Sunday, December 28, 2008
I remember sitting there watching this “hokey black and white movie” that had no explosions, no violence, no guns or heck… anything good and thought, man this sucks. Seriously what kind of drugs was this guy taking when he made this sappy, melodramatic pap (Yes even as a teenager I had an expansive vocabulary so I knew what that meant)? Life isn’t really like this. People don’t really act this way. Where’s PULP FICTION when you need it?
Sitting here, a year away from hitting the three decade mark on this planet IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE sends my heart soaring with so much happiness and love I can barely comprehend a time when I had anything but unabashed love for Frank Capra’s seminal work. Like I said teenagers are morons.
First and foremost I feel I need to get something off my chest. I’m a pretty smart guy. I don’t think you’ll run into very many people that will disagree with that statement. I’ve studied film for almost my entire life and I can debate it and analyze it with the best of them. I only bring this up because in these first three pieces I don’t know if that comes across at all. In my first two blog posts and for sure in this one I have spoken much more from the heart. I know people love delving into the subtextual, intellectual details of everything and trust me so do I. It’s just that in the past three instances that’s not what’s called me to put finger to keyboard.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a rich, layered film filled with remarkable subtext, first rate craftsmanship and one of the more interesting histories of any film ever made. All of that though is not why it has become one of if not THE, single most beloved film of all time. Yes, Frank Capra, Jimmy Stewart and all involved were working at the top of their game. Yes, the film is a brilliant subtextual examination of “wants vs. needs”. Yes, the film was a box office and critical disaster upon its release. At the end of the day though that’s all just background noise as to why this film has enraptured so many people. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE first and foremost makes people FEEL, and that above all else is why it has stood the test of time and if anything continues to grow more and more popular with age.
I have over the course of my life, due to my religion, my upbringing and various things I’ve learned and experienced developed my own sort of personal philosophy. Everyone has one, whether they realize it or not, mine is just something I’ve put a lot more thought and understanding to than most. It would take hours to delve into every single facet of it but most of it can be summed up in just a few words. Aside from serving my God and my creator with every ounce of my being I feel that it is my job, my goal in life to make the world at least a little bit better each and every day. Secondly I feel that no matter what there is ALWAYS hope and that if you try hard enough you can change the world and make peoples lives better. That, at the end of the day, after all the analysis and dissection is what George Bailey’s story is all about.
I love idealists. They may be off their nut crazy but I love them none the less and as a result many of my favorite artists fall under that category. Aaron Sorkin, my favorite writer of all time is a dyed in the wool dreamer and idealist and in every single way he is cut from the exact same cloth as Frank Capra. In fact I think at the end of the day Sorkin owes his career and everything he’s ever written to Capra.
Frank Capra was a lot of things but for the most part the guy was not a realist by any stretch of the imagination. His two best films, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON aren’t accurate portrayals of reality. They’re Capras’s dream of the way the world should be. They’re his way of telling the world to pull it’s head out of it’s rectum and make things better.
In my last post I gushed about my love for George Lucas and how he helped the world learn to fulfill it’s dreams and fantasies. While that’s commendable in many ways I think Capra deserves even greater praise because his visions, his dreams were attainable, they were and still are within mankind’s reach. Capra wasn’t convincing the world it could travel to other galaxies, defeat ultimate evil and have a Wookie for a co-pilot. Instead he was showing the world that if each and every single individual were to simply live for the betterment of the people around them and not themselves nothing would be outside of mankind’s reach. Of course as a religious guy I love the fact that in the case of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE he did this all within the frame work of an approving Christian (If albeit slightly theologically off) God.
We live in some very scary, very bad times caused by some very scary, bad (And in the case of certain outgoing politicians, inept) people. Fifteen years ago, as a dumb, punk teenager I would have sat there and thought how stupid it all was. Now as an adult I realize how sad it is and I, like Frank Capra, like George Bailey realize how easy it is to make it better. I don’t think hope, optimism, love and good old fashioned kindness are stupid, I think they’re absolutely essential to furthering mankind.
In every possible way, on every possible level IT’S A WONDEFUL LIFE is one of the best films ever made. One of the greatest film makers of all time directed one of the greatest actors of all time in a story filled with love, drama, heart, emotion, desperation, loss, redemption and so much more than could ever be covered by me or probably any other writer. That’s only part of the reason though that more and more people flock to the simple story of George Bailey, the luckiest man in the world year after year. George wasn’t the luckiest man in the world, he wasn’t the noblest or even the best he was simply a guy that did what he had to do to try and make the world a better place. Frank Capra captured the essence of that idea and displayed it to the world at 24 frames per second. Nothing neither I, nor anyone else can say can hope to match that.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
The Reader is about the lifelong effect of a summer relationship between Michael, a 15 year old boy, and Hanna, a woman over 20 years his senior. He goes to visit her because he, not surprisingly, becomes infatuated and falls in love with her. I'm guessing the sex had more than a little bit to do with that . . . Her reasons for initiating and maintaining the relationship are less clear. Like Daldry's last film, The Hours, the film takes place in more than one time frame. Later, Michael learns that Hanna was a member of the S.S. during World War II. I wouldn't dream of telling you any more than that, so I'll just leave it there.
The performances are uniformly strong. Kate Winslet does a fine job and will probably merit some consideration for an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Of particular note are the two actors who portray Michael, the main character. David Kross and Ralph Fiennes do an excellent job of maintaining continuity within the character as he ages. For example, the younger Michael has this odd habit of smiling at the strangest times. At first, this bothered me a bit, until I realized that the older Michael had the same weird habit. In addition, the resemblance between the two is strong, which helps with the believability factor.
In the movies, it's become commonplace to vilify certain groups of people or things without objection. For example, aliens are a convenient target. Need a massive evil force to invade the planet at a moment's notice? They're your man. (well, technically not your man, but I'm not sure what noun to insert there) How about the insane? It's incredibly easy make the villain out of a person (presumably one who used to be a friend/relative of the hero) who, usually through either a freak accident or a traumatic experience, has lost his/her mind. If you were to write a screenplay and use either of these two types of villain as your antagonist, no one would blink an eye.
There is, however, another archetypical villain that has been used countless times as perhaps the most convenient of targets: the Nazi. Maybe it's a sense of moral superiority that audiences derive from knowing that, almost no matter what, they are superior to this group of people who was responsible for the deaths of almost 6 million innocent men, women, and children. Maybe it's just because they're an exceptionally easy target to shoot at. Could be a little of both. While there have been films with sympathetic Nazi characters, like Oskar Schindler in Schindler's List, and Doctor Lessing in Life is Beautiful, I can't recall a film with a truly sympathetic character who was a member of the S.S.
That's one thing that really impressed me about The Reader. Instead of contenting itself with mere condemnation, the film makes a much-needed effort to do something much more vital. It tries to understand.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
See you at the movies,
Adam, Chris W, Film Ninja, & Megan
Monday, December 22, 2008
Clint Eastwood is a god among men, man among boys, and, at 78, could still kick just about anyone's butt in 10 seconds flat. Ask most movie buffs who holds the title of greatest living American filmmaker, and most would pick Martin Scorsese. Since the passing of Robert Altman, it's hard to argue with that choice. However, I think Clint's on the shortlist, and, furthermore, might just be knocking on the door.
For the first time since 2004's Million Dollar Baby, Clint found a project he believed in enough to star in it. Previously, he'd said that he was done with acting and even turned down the lead in In the Valley of Elah, a role that Paul Haggis had written especially for him. (not to worry, Haggis had one heck of a backup plan) I went into Gran Torino with mid-level expectations, and came out blown away.
Clint is a rare breed of filmmaker and one that I think deserves to be considered an auteur. This distinction is one that is normally afforded a filmmaker with a well-defined visual and thematic style whose films are clearly recognizable as "theirs." That said, Clint Eastwood is probably not the first person who comes to mind when thinking about who is or isn't an auteur. From a visual standpoint, Clint's films are very naturalistic. I get the feeling that he could care less about impressing the audience with a nifty shot or camera trick. Instead, his focus is always on serving the story, which, I'd argue, is exactly where it should be. It's on these grounds that I really feel that he deserves the "auteur" label. In most cases, his films are small in scope in that they deal with only a few characters who are usually ordinary people. The real riches are in the emotional landscape he chooses to explore. I challenge you to find a Clint Eastwood film that doesn't feel like a Clint Eastwood film.
Gran Torino is no exception. I went into the film not expecting a great movie, and was completely surprised. I'd been interested in seeing it since seeing the first trailer, but felt that the material seemed formulaic and might come across on the corny side. My initial assumptions have some grounds, but, in large part, Gran Torino's strengths wipe out its weaknesses.
The film's single greatest strength is the performance of Clint Eastwood. I think he deserves serious consideration for an Academy Award nomination. It's one of the finer performances I've ever seen him give and one of the year's best. One of the things I like most about the film is the way it doesn't sugarcoat Walt Kowalski, the main character. He's a racist, pure and simple, and, to be honest, isn't a big fan of a lot of white folks either. It's refreshing to find a character like Walt who doesn't get sanitized and made politically correct. Then, when his perspective starts to shift, the changes are natural and feel as though they've been earned. This is unique, because a lot of films err in this area by trying for certain types of character development without building the character enough to sustain those changes. As a result, the changes feel false and clumsily tacked on. A lot of filmmakers would do well to watch this film and take notes . . .
Another of Clint's trademarks comes into play in Gran Torino to great effect: the sucker punch. He's a master of lulling the viewer into thinking that he/she's watching a certain type of film, creating a false sense of security, and then blindsiding him/her with a sudden shift in tone and thematic content. I wouldn't spoil it for the world, but there's a moment in Gran Torino that will almost take your breath away. It's perfectly set up by the film's humor, one of its unexpected strengths. I spent the first hour and a half laughing and enjoying myself (and enjoying my friend's reactions to Walt's behavior. Priceless.) and then after that moment occurs, I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore and the stakes had just gotten monumentally higher.
As most people go through life, they mark different time periods by certain occasions. I've almost always marked my years by movies and I'd have to say that Clint Eastwood's made for some oustanding moments in my cinematic life. With Letters From Iwo Jima, I knew I'd seen one of the greatest films about war that I'd ever seen. With Million Dollar Baby, I knew my life had been changed by one of the greatest films I'd ever seen. Gran Torino doesn't quite get as high up, but I wouldn't worry, 'cause it gets a distinction of its own. It's just one of the year's best films.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
You might be wracking your brain right now to argue with me about how wrong I am about It’s A Wonderful Life; what we celebrate and love the film for is the uplifting message that we take away from the film. However, until the end of the film George is a very selfish character and this trait is marked by periodic outbursts of depression and anger until he ultimately decides to commit suicide – that’s right – we get the ultimate message of this movie because George Bailey wants to die.
To understand the very natural human progression of George Bailey you have to start from the beginning. George Bailey wanted to go to college and see the world. He is stopped from doing this because first he needs money for college, then his father dies and he must take charge of the family business. When George finally thinks he is going to be able to shake the dust of Bedford Falls off his feet and let his brother Harry deal with the business Harry returns to Bedford Falls with a young wife in tow but soon George is married as well and thinks at least he’ll get to escape no matter how briefly on his honeymoon with his new wife Mary.
This is when George’s life completely changes and it becomes impossible for him to leave Bedford Falls. On the day he is married and as he is headed to start his honeymoon the stock market crashes and the depression hits. George and Mary use their honeymoon fund to save the business and some of the residents. Now George and Mary begin to have children and WWII hits. Unlike every other man his age George can’t fight in the war because he is dea fin his left ear – as such George stays and fights the “fight of Bedford Falls”.
But finally, finally George’s life beings to look up. Harry is a war hero. The business is almost turning a good profit. That is how you know George’s luck can’t hold. Sure enough the businesses deposit is lost by Uncle Billy as they are being audited and when it is discovered both he and Billy will become convicted felons. This is when George snaps –he does not want to pay for a crime he didn’t commit because of a life he didn’t want.
George is in a rage. He accosts Uncle Billy, he goes home and screams at his children and wife until he sees that they are afraid of him. That sets in the depression and George reacts like anyone might. George goes to the local bar and gets drunk only to end up being hit by another bar patron and on his way out of the bar crashing his car into a tree. This all finally leads up to his ultimate decision to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge.
This is not a uplifting character. George Bailey is not idealized or heroic in any fashion; even if his actions were good he wanted to be anywhere but here. He is a disappointed man who only comes to his final epiphany because someone has to prove to him that his life was not wasted; the man is so self involved that it takes an supernatural experience to show him how great he has life.
There are two reasons we remember George Bailey as the truly fabulous character he is – Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra. Stewart layers Bailey with warmth, humor, anger and disappointment in a way no actor of any other generation may ever be able to. We care about George Bailey because Stewart’s performance makes Bailey a character that is all too human, and as viewers you will empathize with something in George Bailey’s circumstances. In the same vein Capra take Bailey’s world and shapes it into one that is all too real – whether we are looking at Bedford Falls or Pottersville the worlds are so real that we can imagine living there ourselves. Capra layers his world with characters that mirror the people in our own lives and though the movie is supernatural in nature it is very real.
The thing to remember in the end is that George Bailey and It’s A Wonderful Life are so very real to us, so uplifting to us, because the character goes through such realistic situations; while you or I may never have the urge to throw ourselves off a bridge I can guarantee that more than once in life we have been faced with a situation in which we did the right thing, but it was very much not what we wanted to do and usually, however subtlety this situation changed our life just like it changed George Bailey’s. That very empathy that we feel between ourselves and George is the reason this film went from being a box office flop in 1946 to one of the most beloved movies of all time. We don’t like it when life disappoints us but over time if we try we will appreciate the changes and over time we have realized that It’s A Wonderful Life had something very important to say. It’s A Wonderful Life is a lot more than a “Christmas movie” it’s a movie about life.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
I am a huge Mel Gibson fan. Both as a director and an actor. And if there is anything that he does well, it's action. So when I was deciding which trilogy to do for my feature of the month, the Mad Max trilogy seemed like a fantastic opportunity to not only see some films I'd never seen, but to enjoy some of the action classics that helped launched his career.
After viewing the films (back to back on Thanksgiving day), I was blown away. How the heck did these films help launch his success? Why on earth did people want a sequel to the original (let alone a third)? And why the heck didn't I stop after the first one? I've decided that these films must have been using stunts and special effects that were top of the line, that I have obviously come to take for granted, because it certainly wasn't the stories or the acting.
Mel Gibson was great. In fact, he was definitely the Gibson I've come to expect and enjoy, and was no doubt new and exciting to audiences at the time. But that doesn't change the fact that the movies are bloody terrible. They all start off with great potential, but end somewhere that is just downright disappointing, and somehow it took you forever to get there.
Let me start with this - Why I kept watching? One, it was my homework assignment, and I follow through on my commitments. Two, it is a famous trilogy . . . I thought surely it would get better with each one. I imagined three possibilities:
1. Perhaps, like the original STAR WARS, craze over a new concept, cool characters, set in a futuristic world of chaos and fighting, inspired the studio to increase the budget and get a different director.
2. Or maybe, like DESPERADO (Mexican Trilogy), the sequel would be more or less a creative sequel/retelling of the same story, with more explosions, action, and better acting.
3. If nothing else, surely a performance by Tina Turner, and a better soundtrack would be worth the wait!
Sadly - none of these things really happened. Each sequel started off with hopes of story improvement, more of a great character, and the possibility that the story would be cooler and larger than the one before. Instead, the beginnings were simply a tease, Mad Max was there just enough so that they could call it a sequel, and each story existed just to get more people in crazy outfits assembled from late night spandex and last year's football equipment, driving go karts and dune buggies with better gas mileage than any car today. Let's go through each, one by one.
Mad Max - Like any trilogy, this story is an origin story of why Max is Mad. Clearly our world has a dark future, as order is dying (with the help of a lousy system) and anarchy is very popular among punk bikers who like to serve as pets to their leaders. Max is a good cop, and apparently the best driver ever (however it seems like his victims that die by car crash or collision, suffer their fate more by accident than the strategy or skill of Max's driving). Devestated by the murder of his friend, he hopes to avoid the urge to become who he is fighting by running away from his duties as a cop. But he can't run away - it finds him and murders his family as well. So basically he is the PUNISHER with a kickass car. I love the concept, and the evolution of his uniform and upgrade of his car in this process is cool. Unfortunately the telling of the story sucks. For one, it takes 80% of the film to kill his family. Max was responsible for the killing of one of the main gang members (Knight Rider - I'm assuming it would be spelled the same, ha ha) at the beginning of the film. It seemed like revenge on his family would follow. But instead it's because his wife and child run into the same gang while running errands, and she doesn't do what they want. But they don't kill her on the run . . . no, that would make sense. They hunt her down, watch her sleep on the beach, chase her through the woods, kill the dog they just bought, and then they run her over. See - too long. It's no different than their revenge on Max's partner earlier in the film. They damage his bike so that he flies off it, knowing that he'll get in a truck to drive back to the station (oh - he isn't hurt much after flying through the air either), so that they can attack the truck, which he gets stuck in, and they light on fire. It's just long and ridiculous. WHY? Because it's more time with bikes, cars, and explosions. The coolest part of the film, was the last 20 minutes where he is MAD and after revenge. But it's not him chasing the gang leader into a head on collision with a truck that got me . . . it was the eye for an eye moment with the gang member that lit his friend on fire. Unfortunately, as cool as this revenge tactic was, I'm not sure how Mad Max knew it was this member that sealed his friend's fate. But who cares, Mad Max is badass, and I want a sequel (well - I didn't, but apparently the world did).
Road Warrior - Everything about the opening made me think I was in for a treat. It had the cool intro, recapping the original film in a way that made it look watchable, and reminding us that Max is Mad and isn't going to put up with anyone's crap. Also - it upgraded the anarchy of the future to an endless struggle over gas - something that our actual future could turn into. And then the entrance of our beloved character is kickass. His car has new gadgets, his uniform and look has aged and evolved, and once again, he just wants to be left alone . . . but if you mess with him, you are going to pay (mainly with the gas from your vehicle that he just crashed). After that, you realize that WATERWORLD was actually a remake, only they were on water instead of in the desert, and they used boats instead of cars. They even had the crazy dog like child, who just wants to hang out with the loner, who just wants to be left alone. But Mad Max is a softy for kids and "family" and gets sucked in to helping. I personally felt the action was better in WATERWORLD, and that film sucked too. But I will say that Road Warrior, like most second installments in a trilogy, was the best of the three. I was much more entertained. But I was hoping they'd think of a cooler way to kill the gang leader in the third, rather than simply running into him with a truck.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome - I thought having the pilot from the second movie randomly put Max in his new predicament was kind of stupid, especially since he served no real purpose in the rest of the movie, but I guess it was supposed to be funny. Never the less, the beginning of the movie was kickass. I was most excited about Tina Turner's opening song, because I thought surely the rest of the soundtrack would be better than the previous films. Unfortunately this was the only time we heard her sing until the credits roled at the end of the movie. Once he is banished from Thunderdome, the movie turns into TEMPLE OF DOOM. He has to save a bunch of kids and the underworld of Barter Town. Only these kids aren't the slaves, and their only real connection to Thunderdome is a monkey that can find his way across the desert to anyone, anywhere. The movie is basically two concepts thrown into one. Mad Max is left alone at the end, in hopes that their could be a fourth film (only no one cares), and because Tina Turner didn't really want to hunt him down and kill him, she just wanted to ride in her dune buggie. At least they upgraded the truck to a train. This movie was just stupid. It could have had a twist at the end, it should have had a twist at the end . . . I really wanted a twist at the end. Maybe then, it would have made sense.
My new idea of an apocalyptic future is to strap someone in a chair CLOCKWORK ORANGE style, and force them to watch this trilogy back to back. Those individuals would then fire up their cars and hit the streets, stopping only for refills and accessories for their inventive outfits. Only, they better look out, because MAD FILMNINJA will be ready to run them over with a truck. My new fear is that they will bring Mad Max back from the dead (as bringing back Action Heroes from the 80's is very popular right now) in Road Warrior: Return to Thunderdome. When that happens, I will not.
Monday, December 1, 2008
I will be the first to admit that as Baz Luhrmann’s films were being released (and I was enjoying them in the theatre) I had no idea that they were related as anything more than three distinctive films by a rising director. As a fan I simply assumed that these three films were done in Luhrmann’s directorial style; little did I know that Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! were actually a trilogy – The Red Curtain Trilogy.
The Red Curtain Trilogy is not a traditional trilogy following characters through one epic story (i.e. - Star Wars or Lord of the Rings) but three films that celebrate and showcase a style of filmmaking. Due to this, defining the trilogy becomes complicated; lucky for me I am a Luhrmann geek and I’ve seen the three films so many times that picking out the patterns in the three films was much easier than it should have been – my film school education put to good use.
What attracted me to Luhrmann’s films before I knew they were a trilogy is the hyperkinetic sense about them. Everything about Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet & Moulin Rouge! is loud, colorful, and tweaked. In a way so specific to Luhrmann, reality is in his films but altered enough that it comes off as pure fantasy, yet enough of the real world is present that we are able to empathize with the characters plights, romances, and random happenstances. Luhrmann makes the kind of film that reminds me about the creative possibilities of the medium – not just the unique stories you can tell but how greatly a filmmaker can control the environment in which stories take place. For me it’s like being a kid that’s discovered the movies all over again.
Part of this uniqueness is of course the images and colors that are key to Luhrmann’s assembly of his trilogy; there are other elements that hold his trilogy together but I feel this obvious touch makes the tie between the movies the most obvious. Before Australia I assumed that the bold color choices and fast moving camera were what Luhrmann uniquely contributed to his films; I now know that while Luhrmann still composes strong images and beautiful colors, the editing, camera work and colors attributed to his first three films are indicative to the style of The Red Curtain Trilogy. This visual style was evident in Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet but I do believe it culminated in Moulin Rouge! - I still remember my younger brother telling me that he loved the film but the colors, motion, etc., made him dizzy.
Besides the crazy visuals of Luhrmann’s trilogy there is one very obvious thing that holds all three films together – the dumb thing is that even with a degree in film it was so obvious that I didn’t notice it until it was pointed out to me. Each of Luhrmann’s first three movies begins in a theatre with a red velvet curtain that must be drawn back before the audience is introduced to the story, hence the red curtain in the name of the trilogy. Looking back you might assume that this was put in the DVD releases after as a marketing ploy but I assure you it was not. Having seen both Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge when they were first released I can tell you that the curtain was always there.
One thing I feel I also must point out is the beginning of each film. I am a person that hates using exposition in films; with the exception of the Star Wars trilogy and that crawl that comes up at the beginning of each film I kind of feel like exposition in general – but especially at the beginning of a film – is a weak story telling device, it almost always seems like the writer put it there because he thought the audience was too dumb to figure it out themselves. I hate exposition. However, Luhrmann does exposition at the beginning of each Red Curtain film beautifully and it becomes another thing that ties all three films together.
At the head of each film after the red curtain opens Luhrmann has a sequence that is unlike the body of each movie and this sequence gets the audience up to speed with where the characters are at this point in their world. In Strictly Ballroom the opening is a faux documentary where everyone in Scott Hastings life laments about how he is throwing his career away; in Romeo + Juliet the opening is Shakespeare’s traditional chorus monologue told through a news reporter on a TV set which launches us into a beautiful expository faux title sequence; finally, Moulin Rouge! has the opening black & white/silent film-esque sequence where we are brought up to speed on Christian’s life that has led him to Paris. Each sequence sets the style tone for the film but is different enough from the body of the film to stand out as being visually apart from it. I do think this is something that very few filmmakers could do and make it feel natural but Luhrmann manages to pull it off which is just another reason he is one of my favorite directors.
I do have to say that The Red Curtain Trilogy is one of my favorite trilogies because it manages to inspire, thrill and entertain me without ever making me feel like I have to shut down part of my film filled brain and not think about what I am seeing in order to enjoy it. Personally, Luhrmann just has a unique way about his visuals and stories that just makes my love of film renew each time I watch one of them; just as The Red Curtain Trilogy is not a typical trilogy, Luhrmann is not a typical filmmaker and that is more than fine with me. As long as he keeps making movies I will keep seeing them opening weekend and if his four films so far are any indication I will be able to find something fresh and breathtaking in every one.