Category Archives: Action Films

Movie Essentials: Lawrence of Arabia

“They won’t come for Damascus,” Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) proclaims near the film’s climax. “They’ll come for me.” T. E. Lawrence’s exploits in the Arabian desert during World War 1 as the British fought the Turkish empire are now the stuff of mythos. Director David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is both epic and yet also touchingly intimate.

T. E. Lawrence is tasked with investigating the progress of the Arab rebellion against the Turkish Empire at the film’s opening. That rebellion however is in shambles, the result of an indigenous people fighting amongst themselves and against a much better supplied foe. For the next two years, he helps organize the different clans of the desert into a unifying force and win critical battles against the Turks. As his exploits continue, and as the war effort against Austria-Hungary and Germany continues to flounder, he is promoted to hero status in the British and American press, helping turn the morale of the war for the Allied powers. Lawrence eventually leads the Arab people into Damascus in the hopes of creating a true Arab nation for the Arabs. But the conniving ruling classes in France and England make sure that their stakes in the new region will be well-managed and the infighting between the various Arab factions (Sunni, Shiite, Kurds) prevents the dream of a true Arabian state from coming to fruition. Lawrence leaves the desert a broken man.

Lean filmed the nearly four hour epic on location in Jordan, Spain and Morocco over a period of more than a year. The film is one of the most spectacularly shot spectacles in history. The brilliant cinematography captures the vibrant colors and texture of the Middle East. The viewer can practically smell the desert breeze and feel the heat and the sand.

The scope of Lean’s vision and the re-enactments of climactic battles would alone make the film memorable, but where Lawrence of Arabia really surges is with the characters and their inner dilemmas played out on such a global scale.

Lawrence is an incredibly complex and dynamic character. Is he British, Arab or something else? With his fame, is he a god of the desert, a hero of war or just a confused man thrust onto the world’s stage? Everyone seems to have a different opinion of him. The British think he is crazy. The Arabs think he is a being of divine power, a gift from God. The press thinks of him as a hero. Prince Faisal (Omar Sharif), perhaps his one true friend after an initial distaste for each other, considers him a potential leader of a great cause and grows to love him, hints of homoeroticism latent throughout the film (there are no women in the movie at all). As the war takes its toll and Lawrence’s identity changes from British intelligence agent to war hero to Arab inspirational figure, Lawrence loses more and more sense of who he is. With the ultimate defeat of the cause he put so much blood and sweat and soul into, he is left to the conclusion that perhaps he is no one at all.

There are also so many parallels to current events in Lawrence of Arabia. One need only look at events in Syria, Iraq, Israel, the UK and the United States to see just how much things have not changed in nearly 100 years. The sectarian violence, the revolutions against oppressive regimes, the suspicion of the East against the West and the subsequent fascination of the West to colonize the East are all at play in the film. The events at the conclusion of the movie illustrate the state of the modern world, with rival Islamic factions unable to coexist and the Western powers dividing up land for their own benefit regardless of centuries old cultures that reject their beliefs. The reverberation of events continues to haunt us to this day.

The viewer cannot help but see a bit of themselves in Lawrence, a sense of wondering who we are and what our destiny really means. The film opens in Arabia with a mirage, the sun dimly exposing just something over the horizon. Is it real or just a figment of our imaginations? No one knows. The same can be said about ourselves. What is truth? Are we real or just mirages?

Movie Essentials: Seven Samurai

Akira Kurosawa is cinema’s Shakespeare. Not in terms of language or world influence, but in terms of narratives. Kurosawa himself was an unabashed Shakespeare fan, adapting two of his plays into films (Macbeth into Throne of Blood (1957) and King Lear into Ran (1985)). Kurosawa tackles universal themes that transcend their setting and time, crafting stories that are relevant across different cultures, much as Shakespeare did. In addition to this, both storytellers used ensemble casts, presented themes of social class, love and honor and posed more questions than answers.

Seven Samurai is the most recognized of his films and arguably his finest. While it does not feature the intense dramatics of Ikiru (1952) or the ground-breaking aspects of Rashomon (1950), it still stands as the finest samurai film ever made, a genre-defining, epic presentation of class struggle that illuminates the past and present.

Set during the 16th century, the film focuses on a small village. A group of bandits pledges to return in just a few months time to pillage their crops and destroy their town. The townspeople, defenseless, come up with a plan to recruit samurai to their cause. The first samurai they recruit, Kambei Shimada, played by the magnificent Takashi Shimura, believes that with seven samurai, the villagers stand a chance of survival.

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Each of the samurai in the film is a complete character with a storyline and an arc. There’s Katsushirō, the young one, who seeks to become a samurai and to learn from Kambei. He must deal with his love toward Shino, a peasant girl whose father does not want her involved with the dangerous samurai, going so far as to cut her hair and masquerade her as a boy (further alluding to Shakespeare). Kyūzō is a master swordsman and a seemingly super human individual who Katsushirō admires. Kambei’s friend Shichirōji is able to rouse the villagers to battle. The great Toshiro Mifune is Kikuchiyo, a poser of a samurai, the orphaned son of peasants himself, who treads both the world of the farmers and samurai with comedic flair. Heihachi illuminates dark times for the samurai and Gorobei, envious for death in battle, completes the seven.

The film explores the relationship between different class structures; the poor, the warrior, the rich. Finding a peaceful coexistence between farmer and samurai is a constant struggle, the farmers worried that the samurai will take their women, the samurai concerned that the farmers have killed their brethren for armor. In the middle is Kikuchiyo, Mifune mesmerizing as a man who wants to be a samurai, but is filled with the doubts of a peasant. He calls out both clans on their sins towards one another (Mifune and Kurosawa made a total of 16 films together).

Toshiro Mifune The Seven Samurai

The climactic battle scene at the film’s conclusion remain breathtaking even by today’s standards. Utilizing quick editing, harsh sounds and violent death, the film makes no excuses about the brutality of violence and the cost it has on both the samurai and the farmers. Filmed in the thick of mud and rain, entire buildings going up in flames, the dramatic outcome is near apocalyptic.

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One of the criticisms often levied against Kurosawa is that his films are too Western. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by the films of John Ford (the samurai are nearly identical to the myth of the American cowboy- this influence would in turn reverse itself as Kurosawa’s work influenced Westerns made by Sergio Leone and John Sturges). And while his films are not as ethnic or narrative as other Far East endeavors, they instead present themselves as universally intelligible. Whether viewed in the Western world or Asia or the Middle East, just as classic fables and Shakespeare’s plays, Kurosawa’s themes are eternal and have given his work a staying power.

At the film’s conclusion, four of the samurai have lost their lives. All of the bandits are dead. The townspeople celebrate, but Kambei has again lost his chance for a glorious death in battle. He must instead bury younger friends still full of life. He remarks that the samurai may have won, but they have lost as well, the farmers the only true victors of the fight. Shino looks past Katsushirō, displacing their love in order to remain in her social class, the bond between samurai and farmer now over. One can only sense that Katsushirō will end up as Kambei, full of regret, haunted by the death of old friends and suffering from fleeting happiness that cannot be found again.

The final shot lingers on the graves of the four samurai, Kikuchiyo among them, posing eternal questions about death, love, loyalty and social dynamics that continue to vex the world to this day. It is up to the audience to answer these questions, just as we must answer questions about the virtue of Hamlet, the treachery of Iago and the humanity of Brutus in Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare, Kurosawa presents us with a wide tapestry of characters and social consciousness, but leaves us to decipher for our ourselves the answers to life’s questions. Like Shakespeare, Kurosawa’s films will continue to linger in our minds.

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‘Deadpool’ proves not all superhero films have to be the same

With superhero films flooding the marketplace, it was only a matter of time before someone made the anti-superhero film, a movie that takes all the signature tropes of the genre, presents them to the audience and then, almost literally, takes a steaming dump on them. That movie is “Deadpool.”

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a smart-mouthed mercenary who falls in love with a stripper named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). When he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he volunteers for an experimental procedure run by a madman, Ajax (Ed Skrein). The procedure mutates his appearance, cures his cancer and gives him instant healing ability, but Ajax intends to use Wade as a slave. He escapes, but is horribly disfigured. This pushes him to don a mask and become the “superhero” Deadpool.

Much like Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, it is hard to picture anyone else other than Ryan Reynolds as the titular character. He inhabits the role of the snarky, wise-cracking hero with ease, simply becoming the character that fans have envisioned for years.

The violence is extreme, the language and innuendo filthy, and there are so many inside jokes about the genre that some might go right over the casual moviegoers head, but it all works because of the lighthearted tone and the charismatic lead. It is a near-perfect blend of Hollywood glamour meets counter-culture, a big-screen extravaganza that appeals to the disillusioned outsider in all of us. While it is not ground-breaking or terribly original in terms of plot, it is a lot of fun and serves as a welcome breath of fresh air in comparison to the more droll and serious fare of superhero films (*cough* Batman v Superman *cough*).

‘The Martian’ a refreshing science tale

Directed by Ridley Scott, “The Martian” tells the tale of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut presumed dead and left behind by his crew on the planet Mars after a sudden storm. Only Mark is still very much alive. Tasked with surviving the harsh Martian climate while trying to contact Earth for a rescue mission, Mark uses every scientific tool at his disposal, from creating fertile soil to digging up an old rover to connect with NASA.

“The Martian” feels like the third of a series of resurgent films on space, with “Gravity” (2013) and “Interstellar” (2014) coming before it. In comparison to those earlier films, “The Martian” is the lightest, filled more with the hope of success and scientific wonder than with pontificating on etherealism. So in that way, “The Martian” is more of a good-old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, enjoyable but somewhat more forgettable than “Gravity” or “Interstellar”.

Damon is very good in the title role, narrating what he is doing to a computer screen for record keeping and the rest of cast, including Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara and Michael Peña, are also solid.

What the film does have going for it is a contagious adoration of science. As Mark uses every single item at his disposal to make himself food, transportation and communication, the viewer is tickled to see so many science experiments come to life. In a way, it is the most exciting science fair put to screen, a film Bill Nye himself would stamp with approval.

What’s missing is a personal tug of emotion with Damon’s character. There’s no lover awaiting him on Earth or daughter without a father. His background is not examined and that is a missed opportunity to establish an audience connection, something that really makes you pull for him to get off Mars.

While some will consider the film just a version of “Cast Away” (1999) in space, there is a lot of technique and charm in Scott’s direction of the film. It is a thrilling, if light, ride.

‘Baby Driver’ a dynamic thrill ride

After Edgar Wright’s infamous leaving of Marvel’s “Ant-Man” project, the anticipation for his next film has grown exponentially. And with “Baby Driver”, his fans are treated to a high-adrenaline, nostalgic, soundtrack-driven thrill ride.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a kid conned into working for a crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), as his driver on heist jobs. Using iPod music to navigate his life, he becomes smitten with a waitress, Debora (Lily James). He has to protect her as some of the crazies from his crime life such as Bats (Jamie Foxx), Darling (Elza Gonzalez) and Buddy (Jon Hamm) question his loyalty.

The film is dynamic, utilizing all the tenets of good filmmaking (editing, score, cinematography, writing, shot design, sound) to tell an engaging, if not completely original, story. While the soundtrack-as-plot-driver is a little contrived, it is handled well enough that it is not too annoying. The action chase scenes are pulse-pounding and a lot of fun, the film using sound, editing and camera work to build up action rather than CGI bologna and explosions.

The film’s biggest problem is that it’s characters are not too original, more representative rather than three-dimensional. The love story between Debora and Baby is a little forced and bland, not given the opportunity to be fleshed out while psychos like Bats are rather one-note. While not a huge detriment, it keeps the film from being character-centered engaging.

Edgar Wright has always specialized in creating homage to an earlier era and here he incorporates 1950s idealism with 1980s car chases and millennial music obsession. It’s a fun ride if not perfect.

‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ a disappointment

The X-Men films vary all over the map from very good (Days of Future Past) to okay (The Wolverine) to downright terrible (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). It’s a shame that the latest team entry, “Apocalypse”, teeters more towards the latter.

Set ten years after the events of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, the film, directed by Bryan Singer, follows a new villain, the dastardly En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), the first mutant, as he awakens for the first time in thousands of years. Disgusted with the world, he sets about recruiting four followers (horseman) to help him “cleanse” the earth, including Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The only individuals left to stop him are Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his X-Men, including Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), as well as a reunited Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).

As the first sequel after the terrific “Days of Future Past”, the film is a giant step back. While that film was dramatic, moving and based in science fiction, “Apocalypse” is silly, overstuffed, action-packed nonsense. You almost have to wonder if that was what the filmmakers were aiming for.

The film takes forever to get going, with the only action really at the end of the film. Starting the film right off the bat would have served the story well. Without giving too much away, Apocalypse needs to gather his horsemen in the first fifteen minutes of the film rather than the first forty-five minutes. He needs to introduce himself to Xavier and the X-Men much sooner, gain his foothold as a dangerous opponent and set the stakes for the rest of the film. Since this confrontation is delayed so long, the film loses steam and the emotional engagement in the final battle is only half of what it should be.

In addition to setting the stakes, a clearer protagonist was needed. If “X-Men: First Class” was primarily Magneto’s story and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was Xavier’s story, I would think that “Apocalypse” would be Mystique’s film. After the events of the previous film, Mystique is balancing the two halves of her consciousness: the desire to do the right thing and her hatred of mankind. When the opportunity arises in “Apocalypse”, she must either follow Charles or Magneto’s way, fight with the X-Men or with Apocalypse. Her decision would fill the film with meaning as she realizes her identity.

Mystique’s arc is briefly mentioned in the film, but it does not carry much emotional weight because of another major flaw; there is simply too much going on. The film simultaneously tries to achieve the following: establish the story of En Sabah Nur and his resurrection and attempt to destroy the world, finish Magneto’s emotional journey reaching back to Auschwitz, conclude the building of the X-Men team as we know it, finish Mystique’s story of self-discovery, show Xavier learning the importance of the X-Men, set-up the next Wolverine movie, introduce younger versions of characters such as Cylcops and Nightcrawler and Jean, bring Quicksilver back and establish a storyline about his patronage and set all this against the backdrop of 1980s Cold War paranoia. There is so much thrown at us that nothing sticks. We can not ride the roller coaster because it is so cluttered.

The story should be focused on a very simple narrative: After centuries trapped underground, a “god” has re-emerged to find that the world is teetering on chaos. He finds disillusioned souls and recruits them to a higher purpose, the need to make a better world. This contrasts starkly with Xavier’s vision of peace and stability, and Mystique is caught in between and must finally make a choice: to save the world or tear it down. She must lead the X-Men, young and full of issues, towards that purpose she cast out long ago.

Everything outside of this plot should be discarded. Magneto, Wolverine and Quicksilver do not need to be in the story. Cyclops, Jean and Nightcrawler could all start at Xavier’s school rather than be recruited, starting the confrontation with Apocalypse sooner. Little things like that cut out five minute scenes that really add more flow to the narrative.

The action at the end makes up for a lot of the doldrums of the beginning, but like most of the film, it is not handled particularly well. There are several enjoyable moments of unintentional comedy mixed in with some interesting action. Seeing the modern X-Men assemble for the first time ties everything together nicely. It’s just a shame it happens in this flimsy, overpacked jumble.

It would certainly appear that Bryan Singer and company, after their fourth film in the franchise, are starved for ideas. New blood in both casting and the creative team should be given a chance to flex their muscles and really explore this world further. “Deadpool” and “Logan” are just reminders that superhero films don’t all have to be cookie-cutter, save-the-world-from-the-evil-mastermind type fare. They can be funny, dramatic, farcical, romantic, action-packed or terrifying. It’s time for the X-Men to establish themselves in a new way. “Apocalypse” is a strong reminder that change is needed.

 

‘Jurassic World’ a so-so reboot that is still plenty of fun

The nostalgia surrounding Jurassic Park (1993) is high. It is the same problem that has plagued franchises such as Star Wars or Indiana Jones or The Terminator. Every time a new entry tries to reawaken long dormant franchises such as these, it has such trouble stacking up against nostalgia. So the deck is already stacked against Jurassic World from the start.

Jurassic Park is the millenial generation’s King Kong (1933), an adventure film that redefined special effects and influenced a generation. While it is certainly far from flawless (the characters are a tad one-dimensional, the ending is a deus ex machina), it is an immersive dinosaur extravaganza that still holds up today.

It is just incredibly difficult to follow up however with something that is not just a rehash of the original. The basic premise has always been man undervalues nature and tries to profit off of it, dinosaurs escape and eat people and man learns a lesson about its place in the world. There are no other story avenues really to explore after that. So Jurassic World is trapped trying to find something new to say while remaining true to its predecessor.

The film really tries. There’s genetic mutation, a fully functioning theme park, training raptors, weaponizing dinosaurs for combat… but at it’s heart, the Jurassic Park franchise has always been about running away from dinosaurs, and there is no escaping that.  However, the film manages to still be fun.

Set 22 years after the events of the original Jurassic Park (the other sequels are pretty much ignored), Jurassic World focuses on Owen (Chris Pratt) as he attempts to train the park’s Velociraptors, and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), a park department head, and her relationship with her two nephews Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach (Nick Robinson). Working behind the scenes, the park’s scientists, seeking to boost sales, have created a genetic hybrid, the Indominus Rex, a creature they quickly lose control of and who goes on a murderous rampage throughout the island.

The characters are pretty cardboard-cut. Real credit should be given to stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard for getting as much as they do out of the script. The rest of the cast are pretty much forgettable dino-food.

Stronger motivations were needed to really punch up the characters. For example, the hybrid is treated as a rather mundane enterprise for the company. It is just an experiment gone bad. What would have really made things more interesting is if business were dropping. There are hints that people have grown stale with dinosaurs, but this could have been accentuated much further. Perhaps the Masrani company that owns the park is falling apart, and Mr. Masrani (Irrfan Khan), instead of being a relative nice guy as he is in the film, demands the biggest attraction yet, putting all this pressure on Claire to save the park, which pushes her towards tampering with nature in a way never before tried, raising the stakes for everyone associated with the park, their last chance, only for it to blow up in the worst way possible. This would have revealed a bit more about the characters, especially Claire, showing her obsession with her job and why she never has contact with her nephews or family.

Similarly, Owen is also never really given a reason for his attachment to the raptors he trains. He mentions something about being in the Navy and one date with Claire, but it severely lacks in emotional stakes. Perhaps while in the Navy, Owen does something terrible which exposes him to his animal side, a facet of his personality that he sees he has in common with the raptors (think to Quinn’s monologue in Jaws (1975) that reveals something of his character). This bonds them, and he is left to wonder just what part of his personality is real: the animal, which is symbolized by his remoteness and connection to animals, or the human, his caring for others and ability to have a higher moral judgment. And then this dynamic gives him an arc as he works to save Claire from the monster she has created and reveals his humanity.

Director Colin Trevorrow gets some good action out of the story and there are some tense moments, but nothing on scale to the original. Steven Spielberg has always been able to build up suspense and create a moodiness that few other directors can. Whether it be the vibrating glass of water, a tracking shot of a Dilophosaurus approaching a victim or a Velociraptor slowly opening a door handle, these small moments of buildup really add a lot of terror to the original film. Trevorrow is unable or unwilling to use similar cinematic techniques to raise the suspense of his film, keeping viewers from truly being on the edge of their seats.

The expanse of digital technology has often left current filmmakers under the pretense that since they can construct anything they want in a computer, they should. But the absence of real objects, of dirt and rain and grime, creates a hollow feeling, one that Jurassic World is often plagued with. The park is too pristine, the digital effects too plentiful and the atmosphere too placid. It lacks the characters covered in mud, the rainy moodiness and the beads of sweat pouring off of people’s brows that makes things feel real. It seems to be more of a videogame environment than a real location, and this disconnect keeps the audience from really experiencing the park.

Now, having said all that, the primary purpose of a Jurassic Park film is to entertain, and Jurassic World is nothing if not entertaining. It keys in on the nostalgia of the original film to great effect, playing with the conventions of the monster movie and the action movie, poking fun of and admiring them. There are some truly breathtaking moments, such as the pteranodon escape, the gyrosphere sequence, and, above all, the climax. The last twenty minutes of the movie nearly make up for all its flaws along the way, creating the type of dinosaur slug fest that appeals to the inner child of all of those who worship prehistoric beasts. It is worth the price of admission itself.

So, yes, Jurassic World is a deeply flawed film, but it is also a fun one. It is sad to see so many films coming out of Hollywood that are simply “good enough”, that never strive to be the type of jaw-dropping, have-to-see experience like the original Jurassic Park. Those movies no longer seem to be made. Jurassic World is just another cash grab, cashing in on a bygone era, but at least it delivers something close to wonder and amazement. That at least deserves some kudos.