Friday, April 3, 2015

What I Watched: 2015, Week 7

What I watched last week (film titles link to trailers): 

Everything Or Nothing (Stevan Riley, 2012)
Legends of the Fall (Edward Zwick, 1994)
The Fast and the Furious (Rob Cohen, 2001)
2 Fast 2 Furious (John Singleton, 2003)

5 Thoughts: 

1. 1994 is the year Brad Pitt became a massive movie star, and Legends of the Fall, which came out at the end of that year for Oscar season, is probably the movie that most did it. He first made an impression on American audiences three years earlier, with Thelma & Louise, and again in 1992, with A River Runs Through It, but he wasn't the lead in either film and both were only modest successes. Earlier in 1994 he was in the hugely successful Interview With the Vampire, but that success has to at least be partially attributed to co-lead Tom Cruise, and the film genre. But Legends of the Fall was a period drama, and Brad Pitt led it to a gigantic 160 million dollar take at the box office. Watching it, you can see why. It's quite possible that no man in human history has ever looked more beautiful than Brad Pitt in this movie. He looks like he was sculpted by Zeus and Michelangelo in their only artistic collaboration. 

It's frequently said about Marilyn Monroe that she had such a radiant and powerful screen presence that her acting was simply beside the point. You just couldn't criticize the performance of someone who commanded such rapt attention. That's how Brad Pitt is in Legends of the Fall. The story is way too melodramatic and contrived, but it doesn't matter. Pitt soaks up the power of the screen, as though he's all there is. His character is meant to be a raging elemental, and watching him makes that feel like a coherent reality. 

Modern cinema is missing that kind of movie star. We have so many celebrities, and a lot of great actors, but almost no one whose mere force of presence can carry an otherwise flawed movie. 

2. Julia Ormond has had a really bizarre career. She basically came from nowhere to suddenly star in three huge Hollywood hits in a row in '94/'95, with each movie's plot centering around multiple male characters fighting over her affections. In Legends of the Fall, she ruins a family of three brothers, headlined by Brad Pitt in his Marilyn Monroe phase. In First Knight, she was the Guinevere that brought down Camelot, with Lancelot and Arthur played by two legendary Hollywood sex symbols--Richard Gere and Sean Connery. Then in Sabrina, with her kingdom-ending days apparently behind her, it's back to destroying brothers, this time Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear. She was basically Helen-of-Troy-ing Hollywood's male leads, one by one. 

And then, almost nothing. She only appeared in six films over the next dozen years, all minor affairs that garnered virtually no attention. She had her only child in 2004, but that doesn't explain why she would have done so little in the 9 years prior. When she finally did appear in another major film, 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it was playing Brad Pitt's daughter! It's almost as if the fake emotional burden of having seven movie stars go to war over her on screen in barely over a year actually came to life and made her turn away from acting. Life does indeed imitate art. 

3. Everything or Nothing is a documentary about the history of the James Bond franchise, and it's a pretty good one. The one thing that really keeps it from being great is that Sean Connery refused to participate, and that's certainly not the fault of the movie. He's just a curmudgeon that way, having spent most of the last 40 years trying to pretend that he was never Bond. But everyone else--Moore, Lazenby, Dalton, Brosnan, and Craig--is all here, telling their stories in an informative, candid way. For anyone that cares enough about Bond films to watch a feature documentary on them, there's probably a lot here they already know, but there's plenty else, too. Lazenby, in particular, is terrific talking about his single Bond excursion, both how he got it and how he squandered it. 

4. I didn't see my first Fast & Furious movie until Fast Five came out in 2011, at which point the ubiquity of the franchise and the passion people had for it finally made me cave. I liked that one enough to go back and see the fourth film, which was the rebooting of the franchise, and I enjoyed 2013's Fast & Furious 6 as well. But I'd never gotten around to seeing the first three movies until this week. 

The first movie is fun, but it's waaaaaayyyyy too much of a blatant Point Break remake. And I don't merely mean it's a lot like Point Break. I mean it's so similar that I actually tried to find online whether the Point Break screenwriter ever tried to sue for a writing credit on The Fast and the Furious. (Amazingly, it appears he didn't.) Every character in the former has an exact analogue in the latter, the major plot points are all carried over and happen in the same way, Paul Walker turns in just as wretched a lead performance as Keanu Reeves did in Point Break (that should actually be how Walker defends his acting--"Hey man, I was just impersonating Keanu!"), and the two movies even have the same ending, with Paul/Keanu turning and walking away as Vin/Swayze take off. (Here's a more detailed breakdown

5. The second and third Fast & Furious movies were much different than I was expecting. 2 Fast 2 Furious, while receiving mostly terrible reviews (and equipped with what might honestly be the worst movie title ever), was actually fairly entertaining. It's pretty much a B-heist movie, but it embraces what it is, and acquits itself pretty well. Tyrese and Ludacris make for good additions to the franchise, and the Miami location works quite well. Though it does make you wonder why Vin Diesel didn't want to take part. 

Tokyo Drift is a different animal entirely, and a shitty one at that. I remember several reviews when it came out saying it was surprisingly good, but I think it's shockingly wretched. First of all, the "star," Lucas Black, gives what legitimately might be the worst screen performance I've ever seen. He makes you long for the return of the Paul Walker/Vin Diesel pairing like they were fucking Pacino and De Niro. Beyond that, I will also bestow Tokyo Drift with the dubious honor of Worst High School Film Ever Made. The idea that these actors, and these plot points, are coinciding with high school, is so ridiculous that it nearly takes you out of a movie that has the words "fast" and "furious" in the title. That's hard to do! Though having said all that, the car drifting is pretty sweet. 

But again, you just wonder why Walker didn't want to take part, or why Diesel only did a cameo at the end. I've seen these guys' IMDb page. They had nothing better going on!

Anyway, overall, I'm glad I finally saw the first three movies, but I also don't regret not making the effort to do so earlier. The incarnation of the franchise that began with movie four--the all-star casts, the huge budgets/huge stunts/huge set pieces, the super-hero style swagger--is really only tangentially related to these first three movies. So much of what makes the 4th, 5th, and 6th films as immensely fun as they are is absent from the initial trio. People talk about loving this franchise because "it knows exactly what it is," but that only became true with the fourth film. The first three movies just tried a lot of stuff that mostly didn't work very well. (And sometimes worked terribly.)


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