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

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino. 1992)

"If you shoot this man, you die next. Repeat. If you shoot this man, you die next."

I feel as though I start every review of a Quentin Tarantino movie with the same idea. Tarantino. more so than any other director, runs a major risk of making movies that nobody wants to see. He is driven by ideas and thoughts, but never by anything concrete. It is unrivaled love for filmmaking that keeps him from falling flat on his face. He knows what the audience wants to see, and he makes sure that they see it. In Reservoir Dogs we have the weakest work from QT. This may be his only film that relies solely on dialogue to push the plot. What makes Pulp Fiction so great? It never pushes anything.

Plot pushing is my biggest pet peeve when it comes to storytelling. It is a technique used by a writer who does not believe that the audience will be smart enough to follow the action on their own. Normally, Tarantino has great respect for the intelligence of his audience, but this was his first attempt at making a movie. It seems as though he was more interested at flashing his signature style than he was in telling a compelling story. Everything that happens in Reservoir Dogs is laid out for the audience and conveniently explained by some member of the cast. There is no room for audience interpretation. I wanted more wiggle room - I have come accustomed to it in my time watching QT.

The cast is introduced using one of my favorite tricks - the circulating camera. They all sit around a table in a diner drinking coffee and sharing opinions on everything from Madonna to tipping waitresses. This scene really belongs to the under-appreciated Steve Buscemi, but the entire cast gets a moment. Harvey Keitel as Mr. White is probably my favorite performance in the movie. He provides his role with an unspoken credibility that makes the audience believe. Michael Madsen is a crazy person who tortures a helpless police officer and provides one of the most memorable moments in Reservoir Dogs - singing into the disembodied ear of his victim. Lawrence Tierney and Tim Roth prove to be the antithesis of each other in this movie. Tierney has a deep, brooding voice that commands respect from the men who work for him. Roth spends the majority of his speaking time screeching and hollering in pain over a bullet wound in his gut - "I'm fucking dyin' here!".

The plot is simple and the film is rather short. Crooks have been assembled by an experienced criminal to pull of a difficult diamond heist. The men are not allowed to say anything personal about themselves to keep other group members from being able to squeal upon getting captured. They are given fake names modeled after colors. Mr. White, Orange, Blond, Blue and Pink. Naturally, the comedic Buscemi is unhappy with his color. "Tell you what, let me be Mr. Purple. That sounds good to me. I'm Mr. Purple". He is stuck with Mr. Pink.

Everything goes wrong and the remaining criminals wonder if they had been set up from the inside. Everyone becomes a suspect, and things start to spiral out of control. Guns are pointed at one another, blame is placed and poetic justice is served by the final moment. The audience picks up most of the action through flashbacks from the aftermath of the heist-gone-wrong. The flashbacks in the street are particularly interesting because, just like in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has an uncanny ability to film location with dire urgency. The characters in the film seem to inhabit an alternate universe than the people walking casually down the street. It is as if the extras are only there for the sake of having people there. They provide a bland, unemotional canvass that adds humor to the scenes. The actual heist is never shown, hence the need for plot pushing.

I am in no way trying to say that Reservoir Dogs is a bad movie. It is a very good movie. All I am saying is that it is the weakest from QT. Is that necessarily a bad thing? No. It was his first try at writing a screenplay. The style, acting and entertainment value was all there, but now that he is best known for Pulp Fiction, this film has lost some steam...

Reservoir Dogs: B+

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh. 1924)

"Happiness must be earned..."

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Actually, it was somewhat boring, and then spectacular. In a nutshell, Douglas Fairbanks' The Thief of Bagdad is a tale of two movies. For about an hour, the film is boring, slow uninteresting. It does have some neat visual effects and remarkable Arabian sets, but the entertainment value is simply not there. Then the audience is rewarded with the final hour and forty minutes. This second act could have been an entire movie on its own.

Douglas Fairbanks stars in The Thief of Bagdad as a buff, suave and confident thief on the streets of the Iraqi capital. For the first chunk of the movie he is shown going around the city and taking whatever he wants with little to no effort being expelled. This is a perfect performance for the acrobatic and, to be honest, ripped Fairbanks. He leaps across the gigantic sets with such ease and precision that it forces you to wonder how many times they had to film each scene.

Of course, any great Fairbanks screenplay has to have a significant love story. Here we have the thief trying to steal the princess from her bedroom window. To do this, he pretends to be a prince and invades a ceremony that would determine who the princess shall marry. Through a series of events, the thief and the princess fall in love. But a thief cannot marry a princess! He is almost immediately ousted and put on the run from the castle guards. His only hope is to find the rarest treasure in the world and bring it to the princess. If he does that, she will marry him. But what he has to endure is tough, not to mention he is racing against three other determined possible suitors.

This is where the film becomes worth watching. The thief is sent on a perilous path to find the greatest treasure in the world. First, he is sent through a fiery road that features some of film's earliest color-tinting. He is then thrust into a battle with a giant lizard-like monster followed by a flying bat-like villain. These special effects are miraculous and still work on every aesthetic level. In fact, I was honestly riveted by every effect in The Thief of Bagdad. It was nice to see a film, made as early as 1924, that used actual craftsmanship in showing the audience something amazing. This is a true spectacle of a movie.

The fire, monsters, magic rope and flying carpet are all shown with incredible realism. Fairbanks laid down a very meticulous and specific visual idea that eventually turned into the lavish and gargantuan palace settings shown in the film. It is no surprise that The Thief of Bagdad is still considered one of the finest works in fantasy and adventure. It was named one of the ten greatest American made fantasies by the American Film Institute and was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the National Film Registry.

If I had any complaints, I would say that The Thief of Bagdad is really boring for a little over an hour. The intertitles are also a bit silly. Are they in Iraq or England? I wonder how often the word "thou" was used in Arabia. It is used frequently in the movie. It just loses some of its credibility and comes off a little dated.

But if you can outlast the initial bore-fest you will be awarded with one of the finer action/adventure/fantasy films that I have ever seen. The special effects are still better than some of the computer animated garbage that I have seen recently. I really enjoyed the last hour and forty minutes of The Thief of Bagdad. It was the tale of two movies...

The Thief of Bagdad: B+

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Godfather (Coppola. 1972)

"Leave the gun. Take the cannoli."

At what point does a movie become bulletproof? If that moment exists, it would be hard to argue that The Godfather has not reached an never before seen level of untouchability. This is not to say that the film has not earned the praise that it receives, but rather that me trying to say something original about it may seem a bit pretentious. Of course, that does not mean that I will not say what makes it great - even if it is stupidly obvious.

The Godfather is one of the most stylized great movies ever made. It creates a universe in which everyone knows everyone and the claustrophobic feeling is evident. There is no glorification of the mob here, but instead the camera is rolling during the down time. None of the in-home action ever seems particularly urgent. In fact, there is a lot of waiting.

This interesting take on mob life was formulated from the screenplay written by the same man behind the best selling novel, Mario Puzo. It has been said that his original draft was heavily organized and edited by Coppola, but no matter who you choose to believe the outcome is brilliant. Each moment is perfectly scripted to match the dramatic and insistent tone of the movie. My favorite dialogue comes in the opening scene when Don is accepting requests for favors. There is an unforgiving vernacular that these mobsters use when they speak to each other, and Coppola does not wait before introducing it to the audience.

Of course, no scene in any movie can be great without a talented cast to push the narrative. This is something that The Godfather does better than most movies ever made. The ensemble cast provides deep and believable performances even when their respective charters have very little screen time. For example, Talia Shire and Sterling Hayden are casually slipped into the film and are forced to make the most of their moments. And that is exactly what they do. The supporting cast understands that their motives, desires and needs may not be thoroughly explained, so each action needs to be perfect.

The main cast is a regular who's who in popular film. John Cazale, James Caan and Robert Duvall become the family. They seem to be so deep in character that you wonder if they have ever done the mob thing before, especially Caan. Diane Keaton is the one sympathetic figure in The Godfather. She has married into the family and is desperate for her husband to find another lifestyle. At first her husband, Michael Corleone, has no interest in the family business. That opinion famously changes and climaxes in the brilliantly shot and acted scene at the end of the film. It is really heartbreaking stuff.

We are all aware of the most famous performance in The Godfather. Marlon Brando plays the role of Don Vito Corleone - the patriarch of the Corleone family. In his original review, Roger Ebert argues that Brando is lazy and unrealistic in this portrayal, but conventional wisdom seems to point toward the opposite. Brando famously stuffed his mouth with cotton balls in order to provide the protruding jaw and iconic vocal styling. He is nonchalant and careless in his motions because he is a man accustomed to power. He no longer feels the need to flaunt his might because his old age has ensured his dominance. He was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his work here, but refused to accept it over a personal discrepancy. That is a whole different, and strange, story itself.

Though the packaging and advertising of The Godfather would leave you to believe that Marlon Brando is the central character, it is Michael Corleone who demands the most attention from the audience. Played by a virtually unknown Al Pacino, Michael is the brother who goes through the toughest transformation. This performance is an embodiment of the thirst for power that created organized crime in the first place. You can even see the lose of innocence in Michael's eyes as he transforms into the new Don Corleone.

Though it is probably an under-respected aspect of the film, the artwork in The Godfather is also very well done. The dull colors of the town, home and environment create a noir-ish visual that has undoubtedly inspired several mobster movies that came after. Nothing about the movie is ever directed away from the outstanding style, so it is impossible for The Godfather to become dated.

Great acting makes a movie watchable. Great stories make movies entertaining. Art and skillful shooting styles makes a movie visually interesting. The Godfather may be the most perfect example of what happens when everything works. It is a fantastic movie - maybe the greatest ever made.

The Godfather: A

The Burmese Harp (Ichikawa. 1956)

"Let's return to Japan together."

Last Thursday night I was sitting in a tiny Amtrak station in Bloomington, Illinois waiting for my train to take me to my beautiful girlfriend in Chicago. As I sitting there, I was joined by a group of stereotypical sorority girls from Illinois State University. For almost an hour I was subjected to their countless stories about meaningless sex, Lady Gaga and the "pounding of shots" that they were so excited to soon be doing in the windy city. By the time we boarded the train, I had realized that I was alone in the car with these five exhausting females. I scurried to the far back to make sure that I could secure a seat by myself and far away from these strangers.

My efforts were in vain because one of them spotted my fraternity letters and found it necessary to try and sit next to me. "You're a frat boy, you may enjoy some of my stories". I could not think of any other way to make her leave me alone, so I whipped out my laptop and started watching my next film from the 1077. "What 'cha watchin'" she asked. I answered - "a black and white Japanese anti-war movie made in 1956". After hearing this, it did not take her long to jump out of her seat and rejoin her group of woo-girls. The Burmese Harp saved the day.

Little did I know that this movie would not only save me from two hours of annoyance, but it would also be an extremely rewarding viewing experience. Though I was watching it on my laptop, I was still in awe of the Criterion DVD quality and the flawlessness of the hushed black and white. The cinematography is simple and the landscaping of Burma is vast and magnificent looking. It was easy to see that the filmmaker was not interesting in a mass amount of dialogue. It was the striking subtlety in the visual style that properly denoted the overall theme of the movie.

The Burmese Harp is about a Japanese soldier stationed in Burma during the days immediately following the end of World War II. He has developed a love for playing the harp and uses it to signal danger to his troop. His playing is also used as a way to raise moral in the lonely mountains of Burma. Music, whether instrumental or vocal, plays a major role in the film. In fact, it seemed like the majority of the communication was presented through song. The sound of the harp is soothing and easy on the ears. It is a beautiful instrument that compliments the smooth visuals.

The story is also vividly entertaining in is simplicity. After retreating to the British, the soldier - Mizushima - is sent to try and convince another Japanese troop to surrender. He fails in doing this and the entire troop is eventually killed by British forces. This leads to Mizushima, and his harp, being separated from his fellow soldiers and he is now left to roam the countryside of Burma. As we walks, he meets a spiritual leader and realizes the devastatingly high amount of Japanese casualties caused by the violence of World War II. He sees the bodies of thousands of soldiers with his own eyes. He is traumatized and dedicates his life to giving them a proper burial.

The Burmese Harp is the first film by Kon Ichikawa to be seen outside of Japan. It is also one of the first Japanese movies to receive critical acclaim in the United States. What really makes it stand out is that it was the first example of an anti-World War II statement being made by the Japanese through cinema. We forget that everybody is hurt by war, and that the lines are not always as clear as good versus evil. The men in the Japanese army had families, kids and dreams of their own. They just wanted to return home - though they would find that home hardly existed as they knew it before the war.

Yes, I may be in debt to The Burmese Harp for saving me from the incoherent ramblings of a loud and proud party animal, but I also legitimately enjoyed it on almost every level. This is a great movie and could serve as an outstanding introduction into Japanese, Asian or world cinema. I am a big fan. I immediately bought the Criterion DVD. You should borrow it sometime...

The Burmese Harp: A

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Funny Games (Haneke. 1997)

"You're on their side, aren't you? So, who will you bet with?"

Violence is a concept that is not new to the movies. Bonnie and Clyde was extremely gun violent. Scream had some insanely violent moments. It is the visual representation of pain that makes the audience care about the characters on screen. Some movies use violence as a way to shock the viewer, and some use it to show the struggles that a character in the movie may have to go through. Then we have movies like Funny Games. This is a stylistic horror-torture-comedy that seems to use violence for the sake of using violence. This is not the way that movies should be made.

Funny Games features a pretty straightforward narrative. Two seemingly well educated and upper class males knock on the door of a rich family’s vacation home asking to borrow some eggs. They are not your everyday neighbor boys. They are actually cruel and violent psychopaths interested in playing sadistic games with their prisoners. After killing the family dog with a golf club, they break the father’s leg with the same weapon –immediately rendering him useless. They then proceed to torture, humiliate and murder the son, wife and father all under the guise of playing a game.

Michael Haneke’s screenplay is disgustingly playful. It has the killers breaking the fourth wall on several occasions for the sake of a cheap laugh. The only problem is that nothing in Funny Games is actually funny. A mother is forced to strip naked in front of her family. A young boy is shot dead while his crippled father and hogtied mother sit helplessly in a pool of his blood. A father is made to watch as his wife is sexually humiliated and degraded. What about this is a joke? Haneke obviously thinks that it is funny as one of his killers turns to the screen and gives the audience a smug wink. The killers even go as far as to make a bet with the audience. Will anyone in the family survive? Are you cheering for the family? They do not, and you should not be.

I guess this is some sort of way to unconventionally play with the audience’s sensibilities. The killers never give a backs story. It is much more frightening if you never hear the motive. They are also very friendly and respectful. They do not want to get the carpet dirty as they beat the mother and father. They were willing to be easy on the child until he decided that he did not want to take part in the violent games. They are not presented as bad guys, but rather intelligent and creative youngsters with a taste for the horrible things in life. It is as if they are meant to be some kind of anti-heroes - a murderous and mentally damaged sort of Batman and Robin – all the way down to the funny puns and pop culture references.

Funny Games is specifically cruel to the mother. She is almost the hero on several occasions, but is then simply reduced to watching her son and husband die before being thrown in the lake and left for dead. In a surprising turn of events, her stripping scene is tastefully shot and the camera never leaves her face. This, at least, keeps the weirdoes in the audience from getting any sort of sexual gratification out of her humiliation. Maybe there is some sympathy in Haneke’s mind after all, but there does not seem to be a whole lot of it.

I know what fans of the film are going to say, “This is not a movie about violence. It is about the style and wit of the filmmaker and his challenging of the human consciousness. Most of the extreme violence is off screen. You do not even see it happen”. For me, that is still no excuse to be cheering for the bad guys. There is something irresponsible about making the horrible villains into likeable clowns. I could see how the newly-dubbed “torture-porn” crowd could see this as a modern example of the genre, but that does not mean that I liked it. Laughing at the humiliation of innocent people is wrong. Killing children is not funny. It is not a game. This is why we blame popular culture for serial killers….

Funny Games: D+

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Cow (Mehrjui. 1969)

"I am not Hassan. I am Hassan's cow..."

How much have you loved your pet? I know that when my most recent family pet, Rocky, died I was heartbroken. In fact, I missed work the next two days. Having a great pet is like having a loved one who promises to love you unconditionally. All you have to do is promise to love it back. Some sort of love is the basis of one of the most simple and heart wrenching films that I have ever seen, Dariush Mehrjui's The Cow.

This is a movie that cannot get much simpler. It is located in a small Iranian village and tells the story of a man named Hassan. From the beginning we see that Hassan has a very strong bond with his cow. In fact, he spends the majority of his time bathing, feeding and practically cherishing her. He sits on the top of the cowshed at night in order to protect her from thieves. Hassan is married, but he has no children. The love for his cow may stem from his inability to have kids, but this is never actually said in the film.

This all comes crashing down when Hassan's wife finds the cow dead. The townsmen fear that Hassan will react badly, so they bury the cow in an old well and pretend that she has run away. This new story does not make the reaction any better as Hassan suffers a nervous breakdown after hearing it. He starts to believe that he is the cow. He adopts many of the cow's behavors - like eating hay and drinking from a bucket. He also sleeps in the shed every night. His psyche continues to slip until Hassan the person can no longer be reached. It is a heartbreaking transformation.

What makes The Cow significant is that it was writer/director Dariush Mehrjui's introduction to Iranian new wave filmmaking. This means that the action has a strong sense of realism because the actors are usually not professional. It is also meant to represent the everyday life of the people of the time period in a country that is underrepresented in popular film.

And that is what makes The Cow so neat. This is a film made by an Iranian, about Iranians in Iran. As a middle class American male, I have never really seen something that has shown Iranian men as human. These men care about each other. They try to do what is best by their friend and they are seriously concerned when things go downhill. The new wave feel of the whole picture gives this normally negatively portrayed culture a new life in my eyes.

This is the single most dramatic movie that I have ever seen about a cow. It is extremely well made and emotional. Its simplicity is a perfect complement to its ability to move the audience. It is subtle, beautiful and relatable. It is a great movie.

The Cow: A-

Scream (Craven. 1996)

"Movies don't create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!"

The phone is ringing. A teenage girl named Casey is home all by herself. She answers that phone and harmlessly flirts with the nameless man on the other line. As their conversation becomes strange, the audience is introduced to the overall theme of Wes Craven's Scream, horror movies. "What is your favorite scary movie? Who is the killer in the original Friday the 13th (1980)? That IS a scary movie". Some say that a film loses its watchablity when it becomes self aware. Here is a movie that knows it is a movie, and therefor reluctantly and sarcastically follows every rule that a movie of its kind must follow.

Scream, the first of the franchise, introduces the character of Sydney Prescott. Played by the adorable Neve Campbell, Sydney is a teenager with a quick wit and a sexually frustrated boyfriend. Her life seems normal at the beginning, but as the story quickly progresses the audience learns about her haunted past. Her mother was brutally raped and murdered just a little over a year before the film takes place. She was the key witness in putting the killer behind bars. But as killings start to happen and Sydney becomes the number one target, it is obvious that the actual killer is still on the loose.

That leads us to the biggest popular culture phenomenon in 90s horror, Ghost-Face. Though the character was resurrected for the sequels, the original killer is by far the greatest. His/her back-story is compelling and frightening and his/her techniques are creative enough to be constantly copied by wannabes in the later years. The phone calls have become iconic in horror circles (which naturally led to several prank caller copycats) and the killer's unsubtle approach to violence is terrifying. Everyone is familiar with the mask made famous by Scream, but the film is not about the appearance of the killer. It is mostly about pinpointing the man/woman behind the mask and revealing the motives in a classic horror cliché-ridden fashion. Every character gets a chance to be a suspect, and Ghost-Face is just bumbling and silly enough to be believed as anybody.

I think that is my one major problem with Scream. Though the killer is creative and gruesome, he/she is also a bit of a wimp. Ghost-Face is constantly being kicked, punched and knocked to the ground by Sydney during their frantic chase scenes. The killing is not very efficient and the dueling starts to cross a line into cartoonish. I know that Scream was written by Kevin Williamson as a humorous homage to slasher horror, but his bad guy does not have to be almost worthless at some points.

I think my favorite character in this movie is played by the usually unwatchable Jamie Kennedy. He plays Randy the horror movie buff who immodestly tries to explain the rules of survival. He, over all other characters, understands that they are living in a slasher film. He explains that "There's always some stupid bullshit reason to kill, That's the beauty of it all! Simplicity! Besides, if it gets too complicated, you lose your target audience". He warns his friends to not have sex, drink or do drugs because sin always leads to death in the horror classics. Randy is also the only character who never wanders off on his own. He is the epitome of Scream's self-deprecating sense of humor.

I have heard Scream be called a spoof, homage, tribute, horror, thriller and mystery film. In reality, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson created a successful and poppy genre-spanner that will be entertaining for as long as horror fans exist. Its sense of humor will never become stale because the movies being poked fun at will never stop being made. It would get a better grade if it lacked some of its major plot-holes, but it is still a memorable movie that I will watch over and over again.

Scream: B+