Friday, July 31, 2015

Before I Die #550: Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922)

This original poster from Germany suggests how
titanic the title character is, looming over all.
This is the 550th of the 1,160 films on the "Before You Die" list which I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Fritz Lang

A clear and engaging step forward for film, if not exactly as "timeless" as some would have you believe.

Dr. Mabuse bears all of the typical trappings of silent films. The acting is physically exaggerated. The plot must be kept relatively simple, given the lack of sound and, hence, true dialogue. The pacing is rather slow, by any cinema standard after the advent of sound five years after this movie's release. Despite these, I found myself drawn into much of the film. It struck me as a far superior version of the 1915 film series Les Vampires, a "classic" which I found interminably dull.

The story is essentially a crime drama/suspense tale, focusing on a complex cat-and-mouse game between a nefarious mastermind criminal, Dr. Mabuse, and the state's attorney, Mr. von Wenk. Mabuse is a sort of prototype of Hannibal Lector - a brilliant but sociopathic psychoanalyst who uses his knowledge of the human mind to manipulate others into giving him what he wants. While Mabuse never does anything as grisly as the cannibalistic Lector, he does bend various people to his will, taking from some their tangible goods like money and jewels, while evoking from others their blind and unquestioning loyalty. As a concept, he's a rather terrifying figure who was a sort of twisted amalgam of the arch-villain Moriarty and a soulless Sigmund Freud, the latter of whose theories were still quite fresh upon this film's release in 1922.

The search for and pursuit of Mabuse is mostly what drives the plot and the movie. In truth, the story takes far too long to tell. The movie was actually two films that add up to a four-and-a-half hour epic. If the same story had been told with more efficient pacing, though, it should really only have been two or two-and-a-half hours, maximum. There are still many sequences that were clearly products of their time - scenes of simple movement of bodies and props, rather than any actions or interactions which further or deepen the story. I only assume that, like all other films of its time, such scenes were enough to dazzle audiences for whom movies were far from a typical part of life. Fortunately, the movie is divided into many acts, which made for convenient pausing when the length got too taxing for me.

When not trying one's patience a bit with overlong scenes, though, the plot is a classic criminal pursuit. What sets this apart from others from the era, though, is the relative psychological complexity of Mabuse himself, as well as a few of the secondary characters. Admittedly, most of the characters are typically one-dimensional "heroes" or "villains;" but Mabuse and a few of his victims show more depth than one would find in contemporary films like those of D.W. Griffith. Mabuse's motivations go beyond mere greed, and the swell of his boundless megalomania can be fascinating.

Just one of the many scenes which exhibit Lang's eye for
striking set designs and shot framing. These techniques,
along with overlap dissolves and other special effects, really
set this movie apart from nearly all of its contemporaries.
The other obvious merit of this movie is the highly skilled film technique which Lang was employing. While there are plenty of "filler" sequences which are no different from any other silent films of the time, there are many striking scenes. With a keen eye for framing, composition, and set design, Lang put together many truly artistic moments in this movie. You can easily see some of the creative seeds that would eventually grow into the style that he would use several years later in his masterpiece Metropolis, the film that is widely regarded as the "Omega" of German expressionist movies.

Though there were some contemporary films that probed the human condition and social woes with more depth and pathos, such as Micheaux's Within Our Gates, Dr. Mabuse is clearly a titanic film. I suppose it to be too long and simplistic to win over viewers with no interest in silent films. However, those with any curiosity about a major early step in the evolution of film will find much to appreciate in this 93-year-old classic.

That's 550 films down. Only 610 to go before I can die...

Sunday, July 26, 2015

New Releases!! Trainwreck (2015); Ant-Man (2015)

Trainwreck (2015)

Director: Judd Apatow

It may be about 30 minutes too long, but Trainwreck is another solid step by comedienne Amy Schumer towards legendary humorist status.

Anyone familiar with Amy Schumer through her standup or her brilliant Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer knows her unique niches. While she occasionally does sillier, farcical humor, her genius is in her willingness to tackle gender biases and double standards. She is never afraid to adopt personas which take certain stereotypes to hilariously logical, and ultimately ridiculous, conclusions. With Trainwreck, she brings some of this approach, though probably not quite as much as one might hope.

In the film, Schumer is a Manhattanite with a serious aversion to committed relationships, springing from her adulterous father's careless advice that "monogamy is not realistic." She is a successful columnist for a men's magazine whose primary philosophy is to promote avarice and lust in an attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator of stereotypical male culture.  She is assigned to write about a surgeon-to-the-star-athletes, Aaron, who has devised a revolutionary surgical procedure that is greatly impacting pro sports. Despite caring nothing about sports, Amy finds herself falling in love with Aaron. What follows is her transition from an endless series of one-night stands and boozing to a nerve-wrackingly deep relationship with Aaron.

The movie has plenty going for it. Amy is great in the role as a foul-mouthed, oversexed, commitment-o-phobe. Bill Hader, in perhaps the straightest role I've seen him in, plays the low-key and admirable Aaron perfectly. The supporting cast also enhances, from Colin Quinn's turn as Amy's racist, selfish father, to John Cena as Amy's muscled-up quasi-boyfriend, to Lebron James as Lebron James (Lebron's not a natural-born actor, clearly, but he does fine). Schumer, who wrote the screenplay, made some brilliant decisions about how have the professional athletes like Cena and Lebron play quirky, fictionalized versions of themselves, rather than simply cameo in the movie for their star power alone.

Uber-athlete Lebron James does a decent enough job working
with the hilarious fictionalized version of himself.
As with any Judd Apatow-directed movie, there is plenty of great extemporaneous banter between characters, which punches up some of the stronger moments of scripted dialogue. It did, however, feel that the film could have used more paring down. Several scenes, most notably a bizarre "intervention" moment involving Lebron, Chris Evert, and Marv Albert with Aaron, really should not have made the final cut.

NPR film critic David Edelstein offered some very interesting insight about Judd Apatow. Though I had never noticed or even considered it before, Edelstein points out how Apatow's movies always hold up a traditional, settled lifestyle as the ultimate goal. It belies a conservatism that many of us might not associate with Apatow, whose films often feature lovable stoners and amusing 30-something adolescents. This message that embracing a traditional nuclear family life is a panacea is clear in Trainwreck, where Amy's great epiphany is that her pregnant, married younger sister, is living an admirable life worthy of emulation. I hadn't taken stock of this fact as I was mostly just waiting for the next laugh, but it has me wondering if Apatow will ever veer away from this formula and try something more daring.

Trainwreck is, despite some extraneous pieces and slightly inconsistent tone, a nice entry into the canon of modern comedies. I can't help but think that the 34-year-old Schumer has plenty of culturally insightful, hilarious work ahead of her, and this film is a great first step onto the larger stage of movies.

Ant-Man (2015)

Director: Peyton Reed

As a massive geek for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (exhibits A and B are my post about the MCU from a few years ago and the follow-up done earlier this year), I wasn't sure what to expect from Ant-Man. Unlike quantities known to me, such as the Hulk and Captain America, the Ant-Man character was nothing more than a historical name. I knew that he was an original Avenger in the comic book mythology, but little else. I was happy to discover that the movie made for one of the best of the "Phase Two" MCU movies, though not for reasons that many people would expect.

The story is that of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a master thief of uncommon intelligence and agility, who is recruited to undertake a daunting task. Lang is trying to reform his life and become a better father to his young daughter, but life is hard for a convicted felon. After the unspeakable indignity of being fired from a Baskin Robbins, Lang reverts to crime and attempts to burgle the home of one Henry "Hank" Pym (Michael Douglas). What Lang doesn't know is that Pym was one of the world's very first superheroes - a scientist who had devised a formula which could shrink a person to nigh-invisible size while exponentially enhancing their strength. Pym catches Lang and recruits him to assist in preventing his formula from being mass-produced and sold to the highest bidders.

The movie does follow more than a few origin-story tropes. We get the establishment of Scott Lang as a likable fellow and sympathetic father. We get his disbelief in the incredible reality that Hank Pym reveals to him. We get the humorous training montage, complete with goofy missteps. We get the hero overcoming his own selfishness to become more heroic, via a mano-a-mano showdown with the arch-villain. The marks of the genre are all well-known, and Ant-Man hits them all.

However, despite doing nothing novel with the basic architecture of a superhero origin movie, Ant-Man has plenty of imaginative fun with the details. Lang is arguably the most "human" of any MCU hero we've seen. Though a brilliant thief, he is not a world-class assassin or soldier like Black Widow or Hawkeye. He does not possess the genius, financial resources, or immense confidence of Tony Stark. He does not possess the innate moral compass or bravery (or the Supersoldier Serum) of Captain America. He is neither a Norse god like Thor nor a monstrously powerful force of nature like the Hulk. Lang is, instead, a fairly normal guy who simply wants to be a part of his daughter's life. Compared to the other Avengers headliners, Scott Lang is a refreshingly normal character.

More than Lang simply being a more relatable character, though, is that Ant-Man mostly avoids what has been a growing problem with the MCU - the inability to tell a self-contained story. Nearly every Phase Two movie, with the exception of Guardians of the Galaxy, has relied more and more heavily on knowledge of the films which came prior to it. Age of Ultron was perhaps the most serious offender, by necessity. Ant-Man, though, can be enjoyed with very little knowledge of any of the previous MCU films. With the exception of a few minor spoken references and a fun sequence involving Falcon at Avengers HQ, any viewer can follow the story without feeling as if they are missing something. I very much hope the filmmakers of future MCU movies keep this in mind.

Michael Pena's Luis is the single most entertaining human
sidekick character in any MCU film to date. Despite limited
screentime, he's worth the price of admission.
The plot and dialogue are decent enough, if not completely entertaining from start to finish. The two other key ingredients to Ant-Man, in addition to its more personal scale, are the supporting cast and the self-deprecating tone. Michael Douglas is excellent as the aged and playfully pugnacious proto-superhero Pym, and Michael Pena steals every scene he's in with his chipper, motor-mouthed portrayal of Lang's associate, Luis. Many of the action sequences make effective and use of the transition between small- and large-scale perspective for comic effect, though this is an area which has even more potential.

I will forever wonder what Ant-Man would have been like if the original writer/director - iconic, irreverent British director Edgar Wright - had been able to see the project through. Replacement director Peyton Reed did, however, do a nice job in creating an entertaining superhero movie which stands apart from its MCU brethren. I'll look forward to seeing how Scott Lang is incorporated into the film series as it moves forward. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Before I Die #549: Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

This is the 549th film of the 1,160 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Mike Newell

 This one has not held up at all well. If you saw this movie back in the 1990s and fell in love with it, as many did, then you probably still love it. If, like me, you never saw it, then I suggest that you not even bother.

From the title, you can imagine the general settings of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Traipsing about all of these services is a gaggle of friends, most in their late twenties or early thirties. The protagonist is Charles (Hugh Grant), a handsome fellow who has been somewhat unlucky in love, though occasionally by his own fumbling and immaturity. At the first wedding we witness, where Charles is the best man, he falls for Carrie, a beautiful American with a reputation for being "easy" with men. Charles does, indeed, sleep with Carrie. This sets up an on-again/off-again affair over the course of the next several months and titular weddings and funeral.

My introduction surely makes it clear that I did not care for this movie. However, I was quite glad to have watched it with my wife, who was one of this film's many original fans. Even she, after this recent viewing, had to admit that the movie has some obvious weaknesses. All the same, she confirmed my suspicions about the monumental impact it had on dozens of romantic comedies that followed in its wake. It is a classic case of something becoming so influential and imitated, that it almost becomes a parody of itself, through no fault of its own. There are almost too many aped elements to count: the charming but insecure lead man, played in definitive form by a nascent and ever-stuttering Hugh Grant and his magic eyebrows; the group of quirky friends from various walks of life; the one or two moments of touching gravity (the funeral, in this case); the gregarious gay friend who makes inappropriate comments. It goes on. This movie is to romantic comedies what Alien is to science-fiction horror.

All of that being recognized, the movie had lost much of its luster. Admittedly, I am not a tremendous fan of rom coms. However, there are certain ones which I have found entertaining enough: When Harry Met Sally; Love, Actually; Bridesmaids. Though the overt sentimentality does nothing for me, the humor and tone are consistent enough that I enjoyed these movies. With Four Weddings and a Funeral, the jokes were, quite frankly, flat. I recall chuckling a few times, and perhaps my mouth broke into a wry grin a handful of times as well. Maybe my tepid response is because gags and ideas that were fresh in 1994 have lost their punch from over-emulation. Either way, I simply didn't find it all that funny.

I found only one of this troop genuinely likable. The others
inspired less admirable emotions. 
The bigger problems are things that, no matter when you were looking at them, simply exhibit bad execution. The character Carrie is horrible. Whether from poor writing, poor acting, or both, she comes off as an enigmatic sex android which occasionally shows some imperfect facsimile of human emotion. It's impossible to see exactly what Charles finds so entrancing about her. Aside from Carrie, other characters make some pretty horrendous decisions. The one which comes to mind is when the boisterous Gareth passes away at one of the weddings, Charles makes the baffling decision to march right up to Gareth's life partner, Matthew, and inform him of his partner's death right in the middle of the wedding toast. Both my wife and I went cross-eyed at that, asking "What the hell are you doing, man?! Take the poor bastard to a side room, for Chrissakes!!" There are other examples of such choppy writing and editing, all of which amount to a weaker film.

An interesting aside which my wife and I agreed on: the scene at Gareth's funeral when Matthew reads the W.H. Auden poem "Funeral Blues" is by far the greatest moment in the movie. It has a sincerity and depth that is timeless. My wife put it best when she said that it felt as if the far more interesting story was Gareth and Matthew's. All of the other stuff should have been pushed to the periphery, and a better movie could have been the result.

My guess is that, when it was released, the weaknesses of the film were made less obvious by the innovations the movie made to the genre. Now that those innovations have become the norm, though, the blemishes are far more glaring. Hugh Grant and his Charlie character aren't as charming anymore. Nearly every rom com since has featured a group of friends who seem to be in a sort of arms race of "quirk" with every rom com that came before it. The tragic moment which is meant to add poignancy feels more forced these days.

Like many seminal movies, Four Weddings will probably always be endearing to those who enjoyed it back in the 1990's. It is not likely, however, to win over anyone unfamiliar or uninterested in the romantic comedy genre.

That's 549 films down. Only 611 to go before I can die...

Friday, July 17, 2015

Before I Die #548: Stroszek (1977)

This is the 548th film of the 1,160 films on the "Before You Die" list which I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Werner Herzog
In his native Germany, this is about as good as it gets for
Bruno: eking out a few bucks by playing music in scuzzy
alleys. It beats getting pummeled by sadistic pimps, anyway.

Very well-done film, though rather depressing in its honesty.

Stroszek is the story of Bruno Stroszek, a troubled man in Germany who has spent much of his life in various mental institutions and/or prisons. Bruno is hardly a raving maniac, though he is an extremely passive and aimless alcoholic, who also is understandably agitated at his general state and the world around him. When not in an institution, he lives in a run-down apartment littered with garbage. He is constantly tormented by a pair of thuggish pimps who not only denegrate Bruno constantly, but who also intermittently steal his "girlfriend," Eva, from him. Eva occasionally turns to prostitution to make money, but she has a soft spot for Bruno, to whom she turns when her pimps abuse her more brutally than usual. Bruno and Eva eventually decide to get away from their torment by joining their neighbor, Scheitz, to emigrate to Wisconson in the United States. Scheitz is an elderly man who knows a Wisconsin native, a mechanic, who can put them up for a short time, while they try to chase down the American dream.

Things start modestly but hopefully for the trio of German immigrants. Bruno gets a job in the mechanic's shop and Eva begins waitressing. They save enough for a down payment on a mobile home. Before long, though, their new environment turns on the trio. No other job prospects turn up, the debts begin to mount, and there is little sympathy from any of the locals. Things go from bad to worse, forcing the trio to all take their own desperate actions, with unsavory results.

File this movie along with the many others that we can categorize as "Required One-Time Viewing" It's a film that nearly eveyone should watch, but need not revisit. The story is a sad one, featuring a rather pitiful protagonist, set in two horribly drab places, where depressing situations are shown as the norm. Fortunately, there is a certain amount of humor built into the film. Bruno's rants against the heartless consumerism in the U.S. can often be funny. They can also sometimes ring so true as to be not at all funny. The boorish behavior of the Wisconson locals is at times amusing in its general doltishness, though it is not at all funny when it turns into callousness towards our struggling German immigrants. The final sequences, set off when Bruno and the elderly Scheitz attempt to rob a bank, start in hilarious fashion, but then spiral into horribly bleak territory.

One of many comic scenes which add levity to an otherwise
bleak story and movie. The old man Scheitz is a special type
of demented case. Who better to literally ride shotgun?
These disparate tones may suggest that the movie would feel splintered in places, but such is hardly the case. Everything feels highly organic, even when it borders on absurd. Just when the picture threatens to become too depressing to merit continued viewing, a welcome dash of subdued humor comes along to ease the burden. Conversely, just when things may start to become a bit too comical, some nasty little turns bring us crashing back to the reality for Bruno, Eva, and Scheitz. Herzog did an amazing job of keeping the balance just right throughout the movie, and he made sure that the final statement leaves a clear impact.

With every Werner Herzog movie I see, my respect for him grows. His subjects are not the light and fluffy ones of escapism. They are hard looks at the realities of human life which many would rather not be exposed to. Herzog decides to look directly into these places, and his exceptional skills as a film director result in movies that, while often fictional, provide knowledge about the darker aspects of the human condition that more of us should be willing to gain.

That's 548 filmsm down. Only 612 to go before I can die...

Monday, July 13, 2015

Retro Trio: In the Mouth of Madness (1995); Event Horizon (1997); Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Some idea and images, like this one from a
promotional poster, try a little too hard.
Other ideas are executed quite well.
In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

: John Carpenter

A decent enough horror movie that, with a tad more inspiration, could have been an absolute classic.

In the Mouth of Madness is a compelling modern take on certain themes which horror writer H.P. Lovecraft pioneered in the 1920s and 1930s. It chronicles the search for a wildly popular horror writer, Sutter Cane, who has disappeared without a trace, just as his most recent book has been released. The book starts inspiring horrifying acts of insanity and violence among its readers. For these reasons, Cane's publisher hires insurance fraud investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) to track down Cane. As Trent gets closer and closer to discovering Cane's whereabouts, the world around him seems to begin warping into the terrifying, apocalyptic visions described in Cane's horror novels.

There is truly a lot working for this movie. The plot is a compelling update and reworking of some of the more terrifying concepts in Lovecraft's works. The concept that an ancient race of indescribably massive and ruthless monsters is preparing to invade the earth can give plenty of people nightmares. The narrative is also very well-constructed. We start with a manic John Trent being thrown into a sanitarium, where he begins to explain the entire tale of terror, leading to a flashback. The ever-skeptical Trent is a perfect protagonist through whose eyes to see everything unfold. Just like us viewers, he tries to deny the possibilities of the awful reality around him. Sam Neill absolutely nails the character, including the range of emotions from dismissive doubt to wry defensive sarcasm to growing panic, and ending with abandoned mania.

Despite having so much going for it, the movie falls short of feeling like a complete, polished and cohesive whole. Some sequences and effects are brilliant, while others seem a little bit cheap. Some of the actors' performances are excellent, while a few are a tad overdone. Some of the levity is truly funny, while some is a bit forced or flat. Director John Carpenter has always been one who has worked movie miracles with budgets which are mere fractions of large-scale Hollywood horror movies. With In the Mouth of Madness, I got the impression that perhaps his budgetary contstraints resulted in a weaker film. I felt that with a little more punching up of the script or more creativity with some of the intended horror sequences, this could have been a sure-fire cult classic on par with a few of his other movies such as The Thing.

Though it has its obvious flaws, this is still a fun movie to check out every few years. There is enough creativity and merit that a horror movie fan can appreciate this later effort by a great underdog director.

I wish the same could be said of the next movie...

Why would an engineer make a warp drive look like some-
thing out of a Clive Barker wet dream? Because the writers
couldn't think of anything more creative. That's why.
Event Horizon (1997)

: Paul W.S. Anderson

Event Horizon is a classic case of a workable idea falling very flat due to unimaginative direction and writing. This is likely why, though I did see the movie in the theater during its initial release in 1997, I could remember none of the details years later.

The story follows a crew sent on a secret mission to deep space, just beyond Neptune. Once there, they learn that they are to make contact with the vessel Event Horizon, which had disappeared seven years prior. The ship and its crew had been thought lost, but a mysterious transmission from the ship had been received, kicking off a search and recover mission. When the rescue team gets there, though, not only do they find that the original crew is missing, but they also begin experiencing horrifying visions drawn from personal trauma. We slowly learn through the accompanying advisor, Dr. Wier (Sam Neill. Yes. Again.), that the Event Horizon used a dark matter energy core, which allowed the ship to traverse tremendous distances by folding space and time. This dark matter apparently has torn open a hole to another dimension where "chaos rules...a place of complete evil." The ship now seems to bear some diabolical taint which infects any who come into close contact with it.

The premise isn't a terrible one, really. And the cast is actually quite impressive. Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburn, Jason Isaac, and all of the lesser-known cast do everything they can with the lines they are given. Unfortunately, the script is choppy and completely uninspired. There's hardly a single memorable line in the entire film. On top of this is a tone which has an identity crisis. Director Paul W.S. Anderson never seemed to be sure if he wanted to tell a dark horror tale, a ripping action-adventure tale, or a probing psychological tale. The result is a film that never settles into itself enough to evoke any specific mood in the viewer.

The far greater sin of this film, though, is its unabashed thievery from its sources of "inspiration." The general setup and tone of suspense is clearly an attempt to ape Ridley Scott's Alien. The nonsensically brutal and macabre aesthetic of the title ship is clearly taken from Clive Barker's Hellraiser books and movies, which is also true for the depictions of Hell. There are even more than a few attempts to imitate Stanley Kubrick's vision of space travel from 2001, as well as the psychological themes of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris. I suppose if a viewer isn't familiar with these other films, then this might not matter. To any kind of film fan, though, Event Horizon is a blatant patchwork rip-off.

I suppose this movie might fill 90 minutes of your time if you're suffering insomnia and are feeling particularly uncritical. In any other viewing state, though, this movie is best left unwatched.

 Yes, I know it looks ridiculous. But this movie is likely to
surprise you with its smarts and heart. 
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

: Rupert Wyatt

Surprisingly good.

I'd never seen any of the original "Apes" films from the 1970s or the attempted reboot in 2005, so I had no frame of reference for this movie, aside from knowing that it involved apes taking over the planet. Maybe this was a good thing. What I got was an entertaining, sometimes touching and smart, adventure tale of ethics, science, and laws of nature.

The story focuses on Caesar, a young chimpanzee whose mother was taken captive for medical experiments involving neural regeneration and enhancement. Caesar's mother is killed shortly after he is born, and the scientist in charge of the experiments, Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) rescues Caesar from a mass slaughter of potentially infected chimps. Caesar soon shows signs of extreme intelligence, which urges Rodman to continue his experiments to find a drug which might help humans suffering Alzheimers or other degenerative neural ailments. Things go awry, however, and Caesar is placed in a shelter where the abusive staff allows the cerebral Caesar to be bullied by the other chimps, who are far more naturally primitive. This only lasts so long, though, as Caesar not only uses his superior intelligence to become the alpha chimp in the shelter, but he also manages to smuggle in some of the chemicals which gave him his mental edge. Once he douses the other apes in the shelter, they are all clever enough to mount a full-scale revolt.

The movie plot may come off as a bit ridiculous, but it is science fiction. Truthfully, it is presented in ways which make it all seem less far-fetched than you might suspect. It all moves along at a decent pace, and there are more than a few stunning action sequences. The main strength of the movie is how empathetic Caesar is. This is probably due to our growing understanding of just how similar chimps are to humans, even in terms of characterstics which had previouly been assumed as strictly "human" - empathy, a sense of loss, and a desire to belong. Of course, this wouldn't have been possible to convey without some exemplary special effects, namely the top-notch CGI used to bring Caesar and the other apes to life.

Though I may not feel the need to see this movie again, I'm looking forward to watching the sequel, which was released to solid reviews in 2014. I'll likely review it in the coming weeks. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: At Close Range (1986); The Roaring Twenties (1939); The Joker is Wild (1957)

At Close Range (1986)

Director: James Foley

A great crime movie, and one I'm surprised I had never seen before.

At Close Range is a perfect example of how a relatively simple tale can, with a tight script and excellent acting, make for a great movie. Based on a true story, it follows Brad Whitewood Jr. (Sean Penn), a restless young man living in rural Pennsylvania in 1978. Brad whiles away his time without a job, mostly drinking or getting high with his younger brother.

Along comes Brad's estranged father, Brad Senior (Christopher Walken), a man with a bad reputation who lives several towns away. When junior is eventually thrown out of his mother's house by his mom's current boyfriend, Brad finds his father and quickly learns that senior is, indeed, a notorious thief. Using his siblings and cousins as his crew, Senior will steal nearly anything not nailed down, though he currently specializes in ripping off tractors from farms. Brad Junior, being a rebel in his own immature way, is immediately attracted to the excitement and payoffs that come from such larceny.

As the stakes ramp up, though, it becomes clear to Junior that his father will stop at nothing, including murder, to protect himself and his criminal lifestyle. Knowing this, Junior tries to back away from Senior, setting off a horrific and violent chain of events.

There is nothing overthought or remotely pretentious about this movie, though it is packed with emotional implications. The actions and dialogue feel completely organic, with the story following logical yet unpredictable lines set up by the strong characters and tense situations. The film is often quiet and unhurried, which lends it great strength.

A viewer can't help but recognize what the young Sean Penn and an ascendant Christopher Walken brought to this movie. These two are outstanding in their roles as father and son who, at first, gravitate towards one another, and then tragically become enemies.

This movie was unknown to me, and that always makes finding such excellent films that much more rewarding. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys crime tales that work on a quieter, much more personal level, but which still have the thrill of crime and suspense.

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

Director: Raoul Walsh

A really good movie that surprised me a bit.

When you see the headline cast of The Roaring Twenties, you might expect a great film. James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart are tough to top, and they do much to recommend this film. It was no surprise to see them perform so well in their roles. However, the types of characters they play and the general story arc were pleasantly surprising to me, as someone who had never seen the movie. Cagney plays a rags-to-riches-to-rags again city guy, while Bogart plays a more sinister, self-interested criminal as a counter-point. As you may imagine, these two make for a great adversarial pairing. The secondary female characters, the worldly Panama and girl-next-door Jean, are also rounded well enough to add depth and interest beyond what is usually found in female characters in crime films.

The story is surprisingly creative. No, it's not hard to see the rise/fall plot coming fairly early on, but the way it unfolds defies many expectations. There are some simplified elements to it, but there is a welcome sophistication to characters' motivations and emotions. Love, ego, and avarice are the basic ingredients, and they are handled well enough to not fall into many of the tired cliches of the genre. The conclusion packs an emotional punch that you might not expect.

I suppose that I shouldn't have been so surprised. The director, Raoul Walsh, is responsible for some all-time great films, including White Heat, also starring Cagney in a later iconic role. The Roaring Twenties makes me want to seek out others by this director, who clearly knew how to tell a ripping good crime story through film.

The Joker is Wild (1957)

Director: Charles Vidor

Surprisingly good, though I would hardly call this a "gangster" movie.

I discovered this film in a list of all-time great "gangster" films, though the mobster connection is very tenuous. All the same, it's a rather good film, which explores some rather dark places for its time. When I saw the words "gangster" coupled with "Frank Sinatra," I simply assumed that the movie was in the same vein as Some Like It Hot - Some comedic mafia madness, with a heavy sprinkling of song and dance numbers featuring Ol' Blue Eyes. What I got was far more interesting.

The Joker is Wild tells the true-life story of Joe E. Lewis, a singer and comedian whose career was derailed in the late 1920s when territorial mobsters mutilated him. After several years of quiet recovery, Lewis was rediscovered and eased back into showbusiness. Though his silky smooth singing voice was never the same, he became an extremely successful comedian. The movie follows these various career turns, but the soul of the movie is about Lewis the man.

This biopic gives us a Lewis who, after his assault, fell prey to gambling and drinking. The portrait we get in the movie is of a man who, though always ready with a good one-liner, seems to dislike himself too much to truly love anyone else. We see this in his relationships with everyone around him, even those who are truly out to help him. In this sense, the movie can be seen mostly as a tragedy. For this, the film deserves a lot of credit, and it really is its greatest strength.

I cannot overlook Frank Sinatra's performance. He's exceptionally good, especially when his jokes are being delivered with the hint of sadness and bitterness that the role demands. I suppose I've never truly thought of Sinatra as a particularly talented actor, but this movie shows that he certainly knew what he was doing, when inspired.

The movie is not perfect, though. The one-liners and jokes, though often fairly funny, get to be overkill at a certain point. Even during moments of emotional tension, Joe and others are firing off gags all too easily. It tends to deflate some of the dramatic effect. I also found the film a tad long. While the individual song and dance numbers never drag, there are a few too many of them to remain effective. I suppose that this is due to the fact that, in 1957, such routines were still considered entertaining by the general viewing public. Now, they are more of a curiosity rather than a source of true humor or amusement. As such, I found them tiresome after the 90-minute mark.

While the movie does feature more than a little self-interest on the part of entertainers, the character study is interesting enough to make for a good movie. And if you like Frank Sinatra and haven't seen this one, you're likely to enjoy it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Before I Die # 547: Orphans of the Storm (1921)

Great poster. I wish I could say the same
for the movie itself.
This is the 547th of the 1,160 films on the "Before You Die" list which I am gradually working my way through.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Judgment of this kind of movie is all about context and perspective. If I were a viewer or critic between the film's release in 1921 and any of the decades immediately after, Orphans of the Storm is a masterpiece. If I'm a historian of film technique and evolution, it's a masterpiece. If, however, I'm a viewer in 2015 looking for pure entertainment, then this 94-year old movie isn't going to do much for me.

Director D.W. Griffith was already a titan of film in 1921. It's no surprise that the man who directed the massive epic films Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and Way Down East would bring us a film set to the backdrop of the French Revolution. It is also no surprise that he cast Lilian Gish and her sister, Dorothy, as adopted siblings who are buffeted about by the "storm" that is the overthrow of the French aristocracy. Stories on such a tremendous scale, including the grand sets, costumes, and enormous casts, were the bread and butter of Griffith, and they created a lush setting in which his fictional human dramas could unfold.

The story follows Henriette and her adopted sister, Louise, who in infancy was taken from her aristocrat mother and abandoned by her mother's peers. Louise eventually is stricken blind, and her sister Henriette pledges to never marry until they find a cure. When the two become young women, they decide to travel to Paris to find a doctor who may be able to cure Henriette. However, the two sisters are soon set upon and separated, with Henriette ultimately taken prisoner by a scheming old vagabond and her henchman son. Louise attempts to navigate the ever-treacherous waters that become the French Revolution, when the peasantry staged a violent overthrow of the aristocracy. The fear, mistrust, and blood lust which pervaded the era are just a few of the hazards which Henriette and Louise must avoid in their quests to reunite.

Griffith never minded playing the heavy sentimentality card,
as evidenced by the use of the blind Henriette in this film.
Charlie Chaplin must have taken notice, as he followed suit
in his 1925 film
City Lights.
When compared to films of the same era, Orphans of the Storm clearly stands out in scale and technique. By this time, Griffith had completely mastered framing, editing, and set design, so that this film was undoubtedly an amazing spectacle to viewers in the 1920s. I'm sure the same was true for the emotional story of Louise and Henriette. Moviegoers at that time were apparently completely enchanted by the plight of the innocent and dedicated young women. These 94 years later, though, the film's merits in terms of entertainment have completely vanished, as I see it. Only the most imaginative and artistic films from the twenties, such as Metropolis, continue to stoke any aesthetic interest. In terms of narrative, the story of Louise and Henriette is now laughably sentimental. The two are both one-dimensional, fairy tale virgins who evoke little comparison with any actual living person. The same can be said for every character in the movie.

I wouldn't be as harsh on this movie if not for several films that were made around the same time. Movies such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Within Our Gates, The Phantom Carriage, and even Dr. Mabuse showed that other filmmakers were already creating on-screen characters with true depth and far more genuine, complex emotions. Either these, or they were employing more visual artistry than simply creating replicas of historical scenes. In this context, Orphans of the Storm falls short of its peers. I'm honestly quite glad that it is the last of D.W. Griffith's films that I have set out for myself to watch. I think I can now say that I have seen everything that he had to offer movies. He was clearly a revolutionary in terms of scale and pageantry, but his revolutions have been surpassed so far as to render his films very difficult for a discriminating viewer in the 21st century to enjoy.

That's 547 films down. Only 613 to go before I can die...

Saturday, July 4, 2015

New Release! Inside Out (2015)

Director: Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen

Arguably the best Pixar movie yet. I can't exactly say it's my personal favorite, but it's one of the most brilliant movies, animated or otherwise, that you're ever likely to see.

Chances are you've heard about this movie's premise. If not, here's the quick summary. We get to see a few crucial days in the life of Riley, an 11-year old girl who is going through the troubling experience of moving from the hometown she loves in Minnesota to San Fransisco. The way we follow her experience is from the perspective of the five primary feelings in her brain: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Each one of these emotions serves a particular purpose in keeping Riley safe and healthy, though the purpose of Sadness is not made clear in the beginning. Each has a distinctive look and sound: Joy is an effervescent, greenish pixie; Sadness is mopey and frumpy; Anger is small and red, with flame shooting out of his head when irked; Fear is a neurotic, skittish, skinny basketcase; and Disgust is a prissy, self-conscious fashion maven.

The movie spans roughly the first 48 hours of Riley's arrival in San Fransisco. Through the actions and reaction of the five emotions in her brain, known as "headquarters," we get complete insight as to her attempts to deal with one undesirable situation after another. Most of the humor derives from when Fear, Anger, or Disgust are piloting Riley's actions. Anger, voiced by Lewis Black in arguably the greatest voice casting of all time, becomes a show-stealer time and time again. Seeing how Riley lives out these three feelings provides comic moments that are as great in any Pixar movie.

The movie goes far beyond quality humor, though. True to the very best Pixar films, Inside Out actually probes into deeper emotions in ways that any person over the age of three can sink his or her teeth into. As Riley begins to grapple with feeling alienated, homesick, and misunderstood by her parents, we see it all play out in headquarters. The previously well-established safe places in her mind start to crumble, and Joy and Sadness become lost and have to struggle with each other to return to headquarters. For Riley, this means a growing disconnect with her parents and anyone else whom she encounters. Any person who has experienced such alienation and confusion can relate to what is happening, and it is amazing how well the movie handles such profound and universal struggles.

Joy shows Sadness one of Riley's memories. The background
is the landscape of Riley's mind. This fertile territory is the
setting for one of the the most imaginative looks at how a
child can grow into adulthood.
On a side note, I am thankful that, for once, a Disney/Pixar movie didn't feel the need to kill one of the protagonist's family members to stoke the emotions of us viewers. One need look no further than the recent Big Hero 6, which was a fun enough movie, for the studios' most ham-fisted attempt at evoking sympathy. With Inside Out, no such brutality is needed. The film's much lighter tough is hopefully a message to current and future writers that a story can be deeply emotional without using horrifying tragedy. It's simply not necessary to burn a protagonist's kindly elder brother to a crisp when far more accessible experiences are on hand.

While my favorite Pixar movie is still The Incredibles, Inside Out will stand as a timeless masterpiece that has set a new bar for what family films can do. Walt Disney once said that he wasn't in the business of make great "children's" movies; he was in the business of making great movies. With Inside Out, Pixar has revitalized this ideal of its parent studio's iconic founder and set the bar even higher for future filmmakers. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Idiot Boxing: Game of Thrones Season 5 (2015)

Lady Melissandre about to put yet another infidel (or six) to
the torch. This and other doings around the Wall get plenty of
screen time in season 5. This is a good thing. 
If you're curious about my reviews of the first 4 seasons, I posted them here.

Season 5 of this immensely popular series seems to have garnered mixed opinions. I found it to be nearly as strong as any previous season, though a bit different in the mix of tones.

As an avid reader of the novels from long ago, this was the first season which I was hesitant to watch. I had read and heard that there are things which take place in the TV series which delve into the as-yet-unpublished sixth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. All the same, I went ahead with it. For others who may be holding off for this reason, I can assure you not to worry. Though there may be a few little tidbits that may spoil events yet to be described in the books, I can tell you that a good 90%-95% of the material is from already-published books in the series.

The most obvious change from the book is how streamlined the tale is. The most recent novel, A Dance with Dragons, expanded the character perspectives to include a rather dizzying amount of new and somewhat marginal points of view. The show did excellent work keeping the focus on the most appealing characters from the books, rather than get hung up trying to tell the tales of characters like Asha Greyjoy and other tertiary types. While we may not get quite as much Danaerys or Tyrion as we might like, the scenes which we do get are entertaining, to be sure. Jon is the focus of several lengthy scenes and episodes, as well, which is always compelling.

I heard and read many gripes from viewers who found this season rather slow, especially through the middle episodes. While it's true that there was less action and more dialogue through these episodes, I found these scenes nearly always engaging. Due to plenty of strong writing and acting, there was plenty of tension and character exploration through many of the verbal exchanges involving Tyrion, Jon, Brienne, Arya, Cersei, and others. I particularly enjoyed many of the scenes involving Cersei and the zealots involved with the Faith Militant. We get to see Lena Headey's impressive range as an actress here, which only enhances the series further. This season also made it abundantly clear that when you give a capable writer the chance to write passages in which Tyrion is forced to travel with another character, his biting wit can carry scene after scene. Whether it was with Varys or Jorah, every exchange had at least one great line from "The Imp."

The introduction of the Sand Snakes. I found theirs to be easily
the most poorly-written and poorly-acted little gaggle of
characters in the entire series. It didn't help that their little
vendetta storyline was rather dull. 
I count only two personal weaknesses with this season. One is that I am, frankly, weary of Sansa being the punching bag of the show. I understood how she has always meant to represent the utter destruction of any romantic notion of Middle Aged chivalry. This is a commendable and engaging concept. Still, do we need to see her get married to and horrifically abused by one of the arch-sadists of the series? Enough already. I am beyond ready to see her truly toughen up or be given the mercy of death. The other glaring weakness is nearly everything about the plot line involving the "Sand Snakes" in Dorne. For whatever reason, their entire story of revenge comes off cheap, half-baked, poorly written, and badly acted. To both my wife and I, it almost seemed as if the writing duties for this particular plot thread was handed off to an aspiring intern. The result was something that paled in comparison to the rest of the season. The only redeeming aspect of the Sand Snakes thread was that my absolute favorite secondary character, Bronn, got to fire off an amazing amount of classic dialogue amidst what was otherwise a weak chapter in the story.

Of course, no season of Game of Thrones would be complete without a shocking event near its end which leaves viewers traumatized enough to swear off the series for all time. I won't ruin it for those yet to catch up, but suffice it to say that it is something which readers of the novels have known about for years. For me, this event sets up some curious possibilities, so I have no trouble accepting where things will head next season.

One could argue that this season may not be quite as strong as those previous. Even if you concede this point, I feel that nearly all would agree that the show has maintained its standard of excellence, and there is no reason to expect any less next year. My only hope now is that the next novel, The Winds of Winter, is released before the next season kicks off in spring of 2016.