The Great Train Robbery (1978)

If the worth of a film can be measured in the height of the protagonist’s hat, then The Great Train Robbery is one of the finest cinematic endeavors in history. Look at that thing! More than once I thought of this:

Even if we strike that particular criteria, Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery is still one of the most unique and enjoyable entries in his long and storied career. We’ve discussed Crichton’s popular status as a “sci-fi writer” before, positing that although The Andromeda Strain and Coma and Jurassic Park certainly number among his finest works, Crichton also defied the genre to which he’d been assigned by the popular media on more than one occasion. In no single script is this more apparent than in The Great Train Robbery, adapted from his own 1975 novel, and the reason why isn’t simply because there’s no science fiction involved.

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True Detective 1.2 – “Seeing Things”

This review appeared shortly after the initial premiere of True Detective in early 2014 — slight edits have been made since the original posting.

After a strong, stimulating pilot episode last week, True Detective returned with a second episode that further steeped us in the characters of Rust Cohle and Martin Hart. Headway is made on the murder investigation, but True Detective continues to emphasize the characters over the plot. Spoilers follow for the second episode “Seeing Things”.

Last week, the 1995 murder of Dora Lange brought State Police Detectives Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Hart (Woody Harrelson) together for the investigation while their disproportionate attitudes kept them distanced outside of work. A connection was made between the Lange murder and the shady disappearance of the young Fontenot girl years earlier, but other than that very few pieces of the puzzle can be placed by the young detectives. The pilot episode also introduced a part of the story unfolding seventeen years after the Dora Lange murder, and in 2012 Cohle and Hart are seemingly estranged, definitely changed from the men they used to be, but somehow definitely still the same.

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The Punisher (1989)

I was one of those kids who only had a dozen or so comic books to my name but still read them constantly anyway. We’re talking constantly. Most of them were Batman titles, a few were Spider-Man or Darkhawk, one was an old Justice League issue featuring Eclipso. One was an issue of Weird War Tales with a soldier kneeling at a grave on the front cover and exclaiming to the soldier behind him “Hey! According to this…you DIED three weeks ago!”, and for some reason that shit freaked me out. Outside of the occasional Saturday morning cartoon, these precious issues were my sole window into the superhero world.

My favorite of the batch might have been a 64-page Annual issue of The Punisher, featuring a few different Punisher yarns and Part One of the mini-crossover The System Bytes. I read that thing until the cover and inside pages wore out and started to fall away and I had to cradle it like a fragile science project on the bus ride to school every time I wanted to read it. Punisher wasn’t my favorite superhero — I’d probably have told you he’s not a superhero at all, and that my Punisher issue was more similar to the Weird War Tales issue than to the guys-in-costume stuff. Spidey was the coolest and Batman was for some reason automatically my favorite, but I still went back to that Punisher comic over and over.

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Film & TV News: April 27

News

  • It’s Marvel Week here at Motion State! In preparation for Avengers: Age of Ultron, we’ll be giving the comic book movie giant more attention than it deserves usually receives.
  • Daniel Bruhl confirmed this morning that he’ll be playing Baron Zemo in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, a film which is rightly being dubbed Avengers 2.5 due to the burgeoning cast.
  • The shortlist for the new, younger, quippier, Marvelier (more Marvelous?) Spider-Man includes Tom Holland, Timothee Chalamet, Asa Buterfield, Nat Wolff, and Liam James. Our pick is Holland, but we likely won’t have to wait long for the official announcement.
  • David Ayer released the first picture of Jared Leto’s nu-punk Joker from next year’s Suicide Squad film. Our humble opinion on the look is…sorry, what? Squad is a DC film, not Marvel, you say? You can’t defile Marvel Week so willingly, you say? Fair enough. Thankfully, the other 51 weeks of the year are pretty much DC Weeks.

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Coma (1978)

Michael Douglas famously referred to Coma as the first time he was a part of something with a good story, a good cast, and a good director. The latter of those compliments, while true, was at that point based only on Crichton’s debut feature Westworld and his earlier made-for-TV flick Pursuit. The middle statement, about the cast, seems oddly self-serving considering Douglas is in the cast. The actor’s career was likewise young, and oddly enough Mike Crichton and his brother Douglas once published a story under a pseudonym that combined their first names: Michael Douglas.

Whatever conspiracy the Michaels and the Douglases have cooked up here, it probably isn’t as sinister as the conspiracy afoot in Coma. Based on the highly popular novel of the same name by Robin Cook (a friend and contemporary of Crichton’s), the story of Coma is as well thought-out as Douglas claimed. The pairing of Cook and Crichton is a match made in medical thriller heaven, and Crichton’s script treatment of the novel is accurate and respectful of the source material. Slight changes were made, but the overall sense of paranoia that pervades the book is very much intact in Crichton’s screen treatment.

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The Red Road 2.4 – “A Cure”

While portions of “A Cure” provided promising angles on The Red Road‘s second season, the feeling persists that the direction and drive of the first season have largely evaporated. The set-up for this season was Mac’s death, with Kopus somewhat framed and thus determined to find the real killer. While threads of that are still hanging loose, “A Cure” tied off enough that Mac’s death no longer feels like the unifying catalyst for this six-episode arc.

On the plus side, Kopus and Harold find their worlds converging yet again after following disparate threads for the first three episodes of the season. The cat-and-mouse tensions of their collective past have given way to a strange kind of mutual respect that neither are comfortable with. In the season opener “Gifts“, Kopus remarks on their lying, cheating and stealing eventually resulting in a promotion for Harold and prison for Kopus. “A Cure” follows up on last week’s “Intruders” with an even more explicit version of this societal unbalance: Harold kills a suspect and gets made Captain of the force, while Kopus has as much of a hand in solving that same case and ends up with a bullet in his shoulder this week.

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Selma (2014)

How can a movie be made to do justice to the Civil Rights Movement in Selma, Alabama, one of the most significant moments in the history of the United States? Ask Ava DuVernay. How can an actor embody such a revered and important historical figure such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a realistic and poignant manner? Ask David Oyelowo.

With Selma, both DuVernay and Oyelowo deliver one of the year’s most powerful films. A rare movie that actually can provide a fresh and powerful look at three months that came to shape this country, Selma follows Dr. Martin Luther King in his attempt to ensure equal voting rights. After talks with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) break down, King takes to Selma where he plans a dangerous, but necessary march to Montgomery, Alabama. Despite roadblocks, trouble at home, and several tragic deaths, King and all those who followed him triumphantly complete the march and alter history by helping to convince LBJ to create legislation to allow for equal voting rights.

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Netflix Picks #3

JohnIn Bruges is the debut effort of far-too-unknown writer and director Martin McDonagh. Starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, this is the kind of film that makes you feel guilty about bursting out into gut-wrenching laughter. Farrell plays the young, impatient thrill-seeker and Gleeson portrays the classic oldie who only wants to take in the beautiful architecture of Bruges, Belgium, where the whole film takes place. This might seem like a familiar dynamic, but there’s a twist: they’re a pair of assassins-in-hiding after a job gone wrong.

The brilliance to the film really starts with its basic premise. Bruges, one of the most aesthetically beautiful and quaint little towns in the entire world, has become the hideout and eventual battleground of the hitmen and, ultimately, the mob boss they work for. There’s a vague element of mystique, as well, an almost dream-like quality to the film that fits so well because of how easily Bruges might compare to one’s idea of heaven. I suppose it’s possible that is what allows the layer of absurdity the film also possesses to work as well as it does. At no point does it feel like some of the more ridiculous occurrences are too much, or that they do anything but add to the awesomeness of the film. It is a true shame that Mr. McDonagh has, as of yet, only made two films (the second being 2012’s Seven Psychopaths). The Oscar-nominated writing, fun performances and harsh themes all make the film immensely enjoyable for anyone with even a slight taste for the darker comedy. If that’s you, then In Bruges is fun as hell.

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Ex Machina (2015)

There’s this dude Nathan. He’s one of the few dudes onscreen in Ex Machina, the directorial debut of 28 Days Later and Sunshine scribe Alex Garland. Nathan is a walking paradox, even in the most perfunctory surface-level characterization of him as a hard-drinking frat boy who also happens to be a veritable technological genius. Caleb, his temporary intern of sorts, at one point compares him to Mozart — likely the first time a Mozart figure has ever spent so much time on abs and forearms. This straightforward incongruity in Nathan would only work with the right actor in his shoes, and Oscar Isaac is the right actor. A force in Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year, Isaac is utterly convincing throughout Ex Machina. Nathan drains bottles of beer and vodka, yells at his maid, passes out drunk, wakes up to lift weights and beat his punching bag, and soon starts in on the beer and vodka again — and yet he’s always the smartest guy in the room by a longshot.

That somewhat superficial contradiction (or, for the purposes of a review of a film about artificial intelligence: that skin-deep, cosmetic, inorganic contradiction) is only the beginning of Nathan. Isaac is joined by Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, the timid young coder brought to Nathan’s underground tech lair as ostensible winner of a contest to take part in a secret experiment (Isaac and Gleeson are also both in The Force Awakens later this year, which is doubly exciting after seeing Ex Machina). Together they deliberate Ava, Nathan’s advanced A.I. that not only walks exactly like a human and talks exactly like a human but thinks exactly like a human, too. What that means, exactly, is exactly what Ex Machina probes. Maybe. Spoilers follow.

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Halloween (1978)

Halloween might be the most imitated, riffed-upon, winked-at American horror film in history. To say nothing of multiple novels and comic book series starring the serial killer Michael Myers, the film franchise itself now stands at ten installments, of which — you guessed it! — nine are pretty much crap. Judging by the box office landscape of the next few years, it won’t be long before Halloween 11: We Can Out-Sequel Saw hits a theater near you. But outside of the canon there are hundreds of Halloweens, from subtle copies to straight-up rip-offs, especially with the original being the film that most credit as the start of the slasher genre (“what about Hitchcock?!”).

One case-in-point is It Follows, one of the most recent nods to John Carpenter’s first true horror flick (although we sought out the elements of horror in his feature debut Assault on Precinct 13). The similarities are numerous and unmistakable, from the suburban setting to the shot of the classroom to the sense that this thing is stalking only the protagonist with everyone else standing in as collateral damage. That Michael Myers is a thing or an it — certainly not a him — is made clear by his psychiatrist Sam Loomis, and the idea of the human form as a vessel for something more sinister is also at the heart of It Follows. The music by Disasterpeace, too, is just one more obvious piece of evidence of the influence of Halloween in movies like It Follows; go listen to “Playpen” and try not to picture a flickering jack-o’-lantern against a black backdrop.

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