Movie #56: Serenity (2005)

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The future is worth fighting for.

Director: Joss Whedon

Starring: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Chiwetal Ejofor, Summer Glau.

500 years in the future, Earth is no longer inhabitable, and

The Alliance, the universe’s governing body, seeks to govern over all of the people.  They have reformed various planets to make them habitable and also seek for peace to exist throughout the universe.  They fought and won a war against the Colonies, people who did not want to be governed by the Alliance.  However, there is still a sizable smugglers network and a number of former soldiers who remain defiant in their own way.

The Alliance has imparted specific programming on a number of people, and River Tam (Glau) is one of them.  Her older brother, Simon (Sean Maher) has broken her out of their custody and found refuge aboard the star ship Serenity.  He has paid their way as a doctor, but as the ship’s captain, Malcolm Reynolds (Fillion) starts including River in various smuggling jobs, it becomes apparent very quickly that she knows a lot more than they had originally thought.

The Alliance has sent “The Operative” (Ejofor) to bring River back to be used by the Alliance.  He has a twisted sense of justice.  He kills a member of the Alliance’s medical team who allowed Simon to break his sister free.  He makes the doctor fall on a sword, stating that death was an honorable one.

This film is a continuation of Joss Whedon’s short-lived yet beloved show Firefly, which lasted 11 episodes before being yanked by Fox.  This film picks up the story some time after the last episode, and gives some resolution to storylines that were left open-ended when the show was cancelled.

A lot of themes and elements were carried over from the show.  In the future the two dominant cultures are American and Chinese.  Each character speaks a mixture of the two, though the Chinese is more or less used for profanities.  Perhaps the other language gives a heightened sense of the person’s frustrations.

Simply put, a moviegoers opinion of this film is almost directly related to their opinion of Firefly.  I did not watch either until a few years after the film was made, and it works on a number of levels for me.  It explores a western drama in space.  There’s plenty of friendly banter, but a strong heart and exploration in morality.

Two performances rise above the others in this film.  Fillion does a great job, as he did in the show, of being the nonchalant antihero who doesn’t want the authorities telling him what to do or how to do it.  I’ve read that Fillion considered his work on Firefly to be the best of his career, and while I enjoy him in Castle and some of his other work, I’d have to agree.  He finds the right balance of being liked by the audience, but still

The Operative is insane, there’s no two ways about it.  Ejofor does a great job in his emotionless, single-minded purpose in the story.  He knows he’s a monster, and he embraces it because it serves the Alliance’s greater good.

The rest of the cast plays their parts well.  Alan Tudyk does great as Serenity‘s pilot, and husband to First Mate Zoe (Torres).  Jewel Straite has a grace about her as the ship’s mechanic.  Adam Baldwin does great as Jayne Cobb, the added muscle of the group.  Morena Baccarin also does great as Inara, and her interactions with Mal replicated the love tension that existed between the two in the show.

Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) did great in his limited screen time.  He had been a passenger aboard the Serenity in the show, but had since left to start a mission on the planet Haven.  I think his performance stands out above the rest of the supporting cast because of his bigger-picture implications and the inspiration he gives Mal to fight for and believe in something.  That something ended up being the big secret River had stored up and what ultimately lead to the final climactic build-up of the film.

As stated before, Serenity is a movie that if you loved Firefly, you’ll like the film.  It brings a resolution to unfinished stories, and brings closure to a TV series that was cancelled way too soon.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Movie #55: Ghost Busters (1984)

Ghostbusters_cover

We’re Ready To Believe You.  They ain’t afraid of no ghost.  Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!

Starring:

Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, and Ernie Hudson

There have been many times that I’ve said that when a film realistically represents normal life, the added layers of story and characters are more organic and great than something completely off-the-wall.

This is not one of those movies, but it’s still great.

Dr. Peter Venkman (Murray), Dr. Ray Stantz (Aykroyd), and Dr. Egon Spengler (Ramis) are parapsychology professors at Columbia University.  Having been fired from their job, they go into business for themselves capturing ghosts and monitoring paranormal activity in New York City.  They discover that Gozer, an ancient Sumerian shape-shifting god of destruction, is planning on coming through a portal at the apartment building of their first customer, Dana Barrett (Weaver), a woman with whom Venkman wants to get with.

There are so many places to go with this film.  Aykroyd and Ramis wrote the script, which went through a major overhaul after initial interest from director Ivan Reitman.  Aykroyd’s fascination with the paranormal was the original inspiration for doing a film like this.  It’s a good mix or science fiction and comedy.  I would not have been surprised if this film had been in the comedy category of the book.  It’s ranked in the AFI’s 100 Years, 100 laughs category.

Without a doubt, Bill Murray steals the movie.

This was at the height of many of the lead actors careers, but it is Murray that stole the show.  His comedic timing, the off-beat, don’t have a care in the world attitude is entertaining.  He’s a guy that you either love or hate if you’re dealing with him.  Clearly Ray and Egon have known him long enough that they know they’re stuck with him as a friend.  His interactions with Walter Peck (William Atherton), an EPA nut-job is the thing of legend.   His lack of caring, though, doesn’t take away from his intelligence and importance to the group.

Ramis and Aykroyd do a great job of complementing Murray’s comedy, though, and keep everyone informed of the details and significance of each event.  This balances out the comedy in moving the story forward.

Ernie Hudson does great as Winston Zeddemore in bringing more of the everyman’s perspective to all the scientific jargon.  His bringing God and Judgement Day into the story is a question that I’m not sure would have been explored as much if the film was made today, but it’s though-provoking and good to consider.

ghostbusterstwinkie  No Ghost Busters review is complete without mentioning the Twinkie.

While the leads did a great job, the supporting cast also carries their own.  Annie Potts is enjoyable as Janine the secretary.  Her character isn’t intimidated by the guys she works for, and it shows.  Sigourney Weaver is also holds her own with Murray and the others.  Rick Moranis does great at Louis, the nerd who tries to get the girl he had no shot with, and loves explaining stuff no one has any interest in hearing about.

Ghost Busters is significant for a number of reasons.  The comedy, obviously, but also the constant presence of great one-liners throughout the film.  Another that can’t be ignored is the theme song.  That may have been the biggest star of the show.  The film was nominated for two Oscars (Best Song and Visual Effects).  While the effects are definitely dated, the song is something that anyone who was alive at or around the time of this movie’s release can easily recognize.  I remember growing up going to the skating rink with my family and it was just the greatest thing when this song was played.

The film was shot for around $30 million and grossed about $230 million, with an additional $30 when it was re-released the following year.  Only Beverly Hills Cop earned more at the box office in 1984.

Ghost Busters is a great film, purposeful and strong acting throughout the cast, and is one of those that you can enjoy again and again.  It’ll be a while before I watch this one again, but it’s always great to see/quote this one.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie #54: Trading Places (1983)

TradingPlaces

Take two complete strangers, make one of them rich the other poor… just watch the fun while they’re… TRADING PLACES.

Starring:

Dan Aykroyd

Eddie Murphy

Ralph Bellamy

Don Ameche

Denholm Elliott

Jamie Lee Curtis

Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Bellamy and Ameche) are two successful, rich commodities brokers who propose a nature vs. environment experiment involving Winthorpe (Aykroyd), a young executive at their company, and Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy), a street hustler.  Winthorpe is stripped of his job, thrown in jail, and loses his status and reputation within his social circles.  Valentine is cleaned up and given Winthorpe’s job, house, and life.

Valentine’s street smarts and adaptability help him acclimate to his new environment.  Winthorpe, however, is only able to survive because he is befriended by Ophelia (Curtis), who helps him in exchanged for financial compensation once he is restored to his previous life.  Each man is changed when his circumstances changes, but once the two realize that this is only an experiment by the Duke brothers, they seek their revenge in a plot twist to end the film and puts everybody in their place.

This film for me was a bit of a mixed bag.  I understand the humorous elements, and Aykroyd and Murphy have great comedic chemistry. However, the language bothered me, and at times this  film seemed to kind of drag on.  The language is more just a personal preference thing for me, so take that as it is.

Two things stand out more than anything in this movie: the script and the acting.

It’s been said that this story is more or less a re-telling of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper.  It’s done in a way that was both modern for the time, and allowed for comedic chemistry between the actors, which fit the forte of many that were involved.

The actors in this movie really bring the script to life.  I found myself rolling my eyes at the arrogance, prejudice, and overall snootiness of Aykroyd’s Winthorpe, but that’s exactly what can be expected.  The man had a silver spoon in his mouth from birth, and Aykroyd really brings that to life.  Having seen a number of movies he’s been in, this one was a bit of a stretch, and Aykroyd does a good job at making you hate, then love this character.

This is one of the few films where Murphy’s style of comedic acting really shines.  He’s obnoxious, yes, but not to the point where you just want to destroy something or put him in a choke hold.  This was during his stint on Saturday Night Live (along with a number of his cast mates), and really during the prime of his career.  Aside from say Dreamgirls (I assume he was good since he was nominated for an Oscar), Eddie Murphy hasn’t had a really good movie in about 20 years, at least for me.

While the two leads provide strong performances, the supporting cast cannot be overlooked.  Bellamy and Ameche both do great at millionaire brothers that you just want to see them get their come-upends.  Jamie Lee Curtis is intelligent and charming, and Denholm Elliot does a great job as Winthorpe’s butler Coleman.  Curtis and Elliot both received recognition at the British Academy Film Awards for their roles in the film.

Trading Places is funny, well-acted and thought-provoking look at the nature vs. nurture arguments in the context of money and socio-economic elements.  I probably won’t watch this one again, as for me it had just enough content that I didn’t like, but I’m still glad to have watched it,

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Movie #53: The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)

the naked gun poster

Starring:

Leslie Neilson

Priscilla Presley

Ricardo Montalban

George Kennedy

O.J. Simpson

You’ve seen the movie, now read the review!

Lt. Frank Derbin (Nielsen) investigates the near-fatal shooting of a fellow member of Police Squad, Detective Nordberg (Simpson).  In the process, he discovers that the corrupt Victor Ludwig (Montalban) plans on assassinating Queen Elizabeth II at a California Angels baseball game on her state visit.  In the process Derbin falls for Ludwig’s assistant, Jane (Presley).

What follows is a series of sight gags and general poking fun at every turn.  The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad takes no prisoners and doesn’t take itself seriously for one minute.  Therein lies the genius of this film.

Though this movie isn’t nearly as good as say, Airplane! before it, The Naked Gun benefits from its lead actor, Leslie Neilson.  In comedies, it’s all about timing and presence, and Neilson is excellent at both of these.  His character takes himself very seriously, and while the whole film is one liner after sight gag after funny/awkward moment, he and the rest of the actors don’t miss a beat and continue moving the plot forward.

Perhaps it was the mood I was in, but this movie, while funny throughout, got a little tedious and repetitive for my own liking.  Sight gags work, crude double entendres work, slapstick comedy works.  This movie has more than its fair share of laughs, it definitely doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s unapologetic as it pokes fun at anything and everything.

Maybe it’s the saturation of movies that have come out in the past 6-8 years that are way too over the top and too stupid for their own good (Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Remember the Spartans, etc.) that have dumbed-down the comedic impact from a film like The Naked Gun.

Maybe you just have to be in the right company, and I wasn’t for this viewing.

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad does a great job of not taking itself too seriously and not apologizing for it.  I don’t remember seeing the two sequels to this film, but will probably do so in the near future since they’re both available on Netflix.  A strong cast and great writing make this film enjoyable and funny.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

 

Movie #52: Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

punch-drunk-love-original

I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it.

Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is a loner with severe rage issues.   He has seven sisters, all of which give him a tremendous amount of crap for being single, oftentimes questioning his heterosexuality and ridiculing him on a constant basis.

Hence the rage issues.

He also meets Lena (Emily Watson), and the two begin an unlikely relationship.  Barry is also being extorted by a mattress store owner who also runs a sex chat line.  He also collects a significant amount of pudding in order to redeem them for airline miles through American Airlines (based on what David Phillips did in real life).

This is now the second time I’ve watched this film.  The first time it was difficult to follow at times, this time around not so much, but I’m still trying to grasp the appeal of this movie.  Paul Thomas Anderson is known for doing things way outside the box, and while this film scored well with critics, it was for all intents and purposes a box-office flop ($17.8 million).  It’s one of those films that gets nominated for awards, Anderson received Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival, but lacks that broad appeal that brings success.

Yes, I get it, it’s an ‘art-house’ film.

That doesn’t mean it’s good.

The film is not without its charms.  The role seems tailor-fit for Sandler, who had a number of hit films playing the man with anger/rage issues.  I’m not sure that anyone else would have been able to fill those shoes.  Emily Watson is a doll in this one.  I haven’t seen her in any other films, but she definitely has acting talent.  Her and Sandler’s odd chemistry is one of the things that kept me interested in this film.  Her vulnerability, specifically right before she leaves for Hawaii, is a refreshingly honest, candid performance.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman was creepy, kind of like every other role he’s had.

The random and severe acts of rage throughout the film got horribly repetitive by the end.  While necessary for the plot, I just got annoyed with it.  The story was also difficult to follow and bouncing around everywhere.  I enjoy layered plots, but this one was so random and constantly shifting that it was more harm than good.

Again, I get that this is an ‘art-house’ film, but the long camera pans, the extended moments of silence, the interludes all could have been dialed back.  A lot.

There is one line in The 501 Must-See Movies book that I strongly disagree with.  “As with Jim Carrey and The Truman Show, Punch-Drunk Love gave Sandler an instant credibility that he’s still tapping today.  Granted, this book was published in 2010, Sandler has definitely cooled off and hasn’t had a good movie since Click, though Just Go With It had its charms.

Punch-Drunk Love tells an interesting, off-the-beaten-path romance, which sets it apart.  However, that great story is lost in Paul Thomas Anderson’s web of art-house film making and a complex, confusing series of sub-plots.  I may be able to watch this again, but it’s not one I’m going to go out of my way to see.

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie #51: The Producers (1968)

the-producers-1968-poster

“It rose below vulgarity.”

Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is a down-on-his-luck producers who used to make hit Broadway shows.  Now he funds his productions by swooning old ladies day in and day out, only to produce flops.  When accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) tells him that he could make more money than he needs by producing complete flop and pocket his investors money with them none-the-wiser.  They set out to find the worst script, director, and actors to make “Springtime for Hitler,”

As with any good movie, it has to start with strong leads.  Zero and Wilder carry this film.   Zero is convincing as a producer who grows tired of the same old antics with the little old ladies.  He’s also unapologetic and plausible as a character who will bend the rules and ignore the laws.

Something I love about Wilder is his use of non-verbals.  A timely pause with the right facial expression can say more than a paragraph of dialogue could ever do, and Wilder has mastered this craft.

Dick Shawn (Who plays Lorenzo St. DeBois or LSD) is charming but to a fault.  If I had to go on just hearing him, I would’ve honestly said that was Robin Williams performing.  I could take it or leave it, I like Williams at times, but a role like LSD is a little over the top.  It’s fitting for him to play a Hitler you can laugh at, and he plays into the whole hippie movement.

It’s interesting that Gene Wilder was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, which he lost to Jack Albertson, the man who played Grandpa Joe in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

As with many others, I am not a fan of remakes.  This was made into a successful Broadway production that turned into a movie starring Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, and Uma Thurman.  The 2005 version, though Mel Brooks wrote the script, is not one I plan on watching.  I can’t stand Lane or Thurman.  Lane is too over-the-top for me.  There’s just something about Thurman, I don’t understand her appeal.  Also, the fact that it cost $40 million to make and made a little less than half of that at the box office is pretty telling as far as audiences go.  From what I’ve read, it was one that probably should have stayed on Broadway.

The Producers offered audiences a preview of a long string of hilarious but vulgar movies from Mel Brooks.  Strong leads help carry this film above criticisms from content matter and allow for a nice hour and a half escape.  I could probably watch this movie a couple more times, but it’s one I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to see.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Movie #50 : Iron Man (2008)

Iron-Man-2008

I am reviewing Iron Man.

Poised with my midnight showing of Iron Man 3 in 3D IMAX, I’m doing the horribly cliché thing and reviewing the original.

I remember a lot of hype leading up to this movie’s release 5 years ago.  A lot of people talked about how great the trailer was, and the tremendous buildup to the film.  Here’s a fun little “news story” that addresses that.  http://www.theonion.com/video/wildly-popular-iron-man-trailer-to-be-adapted-into,14226/

Growing up I didn’t read comic books.  My knowledge was limited almost exclusively to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, because let’s face it, would you need anything else?  I enter into watching these types of films as a common moviegoer and not a die-hard, read-every-comic-watched-every-show type of fanboy.

I don’t know of any other role that was so perfectly meant for Robert Downey Jr.  He makes this movie, plain and simple.

I remember seeing this movie on opening day, and to be honest, Tony Stark’s arrogance was a major put off for me.  As I’ve seen his character develop throughout the other Avengers-related movies, though, I’ve come to appreciate his balance of genius, poor coping mechanisms, and inner drive.  One of my favorite scenes from this movie was when Pepper Potts said she was quitting.   Stark’s assertion that he didn’t die and that because he didn’t, he had a purpose.  His frank, candid moment on-screen humanizes his character in a way that doesn’t appear in others,

This touches on a central theme in film: fate.  As his character has propagated war, killing, and the military industrial complex, Stark’s imprisonment opened his eyes to the practical, tangible losses and effects his company has on families.  His change in character doesn’t come without his struggles, but the change for the better was handled very nicely.

stanleeironman  One of my favorite Stan Lee cameos, when Stark mistakes him for Hugh Hefner.

 

There was one element of this movie that was fixed in Iron Man 2.  Terrance Howard is a tremendous actor without question.  He just didn’t seem to work here though.  Perhaps it’s that Don Cheadle simply does a better job, or the fact that Rhodes is a more integral part of the story-line in Iron Man 2.

Jeff Bridges does a serviceable job in this movie, but who didn’t see him as the main villain from a mile away?

Another thing that sets Iron Man apart from other superhero movies is the fact that Marvel set up their own production company and handled the movie in-house.  I think from that came a story more true to its roots (though I have to take more knowledgeable people’s word on that) and created a more organic authenticity.

While I was originally put off by Iron Man, it has grown on me and laid a solid foundation for the other Avengers-related films.  On-point casting, great visual effects, and a balance of larger-than-life superhero with a candid, human main character make Iron Man an enjoyable film all around.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.