Looper – A Science Fiction Movie Review

Looper is a 2012 time-travel film noir starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis both as a character named Joe.  The premise of the movie is that in the year 2074, time travel has been invented but it is illegal.  It is used by criminals to dispose of people by sending them thirty years into the past where killers called loopers execute them in exchange for bars of silver.  The kicker is that thirty years later the loopers are sent back into the past to be executed by their younger selves.  This is called closing the loop and once the looper kills his older-self he is retired with a golden payday and heads off to enjoy his money in peace for thirty years.  I know, this is a seriously goofy plot device.

Young Joe is a lost soul with a drug habit and little else.  At one point he attempts to help his friend Seth, a fellow looper, whose older-self escapes killing.  He hides Seth in his apartment.  But when their boss Abe, played by Jeff Daniels, tells Joe that the choice is betraying Seth or losing half of his silver stash, Joe gives up Seth who is killed in a fiendishly painful way.

And of course, a similar thing happens to Joe.  His older-self shows up to be killed but eludes Joe and thus it becomes a three-way search with Young Joe looking for his older-self and the gang looking for both of them.  Into the middle of this is thrown a young woman named Sara, played by Emily Blunt, and her young son Cid.  Young Joe shows up at her farmhouse because he has information that Old Joe is planning to kill the boy.  Old Joe has information that leads him to believe that the boy will grow up to be a ruthless killer that will lead to the death of Old Joe’s wife.  I won’t give away the ending because it’s well done and if you decide to see the movie it would spoil it.

From the point of view of science fiction, the plot has got more holes in it than swiss cheese.  Using time travel to get rid of bodies?  That’s the best use they could come up with?  This story is really a character driven noir.  Joe, in both of his manifestations, is a damaged human being who late in the game discovers his humanity.  The improbable plot allows his characters to exhibit the best and worst traits in their personalities and his interaction with Sara and Cid allows him to finally look beyond his harried, meaningless existence and do something right.

By the illogic of the scenario, this movie may not appeal to somescience fiction fans with higher expectations for time travel story consistency.  But as a story it has merits.  Gordon-Levitt is his usual sympathetic persona.  Interestingly they used makeup  to try to make him look a little bit more like Bruce Willis.  It is a little distracting, but not much.  Bruce Willis is, of course, Bruce Willis and is most himself when he is pouring automatic weapons fire into his surroundings which he does with great abandon.  But he does okay.  The supporting cast is good and the few special effects are good enough.  I’ll recommend this movie.  It’s not great but it’s good.

The Professionals – A Movie Review

Here’s a western made in 1966 that reflected the later anti-hero story line that Clint Eastwood mined so successfully in his spaghetti westerns.  The big names are Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin.  They are former mercenaries who have ridden with Pancho Villa but now are selling their services to a Texan (played by Ralph Bellamy) whose wife has been kidnapped by an old bandit ally of theirs.  This bandit, Jesus Raza, played by Jack Palance is over the border in Mexico with a small army of followers in a heavily defended camp.  Marvin adds two more men to his crew with Robert Ryan and Woody Strode.  Together they devise a scheme to disrupt the camp, rescue the woman and outwit and outfight Raza’s army.  Claudia Cardinale plays the kidnapped wife and in addition to being a capable actress she shows why she is remembered as one of the most attractive actresses of her time.  She is a fine-looking babe.

The script is tight and the dialog is apt with each of the main characters given the words that fit the part.  Marvin is the cool efficient tactician and leader.  Lancaster is the fearless daredevil who lightheartedly plunks dynamite at his enemies while firing off jokes and insults at everyone around him.  Ryan and Strode ably fulfill their parts but with less dialog.  And at the end of the main action Lancaster and Palance get to discuss life and love as they prepare for their strange duel.

The plot has a surprising twist and plenty of action and is in my opinion, one of the better westerns from its era.  Marvin and Lancaster have good chemistry and have been placed in a production that uses their particular talents to excellent effect.  If you’re a fan of the western genre this movie delivers the goods.  Highly recommended.

Ready Player One – A Science Fiction Movie Review

Lately I’ve been at a loss to find any sci-fi movies that I might like.  After some searches I saw a trailer for this 2018 Spielberg film and decided to give it a viewing.  The scenario is a dystopian future where because of (you guessed it) global warming and the exhaustion of all fossil fuels everybody lives in trailer homes stacked on top of each other in piles.  And because life is so miserable, everybody spends all their time inside a virtual reality program called the Oasis.  This program was invented by an uber-geek named James Donovan Halliday who when he died revealed to the world that hidden in Oasis was an Easter Egg and clues to finding it.  Whoever found it would inherit his ownership of Oasis which was worth around a trillion dollars.

This is the story of how a teen age geek named Wade Owen Watts (in game name; Parzival) with the help of his friends Aech, Art3mis, Daito and Shoto find the Easter Egg and save the gaming world from the evil IOI (Innovative Online Industries) corporation that wanted to win the contest and turn Oasis into a boring commercial wasteland.  Nolan Sorrento, the head of IOI, detects Wade’s success at finding the clues and uses real world violence to try and sideline Wade and his friends.  And in fact, Wade’s aunt and many people living in his trailer stack are killed in a drone attack meant for Wade.  But eventually good prevails and Wade and his friends find the egg and live happily ever after.  Now for my review.

This is a Spielberg film.  And it is like every other Spielberg film.  The hero is introduced and we watch him struggle, fail, learn and grow.  The good people are hip and watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the Breakfast Club when they were young and the bad people are corporate types that wear three-piece suits.  And because this is today one of the characters is a black lesbian because diversity.  And like in all Spielberg films, when the climactic scene where everything will either fail or succeed is reached, there is the annoying back and forth fumbling which is supposed to produce nervous tension.  In this one the on-line character is trying to get a key into a keyhole while his real-life body is standing in the back of a speeding mail truck that is being slammed into by hostile vehicles.  So, for several minutes we have to watch him miss the keyhole.  This sort of thing was annoying in the Indiana Jones movies and in Saving Private Ryan.  It’s still annoying today.

It’s not a terrible movie.  The special effects in the movie are extremely good.  But the characters in Oasis and in the real world are not particularly likable or realistic.  And the plot is very predictable with the usual strawman for the villain.  I suppose someone who is a big fan of gaming might enjoy the in-jokes and references to classic games.  I thought it was trite and very self-indulgent.  Probably good for Spielberg fans.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 7 – Hamlet – Branagh’s 1996 Version

I saw this in the theater when it came out.  There are a few things that should be said about it to start with.  It’s fully four hours long!  It has everyone in Hollywood (and outside of it) in the cast.  Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gérard Depardieu, John Gielgud, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, Kate Winslet and so help me even Robin Williams.  And the cinematography is full of pomp and circumstance and beautiful settings.  But it is unwatchable.

Branagh runs around doing his crazy act and shouting out his lines at a dizzying rate but the whole thing is annoying and after even a half hour becomes too tedious to endure.  Some of the performances I did enjoy.  Richard Briers as Polonius I thought was good.  I liked Derek Jacobi as Claudius.  Jack Lemmon as one of the watchmen I found unconvincing.

For a true devotee of Shakespeare who is determined to watch it, I suggest watching it in a scene by scene fashion.  Probably twenty or thirty minutes is the sub-lethal dose.  So taking it in eight to twelve bite sized chunks you could get through without losing your ability to appreciate the lines.

It’s a pity.  Branagh was given a budget and an array of talent that is impressive.  And a lot of the visual presentation is beautiful.  But his vision for the title role falls far short of even such popular versions as Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 version with Mel Gibson.

So let me not go on beating it up.  Let me just say I cannot recommend this version for an enjoyable experience of the play.  Watch Olivier or Gibson.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 6 – Hamlet – Gibson’s 1990 Version

Mel Gibson became a movie star in such action adventure movies as Road Warrior and Lethal Weapon.  But he was interested in more intellectually challenging projects and so eventually he became a director and produced some very interesting films such as Apocalypto and Passion of the Christ.  But even before his directorial debut he branched out into less popular films.  He starred in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 version of Hamlet which is the subject of this post.

Gibson was surrounded by a very respectable group of American and British actors with Glenn Close as the Queen, Alan Bates as the King and Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia, Hamlet’s love.  The staging is more naturalistic than the Olivier version and has a number of outside shots that make it feel less claustrophobic than the Olivier version.  Interestingly the selection of scenes coincides closely to Olivier’s.  Zeffirelli didn’t completely eliminate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but they were minimized.  And once again as in Olivier’s version it is Horatio who speaks the final lines of the play.

Without a doubt this version is much more emotional and the dialog is imbued with a more theatrical air.  I won’t say that the intensity is over the top but it is decidedly less restrained than Olivier’s version.  From a personal perspective I prefer Olivier’s rendering but by no means would I call Gibson’s performance poor.  It is spirited and heartfelt but it lacks the polished perfection of Olivier’s performance.

In an earlier installment of these Hamlet posts I described the different acting methods used by the British Shakespearian tradition that concentrated on mastering techniques versus the American method acting school.  Gibson is not an extreme method actor but he emphasized the emotional aspect of the part and that explains some of the difference between the two versions.  But as much as Gibson is a good actor he cannot compare to Olivier.  So, Gibson’s version is interesting and skillfully done.  But it wouldn’t be the one I would add to my collection if I was only going to have one.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 5 – Hamlet – Olivier’s 1948 Version

Olivier won the Academy Award for Best Picture and directed himself to the Best Actor award too.  That is still a unique circumstance.  Despite this acclaim purists condemned the excisions that Olivier made to the plot eliminating the sub-plots involving Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras.  This shaved an hour and half from its length and concentrates the play into a personality study.

Despite Olivier’s modifications it remains a very formal telling of the tale from the aspect of the acting.  Olivier spent a number of years in London’s Old Vic Theatre Company performing Shakespeare’s plays with the greatest living British actors of his generation.  Comparing his portrayal with an American version such as Mel Gibson’s excellent 1990 version defines the two schools of acting.  The American method acting version requires the actor to submerge himself into the personality he “discovers” for the character.  He feels the part.  The British actor learns the techniques needed to portray the character and emotions he desires to project to the audience.  Olivier himself once described a circumstance that highlighted this difference.  During the making of the film Marathon Man his co-star Dustin Hoffman tortured himself with various discomforts to help him feel the part of a man exhausted and at the end of his strength.  When Hoffman noticed that Olivier was sitting comfortably in anticipation of his scenes Hoffman asked him how he could get into his part without some physical method.  Olivier was said to have answered, “Dear boy, it’s called acting.”

So, all that said.  I consider this the best version I’ve seen.  The dialog, the acting, the staging, all excel the other two versions I’ve seen.  The story flows and the characters live in front of us in a way that often escapes other performances of Shakespeare’s plays.  Every little phrase and movement works the way it should.  Olivier is a craftsman walking us through his weird world of pain and revenge.  The lines are alive and sound like dialog and not museum exhibits.  They fit perfectly with the action that attends them.  They are poetry and human speech both.

And I actually have no complaints with any of the actors.  All were skilled and none fell short that I can remember.  That is not a small thing.

And despite the formal theater there are naturalistic touches that work well.  My favorite is the gravedigger.  When Hamlet comes upon him he fits completely with what you would expect of a son of the soil.  He is contrary and defers not at all to the high-born questioning of his Lord and better.  He is witty and authoritative in his knowledge of graveyard ecology.  Another technical advantage of this version is the dagger and rapier duel in the final scene.  Olivier and Terence Morgan who plays Laertes do an impressive job of simulating a sword fight.  No special effects either.

My advice to anyone coming to Hamlet for the first time, watch this version first.  Measure the other ones by it.  It will actually make the others easier to understand and thereby improve them.  Olivier is truly a master at his work.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 4 – Hamlet – Introduction

Shakespeare’s strongest plays are the tragedies.  The comedies have their merits and the pure histories have some very engaging characters like Falstaff and Prince Hal.  But the heavy hitters are Macbeth, King Lear, Richard III, Othello, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet and most especially Hamlet.  Even the most ardent fan of the Bard will have scenes and characters that he dislikes even in his favorite play.  In fact, some plays are favorites only because of some especially powerful scene or character.  They are valued despite plot weaknesses or sections of dialogue or characters that disappoint.  And Hamlet is no exception.  I am sure every fan of the play dislikes some aspect of it.  But I will say that overall, the plot and the dialog exceed the other plays in how they engage the audience.  The characters are drawn in a lifelike way.  Even the villain is real.  And in the hands of a skilled cast, the play is fascinating to watch.

The character of Hamlet is famously defined by his indecision.  He has been commanded by his father’s ghost to exact vengeance against his murderer.  What could be more absolute than that?  And yet he vacillates throughout the play and is only goaded into action by his own assassination.  All this is obviously true but the action of the play shows us that this indecision is mostly due to his virtues and not his faults.  He is a noble, loyal, virtuous, intellectual, pious prince.  And all these instincts and talents work against his need to commit justifiable regicide.  His tender love for his mother is an almost insurmountable obstacle to exacting vengeance on her villainous husband.  His sense of justice prevents him from striking down his enemy when he believes that the timing, coming as the murderer is in prayer, would allow his victim’s soul to gain heaven instead of casting him down into hell.  His intellect even forbids him from escaping his problems through suicide.  He reasons through the consequences and arrives at the conclusion that possibly the afterlife might be filled with greater torment still.  He is a man haunted by the wreckage of his family, his life and even his sanity.  Think of what he has endured.  He has spoken with his father’s ghost, a thing more harrowing than any mortal occurrence.  His mother’s husband is his uncle, his father’s murderer and his king all at the same time and he must face him day in and out while his mother displays passionate affection for her husband’s murderer.  In order to dissemble his intentions, he plays at being mad and in doing so he loses the woman he loves.  There is literally no path available to him that doesn’t involve unthinkable crimes and madness.  I suppose indecision might be excused under such circumstances.

But plot aside, it is the language of the play that engages me.  Hamlet is filled with phrases and thoughts that we meet everywhere in cultured discourse:

  • “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
  • “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”
  • “Sweets to the sweet.”
  • “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
  • “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
  • “Get thee to a nunnery.”
  • “The Play’s the Thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”
  • “Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”
  • “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
  • “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
  • “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
  • “To be, or not to be: that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep; to sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause: there’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life; for who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes, when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?  Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action.”

There is constant word play as Hamlet pretends to be mad and yet makes cunning and cutting mockery of his foes.  All in all, it is an enjoyable two and a half hours (in the shorter versions) of highbrow art that yet could appeal to anyone if he were in the right frame of mind.  I have seen three film versions of the play along with a stage setting.  I’ll go into my particular opinions of those in later installments of this post.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 3 – Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Back in 1989 Kenneth Branagh made a splash in the title role of Henry V and because of it became a movie star and was allowed to produce several of Shakespeare’s plays paid for by major studios!  One of the fruits of this strange marriage of Hollywood and Branagh was “Much Ado About Nothing,” one of the comedies.  The cast combines English stage and screen actors with American movie stars such as Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Kate Beckinsale and Keanu Reeves.  And because at the time she was Mrs. Branagh, Emma Thompson co-starred.

Up front I will say that this film is a bizarre mix of good, bad, indifferent and unbearable acting.  The subplot that involves the thwarting of a marriage by a wrongful accusation against the bride is so emotionally overwrought and pathetic that I am tempted to fast forward through it.  On the other hand, the antagonistic love/hate relationship between Branagh and Thompson’s characters is at times very amusing.  But the stand out part in the play is Michael Keaton as the chief night constable Dogberry.  His bizarre appearance and mannerisms are very funny.  His malapropisms and nonsensical instructions to his men sound like they come from someone hallucinating.  My favorite exchange occurs when Dogberry tries to explain to the lord of the castle what he has discovered during his night watch.  When he speaks at length without making any sense the lord tells Dogberry that he is tedious.  Dogberry mistakes this for a compliment and promises that if he himself were as rich as a king he would willingly bestow all his tediousness on the lord.

Aside from the young love interests the worst acting of the play is provided by Keanu Reeves.  He plays the villain of the story Don John.  Never before or since have Shakespeare’s words been spoken so woodenly and so bereft of any skill.  Luckily he was able to move on and use this skill where it belonged, in John Wick 2.  Don John’s brother in the movie is Denzel Washington’s Don Pedro.  I must confess I couldn’t see the family resemblance but Don Pedro did acquit himself much more ably Keanu.  He was amusing and amiable.

For fans of the tv show House, the actor who played Wilson on that show, Robert Sean Leonard, plays the young love interest opposite Kate Beckinsale.  His emotional scenes which involved frequent tears are so embarrassing it’s a wonder he ever acted again.

So what can I say about this movie?  Anyone I haven’t scared away with my descriptions should give it a viewing.  It is most definitely a mixed bag.  But for someone who enjoys Shakespeare there are some fine scenes interspersed amongst the awful.  It’s your call.

6 Underground – A Movie Review

Some of the longest-term readers of OCF may remember that I was a big fan of the first Deadpool movie.  And the lion’s share of that regards is probably due to the scathingly sarcastic humor that Ryan Reynolds brought to the part.  While discussing the attributes that I admired most in that movie with a millennial friend at work he mentioned that Reynolds had made a movie in 2019 that he thought also possessed some of these same characteristics.  That movie is “6 Underground.”  After watching the movie, I will agree that it does have some of the right stuff.

The premise of 6 Underground is that a billionaire technology inventor decides to fake his own death and recruit five mercenaries to form a team of ghosts to take down the worst of the worst human plagues.  Each will have faked his death and thereby prevent their family or friends from being hostages to their actions.  And even among themselves they are anonymous.  Ryan Reynolds is One.  A blonde CIA Spook is Two.  Three is a Hit-Man.  Four is a “Skywalker” (a traceur or one who practices parkour).  Five is a lady doctor.  Six is their driver.

The film is told in various jumps forward and back to show how Reynolds recruited his team and then to set the stage for the mission, to replace a brutal dictator with his more civilized brother.

One of the most memorable scenes is a car chase through the streets of Florence, Italy with the team being chased by a seemingly unending string of black sedans seeking revenge for a mafia lawyer who was robbed of his retina-scan-locked cell phone and also the retina needed to open it.  The driving and crashes are very well done and they are interspersed around Reynolds trying to unlock the phone with his victim’s gouged out eye in the front seat while Five attempts to remove a bullet from Two in the back seat while she is fighting a running gun battle against the other cars.

Reynolds isn’t as funny in this movie as in Deadpool but I enjoyed the movie.  I would say it is one of the better action adventure comedies.  So, if that’s a type of movie you enjoy give it a try and especially if you’re a fan of Deadpool.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 2 – Julius Caesar (1953)

This version of Julius Caesar is interesting to me because it contains two contrasting acting types.  With John Gielgud as Cassius you have a British Shakespearian actor steeped in the conventions and knowledge of the traditional theater.  With Marlon Brando as Mark Antony you have a great American method actor who approaches his performance as a process of absorbing the soul of the character and living the part.  And because Mark Antony’s part is so bound up with a revenge motive, he is able to bring the set speech, his “friends, romans, countrymen” speech, to life.  Gielgud’s Cassius is a more intellectual character and it requires a great deal of nuance to render the part interesting.  His character is of an angry disappointed man who is motivated by fear, jealousy and spite.  The fine British actor James Mason is Brutus and does a masterful job of portraying the honest, intelligent patriot who slays his friend for the good of his country.  Louis Calhern another American actor has the pivotal but relatively minor part of Julius Caesar.  Greer Garson as Calpurnia and Deborah Kerr as Portia are Caesar’s and Brutus’s wives respectively.  And there are several other good performances but essentially the main action consists of Cassius and Brutus on one side and Mark Antony on the other.  Cassius draws Brutus into a conspiracy against Caesar and Mark Antony stirs a popular rebellion against the assassins.

The play is cut in half by the murder, with the first half concluded by Brando’s funeral oration for Caesar.  It is one of Shakespeare’s most memorable speeches and Brando plays it to the hilt.  His voice is saturated with emotion, by turns, sorrow, scorn then anger.  He plays the Roman crowd and stirs them to mutiny against the “honorable men” who slew Caesar.

For Brutus and Cassius, the speeches are smaller but they still allow the characters to display their personalities.  Cassius shows us his pettiness and his genuine feelings of affection for his friend.  Brutus is a more austere character.  Intelligence, integrity and a slightly cold persona is displayed.  But at the end when his whole world starts to collapse, he allows his personal feelings to emerge somewhat and these do him credit.

This play is a study of personalities.  The battle scenes are short and stylized so there isn’t a dynamism as you would see in a modern rendition of this story.  Instead you have what Shakespeare would show on a stage.  I don’t think Julius Caesar will appeal to everyone.  It’s not exciting enough for many people.  They will find it boring.  But for those interested in seeing how a dying world drove friends against each other in a civil war this gives a flavor of it.

Personally, I like the play and this version of it.  I’m not the biggest Brando fan but I like what he did with Mark Antony, especially the big speech.  And I’m always glad to see James Mason in a production.  His presence and the remarkable sound of his voice were perfect for this part.  So, there’s my first Shakespeare review.  That wasn’t so bad after all.