MASH (1970)

Director: Robert Altman

Starring: Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Roger Bowen, René Auberjonois, Jo Ann Pflug

Comedy often seems to come from a very dark place. That’s not all that surprising as the world itself is just as dark, moreso for some than others. It’s a great defense mechanism; we might surely go mad without it. Those in military service, who witness horrors that nightmares are made of, need it just as badly as anyone. If a soldier’s sense of humor gives the impression that he’s something of a prick, that may not be due to a character flaw, merely a sign that he’s seen a lot of terrible things in his time. In “M*A*S*H,” superior officers (and women in particular) are treated with such disrespect that it’s hard to say whether these men were this mean-spirited before the war, or if it’s only a symptom of having to patch up the wounded on a daily basis, but perhaps they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

The war in question is the Korean War, although it could have just as easily been the Vietnam War (especially since the latter conflict was still VERY MUCH ongoing at the time). The year is 1951, and Captains “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and “Duke” Forrest (Tom Skerritt) have been assigned as combat surgeons for the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. As they arrive in a stolen Jeep, it is already clear that these men are the sort for whom following the rules sounds too inhuman. That they are bunkmates with Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), a religious zealot, doesn’t jive well, either. They’re more at ease once they’ve successfully gotten the Major switched out for Captain “Trapper” John McIntyre (Elliot Gould), who even comes bearing a jar of olives for their martinis.

For Hawkeye and the others, the arrival of Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) at first really begins to suck the fun out of everything. She doesn’t even seem to agree that Major Burns is a lousy and incompetent surgeon. Ultimately, they come up with a plan to embarrass both her and Major Burns when they learn of the hot and heavy affair that their two enemies have started, placing a microphone under their bunk and broadcasting their words of passion to the entire camp. Now, everyone calls Major Houlihan by the nickname “Hot Lips.” Major Burns is emotionally compromised to the point of attacking Hawkeye and subsequently being led away from the camp in a straight jacket, but the degradation of “Hot Lips” is far from over, as the boys all camp out in front of the women’s shower, having placed bets on whether she’s a natural blonde. The curtain is raised, and Major Houlihan, still with shampoo in her wet hair, storms into the cabin of Col. Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), where he is entertaining his mistress in bed, and demands that he do something to discipline the members of the 4077th. Her request is denied.

Our protagonists’ behavior is not always cruel and selfish. When Father Mulcahy (René Auberjonois) comes to Hawkeye with the news that the dentist known as “Painless” intends to commit suicide (hence, the theme song “Suicide is Painless”), Hawkeye, Trapper and Duke devise a scenario that involves a final meal for Painless (in a sequence deliberately staged to satirize The Last Supper) and a “black capsule” placebo, both satisfying Painless’s desire to commit suicide and easing Father Mulcahy’s conscience in knowing that the man is not actually killing himself. However, even this situation does not avoid turning a woman into an object. Painless’s entire reason for ending his life is because he had recently been unable to “get it up” for a woman. Therefore, Hawkeye convinces one of his girlfriends (Jo Ann Pflug) to be the one to help “cure” Painless.

Had this movie been filmed in a traditional manner, it wouldn’t be half the classic that it is. Perfectly timed zoom camera angles, overlapping dialogue, and a healthy dose of improvisation really help out. Apart from Robert Altman’s brilliantly unorthodox method of directing, what makes “M*A*S*H” so immensely entertaining is the talent in its cast, some for whom this was their very first movie (like Bud Cort, who would go on to star alongside Ruth Gordon in “Harold and Maude”). Even Donald Sutherland, who is hard to see as Hawkeye now because of the way Alan Alda took that role and made it his own, is terrific. Sally Kellerman, in particular, gives my favorite performance in the movie. In the football game which takes up most of the final 20 minutes, pay attention to her in particular. Every word out of her mouth during this sequence is pure comic gold. Speaking of the football game, its inclusion is enough for me to hail “M*A*S*H” as my favorite football movie. It was also during this game that the word “fuck” was spoken in a major Hollywood studio film for the very first time, uttered by actor John Schuck as Painless. Nowadays, that word can appear in a movie hundreds of times over, but in 1970, it was groundbreaking.

“M*A*S*H” was nominated for Best Picture, but the anti-war comedy lost to the more patriotic, serious drama “Patton.” That in no way diminishes the impact this movie had, and continues to have. Even now, almost 45 years later (and 40+ years since the end of the Draft), I can still laugh at all the jokes until my sides hurt. There have been other movies which have spawned a television series (and vice versa), but none quite like “M*A*S*H,” equally as groundbreaking on the small screen as its cinematic parent, and staying on the air four times as long as the Korean War actually lasted. Incredibly, one actor from the movie was retained. Gary Burghoff who plays Radar, would continue the role when the show premiered in 1972 on through to the final episode, which aired in 1983 to what was then the largest audience for a single TV entertainment broadcast in recorded history.

Each of us learns to cope with horror and tragedy in his own way. “Hot Lips” Houlihan is vilified because she approaches her task as a nurse with the sort of coldness we’ve probably associated with one or more doctors we’ve seen in our own lives. It’s the best way she knows how to do her job, even if it does make her appear less than human. Anyone who’s seen as many patients, sewn up as many bullet holes, and amputated as many limbs has to distract themselves somehow. Throw in the fact that this was a time when the youth of America were being snatched up at random to serve in a war they didn’t agree with or believe in, and it’s no wonder why some might choose to stir up trouble for their own amusement.

The A-Team (2010)

Director: Joe Carnahan

Starring: Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Jessica Biel, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Sharito Copley, Patrick Wilson

In 1982, a quaintly silly television program began what would be a five-year run on NBC. This action-comedy, starring George Peppard, Dirk Benedict, Dwight Schultz and Mr. T promptly became one of the most popular shows of the 1980’s. Today, still enjoyed by the public, it survives in reruns, on DVD and through Netflix streaming. If you have a problem, if no currently airing TV shows are worth watching, and if you can find it, maybe you can watch “The A-Team.”

Failing that, you have this modern cinematic update, bearing only the most superficial of resemblances to the original, to fall back on. As we are now in the 2010’s, our heroes needed a military history in Iraq, not Vietnam. The movie chooses not to begin, as the show did, with the foursome answering the call of anyone who needs aid while members of the U.S. Military who intend to return the A-Team to the stockade from which the fugitives escaped. In fact, that part of their journey has been left for a sequel that may never happen. Instead, we begin with how they all first came together, eight years ago. Part of this introduction involves the same kind of joke that almost made it into the final cut of 2009’s “Star Trek,” with the vehicle known from the TV series to be the one in which our heroes conduct their errands of mercy (a black van with red stripes) being unceremoniously destroyed. We also discover just why it is that B.A. Baracus (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson) is so afraid of getting on a plane.

The plot involves U.S. treasury plates that have somehow found their way into Iraqi hands, and a CIA agent who identifies himself only as Lynch (Patrick Wilson) coming to Col. John “Hannibal” Smith (Liam Neeson) and his team with a black ops mission to retrieve them. DCIS Captain Charissa Sosa (Jessica Biel), a former lover of Templeton “Face” Peck (Bradley Cooper), warns Hannibal against taking the mission, and she’s there to arrest them when it goes south. They’re innocent; it was their superior officer who disobeyed a direct order from Sosa and allowed the mission to proceed. Now it appears he has been killed, Sosa is demoted to lieutenant, and the A-Team is sent to prison. Naturally, what follows will be the A-Team’s escape from prison, with questionable aid from Lynch. The rest of the movie plays like a sillier version of “The Fugitive” with the A-Team in the Harrison Ford role, and Sosa taking Tommy Lee Jones’s position as the “I will not rest until…” manhunt leader obsessed with tracking them down.

It’s to the movie’s credit that it tries to go its own way while maintaining a certain familiarity for fans of the series. Any comparison between the two casts likewise should be based only on the quality of the actors’ individual performances and not on  whether they were an accurate representation of their TV counterparts. Bradley Cooper, as Face, could stand to be a touch more narcissistic, but he does okay. His Face is reckless and arrogant but also proves that he has a good mind for strategy. Probably comes from hanging around Hannibal Smith. In the years since “Taken,” Liam Neeson has been enjoying a great second career as an action star. Nope, “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” didn’t count. He’s much better now that he’s not blithering on about midichlorians and other Jedi nonsense. The problem with his performance in “The A-Team” is that you never once forget that you’re watching Liam Neeson. George Peppard was and always will be the one, true John “Hannibal” Smith. Likewise, it’s ridiculous to even compare “Rampage” Jackson to Mr. T. Do that, and the only conclusion you can come to is that NO ONE can be B.A. except Mr. T.

Although Mr. T was undoubtedly the breakout star of the original show, my reason for watching was always Dwight Schultz as “Howling Mad” Murdock. Some of the show’s best comedic bits were his. In the 2010 movie, my primary reason for watching is Bradley Cooper (… and Jessica Biel, I’m not going to lie),  however Sharito Copley probably has the best role of any of them. He gets to play a guy who seems to be a few cards short of a full deck (and is in fact committed to a mental hospital while the others are in prison), and yet displays such unique brilliance in his skills as a helicopter pilot and his knowledge of multiple languages. Copley’s no replacement for Schultz, but he may still be the best thing about this version of “The A-Team.”

It’s always a curiosity to see what, if any involvement there will be in a remake from the cast of the original production. To my surprise and delight, two of the three surviving cast members (RIP George Peppard) have brief cameos. Visiting the tanning bed in the military prison where he is serving his time, Face looks to a fellow inmate for a tip regarding facial protection. That man is, of course, Dirk Benedict. During a shock therapy session to which Murdock has submitted, his observing neurologist is Dwight Schultz. Additionally, the opening credits of a movie that plays in the mental hospital include the names of G.F. Starbuck (in reference to Dirk Benedict’s character from the late 1970’s “Battlestar Galactica” series) and Reginald Barclay (a character made famous by Dwight Schultz in multiple guest appearances on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”).

Ultimately, it is the very name of “The A-Team” that is this movie’s biggest enemy. As the trend of remaking everything grows increasingly annoying, I have to admit that even I originally gave this one a pass simply because it was called “The A-Team.” The same movie, by any other name, would still be an enjoyable, somewhat forgettable action flick. Having said that, consider the source material. Both film and TV show are products of their time. 2010’s “The A-Team” is more or less a taste of what the 1980’s TV show might have been had it been created three decades later.

The Matrix (1999)

 

Directors: The Wachowski Brothers

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano

Somewhere in the middle of “The Matrix,” one character laments having been shown the world as it truly exists: dark, depressing, and without much to look forward to except surviving. The lie fed to him and the rest of humanity by the Matrix presents a more comforting environment with places to visit, people to see, a job with a steady paycheck, and delicious food to be eaten. He would prefer to have remained ignorant of what’s really out there, much as we all were when we were young and naive. I envy those children for whom the pinnacle of their day is another episode of “Thomas the Tank Engine.” They know nothing of war, poverty, disease, politics or domestic violence. It would be nice to be so carefree again, but it would also be irresponsible for us as the adults to ignore all the ugliness of the world. If there were no one with the courage to stand up and protest, nothing would ever change.

In the world that Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is familiar with, he is leading a double life as a computer programmer and as a computer hacker, the latter of which has him working under the assumed name of “Neo.” All that he thinks he knows is turned upside down one day when men in suits and sunglasses referred to simply as Agents come looking for him. Soon he meets Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Both have been steering him towards a sort of enlightenment, waking him up to the reality that the Matrix is a fabrication. Neo is at first unwilling to accept what he sees with his own eyes. Morpheus tells him why he was awakened: It is Morpheus’s belief that Neo represents the fulfillment of a prophecy foretelling of a man called “The One” who freed the first humans and is due to return to finish the job. He believes Neo is that resurrected savior of mankind. It’s a lot for Neo to process.

After extensive training, Neo becomes a valued member of the team, even exhibiting leadership qualities when Morpheus is captured by the Agents, whom no one engages in combat if he/she can help it because of their incredible strength and speed. Neo surprises everyone, himself especially, when he shows that he can move like the Agents can. Among the superpowered A.I. Men in Black, Neo has something of a counterpart. Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), although no stronger than the other Agents, seems more cunning, more intelligent. He’s had it with the Matrix, and is desperate to find a way to get out. Capturing Morpheus for information was part of his plan. Coming face-to-face with Neo (whom Smith refers to as “Mr. Anderson”) wasn’t.

“The Matrix” is a neat little anti-establishment film, but it is a fantastic action flick, littered with breathtaking fight sequences and gun battles. The scene that stands out the most comes when Neo and Trinity enter a heavily guarded facility inside the Matrix where Morpheus is being held. Both come wearing long, black trenchcoats, and both are heavily armed. Sadly, it was also this scene that was held against the movie when detractors claimed that it influenced Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two teenagers who perpetrated the Columbine High School massacre in April of 1999.

If Keanu Reeves hadn’t already proven himself to be a credible action star with “Point Break” and Speed,” “The Matrix” made sure that he wouldn’t be known exclusively for the “Bill & Ted” time travel comedies. Even so, his utterance of the word “Whoa!” still makes you think of Ted. Laurence Fishburne’s performance as Morpheus almost seems like an audition for a Jedi in a “Star Wars”movie, but his Obi-Wan Kenobi-like character has more feeling than any of George Lucas’s heroes who learned to use the Force.

Unquestionably, it’s Hugo Weaving who is the scene-stealer. You hang on Agent Smith’s every word even as you hope for Neo to take this bastard down. Most people probably weren’t terribly familiar with Weaving back in 1999 (I certainly was not), but he’s all over the place now. He’s been a regular staple of the science fiction and fantasy genres, portraying V in “V for Vendetta,” the Elf Lord Elrond in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the Red Skull in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and provided the voice of Megatron for Michael Bay’s live-action “Transformers” films, to name but a few of his contributions.

“The Matrix” has become as much a part of popular culture as any of the major sci-fi franchises. Even now, fifteen years after the movie was originally released both Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving have been seen once again playing their characters, this time in separate, very entertaining commercials. Agent Smith appeared in an ad for General Electric, whereas Morpheus could be seen selling cars for Kia.

Where “The Matrix” slips is in its mumbo jumbo. As “Star Trek” often does, “The Matrix” will sometimes use big words to sound smarter than it actually is. The Wachowskis are actually reaching for something profound, particularly in the choice vs. destiny debate. They don’t quite go completely off the rails with it, but it’s still best to just concentrate on the “hero’s journey” part of the action. Speaking of which, as great as the action is, I really wish that this movie (along with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) hadn’t made “wire fu” quite so popular. Martial arts films have suffered the most because of it. They were better without that unnecessary, over-the-top complication.

Of course, like most any popular movie, “The Matrix” eventually was burdened by sequels, filmed simutaneously and then released within six months of each other in 2003. In chapters 2 and 3 of the “Matrix” saga, the mumbo jumbo is raised to dangerous levels. In “The Matrix Reloaded,” there are several notable action sequences… but they go on for far too long and, because the participants never injure one another to any great degree, none of it really means anything. So disappointed was I by “The Matrix Reloaded” that I have never bothered to watch “The Matrix Revolutions” in its entirety. In my mind, “The Matrix” ends so perfectly that there really was no need for any further stories to be told. Although I know it’s not the truth, I like to pretend that, once Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” begins playing over the end credits, that’s all there is. There is no spoon, and there are no sequels.

Heat (1995)

Director: Michael Mann

Starring: Al Pacino, Rober De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd

The story goes that we are in our teenage years the person we’re going to be for the remainder of our lives. I don’t know how true that actually is, but I do know that routine is a hard habit to break. The characters in “Heat” are also fully aware of this. In the most highly publicized scene from “Heat,” the first ever scene shared by modern screen legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, their characters illustrate this point quite clearly. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is the L.A.P.D. lieutenant who has been tracking professional thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). As is the case with most movies’ greatest scenes, this one takes place in a coffee shop/diner.

Hanna and McCauley sit across from one another, knowing full well what they represent to each other, but in this short space of time they also come to notice that they’re not so different. Each man has his own relationship problems, Hanna closing in on the end of his third doomed marriage. McCauley’s problem is that he so strictly follows a maxim handed down to him that he is unwilling to commit to anything he can’t break free of in thirty seconds flat. Neither man might have these problems with women if they weren’t already married to their chosen paths. Each takes his turn admitting that they wouldn’t know how to be anything else, nor would they be willing to try. It is this stubborn recipe for loneliness that makes these natural born enemies closer to each other than with any friend or family member in their lives.

Equally as important to the story as its men are the women whom they string along. As both Hanna and McCauley’s chosen paths dictate that their lives run according to a certain established order, it is with the women in their lives that order turns to chaos. Hanna’s wife, Justine (Diane Venora) detests having to wait for hours for her husband to come home to a long-since cold dinner, and then share their bed with the deceased from his cases. His stepdaughter, Lauren (Natalie Portman, in only her second feature film role) is a troubled teenage girl in desperate need of a father figure. Her biological dad wouldn’t have the first clue what troubles his child since he never bothers to pay her a visit, even when he says he will. Vincent (though he certainly cares about Lauren) is no help either, consumed by his work at the L.A.P.D.

Unless I’m missing a key line of dialogue (which is plausible with a film that runs almost three hours long), I don’t think McCauley came into the events of “Heat” having ever truly been in love. That’s about to change once he meets Eady (Amy Brenneman). Like so many criminals who choose to keep their loved ones in the dark about who they truly are, McCauley allows Eady to believe he’s just a salesman. Such strong feelings develop between the two of them that McCauley will eventually have to decide if he can still abide by his “thirty seconds flat” rule. His partner in crime, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kimer) finds such a concept entirely impossible. He has a wife (Charlene, played by Ashley Judd) and son, and he can’t envision a scenario that would ever cause him to leave them. This, too, is a chaotic situation for McCauley, especially when he learns of Charlene’s indiscretion and demands that she make things right with her husband.

On the subject of chaos, so meticulous are the heists in this movie that the inevitable showdown between Hanna and McCauley would never have a chance of taking place if it weren’t for one poorly chosen accomplice, in the form of the loose cannon known as Waingro (Kevin Gage). McCauley is against killing anyone who doesn’t get in his way, a sentiment not shared by Waingro, whose decision to kill a couple of police officers during a heist is what initially draws the attention of Hanna and his subordinates. Actor Kevin Gage does a great job of projecting an overall creepy personality for his character. Waingro is the sort of guy who needs to be taken out of this world.

The movies of director Michael Mann can all be instantly recognizable for their soundtracks. Each one, “Heat” included, has an almost laid back, calming effect that runs contrary to the violent nature of the story (and making said violence all the more horrifying as a result). An exception to this would be the inclusion of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” at the climax of “Manhunter.” My favorite part of the soundtrack to “Heat” is “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” by Moby, an instrumental track which can be heard at the film’s end.

“Heat” ranks as one of the all-time great crime dramas. It’s a can’t-miss for the big shootout scene which concludes the second hour. By the end of that amazing exchange of gunfire, even Allstate insurance won’t help Dennis Haysbert’s character. But, in the end, “Heat” is such a big success because of its impeccable casting. Everyone here seems like fully realized characters. The actors playing them really know their shtick. None better than Pacino and De Niro, men who have been playing these types of roles since the 1970’s. Actors just beginning their craft today who take on the cops/robbers roles are undoubtedly well-versed in the films of Pacino/De Niro. Because of his turn towards comedy, it was the last time I was able to take Robert De Niro seriously untill 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” Sad as that sounds, it at least demonstrates that (like his “Heat” character) he is a man who is willing to break from tradition, take a risk and try something new, whether it is the right decision or not.

Dark City (1998)

Director: Alex Proyas

Starring: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson

Almost without fail, I can tell fairly early on whether or not I’m going to like a given film. I call it the “15 minute rule,” although it is probably closer to 20 minutes. I’m that generous. With “Dark City,” I was ready to write this one off as soon as it had begun. The opening narration, provided by Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), does nothing to warn us of the character’s speech impediment which is the cause of his breathless delivery. As Dr. Schreber tells us of the Strangers, an alien race with unusual mental powers referred to as “tuning,” it is difficult to process the information when all one can focus on is that damn voice. Even the characters in the movie have a hard time understanding what’s going on. If you are patient enough, you will learn as they do that nothing is what it seems.

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) starts things off more confused than anyone. Waking up in a bathtub inside of a hotel room to find the dead body of a hooker, murdered possibly by his own hand, is the least of John’s problems. He has no memory, not just of how he got to his present location but of anything or anyone else. An urgent phone call from Dr. Schreber cues him in on the group of Strangers headed his way. Most unexpected (and never completely explained) is the revelation that John can “tune” just like the Strangers do. For the Strangers, this power means that they can change both the city and its inhabitants into whatever form they please. In John’s case, because he doesn’t understand his power at this stage, it merely provides a convenient means of escape.

John does learn his real name, and also that he has a wife named Emma (Jennifer Connelly). She is alleged to have had an affair that was the reason for John being in that hotel room instead of their home. Without any memory of these events, or even their marriage, it’s hard for John to work up any anger towards this woman. He does however eventually develop true feelings for her. He also learns that he’s the prime suspect in a serial murder investigation headed by Frank Bumstead (William Hurt). However, the most important thing weighing on John’s mind is the little bits of information he’s collected which are leading him to recollect his birthplace, Shell Beach, a place he would very much like to visit. The trouble is that no one seems to remember how to get there.

At any given moment, one half-expects Rod Serling to come popping out of the shadows. “Dark City” does possess a certain “Twilight Zone”-ish quality to it, especially in the big reveal moment at the end of the third act. But more than anything, it shares the most in common with Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and the question of what makes us human, a question which has the Strangers completely baffled. The Strangers’ bald heads, albino skin and dark leather attire makes them resemble the Cenobites from “Hellraiser,” minus the pins and needles. One of them even chatters his teeth a lot.

Director Alex Proyas continues to show his affection for film noir which he displayed in “The Crow,” only this time he’s all-in. Everything from the cars to Jennifer Connelly’s (obviously dubbed) nightclub scenes, William Hurt’s coat and fedora, and the fact that it’s always nighttime… It’s all very 1940’s. Although I’m fairly certain that Humphrey Bogart never had to deal with reality-bending aliens.

“Dark City” was one of the very first movies I ever bought direct from Amazon.com. I remember I had originally sought it out for Jennifer Connelly, for whom I can watch in just about anything. If I had never seen him in another movie after this, I would never have guessed that Rufus Sewell is English (although, right off-hand, I can’t think of any Americans I know named Rufus). I’ve seen him in a lot of bad guy roles since “Dark City,” but I always come back to his vulnerable amnesiac John Murdoch… my favorite of his characters… and cheer him on his hero’s quest. Once you get accustomed to his character’s look and speech, Kiefer Sutherland is as easy to follow as either Sewell or Connelly. Dr. Daniel Schreber may have a handle on his identity but he is as isolated as John is, and is as paranoid as his real-life namesake.

The real scene-stealer may be Richard O’Brien. Best known for writing the musical “The Rocky Horror Show” and co-writing the screenplay for the 1975 cult classic film adaptation “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” In actuality, it is O’Brien’s character Riff Raff from that 1975 film which served as the basis for the overall look of the Strangers, according to director Proyas. Here, O’Brien plays the evil Mr. Hand (no relation to the Ray Walston character from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”). Contrary to the rest of the Strangers, Mr. Hand is less curious than he is sadistic.

Somehow, as seems to always happen with superb science-fiction, “Dark City” slipped so far under the radar in 1998 as to come and go without much notice or fanfare. Critics really dug it, though. It’s the only other movie I know of besides “Citizen Kane” which includes a commentary track from Roger Ebert on the DVD. There’s a lot more going on in this movie that beg for a second viewing, as well as a third, fourth, fifth, etc. This is one of those movies that you don’t just enjoy. If you’re a true film aficionado, you analyze a movie like “Dark City.” Eventually, you’ll come to know all there is to know about what makes this film tick, and be the wiser for it.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Director: James Gunn

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel (voice), Bradley Cooper (voice), Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin

And now for something completely different. Since 2008, Marvel Studios has had no trouble in introducing its characters to a wide audience. One thing that has aided the Marvel Comics Universe is finding writers and directors that know how to blend action with comedy. Taken too seriously, the superhero genre would fall flat on its face, and not in the good pratfall kind of way. Just as important, they have a knack for humanizing their protagonists, making them relatable people worth rooting for. Even with all the action flying around the screen, “Guardians” is very character-driven. With the exception of Thor and his two solo films, these movies have all centered around human heroes. But even Thor, who has the physical appearance of a human, has had mostly Earthbound adventures. In “Guardians,” we’re not in Kansas anymore. We’ve stepped through the looking glass. We’re beyond Thunderdome. Yet, we’re in a galaxy not so far, far away at all.

The film stars Chris Pratt (TV’s “Parks and Recreation”) as Peter Quill, a human who has been away from Earth since 1988. He was taken from our world on the day of his mother’s death by Yondu (Michael Rooker), an alien with little resembling morals or common decency. In his adulthood, Peter, who from this moment on I’ll refer to by his outlaw name of ‘Star Lord,’ has become adept at the criminal lifestyle, betraying even Yondu. No honor among thieves! Like Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds before him, Star Lord is a terrific smuggler and a scoundrel, but not too bright. His latest prize, an orb of some importance and power that he knows not what, comes highly sought after. In particular, a murderous individual known as Ronan (Lee Pace) wants it very badly. The mere mention of Ronan’s name on the planet Xandar causes Star Lord’s buyer to back out of the deal, and that’s when he meets the people who will become his best friends in this or any other world. If you’ve already been enjoying the movie up to this point, it’s also the moment when “Guardians” truly kicks into high gear.

Star Lord’s new friends don’t exactly ingratiate themselves to him right away. The green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has been sent by Ronan to Xandar to retrieve the orb. She intends to betray Ronan and sell it to someone who doesn’t intend to use the powerful stone that lies inside it. To accomplish this, she steals the orb from Star Lord just after his deal goes south. During the ensuing fight, Star Lord is bagged (literally) by two bounty hunters: Rocket Racoon (voice of Bradley Cooper), whose surname explains what kind of creature he is, and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), a walking, talking tree. Rocket is an ill-tempered, at times mean-spirited little fellow, but you would be too if you were the product of several genetic experiments. Groot is really handy in a fight, but it’s difficult to carry on a conversation with him since his entire vocabulary consists of the sentence “I am Groot.” Actor Vin Diesel may not get much to say, but he makes up for that by emphasizing the words differently to express multiple feelings and to show us that he really isn’t just saying the same thing over and over. Rocket, who has been with Groot for long enough that he can translate for him, helps out with the rest. Before the end, Star Lord will need everyone that isn’t trying to kill him (and some that are) on his side if Ronan is to be defeated.

There was still one “Guardian” left to introduce after the incident with the orb. Xandar’s security force, the Nova Corps, breaks up the fight and arrests and incarcerates Star Lord, Gamora, Rocket and Groot. In prison, they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) whose wife and child were killed by Ronan, and whom will be instrumental in the group’s escape from prison. Knowing full well that the other actors could handle their roles, I was the most interested in Bautista’s performance. A professional wrestler for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Bautista has not had much acting experience outside of the ring, and certainly no starring roles. He’s chiseled enough that he provides the physicality necessary for Drax, but Bautista also brings a highly emotional performance to the role. Drax is single-minded when it comes to seeking the death of Ronan, and this often causes him to act before thinking. He’s got friends now who can help in that area… when they have more than just part of a plan. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson he ain’t, but Dave Bautista’s highly honorable Drax is every bit as lovable as that of Andre the Giant’s Fessik from “The Princess Bride.” He’s also in a much better movie than Johnson has ever participated in.

Although some of the supporting cast does not get as much screen time as maybe they should, I recognize that it’s hard for this big a cast to get the attention they need with a running time of approximately two hours. For example, Glenn Close’s role of Nova Prime could probably have been played by just about anyone. Others do just fine with the time that is given to them. Karen Gillan, recognizable for TV’s “Doctor Who” but thoroughly unrecognizable here, is cast completely against type as Nebula and seems to have enjoyed playing a baddie for once. Her character also takes part (unwillingly so) in one of the movie’s funniest moments. Maybe one of the more impressive things this movie does is with John C. Reilly. Ordinarily, Reilly’s near the top of my list of least favorite actors, in part for his goofy roles. When he is “normal,” as he is in “Guardians,” Reilly can be tolerable. This is the most tolerable I think he’s ever been. Kudos. In addition to the supporting players, there are also cameos to look for. There’s the usual appearance from Stan Lee, still with us at age 91, bless him. Look fast for Troma Entertainment co-founder Lloyd Kaufman as an inmate at the prison, and be sure to sit through the end credits for the triumphant (albeit brief) return to the big screen for a certain Marvel Comics character since his 1980’s solo film tanked and became regarded as one of the worst films of all-time.

Just as important a character as any in the film is the music. Peter’s mother had given him a mix tape, which he still listens to on a Walkman, and he has made it the soundtrack to his life. Comprised of hit pop songs from the 1970’s, it emphasizes as well as anything ever could the fact that the writers are laughing right along with us. Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” are among the highlights, and any movie that has Marvin Gaye in its soundtrack is okay in my book. If it teaches us anything, it’s that it’s okay to dance to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” just as long as nobody is watching you.

This is one of Marvel’s best efforts thus far, and the best one that doesn’t feature Robert Downey, Jr. It’s the one that has taken the most direct route to comedy, and certainly the only true outer space adventure, complete with giant spaceship battles. Inevitably, comparisons with “Star Wars” and other science fiction franchises will come to mind. For example, one can watch the scene where Ronan receives instructions from the disembodied head of his boss, Thanos (Josh Brolin, whose part will only grow larger in future Marvel films) and recall a similar scene between Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Ronan’s ship is even referred to as the Dark Astar, which isn’t that far removed from “Death Star.” But, as much as “Guardians of the Galaxy” has in common with those and other films, it is definitely its own animal and will continue to be, with a sequel scheduled for 2017. When the time comes, there ain’t no mountain high enough to keep me from getting to the theater.

The Crow (1994)

Director: Alex Proyas

Starring: Brandon Lee, Ernie Hudson, Michael Wincott

On several occasions, I have found myself sitting down to watch a good movie, only to learn of the passing of a high-profile celebrity… one who has touched the hearts of millions… as soon as the movie is over. I was watching my VHS copy of “Friday the 13th” on February 18, 2001, instead of watching that year’s Daytona 500. That was the day of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash. I was at the theater enjoying “The Hangover” on June 25, 2009, when word got out that Michael Jackson had passed. Flash forward to August 11, 2014. The world has lost actor/comedian Robin Williams. Eerily enough, the news broke while I was watching “The Crow,” which just so happens to be a movie surrounded by a dark cloud concerning the on-set death of its lead actor, Brandon Lee. Consider me sufficiently creeped out.

Storywise, “The Crow” is not overly ambitious. It follows Eric Draven (Brandon Lee), who walked in on a gang of thugs raping and murdering his fiancée, Shelley, only to join her in death when he is stabbed, shot, and falls through their apartment window. It seems Eric and Shelley were to have been married the very next day, on Halloween. Precisely one year later, Eric returns from the grave to exact his revenge on those who did him wrong. His soul is connected somehow with a crow, which remains ever watchful and intervenes as needed. It has also granted him invincibility. Eric can get shot full of holes, but his wounds heal themselves almost instantaneously. That’s a skill that can come in handy when your mission involves charging into the proverbial hornet’s nest.

Joining Brandon Lee in this movie are a superb bunch of supporting players. There is Ernie Hudson as the cop who was on the scene the night Eric was murdered, and is one of his few allies in this world. Rochelle Davis is Sarah, the young tomboy who was friends with Eric and Shelley. She’s the movie’s narrator. David Patrick Kelly, known well for playing the weasel, is the arsonist T-Bird, one of the men on Eric’s hit list. Kelly isn’t in the movie for as many scenes as I would have liked him to be. Michael Wincott is half crime boss, half swashbuckling pirate as Top Dollar. He’s so evil that you can’t wait for Eric to kill this guy, and Bai Ling, as Top Dollar’s half-sister (“You don’t see the resemblance?”), demonstrates an intelligence most of the other villains lack, and a sadistic side to match.

Also notable in the cast is Michael Massee as Funboy, albeit for an entirely different reason. On March 31, 1993, Brandon Lee was shot and killed on the set of “The Crow.” The gun that was used, unbeknownst to anyone, had a dummy round lodged in the barrel of the .44 Magnum revolver. This round was dislodged when a blank was loaded and fired, the combination resulting in the same effect as a normal Magnum round. It was Massee who had the misfortune of being the actor to fire the gun at Lee. Though he was not truly at fault in the incident, Massee has been haunted by this ever since. For a time, there was question as to whether or not it would be proper to finish the movie. Alex Proyas, the film’s director, did thankfully make the decision to see it through with the support of Brandon’s surviving family members.

The movie has one glaring weakness, and perhaps appropriately it is in the reveal of Eric’s weakness. Every superhero’s got to have his Kryptonite. I can accept that, as tired a plot device as it is. If you keep your hero playing on God Mode for too long, your audience could lose interest. Except I wasn’t, and the way the villains discover Eric’s weakness (he will only remain invulnerable so long as the crow remains alive/uninjured) is particularly unsatisfying. Nothing happens to help them learn of it at all… They just make a 1,000,000 to 1 guess that happens to be exactly right.

A cult favorite, “The Crow” is not just a great revenge flick that happens to be based on a comic book. It’s also a beautifully rendered noir film that recalls those crime dramas of the 1940’s, as well as owing some to Ridley Scott’s modern sci-fi classic “Blade Runner” (1982). I’d like to pretend that it didn’t also spawn three abysmal sequels, each one worse than the last.  Being a movie made in the early half of the 1990’s, it’s a creature born of the grunge/alternative era of rock music. The soundtrack echoes this, including metal bands Pantera, Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, and the anti-establishment group Rage Against the Machine.

The influence of “The Crow” in popular culture is also evident. Professional wrestler Steve Borden, who since sometime in the late 1980s has performed under the ring name of Sting, abandoned his surfer gimmick in the autumn of 1996, to be replaced with one which was quite clearly based on Brandon Lee’s makeup and attire in this movie. Other than a recent brief detour, it’s a gimmick that Sting has been using ever since.

It’s a shame that Bruce Lee didn’t live to see his son rise to fame with “The Crow,” but it’s even more depressing that Brandon did not either. What’s perhaps the most tragic thing about this is how closely life imitated art. Like his character, Brandon Lee is temporarily resurrected from the grave for one last hurrah. Also, like Eric Draven, Lee was soon to have been married to his fiancée, Eliza Hutton… but alas, it was not to be. As his father was twenty years earlier, Brandon Lee was only just beginning to show the world what he had to offer when circumstance robbed him… and us… of seeing where his path might have led him next. But what a legacy he has left behind!