Saturday, October 31, 2009

FotM: It wasn't all that long ago, but it feels far, far away

I don't like to use the words "all time" very often when I'm talking about the movies. Although film as an art form hasn't been around for an awfully long time, there have been hundreds of thousands of movies that have been made since the late 1800's. This is a fact that's all too easy to forget in the rush to anoint something as one of the best such-and-suches of all time.

That said, I'm going to break with my usual practice and use those very words to describe the film from 1999 that I chose to feature.

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace was, I believe, the most anticipated motion picture of all time. It would be ludicrous for me to go back and tell you the reasons for the success of the original trilogy of Star Wars films for the very simple reason that, if you are indeed a sentient being and reading this right now, you have almost assuredly seen them and could tell me just as well as I could tell you.

I remember hearing about the proposed prequel trilogy back in 1993/1994. Back then, the common thought was that the first film would be released in 1997, which seemed like an eternity to an 8 or 9 year old kid. 1997 actually ended up being the year that the Special Edition trilogy made its debut, which meant that we'd have to wait even LONGER to see the films. No matter. Our enthusiasm was undiminished.

Finally, we were given a release date: May 19, 1999. We were thrilled. At long last, we'd get the chance to see the story before the story and have the chance to understand how Darth Vader came to be. Seeing it opening night seemed out of the question, because everyone and their brother would most definitely already have the drop on us, so we decided that opening weekend would probably be the best we could hope for. I remember actually saying a prayer to ask God if there was any possible way he might help us get tickets for opening night.

You can only imagine our jubilation when a friend of ours scored 6 tickets. I remember being stunned, almost in shock that I would actually be there on OPENING NIGHT. Such a thought seemed to be one of the most wonderful that I could have ever conceived.

Seeing the movie with a theaterful of the Brethren was a blast. I'll never forget our collective enthusiasm, cheering as various characters were introduced for the "first" time. I tell you, there were things in this film that we'd only dreamed of. We were able to see the Jedi in action for the first time, and, let me tell you, those guys were pretty incredible! It might be hard to imagine for younger people who've grown up on hordes of Jedi fighting with the collective hum of dozens of lightsabers filling the air that there was actually a time when the extent of what we'd ever seen of a Jedi in action was Luke dispatching the minions of Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi, but it's true. I will also remember forever the awe that I felt when I saw things like the entry into the Galactic Senate for the first time.

That's one of the things I miss the most from those days. In 1999, with films like The Phantom Menace and The Matrix, visual effects were just beginning to explode into their modern-day position of dominance. Then, it was still possible to go into the theater and see something that made your jaw drop, your scalp tingle, and made you think, "Wow, I've NEVER seen anything like THAT before!" There was a special sense of wonderment that I remember from those days that I don't really think is around much anymore. Now, films are full of sound and fury that signifies nothing. They know the words, but have no idea how the tune goes. I might sound old for saying this, but I miss the good old days.

Now, back to 5/19/99 . . .

After leaving the theater at the end of the credits, we found that most of the audience was out in front of the theater, talking excitedly about what they'd just seen. I remember feeling a twinge of disappointment, because, while I'd really liked the film, it wasn't quite what I'd thought it was going to be.

But how could it have been? I'd been building it up in my mind for years and there comes a point when it's nigh impossible to fulfill someone's expectations in a situation like that. Besides, I really had liked the film, and saw it twice more in the theater (a personal record) before buying it the first day it was available.

As time passed, I went to the same theater with the same group of people twice more on May 16, 2002 and May 19, 2005 to see the next two installments of the trilogy. I remember the terrible sense of disappointment that I felt after seeing Attack of the Clones, realizing that, for the first time, I felt that George Lucas had really missed the mark. I remember the redemptive sense of exhilaration that I felt after seeing Revenge of the Sith and feeling that he'd not only ended it, but ended it right.

Now, there is no doubt in my mind that there are many of you who could say all kinds of things about how and why Lucas chose to make his second Star Wars trilogy the way that he did. I have a number of things to say about that myself, but that's a subject for another article.

Does The Phantom Menace hold up as well as it could 10 years later? No, I don't think it does. However, I don't want to use this platform to major on what doesn't work with the film.

We'll talk about that some other time.

A spellbound 14 year old boy sitting in a dark theater in Irvine thought that it was pretty awesome.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

1999: Let's get out of here before one of those things kills Guy!

When it came time to think about the movies of 1999 I tried very hard to think about the movies that I loved that year. Of course there was American Beauty, Iron Giant & The Matrix, but honestly most people will discover those films eventually if they haven’t already simply because of the influential people they were made by and I’m sure they’ll end up with something special to honor them. Instead, I wanted to pick an amazing film, a film that most people probably missed or would never think of recognizing as a great film, so I jumped on google and found the perfect film, a film that I didn’t discover until it was forced to watch by putting it in playstock at my video store. It’s a movie about actors whose television show was cancelled, but not before it began a cult following that has followed them ever since – a lot of you may think I’m talking about Trekkies, but that film was earlier in the 1990’s, I’m actually talking about a flick called Galaxy Quest.

Why is Galaxy Quest one of the most memorable films of 1999? It’s the only film from that year that I can quote at random moments and will make me laugh every single time I watch it. This is a smart, well written comedy that plays on the real life mania of Star Trek fans but wraps it in a fictional show and has real actors playing fictional actors that have insane egos and personalities.

What makes Galaxy Quest utterly unique to me in the genre of movies about movies is that it’s about the actors and their failed television show, but they are actually abducted by aliens who have modeled their lives after the show these people created. The Thermians picked up the broadcasts of Galaxy Quest and assumed it was a documentary or real time broadcast as their race doesn’t have fiction. Since theThermians have watched Jason Nesmith & his fellow actors be heroic figures for years and abduct them because they decide the crew of the Protector are what’s needed to save their species.

The concept of Galaxy Quest is complicated but brilliant. It’s downright reflexive, and it’s a comedy, something that’s almost unheard of. Galaxy Quest turns the plight of actors “trapped” by fandom and how their fans respond to the reality of the actors that play their heroes.

A very important selling point for Galaxy Quest is the cast – Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub and even a very young Justin Long and not yet discovered Sam Rockwell. The two best characters in the entire film are Gwen, Sigourney Weaver’s character and Guy played by Sam Rockwell.

Gwen is the Uhura of the piece; her job on the ship was to repeat the computer and look good in uniform and Gwen is not only annoyed with her status as the geek sex pot but has the best lines in the entire film, she is the actress who always wanted to move past the television show and like her costars was trapped there forever.

On the other hand, Guy is a young actor who was at the convention and when the aliens take the crew of the Protector, they also grab Guy. Guy and the crew quickly realize that if what they are experiencing is just like the show then he is the “expendable” crew member, the random crew person who dies early in each episode when the conflict is revealed to prove how dire the situation really is and because of this the actors spend most of the film trying to keep Guy out of situations where he will be killed while Guy freaks out about knowing he’s going to die because no one even knows his last name. It’s the character that could be overplayed and absolutely annoying, but even in an absurd role like this Sam Rockwell manages to find a way to make the character enduring and memorable, making the writing and directing jump off the screen.

Galaxy Quest didn’t win much recognition, but what it did do is develop a slow and steady following after it’s theatrical run, one that I hope will keep growing. This is a movie that reminds me why I love movies, it’s not only well made, but it makes watching movies fun and no matter how many movies you watch you should still be able to have fun at the movies.

Gwen: What is this thing? I mean, it serves no useful purpose for there to be a bunch of chompy, crushy things in the middle of a hallway. No, I mean we shouldn't have to do this, it makes no logical sense, why is it here?
Jason: 'Cause it's on the television show.
Gwen: Well forget it! I'm not doing it! This episode was badly written!

FotM: "Stop trying to hit me and hit me!"

THE MATRIX kicked my ass hard! To this day it’s the probably the single greatest theatrical experience of my life. Ten years ago the cinematic landscape began to change in incredible, unexpected ways and in large part it’s all thanks to THE MATRIX.

Picture this if you will. It’s March of 1999, THE PHANTOM MENANCE is still a few months away and geeks everywhere are clamoring for something, anything to hold them over until then. There hadn’t been a decent sci-fi film in quite some time and we all caught wind of this little flick called THE MATRIX. Not much was known about it and the trailers were real vague. It starred Ted and it was done by the guys that wrote ASSASSINS (The only watchable Sly Stallone film in about a decade) and BOUND (A great little slice of Neo-Noir). No one figured it would be anything even remotely decent but it was sci-fi, it was the dead of winter and it might be good for a laugh.

The night the movie premiered is scorched into my memory. My friends and I decided to go check out a midnight screening of it. The theatre was at capacity because apparently every other geek in Orange County had the same idea. We all knew it was going to suck but we needed some kind of sci-fi to sate our ravenous appetite and at that point even bad sci-fi would do. The theatre was noisy and rambunctious; we were cracking jokes and expecting the worse. The Episode I trailer played and people cheered. Then people hunkered down and did their best to prepare for whatever was about to be inflicted upon them. The movie started and people were still being loud and rambunctious. What was with the scrolling code and the phone call? Then Trinity kicked ass in a way that none of us had EVER seen before. From that point on you could have heard a pin drop in the theatre. The only sounds were bursts of expletive laced amazement or rapturous cheering and applause. After the lobby shootout I remember the guy in the seat next to me leaning over and exclaiming that it was worth the price of admission for that scene alone. When the film finished, the entire audience ebullient and spent rose to its feet and did something I have never seen happen in any other theatre since; they gave the film a standing ovation, a LONG, RAPTUROUS standing ovation. This little film that none of us expected us to be any good came out of nowhere and owned every single person in the theatre, it created instant, ravenous die-hard fans and it thrilled most of us in a way we didn’t even know possible. The very next day, needing to share my experience with someone I dragged my brother and sister to see the film. Later that week we dragged my parents. Up until the most recent STAR TREK film THE MATRIX held the record for the movie I saw the most times in a theatre.

Ten years later THE MATRIX still plays just as strongly as it did a decade ago. It is a staggering, ass-kicking piece of cinema that became an instant classic. In many ways it is the STAR WARS of my generation, a film that no one expected, one that came out of the blue, melted minds and completely changed the world of cinema.

Simply put THE MATRIX is probably the most influential film of the last ten years. Put aside what you think of its sequels (Which I actually really like) or the Wachowskis (As weird as they may be I still think they’re geniuses) and there’s no way you can deny the massive impact the film had. THE MATRIX changed cinema forever by introducing elements that up until that point had only existed in the worlds of kung-fu and Asian cinema or comic books. Make no mistake without THE MATRIX proving that these things could work in gigantic, mainstream movies we wouldn’t have the Jason Bourne movies or pretty much any comic book film from SPIDER-MAN to THE DARK KNIGHT.

THE MATRIX shattered my expectations and preconceived notions of what was possible in movies. As a writer that grew up watching anime, the films of John Woo and reading every comic book he could get his hands on, in my mind I always pictured the story ideas I came up with and the movies I wrote being this up until then unseen potpourri of all the different elements that inspired me. I had these grandiose ideas for what I wanted my movies to look like yet I was never sure it would ever be possible. I didn’t want the laws of physics to always apply in my movies. I wanted living comic books played out at 24 frames a second tinged with everything that’s awesome in pop culture and the world. The moment THE MATRIX invaded my eyeballs and shredded my mind I knew that everything I had always hoped, dreamed and envisioned for my stories was not only possible but now pretty much necessary. Like STAR WARS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK before it THE MATRIX inspired me and pushed me forward, it had a creative impact on me that I am still feeling today.

The reason we chose to discuss 1999 for our “Feature of the Month” articles is because of the lasting impact and undeniable contribution the year had in the world of cinema. There are dozens of films that I could have chosen to write about, I mean 1999 is the year that gave us AMERICAN BEAUTY, THE IRON GIANT and FIGHT CLUB for crying out loud, but at the end of the day while THE MATRIX may not have been the best film that came out that year I think it is far and away the most memorable, the one that had the most lasting impact on cinema and more importantly me.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Let the wild rumpus start!

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is a work of staggering brilliance. It is a film that will be studied, analyzed and dissected for years to come by film goers of all kinds. It is such a lush, dense, rich film that in many ways I feel woefully unprepared to discuss it mere hours after having viewed it. As such I will try to keep this as short and to the point as possible.

After seeing this film I remarked to my sister that I think this is may be perhaps the best film ever made about what it really means to be a child. She quickly pointed out that it may be one of if not THE only film about what it really means to be a child. A few unsung classics such as THE SANDLOT and MY DOG SKIP spring to mind but I think she may be onto something. I’m not sure any film in the history of cinema has really tackled the very idea of childhood, not the nostalgic memories of it in the way that Spike Jonze’s masterpiece does.

If I had my way this film would be nominated for everything under the sun, especially writing. While I have no doubt this film will definitely get at least some awards recognition it remains to be seen just how openly this film will be embraced at this time. There is no doubt in my mind this is an instant classic, a film that will live for generations, one that I hope will be immediately recognized by the world at large as such but one can never quite tell with these things.

This is not a film that will play for everyone, especially not for all children because while yes this is a children’s or family film it is just as much for adults, if not more so than anything this side of Pixar. Never before has a film so perfectly captured the raw energy, spirit, emotion and mentality of truly being a person in training. It’s wild, crazy, scary stuff and while it’s fun it’s also staggering how profound it is when little life truths click into place, things that sometimes seem small and insignificant yet are actually some of the most important realizations you one will ever come to. This film understands that and is able to capture it and personify those so deeply human and affecting truths in a way that almost defies comparison.

Make no bones about it Spike Jonze has crafted a masterpiece, a work of art that in many ways transcends the medium and the genre. I am stunned and awed by what he was able to accomplish and my hat is off to not only him but especially to Warner Brothers, one of the last movie studios on the planet with enough guts to allow a film like this to be made. This is pretty much required viewing.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Alfonso Cuaron

My love affair with the works of Alfonso Cuaron began with The Little Princess, a film that when I first watched it I had no idea who Alfonso Cuaron was, but I knew the film’s visual style was uniquely beautiful and that I would love to see one of his films again. After A Little Princess I forgot about Cuaron, both because I was only a teen and because he didn’t make a wave in the world of cinema until his Spanish language film Y Tu Mama Tambien which went on to reach international acclaim. Since this film he’s continued his rise in international cinema by being the first director post-Christopher Columbus to be given the reigns to the Harry Potter franchise, and creating the stunning film Children of Men.

When I think of Cuaron’s films what strikes me is how organic they feel. Organic is the perfect word for Cuaron’s style as he is a director who thinks about and fully realizes the world of his characters without neglecting genre, locale or story – the setting and design of his films is one that is completely formed for the characters yet one that you would somehow feel comfortable in and familiar with if you were transported into the world of the film. Cuaron is a director that has a fully realized vision, one that blends fantasy and reality in such a way that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between what exists and what does not. Every one of Cuaron’s films that I have seen takes a unique fantasy element and blends them into our world creating a sense of fantastic realism that I haven’t seen done quite as well by any other director.

Each and every element of fantastic realism to Cuaron’s films is totally different and helps the film ground the story and the characters inexplicably together into one perfect realm. The fantastic element in The Little Princess is the use of Sara’s past in India and Cuaron uses magical realism to pull Sara’s stories & past into her new life. Y Tu Mama Tambien uses an omniscient narrator who will pause the story and tell us the past or future of the characters which we will never see on screen, making each one a little more flawed or tragic than they would otherwise be. Every other film in his repertoire has similar elements that make the film special visually and the characters memorable.

In what are perhaps Cuaron’s most famous films, The Prisoner of Azkaban & Children of Men, Cuaron took his biggest career and creative leaps. Cuaron found a massive audience when he was handed the reins of the Harry Potter franchise and though he only stayed on for one film he gave something to Prisoner of Azkaban that no other film in the franchise had – atmosphere. When you watch Prisoner of Azkaban you can see the marks of Cuaron all over it, flowing shots, long camera moves, and a magical sense of wonder, but it’s a truncated version of Cuaron.

Cuaron’s next film was the best film of 2006 - Children of Men. This is perhaps one of the single most visually beautiful films I’ve ever seen; the camera work, cinematography, color choices, acting and the million nuances of directing all work together to create one of the most thrilling, moving and smart films in my film vocabulary. Cuaron paints this world in a way that makes it utterly real yet fantastic enough to seem like a near future that might one day exist; there are no flying cars, transporters or space ships but there are drugs being distributed by the government, television screens on every corner & religious factions of every kind pamphleting the street. Cuaron’s vision of the future is chilling but believable and one that stays with you long after you leave the theatre.

Alfonso Cuaron is a phenomenal director in every aspect, but the one element that stays with me in all of his films are his visuals. Cuaron is a modern day Hitchcock in terms of his shots; he composes his shots like visual paintings that can flow and move. While this may seem like a fundamental point to someone who likes watching films, it’s an entirely different thing when you’re the one who has to plan and execute the shots. Hitchcock would design lenses for specific shots, Cuaron will design camera tracks, moving car rigs and anything else to make the shot he needs as long and as fluid as he needs it to be.

Cuaron is still finding his audience. He’s still a burgeoning director and with each film his style has come more into focus and his stories more beautiful. Alfonso Cuaron is going to have many more films and many more years ahead of him and I cannot wait to see what he brings next.

Recommened Viewing: Children of Men

“I can't really remember when I last had any hope, and I certainly can't remember when anyone else did either. Because really, since women stopped being able to have babies, what's left to hope for?”
~ Theo, Children of Men

Monday, October 5, 2009

And now... for some brain droppings!

Okay folks, there’s a couple of things I want to talk about today and all of them probably deserve their own post but I don’t have the time so I figure I’ll try to touch on each of them real fast, cheap and dirty via these quick brain-droppings. First and foremost get your butt into a theater! There are two really darn entertaining and maybe even flat-great movies that hit cinemas last weekend.

WHIP IT: Look, this movie isn’t going to win any awards and you can probably guess all the beats from the moment it starts but with all that in mind it should still entertain the crap out of you and if that doesn’t speak to it’s quality then I don’t know what does. I’ve never been the biggest Drew Barrymore fan, it’s not that I dislike her it’s just that she isn’t always for my tastes so I was a little trepadatious going into this, her directorial debut. I am more than pleasantly surprised to admit that she kind of knocks it out of the park. While not everything works a great deal of it does ESPECIALLY the character interactions and the human interactions. The roller derby stuff isn’t bad but it won’t exactly blow your socks off either. On the flips side though everything with the actors REALLY works, it all seems very natural, believable and somehow she manages to make pretty much everyone likable and sympathetic. I’m also even more convinced of the power of Ellen Page after this film. I don’t know what it is but the girl just has something, she’s massively talented and instantly likeable and I’m fairly certain at this point I might see her in pretty much anything. Don’t go in expecting an Oscar caliber film and I think you’ll have a great time with this flick. I think this one will have pretty good legs if not in the theatre than for sure on DVD and deservedly so.

ZOMBIELAND: Hands down this is the funniest movie I’ve seen all year. That’s right funnier than I LOVE YOU MAN, OBSERVE AND REPORT and THE HANGOVER. This thing is hysterical and has perhaps one of the single greatest cameos in the history of movies. No joke all throughout this extended cameo I thought I was going to blackout from lack of oxygen I was laughing so hard. While I’m not sure this film quite matches up with SHAUN OF THE DEAD it comes pretty darn close at times and it’ll make for some great double-bills one of these days. I can’t stress to you enough how much you need to see this sucker in the theater, especially before the cameo gets spoiled. You will laugh and thrill and be reminded just how much fun zombies can be.

And now for something completely different… I think it bears noting that today is the 40th anniversary of the premiere of MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS on the BBC. Now I know FLYING CIRCUS was a television show and this site is all about movies but if it weren’t for FLYING CIRCUS we never would have gotten HOLY GRAIL, LIFE OF BRIAN and MEANING OF LIFE, hands down three of the funniest movies ever made. Simply put I think the guys behind Monty Python are the funniest people to ever walk the face of the planet. One could write books and teach classes on the depths of their brilliance (In fact I think they maybe have) and it’s just wrong if this didn’t go mentioned in some way. Four decades later there has never been a smarter, stranger, greater brand of comedy introduced to the world and I’m not entirely sure there ever will be.