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San Andreas (2015)
San Andreas Has Its Faults
There seems to be only five characters in this movie: Dad (Dwayne Johnson), who conveniently has a helicopter, Mom in L.A., Daughter in San Fran, Daughter's puppy-love new boyfriend, Boyfriend's dopey kid brother. Mom and Dad have split up and Mom has a jerky new boyfriend (who is quickly dispatched with when something big falls on him). Dad rescues Mom from a teetering skyscraper after the Big One hits, then they head off to find the Daughter. Mom comes to realize what a Real Man Dad is.
This sitcom excuse for a real film is disaster-movie overkill. Right off the bat the Hoover Dam gets wrecked and soon after L.A. is wiped off the map, but not so much San Fran, the better to save it for the grand finale. But wait - don't breathe yet - there's a really big tsunami heading in. Meanwhile, back in the lab, a bunch of scientists scurry around and stare at computers and go: "Uh oh!" Daughter, Boyfriend and Dopey Kid Brother take a stroll up a ruined San Fran street like they're in Disneyland, not the least bit traumatized by what has taken place. Here's the thing: With skyscrapers toppling and destruction on an apocalyptic scale - where are the people? Where's the terror, the pathos, the human tragedy, the acts of desperation and heroism? There are none. And where's the carnage? None of that, either. Yeah, there are a few clusters of extras running around hither and yonder, none the worse for wear. That's because the disaster is merely a back-drop for a banal, insipid, sanitized Disney-esque soap opera about family values and puppy love. And even the disaster scenes themselves become humdrum.
The only reason to see this movie is Dwayne Johnson, who somehow manages to carry the movie on his broad shoulders and acts as if he takes the whole thing seriously.
You want a great disaster movie (complete with family values, fully realized characters and meaningful drama)? See "The Impossible".
The Prodigal (1955)
Christian Hunk Meets Pagan Babe
I'd never seen "The Prodigal" and had barely even heard of it so, hoping for a little smut and pageantry, I watched it all the way through, a true, dedicated fan of Biblical spectacles.
It's an oft-told tale: boy ditches girl-next-door to date a more worldly doll. In this case the boy, Micah, finds himself inside a sort of pagan revival tent presided over, not by Aimee Semple McPherson, but by Lana Turner, clad in...well, shall we say barely clad. It's instant puppy love. Lana walks solemnly around inside the tent clutching two torches (one can almost imagine director Richard Thorpe saying, "Lana, hold the torches and walk solemnly around looking absolutely ridiculous."). Anyway, Lana, a high priestess (and man-eater) heads to Damascus, and Micah high-tails it after her. Geography and distance in this movie is such that to get to Damascus you turn left at the next intersection, first sound-stage on your right.
Once in the city, Micah, an astute hero for the ages, is conned out of all his wealth by pimps and assorted riff-raff. He buys Lana a legendary pearl in exchange for a promise to get everything his heart desires, which, I think, means he'll get laid. Sure enough, they end up in the sack, but the tempestuousness is as limp as a soggy noodle, and you'd need a flame-thrower to ignite any sparks between Edmund Purdom and Lana Turner. Bad things happen, and pretty soon there's a revolt of the underdogs of society, led by Mr. Puppy Love himself. The big battle scene consists of a bunch of men in skirts running around hither and yonder thwacking each other. There's the obligatory storming of the temple. The mob trashes the place, and who can blame them? The interior decoration is hideous. They throw chunks of painted Styrofoam at Lana, the better not to smudge her make-up. Micah heads home with his tail between his legs and makes nice with dad and the girl next door. And that's the end of the movie and my review. I think I'll go watch "Quo Vadis" again.
What a Show!
"Ben-Hur" is the tale of a Judean prince whose mother and sister are imprisoned in the dungeons of Jerusalem and who is sentenced to slavery as a rower on a Roman ship, all at the hands of an ambitious centurion. Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) vows revenge, and his quest takes him to imperial Rome where fate, it seems, offers him the means to enact that revenge. But vengeance is a bitter drink, and it destroys a man's soul, as Ben-Hur will discover.
"Ben-Hur" works both as a mammoth spectacle and an intimate portrait of a man struggling with his conscience and his faith. Christ appears in two key scenes, and both involve the offering of water to drink (these scenes always make me cry). Director William Wyler made a brilliant and inspired decision the movie never shows the face of Christ. Instead we see Christ's face only through the eyes of the characters who view it, and the effect is incredibly powerful.
The climactic chariot race in the arena in Jerusalem is often regarded as the best action scene in movie history, and I agree. It is visceral, suspenseful and exciting (my only caveat would be that, in the silent film version of "Ben-Hur", they put the camera underneath the horses and chariots - how that must have wowed audiences in those days!). The action is presented with clarity, spatial coherence and a feeling for rhythm. Word is it took 6 months to plan, 10 weeks to film, and cost a cool million (a fortune in 1959). The results are there on the screen, right before your eyes. Along with the human actors in the movie there are four other wonderful, unnamed, stars: the white horses pulling Ben-Hur's chariot.
Tom Jones (1963)
I managed to get into the theatre to see "Tom Jones" when I was a tender 16-year-old (the film got an "R" rating in Ontario). It was and remains at the zenith of my movie-going experiences. The theatre was packed and the reaction of the audience to the movie gives new meaning to the words "guffawing" and "rolling in the aisles" and "rollicking".
"Tom Jones" came out at the height of the British New Wave. It eschews impeccably grand and fussy shots of stately mansions and serene crowds in favour of wildness and chaos. It plunks the camera in the mud with the pigs, plays peek-a-boo with the ladies' bosoms (the elderly Dame Edith Evans, thwacking the hogs with her parasol, her own breasts seemingly in danger of popping out of her bodice, is a sight to behold!), and completely thwarts our expectations of how a period piece should play. Masterpiece Theatre this is not. I doubt that Tony Richardson ever made a better - or more robust - movie.
Yet, in spite of its satirical bent, there's not a mean bone in its body. It displays the ugliness, dangers and unfairness of the society it's portraying (I noticed, at the time, that British cinema was largely about class), but "Tom Jones" won my heart because it does so much more. It's full of joy, hope and optimism, and it's a celebration of love, life and youth. It makes me feel young again.
A Tale of Good Breeding
In the old west, Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), a half-breed American, is dispatched with a message to the military brass that orders the massacre of a tribe of native Americans at Wounded Knee, if necessary. It becomes apparently necessary. Hopkins takes to drink and joins Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show which dramatizes, with flash and fury, and guns a-blazing, the triumph of the noble white man over the pernicious savage. Strange to think how this idea was perpetuated by popular culture (the movies) until the 1950's and beyond. Anyway, fate intervenes - an Arab Sheikh (Omar Sharif) has taken an interest in long-distance horseman Hopkins and his wild mustang, Hidalgo, and soon the two are crossing "the great water" to compete in a prestigious horse race across the Arabian desert, against a different breed of horse and horseman altogether.
In "Hidalgo" breeding is everything. In Arabia Hopkins encounters a world in which the privileged few princes and sheikhs hold sway over the multitudes, and lesser races are relegated to slavery (Hopkins was born in 1865, during the demise of American slavery). Hopkins and his mustang are sneered at by the breeders of generations of Arabian thoroughbreds, and the valiant riders of these princely animals are not above cheating and engaging in other forms of deadly chicanery in order to win the race. Mortensen plays Hopkins as a particular breed of man one with honour, integrity, self-reliance and the ability to take care of himself and this "infidel" eventually endears himself to Sheikh Riyadh who holds similar ideals (a little hokey, I admit, because this type of laconic American hero, the likes of Gary Cooper, has been so prevalent in American movies).
I liked the "breeding" angle, which carries well throughout the movie, and I liked Viggo Mortensen's performance. Most of all, I liked the horse, Hidalgo, who pretty much steals the show. I found the race sequences to be a bit sketchy, and I had trouble believing that the participants actually covered the great distance we're told they did. It's an amiable adventure movie with stock action scenes, though not always that rousing. Writer John Fusco is purportedly a great fan of Hopkins whose claim to have participated in the Arabian horse race is held in question, according to my minimal research. But it's a good tall tale.
A Grim Fairy Tale
The best way to see "Prisoners" is to go in cold, not knowing anything, and be surprised and excited by every new twist and turn. I knew very little and had moderate expectations, so that when the early event every parent's worst nightmare, the kidnapping of children occurs I was seized by dread and anxiety which didn't let up until the final moment in the film. I see too many movies that don't really engage me, so it was thrilling to watch a movie that so completely held me in thrall.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays the cop assigned to the case. He's intuitive and methodical and has a history of solving all his cases. It doesn't help, though, that the father (played by Hugh Jackman) of one of the little kidnapped girls, impatient with the cop's M.O., decides to take matters into his own hands. He's a good man who does something unspeakably bad, and what he ends up doing morally rips him apart. This turns the movie from being merely a police procedural into something altogether different, and makes it really interesting. There are monsters in the movie and in the world and they're not the big bad wolf living off in the woods, somewhere. Sometimes they live among us, in nice tidy little houses down the street or maybe they lurk inside us.
I was afraid that the story was going to be too convoluted and that there were going to be gaps in logic (it's a testament to how involved I was in the movie that, for awhile, I was on edge about this) but these were tidied up to my satisfaction. One critic I read thought the movie was way too long, but I wasn't bored for an instant. "Prisoners" is exactly as long as it needs to be. I liked director Denis Villeneuve's careful and methodical pacing, slow and suggestive fades and preoccupation with mood (all of which, for me, increased the suspense). There were moments when this movie messed with my head.
How to Get a Nice Beard Trim
I love a good sci-fi movie. Even in ones with preposterous scenarios, if the film-makers can find ways to make it credible or can display some cleverness in the presentation, I'll buy in. It's called suspension of disbelief. I had some hope for "Elysium", because the idea of a giant, floating space wheel where .01 per cent of the "other half" lives really stirred my imagination. Mind you, I had some questions about its atmosphere and the sun's lethal radiation in space, but these vital scientific issues were never touched upon. Other reviewers on this site have effectively lambasted the film for its suspect science, so I'll merely recap by saying: The film-makers seem to think that if they just show it the audience will believe it.
I'd like to zero in on those cure-all medical pods in the movie. The door opens, you place the sick person inside, the door closes, the machine diagnoses the problem and - presto! - the person is cured. It works for leukemia, severed limbs and faces that have been torn off (and I swear that the face in question grew back without acne scars or grey hairs in the beard - yes, a finely trimmed beard grew back, too!). This isn't science, or science-fiction. It's magic. It occurred to me that with such magical medical machines all over the place this could have been a movie about immortality. Because you could certainly cure death.
I expect more from a big-budget movie in an age bristling with scientific knowledge. Fifty years ago this type of cheese would have seemed pretty nifty, but not under present-day circumstances. It's not even a well-made movie, with its choppy pacing and inability to allow the audience to inhabit any of the physical spaces it shows on screen. Poor Matt barely gets a chance to breathe let alone develop a character; and then there's Jodie Foster, who practically bellows her lines and wears a facial expression that suggests rectal discomfort. Maybe she should try one of those magic pods.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
This Coach Is Just a Pumpkin
"Midnight in Paris" is a time travel fantasy with a taxi as the means of conveyance, like H.G. Wells' time machine or the pumpkin carriage that transports Cinderella to the ball. Gil (Owen Wilson) travels back to 1920's "Lost Generation" Paris where he hobnobs with his arts and letters heroes, and even to "la belle époque" of the 1890's. Me, I'd like to visit the '40's and '50's. There's a few famous folks I'd like to meet. I should have liked "Midnight in Paris", but it, mostly, left me cold, and I wasn't charmed by its many quaint artifices.
People I've spoken to who have seen this movie are quite tickled by its whimsical premise. It's a pretty, dreamy soufflé that, unfortunately, sinks and congeals very quickly. I, myself, was quite eager to follow our wide-eyed hero as he tumbled down the rabbit-hole, bumping into the celebrities of the day, the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Bunuel, Baker, Porter, Picasso, Dali, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and on and on and on. There were so many celebs that I'm surprised that Woody Allen didn't simply roll out a red carpet.
And what a dull, boring, inane lot they all are! They're not characters, or even caricatures they're cardboard cut-outs (or cut-ups), and Allen hasn't penned a memorable line of dialogue for any of them. In fact, the screenplay is devoid of any wit, and the characters (all of them) lack any flesh or blood, depth or weight. Shouldn't great artists be just a little bit dangerous, if not in their behaviour, at least in their ideas? In one pointless scene Gil and Adriana (Marion Cotillard, easily the best thing in the film) encounter a suicidal Zelda Fitzgerald by the Seine. Just so that Gil can draw upon historical knowledge and convince her that F. Scott really loves her ("I know. Take my word for it") and offer her a Valium. Suicide? Just a gag.
Why must Woody Allen write protagonists who are merely variations of the Woody Allen screen persona? This often bothered me with Owen Wilson's Gil, who I didn't, for a moment, believe was a successful Hollywood screenwriter, hack or no hack. And as for his relationship with the shrew played by Rachel McAdams that strained credibility even further. By the way I just have to ask wouldn't Gil do re-writes on a computer, and what font do you suppose he used in the original manuscript he presents to Gertrude Stein? Just a thought.
"Midnight in Paris" is a one-note wonder with a script that is lazy and shallow. It's practically an insult to the great men and women of arts and letters who litter its scenes. Around the time that I saw "Midnight in Paris" I also caught Richard Linklater's dreamy, but alive, "Before Sunrise". Now, there's magic for you.
People Watching with Monsieur Tati
Oh, why do I love this movie so much? It must be its bright, sun-drenched beach setting, its sunny disposition, its sweet optimism and untempered innocence, its cheerful, gentle depiction of a bygone era when a disparate group of folk gather to vacation at a funky Gallic seaside resort. Whatever it is, this 1953 farce fills me with joy every time I see it. It was my wide-eyed introduction to French comic Jacques Tati eons ago.
It's obvious that Tati was an inveterate people-watcher. He depicts the foibles and peccadilloes of his eclectic array of characters with insight, charm and wit. Tati's view of humanity is both loving and generous. His main character, M. Hulot (played by M. Tati), is a somewhat daffy and eccentric bumbler who interacts with the other characters and lurches about leaving havoc in his wake. There's no plot to speak of, just a series of comic and nostalgic vignettes that segue effortlessly from one to the next.
This is the kind of comedy where you feel compelled to recount your favorite funny moments afterwards. Is it the recalcitrant horse, the gravity-prone mass of taffy, the ping-pong ball that propels Hulot to throw a peaceful card game into chaos, Hulot's wildly eccentric, but brutal, tennis serve that decimates his opponents, the deflatable wreath at the funeral, the restless tiger-skin rug, the suspense-ridden trek of the little boy holding the two ice-cream cones? You name your own.
I tittered, I chuckled, I laughed heartily and, occasionally, I guffawed. Yet there is a tinge of sadness at the finale as the activities wane, the guests depart and the hotel is shuttered up. Another endless summer finally ends. "See you next year!" is the parting refrain. "See you next time!" I say of this movie treasure.
Day of the Evil Gun (1968)
Take This Gun and Shoot It
"I'll be the same man when this is over," claims Owen (Arthur Kennedy), Lorne's side-kick in "Day of the Evil Gun". Uh, not quite. Owen is learning to kill, quite efficiently, and maybe Lorne (Glenn Ford) ought not to turn his back on him. It's a marriage of convenience between the two men. Both are on a quest to rescue Lorne's wife and daughters from a band of Apaches and Owen, due to ex-gunfighter Lorne's long absence from the homestead, figures he has dibs on the wife. Along the way they get into several adventures involving a grungy town without pity, Apaches (a highway robbery chase sequence is a hoot), Mexican riff-raff and a group of self-described blue-coat "renegades" (has a more heroic ring than "deserters").
"Day of the Evil Gun" is a laconic western that aims just high enough and succeeds entirely. Technically it does much with little and uses the landscape and backdrops to maximum effect, employing imaginative camera angles to describe the action. One reviewer has described the direction (by Jerry Thorpe) as "laid-back" - that doesn't mean "lazy", however. I would use the word "measured". Good widescreen photography and an evocative, but sparse, musical score make the movie seem more expensive than it likely is. Then, too, the movie is buoyed by the presence of Glenn Ford, late in his career, adding conviction to the story, while not too sluggish in the action scenes; also, the ever-welcome, somewhat bedevilled Arthur Kennedy; and Dean Jagger in a delightful cameo as a crazy trinket salesman (crazy like a fox).
I doubt that B-western writer Charles Marquis William pays much attention to historical reality. "Day of the Evil Gun" isn't Peckinpah or Leone, and It isn't bristling with "meaning", but all things being equal, it deserves to be seen and enjoyed. And referencing its title the movie is book-ended by two scenes that are practically the same, but different in a suitably ironic way. One question. To what extent does the 31 buck shopkeep debt trigger the outcome?