5/27/2013

150 Movies in 90 Days: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

May 26: #4, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend: people who have seen this movie, and people who won't get the reference.

I'm not sure why I'm always surprised when I end up liking Westerns. After all, I can't even think of one that I've ever seen that I didn't like. From The Searchers, which I saw early in my (lengthy) college career as part of one of my English classes to 80s pseudo-Westerns like Young Guns (and its lesser sequel, which I also enjoyed), I've liked them all. Comedic Westerns like Maverick, modern, action-packed Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma, they're all good in my book.

Yet, for some reason, when it comes time to actually watch a Western, I drag my feet. My mom loves Westerns and force-fed me The Outlaw Josey Wales, which was good, but felt every minute as long as its 135-minute running time.

So, when my mom brought over The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to watch on our usual Game of Thrones night, I was a little hesitant. Even if I end up liking Westerns, there's something about the genre that just doesn't have curb appeal for me, I suppose.

Still, I've always wanted to see some of Sergio Leone's famous spaghetti Westerns, and we even ate spaghetti that night to complete the theme and/or undermine the heritage of Italians everywhere.



The thing about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is that nobody can come into the film with a fresh mindset, because unless you've lived under a rock (where hopefully, people are passing the time by thinking of new clich├ęs to replace "living under a rock" with) all of your life, you are much more familiar with the film than you think you are.

Hello? The theme? Who hasn't heard that, or playfully whistled it when some drama was about to go down? Beyond that, have you seen a Quentin Tarantino film? There are dozens of well-worn tropes and conventions that can be traced back to the early Leone Westerns, including this one. Spotting them, even though it takes you out of the film a bit, really makes you appreciate how important The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has been in American culture and film history, as well.

Okay, so it's an influential movie. But is it any good?

You bet your sweet ass it is.

Right off the bat, you know what I love about Sergio Leone? His patience. We don't hear a single line of dialogue for several minutes, and I loved every second of it. Instead, extreme close-ups on grizzled men who were likely not even real actors told the story. At several points in the film, the tension is allowed not to build slowly in a way that today's spastic directors and easily bored viewers wouldn't stand for.

The plot, though, is genius. You've got three guys: a ruthless mercenary named Angel Eyes looking for a stash of gold (the perfectly heartless Lee Van Cleef), a quiet, reserved bounty hunter nicknamed "Blondie" (Clint Eastwood), and a sneaky, treacherous bandit called Tuco (perfectly played by Eli Wallach). After a lengthy opening act that sees Blondie and Tuco take turns double-crossing one another while Angel Eyes performs all manner of reprehensible, cold-blooded acts, all three end up after the same gold. 

However, what makes the plot great is that the money is buried in a grave in a vast cemetery, and while only Angel Eyes and Tuco know which cemetery the money is located at, Blondie is the only one who knows which grave, out of thousands, is the one where the money is buried.

My mom enjoys Tuco more than any other character in the film, and it's hard to fault her. Tuco is a slimy individual, but unlike the other two, he owns his sliminess. You've gotta respect that. Besides, he brings comic relief to the film and makes for one half of a great odd couple with the stoic Blondie.

"No, I have never bought wholesale quantities of meth from a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher. Why does everybody keep asking me that?!?"

Leone does a superb job as director, and the cinematography is often beautiful. Roger Ebert hit the nail on the head when he said that Leone's uncommon filming locations lent his Westerns a uniqueness that the American offerings of the same time frame couldn't compete with, and there are great shots of the vast, desolate landscape throughout the film that are often contrasted nicely with the intimate close-ups of the actors' faces.

Leone also knows how to frame a scene, with one notable example being when a laughing Tuco is forcing Blondie to trudge along in the desert without so much as a drop of water. Tuco's face takes up the left side of the screen as he guzzles water out of his canteen, while in the background, Blondie stumbles about, dying of thirst and trying to keep moving across the harsh landscape.

If I had to nitpick the film, there would only be three things I'd do so about. The first is that the climactic confrontation is well, rather anti-climactic. It builds nicely, as do all of Leone's scenes, but at that point nothing could really justify the epic journey we've witnessed, which is a product of the second nitpick I have, which is that the film is just a bit too long. Finally, the poorly overdubbed dialogue can be distracting, but the man was working on a tiny budget with actors that largely did not speak English. You have to look past it.

It's always a pleasure to watch so-called classics from decades ago and find that they are actually worthy of the label. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a film everybody should see. Grade: A.

5/24/2013

150 Movies in 90 Days: Oblivion

May 23- #3, Oblivion

Tom Cruise and post-apocalyptic sci-fi make a pretty effective team. 

Tom knew he should have made that left turn at Albuquerque

You've gotta support your small town movie theater, and with Oblivion looking pretty good for a movie that stars someone who's a) like 50 years old, and b) bat-shit crazy, I thought I'd give it a chance.

My problem with Tom Cruise at this point is that he's Tom Cruise. You can't watch a gif of a guy jumping up and down on Oprah Winfrey's couch and shooting lasers at her while laughing maniacally and then simply go back to watching his films like nothing happened. You can't see a guy give a lecture to Matt Laurer on prescription drugs in the most uncomfortable, awkward interviews since the previous interview Tom Cruise did, and then go back to suspending your disbelief as he attempts to slide back into his charming action hero spot as if nothing ever happened.

To my surprise, though, Oblivion wasn't bad.

"'Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads!'...I've always wanted to say that."


Let's get the pink elephant out of the way- Cruise was fine in it. He's believable enough as a post-apocalyptic technician left on a devastated Earth to monitor and repair drones before he plans to join the rest of humanity elsewhere. At this point, Cruise has tapped into the Crazy and used it as a powerful force which enables him to buy into whatever he's doing completely. He's unstable, and just as with last year's Jack Reacher, it works.

The plot is pretty good, if unmistakably familiar. If you've seen the excellent Moon, starring Sam Rockwell, you'll be feeling some deja vu as this one gets going. Obviously, it's not a spoiler to say that there's more going on on Earth than meets the eye (the trailer itself shows you this much- oh hi, Morgan Freeman!), but if you've seen Moon you will be suspicious from the beginning, which sort of lessens the impact of the film's rather predictable twists and turns.

Later on, you'll see more than just passing elements of The Matrix, as well. The problem here is that Oblivion, while a serviceable sci-fi/action popcorn flick, couldn't carry either of those films' jock straps in a suitcase, to quote the immortal Wesley Snipes. So while I'm watching Oblivion, I'm spending a lot of time thinking, "Man, I wish I was watching Moon."

It's got what you'd expect- good special effects, some explosions, some fights, and a message preaching a general distrust of our quickly-evolving technology. Besides the mimicry of signature elements of much better films in the genre, the only really negative thing I have to say about Oblivion is that a film that tries to have something to say about concepts like identity or memory should really be more memorable. Grade: B-.

5/22/2013

150 Movies in 90 Days: Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness


Yes, it's a duck. With green hair and a tongue. Of course! Come on.

Anyway, I did this thing years ago when I was bored and wanted to waste a bunch of time where I watched 50 movies in 30 days. To make my time feel a little more well-spent and placate my need to document everything for no good reason, I wrote mini-reviews (and sometimes just regular reviews) on all of the movies I watched and gave them all a letter grade, because that's not arbitrary at all.

This summer, after my final semester as an undergraduate left me more or less a) triumphant, b) mostly brain-dead, and c) clueless as to what to do next, I thought, why not do it again? In fact, that's actually the main reason I bothered to start a blog. But how to make it even better? I mean, twice as good isn't good enough. I had to make it three times as good as before.

Then, it hit me: to make something three times as good, you MULTIPLY IT BY THREE. I know, right? Blew my mind, too. So I got out my calculator, spent a half an hour running the numbers, and realized that 150 movies in 90 days would be exactly three times as awesome as my original movie-watching experiment.

So, here are the basics: I'm attempting to watch as many movies that I haven't seen as possible, although I'm going to throw like 25 or so in that I have been meaning to re-watch anyway. I'm not sticking to any particular genre, and I'm going to try to watch films from multiple decades instead of keeping it to more recent stuff, too.

If by chance, some vagrant stumbles upon my humble blog and has the burning desire to recommend a movie, I would welcome that. I'll take recommendations on Twitter, too. Bonus points if your movie(s) can be found on HBOGO, Amazon Instant, or Netflix. As I watch the movies, I'll come back here and post my thoughts, and at the end of the 90 days, I'll have a nice write-up to tie a little bow on the whole thing and satisfy my undeniable need for closure.

May 21- #1, Star Trek (2009) and #2, Star Trek: Into Darkness



I've never been a Trekkie. Okay, that's an understatement.

I've never had even the slightest inkling of interest in Star Trek.

Hey, it's not all my fault. When I was growing up, Star Trek was not cool. It wasn't the 60s, when Star Trek was ahead of its time and capturing the imaginations of earthbound would-be adventurers, after all. It was the 80s and 90s, when the Star Wars franchise had come along and bitch-slapped Star Trek with its much cooler take on all manner of fictional space antics.

Star Trek had ugly sweaters. Star Wars had lightsabers. What more do you need? Okay, fine. Slave Leia. Wookies. HAN FRIGGIN' SOLO. Look, when Billy Dee Williams is not even one of the top five coolest things about your film series, you've accomplished something.

If you were not a child of the 80s or even early 90s, you may not know that public schools in back then were not as receptive to nerdery as they are now. It was not cool to be a geek; not at all. Star Trek was for geeks. Don't get me wrong, I didn't avoid doing things just because they were or weren't cool, but besides being decidedly uncool, Star Trek simply didn't interest me.

Then came Star Trek, the 2009 reboot, and I didn't think much of it. Everything gets rebooted nowadays. When people seemed to like it, I figured it was because they had stripped away everything that made it Star Trek in the first place in order to let it appeal to a wider audience. You know, sort of how Eddie Murphy stopped being funny so that he could make a billion dollars.

Apparently, I was wrong, and by most accounts, Star Trek managed to satisfy both Trekkies and non-Trekkies alike. When I saw the trailer for the sequel, I thought I should grab the reboot on Blu-ray on the cheap and watch both of them to kick off my summer movie-watching.

Star Trek is, in a word, great. Through some crafty storytelling, it exists in an alternate timeline from the events of the original television shows and films, allowing it to breathe, mostly free of narrative constraints. The film tells the story of James T. Kirk and Spock as they take very different paths that, of course, lead both of them to the USS Enterprise.

Kirk is a bit of a wild character and is instantly likable, despite the fact (or perhaps, because of the fact) that he only really cares about hitting on women and doing stupidly dangerous things. Despite the fact that the character could have ended up as a testament to interstellar douchebaggery, a charismatic performance by Chris Pine keeps this from happening.

Zachary Quinto plays the role of Spock and fleshes out the iconic character while using the kind of subtlety demanded by a character that is supposed to be ruled by logic, not emotion. One important thing that you can say about not only Pine and Quinto's performances, but the film as a whole, is that it hits all the fan service high spots without ever devolving into caricature, which is more easily said than done.

The tightrope walking by not only the performers, but writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, as well as director JJ Abrams, ensures that when classic Star Trek lines come up, we laugh along instead of rolling our eyes. So, when Scotty says, "I'm giving her all she's got, Captain!" or Leonard "Bones" McCoy says, "Damn it, man! I'm a doctor, not a physicist!", the movie doesn't descend into outright parody.

Of course, the special effects are also great, and though the film seems mostly like a setup for a new franchise than anything, Star Trek delivers on every level. Grade: A-



After finishing up Star Trek, I had less than an hour until my brother and I were supposed to leave to catch a 3D showing of Star Trek: Into Darkness. At that point, I was surprised to actually be looking forward to a Star Trek film, dorky sweaters and all. I also wondered where the story would go from the conclusion of the first film, since I tend to avoid trailers and footage of films that I know I'm going to eventually see.

So, if Star Trek was a well-crafted origin story, what was Star Trek: Into Darkness?

A bro-mance.

In the film, the absolute focal point is the emerging and continuing friendship between Captain Kirk and Spock. The two make a great odd couple because of their completely differing personalities; you would be hard-pressed to find a person more impulsive than Kirk, while Spock famously does everything according to logic. The remarkable opening scene not only hammers this point home, but does so while giving the film the up-tempo start that it needs.

It's not surprising that each man learns the value of incorporating some of the other's philosophy into his own life over the course of the film. What is surprising is how well Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto pull off the relationship between the two, to the point where when you get a typical emotional bonding scene toward the end of the film, it comes off as legitimately touching rather than ineffective, like so such scenes often are.

I was telling my brother that one of the best things about summer blockbusters over the past decade or so is that they are not afraid to use humor instead of simply relying on nothing but action set pieces to please the crowds. Star Trek: Into Darkness is no exception, with Kirk and Spock in particular having plenty of exchanges that are legitimately funny, which I won't ruin here.

The story itself lulls a bit after the intro, and the screenwriters, to my surprise, even went to the well and did the whole "loose cannon getting his badge taken away", Star Trek-style. However, in the second half of the film, the villain, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in an excellent performance, establishes himself as a menacing presence more than worthy of his screen time, and things pick up again. Overall, the sequel does not disappoint, and again, it's mostly the performances of the entire cast, as well as smart and charming dialogue, that makes Star Trek: Into Darkness memorable. Grade: A-

5/20/2013

Obligatory Intro Post

Bear with me, folks. I haven't had a blog since the ancient days of Xanga. When that got lame as the site was forced to become like MySpace or die (hidden third option: continue to exist as pathetic shell of its former self!), I basically stopped blogging, though I write now more than ever.

So, is this something people do? Announce themselves to the world and declare, "Ladies and gentlemen, I know there are already too many blogs in the world, but THIS is why I'm adding mine to the pile!"? Perhaps it's just the OCD part of my brain (also known as: my entire brain) that makes me want my blog, like everything else, to have an actual beginning.

If you're stumbling upon this blog for the first time (and "stumbling" is likely the only way you'll end up here, most assuredly after drinking too much and Googling something like "naked monkey poop flinging"), here are the basics on me:

I'm a writer. I haven't clocked in somewhere in over five years, and although my continuing college career has allowed me to only write for what's essentially a part-time income, I'm still sticking doggedly to the idea that I will only a) write and/or b) teach some form of college-level English to make money from here on out. Well, that, and prostitute myself, duh.

I guess you could say I hedge my bets by writing about whatever I can. I have my ghostwriting and SEO stuff to help pay most of the bills, a little mixed martial arts writing to pay other bills and get my name out there, and a bunch of other currently unpaid writing. I'm struggling with the idea of writing without the promise of x amount of dollars waiting at the end of each task, but then again, I don't want to be a career ghostwriter, I want to be Jon fucking Hartley, guy who writes awesome stuff with his name printed clearly at the top, yet still can afford to survive.

To that end, this blog will be where I dump my thoughts off onto you, dear reader. I will shuck them like so many layers from my lazy, resistant brain and place them here in little bins so that you can either ingest them or reject them as insufficient to your intellectual diet. As always, there's a hidden third option here, too, which is "ignore their existence", but you're already here and we both know it's too late for that.