Finding Dory, Pawn Sacrifice, Duel, Sugarland Express.

Movies watched:  Finding Dory (Bonney Lake Regal Tall Firs 10 – 103 minutes), Pawn Sacrifice (home – 115 minutes), Duel (home – 89 minutes), Sugarland Express (home – 110 minutes).

Total cumulative time:  3 days, 8 hours, 9 minutes

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I’ve missed out on a lot of the animated movies of the last decade or so.  My son is an adult now, and has been for a while,  so the days when I had to see virtually every  animated movie made are long gone.  Of course, there are plenty of quality “kid’s” movies that have been released in the last decade, and maybe I’ve missed a few good ones.  But I never miss a Pixar movie.  They really have set the bar so high, and stumbled so infrequently.  Last year’s Inside Out  was one of the best movies of the year, animated or otherwise.

So Finding Nemo was never one of my favorite Pixar movies.  The animation is spectacular, but it didn’t grab me the way Toy Story  or Monsters Inc. did.  I feel like this movie is a worthy successor to the original.   It is very similar in tone to the first movie.  Ellen DeGeneres is really perfect as Dory, and the rest of the voice talent is good too.   I almost feel like Albert Brooks is wasted, because he’s basically playing his part the same way he did in the first movie.  Perhaps it would have been better if this was just Dory’s adventure.     And two people from “Modern Family” doing voices on a Disney movie?  Nobody is better than Disney at cross-promotion.  Synergy, baby.

I liked this movie; the kids in the theater loved it. It is a perfect movie for children, with a great message.

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I don’t play a lot of chess these days, but I’ve always enjoyed movies about chess.  I’m also a fan of the oft-maligned Tobey Maguire.   The Fischer/Spassky world championship is great subject matter for a movie.  That tournament took place when the tensions of the cold war were very high, and every victory became politicized.  I had no idea how bonkers Bobby Fischer became.  Did his unstable home life contribute to his paranoia?   The movie does not explicitly make this claim, but it is certainly offered up as a possibility.  Fischer had an exceptional mind, and perhaps his extreme paranoia was a genetic offshoot of the way his brain functioned.

The movie is very entertaining, and Tobey MacGuire does a great job.  Liev Schreiber is also solid, and Peter Sarsgaard is outstanding.   The movie is directed by Edward Zwick, a very workmanlike director who has made several solid (but not great) films.  It is entertaining for the most part, but it doesn’t linger for long when it’s over.  If this story intrigues you, there are some good books about Fischer;  what a sad,  strange story.

"You want crazy?" says Tobey Maguire. "I'll show you crazy."
“You want crazy?” says Tobey Maguire. “I’ll show you crazy.”

Universal Pictures released an 8 movie blu ray box set of Steven Spielberg movies, which was available at Costco for a steal.  It’s a little spotty, because it only contains the movies Spielberg directed for Universal.  There are no real duds in the set though.  So I started watching them chronologically.

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Duel was originally made for television, but several months after its TV debut an extended theatrical version was released.  This longer, theatrical cut was shown on television frequently when I was a kid.  I remember watching it with a mix of horror and fascination.  I couldn’t stop watching, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep.  It was the fact that Spielberg never showed the face of the truck driver.  The idea of an unknown, faceless menace scared the crap out of me.   The bulk of the movie was shot near my hometown of Palmdale, California.  I had been on Sierra Highway,  where some of the scenes were shot. So when I would be riding in my mom’s car, I would hunker down and close my eyes every time we passed a truck.  It took me a couple of years to get over that one.

Dennis Weaver stars as a salesman, who has a chance encounter with a truck on a small desert highway, and is then stalked by the truck for the duration of the movie.  The movie is based on a short story by the brilliant Richard Matheson, who wrote dozens of “Twilight Zone” episodes.   Duel is very well paced, and brilliantly shot.  In many ways, it lays the groundwork for Spielberg’s entire career.

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I had never seen Sugarland Express before, which is Spielberg’s official feature film debut.    It stars a young, cute, very talented Goldie Hawn, as Lou Jean, a woman who has made some bad choices in life, and has her young son taken away and placed in foster care.   Goldie breaks her husband out of a minimum-security prison, and they set off to take back their child.  Along the route, they end up with a Texas policeman as a hostage, and soon have half the lawmen in Texas following them.

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It was a pleasant surprise to see William Atherton in the role of Clovis, Lou Jean’s equally goodhearted but misguided husband.  Atherton would later establish his career playing assholes throughout the 80’s (the EPA guy in Ghostbusters,  the TV reporter in Die Hard and Die Hard 2).  Here, he is incredibly likable.  One look in particular stands out, when he is supplying the sound effects to a Loony Tunes cartoon, and all of a sudden the joy drains from his face, as if he knows exactly how this escapade with his wife is going to end, but is going to follow it through to the end.

Then there is Ben Johnson as Captain Tanner, leading the seemingly hundreds of law enforcement agents trailing the kidnapping couple.  Johnson was a pretty basic actor.  He kept it simple, but always believable.  His quiet understatement would provide a good example to some of the bombast that passes for acting today.

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The movie is different in tone from most Spielberg movies, but it is watchable.  It just feels like an odd choice sandwiched in between Duel and Jaws, as if he had to make this one, and make  it successfully, to make a movie that he really wanted to make.  It is also the first time Spielberg worked with John Williams, who used Toots Thielmans’ magnificent harmonica playing in the score.

 

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The French Connection, French Connection II, The Connection. Plus To Catch A Thief

Movies watched:  The French Connection  (home – 104 minutes), French Connection II (home – 119 minutes), The Connection (home – 135 minutes), To Catch A Thief (106 minutes).

Total cumulative time:  3 days, 1 hour, 12 minutes

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So last week I saw that the French movie The Connection was streaming on Amazon Prime, and I thought I would revisit the French Connection movies first.  The French Connection is a movie that holds up amazingly well.    Sometimes a young director does great things when a belief in infallibility is combined with true talent (until hubris topples the thrones of the mighty).  It happened with Welles, it happened with Coppola, and it definitely happened with William Friedkin.   Friedkin was too young to know how the game was supposed to be played.  He just knew the movie he wanted to make, and he made it.

The movie is kind of a solid stream of kinetic energy.  Friedkin got his start in documentary films, and so he shot this with a documentary feel.  Everything was shot on location, and the camerawork has a natural quality. Of course, everybody remembers the chase scene, with a car chasing a train under the elevated tracks.   It’s a scene that paved the way for a generation of car chases that followed, but still manages to be one of the best.  So many car chases today are exciting, but so perfectly choreographed;  the chase in The French Connection feels unrehearsed and real, which it was to an extent.  A couple of the crashes were not supposed to be crashes, they were supposed to be near misses.  Happy accidents, because they contribute to the sense of reality.

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Speaking of happy accidents, the story of Fernando Rey being cast by accident is one of the greatest movie stories in Hollywood history.  William Friedkin told his casting director to hire the guy who was in all the Luis Bunuel movies to play Charnier, the antagonist.  The actor that Friedkin had in mind was Paco Rabal, but the casting director hired Fernando Rey, another actor that had appeared in several Bunuel films.  And of course, Rey is sublime as Alain Charnier;  its hard to imagine anyone else topping his performance.   The movie is full of great performances.  Gene Hackman won his first Oscar, and Roy Scheider was nominated.  The movie also won best direction and best picture.

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And now we get to the sequel.  French Connection II is one of those sequels that was made for one reason only:  the first movie made a ton of money.  The original was based on a true story.  (If you dig the movie, check out the book by Robin Moore.  It is a good police procedural.)  The second movie has no basis in fact.  What it does have is Gene Hackman and Fernando Rey reprising their roles from the first movie.  It also has the vastly underrated director John Frankenheimer.

The first time I watched this movie, I so wanted it to be great, and it is so clearly not.  It is a decent movie, with many great moments, but overall it is a letdown compared to the first movie.   First of all, the fish out of water premise is fantastic; so is the idea of Hackman’s character getting strung out on heroin.  It just fails a little bit in the execution.  There are many great sequences.   Particularly when Hackman gets angry.  The scene in which he torches the hotel, that is a marriage of great directing and great acting.  frenchconnectiontwo1

My favorite scene in the movie has  Cathleen Nesbitt, veteran actress of the British stage, (in her 80’s when the movie was made!) stealing Gene Hackman’s watch.  What a great moment.  It is nothing like the original movie, but is worth watching at least once, particularly if you are a fan of Gene Hackman.

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The Connection is a French movie that purports to be inspired by the events of The French Connection.  It is a loose inspiration, because in reality Jean Jehan (the drug kingpin from the first two movies) was never jailed.  France refused to extradite him.  The character in this movie (played by Gilles Lellouche) is a fictional druglord, who is controlling the flow of heroin into America.  He is basically untouchable, and everybody is on the take, including many of the police whose job it is to bust him.  Then along comes Pierre Michel (played by Jean Dujardin) who is placed in charge of the organized crime unit, and decides to bring Lellouche down.

For the most part, it is a compelling film, solidly paced, with good performances..  There are some cliches that have become all-too-familiar in cop movies, such as the wife who threatens to leave because her husband is spending too much time working, and forces him to make a choice.  I think this is the first time I have seen Dujardin act in his native French.  His portrayal is very powerful, and convincing.   He has a face that was made to be photographed. If you like crime thrillers, and are not averse to reading subtitles, then give this one a try.  It is a worthy successor to the French Connection series.

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I also recently watched Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief, so I could review it for my alfredhitblog site.  I always enjoy this film.  Two beautiful people, in a beautiful city, dressed in beautiful clothes, on beautiful sets, speaking beautiful dialogue.  Definitely a summer movie.

You can read my review here.

Northern Ireland double feature: Odd Man Out, ’71. Plus Ghostbusters.

Movies watched:  Odd Man Out (home – 116 minutes), ’71 (home – 99 minutes), Ghostbusters (AMC Southcenter 16 – 105 minutes).

Total elapsed time:  2 days, 17 hours, 28 minutes.

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Director Carol Reed is far from a household name.   The only films of his that are really well known today are The Third Man and Oliver!   But his body of work contains quite a few gems, including Odd Man Out.  This film stars James Mason as Johnny McQueen, a leader in a Northern Irish “organization” that is never named, but is clearly meant to be the IRA.    One of the great things about this movie is that Carol Reed has removed politics from the plot.  Ultimately, this movie is about people dealing with the consequences of their choices  It delves into some rather deep subject matter, with ruminations on life, death and personal responsibility.

McQueen and his friends pull off a robbery,  and he scuffles with and shoots a guard.   He is left behind, hiding alone in Belfast.  The rest of the movie deals with everyone’s attempt to find McQueen, and his attempt to get to sanctuary.   This movie was released in 1947, so we know there can be know escape for Johnny McQueen.  He must be brought to justice.  So the movie has a sense of fatalism as it moves along.  And yet, for all that, the conclusion is incredibly moving.   Performances are strong throughout, but the real strengths of this movie lie in Carol Reed’s direction, Robert Krasker’s cinematography, and the musical score of William Alwyn.

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Krasker, who would later win an Oscar for The Third Man, does a magnificent job lighting this film, with many elements of German expressionism;  long shadows abound. As Johnny begins to hallucinate, there are images like the one above, involving special effects photography, quite clever for the mid ’40’s.   The musical score is outstanding as well, particularly in the final moments of the film.  One small image in particular will stay with me forever.  James Mason’s character is lying in the snow, and he sees a curtain part, and two small boys looking with joy and wonder at the falling snow.  Then, the curtain closes.  The lighting, staging and music all combine to make this unforgettable, and a great metaphor for the fleeting nature of life, and the joys it brings. This film is highly recommended.

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I guess I had Northern Ireland on the brain, or in the heart, because I next watched the 2014 movie ’71.   The movie is set in the titular year, when the conflict was at its most atrocious and bloody.  A young British soldier named Gary (played  by Jack O’Connell) is patrolling in Belfast when he becomes separated from his fellow soldiers.  He must then try to survive a night in Belfast.  So the movie shares that plot point at least with Odd Man Out, a man trying to get through a night in Belfast.  Otherwise, the movies are very different.

This excellent movie marks the directorial debut of Yann Demange.  The movie is a burst of frenetic energy unbelievable tension.  It is entertaining, moving, and at times difficult to watch..   Two times during the movie I felt tightness in my chest, from the tension.  Once, I stood up off the couch, unable to contain my emotion.

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’71 also feature Sean Harris, who played the villain in  Mission Impossible:  Rogue Nation.  He is playing a different version of that character here, and manages to seem more menacing in this movie, despite the much smaller stakes.  His acting is like a kettle of water that is about to boil;  everything is bubbling just under the surface.   

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And finally, last weekend I saw Ghostbusters on the big screen, for the first time since its original theatrical release.  It holds up very well.  Reflections:

–Remember the scene in High Fidelity where John Cusack’s character is going to rearrange his albums autobiographically?  I am that way about movies.  I can remember the circumstances of every movie I’ve seen (who with, when, where).  So I’m sitting there in the theater with my adult son and his girlfriend, thinking that the first time I saw Ghostbusters I was 12 years old, and with my mom.  She enjoyed it more than I thought she would.

–Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis:  good God, they all look so young.  And they were all so good.  This movie falls into that brief window when Aykroyd was genuinely funny.

–I had forgotten how late into the movie Ernie Hudson comes along, but I am glad he is there.  He has some of the best moments.

–There is sure is a lot of cigarette smoking in this movie.  I know, different time, but it seems gratuitous in a couple of scenes.  I was looking for a pack of cigs with a logo;  product placement perhaps?

–Finally, there is a Reginald VelJohnson sighting in this movie!  He is the cop that lets the Ghostbusters out of jail after they have been arrested.  Just 4 years later VelJo (as I affectionately call him) would play another policeman, the unforgettable Sgt. Al Powell, in Die Hard.  

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–Finally, did you know there was a TV show called “The Ghostbusters” that aired in 1975?   It reteamed Larry Storch and the massively-schlonged Forrest Tucker from “F Troop”, as ghost-busting detectives, who have a gorilla as a sidekick!  It lasted one full season and is just about as bad as it sounds.  I almost made it through one episode on youtube, but the laugh track was just too much to take.  I do love Storch and Tucker though.  (And of course, I wish I was packing like FT.  Then again, what man doesn’t?)

 

 

I Confess, Her, Minority Report, Captain America: Civil War

Movies watched:  I Confess (home – 91 minutes), Her (home – 126 minutes), Minority Report (home – 145 minutes), Captain America:  Civil War (AMC Kent Station 14 – 147 minutes).

Total elapsed time:  2 days, 12 hours 8 minutes

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This week I watched the Alfred Hitchcock movie I Confess so I could analyze and write about it for my alfredhitchblog site.  I hadn’t seen it for many years, and I was watching it with a particular eye for the religious symbolism.  It is a better movie than I remembered it, but far from Hitchcock’s best.  For a detailed look at this movie, look here.

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Next I watched the Spike Jonze movie Her.   This was one of my two favorite movies of 2013. My son Kevin and I see all of the Oscar-nominated movies every year, and we both really enjoyed this one.  I was very happy when Spike Jonze won the Academy Award for best original screenplay for this movie (happy for Jonze because I thought he deserved it, and happy for me because I picked him to win in my Oscar predictions).

I like futuristic movies that are set in the near-future, as opposed to hundreds or thousands of years hence.  This movie is not some fabulist’s tale of bizarre unfamiliar machines, but a future that is palpably close, and therefore much more real.  The set design, costume design, and cinematography all work together to form a very believable aesthetic.

Will people ever fall in love with operating systems?  It would not surprise me;  the Japanese are already working on very life-like robots that will provide unconditional love and emotional support for people who live alone and feel alone.   Now whether those operating systems could ever achieve a state of self-awareness, and act autonomously, is another question entirely, with the answer farther away from us.

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The performances are good (particularly Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and the voice of Scarlett Johansson) the visual look is unique, and the screenplay is great.  The screenplay covers a wide range of emotion, not least of which is humor;  there are a few laugh-out-loud moments in this film.  This is one of those movies which makes me feel good about being alive, on this world, at this moment.

It was a pretty natural progression to go from Her to Minority Report.  After all, it is another movie set in the not-too-distant future, although the premise is not believable.  This was about the time that Steven Spielberg began to explore different genres and themes than he had for most of his career.   There are times when Spielberg seems to play it safe, to coast, but there are certainly times when he has taken chances, and many times they have paid off.

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This movie is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick.  I purchased a collection of his short stories many years ago, but had never opened it.  I figured it was about time, so I read the story this week, after re-watching the film.  The basic premise of the movie exists in the story, but honestly, the short story is weaker than the screenplay.

About that screenplay.   Overall, it is very good.  There are a few moments that don’t quite ring true to me.   (I mean true within the confines of the story.  Of course the very premise of “precogs” who can see crimes before they happen is ridiculous;  but once the premise is established, the story must follow its own logic.)  It’s actually a very engaging premise.  Isn’t there a fundamental paradox in arresting somebody for a crime they have not yet committed?

Visually, the movie works very well.  Spielberg used a “bleach bypass” on most of the film, giving it a washed look, drained of most color.  One exception is the color red, which is used as a color cue.  Many directors have used red as a color cue (Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Spielberg himself), and it works well here.  Next time you see this movie, watch for scenes with red in them.  They happen when the character of Danny Witwer (played by Colin Farrell) is on-screen.  This is foreshadowing; in his final scene the color red has a very strong significance.

Tom Cruise was just reaching the peak of his power at this point, and is very well cast in the lead role.  Max von Sydow, alas, has played so many villains over the last 20 years that the audience becomes immediately suspicious of him.   Samantha Morton is very good in the difficult role of the “precog”,  one of the three people who see the future crimes.   Peter Stormare and Tim Blake Nelson are memorable in small supporting roles.  Their characters give the movie the feel of an old film noir, in the vein of The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, which have a bizarre cast of memorable supporting characters.

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This material definitely inspired Spielberg to up his game visually, with several memorable shots, including the one seen above.  There are also a couple of deliberate nods to Alfred Hitchcock (one involving umbrellas), and a fantastic overhead sequence in a tenement building.  Overall, this movie succeeds.  If you don’t pause to question the logic of what is happening, and just go along for the ride, it is a very entertaining movie.

Speaking of not pausing to question story logic, we get to Captain America:  Civil War.  

Nobody is more surprised than me that I saw this movie.  But my car was being serviced and I had some time to kill.  A few years ago, I declared a moratorium on comic book movies.  I just decided that I wanted a break.  I did see all of the Nolan Batman movies  I saw the first Iron Man.  I saw the second Captain America movie because my son and I were in London, and the movie premiered over there earlier than in the States, and he wanted to be able to scoop his friends and see it first.  I saw the first Avengers.   And that’s it.  So I’m missing a few pieces of the puzzle.  It’s not that I dislike the movies.  And it’s not that I’m highbrow or something like that, and frown on these types of movies.  I just got a little tired of the constant reinvention/rebooting of franchises.

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That being said, this Marvel franchise has done it right.  They had a long-term plan, and it has paid off immensely.  So maybe I’m going to have to watch the movies I missed, to fill in the blank.  This movie is exactly what you want it to be, just a pure popcorn movie.   The premise of characters that the audience all love facing off against each other is a good one.  The problem, of course, is that we know ultimately that none of them will die, and that they will be reunited, so that takes a little of the suspense away.  That being said, it is a good movie.  It did feel like it had about 3 endings.  Couldn’t it have ended with a cliffhanger?   Leave some of the Avengers in prison, and open the next movie with their escape?  Apparently not, everything has to resolve itself.    Performances?  Well, everyone is playing characters that have already been established in earlier films, so they are all comfortable and enjoyable to watch.

I liked this movie enough  that I will go back and see some of the movies I missed along the way.  At least the Marvel ones.  I will never watch Batman v Superman..