The Right Stuff

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1983

The Ladd Company/Warner Bros.

Directed by and Screenplay by Philip Kaufman

Produced by Irwin Winkler/Robert Chartoff\

Based on “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe

Music by Bill Conti

Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel

One of the reasons why THE RIGHT STUFF stands out in my memory is because I saw it during its original theatrical run in the theater. And when the end credits played, a good 75% of the sold out audience I saw it with gave it a standing ovation. And I was right with them. I’ve heard felgercarb from modern day “movie fans” who are so very worldly and sophisticated and think it’s oh so very silly to applaud a movie. What’s the point? they say. The filmmakers can’t hear your applause. But in the case of THE RIGHT STUFF that isn’t the point. That audience and I stood and applauded because we’d just seen a three-hour epic about heroism done with style, respect, humor and grandeur. And we had to show our appreciation for how the movie made us felt. And the bottom line is that it made us all feel damn good. Was a lot of the movie made up? Sure it was. THE RIGHT STUFF is a great example of that magnificent line from “The Legend of Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

I say that to let you know right up front that there’s a lot of legend in THE RIGHT STUFF. Yes, it’s based on historical events involving real people but the filmmakers didn’t let them get in the way of telling a good story. Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) didn’t fly the X-1 on a whim as the movie would lead you to to believe but damn if it doesn’t make for a great scene. Especially when he breaks a couple of ribs chasing his wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey) on horseback in the desert surrounding the future Edwards Air Force Base and falls off his horse and still gets in the X-1 the next day to break the sound barrier.

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And it’s fun to see the friendly rivalry between Yeager and Scott Crossfield as they break each others speed records repeatedly. This is while hungry young pilots such as Gordon “Gordo” Cooper (Dennis Quaid) Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward) and Donald “Deke” Slayton (Scott Paulin) are pouring into the base, looking to make their mark and prove they have “The Right Stuff.” Okay, maybe some of this is made up but if you want the facts, go look them up for yourself. We got these things called libraries. You might have heard of them. Make use of them.

But exactly what IS “The Right Stuff”? nobody ever says. It’s one of those grand and glorious Man Things That Cannot Be Given A Name. Chuck Yeager doubtless has it. In fact, he may have it more than anybody else even though he is deemed not worthy to be invited to join the space program. In one of the movie’s best scenes Gus Grissom is being ridiculed by the media and fellow pilots for his insistence that the explosive bolts on the hatch of his capsule exploded on their own during splashdown. The common consensus is that he panicked. But Yeager comes to Grissom’s defense;” You think a monkey knows he’s sittin’ on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys they know that, see? Well, I’ll tell you something, it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that’s on TV. Ol’ Gus, he did all right.” Now, maybe Chuck Yeager said that or maybe he didn’t. But it matters in the context of the movie and the story that the movie is telling and that’s enough.

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The bulk of the movie is taken up with the 1960s Space Race, accelerated by the Russians launching Sputnik in 1957. NASA is tasked with putting an American in space and that initiates a near hysterical search for astronauts. Ironically, pilots like Yeager are excluded because he doesn’t “fit the profile” but after extraordinary grueling physical and mental tests, The Mercury Seven astronauts are chosen; Cooper, Grissom and Slayton along with John Glenn (Ed Harris) Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) Walter “Wally” Schirra (Lance Henriksen) and Charles Frank (Scott Carpenter). But even though they are trained to be pilots, the engineers of the project (and it’s very clear that the majority of these engineers used to work for the Third Reich in WWII) see them as nothing more than passengers. You add to this is extensive publicity machine surrounding these proceedings and you’ve a situation as ripe for comedy as it is for drama.

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And one of the thing that takes people by surprise about THE RIGHT STUFF when they see it for the first time is that is a very funny movie. In fact, at times, it almost plays like a comedy, especially where Dennis Quaid is concerned. Those of you who have seen the movie know what I mean. But just about everybody gets their chance to be funny, even when they’re not being funny. If you know what I mean. Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum get a lot of laughs out their bit as a pair of recruiters looking for candidates for the fledgling NASA program. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the cast don’t get their funny moments as well.

This movie may have just have the greatest cast of talent on screen since “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” Here we go: Fred Ward. Dennis Quaid. Scott Glenn. Ed Harris. Sam Shepard. Lance Henriksen. Scott Paulin. Barbara Hershey. Veronica Cartwright. Harry Shearer. Jeff Goldblum. Pamela Reed. Charles Frank. Donald Moffat. Scott Wilson. Kathy Baker. Royal Dano. John P. Ryan. William Russ. John Dehner. And Chuck Yeager himself. He shows up as the bartender at Pancho’s, the joint where all the pilots hang out. It’s an utterly extraordinary cast and what’s even more extraordinary is that the script and the director gives them all a chance to shine without detracting from the overall story the movie is telling.

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And the musical score by Bill Conti is absolutely magnificent. It won the Academy Award that year for Best Original Score and rightfully so. A large part of the reason why THE RIGHT STUFF is still so highly regarded is because of that heroically soaring score. The special effects are also worthy of note because they’re practical effects, done with models. I don’t have anything against CGI and fully understand that a lot of my favorite movies of recent years couldn’t be done without them. But practical effects have a weight and realism that can’t be duplicated. When Chuck Yeager is in that X-1 and says that it’s still going up like a bat outta hell, we believe him.

Chances are that most of you reading this have already seen THE RIGHT STUFF and agree with me. But for those you who haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor and check it out at your earliest opportunity. THE RIGHT STUFF is one of the finest American movies ever made, period. And it’s a whole lot of fun to watch as well. Enjoy.

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192 Minutes

Rated PG

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bourne Legacy

2012

Universal Pictures

Directed by Tony Gilroy

Produced by Frank Marshall and Patrick Crowley

Screenplay by Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy

Based on a story by Tony Gilroy

Inspired by The Bourne Series written by Robert Ludlum

I will give THE BOURNE LEGACY credit for being original in one major area: it’s not a prequel or sequel to the previous three Jason Bourne movies starring Matt Damon. The events of this movie take place at the same time the events of “The Bourne Ultimatum” play out. Jason Bourne is mentioned a few times and we briefly see pictures of him but for all intents and purposes these are new characters dealing with a different level of fallout caused by Jason Bourne exposing Operation Blackbriar and Project Treadstone.

But after that I’m sad to say I can’t give THE BOURNE LEGACY any more credit after that. Matter of fact, by the time I got to the end of the movie (which has a terrific new version of Moby’s “Extreme Ways” playing over the credits) I felt the filmmakers owed me.

While Jason Bourne is in Manhattan carrying on cranky, CIA Director Kramer (Scott Glenn) and Mark Turso (Stacy Keach) bring in Eric Byer (Edward Norton) to help control the chaos. Turso and Byer are apparently part of a larger organization/conspiracy that has way more power than the CIA since Byer is able to sanction the dismantling of all CIA Black Ops programs. Including Operation Outcome which is genetically modifying super agents through blue and green pills that enhance physical and mental abilities via a virus that can actually restructure DNA. Byer also sanctions the assassination of all Outcome operatives.

One of these super agents, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is on a training mission in Alaska. He meets up with another operative, Number Three (Oscar Isacc) and caught by a blizzard, accepts Number Three’s invitation to stay the night. Kinda makes it easy for Byer to attempt to kill them both by using a U-CAV to blow up the cabin. Cross alone survives and somehow makes his way back to the lower 49 as he is out of blue and green pills and must get a new supply.

Virologist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) is the only one who can successfully make more pills, all the rest of her colleagues having been brutally murdered in what is for me the movie’s best and most suspenseful scene. Marta barely survived that massacre and it’s only through Cross showing up at her house in time that she survives a hit team of CIA agents sent to kill her.  From then on, it’s Cross and Marta trying to stay one step ahead of various attempts to kill them. The film jumps back and forth between them and Byers, Turso and a buncha other suits in a control room that would give NASA technicians fits of envy. They spend most of their time fretting about their dirty tricks being discovered.  Really.  That’s all they do. They also yell at each other a lot. Cross and Marta don’t do nearly as much yelling but they sure do a lot of running.

I really wanted to like THE BOURNE LEGACY a lot. There isn’t an actor in this movie I don’t like or didn’t turn in a solid, professional performance. Jeremy Renner with this movie goes up a dozen rungs on the ladder to being the Next Big Action Star. Edward Norton doesn’t know how to do anything less than be terrific in any movie he’s in and Rachel Weisz is way more interesting playing a scientist than a lot of other actresses who have played brainy types.

But it’s that first hour of THE BOURNE LEGACY that sank the movie for me. Now I don’t mind a movie that makes me work and makes me think about what I’m watching but there is so much that happens in the first hour that is not explained and characters introduced and I wasn’t sure of who they were or why they were there or what they were doing or why should I care about any of it. Maybe it would have helped if I had re-watched the first three BOURNE movies before seeing this one but I don’t think that really would have helped.  The only actors from those movies who are in this one are Joan Allen, David Strathairn and Albert Finney but their appearances are little more than cameos.

John Gilroy did the editing for this movie. Now if you’ve been reading my reviews for a while you’ll note that I generally don’t mention editing unless it’s spectacularly bad and it is in this movie during the action and fight scenes. You can’t convince me that Aaron Cross is supposed to be an unstoppable fighting machine unless I can tell who he’s hitting and how he’s hitting them. Just a frantic blur of motion and bodies flying through the air don’t cut it for me. It’s not shaky-cam but it’s almost as bad.

Another thing that bothered me was the high number of innocent bystanders who get killed in this movie. If I’m correct and counted right, Aaron Cross kills at least six people who have nothing to do with the conspiracy trying to kill him and were merely people who were just doing their jobs. They’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And by the time I got to the ending I finally figured out why the movie is constructed the way it is. The studio is obviously so convinced this movie is going to be such a huge hit that a sequel is guaranteed and they needed to save a lot of story for that.

So should you see THE BOURNE LEGACY? I’m gonna grudgingly say yes. It’s not that it’s a bad movie. It’s professionally made and the performances are good. But it’s just that whole confusing first hour that didn’t work for me and the poorly edited action sequences.

135 minutes

PG-13

Silverado

1985

Columbia Pictures

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
Produced by
Lawrence and Mark Kasdan
Written by Lawrence and Mark Kasdan

I absolutely love Westerns. Much as I love most genres of movies, if you gave me a choice between say, a Science Fiction and a Western or a 1940’s Murder Mystery and a Western or a Woody Allen comedy and a Western, 9 times out of ten I’ll take the Western. It’s a genre I grew up watching mainly because my parents were also in love with Westerns and one of my favorite childhood memories is when my father took me out to dinner at a fancy Chinese restaurant and then we went to see “The Wild Bunch” And my personal list of My Favorite Ten Movies Of All Time includes not only “The Wild Bunch” but also “Once Upon A Time In The West” which I think is the greatest Western ever made.

By 1985, the Western was a dead genre as far as major theatrical films were concerned. Only Clint Eastwood has the necessary clout to get a Western made back then and nobody even wanted to take a try at one except for an ambitious writer/director named Lawrence Kasdan who was riding a wave of good fortune due to his screenplays for “Raiders of The Lost Ark” “The Empire Strikes Back” “The Return of The Jedi” and a couple of box office smash hits he wrote and directed: “Body Heat” and “The Big Chill”

Lawrence Kasdan and his brother Mark were major Western fans since they were kids and really wanted to make one.   Lawrence used every bit of clout he had to get the film approved and I’m glad he did because SILVERADO is a magnificently huge Super Western that looks, feels and sounds as if it had been made back in the great heyday of Westerns when guys like John Ford and Howard Hawks were doing their thing. The story is one that I’m pretty sure has every convention and set piece you can think of in a western: gunslingers, barroom brawls, homesteaders being run off their land, sneaky gamblers with derringers up their sleeves, crooked sheriffs, saloons, cattle stampedes, wagon trains, pretty widow ladies, outlaw hideouts, evil cattle barons, gunfights on Main Street at high noon.  The only thing lacking in SILVERADO is an Indian uprising but I’m pretty sure that if Mr. Kasdan could have found a way, he’d have had that in there as well.

Emmett (Scott Glenn) is making his way home after spending five years in prison for killing a man in self-defense. After successfully fighting off an ambush by four desperados trying to kill him, he meets up with Paden (Kevin Kline) who was robbed of his horse, ivory-handled guns, stylish all-black outfit complete with beloved silver banded hat and left to die in the desert. The two men hook up and after making a pit stop at an Army fort where Paden gets back his horse and runs into a pair of old buddies, Cobb (Brian Dennehy) and the psychotic Tyree (Jeff Fahey).  From there they go onto the town of Turley where Emmett’s goofy kid brother Jake (Kevin Costner) is going to be hanged come the morning. They take time to help keep Mal (Danny Glover) out of Sheriff Langston’s (John Cleese) jail and after Emmett and Paden bust Jake out of jail Mal returns the favor by using his sharpshooting skills with a Henry rifle to chase Sheriff Langston back to town.

The four heroes then proceed to have a wild series of adventures that include rescuing a wagon train of homesteaders stranded in the wilderness and taking on a band of thieves who have stolen the life savings of the wagon train. Mind you, all this happens before we’ve even gotten to the town of Silverado, which is being controlled by the ruthless cattle baron Ethan MacKendrick (Ray Baker) who has hired Paden’s old pal Cobb to be Silverado’s Sheriff. Cobb is harassing the homesteaders to leave and if they don’t they’re burned out and killed, like Mal’s parents. It isn’t long before the four friends are pulled apart by their own separate conflicts and loyalties but soon come to realize that if there is to be any justice in Silverado, they are the ones who will have to join back together and make it.

Now that’s the bare bones of the story but there’s a helluva lot of subplots going on because this is a mollyfoggin’ huge cast Kasdan is working with and each of his four leads are just that. They’re all leading men and Kasdan treats them that way.  Danny Glover, Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn and Kevin Costner are all treated as equals in terms of skill, courage and respect. And each of the four leads have more than enough screen time to explore their motivations for having a stake in the future of Silverado.

Emmett and Jake have a sister; brother-in-law and a nephew who thinks his gunslinging uncles are just the coolest. Mal’s parents were homesteaders who were run off their land and murdered while his sister Rae (Lynn Whitfield) has willingly become a prostitute in town, hooked up with the local gambler, Slick Calvin Stanhope (Jeff Goldblum). Paden is torn between his loyalties toward his old friend Cobb and the wild life he used to lead and his new friends who are men of honor and respect.  His growing friendship for Stella The Midnight Star (Linda Hunt), Cobb’s partner in the town’s largest saloon and prostitution emporium is also a large factor in his eventual decision.

And both Paden and Emmett have a stake in what happens to the homesteaders as they’re both attracted to the extremely pretty and recently widowed Hannah (Roseanne Arquette) who likes the both of them a whole lot and is grateful to them but makes it perfectly clear that men who tell her she’s pretty come along every day. She’s looking for a man willing to help her work the land, make things grow and build a stable life.

Like I said, you would think that with this many subplots, characters and settings that SILVERADO would be a confused mess but nothing could be further from the truth.  The first half of the movie is a road trip in which we’re introduced to most of the characters so that by the time the wagon train, along with Emmett, Jake, Paden and Mal arrives in Silverado, we already feel as if we’ve been on the trail with these guys and feel comfortable with what’s going on. And once they reach the town itself, the rest of the characters are integrated smoothly into what we already know. It’s a remarkable job of writing and directing that shows that you can have a large cast and multiple storylines and not have the movie feel crowded or rushed.

The acting in this movie is top-notch. I don’t think I can remember right now a movie with this large a cast who were all so good. Scott Glenn and Kevin Kline are at the top of the list with performances that I believe they based on Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn, both of who made more than their share of notable westerns. Kevin Costner’s Jake is a goofy daredevil who is the best horseman and gunman out the four but who tends to get into trouble for kissing the wrong girls. Danny Glover’s Mal is not portrayed here as a sidekick to his three white co-stars but is a hero in his own right and I really liked his scenes with Kevin Costner’s Jake and in those few scenes they had a real rapport together that made me wish they had a few more together.

Now you all know how I love movies that have bad guys who love being bad and this movie is chock fulla them, led by Brian Dennehy’s Cobb who goes through the whole movie grinning from ear to ear behind a bristling white beard. The secret to any good bad guy is this: he doesn’t think he’s the bad guy and Brian Dennehy must understand that because Cobb is extremely likeable. Sure he burns out innocent families and kidnaps kids and murders without a second thought but he’s just such a damn nice guy while he’s doing it.

Jeff Goldblum is a real surprise. As the gambler Slick he is dashingly elegant and even though he has only a few scenes he makes ‘em work. Linda Hunt as Stella absolutely steals every scene she’s in and the relationship between her character and Kevin Kline’s is really sweet and feels genuine.  Who else is good? Joe Seneca. Earl Hindman. Pepe Serna. Brion James. James Gammon. And that beautiful musical score by Bruce Broughton is just perfect.

If you’ve seen SILVERADO then you’re probably a fan of it and if you aren’t, I urge you to go back and see it again in a new light. It’s the Western I recommend to people who claim they don’t like Westerns and after they see it most of ‘em come back to me and say that, yeah, they liked it a whole lot. Know why? Because at it’s heart SILVERADO is about four gun-slinging, hard-ridin’, two-fisted heroes riding from town to town having adventures and bringing justice to The Old West and if you can’t find it in your heart to like that then I’m sorry, amigo, you just ain’t got no heart.

127 min
Rated PG13

Sucker Punch

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2011

Warner Bros.

Directed by Zack Snyder

Produced by Deborah Snyder

Screenplay by Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya

Based on a story by Zack Snyder

Zack Snyder has provided me with two of my favorite movie watching experiences of recent years.  “300” which I fell so in love with the first time I saw it, I wanted to marry it and take it home to meet my mother.  And “Watchman” which I thought was a brilliant adaptation of the graphic novel and actually improved upon it in certain areas, particularly the ending.  Upon hearing that his new movie SUCKER PUNCH was based on an original story by Zack Snyder I was really pumped to see it as I could imagine what his extraordinary visual style could do when applied to characters of his own creation.

I should have listened more closely to my friend Jason who upon seeing the trailers opinioned that any movie with trailers that kick-ass couldn’t live up to the promise they were making.  Know what?  Jason was totally correct.  SUCKER PUNCH isn’t as kick-ass as those trailers promised.  But neither is it the complete and total disaster some would have you believe.  At most, it’s an interesting experiment by a still young filmmaker who I think was trying to tell a story too ambitious for his still growing talents.  But we’ll get back to that in a bit, okay?  Right now, the obligatory story synopsis…

Baby Doll’s (Emily Browning) life is about as bad as it can get.  Her mother has died, her sister killed in a tragic accident and her stepfather has had her committed to a mental asylum.  The stepfather has bribed the head orderly Blue Jones (Oscar Isacc) to arraign for Baby Doll to be lobotomized.  This way, he can keep control of the vast fortune left to Baby Doll by her mother and she will unable to tell anybody the true circumstances of the death of Baby Doll’s sister.

To cope with her horrific situation, Baby Doll’s mind creates an elaborate fantasy world where the asylum is now a strip club/brothel where Blue is the owner.  The asylum’s chief therapist Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) is now the madam.  Baby Doll becomes friends with the club’s top dancers; Amber (Jamie Chung) Blondie (Vaneesa Hudgens) Rocket (Jena Malone) and her older sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish).  Baby Doll is informed that in five days she is to be given to ‘The High Roller’ which is paralleled in the real world by The Doctor (Jon Hamm) coming to give her a lobotomy.  Baby Doll plans to use those five days to escape and enlists the aid of the other dancers to do so.  This involves Baby Doll creating yet another fantasy world where she and her friends, guided by The Wise Man (Scott Glenn) have to collect five objects to aid in their escape.

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That sounds pretty simple and straightforward, right?  Well, it isn’t.  There’s an added dimension to this in that apparently Baby Doll can mesmerize everybody in a room when she dances.  We never see what the dance is but when she does, she and her friends are transported to the world where they have to gather the objects.  That’s at around the point you’ll probably start scratching your head.  I know I did.

Let’s get the good out of the way: I liked most of the performances.  Scott Glenn looks as if he’s having so much fun I was having fun watching him.  Jon Hamm is only in the movie for a few minutes but he really makes the most of his brief screen time to really bring an added note of horror and pathos to the movie’s bleakest moment.  And Carla Gugino is amazing as always.  Why this woman doesn’t have a bigger career infuriates me to no end.  Jena Malone I really liked in this one.  She’s got an 80’s Meg Ryan vibe going here I found appealing.  Abbie Cornish I don’t recall seeing in anything but I’m going to be looking for more from her.

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The best part of the movie?  Undoubtedly the absolutely incredible action sequences where Baby Doll and crew acquire the objects they need.  I especially loved the World War I sequence with automatic weapons, steampunk battle armor, great big honkin’ zepplins porcupined with weapons and clockwork German soldiers.  You see those sequences and you mightily wish that Zack Snyder had built a better story around them.  He’s got an astounding eye for detail that is truly gifted and visually, SUCKER PUNCH is a treat.

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The bad?  There was one too many realities to deal with.  Unlike “Inception” which was painstakingly clear about the rules concerning dream worlds, SUCKER PUNCH isn’t.  I took the movie to be an homage to “The Wizard of Oz” more than anything else since it starts off with a very dull gray look to everything but once Baby Doll starts her fantasy in the brothel, the movie switches to vibrant, eye-popping color.

But once I realized that the action sequences were little more than glorified cut scenes from a videogame, I got bored.  Because I knew they weren’t going to last.  And what I wanted to see was a whole movie with these five fightin’ females boppin’ around these incredible worlds kicking every ass in sight.  And I was frustrated because I wasn’t getting it.  I did find it amusing that Baby Doll apparently has learned Jim Kelly’s trick of switching footwear in mid-fight and that kept me active looking for when she would switch from high heels to flats and back.

So should you see SUCKER PUNCH?  See, that’s a tough one for me to call.  Let me put it to you from both sides of my movie persona:

The cheap-ass, misery, grinchy Derrick Ferguson says: even though I’m a Zack Snyder fan,  there were parts where I was bored so if you’re not a fan, I can’t see where you’d want to see this.

On the other hand…

The artistic, compassionate, film nerd Derrick Ferguson says Zack Snyder has given us something interesting that isn’t a remake or a reboot or dragging out some moldy old franchise, slapping a new coat of paint on it and going “Ta-da!”  He’s done his best to give us something original and he’s to be commended for that.  He stretched himself and didn’t play it safe and I respect that.  I’m willing to give him a pass for SUCKER PUNCH because this is only his fifth film and he’s still growing as a filmmaker.  This one got away from him because I don’t believe he’s built up enough directorial muscle to successfully pull off telling a story like this.  If SUCKER PUNCH is a failure it’s an honest one motivated by creativity and a desire to communicate with a unique storytelling style.

109 minutes

Rated PG-13