Posted on 8/02/14 07:30 AM
When Rise of the Planet of the Apes was announced, expectations were not high. As a prequel to an awful remake of a movie that wasn't exactly an all time classic, its pedigree was sketchy to say the least. Thus came as a shock to nearly everyone when it became one of the biggest summer hits of the. Rise wasn't just watchable, or even pretty good; it's one of the best "B" movies of recent, entertaining and surprisingly human.
The series of events that will one day cause a time displaced astronaut to gaze despairingly upon the ruins of the Statue of Liberty begins not surprisingly with science. Medicine to be exact. Young researcher Will Rodman, played by James Franco is on the cusp of developing a drug that can cure Alzheimer's, his father's included. It just so happens that this drug not only repairs damage to the brain, but makes the subject smarter, as shown in trials with chimpanzees. Due to unexpected complications these trials don't exactly work out in the end, and the test subjects are put down. But one of them had a child, Caesar
Raised like a son by Rodman, Caesar shows remarkable intelligence beyond even his mother, learning hundreds of words in sign language, understanding human speech, even scoring higher on intelligence tests than human children of the same age. There seems no limit to how much he can learn, or to what the drug that gave him his intelligence can do for humans. But this isn't an inspiring story of medical breakthroughs. A tragic misunderstanding and Caesar's own animal nature result in him being separated from his family, a prisoner among his own kind. He is not happy with his new situation, and he has a plan to change it.
The plot is hardly more complicated than I've described it, and is somewhat over reliant on coincidence and bad human decisions. Thankfully Rise is not driven by its plot, but by its central character. Caesar is quite simply a miracle of special effects. In only a decade CGI and motion capture technology has advanced to a degree that makes Lord of the Ring's Gollum seem almost listless by comparison. Caesar looks so real he could pass for a live chimpanzee if he didn't do things that no real chimp could ever be trained to do. Although he only speaks a few words late in the film, his facial expressions and gestures say more than enough.
Early on you can tell that Caesar is not only a thinking being, but a feeling one as well. Like a human he feels love, anger, desire, and fear. He understands the concept of family, and based on one overly sappy scene he seems to have a fair understanding of human mating rituals. When he finds himself caged in a primate sanctuary, he understands just enough of the situation to feel betrayed. And we can't help but feel sympathy for him. As he establishes his leadership over the other primates and plans his uprising, part of us roots for him, even though we know what it will eventually mean for humankind.
The first half is admittedly slow for an action movie, but when the action starts it really gets going. The sight of Caesar and his followers rampaging through downtown San Francisco makes for a wonderfully entertaining spectacle, which only gets better as the humans start fighting back. Much of what takes place is naturally ludicrous if you stop to think about it. Even with human level intelligence there's no way a hundred apes could overcome a major city police department, but their battle is so fast paced and cleverly staged that we're willing to suspend disbelief. If the ewoks could defeat the Empire then why can't Caesar's cohort make monkeys of the cops?
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is by no means perfect. As mentioned the plot is standard B movie fare, and calamity could have been avoided if a few people hadn't taken unnecessary risks or just not been complete jerks. The human characters also aren't as well developed as their simian co-stars. Franco's boss in particular comes off as one dimensional and the film's attempt to make him something of an antagonist never really works.
That said, Rise is well paced and more emotionally engaging than any Planet of the Apes movie has a right to be. Coming on the heels of Avatar it also further showcases what the latest in FX tech can contribute to storytelling when used properly. And it delivers all the excitement a summer blockbuster should. Even if you were never a fan of the originals, this one is worth checking out on DVD or streaming.
Posted on 8/02/14 07:25 AM
Ever since I first saw it as a child, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has always been one of my favorite movies. It was such a different take on the old west and life of an outlaw than I'd seen before, or that anyone had seen for that matter. More playful than even John Ford's most light hearted works, but without the sappiness of the old singing cowboy comedies, it made the west seem like not only a grand adventure, but also great fun. With its oddball sense of humor and the interplay between its two stars, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is both a great western and perhaps the best buddy comedy Hollywood ever made.
As the title suggests, the film follows the exploits of two of the Wild West's most infamous outlaws, who with their Hole in the Wall Gang robbed banks and trains far and wide, earning themselves a reputation as some of the move dangerous men alive. But you'd never know it if you met them. Far from hardened outlaws, Butch and Sundance are friendly, laid back cutups who find enjoyment where they can and never take life too seriously. Charming to a fault, they're even nice to the people they're robbing. They're not really bad men you see; they just have expensive tastes and a strong aversion to hard work.
Whether it's a narrow getaway, a stick up, or a friendly visit to the nearest brothel, everything they touch becomes good natured fun, and it all works because of the men playing them. Hiring Paul Newman and then newcomer Robert Redford as Butch and Sundance was one the great happy coincidences in Hollywood history, like casting Ingrid Bergman opposite Humphrey Bogart, and began an on screen partnership even more enduring. The chemistry between these men is incredible; even knowing this was their first film together it's hard to believe they hadn't known each other all their lives.
On their own each man has exceptional wit and charisma. Together they're the perfect comedic duo; Butch the talkative joker, Sundance the tight lipped strait man. Never overplaying their shtick, they always lay on just the right amount of humor. When times are good they're like a pair of schoolboys playing hooky. When times are bad they're worse than an old married couple.
Of course not all the credit goes to the actors. The director and the screenplay are crucial to the film's ability to keep its cheery tone. Even when Butch and Sundance are running for their lives, hounded by the best lawmen and trackers in the west, it's no reason for things to get serious. Now they're just a couple of saps who can't catch a break, leading them to a harebrained stunt that remains one of the screen's great moments of physical comedy.
Much of the film's humor and charm come from its dialogue, yet at times it accomplishes a great amount with no words at all. The New York montage condenses the story of their fun in the big city and their departure for South America into a few brief moments, the series of black and white stills and old timey waltzes and carnival music wonderfully evocative of the period. An entire string of Bolivian robberies likewise becomes a cheerful musical interlude.
And speaking of musical interludes, the whole movie is so carefree and delightfully screwball that it even manages to make the dreaded Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude- in which lover's engage in pleasant activities that have nothing to do with the plot- work. Rationally there's no reason why a scene of Paul Newman riding a bicycle with a woman we've just met should follow a train robbery, but here it's so charming that we either forget that or just don't car. There's simply something magical about watching Newman and Katherine Ross peddling around that meadow, and his wordless 'daredevil' scene is the best thing since Buster Keaton.
Yet the good times can't last forever, certainly not for men in their line of work. The fact is that the world they know is passing away. The Wild West isn't as wild as it used to be, and their profession is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. They realize this and go halfway around the world to a place that's still wild and lawless in an attempt to forestall it. It works for a while, but it's only so long before their past starts to catch up with them. In the blink of an eye things turn deadly serious, and we realize that the world's closing in on them and they can't escape it, no matter how far they go. In the end Butch and Sundance died as they lived; on their own terms, as outlaws, and following no-one's rules but their own.
Posted on 8/01/14 08:18 PM
Not many movies can effortlessly transition from a boy grieving as his mother dies of cancer to the same character dancing and lip-syncing his way through a cavern of carnivorous lizard-squirrel things. Guardians of the Galaxy is one of those movies. It is offbeat, more than a bit mad, and far more awesome than an adaptation of one of Marvel's back burner titles, directed by a guy who used to work for Troma, has any right to be.
Our protagonist is Peter Quill, Star Lord, the grieving, alien abducted child grown into hilariously insane treasure hunter and adventurer. It is impossible to overstate how perfect Chris Pratt was for this roll. As Star Lord he answers once and for all the question of what it would look like if Andy Dwyer went to space and became a superhero. He is clueless, shameless, and unreasonably loveable. He's a nice guy and a scoundrel, a man who will gladly rob or double cross anyone yet has an unspoken sense of honor; a lucky idiot who nonetheless scrapes by on his wits alone. He kind of reminds me of a younger Han Solo, only laughable.
Accompanying him in his latest misadventure is a collection of the most disparate, and desperate outlaws the galaxy has to offer. Green skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is the deadliest woman in the universe. Raised by the mad titan Thanos and trained from childhood as an assassin, she can kill any being alive and has no time for fools or flatterers. The imposing Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) lost his family to the Kree zealot Ronan the Accuser many years ago and ever since has been a nigh unstoppable engine of destruction who lives only for revenge. Rocket is a talking raccoon. He's an abrasive, sarcastic, fast talking, lying, thieving, backstabbing, and oh-so-adorable con man whose solution to every problem involves lots of firepower. And Groot is a giant tree man who only says three words.
Individually they're reasonably formidable. But together, they are the galaxy's uh, well, most dysfunctional team of heroes. They really don't meet under the best of circumstances. In fact there's a lot of shooting and punching and insults involved. But when they're thrown in the galaxy's highest security prison, the chance of escaping and possibly making a fortune is reason enough to work together. And when Ronan and Thanos threaten the existence of an entire civilization, they're the only ones with a chance of stopping them. It's quite interesting to watch the characters go from antagonists to allies of convenience to real friends. And the bickering along the way is hilarious.
In fact the entire movie is hilarious. Between the slapstick, puns, historical and pop culture references, and the characters' eccentricities and zaniness, it's a laugh a minute. Rarely outside of a Three Stooges short have so many people called each other idiots with such frequency or justification. There are a number of excellent running gags, including Star Lord's obsessive attachment to his Walkman and Groot's well, everything. Add in a gift for picking the most inappropriate musical accompaniments possible, and this movie can even make scenes of prison brutality funny.
The action is also first rate, with excellent fight scenes and space combat worthy of Star Wars. The effects work is equally good, and I don't just mean the explosions and lasers. The space stations and starships have an extremely crisp, detailed look to them, the make-up and costumes on the various aliens are quite convincing, and Rocket Raccoon is incredibly lifelike and expressive, fully on par with the Caesar and friends in the recent Planet of the Apes movies.
The plot, while hardly cerebral, is good by action movie standards and makes good use of the film's source material. There are also some very good minor and supporting characters. Ronan and Nebula are suitably menacing and despite having little screen time Thanos makes a strong impression. Benicio Del Toro does a nice turn as the Collector, and I particularly liked Yondu, the redneck outlaw captain. The soundtrack, which consists of 70s and 80s pop hits, seems an odd choice, but it adds wonderfully to the oddball feel, contributes to the humor, and is undeniably catchy.
Guardians is one of the funniest, most exciting, and most unusual blockbusters of recent years, and one of the best films of the summer. It strikes a perfect blend of action and humor, heroics and cheerful idiocy, and while first and foremost a comedy manages at times to be deeply touching. You'll get more out it if you have at least a passing familiarity with the comics, but even if you've walk in knowing nothing beyond what the trailers and this review have told you, this is as much fun as you're going to have at the movies this summer.
Posted on 7/27/14 10:11 PM
In the annals of cinema, Blade Runner stands out as something unique. True, many have tried to imitate it, and in the thirty odd years since its release it has influenced countless movies, TV series, anime and video games to one degree or another. Yet while all of these have copied elements of it, none of them have ever captured its exact balance of sci-fi, noir, and philosophy, or replicated its unique atmosphere and otherworldly feel. And none of them had Harrison Ford in the lead and Ridley Scott in the director's chair.
For those few not familiar with the story, Ford plays Rick Deckard, a detective tasked with tracking and eliminating replicants, genetic constructs made to perfectly mimic the humans they serve. Since an incident years before, replicants have been banned from earth, upon penalty of death. But now four of them have taken that risk, leaving a wake of death behind them as they search for the key to their very existence. And it's up to Deckard to find them and stop them before they strike again.
Their leader, Roy, is easily one of the most menacing villains ever to grace the screen. He is so perfect it's unsettling. Gifted with the looks of a professional model and the body and athleticism of a champion quarterback, his every word and expression exudes keen intelligence- and unmistakable madness. He is the kind of being who knows exactly what he wants and how to get it, and he is not the type to let anything or anyone get in his way. Nor is he the only thing Deckard has to worry about
We don't see enough of Leon or Zhora to get much of an impression of them, beyond the fact that they too are desperate and dangerous. Priss however we see very much of; in more ways than one. Beautiful, alluring, and manipulative, she's like a deadly exotic flower, drawing you in to suffocate you in her poison. And then there's Rachel, the replicant who doesn't know she's a replicant. Her demeanor, clothing, and her ever present cigarette remind one of a down and out moll in an old detective movie. Though she barely knows who she really is, she could be a useful ally to Deckard, or possibly something much more.
One of the things that sticks with you the most about this movie is the incredible atmosphere that pervades it. Like any good dystopian sci-fi or hardboiled detective movie, everything here is dark, heavy, and more than a little threatening. The LA of 2019 is crowded, dirty, and run down. Chinese writing and noodle stands are everywhere, as if Chinatown has overrun all LA. Hover cars fly over decaying apartment blocks and flashing theater matinees out of pre Giuliani Manhattan while fantastic monads and pyramids loom over the horizon like a latter day Babylon. Inside the futuristic and the antiquated vie as well in rooms filled with computer screens and electrical tubing alongside candelabras and crumbling plasterwork. And endless rain comes down in sheets over it all, running down every crevice and drenching any who brave the streets.
Everywhere neon signs, industrial flares, and searchlights illuminate the cityscape, yet nowhere is it enough to hold back the shadows which bathe the streets. For it's the shadows- both physical and metaphorical- that make the world within the film. The director and cinematographers do as many things with these shadows as the best expressionist filmmaker. They use them to alternately obscure and draw attention to faces and scenery, to heighten the sense of danger and mystery, to create harsh contrasts with the blinding strobes and searchlights. And they remind us that everything that's happening is happening within the shadows of society, the dirty underbelly unseen by the good folks safe in their homes.
And just as well that it is. For this is a world filled with violence and corruption not fit for innocent eyes, and the filmmaker's don't let you forget it for a moment, especially not in the action scenes. With slow motion and bluesy synth music, Zhara's death is as stylized and artificial as anything in Blade Runner's world. Yet at the same time it's drawn out, bloody, even traumatic. The editing and camera work aren't trying to make it look cool, they're emphasizing the fact that a desperate frightened woman is dying alone on a rainy sidewalk. To paraphrase the film's most famous line, the report may read "routine retirement of a replicant", but it won't make Deckard feel any better about shooting a woman in the back.
Yet for all its impact this scene doesn't even begin to compare with the finale. Deckard's final showdown with Roy is mesmerizing in its beauty and brutality; a demented fever dream hunt, like Most Dangerous Game blended with Olympia and German expressionist horror. Even out of his mind and with his body betraying him, Roy is the superior combatant to Deckard in every way. In a strait on fight to the finish it would all be over in an instant. But what we get instead is so much more violent, intriguing, and spellbinding. And in the end it leaves us with so many questions to ponder; about memory, morality, and what it truly means to be human.
Posted on 7/12/14 09:31 PM
Touch of Satan is the shopworn and fairly predictable story of a young man named Jodie who meets and falls for a beautiful young woman named Melissa, only to discover that she harbors a dark secret and he would have done well never to become involved with her. It features no actors that you're likely to have heard of, has production values that were middling by seventies standards, and brings no new twist to the genre. The only things that set it apart from most other low budget horror movies of the period are its almost glacial slowness and its inability to tell whether it wants to be a horror movie or a sappy romance.
It seemed like the opening credits alone took up five minutes, but it's entirely possible that this is a low estimate. From here, the first half of the film feels like a Lifetime original special as the young man becomes acquainted with Melissa, meets her family, and makes lots of pointless small talk. This is all extremely boring, not just because nothing is happening, but because it takes so long for nothing to happen. Every conversation is filled with long awkward pauses, as if the actors were doing their best to stretch the run time.
There's also plenty of times where you also the feeling that Melissa's parents know a lot more than they're letting on about any number of things, and would tell us if only they could remember what those things were. One almost suspects that everyone in this movie was on downers.
At long last the plot starts eventually going somewhere as we learn Melissa is a witch and that maybe her semi-fossilized great grandmother has more wrong with her than just dementia. Unfortunately this doesn't produce any change in the tone or pacing of the movie. When Melissa shows Jodie the remote shack where she does witchcraft, it's treated not with suspense or unease but as a semi obligatory lyrical interlude. By this point I had practically forgotten about the confusing pre title sequence in which a farmer is pitchforked to death while the editor appears to have a seizure.
Even when Touch of Satan finally gets to the parts that are supposed to be scary, the sad truth is they really aren't. Instead the final act produces only puzzlement and the occasional bad laugh as everyone involved does the very last thing that it would make any sense for them to do.
After seeing a sheriff's deputy brutally murdered, Jodie meekly allows a man twice his age to chain him up in a barn, and when unlocked agrees to hang around and not tell anyone what's happened. A girl who is supposedly possessed by Satan himself shows a baffling lack of evil intent, calmly imploring Jodie that if he'll just believe what she's telling him he can save her. And in my favorite part a man greets a torch wielding mob that's marched to his front door chanting "burn the witch!" with "What can I do for you?"
Eventually the danger passes and the true villain is dispatched in a manner so easy that you wonder if all this trouble could have been solved with a good nursing home. At this point the movie misses its exit cue and shambles on to an ending that tries to be unsettling and romantic at the same time and fails at both. By this point, you'll probably be long past caring.
Posted on 7/12/14 09:01 PM
Over the last fourteen years, the X-Men franchise has had its fair share of highs and lows. After bringing in big box office receipts and launching the current cycle of superhero blockbusters in 2000, the series stumbled with weak entries mid decade, but then roared back in 2011 with the excellent First Class, and now it reaches its highest point yet. Both prequel and sequel to the original X-Men trilogy, Days of Future Past is epic entertainment that incorporates all the best elements of the previous films and brings the mythos of the comics to adrenaline pumping life.
You may have noticed that I said the movie is both prequel and sequel, and be wondering how such a thing is possible. The short answer (I doubt there is a simple one) is that in the near future earth has been reduced to a dystopian wasteland in which robotic sentinels have enslaved mankind and hunted mutants to the brink of extinction, and the only way to defeat them is to prevent them from being created. So one man must go back to 1973 to change the past so that all can have a better future. And it's going to be a hell of a lot harder then he could have imagined.
The plot is obviously somewhat more complex than that of the average superhero action flick, and I haven't even begun to get into the really complicated parts with people's past and future selves meeting and the questions about the nature of time itself. This story could easily have ended up convoluted and badly disjointed, and trying to explain it here is rather difficult, but when you see it on screen it all makes perfect sense, or at least as much sense as anything with time travel does. Beyond merely being coherent, the story also brings serious depth and a good degree of unpredictability.
A story is of course only as good as the characters that fill it, and Days of Future Past is filled with excellent characters, brought to life by some of the best actors in Hollywood. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender made tremendous impressions as young Xavier and Magneto in First Class, and if anything they're even better here. Last time McAvoy was highly impressive as Xavier the wealthy and gifted playboy. Now he is absolutely brilliant as Xavier the tortured, substance abusing genius living in the ruins of his dreams. He brings remarkable pathos to the role, and watching him regain his ideals and his purpose is an inspiring experience.
Fassbender likewise distinguishes himself, his intelligence, intensity, and personal magnetism (pun intended) evident in every scene. As Magneto he knows that his actions have and will continue to cause suffering and death for many and that people consider him a monster, yet he is firm in his belief that he is only doing what is absolutely necessary, which lends him a twisted nobility even as it makes him all the more dangerous. Jennifer Lawrence also matches her previous performance as Mystique, with her inner turmoil over her identity and nature as fresh and as relatable as ever. Between Xavier's idealism and Magneto's anger, she is torn between choices which could set herself, and all mankind, down very different and irreversible paths.
While their time on screen is relatively brief, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen nonetheless bring a commanding presence which affects the tone of the entire film. Yet as great as these actors are, the real star of this movie is the guy with the claws. After six times playing the role that made him famous, Hugh Jackman has truly perfected Wolverine. Like he's fond of saying, he is the best at what he does and what he does isn't very pretty. Only this time he can't just claw his way to victory. As the one man with full knowledge of what the future holds, he has to be diplomat and leader, pushing people who are at their very lowest to work together to save the future even as his own past continues to haunt him.
Lest this review give the impression that Days of Future past is all deep themes and character development, this is an action blockbuster, and it is an awesome one. The effects, both practical and CGI, are amazing. The sentinels are gorgeous, in a frightening robotic way, and the filmmaker's have come up with an even more impressive display of Magneto's powers than when he hoisted the submarine in the last movie. The battles are exciting and well choreographed, and find a number of creative uses for the various mutants'' powers. I especially enjoyed the scenes with young Quicksilver, which were clever, visually stunning, and utterly hilarious.
Days of Future Past is the kind of summer movie that delivers in every way. It's smart, deep, well acted, well paced, suspenseful, action packed, and something of an emotional roller coaster to boot. Familiarity with the source material will bring greater appreciation but even those who have never opened a comic book will enjoy it. This movie is so good it literally wipes away the memory of weaker entries in the series. May is not yet out, but I feel safe in saying that the best movie of the summer is here.
Posted on 6/15/14 04:42 PM
Groundhog Day meets sci-fi D Day, awesomeness ensues. That's the short version of Edge of Tomorrow. The somewhat longer version is that five years after a meteor strike brought the mimics- a species of shape shifting alien tentacle creatures- to earth, all of mankind's remaining armies are poised for a massive offensive to retake Europe and exterminate the alien menace. But they know we're coming. The invasion will be a slaughter. And only one man can save humanity, by living and dying it over and over again.
That man is Major William Cage, US Army press corps. As a savior, he's about as unlikely as they come. Fast talking and cowardly, it's only because of his own insubordination and equally underhanded shenanigans of a superior officer that ever ends up holding a gun. But something happens on the invasion beach which makes it so when he dies, time resets and he wakes up again the day before the invasion. Working together with war hero Rita Vrataski, the only other person who what he's going through, he must find a way to turn the tide and save humanity.
That's just the setup. What director Doug Liman and his team of writers do with it is spectacular. Adapting the acclaimed Japanese novel All You Need is Kill, they're created a sci-fi action thriller that is not only action packed and exciting, but also complex, witty, and surprisingly deep. The time loop William is caught in isn't merely used as a plot device, it shapes the entire narrative and viewing experience.
Every time he dies and reawakens he comes back more skilled and with the knowledge avoid his previous death. Not that it necessarily gets him more than a few steps farther. At times the cycles flash by with nearly identical deaths, like an eighties training montage with more explosions and head wounds. Before long he has the assault down to an exact science, anticipating every attack and coaching Rita through the battle step by step- turn here, look there, duck now! There's no way to get an exact count, but he must hit that beach thousands of times over the course of the story. Sometimes the effect is darkly comedic. At others it drives home his sense of futility; that no matter how many times he tries it will never be enough.
The film of course doesn't show nearly every cycle, so when a new- really new- scene begins, we often don't know if this is his first time to make it this far or if he's been here a dozen times. The other characters of course have no idea what's come before. Every time he introduces himself to Rita it's the first time for her. Throughout the film he comes to know her better and better and loses her too many times to count, yet for her he's always a new face, one that she has to trust knows her and knows what he's doing. Still, there's an undeniable attraction between them that runs both way, made tragic by their circumstances.
Edge of tomorrow works a comedy and drama. As a sci-fi action thriller it excels. Fast paced and intense, the battle scenes turn repetitiveness from a weakness to a strength, giving a sense of Cage's progression and adding new twists to the same encounters. The robotic exoskeletons are every bit as cool as they look in the trailers, and the mimics are one of the best alien designs in recent memory. Constantly shifting and incredibly fast, they burst from the ground and whirl through opponents like a tornado of tentacles. They have no personality and most seem more like animals fighting on instinct than independent thought, but in their own way they're as deadly and unnerving as Alien's xenomorph.
Cruise and Blunt's performances are also noteworthy. Quite at ease in this role, Cruise has a certain roguish charm to him and embodies both the terrified rookie of the early scenes and the experienced, jaded veteran of the latter sections. Emily Blunt is likewise perfect for the role of Rita Vrataski. Gorgeously fit and tough as nails, she's reminiscent of a young Sigourney Weaver and handles alien monsters just as well. I almost pity any mimic that crosses her path. Together their performances, an abundance of action, and a finely crafted, fast paced story make Edge of Tomorrow fun, smart summer entertainment.
Posted on 6/10/14 04:15 PM
On the Waterfront. Just the mention of Ella Kazan's magnum opus brings to mind black and white images of grizzled longshoremen, run down tenements, and a young, handsome Brando telling us he "coulda been a contender." It won eight academy awards, was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress, and has appeared on practically every critic's short list of the greatest movies ever made. And you'd better believe it belongs there. Gripping and tense, with incredible acting and a powerful message, it was and is a watershed work of cinema whose impact hasn't lessened a bit in the sixty years since it was released.
Much of the film's greatness owes to its leading man. Brando is beyond magnificent. His acting has more facets to it than a diamond. Like an onion, you keep finding new layers as you go along. His gestures, his facial expressions, the way he says his lines in his heavy Brooklyn accent combine in an acting style that's exaggerated yet believable, lending him an incredible and unforgettable presence.
As prizefighter turned harbor bum Terry Malloy he's charismatic, romantic, jaded, cynical, vulnerable, pitiful, sympathetic, and deeply convicted all at once. He's a nobody who knows that he could have been a somebody, a lay about who coasts his way through life on connections and doing the occasional favor for the union bosses. He's a man who claims to believe in nothing but looking out for himself, but whose conscience just won't let him rest until he does the right thing, even if it makes him an outcast- or worse.
His internal struggle between doing the right thing and the easy, safe thing shapes the film every bit as much as the external struggle between him and Johnny Friendly's goons. Both conflicts present a stark contrast between the noble and the base. Just as the dichotomy between the longshoreman and the local bosses is one of hard work and brotherhood against greed, corruption, and oppression, so his choice is between courage and altruism, or giving in to temptation and fear. Yet there's another element to his dilemma that's not so black and white.
If he testifies, he'll be breaking the code of silence that rules the waterfront. The very people he's helping will look down on him as a snitch, a "cheese eater" in waterfront vernacular. What's more, he'll be turning on his own brother, who sits at Johnny Friendly's at right hand and gave Terry every break he ever had. Even when his brother is halfhearted trying to threaten him into staying mum, you can see the love they have for each other and their anguish that they could be on opposite sides of this unfortunate business.
Terry isn't going to take the big step on his own, but he's got two people to give him the push he needs: local priest Father Barry, and Edie Doyle, sister of the man Terry saw murdered. Barry, played by Karl Malden, is the one man who's not afraid of the mobsters running the waterfront; he's angry. Angry that they can continue to prey on and profit from the common folk, that they can get away with murder, that everyone else is scared enough to let them get away with murder. His speech over the body of a worker killed in an "accident" is a profound spectacle of righteous indignation. Only in the same film as Brando does his performance come off as second best.
For her part, Edie, played by Eva Marie Saint, makes the perfect romantic interest for Brando's Terry. Though innocent and somewhat shy, her determination to find out who killed her brother makes relentless and feisty, unafraid to call out those who know more than they're saying. Alone among the waterfront's residents she sees the inherent goodness behind Terry's tough façade, and believes that he can do what's right, and will- whether he wants to or not. And as mismatched as they seem to be, there's an undeniable attraction between them. Together they remind me more than a little of Rocky and Adrian.
Terry's ultimate decision to testify against the bosses is of course a stand in for Kazan's decision to testify before the house, for which he was reviled by many in Hollywood. Whether Kazan made the right decision is beside the point in judging the merits of this film. What matters is that Terry's story is Kazan's retelling of his own story, and that, as much as Brando's acting, is what gives it its impact. Kazan absolutely threw himself into making this movie. As a way of justifying himself, getting back at his critics, and proving that he was one of if not the best damned director in Hollywood, he poured everything he had into the project; and the results are spectacular.
In every scene Kazan ratchets up the tension and suspense, making Terry's dilemma more pressing and bringing the specter of violence closer. The stark black and white cinematography lend the film even more atmosphere, the shadows and unlit nighttime streets heightening the sense of danger as the bleak rooftop vistas bring out the poverty and lack of prospects facing the waterfront dwellers. The tight pacing alternates between scenes of Terry's inner struggle and the more physical battle being waged throughout the neighborhood, never rushing nor letting the movie drag. And when the tension boils over and things come to a head, Kazan makes sure his message is delivered with all the power he can muster.
The moral of this movie is not, as some have interpreted it, that unions are corrupt and predatory or that snitching on your friends makes you a hero. It's that when you see corruption all around you, when people are being hurt or taken advantage of and that's just the way it is, it doesn't matter if there's a code of silence. It's not talking that's a betrayal; of yourself and those around you. There's no honor in protecting men who have no honor themselves. Friends who are willing to see you dead aren't really your friends.
Terry's decision is made more noble because he didn't just anonymously leave a tip or make a statement in the safety of a police station. He stood up on the witness stand in front of bosses and told the whole truth for all the world to hear. And then against all good judgment, he went right down to the docks and told Johnny Friendly right to his face what a loser he was. His decision to let Johnny goad him into a fistfight probably owed more to hot headedness than courage, and even an ex-heavyweight can't take on a whole gang with bare knuckles. But even if he couldn't win a fight against Johnny's gang, he still won the battle. Because what he couldn't do with his fists he did by inspiring others with word and courageous example.
In real life things wouldn't work out so easily, and they didn't. In the true story that On the Waterfront was based on, one dockworker's defiance was not enough to bring down the mob and clean up the docks. But watching Brando take those slow, faltering steps to the loading dock, blood on his face and eyes half closed as every man silently watches, you can absolutely believe that the little guy can triumph and honest men can overcome the most deeply entrenched corruption.
Posted on 5/15/14 10:50 AM
Despite lingering doubts about the necessity of a reboot, the Amazing Spider Man was a resounding success and it was inevitable that a sequel would follow. Well now it's here, and it's a fun movie that will please a lot of audiences, but it's not as good as it could have been or as the last movie was. This is not to say that ASM 2 is another Spider Man 3, which was itself not as terrible as a lot of people remember it being. ASM 2 has great acting and heart pumping action, and at no point does it induce cringes or bad laughter, it's just that it tries to do more than it should and not all the pieces fit together perfectly.
This installment picks up roughly where the last left off, with Peter fighting crime as Spider Man while struggling to choose between his love for Gwen Stacy and his promise to her dying father. Unanswered questions still linger about his parents as well, and but it's developments within Oscorp that pose the greatest threat as a freak accident turns mild mannered underdog Maxwell Dillon into the powerful villain Electro and Harry Osborn's search for a cure to the disease which killed his father drives him in increasingly dark directions.
The movie's strong point is its acting. Despite being a Brit, James Garfield perfectly fits the role of goofy all American teenager Peter Parker. He's more than a bit nerdy, often awkward, and spouts quips and cheesy one liners like a pro. Leading lady Emma Stone is just as good. Plucky, intelligent, and undeniably cute, she makes the perfect sidekick/love interest for Peter. Buoyed by the exceptional chemistry befitting their real life relationship, their scenes together make for one of the better on screen teen romances of recent years, and it would have been nice if this element had been played up more.
The bad guys also make quite the impression. Jamie Fox seems like an odd choice to play Electro, but he works. As Maxwell Dillon he's so pathetic, so earnest, so downtrodden at every turn that you can't help feel sorry for him. But when he decides that he's had enough of being kicked around and gains the power to do something about it, he gets downright scary. Dane DeHaan also puts in good work as Harry Osborn. Not as charismatic or as versatile as James Franco was, he nonetheless is more brooding, calculating, and borderline obsessive, making him a more convincing Goblin.
Now for the bad. The main problem with the movie is that there are simply too many characters and subplots. Most of plot threads are well written and contribute to the main narrative, but together they give the runtime a cluttered feel and the transitions between them are often somewhat rough. The start- or perhaps I should say resumption- of Peter's search for the truth about his parent's death is particularly abrupt and oddly timed. At times the plot also relies on characters making incredibly stupid decisions, but given their circumstances I suppose their choices are plausible.
Now I'm afraid I can't continue any further without getting into spoiler territory, so consider yourself warned. Fans have known that it was only a matter of time until Gwen Stacy died tragically, and this is that time. Her death, at the hands of the Green Goblin of course- was well handled, the modest changes to the circumstances taking nothing away from its impact. Yet I can't help shake the feeling that in a movie featuring her famous death scene, it should be the main villain who kills her. Her death should be the climax of Spider Man's last fight with the Green Goblin, not the first. I just hope the filmmakers will use this as the basis
While the movie has a very good ending, it fails to recognize it as such and continues with another fifteen minutes of material that would have been better left to the first act of the next movie. Despite its very real and sometimes serious faults, I still enjoyed Amazing Spider Man 2 and have hope the filmmaker's will learn from their mistakes in the next installment. Overall it's not the home run its predecessor was, but as a fun summer action movie it still works.
Posted on 3/14/14 05:54 PM
There's a song which plays at several points in the Lego movie called "Everything is Awesome." The song itself is a generic, unremarkable, annoyingly catchy piece of techno pop, which some of the main characters make a point of deriding. But it perfectly sums up the Lego Movie, because everything in this movie is awesome. There is so much action, so much humor, so many characters and settings. It would take all the money in Hollywood to make a movie with this many explosions, car chases, aerial chases, giant robot battles and magical worlds, not to mention the problems with continuity and logic. But with Lego none of that matters because a world made entirely out of interlocking plastic bricks has its own.
That's why a lowly construction worker can become the chosen hero by falling down a hole and touching a glowing brick, then find himself on the run from every cop in the world with a beautiful mysterious woman, all with no idea what's going on and barely more exposition than I've just given here. That's why Batman, Han Solo, Gandalf, Dumbledore, Abraham Lincoln, the 2002 NBA all-stars and a cat/unicorn thing that talks like certain infamous ponies can all be characters in the same movie, and can go from a modern city to the old west, "Middle Zealand", the bottom of the sea and a giant office building above "the void of nothingness" with no complicated explanation. Heck, in a world made of Legos it doesn't even matter why the evil Lord Business and his henchman Bad Cop want to destroy the world, or why they don't have better names than "Lord Business" and "Bad Cop."
None of this matters because it just doesn't and because everything is so awesome. The frequent action scenes continually outdo each other in spectacle and ridiculousness. The jokes are constant and come in every variety from simple puns, slapstick and sight gags to subtle film and historical references, witty social commentary, and in-jokes about this movie's lack of logic. Plus the movie makes full use of the alternate logic I mentioned earlier. If something catches on fire, fire shaped Lego pieces cover it. Ocean waves are shifting piles of blue studs. Polish remover can get rid of unwanted alternate. The fact that anything can be taken apart and turned into anything else isn't just a cute gimmick; it's a major plot device. And it's hard to imagine a movie that's not in Lego featuring a decapitation and keeping a G-rating.
And then comes the twist; the kind of twist to make a young and still talented M. Night Shyamalan jealous. A twist that not only changes everything, but explains everything: the extremely loose continuity, why the characters that aren't recognizable pop culture figures are generic clichés, even why the elderly wizard's advice sounds like a mix of worn out platitudes and recent pop culture slogans. It's a twist that's so obvious in retrospect but so works perfectly anyway. What I'm saying here is that it's a really good twist. And even better is what the filmmaker's do with it, turning a sprawling fantasy/ sci-fi epic into a charming tale about the power of childlike imagination. The first hour is pure fun and will delight children of all ages. The imagination and depth of the last fifteen minutes make the Lego Movie the best animated feature since Toy Story 3.