Weekly Movie Reviews: Sep 17-23, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Quick and the Dead (1995)

I love Westerns and I didn’t realize that a Western with a female gunfighter protagonist was missing from my life until I read about this movie. And it’s directed by Sam Raimi and he makes good movies.

A mysterious female gunslinger (Sharon Stone) arrives in Redemption, an Old West town controlled by local outlaw John Herod (Gene Hackman), just in time to sign up for the Herod’s gun-fighting competition. She isn’t just there for the prize money, though – she has an old score to settle. Her simple plan is complicated by the rules of the contest as well as her friendships with fellow competitors the Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cort (Russell Crowe), who she may have to hurt to get to her final target.

The Quick and the Dead follows all the usual Western tropes – mysterious stranger riding into a town that needs saving, a villainous outlaw, plenty of gunslinging, but what it lacks in originality it makes up for in style. I was worried that Sharon Stone’s character would either be too vulnerable or too much like a male character, but she was written and acted perfectly. She is both realistic and terrifyingly good. This was Russell Crowe’s American debut and one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s earliest movies (he’s adorable!) and they were talented actors even back then. And Gene Hackman is delightfully despicable as the villainous Herod.

Other Movies Watched

Starship Troopers (1997)

It is the 23rd century and humans are now a spacefaring species. The government is controlled by the military, citizenship and the right to vote only awarded to people who have chosen to join federal service, and Earth is constantly at war with an alien species (the Bugs). We follow rich kid turned mobile infantryman Johnny Rico as he rises through the ranks of the military.

I did not like this movie when I first saw it because I had recently read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and this movie is tonally very different from the book despite sharing a few character names and a general plot. I’ve watched it a few more times since and now it’s one of my favorite sci-fi movies. On the surface the movie is about Johnny Rico and his friends finding their place in the world and that’s a satisfactory story on its own, but it’s also a biting look at jingoism and propaganda. Director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall) is at his element here with his trademark action, violence, and satire, and it is marvelous.

Garden State (2004)

Zach Braff writes, directs, and stars in this film about a discontented young man who returns to his New Jersey hometown after nine years of being away to attend his mother’s funeral. He meets up with his old friends, meets a girl, and eventually comes to terms with his life.

This movie reminded me of a better version of Elizabethtown. I’d seen it before but I didn’t remember most of it. It was a lot better than I remember it being, though, and it has clearly influenced a lot of later quirky indie dramas (including Natalie Portman’s “manic pixie dream girl” character that pre-dated the term’s coining). Zach Braff is extremely sympathetic as the over-medicated and withdrawn Andrew, especially once the tragic circumstances about why he hasn’t been home in nine years are revealed. The other characters in the movie are also compelling and I particularly liked Peter Sarsgaard’s role. This is a hard movie to describe because not much happens, the characters make you somewhat viscerally uncomfortable (because they are, too) but by the end it’s brand of earnestness has won you over.

Deep Impact (1998)

Deep Impact follows a group of people over a year as they deal with the impending threat of extinction caused by an asteroid on a collision course with the Earth. There’s high school student Leo Biederman (who helped discover the asteroid), reporter Jenny Lerner who first stumbled upon the story, the six astronauts on the Messiah spacecraft sent to stop the asteroid, the president of the United States, and some of the people around each of them.

This was a re-watch for me so of course I liked it. I’m not sure why Armageddon is so much more famous than Deep Impact given that they both came out at the same time but this is a much better movie. I’m guessing it might be because Armageddon is basically an action movie but Deep Impact is firmly a science-fiction drama. It tries to genuinely take a look at how the world would be affected by a impending disaster of such magnitude: what preparations and countermeasures would be taken, how everyday people would react, how it would affect national priorities and foreign relations, and so on. The characters are diverse enough that we get a lot of different perspectives (although all American, I read that the movie didn’t have enough of a budget to show anything from other countries even though they wanted to) and the cast playing them is fairly well-known, I recognized a lot of the side characters as well.

Cop Land (1997)

I found out about this movie when I was looking up Logan‘s director James Mangold and couldn’t believe I’d never heard of it before. It’s set in suburban New Jersey and follows Freddy Heflin, the sheriff of a town that many NYC police officers have settled in. After a young police officer is believed to have committed suicide, the ensuing events make the underlying tensions in town bubble up to the surface and Freddy can no longer turn a blind eye.

The cast of this movie is almost unbelievable, it has so many people that are famous for their roles in police and/or gangster stories – Sylvester Stallone, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Robert Patrick. Stallone plays the protagonist, Freddy, whoe’s half-deaf, lonely, and beaten down (very unlike Stallone’s usual roles). For most of the movie I just wanted to give him a big hug and tell him to cheer up. The movie takes full advantage of its ensemble cast, though and it doesn’t make even who the protagonist is clear until well into the movie. Mangold is great at unlikely heroes (see 3:10 to Yuma and Logan) and this movie is a perfect fit for him. It keeps you at the edge of your seat and it’s emotionally satisfying.

Superman (1978)

Even though I enjoy superhero movies, I’d never seen the original Superman movie series which have been hugely influential in the genre. I probably don’t need to summarize the premise of this movie, it’s an origin story for Superman covering his voyage from Krypton, his youth living on a farm in the country, and his discovery of the Fortress of Solitude/acceptance of his powers.

Although the movie has a few obvious flaws, I enjoyed it a lot better than I thought I would. It’s a fairly straightforward superhero movie of the older style where we don’t really see the hero’s journey – of course Superman is a hero does what he does, we don’t need to know his motivations. Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of both Superman is terrific; his constant almost-smirk takes the character from boringly perfect to lovable, especially when he’s clearly hamming up his cluelessness as Clark Kent. I thought Lois Lane was also portrayed very well by Margot Kidder; I thought her character would be the usual screaming damsel of distress and she did do some of that but she also had her own role as a fiercely independent woman who cared deeply about her work. I could have skipped her inner (rhyming!) monologue when she’s flying around with Superman. Lex Luthor could have used some major improvement though, he’s a stereotypical insane, campy, nebulously murderous villain and an absolute waste of Gene Hackman.

St. Elmo’s Fire (1983)

It seems like we’ve been watching a lot of movies about people grappling with their recent adulthood (Reality Bites, Singles, Diner) and St. Elmo’s Fire is more of the same, this time with people who came of age in the ’80s. We follow a group of seven friends (four men and three women) as they come to terms with their lives, careers, and loves.

It took me a long time to take the characters seriously because half the cast of The Breakfast Club is in this movie and they look exactly like the same (both movies came out in the same year) even though they are supposed to be a few years older. The movie explores the usual coming of age themes – emotional maturity, taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions, and making sure your relationships are healthy. I can’t really think of any glaring flaws with the movie and I didn’t dislike it but I also don’t have any desire to watch it ever again. I think it’s because many of the characters seemed entitled (realistically so) and the narrative actually rewards them for it rather than making it something they need to overcome, It didn’t really feel like some of the characters came of age by the end.

One thought on “Weekly Movie Reviews: Sep 17-23, 2017

  1. Gene Hackman in Quick and the Dead is marvelous. I was waiter where he had breakfast several times a week in Santa Fé and he was quite a powerful personality, very direct without being arrogant. His bad guy characters have in common that they aren’t evil for the sake of it, more like a tool to bring some sort of order where it could be worse. That’s even scarier because it’s understandable and not a choice between good vs evil but between lesser evils. He’s like the anti-hero of bad guys; forced into a role that’s loathsome but prevents anarchy.

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