Category Archives: Movie Monday

Movie Monday: The Avengers

I’ve been collecting Marvel Comics since I was twelve years old. One of the things that has kept me interested is the fact that all of these characters live in the same world. The fact that Spider-Man can go to the Baxter Building, hang out with the Fantastic Four who have end up having a run in with Magneto only to get some last minute help from Wolverine is pretty cool. Shared universes rock. And pretty much the only place I got to experience a shared universe was between the pages of comic books. Until now.

The Avengers is an important movie for a lot of reasons, but the biggest one to me is that it shows how successful a shared universe can be. I’m sure that the Avengers would be successful without any other movies leading up to it. With a great cast, a giant marketing campaign, and a writer/director with a huge cult following, it would be difficult for it not to be successful. However, by putting in the time to building the universe with five previous movies, Marvel Studios created something that’s never been done in movie history. And they broke all previous box office records doing it.

Unfortunately, Marvel has licensed out many of their properties such as Spider-Man and the X-Men. So you won’t see Wolverine hanging out with Iron Man any time soon. If I were Sony or Fox, I’d be talking to Marvel/Disney and seeing if I couldn’t integrate any future movies I made just a bit more. This can only help and fan boys will love it. It’s a philosophy that most companies can’t understand and won’t agree to: play nice and we all make money.

Now as for the Avengers movie itself, it’s a well-oiled machine. It’s a smart, character-driven, super-action, comic book movie. Every character gets their moment to shine. The people who just showed up for the big explosions will be just as happy as the people who showed up for snappy dialog. This is the movie Michael Bay could never make.

For Joss Whedon fans the fact that the movie works on all levels is no surprise. They’ve followed him from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Angel to Firefly to Serenity to Dr. Horrible to House in the Woods to the Avengers. Many fans of Joss will talk about the fact that he’s just as much fan boy as a big time writer/director. He is one of us. And that’s true in a lot of ways. Joss Whedon is more capable than just about any other writer/director working of giving us exactly what we want.

It’s amazing to me that he’s only just now getting big budget movies to play with because Joss Whedon while being tremendously talented to the point where I’m happy to read or watch whatever he’s writing also tends to be tremendously safe. He will make (and I’d argue has made) the ultimate summer popcorn movie. But he doesn’t often do anything that challenges expectations.

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely loved Avengers. It’s the movie I’ve wanted to see since I was twelve. There’s almost nothing wrong with it. If I were grading it, I’d give it an easy four stars. I can’t give it five though because it didn’t surprise me.

– Jack Cameron

Movie Monday: The Descendants

If George Clooney is in it, I’ll watch it. He’s like Harrison Ford. He may frequently play himself, but he tends to be fun to watch. He’s not always in the best movies, but when he’s good, he’s very good. He got an Oscar Nomination for The Descendants so I decided to check it out.

In The Descendants, Matt King (George Clooney) has a wife who was in an accident. Now she’s in a coma and not really expected to come out of it. Matt has been a real estate lawyer all of his life and not spent much time with his two daughters who are seventeen and ten. So he’s juggling his kids who he doesn’t actually know very well with a dying wife and a gigantic real estate deal that means everything to his extended family. Oh and to top it all off, it turns out his wife was cheating on him. I would normally consider this a spoiler but since it’s the focus of just about every trailer I saw for the movie, I think the cat’s out of the bag on that one.

The movie was shot entirely in Hawaii. Early on, Clooney says something about how his friends on the mainland think he lives in paradise and then he goes on to explain how it’s just like anywhere else. While it’s true that his story is the sort that could happen anywhere, the filmmaking does little to dissuade you from the fact that Hawaii is a very beautiful place. In fact there are some of the most beautiful shots I’ve ever seen of Hawaii in The Descendants.

There’s a trick to storytelling where you get the audience to care about the characters. There’s no one thing that works to do this. If your character is nice to other people or animals, that can help. If it’s a movie, sometimes all you need is the right actor. George Clooney is one of those actors. Even when he played Seth Gecko in From Dusk Til Dawn we were with him because he has that charm and he was kind of a bad ass. In the Descendants George Clooney plays the Anti-Clooney. He has no charisma and almost no charm. He manages to do something I haven’t seen him do since he played Batman; He made me not care about his character.

As Matt King and his family go around basically dealing with and cleaning up the mess his wife made of their marriage and their lives, it just didn’t matter too much to me what happened because at the end of the day, his character was still going to be fabulously wealthy and still going to have his daughters. The rest of it just didn’t matter.

This movie also has not one but two red flags for me. One is voice-over narration. I hate narration on a level that’s probably not appropriate. Sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes it’s even good. But  most often it’s because the filmmaker is unsure how to get information across through storytelling so he just puts the exposition in the narration. It’s lazy and often insulting to the audience. The other red flag is the movie was filmed in a beautiful spot. If it’s not a big action movie, then basically the actors are getting paid to hang out in Hawaii or wherever while they film the movie. And if an actor is unsure of a script, the fact that they have to spend a month or two in the islands can usually make that decision a little easier. It also frequently results in a bad movie.

It probably sounds like I hated the movie. That’s not true. It was enjoyable enough. Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller are great as Matt King’s daughters. They’re fun to watch and feel like sisters. Nick Krause somehow channels a teenage Keanu Reeves for comedic effect as the older daughter’s boyfriend, Sid. There are also a couple of wonderful scenes with Robert Forster. So yeah, if you’ve got nothing better to do and you want to watch a movie, The Descendants isn’t a bad choice if you’ve never seen it before. But the first question I always ask myself after I finish watching a movie is if I’ll ever watch it again and when I did that with The Descendants, the answer was ‘No.’

– Jack Cameron

Movie Monday: The Bourne Identity

I recently watched The Bourne Identity again. At this point, The Bourne Identity is a modern day action classic. It’s spawned three sequels so far, the latest of which is coming out this summer. It’s become the action franchise that up and coming action movies like to compare themselves to.

Of course no one knew that was going to happen in 2002 when The Bourne Identity was made. Director Doug Liman had only ever done indie movies like Go and Swingers. He’d never worked with this kind of movie or this kind of budget. In the DVD commentary he talks about casting parts by saying things like “How about we get someone like Chris Cooper?” His casting director would respond with, “Well, let’s ask Chris Cooper.”  It was entirely foreign to him that he could get or afford A-list talent.

Matt Damon was less of an unknown but no less unfamiliar with being the lead in an action movie. Like Liman, much of Damon’s career had been independent movies. He’d done some big name stuff after he put himself on the map with Good Will Hunting. He was even in Spielberg’s WWII epic, Saving Private Ryan. But this was something different.

One of the things that sets The Bourne Identity apart from other action movies is that the plot focuses on the character of Jason Bourne. Many if not most action movies consist of ‘Here are one set of guys, they want Thing A. Here’s another set of guys, they want to stop them from getting Thing A. Commence fighting for one and a half hours.’ With Bourne, you have a character who starts the movie literally not knowing who he is. As he discovers who he is, the audience discovers along with him.

The people who are after him aren’t so much bad guys as they are controllers who have lost control. It’s Apollo 13 where the spaceship is a highly trained covert operative. And it’s because of this that having people with a background in independent movies works. When you’re working in independent film, you don’t have money for a lot of big special effects. All you have that can save you is solid acting, solid production, and solid screenwriting. In other words, you have to focus on character.

While the action sequences in The Bourne Identity are top notch, the thing that makes it work is that we get to know the characters. Franka Potente’s character of Marie could easily been a one dimensional love interest. Instead, we get to know who she is and we get to care about her. When we meet a guy from her past named Eamon, we can tell from how he interacts with her that she’s always finding her way into trouble and at the same time, he can’t resist helping her.

None of this would work without Tony Gilroy’s top notch screenplay. Making a thinking man’s action movie isn’t easy and yet, Gilroy’s work is so smooth it’s almost invisible.

I’ve probably watched The Bourne Identity a dozen times and I’ll likely watch it a dozen times more. Its status as a modern classic is justified.

–          Jack Cameron

Movie Monday: Beginners

I knew absolutely nothing about Beginners except that it had Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer in it and that Plummer won an Oscar for it. I put it in my Netflix queue because after Plummer won I heard someone say, “I hope this makes more people see Beginners.”

I think at this point, there needs to be a new genre called ‘Dead Parent Rom/Com’. With Garden State it was a dead mom. With Elizabethtown it was a dead dad. With Beginners it’s a dead gay dad. All of them seem to follow a fairly familiar pattern. Parent dies, adult son deals with the aftermath, meets beautiful woman, falls in love, has problems, but works it out amidst the backdrop of quirky friends and occasionally odd local customs. It should be noted that while this sounds like a formula, my understanding is that each of the movies mentioned above were labors of love for the filmmakers involved and that I don’t think any of them were ripping each other off. It should also be noted that none of this makes them bad movies.

Beginners starts after Oliver’s father has died. It then jumps back and forth through time showing the months leading up to his father’s death and occasionally flashing back to his childhood. Ewan McGregor plays Oliver with a quiet sadness that works for his character. Early on the in the film there is very little dialog and yet he manages to convey exactly how he’s feeling. This is the sort of thing good actors don’t get enough credit for. We often remember great lines but great silences are just as important.

Christopher Plummer’s Oscar winning performance as Oliver’s father, Hal is incredibly authentic. Hal stayed married for 44 years until his wife died. The entire time he knew he was gay. The curiosity with which he discovers things is fun. There’s a scene where he comes back from a gay nightclub and calls his son in the middle of the night to ask what they call the sort of music they play in places like that. Oliver says, “House music?” and Hal diligently writes it down. It’s a small scene that implies a lot and that’s really all you want in a flashback.

Mélanie Laurent plays Oliver’s new love interest, Anna. She and Oliver soon discover that they both have a history of leaving relationships. They also notice that they like each other far more than they’d each prefer. For whatever reason, I couldn’t really get into her character. I’m not sure if this was the fault of the writing or the acting, but I just found her to be there because Oliver needed a girlfriend. It’s the one part of the movie that just didn’t quite gel for me.

The most charming thing about Beginners is writer/director Mike Mills’ playful directing style. His sudden stock photo montages even when regarding things like cancer work well to lighten the mood along with Arthur the dog’s subtitles.

As Dead Parent Rom/Coms go, Beginners is a good one. I like it just fine. Though I must admit I like Elizabethtown better.

– Jack Cameron

Movie Monday: Wonder Boys

There are a handful of movies I watch at least once a year. I’ve seen each of them many times and enjoy each viewing. In many cases it’s like relaxing with a favorite drink. Wonder Boys is one of those movies. Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel about a one hit wonder novelist turned writing professor whose life is falling apart is very comfortable for me. That may say more about me than the movie, but I’ll try to fix that in the rest of this review.

I think you probably get more out of Wonder Boys if you’re a writer, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Michael Douglas who typically plays super-rich and powerful characters is strangely perfect as the disheveled Grady Tripp. It’s expected that he’s a good guy having lots of bad things happen to him but as the story unfolds, you realize every one of his problems is entirely of his own making.

Before the movie even starts his wife has left him. His editor is coming in from out of town to look at his second book that is a few years late. He’s having an affair with his boss’ wife. And his best student is either going to become a best selling writer or possibly kill himself. We learn all of these things are already happening and then things start to get worse for him.

It sounds depressing but it really isn’t. It helps that his editor is a bisexual hedonist played by Robert Downey Jr. and the moody student writer is played by Tobey Maguire. In fact, the cast in this movie is one of the best I can think of. Katie Holmes plays a student tenant of Grady’s who’d like nothing more than to sleep with him. (There’s a scene where she’s laying in bed reading his manuscript that’s probably far sexier to writers than it would be to other people.) Rip Torn has a bit part as a pompous best-selling writer. He’s sort of the anti-Grady. Frances McDormand is the woman Grady is having an affair with. She’s one of those actresses who never gets enough roles. She’s a character actress who tends to disappear into her character.

The humor throughout the movie is what makes the whole thing work. It would be a dark, depressing affair without it. Instead, it’s a movie full of hilarious moments amongst all of the chaos. Also, no review of this movie would be complete without a mention of the fantastic soundtrack that includes Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and John Lennon. On a rainy morning with nothing to do, some people like to put on The Big Lebowski (a fine movie in its own right). I put on Wonder Boys.

– Jack Cameron

Movie Monday: Game Change

Sarah Palin. There are few names more divisive than hers. Four years ago when she was plucked from obscurity literally from the wilds of Alaska, few people knew who she was. The new HBO movie Game Change is about how that moment happened and everything that happened after that.

Game Change is an impressive movie. It would have been easy to paint the McCain/Palin campaign as a bunch of morons who made mistake after mistake and basically do the whole thing as an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. Instead, they portray an incredibly balanced narrative about a presidential campaign in trouble and the methods they used to give the campaign the shot in the arm it needed.

It’s difficult to portray real people who are still alive and in the public spotlight. Julianne Moore manages to play Sarah Palin as a real person in extraordinary circumstances and does it all without falling into cliché or caricature. Ed Harris seems to disappear into the role of John McCain. The only time you notice it’s Ed Harris is when you hear his unmistakable voice. He plays McCain as an American hero really trying to do what ‘s best for the country while also winning an election. Much like real life, these two rarely share the screen together. Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of campaign strategist Steve Schmidt is easy to overlook but shouldn’t be. In many ways, his character carries the movie and symbolizes the momentum and drive of the campaign.

Before Sarah Palin, John McCain was losing. He was too old. He wasn’t popular with women. He didn’t have the charisma that Obama had. What he had was a long distinguished career was a politician and war hero. Sarah Palin was the exact opposite. She was a charismatic, female, with almost no experience and no real knowledge. She was flash. He was substance. On paper, I can see how it looked like a good idea and Game Change makes that clear.

Game Change also makes it clear that Sarah Palin simply had no idea what she was getting herself into. This was because she was a bit naïve and a bit stupid. Her folksy charm won over millions at the Republican National Convention. We’d seen this sort of down home charm in both Bush presidencies and there’s a good portion of America who are comforted by it.

Unfortunately, there was nothing behind the Sarah’s charm. She had no grasp of international politics and had difficulty understanding even the simplest of policies. Game Change shows how McCain’s people try to teach her but it’s impossible for her to listen because the entire time she’s being told by the people how much they love her. She thinks she doesn’t need to change because people love her. Though she doesn’t say it, her actions say, “I don’t have to be smart. I’m pretty and they like me.”

Towards the end of Game Change, it becomes a bit of a monster movie in that you can tell McCain’s people are thinking, “My god! What have we created?” as Sarah Palin continues to go against campaign policies and blatantly lies about things when she doesn’t like them. Though the movie does a good job of giving us insight into the mechanics behind the failure of the McCain/Palin campaign, I still had a hard time feeling bad for the character of Sarah Palin. This may be due to my own political opinions. Then again, it may have something to do with Sarah just being the sort of person I don’t care for.

Game Change is a good movie and a cautionary tale. It would be much better if it were fictional. The idea that this actually happened is a bit disturbing. The even more disturbing part is that as the presidential race heats up again, things seem to be even crazier. I wonder what HBO will do with this in four years.

–          Jack Cameron

Movie Monday: Star Wars Machete Order

Welcome to Movie Monday. Every week I’m going to be writing about a movie I recently watched. It may be a movie I’ve never seen before. Or like this week, it may be movies I’ve seen literally hundreds of times.

Over the weekend I decided to watch the Start Wars movies with my son in what is being called ‘Machete Order’. Basically you watch A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back and then watch the second and third prequels before finishing off with Return of the Jedi. You don’t watch The Phantom Menace at all. You can read the original article about this here. Since you can (and should) read the article, I’ll try not to rehash what he’s already said about it. Instead I’m going to talk about this set of movies and my reaction to watching them in this order.

I watched the Special Edition versions because those are the ones I own. I have not yet been subjected to the Blu Ray blinking Ewoks and the like.

Episode IV: A New Hope

The original Star Wars movie remains one of the best made sci-fi action movies of all time. While George Lucas took much of the plot from other sources, no one had done a movie quite like this. Watching the first twenty minutes of it, I’m still surprised by the amount of screen time we get with non-humans. It’s a gutsy move to put two robots on your screen, one of whom only beeps and whistles and expect the audience to care about them.

A New Hope succeeds because of what one of my friends calls “perpetual peril”. Each new situation leads to a new more dangerous situation for our characters. It’s a difficult thing to pull off and the Star Wars movies do it again and again. For example, when our heroes are on the Death Star, they go from rescuing the Princess in the detention area to being trapped in the detention area to being trapped in a garbage pit to being trapped in a garbage pit that’s crushing them. It’s exciting no matter how many times you watch it.

Yes, some of the Special Edition stuff sucks. Greedo shoots first and the Jabba the Hutt scene (which I refer to as ‘the gratuitous Boba Fett scene’) are significantly annoying but what they did with Mos Eisley and some of the shots in the Death Star battle make up for that in my opinion.

Episode V: Empire Strikes Back

Anyone who is making a sequel needs to look at Empire. Empire hits every sequel button just right. We have the same cast of characters. They’ve grown and changed a little since last we saw them but not too much. We’re introduced to a few new characters. And perhaps most importantly, the characters are thrown into entirely new situations. The reason Empire Strikes Back works so well is that they don’t need to take time introducing the main characters. That means they can get straight into the plot.

This also means that when they do need to introduce a character, they can take their time. The introduction of Yoda is still one of my favorite Master/Apprentice sequences from any movie. This is the movie where we see Luke grow from a whiny teenager into a hero. And yet, he doesn’t do everything right. He’s still impulsive. Even after he knows Yoda is a Jedi Master, he still doesn’t listen.

The ending of Empire is one of the all time best cliffhangers. We get the revelation of Darth Vader. Everyone’s favorite scoundrel, Han Solo is captured and frozen. And really, the Rebel Alliance got their butts kicked throughout this movie. It’s not easy to take the absolute victory from the first movie and turn it into something minor, but they manage to do exactly that.

The Special Edition stuff in Empire isn’t annoying at all really. Suddenly Cloud City actually looks like a city. Before the Special Editions I would have said that like 50 people lived on Cloud City. Also, at least in the DVD set I have, the scream that had been added to Luke’s fall is thankfully gone.

Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Following Empire Strikes Back with Attack of the Clones works for a number of reasons. First, it delays the resolution of the cliffhanger. Second, now that we know who Darth Vader is, we’re actually interested in how he becomes Darth Vader.

The opening crawl does a good job of letting us know what’s going on. While we initially have no reason to care about Padme and the attempts on her life, once Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker enter the story, it suddenly matters. Anakin comes off as a bit of a dick throughout the movie. What’s interesting is that having just watched Luke for two movies, we can see that being a whiny, selfish, impulsive guy must run in the family.

One thing that gets overlooked in the prequels is Ewan McGregor’s fantastic performance of Obi-Wan Kenobi. I totally buy that his Obi-Wan eventually turns into Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan. And having already met Obi-Wan in the first two movies, it’s nice to see him in action in his younger days.

The only time Attack of the Clones suffers is when it starts getting into the politics of everything. In A New Hope, there was one mention of the Senate being dissolved and that was it. We don’t watch Star Wars to watch West Wing in Space. The rest of the time, it’s a reasonably fun movie.

The one problem with watching it in this order that I noticed is that when C-3PO says, “The Maker!” upon seeing Anakin, it’s a bit strange though it almost just sounds like one of 3PO’s random outbursts. It still doesn’t explain why Padme and Anakin basically steal C-3PO. Really, the existence of R2-D2 and C-3PO in the prequels is more a distraction than anything else. Their ‘comic relief’ isn’t very funny and in a universe full of droids, it’s weird that these two particular droids would stick around so much.

The final lightsaber battle is good with the exception of Yoda jumping around like Sonic the Hedgehog. Again we get Jedis getting involved in battles where they’re simply outmatched. The movie ends with the beginning of the Clone War. It’s not really a cliffhanger and it’s not nearly as good as the first two movies, but it works well in this placement.

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

I would argue that of all the Star Wars movies, I like the opening sequence of Revenge of the Sith the best. It’s one of the final battles of the Clone Wars. It succeeds in throwing us right into the middle of it and then putting our characters again into perpetual peril. Once they get on board the ship it’s just one perilous situation after another. I even buy the crash landing on the runway even though, since all ships levitate, there’s no reason for a runway. It’s like the end of the car chase in To Live & Die In LA where the cars are on the wrong side of the road an you don’t even notice.

Then we get bogged down with politics again, but not for long. Anakin is having visions of his wife’s death and it’s bothering him. He feels like he’s gaining so much power and yet, he can’t save his pregnant wife though admittedly she’s only in danger in his dreams.

The turning of Anakin to the Dark Side isn’t just because of the Emperor. Yoda, who is generally very wise, gives Anakin some spectacularly bad advice. Then the Jedi Council basically marginalizes him. They’ve got good reason and part of that is manipulation by Palpatine, but still, it’s an interesting choice to make it not entirely Palpatine’s fault.

General Grievous is a strange character who seems to be around more than anything to keep Obi-Wan Kenobi busy for a while.

When we get to the epic final battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin, it’s a bit absurd. There are parts of the fight I like, but it’s almost like the perpetual peril thing done wrong. This doesn’t take away from the final scene between them where they both feel completely betrayed.

And finally we have Anakin as Darth Vader. The scene where his helmet is put on for the first time is haunting. And having watched A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, we know where this path is going to lead.

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

It begins with Darth Vader arriving on the new Death Star. I found that after watching the two prequels, I felt like Darth Vader didn’t really want to be there. I’ve probably watched Return of the Jedi more than any other movie I own. And it wasn’t until I watched them in this order that I felt that. Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi is conflicted throughout the entire movie, not just when confronted by Luke.

I had read in the Machete Article about Luke’s arrival in Jedi, but I was still surprised by it. Again, it’s a scene I’ve watched hundreds of times, but given the juxtaposition of this scene after watching Anakin go from Jedi to Sith, when Luke walks into Jabba’s Palace with his hooded robe and just chokes the guards, he’s looking more like Sith than Jedi. It’s a good moment that wouldn’t be there without watching the movies in this order.

Again, the Special Edition has enough good things that I can forgive the bad things. The song in Jabba’s Palace is terrible, but the ending sequence works much better, even with the horrible music. (I’m a fan of the Ewok Celebration Song from the original.)

Return of the Jedi isn’t just the end of Luke’s storyline. It’s the end of Darth Vader’s. Watching the movies in this order, you see this a lot clearer. Also when Luke burns Vader’s body, I was immediately reminded of Anakin on the lava shores of Mustafar.

I found you lose almost nothing by getting rid of Episode I. Or more to the point, you gain more than you lose. Without Episode I, you have no child Anakin, no strange virgin birth, no midiclorians, almost no Jar Jar Binks, and all you really sacrifice is a pod race that  goes on too long and a lightsaber battle (like there aren’t enough of those).

Final Thoughts

If you encounter someone who hasn’t seen the Star Wars movies and wants to, I highly suggest watching them in this order. Not only will it be a better experience for them, it’ll be a new experience for you.

–          Jack Cameron