Mini-Review – “Marnie” (1964)

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This was an odd film for Hitchcock to make – A film where the cool, beauty and intoxicating blonde becomes the lead character.

In most Alfred Hitchcock films, the lead female is there to make the protagonist hot under the collar, usually there to demonstrate their impotence. They always have the same characteristics – Sexy, mysterious, masters of brevity, love to mess with men, and of course, blonde.

But in “Marnie” we watch one of those icy blondes take center stage, as Tippi Hedren plays Marnie, a small-time thief who roams across the United States, working for banks run by men who find her attractive, and uses her position and power to steal from these unsuspecting and easily duped gentlemen. Marnie is convinced that men only hold her back and that she’s better off with men getting in the way, using her latest pawn, Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), as a means to an end, until he starts to get wise to her game.

The first half of “Marnie” is very intriguing, as we watch the psychology of Marnie unfold, seeing the dysfunctional relationship she has with her mother and her insistence that all men are terrible. We can’t put the pieces together yet, but we know that Marnie is not all right in the head. Even after Mark puts everything together and practically blackmail Marnie into a relationship, the usually Sean Connery charm convinces us that he has good intentions and wants to help Marnie get well again.

But as the film progresses, it tends to repeat many of the same points and goes in circles with Marnie’s character. We spend so much time on Marnie and Mark trying to work things out, only for her to turn Mark away at every opportunity, that it gets stale. She is unwilling to open up, convinced that her way is the only way, that I lost interest as we spend more time with Mark trying to unravel everything.

Overall, “Marnie” is an interesting change of pace for Hitchcock. It doesn’t have the solid pacing of his other thrillers and only has a few moments of suspense throughout, but the acting from Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery keeps the piece alive.

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “Hardcore Henry” (2016)

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I like to think of violence in cinema as a multiplication factor. In a film like “Mad Max: Fury Road” or “Sin City,” with a dark and grimy backdrop where violence is an everyday occurrence, the disturbing imagery of a guy’s head being blown apart is vital to getting the film’s point across and makes the film better. But, if the film has no reason to be violent and only wants to show disgusting imagery because it can, then it hurts the film.

Case in point, “Hardcore Henry.”

I’ll admit, I was impressed by the trailer for this film – an action-adventure film done entirely from a first-person perspective, shot like we were the main character in a video game like “Grand Theft Auto” or the “Fallout” franchise. No movie has done that for its entire runtime, so I was at least intrigued by “Hardcore Henry”‘s filmming technique.

But what I got was something just as unpleasant as “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice.” A film that has no reason to exist and would have been better off staying as a video game instead of a movie.

Set in the future, our lead “character” Henry wakes up missing an arm and leg, and is unable to talk. His wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett), takes him out of his chamber and replaces his missing limbs with cybernetic enhancements. But before she is able to give him a new voice, they are attacked by a psychic-wielder, Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) and forced to flee. Estelle is kidnapped by Akan and Henry must now fight his way up to Akan to get her back.

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If that plot synopsis sounds a bit too much like that of a video game summary, it’s only because “Hardcore Henry” is so much like a video game. Because we’ve had such a great track-record of adapting video games in movies, right? Remember “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” or Mark Whalberg in “Max Payne” and the groan-inducing “Resident Evil” movie franchise?

It is my personal belief that video games and movies should be separated as much as possible, and never let one of them try to be like the other. It is boring when a video game tries to be like a movie, with far too many cinematic cut scenes that ruins the immersion, and it is ineffective when a movie attempts to be a video game. “Hardcore Henry” falls into the second category.

If “Hardcore Henry” was a video game, most of the violent and bloody action sequences might have worked. If I was the one pulling the trigger and performing the strange kung-fu moves, then there would have been something redeemable. But what separates video games from cinema is one simple thing – immersion. In a video game, you are in complete control of your character and can make them do whatever you want. You basically become this gun-totting crazy guy.

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This is not the case in a movie. No matter how hard a film may try, and believe me “Hardcore Henry” does this harder than most others, the audience cannot become or control the main character. We don’t the same satisfaction in a movie killing as we would in a video game, because we’re not the ones performing the action in a film.

But the entire basis on which “Hardcore Henry” attempts to live on is making you feel like you are Henry. And it fails every time. The reason I did not list an actor when I mentioned Henry in the plot summary is because he does not have an actor. We never see or hear Henry, and have no way of connecting with him. All we see of him is the violent acts he commits.

This film would have been so much better if Henry could have talked. It is implied that Henry has other cybernetic enhancements that gives him extensive knowledge on combat that can be turned on and off. What if Henry could talk and we could understand his confusion about being able to perform these superhuman abilities? How are we supposed to care about Henry and his relationship with Estelle if he never acknowledges it? How are we supposed to understand his struggle to stop Akan if we can’t see his emotions?

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This is where the idea of shooting an entire film in the first-person perspective comes back to bite itself in the ass. Our lead character is not a character at all. Just a vessel to get to the next video game-like action sequence.

There was one scene that stuck with me, long after I watched “Hardcore Henry” that I think perfectly summarized the problem with this film. Henry stumbles across a crime being committed against an innocent woman, and Henry catches up with the criminals. Henry then proceeds to violently and disturbingly rip this men apart, with every bit of the bloodshed in full display for us to see.

These men were not working for Akan, nor did Henry know these gentlemen. He just felt like turning one of them into a shish kabob and making sure the other never has kids again.

“Hardcore Henry” has no reason to as violent as it is. The cruelty on display does not serve any purpose other than to be gore porn and makes even less sense when we cannot sympathize or understand our protagonist. The world he lives in is not inherently violent, as we find out near the beginning when Henry observes the scientists trying to help him.

Overall, “Hardcore Henry” is a confused little film. It wants to be like a video game, but lacks the immersive factor. It tries to send a hero on an epic journey, but forgets to give him any sort of character whatsoever. And the film has copious amounts of brutality, but forgets to include a reason about why that should exist. The action sequences are forgettable, the characters are non-existent and there are way too many scenes that feel like video game objects that it ruins the cinematic experience. I was waiting for Henry to get an achievement for getting twenty headshots, but sadly that never came to be. Skip “Hardcore Henry” because there is nothing good going for this one.

Final Grade: D-

Mini-Review – “Animal Crackers” (1930)

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It is too bad that, of all the Marx brothers, Groucho Marx was the one that has become the most recognizable. It makes sense, considering he is the most noticeable, with his distinct look of the electric-tape mustache, frizzled hair and glasses and always seems to carry a cigar with him. But of all the Marx brothers, I felt the chemistry between the silent Harpo and the full-of-himself Chico was the best part of any Marx brothers film.

While each of the brothers has their own strengths and could probably carry a film on their own, but putting them together and watching each of their distinct styles of comedy bounce off one another makes for a comedy that has stuck with us for well over eighty years. Groucho’s insults, Harpo’s slapstick, Chico’s creativity and Zeppo’s…blandness (I remain unsure if that is supposed to be the joke with Zeppo Marx or if they couldn’t think of anything better for him) come together to form some of the best comedies at the beginning of the silent era. “Duck Soup” still remains their best work, since that gave us the great broken mirror sequence, but “Animal Crackers” can certainly compete with it.

When the Marx brothers are on-screen in “Animal Crackers,” it is glorious, especially when dealing with Harpo and Chico trying to steal a painting. Harpo does his best to translate Chico’s thick European accent and continues to pull many things that rhyme out his seemingly bottomless pockets, yet the two have to stay quiet, while Groucho works his “magic” on some “lucky” lady.

However, “Animal Crackers” problem is that it focuses a bit too much on characters that aren’t the Marx brothers, like a young couple that want to get married but the husband, a painter, doesn’t have a sustainable income and has only sold two paintings in the last year. Their acting is often stiff, as they stare off into the distance and not into each other’s eyes, like they’re looking for their next line. Granted, this is an early talkie so acting with sound had not been perfected yet. But when compared to the sequences involving the Marx brothers, the scenes with everyone else felt bland.

Overall, “Animal Crackers” was a fun time. Many memorable moments with the Marx brothers, giving each one an opportunity to stand out, and even Zeppo got one good scene with Groucho. The acting was not anything special and there were scenes that tended to drag, especially near the end, but anything involving the Marx brothers is always a blast to watch even all these years later.

Final Grade: B-

 

Mini-Review – “Torn Curtain” (1966)

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Alfred Hitchcock directing Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. What more needs to be said?

This is three drastically different film worlds colliding together and seeing what sticks. This is Cool Hand Luke and Mary Poppins coming together, while being directed by the man who gave us “Psycho.” Sometimes, the oddity of the casting choices works to the films advantage, especially with Julie Andrews, and other times the vastly different styles of acting makes the characters feel emotionally detached, in particular with Paul Newman.

Michael Armstrong (Newman) is an American rocket scientist who takes on a secret mission that leads him from Stockholm into East Berlin. The world labels Armstrong as a traitor, but he insists that doing this is for the safety of the entire world. Armstrong’s fiancée, Sarah Sherman (Andrews), accompanies him on this journey, but is unaware of Michael’s true intentions.

Like “Family Plot” and “Frenzy,” you can tell right away this a Hitchcock film. An espionage thriller about a seemingly regular man having to play the secret agent, while constantly being hunted down by many forms of government and is wrongfully accused of a crime he did not commit, in this case treason. This film has all the hallmarks of Hitchcock movies like “North By Northwest” and “Strangers On A Train,” but lacks the subtle yet dry-sense-of-humor acting of those films.

As great of an actor as Paul Newman is, he was the wrong man for this role. Newman was best at playing the suave rebel, that wanted to make a statement about how messed up the world is while looking cool at the same time. Playing Michael Armstrong is a man who must subvert his emotions and hide everything behind a cloak of confusion, especially when it comes to the German society. Newman ends up being so concentrated on his work that we don’t get any genuine character from him, in particular with his romance with Julie Andrews.

Andrews, however, plays Sarah Sherman as a woman obsessed with learning the truth about her fiancée and will do whatever it takes to be with him. She ends up being dedicated and lovely, giving “Torn Curtain” some much-needed heart in how much she truly cares for her lover.

Overall, “Torn Curtain” is a pretty standard Hitchcock film, with unexpected and thrilling scenes that will leave you wanting more, but is short on a good protagonist. Julie Andrews does a great job with her role, but I cannot say the same for Paul Newman, who is far too rebellious to play a rocket scientist.

Final Grade: B-

Mini-Review – “Doctor Zhivago” (1965)

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Sometimes, in the middle of a sprawling epic covering vast distances and large amounts of time, the best thing you can do is take a step back and take the focus off the cast of thousands and put attention on two people in particular.

That is what I enjoyed more than anything else in David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago.” Lean directed many classic film epics, including “Lawrence Of Arabia” and “The Bridge On The River Kwai,” but in this film we get a far more personal story. The previously mentioned films were about how one man can change the world, by either inspiring a revolution or instilling faith in others. “Doctor Zhivago” is, more-or-less, about how the world-changing can affect one man.

The titular character (played by Omar Sharif), is a world-famous poet and a talented doctor, but is constantly on the run from several different Russian factions, since his poetry goes against the rise of Communism. Over time, we see how far he is willing to go to protect what he believes in, and watch as he falls in love with a young lady, Lara (Julie Christie).

The overwhelming sense of the Russian superiors hangs over this film at all times, as if Zhivago is one wrong turn down the alley away from a firing squad. Yet he never sets out to change the world, but merely live. There’s a scene about halfway through the picture, where Zhivago is on the run and being questioned by the dread Strelnikov (Tom Courtenay). Near the end of the interrogation, which has previously ended in the death of many people at the hands of Strelnikov’s men, he asks Zhivago what he intends to do once he reaches his destination. Without any hesitation and all his fiery hate, he says, “To live.”

This is so refreshing to see in an epic like this, from a director so well-known for his “man of the people” angle. To see a character who is content with themselves, and whose only wish is to have been born at a different time or place, makes this a more personal narrative.

While “Doctor Zhivago” is over three hours long, the story of Zhivago and Lara keeps the film from getting stale. This is a different kind of epic than I’m used to, and that is great to see.

Final Grade: B

 

Mini-Review – “East Of Eden” (1955)

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I’ve never fallen into James Dean-craze before. Don’t get me wrong, I think Dean was an actor that helped start the trend of rebellious teens that wished to be independent and treated as more than just offspring, and it is certainly tragic that he was taken away from us so early, but he only had three credited roles – “East Of Eden,” “Rebel Without A Cause” and “Giant.”

Personally, that’s not enough for me to be truly impressed by his acting ability. Dean played similar roles in all three films, ones who were always defiant but had a lot to prove, so there was little variety. If Dean had been in a few more movies, maybe given us something more than just the prototype for the counter-culture, then I could get behind him. But, as an actor, three roles is very little to go on.

“East Of Eden” is the last film starring James Dean that I have seen, and his presence alone is the reason this film is still talked about these days. Which is unfortunate, because the story is far more laid-back than “Rebel Without A Cause” and “Giant,” and the film gives us a touching story about a strained family trying to live together, only to realize the belong in vastly different worlds.

The film follows the Trask family, the hard-working father Adam (Raymond Massey), the dutiful and hard-working son Aron (Richard Davalos), and the rebel Cal (James Dean). Cal has found out that his mother is alive, even though Adam told his sons their mother died when they were young. She is a wealthy business woman in a nearby town and practically runs the town. After a business venture doesn’t pay off for Adam, costing him just about everything he owns, Cal intends to get that money back by investing in the upcoming World War I.

“East Of Eden” gets great near the end, as we see just how far Cal is willing to go to earn his father’s love. We learn that Cal takes after his mother, stubborn, independent and willing to fight back, especially when others try to chain them down. Although it is never said, Adam seems to resent Cal for that behavior. Whether it is because Cal is making Adam look bad or because Cal reminds him of his wife is unclear, but Adam always treated Cal differently from Aron.

By the end of the film, Cal is not only willing to do anything to get his father to love him, he is also willing to buy it.

“East Of Eden” also shows the distance between time and how it changes a man. Adam grew up in a peaceful time where he was allowed to pursue his religious beliefs, while Cal has grown up in a divided time with war right around the corner. Cal sees no problem in benefitting from the war, because he is helping the troops by raising the money for their beans. But Adam only sees death and destruction out of this, and doesn’t want any part of this greed from war.

This makes the last half-hour of “East Of Eden” show gripping, as we watch these two world views and personalities collide. Combine this with two great performances from Dean and Massey and we’re left with wondering how these two didn’t tear each other apart years ago.

Overall, “East Of Eden” is a tale of a family realizing their differences and where they belong in the world, while still learning to love one another. This film would make sure that we wouldn’t forget James Dean any time soon, and his unfortunate death created his legacy that we will never forget.

Final Grade: B-

 

Mini-Review – “The Virgin Spring” (1960)

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I haven’t talked about this before, but it is something that needs to be said. I cannot stand Ingmar Bergman films.

Outside of some scenes in “Wild Strawberries,” every Bergman film I’ve watched in the past has been more of a test of patience and not an enjoyable experience. Films like “The Seventh Seal” and “Persona” infuriate me with their snail-like pace, lack of interesting or captivating sequences and characters that would rather stare off into space instead of doing something. While Bergman’s films are certainly artistic, that doesn’t mean anything to me if his films are not entertaining. The most story we usually get out of a Bergman film is characters walking and contemplating what it means to live in Sweden.

Now I can add “The Virgin Spring” to that collection of nearly sleep-inducing movies. This is Bergman’s take on a 13th-Century Swedish ballad called “Tore’s daughter in Vange,” about the rape and murder of a young Sweden girl, only for these same men to show up at the house of the girl’s father, a man of God. The father eventually finds out about what happened and is torn between his love of God and his need to avenge the death of his daughter.

Most of “The Virgin Spring” is spent with this girl, Karin, an unspoiled flower that wants to see the world and have people notice her, and her friend Ingeri, a rambunctious spitfire who is pregnant and seems to despise Karin, as the two roam the forest to reach a church and drop off some candles. And that’s about it. They don’t do much of anything while traveling, until the dreaded scene arrives.

The film does get interesting once the criminals show up at the father’s house, since he is very open to helping these men in their time of need, offering them food and place to sleep. It is jarring to see that hospitality turn into rage and disgust so quickly and watch a good man do terrible things. You can see the wheels turning in his head as he jumps from revenge to his love of God.

Overall, “The Virgin Spring” is one of the better Ingmar Bergman films I have seen, but it was still tiring to sit through and watch a lot of nothing happen before anything got interesting. For an hour and a half-long film, this one felt like it lasted over two and a half hours with how slow and uneventful it was.

Final Grade: C