SD/Movies – Getting Schooled, Getting Drunk, Knowing Stuff & Getting Whacked

Old School/The Hangover

We watched “Old School” based on the enthusiastic recommendations of our friends. These friends, it’s worth mentioning, are the ones who recommended “Euro Trip” all those months back, and despite the various movie triumphs we’ve had based on their suggestions since, the old wound runs deep!

Old School“Old School” doesn’t clear up the scar tissue, but it at least alleviates the remnant pain a little.

Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughan shamble their way through a mildly raucous movie that isn’t quite shocking enough to be a screwball romp, but isn’t sharp enough to be an insightful relationship comedy.

There are a few pretty good laughs scattered through the movie, and Wilson and Ferrell give likeable performances… Even Vaughan’s totally amoral oiliness has it’s charm.

The film is a little all over the place, though, never sure which of its plot threads or elements are really the point, and as such it doesn’t hold together all that well as a movie – there are plenty of decent quotable moments, but the sketchy pacing makes the whole thing fall a little flat.

The Hangover - Zach Galifianakis“The Hangover” features an almost identical character dynamic to “Old School” – and if we go back further I guess we’d find similar archetypes at play in Todd Phillips’ earlier “Road Trip” – but with the newer movie the writer and director have a clearer sense of where the movie’s strengths are than they did with “Old School”, and the rolling motion of the plot – the search for the impending groom through the fog of a devastating (read “awesome!”) stag party – gives it a pace and clarity lacking in the earlier one.

The Hangover - Heather GrahamIt also has frankly more impressive talent in the reluctant-straight-fall-guy and out-of-control man-child roles – Wilson and Ferrell do good work, but Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis shine in “The Hangover”. If doing a sterling job at playing a handicapped or mentally ill character can usually be considered a fast track to award recognition, it seems a shame that Galifianakis will probably not get consideration for his lovably perverse and broken odd-ball here. His performance is what makes the movie stand apart from other similar romps, giving it most of its shocks, as well as any pathos present.

Mind you, as fun as “The Hangover” is, it’s not a classic, and the above observation could easily be said of the brilliant Bobcat Goldthwait in the not so brilliant “Police Academy” movies.

“Old School” is available at Amazon on DVD for £4, or packaged with “Anchorman” for £5!

Knowing/Terminator: Salvation/Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince

Knowing“Knowing” is a meditation on determinism masquerading as a blockbuster movie and failing bravely at both. “Terminator: Salvation” is a blockbuster movie whose truly awesome action props will likely get overlooked because of an over-reliance on the convoluted metaphysical legacy of it’s franchise forebears for key story elements, while paradoxically refusing to address those same elements. In short, it’s a blockbuster built on the sandy foundation of a meditation on determinism.

Both movies feature awesome special-effects sequences, and some frenetic dramatic pacing that places them ahead of the herd of other Hollywood noise-generators, but both fail to make a cohesive argument for themselves by the end of their running time. This means that despite the gravity of the subject matter in each – “Knowing” ultimately concerns itself with an end-of-the-world scenario more devastating than anything seen in any of the disaster movies of the last few years, and “Terminator: Salvation” finally takes us into the terrible future that Sarah Connor has been trying to derail for twenty-some years, where the question of humanity’s near-extinction is no longer an imminent abstract but a fact of life – the credits roll in each case with the viewer intellectually aware of what they just watched, but finding it difficult to make an emotional connection with it.

The problem, in each case, isn’t with the individual scenes – each has plenty of good, and even great ones, including in “Knowing” two disaster sequences that are so intense that they are actually haunting, and in “Terminator: Salvation” some of the hands-down best giant robot sequences I’ve ever seen – it’s with the bridging bits between them.

“Knowing” feels like it’s trying to do too much with it’s minutes, with plot thread rubbing up against plot thread until you don’t know which details are supposed to be important. One minute it’s a family drama, the next it’s a thriller. The threat is supernatural – no, it’s scientific. It’s the numbers – but no, it’s the disasters. The director has tried to make a three-part mini-series type of story, but within the constraints of a three-act movie, whose structure fractures under the pressure. There’s too much content to the film, and not enough pragmatic work done at the script redrafting phase.

Also, Nicolas Cage does a great job of portraying his broken single dad professor at times, but because he does so well, it’s tough to buy it when he transitions from nihilism to proactivism.

Terminator Salvation

“Terminator: Salvation”, too, has too much going on, and asks the audience to take too much on faith without giving them enough to work with. The film takes that final, inevitable leap, that was both unavoidable the longer the franchise continued, and utterly breaks the fundamental principle of it: It deals, aside from one pre-credit flashback, with the world after Judgement Day.

At a franchise level, this is both a brave step and besides the point. Though the continuity of the Terminator-verse relies very heavily on the broken future toward which the world is heading throughout, and John Connor’s place in it, in genre fiction broken futures are actually all too common. The hook of the Terminator franchise has always been the way that that future intrudes onto our present, and how the present day chooses to deal with it.

Seeing John Connor on the later stages of the road to his destiny is exciting for the people who, already far too invested in the series, thought it would “be totally fucking awesome!” to have every detail in a continuity filled out for them, but the sad fact is that once we pass the point in the timeline where Connor is a guy with a destiny in need of protecting from a future wanting to snuff him out before he’s a threat, we basically end up with a future war story about a guy who just happens to be a really good leader. The machines are still trying to kill him, but hell, you know, the machines are trying to kill everybody by now. Not a bad paradigm, but not “Terminator”, not really.

And the great question at the middle of the franchise – the one that the TV show was starting to do some really great work with, and that has been a prime mover in the first three movies: Is the future fixed? Or is there no fate but that which you make? – are all but redundant, now. We’re in the territory where there is almost only unpredicted future, and that makes questions of determinism redundant.

The film-makers try to adjust for this, but what we get instead is a new nascent hero in need of protection in the young Kyle Reese – now protected by Connor, his future son – and while the dramatic irony is enough to scratch ones head over and go “ah, clever…” for a couple of minutes, once that has passed, the whole plotline starts to draw attention to the uncomfortable elephant in the room that the other movies have tried not to point at all that much:

Knowing that the off-camera future John Connor is the one who sends his father back in time to conceive him is one thing – it’s a cute little tongue-twister that’s fun to ponder while it’s in the periphery. But when actual future John Connor is right there, actually manipulating the fate of his dad-to-be, it’s too distracting happening in the middle of an already quite eventful movie. That’s why James Cameron left it there, as a poignant coda to the end of the first movie – it’s the sort of idea that can hijack a story. And that story has already been filmed. It’s called “Back To The Future”.

The film isn’t actually bad – there’s a great performance put in by Sam Worthington, as a new and very different addition to the Terminator mythos, and a new kind of protector figure. And despite my going on about it as a negative, most of the best scenes come out of his relationship with Kyle Reese, and actually make the John Connor plots seem almost like an unwanted distraction.

But the inclusion of this new element into the story serves to further draw attention to the film’s narrative flaws – which I incidentally don’t think are down so much to McG as they are a symptom of the franchise’s difficult position. Up till now, any of the coincidence or prediction that has occurred in the series universe has been justified by the fact that the characters are acting on information that is actually from the future. And if young John and Sarah Connor end up somewhere that will later become important, this isn’t coincidence – the place becomes important because they interact with it, and the future comes to them. But this film – specifically the storyline about the protection of Kyle Reese – includes elements of prediction that should be beyond the defined parameters of the fiction. And in this new stage of the timeline, coincidences are just coincidences.

(I call this the “Minority Report” effect, though it can be seen all over the place, and could more accurately be called “Hollywood Determinism” – a character that has previously been able to predict things in one very specific way – they will get a flash on an individual scene that can be open to interpretation, say – will suddenly be able to predict things in an entirely different way when the plot demands it. It is as if one sort of psychic power is interchangeable with all others.)

Despite all this, both movies see you through the first act nearly flawlessly, before starting to judder apart at the seams – and each has enough going for it even after the first act that they are worth catching. Just not worth putting yourself out for.

Harry Potter Half Life Prince“Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince” is included here because we saw it a couple of weeks back – with the most distractable cinema audience in Hampshire – and because there is one huge event that happens in the movie – a major death – that has any emotional punch taken out of it because it is a) telegraphed throughout the movie, b) the victim seems to already know, through means we are never really privy to, that it is going to happen and c) everybody seemed to have read the book where it happens already.

I think there’s a bit of narrative determinism here that – if the Harry Potter books play out as they’ve been described to me – ends up being mishandled, and as such I came to the climax of the movie pre-disappointed.

However, the cast – especially Alan Rickman, who is finally allowed to do some actual acting, Jim Broadbent, who does his trademark blustering as required through most of his scenes, but brings real regret forth when needed, and Emma Watson, who has grown out of her awkward delivery and gets a chance to upset with Hermione’s emotional torments – and the direction make it a fun enough adventure, even though the mystery in the title of the Half-Blood Prince is handled limply when it’s handled at all.

“Knowing” is out on DVD - Amazon have it for about £12, but you might want to wait for that to drop in price.

Untouchables/Goodfellas

The UntouchablesAfter the uneasy experience of watching “Public Enemies” the other week, I found myself sickening for the comforts of some true story gangster action that I could trust, and because Girl One hadn’t seen either of these movies, it seemed like a good time to break out the classics.

Though both deal with the Mafia, these two films couldn’t be more different.

“The Untouchables” is a theatrical homage to all of the classic gangster movies, and in fact deals with a particular story the war between Elliot Ness and Al Capone – that has been told on the big and small screen before. The story itself by now almost has the quality of a fable – idealistic, super competent but green lawman tries to take down master criminal, but, finding himself thwarted by gangster wiliness and police corruption, has to assemble his own elite team, and learn a few lessons about how far he’s willing to go in the process.

Brian De Palma’s direction and David Mamet’s script reflect this, with extravagantly staged set-pieces, dramatic lighting and characters who always know the best way to state their position, and the end result is a solid, entertaining movie, a well-told story, and some brilliant and rightfully renowned sequences.

Thankfully, Robert De Niro – as Capone – isn’t on screen all that much, because his portrayal is so brutal and charismatic that it might threaten to completely swamp the rest of the movie, and that would be a shame, because that isn’t the point of this movie. It isn’t about gangsters, it’s about the men who try to catch them, so it’s right that they get pride of place. Ness himself is mildly hobbled in this regard by being played by Kevin Costner – one of Hollywood’s less charismatic leading men, though I have to say that I think this is one of his more interesting performances. But it’s really Sean Connery who steals the show here, as the cynical Irish beat cop Malone, who takes it upon himself to school the naive Ness. Andy Garcia does an impressive job, this early in his career, too.

If “The Untouchables” belongs to the cops, “Goodfellas” is very much about the robbers.

GoodfellasAlso based on a true story, this time we get a look at a whole lifetime – that of professional go-to guy and weasel Henry Hill – a career watermark performance by Ray Liotta – as he starts out as a child runner for the local Mafia movers, and grows up in a world of instant gratification, familial obligation and violent, sudden retribution.

Henry himself keeps his hands relatively clean – though it’s ultimately because of the more craven aspects of his character – but it is when he and the audience meet Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito, played by De Niro and Joe Pesci respectively, that things start getting really bloody and interesting.

De Niro’s is a generous performance, here – though Jimmy is one of the more powerful characters on screen, De Niro delivers him with understatement – which allows the then-young Liotta a lot of brooding menace to play against, and gives Joe Pesci’s Tommy a chance to steal the show with over-zealous mayhem and a schizophrenic tendency to shift from an uncomfortably oily charm to a hyper neurotic psychosis.

Though there are a couple of flourishes that lend to the idea that this is a window onto a real story – Liotta’s voice-over alone only establishes a dramatic baseline, but the short sequences with narration by Henry’s wife break up expectations and give the film an almost documentary feel – Scorcese stamps his identity onto the narrative with flair. There’s a particularly lovely obsession with food throughout, that provides a touchstone when events get out of hand.

Where De Palma is writing a love-letter to cinema with his film, Scorcese has a point to make about the real world with his, and despite the carefully crafted direction and slickly witty script, and the charisma of the characters, that point is drummed home brutally from the first scene – the criminals might seem like good chaps on a good day, but not that far beneath the surface, they are violent, selfish and disloyal thugs who will hurt anyone to nourish or protect themselves.

Both films stand up excellently to the test of time, too! Absolute classics.

“The Untouchables” is available at Amazon, as is “GoodFellas”. Both are under a fiver, which is frankly ridiculously good value for such good movies.