REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Posts Tagged ‘action’

DR. NO (1962)

In Action, Crime, D, Motion Pictures on July 25, 2010 at 9:17 pm

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STUDIO – United Artists

CASTSean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord, Bernard Lee

DIRECTOR – Terence Toung

MPAA Rating: PG

In 1962, a phenomenon was born. Writer Ian Fleming had written a series of novels about a suave British spy, and Untied Artists (and later MGM) took up the mantle and delivered unto the masses a saga spanning a total of 22 movies (at least, officially, as of this writing) over the next 46 years. This ladies’ man has a penchant for baccarat, exotic locations, fast cars, and vodka martinis that are shaken (not stirred), and he always looks good no matter where he goes. These attributes, and more, are summed up in just three words:

Bond. James Bond.

In his first appearance in the role that would define him, his career, and the character he plays, Sean Connery stars as the newly-promoted 007, sent on an assignment in Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a colleague (and his secretary), who had failed to check in at his regularly-scheduled time. Upon his arrival, he suspects that someone was alerted to his presence. Later, he discovers that rock samples collected by the missing colleague at a nearby island called Crab Key were radioactive. So, with the assistance of CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), he makes for the mysterious island, which has a bauxite operation run by a man known only as Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman).

Honey Ryder and James Bond (Ursula Andress, Sean Connery) walk along the beach on Crab Key

As this is the first Bond movie in the official canon, it is also the most modestly-budgeted of the series, at a mere $1 million (or just over $7 million, after accounting for inflation). As a means of comparison, the last Bond movie, Quantum of Solace (2008)  had an estimated budget of $200 million. The beauty of this movie is that it doesn’t appear that way. For those who haven’t seen this movie yet, I will tell you this: There is no Q, and as a result, there are no gadgets. This is basically a tongue-in-cheek no-frills spy thriller, with Bond relying on only his training, his fighting skills, and his intellect to get the job done.

There are two things for which this movie is famous: Bond’s introduction to the world and Ursula Andress’ entrance. We first meet James Bond enjoying his favorite — okay, his second favorite — recreational activity, baccarat, only his back is turned to us. It just so happens his opponent is a lovely woman (Eunice Gayson) who loses hand after hand to him. Finally, she says to her crafty opponent “I admire your luck, Mr…”, at which time the camera cuts to our hero and he introduces himself in his signature style for the first time, in what is now one of the most famous lines in cinematic history. Later, on Dr. No’s island, Bond (and the rest of the world) watches as seashell collector Honey Ryder (Andress) walks ashore from the water with her latest acquisitions. Today, we would see it as a fairly innocent shot, but in 1962, it caused a sensation. According to one source, the shooting script noted that Honey was supposed to be in the nude (Of course, that wasn’t about to happen, but it’s a nice sentiment).

I had seen several movies in the James Bond series over the years, but this is the first time I watched the one that started it all. While some of the other movies provide great action sequences, others seem to have resorted to becoming caricatures of themselves, but I will visit those movies as I go along. Here, Dr. No is a well-paced straightforward action film, and a game-changing one at that. Throughout the movie, several sound effects and editing techniques were employed to hold the viewer’s attention, and Sean Connery’s witty and sophisticated take on the world’s favorite superspy helped to create a lot of buzz among the movie-going public.

It is also a safe assumption to say that the “action movie one-liner” was born with this movie, and it is even easier to see how another action star, who had followed a path similar to Sean Connery’s (military service, bodybuilding, then movies) was heavily influenced by him. I am, of course, talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Looking at Connery in his prime reminded me of some of Arnold’s more dialogue-heavy roles. The mannerisms, the deliveries, even their overall appearances are surprisingly similar. But I will get into that when I dig into the Governator’s body of work.

Dr. No makes for a worthy start to the Bond film franchise. It sets the table for what would become Bond staples (exotic locales, beautiful women, chase scenes, and a good dose of action), but its weakness is that it is a little too lean, in terms of production value. With some scenes that don’t make sense (Bond grinning maniacally as he’s being chased on a mountain road?), it is easy to see that it took a little time for this movie to find its footing. Usually, the first movie in a franchise, like the first season of a TV series, is a little “rough around the edges”, and Dr. No is no exception.

Still, Dr. No gives us a stripped-down, enjoyable movie, one that lays the foundation for the rest of the series, and it gives us the essence of Connery’s Bond, one which draws comparison to all the actors who would take on the role in the coming years.

3-1/2 (out of 5)

AVATAR (2009)

In A, Action, Adventure, Epic, Motion Pictures, Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on July 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSam Worthington, Sigourney WeaverZoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore, Wes Studi

DIRECTORJames Cameron

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Following the success of Titanic, James Cameron took some time off from making movies. Oh, he produced an IMAX documentary about the doomed ocean liner, but when it came to his next dramatic film, he had an idea which he claimed would be ground-breaking. It would take place on a mysterious forest planet called Pandora, made with as-yet invented technologies in CGI and motion capture. It promised to be more expensive than Titanic, take years to complete, and it would do it all in 3-D. Finally, in December 2009, Avatar bowed. It was everything Cameron said it would be, and it eventually shattered box office records.

Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine veteran recruited to replace his late twin brother Tom, a scientist, on Pandora, a lush moon orbiting a gas giant light-years from Earth. On Pandora, a major corporation has set up a mining operation for a substance called unobtanium. But the indigenous population, a ten-foot tall humanoid species called the Na’vi, are intent on protecting their home, so a paramilitary defense presence, headed by Colonel Quatrich (Stepen Lang) is required. To provide a more diplomatic solution, exobiologist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has developed human-Na’vi hybrid bodies called “avatars”, which are “driven” via mnemonic transfer, in order to interact with the Na’vi more easily. Despite Augustine’s protests (she wanted a PhD and not a grunt), Jake becomes part of the team.

Jake Sully and Norm Spellman (Sam Worthington, Joel David Moore) on their first expedition in their avatar bodies

Now, just in case you are among the dozen or so people left on this planet who have yet to see this movie, I will stop here. Avatar is one of those movies that, no matter what you have heard about it, needs to be seen to believed. James Cameron spent over a decade developing this movie, and it shows. Visually, this is among most striking motion pictures ever released. It was filmed in 3-D from the word “Go”, but even in 2-D, it is a visual feast for the eyes. I had seen this movie in 3-D when it was released in December 2009, and I can tell you that there are few “3-D gimmicks” in the movie. This allows for fairly easy translation into the 2-D world upon which many of us still rely in our home entertainment systems. The CGI and motion-capture effects are so photorealistic, that it’s difficult to tell the difference between a physical set and a virtual one, even when you know which one you’re looking at.

True, James Cameron makes an eye-popping movie nearly every time out of the gate. His philosophy is that visual effects should enhance the story, not drive it. Here, however, the visual effects do both, but in such a way as to not be obvious. Does this mean it’s “the perfect movie”? No. There are flaws, some obvious, some subtle. For example, for a screenwriter, James Cameron is an excellent director. While the screenplay in this movie exceeds that of Titanic by leaps and bounds, it still has a few rough spots to stumble through in the telling of this story. For example, when Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) first encounters Sully’s avatar, her first instinct is to kill him (he is, after all, the enemy), but because of a “sign” from Eywa (the Na’vi deity), she takes him to her peoples’ village, instead. Overall, it was handled all right, but I feel this could’ve been written better.

Another weak point I noticed right away in this movie is its similarities with Dances With Wolves. Both feature a military man learning the culture of the indigenous people. Both have a romantic subplot between the military man and a prominent native woman (in the case of Dances With Wolves, she was a white woman adopted by the Sioux). Both have the military questioning the central character’s loyalties. And both feature Wes Studi (He was the “angry Pawnee” in Dances With Wolves, and in Avatar, he is the Na’vi leader and Neytiri’s father). These similarities were pointed out, by the way, prior to Avatar‘s release in this “South Park” episode (Caution: NSFW).

And what about the mining operation? I’m fairly certain more than a few people let out a snicker or two when they heard that the substance in question was called “unobtanium”. Well, as it turns out, as silly the name of this stuff is, this is not the first movie which uses the term (It was also used in 2003’s The Core). And it is based on the engineering term “unobtainium“, which was first coined in the 1950s. In Avatar, it’s a metallic grey substance that fetches “20 million a kilo”, and the largest deposit of it sits underneath the Na’vi village, known as Home Tree. Again, silly name, but it fits.

There has also been a recent “3-D backlash” of sorts because of this movie. Several movies this year which were released in 3-D, including Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, and The Last Airbender, suffered from critical and popular derision, because these were originally regular (2-D) movies which were converted to 3-D in post-production. Interestingly enough, the 2-D versions of these movies fared better. These are just a few of the many cases of Hollywood trying to capitalize on a trend based on one very successful movie, and charging a higher admission for people to see it. But if too many of these “bad 3-D” movies come out, people will refuse to see all 3-D movies, even ones intended to be in 3-D, like Avatar. Are you listening, Hollywood? By changing the movie to take advantage of a trend, you are changing the director’s vision. Remember when you converted Gone With the Wind to CinemaScope in the 1960s? Yeah, that went over really well, too…

Avatar is a visual and aural feast, to be digested over and over. Even though it comes thisclose to being “Dances With Wolves in space”, it is still a ground-breaking motion picture, and one of the best science-fiction films to come along in years.

4 (out of 5)

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)

In Action, Adventure, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, Epic, History, M, Motion Pictures on June 21, 2010 at 1:51 am

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STUDIO – MGM

CASTCharles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin, Eddie Quillan, Bill Bambridge, Movita

DIRECTOR – Frank Lloyd

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

In April 1789, the HMS Bounty set sail from Tahiti to the West Indies to transport hundreds of breadfruit tree saplings, in order to provide a cheap and readily available food supply for slave laborers there. She never arrived. The next year, the Bounty‘s commanding officer, Lt. William Bligh, returned to England to report that he had been set adrift in a mutiny led by his sailing master, Fletcher Christian. This wasn’t the first mutiny in the British Royal Navy, nor was it the last, but it is the most infamous, inspiring poems, novels, songs, and of course, movies. With that, I wish to introduce to you the Best Picture of 1935, Mutiny On the Bounty.

Based on the novel of the same name by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, Mutiny On the Bounty is a fictionalized account of the events that took place on the ship’s fateful voyage from England to Tahiti. Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) is tasked with procuring the breadfruit trees because of his familiarity with the people and customs of Tahiti (It should be noted that, regardless of rank, all ship commanders are called “captain”). His sailing master, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable, sans his trademark mustache), was in charge of carrying out the captain’s orders, morale, and the occasional midshipman training. One of those midshipmen was Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), whose assignment was to prepare a dictionary of the Polynesian language. It is through his eyes this story unfolds.

Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) reacts to being called a "mutinous dog" by Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton)

Right away, Byam notices that Bligh is strict disciplinarian, even to the point of carrying out his portion of a punishment known as “flogging through the fleet” upon a dead prisoner. Once at sea, the Bounty tries for Tahiti by way of South America, but turns eastward through the Indian Ocean instead. Meanwhile, Bligh oppresses the crew further by inflicting punishment at whim, including one sailor getting keel-hauled (He dies). Meanwhile, Christian tries to provide a more lenient approach toward the crew, only to have Bligh bear down even more. Finally, their conflict becomes personal, when Bligh forces Christian to sign a falsified log book in front of the crew. Once at Tahiti, things seem to relax momentarily, until Bligh bears down even more harshly, and… well, you only need to look at the title to know what happened next.

Mutiny On the Bounty is an excellent example of Hollywood starting to come of age. From the moment the movie fades in, a sweeping dramatic score sets you up for a tale of truly epic proportions: You, the viewer, are about to bear witness to one of most notorious events in maritime history. From a technical standpoint, nearly everything stands out in this movie. The settings, the cinematography, even the sound quality all hold up very well. From a performance standpoint, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone were quite memorable. In fact, all three were nominated for Best Actor (At the time, there were no Supporting categories. If they had existed, Franchot Tone would likely have received a nomination).

Oh, there are some inaccuracies, as happens with many historical dramas. For example, the actual mutiny was really relatively uneventful in comparison with the movie, keel-hauling was nearly non-existent in the 1780s, and Bligh did not attend any of the mutineers’ courts-martial (He was at sea). But the most telling inaccuracy is Gable’s voice. I say this in mild jest, as Gable seemed incapable of producing an English accent, while Tone fared somewhat better, and Shakespearean-trained Laughton was from Yorkshire, England. I seem to recall another more recent movie, in which an American actor played a legendary English character without an English accent. Fortunately, Gable’s performance was strong enough that we can forgive this transgression.

There are a couple of special features on the DVD. First is a brief clip from the Academy Awards ceremony in 1936, in which legendary producer Irving G. Thalberg accepted the Best Picture Oscar and gave his thanks to the cast and crew of the movie. And there is also a short about Pitcairn Island, the Bounty mutineers’ final destination, which shows how their descendants live in the film’s present day of 1935.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Mutiny On the Bounty is the last movie to win only the Best Picture Award. It is also the third (and last) Best Picture winner produced or co-produced by Thalberg (Grand Hotel and The Broadway Melody were the others). Though not the first movie to test the waters (pun not intended) of historical dramas, Mutiny On the Bounty stands out as a defining moment when the Hollywood Dream Factory finally figured out a way to hone their product and sell it to the masses. With performances nearly as strong as the film itself, it set a new standard in motion pictures (to be eclipsed a few years later by a little-known movie called Gone with the Wind). I recommend this movie as a good place to start for those interested in pre-1940s motion pictures.

4 (out of 5)

THE ITALIAN JOB (2003)

In Action, Crime, I, Motion Pictures on February 5, 2010 at 12:56 am

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STUDIO — Paramount

CAST — Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Mos Def, Edward Norton, Jason Statham, Seth Green, Donald Sutherland

DIRECTOR —  F. Gary Gray

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Before watching this movie, I watched the original movie from 1969, starring Michael Caine. This is an exercise I like to do to draw comparison between the original and the update in terms of quality, performance, and homage. This is something I will do often, so don’t be surprised if you see back-to-back reviews of originals and remakes like this in the future. Anyway, let’s get on with the show.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Charlie Croker, a professional thief who, in the beginning of this movie, pulls off a successful heist of over $35 million in gold buillion in Venice. But the bulk of the movie’s story takes place a year later in Los Angeles. So, unlike the original movie, The Italian Job is not centered around the gang trying to steal the gold. But it is about how one member, Steve (Edward Norton) betrayed them by taking the haul for himself, and how the others make plans to take it back from him. So, essentially, this movie isn’t about the robbery; it’s about the gold itself.

The newly-modified Minis on a test drive

So, what does this movie have in common with the original? Well, Charlie is still here, and so is Mr. (John) Britcher (Donald Sutherland). Seth Green takes over the comic relief reins as the computer whiz, only this time he obsesses about a former college roommate who stole his idea (Napster). And of course, the Minis. You can’t have this movie without Minis.

This movie was entertaining from start to finish. Wahlberg leads the ensemble cast with a casual energy, and his chemistry with the others (Green, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham, and Mos Def) is very apparent. The script was a cut above that of your average action movie, and F. Gary Gray’s direction put a fresh twist on the genre.

I guess it goes without saying that I liked this movie. I will say this: having a bus hang precariously off a ledge along Mulholland Drive probably would not have worked as an ending.

The Italian Job is a well-paced, fun action film with (mostly) likable characters (Edward Norton’s Steve is a slimeball, and he plays his character with aplomb). This is one movie I may actually consider buying.

4 out of 5

THE ITALIAN JOB (1969)

In Action, Comedy, Crime, I, Motion Pictures on February 2, 2010 at 11:53 pm

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STUDIO — Oakhurst Productions/Paramount

CAST — Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Benny Hill

DIRECTOR —  Peter Collinson

MPAA Rating: G

For years, I had heard about the now-famous cliffhanger ending in 1969’s The Italian Job, and I wondered why would the makers of this movie allow it to end this way. Now that I have seen the movie, I must say that it works. Normally, I’d consider this a spolier, but in this case, the movie is about the journey, not the destination. At the end of the movie, the bus carrying the crooks and the gold skids out of control and hangs precariously over the edge of a cliff, the crooks at one end, the gold at the other (It’s pretty easy to guess which is at which end). Then Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) says he has an idea, and… roll credits!

Frankly, it is gags like this that make this movie so irreverently 60s, so amusing, so… British. On top of Caine’s ex-con with a shot at the big time, there is Noel Coward’s incarcerated flambouyant ringleader with a just-this-side-of-creepy fascination of Queen Elizabeth II, Maggie Blye as Croker’s girlfriend, who arranges a welcome home “party” with several ladies for him (only to go into a fit of rage when he tries to bed three more girls on his own), and Benny Hill’s nutty professor with a perverse predaliction toward women who are, shall we say, plus-sized.

The Mini Coopers make their escape from Turin

Yes, this is a Rated-G movie. By today’s standards, it would likely be a PG, but it sill makes for a fun-to-watch caper movie. I, for one, find it suitable for nearly all audiences. But if you like classic exotic automobiles, you’d better prepare to weep. Fiats, Lamborghinis, Jaguars and (of course) Mini Coopers get literally tossed over cliffs throughout the film.

And who could forget those Mini Coopers? The chase scene of the three Minis escaping from the overly-congested streets of Turin, Italy, is one of the most unique ever filmed. Some indoor sequences of the chase undoubtedly were an inspiration for the infamous mall chase in The Blues Brothers 11 years later. Watching these three cars jump over roofs, crawl up the sides of sewers, and plow though a river was purely entertaining.

I would not consider The Italian Job a classic. But it is fun, energetic, and very British. If you like wry comedy, this would fit in just nicely.

3-1/2 out of 5

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

In Action, D, Motion Pictures, Movies, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on January 23, 2010 at 1:31 am

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The Dark Knight (2008)

STUDIO — Warner Bros./DC Comics

CAST — Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman

DIRECTOR —  Christopher Nolan

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Where do I begin? As most people would say, “From the beginning, of course!” So, that is where I will start.

Our movie opens with a bank heist like no other: A carefully laid-out plan by a team of crooks in clown masks quickly turns ugly as, one by one, they systematically kill each other until one remains. And we all know who he is, don’t we?

At the end of Batman Begins, we are literally handed a hint of what is to come. There’s a new criminal on the streets of Gotham, and no one knows anything about him, except that he leaves a calling card: a joker from a deck of cards. So, we all knew The Joker would be in this movie. What we got was the creepiest, most psychotic, most manic Joker who ever put on a purple suit.

In the 1960s “Batman” movie and TV show, Cesar Romero played the Clown Prince of Crime with absolute glee; each time he appeared on the show, it was easy to see just how much fun he had in the part. In 1989, Jack Nicholson’s performance in Tim Burton’s Batman was so gloriously over-the-top, that it became a new standard in superhero movie villian performances.

Until now.

The Joker (Heath Ledger) crashes a fund-raiser

Enter Heath Ledger. His take on The Joker was so eerie, so chaotic, so fun to watch, that finding the actor behind the character was difficult, at best. When he (posthumously) won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor of 2008, I thought it was a sympathy vote more than anything else. After seeing this movie, I can say that my initial judgment was… premature.

(Is this a good time to say that I had made a promise to myself not to spend the entire review talking about Heath Ledger? Okay, then! On with the show!)

This movie needed to be at least as good as its predecessor in order to sustain the franchise, and The Dark Knight delivers. Oh, and I should note Aaron Eckart’s take on District Attorney Harvey Dent (aka Two-Face) was nearly equally as strong as that of Heath Ledger’s Joker. And, like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight was well-paced, beautifally shot, and held me from start to finish.

It is sad that Mr. Ledger passed away; he left big shoes to fill should the Powers That Be revisit The Joker in a future movie. But this “Batman” franchise still has teeth in it, and The Dark Knight has a large bite.

4 out of 5

BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

In Action, B, Motion Pictures, Movies, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on January 22, 2010 at 1:34 am

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 Batman Begins (2005) STUDIO — Warner Bros./DC Comics    

CAST — Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Katie Holmes    

DIRECTOR — Christopher Nolan    

MPAA Rating: PG-13    

For my first review, I thought I would start things off with a bang (and a POW!, a BIFF!, and an OOF!). Okay, all kidding aside, and with apologies to Adam West, let us begin our quest for the genesis of Batman, as seen through the vision of director christopher Nolan.    

This story centers around the beginnings of the crime-fighter known as the Batman, and how it nearly began with an act of revenge; a still-young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) wanted to kill the man who shot his parents. When that didn’t work, he traveled abroad, ultimately winding up in prison for attempted theft in Asia. What follows is the now-famous training sequence, in which a man named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) introduces Bruce to the League of Shadows. Now with his training complete, Bruce returns to Gotham to find it worse than it was when he left. In fact, it seems the only five people in town who aren’t corrupt are Bruce, his butler Alfred (Michael Caine), his one-time girlfriend (and assistant DA) Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Wayne Enterprises employee Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), and a police lieutenant named Gordon (Gary Oldman).     

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) embraces his fear

I found this movie entertaining, with a flow to the plot that didn’t stop dead in its tracks, even though I found the Scarecrow subplot to be somewhat contrived.  Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne is a brooding badass billionaire, with a near-perfect characterization that (thankfully) doesn’t fall into the caricature of George Clooney. Michael Caine makes an excellent Alfred, who not only is Bruce Wayne’s caretaker, assistant, and confidant, but here we also see him as his center and surrogate parent. The chemistry between Christian Bale and Katie Holmes worked well. Also, Morgan Freeman is a welcome addition to nearly any movie. I think I will stop right here to say that both Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are among my favorite actors of all time, so having both of them in this reboot of the Batman franchise was a stroke of genius. Finally, the custom-built Batmobile was the perfect cherry on top of this ice cream sundae of a movie. 

Overall, Batman Begins is well-paced, wonderfully shot, and a visual feast on the eyes. Though 1978’s Superman is still the standard of the modern superhero movie, this movie meets the challenge head-on without wavering. 

3-1/2 out of 5