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Late June movie round-up

In less than three weeks since my last movie-watching summary I managed to see 11 movies, some of them fairly recent releases. Half of them were watched on transatlantic flights, plus I worked through the DVR queue a bit, in anticipation of fast-approaching cancellation of my satellite TV service.

Here is the lineup, with drive-by reviews as always following (few spoilers cannot be avoided).

10,000 B.C. 2008
21 2008
Fool’s Gold 2008
Gran Torino 2008
sex, lies, and videotape 1989
Taken 2009
The Incredible Hulk 2008
The International 2009
Valkyrie 2008
Watchmen 2009
We Own the Night 2007

I probably liked 21 the most of the crop: It has a quasi-heist set-up, a sharp-minded card-playing plot, and the main characters are all really smart nerds. Brilliant! The events unfold crisply and, while I find some logical gaps in the setting, they are not glaring and little is left to be puzzled about. Kevin Spacey lends acting gravitas; I don’t particularly like Laurence Fishburne in general, but I cannot fault him much in this specific role; and Jim Burgess is quickly gaining traction as one of my favorite “young” actors.

Only one other movie from the list raised to the “definitely liked” level: Watchmen. I did not read the graphic novel on which it is based, but I quite enjoyed both the story and how it is brought to life on-screen. Flawed, complicated characters make this fantasy feel more realistic in its alternate-reality setting than other fantasies that are seemingly set directly in our reality but are invariably populated with one-dimensional villains and heroes. I especially liked how personal background flashbacks were incorporated into the narrative, even if they did not bother to explain to me how these superheroes came around to possess their super-skills (with the notable exception of Dr Manhattan). The plot resolution left me a bit cold – we first agree that killing millions of people is the right and only way to avert a global disaster, then we murder a friend who is not going to keep that a secret – but I’m willing to allow that I might see the point in that upon a repeat viewing.

I was lukewarm towards Gran Torino, but I give top marks to Clint Eastwood’s acting, having never been a fan of his thespian skills in the past. There is poignant personal interaction in a number of scenes, and the overall premise is definitely moving. But my usual pet peeve of illogical events occurring for the benefit of advancing towards a specific ending is on glaring display here in a couple of instances. And Walt is shown to be almost certainly dying of some serious disease that is not being treated, true, by he does not come across as a person who no longer cares to live; hastening his death for the sake of putting the vicious gang away seems an awfully irrational choice for such a hard nut.

Taken is fast-paced and reasonably absorbing; plus, Liam Neeson is one of those actors who make any movie they are in watchable. The plot is reasonably simple: A former super-agent’s daughter is kidnapped in Paris by a gang of women-traffickers and the dad goes on a mission to save her and kill everyone who stands in his way. Guess how that ends! There are car chases, gunfights, hand combat, etc. The number of fortuitous turns of events that allow the hero to stay his course is enough for three 007 movies, but, of course, we root for him, so that’s all right. People annoyed with the recent fad of nauseating quick-cut action sequences will find plenty of reasons to point out how, well, nauseating those are. On balance, though, it was a favorable viewing, not least because I want to have the skills and fortune of Brian if one of my daughters were in trouble.

I did not see the ending of Valkyrie on account of in-flight entertainment system being shut-down for landing, but I mostly felt it a solid movie. The actual historical event has always been of a considerable interest to me and, without passing any intelligent judgement on how close to the real turn of events this portrayal is, I think the movie is a reasonable effort. If anything, my biggest problem was with some sketchiness of the proceedings: Characters were brought in and out, their importance to the course of events was not always obvious (but often implied with somber-looking close-ups), and the conspiracy seemingly proceeded from one big occasion to another with little intervening preparatory work. Tom Cruise, like him or not, does quite well a noble and driven aristocrat with a purpose in mind. I’ll definitely watch the movie in its entirety at some point, which by itself means that it merits at least 3 stars in my book.

One other positive viewing experience was Fool’s Gold, the kind of silly and even cartoonish adventure that I always seem to enjoy. The locales were gorgeous, the action was mostly fun, there was enough of comic relief to maintain the light mood. Practically every character possessed uncanny ability to hold their breath under water for several minutes a pop and there were a couple of way-too-fortunate escapes from certain death, but those were small nitpicks for an otherwise enjoyable romp. Plus, Matthew McConaughey seems a perfect fit for the role of a single-minded good-guy surfer dude/daredevil. I never thought I’d be using his acting as one the things I especially liked in a movie.

All of the other watched movies were of the “meh” variety.

10,000 B.C. could have been interesting because of the setting, but the plot and the action were rather tedious on top of incongruous mish-mash of civilizations and extinct animals. I suppose if I view it as a non-technologically-advanced fantasy – just the kind that I normally like – I might have a warmer feeling towards it (as opposed to viewing it as historically-based), but the uninspiring plot would still tip the scales towards less than positive reception. Good rendering of mammoths, though.

We Own the Night had some things going for it as a period piece, but again, the plot left me unimpressed. The leads were not bad, the subject matter interesting, but the events felt too disjointed and not properly founded. Passable Russian speech in most cases, at least, with a small delight of seeing Yelena Solovey (I last saw her on-screen probably 20 years ago) in a small supporting role.

The International had locales of a number of gorgeous European destinations, but little else. I mistakenly thought that it was some kind of a spy thriller and found it really hard to get interested in a plot revolving around devious high commerce, albeit with assassinations and other assorted action. The hero, played by Clive Owen, possesses adequate action skills as well as survival fortune, but somehow I could not get to unquestionably root for him as I normally do for every other action hero. All of the lucky breaks get magnified in their “Really?” aspect when I am not very much invested in the hero.

The Incredible Hulk is like Transformers with a human back-story. Some interesting special effects, but a pretty dull story overall, with many predictable – and yet, logically unfounded or conveniently incidental, – turns. It’s a telling indicator that what I like the most about the movie is the early fly-over shot of a Rio favela. And the question that bothered me the most while watching it was whether this movie was meant to be a sequel to the Hulk of a few years ago, where Eric Bana played the lead; none of the main characters are played by the same actors in both movies, and I am pretty sure even the accident that causes Bruce Banner’s condition is not portrayed the same way in both movies. Which can only mean that this was another reboot…?

Finally, for the only entry of the “relative oldie” category, I watched sex, lies, and videotape because I heard of its independent-movie trail-blazer status. It bored the bejeesus out of me. Props to Andie McDowell and James Spader for excellent acting, but I should have known better.

Less than a week and a half left until the movers arrive and pack the TV, the PCs and the rest of stuff for shipment…


  1. Eric

    sex, lies and videotape is and was an important film, but I’m not sure it’s aged all that well. It’s certainly not the Steven Soderbergh film I’d recommend at this point to somebody trying to get a feel for Soderbergh’s career, nor is it a film I’d really recommend if I was trying to introduce someone to “Indie” film (a category that’s become meaningless since (sl&v, but still).

    So, you know, there it is. You can say you’ve seen one of those seminal contemporary classics or whatever, for whatever it’s worth.

  2. jason

    Ilya, the only thing on this list I’ve seen is sex, lies and videotape, but it was years and years ago and I don’t remember a damn thing about it except that it put the Sundance Film Festival on the cultural map. A good friend of mine was deeply infatuated with it for reasons I could never fathom, and there was certainly a lot of buzz and conversation around it — plus it had a provocative (at the time) title — but I’m guessing I was distinctly underwhelmed when I finally saw it, or it would’ve made more of an impression.

    So the important observation here is that you and I finally agree on one of these classics!

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