The A-Team

Stars:  ★★★☆

Summary:  A ridiculously fun, masculine ’80s style action movie that suffers and benefits from 21st century filmmaking.

Review: ‘The A-Team’ is an update of the mid-1980s TV show of the same name. The original ‘A-Team’ was basically a live-action cartoon for burgeoning young men and men still young enough at heart to appreciate that sort of thing.   The movie is, surprisingly, completely faithful to this premise.  The show and the movie focus on four guys with huge, fun personalities that defy corrupt authorities and serve the common good by blowing stuff up with pizazz. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t seem to be very popular anymore, by virtue of its enthusiastic masculinity and unapologetic lack of political sensitivity.  It’s a celebration of the concept of brotherhood on a completely ridiculous scale.  It’s wish fulfillment for any red-blooded American male with a soul.

The film is far from perfect.  Unlike the show, it has a tendency to obfuscate the action with questionable cinematography and editing, but when it’s clear, it’s clear that there’s quite a lot of awesome going on.  This is the ’80s back from the dead, but 21st technology has given us access to the sorts of adventures we could only dream of watching ‘The A-Team’ embark upon back in the day.  Basically I’m saying that the team gets to fly a tank.  Don’t ask me how they end up performing this task, or how well it all goes, because that would ruin the fun.

Most importantly, the cast is perfect.  And I love it when a cast comes together.  Liam Neeson is more serious than George Peppard as Hannibal Smith, but there’s a few sparkling moments where he channels his TV counterpart, and it gives me chills.  Bradley Cooper’s Faceman is more of his own monster, since Dirk Benedict was playing himself back in the day, but there’s still a familiar twang, even if Cooper’s rendition is something of a fool.  Out to pity fools in the tradition of Mr. T is Quinten Jackson as B.A., and he’s a lot of better than you’ve probably heard.  He really hits the nail on the head, and somehow tricked me into thinking that Mr. T actually created a character.  Maybe he did.  Rounding out the team is Howling Mad Murdock, my personal favorite of the show (where he was played by Dwight Shultz), and definitely the biggest scene stealer in the movie, this time portrayed by newcomer Sharlto Copely.  He’s hilarious and is possibly having the most fun out of everybody.  The bad guys and supporting cast all do a pretty good job, but special mention goes to Brian Bloom as Pike, a rather menacing mercenary who gets a lot of great lines.

What the ‘The A-Team’ represents to me is a reminder of brotherhoods gone by, of good deeds done and villains vanquished, and of future A-Teams to be gathered in the future.  It’s kind of a wistful, idealistic mode of thought, but if ‘The A-Team’ is anything, it’s hyperreal.

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Classic Review: Dr. No

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  The fantastic, intelligent, archetypical spy movie.

Review: There’s something intriguing about persons who live deceptive, decadent and devilish lives yet find themselves on the side of truth, justice, and fair play. Just such a human contradiction is writer Ian Fleming’s iconic spy James Bond (also known by his code number 007), realized by actor Sean Connery in this, the first of many official big screen films starring the character.  It’s the archetypical spy movie, beautifully designed, perfectly cast, well-written, and exciting throughout.

Unlike future Bond adventures that would focus on his action capabilities and grand set pieces (inspiring Steven Spielberg’s interest in creating Indiana Jones), those elements, though fantastically present in this debut, take a backseat to letting the viewer get to know the mysterious spy and his skill as a detective.  James is not yet the violent “blunt instrument” as in 2006’s reboot of the series, ‘Casino Royale’, and its followup, ‘Quantum of Solace’, where Bond is basically described as a problematic weapon.  Though Daniel Craig’s portrayal is no less intelligent than Connery’s, by the nature of the story in ‘Dr. No’ it is clear that Bond is something approaching a Renaissance Man akin to pulp hero Doc Savage and/or a stimulant-seeking genius who can put himself in anyone’s shoes, ala Sherlock Holmes.  His ruthless manipulation of those who dare to manipulate him reveals an intimate understanding of sociopathy, a condition he obviously shares and is probably aware of.  Bond is the ultimate Cold War figure; an individual capable of literally sleeping with the enemy for the advantage of King & Country.  Dr. No, the titular villain played by Joseph Wiseman, recognizes this unnerving trait and praises it, inviting the secret agent to join SPECTRE, the shadowy supercriminal organization that works to pit East & West against each other.  This seems to imply that Bond is, really, not too different from Dr. No at all, only that Bond chose the right friends and loyalties.  Yet perhaps this isn’t true.  The villain’s plot is to frustrate the U.S. space program, to disturb the balance of power, and if Bond were really as wicked as No, he would have taken advantage of the situation to create World War III, which could then be promptly won with Dr. No’s technology.  Instead, he becomes determined to blow the operation to smithereens, a gesture that denotes respect for both sides of the frigid conflict.

Bond’s similarity to Holmes is evident in the pursuit of the constant challenge.  But while Sherlock avoided women, James both hunts them and entraps them like a skilled playactor running through a familiar routine, similar to Sherlock’s routine of obtaining information from witnesses.  Holmes did what he did because of an obsession with information; Bond acts so because of an appreciation of beauty, that has run out of control.  And yet, like Holmes’ appreciation for his cases and even for the brilliance of the perpetrators, Bond truly cares for the good-hearted women he encounters, and in ‘Dr. No’ he goes to great lengths to save his main love interest, Honey Ryder, from the villain’s clutches.  This points once again to the probability that 007 is a self-aware sociopath, who, though he uses his emotional callousness to do his job, understands the importance of basic humanity when it really matters.

‘Dr. No’ establishes a long list of James Bond film traditions, such as having dinner with the villain, over-the-top technology, exotic locales, multiple femme fatales, a reluctant woman won over by James’ nobility, the Walther PPK, Felix Leiter, villains with physical deformities that turn out to be advantages, car chases in the hills, etc. etc. etc.

This is a must-see for fans of the spy and action genres.  It’s in the top ten of my favorite Bond movies, and it’s there to stay.

Buy It From Amazon: Dr. No (James Bond) [Blu-ray]

Shrek

Stars:  ★★★☆

Summary:  A fun, clever, doubly-subversive animated fairy tale.

Review:  I’m not a fan of the majority of DreamWorks Animation.  They tend to rely on pop culture familiarity, some adult humor, and a lack of strong, intelligent themes & plots.  I haven’t seen all of them — I’m willing to watch more in the hope of proving myself wrong — but the second major CGI film they produced, ‘Shrek’, remains my favorite thus far.

The film seems to have uneven tone at first glance, bobbing and weaving between a fairly adult, cynical and subversive story, and a message movie that is universally appealing, hopeful, and traditional of western cultures.  The titular protagonist perfectly embodies this narrative conflict (calling himself “an onion with layers”), which is what we call a smart move.  In the opening, he literally wipes himself with a page from an archetypical fairy story, but by the end he embraces it wholeheartedly.  This isn’t a standard subversion of fairy tales.  It is a subversion of subversions of fairy tales.  The main theme is appearances, accompanying assumptions, and the damage jumping to conclusions does to everyone… which is why the apparently wobbly tone is actually an integral part of the film.  It’s kind of interesting, actually, because the film’s ability to keep the audience on its toes is also shared by Disney’s 2003 film ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, which was also co-written by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio.  Hmm.

But perhaps the weakest part of ‘Shrek’ is the mild vulgar and sexual humor, which, even in this intentional blender of a film, seems mostly out of place.  This is not because it’s an animated movie, but because it fails to gel completely. This seems indicative of a broader problem with DreamWorks Animation, that is the assumption that animation is a children’s medium, and that for adults to enjoy an animated movie, there must be anachronistic cultural references and humor that adults supposedly like.  Ironically, it just makes Shrek unfortunately more juvenile and restricts the potential audience somewhat.  Contrast this with Pixar, which for the most part has focused on making damn good movies that rely on the appeal of their usually strong premises and are thick with fantastic characters the spawn more of their own memes than they reference others.  This is because Pixar understands that animation is a tool, not a genre, and that people are attracted to stories that stand on their own.

The most engaging aspect, the hook, of ‘Shrek’ is the great chemistry that Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy and John Lithgow have with each other.  In the hands of lesser voice actors, the story might have failed.  The most enduring humor, in my opinion, comes from their interactions.

‘Shrek’ is essentially ‘The Princess Bride’ for my generation, but I don’t believe it will, in twenty years, be nearly as enduring at that movie.

Classic Review: Groundhog Day

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A film that transcends its genre with a brilliant exploration of its premise.

Review: What if you had to relive the most boring, frustratingly stupid day of your life over and over again, with no hope of escape?  It’s a bloody clever little premise for a movie, isn’t it?  And, in all sincerity, thank God that it was translated well into the legendary ‘Groundhog Day’.  The movie pushes every successful romantic dramedy button correctly.  What makes the genre so popular in the first place is that, unlike the more escapistic fantasies that dominate the American box office, the films try to provide extensive touchstones for the life of the typical audience.  Because of this, a romantic dramedy is never a film out of time and place.  An ’80s film of this type is quite different from one in the ’10s.  ‘Groundhog Day’ marries this “average American life” conceit with a fantasy concept too good to pass up, because of the inherent conflict and the familiar nightmare of mediocrity that afflicts so many of us at many points in our lives.  With this addition, ‘Groundhog Day’ becomes more universal, a classic that transcends time and place.  Romance, laughs and self-discovery are common to the genre; the interweaving of some serious religion and philosophy is rare indeed.

At the outset, Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, represents us at the moment before a moral revelation, when we are blissfully ignorant and arrogant.  Even after going into the time loop, he stubbornly refuses to recognize what kind of person he is, seeking every wrong choice possible in each go through The Day.  When his attempt at therapeutic hedonism fails, he falls into despair and experiences the sort of inevitable breakdown every self-absorbed person has eventually; suicidal self-loathing.  But Phil can’t die, and whatever sticky situation he finds himself in at the end of the day is wiped clean when he wakes up again.  Eventually he realizes that he just wasn’t trying the right kind of crucifixion.  The only way for Phil to exist is in selfless, generous, joyful living.

I don’t really think of ‘Groundhog Day’ as a comedy, even though it contains great comedic elements.  It’s not a film I watch very often, simply because it’s too good, like a rich Chocolate cake that is best consumed in a small dose.  There’s something surreal about it.

‘Groundhog Day’ is a great film.

Buy It From Amazon: Groundhog Day (15th Anniversary Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

James Cameron’s Avatar

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An amazingly well-done movie that suffers from a failure to take Socrates’ advice.

Review: I had previously written a somewhat negative review of this film after seeing it in 3D IMAX along with a sizable crowd. I did enjoy it, however. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to compare it to similar blockbusters and breakthroughs in filmmaking technique, as well as seeing it for the second time on a much smaller screen, I’ve come to a more complete and fairer conclusion. I’m still disappointed with it, but it’s not the two-star movie which I had initially recognized.  This is a remarkable work of art, but it could have been so much more.

‘Avatar’ is about the collision of two philosophies of life.  One, represented by the humans’ mining operation on Pandora, is the use of natural resources to feed an artificial, distant and mechanical kind of living, since Earth’s organic resources have apparently been wiped out (though it would have been more effective if they had shown us this wasted Earth).  The other, represented by the typically idyllic but sometimes savage and irrational Na’Vi aliens, is the integration of all forms of life into a kind of harmony guided by a superior, personal lifeform.

The story reveals very little faith in humanity, in direct contrast to Cameron’s previous ‘Terminator’ films, which presented the conclusion that humanity’s self-destructive tendencies were nevertheless canceled out by their potential for selflessness. The Na’Vi, to my disappointment, are not truly alien.  There is no study of ‘the Other’, which is unfortunate, as it is a way of encountering God.  Instead, the Na’Vi are superhuman.  They’re everything Cameron apparently wants us to be.  Athletic, beautiful, generally altruistic, feminine, but also in touch with a fierce animal side.  It’s a strange contradiction with Cameron’s brilliantly creative mind, since the Na’Vi are, quite simply, not ambitious.  They don’t show an appreciation for the idea of social evolution.  Cameron praises their refusal of the humans’ offers of technology, medicine, and education, yet these are all things that Cameron has personally invested himself and his resources in for the betterment of humanity. There is no betterment of the Na’Vi, only a keeping of the status quo, simple maintenance.  Ironically, this is kind of like a machine.  Eywa, the feminine deity of the Na’Vi religion, is a giant bio-mechanism in the form of a planet which shows admirable personality but not the desire for growth.  Machines, as of yet, don’t consciously reach out with curiosity to become better machines.  We do.  In doing so, we often resist control.  Eywa appears benevolent, but unlike a good human mother (like, say, Sarah Connor), ‘she’ merely keeps the cycle going, and there is no release of the Na’Vi into an independent adulthood.  It’s a nice, even beautiful cycle, but just like doing a Queen’s laundry in the Louvre, it’s going to become tedious eventually.

This is part of the inherent flaw of religions based solely on a deity’s will and/or a cyclical universe.  In Calvinist Christianity, since God has complete control over literally everything, there is no sanctioned stoking of independent desire and therefore, no social evolution, no betterment of humanity.  The best that Calvinism can ultimately offer is a cyclical heaven in which persons act like programs to fulfill a function.  In Buddhism and Hinduism, the universe is a cycle that repeats indefinitely, and the best escape offered in either, to my knowledge, is annihilation.

For all of James Cameron & Co’s amazing designs and well-told story beats, there is essentially no consideration of the complexities inherent in the opposing philosophies of the film.  The human bad guys are flat and unsympathetic.  The Na’Vi have a couple shades of complexity, but none of their flaws hamper them or are really considered flaws by the protagonist.  It’s true that ‘Avatar’ heavily relies on the concepts of the Noble Savage and nods to imperialistic atrocities, and what’s worse, they are again not explored in any depth.  This continual failure throughout the film’s long runtime to really explore the issues smacks of propaganda.  Perhaps in a rush to tell a successful morally simplistic tale like the original ’77 ‘Star Wars’, Cameron made the critical mistake of which morals to simplify.  ‘Star Wars’ was the noble rogues versus the oppressive, fascist state, a story as old as and older than Robin Hood.  It’s been mulled over, examined, rethought, and is pretty much universally acknowledged as being morally sound.  ‘Avatar’ pits unrealistically evil humans versus unrealistically good and superhuman aliens, a story as old as and maybe older than the 2000s, and an unwelcome addition, in my book.  Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being”. In a similar way, the unexamined idea is not worth having.

For all my complaints, it’s obvious that ‘Avatar’ was a labor of love for James Cameron and his massive team of artists, and they did make a pretty above average movie.  In fact, they made a very good one.  It’s a full 4-star movie, but it’s terribly terrible philosophy.

Moon

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary: Remarkable philosophical sci-fi from a great new director.

Positively cool.

Review: Newbie director Duncan ‘Zowie’ Jones — David Bowie’s son — has officially blown my mind.  The hard sci-fi awesomeness of the original ‘Solaris’, ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ has returned in the form of ‘Moon’, Jones’ debut film, starring Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, a man working on the titular orb that I’m sure we’re all familiar with.  Kevin Spacey supplies the voice of Gerty, the apparently friendly computer that runs the base and is Sam’s only companionship.  The details of the plot are directly tied to the surreality of the experience, so I’m afraid I can’t spoil it, though eventually it will suffer from ‘Planet of the Apes’ disease and have its great twists assimilated into common knowledge.

But ‘Moon’ really isn’t a movie about twists and turns. It’s really not a movie about science concepts, either, even though one familiar to modern audiences does appear.  It’s more about loneliness.  It’s about the tendency of human beings to divorce themselves from painful self-knowledge.  Sam Bell could never have taken his harrowing journey towards overcoming his demons had he been working amidst a community.  He, like the early Christian ascetics, found, unwittingly in this case, that in isolation there is a chance to explore the regions of heaven and hell within the human spirit.  This is not a permanent pursuit; even Sam Bell must eventually return to Earth.  The great danger for Sam Bell, as it was and is for all ascetics, is to become trapped in one’s hermitage, unable to overcome hell and trapped in a cycle of defeat.  The nirvana of Buddhism is nothingness; the nirvana of the Christian monk is everything and everyone, when viewed through the right eyes.  We are our worldview.

The music by Clint Mansell is a strong counterpoint to the music of Kubrick’s ‘2001’.  Clint Mansell creates a score of the moment, a piano-driven, eerie, unsettling atmosphere that centers on the individual.  The ‘2001’ soundtrack, with its many classical pieces from different sources, represents the whole of mankind and its evolution through encounters with the alien.  Clint Mansell’s ‘Moon’ is always introspective.  This provides an excellent contrast of the themes of each film.  ‘Moon’ is about the one small step for a man; ‘2001’ is about one giant leap for mankind.  In another sense, Clint Mansell’s score is ambient and uses electronic sounds to subtle effect, showing some similarity to Vangelis’ score for Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’.  Both films have something to do with the relationship between identity and technology.

All in all, ‘Moon’ is spectacular filmmaking.  It’s greatly moving and greatly creative.  Here’s hoping for more from Duncan Jones.

Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary: A solid but misdirected and mismarketed adventure that’s quite a lot of fun.

The movie's much more colorful and exciting than the marketing.

Review: ‘Prince of Persia’ is something of a cinematic oddity. It’s staunchly old-fashioned, but filmed and marketed in the modern gritty style of the ‘Clash of the Titans’ remake and ‘Quantum of Solace’. In truth, this is a script and a concept that deserved a Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis, Verbinski, or even a Del Toro at the helm. That’s not to say that director Mike Newell gets it completely wrong, but there is a noticeable disconnect between his approach and what the film should have been.

That said, it still succeeds remarkably well.  The tone it strikes is just right.  The cast obviously understands the material and hams it up accordingly.  Say what you will about the dubious decision to cast almost all Caucasian actors in a movie about ancient Persia, but it’s perfectly in line with the old adventure films that it tips its hat to.  This is a Republic serial, a B-movie, an ‘Indiana Jones’ or ‘Star Wars’.  It deals with horrific imagery and family unfriendly deaths in a similar manner to ‘Raiders’, remarkably not letting them detract from the broad appeal and sheer fun of it all.  It overdoes a few things, but so did ‘Temple of Doom’.  I think it’ll catch on.

The big weak points, to my taste, are the cinematography, which moves way too fast, and the score, which aside from referencing Maurice Jarre does nothing special or particularly memorable, which is a shame because it was composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, whose music for the ‘Narnia’ films was so memorable it became downright annoying.

The story is traditional.  It doesn’t try to create a unique twist on genre or expectation, because it already has enough of a task transforming the elements of the video games upon which the film is based into a solid cinematic narrative.  It would’ve been nice if it had enough freshness to breathe new life into its chosen genre, but sadly, it doesn’t succeed in this manner, while producer Bruckheimer’s ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ did. The marketing and the reputation of video game movies to suck didn’t do it any favors.

I enjoyed it.  Flat out.