Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Gangs of New York (Scorsese. 2002)

"...And no matter what they did to build this city up again, for the rest of time, it will be like no-one even knew we was ever here."

Scorsese is an amazing storyteller. Before I casually selected Gangs of New York, I had no idea that it was well over two hours long. At two hours and fifty-six minutes, this is not the longest movie that I have seen. That does not mean that two+ hour movies cannot be exhausting. This is not an exhausting movie. In fact, I do not think that there was a down moment. I was very entertained by it, but it still had its problems.

Gangs of New York opens with a dramatic and violent fight between an Irish gang and a gang of American "natives". Led by the brilliantly interpreted Bill "The Butcher" Cutting, the natives ultimately defeat their rivals and take over the city. The son of the Irish leader is a witness to his father's death at the hands of the Butcher. He silently swears to get his revenge.

Sixteen years later he has returned to New York to do just that. His name is Amsterdam Vallon and he is played over-dramatically by Leonardo DiCaprio. Once he returns he immediately finds friends in his old Irish community. He also learns that the Butcher holds a massive celebration on the day that his father was murdered. After a while, and through a series of events, Vallon falls under the wing and tutelage of the man that he is trying to kill, Bill Cutting.

After his identity is outed and his plan thwarted by the Butcher, Vallon is forced to start a war. He rallies the Irish, with some help from Boss Tweed, against Cutting's "native Americans". There is to be an epic battle, but it never actually happens. Riots in the streets cheat the audience out of an epic showdown.

The costuming, cinematography and art direction are all perfect. The majority of the performances are great - though Leo throws around his accent from Irish to almost Oklahoman in some scenes. My biggest issue, on a technical standpoint, is that Cameron Diaz seems incredibly out of place throughout the entire movie. Even her character is unnecessary to the success of the plot. There could have been more action and less plot-pushing had her character been written out of the film. Not every movie needs a love story.

It goes without saying that Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic in Gangs of New York. Bill Cutting is one of my all-time favorite villains in film. He is racist, violent, ignorant and borderline psychotic. But there is also something pathetic, respectable and sympathetic about him. He is far more complex than your average bad guy. He is fighting for what he believes in. His brutality stems from his unrivaled love for his country. There is something to like about that, though that something is VERY small. Day-Lewis plays him with brilliance. He becomes his character and never turns to wink at the camera. A lesser talent would have forced it and overacted, but this is spot on character acting. It should have won him an Oscar, and did earn him a nomination.

My major problems with the movie are the final battle and the overall style of the violence. The opening battle is amazingly set up. The tension is epic, the music is exciting and the battle is intense. The final battle, though intense, is a major disappointment. The entire movie builds to this very moment...and nothing happens. They gangs do not even fight. I understand the significance of the scene, but it is not what I wanted after almost three hours. The aforementioned opening fight scene, along with some other violent scenes, is surprisingly un-bloody. When a person is slashed in the stomach with a meat cleaver - they bleed. They bleed a lot. The fights in the film are simply not bloody enough to be believable. Not that I am blood-thirsty, I just do not feel any pain for characters who die less painful looking deaths than Power Ranger villains.

At the end of the day, those are not the worst things that could happen to a movie. Scorsese does a great job at containing the action and presenting an embarrassing time in American history. I put a lot of stock into climactic moments, and Gangs of New York let me down. I do love the final scene in the graveyard, but the twenty minutes leading up to it are not very good. I am wishy-washy over this movie. I wanted to like it a great deal more than I actually did.

Gangs of New York: B+

Beat the Devil (Huston. 1953)

"The only thing standing between you and a watery grave is your wits, and that's not my idea of adequate protection."

John Huston is one of the most interesting humans to ever direct movies. He was always a renegade in popular filmmaking, and was one of the only directors brave enough to stand up against blacklisting in Hollywood. Bogart is one of the most famous actors in the history of movies. He has said some of cinema's best lines, kissed some of the most beautiful women and hogged (Bogarted) some of the smokiest cigarettes the world has ever seen. Jennifer Jones is a classically beautiful, Academy Award winning, actress. Truman Capote is one of the most famous figures in literature and overall popular culture.

When you combine all of these things into one movie, it is easy to expect something brilliant. Sadly, this is the combination behind the incredibly forgettable, Beat the Devil. Directed by Huston and written by Capote, it is supposed to be a spoof of 1940s spy movies. Though it does have the occasional funny moment, the overall production seems dated and flat.

Humphrey Bogart stars as Billy Dannreuther. He is a rouge on his way to Africa in hopes of buying land that is rich in uranium. He wants to turn around and sell the uranium for the purpose of getting rich. He waits at a port until the ship sets sail. The boat ride is complicated by a variety of wacky mishaps. Nothing of interest really happens. It was the last "quest movie" that Huston made.

I was pleased to read that Bogart himself never really liked the movie. He was quoted as saying that "only phonies like it". He may have been a tad upset over losing his money after bankrolling the entire project, but he had to have known that this film was going nowhere. It plays like a sort of organized mess. The characters are ill-defined and the story is just kinda stupid.

One interesting thing about Beat the Devil is that it was meant to parody the exact type of film that Huston helped to pioneer, the film noir. Its goofiness has helped it garner a bit of a cult following that has kept it from falling into obscurity. If you couldn't already tell, I was not a fan of this movie. Its comedy was lost on me, the romance was too quickly developed and the story was messy and exhausting (though not hard) to follow. I would recommend skipping Beat the Devil - unless you're trying to finish the 1077.

Beat the Devil: D

High Noon (Zinnemann. 1952)

"Don't try to be a hero! You don't have to be a hero, not for me!"

In 2011, there is nothing particularly controversial about Fred Zinnemann's High Noon, but it caused a major stir in the midst of the red scare. To most people, this is just an ordinary western film about a group of outlaws heading into town and the marshal who is forced to ride them out of town. Everyone fits the typical look of the western genre, and the climax features an ordinary ol' West shootout. There is one moment that is different than anything you would ever see in a western at that time. It is the final seconds of the film that caused all of the controversy.

High Noon follows the story of a newly married marshal named Will Kane. Played by the Academy Award winning Gary Cooper, Kane and his wife(Grace Kelly) are on their way to celebrate their honeymoon when the news of a returning group of bandits comes his way. He is forced to protect the town that he loves, but he knows that he will need some help. He runs around the town trying to find deputies, but nobody will work with him. There may be some 1950s American isolation themes going on here as people were more likely to cheer for a lone heroic figure in the time period. The townspeople are displayed as cowards and hooligans who are afraid to stand up against the group of bandits.

Though Gary Cooper did win an Oscar for his portrayal of Kane, this is not the performance that I have taken away from the film. Grace Kelly plays Kane's new wife, Amy. She is a Quaker and seems to be madly in love with her new husband. Personally, I believe that her side plot with the voluptuous Helen Ramírez helps to carry the picture. Without this additional dramatic material, High Noon would be very bland. It does not hurt that Grace Kelly is breathtakingly beautiful. She is pretty fun to watch in any movie, but her character plays an underrated significance here.

Like most westerns, the marshal wins in the end and shoots the bandits in the street of his beloved town. He, all by himself, is able to keep his town remaining a clean and safe place to raise a child. After the battle is over, the cowardly townspeople come out to thank the man that they refused to help. Without saying a word, Kane removes his tin star badge and throws it into the dirt. He then rides out of town with his wife - happily ever after.

It is the throwing of the badge and the cowardliness of the townspeople that made High Noon so controversial. John Wayne famously criticized the movie for its supposed anti-blacklisting stance. He called the whole production "the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life". He went on to call the badge throwing "communistic" and bragged about helping to get the screenwriter, Carl Forman, blacklisted from Hollywood.

Howard Hawks then teamed with Wayne to make the "anti-High Noon", a film called Rio Bravo (1959). Hawks said "I made Rio Bravo because I didn't like High Noon. Neither did Duke. I didn't think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn't my idea of a good Western."

In their defense, Rio Bravo is a pretty good movie. It may be more interesting than High Noon. But that does not make this Best Picture nominee a bad movie. In my humble opinion, High Noon is a little ordinary. It isn't boring...just ordinary.

High Noon: B-

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Mad Masters (Rouch. 1955)

"It just isn't that interesting."

This is one of the shortest films that I have seen from the 1077, and this will more than likely be my shortest review. Sadly, The Mad Masters is not a very interesting movie. It is an ethnographic "docufiction" and not something that I am particularly interested in. This is kind of like one of the more recent films from the list that I have seen, Buñuel's Land Without Bread. I have not really enjoyed either one. Thank goodness they were under 30 minutes long.

The Mad Masters is a heavily fictionalized documentary about a group of people in Africa who practice a religion known as Hauka. This consists of eating and sacrificing animals and waiting for your body to be possessed by the spirits of British colonial administrators. The camera follows the ceremony as if it was a fly on the wall. The action is pretty straightforward.

On an interesting note, the film was actually pretty controversial when it was released. It was banned in Niger and other British territories for its outright mockery of their high ranking officials. More recently, it has garnered criticism from African students because it shows their people as vile, violent and unintelligent savages. If anything in the film is true - I could see why people of the region would be embarrassed.

That is pretty much as good as The Mad Masters gets. It is not very entertaining or well made. In fact, the camera movement is overly-shaky for a documentary. Looking at the screen is not very pleasing. It is not a great movie.

The Mad Masters: D

Night of the Living Dead (Romero. 1968)

"All persons who die during this crisis from whatever cause will come back to life to seek human victims.."

On a budget of $114,000, George A. Romero started one of the biggest box office trends in history with his controversial 1968 zombie masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead. Judging by the countless zombie films that are released nowadays, I cannot honestly say that I was expecting much going in. I was plenteously surprised by a genuinely scary experience, and I have gained a whole new respect for this classic horror genre.

What surprised me most about Night of the Living Dead is that it did not seem to be dated. Most of the horror films from that time are unwatchable in 2011, but Romero's vision stands up to fans of the genre. There are six adults and one child trapped in a house in the middle of nowhere. The house is under attack by a group of stiff and mysterious looking people who we later find out are the walking dead in search of flesh to devour. This sudden uproar of undead is caused by some kind of radiation that has found Earth after an expedition to Venus.

Though the term "zombie" is actually never used in the movie, Romero helped create the new image of the zombie in film. Before this, the term had been used in horror and drama to describe a living person under the influence of a voodoo priest. Unlike the majority of those movies, the zombies in Night of the Living Dead are terrifying. Roger Ebert noted in an essay that he was shocked when he saw the film being played as a matinee in Chicago. He was not calling for censorship, but he did condemn parents and theatres for allowing kids to see a movie that will have them leaving the theatre with "tears in their eyes" from fright.

The film is shot in black and white, but has been remastered in color in some versions. I think I would prefer the black and white version (which I saw) because it increases the overall feeling of grit and paranoia. All color does to the film is add realism. Who really wants realism in a zombie movie? Night of the Living Dead is like a nightmare, and it looks like one.

One thing that is interesting about Night of the Living Dead is that it has been targeted by film scholars as a movie with a much deeper meaning. Some have argued that the relentless zombie assault is a representation of American's mindset toward the Vietnam War. I have also read that some culture critics think that the African-American protagonist could represent the recently murdered Martin Luther King. As a black character in film, Ben (played by Duane Jones) is strong, brave and caring toward all individuals. He is the lone survivor of the attack, but he is then killed on "accident" by an all white gang of rednecks. It may not have been on purpose, but it definitely resonated with people in that time period.

Romero's first venture into the zombie genre is an astounding success, but not because he was able to scare people in 1968. The true victory with Night of the Living Dead is that it remains scary in 2011. The flesh eating scene is particularly terrifying. This is a great movie and a must for true fans of horror.

Night of the Living Dead: A

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Evil Dead (Raimi. 1981)

"Naturum De Montum, roughly translated: Book of the Dead."

Nobody ever said that every movie in the 1077 was going to be great. I knew coming in that this was not a list of the best films ever made. Rather, it is a list of films that have gained some sort of cultural significance over time. That explains why the list contains movies like Sam Raimi's cult horror classic, The Evil Dead. Honestly, there is nothing good about this movie. That may be what I like so much about it

The plot of the film is incredibly easy to follow. Five young people are vacationing in a run-down cabin in the Tennessee Mountains. While searching the cabin, they find an old book with frightening pictures. The book is accompanied by a tape recorder. The tapes explain that the book is called the "Naturum De Montum" (Book of the Dead. Bound in human flesh and written in human blood, the "Book of the Dead" has the instructions on how to bring horrible creatures back from the dead. These monsters wreak havoc on the five friends after they accidently summon them awake.

Our hero, Ash, is played by the always entertaining Bruce Campbell. This is the performance that launched him to "B-movie" stardom. His acting style is stiff, rigid and ultimately not very believable. But that may be what fans like most about him. Ash starts the movie as a scared and unmanly watcher of the violence. But as things get out of control, Ash takes over. I have met Bruce Campbell and I can tell you that he is still very proud of this movie. You can tell when watching The Evil Dead that Campbell enjoyed being a part of it.

When most people think of this Raimi/Campbell franchise they immediately think of over the top gore. Made on a $375,000 budget, The Evil Dead earned its reputation as one of the fakest looking gross-out gore fests in horror history. You would think that Raimi would have spent more on sets and props, but it looks like he spent most of his budget on fake blood. It pours wildly from every wound. The final moments are highlighted by thick rivers of it.

There is also a strange scene where one of the women in the cabin is raped by a tree. Weird, right? This scene is actually somewhat hard to come by in certain areas due to it being ban in some countries and on some of the home video releases. Luckily, I guess, you can see this awful moment on the version that Netflix.com has on instant queue.

With tunnel shots and gratuitous blood galore, The Evil Dead has become an underground classic for horror fans. Sadly, that does not make it a very good movie. The acting is awful, the direction is sloppy and the monsters look horribly faked (even for 1981). With its flaws, The Evil Dead is still an entertaining movie. It is perfect for the Halloween season when you're looking for something lighter than another Saw...

The Evil Dead: C

Saturday, October 22, 2011

An American Werewolf in London (Landis. 1981)

"Beware the moon, David."

John Landis is probably best known by this generation as the director of the "Thriller" video for the King of Pop. He may also be known in more experienced circles as the man behind Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980). I think people of my generation have pretty much forgotten his work on a horror-comedy that I found to be supremely entertaining, An American Werewolf in London.

When I say I loved this movie I feel the need to add a very specific asterisk. I love the build up in the movie, but the climax is awful. In fact, it was so anticlimactic that it singlehandedly lowered my final letter grade. As the writer and director of the film, Landis should have known that his special effects could only take him so far - though they are truly fun to look at.

The ending of the film is pretty much thrown into your face from the beginning. This is not a movie that is trying to surprise the audience. Instead, it focuses on the awkward and terrifying build-up to the much copied transformation scene. The American werewolf is played the stiff and seemingly talentless David Naughton. And though he is dry and unsympathetic for the majority of the picture, he is perfection during transformation. It almost seems like it is the only scene he ever rehearsed. It probably was....

The real star of the film in An American Werewolf in London is the special effects and make-up team led by Rick Baker. There is a boyish sense of humorous fun involved when watching Naughton's hands and feet grow to ridiculous size. The growing snout is easily my favorite part of the entire film.The wolf itself does look a little outdated, but it holds up when compared to other monsters of 80's movies. It is also far more frightening than Cheney Jr.'s version from the 1940s. It is no surprise that Baker was awarded the Academy Award for Best Makeup.

I am going to venture out on a limb and say that Landis knew he was making a comedy with horror ideals rather than a horror with some funny moments. The rock and roll, moon themed, soundtrack provides some very funny moments in American Werewolf. Van Morrison's "Moondance" twinkles in the background of a random sex scene. CCR's "Bad Moon Rising" is used to foreshadow the upcoming transformation. My favorite is the opening credits being shown over a smooth rendition of "Blue Moon". This is actually a very funny movie, and music plays a major role in that.

If you are looking for a fun movie to watch in a random October night - I would look no further than American Werewolf. It is not a very scary movie, and the ending is extremely disappointing. Every other aspect of the movie is pure fun. I am curious as to Landis' intentions with this. Did he simply get lazy toward the end, or did he lose focus after seeing the outstanding makeup work? Either way, I enjoyed An American Werewolf in London - just not as much as I could have.

An American Werewolf in London: B-

Land Without Bread (Buñuel. 1933)

"This woman is only 32 years old."

This is my third film from the famous surrealist director, Louis Buñuel, and it also seems to be his most structurally narrative work. Land Without Bread is a documentary, of sorts, that centers on a poor and desolate area in Spain known as Las Hurdes. This is a region that looks to be void of any actual advanced civilization. The tools are primitive, the people are sick and dying and the children have suffered many generations of "inter-marriage".

After learning about this place from a 1927 ethnographical study, Buñuel decided that he wanted to make a documentary with a slightly comedic and surrealist twist. He felt that the documentary genre possessed less truth than even his works of nonsense, and set out to prove it in Land Without Bread. He is cruel to the people of the region by showing them to be primitive, stupid and unable to understand basic things. He mocks their school systems and religious practices to the point that the film seems slanted towards that negative.

I guess this is what Louis Buñuel finds funny, but that should not come as a surprise. In many of his films the audience can tell that he enjoys laughing at the misfortune of others. In Land Without Bread he is poking fun at a genre, but laughing at a group of people who are used to significantly bad press. The area of Las Hurdes has been seen as a cultural and intellectual wasteland since 1635 when comedies were written to portray the people as stupid, barbaric, inbred and unclean. Sadly, a lot of these things seem to be true, or at least that is how Buñuel sees it.

Whether people agree or not on his depiction of the people, everyone disagrees with Buñuel's treatment of animals in Land Without Bread. Surrealists are extreme filmmakers. If he has to smother a donkey with honey in order for the bees to sting it to death - that is fine. If Buñuel asks his crew to shoot a goat and toss the carcass over a mountain top - they do not argue. If the ribbing comedy of the film did not ruin its credibility as a documentary, the slaughtering of animals to reach a desired effect certainly squashes it.

Land Without Bread is a short film (27 mins) that poses arrogantly as an educational documentary. Buñuel knows he is not teaching us anything, but rather making light of and exploiting these unfortunate people. Unlike a great cultural documentary like Mondo Cane, this film leaves me feeling uneasy. That is most likely the exact reaction Buñuel wanted. Good for him...

Land Without Bread: C

Friday, October 21, 2011

Antichrist (von Trier. 2009)

"A crying woman is a scheming woman."

There are some movies out there that were made strictly for the purpose of shaking the audience. I have seen some disgusting films in my time with the 1001, and Antichrist does not compare with the gruesomeness of Salo (1975) or Tetsuo (1989). But there is something about van Trier's visual style that makes this an incredibly difficult movie to watch.

Calling it van Trier's "style" may be giving the writer/director a bit too much credit. Rather than using skillful camerawork or excellent framing - he uses graphic imagery. In the first five minutes of the film the audience sees a toddler fall to his death, Willem Dafoe's penis and scrotum, vaginal penetration and tons of guy-butt. Later in the film the audience is given the striking visual of Dafoe ejaculating blood and Charlotte Gainsbourg using scissors to cut off a piece of her vagina. And von Trier shows everything.

Antichrist is a little gross, yes, but it also has a somewhat compelling story to tell. After losing their son in an accident, a married couple retreats to the woods to try and fix their declining mental conditions. Dafoe plays a character who is simply known as "He". He is a psychologist who believes that he can cure his wife of her traumatic dementia. I feel okay telling my readers that he does not successfully cure his wife. Things spiral out of control and the film never looks back.

The strongest part of the film is the performances by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. I have seen directors do worse things to their actors, but never with so much conviction and demand. They have noticeably sold out to the belief that von Trier would not set them off in the wrong direction. Their brilliance as an on-screen duo is what makes watching the disgusting sequences worth the nightmares.

Dafoe is great in this movie, but Antichrist is nothing without the bravery of Charlotte Gainsbourg. Her character is sinister, pathetic, sad, frightening and sick. There is some level of personal pain in every move that she makes. But how could there not be? It is hard to not get personal when you are asked to masturbate on screen for a couple of minutes.

The narrative of the film is chopped up into chapters - grief, pain and despair. Each feeling is accompanied by an animal to form some sort of mystical constellation. Grief is represented by a disfigured deer, pain by a talking fox and despair by a persistent raven. Together they are called the three beggars, and something bad will happen when they get together. I understand that this does not make a ton of sense, but somehow von Trier makes it work. Antichrist was not a difficult film to follow.

Here we have a movie that wants to explore the depths of insanity, pain, sexual gratification and evil. Is there truly some kind of evil out there that we do not know about? Antichrist says yes. Some have accused the film of being closer to the side of "torture porn", but I honestly believe that every moment was necessary to tell such a dark and emotionally complex story. It was not the easiest film to watch, but I promise I will never forget it.

Antichrist will not be given a letter grade. I do not feel like my rating system rightfully applies to the type of movie that this is...

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Platoon (Stone. 1986)

"Somebody once wrote: "Hell is the impossibility of reason." That's what this place feels like. Hell."

Oliver Stone fought in the Vietnam War. He saw the fighting first hand, and luckily survived long enough to tell audiences about his experiences. There had been movies made about Vietnam, but none were like Platoon. Here is a film that did not glorify anything about war- including the people fighting it. It seems to scrutinize the idea of a patriotic duty. Stone wrote the screenplay as an eyewitness counter to the John Wayne depiction of war in The Green Berets (1968). In fact, Platoon is an anti-war movie; it is one of the first films to do this successfully.

The story is about a middle class American college student named Chris. Played brilliantly by a non-crazy Charlie Sheen, Chris joined the military on his own free will because he felt it was his "patriotic duty". As soon as he arrives in the jungle of 'Nam, he realizes that war is nothing like he had been taught in history class. The more veteran soldiers in his platoon warn him that he will not survive in war. He is not meant to be there. He is too smart, rich, white and innocent.

Stone has said that the character of Chris is heavily based on his own personal experience as an infantry man during the war. The audience watches as their protagonist and narrator loses his smile and tumbles into mental instability. He also shows the audience the trials of the people around him. This is the supporting cast that really makes the movie work.

One of the thickest side-plots in the film is between the dueling sergeants played by Willem Defoe and Tom Berenger. Defoe plays an understanding and sympathetic soldier while Berenger is cutthroat and ruthless. Their conflicting styles continuously clash until they culminate in the film's most famous moment. I wont tell you what happens - you should see it for yourself. It is emotional, raw and terribly sad.

What makes Platoon different than any war movie that I have seen at this point in my life is that the audience is not excited for the violence and the big fight scenes. Instead, they are afraid. Every scene seems to have the potential to end in bloody mayhem. There is very little peace in Platoon. There is no moment for the audience to feel calm. This is the closest to knowing war that an audience had come to at this point through a movie.

When soldiers are overseas they are protecting the freedoms that America was founded on. With Platoon, Oliver Stone argues that the soldiers in Vietnam were fighting for nothing other than their lives. Soldiers die. They often die in extremely painful, scarring and frightening ways. John Wayne did not tell that to consumers. Stone told us the truth from his own accounts of the Vietnam jungle during wartime. It is a terrifying and thought-provoking film with a great cast and a serious message. It was the Academy Award winner as the Best Picture of 1986 - and it remains one of the finest war films ever produced.

Platoon: A

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Star Wars (Lucas. 1977)

"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.."

It would be silly to try and say something original or groundbreaking about one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons in the history of the world. What I can do, as a critic, is tell you how a great movie like Star Wars makes me feel. I can tell you what is great about it, and I can tell you why you should see it - assuming that you haven't already.

Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) is still unlike anything that cinema has ever seen before. It has become a standard for comparison in science fiction, adventure and action films. After 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), audiences were waiting for the next great showing of special effects. George Lucas is, arguably, the only man who could have pulled off a movie on this type of scale. The 1970s was mostly about the personal filmmaking styles that brought us The Godfather (1972), Rocky or Taxi Driver(1976). With Star Wars, Lucas left personal and went for the largest scale imaginable.

Looking at this film is like looking into the imagination of an adventurous artist. Every single setting is meticulously thought out and complexly put together. There is no guessing for the audience - they can see exactly what they are meant to see. This makes the film easy for people to follow and understand even if they do not enjoy science fiction. Planets are formed and presented with so much seriousness that it is impossible to not believe in what is being shown. Every long and wide camera shot is outstandingly realistic and beautiful.

The state of the art technology may be the best thing about Star Wars, but the movie is probably most memorable for the iconic characters. Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill, is the quintessential hero in science fiction. He is young, naive and ready to see the world outside of his meaningless farm life on a seemingly deserted planet. Princess Leia and Han Solo do not reach a romantic relationship quite yet, but there is enough chemistry between Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford to make the audience want to watch them together. C-3PO, R2-D2 and Chewbacca add a non-human element of humor and plot-pushing antics.

It would be difficult to claim that any Star Wars character is more famous than the dreaded Darth Vader. This is the audience's first introduction to the now legendary figure of what seems like pure evil. His voice is breathy and deep (James Earl Jones), and his look is incomparable. Is he a robot? A man? It is impossible to be sure, but we know that he is a bad dude. He famously chokes people without touching them at all. We know that he uses the same ancient religion, "the Force", that Luke is being taught throughout the story. There does not need to be any more information. Everything will be explained in due time.

What I love most about Star Wars is that it sweeps you off of your feet and into a completely mind-blowing universe. It is easy to see that Lucas is a fan of mythology and old legends. He wrote and created such a thick and rich mythos that the audience is almost immediately swept away. His screenplay is one of the most ambitious examples of creative writing that the world has ever seen, but it remains audience inclusive. The story is simple (good vs. evil), and it is perfectly complimented by the story's unsimplified surroundings.

What George Lucas and Star Wars did was kick-start Hollywood's new obsession with the blockbuster action picture. In some ways, this is responsible for many films including Blade Runner, Terminator (1984), Jurassic Park (1993) and maybe even The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003). From John Williams' fantastic original music to Academy Award winning art direction and special effects, Star Wars is a brilliant movie. It will never fall from the cinematic vernacular - even a long, long time from now...

Star Wars (Episode IV: New Hope): A

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ghostbusters (Reitman. 1984)

"Who Ya Gonna Call?"

I have no idea if this is true or not, but I have a feeling that Bill Murray is a massive jerk. There is something about his style and demeanor that leads me to believe that he is a mean dude. Either way, I usually find his movies to be hilarious. Murray is probably the most remembered part of the 80s classic, Ghostbusters, but he actually played no hand in the writing of the film. This baby belongs to the brilliant comedic minds of Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Rick Moranis. These Second City alums understand how to make intelligent characters in the midst of ridiculous events.

And that is exactly what they do in Ghostbusters. Three goofball scientists are fired from their jobs at a prestigious university in New York. They decide to take up residence in an old firehouse and become paranormal exterminators called ghostbusters. As expected, business is slow at first. Eventually the beautiful Dana Barett, played by Sigourney Weaver, starts to see unexplainable things in her apartment building. Her claims are validated by her neighbor, played by Moranis, and the paranormal exterminators are officially on the case.

What makes this such an original and great film is that it is able to successfully combine big-budget special effects and subtle comedic timing. Murray, Ramis and Aykroyd never stop reminding you that they are smart characters. They are, after all, scientists with an obsession for the undead side of things. They manage to entertain and amuse the audience in perfect conformity with the somewhat dated (but 1984-revolutionary) effects.

The most memorable example of the special effects is the giant Stay Puft Marshmellow Man that terrorized the people in Manhattan. This scene is always the favorite in Ghostbusters because it is the quintessential combination of funny, smart and visually outstanding. It has been said that a comedy will lose laughs with every dollar that it spends. This may be the only immediate exception to the rule. It seems as if the actors knew that this would be an uphill task, and they have the timing, delivery and personality to pull it off.

There is nothing exceptional about Reitman's Ghostbusters, but it is a fun little movie with interesting special effects, good performances and a killer soundtrack. I am starting to think that the 80s get a bad rap for being the least entertaining decade in terms of film. It may be true that the decade lacks the inspiration of the 60s or the discombobulation of the 70s, but the 80s has a monopoly on fun comedies. This is one of the decade's most fun...

Ghostbusters: B

The Red Shoes (Powell. Pressburger. 1948)

"A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never."

At this point in my life I have seen three movies about ballet dancing. First was the brilliant, but completely different, Suspiria by Dario Argento. That film is about a coven of witches who run a ballet school. Other than that, I have seen two interestingly comparable films - Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010) and the 1948 Academy Award winning The Red Shoes. These two films are alike in many ways. The only difference is - one of them was entertaining. The other was not...

Black Swan and The Red Shoes both center around a young ballerina who has finally reached her big break. The social pressure eventually becomes too much for them and they each meet an equally unfortunate demise. The older of the ballet movies is a much better display of dancing and style. The Aronofsky film is much better at being entertaining.

Do not get me wrong, Black Swan was in no way trying to be The Red Shoes, but to be a film about ballet and not at least reference the Powell/Pressburger classic would almost seem ungrateful. These two films, made 62 years apart, feature similar shots and there is even a direct homage to the older film in Black Swan. The scores are similar and the acting is equally self-important. These are both films that can be called overly-dramatic.

The Red Shoes follows the story of two young people. Vicky Page is a ballerina who has skyrocketed to fame after joining a famous dance company under Boris Lermontov. Julian Craster is the man put in charge of writing the music for the new ballet in which Ms. Page will star. The two of them start a relationship that their boss,Lermontov, will not allow. He fires Craster for refusing to end the affair. Page goes with him, but her love for dancing is overpowering. She is given a choice - she can leave Craster and dance for the biggest company in the world, or she can leave the ballet and stay with her lover. Even the dilemma is overly-dramatic.

Like in the brilliant picture, Peeping Tom, Powell shows that he is an expert in expressing emotion through the usage of color in film. The art direction in The Red Shoes is exemplary with haunting reds against a pale white frame. The specifically ballet intensive scene features one of the most popping color schemes I have ever seen in a film. The audience knows that what they are watching is intense. The story of the ballet is the foreshadowing to the ending, and the colors represent the overall theme - jealously, death, passion and love.

With all of that being said, I honestly found The Red Shoes to be a bit on the boring side. The look of the film has dated splendidly, but the acting has not. Moira Shearer is extremely stiff and unlikeable as Vicky Page. I have no desire to sit and wait for her to make her ultimate decision between love and dancing. The supporting cast is laughably dramatic. It has been said that no art form takes itself more seriously than the ballet, but the actors take everything to the theatrical exploding point. Even the climactic scene in the film, when Craster falls to his knees begging for love, is hard to watch with any earnestly.

I have heard people call Black Swan a ripoff of The Red Shoes. If anything, Aronofsky may have been heavily influenced by Powell and Pressburger. But his film is significantly more entertaining. The Red Shoes does have an undeniably striking visual style, but so did Dog Star Man. That does not make a movie great on its own.

The Red Shoes: C

Friday, October 7, 2011

Good Will Hunting (Van Sant. 1997)

"How do you like them apples?!"

When Good Will Hunting was being shopped around to multiple studios around the United States, high ranking decision-makers had to wonder if the pair of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon could really pull off writing and starring in a film with this much emotional material. I am immediately reminded of the very similar story surounding the Best Picture winning film, Rocky, when nobody thought that Sylvester Stallone could ever be a convincing Rocky Balboa. But like Balboa and Stallone - Damon and Affleck were not meaning to portray complicated silhouettes of important people. Rather, they were simply trying to play the reflections of themselves that they had written into their original characters.

This is what makes a film like Good Will Hunting so enjoyable to watch. Every single scene has an element of personal rejoice, pain, love or familiarity that can be seen in the performances of the main cast. Matt and Ben grew up together in Massachusetts and say that they honestly do have the brotherly bond that the film endorses. There is something refreshing about seeing two people who have grown this close. It is the friendship between the two that gives the picture a strong sense of realism.

Damon plays a tortured, disadvantaged orphan named Will Hunting. Though life for Will has been difficult, he has an extraordinary gift of intelligence – especially in the field of mathematics. He is put under the tutelage of one of the most accomplished mathematicians in the world. The problem is that Will has serious behavioral issues. He is court ordered to see a therapist, but none of them have the capacity to handle Will’s criticism. All of this changes when he meets Sean Maguire.

Maguire is played brilliantly by the Academy Award winning Robin Williams. There is something tortured about his work in this film. This could have something to do with his years of alcohol and drug abuse, or it could have everything to do with his wanting to serve as a mentor to the young Matt Damon. Either way, Williams is the glue that holds Good Will Hunting together. He is also the cause of the film's only major problem.

There are so many working aspects in Good Will Hunting that talking down about it can seem a bit silly. But there are times that the film seems to be a bit overly-dramatic. The scenes between Affleck and Damon/Williams and Damon toe the line of sounding like they were written for a soap opera. There is a lot of melodrama here, but the acting is good enough to cover that up.

Gus Van Sant is a great director because he knew to not add too much flash to the film. There is a simple aesthetic to the Boston settings that is perfectly accompanied by the Oscar nominated score by Danny Elfman. Van Sant creates the images that we remember from this film. Affleck originally asked Clerks director Kevin Smith to be the man behind the camera. He turned the offer down because he said they needed to find a talented director for a screenplay this good. Thank goodness he knew his limits...

Good Will Hunting: B+

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Buñuel. 1972)

"We are not against the students, but what can you do with a room full of flies? You take a fly-swatter and Bang! Bang!"

I have to admit that I have only enjoyed some of the surrealist classics on a purely intellectual level. I love that they make me and the audience think about what is going on. With that being said, I had not yet been entertained by a work from a surrealist outside of David Lynch. Here is where that changes. Louis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a film that has jumped up the list of my favorite films ever made. There is something so interesting about it that made me fall in love with it instantly.

There has always been a decent amount of comedy in the surrealist genre, but Buñuel takes everything to the next level with this film. The story is extremely simple. It follows a group of bourgeois upper class people in France who are simply trying to sit and eat a peaceful meal together. Each attempt at eating is interrupted by something from the outside. At first, the guests come on the wrong night. One attempt at dinner is ruined by the dead body of the restaurant owner being mourned over in the next room. One of my favorite disturbances takes place during an attempted lunch where the hosts are uncontrollably lustful toward each other. The guests have no idea where their hosts ran off to - they were having sex in the yard the whole time.

There is a subtle comedy behind every scene in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie that Buñuel drives home by allowing the audience to watch these rich people squirm. The awkwardness of their conversations and complexities in their everyday lives may seem to point toward an actual plot, but that is just Buñuel being himself. This is a film about rich people trying to eat dinner together. There is nothing more to it. That is what makes it funny. It is not hilarious comedy, but it is a shot in the ribs of the audience. The anticipation of what will happen to the party makes the audience smile. It is the ridiculousness that causes a minor chuckle.

There is hardly anything noticeably charming about any of the characters in the film. I think the title itself is meant to be funny. These are awful people who are obsessed with social status, quality and title. They also sell cocaine, talk down to their employees and get involved with international terrorists. All of this happens between attempted social gatherings.

There must be something deeper to be said about the concept of a large gathering for food. The audience chuckles over the fact that these rich people cannot eat together in peace - but we forget that there are people in this world who can never eat through no fault of their own. The men and women depicted in this film are trash. They are the snobby high class that has been hated since existing. At first, their problems seem so minor that they are laughable. As things start to spiral out of control, the audience is glad to see them unfed.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was well-received upon its initial release. In fact, it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. It was also nominated for Original Screenplay. Buñuel may not be popular with people who are looking for a tight and meaningful plot, but his work here will make you think. As his cast goes in and out of dreams with frustrated appetites, both real and imagined, the audience is starving for substance.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: A

8 1/2 (Fellini. 1963)

"Enough of symbolism and these escapist themes of purity and innocence."

Federico Fellini is more known as a master craftsman over a compelling storyteller. I am not saying that his stories are not interesting - they are just often overshadowed by his more obvious skills. One film, 8 1/2, is an exception to this idea. For me, this is a film that is all about story. There are noticeable Fellini-isms in the production, but nothing can distract me from one of the most telling stories of attempted self discovery that I have seen in film.

This is a film about filmmaking that does not glorify or simplify the profession. It is about a director named Guido who is being pressured by his colleagues, wife and mistress to get back into the game and make a decent picture. The problem is that Guido does not have an interesting story to tell, nor is he in a place mentally to even be working. He is constantly slipping in and out of reality as the pressure becomes too much for him to handle. 8 1/2 begins to resemble a dream or nightmare that only Guido can interpret. He is a man incapable of loving anything. Perhaps he is reaching out to nothing in hopes of being rewarded with a proper soul. Fellini may be the only man with the answer.

This is exactly what makes this film interesting. It combines everything that is good about drama, surrealism, neo-realism and ridiculousness to create a world that is hard to understand, but easy to follow. We are forced to try and interpret Guido's thoughts. But we do not want to. He is a deeply troubled man. His mind has painted complicated and twisted pictures of realty and mixed them with fantasy, fear and anger. There is an obvious theme that Guido is concerned about his age and usefulness to the film community - and his usefulness to his wife. Guido is also a man who is incapable of separating the truth from the truths that he has created in his head.

The best way to describe 8 1/2 would be to call it a whirlwind of mental and emotional exhaustion. It demands the attention of the audience more than almost any film that I have seen. There is so much happening in every moment that the audience starts to feel the pressure that is driving a good director insane. Guido wants to tell a simple story that can touch people and influence them in positive ways. Finding that story would be hard for anyone. His working conditions do not help his already present disadvantages.

It is obvious that Guido is meant to represent Fellini in several different ways. The pressure that he felt as a director was strong enough to evoke the beginning dream sequence of Guido being yanked down from heaven by his co-workers and producers. The name of the film, 8 1/2, comes from Fellini's idea of how many actual films he had made to that point in his career. The audience can sense the breathlessness of the main character and is immediately stricken with a desire to help.

8 1/2 also features some of the most interesting and talked about camera work in all of Italian film. Some of Fellini's trademarks include not showing the actors feat as they walk on screen. This gives them a dream-like floating appearance. He also will start the camera with a still frame and allow his actors to enter the shot from the bottom of the screen. This allows the audience to be able to focus on everything that is happening all at once. I have read that this is one of the most shown films in classes and discussion groups all over the world, and it is easy to see why. Everything is meticulously planned and crafted to perfection. There is never a character or set piece out of place.

I have seen more perfect movies than 8 1/2, but I have never seen a film that better embodies the spirit of the man behind the production. 8 1/2 is Fellini's movie - it is hard to question that fact. He leaves an undeniable maker's mark here that builds up more than it subtracts from its audience. This is not his best film, but it may be Fellini's only personal masterpiece. That has to stand for something.

8 1/2: A-