Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

COWBOYS AND ALIENS: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell (111 min.)

If anyone needs to explain to you the plot of Cowboys and Aliens, then I think you need to seek help immediately. The plot is right there in the title, easily the most concise and obvious of all film titles. There are cowboys, and they must fight aliens. Director Jon Favreau has taken this simple story and wrapped around it a fun summer adventure. It is a tough balancing act, carrying two genres throughout one picture like this, but Favreau pays respect to both appropriately without ever allowing one to get the better of the other.

Our hero may actually be a villain. Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergin, an outlaw who wakes up in the middle of the Old West desert with an injury to his torso, no shoes, and no memory. He also has a strange metal contraption around his wrist like a bracelet. Who knows? Lonergin pulls himself together and finds his way into Absolution, the nearest town, where he stirs up some trouble and catches the eye of the local law. They know who he is, even though he still doesn’t.

Absolution is a town surviving on the cattle trade of one Woodrow Dolarhyde, a crotchety old cowboy played by Harrison Ford. You see Ford fill out a cowboy outfit and wonder how he made it all the way through his storied career without ever playing one. Dolarhyde’s son (Paul Dano) is a reckless, spoiled fool, and is arrested after an early drunken incident in town. This gets Woodrow off the cattle drive and into town to get his son out of jail. But Woodrow has some unfinished business with Lonergin, so when he finds out the sheriff is holding Lonergin behind bars as well, he becomes Woodrow’s number one priority.

This is about the time the aliens attack, plowing through the town blasting holes in buildings and snatching people up from the street with long claw-like whips that pull them into the sky. Of course all petty disagreements are forgotten for the time being as Lonergin and Woodrow team up to track these aliens who have nabbed Woodrow’s son and a number of other important townsfolk. Along for the ride is Ella, a mysterious outsider played by the strikingly beautiful Olivia Wilde, and Doc, the do-gooder saloon owner played quite well by Sam Rockwell. The townsfolk join forces to track a wounded alien and discover what exactly they are and where they came from.

This pretty much explains the plot of Cowboys and Aliens without ruining any of the little surprises along the way. I will say the aliens themselves look good. They have an air of freshness to them, and the CGI is never distracting. I enjoyed all the performances here, from the top down. Ford and Daniel Craig fit the Western genre better than most would. Craig is the strong silent type indeed, using his brute force and steely-eyed gaze to work his way through the first half of the picture. Wilde is excellent, Rockwell too. Favreau manages to keep these actors on the right key despite the fact they are in a film that could be ridiculous.

Cowboys and Aliens is a solid, sturdy action adventure film, and a fun romp to see in the A/C. You can’t ask for much more these days, just a film that is entertaining for a couple of hours. There isn’t anything deep here, but remember the title. If you came here looking for a deeper film experience, then you are probably one of the ones who needs the plot explained to you. Seek help.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

CRAZY STUPID LOVE: Steve Carrel, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone - (118 min.)

Crazy Stupid Love is a story about a lot of things, but a story pieced together in a way similar to the title itself. It is fragmented to a fault. It is one of those pictures where many plates are in the air, and it creates a tough balancing act. Sometimes too many threads create too much to focus on in one film, regardless of how many good things there are lying within these threads. It’s also a difficult task at times to remain consistent with characters and motivations and back stories. That being said, Crazy Stupid Love isn’t all bad, just not quite good enough to be rescued from the trappings of its own excess.

The film centers on a married couple, Cal and Emily, played by Steve Carrel and Julianne Moore. One night at dinner, Emily tells Cal she wants a divorce and that she’s been having an affair with a co-worker. This sends Cal into a tailspin. Lonely, confused, and depressed, he moves into an apartment and spends his evenings sulking at the end of a swanky bar, which is apparently the only bar in this entire California zip code. Cal’s frumpy look, his baggy clothes and bad haircut, and his wounded-animal moping persona catches the eye of Jacob, a smooth, slick womanizer who looks as if he stepped right out of a Prada ad. Jacob takes Cal under his wing to teach him a thing or two about how to dress, how to carry himself and, most importantly, how to pick up women in his new life. These early scenes where Jacob molds Cal into a new man are quite funny and well focused. Carell and Gosling have a nice rapport and play off each other in the comedic moments with some good timing.

Cal also has kids with Emily. The child with the most screen time is their son, Robbie, played by Jonah Bobo in one of the better performances in the film. Robbie is love stricken himself with the babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) who just so happens to be head over heels in love with Cal. Tipton gives another wonderful supporting performance along with Jonah Bobo. Meanwhile Emily gives it a shot with David, the co-worker with whom she had an affair played by Kevin Bacon. Bacon’s character could have been played as a heel, which would be the easy way out in this story. But, surprisingly, David is quite likeable. It’s an interesting twist on a character that could have been cliché.

Jacob meets a girl, Hannah, played by Emma Stone (overacting here for the most part). Hannah is a recent law school grad and, after her doofus of a boyfriend (Josh Groban. Yes, that one.) unwittingly embarrasses her for the last time, Hannah seeks out Jacob and the two spark a relationship. And here is another interesting twist on familiarity, where Jacob and Hannah spend all night having conversation rather than falling into the sack right away.

As I said, plates are in the air everywhere in Crazy Stupid Love, and that is the downfall. We spend too much time on one story. There are long spans of time where the Gosling story is abandoned and we get caught up in Carell’s story. Then when we return to Gosling, we have almost forgotten about him. This is a common occurrence between all these stories. There isn’t the right amount of balance in the editing. While the major players, Carell, Gosling and Moore, are all quality, sometimes the motivations, actions, and reactions of these characters don’t feel genuine. There is an especially disappointing performance from Marisa Tomei as a wacky one-night stand. I’m not sure what screenplay she got, but it wasn’t this one. I say all of that to say the film does not fit together as well as it should.

Another issue which comes along with so many stories trying to fit together is length. This is not a film which needed to be two hours. It feels heavy and meandering sometimes when it should be breezy and knit together a little tighter. I kept wondering if the Carell story could support an entire film without getting any development on the Gosling character. I don’t know if either of the stories could support themselves without the other, so we get extraneous and ill-fitting material. There are charming elements about Crazy Stupid Love, and some admirable attempts from all the actors involved. Performances aren’t the issue here; it’s the world around them.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

TUESDAY TOP 10: The Best and Worst of 2011 so Far


5) Horrible Bosses - Because, in my opinion, it’s the best comedy of the year, and everything The Hangover II couldn’t be. The chemistry between Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day is perfect. The humor has just the right amount of crudeness, slapstick, and sarcasm; it all adds up to some side-splitting hilarity. And without the wacky bosses themselves, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, and Colin Farrell, this whole endeavor would have come undone. The only thing I needed more of was Farrell as the coked-up karate enthusiast. I imagine there will be plenty from the cutting-room floor on the unrated DVD that is just around the corner.

4) Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 – Having just seen all the Harry Potter films over the last two months, I now see what the hype was about, and understood the anticipation of the final entry into the franchise. With films like this, a strong villain is key, and I would argue that Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort may be the strongest, most wicked villain in a fantasy film since Darth Vader. It’s difficult not to take the series as a whole when considering the final film, but as a stand-alone film, The Deathly Hallows Part 2 delivers everything anyone could have expected.

3) Rango –
The most inventive and enjoyable animated feature this year does not belong to Pixar for a change. They decided to roll out a Cars sequel. Rango is a charming animated film, and a beautifully rich and colorful one to boot. I credit director Gor Verbinski and his brain trusts for not opting to shoot Rango in 3D. It looks wonderful . The story itself, about a pet lizard that falls into the role of hero in a desert town is a perfect animated feature for Johnny Depp. And the references, from Chinatown to Fear and Loathing to The Man With No Name, make this a unique cartoon, a film fan’s movie framed as a kid’s movie.

2) The Tree of Life – Ask me on another day, and Terrence Malick’s hypnotizing, meditative film could be anywhere on this list, from five to one. But today, I think two is where it belongs. This is the most unique film of the year, a challenging look into the way we function not only as a society, but as a planet. It tackles the cosmos, creation, and then channels all these grand ideas through a microcosm of a Texas family in the 50s. This is a film which many will hate, and I can see that, but I found it to be deeply affecting. It is a film that will forever linger in the back of my head for what it tries to achieve, and the way it goes about it.

1) Midnight in Paris – Perhaps Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s comeback film, but I would probably cite Match Point in 2005 as a great film in his portfolio. So I don’t know if a comeback is necessarily what he needed with this one. Regardless, Midnight in Paris is the most delightful film of the year, a whimsical look into nostalgia and the way we consider the past in our own lives. Owen Wilson is the best Allen stand in in several years, and Wilson’s adventures into 1920s Paris are so wonderful and so very charming. I enjoyed this film on an aesthetic level, a narrative level, and on a level only people with an education in Literature (however formal or informal that may be) could enjoy.


5) The Hangover, Part II – This miscalculated money grab did nothing but leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. As funny and easy flowing as the original Hangover was, this sequel is too forced, too formulaic, and not nearly as funny as it thinks. I laughed a few times, but it was never genuine laughter the way it was with Horrible Bosses. And one thing this one was sorely missing was the “morning after” room like the hotel room in the original. I still find new things in the set design every time I see it. No, this film got annoying much too quickly, and spiraled out of control in the worst way. But, regardless, The Hangover Part II made so much money is a third entry that far away? Probably not.

4) Hobo With A Shotgun – Granted, this film is supposed to be bad on a certain level since it is a homage to 70s grindhouse features. But the homage is the problem; those grindhouse films were made on low budgets with shoddy effects and poor writing because they had no other choice. Hobo With a Shotgun clearly had more of a budget, and the shock value was weakened because of it. That made it boring and repetitive and annoying by the end. Rutger Hauer gives it his best shot, but the film itself is like a continuous loop of shocking moments that never really shock. It’s fool’s gold.

3) Drive Angry – I mean, really, I don’t know what I expected from this. Maybe fun. But it wasn’t fun, or creative, or anything enjoyable. Nicolas Cage plays a man who has come back from hell to find his daughter… I think. I don’t really remember the details of the plot. Aside from William Fitchner’s performance, everything in Drive Angry is too flat to be interesting. I expected an unhinged Nic Cage, but even he seemed bored by the proceedings. I thought, maybe, that he would make it fun because he is such a loon, but he wasn’t loony at all. He was just boring, like everything else in this disastrous picture.

2) Just Go With It –
I remember a few years ago, in the early part of the 2000s with Punch Drunk Love all the way to Reign On Me, where Adam Sandler gave the impression he cared about what he was doing. He has since spoiled that assumption. Even when he was making his goofy comedies during those years they still had energy and commitment to their idiocy. Now, Sandler makes movies as an excuse to hang out with his friends. Just Go With It is a boring, forgettable, grating comedy without the most important element: humor. There is not one laugh to be mined out of this lazy film. Sandler looks like he couldn’t care less, and there is no avoiding that seeping out through the screen and to the audience.

1) The Green Hornet – Here is the most annoying, grating, idiotic movie of 2011. I don’t care what else comes out this year, it will pale in comparison to the unmitigated shitstorm of a disaster that is The Green Hornet. Seth Rogen plays the hero, as well as the writer of the film; here’s hoping he never writes another film again. He managed to take his own character and turn him into the most annoyingly narcissistic chatterbox ever. Just hearing Rogen in this film made me tense. And the action was not any better. It was a shame seeing Christolph Waltz follow up his Oscar-winnign performance in Inglourious Basterds by playing a stupid villain with a gun that is… two guns… or however you want to say it. It doesn’t matter.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci (121 min.)

The final piece of The Avengers puzzle has been put into place with Captain America: The First Avenger. The film, from a maligned director, a suspect leading man, and a difficult task, manages these complications admirably, although it does not come out of things unscathed. It might be a little lumbering at times, and the editing has some major issues, but overall I was impressed by the look of Captain America. And the feel of it all. All of the issues going in were not issues at all once the film got rolling. But a few other may have popped up along the way.

Captain America is Steve Rogers, the prototypical 90-pound weakling from the muscle-man ads you used to find in the back of comic books. Through the help of some seamless SCGI work, Chris Evans plays this fragile Rogers as a man whose heart is too big to live inside this asthmatic with countless health issues keeping him from enlisting in the Army. All he wants to do is fight, and his courage is immeasurable. He catches the attention of one Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who talks Steve into volunteering for his top-secret military program. Rogers gladly volunteers. The unit is led by Colonel Phillips, played perfectly by (who else?) Tommy Lee Jones. Jones nails the comedy and wit, and as Phillips is reluctant to see the heroism inside this frail kid. But after a test shows Rogers’ mettle, Phillips has no choice but to embrace the decision to make Rogers the first super solider.

Rogers is transformed into a huge, hulking beast of a man, faster and stronger than anyone else. The operation is headed by Howard Stark, the Military’s number one weapons manufacturer. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Howard Stark is the father of Tony, a.k.a. Iron Man. Along for the ride as well is Peggy Carter, a hard-nosed Military woman played by Hayley Atwell. Peggy is, of course, the romantic interest, but Atwell makes her tough enough to be memorable in this world of men.

Unlike Iron Man, or The Incredible Hulk, there is a definitive villain in the Captain America legend which is a great advantage for the story itself. Hugo Weaving plays Johann Schmidt, one of Hitler’s finest soldiers who has branched away from the fürher and is in search of a higher power, one which will quicken his attempt at world domination. Schmidt is the leader of HYDRA, a branch of the Nazi party. He is also the Red Skull, as his face is a furious red/orange skeleton behind a human mask of Weaving. Hugo Weaving is perfect tonally as The Red Skull, seething menace and anger as he attempts to dominate the planet. And his look, the sharp red skeleton, is fascinating, just as I imagined it from the comics.

Meanwhile, Rogers has been exposed as the superhero of the War, and thus is reduced to traveling road shows, selling bonds to Americans while wearing a ridiculous version of his eventual costume and phantom-punching an actor dressed as Hitler. The rationale is, he is but one man, what could he do to try and save the world without a thousand others like him? The answer is, Rogers has the heart to do quite a lot.

In the second half, Captain America becomes a series of attacks on HYDRA locations by Rogers and the assembly of soldiers he collects. With the help of Stark and Peggy, Rogers fine tunes his costume to make it more user friendly and much tougher. And of course there is the shield, created by Stark, which becomes a great weapon for Rogers as he mows down HYDRA henchmen on his way to a one-on-one showdown with The Red Skull. Some of the action here has poor editing; it’s like the spatial elements were out of sync and it took a minute to figure out who was attacking who and where they were coming from. Things move at a furious clip during the action and could have been aided by some more confidence in the editing room. And the film naturally sags in certain areas, which seem in hindsight to be unavoidable lapses in the action.

Captain America
looks beautiful, and the acting is all quality. The best way to dilute the focus on Evans himself is to surround him by actors like Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones, which is not to say Evans does a poor job. He is quite good, but he feeds off these other actors and it helps to elevate his game. This is a classic throwback film, an adventure story which embellishes the newsreel mentality of the 40s serials. There are moments that are direct homages to Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Star Wars films, and I enjoyed these subtle winks. Captain America is a fun summer film, nothing more and nothing less, and it is a solid entry into The Avengers franchise. This is the final piece, and with all the things stacked against it the film manages to fight the odds. Kind of like Steve Rogers himself.


Friday, July 22, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Not So Amazing Spider-Man, and Re-Boot Nausea

* This Amazing Spider-Man thing is troubling and irritating on so many levels. The new Marc Webb re-boot (a term which makes me nauseous anyway) is yet another origin story a mere ten years after Tobey Maguire and Sam Raimi walked us through the birth of Spidey. And Spider-Man is not a dark figure; the comics were always light, tongue-in-cheek, and colorful. This new one is darker and much more serious along the lines of Batman. The thing is, Batman is a dark character. Spidey isn’t.

* And in this trailer, it appears Peter Parker’s parents are running from something. So we have another parental issue like we did in Ang Lee’s Hulk? Because that turned out so well.

* The end of the trailer is a first-person shot of Spider-Man running and jumping and climbing, and it looks bad. This is the video-game influence.

* Is it me or does Andrew Garfield seem to tall and angular to play Spider-Man?

* I caught the first part of the 1992 Captain America film last night on SyFy. Quite possibly the worst movie ever made.

* And why did we change the name of that channel to “SyFy.” Stupid.

* Check out the trailer for Drive, the new Ryan Gosling action thriller, if you haven’t yet. It looks great. And it’s that rarity, an action film with a little credibility via the Cannes Film Festival, where it won Best Director.

* Add this to the Things We Don’t Need file: National Lampoon’s Vacation re-boot (there’s that word again. Gross).

* The only re-boot I support in any way is Superman, because they need a new one. That’s not to say I am fully in favor of Zack Snyder directing the new Superman. He has yet to impress me for an entire film. He has flashes of brilliance but it is all style and no substance.

* Has anyone heard from Larenz Tate recently? I always enjoyed his acting, even in The Postman. And I am in the minority camp that thinks Menace II Society is better than Boyz in Tha Hood. And Dead Presidents? The guy needs to do more.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Jackie Brown (1997)

Jackie Brown is far and away the most underappreciated film of Quentin Tarantino’s career. It arrived as his follow up to Pulp Fiction, when everyone expected something similar to that groundbreaking 1994 masterpiece. It had not the same fanfare or inventiveness of Pulp Fiction, and is overlooked when Tarantino’s body of work is considered. But it is a seamless, wonderful film, full of intriguing characters and secure in its dedication to the crime dramas of the seventies. Part blaxploitation, part crime drama, and loaded with wonderful humor, Jackie Brown is a quiet gem from Tarantino. I admit I was not the biggest fan when I saw it in 1997, but it has since grown on me considerably.

Adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, Rum Punch, Jackie Brown has the typical Leonard cast of characters, a sprawling assembly of lowlifes, conmen, crooks and thieves, and a few policemen on their trail. Pam Grier, a staple of seventies crime films like Foxy Brown and Coffy, plays Jackie. She is a middle-aged woman working as a flight attendant for one of the worst airlines around. But the airline just so happens to make trips to Mexico where Jackie can run cash for Ordell Robbie, a small-time gun runner played by Samuel L. Jackson. Jackie gets nabbed by two FBI agents, Ray and Mark (Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen), who ship her off to jail after finding $50,000 in cash and a bag of cocaine in her possession.

Ordell Robbie is a slick criminal with a modest ocean pad, a blond waif named Melanie (Bridget Fonda) who spends her days smoking his pot, and a newly-paroled buddy named Louis (Robert DeNiro, practically mute for most of the film). Ordell likes to keep the lines between him and the Feds clean, as evidenced in an early extended scene where he sets up one of his goons (Chris Tucker) and kills him. Once Jackie is arrested, Ordell is the one who bails her out; he clearly has plans to take care of her as well. But Max Cherry, the bail bondsmen, is onto Ordell’s game.

Cherry is played by Robert Forster. He has been around the block. A bit world weary and having seen just about anything there is to see in the bail bondsmen game, Max sizes up Ordell from the get go. And when he sees Jackie waking out of the prison gates, he is immediately smitten with her. But Max is, of course, a man who has been around, and he keeps his admiration in check as best he can. He knows Ordell is coming for her, and she knows it too, so he helps her out as best he can.

With Jackie drawing heat, Ordell growing paranoid, the Feds tightening their grip, Max falling in love, and everyone working against each other to con the next man, the pieces are in place for the second half of the picture. There is also a hilarious subplot involving the relationship between DeNiro’s Louis and Fonda’s Melanie. The intricacies of the plot are executed wonderfully, with great precision. All the while, Tarantino stays devoted to the style of the seventies. This is what Tarantino does, he picks a genre and makes a film based in that lore and painted with that brush. The film is muted and natural, with high red tones inside local bars and a jazzy soundtrack of seventies R & B.

I found myself charmed by the attitude of Jackie Brown over the years, and the lovely texture of the picture overall. And what is so refreshing is the intelligence of these characters, and the way the plot ties together like the laces of a shoe. They begin in all different directions, but wind up in a neat little bow. Credit goes to the supreme cast, but this film would be a mess had it not been for the fascinating brain of Quentin Tarantino and his ability to keep all these moving parts working properly and consistently entertaining.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

FOREIGN CORNER: Pale Flower (1964)

Pale Flower is one of the signature films of the Japanese New Wave movement, a noir that is as cool, sharp, and detached as any film in the genre. It is also now out in a remarkable blu-ray Criterion Collection transfer. The Japanese New Wave coincided with the other New Wave film movements around the globe in the sixties, emphasizing style and a certain disengagement over the grandiose theatrics which defined Hollywood moviemaking. It is a gangster picture with panache, concentrating on the dangerous world of the Yakuza in Japan. Danger is the underlying theme of Pale Flower, anchored by some compelling and withdrawn performances.

Ryô Ikebe is Muraki, a Yakuza heavy who, as the film opens, has been released from prison after three years for killing a man. It was the order of his boss, the head of his crime family. Muraki does not regret killing the man because, well, people die all the time. He does, perhaps, regret doing the time for his boss who is unassuming and not all that intimidating. Straight from the prison cell, Muraki haunts his old stomping grounds, finding a local card game. He is a persistent gambler – one may say an addict these days – but his gambling never seems to threaten his way of being. This is a world dominated by men, a world of only men, so when a jaded upper-class woman named Saeko (Mariko Kaga) begins to appear at these card games, Muraki grows fascinated.

Saeko is a bored and lonely woman looking for action, a few cheap thrills that include high-stakes card games and racing fellow drivers in her sports car late at night. She upsets the herd in a way, creasing the flat and morose world of underground gambling. Muraki and Saeko develop a relationship, but it is never exploited. This is about two people living in a shifting underworld where danger hides in open places and the darker corners. Things changed during Muraki’s time behind bars. The two gangs who were at war are now joining forces to combat an impending gang. This is a cause for some concern for Muraki, who was sent to jail for killing a member of the gang who is now on his side. We see the lingering effects of this rift in an assassination attempt on Muraki in a bowling alley.

Muraki must grapple with the shifting tide in the Yakuza while he becomes more involved with Saeko nightly. A young drug addict begins to pop up around Saeko; Muraki notices. He senses this danger nearing closer to Saeko, and worries she may be headed down a path too dangerous and dark from which to recover.

Director Masahiro Shinoda may be lesser known than other popular Japanese directors, at least stateside, but there is no denying his attention to detail, his style, and his delicate framing in a picture like Pale Flower. Every last frame is intricately crafted, like a work of art or a Swiss watch. There is not a wasted scene in Pale Flower. The soundtrack is vital to the mood as well; the cards in the game which is played throughout the film making a slight tick-ticking, and this is a motif underlying everything. There are the ticking of the clocks in Saeko’s fathers’ shop, the clicking of the heels of Muraki’s shoes against pavement, the friction of the cards. It sets a rhythm and a pace to the events as they deliberately unfold.

Noir is a strict genre of film which needs certain things to be in place; there must be the damaged hero, the femme fatale, and the stylistic elements of fiction. These are all accounted for in Pale Flower, a small, quiet, but influential film. I was reminded of Breathless, the French New Wave film from Jean-Luc Godard four years earlier. The films themselves are similar at times, but drastically different as a whole. I suppose that lends itself to the breezy and minimalist style of New Wave film, regardless of the continent.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

TUESDAY TOP 10: Music Scenes in Non Musicals

This may sound like an overly-specific category, but it really isn’t. Music scenes in non musicals are everywhere in the last forty plus years of cinema. Music and movies have always gone hand in hand, but not until the emergence of Scorsese, Coppola and the like in the late sixties were the two mediums so exclusive and to convey emotion or set a scene. Scores became soundtracks, and anything from rock music to opera were injected into film scenes for, often times, great results. The selections here are taken from those moments in film where the song exists in the scene, not simply as a soundtrack to manipulate audiences. The characters hear it, as do we...

10) Who’s That Knockin’ At My Door and El Watusi – This first feature from Martin Scorsese is quite rough around the edges, and understandably so. Scorsese was trying new things in front of the camera, namely the introduction of pop music into scenes. While it may be too heavy on style, there are glimpses of Scorsese’s future greatness all throughout. There is no other scene which exemplifies his creative skill and stylistic power more than the following scene. For the sake of this list, I am under the assumption the men in this room are listening to Ray Barretto’s catchy Spanish rumba on the radio; but don’t let that sidetrack the fluid energy and style of this fantastic scene:

9) Pulp Fiction and Al Green – We go from one master of music and film combinations to another. Tarantino is perfect in every marriage of sight and sound he puts in his films. His inclusion of Let’s Stay Together in this tough-talking scene adds a perfect balance. Ving Rhames speech is rough and hard-nosed, but with the cool, sweet singing of Green in the background we are transported to this place, where certainly a song like this would be playing in the background of a bar in the middle of the day. It is a perfect blend:

8) Wayne’s World and Bohemian Rhapsody – What is there to say, really, about this classic comedy karaoke from the most successful SNL skit adaptation ever? It is pitch perfect, and the silliness of the song coupled with the high-energy of the lip-synching from Wayne, Garth, and crew, let us know just what we are in for in this film. Silliness and heavy rock go hand in hand, and Mike Myers and Dana Carvey knew that when they created these characters:

7) Louie Louie in Animal House – So this is far and away the shortest scene on the entire list, but it is still a great moment in a film that redefined college comedies forever. Here is a scene every fraternity tried to emulate at some point or another, though without the comedic timing and physical skills of someone like John Belushi:

6) Tom Hanks, Robert Loggia, and Heart and Soul – A lot of people tend to forget Tom Hanks was nominated for an Oscar for Big. As Josh Baskin, Hanks nails what so many other actors miss when they attempt these out of body films (think Jennifer Garner in 13 Going On 30). And everyone remembers the piano scene, and the duet of Hanks and his boss at the toy company, Robert Loggia. This is an important scene in the film, as it turns Loggia’s character back into a 13-year old once again, right along with Josh. It is also a technically succinct scene and a very heartwarming moment:

5) Ferris Bueller Twists and Shouts – This scene is almost a bit of magic realism, breaking the narrative of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at the perfect time. It is a musical interlude, but one which exists in the frame of the plot at the same time. Sure, it could and would never happen, but there is always a bit of fantasy at the heart of Ferris Bueller. That’s why this scene is perfect. And not only do we get one musical number from Ferris, but two:

4) Almost Famous and Tiny Dancer – The night has been long, and the band has lost their mysterious guitar player to a drug-fueled house party in the Midwest. The night and the ensuing morning is then a time of great chaos for the members of Still Water, the fictional band at the heart of Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical road rock movie. And the hectic moments leading up to this scene in the bus, with everyone singing tiny dancer, feels real. It is a cool down period for these lifelong friends, and those new members of their crew. It is a sweet moment and a touching scene just when the film needed a moment like that:

3) Shawshank Redemption, and Mozart – Prison is a horrible place, a place of sadness and pain and anger and violence. But perhaps, every once in a while, the men behind bars could feel free. That is the underlying message in this moment from The Shawshank Redemption. Andy Dufresne has gotten his wish, gotten his supplies for a prison library, including a collection of records. Andy sees an opportunity and hands over some of his own love of opera, and the healing and freeing power of music to all the men of Shawshank. It is a profound moment:

2) Apocalypse Now and The Ride of the Valkyrie – This clip is not the actual clip of the scene, but it’s enough to get the point. And it’s the best I could do, so lay off. Apocalypse Now is a haunting, powerful Vietnam film about madness and humanity. This moment takes place before a raid on a village where men, women and children are all massacred by the overwhelming American assault by air. It really is a horrific scene, but the most unsettling thing about it is the way we remember the events at face value. It feels like a rousing and triumphant victory, but is at its core a horrible mass murder. That was the point of Francis Ford Coppola all along, to show the dichotomy of the conflict in the South Seas in a very profound way:

1) Mr. Blonde, Reservoir Rogs, and Stuck in the Middle With You –
I apologize for the quality of this clip as well. I had a tough time nailing down quality versions of these top two. At least here, the scene is complete. Mr Blonde has been left in charge of watching the policeman, but his ideas involve more than keeping an eye on him. The sadistic monster of the group of robbers is the most compelling of the dogs, and in this scene Michael Madsen embeds himself into modern film pop culture. The scene is chilling and brutal, but somehow it is still incredibly cool:

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 2: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes (130 min.)

After a decade of films, a legion of fans, and countless new entries into the pantheons of language and popular culture, the legend of Harry Potter has finally reached an end. It is a fitting conclusion. Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 wastes no time in propelling us to the finale. This final entry has the benefit of being the final entry; things must be explained, doors must be closed, thus the tension is intensified beyond any of the other pictures before it. That is not to say this final entry was an easy execution.

We pick up right where we left off, not missing a beat. Lord Voldemort has found the most powerful of all magic wands. Potter, Hermione and Ron, all realize they have to seek out the parts of Voldemort’s soul, the horcruxes, to destroy them and weaken the Dark Lord so he can be defeated. The opening set piece in the film involves our three heroes trying to break into the vault of Bellatrix LeStrange (Helena Bonham Carter) in order to reach one of the last remaining horcruxes. This opening sequence is terrifically tense and a great opening for a film which takes on a single-minded direction shortly thereafter.

Hogwarts is under the rule of the enigmatic Severus Snape, who perhaps is the most intriguing and memorable character of the entire series once all is said and done. Alan Rickman shines as Snape, not just here but throughout the series. It is not long before Snape is run out of Hogwarts, but the expulsion is overshadowed by the encroachment of Voldemort and his Death Eaters. There is very little in this film that is not dark or ominous. And the ominous feeling of the picture is heightened by the lack of a musical score in certain scenes. The silence is quite noticeable at times, moments that would have been amplified by a dramatic score in earlier films. Here, however, these moments of tension are silent, thus more effective.

As Harry and friends approach ever closer to Voldemort, or as Voldemort nears closer to them, Hogwarts bears the brunt of the violence. There is a full on assault on the castle and the buildings are destroyed as Voldemort’s faithful ransack the courtyard. Of course, everything is leading up to the showdown between Voldemort and Potter. Certain secrets are revealed, twists are exposed, and the entire film is a tightening screw of tension. Voldemort breaks through the initial defenses, his minions break down the walls, until nothing but a face-to-face confrontation is left.

There is very little to describe in this film because any description is giving something away. As I said earlier, Deathly Hallows, Part 2 has the benefit of being the final chapter. Since there is inevitable closure in the end, the anticipation of said closure keeps the tension palpable throughout this film more than any other. That isn’t to say those in charge had it easy. They still needed to make a solid film, and they have. Daneil Radcliffe is better than ever here as Potter. He has grown up, passed all those rites of passage, and is a grown man facing his destiny. His solemn demeanor fits the proceedings better than it ever has before. Oddly, Hermione and Ron are given very little to do throughout the film. But there un-involvement was an afterthought as the events on the screen outweighed any sort of nitpicks I may have had.

The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is appropriately solid as the final entry into the largest and most epic film franchise of all time. The weight of expectations could have been too much for director David Yates, who has directed the last few chapters in the franchise. But he comes through by maybe doing nothing more than staying out of the way. These actors have known their characters longer than they have known themselves, and everything works together to send off this historic franchise in style.


Friday, July 15, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Harry Potter (of course), Contagion, and Welcome Back John McTiernan

* Are there any new movies coming out this weekend? I can’t think of one…

* Don’t pile on Radcliffe by the way. I’d drink whisky too if random strangers on the street were accosting me for a decade with Harry Potter-related jokes and quotes. “Yeah, yeah, expecto petr- bartender!”

* Let the Dark Knight Rises obsession officially begin.

* Barnes and Noble has a great sale going until August 1st: 50% off all Criterion Collection movies. Just a head’s up.

* Shia LeBeouf appears to be regressing as an actor.

* The trailer for Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s new apocalyptic thriller, looks impressive mostly because of the stellar cast. Matt Damon looks fantastic in the lead role. I am a little curious about the September release date, however. That isn’t a very promising month historically.

* I don’t know about this Rise of the Planet of the Apes. First of all, the title is cumbersome. It should be Rise of the Apes. Second of all, the CGI looks like a major step back. At least it isn’t in 3D.

* I am excited to see John McTiernan is back at work. Of course, he is still in a legal battle over the illegal wiretapping conspiracy that sent him to jail a few years ago, but it appears he has time to work on a new action film. McTiernan used to be one of the best action directors around, with credits like Die Hard (arguably the best action film of all), Die Hard with a Vengeance, and Predator to his name. This new film will pit John Travolta against Nicolas Cage, re-teaming the duo that made Face/Off so marvelous back in 1998. It sounds dicey; Cage has since left his sanity behind and Travolta is turning into a wax sculpture of himself. We shall see…

Thursday, July 14, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: On the Waterfront (1954)

Sometimes, movies bring with them a rich history and personal background that cannot be separated from what is on the screen. I can think of no film more fitting of this description than Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. Kazan was made infamous by his involvement with the House Un-American Activities Committee back in the early fifties, where he cooperated by naming members of the Hollywood community who were suspected to be involved with the Communist party. Kazan became a pariah, and his films were often overshadowed by his willingness to cooperate with the witch hunt. On the Waterfront, then, serves as Kazan’s personal vindication. It also happens to be an important film and a key moment in acting method from the man who would forever change the way actors deliver their performances.

Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a former prizefighter who took a pay day and took a dive in Madison Square Garden. Now, Terry works at the docks as a longshoreman, doing whatever job is required of him for Johnny Friendly, the corrupt boss of the loading docks played by Lee J. Cobb. Johnny was the man behind Terry’s dive he took in the fight, and now rules over Terry and the other longshoreman. Terry’s older brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), is also in cahoots with Johnny. Terry is a sap, a pushover. He hasn’t the stomach for the fight anymore. Until, one evening, he inadvertently sets up the murder of another longshoreman.

A man is thrown from the rooftop of his apartment building after Terry lures him up there. The man was going to testify against the corruption on the docks. “I thought you were just gonna talk to him,” Terry says. Apparently talking was never in the cards. Terry, feeling even more lost and helpless, takes solace in his pigeons on the roof of his building. But there are two characters that directly and indirectly pressure Terry to stand up to Johnny Friendly and the racket at the docks. One is Father Barry, played by Karl Malden in the finest role of his career. Father Barry is the conscious of the film, and he tries to push that feeling on to Terry as best he can. When an “accident” at the docks kills another man set to testify, Father Barry is witness to the “accident” and chastises the whole lot of men who are there to hear him. “Some people thnk the crucifixion only took place on Calvary,” he tells the men. “They better wise up.” It is the most powerful moment in the film.

The second person to greatly influence Terry and seemingly pull him from his malaise is Edie, the sister of the man who was thrown from the roof. Eva Marie Saint, in her first film role, plays Edie. She is a perfect love interest for the shy and more linear Terry. Her bright eyes and blonde hair contrast against his cold demeanor. Terry falls in love with Edie, finding in her the support he hasn’t gotten from his friends at the docks, or even his own brother. The two share a kiss at Edie’s place that is as passionate as anything you would see in a modern film, and maybe even more so as it is not polluted by color or the modern expectations of film romance.

There is no denying Marlon Brando as one of the most important and influential actors of all time. He is arguably the best there ever was. Despite his strange ways, and his propensity for being a real asshole, Brando changed the face and the culture of acting. He stripped away theatrics and melodrama in his acting and replaced it with nuance and texture and realism. Brando is perfect in the role of Terry, and no scene exemplifies his nuance more than the most famous scene in On the Waterfront, and one of the most famous scenes in film history. It is the scene where he confronts his brother, Charley, in the back of a cab. It is a melancholy scene where Terry expresses his regret and the pain he has endured for Charley and Johnny Friendly. “I coulda been a contender, Charley,” he says. “I coulda been somebody.” It is a moving scene, and a testament to the power of Brando and how his power exists in small subtleties.

The parallels to Elia Kazan’s situation at the time are clear; a man stands up to corruption against insurmountable odds. This was how Kazan felt about Communism and his decision to turn against his Hollywood brethren. A few years ago, Kazan received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars and was met with a few scattered standing ovations and large pockets of seated audience members not clapping or acknowledging his career. It had been more than forty years at the time, and the wounds were still there. Perhaps this is even more of a testament to the power of On the Waterfront as a film, as it would score 11 Oscar nominations and win 8 in 1955, including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress for Saint, and a Best Actor statue for Marlon Brando. Maybe it was Kazan’s own vindication; I would argue it was the film itself.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

THE HARRY POTTER PROJECT: Some Final Thoughts Before the Final Showdown

I didn’t know what to expect going into the Harry Potter franchise blind two months ago. I am not the biggest fantasy fan to begin with, but I give any film a fair shot when I watch it the first time. There was simply too much buildup, too much peer pressure to ignore this decade-long franchise any longer. For the last seven weeks I have watched a film a week, absorbing the world of Harry Potter and all players involved. It has been interesting to say the least.

I have enjoyed these films and this era. Each film has something to offer, even the first two which are widely panned when the pantheon is considered as a whole. I enjoy being involved in the continuous lives of these characters, be it Harry, Hermione and Ron, or the laundry list of Hogwarts instructors, or the evil death eaters and their leader, Voldemort. Each has something to offer to the story, some more than others. The producers of this franchise lucked out in their casting; here, they have three lead characters that can carry the weight of expectation. Daniel Radcliffe is a perfect Harry, and likewise with Emma Watson and Rupert Grint as Hermione and Ron, respectively. To be honest, I don’t think there was a poor casting choice the entire time. Though I will point out Michael Gambon is a more spry and, from what I have heard, more accurate representation of Dumbledore than the late Richard Harris.

There are certain characters I took a liking to more than others, as I imagine is the case with everyone who is a fan of the series. Severus Snape, played by Alan Rickman, has to be my favorite peripheral character. Snape has evolved more than any instructor at Hogwarts throughout the films, and has taken center stage lately. Perhaps it is my affection for Alan Rickman, a droll and engrossing character actor who takes the role and makes it his own. And the fan favorite, Sirius Black, has the benefit of Gary Oldman, who is in the series not nearly enough. Then there is Voldemort, a character I could never get enough of. Ralph Fiennes is deliciously wicked as the Dark Lord.

I enjoyed the introduction of new characters throughout the franchise, each new film adding to the list of “who’s who” of British character actors. Of course, there were characters I felt were lacking namely Tom Felton’s portrayal of Draco Malfoy. The character was never convincing to me. And Hagrid seemed to wear out his welcome once the kids grew into young adults. Thankfully, his role was reduced with each new film. And of course there is the inevitable ranking of the films. To save time and space, if I were to rank them by their number from worst to best, they would go: 1, 2, 5, 4, 7.1, 3, 6. For my own sanity I’ll save the explanation of my rankings. Just go with it.

Some thoughts on the franchise:

* Changing directors throughout the series was a great idea. Chris Columbus would not have been the right choice for any of the films beyond 1 and 2.

* I do wish Alfonso Cuaron was given another chance, or took on another one of the films later in the series. He would have been fantastic as the director of one of the darker pictures.

* The only film I felt had serious problems was The Order of The Phoenix. The first two aside, Order was heavy handed and cumbersome and not as interesting as the rest by far.

* I still want to learn the precise rules of Quidditch. Perhaps I should read the books to figure it out.

* I feel like I had an advantage seeing the films over the span of two months. It definitely helped my retention.

I wonder, too, what is in store for Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint. Of the three I see Emma Watson as having the brightest future in acting. Radcliffe will always struggle with the shadow of Harry Potter. Grint may find his niche in independent films and dark dramas – he has the face for it – but Watson has the star power to move beyond the franchsie. As much as I enjoyed the Harry Potter franchise, and as much as I am looking forward to the final chapter, I’m not sure I will revisit them. I have seen them, and I respect them, but I definitely don’t have the determination to see the films a second time. That is no knock on the films – they are all quality – I just personally do not care to go back through the stories. Nevertheless, I am intrigued to see how the story ends, and where our players end up when the dust settles.

Monday, July 11, 2011

THAT SCENE WHEN: There Will Be Blood (2007)

Whenever we discuss some of our favorite movies, we always discuss “that scene when” or “that part where.” There are moments in our favorites that stick out; they are the moments which make us love the film. With comedies, these moments and scenes can feel endless. But with dramas, sometimes, there is a turning point, or a poignant moment in the script where secrets are revealed or a character reaches a point yet unseen. Some of the greatest films of all time have countless memorable moments; that is why they are greats. But even in those films, there is that one scene, you know the one…

There Will Be Blood may eventually be regarded as Paul Thomas Anderson’s finest film, but we are pretty early in his career. Nevertheless, Anderson’s opus on the birth of American greed is a powerful and compelling study of one man’s spiral into obsessive madness and egomania. Daniel Plainview is seen as a vile and dastardly oil baron, a man whose greed gets the better of him. He adopts a son whose father dies early in the film, raising him as his own and using him as a card in his oil dealings. But when an accident renders the boy deaf, Plainview ships him away because he has become too much of a burden.

Plainview’s adversary, the false prophet Eli, uses Plainview’s decision to send his son away – and the fact Eli’s family is sitting on a valuable piece of property – to publicly baptize and humiliate Plainview in front of his congregation. Plainview accepts the baptism because he needs that land, despite his staunch rejection of religion throughout the picture. There are individual scenes throughout There Will Be Blood which formulate the greatness of the whole. Those who know the film of course think of the final showdown first and foremost. And there is the oil derrick explosion causing the child’s injury. And the powerful, nearly silent opening scene. But I feel the most important portion of this story is the baptism scene:

The reluctance of Plainview to carry on with the baptism is clear. But the inflections in his face during the most intense moments of the baptism are more important, and are absolutely vital for the story and audience involvement. Daniel Plainview may be considered to be a vile human being. But for a moment, here, we see vulnerability. Although the screams and desperate cries are the draw of the scene, the sadness in his eyes and the curl of his lips suggests he is truly remorseful. He feels pain for sending his son away; there, for a moment, Daniel Plainview is a human being. And that is all we need to pull us in and carry us to the finish line.

Anderson chooses to focus strictly on Daniel Day Lewis once the meat of the scene takes hold. Nothing of what Eli does matters; only the reactions of Plainview are essential. We see his disgust at Eli’s demands, only because Eli is forcing humanity out of a man who has no time for such nonsense. This makes the breakthrough hit harder; we haven’t left Plainview’s face the entire time and the moment he approaches that true sadness, we feel it. Plainview feels it as well, which is why he shuts it off and returns to his own internal mockery of the proceedings. His humor masks his contempt, and despite the fact there may have been a brief breakthrough, Daniel's rejection of God will not allow him to oblige.

Eli's absurd assault on Daniel speaks to another portion of the story, and Daniel of course gets his revenge for this public humiliation.

Without the baptism scene, There Will Be Blood is the story of a cold and ruthless man who got what he deserved. But with this moment, no matter how slight it may seem, the picture tells a different tale. It is important for the audience to identify with the lead on at least some level. Keeping Plainview as a monster through and through would be a mistake. We would never feel empathy. Even with cinemas most vile creatures, those who are central to the story, we connect somehow. With this scene, even though we may not realize we are feeling something for Plainview, the image of his melancholy is burned into our heads just enough to resonate in our subconscious through later scenes.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

THE DEFENSE CALLS: The 'Burbs (1989)

Of course The ‘Burbs has a poor rating on the Tomatometer. It is a film which critics would naturally turn their backs on, a goofy Saturday matinee of a film that Vincent Canby of The New York Times said must have been working with a screenplay “whose pages are blank.” The overall 46% rating is not quite as bad as I initially expected, but it is still too low for this little gem.

Now, I am not here to laud The ‘Burbs as a comic masterpiece, but I am definitely here to say it has its place. The film, about a group of nosy suburbanites who suspect their creepy new neighbors are up to no good, is a charming and energetic satire with some twists and turns that are appropriately predictable. Consider the evidence in favor of The ‘Burbs:

EXHIBIT A – The Self-Aware Set: Some complaints against The ‘Burbs are the neighborhood itself. Roger Ebert in particular took issue with the cookie-cutter homes and obvious set look of the street where Ray (Tom Hanks) and his cohorts in snooping, Art (Rick Ducommun) and Rumsfeld (Bruce Dern) try and figure out just what exactly the Klopek’s are up to. This is obviously a set, and the Warner Brothers studio tour undoubtedly takes you down this very road as it has been used countless times before and after The ‘Burbs. But isn’t that really the point? The ‘Burbs is, more than anything else, a satire of the boredom and nosy neighbors who litter all suburban landscapes. Their homes begin to look alike, and look less real in the process. And they must be as generic and harmless as possible, making the gothic eyesore that is the Klopek’s home seem all that more out of place.

Had there been an attempt to make this neighborhood seem real or look authentic, all the satire and the humor would have been lost in the realism. This set is aware of its fakeness, and the actors are aware of it too. That helps them work their comedy, because they don’t concern themselves with being realistic.

EXHIBIT B – This Film Has a Place: There are a handful of films out there I like to call “weekend afternoon chore shows” (WACS). These WACS are films you watch while ironing or cleaning a room or doing laundry. They are rainy day weekend films you can watch while keeping busy doing something else at the same time. Part of that is because you don’t have to catch all the details. Another aspect of these films is the fact you have seen them dozens and dozens of times over the years, and they are endearing bits of American schlock. There’s nothing wrong with an easygoing movie to pass the time with, sort of like an old friend.

EXHIBIT C – The Three Stooges’ Biggest Hit: At this point in his career, it was obvious Tom Hanks could do comedy; The ‘Burbs came out a few months after Hanks would receive his first Oscar nomination for Big. He got his start in comedy, and does not disappoint as the straight man here. As Art, Rick Ducommun gets his meatiest and most memorable role, although he has appeared in classics like Groundhog Day and Die Hard as well. But it is Bruce Dern, as the over-militarized Lt. Rumsfeld, who gets the biggest laughs. Rumsfeld is a tense and tightly-wound neighbor with a trophy wife and a deep-seeded paranoia aimed at the Klopeks. Dern’s moments of rage, his clever lines throughout the film, and his absolutely hysterical fall on the Klopek’s front porch make him the jewel of the comedic trio. Without Dern’s solid comedy (not to mention he is a fantastic actor), the trio falls flat and The ‘Burbs loses many of its biggest laughs.

* Sure, The ‘Burbs was never meant to be a classic, but it has its place. It is fun and whimsical and quotable, everything you would want from a harmless film like this. Director Joe Dante was a master of fluff comedy during this era; just look over at Gremlins or Inner Space or even the underappreciated comedy Matinee for further evidence Dante has a certain tangible quality with satirical and offbeat comedies. Dante has a niche, and The ‘Burbs is one of his brighter and wittier pictures.