The Killer Elite (January 31st, 2016)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Starring: James Caan, Robert Duvall, Burt Young, and Arthur Hill
I fucking love 70s movies. That’s an easy opinion to have as a cinephile, but there you go. This was the decade where cinema changed and geared more towards a realism and honesty unseen before. Bad guys can be the main characters and win. Good guys could be put through the wringer and fail. Hell can be unleashed upon our characters. Movies became a bigger. Cliches weren’t in full effect yet, so movies feel simultaneously old hat but new at the same time. Because they don’t completely fall into formula, you can ignore some of the other elements that are a bit retroactively formula. Which is where I find this movie. Sam Peckinpah is one of those guys from the 70s that helped change cinema (starting in 1968 though, with The Wild Bunch). He added some nastiness and balls to the proceedings, angry cynicism coursing through his blood. Action filmmaking wasn’t the same after him. Editing and choreographer jumped to new heights with him. The man was a master at his craft before his crippling alcoholism ruined him. We find him sort of cresting towards the bottom of his career after the big three (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, and The Getaway). But that this is a decline for him should be a real indicator of what a badass he was at his job. Here we have a story that seems relatively common place now. Caan and Duvall are two government cleaner types who are good friends. But Duvall goes bad for the money and leaves Caan for dead. Caan doesn’t die and he goes after Duvall. That all sounds like a good deal of movies, but it’s in the execution. The first hour of this movie basically follows Caan as he recovers from his wounds. He has to learn to walk and use his left arm again. He’s more worried about getting back into shape when the opportunity arises to get Duvall. The second half is essentially the chase and it’s to the point. No overly convoluted escapes to pad the movie out. Just one near miss and then the showdown. It’s not drowning in action, using it sparingly but executing it well. I mean that’s Peckinpah so there’s no surprise there. Also the movie gets a little more complicated than a simple revenge plot. This is more of a spy movie than one would think. There’s double agents and foreign relations to worry about and, in my favorite touch, a finale including ninjas. It gets a little complicated but I liked that. The spy stuff adds some color to the proceedings and it also gives a little bit of that cynicism that Peckinpah likes to trade in. Not as bleak as Straw Dogs or The Wild Bunch, but it’s still there. Basically in that Caan’s whole mission is pointless and he was being used by forces above him. His whole goal to get Duvall was only decided upon by other forces and even then it’s not wholly satisfying. Caan and Duvall are great here, continuing with the great chemistry they had in The Godfather. Caan’s band of fellow badasses are great too. It’s a well crafted movie. So while it may not have the heft of his other movies or the ground shaking impact of his other work, this is an expertly crafted thrill ride. Filled with action and laughs. Also ninjas. Seriously, there’s fucking ninjas and it’s amazing.
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Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (February 2nd, 2016)
Director: David Hand
Starring: Adriana Caselotti, Harry Stockwell, Lucille La Verne, and Pinto Colvig
Nothing I say will take away from this movies place in history. It’s pretty much the first feature length animated movie. But it isn’t special simply because of that, otherwise it wouldn’t have lasted in the public consciousness for almost 80 years. It’s iconic and I won’t ever say it doesn’t deserve it. Hell, just for the simple fact that the animation even today is mind blowing would I never disparage the movie. It’s a gorgeous movie and I couldn’t even imagine the reactions to it back then when this was one of a kind. Because compared to hand drawn stuff today, this is a wild looking movie. But for me as a movie watcher without historical import helping the movies favor (which I always try to do), I won’t say this is perfect. The story is immensely bare bones. Snow White herself isn’t really a character. She’s just there to sing and clean up and cook. You want her to be happy because of the 9 people in the movie, the biggest asshole in it wants her dead for the sole reason of not being as attractive as her. Just basic sympathy helps her out. The dwarves are fun even if they are just simply what their name describe, but being a group makes them more as a whole than their individual units. The Queen is fine but just kinda there. Her death is funny in a goofy way, just falling of a mountain like a dummy. The prince isn’t even a character. He sings a song in the beginning and comes back at the end to revive Snow White. That’s it. He’s just a symbol of rescue for Snow. This is a movie that manages to feel way too long and then way too short. It takes it’s sweet time getting to any narrative drive when Snow is driven out of the castle, then wraps itself up immediately. It’s an enjoyable ride but it’s a pretty empty experience. Empty calories but fun empty calories with great songs and a fantastic visual style. Despite some of what one could call weaknesses, it overcomes them. Just as a personal thing this isn’t my favorite Disney movie by far. But it was a good starting point for them.
Hail Caesar (February 4th, 2016)
Directors: The Coen Brothers
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, and Tilda Swinton
The Coens are iconic directors, men whose every new release is treated like an event in cinephile circles. Now, I like the guys. They’ve made a good deal of work I enjoy. But outside of The Big Lebowski, I’ve never outright loved their stuff. True Grit and Inside Llewyn Davis come very close. But on the whole, I’ve never been a fanatic. But they always do their own thing and there’s always a curiosity when a new release is upon us. Even one where the marketing materials don’t light me up. Like this one did. I was left feeling cold on this movie since the first trailer came out and have been ever since. Having seen the movie now, I know why. They really didn’t have much to sell. It’s a surprisingly empty movie, devoid of any of the laughs they can deliver or wild violence they can play with or the oddly poetic drama they trade in. Now I know that the marketing team didn’t really have much to work with and tried their damnedest to sell it as a funnier movie than it is. It’s trying to show us the way Hollywood worked back in the day, with fixed Eddie Mannix (Brolin) working all day to clean up some messes for the lunatics with golden facades that work for him get into. Except the day never really feels like he’s over his head. The kidnapping plot kinda just sits there, and is also explained to us pretty quickly so there’s no drive to it. Brolin doesn’t even really sweat about it. Scarlett Johansson has a pregnancy plot that kinda just exists. The only really interesting part of the Hollywood game is seeing the laid back cowboy star (Ehrenreich) being tasked with acting in an art piece he has no business being in. He’s great and he has a great scene with Ralph Fiennes. Otherwise, this is a pretty slow movie. It’s never terrible. This isn’t Burn After Reading or The Ladykillers. It’s just a movie that has the feel of being thrown together quickly with no real passion to it. You just gotta look at the movies being made on the lot to really get a sense of how not period appropriate the filmmaking is. They feel too slick and made in a modern setting to do the stuff they do. It’s a bit nitpicky but it goes to my feeling of being half hearted. Which is a shame. They’re trying to make some points about the Catholic Church and filmmaking being similar enterprises, both trying to sell things that may not be as honorable as the face value might seem but are still worthy enterprises anyway. But they don’t really do enough of it, mainly because the stuff Brolin is dealing with is not that crazy (except for the kidnapping wrap up, which is just 1941 silly) or that dark. If they wanted to show us the heart of darkness at the heart of this industry to make a point about Brolins constant struggle of PR, they coulda done that. But they played too nicely. There’s some entertainment to be had and I’m sure critics that grew up when Raising Arizona came out are gonna fellate this movie until the cows come home. But I’m probably not gonna watch this movie again, unless I get into a Coen watching mood down the road.
Hard Target (February 6th, 2016)
Director: John Woo
Starring: Jean Claude Van Damme, Yancy Butler, Lance Henrikson, and Arnold Vosloo
This movie is so silly. And it really doesn’t know it’s so silly, which makes it all the more sillier. Jean Claude plays a guy who’s basically homeless trying to get back into the Merchant Marines after kicking his old captain off a boat when JCVD found out the captain was smuggling drugs. You know, that old chestnut. Then he meets up with Butler who is looking for her father, a homeless vet, when she gets hooked up with JCVD. This all comes together when they find out that there’s an organized Most Dangerous Game type situation going on in the city being led by Henrikson and Vosloo. Shit blows up and JCVD saves the day. There is no surprises in this movie, narratively speaking. What surprises is how absolutely stupid the movie is at points. JCVD is dressed up in a getup that I can’t even describe. He’s got this completely insane mullet, a giant gold earring, and wears a too big trench coat over an outfit made entirely out of denim. Yet he’s a poor sailor. Also he’s an ex marine who knows how to kick the shit out of everything. For peak stupidity, you just gotta look at the iconic meme from the movie. The part of the movie where JCVD grabs a snake, slaps it on the head, then punches it out cold. He literally cold cocks a snake unconscious. It’s fucking amazing. John Woo really just made a bizarre movie in his English language debut. There’s a lot of good stuff here, mainly the stuff he’s known for. The action is immaculately shot, even the stuff where it’s obvious JCVD isn’t riding the motorcycle/horse in some shots. It almost feels like he’s purposefully going over the top, making it feel like a satire of his work when trees get shot up and explode like a power transformer going off. And even the action, as well shot, is bonkers. The moment where JCVD rides a motorcycle at a truck shooting at him, then leaps over it, lands and blows it up with a pistol is just so earnestly stupid you gotta admire it. It’s a simple story, allowing Woo to just focus on the fun elements. He also wisely knows to limit JCVD’s character to just be a riff on the man with no name type. The less he has to speak at that time in his career was a smart move. Butler is not particularly good in the role, but she isn’t playing a love interest so she’s not given too much to do. There is a good moment where she shoots a dudes nuts off, so this is an equal opportunity dumb action movie. The real star here though is Lance Henrikson, one of those working guys who is always good and here is no difference. He plays the villain pretty straight and he’s a bit threatening. Then when he goes apeshit at the end its fun and fitting, not a dramatic shift. This isn’t high art. I’d never argue that. I won’t even say it’s the best action movie of the 90s (The Matrix) or off Woo’s American career (that distinction goes to the bonkers Face/Off). But it’s a movie that is sturdily built and takes itself seriously enough without being too dour. The jokes aren’t great but it’s funny in spite of itself. And it has Wilford Brimley as a crazed backwoods Cajun man with a bow and arrow. What else could you want?