Friday, November 15, 2013


Year 5, Day 319 - 11/15/13 - Movie #1,583

BEFORE: Linking from "Zero Dark Thirty", Kyle Chandler carries over, reinforcing my obvious decision to watch these two Oscar nominees for Best Picture of 2012 back-to-back.

THE PLOT:  Acting under the cover of a Hollywood producer scouting a location for a science fiction film, a CIA agent launches a dangerous operation to rescue six Americans in Tehran during the U.S. hostage crisis in Iran in 1980.

AFTER: I've got a built-in soft spot for any film that name-checks "Star Wars" this much - or makes references to the wave of imitators that came around in the late 70's, from "Battlestar Galactica" to "Buck Rogers" and even "Ice Pirates" (shudder...).   I lived through that cinematic dark period (what do you mean I have to wait THREE YEARS for the next film?) and there really were no substitutes for "Star Wars", but that didn't stop Hollywood from trying.

(Wait a second - I just got it, 12 hours after watching the film.  It's kind of got the same story structure as the first "Star Wars" film, only Iran is the Death Star, the hostages are Princess Leia, and Tony Mendez is Han Solo and Luke Skywalker.  That's either an incredible coincidence, or a brilliant subtle homage...  So that means Hollywood is Mos Eisley, a "wretched hive of scum and villainy".  Yep, that works for me.)

Plus there are bits reminiscent of "The Producers", particularly during the screenplay selection phase - the hours spent poring over a pile of terrible scripts, searching for that perfect stinker, then dealing with the crazy screenwriter who has the most ambitious dreams, but in the end has to be informed that his script is complete crap, and is being used for purposes other than what he intended.

This leads to even more comedy bits, which I greatly enjoyed, as the film pokes fun at the entire Hollywood process.  The comic actors cast here have the best lines, like "You think the Ayatollah is tough?  Try the writer's guild..."  or "You want to lie to Hollywood, a town where everybody lies for a living..." There's a pretty good contrast established between the serious world of international espionage and the ridiculous world of film production.

Beyond an affection for "Star Wars", something else that my blog shares with this storyline is the fact that both were inspired by the film series "The Planet of the Apes".  In "Argo", the lead character sees an actor in an ape mask and that gives him an idea about how to get people out of Iran.  In my case, a few months before starting this project, I decided to watch all 5 or 6 of the films in the simian series, back-to-back in proper order.  Suddenly they all made a lot more sense (relatively speaking, of course) and it made me wonder what other cinematic insights I could gain by watching other films in sequence. 

Oh, right, history.  The fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah, and the U.S. hostages in Iran.  I remember all that too, I think a kid in my junior high class had an uncle who was one of the hostages, so this was all big news in my hometown - I guess it was big news all over the U.S., right?  Yeah, I think it was in all the papers.  But nothing about this secret CIA mission, obviously, that rescued 6 people who fled the embassy and spent weeks holed up in the Canadian minister's home.  That must have been hell, living from day to day in a dangerous region with only poutine and peameal to eat, and only Molson and Tuborg to drink. 

Is it the BEST movie of 2012?  Well, for my money, no.  That distinction has already been given to "The Dark Knight Rises", which received a perfect score according to my less-than-scientific process. Maybe this explains why Ben Affleck is so eager to get into the Bat-Suit.  But it's always a big day here at the Movie Year when I get to cross off another Best Picture Oscar winner - I still have to watch "Gandhi" and "The Artist" (why hasn't that run on premium cable yet?) and then there are just a few Best Picture winners left from the old days.

Also starring Ben Affleck (last seen in "Paycheck"), John Goodman (last seen in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"), Alan Arkin (last seen in "The Rocketeer"), Bryan Cranston (last seen in "Red Tails"), Victor Garber (last heard in "Kung Fu Panda 2"), Tate Donovan (last seen in "Memphis Belle"), Clea DuVall (last seen in "Can't Hardly Wait"), Rory Cochrane (last seen in "Flawless"), Scoot (?) McNairy, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé (last seen in "Red State"), Zeljko Ivanek (last seen in "In Bruges"), Titus Welliver (last seen in "Twisted"), with cameos from Bob Gunton (last seen in "Trouble With the Curve"), Philip Baker Hall (last seen in "Zodiac"), Richard Kind, Adrienne Barbeau.

RATING: 7 out of 10 storyboards

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Year 5, Day 318 - 11/14/13 - Movie #1,582

BEFORE: I skipped a movie on Tuesday night / Wednesday morning because I went out with some ex-co-workers, a little get-together of people who had all worked at the same animation studio over the years.  We went to a bar that hosted a Taco Tuesday promotion, and it was a bar I used to go years ago that had a great beer selection, but then became a tequila bar for a while.  But it changed hands and is now back to featuring craft beers, and they just added a bunch of stouts to the line-up, so that made me very happy. 

Linking from "The Expendables", Bruce Willis was also in "The Last Boy Scout" with James Gandolfini (last seen in "Angie").

THE PLOT:  A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May 2011.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Hurt Locker" (Movie #704), "Green Zone" (Movie #871)

AFTER: Well, I promised I'd get back to the Iraq/Afghanistan war.  Maybe I should have come straight here right after the 9/11 chain, but I had other concerns at the time.  This is from the same director as "The Hurt Locker", who won the Best Director Oscar for that, so expectations were high since it features something akin to a similar subject.  But there was a whole lot more action in that other film, the extreme tension involved with defusing IEDs was quite captivating.  Tracking Bin Laden's couriers and communications, not quite as much.

Don't get me wrong, the closing half-hour is quite tense, featuring the famous Seal Team 6 raid on Osama's compound - and that certain is film-worthy, but it's almost like someone realized they couldn't stretch that out to feature-length, even if it were to play out in real-time, so they added the previous decade of intelligence gathering to fill up another two hours.  Witness the marvel of torture and surveillance that ultimately provided the address in Abbottabad.

Most frustrating is the lead character's insistence that her superiors act on her conclusions, as they wait day after day for some more coherent intelligence that never comes.  She writes numbers in magic marker that represent how many days they've been sitting on her information, and unfortunately to the home viewer, we feel her frustration as well as we realize that whole sequences of the film are passing by with no real action taking place.  It's called editing, guys.

By comparison, at least the vilified torture scenes represent a form of action - I would have recommended keeping those in place and ditching the long period of inaction, but perhaps that's just me.  It's perhaps interesting to note that the film was originally developed to be about the UNsuccessful hunt for Bin Laden, and then parts were re-written after the successful raid.

I had a problem watching parts of the raid, not because of the content, but because my living-room TV tends to over-darken if the scenes on a DVD are dark to begin with, I haven't been able to adjust the TV to recognize the fact that some scenes take place at night.  Well, hey, "Dark" is right there in the title, but for me it was extra dark.  The night-vision shots helped, so at least I could mostly tell what was going on, but at times it was difficult and I had to figure out what was taking place just based on the sounds. 

I feel for the guy who had to play Osama, (just listed as "UBL" in the credits) I wonder if he had the same troubles that those actors did who played killers and rapists in the recreation sequences on "America's Most Wanted", namely getting recognized as his character in the real world.

Also starring Jessica Chastain (last seen in "The Help"), Kyle Chandler (last seen in "Super 8"), Jason Clarke (last seen in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"), Harold Perrineau (last seen in "Blood and Wine"), Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong (last seen in "Kick-Ass"), Chris Pratt (last seen in "The Five-Year Engagement"), Joel Edgerton (last seen in "The Hard Word").

RATING: 5 out of 10 black sites

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Expendables

Year 5, Day 316 - 11/12/13 - Movie #1,581

BEFORE:  From soldiers to mercenaries - and linking from "The Thin Red Line", John Travolta was also in "Staying Alive", in which director Sylvester Stallone (last seen in "Rocky Balboa") had a cameo.

THE PLOT:  A CIA operative hires a team of mercenaries to eliminate a Latin dictator and a renegade CIA agent.

AFTER: Maybe I'm suffering from movie burnout, it's sort of that time of year.  12 more films after this one, then I'm going on break until Christmastime.  Maybe it's the 180-degree turn of going from a realistic war film like "The Thin Red Line" to a cartoonish action movie is at fault, but I just didn't get this one at all.

First off, the film's poster was very misleading, depicting all of the big action stars standing together, united in a row, as if they're all on the same team, and we're going to see these 9 huge stars working against some common foe, and this turned out to be factually incorrect.  The team really consists of only 4 of 5 members, including one who's sort of an adviser/elder statesman, and the rest are either working for the villains, or as their CIA contact, but not actively part of the team.  (and two of those stars are each in the film for under 3 minutes each - what a rip-off to feature them so prominently in the advertising campaign!)

The team is commissioned to take out the dictator on a small Latin American island - but since it's for the CIA, we never really learn the real reason for doing so - convenient, because this way nobody has to bother writing one.  It's got something to do with drugs?  I couldn't really be bothered to care, if they're not going to bother to tell me.  But are they doing this to get paid, or because it's "the right thing" to do?  Motives were very unclear.

With so many punches being punched, knives being thrown, and bullets flying, with an edit every half-second, most of the time it was also difficult to tell what was happening.  Are the good guys winning?  Honestly I don't know, but I'll let you know as soon as the seizures stop.  This was a very popular film, but it's like a jumbo hot dog - big and meaty, but with no nutritional value whatsoever.  No character development, no big message or meaning - sure, you might feel full but you can't eat like this all the time.

It's a shame, I spent a lot of time looking for this one to appear on premium cable, and finally paid $1.99 to get it from OnDemand, and now I'm thinking I could have waited.  I'll consider giving "Expendables 2" a chance, but my expectations for it will be much lower.  The only real value here came from the inside jokes, since we all have a memory of Stallone facing Lundgren in "Rocky IV", or a secret desire to see Stallone and Schwarzenegger face off - too bad their conflict here was only verbal.  This MIGHT have worked as a comedy if there were more nods in that direction, but without that I can't take it seriously at all.

Also starring Jason Statham (last seen in "Collateral"), Jet Li (last seen in "Lethal Weapon 4"), Dolph Lundgren (last seen in "A View to a Kill"), Randy Couture, Steve Austin (last seen in "The Longest Yard"), Terry Crews (last seen in "Bridesmaids"), Mickey Rourke (last seen in "Heaven's Gate"), Eric Roberts, David Zayas, with cameos from Arnold Schwarzenegger (last seen in "Total Recall"), Bruce Willis (last seen in "Looper").

RATING: 3 out of 10 aliases

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Thin Red Line

Year 5, Day 314+315 - 11/10 + 11/11/13 - Movie #1,580

BEFORE: My war education continues, tonight it's a chance to research the Battle of Guadalcanal, which I'll do via Wikipedia after the film.  Linking from "U-571", the easiest way to go is via Harvey Keitel, through "Pulp Fiction" to John Travolta (last heard in "Bolt")

THE PLOT:  Terrence Malick's adaptation of James Jones' autobiographical 1962 novel, focusing on the conflict at Guadalcanal during the second World War.

AFTER:  Once again, something similar has unintentionally popped up, three films in a row.  In "Red Tails", "U-571" and this film, someone violates the chain of command - in some way, they question the orders of their superior officers.  The circumstances were different each time, but it seems to be a common enough movie plot point.

In this film, a Captain is ordered to send his men charging up a hill, where they're expected to take heavy fire from the enemy.  The Captain refuses, because he believes that a small patrol can flank the hill and learn valuable information, but the Lt. Col. demands that he follow orders, no doubt sacrificing many of his men.  This seems rather heartless, but essentially it's the situation one might encounter in a factory, or movie studio, or any workplace - if someone doesn't do things the way the boss wants, then their days are numbered, one way or the other.  The boss will find a way to replace them with someone who will do things his way.

The Captain turns out to be correct in the short term (I think), about the best way to take the hill, but the Lt. Col. is correct in the long term - that taking the hill quickly is important to taking the island, and that taking Guadalcanal back from the Japanese could turn out to be the turning point of the war in the Pacific.  The real campaign constituted the first U.S. amphibious landing of the war, and took 6 months in late 1942 before Japan evacuated the island in early 1943.

But some odd choices were made here - the camera, and by extension the director, chooses to linger on images of the local wildlife, like birds or a lizard - they remind me of the cutaway shots on the TV show "Survivor", where they'll show a snake just after a shot of people plotting to vote someone out.  Most memorable is a shot of a baby bird on the ground, struggling just to move, while all around it are U.S. soldiers being blown to bits.  Are we supposed to draw an analogy between the fragile bird and the wounded soldiers?

But sometimes this also lends itself to strange character actions, like a soldier being fascinated with the way that water drips down a leaf, or the majesty of a handful of soil, which seems like an odd thing to be obsessed with in the middle of a battle.  Again, I have no practical experience, but I would imagine that in the heat of battle, more soldiers would be focused on staying alive.

In fact a lot of the battle scenes are chaotic, but that sort of rings true - wouldn't you imagine a battlefield to be a chaotic place?  But they could be hard for the audience to follow.  Perhaps there's a larger point being made, about how THIS guy gets blown up and THAT guy doesn't, purely based on where they're standing at a particular point in time.

Then, we've got the interior monologues, which clearly demonstrate an attempt to get inside the headspace of WWII soldiers.  Flashbacks of home life are shown, at least for one soldier, and others contemplate the meaning of it all, to the degree that one can assign meaning to the devastation of battle.  Where does evil come from?  Who is killing us?  What is the nature of love?  Some of it is pretty heady stuff, but again, I wonder if the concerns of the moment just didn't allow for such introspection. 

One soldier in particular develops sort of a zen way of looking at death, and he appears to be fascinated by and learning from each death that he sees.  He starts to draw conclusions about how everyone is connected, how all men are part of the same being, just wearing different faces, and he seems to find some form of peace in the middle of a war.  Is this true insight to the human condition, or just a coping mechanism?  And how does it affect his actions later in the film, when he's in a position to possibly sacrifice himself? 

Ultimately that's what this film is about, sacrifice, and though it's hardly a perfect film, it's a perfect message for Veteran's Day.  It's made me more keenly aware that I get to live the life that I do, get up each day and be frustrated by my own job, because some men went charging up a hill somewhere and gave their lives. 

Also starring Jim Caviezel (last seen in "Wyatt Earp"), Sean Penn (last seen in "U-Turn"), Nick Nolte (ditto), Elias Koteas (last seen in "Zodiac"), Ben Chaplin (last seen in "Stage Beauty"), John Cusack (last seen in "The Raven"), Adrien Brody (last seen in "Summer of Sam"), John C. Reilly (last seen in "Never Been Kissed"), Woody Harrelson (last seen in "Natural Born Killers"), Jared Leto (last seen in "American Psycho"), Nick Stahl (last seen in "Terminator 3"), Dash Mihok, Mirando Otto, Thomas Jane, Tim Blake Nelson (last seen in "Lincoln"), with a cameo from George Clooney (last seen in "The Descendants").

RATING: 4 out of 10 hand grenades