204-208: Movies on an airplane

Watching movies on an airplane is never the most beneficial way. The screen is way too small and the movie itself is cropped, if not downright censored by the airline. But it does give you the opportunity to watch those movies that you never were intending to watch anyway. Recently I found myself on a round trip to Europe (a ten-hour flight), so I had some catching up to do. I ended up watching five movies all the way through and one, Madagascar 3, which I will finish at a later opportunity, because that movie was just bat shit crazy. The five movies I watched were:

204: Rock of Ages

rock-of-agesHoly smokes, this was a mixed bag of good and bad feelings. I love ‘80s music, I love a good musical now and then and I generally like it when Tom Cruise goes balls to the wall. But Rock of Ages was just too much for me. Some of the songs I could get through, because to be honest some of the originals just deserve to be butchered, youth sentiment or not. Other songs were just too horrendous for words. For example, Malin Akerman and Cruise trying to create some sort of horrible version of Foreigner’s I Want to Know What Love Is (one of my favorite songs ever) made me jump to the screen to find the fast forward button. It was that horrendous. Besides the mostly not-so-good renditions of the songs the screenplay in itself had nothing new to bring to the table and started to irritate me after a while. In the end Rock of Ages just felt like an experiment gone wrong.

205: The Sweeney

the-sweeneyThe British are a rough bunch and The Sweeney proves that you don’t want to get on the wrong side of the law over there. Ray Winstone plays Regan, a hard-nosed cop who leads a team of officers who have their own particular brand of law enforcement. They don’t shy away from methods that are by many deemed less than desirable, but they get the job done and for some that is the only thing that counts. Regan comes under fire from Internal Affairs exactly because of his methods and to complicate his situation even further he is having an affair with the investigator from IA and an old adversary suddenly decides to return to the scene. With a pulse-pounding soundtrack, moody photography and excellent acting The Sweeney proves it is a force to be reckoned with. The Sweeney combines the style of Michael Mann, the bombast of Christopher Nolan and the mindless action of Michael Bay to create a whole that is thoroughly entertaining.

206: Men in Black 3

men-in-black-3I was never a big fan of Men in Black. I found it to be really on the nose and most of the time not that funny. I was, however, impressed by the chemistry between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. In Men in Black 2 some of that chemistry was there, but it was overshadowed by an extremely bad screenplay that wasn’t able to reproduce any of the good stuff from the first movie. Now, several years later, we get a third installment, and I must say that the the people behind the scenes have redeemed themselves. This is a very funny and even in some way emotional return to the characters we liked so much in part one. Especially Josh Brolin as a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones is a home run. The movie has enough momentum to move along at a brisk pace with an ending that took me completely by surprise. I did not see that twist coming, but maybe that was a stuffy atmosphere in the airplane playing tricks on me.

207: The Bourne Legacy

the-bourne-legacyI like the original Bourne Trilogy very much. Matt Damon managed to create a character that was on one hand a terminator and on the other a human being searching for his identity. All the machinations around him made these movies even more compelling, but it was really Damon who sold them. With The Bourne Ultimatum Paul Greengrass finished the trilogy in a very satisfying manner, so why would we need a fourth Bourne movie? Beats me, and The Bourne Legacy didn’t make me a believer either. We are led to believe that there are more people like Bourne out there, which is not really a stretch, and that they are controlled by a Jurassic Park-like scheme revolving around mysterious chems without which the agents can’t really perform. Legacy starts out decent with Jeremy Renner proving he is certainly up to the task to perform the physical part of the role, but director Tony Gilroy (writer of the original trilogy) can’t keep up the pace and he gets bogged down in a run-of-the-mill story that in no way can hold a candle to the Damon-Bourne movies. For the most part I was pretty much bored to tears by The Bourne Legacy.

208: The Watch

the-watchWhen The Watch was released in theaters I had the feeling I had already seen the best parts of the movie by seeing the trailer several times. And I wasn’t far off, because that was almost entirely true. Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and relative newcomer Richard Ayoade are all members of the neighborhood watch, while they don’t really share the same intentions for this extracurricular activity. As it so happens an alien invasion is about to go down in their neighborhood and they seem to be the last line of defense for the human race. The one thing that is great about The Watch is director Akiva Schaffer’s willingness to let his cast go off the rails most of the time. I got the feeling that a lot of what is shown in The Watch was actually improvised by the comedians during shooting. The most hilarious moments come when Vaughn and Hill are let loose, these guys are improve masters and it shows. If only the rest of the movie was as good as those moments. The Watch is long, largely not very funny and ultimately unsatisfying. Given the cast and crew involved this could have been a slam dunk, now… not so much.

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090: Top Gun

Top Gun is a guilty pleasure for me. I saw it twice in the theater, I listened to the soundtrack constantly and loved (and still love) the high adrenaline action that Tony Scott unleashed onto the world. Be honest, what’s more exciting than fighter jets screaming across the screen, hopelessly macho talk and unadulterated romantic thoughts about what it means to be a hero.

Top Gun is about hot shot pilots who are chosen to go to the infamous Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOP GUN) at Miramar, California (now located at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada). One of these pilots is Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), who takes this challenge on with both hands along with his navigator Goose (Anthony Edwards). At TOP GUN they must contend with equally impressive pilots who are hellbent on being the best of the best. Even if that means they have to play volleyball all oiled up and bare chested.

Not exactly the truth

Everyone who thinks this is what really goes on at TOP GUN is sorely mistaken. This is a Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson production directed by Tony Scott. Everything you see here should be taken with a grain of salt, even though the script was written with the consent of the Navy and under the guidance of a slew of real life pilots and crewmen. There is a ring of truth somewhere underneath all the machismo, but you will have to dig deep, because it is buried pretty good. There were numerous moments during the development phase when consultants told the writers that they got things wrong, but it fell on deaf ears. Probably for the better, otherwise Top Gun would have been a lot more serious and likely a lot less fun.

This was Tony Scott’s second feature film after The Hunger and he wastes no time to get Top Gun going. After the beautiful and rousing opening title sequence the F-14 Tomcats screech off the deck of the carrier with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone screaming from the speakers. We are treated to an encounter between Maverick and a Mig (always as faceless as they can be) and then a terrifying ordeal involving a pilot too scared to land his F-14 on the carrier. If those first few minutes don’t get your heart racing, I don’t know what will. After that it is smooth sailing for Scott, who has the audience eating out of his hand by now, and his merry band of magnificent men.

We go from one training session to another. All of them filled to the brim with brilliant shots of fighters doing some incredible flying. All, of course, nothing like it’s done in reality. But hey, where’s the fun in that. On top of all this we get a classic love story between Maverick and Charlie (Kelly McGillis) involving a lot of back-and-forth and one of the best love themes ever written for a movie (Berlin’s Take My Breath Away). Val Kilmer is vicious as Iceman, Maverick’s nemesis, who just wants one thing: prove Maverick isn’t as good as he seems. And I almost forgot to mention Meg Ryan in her (almost) starmaking role as the young wife of the ill-fated prankster Goose.

The Hero’s Journey

Top Gun is a movie that is often dismissed as being only about jerks flying jets under a blanket of terrible ’80s music. I happen to think that Top Gun is more than that. This is a fun movie about heroics and the Hero’s Journey. In a lot of ways Maverick is the quintessential hero according to Joseph Campbell’s theory on what makes a hero. Campbell says the following:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

If that isn’t Maverick’s trek than I don’t know what is. Maverick is taken from his everyday life to go to TOP GUN, a magical world where he is allowed to fly these enormous machines in what feels to him as a game. The fabulous forces are his classmates (Val Kilmer’s Iceman in particular) and of course the Russians who he faces in the decisive battle. He comes back from that a bigger, maybe even wiser, man. Along the way he conquers the girl (not exactly a damsel in distress), has several encounters with the wise wizard (Tom Skerritt’s Viper) and he overcomes severe tragedy. It is fascinating to see that Campbell’s theory yet again can be applied in such a successful manner.

This might very well be the reason why Top Gun works so well, along with the most obvious example where Campbell is utilized: Star Wars. Maverick is the guy we all want to be. He is cocky, brash, handsome, arrogant and he gets to fly fighter jets.  Like Luke Skywalker. What more does one want from life? But Maverick also has doubts; doubts we all can relate to. Will he ever measure up to his almost mythological father, who was a brilliant fighter pilot over Vietnam. Will he be able to perform at the level these people except him to? All questions we all have struggled with at one time or another. This makes Maverick a well rounded character we can all relate to in a movie that is just incredibly fun to watch and to return to often.

> IMDb

059: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

I really like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, but that shouldn’t come as such a big surprise. Its director is Brad Bird, the same director who brought us The Incredibles, The Iron Giant and Ratatouille, arguably some of the best animated movies out there. But Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is not an animated movie, or is it? No, of course it isn’t, but it certainly could have been.

There are some breathtaking sequences in this action packed thriller. The scaling of the Burj Khalifa and a chase during a sandstorm are just the tip of an iceberg. These sequences are often so outlandish that it is hard to believe somebody actually performed these stunts, most of them by Tom Cruise himself. That guy is nuts.

The bottom line is that Brad Bird knows how to frame his action sequences and infuse them with an intelligent sense of humor (courtesy of Simon Pegg). He knows how to keep his movies flowing even if they have a running time of nearly two hours. From the first scene to the final battle this is one fun rollercoaster. I hope this franchise stays under control of people like J.J. Abrams, people who know how to handle this type of material, for the foreseeable future.

> IMDb

041: The Color of Money

Back in the day I watched The Color of Money before watching The Hustler. I had no idea who Fast Eddie Felson was, but the movie had Tom Cruise, so I had to see it. I really, really liked Top Gun. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that The Hustler was a big part of watching The Color of Money. Now, I watched them both back to back and although the latter is not as good as the former, it is still an excellent film. It has actually aged rather well.

After 25 years we reconnect with Fast Eddie Felson. The last time we saw him he walked out of that poolhall with some money and a little bit of dignity. Now he is a hustling liquor salesmen who sells second grade spirits as if they were the finest drinks in the world. On one fateful night he sees a young guy (Tom Cruise) playing pool and decides to take him under his wing. Along with the young man’s girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) he starts off on a roadtrip that will take them to Atlantic City for a high stakes pool tournament.

Paul Newman reprises his role as Fast Eddie and it is a delight to see him in this role again. After having been nominated for an Oscar numerous times (also for The Hustler), he finally won the coveted golden man. This older Eddie is much more calculated then the young Eddie. You never really know when Eddie is hustling somebody. Even when it seems to be clear that Eddie has been hustled by Amos, you still can’t entirely be sure that it wasn’t just a ploy to get Vincent riled up. The same sensibility was evident in The Hustler and it is to Scorsese’s credit that he manages to include this here. It is as if the director is hustling the audience while they are watching the movie. A brilliant move.

Also very good is Scorsese’s casting of Tom Cruise, who by that time was still building his career. Cruise is perfect for the role of Vincent. He is a young guy who has the world to conquer, but he needs to learn how to do that without getting getting sucked into a vortex of greed and hubris. You get the sense that a lot of Vincent is Cruise himself. He needs a mentor, and that’s where Eddie comes in, though it is never clear what Eddie’s intentions really are. Throw into the mix the dodgy and conniving girlfriend played by Mastrantonio, who wants the best for Vincent, no matter how, and you have a very potent mix.

The Color of Money is a movie that struck me as slow and cumbersome when I first saw it, but with a few more years under my belt and have watched The Hustler in a double feature I must say that Scorsese’s movie holds up very well. It is a compelling piece of work.

> IMDb

024: Legend

This is the third movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Well, another older Ridley Scott movie passed before my eyes and, dare I say, what a train wreck it was. Legend is Scott’s fourth feature film and was released in 1985, right when a small resurgence of the fantasy film was happening with movies like The Dark Crystal, the Star Wars movies, and later LabyrinthThe Princess Bride and Willow being the closer in 1988. Elements of all these films can be found in Scott’s Legend and not in a good way.

Legend is a criminally uneven film that wants to be everything at once. Scott has a general idea of what he wants to show and of course how to show that, but during most of the movie he is grasping at straws to make ends meet. For example during supposedly dark scenes we are ‘treated’ to some annoying goblins clearly meant as comic relief that feels totally out of place here. Admittedly, the first half of the movie is slow, but there is still a sense of purpose, albeit muddled by terrible dialogue and acting. It is the second half where Legend truly falls apart.

The heroes end up in a spooky dungeon, the heroine is enslaved by the devil and dances like there’s no tomorrow. There is a lot of other stuff going on that is just not interesting and poorly executed. It would have helped a lot to have protagonists to root for. The young actors playing the leads, Tom Cruise (just before he hit it big) and Mia Sara, are not up to the task. Cruise looks confused a lot and Sara just looks afraid and bland. They totally drown in Scott’s lush imagination and have no clue what to make of it all.

It can be said that every successful director has his or her breaking point. A point where hubris and talent don’t perfectly match up anymore. Scott dodged a bullet with Blade Runner, a movie that was quickly embraced by a cult audience, because that is really a good movie. With Legend Scott wasn’t so lucky. He bit off more than he could chew with this one and it put him back on Earth with both his feet. I understand that there is a cult following for this fantasy epic, but that is totally unrealistic and based on people having seen the movie as a kid and still believing that the movie is as good as it was in their young eyes.

Legend is not a good movie. It is slow, boring and just not fun to watch. You can take any of the titles mentioned above (especially Labyrinth) to have a good time with a fantasy story. Let’s leave Legend where it belongs… in Scott’s imagination.

(For the purists: I watched the Director’s Cut with the Jerry Goldsmith score.)

> IMDb