Category Archives: Action/Adventure

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985, George Miller and George Ogilvie)

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is the story of a burnt-out, desolate man who learns to live again. Sort of. It’s more the story of a burnt-out, desolate man who finds himself babysitting sixty feral children who think he’s a messiah. But not really that story either, because Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome doesn’t put much thought into story. Once writers Terry Hayes and co-director Miller, get Mad Max (Mel Gibson) beyond the Thunderdome portion of the film, it’s just a variety on nonsense until the grand action finale.

Only that grand action finale isn’t particularly grand. There’s impressive stunt work and practical car effects, but there’s no animosity between the pursuers and the pursued. While Tina Turner is mad at Gibson, it’s a general anger without much intensity. Directors Miller and Ogilvie, along with Hayes, do nothing to emphasize any of the character relationships in the film. There are always adorable feral kids cloying at Gibson and none make much of an impression. Even Helen Buday, who should be Gibson’s sidekick or dramatic foil, just ends up in the background. Making the feral kids either non-verbal or blathering nonsense means Thunderdome just gets to imply character development without ever having to commit time or energy to it.

Gibson does better with the implied character development than anyone else. Even though the film’s indifferent to his character’s presence, Gibson’s not. He’s kind of blah with hair extensions growl-bantering with Turner, but he does get in a couple good moments with the kids. A lot of the other scenes with the kids are terrible, but there are a couple of good ones.

In addition to the troubled script and direction, Beyond Thunderdome is always lacking in some technical department at some time or another. Half of Dean Semler’s photography is subpar. Even though there’s clearly this elaboration exterior set for Turner’s “Bartertown,” the nighttime scenes in specific locations are always obvious on a soundstage. The film’s got the right grain, but not the right light.

Robert Francis-Bruce’s editing never impresses. Maurice Jarre’s score is overly melodramatic, trying to buy into the film’s goofy feral kid logic.

As far as the acting goes, it’s all fine. The stuff with the kids–the Disney version of a post-apocalyptic Lord of the Flies–is a complete misfire (though it does feature some of Semler and Jarre’s best work in the film, when Ogilvie shoots white sands like a resort commercial). So when the kids are annoying, it’s not their fault. It’s Ogilvie, Miller, and Hayes’s fault. And Buday is fine. It’s too bad she doesn’t get better material.

But all through Beyond Thunderdome, Ogilvie and Miller never let the film get too long or too unpleasant or too precious. It’s tedious, but there’s a building intensity. That intensity fizzles out completely in the third act and stops Thunderdome fast. There’s no attempt to recover, just the transition into a bad epilogue sequence.

The whole thing feels like a forfeit.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie; written by Terry Hayes and Miller; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by Richard Francis-Bruce; music by Maurice Jarre; production designer, Graham ‘Grace’ Walker; produced by Miller; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Mel Gibson (Mad Max Rockatansky), Tina Turner (Aunty Entity), Angelo Rossitto (The Master), Helen Buday (Savannah Nix), Robert Grubb (Pig Killer), Angry Anderson (Ironbar), Tom Jennings (Slake), Paul Larsson (The Blaster), Frank Thring (The Collector), and Bruce Spence (Jedediah the Pilot).


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The Untouchables (1987, Brian De Palma)

There are few constants in The Untouchables. Leading man Kevin Costner comes in after nemesis Robert De Niro (as Al Capone) opens the movie; only the Chicago setting and Ennio Morricone’s grandiose, bombastic, omnipresent score are unabated. Director De Palma embraces the film’s various phases, sometimes through Stephen H. Burum’s photography, sometimes just through how much he lets the actors chew at the scenery. In his deftest move (with the actors, anyway), the only ones De Palma never lets get chewy are Costner and Sean Connery. With Connery, it’s a wonderful disconnect from what could be a very showy, chewy role. With Costner, it’s more because David Mamet’s screenplay has him so absurdly earnest, the part doesn’t have the teeth for it.

Costner’s the protagonist–and when Untouchables fully embraces itself as an action picture in the last third, it’s Costner leading the charge–but Connery and De Niro get the best parts. Connery’s an aged, failed, albeit mostly honest, beat cop who can’t help but bond with earnest treasury agent Eliot Ness (Costner). Even when De Palma, Burum, and Morricone turn up the melodrama on Connery, he stays reserved. His is the most honest part in Mamet’s script, whether in his counseling of Costner and the rest of the team (Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia) or butting heads with cop pal Richard Bradford. De Niro, on the other hand, plays Capone like Robert De Niro playing Al Capone. It’s an exaggerated performance in an exaggerated film, only De Palma doesn’t direct the scenes for De Niro’s performance so much as around it.

The Untouchables is weird that way. It all comes together, but isn’t fluid outside that Morricone score. And Chicago, of course. It makes wonderful use of its locations. The score and setting glue the consecutive pieces of the film together, which is particularly helpful since Mamet repeats himself over and over when it comes to exposition. Most of Smith’s part–outside his introduction, action sequences, and occasional cute moments–is saying the same things, over and over, about getting Capone on his taxes. And he talks about it in his first scene.

Mamet and De Palma are also real bad about Costner’s family life; after introducing Patricia Clarkson and doing a little establishing, she’s pretty much offscreen to the point it’s not even clear she’s pregnant. The pregnancy only becomes a plot detail after she gives. While she’s in the movie throughout–she’s how Mamet and De Palma introduce Costner in fact–she doesn’t have any lines.

Actually, besides Clarkson, there might only be three other speaking roles for female actors. And each of them only get one scene. Untouchables is all about the boys. They all talk about how nice it is to be married. It’s one of Mamet’s main recurring dialogue motifs; De Palma doesn’t seem to put much stock in it though. Costner and company, in their battle for good against De Niro and his goons, are separate from the goings-on of the regular world.

All of the acting is fine, some of it is better. De Palma seems to know he can get away with exaggerated performances because nothing’s going to be louder than that Morricone music. Or main goon Billy Drago’s white suit.

Now, while Morricone’s score is grandiose and melodramatic, it’s still got a lot of nuance and sincere emotional impact. Costner, Connery, Garcia, and Smith immediately establish themselves as a team. De Palma doesn’t spend a lot of time just relaxing with the characters, but there’s some of it and a sense of camaraderie permeates. It’s in stark contrast to De Niro, who exists to terrorize, whether it be regular people or his own flunkies.

In the first two thirds of the picture, De Palma’s more concerned with the drama. There’s some action, but he’s not focusing on it as much as where it occurs or how it perturbs the plot. In the last third, however, De Palma’s all about the action. Yes, how its affecting Costner–and Costner’s character development–is a thing, but character is secondary to style. And it’s some masterful style. The Untouchables is solid until it all of a sudden becomes exceptional for a while. De Palma, Burum, Morricone, and editors Gerald B. Greenberg and Bill Pankow do some fantastic work finishing up the film.

It’s a fine film, succeeding when it almost shouldn’t–Costner’s earnestness ought to be too much, it’s not; De Niro’s excess ought to be too much, it’s not. Morricone’s score ought to be too much. It’s not. Instead, it’s essential in making The Untouchables work.

It and that Chicago location shooting, of course.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Brian De Palma; screenplay by David Mamet, suggested by the book by Oscar Fraley and Eliot Ness; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; edited by Gerald B. Greenberg and Bill Pankow; music by Ennio Morricone; produced by Art Linson; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kevin Costner (Ness), Sean Connery (Malone), Charles Martin Smith (Wallace), Andy Garcia (Stone), Robert De Niro (Capone), Richard Bradford (Dorsett), Patricia Clarkson (Catherine), and Billy Drago (Nitti).


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Wonder Woman (2017, Patty Jenkins)

Wonder Woman has one set of official, awkward bookends and one set of unofficial ones. The former does lead Gal Gadot no favors–after spending a moving building a character, it goes all tabula rosa and turns Gadot into little more than a licensing image. The latter does the film no favors. The latter is lousy CG composites. Wonder Woman is full of them, but none of them are worse than the first one and the last one. They jarringly destroy any verisimilitude director Jenkins and Gadot (in the case of the closing bookend) have been working towards. At least in the prologue–which comes after the first bookend (Allan Heinberg’s script is never plotted well)–there’s the rest of the film. But to close on being yanked out of the picture? It’s the final kick in Wonder Woman’s shins.

After the silly opening frame, bad composite or not, Wonder Woman gets off to a strong start. Connie Nielsen is queen of the Amazons, Robin Wright is general of the Amazons. Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey play the younger versions of Gadot but they’re not the point. Nielsen and Wright are the point. Nielsen’s solid, Wright’s awesome. The costumes are a little questionable, as they’re on an island paradise and Nielsen’s in furs? But it’s good.

Then it’s time for Gadot to take over the role and for Chris Pine to literally fall into her lap. Everything starts moving rather quickly–Pine’s arrival, a battle scene with the Amazons versus German soldiers, Gadot and Nielsen bickering, Gadot heading into the world of man. She can never return to her family, but it’s okay because she’s got a mission. It’s World War I and she’s got to save the world, based on bedtime stories Nielsen told Aspell. Turns out they’re the Amazon equivalents of Santa Claus, which should break some of the film’s logic but no one seems to care.

It’s unfortunate Gadot and Nielsen–and Gadot and Wright–never really get scenes together. It’s always plot perturbing scenes, nothing to build the relationships. Again, Heinburg’s script is never plotted well. Ever.

Anyway, Gadot and Pine have immediate chemistry and for a while Wonder Woman is able to coast. Sure, the CGI London is small and weak, but World War I is a great setting for human sadness. The film oscillates between introducing Gadot and Pine’s ragtag team of personable sidekicks–Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, David Thewlis–and showing Gadot all the horrors people inflict on other people. Ostensibly it should add to some character development for Gadot, but Heinburg and Jenkins don’t ever let it go towards character development.

I mean, they’re going to wipe the slate clean in the end, so why bother.

Tossed into this mix is Danny Huston and Elena Anaya as a German general and his pet scientist, respectively, who are trying to make a mustard gas variant to get through gas masks and kill everyone. And Gadot and Pine only have forty-eight hours to stop them.

Eventually, they get to the Front–where the film introduces Eugene Brave Rock as the last throwaway sidekick, an American Indian who’s a black market profiteer selling to both sides, even though the Germans are really, really, really, really bad guys in Wonder Woman. There Gadot gets to show off her superpowers for the first time, though only in one sequence–albeit an pretty awesome one, save the weak CG composites of course–before the film starts its downhill run into the third act.

Most of the action–including Gadot and Pine sailing from “Paradise Island” to England–takes place in four or five days. And the big battle finale, with its numerous revelations and plot twists, takes up maybe a quarter of the film. Then it’s time for the closing bookend, which echoes one of the weakest revelation sequences from the finale, and the movie’s over.

Gadot’s good, regardless of the film eschewing the idea she’s supposed to be developing a character. Pine’s good. Davis, Taghmaoui, Bremner, Thewlis, and Brave Rock are good. Everyone’s good. The acting isn’t an issue, it’s the writing and the pacing. And the film’s reliance on some shallow, manipulative (and not even good manipulative) radio show positive message philosophy to wrap things up nice and tidy. Except Wonder Woman is supposed to be, at least on some level, a war movie–seeing sweet little Aspell get wide-eyed and excited at the prospective of war is something else–and the tidy finish rings false.

Better special effects would’ve helped. Not setting the last battle sequence entirely at night and in confined spaces would’ve helped too. A lot of things–like a better screenwriter than Heinburg, a better cinematographer than Matthew “shooting through pea soup” Jensen, a better score than Rupert Gregson-Williams can deliver–would’ve helped. Jenkins does fine with what she’s got. And editor Martin Walsh is all right.

The Wonder Woman action guitar riff (which isn’t even original to this film) is dumb.

The film ends up completely wasting Huston and Anaya. Anaya, actually, twice gets to be a metaphor for the script’s utter lack of integrity.

Still, it could be much worse. The bookends are almost threats to how much worse it could’ve been. But it’s a complete disservice to Gadot, who more than proves herself a capable lead.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Patty Jenkins; screenplay by Allan Heinberg, based on a story by Zack Snyder, Heinberg, and Jason Fuchs, and characters created by William Moulton Marston; director of photography, Matthew Jensen; edited by Martin Walsh; music by Rupert Gregson-Williams; production designer, Aline Bonetto; produced by Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder, and Richard Suckle; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gal Gadot (Princess Diana of Themyscira), Chris Pine (Steve Trevor), Danny Huston (General Ludendorff), Elena Anaya (Dr. Isabel Maru), Connie Nielsen (Queen Hippolyta), Robin Wright (General Antiope), Lucy Davis (Etta Candy), Saïd Taghmaoui (Sameer), Ewen Bremner (Charlie), Eugene Brave Rock (The Chief), and David Thewlis (Sir Patrick Morgan).


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xXx (2002, Rob Cohen)

Maybe if there were anything good about xXx–there are a handful of things not bad about it–but if there were anything good, the sky’s the limited compared to the mess director Cohen finishes with. As is, xXx is an overlong, boring, James Bond-knockoff. It starts with a James Bond stand-in getting killed in the first scene during a Rammstein concert; it’s so extreme, a guy in a tux being too lame for a metal concert. But it turns out director Cohen has never wanted anything more than to direct a crappy James Bond movie, one with a rocket boat in it.

So eventually it’s Vin Diesel vs. rocket boat, which isn’t a particularly good sequence. Cohen and editors Chris Lebenzon, Joel Negron, and Paul Rubell have no feel for the subject matter. With Randel Edelman’s drawn-out score, they’re really trying to cut together this seventies James Bond movie. Only Rich Wilkes’s hideously crappy script is all about this punk rock extreme sports bro getting forced into foreign service by Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson’s bad. He’s got a scar, which only exists for Diesel to mock, and it still doesn’t get Jackson any sympathy. He’s just bad.

As for Diesel, he’s not good, but he’s trying. He’s clearly passionate about doing this extreme James Bond knock-off where he makes bad one-liners and objectifies women. If xXx were a spoof, it might work, but Cohen’s an earnest director. He really thinks giving Diesel a dorking, also objectifying Q-like sidekick in Michael Roof is good. Cohen really thinks his actors are giving good performances under his expert guidance. They’re not and his direction of the actors is abysmal–Asia Argento is clearly more capable than the material Cohen (and Wilkes and Diesel) give her.

Oh, maybe if Marton Csokas weren’t painfully weak as the villain, it’d be a little better too.

Still, the stunt work is impressive and until the lousy CGI takes over, there’s a really impressive avalanche sequence. If xXx had another brain cell–just another one–there’d have been great opportunity to juxtapose Diesel’s workman solution to an eye-roll inducing sequence in a Bond picture. Except Cohen maybe is just doing a resume for a Bond movie? It’d at least be an excuse. Otherwise it’s just gross negligence.

But, like I said, Argento seems like she could’ve done better and Diesel gets some sympathy for being in this tragically unhip hip, “extreme” movie.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Rob Cohen; written by Rich Wilkes; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by Chris Lebenzo, Joel Negron, and Paul Rubell; music by Randy Edelman; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; produced by Neal H. Moritz; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Vin Diesel (Xander Cage), Asia Argento (Yelena), Marton Csokas (Yorgi), Samuel L. Jackson (Gibbons), Michael Roof (Shavers), Richy Müller (Milan Sova), Werner Daehn (Kirill), Petr Jákl (Kolya), Danny Trejo (El Jefe), and Eve (J.J.).


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