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Archive for the ‘Action’ Category

In Old Chicago (1937)

In old chicagoDirected by Henry King

Chicago politics. The Chicago Fire of 1871. Close brothers who become rivals. With all of these elements, what could go wrong? A lot, actually. While there were some exciting scenes, In Old Chicago left much to be desired.

So what’s the story? The O’Leary brothers are polar opposites. Straight-arrow Jack is an attorney who always fights for the underdog. Charmingly roguish Dion runs a saloon, but he has bigger plans. He will use anyone and anything to get what he wants. Jack and Dion’s ideals will be tested for once and all on the night of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The Good: There was some good acting. Alice Brady stole the show as Mrs. O’Leary (yes, THAT Mrs. O’Leary). Don Ameche is strong as Jack, and Alice Faye makes a wonderful singer/saloon owner/woman in love with Dion. Dion’s character is a little inconsistent, but Tyrone Power does an excellent job with what he’s given.

The production design was impressive. There is a huge contrast in all the buildings, from the opulence of the saloons to the humble O’Leary home to the elegance of the Mayor’s office. It brought to life the different factions of Chicago society. Also, the streets were disgustingly muddy. Historical films don’t always remember to put in small details like that. I loved it.

I wasn’t going to be impressed with the actual fire scenes; it was 1937. How convincing could it be? That was a bad call on my part. The fire is amazing, possibly even better than the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind two years later. It was just…wow.

The Bad: While I acknowledge that several scenes take place in saloons and that the producers were trying to showcase Alice Faye’s famous voice, there were too many musical numbers. They slowed down the conniving and the action, and they weren’t particularly entertaining.

While In Old Chicago has a good story with lots of potential drama, the movie felt really shallow. The screenplay left the characters feeling flat and uninteresting, except for Dion. He has the opposite problem. His character changes at the drop of a hat. One minute he’s a rogue with a twinkle in his eye, the next he’s completely evil. Then suddenly, he remembers how much he loves his brother and is perfectly good. It’s just not believable.

The Ugly: Rape isn’t a joke, although they play attempted rape as funny twice. Forcing a girl to kiss you and then threatening to rape her will not get you a business partner or a loving wife. Not cool, 1937.

Oscars Won: Best actress in a supporting role (Alice Brady); best assistant director.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best writing, original story; best sound, recording; best music, score.

The Deer Hunter (1978)

the-deer-hunterThe Deer Hunter
Directed by Michael Cimino

I knew The Deer Hunter was about Vietnam; I didn’t know that it was going to hurt my heart so badly.

So what’s the story? Mike, Steve, Nick, John, Stan, and Axel are a group of regular guys. They celebrate together, drink together, hang out together, hunt together. But then Mike, Nick, and Steve sign up to go fight in Vietnam. Their decision will change everyone’s lives forever.

The Good: In order to hurt the audience so much, the screenplay and actors first had to make us care about this group of very normal friends from a small town in Pennsylvania. Steve’s wedding is the setting to showcase the personalities of this diverse group. Mike (Robert De Niro) is slightly more mature than his friends. He takes things that he cares about very seriously. Nick (Christopher Walken) cares deeply about his friends and his girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep). Steven (John Savage) is so in love and so excited to marry Angela (Rutanya Alda) that he is willing to ignore the opinions that his Russian mother has about his fiance. Stan (John Cazale) is a ladies man who can’t understand anyone else’s point of view. John (George Dzundza) sings in the church choir, runs his bar, and is generally content with his life. He takes it upon himself to be the general peacemaker in the group and feels bad that his bad knees prevent him from going to Vietnam with his friends. Axel (Chuck Aspegren) is a good-hearted goofball who only seems to know one phrase. This extended setup not only makes us care, but it makes it hurt so much more when Mike, Steve, and Nick change so much, which the actors portray so heart-breakingly well. There is more that I want to say about the acting and the screenplay, but I’m trying so hard not to spoil anything for anyone. I will say this: some of the changes that people go through are more subtle than others; Christopher Walken does a ridiculously incredible job as Nick; I was glad that The Deer Hunter only showed some of the Vietnam War, because then you were able to feel the atrocities of war without being overwhelmed by them; and if you watch closely, the story mirrors itself, allowing the viewers to see people’s different reactions to the same or similar events. (If you’ve seen it and want to discuss it with me in the comments, be sure to label it if you put in spoilers.)

The music is beautiful and unobtrusive. The soundtrack is more classical than other soundtracks from 1978; no wailing saxophones here. The use of classical and popular music is managed very well. The chosen songs fit the moment they are in exactly. Stanley Meyers’s original theme, “Cavatina (Theme from The Deer Hunter)”, is fabulous, played quietly by guitarist John Williams (no, not THAT John Williams). It is iconic, one of those pieces that will always be associated with this movie. When I write these reviews, I usually like to listen to the soundtrack of the film I’m reviewing, but listening to “Cavatina” breaks my heart all over again, so I had to listen to other instrumental music so that I wasn’t too sad to write.

The editing was brutally disorienting at times. One moment the gang is all happy at home, and the next, Mike is fighting for his life in Vietnam. These cuts happen throughout the movie, and they can be disconcerting because we have no idea how we got there or what happened between the scenes. But life feels that way sometimes when we suddenly look around and realize where we are in life and then wonder how we got there. It’s also how we tell stories to people. No one ever says, “The ground starting shaking, and so I got in my car and drove down Main and then I turned right onto Elm and left onto High Street, went straight for two miles, and then I saw a monster rising out of the ground!” We leave out things that are not pertinent to the story. That’s why this editing works for this movie; it’s a story about everyday people, and the editing reflects that.

The Bad: Mike was a little too mature and heroic to be believable as a person. He’s too close to perfection for my liking.

The Ugly: Scenes of war will always be ugly and brutal and sad, which is why I’m glad The Deer Hunter acknowledges that no one is unaffected by war, and why I am also glad that the filmmakers were somewhat restrained in how much actual brutality they put into this movie.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (Christopher Walken); best director; best sound; best film editing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best actor in a leading role (Robert De Niro); best actress in a supporting role (Meryl Streep); best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen; best cinematography.

Django Unchained (2012)

django unchainedDirected by Quentin Tarantino

 When I first decided to watch all of the best picture-nominated movies, I wasn’t planning on blogging about them. I wasn’t watching them in any order at all; I would just watch what I felt like or had access to. Since Django Unchained streams on Netflix, it was easy to get, so I watched it probably about a year ago. I hated it. I’m not a big fan of violence, but Quentin Tarantino obviously is. (Yes, this is the first Tarantino film I’ve seen.) I can understand why some people would find the movie funny, but it’s not my kind of humor. I was so glad that I had watched it and could check it off my list. But then I realized that if I were going to write a fair review of a movie, I would have had to have seen it recently. So I reluctantly watched it again this week. I still don’t like it, but I can admit that there elements of the film that are excellent.

So what’s the story? German bounty hunter King Schultz needs the help of the slave Django to find three men he’s hunting. Django turns out to be remarkably good at killing white men for money, so Schultz teaches Django all the skills he will need to be a bounty hunter himself. When he has learned enough, Django and Schultz go to the plantation Candyland to rescue Django’s wife from the clutches of the evil Calvin Candie.

The Good: I have never said this of any movie, and I will probably never say it again, but the cinematography was fun. I didn’t realize fun cinematography was even a possibility until I saw Django Unchained. I can’t exactly put my finger on what makes it fun, but the camera angles are jaunty and the cinematographer uses stereotypical camera work in unconventional ways. Even if I didn’t particularly care for what was being filmed, it was filmed creatively.

Christoph Waltz gave an excellent performance as King Schultz, who was a deeply ethical con artist and bounty hunter who only used his skills to rid the world of evil people. He’s an interesting character, and Waltz portrayed him wonderfully. Leonardo DiCaprio, who is not always my favorite, does do a very good job at playing King Shultz’s opposite: a completely villainous wealthy man who cares only about himself and his property. There’s no subtlety here; he’s just completely bad. DiCaprio does it well. I didn’t even recognize Samuel L. Jackson in his role as Stephen, an obsequious slave who is as proud of Candyland as Calvin Candie himself. He did a good job.

Django Unchained kind of reminds me of The Princess Bride (1987), not in the plot or the acting or the subject matter, but  the way that it makes fun of a genre while being a movie of that genre itself. I attribute that to the screenplay. Even though it’s not my style of humor, I did laugh at the scene with the men in hoods. There was witty banter and good dialogue throughout. It was a good screenplay, even if it wasn’t my style.

The Bad: I initially liked Jamie Foxx in the role of Django, but as the movie goes on, the role gets cockier, but Jamie Foxx doesn’t. He’s a little bit too quiet for the role, I think.

At the very beginning of the movie, words appear on the screen: “1858: Two years before the Civil War”. This bothered me soooo much. The American Civil War started in 1861, not 1860. There must be a reason that Tarantino decided to put that wrong information up, but I don’t know what it is. I also don’t know why Django’s wife is named Broomhilda, when the actual name is Brunhilda (or Brunhilde, if you want to be even more German about it). I can’t handle when people get little details wrong. Again, I’m sure Tarantino did that on purpose, but I was just annoyed.

The Ugly: I hate violence, especially when it’s violence for violence’s sake. Django Unchained has tons of over-the-top graphically bloody violence. Sometimes it’s even played for laughs. It never made me laugh, and the sprays of blood and guts everywhere were overdone. I know, I know, that’s a Quentin Tarantino thing, but it’s not my thing, and I don’t think it’s necessary.

Oscars Won: Best performance by an actor in a supporting role (Christoph Waltz); best writing, original screenplay.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best achievement in cinematography; best achievement in sound editing.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

The_Fellowship_Of_The_RingDirected by Peter Jackson

Although I usually plan out which movies I’m going to watch a couple of weeks in advance, I don’t always. I found myself this week with a couple different years’ worth of movies out from the library; I had choices. I was kind of leaning toward 1997, but I realized on Saturday night that I really wanted to watch Gosford Park. I hesitated, though, because I also knew that that meant I would have to watch another Lord of the Rings movie. I had seen this one before (twice, even), but I had disliked Peter Jackson’s interpretation enough that I didn’t want to see the rest of the movies. My desire to watch Gosford Park overcame my negativity about Fellowship, so here I am trying to write unbiasedly about another movie that is apparently universally beloved, but I don’t quite get why.

So what’s the story? Frodo Baggins, an Hobbit living in the idyllic Shire, discovers that a family heirloom is actually a dangerous artifact belonging to an ancient evil sorcerer. Frodo sets out on a journey with his friends to destroy the ring and save the world.

The Good: The production design is fantastic. There are many different races in Middle Earth, and the design gives each race their own look for everything, from clothing to dwellings. It’s all done very well, very beautifully. I don’t necessarily agree with all their decisions, but I still admire the look of the film.

Howard Shore’s music is beautiful. It captures everything from the naiveté and joy of the Shire to the heroism of Aragorn to the eerie beauty of the Mines of Moria. I may not care much for the movie in general, but I do love the music.

Ian McKellen does some seriously good acting as Gandalf, the wizard who sets the events in motion. The moment where Frodo volunteers to take the ring and Gandalf’s face falls…just beautiful. Gandalf is many things – jolly firework-maker, stern counselor, frightened man betrayed by his master. Ian McKellen shows all of those facets very convincingly. Sean Astin is the other acting standout. He plays Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s gardener and faithful friend. He isn’t glad to leave the Shire, but he refuses to abandon Frodo, no matter how dark the journey gets or how scared he is. It’s fabulous work.

The Bad: The Elves all talk like Jareth the Goblin King (aka David Bowie) from Labyrinth. I think they’re supposed to be showing how wise and calm they are, but because they also kind of look like Jareth, especially Elrond, it’s kind of distracting.

I wasn’t a big fan of how much time was spent on Aragorn and Arwen’s love story. I felt like there were other things that must have been cut to explore that at length. Boromir, for example, didn’t get much backstory, only a line or two about how his people are already fighting for survival. This lack of development made it hard to see him as anything but a bad guy, when he was really a proud, desperate Man who wanted to save his city and his people.

Some of the acting in Fellowship of the Ring is good; some is indifferent. But some is downright bad. Elijah Wood never showed much emotion as Frodo; he was just kind of….there. Orlando Bloom was just as wooden as Legolas. He looked nice, but luckily he didn’t have much to do beyond yelling out dangers (“Wargs!” “Orcs!”) in a noble voice.

The Ugly: There were a couple of glaring plot holes and inconsistencies. (Possible spoilers here, although I feel like everyone in the world has seen this movie, so…) For example, if the chain Frodo was wearing the ring on fell off his neck when he stumbled and fell on the mountain, how in the world did it stay on when the lake hydra-creature had him by the ankle and was waving him back and forth in the air? The ring should have been lost in the lake. And why did Pippin and Merry go to Bree and beyond with Frodo and Sam? They had no reason to. And why did Elrond let them go as part of the Fellowship? They had no training in any kind of weapons, no survival skills, nothing. They would really be more of a hindrance than an asset. And why did the Hobbits trust Strider in the first place? He gave them no sign, no reason for them to trust him. It really bugged me. How did Strider know to have four Hobbit-sized swords ready? Pippin and Merry were impulsive last-minute additions. Grrrr.

Oscars Won: Best cinematography; best makeup; best music, original score; best effects, visual effects.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (Ian McKellen); best director; best writing, screenplay based on material previously produced or published; best art direction-set decoration; best costume design; best film editing; best music, original song (“May It Be”); best sound.

The part where I get to whine about how different the movie is from the book: Actually, The Fellowship of the Ring follows the book much more closely than The Two Towers does. Things are left out, and Glorfindel is sacrificed to give Arwen more screen time, but at least there is no Aragorn-goes-over-a-cliff-but-is-saved-by-his-horse moment. I wasn’t a big fan of changing Arwen so much, but the lack of female characters in the trilogy could be a concern for this day and age, so it’s kind of understandable. I also don’t like that Tom Bombadil was left out. He himself is perhaps not important to the story, but the Hobbits did need to stumble into the Barrow-Wights to find the swords that can break the spell on the Ringwraiths, and Tom saves them from the Wights. I haven’t seen The Return of the King, so I can’t say how Peter Jackson overcomes that important plot point, but it should have been set up in this movie.

Deliverance (1972)

deliverance_posterDirected by John Boorman

I don’t know a lot about most of the Oscar-nominated movies from the 70s and 80s. I was raised on movies from the 30s through the 60s; I became at least semi-aware of the movies in the early 90s. But the 70s and 80s are just kind of a big, unexplored wilderness to me. Sometimes that’s a good thing; it means that I don’t have any preconceived ideas about the movies. But sometimes it means I get a nasty shock when something traumatic happens that I am not at all prepared for. That’s what happened to me with Deliverance, and that is why there will be a couple spoilers in this post. Normally I hate spoilers, and I try very hard to keep my posts spoiler-free, but I really wish someone had spoiled certain points about Deliverance for me.

So what’s the story? A dam is about to be built on a river in Georgia, so four friends decide to go canoeing down the river before the natural beauty of the area is destroyed. Although they are prepared for the dangers of nature, they aren’t ready for the dangerous men they will encounter.

The Good: The men who play the four friends do a phenomenal job. Burt Reynolds plays Lewis, the tough outdoor man who convinces everyone else to go on the trip. John Voight is his best buddy Ed. Gentle, music-loving Drew is played by Ronny Cox. Ned Beatty perfectly captures the cocky braggart Bobby. All four actors were terrific. I think the best scene was right after the tragedy when all four are reacting to it and trying to make a decision. Their personalities really shone through.

The cinematography was beautiful. Beautiful scenery makes gorgeous cinematography easier, so they definitely had a leg up when filming this movie, but the scenery wasn’t all there was to the cinematography. There were interesting and clever shooting angles. It was really cool.

The Bad: There were a couple of times in the movie that I had to rewind and watch very, very carefully to figure out what had just happened because it wasn’t clear.

Also, this movie has an awesome scene with the song “Dueling Banjos,” but because this movie left such a bad impression on me overall, I don’t think I will ever be able to listen to that happy song without thinking of this horrifying movie.

The Ugly: Okay, here’s the spoiler. If you don’t like spoilers, skip this section. If you read my blog regularly, you know that I’m not a huge fan of violence. Deliverance has one of the most horribly violent scenes I have ever seen. A man gets raped by another man. It was a terribly uncomfortable scene to watch, and the sick feeling it gave me made it hard to concentrate on the rest of the movie. I just can’t handle stuff like that, and not knowing that it was going to happen made it so much worse. I know not everyone is as sensitive to violence as I am, so it might not bother you, but it really bothered me. So there is my public service announcement about Deliverance.

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best film editing.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

raidersDirected by Steven Spielberg

When I was little, I was seriously confused by this movie’s title. For a long time, I thought it was Raiders of the Lost Dark, and I could never figure out how the dark got lost. When I finally figured out it was Raiders of the Lost Ark, I was still confused. There was not a single reference to Noah in the entire movie. That didn’t keep me from liking the movie; I just ignored the confusing title and went along for the ride. And what a ride it is. Raiders of the Lost Ark remains one of the most purely fun movies I have ever seen, even though now it appears to have a new title: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

So what’s the story? Dr. Indiana Jones, a professor of archaeology, is approached by two United States government officials. It seems that the Nazis are looking for the Ark of the Covenant because they believe it has mystical powers. Jones’s old mentor, Abner Ravenwood, is the world’s foremost expert on the Ark, but no one can locate him. Jones is tasked with finding first Ravenwood and then the Ark so that the Ark will be kept out of Nazi hands.

The Good: The thing that really sticks out for me in this movie is the pacing, which is kind of an odd thing to notice first off. But there is never a dull moment. It jumps from action scene to action scene. Even when there is a break from actual action, the scenes aren’t dull. The screenplay is fun enough and light enough to make even the longest talking scenes entertaining. It also means you can’t look away; you’ll miss something important if you do.

The characters in Raiders of the Lost Ark are very well-written, well-rounded characters. Marion Ravenwood is one of the best action movie heroines ever, I think. She never stands around and waits to be rescued. If there is danger, she always jumps in and gives as good as she gets. Yes, sometimes she does end up having to be rescued, but she only gets rescued after she’s done everything she possibly can to get out of the situation herself. She’s kind of an anomaly, not just for action movies, but for movies in general. Karen Allen played her perfectly. Indiana Jones is also a good character. He may be a terrible archaeologist since he is willing to destroy ancient temples to get the artifacts that he wants, but he’s still a good character. He can use a whip and shoot a gun and ride a horse and all those other things that good action heroes can do, but he’s also smart and not invincible. He gets hurt more than once. He would have completely lost that fight against the bald muscular German mechanic if not for the airplane propeller. I like that. What can I say? I’m a fan of imperfect main characters. Harrison Ford was a fabulous choice for the part.

I found myself admiring the production design that had been done for this movie. The designers not only had to make the audience believe that the action was taking place in the 1930s, but in various countries in the 1930s. It was really well done. Everything from the cars to the clothes to the buildings added up to a convincing 1930s.

John Williams wrote an amazing score for Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s kind of dramatic, but so is the movie. The music underscores the action at the right moments and helps convey emotion. It’s very good, and it’s held up well. It’s as much fun to listen to now as it was thirty years ago.

The Bad: The action moves quickly, which prevents the viewer from asking too many questions. But something has always bothered me: how does Indiana Jones survive on the outside of a submarine that submerges? I know he’s pretty awesome, but I don’t think he can hold his breath that long. There might be other plot holes, too, but the awesomeness of the movie prevents me from thinking too hard about them.

The Ugly: If you don’t like spiders or snakes, beware. Raiders of the Lost Ark has plenty of both. It also has some graphic violence and special effects which hold up amazingly well. When I was a little girl, my parents would always tell me to close my eyes at certain parts so I wouldn’t get scared. As I grew up, I would close my eyes at those points out of habit. I don’t think I had seen the whole movie until I watched it this week. Sure enough, it is not much fun to watch faces melt and heads explode. (Honestly, though, it’s not the most violent or the worst violence I’ve seen in a movie; it’s not even the worst I’ve seen in the Oscar nominees. But I had to find something to put in The Ugly.)

Oscars Won: Best art direction-set direction; best sound; best film editing; best effects, visual effects.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best cinematography; best music, original score.

Other Oscar Won: Special achievement award to Ben Burtt and Richard L. Anderson for sound effects editing.