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In the Line of Fire (1993)
Decent Cat And Mouse Game With Some Flaws
Leads Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich were both very good in this. As Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan and potential presidential assassin Mitch Leary they play an interesting enough cat and mouse game. The back story has Horrigan as the last surviving member of the detail on duty when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Already tormented by the memory, he's tormented further by Leary, who toys with him as he openly shares his plan. That interplay is well done, but it does seem to drag on for too long, perhaps because Leary's motive in tormenting Horrigan wasn't especially clear. Why so much obsession with Horrigan? I never really understood that. Why not just seek out the chance to assassinate the president? Another point I wasn't clear on is why Horrigan - clearly aging and out of shape - would be put back on the presidential protection team, against the wishes of the head of the detail? It moves the story forward but honestly makes no sense.
The weakest part of the movie revolved around agent Lilly Raines, played by Rene Russo. Russo's performance was fine, but the character didn't hit home with me - especially when a "quasi" romance between Raines and Horrigan was introduced. Why do that? The age difference made it unlikely to say the least. It doesn't really move the story forward at all, but it does seem to detract a bit from the character's credibility. I mean, I can understand Horrigan's interest. Russo is lovely. But I couldn't wrap my head around why Raines would be the least bit interested.
After playing the cat and mouse for a couple of hours, it all leads up to an exciting enough climax. All the performances here are fine, but the story seemed to me to be a bit lacking in some ways. (6/10)
Another Of Jack Lemmon's Strong Performances
I've always enjoyed Jack Lemmon's work, and his performance in "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" was another in a long line of winning roles for the veteran actor. As Mel Edison, Lemmon plays a middle aged man struggling at work, already feeling pressured and losing touch with reality just a bit, who suddenly loses the job he's held all his adult life. Unemployment causes him to crash further - a process accelerated even more when his wife Edna has to get a job to support them. Edna was played by Ann Bancroft; Lemmon and Bancroft made a good team.
With its focus on Mel's mental state, this seems as if it could become a rather heavy movie, but it doesn't. Even while it deals with real issues - everything from Mel's employment crisis to the drawbacks of city life - it manages to retain a lightness that brings forth smiles and even a few laughs from the viewer. The slow turning of the tables revolving around Mel and Edna and their roles is interesting to watch. As it closes, the movie is hopeful but open-ended. Mel seems to pull himself back together, but you don't know if things will actually work out for this couple.
There's an appearance in this by Sylvester Stallone that's a curiosity more than anything. "Rocky" wouldn't appear until a year later, so Stallone at the time of this movie was a basically unknown actor, who had a minor and brief role (listed in the credits as merely "Youth in Park) that he performed well, but who would have known that a year later he'd suddenly be a mega-star, nominated for an Oscar as best actor for his role in a movie that would win an Oscar for best picture. Stallone fans might want to watch this just for the few minutes he's on screen.
But Jack Lemmon is the highlight here, and the real reason to watch this movie. (7/10)
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Sometimes It Makes You Mad; Sometimes You Just Want To Cry
It's rare that you find a movie with so many sobering moments that stay with you when the movie's finished, but Mississippi Burning is full of those moments. Some are just sobering - like the shot of the two water fountains, one brand spanking new, marked "Whites" and one old and run down, marked "Coloreds." Some scenes are unsettling, with overly racist and obnoxious things being said - "niggers don't even take baths and they stink!" Some scenes are frightening - little children laughing and applauding along with their parents at Ku Klux Klan rallies. Then there's the violence - lynchings and beatings and murders of local blacks. This isn't a movie for the feint of heart. It isn't a "pleasant" movie at all, but it's certainly a powerful one.
It's loosely based on the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, and it revolves around the two FBI agents leading the investigation - Ward (Willem Dafoe) and Andersen (Gene Hackman). This was a powerful performance from both men. Hackman I expected that from, because I consistently like Gene Hackman's work, and he was nominated for an Oscar for this role. Dafoe I have had mixed reactions to over the years, but he was very good in this. Ward and Andersen are both FBI agents, but very different in their approach. Ward is a Northerner, and wants to do things by the book. Andersen is a southerner who knows that "by the book" won't cut it when dealing with racists and the Klan. Watching them work out their relationship is interesting.
There's a large number of secondary characters, all of whom have significant roles to play in the unfolding of the story. The most important of them is probably "Mrs. Pell" (played by Frances McDormand, who was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar) - the wife of one of the sheriff's deputies implicated in the murders. Her Oscar nomination aside, I admit that I wasn't really taken with the character of Mrs. Pell and the implication of some type of friendship or relationship brewing with Andersen, although the scene in which her husband deals with his "problem at home" (as one of his good ole boy buddies called her) is brutal, and another of those scenes that stays with you.
The name of the movie refers to the name of the FBI investigation, although it's put to good use as there are repeated scenes throughout the movie of the burning of black churches and homes, with a few burning crosses thrown in as well. It is unsettling and at times unpleasant to watch, but it's also very good. (8/10)
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
After A Decent Start This Becomes Largely Unfocused
The best part of "Thunderbolt And Lightfoot" is the start. It grabs your attention and makes you start wondering right off. Clint Eastwood is playing a preacher. A preacher? This certainly wasn't what I was expecting. His sermon was a bit rambling, but he was definitely preaching and collared. So, what's with this? Then, suddenly, Red (George Kennedy) bursts into the church and opens fire on the preacher, who runs for his life. Good start. You expect more. But then the movie settles down. A lot.
Eastwood is actually Thunderbolt - who robbed a Montana bank years before, and Kennedy's Red thinks Thunderbolt ran off with the money. (Why would he be preaching in a little country church if he had half a million dollars?) Running from Red, Thunderbolt runs into Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) - a small timer who'd like to pull off something bigger. Misunderstandings are overcome, and Red and his buddy team up with them on a plan to rob the very same bank - because who would expect that!
You can't really call this an action movie. It has some action, but not a lot. Some of it is a sort of comedy. Mostly, though, after its strong start it just kind of wanders aimlessly. You know it's leading up to the bank robbery, but mostly you'd look at this as a form of male bonding between the leads.
The strong start is the best part of this, but it's not really a compliment to say that the best part of a movie is its opening scenes. (5/10)
The Theory of Everything (2014)
A Brief History Of Stephen & Jane Hawking
There's an image that we have of Stephen Hawking: basically, a brilliant man trapped in a useless body. To know all that he's accomplished given the obvious challenges and limitations that he faces is in itself inspiring. And, clearly, in spite of it all, he has a sense of humour. This may seem silly, but one thing that I truly admire about him is that he sometimes appears on "The Big Bang Theory" - surely one of the silliest (and, yes, best) shows on television. But there's a lot about Stephen Hawking that I didn't know. I, like many I've talked to, thought his disability had been from birth. I honestly never realized that he had married and had children. I found that "The Theory Of Everything" put a very human face to this man who seems, somehow, different than the rest of us - more limited in some ways, far superior in other ways. As a brief history of the life of the author of "A Brief History Of Time," this movie worked very well.
Not just brilliant, Hawking is a very complex man, with a very complicated personal history. The movie begins with him falling in love, and more or less ends with the end of his (first) marriage. The relationship between Stephen and Jane starts as a truly simple romance of two people who just find each other. It becomes a true love story as Stephen begins to decline physically and is diagnosed with ALS and given two years to live. It then becomes a story of devotion as Jane cares for him and encourages him in his work. There's then the sad and tragic end as the love Stephen and Jane have for each other isn't enough to keep them together. It is, in fact, a brief but well done account of Hawking's life and of Jane and Stephen's relationship.
The lead performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen and Jane are superb. Redmayne especially seemed to capture Stephen Hawking, which must have been a difficult acting job, trying to capture the reality of Hawkings' physical decline.
The only real weakness I saw in this was that it jumped into the love story too quickly. I thought we could have been offered a bit more of a glimpse of Hawking's early life, which might have made for a fuller character study. But what we do see here is fascinating. The movie is both sad and inspiring, and sometimes both at the same time - which is a rather difficult balance to achieve. "The Theory Of Everything" pulls that off well. (9/10)
Fort Apache (1948)
John Wayne And Henry Fonda Cast Against Type
John Wayne and Henry Fonda are iconic actors, and you have a tendency to know what sort of characters to expect from them. "Fort Apache" is a good movie, but what makes it really interesting to watch is that both Wayne and Fonda are cast a little bit against type in this. That's a bit jarring, and it forces you to watch, because you don't know exactly what to expect from them as the movie goes on. For a western that has surprisingly little action (the requisite "cowboys and Indians scene comes only in the last half hour) the performances from these two alone make this worth watching.
Fort Apache is a lonely US army outpost in the years after the Civil War. Nothing much happens there, and it's not a particularly prestigious assignment. The officers and men are comfortable and unchallenged under the command of Wayne's Captain York. Things change when Fonda's Col. Thursday shows up to assume command. Thursday is a bitter character. He thinks he's better than Fort Apache, and he resents being assigned to the command. You get the impression that he was a well regarded Union officer in the Civil War who just got overlooked in peacetime. But he's an officer, and Fort Apache is his assignment and he's determined to make it the best outfit in the US Army. No more comfortable outpost. The men wear proper uniforms, they drill, they train. Thursday's awkward in the command. Fort Apache is a close knit post, and he just doesn't fit in. His interactions with the soldiers and other officers are stiff and formal. Wayne's relaxed York and Fonda's by the book Thursday make this an interesting character study more than a western for the most part.
For all his attention to detail, though, Thursday has a basic problem: he yearns for glory, and he's not especially competent. Given the chance he orders his men to attack a group of Apaches returning from Mexico who've been promised by York that they could negotiate. But Thursday wants to beat them in battle and make his name, over York's protests. Not surprisingly, the end result is not unlike Custer's Last Stand.
This is a character study, and the characters are strong. It's not only Wayne and Fonda. There are other good performances in this as well. I was quite taken with the very pretty 20 year old Shirley Temple as Thursday's daughter. Interestingly, her love interest in the movie is played by John Agar, her real life husband at the time. Ward Bond was also very good as Sgt. Maj. O' Rourke. The battle scenes are restricted to the last half hour or so, and they serve primarily to show Thursday making blunders and rejecting the advice of those who know the Apache better than he does. The last scene of the movie is the classic example of a manufactured hero. Killed by the Apache after his own incompetence doomed him, Thursday is turned into a gallant national hero. York assumes command of Fort Apache, but the portrait of Thursday hangs over him. Those we recognize as heroes aren't always the real heroes apparently.
It's a well done movie. If you're expecting a traditional cowboy and Indian shoot out, you won't find it here. BUt it has a few humorous moments, and if you're looking for a solid, character driven western featuring two very good actors, Fort Apache will definitely satisfy. (7/10)
The Untouchables (1987)
Taking Down Al Capone
Chicago in the 1930's. Prohibition. Crime. Corruption. Gangsters. And standing over it all was the biggest gangster of all: Al Capone, ruthless, heartless and vicious. And taking on Al Capone, devoting himself to the task, was Treasury man Elliott Ness and his team, known as "The Untouchables." This movie is very loosely based on those historical events, and is also in lineage with an old TV series of the same name. It's no history lesson, but it does give a bit of a taste of the era and - most important for a movie - it's entertaining. It's pretty graphic at times, and at other times it manages to be humorous. From time to time it even brings out an emotional reaction in the viewer.
I give credit to the cast. The movie featured strong performances all round. As Ness and Capone, Kevin Costner and Robert de Niro were excellent, and Sean Connery (in an Oscar winning turn) shone as Ness's associate Malone.
The atmosphere of the movie was excellent, especially in portraying the extent of the corruption in the city at the time: from police to the judiciary and all the way to the mayor. It was actually pretty sobering in that sense. As well done as it was, my only criticism would be that it seems to only barely scratch the surface of Capone's criminal empire, and his trial seems anti-climactic. Otherwise, it's very well done. (7/10)
Eight Legged Freaks (2002)
I have to admit (and maybe this is sexist) that when Kari Wuhrer appeared playing the sheriff of this Arizona town it was almost enough to make me give up almost before the movie started. She just doesn't fit the bill. Too young. Too pretty. But truthfully - as the movie goes on, she works in the role. First, her performance was pretty good, and second, it's a movie that forces you to suspend your disbelief anyway, and so the fact that she doesn't work in the role actually makes her work in the role. If you see what I mean.
Sheriff Parker has a big job on her hands. Her town is being invaded by giant spiders, grown into huge mutants by the dumping of toxic waste. There are tarantulas and jumping spiders and trapdoor spiders and all kinds of - well - eight legged freaks. (The name of the movie sums it up so well!) There's an interesting enough cast of co-stars for Wuhrer, including David Arquette as the owner of the local mine who's just returned to town, Scarlett Johansson as the sheriff's daughter Ashley, and Doug E. Doug as a guy running an outlaw radio station who believes in every conspiracy theory going.
The story's fun, it's sometimes exciting and every now and then frightening - and it does have a few "cringe" moments as the spiders do what spiders do. Sure it's a silly movie - but I suppose that it does have barely beneath the surface a serious undertone about the environmental dangers of toxic waste. Establishing the romantic link towards the end between Arquette and Wuhrer was too predictable and too formulaic, and not at all necessary for the story. But that aside, I thought this worked pretty well.
Don't take it too seriously. Just sit back and have fun with it. (7/10)
Implausible But Enjoyable
I just couldn't buy the basic premise of this movie. I thought it was a passable piece of entertainment - not stellar, but good enough. But the basic premise lost me. The Nazis were masters of propaganda, and this was a truly no win scenario for them. The story has a soccer team from the German Army taking on a team made up of Allied prisoners who in peacetime had (mostly) been well known soccer players. My mind couldn't grasp how the Germans were going to milk any positive propaganda out of this. If they won - so, they beat a bunch of POWs; if they lost - WHOA! They lost to a bunch of POWS! I just couldn't buy it.
But set aside the unbelievable premise and this was an all right movie. The soccer angle aside, what you had was an interesting reflection on the duty of prisoners of war to escape if possible. Hatch (played by Sylvester Stallone) was a repeat escaper, who latched on to the soccer team (first as manager and then, somewhat improbably, as the goalkeeper) because it represented another chance to escape. Colby (Michael Caine) was the Allied team's captain and manager - a former star with West Ham United who now just wants to play soccer rather than escape. What started as a small affair, organized by a German officer (Max von Sydow) ended up as this huge propaganda effort, with the game played in Paris.
Yes it was unbelievabe that Hatch would end up as the goalkeeper. Yes it was unbelievable that Hatch would have been allowed on the team after his attempts at escape. Yes it was unbelievable that he would be put back on the team after escaping again. Yes it was unbelievable in so many ways. But it wasn't unenjoyable. Stallone's performance was pretty good, and there was a funny (to me anyway) nod to his work as Rocky Balboa as he stared down the German who was about to take the last second penalty kick. The last scenes, as the crowd stormed the field and seemed to help the prisoners escape was pretty dramatic. And the movie featured Pele - who showed no great acting talent, but offered up his famous scissors kick a couple of times.
Sure it was implausible - and that's generous. But very watchable, and for the most part enjoyable. (6/10)
The Dyatlov Pass Incident (2013)
The Paranormal Explanation For The Dyatlov Pass Incident
The Dyatlov Pass incident of 1959 certainly is mysterious. The basics of the story are well summed up in "Devil's Pass." In 1959 a group of Russian skiers disappears in the Pass, their bodies being found later in very strange circumstances. Most people seem to believe that the expedition was done in by an avalanche. This movie takes an entirely different approach.
First, this is a "found footage" movie. Yawn. YYYAAAWWWNNN. It was interesting the first thousand times it was done. Now, found footage movies are mainstream fare. They allow producers to not put much money into a film, because the shakier and fuzzier the video is, the better. It follows five American students retracing the path of Dyatlov's party as they try to determine what happened.
After playing it straight for a while, strange things begin to happen around the students' camp. There's a conspiracy angle introduced - the Russian military is involved - and ultimately the movie turns to the paranormal for an explanation. In 1959 the Soviet military was conducting experiments that resembled the alleged (and denied) Philadelphia Experiment of 1943, and these experiments are the cause of everything.
It's really not much to write home about, although (as I said) it does teach the basics of the Dyatlov Pass incident. (4/10)