Thursday, June 30, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Modern audiences might find themselves lost or confused or, perhaps, unimpressed with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. They may have heard going in how revolutionary this film was in 1967, how it changed the face of modern filmmaking because of its hard edge and violence. These things are all true; but in today’s cinema of the extreme, the violence and the cutting edge of Bonnie and Clyde are decidedly watered down. That is why, in order to fully understand Bonnie and Clyde an audience must consider it in the time of its release. Some pictures are timeless, and are cited as such; others require a consideration of the time in which they were released to be fully appreciated. One is not necessarily better than the other, although films are sometimes considered “dated” if they do not hold up over time. Bonnie and Clyde is a rarity in this case; it is a film that is cemented in its time, may be dated, but is still a great movie. It is like an historical tent pole in American cinema, full of unforgettable performances, new style and, yes, a little violence.

Warren Beatty fought to get Bonnie and Clyde made. At the time, Beatty was a matinee idol, just another pretty face in disposable films. But his unflinching desire to make this film would eventually pay off and would change the fortunes for everyone involved. Beatty plays Clyde Barrow, a slick hood with a frivolous criminal past. Nothing too serious. One hot Texas afternoon, Clyde is walking down the street and spots a car he would like to steal sitting in front of a country house. He is scanning it over when he is spotted by Bonnie Parker, an aimless youth played by Faye Dunaway. There is an immediate attraction. Bonnie is a lonely young girl who dreams of adventure and sees Clyde as that outlet. The two are inseparable from that point.

“What have you done?” Bonnie asks Clyde. “I’ve robbed a bank before,” he tells her. She wants him to prove he can do it again, and from there the film takes off. Bonnie and Clyde are accompanied by C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), Clyde’s brother, Buck (Gene Hackman, in his first substantial acting role), and Blanche, the worrisome, whiny member of “The Barrow Gang.” Blanche is played by Estelle Parsons, better known to modern audiences as Roseanne’s mother in the TV series, and she would win Best Supporting Actress that year at the Oscars. The Barrow Gang wants credit for their bank conquests, so they announce themselves at each robbery. When one of the robberies goes awry, a security officer winds up dead and this is a turning point for the gang and for the nature of gangster pictures in America.

Before Bonnie and Clyde, gunshots and their targets were shown in separate shots. The attacker would fire their gun, then there would be a cut to the victim clutching their stomach or chest and falling down. They were never shown together in a continuous shot. This changed with Bonnie and Clyde. The security guard hops on the getaway car and Clyde points his gun at the man’s face and fires, sending him flying back behind a smattering of blood. This was an introduction of something new and shocking for audiences at the time.

Bonnie and Clyde and the members of the gang are doomed, but they don’t realize it early on and aren’t too concerned either way. They are young and looking for excitement, bored by the West Texas landscape and finding themselves as heroes to the working man. This was the depression era, and the real Bonnie and Clyde were seen as folk heroes much like John Dillinger. They were stealing from the greedy banks that were in part responsible for the depression. Bonnie and Clyde plays up the celebrity of its two stars, as evidenced by the fetching beauty of Faye Dunaway and slick appeal of Warren Beatty. The real Bonnie and Clyde were no lookers themselves, but in this setting they are glamorous and celebrated. And they wanted no hint of reality or the inevitability of their fate, as evidence in a scene where they kidnap a husband (a young Gene Wilder) and his wife. The group are enjoying each other’s company until Wilder’s character informs the group he is a mortician. A cloud grows over Bonnie’s face and she instructs Clyde to kick them out of the car. The thought of death is too much for Bonnie; it is cutting in on their fun.

Director Arthur Penn took over the duties from French auteur Francois Truffant, who abandoned the film to direct Fahrenheit 451. Truffant was a pioneer of the French New Wave cinema in the sixties, a minimalist filmmaking technique where convention is dropped. French New Wave films were breezy and stripped-down films with a signature style and tempo. Beatty wanted that style on Bonnie and Clyde, and Arthur Penn stepped in and delivered. He films Bonnie and Clyde as an episodic picture. Episodes collect to make up the whole. And of course there is the famous final scene, where Bonnie and Clyde are killed in a hail of gunfire, filmed in slow motion. This was the summit of the film’s violence, emphasized by a brutal and fitting end to the run of these two crooks.

Bonnie and Clyde was initially received with poor critical reception and dismal box office numbers, doomed to exist in midnight schlock cinemas and dumped in Texas drive-thrus. But Pauline Kael, the iconic legend of film criticism and a trailblazer in the medium, saw a screening. She praised it as a great movie. Patrick Goldstein then cited it as “the first modern American film.” Critical praise grew, and the picture would become one of the most popular of the year, even being nominated for Best Picture. It is a watershed moment for American filmmaking, and the birthplace of so many other films. Terrence Malick’s Badlands may be the most directly related, but films like Natural Born Killers, Thelma and Louise, and Drugstore Cowboy all owe something to Bonnie and Clyde. It was an aesthetic revelation, a new way to consider films. Even Faye Dunaway’s style in the film became a fad for American women. Considered in its time, in a time before bullets and bloodshed were commonplace in the movies, Bonnie and Clyde is a true turning point.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

THE HARRY POTTER PROJECT: The Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince is quite the rebound from the previous film, The Order of The Phoenix. Gone is the convoluted plotline and political back story, and in its place is a tale about adolescence framed by even more impending doom. Things have grown serious throughout these films, leading to The Deathly Hallows, and the films have become increasingly darker. This time around, less focus is put on the “darkness” of the proceedings, creating an air of solemn dread. And The Half-Blood Prince is a slower picture. This may sound like a knock on the film, but that is quite the opposite. We have shed some of the chaos and manic energy of the last few films and the result is a picture more focused and emotionally engaging. I felt more about all of the people involved this time.

Once again, we meet up with Harry in the world of the Muggles. The trial of Lucius Malfoy has ended and he has been sent to Azkaban. Naturally, this puts Harry even more in the crosshairs of Draco (Tom Felton), who is flirting with the influences of the Dark Lord, Voldemort. Harry is soon whisked away from a tube station by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), who teams up with Harry to try and find a weakness in the past of Voldemort. Harry and Dumbledore travel to the home of the reclusive former professor, Horace Sloghorn (British character actor Jim Broadbent), and persuade him to return to teaching potions. Sloghorn once taught Tom Riddle, who would grow to become Voldemort, so the return of Sloghorn to Hogwarts has obviously further implications than simply teaching potion class.

While Harry and Dumbledore work together to strengthen their knowledge of Voldemort, the central focus of Ron, Hermione, and even Harry himself is, well, romance. These three have reached adolescence and find themselves baffled and befuddled by the opposite sex. There is much courtship and flirting and some humorous moments as the trio tries to get their personal life in order, so to speak. This, above all else, is why I feel Hogwarts is less of a central character in The Half-Blood Prince. There is no emphasis on the shifting staircases or hidden rooms or flying owls or whimsical dinners; we don’t have time for such nonsense now. Those things were important in the earlier films to establish the proper tone. Now, those things are subtracted to do the very same thing. More attention is given to the characters and the proceedings carry much more weight as a result. Even the Quidditch match is a bit darker and less flashy.

Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) has been flirting with a larger and larger role throughout these films, and I had a feeling he would become a vital cog in the narrative. Thankfully, I was not disappointed. Snape is the most intriguing peripheral character, and as he takes more of the center stage his role becomes pivotal in the ultimate fall of Hogwarts as a merry school of Wizardry. Rickman is compelling in this role, delivering his lines with droll wit and cold pauses. We hang on every word.

Darkness has now completely fallen on the school and its inhabitants. I was concerned this film would be another series of set ups to the final story/films. But eventually it was not such a story, as there was that all-important crucial death. The death of a major character, I feel, is key in a series like this. It raises the stakes to the appropriate level and drives the momentum forward into the final film(s). Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince is the most understated of the series, and the best so far. There are some moments that are not simply dark, but deep emotionally. We are given psychological conflict over an abundance of physical conflict at just the right time, where we are all fully invested in these characters enough that the final act of this series means everything it could possibly mean.

A-

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

TUESDAY TOP 10: Movies About The Movies

Over the years, one of Hollywood’s most popular settings is itself. There have been dozens of films revolving around the industry, around filmmaking and writing and acting and all the small details involved in putting a film on the screen. Sometimes these meta-fiction stories can travel to the bizarre, other times they can stay in reality, but they all seem to carry a bit of sardonic introspection with them regardless of tone. For this list, I wanted to focus less on character and more on the bigger picture itself. Not necessarily for accuracy, but for mood and scope of the movie industry.

10) Inland Empire – I debated adding this one to the list, mostly because of my own issues with David Lynch. But there is no denying him sometimes, as is the case here with Inland Empire, his most dense psychological work to date. The story deals with an actress (Laura Dern, fantastic) taking over the role on a film production which endured a number of setbacks and mysterious happenings. “Something happened,” the director of the film, Jeremy Irons says “inside the film.” This is but the tip of the iceberg. Lynch’s digitally-shot opus breaks down the line between film and reality, between time and space, between sanity and insanity, all the while telling the story of Dern’s character in this film. Some things happen simultaneously in different places, some things happen in the same place at different times; figure that sentence out and you may crack the code.

9) Shadow of the Vampire – Whereas some of the films deal with the industry or the art of making movies, Shadow of the Vampire deals with one film in particular: the 1922 production of the classic German film, Nosferatu, what is often considered to be the first and most legendary vampire film. This is one of those films where the production and the cast were plagued by mysterious happenings. Some members of the crew disappeared, some of them even died. But the focus of this film is the relationship between director F.W. Murnau and the star, Max Schreck, whose method acting got carried away at times. John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe as Schreck make this film compelling from start to finish, and this atmospheric examination begs the question: was Schreck truly a vampire? It is an intriguing theory after seeing this film.

8) Get Shorty – Here is a breezy, whimsical crime caper mixed with the Hollywood back dealings of lore. This story, adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, follows the gangster Chili Palmer, who is a loan shark but has higher aspirations: he has a story he wants to sell. He employs a sleazy movie producer (Gene Hackman) to produce the film. Aside from the first-rate cast and snappy dialogue, Get Shorty mixes the crime world with Hollywood seamlessly, perhaps telling a story in itself. As with an Leonard novel, there is a sprawling cast of characters each with their own individual quirks and characteristics that make them memorable. We see less of the production of films and more of the industry back rooms, which is a fascinating setting for a film like this.

7) Barton Fink – The Coen Brothers’ unsung gem focuses on a geeky New York playwright (John Turturro), who moves to Hollywood to write a screenplay about a wrestler. He moves into a hotel and develops crippling writer’s block. From his writer’s block, Fink then encounters a number of bizarre experiences which distract him from his writing even further. Turturro is the draw here, and his manic energy and gangly face are hypnotizing. The Coen Brothers take a story about writer’s block and make a story out of it, perhaps deconstructing the very idea of writer’s block. There are stories all around, maybe when you are trying to think of another one to tell.

6) A Star is Born – We all remember Judy Garland from The Wizard of Oz, but what is perhaps her finest performance comes in George Cukor’s classic A Star is Born. Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a showgirl who changes the fortunes for a down-and-out performer (James Mason) before the two drift apart once again. Norman Maine is a drunk and a hopelessly lonely former star who finds love with Esther and falls in love. But when Esther’s star takes off, and Norman’s star continues to fall, a rift develops between the two. This is one of the earlier films about the industry, and about the pressures of becoming famous. I cannot imagine a better, more equipped actress than Judy Garland, whose rise and fall is one of the most recognizable Hollywood stories of all time.

5) Ed Wood – This is a picture about the industry for sure; but not necessarily the Hollywood industry. No, here is a film about the cast offs and weirdos who populated the underbelly of Hollywood, B-film actors and actresses who spent their careers making midnight movies and sci-fi schlock. And they were directed by their fearless, perpetually cheery leader, Ed Wood. Wood is famous for making some of the worst movies ever, films so bad they are now quite charming. His most famous is Plan 9 From Outer Space, an alien/zombie invasion film that is the main focus of Tim Burton’s story. Johnny Depp is fantastic as Wood, but it is Martin Landau as an aging, sad, lonely Bela Lugosi. Wood idolizes Lugosi, and looks beyond his drug addiction and faded star to cast him in his films. This is a touching film, and a zany look at another avenue of Hollywood.

4) 8 ½ - Frederico Fellini made perhaps a handful of masterpieces, more than any other director. A few of his films carry with them autobiographical references, and 8 ½ is one of those films. It follows a stressed out director, Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), as he retreats into the memories of his childhood and his relationships with the women in his life to try and find inspiration. Guido is a superstar director, and the production company has built an elaborate set for his next film. Except he has not a clue of what his next film is going to be about. He retreats into his consciousness and examines his life to try and find inspiration for the film. This is a story which has been done a number of times, most recently in Rob Marshall’s Nine, but none have the resonance of the Fellini classic.

3) Adaptation. – Of all the films on this list, Adpatation is the most ingenious of all the screenplays. The film focuses on Charlie Kaufman (who wrote the screenplay, but is played here by Nicolas Cage), a neurotic writer who has taken on a new assignment: to write a screenplay based on The Orchard Thief, a popular novel written by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). Struggling to find inspiration, Charlie reluctantly turns to his twin brother Donald to help. But Donald is more of an eccentric and energetic writer who enjoys action and explosions over story. Meanwhile we follow the story of The Orchard Thief, and as the film unfolds it blurs the lines between fact and fiction. This is an ingenious and wickedly funny story with one of Nicolas Cage’s rare performances.

2) Sunset Boulevard – Billy Wilder, one of the most legendary Hollywood directors, takes on the darker side of Hollywood in this cutting, satirical examination into the nature of celebrity and the fading star of one Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an eccentric former star who begins a strange relationship with Joe Gillis (William Holden) who she believes is her ticket back into stardom. The film is marvelous, and hinges on the unforgettable performance from Swanson as Norma Desmond. Rife with irony, the screenplay examines what happens when former superstars do not understand time has passed them by. Part noir, part gothic satire, all legend, Sunset Boulevard is a compelling character study set against the backdrop of faded Hollywood dreams.

1) The Player – Robert Altman was the perfect man to tell this story. Altman was not necessarily an industry man, but he was a man who understood the way Hollywood agencies and publicists and studios operated. This wicked satire focuses on a power player, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), who is being blackmailed by a writer whose screenplay he rejected. Although he has no idea at first, Mill discovers the blackmailer and the discovery leads him into a murder plot. This is an elaborate and fascinating picture, full of wit and inside knowledge of Hollywood. Though I don’t know details about the way the studio systems function, I believe it may work similarly to the way it works in The Player. And aside from the insider knowledge of the picture, the satire and the story is as intricate as any film on this list.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Tree of Life


THE TREE OF LIFE: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain (138 min.)

I can understand how some people would abhor The Tree of Life. But those people should not see it to begin with. This is a movie which takes the phrase “not for everyone” to an entirely different level. I will not be giving The Tree of Life a letter grade here, because any grade I would give it would be the wrong one. It’s not that it doesn’t deserve a grade; it simply doesn’t need one. It is an experience unlike anything I have ever had before in cinema, and it birthed something which swelled in me in the hours after seeing it. The film is merely a seed, and if your mind is receptive to its planting, something will happen to you on a level beyond simple retention. I admire it greatly, and understand it more in each new waking moment.

Films have been called challenging in the past, but here is a film that is beyond a challenge to fully comprehend. Some people do not go to the movies to be challenged, or to have their will tested, and that is perfectly all right. I imagine that is the majority of the country, the world. But for those out there who enjoy challenges in their film going from time to time, here is the litmus test. Something I will advise anyone who wants to see this film – and those people include Terrence Malick devotees first and foremost – be willing and accepting. You must have a mindset that you will allow this film to work on you before you try and figure out each and every detail while it is happening. Figuring this film out will come to you in the hours and days beyond your initial viewing. But you must be willing.

Some of the descriptions of The Tree of Life point towards its non-linear narrative structure, or its poetic nature. It is decidedly plot-less, that is certain; however, once the main story of the film settles in I found it quite easy to follow. There is the early sequence which covers the creation of, well, everything. There is the birth of the universe, the cosmos, the formation of the planets and our galaxy, and the beginnings of the planet itself. These moments reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, and the travel through the rabbit hole and creation of the star child. And yes, there is a scene with dinosaurs, but it is a quiet, introspective scene which is immediately confusing but one I ultimately understand. These early moments are here for Malick to tell us something, to show us our place in the history of existence. He takes his camera to the broadest possible region of human understanding before pulling his focus in tight, on our family in Waco, Texas.

After the death of a brother, Jack, the oldest son of the family played in a bit role by Sean Penn, is an older man living in Dallas and struggling with the relationship he had with his father when he and his brothers were young. The meat of the narrative then focuses on Jack’s memories of his childhood. While fragmented and shot by a camera floating and swaying from low angles, these shots and this structure make sense. These are the memories of an older man. If you have ever thought of your childhood, while you may have some linear coherency, these memories are often bits and pieces of a larger whole. Episodes from your childhood are what you can put together. And these are the moments we get from Jack as he remembers his parents form him in very different ways.

As we hear form a narrator early on (all major characters have their own narrations at times), there are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. Nature is a harder path, one which sees negative, takes nothing, does not see the world and its beauty. Grace is the opposite. Grace has nothing but love to give, and sees the world in all of its glory. Brad Pitt, in one of his more compelling screen roles, plays the father, nature. Jessica Chastain, a natural beauty, is grace. These two parents are responsible for shaping these boys, and as we see over the course of roughly a year, these children take to their parents differently. The father is stern and sometimes brutal, never giving in. He demands to be called “father,” not “dad.” He teaches these boys work ethic and discipline, sometimes to a fault. The mother, grace, is more of a friend to the boys. It isn’t to say she is not a mother to them, but she is more of a friend. There are explosive moments in this family unit, namely one scene at a dinner table when the middle brother decides to talk back to his father. You do not see this family in the traditional film sense. Instead, you get these glimpses from a grown man’s memory, memories and vignettes which shape this family through the eyes of a boy.

Innocence is lost in these moments. The boys deal with death for the first time, and consider their parents’ mortality. I remember these moments as a child when my world changed. For many years as a child, your parents are the inlet to the rest of the universe, and they are everything. So when you realize they will one day die, it is a turning point in the way you see your own existence. This realization is shown in one brief scene which affected me greatly, as many of the small moments did throughout the picture. Young Jack sees his father trying to love, sees him laid off from work, sees his own life change and grapples with the circumstances of his own existence in ways we all have in the past. Jack grown to hate his father, pity his mother, but in the end perhaps he understands his father's ways. Perhaps Jack ultimately forgives him.

The richness of detail in The Tree of Life is one of its many beautiful elements. The clothing, the town square, the drinking from a water hose, the swing in the front yard, all combine to create this fully realized time in place. And there are also the fights, seen by these children through open windows in the summer, where they see the adults around them showing weakness maybe for the first time. It is a loss of innocence, but in a very gradual way. The family story is framed by the birth of the cosmos and an allegorical scene of older Jack coming to terms with his father. The final moments of the film may be the most challenging of all, as they fit not with the story of the family or the birth of the universe itself. They exist now in Jack’s mind as an older man.

I feel this is less a review than it is my own mind mapping out the experience I had with The Tree of Life. For some, this is a picture that will affect them greatly, and I feel I am in that camp. For others, it is a film they will despise and reject. And this I understand as well. Terrence Malick has eschewed any preconceived notions about film, and what films are supposed to do to us. Although a very private man, Malick grew up in Waco and I cannot help but think this is a deeply personal film for him. He has created a once in a lifetime film experience, an opera of sight and of introspection. He takes us as far out as we can go, only to point the microscope into each and every one of us and give us perspective on where we stand in this grand scheme. The Tree of Life defies definition and rejects synopsis, but is a film that will find its lovers amid the masses. Having an open mind may not be enough to accept this film. I am not sure exactly what you might need to allow this film inside your head.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Tree of Life: Moron Detector

In a spot normally reserved for scatter shooting, I have opted to take but one shot: at the imbuciles littering this nation. The following letter was posted at a Connecticut movie theater after dumbasses, er, patrons complained at the poetic meandering of The Tree of Life, demanding refunds...


Personally, I have never walked into a movie not knowing at least a little about it. I have never gone into a movie based solely on the fact Brad Pitt was the star. Sure, it helps, he is a fine actor, but I still like to, ya know, read about the movie. Which brings me to the ironic point... you think any of the jackasses who complained about The Tree of Life would take the time to read this letter? That involves not staring at car chases and explosions. It involves cognitive thought, so I don't see this letter being effective.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Parenthood (1989)

I love how some films evolve in your mind, after life experiences shape your opinion of them. Sometimes, this happens in a negative way. Films you once loved don’t affect you the same way. Other times, a picture will grow richer and more important to you over time. This is the case with Parenthood. I have always admired Parenthood, but for different reasons each time it seems. When I was young, I enjoyed the comedy. As I grew older, while the comedy was still important, I began to spot the nuance of the film, the dynamics of this family, and the emotion at the core. I don’t yet have children, but as I matured and began to learn family secrets, issues, and the politics of a family unit, Parenthood had a much greater impact on me than it once did. It has grown into a near perfect film for me.

Parenthood focuses on one family tree and all its branches. At the center is Gil, the oldest son of the family played by Steve Martin. Gil is a dedicated family man, married to Karen (Mary Steenburgen), father of three children, and a slave to his boss at the firm. Their youngest son, Justin, is a bit of a dunce, but in the cutest way possible. His oldest, Kevin, is the focus of their family for now. Kevin has a learning disability, and no matter how hard Gil tries to curb Kevin’s anxiety by coaching him in little league or hosting the best birthday party ever, the truth cannot be avoided that Kevin will need special assistance in school. “I’ll work a second job,” Gil says. “We’ll get a tutor.” Anything to keep Kevin away from the ridicule of the other children.

Gil’s older sister is Helen, and she has issues with her own family. A working mom and a divorcee, Helen’s daughter Julie is seeing a boy (Keanu Reeves) she does not approve of, and is squandering her opportunities for college. Meanwhile, her son, Gary (a young Joaquin Phoenix, billed as Leaf Phoenix for some reason), is struggling with adolescence. He locks himself in his room and avoids his mother and sister, clearly in need of a father figure in his life. The younger sister is Susan. Susan is married to Nathan (Rick Moranis), a nerd who is intent on molding their only daughter, the four-year old Patty, into a child prodigy. In doing so, Nathan has lost sight of Susan.

The father of the family is Jason Robards, who we learn through brief scenes may not have been the best dad to these children. He drinks and dresses down on a regular basis. But when the youngest son, Larry, re-emerges from Las Vegas with a child and another get-rich-quick scheme, he brightens. Because he sees the carelessness of Larry (played by Tom Hulce, Amadeus) as care free. But soon we find out Larry is in trouble with some bookies, and needs a healthy sum of money or he is a dead man. While this subplot may seem outlandish, don’t we all have that uncle who is the black sheep? There is one in every family.

Parenthood tells the story of this family by lingering for a while on one unit, then taking us to another. In between there are reunions and birthdays that put these characters together. And they feel like a real family. There are great comedic moments in Parenthood, namely the birthday scene in the middle. It is Kevin’s birthday, and when it is discovered that Cowboy Dan, the famous balloon-bending birthday personality, is not going to make it, Gil does what he can to keep Kevin from spiraling into a panic attack. The result is a great scene, full of vintage Steve Martin comedy. But this is a scene where I could really see the evolution of the film in my mind’s eye. Here is a great moment for Gil, a chance to save his son for a brief moment in his young and tumultuous life. He pulls it off with great charm.

All of the comedy in Parenthood feels real. There is nothing outlandish or slapstick, only truth masked by humor we all find in our own lives. Director Ron Howard balances these characters and their stories to perfection, never slighting any of them. And regardless of where you stand in your own family, there is something in this story that connects with you. Whether you are the father, the son, the mother or the daughter, Parenthood has something to offer that will stick with you forever.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

THE HARRY POTTER PROJECT: The Order of The Phoenix (2007)

Harry Potter and The Order of The Phoenix is the transitional film in the series. Sure, we’ve had transitions from children’s stories to more adult fare, but as far as plot mechanics and set up, Phoenix moves us from point A to point B, where I imagine we will spend the majority of the last three pictures. In battle. So it isn’t all the fault of director David Yates, or even the writing of J.K. Rowling, that this entry takes a step back from the previous two. Politics are the focus of the first half of the picture, and the political posturing severely kills momentum for a bit. Something felt off from the start, and the film never fully recovered until the final moments.

The Dark Lord, Voldemort, has returned. Harry knows it, the Hogwarts proper know it, but what about the Ministry of Magic? They may know it but they choose not to acknowledge it. Instead, they decide to run what amounts to a smear campaign against Harry and Dumbledore. Rather than dealing with Voldemort, the Ministry continues to blame and vilify Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) for the murder of Cedric at the end of the previous film. The Ministry’s leader, Cornelius Fudge, tries to end all magical teachings at Hogwarts by sending Dolores Umbridge to be the new Dark Arts teacher and ambassador to the Ministry.

Umbridge, played by Imelda Staunton, is a wicked and controlling witch (not a real witch though. You have to be careful using adjectives like that when discussing Harry Potter films), and before long has set up what amounts to a fascist regime. No magic, no practicing magic, no talking or student organizations. No fun. She rules as a cold, merciless dictator, and for some reason Staunton’s interpretation reminded me eerily of a character from a David Lynch film. I didn’t care for her, not because I wasn’t supposed to, because the character didn’t keep my interest.

Umbridge takes special joy in torturing Harry, who has become more and more haunted by the presence of Voldemort. He has visions, nightmares, and premonitions which he seems to share directly with Voldemort’s actions at the time. This is all explained. Harry, Ron, and Hermione gather a collection of willing students to secretly practice spells in order to be well protected against the return of Voldemort and the Death Eaters. Meanwhile, Voldemort recruits for his team, gathering loony’s from Azkaban including Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange. When Carter showed up as the wacky, escaped prisoner near the end, I had one thought: of course.

I would like to take a minute now, to complain about a minor character: one Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). I cannot stand this character. He is perhaps the most unrealistic of the bunch. Draco talks enormous amounts of trash to Harry and company, but if anyone even flinches in his direction he is so quick to shrivel away and act afraid. This happens every time Draco is on screen now. I understand the idea of Draco, that he is all talk and a coward, but aren’t we playing up this notion a little too obviously? The drastic change in his attitude form one second to the next is unrealistic. If Hermione acts like she is going to hit him, would he cry and cower immediately? I doubt it. But maybe this is just me.

As I said before, The Order of The Phoenix is clearly a set up for The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows. It has its moments, and the production values are still top notch; something is lacking here though. War is eminent, and Harry is on a collision course with Voldemort who, sadly, is kept minimal in this film. Loved seeing him in a suit though, very creepy. The final showdown here involves a secret room of prophecies where Harry hears his future. The brief fight between Dumbledore and Voldemort at the end is fantastic, and feels like a hint of things to come. I imagine the political posturing that consumes the first half of the picture serves the written word much better than the visual. Reading about the conspiracies and whatnot would surely be more interesting than watching them play out. I know this is a mere apparition, and an unavoidable entry into the franchise. Somebody had to take the transitions on, and The Order of The Phoenix is the film in charge.

B-

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

TUESDAY TOP 10: Best "Teen" Movies

Teen movies cross generations more than any other type of film. Regardless of the decade, the era, or the period of the film itself, teen movies tackle the same issue in one for or another: adolescence. Through these films we have all gotten to experience the horrors of prom, dating, finding yourself, and friendship. Some films approach these subjects seriously while others, namely those films we all know and love from the 80s, use comedy before mixing in some drama by the third act. It was extremely tough to narrow this list to ten, and I left some quality work by the wayside. Nevertheless, here we go:

10) Can’t Hardly Wait – This one feels like a leftover John Hughes film from the 80s, but Can’t Hardly Wait takes place an entire generation later, the late 90s, when I was graduating high school. That’s why it is a personal favorite. Nothing new here, just some great comedy and a cast that is surprisingly diverse. The film revolves around graduation night for a high school, and one last big party to celebrate. The cliques are all here, the jocks and the nerds and the musicians and cheerleaders, and of course there is self discovery aplenty. Despite Jennifer Love Hewitt being the supreme object of desire in Can’t Hardly Wait (she is no Molly Ringwold after all), the rhythm and the wit of Can’t Hardly Wait feels generally accurate.

9) American Graffiti – Who knew George Lucas had this in him? Much like Can’t Hardly Wait, American Grafitti focuses on graduation night, and the sprawling diversity of a high school community. We all remember Ron Howard as the main character. He is our guide through this fifties world as he struggles with the notion he will be leaving his girlfriend behind. This was always such an issue, wasn’t it? Leaving the “love of your life” behind only to realize many years later she was merely your high school girlfriend. The characters in the periphery are all pitch perfect, including Richard Dreyfuss’s Curt, obsessed with chasing down that elusive blonde in the thunderbird. And of course there is the small part of Harrison Ford as the threatening “older guy” in the cool car…

8) The Virgin Suicides – What a strange, hypnotizing film. Sofia Coppola has made a career out of examining the nature of celebrity, and it all started here, on a smaller scale. The Virgin Suicides focuses on a family of young girls, mysterious young girls controlled by a mother (Kathleen Turner) who is borderline insane in her overbearing nature. While the tone of the film is decidedly dark and ultimately disturbing, there are many of the high school tropes in the narrative and quite a few darkly comedic moments. Kirsten Dunst plays the oldest of the Lisbon sisters, Lux, the object of much desire for these boys narrating our story. And once she is corrupted by Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the high school stud, things take a turn for the worst. Here is a haunting, unsettling examination into the nature of adolescence and the damage that can be caused by overbearing parents.

7) Rebel Without a Cause – Before John Hughes, before American Graffiti, there was James Dean playing the new kid in school. Dean, in his most memorable role (although, sadly, there were only three to choose from) as Jim, a troubled youth whose parents misunderstand him at every turn. Jim then becomes the new kid at school, drawing the curiosity of the girls and the ire of the boys, nakely a gang of misfits intent on bringing him down. Rebel Without a Cause is, again, about the pressures of being a teen and having to prove yourself through dangerous means. But the films heart comes from Sal Mineo, as Plato, another misunderstood youth whose sadness gets the better of him. This film is much more complex than it seems, and ahead of its time in many respects.

6) Fast Times at Ridgemont High – We all remember Fast Times for its comedy, and mostly for Jeff Spiccoli, the surfer stoner played to perfection by a young Sean Penn. But he is a minor character in the grand scheme of things, and Fast Times is much more about love and dating at the high school level. It also has some serious elements, including teen pregnancy and the dangerous desire to fit in. These elements balance out the picture, and make the comedy all the more real. Judge Reinhold is the unsung star of Fast Times in my opinion, as his Brad is the perfect high school archetype: the cool kid with a sweet job at the best fast food restaurant in town, the girls after him, and the kickass car. What else would he ever need?

5) The Karate Kid – Sometimes it may be easy to forget this is a high school film because of the central plot, about the friendship and karate training between a boy and a Japanese maintenance man (sounds weird to even type that out). But The Karate Kid, much like Rebel Without a Cause, is about being the new kid in town. The new kids must always face the bulies in these films, and in this case the bullies are lead by the best 80s film bully of all, William Zabka. Zabka, as the blonde thug Johnny Lawrence (what a name!) tortures young Daniel (Ralph Macchio) until he decides taking up karate is the only answer. Daniel wants to attack, but Mr. Myagi (Pat Morita) teaches him that karate is not about attacking, but defending and discipline. This story has been told a hundred times in a hundred different ways, but I argue none have been as effective or emotionally engaging as The Karate Kid.

4) Dead Poet’s Society – Again, a film about high school and adolescence that is often overlooked as such. Dead Poet’s Society deals with a very different, very unique high school issue: expectations. The teens at the heart of this story are children of privilege, living in a boarding school. There futures have been planned by their parents, and they all involve ivy league schools and law school or medical school for the most part. Only when the children who serve as the core to our story meet Mr. Keating, their eccentric English teacher played by Robin Williams, do the boys discover they have something more inside them. They have desire and creativity and they are not simply an extension of their parents’ dreams. This leads us into tragic territory by the end, but the journey is heartfelt and inspirational nonetheless.

3) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – This one is my personal favorite because, while it is a raucous teen comedy and one of the cleverest comedies of all time, Ferris is so much more. We all know Ferris; we all wanted to be him at one point. Who didn’t want to trick their parents into thinking they were sick so they could have their run of the big city on a school day? Ferris embodies so many dreams of high school kids. But what about Cameron, his troubled friend? I argue this film is more about Cameron. Ferris sees his friend in danger and devises this afternoon of fun to try and help Cameron break free of his controlling parents, his illness, and the depression that is ruining him. All the while, he must deal with his girlfriend, who is a junior and will not be going with him to college. So many issues to cover in one afternoon, but Ferris Bueller covers the bases.

2) Dazed and Confused – Take the same elements we have seen in many of the films here: the last day of school, relationships, hazing, parties. Now put them in the late 70s in a small Texas town, mix in a little recreational drug use for accuracy and comedy, and you have Dazed and Confused, a brilliant look at the evolution of high school kids from all different angles. Dazed and Confused is about growing up, just like these other films, but is told in such a clever way and in such a unique setting that it seems to perfect the John Hughes template. Parents don’t get their kids, teachers pressure athletes, and we all had those friends neither parents nor teachers approved of. But they were our friends. They were there for us when the parents and teachers just wanted to control us. And of course, the comedy is what makes the movie, and Dazed and Confused has so many unforgettable lines and moments it’s hard to single one out.

1) The Breakfast Club – Take all of the elements of all the films here and blend them together, and you have The Breakfast Club. Here is a high school social experiment disguised as a coming-of-age comedy. We get all the cliques represented in one five-student Saturday school: the jock, the nerd, the thug, the princess, the weirdo. They all come from different walks of high school life but, thanks to the poking and prodding of Judd Nelson’s John Bender, they all begin to understand each other a little better. And then there are the adults, represented by the naïve parents and the bullying principal. Balance is the key to The Breakfast Club, and while this may be seen as a comedy, the picture tackles a wide array of issues facing teens and approaches them with great tact and emotion.

SHOUTOUTS: To Risky Business, and the birth of Tom Cruise, to Heathers, the cutting antithesis to John Hughes films, and to Sixteen Candles, because I decided to keep the Molly Ringwold count to a minimum.

Monday, June 20, 2011

ACTOR PROFILES: Sigourney Weaver

If you were to ask any number of people to list the best actresses of the last thirty years, I think you would be hard pressed to find many people who would have Sigourney Weaver on their list. Weaver is not the busiest actress, so maybe that’s the reason for her being overlooked. But where would Lara Croft be without Sigourney Weaver? What would be the state of the female action hero had Weaver not defined it, then refined it? Most would not consider Weaver a trailblazer, but she most definitely was. And on top of it all, Weaver is a fantastic performer, a great actress, and a female lead with a deceptive sex appeal.

Believe it or not, Sigourney is not her name. It is Susan Alexandra. Born in New York City in October, 1949 to a family of producers, actors, and television executives, Susan Alexandra began using Sigourney in 1963, adopting the name from a minor character in The Great Gatsby. During the seventies, after graduating with an English degree from Stanford in 1972, Weaver turner her attention to the performing arts. And after nabbing a small role in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in 1977, there was no turning back. From that role, Weaver stepped into the role of one Ellen Ripley in 1979. The film was Ridley Scott’s Alien, and the picture would change the fortunes of both Scott and Weaver forever.

It is rare, even today, to see a female action star; such a thing in 1979 was unheard of. As a member of a refinery team in space that is stalked by a murderous alien, Weaver was the unlikely hero in a film heavy with male leads like Tom Skerritt and John Hurt. But her Ellen Ripley, the ship’s warrant officer, is the one who defeats the creature and escapes. This was a watershed moment for female actresses, though it may not have been noticeable at the time. It opened doors, it changed perceptions. It also made Weaver a household name. I would imagine if the internet would have been around in its current capacity back in 1979, Weaver would have been the desire of many a sci-fi fanboy.

Weaver reprised the role of Ellen Ripley in 1986 with the robust, amped up sequel Aliens, directed this time around by James Cameron. The film took Ripley’s heroics to the next level, and Weaver was cemented as a female action star. She even earned a Best Actress nomination for the role, a rarity for science-fiction films. In between Alien films, Weaver played Dana Barrett, the tortured Manhattanite and object of desire for Bill Murray in the smash hit Ghostbusters. It would have been easy for Weaver to make an entire career out of playing the “sci-fi girl.” But she would have none of that, as evidenced by her double nominations in 1988.

Weaver played Dianne Fossey, the gorilla activist who was driven mad by her cause in Gorillas in the Mist. While the film itself is uneven at times and had some significant tonal issues, Weaver’s performance was powerful. She showed her range as Fossey, and was rewarded with a Best Actress nomination. The same year, Weaver was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her hard-nosed character in Working Girl opposite Harrison For and Melanie Griffith. Though she didn’t win either nomination, Weaver is still one of very few actresses to be nominated for two roles in the same year.

Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm is an overlooked gem, a minor masterpiece from the Asian director, and Weaver’s performance as Janey, an adulteress in a damaging relationship with the husband of a friend (Kevin Kline), is one of the strongest in the entire picture. Though the film never received the recognition it deserved, Weaver was nominated for a Golden Globe. Throughout the nineties, Hollywood may have lost track of Weaver at times. Although she appeared in a number of films, including the sharp comedy Dave (opposite Kevin Kline once again), and the underrated thriller Copycat, Weaver was off the radar to most. Throughout the last decade, Weaver’s film roles have been few and far between, though she has stayed busy with voice work and guest spots on television shows like Futurama. In 2009, Weaver was one of the stars of Avatar, teaming up once again with James Cameron. I am not a fan of the picture, but I still admired Weaver’s performance.

I still feel like there is a role out there for Sigourney Weaver that will get her an Academy Award. But I don’t imagine Weaver is too concerned either way. She has made her mark on Hollywood, and she can take solace in the fact she changed the perception of female actresses forever.