Friday, December 31, 2010

The Fugitive (1993)

Here is how I imagine The Fugitive came to the big screen.  Tired with the high expectations that come with making high profile sequels and adaptations of best selling novels, and bored with award-winning directors, Harrison Ford wanted to see if he could make a flop in the 90s.  "Get me that guy who actually liked working with Steven Seagal," he probably demanded, "and make sure the story is absolutely ridiculous --- maybe a film adaptation of The Mod Squad?  I was on that show once, you know."  And that's how it definitely (maybe) came to be: Harrison Ford starred in a movie by Andrew Davis (director of Above the Law and Under Siege, and was probably working on a title like Middle of Mayhem), the big screen adaptation of the long-running 1960s show, The Fugitive, where he will spend over two hours chasing a one-armed murderer.  The result was a box office smash and seven Academy Award nominations.  I would not have guessed it, but Harrison Ford didn't make bad movies...well, for another year or two, anyway.

After an evening spent attending a black tie event for the medical community, Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) arrives home to find his wife (Sela Ward) injured and dying on the floor.  She is not alone, though; Kimble struggles with her assailant, but is ultimately unable to detain him.  He learns one thing about the killer, though: he has one prosthetic hand.  Apparently, "It was not me, it was the one-armed man" is not terribly convincing to the Chicago police, although I'm sure the obvious signs of a struggle in the house, the lack of an obvious break-in, and Mrs. Kimble's generous life insurance policy were also factors in Richard's arrest.  Apparently, Kimble has the world's worst expensive lawyer, because he is found guilty of first degree murder and is given a death sentence, all on circumstantial evidence.  At this point, you might think that this will be a film dedicated to the appeals process of convicted felons.  But look at the title; it's not The Convicted, it's The Fugitive, as in "at large."  While taking the bus to death row, some of the other lucky convictees try to escape, which leads to the bus turning over on its side.  Good news, bad news, guys...most of you survived the accident, but the bus is now on a train track with a train heading this way.  Kimble barely escapes, rescuing one of the prison guards in the process, and finds himself a relatively free man.  What does a wrongfully accused man do in this situation?  Well, it's not like he can have anything tacked on to his sentence --- they don't have an extra crispy sentence --- so he goes on the lam, hunting down the one-armed man.  At this point, the US Marshalls show up to hunt down the fleeing fugitive.  Lead by Deputy Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), they perform some of the most competent police work you will ever see in a movie where the hero is not a cop.

Here are some reasons why this is a ridiculous movie:
  • The score.  Rarely do you have such bombastic music dramatizing such subtle things.
  • Obviously, the one-armed man thing.  Who hires a hitman with a unique visual characteristic?  What, were all the assassin albinos busy?
  • A successful doctor killing his wife to benefit from her life insurance policy.  Really?  How much research would it take for the police (or Kimble's lawyer) to discredit that as a motive?  "Hmm...he must have wanted to get even richer!"  Possible, yes.  Likely, no.
  • The circumstantial evidence.  Granted, this was made in 1993, but this sort of "proof" gets discredited within the first ten minutes of an ordinary CSI episode.  How about the lack of Mrs. Kimble blood in any area of the house where the struggle took place?  That took me all of ten seconds to think of.  I would hope his lawyer could come up with more.
  • The hair and beard.  Are you really going to tell me that a respected doctor who looks like Han Solo is going to let himself look like this?  Especially a married man?  Unlikely, at best.
    Laugh it up, fuzzball.  And get off my lawn!

Now, just because a movie is ridiculous doesn't mean that it is bad.  The direction is pretty straight forward and, aside from the scenes at the train tracks and the dam (both of which still stand up today), this isn't a special effects movie.  It's more of a thriller than anything else, and Andrew Davis does a good job allowing the audience and Kimble to unravel the plot together.  The performances are, for the most part, solid.  Harrison Ford is as good as ever, even if his "I'm going to jump" grimace is suspiciously similar to the look an old man makes before shouting at kids to get off his lawn.  Tommy Lee Jones steals the show as the prickly Deputy Gerard, a feat all the more impressive when you consider just how sympathetic Richard Kimble is; you have to be a pretty awesome character to get away with not caring about the main character and still be likable.  The rest of the supporting cast serves its function with several decent to mediocre performances, but nothing embarrassing.  Jeroen Krabbe plays a doctor friend of Kimble well enough, but he reminds me of a European Chris Noth in this film (just an observation, not a critique).  Joe Pantoliano, Julianne Moore, Sela Ward, and Jane Lynch all have noteworthy bit parts and Andreas Katsulas plays the evil one-armed man.  Nobody does a bad job, but nobody really does a good job, either.  I guess that's okay, since it lets you focus on Ford and Jones.

This is a pretty good good movie with a few very memorable action sequences.  Did it deserve a Best Picture nomination?  Personally, I doubt it.  Tommy Lee Jones did deserve his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, even if he did beat out a very deserving pair in Ralph Fiennes (Schindler's List) and Leonardo DiCaprio (What's Eating Gilbert Grape?).  I was surprised to find that the aspect of the film that kept me from loving it was not the plethora of mediocre performances --- they served their parts well enough, but were still kind of blah --- but a few lapses in the plot.  This is a convoluted story, but I expected Kimble to make smarter choices to evade the law.  Yes, he dyes his hair to change his appearance, but that dye washed out after one scene; I would have thought that the man would have wanted to keep changing his look, especially after Deputy Gerard catches a glimpse of his beardless face.  And the scene where Kimble cross references a list of one-armed men with people in prison --- how does a wanted fugitive walk into a prison without a back-up plan, in case the random one-armed man he wants to see isn't his wife's murderer?  Still, those are relatively small complaints in an otherwise entertaining movie.  It's too ridiculous (and too serious about being ridiculous) to be great, but it's still a good time.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

Vikings are awesome.  Fact.  If I had to pick between a viking, pirate or ninja, I would just wait five minutes, because the Viking would undoubtedly cut the other two in half with a battle axe and then fashion a helmet from their skulls.  Like I said: awesome.  And their religion is just as bad-ass, even from the bits and pieces historians have been able to assemble (Vikings didn't write...unless it was in the blood of their enemies).  For instance, their head god, Odin, poked out his own eye to gain godly wisdom and hung himself from a tree for nine days with a spear in his side to learn magic.  And then, on his day of rest, he created the ultimate viking, and the man that Biblical Adam is loosely based on, Chuck Norris.  And then Odin punched Chuck Norris in the stomach so hard that his testicles popped out of their protective spot inside the pelvis; that is why all men now have their most delicate body part dangling, undefended, in the wind.

What does that have to do with How to Train Your Dragon?  It has Vikings in it, duh.

How to Train Your Dragon is loosely based on a series of books on the life and times of a (probably fictional) Viking named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel).  As his name implies, Hiccup is not much of a viking; while the others are brawny and mostly simple, Hiccup is skinny and cerebral.  His village, Berk, is frequently attacked and raided for livestock by a variety of dragons.  As such, the Vikings of Berk make a big deal about killing dragons.  Desperate to prove himself to the town and Stoick (Gerard Butler), the village leader (and Hiccup's dad), Hiccup tries to invent tools that will help him kill a dragon.  One night, Hiccup uses one of his inventions to knock down a member of the most feared dragon species of them all, the Night Fury.  Nobody believes him, though, so Hiccup tracks the dragon down and finds it helpless, still caught in his net.  Now, if Hiccup was a standard Viking, he would have cut out the dragon's heart to prove his victory to others, but Hiccup feels bad and instead releases the creature.  Obviously, the dragon kills Hiccup because dragons are evil creatures and the rest of the movie is about Stoick seeking revenge for his lost song --- WHAAA?!?  The dragon lets Hiccup live?  That flies in the face of everything the Berkians know about dragons!  I wonder if the brainy Hiccup will try to learn more about this dragon and somehow find a way to prove himself to his father and the village?

The voice acting is decent all-around, with Jay Baruchel doing double duty as both a character and the narrator.  The rest of the cast played exactly who you would expect them to play in a movie.  Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays a (Viking) nerd who spouts off Dungeons and Dragons (get it?) -style data (Attack +2, Armor +1, etc.) about every known dragon whenever he opens his mouth.  America Ferrera plays the "girls kick ass" love interest and Jonah Hill plays an obnoxious kid that should shut up more often.  Gerard Butler plays the rough-and-tumble Viking leader/father and Craig Ferguson voices the one-armed and one-legged dragon-killing instructor for the kids.  That's right...the two adults are both Scottish, and none of the children are.  Do these Vikings grow into their accents?  Is a Scottish burr a reward for reaching manhood?  Startlingly, these questions are never addressed in this film.  Aside from the peculiarity of the accents, everybody does a decent job.  Mintz-Plasse's recurring joke of a character was kind of funny, but the only real standout in the voice-acting department was Craig Ferguson, who was funny and surprised me with how well he handled the more dramatic moments. 

This movie was directed and co-written by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBois, both former Disney people whose highest profile work was on Lilo and Stitch and its subsequent direct-to-DVD sequels.  As far as the directing goes, they do a pretty good job, I think.  There are no outstanding voice performances, but the animation looks great and the story is told well enough.  I don't know why they opted to make Scottish Vikings with American children, but I doubt that bugs anyone but me.  And anyone viewing the film in Nordic countries. 

I liked the movie as entertainment for a child, but it wasn't great, certainly not to the tune of the $500+ million it made in theaters.  Yes, it's a cute story and dragons are cool, but the story lacks an emotional punch.  This is not too surprising, since Dreamworks Animation usually makes funny but vapid kids movies, but Dragon is a little different.  There isn't nearly as much comedy as you might think in this movie, but it doesn't drag despite that lack.  The film also deals with several potentially heavy topics; there is a fractured father-son relationship, the notion of being a social outcast, the importance of standing up for personal values, the power of group-think mentalities, the place of animals in our culture (friends vs. pets vs. prey), among other issues.  Don't worry, though --- How to Train Your Dragon might bring up these issues, but it doesn't develop any of them.  You would think that the emotional core of the film would center around Hiccup and his dragon, but it bounces around to his love interest and one scene with his father.  Deep, this isn't.  Still, dragons are cool and the movie is about seeing the dragons breathe fire and fly.  I don't think this is a bad movie --- kids should certainly enjoy it --- and it is certainly watchable by adults, but it's a little simple for my tastes.  And it loses some points for making Vikings with Scotsmerican accents.
There is also an animated short that goes along with the DVD, called The Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon.  This follows Hiccup and his friends as they try to help their teacher (Craig Ferguson) find a legendary dragon that nobody but he believes in.  The mini-film is mostly just Craig Ferguson telling stories to the kids, with traditional animation helping.  I thought this short, while predictable and repetitive, was much more entertaining than the feature film and proves, once again, that Craig Ferguson is a funny guy when he is not reading monologue jokes.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

True Grit (2010)

When I heard that some of my favorite filmmakers, the Coen Brothers, were remaking the John Wayne classic True Grit, I was conflicted.  The Coens usually don't disappoint, but a remake just seemed like it would paint them into a corner; I usually like the Coens best when they are free to be weird or dark or whatever they happen to feel like at the time.  The first previews I saw didn't encourage me much, either; while I don't know exactly how Jeff Bridges managed to speak that incoherently, my first guess is that he had somebody else's tongue in his mouth whenever he needed to deliver dialogue.  Nevertheless, I really liked the original film, I love the Coen Brothers, and I'm a fan of Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, so I ignored my reservations and visited my local cinema house.

For those that are unfamiliar with the plot, young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), aged fourteen, goes to the town where her recently deceased father's corpse waits for her.  Quite the little businesswoman, she sends the body back to her hometown, buys and sells some horses, and goes to the sheriff, expecting to hear news about the search for her father's killer.  The news is that the cowardly killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), has left the state and entered Indian Territory, where the law is unlikely to pursue him.  Mattie wants to see Chaney die for his crimes, and she learns that she can hire a US Marshall to act as a bounty hunter for her.  There are competent trackers, and all-around good men that are well-suited for the job, but Mattie opts for the meanest Marshall around: the surly, one-eyed drunk, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).

It takes quite a bit of convincing, but Mattie manages to hire Cogburn for the job.  However, no amount of convincing talk will make him follow her wishes to the letter, which include taking her with him on the manhunt and making sure that Chaney dies for killing her father and not any other crime.  After all, a Texas Ranger named La Boef (Matt Damon) wants to bring Chaney to justice in Texas, where a sizable reward would be split between him and Cogburn.  And, as for the idea of Mattie joining the manhunt in person, that's just ridiculous.  But, as many older men find out as this film progresses, Mattie Ross is not a ridiculous young woman, but someone with the will to get exactly what she wants.

This film is certainly centered around the story of Mattie Ross, but the star of the film is definitely Rooster Cogburn. Jeff Bridges does not disappoint in his role, and he manages to not echo John Wayne's Oscar-winning performance.  Bridges' take on the character can be summed up as simply "dirty."  He looks fat and greasy, he fights dirty, and he is generally a rough, unlovable person.  And that all works out great; he's believably tough, socially awkward, and genuinely funny, depending on the situation.  And Bridges' physical acting was superb; he walked the walk of an aged roughneck very well and this might be the most believable "guy with an eyepatch" role I have ever seen.  The only thing I didn't like was his bizarre mumbling, but more on that later.  Hailee Steinfeld does a great job as the calm, collected, and damn stubborn Mattie.  She manages to be stubborn, persistent, and pushy, but still likable.  This is a great role with depth for a young actress, and Steinfeld (in her feature film debut) does a fantastic job.  Matt Damon made his character less charming than Glen Campbell did in the original, and I liked his character far better because of it.  I like Damon best when he is not trying to be funny, and he comes across as earnest and occasionally exasperated here, which I thought fit this film well.  The rest of the supporting actors have limited screen time, but benefit from the Coen's tendency to make their bit role colorful.  Barry Pepper looked every part the Wild West nomad as the villainous (Ned) Pepper.  Josh Brolin played his character as fairly dim-witted and brutish, which I thought was a good choice.  Domhall Gleeson (Brendan's son and Bill Weasley in the latest Harry Potter) is stuck with a fairly whiny role as the doomed Moon, but I thought he handled the part well and didn't overact, which is high praise, considering what they do to his character.

Joel and Ethan Coen did a great job writing and directing the film.  Every single character in the film is memorable, many are funny, but the viewer is never distracted from the main story.  Why does Rooster Cogburn go out of his way to kick those Indian children?  It doesn't matter, it's just something he does; on with the plot!  They got a very good performance from a very inexperienced actress, and they let Bridges have fun as a crotchety old man.  More importantly, though, is the overall tone of the film.  The word "quirky" is often (justly) applied to Coen Brothers projects because they enjoy going off on tangents and having a cast of extremely colorful characters.  Here, they are able to keep their cast of goofy characters, but they all serve the plot, so they don't feel like diversions.  The cinematography, done by frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins, is noticeably impressive; this movie looks and feels as filthy and smelly as the Old West must have truly been, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't full of harsh, broad, and beautiful landscapes.  This might be the best looking Coen film since O Brother, Where Art Thou? (also shot by Deakins), and it is perhaps their best balance of gritty stories and funny characters to date.

Now, let's discuss the mumbling.  When I saw the trailer for this movie, I assumed that Bridges just had his cheeks full of chewing tobacco, because the Old West was a disgusting place and chaw is nauseatingly fitting for that time and place.  Sadly, it was simply a choice by the actor and the directors.  I guess it could be the side effect of being a rough-and-tumble character in an age where medical attention was both lacking and deficient; theoretically, they could have invented a back story for Rooster than involved a few broken jaws that healed crooked.  Whatever the reason, it was kind of obnoxious, especially when it obscured a witty quip from Bridges.  Later in the film, Damon also joins the mushmouth parade, but at least his character is given an excuse.  These atypical verbal deliveries may have been realistic for the times, but I found them generally irritating and actually kept me from understanding some key moments of dialogue.

How does this stand up to the original?  Quite well, actually.  The performances (mumbles aside) are all very good, and Bridges does a good job with an interesting character.  Honestly, I think the primary actors are all worthy upgrades over the original film; the supporting cast is far better this time around (although Robert Duvall is still better than Barry Pepper), since the original film had many unmemorable bit players.  The one thing that the 1969 film did better was show the developing relationship between Cogburn and Mattie; when John Wayne starts calling her "sister" in the film, you can feel a loving bond in his words.  That closeness is not shown in this version, although some affection is clear.  I also prefer the ending of the original better (not the climax, but the falling action) because it summed up the story of Mattie and Rooster so well.  The Coens made a very grim and gritty Western, but they did so at the cost of the sweet sibling-ish relationship between the two lead characters.

That said, this is a very good movie, and it is a Western that will appeal to those that are not already fans of the genre (read: women).  It is funny in many parts, with sharp dialogue and three characters that mesh well together.  It is painfully raw and brutal in other parts, with uncompromising violence and some truly nightmarish dental prosthetics.  And, despite all of that, it is a story of accomplishment, above all else.  Does this eclipse the original movie?  No, but it certainly makes a case as a deserving peer.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Not every Christmas-themed movie has to have the spirit of the holiday.  If you need proof, check out the truly awful Jack Frost (1996) --- the horror one, not the Michael Keaton horrible one.  So when The Nightmare Before Christmas was released just before Halloween 1993, with Tim Burton's name above the title, it would have been understandable to expect something distinctly non-traditional, as far as Christmas movies go.  And yes, there are goblins and monsters and whatnot, but it turns out to be far more Christmas-y than you might suspect.

Apparently, there is a self-contained town for every major holiday.  There's a Valentine Town, a Thanksgiving Town, and presumably a Guy Fawkes Town and a Casmir Pulaski Town.  In these towns, the citizens live and breathe the spirit of the holiday; their whole year builds up to one day, and the day after begins the cycle anew.   In Halloween Town, Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon for the dialogue, Danny Elfman for the singing) is the town's leader, The Pumpkin King, and the man with the most Halloween spirit.  Jack, though, is having a crisis of faith.  The repetitious cycle of preparing for Halloween, providing scares on Halloween, and then doing it all over again, year after year, is wearing him down.  While taking a melancholy walk, Jack stumbles into a gateway to the other holiday towns and chooses to enter Christmas Town on a whim.

Christmas Town is refreshing, surprising, and (most importantly) new to Jack.  Snow (what's this?) is everywhere, elves are making presents (what are they?), Christmas trees are being decorated (why?), and the whole town is apparently being run by the presumably fearsome Santy Claws.  Jack returns home to try and explain the concept of Christmas to Halloween Town, even if he doesn't quite understand it himself.  While talking about the unfamiliar holiday, Jack realizes that the only way these Halloweenies are going to truly understand the day will be to hijack it and add their own flair to it, making it a trick-or-treat sort of Christmas.

Despite the inclusion of his name above the credits, Tim Burton did not have a huge part in the assembling of this film.  He came up with the concept and some of the preliminary character designs before shelving the project for about a decade.  When he was finally able to get back to it, Burton's obligations to Batman Returns, along with a distaste for the mind-numbing process of stop-motion animation, kept him from directing or writing the film.  Instead, he came up with an outline, Danny Elfman came up with songs, and then they hired a director and screenwriter.  Definitely an unusual production story.

The film looks fantastic.  This is some of the most expressive motion-capture animation you will find anywhere, and the character design is generally pretty good, with a couple of noteworthy exceptions (Sally and Doctor Finklestein) being great.  Halloween Town has its own distinct feel and architecture, as do Christmas Town and the Real World.  Director Henry Selick does a great job making sure that the animation in this film is flawless and innovative (how do they even have a transparent motion-captured dog ghost?), and yet, there is no question that the film has a Tim Burton (read: left of center) feel to it.

I'm not particularly fond of musicals, but this one is okay, I guess.  I don't have any attachment to any single song, which is strange.  Normally, I can pick out the dominant song in a musical, but this soundtrack all seems to be on roughly the same level.  The songs aren't bad, mind you, but I think they are definitely less charming than the film as a whole.  My theory for this is that the Halloween characters don't lend themselves too naturally to singing in character (I'm talking more about the Halloween Town people, not the lead singers), so when they pop up in a song, it's cute (oh, that's right, it's Halloween), but I think the songs are undercut by including them.

I've always liked this movie, though.  It's a fun plot for kids and it's got a bit of edge in a genre (Disney movies) that is largely lacking anything sharper than a spoon.  The voice acting is pretty good, with Chris Sarandon, Catherine O'Hara (as Sally), and William Hickey (Doctor Finklestein) having the most noteworthy performances; I liked Danny Elfman's singing, as well, and was surprised by the quality of Catherine O'Hara's singing voice.  Really, this is a cute movie about finding and understanding the ideals of the Christmas season --- what else can it be about, since the characters are discovering these notions for the first time?  And, in that, this movie is successful.  Personally, I would like a more frightening movie that takes advantage of how horrible the Halloweenies can be, but I understand that this is a children's movie.

But something is still missing from this film.  If it was just about discovering the new feelings that come from another holiday, I think that would be enough; Halloween is for fun scares and Christmas is (allegedly) about giving and emotional warmth.  The love story between Jack and Sally takes precedence by the end of the film, though.  I dunno, sometimes I think this movie didn't know exactly what emotional buttons it wanted to press, so they just pushed at random.  It is certainly a charming kid's movie, but it doesn't pack the emotional punch (or memorable songs) that the best animated features do.  I'm a pretty visual guy, though, so the fantastic animation makes up for some of those shortcomings.

Friday, December 24, 2010

White Christmas

The movie world is a very different place now than it was in 1954, when White Christmas was released theatrically.  Want proof?  It was the year's top grossing movie (yes, a Christmas movie was the year's big earner), with around $12 million earned.  To put that in perspective, that is less than Sharon Stone earned for Basic Instinct 2, one of the biggest flops of all time.

Back in the good ol' days of World War II, on Christmas Eve 1944, the men under the command of Major General Thomas Waverly (Dean Jagger) are treated to a show, unbeknownst to the Major General.  You see, a famous Broadway singer, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) is in the troop, and a low-level solider, Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), managed to convince his superiors to let Bob sing to everyone.  Sure, they're surrounded by mortar fire and unprotected, but it's Christmas Eve, sir...!  Well, after General Waverly announces his presence to the crowd, Bob and Phil give him a farewell tribute song, because the Major General is being relieved of his command.  The song ("The Old Man") explains that these men will follow Waverly wherever he wants to go (except toward battle) because "we love him."  That might seem like an odd lyric to repeat during a military tribute song, but you have to remember that Don't Ask Don't Tell wasn't in effect until 1993 --- side note: thank goodness that nonsense has finally been repealed.  Anyway, some mortar rounds finally reach the group and everyone scatters; Phil saves Bob's life and takes a small arm wound in the bargain.  That's okay, though, because Phil takes this life debt and turns it into a successful Broadway partnership with Bob when they get back from the war.

Fast forward a few years, and the fabulous team of Wallace and Davis are getting boffo reviews on Broadway, thanks to a montage where the characters don't appear to age a day.  Success is great, but Phil is getting tired of the grind; he keeps trying to find Bob a woman so he'll slow his professional life down, if just by a little.  Enter the Haynes Sisters; Judy (Vera-Ellen) and Betty (Rosemary Clooney).  They are the kid sisters of "Freckle-Faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy" (actually, the grown-up Little Rascal, Alfalfa), they have a song-and-dance act, and they want advice from the famous Wallace and Davis team.  Judy and Phil notice (while they are dancing) that Bob and Betty seem to be getting along (they're actually arguing), so Phil connives a way to get himself and Bob up to Vermont the next night, where the Haynes sisters will be featured performers at a ski lodge.  That particular ski lodge happens to be owned by former Major General Waverly, and it is in major financial trouble, thanks to unseasonably warm weather.  Who wants to ski on green grass?  Dirty hippies, that's who.  And they won't even exist for another thirteen years, so that's a bust.  Can Wallace and Davis help save General Waverly's business?  Will Bob ever fall in love?  Those questions and more will be answered by the end of this gripping mystery/thriller/peyote-influenced art film musical.

How does this former blockbuster stand up to the test of time?  It helps that the fim knows its strengths.  Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney have powerful voices, and their scenes are obviously catered to that.  Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen are talented dancers (her more than him), and their scenes cater to their talents, as well.  I also appreciate that this musical confines the songs mostly to performances and leaves the plot development to the dialogue --- that also means that the songs take place in reality and everyone around knows that they're supposed to be singing (for the most part).  Nothing drives me battier than watching a musical where everyone in a scene is suddenly a professional singer and dancer and then, when the scene is over, they all continue on with their lives.  Yes, I'm a crotchety old man when it comes to musicals.  And while this isn't the first use of "White Christmas" in a film (that honor goes to Holiday Inn), its inclusion here is the obvious highlight of the soundtrack; the rest of the Irving Berlin-written songs are pretty solid, too, especially "Snow" and "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep."  Heck, even the trite "Sisters" is entertaining when Crosby and Kaye perform it.

The performances are decent, but nothing special.  Honestly, I expected more out of Michael Curtiz (director of Casablanca), but I suppose that directing a musical is a very different experience than directing a drama; like I mentioned before, the movie plays to its strengths, and that is largely because of Curtiz.  Rosemary Clooney probably does the best job expressing emotions, but her character is ridiculously fickle when it comes to those same emotions.  Bing Crosby doesn't have much range, but he's there to provide a voice.  His character is more or less pushed through the film by Danny Kaye, who shoulders most of the comedic burden, even as he propels the plot forward; I don't particularly like Danny Kaye, but his overacting fits well in this setting.  Vera-Ellen is definitely the acting lightweight in this movie; while she is a talented dancer, it looks like she is never dancing in character, and since dancing is her focal point here, that's a problem.  You might also look at Vera-Ellen and notice how ridiculously thin she is --- she can't have more than twelve pounds of flesh and organs on that frame --- and wonder why she always has something covering her neck in this movie.  If you're curious, check this out.

You would think that the primary parts of this film that age poorly would be the singing and dancing (well, that's what I would assume, anyway), but that's not the case here --- except when Rosemary Clooney sings "I wash my hair with snow," because that's damned unlikely.  The plot definitely proves itself as the weakest link in this story.  How much of this movie would have been cut if characters had just stopped acting on half-bits of information?  Two of the biggest plot points in the film are based upon a character misconstruing the facts and not bothering to explain themselves to Bing Crosby.  The acting is mostly acceptable for a musical, but Vera-Ellen makes a point to look directly at the camera whenever she dances, which just bugs me.  This isn't porn, Vera, you don't have to gaze at the viewer like attention to the other people in your scenes! 

Overall, though, White Christmas gets the job done.  It's pretty entertaining, the songs are pretty good, and the people doing the singing and dancing are obviously good at what they do.  The movie even manages to pull on the ol' heartstrings when General Waverly makes his uniformed appearance near the end of the movie.  I don't know if this deserved to be the clear number one hit of 1954, but it stands the test of time as a good musical and a pretty solid Christmas movie.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

I know, I know...Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is technically a television special, not a movie.  I normally don't review television, but I think the self-contained nature of the story and the fact that it is not part of an ongoing show make it more of a TV movie than anything else.  Anyway, I watched it, so I'm reviewing it.  If you don't like it, go suck an egg's nog.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is the story of Rudolph, a reindeer born with a genetic anomaly.  This mutated freak has a nose that glows as bright as a red light bulb and emit a sound similar to that of a whistling kettle.  The poor reindeer obviously had a terminal birth defect that caused his nasal capillaries to be too close to the outer layers of skin, giving it a reddish hue; the glowing must come from radiation poisoning, not terribly surprising, given the proximity of the North Pole (where the story takes place) to Soviet Russia and their reckless handling of toxic waste; the whistling no doubt comes from the swelling of Rudolph's brain, with some of the pressure being slowly released through his nostrils.  The poor buck probably only had a few Christmases in him before he suffered a series of incapacitating, and eventually fatal, strokes.

Comet: Racist Asshole
Rudolph Donnerson (they're in the North, so I assume reindeer follow the Nordic tradition of surnames) was born to his mother and Donner, one of Santa Claus' elite flying reindeer.  Let me speak frankly here; Rudolph was born into slavery.  Just moments after being born, Rudolph managed the miracle of recognizing his parents and surmising their names --- obviously a talented boy --- but then this Santa Claus entered their family cave (they can't even afford a barn!) to make sure the newborn recognized his master.  Donner and Santa both noticed Rudolph's birth defect, and Donner promised to "take care of it," because there was no way Santa would let a freak of nature join his elite, sleigh-driving slaves.  Rudolph learned to hide his shame by putting a nameless black mass over his nose; I don't really know what it is made out of, but I assume most of the building materials in the Donnerson cave are made of reindeer poop.  After a year in the cave, Rudolph is allowed to finally meet other reindeer.  While Rudolph manages to woo a young doe (At age one?  I don't support babies making babies) and excel in his first attempt at breaking the laws of nature (he flies with ease), his poo nose falls off and the other reindeer shun him.  The only adult reindeer present, Comet, announces that Rudolph will never be allowed to play their reindeer games ever again, because of his nose.  And also because Comet is an adult that has no shame sculpting the leaders of tomorrow with his bigoted rhetoric.

Around this time, Rudolph decides to run away from home, like all children should when they feel like they don't fit in.  Better yet, Rudolph runs away into the wastes of the Arctic circle, where there is no food or shelter for him.  Luckily for Rudy, he befriended a runaway elf, Hermey, who wanted to become a dentist, like all well-adjusted people.  Hermey doesn't bring anything of value to the table except a voice even more nasally than Rudolph's.  Together, the two run away from their problems, meet a moronic prospector, battle a surprisingly monkey-like Abominable Snowman, talk to Aslan-if-Aslan-had-bat-wings, and meet some crappy toys.  I don't want to spoil the end of the story for everyone (it's not like anyone wrote a song about him or anything), so I'll just say that running away from his problems helped Rudy solve them.
"Yes, we'll make them pay...and we'll start by pulling off all their noses...!"

I like to think that I have given this TV special a pretty fair and unbiased summary so far, but I have to tell you that I am not terribly fond of Christmas movies that promote racism, slavery, runaways, shame, or false noses made of reindeer poop.  Even if I was okay with the subject matter, this picture is a technical mess.  Watching these characters move their mouths in a rhythm that is, by no stretch of the imagination, anything resembling a human speech pattern just makes me admire the people behind the Muppets and Robot Chicken all the more.  I like stop-motion animation most of the time, but this is sloppy, even if it is aimed at mouth-breathing toddlers.  The only person of note in the cast or behind the scenes is Burl Ives, but the animators couldn't even get his snowman narrator right; when it comes time for him to sing the piano-based song, "Silver and Gold," they have him strumming a guitar.  The best thing to come out of this stop-motion train wreck is Burl Ives' contributions to the soundtrack; "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" are classics that still sound good today.  I suppose you have to admire a story that is so willing to show the weaknesses of its characters, but I think less blatant stupidity and more sympathy for the socially outcast would have made for a better short film.  This isn't the worst Christmas move or TV special (not by a long shot), but it certainly isn't good.  Rudolph just goes to show you that nostalgia can be used for bad things, too.
"Never forget...Santa can crush you like a bug and no one will care, because you're my property.
One more thing...why were all the elves skinheads? I get that they hate anything different from them and this is a Christmas movie, but do they have to be Neo-Nazis?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


When reading up on the production of Scrooged, I learned that this was the first movie that Bill Murray starred in after Ghostbusters --- that's four years of his prime that he spent out of the limelight.  Usually, when a comedian takes that long of a break, they never get their groove back (Dana Carvey, I'm looking at you).  Then again, Bill Murray is an unusual guy, so it should not be surprising that his career has been just as odd.

Scrooged is an updated-for-the-80s version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  In fact, Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is a television executive that is masterminding a multimillion dollar live broadcast of Dickens' classic on Christmas Eve.  If you know the story of Scrooge, then you know the gist of the story.  Frank is an absolute bastard and a tyrannical boss, so his late boss (John Forsythe) reaches from beyond the grave to warn Frank to change his ways or be eternally damned.  That evening, Frank is visited by the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future.  But will he learn from his extra-special extrasensory night, or will he dismiss it as the effects from "Russian vodka poisoned by Chernobyl?"  Obviously, since this is a Christmas story and it is based on one of the enduring Christmas classics, radioactive vodka (distilled from tear-soaked turnips) ends up playing an important part and Frank eventually mutates into the Toxic Avenger.  Or he lives happily ever after and is forgiven by everyone for years of abuse after just one evening of sincere regret.

Like most movies starring Bill Murray, the focus of this film is definitely on him.  However, this film has its share of of noteworthy supporting roles.  In a normal movie, you would suppose that the romantic interest (Karen Allen) or the nemeses at work (Robert Mitchum as Frank's increasingly loopy boss and John Glover as his competition) would provide the bulk of the film's drama and depth.  Here, not so much.  All three did a decent job, but were nothing special.  No, in A Christmas Carol (and, therefore, in this update), the key supporting characters are the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present.  Both are unusual roles, since neither has any character development and both basically just guide Frank through time and space while doing some narration, but both manage to steal scenes away from Bill Murray, which is quite a feat.  David Johansen (lead singer of the New York Dolls) is perfect as the seedy, cigar-smoking, cab-driving Ghost of Christmas Past, and he clearly has a blast in every scene.  Johansen would be the surprise of this movie if Carol Kane wasn't so awesome as the Ghost of Christmas Present.  Making her into a physically abusive sadist might be an unusual take on the character, but Kane plays it up with such childlike glee that it's fun to watch her beat the living hell out of Frank.

Also worth noting is Grace (Alfre Woodard), who serves as the stand-in for the Bob Cratchet character and provides maybe the most emotional depth to the film; on the flip side of Grace's put-upon-but-still-valued role, Eliot (Bobcat Goldthwait) is the angry, unappreciated version of Bob Cratchet that decides that going postal will solve his problems.  This movie has a lot of cameo appearances and bit roles, too.  Miles Davis and Paul Shaffer play street musicians; Brian Doyle-Murray and his brothers, John and Joel Murray, play Frank's father, brother, and a random dude, respectively; Robert Goulet, Lee Majors, Mary Lou Retton, and John Houseman all played themselves; and even the television broadcast within the movie had stars like Buddy Hackett and Jamie Farr.

Juggling all those noteworthy actors was probably a task in and of itself, but director Richard Donner did a good job.  Aside from finding recognizable faces for every important role (except for the Tiny Tim analogue) and getting them to fill their bit parts admirably, he also managed to do some pretty imaginative things with the special effects in the film.  The Ghost of Christmas Future looked pretty cool with his "ribcage of the damned" and sometimes-but-not-always television face.  The makeup on the deceased John Forsythe was pretty awesome, too.  In fact, the only thing in this movie that doesn't look good is Frank's hair in the flashback scenes.

Apparently, "Scrooged" translates into
"Chief Attack Ghosts" in Spanish
I have two problems with this film, and the first deals with Bill Murray.  I love Bill Murray.  He's awesomely funny and has developed into a talented dramatic actor.  That said, he basically plays himself in just about every movie until Rushmore.  This can be a good thing; Murray is always funny, even in his bad movies, and he is let loose for a good portion of this film.  Unfortunately, he and Donner decided that Frank Cross had to be unlikable at the film's start so that he could transform by the film's end.  That sounds fine --- Scrooge isn't a nice guy, either --- but in execution, it's a little too much.  There's certainly some black humor in Murray's quieter moments in the first quarter of the film, but when he's screaming, he's just screaming.  The likable jerk that Murray plays so well doesn't show up in these scenes; instead, we are treated to Murray being mean and not deflecting anything with a smirk or self-deprecating joke.  I like the rest of Murray's performance, but I think there are a lot of missed comedic opportunities in the "before" phase of this movie.

My other gripe has more to do with the source material than anything else, but I suppose you should shift some blame to the screenwriters, too.  I'll be honest with you...I hate Charles Dickens.  Well, maybe not the man, but definitely his writing.  His style is overly wordy (because he was paid by the word), his characters are unrecognizable as human beings, and his plots are usually contrived.  I will credit him with some pretty good high concepts, but that's the only way I have found to appreciate Dickens --- by stripping his stories down to their bare bones and then imagining a more amusing tale from there.  [Steps off soapbox.]  Personally, I find the emotional part of this story to be a little insulting.  Frank is mean for years and then wins everyone over immediately?  That seems far too saccharine to coexist in a film with moments of black comedy.  I readily admit to being a soft touch with Christmas movies --- I'm a hot mess of tears, snot and giggles for the entire running time of It's a Wonderful Life --- but the happy ending to Scrooged is too abrupt, too shallow, and/or maybe too overreaching to move even an easy mark like me.  "But it's the source material's fault, Brian!"  Whatever.  If they changed the story to modernize it, they could have tried to make it a little more plausible or a little more emotional.

Don't get me wrong --- I love me some Scrooged.  I watch it every year and I laugh at all the same parts ("It's a bone, you lucky dog!" gets me every time, for some unknown reason), but this is a movie with some fundamental flaws to it.  This might be the least heartwarming Christmas movie I have ever seen, but Murray's charm and the combination of Kane and Johansen always bring me back, year after year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Les Diaboliques

One of the classic "guy's night out" drinking toasts is "To our wives and girlfriends...may they never meet!"  There's a similar saying in France, although it translates roughly into "May my wife and girlfriend never become friends and plot my murder."  Ah, the language of love.

Les Diaboliques (which translates into "The Devils") follows Christina Delassalle (Vera Clouzot), a sweet but delicate teacher at a boy's boarding school.  Actually, Christina owns the school, as well as teaching in it; her husband, Michel (Paul Meurisse), is the principal/director.  I know how fun it is to work with your significant other (not at all; side note: I love you, honey!) and I know how rotten boys can be, so I think it's safe to say that this is not an ideal partnership.  Add that to the fact that Michel does not like children and has, in fact, run the school down into a second-rate status, and the situation becomes a bit clearer; Christina has the money and loves teaching, while Michel likes the money and can't stand the job.  But wait, get this: Michel has a mistress, Nicole (Simone Signoret), another teacher at the school.  It's not a secret.  He rubs both of their faces in it and the entire school staff knows about it.  He is a braver man than me, but this was made about forty years before the Lorena Bobbitt event, so maybe he was ignorant of some of the possible ramifications of his actions.  Or maybe Michel is just a total douche.

Christina won't divorce because she is Catholic and Nicole can't leave because Michel is physically abusive (to both of them) and she doesn't have the money to move away from him.  Despite their respective relations to Michel, the two become friends, thanks to their mutual hatred of him.  Not satisfied with a terrible life, Nicole comes up with a foolproof plan to solve her and Christina's problem --- they need to kill Michel and make it look like an accident.  Eventually, after repeated bullying from Michel, Christina agrees to do it.  The excitement of the act is almost too much for her frail body, though, and she nearly faints on a couple of occasions.  After Michel is transformed into "the body formerly known as Michel," Christina and Nicole dump the body in the school swimming pool, where it will easily be found.  But it is not.  Days go by, and still no body.  The women come up with a pretext to drain the swimming pool, but the body is gone.  What happened to the body?  Who knows about their crime?  And why haven't they called the police?

It is interesting to note that this film begins with a plea to not spoil the ending for others.  It's an unusual thing to include in a film, but there is a reason for it; some movies are still great if you know the twist, others are ruined.  This film lies somewhere in-between, but it is definitely more effective if you don't know exactly what is going to happen.  The film is assembled competently enough by Henri-Georges Clouzot; when I think of French films, I tend to think of stylized cinematography, but this film's camera work is pretty standard.  Clouzot does a good job building the suspense, though.  As the main character in the film, Vera Clouzot was okay, but nothing special; yes, she conveyed anxiety and fear well enough, but it's not a particularly strong role and she doesn't add anything to make it interesting.  Simone Signoret, on the other hand, stands out as a ruthless, no-nonsense woman, doing whatever it takes to gain the freedom she desires.  Paul Meurisse succeeds in playing a thoroughly unlikable character; you rarely see a protagonist help murder somebody, but Meurisse was so dastardly that it seemed like the right thing to do.  And that's a hard trick to pull off, so kudos to the director for that.  The only other significant character in the film is Charles Vanel, who plays a retired police officer.  Vanel played his part well, but I hated the character, for reasons I'll mention later.

Les Diaboliques is often considered a horror movie, but I disagree.  Yes, it has some elements of horror movies, like I Know What You Did Last Summer, but it focuses on slow-building suspense instead of frequent scares, so I call this a suspense/thriller movie.  Now, the question becomes, "Is it a good suspense slash thriller?"  It's decent.  It's composed well and the pacing is good.  It's too bad the main character isn't the most charismatic one, but that's not a deal breaker.  The fact of the matter is that this movie was made fifty-five years ago and relied heavily on a shocking ending.  In the intervening years, there have been many films with more shocking, gruesome, and weird endings than Les Diaboliques.  The story is still pretty good, but it doesn't leave you in confused awe after the credits, like say 2001: A Space Odyssey ("what baby...?).  I also have a major problem with the falling action after the climax; the climax is pretty good, but what happens afterward is just wretched.  SPOILER ALERT: So, it turns out that Michel and Nicole faked his death and created this game of "who stole my corpse" to cause Christina to have a heart attack and die.  Michel gets the money, Nicole gets her man, and everybody's happy.  That's a pretty wicked-awesome ending, right?  But then the retired police officer walks out from the shadows and arrests them for murder.  He saw it all...and let it happen?  And what's he going to charge them with, scaring her to death?  Sure, I get that the bad guys aren't supposed to win (which would have been a much better ending), but that was the absolute worst way to make it happen.  The stupidity of that little scene knocked the whole film down a few notches for me.

This is definitely worth a viewing, even if it has lost a little of its luster over time.  And, if you don't like foreign films, this one has a pretty comprehensible story, with little or nothing lost in translation.  That one little bit at the end, though, just royally pisses me off.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom first caught my attention when I saw it referred to as "the British Psycho."  Silly me, I was under the misconception that Alfred Hitchcock was British.  Still, despite being a stupid little sound byte, the idea intrigued me.  Later on, I read an interview with Martin Scorsese where he said that everything you ever wanted to know about filmmaking and the people who make films can be learned from Fellini's 8 1/2 and Powell's Peeping Tom.  A movie that is disturbing enough to be compared favorably to Psycho and artsy enough to be mentioned with 8 1/2?  Okay, if I wasn't interested before, I am now.

Peeping Tom sets the tone from the very beginning.  The camera's point of view is a little obscured, looking up at people in the streets; the point of view appears to be coming from a camera, hidden in someone's jacket.  The unseen cameraman solicits a prostitute and she takes him to a room.  He approaches her slowly, pauses, and a light shines upon her face; we do not see what happens next, but it is clear that the hooker is dead and that she died absolutely terrified.  The next scene shows Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm, credited as Carl Boehm here) snapping pictures for a naughty photo shoot.  Mark is socially awkward and is clearly attracted to female beauty, but not in the traditional sense; he is overwhelmed with the usual male lust for tops and bottoms, but he is also fascinated with capturing scars and glimpses of suffering on film.  There's never any question that Mark is the killer; he's far too creepy and his awkwardness makes it seem that connecting with a woman is taboo for him.  As the film progresses, we see Mark observing (not interacting with) everything around him, with his hand-held camera constantly by his side (he is a cinematographer, as well as a photographer).  When he sees something interesting, he films it; it could be police at work, a couple kissing, a girl looking sad, or whatever.  When he gives in to his urge to kill, the camera maintains Mark's camera's POV; it is not until the end where we realize exactly what he is doing.  There are hints along the way, though, when he asks one of his victims, "Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is?  Fright."  That makes up the core idea behind this film, and it's an interesting one.

Peeping Tom is an ambitious movie.  It makes use of some pretty interesting psychology to make Mark a sympathetic character, despite his horrible actions.  The obvious intent of this movie is to examine voyeurism.  Mark is a voyeur in his own life, and even in his murders.  Heck, if you want to get all fancy and analyze this film (and director Michael Powell obviously wants you to), you can argue that the audience (AKA your face!  Oooh, sick burn!) is participating in these murders as passive observers.  From there, you can ramble on about the role of the audience in modern filmmaking, but even typing that made me yawn, so someone else will have to tackle that subject.  It shouldn't come as a surprise that a film about a cinematographer has great cinematography; for such an introspective movie, the colors are surprisingly vivid and the camera work is fantastic.  The shots are full of symbolism and meaning, but paying attention to those things just gives depth to the film --- if you don't know or care about such things, you can still follow and enjoy the film.  That's the way artsy movies should be.

The acting in the film is a little underwhelming.  The focus of the story is definitely on the idea of voyeurism, not the characters, so many of the actors have little to do.  Karlheinz Böhm certainly plays his part well, with an awkwardness that looks nearly impossible to be an act (but it is...acting!).  When I watched the film, Böhm kept reminding me of Peter Lorre, because his eyes were half-closed through most of the film.  But when I did a Google image search for him, Böhm looked pretty normal.  So, kudos to him for adding physicality to his role!  Anna Massey was pretty good as the optimistic love interest for Mark, but boy, is she ugly.  I'm not saying that Böhm is a top shelf prize, but I imagine that Massey played the "best friend" role more often than the leading lady.  My favorite performance came from Maxine Audley, who played Massey's blind and hard-drinking mother.  Dry wit, clever lines, and great delivery, this should have been a role that won awards, but Peeping Tom was an absolute bomb in the British box office, so no contemporary recognition was given to the film, director, actors, or cinematographers.

As technically and intellectually impressive as this film is, it has some flaws, although the most serious is not its fault.  The script plays with science for dramatic purposes on occasion.  The most glaring of these moments is when Mark gets spotted staring into somebody's window at night by the people in that room; they would have seen their own reflections, not Mark.  The intellectual bent of this movie also works against it, on occasion.  Since this is more of a disturbing movie than a frightening one, the immediacy of the story is sometimes lacking.  And then there are the obvious similarities to Psycho.  A mild-mannered man with deep-seated Freudian issues with his parent is going around, killing people?  Well, if you're going to copy, you might as well copy the masters, but...oh, wait...Peeping Tom was filmed at the same time Hitchcock was filming, and this actually beat Psycho to theaters by a few months!  That's just a tough break, especially since Psycho was so well received and this well-deserving film had to settle for a delayed cult success.

What is perhaps the most interesting thing about this film is how disturbing it is.  On the face of things, this is just a slasher movie with some fancy camerawork.  However, you tend to root for the killer in most horror movies (I know I do).  Watching them dispatch their victims is half the fun, but the idiotic decisions they make and their bad acting is often just as fun; you laugh at their misfortune just as often as you are scared by it.  Peeping Tom is not like that at all.  I didn't crack a smile while watching this (quite a feat), partially because the POV camera shots from the killer's perspective made it more difficult to disassociate from the murderer, and partly because it is disturbing but also disturbingly plausible.  It's a little too art house-style for my tastes, but it's still a film worth seeing and then watching again to catch anything you missed the first time around.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


I have always liked the unreliable narrator as a plot device.  Why should I assume that the person telling the story is telling the truth, anyway?  Isn't it just how they see things?  Whether it be used in poetry, prose, or film, I always enjoy a well-constructed story where I don't know what I am supposed to believe.  Of course, the subjectivity in storytelling is not a new concept; ask the police how often they get conflicting statements from witnesses that saw the same event.  That phenomenon --- people recollecting the same event in wildly different ways --- is sometimes called the Rashomon Effect.  Why?  Well...

Toshiro Mifune as Joakim Noah
Rashomon is the story of a rape and a murder.  Having fun yet?  Actually, it's the story about the stories about the rape and murder.  During a heavy rainstorm, a commoner in Feudal Japan seeks shelter in a large, decrepit gate.  There, he finds a woodsman (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki), both staring into nothingness; the woodsman keeps repeating "I don't understand."  The two men were just in court, testifying in the case of the death of a samurai and the rape of his wife.  That sounds simple enough, and each of their stories is.  The priest encountered the couple on a road, shortly before they were victimized.  The woodcutter came across the scene afterward; while walking in the woods, he found a woman's hat on the ground, and later some rope that had been cut, and then he found the samurai's body.  The twist comes when the other witnesses testify.  The infamous bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), the wife (Machiko Kyo), and --- through a medium --- the dead samurai (Masayuki Mori) himself, and all of their stories conflict.  Shocking, I know.  The surprising thing is that, instead of shifting blame onto another, all three witnesses accept the blame themselves.  Why would anyone willingly take a murder rap?  If you buy into the idea of unreliable characters, how can this ever be resolved?  Who do you believe? 

Rashomon was the first work of director Akira Kurosawa that received international acclaim; for the next decade and more, he would be one of the most respected directors in the world.  The reason for that respect is the amount of meaning he can pack into visual imagery; this story does not answer all of its own questions, so Kurosawa provides answers subtly.  In this film, the presence of sunlight and clouds is important, as is the rain.  These things don't jump out at you when you are watching, but I found myself believing one story over the others, primarily (I figured out later) due to lighting effects.  As you might guess from that, there is a lot of symbolism in Rashomon, although noticing it isn't essential to enjoying the movie.  For example, all the stories are told while the characters are seeking shelter at Rashomon gate; you don't need to realize that the gate functions as a gateway to the stories (among other things), but it's a nice artsy touch.  And that artistic bent is fueled by the cinematography, which does an excellent job framing each scene to show only what is important to the story.

The acting in Rashomon is kind of strange.  In some ways, it is very over-the-top and theatrical, but it can also be very subtle.  Most of the cast is pretty low-key, and each actor plays their part well.  Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo are the best examples of the theatrical acting; both break out into abrupt, loud laughter at key moments and the effect can be jarring.  On the one hand, I sometimes want to give the movie a "what the hell was that" laugh, but if you just turn your trucker hat around and roll with the over-the-topness ("it's like flipping a switch...!"), you begin to appreciate it by the film's end.  I always enjoy Toshiro Mifune in his Kurosawa roles, and this one is no different; he excels at being a charming scumbag and he has some of the best nonverbal acting around (although a lot of it involves him scratching himself).  Machiko Kyo begins the movie as a typical damsel in distress, but she gets positively nasty by the end.  I'm a little creeped out by the traditional Japanese custom of women plucking all their eyebrows out and drawing exaggerated ones on their forehead, but Kyo did a great job with an uncommonly complex (for the time) female role.
"Washing your forehead would be a good start."

I think I appreciate this movie more than I like it.  I get the symbolism and the technical prowess of the filmmakers, and I enjoyed the acting.  The action is pretty good, particularly the completely graceless (and therefore, probably more realistic) final fight between the samurai and the bandit.  I really like the idea of several conflicting stories of the same event, but something about the story leaves me unsatisfied.  Maybe it is the setting; having a crime story with so many complicated ideas is tough enough, but factoring in foreignness as well as a different time period seems like an unnecessary hurdle to overcome.  The plot's not difficult to follow (deciding what is the truth is hard, though), but my knowledge of samurais comes largely from a James Clavell book.  One of the key points of the plot revolves around old Japanese values, and the film might have had more of an immediate impact on me if I was actually familiar with those values.  Still, this is an interesting, intelligent film that makes the gutsy choice to let the audience decide what really happened.
Does anyone dislike this movie?  The answer is no.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rolling Thunder

Oh, so it's a movie about a guy with seven right arms?
While I was not alive during the Vietnam War, it is my understanding that it was a pretty glamorous time to be an American soldier.  From all the movies I've seen, 'Nam was a tropical wonderland with a clearly defined enemy and every drink came with a little bamboo umbrella in it.  Better yet, when soldiers returned home, there was unified and total support for the veterans.  And being a prisoner of war (POW) was even better; that's why Chuck Norris made those Missing in Action comedies in the 80s.

Yes, the life of a Vietnam POW was pretty sweet.  When Major Charles Rane (William Devane), along with his compatriot Sergeant First Class Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), returns to his small town in Texas after being tortured daily, he gets a parade.  Well, hot dog!  He is also given a Cadillac and a silver dollar for every day he was away, which amounts to over two thousand dollars.  Sure, he has frequent flashbacks, his wife has left him for a friend, and his son doesn't remember him, but two grand in 1973 dollars is like, forty jillion bucks!  Rane doesn't take to civilian life gracefully; he's socially awkward and has nothing to offer in conversation ("I don't mind the lashings, but waterboarding gets old fast...").  Instead of easing back into his old habits, he maintains his POW regiment of physical training and sparse living arrangements.  It's a good thing that he doesn't immediately go soft, because four armed men show up at his home, looking to rob him of his two thousand dollars.  Rane's a bad ass, so he doesn't tell them a thing and they punish him by sticking his right hand down the garbage disposal.  Gross.  And he still doesn't tell them anything, which is awesome.  But then, his not-really wife and sniveling son come home, the kid gives up the hiding place for the cash, and everybody gets shot.  Wifey and kiddo die, but Rane survives, minus a hand but plus a hook.  The rest of the movie is about a man on a mission to punish those that hurt his family.  And that man has a hook for a hand.
I wonder why he's not wearing short sleeves in the summer?

What can I say about the acting in this movie?  This is a revenge movie, pure and simple, and it was made in 1977.  It's not quite a B-movie, but it's pretty close.  Heck, it even has an actress from Coffy.  William Devane turns in a simple, but effective performance as a man of few words but decisive actions.  He's at his best after his family dies and he doesn't have to convey more emotions than just anger, but he's really good at being a tough jerk.  Tommy Lee Jones plays the traditional TLJ role, a straight-faced, no-nonsense tough guy.  My favorite scenes in the movie belong to Jones.  One scene has him listening to the inane chatter of his relatives with dead eyes and the other has him explaining to an innocent bystander that he's going to try to kill a lot of people.  The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable.  Director John Flynn tells this crime story quickly and without adding nuisances like emotion or character depth.  It is what it is, and that's a revenge flick.

Now, I know what you're thinking...two thousand dollars split four ways is worth a double homicide and attempted murder rap?  Apparently so.  The value of this movie is not found in the script or the plot or the extremely unconvincing romance between Devane and Linda Haynes.  No, this movie is surprisingly entertaining thanks to just how basic it is.  Somebody kills your family?  Don't cry about it, wuss.  Murder the hell out of them.  Here's an actual exchange from the film:
Major Charles Rane: I found them.  The men who killed my son.
Sergeant First Class Johnny Vohden: I'll just get my gear.
That's it.  No questions, no boring arguments about calling the police, or whining about murdering people.  These two have a bromance that is beyond compassion and feelings --- they're in love...with death!  And that's kind of awesome.  This is definitely not for everyone, but if you like low-budget tough-guy movies, this is a fun one.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Quick, name your favorite third installment of a film franchise. takes a little bit of thought, doesn't it?  Aside from Die Hard With a Vengeance and Army of Darkness, is there a great third movie in a series?  If you can think of another great #3, leave it in the comments (I can think of two others).  These movies usually end up putting the lid on the franchise coffin, instead of improving upon the established formula.  After two successful (but similar) movies about magical children, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban changes the tone a bit and delves into darker territory, with a tale about betrayal and murder.  That sounds about right for a family film, doesn't it?

Like the last two films, Azkaban covers an entire school year for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson).  Also like the last two films, the plot is split between the ongoing struggle between Harry and the forces of evil wizard extraordinaire, Lord Voldemort, and Harry's smaller-scale problems at school.  As Harry prepares to return to Hogwart's wizard boarding school, he notices wanted posters for a man named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) everywhere he looks.  Black, a disciple of Voldemort, had just broken out of the super-secure wizard gulag, Azkaban; this is a big deal for the wizarding world because Black was the first-ever escapee of the prison and also because his crimes were especially heinous.  Not only did he blow up a fellow wizard, Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall), with only a finger escaping total incineration, but Sirius Black was the man who led Voldemort to Harry Potter's parents on the night they were murdered.  Out of prison, it just makes sense that his first move would be to kill Harry for his master.  When Harry learns Black's history, he welcomes the fight and declares his intention to kill Black.  Apparently, having evil wizards try to kill you every year can make thirteen-year-olds get a little aggressive.

The other plot line follows Harry's progressive immersion in the world of magic.  As a side effect of Black's escape, Azkaban guards (called Dementors) arrive, looking for Black.  Dementors are not people, but soul-sucking monsters that find Harry a particularly tasty morsel.  Harry takes lessons on how to deflect these creatures from his new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis).  Like Harry's last two DADA teachers (villains in the last two films), Lupin has a secret that plays a part in the film's climax.  Also playing a part is the school groundskeeper, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), who earned a promotion to teacher.  He introduced a hippogriff (a magical half-horse and half-eagle creature) to some students and, despite it being very friendly to Harry, it injured a student, perennial Potter bully Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton).  As such, the animal receives an execution date.  I wonder...will these seemingly dissimilar plots ever coalesce in time for the film's end?

At the time of its publication, the book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was the longest in the series.  Since the last two films went over two hours to cover everything in the books, it became necessary to cut the novel into something more digestible in movie form.  As such, Azkaban is the first Harry Potter film to take liberties with the source text.  That's great news for someone like me, who liked the first two films, but felt that they could have done more to adapt to the film genre.  That means that this film is more plot-driven that the others.  The other big change is Alfonso Cuaron's assumption of the director's role; aside from making a very good cutting of the story (in my opinion) for the screenplay, Cuaron played with the film's color palette, opting for more blues and a general washed-out feel, which I thought matched the story's being-hunted-by-a-murderer plot.  The DVD special features also point out an instance of Cuaron's dealings with his teenage cast; he asked the three main actors to write an essay about their characters, and the responses he got were surprisingly in-line with the work the characters themselves would have done: Watson wrote a fifteen-page paper, Radcliffe wrote a few pages, and Grint didn't do his homework.  Well, I laughed, anyway.

The acting in this film is a marked improvement over The Chamber of Secrets.  Daniel Radcliffe not only looked the part, with the most Harry Potter-ish hair of any of the movies, but his casual acting skills showed a lot of growth.  He doesn't quite nail every emotion (anger seems a little out of his grasp), but it's still a big step.  Emma Watson is, once again, the most natural actor of the three, but this movie gives her less screen time and, thus, less to do.  Rupert Grint manages to make ugly faces whenever he's supposed to be frightened, which is often.  I wasn't terribly impressed with David Thewlis' Lupin, but that has more to do with the CGI used on his character and my own impression of the character from the book than any particular shortcoming in his performance; I thought he would be more...raggedy, I guess.  And I'm still not certain why his CGI-aided moments went with such a lanky character design instead of the more traditional bulk.  Gary Oldman, one of the great actors of the 90s, took this role to make some money, but his performance is still pretty good; I loved the design for his character, from the hair and tattoos to his emaciated body.  Much of Oldman's presence in the film comes from wanted posters, but they are pretty awesome, just the same.  Tom Felton's turn as Draco is far less sinister than in previous movies; here he is used as comic relief instead of a legitimate rival to Harry.  Michael Gambon replaced Richard Harris as Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore, and his performance had the subtle mischief I felt was lacking in Harris' performances.  Emma Thompson and Timothy Spall make their Potter debuts here in limited performances and cast staples Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and Robbie Coltrane all do fine work in their small supporting roles.

Personally, I think this third installment surpasses the first two Harry Potters easily.  The acting is better, the pace of the film is better, and several details are glossed over in favor of a more seamless narrative.  Not only were the individual acting performances better than in previous films, but I think the more casual scenes showing the kids goofing off and having fun felt natural an unforced, which was a huge departure from the I'm-waiting-for-you-to-stop-talking-so-I-can-deliver-my-lines performances from the last film.  This movie also helped build the budding romance between Hermione and Ron a bit, something the other films left on the cutting room floor.

Not every choice was well made, though.  The Jamaican shrunken head in the early stages of the film was just obnoxious, for starters.  There were a few instances where the token black student at Hogwarts makes some reference to Black (as in Sirius) being up to no good, or how he could be anywhere, or whatever --- I'm not a racist, but unintentional racism makes me giggle.  I mean, really?  You couldn't find any other actor to make negative comments about "Black"?  Those aren't major complaints, though.  The one thing holding this movie back is the source material.  There is a plot element that is revealed in the final third of the movie (to be fair, it is foreshadowed) that essentially acts as a deus ex machina.  As such, the final third of the movie can seem somewhat contrived, but that is what the book offered, so I guess the filmmakers were kind of stuck.  Still, even with the contrived ending, this is the best of the bunch so far.

Monday, December 13, 2010

12 Angry Men

I missed out on a lot of common experiences in high school because my classes tended to have unusual curriculum.  I have never read The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre, Beowulf, or Heart of Darkness.  I know, I know, I'm a lucky fella.  I also was not required to see 12 Angry Men when I studied the Constitution or in a speech class (in the "group think" chapter).  Sure, I've heard about the movie from my peers, but I never felt compelled to watch it, even when I noticed that it was in IMDB's top ten rated movies of all time.  Sometimes, I don't know what my problem is.

12 Angry Men is not the follow-up movie adaptation to the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno television show, The Angriest Man.  Instead, it is a courtroom drama that actually doesn't take place in a courtroom at all.  As the movie poster suggests, it takes place in a dynamite factory.  The vast majority of the film (aside from a brief opening scene and a quick epilogue) takes place in the jury room.  The audience has not heard the lawyers speak, but the jury has heard the complete arguments of the prosecutors and the defense, and now it's time to decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.  Of course, you need all twelve jurors to agree on the verdict, or else the jury is hung and the whole shebang is declared a mistrial.  That sounds pretty simple, but this is a capital crime, so a "guilty" verdict will result in the death penalty.  Despite the gravity of the case, the jury initially sits down and assumes that their deliberation will take all of five minutes; the case seems open-and-shut.  The first vote is 11-1, guilty, with only Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) dissenting.  And since the vote has to be unanimous, it is up to the rest of the jurors to convince (by whatever means) Juror 8 to change his vote...or, it is up to him to change everyone else's.

After I first watched this movie, I realized that there were some subtleties that I had missed the first time through; after my second viewing, I can definitely say that director Sidney Lumet did a great job.  Just the camerawork alone is fantastic.  You would think that a film set in one room would be visually dull and probably peppered with close-ups to vary the shots, but not this one.  The final shot of the film, a wide-angle crane shot of the jurors all leaving the courthouse, was what piqued my interest.  That shot felt so refreshing that I had to review the film and figure out why.  Here's what I noticed: the camera angles in the movie gradually shift their angle as the film progresses.  In the beginning, all the camera shots are a looking down slightly, or are at least at eye-level; by the end of the film, every shot is looking up at the actors.  So what?  Well, looking up at the actors (especially when they're arguing and are getting all sweaty) brings the ceiling into the shot, like the room is getting smaller (or the men are slowly swelling, I suppose).  It also felt like the room was getting smaller, too; I'm not sure if that was a camera trick, or maybe a larger table in the room, or maybe the set walls were pushed in a little, but I'm pretty sure that it wasn't just my imagination.  These subtle cinematographic techniques add layers to the film, making it work on a subconscious level as well as the obvious look-at-the-actors-level.

The fancy camera tactics wouldn't have helped if the cast was no good, but this film is stacked with noteworthy actors.  As the conscience of film, Henry Fonda is the main character, and he is as good as he usually is; Henry Fonda was one of the great do-gooders in film, with most of his characters (at least, in his most famous movies) being noble and brave.  You wouldn't think that a film that essentially boils down to fighting peer pressure (vote guilty, everybody's doing it) could have a brave character, but that's what Fonda brings to the table.  Lee J. Cobb, as Juror 3, played Fonda's nemesis, of sorts.  He was perfect as the brutish, bullying jerk, the perfect foil for Fonda's calm rationality.  The rest of the players (Martin Balsam, John "the voice of Piglet" Fiedler, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, and Robert Webber) were good, although some were a little one-dimensional.  The standout were Ed Begley's performance as the bitter racist and John Fiedler, in his typical role as the timid guy in the room.

This film was made in 1957 and that age shows itself from time to time.  The fact that an "ethnic" defendant would have twelve middle-aged or older white men for his jury feels a little odd now.  And I realize that racism is still an issue in America, but the scene where everyone turns their back on Begley (while powerful) is a little more dramatic than realistic.  Still, this is a great movie that is still relevant.  The film takes a basic concept --- that of reasonable doubt --- and forms a subtle, intelligent movie around it.  The movie isn't even long, clocking in at just over ninety minutes, and it is packed full of interesting, varied performances.  This film's quality was not a foregone conclusion --- it was made on a shoestring budget and featured a first-time film director --- but it still managed to be nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay, all for a picture set in one room, based on a legal issue.
Yeah...this is a good one.