Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Day 133 - Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil (1958) directed by Orson Welles

I knew I'd love the film as soon as I saw the first scene, a three minute take without any cuts or edits, a credit to Orson Welles's brilliant direction. The shot begins with a close up of a bomb, then zooms out a little to reveal that it is being held by a person and seamlessly tracks him as he hides it in the trunk of a car. Then the shot is magically lifted two stories into the air for an overhead shot of the car as it rounds the block, then drops back down to street level to follow the car up close. The shot just goes on and on with more complicated elements ending with a shot of Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh (introduced midway into the shot) with the car exploding off screen. I am always impressed by these types of shots because they require an incredible amount of coordination, precision and difficulty. Welles didn't have to shoot this scene like that yet took care to add in as many artistic touches as he could. Director Peter Bogdanovich famously said to his friend Welles, "I'd seen the film four or five times before I noticed the story." When Welles thought that he was being critical, Bogdanovich explained, "No, no, I mean I was looking at the direction."

Not that the story matters that much anyways; Touch of Evil is all about Welles's superb direction and the wonderfully seedy world he creates. The film, set in a Mexican-American border town that "bring[s] out the worst in a country," oozes the sleaze of film noir; the night clubs, brothels, slimy characters, story of corruption, etc. Take a look at Welles's character, the sweaty overweight policeman Hank Quinlan. I love how dark and twisted he is. He also has the funniest line of the film: "I don't speak Mexican."

The story is rather complex but rich with characters and setting. It follows the investigation of the car bombing headed by Quinlan, a veteran cop who has a renowned ability to follow up on hunches, and Heston's Mike Vargas, a Mexican cop who gets sucked into the investigation in the middle of his honeymoon. The two quickly butt heads as they have different approaches to the law. Quinlan seems to be a by any means kind of guy while Vargas is more by the books. The story shifts its tone to something far more sinister when the two go out of their ways to screw with each other.

Touch of Evil is the second Orson Welles film I've seen (the other being Citizen Kane) and I am truly impressed with his directing skills. I loved all the weird angles, intricate shots and use of shadows. I also loved how close the camera got to the action, particularly with Quinlan where you can see how sleazy he looks up close. The shots with them in the elevator feels so cramped that you can feel how tense the situation is.

It amazes me just how under-appreciated Welles was during his career. Citizen Kane caused him all sorts of grief and Touch of Evil would be his last Hollywood feature. After that it was a bunch of incomplete works and made for TV stuff. Unfortunately sometimes being hated on during your time is something that comes with greatness.

Grade: A

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Day 132 - Exit Through The Gift Shop

Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) directed by Banksy

Is Mr. Brainwash and Exit Through The Gift Shop an elaborate hoax by iconic street artist Banksy? It seems like a logical question to ask, especially considering Banksy's reputation for outrageous stunts and the message of the film itself. Hundreds of thousands of people have seen this film and yet nobody really knows for sure. People have been talking about it, wondering about its meaning, pretty much everything Banksy, the king of making grand gestures to make a point, could hope for. Whether real or not, this film works on every level, as a fascinating story of a guy, as an inside look at the secretive world of street art and as a self-ironic statement of art itself.

I believe the beginning half of the film to be at a minimum mostly genuine. The Thierry Guetta who dedicated his life to filming street artists at work seems real, albeit a little eccentric. He says he is fascinated by street artists and their art and who wouldn't be? I could have simply watched them do their stuff for the entire 90 minutes and be totally enthralled. What these guys do is fascinating, if not amazing.

I was actually pretty touched by what Thierry has to say about why he filmed stuff all the time, how he wanted to capture every moment of his life because that would be the only time he could see something in that way again. By capturing the people and events around him, those people and moments would last forever. I want to believe in that kind of earnest sentiment actually exists.

When the reigns on this project are put into Banksy's hands the end result we get is the film we see, Exit Through The Gift Shop. It occurs halfway into the movie where Banksy tells Thierry to do some art for himself, which is where the controversy lies. Is what happens next for real? Or is it Banksy simply providing commentary on the nature of art, media, authenticity, etc etc? This is where I become skeptical, as I assume others do as well. The bumbling yet humble Thierry Guetta is transformed overnight into Mr. Brainwash, a man with no art background or work to speak of who suddenly commands the biggest art event of the year, pre-selling over $100,000 worth of work. The irony of his name is not lost upon anyone, yet people have all fallen for it.

You know how you look at some modern art and say aloud, "How is this art? Anyone can do this." Mr. Brainwash is the embodiment of that sentiment. He blatantly rips off Andy Warhol, throws in some bells and whistles, calls it his own, and charges $24,000 for it, a number he comes up with off the top of his head. The film doesn't even show him actually doing any of the work; he hires graphic designers and artists to put together his ideas. Without the people surrounding him and close relationship with Banksy and Shepard Fairey and a whole slew of factors would Mr. Brainwash even exist?

Mr. Brainwash is painted as a product of the "Banksy effect", or in other words, riding the success of a pop culture phenomenon. Think about all the songs that use Auto-tune now after T-Pain popularized it; it is insanely popular but is it "real" music? In the film, Banksy comments that Mr. Brainwash's art looks just like everyone else's yet has somehow captured this enormous success overnight.

Everyone involved in this film says that it is 100% real. Everyone who has watched seems to think otherwise. I honestly don't know what to believe. I don't really know enough about it to say one way or the other. I do think that if it is a hoax, it is an extremely elaborate one that took years of planning. These things aren't easy to do without being exposed. The film has faced intense scrutiny and theories, yet from what I've read nobody has concrete evidence one way or another. In the end though does it really matter? It is a remarkable film with all these subtexts that leave us talking about it which is what Banksy intended all along.

I, for one, would not pay $24,000 for a giant Tomato soup spray paint can though.

Grade: A-

Monday, August 29, 2011

Day 131 - Serpico

Serpico (1973) directed by Sidney Lumet

Al Pacino filmed Serpico between Godfather 1 and 2 in the beginning stages of what would be a twenty year seven film run at coming home empty handed at the Academy Awards. (He wasn't even nominated for Scarface which is pretty shocking.) He would finally win Best Actor for Scent of a Woman which is a shame because that film isn't nearly as good as his previous works. Though looking back at the nominees those years, he had pretty stiff competition, so it's hard to say that he really got screwed over. Since his win in 1992, he hasn't been nominated once though it seems like he could have gotten a couple Supporting Actor nods for at least Donnie Brasco, Heat or The Insider. As of this writing, Pacino is 71. I'd just love to see him have one more knock out role to get him back on center stage because lately he's been in a bunch of crap. It's almost shocking to see the quality of films he and Robert De Niro have been in the past fifteen years; some of those films are just abysmal.

On to the actual movie...

"Frank, let's face it, who can trust a cop that won't take money?"

Serpico tells the true story of Frank Serpico, an honest cop who struggled to fight corruption in the New York Police Department. It is a classic one man verses the system standing up for justice type of story. Whistle blowing can be a dangerous thing, especially against cops for obvious reasons. Serpico was an outcast among his peers, many of them who literally wanted him dead.

I loved watching Pacino do his thing here. It helps that Serpico was such a fascinating individual, not just for what he did but also for who he was. One of the themes of the film is his growing disappointment with the world around him; everything and everyone seems to let him down and he brings it home with him too. It isn't surprising that he went through two divorces while working at the NYPD; the stress of the job was tearing him and his relationships apart. People think it's easy to just do something, to do the job, to do the right thing, but they don't take into account how it might affect them personally. Pacino is great here, displaying a wide range of emotion and actions.

Serpico is a gritty movie and as people like to say, "keeps it real." I couldn't give you a straight answer to what that means, but I'm pretty sure Serpico meets that criteria. The film doesn't feel dated at all, primarily because its themes and story will always seem relevant; police corruption, justice and doing the right thing. The film was directed by Sidney Lumet, who had an impressive career with films such as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day AfternoonNetwork and The Verdict. One of the director's ongoing themes in his films were of men in crisis and justice. In that regard, 12 Angry Men and Serpico are pretty similar.

There are little touches I liked in the film like how time sort of just passes. It shows in Serpico's facial hair. He begins as a clean shaven baby face rookie (Al Pacino looks exactly like he did in the beginning of The Godfather in his military uniform) and as the film progresses he grows more hair; first a mustache, then a goatee and by the end a full blown beard. Also, he buys a puppy in the beginning of the film and we see the dog grow as well.

I couldn't stop laughing at that scene where his commanding officer accuses him of being gay. "You were sucking his cock, weren't you?" The confused look on Al Pacino's face is priceless. I'll finish this post on that high note.

Grade: A-

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Day 130 - Fright Night in 3D

Fright Night (2011) directed by Craig Gillespie

What do you know, another vampire movie. I wasn't originally planning on seeing Fright Night but it has gotten pretty favorable reviews and I was in the mood to watch something light. I'll just get this out the way first, watch this movie in 2D if at all possible. I got suckered into watching it in 3D because of timing issues but if I knew the film would be this dark and murky I would have simply waited for the next 2D showing. (I should have known though, it's a frigging vampire movie after all.) The picture is just way too dark in 3D and the effects are pretty lame anyways.

Charley is a teenager going to school in Las Vegas. His dorky former best friend Ed has been noticing a recent string of student disappearances. His conclusion? Charley's next door neighbor Jerry is a vampire. Obviously Charley does not believe him at first, but when he notices strange stuff going on as well, he begins to wonder. I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that their suspicions turn out to be correct. There is no mystery here, we already know Colin Ferrell is a vampire. It's in the previews, it's in the premise. It's just a matter of seeing how Charley brings Jerry down and how entertaining they can make it. Pretty entertaining as it turns out.

The strength of the movie lies in Colin Ferrell as Jerry. He's not a good vampire like in Twilight. He is a bad-ass. He is brooding. He has a natural bad boy charm. He smiles and those who don't know who he really is want to run to him, those who know what lies underneath run away. You watch his eyes dart around, shifty and calculating. This is a role Colin Ferrell was born to play. I think the first rule to playing a good villain is to make sure you are having fun and you can sense that in him here. Anton Yelchin as Charley is not nearly as charismatic and makes for an unlikely and awkward hero, but he doesn't mess things up too bad.

The scares are actually pretty tame but enough to get you a little anxious. When all the chips are on the table, Jerry pursues Charley and company with relentless force. You wonder where he's going to pop up next and whether Charley can escape his grasps in time.

The movie doesn't take itself too seriously. It takes time to make sure to get in a few laughs and the action flows briskly enough to get you leaning forward (or backwards). Nothing groundbreaking or remarkable, but that's to be expected. You just want your cheap thrills and chills and Fright Night delivers.

Grade: B-

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Day 129 - Colombiana

Columbiana (2011) directed by Oliver Megaton

As I was typing out the director's name I had to double check to make sure I was reading it right. Megaton. Really? Could he have picked a more obnoxious pseudonym than that? I suppose Megatron would be worse but if you're going to go that route you might as well go all the way, right? So what kind of film do I expect from a director named Megaton? Something with lots of action, big explosions, a silly pot to hold it all together and mindless fun and we sort of get that with Columbiana.

I'll admit that I am partial to the female revenge genre. I only wanted to watch this movie to see Zoe Saldana kick some ass while looking hot. Can delicately petite women actually take on much larger male professional killers in a fist fight? Probably not, but I don't really care. I am here to be entertained, so if you're going to do it, then do it big, do it loud and make it fun. For the most part Columbiana does what you expect, though it doesn't hit quite as hard as I would have hoped.

Young Cataleya watches her parents murdered in front of her by some bad guys in Columbia. She escapes to America where she meets up with her uncle who takes her in. She wants revenge, he will help her by training her. The problem is that the introduction is severely lacking. Young Cataleya, played by Amandla Sternberg, gets too much screen time. It's not that she's bad in her scenes, it's that her scenes are done all wrong and in the end don't really matter. The murdering of the parents that we know must happen takes too long to develop, as does her trek to America. It leaves no time for her training into a killer, often times the best part of these revenge films; these sequences are conspicuously missing from the film.

So fast forward fifteen years and we're ready to rumble. Older Cataleya (Saldana) devises an impossibly complex plot to kill one of her targets. I don't mind at all that the scheme is silly (and it is) but it sets an unfortunate pattern for the rest of the film, too much filler and not enough killing. I don't mind slower paced action flicks, but I do mind when a film tries to be something it is not. There is too much stuff going on that stalls the action because either it is poorly written or that I simply don't care, probably a combination of both. For instance, why is Michael Vartan in this film? The romance element in the film seems more like an excuse to get Zoe Saldana half naked than to add character. In the end, the romance feels like an afterthought but maybe we'll be too distracted by two good looking people making out to really notice how dumb it is.

Other bad moments? The CIA agent that is protecting the boss Cataleya is going after. As is typical, he looks and talks like a complete sleazeball and is unrealistically cold to the FBI agent going after Cataleya. As for the FBI agent himself, there is the obligatory meeting between him and his target where he has his guard down which is awkwardly written. It is almost cringe-worthy.

I just watched the movie and I can't even decide how much action there actually is in the film. It seems like there should be a lot but I wouldn't be at all surprised if there aren't actually that many action sequences. What does this mean? The film is too long and/or boring. Columbiana should be fifteen to twenty minutes shorter, or conversely those extra twenty minutes better be worth it and they are not. I will say though that the final showdown is everything that we hoped it would be, if only Megaton could transfer some of that energy to the rest of the film.

Yes, Zoe Saldana kicks ass and she looks good doing it, but she doesn't do quite enough of it in this film. She does have one intense fight sequence though that reminds me of the crazy bathroom brawl in Borune Ultimatum, which incidentally is also in a bathroom. Throughout the film we get to see her in various stages of undress showcasing her slender body. Speaking of which, I normally don't question the logistics of these matters, but she is rail thin and it seems impossible that she could have won that bathroom brawl in the way that she does. As long as she looks good doing it, maybe we'll forget how pedestrian the rest of the film is, right? I debated quite a bit whether or not to go C+ or C but decided to go for the higher score. Despite its short comings, it did enough to keep me generally entertained and the films that I have given C's to are definitely worse than this.

Grade: C+

Friday, August 26, 2011

Day 128 - Last Train Home

Last Train Home (2009) directed by Lixin Fan

A couple months ago I read a book called Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, which touches upon the mass migration of people from the countryside into the big cities in China. It is a pretty interesting book that paints a picture of a changing society as China emerges into an economic superpower. Within this decade, China's urban population will outnumber its rural population for the first time ever, one of the telltale signs of economic growth. But this sudden societal shift often pays a heavy price, tragically displayed in Last Train Home, a remarkable and heartbreaking documentary film that follows one family's painful journey through modern China.

Every year, millions of young men and women leave China's countryside and migrate to the big cities in search of better paying jobs, often leaving behind their young children and elderly parents. They work insanely hard at low paying (for us) jobs and send home almost everything they make. It almost shames me to think about how frivolous I am with my money and how fortunate I am to be born in America when I read about people working 16 hour shifts in factories making less than a dollar an hour. And this is what they left family and home to travel thousands of miles for. They often only go home once a year, during New Years, in the largest human migration in the world. Over 130 million people make the journey back home. You can only watch in amazement at scenes of the train station where a sea of humanity nearly trample each other to death to find tickets and cram their way onto the train.

The film begins with Changhua and Suqin, who left their native village in the Sichuan province 15 years ago, leaving behind their newborn daughter Qin in the care of her grandmother. Suqin explains that "I hardened my heart and left with my husband. I had no choice. That's life." They send their money back home so that their two children can go to school in hopes that they will have a better life. But seeing your children just once a year has its effects. Changhua admits that he doesn't know what to say to his own children when he sees them other than to study hard at school. Qin is now a teenager and cannot relate to the parents she barely knows. "My parents barely raised me, so how can there be any feelings? All they care about is money." This "better life" has come at a steep price.

In a tragic turn of events, in the next year we see her, Qin has dropped out of school to work in a factory in the city which breaks her parents' hearts. Like the foreigners that she makes jeans for, she has grown independent and wants things for herself. In a scene where she and her friend go shopping, without any irony they wonder if they made the pair of jeans they are holding. Changhua constantly reminds her, "You don't want to end up like me," but Qin is just a teenager and cannot see the big picture. It is so sad to see someone trapped at such a young age. In this harsh environment, people rarely get second chances.

I am always fascinated with how documentaries are filmed. How do they get people to open up so honestly with them? How do they feel being followed around by cameras? Director Lixin Fan shoots with a fly on the wall presence and paints an intimate portrait of their life. In a scene that no one could have predicted, Qin's rebellious attitude causes a fight between her and her father in gut wrenching fashion. Qin yells at the camera, to us, "you want to film the real me - this is the real me!" The heart of the film lies in the turmoil between Qin and her parents, the generational split that any parent can relate to. After being disappointed by Qin's increasing callowness, her mother sullenly tells her, "You have yet to taste the bitterness of life."

The film focuses on the domestic life of the family but also spends a good amount of time on the New Years festival where people desperately try to make it back home in time to celebrate with their families. The scenes are pure chaos and almost suffocating to watch. In fact all the scenes of the city feel claustrophobic with the tight shots which I imagine had to be done out of necessity; there simply isn't room in these crowded spaces to set up long shots. The air looks foul and the streets are dirty, it is only until they finally get settled on the train are we allowed to breathe and the lush green and serenity of the countryside is a stark contrast to the fast pace life of the city. It really is great cinematography.

These two contrasting images of the country and the city show the divide in society that is taking place in the name of economic growth. Families have become fractured and cultural values are lost. Last Train Home shows the personal cost of trying to make it, if you can even call it that. The end credits roll leaving us wondering what will become of this particular family and I can only hope for the best, but the realist in me is doubtful.

A truly powerful film.

Grade: A

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Day 127 - Nights of Caribia

Nights of Caribia (1957) directed by Federico Fellini

This is the second time that I've seen Fellini's wife Giulietta Massina in action and I cannot help but point out again how much she reminds me of Charlie Chaplin. In La Strada, the similarity is more pronounced as she plays a clown, but the resemblance sticks with her in Nights of Caribia as well. It is a combination of two things, her ability to make distinct facial expressions with her naturally round face and also the child-like innocence that she brings to her character.

Cabiria is a prostitute living in Rome, but this isn't quite the prostitute with a heart of gold story. She does have a good heart but she knows she is a sinner; she is waiting for a miracle to give meaning to her life. She does have a naivety and innocent charm, but is also fiery and full of spunk. (She's the embodiment of the stereotype that Italians are always yelling.) Cabiria's naivety will prove to be her downfall. In fact the film has one of the more bizarre opening scenes you'll ever see; her own boyfriend steals her purse and pushes her into a river causing her to almost drown. By the way, was I the only one who laughed at this scene? No, I don't condone robbing women, but come on, you got to admit the scene is pretty frigging absurd.

We follow Cabiria through a series of episodes that can almost be classified as misadventures that always seem to end up badly for her. It is almost a case study in how much crap one has to deal with before breaking, yet Cabiria always seems to rise back up. She may be a prostitute and a little loud, but we desperately want her to find what she's looking for. In the best scene of the film, she is hypnotized by a magician at a show where she allows her tough exterior to be peeled away revealing a woman of such love and innocence that it is almost too much too watch. It is one of the more endearing moments that I have seen on film.

Cabiria is an endearing character which makes her story all the more somber. You can see the ending coming even if she can't and you wonder how she will deal with her latest heartbreak. She comes across a marching parade and takes in its exuberance. Despite everything she has been through, she manages to crack her trademark smile behind her tears. Even though the entire film is basically about her disappointments, it feels like she's going to be alright in the end, somehow someway.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Day 126 - Cronos

Cronos (1993) directed by Guillermo del Torro

Is it a gift or a curse to live forever? Would you even want to? What lengths would you go through to be immortal? These are several of the key questions regarding the vampire mythos and explored in detail in Guillermo del Torro's directorial debut Cronos.

For some reason I keep on returning to vampire movies; I've seen more in the past couple months than I've seen the past couple years combined. (OMG Twilight!) I have grown to appreciate them more for their deeper psychological and philosophical musings than for their actual horror elements. Cronos never once mentions the word vampire, it doesn't need to. This isn't really a vampire movie; it's a movie about a man who is transformed, afflicted, by becoming immortal. As he tells his enemy, "You have more to lose. For me it's just pain."

The film opens with a narration involving a medieval alchemist who creates the cronos device which grants its user longer life. Four centuries later we see the alchemist, transformed into a pale ghostlike man, lying dead in an accident with a stake through his heart. The whereabouts or even the existence of the cronos device is unknown until simple antique shop owner Jesus Gris discovers it hidden in one of his statues. He tinkers with the toy and is alarmed when it latches on to his hand and stabs him.

The transformation begins, although unknowingly, to Jesus who suddenly feels invigorated. He thinks he has stumbled upon something fantastic but cannot comprehend the consequences of the cronos device or what it has turned him into. If he fully understood what was happening he would not have wanted it, as opposed to Dieter de la Guardia, who has been searching for this device his whole life. De la Guardia is dying and seeks the device to live forever.

This is not a horror film in the traditional sense; there are very few true scares. It is the film's psychology, its theme and style that can be frightening. Take for instance, Jesus' realization that he is attracted to blood. He follows a man with a nosebleed to a bathroom. The blood is washed away in the sink save for a tiny puddle on the floor. He gets down on the ground and delicately licks the blood, savoring its gooey life giving force. It is a powerful image that reminds the viewer of Jesus's situation; he has been reduced to a groveling animal desperate to live.

Much of the film actually deals with Jesus's relationship with his granddaughter Aurora, who witnesses first hand what the device does to her grandfather. She mostly just observes throughout the film and is Jesus's silent partner and his only link to his fading humanity. Watching her on film reminded me a lot of Guillermo del Torro's future work Pan's Labyrinth where a young girl wanders through a fantasy world filled with monsters and magical creatures. Del Torro does a great job in capturing this dark magical quality in these two films. It is fitting to see these worlds through a child's eye and sense of wonder.

It is not a coincidence that Jesus is the character's name. Like the other Jesus, he rises from the dead and becomes this mythical figure. However, while the biblical Jesus rises to rule the kingdom of heaven, the Jesus of this film is resigned to roam the earth forever imprisoned by his curse.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Day 125 - Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la bete)

Beauty and the Beast (1946) directed by Jean Cocteau

When I saw Orpheus several days ago, I noted Jean Cocteau's unique style. It isn't a coincidence that he was also an artist and poet because it shows in his films, particularly in Beauty and the Beast, which boasts an impressive look and feel. (They both use some of the same trick shots like playing it in reverse.) It comes pretty close to the ideal of what one means by enchanting or fantasy.

But this isn't the Disney version of the classic fairy tale. Cocteau's vision is haunting and moody. The Beast's castle takes on a life and presence of its own. Human arms hold candles hanging on the wall and rise from the middle of a table to pour wine. Statues come to life, their eyes moving back and forth following the characters on screen. It is large and mysterious, it is magical yet scary. It is like watching a dream painted onto film.

We are all familiar with the story; a virtuous woman is forced to live with a hideous beast and learns to see the good inside of him, eventually loving him. Its lesson is that beauty is only skin deep, true beauty lies on the inside, don't judge a book by its cover, etc etc. Many romance stories share Beauty and the Beast's primary plot, the power of a good woman to redeem a man or, figuratively, a beast.

However, a striking difference between this version and the Disney one is that the cartoon Beast begins ugly both inside and out and Belle brings out the good in him. The Beast of this film appears to already be good, but misunderstood as a beast. Belle is almost immediately taken by the Beast; she shows little if any fear of him and within ten minutes of film time, she has already softened up and accepted him. I found this to be a glaring weakness in the film's story telling. It didn't seem convincing to me as to why she is so easily moved by him. Exactly how does she determine the good inside of him? When he threatened to kill her father or when he forced her to take his place? She says she feels the good in him, but we are never really shown it other than his soft spoken tone and gentlemanly words. As magical and enchanting the film looks and feels, the story itself isn't entirely convincing, which was kind of disappointing.

I don't think you could argue too much with the assessment that this film is more style over substance. This film is all about style, how it creates and maintains this fairy tale world. The story is really just window dressing. All you need to know are the basics, the woman and the beast and that they fall in love. Knowing exactly how or why isn't necessary in the experience, though it probably wouldn't hurt either...

I did enjoy the film though. I'd say it was good, but not great. I always find it interesting to see people's interpretation on classic and well known stories. Everybody knows the story of Beauty and the Beast, but how can you make your version different than the next person's? Cocteau's version is very unique and I am impressed with the artistry in which he made this film.

Grade: B

Monday, August 22, 2011

Day 124 - The Music Room

The Music Room (1958) directed by Satyajit Ray

A couple months ago I had never even heard of Satyajit Ray or his highly regarded Apu Trilogy. Thanks to this little project I've been able to expose myself to a bunch of new and unfamiliar stuff (to me at least). Still, I wasn't willing to take a flier on a $80 set by a third party seller on Amazon, so I pretty much gave up on these films. As it turns out, Ray had another acclaimed film called Jalsaghar (The Music Room) and I was able to find the Criterion Collection Blu-ray for a pretty reasonable $20. I'm glad I took a chance on it because this movie is great!

The film is about Biswambhar Roy, a landlord of increasingly diminishing power. His lands are in decline, slowly being eaten away by the eroding river. He is becoming obsolete as he no longer collects money or has any work to do. He just sits there stubbornly, perhaps desperately, clinging on to his old way of life as the world changes around him. His one passion in life is music or, more specifically, holding lavish concerts in his beloved music room. These concerts are costly and he has been slowly bleeding his finances dry. It won't be long before he has nothing left, but he is too vain to stop behaving the way he does.

When one thinks of Indian films, they invariably imagine the extravagant song and dance routines and sweeping melodrama of Bollywood. The Music Room indeed has a lot of music (and one dance) but it never breaks from the reality of the story. Listening to the performances with Roy in the music room is an integral part of the story. The music room is used three times in the film and each concert has a different feel and meaning. The first performance is for a sacred initiation for his son Khoka which Roy reasons he must go all out. It is here where we realize just how precarious the family's finances are as he must mortgage his wife's jewels to pay for the concert.

If you could break down each act of the film by theme, I suppose the first would be decadence, the second would be pride. A moneylender's son, Mahim, invites Roy over to his house to attend a concert of his own. It is clear that Roy does not hold Mahim in high regard; he has a peasant's background and comes from new money, hard working and ambitious. Roy represents the old aristocracy and takes great pride in the blood that flows through his vains. He casually dismisses Mahim's invitation, claiming he is holding a concert of his own that very same day. In the background, you can see Roy's servant's concerned look at his master's frivolous attitude. While the first performance is celebratory in mood, this second one seems sad, almost foreboding. Roy looks down at his drink and sees a floating insect in it and is immediately struck by a sense of doom. I don't want to ruin the film, but something really bad happens.

That leads to the third act which can be described as grief. The film advances a couple of years and Roy looks like he has aged quite a bit. He looks disheveled, the palace has fallen to pieces, and all but two servants have been let go. The feeling is somewhat reminiscent of the end of Citizen Kane and other similarly themed films of men of power who really have nothing; all they have are their empty mansions. Roy has not used the music room in years; he has lost all interest in music and just sits alone all day smoking hookah, not even sure what month it is. Yet again it is a visit by Mahim that inspires him to hold another concert. He is determined to go down in a blaze of glory. He will reclaim his former status even if it may only be for one day. The last performance features a mesmerizing dance sequence and we can see at least for this moment, finding pleasure in life again.

The film reads as a Shakespearean tragedy mixed with The Great Gatsby but told from the side of the old money. In this way it can be viewed as a commentary on the decadence of bourgeois life; while Roy is the protagonist of the film he is also clearly on the wrong side of change. There is a telling shot where he overlooks his land and in the distance he can see his elephant grazing in the field, a moment of tranquil beauty. Then inexplicably a jeep drives straight through the composition blowing dust everywhere. Times are changing indeed. (I only point this scene out since it is mentioned in a special feature of the disc. I'm kind of bummed I didn't think of it myself.)

I really liked the film. It's filled with great imagery and symbolism. The music is fantastic and fascinating to watch. Roy is such an intriguing yet flawed figure. It is harsh to say, but he is somewhat deserving of the tragedy that befalls him, yet at the same time you hope desperately for him to recover from it. It's just a really great film. I'm now very interested in checking out his Apu Trilogy; hopefully Criterion is able to get a hold of it.

Grade: A

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Day 123 - One Day

One Day (2011) directed by Lone Scherfig

One Day refers to the day that Emma and Dexter first meet each other, July 15th, 1988, and each subsequent July 15th afterwords, chronicling their on and off again friendship spanning to the present day. We check up on them every year on this date to see what they've been up to, how much they've grown or, in other cases, regressed. In this way we miss a lot of the important moments of their lives, like various relationships, the death of a parent, career moves and the like. The one constant in their lives is each other no matter where they are or how much they grow apart; they are always on each other's mind. We only catch brief snapshots but those are enough to fill us in. It is a pretty clever narrative device that allows us to fit twenty years in less than two hours. The joy, and perhaps the pain, in watching the film is in waiting for the two best friends to realize they were meant for each other all along, to allow themselves to finally give in to their true feelings.

Emma (Anne Hathaway) is a woman who struggles throughout the beginning of the film, aspiring to become a writer but ending up working at a Mexican restaurant for a couple years, often calling Dexter for support. She eventually becomes the woman she aspires to be and finds her way. Dexter (Jim Sturgess) is an upper class brat who lives the good life, brimming with confidence and charm. But beneath that exterior is a deeply wounded soul that desperately needs Emma for support. He works as the host of a shallow late night TV show that is akin to a trained monkey doing tricks. He is rich and famous, but miserable. As the years go by, their lives go in opposite directions and we begin to wonder how they will ever get together.

The story basically boils down to the good hearted woman saving the troubled man. Whenever this plot line comes up, this question must always be asked, "Is this man worthy of her love?" It is tricky because the troubled man is going to be portrayed as a bad guy who, as it turns out, probably isn't deserving to be loved, but the woman inevitably sees the good in him even when the audience can't. This has rubbed me in the wrong way before in movies, but to my surprise I wasn't really thinking about it while watching it, but now that I have had time to think about it, Dexter actually fails the test throughout much of the movie. This fact is forgotten by the end when we do realize he is a good man, what Emma sees all along.

The majority of the movie has a somber tone. The two characters spend most of the time ever contemplative of their places in life and love and apart from each other. But it is also potentially uplifting, the idea of two best friends being together. That they have been such important parts in each other's lives for over fifteen years makes you believe that this is the type of relationship sure to last rather than the one week romances found in so many other films.

The film has an obvious direction and even unexpected events can be expected; it's just that kind of movie. I did like the way the film passes time as it does a good job in capturing them at various points of their lives and draws out the feelings they have for each other. I thought it was a touching and (for the most part) believable story, something I have trouble saying with many romantic dramas.

Grade: B

Note: There is a scene in the film where Dexter's wife calls him right before she's about to have sex with her lover. I know since we are only allowed to see one day this is the best way to let us know she is having an affair, but in the context of the scene it seems awful. Why would you call the person you're cheating on right before you're going to cheat on them unless you're being super spiteful? Wouldn't it just kill the mood? What does her lover think of this phone call to her husband, or is foreplay to turn them on?

Note: Looking at, One Day is sitting at 27%. LOL, this just goes to show I have horrible taste or more likely have no idea what I'm talking about.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Day 122 - Orpheus

Orpheus (1950) directed by Jean Cocteau

I had to do a quick Wikipedia check on Orpheus as my Greek mythology is a bit rusty. To sum it up in one sentence, Orpheus is a legendary musician who goes into the depths of Hades to bring back his wife Eurydice from the dead. Jean Cocteau's 1950 film is a retelling of the classic Greek myth set in 1940's Paris.

Orpheus is an older famous poet who is hated on by the young hipster crowd. As Jay-Z raps, "Is this what success is all about? A bunch of niggas acting like bitches with big mouths?" A fight breaks out at the local cafe aptly named "Cafe des Poetes" where a young up and comer Cogeste gets run over by a couple of motorcycles. Just as quickly, The Princess rolls up in her Rolls Royce and takes away the body, asking Orpheus to come along as a witness. He hops in but much to his surprise, they don't stop at the hospital but go to a creepy chateau instead. By this point it is clear that Cogeste is dead, but The Princess is unperturbed and tells Orpheus to stop asking stupid questions. Much to his shock, he witnesses her raising the young man back to life and he can only watch as they disappear through a solid mirror.

The Princess is of course Death and the incident with Cogeste is her just doing her job. I don't think I'm giving anything away when I say that eventually Orpheus's wife Eurydice dies, but the manner in how she does is much different from the Greek myth. Cocteau adds in a complicated love triangle where The Princess is in love with Orpheus, Orpheus in turn is obsessed with her and The Princess's chauffeur Heurtebise is in love with Eurydice, so everybody has their own motives throughout the film.

Orpheus is yet another of those heralded classics that is wasted on my inferior tastes as I didn't fall head over heels for it, though in the end I liked it, or at least I think I did. This film probably is deserving of all its praise, and I can certainly see the appeal, but I'm not quite "there" yet to fully articulate why it is considered a masterpiece. I do think that it says a lot about a film though that I can sit through it and be impressed without being able to fully explain why. When I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey I knew I was watching something great even though I still can't really tell you what the ending is about.

One of the great elements of Orpheus is the style. The film has this strange dream-like feel to it which is accentuated by the special effects. Characters are shown passing through both worlds through mirrors. A close up shows the actors' hands passing through creating a ripple effect, similar to something out of The Matrix. I didn't realize it at first, but that is actually water (which is a natural mirror too). I assume that the other side of the mirror in some scenes is just an identical set on the other side. The other effect which is used a lot is simply playing film in reverse. A shattered mirror fixes itself back into place, dead bodies stiffly rise back to a standing position, gloves jump on and off hands. It is such an absurdly simple trick yet so effective. In Carrie, Brian DePalma filmed a scene backwards, then run in reverse to give the scene a more surreal effect. There is something about playing around with time that gives these film the dream-like feel.

The film does have its problems though. When watching foreign films I'm usually too busy reading the subtitles to notice the acting, but I thought it was mediocre at best. Nobody really stood out to me. I also had problems with plot elements and the characters themselves. So, Orpheus is not allowed to ever look at Eurydice again, yet Eurydice seems to have no qualms at all about it and wants to live like normal. This would create an obvious strain on them and to be safe, they shouldn't even be near each other, yet she doesn't seem to take the threats seriously as she just walks in and out of his line of sight. If I knew looking at someone would mean instant death for them, pretty much the only solution would be to split apart. That may be the point of caveat though, a sort of gift and a curse to be with the one you love, except that by this point Orpheus doesn't seem to really love Eurydice.

Okay, somebody who has seen this movie please tell me what the ending is all about? So Orpheus and The Princess want to be together forever and they seem to have achieved that but then why does she renege on it to return him back to the living with Eurydice? I don't get the sense it was some sort of self sacrifice because it doesn't seem to serve an actual purpose. She never really has any compunction about Eurydice's death or give any indication that they actually should be together so why return him to her? Some parts of the film don't make much logical sense even if it is a fantasy based movie.

Overall, this film had enough to hold my attention and for me to enjoy it for the most part. I didn't care for some parts and I twiddled my thumbs through others, but I cannot deny that it interested me throughout even if it did leave me scratching my head. Like I said though, it may very well be a great movie, I just lack the insight to realize it. It may take a couple more viewings for its greatness to sink in or just some more movie watching and thinking under my belt. Already, I can tell that I have undervalued some of the films I have watched, as I still occasionally think about them, wondering about this or that, replaying a certain scene in my head. That is usually a very good sign for them as movies and maybe I'll think about Orpheus like that too.

Grade: B

Friday, August 19, 2011

Day 121 - The Guard

The Guard (2011) directed by John Michael McDonagh

An almost sure fire way to make a compelling movie, or at least a compelling idea for one, is to take two completely contrasting elements and stick them together. Cowboys and Aliens, for instance, sounds like a pretty awesome idea; it just needed better execution. So what would be stranger than pitting a cowboy up against an alien? How about sticking a black guy in the middle of Ireland? Or more precisely, buddying up Don Cheadle with Brendan Gleeson in one of the funniest duos in recent memory. Their characters are literally as different as black and white and are so obviously mismatched for each other that it is almost guaranteed to work on some level.

Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) can almost be described as an ignorant redneck, if Ireland has such a phrase, but he is hard to read. Is he really this ignorant when it comes to black people ("I thought only black lads were drug dealers. And Mexicans.") or is he purposely being offensive? Either way, to the viewer, he is hilarious, though he may not be so funny to Wendell Everett (Cheadle). He doesn't quite know what to make of Boyle; he is almost at a loss for words to how offensive Boyle is yet he is clearly drawn to his personality. He tells him, "I can't tell if you're really mother f*cking dumb or really mother f*cking smart." And to be honest, neither can the viewer.

Boyle is a questionable guard, or guarda, the Gaelic word for polieceman. He tastelessly plays a joke with a dead body at a crime scene, he searches a body for drugs that he can keep for himself in another. Rather than focusing all his energy on the big drug and murder case, he insists on taking his day off to spend some quality time with a couple of hookers. He seems like a pretty morally corrupt individual let alone a cop, yet when all the chips are on the table, he doesn't take the payoff and tries to do right.

He is buddied up with FBI agent Everett who is sent to Ireland to investigate a drug smuggling operation and the sparks fly right away. The two share a back and forth rapport where Boyle will say something outrageous and Everett will respond with a WTF expression. Gleeson and Cheadle are perfectly mismatched for each other and it is a pleasure to watch. Gleeson is the clear star though as he is given the most to work with and capitalizes on it big time, playing a hilarious and complex character.

This movie is well acted all the way around. Gleeson is great. Cheadle is very good. Mark Strong plays one of the bad guys and he clearly has a blast doing so. They are helped by a very sharp and witty screenplay that is funny, vulgar and violent. Also, I can't tell what accent is more crazy, the American midwest one from Fargo or an Irish one. There's even a bit in the beginning of the movie where they can't even understand their own accents.

Grade: A-

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Day 120 - Spaceballs

Spaceballs (1987) directed by Mel Brooks

I'm not really sure how I feel about Mel Brooks. I think his style of obvious farcical comedy isn't very sophisticated. In fact, much of it is juvenile. Much of it isn't even that funny. But his movies are filled end to end with gags and jokes and for every four or five misses, he will hit a home run and have me roaring with laughter. I decided long ago that I didn't care much for him, yet I somehow kept on accumulating his movies over the years; The Producers, Blazing Saddles, History of the World, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Young Frankenstein, and Spaceballs (which I watched for the first time today). Despite my doubts about Brooks, I realized that I actually liked his movies. I distinctly remembered sitting through a couple of those films and thinking to myself, "Man this is really dumb," yet by the end of them, I thought, "I guess that was pretty funny. I had a pretty good time." And that's all you're really looking for in a Mel Brooks film, a super light weight kick back and relax have a couple of laughs good time.

Spaceballs is a Star Wars parody that probably feels less fresh today than it did years ago, before everyone and their mother made some type of Star Wars spoof, but it is still a pretty funny and enjoyable film. The film features the likes of somewhat familiar faces such as Dark Helmet, Pizza the Hutt, and Yogurt. I almost choked when I saw Pizza the Hutt, part of it due to my laughter and the other part to my disgust; he really is an awesomely gross looking character. The hero of the film is Lone Star, who is obviously Han Solo, yet dresses like Harrison Ford's other famous character, Indiana Jones. There is Barf, a half man half dog, hence a "mog." He is supposed to be Chewy. Princess Vespa is Leila and she is accompanied by a CP30 type droid, though surprisingly no R2D2. The plot is really an afterthought, so I won't even bother to mention it. But in case you're wondering, it doesn't completely follow the Star Wars storyline. After all, the purpose of the film isn't to do a shot by shot remake, but to simply set up scenarios for familiar scenes and lines.

As is customary with Mel Brooks' films, the focus is on the jokes and there are lots of them. Also customary is the fact that many of the jokes are stupid and not very funny such as the continuous gag of Dark Helmet bumping his helmet into things or the character of Yogurt all together. But some of the stupid jokes can be very funny as well. I laughed pretty hard during the scene when Dark Helmet is playing with the dolls. I laughed at some of the Jewish jokes and I'm not even Jewish! I laughed at other random things. That is all that really matters anyways, how much did you laugh, how much did you sit there stone faced refusing to crack a smile?

My guess is you either dig Mel Brooks or you don't, though some of his films are clearly better than others. I'm afraid Spaceballs falls somewhere on the lower spectrum of his movies, but for the most part I enjoyed it. It helps a lot to be a Star Wars fan to begin with, the bigger the better obviously to really enjoy it. That makes sense of course because what are you doing watching a satire of a movie you don't even care for to begin with? And if you don't like Star Wars, that probably means that you smell funny or you're a Communist, probably both.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Day 119 - Attack the Block

Attack the Block (2011) directed by Joe Cornish

This movie has the guise of being about an alien invasion, but it's more about overcoming prejudices and coming of age. Don't believe me? Then consider this question one of the characters ask. Out of all the places in the world for aliens to land, why would they pick a poor neighborhood in London? Obviously to set up some hilarity and absurd scenarios, but the real point is for our little hoodlums to become heroes. Okay, I'm exaggerating quite a bit; this film is pretty light, but that's okay. I don't mind light. I don't even mind if it's a little bad. I just like to be entertained and Attack the Block, for all its flaws and silliness, is entertaining.

The film opens with a group of teenage hoods mugging a woman in a sketchy neighborhood of London. Just as things may look to get a little too sour for the damsel in distress, a meteor-like object falls from the sky and smashes into a car next to them allowing her to escape. Despite everything the teens may have seen in horror movies, they check it out and SURPRISE! a scary werewolf looking alien pops out. But little does the alien know that it just f*cked with the wrong bunch of kids from the wrong block in the wrong hood. I'm sure it must be quite a shock to it when these kids start chasing it with bats and knives rather than run away.

The irony of the film is that in the midst of this alien invasion, nobody even seems to notice or care that a bunch of werewolf alien hybrids are roaming the streets. The police are more concerned with catching the thugs that mugged the woman and arresting them for the wrong reasons. (The expression is charged for "driving while black.") The woman sees two police officers mauled to death by these otherworldly creatures and assumes the thugs must have had something to do with it. The local crime lord doesn't seem to realize the severity of this situation and instead focuses in on the young kids who smashed his ride. It is up to the young teens then to save the day.

The woman that they mugged eventually joins them as she is reminded "We're all on the same side here" when it comes to the aliens. Obviously they grow to understand and maybe even respect each other and maybe in some other circumstance or scenario they could have been friends. But of course we know that's not true. Without the alien attack, she would just go on clutching her purse a little tighter when walking by a group of black kids and the kids would still see her as another easy mark. There's nothing that unites people together more than a common enemy or shared tragedy. Take America's national pride during WW2 and 9/11 as examples. Unfortunately it usually takes these extraordinary circumstances for people to drop their prejudices and come together.

Oh, as for the movie itself? It's kind of scary, kind of funny, kind of corny (something Cowboys vs. Aliens should have purposely been), obviously ridiculous, and surprisingly deserving of its R rating. I hesitate to say that it is a really fun movie because it isn't quite as outrageous as you'd assume, but it is still silly enough to have a good time.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Day 118 - Still Walking

Still Walking (2008) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

I didn't realize it at first, but I've seen one of Hirokazu Kore-eda's movies before. I watched After Life in a Japanese cinema class in college and it was one of the most profound films I had ever seen. The basic question the film asks is "If you could only take one memory with you for all of eternity what would it be?" It is a great movie, but I don't think I'd ever want to watch it again because of how deep and emotional it is. Apparently many of Kore-eda's works deal a lot with death, loss and memory. These themes are at the heart of his masterful Still Walking.

Every year, the Yokoyama family gather together to commemorate the death of the eldest son, Junpei, who drowned over a decade ago while saving someone's life. Ryota, the second son, dreads these trips back home. His father had always favored Junpei and disapproved of Ryota. He is especially worried this year as it is the first time his parents will meet his new wife Yukari and step-son. He is worried what they will think as she is a widower. (His mother tells his sister that it is almost better if Yukari were divorced instead of widowed; at least divorcees chose to leave their husbands.) When Ryota arrives at his parents' house, you can see the unease gather in his face, the tension in the room as he greets his father, the nervous anticipation as his mother sizes up Yukari. It is one of the rare occasions when both the surviving children visit, but it is a bittersweet ruinunion and only a reminder of Junpei's absence. Ryota, overshadowed by his brother in both life and death, cannot wait to get out of there.

The film is all about suppressed emotion, underlying tension, things that are left unsaid, unresolved pain and subtle yet powerful moments. The story is deceptively quiet but there is so much boiling underneath the surface. The story focuses on just this one day, but the thoughts and emotions that you see have been there ever since Junpei's death, if not earlier. I loved how the film says so much by saying so little. And the stuff that finally does get said can hurt so much, or uplift even higher.

I basically loved everything about this film; the acting, the direction, the unique compositions, how touching the story is, how simple yet complex it is. It would be easy to gloss over it and say that nothing really happens in the film and you'd be somewhat right. Nothing really gets resolved, not much really happens in terms of action, but I don't think that isn't the point of the film. It is meant to be a vehicle for emotion, for thought. It is supposed to touch and it certainly does.

Grade: A

Sorry for the crappy entry (I realize I didn't really say anything specific about the film basically only generalizations), especially for such a great film, but I was out all night/morning and this is the best I could come up with after being up almost 24 hours...

Monday, August 15, 2011

Day 117 - The Help

The Help (2011) directed by Tate Taylor

This book has been near the top of the best sellers list for over a year now and I've always wanted to read it. Now that I've watched the movie, I don't know if that's going to happen anytime soon if at all. It's funny, I almost always watch the movie of a book I've read, but never the other way around. I think that's probably true for most people. There is an easy explanation for this; books take days if not weeks to read, movies take two hours. It's very difficult to get into a book, to invest a week into it, if you already know all the details. On the other hand, everybody wants to know how the book they read turns out on screen, if it's how they pictured it when they read it.

The Help captures a period in American culture where having black maids was common practice for white families especially in the south. These women were called the help, but they were much more than that; they kept houses together and in many cases raised other people's kids for them. It must be a strange feeling to bring up and care for your future employer who will most likely turn out to be a racist jerk like the rest of them. But perhaps that is why Aibileen (Viola Davis) takes such great interest and love in these white kids, that they may grow to be better people than their parents, that perhaps they will be the ones to enact change in this hostile environment. She recites a couple words of inspiration to her young ward throughout the film, "You is kind. You is smart. You is important." At least one white person was brought up right and that is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young woman who has taken the lessons her family maid taught her to heart and whose care and affection she has never forgot. She sees the hypocrisy and blatant bigotry around her and decides to do something about it, to write a book from the perspective of the help.

Thematically The Help is somewhat similar to Driving Miss Daisy, a film I decided that I hated due to its obvious pandering and racial stereotyping. The Help is also very obvious and purposely manipulative; it seems almost impossible to make a film like this without being so. Yet I enjoyed this film much more than the 1989 Best Picture because it did not involve the one dimensional selfless servant that Morgan Freeman played. Instead, The Help features characters who have some more wrinkles to them; they are tired, guarded, and brave enough to stand up to the whites. Yes, they are spruced up a bit; the scenes with Aibileen and the young child are obnoxiously sentimental, but what can you really expect?

The film centers around Skeeter's attempts to get Aibileen, Minny (Octavia L. Spencer), and whoever else wants to volunteer to tell their stories of what it is like to work for white families. This takes substantial courage as it is against the law in this part of the South (Jackson, Mississippi) to promote this type of talk. This is an era where Hilly Holbrook, the woman who Minny works for, is attempting to pass a law that requires every house to have a separate bathroom outside for their Negro help. It is hard to imagine a character as viscous as Hilly existing; she is painted to be an obvious villain in a story, but sadly, people like her really did, do, exist. 

The strength of the film is in its performances. This is the first non-comedic role I've seen Emma Stone in and she shows a young eagerness and perhaps a little nativity in her portrayal of Skeeter, qualities necessary to take on the establishment. Viola Davis, who earned an Academy Award nomination for a powerful eight minute role in Doubt, displays a quiet strength throughout the film though as I previously mentioned, she is given some extremely obvious scenes that I could have lived without. Octavia Spencer is a pleasure to watch. She is given a lot of funny moments (including a gag with a pie that brought the house down) and plays Minny with sass and energy, but yes, her role is somewhat of a stereotype of the big black Mammy image. (Is it a coincidence that her name is Minny?) Those are the three principle characters though I also enjoyed the character of Ceila (Jessica Chastain), an outsider to Jackson who struggles to gain acceptance in the community. She can relate to the blacks and her greatest moments come in bonding with Minny.

The Help is an obviously manipulative inspirational tearjerker, but I don't really mind being manipulated as long as I don't feel too dumb afterwords. It is a pretty obvious movie, though it points to a nice and cozy place in your heart and maybe that isn't such a bad thing.

Grade: B

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bonus - Fargo

Fargo (1996) directed by Joel Coen

I hadn't seen Fargo since forever, so long ago that I practically forgot the plot. I rarely feel the need to see a movie more than once or twice, which makes my ever expanding DVD and Blu-ray collection kind of pointless, but I like to buy them for those special occasions in the off chance I may just decide to watch a particular movie again. How long should one go between viewings? Perhaps not so soon as to remember every little detail but not so long as to have completely forgotten everything; sometime in between where you still have that sense of excitement but familiar enough as if you were catching up with an old friend.

Fargo tells the story of a man who hires a couple of thugs to kidnap his wife so he can pocket the ransom money from his rich father-in-law. It's supposed to be a quick and easy job, no one gets hurt, everybody walks away happy, except things never go according to plan and things spiral quickly out of control. The plot itself is almost an afterthought; Fargo is really about the setting, the characters, the depiction of friendly midwest life. Watching this film is so fascinating because its like watching a documentary about people from the upper midwest. Are these people real? Do they really talk like that with those crazy accents and smily faces? Do they really say stuff like "you betcha" and "you're dern tootin'"?

This surreal setting makes the sudden moments of violence so shocking. I sort of criticized or questioned this juxtaposition of friendly suburban life with violence while discussing Blue Velvet, but Fargo pulls it off so much better and with more purpose.

The film is highlighted by the performances and everybody is great. William H. Macy plays his part perfectly. You can sense his bad decisions weighing down on him in how he tries to mask his fear and concern behind his gee-golly exterior. It is also a credit to the Coen Brother's writing because every single stutter and stammer that Macy speaks is actually written into the screenplay. The two criminals, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, make for an interesting duo; one is a nervous talker, the other is calm and silent, one has an imposing figure, the other is referred to as "the little fellow." They are a contrast in styles but they fit so perfectly together. Of course, the main star is Frances McDormand who just owns every scene. She actually doesn't come in until deep into the movie but she quickly takes over as the lead. The first time she says something with her crazy accent I couldn't help but smile. There is one scene where she basically just says "Yah" and it's just hilarious. Her facial expressions are gold and she gives off this small town demeanor but is actually a very smart and capable cop.

This movie is so good, probably the best film the Coen Brothers have ever made, maybe the best film they ever will make. I loved everything about the film; the drab yet beautiful cinematography, all the characters, the depiction of friendly midwestern life, the humor, and the shocking violence. Everything hits at such a perfect note, with such rhythm and artistry. I remember really liking Fargo all those years ago, but I never realized how much I loved this film until watching it again today. Luckily movies are not like people. They won't get upset for missing their birthday or forgetting to call; they'll always be there waiting.

Grade: A

Day 116 - Blood Simple

Blood Simple (1984) directed by Joel Coen

I didn't realize this but the Coen Brothers didn't work as a director tag team until 2004 with The Ladykillers. Prior to that Joel got director credit, Ethan produced and both shared the writing duties, although I get the impression that the titles were just a formality and that both had their say behind the camera. The Coen Brothers debut film was Blood Simple, a dark film noir that explores several themes that are prevalent in their later films, namely violence and a comedy of mishaps and misunderstanding, to a lesser extent chance and fate.

Blood Simple tells the story of a man who hires someone to kill his wife and her lover, but things never go as smoothly as planned. Much of the film revolves around each of the characters knowing something that another does not. Watching the movie unfold, we see and know everything that is going on which makes the characters' actions seem all the more maddening and tragic. For instance, in a prolonged scene in the middle there is a misunderstanding between the two lovers as the man thinks she has done something that she hasn't. He takes measures in covering for her except that she has no idea what is going on. When they meet again, it would be so easy for him to ask her, "Did you do it?" or "Why did you do it?" or make any reference to "it." Instead, he is vague and ambiguous and distanced from her driving them apart. She in turn begins to suspect that he has been up to something and it's all so frustrating to watch because it's just one big misunderstanding.

I really liked how the movie flowed. It sort of goes by slowly and has these sudden bursts of violence and moments of shock. I like that it takes its time and doesn't rush anything and the ending has so much suspense and is so well shot. I loved it.

Watching this film was sort of like watching those old noir films with the shady underhanded characters, the plot of murder, affair, and intrigue and the incredibly dark setting. The four main characters are the sleazy bar owner, the cheating wife, the jealous lover and the crooked private investigator. Everyone was great in their roles.

The film has a pretty unique style; it's almost as if the Coen brothers wanted you to know how bold they are. The camera moves quite a bit and uses strange camera angles. The phrase "self-conscious" is used a lot in describing Blood Simple. I'm not really sure what that means; perhaps it means that it is well aware of how different it feels and wants you to come along for the ride and embrace it.

Grade: A-

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Day 115 - 30 Minutes or Less

30 Minutes or Less (2011) directed by Ruben Fleischer

How do you compare movies across genres? You might argue that Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is a better comedy than The King's Speech is a drama, but does that mean it is a better movie? It's really hard to say. I think comedies are the most difficult movies to gauge because you go into them with completely different expectations than, say, an Oscar nominated drama. For instance, I gave critically acclaimed Winter's Bone and dirty comedy Horrible Bosses both B+'s, but isn't it obvious Winter's Bone is a "better" movie? Well, I suppose it depends on what you're looking for.

Comedies are tricky because you really only expect one thing out of them and that is to laugh. So you ask yourself the question, "Is this movie funny?" and if it is, it is automatically more fulfilling than most other movies no matter how absurd or stupid the plot may be. Of course the really good comedies will give you something else; they'll surprise you with moments of tenderness or exceptionally sharp wit or cleverness. Or they are so exceptionally funny that tears stream down your cheeks.

Since most comedies are at least a little bit funny, it is easy to assume they have done their job and inflate their grades. I am probably a little easy on them, like the mindless action flick, to a fault. By the same token, I find that I am also particularly hard on even the really good ones because, well, they're just comedies, right? (It is very rare for me to give a comedy an A.) What ends up happening is an elevated floor and a glass ceiling to the grades so most comedies get bunched up in the middle.

All of this is just filler material of course as there really isn't anything notable to say about 30 Minutes or Less. It is an obviously stupid film, but it does get in its moments of laughs. By nature of its sheer retardation and pretty awful acting it automatically limits what grade is possible for it. I'm still not sure how I feel about Jesse Eisenberg; he was good in Zombieland and The Social Network but can he play anything else but the awkward slacker type? Aziz Ansari is a funny comedian, but he is not a great actor. I've never been a huge fan of Danny McBride; he has his hits but also a lot of misses.

If you want to dig a little deeper, this film does deal with issues of friendship. Two sets of friends, Eisenberg/Ansari and McBride/Swardson both bicker throughout the film but when the going gets tough, they pull through for each other.

Grade: C

Friday, August 12, 2011

Day 114 - Nosferatu

Nosferatu (1922) directed by F.W. Murnau

As a kid, my favorite movie genre must have been anything with Chinese vampires. If I remember correctly, these movies were a combination of horror, martial arts, comedy, action and adventure. These elements varied from film to film, but the one constant were those scary zombie looking vampires. Before teenage girls wanted to hold hands and frolic in flowerbeds with them, people of all ages were terrified of vampires. They're undead creatures that want to suck your blood for goodness sakes. You should be running from them, not wanting to trade spit with them. In Chinese folklore, they aren't the beautiful shimmering models portrayed in Twilight, but hideous and ominous monsters out for blood. Somewhere along the way we forgot that vampires once captured our fears, not our hearts.

Nosferatu was the first, albeit unofficial, film adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula and played an important role in popularizing vampires in cinema, if not our minds. Here we see vampires for what they were all along, monsters. Count Orlock is more creature than man, with pointy ears, elongated claws and rodent like front teeth. The first time he appears on screen you don't really jump back in fright (this isn't that type of film) but feel his ominous presence. His presence is felt throughout the entire film even in the scenes he isn't there. In fact, we don't even see him until fifteen minutes in and the narrative jumps around quite a bit away from him, yet you can sense him lurking somewhere, in the shadows, in their dreams, anywhere, everywhere. And that is the key in making a memorable character, particularly a villain.

A mysterious buyer from Transylvania expresses interest in an abandoned house. The real estate people send their man Hutter to go out there to meet him. The road is dark and long. The local tavern falls into a deep silence when he reveals he's meeting a Count Orlock. His guides refuse to go further down the road this late at night. Something is clearly up and we haven't even caught a glimpse of the vampire yet. He commands your attention both on and off screen. The two have dinner together, Hutter accidentally cuts his finger, blood oozes out, Orlock's eyes widen, he tries to get a taste, the title card reads: "Blood! Your precious blood!" (What do you imagine would be the topic of discussion after that? Would it be awkward to cut your dinner short at that point?) Later, Orlock sees a picture of Hutter's wife in a pocket watch. "Is this your wife? What a lovely throat." Hutter's suspicions grow, so he snoops around and sees a coffin. I think the general rule is that you have to open any strange coffin you see. Yep, it's Orlock in there alright, sleeping in the middle of the day. Vampire confirmed. There is still the matter of him moving to this abandoned house and of course the fact that Hutter and his wife live directly across from it. Yes, Hutter's wife with her lovely throat.

The previous silent films I've watched (Modern TimesCity LightsThe General) have all been comedies which I think is the best medium for silent pictures. You can see a guy slipping on a banana peel or getting pied in the face and you laugh; there is no explanation needed. Nosferatu is a drama/horror which is more difficult to conceptualize with only images but I feel like it does it pretty well. The film is not particularly scary, especially by today's standards, but it does create visually striking images. Count Orlock looks dark and creepy; he looks like a villain. (The scene in the ship where he pops straight up out of his coffin is pretty freaky.) Like Fritz Lang's M, the film makes heavy use of shadows (both films being influenced by German Expressionism). It even has rudimentary special effects where Orlock vanishes into thin air. The film creates an eerie atmosphere that you can absorb visually rather than through its plot.

I can appreciate Nosferatu for its historical significance, even for moments of entertainment, but I have to admit that I was somewhat ambivalent overall. It just didn't excite me very much. This was definitely more of an atmosphere kind of movie; I'm sure if seen at the right time and in the right frame of mind, it can be really spooky, but I found myself more amused than terrified. It is easy to look back with fond memories at a film almost ninety years old, but seeing Count Orlock for the first time must have been quite the sight.

Grade: B-

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Day 113 - Star 80

Star 80 (1983) directed by Bob Fosse 

Today is my birthday, so I decided to pick a movie made in the same year I was born and I stumbled upon this disturbing little gem. Wow, was 1983 really 28 years ago?

I've never heard of Star 80 before so I assumed it probably sucked, but was intrigued by the description: the true story of Playboy Playmate of the year Dorothy Stratten who was murdered by her estranged husband Paul Snider. I decided to give it a shot and was hooked five minutes in. This is a really really good movie.

There are no mysteries in this film; it begins with the ending, Paul Snider covered in blood and Dorothy Stratten laying dead on the floor. The film is shown in a series of flashbacks; how Paul met Dorothy, her rise to fame, his growing instability and paranoia, all events leading to the tragic end. And in case you've forgotten, the film will remind you where it's all headed by weaving in the blood soaked ending throughout. Knowing the ending to the film makes all the events even more tragic. We see Dorothy's sweet innocence, her youth and nativity, her stunning beauty and we are disheartened to know that it does not end well for her and it comes in the most brutal way imaginable.

While watching Star 80 I was immediately reminded of a criminally underrated Martin Scorcese film, The King of Comedy. Both films share many of the same themes of an outsider trying to get in, desperation, rejection and isolation. Paul, a small time salesman, hustler and pimp discovers Dorothy and immediately takes advantage of her nativity and insecurity. The two become romantically involved and he convinces her to send photos to Playboy. She is his ticket to the big time, to his dreams of riches and fame. As you can guess, she becomes famous and he desperately tries to hold on to her coattails. Watching him try to rub elbows with the likes of Hugh Hefner and Hollywood stars makes you cringe in embarrassment. It is clear that Dorothy doesn't really need Paul anymore and we can see him slowly losing his grip on her and ultimately himself.

Eric Roberts' portrayal of Paul Snider is disturbing to say the least. He hits all the notes so well; paranoia, jealousy, insanity, and rage. He goes from slick con man who has this gorgeous girl under his thumb to a desperate man who's lost his grip on reality. He is almost a sympathetic character until you remember that he kills her, but even then maybe you sort of understand where he's coming from.

Dorothy is played by Mariel Hemingway, who I remember from Manhattan. She exudes a sweet innocence that makes her fate all the more tragic. (It's all in her wide puppy eyes.) She is a victim even before she gets killed. You can see it a mile away, marrying a much older man at eighteen, taken advantage of and manipulated. She never even realizes what a psychopath Paul is. It is easy to forget that Dorothy was only twenty years old when she died.

Star 80 is disturbing to think about let alone watch yet you feel compelled to see it all the way through. There are no moments to relax for the viewer; the build up to the inevitable makes the final moments drag on in despair, almost as if her death would be a relief. What a horrible thing to feel.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Day 112 - The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator (1940) directed by Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin and Hitler, two men forever linked in our minds because of one distinguishing feature, the toothbrush mustache. How ironic then that one man would help popularize the style and the other would guarantee it'd never become fashionable again. It was this distinguishing similarity that actually inspired Charlie Chaplin to make The Great Dictator, a satire on Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany, not his best film but perhaps his most important one for its political views and bravery. Chaplin and Hitler actually shared a lot in common; they were born four days apart in 1889, both grew up in relative poverty with alcoholic fathers and ailing mothers, but that is where the similarities stopped. Charlie Chaplin Jr. had this to say about the parallels between his father and Hitler, "Their destinies were poles apart. One was to make millions weep, while the other was to set the whole world laughing." (Wikipedia!)

The Great Dictator begins during World War I where a Jewish barber-soldier (Chaplin) is in the front lines for the fictitious country of Tomania. He helps save the life of a commander by flying them out of trouble, but crashes the plane causing him to get amnesia. Twenty years go by and he is released from the hospital to a different Tomania than he remembered, one where Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again) has taken over and where Jews are openly persecuted.

We first see Hynkel delivering a speech to a large crowd in impassioned and fiery German. Chaplin studied Hitler's speeches carefully for this role understanding that Hitler drew much of his power through his oratory skills. He makes it a point model Hynkel after Hitler and to also make him look like a total clown at the same time. In fact, Chaplin is not even speaking German at all, he's just speaking nonsensical gibberish that sounds like German. Perhaps this was a way for Chaplin to point out that Hitler's ideology was in fact pure nonsense. If you listen closely, he even says the phrases "cheese'n'crackers" and "large beer."

The narrative splits its time between the Jewish barber and Hynkel, one story showing the Jewish perspective during Nazi Germany and the other parodying Hitler. Because of this the film can feel a little disjointed as the two stories don't really interconnect until the very end and it goes long stretches (like twenty minutes at a time) without one character or the other on screen.  The Jewish barber's narrative seems like its missing scenes at times. For instance, he is shown escaping a concentration camp in a soldier's uniform, yet it never is explained or shown exactly how he escapes which seemed like a perfect spot to put in some classic Chaplin physical comedy and gags.

While the movie is humorous, I wouldn't go as far as to say it is really funny. I smiled at some of Chaplin's antics but never found myself with a full grin. The best parts are obviously when Hynkel is on screen because Chaplin makes sure to poke fun at him as much as possible. I liked the scenes when Benzino Napaloni (a caricature of Benito Mussolini) visits where Hynkel attempts to look more superior to him. It is explained to him that he should always be seated in a higher position looking down on him, leading to a hilarious barbershop scene where both men frantically adjust their chairs up and up.

It's impossible to really talk about this film without discussing the ending, but I don't really think I'm ruining anything by doing so. It should become apparent that at some point the barber and Hynkel will be mistaken for each other. (Otherwise why have the dual roles?) In the end, the barber posing as Hynkel makes his famous speech. Chaplin looks straight ahead to the camera, drops out of character, clearly speaks as himself and delivers a three plus minute monologue, calling out the evils of fascism and prejudice and pleading for freedom and unity. If you stop to think about it, this speech actually disrupts the narrative and has a completely different tone from the rest of the film; you can even go as far as to say it ruins the movie. But isn't this why Chaplin made the film in the first place, to launch an attack on Hitler? It was evident to me while watching it that Chaplin didn't care how this speech looked in the context of the movie, he clearly needed to get this off his chest and I applaud him for the courage and conviction in doing it.

Chaplin started filming The Great Dictator in 1938 when the rest of the world had a policy of appeasing Hitler and Hollywood for the most part remained mum on the subject. Chaplin, who worked independently from the major studios, spent $1.5 million of his own money on the film (if this movie failed it could have bankrupted him). Clearly he felt had something important to say. By the time the film was released in 1940, Germany was in an all out war with the rest of Europe and the film was greeted with open arms. The Great Dictator, while being a good film, is far more important in a historical context than a cinematic one, though often times there is little difference between the two.

Grade: B