Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Equalizer

Year 8, Day 135 - 5/14/16 - Movie #2,335

BEFORE: I'm working my way toward the Liam Neeson chain, perhaps it's fitting that the path there goes through another action film - still, it's going to be a bit of a mixed bag over the next week, as Bill Pullman links to Ethan Hawke, and Jude Law links to Ed Harris - but I'll get there.  Marton Csokas carries over from "The Great Raid".

THE PLOT:  A man believes he has put his mysterious past behind him and has dedicated himself to beginning a new, quiet life. But when he meets a young girl under the control of ultra-violent Russian gangsters, he can't stand idly by.

AFTER: Watching as many as 300 films each year puts me in a position to compare, contrast, and juxtapose certain things - and I've spotted a trend, maybe you've seen it too.  It's popped up in no less than FOUR films I've watched in 2016 already, so I'm not sure if I'm ahead of the curve on this one, or far behind it.  But when I saw certain sequences in this film, they immediately reminded me of "Kingsman: The Secret Service", and to a lesser extent, both "John Wick" and "Batman v Superman".

Here's the situation - a single man is in a room full of bad guys, here it's Russian mobsters, but that's not important.  That man calmly assesses his surroundings, takes mental notes about where everyone and everything is in the room, and then uses what's at hand, which could be very common household (or bar, restaurant, whatever) objects to take down an impressive number of opponents.  Drinking glasses, corkscrews, an umbrella, whatever, they all can be used as weapons in such a situation.  And I don't see any of the same screenwriters listed on these films' credits, so that means it's a trend where everyone's pulling from the same playbook.  And they're competing with each other for the highest body counts, like when John Wick worked his way through an entire building full of mobsters, or Batman took down a warehouse full of gunmen.  

(I mentioned this ability of "The Equalizer" to my wife, and she said, "Oh, so he's got OCD?"  This seemed funny until I  read the trivia items for the film on the IMDB, and reportedly Denzel Washington created a back-story for the character, which included him having obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Now, this does explain a lot, from him cataloguing the room to sticking to a regimen of daily physical training, plus an urge to "put things right" when he witnesses an injustice taking place.)  

These characters are meant to represent the top-level of human achievement, and through this spies (and ex-spies) are portrayed as having what is essentially a super-power, the ability to not only "read" the room but to know enough about weaponry and combat to achieve the near-impossible.  So while the comic-book superhero film is more popular than ever, there's also been an up-tick in the spy/action genre, a more quiet but just as valid revolution.  Do I trace this back to Ethan Hunt performing the "impossible" or to the "Taken" franchise, where the lead possessed a "certain set of skills", or does it go all the way back to James Bond?  

Another point is clear - Hollywood loves its action heroes who retired from the life, but keep getting pulled back in.  Bryan Mills in "Taken", John Wick, John McClane from "Die Hard", and every character from "RED" - it's like we can't bear to think that these guys are having adventures that we're not seeing, so they just stand unplugged in a closet or something until they're needed, then bring 'em out and charge them up again.  Oh, you can try and retire and live anonymously, take a part-time job, but you know that clock is ticking, and the sequel comes out in three more years, so we're gonna need you again. 

This is also a reboot film, though I never watched that CBS series with David Woodward as Robert McCall.  But that McCall was a retired agent who worked with the police, and this McCall works completely outside the law, as a vigilante.  Yet we know he's got a stronger moral compass than the police, especially in Boston, which if you believe movies, is full of corrupt cops.  (Note to self: when does "Black Mass" start airing?  Keep an eye out...)   

So this film does cover a lot of the same ground as other recent films, a retired agent works his way up the ladder of a crime organization, as in "Taken", but there's also something that sets this one apart from the others - they gave McCall a formidable adversary, the 2nd in command for the Russian mobster, who has a similar understanding of espionage techniques.  So while McCall might be playing the game on a higher level than the average cop, his counterpart has some understanding of the game as well.  McCall can "read" the room, but his foe can "read" him.  

McCall's attacks on the Russian mob's operations in Boston keep escalating until there's a showdown in the home improvement store where he works, and probably after this you'll never look at a hardware store the same way ever again.  But we already knew those places were dangerous, right?  Full of power tools and electrical equipment, not to mention fertilizer...and the snacks in the break room might be the most life-threatening of all.  

Also starring Denzel Washington (last seen in "Flight"), Chloƫ Grace Moretz (last seen in "Muppets Most Wanted"), David Harbour (last seen in "Revolutionary Road"), Bill Pullman (last seen in "Wyatt Earp"), Melissa Leo (last seen in "London Has Fallen"), David Meunier, Haley Bennett, Johnny Skourtis, Robert Wahlberg (last seen in "Gone Baby Gone"), Vladimir Kulich.

RATING: 7 out of 10 ceiling fans

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Great Raid

Year 8, Day 134 - 5/13/16 - Movie #2,334

BEFORE: I've got my last dental appointment today, at least for a while, and I've also taken steps to get my passport renewed - filled out the form, got my photo taken and wrote the check, now I just need to mail the form in with my old passport (So, I guess I can't leave the country for a few weeks?  What a weird system...)  Now my "to do" list just consists of getting my eyes checked and getting a poster framed.  I'd love to get out of the city for a day or two, just because everywhere I go, I see people who piss me off by loud cell-phone talking, slow sidewalk walking, wearing parkas on a sunny day, or just being generally annoying, like by saying "literally" too often.  I just want to punch people in the face - not hard, just enough for them to realize that they're doing something wrong.  But then I'D be the bad guy, right? 

Max Martini carries over from "Fifty Shades of Grey".

THE PLOT: Towards the end of WWII, 500 American Soldiers have been entrapped in a camp for 3 years. Beginning to give up hope they will ever be rescued, a group of Rangers goes on a dangerous mission to try and save them.

AFTER: Point of order, try to find someone, anyone, under the age of 30 who knows what the "Bataan Death March" was.  Kids, you can look it up on Wikipedia.  While I'm not part of the "greatest generation", thanks to movies I can at least be aware of the sacrifices made by U.S. soldiers.  Hey, Memorial Day is coming up, but I've got another film planned for that.  While I prefer to have war movies land on war-based holidays, I can't always control that - and this year I've already also covered "A Bridge Too Far" and "Fury".  

Though I've never heard specifically of the Raid on Cabanatuan, a POW camp in the Philippines that held the survivors of the Bataan Death March, it marks an important point in history - remember when Gen. MacArthur left the Philippines and famously stated, "I will return!"?  Well, this is what happened after he returned.  The Japanese army had adopted a policy of not only marching their POWs, but also beating and torturing them, and then killing them en masse before they could be rescued - so the "Great Raid" was an attempt to save any soldiers that had been held captive for three years, before the Japanese could kill them.  

While it's not a perfect film - there are too many characters, for one thing, and the entire raid takes place at night, making it very hard to see what's going on in some places, that shouldn't take precedence over the importance of this particular military action.  Two Army rangers and 21 Filipino guerillas were killed during the raid, but 511 POW's were rescued.  

The film, however, was not as much of a success - filming was completed in 2002, and then the film was planned for theatrical release in 2003 and then 2004, meanwhile Miramax and Disney were parting ways, and the film languished in the vaults.  Finally, after the split, it seemed like it would finally see the light of day in 2005, which just happened to then be the 60th Anniversary of the Cabanatuan Raid of 1945.  So seven months before its August release, there was a special screening at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, for a limited audience of embassy employees, people involved in the film's production, and the author of the book on which it was based.  Hey, at least someone was able to make a good event happen, even if the release hadn't occurred when originally planned.   

I just learned that the Philippines was once a U.S. commonwealth, which is the same status that Puerto Rico has now, beginning in 1935.  However, this was done to provide the territory with an interim government, while they worked toward becoming an independent nation, and not with the goal of eventual U.S. statehood, or anything like that.  Of course, then World War II came along, and Japan re-invaded in 1942, sending the commonwealth government into exile.  I either forgot all this, or else I never knew it.  But this certainly goes a long way toward explaining why Filipino troops would join forces with the American soldiers to free POWs, and eventually take back the territory.

Also starring Benjamin Bratt (last heard in "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2"), James Franco (last seen in "The Holiday"), Joseph Fiennes (last seen in "The Merchant of Venice"), Marton Csokas (last seen in "XXX"), Connie Nielsen (last seen in "Mission to Mars"), Natalie Mendoza, Mark Consuelos (last seen in "Cop Out"), Robert Mammone, James Carpinello (last seen in "Gangster Squad"), Laird Macintosh, Logan Marshall-Green (last seen in "Prometheus"), Cesar Montano, Clayne Crawford, Sam Worthington (last seen in "Wrath of the Titans"), Craig McLachlan, Kenny Doughty, Paolo Montalban, Motoki Kobayashi, Gotaro Tsunashima, Masa Yamaguchi, Paul Nakauchi, Jeremy Callaghan, Royston Innes, Dale Dye (last heard in "Planes: Fire & Rescue"), Brett Tucker, Luke Pegler, Eugenia Yuan.

RATING: 4 out of 10 quinine pills

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Fifty Shades of Grey

Year 8, Day 133 - 5/12/16 - Movie #2,333

BEFORE: As sort of a follow-up to "American Gigolo", I may have a theme going this week with the kinky stuff.  But I got this to go on a DVD with "Secretary", which seemed like a natural fit, and I was able to work one film into the February romance chain, but not the other, because this didn't link to any other films in that chain, and "Secretary" did.  But the best thing about getting the watchlist down to 130 films is the realization that I've got about a four-month response time now - this film premiered on cable in January, and I'm getting to it now, because I could theoretically clear my whole list in four months, if I could just stop adding to it.  And anything being added to the bottom of the list will be scheduled for August at the earliest. 

Marcia Gay Harden carries over from "The Hoax".  

THE PLOT:  Literature student Anastasia Steele's life changes forever when she meets handsome, yet tormented, billionaire Christian Grey.

AFTER: I didn't even realize that I put two films about billionaires next to each other - one real, and one fictional.  But this film was a hot topic in popular culture about a year ago, and I figured it's high time that I saw what the fuss was all about.  I can't really weigh in on what the phenomenon was all about, or what it means to have a whole bunch of older ladies reading dirty books again, I can only watch the film and weigh in with my opinions, which are affected by my personal experiences. 

And as luck would have it, this got scheduled one day after the anniversary of my first time, twenty-something years ago, and since the lead female character here is quite inexperienced, naturally I was sort of flashing back to that day, when a woman first took me by the (let's say) hand, and showed me how the whole crazy thing was supposed to go.  (Oh, I'd had plenty of experience at that point, just never before with another person in the room.)  

And as these things tend to go, quite often one person is more experienced than the other, and so even though I was so happy that I was finally getting laid, a month or so later when I heard her describe her previous sexual experiences, I got extremely jealous - even though they had not gone well for her, and she'd gotten her heart broken.   Still, I was upset that she hadn't waited for me, which was ridiculous because at that point she hadn't even met me, so it made no sense for me to be jealous and angry, I was being completely irrational.  

Fast-forward five years to a time when both of us were having fantasies that didn't include the other, and that's pretty much a sign that the clock is ticking, and the relationship is doomed.  But I wonder how much of the inequalities went back to that first time, and the tone was set by the realization that one of us was more experienced than the other.  And to a certain extent those scales can never be balanced, so for a while there was a lot of jockeying for position, like a contest to see which one could gain the upper hand over the other and/or outlast the other one to get what they wanted.  None of that is healthy - at some point it began to feel like a form of mental abuse, in both directions.  So we parted ways, and she became part of my backstory, and I became part of her backstory, and we moved on to other partners, and such is the way of the world.

But my point is that at some point you need to realize when you're in an unhealthy relationship, and take steps to get out of it.  In this film Anastasia Steele ignores a TON of warning signs and starts a relationship with Christian Grey.  Too many to list here, but let's start with his propensity for buying cable ties and rope, and go forward from there.  Plus he's bossy with a capital "B" and has the money, resources and inclination to show up anywhere unannounced - it's under the auspices of "rescuing" Anastasia from dangerous situations, like, um, drinking too much?  Something tells me, however, that over-imbibing is a situation she'll probably live through, but a relationship with Mr. Grey is a little more questionable.  

Then we've got the way he treats her, almost with a callous disregard, and he's super-aloof when he says he doesn't have "normal" relationships, he doesn't "sleep" with women - it's all a very coy way of trying to make his bondage-contract deals with submissive women seem perfectly normal, and guess what?  It's just not.  OK, maybe there are celebrities and business moguls out there who ask women to sign NDA's, or get them on camera stating that they consent to sex, but that's just rich people covering their bases, since we live in a litigious society.  Asking a woman to sign an extended contract that gives a man control over her diet, her exercise, her other sex partners, however you slice it, this is a form of slavery, and I thought society made that illegal at some point. 

On one hand, I pick up on his deal - most women don't like the direct approach, so if he acts all aloof and unavailable, they'll see him as a challenge.  Or if he seems incapable of having "normal" dates, they'll see him as a problem that needs fixing.  But most of the time, he's just plain rude, and I don't see the point of portraying Mr. Grey this way, one day he's saying - "I'll give you all the time you need to read the contract." and then the next day Mr. Bossy Pants is texting "WHY haven't you signed the contract? I'm getting old here!"  Umm, what was that about all the time she needed?  Did he forget saying that, or is this another control issue?  

Speaking of control, I'm not even going to fall back on my standard joke about why S&M wouldn't work, because they don't even use the terms "sadism" and "masochism" here, they use "dominant" and "submissive", which does seem to be more accurate - but I've heard it said that the doms would have you believe that the subs have all the power, but this seems like the kind of bull that the doms would say.  Then why don't we call the submissives the dominants and vice-versa?  Do you think that just because there's a safe word that the submissives have the control?  I kind of doubt that, because look at who's holding the whip.  

However, because Anastasia never gets around to signing the contract, it does seem like she's exercising some control over the situation - because as soon as she's signed it, then the relationship is established regarding who's got control over whom, and as long as she DOESN'T sign it, then it becomes a game, a constant jockeying for control.  So now we're left wondering who won the game, and in fact, when did the game start and when did it end?  Mr. Grey found that he had to change his tactics with her, precisely because she didn't sign immediately, and instead started negotiating the terms and crossing off things she wouldn't do from the list.  (Really, isn't the contract just a blatant metaphor for the unspoken agreement between any two lovers, since each has their own likes and dislikes, and things they just find icky?)  

Ladies, I don't get you - does this really represent the sort of fantasies you have?  During the day you're all about demanding equal pay and equal rights and saying that a woman shouldn't need to rely on men for financial support, and then you secretly dream of getting involved with a billionaire who surprises you with fancy dinners and sports cars?  Really?  The two dreams would seem to be at cross purposes with each other, no?  

I can't think of a proper reason for anyone to watch this - certainly it can't be for the nudity and the sex scenes, because anyone can see much more graphic stuff, just with a couple of clicks on the internet.  But I guess the takeaway tonight is that it takes two to tango, even with the dominant/submissive stuff thrown into the mix.  I'm sort of reminded of the film "Whiplash", which featured a different sort of abusive relationship, but what kept the relationship going was the fact that Andrew, the drummer kid, kept coming back to practice and enduring the teacher's insults for the sake of the music, I guess.  But then even after he left the school, he met with the teacher again, and joined his jazz group - for the love of God, WHY?  He put himself right back in that old position, willingly, he must have known what was going to happen.  Draw your own conclusions about that.

Also starring Dakota Johnson (last seen in "The Five-Year Engagement"), Jamie Dornan (last seen in "Marie Antoinette"), Jennifer Ehle (last seen in "Robocop"), Eloise Mumford, Luke Grimes (last seen in "American Sniper"), Victor Rasuk, Rita Ora, Max Martini, Andrew Airlie.  

RATING: 3 out of 10 text messages