Mailbox arrivals... Both expansions of Castle Panic (a gift to mysel), a Doctor Who pocketwatch (a gift from Fred, thanks Fred!).
In theaters: This isn't the review of The Force Awakens you're looking for--I mean, it's not the review that's going to revolutionize critical thought on the long-awaited - and in some quarters, dreaded - Star Wars Episode VII. Like most who approached the film critically, I found it had problems similar to those of the prequels, namely that many of its plot elements were "this again?". What it DID have that the prequels didn't was new characters that I wanted to see again. Rey, Finn, Poe, BB8, even poor, tortured Kylo Ren, are all worthy of this new trilogy. Making us accept the changing of the guard at all is a triumph, and I find each of these characters just enough of a remix of the original films' ensemble to keep things too derivative. This is also the funniest Star Wars film ever in terms of banter, but which still manages to throw some effective emotional punches, whether they be letting us share in the excitement the actors and characters are feeling (Light Side), or letting dramatic moments play out without dialog as pure cinema (Dark Side). Fleeting irritation at plot holes and elements copied not remixed from the originals, but otherwise, a solid entertainment. Fun above all. That puts it on par with Return of the Jedi, sharing the 2nd position in my personal ranking.
The Big Short is an amazingly funny film about the credit and housing collapse of 2008, which surprising on two fronts. First, millions of Americans losing their homes and the Global economy taking a hit isn't a laughing matter (we here in New Bruswick didn't feel it much because things were already pretty terrible - I'm not being snarky, studies actually show exactly this). And second, who the hell understands the financial mumbo-jumbo required to make sense of this news story. Well, the only way you're going to watch a movie about this is if the bitter pill is coated in loads of sugar, and once you do, you'll realize the way Big Business works is completely absurd - not just Kafka absurd, but Monty Python absurd - and the movie knows quite well that the banks got away with it by using jargon you or I can't understand, and makes fun of that. The way the movie teaches us the salient points is pretty great, and preys (as the editing often does) on the public's propensity for getting distracted by other things. I came out of the theater better informed and dreamed of financial crises all night. Extremely funny (Ryan Gosling especially), but sad as well, it runs the gamut - probably one of my favorite movies of the year.
DVDs: 'Tis the season... Hadn't seen Gremlins in years if not decades, and what struck me this time around was how many movie references are peppered throughout. Why did I never notice the classic Wellsian time machine in the background before? A fun genre breaker, especially at the time it came out, though it has several gaping plot holes like villains who disappear mid-film to make way for the hundreds of evil puppets, but you hardly notice while you're in the experience. It's just too much crazy fun. My kind of holiday fare. The DVD includes two commentary tracks (director Joe Dante with producers, then with the cast) that both tell interesting stories on the making of, a vintage making of, a photo/storyboard gallery, and the text pieces usual for DVDs of a certain era.
On to #ISpyDecember... Though we do revisit the event in the editing, Steven Spielberg's Munich isn't really about Palestinian terrorists killing Israeli athletes at the '72 Olympic games, but about the secret Mossad hit team that then spent years killing those responsible for the attack. When the elaborate revenge begins, you may fear it'll be repetitive to see each terrorist leader kills in a different city, but 1) there's too much variety for that to become a problem, and 2) the repetition is part of the narrative as it drains the humanity away from the protagonists. This is a descent into the kind of hell where you will start to wonder if the heroes are any better than the terrorists, and the terrorists any less righteous than the heroes. Who here is acting legitimately? Obviously, this is particularly true of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but Spielberg dares us to ask those questions about the War on Terror as we understand it today, worldwide. Munich does tend to go long into its epilogues; not saying they weren't necessary to make his point, but I the film might work without them.
Blackhat is, I think, a misunderstood film. If you're not looking at it as Hong Kong cinema, then you're well within your rights to think it an absurd action thriller about - I'm going to coin a term here - action hackers. But the action takes place in mostly Asian locations, with hero Chris Hemsworth from the South Pacific, remember, and direction Michael Mann really is channeling the vibe of Asian movie-making that often values visual interest over plot logic. Blackhat isn't a revelation, but it is visually very interesting, has some hard-hitting action moments, and the hacking seems fairly legit (especially once Mann stops with the crappy CG "into the computer" stuff). The plot isn't that nonsensical either; I only wish the climax was more hacker-oriented than it is. The DVD includes a making of featurette, though I note from its credits that the Blu-ray has several more chapters of it.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a fairly pleasant spy romcom in the True Lies vein, in which two superspies are married, but hiding their status as secret agents from one another. When their bosses send them up against one another, all hell breaks loose, and it may doom or save their marriage. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's chemistry keeps the movie afloat when lesser stars might have creeped us out when the relationship grows a little too violent, and certainly get us through the last act which turns to old action movie standards and goes on a bit too long. But then, the plot really did have to kick in sometime. It's just that the film is more comfortable when it's being a romantic sitcom about what spies do when they're at home (and to its credit, it alludes to far more than it shows).
In Eye of the Needle, Donald Sutherland plays a ruthless spy for the German side who needs to get out of the UK to relay what he's learned about D-Day. This isn't one of those revisionist stories where the enemy is valiant and you respect his patriotism or whatever. He's a brutal killer who, in fact, is quicker to kill than to use spycraft. So you want to see how far he gets, but still hope he doesn't get too far (and historically, he can't). The second half of the film more or less devolves into a "woman under threat" thriller, as "The Needle" ingratiates himself to a lonely woman living on an island with her crippled husband and her son until he can make contact with a U-boat. A taunt thriller that certainly retains some power through the last act, but leaves one wanting as an espionage film.
In Hopscotch, when Walter Matthau's older CIA agent is relegated to a desk job, he goes rogue and tears through the Western world always one step ahead of the Firm to show just what an experienced agent can do. He's not dangerous, he's just trolling the political director who wanted him to retire from the game. The result is an always amusing romp, with Matthau having loads of fun, delivering great lines, and playing pranks on armed professionals. It's nice balance of witty dialog, clever spins off familiar tropes, and paranoid danger put me in mind of Charade, and indeed, I almost did a double-take when I realized this was made in 1980. It seemed far more old-fashioned than that, in a "they don't make them like this anymore" kind of way, but I'm glad that in 1980 at least, they still did. BEST SPY FILM OF THE WEEK
Sidney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor is a strong, post-Watergate, paranoid thriller that only really shows its age because, well, the computers are really old-fashioned, and because it has a couple of casually racist and misogynist moments. In fact, I dare say the whole idea of Robert Redford's character taking a woman hostage, Stockholming her into a lusty romance, and having her help him is a movie convenience (must have a leading lady) and probably only works because he's a pretty boy. Nevertheless, I wouldn't give up the editing on that sex scene for anything. (This is one of those movies that made me check IMDB to see if it had gotten an editing nomination, and I was right, it did.) One thing Pollack definitely gets right regardless of the gender politics of the script is the paranoid atmosphere that reigns in this story of a CIA researcher whose whole unit gets burned and killed, forcing him to run from even his own agency. You never quite know who's working for, and against, whom, and that lasts right to the final frame of the picture.
The Recruit is pretty strong out of the gate, with Colin Farrell a computer coder recruited by Al Pacino and the CIA. The first hour of the film concerns itself with that recruitment and the training CIA agents go through, but does the training ever end? The thrust of the film is figuring out whether or not the tests ever do end, and whether what's happening is "real". And there's some enjoyment to be gotten from that, nice paranoia, etc. Unfortunately, The Recruit's many twists and turns bring it to where a lot of these types of films go, right into the most obvious, predictable and hackneyed climax imaginable. It dawns on you relatively early that this might be the case, especially since neither Farrell nor Pacino are playing anything but their normal types (they could do these roles in their sleep, and might have), but you hope you're wrong. Alas.
To find out what I thought of The Lone Gunmen's sole season, you'll have to go back to the start of the month's daily reviews, but in short, the show never did find its legs before it was cancelled. The comedy mostly didn't work, and the characters were too cartoonish for me to care strongly about them. Got better towards the end of its 13-episode run, but by then, it was too late. But let's talk DVD extras. You get some good (if perhaps too positive) cast and crew commentary tracks on select episodes, a good retrospective making of, some pretty fun TV spots, and the X-Files episode "Jump the Shark" that ended as best it could the running storylines from the show. They did the same with Millennium; very nice of the DVD producers to give the fans of the show closure, without forcing someone to also buy The X-Files' Season 9 DVD (which I totally understand why even a fan of the Gunmen wouldn't).
Audios: Part of the Philip Hinchcliffe Presents series from Big Finish, The Ghosts of Gralstead is a story Doctor Who's most acclaimed and respected producer might have done had he continued on the show back in the Tom Baker/Leela era, adapted to audio by Marc Platt. At three discs (6 episodes), it's a big one, and meant to echo The Talons of Weng-Chiang in a number of ways, with a disfigured evil crashing down to Victorian England, assassins from another culture coming out of the woodwork, etc. The monster in this case is a grandiose alien more from the universe of angels and demons than that of other planets, and the assassins are from the Congo, which seems a distraction to pad things out to 6 episodes, frankly, but the story features some nice lines for the Doctor and Leela, and the proper epic/Gothic feel. Nice to see Hinchcliffe work on Who again, but this blast from the past doesn't really do much beyond the nostalgia of it.