Monday, December 26, 2011

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks. 1953)

"Diamonds are a girl's best friend..."

Most of the musicals from the 1950s are a ton of fun to watch. This was the decade when actors were real triple threats with immense talent in singing, acting and dancing. The 1950s was a decade when movie stars were golden and billing was the most important thing for an actor. In Gentleman Prefer Blondes the billing is split between the sultry Jane Russell and the radiant Marilyn Monroe. And though one of those names will be more familiar with readers, this classic golden-age musical takes two to shine.

Russell and Monroe play American showgirls and best friends with almost completely polar personalities. Powell’s Dorothy is a levelheaded, yet wily, young lady with legs that last for days. Though she is certainly man-crazy, she is far more interested in the prospect of falling in love. She makes it very clear that lack of money would not be a deal-breaker and that flattery will “get you anywhere”. Dorothy is the realistic sexuality that keeps this campy balloon from drifting too far away from earth.

Monroe’s Lorelei may seem like a gold-digger (or diamond-miner may be more appropriate) at first, but the character is actually a lot deeper than that. Lorelei understands how attractive she is and uses it to work her way to the top of the world. She has found an extremely wealthy, though by all means nerdy, man (Tommy Noonan.) who will treat her nicely and shower her with expensive gifts, yet still uses her excruciatingly good looks to seduce men into buying her diamonds and other expensive gifts.

WARNING: This is the obligatory paragraph about Marilyn Monroe’s beauty. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes may not be where it originated, but the movie does a lot to bolster the current legend of Ms. Monroe. She wears the nicest clothes and sparkles from the luminous expensive diamonds that differ in each scene. It is plausible to believe that Marilyn was born to be in pictures. Her lips are a deep red that cut through her otherwise pale face and do wonders to bring out the humanly unachievable blondeness of her bobbed hair. Her hourglass figure brings an almost instant comparison to the sexiest symbol in earlier decades, Mae West, but Marilyn was smart enough to remain safe for a much wider variety of audiences. Her sex appeal was just as apparent and she knew all about it, but her personal character was more understated and seemed less dangerous. Of course, a lot of that is the myth of Monroe.

These two beautiful performers sail across the ocean to Paris where they expect to meet Lorelei’s future millionaire husband. Unfortunately, a private detective has been hired to make sure that Lorelei does not cheat while at sea. She meets a much older man who runs a diamond mine and instantly starts an innocent relationship that is filled with mindless flirting. She has no interest in the man himself (Charles Coburn), but rather only interested in shmoozing away a few of his precious rocks.

While all of this is happening, Dorothy is starting a relationship with the private detective, played by the under-appreciated Elliot Reid, which ends when she realizes his intentions to out Lorelei. It is said in the movie that Dorothy and the detective make love while at sea – a phrase that may seem controversial in the 50s context, but this is actually one of the least wild lines in the movie.

Russell, Monroe and (especially) Howard Hawks knew exactly the type of movie they were making with Gentleman Prefer Blondes. The entire concept of the movie is a shot at conventional gender ideals. Monroe’s character seems to be so shallow, but she later admits to being a product of a world where men want her to act a certain way. She is only serving as the filling in a chauvinistic world. Gorgeous and intelligent women intimidate men, so Lorelei happily fills just one of the roles in order to succeed. The dialogue is rich with hip sexual innuendo that managed to slip through the strict censors of “code-following” Hollywood. Russell’s character is displayed in a scene around the swimming pool that may be so homoerotic that it would make Nicolas Ray blush. That is the genius of Howard Hawks. He knew how to make middle America unknowingly watch the things that they so adamantly damned.

This is why the Monroe legacy is so frustrating to me. She was not a stupid person. She was interesting enough to keep Arthur Miller enthralled. Monroe did never want to be known as the peak of class and ladyship. It was an act; it was a joke that very few people were smart enough to grasp. She mocked the people who thoughtfully acted like Lorelei. Marylin knew she was gorgeous and she used it to her advantage. She was sex. But why? Because she knew it would sell.

Gentleman Prefer Blondes is a musical film that features some catchy, but ultimately forgettable, numbers and one classic tune. The aforementioned homoerotic camp-tune “Is Anyone Here for Love” is probably Russell’s finest moment. But of course, Marilyn steals the show with the flamboyantly goofy “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. In this song, Monroe cements her current status. Her pink dress and long gloves stand out from the literally faceless supporting cast. With women literally strapped in leather and attached to chandeliers, the scene has been criticized as chauvinistic. It’s a joke. And it is actually a pretty funny one.

Russell is the only post-decent acting that the movie has to offer, but Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is still a fun and comical exception to the buttoned up feel of many 50s musicals. Monroe is beautiful and parades her remarkable ability to glow and her unfailing knack for subtle humor. If you are in the mood for a musical, I am still forced to recommend Singin’ in the Rain or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. If you want a classic look into the mythos of Marylin – you cannot do any better than this.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: B

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dogtooth (Lanthimos. 2009)

"Soon your mother will give birth to two children and a dog."

Dogtooth is a movie that manages to take everything to the unrelenting extreme. Everything in the movie is stylized, haunting and creepily symbolic of society. It tells the story of a family in modern day Greece who live in exile from the rest of the world. We all knew at least one kid in school who seemed to be overly sheltered and unprepared for the real world. We wondered, as peers, what it would be like to spend one day in that kid’s shoes. Dogtooth runs with that notion and shows us one of the strangest families ever depicted in film.

Exile may not be a strong enough word to use in this case. The family lives behind a giant fence and are never allowed to leave the premises. The children are taught to speak in a strange vocabulary that gives new meanings to any word that is outside the realm of their home. For example, the mother tells the children that a “zombie” is a little yellow flower, and that the “sea” refers to a comfortable armchair. No family member is given a name. The teenagers are referred to as eldest daughter, younger daughter and son. The parents created a fictional “older brother” who was thrown outside of the fence because he refused to behave. He is now forced to deal with the monsters on the outside. The parents rule their children by making them afraid of the world. They can only leave their home after one of their dogteeth falls out. Obviously, that will not happen.

The father is the only member of the family who is allowed to leave the home. He supports his family by managing a nearby factory. Christina is a security guard at the factory, and she is the only person allowed in the isolated home. She is used to relieve the son of his “male urges”. I mean, she has sex with him for money. And their sex is awkward and graphic. Eventually, Christina gets bored with the son and makes advances on the eldest daughter. She offers the eldest a sparkly headband in return for having her “keyboard” licked. Can you guess what a “keyboard” is? It is a vagina.

Having never felt any kind of sexual contact, the eldest is quick to recreate the feeling by trading the headband to her younger sister in return for having her shoulder licked. No worry, a shoulder is just a shoulder. This leads to a strangely sexual moment between the two sisters that ends with the audience feeling ashamed of themselves. Dogtooth does not apologize for these feelings. It is an extremely erotic movie. The problem is that the majority of the sex happens between siblings.

Christina’s second visit to the eldest is not nearly as successful. She offers hair gel in return for sexual acts, but her offer is rejected. The only way the eldest will lick her is if she gives up two videos that are in her bag. The eldest has seen videos before, but she thought that all videos were family home movies. Christina gives her two of the greatest movies ever made, Rocky and Jaws. Both movies have a significant influence on her mind. She begins quoting scenes from the films and acting out famous moments in the swimming pool. Her father finds the tapes, beats the eldest with one of them, and bans Christina from his home.

Without Christina, who will pander to the son’s sexual urges? The mother and father decide that the son can choose one of his sisters to replace his former “lover”. He picks the eldest and continues into one of the most visually disturbing sex scenes I have ever seen. Erotic or not, Dogtooth does a fantastic job at making sex look unappealing. Each sex scene is framed in a way that forces the audience to watch. Every disgusting, awkward and unforgiving moment of the incest scene is also visually captivating. It is almost like a trap for your eyes. Your mind cannot take what is happening, but your eyes cannot look away from the screen.

Everything in Dogtooth is sickeningly pale. The skin of the mother and three teenagers is as white as snow. The colors on the walls do not vary far from light peach and milky-white. The costumes are simple and every dark-color is so faded that it is hardly noticed. There is something disturbing about this simple aesthetic choice. It is said that children’s imaginations are sparked by colors. If that is true then the kids in Dogtooth must not have any imagination. Their world is almost colorless.

After being forced to have sex with her brother, the eldest daughter realizes that she needs out. She goes into the bathroom and bashes her face with a barbell – knocking out her dogtooth in the process. She then hides in the trunk of her father’s car and waits for him to leave in the morning. She does not think this through. Though she does make it out, she is stuck in the trunk until somebody opens it. I think the movie implies that she dies in the trunk of her father’s car after being just inches away from the freedom she craved.

The story may seem off-putting, but this really is an entertaining movie. The concept is so strange and disturbing that it will easily make the viewer think about what they are seeing. The acting is eerie, yet the audience can be sympathetic to everyone besides the father. Giorgos Lanthimos does a great job taking the bizarre subject matter and turning it into an incredibly thought-provoking and demented science experiment. What will happen when two parents strangle their children’s ability to learn anything about the world? They will start having sex with each other. Lesson learned.

It may not make very much sense for the reader, but Dogtooth is very close to being a masterpiece. Every moment in the film works in the same fashion as a car wreck. The morbid entertainment value may not outweigh the guilt you feel from being entertained, but you still zoom your eyes directly at the madness.

Dogtooth: B+

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Peckinpah. 1973)

"Comes an age in a man's life when he don't wanna spend time figuring what comes next."

If you are at all familiar with the history of the American old West then you at least know the ending to one of Sam Peckinpah’s forgotten classics. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is a movie that had to deal with a significant amount of battles behind the scenes. MGM wanted it to look a certain way; Peckinpah did not agree with their vision. It had a total of six credited, and Lord knows how many un-credited, editors who were hired by both the studio and the director before anyone could agree on an actual final cut. Peckinpah famously tried to cut all ties to the movie, but I think he would recant that desire if anyone were to ask him today.

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid does not feel like your typical western film. It features a score written by the music icon Robert Zimmerman. If you do not know already – that is Bob Dylan. I tend to like anything that Dylan touches. I even own one of his least successful albums, “Self Portrait” on vinyl. But sadly, the music in the film is awkward and off-putting. The title song is void of any tangible musical maturity and Dylan’s vocals are probably the worst that I have ever heard from him. I wish that this was not the case, but it sticks out pretty vividly throughout the movie.

With that being said, Dylan was able to garner a hit from the soundtrack. Now considered a classic tune, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is decently used in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. It is featured in the death scene of Sherriff Baker (Slim Pickens) while his wife (Katy Jurado) watches and cries. It is nice to see Pickens in something that is more dramatic than Blazing Saddles. Do not get me wrong, I love that movie. But his voice, appearance and ability practically call out to be used in a dramatic role. Jurado is also nice to see, though it is interesting that the title characters are the exact opposite of the protagonist in her most famous movie – Will Kane in High Noon.

On the other hand, we have the almost unwatchable acting of Bob Dylan as Alias. Simply put, Dylan has no screen presence whatsoever. Because I thought that the music in the movie was silly I wanted to like his acting, but he looks to be shell-shocked when he is on camera. I highly doubt that the great Bob Dylan was camera shy during filming. Maybe, and I know that this may be a shocker, Dylan was pushed on Peckinpah by the studio and actually had no business being in a major motion picture.

But even with his extremely noticeable flaws in music and acting, Bob Dylan does not ruin Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. In fact, the movie is still rather good. It follows the story of an outlaw turned lawman, Garrett, who was given a badge by the governor for one reason; it is Garrett’s job to rid his territory of Billy the Kid.

James Coburn is perfectly cast in this role. There is wisdom in his voice that immediately tells the audience that this man has been around the block a few times. In his first scene he warns Billy to leave the country. He does not want to kill the Kid. They used to run together as outlaws. But Garrett needs this job to stay relevant. “This country’s gettin’ old and I intend on gettin’ old with it”. He uses that line multiple times in the movie to explain his actions, but the audience knows he is not happy as a lawman. He regrets hunting the Kid, who may be the younger embodiment of what Garrett wishes he still was…

The highlight of the movie is the witty, charming and unobtrusive performance by singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid. The audience knows that the Kid is a bad dude, but goodness is he charming. His banter with Garrett is wickedly sarcastic and Kristofferson delivers each line with a perfect combination of timing and believable wryness. In one of the more bloody scenes in the movie, the Kid shoots a shot gun filled with coins at one of his initial captors. As the coins rip through flesh and leave the victim dead in a pool of cheesy-looking blood, Kristofferson delivers a line that could have ruined his character’s mythos. He says “Keep the change, Bob!”, and the corny jokes keep coming when a he offers to pay a man for providing him with a horse: "There's a buck-sixty in old Bob if you can dig it out."

But those lines do not hurt the Kid’s bad-ass-er-y because they are delivered with a masterful sense of irony and jest. Kristofferson is not a great actor, but he is able to make himself into Billy the Kid. He initially decides to run from Garrett and escape over the border to Mexico, but after he sees how violent the manhunt has become he rides back into town intent on killing Garrett himself. Again, he is the opposite of the hero I am used to seeing in western movies, Billy the Kid is NOT Will Kane. Technically, Pat Garrett is the good guy in all of this, but the Kid had charisma. Give charisma to a villain and he turns into an anti-hero. That seems to be the American way.

My favorite scene in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid happens right before the final showdown between the two main characters. Garrett has found the kid, who is busy making love to a scarcely-developed love interest. He knows that he has finally found his outlaw and is about to make a major name for himself. The problem is that he will have to kill his friend in order to accomplish it. Torn, distraught and full of pain – Garrett sits on the porch swing and holds his head. It is impossible to know what he is thinking at the moment, but the audience can see that this is not an easy thing for him to do. He allows Billy to finish his love-making and then proceeds to the final gunfight.

I will not spoil the movie by telling you who wins at the end, but like I said before, if you are familiar with American history you should already know how it all turns out. Peckinpah tells a thin version of the actual story, but he does get the ending right. My biggest issue with the final fight is that there is absolutely no blood. Leading up to this point, gunshot wounds were accompanied with a virtual fountain of red, but the final gunshot is a major letdown. I am not saying that I need to see blood to be entertained, but a bloody ending would have fit the feel of the movie in a better way than what is actually shown.

Even with its flaws, I found Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid to be an extremely pleasant viewing experience. Dylan was all-around awful, but it is still fun to see the legend as a young man who is obviously goofing off. Kristofferson has written some of my favorite songs including “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, but I think I will remember him more now as an incredible Billy the Kid. I cannot see why Sam Peckinpah would want to take his name off of a film this entertaining. I may lose my already small audience, but I liked his work on this far more than I like him on Straw Dogs. There, I said it…..

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: B+

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Moulin Rouge! (Luhrmann. 2001)

"You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs..."

Before I get too far into my next paragraph it may be important for me to admit that I have not ever been to Paris. I am not particularly interested in going to Paris. It is not the type of place for me. I am merely using information that I have gathered from many reviewing sites and personal accounts.

It sort of makes me giggle to think that people actually have a romanticized vision of the Moulin Rouge. It seems to have become a bit of a dive-in tourist trap with horrible acoustics, crowded seating and sub-par performers. Roger Ebert claims that the biggest issues with the theatre are the ticket prices and the quality of entertainment. He says – “The tragedy of the Moulin Rouge is that by the time you can afford a better seat, you've outgrown the show”. To me, though windmills are neat, it looks like the place where Emil Jannings loses his dignity in the tragically funny film The Blue Angel. I am forced to wonder how many performers have lost their dignity at the Rouge.

So what creates this undeserved aura of upper-class romanticism? The outer-aesthetic appeal of the building has to be somewhat responsible, but I think a lot of people chalk the Moulin Rouge’s significance up to the concept of romance. Tourists want to go to a place like this to find a completely new definition of love. Or at least that is what they have heard they will find. It is THAT concept that makes a movie like Moulin Rouge! work. It is not worried about staying accurate, but rather it shamelessly exploits the reputation of the famous burlesque theatre. And the audience believes the completely ridiculous mythos because….well…the movie makes it seem believable.

A lot of that is due to the brilliant, Academy Award nominated, cinematography by Donald McAlpine. The camera creates a postcard-like frame for the action that whirls and twirls almost exactly like the human imagination. The audience is taken on a (highly-saturated) colorful rollercoaster ride that seems to only stop to push the plot. The film, which was shot on sound stages in Australia, does everything on a grand scale. The camera catches everything – even if it has to be frantic in order to accomplishing it.

The story is extremely straightforward and easy to follow. That may be the biggest flaw in Moulin Rouge!. A love-obsessed poet (Ewan McGregor) comes to the Moulin Rouge and madly falls for a dying dancer/hooker named Satine. Played by the Academy Award nominated Nicole Kidman, Satine is a famous dancer with a secret. The audience finds out very early in the movie that she has tuberculosis and is dying. The Duke (Richard Roxburgh) is also in love with Satine and disallows her from seeing the poet.

Each character in the movie is decently defined, with Nicole Kidman standing alone as the only incredible performance. She is sexy, smart and compelling as Satine. It is a performance that perfectly embodies how a person would act, in this outlandish circumstance, if they knew that they were dying. In her final moments on the screen she is so tender, heartbreaking and relatable that it almost forced a tear to my eye. Sadly, the ending was so obvious and abrupt that I was not fully involved enough to cry.

The storyline in Moulin Rouge! is empty and a bit weak, but I do not think that narrative is what Baz Luhrmann was trying to rely on with this movie. It features some of the most stylized costumes, sets and color schemes that have ever been in popular film. Everything is over the top, extraordinary or fantastical. It is almost as if the audience is supposed to be captured in the surrealist aspects of the main character’s surroundings. Why not? Moulin Rouge! is set in France – the country that adopted the father of surrealist cinema, Luis Buñuel. Maybe this was Luhrmann’s form of homage to the great director. Or maybe he just wanted the movie to look neat. Either way, I think he succeeded.

Moulin Rouge! is most famous for its use of several popular songs that were rewritten and performed by the characters. There is a very famous medley of songs, “Elephant Love Medley”, which made it onto the pop charts in 2001. It features a complex mix of songs by artists spanning from The Beatles to Kiss. Though it is a neat selection of songs, I was not particularly fond of a number of the renditions that were written for the film. “Roxanne” and “Like a Virgin” stand out as two of the more grueling numbers.

I suppose that I enjoyed Moulin Rouge! on a visual level, but the movie itself is not very entertaining. People did and still do go nuts for the musical numbers, but (like Glee) when you mash-up a bunch of already popular songs – you will probably get a popular song out of it. Nothing besides the artwork is particularly memorable outside of Kidman’s performance. I feel like this must be a polarizing movie. It is probably much more popular with women who yearn for the fake, pre-packaged romance of Paris.

“It is perfectly appropriate that it was filmed on sound stages in Australia; Paris has always existed best in the minds of its admirers.”

Moulin Rouge!: B-

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Carrie (De Palma. 1976)

"They're all gonna laugh at you!"

Edgar Allen Poe wrote incredibly effective horror stories because he was able to weave in and out of what was even scary in the first place. His characters were ultimately familiar, yet unpredictable. The reader picked up on the strong hints of underlying damage in each antagonist. Two common themes in some of his best writing were revenge and religion. These by themselves are scary because they grow from completely human desires – the desire to break even or to understand humanity.

This is the exact type of horror that is seen in Carrie. Brian De Palma is able to weave a Poe-like web of basic human feelings that eventually grows into something far more terrible. Though the characters are based off the novel by the famous horror writer Stephen King, it is De Palma’s sinister shooting style that spins the movie out of our control. He uses the camera to tell the audience when they should be afraid. This is not an unsophisticated horror flick; there are no cheap startles or suspenseful tunnel-shots. Rather, De Palma chooses to use perfectly framed human emotions like fear, anger and maybe even love.

Of course, he is helped out by two brilliant, Oscar nominated, performances from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Spacek plays the title character, Carrie White, with such shrill and fragile body language that the audience is surprised that she never shatters on the floor. Her skin is as white as porcelain and her smile is practically nonexistent. Carrie has long, straight blonde hair that she uses to isolate herself from her classmates by covering her face. She is quiet, shy, afraid and honestly quite creepy.

The movie begins with Carrie getting her first period while showering after gym class. Unaware that this is a normal thing, she reaches out and desperately begs for help from her classmates. Rather than understanding, the girls taunt Carrie. They heartlessly throw tampons at her while mocking her inability to understand what his happening with her body. It is unusual that a high school senior would not know anything about starting her period, but Carrie is scarred by it. She thought she was dying. And what if she had been? She probably still would have been mocked by her classmates.

When she arrives home from school everything begins to make sense. Her mother (Laurie) is a religious fanatic who believed that if Carrie remained sinless she would never have gotten her period in the first place. She reads from the Bible: And God made Eve from the rib of Adam. And Eve was weak and loosed the raven on the world. And the raven was called sin. The first sin was intercourse. Eve was weak. And the Lord visited Eve with the curse, and the curse was the curse of blood! She forces Carrie into a small, dark closet and demands that she beg Jesus for forgiveness. Mrs. White has been deeply damaged by her husband leaving her for another woman. She has over–indulged herself in the aspect of sin to the point that she has almost created a religion of her own. She disallows her daughter to have any personal friendships and refuses to allow Carrie to attend the senior prom – even though she was invited by a nice, popular boy.

But she cannot keep her daughter from attending the prom because underneath her fragile manner, Carrie can move things. She has the gift/curse of telekinesis – the ability to alter things with her mind. It is hinted that her mother knows about the powers. Carrie looks into a mirror and it shatters. Her mother rushes into the room to find the mirror reassembled. After being confronted with Carrie’s power, Mrs. White assumes the work of the Devil. She begs Carrie to not go to the prom. “They’re all gonna laugh at you!” she says. And that is almost exactly what happens.

Most of us already know what happens in the final twenty minutes of Carrie. The popular couple, Chris (Nancy Allen) and Billy (John Travolta), rig the prom queen election to have Carrie win so that they can dump a bucket of pig’s blood onto her head. It is important to note that her date, the popular boy, was not in on the joke. He was legitimately giving a previously hopeless young girl her first feelings of acceptance and beauty. That does not mean he does not pay for the crimes of others. It is impossible to know whether or not Carrie chose to kill all of those people or if her powers become uncontrollable due to her rage, but the final moments hint that she is no longer in control.

Carrie is a tragic tale of a young girl who never stood a chance. She does not feel normal because she is not normal. The horror in the movie is not realized through anything other than the audience watching her lose control. Even in her, brief, finest moment Carrie is never beautiful. The audience knows that she is something much more terrifying. I do not think De Palma would say that he was trying to make a “treat people nicely” statement with the movie, but it may scare some people into thinking twice before throwing tampons….

Carrie: B

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Do the Right Thing (Lee. 1989)

"And that's the truth, Ruth!"

Do the Right Thing is a movie that terrifies me, but not for the reason that you may be thinking. Race has nothing to do with a person’s ability to become enthralled in Spike Lee’s best movie, but the film’s entertainment value does not outweigh the consequences of watching it. If you have a heart, this is a film that will make you very angry. It is a confusing, concise and polarizing look into race issues in American culture. Though it was made in the 80s, a shot-for-shot remake could be made in 2011 and the message would remain clear.

After first watching Do the Right Thing, I was convinced that Spike Lee was an angry, aggressive “reverse” racist who was trying to make an anti-white person statement. It took me a few days of thinking to realize what he may have actually been trying to do with the movie. The action takes place through the eyes of Mookie (Lee), a pizza delivery boy in a slummy Brooklyn neighborhood. He works for the only eatery in town – Sal’s Famous Pizzeria – that just so happens to be owned by an Italian family.

Throughout the movie he walks the streets and passively sees what is happening on his block. It is a poor neighborhood that is populated by mainly black people; African-American may be a misstatement in this case. There are three elderly black men who sit on the corner and gab about the neighborhood goings-on, a watcher from her window, Mother Sister, played by Ruby Dee, and a loveable street drunk named Da Mayer who sweeps Sal’s sidewalks for one dollar a day.

Much to his disliking, Mookie is often brought into the middle of the issues brought on by the people who surround him. He is asked to boycott the pizzeria by his friend, Buggin’ Out. Sal’s son, played immaculately by John Turturro, is constantly berating him for his color and the mother of his child is desperate to make him more present. Mookie makes it very clear that he is only interested in “making that money”, so he idly works for Sal and does not get involved in any other person’s business. Spike Lee could have made Sal’s character into a horrible villain, but there are no villains in Do the Right Thing. Instead, he presents Sal the same way he does Mookie or any other character.

In an Oscar nominated role, Danny Aiello plays Sal as a man who is clearly proud of his livelihood. He makes an honest living helping the people of the black community stay fed. They have been raised on Sal’s pizza. He is also in no way a racist silhouette of a Brooklyn business owner. He is happy to serve the people in his neighborhood, and they are happy to eat his pizza. The relationship is good until Buggin’ Out looks up at his “Wall of Fame”.

“Why aren’t there any pictures of Brothas up on the wall”? Sal answers by saying that it is his restaurant and only Italian-Americans are allowed on the wall. This answer should make sense – it is perfectly reasonable. But racism is so deeply ingrained in our culture that, no matter how you shake it, the issue creeps into the back of your mind. Does Sal have something against black people? He should not HAVE to put any picture on his wall that he does want there, but he very easily COULD appease his all-black customers. It becomes a matter of racial principle. Who wants to back down and admit that race is the issue? Do the pictures make Sal a racist? Probably not.

But that does not mean that racial frustration is not the issue in Do the Right Thing. Race is the ONLY issue. In one scene we have a white cop, Korean shop owner, black man and an Italian-American spewing racial slurs until Samuel L. Jackson defuses the situation with his hysterical radio commentary. Everything in the movie is tense, and it cannot help that it is the hottest day of the year. Everybody is irritable when the temperature hits three digits.

John Turturro’s character (Pino) is a racist. He uses horrible words and acts aggressively to any person of color that comes into the restaurant. In a funny moment, Mookie points out that Pino’s favorite athlete, musician and movie star are all black. But they are “bigger than black” to Pino. No matter what the issue, skin color is the divider.

The heat continues to scorch and tempers continue to do the same thing, but Mookie is always able to remain calm. He is far more concerned with Sal hitting on his sister than he is with the boycott of Sal’s Famous. Buggin’ Out continuously reminds him to “stay black”, but this is just as bad as an Italian-American-only Wall of Fame. It is making race the dividing line between the people on the same block. It makes no sense. Nobody is telling anybody to sell-out their culture, but people would get along better if they tried to accept that other people’s experiences are different. It is not about “staying black” or sticking to your Italian roots. It is about cherishing the concept of understanding and empathy.

This brings us to the wild card of the movie, Radio Raheem. Bill Nunn plays Raheem and is an intimidating figure that towers over most of the other actors in Do the Right Thing. His ever-present boom box only blasts one song – “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. Radio is offended by anyone who tries to lower the volume of his stereo, especially Sal. If race is the spark that starts the fire during the climax then the stereo can be called the firewood. That is what makes Lee’s screenplay so perfect – he does not leave Raheem without blame. He storms into the pizzeria, music blasting, in support of the boycott and is loudly warned to shut his music off. After all, he is in Sal’s place. It is nobody’s fault but Raheem’s when his blaster is smashed by the baseball bat behind the counter.

Throughout the movie, Sal may be the only considerable voice of reason. He loves his neighborhood and is deeply saddened by his son’s racist behavior. Sal wants to stay on that corner forever. He says that Mookie is like a son to him, and that there will always be a job for him and Sal’s Famous. That all changes after Sal smashed that boom box and utters the worst word in the English language. When Sal says “nigger” it is all over. This initial conflict had very little to do with race. Sal wanted the music off, and Raheem wanted his people to be fairly represented in his community’s most frequented eatery. All of this is fair, but when the n-word is used the situation loses its footing. A fight breaks out that culminates in a white cop choking and killing Raheem.

This moment has been criticized as being racist against white people, but people need to look deeper into the scene. Yes, a white cop does kill a relatively innocent black man, but the cop is not the “bad guy”. Like I have said before, there are no villains in Do the Right Thing. If anything, the villains are fear, ignorance and sweltering heat. There is a Hispanic cop who is trying to play the voice of reason. He shouts “that is enough” to the murdering cop. The other white cop is in charge of riot control. Does a black man get uncomfortable when he walks into a room of all white people? I assume that he does, and it works the same in reverse. These cops are the outsiders and race is, like always, in the back of their minds. Not only are they the only white people in the room, but they are the only cops in a racially combustible and violent room.

Raheem’s murder leads to a riot where Sal’s Famous is burned to the ground by the crowd. Sal did not do anything wrong in this movie, but neither did Raheem – in reality, neither did the cops. But everyone is to blame because they allowed things to get this far. The people on the street are frustrated, confused and angry. It becomes about race only because race is the apparent issue. Even the all-black mob is racist – they come within an inch of putting the Korean man out of business for no other reason besides his skin-color.

Nothing is solved at the end of Do the Right Thing. Sal loses his pizzeria, Mookie gets paid and Radio Raheem remains dead. It is doubtful that the officer who killed him will be punished for what he did. Everybody wakes up the next day just as angry, confused and overheated as they were the night before. What questions does this movie answer? None. It is not meant to answer anything because race may not have an answer. One of the worst things a person can do is say that they are racially “colorblind”. In summation, that means that they choose to ignore the differing backgrounds and experiences that each race has endured throughout history. But remaining separate, “staying black”, led to nothing but anger and violence.

Nobody does the right thing in Do the Right Thing. Not the black people, nor do the white people. As long as race divides us – we are all bad people. Do not expect to leave this movie fulfilled or uplifted. It will make you angry. That may be the point that I was initially missing.

“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral.” – Martin Luther King

“..I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self-defense, I call it intelligence.” - Malcolm X

Do the Right Thing: A

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky. 2000)

"Anybody wanna waste some time?"

Drugs are bad. Like, they are really really bad. Hard drugs are some of the most frightening things on the planet. With Trainspotting, there was a debate over whether or not the movie was pro-heroin. In Darren Aronofsky's second most famous film (behind Black Swan) there is no debate whatsoever. Requiem for a Dream says that drugs are bad. It uses horrifying imagery and well thought-out scare tactics to prove a point that few movies prove with any success.

The movie is primarily centered on three characters: Harry, Marion and Tyrone. Harry and Marion are a couple who seem to be madly in love with each other. Tyrone is their friend and business partner. They are three young adults living in a drug-infused utopia. They mainly do the big no-no of hard drugs, heroin. They will do anything to get more of it. In fact, the movie begins with Harry (Jared Leto) stealing and selling his mother's television to a pawn shop in order to afford more drugs.

This might not be such a bad thing considering his mother is practically addicted to daytime television infomercials. The ads star the charismatic, but mysteriously, creepy Tappy Tibbons. Played by the always solid Christopher McDonald, Tibbons is a strange addition to the Requiem stew. His infomercials are almost as campy as his name, but consumerism does not seem to be what he is on screen to represent. I think he might be a representation of obsession. The more you watch him and his crew on the snowy television screen the more you become enamored by the parasocial relationship that he is able to form with Harry’s mother. He does not add a considerable amount of plot to the movie, but his character IS what the movie is all about.

Harry’s mother, Sara, is the character that really steals the show in Requiem. She is played hauntingly by one of my all-time favorite actresses, Ellen Burstyn. She is a lowly old widow who has, like mentioned, become obsessed with watching infomercials. As her obsession with television grows, we see Harry become concerned for her well being. Though the small family may have their problems, it is apparent throughout the movie that they do deeply care for each other. It is never said that Sara knows about her son’s drug using, but I am not sure that it would be possible for her to not realize something is going on. Either way, she sticks with him through his troubled times, but eventually she hits her own…

Sara receives a call that tells her she has been chosen to be featured on a televised game show. Already knowing about her obsession with television, the audience can sense her excitement upon hearing the news. After stumbling across a picture of her at her son’s graduation, Sara realizes that she is not in the same physical shape that she was in during her more youthful years. She digs up an old red dress (one of her dead-husband's favorites) and does whatever it takes to fit her body back into it. With disapproval from her hypocritical son, Sara begins a strict regimen of weight-loss amphetamine pills for every meal. It leads to the question of “what actually is a drug?” These were prescribed by a doctor. That means they cannot be unsafe.

All of this is happening while Harry, Tyrone and Marion are working in the Coney Island drug trade. They all have their own reasons for selling drugs and each reason is something much bigger than good feelings. Harry wants to be able to provide for his mother. Marion (Jennifer Connelly) is trying to open up a fashion store in order to sell her designs. Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) is simply trying to reverse the curse of his family by escaping the dangerous streets of New York and making something of himself. Sadly, Tyrone is caught in the middle of some kind of drug skirmish and the trio has to spend most of their money on posting bail. They now have to start over from the beginning.

Taking a break from the story, Aronofsky’s direction in Requiem for a Dream could not be any better. He is able to introduce an extremely unique style of filmmaking while still getting the best out of his entire cast. Maybe everybody was on board with the anti-drug message of the film. Maybe the cast knew that they had a fantastic screenplay on their hands. Either way, you could not ask for a more emotion-driven piece of cinema. Every frame is put together with amazing incoherent precision. It is the visual definition of organized chaos.

Jared Leto as Harry is a great example of perfect casting. He is brooding, but pathetically desperate throughout the movie. He may be relatable enough to cheer for him, but the audience never really likes him. His arm has become deeply and grossly infected from his unclean heroin habits, but he still insists on sticking the needle in the same spot. He is addicted in the worst way. This is not the heroin addiction depicted in Trainspotting. The audience does not laugh at this type of thing. Rather, the need to reach out and protect or help the poor addict is felt in their hearts. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes from the movie, Harry convinces Marion to have sex with her psychiatrist for money. She loves him so much that she cannot help but agree. This agreement was not for drugs, but for unadulterated love. It is a terrifying thought that one person could love another person that much.

When Harry and Tyrone leave to find more successful drug trafficking in Florida, Marion is left in Coney Island to fend for herself. She is forced into working for a pimp who forces her to have sex with him and displays her in degrading and humiliating sex-shows to support her drug habit. The culminating scene in the movie features a massive amount of perverted men throwing money at a crying, scarred Marion as she commits vulgar acts to herself and another stripper. She will never recover from this experience. And she did it all for drugs, love and money.

Harry’s arm eventually becomes so infected that he and Tyrone are forced to stop at a hospital on the way to Florida. They are put in jail for skipping out on their bail. Tyrone is forced to do hard labor in an extremely racist southern prison while Harry has his arm amputated due to the infection.

Meanwhile, Sara never again hears from the television studio and begins to believe she is too fat to be on television. She becomes addicted to amphetamines and begins to suffer from serious hallucinations and delusions. In one of the most interestingly acted scenes, Sara believes that her refrigerator has become a horrible monster that is trying to attack her. She eventually marches down to the television studio where the police are informed of her addiction and dementia. She, wearing her red dress, is then committed to the psychiatric ward where she is forced to endure unsuccessful electroshock treatment.

Dreams play a major role in creating emotion in Requiem. Harry dreams on many occasions that he and Marion are engaged and living a successful life in Manhattan. After his final dream, he awakens to find himself alone and in prison – with only one arm. Tyrone dreams that his mother will be proud of him. Sadly, he is beaten by racist prison guards. Marion wants Harry to save her from her life. She dreams that she is waiting on a pier by the ocean when Harry appears, clean from drugs, to take her away from everything. Sara’s dream is the most emotional. She dreams that she finally made it to television, and that she is there, in her red dress, with her son and his wife. They hug and say that they love each other. The movie ends with these dreams being slashed as each character balls up into the fetal position and cries. This is the life that drugs have created for them.

I understand that I have given away the ending, but Requiem for a Dream is not a movie that is concerned with the plot. Aronofsky is much more concerned with leaving an impression on the audience. He does this successfully by actively driving a forceful message. Drugs are not a game. They are not a joke. They ruin lives.

I have heard people say that the unrated movie should be shown in health classes in middle schools. I personally disagree with that statement. This is not a movie or message that is appropriate for children. Show it in high school – it will work just as well.

Requiem for a Dream: B+

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Edward Scissorhands (Burton. 1990)

"I'm not finished..."

Riddle me this: how is Tim Burton able to make a completely absurd character into a popular culture phenomenon? He is partly responsible for the success and popularity of Pee Wee Herman. He is the mastermind behind the disgustingly over-appreciated Jack Skellington. Burton is also the creator of one of 90s cinema’s most popular protagonists, Edward Scissorhands. With all of these characters under his belt, it is amazing that Burton finds time to make good movies…

Edward Scissorhands is, on the surface, a movie that tells its audience to not treat unusual people differently than they would want to be treated. A loveable Avon lady walks into an abandoned castle on the hill and finds that a robot-man thing named Edward has been living there alone for several years. She is virtually unresponsive to the fact that he has scissors instead of hands. “I’m not finished”, he says. “No kidding”, says the audience.

Edward is, to say the least, an incredibly bizarre character. He was built by a mad inventor (Vincent Price) who died before he was able to complete his design. This leaves Edward with a sold black body and elongated scissors instead of fingers. He was never taught anything about social protocol, but his imagination is active and wild. Edward has an excelled skill in trimming hedges and cutting hair – which makes sense. I mean, he has scissors for hands. He quickly becomes a local celebrity because of his peculiar look and interesting skills. I am not so sure that is what would really happen, but realism is pretty much trampled in this movie.

Playing a character like Edward was probably very difficult, so it makes perfect sense that Burton would cast one of the greatest character actors of our generation. Johnny Depp is confused, innocent and compelling in this role. If the film does anything right, it makes you feel for Edward. Depp does this role the right way. It is not about dialogue or attention. The conceptual ridiculousness is enough to keep the audience interested. He is subtle, naïve and simply perfect. It is a neat role, but that is still not enough to save the movie.

The Avon lady, Peg, oozes with maternal instinct. She is played by the two-time Academy Award winning Dianne Wiest with such bubbly charm that she almost makes the movie believable. She goes door to door every season selling, or trying to sell, make-up products to the local women in the town. Peg is seen as a person of little interest to the town until she is spotted with a strange visitor in the passenger seat of her car. This leads us to the first question about the story – why would she bring Edward home in the first place? I think, if not for any other reason, Peg automatically related to Edward because they are both seen as undesirable company. I think she wants to reach out and help a person in obvious need, but I also think she may be desperate for the company.

Peg does have a perfect little family who live in a ticky-tacky house in a ticky-tacky neighborhood. Her husband is a typical working stiff played by Alan Arkin. She has a son who brings very little weight to the storyline, and a daughter played by a young, pre-shoplifting, Winona Ryder. Adding Edward to the typical family mix does not force the same reaction that he audience would expect. They are relatively responsive to trying to assimilate the misunderstood robot-man thing. Edward falls in love with Kim (Ryder), which I find strange. Is Edward even human? How can he be in love with a human girl? It is kinda creepy. And Edward Scissorhands, as a movie, loses the tiniest shred of credibility that it had by having Kim fall in love with Edward. It doesn’t matter if Anthony Michael Hall is a tool – that love story would never happen.

When you travel a little bit below the surface it is easy to see that Edward Scissorhands is not a working satire. Yes, Edward is an unusual “person” who is sprung into a world that sees him as a side show. The reason the message does not work is because every other character in the movie is a poorly defined caricature of suburban people. Imagine if Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp went into a town where every man was just as out-of-place as him. Would that movie be worth a darn? No.

The most working aspect of Edward Scissorhands is the emotionally charged score by Danny Elfman. He has been criticized for being a repetitive composer – which is 100% true – but it is perfect for the movie. Eventually audiences got tired of hearing the same Elfman score over the same swooping-camera opening credits sequence that Burton insists on using in every movie he has ever made. Either way, the emotional build up of the final scene culminates with the compassionate, intense and stirring music. This should have been Elfman’s Oscar. I stand by that.

At the end of the day, Edward Scissorhands is a pretty decent movie. It’s not great, nor is it awful. If I have to spend two hours watching a movie I would rather watch something of a higher quality than Burton’s vision of loneliness and failed satire. It is important to have pop entertainment in your life. Sadly, this is just an average example of pop entertainment.

Edward Scissorhands: C+

Friday, November 18, 2011

Airplane! (Zucker. Abrahams. Zucker. 1980)

"I am serious... and don't call me Shirley."

Spoof movies, nowadays, have a major tendency to not be very funny. Having grown up through the Scary Movie (2000) era, I cannot honestly say that I have seen a funny spoof movie made in my lifetime. Maybe I am trying too hard to not laugh at some of the nonsense that comes with spoofs. There is a chance that I respect the material being mocked to the point that I cannot laugh. I don't know, but I do not like spoof movies.

There needs to be an exception to every general statement made. If I say I do not like spoof movies, then I have to admit that I kinda sorta enjoyed Airplane! at one point in my life. I remember seeing the movie for the first time when I was 13 years old. There was not a person on the planet who could have successfully convinced me that it was not the funniest movie in the history of the world. I am older now, and for the sake of the big list I decided to give Airplane! a re-watch for the first time in almost 10 years. Sadly, it just isn't very funny anymore.

The movie is a grab bag of other people's stories and references. It is an obvious parody of the hit movie Airport (1970), but what I did not realize is that it also borrows heavily from two other movies called Airport 1975 (1974) and Zero Hour! (1957). In fact, the entire food poisoning storyline is lifted from Zero Hour!. I think this may have led to the movie becoming a tad dated. There are several pop culture references that people my age and younger are not going to understand. With the level of ridiculousness in tact, it is never difficult to know when something is being made fun of - but it does sometimes become difficult to figure out WHAT is being made fun of.

Because I am a nerd, I decided to look up and watch Airport 1975 and Zero Hour!. These are both overly dramatic movies that take place on airplanes. They are also not very good. That could be another problem. Airplane! is spoofing two movies that do a fine job at spoofing themselves. It is easy to see that the writers had very little respect for what they were making fun of, and that makes the film seem childish in some spots.

If you are familiar with the source material then you know that Airplane! takes place on an airplane filled with interesting characters. The passengers and pilots were served a helping of poisoned fish and everyone on the plane ends up severely ill. This means there is no pilot to fly the plane. A lowly and emotionally scarred former Air Force pilot with a hilarious "drinking problem" is the only hope for the passengers. Will he be able to save the day? I mean, it is a comedy...

Leslie Nielsen, in a role that changed the course of his career, plays Dr. Rumack. He is a medical doctor who is asked to assist with the sick passengers. His lines are the funniest in the movie. He seems to not have any grasp on reality and really enforces the surrealist comedy that made Airplane! famous. Some of his lines are still very funny. "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley!" has to be one of the most quoted lines in the history of comedy. My favorite line - "we've got to get these people to a hospital! A hospital, what is it!? Its a big building with lost of patients". It makes me laugh every single time.

But really, that is about the extent of the movie's funny parts. Maybe it is because spoof movies have become unbearable at this point in cinematic history. It could be because the jokes and references are dated. It could even be because I watched the movie a million times as a child. I am sorry to say that nostalgia wanted me to give Airplane! an A grade. But it earned every letter of the grade that I gave it...

Airplane!: B-

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Trainspotting (Boyle. 1996)

"It's such a perfect day. I'm glad I spent it with you. You just keep me hangin' on."

I am already aware of the first thing my blog followers will look for when they see that I have written about Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. Reader’s eyes will automatically start to scan the review to see if I am the hipster who thinks it is a brilliant character display or if I am the conservative who sees it as pro-drug garbage. Which one do you think I am?

Honestly, I am not here nor there. I have never thought of the movie as pro-heroin. That would be silly. But it has been said that no movie can be anti anything because it will inevitably look cool when a camera is pointed at it. Does Trainspotting make heroin look cool? I do not think so, but I could see why some people do.

To me, it is more about the people in the movie over how they are behaving. The film centers around a group of morally despicable drug addicts, who steal, fight and cheat in the desperate hunt for their next hit. The dialogue may sometimes be pro-heroin – “take the best orgasm you've ever had... multiply it by a thousand, and you're still nowhere near it” – but the actions depicted on the screen are pretty much relatively associated with bad in all cultures. I think the most significant and responsible scene is Trainspotting is the famous bedroom detox scene. Yes, we are distracted by the baby who does the “exorcist” head trick, but we are also caught up in the main character’s pain. I never want to go through what he does in this scene. Therefore, I will never try heroin. Problem solved.

Ewan McGregor plays Renton. Like every main character in Trainspotting, he is addicted to something. His poison is heroin. He makes an attempt at going cold turkey; he goes as far as to lock himself in a room alone with three buckets for urine, feces and vomit. This does not last long as the door is broken down and anal suppositories are secured to provide his next high. The scene that follows is a testament to the dedication of an addict. It is a bit too disgusting for me to discuss.

Renton parades around the Edinburgh area with a small group of junkies who screw up far more often than they get screwed. Tommy seems to be the most normal of the bunch, but suffers the most severe blow at the hands of drug addiction. Spud is a character that seems to be a necessity for any director from Great Britain. His dialogue is nearly impossible to understand. Begbie is quick to brag about the fact that he has never done drugs, but he is a heavy smoker and drinker who will (and does) stab a man in the blink of an eye. I am not positive, but I am assuming that this group of friends chose each other based on nothing more than the fact that they did not have anyone else to choose from. I would not want to be friends with these people. There must be a certain unknown camaraderie that comes with being junkies. They even share a woman – though nobody takes particularly good care of the love child.

That is the most offensive aspect of Trainspotting. Yes, babies die. I understand that a baby in the care of a group of junkies will probably die. But I do not need to see it. These men regard the life of a child lower than they do the usefulness of heroin. If THAT is not anti-drug then I do not know what could be considered to be anti-drug.

If anything in Trainspotting can be considered “cool” it is the usage of Lou Reed’s classic song, “Perfect Day”.In one of my favorite shots from the movie, Renton is passed out in the back of a taxi after taking his “last hit”. This is when you hear Lou’s soft vocals – “you make me forget myself. You make me feel like I’m someone else, someone good”. This is the most emotional use of music in Trainspotting. It is a pretty cool scene.

Other than that, Trainspotting is simply exactly what it is. Friends continue to find each other and focus on ways to get high, make money or have sex. There is an obligatory happy ending, but it seems to be forced on the audience. I like the movie on several levels, but I do not think it is great. If I want to watch a bunch of friends do drugs and mess up, I can simply walk to my nearest public park.

Trainspotting: C+

Mad Max (Miller. 1979)

"They say people don't believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them! We're gonna give them back their heroes!"

In retrospect, it is hilarious to watch Mel Gibson play the leading role in the cult classic, Mad Max. This is a movie with so much adrenaline and power that it seems better suited for an actor of far lesser talent. Picture this billing on the marquee - Vin Diesel starring as Mad Max!

Set in a dystopic future Australia in "a few years from now", Mad Max is a movie that looks to exploit the speed demon inside all of us. It was made on a budget of $300,000 and greatly depends on the kinetic success of the frantic chase scenes. Most people would call this a road movie because the majority of the action takes place...well...on the road. But for me, Mad Max is its own type of cult movie. It features some significant emotional material as well as aggressive action.

Mel Gibson plays Max - an edgy, but relatively tame, road patrol officer in the streets of a desolate Australia. In the extensive opening chase scene, we see Max catch up to and eventually crash the car of a rouge motorcycle gangster known as Nightrider. Gangs rule the roads, so the death of Nightrider attracts the attention of his fellow riders. A new viscous gang comes to town in order to get revenge on the man who killed their comrade. After they go too far, it is Max who gets his revenge.

In the beginning, Max is nothing more than slightly edgy. Deep down he is a family man who is crazy about his wife and son. He wants to settle down and leave the force, but with a new gang on the loose that is not possible. That all changes when the evil gang mangles and eventually kills Max's best friend and fellow cop. He realizes that he could end up the exact same way and leaves the force to be with his family. Mel Gibson is a much more convincing family-man than he is badass killing machine. For me, it is the down time that works the best in the movie. Character development is sloppy and poorly presented, so Gibson had to make up for that with a compelling performance.

Eventually, the gang finds and murders Max's wife and infant son. This is where Max goes mad. I felt like it took forever to get to the part of the movie that people want to see the most. When Max got in that car and attacked his enemies, I was actively engaged. The problem is that it happened in the final eight minutes of the movie. The action is so frantic, rushed and underdeveloped that it made me wonder why the movie had such a strong reputation. I mean, it was still one of the most in your face movies I have seen - it was just far less than I expected.

I think my mistake was that I saw Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) before I saw the original. The sequel is so delightfully stylized and overbearing with aggression that it is oft thought to be better than the original. The violence is much more prevalent and the chase scenes are louder, longer and faster. I think I expected Mad Max to be more like the sequel. I had high expectations that were not even close to met.

That is because, contrary to popular opinion, Mad Max is not a movie about violence. It is the introduction to a soon-to-be violent character. Max is a soft-spoken husband and father. He does not become the iconic Australian killing machine until almost the very end. When it hits, it hits hard. But it takes so long to hit that I almost did not make it.

I am iffy about whether or not I really enjoyed Mad Max. Honestly, I would recommend skipping the original and direct you to the sequel. It is not a hard story. You will be able to catch yourself up.

Mad Max: C-

WR: Mysteries of the Organism (Makavejev. 1971) *Perfect Film

"Comrade lovers, for your health's sake, fuck freely!"

I honestly have no idea how I am supposed to feel about WR: Mysteries of the Organism. It is a movie unlike anything that I have ever seen before. Though it certainly has dramatic moments, I think it is supposed to be a comedy. Do not quote me on that. I first came across the film while reading Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies”. The review does not say much about the film itself, but rather Ebert decided to focus mostly on the ideas of the man behind that movie –the inflammatory Dusan Makavejev. I sort of wish that he had done a better job at warning me about what I was going to put myself through.

One of the most unusual cinematic experiences of my life has now passed, and I am forced to admit that the movie may have been beyond my personal comprehension. I could tell that it was going to be different from the start, but WR was really something else entirely. It starts as a comedic and satirically toned documentary about a communist – turned American - doctor named Wilhelm Reich.

Here we have one of the most bizarre men in the history of medicine. He started as an assistant to Sigmund Freud in the 20s, but eventually became far too radical to work in the mainstream. Reich became a major proponent of adolescent sex, abortion, masturbation and divorce. The real controversies started when he began breaking the rules of psychoanalysis by physically touching his patients. He said he had discovered a cosmic wavelength caused by human orgasm that could be the cure for many health problems. He sat his patients in “energy accumulators”, refrigerator sized boxes with wooden exterior and metal interior, so that they could be fully surrounded by the healing power.

The FDA was made extremely uncomfortable by these “cancer curing sex-boxes” and made the interstate transport of the product illegal. I mean, we do live in the United States, a place where sex is only allowed to be seen as a means to procreate. God forbid we investigate the true power behind the human orgasm. I am not saying I believe that it worked, but it is an interesting thought that was needlessly shut down by idiotic suits. Reich was put in prison for continuing to sell his accumulators. He died there a year later from heart failure.

So that is the beginning of WR: Mysteries of the Organism. It is a pretty neat, but unspectacular, documentary about a weirdo. After a while, the film switched gears toward something more political. This switch in subject matter is so fast and unexpected that I did not even realize it had turned into a fiction movie. Two female roommates in Yugoslavia are the subjects in the new story. One of them is a frequently naked sexpot; the other, Melina, is a more radical thinker – maybe even a political or sexual theorist. The sexpot is introduced in a wild sex scene that rivals anything that I have seen in movies. I am not convinced that the sex was “movie magic” and not the real thing. I do not know for sure, but it looked like sex to me.

Melina meets a Russian figure skater and communist named Vladimir to whom she is wildly attracted. After hearing about his feelings toward communism, sex and life in general, Melina supplies him with the most powerful thing in the universe, the orgasm. He is unappreciative, I guess, because afterwards he slices off her head with his ice skate. Why not?

The disembodied head lives on and shares more opinions on life and fascism before quick cutting to scenes of Lenin giving a political speech. The film ends with the head looking directly into the camera with a strange smile that fades into a picture of a smiling Reich. WR never stops to explain itself. You are either in on the joke, or you aren’t meant to understand.

While all of this is happening, there is sub-action that is worth mentioning. In one non-fiction scene, a man gets his penis plaster casted. This could be the most graphic shot of a penis I have seen in a non-pornographic movie. There is also a transvestite who willingly shares his/her first encounter with homosexual sex. That particular scene was very difficult to get through. I am not homophobic in the least, but the moment seemed too personal to be on film.

All of this happens with more actual documentary footage being shown between scenes. The pace of the film is frantic, but the humor is sardonic. I do not think that Makavejev is taking Reich very seriously. It seems to be a comedy, and it works on that level. Everything is swimming in its own ridiculousness. This makes it almost impossible to look away from the screen.

Of course, movies like WR: Mysteries of the Organism do not come without controversy. The film was initially banned in Yugoslavia and deemed pornographic in other parts of the world. It was actually banned from being entered in several competitive worldly film festivals. In one of the most outright examples of censorship in American history, Reich’s novels and essays were burned by the FDA in order to avoid the spreading of his ideas. Maybe that was what censorship bodies were trying to accomplish when banning a movie that is partly about his work. When asked about the controversy, Makavejev responded by saying his film is like a mirror. "People hold it up to themselves and see reflected only what they are most offended by”. Either way, it has gone on to gather acclaim by being named to the 1077, Ebert’s “Great Movies” and it was re-mastered beautifully by the Criterion Collection. You can’t ever keep a message down forever.

I know that I am going out on a limb here, but I am going to go ahead and put WR: Mysteries of the Organism on my sub-list, Jake’s 10 Perfect Movies. I am not doing this because it is all that good, but rather because it is one of the most original, strange and unusual movies maybe ever made. I will remember seeing this forever. Some of the political jargon may be lost on me, but Makavejev undoubtedly made a statement. Now if I could just figure out what it was….=/

WR: Mysteries of the Organism: A+

Jake's 10 Perfect Movies

10. Pulp Fiction
9. No Country for Old Men
8. Suspiria
7. WR: Mysteries of the Organism

My Brilliant Career (Armstrong. 1979)

"I make no apologies for sounding egotistical...because I am!"

My Brilliant Career is a movie that features an unlikeable, selfish and ultimately uninteresting protagonist. If I were to say that I hated Sybylla it would be a massive understatement. She is a lazy, egotistical and seemingly morally exempt tease who does not deserve any of the attention that she gets in the film. Her career is not brilliant. It is deplorable. I have read that she is supposed to be a positive role model for women, but I would never want my daughter to act the way she does.

The movie is set in the completely random Australian outback in the year 1897. Sybylla lives with her lower-class family who struggles with significant issues due to a drought and a general lack of money. Sybylla is doing nothing to contribute to her family life, and her mother decides that they can no longer afford to support her. Her mother practically begs her to take a job as a servant, but Sybylla refuses to cooperate. Where I come from, you do what you have to do to help support the family. There is one strike against Sybylla and the movie has only been on for 10 minutes.

Played by Judy Davis, Sybylla is a horribly defined role model for young women. After refusing to assist her family in their debt, she is shipped off to live with her wealthy grandmother, aunt and uncle in hopes that she will be taught the proper way to act. Do not get me wrong, I am not in favor of any kind of arranged marriages, but the way she treats her potential suitors is simply inexcusable. She is so desperate to maintain her independence that she basically isolates every member of her family. She mentions that she would like to be a pianist, but does nothing to pursue it. She then decides to be a famous writer – big dreams.

I have another major problem with Sybylla that may not resonate with My Brilliant Career’s mostly-female target audience. In the movie, Judy Davis is ugly. Her hair is constantly frizzy and she has an extremely distracting sore on her lower lip. She almost always looks dumpy when compared to the other women in the film. This almost completely evaporates any shred of believability that the movie could have had. Young, rich and handsome men do not incessantly pursue poor girls with facial sores. At the very least – they didn’t in 1897. That is strike two against Sybylla.

She eventually falls in love with a wealthy childhood friend named Harry. She stays as a guest at his estate. She makes no qualms over enjoying the free food, company and entertainment that being a houseguest provides. Harry asks Sybylla to marry him. She turns him down saying that she needs to discover herself and “what is wrong with the world”. She then promises to marry him after two years. Her refusal to marry the man she claims to love is the final straw for her frustrated grandmother. She sends Sybylla off to work as a governess for an almost illiterate family in the slums. Her father owes the man money, so she must work for no pay. Of course, she initially refuses. She is forced to actually do some work for a change, and she is miserable doing it.

After two years she returns home and almost immediately runs into Harry. He has put his entire life on hold in the hopes that what Sybylla promised will eventually come true. “Did you discover what was wrong with the world?” he asks. She answers “yes”. He, the wealthy and handsome man who had been teased by an awful lady, asks for Sybylla’s hand in marriage. SHE SAYS NO?!

Maybe I am just offended by this because poor Harry put his ambitions and goals on hold for the woman that he loves. The idea of doing that offends me on every fundamental level. It could also upset me because Sybylla continually tells Harry that she loves him, but will not marry him out of her own selfish reasons. She wants to be a famous author and cannot jeopardize her career goals by becoming a wife. Apparently writers cannot work from home in 1897 Australia. I had no idea.

After finishing My Brilliant Career, and being seriously upset with the ending, I wondered if maybe I was just being sexist. I immediately hit the message boards to see what other people, women specifically, thought of the Sybylla character. From what I gathered, nobody really agrees with the way she treated Harry. It was coldhearted and cruel. Some commended her for staying true to herself in a time of forced societal conformity, but if she never wanted to conform – why did she promise that she would? It seemed like she was more interested in teasing Harry. There is nothing positive about that. Strike three for Sybylla.

Gillian Armstrong is a director who probably loved reading “Pride and Prejudice” in high school. She is most famous for movies like Little Women (1994) and Charlotte Gray (2001). This leads me to believing that I simply miss the point of My Brilliant Career based on the fact that I have a penis, but a good movie should be able to appeal to every audience. Once the end credits started rolling, I realized that I would never get those two hours back. I watched an entire movie about a self-centered, man-hating nonconformist who never grows or learns anything in the end.

My Brilliant Career: D

*NOTE* - If you are a creepy cat lady who lives on her own and hates men, you will probably love this movie.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Graduate (Nichols. 1967)

"Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me!"

“And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson. Jesus loves you more than you will know”. When thought about, these lyrics from the title song from 1967’s The Graduate do not make sense in context with the film. Originally, Paul Simon was writing the song about “Mrs. Roosevelt”, but quickly switched the name when he failed to meet his contractual requirements on the movie’s soundtrack. So really, the most famous thing about this movie had absolutely nothing to do with it. Either way, it is a great song.

The Graduate is a film that exclusively, and excessively, uses the music of folk’s most popular duo, Simon and Garfunkel. The music provides the most memorable, but maybe not the most well-liked, aspect of the entire production. Yes, the soft and sophisticated sounds of Art and Paul may provide a sensitive backing to the seemingly precocious narrative, but it is also very wordy. It is almost as if Nichols wanted the duo to be characters in the film itself. Their lyrics do not necessarily boost the audience’s participation in accepting the story, nor do the songs have any real particular relevance to the action or outcome. So why is the music in The Graduate so important and well-remembered?

In 1967 American youth was bursting out of their shells and out rightly becoming a significant target audience. As the youth changed, music changed. Music will always have its hand closer to the pulse of the young people, but movies do eventually catch up. This culminates in The Graduate. Though some movies (most notably Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963)) were using artist-specific music as their soundtracks, The Graduate used the RIGHT music for the RIGHT crowd and associated it with the RIGHT story. It made the use of popular music over orchestral scores a trend. No "Mrs. Robinson", no "Superfly". That would be a crime.

Music aside, The Graduate is a movie that does not seem to be about anything of drastic importance. The main character, Benjamin Braddock, does not look interesting, nor does he actively embrace his upper-class life. He has recently graduated from college and would like some time to think about what he wants to do with the rest of his life. I will be graduating college soon. I hope I will not be this pathetic, though I probably will be exactly like it.

Dustin Hoffman, in his first major role, plays Benjamin with an effective awkwardness with which the audience can easily relate. He is so conflicted, confused, aroused, nervous and excited that, given his circumstances, it is amazing he never developed an aneurism. Every emotion is so perfectly displayed on his face and presented effortlessly through his body language. He may not be the hero in this story – there may not be a hero in The Graduate – but he certainly works his way somewhere inside the heart of each audience member.

The story in The Graduate is so famous that I feel silly even providing a synopsis. Benjamin is seduced by a much older family friend who he only refers to as Mrs. Robinson. Anne Bancroft was actually 36 years old and only 6 years older than Hoffman at the time of filming. But, with a little bit of Hollywood magic, she was made to look in her early 40s. This does not mean that she is not sexy. She prowls on the poor college grad. She knows that her power lies in her persistence.

And why does she do it? I am guessing it is because she can. Her marriage is loveless and her life is filled with menial tasks. In her only moment of weakness she divulges that her college major was art. She has lost interest in her former passion. I wonder if all art majors end up that way. She uses Ben as a way to feel, maybe not alive, but in control. That all falls overboard when he falls in love with her daughter.

It is with Mrs. Robinson that people overindulge the sniffing of their farts with some sort of non-existent political or social critique that speaks volumes about the society of the times. I highly doubt that was Nichols’ intention. For me, The Graduate is a film about a woman who is bored in a life that she did not want. Ben is convenient for her, so she goes after him. This is not a movie about sex, but rather it is about living your life. Mrs. Robinson is the only character who knows how to go about doing that.

Taking a break from the story, The Graduate is my favorite example of sophisticated camera work in movies. It is my opinion that it features the greatest opening credits sequence in any movie ever made. Ben steps onto the moving platform and is forced to face his immediate future. There is no option to go backwards. His face stays stiff and the credits roll. Where will life take him? Only in Mrs. Robinson does he find a way to put his adult life on hold.

There is an abundance of quick zooms and unfocused shots that force attention to the exact place that Nichols wants it. Characters are frequently heard from out of focus or off the screen entirely. The framing of each shot is almost suffocating, but the audience is constantly reminded that there is life outside of the four corners on the television screen. This is a style that was brought over by British directors around that time. It was original then, and it is oft copied by today’s worthwhile filmmakers.

The Graduate does have some significant flaws – the biggest of which is Ben’s eventual love interest, Elaine Robinson. It is said that she is a smart girl, but this description does not correlate with anything that she does or says. Ben eventually tells her that he slept with her mother. She is appalled and throws him out. After a while, a few minutes in “movie time”, she forgives him without even having a sufficient conversation about what happened. She runs out on her own wedding, disconnecting from her parents in the process, in order to hop a bus to nowhere with a neurotic slacker with whom she has never had an intelligent conversation. The last 40 minutes of the movie do not make any logical sense.

Maybe the ending disappoints me because I have no grasp on the breathless and button-downed life that these poor kids were living. Something spontaneous may be exactly what Ben needs to set his life in order. It is here again that people misread that situation. These kids are not hippies, flower-children, punks or beatniks. They are bored. Here is the freedom that they crave. Maybe they’re taking the bus to Scarborough Fair?? I hope they say something interesting before they get there. It is a long drive from California.

The Graduate is a movie that is less about what it is about and more about HOW it is about it. Style is significant, acting is great and the music is innovative (though excessive). Dustin Hoffman made a career out of the movie, though he is not even the character of most interest. Mrs. Robinson is a mystery in attitude. For me, she is the villain, victim and central focus. Maybe I just get lost in her legs. “God bless you, Mrs. Robinson. Heaven holds a place for those who pray”.

The Graduate: A

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Masque of the Red Death (Corman. 1964)

"And darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all".

Roger Corman and Vincent Price famously made several film adaptations from the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. Though it may be the least faithful to the source material, The Masque of the Red Death is widely considered the best one that the duo made together. After seeing the movie for myself, I was amazed at how vivid and un-dated it looked. I have only seen two horror movies use color more affectively, Suspiria and Peeping Tom.

Color is where this movie works the best. Everything is highly saturated and made to look flashy and striking. Death colors like black and red pop out from the dull-colored backdrop and forcibly attracts the attention of the audience. In the picture above we see the most intense use of color in The Masque of the Red Death. If you are not aware, the picture depicts different types of disease as represented by a color. Black is the plague, white is tuberculosis, yellow fever is rather obvious and so on with the other colors. I found this moment to be particularly aesthetically frightening, and color had almost everything to do with it.

A film this absurd also has to rely on the work of its cast. Vincent Price is a ridiculously famous name in the eyes of horror fans. Though some of his films seem campy now, there is nothing funny about Red Death. He plays the antagonist - the dreaded Prince Prospero. As his subjects are dying from the awful red plague, Prospero and his guests live it up inside the safe castle walls. Of course, the walls are not enough to stop the red death from finding the evil prince. Everything is explained in the final climactic moment and justice is served to the many unattended or dead peasants outside of the castle walls.

Price is a different kind of sinister in this movie. He gleefully kills and punishes people for simple sport. He forces an innocent young lady to watch as her father and lover are subjected to a sadistic game involving a hidden poisonous dagger. His smirk and smug vocal tone create a disturbing and uneasy feeling in the audience. He may be pure evil.

You find out very quickly in Red Death that Prospero is a worshiper of Satan. He has made a deal with the "Lord of the Flies" in hopes of being in good graces after the red death devours everything. The most frightening scene may be when Prospero mistakes the red death as a messenger from Satan. As it turns out, each person creates their own god, heaven and hell. In reality, the only entity that rules is death - and it comes in many forms.

Aesthetically, The Masque of the Red Death is an outstanding movie. Structurally, it is not particularly great. This is an example of when great performances and artistic achievements are not rewarded with a great screenplay. Corman and screenwriter Charles Beaumont had everything they needed to make a great movie. They ended up only making a neat horror flick.

The Masque of the Red Death: C

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Our Hospitality (Keaton. Blystone. 1923)

"He'll never forget our hospitality.."

Here we have yet another funny and enjoyable film made by one of the funniest men in Hollywood history, Buster Keaton. If you follow this blog, you already know that my relationship with Keaton did not start off very hot. I very much did not like my first Keaton experience,Sherlock, Jr., but every film I have seen since has been gradually better. That trend stops here with Our Hospitality. Though the movie is not bad at all, it is not Seven Chances or The General. After viewing those two movies, it is difficult to ever accept anything less than extraordinary from Buster.

Our Hospitality follows the same formula that most Keaton movies follow. There is a misunderstanding or outrageous event that is followed by some hilarious slapstick - all to be wrapped up after a stunt-filled chase scene. The story of a Keaton film can sometimes be lost in the miraculous stunts and breathtaking prat-falls, but here the story seems to be the focal point.

"The Canfield and McKay families have been feuding for so long, no one remembers the reason the feud got started in the first place". The movie starts with a rainy day gunfight between the patriarchs of the families. John McKay is killed in the battle. His infant son, played by Buster Keaton's actual son, is then sent to live with his aunt in New York. He is to be raised without any knowledge of the feud. Twenty years later that young man, Willie McKay, received a letter asking him to return home and claim his family estate. Played by Keaton, Willie instantly begins to visualize a lavish mansion in the countryside. His mental vision literally explodes after he realizes how his family lived.

But the story really begins during Willie's train ride back to his home town. While on the train, he meets a beautiful young woman and they instantly hit it off. Without ever asking his name, she invites him over to her estate for dinner. The situation about to unfold is painfully obvious to the audience. She is Canfield. He is a McKay. They love each other. That wont work.

Once they arrive home, Willie realizes that his new sweetheart's brothers are trying to shoot him. In fact, they are not even trying to hide it. His only hope is that the brothers will not shoot him while he is a guest in their home. So, Willie attempts to become a permanent guest. Eventually he is forced out of the house and the chase scene is on...

And it is another classic stunt-filled chase scene that shows Keaton doing what he does best. In Our Hospitality, Keaton earns his "human cartoon character" nickname by jumping from moving trains onto moving horses, stumbling and rolling at top speeds and, most impressively, swinging from a branch by a rope to avoid falling over a waterfall. I know, all of this seems to have come out of nowhere. That is exactly what makes Keaton funny. You know something wild is going to happen, but you never expect it when it finally does. As always, the stunts are performed mainly be Keaton with very little rehearsal. They are visually and conceptually ambitious and astounding.

On an interesting note, it later becomes obvious that Buster Keaton is obsessed with trains. He purposely set the film in the 1830s so he could build a full working replica of Stephenson's Rocket - an early incarnation of the locomotive. Watching the train work was pretty neat on a surface level, and you can see how some of the moving train camera angles may have influenced his later work on The General.

Our Hospitality is a pretty good movie. Like most of Keaton's work, it is silent. But the action is intense and the story is somewhat interesting. Again, this is nowhere near as exciting as The General. It is nowhere near as funny as Seven Chances. It is somewhere in the middle. And that is pretty good....

Our Hospitality: B

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Lady Eve (Sturges. 1941)

"Positively the same dame!"

Roger Ebert wrote in his "Great Movies" review of The Lady Eve that the movie features the greatest scene in romantic comedy that simultaneously combines sex and humor. He is referring to the scene depicted in the picture above when the sexy and smart con-woman finds herself falling for the innocent and naive wealthy scientist. This scene happens very early in the movie and sets the tone for one of the quirkiest and rhetorically entertaining romantic comedies ever made.

The Lady Eve is about a man named Charles and a woman named Jean. Charles is an inexperienced and romantically naive scientist/wealthy brewer who is returning from a one year expedition on the Amazon. Jean is a con-woman who cheats innocent people out of their money by beating them in rigged games of cards. They meet on a boat and Jean automatically sees Charles as a potential target. The problem is that she very quickly falls in love with him. The scam is off, but what if he finds out that it was on in the first place? How will he react to the news?

Well, he reacts poorly. After finding out that Jean was initially trying to con him, he ends the young relationship without allowing time for explanation. Jean does not take this lightly, and dedicates a large amount of her time to getting revenge on him. That is where the title comes in, The Lady Eve. We will get to that in a little bit.

What really makes this film entertaining is the fast, witty and sexually driven chemistry between the two leading characters. Charles, played by Henry Fonda, is the backbone of the movie. Without his straight-laced and button-downed demeanor, The Lady Eve would have become a ridiculous episode of insanity and anti-realism. We must remember that a film is at its best when it can make the unbelievable seem believable. That is what Fonda does splendidly.

If Fonda is the sincerity in The Lady Eve, then Barbara Stanwyck's performance as Jean is the entertainment value. In the first act of the film she is portrayed as a sleazy con-woman who is trying to trick the inexperienced Charles. Stanwyck's comedic talents are displayed very early on in a scene where she is spying on Charles at a restaurant using her cosmetic mirror to see behind her. She provides hilarious voiceover and commentary for the many women who are unsuccessfully trying to get Charles' attention. Rather than pandering to him for his attention, she simply waits for him to walk by and sticks her foot out - tripping him. She now has his attention. The game is on.

But the con is quickly ended when Jean falls madly in love with Charles. Stanwyck is probably most well known for her role as the sinister Phyllis Dietrichson in the classic Double Indemnity (1944), but here she is the exact opposite. Though she possesses the ability to be sleazy, there is something in her eyes that shows the audience her true love for Charles. I do not think that I have seen a more convincing showing of unadulterated pure love in a performance by a woman. But she is not merely a two dimensional character under the guise of lovey and sleazy. Stanwyck plays a very intelligent and sensitive woman in Jean. She also displays some formidable comedic timing.

This is where the title character "Eve" comes into play. After Charles breaks off the relationship with Jean, she is devastated. She successfully gets her revenge by slapping on some fancy clothes and speaking in an awful British accent. She is now the Lady Eve - a rich socialite who is visiting her uncle in Charles' hometown. Her disguise is so simple that it is silly, but that is exactly why Charles in unable to recognize her. The transformation into Eve is laugh-out-loud hilarious in its silliness. It is obvious that she is the same person, but Charles never sees it. Through a series of events, the two fall in love and set up one of the funnier break-up scenes I have seen.

The most noticeable working aspect in The Lady Eve is Fonda and Stanwyck's budding sexual and rhetorical chemistry. The dialogue was quick and the character development was incredibly crisp. There were very few throwaway lines between the two main characters. Watching them fall in love was like watching a kitten hug a puppy. It was adorable. They make a fun, sweet and fascinating onscreen couple who very rarely mince words. They are entertaining in their conversations, and the audience is cheering for their happiness from their first onscreen moment.

I cannot think of a better word than delightful to describe my viewing experience with The Lady Eve. I am willing to go out on a limb and say that this is the greatest romantic comedy that I have seen, but that is obviously subject to change. I strongly recommend this movie to anybody looking for easy, silly or fun entertainment. It is a fantastic way to spend an hour and a half...

The Lady Eve: A