194-195: The War Room, There Will Be Blood

the-war-room

194: The War Room

Political documentaries tend to often be very polished and dictated by the rules of the party the documentarian is following. The War Room is a different kind of beast and probably one of the last of its kind. It started out as a simple doc following the managers of Bill Clinton’s campaign to become the President of the United States. At that time he was considered to be an outsider, some redneck from Arkansas who didn’t stand a chance in the highest political arena imaginable. As time moved on Clinton started to grow into a political force to be reckoned and the people behind the scenes and their unorthodox way of working became something of legend. The War Room tells their triumphant story and it is totally riveting. It is hard to put my finger on what it is that’s so compelling about it. Is it the unlikely friendship between the manic passionate James Carville and the calm calculated George Stephanopoulos? Is it the unprecedented look behind the scenes of a political campaign? Probably both. The War Room will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the last truly honest depictions of political maneuvering.

there-will-be-blood

195: There Will Be Blood

Something very strange happened the first time I watched There Will Be Blood. All through the opening sequence I heard a very annoying piece of music that was totally out of whack with the original soundtrack. It was very distracting, but I powered through. I found There Will Be Blood to be a very powerful piece of work even if the first sequence still bothered me at the end. For years I dreaded returning to Paul Thomas Anderson’s opus, just because of that experience. Now, years later, I returned to There Will Be Blood and miraculously the opening was devoid of any annoying double soundtracks and it was a lot better than the first time I watched it. Now I could take in this brilliant movie from A to Z without distractions and what an experience it is. Daniel Day Lewis’ performance is compelling as anything he has ever done, the photography by Robert Elswit is spellbinding and the music by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is hypnotic and the conclusion will have you reeling in your seat. I still think Magnolia is Anderson’s best, most complete movie, with There Will Be Blood a strong second.

189-193: Bruges, Cliffhanger, Trouble, Chernobyl, Instead

in-bruges

189: In Bruges

In Bruges looked like just another action movie to me. Even the involvement of one of my favorite actors, Brendan Gleeson, wasn’t enough to get me to watch it. But during the years following its initial release more and more people came out of the woodwork to confess their mistake in dismissing In Bruges in the manner I did. I decided to give in and give In Bruges a chance and what do you know… it is brilliant. So incredibly not what I was expecting. Central to the story are two British criminals who are sent to Bruges in Belgium to lay low for a while after a tragic accident. There they have to wait for their boss to call with instructions. What seems to be a regular crime story with two thugs spending time in one of the most dreamy cities in Europe turns into an existential fight for survival and redemption. There are a lot of great performances in In Bruges. Colin Farrell is brilliant as the petty criminal who acts more like a bored child than a professional hitman and Brendan Gleeson is masterful as ever as the hardened criminal who is trying to keep everything together somehow. Their chemistry starts to build throughout the movie to culminate in a sequence that is truly harrowing. Martin McDonagh wrote and directed a movie that will stay with you for a long time. I loved it. See it.

cliffhanger

190: Cliffhanger

It was a Saturday night, I was tired, so I went and stood in front of my DVD cabinet to find a movie that wouldn’t challenge me one bit. The result was Cliffhanger, a Sylvester Stallone vehicle directed by Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) I had not seen in fifteen years or so. And with good reason, because this movie turned out to be even more dumb than I remembered. The screenplay is so incredibly full of holes and implausibilities that it took all the fun of the action out of it for me. I think the whole reason why I (and many with me) look back fondly on Cliffhanger is the opening sequence, which is as horrendously suspenseful as ever. If you have anything resembling vertigo I urge you to skip the opening sequence and pick up what happened there from the rest of the movie (that shouldn’t be too hard). When the screenplay turns out to be so incredibly dumb, is there still something to be enjoyed in Cliffhanger? Sure, the action is decent throughout the movie, the acting is deliciously over the top and the scenery is beautiful (actually shot in Italy, not Colorado). Cliffhanger is a clear example of just about every action movie made in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s: big brutish heroes taking on mindless groups of evil doers with lots of explosions and extravagant stunts. It’s just that sometimes one movie hits it out of the park and the other takes a walk. And yes I am talking about Die Hard being the slugger, not Cliffhanger.

trouble-with-the-curve

191: Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the Curve is a sports movie of the most common denominator. And I so wanted this to be another Moneyball, a smart look at the business of baseball and what goes on behind the scenes of my favorite sport. But what I got was a melodramatic mess about an old baseball scout (Clint Eastwood) who doesn’t want to accept he is losing his grip on his job and his estranged daughter (Amy Adams) who wants to be close to her dad if only he wasn’t such an insufferable asshole. Trouble with the Curve is in fact the polar opposite of Moneyball. It goes out of its way to tell us that the new baseball (as seen in Moneyball and now used around the league) is much worse than the old school way of finding talent. Therefore everybody who has anything to do with computers and spreadsheets is presented as oafish and all the old guard is portrayed as lovable and eccentric. In addition to this incessant polarization the screenplay takes a turn for the worse when a telegraphed red herring from the first act is used to finish the movie in the cheapest way possible. During that first act of Trouble with the Curve I thought I was dealing with a movie that understood baseball, but it turned out it didn’t know anything about it at all. I guess I’ll have to grab my copy of Moneyball and erase Trouble with the Curve from my baseball loving brain.

chernobyl-diaries

192: Chernobyl Diaries

As far as useless found footage movies go Chernobyl Diaries is right up there with the worst of them. We are witness to a group of young people traveling around Europe and ending up in the Ukraine to participate in a tour of the area surrounding Chernobyl, the site of the most horrendous accident involving nuclear materials. Their focus is Pripyat, a village where everybody had to drop what they were doing to escape the evil that was spouting from the reactor. Now, supposedly, the radiation levels are low enough to go wandering around the village (which they aren’t by the way in real life). Of course their visit isn’t without peril, because when they want to leave the village they discover they are not alone, something has been left behind. Chernobyl Diaries comes from the brain of Oren Peli, who also fathered the Paranormal Activity series. As with so many other found footage crap movies, Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t think it’s necessary to actually convincingly tell us a story that could be called found footage. The camera angles are all circumstantial and in no way believable like the pioneers (e.g. The Blair Witch Project) were. Let’s hope Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t spawn a load of sequels as Paranormal Activity did and still does. That would be truly disastrous.

you-instead

193: You Instead (Tonight You’re Mine)

Having been to quite a few music festivals in my younger days (wow, I sound old) I can get behind the vibe of You Instead (or Tonight You’re Mine, I’m not sure which is the right title), David Mackenzie’s latest feature. He actually filmed the movie at a music festival and that lends it a tremendous amount of goodwill. Goodwill that is much needed, since the screenplay is nearly devoid of anything interesting. It is a love story about two musicians, one British and one American, who are handcuffed to each other by some mysterious festival patron. They will have to spend the rest of the weekend, their gigs and day-to-day activities chained to each other. Of course something beautiful blooms between the two of them and everything will be all right in the end. You see, nothing special. The charm of You Instead comes from the images and situations Mackenzie chooses. The drunk, muddy, stoned get-together around a campfire, the sweaty tents filled with thumping music and those quiet mornings when you try to think of a reason why you drank so much the night before (believe me, I’ve been there). This was actually the only reason why I continued watching You Instead… nostalgia. At least You Instead has a lot more life to it than Mackenzie’s last feature Perfect Sense, which I found excruciatingly boring and completely forgettable.

087: Jurassic Park

I can’t believe it has already been nearly twenty years since I sat in the theater waiting for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park to start. I had heard some things about this supposedly brilliant adventure. Back then it still took some time for movies to reach Europe, so it had been three months since it had been released in the United States. But nothing could have prepared me for the intense spectacle that was Jurassic Park.

I vividly remember the visual effects, which pushed the boundary of everything we knew about movies. I didn’t know where to look. This rich world was inhabited by these magnificent creatures that we had only seen in documentaries and old movies where they were still big evil lizards. When Spielberg revealed the Brontosaurus for the first time and we look up from the perspective of the characters we truly get the sense that these creatures are enormous, heavy and to a certain extent benign.

After that we are introduced to the Gallimimus dino’s running across a field and almost running us over in the process. We get into close proximity to the terrifying Tyrannosaurus Rex, whose bad breath we almost can smell through the screen. And last but not least the evil, but very smart Velociraptors, who can solve problems and, much to our amazement, can open a door. It took quite some effort to figure out which dino’s were practical and which were digital. It wasn’t until the release of the dvd that we got the full extent of all the trickery Spielberg displayed here.

The sound was also revolutionary, because it was one of the first movies to fully utilize the entire spectrum of the Dolby sound system. It was stunning. Now every movie uses surround sound, but I have never had the same experience since those screenings of Jurassic Park. The emotional impact of hearing birds and other creatures behind you, while somebody is being stalked in front of you was astonishing. Hearing those Gallimimus dino’s running past you over the sound system made that scene even more frightening. The rest of the sound design was brilliant as well. The sound of the T-Rex is deafening. Upon later viewings I tended to focus my attention to other people in the theater just to see their reaction to the T-Rex roar. And the constant drone in the background of the John Williams score made the movie move forward at a lightning pace. There were not a lot of moments to catch your breath in Jurassic Park.

Of course, after twenty years, some cracks begin to show in the varnish of such a classic. The tech sometimes seems hopelessly outdated… interactive cd-rom, wow!, the operating system at the end of the movie and other little things. The acting is also not always the greatest ever. I always felt Laura Dern missed a lot of beats and overplayed some of the scenes, although she is great in the Triceratops scene, which is arguably one of the better ones in the movie. The scares can be a bit cheap at times. Spoiler. When, for instance, Sam Jackson’s arm comes to rest on Dern’s shoulder and it is revealed that it is just his arm. Cheap, and unnecessary.

While I was very much an immediate fan of Jurassic Park, I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed that they left out some of the coolest scenes from the book, which I had already read. There was a scene with the flying Pterodactyls and a scene where Grant and the kids are being pursued by a swimming T-Rex. I soon realized that these scenes were nearly impossible to make at the beginning of the ’90s, when they were still testing the deep waters of digital visual effects. They tried to make up for these omissions in the two sequels, but these movies were so bad that the excitement over the inclusions of these parts was killed almost immediately.

Jurassic Park will always be one of the watershed moments for myself. Like seeing Back to the Future in the theater as a kid, or watching Terminator 2 for the first time, or being blown away by the Star Wars movies (not the prequels). It doesn’t matter to me that Jurassic Park starts showing its age after twenty years, I watch this movie for the sheer fun of it and now I get to share that with my kids, which makes it even better. I love Jurassic Park. Period.

> IMDb