Double Indemnity (1944)

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Based on James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, Double Indemnity is a film which uses the basic elements of a classic noir film and uses them with ease to intrigue, surprise, and explore the depths of betrayal and greed, all through an intelligently written screenplay by Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder.

The film’s plot follows the narration of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman who, through a recorder in his friend Barton Keyes’ (Edward G. Robinson) office, recalls the events leading up to that night. He tells the story of meeting Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a seductive woman who he inevitably falls in love with. He agrees to help her take out accident insurance under her husband’s name without him knowing, and then kill him so she can collect. Walter plans the whole thing out perfectly, wanting to make it seem as though Mr. Dietrichson falls from a train in order to trigger the double indemnity clause so that Phyllis will be able to collect twice the amount. Everything goes as planned until Keyes, a claims adjuster and friend of Walter’s, starts investigating the incident himself, concluding that the wife wanted the husband dead and the only thing he needs now is proof. On top of that, Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), approaches Walter with her theory of why she believes Phyllis is responsible for her father’s death, claiming that it was Phyllis who killed her sick mother while working as her mother’s nurse. Eventually, Walter finds himself backed into a corner, and decides to take matters into his own hands in order to protect himself.

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One of the things that makes this movie so great is the performances by the actors. They can foreshadow events to come just by a simple facial expression. For example, there’s a scene where Phyllis and her husband are in the car on the way to train station, and Walter is hiding in the backseat. When Walter comes up behind Mr. Dietrichson and strangles him to death, the camera is focused on Phyllis’ face the whole time, and you can see an evil, self-satisfied look in her eyes. From that point on, you just know that this cold hearted femme fatale is going to be big trouble for Walter. There’s another scene where Walter is feeling the pressure coming down on him after the murder and he begs Phyllis not to sue the insurance company for the money she’s owed, since going to court will open up a bigger can of worms. She refuses to listen to him, saying she will get the money she’s owed and she reminds him that they’re in this together, “straight down the line.” Walter then has this “Oh man, I’m so screwed” look on his face, and you can probably guess that the only way out now is to kill her.

On top of the fine performances by Stanwyck and MacMurray, Robinson holds his own as the sharp claims adjuster. One of the best scenes he’s in is when he puts the company’s chief, Mr. Norton (Richard Gaines), in his place after he shares his belief that Mr. Dietrichson’s accident was actually a suicide. Robinson’s character retorts with numerous statistics and facts about the different kinds of suicides that take place, and then he adds that not one of them was ever by jumping off the back of a train that’s only going 15 miles per hour, basically proving that the smug Mr. Norton’s theory is completely stupid.

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There’s a lot of really clever dialogue in this movie which can be attributed to the amazing quality of this screenplay. This was actually nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and in my opinion, should have won. I love a lot of MacMurray’s lines. Especially this one in response to Phyllis wanting to take out accident insurance without her husband knowing– “Who’d you think I was anyway? A guy that walks into a good looking dame’s front parlor and says, ‘Good afternoon, I sell accident insurance on husbands. Have you got one that’s been around too long? One you’d like to turn into a little hard cash? Just give me a smile and I’ll help you collect?'” There’s actually a lot of great fast-talking, back and forth dialogue between Walter and Phyllis that really make this movie more fun than you’d expect it to be.

Although, there’s also lines in this movie like, “How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” Delivered in the most serious tone by MacMurray’s character, I can imagine it wasn’t meant to be as silly and humorous as it comes across today. This is typical film noir stuff that is often times parodied over and over again, which is why it’s probably harder now to watch a movie like this and not feel like it is often times over-the-top-poetic.

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Aside from the clever, and sometimes, humorous dialogue, this movie succeeds at creating suspense in a situation where the audience already partially knows where the plot ends up. In the beginning, we see that Walter is injured and confessing to this crime, which means that his plans did not work out as well as he’d hoped. The fun part is not finding out who did what, but how these plans went awry, and let me tell you, Walter’s plan was (to me, anyway) incredibly intelligent. Everything was planned to the very last little detail, it’s hard to imagine how it gets so messed up, but it does, and along the way it presents ideas and details you probably wouldn’t have even thought of yourself.

Double Indemnity is the perfect noir film, involving a well written script, engaging performances by some talented actors, and all the essential elements of a film for this genre–dark environments, suspense, murder, intelligent central characters, and a deadly femme fatale. It’s a classic and a must see for film lovers.

Top 10 Favorite Movies Based on Marvel Comics

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Comic book movies have exploded in recent years, being the cause for some of the most successful franchises in movie history. The best part is that they appeal to a wide audience and not just people who read comics. They serve as an amazing escape into worlds where good conquers evil even if it means making huge sacrifices in order to do so. Nothing against DC (or other) comic book fans here, but it’s hard to deny that aside from the success of Nolan’s Batman trilogy (which I loved), and perhaps a select few other movies, Marvel has recently dominated the comic book genre of the movie industry, creating large and numerous universes involving some of the most beloved superheroes. Due to the coming release of Guardians of the Galaxy this week, which I can’t wait for, I’ve decided to share my current top 10 favorite movies based on Marvel comics. Feel free to comment and share your own ranking and opinions!

10. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)theamazingspiderman
Director: Marc Webb
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Denis Leary, Rhys Ifans, Sally Field

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) discovers he has new abilities after being bitten by a radioactive spider. He goes through many trials tribulations including dealing with his new abilities, suffering a loss in the family, trying to find out why his parents left him when he was young, falling in love with the beautiful Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and going head to head with Dr. Connors a.k.a. the Lizard (Rhys Ifans). I like Andrew Garfield more than Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man. Even though he was about as old as Tobey was when he made the first Spider-Man, I think his youthful charisma makes him fit the part of a teenager a lot better. I also like how they made Gwen Stacy his first love, as it was in the comics, and it’s just a plus that she’s played by the adorable Emma Stone. There are certain things that the older franchise did better, but this reboot was still exciting and enjoyable to watch.

9. Iron Man 2 (2010) ironman2
Director: John Favreau
Cast: Robery Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, Mickey Rourke, Don Cheadle

With the world aware of Tony Stark’s identity as Iron Man, everyone wants a piece of his new technology. Tony has to deal with his declining health, as well as a new villain, Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), who has developed a similar technology and has a personal vendetta against Stark Industries. I wasn’t a huge fan of the villain in this movie, but I still found it to be fun and Robert Downey Jr. was just as good in this as he was in the first Iron Man. Plus, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is introduced in this movie, and she is a beautiful badass. I also love that Don Cheadle (a worthy replacement for Terrence Howard) suits up as War Machine and kicks ass with Iron Man.

8. Thor (2011)thor
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins

Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the arrogant son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), is cast out of Asgard and forced to live on Earth after disobeying his father, where he meets and falls in love with the scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) Meanwhile, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s power hungry, adopted brother, takes control of the throne and sends the Destroyer to Earth to prevent Thor from returning. Chris Hemsworth was quite simply made for this role and does a great job with it. Tom Hiddleston, however, is a show stealer. He’s one of the few villains I feel like I want to root for half the time, even more so in Thor: The Dark World. This movie is a pretty fun adventure, and, unlike other Marvel movies, it explores an unfamiliar world outside of Earth, allowing for some impressive CGI. I wasn’t all that interested in seeing it when it came out, but was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it actually was, and still is, upon subsequent viewings.

7. X2 (2003)x2
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Anna Paquin

Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and the rest of the gang team up with Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) to take down William Stryker (Brian Cox), the man responsible for Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton, and who is now controlling mutants and trying to use Professor X to wipe them all out. I like where the story went with this sequel, and instead of focusing on who the characters are and what they can do (already tackled in the first film), it delves deeper into bigger conflicts and explores new threats that force mutants on both sides to have to band together. I also like the introduction to Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), as he is one of the coolest mutants in the movie, as well as the discovery of pieces of Wolverine’s past, something that was shown more (but not necessarily well) in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It’s a fun movie that makes good use of all of its characters and their unique abilities. Oh, and the ending is awesome.

spiderman26. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina

Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) struggles with the responsibilities that come with being Spider-Man, as well as his feelings for Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and the secrets he’s keeping from his angsty best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco), who wants to seek revenge on Spider-Man for his father’s death. In the meantime, he faces a new villain, Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), a brilliant scientist who he once admired. Spider-Man 2 manages to hold up the best throughout the years and multiple viewings. I like that the villain in this movie is someone Spider-Man has a connection to and a previous admiration for, it makes having to face him that much more emotionally powerful. His struggles are numerous and complex, having already become familiar with the responsibilities he has by choosing to be who he is, and having to make sacrifices in his personal life in order to be this hero. I also like the relationship between him and Harry a lot more than in the newer franchise. It’s more personal, and Harry has a better motivation for turning against Peter/Spider-Man. It’s an interesting and exciting movie, and it’s well-written. You care about the characters and the conflicts and that makes it likable enough even for people who aren’t big on comic book movies. It’s more accessible and in my opinion, it has aged really well.

xmenfirstclass5. X-Men: First Class (2011)
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence

I wasn’t as big of a fan of the X-Men franchise until First Class came out. Now the X-Men have dominated the presence of my top 10 list. First Class explores the beginning of the X-Men, taking us through the lives of Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), Erik/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), and other fellow mutants as they try to take down Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a man who is not only responsible for the death of Magneto’s mother, but also is determined to start a world war. I was overwhelmed with the talent of this new cast (January Jones and Zoe Kravitz excluded), and I loved the amount of heart that was put into this movie. There are some emotional scenes between Charles and Erik which not only act as examples of the great performances by McAvoy and Fassbender, but also expresses the close, yet complex friendship between who we previously know as Professor X and Magneto–two men with opposing views. It is something that is not explored in the first three X-Men movies, yet it is the most interesting and powerful relationship in the story. Many aspects of this movie make it easy to relate to and sympathize with the main mutants, despite it being a comic book story. It was a fresh start after the not-so-successful X-Men: The Last Stand, and set itself up for a new series, which has so far proven to be superior in many aspects.

thewintersoldier4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans)–with the help of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie)–tries to take down a new threat, The Winter Soldier. With S.H.I.E.L.D. being corrupted, this proves difficult to do as they no longer know who they can trust. This movie was a huge step up from Captain America: The First Avenger. The action is impeccable with hard hitting fight scenes and well-made car chases. The story was intelligent, involving a few twists, and it acts as a political thriller within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It raises the bar even more for the next phase of movies, being a film that successfully balances action and intelligence, and is also a lot darker and more serious in tone, but still manages to maintain some of Marvel’s trademark humor.

3. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)daysoffuturepast
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: James McAvoy, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen

X-Men: Days of Future Past is one of my favorite movies of 2014 so far. The older cast teams up with the newer cast when Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) goes back in time to help the junior mutants stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), which if not stopped, will eventually lead to the elimination of both humans and mutants. This movie created a link between the old and new X-Men movies. There may still be plenty of plot holes in the franchise as a whole, but this movie by itself is intelligent, exciting, humorous and emotional, and in my personal opinion, succeeds as being the best in the whole X-Men franchise. Full review here.

ironman2. Iron Man (2008)
Director: John Favreau
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a billionaire who owns a weapons manufacturing company, is captured and imprisoned by terrorists after his convoy was destroyed by his own missile. He is forced to build a suit of armor in order to escape. After seeing what kind of horrible things his weapons are being used for, he decides to stop manufacturing weapons and focus on building his Iron Man suit. It’s hard not to love this movie when you have the charismatic Robert Downey Jr. playing the superhero. He is the most stand out character of all of the Avengers, and despite his lack of humility, he is still the most fun (in my opinion, anyway). Thanks in part to director Jon Favreau, this movie has the perfect balance of humor, wit, adventure, suspense and seriousness. Being the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it set the bar high for the following films to come.

1. The Avengers (2012)avengers
Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston

I can’t help but love a superhero ensemble. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) team up with S.H.I.E.L.D. to help stop Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his alien army from taking over Earth. This is just an all around fun movie which people who were already invested in phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe had no choice but to be excited about. I love the chemistry between all the cast members, from the bickering between the arrogant Tony and the humble Steve to the developing connection between Tony and Bruce Banner–two geniuses with alike minds. Black Widow and Hawkeye have a past that is minimally explored, but all that’s important is that she’ll break out of being tied to a chair and effortlessly beat up a bunch of Russians if she hears that he’s in the least bit of trouble. Loki, again, is a fun villain who can definitely hold his own against this large ensemble cast. After watching these characters’ individual movies and becoming invested in their stories, it’s hard not to get super excited when you see them working as a team. Everything before The Avengers built up to this final result, and it didn’t disappoint. Hopefully The Avengers: Age of Ultron will be just as good, if not better.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Blade (1998) and Blade II (2002) – it took me a while to realize that these were actually Marvel comic book movies, but I had seen them a bunch of times back in the early 2000s and found them to be fun with some great fight choreography.
X-Men (2000) – really opened the door for comic book movies and showed that they could be fun and serious, and not completely ridiculous.
Spider-Man (2002) – brought one of the best Marvel superheroes to life, and even though Raimi supposedly screwed up the original comic book story a bit, it was still successful and a pleasure to watch.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)  fun to watch Edward Norton play a superhero, although I do like Mark Ruffalo for the part as well. Not a great story, but still entertaining.

Lucy (2014)

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Lucy is a visually stunning movie whose biggest problem is not knowing what it actually wants to be. It is too philosophical and deals with themes too big for your generic Luc Besson action movie, and at the same time, despite taking itself way too seriously, it never delves deep enough into those themes to make it a legitimately clever sci-fi epic.

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is a student in Taiwan whose boyfriend of one week forces her to deliver a suitcase full of drugs to a Korean gangster named Mr. Jang (Choi Mik-sik). She is then knocked out and when she wakes up, she learns that she has been cut open, and a package of a blue powdery drug called CPH4 has been stuffed into her lower abdomen for the purpose of being Mr. Jang’s new drug mule. However, after being kicked in the stomach, the package rips and the drugs leak into her body. These drugs cause a reaction within Lucy which allows her to use more than 10% of her brain’s capacity. This 10% theory is studied and lectured about by Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), and after Lucy reads 6,000-some-odd pages of Norman’s research in under a minute, she contacts him and asks him for his help.

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Although I kind of understand where Besson was trying to go with this story, I didn’t like how he got there. I have no problem ignoring the whole 10% of your brain theory, which I can only assume Besson wanted us to do by presenting it like it’s actually a fact, even though most people know it isn’t. I can pretend anything is true just for the sake of a good story. This story, however, wasn’t all that good. As soon as it starts to show a hint of real intelligence and raise some good questions, it becomes overshadowed with absurdity and mindless action.

I had a big problem with Mr. Jang, as well. I love the very talented Choi Min-sik and think he’s a pleasure to watch. He didn’t serve a real purpose to this movie, though. Mr. Jang might’ve been the reason Lucy ended up this way, but then he and his henchmen only became a side story as the movie went on. As Lucy became more powerful, it was clear he would never be able to hurt her. He became nothing more than a simple annoyance after a while, instead of an actual threat. His presence only worked for one reason, and that’s by acting as an example of man’s primitive nature, by showing violence and people killing people over stupid reasons. That’s the only smart reason I can give for why Besson felt the need to have the same old boring shoot-outs and car chases mixed in with a movie that is trying to be more clever than that. The more likely reason is that Besson, a person who has found his niche in action movies, simply just didn’t want to give up the shoot-outs and car chases.

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But let’s think about the first reason for a second. As the movie goes on, and Lucy achieves a higher percentage of brain capacity, she loses the need for violence. She goes from shooting a cab driver just for not speaking English, to simply incapacitating a mob of Koreans with her mind, when she could’ve just as easily massacred them. She moves further away from her primitive being and her natural animalistic instincts (there are actual clips of animals doing animal things throughout the whole movie) and transcends into a being that uses her mind for much more than just taking lives.

At the same time, as her brain capacity grows, she starts to lose sight of the things that make her human. She no longer feels pain, fear or love. Having access to all of this knowledge has made her the equivalent of a monotone robot, which could explain why Scarlett Johansson has given such a rigid and lifeless performance. But then you have to ask yourself, if being intellectually superior means sacrificing your humanity, is having access to all this knowledge really all that worth it? The movie bases itself on the idea that humans are wasting their potential, and yet it doesn’t present the opposite as being all that appealing. The opening line of the movie is, “Life was given to us a billion years ago, what have we done with it?” Huh? You mean aside from building cities, discovering technology and improving medicine? Sure, I’d love to move stuff with my mind too, but I wouldn’t want to walk around acting like Robocop in the process.

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Lucy had a lot of potential, treading on similar waters of that which movies like Transcendence tried to do as well. It is not easy to tackle big themes like the purpose of life and man’s capacity for living it, while being too distracted by action that serves no real purpose. I’ll give the movie credit for being somewhat entertaining, visually appealing, and for touching on a few clever points. But overall, it seemed like it failed to accomplish what it set out to. Unless, of course, it set out to tell us that the best way to live life to its potential is to become exposed to a large quantity of drugs that will unlock our brains so that we may kick ass, take names and eventually transcend outside of our physical bodies. If that’s the case, then it succeeded, and I apologize for judging it too harshly.

2/5

Léon: The Professional (1994)

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With the release of Luc Besson’s new movie, Lucy, this weekend, I’m going to talk about another movie the French director made which is definitely worth watching. Léon: The Professional is perhaps Besson’s best movie (although, The Fifth Element is also a personal favorite of mine), and it involves some great action in the midst of a story of an unconventional relationship between a hitman and a 12-year-old girl.

Léon (Jean Reno) is a hitman who works for an Italian mobster named Tony (Danny Aiello), who owns a restaurant in Little Italy. Léon lives in the same building as a 12-year-old girl named Mathilda (Natalie Portman), who he finds black-eyed and sitting in the hallway smoking cigarettes. Mathilda’s father, aside from being an abusive jerk, is involved in a deal with some corrupt DEA agents, including one named Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman), where he agrees to hide cocaine in his apartment for a sum of money. When the DEA agents find that some of the drugs are missing, they storm the apartment and kill the whole family, including a 4-year-old boy. Mathilda is the only one to survive because she was out grocery shopping at the time. Upon her return, Léon reluctantly hides Mathilda in his apartment. After finding out what Léon does for a living, Mathilda guilt trips him into taking her under his wing and teaching her how to kill, or “clean,” as they refer to it, so that she may get revenge on Stansfield, the man who killed her little brother.

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Let me just say that the version I am talking about here is the extended one, not the U.S. cut. The extended has 26 extra minutes of story that delves deeper into the characters and the relationship between Léon and Mathilda. Some scenes were cut because some Americans felt that this movie was too “pedophilic” in nature, which is simply not true. Mathilda has a growing infatuation with Léon throughout the movie, but not once does Léon condone or act upon this infatuation. Mathilda is a young, naive girl who doesn’t know the difference between romantic love and platonic love, probably due to the fact that her family couldn’t care less about her. What Léon feels for Mathilda is more of a fatherly type of love. He feels responsible for her, and feels the need to have to protect her. However, it can be uncomfortable to watch some of these exchanges, but only because you feel bad for Mathilda for not recognizing the difference between certain kinds of love, and also you feel uncomfortable for Léon and that he has to be put in that awkward situation. I mean, how would you feel if you had a young child telling you that they were in love with you? My guess is, pretty awkward.

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Actually, Léon has an innocent kind of nature about him. Despite that he’s a hitman, he has certain quirks that show that he’s more than just a killer. He is a guy who nurtures a plant that he considers to be his best friend, he drinks nothing but milk, he enjoys the simplicity of going to the movies and seeing Gene Kelly musicals. Léon is also sometimes naive. For example, he trusts his boss, Tony, when Tony says that Léon’s money will be safest with him, because he never gets ripped off. However, it’s pretty obvious that Tony is just holding out on Léon, he’s either spending the money, or he’s keeping it and waiting around for Léon to get killed one day so he’ll never have to pay up. This naivety further expands upon Léon’s innocence. In addition to that,  Léon brushes off the inappropriate flirtatious behavior from Mathilda and tries to explain to her, in a way that she’ll understand, why he believes that she is confusing her feelings. He also warns her that once she kills somebody, her life will never be the same again. 

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During her training, which is further explored in the extended version, the routine of Léon and Mathilda when they are going on their “cleaning” jobs involves Mathilda shooting the targets with paint instead of real bullets. This could’ve easily been an absurd movie where a 12-year-old goes around actually taking people’s lives, but it isn’t. There are boundaries, and what we get instead is a movie, set to the backdrop of city violence, about a father/teacher figure who is helping his pupil achieve maturity while still maintaining a shred of her childhood innocence.

Both Jean Reno and Natalie Portman are great in their roles. This was Natalie Portman’s very first movie and her portrayal of a young girl who is desperate for companionship is both fascinating and heart-breaking. The scene when she knocks on Léon’s door after her family has just been murdered and, with tears in her eyes, is begging him to open the door, is a pretty powerful scene that she handled unbelievably well. Another memorable scene of hers is when she is holding a gun to her own head to test and see if Léon will stop her from pulling the trigger. It is an intense performance where Portman proves that she had undeniable talent when she was just a young girl.

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Gary Oldman gives an over the top performance as a crazy, corrupt DEA agent. He takes a pill, a substance of which is never clearly identified, before going on a shooting rampage in Mathilda’s home, as well as in another scene when he meets Mathilda in a bathroom. His reaction to this pill, whatever it is, is incredibly strange. Something within him clicks immediately and he awkwardly jerks his body. It seems like some sort of dehumanizing effect that makes it easier for him to take a life without feeling guilty about it. He is scary in this role. I also enjoyed watching him play the villain in Besson’s The Fifth Element. He has proven that he can play the villain very well.

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Luc Besson has had plenty of hits and misses when it comes to directing, writing and/or producing action films. Having written and produced movies like TakenThe Transporter series, the more recent Brick Mansions, and having directed films like Le Femme Nikita, he more often than not shows what he excels at and what he doesn’t. Sometimes the plots are absurd, and are inferior to the action, other times they are well-written and equally balanced with the action.

Léon: The Professional is an example of a Besson film done right. The story is intriguing and well-written, the action is not overly prominent, and it takes time to develop the characters, especially the odd relationship between Léon and Mathilda. The talent of the three main actors really bring the story to the next level, add that with the amazing direction and cinematography, and there you have one of the most enjoyable movies of the 90s.

Netflix: Expiring Soon (7/31)

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All of these movies are expiring at 11:59 PM on July 31st.

 

220px-Airplane!Airplane! (1980)

Directors: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Cast: Robert HaysJulie HagertyLeslie Nielsen
Genre: Comedy

Everyone on an airplane gets sick from food poisoning, including the pilot. Ted Striker (Robert Hays) is the only one who can fly the plane, but suffers from a fear of flying after his experience as a fighter pilot during a war. With the often humorous support from his ex-lover/stewardess (Julie Haggerty) and a doctor aboard the plane (Leslie Nielsen), Ted does his best to safely land it. Airplane! is a classic comedy, acting as a parody of disaster movies. With all the of the really terrible parody movies that have come out in recent years (Disaster Movie, A Haunted House), Airplane! is an example of that very specific genre done extremely well.

 

Braveheart (1995)220px-Braveheart_imp (1)

Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Mel GibsonSophie MarceauPatrick McGoohan
Genre: Drama

William Wallace (Mel Gibson) leads his fellow Scots in a revolt against the English after his wife is assaulted and killed by an English soldier. I think that this is Mel Gibson’s most memorable role. It’s easy to hate him for being such a jerk in real life, but it’s hard to deny that he plays an angry Scotsman pretty damn well. The movie is often times crude and violent, but the message is a powerful one–freedom is worth fighting for, even if it means sacrificing your own life so that others can live free. This is a beautifully crafted movie with a lot of very memorable characters and speeches that are inspiring enough to pump anyone up. This was nominated for 10 Oscars and won 5, including Best Picture and Best Director.

 

Clockers (1995)220px-Clockers_film_poster

Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Harvey KeitelJohn TurturroDelroy Lindo, Mekhi Phifer, Isaiah Washington
Genre: Crime Drama

Based on the novel by Richard Price, Clockers tells the story of Strike (Mekhi Phifer), a street-level drug dealer who works for a drug lord named Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo). He gets mixed up in a murder that his brother, Victor (Isaiah Washington), has confessed to committing. In the meantime, two detectives, Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) and Larry Mazilli (John Turturro) are convinced that because of Victor having no past criminal record, Strike must be responsible for the murder and his brother is taking the fall for him. I’m not a really big fan of Spike Lee and I wasn’t impressed with his more popular film, Do the Right Thing. I enjoyed this movie, however, and I think it is underrated. It raises questions of morality and not in a condescending way. It also has some great performances by the cast with characters who aren’t just black and white (metaphorically speaking).

 

Donnie Brasco (1997)220px-Donnie_brasco_ver2

Director: Mike Newell
Cast: Al PacinoJohnny DeppMichael Madsen
Genre: Biography Drama

Based on a true story about the life of Joseph D. Pistone who is working as an undercover FBI agent, taking on the alias Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp), in order to infiltrate the mob. He earns the trust of a low-level mobster named Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino), who takes him under his wing. The more time he spends around members of the Mafia, the more he begins to change, becoming more distant from his family, while becoming closer friends with Lefty. He dreads the day that the FBI will eventually have to come and make arrests, putting Lefty’s life in jeopardy in the process. Pacino’s character in this movie is a lot different than the one he plays in The Godfather. He is a low ranking member who doesn’t get the respect he thinks he deserves and it’s hard not to take pity on him even though you know he’s a murderer. This is a great undercover cop movie and Johnny Depp and Pacino are amazing in it.

 

Easy Rider (1969)220px-EasyRider

Director: Dennis Hopper
Cast: Peter FondaDennis HopperJack Nicholson
Genre: Drama

Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are two motorcycle-riding hippies who smuggle some cocaine out of Mexico to sell in Los Angeles. They then use the money to take a road trip from LA to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Along their journey, they meet a rancher, pick up a hitchhiker and drive him to his commune where a bunch of young hippies live together and try to grow crops in dry land, and they meet a lawyer named George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), who travels with them for a time. This is considered a counterculture film, where it explores a lot of characteristics from the 1960s, including hippies, drug use, and communal establishments. Fonda and Hopper are great in this movie. Nicholson, as usual, is an oddly entertaining character who makes the film more fun just by being there. Oh, and the soundtrack is awesome with all of that era-defining rock music.

 

Paper Moon (1973)220px-Paper-moon_small

Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Cast: Ryan O’NealTatum O’NealMadeline Kahn
Genre: Comedy

Moses “Moze” Pray (Ryan O’Neal) meets Addie (Tatum O’Neal) at her mother’s funeral, where he agrees to take her to her aunt’s house in Missouri. It is hinted that Moze may be Addie’s father, but it is never known for sure. Moze is a con man who knocks on doors of recently widowed women and tells them that their dead husbands ordered an expensive Bible for them before they died, persuading these women to pay for something they don’t even really want. On their journey to Missouri, Addie aids Moze in his conning affairs, and they eventually realize that they make a good team. This is a comical, but heartfelt story of a friendship between two characters who may or may not be related. Addie looks to Moze as a father figure whether he is really her father or not. She is a sassy young girl whose wit is often surprising. Tatum O’Neal won an Oscar for this role at only 10-years-old.

 

The Pianist (2002)215px-The_Pianist_movie

Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Adrien BrodyThomas KretschmannFrank Finlay, Emilia Fox
Genre: Biography Drama

Władysław Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is a Polish-Jewish pianist who is forced to experience cruelties of life in Nazi-occupied Poland. He and his family struggle to survive as the Nazis force them into small ghettos. When he is separated from his family, he relies on the help of good friends in order to stay alive. This is based on a true story of Szpilman’s life during World War II. It is a haunting film, and often times difficult to watch. However, it is a wonderfully written story that deserves to be told and seen. Polanski, being a Holocaust survivor himself, handled this with the kind of care a film of this serious subject matter needs. The perspective stays with Brody’s character, so the audience only ever sees what he sees. It doesn’t veer off into the outside world to show all of the atrocities that were probably being committed at the time just for the sake of showing how bad it was. It’s a very personal film and you feel very close to the main character by the end of it. Adrien Brody won an Oscar for this role and he deserved it. Say what you will about Polanski and his personal life, but I can’t deny that he makes some really good movies, and was deserving of his Oscar as well.

 

220px-the_rainmakerThe Rainmaker (1997)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Matt DamonDanny DeVitoClaire Danes, Jon Voight
Genre: Drama

Based on John Grisham’s novel, Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) is an ambitious young lawyer who teams up with Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), a paralegal who has failed the bar exam six times. Together, they take on a case of a 22-year-old with leukemia, whose life could potentially be saved if his insurance didn’t deny him a bone marrow transplant. I haven’t read the Grisham novel, but I do enjoy this movie a lot. Whether or not this is meant to be a courtroom drama in the story, it definitely succeeds as one. It has the tension and the kind of stuff that makes you angry just watching it. You begin to hate the people working for the insurance company, Great Benefit, as well as Jon Voight’s character, the lead lawyer for the insurance company and a man who only cares about winning the case. It could’ve done without the side story of Rudy falling in love with Claire Danes’ character, the battered woman, but it’s still a good film overall.

Best to Worst: Terry Gilliam

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Terry Gilliam is a visionary who excels at making films that balance creative imagery and adventurous stories that often have philosophical undertones. He is known for making movies with dark humor, fantastical situations, and eccentric characters who help draw the audience in to the odd worlds that he creates. With his most recent film, The Zero Theorem, Gilliam has proven that he has not yet lost his touch when it comes to creating movies that make people think. Like with anything, people tend to either love or hate his works. His style doesn’t appeal to everyone, and that’s okay. Personally, I love his stuff and I think that Gilliam has never truly made what I would consider a really bad film. He’s made good films and then he’s made films that aren’t as good as his best. With that said, here is my personal ranking of Terry Gilliam’s movies from best to worst.

 

1. Brazil (1985)
Starring: Jonathan PryceKim GreistRobert De Niro, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins
IMDb rating: 8.0
Rotten Tomatoes score: 98%

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Brazil is Gilliam’s cinematic masterpiece. It takes relevant themes like controlling, bureaucratic societies and presents them in an imaginative way using dream sequences, humorous situations, and disturbing ideas. One of the recurring themes that shows up in several of Gilliam’s films is the over reliance on technology. In this movie, a glitch caused by a fly getting caught in a printing machine causes the wrong man to get arrested, and the conflict in the plot snowballs from there. Everyone in this world relies on loads of paperwork to get things done, not allowing anyone to stop and think for themselves about what they are doing. Robert De Niro’s character, Harry Tuttle, is branded a terrorist just because he goes around fixing people’s air conditioning systems outside of the company who is supposed to be responsible for them, in order to bypass all the paperwork involved. This is Jonathan Pryce’s best role in a Gilliam film, in my opinion. The ending isn’t exactly a Hollywood happy one, and that’s one of the things I love about this movie.

 

2. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Starring: Graham ChapmanJohn CleeseEric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam
IMDb rating: 8.4
Rotten Tomatoes score: 97%

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Co-directed with Terry Jones, Monty Python and the Holy Grail has become a cult classic in the comedy genre. Technically, this film doesn’t just belong to Gilliam, but to the whole Monty Python comedy group who wrote it and acted in it. However, I couldn’t leave this one out of the list. This is one of those older dark comedies that never gets tired. I could quote this movie for days. The Monty Python comedy group didn’t need a huge budget to create something that is comically epic. The fact that they run around banging coconut shells together to make the sounds of horse hooves trotting was not originally meant to be the funny idea that it was. Their small budget didn’t allow for real horses to be used, hence they came up with coconut idea. It’s hilarious, and the whole conversation in the beginning of the movie between Graham Chapman’s character, King Arthur, and the man at the top of the castle are some of the funniest lines in the whole movie, and it’s all thanks to the coconuts.

 

3. Time Bandits (1981)
Starring: Sean ConneryShelley DuvallJohn Cleese, Michael Palin, David Rappaport, Craig Warnock, Kenny Baker, Malcolm Dixon, Jack Purvis
IMDb rating: 7.0
Rotten Tomatoes score: 92%

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Time Bandits is the most fun adventure that Gilliam created, in my opinion. It really reveals the kind of imagination that he has. It’s shown to you through the perspective of a young boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock), who is only too happy to escape his hum-drum life with parents who pay almost no attention to him. He discovers a lot of things while traveling through time, including a new potential candidate for a father in the form of Sean Connery who plays Agamemnon. I loved the idea of a group of bandits traveling through time and stealing from famous historical figures–Napolean included. It has humor and adventure that appeals to both kids and adults. But of course, it would hardly be a Gilliam film without a little bit of social commentary included–this time, about consumerism and materialistic people.

 

4. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Starring: Bruce WillisMadeleine StoweBrad Pitt
IMDb rating: 8.1
Rotten Tomatoes score: 88%

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12 Monkeys is the movie I often refer to when I think of time travel done right. There are so many time travel movies out there that don’t make sense. The idea of a causal loop–where Bruce Willis’ character goes back in time to stop an event, but only ends up learning that going back in time causes the event–is the perfect way to do time travel. Nothing is really solved, but in the meantime we learn how the world got to the point of where it is with Willis’ character in the beginning. It is sort of a tragic story if you think about it, as nothing Willis does can stop what is meant to happen. The actors are all first rate, the story is engaging, and being the first Gilliam film I ever saw, it set me up for what would become a newfound love for the director.

 

5. The Fisher King (1991)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Mercedes Ruehl, Lara Harris
IMDb rating: 7.6
Rotten Tomatoes score: 84%

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The Fisher King is certainly a dark story that deals with a lot of serious issues. Poverty, for one, but also the influence celebrities have on other people. Jeff Bridges’ character is a radio host on the verge of stardom whose cynicism and arrogance causes a tragedy that will change one man’s life forever. Robin Williams is both humorous and tragic as a homeless man who suffers from hallucinations and crazy ideas due to a horrible tragedy in his life. This is the only Gilliam movie that actually brought me to tears. It has a nice balance though of humor and seriousness. It doesn’t get too heavy all at once, and as soon as it starts to, it lightens up a little. It’s an emotional movie, but well worth the ride due to a story that never falls flat and a couple of great performances.

 

6. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Starring: Johnny DeppBenicio Del ToroTobey Maguire, Christina Ricci
IMDb rating: 7.7
Rotten Tomatoes score: 50%

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Welcome to Terry Gilliam’s 2-hour-long, drug-induced ride. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson. With a couple of unparalleled performances by Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, this movie goes along with the pace of two people having highs and lows on a suitcase full of psychedelic drugs, and the ride doesn’t stop until the credits roll. The best part is, you’re brought right along for that ride with the use of awkward camera angles, dizzying movements, music, and disturbing psychedelic imagery. I have heard so many mixed opinions about this movie in my lifetime. It seems like it really is one of those “love it or hate it” kind of movies. I, however, love it and all that it is. I don’t do drugs, but if I did, I can imagine it would feel sort of like what it feels like to watch this movie.

 

7. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (2003)
Starring: John NevilleSarah Polley, Jonathan Pryce, Uma Thurman, Robin Williams
IMDb rating: 7.2
Rotten Tomatoes score: 94%

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Similar to Time Bandits, this movie is an escape from reality which takes the audience along for an adventure with Baron Munchausen as he battles the Turks, takes a trip to the moon, and meets the goddess Venus. This movie was a commercial failure, but if you can’t already tell by it’s 94% tomato rating, it was loved by critics for the most part. I think it was a well-made movie with a lot of fun scenes. However, I didn’t like the little girl’s character so much for some reason, I found her annoying, whereas I thought the kid in Time Bandits was adorable. I also wasn’t sure where the story was going at times. The characters, for the most part, are fun to watch, and the visuals are magical. The ending is actually quite surprising and I like where the story ended up, even if I was confused somewhere in the middle. In the end, I can’t deny the enjoyment I get out of watching this powerfully imaginative film.

 

8. The Zero Theorem (2014)
Starring: Christoph WaltzMélanie ThierryDavid Thewlis, Matt Damon, Lucas Hedges
IMDb rating: 6.5
Rotten Tomatoes score: 54%

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In my opinion, this is the best movie Gilliam has made in the last decade. It’s another creative dystopian satire that deals with big issues. Christoph Waltz is an amazing actor, one of my favorites these days, and he plays a character you can’t help but sympathize with, or maybe even possibly relate to. Despite all of the mixed reviews, I really enjoyed this one. You can find my full review of The Zero Theorem here.

 

9. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Starring: Christopher PlummerLily ColeHeath Ledger, Andrew Garfield, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell
IMDb rating: 6.9
Rotten Tomatoes score: 64%

theimaginarium

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus had a lot of potential, but didn’t quite hit the mark. The story lacked anything that would make me really care about the characters. I didn’t think it was a bad movie, by any means. I have to give credit to Gilliam, though, for being able to use his creativity to rearrange the story after Heath Ledgers untimely death during filming. Gilliam had to call in friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to finish Ledger’s part in the film, adding in the idea that Ledger’s character’s appearance would change as he entered through the mirror into the magical realms. I think this idea worked well for the character seeing as how he was a man who metaphorically had many faces, and wasn’t straight forward or truthful with any of the other characters. The story deals with people and their choices, and the consequences of those choices. The main character, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), quite literally makes deals with the devil due to his self-indulgence. I think that’s a pretty accurate way of portraying those who are selfish. Heath Ledger was great as usual in this film, it’s sad that he was not able to finish it himself.

 

10. Tideland (2006)
Starring: Jeff BridgesJennifer TillyJodelle Ferland, Janet McTeer, Brendan Fletcher
IMDb rating: 6.6
Rotten Tomatoes score: 29%

tideland

Tideland is a difficult movie to watch. Any movie that has human taxidermy in it and insinuations of pedophilia is pretty disturbing. It’s an outrageous story. It’s based on a novel by Mitch Cullen, and deals with the harsh realities of life as the main character–a young girl–is left to fend for herself after her father overdoses on drugs. However, the girl retreats into her own imagination, which allows Gilliam to add his creative flair. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s hard to relate to aside from the blatant drug abuse. Jodelle Ferland who plays Jeliza-Rose is a very impressive young actress in this movie, though, and there’s no denying that.

 

11. Jabberwocky (1977)
Starring: Michael PalinHarry H. CorbettJohn Le Mesurier
IMDb rating: 6.2
Rotten Tomatoes score: 62%

jabberwocky

Jabberwocky was Gilliam’s first attempt at directing a movie on his own, without his Monty Python group. It is still similar to Holy Grail in that it involved a lot of the same kind of dark humor, and it seems to take place around the same era. It is a somewhat wacky film, Michael Palin does well in the lead as a man who is only too happy to settle for a mediocre life, but ends up with more than he bargained for in the end. Some of the jokes don’t hold up as well as the ones in Holy Grail, and there are some parts that are just flat out boring. The monster is kind of humorous though. It moved around like a puppet and was silly looking, but I think that adds a little charm to Gilliam’s low-budget, solo directorial debut.

 

12. The Brothers Grimm (2005)
Starring: Matt DamonHeath LedgerMonica Bellucci, Lena Headey, Jonathan Pryce
IMDb rating: 5.9
Rotten Tomatoes score: 38%

brothersgrimm

The Brothers Grimm is in last place because it lacked a lot of what makes Gilliam’s movies unique. There was little humor, the story was somewhat boring, it has cheesy CGI, and not the cartoonish kind that Gilliam is known for. All in all, it seemed more of a horrible Hollywood fairy tale attempt, like the horrendous Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters from last year. It suffered from a weak plot and I wasn’t exactly sure where the story was even going at times. In Gilliam’s defense, though, the constant feuding between Gilliam and Bob and Harvey Weinstein during production most likely had a lot to do with how the film turned out. Gilliam himself said that the end result wasn’t the film he had wanted. I think it’s safe to say that studio executives are overbearing jerks sometimes.

 

As usual, I’m always curious to know what other people think. What do you think about Terry Gilliam and his movies? Let me know!

The Zero Theorem (2014)

zerotheorem

The Zero Theorem explores big themes through Terry Gilliam’s familiar and bizarre imagination. Love, humanity, and faith are questioned as a man struggles to find the meaning of life. As far as Gilliam films go, The Zero Theorem is far from the worst of his eccentric efforts.

The film revolves around Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a computer hacker and a recluse who lives in a large church right next to a sex shop. When he walks outside he is immediately bombarded by colorful advertisements lining the walls of buildings. A financial company advertisement follows him as he walks down the street. Other strange and loud advertisements like that of the church of “Batman the Redeemer,” which calls for people who are “bored of Buddhism and sick of Scientology,” hang above the busy streets where a bunch of tiny, identical cars drive hurriedly along. Qohen works for a company called Mancom, where he crunches “entities” in an office resembling a casino with enough distracting noise and colors to fill the senses. Colorfully dressed employees move about on scooters and roller skates. The crunchers like Qohen sit at computer screens that look like slot machines, while using what resembles a retro console gaming controller to do their work, while they pedal something with their feet. It sort of looks like a hybrid gaming/exercise machine, and the software (I think that’s what it is) is in a vibrantly colored liquid form.

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Qohen’s boss, Joby (David Thewlis), who refers to Qohen as “Quinn” even though he’s been corrected time and time again, invites Qohen to a party, promising that “Management” will be there so Qohen can convince him to let him work from home. Management comes in the form as just one man (Matt Damon), a person who appears and disappears rather sporadically and who likes to wear suits that camouflage him into furniture and curtains. Qohen finds it vital that he be allowed to work from home so that he doesn’t miss a mysterious phone call he’s been waiting for. This phone call, he believes, is going to tell him the meaning of life. Management decides to oblige him, but assigns him the impossible task of solving “The Zero Theorem.” This theorem will ultimately prove that everything adds up to nothing and that life has no special meaning; that the universe will keep expanding until it collapses on itself and ends in a big black hole.

He is driven to the brink of madness while working on this theorem, which looks like towers of cubes. One wrong cube put in the wrong place causes the towers to collapse. Just watching him do this is headache-inducing. He tries to hold on to a shred of his sanity with the help of a “shrink-rom,” a virtual psychiatrist who is played humorously by Tilda Swinton. His work is constantly interrupted by calls from Management, giving him a new unrealistic deadline for pieces of work that drive him mad. In addition to this, he is visited by a seductive woman he met at Joby’s party named Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who promises to help him get his “call.” When Qohen loses it and smashes his computer screen, Management sends over his son Bob (Lucas Hedges), a teenage wisecracking genius who tries to help Qohen not only get back on track, but also to stop referring to himself as “we,” as if he were the Queen of England.

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Whereas in Brazil, the story was a criticism of bureaucratic society, The Zero Theorem is more of a criticism of a world where the meaning of life is easily lost in the confusion of ever advancing technology. Qohen is a man who is waiting for some divine voice to call him on the telephone and tell him why he is alive. In the midst of waiting for this phone call and being absorbed in impossible work that is only meant to prove that everything is nothing, he misses out on what is right in front of him. He misses out on human connection, which could be the true answer to filling the void within him. He wastes his life away trying to find the answer to something which has no definitive answer. That void left within him is comparable to the very black hole that Management wants to prove the universe will be reduced to.

Faith is a recurring theme here as well. Religion seems to be treated like a business, as is shown by the advertisement for the Church of Batman the Redeemer. The image of a camera for Christ’s head and the fact that Management uses Qohen’s faith in the “call” to persuade him to continue working on the theorem shows that faith and religion is fading and has become corrupted and distorted into something that is controlled by corporations.

There is no shortage of Gilliam-esque imaginative visuals and storytelling. I especially love the set designs, from the large, dark church which Qohen calls home, to the frantic, colorful streets outside. I love the idea that Qohen and Bainsley can plug themselves in to their computers and end up in a virtual paradise together, it really expands upon the image of a society run by technology. I like how Management placed cameras all over Qohen’s home to watch his every move, including one in place of where Jesus’ head should be on a huge cross, perhaps to symbolize the worshipping of corporations. The fact that Qohen lives in a church, with a camera Jesus head, and is looking for the meaning of life is ironic. I also love that Bob makes a suit for Qohen so he can plug himself in, and somehow find his “soul.” It is a ludicrous idea, but considering the circumstances in the movie, it’s not so crazy that they would believe that’s possible. If you can use a computer to prove the eventual destruction of the universe, why wouldn’t you be able to use it to locate your own soul?

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I’ve loved Christoph Waltz ever since I saw him play a perfect villain in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. His talent has not gone unrecognized thus far, and rightfully so. He proves his worth and versatility as an actor in this movie by playing this tragic character. Another performance that stood out to me is by Lucas Hedges playing a kid who shows his wisdom through his smart ass jokes. He’s an unsuspecting voice of reason. David Thewlis and Tilda Swinton play small, but unforgettable parts that add humor to what would otherwise be a heavy film.

There’s plenty of negative criticism surrounding this film, and the fact is, it won’t appeal to everyone. Like with most of Gilliam’s films–Brazil, 12 Monkeys, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, to name a few–the message is riddled in creative visuals and eccentric characters. The Zero Theorem may not hold the same kind of power as his widely-loved Brazil, but it is far from a failure in my eyes. It still coincides with Gilliam’s theme of dystopian satire. It explores relevant themes of people being virtually connected, yet at the same time, disconnected from reality. It is a sci-fi spectacle that asks big questions, and not all of them are answered. If you can handle that, then I would recommend this, especially if you are a Gilliam fan.

4/5

The Deer Hunter (1978)

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If there’s anything to learn from brave men who have fought in wars, it’s that war changes people. The Deer Hunter shows the effects of war on an individual’s life through the slow and steady character development of three friends from a small steel mill town in Pennsylvania who are about to be sent off to Vietnam. Director Michael Cimino approaches the genre in a different way. What he shows us is not a story about war, it’s a story about people.

Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage) are three steel workers living in a small town called Clairton, Pennsylvania. Steven is about to get married before he is sent off to war. The beginning of the movie focuses on the wedding festivities. Meanwhile, we learn a lot about our main characters, like how Nick seems to be the most kind and level-headed of the bunch and he keeps the more serious Michael in check. Steven is a poor soul in love who is constantly being yelled at by his mother who doesn’t like his friends or the woman he is about to marry. Nick has a girlfriend named Linda (Meryl Streep), a young woman who has to suffer the indignity of having a father who is a physically abusive drunk. Michael clearly has feelings for Linda, although he keeps them hidden out of respect for his best friend. At some point during the wedding, a man dressed in an army uniform comes in to sit at the bar. Mike becomes frustrated when the man ignores his questions about the war. When Mike and Nick tell him with enthusiasm that they are about to be sent off, the soldier raises his glass and says, “fuck it.” Both of them are confused by this at the time, but it foreshadows the kind of attitude they will soon have about the war after having experienced it. 

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Mike and Nick, along with three other friends–Stan (John Cazale), John (George Dzundza), and Axel (Chuck Aspegren)–go deer hunting one last time, in which Mike kills a deer using “one shot,” the only way to kill a deer, as he expresses to Nick earlier on. The story then switches to Vietnam, where the three friends become prisoners of war. The captors force their prisoners to play Russian roulette–some very intense scenes–in which the captors bet among themselves who will live and who will die. Thanks to Mike’s fearless leadership, the three of them escape, and Nick is rescued by a passing U.S. helicopter. Mike then carries the injured Steven on his back to safety. 

The war itself doesn’t take up much screen time, as it is not the most important part of the story, it only acts as the catalyst to the change that happens with the main characters. Before the war, Mike was a bit of a hard ass. Aside from a drunken streaking incident after the wedding, he is a serious man. He gives Stan a lot of crap just for forgetting his boots for their hunting trip. He creates tension and conflict where they are not needed. During the war, his attributes pay off. He is the rock for Nick and Steve and is the main reason why they all make it out alive. At one point, however, after Steve is weakened and dazed by grazing his head with a bullet during Russian roulette, Mike and Nick argue about whether or not they should save him. Mike thinks that he is a lost cause, and Nick is appalled by the idea of leaving their best friend behind to die. Something changes in Mike, though. Maybe it is the unbelievable tension and near death experience he and Nick face when it comes down to them pulling a trigger against their own heads, but for whatever reason, Mike becomes the type of guy who would never leave a friend behind.

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When Mike returns home, he’s quiet and distant. He grows closer to Linda, but there is a battle still happening within him that keeps him from getting too close. He also finds himself unable to take the “one shot” when he goes hunting again, he sees the deer and fires into the air instead. It’s obvious that “one shot” doesn’t hold the same meaning to him anymore. He eventually finds out that Steve has been hiding away from everyone in a veterans’ hospital, his legs amputated after the injuries he endured from falling from the helicopter. After he finds out Steve has been receiving money from Nick, Mike returns to Vietnam, remembering the promise he once made Nick that he would never leave him behind. While there, he finds out that Nick has been playing Russian roulette for money after being recruited by a Frenchman named Julien (Pierre Segui).

Nick’s transformation, from a fun-loving, level-headed guy to a crazed man who doesn’t recognize his own best friend and who doesn’t think twice of putting a gun to his own head, is heart-breaking. He remembers Mike’s saying of “one shot,” but now it is twisted into something he never meant it to be. Once a term for deer hunting has now become a term for blowing your own brains out–it only takes one shot to do just that.

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The Deer Hunter is a powerful story for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Michael Cimino doesn’t rush the story. This is a three hour long movie which could be divided into three separate acts. The first act is probably the most important one. Some people may say that they find it boring, but it isn’t if you can understand the intentions of letting the audience get to know the characters before they are thrown into life or death situations. A long wedding ceremony may seem unimportant at first glance, but during this happy festivity you really get a feel for who these characters are and the kind of lives they are living, and under normal circumstances at that. Without this, the war wouldn’t have so much of an impact on the story. You wouldn’t care whether or not these characters lived or died, and I sure as hell wouldn’t have been brought to tears by the end.

Secondly, the story doesn’t focus on the war itself. When this movie came out, a lot of people hated it simply for the fact that they felt it portrayed the Vietnam War inaccurately. Fact of the matter is, it’s not about the Vietnam War. This could be set to the backdrop of any war really. It’s about the before and after effects on individuals who experience the horrors of war. So I’m not sure exactly what was and what wasn’t accurate, but I think that unless a movie claims to be historical and factual in nature, it’s okay to look past some of those inaccuracies and to look at the bigger picture–and this is a big picture, indeed. It deals with themes most everyday people won’t ever fully understand.

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The cast is made up of some of the most talented actors and actresses in Hollywood at the time. Robert De Niro is perfect for his role as Michael. I’m not sure what it is about De Niro and his ability to intimidate me in even his least intimidating roles, but a role as a serious, no b.s. kind of guy in this movie is what he was made for. Christopher Walken, who won an Oscar for this role, really makes an emotional impact as a happy guy who is eager to live life and marry his girlfriend, but who ultimately ends up as a lost soul. John Savage as Steve was amazing as well, he managed to kill me slowly on the inside in his scenes at the veterans’ hospital. Meryl Streep is, of course, fantastic as always. I like seeing her in her earlier roles, she gives a special kind of life to her characters that makes you love her even if she isn’t playing someone particularly nice. John Cazale is most well known for his role as Fredo in The Godfather movies. Sadly, he was dying from lung cancer during the filming of this movie and actually died soon after it was finished. The studio wanted to replace him, but Streep, who was dating him at the time, threatened to walk away if they did. I’m glad he stayed on for the part, because he was an incredibly talented actor. It’s unfortunate he never got to see the finished film.

The Deer Hunter is a film which remains relevant to this day even through the controversy that surrounds it. It might not have been historically accurate, perhaps POWs were never forced to play Russian roulette–it might only be just a symbol for the idea that going to war is like metaphorically playing Russian roulette with soldiers’ lives. The point is that war affects everyone. It doesn’t have to be the Vietnam War, specifically, but any war. A war may not last forever, but the effects of it may last someone a lifetime. Michael Cimino presents these themes through a story with multi-dimensional characters and heart-breaking realizations. It won 5 Oscars including Best Picture, and they were well deserved.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

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From the marvelous special effects with motion capture technology to the very realistic portrayal of conflict between two similar species, Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes not only held my attention and pulled at my heart strings, but it also left me pleasantly surprised at how well this sequel held up to an equally successful predecessor, which almost no one expected would succeed in the first place.

Ten years after the spread of the virus, which humans called the simian flu, Caesar (Andy Serkis) now leads a large group of apes who are living in the woods of California, not having seen a sign of humans for about two years. However, a small group of humans, including Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Ellie (Keri Russell), and Carver (Kirk Acevedo) travel into those woods unaware that there are apes living there. They are searching for a power source under a dam that they can use to provide electricity to San Francisco, as a small city of people have taken shelter there. When Carver comes across a young ape, though, he panics and shoots him, angering the other apes. When the apes find out that a city of humans exist, they become paranoid that the humans, with their large supply of weapons, will eventually attack. Caesar, however, tries to keep the peace the best he can, while Koba (Toby Kebbell), who has a long-standing grudge against humans after he was caged and experimented on years ago, threatens to ruin that peace and start an all out war.

I wasn’t very hopeful when Hollywood decided to reboot the Planet of the Apes franchise. I was afraid it might have turned out to be another failed 2001 remake. Plus, it had James Franco, one of the biggest weirdos in Hollywood, playing this genius scientist who is supposed to make the apes smarter. So, I was surprised when I ended up loving Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It had great characters and a lot of heart, and yes, even Franco managed to be convincing as a scientist.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is similar in that it is a blockbuster that takes its time in developing the characters and the plot. It’s not all about a bunch of apes on horseback fighting with a bunch of belligerent humans with guns, which you’ll see mostly happening in the trailers. It’s really about the similarities between apes and humans, something that Caesar comes to learn in a tough way. For once, humans aren’t shown to be completely at fault. Yes, there are some dumb and irrational humans, like Carver for example, but there’s also an angry and irrational ape in the form of Koba, which balances the story out. It shows that one species is not superior to the other and each are capable of doing terrible things. Koba, for example, shows that he is really no better than the humans who mistreated him. It’s illogical to think that there can ever be peace between the two, especially when humans are known for not even being able to keep peace among themselves, and Caesar’s realization of this is heartbreaking.

This movie is just about as serious as a movie about talking apes can get. The messages are dark, but realistic. Violence begets violence. Any species will fight if provoked, and peace is fundamentally impossible. But it also shows that one individual can’t speak for an entire species. There is evil on every side, the goal is being able to recognize it when it’s in your own backyard by putting aside your prejudices against those who may seem different than you. Caesar is eventually able to accomplish that, as well as some of the other apes, but it’s a problem I’m sure will linger through the story within this franchise, just as it remains a problem in real life.

I must say I love how Caesar never completely forgot about the man who raised him. Since this movie takes place 10 years after the virus had spread, I figured he wouldn’t even be mentioned. However, there is a touching scene when Caesar watches an old video of Will (James Franco) teaching him sign language when he was just a young ape and you can see how much Caesar misses him. It shows how much the relationship he had in the first film shaped him into the character he is in this one.

Some day, I hope, Andy Serkis will finally get the recognition he deserves with the amazing work he does playing non-human characters with motion capture. I’m not sure how many other people could play an ape so well. He gives him just the right amount of humanistic qualities without being too human. At no point did I even think or remember that this is a human pretending to be an ape. I also have to give credit to Toby Kebbell as Koba, though, for pulling off crazy and scary extremely well. 

Jason Clarke held his own as the new leading human in this movie, and the most likable one for that matter, aside from Keri Russell. The only issue I had was that Gary Oldman, who is an extremely talented actor, was underused. He had a very small part that could’ve been played by anyone, which makes me think they threw him in there just to have a bigger name attached to the project. Kind of a waste, if you ask me. Other than that, though, I thought the cast was great, human and ape alike.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the best blockbusters I’ve seen all summer and one sequel I’m happy was made. The plot is well-developed, very believable and evokes real emotion, the CGI is some of the most impressive I’ve seen, and despite the serious tone, it still manages to be a fun and immersing tale of the conflicting relationships between two equally intelligent species.

5/5

The Fly (1986)

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I can’t help but appreciate a movie that can mix an emotional and tragic love story with some of the most horrific, disgusting and vomit-inducing images I have ever seen. David Cronenberg’s successful remake of The Fly accomplishes that and more.

Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is an eccentric scientist who is making breakthroughs with a teleportation device he invented. He uses it as an attempt to impress a journalist named Veronica (Geena Davis). She agrees to keep his research a secret in exchange for the rights to document his work, which will be a story that could advance her career tremendously. At first, Seth can only teleport inanimate objects, as is seen when he attempts to teleport a live baboon and it ends up in a bloody mess. But eventually, with the inspiration he gains from the ever evolving romantic relationship he has with Veronica, he is able to teleport a live baboon with no harm done. However, one night when Veronica goes out to confront her ex-lover/boss (John Getz) about publishing the teleportation story prematurely, Seth finds himself in a jealous, drunken state when he begins thinking she is out rekindling her past relationship. He decides to test the machine on himself without her there, and does not notice when a fly slips into the pod with him. At first, he notices he has gained some physical benefits, like increased strength, but soon realizes after his physical appearance begins to change and his mental health deteriorates, that something has gone horribly wrong. What was once a sweet and intelligent man has now become “Brundlefly,” a being who becomes more monstrous the more the fly’s DNA begins to take over.

The Fly has to be one of the most visually disgusting movies I have ever seen. Let me also add that I hate house flies with the passion of a thousand burning suns. They are gross, annoying, and useless. At least spiders, which I also hate, serve a purpose. But flies just buzz around, dive-bomb your head, land on dog poop and then have the audacity to land on your food afterwards if you just so happen to be eating outside on a nice day for once. So a movie about a man who turns into a fly is seemingly not my cup of tea. However, I have to admit that as grossed out as I was, I can’t deny that this movie is a hallmark in the sci-fi/horror genre.

It’s easy to make a movie with some horrifying images of monsters and blood and guts. There’s plenty of those out there. But it’s not so easy to make one of those with a story that is actually developed and entertaining, and with characters who are memorable and have an on screen romance that is up to par with any other tragically romantic story you’ll find about one partner watching the one they love slowly deteriorate and disappear.

The Fly came out around the height of the AIDS epidemic, and many people who saw this film thought that it was a metaphor for the disease. However, Cronenberg had said he thought of it as a metaphor for disease in general, terminal illnesses like cancer, as well as aging. It is about a woman who is essentially watching her loved one die, which is often the case with people who know someone with a terminal illness, or similarly, people who watch their loved ones grow old. Of course, this underlying message is portrayed in a more imaginative and grotesque manner, but it still illustrates that message all the same.

Jeff Goldblum gives a great performance as a man-turned-fly. You sympathize with his character more than you fear him, and that’s important here. It helps to understand why Geena Davis’ character would ever stick around after seeing Seth go crazy and literally fall apart. The movie takes its time with the characters so that when the director breaks out the gross stuff, you’re already too emotionally involved in these two characters and their relationship to throw it all out the window and root for her to swat him to death with a megaton fly swatter. You may still somehow find yourself hoping that there is a way out of this unfortunate situation, right up until the end.

This movie surpassed my expectations the first time I saw it. I thought it would be strictly horror with a lot of nasty images added for shock value, but it ended up being so much more. Deep down, it’s not really a movie about a monster, it’s a movie about a man who falls in love and struggles to maintain his real self as genetics and instinct threaten to take over his body and mind, and a woman who stands by him until the very end.

I would recommend this movie to anyone wanting to prove that some remakes can be done better, and that the horror genre can contain much more than just horror itself. Just be wary if you’re squeamish, and don’t watch this while eating. Very, very bad idea.