Saturday, September 12, 2009

City Hall

Day 255 - 9/12/09 - Movie #255

BEFORE: Moving north from the Trade Center, we pass City Hall on the right - and Al Pacino plays the mayor...

THE PLOT: The accidental shooting of a boy in New York leads to an investigation by the Deputy Mayor, and unexpectedly far-reaching consequences.

AFTER: Like "Wall Street", this had a plot with a lot of pieces that didn't seem to add up to a coherent whole for me. And I'm not sure if the problem is with the plot, or my lack of understanding. The shoot-out between a cop and a low-level mob drug-dealer uncovers a conspiracy - the main question being, why is the drug-dealer walking the streets on probation, when his offences warranted a 10 to 20-year sentence?

So the guy was connected, and somebody pulled some strings to influence the judge and the probation officers (I think), and John Cusack as the deputy mayor spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out who. It's not much of a surprise to New Yorkers to find out that there's a connection between mobsters and elected officials, or "Democratic bosses".

The more familiar you are with city politics, the more enjoyable this film probably is. But if you don't know much about politics (like me), this is probably very confusing.

Supporting work from Danny Aiello, Martin Landau, David Paymer, Richard Schiff ("West Wing"), Lauren Velez, Tamara Tunie ("Law & Order: SVU"), and John Slattery ("Mad Men")

RATING: 4 out of 10 indictments

Friday, September 11, 2009

World Trade Center

Day 254 - 9/11/09 - Movie #254

BEFORE: I've been avoiding this one, because I don't necessarily agree with the notion that a national tragedy is an appropriate setting for a Nicolas Cage action movie. But if I'm ever gonna watch it, today's the day. At least I've programmed back-to-back Oliver Stone films...

THE PLOT: Two Port Authority police officers become trapped under the rubble of the World Trade Center.

AFTER: The movie takes an unusual approach, focusing on two men trapped in the rubble, giving the whole thing a sort of tense, claustrophobic atmosphere. Then to break up the tension, we see the wives and families of the two men, waiting nervously for any news about the men's survival.

Without getting into too much of my own experiences on 9/11/2001 - since I'm trying to separate my review of the film from any feelings about the event (I was closer to the WTC during the 1993 bombing - about 1 block away, but that's another story...), the film still made me uncomfortable - but I suppose that's the whole point.

I suppose Oliver Stone had to tread a very fine line when making this movie - we can HEAR bodies hitting the pavement outside the World Trade Center, but we just don't see them, I suppose that would have been too distracting. Then again, maybe it was a cost-cutting measure, since we only see the towers collapse in all-too-familiar news footage. Re-creating the plane crashes and the building crashes would probably have been too difficult, too expensive, and too controversial.

So what we're left with is little bits and pieces of the day, and I'm not sure they add up to a big, coherent whole - which means that the ultimate 9/11 movie has yet to be made, and probably won't be for many years. This is sort of the equivalent of "From Here to Eternity", which showed personal bits and fragmented pieces of the Pearl Harbor attack, where the real big-budget Michael Bay film took 50+ plus years to be possible, and appropriate.

Still, the movie manages to hit home, especially since it's based on real events. The real John McLaughlin and William Jimeno spent hours buried under rubble, and were nearly last among the few people who were rescued from the pile. The film does manage to capture the feeling I remember from that day, the feeling of helplessness, of not knowing exactly how to react, or what the future repercussions of the day would be - just that there would be long-lasting ones.

I will give credit to the filmmaker(s) for showing all the different aspects of that day - humanity at both its worst and its best. We do see people going to hospitals to volunteer, driving down to the site itself to offer food or just support to disaster workers, and people (and dogs) traveling to NY to perform search and rescue operations, just because it's part of their skill sets. There are thousands of stories and it would be impossible to incorporate them all, so focusing on a select few makes the most sense.

The film didn't make it easy to spot cameos from character actors - since most everyone's face was covered in soot and dust - but I did notice Stephen Dorff and Frank Whaley as rescuers, and Nicholas Turturro as a P.A. officer - and of course Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Donna Murphy and Patty D'Arbanville among the officers' family members.

On a side note - one of the On Demand channels is offering all 4 of the "Airport" films, which I've never seen. Is it wrong of me to tape "Airport" on the anniversary of 9/11?

RATING: 7 out of 10 oxygen tanks

Wall Street

Day 253 - 9/10/09 - Movie #253

BEFORE: I'm going as far as I can in the other directions - with a week's worth of films about NYC. Charlie Sheen carries over from "Young Guns" into this one - and Terence Stamp too!

THE PLOT: A young and impatient stockbroker is willing to do anything to get to the top, including trading on illegal inside information taken through a ruthless and greedy corporate raider whom takes the youth under his wing.

AFTER: I don't know - this movie sort of didn't do it for me, maybe because I'm watching it 20 years too late, and it's such a reflection of the late 80's attitude, like how "Greed is good" and insider trading is OK (as long as you don't get caught...), so it's so rooted in its time.

I couldn't follow a lot of the financial mumbo-jumbo...leveraged buyouts and golden parachutes and union concessions...dumb it down, please! And unless I'm wrong - isn't the double-cross pulled on Gordon Gekko at the end virtually identical to the one that Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd pulled on the Duke brothers in "Trading Places"?

Supporting roles filled by John McGinley ("Scrubs"), Josh Mostel, James Spader, Grant Shaud, Tamara Tunie and Saul Rubinek...

RATING: 4 out of 10 stop-loss orders

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Young Guns II

Day 253 - 9/10/09 - Movie #252

BEFORE: This is the last Western on my list - so I'm done with the whole genre after tonight. I might be interested in the future if some channel runs "Tombstone" or "Wyatt Earp", which I haven't seen, or maybe even that one with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson - but for now they're not on my radar.

THE PLOT: Billy "The Kid" and his gang are wanted by the law, and when "Doc" Scurlock and Chavez are captured, Billy has to save them...

AFTER: In addition to Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips carry over from the first movie, and the vacancies in Billy's gang are filled by Christian Slater, Alan Ruck (Cameron from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and a young Balthazar Getty. William Petersen ("CSI") takes over the role of Pat Garrett, (who had just a quick walk-on in the first movie...) assisted by Viggo Mortensen (a decade before playing Aragorn in "Lord of the Rings").

I'm not sure a sequel was warranted - obviously the story ended with Garrett tracking down Billy the Kid - or did it? The movie's framing device goes so far as to suggest that the Kid survived, and lived in obscurity under another name until 1950 or so, which seems pretty far-fetched.

As does the notion that what Westerns really needed was music by Bon Jovi...

So, now that I'm totally burnt out on watching Western shootouts, I'm dusting myself off, leaving the corral, and riding on back to the Big City...

RATING: 6 out of 10 dime-store novels

Young Guns

Day 252 - 9/9/09 - Movie #251

BEFORE: I couldn't come up with a movie based around the number "9" - or even a Beatles movie, since I've seen them instead I'm watching the Brat Pack go Western. Don't worry, it's all part of the plan. I had a feeling that I might have seen this movie, but if I did, I don't remember it at all. If it seems too familiar, I'll switch over to "Young Guns II". In the meantime, let's enjoy some back-to-back Jack Palance!

THE PLOT: A group of young gunmen, led by Billy the Kid, become deputies to avenge the murder of the rancher who became their benefactor. But when Billy takes their authority too far, they become the hunted.

AFTER: See, Billy the Kid was just misunderstood, right? He's just a guy who went a bit too far - or else he was a nutjob serial killer, this movie ultimately isn't sure which way it wants to portray him.

It's not bad as an ensemble movie - like in "The Magnificent Seven", they really went out of their ways to give each character a different personality - Charlie Sheen plays the paranoid one, Kiefer Sutherland is the group poet, Dermot Mulroney is the "dirty" one, and Lou Diamond Philips is the half-Native American spiritual one.

I guess maybe I hadn't seen this one before, the storyline wasn't familiar at all.

Terence Stamp plays John Tunstall, the man who educates the "Regulators" that work on his ranch, and Jack Palance plays the rival rancher who wants him gone. Cameos from Patrick Wayne (son of John) as Pat Garrett, and playing Tunstall's lawyer looked familiar - he was Terry O'Quinn, who plays that bald guy on "Lost".

RATING: 7 out of 10 deputy badges

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

High Noon

Day 251 - 9/8/09 - Movie #250

BEFORE: At some point, I found that the radio format that appealed most to me was "Classic Rock" - I wish the local station (Q104.3) would play a little more 80's and a lot less 90's in their Classic Rock Mix, but I get by. (I mean come on, by technical definition, isn't the 80's more "classic" than the 90's? How can Stone Temple Pilots qualify as classic, if REO Speedwagon doesn't?) As time wears on, we all get a little bit older, and our favorite tunes become "classics", God willing. Thank god they're not considered "oldies" yet, that's what I say. Bottom line, I can't name one song written after 1990 that I want to hear on a regular basis - there, I said it.

Now I find that my favorite movies are the "new classics" as well. Tonight we go past "classic" Westerns and dig out an oldie - is it also a "goodie"?

THE PLOT: A marshall, personally compelled to face a returning deadly enemy, finds that his own town refuses to help him.

AFTER: I can see why this film should be required viewing for film critics. It's the technical definition of a slow build - and as Robert Osborne pointed out on TCM, it plays out in something darn close to real time. Very films manage to do that - I think "88 minutes" came pretty close, and Johnny Depp was in one called "Nick of Time", but it's quite uncommon.

The dialogue is pretty stilted - as I listened to Gary Cooper, I recognized speech patterns similar to the animated Hank Hill - so I'm wondering if Mike Judge used "High Noon" for inspiration or if it's all in my head. Either way, what both characters share is an unfailing moral compass, a sense of what's right and decent, when surrounded by people who generally lack such a thing.

Supporting roles filled by Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Harry Morgan, and making his fourth appearance this week in Western garb, Lee Van Cleef as one of the villains. Some weird cameos too, including Sheb Wooley (of "Purple People Eater" fame) as another of the villains and Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy from "It's a Wonderful Life") as the town's mayor. Lon Chaney Jr. is in there somewhere too (minus werewolf make-up).

I'm sure you know the classic set-up - bad man coming into town on the noon train, sheriff tries to round up some defense, but ends up standing alone. I pictured a lonely shootout in a Western street, with one of two potential outcomes - I'm pleased to say that after such a long build-up, the final action scenes were more complex and satisfying than that.

A lot has been written about this film over the years - it's Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, and a commentary on McCarthyism all rolled into one. Here's my take - what if after all that buildup about Frank Miller coming to town, it turned out he was just coming to do some errands? You know, get out of prison and finally get around to picking up that dry-cleaning, or see if there are any packages for you at the post office? A lot of mail builds up during five years in prison....wouldn't that be funny?

RATING: 5 out of 10 shots of whiskey

Monday, September 7, 2009


Day 250 - 9/7/09 - Movie #249

BEFORE: Two more classic Westerns, then I'm headed back to modern times - many people cite this film as their favorite Western, so let's see what all the fuss is about.

THE PLOT: A weary gunfighter attempts to settle down with a homestead family, but a smoldering settler/rancher conflict forces him to act.

AFTER: Most annoying child actor EVER. (and that includes Jake Lloyd in Star Wars: Episode I)

"Why aren't you wearing your guns, Shane?" "Are you fixin' to stay on, Shane?" "Will you teach me to shoot, Shane?" "Why are you riding into town, Shane?"

Probably to get a moment's peace from a whiny kid who asks too many questions...

Was it wrong of me to root for the evil gunslinger, played by Jack Palance?

RATING: 4 out of 10 fenceposts

The Wild Bunch

Day 250 - 9/7/09 - Movie #248

BEFORE: Another late addition to the list, just bought this last week at the $5 DVD store. I know, I said I wasn't going to buy any more movies there, but I knew that Gunslinger Week was coming up. I really feel like I'm learning a lot about Westerns, I know this is another iconic one, directed by Sam Peckinpah, but that's all I know - so class is in session again.

THE PLOT: An aging group of outlaws look for one last big score as the "traditional" American West is disappearing around them.

AFTER: Did you ever have one of those days, when you've hijacked a trainload of army rifles for a rogue Mexican general, and you're being chased by the U.S. army AND a group of bounty hunters? And just as you've sent a wagonload of said rifles across a bridge, and lit the fuses to blow up the bridge, THEN the wagon gets stuck on the bridge, and you can't un-light the explosives? Man, I HATE it when that happens...

I was sort of feeling like the movie was pretty pointless, but then I figured that maybe I was just getting burned out on Westerns - I have been packing them in this holiday weekend. I held out, and I'm glad I did, because the best twists came near the end of this film - other than that, it's a long chase film, like "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" was.

William Holden stars, backed up by Ernest Borgnine, and HEY, it's Warren Oates again...

I still liked "The Magnificent Seven" a bit more - because that movie really got inside the head of the gunslinger, tried to explain the WHY of that lifestyle, and the moral code of the West. In this film, it's a little hard to root for the good guys when there aren't any good guys - the stars of the film are bank robbers. Which isn't necessarily a deterrent to us liking them, but at the end of the film when they start to get consciences, it turns out to have terrible repercussions.

The director's cut is on a double-sided disc. If you didn't know that and just watched Side A of the DVD, you can enjoy a happier ending - the posse has lost the trail of our heroes, and if you just don't flip the disc over, you can imagine they're in the clear...

RATING: 6 out of 10 bags of washers

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Magnificent Seven Ride!

Day 249 - 9/6/09 - Movie #247

BEFORE: And the role of Chris Adams is recast AGAIN, this time with Lee Van Cleef. And those Mexican bandits are acting up yet again...

THE PLOT: Marshal Chris Adams turns down a friend's request to help stop a gang of Mexican bandits. When his wife is killed by bank robbers and his friend is killed capturing the last thief, Chris feels obligated to take up his friend's cause.

AFTER: See what I mean? He's already recruited every available gunslinger in Texas for his suicide missions - so now he's forced to raid the local prisons. (Is this "The Magnificent Seven" or "The Dirty Dozen"?)

This has the look and feel of a TV movie, and the presence of TV icons like Ralph Waite (The Waltons), Stefanie Powers (Hart to Hart) and Mariette Hartley (umm...those Polaroid ads with James Garner) only reinforces this. And I could have sworn that was Joe Penny as the writer, but I guess I was wrong...and Gary Busey has a small role as a bank robber/rapist.

After 4 forays into Mexican territory, I'm in favor of a laissez-faire policy - let the Mexican government deal with their own bandits, I say. I know I originally blessed TCM for running all four Mag Seven movies, but now I'm wondering if the blessing has become a curse. I still like the way they think, being a collector and a completist, but you've got to draw the line somewhere.

RATING: 3 out of 10 sombreros

Guns of the Magnificent Seven

Day 249 - 9/6/09 - Movie #246

BEFORE: The franchise must continue, even when the original star isn't available - I understand this as it applies to James Bond and Batman movies. But when Yul Brynner isn't available for another "Magnificent Seven" movie, he's replaced with...George Kennedy?

THE PLOT: A Mexican revolutionary hires an American gunslinger to organize the rescue of their leader from a brutal army prison.

AFTER: Well, at least the plot's a little different - this time the Mag Seven are working WITH the that "revolutionaries", right? You say the difference between a guerrila and a freedom fighter just depends on whether he's on your side or not.

And again we see what can be accomplished by a ragtag bunch of misfits... Our leader's been captured by the federales, the villagers are being enslaved and the crops are drying up - if only we had a ragtag bunch of misfits to fix everything!

By now, I think the Texas gunslingers are getting wise to Chris Adams' recruitment drives, since most of the previous groups of seven didn't make it back from Mexico - so the third string includes James Whitmore as an older knife-thrower (was he EVER young?) and Joe Don Baker as a one-armed carnival marksman. Oh, and the Seven finally has an affirmative-action policy, with Bernie Casey as Cassie, its first black member. Plus there's a guy who coughs a lot, so I assume he's got a terminal illness, but this point never gets addressed.

The only real connection to the previous movies is the actor Fernando Rey, who played a priest in the 2nd movie and a rebel leader in this one - and that stirring score by Elmer Bernstein, which ties the whole series together.

RATING: 5 out of 10 plates of beans