A Fish Called Wanda

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★★★1/2

The plan is to steal diamonds. The schemers are Otto, Wanda, George, and Ken. Otto is an intellectual hitman. Wanda is a seductive con artist. George is a cunning gangster. And Ken is George’s assistant who has a stutter.

The heist unfolds smoothly. Or so it seems, until George realizes that he has been double crossed by his team and gets arrested by the police. And to complicate matters, Otto and Wanda don’t have the diamonds they thought were in hand. Where could it be?

Thus begins a laborious quest for the precious stones. Otto and Wanda go into George’s apartment and attempt to seduce Ken as a distraction. That’s because the key to George’s safe is supposedly inside the aquarium. Yet after all their scrambling efforts, it is not there. The diamonds have incredibly found its way into a necklace that is with the clueless Archie Leach (John Cleese), the barrister for George.

Much of the comedy lies in the desperation to find diamonds. The quest involves a lot of mischievous tricks and slapstick that steers with either incompetence or clumsiness. Deception is handled by Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) who seduces Archie to get the necklace but later falls in love with him. And Archie is fooled for some time but later also falls for Wanda.

Otto (Kevin Kline) and Ken (Michael Palin) are very funny with their own quirks. The former isn’t as knowledgeable as he seems and Leech has a series of comical scenes where he tries to get rid of a witness and fails three times. Directed by Charles Crichton, the film is fun, farcical, and riotous. It’s an elaborate comedy based on unexpected occurrences.

Raging Bull

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★★★1/2

A man stands in a dressing room delivering a monologue to a mirror. He recites words that intimate regret. The character is Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), a former middleweight boxing champion.

Then it cuts back to 1941, where he is much younger and engaged in a vicious boxing match. At his corner is his younger brother Joey(Joe Pesci), a hothead and an effective manager. The two are a team but not without their own issues.

Jake has a temper that flares. It creates an uneasy relationship with his wife and prevents relationships with influential men who can lead him to a title fight. But Jakes doesn’t want their influence. He grudges against them because they look like big shots. He prefers to take his own way to the top.

Then he sees a beautiful girl named Vickie at a fancy restaurant. A bit intimidated at first, he eventually dates her and the two become more than friends. After several years, they are married and have three kids. And then finally, after many fights, Jake becomes a middle weight champion. But the personal issues remain.

There is a feeling of insecurity about the size of his hands. Jake believes because they are small, it prevents him from being the boxer he wants to be. Then later, he develops a paranoia that shifts towards his personal life, particularly Vickie (Cathy Moriarty). He begins to feel that she doesn’t love him.

The entire movie is shot in black and white (by Michael Chapman) which gives it an aged, historical quality. It also enhances certain effects like the fumes in a boxing ring which emphasize a heated atmosphere. The boxing is brutal and bloody and boxers get struck a lot. However the violence is not restricted to the ring. Vickie receives some degree of treatment that hurts her as well.

Robert De Niro brings an energized and obstinate quality to Jake that is mesmerizing.  He gives a physical performance as the larger Jake at the beginning of the film and the trimmed Jake in the younger years. It’s directed by Martin Scorsese, who captures a man’s emotional saga of his career and personal life.

The Empire Strikes Back

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★★★★

After the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars: Episode IV, the Empire continues to hunt for rebel armies. A ground assault is orchestrated on the ice planet Hoth where Luke and the rebels are hiding.  The resistance are overwhelmed but Han, Chewbacca, Princess Lea, and the two droids R2D2 and C3P0 are able to escape. Luke escapes too but parts ways and flies to the Dagobah planet instead.

At the Dagobah swamps, Luke (Mark Hamil) meets Yoda who trains him to be a Jedi. His physical skills improve and his mind is adjusted. He is taught about the force, a supernatural power. But although Luke is unable to master it, he decides to end the training and seek Han and Lea in the cloud city. Han and Lea are in trouble and have been betrayed by a leader named Lando Calrissian. Yoda warns Luke about Vader’s presence in Cloud City. But Luke ignores the risk.

The film is spellbinding. Illusions of the Ice planet, Dagobah jungles, and cloud city are fantastic creations of a habitat. The special effects succeed not only in imagining locations but also in action sequences. These include a light saber battle over a deep air tunnel and a space ship that flies out of a gigantic worm.

Accompanying the imagery is a memorable character. Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz)is a spiritual and profound green elf like creature. His presence is a puppet creation but with human like behaviors like exhaustion and subtle expressions. Then there is chemisyry between Han (Harrison Ford) and Lea(Carrie Fisher) who become effectively romantic amidst all the action and chaos. And on the side are the humorous observations of C3p0 (Anthony Daniels).

This is a more serious movie than Episode IV. It’s directed by Irvin Kershner from a screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. It’s exciting and fun but also emotional.

Lethal Weapon 2

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★★★1/2

After a wild police pursuit, officer Riggs and Murtaugh discover a large amount of currency in the trunk of a car. Its source is unknown. Their evidence points to masked men with foreign accents who warn them to stay away from the case.

It later reveals that the villains are professionals working for the South African consulate. This places them under diplomatic immunity. Although unclear, illegal operations are strongly suggested based on the amount of cash they keep in a stilted house. Their leader is the cold blooded Arjen and his dangerously cunning right hand man Pieter.

In addition, the consulars former accountant Leo Getz (Joe Pesci) is going to testify before court about their money laundering. Coincidentally the accountant is placed under the protective custody of Officer Riggs and Murtaugh, which sets off a series of investigations, harassments, escalating threats and confrontations between the police and consulars.

Like the first Lethal Weapon, the sequel contains some implausible action scenes. For instance, Riggs is able to chase a car on foot. This becomes less relevant though by the creativity of scenes containing wicked humor. One is when a bomb is found under a toilet that Murtaugh is sitting on. Or at the Consulate office where the floor is covered with plastic to easily wrap their unsuspecting victims. A Helicopter sequence is also well staged and the finale at the docks is handled with careful choreography.

Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as Riggs and Murtaugh have an appealing chemistry. The scenes at Murtaugh’s home continue to bring a wholesome atmosphere when there is no action. Murtaugh still tries to be responsible and Riggs, though still careless for his own safety, is less miserable than in the first movie. He finds a love interest (Patsy Kensit) who is the secretary of Arjen. Plus the addition of Leo who articulates himself using “ok, ok, ok,” makes them a trio not unlike the three stooges.

The film directed by Richard Donner and from a screenplay by Jeffrey Boam changes to a darker tone towards the end of the film, when the guns are blazing. Nevertheless it contains a lot of inventive entertainment and it’s quite a ride as an overall experience.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

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★★★★

On a jungle expedition, a group of adventurers hike towards a hidden cave. Their leader is Indiana Jones, a tough archaeologist who is skilled with a bull whip. When one of his followers try to betray him, he swats the man’s gun away with one strike.

Then he continues into the cave where he faces many forms of death. There are traps, pits, spiders, daggers, and a rolling giant boulder. Luckily, he survives and nearly recovers a precious artifact. But this is not the ultimate test. In fact, it is only an introduction for what happens next.

At home, where he is a history professor, Indiana is offered a shocking assignment by two army officers. They would like him to recover the Ark of the Covenant (a container for Moses Ten Commandments).  Based on classified information, Nazi soldiers are already digging for it in Egypt and have plans to use its power for their war cause. Thus begins a journey, beginning in Tibet where Indiana partners up with Marian, an old flame. Together they go to Egypt to find the Ark and they end in an Island where the Arks power is revealed.

The film, captured with beautiful cinematography (by Douglas Slocombe) at exotic locations, is about close calls. Physical encounters are not only exciting but also clever. The movies opening cave sequence exhibits the range of ingenuity, timing, and stunt work. It’s a series of surprises. And when Indiana jones gains control over a truck carrying the ark, it’s an elaborate sequence that involves fights, quick thinking, horseback riding, and a lot of falling men.  

What helps the film is a slight dose of humor. Fight scenes have a comic quality added in the way charatcres are struck or when they’re figuring out problems. And even in less kinetic moments are humorous references. For instance, when a commander brings out what one suspects to be a torture device, it is only to be folded into a coat hanger.  Or when Indiana is in a pit yelling out for a rope from his companion and instead receives a string of Nazi flags from the antagonists.

Indiana is played by Harrison Ford as robust, bruised, and heroic. Karen Allen as Marion is the same except more pugnacious. They have friends like the Egyptian Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and a rival archaeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman) who have screen presence.  But together these characters fall into terrifying scenarios that unfold in real locations. Written by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, and directed by Steven Spielberg, Raiders is an action adventure with masterful execution and clever surprises.