Saturday, June 30, 2012

Casualties of War

Year 4, Day 182 - 6/30/12 - Movie #1,179

BEFORE: The war chain is jumping back to Vietnam, but in my mind I'm flashing back to 1989, when this film was in theaters, and I was working as an usher at the Cineplex Odeon.  I saw bits of this film if I had to enter the screening room for some reason, but it's taken me this long to watch the whole film from front to back.  Look, I've been busy, OK?  Yeah, I could have seen the film for free back then on my day off, but really the last thing I wanted to do on my day off was go to the same place where I worked.

Linking from "The Kingdom", Danny Huston was also in "21 Grams" with Sean Penn (last seen in "Carlito's Way". Which is really lucky, since it saves me the trouble of linking the two lead actors from the "Teen Wolf" movies, though some minor character from both of those films.

THE PLOT: During the Vietnam War, a soldier finds himself the outsider of his own squad when they unnecessarily kidnap a female villager.

AFTER: I think one of the things this film has going against it is that it was released just a couple years after "Platoon".  This film is not "Platoon", it was never going to be "Platoon", and it looked like it was trying to capitalize on that film's success.  Anytime a film does really well, or is considered an artistic masterpiece, you can bet that two or three years later, there will be a few similar films released.  I'm shocked that "Titanic" wasn't followed by films about the lives lost on the Lusitania and the Andrea Doria.  But I digress.

There's no question about the depiction of war here, but just as horrible are the actions of the soldiers after they kidnap a young Vietnamese girl.  The questions arise when one squad member decides to report on these actions, and his superiors don't want him to rock the boat.  How can you separate out one immoral act (OK, two at least) when surrounded by all the atrocities of war?  Can a man turn in the man who saved his life for his war crimes? 

This was a tough one to get through, not because of the violent acts depicted, but more because of the tone.  It got pretty preachy, something that "Platoon" didn't do.  "Platoon" merely showed us the horror of Vietnam, and this film chose to show it, and then have characters talk about it at length, which became somewhat redundant.  At some point, you've got to trust the audience to connect the dots and draw their own conclusions.

Plus there's a framing sequence that is so threadbare that it's almost non-existent, and a lot of repeated dialogue, which makes parts of the film feel half-written.

Also starring Michael J. Fox (last heard in "Stuart Little 2"), John C. Reilly (last seen in "Days of Thunder"), Don Harvey, John Leguizamo (last seen in "The Fan"), Ving Rhames (last seen in "Out of Sight").

RATING: 5 out of 10 latrines

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Kingdom

Year 4, Day 181 - 6/29/12 - Movie #1,178

BEFORE: Sticking with the Gulf War theme, though this one takes place in Saudi Arabia.  Linking from "Courage Under Fire", Matt Damon was also in "Syriana" with Chris Cooper (last seen in "Seabiscuit").

THE PLOT: A team of U.S. government agents is sent to investigate the bombing of an American facility in the Middle East.

AFTER: The film opens with a socio-political explanation of the Middle East conflict, which rightly centers on the logistics of oil - who has it, and who wants it.  Which is good, because without that, the movie wouldn't really get into the WHY of war, and without that, it's just a shoot-em-up.

The action sequences are well-done, those seem to be the focus of the piece, though it starts out as an investigation of a bombing, almost like an episode of "CSI: Riyadh".  Fortunately the FBI agents here are just as good in a firefight as they are sifting through a crime scene.

There are very broad generalizations made, however - all Arabs depicted seem to be either Saudi police or terrorists, and rarely anything in-between.  And I suspect the Middle East conflict is probably a bit more complex than the black-and-white issues shown here.  Arab investigators are portrayed as incompetent, or unable to do proper police investigating, and the U.S. agents are of course extremely knowledgable and doggedly determined.

Other than that, not a bad little war film.

Also starring Jamie Foxx (last seen in "Law Abiding Citizen"), Jennifer Garner (last seen in "The Invention of Lying"), Jason Bateman (last seen in "Up in the Air"), Danny Huston (last seen in "Robin Hood"), Richard Jenkins (last seen in "The Mod Squad"), Jeremy Piven (last seen in "Black Hawk Down"), Ashraf Barhom, with cameos from Tim McGraw, Frances Fisher, Kyle Chandler.

RATING: 6 out of 10 bullet-proof vests

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Courage Under Fire

Year 4, Day 180 - 6/28/12 - Movie #1,177

BEFORE: Starting with a correction - I wasn't using the filters properly on the IMDB yesterday when I calculated the number of appearances for certain actors.  As a result, the counts included writing and producing credits, and I was trying to count only acting credits.  My crack staff caught the error (they realized the list was a little too DeVito-heavy) and the figures have been adjusted.  Actors who have produced or directed films without starring in them have had their totals reduced.

The new top 10:
1) Robert DeNiro, 29 films
2-3) tie - Owen Wilson and Samuel L. Jackson, 22 films each
4-7) (tie) - Brad Pitt, Steve Buscemi, Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington, 21 films each
8-9) (tie) - Matt Damon and Clint Eastwood, 20 films each
10) Jack Nicholson, 19 films

That seems more reasonable.  Thank you for playing, contestants. And yes, that includes Denzel Washington's (and Matt Damon's) appearance in tonight's film, as Denzel carries over from "The Manchurian Candidate".

THE PLOT: A US Army officer, despondent about a deadly mistake he made, investigates a female chopper commander's worthiness for the Medal of Honor.

AFTER: I had a vague memory of seeing parts of this film before, but upon watching it, I didn't recall anything from before, so if I did see it, I clearly didn't pay much attention.  1996 was a tough year for me, I had a lot on my mind.

It should be obvious that I've started a military-centric chain (which should take me through July 4), but the unintended theme over the last 3 days has been the subjective nature of reality.  Here that takes form in the differing accounts of the same event, as we see the same helicopter crash and its aftermath over and over from different points of view.

It's kind of like what George Carlin said about driving: anyone going slower than you is an asshole, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac.  By the same token, the braver soldiers in the unit see the chopper pilot as a weakling, but the insecure ones see her as very confident.  So relying on eyewitness accounts is fairly useless in judging her actions, especially if some of the soldiers are not being honest about what took place in the Iraqi desert.

At the same time, as Denzel Washington's character investigates the chopper crash, he's forced to come to terms with a traumatic event in his Gulf War history, and decide to what extent he needs to take responsibility for a friendly-fire incident.

I don't have much to say tonight, but I found this one pretty lackluster.  Even the action sequences - but running footage of the same footage several times over the course of a film could be part of why they were boring.

Also starring Meg Ryan (last heard in "Anastasia"), Matt Damon (last seen in "Invictus"), Lou Diamond Phillips (last seen in "Disorganized Crime"), Michael Moriarty, Scott Glenn (last seen in "Secretariat"), with cameos from Bronson Pinchot, Zeljko Ivanek (also carrying over from "Manchurian Candidate"), Sean Astin (last seen in "The War of the Roses"), and Ken Jenkins (last seen in "Clockstoppers").

RATING: 5 out of 10 magazines

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Year 4, Day 179 - 6/27/12 - Movie #1,176

BEFORE: We now return to our regularly-scheduled Denzel Washington chain, already in progress.  Jeffrey Wright carries over from "Source Code" in a nice bit of coincidence.  

I was playing around with the IMDB yesterday, and I finally figured out how to use the filters to search for how many appearances an actor has in my list of watched movies.  The search feature on this blog is unreliable, so I usually have to resort to my memory, which is also unreliable.  (Which is why I have a list.)  So now I can answer the question - which actors have dominated the countdown?

Number 1 is Robert De Niro, with 31 appearances - no shocker there, since it took me over three weeks to watch his films in a chain, plus he's popped up here and there since then.  Tied for second are Clint Eastwood and Brad Pitt, with 24 each.  In 4th place there's another tie, upstart Owen Wilson has 22 appearances, and so does Samuel L. Jackson, thanks to all those Marvel movies.  Meryl Streep moves into a 3-way tie for 6th tonight with her 21st film, putting her in league with the omnipresent Steve Buscemi and, somehow, Danny DeVito.  And Denzel breaks into the top 10 tonight, tied for 9th place with Matt Damon - both have 20 films in the project.  The project's not over, but De Niro's going to be tough to beat.

Just below the top 10 are George Clooney, Jack Nicholson and Ben Stiller, each with 19 films.  A late run by Clooney could put him in the top 10 - and Liam Neeson, Robert Duvall, Robert Redford, Bruce Willis, Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich are surprisingly some of the also-rans.  There are some weird stats, like I've seen more films with John C. Reilly than Will Ferrell, but that just means Reilly is more versatile.  Nicolas Cage and Adam Sandler are way back in the pack - I guess it just feels like I've seen more of their films than I actually have.

THE PLOT: In the midst of the Gulf War, soldiers are kidnapped and brainwashed for sinister purposes.

AFTER: I watched the original version of this film, the Sinatra one, back in Nov. 2010 - on Veteran's Day, no less, and I thought it was sort of O.K., gave it a 4.  Lots of filler, though, and its legacy was to inspire silly brainwashing plots on TV shows like "Gilligan's Island".  Overall it was pretty low-rent and effects-free, so I think it was pretty ripe for an update.  This is where my rating system sort of deviates from the norm - the original film is regarded as a "classic" bit of cinema, and usually gets a high rating, but to me it seems outdated and less relevant, and that should be reflected in the rating. 

Here it seems like they deconstructed the plot and then re-assembled it, keeping the parts that worked and discarding what didn't.  Updating the film to cover the first Gulf War makes sense (see also: "Iron Man") but the connection to Red China is lost, and unfortunately so is the meaning of the title.  The way that they had to shoehorn in the word "Manchurian" into this plot was very clunky.  On the plus side, we've had a lot of scientific innovation in the last few decades, with brain surgery, implanted tracking chips, genetic manipulation - so why not improved brainwashing?

They dispensed with the use of playing cards as a trigger, which I have to applaud.  It's just too unreliable - what if the Queen of Diamonds gets stuck on the bottom of the deck, or if the assassin is not a great solitaire player?  By the same token, what happens during a friendly game of "Go Fish" when the wrong card comes up?  It's too risky.  Which is a shame only because playing cards made an appearance during "Source Code", and I'd hoped that would help connect the two films.  Still, I hope someday someone remakes this film with Penn & Teller, where Teller plays the silent assassin, and the trigger card is the three of clubs.  Someone get working on that.

But like last night, we've got questions here about what constitutes reality - what happens when someone's memories of an incident might not be real?  Of course we want to believe Denzel's character because he's our broken hero, but there's an equal amount of evidence surrounding him that shows he might be crazy.  Throw in Gulf War syndrome and PTSD, and general paranoia, and all bets are off.

There are references here to global terrorism, the prevalence of security cameras, the power of corporations and lobbyists, and of course it's an election year - so good timing all around, and a good way to update a sleeper film from the 1960's.  The big problem with a remake is that you may go in knowing all the plot twists - but they changed up a key piece of the puzzle and shifted the duties of the characters a bit, so it did keep me guessing about how it was all going to shake down.  It's funny, we had John McCain, noted veteran and P.O.W. running for office last time, and no one ever suggested any kind of VietCong assassin-related programming.

I know, I know, it couldn't happen (or could it?).  Even under hypnosis, people can't be convinced to do something that goes against their morals.  So the use of tech here is sort of smoke and mirrors to convince us that we're getting close.  But it's a long leap from improving the DNA of a tomato to programming a robotic killing machine.  (or is it?)

Also starring Liev Schreiber (last seen in "Salt"), Meryl Streep (last seen in "The Hours"), Jon Voight (last seen in "Midnight Cowboy"), Kimberly Elise, Simon McBurney, with cameos from Vera Farmiga (also carrying over from "Source Code"), Bill Irwin, Al Franken, Dean Stockwell, Miguel Ferrer, Ted Levine (last seen in "Heat"), Zeljko Ivanek.

RATING: 6 out of 10 secret service agents

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Source Code

Year 4, Day 178 - 6/26/12 - Movie #1,175

BEFORE: I'm putting the Denzel Washington chain on hold for the night, because I can't resist putting two very similar-looking films back-to-back.  Just like I did for "The Road" and "The Book of Eli", and many other pairings in the past.  In both films, it looks like people are trying to avoid train disasters, but this one adds the element of time-travel, and I just LOVE time travel films.   Will this one measure up?

Linking from "Unstoppable", Ethan Suplee was in a film called "Brothers" with Jake Gyllenhaal (last seen in "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time").  Other links are possible, but I don't want to repeat myself later this week.

THE PLOT: A soldier wakes up in the body of an unknown man and discovers he's part of a mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train.

AFTER: So yeah, this was like "Unstoppable" meets "12 Monkeys", or perhaps "Groundhog Day", which seems promising since I like those films.  (Heck, throw in "Donnie Darko" too, since that film gets evoked just by Gyllenhaal's presence.) When Bruce Willis was sent back in time in "12 Monkeys" to prevent a disaster, that was done really well (see below for notes on time travel scenarios).  He wasn't trying to prevent the disaster, but merely gain information about it.  And like "Groundhog Day", the main character here is allowed to repeat the same 8 minutes again and again, until he can gain some control over the situation.

There's also a dose of "The Matrix" - the whole "brain in a jar" theory of cosmology.  What if our whole reality was some kind of computer simulation, and we were just some brain being kept entertained by a large variety of false stimuli?  If everything we saw, felt, and tasted was an illusion created by electrical impulses?  And what if we knew that simulation was going to end soon, how would that affect our decisions?  And if you could return to a critical 8-minute period in your past, what would you do differently?  And if that were possible, would a different choice change the future, or just create a divergent reality?

Lots of questions tonight, and I'm not sure I agree with the "answers" that the film provides.  But then again, we're not really dealing with true time travel here (or are we?).  And the main character can't really change the past (or can he?).  That doesn't mean that this isn't an entertaining sort of thrill ride, because it is, but it's not really what they sold me.  It's like a waitress brought me the wrong entree - if I'm in a good restaurant I still expect the food to be delicious, but it's just not what I ordered.

NITPICK POINT:  IF the Source Code is just a computer simulation (and I'm not saying it is, because apparently reality itself is subjective...) and it's based on the last 8 minutes of a man's memory, then the simulation would be limited to just what that man saw, touched or sensed.  If he didn't look inside a woman's purse, for example, then the simulation wouldn't know what to put in there.  There would be gaps, like when you try to read a book in your dreams.  It might try to fill those gaps, but that information would be speculative.

NITPICK POINT 2: Negated by further plot developments.  No, wait, you know what?  I retract my retraction.  Because I thought for a while that the filmmakers understood how time travel and quantum thingies "work", and then they proved to me that they didn't.  There are clearly stated limitations regarding what Source Code can do, and then they get ignored.  The result is an ending similar to the re-worked version of "Brazil" - the BAD one, not the director's cut.  I would have been fine with a more downbeat ending, and I won't say any more about it.

So, here's the time-travel paradox.  If you can travel back in time to prevent an event, let's say the assassination of Lincoln, which you know about from history books, you can't succeed.  Because if you did, then there wouldn't be mention of the tragedy in the history books, and you wouldn't have learned about it, so you wouldn't know that it needed to be prevented, and you wouldn't go do so.

From this we can deduce that either:  1) controlled time travel is impossible, and will never be invented OR 2) changing the past is impossible, or if possible, creates a divergent reality instead of changing the future  OR  3) time travel is possible, but changing an event in the past creates an even worse future, so whoever did so was forced to change history back.  Possibility #1 is most likely, but all of them tend to take the fun out of things.  Time travel: great for movies, bad for reality.

Also starring Vera Farmiga (last seen in "Autumn in New York"), Michelle Monaghan (last seen in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith"), Jeffrey Wright (last seen in "W."), and a cameo from Scott Bakula (Mr. Quantum Leap, nice...)

RATING: 7 out of 10 cell phones

Monday, June 25, 2012


Year 4, Day 177 - 6/25/12 - Movie #1,174

BEFORE: The Denzel Washington chain rolls on, like...umm, like...something that keeps moving forward in straight line, and crashes through whatever gets in its way.  Darn, I wish I could think of a really great metaphor for that.

THE PLOT: With an unmanned, half-mile-long freight train barreling toward a city, a veteran engineer and a young conductor race against the clock to prevent a catastrophe.

AFTER: This one's pretty straightforward - train gets out of control, try to catch up with train, try to stop train.  No surprise plot twists, no hidden meanings, not a lot of excess complex symbolism.

So I don't feel the need to write a lot tonight, since there's really not much to analyze.  Sure, there's action - in fact a bunch of stuff blows up real good.  There are good characters, though the rookie-working-with-grizzled-veteran thing is a little hokey.

It's not really a NITPICK POINT, more of an observation, regarding the first guy who lost control of the train, then was unable to jump back into the engine's cab to stop it.  He gave up pretty easily, without seeming to realize that there were twenty OTHER cars after the engine, and he could have climbed aboard any of them, and then (eventually) made his way to the engine.  Nope, he just stands there and lets the other cars pass right by him.  That's some quick thinking.

Also starring Chris Pine (last seen in "Star Trek"), Rosario Dawson (last seen in "Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief"), Ethan Suplee (last seen in "John Q."), Kevin Corrigan (last seen in "Bad Boys"), Kevin Dunn (last seen in "Nixon") and T.J. Miller.

RATING: 5 out of 10 news copters

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Man on Fire

Year 4, Day 176 - 6/24/12 - Movie #1,173

BEFORE: This is the 2nd of 5 Denzel Washington films planned for this week - and it should also lead me nicely in to my next category.

THE PLOT: In Mexico City, a former assassin swears vengeance on those who committed an unspeakable act against the family he was hired to protect.

AFTER: This is also known as the film where Dakota Fanning was still a kid, but talked like an adult.  Well, it should be anyway.  I have a new affinity for how hard it is to write believable-sounding dialogue. 

Still this was a pretty powerful and violent thriller as the main character methodically worked his way up the Mexican crime chain, like a version of the Punisher.  We're led to believe that the character can be a professional assassin, and be versed in all manner of torture and interrogation techniques, yet still be able to compartmentalize his lifestyle so that he can work as a bodyguard for a 10-year-old.  I suppose it's possible.

It's important to note that this film preceded "Taken" - because it's the same concept.  A man with a particular set of skills sets about to take revenge on a system of kidnappers.  I probably don't pay enough attention to directors, but I did note that this film's director, Tony Scott, has popped up a lot on the countdown lately - he also directed "The Fan" and "Days of Thunder", and tomorrow night's film as well.  He's worked a few times with Denzel - directed "Deja Vu", "Crimson Tide" and "The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3" and tomorrow night's film as well.

NITPICK POINT: A character knows a car's license plate, except for the last digit.  He states that there are "10 possibilities" for the missing digit - but really, there should be 36 possibilities, if you figure that what's missing could either be a letter or a number.  If he'd known for sure it was a number, he'd probably also know which one.

A couple of regrets tonight - first off, that the title was misleading, though I suppose two hours of watching a man on fire would probably not be as entertaining as one might think.  Secondly, I didn't realize when I set the schedule that this took place in Mexico.  In about 2 months I'm starting my virtual world tour, and I could have easily used this as a stop on the itinerary, along with other Mexico-based films like "Touch of Evil" and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico".  Oh, well. 

Also starring Dakota Fanning (last seen in "Push"), Christopher Walken (last seen in "Kangaroo Jack"), Marc Anthony (last seen in "Carlito's Way"), Radha Mitchell (last seen in "Phone Booth"), Rachel Ticotin, Giancarlo Giannini, with a cameo from Mickey Rourke (last seen in "Iron Man 2")

RATING: 7 out of 10 taped-up fingers