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These are some short reviews of movies that are worthy of note. 

(Note: These are posted in order of my reviewing them, most recent at top.)

 

WITHOUT A CLUE

Somewhere along the line I had to get a Sherlock Holmes film in here, and Without a Clue brings a new twist to the venerable private eye. This time around it's Dr. Watson (Ben Kingsley) who's the real detective, while Holmes (Michael Caine) is the front man. In this telling, Holmes is an actor who knows how to gain the limelight which brings Watson the cases so the facade has to be maintained! This is the occasion for some good natured satire on a venerable genre, as well as clever meta-humour regarding deduction and all that sort of thing. But Without a Clue deals with more elementary issues. Like refusing to live a falsehood. Both men strike out on their own, defying public expectations and dealing with the consequences of shattering illusions. But they persevere and team up again, only this time based on mutual respect for each other's talents. It's wit, intelligence and bulldog determination against the world. On top of this, the backdrop mystery is cleverly put together, there are some nice period locales, and the comedy is actually funny.  Well done!  

 

THE MISSION

Two men: one an intellectual, the other a soldier. Together they build a mission in the jungle and bring civilization but, more importantly, save their own souls. It's 18th century Brazil, and Jeremy Irons is the intellectual Jesuit who recruits Robert DiNiro, the soldier on a downward spiral. DiNiro killed a man for one of the dumbest of all reasons--over a woman. As penance, he puts himself under the discipline of Irons. Intellect over emotion, morality plus righteous force. In the end, they make their stand. And, as they say, based on a true story. The Mission is set against a guerrilla war led by the Jesuits against the slave trade. One thing that was a bit irking about The Mission was in the portrayal of the Indian converts. They're a little too squeaky clean, as if recruited out of a save-the-children commercial. And there are all sorts of politics which could be argued at this point which I will avoid. The real point of the movie is not in such debates, nor in how the two men come to their end. It's in how they lived their lives. They'd all be dead by now, anyway. But perhaps there is some inspiration in The Mission  on how men can bring about a new renaissance in the fight for freedom.

 

Thus endeth the sermon!

 

 

THE DUELLISTS

The Duellists has some powerful imagery in it, filmed as if it were a series of 19th century paintinings brought to life along with the men of that era. It's about two officers in Napoleon's army (Keith Carradine, Harvey Keitel) who for reasons which are increasingly obscure, fight a series of vicious if non-fatal duels over a period years (non-fatal more by accident than design; Keitel really wants to kill Carradine). The Duellists  has something to say about the self-destructiveness of men fighting among themselves, and where this leads. There is one particularly vivid if bleak scene during the Grand Army's disastrous winter retreat from Moscow which resonates with life in the modern wasteland. What makes the movie for me, though, is the ending, in which Carradine ends the mutual self-destruction, and does so without killing his foe nor going soft by reconciling. The duels have for him become a spiritual journey, a means to outthink the opposition. Unique and, again, something to ponder.

FREQUENCY

Frequency was something of a surprise. The plot is about a policeman (James Caviezel) whose father, a fireman (Dennis Quaid), communicates with him via shortwave radio and helps him solve a mystery. The kicker is that the father died heroically when the cop was a kid, and the communication is across time. Frequency was a little more on the science fiction side than I had expected, contrasting against the gritty realism of the worlds of law enforcement and emergency rescue. But it does have a lot of solid things to say about father-son relationships, and all the what-might-have-beens had things not conspired to undermine them, a metaphor indeed for today's world.

THE LOST BOYS

It's the 1980s and Jason Patric is a young man whose fatherless family moves into a resort town only to find that underneath the edenic glitter there are sinister doings, namely a gang of hip (or was it "rad" in those days?) teenage vampires on the prowl. He gets seduced by a female who leads him on into the dark side, but is rescued by his brother and a duo of adolescent van Helsings. There's some things in here about the rootlessness of female headed families and the temptations of the (female) flesh, as well as the brotherhood of arms (even if the weapons are only squirtguns loaded with holy water). And some fun satire on Hollywood vampires (what do you do when garlic doesn't work?). Plus Keifer Sutherland as the head of the stylish if (literally) bloodthirsty gang who promises eternal coolness in exchange for one's soul. The downside is that in the end the "princess" has to be rescued, and it all comes to a head in a literal if hysterical bloodbath.

...and speaking of Faustian pacts...

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER

This is another of those movies I remember seeing as a kid on the Late, Late Show (does television even have a Late, Late Show any more?).  The Devil and Daniel Webster  is Hollywood's retelling of a tale from American folklore, about a man in the early Republic who makes a Faustian pact with the Devil, then comes to regret it. He calls upon legendary orator and politico Daniel Webster (played Edward Arnold) to save him, and being a lawyer, Webster demands a trial by jury. What follows is an epic court battle in which Webster expounds mightily about freedom and that the idea of America is to give a man the right to a second chance. I still remember all those words, and they are something to think about given the country's current direction. Time to shake that American fist at the powers-that-be.

K-19: THE WIDOMAKER 

OK, the Cold War is over and now we can be friends with the Russians, so bear with me and as they say, "this is based on a true story". It's 1961 and K-19 is the new Soviet nuclear submarine, with the standard crew:  Hardcore captain (Harrison Ford), popular first officer (Liam Neeson), plus the green  lieutenant who proves himself, the doctor who doesn't really want to be aboard a ship which he knows to be not very seaworthy, and let's not leave behind the "heavy" political officer (whom the captain chews out for not being "heavy" enough!). Come to think of it, this is sort of like the Run Silent, Run Deep crew, but what makes it work is that K-19 is a much harder edged movie, the characters much harder disciplined--this is the old Soviet navy, after all. And there is a hard reality: the K-19's submariners are fighting the boat as well as the environment. In one particularly horrific scene, volunteers have to fix a leaking nuclear reactor without protective suits! As is to be expected, the men triumph and bring the ship home, or at least to the surface safely. K-19 got kind of panned, but the movie does give a new edge to the struggles which men face and the real victories they win.

ENEMY FROM SPACE

(moved to Science Fiction & Fantasy)

BREAKER MORANT

Breaker Morant is based on a real incident from the Boer War (1899-1902), in which a trio of British-Australian officers were court martialed for shooting prisoners. Now, I will state that this was a violation of the laws of war, and worse, evidence of loss of self-control on the part of the principles. Yet Breaker Morant resounds with the dilemma that men face: being put into impossible situations and having the rug pulled out from under them by the very system in whose interests they were fighting. Edward Woodard plays Lieutenant Harry "Breaker" Morant, who provides a spirited defense of not simply himself and his men, but of men everywhere who refuse to play along with the system which is out to destroy them. "It's a new war for a new century," Morant remarks at one point, and that war is still going on.

 

THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE

It's good to be king, unless you are losing your sanity, as King George III is doing in this movie. Even then, it's still pretty good because the king is surrounded by loyal friends who see him through the crisis, plus a dedicated doctor whose regimen is a little ahead of its time. Nigel Hawthorne plays George III, the sovereign who lost the American colonies in the not too distant revolution and now has to face skullduggery within his own court all while losing his mind. The king regains his sanity and saves his throne under the discipline of Ian Holm's doctor, with a message in there that one can not govern others unless one governs one's own self. That's important so I will say it again: one can not rule others unless one rules one's own self. The movie has a lot to say about male qualities of rationality and self-discipline, but then again, this was the Age of Reason.  There's also a loyal wife played by the ever regal Helen Mirren, and an image of functioning marriage in those days before no-fault. Madness   has a lot going for it, including  an unorthodox debate on political issues which still resound today, and a definitely non-Hollywood look at the late 18th century in all its smallpox scarred and frazzled hair glory.

 

RIO BRAVO

John Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan and Ricky Nelson are lawmen taking on a town boss in a Wild West boom town. But that's just the backdrop. The story is really about how men overcome their inner demons;  the bad guys' siege of the jail is a metaphor for the forces assailing each of the protagonists. Rio Bravo is told in a minimalist style, with most of the action taking place in either the protagonists' jailhouse sanctum, the neutral ground of nighted streets, or the dive bar which serves as the antagonists' stronghold. The movie abjures the sweeping outdoor vistas and cattle stampedes of the genre and instead concentrates on the human dimension, which is always the real story. Wayne remade Rio Bravo a couple of times, as El Dorado and Rio Lobo, but this first version is the best.

 

 

TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA

(moved to Contemporary Films)

 

 

THE STUFF

To sound film student-ish, The Stuff is a stunning metaphor of how modern consumer society, well, consumes the consumer. Michael Moriarty is an amoral industrial espionage operative on the trail of the eponymous "stuff", an addictive junk food with a life of its own, taking over its imbibers and turning them into something else. Yes, it's body snatchers time, but The Stuff has a curious quasi-documentary quality, perhaps because it is rooted in a reality too many men see in these declining days. The family, the workplace, the media, the cops, all have been taken over. But there's a way out. Moriarty links up with a young man who escapes his literally alienated family. Together, they work to uncover the secret behind the Stuff, and there is some good older guy-younger guy mentorship in there. There's also a paramilitary militia outfit led by an unsavory extremist which is recruited into the rescue. The movie says, don't trust the authorities, trust only other men who are fighting the system. Amen and out.

 

 

QUIZ SHOW

Congressional investigator Dick Goodwin (Charles van Doren) looks into alleged corruption in the world of braniac quiz shows of 1950s. He has to make a choice between working class genius Herb Stemple (John Turturro) and ivy leaguer Charles van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). Goodwin makes his choice, and then finds himself bringing everyone down around him as unto a Greek tragedy. Quiz Show has some good things going for it. One is that the three male leads are all high-IQ men. It's a battle of brains. Yet they all get seduced by the spectacle society of television induced fame. In the end, the tube gets everyone. Tune out, turn off, switch on your intellect.

 

 

THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE

The rise and fall and rise again of Robert Evans, the mastermind producer who saved Paramount Studios and was responsible for some of the great movies of the 1960s and 1970s, such as The Godfather (duly reviewed elsewhere on this site). He was also responsible for some fiascos, as well as having a run in or two with the law. But, as the title tells us, he stays in the picture—not just the movies but in control of his life. It’s a tribute to determination, creativity and just plain guts in the cutthroat world of Hollywood. And yes, it all really happened. The Kid  Stays in the Picture  is done as a documentary narrated by Evans himself and with plenty of interesting visuals. Plus Francis Ford Coppola, Ava Gardner, Eddie Albert, and a host of others.

 

FROST/NIXON

Two men locked in mortal combat –  the up and coming television  impresario David Frost interviewing former President Richard Nixon in a middle class Orange County ranch style house, of all places. It starts off as a battle in which a most critical of all things is at stake: the limelight. Frost wants to make a name for himself by making Nixon “confess” to Watergate crimes, Nixon sees this as a last chance to vindicate himself. While in the run-up both state that only one can emerge victorious, in the end something magic happens. Both men win. Frost gets the limelight, Nixon takes responsibility for his actions but stands by them. If only more often men could come to such mutual victories. I have to admit, I went into Frost/Nixon with some trepidation, but director Ron Howard pulled off a real coup here. With Michael Sheen as the ebullient Frost and Frank Langella as the brooding veteran of the Oval Office, both taking their roles to incredible heights—and depths.

 

CENTURION

Roman soldiers take on barbarians, their own corrupt high command, and a warrior female. The movie has a couple of MRA things going for it. The aforementioned warrior female is the villain (in an obvious counterpoint to current Hollywood trends glorifying such); her rival  is a frontier woman whose traditional values complement the legionaries’ strengths as opposed to competing with them. Plus a realistic look at military men on the frontiers of civilization--to say the least!

 

THIRD MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN

I first saw this as a kid and found it again at Amoeba Records. Young Swiss fellow is determined to conquer a mountain that killed his father. Along the way he learns the value of team work, training, and reconciling with old enemies. It could have been hokey, but the film makers turned it into something special.

 

THE WHOLE WIDE  WORLD

Robert E. Howard was one of the greatest, if not the  greatest writer of pulp fiction of the 20th century. He created Solomon Kane, El Borak and...Conan the Barbarian. OK, Whole Wide World has elements of chick flik, it was after all based on the memoir of his erstwhile girlfriend. But Vincent D'Onofrio transcends the material, showing us a man who masters the process of creation, opening up the vistas that Howard penetrated.

 

THE AVIATOR

The Aviator is about a man who must overcome his inner demons. The aviator of the title is, of course, Howard Hughes: engineer, movie mogul, aviation pioneer. Leonardo Di Caprio is a little on the weak side when playing this colossus who bestrode several worlds (too much Hollywood playboy, not enough brilliant engineer). Yet he catches perfectly Hughes' true strength in adversity:  whether flying his own experimental airplanes, facing down a rigged Congressional investigation, or gracefully surviving a dinner party in which his antagonist tries to drive him insane. It's the latter that is all the more impressive since ultimately it is those aforementioned inner demons which undo too many men--and Hughes flies over them.

 

WAR HUNT

I believe this was Robert Redford's first film. He's a young American soldier in the closing days of the Korean War. He and his commander have to infiltrate No Man's Land to bring back another soldier who, despite the truce, wants to keep on killing. I saw this film on the Late Show way back when, and the final line still stays with me. After an unnecessary killing, Redford's commander asks him if is OK. Redford replies simply, honestly and brutally, "No." And that is the whole point: things are not all right for men. Stating this reality openly is the first step towards liberation.

 

OCTOBER SKY

High school guy has big dreams about joining in the space race. And  he makes them real by getting into rocketry. October Sky  has a lot to say about men using their brains, as well as determination and integrity. Based on a true story.

 

FAIL SAFE

Another dark side movie. Deadly enemies come together to try to try to stop runaway nuclear armed bombers that could trigger World War III. Even though set in the Cold War, Fail Safe  holds up today as a techno-thriller, as well as an examination of men dealing with crisis. Some crack, some self-destruct, others take control. And taking control means controlling oneself instead of giving in to emotions, feelings and hysteria. The movie poses some real questions for men as they hurl along in their lives without thinking about where it all leads to--much as the film’s "Vindicator" squadron does on its doomsday flight.

 

THE HAPPENING

OK, this was originally a counterculture movie, exploding out of the 1960s. But viewed from today's perspective, the hero is the middle aged, middle class  Anthony Quinn who is rousted out of his middle of the road suburban existence by a gang of hippies or bohemians or youth radicals or whatever. The kids play mind games with him...but he turns the tables, showing us that experience, fortitude, guts and a lot of other male qualities will win in the end. The ending prefigures Fight Club.  Groovy, man.

 

NO WAY OUT

Kevin Kostner is a naval officer who has it all: the prestige Pentagon job, the townhouse in Georgetown, the girlfriend who also happens to be the mistress of the Secretary of Defense. Or does he have it all? He gets swept up into a murder case, and ends up having to hunt for a suspect who may turn out to be himself. No Way Out gets you to think about how men can trap themselves with the visible symbols of power and wealth and lust -- the sort of thing satirized in Fight Club. Great twist ending, showing us that the answer is in seeing through to the other side of the looking glass.

 

THE HURT LOCKER

I have to admit, I thought this was going to be just another war movie. But The Hurt Locker upends all the cliches to give us a portrait of a man whose zen-like focus allows him to overcome death, this as a member of an EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) team in Iraq. One scene in particular shows two men working together to take on an enemy sniper communicates so much with just a few facial expressions. It says so much without speaking a word--and kudos to the female director!

 

 

 

 

 

EOF