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The Untouchables (1987)

The Untouchables

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Brian De Palma

Starring Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness

Sean Connery as Jim Malone

Robert De Niro as Al Capone

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Elliot Ness is a cop in Chicago who decides to take down Al Capone’s criminal empire with his group of four cops who call themselves “The Untouchables.”

The Untouchables was the ending to a shitty week of films that I needed. The Untouchables is everything I could ever want in a gangster movie and more. I love the story of Al Capone’s downfall, he’s one of the most interesting criminals in history (speaking of which, I’d love to see a biopic of his rise to power), and I also feel some personal connection to it because my grandfather was born in prohibition era Chicago, and his father bought bootlegged alcohol from Al Capone before Capone’s gang became an empire. While I know that The Untouchables takes a lot of artistic license in making this an action film, when in real life, Capone never tried to kill any of the untouchables and simply tried to bribe them, I think they did the story justice. I love Brian De Palma’s style of filmmaking, he uses a ton of slow motion, close ups, and lots of homages to old films. My favorite sequence in the entire film is the train station shootout on the stairs, entirely slow motion, referencing Battleship Potemkin‘s Odessa steps massacre scene with the baby rolling down the steps. I keep telling myself that I really need to watch more of De Palma’s films, because I really like his style. He’s one of the best auteurs in the game, and when he’s working with the right team, he can really do something special. One thing I’ve noticed in the few films I’ve seen by him is he really likes focusing on music. Phantom of the Paradise has one of the best soundtracks of the seventies, and Scarface tries to feel modern by using synthesizers (I hated Scarface’s music, but it is a big part of the style of the film). With The Untouchables, De Palma brings classic spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone in, one of my favorite composers of all-time, and he uses the music to make this gangster epic feel like a western. The trumpets, guitars, harmonicas, and everything else in this score would feel right at home in a Sergio Leone epic. I think De Palma chose to use this music to establish prohibition as a kind of lawless society, even though cars are driving around, and everyone is in trenchcoats and fedoras instead of cowboy boots and hats, this society is operating just like the wild west. Morricone’s score might not be something I’d like on my iTunes playlist, but it fits the film like a glove. I also really have to praise David Mamet’s script, he’s one of my favorite playwrights, American Buffalo is one of my ten favorites plays ever written. Mamet’s script is awesome, the man knows how to write dialogue like no other. It’s quick, clever, yet realistic and believable. The cinematography looks stunning, the use of shadows is reminiscent to old film-noirs, and the lighting reminds me of The Godfather.  In the end, everything about this movie was great (except for Kevin Costner, that guy can’t act). It’s an incredibly entertaining, action packed adventure through gangland Chicago.

Salt (2010)

Salt

★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Starring Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt

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Evelyn Salt is a CIA agent who is accused of being a Russian spy, sent to assassinate the Russian president while he visits a funeral.

Well, with this and The A-Team, I got two action movie failures in one day. Both for incredibly different reasons. Salt is one of the most convoluted films I have ever seen, with more plot twists in its 90-minute runtime than in M. Night Shyamalan’s entire career. This is the story of a CIA agent, who is accused of being a spy for the KGB, and instead of defending herself from the accusation, she runs away, and kills a bunch of CIA agents, just because, then it turns out she actually is a part of the KGB, but maybe she doesn’t want to be? And which side is she on? And why does everything have to be so confusing in this movie, it’s like they couldn’t do anything the straight forward way, like it would actually happen in real life. No person would ever act like anyone in this film, even spies have logic, no scratch that, spies should have more logic than anyone else, yet it seemed like no one did a single rational thing in the entire runtime of the film. The characters were incredibly poorly written, and we never learn anything about any of them other than “I’m a spy.” The tagline for the movie has had me curious since its release in 2010, “Who is Salt?” it asks, and after watching the movie, I ask the same question. Seriously what was going on in that character’s brain, is she secretly working for North Korea and fucking over both Russia and America? Who is she really? I had no clue by the end of the film. Another thing that’s bothering me about the film is the fact that it lacks any heart or fun that ridiculous action movies need. In movies where people are defying nearly every law of physics with stunts, you need to keep that in perspective and have a sense of humor. A sense of humor can show it isn’t meant to be realistic, and so it becomes acceptable. Salt has no sense of humor, so it’s just a very dark and serious movie where the universe seems to not obey physics. I will admit that I laughed a good deal at Salt’s husband’s ridiculous accent and his speeches about spiders, though I don’t think that was meant to be funny, they couldn’t have chosen a worse actor or job for Angelina Jolie’s love interest. Salt was an incredibly convoluted movie that seemed to be so interested in surprising the audience that it forgot to have a coherent plot and what makes my favorite action films my favorites, a sense of fun.

The A-Team (2010)

The A-Team

★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Joe Carnahan

Starring Liam Neeson as Hannibal

Bradley Cooper as Face

Quinton Jackson as Baracus

Sharlito Copley as Murdock

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A high skilled group of military operatives are framed for the theft of some money printing plates.

I think that recently I’ve been noticing frustrating trends in action movies more than I used to. Shaky cam fight scenes and incomprehensible edits to mask actual violence are all over the place, and it has really been bothering me. Never have I been so bothered by shaky cam in any action movie as I was in The A-Team though. This is the first time that any film has actually made me feel motion sick from the way it’s filmed. It was just constant shaking, swooping, swerving, and other camera moves that were obviously meant to conceal violence that would otherwise be witnessed. Aside from that, the plot is ridiculous, and not in a usual, “fun action movie” way. It was ridiculous to a point where any logic went out the window, and it was nearly impossible to suspend disbelief and enjoy it. The performances from all of the actors felt more like imitations than actual performances, for example, Quinton Jackson didn’t make his character his own, he was simply doing a very poor Mr. T impersonation. I haven’t seen the original TV show, but I’d imagine that all the other actors were doing the same. I did often find Sharlito Copley entertaining to watch, but he got really annoying at times, and seemed like he was simply there to be “zany.” Overall, I was definitely not a fan of this film. It has occasional moments where it looks like it could be getting better, but it never really does. I wouldn’t recommend it.

The American (2010)

The American

★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Anton Corbijn

Starring George Clooney as Jack

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An assassin, whose name may or may not be Jack, is sent to a remote Italian village to lay low from enemies and await further instructions.

The American would be what it would look like if you gave a director like Michael Haneke the Bond franchise with George Clooney in the lead. This is a pretty typical spy thriller script that has a director who took it in a completely different direction. The American is a very slow moving movie, but it doesn’t have a slow moving plot, it’s the style of the filmmaking, the way that every shot takes its time, the actors don’t rush through their movements. This is a spy movie filmed in the style of a European art house piece, which makes it unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. I’m not typically an enormous fan of European art-house (I find that like every genre, there’s a lot of great stuff, but then you get the films that miss the point and try and copy the style ending up feeling empty and incredibly pretentious), but I love how it was thrown in as a twist to the spy genre, and it fit the story and location of the film like a glove. So I do really enjoy the film, but as with any film, there are flaws, in this case, the flaws can really weigh it down at moments. The script is where it seems the majority of my problems with the film come from. The plot becomes very stretched out at times, and there isn’t enough conflict throughout the entire film. The fact that an entire section is devoted to Clooney trying to assemble a homemade gun shows that maybe they didn’t have enough story to work with. Furthermore, I think that having a main character who has pretty much zero personality traits other than “mysterious” makes them hard to relate with. Other than that, the director, Anton Corbijn proves with The American that he can take a mediocre script and turn it into something pretty interesting and different. The American is no James Bond movie, it isn’t packed with action or intrigue, but it does have a lot of beautiful shots of the Italian countryside, and a very unique look at an overdone genre.

Tracks (2014)

Tracks

★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by John Curran

Starring Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson

Imdb Link

Robyn Davidson is a young Australian woman who decides to leave everything behind and go on a walk across Australia.

Tracks is the perfect example of an absolutely average film. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad, it was just about as plain and average as it gets. As I said earlier this week in my review for Peter Weir’s The Way Back, I typically love films about long voyages, a genre that Tracks falls into. However, it didn’t seem like there was enough of what makes me typically love those types of films here. Some things that make me typically love those grand voyage films are the cinematography which can really focus on the beauty of the world, and the peaceful nature of these films. Tracks really didn’t have any of the things that typically makes me love these films. The cinematography was perfectly average, it did not focus as much on nature as it should have, and instead is mainly just boring angles on Robyn and her camels. There were some incredibly beautiful shots, but they were too few with too much boring looking stuff in between them. I think that the one thing about Tracks that stood out was Mia Wasikowska’s performance. I’m not usually a big fan of hers, but she did a very good job here. Her performance as Robyn Davidson is understated, while also very powerful. She has some incredible moments. I don’t think she’ll end up being a player in the Best Actress race, but for now, she’s in my top five of the year. She really does standout as the best part of the film. Also, I know this is a true story, but damn does the thought of going on a solo voyage across Australia, and camping unprotected outside bother the hell out of me. Isn’t there, you know, lots and lots of animals that can kill you in Australia? Taking a voyage like this on isn’t very inspirational, it’s just kind of stupid. Anyways, Tracks covers 2000 miles in its protagonist’s walk, half of the 4000 miles in The Way Back, which is fitting, because Tracks is half the film that The Way Back is.

Green Zone (2010)

Green Zone

★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Starring Matt Damon as Roy Miller

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A soldier in Iraq, Roy Miller, starts to notice that intel on the WMDs seems to always lead to nothing, and dives deeper into what could be a conspiracy.

Paul Greengrass has to represent everything I hate about modern day action filmmaking. This guy seems to think that he can replace any actual action, or nice shots, with the shakiest of shaky cams, and cuts so fast that you can hardly keep up. His films move ridiculously fast, and not in a good way. When I say they move fast, I mean that, for example, we have a fight scene, the camera is already shaking so much that we don’t know who is hitting who, we think we see something but we aren’t sure, and in the midst of that, just to make it even more confusing, it’s cutting to different angles every half second. Watching a Paul Greengrass film is like watching a Toddler with ADHD play Call of Duty. That said, somehow Paul Greengrass always ends up getting great scripts. In the direction of any other competent human being, Green Zone would have been a good film. The script plays out like an espionage thriller, where it’s really America vs America, and showing us the dark side of the war. It’s refreshing to see an Iraq war film that is actually very anti-America. Even The Hurt Locker, and from what I’m hearing, American Sniper have some sort of “don’t fuck with ‘merica” propaganda message in them. Green Zone has none of that, it debates the reasons that the Iraq war happened, it puts the American army not just in a moral grey area, but it outright says that they were in the wrong about everything. I wish that they’d given this film to Kathryn Bigelow, who seems to have the opposite problem to Greengrass. She’s a damn good director, but I never like the scripts she’s given. Green Zone is one of those films that has so many good things about it, but it has an equal amount of bad things which makes it a completely neutral film. But Hollywood, stop giving Paul Greengrass good action movie scripts, and start giving those scripts to someone who doesn’t think you can substitute actual action for blurry laziness.

The Way Back (2010)

The Way Back

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Peter Weir

Starring Dragos Bucur as Zoran

Colin Farrell as Valka

Ed Harris as Mr Smith

Imdb Link

Seven inmates at a Soviet jail in Siberia, six of them political prisoners who disagreed with communism, one of them a thief, escape and make a four thousand mile journey on foot, all the way to India.

The Way Back is an adventure movie like they no other. The film centers on the story of a group of inmates who make an impossible journey from the freezing cold weather of Siberia, all the way down through the deserts of Mongolia, and into Tibet, through the himalayas. I tend to love films that center on journeys like this, where we get a lot of nice epic walking shots, and some really cool landscapes. So as soon as the opening title card saying that this is the story of inmates that made it all the way to the himalayas, I knew that I was going to enjoy the film. As I said, I love films that have lots of epic walking shots and beautiful landscape shots, which is probably a solid 90% of The Way Back. However, what makes it look so good isn’t the fact that it has these grand establishing shots, or the choices of the locations to shoot at, it’s the framing that makes it look so damn good. The framing focuses more on the nature than it does on the people passing through, because the story is really about fighting with nature.  So it feels as if making the actors look good takes a back seat to making nature look as majestic as possible. Another thing I really enjoyed with this film is the fact that it really does not have an antagonist. There’s no one chasing these people, there’s nothing in their path, there’s no conflict with other people. I mean, at first, everyone was trying to escape from the Communists, but after that, there’s no bad guy. This is a film where all the humans team together to be strong, to not break. It’s a film where the plot is driven forward by the will to live, not the need to fight against one another. It’s refreshing to see something like this once in a while when nearly every adventure film nowadays seems to be all about “oh no, people are chasing me and I must get away”, or “I need to prove something to people who don’t believe in me”, or “I have to get from point A to point B or bad things will happen to the world.” Because of its refusal to fall into any of the typical tropes that many writers would have shoehorned in to add more conflict, The Way Back manages to be something really special.

Jackie Brown (1997)

Jackie Brown

★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Starring Pam Grier as Jackie Brown

Samuel L Jackson as Ordell

Robert Forster as Max Cherry

Imdb Link

An airline stewardess, Jackie Brown, is held for questioning when she is caught bringing $50,000 into the country for her arms dealer friend, Ordell.

I would say that I’m a fan of Tarantino, I love the majority of his films, Django Unchained, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Reservoir Dogs are all films I would consider to be some of my favorites. Yet, I have never got around to watching Jackie Brown. After watching, I’m a little bit disappointed with this film. Even though I think it’s a very good film, I’m disappointed because it’s not “Tarantino good.” Jackie Brown is missing the thing that makes every other film by Quentin Tarantino feel so fun, the ridiculous, off the walls style, with rapid paced His Girl Friday style dialogue, lots of homages to movies I’ve never even heard of, and this sense of surrealism in that the universe he creates in his films seems so different to the universe we live in. These are the reasons that I love the majority of his films, they’re so much fun, so ridiculous, so stylish. Jackie Brown has none of these qualities. Which is why I say it is a good movie, but it is disappointing that it’s made by Tarantino. The script does not have much of a sense of humor compared to his other films. Only two of the many characters are amusing, Louis and Ordell have conversations that are reminiscent of Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction, but they’re really the only characters that talk in a remotely “Tarantino” way. It’s by far the most serious film in the Tarantino universe, even in terms of editing, held back violence, music, performances. I think I’ve said enough that makes it sound like I didn’t like it, so I should just clarify, I enjoyed Jackie Brown, I think it’s a good film, and an example of an auteur stepping outside of his comfort zone. It would be like watching Wes Anderson make an entirely serious movie that doesn’t even have a hint of his quirks in it. Interesting, and even possibly good, but not what you were hoping for when the opening credits rolled. Jackie Brown is that film.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Starring Takashi Shimura as Kambei

Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo

Imdb Link

2nd Watch

A town of farmers hire seven samurai to protect them from bandits who will attack them and steal all their barley.

This was the first movie that really got me into Japanese cinema, and more importantly, Akira Kurosawa, who has since become my favorite director of all-time. While Seven Samurai may not be my favorite film of his (it comes in at second place just behind The Hidden Fortress), it is still thrilling, fun, and an incredible feat of filmmaking. This movie is three and a half hours long, which is definitely a drawback because a movie of that length is hard to find time to watch, anyways, it’s three and a half hours long, but feels no longer than two hours. The quick pace makes us hardly notice how much time has passed by. The pacing, supported by the constant action, is also helped by the character development throughout. We spend so much time on exposition because the film wants us to really get connected to each samurai, which makes the final battle sequence have so much more weight. As these seven are no longer the nameless “seven samurai”, but now they become people that we feel we really know, and we know that only a few of them will survive the final confrontation. The pacing is also supported by Kurosawa’s editing. I’ve always heard it said that “Kurosawa was a great director, but he was the best editor” and I have to agree with that statement. Every cut gives off a percussive, rhythmic sense to it. Akira Kurosawa’s editing does not linger on any shot, it doesn’t ever cut too early either, it feels as though every single cut is timed perfectly. Watching any of Kurosawa’s Samurai films, but most specifically Seven Samurai, you get this sense that Kurosawa injected energy into every scene through his actors, through his comedic writing, through his choreography and blocking, and through his editing. Seven Samurai remains one of the most entertaining action movies, even sixty years later.

Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring Matthew McConaughey as Cooper

Anne Hathaway as Amelia

Imdb Link

The earth is dying. We can’t sustain food for all the people on the planet to live. As a way to keep the human species alive, NASA launches a mission to find other habitable planets on the other side of a wormhole, just beside Saturn.

My most anticipated movie of the year has finally arrived. Was it as good as I was hoping? Close, but not exactly. Was it still absolutely amazing and one of the best films of the year? Definitely yes. Nolan is still on his A-Game with Interstellar. This movie is one of the most amazing, spectacles I’ve seen in a long time. I would actually argue that seeing this is maybe the best theater experience I’ve ever had. Go see it on a big screen. On the biggest screen possible. It immerses you like no other film can. And I say that as an enormous fan of Gravity (which I think is a better film overall, but Interstellar is a better theater experience). The visuals are incredible. This is Christopher Nolan’s best looking film in terms of the cinematography. Hoyte Van Hoytema did a stellar job with the lighting and the framing. Every part of the film, even the very underwhelming opening on Earth, looked gorgeous. Actually, I think some of the best camerawork happened down on earth. The visual effects are amazing too. I think we can just give the Oscar to the effects in this film right now. The competition is over in that department. Now onto the script, which I thought was pretty good, but very uneven. The one thing people complain about most in Nolan films is his screenwriting, I don’t usually have a problem with it, but I did at a lot of points here. Nolan really likes high concept work, and the concepts can be hard to grasp, so he writes explanations in. A character explains what’s going on to another character so that the audience now understands. I didn’t mind that at all in Inception, but there were three or four moments in Interstellar where I just said “oh come on, really?” For example, Cooper explaining what an Indian surveillance drone is to his kids, as they chase it down as if they’ve done this a hundred times. Or the scientist explaining what a wormhole is to Cooper as they approach it. And a few more moments that I won’t spoil. The rest of the script was brilliant, if a little heavy handed at times, but nothing takes you out of the moment like a very, very dumbed down explanation of wormhole theory. The direction is absolutely brilliant though, Nolan really cares about delivering the best experience possible, and you can tell that. He is the best director in the game right now in my opinion. I have one more complaint about this great film though, it’s not really about the movie, but the audience I was in. The person beside me was one of the worst audience members ever. Was he talking? No. Was he on his phone? No. Did he eat two tuscan chicken paninis from Tim Hortons over the course of the movie? Yes he did. Did he breathe as loudly as is humanly possible? Yes he did. Was he bouncing his leg the and making my seat shake through the entire film? Yes he was. So this is a public service announcement. Try to not breathe like a neanderthal in a theater, try to not make the people beside you have shaky seats because you can’t sit still for two hours. And most importantly, don’t bring a fucking gross smelling panini into the theater. Much less two gross smelling paninis. Nothing takes you out of the experience more than the smell of tuscan chicken panini. God damn. Anyways, I loved Interstellar, despite its many flaws, I still think it’s one of the greatest films of the year. An absolutely beautiful, breathtaking experience that I know will only get better upon rewatching. Nolan knocks another one out of the park and into the skylight of an oddly placed house once more.