May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
August 1, 2009
It’s a cliché to end all clichés: becoming a parent changes things. In my naiveté, though, I never really thought that the effect would extend to my movie-watching habits, to my cinéaste lifestyle. But with one child here, and another on its way, the truth is that my habits have irrevocably changed.
All of that is to say that the vast majority of the movie-watching that I do these days comes from cable television. I confess that I spend most of my cable-watching time simply surfing through the hundreds of channels available at my fingertips. And while I occasionally find such mindless activity mildly therapeutic, it is, for the most part, a rather soul-numbing experience wading through the dross that makes up most of today’s broadcasting environment.
Every so often, however, I come across one of those during my excursions into the cable TV wasteland: a movie that I simply must watch, regardless of wherever I come in, be it the opening credits, the halfway point, or the big (oftentimes explosion-filled) climax. Of course, cable television being what it is, you won’t find any Tarkovsky, Bresson, or Ozu here, nor will you find any of those aforementioned indie gems. But nevertheless, I’m compelled to watch them, and no matter how many times I’ve seen them (or at least seen bits and pieces of them), they’ll likely bring an end to my surfing.
(Just for the record, my wife can vouch for each one of these movies, and could probably add a few more to the list. She has the patience of a saint.)
The Hunt for Red October (1990, John McTiernan)
John McTiernan may now be best known for a certain wiretapping scandal, but let’s not forget that the man has directed some of the best action films of the last few decades: Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988), and this, an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s best-selling novel.
I enjoy this film because it works on several levels. There’s a bit of Cold War nostalgia (an odd sensation that surely deserves an essay or two of its own), elements of a great heist film involving a super-secret Soviet submarine, some thrilling naval warfare and underwater suspense, and a solid performances from a solid cast that includes Alec Baldwin (FWIW, I prefer his Jack Ryan to Harrison Ford’s), Sean Connery, Sam Neill, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, and Stellan Skarsgård.
There’s nothing really flashy about The Hunt for Red October, which works decidedly to its advantage. It’s simply an intelligent, well-crafted film that instantly draws me in, especially once the underwater games of cat-and-mouse begin as various submarines start hunting each other in the high seas. It may not be Das Boot, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find myself on the edge of my seat when the sonar starts pinging away and torpedoes begin tearing through the water.
The Abyss (1989, James Cameron)
A friend of mine once theorized that if you channel-surfed long and hard enough, you could probably find The Abyss playing on at least one channel at any given time. I’m inclined to agree; this movie seems pretty ubiquitous at times. Which is fine by me.
James Cameron can get pretty preachy in his films, but he was never preachier than this one — especially if you find yourself watching the director’s cut of the film — as a group of underseas technicians and divers, as well as a few troublemaking Navy SEALS, encounter a seemingly all-powerful ocean-dwelling civilization that grave concerns about humanity’s violent nature.
There are some pretty awe-inspiring scenes; the initial contacts between the humans and the NTIs (as they’re called in the film) are something akin to an underwater Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and final reveal of the NTI’s city is pretty breathtaking (an experience aided by Alan Silvestri’s score). And this being a Cameron film, the visual effects are spot-on, most famously during the “water pseudopod” scene (which was, in some ways, a guinea pig for Terminator 2‘s T-1000).
But I, for one, love the characters. You could do worse than to find your movie’s heart and soul in Ed Harris, and here, he gives a solid performance as Virgil “Bud” Brigman, the gruff foreman of the underseas oil rig that serves as the film’s setting. True, the film gets pretty portentous towards the end, especially when Bud’s messages to his estranged wife (played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) are used to defend humanity against the NTI’s accusations.
But for all of his bluster, Cameron also knows how to pack his films with smaller, more human moments, and this film has them aplenty, whether it’s the underseas crew singing along to a Linda Ronstadt song as they work beneath the waves, the friction between Brigman and his wife, the chaos and panic that ensues during a massive accident, or Brigman’s final, agonizing descent into the titular abyss in a final, desperate bid to save two civilizations.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986, John Carpenter)
I’ve found the food metaphor — which I picked up from my fellow Filmweller Jeffrey Overstreet’s book Through A Screen Darkly — to be very useful when it comes to describing, and when necessary, defending some of the movies that I watch and count among my favorites.
We all enjoy fancy, well-prepared meals from fine restaurants. But there are times when not even the most exquisite five-course meal will satisfy you as much as a bacon double cheeseburger with a side of greasy fries and a big chocolate milkshake.
Big Trouble in Little China is the cinematic equivalent of that particularly greasy, unhealthy, and oh so enjoyable meal. It’s a smorgasbord of Chinese superstition and magic, over-the-top kung fu antics that would make King Hu and Tsui Hark proud, and Kurt Russell smirking and one-lining his way through the performance of his career.
Any time I come across this movie, I start watching because I know that within 30 seconds, Russell’s macho doofus of a hero is going to do or say something that is as hilarious as it is stupid, that he’ll drop an imminently quotable line (e.g., “May the wings of liberty never lose a feather”), or that his testosterone-fueled cluelessness will prove to be, in its own way, as effective in a fight as any kung fu stance. And I know it’s going to be an absolutely satisfying, even if somewhat unhealthy, experience.
The Bourne Series
You can call the Bourne trilogy — The Bourne Identity (2002, Doug Liman), The Bourne Supremacy (2004, Paul Greengrass), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, Paul Greengrass) — the 21st century’s replacement for the venerable James Bond series. You can call them, thanks to the involvement of director Greengrass, mainstream action films that the arthouse set doesn’t have to be afraid of enjoying. Or, like me, you can just call them “must watch” movies.
Put simply, these three films represent some of the most intelligent — and action-packed — action films of recent memory. They’re incredibly well-made, balancing taut and riveting action and stunt sequences with solid drama anchored by great performances from Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Brian Cox, Joan Allen, and a host of others.
And while I still love 007 and always will, the Bourne films take so much of what I love about the Bond films — the globetrotting, the gadgets, the action — and dovetail them with a quasi-documentary feel that takes them out of a fantasy world and firmly plants them in the post-Cold War here and now. The films touch on a host of modern fears and concerns (the ethical and moral dilemmas of out-of-control government programs, surveillance) while also containing a strongly redemptive and moving story about a man simply trying to make sense of, and atone for, his past.
It just so happens that this man is also a highly-trained operative capable of paralyzing you with his little toe — and the fact that the film can do all of the above without ever sacrificing the adrenaline-pounding and bone-crushing action (and vice versa) is perhaps the most remarkable thing about them.
Independence Day (1996, Roland Emmerich)
It doesn’t get any bigger, louder, or dumber than this (though, to be fair, I haven’t seen Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen yet).
I still remember seeing the trailer for the first time when I was a sophomore in college. After seeing massive flying saucers vaporize the Empire State Building, my friend and I immediately staked out our place in line, and we really weren’t disappointed. And to this day, I’m still not disappointed by it, regardless of whether I start watching at the first scene of global devastation, or the last.
You want it, this movie’s got it: Will Smith’s smart-alecky charm, Jeff Goldblum’s goofy charm, Bill Paxton’s jingoistic charm, Randy Quaid’s drunken charm, Adam Baldwin’s natural charm (this was before he became the man called Jayne), and oh yeah: the charm of seeing lots of stuff getting blown up by big-ass flying saucers. Indeed, the scale of the film is so big — or at least, it tries to be so big — that it surpasses “epic” and jumps right to “ludicrous”.
But that’s why I like it so much. Sure, there’s some human drama thrown in — such as Jeff Goldblum’s character pining after his ex-wife or Will Smith’s girlfriend’s struggle for survival — but the film’s focus is clearly and giddily on the massive amounts of alien-generated devastation. With all of the eye candy on display, including Will Smith’s star beginning its Hollywood ascendancy, Independence Day remains the ultimate (summer) popcorn film, even after thirteen years.
My Filmwell comrades might look on me with some shame now, but I’d say it’s purely a guilty pleasure — except that I never really feel guilty for enjoying it, or finding it as watchable, as I do.