“VANTAGE POINT” (2008) Review

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“VANTAGE POINT” (2008) Review

“VANTAGE POINT” is a tightly woven thriller about eight strangers with eight different points of view of an assassination attempt on the President of the United States, during an anti-terrorism summit in Salamanca, Spain. Directed by Pete Travis and written by Barry Levy, the movie starred Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt.

When I had first saw the trailer for “VANTAGE POINT” four years ago, I had assumed it would be one of those remakes of the Japanese film, “RASHOMON” (1950). I figured there would be an assassination attempt on the President and the film would follow with various points of view on the incident. This is what actually happened in “VANTAGE POINT” . . . but not quite.“VANTAGE POINT” did reveal the assassination attempt from various points of view. In “RASHOMON” and other versions of the film, those views are shown as flashbacks. But in “VANTAGE POINT” each point of view is not a flashback. Instead, each POV merely gives a certain view of the story, while the story moves forward. For example, the movie started out with the point of view of a news producer (Sigourney Weaver), before ending at a particular point in the story. The next point of view belongs to Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), which ends a little further in the story than the news producer’s POV. And so on. The movie ends with an exciting action sequence told from the various viewpoints of the major characters – heroes and villains.

The more I think about “VANTAGE POINT”, the more I realize how much I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the tight setting of Salamanca, Spain (actually the film was shot in Mexico). I must add that one of the things I enjoyed about this movie was that Levy’s script had a way of putting a twist on any assumptions anyone might form about the plot. I loved how Travis handled the film’s action, making it well-paced. I enjoyed the performances of the major cast members. I was especially impressed by the performances of Dennis Quaid as the emotionally uncertain Barnes, who eventually pieced together the real plot. I also enjoyed the performances of Matthew Fox as his fellow Secret Service agent, Forest Whitaker as an American tourist and Edgar Ramirez (“THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM”) as a Spanish Special Forces soldier involved in the plot against the President. But more importantly, I loved Barry Levy’s script, which put a twist on any assumptions the moviegoer may have formed about the story’s plotlines and characters. My only quibble with “VANTAGE POINT” was the interaction between Whitaker’s character and a Spanish girl, which I found slightly contrived near the end of the movie.

“VANTAGE POINT” did pretty well at the box office. Unfortunately, most critics compared it unfavorably to “RASHOMON”. Personally, I do care about the critics’ opinion. “VANTAGE POINT” was the type of movie that forced the audience to think. And I suspect that many moviegoers and critics would have preferred a film that laid everything out in the open. And since I have a history of liking movies that are not popular with the public or film critics, all I can say is that I am personally glad that I had purchased the DVD for this movie. It ended up becoming one of my favorite 2008 movies.

 

Notes and Observations of STAR WARS: “Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back”

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Notes and Observations of “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”

The following is a list of minor notes and observations that came to me, during my recent viewing of “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”. I hope that you enjoy them:

*Exactly who was in command of the Rebel Alliance base on Hoth – Leia or General Rieekan?

*What was Leia doing on Hoth with the Rebel Alliance military personnel? Why wasn’t she with the other political Rebel leaders?

*Ah yes! The ”I’ just as soon kiss a Wookie!” dialogue between Leia and Han. Charming, although slightly . . . childish.

*How . . . or should I say when did Han and Leia reach the point in which they became attracted to one another?

*It was interesting to see how Obi-Wan’s ghost faded with the emergence of Han on a tauntaun.

*”Why, you stuck up,… half-witted… scruffy-looking …nerf-herder!” – Another charming, yet childish exchange between Leia and Han.

*Jealousy and ambition seem quite obvious within the Imperial command structure, if General Ozzel’s glare at Piett is anything to go by.

*I find it interesting that the exchange between Luke and Han before the commencement of the Battle of Hoth would be the last between them for at least a year.

*Vader’s ability to strangle Ozzel with the Force from such a large distance seemed very impressive for someone whose strength with the Force has been weakened.

*The pilots’ point of view of the Battle of Hoth seemed like another cliché of a World War II dogfight . . . like the Battle of Yavin.

*Luke was made commander of the Rebel pilots because he had destroyed the Death Star . . . with Han’s help? What about Wedge, who was also a competent pilot and more experienced?

*The Imperial AT-AT Walkers remind me of the Oliphaunts from the ”LORD OF THE RINGS” saga.

*Wasn’t Leia taking her duty just a bit too seriously by delaying her departure from Hoth?

*I noticed that Han never seemed to follow the ladies first rule. When he, Leia and Chewie and Threepio had escaped both from Hoth and the exogorth in the asteroid field, he made sure that he boarded the Millennium Falcon first. Not exactly a man of the Old Republic.

*Han really revealed how much of a hot shot pilot he was in this movie.

*”Into the belly of the beast” – This metaphor seemed to fit the Falcon’s entry into exogorth even more than Luke, Han and Leia’s brief adventures inside the Death Star’s trash compactor.

*The audience got a brief glimpse of the price Anakin paid for his past mistakes – namely his scalded head.

*”Feel like what?” – Yoda’s first words in any ”STAR WARS” movie.

*”Great warrior? Hmmm . . . wars do not make one great.” – Ironic words from the very being who led the first attack, during the first battle of the Clone Wars. His words also revealed the true Yoda behind the comic façade. I think Luke may have been too impatient or full of himself to notice.

*”You like me because I’m a scoundrel. There aren’t enough scoundrels in your life.” – One can only assume that Leia’s age – 22 years – and limited experience with men would explain why she bought that bilge pouring from Han’s mouth.

*”He’s just a boy. Obi-Wan can no longer help him.” – Surely these words must have hinted to Palpatine that Vader had been aware of Luke for some time?

*I see that Clive Revill has been replaced by Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor Palpatine in this version of the movie. Which makes sense, considering that McDiarmid is more identified with the role.

*”This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away . . . to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was.” – I believe that Yoda had just described himself and many other Jedi Masters and Knights of the Old Republic, nearly a quarter of a century ago. If he and Obi-Wan could learn to overcome this distraction from the future, why not Luke? Why was Yoda so reluctant to teach Luke? Is it Luke he doubts? Or himself as a teacher?

*”If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.” – I hope that Yoda was trying to say that a person will always be affected by his or her earlier decision to take a dark path or commit dark acts. Because if he was trying to say that a person will always remain evil, after taking the dark path, I must say that I disagree.

*Han used a neat trick to evade the sensors of Captain Needa’s starship, after the Falcon left the asteroid field.

*”Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.” – A favorite line of mine.

*It was very clever of Han to attach the Falcon to an Imperial starship before disguising it as garbage to be disposed with the other. Unfortunately for him, Boba Fett had witnessed a similar trick pulled by Obi-Wan near Geonosis, some 25 years ago. Even worse, it is a shame that Han was so busy congratulating himself over his trick that he failed to realize that Fett was tracking him.

*”Through the Force, things you will see. Other places. The future… the past. Old friends long gone.” – I wonder if Yoda was thinking of Mace Windu.

*According to LucasFilm, it took the Falcon three months to reach Bespin without a hyperdrive. If only Lucas and the others had made this clear in the movie.

*The Falcon was practically escorted to one of the landing platforms on Cloud City. I wonder why.

*Great entrance for Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian.

*Was CP-30 really that dense in that he would be so easily distracted from the group by the sound of an R2 unit?

*”Stopped they must be. On this all depends. Only a fully trained Jedi Knight with the Force as his ally will conquer Vader and his Emperor”. – Did that mean Yoda had never intended for Luke to help Anakin find redemption?

*Apparently, the original deal between Vader and Lando did not include Han being turned over to Boba Fett. And later, Vader broke his word and insisted that Leia and Chewie accompany him. Interesting. It is a miracle that the Sith Lord did not renege on the deal even further by destroying Bespin and its population.

*And why did Han and Leia fail to understand the situation that Vader had placed Lando? Were they too blinded by anger?

*I find it interesting that not once did Vader set eyes upon C3-P0, his own creation. Why? Because Chewbacca had the droid strapped to his back.

*How stupid were Leia and Chewbacca? It was obvious that Lando had released them from Vader’s stormtroopers. Yet, all they could do was lose their tempers. Chewbacca immediately began to strangle Lando and Leia encouraged the Wookie. Because their temper tantrums, they prevented Lando from rescuing Han from Boba Fett.

*I must admit that I found the dialogue during the Bespin duel rather irritating. The most important thing about the duel seemed to be Vader’s revelation as Anakin Skywalker . . . after the fighting stopped.

*Vader’s reaction to Luke and Leia’s escape from Bespin was an excellent moment of silent acting on David Prowse’s part. With his use of body language, he managed to express Vader’s regret over losing Luke . . . and the beginning of Anakin Skywalker’s resurgence.

“BATMAN BEGINS” (2005) Review

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”BATMAN BEGINS” (2005) Review

When Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the BATMAN franchise first made its debut during the summer of 2005, many critics and moviegoers hailed it as the second coming. They also viewed it as a vast improvement over the four films released between 1989 and 1997. Since then, ”BATMAN BEGINS” has been overshadowed by its 2008 sequel, ”THE DARK KNIGHT”. After a recent viewing of the 2005 movie, I must admit that I have a deeper attachment for it.

”BATMAN BEGINS” was basically an origin tale about the scion of a wealthy Gotham City family, who endured a personal tragedy before become a costumed vigilante. The movie began in a Chinese person where Bruce Wayne was serving time for robbery. A mysterious man named Henri Ducard offered to arrange for Bruce’s freedom if the latter would consider joining his organization called the League of Shadows. Once Bruce began his training under Ducard’s tutelage, flashbacks revealed his childhood; his friendship with Rachel Dawes, the daughter of a family servant; his parents’ tragic deaths; and the murder of their killer. Once Bruce’s training ended, Ducard and the League’s head – Ra’s al Ghul – ordered the Gotham City native to execute a murderer they had captured. They also revealed their intent to destroy Gotham City, due to its growing corruption. Unwilling to become an executioner and appalled by the League’s plans for Gotham, Bruce began a fight that led to the Temple’s destruction. After Bruce saved Ducard’s life, he returned to Gotham City to commence his life as the vigilante, the Batman.

Aside from a few minor problems that I will discuss later, I must admit that after four-and-a-half years, I enjoyed ”BATMAN BEGINS” more than ever. One, I thought that Christopher Nolan and fellow screenwriter David S. Goyer did an exceptional job in revealing Bruce Wayne’s childhood and the circumstances that led him to China in flashbacks. Very exceptional. Also, through Bruce Wayne/the Batman, Henri Ducard and other characters, the screenwriters managed to convey the pitfalls of vigilantism. Considering the movie’s title, I thought Nolan and Goyer also did an excellent job in presenting a examination of the main character.

Speaking of the main character, Christian Bale earned a well deserved Saturn Award for his portrayal of Bruce Wayne/the Batman. I only wish that Bale could have received a Golden Globe or Academy Award nomination, as well. He did a superb job of capturing all of the nuances of Bruce’s personality. Even more impressive was the way he developed the character from an immature and vengeful twenty-something young man to the somewhat more wiser thirty-something man who had learned to restrain himself from allowing his penchant for vigilantism to spiral out of control. Unless Nolan used a stunt man for Bruce/Batman’s action scenes, I thought that Bale managed to handle the action – especially the fight scenes – very well. Was this his first time in dealing with heavy action sequences? Someone please let me know.

I must admit that I have been a fan of Liam Neeson for a long time, admiring his array of performances that included a randy Irish ghost, a Jedi Master, the ambiguous Oskar Schindler and a determined ex-CIA agent searching for his kidnapped daughter. I cannot honestly say that his best role was Henri Ducard, Bruce Wayne’s mentor. But I would probably view it as one of his better roles. Most people have compared his Ducard to his performance as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn in ”STAR WARS: The Phantom Menace”. Perhaps. However, I saw major differences in the two roles. Ducard turned out to be a darker character, who despite his words of wisdom, was unable to let go of his past tragedy. Instead, he used it to inflict his desire to punish the guilty and the corrupt through some of the most Draconian means possible. Neeson did a beautiful job in capturing not only Ducard’s wisdom, but also his subtle, yet psychotic personality. In some ways, his Ducard was a lot scarier than the Joker in ”THE DARK KNIGHT”. Only, his villainy was not as colorful. And like Bale, he had earned a Saturn Award nomination. Only he lost to Mickey Rourke (”SIN CITY”). Hmmmm.

On the other hand, Katie Holmes was given a Golden Raspberry Award nomination for Worst Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Bruce’s childhood friend and Gotham’s crusading Assistant District Attorney, Rachel Dawes. And for the likes of me, I do NOT understand why. I found nothing wrong with her performance. I thought she did a splendid job portraying Rachel as Bruce and Gotham City’s moral center. I especially enjoyed her scenes with not only Bale, but also her confrontations with Cillian Murphy’s Dr. Jonathan Crane/the Scarecrow. Many have praised Maggie Gyllanhaal’s portrayal of Rachel in ”THE DARK KNIGHT’. Personally? I think that Holmes was lucky not to appear in the 2008 film. At least her Rachel Dawes had not written as a mere object of desire and a barely irrelevant character.

Speaking of Cillian Murphy, I truly enjoyed his performance as Dr. Jonathan Crane, the cold-blooded and manipulative city psychiatrist who became arch villain, the Scarecrow. He did an excellent job in conveying the character’s subtle villainy and sardonic wit. Another villain that possessed the same wit turned out to be Gotham City’s crime boss, Carmine Falcone. Although Tom Wilkinson portrayed the character with a good deal of wit and verve, it seemed a pity that his performance was nearly ruined by a questionable American accent seemed like a bad parody of a old Warner Brothers gangster character. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman portrayed mentors and allies for Bruce Wayne/the Batman – faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth, Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox and police sergeant Jim Gordon, respectively. And they all did solid jobs; especially Caine, whose wisdom and concern for his employer’s personal life allowed him to be Bruce’s true mentor.

Linus Roache portrayed Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s doomed father. He gave a solid performance, but I found his American accent rather questionable. And I also had other problems with Bruce’s parents. One, they seemed impossibly good – almost pure. And I found that aspect of their portrayal a bore. Two, Thomas and Martha Wayne must have also been incredibly stupid. The Wayne family went to the opera via public transportation. Okay, perhaps I can excuse that on the grounds that perhaps they could not afford a limousine or wanted to save gas. But when Bruce wanted to leave the opera early, they left the theater through the goddamn back door. No wonder that thug, Joe Chill, was able to accost them so easily.

Speaking of problems, I have a few more regarding ”BATMAN BEGINS”. One, I hate the growl that Bale had used, while portraying the Batman. There were times when I found Bale slightly coherent and I also found it unnecessary and annoying. Two, I have a problem with Ra’s al Ghul, the so-called leader of the League of Shadows whom Bruce had killed in Tibet (or China). Apparently, the Gotham City native had killed a psychic manifestation of Ducard’s mind. How Ducard managed to create this manifestation and how Bruce managed to kill it were plot points that Nolan and Goyer failed to explain.

When all is said and done, I must admit that I really enjoyed ”BATMAN BEGINS”. Personally, I feel that Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer had written a better movie than ”THE DARK KNIGHT”, despite its flaws. The movie not only featured excellent direction from Nolan and an interesting score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, it also had top-notch performances from Christian Bale, Liam Neeson and the rest of the cast . . . even those with questionable American accents. In fact, I would go as far to say that I consider it to be one of my favorite comic book movie ever made.

“HEARTBREAKERS” (2001) Review

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“HEARTBREAKERS” (2001) Review

Directed by David Mirkin, HEARTBREAKERS” is a romantic comedy caper about an elaborate con set up by a mother-daughter team to swindle wealthy men out of their money, and what happens during their “last” con together. This 2001 comedy starred Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love-Hewitt as the mother-daughter pair, along with Gene Hackman and Ray Liotta as their wealthy marks.

The movie begins with Max and Page Connors (Weaver and Love-Hewitt) conning an auto-body shop owner and small time crook named Dean Cumanno (Liotta). The con, which is implied has been done a number of times before on other men, involves Max marrying Dean, passing out on their wedding night to avoid consummating the marriage, and then Page (posing as Dean’s secretary) luring Dean into a compromising position to justify Max’s immediate divorce and hefty settlement. Following the success of this con, Page decides that she wants her half of their money before going solo. Max relents, but the two learn from an I.R.S. agent (Anne Bancroft) that that they owe the government a considerable sum on top of the rest of their savings, which have already been seized. Page reluctantly agrees to work together with Max on one last con in Palm Beach (which would result in enough money to pay off the I.R.S. and set Page up to work on her own). For their target, they choose widower William B. Tensy (Gene Hackman), a tobacco millionaire and chain smoker who is addicted to his own product. Complicating matters is beachfront bartender named Jack Withrowe (Jason Lee), whom Page meets without her mother’s knowledge, while attempting to go after another target on her own.

Robert Dunn, Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur; who wrote the screenplay for ”HEARTBREAKERS”, were also responsible for movies like ”THE LITTLE RASCALS” and ”LIAR, LIAR”. But quite frankly, those two movies were chopped liver as far as I am concerned in compare to ”HEARTBREAKERS”. The movie’s story struck me as sly, witty and absolutely hilarious. Page’s romance with Jack; along with Max and Dean’s love stories were romantic and at the same time, sharp and unsentimental. Max’s attempts to seduce William Tensy, while impersonating a Russian expatriate featured some of the most hilarious moments in the movie – especially a particularly biting sequence that featured the Connors’ dealings with Tensy’s hard-nosed and grasping maid, portrayed by Nora Dunn. Between Tensy’s smoking and pallor and Max’s ordeal in being forced to consume steak tartare, this movie has put me off smoking and raw beef for all eternity. And if the Connors’ misadventures with Tensy were not bad enough, emotions jump a few notches when Dean arrives in Palm Beach in search of Max. It seems that he was really in love with her . . . and she has admitted to having feelings for him. Much to Page’s disgust.

It is not simply the script for ”HEARTBREAKERS” that had me in stitches. Weaver and Love Hewitt lead a first-rate cast that was just as funny as the script. Weaver (deservedly) earned a Golden Satellite Awards nomination as the elegant and quick-thinking Max. However, Love Hewitt matched her in screen presence and comedic skills as the equally intelligent, yet brusque Page. For once Ray Liotta’s intensity came into comedic use as Max’s faux husband, auto shop owner Dean Cummano whose love for the grafter/mother refuses to die, despite his discovery that Max and Page had conned him. Anne Bancroft gave a sly performance as Barbara aka Gloria Vogel, the I.R.S. agent who turned out to be Max’s mentor . . . and the woman who had stolen Max and Page’s bank funds. And of course, there was Gene Hackman, who played the chain smoking William Tensy. I loved his portrayal of the self-absorbed and caustic tobacco magnate. I could tell that he was truly enjoying himself. The only hiccup in this first-rate cast turned out to be Jason Lee. He played Jack Withrowe, the bartender who turned out to be owner of a beachfront bar and minor millionaire. Actually, the problem was not Lee’s performance. It was the writers’ portrayal of him. Quite frankly, Jack was a rather dull boy – a character unworthy of the talented and usually funny Lee. Not even the so-called one-liners they fed the character could not overcome his dullness.

”HEARTBREAKERS” turned out to be another example of a caper film featuring grifters that I find enjoyable. It had a first-rate plot, hilarious and complex characters (with the exception of Lee’s character), delicious scenery featuring Palm Beach and Southern California (standing in as Palm Beach) and a catchy score written by John Debney and Emmanuel Kiriakou. Director David Mirkin was given all of this – some at the last moment – and created comedy magic with it.

“GOLDFINGER” (1964) Review

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“GOLDFINGER” (1964) Review”

Ever since its release in 1964, the James Bond movie, “GOLDFINGER” has been regarded as one of the best ever in the franchise. In fact, it is considered by many Bond fans as the franchise’s definitive film, considering that it more or less created what is known as “the Bond formula”.

The 1959 Ian Fleming novel, upon which the movie is based, is also highly regarded by some fans. However, others believe that the movie is an improvement on the literary version. While I agree that the movie, “GOLDFINGER” is an improvement over the novel, I have a rather low opinion of both the novel and the cinematic adaptation. However, I am here to comment on the movie and not the novel.

The plot for “GOLDFINGER” begins with MI-6 agent James Bond sabotaging a Latin American drug laboratory. Following this assignment, Bond rests at an exclusive Miami Beach hotel, where he receives instructions from his superior “M” – via C.I.A. operative Felix Leiter – to observe a bullion dealer name Auric Goldfinger. Bond discovers that Goldfinger is cheating at gin rummy with the help of employee Jill Masterson. Bond distracts Jill and blackmails Goldfinger into losing the game. While enjoying sex with Jill inside his hotel room, Goldfinger’s Korean (or Japanese) manservant Oddjob knocks Bond unconscious. The agent regains consciousness and finds Jill’s dead body covered in gold paint.

After “M” censures Bond for screwing up his assignment in Miami Beach, he orders the agent to discover how Goldfinger is smuggling gold out of Europe. Bond engages in a golf match with the villain, before following him to Switzerland. There, the agent meets Jill’s sister, Tilly, who seeks revenge against Goldfinger for her sister’s death. Eventually, Bond and Tilly form a short-lived alliance before the latter is killed by Oddjob and the former becomes Goldfinger’s prisoner. Fearful that the British agent might know the details of his new operation in the United States, Goldfinger keeps Bond a prisoner, instead of killing him.

As I had earlier stated, “GOLDFINGER” is without a doubt one of my least favorite Bond movies of all time. And there are many reasons why I harbor such a low opinion of it. Some of the the film’s problems stemmed from some poor characterizations. James Bond spent most of the movie either behaving like an oversexed adolescent or an idiot schoolboy. This characterization merely hampered Sean Connery’s performance in the movie and led me to consider it one of his worst. The movie also featured one-dimensional portrayals in characters such as Auric Goldfinger’s henchman, Oddjob, which allowed actor Harold Sakata spend most of the movie wearing a menacing smile; the thuggish Mafia bosses who visit Goldfinger’s Kentucky farm; and a very weak Felix Leiter, as portrayed by Canadian actor Cec Linder, who spent most of the movie behaving like a sidekick, instead of an ally from the C.I.A.

“GOLDFINGER” also featured some incredibly bad plotholes that make me wonder why this film is so highly regarded. For instance, I understood why Goldfinger had ordered Oddjob to kill Jill Masterson for her betrayal. Why did he not order Oddjob to kill Bond, who had compromised Jill and caused him to lose the card game? Goldfinger decides to keep Bond a prisoner, instead of making more of an effort to learn what Bond knew about his current scheme, “Operation Grand Slam”. I think drugs would have been a good deal more helpful than a gold laser threatening the agent’s nether regions. The method Bond used to convince Pussy Galore, Goldfinger’s personal pilot, to betray her boss disgusted me. It disgusted me that screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn allowed Bond wrestle Pussy to the barn floor and use sex to get her to betray Goldfinger. It disgusted me that the entire scene reeked of attempted rape. Why not have Bond convince her that Golfinger was simply a nutcase? I guess Maibaum and Dehn, or the producers, wanted an excuse for Bond to use his “magic penis” on the leading lady.

The movie’s most perplexing plot line involved the Mafia bosses’ visit to Goldfinger’s farm. It featured one of the most ridiculous and unnecessary plot turns in the movie franchise’s history. The sequence began with the gangsters’ arrival and demand for Goldfinger’s presence and the money he owed them. And while Bond eavesdropped on the conversation, Golfinger revealed his Fort Knox plan. Then he murdered them. Many Bond fans have claimed that the reason Goldfinger revealed his plan to the Mafia bosses before murdering them, was because he wanted bask in the enjoyment of letting someone know about his plans. If that was the case, why not have Goldfinger tell Bond earlier in the film before before attempting to kill the agent or leave him for dead? Why save this moment for a bunch of one-dimensional gangsters in the first place? What makes this scenario even more ridiculous is that when one of the gangsters, Mr. Solo, decided that he wants nothing of the Fort Knox plan, Goldfinger sent him on his way with a gold bar . . . before Oddjob killed the man and crushed him inside a car. Goldfinger could have simply killed Solo and the other gangsters at the same time . . . without this ludicrous revelation of his Fort Knox plan?

Were there any positive aspects about “GOLDFINGER”? Well . . . yes, or else I would consider this entry in the franchise to be the worst. Thankfully, the movie’s cast included Gert Fröbe as Auric Goldfinger. Although my opinion of Goldfinger’s intelligence has diminished over the years, I remain impressed by Frobe’s commanding presence and excellent performance. The movie also featured the talented and classy Honor Blackman (who was already famous in Great Britain for her role in the TV series, “THE AVENGERS”), playing the tough and intelligent Pussy Galore. I enjoyed Ms. Blackman’s performance so much that it seemed a shame that her character was ruined in that Galore/Bond wrestling match inside the barn at Goldfinger’s Kentucky farm. Shirley Easton made the most of her brief appearance as one of the doomed Masterson sisters, Jill. And one might as well face it, I doubt no one will ever forget that last image of her gold-painted body spread out upon the bed inside Bond’s Miami hotel room:

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“GOLDFINGER” also benefited from Ted Moore’s photography of Britain, Switzerland and Kentucky; which featured beautiful and sharp color. I was also impressed by Peter R. Hunt’s editing, which seemed most effective in the car chase around Goldfinger’s Switzerland plant, the showdown at Fort Knox and the fight aboard Goldfinger’s plane. Last by not least, I have to mention the music featured in the film. Between John Barry’s score and theme song performed by the talented Shirley Bassey, I must admit that the film’s music is one thing in “GOLDFINGER” that rose above everything else. After all, the move’s theme song is considered one of the best in the Bond movie franchise. And that is an opinion I do share.

Despite some of the movie’s positive aspects – some of the performances, the photography and the music – I have always harbored ambiguous feelings about “GOLDFINGER” for years. In the past, I tried to accept the prevalent feeling that it was probably one of the best Bond movies. But after watching it the last time . . . well let me put it this way, whether or not it was responsible for creating the Bond formula, I finally realized how much I truly dislike it.

“THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN” (2016) Review

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“THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN” (2016) Review

When I first learned that there was to be another remake of the 1954 movie, “SEVEN SAMAURAI”, I nearly groaned with displeasure. Worse, the movie would not only be a remake of the Japanese film, but an even closer remake of the 1960 film that had re-staged the story as a Western. I have always been leery of remakes, even if some proved to be pretty damn good. But I was more than leery of this particular film.

The reason behind my leeriness is that I am not a fan of the 1960 film. I tried to be. Honest I did. But there was something about it – the performances of the lead, if I must be honest – that I found somewhat off putting. I also feared that I would face the same in this latest adaptation, but with even less success.

“THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN” – or this version – begins in 1879 when a corrupt industrialist named Bartholomew Bogue and his men besiege the mining town of Rose Creek, California and slaughters a group of locals led by Matthew Cullen, when they attempt to stand up to him and his attempt to coerce them into selling their land to him. Matthew’s wife, Emma Cullen, and her friend Teddy Q ride to the nearest town in search of someone who can help them. They come upon Union Army veteran and warrant officer Sam Chisholm, who initially declines their proposal, until he learns of Bogue’s involvement. Chisholm sets out to recruit a group of gunslingers who can help him battle the powerful businessman:

*Joshua Faraday – a gambler and explosives man who takes on the job to rid himself of debt

*Goodnight Robicheaux – a Confederate veteran and sharpshooter who is haunted by his past

*Billy Rocks – an East Asian immigrant assassin with a talent for knives and Goodnight’s close companion

*Vasquez – a Mexican outlaw who is also a wanted fugitive

*Jack Horne, a religious mountain man/tracker

*Red Harvest – an exiled Comanche warrior and youngest of the group

Chisholm and his colleagues manage to rid Rose Creek of Bogue’s men. But knowing that the businessman would be determine to strike back with a bigger force, the seven riders set out to prepare the town’s citizens for what might prove to be an ugly, minor war.

I never really had any intention of seeing this new “THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN” in the movie theaters, considering my views of the 1960 film. But a relative of mine convinced me to give it a chance. And I did. There were some aspects of the movie that I found questionable. Well . . . two, if I must be honest. I wonder why screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk had portrayed the Red Harvest character as a Comanche. The latter lived along the Southern Plains that stretched between Nebraska and Northern Texas. Why not portray Red Harvest from a region a bit closer to the movie’s setting – like the Paitue, the Ute or the Pomo? I also had a problem with some of Merissa Lombardo’s costume designs. Some . . . not all of them. I found her costumes for the main male characters to be spot on. Lombardo’s costumes for each male character not only clicked with the time period – late 1870s – but also with each character. But her costumes for the Emma Cullen character, proved to be a problem for me. They struck me as unnecessarily revealing for the wife-later-widow of a respected man from the late 19th century. Emma Cullen is not a 19th century prostitute. Why on earth did Lombardo come close to dressing her as one, as shown in the images below?

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Despite these quibbles, I enjoyed “THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN”. Very much. The movie was not an exact replica of “SEVEN SAMURAI” or the 1960 film, “THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN”. And that is a good thing. I would have preferred to watch director Antoine Fuqua’s personal version, instead of a carbon copy of either the original 1954 film or the 1960 Western. More importantly, I simply preferred his version over the other two films. Yes, I have seen both the 1954 and 1960 films. I am certain that many film goers and critics loved them. Unfortunately, my memories of the 1954 film is vague and I am simply not a fan of the 1960 remake. Fuqua and screenwriters Pizzolatto and Wenk managed to maintain my interest in the story, thanks to the former’s energetic direction and a screenplay that struck me as well paced. I noticed that this version did not include the seven gunmen being chased out of town by the villain before returning for a final showdown. Instead, Pizzolatto and Wenk further explored the seven protagonists’ efforts to help Rose Creek’s citizens prepare for Bogue’s retaliation.

The movie also featured some outstanding action sequences, thanks to Fuqua’s tight direction. Considering his past work in movies like “TRAINING DAY”, “SHOOTER” and “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”, I should not be surprised. There were a few actions sequences that I had enjoyed, including Rose Creek citizens’ tragic encounter with Bartholomew Bogue’s men, which set off the plot; Sam Chisholm’s brief, yet violent encounter with a handful of fugitives early in the movie; and the seven mercenaries’ first conflict with some of Bogue’s men. But for me, the movie’s pièce de résistance proved to be the final battle in Rose Creek. It was well shot action sequence as far as I am concerned. What am I saying? Well shot? Hell, I found it exciting, tense, tragic, euphoric and . . . yes, well shot. I found it very impressive and dramatically satisfying.

When I learned that the movie was shot in both Arizona and New Mexico, I was not surprised. It seemed apparent to me that a good deal of “THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN” was shot in both the northern and central regions of both states. What took me by surprise was the fact that the movie was also shot in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When? Which scenes were shot in Baton Rouge? For the likes of me, I just do not know. Which only tells me that production designer Derek R. Hill really did his job of converting the Baton Rouge location to 19th century California. I also felt that Mauro Fiore’s cinematography gave support to Hill’s work and made the film look sharp and very colorful.

Now some are probably wondering how can I like this movie so much, yet harbor such lukewarm feelings toward the 1960 version. For me, the huge difference between the two movies proved to be the cast. Yes, I am aware that the 1960 version featured the likes of Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen and others who were just becoming famous. But the main reason why I always had a problem with this version is that most of the leads – with the exception of one or two – spent most of the film standing around or posing, trying to look “cool” or “iconic”. I found myself wondering if most of them were preparing for an audition for the role of James Bond. I found this most annoying. Thankfully, the cast of this version came off as a lot more earthy. Natural. Instead of “icons of cool”, the leads seemed more human.

The one actor whose performance seemed to closely resemble those from the 1960 cast was Denzel Washington, who portrayed the lead, Sam Chisholm. I suppose it would be natural, considering that he was not only the lead, but the oldest in the bunch. But even Washington’s performance had a paternal air that I never saw in Yul Brenner’s performance. More importantly, his character’s arc had a major twist that I should have seen coming after he was first introduced. Chris Pratt portrayed the group’s trickster – a gambler/womanizer named Josh Farady. I must admit that when I first learned that Pratt would be in this film, I just could not imagine it. Not by a long shot. But it did not take long for me to not only accept Pratt’s presence in the film, but end up being very impressed by the way he mixed both comedy and drama in his performance. Ethan Hawke also combined both comedy and drama in his portrayal of former Confederate sharpshooter, Goodnight Robicheaux. But his character had a bit more pathos, due to being haunted by his experiences during the Civil War. And this gave Hawke the opportunity to give one of the movie’s best performances.

Vincent D’Onofrio gave a very colorful and entertaining performance as the former religious trapper Jack Horne, who interestingly enough, was the only one of the seven men who came close to having a love interest. I was very impressed Lee Byung-hun’s sardonic portrayal of Robicheaux’s companion, the knife-throwing Billy Rocks. After seeing Haley Bennett’s intense portrayal of the revenge seeking widow, Emma Cullen, I could see why the actress has been recently making a name for herself with critics. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo proved to be just as colorful and entertaining as D’Onofrio as the wanted outlaw, Vasquez. Martin Sensmeier gave an intense, yet cool performance as the group’s youngest member, a Comanche warrior named Red Harvest. Matt Bomer gave a solid performance in the film’s first fifteen minutes or so as Rose Creek citizen, Matthew Cullen, whose death helped set the plot in motion. And the role of Bartholomew Bogue (my God, that name!) became another of Peter Sarsgaard’s gallery of interesting characters. Mind you, his intense portrayal of the villainous businessman was not as humorous as Eli Wallach’s more witty villain from the 1960 film, but it was a lot more off-kilter and just as interesting.

Despite one or two quibbles, I enjoyed “THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN” very much. As I have stated earlier, I found this surprising considering my lukewarm opinion of the 1960 predecessor. Director Antoine Fuqua did a great job of creating his own adaptation of the 1954 movie, “SEVEN SAMAURAI”. And he had ample support from an entertaining screenplay written by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, along with an excellent cast led by Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” (1977) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” (1977) Review

Long ago (thirty-nine years and six months, to be exact) and in a galaxy far, far away, producer-director-writer George Lucas made film history with the release of his movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Only, during the summer of 1977, it was simply known as “STAR WARS”. And this science-fiction/fantasy homage to Saturday morning serials and mythology was something that moviegoers had never seen before.

Now considered as the fourth film installment of Lucas’ STAR WARS saga, “A NEW HOPE” chronicled the adventures of a space-aged farmboy named Luke Skywalker, who finds himself swept up in a galactic conflict between a tyrannical empire and a band of rebel fighters determined to return freedom to the galaxy. Not only did the film introduced the concept of the summer blockbuster and created a movie/television/literary franchise that made billions for its creator, it also became the second highest grossing film in Hollywood history (as of 2012) and ushered in a new age for movie special effects. This movie has made such a major impact upon Hollywood that its effects are still being felt to this day.

“A NEW HOPE” began with an opening crawl describing a galaxy in a state of civil war. Spies for the Rebel Alliance have stolen the plans for the Galactic Empire’s new weapon – a heavily armed and armored space station capable of destroying an entire planet called the Death Star. One of the Rebel Alliance leaders, Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan, is in possession of the Death Star plans when her ship is attacked by Imperial forces under the leadership of the Sith Lord Darth Vader. Before she could be captured, Princess Leia hides the plans and a holographic recording into the memory of an astromech droid called R2-D2. The small droid and its companion, a protocol droid named C-3PO flee to the surface of the desert planet Tatooine. While Darth Vader sends a contingent of stormtroopers to look for the droids, R2 and 3PO find themselves captured by Jawa traders, who sell them to a moisture farmer and his nephew named Owen Lars and Luke Skywalker.

Luke, who is an orphan, yearns to leave his uncle’s farm and find adventure in the stars. He finds it when he releases Princess Leia’s holographic recording, while cleaning R2-D2. The recording is for a man named Obi-Wan Kenobi. Surmising that Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ben Kenobi, who is a neighbor of his Uncle Owen, are one and the same; Luke delivers the droids and the message to the aging hermit. The young man also discovers that Kenobi is a former Jedi Master, who knew his father Anakin Skywalker, who used to be a Jedi Knight. Obi-Wan suggests that Luke help him deliver the Death Star plans to Princess Leia’s father on Alderaan. At first, Luke rejects the offer. But when his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are found murdered by Imperial stormtroopers looking for the droids, Luke decides to join Obi-Wan on the latter’s new adventure. They recruit the services of two smugglers – Han Solo and Chewbacca – to convey them to Alderaan. The journey proves to be a new beginning not only for Luke, but also his new companions.

I have a confession to make. When I first saw “A NEW HOPE” during the summer of 1977, I did not like it at all. Looking back, I realize that my hostile feelings toward the movie stemmed from a sense of being overwhelmed by something I found mind blowing and completely new. The release of “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and “RETURN OF THE JEDI” eventually eased the impact of Lucas’ saga upon my psyche. But it took several years for me to first warm up and eventually embrace “A NEW HOPE”. Despite my eventual love for the movie, I have never viewed it as my favorite of the saga (so far) . . . or as one of my top favorites. But I can honestly say that after thirty-nine years, it still has quite a punch. In fact, I believe that it is probably the most entertaining and fun of the six STAR WARS films produced by George Lucas.

It is easy to see why “A NEW HOPE” is so beloved by many fans of the saga. The plot, written by Lucas, has the hallmarks of a first-rate adventure filled with space battles, escapes, daring-dos, a lightsaber duel, snarky dialogue, a roguish smuggler, a villain in black, a royal damsel-in-distress (who becomes a protagonist herself), a wise mentor and an innocent boy who answers the call to adventure. I suspect that another major reason why “A NEW HOPE” is so appealing to many of the saga’s fans is the “good-vs-evil” aspect of both its tale and its characters. It must have been very easy for moviegoers to identify with the movie’s protagonists and their fight against the tyranny of the “evil” Empire. For me, the movie’s pièce de résistance proved to be the entire sequence aboard the Empire’s Death Star. From the moment the heroes’ ship the Millennium Falcon found itself forced into the depths of the large battle station, to the moment when they escape some 20 to 30 minutes later, the entire Death Star sequence seemed to be one major fun fest that crackled with humor and action.

With the exceptions of Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, the cast of “A NEW HOPE” was filled with unknowns. I do not recall any well-known movie that Mark Hamill had appeared in before he became famous as Luke Skywalker. But Carrie Fisher, who portrayed the sharp-tongued Princess Leia, had already appeared in 1975’s “SHAMPOO”. And Harrison Ford, who would become a bigger star than either of his co-stars, had worked for Lucas before in the latter’s 1973 classic, “AMERICAN GRAFFITI”. But all three actors created an excellent screen team. Actors such as Peter Mayhew, who portrayed Han Solo’s first mate Chewbacca; along with Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker, who appeared in all six movies as the droids C-3PO and R2-D2; added their magic to the mix. Many people have made a big deal over David Prowse’s physical and James Earl Jones’ vocal portrayals of Sith Lord Darth Vader. And they were quite right to do so. Both actors contributed a great deal to the character. But I have rarely come across any comments about Peter Cushing’s performance as the cold-blooded and arrogant military commander of the Death Star, Grand Moff Tarkin. I find that a shame, because I thought he made a very effective villain . . . even more so than Vader. And of course, there is Alec Guinness, who portrayed Obi-Wan Kenobi. Guinness earned an Academy Award for his portrayal of the iconic Jedi Master. And I believe it was well earned. He did an excellent job as Luke’s wise and patient mentor, who was haunted not only by his past, but past deeds.

I was not kidding when I had stated that “A NEW HOPE” was not one of my top favorite STAR WARS movies. I believe that it has its flaws. While I found the movie’s innocent air and joie de vivre approach to its story very appealing, I feel that the movie lacked a complexity that I believe gave an edge to the other five movies. I am not stating that the story and its characters lacked an emotional depth. There is some depth to both the story and the characters. But aside from the Han Solo character, the other characters seemed to be a bit one-dimensional in comparison. They were either good or evil. I can even say this about the Darth Vader character, who was given an opportunity for a bit of complexity in a scene in which he tried to explain the Force to the Death Star’s senior officers staff. While there are many who have no problems with a lack of moral ambiguity, I do. And I have to say that I was more than relieved when Lucas finally injected some moral ambiguity into his characters, in the franchise’s later films.

If there is one movie that initiated my dislike of Tatooine, it is “A NEW HOPE”. From the moment the camera focused upon 3PO and R2 trekking across the planet’s desert, I found myself struggling to maintain my interest on the movie. It is possible that Tatooine has a talent for putting me to sleep. Only something really exciting has to happen – like Luke and Obi-Wan’s first meeting with Han Solo and Chewbacca, along with their subsequent escape from the planet – could keep my interest sharply focused. I also have to admit that I am not a fan of the Battle of Yavin sequence that marked the destruction of the Death Star. It smacked too much of a World War II aerial dog fight, straight out of a 1940s movie. Speaking of that particular decade, I was not that impressed by Harrison Ford’s attempt to sound like a 40s tough guy, during Han’s argument with Leia following the escape from the Death Star in the following scene:

LEIA: That doesn’t sound too hard. Besides, they let us go. It’s the
only explanation for the ease of our escape.

HAN: Easy…you call that easy?

LEIA: Their tracking us!

HAN: Not this ship, sister.

Frustrated, Leia shakes her head.

LEIA: At least the information in Artoo is still intact.

HAN: What’s so important? What’s he carrying?

LEIA: The technical readouts of that battle station. I only hope that
when the data is analyzed, a weakness can be found. It’s not over yet!

HAN: It is for me, sister! Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution,
and I’m not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in
it for the money!

I know, I know. It does not seem like much. But hearing Ford spew those lines still make me wince after so many years. I was also disappointed by how Lucas handled the Princess Leia character in this film. I can already see heads spinning over this complaint. Superficially, Leia seemed like the perfect embodiment of a fictional female character of the late 20th century. Her intelligence, courage and razor-sharp wit practically screamed “I am woman, hear me roar!” And yet . . . Lucas dropped the ball with her character in one very significant moment in the film. His screenplay never revealed Leia’s reaction to Tarkin’s use of the Death Star to destroy her home planet, Alderaan. Not once. The moment Alderaan blew to smithereens, the movie cut back to the occupants of the Millennium Falcon and Obi-Wan’s reaction. Audiences saw Leia’s reaction to Tarkin’s order to destroy the planet. But we never saw the aftermath. We never saw Leia mourn over the deaths of millions of Alderaaneans – including her parents. Instead, Lucas allowed audiences a look at Luke’s reaction and grief over Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death at the hands of Lord Vader. Even worse, Leia seemed so focused over comforting Luke that she seemed to have forgotten about Alderaan’s destruction.

The production values for “A NEW HOPE” still holds up today after so many years. However, I suspect that one can attribute this to Lucas’ decision to utilize CGI to make the special effects for the 1977 movie and the other two from the Original Trilogy more effective and less dated. I realize there are many veteran fans of the saga who claim that Lucas’ CGI retouches were unnecessary. They have also expressed their dislike of the revamped movies. All I can say is that they are entitled to their opinions. I simply do not share them. However, John Williams’ score remains as stirring and iconic as ever. John Mollo did an excellent job for his simple and elegant designs for the movie’s costumes. However, I am a little peeved that he managed to snag an Academy Award for his work on this film; whereas the Motion Picture Academy failed to give Trisha Biggar even a nomination for her outstanding work in the Prequel Trilogy.

In conclusion, I can happily state that STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” stands up very well after thirty-five years. The movie and the five other films of the STAR WARS franchise remain among the best adventure films ever made in Hollywood, as far as I am concerned. And I can only wonder if George Lucas and 20th Century Fox Studios ever released what it had unleashed upon the world when the movie was first released in theaters back in May 1977.

 

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R.I.P. Kenny Baker 1934-2016