162-165: Magic Mike, Haywire, Iron Fists, Nemo

162: Magic Mike

During the production of Haywire director Steven Soderbergh struck up a conversation with one of his stars Channing Tatum. It turned out Tatum had quite a history. When he was a young guy he used to earn his living stripping on stage in front of hundreds of screaming women. This intrigued Soderbergh and he decided to turn Tatum’s story into a movie, something Tatum was all too happy to be a part of. Tatum chose to play himself in the movie. Mike (Tatum) is a young stripper who is very good at his job, but he really wants more out of his life. He likes to design furniture, for instance. One day he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer) and makes it his mission to induct him into the wild life of stripping. The boy turns out to be something of a talent. All the while Mike is working with his boss Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) to open a new bar in Miami, where supposedly the real money can be made. There are some entanglements with Adam’s sister and of course everything goes sour in the end. Well, let’s just say this is not a movie one watched for the story. It is like Top Gun for women. It is fairly safe to say they watch Magic Mike for the performances of the men, not the intricacies of the plot. I am not entirely the best person to judge the performances, but I can recognize that there is a high level of competence on display there. It helps that Tatum has some experience in the matter. Magic Mike is enjoyable if male stripping is your thing.

163: Haywire

Steven Soderbergh knows how to direct people with limited acting prowess. Look at Out of Sight, one of my favorite movies ever, and you will see Jennifer Lopez acting her heart out like never before or again. The same goes for Gina Carano in Haywire, Soderbergh’s first foray into the pure action movie genre. Carano used to be a professional fighter, but when Soderbergh saw her do her thing he wanted her in this movie. A wise choice, because what he needed in this movie was somebody who knows how to fight and make it look believable and Carano is not somebody you want to get into an argument with. She may be beautiful, but she will rip you to shreds if need be. She takes on Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and several others and every time you will be on the edge of your seat. Soderbergh frames everything in a very matter-of-fact way which lends a frantic reality to the movie. In addition to the action the movie is also surprisingly slow and introspective. That surprised me and reminded me of Soderbergh’s excellent thriller The Limey. There is a beautiful restraint to Haywire. The story may be fairly forgettable, but the action sequences and characters will be remembered for a long time.

164: The Man with the Iron Fists

Sometimes a person’s obsession should stay behind closed doors. A shining example of this is RZA’s obsession with kung fu movies and his directorial debut The Man with the Iron Fists. RZA (or Robert Fitzgerald Diggs) worked with Quentin Tarantino on the Kill Bill movies because of his seemingly limitless knowledge of kung fu movies and the sound effects used in these movies. It is this connection with Tarantino that undoubtedly made The Man with the Iron Fists a possibility, because I can’t think of a single other reason why this movie would have been made. Who would give a first-time director a big pile of money to direct his own debut screenplay and star in it himself? Nobody, unless you have people like Tarantino and Eli Roth (Hostel) backing you. This would of course not have been a problem if the movie in question had been good, which it is not. The Man with the Iron Fists is a jumbled ultra-violent mess with a lot of squandered potential. There are some great ideas here, which, in the right hands, would have made for a great tribute to a movie genre a lot of people love. The truth is, however, that a lot of the movies in the kung fu genre aren’t any good and The Man with the Iron Fists belongs to that group.

165: Finding Nemo 3D

Finding Nemo is my favorite Pixar movie. It has been for years. Toy Story 3 came close to dethroning Finding Nemo, but little details kept that movie from taking the top spot. After all these years Nemo is still a flawless movie. It flows perfectly from beginning to end and never veers from its path. It presents some of the best characters created for an animated movie (Bruce in particular). I still crack up at the same jokes as years ago, I still choke up at the same moments and I have seen Finding Nemo probably dozens of times since its release. Now that I have aged a little with the movie other things come into play. Since then I have become a dad twice and now I view it more through the eyes of Marlin, not Nemo. I recognize his reluctance to let his precious kid go, because that’s how I sometimes feel and then my oldest goes off and amazes me with everything he is capable of. It is hard to realize that Finding Nemo will be ten years old next year. It is as stunning as ever with its vibrant colors and beautiful compositions. Now, in 3D, I got to experience it again on the big screen with my kid who had only seen it on the small screen. He loved it… twice. The 3D didn’t really add that much to the movie. It was very subtle and never as eye-popping as it could have been. I think that sometimes the creators of these 3D editions could go a little further, but I guess they are being conservative after all the backlash in recent years.

Magic Mike @ IMDb
Haywire @ IMDb
The Man with the Iron Fists @ IMDb
Finding Nemo @ IMDb

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144: A Dangerous Method

I am sure there is an interesting movie to be found in A Dangerous Method, but an affinity with the field of psychoanalysis is a must to find it. I don’t have that affinity. I have never been in therapy or have never felt compelled to pick up the works of Jung or Freud. It is like watching a baseball movie like Moneyball when you know nothing about the game and are not interested in it at all. That is how I felt about A Dangerous Method.

That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the craft that made A Dangerous Method possible. It is a very skillfully made movie that goes into a lot of material with extreme care. At the center of the psychoanalytic vortex that David Cronenberg created are Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein. These people are considered to be the bedrock of psychoanalysis. Their discussions revealed a lot of insight into the human psyche, insights that to this day continue to influence everyday life. These discussions are often riveting, while I don’t always follow what these people are talking about. They are played with verve by the principal players. Especially Fassbender and Mortensen are fascinating to watch. A small role for Vincent Cassel lights up the screen as well. Knightley I had the most problems with. She is competent, but I had a hard time getting past her faux Russian accent.

In the end A Dangerous Method left me cold and perhaps this was intended. The psychoanalytic field is supposed to be devoid of emotion so the therapist can objectively treat his or her patient. In that light it isn’t all that surprising that A Dangerous Method didn’t pull me in as other examples of Cronenberg’s recent work has done, namely Eastern Promises, which was a perfect movie. There’s a lot of talking, but it never let me in to show me its secrets and I suspect it never will.

> IMDb

097: American Gangster


This is the seventeenth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

I think I have it figured out by now. I tend to watch long movies, many of them by Ridley Scott, in stints. I’ll watch thirty minutes or an hour and then I to take a break or watch something else. This is not because the movies aren’t interesting. No, absolutely not. It is because they have the tendency to be so dense and detailed that they more resemble a book than a movie. I don’t read a book in one sitting, so why should I have to do that with a movie? This may be sacrilegious to some, but that doesn’t really concern me.

American Gangster is a movie that fits the above described category perfectly. It is an incredibly dense crime drama about self-made man Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, the man who desperately wants to put him behind bars. It is the ’70s and Lucas inherits the keys to his mentor’s criminal empire. Instead of just taking over he decides to do things differently. He handles his business for what it is: business. That means providing a better product for a better price. He even travels to the deep jungles of Thailand to secure his drug deliveries in person, an action that earns him a lot of respect. Back home he takes care of business and he takes care of his family. He employs a lot of his family and moves his mother into a huge mansion. There is something charming about Frank that makes him irresistible and that something also covers up a ruthless side to him. A comparison can be made between Lucas and Nicolas Cage’s Roy in Matchstick Men, both are charismatic criminals with a decent heart. Scott likes his bad guys with a few additional layers.

On the other side we find Richie Roberts, a pit bull detective who is resourceful and brutally honest. When he finds an enormous amount of untraceable money he decides to turn it in instead of splitting it among his fellow detectives. This doesn’t sit well with the others. Does Richie care about this? No, not in the least. He wants results, but doesn’t want them at the cost of his soul. He stumbles onto a case around mysteriously pure heroin that is flooding the streets of Harlem. Everybody is dumbfounded by the manner in which Frank Lucas conducts his business and it takes a lot of time for them to even consider Frank as the culprit. Essentially American Gangster is a perfectly executed game of cat and mouse.

Scott isn’t interested in passing judgement on his characters. He leaves that up to the viewers of his movies, to make up their mind whether or not Lucas is a total bad guy or not. He shows Lucas as a ruthless killer who doesn’t hesitate to execute someone in broad daylight at a crowded market, but he also takes care of his family and friends and, ruthless as he is, he is always courteous to his victims. When he sets someone on fire he fires a bullet into the head to put his victim out of his misery. How is that for being merciful. Washington is excellent as the ever charming and quiet Lucas. He internalizes a lot of the emotions to make them explode onto the screen with incredible force. It is one of his finest performances.

As brilliant as Scott portrays Lucas, he has a little more trouble with Crowe’s character. The character itself is fine. He is an upstanding guy who will do everything to get the job done. The way in which Scott and Steven Zaillian approach this is by making him the unwilling half in a divorce from his wife (Carla Gugino). It is the standard plot about the husband who has more pressing things to do at his job than at home, but unlike Lorraine Bracco in Someone to Watch Over Me, Gugino isn’t strong to make us think that this would be a problem for Crowe, leaving him without the drama to offset his tenacity at his job. This hurts the otherwise intense drama a little bit.

One of the most annoying things about Scott (at least to other film makers) directing his movie is that he makes it look so incredibly effortless. American Gangster is a movie that takes place over the course of several years and in several countries. He switches back and forth between the two major storylines as if it is the easiest thing to do as a director. As always, the movie looks impeccable. Scott may truly be one of the best directors we have alive today. His movies may not always be the best storywise, and often a bit overlong, but nothing can be said negatively about the way his movies look. From The Duellists to American Gangster (and now Prometheus), nobody comes close to his mastery of the medium.

American Gangster is an excellent movie that deserves to be devoured again and again. It displays great acting, great cinematography and great storytelling. Certainly one of Scott’s best works.

> IMDb

058: 1492: Conquest of Paradise

This is the eighth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Ridley Scott always has a tendency to go a little overboard when he is making a movie with its roots in history. 1492: Conquest of Paradise is certainly a victim of this. I had not seen this epic depiction of Christopher Columbus’ iconic voyages since its first release. I was not a fan back then in 1992, but I was twenty years younger as well. I thought maybe this movie would have aged along with me and leave a better impression this time around. Unfortunately this is not the case.

1492: Conquest of Paradise is impeccably produced. Every shot is composed like a painting and truly a sight to behold thanks to the production design by Norris Spencer (Black Rain) and camera work by Adrian Biddle (Aliens). But, as is often the case with paintings, this movie has no movement in it. For nearly two and a half hours we are presented with scene after scene with seemingly important information and situations, but it never resonates as a whole. It just gets really tedious after a while.

For a movie to keep moving you need something or someone to latch on to. That someone should have been Depardieu, who plays Columbus, but he is visibly struggling with this role. Physically he is up to the task, but the English lines he utters are about as convincing as a toddler reciting Shakespeare. It is endearing at first, but it gets on your nerves really quick. There are some stirring scenes in this epic failure. When 1492 gets it right it gets it really right. Regrettably this occurs way too little. I advise everybody to leave this for what it is and go watch Gladiator or the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. At least you get some spectacle out of those epics.

> IMDb