Armageddon (1998) – Michael Bay

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The 101 Action Movies brings us another Michael Bay cotton candy confection of entertainment featuring an extinction level event, too-rapid cutting, cardboard characters, a power ballad, an all-star cast, and a number of well-placed American flags to show how noble and amazing they are.

Bruce Willis leads the cast, playing Harry Stamper an oil rig Roughneck who can drill through anything. And that’s good, because NASA’s chief, Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), has the job of a lifetime for him and his crew. It seems a giant asteroid is on a direct course for Earth, and the plan is to send Stamper and his men up to drill a hole into the asteroid, insert a nuclear device, and blow enough of it apart so that it only skims the atmosphere and leaves the population safely intact.

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That is as deep as the story gets, the character development is non-existent, but at least Bay got a talented cast to make the best of it. Ben Affleck as A.J. and Liv Tyler as Grace, Harry’s daughter, supply the saccharine sweet romantic sub-plot, the always under-used Will Patton is Stamper’s right hand man Chick, Steve Buscemi is Rockhound, Owen Wilson is Oscar, Michael Clarke Duncan is Bear, William Fichtner is Colonel Sharp, Peter Stormare is Russian cosmonaut Lev Andropov, and Jason Isaacs is the smartest man on the planet.

The entire film hinges on its special effects and its escalating over-the-top sequences. Happily, even now, the effects stand up rather nicely. The first half of the film features out gang learning to work and operate in outer space, going through an accelerated astronaut training program as well as prepping of the equipment they’ll need once they touch down on the rock.

There is lots of tension and unbelievable sequences, but in for a penny in for a pound. Sharp and Stamper square off over a ticking nuclear weapon, A.J. jumps their vehicle over a canyon, before having it tumble into space, they blow up a Russian space station, and Paris gets wiped out.

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The world watches in quiet wonder and fear, leaving me to wonder what I would be doing, as Stamper and his team of blue-collar guys try to save the planet.

The film has no redeeming characteristics at all, but it’s not supposed to. It’s well aware of what it is. It is nothing more than popcorn entertainment, meant to be seen, enjoyed, and summarily dismissed. Were it not for the amazing cast, I’m not sure this movie would still be around. I was never a fan of Bay’s editing style (make sure you watch for his cameo by the way), I like my shots to last longer than 1.5 seconds.

Still, this film is a prime example of the big budget action movies that filled the latter end of the 20th century, and sadly, some still continue in this vein today, thinking that bigger is better, if we show them enough glamour, perhaps the viewer won’t notice the lack of substance.

For me Bay peaked with The Rock. I won’t even talk about the horrors he committed with the Transformers movies…

What do you think?

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Black Hawk Down (2001)

So as Prometheus draws one day closer, I wanted to watch another of my Ridley Scott faves – so I settled in for Black Hawk Down.

This movie is fantastic!

But I only own it on DVD, as I refuse to upgrade my copy to blu-ray until Sony releases the deluxe edition as opposed to the bare bones edition currently available.

The three disc set on DVD is spectacular, and filled with some brilliant behind the scenes material and historical and documentary material.

And look at this cast…

Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor, Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Sam Shepard, Kim Coates, Ron Eldard, Jeremy Piven, Ioan Gruffudd, Jason Isaacs, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Orlando Bloom and Tom Hardy.

The film is based on an operation in Mogadishu, Somalia on October 3, 1993. The US forces there planned a surgical strike to capture two of the top lieutenants of a Somalian warlord committing genocide.

Fore-warned of the approaching Delta and Rangers, the warlord’s soldiers are prepared for their arrival, and what was supposed to be an half hour operation is drawn out into a day long firefight across and around the city, which sees the bringing down of two Black Hawks.

The film follows the fighting of several groups of soldiers across the city, the humvee convoy escorting the prisoners out, the Deltas and Rangers trying to reach the downed Black Hawks, the command center, the eyes above the battle.

All of these are perfectly balanced in Scott’s tense and violent film. Ridley has always been one of my favorite technical directors, the man is a perfectionist when it comes to the images he puts on screen, and this film is a brilliant example of his work.

All the cast went through training and boot camp to make sure that they did justice to the soldiers they were portraying, and it’s all there on screen. Scott interweaves all the stories perfectly, throwing the viewer right into the midst of the battle, it’s bloody and violent.

The film looks almost over-exposed, washing out some of the brilliant colors, to convey the heat of the location, and the one scene back in the States, as one of the men makes a phone call home before leaving on this mission, is washed out in almost sepia tones, romanticizing the idea of home.

Underscoring it all is a pounding score by Hans Zimmer, as we watch the losses on both sides, the sheer brutality of war, and the camaraderie that keeps those soldiers coming back.

Eric Bana’s character Hoot says it best, “When I go home people’ll ask me, ‘Hey Hoot, why do you do it, man? Why, you some kinda war junkie?’ I won’t say a god-damn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.”

It’s an incredible war film, having a deeper impact knowing its based on an actual event, and took home Oscars for best sound and editing, while also being nominated for best director and cinematography.

It’s a brutally intense, honest and brilliant film made by one of the best directors working today, and I can’t wait to see what Scott brings us next… Come on Prometheus!!

Ridley Scott – My Top 10

I am so pumped for Prometheus, but we know that. So, while I wait very impatiently for June 8 to return to The Company, Lv-426 and learn the secrets of The Engineers I thought it would be very interesting to run down my list of favorite films by Sir Ridley.

While some people may not necessarily agree with all my selections I stand by them, and I honestly believe he is one of the best technical directors working today.

So without further ado… My list…

10) Thelma & Louise (1991) – An awesome road movie, with two very strong female leads. Leaving their less than stellar lives behind they take to the road in search of more.

It all seems to go well enough until Louise kills a man who attempts to rape Thelma.

From that moment on, they are on the run, racing towards the inescapable ending of the film.

And what a ride!

9) Robin Hood (2010) – This one may raise a few eyebrows, especially coming in higher than Thelma & Louise, but that;s because everyone, I believe, went into the film thinking it would simply be a retelling of all the stories that had gone before, robbing from the rich giving to the poor and the like. This time around it’s a completely different tale, while still incorporating a lot of the familiar trademarks of the legend. Ridley knows how to get what he wants, and each shot is masterful, no matter what people thought of the subject matter. I also have to say, as is apparent from how many times he shows up on the list, I do like when Russell Crowe and Scott work together.

8) Body of Lies (2008) – Ridely show’s his technical proficiency to the extreme with this political techno-thriller featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as CIA operative Roger Ferris who is working on tracking down a terrorist leader working out of Jordan. But in this game, intelligence is the top card and his double-dealing boss, played by Crowe, who put on some weight for the role, proves that he cannot be trusted, twisting and controlling the information, and pulling the strings, screwing Ferris time and again, though they’re supposed to be on the same side of the conflict. This is a movie that you can’t walk in and out of, you have to pay attention to everything, you see, Scott never underestimates the smarts of his audience, and refuses to talk down to them.

7) Matchstick Men (2003) – Ridley doesn’t often delve into comedy/drama but this con-man film is a lot of fun, and it’s neat to see Ridley step away from the action-dramas he usually helms.

Nicolas Cage plays Roy Waller, a con man, who is suffering from a staggering amount of phobias. He works with Frank Mercer (the always awesome Sam Rockwell) on a ‘water-filtration’ scam until his teenage daughter, played by Alison Lohman, shows up and puts a kink in things, by telling her father she wants to learn the business. Like all con films, there are twists, turns, betrayals and surprises, and this one works just fine.

6) Legend (1985) – A straight out fantasy film, Legend stands out for a couple of reasons, the swapping of music scores at the last second, and the fantastic performance by Tim Curry, as the satan-like Darkness. The film was trimmed and re-scored initially, removing a sweeping score by Jerry Goldsmith to replace it with a more synthetic soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. This was before Tom Cruise was a huge name, and the film doesn’t get lost under his ego, instead, the fairy tale nature of the film is front and center, and is lovely to look at, not to mention Mia Sara (sigh). If you seek this one out, make sure you track down the Director’s Cut, as opposed to the original theatrical cut, which lost almost 30 minutes of footage.

5) Black Rain (1989) – American cops out of their element in Japan, lost in a world that deals with things completely differently than the way they are used to on the streets of New York. Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia are the cops, sent to escort a criminal back to Japan, where they promptly lose him through deception, and a complete lack of language and protocol.

When things go really badly, Douglas’ Conklin goes head to head with the Yakuza with the help of a Japanese partner (Ken Takakura) and a ex-pat played by Kate Capshaw. An awesome flick.

4) Gladiator (2000) – Scott’s first effort with Crowe, and I’m sure some of you are wondering why it’s not my number one choice. Now, I do believe it’s a great film, even if Maximus speaks with a mostly Australian accent, but for me it doesn’t have as much repeat watch value as the remaining three on the list. In fact Black Rain almost beat it out for this position. Still it’s gorgeous, the action sequences are fantastic, and as always technically incredible.

Ridley brings ancient Rome to life in a way most viewers hadn’t seen since Ben-Hur, and it’s a bloody good ride. It also features, I feel, one of Hans Zimmer’s best scores.

3) Black Hawk Down (2001) – Based on an actual incident, that ends up being epic in size, this film shows that not only can Scott handle action, create intense war scenes, it also shows he can work with and balance an incredibly large cast including Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Jason Isaacs, William Fichtner, Jeremy Piven, Tom Hardy, and Ron Eldard. Wonderfully intense, Black Hawk Down is the epitome of wars depicting modern warfare in my mind.

And it’s impact does not lessen with repeated viewing. If you’re able, get your hands on the 3 disc special edition DVD set (this version is yet to be released on blu-ray) there are some fantastic behind-the-scenes and historical documentaries.

2) Alien (1979) – A haunted house story set in space. That’s how its been to described, and at its core, that is what it is. Much like Star Wars, which came two years before, there is a level of detail, and use to the universe that Scott created with this film. It’s not clean or pristine, it’s been lived in, and as we learn, it’s not safe.

I love the fact that the first hour of this film is all set-up. You get to know the characters, you see the Nostromo, then you have the landing, the derelict ship, and of course things go sideways as we see, almost simultaneously that the message they received was not an SOS, but possibly a warning, and Kane encounters the eggs, and the facehugger within.

There’s not an imperfect moment in this film as far as I’m concerned, the model and creature work, the design, the cinematography, the costumes, it all combines to create a completely believable world…

1) Blade Runner (1982) – Alongside Metropolis, Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner will go down in history as one of the most influential science fiction films ever made. The Final Cut is the version I stand by, more ambiguous and thought-provoking than the original version with voice-over. Scott once again created a lived-in world, that while set in a 2019 that probably won’t come to fruition by the time we reach that year (though it may very well happen in the decades that follow it – I’m not sure about the replicants, but the spinners, and the buildings, and the pollution, and the implied political state).

This is my favorite film by Ridley Scott, though differing from the source material, it created a whole new film genre the future noir.

With these amazing films, is it any wonder I can’t wait for Prometheus? And I if it will find a place in my top 10 Ridley Scott films…

What are yours?

And will you be there June 8th?

The New Class of Police Procedurals

Police procedurals have been around since the birth of television. They drew lines of right and wrong, and went after their crooks with the right and might of the law on their side, always steeping their cases in “Just the facts, ma’am.”

In recent years, the police procedural has changed. Sure you still have series that more or less stick to the straight and narrow, but more often than not, we’re getting police procedurals that have what may be called a bit of a Twililght Zone twist.

So, it looks like you can at least try to teach an old dog some new tricks, because while not all of the series survive, they do bring a new take on a tried and true formula.

My favorite of all of them came along a ways ago, but it is still an amazing show, and if you haven’t seen it I suggest you seek it out. It’s called Life on Mars, and I do not mean the abysmal American remake. I mean the original BBC series that walked the line between police procedural, time travel thriller, and was occasionally very creepy. Running for two series on the Beeb, the story follows DCI Sam Tyler (played by the always awesome John Simm), who is struck by a car in 2006, and wakes up in 1973, with all of his knowledge of modern day policing. Not sure if he’s in a coma, dead, or dreaming, and there’s evidence provided to support all the theories, Sam finds himself working with a group of cops led by Gene Hunt, a very old-school-police type, using his modern day investigative techniques to help solve crimes in the 70s while trying to figure out how to find his way back to the present.

The very politically incorrect, sexist and hard-drinking Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) returns in the spin-off/follow-up series to Life On Mars,  Ashes to Ashes. Bowie references continue as DI Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) is shot in the head in 2008. She wakes up in the London of 1981, and the times they are a-changing. Hunt and his cronies have transferred in from Manchester, and they all get teamed up together, Alex and Hunt naturally chafe at one another, but there’s also an underlying attraction there as well.

All the while however, Alex is trying to find her way back to 2008 and her daughter.

This show ran for three series on the BBC, and happily after the failure of the American version of Life On Mars, I don’t see them taking on this one.

Both series feature top notch acting, stories, music and costume, and while there are comic moments in both shows, the large majority of the time, it’s played completely straight, which allows the view er to buy into the story, the world, and the mystery of what is happening to Sam and Alex.

I think it’s time for me to revisit both series in the very near future. (Once I get over the current Trek kick I’m on).

In the series Life, Charlie Crews (played by Damian Lewis who first came to my attention in Band of Brothers) is a cop who was wrongfully accused and sent to prison. Upon his release he is given a huge settlement, enough to more than set him up for life, and never have to work again. He decides, however, to take up his badge again, and he and his new partner Dani (Sarah Shahi) form an uneasy working relationship, especially when Crews starts poking around in the case, and the bad cops, that got him sent to prison. So on one front it works as a police procedural, but it also has this huge conspiracy arc that is referenced episode to episode as well.

There’s great chemistry between Lewis and Shahi, and when you throw his lawyer, played by Adam Arkin into the mix, it makes for a very enjoyable show, that sadly only lasted two seasons.

Boomtown was another series with a great concept. To show the story from all sides. It tended to show you that your first impression of a situation was often wrong.

With a giant ensemble cast including two more Band of Brothers alumni Donnie Wahlberg and Neal McDonough.

The show ran for two seasons and made you look at things from all angles. Unusual for a police procedural, in that usually they made sure that the lines between right and wrong were clearly delineated.

Not so in Boomtown. With each new perspective you see that everything isn’t all you thought it was, and by the end of the episode, you see the events in a completely different way from when you started.

We’ve talked about Alcatraz previously on this blog, and though I’m not quite caught up on all the episodes yet, (I’m currently about 3 behind) I’m enjoying it.

All the inmates and some of the personnel disappeared from Alcatraz in the 1960s, but now, they’ve returned, they’re back on the streets, untouched by the intervening years, and picking up right where they left off.

So each week our team tracks down criminals, while at the same time trying to resolve the mystery behind the disappearance and the return of these people.

What I’ve really enjoyed about this, in addition to the mythology being created around the series, is the fact that the show isn’t shying away from portraying the types of criminals that would’ve been housed in Alcatraz. The child killer episode was downright chilling…

Then there is Awake, which is about to launch here on Global television, and the pilot is available online.

Starring Jason Isaacs (known to most people as Lucius Malfoy) plays Michael Britten, a cop who’s either lost his wife or his son in an automobile accident. You see, he now exists in two realities, one in which his wife survived and his son died, and one in which his wife died and his son survived.

He is seen a therapist in both realities, both of whom are trying to convince him which is real, all while he works cases, which seem to be connected (or a least they were tenuously connected in the pilot – we’ll see if they continue).

I like the concept, they’ve already established that some time soon he’s gonna have a complete breakdown, because he’s not sleeping, he simply transitions from one reality to the other, back and forth. I hope the show-runners know where they are going with it. 

But for now, I’m more than happy to enjoy these latest incarnations of the police procedural.

Have I missed any? Which are your favorites?