery. The Americans board the Discovery and restart HAL. At that point, they start getting messages from Dave Bowman, the former pilot of the Discovery who vanished at the end of 2001, that they need to leave the area within a certain number of days. To do this, they will need to sacrifice the Discovery, using it as a booster rocket to get the Leonov into the right position to return to Earth. But can they trust HAL to sacrifice himself?

In the end, they get a message from God basically telling them, “Stay off my lawn.”

Entertaining Movie, but Major Disappointment

As a movie goes, 2010 is quite entertaining. You’ve got a good plotline, with the need to get to the Discovery before its orbit decays. They set up good tension between the two crews and do a good job of overcoming that tension. They add excellent additional tension with the question of whether or not they can trust HAL. The effects are well done and the space scenes are smart and heart stopping. They feel more honest to me than Gravity. The solution to the film is clever and the bit about God at the end makes for a nice ribbon on the film.
I do question why the Russians would agree to this on the terms they do, which let the Americans claim the Discovery and keep the Russians out at their whim, but it doesn’t really detract from the film. All in all, this is a good science fiction adventure and, while it’s certainly not Top 10 material, it is much better than most of what the studios turn out today.

Where the film goes wrong is as a sequel to 2001. It’s interesting. If this hadn’t been a sequel to 2001, I suspect the film would have been ignored. Without the mystery of HAL sitting at the center of this film, it just doesn’t feel like enough to draw people in. Yet, the film craps all over the legacy of 2001.
2001 had a futuristic aesthetic. It took place at a time when humanity seemed more robotic and sterile. Fashions were futuristic. Their technology, while feeling dated to us today, felt futuristic and advanced when the film was made. Their technology was obviously superior to ours. The Earth was different too and there was little sense of dueling superpowers. To the contrary, the film seemed to suggest that humanity had moved beyond our conflicted world today and was ready for the next step in their evolution. 2010 was none of these things. 2010 takes place in a world that is virtually identical to the 1980’s in every way. From a technological, aesthetic and human evolution perspective, 2010 is an entirely different world than 2001, it is a world that feels a hundred years less advanced.

What’s more, the feel of the two movies is entirely different. 2001 was a contemplative, science fiction film that took its time to raise questions about the nature of humanity and where we were going as a species. It also suggested some higher guidance, but stopped well short of declaring a deity. To the contrary, it left you guessing as to who or what the obelisks were and who placed them where they were and what they really meant.

2010 is just a low-key action film. It mentions a couple of philosophical questions, but it never even bothers asking the questions those mentions imply, nor does it spend time developing those issues. It is the difference between being asked to contemplate the nature of silence and being told, “Gee, it’s quiet around here.” At no point does 2010 address human evolution, the nature of life, or really the afterlife. All it does in that regard is have God send a warning through a dead guy and then send a text message to Earth... “Stay off Europa beeeatches.”
To me, this is the real failure. I enjoy 2010 as an action adventure, but I wanted more. Being a sequel to one of the most contemplative films ever, you kind of expected either that the film would provide some answers or would ask a new set of questions. This one doesn’t. And the one answer it does provide, why HAL went all Hannibal Lecter on the crew just isn’t satisfying or even up to the level of what it was implied in 2001.

In 2001, we are given clues to HAL’s behavior, but no real answers. We see that HAL is arrogant, despite seeming emotionless. He notes that he cannot make mistakes... only humans make mistakes. He is cold-blooded and doesn’t think twice about murdering the crew. He doesn’t even give them a chance by killing half of them in their sleep. He seems to be a liar or lacks self-awareness or is perhaps insane at the end when he’s trying to tell Bowman that he’s “all right now.” He seems to cling to life, even though it shouldn’t matter to him one way or the other.
What does this all mean? I think it suggests that HAL has attained a level of sophistication in his programming where he has developed human flaws. Why? Well, that’s the interesting question. That is what 2010 needed to answer. But all 2010 offers by way of explanation is that HAL was given conflicting orders with the suggestion being that evil scientists programmed him to somethingsomething Ronald Reagan is evil mumblemumble somethingsomething. So when his orders to protect the crew and to complete the mission came into conflict, because he saw the crew as standing in the way of that (why he thought this is another key unexplained point), HAL resolved the conflict by murdering the crew. HAL is, in fact, the victim! Root causes root causes!!
Up yours. This is utter crap. First, the two key points to this explanation aren’t even explained. They are just glossed over: the evil military scientists did SOMETHING and HAL freaked because of SOMETHING! Secondly, and even worse, this explanation completely undoes the setup. This explanation turns all of HAL’s surprising and fascinating behavior into “the military programmed him to do that.” There is no longer any question about HAL evolving or what his conduct says about us... he vas just followik orders! That flies in the face of everything about 2001.

This film should have swung for the fences, but it never even thought about trying. That’s the shame here.

Thoughts?
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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Introduction

NOTE: check the Bottom of the comments for an update.

We have received a lot of requests to write some stuff on the Marvel movies. And, since just about everyone here except Andrew is a fan of the movies, we here at Commentarama Headquarters have decided to do just that. For the rest of the Summer we will be looking at various entries in the Marvel movie series.


Marvel Cinematic Universe

First, some terminology. The franchise is properly called the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” or MCU. From here on out we will be calling it just that. And here are the list of live-action properties.

Movies:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Thor
Captain America: The First Avenger
The Avengers
Iron Man 3
Thor: Dark World
Captain America: Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron

And this summer we have Ant-Man coming out.

The TV shows
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Agent Carter
Daredevil

The Review Series
Now, this won’t be your standard review series. No, “Marvel Movie Countdown” where someone goes through all the movies counting down from worst to best. For one thing, the franchise also spans three TV shows, with more on the way. Second, we’ve decided to split the duties because the views on the various movies differ and I think those differing views. So one week you might here me discuss why Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the most enjoyable romps in cinematic history and then Andrew postulate on the one Marvel movie he likes.

They will instead be interspersed throughout the summer on Fridays in between regular movie reviews. I can't even promise we will review all of the Marvel movies but we will try to review most of them. But we will try.

So, any recommendations? Ideas? How about your favorite Marvel movies?
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Monday, May 4, 2015

The Life And Times of Chief Martin Brody

Today is a bit of an odd one. I want to talk about the life of Chief Martin Brody from Jaws.

As a fan of film and television, I tend to follow the careers of actors that I like. In so doing, you typically see how the actor begins in roles that are poorly defined or strange and where they feel swallowed by the role. These are often bit parts of experimental films. As they grow they tend to zero in on certain types of roles that fit them well. Then they have their hit or string of hits as they reach their prime. Finally, they wind down by reverting to supporting roles or nostalgia roles.

Consider Robert De Niro, for example, who achieved fame in the very off-the-wall film Taxi Driver. He then slowly shifted to roles that involved cops or mobsters. In so doing, he had a string of great hits like Midnight Run and Goodfellas. He milked that for a while with a few notable standouts like Ronin. Then he started sliding down the backside of his career, playing parodies of the roles that made him famous, in films like Analyze This and the really depressing nostalgia film The Family.

But there is one actor who took a different course. This actor took roles that let us trace his career as if he were the same person on film and his films document his life: Roy Scheider.
Scheider, aka Detective Buddy “Cloudy” Russo began his life working with Popeye “Gene Hackman” Doyle in The French Connection. But the mean streets of New York were too much for him and after his failed attempt to arrest and convict Alain Charnier, a wealthy French heroine smuggler, he decides to change his name to Martin Brody and moves to Amity, Massachusetts to become their police chief. But a run in with a giant shark, and it’s angry kin, teach Russo that living on an island is not for him.
So Russo changes his name again, to Frank Murphy and he becomes a helicopter pilot for the LAPD. But where Russo goes, controversy follows and Russo soon finds himself destroying a multimillion dollar attack helicopter and exposing a Federal government plot to stir up problems in the barrio so they can shoot the ensuing rioters.
Shunned by his fellow officers and leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, Russo decides to become a scientist. And going by the name Dr. Heywood Floyd, an anagram of “Hey, It’s Russo!”, he ends up hitching a ride aboard a Russian spaceship for Jupiter, where he kills the Hal 9000, finds God and dumps a giant baby in our orbit.
Finally, he takes a job as the captain of a submarine, where he goes by the name Capt. Nathan Bridger, before failing in that and becoming the head of the Italian mob... Don Falcone. And thus, the circle of life is kind of strangely complete.

Actually, if you hack off the last couple, it really does seem like it could all be the same man. What does this mean? I have no idea. What was the point of this article? Uh. I don’t know that either, but I liked Roy and I do find this interesting. Roy is the only actor where it feels like the main movies of his career take place in the same universe with him being the same character.... The French Connection, Jaws, Jaws 2, Blue Thunder and to a lesser extent 2010.

Interesting or no?
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