Shaun of the Dead (2004)

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Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a quintessential loser.  He’s been dumped by his girlfriend, stuck in a dead-end job, his best friend still thinks he’s in college.  Oh yeah, and then the Zombie apocalypse starts.

Edgar Wright, the film’s director, Pegg, and Jessica Stevenson (now Hynes) did a British show called Spaced from 1999 to 2001.  Nick Frost was also in the show, but with Shaun of the Dead they seemed to move from television to movies.  Hynes took a back seat in Shaun of the Dead, although she had a minor part, playing Yvonne, an ex-girlfriend of Shaun’s who ends up surviving a well.  Wright, Pegg, and Frost all collaborated again with Hot Fuzz in 2007.

It’s nice how they have some misdirection in the movie.  There’s no better example when the camera pans up as Shaun is lethargically waking up and getting ready for the day.  You could mistake him for a zombie, and then you realize it’s Shaun.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost work very well together.  I enjoyed their chemistry in this film and in Hot Fuzz, though I wasn’t crazy about Paul.   They have good chemistry and play off of each other well.  Another person who I enjoyed, but at the same time found irritating was David (Dylan Moran).  His brunt honesty was refreshing, but he did seem like a guy with a chip on his shoulder.  Moran and Pegg also did Run Fatboy Run later on, another film I thoroughly enjoyed.

This movie serves as a comedic homage to zombie movies, and it’s unapologetic about that.  I like it when a film embraces being over the top if it’s supposed to be.  “It’s supposed to be as silly as it sounds and succeeds magnificently.  Perhaps one of the main reasons lies in the way its lead characters behave and interact.  There’s an authenticity here that can only be achieved when the writers and director genuinely understand and are part of the same demographic to which their characters belong.”

I’m not much of a zombie movie person, but Shaun of the Dead is one of two zombie movies I enjoy, the other being Zombieland.  I think their appeal, at least for me, is that they’re more a comedy in a zombie setting.

I enjoy watching Shaun of the Dead whenever I see it, but it’s one of those movies that I need sometime between viewings.  It’s also interesting that I find out new things about other projects those involved have done and the additional layers of references that come as a result of that.  Enjoyable zom-rom-com, I’d recommend it.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Top Gun (1986)

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Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) attends the Air Force’s top flight school, Top Gun, along with his flying partner Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Antonio Edwards).  Along the way he becomes romantically involved with Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (Kelly McGillis).  He also competes with another top pilot, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer).   During one of his training missions, Maverick and Goose’s plane stalls and they have to eject, however, Goose breaks his neck slamming into the canopy as they are ejecting.  Maverick blames himself, though ultimately he recovers and returns to old form as the Top Gun.

Top Gun has been re-released for a very limited showing, one week to be exact, in which they’ve made it into 3-D and are also showing in IMAX theaters.  I went and saw it today with my father-in-law, and I must say, if you’re a fan of the film, go see it.  Go see it in IMAX if that’s an option.  I’m not normally an advocate of 3-D movies, I find they add very little other than some nice depth-of-field.  However, with a film like Top Gun, it adds a lot when that depth-of-field involves planes…in the air…dog-fighting.

Top Gun is one of those movies you either really like or you just flat-out can’t stand.  I for one really like it, but can understand the criticisms it’s received.  For a film shot in the mid 80s, I think Tony Scott and crew did a great job with the dog-fighting  in flight footage.  However, there were a few times that it’s clear that scenes and footage was repeated. Goose was apparently in the back of the cockpit in the final battle when Merlin (Tim Robbins) should have been there.  It’s more a minor critique for me.

Cruise and Edwards have great chemistry.  That doesn’t seem like much of a surprise, though, considering the relationship they have with one another and their history.  They’re different enough, though, as Goose has a wife and boy, and Maverick deals with his dad’s bad reputation (if only a perception) and the constant need to prove himself and push the envelope.  Maverick and Charlie’s relationship is fun to see develop, and Charlie’s genuine concern for Maverick after Goose’s death is touching.

As great as most of the minor characters were, my personal favorite was James Tolkan, the hard-nosed, no-nonsense Commander “Stinger.”  He’s one of those guys that just has stage presence, something I’ve talked about a number of times throughout these reviews. While he is primarily known for this role and as “Strickland” in the Back to the Future franchise, he’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to cross.  I wonder how he is in real life.  He might be a fun person to be around.

A lot of the juvenile antics the pilots take part in is funny, but at times I think it’s a little much.  It seems like a very light-hearted movie, though I think they could have gone into a lot more depth with Maverick’s back story and some of the psychological aspects of his relationship with his dad.  I like what Roger Ebert said of the film, “movies like Top Gun are hard to review because the good parts are so good and the bad parts are so relentless.”

While the aerial visuals are definitely top-notch, especially for its time, I would have enjoyed this movie more if they’d gone a little more in-depth with the other aspects of the story.  Nonetheless, Top Gun is a fun movie to watch, and it’s appeal, critical success, and aerial visual effects make it worthy of being a must-see movie.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Groundhog Day (1993)

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It would have been nice to post this review last Saturday, but oh well, here we go.

Groundhog Day is one of those films I could watch every couple of years, thoroughly enjoy, and probably pick up a few things I’d missed.

Phil Conners (Bill Murray) is an arrogant, self-centered weatherman from Pittsburgh who is sent to cover Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney and ends up in an endless time loop where he re-lives that day.  He initially despises the conundrum he’s in, and shows it by a combination of getting arrested and committing suicide in a number of ways.  Inevitably though, he wakes up in the same bed, in the same loop, reliving February 2.  He then turns to making a difference in peoples’ lives and winning over his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell).

groundhog-dayThe chase scene with the groundhog and Phil was great, one of the funniest scenes of the movie in my opinion.

It goes without saying that Bill Murray carries this movie.  I can’t think of anyone else who could have done better.  His collaboration with Harold Ramis would end up being the last for some time (They had a falling out even though they’d worked together many times before), but Ramis and Danny Rubin wrote a great script that Murray and the rest of the cast really brought to life.  This was in the middle of a string of great movies for Murray (Scrooged, What About Bob?) and his humor really comes through as Phil.

Andie MacDowell is charming as Rita, and it’s interesting as her relationship with Phil evolves throughout the film.  Stephen Tobolowsky as Ned Ryerson is brilliant.  He makes you want to punch him out as Phil does on one of the days.

There has been speculation as to how many times Phil re-lives Groundhog Day before he moves on at the end of the film.  The film shows February 2nd 34 times.  However, when you take into account how many different skills and relationships Phil builds with people, it seems like it would take a number of years.  He is an expert at the piano and ice sculpting, saves a kid who falls out of a tree, saves one of the Groundhog Day officials from choking, and so on and so on.  Only years of reliving that day could put Phil in the right situation at the right time as many times as he does by the end of the film.  Ramis has said that it could have been 30 or 40 years when you consider how many things Phil has mastered by the end of the film.  Tobolowsky said 10,000 years, though I think that’s way too much.

I enjoy Groundhog Day every time I see it. I want to say some of the elements of the film seem dated, but not very many.  Obviously the presence of social media and things of that sort didn’t exist in 1993, but the film, kind of like Phil Conners’ conundrum, remains timeless.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

 

Chinatown (1974)

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I watched Chinatown about a year ago and to be honest, I didn’t like it.  It was probably in large part because I wasn’t able to pay attention to the film.  While I dozed at times this time around, I was able to follow the story line a lot better, which made for a more enjoyable experience.

J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired bu Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to investigate and confirm her husband’s extra-marital affair.  In the process he is murdered and reveals a bigger problem with water availability, land values, and whatnot in L.A.

The number of layers to this story probably contributed to my disinterest in trying to watch this the first time.  Having an idea of what was going on to start with definitely made a difference in understanding and following the many layers to this story.

The two lead performances in this film carry the story.  While Jack Nicholson had a few memorable performances before Chinatown (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail), here you have his quick wit and brilliant stage presence.  He would do 4 films the following year, including his first of 3 Oscars in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  His charm and brunt nature as Gittes helps to cut though surface-level pleasantries and really get down to the meat of things.  Faye Dunaway is charming as always.  She handles both the light-hearted parts and the heavy heart she has in dealing with her past and how that shapes who she is very well.

Burt Young was memorable, even if he wasn’t in the film very long.

While I was initially frustrated and disappointed with how the film ended, I came to appreciate and accept that sometimes the happy ending just doesn’t happen.  People aren’t brought to justice.  The innocent suffer.  As one of Gittes former colleagues say, “Hey, that’s Chinatown.”

I originally would have given this film 2 out of 5 stars, but a second watching definitely helped change that.  It’s an enjoyable film that keeps you guessing and served as a place to showcase Jack Nicholson’s leading character strengths.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

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Army Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent into Cambodia during the Vietnam War to assassinate a rogue Green Beret Colonol Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has set himself up as a god to a local tribe.  The closer he gets to his target, Willard gains new perspective and the mental challenges of war make him into a new man.

Francis Ford Coppola deserves the accolades and reputation as one of the great filmmakers.  Something as simple as the transition from a helicopter sounds to a fan at the beginning of the movie integrates the transitions almost seamlessly.  The combination of visual and sound effects illustrates his attention to detail and cinematic greatness.

He also does a good job of communicating to the audience the great weight and moral dilemma Vietnam posed to those who fought it.  This movie was made 4 years after the end of the Vietnam War, so it was still very fresh in the country’s mind.  When Laurence Fishburne’s character is killed, he had been listening to a tape his mother recorded for him.  Listening to her speak while the men are being shot at was a great contrast of the innocence back home and the horrors of war.

There are so many good performances in this film.  Martin Sheen, who looks a lot like his son Emilio Estevez doing a film his other son Charlie Sheen would be doing, leads and narrates the film very well.  His character is no rookie when it comes to war, but even encountering Colonol Kurtz’s creation drastically changed his outlook on war and the military.  Robert Duvall steals the great one-liners from the film (‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’), and his gun ho attitude helped him land a Best Supporting Actor nomination.  This was Laurence Fishburne’s first major film roles, and honestly I didn’t recognize him even though I knew it was him.

Marlon Brando does great in his role.  It’s also good how Coppola doesn’t have him entirely in the light, especially when he’s talking about his philosophy.  I felt like he had Don Corleone weight in what he was saying.  It’s one of those roles I really don’t see anyone else being able to fill.

As I watched Dennis Hopper play the photographer in Kurtz’s village, it sounded like a more dramatic character than Billy in Easy Rider.  All he needed was the hippy jacket and motorcycle.  I found him more irritating than anything else, but reflective of the times.  Though they had minor roles, Harrison Ford and Scott Glenn also contributed nicely.

The ending of the film, as Willard and one of his men leave the village, it is left to the imagination as to what they’d do next.  Would Willard go and set himself up as a god elsewhere, or how would he integrate back into regular society?

I enjoyed Apocalypse Now more than I expected to.  It communicates the realities of the war and the tole it took on those who fought it.  Though I probably won’t watch this movie again, it’s good to see.  I have enjoyed the last few war movies I’ve watched, and I think it’s because of the weight and careful execution the directors have had in each of the movies.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.