Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Best (and Worst) of 2011 So Far

As we pass through July, it’s a good time to take stock of the year as it’s been so far.

It seems safe to say this year is already a bit better than last year. This time last year, we really only had Cyrus, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, How to Train Your Dragon, Inception, Kick-Ass, The Kids Are All Right, Mother, Shutter Island, Toy Story 3, and Winter’s Bone that were worth their Salt (another worthwhile flick). That seems like a lot, but that’s roughly 10 really good to great movies in seven months; the rest were decent at best – many of which were somewhat disappointing (Iron Man 2, anyone?). We have a bit more than that to look to this year.

Now, feel free to take this article with a certain grain of salt as I have yet to see the following 20 films of 2011: Another Earth, Attack the Block, Bad Teacher, The Beaver, Beginners, Bridesmaids, Fast Five, Friends with Benefits, Hobo with a Shotgun, Horrible Bosses, Limitless, The Lincoln Lawyer, Meek’s Cutoff, Midnight in Paris, Paul, Project Nim, Rango, The Tree of Life, Unknown, and Winnie the Pooh. While I may not exactly be a complete authority I have seen 20 other films.  That means that there were roughly 40 movies so far this year worth seeing compared to last year's 10 or so!

Let's begin with the 5 Worst Films of the Year So Far. These weren’t merely movies that were highly-anticipated and proved the most disappointing as much as just plain awful films that weren’t necessarily expected to be so awful (as opposed to movies like The Zookeeper or Big Momma’s: Like Father, Like Son).

5. Rio

I bet you didn’t realize this year has already had over five animated releases. I challenge you to remember most of them. Well, you can count Rio among the most forgettable. It’s not that Rio is an overtly awful film; it’s fine. But that’s precisely why it is one of the worst films of the year. Despite its brilliantly colored palette, Rio is so conventional in its storytelling and character development that it is boring. I’ve never been so bored at the theater enough to fall asleep until I saw Rio. I managed to fight off the sleep enough to have only missed a couple minutes here and there. However, a film that tries to be so lively and colorful should not ever be boring – and an even bigger failure is if it makes someone fall asleep.

4. Battle: Los Angeles

Terrible dialogue, idiotic writing, predictable scene structure, incredibly derivative plotting. That is Battle: Los Angeles. The action seems engaging enough, the concept slightly unique, and Aaron Eckhart and Michelle Rodriguez help carry the film. But afterwards, when you think about more than how cool it looked, you realize you were just spoon-fed a cool-looking piece of crap. There are just too many flaws for this film to overcome even as popcorn fun. As I write this, I’m reminded of how many would describe Michael Bay’s films in a similar way. In those terms, Battle: Los Angeles is somewhere between Tranformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Transformers; you won’t be offended by its stink, but you’ve seen better brainless action elsewhere.

3. The Green Hornet

It may be credited as directed by Michel Gondry of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but this is Seth Rogen’s show all the way. Rogen had a pretty good decade with performances in such films as Knocked Up and Superbad that turned him into one of the top comedic talents of the time and earning him a spot among my favorite actors of the digital age. His work in The Green Hornet single-handedly damaged my respect for him. It seems all the attention may have gone to his head as evidenced by reports of clashing with creative directors who tried bringing new ideas to Rogen’s script (Stephen Chow was also the film’s director at one point, but fired over creative differences). All of this apparent arrogance comes across in The Green Hornet, a film with a couple notable moments, but overall far from being as funny or cool as it wants to be. This is the Observe & Report of crime-fighter movies; it wants to be something different and irreverent, but ends up being an unpleasant mess. The film’s biggest crime: wasting the talent of Christoph Waltz, who earned a well-deserved Oscar last year for his performance in Inglorious Basterds.

2. Passion Play

When the star of your film trashes it in interviews prior to its release and the studio gives it a release that makes the term ‘limited’ seem massive a month before the film is sent to DVD, there’s something not right (it grossed $3,669). Such was the case for Passion Play. This was supposed to be Megan Fox’s first crack at dramatic acting. She plays an angelic beauty (literally: she has feathered wings!) who escapes the carnival scene to run off with a down-on-his-luck trumpet player played by Mickey Rourke (who described the film as “terrible”). To be fair, the leads do what they can with the material (Rourke even complimented Fox as one of the best actresses he’d ever worked with). The problem is Passion Play was written and directed by Mitch Glazer, a first-time director and former music journalist. All the film’s problems begin with the writing and end with the directing. It is atrocious – not even worth checking out for the actors since they aren’t given any helpful direction to rise above the material. I sincerely hope Glazer goes away for a while to learn how to write a story or direct… anything. How the hell did Bill Murray, who is famously inaccessible, get talked into appearing in this anyway?

1. Super

Topping Passion Play as the worst film of the year so far is quite a feat. Super accomplishes this without a problem. I can credit Ellen Page’s performance in this film as the single piece of enjoyment that Passion Play lacked – but even that is ruined. Horrifically. Super was directed by James Gunn (Slither), so it actually had a confidence that Passion Play lacked. However, despite those positives, Super is the most unpleasant experience anybody could possibly have watching a movie – Passion of the Christ is a more enjoyable experience since its unpleasantness at least had an artistry one could appreciate. That form of unpleasantness does not figure into Super. This is a film where a completely unsympathetic protagonist cracks heads open with a wrench and repeatedly beats a man’s skull into a fireplace long after that man has died. These acts of brutal violence don’t occur with stylistic flair as in Kill Bill or Kick-Ass, another “real-life superhero” film. The camera either stays on the brutality we’re witnessing or conveys such violence matter-of-factly. Super is a comedy that is not funny (mostly). It is a superhero movie that is not fun. It is not a good time or a thought-provoking deconstruction of heroism. It is the closest to witnessing real-life violence you’ll ever get (if you’re lucky); you are horrified, will want to shower away the filth of the experience ASAP, and contemplate reporting what you’ve witnessed to the proper authorities. I wouldn't recommend this to any kind of audience. 
It's that bad.

Since we’re only half-way through the year, I’ll present you with a list only half as long as the norm, a Best 5 of the Year:

5. X-Men: First Class

Back in 2006, after many snags during its production (including director turn-around) and three years’ worth of anticipation, the third X-Men film was released. It grossed $234.3 million domestically, roughly $24 million more than its budget (compare that to X2’s $214.9 million dom. gross and $110 million budget) and was widely regarded as a creative disappointment by fans and critics. It was followed in 2009 by a spin-off / prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which turned out to be even more ridiculous and upsetting to fans than its predecessor (to continue the comparison, its domestic gross was $179.8 million with a $150 million budget). As a result, despite announcements of more projects coming down the pike, confidence in the X-Men franchise had declined. So, when X-Men: First Class was announced as part of this summer’s release schedule, my expectations were middling to poor. Imagine my surprise to discover the film ended up being good enough to land on any ‘Best of’ list of mine! While it introduces many new characters, it only deepens the relationships between more familiar ones – most especially Professor Xavier and Magneto with Michael Fassbender as a young Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr providing the film’s most compelling moments. Like a shape-shifter suffering from an identity crisis, the film seems uncertain if it is a prequel or a reboot. But it is by far the biggest surprise and the least-flawed, most character-driven superhero film of the year so far.

4. Super 8

When one hears a film was made by the combined might of such creative visionaries as J. J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg, it’s tough to not get excited (this fall’s Tintin is the only film that one-ups it this year with Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and Edgar Wright all working together). Add to that a concept that plays to their respective successes with the monster movie genre (the Abrams-produced Cloverfield and Spielberg’s Jaws and Jurassic Park) and also their childhood love of filmmaking, with homage by Abrams to the ‘80s Amblin films – you’ve got the perfect recipe for success. Super 8 nearly knocked it out of the park with performances by its young stars that completely over-shadowed the adult cast and a sense of wonder we haven’t seen for nearly 20 years. The film falls short of being a grand-slam, failing to capture an emotional connection to the characters that were so key to the creative successes of films like E.T., which proves mildly disappointing. But there’s enough here to appreciate Super 8 as one of the best original films of the year.

3. Hanna

The next three films are completely different from each other, but their quality is arguably on par with one another. The first is Hanna, the first great film I saw this year. This thriller gave us one of the year’s best characters in Saoirse Ronan’s teenage assassin-on-the-run (Ronan and Super 8’s Elle Fanning outshine every grown-up actress of the year so far). Not only did Hanna provide us with some great action scenes, but was also incredibly character-driven, with what I found to be an existential subtext. Coincidentally, Hanna shares one commonality with every film on this list: it has one of the best scores of the year, in this case by the Chemical Brothers.

2. Kung Fu Panda 2

Who would’ve thought that the year’s DreamWorks animated movie would end up being more successful than this year’s Pixar movie? Believe it or not, it happened. Not only did Kung Fu Panda 2 manage to avoid feeling superfluous, but it was within reach of the Pixar standard of storytelling. There seemed to be minimal anticipation behind KFP2, but it turned out to be the richest and most engaging story of the year so far – and its 3D was incredible proving to actually add to the experience! If you missed this in theaters (for shame!) then be sure to catch it on Blu-ray in a couple months.

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II

The crown jewel to what became one of the greatest and most consistent sagas in film history. The Deathly Hallows is the only film so far this year to fully satisfy expectations with the least amount of flaws. If you are like me and have never really read the books on which the series is based then the Deathly Hallows Part II had a lot of surprises in store for you. Was it a perfect film? No. As part of a film series it failed to include characters from past entries that reason (and the gravity of the film’s events) would dictate should’ve returned and there’s room to quibble about other supporting characters in the film. Given how much of a rousing success this film is at its aims – and how satisfying a conclusion it is to the series – those are all incredibly minor. The Deathly Hallows Part II gave us some of the best character-driven action of the year and served as satisfying a conclusion as we were ever likely to get.

For better or worse, that’s the year 2011 in film so far. What are your takes? Which film do you think is the best or worst? Comment below or ‘like’ the Facebook Page to the right. Also, cast a vote on the poll just above the Facebook badge.

I look forward to hearing your feedback.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Gibson Review Takes a Seat in the Back

It seems fitting that this week's post and poll are devoted to final chapters in film given this week's announcement. 

Due to the demands of a career change I'm undergoing, I will no longer be posting weekly on The Gibson Review.

This is expected to only be temporary and the hope is that after a few months, once things have smoothed over, you will once again see movie reviews and editions of Remember That Movie and Film Faves on a regular basis.  The inspiration behind this site has always been the pursuit of a career in film journalism (or whatever they call it now).  The reality of the situation is I need a job that can pay the bills and allow me to pursue that passion.

To those five of you who've somehow become devoted readers of mine I say, fear not: my hope is to still continue posting editions of Film Faves once a month, provided there's interest.  I've got too many plans for its future to let it fall by the wayside.

Also, be sure to frequently check in to the Gibson Review Facebook Page!  I will still be posting trivia questions, movie news, poll announcements, updates to the site, and other movie chatter on a regular basis.

So, thanks for reading.  I'm really sorry for this sudden turn of events. 

Keep watching and keep the discussion alive with me on Facebook.

Deathly Hallows Part II: An Ending Worth The Wait

The end was near. Now it is here.

After ten years and seven other movies, the Harry Potter film series is now movie history.

To mention any specifics about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II would be to risk giving away spoilers (although you may want to spend a great deal of time discussing those specifics with somebody afterwards). However, there are reveals in Part II that I would put up against those of any in film history, including the Vader/Skywalker reveal in The Empire Strikes Back (as a matter of fact, one can spot a handful of parallels to the Star Wars saga here, daddy issues aside).

In my review of The Deathly Hallows Part I, I pointed out how exceptional the film series is for maintaining both its quality and its cast. For anyone who’s followed the series, this is especially evident in The Deathly Hallows Part II. You will notice elements from every film are paid off from the smallest appearances to significant characters or plot-driven moments. You will even notice many peripheral students – still played by the same actors – make appearances. Does every character from the series appear during the fight against Voldemort’s army? No, but it seems every student of Hogwarts – from Cho Chang to Seamus Finnigan - does and that might be just enough to satisfy. This is certainly just as fulfilling a final chapter as that of any film series.

Could one pick nits about the roles certain supporting characters play during the film’s last half or whether or not the deaths of certain villains are satisfying enough? Sure. But let’s be clear: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II is the best action movie of the year and just shy of the perfect pay-off to a decade-long series of films.

Bearing in mind this is the second half of a whole, do parts I and II work together or feel disjointed? Having yet to view both parts together, I would say from memory that The Deathly Hallows as a whole would be comparable to an installment of the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings. The first half has its typical Potter subterfuge and mischief, but spends a great length of time with our heroes hiding out at various remote locations, trying to figure out what to do next while at their most desperate. It’s the most character-driven hour of the entire series, but also makes possible Part II’s multiple pay-offs. Some ADD moviegoers may whine that it was too much time spent with no action. It probably never occurred to them that Harry Potter, while a series about magic and spell-spouting magicians, has always been story-driven not action-driven. The action really doesn’t come at full-force until the final act, which comprises most of the eighth film.

It should be noted that taken together at four and a half hours plus (Part II is over two hours long), with a somewhat complicated plot that involves allegories to fascism, a quest for parts of Voldemort’s soul, the reveal of interconnected back-stories, the deaths of many characters, and themes involving choosing your destiny, it is a bit much for anyone under the tween crowd to handle. This cannot be stressed enough. It’s as it should be. After all, Harry has grown up, why shouldn’t the series and its audience?

Besides, the fact that this film series refused to water things down or keep the mood whimsical – that it matured rather than remained stagnant – is one of the reasons why it is superior to not just most fantasy films, but most films, period.

This is a series that lasted through eight films and no matter what your personal preferences are throughout it there isn’t a single installment that could be legitimately dismissed as ‘bad’ – not even the first two films, which are considered the worst compared to the rest. How many franchises (not just series) can you think of that ended better than it began? How many of those, if any, maintained their quality as well as the Harry Potter series? None. Not a single one. Any series you can think of that lasted longer than three films couldn’t even keep its entire cast (deaths notwithstanding) let alone its quality as consistent as Harry Potter. It is unprecedented.

The fact that characters like McGonagall, Snape, and Longbottom were played by the same actors throughout the series only made your connection to those characters greater. It is an experience matched only by the original Star Wars trilogy and the Lord of the Rings films (again, only three films each).

The Harry Potter films turned into something nobody expected (remember those reports years ago full of uncertainty whether Emma Watson or Daniel Radcliffe would return?). It probably is nothing short of luck that brought the right circumstances together (Rowling’s input on the films, the right collection of creative collaborators, a loyal cast, etc.). It will probably never happen again – at least not for eight films – even if Warner Bros. foolishly plots an inevitable much-too-soon reboot someday.

Despite whatever flaws or nits you can pick throughout, the Harry Potter series was simply magical.

As The Deathly Hallows Part II reaches its climax and you find out if The Boy Who Lived will die at the hands of You Know Who, it will begin to dawn on you that the end is very near. You won’t be sure you’re ready for it to be.

That’s when you know you’ve experienced a truly great saga.


Should you see it? Buy tickets (2D)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II is now in theaters in 2D and post-converted 3D.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Film Faves: 1993

Hey there folks and welcome back to another edition of Film Faves!

Film Faves is a regular feature here on The Gibson Review wherein I count down my twelve favorites of any given film topic.  Other sites may offer an objective 'Best of', 'Top Ten' countdown with some Honorable Mentions.  With Film Faves, I fill you in on a topic and countdown my favorite dozen - that's it.  Think of it as a celebration of film and an extra insight into what really gets me jazzed about movies.

The march through time continues this time with the year 1993.  Let's get on with it.

While the year 1993 may not be considered as significant a year in film as what was to come in 1994, it still was a great year in terms of its large quantity of quality films.

To start off, the most prestige of prestige films and perhaps the greatest film of the past 30 years, Schindler's List was released and inevitably won the major awards.  Other prestige pictures of the year included The Age of Innocence, In the Name of the Father, The Joy Luck Club, The Piano, Philadelphia, The Remains of the Day, and Surf Ninjas.  Ok, maybe not that last one.

The foreign film circuit included Belle Epoque, Farewell My Concubine, Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors: Blue (the first of a trilogy), and - of course - Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II.

On the other end of the spectrum, in the field of the silly or low-brow comedy, Jim Carrey and Pauly Shore both had their first leading roles in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Son in Law, respectively.  There were also the spoofs Hot Shots! Part Deux, Fatal Instinct, and National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1.

Horror fans were delighted by the promisingly-titled Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, which featured a final bit of fan service at the end that wouldn't pay off for another ten years with Freddy vs. Jason.  Also, the third chapter in the Evil Dead series, Army of Darkness thrilled many.  And former Ewok and Nelwyn Warwick Davis plastered on the make-up to star in Leprechaun.

Alicia Silverstone made her debut in the thriller The Crush and Macauley Culkin turned bad in The Good Son.

Other notable films of the year include Addams Family Values, Carlito's Way, Dazed and Confused, Rising Sun, The Sandlot, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Short Cuts, Six Degrees of Separation (Will Smith's dramatic film debut), The Three Musketeers, and What's Love Got to Do With It.

No year is immune to crap, however, and 1993 had a fair share with Cop and a Half, Life with Mikey, Look Who's Talking Now, Mr. Nanny, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, Son of the Pink Panther, Striking Distance, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, Weekend at Bernies II, and the king of shitty video game movies: Super Mario Bros.

As with 1994, there were way too many films I loved to fit on the list.  This is more so the case than last time with such films as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Cliffhanger, Cool Runnings, Dave, Demolition Man, Falling Down, The Firm, Last Action Hero, Manhattan Murder Mystery (inspired by deleted portions of Annie Hall), Much Ado About Nothing, The Nightmare Before Christmas, A Perfect World, and Rudy all falling off the list.

Here are the ones that did make the list of my favorite films of


12. True Romance

It may come as a surprise being as how I’m generally a pretty big Quentin Tarantino fan that I only recently caught up with this love story that he penned and Tony Scott directed. In general, I don’t consider myself a Tony Scott fan (Unstoppable was his first good film since Crimson Tide), but I really enjoyed True Romance. Man and woman fall in love one night. Woman turns out to be a hooker. Man visits woman’s pimp and ends up killing him. Pimp has connections to a drug lord. Man accidentally steals a suitcase full of cocaine. Drug lord sends men after man and woman. Typical love story, no? What blows my mind about this film is its cast: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Michael Rappaport, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Bronson Pinchot, Michael Madsen, and Chris Penn! How is it possible to get so many talented people together in one movie?! Interestingly, the film’s ending as originally scripted was not so happy for the couple. But Tarantino eventually conceded respectfully to Scott’s fairy tale take on his script and the happier ending won out.

11. Groundhog Day

Bill Murray stars as a man doomed to literally repeat the same day over and over again. That simple premise was enough to provide some of the best comedy of the decade. Ned Ryerson, Punxsutawney Phil, ‘I’ve Got You, Babe’, the suicides… Thankfully, director Harold Ramis had more to offer than a simple gimmick with some gags. In order to un-stick himself from time, Murray’s character must become a better person, which partially involves a romance with a co-worker (Andie McDowell). Groundhog Day is a classic (the AFI named it among the 100 greatest comedies) and arguably Bill Murray’s last great comedic performance. How many times do you suppose he relived that day, anyway?

10. Sleepless in Seattle

Meg Ryan made three romantic comedies with Tom Hanks. Sleepless in Seattle is her best work with him. It’s ironic then that this is the film where they share the least amount of screen time together. What makes it such a great film? It has a charm and strength of writing unmatched by Joe Versus the Volcano or You’ve Got Mail. Unlike many rom-coms – including the latter – the plot does not rely on the romantic leads refusing to initiate a particular conversation. No, instead the widowed Hanks must first re-enter the dating pool, Ryan must become aware of her passionless engagement, and then they must find each other! It is clearly by design that this film pays homage to one of the most conventionally romantic melodramas of Hollywood’s Golden Age, An Affair to Remember. Sleepless, with heart on its skyscraper, swoons at old notions of romance – and it is sweeter and more wholesome for it. The danger of the film then is its surface-level idealization of romantic love and its effects on any 13 year-olds who are looking to find true love – or even a date, for that matter. Regardless, appearances by Rob Reiner, Rita Wilson, Rosie O’Donnell, Gaby Hoffman, and David Hyde Pierce help make this as delightful a confection as those heart-shaped boxes of chocolates.

9. In the Line of Fire

Here’s a nice little political thriller. John Malkovich is frightening as a man plotting to kill the president. Clint Eastwood plays an aging Secret Service agent who was at Kennedy’s side that faithful day decades ago in Dallas, Texas. Malkovich and Eastwood engage in a gripping game of cat-and-mouse. Rene Russo is stuck with perhaps the weakest character, a tough agent who represents the attitudes toward women in the workforce of the “That’s sexual harassment. And I don’t have to take it” nineties. She makes the most of it and manages to be just as sexy as she is essential to the team. Eastwood starred and directed another film in 1993 (A Perfect World) that is even less-remembered than this one – this being the better of the two – however both are worthwhile.

8. Fearless

Jeff Bridges had a career revival of sorts in recent years with Crazy Heart and True Grit. But before then, his best performance may have been in this film about post-traumatic survival. The film, directed by Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society), left quite an impression on me at an early age due to its compelling look at trauma and survivor’s guilt. Its unflinchingly realistic plane crash sequence preceded those of many movies and the TV series Lost. Rosie Perez won an Oscar for her performance as a woman who survived the crash, but lost her toddler and is unable to move on. This is Bridges’ show, though. He is disconnected from society and his family. He foolishly challenges the higher powers-that-be by frequently putting his life at risk. Perez’s character is the only one he can relate to and feel compassion for. Fearless is a moving film and one of the most underrated in the careers of both its director and star.

7. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

There were few films like Gilbert Grape – at least back in 1993. It’s a small-town rural film with a quirky cast of characters. However, unlike other small-scale movies with quirky characters, the ones in Gilbert Grape aren’t played for laughs; they feel as real as any rural community near you. In the center of it all is, of course, Gilbert (Johnny Depp in one of his best roles), a twenty-something who begins to feel trapped by the needs of those around him and longs to escape. Leonardo DiCaprio impressed many as a powerful new talent with his convincing early performance as Arnie, Gilbert’s developmentally disabled little brother who causes a lot of headaches by regularly climbing the town’s water tower. The rest of the cast includes Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen, Kevin Tighe, John C. Reilly, and Crispin Glover, all of whom bring quite a bit of humanity to the film, but no more than Darlene Cates as the Grape household’s morbidly obese matriarch. In every other film a character of her size is a one-dimensional joke. Here, she is a person and partially what anchors Gilbert to his town, even if he’s sometimes embarrassed by her. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? was directed by Lasse Hallstrom, the Swedish director behind My Life as a Dog and The Cider House Rules. It is such a beautiful film and Depp’s performance is so quiet and moving that it angers me to think the Academy snubbed his performances in both this film and Ed Wood, failing to recognize his talent until a performance as broad and flamboyant as Captain Jack Sparrow. Perhaps that’s the answer to this film’s title question.

6. My Life

My Life is a little-seen film starring Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman. Keaton plays a father-to-be who is secretly making a catalogue of tapes for his future son about his family, important life lessons, and father/son bonding subjects like how to shave. The reason for these tapes is he is dying of cancer and not expected to live through his wife’s pregnancy. I will admit right off that this film makes me ball like a little baby. It touches on so many aspects of fatherhood and the lessons a father might hope to teach his son. The film’s success depends entirely on Michael Keaton who gives an incredibly touching performance. Nicole Kidman offers a decent amount of support, despite having the film’s one cringe-worthy line (“Love us!”). Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that I’ve never been so moved by the sight of a circus as I have in this film.

5. Jurassic Park

Hold on to your butts… While this film drops a few spots due to a couple major continuity errors during the big T-Rex attack that were brought to my attention in recent years, Jurassic Park remains the best adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel and one of Spielberg’s most exciting films of the last twenty years. The velociraptors still scare and Jeff Goldblum, as the film’s chief skeptic, still relieves the tension. Two sequels followed, each worse than what came before, and a fourth film is still being knocked around in development. The experience of seeing believably-rendered dinosaurs walk the earth for the first time – and the phenomenon that chomped its way into pop culture – will never be captured again, even if they try it in 3D.

4. Gettysburg

The year is 1863, less than a hundred years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, three years into the Civil War, and less than 150 years ago. The Confederate and Union armies converged near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for a historic battle. It will end General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North, result in the war’s largest number of casualties, and lead to the Union’s victory. This is the story of that three-day engagement and the principle players in it. The film, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, at a run-time of over four hours, is deliberately paced and quite fatty with moments of pontificating monologues about the war and the relationships between characters of both sides. But it somehow never gets boring. No matter which half of the country you’re from it is without question the men depicted here on both sides are treated fairly and honored as generally good and admirable. What helps carry you through the film’s mammoth length isn’t so much that all of its strategizing and exposition actually goes somewhere (unlike the sequel, Gods & Generals). It is Randy Edelman’s rousing score and the incredible cast. Jeff Daniels, C. Thomas Howard, and Kevin Conway make up the Union’s triumvirate Chamberlain brothers and Sgt. Kilrain. They hold a fantastically intense defensive front that must make up forty minutes of the film; that battle and their relationship are the highlights of the film for me. Martin Sheen and Tom Berenger are the Confederacy’s General Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. They respectfully debate the strategy behind their invasion, hearing each other out with high regard. The rest of the cast features Richard Jordan (in his final role), Stephen Lang (future Avatar villain as Mjr. Gen. Pickett), Sam Elliott, cameos by Donal Logue, Ted Turner, George Lazenby, and Ken Burns, and thousands of Civil War reenactors. Gettysburg is the greatest depiction of the Civil War – albeit only a fraction of it – and one of the finest war films ever made.

3. The Fugitive

The Fugitive is perhaps the greatest movie based on a TV show ever (Mission: Impossible is probably a close 2nd). Harrison Ford plays a wealthy doctor on the hunt for his wife’s one-armed killer, all the while eluding Tommy Lee Jones’ wily U.S. Marshall. Here is a film that doesn’t merely attempt to mimic its source, but instead rises to another level. It’s an intelligent mystery with a couple clever twists, but also a great character-driven drama. Not only do we want Ford’s Richard Kimble to succeed and marvel at his cunning, but we also come to appreciate Jones’s Marshall and his bantering team of expert detectives. Also great is James Newton Howard’s score.

2. Mrs. Doubtfire

This film took third place as your favorite ‘dad’ movie in a recent poll. It may be my favorite of Robin Williams’ comedic roles. The film, directed by Chris Columbus (Home Alone, first two Harry Potter films), taps into the truths of divorce and the bond between a father and his kids without getting sappy. Oh yeah, it’s also really funny. Harvey Fierstein gives a memorable performance as the supportive gay make-up artist brother, without whom the entire plot wouldn’t be possible. Pierce Brosnan is great as the well-to-do man you want to hate who moves in on Daniel’s (Williams) ex-wife and kids. I cannot hear ‘Dude (Looks Like a Lady)’ without picturing Williams in drag rocking out while sweeping.

1. Tombstone

The cast. The dialogue. The score. I love just about everything in this movie. It’s amazing this film turned out as well as it did; the production was riddled with issues and director turn-over. Check this cast list out: Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Bill Paxton, Sam Elliott, Michael Biehn, Dana Delaney, Powers Boothe, Jon Tenney, Stephen Lang, Thomas Haden Church, Jason Priestley, Terry O’Quinn, Billy Zane, Michael Rooker, John Corbett, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Ben-Victor, Harry Carey Jr., Charlton Heston, and Robert Mitchum. That clearly kicks True Romance’s ass! Kilmer is a particular stand-out (an achievement in itself with such a cast) as Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp’s friend ‘til the end. Also worth noting, Kevin Jarre, screenwriter of Glory, wrote the script and directed Heston’s scenes. George P. Cosmatos, who’d previously directed First Blood Part II and Cobra, got the final director credit. Also, one Catherine Hardwick, who’d later direct Thirteen and Twilight, worked as the film’s production designer. Interestingly, Tombstone was released six months before a similar film, Wyatt Earp, starring Kevin Costner. Apparently, this isn’t much of a coincidence as Costner was originally interested in Tombstone, but felt Wyatt should be the main focus. He parted and made his own film. It did not do as well, as its gross failed to meet half its budget and only eleven of twenty-six critics reviewed it positively. Tombstone, on the other hand, is the second best western of the 1990s, in my opinion.

That about wraps up 1993.  What are your favorite movies?  Did I overlook any movies you loved that year?  Feel free to post a comment below or on the Facebook Fan Page.  Also, be sure to vote on the poll to the right.
Next time on Film Faves, Sharon Stone's legs get cross-examined, Steven Seagal goes toe-to-toe against Tommy Lee Jones, Clint Eastwood ponders violence, and a valley girl fights off vampires.  It's party time, excellent, with 1992 and a friend like you!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Remember That Movie: The Mad Max Trilogy

A revenge thriller. A post-apocalyptic Yojimbo. A kid-friendly adventure.

There are few trilogies as varied in both quality and tone as the Mad Max trilogy. In this edition of Remember That Movie, I’ll take a look at each installment of the trilogy, how the sequels fit into the series, their influence on cinema, and the careers of both George Miller and Mel Gibson, the major players behind Mad Max.

Buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time is here!

Mad Max (1979)

“I am the chosen one. The mighty hand of vengeance, sent down to strike the un-roadworthy!”

Mad Max is a low-budget Australian film inspired by society’s occasionally aggressive attitudes during the oil crisis of the early seventies. The story was conceived by Byron Kennedy (who also produced) and George Miller (who directed and co-wrote the script with James McCausland). How low was the budget? It was $300,000, so small that post-production was completed at Kennedy’s house.

Mel Gibson, who was unknown at the time and only 23 years old, got the part of Max Rockatansky by arriving at an audition with a friend the morning after being involved in a bar fight that left his face a swollen mess.

In case you don’t remember, the original Mad Max takes place in a dystopian future. We are given little information, but the police force seems to consist of patrolmen divided into two groups: Pursuits and Interceptors. Gangs commonly wreak havoc in the small towns of an Australian desert. One day, a speed-demon gang member, known as Night Rider, tears down the highway, crashing into anything and endangering the lives of anybody who crosses his path. Max is called to put the brakes on him. The chase ends horribly for the Night Rider. His gang, led by the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), hears of his demise and comes to a nearby town to wreak havoc. Max’s fellow officers become the target of their violence, which is more than Max, a family man, can take. Max quits and gets his family out of dodge. But they could not avoid crossing the gang’s path forever and their safe, happy life comes into danger.

That basic description pretty much covers the first two-thirds of the film, so I definitely won’t go into anymore detail. However, it’s a bit striking that the title character of Mad Max isn’t really all that mad for most of the film; he’s a pretty well-adjusted dude. Therefore, the title is a bit misleading. The title also suggests it’s a revenge flick wherein Max is the one exacting the revenge – that’s not entirely accurate either. Mad Max IS a revenge flick, but more in the sense that vengeance begets further vengeance. Really, it is the villains of the story who exact revenge on the law and innocents, which then infects these symbols of order and decency with a thirst for an even harsher reckoning.

This is a very interesting twist to the genre that I think helps set Mad Max apart.

Having said that, being a low-budgeted film, Mad Max is not immune to the merciless wear of time. It does have some aspects that seem quite silly – not intentionally or tonally so, but because it is a product of its time (ironic, since it’s supposed to be set in the future). For example, there is a scene with a disco café that is just plain ridiculous. But most of these elements seem to be filmmaking choices, such as the dramatic score that blares whenever the Hall of Justice appears onscreen or when Max reacts particularly upset by something (the camera quickly zooms in for extra dramatic effect!). Mad Max would certainly seem less dated – and thereby more effective – if not for these things.

You can’t really blame first-time director George Miller much, considering everything else he got right. Overall, the film is one of the best examples of the revenge genre and features a couple car chases that are more thrilling than those of many more expensive movies. Not only that, but the villains have a very unique look and the vehicles captured the hearts of many car lovers.

Mad Max earned a world-wide gross of $100 million, making it the highest profit-to-cost ratio movie ever (until 1999’s The Blair Witch Project). Only $8 million of that profit came from a U.S. theatrical run, which was most likely limited due to an aesthetic of the film most often described as ‘Ozploitation’, a term referring to Australia’s cheap exploitation fringe movies (for more on this, see the documentary Not Quite Hollywood).

As for Mel Gibson, Mad Max is often remembered for making the lead actor a star. That’s not quite accurate, but it did kick his career in gear; Mel starred in Tim and Gallipoli after Mad Max. It wasn’t until after Mad Max 2 that Gibson crossed over into Hollywood. While others went on to a decades-long career in acting, Gibson was the only cast-member to become a star.

That stardom wouldn’t follow until after the Mad Max trilogy.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

“Only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive. The gangs took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice.”

Two years later, the first sequel to Mad Max was released. In case you don’t remember, Mad Max 2 begins with a prologue delivered via montage and voice-over narration of both the main bullet points of the previous film and a post-apocalyptic set-up. After a nuclear war, the world became desolate; gas is a commodity worth killing for, and gangs of thugs rape and murder mercilessly for it. Max himself, now a silent and brooding loner, finds himself in the middle of a conflict between a community of decent people protecting an oil refinery and a ruthless gang who wants to take it from them. Will the Road Warrior help the community fight off the vicious gang of freaks or carry on with his own survival?

Mad Max 2 is better known to Americans as The Road Warrior. That title was never used during production. When it came time to distribute the film in the States nobody here was all that familiar with the first Mad Max film since it was barely released in theaters here. Thinking nobody would want to see a sequel to a film they’d never heard of, a new title and a prologue to catch people up to speed were slapped on the film. This is one of the few instances where a regional name change fits the film and is superior to the original title.

Everything about Mad Max 2 is better than its predecessor. The story is tighter, the chases are expertly crafted, the characters are more vividly realized, and there is a very clear vision of the world the story exists in. As a result, Mad Max 2 ranks among the pantheon of early eighties sci-fi films (The Empire Strikes Back, Blade Runner, The Thing, E.T.) that became some of the most influential films of their time.

As a matter of fact, Mad Max 2 is very un-sci-fi in that its setting in the future is the only thing linking it to that genre. There are no space ships, aliens, clones, or trips through time; this world is merely a more desolate version of ours – a western with cars, you could say. As such, Mad Max 2 is the blueprint for every zombie-less post-apocalyptic adventure (see: Waterworld).

The film itself recycled the Man-With-No-Name conceit of Yojimbo (which was also used in Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns) in that its central character rides into town to help the good defend against the bad. We know the character as Max, but are the only ones privy to his past life. To these people, he is the mythic Road Warrior. The film even canonizes him as a legend during its final moments.

This time, the budget is naturally higher than its predecessor at $4 million Australian ($4,291,661 US). Yet it still retains a low-budget aesthetic. There is no polish or extravagance that one might find in a film like Raiders of the Lost Ark, the other significant action film of that year. Mad Max 2 retains and exceeds the grit of its predecessor and refuses to pull any punches. The film seems to be aimed more for 1981’s punks and underground than any mainstream audience, its costumes borrowing heavily from thrift and S&M clothing racks.

Not only was the film’s visual aesthetic unique, but the stunts were more daring than any film before. During a climactic chase sequence that runs between ten and twenty minutes in length, a tanker truck rolls over and, earlier, a stuntman is sent flying sixty feet off his motorcycle toward the camera. Consider this: every crash, every jump from one vehicle to another – every stunt - was real; unlike today, nothing you see in this film was faked… well, except maybe when a villain’s eyes bug-out just before he meets his end.

The only shortcoming in the entire film is that the dialogue can be occasionally overwhelmed by Brian May’s score. Otherwise, we are given a sequel that exceeds the original in every way and also works well as a stand-alone film. One could not be blamed for going so far as claiming The Road Warrior as the only must-see film of the entire trilogy.

Especially when one considers where the series went from here.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

“Call it what you like. It still smells like shit to me.”

The third Mad Max film was released four years after its predecessor. That isn’t because of any issues with funding or screenwriting, as with some films. As far as my research has found, there were no plans for a third Mad Max film by any of its creators. However, when a film about a group of kids living in the wild and discovered by an adult was in development, someone jumped at the opportunity to turn it into the next Mad Max sequel.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (a title so cheesy, I cringe as I write it) feels and looks like the afterthought it was.

In case you don’t remember, Max is traveling the Australian desert when his vehicle and belongings get stolen by a pair of thieves (one looks and behaves exactly like a key character from Mad Max 2 – even played by the same actor – but is supposedly not the same character). Max follows the thieves to a make-shift town called Bartertown, sort of the Mos Eisley of the Mad Max series, if you will. Max finds himself hired by Auntie Entity (played adequately by Tina Turner) to kill her rival in a cage match known as Thunderdome. Entity wants to rule Bartertown and it’s easier for her to do so without anyone in the way. After refusing to complete his task, Max is banished and stumbles upon a community of children.

It’s exasperating just writing the plot to this film, so far removed is it from its predecessors. Where the other films in the series were earnest and straightforward, Thunderdome is silly and campy. It feels like a parody of a Mad Max film. First of all, the Thunderdome match isn’t exactly Spartacus – it’s a fricken bungee fight with Max bouncing around the dome like he was Qbert! A guy literally jumps up and down on top of The Road Warrior! Oh, and that guy is actually a masked Downs man-child with a midget strapped to his back who speaks in a retarded version of English and says things like “You smart!” and “You want food in face?”.

If that isn’t enough to make your jaw drop, Max, the silent mythic antihero of The Road Warrior, is turned here into a put-upon exasperated reluctant hero that has more in common with the Sgt. Riggs of Lethal Weapon’s later sequels. In Mad Max 2, our antihero meets a true wild child, all wild hair, grunts, and armed with a razor-sharp boomerang. The tribe of kids Max meets in Thunderdome are like Peter Pan’s Lost Boys-meets-Ewoks; two great flavors pureed into shit – it’s a bit nutty.

Mad Max is neutered and watered-down into a kid’s film.

As with the other films, Thunderdome concludes with a chase scene. However, short of one shot of a spear sticking through a man’s leg, it completely lacks any of the danger and excitement of the previous films. Where Toecutter and Humungus met their end with head-on collisions, a similar character seems to meet with the same fate here (vehicles crash, big explosion). But not in a film like Thunderdome; this is the kind of film where that character survives the explosion and is stuck to the front of our hero’s vehicle a lá Wyle E. Coyote. This is a film where a villainess who spends the rest of her screen time trying to look menacing simply laughs off the hero’s victory and drives away.

Where are the colorful and ruthless characters?

Where are the horrific deaths?

Things become less baffling when it is discovered that director and co-creator George Miller lost interest in the project when producer and co-creator Byron Kennedy died while location scouting (the film is dedicated to Byron). Miller is credited as the film’s director, however he limited his focus to just the action scenes. The rest of the film was directed by George Ogilvie, a TV director who’s done little work before and since.

While Miller’s heart may be missing from the project, the money sure isn’t. You can feel the $12 million (AUD) budget in nearly every scene. The sets are bigger, there are more locations, and the extras number in the hundreds. Bartertown has a population big enough to rival Waterworld (which is huge for this series). Even the children number in the dozens. Money was clearly spent on everything except the things that matter more to the series than the vehicles and costume design – the characters and the story. It is inconceivable that the only people credited with this script are the same two people responsible for Mad Max 2 (Miller and Terry Hayes) – especially since the script was probably green-lit before Kennedy’s death.

It has been said that two scenes were deleted for time. In one, Max has a dream that flashes back to the first film. He wakes, crying, realizing he has become a shell of who he once was, no different from the biker gang who terrorized his community long ago. In another, Max takes a dying child to the top of a sand dune, the lights of Bartertown in sight, and tells the boy they’ve reached Never Never Land. These two scenes represent the only part of the film that has any emotional depth or relationship to the rest of the series. Would they have saved the film? Not at all, but they certainly would’ve given it some legitimacy.

Two years after Thunderdome, Mel Gibson began his second franchise, Lethal Weapon, and was on his way to superstardom.

Thunderdome was the first Mad Max film George Miller produced. He went on to write, produce, or direct many films, such as The Witches of Eastwick, Happy Feet, Babe and Babe: Pig in the City. He’s had his eye on several projects that either fell apart (a live-action Justice League film) or went to other directors (he was paid off Contact with the rights to Mad Max 2 and 3). He’s currently prepping two new Mad Max films – Mad Max: Fury Road and Mad Max: Furiosa – with Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, and Nicholas Hoult for a 2012 release.

The influences of the Mad Max trilogy are too many to number. Car culture, pop culture, and film (to name a few) have all been touched by the series – most especially by Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Vernon Wells, who played the chief baddie of that film, appeared in Weird Science in a similar role. Cartoon series such as The Simpsons, South Park, Futurama, and even The Super Mario Brothers Super Show! have all done Mad Max-influenced episodes. The video games Borderlands, Fallout 3, and World of Warcraft make references to the trilogy. A character in Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen reaches a breaking point similar to Max’s and offers the same choice to a foe that involves handcuffs (this also served as inspiration to Saw). Even some music videos and album covers have had the Mad Max touch (‘California Love’, anyone?).

Filmmakers David Fincher, Guillermo del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, and James Cameron – all visionaries in their own right – have cited The Road Warrior as having a major influence on them.

The Mad Max trilogy is a unique one, full of ups and downs, groundbreaking stunts, and iconic characters and production designs. It may be inconsistent, but it’s full of enough cinematic treasures to make it more valuable than a lifetime supply of fuel. Without it, so much of cinema’s Modern Age (and other creative mediums) wouldn’t have been the same.

Step right up and watch the man lay down the rubber road for many things to come.

Mad Max - 7/10
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior – 9/10
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome – 3/10

Should you see them? Rent Mad Max and The Road Warrior. Skip Thunderdome.

The Mad Max trilogy is available separately on DVD or streaming. Mad Max 2 is also available on Blu-ray.