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Founding member, along with Webb and Holly, of the Troika of Irrelevancy
Friday Night Lights (2004)
Exciting and Revealing (Warning: Spoilers)
It is often stated that high school football in Texas is unlike that anywhere else in the nation - that it approaches the status of a religion. This is amply demonstrated in "Friday Night Lights," an exciting, yet in a way sobering, look at this phenomenon through the Permian Panthers of Odessa.
The obsessive importance of the team to the town is everywhere evident, from the small children following team star Booby Miles around (all clad in Permian jerseys with Miles' number), to the signs on every business in town on game night proclaiming "Gone to the Game," to the unsolicited play-calling advice boosters and other citizens force upon Coach Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton.) And the fact that literally everyone is constantly asking the big question: "Are you going to win State?"
Also part of the atmosphere is the pressure put on the kids (after all, they are still kids, even the seniors) by coaches, classmates, neighbors and (above all) parents. They are expected to perform no matter what their personal problems might be. A seriously ill mother or an alcoholic and abusive father are no excuse for even a partial lack of focus on the gridiron. Most of these kids see the team as their only road to a college education, and thus a chance to get the hell out of Odessa. In a revealing moment, two players tell a third that he has it made even if they lose, because at least he has the grades - implying that the rest of them don't.
Or perhaps the rest have grades, but not meaningful ones. Another revealing moment comes when star running back Miles, being interviewed by so many reporters that you'd think he was in the NFL, is asked about his grades and answers, "I get straight A's - I play football." The downside of this all-too-common phenomenon is highlighted when Miles suffers a serious injury, and suddenly realizes that, without football, he has nothing to fall back on.
The town also looks the other way when students drink, and in fact encourage it, to the somewhat creepy point of thirty-year-olds inviting high school kids to keg parties.
The special treatment, however dubious, is secondary to the main story, a classic Cinderella story in which Thornton's small-town team makes a run towards the state playoffs and a possible shot at the title. I'm glad I did not know how things turned out in real life (the season in question was 1988) because the movie does an excellent job at keeping up the mystery - once the team has lost a game, the playoff shot is in doubt, and the suspense just keeps building as the season progresses. And you really want these kids to win - you become a fan of the team.
The football action itself is excellent - gritty, hard-hitting, exciting and realistic, if perhaps a tad too polished for a high school team (even a good one.) But it is among the best ever seen on the big screen.
Thornton does a good job portraying the embattled coach, upon whom the town's hopes fall and who is subject to the kind of second-guessing usually reserved for the pros. Not to mention verbal abuse, in person and on radio, when the team loses (though I must admit that the plethora of "for sale" signs placed on his lawn after the first team loss is hilarious.) And Thornton's halftime speech in Permian's biggest game of the season is fantastic. Tim McGraw is effective and believable as the abusive father of one of the players, despite the seemingly limited range of facial expression he displays (or so it seemed to me. In any case, he has more facial range than Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris, at least.) But the real stars of the movie are the actors portraying the players themselves - all are quite good.
About the only thing that I found somewhat "Hollywood" was the instant reconciliation between McGraw and his son, once the latter (who has had a problem all season with fumbling) has a great final game. I love football - I miss playing it, though my knees don't - but the concept of one key "big game" performance canceling out a culture of abuse doesn't sit well with me, and seems far-fetched. (Relatives of the father/son in question have posted on the boards saying that the two have always had a good relationship, and that the abuse was grossly exaggerated if not invented outright. Which certainly supports my "Hollywood" view of this aspect.)
But overall, this is a marvelous film for anyone that enjoys football, and even, I'd wager, for those that don't. It's well-worth your money and time.
The Alamo (2004)
Good History, but too much Disney (Spoilers within)
This movie generated much heat on the discussion boards, well before it even opened in theaters - much of it consisting of derogatory comments from Europeans and Mexicans about Americans, from Americans about Europeans and Mexicans, etc. (There were some calm, reasoned observations as well, but these appeared to be in the minority.) In any case, the sparring appears to have been mostly ill-founded. While it has its faults, this film is neither a jingoistic pro-American lovefest nor a politically correct American-demonizing essay. It is fairly well-balanced, though the Texian viewpoint is given somewhat more sympathy than the Mexican.
First of all - the primary set (the Alamo and environs) was wonderfully done. A lot of research must have been put into this careful re-creation, and it shows. The battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto were well-staged and realistic, though with minor flaws (discussed in a moment.) And the overall cinematography was great.
The main characters were well-drawn and well-portrayed, warts and all. Billy Bob Thornton's Crockett was the best of the lot; if you take a painting of Crockett from about 1826, age the face ten years, and add a few pounds, you've got this Crockett. There were a couple of ludicrous moments centered on him, but for the most part Crockett is believable. His homespun humor, general humility, frontier skills, grudging agreement to fight, and even his unhappiness with the U.S. treatment of native Americans are all part of the package. And his death may be the most accurate ever shown on film, if the De la Pena diary is correct.
Dennis Quaid's Sam Houston and Jason Patric's Jim Bowie are accurately shown as heavy drinkers (Houston's name among the Cherokee was "Big Drunk") and Bowie's role as a land swindler is alluded to. His death is a little overdramatic - it is highly doubtful that he was able to put up any fight at all. (And I'm not sure how familiar Houston was with Wellington's strategy at Waterloo.) Patrick Wilson's William Travis is devoted, uncompromising, and yet in a little over his head - and also has deserted his pregnant wife and his children. (His fierce devotion to slavery was left out, for the most part, but the rest is accurate.) And Emilio Echevarria, though about ten years too old for the part, looks quite a bit like Santa Anna and played him to perfection - his ruthlessness, fondness for military pomp, and predilection towards affairs with young women are all accurately displayed. (Echevarria would have been perfect had he been portraying "The Napoleon of the West" circa the Mexican-American War.)
Balance was achieved, at least in part, by pointing out the existence of Mexican natives on both sides of the struggle (especially Juan Seguin's cavalrymen on the Texian side.) And by noting, in a conversation between Travis' and Bowie's slaves, that slavery was illegal in Mexico. And by showing the absolute bloodthirstiness of the Texas army at San Jacinto, where they showed that two could play the "no quarter" game.
The history was generally accurate, though telescoped in a few places. A couple of annoyances were that (a) the Mexican band playing each night prior to their bombardment of the Alamo did not, as far as I know, play the "deguello;" they broke that one out partway through the assault, and (b) that, while the assault columns did get into position very stealthily, the charge itself was ostentatious, with the "adelante" being bugled. (In the movie, the troops are practically at the wall before Crockett discovers them. At least the attack is correctly portrayed as taking place before dawn.) And both armies look great - the Mexicans with regular uniforms for the most part, the Alamo defenders in varied dress common at the time (including top hats, beaver hats, etc.)
Also, the troops under Fannin at Goliad are mentioned a couple of times, but then the thread disappears. In actuality, their fate was known to the troops at San Jacinto, who shouted "Remember Goliad" as well as "Remember The Alamo" during their attack.
Most of this is forgivable. What truly mars the film is the presence of a few cheesy Disney moments. Crockett's musical duel with Santa Anna's band is silly (though he did have such a "duel" inside the Alamo, against a Scotsman playing bagpipes.) The most ludicrous scene is Crockett shooting off one of Santa Anna's epaulets. Absolutely preposterous. And they overdid the displaying of Bowie's legendary knife (though the knife itself looked about right.) There are a few other such moments in the movie, and they are objectionable enough to drag it down to perhaps a 6.5 in my book.
But it is still the most accurate Alamo tale yet put to film.
Captures the moment
Just saw this last night and, I've got to say, it does a great job of transporting the viewer back in time (assuming one remembers that time, that is.) This is a well-done film. It's patriotic without being jingoistic, inspiring without being melodramatic, emotional without being sappy. And the political background of the time, particularly the hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, are neatly intertwined with the main story, without getting in the way of it or hitting the viewer over the head. Still, the "scene setting" nature of the historical/political tidbits really captures the mood of that unsettling winter.
Kurt Russell obviously did his homework - his portrayal of coach Herb Brooks is very effective. Possibly his best acting job ever. But Brooks shares the spotlight with his team. Using unknowns (except perhaps for Eddie Cahill, who plays Jim Craig; "Friends" afficionados will recognize him) for the players - all of whom can actually skate - was the right way to go. The heretofore anonymous faces reinforce the depiction of the team of young unknowns that comprised the 1980 USA gold medalists. You can actually see them bond as they endure Brooks' rigid, demanding training regimen. The result is highly realistic. You believe these guys as a TEAM.
And the hockey action is, quite simply, the best in any motion picture ever made. Particularly the crucial game against the Soviets, which (even though the outcome is known) is unbelievably tense. And it must be pretty accurate, since Al Michaels' actual play-by-play narrative describes the action on-screen. Makes me wish I remembered the actual details of the game better - I was a freshman in college, we had a West Campus party that night, and all other themes of the party were put on hold during this one. Thanks to the evening's beer consumption, the game itself is fuzzy in my memory, but the excitement is not.
Finally: Don't leave before the credits have ended...
The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)
Still great after all these years
I first saw this film in the theater almost 30 years ago and have caught it a few times on TV since. Finally, I was able to find a DVD copy on E-Bay (apparently it is not currently available on DVD through normal means) and I am glad I did so. This movie has stood the test of time. It is both fun to watch and has some depth to it - it is not just a piece of fluff.
The casting is excellent - not a single actor is unfit for the part. Redford's looks and charisma, coupled with the fact that while he is still pretty young he does have a few visible age lines, make him perfect for the part of a debonair flyboy, ten years removed from World War I, who is stubbornly resisting the increasing regulation of flying as a profession. Bo Svensen is a great complement as the slightly older, more experienced, and more even-keeled Axel Olsson. Geoffrey Lewis' Newt Potts, Pepper's old squadron commander, represents the future that Pepper is trying to avoid. Ed Herrmann is the embodiment of the "seat of your pants" spirit of the early aircraft producers. Phil Bruns is a convincing "carnival barker" as Doc Dillhoeffer. And the Swedish actor Bo Brundin puts in a great turn as Ernst Kessler, German fighter ace turned barnstormer, who has long since realized that the bravery and chivalry he found in the air (both among comrades and opponents) is rarely found on the ground.
Kessler is based on Ernst Udet, the second-highest scoring German ace of WWI. Udet barnstormed after the war, had a shortened version of "Lola" painted on his Fokker D-VII, and had a fight similar to the epic battle that is an important subplot in the movie. Thus it is a nice touch that Udet is shown in the opening photo montage. (It's also good that no sequel was made - I'd hate to see the Kessler character return to Germany, join Hitler's Luftwaffe and commit suicide.)
This is also notable, on a personal level, as the first place I ever saw Susan Sarandon. I've been a fan ever since. Hell, she still looks great.
The flying sequences are magnificent. There's no CGI here, folks. These are real aircraft - beautiful replicas of Curtiss Jennies, Standard E-4's, and of course the Sopwith Camel and Fokker Triplane (plus a few others) - doing real stunt flying. The talented stunt pilots are credited under the umbrella of Tallmantz Aviation, which I'm guessing was formed by legendary stunt pilots Frank Tallman and Paul Mantz. Tallman himself flew in this film (and died in a crash three years later; Mantz died making "Flight of the Phoenix," another of my favorite flight movies, in 1965.) And the climactic sequence, while it may seem unlikely to some, is actually based (perhaps loosely) on a similar incident that occurred during the filming of either "Hells' Angels" or "Wings" in the late 1920's. The only possible anachronism that I can spot is Kessler's stunt plane, which looks a little too advanced for 1928. But I could be wrong there.
Beautiful aircraft, great flying sequences, fine acting, and even a real plot - what more could you want?
Groundhog Day (1993)
Watched the DVD last night - first time in a while I've seen it in its entirety. It never gets old. It's one of those movies that is completely compelling - anytime I run across it on TV, I have to watch it, even if it's near the end already. To put it plainly: I can watch it over and over and over again...LOL
Vital yet bittersweet
My one-line summary says it all. This movie is a must for fans of the Pogues and Irish music in general. The performance and video clips are fantastic. One of my particular favorites is the sequence where an incomplete collection of the band members, all quite young, are performing a raucous song (Waxy's Dargle) and Spider Stacy is using a drink tray as a tambourine by bashing his head into it. Looks like it would have been great fun to see live.
As were the Pogues themselves, of course. I had the good fortune to see the band in concert four times between 1987 and 1991, and have seen the Popes twice since then (and tried a third time - see below.) In all cases it was a visceral experience. The music surged through my veins and Shane's almost completely unintelligible singing provided a counterpoint. (One generally had to know the lyrics to the songs pretty well to sing along with them; little help was to be expected from Shane. But that was part of the experience.) The highs in this documentary are high indeed.
But the utter enjoyment is somewhat tempered by the footage of the current-day Shane McGowan. The alcoholism that eventually led to his ouster from the Pogues has had its predictable, ever-increasing effect on him. (The last time we tried to see the Popes, we got to the House of Blues in Chicago and were told at the door that Shane had not been able to make it out of Boston. Seeing this documentary, I think my suspicions as to why were more or less correct. Not that it was hard to deduce.) There is a tinge of sadness in watching recent clips and trying to decipher what he is saying. Were he not who he is, the observer would think he is seeing a barfly on a particularly bad night. But Shane is who he is; the Pogues would probably not have been the phenomenon they were had he been habitually sober. Genius is often driven by demons, and this is clearly the case here.
When all is said and done, the tinge of sadness and pity is there, yet Shane does not come off as in any way pathetic, at least in my opinion. Ultimately you just appreciate all he has meant to the music world and wish him some more time to contribute.
Bittersweet also describes the brief appearance of the late Kirsty McColl, singing her duet with Shane (the greatest Christmas song ever written, "Fairytale of New York." I'm only partially facetious in that statement.) I saw her in concert once, in 1995 or so. Great show. But she was run over by a speedboat in Cozumel just before Christmas a couple of years ago, in full view of her children. A damn shame.
No question, this one's a must. 9/10
P.S. There is a current band that comes close to filling the hole the Pogues left. They are called "Flogging Molly." The musical style and performance level is very close to the Pogues in their prime. I think it's not quite there, because they don't have the key ingredient of McGowan's booze-soaked voice, but they're damn good. Buy some CD's and give them a listen - you won't regret it. (And, no, I am not employed by them!)
I've seen this movie twice since it hit the big screen and enjoyed it thoroughly each time. Like most good movies it is better the second time around. I should preface this by saying that I had never even heard of the series of books until the movie came out, so I had no expectations of the characters.
In any case, this film really captures the era it depicts. The viewer gets a close-up look at the grimy, often violent, world of the golden age of sail. The main characters, and several minor ones, are well-drawn and are not just cartoon characters. The acting is fine throughout. The action is gripping, the more serene moments involving. Overall, it is just a flat-out entertaining piece of cinema. You don't have to be an expert on the Napoleon-era British navy to enjoy it, but I trust that those well-versed in this area will find the level of detail satisfactory at the very least.
Some devotees of the books are disappointed, of course. This is understandable. Rare is the movie that can hold a candle to the book it is based upon, for the simple reason that books can convey so much more through narrative, stream-of-consciousness and other devices. Anyone reading the book before seeing the movie should expect this. Good example: bucketloads of material has been missing from the first two LOTR movies, yet the trilogy is one of the greatest film achievements in history. Another: The original "Jurassic Park" took a book with a lot of serious statements on issues such as genetic engineering and turned it into, essentially, a CGI adventure. As long as this is expected, the movie can be taken at face value and enjoyed for what it is. I didn't expect "Jurassic Park" to do more than make a passing reference to the weighty issues involved, and thus I was not disappointed.
The one criticism I will comment on, though, is the relative importance of the two main characters. My understanding is that some devotees of the novels think that Aubrey is too much "the star" compared to the books. Not having read them myself, I'll give them that. But as a newcomer to the subject, my impression is that the doctor is almost on an even keel with Aubrey as a character. Crowe will obviously be THE star in most if not all of his endeavors, given his current status. But the doctor's character was quite well-developed, from his intense interest in natural history to his ignorance of maritime jargon.
The changing of the enemy in this one from American to French was probably primarily due to the fact that Hollywood doesn't expect American audiences to root against Americans. But the point one viewer made somewhere on the boards, that had it been an American vessel the movie would have taken place at least 8 years later and thus the sequels would have been limited, was likely taken into consideration as well.
Bottom line: A first-class adventure that stands up well to repeated viewings. 8 out of 10.
Just saw it last night and I've got to say, what a fun movie! Lots of humor and adventure, an interesting (if at times overly-convoluted) plot, and an over-the-top performance by Johnny Depp, who unquestionably carries the film. I have heard that Depp consciously modeled his performance on Keith Richards, remarking that pirates were the rock stars of their day. Well, it works like gangbusters! The support is good too, though nowhere near Depp's level. And the female lead is certainly easy on the eyes. The special effects, particularly as regards the ghost pirates, are good as well. Overall, this is the kind of film you can just sit back and enjoy, without having to think too much if at all. And well worth the time and money at a first-run theater. Hell, I had so much fun watching it that I didn't even mind the blatant Disney commercialism underlying the venture...
Bloody Sunday (2002)
Gritty and Powerful
I have seen "Bloody Sunday" twice now - once on the big screen and once on DVD - and read Don Mullen's book, "Eyewitness Bloody Sunday." This movie is a very realistic depiction of the defining moment of the "troubles" in Northern Ireland. The hand-held cameras and grainy film style make it feel more like a documentary than a movie, which of course is the intent. As another reviewer has mentioned, the acting is very natural throughout. It does take some time to get started, but once the the shooting starts it hits the viewer like a sledgehammer. Very powerful.
The film jumps so frequently from scene to scene that at times it is distracting, though I was much less annoyed by this the second time around. And, having seen it once with and once without subtitles, I must say that although the subtitles (optional on the DVD) are intrusive they are quite welcome. I love the Irish accent but at times it can be difficult for me to decipher,and much of the dialogue in the movie is muted. It was good to know what was being said.
As for the objectivity, of course the movie is slanted - so was the situation. But it is not unreasonably slanted. The British are not shown as one-dimensional demons - in particular, Nicholas Farrell does a great job of conveying Brigadier Mclellan's ambiguity and even disapproval of the course taken against his wishes by the supposed "Observer," Maj. Gen. Ford (who, if the movie has a villain, is the prime candidate.) At one point early on several Paras are discussing the day's prospects, and reveal how tired they are of being harassed, shot at and otherwise abused by the native population. This makes the day's events more understandable. This does not EXCUSE the cold-blooded gunning down of 27 people - there is no excuse for that - but at least one can see a contributing factor. And protesters are shown, once or twice, firing back. (The key here is firing BACK - evidence indicates that no marchers fired until the first two protesters were wounded. And those scattered few that attempted return fire were quickly dissuaded by their countrymen. Later in the day the IRA did go into action, but not until after the bloodletting in Bogside was over with.) Ivan Cooper's (James Nesbitt) words at the close of the film were shown to be all too true in the years since the actual incident. The IRA was on unsteady legs at the time, but has never lacked support since January 30, 1972.
The film is a powerful object lesson concerning the misuse of force, and one that governments everywhere - including my own country, the United States - should take to heart. It has a few flaws, but I think deserves the awards it has received. 8/10 points.
Gods and Generals (2003)
This will have some detail, and possible spoilers (if I understand that term correctly.)
First, the good: The battle sequences were very well done (especially Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville; Manassas, somewhat less so.) I appreciated the attention to detail, including the identification of participating units in the assault on Marye's Heights and the flank attack on Howard's XI Corps. At Fredericksburg they correctly had the Irish Brigade soldiers advancing with evergreen sprigs in their caps. The hotly contested bridging of the river was well-done too. And Jackson's wounding at Chancellorsville followed the actual situation (as near as anyone can tell at this remove, anyway) as closely as is possible, though if we hadn't already known the words exchanged between Jackson's staff and the 18th NC during the mishap, they might have been tough to understand. Also, the principal actors (Duvall, Daniels, and Lang) were very good, as were much of the supporting cast (especially holdovers from "Gettysburg" such as Brian Mallon and Kevin Conway.) And I thought the characterization of Burnside was dead on, though the actor needed a little less hair on the top of his head. Chamberlain's domestic life, and the formation of the 20th Maine, are portrayed realistically and with a minimum of melodrama insofar as his relationship with Fanny. Loved the exchange of pickets in the Rappahannock as well.
The mediocre: Stonewall Jackson. Lang did a good job with what he was given, but the material at times suffered. Jackson was portrayed almost as a saint. True, he was intensely religious. But the overdramatic scenes of him lifting his hands to the heavens and talking to God get old very quickly. And this side of his personality is emphasized almost to the exclusion of others. His cold-bloodedness appears a few brief times, but his constant warring with subordinates is barely hinted at, and his eccentricities for the most part nonexistent. He comes across as far less interesting than he must have been in real life.
The bad: The film moved far too slowly for a good deal of the time. The scene where Jackson's servant prays for deliverance from slavery, while standing next to the general, was ludicrous. The softer parts of the dialogue were near-inaudible (though this may have been the fault of the theater as opposed to the film.)
The minor quibbles: 1. Lang's Jackson did not mention A.P. Hill with his next-to-last breath. 2. At Fredericksburg, Samuel Zook is referred to as a colonel, but the actor had brigadier general's shoulder straps. 3. In the Chancellorsville attack, Hill is listed as a brigadier though he had been a major general for nearly a year by then. CONCLUSION: Worth a look, especially for us Civil War die-hards, but in all ways inferior to "Gettysburg" (except the beards; they are MUCH better in this one!) It could easily have been 45 minutes shorter without losing anything; the intermission is desperately needed to keep the viewer from dropping off and missing the balance of the film.