Friday, September 30, 2011

Day 163 - Heavenly Creatures

Heavenly Creatures (1994) directed by Peter Jackson

Within the first two minutes of Heavenly Creatures I was hooked right in. It opens with a series of Pleasantville-style clips of Christchurch, New Zealand, then cuts to the two girls Pauline and Juliet running through the woods screaming at the top of their lungs. The scene is frantic, mysterious, foreboding, almost scary, and in the end we get to see their faces more clearly, splattered with blood. Something terrible has just happened. The screen fades to black with this inscription: "During 1953 and 1954 Pauline Yvonne Parker kept diaries recording her friendship with Juliet Marion Hulme. This is their story. All diary entries are in Pauline's own words." And now the film begins.

This opening scene gives all the subsequent scenes an eerie sense of doom since we know how it is going to end. We get to see the two girls' relationship with each other grow to unhealthy levels while nobody around them really understands the true depth of their obsession. Even when the parents voice their concern, they really have no idea just how far gone Pauline and Juliet have become.

Pauline is sort of a loner at school but is immediately intrigued by the new girl Juliet, who within a couple minutes is already correcting the French teacher. Pauline, normally so reserved, is drawn to Juliet's bold personality and love of the arts and in turn, Juliet can appreciate Pauline's receptiveness and wild imagination. The two girls are practically joined at the hip upon meeting each other, laughing and giggling to themselves, immersed in their own little world in more ways than anyone could imagine. They create their own fantasy world of Borovnia where, as the film progresses, they visit more frequently and with more intensity to the point where they, and the viewer, cannot differentiate between fantasy and reality. Director Peter Jackson blends the fantasy elements into the film with such style and imagination that I sort of slipped into their world with them. It is a truly unique and imaginative film.

The intensity of their relationship is so overwhelming that its almost suffocating. It is even more than just love (the film implies some homosexuality), it is infatuation and obsession. They are so emotionally intertwined with each other that attempting to break them apart will prove deadly. However, as is the case in many instances, if the two never met each other in the first place, they probably would have turned out okay. It was just a matter of two emotionally disturbed people coming together at the right time.

This film is notable for being Kate Winslet's debut role and she is really good here as Juliet. It's always interesting seeing one of an established actor's earlier roles and she basically looks exactly like she does now and has the same kind of presence to her in her other films. This was also Melanie Lynskey's debut role as well, who plays Pauline and is equally up to task. I actually don't really recognize her at all, even though after looking at her filmography, I've seen a bunch of her movies. I wonder why their careers have diverged so much despite starting at the same point. It's sad to say but I strongly suspect looks has a lot to do with it; Kate Winslet has always been pretty.

Anyways, this is a great film that left me sort of reeling. I think more than anything it is really good at conveying the psychology of the two characters, which is enhanced by the film's wonderfully strange fantasy elements. Forget Lord of the Rings, this is Peter Jackson's real masterpiece.

It is interesting to note that Juliet Hulme only spent five years in prison and has since changed her name to Anne Perry, a best selling crime fiction author who's now 72. It's kind of crazy to think about really after watching this film.

Grade: A

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Day 162 - Weird Science

Weird Science (1985) directed by John Hughes

This is going to be a somewhat shocking confession: I have not seen any of the films from John Hughes's 1980's teen comedy trilogy, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Weird Science. I don't really have any reasonable explanation for why, I just never got around to watching them.

Weird Science is sort of like every geek's life goal but played out in fantasy form. Study hard in school, get good grades, get a good job, attract a woman who is looking for stability and intelligence, score. That is how the real world works, but unfortunately not how high school works. The geeks and dweebs get picked on by the cool kids and ignored by the girls, while the cool kids run the school. This is obviously hyperbole but still kind of true. It never made sense to me of course, since the nerds are the guys who end up being rich and successful while the cool kids end up in cubicles working for them.

Anyways in Weird Science, best friends Gary and Wyatt decide to skip the whole growing up part to get the girl and just make one themselves, Frankenstein style. The only problem is that after creating Lisa, they're still the same socially awkward geeks. It's all about growing pains and getting over that hump. As most of us get older, we become more mature and sure of ourselves and thankfully the girls that are worthwhile do too. Lisa wants Gary and Wyatt to be comfortable as who they truly are, two wonderful guys any girl would be lucky to have. It is a kind of cliche made for the movies type lesson, but it does have a ring of truth to it.

So the film is pretty cheesy and its target audience is obviously for boys aged 15 and younger but I enjoyed watching it for pure nostalgia, which is strange since I've never seen this movie before and I was never older than seven during the '80's. Yet, I understood the kids' fears and anxieties perfectly well and, let's be honest, who hasn't fantasized about creating their perfect woman? I'm 28 years old and I am still pretty shy and socially awkward so the film still has some relevance to me. Weird Science isn't really a good movie, in fact some parts are actually pretty bad, but its cheesiness actually works for it making a fun and light coming of age story.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Day 161 - Killer Elite

Killer Elite (2011) directed Gary McKendry

The other day my friend and I were discussing movies based on fact; you know the classic movie tagline, "Based on true events." It is somewhat of a misnomer because that can mean almost anything. Characters are changed around, inconvenient facts are ignored, other events are flat out invented, so it is important to take movies that present itself as factual with a grain of salt; they almost never are.

There is a caption in the beginning of the film that claims Killer Elite is based on real events. If this were true, it would be an incredible story full of espionage, murder, and intrigue. However, the characters are a little too incredible, the action a little too good for me to really believe this. Take away the "based on real events" tagline and what you end up getting is a somewhat pedestrian action thriller. The action would be spectacular in real life, but not really in the movies. The story would be fascinating if true, but not really in the movies. If you're going to take liberties with the truth, you might as well make it bigger and louder and more intriguing, otherwise you end up with a sort of wishy washy movie that tries to ground itself in fact but touched up for Hollywood.

As it turns out, the events of this movie are based on the book The Feather Men which itself claims to be based on fact. So why is the movie called Killer Elite rather than The Feather Men? Well aside from the more macho title, it's because the movie isn't really even about the events of the book. It takes one premise of it, the assassination of former SAS members over a seventeen year period, and makes an action picture out of it that spans no more than one month led by one man when in reality it must have been an entire multi-million dollar covert government operation. From what I gather, the character that Clive Owens plays may very well be based on a real person, but Jason Statham's character, the protagonist of the film, is almost certainly fictionalized or heavily altered. This begs the question then, if you don't have fact based characters and events to limit you, then why couldn't the writer of the screenplay write something more interesting than what he came up with?

Anyways, all that aside, it isn't a film's responsibility to present itself as factual. I don't hate on period films if they're wildly inaccurate, that is of course unless they claim themselves to be based on fact which Killer Elite sort of does. Either way, the film isn't really that interesting. It is also a bad sign if in the middle of an action movie, you think to yourself, "Man, this is a really long movie," only to find out that it isn't even two hours long. I like Jason Statham but it seems to be he plays the same character in every movie.

All in all, a pretty mediocre action movie that has its moments of intrigue and excitement, but also has long lulls that I wish were cut shorter or made more interesting. One of the questions I like to ask myself about the worthiness of a film is if I will remember anything notable from it three months from now; the answer to this movie is no.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Day 160 - Man Bites Dog

Man Bites Dog (1992) directed by Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel and Benoit Poelvoorde

Man Bites Dog begins with a strangling filmed with casual indifference. This immediately sets the tone for the rest of the "documentary," in which fictitious serial killer Ben goes around causing all sorts of mayhem, which includes more murder, breaking and entering, robbery, and rape. He is no philistine though as he also provides invaluable insight to his crimes, such as the proper technique for weighing dead bodies down under water and why he rarely ever kills children (while suffocating one under a pillow). "They're too much of a hassle," he says. "Especially when the media gets involved."

This is an ironic statement considering the role media plays in this film. Ben is followed diligently by his camera crew who attempt to film a fly-on-the-wall type of documentary with as much objectivity and indifference as possible. However as the film progresses, the film crew becomes more and more involved with Ben's crimes. It begins with shining the camera's light in a dark room so Ben can locate his victim. It progresses to Ben allowing one of them to make a kill himself. In the pinnacle of their debauchery they take turns raping a woman.

The film is so over the top violent that it cannot be taken seriously, yet it is enough to make you think as to what they are trying to say. I took the relationship between Ben and his film crew as a statement of the media's role regarding the attitudes of violence. This can be seen in the news every day as the leading stories seem to always be crime related; murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery, etc. Man Bites Dog puts all this out in front and works well as a satire. While being very dark and morbid, it is also at times very funny. We are allowed to laugh because we realize just how ridiculous it is.

I like violence in my films as much as the next guy, and I think this film does it well, but its message seems so simple and obvious that I wonder if all the blood could have been saved for something more poignant. Or maybe there is something deeper, I just haven't figured it out yet. (I haven't read any reviews or analysis of the film yet.) I will give Man Bites Dog credit for having such a unique premise though; it had me hooked from the very start. It is helped by Ben's character, who is clearly a psychopath, yet is so affable and funny, making him almost likable.

Grade: B

Monday, September 26, 2011

Day 159 - The Long Good Friday

The Long Good Friday (1980) directed by John Mackenzie

Doesn't it seem like every gangster wants to make it in the real world? They always have dreams of going legit but as soon as they have one foot out the door something seemingly always pulls them back in. Meet Harold Shand. He is a London mob boss working on the deal of his life. With the help of the American mafia financing part of the deal, he intends to flip a bunch of real estate that could potentially earn him billions. But just as Harold is about to get everything he wants, an unknown enemy sets out to destroy everything he's built; first his good friend is stabbed to death, then a series of bombs targeting Harold's establishments. Harold only has the next couple days to find out who's behind it all before his American investors back out of the deal.

Almost the entirety of the plot is devoted to Harold trying to keep everything under control while figuring out who's behind all the anarchy. He often mentions the ten years of peace and prosperity under his rule that is now being threatened. He's graduated beyond the petty bullshit of the street, but as the story progresses he slowly but surely returns to his roots to get things done. Much of the joy in the film is in watching Bob Hoskins play Harold with a fierce conviction. He is without a doubt a tough as nails gangster. In one scene, he rounds up a group of suspects, hanging them upside down in a warehouse alongside racks of meat.

The film works as a mystery that slowly reveals itself to Harold and the viewer. We are introduced to characters and events that we have no context for until later in the film. If you're not paying attention (like I wasn't at some parts of the film) then you'll miss the answer to a question somewhere down the road, or conversely you'll have an answer to a question you didn't even know was asked. We can relate to Harold's frustrations as he seeks information but can never seemingly get it.

Even though I was lost at some points, I really enjoyed watching Hoskins just own the screen. His monologue, or rather diatribe, at the end is quite good as is the close up of his face to close the film. If there was just one thing to take away from this movie it would be Hoskins's performance.

Grade: B

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Day 158 - Moneyball

Moneyball (2011) directed by Bennett Miller

Like many people, I was somewhat skeptical when I heard that Moneyball was being made into a movie. How would a largely intellectual discussion about baseball statistics make a compelling story on screen? It didn't really seem like the kind of book that would translate that well as it is mainly a story about ideas rather than human drama. Compare that to another Michael Lewis book turned into film, The Blindside, which tells the inspiring true story of a young football player. As someone who's read Moneyball and followed the Oakland Athletics during this time, I wondered how they would handle the story. Would it be a feel good underdog sports movie? Would it be a character driven story of Billy Beane? Or would it stick true to its roots and present a calculated look at baseball statistics and the business of baseball? Short answer, a little bit of everything. What results is a surprisingly rich story that integrates as much as it can from the book while taking liberties to ensure it make a compelling film.

Moneyball is a sports movie that isn't really about sports. It is a movie about moral victories, about how one measures success and failure, seeing value in others and ultimately yourself, and mostly about one man's drive to change perception and challenge the status quo. Billy Beane was once a highly touted prospect possessing all the abilities that baseball scouts drooled over. He could run, field, throw, hit for power and hit for average, a rare five tool player. He ended up being a huge bust, never living up to his expectations. After ending his playing career with the Oakland A's in 1989, he decided to become a scout and quickly worked his way up the ladder; by 1998 he was the general manager of the entire team. It is his own failures as a ball player that cause him to doubt the conventional wisdom of baseball analysis.

The film opens with the small market A's being eliminated from the 2001 playoffs at the hands of big market Yankees. As anybody who's read the book knows, the story doesn't focus on the games being played on the field, but rather the battle behind the scenes. It is not a game of bats and balls, but a game of money. How are the $38 million Athletics supposed to compete with the $140 million Yankees? It is a question that Billy Beane must face in the difficult offseason ahead. After losing key players to free agency, Beane, with the help of his geeky assistant Peter Brand, must construct a team of undervalued players, castaways from other teams, "like an island of misfit toys."

The struggle of the film revolves around what Beane and Brand are trying to do in opposition of what traditional baseball people think. Jonah Hill is perfectly cast in his role as Brand, who is loosely based on Paul DePodesta, Beane's assistant GM at the time. He is portrayed as a chubby soft spoken geek who's never played the game of baseball. What could he possibly know that baseball people who've been around the game their entire lives didn't?

Growing up, I was fascinated with baseball statistics and what they told me about a player. Just by looking at the numbers on the back of a baseball card I could imagine the picture on the front. 40 home runs and 100 RBI meant a big powerful first baseman. 40 steals meant a small but speedy guy. 20 wins for a pitcher meant he was an ace. It is basic statistics like these that people have been using for a hundred years to evaluate players. But just because an idea has been in place for a long time doesn't necessarily mean it's right. If that was the case, then wouldn't the world still be flat? In the past twenty years or so, advanced statistics that do a better job in capturing a player's ability have been developed, not by former players or life long scouts, but by baseball outsiders like Peter Brand in the movie, like Bill James in real life. There has been an ongoing struggle within the baseball community between sabermetricians and baseball insiders stuck in their old way of thinking. As Billy Beane says to one of his scouts, "Adapt or die."

That is at the heart of Moneyball, one man's quest to challenge conventional wisdom, to change the way people think, more so than actually winning baseball games. Towards the end of the film, Beane confides to Brand that he isn't in it for the money, or even for a ring, but to do something impacting and meaningful in the game that he loves. The film does a great job in capturing this sentiment in Billy Beane's character. Brad Pitt portrays him as deeply passionate but quietly reflective and does a pretty good job in capturing Beane's essence. Particularly effective are more personal scenes added to the screenplay between him and his daughter. Like any good sports movie, you have to care about the characters before you can care about the games.

And what of the games? There are actually very few scenes of baseball being played. Aside from the climatic ending, we don't really ever get into a game. There are no dramatic come from behind victories or perfect games, just clips of random scenes here and there, which seems appropriate since Billy Beane never watches the games himself. Moneyball is more about the behind the scenes look of a ball club, the daily interactions in the clubhouse between the players, coaches, scouts and managers which the film captures pretty well.

I liked Moneyball because I am familiar with the story and the team and I love baseball. I wonder though how someone with no interest in baseball, let alone baseball statistics, would view the movie. It is a sort of niched drama masquerading as a sports movie. Would other people find it as interesting as I did? I don't know about that, but I will say that movie is well made and smartly written. I actually have seen Billy Beane and heard him speak. Brad Pitt doesn't look like him at all and it's strange watching such a big star play such a seemingly unimportant (in the grand scheme of things) person. It works though I guess. Even after watching it and writing about it, I'm still not sure how much I really enjoyed the movie itself. It is hard to differentiate between the book, my experiences watching the team and watching this movie. It all sort of rolls into one. I still feel like it is a really hard subject matter for a film, but for the most part I think it delivers.

Grade: B

Note: The film does take a lot of liberties with the facts. For instance, even despite losing Giambi, Damon and Izzy, this team was still loaded with talent. To call this an underdog team is a bit of an overstatement as the 2002 A's were still projected to do pretty well. Yes they brought in a couple guys, but the success of the team wasn't built around them, it was from the home grown talent they already had in Tejada, Chavez and the Big Three (Hudson, Mulder, and Zito), who were conspicuously missing from the film.

I found it somewhat strange that there were a lot of scenes discussing things with scouts and the draft is never once brought up. The A's success during that time was in their homegrown talent that they drafted and the book discussed the draft process in great detail. I understand why they cut it out though since the movie is really only about the 2002 season.

In the film the Peter Brand character, essentially Paul DePodesta, introduces Billy Beane to the advanced statistics and joins the team after the 2001 season. In reality, Beane was already reading up on Bill James stuff in the 90's and DePodesta was already the assistant GM of the team by 1999.

Final note: I really like Scott Hatteberg. I was fortunate enough to have dinner with him one day along with Tim Hudson. They were really nice guys, so it was fun watching Hatty's character have a nice role on screen.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Day 157 - Walkabout

Walkabout (1971) directed by Nicolas Roeg

In another Australian film I watched, Rabbit-Proof Fence, the central characters are three Aborigine children who run away to the wilderness, unable to adapt to white society. In Walkabout, roles are reversed as two white children are stranded in the wilderness where their "civilized" upbringing does them no good. Both films highlight the difficulties each culture, particularly whites, have in understanding each other.

Walkabout begins with a father taking his teenage daughter and young son out to the desert to have a picnic. He then inexplicably starts shooting at them causing them to flee and hide. Then he sets the car on fire and shoots himself in the head, thus stranding the two children in the middle of nowhere. After salvaging what she can, the girl leads her brother away from the wreckage and they wander the wilderness. Being proper English kids, they are ill prepared for the desert and soon find themselves laying beside a dried up waterhole dying of dehydration. They are rescued by a Aboriginal boy on a walkabout, a rite of passage where he must go into the outback and survive on his own. He allows the two of them to tag along his walkabout as they wander the vast wilderness.

I think when most people read that premise, they would assume that the film is about the noble savage and the ignorant white man, where the "savage" teaches the other about the virtues of his culture, nature, and ultimately friendship. On the surface, this is what Walkabout would seem to be about. The Aborigine boy acts as their survival guide; hunting, starting fires, finding water and trekking across the landscape. However beneath the beautiful shots of nature and budding companionship lies an uncertainty between the boy and the girl. While watching, I read it as a sexual tension between the two, and there is definitely a strong sexual undertone to the film. They are two teenagers at the cusp of their sexuality and there are several not-so-subtle shots to support their quiet fixation (and fear) of each other. However, even beyond that, there is the issue of communication.

I guess I forgot to mention that the boy does not speak or understand English and obviously the girl and her brother do not speak his language either. If there is a conflict of the film, it is in the failure of the boy and the girl to communicate with each other despite their unspoken friendship. They have grown up in their own separate worlds and cannot cross over. Director Nicolas Roeg points out the folly of their plight in pointing out that their worlds are actually quite similar. He does this by inserting shots of the "civilized" world and juxtaposing them with shots of the wilderness. For instance, when the boy starts to cut up a kangaroo he just killed, it is contrasted with a butcher at a store butchering meat, showing that they are one and the same. Unfortunately it is a conclusion they cannot reach on their own.

Throughout the film, the girl never really adapts to the wilderness or more importantly, to the boy. She still sees herself as a proper English girl and is concerned with keeping their clothes clean as to not look like tramps and reminding her brother to not ruin his good shoes. When they first meet she runs up to the boy asking for water over and over in English even when it is clear he does not understand. In perhaps the most significant line of the film, she says to him:

"Water. Drink. We want water to drink. you must understand! Anyone can understand that. We want to drink. I can't make it any simpler. Water. To drink. The water hole has dried up. Where do they keep the water?"

English speakers are the worst at this as they automatically assume that other people will understand them if they just somehow say the same thing differently or repeatedly. As someone who has difficulty communicating with my grandparents in Chinese, I can attest to this. If I don't know a word in Chinese I will simply say it in English, hoping, expecting, that they understand. I will even go as far as to say that English word in a Chinese accent as if that will help. It does not.

It is important to note that in this scene after the girl's rant, the young brother is able to get his point across through sign language. He simply points to his mouth and makes a sound and instantly the Aborigine understands. Throughout the film the two of them are able to communicate in a way that the girl cannot because she is too far gone into her way of thinking. It is because of the boy's youth and nativity that he is able to adapt better to the wilderness and the Aborigine.

Perhaps more tragic is the Aborigine's inability to express himself to the girl. There is a quiet bond between the two that seems obvious to the viewer yet the two cannot find a way to acknowledge each other in that manner. There is a curious scene in the middle where he leads the two past a camp and doesn't tell them about it. What is his motivation? I took it to mean that he liked them too much to let them go or maybe he assumed they'd stick around forever, but even if they did, could their silent happiness last? At the end of the film, the Aborigine attempts to win her over with a courtship dance that she does not understand. But more tragically, like how she persisted about the water in English, he doesn't know any other way to get his point across. He persists with the dance all day and night, not understanding that she doesn't understand and has thus rejected it without knowing it, which leads to the somber ending.

Wow, that was a lot of analysis I just did, but I really like how in a film where there doesn't seem to be much plot at all, you can still talk about so much, yet I barely scratched the surface about the film's qualities. Walkabout is a really beautifully shot film showcasing the Australian outback in an almost surreal manner. You don't really know how long they have been wandering around for. It could be a couple days, it could just as easily be a month; there is no real sense of time in the film. I really liked these scenes as it was sort of like a buddy road trip movie. All they have are each other and they seem genuinely happy together and be in one with nature. I suppose the pinnacle of this sentiment is a scene where the girl swims in a pond naked in a moment of pure tranquillity, a scene that is later reflected upon longingly years later when she is back in civilization.

If I had one complaint about the film, it is that after the girl and her brother find the road, there is a lull that lessens the impact of what just proceeded it. I feel that could have been tightened up a little if not cut out completely. Other than that, I really liked this film. There are those moments of joy and beauty, yet it is underlined by a pessimistic and somber feeling. Despite their experiences with each other, the boy can never be a part of her world and vice versa. The typical noble savage story takes a wrong turn as she never truly allows herself to open up to him though years later it is one of her biggest regrets as she thinks back upon those moments. It is not necessarily a story of people being lost in the wilderness, but a story of people being lost in themselves.*

Grade: A-

*Pretty sure I read that line somewhere, but I'm not sure who to credit.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Day 156 - Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Conan The Barbarian (1982) directed by John Milius

"Run! Go! Get to the chopper!"

For those who don't know the reference, I highly suggest checking out Aires Spears's Arnold impressions on Youtube. Classic stuff.

When I was little I used to rush home after school to watch afternoon cartoons which included Conan the Adventurer. I imagine I'm not alone in saying that I was a fan of the sword and sorcery genre. They were fun and exciting with a strong hero every kid wanted to be. So it was much to my delight to stumble upon this classic Arnold flick figuring it'd appeal to my inner child. Plus it'd be fun to watch him in his breakout role and get in a few unintentional laughs. Going into Conan, I already had a B/B- in mind. It's a classic action fantasy adventure starring Arnold so it should be a fun watch right? I never realized just how tedious the genre could be.

I suppose the main problem with this film, and many other films of the genre, is that once you get past the beginning that sets up the plot, it just becomes a series of unrelated adventures that don't really add any momentum to the story. Conan travels here and fights these guys, which leads him to go to this place to fight those guys and so forth. All the while, the central plot is sort of set aside and you lose focus on Conan's quest for revenge which was established in the very beginning of the film. By the time he finally confronts Thulsa Doom, the impact of the encounter is greatly diminished. Yeah, yeah I know. It's supposed to be about watching Arnold flex his muscles and swing his sword, but the action sequences end up being less interesting without anything meaningful to tie them together. I've seen a bazillion movie sword fights in my day, and the ones in Conan aren't all that memorable, so it's got to offer me something a little bit more to keep my attention. What Conan ends up being is a pretty generic and mundane experience with mediocre action sequences that don't amount to anything.

But there is of course Arnold which is why you're really watching this movie in the first place. The first sounds he makes in the film are a series of guttural grunts that had me laughing. I wonder how you'd spell out these sounds phonically. I suppose it'd be something like, "Ge-ow-ahhh-ungh! Gnaaaah-uhhh-yeow-yee-owwwww!" (I was seriously trying.) There is a scene where he punches a camel in the face. But other than that, there isn't much to laugh about. Arnold and this film takes itself entirely too seriously. One of Arnold's best traits is his subtle humor in his roles which is surprisingly lacking here. Naturally he doesn't have many lines of dialogue here. In most of Arnold's movies the dialogue is usually propped up by his supporting cast. Unfortunately they may be even worse than he is (aside from James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom).

Anyways, I had high hopes going in and really wanted to enjoy anything out of the movie, but it just wouldn't let me. I wouldn't say Conan the Barbarian is particularly bad, it just doesn't do anything good at all. It's just really mediocre.

Grade: C

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Day 155 - To Live and Die in L.A.

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) directed by William Friedkin

A couple days ago I watched Drive which pays much homage to the 1980's. I think it might have been trying to reach To Live and Die in L.A. for its style and over the top execution. Noted for its action sequences, particularly its famous car chase scene, I think To Live and Die in L.A. is actually more memorable for its performances and human drama.

This movie is a tough and gritty crime drama but what differentiates it from most is in its moral ambiguity. The protagonist of the film, Chance, is a secret service agent hell bent on bringing down Eric Masters, a counterfeiter that killed his partner. He gradually cares less and less about rules and procedures and becomes more reckless in his pursuit. Chase's new partner John asks, "Why don't you just go straight to Masters's house and blow his brains out? That's what you want anyways right?" I think Chase would if he could legally get away with it.

I think films from the 80's typically age worse than films from any other era for a variety reasons. Two are purely cosmetic but can be ultra distracting in a film; fashion and music. Nothing dates a movie more than faded jeans, white sneakers and those crazy hair styles. Luckily this film has a little more sense in style, it sort of plays like Miami Vice but set in L.A. in this regard, but it is noticeable here and there. Then, of course, is the music. There isn't a trashier sounding era than the 80's and I actually like a lot of songs from the 80's. I can deal with it, but I definitely prefer more classical sounding scores made with instruments rather than synthesizers and such. I'm sure the soundtrack sounded hip back in 1985, but it is more of a novelty now in 2011.

I also feel for some reason picture quality really took a huge step back in the 1980's. Remember those old home videos made with VHS tapes back in the day? That is how a lot of movies from the 1980's look. There are some parts of this movie that looks really bad even if they are technically well shot. Compare these pictures to movies made from the 40's to the 60's. A lot of those movies looked really good. (I'm sure Technicolor and black and white had a lot to do with that though.) Anyways enough about my 80's rant.

Despite all of that, To Live and Die in L.A. holds up pretty well in other ways. Its dark and cynical tone definitely jibes more with today's audience than stories starring super moralistic heroes. The characters are more complicated than simple good guys and bad guys. There is the grey area that the heroes are constantly crossing. I've read that the film can almost be considered nihilistic and that makes a lot of sense especially when considering how the final showdown goes down in the end. Stuff happens but there is not much fanfare about it. Quick, simple, no music or dramatic cuts. It just happens.

I enjoyed the performances. The characters are a bit over the top, but it fits in well with the film's style. I particularly liked watching William Defoe as Eric Masters. It's weird seeing him so young, but it is most definitely him; he has that calm ruthlessness in his face.

Oh, and the film's most famous moment is undoubtedly its car chase scene which is routinely listed in lists of best movie car chases. This film was directed by William Friedkin who also directed The French Connection which also has a memorable car chase (or so I'm told; I haven't seen the movie yet.) The scene is pretty good, though it would have never occurred to me while watching it that I was watching one of the best scenes ever of that type. It does involve a pretty crazy feat though that would still be impressive today, driving against moving traffic at high speeds. The best car chase scene I've ever seen is probably in Ronin, which does the same thing; perhaps that movie owes its inspiration to this one.

Solid action drama.

Grade: B

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Day 154 - His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday (1940) directed by Howard Hawks

I'm honestly not purposely trying to watch every Howard Hawks film. I just happen to keep finding a bunch of interesting ones that I want to see. Here is a 1940 screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell known for its rapid fire dialogue and witty banter. I really like these kind of movies even though it seems like all they do is talk and talk. As long as what they are saying is interesting I could watch all day. One of my favorite films is 12 Angry Men which is basically twelve guys sitting around in a room talking the entire time. His Girl Friday is not quite as loquacious as say, Claire's Knee, but far more interesting for my tastes.

The movie begins with star newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson (Russell) going to see her ex-husband and boss Walter Burns (Cary Grant) to tell him that she is getting married and quitting the newspaper business. She wants to settle down and be a "real human." Walter obviously still loves her though he is actually even more upset about losing his best reporter, so he does everything to delay their trip to Albany where they are getting married. Walter even goes as far as to get her fiance Bruce arrested over and over again on phony charges. Naturally, a big story breaks loose and Hildy cannot resist the urge to cover the story much to Walter's delight. The movie revolves around Hildy's conflicted feelings between the job she clearly loves, the ex-husband she both loves and hates and the poor sap that she's engaged to.

Cary Grant gets the top billing but I think Rosalind Russell is the real star of the film. Interestingly, in the play The Front Page and its first movie adaptation, Hildy's character was actually a man. It was Howard Hawks's idea to change the protagonist's gender to a woman giving the film a romantic element and a sort of feminist voice featuring a strong and independent woman equal to her male peers. Thinking of the structure of the movie and the dynamic between the characters, I think it works sooooo much better this way. I've never heard of Russell before (and none of her films in her filmography sound familiar) but she is really good here. She goes toe to toe with Cary Grant and comes out on top in many of the exchanges. Obviously the screenplay helps a lot but it takes a strong and confident actress to deliver the lines and she hits all the notes correctly. Despite the fact that his character is so dastardly underhanded, Cary Grant displays his signature charm and smooth moves.

I liked My Girl Friday. It is well written and well acted. I constantly found myself smiling at the jokes, though it isn't quite as funny as I expected based from the reviews (though still pretty funny). I loved the way they talked and acted, fast and full of energy. It works even better with the bustling go go go attitude of the newspaper business and of the big city.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Day 153 - Ponyo

Ponyo (2009) directed by Hayao Miyazaki

I first came to know Hayao Miyazaki through Princes Mononoke, which I thought was quite good, though out of contention for any personal favorites list. Then I watched Spirited Away, which has enormous acclaim. I appreciated it, but only sort of liked it, as it didn't seem to impress upon me the way it did many other people. I was beginning to fear that perhaps I didn't really dig Miyazaki's style. Two highly acclaimed films that I didn't absolutely love (impossibly high expectations, I know) from the so-called father of animation. Maybe it's just not my thing. Then today I watched Ponyo, which I really really enjoyed.

The movie draws its inspiration from the fairytale The Little Mermaid, telling the story of a magical goldfish named Ponyo who gets trapped in a bottle and is washed ashore. She is saved by a young boy named Sosuke who promises to always take care of her. Ponyo then turns human and wishes to stay this way. However, her transformation causes a great disturbance in the balance of the world and soon a violent storm wreaks havoc on the world. The only way to restore balance is for Ponyo to come back to the sea or become fully human, which can only happen through true love between Ponyo and Sosuke. But this isn't really a film you watch for the story. You watch it for the pure joy of watching art in motion. You watch it to have your imagination and sense of child-like wonder reached out to. You watch it because you want to believe in magic. You watch it for its simplicity, its elegance, its charm, and its beautiful innocence. Few other films have made me so happy from just simply watching it.

There is a point in the film, after a big storm where everything is flooded, that I didn't even really care what was going on in the story. I was just awestruck in watching Ponyo and Sosuke simply float around in their toy boat. I imagine the feeling I got from these scenes are similar to the feelings that other people got from the entire experience of Spirited Away. It's just really magical, wonderful, special, and any other superlative you can think of. It is hard to describe the combination of feelings and visual imagery that make these moments so profound; it is simply something that must be seen, or rather experienced.

The animation is deceptively simple but quite beautiful. I know computer animation is all the rage these days, and many of those films do look really good, but in my book, nothing beats a good hand drawn picture. It looks particularly gorgeous on Blu-ray on a big screen TV.

Ponyo is a fantastic children's movie, but I think it is something that can be deeply appreciated by adults as well. Its beauty is in its pure innocence. It brought me back to a time when I was filled with such hope and wonder.

Grade: A

Monday, September 19, 2011

Day 152 - To Have and Have Not

To Have and Have Not (1944) directed by Howard Hawks

Another movie that I didn't know was directed by Howard Hawks. This was part of a a Bogart/Bacall DVD set I have that includes The Big Sleep. It is easy to draw comparisons to the two films since they both star Bogart and Bacall and was directed by Hawks. However, I think a better comparison is to Casablanca for its story and setting.

To Have and Have Not stars Bogie as an American living in the French island of Martinique. He makes it clear from the beginning that he is only in it for the money and could care less about the local politics which have grown increasingly violent. Like Rick Blaine from Casablanca, the more Harry "Steve" Morgan seems to resist taking sides, the more entrenched he becomes in the fight. It is a great story of the reluctant sort of anti-hero that Bogart excelled at playing. He tries to convince other people, and perhaps himself, that he is only doing the job for the money, but we know that isn't really true. I think Bogart really nails this role.

This film is perhaps more notable for featuring Lauren Bacall's debut performance at just age nineteen. A lot is said about Bogart and Bacall's chemistry in The Big Sleep, but I personally think their dynamic in this film is much stronger. Bacall's performance in this film is pretty remarkable for such a young actress. She displays a confidence and look to her character more befitting of actresses twice her age. Bogart and Bacall have great scenes together helped by some pretty snappy dialogue, perhaps the most famous line coming from Slim (Bacall): "You don't know how to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just a whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow."

When she kisses him:

Steve: What was that for?
Slim: I'd been wondering if I'd like it.
Steve: What's the decision?
Slim: I don't know yet. [They kiss again] It's even better when you help.

It's the kind of classic smooth talking romance you'd imagine from these kind of films.

The guy who plays Eddie, Walter Brennan, also starred in another Howard Hawks film, Rio Bravo, basically playing the exact same character. He is Steve's one good friend, but is mainly there for comic relief. He does a good job at it, but in some scenes he borders on being super annoying. It is interesting watching Steve deal with the two relationships of his life, Eddie and Slim, which reveal a great deal about his character.

I really enjoyed the film. It's an entertaining romance with memorable characters and performances, reminiscent of Casablanca. Something interesting I read about the film is that Howard Hawks made a sort of boast to his friend Ernest Hemingway that he could make a movie out of what the author considered his worst book, To Have and Have Not. It is a testament to his abilities as a director to make a compelling movie out of a bad book. Of course the movie is nothing like the book and by the end of all the rewrites they had very little in common. It just goes to show that directors shouldn't get all the credit. Screenplays go a long way too.

Grade: A-

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Day 151 - Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) directed by Howard Hawks

Howard Hawks was a director of many tastes. This is the fourth film I've seen of his and they've all been drastically different. Scarface was the quintessential gangster film back in the day. The Big Sleep helped put the hard boiled detective on the map. Rio Bravo is considered an all time great western. So it was much to my surprise when watching this whimsical musical comedy to see "directed by Howard Hawks" in the credits. That being said, these films are so different from each other, I could never guess they were made by the same guy. I don't really know much about Howard Hawks or his style but is there a common theme to his works? Signature shots? Types of characters he likes to use? Wikipedia is pretty vague in this matter only mentioning a couple of his quotes. What makes a good movie? "Three great scenes, no bad ones." Also a good director is "someone who doesn't annoy you." I could definitely agree with that sentiment.

So anyways, there isn't really much to say about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It is a decent enough musical and occasionally quite funny comedy. The real reason to watch this movie is of course for Marilyn Monroe who basically ruins it for all blondes, ensuring that they will never be taken seriously again. It is the classic ditzy blonde bimbo, and a gold, or should I say diamond, digger to boot. Monroe's star power was almost like a black hole. No matter where she is on screen or what she is doing, your eyes just gravitate towards her, often times at the expense of the people on screen. (Sorry Jane Russell!) Here she has a bubbly charm that is impossible to ignore. She has a few gags throughout which mostly plays on her dumbness and gold digging, but what I liked about her character is that by the end she isn't nearly as dumb as she would seem nor the cold hearted gold digger you assume her to be.

This movie gets extra bonus points for Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend, an iconic song by an iconic woman. Nicole Kidman sings it in Moulin Rogue, a personal favorite movie of mine, though I did not know where the original song came from. Now I know! It is one of the highlights of the film.

It's hard to really say anything about this movie. I can't even say for certain if I liked it. It sort of just breezes by, telling some jokes and singing a couple of songs along the way. It isn't a heavy hitting film; it is light and easy, so there isn't that much to dig into. It isn't particularly memorable, though there isn't really anything bad about it either. It looks good in Technicolor. The Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend number looks particularly good. The dialogue is pretty snappy and witty. And of course there is Marilyn Monroe.

Grade: B-

P.S. This is one of the first posts I can say with certainty that I half-assed. Can't bring the heat every day, nah mean?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Day 150 - The Crow

The Crow (1994) directed by Alex Proyas

Watching Brandon Lee in The Crow reminded me of a couple of people. The most obvious one to me is Sting back when wrestling was at its awesomest. (Be honest, you used to watch wrestling and you loved it.) He totally ripped off The Crow's whole look and persona. I wonder if there were any lawsuits. The other reminders are unfortunately for somber reasons. One is his father, the legendary Bruce Lee, who also died well before his prime. The other is Heath Ledger who also donned face paint in his last role in The Dark Knight. Watching Brandon Lee and Ledger play such dark characters in these films made their performances all the more special, all the more tragic. Anyone familiar with The Crow gets the cruel joke, Brandon Lee playing a guy who returns from the dead. The fact that he died filming the movie makes The Crow remembered for all the wrong reasons, but also enhances it as well, adding to the dark and foreboding feel of the film, making his character all the more real and ominous.

I'll just be honest here though; The Crow is a decent movie that has probably maintained its popularity due to its circumstances. Would it still be on anyone's radar if Brandon Lee were still alive? That being said, there are plenty of good things about the film, namely its ability to create and maintain a dark and edgy atmosphere that many other films fail to capture. Set during Devil's Night in Detroit,  the film does a good job in capturing the dark and grimy feel that is reminiscent of Batman's Gotham City. It is not a place you'd feel safe walking alone at night and is a perfect setting for The Crow to lurk in the shadows.

The story is simple enough. A man and his wife are brutally murdered one night. Sometimes when someone dies a particularly horrific death their soul is allowed to return with the help of a crow to set things right. One year later the man returns from the dead to enact revenge on those who murdered him and his wife. He has come back angry and out to kill, but also tries to hang on to his humanity through connections to his past life, mainly his relationship with with a little girl he once knew and the police officer who worked his murder case. The plot doesn't matter that much. It's all about the look and feel. It's about the under-lit alleyways, the dark corners, the shadows, the filth, the grime, the criminals, the violence, Brandon Lee as the avenger of death. That it does very well; the rest, well... It has its holes. It is not particularly well acted or written. There are odd moments of humor. Characters aren't really believable. It can almost be described as generic and formulaic, at times even cheesy. It is carried completely by Brandon Lee's performance, while good, isn't otherworldly like Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

I imagine I would have enjoyed The Crow even without knowing anything about its background. But knowing what we know, it is almost impossible to separate the movie from its circumstances. For that reason the film will always talked about and remembered for the wrong reasons. All things aside, it is a decent film that showcases Brandon Lee's budding talent and potential. We'll never know if he would have reached the superstardom that his father achieved. Some have even said that The Crow is better than anything Bruce Lee ever did (acting wise at least). I wouldn't go as far as to say that, but it is some food for thought.

Grade: B-

Friday, September 16, 2011

Day 149 - Drive

Drive (2011) directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

We never find out his name. He is simply referred to as The Driver. Driving is what he does, that is what he knows. Like the enigmatic Man With No Name, we know nothing about him, where he comes from, why he is the way he is. We can only observe his actions, determine his motives, see what drives him. Like Leon from The Professional he lives a quiet solitary life. He is a man of few words, few friends, few interests. It is a sudden shift for him then to let his neighbor and her son into his life and to find that he cares for them.

All we know of Driver is that he works as a stunt driver by day and an occasional getaway driver by night. He meets Irene and her son Benicio. He stands quietly in her living room. He isn't much for small talk. He's seemingly unsure of himself without the comforting feel of a steering wheel in his hands. You get the feeling of a hidden layer beneath the surface, something waiting to burst out, a declaration of love, a forceful kiss, perhaps a big laugh, but his cool exterior is rarely if ever betrayed. There are long awkward silences, affectionate gazes that imply intimacy but never expressed. The film is all about nuanced feelings and buried emotions waiting to explode.

If it all sounds excruciatingly slow and boring, well, perhaps it is. But Drive takes its time and sets its own pace. When the time calls for action, there is action, but when the time calls for quiet introspection, there is that too. Mixed and matched together, you get a beautiful ballet of restrained melodrama and hard hitting action.

This film is nothing like I imagined it would be. I had no idea it would be so restrained, yet so shockingly violent. In this way it reminded me of two David Cronenberg films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. I'm not quite sure what to make of the contrasting images and feelings set in the film. Much of the film concentrates on the budding relationship between Driver and Irene and Benicio in almost 80's style fashion. The opening title and credits are written in pink cursive, the soundtrack makes me think I'm watching Cocktail or Risky Business. Undoubtedly this is done intentionally to invoke a sense of longing. Perhaps drive isn't a direct reference to the actual driving of cars but to Driver's drive or longing for human interaction, compassion, perhaps love. Now contrast these images and feelings with the brutal violence of the film. Everything that the film has built up to the point of the first gunshot is threatened to be torn apart as violently and quickly as possible. No scene exemplifies this point more than when Driver and Irene share an intimate moment in an elevator next to a man with a gun. I dare not say what happens next.

Drive stars Ryan Gosling as The Driver. Interestingly he probably has the least amount of lines of any of the characters on film but he plays him with a quiet strength and calmness. He does not need lengthy dialogue or even a name. He is defined by his actions. We don't really need him to say much anyways when the supporting cast is so good. I think Carey Mulligan (An Education) is a budding star. I've never seen Albert Brooks in a non comedic role but he is delightfully bad as a mob boss. Ron Perlman plays Brooks's partner in crime and is always good as a villain. Bryan Cranston, from my favorite show on TV right now Breaking Bad, plays Driver's one friend in the world, the man who sets him up for jobs and such. He plays him with the same edginess as Walter White.

I've mentioned the violence in the film multiple times and I'll just again point out how shocking it is. This is easily the most violent movie I've seen in a while, enough to make some people squeamish. It drives home the point and I think it works wonderfully in contrast to the subdued nature of much of the film. Of course, I cannot mention Drive without mentioning the car chases. Surprisingly there is not that much driving going on. There is one scene in the beginning where The Driver gets away by using his wits and knowledge of the streets rather than outrunning cops in hot pursuit. The biggest chase comes in the middle and it is a high octane scene that would make Fast and the Furious blush. Two different style of chases, one slow and deliberate, the other fast and frantic, both equally exhilarating.

I really liked Drive. It was nothing like I expected; it was so much more.

Grade: A

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Day 148 - Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) directed by George Miller

I'm an idiot. I knew there was Mad Max and I knew there was The Road Warrior. What I did not know was that The Road Warrior is actually the sequel to Mad Max and officially Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. So I watched this movie without seeing the original, but luckily this movie seems to stand on its own and is one of the best post-apocalyptic films I've seen.

The Road Warrior is set sometime in the future where the world lies in ruins. The only people left seem to be a bunch of survivors, scavengers, and marauders. Vehicles left over from the end of civilization rule the wastelands. Everyone is looking for precious gasoline. The hero of the film, Max (Mel Gibson), is much like the mysterious gunman who strolls into a town in trouble in old westerns. He happens upon a group of survivors protecting an oil refinery from a bunch of marauders. At first Max just wants gasoline so he can drive off and to be left alone. Of course he ends up leading them against the bad guys.

There isn't much of a plot to work with, but it's really all about the world that the movie creates. It is a harsh grim world filled with dirt and nothingness. The bad guys are, to put it bluntly, a bunch of freaks. They parade around with war paint, masks, biker gear, chains and lots and lots of leather. One guy wears ass-less chaps. Their leader looks like he just came out of a dominatrix's dungeon. Very bizarre, borderline homo-erotic, group of guys. It is a strange strange world they live in.

Very little is actually said throughout the film. It's almost as if Mel Gibson was starring in a silent movie. His character barely speaks at all and certainly doesn't provide any insight to his thoughts. Perhaps in Mad Max, we learned something about him that we were supposed to carry over to this film, but it doesn't really matter. In fact it's better that we don't really know anything about him. He is this mysterious drifter whose actions speak louder than words. We know as much about him as the people in the community do.

The film is all about its visual style, the world it encompasses and the action that takes place in it. And there is some pretty great action. The Road Warrior is often cited for having one of the best car chases ever on film and for good reason. The last twenty or so minutes of the film is devoted to a crazy scene where Max drives a big rig through the desert with bad guys in hot pursuit. They throw everything they got at him and he just keeps on going and going while everything around him gets ran off the road, gets crushed, crashes, and/or explodes. Loads of mayhem, lots of fun. As far as post-apocalyptic action films go, it's hard to beat this one.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Day 147 - Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) directed by Werner Herzog

"Cocaine is a hell of a drug." - Rick James

There are so many delightfully awful shots of Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant, it's almost impossible to choose just one. Do I pick the one where he silently stares away at nothing? It's a good thoughtful look, but far too serious for this film. What about the manic look on his face as he blackmails someone with a drug charge? His head is tilted sideways, his eyes arch upwards while his smirk pulls downwards, contorting his face to resemble an angry Quasimodo. It's probably the best facial expression Cage makes in the film, but no, that's not quite enough either for Bad Lieutenant.

This film is all about an outrageous character doing outrageous things, so I decided to pick what I felt like was the most outrageous scene in a film full of them. Here, in an attempt to locate the whereabouts of a witness, Cage's character, Terrence McDonagh, intimidates a pair of eighty year old women, pulling the breathing tube from one while pointing a .44 magnum at the other. It is a scene so absurd that I recoil in horror and laugh in shock at the same time. It takes one bad bad dude to try this shit and nobody does really bad as good as Nicolas Cage.

I had no idea that there was a Bad Lieutenant starring Harvey Keitel back in 1992. Martin Scorsese mentioned it as one of his ten best films of the 90's. Had I known all of that, I might have given this Nicolas Cage movie a chance when it came out, but, you know, it starred Nicolas Cage, who lately has been awful in a bunch of awful movies. Just looking at the strange title Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, I just assumed it would be along the same tacky and tasteless lines of Bangkok Dangerous. Luckily I was dead wrong. Nicolas Cage stars in his best bad-ass role since Castor Troy in Face/Off in the deliciously sinful Bad Lieutenant.

In the beginning of the film Terrence hurts his back saving someone's life. He is given a prescription for Vicodin. Six months later we see he has graduated to snorting cocaine, which as we all know, is a hell of a drug. The movie isn't so much about its plot, the police investigate the drug related murders of five people, but rather in watching Terrence spiral wildly out of control. Nobody plays over the top better than Nicolas Cage and it's really a pleasure to watch him go through all the peaks and valleys of the role. He spends much of the film tiptoeing the line between being a cop and a full blown junkie. As he gets worse and worse, you can see a physical transformation occur. His bad back causes one shoulder to dip lower than the other. He looks at imaginary iguanas with suspicion. Dead bodies start to dance. He becomes deformed both physically and mentally. Can he pull his shit together? Will he even make it out alive?

This movie is dark and gritty and moves with a raw energy that is exciting and palpable. But it's really all about Cage. Few movies ever capture an actor's strong points as well as Bad Lieutenant which encourages Cage's over the top manic style. When given the right stuff to work with, he can be a really great actor. He just needs to stay away from Season of the Witch Part 2.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Day 146 - An Education

An Education (2009) directed by Lone Scherfig

Do you remember when you were younger and thought that you were smarter than everyone else? Kids your own age didn't interest you, teachers had nothing to offer you, and your parents were the stupidest of them all, out of touch simpletons just getting in your way. There's nothing kids want more than to feel grown up, to be treated as adults, to be seen as mature, sophisticated, cultured, and intelligent. But there are no short cuts in life, no matter how smart or mature you may be, a hard lesson Jenny must learn in An Education.

Jenny is a sixteen year old on the fast track to Oxford. She is undoubtedly sophisticated for her age; she'd love nothing better than to speak in French, watch foreign films and go to classical concerts. She draws the attention of a classmate, a geeky looking chap who personifies the expression, "I don't date people my own age." She feels like an old soul trapped in a teenager's body. Nobody gets her, that is until she meets David, a mysterious thirty-something year old man, who promises to show her the finer things in life.

No matter how smart Jenny thinks she is, there are just some things a sixteen year old can never really fully comprehend. As cultured as she may fancy herself, she really doesn't know anything of the real world. These points are the crux of the film. Throughout the film, her age and inexperience in life stick out like a sore thumb. These moments are an education she did not expect to receive.

David is smart, handsome, and charming, but I was immediately cautious that he was perhaps too charming, too perfect, and much much older than Jenny. Does it ever occur to her why a thirty-something year old man would take interest in a sixteen year old girl? No, because she does not see herself as sixteen, she views him as an equal when it should be painfully obvious that feeling is not mutual. No matter, she is too infatuated with the idea of sophistication to care. With David she is able to go out to fancy restaurants, concerts and trips to Paris, all the things she wants out of life. Suddenly school and getting into Oxford take a backseat. Needless to say, that is probably a bad idea. Let this be a lesson to all the girls out there, don't give up your dreams for a guy.

I liked An Education. It's a smart coming of age story that is well written and acted. It is occasionally very funny. Carey Mulligan, who plays Jenny, has the feel of a bonafide star. Peter Sarsgaard is handsome and charming as David. He reminded me of Colin Firth, which is a good thing. Now a list of cliches to drive home the point. Sometimes it is okay to act your own age. There is no substitute for experience. There are no short cuts in life. Maturity comes with age. The end.

Grade: B

Monday, September 12, 2011

Day 145 - My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady (1964) directed by George Cukor

Okay, let me get this straight. Higgins spends the entire film being a complete ass and Eliza falls for him? I generally have a big problem with romances that are portrayed in this manner. It just seems completely unfeasible and unsatisfactory to me when I see it. In the end it always boils down to the fact that the man is not deserving of the woman's affections no matter what revelation he comes to at the end. And what revelation does Higgins come at the end? That he's grown accustomed to her, that her being around is second nature to him. Why does he need her? Why is he drawn to her? Because she is kind or virtuous? No, because he has grown to basically tolerate her. What he says about her is in reference to herself; he needs her because of how she makes him feel. Never mind what he can offer her in return or whether or not she even wants him. It is the same selfish attitude that he's displayed throughout the entire film.

So Eliza comes to Higgins in the beginning of the film hoping that he could improve her. Typically in this scenario it is the girl that ends up improving the guy, but Higgins doesn't learn anything at all. The poor are exactly that, poor, nothing more and probably a lot less. What ever happened to inner beauty and all that stuff? Doesn't exist in My Fair Lady. It is only until Higgins has properly "fixed" Eliza that he even begins to tolerate her, if that. What exactly are young girls, or poor folks for that matter, to make of this message? That they aren't good enough as they are? This film spends a lot of time being sexist and classist without having much to say about it. I dunno, the whole tone of the film just rubbed me entirely the wrong way. I really hope I just missed the boat on this one because I refuse to believe a film with such a deplorable message is so widely regarded.

It is somewhat telling that my favorite song of the movie is "Why Can't a Woman be More Like a Man?" I'll be honest, it's a hilarious song. But I knew the film wasn't heading in the right direction when Higgins is singing this song with twenty minutes left in the film and is still in a heated argument with Eliza with less than ten minutes left. He spends over two and a half hours being a total prick and I'm supposed to believe in the final ten minutes something miraculous is going to happen? And it still begs the question, why does Eliza even care? Supposedly she is now empowered and proves it by arguing with him eloquently and fervently, yet this is totally negated by the fact that she still seeks his approval and/or affection. I guess it's true, girls do like the bad guys.

I do like Audrey Hepburn, though it is strange to see her as anything but an elegantly beautiful woman which made her beginning scenes so strange to watch. She succeeds in not only annoying Higgins, but the viewer as well, which I suppose is the whole point.

I also think the film is long, not because it's almost three hours, but because it basically circles around the same point over and over without really resolving anything, namely Higgins being a douchebag. I do think the film is well made though.

Sorry for the disjointed rambling, but this film just really irritated me. Like I said, I really hope I just completely missed the boat here. I'm more than willing to revise my opinion on it.

Grade: D+

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bonus - Hanna

Hanna (2011) directed by Joe Wright

One of my favorite movies to come out this year is Hanna which I re-watched today on Blu-ray. I remember coming out of the theaters months ago really loving this movie so I wondered what I'd think watching it a second time. In some ways it is not as good as I remembered, but in other ways it is even better. In the end, I still think it's a great movie.

Hanna is a girl who has been trained by her father to be a deadly killer. She's lived isolated from the rest of the world her whole life preparing for the day to face her enemies. In a way it is a modern take on classic fairy tales. Hanna is sort of like the Little Mermaid who goes into land for the first time. She has learned everything about the world through an encyclopedia, including the fact that kissing requires the use of 34 facial and 112 postural muscles, yet when confronted with a boy for the very first time she is at a loss for how to act. Her father Erik represents the burly woodsman that often rescues fairy tale characters. Marissa Wiegler, the CIA agent out to get Hanna and Erik, is undoubtedly the wicked witch.

The film is rich in fairy tale motifs which themselves are often metaphors for growing up, kids stepping into a world of danger, out to fend for themselves. Here, Erik must face every parent's greatest fear, their children facing world by themselves. He has trained Hanna as best as he could. She is anxious to start her life. There is nothing left for him to teach her; she is ready.

What transpires is an almost surreal action adventure where Hanna kicks ass which, let's be honest, is why you're really watching this film. But even taking away the fantastic action sequences, you still get a wonderfully crafted story that is deceptively rich. Saoirse Ronan plays Hanna with a nuanced subtlety that makes her much more than just a bad-ass killer. Combined with the physical demands of the role, it is a pretty brilliant performance by a talented young actress.

Hanna is a highly stylized film with great visuals and an exciting electronic score by the Chemical Brothers. It does one of the better jobs in recent memory in syncing sight and sound in a film. There are three specific scenes that are really well crafted. One is a spectacularly dizzying escape by Hanna from a secret base. Another scene involves a single continuous shot of Eric Bana being followed by a group of men and ending in a tightly shot fight sequence. I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but I'm always impressed when I see these types of shots because they require meticulous planning and coordination and puts a lot of pressure on everybody to not mess up. It works great in this scene because it builds the growing tension as Erik realizes he is being followed. The third scene involves Hanna fighting her pursuers in a dockyard. It's a really wonderfully choreographed and exciting scene.

Earlier I mentioned that there are some things that I thought weren't quite as good this time around and some things that were even better. I remembered Hanna being much more action intensive than it actually is, but that's only because of how good those scenes are. This film is actually a lot slower than you'd expect. I might even say it doesn't have enough action sequences. However, I found these slower scenes to be even more fascinating as I really liked watching Saoirse Ronan. I think she's really great here, as are the some of the other characters. I could definitely see people's points though if they thought it the pacing was too slow. While there are less action shots than I remembered, watching them a second time made me more impressed with the work director Joe Wright put into them. The soundtrack is even better than I remembered as well. Hanna is enjoyable on several layers, first as a bonafide action flick but also in its nuanced performances and fairy tale psychology. I don't think anyone would disagree that the film is well crafted.

Grade: A

Day 144 - Panic

Panic (2000) directed by Henry Bromell

William H. Macy has these certain mannerisms that allows him to play the role of the quietly troubled man so well. His characters never seem to yell or snarl. They are mild mannered and composed, though seemingly always with a hint of sadness; it's in his drooping face and puppy eyes. He is at his best when he plays a normal man with stifled emotions waiting to burst out but can't quite express how he truly feels. He's brilliant in Fargo, Boogie Nights, The Cooler and this little gem I just found, Panic.

We first see Alex talking to a shrink. He seems like a pretty normal guy, perhaps just going through a midlife crisis. When asked what he does, he calmly replies, "I've got two jobs. I run a small mail order business out of the house. Lawn ornaments, kitchen geegaws, sexual aids, things like that." The other job? "I work for my father. I kill people." Alex grew up in the family business and he's thinking of quitting. He tells his mother this and she chides him for being selfish. "Your father built this business from nothing through his hard work. I won't let you quit." For a second I think she might mean the mail order bit but she adds, "You can quit the mail order thing, but not the family business." He was groomed to be a hitman by his parents for better or worse and lately it's been worse.

Alex is good at his job, he's been doing it his whole life, but he doesn't seem to be built for it. Patient and loving father? Yes. Cold calculating hitman? Not so much. It is interesting to note the tender moments he shares with his son Sammy and to contrast it with the flashbacks of Alex as a child with his own father. Clearly he is trying to be a better father to Sammy than his own father was to him. What kind of father puts a gun in a six year old's hands?

Panic is all about repressed anger and unhappiness brooding underneath the surface. In some ways you could call this a poor man's American Beauty. When he falls for the strange twenty-something Sara in the waiting room you immediately think of the high school cheer leader. The film does a marvelous job in showcasing Alex's drab existence; the melancholy he feels oozes through the screen.

The plot of the film revolves around a new job that his father has lined up for him and also his crumbling marriage. Alex has spent his whole life letting others make decisions for him; here he will have to make two crucial ones. Does he do the job like he always has or does he tell his father he quits? Does he pursue the enigmatic Sara or try to work out his crumbling marriage?

It's hard to say I enjoyed the film because it's such a drab and serious experience, but I found myself fascinated nonetheless. William H. Macy is great in a quietly powerful performance. Neve Campbell who plays Sara seems more of a caricature, an ideal for Alex to pursue, but displays several layers of complication that keeps things interesting. The kid who plays Sammy is delightful and his scenes with Macy are particularly heartwarming. It is a well acted movie all the way around. I will say though that there isn't a lot of mystery to the film. When Alex opens the envelope revealing his next target, I knew all the clues and could guess how it would play out in the end. When Sammy spends time alone with his grandfather I already know what for and how Alex would react. I suspect the film's simplicity is also a great part of its strength. It allows you to focus more on the conflicted emotions of the film.

Grade: B+

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Day 143 - Creature from the Black Lagoon

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) directed by Jack Arnold

How do you respond to a movie that was ahead of its time yet laughably outdated now? I suspect a lot of the 1950's creature features fall into this category, creating a bunch of memorable monsters and scary moments that would seem amateurish by today's standards. That being said, I typically do not hate on the special effects, make up and costumes of older movies. In fact they are often quite good, such as the giant ants in Them!, a fellow B rate sci-fi film released the same year as Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Just take a look at the creature in the picture. Is he a convincingly scary monster? Perhaps to a child, but I suspect to everyone else it looks obviously like a guy in a rubber suit. I'm willing to let that slide though. I'm willing to let the creature enter the crevices of my mind and scare me a little. It's just too bad he sort of mails it in here. Much of the fright relies on the atmosphere and mood created by the creature and as much as I tried, I just couldn't get into it. So I ended up watching the movie with a sort of bemused detachment rather than letting it soak in. Combine that with the subpar acting and the generic plot and you get a pretty middling movie. I don't care how important or influential the film is, it just doesn't hold up that well. Compare that to Them! which is a stronger movie all the way around and is still legitimately awesome today.

The beginning sequences are rather promising. As is customary with these films, we only catch brief and incomplete glimpses of the creature at first, here his webbed claw reaching out of the water. It is accompanied by a loud and ominous musical score that will become the creature's theme song. An early attack on a campsite instills a sense of fear and danger in our minds that unfortunately is never again realized for the rest of the film. I think the main problem occurs when you see the entire creature for the first time. It just looks too awkward and walks like a crippled zombie. It makes you wonder how anybody ever gets caught by him on land. The film would have been better served if the creature remains mostly hidden and mysterious. I feel like you get to see too much of the creature for too long. The longer you see him on screen in full form the more you realize how bad and un-scary it looks. Also, a murkier swampy setting would have been better to set the mood; the creature looks out of place in a couple of shots.

The underwater scenes do look nice. One shot in particular reminded me of Jaws where we get to see Julie Adams from underneath the surface of the water with the creature lurking below. That is a very good shot.

At first I liked the musical score but I think it's overused a bit. Also how many times must you see the girl shriek in terror in one film? The humans are pretty dumb, but that's too be expected. All that being said, I can still appreciate the film for its significance and it is easy enjoy through nostalgic amusement, which probably is a bad reason to like a film.

Grade: C+

Friday, September 9, 2011

Day 142 - Warrior

Warrior (2011) directed by Gavin O'Connor

This is going to be a weird opening question for a movie about guys beating the crap out of each other, but do you cry during movies? I'm not much of a crier, but I definitely do get choked up and pretty easily too; any scene involving heroism, overcoming great odds, loved ones dying, personal suffering and anguish, family drama and reconciliation to name a few (very rarely romance though). Yes, I choked up quite a bit during Warrior. In fact I spent much of the latter half of the movie feeling a lump in the back of my throat and distinctly aware that the corners of my eyes were feeling a bit moist. (I blame that on the LASIK though.)

It isn't that Warrior is really all that powerful or emotional; sometimes a scene, or a movie, will just strike a chord with you and you can't really explain it. For instance, I got pretty worked up during Eight Below and I don't even really like dogs! All it really takes is for the emotion of a scene or a character to be convincing and I'm pretty much hooked in. Warrior is such a film as it centers on three deeply wounded characters trying to reconcile with each other. It is a pretty moving family drama that is almost as powerful as the punches thrown during the fight scenes. On top of all the drama is a pleasing sports underdog movie in the same vein as Rocky.

The film is about two estranged brothers who, for various reasons, decide to enter a big winner takes all MMA tournament. Tommy (Tom Hardy) is a Iraq war vet coming back home after over a decade. His brother is Brendan (Joel Edgerton), an ex-UFC fighter turned high school physics teacher with a family to support. The two brothers haven't seen each other in fourteen years because of their drunk and abusive father Paddy (Nick Nolte). Tommy left with their mother while Brendan stayed with Paddy and Brendan's future wife. Paddy, now much older and almost three years sober, is surprised to find Tommy waiting at his doorstep. Tommy wants to be trained for the big tournament, but wants nothing to do with the old man personally. The two brothers spend most of the movie apart from each other. The first time they see each other in the movie, and after fourteen years, comes well into the latter parts of the movie. Their stories are told parallel to each other creating a weird sports movie with two protagonists. When the two brothers inevitably face off against each other in the ring, you wonder to yourself if this match could somehow end in a tie because you don't want to see either of them lose.

Warrior does a great job in establishing characters to care about. Tommy is an angry youth struggling to forgive his father and brother. Brendan is a down on his luck family man who is the underdog. At the center of their strife is Paddy who is trying to do right, tormented by his failures as a father. All three actors are really good here, particularly Nolte who seems to play these types of roles so well. Given that Tommy is so angry to the point of being vindictive and Brendan is a genuine good guy, I found myself rooting more for Brendan. However, knowing the painful past that Tommy went through it is easy to see why he is so angry and unforgiving. The real point, however, isn't who wins the championship, but whether or not the two brothers reconcile at the end. It's tough to get these feelings across in a bout where they're beating each other senseless, but that's just how boys settle their differences I suppose.

Oh, on a final note, the fighting scenes are well shot and choreographed. They look quite brutal. I think boxing may slowly fade away in movies and be replaced by mixed martial arts as the sport gains popularity. The film could have just easily been boxing or jujutsu, as long as the action is exciting. The heart of the story would be the same.

Grade: B+