Posts Tagged ‘Action’

MOVIE: Robin Hood (2010)

February 12, 2011

I wasn’t expecting much from this film, to be honest  — figured it would be a fairly standard Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott action flick, like Gladiator set in England instead of Rome.  And while that is, in fact, pretty much what it is, I ended up really enjoying it, especially the fact it takes such a different approach to the standard Robin Hood yarn.

The story most of us are familiar with is the one about the bandit living in the forest of Nottingham along with his merry band of thieves, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.  But this film starts about a year before that more traditional tale.  It opens in Europe at the end of the Crusades, where an archer named Robin Longstride (Crowe) is fighting alongside King Richard the Lionheart as they pillage their way back to England, jubilant with victory.

When Richard is killed in battle, one of his most trusted knights, Sir Robert Loxley, is given his crown to return to the palace, where it will be passed on to Richard’s brother, King John the Foolhardy.  On the way to the ship that aims to take them home, however, Loxley’s group is attacked by a gang of Frenchmen led by a British traitor named Godfrey, who, it turns out, is in cahoots with the French king, planning to turn England against John, leaving the country vulnerable to invasion.

Godfrey manages to kill all of Loxley’s men, and fatally wound Loxley himself, before Robin and his pals stumble onto the scene and scare him off.  As Loxley lies dying, he begs Robin to take his sword back to Nottingham to return to his father, Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow).  Robin, an honorable sort, can’t refuse the wish of a dying man, and once Loxley has passed, he and his gang, including ye olde familiars Little John and Will Scarlett, steal the knights’ armor and gear, with plans to pass themselves off as king’s men to gain faster passage home.

When they get to the ship, Robin identifies himself as Loxley and shows the king’s crown as evidence, nervous that at any moment, they’ll all be found out and hanged.  But nobody suspects a thing, and when Robin successfully passes the crown to John without anybody recognizing him as a fake, he and his pals decide to maintain their charade all the way to Nottingham.

When they arrive, Loxley’s father asks Robin to pretend to be his son a while longer in order to strengthen Nottingham’s status in the growing unrest.  The only hitch?  Robert’s wife, Marion, who isn’t too keen on having a stranger passing himself off as her spouse.  Luckily, it’s not long before Robin has cause to take his shirt off, taming her resistance immediately, and the two begin to fall in love.  (Well, okay, but once YOU see him without his shirt on, I think you’ll understand.)

Back at the palace, Godfrey manages to Wormtongue his way into the king’s ear, convincing John to enact enormous taxes on all the land owners so he can become richer and more powerful.  John’s just dumb enough to believe that ruling with an iron fist is the best way to get respect — exactly what the French king was counting on.  As a civil war begins to brew in England, the French gather up their swords and set sail for its shores, ready to divide and conquer.

But Robin’s since learned a secret about his own past that has inspired him to take a stand against the king and unite the people against the French.   You want respect, he tells John, you gotta earn it, yo.  And the best way to do that is to give the people MORE freedom, not less.  (Magna Carta, anyone?)  The king reluctantly agrees, promising his people that just as soon as the French are quashed, he’ll sign a treaty that restores more power to the citizenry.  But, of course, as soon as the French are put down, John reneges on his promise and declares Robin a traitor.

Robin retreats to the forest of Nottingham, and the film ends just where most Robin Hood stories begin — with “Robin of the Hood” an infamous outlaw, teamed up with Little John, Friar Tuck, and Maid Marion to battle the forces of evil and mete out justice their own way. (Cue Robin Hood Daffy to complete the saga in the very best of ways — “Ho ho and ha ha, eh?  I’ll ho ho and ha ha you, fat friar. . .!”)

Though it’s exactly what you’d expect from a Ridley Scott movie, cheesy dialogue and silly romance times bloody battle and male bonding plus one, I still found it really entertaining.  I enjoyed the characters, especially Blanchett as Marion (to be honest, I mostly just appreciated that they cast an older woman as the romantic lead instead of, say, Megan Fox), and also the historical elements, which were surprisingly not that inaccurate.

All in all, a darn good time and well worth a rental.  “Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Spin! Ha! Thrust!”  (For those who have no idea what I’m talking about:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZEcSgGKfQg.  And you’re welcome!)

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Action/Adventure
Cast:  Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, William Hurt, Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac, Danny Huston, Eileen Atkins, Mark Addy, Matthew Macfadyen

MOVIE: Red (2010)

February 8, 2011

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is a retired CIA operative living a quiet, boring life in the suburbs.  The highlight of his month is when his pension check arrives in the mail — a pension check he promptly tears in half so he can call to report it missing.  On the other end of the phone is the same woman each time, a clerk named Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), and over the last year or so, she and Frank have talked dozens of times and begun to develop obvious crushes on each other.

Those crushes are why, when a team of black-ops assassins are sent to Frank’s house one night to kill him, he immediately heads to Kansas City to get Sarah, realizing he’s undoubtedly been under surveillance for weeks, making her a target too.

Though she’s initially a little freaked out (to say the least — Frank essentially has to kidnap her, though he quite politely, I thought, vacuums her apartment for her before they leave), her own mid-life crisis has left her yearning for adventure, and when she realizes Frank’s telling the truth about his past as a spy and the present prices on both their heads, it’s not long before she’s pretty much game for anything.

They begin by looking into the recent, seemingly connected murder of a New York Times reporter, quickly discovering she was in possession of a mysterious list of names that included Frank’s as well as a dozen others, most of whom are now dead.

And that’s when Frank decides they’re gonna need some help; it’s time to “get the band back together” and enlist the assistance of his old colleagues — the savvy Joe (Morgan Freeman), the paranoid-delusional Marvin (John Malkovich, who should only ever play comically crazy action heroes from now on, if you ask me, because he’s so delightfully good at it), the classy Victoria (Helen Mirren), and her old beau Ivan the Russian (Brian Cox).

Together, they trace the hit list back to an incident in South America in the 1980s, a mass murder of civilians covered up by the son of an American senator who now wants to erase all traces of his crime.  Dodging a determined CIA agent (the dashing Karl Urban), the team puts together a complicated scheme to enact payback, stop the villain, and, you know, have a little good old-fashioned spy-game fun.

This is a totally nutty flick, based on a graphic novel and featuring loads of goofy comic book-style special effects, as well as a marvelous cast and a frequently hilarious script (I loved the post card theme as well — cute).  It’s not perfect, but it’s good-natured and extremely fun, and one I’ll definitely be pulling out the next time I’m in need of a hearty laugh.

You know, like tomorrow.  For example.  My copy is en route from Amazon as we speak.

Highly recommended!

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Action, Comedy
Cast:  Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Julian McMahon, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfuss, Brian Cox, Karl Urban

MOVIE: Frozen (2010)

October 20, 2010

I had pretty low expectations for this film after reading a few reviews of it online that said it was essentially a bad rip-off of Open Water.  But since I haaaaated Open Water, I figured a bad rip-off of it might actually have some potential.  And, wonder of wonders, I ended up enjoying this one quite a bit.  (Of course, I was home sick at the time and my only other option for entertainment was endless reruns of Law & Order.  Compared to that, anything would’ve been a big improvement.  Your mileage may vary, of course. As always.)

The story is about three young college kids — a couple, Parker and Dan, and Dan’s best friend Joe — who have gone skiing for the day.  The plan was for Parker and Joe to bond at last, but as the day goes on, it becomes clear that Joe resents Parker for having stolen Dan from him, as well as for crashing their annual ski trip together.

Frustrated after having spent the whole day on the bunny slopes catering to Parker’s lack of experience on skis and snowboards, Joe pressures the group at the end of the day to try to take one more run together, this time down a real hill.  As they get to the chair-lift, though, the operator tells them a storm is coming and they’re clearing the hill — no more runs for the day.  Parker sweet talks him into letting them go up one more time, though, and they all climb aboard.

Halfway up the hill, the operator gets called inside to talk about his schedule, and his replacement, assuming the slopes have been emptied, turns the power off, shutting down the system.

At first, the three think it’s just a glitch.  Earlier in the day, the lift had stalled for a few tense minutes and then started back up again; surely this is just the same thing.  But then the lights at the lodge go off as well.  And the snow starts to swirl.  It soon becomes evident, much to their frozen horror, that they’re stuck.

As the flurries turn into a blizzard, the temperature drops dramatically and Parker begins to get frostbite on her cheek.  They all start to panic, and finally, Dan says what they’ve all been thinking:  they’re going to die if someone doesn’t try to jump and go for help.  The group argues about this plan briefly, but Dan refuses to listen.  A moment later, he pushes himself off the lift, crashes to the ground. . . and promptly shatters both his legs.

And then the wolves show up.  The hungry, hungry wolves.  Ruh-roh.

Now, sure, this movie IS essentially a rip-off of Open Water, that 2003 flick about two divers who get left behind by their boat and find themselves spending the night in an ocean full of sharks.  But, to be honest, the two characters in that film drove me bananas.  I felt nothing for either of them, buncha quitters, and was totally rooting for the sharks the entire time (plus, don’t get me started on the fact Open Water begins by telling us it’s a true story — nice trick when there weren’t any witnesses left at the end.  Annoying!).  The characters in Frozen, on the other hand, while certainly being a little on the whiny 20-something side, were somehow far more relatable.  They run through the same gamut of emotions — fear, panic, denial, resolve, depression, more panic, more resolve, more denial — but somehow they do it in a way that didn’t annoy me quite as much.

I also found the story pretty edge-of-my-seat overall.  I’m not likely to get left out at sea surrounded by sharks, but every time I’ve been on a chair-lift, I’ve thought for a moment about getting stuck up there.  No fan of heights, me.  (Or of skiing, for that matter.)  This was a fear I could completely relate to.  And I felt like their reactions to it, including their ideas on how to get out of the situation, were pretty spot-on.

Definitely worth a rental if you like these sorts of things.   I found this film satisfyingly gripping and entertaining.  Well worth the $3.99, so hop to it!

[Netflix it | Buy it | Rent/Stream at Amazon]

Genre:  Suspense, Action
Cast:  Emma Bell, Kevin Zegers, Shawn Ashmore, Kane Hodder

MOVIE: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

August 20, 2010

Good goddamn.  You know what I love?  I love that there are people who are capable of thinking this kind of stuff up.  And not only that there are people who are capable of thinking this kind of stuff up, but that those people LIVE ON MY PLANET.  With me!  I’m an Earthling, just like them!  Heck, in the Great Cosmic Scheme of Things TM, we’re practically cousins!

Life is so, so sweet when you look at it that way, isn’t it?  Man, what a great planet this is.

Look, if you see one movie this year — ONE MOVIE — treat yourself to a truly grand time and make it this one (and that goes double if you’re in your mid-30’s-to-early-40’s, which is about how old I’d guess the makers of this film are based on the style and humor).  The opening 8-bit Universal logo and corresponding theme made me laugh out loud with glee (Atari 2600!  Oh, my misspent youth!), and I pretty much didn’t stop laughing like that until the very end. (p.s. Boyfriend Alert: Brandon Routh!  Nice to see you again, sir!)

Brilliant.  I know not what more to say.  SEE THIS MOVIE.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: Comedy, Action
Cast: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, Brandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman

MOVIE: Salt (2010)

August 7, 2010

The first time I saw the TV show Alias, I ended up glued to the couch for two straight days, consuming both season one and a ton of caffeine absolutely voraciously.  It was smart, energetic, creative, and really damn FUN.  Season two was likewise delicious, and, well, you know, it got kind of hokey after that.  I still loved it, mind you — I own every season but the last one on DVD and have watched each one more than once.  But I missed the early days when the focus was more on the spy stuff, the costume changes, the ass-kicking, and less on Michael Vartan and Jennifer Garner’s on- and off-screen romantic woes.

So it was with a little bit of glee, silly as that may sound, that I found myself thinking of Alias not fifteen minutes into Salt.  Same premise, of course:  spy woman who kicks serious ass, using her brains just as often as her brawn, and it even had the whole “Soviets trained kids to be super spies” thing going on.  But even better, it was clever, full of twists, complicated, entertainingly sharp.  I had read some reviews when it first came out that suggested it was a bit lacking in originality but entertaining in all other regards, but I’m going to disagree with that first bit.  Even though we’ve seen spy movies enough times to know roughly how this one was going to go (I had every traditional spy story theory rattling through my head at one time or another), I still didn’t have it all figured out until much later in the game than I expected.  Agent?  Double agent?  Triple agent?  Innocent?  Guilty?  A pawn?  Brainwashed?  Damned if I knew, and damned if I didn’t have an absolute blast finding out.

Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is having a pretty good day the day it all begins — she’s leaving work early to celebrate her first wedding anniversary and has big plans for a quiet night in with her husband, an entomologist.  But as she’s headed out the door, her colleague (Liev Schreiber, who is great in this) stops her and asks her to talk to a Russian man who’s just come in claiming he’s a defector with information about a planned hit on the Russian president.  Salt’s had extensive experience with the Soviets, so she agrees to interview him, assuming he’s a fraud.  But all hell breaks loose when he announces he knows who’s planning the assassination — an American spy who’s really a Russian spy. Named Evelyn Salt.

Where it goes from there, I’ll leave for you to discover.  But I’ll tell you this much, I had a great time watching this flick.  The action is exciting and fun, the story kept me guessing, and everything tied up pretty neatly at the end, even while it left things wide, wide open for a sequel (which I hope they’ll follow-through on).  If you were a fan of Alias too, or you just like a good summer action flick, I think you’ll really enjoy this one.  Check it out!  And while it’s still in theaters, I say, if only so you can watch shit blow up enormously in front of your face.  Sweeeeeeet.  Recommended!

p.s. Chiwetel Ejiofor?  Mrrrrrrowl!

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Action/Spy
Cast:  Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, Andre Braugher

MOVIE: Predators (2010)

July 17, 2010

Hey, guess what!  This movie doesn’t totally suck!  Will wonders never cease?  Oh, world of wonders, you amaze me so.

I’m not sure exactly what made me want to go see this film.  I’ve seen the original Predator, of course, and while I thought it was a pretty good sci-fi flick, it’s not one I’ve ever sought out again.  But something about the trailer for this one intrigued me.  I’m not sure just what it was, though.  Let me think.  What could it have been?  The special effects?  No. . .  The jungle setting?  Eh, not really. . . The. . . OH WAIT.  I KNOW.

The Adrien Brody!  Humina humina humina.  Despite his ridiculous nose (or possibly because of it — I’m still trying to figure that out), I find Brody insanely sexy, and the rest of the cast piqued my curiosity as well.  It’s a bunch of serious bad-asses (Laurence Fishburn, Danny Trejo, Walton Goggins, Oleg Taktarov) plus. . . Topher Grace?  What the hell is Topher Grace doing in there?

Let’s find out, I said to myself this afternoon when I suddenly found myself downtown with two hours of free time and a twenty-dollar bill burning a hole in my pocket.

The plot of Predators reminded me right away of the sci-fi thriller The Cube, in that it’s about a random group of people with varying skill sets thrown into a dangerous situation and forced to work together to get out alive.  The bulk of the group here is made up of mercenaries and militaries — a soldier from Sierra Leone, one from Chechnya, a member of the Japanese mafia — but they all have different fighting skills.  And then there’s Grace, clearly the odd-man-out — a doctor, and not someone who seems particularly suited for jungle war.

As the group starts exploring the jungle, and themselves, they begin to realize what’s happened.  They’ve all been snatched and then dropped onto a distant planet to serve as entertainment for the aliens I’m just going to call the “Predators,” even though in this movie, that’s a term you could use to describe either team in the game.

As it turns out, the Predators have been capturing creatures from a variety of different worlds (though it seems to be predominantly humans) so they can hunt them for fun.  It’s The Most Dangerous Game, except that the predator this time is a Predator instead of just an advantaged member of the prey.

For the most part, I found this movie pretty successful.  It was the perfect flick for a lazy summer afternoon.  I was entertained, I laughed (not always on purpose, mind you — everything Brody says is hilariously cliché and his delivery is also sort of unintentionally comical as well.  Despite my affection for his various angles, I have to confess he’s not really much of an actor), and I had a good time watching it.  Is it a brilliant film?  Hell no.  Don’t be ridiculous.  And whatever you do, don’t get me started on the gravity issue (fine, you can have your alien planet with its breathable air and identical-to-Earth plants, but really?  You also want me to believe your alien planet has the same mass as Earth?  Stop it.).

But you know what?  Nevermind all that.  If you’re looking for a good summer popcorn flick and you like these sorts of explosiony, bloody, sci-fi monster things, you’ll have a pretty good time at this one, I think.  The aliens are cool AND the director’s first name is NIMROD, which means you get to start out with a laugh before the opening credits have even ended (sorry, Nimrod, but it can’t be helped, sir).  That’s always a plus too.

Recommended for anybody who likes dumb alien movies and/or Adrien Brody’s schnoz.

[Netflix it | View trailer]

Genre: Science Fiction, Action
Cast:  Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, Alice Braga, Walton Goggins, Oleg Taktarov, Laurence Fishburne, Danny Trejo

MOVIE: Whiteout (2009)

February 23, 2010

One of the first things I do when I sit down to draft a movie review is write out the cast list that I put at the bottom of each one, and then go grab links to old Boyfriend write-ups where relevant.  Which is why I’m going to start off this particular review with the following exclamation:

Tom Skerritt hasn’t been a Boyfriend of the Week yet?!   I’m fired!  I fire myself!

I’m way overdue for the new Boyfriend write-up, by the way, in part because it’s the first one of the year, and that is a write-up I try to give just a tiny bit of superior significance.    I’ve been struggling to figure out which of the SIX I have in the hopper should be the one that kicks off 2010.  I’m pretty sure I now have my answer.  Unfortunately, this means an even longer wait, while I go rewatch 800 of my all-time favorite Tom Skerritt movies.  Luckily, there are far, far worse things than having to go rent The Turning Point for the 86-bazillionth time, so I’m not too upset about this.  I hope you aren’t either.

In the meantime, let me tell you about Skerritt’s latest flick.  This movie is about a U.S. Marshall, Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale), stationed in Antarctica and about to head out on a plane back to the states after a couple of years of wintering over.  She’s got a troubled past, and she fled to the gig in the South Pole in part to recover from it.  But after a few years of repeat-all, day in and day out, she’s ready to return to the real world and go back to tackling some serious crime.  Her plans to head out are put on ice (ha ha!) when a dead body is found frozen solid not far from the base.  The body leads Stetko, and a UN investigator sent to help her solve the case (ostensibly because Antarctica is a global possession and therefore, crime there has international implications), to a buried plane that had crashed in the area fifty or so years ago.  A deeper look reveals the recent theft of something from a broken lock box on the plane, and the more Stetko and her new partner dig in, the more bodies start piling up.  Skerritt plays the base doctor, who, as the only resident with any medical training, ends up also having to stick around to help Stetko autopsy the bodies.  Eventually, we’re left with a group of only about four or five people, one of whom we  know has to be the killer.

The plot is pretty much as predictable as it sounds and the acting isn’t all that great either (not really much of a Beckinsale fan, I will confess), but I still enjoyed watching this flick, primarily because of the setting.  Antarctica is an interesting place, and I’ve always been fascinated by stories about the people who choose to live there — I’m thinking specifically of two at the moment: Icebound by Dr. Jerri Nielsen (a memoir about her own winter at the Pole as base doctor, which didn’t involve murders but did involve having to treat herself for breast cancer — unfortunately, that same cancer came back and took her life last June) and Dark Winter by William Dietrich (a murder mystery of much greater complexity than this one, and one I highly recommend).

Actually, I’ve always kind of gravitated to stories about people who live in isolated or closed communities — stories about convents, private schools, islands, mysteries set in mansions, etc.  There’s something very intriguing to me about the way people interact in those close-knit settings.  And so, in that regard, I found this film intriguing enough to want to keep watching.  If what you’re after is a smart thriller, I’m afraid you’re going to have to look elsewhere.  On the other hand, if what you’re after is a snowy setting, Tom Skerritt with an absolutely dashing beard (as per usual, only it’s even dashinger now that it’s white), and Alex O’Loughlin with his shirt off, you need go no further.

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Action, Mystery
Cast:  Kate Beckinsale, Tom Skerritt, Alex O’Loughlin, Gabriel Macht

MOVIE: North Face (Nordwand) (2009)

February 20, 2010

This film, by German director Phillip Stölzl, tells the (more or less) true story of Andreas Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz’s attempted first climb of the north face of the Eiger mountain in Switzerland.  Set in July 1936, the story opens with the death of two other climbers on the mountain and the resultant closure of the north face to all alpinists.  But, of course, closing a mountain to climbers because of danger is the same thing as telling bad sci-fi movie characters not to, under any circumstances, OPEN THIS BOX — it’s only going to encourage them.  That goes double if you’re Nazi Germany hosting the Berlin Olympics in 1936 with an eye towards using the whole shebang as one big propaganda tool.

And so, naturally, it’s soon declared that Germany will award an Olympic gold medal to the first team of climbers to reach the top.  Immediately, nations begin scrambling around trying to locate and coerce their best mountaineers into taking on the challenge.   Prompted by the government and under a great deal of pressure to succeed, the Berlin newspaper begins seeking out candidates to sponsor.  One of the staff interns, a photographer named Luise, suggests Hinterstoisser and Kurz, two respected climbers she knows from her youth.  Convinced by her knowledge on the subject, her editor, a somewhat creepy guy who clearly has the hots for Luise, sends her to Bavaria to track the two men down — as long as, he confirms with her, they look sufficiently “German.”

Andreas leaps at the chance to prove himself on the mountain, but the more cautious Toni balks, saying it’s essentially a suicide climb.  When Luise goes to him personally to beg him to agree to do the climb so that she can get her first big story, though, Toni can’t bring himself to turn her down.  You see, as it turns out, the two were once madly in love with each other, before Luise dumped him for life in the big city, and just seeing her again has rekindled all his old feelings.  Hers too.

At last, Toni agrees to go, and he and Andreas head out to base camp at the bottom of the face.   A few hundred meters away from their tent is a huge resort, now packed with reporters and bigwigs who enjoy fancy parties every night while the climbers cook over fires and prep their gear.  Finally the weather clears and the groups set out for the top.  Andreas and Toni, expert climbers, have come up with a route never attempted before, one they believe will get them to the top in 24 hours or less.  This plan is foiled, though, when a rock comes loose and conks an Austrian climber below them on the head.  His partner is soon begging Andreas and Toni for help and when it becomes clear the man will die if they don’t get him down, our two Bavarian heroes make the agonizing decision to give up their dream for the summit and help carry the wounded climber to safety.

Slowly trying to descend, lowering the injured man inch by inch on a rope, their progress is halted when a massive storm comes crashing into them.  The high winds make it impossible for them to traverse a section of wall, though, leaving them stranded on the rock face.  As the storm worsens and gear gets lost in blasts of wind, the characters begin to freeze to death, with almost no hope for rescue.  Meanwhile, not far below them, the lights of the resort glow warmly — so near and yet so agonizingly far.

What happens at the end of this film is so horrific — so intensely painful to watch — that I left the theater completely shaken.   If it hadn’t been a true story, I would have, quite frankly, been furious about the ending, because it’s so ridiculously over-the-top with awful.  By the time the end credits rolled, I couldn’t wait to get outside, away from all that snow and sorrow.  Gah.  Miserable.  Miserable.

Aside from THAT, though, I really enjoyed this story.  The look and sound of the film are also great.  The storm itself is incredible — I have no idea how they did that, frankly, just from a film-making perspective.   And the sound of the wind whipping around in the final act, as Luise and Toni’s voices struggle to beat through the gusts and reach to each other, was so effective I started to shiver in my seat from all that blustery air.

I was also both impressed and surprised by the quality of the dialogue in this film (mountain climbing movies not typically being known for their clever writing). Andreas and Toni are best friends who talk like brothers, and their conversations were so well scripted and acted I got a sense of their relationship almost immediately.  Good work there, boys.

That said, I did have one major problem with the movie.  The man-conquers-mountain genre has a long history in the Nazi Party — it was a genre they used more than once to highlight the power of the Aryan race (see Leni Riefenstahl’s The Sacred Mountain or The Blue Light, for example), and I got the feeling Stölzl was trying to make a powerful statement of some sort regarding this history, primarily because the two German powerhouses in the film were not only openly disdainful of their government, but also quit halfway up the hill and turned around.  So much for Aryan supremacy, right?  Yet, despite the interesting contradiction in themes, Stölzl didn’t really develop this enough.  He just kind of dropped the concept in our laps and then went back to blowing snow in our faces.  Which I get, of course, because at its heart, this IS, after all, an action movie.  Nevertheless, it felt to me like the intention was to make something a bit bigger than that, and that Stölzl couldn’t quite figure out how to make it work.  B+ for effort, D- for effect.

This film has already won numerous awards in Europe, including awards for cinematography, and I would definitely say it’s one of the most gripping mountain climbing movies I’ve ever seen.  I was on the edge of my seat the entire time they were on the Eiger, so completely engrossed in what was happening that I caught myself gasping out loud several times.   (Sorry about that, anybody seated near me!)  Fans of the genre should not miss this one, that’s for sure.  Recommended!

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Drama, Action
Cast:  Benno Fuhrmann, Florian Lukas, Johanna Wokalek, Ulrich Tukur (recently also seen in The White Ribbon, by the way)

This Week in Steve McQueen: The Sand Pebbles (1966)

February 17, 2010

This film, the latest installment in the Steve McQueen festival I’ve been attending, is about a rebellious Navy Machinist Mate, Jake Holman (McQueen), who loves engines a whole heck of a lot and authority a whole heck of a. . . yeeeeah, not so much.

Bounced from job to job, mostly on flagships, he finally gets his dream gig when he’s assigned at last to a gunboat, the San Pablo (nicknamed the “Sand Pebble”), where he’s to be the main guy in charge of the engine.  At first excited, his optimism takes a decided dip downward when it quickly becomes clear that life on gunboats is pretty different from life on flagships.  For one thing, the Sand Pebble has a strange labor system in place, apparently initiated in an attempt to appease the locals but taken to the extreme by a bunch of lazy ship officers.  The officers mostly just hang out looking spiffy, leaving the sailors with way too much free time — free time they mostly use for fighting and hanging out in bars.  Meanwhile, all the actual work on the ship gets done by the “coolies,” local untrained Chinese laborers.

Horrified by the state of the ship’s engine, Holman gets in trouble right away when he starts complaining about this system, which puts unskilled Chinese coolies in charge of things both important and dangerous.  When the head coolie is then killed in an engine accident, instead of taking it as a sign he was onto something, Holman is blamed and reprimanded by the captain (Richard Crenna), who orders him to train another coolie to take his place. While Holman first resists this idea (note: that’s putting it nicely), he soon becomes pretty fond of his trainee, Po-Han, who proves himself to be a quick, sharp study.

Meanwhile, Holman and another sailor, Frenchie (played by an extremely NOT French Richard Attenborough — don’t ask me) become close friends.  While the San Pablo is stuck in port for the winter, the two men become embroiled in a drama on shore involving a young Chinese woman, Maily, sold into prostitution when she couldn’t pay her debts.  It’s not long before the incredibly sweet Frenchie, along with the adorable brown pet caterpillar he carries around on his upper lip (dang, that was some bad mustache, Mr. A.), falls madly in love with her.  Despite the obvious dangers in doing so, Frenchie and Maily end up getting married and pregnant, two things that could get either one of them killed by Chinese soldiers.

One night, Frenchie decides he can’t spend another night without his love so he sneaks off the San Pablo to swim to shore.  When he doesn’t return, Holman goes after him, walking straight into a nightmare.  After all is said and done, Holman finds himself accused of the murder of a local as an increasingly propagandist and hostile crowd forms a blockade around the ship, calling for his head.  Fearing for their own safety, the rest of the Sand Pebbles angrily try to convince Holman to give himself up and, when he refuses, they attempt a mutiny.  Though the captain is quickly able to quash it, both his pride and his already-kinda-wonky psychology are damaged in the process, and when the ship is finally able to break through the blockade into open water, he begins making a series of cuckoo mistakes, eventually going so far as to defy official orders.  Instead of returning to the coast as directed, he becomes fixated on going up the river to rescue a group of Americans (missionaries and teachers) he is convinced are stranded and in mortal danger.

One of these Americans is a young woman named Shirley Eckert, played by a stunningly gorgeous Candice Bergen (I’d never seen her so young before, by the way — hot damn, good lookin!’).  Shirley and Holman had had a little romantic tension thing going since they first met, and their relationship had taken a few steps forward during part of the San Pablo’s stint in port.  So, though he clearly recognizes the folly of the captain’s plan, Holman nevertheless agrees to be part of the “away team” (or whatever it’s called when you’re not on Star Trek) and heads to shore to attempt the rescue.  We get one more spectacular shoot ‘em up scene, this one no kidding edge-of-your-seat, and then finally, three hours of plots, subplots, and sub-subplots later, the film ends with just about everybody dead.

Oh wait, spoiler alert, I guess!  OOPS.  (Oh, like you read down this far, please.  This is the longest damn movie review of all time.)

I’d seen this film only once before, and it was way back (way, WAY back) when I was a kid – I’d guess I was about twelve years old or so.  At the time, I remember being fairly amazed by it, I think in part because it tells so many different stories and in part because so many of those stories are about doomed love, a subject that tends to resonate well with 12 year-old girls (plus, that one scene with Po-Han gave me nightmares – if you’ve seen the film, you know the one I mean).

As an adult, though, I felt like this movie was kind of disjointed.  It was easily forty-five minutes too long, and was spread out all over the place, trying to cover too many stories and not doing a good enough job of making those stories feel smoothly interwoven.

My major issue with the movie, though, was McQueen.  Dammit, McQueen!  Once again, Steve does what I am starting to gather is his trademark move, a facial expression coupled with a tone of voice that I’m now going to officially dub “The Doofus.”  As I’ve said with the last several of his films I’ve written about here, I just don’t get this combo.  It worked in The Great Escape – with that character – but it has not worked a single time since.  And still he continues to do it!  Serious McQueen Fans:  was The Doofus really his trademark?  If so, can you explain the appeal?   It’s not adorable.  It’s not sexy.  It’s for sure not at all cool.  And it doesn’t work with most of his characters.  Jake Holman was no doofus; he was a macho ass-kicker.  So, what’s going on with this?  Bullitt is coming up next in the series, another one of McQueen’s films that gave me nightmares as a kid (I don’t remember anything at all about the story, but I still vividly remember the opening shoot-out scene).  Please tell me he’s not going to pull The Doofus in Bullitt?  That he finally figured out after this one that The Doofus was a dud?

Of course, clearly that won’t have been the case, because, surprise surprise, McQueen was nominated for Best Actor after The Sand Pebbles, confirming officially that he was onto something and I don’t know what I’m talking about (as if that needed confirmation. . .).  My only hope is that the sheer physical demands and emotional/personal problems he encountered during the making of this film killed off every last remnant of Doofus left in him.  Maybe this film toughened him up – he did say once that he considered the excruciating agony of bringing The Sand Pebbles to the screen to be his penance for everything he’d ever done wrong in his life (you can read about the problems encountered on the film’s Wikipedia page).

One can only hope.

In the meantime, this is definitely an entertaining film, grand in scale and ambition, and it’s well worth a rental.  Fans of Richard Attenborough, in particular, are going to want to pick this one up — I’ve never seen that man so thoroughly kissable.  Frenchie, oh, you sweet, sweet, good man.  I love you.

Recommended!

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Action, War
Cast:  Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Mako, Emmanuelle Arsan

MOVIE: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

January 17, 2010

Over the span of my life, I’ve had a lot of encounters with the great Sherlock Holmes.  Hands-down, though, one of the best was when I was living in my first apartment in graduate school, back before I had a TV set.  That year, I started getting a lot of books on tape from the local library, primarily to fill the silent void when I was home alone.  One of those audiobooks was a series of recordings of Holmes stories, read by ex-Boyfriend of the Week Ben Kingsley.  Most of the time, when I had a book on tape playing, I wasn’t even really listening to it; it was just there providing the comforting sound of a voice in an otherwise quiet room while I puttered around.  But every time I put in one of those Kingsley recordings, I immediately found myself sitting down, ear tipped towards the speaker, riveted.

I can’t remember how many of those Kingsley-read stories I listened to, but it was at least a half-dozen, and I’ve read many more Holmes tales in print during the span of my lifetime as well.   So, I would consider myself reasonably familiar with the mythos of Holmes and Watson.  That said, I’m certainly not a purist, and I went into this movie excited to see a new spin on the old boys from a director (Guy Ritchie) whose films I’ve found really energizing and unique in the past (big fan of Snatch in particular).

Overall, I will say I really enjoyed watching this film.  It’s entertaining, for sure, and I thought both the lead actors, Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock and Jude Law as a totally kick-ass Watson, did a great job in their respective roles.  (Though I will say I’ve heard/read a lot of people talking about a homoerotic element to their relationship in the film, and I have to say, I didn’t pick up on that at all.  I’ve never really understood why people persist in describing a close relationship between two men as “homoerotic,” just because, what, they live together and they clearly care a lot about each other?  This is weird to me.  But whatever — it isn’t terribly important and besides, what the hell do I know anyway?)

While I was undeniably entertained the entire time I was in the theater, I did have a few issues with the movie overall.  One was the storyline — the mystery — which I didn’t feel was at all up to par with the smart, complex plots of the original stories.  The mystery wasn’t terribly original or interesting (it was about a bad dude who kills a bunch of people, gets hanged for it, and then “miraculously” comes back to life to keep on killin’), the clues discovered didn’t feel like authentic “eureka!” moments, the villain didn’t impress me as that terrific a nemesis, and the result was that I didn’t care all that much about the outcome.  The only part I found at all intriguing was the set-up for the coming and classic conflict between Holmes and Professor Moriarty, which is finally established at the end of the film, leaving great, hopeful space for a sequel.  Bring it.

The other issue I had with the film was, I’m sorry to say, all Guy Ritchie’s fault.  Ritchie has a very distinctive style, especially when it comes to scene transitions and fights, and while that’s a style I have really dug in the past (it worked to enthralling and often comic effect in Snatch, for example), it just didn’t fit here for me.  I don’t know if it’s because it felt too “modern” for the setting of the story, or. . . what, exactly.  But it felt forced to me here, like Ritchie got to the end of the film, realized his trademark techniques weren’t in there, and went back to toss them in at random in a few places.  It glared at me.   It jerked me out of the experience a few times.   It was too much.  Too much.  Just somehow a little bit too much.

Aside from these quibbles, though (and my overall dislike of Rachel McAdams, who I find kind of stifled in terms of range — read: boring), I was completely entertained the entire two hours this movie was rolling out before me, and if they make a sequel, I’ll be one of the first in line, popcorn at the ready.  It’s the kind of movie you should see when what you want is a boost of spirit without much expenditure of brain.  “Flick” is the word, really.  This movie is a flick, in the very best sense of the term, and, as such, it features very little in the way of mental challenge, and very much in the way of eye candy (damn you, Robert Downey Jr.’s mouth, because you look distractingly delicious from here and from here, I cannot reach you).   Nothing wrong with that.  And, in fact, many things right.

What did you guys think?  Hit the comments and let me know.  And can you believe I haven’t made Jude Law a Boyfriend of the Week yet?  I can’t believe it either.  I better get on that.  What should I rent for research?

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Action
Cast:  Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Kelly Reilly