G.I. Joe Retaliation

I saw the first G.I Joe Movie a couple of years ago. I guess it was before I started the blog because I don’t have a review posted. I do remember telling several people that it was “craptacular”. It was loud, stupid, confusing and entertaining enough to fill a Saturday matinee and allow me to kill a bucket of butter popcorn. The sequel is just about the same. It is not a good movie but it is a good time. If you see it in 3D, it doesn’t make it 3 times as good but it does make it more interesting and gives you some extra value for the effort that you made. Several scenes seem to have been planned with the express purpose of making cheesy use of stuff flying off the screen. Let’s face it, this is a movie, based on a cartoon that was based on a toy line that was promoted on television. It has a lot pushing against it to begin with, if it manages to be enjoyable at all, that is something of an accomplishment.

My memory of G.I. Joe is completely different from all of the stuff that makes up this storyline. Check out this commercial from the toy line when I was growing up:

Somewhere in the early 1980s, the action figures got smaller, and the toy line got bigger. I remembered hearing speeches about how inappropriate it was that toy lines were creating cartoons that would serve as long form commercials for their products. “Transformers”, “My Little Pony”, “He-Man” and “G.I.Joe” were all cited as examples of this phenomena. It appears to have taken root in the consciousness of kids from that decade because they are now nostalgically returning to their youth and sharing it with their own kids. So now the commercials are not half hour television cartoons badly animated, but two hour motion pictures, almost animated and badly written. The cartoon like villains  in this movie put it in the same category as the “Transformers” films, they are action-fantasy films, and you can buy the toy. I still don’t know why there are ninjas in the commando units but who am I to question the successful marketing of this product line?

The ninjas actually provide the best reason for the use of 3 D in the movie. There is a long sequence where two American Ninjas must fight against a whole squad of evil “Cobra” ninjas, and capture a duplicitous ninja who is somehow connected to the good guy ninjas. Read that sentence back, believe it or not that is an accurate description. Anyway, even though it makes very little sense, the ninjas repel down mountain sides, use zip lines and pitons to escape and fight on the side of the mountain.  This is all done in a way to allow the ninjas to fly off the screen, swoosh past our faces and then toss another bad guy off the mountain into the audience dimension. All that effort and the bad guy ninja, the cooperates with the good guys for no particular reason except some distant grudge that apparently is awakened by being kidnapped. At least we got to keep the cool customized 3D glasses.More collectible toys to keep the marketing gurus happy.

I did have a vague recollection from the first film that the President had been replaced with a “Cobra” agent. The best part of this continuity is that Jonathon Pryce returns to the film and lends it his dignity. How an English guy got elected President in the first place is a mystery, but I guess if we can have a President from Kenya, we can have one from England. (For those of you with no sense of humor, that is a joke, Do not take it as a belief in birtherism or Manchurian conspiracy theory). Channing Tatum was also in the first film, but it appears that the producer’s did not realize how his career was going to take off. I heard that one of the reasons for the year long delay in releasing this was to put more of Mr. Tatum in the movie.  Joseph Gordon Levitt played the bad guy in the first film but I guess he didn’t want to be back or was not going to get paid his current rate. He is replaced by a costume, and it is no great loss, he was almost not in the other movie either. Two stunt guy actors get pretty good parts, Rays Stevenson and Park. There is also a juicy part for Walton Goggins, Amanda’s current crush. And the kid from Jurassic Park dies early.

The two biggest assets G.I.Joe Retaliation has going for it are Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis. These two guys are in nearly every movie coming out in the first eight months of 2013. Whatever they are not in stars Mark Wahlberg.  I have always enjoyed “The Rock” in movies, and I was never a wrestling fan. He has a good star presence, lifting even terrible material to at least mediocre. Bruce Willis is one of our favorites, but after the awful “Die Hard” sequel earlier this year, I was a little concerned. He seems to have awakened from that slumber (or given that the film was delayed, fallen into a slumber). Here his natural charisma adds to the film and he gets to punch in some energy without having to carry the film on his own.

If I had played with the later toys, I probably would not need a score card to keep track of all the players. No one is invested with much of a character except Johnson and Tatum, and their character comes delivered via video game, so you can tell how thin it is going to be. Stuff blows up, guns go off, swords get crossed and characters live on to fight in another sequel. I don’t really care about any of it, but it was fine while I was there. I’m sure I won’t remember much about it in a couple of weeks. I am afraid I do want to see General Patton’s Ivory Handled .45s being used on the bad guys, that might be enough to get me into the theater three years from now, but nothing in the story is going to last long enough to anticipate it.

Olympus Has Fallen

Gerard Butler has been in some terrible movies in the last few years. His roles in “Phantom of the Opera” and “300” are almost a decade old now. So how does a guy, stuck in crappy romantic comedy hell redeem himself and return to box office success? The answer appears to be produce your own film, choose something that emphasizes the things that made you a star in the first place, and surround yourself with talented people who know how to make a movie work. The result is “Olympus has Fallen” an entertaining as all get out throwback to the action films of twenty years ago. This is the movie that “A Good Day to Die Hard” should have been.

Every few years we get studios battling it out with dueling films on similar themes. Back in the 1980s, two studios combined to merge Diane Fossey movies into “Gorillas in the Mist”. Four years later there were two Robin Hood projects, one studio blinked and sold their product to television. Then there were matching Volcano movies and battling Meteor destroying the Earth films. This year we have two action films about an attack on the White House. “Olympus has Fallen” hits theaters first and sets a pretty high standard for action movie mayhem. The set up is pretty straightforward although preposterous. North Korean terrorists seize the President in order to gain political and military advantages. I get the impression from the trailer for “White House Down” that we will be getting domestic terrorists seeking a similar objective. I don’t know how that will play, but it appears that Kim Jung Un wants us to believe this is possible. The North Koreans are acting in a belligerent and bellicose manner at this very moment, and the film exploits that behavior pretty well to make the premise somewhat acceptable.

The degree of firepower used in the take over of the White House in this film is alarming. The violence is brutal and there is a good reason that this film is rated R. The Secret Service and the D.C. based military units committed to defending the President’s house are out gunned and the level of brutality was somewhat reminiscent of the last “Rambo” movie. Killing is indiscriminate and there are no rules of war being observed. If you are not up for a violent film then you better skip this, but if this is the kind of action that you crave, this movie will fill your plate. While much of the battle is CGI enhanced, there are dozens of extras and actors who take the stunts to the limit, flying through the air or having squibs explode their bodies. A lot of modern technology has been focused on this film. I have mentioned in some past reviews that it appears that Eastern Europe is rapidly replacing Korea and Taiwan as the leader in animated and computer rendered effects. There were several sections in the credits where every name ended with a v, usually an ov. Those that did not end with a v ended with an a. Bulgaria must be swarming with computer animators looking for work.

Butler plays a Secret Service agent with a bit of a history. We are shown his heroic nature and the nature of his failure early in the movie. The purpose of this is to add to the drama with the President’s family and to raise questions in the minds of those dependent on him later in the movie. His character however, never has any doubts about his own ability. He never hesitates to act when needed and he behaves in a very consistent and aggressive manner in the film. This is how people want to see Butler, kicking ass and taking names, not trading banter with a series of actresses who can’t carry a picture on their own. There are some good “Die Hard” type exchanges with the bad guy, and he gets to argue with generals and the acting President. None of the dialogue reaches the comic heights that Bruce Willis manages in the first four Die Hard” films, but there are a couple of nasty comebacks that give us some satisfaction.

The movie that this should most be compared with is “Air Force One”.  The plot is simple, there are insiders who betray the President, it is one against many and the outside leadership group often feels powerless to act. There are plot holes that you can ignore because what is happening in front of you is more fun than noticing that there are other choices and options that the protagonist and the temporary command structure are missing. The cast is loaded with good actors who make their scenes work more effectively. Angela Bassett, Robert Forester, and Melissa Leo bring some gravitas to the silly goings on. Any time you get Morgan Freeman playing the President (Acting or Elected), you get some sense that people want this to be seen as something more than a cartoon. Dylan McDermott gets to return to work for the secret service, a job he had twenty years ago in “In the Line of Fire”. Rick Yune plays the lead terrorist, mimicking his role in the last Pierce Brosnon 007 film. The poor guy seems to be getting a little type cast, but his acting range appears to fit the type so it’s probably just as well that he gets to work at all.  Gerard Butler has some early scenes where he gets a chance to emote a bit, but once the action starts, he basically turns into the action figure that a movie like this requires. He brings enough personality to the performance to raise it above the level of a straight to video programmer. Aaron Eckhart plays the President and he is believable but underwritten. There are some nice sequences with his son that set up some more emotional points but it is standard stuff.

The action is staged energetically. Big fights and battles are mixed in with one on one combat. There are also several high tech operations and weapons that add to the suspense in the film. There are some good ploys by the bad guys to disguise some of their actions, but there are also several things that are left unexplained. It would be easy to knit pick the films plot and twists but why would you? If you paid your money to be entertained, you will be. If you wanted something that was logically sound, you will be disappointed, and you should have your head examined for wanting that from the film in the first place.  I also enjoyed the patriotic flourishes spread out through the movie. The Secretary of Defense defiantly shouts the pledge of allegiance, the American Flag is mistreated but ultimately restored, portraits of the Presidents are often shown in background shots and Abraham Lincoln makes a guest appearance and this time it’s not vampires he is hunting.  This movie feels like it was made in the 1990s. The plot, action and tone recall the days of  the great action films of those times. This will be one of those movies in the future that are sometimes called “Black Hole” films. Their gravitational pull is so great that the viewer can’t resist. (Thanks Dan for that term). If I don’t see it again in theaters, I know I will experience it a hundred times on cable, and each time i will enjoy.

R.I.P. Uncle Vernon

Richard Griffiths, best known for the Harry Potter Films has passed at the age of 65. He doesn’t look anything like Matt LeBlanc (Episodes Reference). I remember him doing an odd little dance in “Guarding Tess”, it was a nice moment. Deadline Hollywood Obit.

And here he is in one of the Naked Gun films.

W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings.

This is a flashback to the original purpose of the blog. If you were unaware, I started this blog as a tribute to movies I saw in the summers of the 1970s, when I was in high school and college. This film was on my original list of movies that I could have posted on but it was not available anywhere. I looked on You Tube and found music clips but I could not find a trailer for the film. It’s not some obscure film, it stars the biggest movie star of the 1970’s, Burt Reynolds and it was directed by John Avildsen, whose next film won him the Academy Award, Rocky.

I saw this movie at the Century Theater in San Gabriel in the summer of 1975.

This is what it looked like in the late 1980s before it was torn down. As you can see after it closed as an Edwards Theater, it was re-purposed as a Chinese language theater. Most of the stand alone theaters in the area ended up in the same situation. The Monterey, and the Garfield, were both on the street that I lived on and they both showed Chinese language films until they were torn down or remodeled for something else. I know I saw this with my friend Don Hayes and his high school sweetheart and future ex-wife Cheryl Bolton. The movie featured car crashes and a special edition Oldsmobile 55, so that is probably why Don went, he liked cars. I know it must have been an evening show because matinees only ran on weekends and I distinctly remember going during the week since I did not have a job I had to show up to the next morning.

The movie is typical 1970s low budget fodder. Burt plays a good ole boy driving a fancy car, who takes a liking to a girl in a country western singing group. The movie is set in 1957, and there are some brief references to the rock and roll revolution that is taking place. The setting is the South, most of the time Nashville, because the goal of the group is to make it to the Grand Ole Opry. W.W. is a fast talking, small time crook who has managed to rob a series of gas stations without leaving much of a trace to follow. He accomplishes this by just being good natured and giving the employees a little kickback. Ultimately, it is his mode of operating that gets him and the band in trouble and high jinks occur. There are some car chases and crack ups, and a few songs by Jerry Reed and Don Williams.

Art Carney is featured as a Bible Thumping lawman, asked to hunt down the robbers by the head of the Company that owns the chain of gas stations Burt victimizes. This was his first role after winning the Academy Award for Best Actor the year before. So there is another reason that is a little odd that the movie is not really available. There is a pretty good payoff set up early on in the movie that let’s the confrontation between he an W.W. get somewhat resolved at the end of the movie. The film also features Ned Beatty as a country star that writes hit songs and the band wants his help. There is a scene where they meet him and his down home charm is turned sour in a pretty effective way. In the end he redeems himself and it probably is as his character says, just one of the hazards of success. Beatty worked with Reynolds pretty frequently over the years and is featured in “Gator” and “White Lightning” two other films from the original project.

I happened to catch this just after it started on the Fox Movie Channel this morning and it was quite entertaining. There were two or three good little touches in the movie, like the two toned car, the approach that Reynold’s character uses in robbing the gas stations and the Art Carney role. It’s not essential viewing but it is worth a couple hours of your time if you happen to see it playing somewhere. I just am trying to plug some holes from the original project and this was a nice one to get to fill.

Happy Birthday Strother Martin

The legendary character actor Strother Martin would have turned 94 today. He is one of the most recognizable faces and voices from movies in the middle part of the twentieth century. In 1969, he was in all three of the great westerns that year; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, and The Wild Bunch. Appearing in one of those films would be something to be proud of, being in all of them in the same year is amazing.

He worked as part of Paul Newman’s troop of supporting actors repeatedly. You will see him in most of Newman’s films of the 1960s and 1970s. He also worked in John Wayne films more than a half dozen times  in the same time frame. He frequently provided the comic relief in a western, or played an ineffectual businessman or crook. The parts he was known for on television and in the westerns was that of “Prairie Scum”. If there was a call for a disgusting vermin from the plains or dirty desert or crawling out of the mountains, he probably played it or was looked at for it.

He was one of many Western Actors who would define the image of the old west on TV shows, but also bring home the unpleasantness of real prairie scum with a vengeance.  He starred with Raquel Welch, Ernest Borgnine, and Jack Elam in Hannie Caulder. The three villains were not just bank robbers who pulled their neckerchiefs over their faces, they were heartless, self centered cruel men who deserved the comeuppance that the will receive by the end of the movie.

His best known role was probably that of the Captain of the Chain Gang that Paul Newman serves on in “Cool Hand Luke”. It is his voice that echoes the famous line that often defined the 1960’s:

In my opinion, it was a great performance that should have been recognized with dozens of awards. It is however number 11 on the American Film Institutes list of greatest movie quotes.

As you can see he was often the frustrated loser whol steals a scene and then moves on.

Below is an obituary from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Strother died the day before my wedding. He was my Mother’s cousin and we expected him at the service. She knew why he did not come, and she did not tell me because she did not want it to overshadow the day. 1980 was not like today with a twenty four hour news cycle. I did not find out until Sunday Morning in the papers when we were on our honeymoon. This article was one of the ones my mother saved.

I can’t say I knew him well. We visited he and his wife Helen several times out at their place out in the Agoura area of Southern California. I missed the funeral because I was on my honeymoon but we did go to see Helen a few days later and the house was filled with condolences from colleagues in the movie and TV business. I remember reading a very nice note from Lee Marvin that spoke fondly of the times they had worked together. My Grandmother’s family had always called him Jay, I don’t know if that was a nickname from childhood or if it was a shortened version of Junior. He was only 60 when he passed, and he was still an in demand actor with a pretty good cult following. One of the last things I saw him in while he was alive was the Cheech and Chong movie “Up in Smoke”. He was only in it in the first five minutes but it was exactly the kind of film all my friends at the time would be going to.

A pretty good illustration of his cult status is the presence of a mural featuring his image in the Rampart section of Los Angeles. by world renown artist Kent Twitchell.

Last year I noticed it was his birthday by accident, this year I knew it was coming so I prepared this little salute for him. Actors are an interesting breed, we often feel like we know them when the only contact we have had with them is through the screen. Some actors manage to get under your skin and make an impression on you even if they are not the lead in the story. We know so many of them as “Oh yeah, that guy”, it seems a shame that we don’t get to know them better. Here’s hoping that all the great character actors working today will be remembered fondly as well. I think Jay would have liked that.

Jay, my little brother Kirk, and me. Out in Agoura around 1966.

The Croods

The Croods is pretty much what you would want from an animated family film. There is a breathtaking visual palate, a family safe adventure, and humor geared to the little ones and the adults in your group. While it does not reach the heights of a Pixar film or  the the warmth of traditional Disney fare, it is serviceable and entertaining if not always memorable. This is exactly the kind of movie that parents want to be able to take their children to during spring break and the timing of it’s release should insure that the movie is pretty successful.

From a story perspective, “The Croods” is pretty standard stuff. It is a coming of age story that focuses on a family of cavemen. Just as the oldest daughter is entering a rebellious stage, the territory of the planet is changing and newer smarter hominids appear and offer a threat of change but also survival. Of course the newest species is represented by a hunk of a cave boy who is threatening to the Dad/Leader of the family troop in a couple of obvious ways. This gives us a teen age romance and a middle age crisis all in one fell swoop. There are some contrived personal relationship moments but they fit with the theme of the film and while they may be cliche, there is a reason that cliches exist in the first place. Basically families are problematic but ultimately they are held together by the love that each member feels for the others.

We skipped seeing this in 3D but it looks like it might have been fun. It does seem to me however that in order to take advantage of the 3D  process, every animated movie is using some kind of sweeping swooshing flume ride style action sequence. Once again, as was true in a number of previous animated 3D films, characters slide down slopes, get swallowed by tube like caves and roll away on waterways to give us a thrill in visual dimensions. There is also a wide variety of flora and fauna as well as creatively designed creatures to keep us jumping and oohing and aahing.  James Cameron’s Pandora has nothing on these imaginative animated images.

The character voice work is efficient. Nichols Cage is somewhat subdued since his performance here is animated and the over the top delivery he is often guilty of in live action films is moderated by this format. Everyone else was fine but not very distinctive. Cloris Leachman does the patented old lady routine that was the realm of Phyllis Diller and Betty White before her. Emma Stone does fine by “Eep”, the teen age cave girl with more curiosity than her father is ever going to be happy with. Ryan Reynold voices the appropriately named “Guy”, plenty resonate and future hunk-like. So many people contribute to animated films that it is difficult to pinpoint credit or blame for some elements. There are only seven human characters, most of the other voice/sound work involves animals and eruptions. I appreciated that “The Croods” did not attempt to live up to their names. There were no fart or poop jokes, and that is pretty rare for a kids movie now a days.

There is an early sequence that apes American Football and it seemed obvious to me that the Trojan Marching Band/Fleetwood Mac hit “Tusk” was being used very freely. It turns out that it was adapted by the film score composer and there was credit given, alleviating the need for a lawsuit except by Bruin fans who are unknowingly going to be subjected to chants of “U-C-L-A sucks” during this scene. Maybe that’s why i ended up liking the movie as well as I did. The reality is that there were plenty of parents with their kids at the a.m. screening we went to, and all the little girls seemed happy to be there and all the little boys identified with the adventure elements. If it is a success, someone will plan a sequel, but I think in the long run it would be better for the reputation of the film if it stays a one off. The story does not demand any follow up and the creativity would probably diminish. Very much like it’s stable mate “Madagascar “, “The Croods” is a well executed piece of entertainment that could overstay it’s welcome. Let’s just enjoy it for what it is and move on to something else next time.