Saturday, April 30, 2011

Day 10 - The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter (1978) directed by Michael Cimino

In coming up with an opening comment for The Deer Hunter, I could not help but think of the Edwin Starr song War and its poignant yet simple chorus, "War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!" Just listen to that song once and you can pretty much sum up the message of just about every single war movie ever made. Just once for shits and giggles I would like to watch a pro-war movie, if only to see if it could be done. I'm sure somewhere in North Korea, they are working on a propaganda film right now in the event they decide to bomb us. I'm guessing the reason they haven't yet is because they're ironing out the script. Even Kim-Jung-Il can't make war look pretty. The Deer Hunter, it should be noted, is more about the effects of war on its participants rather than of war itself. The actual wartime segment lasts no more than 45 minutes of the three hour movie. The rest of the film is a rather protracted before and after picture of three friends who go into Vietnam and leave as broken men trying to pick back up the pieces of their lives.

The first hour of the movie introduces us to the main characters, Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken) who are preparing for Steve's wedding and one last hunting trip before they go off to Vietnam. They are small town guys who have a job at the factory, like to go to the bar to drink and shoot pool and sing songs and hunt deer in their free time, a couple of average Joe's. Then there is the wedding and after party where the three buddies couldn't be having any more fun. Oh, if they only knew what lay ahead of them. At around the hour mark, we get a nice transition into the second act when they're all gathered around in the bar admiring the beauty of their friend's piano playing, contrasted by the very next scene in Vietnam where a village is being bombed.

The remainder of the film is defined by what happens in the next thirty minutes. The three amigos are captured by the Vietcong who sadistically force their prisoners to play Russian roulette. Locked up below, they can hear the click of the empty shells in the room above them and each successive click becomes more nerve racking than the previous one until we finally hear a bang and the thud of a body dropping to the floor. Michael, Steve and Nick are all forced to play and the experience affects each person in its own way. I have never held my breath as many times watching a movie than during these scenes.

Without giving too much away, they survive the ordeal but are separated during the escape. Nick ends up in a military hospital, physically shaken and psychologically scarred. Michael carries a badly injured Steve to safety and leaves him with other officers to take him to a hospital. From this point on, the story shifts its focus to Michael as he returns home unaware of the fate of Nick and Steve as he tries to cope with post-war civilian life.

IMHO (in my humble opinion for you non-internet geeks) the first hour of The Deer Hunter just dragged on needlessly. It just seemed like I was watching them going about doing absolutely nothing.  Maybe this was to contrast the normal every day lives they were leaving behind with the harrows of war, but it just didn't do it for me. In any event, the wait for the real movie to begin is worth it as the Russian roulette scene is absolutely enthralling. The post-war segment suffers from the same slowdown as the first portion, but at least by this point we are paying full attention and interested in seeing how things progress for the characters after the war and the finale is arguably even more intense than the middle.

For the most part, The Deer Hunter does an effective job in getting its point across, but there is a lot to be said about brevity. While he did a great job in putting it all together, one wishes director Michael Cimino would have taken a page from from Edwin Starr's book and made it short and sweet.

Grade: B+

Friday, April 29, 2011

Day 9 - Fast Five

Fast Five (2011) directed by Justin Lin

What could they possibly do in the fifth installment that we haven't already seen? Trick question. They don't need to do anything different at all. People know what they're getting when they enter a Fast and the Furious film and that's fast cars, hot women, ridiculous stunts, big explosions and some modicum of plot to hold it all together. In fact, fans demand it. The only thing that really needs to change is a new locale to tell the story in and raising the bar for high-speed mayhem.

Fast Five begins where 2009's Fast and Furious leaves off, with Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) and Mia (Jordana Brewster) freeing Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) from a prison bus in a daring escape. Fast forward to Rio de Janeiro where Brian and Mia, living on the run, go to meet up with Dom. They attempt to pull a heist stealing cars from a moving train where things go awry when the crew they are with pull a double cross. Our heroes realize that the crew was not after the cars at all but something else belonging to a crime lord named Reyes and he wants it back. Uh oh. Didn't they already take down a boss in the last movie? To make matters worse, the FBI sends in their top dog, a no nonsense action super-cop Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to capture Dom and Brian. They come up with the solution to disappear forever, but in order to do so they must pull one last job.

This is where the movie takes a turn for the bizarre where it goes from Fast and the Furious to Oceans 11 and The Italian Job. They do the standard get a team together routine bringing in familiar faces from the franchise tying the movies together and what was once a tight knit story turns into an ensemble cast heist movie. Since when was the fast cars, hot babes, and Vin Disel flexing his muscles not enough?

So now that the plot is out of the way, we can finally talk about what really matters, THE STUNTS. Interestingly enough, there is basically no racing in this movie at all. Off the top of my head, there is just one and it's a pretty short tame one between members of the team. In the only other opportunity we don't even see the race where Dom wins a car. Much of the action takes place out of the cars including a chase scene through the favelas and a brutal all-out fight between Vin Disel and The Rock. (I'm pretty sure the earthquake in Hati was caused by them punching each other.) They saved all the high speed hijinks for the heist, which is pretty spectacular. The amount of chaos and destruction in the final 15 minutes alone probably equals the amount of damage done in the entire series combined. And what glorious fun it is to see two cars dragging a gigantic vault through the streets of Rio destroying everything in its way. While the plot may leave something to be desired, you don't go into Fast Five to watch Vin Disel do Shakespeare, you go into it to watch him tear shit up. And he does. Big time.

Grade: B-

Side notes:
- Is there a stiffer actor in the world than Paul Walker? Maybe Keanu Reeves...
- Actually, Vin Disel might be in that category too...
- Dwayne Johnson, as charismatic as he is, is a one trick pony in this one and has several unintentionally hilarious lines that had the theater cracking up because of how serious he is in his role.
- Why do they keep on insisting to hijack moving vehicles in this franchise? Do they just want to make their jobs as difficult as possible?

- In case you are wondering how Han is in Fast and Furious and Fast Five despite dying in Tokyo Drift, Tokyo Drift is clearly meant to be after Fast and Furious. However, in the end of Han's cameo in Fast and Furious when Dom disbands his team, he says he's going to Tokyo, unless he doesn't go to Tokyo until after Fast Five... But given what transpires in Fast Five, Han's life/demeanor should be different in Tokyo Drift...

- I really want to go to Rio de Janeiro. It looks like such an amazing and beautiful city. Even the favelas look interesting. You'd never say that about an American ghetto. I don't think it's a coincidence that both Rio and Fast Five look so good.

- They are in the talks for part six of the series. I fully expect them to drive a car off a plane mid-air across the Grand Canyon landing safely on the other side.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Day 8 - Election

Election (1999) directed by Alexander Payne

Do you remember how it was in high school? The drama, the politics, scandal, the intrigue? If those phrases don't register with you, don't be alarmed. It's perfectly normal to be, well, normal. My high school experience was just like anybody else's; I went to school, did my homework, hung out with friends and that was that. I just went through the motions, trying to get by, indistinguishable from the next guy. And that is the way how 99% of high school works. But there is, of course, that 1% that stands apart from the rest, the one who sits in the front of the class and raises his hand, the one who joins all the clubs and plays all the sports, the one who volunteers after school, the one that runs for student body government, the overachiever. We all know that one guy or girl who bugged the hell out of you, not just because their achievements were making you look bad, but because deep down you realized they were going places and you weren't.

Tracy Flick is that person. You can see it in her smug yet cute smile. You can see it in her preppy sweater vests. She is the definition of overachiever. In very beginning scene of the movie, she sets up a little booth before school starts in the hallway announcing her candidacy for school president, even offering free sticks of gum to voters. She is the only one running. After all, Coke is by far the number one selling soda in the world, yet spends the most amount in advertisement; that's how they stay on top. Most teachers would find her overzealous go-get'em attitude positive and refreshing. After all, who doesn't like enthused students in their classrooms? But Mr. McAllister knows better. Mr. McCallister doesn't like Tracy Flick. He sees through the seemingly perfect student and sees the ruthless ambition and mean spirt in her eyes, that and he knows that his best friend, a fellow teacher, had a romance with her, causing him to get fired and divorced. Or maybe it is because it isn't just fellow students who are jealous of the overachievers, teachers are too.  They see these kids and their bright futures ahead of them, only to be reminded of their own middling lives, stuck in the same room teaching the same stuff year in and year out.

Election is a satirical comedy about the inner workings of high school life and politics, complete with sex, scandal, dark horse contenders, and voting sabotage, basically what happens in every election ever. If people get this worked up over a high school election, just imagine what people would do for elections that really matter (ahem, state of Florida). While Tracy Flick is the representative of budding politicians worldwide, Jim McCallister is the every day man, sensible and ethical, and utterly determined to bring her down, but to what ends? As his personal life slowly deteriorates with an ever dull marriage and a fumbling attempt at an affair, his ethical code seemingly goes with it and a final showdown between the two sides is inevitable, but who will prevail?

The narrative of Election is broken into separate points of view with interior monologues, giving us a glance at the insights of all the players involved. First, we have Mr. McCallister, played by Matthew Broderick, as the popular teacher who in the beginning of the film engages his classroom in the differences between ethics and morals. The only person to confidently raise her hand to give an answer is none other than Tracy Flick, played by Reese Witherspoon, who has the same innocent charm she displays in Legally Blonde, but with a viscous dark side. Matthew Broderick, for his part, has the perfect small-town teacher look and feel. Chris Klein plays Paul Metzler, a popular jock that Mr. McCallister convinces to run against Tracy in the election in hopes of squashing her dreams. I've never been a huge fan of Chris Klein, as he's another of those pretty boys with limited acting skills. (Check out his performance in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li for some of the worst delivered lines in the history of cinema.) However, he does well with his aw-shucks manners here and is actually perfectly cast in this role. His sister, Tammy, played by Jessica Campbell, is the darkhorse contender who only runs out of spite and to make a mockery of the whole process.

As a comedy, Election is difficult to judge on aesthetic qualities. How often has a comedy won best cinematography or direction? They key to making good comedies is to just tell the story without getting in the way of the laughs. However that isn't to say that comedies can't be well made. While the cinematography looks awfully dated for a movie made in 1999, the movie is still filled with intriguing shots. I couldn't help but laugh watching Reese Witherspoon jump up and down for joy in an empty hallway literally like a rabbit. Near the end of the film, there is a Sergio Leone style showdown with increasingly fast cuts between the characters' eyes. There is also extensive use of freeze frames. In the beginning of the movie, the camera pauses on Reese Witherspoon's face mid sentence with her eyes closed, looking as if she's halfway between a sneeze and having Bells Palsy. Above all else though, the script is sharp and funny, borderline absurd but never slapstick and unbelievable.

Any politician that ever walked the earth is ambitious and motivated. It's almost impossible not to be if you want to get anywhere in life. While Election is satirical in nature, it is not too far from the truth either, as it is the Tracy Flicks that are running the world.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Day 7 - Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants (2011) directed by Francis Lawrence

I remember going to the circus once when I was a kid. I was too young to remember the details but I remember seeing elephants and lions and acrobats through rings of fire. There may or may not have been clowns coming out of tiny cars, but I think I would have remembered that since I was terrified of clowns ever since watching It. And I definitely ate cotton candy. All in all, it was probably a pretty awesome day. If I could to go back in time and relive that day, however, I'm sure it wouldn't have been as sweet as I remembered. Maybe it was really cold or raining that day. Maybe I did see elephants but they didn't do anything remarkable. Maybe I saw firsthand their treatment of animals. But the circus, for many, will always bring back fond memories and a yearning to return to our youth.

This is exactly how Water for Elephants begins. An elderly man shows up late night at a circus after hours lost and confused. The man running the circus invites him inside out of the cold rain and the old timer begins a flashback story a la Titanic. We are then transported back to 1931 when Jacob, played by Robert Pattinson, is about to take his college exams to become a veterinarian. His parents die suddenly in a car accident, causing young Jacob to reevaluate his life and run away, hitching a ride on a circus train hobo style. He manages to find a job with the circus doing menial jobs when he is introduced to the big boss, August, played by Christoph Waltz of Inglorious Basterds fame. August initially dismisses him until Jacob reveals he is a vet and can help take care of the animals. Then just as quickly as August dismisses him, he takes Jacob up to the top of the train and tells him "You and me kiddo, we can take over this whole joint!" or something to that effect. Then we are later introduced to Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the star attraction of the circus, who also happens to be August's wife. I don't think I'm giving too much away by telling you that this is a love triangle movie in a circus setting. That much can be gathered from the previews alone and you pretty much get what you expect. You got the mysterious young hero, the often cruel but charismatic boss who takes the young fellow under his wings, the pretty trophy wife with a hint of sadness in her eyes, and a giant elephant that much of the plot revolves around. Watching it all unfold I kept wondering if Marlena dies in the end, telling Jacob, "Promise me to never let go!" but they weren't getting any closer to a large body of water so I wasn't sure how they'd incorporate that in. It's a time period romance where how much you want them to get together is driven by how much you like these characters, which is to say, "Ehhhhhhhh." Clearly, we are supposed to want Jacob and Marlena together, not necessarily because we believe them to be soul mates or right for each other, but because August is a total ass and such an obvious villain. Why was Marlena even with him in the first place? But in the end, the story does well enough to make it all work.

Nostalgic time period romances are typically helped by beautiful cinematography that gives the story that old fashioned look meant to conjure up sentiment and the idea that the beauty you see on screen is matched by the beauty in the story. Water for Elephants does look good, even if it is a romanticized look into the Great Depression and the hard life of traveling circus folks. The circus animals are nicely incorporated and never look out of place, even when the elephant does handstands.

Christopher Waltz and Reese Witherspoon are fine and work with what they're given. Waltz clearly loves the role of the villain as he plays them well. Robert Pattinson, on the other hand...

Do women really find this guy attractive? He does have that smolder going on, but almost all lead actors have that and he's pasty white. I thought that was just from Twilight, but apparently he's naturally pretty pale. His eyes always seem to be glossed over as if he just got trashed at the club and his smirk makes him look like a smug d-bag. Maybe I'm just bitter that Bella chose Edward over Jacob, but I mean seriously, there is no way Pattinson is better looking than Taylor Lautner.
I can deal with less than attractive people on screen. I mean, who am I to judge? But what I can't deal with are people who can't act. The Twilight series has given us some of the worst acting in recent memory, but it's a shame that these actors are going to find jobs in front of the camera basically forever. While Pattinson has perfected the art of brooding, he basically has no range at all. The only thing he does well (well being a relative term) is play the quiet tormented type, but how often are we going to want to see him play the same role over and over?

The other issue I have with Water For Elephants is that it's an obvious novel adaptation. The scene where the old man begins the flashback is supposed to come from natural conversation, but it sounds like he's reading directly from the book. Other bits of dialogue work in stories but not when spoken out loud. For instance, the scene where one of the guys is showing Jacob around the circus train sounds like he's explaining things for our benefit rather than Jacob's. And as great as Christop Waltz is, some of his dialogue is much too grandiose to believe (like the aforementioned bit on top of the train).

I'm as sentimental as the next guy, so I enjoyed the parts I was supposed to enjoy, felt the things I know they wanted me to feel. I'm a pretty manipulatable movie viewer, which I am rather glad for. It allows me to watch movies like Water for Elephants guilt free, happy to go along for the ride. This movie works just enough to do the trick, but nothing more.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Day 6 - Tokyo Drifter

Tokyo Drifter (1966) directed by Seijun Suzuki

In case you've been wondering how I've been picking which movies to watch, I've sort of been randomly picking them on They have a ton of the Criterion collection on the site available for streaming and I'd highly recommend checking them out. They're not for everyone as many of them are arthouse type movies that aren't easily accessible. Many of them can be pretty confusing, while others are just downright dull. Oh, you also have to be able to handle subtitles. Still, quite frequently, you'll find high quality titles from across the globe.

I've heard of Tokyo Drifter before, but didn't know much about it. After reading the description of being a highly stylized yakuza action flick and running at just 83 minutes long, I threw it on. (Length of movie can be a pretty important factor when dealing with obscure foreign language movies you've never heard of. Nothing is more daunting than dealing with two and a half hours of long tracking shots of someone walking through a park philosophizing in Swedish. Also, after waking up at 6:30 pm after a long grueling poker session, I figured I wouldn't have the time or energy for the four hour grandioseness of Gone with the Wind.)

The Kurata group has gone legit, making investments in real estate and cutting ties with their old yakuza ways. But like Michael Corleone says, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." Or as my man Jay-Z says, "No matter where you go, you are what you are player/ And you can try to change but that's just the top layer/ Man, you was who you was 'fore you got here." Naturally, another group, the Otsuka, wants in on the action and takes advantage of the Kurata's newfound softness. Scuffles ensue and Tesu "the Phoenix", Boss Kurata's loyal right hand man, is forced to flee Tokyo and live the life of a drifter as the Otsukas try to hunt him down.

Apparently the themes of many of the old yakuza flicks are the same, which typically revolve around an honorable outlaw torn between the contradictory values of giri (duty) and ninjo (personal feelings.) (Thanks wikipedia!) In many ways they mirror the typical samurai and American westerns of the time and the western influence upon Tokyo Drifter oozes out of its pores. The soundtrack is harmonica-heavy complete with whistling and single shot gunfire more reminiscent of old revolvers rather than modern handguns. There are long tracking shots of our hero wandering the lonely countryside and there is even an old fashioned barroom brawl in a saloon. Even the title, Tokyo Drifter, has a very distinct westerner name to it, Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter immediately comes to mind.

However, this is not a western per say. It simply draws one of its many inspirations from them. The most notable inspirations are pop art and jazz. Many of the interior set locations are impressive with a dazzling array of colors and 1960's contemporary feel. I wish there were better screenshots of this movie on google to chose from because they are quite beautiful. The interior shots are so impressive they could be made into a coffee table book of pop art and contemporary design. The shots of the busy cosmopolitan Tokyo are complimented with saxophones and the pulsating rhythm of drums, giving the feel of a groovy jazz club.

Everything has a very polished stylized feel, from the bright colored suit that Tesu wears even to the way people plummet to the ground after dying. Watching this movie, I could not help but think of Kill Bill and after doing a little reading it's not difficult to see why. Seijun Suzuki is listed as one of Quentin Tarantino's favorite directors and there is definitely similarities between the two movies. For instance the beginning sequence of both movies are shot in black and white while the rest of the pictures are vivid in color. There are long shots of action like the one pictured above that look similar to shots in Kill Bill.

My one minor complaint is that the the film does languish a bit towards the middle with random scenes of silly wandering and fighting that don't advance the plot much further and don't really enhance the feeling of of his solitude, which is what I assume Suzuki was going for.

Bottom line, I'd recommend this to anyone who likes artsy visual stuff, westerns, or crime dramas.

Grade: B+

Monday, April 25, 2011

Day 5 - Rio in 3D

Rio in 3D (2011) directed by Carlos Saldanha
Ah, yes, finally! A movie somebody might actually be interested in watching! Yes, this is somewhat of a cheap-o picking a typical animated family film but after four days of nothing but black and white head scratchers, I've decided to watch a movie for fun. Imagine that, having fun at the movies! No, I don't care if there is no redeeming value in it or if there are countless classics I have yet to see. Sometimes I don't want to watch Cary Grant slapping hoes or to wait for some random European guy I don't know to finally say something I understand. I don't want to ponder the meaning of my existence, nor do I care about the corruption of the human soul. Sometimes I just want to sit back, watch animals talk to each other, laugh a little bit and forget it all happened 90 minutes later and be done with it. Since this is the animated family film Rio and not the languishingly slow but supposedly thought provoking Seventh Seal, I don't think today's entry will have too much in depth analysis, which is fine by me.

There are two things I would like to mention before I start, going to the theaters and 3D. I always hear people say, "I'll wait for it to come out on DVD" or "That movie isn't worth watching in theaters." What are you guys talking about? These are exactly the types of movies to watch in theaters because there is no way in hell I'm ever going to rent them, let alone sit still at home and watch. At least at the theaters you can make the excuse that you were already out and had time to kill or nothing good was playing. I literally had no choice but to watch Rio! It was either this or Madea's Big Happy Family. By renting whatever mediocrity you are thinking of right now, you are purposelessly making the decision to waste two hours at home watching crap over doing anything else. And the waiting for it to come out on DVD excuse typically means that you're never going to watch it because honestly, who's going to remember Rio four months from now? I know I won't. So if I don't watch a movie like Rio now, I won't ever watch it, which is a shame because a lot of the time, the movie ends up being decent enough, which Rio is. And sometimes I just want to get out of the house and be in my own little world for two hours. Ten bucks for peace of mind seems worth it to me.

Whoever thought of charging $2.50 extra for watching a movie in 3D is a genius. It ends up being a 20+% increase in box office sales for mediocre movies that wouldn't pull in nearly that much dough on its own merits. It makes otherwise forgettable drags like Monsters vs Aliens into box office bonanzas. It is no surprise then that practically all animated films these days are 3D ready. At first, I was not a huge fan of 3D because it made my eyes hurt and I found it too distracting, but after a couple 3D movies under my belt I can tolerate them enough and be pleasantly surprised by the effects. But for the most part, most movies can do without the 3D simply because they aren't specifically made for 3D. Sure, it makes the visuals pop out more, but there aren't many movies that fully utilize the effects. That is the trade off, of course. Do you want to see a movie with all sorts of crazy things popping out all the time to the point of being distracting or do you want your movies to take the more subtle route and use the 3D to enhance visuals rather than make it the main attraction? Incidentally, I actually prefer the latter as it is easier on the eyes and gives a great sense of depth when done properly. But either way, I always end up thinking to myself at the end, was it really worth the extra $2.50?

Rio is a great looking film. The colors are bright and vibrant and I suspect you'd still appreciate the visuals even without the 3D glasses. It does a great job in capturing the look of Rio de Janeiro, complete with the Jesus the Redeemer statue and picturesque beach/jungle surroundings. The ghettos feel dark and grimy, just like how I remembered them in City of God. The birds are nicely detailed and brightly colored giving the feel that we really are in Brazil and not in Little-sota, the home of the hero Blu and his owner Linda.

The plot is formulaic enough, a domesticated animal reluctantly makes his way through the wild, only to discover his true self. Madagascar, anybody?  Blu, the last male blue macaw in the world, needs to go to Brazil to mate with the last female macaw in the world to save the species. Naturally, Blu is an awkward small town bird with no desire to leave the comforts of his own cage and his loving owner Linda, while Jewel is a tough free spirit who does is not into Blu at all at first. Is there any doubt how this ends up? Poachers come along to steal the pair and they end up escaping and spending the rest of the movie trying to avoid them and their evil bird. Will they get away? Oh, and Blu, domesticated his whole life, does not know how to fly. Will he ever learn to? Well if he hasn't before, seems unlikely he would now, right? Despite being totally predictable with the happy ending never in doubt, it's the journey that makes or breaks the movie. Unfortunately it never deviates from being the safe picture that it is, not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly doesn't separate itself from the crowd. The endearing parts are ho-hum but not eye-rolling and while there aren't any laugh out loud moments, there are a few chuckles that even adults can appreciate. I'm sure the kids will go nuts over the sillier moments which is all that really matters in the end.

Grade: C+

A couple notes:
- Jesse Eisenberg plays the voice of Blu and is generally pretty funny, but his voice is so distinct that I cannot help but picture him every time the character speaks which got kind of distracting. I just kept thinking of that douchebag that made Facebook.
- Tracy Morgan, ditto to his voice as well, except that he's hilarious in this movie. I'm a huge fan of 30 Rock so I can just picture his Tracy Jordan character doing the voice in this movie which just makes what he says even funnier.
- There are a couple songs sprinkled throughout, but they are all pretty forgettable, though the evil bird Nigel does have a couple funny lines in his mini-rap, something along the lines of pooping on people and blaming it on seagulls and having no principles/principal like a closed down school.
- A gang fight between bids and monkeys, who would win? Monkeys would tear birds in half if they got their hands on them, so I found this match up a little too unbelievable!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Day 4 - Modern Times

Modern Times (1936) directed by Charlie Chaplin

"What's the use of even trying?"
      "Buck up. Never say die. We'll get along."

The Jazz Singer, credited as being the first full length talkie, was released in 1927 marking the decline of the silent film era. Yet nine years later with Modern Times, here was Charlie Chaplin still doing what he did best, making us laugh, smile and cry, all without saying a single word. (Well, that's not entirely true, but more on that later.)  Having never seen a Charlie Chaplin film before I didn't know what to expect going in. Was the footage going to be all grainy and fuzzy like Birth of a Nation? As a comedy would it have anything poignant to say? Most importantly, would I be bored because it's so old school?! Thankfully, my mind was put at ease within the first five minutes when I found myself smiling at Chaplin's silly antics in rather sharp clarity.

Modern Times is a story of class struggle during the Great Depression and also speaks volumes of the ever changing role of technology on society. We are pointed to this immediately when the movie opens with The Tramp, Chaplin's most iconic character, on the assembly line tightening bolts at rapid pace. We never get an idea of what exactly he's helping to make, but that is the point, it is almost as if his work is meaningless anyways. I thought that this would be a silent film with no dialoge but almost immediately we get our first words of the movie with the factory boss ordering for "more speed in section five" over the intercom. What ensues is Chaplin in a mad dash to tighten the bolts even faster with Loony Toons-esque haste. Then several moments later, we hear spoken word again in a phonograph recording selling a feeding machine to force feed workers while still at the assembly line to increase productivity. The Tramp ends up being the poor sucker to test out the machine which malfunctions with him strapped to it. All this leads to a nervous breakdown which lands him in jail.

It is interesting to note that all the voices in Modern Times save for one scene are only heard through intercoms, phonographs and the radio, all technological mediums. The voice of the people are silenced while only machines can be heard. Maybe it is Chaplin's commentary on society's growing dependence on industry, the plight of the powerless underclass, or maybe he just knew that in the future we'd have movies with evil machines taking over the world. I'd like to think movies like The Terminator and The Matrix owe their creations to Chaplin.

Next we are introduced to a gamine recently orphaned, who rather than get taken away, runs away to the street. Played by Paulette Goddard with a magnetic smile and wonder filled eyes, the gamine finds herself in trouble and literally runs into The Tramp on the streets. Naturally they become quite taken with each other and spend the rest of the movie trying to live the life, in a series of episodic adventures.

Finally in the end, they find themselves on the street again, desolate, with the gamine asking, "What's the use of even trying?". The Tramp answers, "Buck up. Never say die. We'll get along," in a hopeful ending with the two walking hand in hand to their uncertain future.

So this was my first good look at Charlie Chaplin in action and I was immediately struck by his charisma. I could see what made him such a big star, he was a master of physical comedy and had a certain charm that transcended the screen making him a true legend. It is interesting to note that this was the very first movie that Chaplin's voice was heard on screen and the thus the last appearance of his famous Tramp character. Towards the end, Chaplin takes center stage where he sings in foreign gibberish with a magnificent voice. It was a way for Chaplin to prove that even in the ever growing demand for technological innovation, Chaplin and his Tramp was just as relevant as ever. Clearly, Chaplin could have been doing talkies much earlier but there was a certain appeal and innocent charm to the silent film that still stands today. No matter what medium or format, a good movie remains a good movie, and great movies stand the test of time, which Modern Times does.

Grade: A

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Day 3 - Breathless

Breathless (1960) directed by Jean-Luc Godard

It's a film like Breathless that's going to really expose me as the movie critic fraud I am. I didn't get it. Well, what I mean by that is that I don't understand what I was supposed get out of it. On its surface, Breathless is about a car thief that shoots a police officer forcing him to hide out in Paris where he spends the rest of the movie trying to convince a girl to sleep with him and run away together to Italy, endlessly professing his love for her along the way. It's a light hearted romance that doesn't seem to have much more substance than that. But maybe that's the point?

From the three minutes I spent on wikipedia researching French New Wave (who needs to go to film school?), I was able to gather a couple key points about the movement:
1) It was a rejection of the traditional norms of cinema.
2) There was a distinct style that was unique to the director.
3) They were highly influenced by existentialism which after another three minutes on wikipedia tells me that we give our own lives meaning. I am now officially smarter than Nietzsche.

Regarding the first point, I didn't find Breathless particularly wacky, though that is probably because I am influenced by modern movies I've been watching my whole life that Breathless helped pioneer. I read somewhere that this was the first modern film and I can definitely see that. The pacing and feel is definitely different from older movies that I've seen. It is full of whimsical dialogue that doesn't really have to do with anything and the plot is rather sparse and loose. It's simply there for us to watch the characters do and say stuff. Part of this rejection of traditional cinema was the style the directors used. The most noticeable technique Godard uses is the jump cut. For example when the two main characters Michael and Patricia ride a taxi together you can see the rapid change of scenery along the ride to signify time and distance. Another scene where Patricia has lunch with a potential suitor seamlessly yet jarringly uses jump cuts mid-conversation. Godard had actually intended this film to be over two and a half hours but pressures from the studio forced him to trim it down to 90 minutes. The jump cut was an innovative way to retain bits and pieces of the footage he wanted to keep and gave Breathless it's uniquely fresh feel. It is something we take for granted today as its used extensively in commercials, MTV and many modern films.

One of my favorite directors Quinten Tarantino's favorite directors is Jean-Luc Godard and his influences on his movies is obvious from Breathless, namely the whimsical dialogue that doesn't really pertain to the plot. It is a nice way for the characters, and the director himself, to give their views on life, philosophies, politics or whatever, or to simply tell a funny joke for the hell of it, being witty for the sake of being witty, something that Tarantino does extensively in his movies. In Breathless, Godard has his actors saying stuff like:
"Don't use the brakes. Cars are meant to go, not stop!"
"It's sad to fall asleep. It separates people. Even when you're sleeping together, you're all alone."
"What's your greatest ambition in life?" - "To become immortal... and then die."
"Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love."

So in many ways I can see Breathless as the landmark film that is, the first modern film, yet it is because of that I guess I expected more in terms of an underlining message. I don't really see how it connects to any sort of philosophy though I am neither a philosopher or film or literary critic. I guess it's just not enough these days to simply make a good well crafted movie.

Grade: A-

Oh before I forget I guess I should talk about the characters! See, I just pulled a Godard there with a jump cut by violating traditional continuity! Some might call this lazy and disorganized, I call it genius and innovative. The protagonist Michel, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, is a petty car thief that seems to be simply coasting through life, bouncing around from girl to girl, even stealing from their purses when they're not looking. He idolizes Humphrey Bogart, copying his mannerisms. (Does this say something about Godard's view on classic Hollywood cinema or is it simply because Bogart is a bad-ass? Ahhh, the pains of being a critic!)  He then settles upon one of his previous encounters, Patricia, proclaiming to be madly in love, but is he really? Maybe it's a French thing but you don't really get that impression from the way he speaks to her. He relentlessly tries to get her to sleep with him, constantly ignores her questions and dismisses her when she says she is pregnant, yet they do have a playful repoire with each other. That is where the magic happens as they have tender moments which is worth the price of admission alone. Patricia, on the other hand, is unsure of her feelings towards Michel. One moment she thinks she may be in love with him, the next not so much, like the ending of Closer when Natalie Portman tells Jude Law she doesn't love him anymore out of the blue. Patricia is even unsure of herself, lamenting "I don't know if I'm not free because I'm unhappy or unhappy because I'm not free." Yeah, I got nothing else on her. =(

On a side note, I think Michel might set the record for most cigarettes smoked in a movie. I wouldn't be surprised at all if there wasn't a single scene in the entire movie where he didn't have a cigarette in his mouth. Times sure have changed about the attitudes of smoking but damn, he looks effing cool. Just look at what smoking has done for Jon Hamm's career!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Day 2 - Throne of Blood

Throne of Blood (1957) directed by Akira Kurosawa

Is there a such thing as fate or do we control or own destinies? Is what happens in life inevitable or simply the outcome of the choices that we make? Those are the underlying questions of Akira Kurosawa's interpretation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Throne of Blood. In the beginning we encounter two men, Washizu and Miki, being summoned to the Great Lord's castle after leading their troops successfully in battle. Along the way they get lost in the mysterious Spider Web Forest where they encounter a spirit that sees their future with both getting promotions and Washizu eventually becoming the Great Lord of the Forest Castle. But that's not all, Miki's son will also eventually become lord of the Forest Castle as well.  The two commanders dismiss the prophecies and find their way to the Spider Web Castle, where both men are shocked to receive the promotions foretold to them. That sets up the rest of the story, which is driven by what Washizu makes of the prophecies. It is one thing to be told what will happen, it is another to ensure that they do happen. Washizu, played by the wonderful Toshiro Mifune, initially doubts the prophecies only to later do everything in his power to ensure they happen, thanks primarily to his manipulative wife Asaji. He is content on allowing things to run their course, if fate will have it then so be it. Asaji, on the other hand, counters that the prophecies only told him what he already desired in his heart and it is up to him to ensure they come to fruition. What follows is a masterful piece of storytelling by Shakespeare and Kurosawa. 

The film opens with some amazing cinematography of the Japanese landscape blanketed in a thick sweeping fog. Eventually the fog subsides revealing the Spider Web Castle where the majority of the film takes place. This is a really gorgeous film filled with detailed horse chases through the forests, haunting fog effects, amazing shots of hordes of soldiers charging across the screen. Within the first five minutes of the film I knew I'd love how the movie sounded when the daunting drums and piercing flutes played which occur frequently throughout setting up scenes with tension and suspense.

The real highlight of the film is Toshiro Mifune, who for those unfamiliar with Japanese cinema, could best be described as the Japanese Clint Eastwood. In fact, Eastwood played Mifune's character in Sergio Leone's remake of Yojimbo, Fistful of Dollars. He is gruff as ever in Throne of Blood, perfect as the role of a ruthless power hungry schemer. His diatribe in the forest in the end of the movie is pure bad-ass as he swears to paint the forest crimson with his enemies' blood. Also he gets one of the best final scenes ever of its kind. Simply amazing.

So what about fate and all that? I don't believe in fate and fortune tellers, but I do believe in the power of suggestion and the power of your own will. I see it all the time when I play poker, where people constantly bemoan their bad luck and low and behold they end up losing with no chance of coming back. It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy, they almost want to lose as if to confirm what they already knew, that they are the unluckiest players in the planet. Meanwhile those who manage to maintain a sunny disposition play better and increase their chances of winning and typically do end up on top at the end. When you tell your kids that they're worthless and they won't amount to anything what else can they expect from themselves, but when you tell them that they can be anything they want in the world, naturally they will have the inclination and desire to follow that. So in many ways, Asaji is right, whatever fortune or prophecy we receive only tells us what we already know about ourselves, it is up to us to decide what to do after that.

Grade: A

So I'm still not entirely sure of the direction I want to take this blog. For now it is simply watching movies and talking about them, but certainly I plan on adding in other little things, not really sure what though. As far as what movies I will be watching, for now I plan on sort of randomly picking movies I haven't seen though I am certainly open for suggestions. I also think something like a theme week would be kind of cool, like maybe one week I'll watch seven sports movies, the next week I'll watch seven pornos, err i mean snuff films, damnit I did it again, seven chick flicks, there! Yes, "chick flicks". I really love using "quotations".  It's going to be a long year so I'm not in any hurry to do anything too crazy yet.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Day 1 - Repulsion

Repulsion (1965) directed by Roman Polanski

What do you get when you cross Psycho, Black Swan and a director of questionable morals when regarding young helpless girls? (That's right, I went there.) You get one of the most terrifying and disturbing looks into mental breakdown and psychosis captured on film. Rather than compete with the dozens of professionally written reviews and plot summaries you can find on the Internet, I will instead tell you what I liked about the movie, rape, murder and rotting meat. Delicious. 

When you think of the phrase "well crafted movie" what comes to mind? I'm not being rhetorical, I'm seriously asking because I'm trying to avoid using cliches without actually knowing what they mean. Part of the reason to watch all these movies isn't to simply critique and review movies, but to improve my own understanding of them. So when I think of well crafted, I think of a movie like Repulsion for different reasons. The story/plot is well crafted in that it starts off slowly to build character and to set the mood and then, WHAM! (see my masterful command of the English language?) it hits you with a nail-biting look into Carole's slip into dementia. The first 30 minutes of this movie can be painstakingly slow, but it is not necessarily boring as there are enough interesting moments to keep you watching. The world around Carole, from her awkward interactions with men to noticing a crack in the sidewalk, are all transposed onto her apartment which manifests itself into Carole's warped sense of reality. The cracks she notices on the sidewalk outside suddenly appear in the walls of the apartment and they get bigger the more she "cracks." Yes, I figured that one out on my own. The hallway literally attacks her and there is no difference between the real life people that come to see her and her imagined ones that come in to haunt her. Repulsion is also well-crafted with its unique camera shots. Rather than centering his subjects in the frame and making quick cuts to follow action, Polanski instead uses off centered shots that slowly pan rather than jump. This seems to be the more old-school approach to film making as I almost never see it in modern films but I find it refreshing and unique. It is certainly more artsy, even if I don't understand what he is trying to say by doing it.

So that is my basic sense what well-crafted means, good storytelling and being well-shot (which is still a pretty ambiguous term to me), which Repulsion has both of. Anything else I'm missing?

Grade: A-

a movie watching challenge

I have yet to check, but if you typed in "365 movies in 365 days" into google I am sure you'd see dozens of similar blogs where people attempt to watch one movie a day for an entire year. It sounded totally awesome in my mind, except that it was way too awesome to be a completely original idea. So, after finally typing said phrase into google it confirmed what I suspected, that I was devoid of any creativity whatsoever. But that won't stop me from trying to do it! I already invested two hours of my day watching a movie and created a new blog so I'm pretty much committed, right? So mark this day, April 21, 2011, down on your calendar as the day I officially start the 365 movies in 365 days challenge. (I could have started it yesterday, but I figured I should start with a real movie and not Mega Shark vs Crocosaurus, not that I won't be watching my share of totally rad movies. Yes, rad, not bad.)

So how is this blog going to be different from the others? Given that I am too lazy to check these other blogs out, I'm just going to make some reasonable assumptions. 1.) The other bloggers are cinephiles, aka film snobs, while I am your average newbie that fell asleep through an entire quarter of African Americans in Cinema. So while they watched Transformers to ridicule Michael Bay, I watched it because robots kick ass. Oh, and Megan Fox. 2.) They are probably good writers who took creative writing in college; I once got an A on an essay I wrote in high school English, no wait, honors English and I haven't written more than four consecutive paragraphs in over five years. 3.) This challenge was difficult at times for them because they had to balance between their stressful job, family, relationships and personal crisises while taking the time to watch movies and write about them. I, on the other hand, have so much free time on my hands that I decided to take on this challenge.

So if you want to read a poorly written, uniformed blog about my daily adventures and random thoughts, I invite you on my journey!