Thursday, June 30, 2011

Day 71 - The Killing

The Killing (1956) directed by Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick's first major studio debut was this little film noir gem that might be one of the best heist movies I've ever seen. In a sense it is a conventional Hollywood film atypical of Kubrick's unique projects that he would later be known for, but in it he shows that he could tackle familiar genres with style and ease.

Like most good heist flicks, the story is in the details and the plotting more so than the actual heist. Having all the pieces into place and carefully explained is far more rewarding than any ten minute action sequence that doesn't have a well established story. In The Killing, each individual character is carefully examined and given ample screen time. They all have their reasons for pulling off the job and each comes with a little backstory. The film begins with a bunch of fragmented introductions to various characters who play a major role in the film. First there is Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) who is a veteren criminal looking for one last big score to retire with his girl. There is a corrupt cop who is in debt with the mob, a bartender with a sick wife at home, an older gentleman with not much to live for and George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.), a window teller at the racetrack with a conniving wife.

The majority of the film is devoted to the careful plotting of the crime the group are about to commit, robbing a racetrack on the day of a big race. The scheme itself isn't entirely complicated and doesn't need that much explaining, but the beauty of the film is in the rich characters and side stories. There is a great deal of suspense in whether or not they can pull it off and if they do, their ability to get away with it. The main conflict of the film comes from George Peatty, who is the weak link of the group thanks to his devotion to his scheming wife Sherry (Marie Windsor). One day he accidentally tells her of his get rich dreams and how he intends on doing it, which she in turn tells her secret lover. The two of them have grand designs of their own.

This film is wonderfully acted and has great dialogue. Sterling Hayden gets top billing for the film and he's great, but the true stars are Peatty and Windsor who play the troubled husband and wife. He is so weak and pathetic and she is so manipulative and is a downright bitch. But what's so wonderful about the film is that every character is strongly played and important. Even a minor character such as the one played by Kola Kwariani has a lot of depth. He is hired to create a distraction by getting into a fight, but we also know that he is highly respected by his peers and is an avid chess player. (The actual barroom brawl is pretty funny though as it's scripted like a wrestling match.)

While it plays out like a caper movie, Kubrick also displays his visual mastery. I liked the scenes in the apartment when they are plotting. The space feels so cramped and the camera effortlessly travels back and forth following the action. The best shots are saved near the end in a scene between Peatty and Sherry. I don't want to give away too much about the film, but the film is far darker and cynical than you would expect and the last fifteen minutes of the film are totally surprising and engrossing. Actually, running in at just 83 minutes, the whole film is jam packed from beginning to end with great story telling, characters and of course the action oriented heist itself.

Grade: A

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Day 70 - Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953) directed by Jacques Tati

Oh boy. I was already getting a little nervous because I haven't really gotten behind the last couple classics I've watched, but now I am close to having an anxiety attack. I thought this film sucked. Yes, my usage of the word sucked goes to show my relatively young age, but I couldn't think of a better word to describe my feelings. Over two months in, this is the first movie that has given me such a negative reaction.

Mr. Hulot's Holiday opens with Mr. Hulot driving to his vacation spot by the sea in his broken down car. It sputters and stalls, stops and goes, ready to fall apart at any moment. I did not find this funny or amusing. He arrives to his hotel and opens the door which brings in a hellacious wind that blows things around. (You know how difficult it is to eat outside on a windy day.) The action on screen is quite chaotic and I will admit to it being well choreographed. However, none of the gags, such as the waiter clumsily spilling things, were remotely funny or amusing. And this is the problem with this film. It simply isn't funny. Many of the routines are stupid and repetitive. I barely laughed or even cracked a smile and I consider myself pretty easily amused.

Jacques Tati, who also directed, stars as the title character Mr. Hulot, a sort of missing link between the silent era comedians of Chaplin and Keaton and Mr. Bean. I love Chaplin, but I pretty much hate Mr. Bean. Well that's not entirely true, he can be pretty funny, but I typically dislike the bumbling idiot who gets himself into trouble routine. It is too obvious and gets extremely tiring and I don't think Tati as Hulot has nearly the same charisma or screen presence as Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean and certainly not Chaplin. (I haven't seen much of Keaton but I'm sure he's great.) However, that is not entirely the fault of Hulot the character. Tati purposely shoots himself at a distance in this film instead shifting the focus to the other vacationers and the gags on screen, which in itself is fine if only the other vacationers weren't nearly as unmemorable as Hulot himself.

The film is kind of a silent film. There is random bits of dialogue sprinkled throughout but it's treated as background noise like a squeaky door or the bouncing of a ball. So watching it as a silent film, naturally you become more engaged on the visual story. Okay, so there is no real story. It's just Hulot and the vacationers on vacation. To be more precise, it's just Hulot in a series of gags and slapstick comedy. Many of the routines are obvious and rather plain. For me, it was one failed attempt after another, but nope, I would not be tricked into smiling. To be fair, I don't think this film is intended to be side splitting, but most of the routines aren't even remotely amusing. There is, however, one exception that is legitimately funny. It is when Hulot is in his tiny boat which somehow snaps right in the middle and collapses onto itself creating a mess that resembles a giant shark's mouth. The other vacationers on the beach sees the shark and flee.

After giving up on its comedy, I did manage to find a couple interesting shots. Apparently Tati meticulously choreographed his scenes and it shows in one shot in particular. Hulot is sitting on his boat on the beach painting it. After he dips his brush into his paint can to paint, the can is swept away by waves only to reappear a couple seconds later on the other side of the boat, a very subtle but well executed moment. Perhaps my favorite moment of the film doesn't involve Hulot at all. A tiny little kid reaches over the ice cream man's push cart to give him a dollar to buy two cones. He takes the two cones, one in each hand, and carefully walks up the stairs making sure not to spill and goes inside to give to his brother. It's not a funny scene, but I did find it really charming and sweet.

I suppose that is Mr. Hulot's Holiday's biggest attribute. There is a sort of unspoken charm and sweetness to it. However, sentiment alone does not a film make. Again, I'm going to sound like some uncultured kid, but I found this film dull and pointless. I was bored and counting down the minutes to when it would end and this film is less than an hour and a half long. I've read the positive reviews of this film (100% on Rotten Tomatoes), particularly the one that Roger Ebert writes in his Great Movies. He brings up some interesting points and I'm glad that he brought up the same scenes that I mentioned meaning that maybe I'm not completely brain dead. However, I was baffled by his unadorned admiration for the film, not because I don't think he makes good or compelling points. I was baffled in how two people can see two completely different things in one movie, which I guess is the beauty of art, everyone will see different things in something.

Grade: D

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Day 69 - Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) directed by David Lean

I've owned this DVD for years, but I never got around to watching it because it's nearly four hours long (3 hours 42 minutes to be exact).You basically have to devote an entire day just to watch this thing and it is exhausting to sit through! It's a shame too because I was kind of distracted and tired while watching it and I don't have the stomach to re-watch it anytime soon (probably for at least another 2 or 3 years). Long epics just really drain me out...

This is where I lose all credibility and come across as an amateur. I didn't like Lawrence of Arabia. Well, that's not exactly true. It's not that I thought it was a bad movie. On the contrary, if you told me it was one of the greatest movies ever made, I really couldn't argue with you. Certainly I can't deny it is well crafted and beautifully shot. I just simply didn't care for the movie. It's kind of hard to describe, but I basically couldn't get into it. Most movies, well the really good ones anyways, tend to invite you into their world. You become engrossed in it. You become part of the movie; you're friends with the hero, you go on adventures with him, you feel his fears, his excitement, his joy, his pain. But in this film, I felt oddly distanced, there was no point of entry for me to hop on. I was an outsider looking in, feeling no connection to anything I was watching on screen.

I suppose part of that had to do with the fact that Lawrence of Arabia is nothing like I pictured it would be. I always imagined a sweeping melodrama starring a virtuous hero, epic battle scenes, thoughtful and lyrical dialogue, maybe even a little desert romance, but this film basically has none of that. That doesn't make it any less epic, in fact Lawrence is probably one of the most epic films ever in terms scope and vision, but very different from the modern Hollywood definition.

Also a lot of it has to do with Lawrence himself. He's not a typical hero at all. In fact, in some instances he is very unlikeable. But I don't think this film means to romanticize or deify him, but means to simply tell his story and show him as a complex and tortured individual. A lot is said about Peter O'Toole's brilliant and powerful performance, but I actually have to disagree somewhat. There is something off putting about him that actually made me despise him a little. I'm not sure if it is O'Toole's acting or just the character of Lawrence himself, but O'Toole's soft spoken voice really got on my nerves. The fact that he isn't given any substantial heavyweight lines makes it all the worse. All he's given are a bunch of one to three sentence lines in this passive tone with minimal passion or range. For all I know that is how Lawrence actually was, but either way it did not help endear him to me.

Of course, Lawrence was a man of action, but even then O'Toole's expressions and reactions are kind of hit or miss for me. There is the battle near the end where he is crazed and conflicted that seemed more like cliched acting than anything. However, he does have his brilliant moments as well. I loved the scene where after trekking across the desert and suffering the loss of one of his servants, he and his other servant finally make it to British headquarters where he walks up to the bar and demands two glasses of lemonade. There is a policy against serving non-military personnel (the kid) and Lawrence shows such dignified rage that is so befitting and perfect.

Lawrence is a complicated fellow. He hates to see senseless violence yet he admits to enjoying killing. He has a noble cause in uniting Arabs in their fight against the Turks but he is also driven by his immense ego. What is he trying to prove and to whom is he proving it to? To show that he is smarter and more courageous than his British superiors? To force Arabs into accepting him as one of their own? Or is it something that he must prove to himself? There are instances in the film where he's heroic like when he goes back into the desert to find one of his men and other times where he seems weak and comes across as a little whiny.

Apparently, there is some question to T.E. Lawrence's sexual orientation. By many accounts he was homosexual, but obviously you can't have the star of your big 1962 war epic being gay. Yet, you can definitely see it in O'Toole's portrayal if you wanted to look for it. Perhaps that explains the strangeness in O'Toole's soft spoken voice. It is even more alarming when you consider how remarkably handsome he is and the elegance that he carries himself with throughout the film. There are also a couple scenes that pop into mind. One is when he thinks he's by himself in the desert admiring his wardrobe, taking a bow and dancing around in the same way a girl would trying on a new dress. Another is when the Arabs successfully derail a train and Lawrence stands atop the wreckage in all his glory, almost as if posing for the runway. He is definitely a deeply layered character.

For a movie that is so long and so dramatic, there actually isn't very much meaningful dialogue. There is little wit or humor or impassioned exchanges or monologues. People talk and people listen but there doesn't seem to be much more beyond that, which was a pretty big downfall for me. Not every movie has to have the sharp tone of Double Indemnity or the clever banter of Pulp Fiction, but Lawrence of Arabia doesn't offer much more than the basics. Speaking of dialogue, I know it is standard practice for the benefit of the viewer, but I found it funny that everybody in the film speaks English even random kids in remote villages. At least some of the actors pretend to have an accent of some sort.

Anyways, Lawrence of Arabia is more of a visceral movie anyways. You respond to the sights and sounds and feel of the movie, more so than to the plot and characters. For a four hour movie, there isn't actually that much going on. There aren't many turning points or decisive battles to hook you in, yet you are somehow immersed into this world. There is something majestic about seeing the sun creep up over the horizon in the desert that sweeps you into another time and place.

The cinematography in this movie is truly great. The vast desert landscape with the sand dunes and whirling dust storms are captured beautifully. One shot that comes to mind in particular is pretty impressive. It involves Lawrence returning back to the rest of his army after rescuing one of his men. At first you all you see is the open desert with heat waves blurring the horizon. Then a teeny tiny speck appears and it gradually takes shape. Then after a couple more seconds you know that it is Lawrence returning safely. The last battle of the movie where the landscape is littered with bodies reminds me a little of the scene in Ran where the old lord walks through the carnage of war. Pick any screen shot of this movie and it will probably look really good.

Perhaps that is what frustrated me most in my viewing of this movie. Lawrence of Arabia is so well made, has such grand vision and scope, yet it somehow failed to leave any lasting impression on me. I really wanted to like this film. I could appreciate it for what it is, but could never be part of it no matter how hard I tried.

Grade: B-

Monday, June 27, 2011

Day 68 - The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep (1946) directed by Howard Hawks

This might be one of the most confusing movies I've ever seen. The Big Sleep has so many plot elements, twists, turns, mysteries and intrigue that if you paused the movie midway through and asked me what it was about, I'd be hard pressed to give you a straight answer. Apparently the screenplay was so confusing that in the middle of filming, Humphrey Bogart asked director Howard Hawks whether a character was murdered or if he committed suicide. Hawks realized that he didn't know either so he telegramed Raymond Chandler, who wrote the frigging novel, and he admitted sheepishly that he had no idea himself. That is how complex and convoluted the story is. There were points where I kept asking myself, "Who is this guy?", "What does he have to do with anything?" and "What did they just talk about?"

But not that it really matters anyways. The real point of the movie is to watch Bogart do his thing; walk around cool, smoke cigarettes, charm ladies, talk tough and point guns at bad guys. A lot is said about this film's witty and hard boiled dialogue and it's easy to get caught up with all the banter without even realizing what is going on. For as much dialogue as The Big Sleep has, it is mostly for style and does not bother to explain things with much clarity. Raymond Chandler also wrote Double Indemnity, which I would argue is even better written and not nearly as mystifying.

This could of course be my own fault as a viewer, but when I'm required to concentrate that hard just to figure out what is going on, your crime mystery might be just a little too good. Of course by the end I was able to piece most of it together and while struggling to keep up most of the way, I still enjoyed the process of the film. You might make a couple wrong turns and get lost along the way but if you make it to the party in the end, that's all that matters right? (The ending is especially exciting and satisfying.)

Humphrey Bogart plays Philip Marlowe, a private investigator who is hired to handle a simple blackmail case but ends up being involved in a tangled web of gangsters, murderers, gamblers and blackmailers. This is the third film I've seen him in, the other two being Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, and it seems to me he plays the same character in each movie, but he has that role down pat, perfected to a tee. While Rick Blaine isn't a private eye, he still has the cool tough guy appeal that Marlowe and Sam Spade have. I guess lots of actors in that time period were acting like that, but Bogart did it with a distinct style that would become synonymous with the hard boiled detective of film noir. When you think private eye, you basically picture Humphrey Bogart.

Playing opposite of Bogart is Lauren Bacall as Vivian Rutledge who was just twenty years old at the time. A lot is said of the on screen chemistry between the two, but to be honest, I didn't notice anything sizzling. (The two would marry shortly after, Bogart was 45 and Bacall 20.) But hey, as someone who has recently broken up, maybe I might not be the best judge of these things! I don't know Bacall from any other movie, but apparently she was a big star in her day. This was one of her earliest films, so I'm sure she matured a lot more as an actress later on, but I didn't find her performance in The Big Sleep particularly remarkable. I'd argue that the other female characters outshone her, especially Martha Vickers who plays Vivian's sister, Carmen. Vickers' career afterwords was pretty spotty and was nowhere near the star of Bacall, but you could hardly tell from these scenes.

Bottom line: Decent film noir that is bogged down by its overly complex plot but saved by its style and the star power of Bogart.

Grade: B-

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Day 67 - La Strada

La Strada (1954) directed by Federico Fellini

This is my first experience with the famed Italian director, Federico Fellini. I only know of the names of his other works La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, but don't really know anything about them other than they are supposed to be super artsy and confusing. Apparently La Strada was seen as more of a bridgework between his neorealism roots and the kind of imaginative visual artistry he would be later known for. Without knowing much about the history of the director and the film, it is hard to really judge how significant La Strada is. I can only judge it on its own merits with my limited scope of knowledge and appreciation.

La Strada is a simple tale of Gelsomina, a waif who is sold by her mother to a travelling street performer, Zampano. Together the two travel the road performing circus acts. Zampano teaches Gelsomina a little about the trade, basically enough to be his assistant, but is generally dismissive and cruel to the young woman. The story revolves around their travels and the dynamic between the two characters. Along the way, they meet a character called The Fool, a high-wire acrobat and clown who feuds with Zampano but teaches Gelsomina a little about life.

La Strada is generally a pretty somber tale. You spend much of the time watching Zampano be a jerk and boss Gelsomina around, but despite her protestations, she remains loyal to him. But why? He never truly softens up to her and is as quick tempered in the end as he is in the beginning. One of the lessons that The Fool gives Gelsomina is that everything has a purpose, even a tiny pebble, but what is Gelsomina's purpose? She laments, "If I don't stay with him, who will?" She has the opportunity to leave, but she chooses to stay. Does she think that her purpose in life is to take care of this jerk forever? If so, it is a pretty crummy purpose in life. Maybe she thinks she can change him or soften his heart, but her loyalty is not rewarded. What lesson are we to learn?

The driving point of the film are the two lead characters. Perhaps I've been too fixated on Charlie Chaplin lately, but Gelsomina (Giulietta Massina) reminds me a lot of Chaplin's Tramp. A lot of it has to do with her clown-like appearance and demeanor. She has such a peculiar face, resembling a sad clown with her distinct round eyes. But most importantly she exudes a child-like innocence reminiscent of The Tramp. She even shares his trademark waddle. Gelsomina is a simpleton, perhaps even slightly mentally challenged. Ironically, Zampano (Anthony Quinn) is not much smarter than she is. He has one act and one act only, undoubtedly taught to him long ago and rehearsed and performed over and over exactly the same. It is not a particularly impressive trick, he breaks a chain around his chest by flexing his muscles, but it is seemingly all he knows, not just in the circus, but life itself. What is his ultimate purpose? As misguided as Gelsomina may be, at least she think she knows hers. Zampano doesn't think in these terms, he only knows how to break this chain around his chest. He is either too stupid or blind to realize that he needs Gelsomina, perhaps even unconsciously likes her, yet he remains unreasonably cruel to her.

In a tragic turn of events, he ends up abandoning her to never see her again. It is only when it is too late does he realize his mistake, that he actually did care for her after all. Years later, he is still performing the same stupid trick, but visibly wary. He recites his lines tiredly, missing the one person who could ever truly care for him. The film opens with him buying Gelsomina from her mother by the beach and it ends with him going to a beach alone, breaking down in tears. Rather than finding serenity in the beach's beauty he can only see the vast emptiness of the ocean and in himself.

I enjoyed La Strada mainly for Gelsomina's innocence and charm. Incidentally we actually don't learn that much from her. She never really explains why she sticks around other than through some sense of duty. "If I don't stay with him, who will?" seems too pessimistic to believe. The only true revelation we have of any character is of Zampano in the end.

Grade: B

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Day 66 - Claire's Knee

Claire's Knee (1971) directed by Eric Rohmer

Honestly, I have no idea. I'm searching through Hulu trying to find a classic movie and stumbled upon this one. The premise of this film seemed so absurdly simple yet so provokative that I was immediately intrigued. A guy is obsessed with touching a girl's knee. And that's it. Really.

Okay, that's not really it, as there is a bunch of build up and a lot of conversations and characters to shift through, but nothing really happens at all in terms of plot. There is no conflict, there is no action, there is just the protagonist Jerome and over an hour and a half of just pure conversation. It's been a while since I've seen a film so loquacious, and in French to boot, yet I managed to find a way to sort through the conversations and find occasional bits of gold. I just had to filter out a lot of the white noise and there is a lot of it.

This is a film that I know many people would hate. It's slow and seemingly meandering and directionless. It's excessively chatty and in French too, so there are a lot of subtitles to read. I can imagine many twenty year olds yawning fifteen minutes in and even more eighteen year olds turning it off completely ten minutes in. If you're not paying complete attention, you're going to miss a lot even though nothing happens. The key of course is in the conversations. They provide some interesting insights on various subjects such as love, friendship, commitment and desire. Not everything said about these subjects are poignent, in fact I found much of it pointless, but there is enough to string you along to the very end. Obviously I cannot quote anything right now to make my point and IMDB's quote section is no help either, so you just have to take my word for it! Haha.

So, what actually goes on in the film? Jerome is on vacation on a lake somewhere in France where he runs into an old acquaintance, Aurora, who invites him to stay with her. The first third of the movie are just conversations they have with each other. He is about to be married in a month, she finds pleasure in being alone. She is a writer working a story and proposes a game to Jerome, a sort of intellectual test. He is to foster and encourage a friendship with a young teenager Laura, who has a crush on him. The second act of the film focuses primarily on the plutonic relationship between Jerome and Laura. They talk about the differences between love and friendship, why she doesn't like boys her own age and various other things.

A couple things about this though. Given that the title is Claire's Knee, I already know nothing can come between Jerome and Laura so why is Rohmer even wasting our time with this? They have meaningful conversations, but it seems kind of pointless to build up this rapport when it is all for naught. Also, how sick is the premise of this game? It seems pretty cruel to string Laura along like this and Jerome is two steps away from being a pedophile. He is uncomfortably (to me at least) affectionate to her in these scenes. Maybe it's just a French thing. (He is equally affectionate with Aurora, which in itself seemed odd.)

We aren't even introduced to Claire, Laura's sister, until over 45 minutes into the film. Given how the first fifty minutes have gone, you would think that third act would be the conversations between Jerome and Claire, but they surprisingly do not interact much. Jerome seems frozen by her beauty and doesn't know how to really approach her.

So one day, Claire is up on a ladder picking fruit from a tree. Her knee just happens to be in Jerome's direct line of sight and immediately he becomes fixated by it. Hell, I immediately became fixated by it, if only because I already knew beforehand what the film was about. But I basically couldn't stop looking at Claire's knee anytime she was ever on screen. There is no particular reason to Jerome's fascination, it could just have easily been her neck or her butt or her breasts, but no, it is her knee that catches his eye. He develops an overwhelming desire to caress this knee. He tells Aurora as much in yet another strangely perverse dialogue. You try telling your friend your desire to touch a teenager's knee and see if she doesn't call the police, or at least look at you a little funny, yet they talk about it as casually as people talk about the weather.

The key is that she has to willingly let him touch her knee. Otherwise, he explains, it would be just as easy to seduce her instead. Even if she threw herself at him, he wouldn't be interested, all he wants to do is touch that knee. Interestingly enough, there are not that many individual shots of Claire's knee. I was expecting a relentless series of close ups of her knee, but Rohmer finds it enough to highlight the knee a couple times and let Jerome explain the rest. I can appreciate this subtle approach and Rohmer's trust that I can think for myself. Anyways, like I said, he doesn't even have to do close ups on her knee as I found myself always looking at it anyways.

I don't think I'm giving much away by saying that Jerome finally does touch Claire's knee. It is more the journey than the destination that counts in this film anyways. His description of doing the deed to Aurora is actually quite sharp and allows us to be told of the sensuality and power of it rather than fixating too much on the visual aspects of it. Though as he rubs Claire's knee, I did find myself thinking how repulsive and gratuitous it was. It was almost as bad as if he fondled her breasts because we know his sexual fixation on the knee while she is oblivious to his true intent.

Before this movie, I have never heard of Eric Rohmer or of the "Six Moral Tales" which he is famous for. Claire's Knee is the fifth installment of this series and I can only wonder what strange stories the other ones must be. It also makes me wonder exactly what he is trying to tell us about this film. Other being somewhat perverse, what profound insight was he hoping to inspire? I honestly couldn't tell you. All I know is that I watched the film, liked parts of it, was bored by other bits, wondered why he took so long in setting up the story, and was generally creeped out by the casual attitudes of pedophilia of the characters. I don't think it necessarily has to have that tone as it doesn't fixate on Laura and Claire's age too much (Claire could just as easily be 22 rather than 16 and it'd probably have the same tone), but Jerome clearly knows they are young and doesn't have a problem at all with it.

Grade: C+

Friday, June 24, 2011

Day 65 - Cars 2

Cars 2 (2011) directed by John Lasseter

Pixar. The unquestioned king of animated films and for good reason. Year after year, picture after picture, they churn out high quality, entertaining, funny, and surprisingly profound family films. Their past three efforts in particular, WALL-E, Up and Toy Story 3 have shown such touching sentiment and maturity that I almost hesitate to call them animated films in fear that the label would somehow diminish them. Pixar movies can almost be placed in a category of their own, that is how good they are, that is what we have come to expect out of them. These are, of course, impossibly high standards to live up to and inevitably a movie like Cars 2 will come along and break their track record. Is Cars 2 comparable to the rest of Pixar's pedigree? No it is not, but you can't hold that against it. Not every movie can be as profound as Up or as charming as Finding Nemo. The main problem that Cars 2 has isn't that it doesn't compare to the rest of Pixar's franchise titles, it's that it probably doesn't even compare to its own predecessor, the funny but somewhat lacking, Cars. That is what happens when you make sequels out of mediocre movies, you end up with mediocre sequels. The Toy Story franchise has been able able to sustain three movies because of its solid foundation and touching stories. After watching the original Cars did you ever think to yourself, "Man, I really want more Lightning McQueen!"? I saw Cars in theaters and I may or may not have seen it again when it came out on DVD, but that was it, a maximum of two viewings. Cars simply wasn't that memorable.

Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself here. Cars 2 is better than mediocre. It's entertaining and funny and will undoubtedly be better than most of the other animated films released this year (though I'll be skeptical if any 2011 release will top Dreamwork's Kung Fu Panda 2). However, it is so markedly different than the original it's almost strange to call it a sequel. Other than having anthropomorphic cars as characters, this sequel bears little resemblance to its predecessor. Cars was simple and to the point and didn't try to be something it wasn't. Cars 2, on the other hand, oversteps its bounds and creates a whole new vehicle (pun intended) all together. Take one look at Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) in the original and tell me if you think he'd make a good lead character as an international spy, accidental or not. Is there anything in the original movie that would suggest a world of espionage and gun fights? I don't think so either. It would almost be akin to Finding Nemo 2 starring a grown up Nemo fighting a cocaine addiction. It simply wouldn't exist in that universe.

Anyways, Cars 2 revolves around the plot device of The Man Who Knew Too Little and various similarly themed stories where the main character unwittingly gets mixed up in a world of espionage and becomes an accidental spy. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is invited to participate in the World Grand Prix, a series of races held around the world. He reluctantly decides to bring his best friend Mater the tow truck along to see the world as he's never left the small town of Radiator Springs. Can you say culture clash? Naturally, Mater is overwhelmed by the big city lights of Tokyo and all its strange customs and such. McQueen and Mater have a falling out of sorts as McQueen is embarrassed by Mater and Mater doesn't understand why, he is only being himself after all.

The main story, however, isn't about the World Grand Prix. It is actually an international spy story involving evil cars undoubtedly bent on world domination of some sort. Two British agents, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) are on the case and must rendezvous with an undercover American agent. Through a series of mix ups, they assume Mater is the undercover agent and they embark on a series of misadventures together.

Mater becomes the star of the movie, which is either a blessing or a curse. You can either appreciate his innocence and find his "average intelligence" charming or you can annoyed by it and be amazed that such a dimwit is the star of a $200 million Pixar film. I happened to find him somewhat funny and charming. The moral of the story is.... tough to say. Somewhere throughout Mater realizes how other people view him, as the idiot. But does he become a hero because he accepts being an idiot or does he learn something greater about himself? Neither, really. Cars 2 has the rare distinction of being one of those animated family films without any overarching theme or lesson. It is, above all, an action film in the lines of James Bond. If you can accept it for that, then you will have a good time, but if you're looking to dig a little deeper, you probably won't find it.

It also leads to the question if this is even a kid's film or not. The Incredibles deals with super heroes and villains shooting lasers and energy blasts at each other but it's all in good fun. Cars 2 takes its spy story pretty seriously. It is shockingly violent with guns, missiles, explosions and crashes. Cars are tortured and even killed. Killed! Also the plot is pretty complicated and the themes of fossil fuels and alternative energies will probably go over most kids' heads.

Visually, as expected, Cars 2 is very good looking. Backgrounds are very detailed and colors are bright and crisp. Tokyo is vibrant with bright neon lights and Italy looks cultured and gorgeous. I watched it in 2D and I don't imagine it could possibly look better in 3D. While watching it, I definitely wasn't itching for something to pop out at me.

Side note: There is a brief mention of the character of Doc Hudson (Paul Newman's character in the original), a nice shot out to Newman who passed away in 2008.

Side note: Every Pixar movie comes with a short film in the beginning. These are often as memorable as the actual film itself. The short for this film, starring the cast of Toy Story, isn't quite as original as pervious efforts, but still pretty good. Why not just make a Toy Story 4 instead of Cars 2? Ha.

Coming out of Cars 2, I was satisfied and entertained, ready to give it a B just for entertaining me. But after thinking about it a little more, I realized just how flawed it was and was ready to give it a B-. Should I go with my initial gut or my more analytical view? I've decided to try to be a tougher critic, so lower score it is.

Grade: B-

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Day 64 - Animal House

Animal House (1978) directed by John Landis

I don't really think I enjoyed my college experience. Actually, I'm pretty sure I didn't. I didn't go to parties, join any clubs, pick up girls or make a lot of friends. I was simply too shy, too sheltered, too awkward in social situations. Obviously I was not part of a frat. The worst part of it all was that I didn't study or go to class either. It makes me wonder what I did with all my time. I sort of just wasted my college experience, one of my bigger regrets in my young life. So in many ways I can't relate to Animal House, yet in other ways understand it completely. I've never been to a toga party or pulled stupid pranks, but I do know the pure pleasure of taking nothing seriously and I worked diligently at the art of slacking off. If I had to do it all over again, I don't think I could join the Deltas of Animal House, but I'd be damn sure to at least be friends with one of them.

What is Animal House about? It's hard to really say as there is no real driving point. It's basically about a bunch of slackers and misfits in a fraternity at a college who challenge authority and find themselves in all sorts of trouble. These guys are every parent's nightmare when their kid tells them that they want to join a frat. Yet, are the Deltas really any worse than the Omegas next door? For as immature and crude the Deltas may be, the Omegas are equally repulsive in their pretentiousness and snobbery. Okay I won't get carried away, the Deltas are pretty damn bad, but I wouldn't want to be an Omega either. 

Animal House is obviously beyond absurd and at times mildly retarded, but so what? Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is my favorite comedy ever. If something is funny, it is funny and Animal House is often very funny. However, and I'll probably get slammed for this, it isn't nearly as funny as it makes itself out to be. As funny as John Belushi is as Bluto, there is only so much of his moronic behavior I can take. I have no doubt I would have found this funnier ten years ago and maybe I've grown into a sour grape in my old age, but many of the practical jokes and misadventures are just mean spirited and/or plain obnoxious. The Deltas are the anti-heros of the movie, yet there really aren't many redeeming qualities about them. Take it or leave it, they are exactly as they are portrayed.

Animal House features an ensemble cast, but the obvious star of the movie is Belushi as Bluto, who has outrageous moment after outrageous moment. Whether you find his antics hilarious or tiring, you can't ignore him. Bluto demands your attention because he is that good and, well, you can't wait to see what awful thing he will do next. While his ability to inhale food and liquor at prodigious quantities is impressive, I found more humor in his more subtle moments. The expressions and reactions that Belushi has throughout the movie are priceless. Just watch his manic eyes dart back and forth as he takes a peep through the sorority house window. When a practical joke involving a horse goes wrong, he has a bewildered look on his face and simply repeats, "Oh shit!" over and over. Perhaps his most memorable line comes after finding out he (along with the rest of the Deltas) have been expelled, where he simply comments defeatedly, "Seven years down the drain."

Clearly Bluto was a guy who knew how to have fun and make the most (in his own ways at least) out of his college experience. I kind of wish I knew a guy like him when I was in college, but at the same time kind of thankful that I didn't.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Day 63 - Scarface

Scarface (1983) directed by Brian DePalma

So after admitting yesterday that I've never seen Scarface before, I figured I'd have to watch it now...

It's kind of funny because even though I've never seen Scarface before, I could recite a lot of the lines and knew many of the major plot points. I have seen bits and pieces through clips and random parts on TV, but most of what I know of the film actually comes from rap music. Scarface might be the most influential and most referenced and quoted movie in rap history. So what is it about Tony Montana and not, say, Michael Corleone that inspires rappers? For starters, Tony has a billion quotable lines, while Michael relies on a much more subtle and silent approach. But thematically, while The Godfather is certainly appreciated by the gangster culture, it's not easily accessible. Michael is born into his rich and powerful family and inherits his father's criminal empire. What is a young kid living in the ghetto to think of its message? While you may dream to become Don Corleone, The Godfather doesn't lay down a blueprint in getting there.

Tony Montana on the other hand starts with nothing. (Vito Corleone technically starts with nothing too but the godfather of the mythos is actually Michael.) Tony comes straight off the boat with nothing but the American dream and ends up as the king in a modern day rags to riches story. And he sells lots and lots of drugs. Young kids in the ghetto slinging on the corner can relate to his story and can aspire to reach his level of success.

"Scarface the movie did more than Scarface the rapper to me/ still that ain't to blame for all the shit that happened to me."

Tony, like Jay-Z, is a product of his environment, but doesn't make excuses for himself. In fact, he embraces his role as the bad guy. "You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your f*ckin' fingers and say, 'that's the bad guy.'" Okay enough preamble...

Scarface tells the story of Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee (or political prisoner as Tony likes to say), and his rags to riches story as a drug lord in Miami. It shows his humble beginnings as a small bit crook and his rise to prominence. His accession to the top is inevitable, but the interesting aspects of the story come afterwords in how he handles his success. Like seemingly every story of money, power and crime, life is restless at the top. Tony ends up as top boss and gets the girl, the big house, the tiger in his backyard like he always wanted, and all the money he could ever dream of. However, you never get the sense that he's happy. Part of it is because he is too busy doing his gangster thing, but even in quiet moments of reflection, sitting in his fancy chair or alone in his bubble bath in his mansion, he doesn't smile. He sits blankly with an empty stare. He has everything, yet he has nothing.

"Is this it? That's what it's all about, Manny? Eating, drinking, f*cking, sucking? Snorting? Then what? You're 50..."

It's kind of ironic, growing up in and despising communist Cuba, that Tony almost comes to resenting the empty pursuit of money that is capitalism. Not that he would give it all up, but clearly Tony realizes he needs more than that. His mother disowns him, he's afraid of bringing his sister into his world of crime and his wife is a junkie that can't produce a baby. While he proclaims himself as the bad guy, it is actually his humanity, however flawed it may be, that leads to his downfall (how he deals with an assassination that his associates want him to do and to a lesser extent, his reaction to seeing his sister with someone he doesn't approve of, both demonstrating family values). Oh, also...

"Never get high off your own supply." - Elvira Hancock, Notorious B.I.G. and a bunch of other rappers

Brian DePalma is one of the most artistic directors around. It would be pretty easy to just let the story tell itself and it would work, but DePalma goes out of his way to shoot it with his trademark style. One of his signature shots is the long continuous take where the camera weaves back and forth giving a sense of real time and distance. Take for instance the scene where Tony goes up to the motel room to make a drug buy. He tells his men to come in after him if he isn't back in fifteen minutes. When the deal goes sour and Tony is in trouble inside, the camera slowly pans from the motel room on the second floor down and across the street to his guys in the car, then slowly pans back up to the room to give the viewer a sense of just how far away Tony's help is. In a scene in a club where two men are about to try to kill Tony, DePalma creates a lot of suspense with the editing, emphasizing the the machine guns they have hidden under their tables. There are a bunch of little treats sprinkled throughout for those who care to look for such things. (One of my favorite DePalma scenes comes from Carlito's Way in the train station finale.)

Of course you can't talk about Scarface without talking about Al Pacino. It's probably a movie like Scarface where Pacino got his reputation for overacting and it is a little over the top here. But the role of Tony Montana isn't meant to be played subtly. It is an intense role meant to be over the top, flamboyant and larger than life. For as quiet and reserved Al Pacino is in his portrayal of Michael Corleone, he is every bit as fiery and edgy in his role of Tony Montana. You can tell he has a lot of fun here, everything from his scowl to his combination of Cuban and 1930's gangster accent. (In the beginning of the film, Tony tells the immigration officers that he used to watch James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.) While he does have some hilarious moments, like when he's dancing with Michelle Pfeiffer in the club and when he and Manny talk about picking up women by the poolside, most of the time Tony is intense. While I actually prefer his character of Carlito Brigante in Carlito's Way, Pacino is pretty incredible in Scarface.

Finally, if there is one complaint I might have about films made in the 1980's it would typically be the music. While I love 80's music, it can really date a film. That heavy synthesized drum (if I'm even describing it correctly) is used in so many films during this time. It sounds okay, but its so distinctive it's almost distracting. I'm just thankful that the film takes place in Miami where the characters dress either in sharp suits or summery outfits because 1980's fashion style can really really date a film.

"So say good night to the bad guy! Come on. Last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again..."

Grade: A

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Day 62 - Casino

Casino (1995) directed by Martin Scorsese

Okay, I cheated. I've already seen Casino, but it's been so long since I've last seen it and it just happened to be playing on TV. At first, I just wanted to watch bits and pieces but how could I possibly change the channel on my favorite Martin Scorsese movie? Before I knew it, three hours later it was all over and thirty minutes after that I was still thinking about it. I figured it deserved its own blog entry.

Casino may very well be the first mobster movie I've ever seen, at least the one that I remember the most as a kid. I didn't watch Goodfellas until college. There was never a copy of The Godfather in my household so I only watched bits and pieces of it whenever it was on TV. It's possible I didn't see it until late in high school. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I still have not seen Scarface in its entirety despite my affinity for rap music. It was Casino that brought me to the world of the grown ups so it holds a special place in my heart. While it's not as good as Scorsese's other classic crime dramas, it's every bit as enthralling and captivating. And it's about Las Vegas and gambling. As someone who gambles for a living, how could i not be attracted to this film?!

I love the behind the scenes storytelling that goes on in Casino, everything from the unsavory mobsters that run the strip, the money grabbing schemes, the struggle for power, how casinos are run and all the episodic side stories that make Las Vegas look like the wild west. And before the big corporations took over, Vegas was like the wild west. When I say I play poker for a living, people are genuinely concerned for me, envisioning gangsters and loan sharks and all sorts of bad men around me. If this was the 1970's when the Chicago Outfit or Michael Corleone was in control or with guys like Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) running around, I'd be a little worried too. Luckily, times are a little tamer these days.

Above all, I love the larger than life characters in this film which is loosely based on the lives of Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, who secretly ran the casinos behind the scenes for the mob, and Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, a top level enforcer. Robert De Niro plays Sam "Ace" Rothstein based on Rosenthal. He is a professional gambler who knows all the angles and all the smart bets and is asked to come to Vegas to run the gambling operations. Joe Pesci plays Nicky Santoro based on Spilotro, a childhood friend of Rothstein and pure muscle meant to ensure the mob is getting their cut and that nobody messes with it. The entire movie is driven by these two characters and both just kill it. De Niro is De Niro, well at least before he started to do stuff like The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Ace is cool, suave and smart. Pesci on the other hand just owns the screen with his portrayal as Nicky. For as smooth and controlled Ace is, Nicky is a complete animal. Nicky Santoro makes Tommy DeVito (Goodfellas reference) look like a choir boy. He is tough and a little crazy, which makes him extremely dangerous and downright scary. If you could encapsulate all the qualities of a stereotypical wise guy, you wouldn't have to look much further than Pesci's portrayal of Nicky. I don't think anybody in the business can say the phrase "mother f*cker" better than Pesci.

These two are polar opposites yet good friends. Much of the inevitable conflicts however come from their differences. While Ace works for the mob, he isn't really a mobster. In his heart, he is a professional gambler, bookkeeper, gaming exec what have you. All the stuff that was illegal back home, he can do out in the open completely legal in Vegas. Nothing about what Nicky does can ever be legal anywhere. As Avon Barksdale says in The Wire, "I'm just a gangster I suppose." Ace tries to do his own thing while Nicky does his, but in the backdrop is always the big bosses back home who demand their cut and can see their influence slowly slip away out in Vegas.

The film is narrated by both Ace and Nicky almost in an almost nostalgic manner, reminiscing on the good old days of Vegas, before as Ace puts it, it turned into Disneyland. Watching the film was almost like watching a documentary. A wildly dark and twisted, but wonderfully informative documentary.

I love Scorsese's unique style. Somehow he manages to film violence and adult subject matter in such a casual attitude without diminishing it. This is especially true in the scene in Goodfellas when a series of hits are seen. This talent came from his upbringing in rough neighborhoods. I suppose his philosophy is that the best way to record these elements is to just observe them.

Note: When this film was first released, it set the record for most F-bombs in cinematic history. I'd guess 1/2 of all the f*cks spoken were from Pesci alone.

Grade: A

Monday, June 20, 2011

Day 61 - L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential (1997) directed by Curtis Hanson

I'm not going to try to summarize the plot of L.A. Confidential as it's all sort of a puzzle and there are lots of pieces to work out. It's like watching a mystery novel unfold, you're not sure how the clues fit together but you know that they somehow do at the end. The film opens with a narrated story of a mob boss going down and then his inner circle getting executed in a series of high profile gang murders. There's a prostitution ring going on that involves high end call girls made to look like movie stars. This runs parallel to a high profile case involving huge shoot out at a restaurant called the Night Owl leaving half a dozen people dead. The central plot revolves around the Night Owl shooting but nothing seems as it appears and a deeper investigation is needed. The fun is watching all the pieces come together.

A minor subplot that turns out to be pretty important occurs in the beginning of the film in a police brutality case labelled as "Bloody Christmas" in the tabloids. Here we are introduced to the three main characters, three cops as different as night and day, but cops nonetheless. How they handle the fallout of Bloody Christmas reveals how they operate. There's Bud White (Russell Crowe), a tough guy with a penchant for taking down women-beaters. He's not afraid to get his hands dirty to get the job done even if that means roughing up some perps or bending the rules a little to ensure justice is served. He refuses to snitch against his fellow officers and has little patience or respect for those that do. His polar opposite is Ed Exley (Guy Pierce), an idealistic and ambitious by-the-books cop who will testify against a fellow cop if it is the right thing to do. Getting a promotion along the way doesn't hurt either. Somewhere in between the two is Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a celebrity cop whose bread and butter is being the advisor to a popular TV cop show. He's not a snitch, that is until they threaten his position on the TV show. Out of the three, Jack seems the least suited to be a cop as he is more concerned over his celebrity status than actual police work. But all three are good at what they do and it's inevitable that the separate cases they work will somehow be tied together in this thrilling noir film.

If there is one period in American history that makes the most interesting setting for movies it must be the 1940's-1950's. There's something fantastic about the way men wear their suits and drink their booze, how women are glamoured up as if to walk down the red carpet, the seedy atmosphere and overall sleaze of the time period. Of course I am talking more about the noir elements in film rather than the actual time period, but what a great time to imagine living in! L.A. Confidential paints a picture of 1950's Los Angeles as a place of money, drugs, sex, corruption, celebrity, and tabloids, everything you'd imagine from classic film noir. The dialogue is slick, the plot is sly and the feeling is slimy, in another words, all fantastic.

I loved how while working like a pulp fiction mystery it also had rich characters, helped by strong performances all around. Crowe seems to be the leading star and shows the most variety, but I liked Kevin Spacey's subtle performance a little better. At first, I didn't really respect his character as he seems like a glory hog, but by the end he comes out strong. There's a great moment of self realization in the middle for Jack as he realizes he's done something really scummy and you can see his desire to set things right on his face. Kim Bassinger plays a Veronica Lake lookalike call girl and has a couple great scenes, including a fantastic monologue. Danny DeVito plays a slimy little head of a tabloid magazine called Hush-Hush and relishes in his role.

I thought L.A. Confidential was great. It's a slow burner but I didn't mind at all as there were plenty of interesting elements to keep it running smoothly along.

Grade: A-

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Day 60 - Green Lantern

Green Lantern (2011) directed by Martin Campbell

First, I will point out that it would be impossible to make a Green Lantern movie without extensive use of CGI. It's just not possible. His ring is extraterrestrial in nature, his allies and enemies are aliens, he can fly, travel through space and his power is unique in that he creates whatever he imagines into reality. Need to combat a relentless enemy? No problem, create a machine gun out of pure energy and blast away. How to block an oncoming attack? Create a brick wall. Save a falling girl? Make a pool of water to catch her. You get the idea.

So naturally, Green Lantern is full of special effects and CGI. The opening sequences are much like Thor. We see the backstory in outer space with alien and mythical beings, Earth light years away. For some reason I wasn't as perturbed about this as I was in Thor perhaps because I have grown more tolerant of it and that this backstory isn't nearly as long. Also while Thor at times feels like Lord of the Rings, Green Lantern is more like Star Wars. (I don't know what that's really supposed to mean, but I'm using it as a compliment for Green Lantern even though I like Lord of the Rings. It just seems like Star Wars is better source material for a super hero.)

An ancient cosmic being named Parallax breaks loose from his prison and is out to wreak havoc on the universe. The universe is guarded by the Green Lantern Corps, a sort of intergalactic police force. They are powerless to stop Parallax as he grows stronger and stronger. One of the Green Lanterns who encounter Parallax is gravely injured and he manages to escape and crash land on to Earth. One of the qualities of the Green Lantern's ring is that if its owner dies it will choose a new hero to wear it. Of course, it picks our hero, Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds).

Hal is brought to the Green Lantern headquarters on the planet Oa. After the obligatory moment of shock which lasts like 45 seconds, Hal starts to learn what it means to be a Green Lantern, how it must require great responsibility and fearlessness. Hal is unsure if these qualities fit him. He is a brash and seemingly irresponsible guy and while he won't admit it to himself, he is deeply afraid. "I'm only human," he says. "The ring chose you for a reason, Hal Jordan. The ring is never wrong." Naturally, Hal must spend the rest of the movie finding his courage and figuring out what it means to be a hero, face evil, care for others, show that being human is a virtue, not a weakness, etc etc. All the while, Parallax draws closer and closer...

Especially grand comic book titles must deal with the impossible task of explaining what the hell is going on while establishing characters, setting up a plot and filming big action sequences, so a lot of the time its going to be a mess. Spiderman's story is pretty simple, he's bitten by a radioactive spider and gets his power. Batman is just a dude with lots of money. But once you start introducing more grandiose elements like a mystical force, alien beings and their intergalactic battles, things get a lot dicier and harder to keep track of. Green Lantern tries to take its story and themes seriously, but in its heart its really just a big silly action picture and basically a vehicle to show off all the visuals.

Ryan Reynolds is charming and funny, but he looks pretty goofy in his green suit. Once you get past that though, you'll zig and zag and fly around with him throwing big green punches. He does the best he can with a script that tries to humanize Hal, show him as cocky and vulnerable, but there are no real big revelations about his character. It sort of just follows the standard script. Blake Lively plays his love interest and is pretty flat, something about her voice throws me off, but she is quite pretty. While Parallax is the ultimate evil force on his way to earth, Hal's human counterpart is Hector Hammond, who looks slithery and kind of like a pedophile with his wispy mustache. Being a villain is always more fun and you can tell. Though he has limited screen time compared to Hal, you get a greater sense of his complexity.

There are stupid moments with corny dialogue. There are cliche moments and predictable turns. There are also some laughs and thrills, heroes and villains, a damsel in distress and all that comic book goodness you come to expect. Just sit back with some popcorn and try not to think too hard and just enjoy all the pretty lights.

Grade: B-

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Day 59 - The Circus

The Circus (1928) directed by Charlie Chaplin

I'll be honest. I was a little wary of watching silent films going into this project, but now I love them! I can't believe i hadn't watched a single Charlie Chaplin film until a couple months ago, but now I've watched three and can't wait to watch more!

Anyways, The Circus follows Chaplin's famed Tramp in yet another adventure. By now I've grown accustomed to his quirks and themes; he's a down on his luck vagrant who by chance always finds himself in these wacky situations. He has a heart of gold and will invariably connect with another down on her luck character often rescuing them from their hardships.

In this story, the Tramp finds himself on the run after a pickpocket gives him a wallet in order to avoid being caught. The Tramp can hardly believe his luck and parades around with his new wallet. Unfortunately the real owner of the wallet sees it and, uh oh, the Tramp is in trouble. The following sequence is one of the funnier action sequences I've seen Chaplin in, maybe on par with the boxing scene in City Lights. Here he gets chased around a funhouse and gets trapped in a maze of mirrors. The scene is extremely well choreographed or these mirror shots are a lot easier to film that I'd imagine. Either way, I was pretty impressed as he bumped and backed into his own reflection in multiple ways and angles. It gets even dicier when the cop gets in there with him for double the fun. I found myself laughing out loud several times during the chase scene. Eventually, he runs into a circus act where he unwittingly becomes a huge hit through his bumbling and stumbling.

The circus director, a rather menacing figure, sees the Tramp's star power and hires him as hired help without telling him that his comedy act will actually be the main attraction. The Tramp soon meets the director's daughter, who is often beaten or denied food for messing up performances. I was kind of taken aback by the back handed slap the father gives his daughter. I know it was standard practice for slapping women in films back in the day but it is always kind of shocking to see. Even in light hearted family friendly comedies like The Circus, no woman is safe.

Anyways, naturally the Tramp and the girl become buddies. The Tramp falls for her but soon a new guy, a tight-rope walker, enters the fray and catches her eye. The Tramp is jealous and disheartened and suddenly his act isn't so funny anymore. There is another impressive sequence where the Tramp must take the tight-rope walkers place in his act. He is assisted by a wire to prop him up and he is able to do impossibly impressive stunts on the rope until the wire comes loose and he's up there all by himself. Oh, there are also monkeys. The stunt work is enough to make Jackie Chan blush. Apparently this film required over 200 takes as Chaplin wanted it perfect.


I was pretty surprised by the ending when the Tramp does not get the girl. Maybe it was too perfect of an ending for the girl and the Tramp to run away together? Instead he enlists the tight-rope walker to marry her because he can provide more for her than he can. It seems like an awfully pessimistic and pragmatic solution for an otherwise perfect romantic set-up and the Tramp seems way too happy about it. I know he is happy to see her happy, but it would have been better to see him a little beaten down about his decision. In a way I suppose it is somewhat of a fitting ending given that the Tramp will always be an outcast in society. But if Chaplin really felt this way, why does he get the girl in City Lights? The ending is a little sad when he walks alone into the horizon but has nowhere near the impact of his two masterpieces I've seen, Modern Times and City Lights.


The Circus is a timeless comedy full of light hearted laughs. It is more of a standard comedy rather than a masterpiece though and I felt that the ending could have went a different route to give it a more complete feeling.

Note: I must have watched the 1967 re-release of the film where Chaplin sings the opening credits. If I remember correctly, Chaplin's voice isn't heard on film until the end of Modern Times. He has a magnificent booming voice and clearly could have transitioned into the talkies must quicker if he wanted to. In fact, The Circus was released around the same time as The Jazz Singer, the first full length talkie.

Grade: A-

Friday, June 17, 2011

Day 58 - The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter (1955) directed by Charles Laughton

This was a really weird one to watch. I got so many different vibes from The Night of the Hunter without really knowing why. At times I was thinking of how creepy it was, other times how absurd everyone sounded and always marveling at what a great villain Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is. Also I couldn't help but think of other movies that this film reminded me of.

Apparently this film was a critical and commercial failure upon its release, but now is heralded as a bonafide classic. Not every classic is a classic right away, it often takes time for people to realize exactly what they've watched. Some of the greatest works of art were universally hated when released. Perhaps I am not mature enough in my movie watching years because I'm sure that I am not appreciating this film as much as I should be. I thought it was decent but not great.

The film starts off with Ben Harper with the cops on his tail. He's just robbed a bank for $10,000 and must hide it. He tells his children John and Pearl where he hid the money and makes them promise to never tell anybody where the money is. Ben is sentenced to death but before he dies he shares a cell with a con man/killer who fancies himself a man of God, Harry Powell. (The very beginning of the film warns of false prophets.) Harry wants to know the location of the money but Ben won't tell him. Harry suspects that his children know and when he gets out finds his way to their little town in Ohio. He manages to gain the trust of John and Pearl's vulnerable mother and they are quickly married. Enter evil step-father angle.

Speaking of which, I didn't see the 2009 release The Step-Father, but there is no doubt that image of his shadowy figure on top of the basement stairs that adorned its box art would not exist without The Night of the Hunter and I'm sure countless other horror films owe the evil step-father angle to this movie as well. So he wants to know where the money is but the kids aren't telling. He loses his patience and the evil side is revealed. The two kids flee the house after its evident Harry is going to kill them and spend the latter half of the film on the run floating upstream the Ohio River with Harry hot in pursuit.

One of the lasting impressions of No Country for Old Men is the nightmarish chase between Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin. There, Bardem is relentless and terrifying. I couldn't help but think of  No Country when seeing this picture from The Night of the Hunter. Here is a shot of Harry coming over the horizon in the countryside. His shadowy figure is ominous and ubiquitous, the stuff of nightmares. When John and Pearl are floating down the river, you can't help but notice how surreal it all looks. I didn't quite grasp the notion of the dream-like nature of it until reading about it afterwords but it makes perfect sense.

There are a lot of striking visual shots in this film. I could post a bunch of great black and white shots but you could see them pretty easily on Google. One in particular, without trying to give away the plot, is both mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time. If you watch the movie you'll know exactly what scene I am talking about.

There is a lot of religious talk in the movie. The villain, Harry, is a preacher after all and it would be fitting for a bunch of God-fearing folk for the time period in the south. I feared that I might be missing a more important overarching theme here but still can't really figure one out. There is a certain rhythm and lyricism to how people talk, but I wish they would just focus more on the chase. However, that is part of the charm in Harry Powell. He has an eloquent and magnetic voice befitting of a preacher, but is also the same voice of a con man.

I've never heard of Robert Mitchum before, but he is scary good as Harry Powell. He is handsome but clearly dangerous and you wouldn't be blamed if you got the shivers from him. He has a legitimate all time villainous aura here. Roger Ebert mentions in his Great Movies essay of Mitchum's performance that it is timeless in the way that we'd expect Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter will be forty years from now.

However, there is something oddly unsettling about the pace and rhythm of the movie. I couldn't quite get into it one way or another. Perhaps part of it was the odd mixture of styles and genres. It is part horror and part thriller, but also absurd and humorous. It has an almost fairy tale ethos to it, yet we are expected to be genuinely terrified by it as well. These conflicting and contrasting styles may be what make The Night of the Hunter a classic, but it can also be the source for criticism as well.

Grade: B

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Day 57 - Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) directed by Alfred Hitchcock

I dunno. This one is universally acclaimed but I thought it was merely good rather than great. Part of the reason is that there really was no suspense to this film which is strange since I'm skimming through reviews saying how suspenseful it is. Perhaps part of me was looking for more twists and turns and hold your breath moments, but the film progresses exactly as how you'd expect it to. The film's title, Shadow of a Doubt, is kind of ironic since there really is no doubt at all. There aren't really any hidden clues or stealthy detective work going on as all the clues and details are presented rather matter of fact with little intrigue.

The film opens with Charlie (Joseph Cotten), a man hiding something and on the run. The birds eye view chase sequence between him and his two pursuers is well shot and exciting to watch even if it only lasts a minute or so, but it gives promise for the tone of the rest of the film. He sends a telegram back west to Santa Rosa, California where he has family, telling him he's coming to town to visit. The film then shifts over to said family. In typical Hitchcock fashion, the director paints a picture of normality in introducing the daily lives and routines of the family. I've noticed that many of his films typically start off slow and completely normal. They almost never open with action sequences or suspense, those elements are only introduced later after establishing characters and setting and so forth. It is what makes the scenes of violence or suspense even more jarring, as if to tell the viewer this could be happening to you right now in your very normal lives and setting.

Young Charlie (Teresa Wright), Uncle Charlie's niece of whom she is named after, is bored with her every day life and is excited that her uncle, whom she adores, is coming to visit for a while. Uncle Charlie is kind and charming, even giving every member of his extended family lavish presents. But he is also strangely mysterious and extremely guarded. He doesn't really go into details of what he's been up to back east and refuses to ever have his picture taken. From what we already know in the beginning scenes, we know he is hiding something, but exactly what? Is he a good guy that's hiding from bad guys? Is he a plain old bad guy? Or is it all simply a big misunderstanding? The intrigue for the viewer, and eventually Young Charlie who grows suspicious of her uncle's behavior, is to find out exactly what he's hiding. But therein lies the problem. You never get the impression that Charlie is anything but what he is being portrayed as. He is clearly a shady individual and when it's finally revealed what he's done, it isn't even that big of a shock.

So now Young Charlie knows the truth, but what is she going to do about it? Apparently not much. And Uncle Charlie will come to know that she knows, but what will he do about it? Apparently not much either. You never get the impression there is any danger at all going on until at least the end when it is not at all so subtle or mysterious.

I will say though that this film has plenty of great performances. Joseph Cotten is as handsome and charming as he is devious and sly as Uncle Charlie. Teresa Wright plays the part of the innocent girl turned investigator to a tee. You can sense just how uncomfortable she gets around her uncle through her nervousness and fleeting eyes that seem to always look away. Even the supporting cast is full of interesting characters. The youngest daughter Ann is adorable as a precocious young girl who is always reading something. "I've made a goal to read two books a week," she explains.

The film has some good comic relief in the interactions between the father of the house, Joe, and his friend Herb. Both are obsessed with murder stories and talk casually of how they would hypothetically kill each other. Joe opts to go for a blunt instrument to the head for simplicity sake. Herb objects, stating there is no sophistication at all and would make a terrible story. Joe retorts, "I don't care about stories, I'm just trying to kill you!" They have several other humorous conversations of the same matter throughout. How casually they talk about murder is funny, but also quite morbid especially when you realize there is such a shady character in the house in Charlie.

Shadow of a Doubt is well crafted and well acted, but the story itself lacks the thrills and chills I'd expect from Hitchcock. Still a solid movie though.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Day 56 - Chop Shop

Chop Shop (2007) directed by Ramin Bahrani

Chop Shop is about Ale, a twelve year old street kid, and his every day grind. He's tough and street smart, hustling candy bars and bootlegged DVDs for a couple bucks but his main job is at an auto repair shop in Queens, NY where the owner allows him to live in a shabby room above the shop in exchange for work. He is joined by his older sister Isamar who comes to live with him. His tough demeanor immediately softens in her presence, she is the only family that he's got. He proudly shows off his room, exclaiming that it has a microwave and refrigerator. He opens the fridge and it's stocked with sodas. What more could anybody want?

Ale's ultimate dream is to own a taco truck and work for himself, pretty ambitious plans for a twelve year old. You almost forget that he is only twelve as his hard exterior and tough lifestyle would be impressive for even someone twice his age. The truck he wants is $4500, a seemingly impossible amount for someone so young, but he's been saving up in his coffee jar keeping track of every dollar. The owner of the shop gets annoyed when Ale counts his day's pay in front of him, but every dollar has to be accounted for. Isamar supports Ale's dream and contributes her own money to the stash in her own ways. In a heartbreaking scene, Ale discovers just how hard she has to work for the extra cash. Despite being much younger than his sister, he tries to take care of her by working twice as hard, buying her sneakers, running through the rain to suggest a tip jar for extra money at the food stand she works at in her day job.  Ale learns tough lessons about life and must grow up fast. He's already grown up so fast.

One of the remarkable things about Chop Shop is its naturalistic approach. It reminds me of what I read about Italian neorealism when I watched The Bicycle Thief. Italian neorealism typically deals with the lower working class and poverty, often using real people instead of actors and real locations. From what I understand, virtually no one in the film is a professional actor, just regular people from around the area, and all the scenes in the film are shot on location. In the scene where Ale snatches a purse, no one else is in on it but Ale and the victim, the extras don't even know there's a camera around. (What if Ale actually got caught and beaten by someone trying to stop him?)

The little neighborhood where Ale and the rest of the people in the film live in is dirty and dingy. Scrap metal and debris are everywhere. People just casually roam the streets, hanging out or doing their thing. This is a small neighborhood in Queens next to the old Shea Stadium, but at any given moment you might think they were in a shantytown in Lagos or a favela in Rio. It's kind of shocking that this is all happening in our very own backyard. But it is when Ale and his friend visit Shea Stadium to catch a game do you realize exactly where they are and the stunning contrast between the bright lights and pristine green grass of the stadium with the cold hard concrete world they live in is quite remarkable.

There is also no musical score to this movie until the credits roll at the end. All the sounds from the film are natural. In some of the emotional turning points of the film it would be easy to cue some dramatic music, but I actually appreciate the natural setting the film goes for. The sounds of the street serves as its own soundtrack as they have a rhythm of their own. The sounds of bustling traffic, people chattering, dogs barking, the machinery from the repair shops all have a nice ebb and flow to it. It is kind of a reminder that we're watching real life more so than a movie.

While the film is pretty short, just over 80 minutes, it is more than enough to get us a close look into the every day lives of the characters. By the end of it we feel like we know them all and what they must go through to survive. I feel kind of guilty by leaving them on their own at the end, but a little thankful that I was just a passerby in their lives. The film doesn't really have a true ending point, it sort of just ends. It just reminds us that after the movie is over and we go on to do our own thing, they will still be there doing theirs.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Day 55 - Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1944) directed by Billy Wilder

I've been on the road the past couple days and will be for the foreseeable future. That means I'll be away from my home computer and my DVD collection, so I figured this trip would be challenging for my movie watching. The last thing I want to do is stay cramped up in my hotel room for four hours a day, but them the breaks as they say. Luckily, most hotels these days have wireless internet so I've been able to stream off Netflix and post these entrees. Unfortunately, the last hotel I was in had a spotty connection and it adversely affected my viewing of Double Indemnity. The resolution would suddenly get blurry and the frame rate a little choppy, which is a shame because most film noir that I have seen looks great with all the dark shadows and low key lighting, so it was kind of hard to appreciate this film visually. Nonetheless, the times when the image was sharp I thought it looked great.

Double Indemnity may very well be the best movie in the film noir genre. All the preconceived notions you may have of the genre is here; the morally ambiguous protagonist, the mysterious female lead, plotting, scheming, and, gasp, murder! There's the sharp tough guy dialogue and the cool interaction between the male and female leads. Obviously there is the signature cinematography with all the shadows and lowly lit rooms.

Sometimes I hate writing about obvious classics because what can I say that hasn't already been said? Any kind of profound insight I may have has undoubtedly already been said and probably much better so instead I'll just write about my impressions of the film.

First, there is the story. Walter Neff, an insurance salesman, walks into his office late at night, wounded and tired. He begins talking into a recorder and basically confesses to the entire plot of the movie. He says, "Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money, and a woman, and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?" Then he tells the story in a flashback, how he meets Phyllis Dietrichson, how he immediately falls for her, and how they conspire to and ultimately murder her husband in an insurance scam through a double indemnity clause that pays double for a certain kind of death. Given how he is telling the story in this manner and says that he doesn't get the girl or the money, something clearly goes wrong, but what and why? This flashback narrative got me to thinking if whether or not the tension and suspense of the film is weakened since we sort of already know what happens. Since we are seeing the end of the movie at the beginning, we know the film has to progress in a certain direction to get to that point. Would the story be better told from the beginning rather than the end? It's hard to say but for Double Indemnity it almost doesn't matter because it is so well written.

Another thing I noticed is just how cool the dialogue is. Take for example the first encounter between Walter and Phyllis where they playfully flirt with each other. If you actually dissect's Walter's lines, clearly he is stepping out of bounds and is kind of a douche, but it doesn't matter because he sounds so cool saying it. Would you be able to hit on a married woman like that? The hard edged dialogue in the film was written by Raymond Chandler, a well known novelist at the time but new to Hollywood screen writing. He was hugely influential in the way hardboiled writing was written.

Sorry if this post is lacking in any analysis, but the film is so wonderfully shot, written, and acted and is such a heralded classic it seems almost pointless to heap more praise upon it, so I'll just say I loved this film and leave it at that.

Grade: A

Monday, June 13, 2011

Day 54 - High Noon

High Noon (1952) directed by Fred Zinnernann

I've seen DVD's and movie posters of High Noon and they all usually have the same box art, a shot of the iconic Gary Cooper walking proud and tall with his shiny sherif's badge, but I think this screen shot is a better representation of the movie. Here it shows Will Kane (Cooper), a single man patrolling the streets of a town all alone.

This isn't a traditional western per say. There are no horse chases or wild shootouts. It's a purposely slowed down drama with a lot of dialogue and a character study on bravery and standing up for justice, or in the case of the townsfolk, backing away from it. While in the traditional western, the heroes are made heroic by superficial deeds on screen, Kane is heroic for simply doing what he believes he must do. In a nutshell, High Noon is a morality tale.

Frank Miller, a bad bad man, has just been released from prison and is due to arrive in town on the noon train. His old posse is waiting for him at the station and when they meet up they plan on getting back at the man who put Miller away, the town's marshal Will Kane. Kane, recently married and literally on the last day of his job, is ready to give up his badge and start a new life until he hears the news of Miller's eminent arrival at noon. He has a little over an hour to round of some volunteer deputies to help him confront Miller, except that nobody wants to help for various reasons. Most of it, understandably, is out of fear and some of it believing it's Kane's fight and not the town's. A lot of it also has to do with mob mentality, leaving Kane out to hang. It is hard being the one person to stand up when no one else does. Kane gets turned down left and right and as the time draws closer it is becoming evidently clear he may very well have to face the Miller and his men all alone.

So obviously the film is driven by Cooper who basically carries the movie (he would go on to win the Academy Award for best actor in this role), but the thing that really struck me is the great musical score. First there is the folksy but ominous theme song with lyrics foreshadowing the inevitable showdown between Kane and Miller. There is that recurring track that kind of reminds me of the music in Yojimbo.

Speaking of which, playing around with the audio commentary for the Yojimbo Blu-ray, I learned that High Noon had some influence on the samurai classic. The coffin maker who anticipates increased business with brewing trouble is used in both movies. Another thing that I try to notice but don't ever really are how pictures are composed on screen. In the audio commentary of Yojimbo, there is a mention of layered scenes in which in the foreground there is the main action and through the window you can see another scene going on outside. The classic example of this is the deep focus shots of Citizen Kane. In High Noon, there's a scene where Kane is talking to another man and you can see a man approaching through the window and a couple seconds later the door opens and there he is. Not earth shattering stuff, but pretty cool to think about.

Apparently this film was disliked by some when it came out due to its supposed communist sympathies, namely that it serves as an allegory to standing up to the HUAC. John Wayne hated it and even called it "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life." He and director Howard Hawkes, a fellow hater that basically called the Will Kane character a coward for asking everybody for help, teamed up to make Rio Bravo, a supposed response to High Noon. This is all pretty ironic considering that High Noon was blasted by the Soviet Union who characterized it as "a glorification of the individual." Haters gonna hate.

I think this is a fantastic movie highlighted by a big performance by Cooper as Will Kane who, in my eyes, is clearly a heroic figure. I've only seen a couple John Wayne movies, The Searchers and True Grit off the top of my head, but I was never all that impressed by his screen persona. Maybe its because he represents an unrealistic portrayal of the masculine ideal while Cooper's Kane is more human which makes his deeds even greater and more heroic.

Grade: A