Archive for September, 2014

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.