140: Mystery Train

Jim Jarmusch #4

The fourth movie in my Jim Jarmusch series is Mystery Train. A step in a different direction for Jarmusch. This time he abandons his black-and-white signature look for a more colorful movie. And colorful doesn’t just apply to the filmstock Jarmusch used, his cast of characters in Mystery Train is also a lot more exuberant than in his previous movies.

In the first part of Mystery Train, called Far From Yokohama, we are introduced to a Japanese couple on holiday in the United States. They are on a train bound for Memphis to walk in the footsteps of Elvis Presley. They visit the famous Sun Studio, home of Stax Records, in a hilarious scene in which the tour guide rattles off her spiel with such conviction that you can’t help but be mesmerized. The look on the faces of the Japanese kids is priceless. This is the hallowed ground they wanted to visit so bad and now they don’t understand a thing that is being said. Now you know how me and my wife felt on holiday in Japan.

Mystery Train consists of two more parts, called A Ghost and Lost in Space, deal with more loss, love, loneliness and to a certain extent crime. Jarmusch paints a picture that takes you on a journey with these people. Like most of Jarmusch’ characters they aren’t here to be judged for their actions. We observe together with Jarmusch and that means the movie isn’t always going to be fast on its feet. Be prepared for this when you watch Mystery Train or any of Jarmusch’ movies, for that matter.

Memphis doesn’t strike me as one of the most bustling cities in the United States, maybe one day it was, but not so much these days. Jarmusch seems to relish the dichotomy of Memphis. On the one hand it is rundown and slightly forgotten, but on the other hand it is still that city that produced such brilliant music throughout the years. It’s the juxtaposition of dream and reality that is at the center of Mystery Train. The streets are moody and dirty as we see so often in Jarmusch’ movies. But once we step into a building we are transported to a more magical, more hopeful surrounding. The clean Sun Studio where dreams were created, the train station that functions as a portal to other worlds, the hotel lobby with its two extraordinary characters which leads to the rooms where dreams are often crushed, but sometimes nourished as well.

The more I think about Mystery Train, the more I want to go back and experience it again. It is not so much about the plot, but more about the journey these characters make to take to get where they are going. It sounds like a cliché as Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler used to sing it “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” Well, that is Mystery Train right there. It doesn’t really matter how intricately plotted the movie is, it is very much a Pulp Fiction avant-la-lettre, as long as we get to follow them on they exploits. Maybe on subsequent viewings I will be more engrossed by the story itself, but for now the style is enough for me to recommend this movie to anyone who likes a movie that doesn’t concern itself with hurrying to the next plot point and is more concerned about immersing you in a dreamlike world of Rock ‘n Roll goodness.

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139: Bait

SHARKS! Don’t you just love it when someone screams that ominous word? I like a good shark movie from time to time. They are often not very good, but that doesn’t really matter when you get to see people be eaten by prehistoric eating machines. Well, have I got news for you: sometimes even a shark movie can get it all wrong. Take Bait for example, an Australian monster flick that desperately tries to reinvent the shark movie.

Apparently the moratorium on using tsunamis for commercial gain has been lifted, because Bait boasts one that is so unabashedly exploitative that a collective groan can be heard from Japan. After the tsunami hit, of which I had no prior knowledge prior and found to be totally cheap, a couple of people are trapped in an underground supermarket and the adjoining parking garage. And what do you know, at each of these locations there happens to be a great white shark trapped in there with them, ready to pounce.

What follows is a movie that isn’t a whole lot different from a 2010 movie called Skyline. That movie promised a whole lot, but didn’t deliver at all on its promises. Bait does a lot of the same, but at least gives us a shark or two at times. Terrible digitally bred sharks, but sharks nonetheless. That’s more than one could say for Skyline, that didn’t show its aliens at all for long times. This would all not have been an enormous problem if the characters were people you would want to survive. Director Kimble Rendall spends a good amount of his movie trying to flesh out his characters to achieve exactly that goal, but these people are beyond saving. They exist only to spew incredibly moronic lines, inhabit scenes that are ludicrous at best and give way to interactions that have come directly from a Screenwriting 101 template.

Then there are the implausible details of the movie. We have all seen the devastation the tsunami in Japan caused and how dark that water was from all the dirt and mud and debris it took with it. Then how come the water in Bait is just about as clear as a glass of water or why didn’t the supermarket and the garage fill all the way to the ceiling with water when both are clearly below street level. It is so frustrating to see screenwriters and film makers be so careless about details like this just for the sake of making a slightly less shitty movie. Luckily Jaws has just been released on Blu-ray, so I can remove the nasty after images from watching Bait from my eyes.

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138: A Few Best Men

The Hangover was an immense success and it was thus inevitable that a large amount of copycats would rear their heads in its wake (among them The Hangover II). In Australia they call their copy A Few Best Men. Four friends have been living their bachelor lives to the fullest in England, but when one of them announces that he is about to get married to the love of his life… in Australia, the hijinks ensue. They have to get on a plane to get down under, then they have to find the wedding, fight off drug lords, retrieve a large ram that they all but sodomize and fend off a very disgruntled mother of the bride. Hilarious? It sure could have been, but director Stephan Elliott manages to suck every last bit of comedy from his movie. An impressive achievement, to say the least.

There is absolutely nothing funny about this story wherein the friends of the groom are anything but supportive. This is the most dumbfounding element of A Few Best Men. Why in the Lord’s good name would you want to bring these unsupportive jerks with you halfway around the world when all they are bound to do is ruin your wedding? At least in The Hangover the friends are happy for him before they go off to Vegas to screw everything up. This set up a foundation for the relationships that made the rest of the movie so good, however ridiculous it was. In A Few Best Men this foundation is completely absent and that’s why the rest of the movie is so obnoxious, annoying and boring.

There is, however, a small bright spot in A Few Best Men and that is Olivia Newton-John in a role that you wouldn’t really expect from her. But the rest we have all seen before: mistaken identities, animal cruelty, drunkenness, drugs. I recommend you rent Bachelor Party or The Hangover another time to watch a really good comedy about the days before a wedding.

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137: True Lies

James Cameron #5

I have never been a fan of True Lies. While others herald this as a great action movie, all I see is a flawed attempt at making some sort of James Bond knock-off. I am convinced that Cameron made True Lies to get Twentieth Century Fox to give him the money to make his next movie Titanic. I wasn’t there, so this is all speculation, but I think Cameron gave them this treatment he wrote about a normal man who in reality is a spy and convinced Fox it would be a big hit. That it was, no doubts there, but it wasn’t the classic many make it out to be.

At the time True Lies came around Arnold Schwarzenegger was going through a bit of an identity crisis. After years of having played action roles he started to try his hand at comedy a lot more. With Last Action Hero he was clearly poking fun at himself and the genre that he was very much a part of. With Junior he went totally off the rails, so let’s not dwell on that. In between he made True Lies with James Cameron, with whom he made his most iconic movies, The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. True Lies is tailor-made to Schwarzenegger’s identity crisis in that it tries so hard to be funny and full of action at the same time, but the problem is you need a leading actor who can act to pull that off and Arnold is not that guy.

There are three shining lights in the cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Bill Paxton and, wait for it, Tom Arnold. Yes, I said Tom Arnold. Jamie Lee Curtis is excellent as the timid wife who has to come to terms with the fact that there is this whole other world she wasn’t aware off. Her erotic dancing scene is a brilliant combination of sensuality and comedy. Bill Paxton goes all out as used car salesman and professional liar Simon. Paxton throws everything he has in this role. He is despicable, pathetic, charming and just plain stupid at once. Paxton is a limited actor, but he knocks this one out of the park. And then Tom Arnold. He is truly the comedic heart of True Lies. His lines are timed like a Swiss watch. They are always on the money and very funny to boot. His stuff really holds up. I wish I could say the same about the rest of the movie.

True Lies is a terribly structured movie. Cameron is not known for writing the best dialogue in the world, but usually the structuring of his movies is perfectly alright. Not so with True Lies. The movie starts with a very James Bond-y sequence that involves explosions, chases and everything else you expect from a spy thriller. We subsequently get into the home situation of Harry where he has to hide his real job behind the guise of a boring salesman. So far so good. Then we are introduced to the bad guys of True Lies, a bunch of incredibly stereotypical Middle Eastern terrorists. The shallow portrayal aside, this is still a fun movie. Then something strange happens. The entire terrorist plot disappears for a long time. From that point on we focus an inordinate amount of time on Harry’s relationship with his wife and the fact that she may or may not be having an affair with douchebag Simon. After this is all dealt with the terrorists show up again out of nowhere to get that part of the movie going again. This is such clumsy writing that it is hard to believe Cameron wrote this. It feels like a first draft that was accepted blindly by the studio and given the green light. This is the most jarring example, but True Lies is full of writing decisions that would not get past a script doctor if the name JAMES CAMERON wasn’t on the cover.

An excuse I hear a lot when talking about True Lies is, “But the action is great.” I disagree with that to a certain extent. I recognize the skill with which these action sequences are made. Having Arnold Schwarzenegger on horseback going after the terrorist on a motorcycle through busy streets all the way to the top of a skyscraper is certainly an impressive feat, but it is also completely ridiculous. I can’t get into the extreme level of action Cameron displays here. Having Arnold fly a Harrier fighter jet outside a building and shooting the bad guy hanging from a rocket through a building into a helicopter is simply beyond anything I can get behind. It is just way too far out there and, honestly, doesn’t come across as something Cameron would consciously do. This may be a cynical view, but I truly think True Lies was like a gateway movie to get to Titanic.

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136: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

James Cameron #4

After the incredibly ambitious The Abyss, which was not received favorably, Cameron probably thought a sure thing might be a better way to go. He decided to return to his feature film debut (Piranha II not counting), The Terminator. There was a second story that  he wanted to have told and what a story it is. I remember going into the screening of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and being blown away by it. I can not remember whether I had seen The Terminator (T2) yet (I probably had, I was almost 17), but if that were the case it certainly didn’t bother me. From the moment of the terminator’s foot crashing down on that poor skull I was hooked and Cameron took me and everybody else on a journey that was unforgettable. And coincidentally it cemented Cameron’s name as a sure fire moneymaker.

After a short monologue by Linda Hamilton, returning as a beefed-up Sarah Conner, and our first glimpse at the end of the world, Cameron takes us right back to 2029 AD, where the civil war against the machines is in full effect. John Conner is now the leader of the resistance, but that could soon change, because the machines are sending back a terminator to kill him before he is even born. But that is a story for another movie. This time the machines think they are smarter and they send a terminator back to the time when John is a teenager, a deeply troubled teenager, because living with his mother hasn’t been all that pleasant for him. Luckily for John he has sent back a terminator as well. He managed to reprogram one to obey John no matter what happens. Now the only question remains is which terminator will reach him first. This results in a brilliant game of cat-and-mouse between the two terminators. Caught in the middle are John and his mother Sarah, who has for years been locked away in a psychiatric institution because of her rants about the end of the world.

Cameron wasn’t planning on making a carbon copy of The Terminator. He wanted to shake things up, play with his audience’s expectations. Sarah Conner is no longer the meek victim we saw in part one. She has become bitter and cynical while preparing for the seemingly inevitable demise of the human race. Her arc is especially interesting in T2, because during the movie she becomes the terminator while trying to stop SkyNet from becoming the malevolent force it is bound to become. As a counterweight Arnold Scharzenegger’s terminator is becoming more and more human. Under the influence of young John Conner, the T-800 slowly but surely starts to recognize what it is to be human. He even learns how to smile and not kill someone while on a mission. Cameron plays with the mythos of The Terminator saga, succeeds admirably and made a movie that in many ways is better than its ancestor.

A huge part of T2‘s success can also be attributed to the visual effects. These are phenomenal, as is to be expected from a James Cameron movie. Robert Patrick’s T-1000 is made of liquid metal and we don’t doubt it for one second. When he came walking out of that car crash and morphed into his human form everybody gasped. After that we see him skewer people with needles and swords, drop through a helicopter window in liquid form and assemble himself after being blown to bits. It was astonishing to behold and at that point we knew the face of visual effects were changed forever. There is no doubt in my mind that Cameron’s work on T2 paved the way for future movies. Maybe not the actual soft- or hardware, but more the awareness that it can be done made people go further and further to create what would become some of the most iconic movies of all time like Jurassic Park and Toy Story.

Some of the effects come across as a little dated. Take for instance that iconic scene where the T-1000 walks out of that fiery crash. The animation of that figure is crude at best compared to what is possible today. It is like watching the Taun Taun running across the snowy fields of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. You see clearly that it is stop motion animation and today that could have been much more smooth, but we don’t care. That is what the state of visual effects were back then and it is part of that movie as much as the performances are. The same goes for T2 (and every movie for that matter). Sometimes things are going to look crude, but that is the way it is. However, for the most part the visual effects–practical and digital–are still examples of how visual effects can enhance your story. Something a lot of filmmakers can learn a lot from.

There are some things, however, I do have a problem with. One of them is the introduction of the T-800, Schwarzenegger’s terminator. Cameron uses George Thorogood’s song Bad to the Bone after the T-800 assaults a group of bikers in a bar. I never really understood why Cameron did this, because it breaks the serious tone of the opening in such a jarring way. It certainly doesn’t fit the overall tone of the movie. There are comedic elements in T2, but they stem almost all from dialogue and action, never from audio elements or songs. Another thing is the sloppiness with which some of the scenes are handled. For example: Miles Dyson walks into his clean room without any protective gear, while other people walk around in full get up. This is just lazy and something that could have been fixed easily. And one last thing: how convenient that they happened to end up in a metal smelting factory. With that said, I stop my nitpicking.

Once again the Special Edition is the version of T2 you need to watch. The scenes returned to the movie add a lot of depth to the relationships between the characters. Most startling are two sequences. The first is where Sarah Conner has to remove the microprocessor from the T-800’s head to reset it. She then has to make a decision that could have dire consequences. The other occurs after the T-1000 is blown to bits in the factory. Apparently getting blasted to bits wasn’t so good for the T-1000 after all, because we see him struggle when he comes in contact with other metal. This solves one of the most glaring omissions from the theatrical cut of T2: How did John know which Sarah Conner to trust at the very end? It appears that he could see the difference because the T-1000 was fused to the metal grating he was standing on. It is unbelievable to me that Cameron let this cut go ahead it is that crucial to the outcome. Strangely, though, some small beats are missing from the Special Edition that were in the theatrical cut.

If it wasn’t obvious yet, I absolutely adore this movie, warts and all. The sheer kinetic force of T2 is enough to take your breath away. There is not a moment wasted and still the movie clocks in at a whopping 137 minutes (152 minutes if you are watching the Special Edition). It is to Cameron’s credit that he is able to create such an engaging story in the middle of one of the most spectacularly ambitious action movies ever. Something he was not able to do in his next film, True Lies.

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135: Big Miracle

In 1988 three whales got stuck in the ice just off the coast of Point Barrow, the most northern point of Alaska. The media got hold of this heartbreaking story, which is rather common by the way, and a campaign was started to rescue the whales. In the end people from various nationalities, backgrounds and religions combined their strengths to aid the campaign. The new movie from director Ken Kwapis, Big Miracle, is based loosely on this story and I must say it isn’t as horrible as some people make it out to be.

The real power of Big Miracle is the fact that it takes itself serious. The screenplay never resorts to cheap comedy in order to get more people to like it. There is no needless slipping around on the ice or other slapstick. The dialogue may be not of the highest quality, but it never veers from its target and that target is getting these whales out to the open seas. I love that about Big Miracle. Does that mean I loved the movie as a whole? No, not really. When I watched the trailer over and over in the theater I was in tears every single time. I did not have that sensation when watching the complete movie. It just didn’t grab me like I thought it would. And I think that is largely because of the characters.

While the screenplay wants to be sincere in telling its story it forgets that it is humans who are supposed to make us care for a story. The whales are helpless creatures who, with all respect, just hang there. It comes down to the human player to take us on this journey and I was disappointed to see that most of the characters represent very stereotypical parts of society. The lady from Greenpeace has a blinding dedication to the whales. The press is deliciously opportunistic, only wanting to get the best story. The oil company is greedy. The natives are stubborn. Politicians are just looking to be reelected. Big Miracle is filled with stereotypes and it hurts the movie to some degree.

I don’t really mind the licenses the writers have taken with the story. There is a lot that doesn’t really add up when compared to the original story, but an exact portrayal would probably have been less cinematic. We see that all the time, but I think Kwapis has captured some of the essence of this heartwarming story. It may not be perfect, but it surely doesn’t put the origin to shame. You could do much worse than Big Miracle.

> IMDb

134: The Abyss

James Cameron #3

The Abyss is in my opinion one of Cameron’s best movies to date. This is by far not the popular opinion. A lot of people have a problem with the whole NTI-subplot and how it functions more as a deus ex machina than a true plot point. I don’t agree with that, I think The Abyss is a beautifully structured action-adventure movie with a heart that sticks with you, no matter what. Provided you watch the Special Edition and not the original theatrical cut, but that is almost always the case with a James Cameron movie.

In The Abyss we meet the crew of a deep-sea drilling rig, who are told to go to the edge of an abyss to inspect a nuclear submarine that sunk there. A group of Navy Seals are sent down to assist the crew members along with the designer of the rig. Together they must find the reason for the sinking of the sub. What they don’t know is that the whole incident was orchestrated by a force beyond anything they could have imagined and in time they will learn that love is a much more powerful force than hate. This is an awfully short synopsis for a movie that takes nearly three hours (that is the special edition) to tell its story.

In The Abyss Cameron blends action and adventure with science fiction and drama with extreme ease. We go from high concept underwater action sequences, one of them involving a sinking crane, to small character moments that give the movie a depth that is often missing in Cameron’s movies. Comedic moments give the situations, which are often very claustrophobic and tense, a more realistic feel. After all, this is a group of people who have been down in this rig for a long time and a way to alleviate some of the tension is to joke with each other. The chemistry between the actors is excellent. Much of that bonding must have been formed while shooting The Abyss.

Cameron is notorious for getting what he wants and when that isn’t readily available, he will invent it. To film The Abyss he chose to create too gigantic water tanks to facilitate his vision. He built the sets in the tanks and this shows. You can feel the weight of the water when watching The Abyss. It is a feeling that could not be replicated by digital effects, at least not yet. Combine this with an abundance of small quarters, cramped submarines and low ceilings and you have a beautifully claustrophobic whole that squeamish people may want steer away from.

Shooting The Abyss has become a bit of a legend in film making history. While not on the same level of Apocalypse Now, The Abyss sure ranks among the movies that have had the most troublesome productions. Spending months underwater was something that became a little too much for a lot of the cast members, driving them to nervous breakdowns and irritable skin (because of the chlorination of the water). The hardships of the cast and crew are evident on the screen and lend an even more realistic tone to the movie.

This is by far the most personal of Cameron’s movies. Not only is it about one of Cameron’s favorite hobbies: underwater exploration, it is also about the relationship between a husband and wife who are fighting to keep their marriage alive amid everything that is going on. Cameron and his wife Gale Anne Hurd were going through a rough patch in their marriage at the same time Cameron was trying to get The Abyss made. He even admitted that he modeled Lindsey Brigman on Hurd. She is a tenacious, brilliant, beautiful woman who can be hard to live with. At the same time Virgil ‘Bud’ Brigman is a short-tempered son of a bitch who also can be hard to live with. It isn’t hard to figure out what the home situation would have been for Cameron and Hurd.

The Abyss is Cameron’s attempt at finding a solution to his marital problems, even if he has to find extraterrestrial life to do so. He is willing to take any situation to rekindle his wife’s love for him. This deeper level of meaning makes The Abyss even more powerful, certainly when you are married yourself and you can understand how hard it can be to keep the flame going in a marriage. The most intense sequence comes when Bud has to let something happen to Lindsey that is nothing short of traumatizing to anybody involved. The resulting couple of minutes are some of the most harrowing you will ever see in a movie. This is easily the most emotional sequence Cameron has ever directed in his whole career. Even the final scenes of Titanic can not compare to this.

When talking about Cameron’s movies, almost always there is a Special Edition to put next to the theatrical cut. The Abyss is no different. Because of time constraints and demands from the studio Cameron had to cut several scenes from the movie. It did not do the movie any good. Especially the ending became a rushed affair that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. This cutting garnered Cameron devastating reviews. With the Special Edition he was able to go back and solve some of the problems with The Abyss. He went back to the visual effects engineers to finish the tidal wave scene at the end, which filled out the scene and gave the movie a more cathartic conclusion. All of a sudden it made sense that we were constantly bombarded with news about a pending nuclear war. This was Cameron’s way of saying that the world should get their act together and stop the nonsense. Like Robert Wise did in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

This message, combined with the relationships Cameron built among his fictional crew and the spectacular action sequences, makes for a movie that is well worth your time. And I urge everybody to go back and watch again. And again. And again.

Next Up: Cameron’s return to the Terminator universe in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

> IMDb