Ten Favorite Movies Set in TEXAS

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set in Texas aka “the Lone Star State”:

TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN TEXAS

1 - The Big Country

1. “The Big Country” (1958) – William Wyler directed this big scale adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s 1958 novel, “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. The movie starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker and Charlton Heston.

2 - Written on the Wind

2. “Written on the Wind” (1956) – Douglas Sirk directed this adaptation of Robert Wilder’s 1954 novel about a East Coast secretary who married into a wealthy Texas family. The movie starred Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Oscar nominee Robert Stack and Oscar winner Dorothy Malone.

3 - The Shadow Riders

3. “The Shadow Riders” (1982) – Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot starred in this television adaptation of Louis L’Amour’s novel about brothers who search for their kidnapped siblings at the end of the Civil War. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, the movie co-starred Jeff Osterhage, Katherine Ross and Ben Johnson.

4 - Giant

4. “Giant” (1956) – Oscar nominee George Stevens produced and directed this adaptation of Edna Ferber’s 1952 about a wealthy Texas family. The movie starred Elizabeth Taylor, and Oscar nominees Rock Hudson and James Dean.

5 - 2 Guns

5. “2 Guns” (2013) – Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg starred in this adaptation of a comic book series about two undercover agents and their search for missing C.I.A. money. The movie was directed by Baltasar Kormákur.

6 - No Country For Old Men

6. “No Country For Old Men” (2007) – The Coen Brothers directed this Oscar winning film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel. The movie starred Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Kelly MacDonald, Woody Harrelson and Oscar winner Jarvier Bardem.

7 - Parkland

7. “Parkland” (2013) – Peter Landesman wrote and directed this film about the immediate aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The cast includes Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton, Marcia Gay Harden, Ron Livingston and James Badge Dale.

8 - Dallas Buyers Club

8. “Dallas Buyers’ Club” (2013) – Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey starred in this biopic about A.I.D.S. activist Ron Woodruff. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the movie co-starred Jennifer Garner and Oscar winner Jared Leto.

9 - The Searchers

9. “The Searchers” (1956) – John Ford directed this epic adaptation of Alan Le May’s 1954 novel about the search for a missing girl taken by Commanches. The movie starred John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter.

10 - Extreme Prejudice

10. “Extreme Prejudice” (1987) – Walter Hill directed this action packed tale about a conflict between a Texas Ranger, his former boyhood friend-turned-drug kingpin and a team of Army Intelligence agents. Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe starred.

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Favorite Films Set in the 1900s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1900s decade:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1900s

1 - Howards End

1. “Howard’s End” (1992) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this exquisite adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel. The movie starred Oscar winner Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham-Carter, Samuel West and Oscar nominee Vanessa Redgrave.

2 - The Assassination Bureau

2. “The Assassination Bureau” (1969) – Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas starred in this delicious adaptation of Jack London’s unfinished novel about a woman journalist who uncovers an organization for professional assassins. Basil Dearden directed.

3 - A Room With a View

3. “A Room With a View” (1985-86) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this excellent adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel. The movie starred Helena Bonham-Carter, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis and Oscar nominees Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot.

4 - Gigi

4. “Gigi” (1958) – Oscar winner Vincente Minelli directed this superb adaptation of Collette’s 1944 novella about a young Parisian girl being groomed to become a courtesan. Leslie Caron and Louis Jordan starred.

5 - The Illusionist

5. “The Illusionist” (2006) – Neil Burger directed this first-rate adaptation of Steven Millhauser’s short story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist”. The movie starred Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell.

6 - The Great Race

6. “The Great Race” (1965) – Blake Edwards directed this hilarious comedy about a long-distance road race between two rival daredevils. The movie starred Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood.

7 - Flame Over India aka North West Frontier

7. “Flame Over India aka North West Frontier” (1959) – Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall starred in this Imperial adventure about a British Army officer who serves as escort to a young Hindu prince being targeted by Muslim rebels. J. Lee Thompson directed.

8 - Meet Me in St. Louis

8. “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) – Judy Garland starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Sally Benson’s short stories about a St. Louis family around the time of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair in 1904. Vincente Minelli directed.

9 - The Golden Bowl

9. “The Golden Bowl” (2000) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this interesting adaptation of Henry James’ 1904 novel about an adulterous affair in Edwardian England. The movie starred Uma Thurman, Nick Nolte, Kate Beckinsale and Jeremy Northam.

10 - North to Alaska

10. “North to Alaska” (1960) – John Wayne, Stewart Granger and Capucine starred in this surprisingly fun Western about how a mail-to-order bride nearly came between two partners during the Nome Gold Rush. Henry Hathaway directed.

“THE GOLDEN BOWL” (2000) Review

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“THE GOLDEN BOWL” (2000) Review

I have never read any of Henry James’ literary works. Never. However, I have seen a few adaptations of his works. Some of them had been adapted by the production team of Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory. Aside from E.M. Forster, they must have been diehard fans of James. They had produced three adaptations of James’ novels, including the 2000 film, “THE GOLDEN BOWL”.

Based upon James’ 1904 novel, “THE GOLDEN BOWL” is a character study of an adulterous affair between an impoverished Italian prince named Amerigo and Charlotte Stant, an equally impoverished American young woman. The movie explores their affair and its impact upon their lives and the lives of their spouses – a father-and-daughter pair named Adam and Maggie Verver. The movie begins with Amerigo’s recent engagement to Maggie in London, July 1903. Amerigo and Charlotte, who were past lovers, visit A.R. Jarvis’ antique store in order for Charlotte to purchase a wedding gift for Maggie, who is an old school friend. Jarvis shows them an ancient bowl, carved from a single piece of crystal and embroidered with gold, he asserts is flawless. Charlotte is indecisive about buying it, and Jarvis offers to set it aside until she can make up her mind. Although Maggie’s aunt, Mrs. Fanny Assingham, is well aware of Amerigo and Charlotte’s past relationship, she suggests to Maggie that Charlotte would make the perfect second wife for Adam Verver some two years later. Concerned about her father’s possible loneliness, Maggie supports Fanny’s idea and eventually, Charlotte becomes her stepmother. Due to their irritation over the unusually close relationship between Maggie and Adam, Charlotte and Amerigo rekindle their affair at a country house party three years later. Although Fanny and her husband Bob Assingham become aware of the affair, they decide to main silence in order to protect Maggie from any personal pain. However, in the end, their efforts prove to be in vain.

This adaptation of James’ novel was not as well received as the 1972 BBC miniseries. Many critics claimed that the movie was not only inferior to the television production, but not as faithful to James’ novel. As I have stated in other reviews, complete faithfulness to a literary source is not needed for a successful film, television or stage adaptation. If the changes help a particular production, then I will have no problems with said changes. The problem with “THE GOLDEN BOWL” is that I have never read James’ novel. So, I cannot decide whether any changes made by screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala either improved or worsened James’ novel. How do I feel about the movie? Well . . . I rather liked it. Most of it. The older I get, the more I find it difficult to view adultery in fiction with any single-minded disapproval. I have to give credit to Jhabvala for portraying Charlotte and Amerigo’s affair with a good deal of maturity and complexity. Jhabvala made sure that audiences understood the couple’s passion for each other . . . well, Charlotte’s passion. The screenplay also conveyed the couple’s irritation with the Ververs’ close relationship and tendency to spend more time with each other, instead of their respective spouses. On the other hand, Jhabvala’s screenplay does not hesitate to express the negative aspects of the couple’s adultery – especially their careless behavior later in the story and the pain it causes Maggie when she becomes aware of it.

“THE GOLDEN BOWL” is a very beautiful looking film. I cannot deny this. The movie was filmed in both England and Italy. Tony Pierce-Roberts made good use of the locations, thanks to his sharp and colorful photography. But despite the movie’s lush color, I did not walk away feeling dazzled by his work. I believe my feelings stem from Pierce-Roberts’ limited use of exterior shots. On the other hand, I felt very impressed by Andrew Sanders’ production designs, which ably re-created the upper-class worlds of Edwardian Britain and Italy. He was able to achieve this effect with the help of Lucy Richardson’s art direction and Anna Pinnock’s set decorations. However, it was John Bright’s costume designs that really blew me away:

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And yet . . . there are aspects of “THE GOLDEN BOWL” that either did not appeal to me or rubbed me the wrong way. These negative feelings regarding the movie did not pop up until its last 20 to 30 minutes. In the movie, director James Ivory included brief scenes of a turn-of-the-century American city as a visual symbol of the Ververs’ hometown, “American City”. These brief scenes were also used to reflect Charlotte’s distaste for the United States and her fear of returning there. The problem is that I found these scenes very unnecessary and a rather heavy-handed literary device for American living during that period. The look on Uma Thurman’s face whenever someone mentioned the idea of her character returning to States seemed enough to me.

My real problem with “THE GOLDEN BOWL” is the strong hint of misogyny that seemed to mark the consequences that both Amerigo and Charlotte faced for their infidelity. It was bad enough that Fanny Assingham dumped most of the blame for the affair on Charlotte’s shoulders. But apparently, so did Henry James. In the end, Amerigo failed to suffer any consequences for his faithlessness. On the other hand, Charlotte did. She not only lost Amerigo, but Maggie convinced her husband (and Maggie’s father) to return to the United States to build his museum, taking Charlotte along, as well. One could say that Amerigo and Charlotte’s fates were the result of Maggie’s selfish desire to keep her husband. But when Amerigo failed to inform Charlotte that they had been found out and expressed contempt toward her failure to realize that Maggie knew about their affair, I became completely disgusted. Some claim that the latter never happened in James’ novel. Actually, it did. And I can never forgive James’ for his hypocrisy and obvious sexism. This struck me as a clear case of society blaming the woman for an adulterous affair.

“THE GOLDEN BOWL” featured some pretty solid performances and a few that really impressed me. Madeline Potter (an old Merchant-Ivory veteran), Peter Eyre, and Nicholas Day all gave solid performances. Although I would not regard their portrayals of the Assinghams as among their best, both Anjelica Huston and James Fox gave entertaining performances as the pair who seemed aware of the adulterous affair in this story. The chemistry between them struck me as surprisingly effective. Jeremy Northam gave a smooth and complex portrayal of the adulterous Italian prince torn between two American women. And I felt relief that his Italian accent – even if not genuine – did not bordered on the extreme. Kate Beckinsale’s handling of an American accent struck me as a little more genuine . . . but just a little. Her performance for most of the film seemed pretty solid. But once her character became aware of the affair, Beckinsale’s performance became more nuanced and skillful. Uma Thurman was excellent as the passionate, yet shallow Charlotte Stant Verver. Her Charlotte could have easily dissolved into a one-dimensional villainess. But thanks to Thurman’s performance, I saw a passionate woman, whose flaws proved to be her undoing. However, I believe that Nick Nolte gave the best performance in the film as Charlotte’s husband and Maggie’s father, Adam Verver. Superficially, Nolte portrayed the millionaire as a soft-spoken, yet friendly man with a knack of making people feel at home. But there were times – especially in the movie’s second half – in which Nolte kept audiences guessing on whether or not his character knew about the affair between Charlotte and Amerigo.

I would not regard “THE GOLDEN BOWL” as one of my favorite Ismail Merchant-James Ivory productions. But unlike some others, I certainly do not regard it as their worst. My one major complaint about the film was the ending of the Amerigo-Charlotte affair, which seemed to smack of sexism. And frankly, I blame Henry James. However, thanks to a first-rate cast, lush visuals and decent direction by Ivory, I thought it was a pretty decent and interesting film.

Favorite Films Set in the 1950s

The-1950s

Below is a list of my favorite movies set in the decade of the 1950s:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1950s

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1. L.A. Confidential (1997) – Curtis Hanson directed this outstanding adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1990 novel about three Los Angeles police detectives drawn into a case involving a diner massacre. Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce and Oscar winner Kim Basinger starred.

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2. “Grease” (1978) – John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John starred in this entertaining adaptation of the 1971 Broadway musical about a pair of teenage star-crossed lovers in the 1950s. Randal Kleiser directed.

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3. “The Godfather, Part II” (1974) – Francis Ford Coppola directed his Oscar winning sequel to the 1972 Oscar winning adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel. Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and Oscar winner Robert De Niro starred.

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4. “Quiz Show” (1994) – Robert Redford directed this intriguing adaptation of Richard Goodwin’s 1968 memoir, “Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties”, about the game show scandals of the late 1950s. Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow and John Tuturro starred.

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5. “The Mirror Crack’d (1980) – Angela Landsbury starred as Miss Jane Marple in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1962 novel. Directed by Guy Hamilton, the movie also starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Edward Fox.

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6. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls” (2008) – Harrison Ford returned for the fourth time as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones in this adventurous tale in which he is drawn into the search for artifacts known as the Crystal Skulls. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie was produced by him and George Lucas.

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7. “Champagne For One: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001)” – Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin starred as Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe in this television adaptation of Rex Stout’s 1958 novel. The two-part movie was part of A&E Channel’s “A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY” series.

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8. “Hollywoodland” (2006) – Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Ben Affleck starred in this intriguing tale about a private detective’s investigation into the life and death of actor George Reeves. Allen Coulter.

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9. “My Week With Marilyn” (2011) – Oscar nominee Michelle Williams starred as Marilyn Monroe in this adaptation of Colin Clark’s two books about his brief relationship with the actress. Directed by Simon Curtis, the movie co-starred Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Redmayne as Clark.

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10. “Boycott” (2001) – Jeffrey Wright starred as Dr. Martin Luther King in this television adaptation of Stewart Burns’ book,“Daybreak of Freedom”, about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Directed by Clark Johnson, the movie co-starred Terrence Howard and C.C.H. Pounder.

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Honorable Mention: “Mulholland Falls” (1996) – Nick Nolte starred in this entertaining noir drama about a married Los Angeles Police detective investigating the murder of a high-priced prostitute, with whom he had an affair. The movie was directed by Lee Tamahori.

“GANGSTER SQUAD” (2013) Review

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“GANGSTER SQUAD” (2013) Review

Every now and then, Hollywood would release a movie with a story based upon a particular event or individual from Los Angeles’ history. Movies such as “CHINATOWN”“L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”, and “CHANGELING” are examples. Recently, Hollywood released a new movie about a moment in Los Angeles’ history called “GANGSTER SQUAD”.

I must admit that I found myself surprised that the origin of the plot for “GANGSTER SQUAD” came from L.A. history. According to the book, “Tales from the Gangster Squad” by Paul Lieberman, Chief William Parker and the Los Angeles Police Department formed a group of officers and detective called the “Gangster Squad unit” in an effort to keep Los Angeles safe from gangster Mickey Cohen and his gang in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Screenwriter Will Beall took elements of Lieberman’s book and wrote a movie about the L.A.P.D.’s efforts to fight organized crime in the Southland. The movie starts in 1949 Los Angeles, where Cohen has become the most powerful figure in the California criminal underworld. Cohen has plans to expand his enterprises across the Western United States via the gambling rackets. Because the gangster has eliminated witnesses and bribed both the courts and the police, Chief Parker and the L.A.P.D. have not been able to stop Cohen’s rise. In a desperate move, Parker recruits the incorruptible and ruthless Sergeant John O’Mara to form a unit to wage guerilla warfare on Cohen’s operations and drive the gangster out of Southern California.

O’Hara, with the help of his very pregnant wife Connie, recruit the following men for his new unit:

*Coleman Harris, a tough beat cop from the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood

*Conway Keeler, a brainy wire-tapper

*Max Kennard, a legendary veteran gangster killer and sharp-shooter

Kennard’s young partner, Navidad Ramirez tracks down the squad and O’Hara reluctantly allows him to join. The sergeant tries to recruit his close friend, Sergeant Jerry Wooters, but the latter declines his offer out of disillusionment with the recent war and the police force. But when Cohen’s attempted hit on rival gang leader Jack Dragna results in the death of a young shoeshine boy, Wooters decides to accept O’Hara’s offer to join the squad. Also, Wooters has become romantically involved with Cohen’s etiquette coach and girlfriend, Grace Faraday. The squad’s campaign of terror against Cohen encounter a good deal of road blocks, including an unsuccessful raid against Cohen’s Burbank casino, the gangster’s penchant for paranoia, Wooters’ secret romance with Grace, Connie O’Hara’s desire for her husband to leave the police force and a deadly trap set up by Cohen in Chinatown. Despite the setbacks, violence and death, the squad eventually persevere over Cohen.

When I first saw the trailer for “GANGSTER SQUAD”, I immediately viewed it as one of those splashy, yet cheesy crime dramas trying to cash in on the success of movies like “L.A. CONFIDENTIAL” and “THE UNTOUCHABLES” by setting it before the present time. After seeing the movie, I suspect that my assumption was correct. There were elements in the movie’s story that I found unoriginal. Honestly. One could easily imagine “GANGSTER SQUAD” to be a post-World War II Los Angeles version of the 1987 movie, “THE UNTOUCHABLES”. Well . . . almost. And there were moments when I found “GANGSTER SQUAD” rather cheesy. This was obvious in some of the dialogue that came out of the mouth of actor Sean Penn, who portrayed Mickey Cohen; and in the movie’s narration spoken by Josh Brolin, who portrayed John O’Hara. And I might as well be honest. Penn’s dialogue was not helped by the occasional hammy acting that also marred his performance. For a movie that is supposed to be based on a historical book, I could not regard it as historically correct . . . especially in regard to the fates of both Cohen and rival Jack Dragna. I am a fan of Nick Nolte’s work, but I believe that he was a least two to three decades too old to be portraying Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, who would have been in his mid-40s in 1949. Also, Parker did not become the city’s police chief until 1950.

“GANGSTER SQUAD” was not a perfect film, but I liked it very much. I enjoyed it. I found it very entertaining. And I found it gorgeous and colorful to look at. Thanks to production designer Maher Ahmad’s work, the film beautifully re-created post-World War II Los Angeles at the end of the 1940s. I was especially impressed by Ahmad’s elegant, yet colorful designs for the Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub, Cohen’s Spanish Colonial house and the Chinatown sequence. Ahmad’s work was enhanced by Gene Serdena’s set decorations, the movie’s art direction team and especially Dion Beebe’s photography. And Mary Zophres’ costume designs were absolutely gorgeous. Just to give you a hint, take a look at one of her designs for actress Emma Stone:

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Even though “GANGSTER SQUAD” seemed to be marred by cheesy dialogue, lack of originality and historical accuracy, I cannot deny that Will Beall wrote a very entertaining and exciting crime story. He did a pretty solid job of setting up the main narrative with Sergeant O’Hara’s disruption of one of Mickey Cohen’s illegitimate businesses – a whorehouse staffed by naive girls fresh off the bus or train and eager to make it big in the movies. This disruption catches Police Chief Bill Parker’s attention, prompting him to recruit O’Hara to organize and lead the “Gangster Squad” unit against Cohen’s operations. Beall also filled the story with exciting action sequences that included a nail-biting shootout in Chinatown, a forbidden romance between Jerry Wooters and Cohen’s girlfriend Grace Faraday, strong characterizations and more importantly, a good solid narrative. Rueben Fleischer did a first-rate job in transferring Beall’s script to the movie screen. And Fleischer did this with a great deal of flair and strong pacing.

The cast for “GANGSTER SQUAD” proved to be first-rate. Josh Brolin led the cast as the strong-willed, yet emotional police detective Sergeant John O’Hara. Utilizing his talent for projecting a no-nonsense demeanor with flashes of humor, Brolin was very effective as leader of “Gangster Squad” unit. Brolin also managed to generate on-screen chemistry with other members of the cast – including Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi and especially actress Mireille Enos, who beautifully portrayed O’Hara’s equally strong-willed wife Connie. “GANGSTER SQUAD” marked the second time Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone worked together since they were co-stars in the 2011 comedy “CRAZY STUPID LOVE”. And once again, they proved to be quite the effective screen team, as they burned up the screen as the cynical lovers Sergeant Jerry Wooster and mob moll Grace Faraday. I also enjoyed Anthony Mackie’s colorful portrayal of tough beat cop Coleman Harris, who developed an aversion to Burbank, following the squad’s unpleasant encounter with that city’s law enforcement. Giovanni Ribisi gave a poignant performance as the squad’s brainy wiretapper, Conwell Keeler. Both Robert Patrick and Michael Peña created a solid screen team as police sharpshooter Max Kennard and his clever protégé Navidad Ramirez. Although I found him slightly too old for the role, I must admit that I found Nick Nolte’s portrayal of Police Chief William Parker rather entertaining in a garroulous way. And despite some of the cheesy dialogue he was forced to spew, I must say that Sean Penn struck me as an effective villain in his performance as the violent Mickey Cohen. Especially when the cheese and ham were missing from his lines.

If you expect “GANGSTER SQUAD” to be a crime drama masterpiece, you will be disappointed. It is no masterpiece, I assure you. But . . . I thought it proved to be an entertaining, yet splashy crime thriller that recaptured the era of post-World War II Los Angeles. I guess one could thank Will Beall for his solid script, colorful direction by Rueben Fleischer, and an entertaining cast led by Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Sean Penn.

“THE HULK” (2003) Review

“THE HULK” (2003) Review

Poor Ang Lee. His 2003 adaptation of the Marvel Comics character, Bruce Banner aka the Hulk, has been the target of hostility and contempt from comic book fans for the past six-to-seven years. After Universal Pictures had released Louis Leterrier’s adaptation back in 2008, many had declared his film superior to Lee’s movie. But after recently viewing the 2003 movie, I do not believe I can agree with their assessment. Mind you, I am not claiming that Lee’s film was better than Leterrier’s. The 2008 film possessed certain aspects that Lee’s movie lacked. But I also believe that the 2003 film possessed traits that were certainly lacking in the later film.

”THE HULK” was basically an origins tale about how a genetics researcher from Berkeley, California became a massive, green-skinned creature named the Hulk. Ironically, this tale began years before his birth. In one of the most original and chilling opening credits sequences I have ever seen, the movie revealed how his father David Banner, a genetics researcher for the U.S. Army, was conducting experiments on himself to improve human DNA. The Army, represented by Lieutenant Colonel “Thunderbolt” Ross, learned of his experiment and ordered it shut down. Nothing came from Banner’s experiment at first. But he managed to inadvertently pass his mutated DNA to his son, Bruce. The sequence ended with Banner causing a massive explosion of the facilities’ gamma reactor, and accidentally killing his wife during an argument with her about Bruce. Banner ended up in a mental hospital for nearly three decades.

With his father in a mental hospital and his mother dead, Bruce Banner was sent into foster care and adopted by a family called Krenzler. Thirty years later found Bruce as a genetics researcher at the University of California in Berkeley. One of his colleagues happened to be Betty Ross, General Ross’ estranged daughter and Bruce’s ex-girlfriend. After saving another colleague from a Gamma radiation explosion, Bruce’s altered DNA (now affected by the radiation) led him to manifest into a green-skinned monster – ”a hulk” – whenever he lost his temper.

When I had earlier compared ”THE HULK” to the 2008 film, ”THE INCREDIBLE HULK”; I was not trying to be diplomatic when I had stated that neither film was superior to the other. I honestly believe this. If there is one thing that the 2008 film can boast about was that its action sequences were superior to the ones found in Lee’s film. The Taiwanese-born director had a bad habit of shooting a good number of his action scenes from a long distance angle. This seemed very apparent in one sequence that featured the U.S. Army’s attempt (led by General Ross) to kill the Hulk, following the latter’s escape from a desert military facility to San Francisco. There were times when I found it difficult to maintain an interest in this particular scene. Another sequence I had problems with featured Bruce/the Hulk’s final confrontation with his genetically altered father, who had become a powerful electrical being. Frankly, it seemed nothing more than a vague display of CGI special effects against a dark backdrop that damn near made it impossible to watch their fight with a clear eye. One sequence that almost caught my attention featured the Hulk’s battle with David Banner’s mutated dogs that had been sent to kill Betty. I say “almost” because I thought the fight had lasted longer than necessary. And I simply could not get excited over Bruce’s fight with a trio of dogs that looked like something from the 1994 film, ”THE MASK”.

Where ”THE HULK” reigned supreme over ”THE INCREDIBLE HULK” was its story and strong characterizations. Quite frankly, it possessed more depth and pathos than the 2008 film. The movie managed to delve into Bruce’s childhood horrors, which had led to his tendency to bottle up his emotions. His personal demons also revealed how this trait had affected his past relationship with Betty and help contribute to the Hulk’s manifestation. Another interesting aspect of the movie was the father/child theme that seemed to dominate its story. Not only did both Bruce and Betty suffer from damaged relationships with their respective fathers, their past romance and continued love for each seemed to be regarded by David Banner and General Ross as potential threats. And both men seemed incapable of resisting an urge to manipulate and control their children’s lives.

Ang Lee managed to gather an impressive cast for his film. I believe kudos should have gone to Eric Bana for his on-spot portrayal of the emotionally repressed Dr. Bruce Banner. The Australian actor did an excellent job of delving into his character’s emotional psyche, yet keeping it all in check in order to reveal Bruce’s difficulties in expressing himself. Jennifer Connolly gave a subtle performance as Betty Ross, Bruce’s ex-girlfriend and fellow geneticist. She ably managed to portray Betty as a woman frustrated by Bruce and her father’s penchant for emotional repression; and also torn by her love and loyalty toward Bruce, and her fear that only her father’s military resources can save him.

Sam Elliot was top-notch as the intense and paranoid General Ross, who seemed more interested in branding Bruce as a danger to his daughter and the Establishment, due to the latter’s family connections. ”THE HULK” marked the second movie in which I heard Elliot used a growl to mark his character’s intense nature. And I hope that he never uses it again. In a rare performance, Josh Lucas portrayed minor villain Glenn Talbot, Bruce and Betty’s former colleague that left the U.S. Army to join the private sector for more cash. Lucas did a first-rate job in portraying Talbot’s venal and smarmy nature without going over the top. His character also had one of the oddest death scenes in film history.

Two actors portrayed Bruce’s father, Dr. David Banner – Paul Kersey and Oscar nominee Nick Nolte. Kersey portrayed the young Dr. Banner, whose obsession with improving human DNA in the film’s mesmerizing opening credits ended up having major consequences for his family – especially his son. I am amazed at how Kersey managed to convey such a strong presence with very little screen time. It was a damn good thing Lee cast Nick Nolte in the role of the older David Banner, because Kersey struck me as a hard act to follow. However, Nolte gave what I believe was the best performance in the movie. He certainly did an excellent job in conveying Banner’s continuing obsession with his original experiment. Yet, thirty years in a prison managed to unhinge Banner’s personality, making him even more obsessive. He also acquired a possessive attitude toward Bruce’s Hulk alter-ego, viewing the latter as his true son. Nolte not only beautifully captured this aspect of the scientist’s personality, but also the latter’s hostile view of Betty Ross, and an increasingly hostile attitude toward the military industry complex and society at large. This hostility was openly revealed in what I can only describe as a fascinating speech that dripped with contempt.

Frederick Elmes did an excellent job in photographing the movie’s settings of Berkeley, San Francisco and the Nevada desert. I also have to commend visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren for a split screen technique that allowed Lee to cinematically mimic the panels of a comic book page. I thought that was truly inspired – especially in the scene that featured Talbot’s death. At Industrial, Light and Magic, Muren also supervised the movie’s CGI effects – especially the computer generated Hulk. The interesting thing about this movie’s Hulk is that his facial expression seemed more varied than the expressions of the 2008 version. However, I was not that impressed by Muren’s design of David Banner’s ”hulkish” dogs. They struck me as something from 1994’s ”THE MASK” – a little too cartoonish for my tastes.

In the end, ”THE HULK” is a well-written movie with interesting characters. I find it only marred by questionable action sequences. If Marvel Entertainment ever decide to combine this movie’s characterizations and depth with the action sequences from ”THE INCREDIBLE HULK”, it would have one hell of a movie on its hands.

“TROPIC THUNDER” (2008) Review

”TROPIC THUNDER” (2008) Review

While playing a small part in Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama, ”EMPIRE OF THE SUN” (which ironically starred a young Christian Bale), actor/comedian Ben Stiller had come up with the idea of a group of prima donna actors filming a Vietnam War film. Over twenty years later, Stiller’s idea came to fruition in the action comedy movie, ”TROPIC THUNDER”.

Stiller and fellow co-writers, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, created a hilarious and very original story that began with a series of fake commercials and movie trailers. The commercials featured rap singer Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) promoting his “Booty Sweat” energy drink and “Bust-A-Nut” candy bar. Then the movie continued with a series of movie trailers that included action star Tugg Speedman’s (Stiller) latest film, “Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown”; and another for low-brow comedian Jeff Portnoy’s (Jack Black) film, “The Fatties: Fart 2” that spoofed Eddie Murphy’s portrayal of multiple characters such as in “NUTTY PROFESSOR II: THE KLUMPS”. But the final trailer – and the funniest in the bunch – featured award winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downy, Jr.) and Tobey Maguire as two gay medieval monks in a parody of films like “BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN” called ”Satan’s Alley”.

But the meat of the story featured the three actors, the rap singer and character actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) as co-stars in ”Tropic Thunder”, a movie adaptation of the memoirs of a disabled Vietnam War veteran named “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte). The movie’s production is spiraling out of control and rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) seemed unable to handle the prima donnas or keep the movie on schedule. Cockburn is ordered by studio executive Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) to get the production back on track or risk having it shut down. With inspiration from Tayback, Cockburn drops the spoiled actors into the middle of the jungle, where he installs hidden cameras and special effect explosions rigged by pyrotechnics man Cody (Danny R. McBride) so he can film the movie “guerrilla-style”. The actors have only a map and a scene listing to guide them to the helicopter waiting at the end of the jungle. Shortly afterward, the director is blown up by a land mine left by the French, but thanks to his preceding diatribe, only Lazarus realizes his death was real. Even worse, the actors ended up in the middle of the Golden Triangle, the home of the heroin-producing Flaming Dragon gang, led by a young boy named Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo). And Cody and Tayback end up as prisoners of the Dragons. As for Tran and the Dragons, they believe the actors to be DEA agents.

”TROPIC THUNDER” not only struck me as a parody of the Hollywood movie industry, but also a parody of the lengths human beings go to create illusions about themselves. Tugg Speedman is a failing action star who had earlier attempted a serious role in order to save his career. I can only assume that ”Tropic Thunder” is his second attempt. Yet, he seemed incapable of facing the possibility of being a has-been and has to depend upon his agent, Rick “Pecker” Peck (Matthew McConaghey) to maintain his ever deflating ego. Jeff Portnoy resorts to drug addiction to deal with the realization that his past success mainly came from his talent from flatulence humor. Lazarus is an Oscar-winning Australian method actor who has a bad habit staying in his role even when the cameras are not rolling. For ”Tropic Thunder”, Lazurus deliberately undertook an operation to change his skin pigmentation in order to portray an African-American sergeant. Naturally, Lazurus’ role produced resentment and anger from Alpa Chino, the rapper trying to break into films. But even Chino is projecting a façade about himself, which his fellow co-stars manage to break through near the end of the film. The only one in the bunch who seemed real is young Sandusky, the drama student who seemed to be the only sane head in the bunch. Yet, despite the fact the film is bursting with Hollywood phonies, the biggest phony turned out to Tayback, who had never seen combat during the Vietnam War or was disabled. Even worse, he had spent the war aboard a Coast Guard garbage scow that never left U.S. waters. He had originally written the book as a tribute to U.S. servicemen.

I have to say that this movie’s cast more than impressed me. Ben Stiller portrayed one of his best roles as Tugg Speedman, a Hollywood veteran struggling to save his career. Yet, his sanity nearly went down the toilet when Tran and the Dragons force him to replay the scenes of his failed drama, ”Simple Jack”. By the time his fellow cast members found him, Speedman had gone by the way of Colonel Kurtz. I must admit that I usually have difficulty finding Jack Black funny. However, I do believe that Jeff Portnoy was probably one of his better roles – hilarious without being over-the-top. I realize that drug addiction is nothing to laugh about, but his and Sandusky’s attempts to help him deal with withdrawal and reject the temptation of the Dragons’ own heroin were rather funny. Nick Nolte and Danny McBride made an amusing comedy team and I especially enjoyed their interaction when Cody discovered that Tayback is not a Vietnam veteran, but a phony. Matthew McConaghey did one of his best roles as Speedman’s always eager agent, Rick Peck. And Tom Cruise must have had a blast portraying the arrogant and overbearing film producer, Les Grossman. He was hilarious. A member of my family was surprised to discover that the balding, foul-mouthed man was actually Cruise.

Most critics have lauded Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as the method actor Lazurus, who spends most of the movie trying to act like an African American. RDJ was hilarious. In fact, I can honestly say that he was the funniest member of the cast. His most hilarious moment came on the heels of an argument between Lazurus and Chino, when he breaks into a litany about the black man’s 400 years of oppression (damn, has it been that long?) and Chino’s use of the “n” word that ended with him singing the theme to television series, ”THE JEFFERSONS”. It took me nearly five minutes to recover from my laughter. But Downey’s take on Kirk Lazurus could have ended in disaster without the presence of Brandon T. Jackson. His Chino not only expressed anger at Lazurus’ portrayal of a black man, but provided some pretty sharp zingers at the actor’s ego and sanity. Another funny scene featured Chino’s insults about Lazurus’ Australian background. What made the scene so humorous were Lazurus’ protests against Chino’s insults, while maintaining his charade as a black man. Weird.

I believe that Ben Stiller should be proud of ”TROPIC THUNDER”. Not only did he give an excellent performance, he also co-wrote and directed what I believe should become a comedy classic. That’s right. A comedy classic. ”TROPIC THUNDER” is one of the best comedies I have seen in years – along with the British action comedy, ”HOT FUZZ”. I also feel that it is Stiller’s best movie since the police parody, ”STARSKY AND HUTCH”. Hell, it is better than the 2003 movie he had co-starred with Owen Wilson. The cast was superb. So was Jon Toll’s photography of the island of Kauai, which stood as both Vietnam and Cambodia. Stiller, Theroux and Cohen had created one hell of a comedy.