“X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” (2009) Review

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“X-MEN: WOLVERINE” (2009) Review

I must admit that when I had first learned of Marvel’s plans to release a fourth movie in the ”X-MEN” franchise nearly six years ago, I did not warm to the idea. And when I learned that this fourth movie would focus upon the origins of James Howlett aka Logan aka Wolverine, my wariness deepened. 

Fortunately, ”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” eased most of my doubts. It turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining movie. Directed by Gavin Hood, it told the story of how a Canadian mutant named James Howlett (or Logan) became the amnesiac Wolverine first introduced in the 2000 film, ”X-MEN”. The movie not only provided a brief glimpse of his tragic childhood in mid-19th century Canada, which included the deaths of his stepfather; and real father and his relationship with his half-brother, Victor Creed aka Sabertooth, along with an extraordinary title sequence that highlighted the two brothers’ experiences as Canadian mercenaries for the U.S. Army during the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War. But the gist of the film centered around their work as mercenaries for the U.S. Army’s “Team X”, led by military scientist Major William Stryker; and James’ (Logan’s) later conflicts with Victor and Stryker after he left the team.

”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” had received some bad word of mouth before its release at the beginning of May. A rumor circulated that either Marvel or 20th Century-Fox had meddled with director Hood’s finished work. Since I do not know whether this is true or not, all I can do is comment upon what I had seen on the movie screen. And to be honest, I am not a big fan of the Wolverine character . . . despite Hugh Jackman’s portrayal. Yes, he can be very entertaining. But uber-macho types like Logan have never been my forte. But I went ahead saw the movie, anyway.

First, I have to say that ”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” was not perfect. One, I never understood why James and Victor had served as mercenaries for the U.S. Army during both World War I and II, since Canada had participated in both wars and at least seven decades had passed between the deaths of John Howlett and Thomas Logan (James’ step-father and father) in 1845 and their participation in World War I in 1917-1918. And two, how did Stryker know that Victor had less chance of surviving the adamantium process than James? Was it ever explained in the movie? I also had problems with two of the characters in the movie, along with Nicholas De Toth and Megan Gill’s editing. But I will discuss those later.

Despite some of the flaws mentioned in the previous paragraph, ”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” turned out to be better than I had expected. The movie took viewers on James Howlett’s emotional journey that started with him as a young boy in 1845 Canadian Northwest Territories, who stumbled upon an unpleasant truth about his parentage in the worst possible way. By the time the movie ended, James (or Logan) had fought in several wars, participated in Team X’s black operations, estranged himself from Victor, fallen in love, experienced loss, acquired his adamantium claws and lost his memories. Several fans had complained that Logan’s character did not seem like the complex loner from ”X-MEN” throughout most of the movie. Instead, he seemed more like the slightly benign team player that had emerged at the end of ”X-MEN 3: THE LAST STAND”. I must admit that these fans have a point. Only . . . I am not complaining. This only tells me that screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods had properly done their jobs. If Logan’s character had remained the cynical loner throughout the entire film, I would have been disappointed. One key to good writing is character development. In all of the previous three ”X-MEN”, Logan’s character had developed slowly from the loner to the team player shown at the end of ”THE LAST STAND”. But ”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE”is only one movie. And in that single film, the screenwriters, along with Hood and actor Hugh Jackman had to show the audience how James Howlett became that amnesiac loner. The last thing I wanted to see was a one-dimensional portrayal of his character. And I am thankful that I have no reason to complain about Logan’s character arc.

Not only was I impressed by Logan’s character development (which was the gist of the story), I was also impressed by how Hood, Benioff, Woods and Jackman handled Logan’s relationships with Victor and Stryker. I enjoyed how the screenwriters created the con job that both Stryker and Victor had committed against Logan. They had manipulated Logan into volunteering for the adamantium process, so that he could seek revenge against Victor for his girlfriend’s death. What Logan did not know was that he had been nothing more than an experiment – a test run – to see if the process would work for Stryker’s new weapon – a mutant called Weapon XI or Deadpool that had been injected with the abilities of other mutants, including Logan’s healing factor. I feel that Benioff and Woods’ creation of the con job was an imaginative twist to the story . . . and very essential to Logan’s character development.

Speaking of Logan, I must say that Hugh Jackman did an excellent job of conveying Logan’s emotional journey in the film. Thanks to his first-class performance, he took Logan from the loyal, yet wary half-brother of the increasingly violent Victor Creed to the amnesiac mutant who ended up rejecting Remy LaBeau’s help amidst the ashes of Three Mile Island. Mind you, Jackman’s portrayal of Logan has always been first-rate. But since this movie featured a more in-depth look into the character’s development, I feel that it may have featured Jackman’s best performance as aggressive and self-regenerative mutant.

Liev Schreiber seemed equally impressive in his portrayal of Logan’s half-brother, Victor Creed aka Sabertooth. Like Logan, Victor possessed a regenerative healing factor, an aggressive nature and superhuman senses. But Schreiber’s Victor seemed not to have embarked on an emotional journey. Instead, his character seemed to be in some kind of quandary. Not only did Schreiber portray Victor as a more aggressive and violent man than Logan, but he did so with a touch of style that seemed to be lacking in Tyler Mane’s portrayal in the 2000 movie. Schreiber also did a magnificent job in revealing Victor’s conflicted feelings toward the character’s younger half-brother. He loves James, yet at the same time, harbors several resentments toward the younger man – including one toward Logan’s abandonment of Team X and him.

Normally I would pity the actor forced to fill Brian Cox’s shoes in the role of U.S. Army scientist William Stryker. The Scottish actor had given a superb performance in ”X-MEN 2: X-MEN UNITED”. Fortunately, Marvel hired Danny Huston for the role. Not only did he successfully fill Cox’s shoes in my opinion, he managed to put his own stamp on the role. Like Cox, Huston did a great portrayal of Stryker as the soft-spoken, yet ruthless and manipulative military scientist who would do anything to achieve his goals regarding the existence of mutants. But whereas the older Stryker simply wanted to destroy mutants, Huston’s Stryker seemed to desire control over them . . . for his own personal experiments. And Huston . . . was superb.

I felt more than satisfied with most of the movie’s supporting cast. Ryan Reynolds was memorable in his brief role of a wisecracking mercenary with lethal swordsmanship named Wade Wilson. He was both hilarious and chilling as the mutant who eventually became Stryker’s premiere experiment – Weapon XI aka Deadpool. Taylor Kitsch made a charming, yet intense Remy LaBeau, the New Orleans hustler and mutant who had escaped from Stryker’s laboratory on Three Mile Island. Rapper will.i.am made a solid screen debut as the soft spoken teleporter, John Wraith. Dominic Monaghan gave a quiet and poignant performance as Bradley, another member of Stryker’s Team X that happened to be a technopath. Kevin Durand as funny as the super strong Fred Dukes aka Blob, who developed an eating disorder after leaving Team X. Daniel Henney was intense and unforgettable as Team X’s ruthless tracker and marksman, Agent Zero. I enjoyed Tahyna Tozzi’s portrayal of the strong-willed Emma “Frost” so much that I found myself wishing she had been the movie’s leading lady.

Which brings me to Lynn Collins as Kayla Silverfox. I am sure that Ms. Collins is a competent actress. But her performance as Kayla, Logan’s telepathic girlfriend struck me as a bit uninspiring. Oddly enough, she physically reminded me of Evangeline Lilly of ”LOST”. In fact, her portrayal of Kayla damn near came off as flat so much that her acting skills almost seemed as mediocre as Ms. Lilly’s. Considering Ms. Collins’ reputation as an actress, I suspect that screenwriters Benioff and Woods are to blame for the flat portrayal of Kayla, instead of Ms. Collins’ acting skills. Tim Peacock gave a competent, yet unmemorable performance as the younger Scott Summers aka Cyclops – another mutant who became one of Stryker’s prisoners on Three Mile Island and a part of the Weapon XI experiment. If this Cyclops is supposed to be twenty years younger than the one featured in the first three ”X-MEN” films, then I believe that a younger actor should have been cast in this film. Why? I never got the impression that James Marsden’s Cyclops had been somewhere between 34 and 38 in the three previous films.

As I had stated earlier, I was not impressed by Nicholas De Toth and Megan Gill’s editing of the film. At times, it struck me as slightly choppy and amateurish. Only the editing featured in the opening title sequence struck me as impressive. And imaginative. However, Donald McAlpine’s photography and the visual effects supervised by Dean Franklin, Craig Veytia and Mike Rotella struck me as very impressive – especially in the title sequence and the scene featuring Logan and Victor’s fight against Deadpool on Three Mile Island.

In conclusion, I found ”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” to be surprisingly enjoyable. It turned out better than I had expected, despite some flaws. It would probably rank third for me in the ”X-MEN” franchise – somewhere between ”X-MEN 3” and ”X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. I find this astonishing, considering I did not have any real hopes for this film when it first hit the theaters nearly nine years ago. I realize that many fans of the franchise have low opinions of the film. But you know what? I guess I really do not care.

 

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“TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” (1979) Review

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“TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” (1979) Review

I would have never thought about watching the BBC’s television adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel if I had not seen the 2011 movie version. Never. For some reason, I have never been that inclined to read his novels or watch any movie or television adaptations of his work. But after seeing Tomas Alfredson’s movie, I had to see this version that starred Alec Guinness. 

Unlike the 2011 movie, this “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” was set around the time the miniseries aired, since the Cold War was still in full swing. You know the story. The head of SIS (MI-6 in real life), Control, sends agent Jim Prideaux to Czechoslovakia to meet a Czech general who claims to have information identifying a deep-cover Soviet spy planted in the highest echelons of “Circus” (the nickname for the SIS headquarters). “Operation Testify” proves to be a trap when Prideaux is shot and captured by the Soviets. Due to the mission’s failure, both Control and his right-hand man, George Smiley, are forced to retire.

But when Ricky Tarr, a British agent gone missing in Portugal, turns up in England with new evidence backing up Control’s mole theory, Smiley is recalled to find the mole. He learns from Oliver Lacon, who oversees the country’s intelligence services, that Control had four suspects occupying high positions in SIS – Percy Alleline (who assumed the position as the Circus’ new head), Toby Esterhase, Bill Haydon and Roy Bland. Smiley, with the help of Peter Twiliam (who happens to be Tarr’s immediate supervisor), instigates a secret investigation of Operation Testify to learn the name of the mole, nicknamed “Gerald”.

To compare a seven-part television miniseries with a motion picture with a running time just barely over two hours seems just a bit too ridiculous to me. Instead, I will merely talk about the former. And what can I say about “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY”? It was a first-rate production that deserved all of the accolades it had received three-three to thirty-four years ago. Instead of the usual action-dominated spy stories that have spilled out of Hollywood and the British film industries since the first James Bond movies, “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” felt like an well-paced Cold War mystery that featured a good deal of excellent acting, dramatic moments and perhaps the occasional action scene or two on the side.

Too many flashbacks can be deadly to a story or a production. But when said production is basically a mystery, flashbacks can be effectively used. Director John Irvin and screenwriter Arthur Hopcraft certainly used the miniseries’ flashbacks with great dramatic effect – aside from one particular flashback. The most effective flashback – at least for me – proved to be the back story regarding of Ricky Tarr’s affair with Irina, the wife of a Moscow Center intelligence official, in Portugal. This affair leads to Tarr’s discovery of new evidence supporting Control’s theory of a high-ranking Soviet mole in the Circus. Another flashback that I found interesting proved to be Sam Collins’ recollection of the night when news of Jim Prideaux’s capture reached the Circus.

The single flashback that failed to resonate with me proved to be Smiley’s recollection of his brief meeting with his nemesis, KGB operative-turned-official Karla, during the 1950s. Although the scene featured an excellent performance from Alec Guinness as Smiley and a strong screen presence in the form of a smoldering Patrick Stewart as Karla, the brief scene nearly put me to sleep. I would have been satisfied with a verbal recollection from Smiley. And there were two sequences that I found either unnecessary or disappointing. I found the sequence featuring Prideaux’s trip to Czechoslovakia. I realize that both Irvin and Hopcraft’s script tried to convey this entire sequence as intriguing action scene. It did not work for me. Considering that most of the sequence was shot at night, I found it rather dull. And it came as a relief when the miniseries moved on to Smiley’s recruitment into Operation Testify. Smiley’s capture of “Gerald” in the last episode struck me as unsatisfying and anti-climatic. And while watching the miniseries, I realized that one needs a great deal of patience to watch it. I had no problem with its length, but I did find Irvin’s pacing rather slow at times.

The performances featured in “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLIDER, SPY” struck me as outstanding. I have already commented on Patrick Stewart’s brief, yet strong silent presence as Karla in one scene. Siân Phillips’ portrayal of Smiley’s unfaithful wife, Ann, proved to be equally brief. Although the character was discussed in numerous scenes, Phillips did not appear long enough for me to be impressed by her performance. Terence Rigby’s portrayal of one of the “Gerald” suspects – Roy Bland – seemed like a waste of time to me. Although Rigby gave a first-rate performance in one scene in which his character is interviewed by Smiley, he spent most of the production as a background character. I found this rather odd, considering his role as one of the major suspects. I also enjoyed the performances of John Standing, Joss Ackland, Alexander Knox and Michael Aldridge, who proved to be effectively smug as the new head of the Circus, Percy Alleline.

Ian Richardson was the last person I could imagine portraying the charming, yet acid-tongue womanizer, Bill Haydon. Yet, he really did a fabulous job in the role and it seemed a pity that he never portrayed similar characters, later in his career. I really enjoyed Ian Bannen’s performance as disgraced agent, Jim Prideaux. But I must admit there were times when I found it a bit hammy . . . especially in those scenes in his new profession as a schoolmaster. Beryl Reid struck me as perfect in the role of former Circus intelligence analyst, Connie Sachs. She not only conveyed the character’s intelligence, but also the latter’s joie de vivre that had sadly dampened with time and a surprising job termination. Bernard Hepton’s portrayal of mole suspect, Toby Esterhase, struck me as the most unusual role I have ever seen him portray. He was marvelous and slightly eccentric as the Hungarian immigrant who rose to the top echelon of the Circus by toadying to others. Hywel Bennett did a great job in his performance as field agent, Ricki Tarr, projecting both the character’s emotions and trapped situation. Michael Jayston’s portrayal of Smiley’s protégé, Peter Guilliam, struck me as equally emotional. In fact, I found his performance so effective that there were times I found myself wondering if the character was suited for intelligence work. The top prize for best performance definitely belonged to Alec Guinness, for his portrayal of intelligence officer, George Smiley. With delicious subtlety, he did a superb job of conveying every aspect of Smiley’s personality. To my knowledge, only five actors have portrayed Smiley either in the movies or on television. I believe that Guinness’ portrayal is probably one of the two best interpretations I have come across.

“TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” is not perfect. I believe it has a few flaws that included an unnecessary flashback, an unnecessary action sequence and some very slow pacing. But its virtues – an excellent story, first-rate use of flashbacks and some superb characters portrayed by a cast led by the legendary Alec Guinness – outweighed the flaws considerably. In my opinion, the 1979 miniseries might be one of the best television productions from the 1970s and 80s.

“GODZILLA” (2014) Review

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“GODZILLA” (2014) Review

“Godzilla again?” That was my first reaction when I learned about a new Godzilla movie to be released for the summer of 2014 over four years ago.  The last movie about the iconic Japanese monster had been released some 16 years previously and was met with a good deal of derision. Mind you, I rather liked the 1998 film, but I did not love it.  But . . . I was willing to give this new film a chance. 

“GODZILLA” 2014 begins with a montage of atomic test bombings in the Pacific Ocean by the U.S. Navy. In the last montage, a large creature emerges from the ocean depths. The story immediately shifts to the Philippines Islands in 1999, when a pair of scientists named Ishiro Serizawa and Vivienne Graham investigate a large skeleton discovered inside a collapsed mine. They also discover two egg-shaped pods. The broken one leaves a trail leading to the sea. The Janjira nuclear plant in Japan experiences unusual seismic activity. The plant’s American-born supervisor, Joe Brody, sends his wife Sandra and a team of technicians into the reactor to check the sensors. When the team is inside, an explosion occurs, threatening to release radiation to the outside. Sandra and her team are unable to escape and the plant collapses into ruin. The disaster is attributed to an earthquake. But Brody suspects otherwise and spends a good number of years investigating the disaster.

Fifteen years later, Brody’s son, Ford, has become a U.S. Navy bomb disposal officer, living in San Francisco with his wife and son. When Brody is arrested for trespassing at the Janjira exclusion zone, Ford is forced to travel to Japan. Convinced of a cover-up of the true cause of the disaster, Brody convinces Ford to accompany him to their old home to retrieve vital seismic data he had recorded before the plant disaster. Father and son discover that Janjira is not contaminated with radiation, unlike the official report. After recovering the data, they are arrested and taken to a facility containing a massive chrysalis within the plant’s ruins. As they watch, a colossal winged creature emerges and escapes. After Brody is wounded by the creature, he dies from his wounds. Ford, Serizawa and Graham join a U.S. Navy strike force led by Admiral William Stenz on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga to track the creature, which has been labeled as a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Serizawa and Graham reveal that only one creature can stop MUTO, an ancient alpha predator known as Godzilla. When the MUTO causes the wreck of a Russian submarine, Godzilla emerges to feed off the sub’s radiation and pursue MUTO. More bad news arrives when Stenz, Serizawa and Graham learn about the emergence of a female MUTO in Las Vegas. The two scientists suspect that the MUTO from Japan is on his way to breed with his female counterpart.

Well, this was a first . . . at least for me. Godzilla as the main protagonist? That is exactly how writers Max Borenstein and David Callaham portrayed the monster. I suspect this has been done before in previous Godzilla films. Since I have never seen one, aside from the 1998 flick in which he was clearly the antagonist, this was news to me. Did I like the movie? Hmmmm . . . yes and no.

Let me explain. There are aspects of “GODZILLA” that I liked. The cast is pretty decent. Bryan Cranston chewed the scenery during his appearances in the movie’s first half hour. Usually, this would bother me, but for once I welcomed his over-the-top acting for I thought it gave the movie a lot of energy. One would think I dislike the rest of the cast. Honestly, I do not. I enjoyed Aaron Johnson-Taylor’s subtle portrayal of Brody’s more reserved and equally intense son, Ford. Actually, I thought Cranston and Johnson-Taylor balanced each other very well and it seemed a pity that the elder Brody was killed off after a half hour. Elizabeth Olsen, who portrayed Ford’s more ellubient wife. Like Cranston, she also balanced very well with Johnson-Taylor. Unfortunately, the two younger stars spent most of the movie away from each other. Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn gave solid performances as Admiral Stenz, who is willing to resort to anything to get rid of MUTO (and perhaps Godzilla) and Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, who believes that the only way to solve the situation regarding MUTO and Godzilla is to let them fight it off.

“GODZILLA” also benefited from some first-class photography, thanks to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s stunning work. I was especially impressed by one sequence featuring the HALO jump of Ford and a team of Army soldiers into San Francisco in order to prevent a missing warhead from detonating, as shown in this image:

There were some sequences in the movie that I enjoyed, including the original accident at the Janjira plant, the first MUTO’s emergence in Japan and especially the arrival of Godzilla and the first MUTO in Honolulu. Unfortunately, “GODZILLA” is not perfect.

I feel that “GODZILLA” lacked two qualities that made the 1998 movie so likable for me – a more centralized story and more colorful characters. I hate to say this, but Borenstein and Callaham’s story could have been a little more tighter. Actually, it could have been a lot more tighter. It seemed to be all over the map. Although the movie more or less ended in San Francisco, it took a long time for the story to arrive at that location. Gareth Edwards’ occasionally lackluster direction did not help. Also, I was not that impressed by the writers’ use of Godzilla as the main protagonist. It just did not work for me . At least not now. Perhaps one day, I might learn to embrace the concept. My problem is I found myself wondering why Godzilla went after the MUTOs in the first place. I doubt it he went after them for the sake of the human race.

And this movie lacked some serious characterization. Characters like Admiral Stenz, Doctors Serizawa and Graham were tight-lipped and professional, while struggling to keep their emotions in check. But I did not find them particularly interesting or found myself caring about their fates. I also feel that Juliette Binoche (who portrayed Cranston’s doomed wife) and Sally Hawkins (Dr. Vivienne Graham) were simply wasted in this movie. I realize that many critics do not seem to care for Aaron Johnson-Taylor. I simply feel otherwise. I like him a lot as an actor. But he has a rather subtle screen presence and he needed someone more colorful to balance his more quiet persona. He had the explosive Bryan Cranston and an emotional Elizabeth Olsen. But Cranston’s character was killed off after the first half hour. And Olson had very few scenes with him. In the end, the writers failed to provide Johnson-Taylor with more colorful characters to balance his style . . . something that Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich managed to do for Matthew Broderick in the 1998 film.
Did I bothered to purchase a copy of “GODZILLA” when it is released on DVD? Yes, I did. The movie is far from perfect, but I cannot deny that I still liked it.  A lot.

 

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“DIE HARD” (1988) Review

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“DIE HARD” (1988) Review

Twenty-nine years ago, 20th Century Fox released an action-adventure film that kicked off a movie franchise that has lasted with the addition of four other films and twenty-five years. I am speaking of the 1988 movie called “DIE HARD”. And the ironic thing is that I had no intention of seeing the film when it first hit the movie theaters during that summer of ’88. 

Based on Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel called “Nothing Lasts Forever” (which sounds like a title for a Bond movie), “DIE HARD” was directed by John McTiernan. Many would be surprised to know that the 1979 movie was a sequel to an earlier Thorp novel published in 1966 called “The Detective”, which was adapted into a 1968 movie that starred Frank Sinatra. Thorp had hoped a movie adaptation of the 1979 novel would also star Sinatra. But the singer-actor was not interested in a sequel to his movie. Later, the novel was being considered as a sequel to the Arnold Schwartzenegger 1985 movie, “COMMANDO”. But Schartzenegger was not interested. Oh dear. Finally, the novel became a literary source for “DIE HARD”. However, the Fox studio executives were not thrilled at the idea of Bruce Willis being cast as the movie’s lead, due to his reputation as a comedic television actor. But cast he was . . . and the rest is Hollywood history.

“DIE HARD” told the story of off-duty NYPD detective John McClane, who arrived in Los Angeles to reconciled with his estranged wife, Holly Gennero McClane. Husband and wife had clashed several months earlier when she accepted a job promotion with the Nakatomi Corporation that sent her to Los Angeles. A hired limousine driver named Argyle drives McClane to the Nakatomi Plaza building in Century City for the company’s Christmas party. While, the detective changes clothes, the party is disrupted by the arrival of terrorist Hans Gruber and his armed followers. The latter seize control of the tower and the partygoers as hostages. Only McClane, armed with a pistol, manages to evade capture. Gruber’s intentions are revealed, when he interrogates Nakatomi executive Joseph Takagi for the code to the building’s vault that holds $640 million in bearer bonds. When Takagi refuses to cooperate, Gruber executes him. McClane manages to kill one of Gruber’s men, taking the latter’s weapon and radio. He uses the radio to contact the Los Angeles Police Department during a gunfight with more of Gruber’s men on the roof. The L.A.P.D. eventually sends patrolman Sergeant Al Powell to investigate. When McClane drops one of Gruber’s dead associates on Powell’s patrol car roof, the latter finally summons the police force to respond. The incident also draws the attention of an ambitious local news reporter named Richard Thornburg, who is determined to learn McClane’s identity. Despite the arrival of Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson, numerous men that include a S.W.A.T. team, and later the F.B.I., McClane and Holly eventually realizes that matters have grown worse for both of them.

Most moviegoers and critics view “DIE HARD” as the best in the franchise. Is it the best? Hmmm . . . I really cannot say. As much as I love the movie, I certainly do not consider it perfect. The movie possesses flaws that I had not noticed during previous viewings and one particular flaw that I have noticed since I first saw it years ago. One aspect about “DIE HARD” that I found particularly annoying was the movie’s pacing. Director John McTiernan did a pretty good job with the movie’s pacing. Unfortunately, two-thirds into the movie, McTiernan began to lose steam and the pacing began to drag. Trimming the story would not have helped. I had no problem with the narrative during this film’s period. But I did have a problem with the director’s pacing. One of Roger Ebert’s complaints about “DIE HARD” was its unflattering portrayal of the Los Angeles Police Department. And if I must be brutally honest, I share his complaint. I am not a great admirer of the L.A.P.D. or any police force. But the police’s incompetency portrayed in the movie struck me as damn near unrealistic. I feel that McTiernan and screenwriters Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart went a bit to the extreme to make John McClane look good. And if I must be brutally frank, the movie does feature some rather cheesy dialogue – especially from the villains. However, my biggest complaint regarding “DIE HARD” – the one flaw I have been aware of since I first saw the film – occurred in the final action scene. Back in the 1980s, it was popular in action or thriller movies to temporarily “resurrect” a villain/villainess before killing him or her for good. This happened with Glenn Close’s character in the 1987 movie, “FATAL ATTRACTION”. This also happened with Alexander Godunov’s character in “DIE HARD”. And you know what? I hate this kind of showy action. I found it stupid and cringe-worthy when I first saw the movie. And I still find it a major blot on this otherwise first-rate movie.

Flaws or no flaws, “DIE HARD” is without a doubt, a first-rate action thriller that helped defined the genre during the 1980s. While reading the plot for Roderick Thorp’s 1978 novel, I was surprised to discover how much it resembled the 1988 film. There were some changes made in the latter. The main hero acquired a new name and shed at least two decades in age. Instead of a daughter, McClane’s wife ended up as one of the hostages. The franchise’s producers used the daughter character in the fourth film, “LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD”. The German terrorist – renamed Hans Gruber – was more interested in pulling a heist than making a political statement. The Al Powell character is at least fifteen years older. And unlike Thorp’s novel, “DIE HARD” ended on a more optimistic note for the two main characters.

Producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver were lucky to gather such a talented cast and director for this movie. Thanks to the actors and director John McTiernan, “DIE HARD” featured some excellent dramatic moments. My favorite dramatic scenes include the tense quarrel between John and Holly before Gruber’s arrival at the Christmas party, Gruber’s interrogation of Joseph Takagi for the codes to the executive vault, Holly’s tense interactions with Gruber, Takagi employee Harry Ellis’ attempt to convince McClane to surrender to Gruber, McClane’s accidental encounter with Gruber, and the many radio conversations between McClane and Powell. I found the latter especially impressive, considering that Bruce Willis and Reginald VelJohnson spent most of the movie apart.

But “DIE HARD” is, above all, an action film. And thanks to some members of the cast, a group of talented stuntmen and crew, the action sequences featured in the movie proved to be very memorable. If I had to choose those scenes that really impressed me, they would have to be the ones that featured Al Powell’s awareness of the presence of terrorists at the Nakatomi Tower thanks to some gunfire and a dead body that landed on his patrol car, the S.W.A.T. team’s failed assault on the building, and McClane’s retaliation against the terrorists’ massacre of the S.W.A.T. team (using explosives strapped to a chair). I was also impressed by the brief, yet final confrontation between the McClanes and Gruber. But for me, the most spectacular sequence turned out to be the rooftop explosion that claimed the lives of more Gruber men and two F.B.I. agents hovering above in an helicopter. Well-known cinematographer Jan de Bont and the special effects team really outdid themselves in that particular sequence.

As I had earlier pointed out, “DIE HARD” featured some outstanding performances. Bruce Willis was already a television star thanks to the 1980s series, “MOONLIGHTING”. But his superb, yet tough performance as the besieged N.Y.P.D. detective John McClane not only made him an action star, but also a bonafide movie star. I believe that Holly Gennero McClane proved to be one of Bonnie Bedelia’s best roles, thanks to her excellent performance as McClane’s passionate and no-nonsense wife. “DIE HARD” also made a star of Alan Rickman, thanks to his deliciously sardonic performance as the ruthless Hans Gruber. In fact, his Gruber happens to be one of my favorite cinematic villains of all time. Reginald VelJohnson’s career also benefited from his first-rate performance as the compassionate L.A.P.D. officer, Sergeant Al Powell.

There were other performances in “DIE HARD” that caught my attention. Ballet dancer Alexander Godunov gave a very competent performance as Gruber’s right-hand man, Hans, who wants revenge for McClane’s killing of his younger brother. Hart Bochner was very entertaining as Holly’s gauche co-worker, Harry Ellis. However, I must admit that I found the character somewhat one-dimensional. William Atherton was very memorable as the ambitious and slimy news reporter, Richard Thornburg. Clarence Gilyard revealed a talent for comic acting, in his excellent portrayal of Gruber’s sardonic and cold-blooded computer specialist, Theo. Andreas Wisniewski was excellent as Hans’ younger brother, the no-nonsense Karl. Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush (who reunited in the 1989 James Bond movie, “LICENSE TO KILL”) made a great screen team as the arrogant F.B.I. Special Agents Johnson and Johnson. De’voreaux White, someone I have not seen in years, provided his own brand of sharp humor and the movie’s best line as McClane’s limousine driver, Argyle. And finally, the late Paul Gleason proved to be very entertaining as the not-so-bright Deputy Police Chief Dwayne Robinson.

I find myself back at that moment in which I pondered over the reputation of “DIE HARD”. Do I still believe it is one of the best action movies ever made? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I have seen my share of action movies that strike me as equally good – including other films in the DIE HARD franchise. And the movie does have its share of flaws. But “DIE HARD” is also a personal favorite of mine, thanks to John McTiernan’s excellent direction, a first-rate adaptation of Roderick Thorp’s novel, superb action-sequences and outstanding performances from a stellar cast led by Bruce Willis. Over twenty-five years have passed since the movie’s initial release. And honestly . . . it has not lost one bit of its magic.

 

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“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

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“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

Based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story, ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” tells the story of a New Orleans man named Benjamin Button who ages backward from 1918 to 2005 with bizarre consequences. The movie was directed by David Fincher and starred Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson. 

Judging from an article I had read, it is clear that this movie is more or less a loose adaptation of Fitzgerald’s short story. Aside from the premise of a man aging backwards, there are many differences between the two versions. The main differences center around the fact that in the literary version, Benjamin Button is born physically and mentally as an old man (asking for a rocking chair), and dies physically and mentally young. In the film, Benjamin is born physically old, but with the mental capacity of a newborn; and dies physically young, although his mind aged normally throughout his life. Aside from the dynamics of the main character, the setting changes from mostly late nineteenth century Baltimore in the novel, to mostly twentieth century New Orleans. Also Benjamin’s literary wife is named Hildegarde Moncrief, the daughter of a respected Civil War general, to whom he eventually becomes less attracted. Benjamin’s love in the movie is Daisy Fanning, the granddaughter of one of the tenants at the elderly nursing home where he lives with his black adoptive mother, Queenie.

I found ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” to be a technical wonder. I was very impressed by the film’s use of the CGI effects created by a team supervised by Burt Dalton. The movie’s other technical aspects – costume design by Jaqueline West, the art direction, Victor J. Zolfo’s set decorations, and the cinematography by Claudio Miranda – were first-class. I was especially impressed by how Miranda photographed New Orleans in the movie. With the movie’s art direction, the cinematographer did an excellent capturing the rich atmosphere and charm of the Big Easy. And I was especially impressed by the way he filmed 1918 New Orleans through the use of a sepia color for the movie’s prologue that centered on a clockmaker. And director David Fincher did an excellent job in utilizing the movie’s New Orleans setting and technical effects. If only he could have done something about the script . . . and the movie’s pacing. 

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that “THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” is a bad movie. Far from it. Not only can it boast a first-class production design, but also an excellent cast led by Brad Pitt. I have been a fan of Pitt’s since I first saw him in a movie I would love to forget – “COOL WORLD”. But I do feel that he has a tendency to be slightly theatrical. It almost seems as if his acting style was more suited for the stage than in front of a camera. However, he does know how to be subtle when the role calls for it. And his portrayal of Benjamin Button is quite subtle. The character does not seemed to develop much – even following the deaths of his blood father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) and his foster mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). It took his romantic problems with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) between the mid 1940s and the 1950s, and the realization that he would soon be too young to help raise his daughter Caroline that led his character to assume dimensions that were lacking earlier in the film. Despite this last minute development of the character, I must admit that Pitt gave one of his better performances in his career.

Pitt was ably supported by Cate Blanchett, who portrayed the love of his life – Daisy Fanning. Mind you, I found her character rather shallow at first. I could dismiss this simply as a case of her being young at the time. But there seemed to be lacking something in Daisy’s character that Blanchett’s excellent performance could not overcome. Quite frankly, I did not find her that interesting. Screenwriter Eric Roth (”FOREST GUMP”) tried to inject some angst into her character by having her fall victim to a car accident in Paris that cut short her dancing career. But I could not buy it. I am sorry, but Daisy did not really become interesting to me until she was forced to raise Caroline without Benjamin, and later take care of him before his death. But Blanchett gave it all she could. Without her, Daisy could have been a disaster – at least for me.

The other supporting characters were excellent. Oscar winner Tilda Swinton gave a poignant performance as Elizabeth Abbott, the wife of a British spy whom Benjamin meets and has an affair with in Russia before the Pearl Harbor attack. Jared Harris was colorful and funny as Captain Mike, the commander of the tugboat that Benjamin works for during the 1930s and early 40s. Julia Ormond, whom I have not seen in ages, gave solid support as the adult Caroline. So did Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Queenie’s husband, Tizzy and Jason Flemyng as Thomas Button, Benjamin’s brother. But I have to say something about Taraji P. Henson. She portrayed Queenie, an attendant at the New Orleans nursing home who adopts Benjamin as her own. I loved her performance. She was colorful, tough, funny, sharp and pretty much the emotional center of the whole damn film. And it seemed a shame that she did not receive a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.

The first thing I had noticed about ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” was that it strongly reminded me of the 1994 Oscar winning film, ”FOREST GUMP”. In fact, I even nicknamed the movie, ”a backwards ”FOREST GUMP” . And judging from the fact that this movie’s screenwriter, Eric Roth, had also written the 1994 film, I should not have been surprised. But whereas the main tone for ”FOREST GUMP” seemed to be one of historical whimsy, ”BENJAMIN BUTTON” seemed melancholy – especially in the movie’s last hour. The themes of aging and mortality seemed to permeate the movie like a black shroud. Considering the movie’s theme and the fact that Benjamin spent his early years in the company of the elderly, it seemed surprisingly appropriate. And at least it gave the movie its main theme. Without this theme of aging and mortality, the movie could have easily been reduced to a 166 minute film with nothing but a gimmick. 

But as much as I liked ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON”, it has some flaws. The movie’s main flaws, at least for me, turned out to be – ironically – the script by Eric Roth and the movie’s pacing. Now I realize that movies that cover a span of years or decades tend to run up to at least two-and-a-half to three hours. But did the pacing of this film have to be so goddamn slow? I realize that Fincher wanted to give the movie a Southern atmosphere, considering its setting, but I feel that he went a bit too far. By the time Daisy gave birth to Caroline in the movie’s second half, I found myself screaming for the movie to end. As for the screenplay, Roth filled it with moments and plot points that dragged the film needlessly. I never understood why the movie’s ”present day”, which featured a dying Daisy telling Caroline about Benjamin, was set during the outset of Hurricane Katrina. What was the point? In the end, the hurricane had nothing to do with the story. And although I found Benjamin’s affair with Elizabeth Abbott rather charming at times, I had some problems with it. The sequence started out well with the circumstances of their first meeting. But the buildup to their affair and eventual parting seemed longer than necessary. The one sequence that really irritated me featured Daisy’s accident in Paris. All Roth had to do was featured her encounter with a Parisian taxicab, Benjamin’s trip to Paris and their meeting in a hospital. But . . . no. Instead, Roth wrote this contrived scene that featured little moments from various strangers that led to Daisy being struck by the taxi. It seemed so ridiculous that I nearly groaned in agony. 

Despite its flaws – and this movie certainly had plenty – ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” turned out to be a first-class period piece with an interesting premise of a man aging backward. Although this premise could have reduced the movie to nothing more than a gimmick, the topic of aging and mortality lifted the movie to an interesting, yet sad tale filled with emotional moments, great cinematography and solid acting, especially from Brad Pitt. The movie earned thirteen (13) Academy Award nominations and won three (3). I have no problems with the Oscars that it won, since they turned out to be in the technical categories. But I must admit that it is one of the top twenty (20) movies I had first seen back in 2008.

 

“DALLAS” Season One (1978): Episodes Ranking

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The first season of the CBS television series, “DALLAS”, aired during the month of April 1978. This premiere season only featured five episode and is regarded by some as a complete miniseries, instead of a season. I regard these five episodes as an entire season and below is my ranking of those seasons:

 

“DALLAS” Season One (1978): Episodes Ranking

(1.05) “Barbecue” – A rehash of the Ewing-Barnes feud, an announcement regarding the Ewing dynasty and a tragedy all combine in this first-rate episode about the Ewings’ barbecue for family, neighbors and friends.

(1.03) “Spy in the House” – Oldest Ewing sibling J.R. suspects Pamela Barnes’ marriage to younger brother Bobby as a ruse, when information regarding a political/business colleague finds itself into the hands of his rival, Cliff Barnes.

(1.01) “Digger’s Daughter” – In this well-made pilot episode, the Ewings are surprised by the marriage of Bobby to Pamela, the only daughter of Jock Ewing’s old rival, Digger Barnes.

(1.04) “Winds of Vengeance” – In this tense-filled episode, a hurricane threatens Southfork, when two men arrive and take the Ewing women, J.R. and foreman Ray Krebbs hostage in retribution for the latter two’s affairs with the women in their lives.

(1.02) “The Lesson” – In this somewhat interesting episode, Pam attempts to win acceptance at Southfork by intervening in Lucy’s life; when she discovers that the Ewings’ only grandchild has been skipping school and having an affair with Ray.

Top Ten Favorite HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.