Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thursday Movie Picks: Foreign Language Movies - French


Il n'est pas tout à fait jeudi, je sais. J'ai décidé de poster ce jeudi film reprend semaine un jour plus tôt parce que je poste demain quelque chose qui n'a pu avoir été publié sur n'importe quel autre jour. Eh bien, peut-être que c'est possible, mais il ne serait pas juste sentir bon. C'est tout que je vais dire à ce sujet. Quant à aujourd'hui, nous allons plonger dans un autre grand sujet fourni par vagabond à l'errance à travers les étagères. Cette fois-ci, ce sont les films Français.

Oh, I'm sorry. You were expecting English, right? Okay, fine. Don't be mad at me because I parlez vous Français. Okay, I don't. However, there's thing called the whole wonderful world wide inter-webby thingy, it's amazing. You can do pretty much anything.

Oh, you knew about that? Well, don't brag about it. Jeez. Just read on. No, I'm not telling, I'm asking. It's the polite thing to do. It will be to your benefit, if you're like me and equate French with fries, toast, and kissing. Why? Because the paragraph below tells you what that first paragraph says. Sneaky, ain't I?

It's not quite Thursday, I know. I decided to post this week's Thursday Movie Picks a day earlier because I'm posting something tomorrow that could not have been posted on any other day. Well, maybe it could, but it just wouldn't feel right. That's all I'll say about that. As for today, we'll dive right into another great topic supplied by Wanderer at Wandering Through the Shelves. This time, it's French movies.

Normally I go hidden gems with these picks. This time I'm going to keep it simple and give you what are probably my three faves. As has become the norm over the last few weeks, I'll give them to you chronologically. Here they are.

Or should I say, ils sont ici?


Les Quatre Cents Coup
[The 400 Blows]
(1959)
I'm not the biggest fan of the French New Wave. However, I am a huge fan of this movie which helped kick it off. It is the directorial debut of Francois Truffaut and is largely autobiographical. We follow a tweenage boy named Antoine roam the streets while his parents mostly can't be bothered with him. After a little more than an hour and a half, the movie doesn't end so much as it stops. Where it does, we're left to entertain endless possibilities for the future of our young protagonist. As far as I'm concerned, this is French New Wave's most undeniable, and most haunting masterpiece.


De rouille et d'os
[Rust and Bone]
(2008)
Fast forwarding almost fifty years brings us to my next selection. This one follows a couple through the ups and downs of a relationship they're not even sure they are in. To complicate matters, our heroine Stephanie has just both legs due to an accident involving a killer whale. The movie is fueled by Marion Cotillard's dynamite performance of a complex character.


La vie d'Adèle
[Blue is the Warmest Color]
(2013)
Finally, we have one of last year's best movies. It's a sprawling love story that feels genuine every step of the way. More than that, it's just a daring piece of film making, one that pushes the envelope both visually and emotionally. There's really not much more that hasn't already been said. I'll just add a simple command: watch it now.


Au revoir!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Oldboy (2013)

Directed by Spike Lee.
2013. Rated R, 104 minutes.
Cast:
Josh Brolin
Elizabeth Olsen
Samuel L. Jackson
Sharlto Copley
Michael Imperioli
James Ransone
Max Casella
Linda Emond
Grey Damon
Pom Klementieff
Lance Reddick
Hannah Ware

Joe Ducett (Brolin) is an ad exec whose alcoholism has reached critical levels. We meet him as he absolutely ruins a meeting with a potential client. Next thing he knows, he wakes up in a room with a television, but no windows, and a door he cannot get out of. He has no idea how he got there, who put him there, or why. Eventually, and by eventually I mean after twenty years, he's let go with no explanation whatsoever. If this sounds familiar to you, it's because this is the American remake of South Korean director Park Chan-wook's "Oldboy," itself based on a Japanese manga of the same name.

For me, the problems with this movie start immediately, and they are also two-fold and grow into a bigger one. The first part of the issue is, of course, the original. In my eyes, Park Chan-wook's version is more than deserving of its classic status. It's pretty much perfect. Any remake of it is bound to pale in comparison unless it were of undeniable greatness. The second issue is that I also happen to be a huge fan of this version's director, Spike Lee. As far as I'm concerned, he has a trio of masterpieces of his own. Do the Right Thing is the one he's most known for. I personally place Malcolm X and the far under seen and under-appreciated Bamboozled in that category. Unfortunately, that means I'm really familiar with his style of story-telling. One of my favorite directors remaking one of my favorite movies sounds like something that should make me ecstatic. However, in my head the two didn't seem like a good fit. This is the bigger problem that grows out of the other two. This is the bias with which I come into Spike's Oldboy.

Trying my best to put all that stuff out of my mind as I watch, I take notice of something that absolutely does work. That is the performance of Josh Brolin. I think he's an amazing actor and is again sensational. He gives us a protagonist that, early on, is an unrepentant drunk and he sells it completely. As the movie progresses, he is desperate to find his captor and will stop at nothing to do so. Brolin sells this also. If there is one area where this movie is at least on par with the original, it's in the portrayal of our hero. The one area where this movie exceeds its predecessor is in the performance and development of the female helper he acquires, here named Marie. The wonderful Elizabeth Olsen tackles the role and excels as she has in everything I've seen her in. Her character is more of a take-charge type as opposed to her Korean counterpart and it works very well. A guy whose been out of the swing of things for twenty years is going to need some help and it makes sense that he would cling to the first person who shows him some kindness.


There are some really good ideas trotted out, here. Most of these come in the area of character development. This is the same tactic Martin Scorcese uses in The Departed, his remake of Infernal Affairs. It gave Scorsese's film an emotional depth that the original didn't have. Therefore, it's a wise choice by Lee to focus his efforts on that front. The error he commits, however, is that the characters themselves are too flat to carry the extra load. For instance, Samuel L. Jackson plays someone who was barely in the original. This is can be a good thing provided the person is interesting. Here, the actor is interesting, but the character is not. He's merely Samuel L. Jackson in loud-mouth, cackling, mf'ing bad guy mode. It's a role he performs well, but it's nothing we haven't seen before. As our main villain, Sharlto Copley is given a female companion and has more added to his backstory. However, his portrayal of the character is on the bizarre side. Using the word bizarre to describe anything in this movie needs further context because the plot itself is inherently strange. Bizarre, with regards to Copley's performance, should be viewed in a negative light. Where Jackson's barking, as blatantly over the top as he is, feels organic to  both him and the character, Copley's line readings feel natural to neither. It's a case of being able to see the actor acting. This detracts from his potentially interesting motivations.

For those of us who have seen both, we must boil this movie down to a comparison with the original. I know, I've been doing that all along. Still, it's the reason that the remake gets off on the wrong foot. One of the first things this version does is truncate the imprisonment part of the story. This is the part that captivates us early in the original. We not only learn of our hero's plight, but really empathize with him because we really feel the wear of fifteen years (instead of twenty as it is here). in solitary confinement. Having him narrate also helps us get to that point. We get right inside his head and watch his focus change and even his sanity slipping. This version ditches the narration doesn't quite accomplish this, leaving us a bit cold toward him as he transitions to the revenge portion of things.

The difference in the looks of the two films might be an issue for some as well. In the original, Chan Wook employs his signature style of having his films framed traditionally, but so elegantly they appear to be a collection of beautiful still shots. The one exception being the scrolling single take of the famous hammer fight. Throughout his career, Spike Lee has often mixed and matched how his shots are framed. Many of them try to bring the viewer into the picture as much as possible. Others work to suggest the directors opinion on what is happening within them. He goes the same route most of the time, but at others he tries to ape Chan Wook and the results are usually less than thrilling. However, I will say he had some success with the hammer fight by sticking closely to what his Korean counterpart did and even adding a level by having his hero literally switch floors during the battle yet keeping it one continuous take.

No matter what you think of the first two thirds of Spike's Oldboy, it's a movie that will sink or swim based on how it chooses to wrap up this tale. For those of us who know, and love, the original the remake sinks, big time. It starts its descent by altering the villain's motivations. As twisted as it might seem, it still feels watered down for American consumption. Any doubt that this is the case is removed by the final scene. Instead of being disturbed and replaying what happened repeatedly in our head in an effort to analyze it from as many different angles as possible, we just shrug our shoulders and agree that's what we would've done. Sure, the protagonist goes through an incredible ordeal, but he comes out of it with his senses intact. We can't say that about the Korean version. That one worms its way into our brains and sits there. Making this one more palatable also makes it easier to forget. That, ultimately, is this film's most critical issue. When it ends, we can easily dismiss it, regardless of whether we've seen the original or not.

In fairness to Lee, this may not be all his fault. He famously fought with the producers of the film who took it upon themselves to re-edit the film from nearly two and a half hours down to its current length more than thirty minutes left. Both the director and star Josh Brolin have come out in favor of the Lee's longer version. Lee himself decided not to note this as a "Spike Lee joint" during the opening credits, distancing himself as much as possible. Fingers crossed the director's cut sees the light of day at some point.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Oldboy (2003)

Directed by Park Chan-wook.
2003. Rated R, 120 minutes.
Cast:
Min-sik Choi
Ji-tae Yu
Hye-jeong Kang
Dae-han Ji
Dal-su Oh
Byeong-ok Kim

Oh Dae Su (Choi) has made a few enemies during his life. Part of the reason for this seems to be that he is a heavy drinker and gets out of control when intoxicated. We meet him at the end of a wild night in a police station where they are keeping him until he sobers up. When he's released, someone else snatches him up. He wakes up the next day in a hotel room with no windows and only one door which he cannot open. He has no idea who put him there, or why, and no contact with the outside world. At least they gave him a TV. All of a sudden, after fifteen long years have passed, he is released without being given any information. He immediately sets out to find the person responsible for this and kill whoever that might be. This is adapted from a popular Japanese manga of the same name.

Director Park Chan-wook does a wonderful job pulling us into the mind of our protagonist. Not only does he use the tried and true method of having him narrate the movie, but the images that accompanies this narration perfectly complement it instead of merely repeating it. In fact, the look of the movie as a whole is a strong point. As is often the case with Chan-wook, many of the shots would make wonderful stills. One in particular opens with a great panoramic view of a hallway containing Oh Dae Su and a bunch of guys waiting to tear him apart. A fight between he and them then plays out in one long and glorious take. If you're familiar with the movie then you know that I am referring to the famous hammer fight. It's just a wonderful spectacle. Regardless of how pretty any of it is, though, it's the story-telling on display that really engages us. We're immediately curious about our hero's situation. When he is finally let go, we are anxious for him to start the task of finding out who the bad guy is. As he is trying to do so, we're rooting for him to get to the bottom of it.

True, this movie hardly shies away from violence and other grotesque things. After all, one of the first things we see our hero do after he finds his way to a restaurant for the first time is eat a live octopus. During the action sequences, blood splatters quite nicely. However, those things don't drive the movie. What makes it go is the winding road traveled by Oh Dae Su. Even when he finds out who is responsible, that person continues to send him on goose chases. Through every step of the process, Min-sik Choi plays the role perfectly. He conveys a man who is weary from all that's happened, yet determined not to stop until he gets the answers he needs.As his opposite, Ji-tae Yu provides a sadistic villain and really turns things up a notch whenever he appears.


You can probably tell, but I'm a big fan of this movie's cinematography, narration, action, violence, and story telling. However, what I am an even bigger fan of is the ending that they all work toward in unison. Even though that by the time we get there, we've seen things that might turn our stomachs, the thought of what happens is far more disturbing. It's the piece of the film that sticks with us the longest. The first time I watched this movie, I literally couldn't get it out of my head for days. It's the type of thing any sane person couldn't fathom doing. It's also the type of thing you can't help but admire the director for because it would be real easy to go with a more palatable finale. Doing so might have made the movie more acceptable, but also more forgettable. Here, we have some things to discuss and even debate. We have to decide on whether we not we think it's a happy ending. It depends on from whose point of view are you looking. Of course, we could talk about what we would have done in that situation. As this is a movie about vengeance, we can even discuss who got revenge on whom. In other words, who won?

What Park Chan Wook has done is create a film that continuously draws us deeper into its fold and refuses to let us go. After the credits roll, it lingers with us, even if it's just us remarking how screwed up it is. Along with you doing that, you'll probably question how could the person left standing do such a thing. For that matter, how the person not standing have done such a thing. This is a movie that gets inside your head, sits there and conversates with you. For me, that makes it a masterpiece.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

My Hometown Blogathon


Some weeks ago, the theme for Thursday Movie Picks, the weekly meme hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves that I participate in, was Movies Set Locally. Bloggers were free to define "locally" however they wished. For me, the choice came down to two places: where I grew up and where I live now. I went with the latter.

Thanks to Caz at Let's Go to the Movies, I have a chance to make amends with my old stomping grounds. Caz is hosting the My Hometown Blogathon. To take part, bloggers must create a post about their hometown pertaining to its cinematic (and television) history. We're encouraged to include, but not limited to:


  • Films set in that town
  • Films filmed in your town
  • Famous people in film born in your town
  • Famous people in film who grew up in your town
  • Famous people in film who now live in your town


  • For me, that hometown is Queens, New York. It's one of the city's famous five burroughs and, though it's not the epicenter of entertainment that Manhattan is, it has a rich cinematic history in its own right. I'll start with some things I knew off the top of my head before ever even hearing about this blogathon.

    Elementary School P.S. 155.
    This is nearly the identical view I had of it from my house.
    Strangely, I never attended it.
    The impresario of gritty, urban crime drama, the one and only Martin Scorsese is a Queens native. I would spend time running down his resume for you, but either you already know or you're not a film buff.


    Speaking of crime, one of the most notorious gangsters of the second half of the 20th Century, John Gotti, is also a Queens guy. I happened to go to high school not far from his home during the height of his, um, "career." How is this relevant? There was a movie made about him, of course, silly. It starred Armand Assante as The Teflon Don as Gotti was called. I think there was more than one movie about him, but that's the one I saw. More on my high school, later.


    One of my favorite movies to watch, and I've seen it more times than I can count, is set in Queens. I'm talking about none other than Coming to America starring Eddie Murphy. I used to hang out from time to time on Queens Boulevard where the fictional McDowell's restaurant was said to be located. It was actually a Wendy's that closed its doors for good in 2013.

    R. I. P.
    Parts of the recent movie about magicians, Now You See Me is set in Queens. Even the late great Joan Rivers filmed a segment of a performance at small club there. Yes, of course, Scorsese has set parts of several movies there including GoodFellas.

    Talking about movies and my hometown gives me a chance to name drop, too. I've mentioned this before so some of you might remember that I went to high school with rapper Fredro Scruggs, AKA Fredro Starr of the group Onyx. He went on to have a solid movie career. His most successful film was probably Save the Last Dance. He also appeared in Spike Lee's Clockers, Sunset Park with  Rhea Perlman, and Light it Up which starred Vanessa L. Williams, Forest Whitaker, a very young Rosario Dawson, and an equally young R&B/pop sensation named Usher. Since Save the Last Dance in 2001, Starr has lots of appearances on TV shows and roles in direct-to-home-video movies. I'm rooting for him to land another part in someone's big screen feature.


    Speaking of the Hip Hop-Hollywood connection, a number of my favorite rappers are from Queens and have made the leap to the big screen. My absolute favorite emcee ever, Nas, released my favorite album ever, Illmatic back in 1994. The making of this album serves as the subject for the current documentary Time is Illmatic. Sadly, it's not coming to the city where I now live. I can't wait to see this. Prior to this, he had a starring role in 1998's Belly, as well as a handful of bit parts here and there. Most recently, he shows up in 2013's Black Nativity. Of course, he contributed to a whole slew of soundtracks. Perhaps my favorite of these is the track "Shine on 'Em" which plays over the closing credits of Blood Diamond.

    Before Nas, the greatest rap group in the genre's history, Run DMC, also made their way from the streets of Queens to Hip Hop royalty to the big screen. As a matter of fact, I wrote a post about their cinematic debut: Movies I Grew Up With: Krush Groove. Their follow-up Tougher than Leather is definitely so bad, it's awesome!

    Let's go back to Krush Groove for a moment. Another Queens native made his big screen debut in that movie. He had barely broken into rap at the time. Since, he's become a hip hop icon and forged a very successful career as an actor. Sure, he's appeared in some duds like SWAT, Deliver Us from Eva, and the remake of Rollerball, but he's had some successes, too. His best work is probably as a gangster who calls himself God in the under-appreciated In Too Deep. He was also in a little football movie called Any Given Sunday. His biggest commercial successes all came on television. First, there was In the House. Currently, he plays Special Agent Sam Hanna on NCIS: Los Angeles. He's even hosted the Grammys for the last three years. To top it all off, he'll forever have a special place in my wife's heart. I'm talking about none other than Mr. James Todd Smith, better known as LL Cool J.

    The way I like LL...

    the way my wife likes LL.
    Other Queens natives who've rocked the mic and the big screen include: Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson with a growing filmography, and the group A Tribe Called Quest who were the subjects of Michael Rapaport's documentary Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. Lead rapper Q-Tip also has a handful of other acting credits to his name including John Singleton's Poetic Justice which starred Janet Jackson and Tupac, among others.

    Now, for stuff I learned while doing a little research on the matter.

    Another one and only kind of guy, Francis Ford Coppola was born in Detroit, Michigan but moved to Queens at the age of two, where he did his growing up. Yeah, yeah, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, that guy.

    Obviously not feeling the pic above his.
    I've gained new respect for one of the ladies I have a crush on, Lucy Liu. I had no clue she grew up in the Jackson Heights area of Queens. She's only a couple of years older than I and I remember the Heights as being a rough place. I think I love her even more, now. In case you don't know why she's relevant to this post, I'll give the quick and dirty. Kill Bill, Chicago, Kung Fu Panda, Charlie's Angels, The Man with the Iron Fist, etc. Nowadays, she does it up on TV's Elementary.

    The way my wife likes LL...

    the way I like LL.
    Other Queens luminaries include:

    Judd Apatow
    Hank Azaria
    Adrien Brody
    Fran Drescher
    Jon Favreau
    Mae West

    Oh, two other guys I have to mention because, well, they are a pair big players in Hollywood especially come time for the Academy Awards. They are Harvey and Bob Weinstein.

    The way I like the Weinsteins...
    just kidding.
    The entirety of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is set, and was filmed, in Queens. How have I never seen this movie? Must change that, ASAP!

    Queens has also served as a stand-in for other parts of the city. While most of GoodFellas is set in Brooklyn, and A Bronx Tale is set in the Bronx, duh, they were both mostly filmed in Queens.

    Wow, that was exhausting. There's actually more stuff out there than what I've written here, but I think that's enough for one post. Hope you enjoyed this journey through my hometown as it has been splattered all over the big screen. Please check out Caz's blog and the other entries in this blogathon.


    Other blogathons I've participated in:



    Friday, November 21, 2014

    The Raid 2

    Directed by Gareth Evans.
    2014. Rated R, 150 minutes.
    Cast:
    Iko Uwais
    Arifin Putra
    Tio Pakesadewo
    Oka Antara
    Alex Abbad
    Julie Estelle
    Yayan Ruhian
    Ryuhei Matsuda
    Kenichi Endo
    Cok Simbara

    Just a bit over a year ago, I stumbled across a little foreign action flick called The Raid: Redemption. I hadn't really heard much about it, but decided to give it a shot anyway. I popped in the DVD, pressed play, and was promptly blown away by what I saw. Apparently, everyone else was discovering this movie around the same time. As I was watching I texted one of my brothers and told him he should watch this. He actually had, a couple days before and ended his reply with a smiley face. This is a man who takes his machismo so seriously he never uses a smiley faces. Never. Ever. A few days later, another of my brothers called me, the one that never watches foreign movies and understand why I do, and asked me if I had seen it. I said I had and we talked for a while about how great it is. Of course, I also took to the internet and saw a plethora of reviews singing its praises. In case you missed it, by the way, I quickly added mine to the growing pile. Naturally, when I heard there was going to be a part two, I was more excited for this than any sequel since The Dark Knight.

    When it starts, I see we pick up the story within a day or so of the end of the first movie. I still don't want to spoil the original, so suffice it to say that two key figures from that film are murdered to start this one. Our new bad guys take out one, and the good guys take out the other. The good guys also have our hero Rama (Uwais) tied to a chair and seem ready to off him, too. It turns out these people are part of a covert branch of the police department. They want him to go undercover in an effort to bust up a major crime ring. This assignment starts with him doing a stint in prison for a few months to help create his cover. Reluctantly, he accepts. He then finds out that he's actually got to commit a crime to get himself thrown in jail. Once there, he finds out he's going to be there a couple years and there's nothing that he can be done about it. In case you've forgotten one of the very few pieces of background info from the original, Rama's wife is expecting their first child. Oh well, he soldiers on.


    Right away, we notice that the sequel spends more time on plot than its predecessor. Rama gets in close with the son of a crime boss who wants to take over his father's operation. Obviously, lots of drama there. We can also add in rival organizations trying to stir the pot. It's nothing earth-shatteringly original, but is done fairly well. The drawback is that it stretches the movie a bit too much. It's longer than it needs to be. Another issue is something that took me out of the movie several times. Yayan Ruhian, who plays my favorite bad guy from the first movie, shows up here as a sympathetic figure. It was just wierd to see him in another role in the sequel.

    Of course, what is done exceptionally well is the same thing that made the first movie an international sensation: the fighting. Scenes depicting the combat scenes are long, creative, and brutal. It seems the number of things that can be done with and to the human body are infinite. And lots of them are cringe worthy. Or, applause worthy, if you're into that sort of thing. I did both. My wife didn't watch this one because she saw the first and it was too much for her. She actually loves action flicks, but could do without the blood and guts decorating the scenery. She was in our bedroom, adjacent to our living room, and complained several times I was making too much noise. Yes, I said "Ooh" and "Woah" lots of times. Eventually, she just shut the door. I couldn't help myself. This stuff just evokes a physical reaction. At least, it did in me.

    In the action department, The Raid 2 delivers and then some. I was definitely looking for someone to let me practice some of the moves I picked up on them. Believe it or not, the wife wouldn't go for that, either. Nevertheless, I was actively involved in every fight scene. I'm not quite sure, but I may have gotten stabbed once or twice. You know, adrenaline pumping, didn't feel a thing. Between those scenes, the story gave the movie a bit of a bloated feel, but was still pretty solid. It all adds up to another amazing experience. It does leave me with a very important question, though. When is The Raid 3 coming out?

    Thursday, November 20, 2014

    Thursday Movie Picks: Movies Set in a Boarding School


    Despite the fact that I had recently done the Back to School Blogathon, I was literally stumped by the topic for this week's Thursday Movie Picks hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Let me back up a second. In case you're not familiar with the way things work around here, each Thursday for the last few months I've taken part in the weekly meme mentioned above. Blogger folk like us are invited to suggest three movies based on a topic selected by the host, the wonderful terrific Wanderer. There are just a few rules on that. Just swing over to her place and check them out, then hurry back here to see what I've chosen. After that, go home and post your own picks.

    Anyhoo, this week's theme is Movies Set in a Boarding School. I've struggled with several topics, but for some odd reason, this is the first one on which I drew a complete and utter blank that lasted a few hours. Eventually, I just said screw it and asked my best friend for help. By best friend, I mean Google. Then, I thanked my lucky stars that Google doesn't have a mouth with which to call me an idiot, because I found a couple of really exhaustive lists on the subject and spent the next ten or fifteen minutes saying to myself "Oh yeah, I've seen that."

    Now that I've jogged my memory, I can successfully recommend some movies for you fine folks that have made your way over to my humble blog. Pouring it on too thick?

    Okay. Let's move on.

    If you know how I operate these Thursday things, then you know I try to avoid the obvious picks and lean toward hidden gems. I don't know if "gems" is quite the right word this week, but they're not movies you thought of right away when you read the title of this post. Unless, like me, you're some kind of nut. In that case...never mind. Let's get on with it. Chronologically


    Private School
    (1983)
    The early 1980s is the height of the teen sex farce as a (sub)genre. While Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Porky's were raking the cash at the box office, there were hundreds more making the rounds on late night cable. Private School among them. This one is all about...and pay close attention to these school names, by the way...boys from the Freemount Academy trying to get with the young ladies from the Cherryvale Academy. Fair warning: only attempt to watch this if your tolerance for juvenile humor and gratuitous nudity are high. In other words, those of you more mature than I...probably all of you reading this...might just find this stupid and crass. I will say this one does feature a better cast than most of its ilk. It includes Phoebe Cates, Matthew Modine, and Betsy Russell. And a topless horseback riding scene, so there's that.


    Toy Soldiers
    (1991)
    We've all heard the phrase 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,' right? The makers of this 1991 film took that heart and basically remade 1984's Red Dawn. No, it's not technically a remake, but it may as well be. In this case, terrorist swoop into the heartland of the good ol' USA and try to take over Regis High School, a boarding school for young men from well-to-do families. Why? It has something to do some drug-lord in another country or something. Who cares? The only reason to watch this is for the sheer camp and ridiculousness of it all. What's not to love about a bunch of high school dudes fighting off a band of ruthless, heavily armed terrorists? As an added bonus, the cast includes a pre-Rudy Sean Astin and a pre-Star Trek Will Wheaton (but post Stand by Me) alongside the always wonderful Louis Gossett Jr. as their dean. Though I'm not a conservative, I can't help but admire the shameless right wingedness of it all. Wingedness is a word, no? Forget it.


    O
    (2001)
    Odin, O (Mekhi Phifer) for short, is the star player on his boarding schools basketball team. Yup, black dude. He is not only in love, but sexually active with his girlfriend Desi (Julia Stiles). Uh-huh, white girl. Now let's add in O's best friend/teammate Hugo (Josh Hartnett) who happens to have a thing for Desi. Yeah, jealous white guy. If any of this sounds familiar to you, it's because it should. Maybe if I suggest some different names for the characters I've mentioned so far. Instead of Desi and Hugo, how about Desdemona and Iago? If that turned your light bulb on then you figured out that O is actually Othello. Yessir, this is a modernization of a Shakespeare classic. As far as Shakespearian modernizations go, this is a rather underrated one. It's not the greatest movie in the world, but definitely worth a look. Aside from the three in the cast I've mentioned, we also get Martin Sheen and John Heard.


    Other topics covered on Thursday Movie Picks:
    Movies About Making Movies

    Tuesday, November 18, 2014

    August: Osage County

    Directed by John Wells.
    2013. Rated R, 121 minutes.
    Cast:
    Meryl Streep
    Julia Roberts
    Ewan McGregor
    Benedict Cumberbatch
    Chris Cooper
    Abigail Breslin
    Juliette Lewis
    Margo Martindale
    Dermot Mulroney
    Julianne Nicholson
    Sam Shepard
    Misty Upham

    Beverly (Shepard) is a man at the end of his wits. He's been married to Violet (Streep) forever and ever. She's a mean old biddy who has been stricken with mouth cancer, but keeps sucking down cigarettes. She medicates herself with as many pain killers as she can get her hands on. He prefers to drink away his pain. One day, Beverly goes out and doesn't come home. After a few days, Violet calls everyone in the family she can get a hold of to help her solve the mystery and the whole dysfunctional clan shows up. Her daughter Ivy (Nicholson) appears first, since she lives in the area. Then, in some order I can't exactly recall, the house fills up with up with people. There's daughter Barbara (Roberts), along with her husband Bill (McGregor), and their daughter Jean (Breslin). Daughter Karen (Lewis) arrives with "this year's man," Steve (Mulroney). Violet's loud sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) rumbles in, dragging her hubby Charles (Casper) with her. At some point, later on, Mattie Fae's and Charles' son Little Charles (Cumberbatch) joins the fray. Every one of these people has serious issues with themselves and each other. You know what that means. Oscar baiting ensues.

    In seemingly trying to garner accolades for its cast, August: Osage County comes off more as a collection of clips worthy of awards ceremonies than the gripping drama it impersonates. The actors take turns showcasing their chops. More accurately, headliners Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts take lots of turns while the others get a scene or two apiece. Luckily, it's an amazing cast. Just about everyone is at their fiery best. Every line is delivered with passion and conviction.

    Playing our main protagonist, Streep inhabits her role so fully, it's scary. She makes the cigarette between her fingers and the cloud of smoke swirling around her head while puffs of it punctuate her speech integral parts of Violet's persona. She's clearly a fire-breathing dragon once she gets riled up. While Streep is constantly on the attack, Roberts is busy counter-punching. A strong presence in her own right, she never withers beneath her co-star's massive light. Instead, she fires back in verbally violent fashion, commanding the screen as she does.


    As stated, the rest of the players all knock it out the park when they step up to the plate. Margo Martindale provides the thunder to Streep's lightning. she is appropriately loud and angry. The difference is where Streep is sinking her fangs into everyone in sight, Martindale is usually trying to make someone do something. As her husband, Cooper fares best amongst the men in the cast. It's not that anyone is bad. Even the weakest links in the cast, either Nicholson or Breslin, are both very good. Ladies and gentlemen, when the masters decide to chew scenery, this is how they do it.

    That I've spent most of my review to this point gushing over the acting begs the question 'why don't I love this movie?' The answer lies in something I snuck in a little earlier. It plays like a collection of clips. Due to the talent on display, they are immensely watchable. However, what links them just feels like a writer purposely throwing fuel on various fires to create melodrama. Between every rant, another problem is added to the mix until it all becomes too much for the movie to bear. Eventually, I just rolled my eyes as the next thing always and inevitably happens. In that way, it's very Tyler Perry-esque. We get one earth-shattering revelation after another until the film collapses beneath its own weight. What we're left with is a movie that is much less than the sum of its parts.