Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Ghost Writer (2010)

I had a crazy idea, a New Years Resolution if you will, to try and watch one movie a day for the entire year and write a quick review. Knowing how crazy my life is, we'll see how fast this lasts, but I made it through the first 3 days. Maybe I can make it through a whole week. (Day 1) January 1st started off with the latest Roman Polanski film. I had choose this film after it appeared on quite a few top 10 lists for 2010. I'm a fan of Polanski's films, having just(re)watched "Knife in the Water" (1962), "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) and "The Pianist" (2002) this past year. "The Ghost Writer" might be considered a suspense thriller, a genre I particularly enjoy, and one that has been lacking in quality for quite some time. Most of the cast is topnotch with Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan and Olivia Williams in the major roles. Supporting roles are filled with all faces you should recognize, some good; Tom Wilkinson and Eli Wallach, and some that seem to stand out too much; Kim Cattrall of "Sex and the City" fame, Timothy Hutton and a bald James Belushi.

The story centers around a ghost-writer (McGregor) who has landed the job of writing the memoirs of Adam Lang (Brosnan), the former UK Prime Minister, after the previous writer "committed suicide". Lang has retired with his wife to the Northeastern USA, living on an island, in a luxurious, isolated premises complete with a security detail and a secretarial staff. Soon, Adam Lang gets embroiled in a major scandal with international ramifications while the ghost writer begins to discover that the memoirs may contain some highly sensitive material hidden within it's pages. Material that may have helped along the death of the previous writer.

Let me start by saying the acting is very good with most of the parts given the right personality to their characters. Polanski as well does a great job creating an atmosphere and a pace to the film, but I don't know if I would stick this in a top 10 list. The story is pretty solid with only a few minor holes. Unfortunately one of them is the ending, when the ghostwriter sends a written message to "the enemy" who's across the room, telling them he knows the truth. After running from them for most of the movie, why would he do this without going for help first? This leaves a bad taste in your mouth after having watched this story make sense for most of it's running time.

I'm wondering if critics are praising this movie for two reasons; one is Polanski and the fact that critics will back a Oscar winning director just because. He does some very nice work here, and it shows how a great director can handle this material while other mediocre directors go overboard or try too hard. Two is the fact that there hasn't been a good thriller in a LONG time. When you have nothing to compare it to, a good film can come out seeming great. Personally, I was able to figure out the twists early on, but that isn't a hit against the film. The big issue I have is the fact I don't feel the need to revisit it. Many of the great thriller, even after knowing what happens, you want to see again. I enjoyed the viewing but don't need a second helping.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Across the Universe (2007)

As I wrote in my very first post, I am a film junkie, and one of my favorite "drugs" of choice is the musical. Give me Astaire, or Kelly, or Rogers and Hammerstein and I'm a happy camper. I'll even admit that "Xanadu" (1980) is a guilt pleasure, and if the kids make me watch "High School Musical" (2006) one more time, it's not so bad. It could be A LOT worse. I was a big champion of "Moulin Rouge" (2001) when it first came out and hoped that maybe it would revive a genre that except for a few Disney films in the early 90's had pretty much become nonexistent. During the 1970's studios considered it taboo and a waste of money to make a musical. It was a waste of money because they were making bad movies, not because they were musicals. But the genre has made a comeback in the 2000's, even winning some big awards, "Chicago" (2002) and "Dreamgirls" (2006) to name a few. There's been some bombs along the way as well, but you can say that about any film genre.

The place where Hollywood finds most of its material for the musical is of course Broadway, and one of the recent treads of the last decade has been the creation of shows around a specific artist or group's catalog of music; "Mamma Mia" (Abba), "Jersey Boys"(The Four Seasons) and "Movin Out" (Billy Joel) as some of the more successful examples. It makes sense, since the audience is coming into the show already knowing the music. Although these productions can be entertaining, its really about the music. Artists doing karaoke versions of the songs people already know and love. The closer the music is to the original artist the higher the approval of the audience. Sometimes it works great, others crash and burn. A few artists are just such originals (Sinatra for one) that to try and impersonate it is just not possible (Note to Rod Stewart, please stop trying). So when I heard a film was being made in which no-name actors would be singing Beatles songs I thought blasphemy. Why even attempt something which shouldn't be done. That's like thinking someone would be stupid enough to do a shot by shot update of "Psycho" but in color...wait...oh never mind.

I began to write this film off until I heard who was going to attempt such a task, Julie Taymor. I became a big fan of Taymor when I was in college. She was a performance artist who worked a lot with puppetry, a little passion I had as a kid. Most people would know her more as the person who created the costumes and directed Disney's "The Lion King" when it came to the Broadway stage. A purely one of a kind production that is totally unique. Taymor works in many different arenas and media including film, which she began experimenting with in the 90's centering around Shakespearean themes. Her most famous film to date is "Frida" the 2002 movie staring Salma Hayek, which won 2 Oscars and was nominated for 4 more. Taymor is a very visual person, she definitely has the artist's eye to create something visually appealing, but was she embarking on a subject that just shouldn't be tackled?

The movie is a fictional story of 6 characters, each with names pulled from Beatles songs, as they journey through the 1960's in America. It begins with Jude, a young shipyard worker, heading off from England to America in search of the G.I. dad he never knew. He'll met and become friends with Maxwell, fall in love with Max's sister Lucy, and rent an apartment from Sadie, an aspiring singer. Other tenants include Jojo, a guitarist who arrives after his younger brother is killed in the Detroit riots, and Prudence, a Midwest cheerleader who is trying to understand the strong feelings she has towards a fellow girl on her squad. The story then follows the group as they try to survive the tension, love and violence that was the 1960's. The plot is nothing unique for a tale set during this time period. You'll be seeing the usual subplots of characters heading off to Vietnam, protesting and experimenting in the psychedelic world. If you have any background knowledge of the Beatles you'll also see lots of direct references to their history, such as Jude coming from Liverpool, a "Magical Mystery Tour" bus, and a concert on a New York City rooftop, or slight offshoots like Strawberry Records replacing Apple Records. There are also copies to other icons of the time with two of the characters clearly channeling Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Even though the story is nothing special, I must admit it worked for me. It came across not as a realistic telling of the time, but as someones memory of the time period. The details weren't specifically there, but the overall feel and look of the story made me understand that era more than most documentaries. It became a 21st century telling of a time and place that is now 50 years past. It also had somewhat of a place-less quality to it. Even though we are told it is New York City, there were none of the usual NYC landmark shots, that continues to place you there. Instead it comes across as a tale that could be taking place in any city across America at this time. In fact, many of the themes could be taken from current news reports which gives it a timeless quality as well.

But the main player in this film is the music. It was the one element that would either make or completely ruin this project. I didn't want to see an "American Idol"- karaoke version of these songs. Either make it your own, which is the hardest thing to do, or play the originals. Well, I'm happy to say that huge props go out to Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal, the musical director. They were able to take these classic songs and add new life to them. Some were stripped down to acappella or acoustic versions, others sped up or played out through ordinary elements like windshield wipers. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is sung like a eulogy to Martin Luther King and "Let it Be" is turned into a full blown gospel rendition. To some this may be sacrilegious, I thought it was extraordinary. Even a simple, joyous song such as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is turned into lament by someone longing for a love they can not have. This not only shows the talents of the musical director, but is a testament to the genius of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr in crafting such beautiful songs.

The movie incorporates some great cameos. These aren't the usual "Oh look who it is" stunts most film's use, but are perfectly cast roles for characters. Joe Cocker switches between a homeless man, a pimp, and a hippie as he sings out "Come Together." Bono of U2, plays Dr. Robert, a typical 60's West coast guru to psychedelic "tuning in." Mr. Kite, a circus conductor is portrayed by the comedian Eddie Izzard, and Taymor's friend Salma Hayek returns as the heavenly hallucination of a nurse taking care of returning Vietnam soldiers. The main cast is filled with unknown actors and musicians except for Lucy, played by Evan Rachel Wood of "Thirteen" (2003) fame, but who all do a very good job, especially in the singing department.

The visual elements also have there own special quality to them. Taymor's artistic eye brings a different perspective to this film compared to current movie releases. There are quite a few special effects used throughout the film, but not the overblown CGI effects (there are a few) now used in blockbusters that tend to overshadow the story. In fact, many of the effects are used to help express the feeling or tell the story. As the characters begin their psychedelic trip, so too does the visuals take on a surreal quality; the use of puppetry and masks, cut-outs, multiple exposure, solarization, filming underwater and blue screen techniques are used. A scene such as "Strawberry Fields" is wonderfully crafted without any CGI. Jude and Max are singing a duet, from opposite sides of the planet. This is accomplished with multiple images, some shown on T.V. screens in the background and some projected on to the actors themselves. This was all done on the set and filmed all together, with inter cut shots of strawberry bleeding down walls and blowing up like napalm bombs. Few directors would be creative enough to think of, let alone try something like this. One scene which I find humorous is an early montage as Jude and Max begin their friendship singing "High with a Little Help from my Friends." If Taymor actually showed what appeared to be marijuana joints she would have been instantly slapped with an "R" rating. Instead, the actors pretend to hold something up to their mouths to simulate smoking, but when they exhale, real smoke does come out. This just pokes fun at the stupidity that is our American ratings board.

When I did a quick search to see what other critics thought of this film I was actually a little surprised to find so many negative reviews, many of who complained about the music. Well, to each there own. Nothing will replace the initial recordings of these songs. But Roger Ebert gave it a glowing review and commented about it being the only film he went back to see a second time at the Toronto Film festival. "It's the kind of movie you watch again, like listening to a favorite album." I couldn't agree more, besides for picking up the soundtrack (there have been 3 different versions released already), I have a hard time watching just parts of it. It's the type of movie that sucks you in or you have on in the background only to be sidetracked from other tasks to end up sitting down and watching. It is a beautiful movie for both its visuals and its sound, and I believe it will have a bigger following in the future. Ebert also suggests watching the Beatles "A Hard Day's Night" (1964), a film that holds up very well and showcases the charisma of the Fab Four. These two movies would be the perfect double feature for a cold and rainy night!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)

The recent release of The Esther Williams collection Vol. 2 showcases one of the 1940's - 50's most popular stars. The set contains 6 films from the swimming sensation including "Thrill of a Romance" (45), "Fiesta" (47), "This Time for Keeps" (47), "Pagan Love Song" (50), "Easy to Love" (53) and one of her last aquatic musicals, "Million Dollar Mermaid" (52). The biographical tale of turn of the century Australian swimming star Annette Kellerman. But this film is as much about Williams herself, being the perfect vehicle for Esther to dive and swim around a pool. Showing off her amazing talents in a story that no other actress could have accomplished without multiple edits or a stunt double. It is also an interesting marker to view how far woman's rights and the image of the female had come in the short span of 50 years

The story centers around the real life Australian swimming star Annette Kellerman. Disabled at a young age by polio, her parents enrolled her in swimming lessons to help strengthen her legs. By the time she was a teenager, she not only had improved from her disability, but was becoming a national swimming and diving sensation. In 1905, at the age of 18, she became the first woman to attempt to swim the English channel and became a leading advocate for the right for women to wear a one-piece bathing suit. From there, she would go on to the vaudeville circuit being credited for helping to invent the sport of synchronized swimming after her 1907 performance of the first water ballet in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome. She would finally arrive in Hollywood and become a film star. In 1916, Kellerman would become the first major actress to do a nude scene when she appeared fully nude in "A Daughter of the Gods". The film was the first million-dollar film production, but no copies are known to exist. The majority of her films had an aquatic theme to them highlighting her swimming talents. Annette performed her own stunts, including diving 60 feet into a pool of crocodiles, and designing her own mermaid costumes. She also appeared in one of the last films made in Prizma Color, "Venus of the South Seas" from 1924. Restored by the Library of Congress in 2004, this 55-minute film, shot in color and underwater, is the only feature film starring Kellerman known to exist in its complete form. Unfortunately, "Million Dollar Mermaid" stays away from the more meaty elements of Annette's life, or glosses over them with more of a comedic slant, such as when she is arrested on a Boston beach for indecency for wearing one of her fitted one-piece bathing suits. But this is a 1950's Hollywood musical, starring one of America's sweethearts, Esther Williams, so you have to understand you will be getting a sugar-coated fantasy.

Esther Williams, the actress who portrays Kellerman, would also has a successful swimming career at a young age. She would become a National swimming champion in the 100 freestyle and had planned to compete in the 1940 Olympics before it was canceled with the outbreak of World War II. She would appear with Johnny Weismuller (of swimming and Tarzan fame) during the San Francisco World's Fair, where she was seen by MGM scouts. Her first appearance in film would be as a love interest opposite Mickey Rooney in "Andy Hardy's Double Life" in 1942. But it was the 1944 feature "Bathing Beauty", with it's water ballet finale that would establish her as a star. MGM would soon create a special sub-genre for her called "aqua-musicals" showcasing her swimming and diving talents. She would spend the next decade at MGM creating 18 such films along a similar light and musical style. "Million Dollar Mermaid" of 1952 would be one of her last aqua-musicals at MGM before moving on to Universal in 1956 to try her hand at more dramatic roles. Like Kellerman, Williams also performed many of her own stunts, resulting in her rupturing her eardrums numerous times and nearly drowning on several occasions. During one of the elaborately musical numbers on "Million Dollar Mermaid", she would break her neck filming a 115 ft dive off of a tower which landed her in a body cast for several months. She would eventual recover, she claims to still have lingering complications from this accident. Although she was married at the time of filming, Esther would reveal in her autobiography that she had a passionate affair with her costar Victor Mature. Citing that at the time her marriage to "an alcoholic parasite" was in trouble and feeling lonely she turned to Mature for love and affection, and he gave her all she wanted.

"Million Dollar Mermaid," also known as "One Piece Bathing Suit", was directed by Mervyn LeRoy (most famous for producing "The Wizard of Oz") and co-starring Victor Mature, Walter Pidgeon and Jesse White. The film begins with Kellerman as a young Australian girl longing to dance, but unable because her legs are in braces. She bravely wanders off to a swimming hole where she enters the water and "begins to swim." We soon see multiple edits of her winning swim race after race. On a boat ride to Europe with her father, she meets Jimmy Sullivan, a vaudeville producer who will soon become her manager and love interest. The film follows her rise as a carnival act, headliner at New York's famous Hippodrome theater, and her eventual work in Hollywood. The whole story is the typical musical standard, girl meets boy, falls in love, loses boy and finally come together by the end of the picture. But since this is taken from a true story I wanted a little more. Maybe if it read "inspired by the life of Annette Kellerman" because it all seems a little too much like a tall tale to me. In fact most of the plot of the film is quite fictitious, including Kellerman's romance with Hippodrome producer David Brian and her accident on the set of "Neptune's Daughter." Although she would end up marrying her manager Jimmy Sullivan, he did not discover Rin Tin Tin. I guess I shouldn't look into "fiction" too much since it is just a vehicle for Esther Williams, and it is quite entertaining.

Saying that this film is a musical might throw some people off since it's missing two of the elements you'd aspect from that genre, namely singing and dancing. Many of Williams other films would have co-stars such as Jimmy Durante, Tommy Dorsey and opera stars to supply the musical numbers, but this particular film is without. But the aquatic sequences are staged and filmed like the most elaborate MGM musical numbers, even to the point of having the choreography done by Busby Berkeley (one of his last credited) and Audrene Brier. Berkeley's classic over the head shot showing the "chorus girls" making kaleidoscope moves below is only enhanced by the fluid synchronized swimming moves, as Williams drops from trapeze into the circle below. It is these numbers that make the whole film something special. They are surreal in nature, with the "swimmers" flying in on trapeze through bright red, technicolor smoke or zipping down 3-story water slides. I can't imagine the time to practice these pieces and the amount of takes it took to get what's on film. The possibility of just 1 of the 100's of swimmers to accidentally slip during each lengthy shot almost adds a tension to the piece. The now famous, "fountain and smoke" sequence is included in many documentaries on film, including "That's Entertainment III" (1994). The film would end up being one of the top money makers for MGM and would receive an Academy Award nomination in the Cinematography (Color) category.

It would actually be quite interesting if Hollywood or the Australian film industry would produce a more true to life film around Kellerman. Her life from early disability, to sports star, woman's rights advocate, vaudeville and finally movie star is perfect for the screen. I can see someone like Kate Winslet, a native Australian, completely doing it justice.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gandhi (1982)

I've been pretty busy these last few months and haven't had too much time to write, (it hasn't stopped me from watching movies though). Since the last time I posted, the 2009 Oscars have come and gone. The biggest winner of this past year was "Slumdog Millionaire", a film I truly enjoyed and might need to write about in the coming weeks when I view it again on the small screen. But I wanted to write about 2 completely different movies I've watched this past month that have connecting ties to Slumdog by way of being Best Picture winners themselves. The first, "Gandhi", won the top Oscar back in 1982, and like Slumdog, takes place in India. The second was last year's winner, The Coen brothers, "No Country for Old Men". To view these movies together is a moral diptich of extremes. One looks at the real life history of a man who preached nonviolent resistance and peace as a means of changing the ills of society. The other looks at the immoral and brutal savagery that humans are capable of through a character who is true evil incarnate. A figure who uses violence as his way to reach a goal, even to the innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mahatma Gandhi, was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century and it's no surprise his story would make it to the big screen, but that doesn't mean it would be easy. Most Indians were very concerned that a "proper" telling of his life would even be possible (especially from an outside film company such as those from Britain or Hollywood), others view Gandhi as a holy man and depictions of him might be blasphemous. Further concerns questioned how both the Indian and British governments would be portrayed. All of these were real issues that had to be addressed before a single shot could be filmed. Previously, at least two attempt had been made to bring Gandhi to the screen. In 1952, Gabriel Pascal secured an agreement with the Prime Minister of India to produce a film, but died in 1954 before preparations were finished. Later David Lean planned to make a film on Gandhi, starring Alec Guiness in the title role, after completing "The Bridge on the River Kwai". The project was later abandoned in favor of his film "Lawrence of Arabia." It was Richard Attenborough, who considered this his ultimate "dream project", that was able to finally bring it to the screen. "The truth," he said, "is I never wanted to become a director at all. I just wanted to direct that film."

One difficult with telling any historical or biographical story is the issue of creating an accurate view, and knowing what to leave out and what to keep in. One individual has multiple facets to their life which can easily be interrupted many ways. There's a very good reason why there are four gospels in the Bible telling the story of Christ. Each one views him from a different perspective, and in doing so, creates a clearer overall picture. Attenborough realized this and tried to communicate this to the audience as well, beginning his film with these words:

"No man's life can be encompassed in one telling... least of all Gandhi's, whose passage through life was so entwined with his nation's struggle for freedom. There is no way to give each event its allotted weight, to recount the deeds and sacrifices of all the great men and women to whom he and India owe such immense debts. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record of his journey, and to try to find one's way to the heart of the man..."

From here, Attenborough puts together a epic 3 hour film, which would have made David Lean proud. Starting with Gandhi's assassination in 1948, than going back into time. Not much is told of his early life, but begins at a pivotal moment in 1893 when Gandhi, then a young lawyer, is thrown off a South African train for being Indian and traveling in first class. Seeing that the laws are unfair and racist, he begins a non-violent protest to fight for equal rights. Returning to India as somewhat of a national hero, he is asked to help to fight for the independence of India from the British Empire. Once victory from England is won, the country soon begins tearing itself apart because of religion. Tensions between the Hindus and Muslims would eventually lead to the breaking of the country into India and Pakistan. Gandhi would spend the last years of his life trying to bring peace to both countries, eventually angering and creating enemies on both sides, one of whom would assassinate him. The film is generally considered accurate in it's depiction of Gandhi's life and the Indian struggle for independence. Most of the major characters in the film are specific historical figures rather than composites or fictitious, a tactic some historical movies use to move a plot along. There is some debate as to what the filmmakers chose not to portray, disregarding some of Gandhi's personal flaws, and the specific interpretation of certain events.

One of the elements which makes "Gandhi" so great is the acting, starting with the lead role and Best Actor winner, Ben Kingsley. You truly lose yourself in his performance, which many times can be the most difficult aspect of filming a historical biography. Either the actor is too recognizable from other roles, or just doesn't have the right personality to capture the essence of the figure. A good example of this could be the other best biographically movie from the 1980's "Amadeus", I movie that I love. Tom Hulce plays the role of Mozart, and although I don't mind the silliness he brings to the part, I always think to myself, that's the guy from "Animal House" playing Mozart, and it loses the complete submersion into the story. Even though Kingsley has gone on to create quite a few iconic roles since this film, I still completely believe he IS Gandhi. Surrounding him, Attenborough has collected a who's who of great Bristish actors including John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Nigel Hawthorne and Daniel Day-Lewis as well as a few American; Martin Sheen and Candice Bergen, and Indian; Rohini Hattangadi, Roshan Seth, stars.

A second element is the scenery. Shot almost entirely in India, in many of the actual locations, you truly get a sense of the place. As a side note, this film holds the World Record for having the most extras appear in a scene. When Attenborough put a call out in India for extras during Gandhi's funeral scene, approximately 300,000 people showed up, many saying they felt as if it was a memorial to the real Gandhi. This record may never be broken since most large crowd scenes are now created through CGI.

The film would go on and win 8 Academy Awards including many of the topics I've already discussed; picture, actor, director, art direction, and cinematography, as well as editing, costume design and screenplay.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bullitt (1968)

I've been a little under the weather the last few days, which usually means relaxing on the sofa and mindless watching movies. (OK, I'm not sure how this is different from when I'm feeling fine!) I recently picked up "Bullitt" on Blu-ray and thought I'd see how a 1960's film comes through in high definition. I've seen a few Steve McQueen movies ("The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape"), but this might be the iconic role of his career. The story is somewhat simple, an ambitious and somewhat questionable California District Attorney has a key witness who he hopes will bring down a powerful Mafia figure. He asks to have Steve McQueen and his detective unit watch over the witness for the weekend. Several police and the witness end up shot and it is up to McQueen to figure who did it, and what's truly happening.

Many times going back to view a movie like this it becomes difficult to grasp the importance of the film upon it's initial release. This was quite cutting edge at the time. Yates, the director and McQueen, both wanted it to have a realistic feel to it. Most of the movie was shot on location throughout San Francisco, and the city really becomes it's own character in the film. Scenes in the hospital also used real doctors and nurses in key roles. McQueen's role as the rebellious and insubordinate police officer/hero (with cool car), would influence "Dirty Harry", "The French Connection", "Starsky and Hutch" and "Miami Vice" to name just a few. But with all of that said, it's also difficult to try and erase the past forty years of other directors stealing all of these elements, improving upon them and releasing "better" films. As one blogger wrote, "When originally released it set the bar for many a subsequent cop thriller, but viewed from a distance of forty years, it seems dated, confusingly plotted and poorly paced. And, it has to be said, rather dull!" I must admit, I agree with that statement, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't see it. It has some important, and very watchable elements to it.

First and foremost are the actors, and leading the pack is Steve McQueen. I'm not saying that McQueen is a great actor by any means, in fact even he would say he's not an actor but a re-actor. Some of his lines he would give to the other actors because he didn't want to talk to much, only react to what was being said. This would work quite well for him throughout his career, and bring an aura of "coolness" to his persona. Being "cool" is one of those hard aspects to really explain, but when you see it, you know, and Steve McQueen is pretty damn cool. In once scene, McQueen is in a hospital eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and drinking a glass of milk, and I don't know what it was about it, but he even made that look cool. His character of Lieutenant Frank Bullitt doesn't give off the cool sophistication of Sean Connery's James Bond, but there are similarities. Both have the beautiful girl and the hot car, but Bullitt is much more of the streets, as he works in the trenches of a tough city. He wouldn't be found in a tuxedo unless he had to, and than he would feel extremely uncomfortable. Even his short encounters with the political upperclass seems to be one of disgust. Bullitt would rather be in his black, mock sweater, shoulder holster and trench coat and sitting at a small jazz club with a drink and his girl.

Speaking of his girl, Jacqueline Bisset radiates on the screen. As with most of the female characters in movies like this, there isn't too much for her to do. She does have a job as an architect, which McQueen can't quite completely understand, so she is portrayed as being more schooled than he. But she is there basically as someone to come home to and to question if this job of crime fighting is not destroying who he is. Other notable actors are Robert Vaughn (famous as the Man from U.N.C.L.E.) playing the somewhat corrupt District Attorney. Ironically, Vaughn hated the script when he read it and said it didn't make much sense. He ended up taking the role just because he needed the money. Luckily, he didn't phone in the role, and the scenes with him and McQueen really seem to have great tension. Robert Duvall appears in an early role as a cabbie, and Norman Fell (famous as Mr. Roper on Three's Company) plays a very serious Captian Baker.

Besides from the actors, the main reason to catch this flick is "the chase". The car chase through the streets of San Francisco has become legendary, and it deserves its recognition. When I think of classic movie car chases, 3 come to mind immediately and the rest are far behind; "The French Connection", "The Road Warrior" and "Bullitt". Very few current films come close, mainly because the use of CGI and over the top stunts, defying the laws of physics, although exciting, make them completely unbelievable. (A nice exception goes out to the "Deathproof" section of "Grindhouse".) This is one of the first movies to film a chase scene through the actual streets of a city and pushed the speeds between 70 and 120 mph. What makes it even more amazing is the fact they are doing it in San Francisco, a city that can be difficult to drive through at 30 mph because of it's steep hills. Yates, the director, also put the camera in the car with McQueen for part of the chase which made the audience feel like they were in the chase as well. This technique gets lost on the smaller T.V. screens and the fact that every cop film and television show does this now. Even though it's been copied hundreds of times, it still holds up exceptionly well, and rightly earns its landmark status.

The last comment I'd like to add is the historical feel of the picture. Movies can go through a interesting time span. When they are first released they can be current, modern, hip, and cutting edge. After a short period of time (a few years to maybe 10), they can seem dated, like someone who's still wearing a certain fashion even though it's no longer in style. After a decade or two passes it can become a time capsule of a specific era. This is one of the reasons I enjoyed getting lost in this High Def version of this film. I truly felt like I was hanging out in the late 60's/early 70's. It didn't force it on you with the hippie culture, but just gently placed you into a city to get a glimpse of what it was like. The soundtrack, filled with "one of the best jazz flute compositions ever on celluloid" adds to the beatnik like atmosphere.

This disc also contains 2 very good documentaries. The first, "The Essence of Cool" is a 90 minute look at the life of Steve McQueen. It covers quite a lot including a film by film analysis of his career, his hobbies, his women and the cancer that took him, using vintage interviews of McQueen throughout his life, as well as current clips of the people who knew him. The second documentary is titled "The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing", which has nothing to do with "Bullitt" itself. It is a 1 hour and 40 minute look at the history of film editing from the silents to recent films such as "The Matrix" and "Gladiator". For those interested in the process of filmmaking it's quite interesting. Ironically, I was a little bothered by the editing of this particular film. It just had a confusing sense of jumping back and forth through time.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Invisible Man (1933)

I seem to go through phases when it comes to horror films. Back in High School, I remember inviting friends over and trying to find the scariest and goriest flick we could. Although that was fun at the time, the recent "torture porn" slasher films just doesn't interest me much. Over the last few years I've been making my way through the Hammer collection and the original Universal Monster film series. My travels have taken me from Dracula's castle in Transylvania, through Frankenstein's laboratory, the gypsy camps of the Wolfman, to Egypt's Mummy, the Black Lagoon of the Creature, and finally to the Invisible Man.

The story is taken from the 1897 H.G. Wells novel of the same name, and has a similar theme as Frankenstein; a cautionary tale of science going terribly wrong. The film opens with a mysterious man trying to make it through a raging snowstorm by foot. He happens upon an inn and as he asks for a room we see that his head is covered in bandages and dark glasses (we assume to stay warm.) The townsfolk become suspicious since the man never leaves his room and orders to be left alone. He sets up a laboratory and begins strange experiments. The landlord's semi-hysterical wife accidentally finds him partially unbandaged and we discover he is invisible.

The man is the scientist, Dr. Jack Griffin and he is working to find a cure which will bring him back to the visual world. The experiments revolve around the new (fictious) drug called "monocane" which supposedly has bleaching properities. Experiments had been done in Germany, on dogs turning them dead white and driving them mad, a side effect the doctor knows nothing about. This fictious drug would become a Hollywood favorite and appear in other films and on T.V. crime shows such as Perry Mason and Matlock. It would also spawn some hybrids including "duocaine" found in the later Invisible Man films and "iocaine" used in "The Princess Bride". The Invisible Man eventually returns to the laboratory of his mentor, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers, best known as the angel Clarence from "It's a Wonderful Life"), and reveals his secret to his fiancee Flora Cranley and his one-time partner Dr. Kemp. Insanity quickly sets in on Dr. Griffin, people are killed and the police become involved. The remaining third of the movie becomes an elaborate chase as the authorities try to capture a person they can't see.

The film was directed by James Whale, the same director who had brought Frankenstein to the screen two years earlier. It was to star Boris Karloff, the actor who created the iconic Frankenstein Monster under Whale, but ended up withdrawing after the producer Carl Laemmle Jr. tried to cut his salary too many times. It was Whale who than requested Claude Rains, making his first American screen appearance. This would catapult Rains career and help him become a major character actor starring in such classics as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Casablanca (1942), and Hitchcock's Notorious (1946). Ironically, Claude Rains face would only appear in the movie for a few seconds at the end of the film, remaining under bandages or just as a voice when he was "invisible".

The costumes worn by the "invisible man" although simple, would become as iconic as the rest of the Universal monsters. Especially the image of Dr. Griffin in his bandaged face, dark glasses with nose, and bathrobe. But it's the groundbreaking special effects that would help in its success. When Griffen was "invisible" it was simply the use of wires to knock things down, but when he was partially clothed, that was acheived through a matte process. Rains would be completed covered in a black velvet suit against a black velvet background. A shot of the location was than added on top to create the illusion. It still holds up pretty well.

The New York Times would name it as one of the top 10 films of 1933. The original author, H. G. Wells, said of the film, at a dinner in its honor, that "while he liked the picture he had one grave fault to find with it. It had taken his brilliant scientist and changed him into a lunatic, a liberty he could not condone." James Whale replied that the film was addressed to the "rationally minded motion picture audience," because "in the minds of rational people only a lunatic would want to make himself invisible anyway." I must admit, I'd have to side with the author on this and would beg to differ on Whales' comment. I think most people would enjoy being invisible for a day or two. In fact, out of all of the Universal Horror films of the 30's, this is the one that might connect the most with the viewing audience. The monster isn't some strange creature that seems to come from a dream, but ourselves, searching for something to help us out, only to have it lead to a dead end. But out of all of the original Universal Horror films, this one seemed to effect me the least. The story seemed to be just a little too simple. I know it has been done as a stage play and and most of the time that is how it felt to me. It has moments or scenes that shined, but just not enough of them. I guess it's not a surprise that the story has been remade in multiple variations. Unlike many "classics" that seem to be untouchable as far as their iconic stature, this film could easily be updated.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

25 Comedies from the Past 25 Years

In my last post about Harold Lloyd and "The Freshman", I commented that "they just don't make comedies like they used to." The modern day verbal comedy just doesn't transcend all boundries the way physical comedy from the silent era does. This doesn't mean there haven't been funny movies made recently. After I published that post, I went home and found the latest Entertainment Weekly magazine waiting for me. Now I don't look at this publication at being top of the line journalism in any way. It's more of a poor man's Pop Culture light. But it did have an article on 25 Comedies from the Past 25 Years to help you get through the hard economic times. Usually when EW does a list like this it is lacking in some ways, but if anything it was a good conversation piece. It made me look back and analyze the best comedies of the past few decades.
One problem with examining Comedies is that the genre has so many sub-genres; slapstick, deadpan, verbal, screwball, black or dark comedies, parodies, spoofs and satire. There's even the latest label of a dramedy, part drama part comedy. So how do you compare Woody Allen to Adam Sandler to Eddie Murphy to Bill Murry to etc. Besides for the obvious criteria of does it make me laugh, does it continue to make me laugh on repeated viewings. Another interesting similarity between these films is that words or whole lines from the movie start being used on a normal basis in my life, AND people around instantly understand what I mean and where this came from.

So here is EW's list with my own comments. If I haven't seen the movie myself it will be difficult for me to discuss so I'll offer up a few recommendations of my own at the end.
  1. Ghostbusters (1984) Agreed

  2. National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) Agreed

  3. Beverly Hills Cop (1984) I enjoyed this when it came out, but can't remember much about it besides the music. I might have to revisit this one.

  4. This is Spinal Tap! (1984) A modern Classic, especially since some people didn't realize it was a joke.

  5. Office Space (1999) Agreed

  6. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999) I haven't seen this one. I've only seen a few episodes on TV and it was funny, but...

  7. There’s Something About Mary (1998) A modern Classic

  8. The Big Lebowski (1998) This was more of a recent find for me, but completely agreed. It has it's own cult following.

  9. A Fish Called Wanda (1988) I've never seen this whole movie. I just can't seem to get into it. I know some who love it and others who think it's very overrated.

  10. Dazed and Confused (1993) This is one of those movies that I don't quite view as a comedy although it is quite funny. It is a wonderful job at depicting the 1970's the same way "American Graffiti" showed the 1950's. I really like this movie so I'll keep it on the list.

  11. The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005) I enjoyed this, but I don't know if I would put this on the list. I remember a few sequences (removal of chest hair), but not much else.

  12. When Harry Met Sally… (1989) A modern Classic

  13. Waiting for Guffman (1997) One of the few Christopher Guest movies I haven't seen. I'm sure it's great, but can't comment on it.

  14. Wedding Crashers (2005) I really enjoyed this when it came out, but each repeat viewing I've enjoyed it less, and the ending drags. It could have been a contender. I'll keep it on for now.

  15. Trading Places (1983) Agreed

  16. Superbad (2007) Judd Apatow's films have appeared on this list a few times and I guess I'm not quite sure about him just yet. I enjoyed this film, but really don't need to see it again, which just doesn't make it a classic.

  17. Tropic Thunder (2008) Haven't seen it

  18. Napoleon Dynamite (2004) I know some of my students who loved this, but I never saw it. Hard to say how well this will hold up.

  19. Clueless (1995) Agreed. The best teen comedy of the 90's

  20. Best in Show (2000) Agreed

  21. Clerks (1994) I saw this about 10 years after its release and I must admit I didn't understand the appeal. Can think of a few other Kevin Smith films I'd put above this, like "Dogma".

  22. Old School (2003) A rehash of "Animal House". I enjoyed it but it doesn't belong here. Maybe the Top 50.

  23. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) Agreed

  24. The Naked Gun (1998) Agreed

  25. Withnail and I (1987) I know nothing about this one at all. There are quite a few modern classics that deserve this spot!

Well, looking back on EW's list, it looks like I have at least 10 available slots to fill, so here's my list of extra recommendations for you, comedies from the past 25 years:

  1. A Christmas Story (1983) A modern classic, none of these other movies have had a T.V. station that played it repeatedly for 24 hours!
  2. Groundhog Day (1993) Besides for being funny, it brings up some interesting life questions

  3. The Princess Bride (1987) Just all around family fun. One of my personal all time favorites and most quoted
  4. Bull Durham (1988) Hits all of the right notes as a comedy, romance and sports film

  5. Back to the Future (1985) Is just an enjoyable and fun film even after so many viewings

  6. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) I remember laughing so hard when I saw this in the theater and it still cracks me up. Quoted throughout many a family function.

  7. Big (1988) A story that has been copied many times, but this one does it the best.

  8. Fargo (1996) A wonderful, dark comedy

  9. Zoolander (2001) As stupid as they come, but it makes me laugh every time

  10. Rushmore (1998) I must admit I haven't seen this, but so many of my friends adore this film I figured I'd put it up for your consideration

A few other considerations for you that wouldn't appear on the top of my list of comedies follows: Moonstruck (1987), Raising Arizona (1987), Beetlejuice (1988), Wayne's World (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Wag the Dog (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1998), The Wedding Singer (1998), Galaxy Quest (1999).

It's interesting to note that many of the films I added were more "family" in nature. There's not many movies from EW's list that I would feel comfortable watching with my parents and little kids. Where most of the films I added you could. Maybe that says more about me. Feel free to add any more comedies I may have missed.