Monday, June 29, 2015

Summer of Marvel: The Incredible Hulk (2008)


By Kit

We're back!

Following up their big-hit Iron Man later that summer Marvel released their attempted reboot of the Hulk. The Hulk had previously been made into a film in 2004 to much disappointment, widely seen as too pretentious and too dreary by many. So in 2008 they decided to add more action and less drama, but still retain some.

Does it work? Let's see.

The Plot

The movie begins with an opening credits montage giving us a little back story on what has happened; Bruce Banner was doing tests for a military project led by General Ross alongside Ross’ daughter, Betty, who he has a thing for. Something goes wrong, he turns into a giant monster, severely injures Betty Ross and is forced to go on the run from General Ross.

The movie then picks up with him in Brazil, working at a factory that bottles a type of green soda (the color green pops up a lot in this movie) and he is well-liked by floor manager who often has him fixing broken-down devices. When he is not working he often works on ways to manage his anger and communicates online with a mysterious Mr. Blue, who might know of a cure.

Unfortunately, a bit of his blood falls into a bottle where it is shipped to America and consumed by Stan Lee, who contracts gamma radiation poisoning/sickness from it, which, after tracking it to the factory it was made, alerts General Ross to Banner’s likely whereabouts. He promptly sends a squad of soldiers led by Russian-born Brit special ops guy Emil Blonsky —neglecting to inform them of Bruce’s unique “condition”.

They go in and try to grab Bruce while a group of local thugs are messing with him. Eventually, both push Bruce far enough that he snaps and you know how that song and dance goes. What follows is a mostly-in-the-dark fight scene (smart decision, I should add) where the Hulk takes out both the local thugs and Blonsky’s soldiers one-by-one. The hulk flees and Bruce soon finds himself waking up in Guatemala (the Hulks runs far) where he decides to head back home to Culver University.

Arriving there he meets up with an old friend who tells him his old girlfriend Betty is dating some guy played by Phil Dunphy from Modern Family. Bruce decides to get into the computer lab and hack in using Betty’s password to get the information on the research back when the experiments went wrong. He does and returns to his old friend’s place —where Betty is there with her boyfriend.They see each other.

Meanwhile Blonsky is filled in by Ross on what Banner was doing, apparently, unbeknownst to him, he was working on trying to re-build the old Super-soldier serum from the 1940s. Things were not going well but he was sure he was onto something so he went ahead with a test and things went wrong or something like that. Blonsky decides he wants a bit of that and Ross agrees.

Meanwhile, Bruce and Betty are catching up at the Quad when the military arrives, having been informed by Betty’s ex-boyfriend. Bruce gets put in a corner and Hulks out and tosses a few humvees like a two-year old tosses little toy cars. That is, until Blonsky arrives who manages to put up a decent fight dodging his blows due to the super-soldier serum until the Hulk eventually knocks him out of the fight, breaking all of his bones. The Hulk then flees with Betty.

After returning to his human form Betty and Bruce decide to travel to New York City to meet up with Mr. Blue, or Samuel Sterns, a.k.a., “The Leader” in the comics (but not yet), in order to see if they can develop a cure. Meanwhile, Emil Blonsky quickly heals and is ready for another go, though now slightly unhinged.

What ensues is a race to get the cure, which has limited success, and Blonsky becoming the Abomination, a Hulk-like monster but with protruding bones , and a fight between the Abomination and the Hulk in Harlem.

Is it Good?

It's a mixed bag.

This movie was a bit better than I remembered it being, though still nowhere near as fun as the rest of the Marvel movie canon. The movie is a mixed bag. It has a strong performance from Ed Norton, the humor, like in all Marvel movies, is very good, and the movie has very fun fight scenes. But outside of that it struggles. The CGI of the Hulk still needs work and the villains are clichéd Hollywood military stereotypes you’ve seen a thousand times before.

First, the lead.

Ed Norton is very good. He gives us a Bruce that is likable but modest and unassuming. After watching this I have to say that he’s a better Bruce than Mark Ruffalo, not that Ruffalo is bad (he’s very good, actually) just that Norton is better.

Unfortunately, when he turns into the Hulk we see the movies first big problem. For reasons of either insufficient tech or insufficient money, the CGI for the Hulk, though a big improvement over 2004, is still not quite up to the level it would be in Avengers, let alone Avengers 2. He still looks a bit too much like a giant Shrek and at times I felt he looked a bit like a green, juiced-up young P.J. O’Rourke for some weird reason. Though, again, it is still an improvement over 2004.

Fortunately, if you can get past the CGI issues, the fight scenes are a lot of fun. The movie builds up anticipation for the Hulk each time, bringing us to the point that we are almost begging for the Hulk to appear, and unleashing him on the whoever has been asking for whooping. And the fight scenes, like with much of the pre-Avengers Marvel movies, are not the over-the-top destruction fests that now seem to dominate the genre. Today, the entire campus would probably be leveled, but here, we just have a simple fight scene on a quad between the Hulk and the military.

On the topic of the military, it is there we come to the movie’s most annoying weakness. This one has a slew of liberal, anti-military, Hollywood clichés.

Here are three questions that popped into my mind while watching the movie:
—Why the hell doesn’t General Ross tell the squad he sends after Banner at the beginning of the movie that the guy they are hunting can change into an enormous green rage monster at the turn of a second? That seems like something you want to bring up in the pre-op briefing. But I’m just a civilian so what do I know.
—Where the hell is the Congressional oversight on this? Two years later in the movie Iron Man 2 Congress would be trying to rip Stark over not letting the government have his suits but General Ross is able to do whatever he wants. Oh, and FYI, in-universe, Iron Man 2 occurs in the same week as this movie.
—On the subject of General Ross doing whatever he wants. Apparently full battalion, with machine guns-armed humvees, is able to just roll onto a college campus? Posse Comitatus Act, anyone? I’m pretty sure that requires at least an act of Congress to approve.

Yeah, this is not the worst handling of the military in a movie but coming on the heels of the fairly pro-military Iron Man and in a film series that has generally been pro-military, it was and still is quite jarring. The only real redeeming factor here is that William Hurt actually gives a pretty decent performance as General Ross, making him into a sort of Captain Ahab who has this mad obsession with the Hulk. You kind of feel sorry for the guy. Kind of.

As for the rest, the humor that is now trademark to the Marvel movies is funny. The side-performances are mostly ok, Liv Tyler is good in some scenes but there were a few I felt she was lacking. There are also some pleasant touches to the 1970s series, the best being the use of the iconic “Lonely Man Theme” as Bruce is traveling to the United States.

So, in all, the movie is ok. Not near the top but if you can get past the still-troubled CGI and the clichéd military then you will probably have a fun time watching it.

Summer of Marvel will return with a review of Iron Man 2, this time written by Andrew Price.

Bruce: "I can't get too excited."
Betty: "Not even just a little excited?"
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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Film Friday: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is an amazing and fascinating film. Normally, I don’t review films that have been written about this much, but this time I think it’s worth it. Close Encounters is the film I think of when people talk about the 1970’s film renaissance, when I think of Spielberg’s real talent, and when I think of films done right. This is a film you should see and appreciate.


Close Encounters involves the convergence of two separate but related stories. The first story unfolds in small vignettes that take their time to explain what is going on. In the first vignettes, a group of men race through the desert to find a collection of World War II era fighter craft, Grumman Avengers, in pristine condition. We don’t know this yet but these are the planes belonging to the doomed Flight 19 which vanished without a trace off of Florida. In the second, the same men find a ship, the SS Cotopaxi (which sank on her way to Cuba), in the sand dunes of the Gobi desert. In the third, an air traffic controller hears two planes report seeing UFOs flying near them. In the forth, the men are in India, where they seek villagers who claim to have seen something in the sky. These villagers provide the men with a series of musical tones which the men conclude are a form of communication.
Each of these vignettes builds the puzzle and brings us to the conclusion that aliens are seeking to communicate with the human race and they have chosen Devil’s Tower, Wyoming as their place of contact.

The second story, which is interspersed between these vignettes, involves Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, an electrical lineman from Indiana. Roy is out looking to fix a downed wire when he has a close encounter which sunburns half his face. This piques his interest and he starts to investigate UFOs. In the process, he meets a single mother named Jillian, who also has had a close encounter. Her son will be kidnapped by the aliens while she is in the house.
As Roy investigates, he becomes increasingly erratic in his behavior. This causes his wife to take their three children and leave him. The specific event that causes her to leave is when Roy starts dumping garbage in their living room so he can build a life-size model of Devil’s Tower. He feels compelled to do this even though he doesn’t even know that it’s Devil’s Tower until he sees a report on the news that the military is evacuating the Devil’s Tower area because of a supposed nerve gas spill. Roy is drawn to the area and, believing the military story to be false, he makes his way there.
At the foot of Devil’s Tower, the two stories converge as Roy is picked up trying to sneak into the area. There the men from the vignettes question him and try to send him away. But Roy escapes and reunites with Jillian, who also has been drawn here. They make their way up the mountain until they find the secret landing base the government constructed. Soon enough, the aliens arrive.

What Makes This Film So Awesome

Close Encounters is an awesome movie. It’s beautiful shot. It’s incredible well written. You really care about these characters. The plot is engaging. The mystery of what is going on is fascinating the first time through and still engaging even when you know how it will turn out. The movie has iconic music and sounds. It has amazing special effects too, blowing away those of today.
The movie is historically interesting too. For one thing, this film allowed science fiction to grow up. Before this, science fiction was about spaceships and laser guns and battling aliens. This was the first film that foreswore that and said that science fiction could be a character drama about how we finally make contact with an alien race. Indeed, the film’s view of realistic aliens as peaceful is essentially groundbreaking.

It’s also historically interesting because of the way it influenced UFO believers. Before this film, UFO abductees all over the world reported seeing very different aliens. But after this film, they all saw the small gray eunuchs with large heads and large eyes. So in a way, this film unified the UFO story, which has made the industry stronger... even though it should be discrediting.

Anyway, what makes this film so fantastic is the way Spielberg handled it. This was probably the film that cemented Spielberg’s empire, coming on the heels of Jaws and being a world wide mega-hit, and the reason why is that Spielberg was at the top of his game. This was Spielberg before he succumbed to commercialism and before he started using shortcuts to generate emotion. This was Spielberg when he took his time and told the story as it should be told.
What Spielberg did so well can be seen in the characters. First, and most importantly, he takes his time. Spielberg never rushes. This is so rare in modern cinema, where every second that can be removed from a film is for various reasons. Secondly, there are no villains. Some want to see the military as villains, but they aren’t. The military chases everyone out of Wyoming and tries to keep Roy and Jillian from getting up the mountain because they want to avoid a chaotic first contact. Notice that they never use violence to stop these people, and there are no armed soldiers or weapons at the landing site. Doing a film without a villain is a rare achievement in modern cinema because it is harder to write conflict without a villain.

The real key, however, is in the wide array of characters who get solid screen time. Roy is the everyman skilled laborer. His wife (Terri Garr) is the frustrated wife. Jillian is the overwhelmed single mom. David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) is a cartographer who is enlisted in the search for clues because he can translate French into English. Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) is a French scientist and specialist in UFOs who leads the search for clues. Other prominent characters include an Air Force officer assigned to Project Blue Book, the Army commander in charge of clearing out Wyoming, air traffic controllers and the pilots to whom they speak, police, co-workers of Roy, Roy’s kids, a UFO crank, the men in charge of communicating with the aliens, and so on. Each of these characters feels real to us because we learn tons about them. In fact, we know more about them than we know about the lead characters in most modern films, and that makes the film feel real.
What's more, Spielberg gives us this wealth of information in only a few clever moments or lines of dialog. Consider Roy’s wife Ronnie. She seems like a loving wife on the surface, but we quickly see that she’s rather lazy, from her wardrobe, and she’s more concerned with appearances than with Roy’s problems as she tries to hide his sunburn and get him to stop talking about it. And, most tellingly, she blows up at Roy at the very moment where he asks her for emotional help. This tells us so much about her and it explains why Roy acts so erratically. As an aside, she would not exist in a modern remake except as an off-screen ex-wife.

Now take Laughlin, who is a sort of narrator for the vignettes. He never tells us anything about his life, except that he was a cartographer who also speaks French. But we soon learn that he’s rather meek, that he’s amazed by what he’s seeing and wants to believe, that he’s a kind man, that he never once worries that the aliens might be a danger, and that he’s rather bright. We learn this in an intensely clever scene where he solves the key mystery. In this scene, Laughlin realizes that the signals sent by the aliens represent coordinates on a map. In most movies, he would blurt this out and the scene would end. But Spielberg doesn’t do this.
Instead, we see Laughlin figure it out. He takes a moment to be sure of what he thinks he’s found. Then, rather than slamming this in the faces of the supposed geniuses who are debating all around him, he politely turns and says, “excuse me.” Then he humbly explains his conclusion. And then, having solved the key mystery, he goes right back to being a simple interpreter. This tells us so much about his character. And again, this is exactly the kind of character films no longer use because they want the main character to handle everything and they don’t care about letting you get to know the minor characters.

In fact, while we are talking about that scene, I think the brilliance of that entire scene deserves mention, as Spielberg converts a scene involving men talking into an action scene. He does this by having all the characters talking over each other and moving their arms around, which gives the impression of motion. Then, rather than grabbing a map, they find an enormous globe, which they free from its holder rather than carry back to their room and they let it roll toward the camera as they chase it. Again, this gives a sense of motion and urgency, and strangely it makes the audience tense as they wait to see if the men can catch the globe, just as it's tense waiting to see if Laughlin can interrupt them to be heard - in a similar moment, Roy is distracted by his wife as the television shows Devil's Tower in the background and it feels very tense as you wait to see if he will turn around in time to see it. Finally, rather than just finding the spot on the map, we watch two fingers trace the longitude and latitude lines until they connect, giving the audience a feeling of a race and a treasure being found, and then suddenly the room explodes in voices again.

The end result is that a scene which essentially only involves some men pondering the meaning of some numbers and looking it up on the map, turns into an action scene with a dramatic punch. Spielberg does this throughout the movie. This is what Spielberg used to do so well and which so few others ever managed to copy - make boring moments into heart-pounding scenes filled with real characters. Sadly, no one does this today. This is why this film is so amazing.


As an aside, notice that the rolling globe and the tracing of lines will appear again in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
[+]

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Film Friday: Three Days of the Condor (1975)

I’m not a fan of Robert Redford. I don’t think he’s a great actor. His timing feels like he’s acting. His characters are too perfect. And he’s too pretty for most of the roles he plays. That said, I really like him in Three Days of the Condor. Condor strikes me as one of the few genuinely interesting and engaging spy films out there. Too bad it’s utterly without substance, but it’s still a good film and you should see it.

The Plot

Robert Redford works for the CIA in a satellite office in New York. His code name is Condor. He’s a reader whose job is to read books, newspapers and magazines from all over the world and look for hidden meaning within them. In performing his duties, he comes across a pulp thriller with strange plot elements which has been translated into an unusually large number of languages, with a particular emphasis on oil producing countries. He files a report with CIA headquarters.
As Redford waits for an answer to his report, he is sent out for lunch. When he returns to the office, he discovers that everyone has been killed. He quickly calls the CIA’s New York headquarters for instructions and is told that he will be picked up to be debriefed. The meeting, however, is a trap and his supposed rescuers try to kill him.

What follows is a cat and mouse game between Redford and a contract killer named Joubert (Max von Sydow) as Redford tries to solve the riddle of who at the CIA has been trying to have him killed. In the process, he kidnaps and befriends Faye Dunaway, who needs a boyfriend.
What Makes This Film Stand Out

Condor is a fascinating film that you all should see. Let me start with the criticisms, however. First, little about the film makes any sense once you stop to think about it. In fact, take the underlying premise, that Redford has spotted some secret plan in published books. This is nonsense. Why in the world would the CIA or anyone else put their plans into published books for the world to stumble upon?

Moreover, why would they communicate with whomever they are supposedly communicating with in this manner? Consider that it takes months to get a book published. And it probably takes even longer to get it translated and published in other countries. Wouldn’t it be easier to call these people or send radio communications or even make cryptic announcements on the news?
Why the CIA decides to kill Redford’s entire department makes no sense either. In movie terms, I guess it does, but in real life what Redford has stumbled upon sounds like it would be more easily covered up with a “Good work! We’ll take it from here!”

The film also suffers from too-convenient-itis, as all the characters act in ways they need to for Redford to survive. It also tries to skate by with a near total lack of substance. What is the CIA's plan? SomethingsomethingOIL! Who is Joubert? He’s a hired killer from somethingsomething. Why does the CIA use him? Somethingsomething. Even the ending is kind of ambiguous as to what really happens. In effect, the whole film is ephemeral. There is an evil plot, worthy of someone at the CIA killing CIA employees for finding out about it. They hire a mystery guy who gets instructions to kill Redford, except when it would end the film. In the end, some or all (maybe?) of the bad guys get killed and the plot is foiled... or not.

That said...

I really do like this film, and the reason is that this film provides the atmosphere of a genuine spy story, and there simply aren’t very many of those out there. Indeed, this film has all the elements we love about spies. You have the secret shop hidden right in the middle of the city as something else. You have the cool assignment of searching for hidden meanings in books. You have the clean up team of contract killers who wipe out an entire division without anyone knowing. You have the “who can you trust” paranoia that adds genuine tension to these films. You have the cool foreign assassin who would rather talk about the craft than shoot the hero dead, and he delivers a truly memorable speech about how the CIA will one day kill Redford. And the hero must use extraordinary skills to solve the problem they face.
All of this is excellent and you just can’t find it anywhere else. Indeed, despite the Cold War, there was almost nothing done by Hollywood that addressed spies in any realistic and interesting way. Instead, you had James Bond being a Playboy or John le Carré’s depressing and slow stories that feel like you are watching accountants try to find a mistake in a tax return.
What’s more, the characters in this story are likable and intriguing. Max von Sydow plays the mythical contract killer who follows an honorable code which almost makes him a good guy. This is not a man who will kill the unsuspecting and unprepared and we like him for that and we find him mysterious in a way which makes us want to know him better... despite the fact that he’s a cold-blooded killer. Faye Dunaway plays the kind of woman most men want to meet. She’s cold and hard at first and quite strong, but the more Redford gets to know her, the more you see the broken heart and the woman ready to give her all for the right man. She is not a cardboard character like most women on film today.
Redford is the key though. Redford simply can’t play a gangster or a miner or a construction worker because he’s too pretty and you can’t picture him ever getting dirty, but he fits perfectly as a bright young academic who finds himself terrified as he ends up stuck in the middle of a mess because of his naiveté. He’s also believable as the man who could seduce Faye Dunaway without even trying to seduce her, and he comes across as smart enough to believe he could learn what he needs to know on the fly. Further, he is rather likable in this film because for once he doesn’t play a know-it-all, he plays the guy who knows nothing and better learn fast.
Each of these characters is likable and interesting and they do an excellent job giving you a reason to care about the cat and mouse game that is taking place, and that is what drives this film.

So would this film still be worthy of recommending if there had been competing spy movies? Absolutely. This film has a strong atmosphere that pulls you into the world of spies very effectively. It has likable characters and a memorable plot. It is worthy of seeing. The fact that there really is no competition really only enhances that.

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Film Friday: The Bad New Bears (1976)

One of my favorite films of the 1970’s is The Bad New Bears. The Bad New Bears more than any other film encapsulates the free spirit of what it was like to be a kid in the 1970’s. It’s also hilarious!


The Bad New Bears is the story of an odd-ball youth baseball team that rises up to challenge the perfect team. The story begins when a city councilman wins his lawsuit against the Southern California Little League challenging the exclusion of the least athletically skilled children. To settle the suit, the League allows the councilman to form another team, the Bears, for these less than gifted kids and they will get to play.

Naturally, the team is a mess. Their pitcher is near-sighted. Their catcher is the immobile fat kid. They have two Mexican kids who can’t speak English. Their shortstop is a small kid who is prone to violence against bigger kids. They even have a kid, Lupus, who is so withdrawn that it seems to be a mental condition; he's afraid to swing the bat. One player describes the team as “a bunch of Jews, spics, niggers, pansies and a booger-eating moron.” Even worse, the coach who has been chosen to lead this team of misfits is former minor-league ball player and current alcoholic Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau).
Buttermaker is a bitter old man who works as a pool cleaner and has no sense at all how to deal with children. He is politically incorrect and liberally insults the kids. He drives the entire team around in his beater convertible with the top down and without seatbelts. He drinks beer as he drives and, at one point, he even lets the kids drink his beer. He even gets a bail bonds company to sponsor the team.

The team’s first game is a disaster and they are forced to forfeit after a humiliating beating. After this, Buttermaker decides to add some talent to the roster. Specifically, he finds Amanda (Tatum O’Neal), the eleven year old daughter of one of his former girlfriends, who is a pitching savant. She refuses at first because she wants to torture Buttermaker a bit, but eventually she agrees. He also adds Kelly, a motorcycle-riding, smoking troublemaker. Kelly can run rings around the rest of the team and Buttermaker wants him to do so. Unfortunately, this creates ill will and Buttermaker must learn to trust the kids to rise to the occasion rather than relying on Kelly. Naturally, the Bears begin to get better bit by bit and eventually they end up playing the evil Yankees and their even more evil coach (Vic Morrow) for the little league pennant.
What Makes This Movie So Great

This is a fantastic movie on many levels. First, Matthau puts in another excellent performance. He truly is an amazing actor at presenting unlikable characters and making them sympathetic. I would dare say that he is vastly underrated as an actor. The film is also very well written and delivers a great many surprising moments, something you really don’t expect from a sports film. Indeed, while this film is a formula sports film in many ways, it never feels like it because it diverges from the formula more than enough to feel like a genuine story.
It is heartwarming too, but without being saccharine as so many other heartwarming films are. These kids come to respect each other and with that comes a sense of camaraderie. They aren’t forced to present a fake love for each other as other similar films require. Indeed, they keep right on insulting each other right up through the end. And the comedic timing is excellent, especially as so many of the best lines are spoken by child actors. Modern kids films tend to be slicker than this one, but they never feel as real.

Further, this film is an amazing time capsule of a film. The 1970’s were a high-water mark for great times to grow up. By the 1980’s, kids became latchkey kids as divorce soared and yuppie parents had only single children and even then traded their time with them for that second BMW. This was also the beginning of the obsession with safety and childproofing childhood. The 1990’s were beset with the peak of hateful feminism and fringe religious nuttery. Little girls either became little boys or submissive sister-wives and boys were told to play with Barbie. At the same time, racial tensions and de facto segregation were stoked by things like the OJ trial. Anyone raised in the 2000’s grew up paranoid of terrorism. The 1970’s had none of that. We grew up eating sugared cereal, riding bikes without helmets, telling dirty and racist/sexist jokes with our minority friends, driving in convertibles without seatbelts and rocking out to a musical and cinematic golden age. This film captures that spirit like a time capsule. In fact, I can’t think of a film that better presents an era than this one.
Indeed, look at how little of what happens in this film would be acceptable today. An entire baseball team rides around in Buttermaker’s broken down convertible without seatbelts. Today, that would be a crime, but our pee wee football did that and no one complained. Buttermaker lets the kids drink beer. That happened to. No helmets on bikes? We didn't even own helmets! A twelve year old with cigarettes? The victory parties are held at Pizza Hut? They tell racial jokes and say cutting, nasty things to each other? Yeah... we did all of that, and not only did we live to talk about it, but we got along and we had a great time.

Notice what’s missing too. There are no “hockey dads” who are ready to shoot each other dead over playing time. The kids throw punches without the cops being called. Nobody’s taking growth hormones or steroids. No one is whining about safety or peanut allergies or the fairness of keeping score. The “villain” is an opposing coach who is pushing his own son too hard... not a sniveling businessman trying to destroy the environment by sabotaging the Bears somehow. This film presents a time when people enjoyed life without worrying about the most hypersensitive prick and/or prickette in the room.
Even more importantly, there is on more thing missing: cynicism. Let me repeat that... there is a total lack of cynicism. This film revels in the joys these kids get when they realize that they can succeed if they try hard enough as a team. That makes this such a fun and happy film. Kids sports films today exist largely to send messages. Those messages are cynical stories declaring that girls are just as good as boys athletically or even more cynical stories about blacks and whites coming together in total harmony if the white racists just learn to do a little hip hop (Remember the Titans... cough cough). They are stories that push trendy theories about how children must act in a supposedly perfect world and which warn everyone to be terrified of causing offense. Bears wasn’t selling any of that crap. What Bears told us was that these losers didn’t have to be losers if they could learn to trust and respect each other. It didn’t ask any more of them. They didn’t have to solve the world’s problems or save the environment or find a way for people of all colors, genders and religions (except Islam) to coexist. They just had to learn to work together to play baseball, that’s it. And because of that, this feels like a fun and happy and genuine story rather than a political message acted out in a motion picture.

Finally, perhaps the most important thing this film has going for it is that it’s just a fun film. So many films today, especially formula films like Bears, just aren’t very fun. In fact, check the remake which is full of cruelty and spite, but entirely devoid of fun.
[+]

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Hiatus

Due to summer classes causing a change in my daily schedule and tests on nearly every Monday in June, a blu-ray being sent to the wrong location, and being locked out of my apartment for 3 hours (but mostly the first one) the Summer of Marvel is being put on a temporary hiatus. It will be resuming June 29.

In the meantime, click below for some youtube mashups/music videos set to the movies.

Iron Man: "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath

AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" music video for Iron Man 2:

Thor: AC/DC's "Thunderstruck"

A rather funny parody of the Captain America trailer featuring two songs from Team America; "Buck o' Five" and "America, F*ck Yeah!". Very much Not Safe For Work, obviously.: LINK

The opening to the 70s Hulk show set to clips from 2008's The Incredible Hulk":

2012's Avengers set to the opening of the cartoon, Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes:

And an updated one for Age of Ultron LINK

Have fun.
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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Film Friday: The French Connection (1971)

Today we come to The French Connection. The French Connection is a fascinating film that has been recognized by many as one of the best films of the 1970's. Its hero, Popeye Doyle is also routinely voted as one of the top movie heroes, though I find that somewhat questionable. Interestingly, Doyle will become the model for all future cops. Let’s discuss.


The French Connection begins in France, where rich French criminal Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is visiting the docks. Charnier runs the largest heroin smuggling ring in the world. He’s working on a plan to bring millions of dollars in heroin to the United States hidden inside the car of his friend Henri Devereaux, a French television personality. The idea is to hide the heroin inside the car's frame or lining. After the car gets shipped to the US, the car can be taken apart and the heroin removed. The heroin can then be passed along to various distributors.
Meanwhile, in New York City, we meet two cops: Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider). Doyle and Russo are on the narcotics squad and they go around the city busting pushers and users. In one early scene, we see them chase down a suspect with Doyle dressed as Santa. In another, Doyle and Russo shake down a bar full of black patrons, each of whom seems to be carrying drugs. Finally, we are shown that Doyle is very unpopular with the other detectives because he is blamed for the death of another cop. He and his superiors do not like each other either.

The two stories begin to merge when we are told by an undercover cop during the bar shakedown that all the drugs have dried up on the street. There is almost nothing to be bought or sold at the moment and no one has any idea when more is coming. Doyle and Russo pass this on to their commander, and go to a bar for the night. As they sit at the bar, they see a table packed with mobsters and attractive. Doyle's instincts tell him that there is something "wrong" with that table. He decides to investigate.

By investigating the people at the table, Doyle learns of a connection between the mobsters and lawyer Joel Weinstock, who acts as a go-between between the mob and Charnier. Indeed, Weinstock’s chemists checks a sample of the heroin for purity and advises that what is being bought is worth $32 million on the street. Following Weinstock leads Doyle to Charnier, who is trying to sell his heroin to the mob, who will distribute it.
What follows is a rather clever, interesting and at times tense battle between Doyle and Charnier, wherein Doyle tries to catch Charnier with the drugs, while Charnier tries to kill Doyle and then escape him.

What Made This Film A Classic

There is so much for which to commend this film. Doyle is a fascinating character. Charnier is a fascinating villain. This was one of the first films to look at the drug trade in a serious way and that made it rather interesting. The scheme used by Charnier is clever and makes for a good mystery toward the end of the film. The film is gritty rather than glossy, which gives it a fascinating ambiance. That ambiance is enhanced both by the setting being a decaying New York (indeed, the police station almost looks like something out of Mad Max) and the comparison between the cold, hard life of Doyle and Russo and the luxury in which Charnier surrounds himself. All of that makes for a great viewing experience.
What really made this movie standout, however, was Doyle. Doyle is an interesting character. On the one hand, he's a total jerk. He's abusive in a way that would not be tolerated today even by the worst police departments. We see this in particular in the bar shakedown scene where he threatens with violence and false allegations, where he leaves the appearance of having beaten a patron (who is actually an undercover cop – as an aside, we have already seen Doyle beat another suspect he arrests), and where he appears to steal either drugs or money from the people he shakes down. That makes him an abusive, corrupt cop and a truly unlikely hero.

It's possible too that he's racist, but it's more likely he hates everyone equally. He's a bad cop too in that he plays vague hunches and becomes obsessed with them to the point of needing to be ordered to abandon the hunch, he ignores orders and doesn't care at all about procedures, and he focuses on crimes the department isn't focusing on. None of his arrests would withstand legal scrutiny today, and it's even less likely they would have withstood the more liberal justice system of the 1970's. It is also suggested that these misbehaviors led to other officer(s) being hurt or killed, which seems to be why the other cops don't like him.
So why does the audience connect with this train wreck of a cop? Why has he become one of the favorite film heroes of all time? I suspect there's only one reason and it is the reason that makes this film work: Doyle is right. His instincts have led him straight to the biggest heroin deal in history and he's latched onto it like a pit bull to a BBQ-sauce-covered child. There is something about the guy everyone claims is wrong, but who is really right and who fights to prove that which attracts us as viewers. It comes from our love of the underdog, from our love of getting things right, and I think it comes from the fact that so many of us think we are right even as society tells us repeatedly that we are wrong. We want to believe that we know something THEY don't and Doyle represents us in that. He acts the way we wish we could, by flipping his middle finger at everyone else and doing what needs to be done.
Now, there are a lot of reasons why this type of behavior, especially in a police officer, should offend and bother us all, but it doesn't seem to stop us. I think the key in creating this kind of thinking is that Doyle is right. If he had been wrong, I doubt he would be viewed as a hero by anyone. What’s more, I get the sense that society loves to philosophize about abusive cops, but is in reality happy to allow abuse so long as “the right people” are getting the abuse... which speaks volumes about humanity.

Interestingly, Doyle became the template for so many future movie cops. In fact, he became the only acceptable template for cops in modern films: the rebel who plays by his own set of rules and stares down his screaming captain to get the job done! You will see this character over and over in films like the Lethal Weapon franchise, and Doyle was the first. Guys like Steve McQueen in Bullitt played something similar, but never took it to the point of being openly hostile to his superiors. Hackman takes it to that extreme. His Doyle is a wrecking ball and he doesn't care.
At the same time, by the way, it must be noted that Doyle's character wouldn't be that interesting if Charnier wasn't an exceptional villain. Rich, powerful, ultra-smart and with ice water running through his veins, Charnier comes across as a worthy challenge for Doyle. Charnier isn't some cardboard character who will act stupidly at the wrong times to let Doyle win, nor will he devolve into insanity nor will he shoot his henchmen. He is the scariest of villains: extremely competent.

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