Thursday, March 31, 2016

Film Friday: Pixels (2015)

Pixels is an Adam Sandler film. Enough said. No? Ok, I’ll say more. First, let me say that the film isn’t nearly as bad as ALL the critics said. This thing literally had 100% negative ratings. It’s not that bad. But it’s not good either. What it is, is an excellent idea mis-executed in typical Adam Sandler fashion, and all the negatives that entails. What’s funny, is that I can’t tell you how to fix it. Why? Read on.


Imagine if we sent a radio signal into space and an advanced alien world saw it. Imagine if they mistook the images we sent them as a declaration of war or hostility and they decided to come wipe us out before we did something to them. Sounds like good but somewhat-clichéd science fiction, doesn’t it? But wait, there’s more...

Imagine if the images we sent were actually from our videogames in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. That’s a little more interesting, isn’t it? And what if the aliens use those videogames as a guideline for the rules of war, and what if the aliens have chosen to send electronically-made warriors who resemble the “warriors” in the games we sent and generally follow the same rules from the game. That sounds like it could make for a heck of an interesting and original comedy, doesn’t it? But wait, there’s more...
What if this film also starred Adam Sandler and was basically an Adam Sandler film with Adam Sandler-style jokes about getting hit in the balls, fat guys obsessed with hot girls, flummoxed authority figures, and lots of lazy sight gags? Doesn’t that sound great? Yeah, I had the same thought.

Anyways, the plot is this: aliens are coming to kill us because we sent them images of our videogames, which they mistook as a declaration of war. They have created a set of rules using those videogames. Paul Blart Mall Cop is the President and he brings his friends, Adam Sandler, some fat guy, Peter Dinklage and some hot chick to fight the aliens. They win.
Why I Can’t Fix This Film

Before I talk about this film in any detail, let me say that the film wasn’t as bad as the critics said. It was good-natured. It had some decent laughs now and then too. Basically, it was an entertaining enough waste of time. My kids actually liked it a lot.

That said...

As a general rule, I’ve found space-based comedies to be on the dull side. More often than not, these films have a lot of promise at the outset, having picked creative setups in a rarely-touched field, but then they just seem to fall apart. It strikes me that where they typically fail is in a lack of sufficient affinity for science fiction that they can derive their humor from the science fiction premise.
To give an example, while I found Spaceballs to be funny generally, it still felt flat to me because it was all about non-science fiction jokes. It’s humor was Jewish or Joan Rivers or about black people’s hair. Sometimes it poked fun at Darth Vader, but not in any way that acted as a genuine parody of Star Wars. Worse though, I can’t recall a single bit of humor that would work for a science-fiction comedy. Essentially, this was a Mel Brooks film set against a Star Wars/Princess Bride veneer.

An even better example comes from Mars Attacks. This film is nothing but one running sight-gag. Basically, you’re supposed to laugh at the way the aliens look and the images of what they do – like a head swap between two characters. But there’s little humor in that film that derives from the actual premise of an alien invasion. Essentially, this film is a comedy about infidelity, a crazy president, and just some nonsense characters acting strangely. The aliens are a McGuffin to give these characters some justification for acting strangely. In fact, you could have replaced the aliens with Russians or zombies or even just a rumor of an invasion and almost nothing would have needed to change in the story.
That brings me to Pixels. Pixels has such potential. Think of its potential as an adult version of Wreck-It Ralph. If you saw Wreck-It Ralph, then you saw the amazing potential that a comedy like this has. And what made Wreck-It Ralph work was a combination of a world that was packed with wonderful nostalgic references, a character whose worldview, whose personality and whose limitations derived from that world and who needed to grow beyond those limitation, and a plot that truly felt like something that would happen in this videogame world. Pixels has none of that.

Pixels is an Adam Sandler film. It’s about Adam Sandler and his friends walking though a film ogling women and showing everybody up. You have “loveable loser” Sandler who has a unique talent – playing video games. You have the President of the United States, who is a personal friend of Sandler’s and is so incompetent that there’s no way he could ever be elected. This is Kevin James reprising his role as Paul Blart Mall Cop. You’ve got the fat guy who pines for any woman with big breasts. You’ve got the super hot chick who once dated Sandler and will want him back again once he becomes a hero. Only the Peter Dinklage character feels fresh and interesting, and he gets tossed aside except for two jokes.
The plot involves Paul Blart doing asinine things as other dignitaries stand around looking shocked at what he’s done to the presidency. It involves Sandler showing off to the military, to the media, and ultimately to the world. It involves the fat guy doing stupid things every time he sees a hot chick. Oh, and there are aliens.

Now, at times, the film does make good jokes about the aliens, and those are pretty funny. But again, they are basically sight gags – a cute electronic dog, seeing PacMan on a New York City street, a pretty funny joke involving Cubert, and seeing Cubert wet himself. In terms of the premise itself, however, there’s almost nothing about it that becomes part of the humor. The one exception that comes to mind is when Dinklage somehow manages to use cheat codes in real life. Beyond that though, you could have swapped out the aliens for alligators and nothing would have changed.

As a result of this, Pixels feels like an average Adam Sandler film, but a nothing compared to its potential or Wreck-It Ralph. Unfortunately, this seems to be typical for science fiction-based humor.
So why can’t I tell you how to fix this film? Usually, I can come up with a couple changes that would have helped. This time I can’t. To explain this, a quote from The Matrix comes to mind. Neo asks if they made a mistake because something they expected to happen didn’t happen. Morpheus says, “No. What happened happened and couldn’t have happened any other way.” The same thing is true here. The moment this thing started as an Adam Sandler film, it could follow no other path... it couldn’t have happened any other way. Indeed, by choosing this mix of characters and requiring that Sandler go through the process of being the lovable-loser-turned-winner, it became impossible to have this film to do anything other than what it did. In other words, the structure is so restricting that it cannot be fixed.

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Books To Film: James Bond

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. In particular, I started reading the original James Bond books by Ian Flemming. In the past couple weeks, I’ve read the three “SPECTRE” related stories: Thunderball, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice. It has been fascinating to compare these books to the films.

Movies rarely follow the books they adapt. More often than not, significant changes are made to make the book work on screen. As a general rule, I’ve found that it’s rare that a movie is as good as the book that inspired it, and even more rare that a movie is better than the book. So imagine my surprise to find that Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice are all far superior as films than the books from whence they came.
To start with, the plots of the films are rather different than the books. Thunderball is the least changed, but it still has significant differences. In Thunderball the book, Bond goes to the health spa, as he does in the film, where he gets into a tit-for-tat with SPECTRE agent Count Lippe. Unlike the movie, where this scene is key to leading Bond to the Bahamas however, the book scene is only tangentially related to the bomb plot and Bond never seems to connect the dots. This makes the scene largely superfluous. In fact, M sends Bond to the Bahamas on M’s own hunch, rather than Bond connecting Lippe to Dominique. The rest of the story is fairly similar to the film, though with some caveats addressed below.

By comparison, You Only Live Twice is completely different from the film. In this book, Bond has lost his will to be an agent because of the death of his wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and his inability to capture Blofeld for the crime. He is given a supposedly impossible assignment by M to prove why he shouldn’t be fired. This assignment takes him to Japan where he is supposed to befriend the head of Japanese Intelligence and get them to share their files because the CIA has cut British Intelligence off. In the process, Bond learns that a man who could be Blofeld his built a castle full of poisonous plants which has become a popular place for Japanese people to commit suicide. Bond wastes a lot of time, then goes to apprehend Blofeld and Blofeld ends up dead. No stolen space ships. No devastating plan. Zip.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is similarly without action, as Bond romances Tracy and then spends the rest of the book at Blofeld’s Swiss lair theoretically trying to find a way to arrest him, though there doesn’t seem to be any action in that regard.
Plot-wise, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice both lack anything close to the punch of the films. You Only Live Twice got so dull that I struggled not to start skimming the page-long paragraphs that conveyed little information. Thunderball still works, but it takes a lot of twists and turns which end up as dead ends and it undermines its own tension.

Worse yet, the Bond character is not a good one in these novels. On film, he’s an amazing character. He’s suave, savvy, and violent yet playful. He’s like a combination of everything a man could want to be. Not so in the books. First, book-Bond has little in the way of savvy. He never displays anything approaching keen insight and, to the contrary, misses many obvious signs. He doesn’t seem to have any spy knowledge either, nor does he seem to like his job. He knows little about foreign cultures or languages, nothing about alcohol, and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of specialize combat knowledge. He is best described as a brawler. He doesn’t have the razor wit that film-Bond has either. Instead, he comes across more as a petulant employee.

Perhaps the biggest sin, from a character perspective, is that book-Bond is largely a passive character despite the occasional moment of big talk. In the films, Bond does it all, and he does it with a sense that what he can do easily, others simply cannot do. In the books, Bond lets others do all of the work. He falls into leads rather than chasing them down. He comes across more like a detective than a spy. And he lets others take the risks. Honestly, it’s a wonder that anyone reading these books would think they would make good films and then would transform the book-Bond into the film-Bond.
To make these films out of these books, the producers/directors/screen writers needed to completely overhaul them:
● They needed to give dead-end moments in the plot some meaning and sharpen the consequences so that the stories flowed better and the excitement level was much higher.

● They needed to reinvent the villain to give him bigger, more menacing ideas and a stronger organization (SPECTRE in the books is kind of like an alliance of petty thieves, blackmailers and cranks), to raise it to a world-class organization worthy of Bond’s attention.

● They needed to reshape Bond to be much smarter, more clever, more knowledgeable, more worldly and braver than in the books. They needed to swap out the character traits which make him come across as a petulant clerk who occasionally goes to arrest people for the traits of a solitary hunter, the traits of an indifferent policeman for those of an assassin, and the traits of a by-stander for a man of action. They even needed to give him the Bond-identifiers we have come to expect, like the Austin Martin, the vodka martinis, the sharp suits and “Bond... James Bond.” This is a bit like taking Columbo and turning him into Jason Bourne.
This is one time – three actually – where I’m glad they basically strip-mined the books and then made their own films using the elements they liked. That’s not something I will say often, but it is true here.


** Hopefully, you enjoyed this article. I’m planning this as a new series, but it will take time because I need to read the books before I can write the articles. I do have a few more ready to go though. :)
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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Film Friday: Topaz (1969)

I’m a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock, though apparently I prefer his lesser known films over his more popular ones: Rope, Torn Curtain, The Trouble With Harry. One that has always frustrated me, however, is Topaz. It frustrates me for the very reason that almost every other spy film frustrates me. Let’s discuss.
Based on the novel by Leon Uris, Topaz is the story of... well, that’s kind of the problem. Topaz isn’t really one story. It’s a series of backstories that all collide.
The story opens with a Soviet intelligence officer, Boris Kusenov, on vacation in Copenhagen. He and his family walk away from their Soviet minders and slip into the arms of the Americans, led by CIA agent Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe). This has been a planned defection. The Americans get Kusenov to Washington, where he is debriefed. But the story isn’t about Kusenov or Nordstrom.
Kusenov warns the Americans that the Soviets are placing ballistic nuclear missiles in Cuba. Nordstrom is told to learn more. Unfortunately, the Cubans are a little miffed at the Americans and Nordstrom can’t investigate anything in Cuba. So Nordstrom turns to his old friend Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) of French Intelligence. Devereaux is told to find a man named Luis Uribe, who is part of Cuba’s UN delegation, and bribe him for the information. Uribe can be bought, but he hates the Americans so the fact that Devereaux is doing this for Nordstrom must be kept quiet. There is another subplot coming too, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Devereaux goes to New York City, where the Cuban delegation has taken over an entire hotel. Devereaux cannot get inside without being identified, but his friend, Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne) can. He is a black florist and former agent who will pretend to be a fellow-traveler journalist working for Ebony. He will claim to seek an interview with Rico Parra (John Vernon), a highly placed official in Castro’s administration. Uribe is Parra’s private secretary. After getting the information, Dubois delivers it to Devereaux and escapes.
Devereaux returns to Nordstrom and informs him that the Soviet’s are indeed placing missiles in Cuba. At this point, the film falls apart. For reasons that are never clear, Devereaux heads to Cuba at Nordstrom’s request to gather more information about the missiles. What information? We never really learn. Basically, Devereaux goes to Cuba, meets a rich woman, and is given the information he needs as a sort of love story unfolds in which we learn that Devereaux and the woman have had an affair, which is ruining Devereaux’s marriage. The woman and Parra also have a sort of relationship, which leads to Devereaux and Parra coming face to face, though little comes of this.

Devereaux eventually leaves Cuba with the information and gives it to Nordstrom. Cuba is then forgotten as Devereaux learns that there is a mole within French Intelligence and he engages in a scheme to smoke the man out. The film ends after this.
This Film Frustrates Me
This film frustrates me so much. It has such potential, but it never achieves any of it. For example, it has some classic Hitchcock moments... but often meanders. The scene where Dubois gains access to the hotel, argues with Uribe, bribes him, gets what he needs and escapes deserves credit as one of Hitchcock’s best scenes. But then the film blows an hour on an irrelevant ex-lovers story between people we don’t care about.
The film has great actors, but asks too little of them. I love Forsythe, but he’s barely in this. Stafford has compelling screen presence, but he spends most of his time watching other characters handle the plot. Browne is fun to watch. He’s wonderfully playful in a deadly serious role, but he gets dismissed from the movie right after he wins the audience over. Vernon is perhaps the only one to hit his potential, but even he is denied a true confrontation with Devereaux.
The film promises so much too vis-à-vis the spy genre, but never delivers. You have a high-level defection, which is handled so well by Hitchcock, but all we see is the escape. There’s no setup to tell us who these people are and there’s no payoff as the story dismisses Kusenov right after he gets to Washington. The story promises a field trip to one of the most fascinating places and times in our history – Cuba at the start of the Cuban missile crisis. Talk about cool! Yet, Devereaux’s "spy work" in Cuba ends up little more than Devereaux visiting a former-lover in a Spanish villa, some stock footage of Castro, and a few tension free moment as some people take some photos. The story even promises a counter-intelligence mission against a highly placed mole in French Intelligence, but it ends up more like a police interview followed by an argument. All of this had amazing potential, but none of it ever came close to achieving its promise.
I am left to wonder why such a master as Hitchcock couldn’t make a great film out of this material. In fact, this is such a common problem with spy films that I almost wonder if there isn’t some problem within the genre. Try naming a group of spy films and you will see a collection of dull, overly-complex, long-winded, boring films. The best are really pure fantasy, like the Bond films, and are often packed with silly double-crosses to inject fake tension, like the Bourne films. The rest are dull, depressed and completely lacking in interesting stories.

So what is the problem? At times, I wonder if it isn’t that Hollywood has an ideological block which keeps it from seeing the Soviets as evil and therefore keeps Hollywood from creating solid conflicts. Indeed, too many spy films are about disillusioned spies who claim to see no difference between East and West. Maybe that’s why they had to create a non-communist SPECTRE, or why they love shifting the focus to rogue CIA operatives to get tension into their films? At other times, I wonder if maybe the writers just assume that defections and outing a mole are exciting enough that there’s no need to build an exciting story around it. But that's a bit like a Western involving only a single gun fight or stage coach robbery without anything else.
The thing is, there have been good spy films, and three in particular give me a clue here. From Russia With Love is a great spy film. It is exciting to see Bond escape Eastern Europe as operatives from the other side hunt him. What makes it work though is that the film spends time building up the characters before the chase begins and it turns the film into a one-on-one struggle between two of the best. The film Breach is an excellent tale of the FBI outing a spy. What makes this film work is getting insight into the mind of the spy as the FBI agent struggles to befriend him, to discover what he is doing, and then trap him. Finally, Ronin is a tremendous film about a heist involving a group of unemployed spies. What makes this film work is the extraordinary skill and knowledge displayed by the characters as they hunt each other. Ultimately though, what made each film work was the relationship of the characters. Each one has equally matched, highly professional opponents who despise each other.

So putting all of this together, a great spy film must have strong characters who personalize the struggle between East and West in their struggle against each other; they must represent different and opposed points of view and they must come to despise each other. And they must use their expert skill to outwit their enemies, either to steal from them, to kill them, to escape them or to expose them, and scene after scene needs to involve close escapes that require a display of extraordinary spy skills or knowledge. When you think of it that way, you begin to see the problem with Topaz. At its best moments, Topaz involves great characters, but little was done with them. There were few close escapes. There was virtually no display of spy knowledge or skill. There was virtually no one-on-one cat and mouse game, and what there was felt over-matched for the hero. What’s more, large moments of Topaz involve the hero waiting for others to do his work for him or are spent on the dull not-love story in Cuba. This makes Topaz a tease only. It has a great premise and the bones of a great plot. It just doesn't have any meat on those bones.
Honestly, Topaz is screaming out for a remake... a remake that exploits the missile crisis and the Cuban circus in New York and injects a real cat and mouse game between Devereaux, Soviet intelligence, Cuban intelligence, and the Americans.

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Monday, March 21, 2016

Zootopia: Not the Allegory You Were Expecting

by tryanmax

I’ve got to hand it to Disney. I think they’ve really pulled one over on the identity politics crowd. With their latest smash-hit Zootopia, the studio has given the usually unquellable race-baiters, gender-warriors, and plain ol’ Disney haters an allegorical placebo to shut them up. So satisfied are they that Disney finally “gets it” that one outlet went so far as to regard the new film as an apology for Song of the South, a film known almost solely by distorted reputation alone.
Spoiler Alert
All Disney really did, though, is recognize identity politics as a thing. The only message they conveyed with Zootopia on the matter is probably the best one that anyone can actually offer. Simply, “It’s complicated.” Let’s take a look at what they did.

I won't be discussing the plot, which is a twisty noir-ish tale, directly. As such, this article assumes the reader has already seen the movie. For a film synopsis, see here.
Lookin’ Good
In more than one way, Zootopia is all about appearances. For one, it is a visual treat to the eyes. Disney imagination is on full display in creating a world where animals of every species, from tiny hamsters and mice to giant giraffes and hippos, live alongside one another in an urban landscape. I remarked more than once how the characters looked so fluffy on screen that I wished I could reach out and touch them.
That’s a good segue for how Zootopia creates the appearance of handling identity issues. In one scene, a fox does just that, grabbing and handling a sheep’s bouffant while delightedly remarking how fluffy it is. His rabbit companion admonishes him that he can’t do that. This is clearly a reference to the supposed problem of white people always touching black people’s hair.

The script is peppered with little nods to so-called “micro-aggressions” such as this. The police force has a “Mammal Inclusion Initiative” which is clearly an affirmative action program. Judy Hopps, the beneficiary of said program and the first-ever rabbit on the force, asserts that she is not “some token bunny.” In another instance, she informs a cheetah that it’s okay for rabbits to call other rabbits cute, but not for other species. There’s a scene where an elephant store clerk asserts his right to refuse service to a fox. The assistant mayor believes she is only on board to court the “sheep vote.” The terms “articulate” and “patronizing” are conspicuously dropped into a conversation. The list goes on.

All of this is meant to signal that Disney is in-the-know on issues that virtually everyone is already aware of anyway. Otherwise the gags wouldn’t play. So, because Disney can demonstrate their consciousness, some have assumed that Disney is actually addressing the issues. But like the (literal) political animals in their film, Disney actually dodges the question entirely by re-framing it.
It’s Funny ‘cos It’s True
Probably the most memorable scene in the entire film is the one that takes place in the DMV. Judy Hopps is in a hurry but, to her chagrin, the entire office is staffed by sloths. She actually exclaims, “They’re all sloths!?” because she naturally assumes all sloths are slow and, well, they are. It’s actually amazing how well this works for laughs, not just once, but over a dozen times in the course of a couple minutes. At the same time, it totally reinforces that stereotypes do have a basis in real trends. Later, the film also breaks the stereotype when the main sloth is pulled over for street racing, but this is still in service to the same gag. Sloths are funny ‘cos they’re slow, but they’re even funnier if they’re fast.

Again, Zootopia is full of these types of gags. Being a rabbit, Judy has 225 brothers and sisters. Her sidekick, Nick, is a fox and a street hustler. Judy tries questioning an elephant who can’t remember anything. The city’s mayor is a lion. The mob-boss Mr. Big is revealed to be a tiny shrew. A group of lemmings mindlessly follow each other in buying popsicles. A hippie yak is unwashed and swarming with flies. This is Blazing Saddles style humor in a form that can slide past trigger-warning and safe-space sensibilities.

The very makeup of Zootopia (the city within the movie) itself is a gag. It is as much a theme park as a city and it is deliberately segregated by species, just as if it were a human-run zoo. Districts such as Tundratown and Sahara Square provide appropriate habitats for different species, while a neighborhood like Little Rodentia scales the urban landscape to its tiny residents. It’s both humorous and sensible, but it pushes aside any pat solutions to identity issues.
Where da White Bunnies At?
If there is one thing about Zootopia that has the identity politics crowd grumbling, it’s that they can’t quite figure out which animals represent which group of humans. I think that’s by design. Even though the animals of Zootopia inhabit a world very much like ours, even featuring similar political issues, it’s impossible to say that certain animals represent certain groups of people. Rather, all the usual signifiers are jumbled up.
At first, it looks like rabbits and other prey are the oppressed minority. After all, historically they suffered at the hands of predators, as the opening scene points out. But that isn’t the case. It turns out that Zootopia is 90% prey, and they are often openly prejudiced against predators. Yet, somehow, the mayor is a lion and predators occupy positions alongside prey everywhere. In most cases, it actually appears that size matters most, with large species like buffalo and bears filling the police ranks and big mammals generally throwing their weight around. Driving this home early in the film, the assistant mayor buddies up to Judy to say, “Us little guys have to stick together.”

The more you parse the animal groupings in the film, the more complicated it gets. Any attempt to draw straight lines between Zootopia and the real world is going to get uncomfortable really fast. As I already laid out, in Zootopia, minority = predator = savage. That equation ends careers if brought into the real world.

As I see it, the point is not to draw lines between the cartoon world and the real world, as tempting as it may be. Instead, by sidestepping the usual identity markers Zootopia is actually able to tell a compelling story while inserting a non-polarizing message of mutual respecting in a way that is better than simply mirroring current events.
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Friday, March 18, 2016

Film Friday: The Quiet Man (1952)

By Kit

Probably one of John Ford’s best films, and certainly his most beautiful, The Quiet Man focuses on Sean Thornton (John Wayne), his return to his native Ireland, his romance to the beautiful Kate (Maureen O’Hara), and his feud with her brother over the dowry. It is also probably the most Irish movie made in the US, which makes it perfect for St. Patrick’s Day (or the day after St. Patrick’s Day).

The movie is principally a love story. The first half focusing on Sean Thornton’s attempts to woo Kate Danaher and, once successful, earn her brother’s permission to marry. The second half begins at the wedding where an argument results in Will Danaher taking back the dowery. Kate is deeply upset about this because the lack of a dowery, in her mind, makes her something less than a wife, almost a maid. Sean Thornton at first thinks she is being greedy but to her this is not about the money, it’s about more than the money. To her, Sean letting Will take back the dowery was Sean letting a grave insult to him, and to Kate, slide and, one might argue, if he is willing to let Will bully him like that how can she ever expect him to stand up for her in the future? So the second half focuses on the question: Will Sean Thornton stand up for himself and take on Will Danaher?

You know the answer: Of course he will. This, I should mention, is very much set in John Ford’s world of manly fighting and tussling. Two men can have a fight over a girl, or a dowery, and end it shaking hands and walking away amicably. Or walking down to the pub for a drink together and then home for a meal. And Sean Thornton not only stands up to Will in the manliest 10-minute brawl in cinematic, he shows his love for Kate by dragging her all the way to the scene of the fight. (Ok, some parts of the movie might be a tad out-dated and slightly uncomfortable in today’s world)

This movie probably ranks as one of John Ford’s best. The cinematography, always a strong point of John Ford’s, is near perfection here with Ford filming much of it on location in Ireland, a country that provides no shortage of beautiful places to film. With quaint villages and lush landscapes the movie is almost a non-stop show of scenic beauty.

The casting is perfect. John Wayne once again proves, as he did in The Searchers, that he is to this day vastly underrated as an actor, and he is supporting, as in all John Ford movies, by a stellar supporting The aforementioned Victor McLaglen as the brother, Barry Fitzgerald as the local matchmaker, and Ward Bond as the priest, among others, all give performances that provide their own characters a degree of depth you don’t usually see in a supporting cast. Indeed, this is one of the best things about John Ford movies; by the end of the picture you feel you have come to know each of the characters, even the supporting players.

But what of Maureen O’Hara? Much like how Vivien Leigh has embodied and shaped our mind’s image of the antebellum southern belle with her performance of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, Maureen has done the same with the red-headed, green-eyed girls from the Old Country of Oireland. Her performance is as captivating as is her natural beauty. From the moment John Wayne first sees her he is spellbound and so are we. And she pulls it off without ever getting undressed.

In a way, her own natural beauty perfectly complements the natural beauty of Ireland around her.

But it’s not just beauty. She dominates this film almost as much as John Wayne, which is a hard thing to do given John Wayne’s presence. She holds her own pretty well to the extent that this is not a John Wayne-John Ford movie but a John Wayne-John Ford-Maureen O’Hara movie. Not many leading ladies could pull that off.

Actually, when you think about it, in a way this might be more her movie than John Wayne’s.

I hope everyone had a happy St. Patrick's Day. By the way, you can still watch this movie on Amazon Instant Video, if you want.
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Friday, March 11, 2016

Film Friday: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

I’m back! I admit the ads for this one intrigued me. This movie was sold as a tongue-in-cheek knock-off of James Bond with traces of Vin Diesel’s XXX and Samuel L. Jackson as the villain. What could go wrong with that? Well, what I got instead was a British white trash rip-off of Men in Black without the aliens.


The story opens with a spy being killed and another (Colin Firth as agent Galahad) breaking the news to his wife and young son. Firth works for a privately run “Secret Service” based out of a tailor shop in London, with a training base in the same castle used by Professor Xavier to train the X-Men. Their agents all wear uptight British-cut suits and old-lady glasses and carry umbrellas. They are essentially caricatures of British “gentlemen.” And they use a variety of gadgets, each of which you’ve seen in James Bond movies.

As an aside, I’m sure that the use of these gadgets and a handful of scenes taken from Bond movies will be described as “an homage,” but they really aren’t used in any creative way to suggest anything other than pilferage.
Anyways, the son’s name is Eggsy. Flash forward. Eggsy is now firmly ensconced British white trash. He can’t speak the English language in any recognizable way. His mother is a welfare whore. He drinks, fights in bars and steals cars. The pride of modern Britain. Firth, who thinks he owes Eggsy because of what his father did, bails Eggsy out of jail and enters him in the Kingsman training program, where he naturally doesn’t fit in with the other snooty trainees. Insert obligatory “bad rich guys mock Eggsy and heroine steps up to defend him” scene.
Meanwhile, in the plot: Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a lispy billionaire who wants to save the world by destroying it, starts kidnapping or co-opting famous people and celebrities. Firth investigates and immediately narrows his suspect list to Jackson because Jackson is the only possible suspect. As he and Jackson then trade uninspired and obvious innuendo telling the other they know what the other is, Eggsy goes through his training montage in a series of scenes you’ve seen in dozens of other films. Meanwhile, Firth acts like he’s doing something. Finally, Eggsy soon teaches us that white trash is tougher than effete rich Brits.


//swills beer, knifes someone Oy! This movies sucks! It’s boring and predictable. It’s a pure rip off through and through. And it’s annoying to watch. There isn’t a single moment in this film which is surprising. There are a few things that are supposed to surprise us, like Jackson being a villain who faints at the sight of blood, but that’s a minor idea which the writer wrongly thinks is strong enough to carry the film.

The plot itself is so worn that it’s threadbare. How many times have you seen the young man who is brought into a plot by a friend of his dead father? How many times have you see a training plot that involves the hero start out as the student most likely to fail out, who gets picked on by the rich white males everyone thinks are the best but is defended by the hot chickie co-star, who then shows up the rich white males (who are secret cowards) while proving his natural talent makes him the best, only to decide to quit over some hidden pain, only to come back when his mentor gets killed and everyone is cool letting him lead the team to a victory at the end of the movie. Nope, never seen that before.
Jackson plays an insane villain. Been there, done that a million times. The hot chick turns out to be just as good as the hero and they hook up. Been there, done that too. The boss double-crosses the hero because he secretly works for the villain. Check. There’s a final fight at the villain’s lair that plays out by the numbers. Check. The hero wins because the villain does something stupid which lets him overcome an entire army of henchmen. Check. Yawn.

You get the point.

This movie is Men in Black with the British trash kid in the Will Smith role and Colin Firth in the Tommy Lee Jones role. Unfortunately, whereas that movie thrived on Smith’s fish out of water learning to fit in role and the great chemistry between Smith and Jones, this film fails miserably on both counts. Trash and Firth have zero chemistry. It’s like watching two dead fish lying side by side when they interact. And whereas Smith was endearing in how he learned that the world was bigger than he thought, Trash spends his time showing us that he’s got bigger balls than the rest of the f**ing world! Oy! It’s annoying.
And speaking of annoying, this movie’s politics suck. At first, you wonder if the film might not be conservative because the villain is an environmentalist who wants to kill humanity to save the earth. That sounds like a conservative criticism, but I think the writer just thought they were being “outrageous” in picking an “impossible” villain. The rest of the movie has very different politics. At one point, you get to watch the members of a racist white American church kill each other and you’re supposed to revel in seeing Firth kill them all off. The rich white male candidates are shown to be deceitful, shameful cowards who scream about who they know, whereas the white trash boy is made the hero without reforming any of his nasty traits. Rich = effete. White trash = pure. Ditto on the rich elites who sign up voluntarily with Jackson’s plan to kill off the rest of humanity. There are anti-Thatcher references, anti-police statements, anti-Americanism, and so on.
This film felt to me like it was written by someone from a British low-class community who wanted to make an over-the-top attack on the people who “is f**in keepin me down oy!”, but knew to throw in a handful of Hollywood liberalisms to get it made. And what they did was take a plot they’d seen a million times and fill it with anything they could steal from other movies. Everything – the gadgets, the characters, the locations, the scenes, the plot points, the overall plot itself, etc. – is stolen from some other movie. It’s boring, derivative and insulting.

This one sucked.

[+]