31 January 2011

The Mechanic


Okay, let’s look at the new movie lineup this week. First we’ve got Anthony Hopkins in the three-hundredth movie about Catholic exorcism, in which not very much happens that wasn’t done way better in The Exorcist itself. Then there’s a Jason Statham movie in which lots of shit gets blown up. Not exactly the strongest pickings ever. Oh well. So I went with the Statham one. The previews didn’t look that bad really, and Jason has made a couple good movies here and there. It certainly couldn’t be as bad as The Expendables. Also I’ve seen Ben Foster in a few things and he’s been pretty cool.

A “mechanic” in this movie is an assassin, because they fix things. Jason plays Arthur Bishop, an accomplished mechanic whose mentor becomes his target, as required by his direct employer. Being a professional he obliges, but not without remorse. As a sort of penance he takes his mentor’s trouble-maker son, Steve (Foster), as his charge and begins training him in with ways of The Force. Steve isn’t the best student ever but eventually becomes a competent killer and starts helping out on assignments. Then the unthinkable plot twist of Steve discovering who killed his father happens, and he tries to take out Arthur. The results are predictable but not badly played out.

It’s a simple story without very much to exposit, so most of the time is spent gearing up to the next batch of violence, and then killing stuff. Still, there’s enough characterization to make it more than pure pulp. Statham is likable and Foster is believable in his kind of empty sadness for his father’s death. The action is quite good, with at least one fight sequence that reminded me a lot of The Bourne Identity, which I’ve probably mentioned is my favorite action flick. All in all it’s not really anything special, but it was a pretty good watch.

26 January 2011

American Graffiti


George Lucas used to be a good filmmaker. He was at his best when he had little money and lots of help. This, his second film after THX 1138, was definitely made in those conditions. His script was rewritten several times by other people, he consulted with people like Francis Ford Coppola, and was given a ridiculously small budget and timeframe. Perhaps he was the soul of the movie; many of the characters’ stories were based on his own life, and he pushed very hard for the title and the sub-A-list cast. Still, according to the making-of feature, his directing style was very minimal. He basically just let the characters do whatever they wanted to do, and kept filming them until he saw something he liked. As such, his limited input helped to make the movie what it is.

The movie is comprised of several interweaving stories of young men and women in the early 1960s, driving around in fancy cars and listening to rock n’ roll in what Lucas called their “mating ritual.” At first I found it hard to like this theme because it’s something so completely foreign to me that I can’t really relate, but eventually I warmed to the characters as it became clear that they could be real people with real flaws. It reminded me a bit of The Breakfast Club like that. Perhaps the most important part of the movie is the music; popular songs from the period are used more like an ambient score than pretty much any film before it, and the traditional score is completely absent. Lyrical themes play into the scenes themselves while the sound is adjusted to fit the environment and the mood. It really works well.

I didn’t know much about the movie coming into it, so I was pleasantly surprised to see Richard Dreyfuss in what could be considered to be the lead role, Ron Howard in another, and even Harrison Ford with a smaller but important part, all of them much younger than I’d ever seen them before. This was really their break-out movie, and they all put out some great performances.

I kind of wish Star Wars hadn’t been as successful as it was so Lucas could have continued being a poor but good filmmaker. Maybe then the prequels wouldn’t have happened.

23 January 2011

The Way Back


I don’t remember hearing about this before I saw the trailer at a theater, I think attached to Black Swan or something, which is strange considering both Colin Farrell and Ed Harris have major roles. Maybe I just passed it over. Anyway, it’s about a group of men who escaped from a Siberian forced-labor camp during Stalin’s control of the Soviet empire. In the second scene of the film, a guard tells the prisoners that it is not the guns or walls that keeps them prisoners, but Siberia itself; it’s not exactly a forgiving landscape. It’s always cold, usually snowing, there’s not much in the way of civilization, and the people who do manage to stay alive would probably report any escapees anyway. Still, our wrongly-accused protagonist thinks it can be done and gathers a small group to brave the wastelands in search of freedom.

From then on it’s a story of survival and camaraderie in pretty much every sort of environment there is; frigid tundra, snowy peaks, wetlands, deserts, more peaks, and mosquito-infested byways, all presented quite attractively, except for the part where it’s often killing the characters. They’re a pretty neat group of people; an American, some Polish, Russian, and others. A Russian girl claiming to be Polish in order to endear herself joins the group partway through, bringing more of a family vibe to the team. They mostly speak English but it’s not like it’s just an alternative to subtitles; more like it’s a universal tongue, although I kind of doubt that it was the primary language in the real-life situation on which the story is based.

The journey starts in Siberia and ends in India, crossing all of the mentioned environments in Russia, Mongolia, China, and the Himalayas. It’s all on foot. Not everyone survives, unsurprisingly. It doesn’t quite hit the moral outrage-button as much as Schindler’s List or anything but it’s still a very respectful and pretty chilling look at the effects of Communism; of course that’s not at all the main focus. It’s a story about some people who want very much to live. I think it’s quite effective.

I think I’ve seen enough based-on-fact movies for the time being now. Bring on the fiction.

12 January 2011

The King’s Speech / The Fighter

Kings_speech_t614  Dicky-Eklund

My desire to write about stuff seems to be ebbing. Even when I see awesome stuff like True Grit or whatever, and have to enumerate its virtues to everyone I meet, the task of sitting down and typing just doesn’t appeal to me. As such, both of these movies have been sitting in my head for a week or two now and I don’t think I can say that much about either of them, so they’re gonna be all friendly-like and sit together in the same post.

The King’s Speech is a British biopic of sorts, chronicling King George V’s heir non-apparent’s difficulties with any sort of public and some private speaking. He’s initially a total loss whenever he’s required to make a speech for anything. After a bunch of failed attempts to find a good speech therapist, his wife finally finds a guy whose only credentials are his experiences in the field, but he happens to be a really friendly guy and just the sort of person good ol’ Berty needs. We’re then treated to a story with some similarities to My Fair Lady except the Lady is a dude, and it’s more of a bromance than a romance. There’s lots of uplifting themery and heaviness brought on by the World-War II period, and the main characters’ likability is undeniable. Not exactly a breakthrough in cinema or anything but it’s definitely well-made and enjoyable enough.

The Fighter is a movie with Mark Wahlberg in it. At least, that’s what it might have been. Sure, he’s the main dude supposedly, but thankfully he’s not that bad (most likely due to good direction) and the rest of the cast blows him so much out of the water that you kind of forget he’s there. It’s another biopic, this time with a smaller scope time-wise, and a completely different setting. Mark plays a boxer whose career is overshadowed by his older crack-head brother’s brief time in the ring in which he allegedly took down Sugar Ray Leonard at some time. The crack-head is played incredibly by Christian Bale in another completely on-point role, with physical conditioning similar to his transformation in The Machinist. Amy Adams is Mark’s gorgeous potty-mouthed girlfriend, and even Conan O’Brien’s sister has a nifty supporting part. All of the acting is brilliant (except for Wahlberg’s which is okay enough), and the story is really good. It’s probably a good depiction of what crack can do to a person.

Both films end happily. I preferred The Fighter because it had a bunch of moments where the characters did things that I could barely think of rational people doing, and that sort of thing (in moderation) keeps my interest more than the more low-key sort of movie that The King’s Speech is. Also Christian Bale’s performance is just outstanding. I’d recommend seeing both though.

03 January 2011

True Grit


So it’s been over a week since I saw it. Just didn’t ever feel like writing. Now I’ve got a few hours free, and I’ve managed to avoid starting up Minecraft. Let’s do this.

It’s the second film adaptation of the book that I haven’t read. Haven’t seen the first one either, but I’ve seen enough John Wayne movies to get the idea, so my excitement for this wasn’t due to its predecessors, rather everything else about it. It’s directed by the Coen brothers, who have made some of the best movies of recent years. It’s starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, two of my favorite actors. It’s a western. This Hailee Steinfeld looked to be pretty dang good.

So the story is pretty simple. This girl Mattie Ross’s dad was murdered by a good for nothin’ outlaw (Josh Brolin), and she’s hiring a man with “true grit” to bring him to justice. She finds Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) in pretty short order, and manages to get him to help her out after proving that she herself is not without gumption. Damon tags along as Texas Ranger La Boeuf, and the character drama begins.

It’s definitely a western. It has all the feel of those old movies that I remember so fondly, except with that Coen strangeness in the situations and dialogue making it even more entertaining. It’s really much more funny that I had expected, with few scenes that didn’t merit a laugh; and yet, it doesn’t feel like a comedy. It’s a drama. Stanfield does an amazing job as the lead even overlooking that it’s her first theatrical movie, delivering her confidently fast-paced lines very convincingly, a bit like Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network. She has an aura of urgency that contributes to the dramatic edge while keeping it from being dry. Jeff Bridges is as great as ever, completely immersing himself in the character rather than just disinterestedly mumbling like in Tron: Legacy. Matt Damon also becomes a new man, much like in The Informant though maybe not quite as drastically. Josh Brolin, another Coen alumnus, makes up for Jonah Hex in his rather small but important role. The characters are what makes this movie, and that’s really what makes me love it.

It’s a very good looking movie too. Not many scenes really stand out in this regard, except for perhaps the cabin shoot-out and the arrival of the road-doctor, but it all fits together very well in its familiar settings and makes for an enjoyable view. At this point I can’t really remember much about the sound unfortunately. Maybe it wasn’t that great. Anyway, it’s a really good, simple but enthralling genre piece which I’d put in the top three Coen movies next to The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men.