bmcclain

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Reviews

Johnny Mnemonic
(1995)

Visual design does not a movie make
This is one hell of a piece of cinematic achievement if you watch it with the sound turned off. I'd recommend some Warren Zevon and Nine Inch Nails for aural texture.

The film LOOKS great from start to finish; very dark and dystopian, with high-tech present even in the garbarge and stunning wealth cheek-by-jowl with grinding poverty. Trouble is, that's already been done, and done better, in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, some thirteen years earlier.

Other than an attempted screenplay for the Aliens series of movies, William Gibson hasn't had other fruitful contact with "that bitch of a whore" called Hollywood (as Sir Laurence Olivier put it). His stories are rich in visual references, but the minimalist dialogue that drives them doesn't help much in translating the stories to the screen. "Johnny Mnemonic" could have been an exception if it had (a) stuck to the original story much more closely and (b) conceded the need to by a shorter movie in accordance with the story's limits rather than introduce subplots.

Gattaca
(1997)

A great movie to visit, but I'll hate living there
As a movie, Gattaca works well: It's got a murder mystery, identity-switching suspense, a love interest, thematic unity about the value of humanity, tremendous but understated visual style. But the biggest thing about GATTACA is that it's science fiction only in the sense that Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was before the atom was split and Hyman Rickover came along. The movie gained a flurry of attention among science-fiction enthusiasts and other "geeks" -- chiefly because it's an intelligent story. Science fiction can consist of more than ray guns, space ships, and foam-rubber prosthetic makeup -- at its heart, it's about ideas. The implications of science and technology and how people interact with it and because of it is the heart and soul of the genre, and GATTACA is a superior example.

For better or worse, we'll probably see in our lifetimes most if not all of the implications and plot background elements this movie touches on. Rather than spoil the movie's impact by relating how it portrays them, I'll leave as an exercise to the reader to consider the long-range implications of being able to genetically design your offspring, if you've got the resources to do so, and what happens to more traditionally conceived children.

This movie is worth seeing not once but twice -- first to enjoy as a conventional story (for the thematic reasons noted above) the second time to take in the fine performances by Jude Law and Ethan Hawke. I also liked Alan Arkin's supporting role as a homicide investigator and Gore Vidal as GATTACA's director; but then, I'd pay money to watch and listen to these two dramatically interpret the ditching instructions for a 737.

Deep Impact
(1998)

About Téa Léoni's performance...
Seeing her in this film showed me what an understated (as opposed to merely graceless and wooden) performance is all about. Hers was the most believable character in this otherwise pretty flat movie, from her trying to resolve her relationships with her parents, to her dealing with the incipient disaster internally while trying to maintain her professionalism, to her moments on the beach with her father toward the end of the movie. I always figured her for just more eye candy, but the lady can definitely act.

Bang the Drum Slowly
(1973)

Here's why I liked this movie
Michael Moriarty (underrated) and a fairly young Robert De Niro have a great screen chemistry as the streetwise pitcher and the innocent, tragic catcher. But even better, the movie's the kind of glimpse into the real world of baseball that only Bull Durham has since captured. (Hint: The Natural is about heroism, not baseball.)

Memphis Belle
(1990)

Not great, but one of the better efforts of late (minor spoiler)
I think it's really hard to make a *good* American war film, because we Americans like our films to entertain more than anything else. But war stories, though they're interesting or even fascinating, rarely can be called entertaining -- then they're some other kind of story in martial dress, like the Disney movie OPERATION DUMBO DROP was. The other extreme, something like A BRIDGE TOO FAR or DAS BOOT, avoids the poetry of storytelling and sticks to the edifying essentials, not trying at all to make the characters into dramatic figures as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and A MIDNIGHT CLEAR did.

MEMPHIS BELLE lands squarely in the middle of this continuum. We see thumbnail sketches of the characters largely as seen through the eyes of the most literate of them, Danny the radio operator of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress whose nickname is the source of the film's title. (This name was the aircraft commander's loving good-luck reference to his wife.) There's the scared young one, the happy-go-lucky one, the laconic one, the tough-guy one...they're rarely more than two-dimensional. But one moment sticks in my mind:

The bombardment wing commander (Straithairn), answering the press corps reporter's (Lithgow) frankly stupid questions full of abstract nouns about the Memphis Belle's crew, responds instead by explaining just how expensive the air war has been in terms of losses, then shows the reporter what those losses represent: a boxful of letters he'd received in response to the ones he'd had to write to each family of his men killed or missing in action. We hear the voiceovers of various relatives accompanying the stock WW II air-war-over-Europe footage. But we hear a mother's voice saying "...I'm grateful that you were able to tell me that he didn't suffer..." even though we also in this movie see a planeful of doomed airmen trapped in an out-of-control, plunging aircraft and remember how the night before, a crewman, literally nauseous with terror, sobbed again and again, "I don't want to die." Straithairn's character looks like a man who's aged twenty years in twenty months as he's sent the best young men America can produce off to die over Europe, and his is the face that stands out to me as I recall seeing this movie.

It was a quick interlude in the movie, and anyone going to pee or get more popcorn at that moment could easily have missed it. But it saved a movie from being little more than a live-action comic book and, by reminding us of the human cost, elevated it to actual drama.

The Final Countdown
(1980)

I like it even more 18 years later
I first saw this film when I was right out of high school, and I wasn't surprised to see the lobby-card poster hanging in a Navy recruiter's office a few months later when I dropped by. And that's entirely appropriate; the film is, among other things, a love letter to the modern Navy. I mean that as high praise: Where lots of military movies (and plenty of recruiting commercials) overdo the martial aspects of their characters with a gung-ho Sergeant Rock style, the byplay in this movie provided glimpses of the the Navy (and the Marine Corps too, God bless 'em), honestly and simply, as people taking pride in a demanding, sacrificial profession.

To this day I wonder which, if any, sailors and Marines I saw were actual service people. If any were, Don Taylor and his second-unit directorial crew got excellent small performances from them. Here's an example: In a brief scene that probably barely survived the final cut, there's interaction among some sailors: "Christ, Chief, all we wanna know is what's going on," asserts one mildly exasperated rating. "If you need to know, you'll be told," replies the Chief Master-at-Arms curtly. The people who spoke this dialogue definitely weren't Screen Actors Guild types; they looked and sounded pretty much like sailors I've known. And that's a little detail that's done right so seldom that I hardly notice anymore that I'm deliberately overlooking it.

The aerial sequences set a standard that wouldn't be touched until /Top Gun/ hit the screen. To be sure, both movies relied to some extent on stock footage of naval-aviation ops, but as with /Top Gun/, this film's flying was spectacular -- and, in the last of the years before CGI took hold, REAL. (Compare this film's or /Top Gun/'s exteriors of aircraft with, say, /Air Force One/, and you'll see what I mean.

The "name-actor" ensemble of Kirk Douglas et al. performed, perhaps not brilliantly, but serviceably in a film that certainly was more plot-driven than character-focused. The story -- revealed by plenty of other comments here -- though implausible, is still capable of holding one's interest. But after you catch this flick on the tube for the second or third time, pay attention to the enlisted pukes doing their jobs -- to me, they're the real stars.

If it's on the shelf, rent it. If it's on TV again, watch it. At the least, it's an entertaining story. At its best, it's a good study in style and pacing.

Kelly's Heroes
(1970)

the role of Oddball a "magnificent anachronism"
...to steal a line from the movie Patton. (It's something a German intelligence officer says about Patton, in case you're wondering.)

Whenever I think about this movie, Oddball the tank-platoon commander is one of the first two things that come to mind (along with probably the world's last operable Tiger I tank doing its thing).

Finding a traveling band of nonconformist weirdos that also happens to be a tank platoon stretches credibility beyond its breaking point -- to a useful end. As everyone else here has noted, Oddball's very presence in a WW II story is bizarrely out of its own time. But that's probably for a purpose: The anachronism provides the appropriate note of unreality to the whole of the film, preventing it from being merely a black comedy about war and lending it a timelessness and universality. We're looking not merely at a story about WW II; we're seeing a parable about Vietnam (the era in which this movie was made) and about war, greed, and stupidity in general.

Including an anachronistic character may well have been studio-exec sop to contemporary marketing tastes, and an idea that's too stupid and crazy to work on paper, but it works beautifully on film.

But why? The key is Donald Sutherland, one of the busiest yet most underrated actors of our time. He took an impossible and pivotal role and made it work -- and work well. Every moment he's on the screen, he seems to relish the very strangeness of ur-hippiedom. I've seen this movie easily a dozen times since it was in the theater in my childhood, and each time I've watched with mingled glee and amazement as Sutherland does his thing so effortlessly.

A Midnight Clear
(1992)

Why I couldn't let my father watch this
Once upon a time in northern France on late summer night in 1944, there was a sergeant in his mid-twenties, an armorer who normally fixed the big guns when they broke down or cleared hangfires from them. ("Lonely goddamn work, I'll have you know.")

When his turn in the rotation came up every few nights, he would man the forward-observer post duty for the artillery battalion in which he served. He and a private went forward with binoculars and a field telephone to call in fire missions if they saw anything moving. And that particular night they did: Like silent spectres out of the darkness came a handful of German infantryman who, even in the poor light and from hundreds of yards away, were staggering with exhaustion, hungry, dirty. A mess wagon came forward and set up to feed them what must have been their first hot meal in days or even weeks. Patton's advance had been pressing them eastward across France without letup.

"Sarge? Aren't you gonna call this in?"

"No. Not yet. Let's let those poor sons of bitches finish their chow first."

When the Germans had finally eaten their fill, a couple had lit cigarettes, and the mess wagon was turning around to leave, Dad finally called the battery plotter with the coordinates. He made the German soldiers and the mess wagon disappear in a rain of 155-mm howitzer shells.

At the time the movie finally made it to cable, Dad had only a few months to live. When I saw this movie, I couldn't get that story of his out of my head. Knowing how bitter and disgusted he felt about the war -- "I was a political prisoner of Franklin Delano Roosevelt" was how he put it -- I realized that this movie was too powerful for him to see.

I realize this is more a personal anecdote than a remark about the movie per se, but it says something about the tone and impact of Gordon and Wharton's story that I was finally able to understand, just a little bit, why I saw Dad sitting alone at the breakfast table in the middle of the night, chain-smoking in the darkness, for all those decades. And the horrific glimpse this film gave me sobers me to this day.

In memoriam: Amzi R. McClain (1920-1999), T/Sgt, Batt A 721st FA Btn 66th Inf Div 1943-1945

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
(1984)

Thematically, it's the complement & completion of /Khan/
The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one?

Sometimes the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.

In /Wrath of Khan/ (see my comments for that film), one overarching theme was duty presented as sacrifice for the greater good. In /Search for Spock/, this ideal of duty is inverted: Now it's Spock's comrades who must sacrifice much and risk all in order to save him. This continuation of one ideal into its counterpart reminds me of the U.S. Navy officers' dictum "Loyalty down must equal loyalty up."

Taken together, /Wrath/ and /Search/ tell a very rich and well-thought-out moral tale in the guise of a pair of action stories. I hope I can get the Trek bug to bite my little boy in a few years so I can interest him in these two underrated films.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)

Why is this movie even better than they say?
Because it's a thematically unified story about its characters' responses to the plot's challenges, that's why.

And that's the hallmark for which Star Trek was always famous: The themes and characters were often complex and thought-provoking. The other user comments here focus mainly on the action-oriented aspects of the movie, but to me, as to the Smithsonian Institution, Harlan Ellison, and posterity, Star Trek was interesting ultimately because it was about people and ideas more than it was about phasers, cute female yeomen in miniskirts and the alien of the week.

In this film, we're presented with several ideas: the needs of one person vs many, tests of moral strength in the face of failure and death, the contrasts of age and youth, the motivation of revenge and the stumbling-block of hubris. It's a lively action picture, to be sure, but there's some tremendous acting and storytelling going on here too.

I recommend you see this film twice: First, enjoy a well-paced action movie, then observe a thoughtfully written, directed and acted story about people. That's why, of all the Star Trek movies to date, this one remains my favorite.

Race Against Time
(2000)

Geoff Murphy finally fixed Freejack.
I remember when I went to see Freejack in 1992: I was hungry for some good post-apocalyptic cyberpunk cinema.

The premise that time was the same as now: Protagonist tries to stay alive while penetrating to the heart of enormous, amoral forces that seek to turn him into spare parts. Back in 1992, we got a callow Emilio Esteves -- A world-class race-car driver? C'mon! -- as hero and romantic protagonist hopelessly miscast as a romantic foil to Renee Russo, who gamely did her best. What else? Let's see: Mick Jagger, phoning in his role with little more than a sneer, and Jerry Hall in a cameo doing her best Jerry Hall imitation. Even the normally excellent Anthony Hopkins seemed almost a plastic copy of himself.

Compare with this time around. Same premise, but this time Eric Roberts' character and Sarah Wynter's generate some actual sympathy and chemistry when they're not adding to the body count -- both showing some depth of character and conscience, each in his/her way. Cary Elwes is chillingly effective in his role as a hunter of almost reptilian persistence. Diane Venora turns in a fine supporting performance as an executive apparatchik who discovers the gross misjustice being perpetrated. And the curious flatness and jerkiness of Freejack eight years ago is eclipsed by this much better-paced story.

The Natural
(1984)

180 degrees from the novel -- but worth the deviation!
A terrific job by the ensemble cast led by Barry Levinson's understated, gentle hand in directing. Beautiful, lush camera work by Caleb Deschanel, who knows how to use shadows better than any other cinematographer ever used light. Randy Newman's spectacular score. Hey, I didn't even mind that you could barely tell it came out of a Malamud story -- it's still a great film. Excellent choice for a weekend rental, even if you're not much into baseball.

The Right Stuff
(1983)

One subtle thing I loved about this movie:
Throughout the movie were clever references to the ultimate goal of America's space program: The moon. It's seen repeatedly in newsreel shots of the X-1, again with the song "Faraway Places" in the soundtrack, and ultimately with the wry reference via the stripper doing her fan dance to Debussy's "Clair de Lune." Philip Kaufman, God bless you.

Stop Making Sense
(1984)

The gold standard of concert films
The Band's _The Last Waltz_? Led Zep's _The Song Remains the Same_? Aw, forget 'em. They're all a waste of time. Get this on DVD, turn the volume all the way to 11, and get a bunch of friends over to dance to this thing.

Sadly, when I saw this at the Varsity in Austin, they were sorta discouraging dancing in the aisles... :(

A Bridge Too Far
(1977)

The only honest film about World War II?
Back in 1984 I mentioned this film treatment of Cornelius Ryan's book to my college roommate, who asked, perhaps rhetorically, "Why make a war movie about a defeat?"

They're all a defeat for one side or the other, I suppose. But more importantly, war stories are about humans attempting superhuman efforts -- bridges too far -- and often falling far short of their aims.

In the John Wayne - John Garfield type of war movie, the second lead dies and the hero avenges his death. In the Rambo series, the enemy are Bad Guys who get mowed down in comic-book fashion. This isn't that kind of shallow story at all. It's a complex, well-paced, even-handed story about arguably the largest failed military operation ever attempted.

Operation Market-Garden was the largest airborne assault the world has yet seen, coupled with an armored drive not exceeded until the ground phase of Operation Desert Storm. Had it succeeded in opening a second front into the Low Countries and down the Ruhr valley, it could have ended the war many months and thousands of lives earlier than the following May. It's to ponder: The desperate snowy campaign through the Huertgen forest and the Battle of the Bulge might never have happened at all.

What happened is surely no spoiler for anyone who read the film's title -- an intelligence estimate ignored here, a foulup with radio crystals there, missed timetables on the route march -- all conspired to strand the entire British airborne force at Arnhem. In the film, the British resistance to the last round of ammunition is underplayed and heartbreaking, as is the Rangers' desperate attack on the bridge and Polish Brigade's slaughter in an attempted night crossing. Again and again, I perceived the thematic thread running through the story, that war, ultimately, is normal people attempting to overcome and survive the impossibly abnormal.

It's honest enough to make one cringe, and yet the Germans don't come across as villains. It's possible to feel some shock and sadness as a British officer has to shoot a young German private in the back to avoid being discovered and captured in a Dutch house. A German officer offers a British paratrooper some chocolate: "Would you like some? It's excellent. English. Your planes have been dropping this behind our lines."

Tora! Tora! Tora!
(1970)

Provides a fascinating Japanese perspective
This is one of very few war movies I've seen that depicts the Japanese as smart, disciplined military professionals -- indeed as anything other than stereotypical one-dimensional cannon fodder. As thousands of Pacific veterans can attest, they were serious, committed warriors, not cartoon characters.

The World War Two generation in America regarded Pearl Harbor as a dastardly event, a sneak attack that was ethically the lowest of deeds. It contrasted sharply American ideal of fair play (a fatal liability in combat, an ugly truth that's seldom depicted or discussed in films and literature of and about the period) and fed the vehemence of the American people's "terrible resolve," as Yamamoto put it. That Japanese, a race too many Americans regarded with fear and suspicion, had accomplished it, further fueled American fury and determination.

But militarily the Japanese were doing what historically they do best: striking without warning to catch the adversary off guard and, if possible, defeat him with one decisive masterstroke. If you're from another country, or if you're an American able to put your cultural baggage aside for the duration of the film, you gain a grim appreciation of just what a tatical masterpiece Pearl Harbor was, and how quickly the Japanse realized their strategic failure.

Watching this film, you also glimpse how forward-thinking the Japanese were in naval developments, grasping the potential of naval air power over battleships. (It's little known that in 1941, Japan's navy, particularly their naval air force, excelled America's in quality and quantity.) Even more, you discover how constrained Yamamoto's opportunities were. He was essentially reduced to doing the Army's bidding rather than projecting power as a true blue-water naval force should, and he knew full well that against the might of America, the best he could do was to buy Japan a little time.

To watch the Japanese cast members portray their roles is to see a valuable window on the Japanese warrior ethos in particular and Japanese culture in general. For the Japanese, Pearl Harbor was the largest diplomatic and military gamble ever undertaken. Its enormity manifests in the Japanese Navy officer corps' tension and emotion in scenes of planning and executing the strike. This tremendous acting is easily lost in visual translation for many Westerners, but it's palpable for those more familiar with the Japanese.

Reform School Girls
(1986)

Enlightened self-parody of the whole frails 'n' jails genre
...particularly the abysmal yet hilarious Chained Heat (1983). But if you're a fan of Wendy and the Plasmatics (God love 'em), well, this is Wendy Williams' screen debut, as far as I know, plus the P'tics did the film's title track.

Beyond that, the film's appeal is rather limited. If you think attractive young women, incarcerated and often scantily clad, sounds like good rental fodder, hey, dig in and have at.

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