Monday, August 31, 2015

Guest Review of "The Lone Ranger" (2013) Soundtrack

Yup, today I have a guest post up here on James the Movie Reviewer's blog, and it's the soundtrack for The Lone Ranger, which is one of my top ten favorite soundtracks ever.  And it's also the movie I get my sign-out picture from (and which of course is in my header right now) -- I sincerely love this movie.  Just watched it again last week, and oh, it is like coming home after a long, hard absence.

I reviewed it twice back when it first came out, here and here, if you want to know more about the movie and some of why I love it so.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Guest Post about the "Evita" Soundtrack

I've got a post up here on J and J Productions today, all about the soundtrack for Evita (1996).

I have such fond memories of this movie.  Watching it for the first time over Thanksgiving break my freshman year of college.  Loving it so much, I bought a copy of the movie AND the soundtrack.  Sharing the movie with my parents and some of their friends, all of them expecting not to like it, and all of them enjoying it.  I have most of the major songs memorized, and quite a few of the lesser-known as well.

I remember reading once that as a young man, Antonio Banderas lived in an apartment with thin walls very near a theater where people were practicing, then performing, Evita, and he learned all the songs by hearing them over and over that way.  So when he was cast as Che, he didn't have to learn any of the lyrics because he knew them already!  That story makes me grin :-D

Saturday, August 22, 2015

"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (2007)

I am not fond of this story, movie or book.  Spoiler alert:  my beloved Sirius Black dies.  Also, everything starts getting really grim and serious.  Voldemort is back, but most of the wizarding world refuses to accept the truth, and that both angers and frustrates me.  Throw in Delores Umbridge as a child-torturing usurper, and I'm pretty unhappy through the entire thing.  But at least the book has lots and lots of Sirius in it.  The movie shunts him off into a corner.

In fact, there are very few things I enjoy about this movie.  Harry's emotional connection to Sirius is all but sidelined, we spend most of the time fleeing from Important Plot Point to Important Plot Point, and by the time Sirius falls through that mysterious curtain, I'm both tired and detached, which leaves me kind of numb to a scene that left me crying in public when I read the book, tears rolling down my face in the break room at work.

Edit:  I see I reviewed this when it first came out too, and whaddaya know, I made a lot of the same complaints the first time too.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Guest Post about the "Firefly" Soundtrack

Today I've got a post up here on James' blog about the soundtrack to one of my favorite shows:  Firefly (2002-03).  How shiny, huh?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

"The Man from U.N.C.L.E." (2015)

I need to see this movie again.

There had better be a showtime that works next weekend, because I need to see it again.

Partly I need to see it again because I want to decide if I liked it or if I loved it, and I'm having trouble deciding.  Because it wasn't an automatic love, but I think it could be an acquired love.  Like The Lone Ranger (2013) -- the first time I saw that, I said in my review, "Did I love it? Maybe. Did I like it? Absolutely. Will I buy the DVD? Definitely."  Same goes for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  (And weirdly enough, they both star Armie Hammer.)

Okay, so basically this is a spy romp with a tangy old-school flavor and a nothing-is-all-that-serious texture.  The whole world is not in danger, the human race is not about to be exterminated, no one is going to wipe out the electronic records of an entire nation or kill the US President or expose every secret agent the US has.  Someone is trying to build a nuclear bomb.  That's bad, but that's not oh-my-goodness-the-fate-of-the-universe-hangs-in-the-balance bad.  Which is great, because it gives this whole movie a more relaxed feel.  We can laugh.  There can be sight gags and double-entedres and funny little jokes, and they don't feel out of place.

There can also be an utterly sweet, sad, lonely, mighty, smart, resourceful, determined, broad-shouldered, strong-jawed, baby-faced, Russian-accented spy named Illy Kuryakin (Armie Hammer).


And there's also this other guy named Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) who looks nice in a suit and likes to steal stuff.  He's an American secret agent, and Illya is a Russian secret agent, but they have to stop punching each other and start punching other people together in order to stop the bad guys trying to build a bomb, etc.

(I don't know where I found this because I've had it a while.)
(Also, Armie's hair is better in the movie than in this photo.)

Also, there's a girl named Gaby (Alicia Vikander) who is all mixed up in the plot, which I don't feel like detailing, but she was so much fun -- smart and sassy and savvy and cool.  Also, an auto mechanic.  Also, she got the coolest '60s clothes.

I adored the '60s setting, all the cool clothes and cars and buildings and hair -- I watched so many '60s movies growing up that I almost feel at home in that era, and so this was like a wonderful nostalgia trip for me even though I wasn't born until 1980.

So if you're looking for a lighter spy movie to relax with before the summer ends, please go see this!  It's a good ride.

Ahh, but is it family friendly?  Um, not totally.  A very small amount of bad language, almost entirely slang words for various body parts.  No taking of God's name in vain that I recall.  There's a shot of a woman from behind who is only wearing panties, and she turns so you can see the outline of more, but it's a silhouette and very vague.  There's quite a bit of suggestive material like what you would find in a '70s James Bond movie -- the implication that people are having sex, a guy and a girl wrestling -- lots of suggestion, no actual love scenes.  Still, not something I'd take young teens to.  There's also quite a bit of violence, a character with anger management issues and the mention of psychotic episodes, and a torture sequence that made me worry and squirm, though it wasn't graphic.  Very low on blood and guts, as most of the violence is implied.

Finally, I leave you with this picture of the original Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) from the 1960s TV show.  My mom had the hugest crush on this version of Illya, so I'm finding it amusing that one of my own favorite actors is now playing him.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Guest Post About the First "Mission: Impossible" Soundtrack

I've got a new guest post up here on J and J Productions, all about the soundtrack for the very first Mission:  Impossible (1996).  I have a lot of memories from my later teen years associated with this soundtrack.  My brother and I would put it on as background music while we played with our action figures, I listened to it while doing schoolwork in the basement, and I also used it for inspiration while trying my hand at writing a little science fiction.

Friday, August 14, 2015

"Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation" (2015) -- Initial Thoughts

I kind of think of the Mission:  Impossible movies as sort of James Bond's nerdy cousin.  Fewer tuxedos, more sneakers.  Fewer exploding pens, more off-site computer hacking.  Attractive in its own way, but not actually stylish.

Turns out that nerdy cousin cleans up awfully well, though.  In the latest movie, we get treated to a lot of more Bond-like set pieces, with tuxes and slinky dresses and the sorts of stylish locations we'd expect from 007.  In fact, one of the things that I like best about Rogue Nation is how it cheekily grabs from so many other bags of tricks, though I can't decide if it's doing this as an homage, or more of a game of sly one-upsmanship.

For instance, a lot of time is spent at the opera, just like in Quantum of Solace (2008).  They use Turandot instead of Tosca -- but both are operas by Puccini.  Both movies have fight scenes that take place behind the opera's scenery, with ethereal music juxtaposed over brutal violence.  But the fight scene in Solace is a mess -- the worst use of shaky-cam I can ever remember seeing.  Both James Bond and his opponent are dressed in black suits, and the camera shakes around so much you can't tell who is slugging whom.  The fight in Rogue Nation, by contrast, is elegant, simple, clear.  Far superior.  Feels a bit like the filmmakers are saying, "Hey, we can do this better.  Let's take your mess and make something good out of it."

Later, there's a very lovely car-and-motorcycle chase scene that involves driving a car down a bunch of steps, very reminiscent of The Bourne Identity (2002).  There's also a scene where Tom Cruise is in an upside-down car, echoing his own Collateral (2004).  Even one of the official posters tosses in what seems to be an homage to the iconic poster for Tom Cruise's Risky Business (1983).

For a movie-lover like me, all those nods are kind of like secret handshakes or an extra toy in the Crackerjack box, I guess.  If you get them, it's extra awesome, but if you don't, the movie is still really fun.

Anyway, kudos to this film for creating a female spy (Rebecca Ferguson) who isn't simply there for sex appeal, to get rescued by the hero, or any other lame things.

Ilsa Faust is strong and smart, and my favorite thing about her inclusion is how none of the guy spies stand around with their jaws open going, "A girl can do that?"  She's a spy who happens to be a woman, not a woman who happens to be a spy -- they completely accept her as an equal, and that tickled me.  For instance, rarely does Ethan Hunt need rescuing, ever, but when Ilsa rescues him, it doesn't feel smarmy or symbolic, it feels like nothing more than one agent rescuing another, which was so refreshing.  She's the coolest female agent I've seen since Black Widow, and has a similar can-do vibe.  Also, I really dug Ferguson in Hercules (2014), so it's great to see her in a bigger role and bigger movie!  I hope to see more of her, and soon.

Here's the funny thing, though:  I'm not a feminist.  I don't go around singing, "Anything you can do, I can do better."  I don't need a female character to kick butt to think of her as strong.  I firmly believe there are some things most men are better at, and some that most women are better at.  However, I've kinda always wanted to go around punching people and riding motorcycles and rescuing secret agents, so when I get to watch a female character do that, I'm quite pleased.  Especially if she's accepted by all the guys.

Is it family friendly?  A scattering of bad language, lots and lots of PG-13-level violence, there's a torture sequence with little actual torture involved, there's a teensy bit of from-the-waist-up-and-from-behind nudity in a non-sexual context, and there are lots of very tense moments.  One of the most family friendly action movies I've seen -- no sex scenes, not even any kissing, and refreshingly little profanity.  Ilsa does wear a pretty skimpy bikini, though.

Bottom line?  I wanna see this again!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Cinematography in "3:10 to Yuma" (1957)

Now I'm just going to share some of my favorite images from the movie and talk a little about how they get used.  A lot of important moments get framed in a very literal way, with a door or window within the movie serving as an extra frame to focus our attention.  Here's one of my favorites, shooting from inside the stagecoach to show Ben Wade and one of his gang outside.  They're free, we're trapped, and it's such a cool moment of putting us inside with the imperiled passengers.

Here, the porch roof and posts of the ranch house frame Alice Evans as she sees her husband and sons walk toward her, horseless and tired after their initial encounter with Wade:

The saloon doors get used as a frame a bunch of times too.  When Ben Wade first sees Emmy:

When he decides to stay in town instead of riding out with his men:

When Dan Evans arrives in town and sees that Wade is still there:

After Ben Wade gets captured, the kids of Bisby crowd around the saloon window, trying to get a glimpse of the famous bad man.  Looks like a few adults join in too:

Later, when they arrive at the hotel in Contention City, they use the hotel's back door to frame the four principal participants in the second half of the movie:

Here, they watch from the hotel room's window as Wade's gang begins to arrive in town:

And here, there's just Ben Wade looking out from his little make-shift prison:

Each one of those moments serves to accentuate separateness.  Who is shut in or out, who is choosing to walk through a barrier even though reason says they shouldn't.

Now, I'm exceedingly fond of shots that are crammed full of characters.  For an intimate drama that focuses mainly on the tension between two men, this movie manages a lot of awesome shots where lots and lots of people fill the frame.  I showed a couple of them above, and here are a bunch more.

Ben Wade's gang descending on the saloon in Bisby:

Inside the saloon, where they overwhelmingly outnumber Emmy:

Another one reinforcing how alone she is, surrounded by what we know to be desperadoes:

Emmy caught in the middle of Dan and Ben, when Ben's complicity in the stage hold-up is confirmed:

Now it's Ben who's surrounded, with Dan looming over him:

The townsfolk and stage line owner confer with the marshal on what's to be done with their captive:

Ben Wade has become a spectacle, the Big Bad handcuffed and forced into the very stagecoach he held up hours earlier.  Everyone gapes and gawks at him, except Emmy:

Ben having supper with Dan's family, surrounded again:

I love how all those super-full-of-people shots reinforce the fact that, although this movie centers around two men, their actions touch so many other lives.  Ben's gang, the people of Bisby, Emmy, Dan's family -- they're all affected by the hold-up, by Ben's capture, by Dan taking Ben to the stage.

Finally, I do think 3:10 to Yuma has a noir-ish feel to its use of images, and here are a few that highlight that.  First, here's a beautiful shot of Ben Wade entering the saloon a second time, his shadow looming on the floor:

Later, here's Dan Evans' shadow overpowering Ben:

This is what we first see of Ben Wade and Emmy after their romantic interlude:

Soon after, the camera pulls almost uncomfortably close to them, both their faces alternately in shadow and light:

My favorite shot from the whole movie involves shadows too, with Ben Wade's dark past behind him and the possibility of a light new future ahead:

Then there's this ominous shot of a really creepy chandelier in the hotel's lobby.  Something about it looks evil and tarantula-like to me:

Later on, we get the most noir-esque shot of all, when Alice Evans arrives and discovers someone she knows hanging dead from that very chandelier:

That previous shot also highlights another noir-ish framing device used a lot in this movie:  positioning the camera high above the characters, or below them.  Here's one from slightly below, positioning our hero against the wide, free sky:

Here's another from slightly below:

Camera angles can convey so many things -- in the above picture, it emphasizes that Dan has triumphed over Ben, but puts Ben on a level with the town lawman, and above another character, showing that he hasn't lost as much control as he might seem, and backing up the threat he's making there.

Okay, I could go on all day, sharing beautiful images from 3:10 to Yuma -- I screencapped 126 of them, and even though this is the third post I've written using them, there are still a bunch left.  But I'll end with this exterior, shot in Old Tuscon, Arizona, of a lone good guy riding into town.  Look at how the mountains box him in, how the buildings overshadow him, and even the cacti seem like unfriendly sentinels.

No, wait, just one more that shows off Glenn Ford's dimples.  Maybe at some point I'll just load all the extra pictures into a big photo dump post because they're so delicious.

But I can't leave this one out:

Okay, this is the last one, honest:

Digging Deeper into "3:10 to Yuma" (1957)

Just so we're clear, I'm not holding back in this post.  I will spoil things.  I want you to see this, if you haven't, but I also want to discuss the subtext and themes, all the juicy, meaty goodness this movie contains.  And I can't do that without discussing plot points.  For my mostly spoiler-free review, read this post instead.  I'm sorry this post is kind of a long time in coming -- I was real busy last week with VBS, and over the weekend, I caught a head cold.  Happily, I about had this post half-written last week, so today I can just finish it up.

Why do I love this movie?  Sure, it's a western, and nothing scratches my personal itches like a good western.  But there's more to it than that.  As I said in my regular review, 3:10 to Yuma follows a reluctantly deputized rancher who does his best to ensure that a smooth-talking outlaw gets put on the train to prison, during which they develop a grudging respect for each other.  And it's that development of respect between them that particularly fascinates me.

I said that this movie is more akin to film noir than typical westerns, and that's true in that it highlights the boldness of men outside the law, and shows how impotent lawmen can be in the face of determined sin.  But it does not hold true to all noir tropes.  Emmy (Felicia Farr) is no femme fatale -- she does not lure Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) to his doom, though by following his own inclinations, he meets with trouble nonetheless.  And it lacks that sense of helplessness and hopelessness that fills most noir.  But 3:10 is crammed with psychological drama, like good noir, and much of the cinematography echoes the noir fascination with light and dark, unusual camera angles, and using macabre or shocking images to make a point.

In my first post, I spent most of my time talking about the film's set-up, why Dan Evans (Van Heflin) needs that $200, and why Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) hung around town too long and got himself captured.  But as much as I enjoy the first half of the movie, with its quiet desperation, it's the second half that engrosses me.  Because it's there that the psychological drama comes into play, as Dan and Ben wait for the train in a small room and fester.

Ever since he got captured, Ben Wade has been studying Dan Evans.  He underestimated Dan initially, a mistake he rues, but doesn't dwell on.  He'd believed Dan to be a simple, uncomplicated rancher more interested in his own safety, and in making a couple bucks, than in seeing justice done.  And in a way, he's right -- Dan doesn't want to be involved in transporting Ben Wade to that train.  He wants to get back to his cattle and his family, and only the lure of the $200 he needs to buy water rights for his drought-stricken cattle entices him to help out.  But Ben quickly realizes that Dan is just as intelligent and determined as himself.  Ben has more cunning, but Dan has more conviction, and it is not obvious for a minute which will win their battle of wills.

Once they're settled in that hotel in Contention City, waiting for the train to the Yuma prison, Ben begins talking.  Calmly, quietly, almost soothingly, he talks to Dan about risks, about danger, about ranching and cattle and water and money.  He tries one angle after another, patient and unruffled, his mind always working ahead, searching for something he can use to win Dan over.  He wants to be let go, he's fairly sure his men will be able to spring him, but he'd rather skip all that fuss and violence and find an easier way out.

But nothing works.  None of his wiles or ploys gets Dan to relinquish his hold on that rifle, his determination to see Ben Wade to that train.  And a surprising thing happens:  Ben starts to respect Dan.  He's seen Dan's family, what kind of a peaceful, happy life Dan has, and he envies that.  He admires Dan's courage, his stubborn resolve.  He never stops trying to talk Dan into letting him go, though, not even after the time comes for them to walk out of the hotel and over to the train station.

By this time, Ben Wade's whole gang is in town, and they shoot at Dan from every angle, forcing him to use Ben as a shield when he can as they duck and sprint and hide and generally do everything possible to avoid getting shot.

Now, back when Ben Wade was at Dan Evans' home briefly, he told Evans' wife, "I hope I can send him back to you all right."  I feel like he was being sincere here, not flippant -- that even though Evans tricked him into getting captured, he holds no personal grudge against him and would like him to come through this alive, able to return to his wife and sons.  Especially since already there, Ben Wade is starting to envy Dan that life, that wife and those sons.

Ben and Dan are kindred spirits, in a way, opposite sides of the same coin.  As they come to realize this, their respect for each other increases.  And so, as Ben skulks around Contention City with Dan's gun trained more or less on him, he starts to be helpful.  Warns Dan there will be one of the gang around the corner.  Gives him ideas on how to get through this or that tight spot.  Cooperates when being contentious could have gotten Dan killed, and Ben freed.

And then, they reach the train station.  Ben's whole gang is there, ready to gun Dan down when he makes Ben step out of cover toward the train.  And they do step out, with Ben's followers urging him to drop to the dirt so they can have a clear shot at Dan.

(The next couple paragraphs are MAJOR SPOILAGE.  Just so you know.)

But Ben doesn't want Dan to get shot.  He wants to send this stubborn, ornery rancher back to his wife and kids.  In that moment, Ben puts Dan's future ahead of his own and suggests they jump on the train, which has started rolling out of the station.  Dan has to trust that Ben will jump too, but jump they do, landing safely inside an empty cattle car.  The impact knocks the gun from Dan's hands, but Ben makes no move for it -- he's decided that Dan needs to live, and that's all there is to it.

And, after this miracle of a desperate outlaw putting an honest man's life ahead of his own, a second miracle occurs:  it begins to rain.  The water that Dan Evans needed so desperately he was willing to risk his life to earn money enough to buy it -- that water is falling freely from the sky.  And Dan's wife, who drove to Contention City earlier and gave him renewed courage to see this task through... she's there by the train tracks, waving to them, rejoicing in the rain.

And here is my favorite shot from the whole movie:

Look at the lighting here -- he's a man who's been living in darkness, but the uprightness of a man he has grown to respect has brightened his whole future.  By saving another man, he may have helped save himself in a way as well.  He says he's broken out of Yuma before, implying he's confident he'll do so again, but he's learned this day that confidence and silver words aren't always enough.  I feel like Ben Wade will be a more careful man from here on out.  Who knows -- he might even take a turn for the respectable one day.  Because he's found a respectable man who couldn't be bought, couldn't be conned, couldn't be swayed.

And Dan, he's learned just how tough he really is inside.  I get the feeling he's been afraid this drought will break him, that he's not hardy enough to weather it.  Now he's stood toe to toe with the legendary outlaw Ben Wade and triumphed.  Not much will shake him anymore.

(Well, the end of this post, anyway.  I'm going to do one more on the use of cinematography, but I decided that should be its own post too.)