Monday, November 17, 2014

Flight Films

Right about now exactly a week ago, as best as I can calculate it, I was halfway between Seattle and Minneapolis, after having left Nanjing, China, early Monday morning for a one hour flight to Shanghai and then a 14 hour flight to the U.S. Unlike my trip to Hong Kong four years ago, this time jet lag--plus headaches and nausea--hit me pretty hard, both going and coming back. Also unlike that trip, I wasn't in a situation, unfortunately, where I could really get out an explore the city (though I suppose that's at least as much a result of how I was feeling as it was of where I was staying. So while the conference was great, and the tour we made of the Nanjing Fuzimiao (Confucian temple and museum) was wonderful--both of which I should probably write posts about--I unfortunately have to confess that probably the thing which sticks out most in my mind about this trip was just how many movies I saw on the flight there and back. Seriously, film-wise it was a productive trip. Here's the run-down:

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: finally saw this. I still think Sam Raimi's and Tobey Maguire's take on the whole Spider-Man mythos is superior; Andrew Garfield mumbles as a teenager should, but ultimately this reboot of Spider-Man makes Peter Parker fated and tragic and super-charged--the glory of the previous trilogy was that Peter was always a bit of a schnook, an accident, a guy continuously in the wrong place at the right time, or vice versa. I do like this version's Harry Osborne a lot better than the way James Franco played him, though.

Captain Phillips: it was a good thriller and all, but I have to confess that as Paul Greengrass did his usual skillful arrangement of men and machines, I mainly found myself thinking not about the life of Captain Richard Phillips, nor about the fate of the Somali pirates that hijacked the Maersk Alabama, but rather just about the cost involved in the whole operation. I mean, assuming Greengrass depiction is accurate (and he usually takes great efforts to make sure he gets the technology and bureaucracy correct), then we're talking multiple warships, helicopters, an immense intelligence apparatus on the ground in Somalia, sophisticated satellite tracking, highly trained and heavily equipped Navy SEALS, plus all the computer infrastructure to make it happen and the fuel to get everyone to where they needed to be. Add it all up, and the rescue of Captain Phillips had to have had an ultimate cost in the tens of millions of dollars, if not the hundreds. So really, wouldn't paying the Somalis ransom have been cheaper? Food for thought, anyway.

The Fighter: proof that when you've got a strong script, solid actors, and a great director and editor, even as straightforward a story as this one--down-on-his-luck boxer gets one more chance!--can be presented honestly, and result in something terrific. I was genuinely cheering at the end; a great, great movie.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: there's only been one Wes Anderson movie that I honestly didn't really care for--Fantastic Mr. Fox--and this movie definitely continues the trend; I wouldn't call it one of his best, but it was a lot of fun, just the same. This film, even more than most Anderson creations, really struck me as a huge Rube Goldberg machines, and endlessly weird chain of inputs-outputs, this-thing-and-then-that. There was a manic rhythm to the whole thing which I really enjoyed.

The Monuments Men: about the most maudlin and manipulative World War II movie that I've ever scene. A couple of good moments though, with Cate Blanchett's dedicated, suspicious, and sex-starved defender of the integrity of French art, and Bill Murray and Bob Balaban playing a kind of Abbott and Costello of the European theater.

Ran: the first time I saw this tremendous Kurosawa epic I was watching it closely for King Lear, which I suppose makes sense; I was a university undergraduate at the time, and that was he sort of thing you're supposed to look for. But this time around the deep pacifism of the film, the contempt with which violence is portrayed, as always coming back to destroy those who choose violence initially, rung most clearly. Stylistically, it's probably the greatest work of Noh theater ever put on film.

12 Years a Slave: both devastating and fascinating, it is, among many other things, a horrifyingly compelling look at the may various ways both slaves and masters accommodated themselves to the daily routines of the fact of chattel slavery in the American south. Freedom, marriage, sexuality, religion, violence, the law--all of it appears in often unexpected (and usually despairing, but sometimes fascinating) ways through this great, great film.

War Horse: if you're the sort who likes animals in movies, then see this one. It's not the greatest horse film of all time--that remains The Black Stallion, which did what no other comparable film has done, as far as I know: relate a significant amount of the story from the horse's point of view--but it's a very good one, with appropriately Spielbergian teary moments at the end.

 X-Men: Days of Future Past: one of the best comic book film adaptions I've ever seen. It's not perfect--why, exactly, does Kitty Pryde suddenly have this ability to send someone's consciousness into the past?--but by and large it serves the iconic comic book storyline upon which it was based extremely well. If this was the final appearance of Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier and Ian McKellen as Magneto (and it almost certainly was), then they had a great send-off.

Also, I should mention that I also brought a laptop with me, and on dvd, the complete Faulty Towers, which was a great deal of fun to be re-acquainted with; it's been a while. John Cleese's Basil Fawlty--how can you say too much about him? One of the greatest comic creations in the whole history of the English language; he's the very summation of a character as old as Dogberry and as recent as Niles Crane: the person too stupid to know how stupid he is, and thus is convinced he's brilliant. The result was quite possibly the greatest sitcom of all time, though rewatching it reminded me of why it was a good thing there were only ever twelve episodes made. Each and every one of them is simply a pitch-perfect farce, and stretching Basil and the rest of his motley gang beyond those limited confines would have made it impossible to maintain such a tone. Basil would have had to, well, develop as a character, and who would have wanted that? Not I, that's for sure.

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