Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Seven Samurai

Yes, it's long (207 minutes), yes it's old, and subtitled. You should still watch it though, and give it your full attention. There are wonderful things inside.

Seven Samurai, 1954. Directed by Akira Kurosawa.
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima.

"A poor village under attack by bandits recruits seven unemployed samurai to help them defend themselves." (IMDB).

This is a story from another time, but one I think Americans owe it to themselves to see. It's not a preachy film, it's not horribly graphic (especially by today's standards) but it is violent; it's about war and the effects of war, I suppose honor and commitment, too.

Everything that happens is pretty much a struggle for these farmers. Their food keeps getting ripped off by a group of bandits, so the village elder (no doubt Lucas' inspiration for what would later become Yoda) suggests they hire samurais to ward off the thieves. A group of them go to the village to find some, but have only rice for payment, which unfortunately also gets stolen. One samurai agrees to help them and rounds up four other true samurai, an eager would-be Padawan, and an obnoxious buffoon (Mifune) to make seven warriors---together they lay down some plans but the farmers and their families are just as terrified of their saviors as they are their tormentors. When the bandits finally return, the only option is to pick them off either one or two at a time as the farmers (even with the samurais' help) are outnumbered and out skilled. It's tedious and tiring watching them do this, but somehow it all feels very genuine, how a real situation like this would feel.

It's not all completely negative, there are quite a few moments of comedy mostly from Kikuchiyo (Mifune) as the outlandish prankster (my favorite is actually one of his most toned-down moments as the young guy is gushing with admiration for one of the other samurai----Kikuchiyo looks away and yawns with, "I'm not bored at all. Honestly.") And while he's extremely funny with all the yelling and jumping around and snarling at the village children, calling them brats or piss-pants, he's also responsible for the film's most emotional moment, which also concerns a child, when he admits tearfully to the other warriors that the child he's just saved represents the exact same events from his own life; "this child is me!" Heavy.

It's almost as if the technique lends a hand in accomplishing the varying moods of the film as well---the undercranked camera gives the illusion of super speed and chaos as they're all running and charging each other; over cranking it during a slain man's fall to the ground (together with the absence of sound) creates slowness, drawing it out to the very last breath. I remember one of my professors contrasting Kurosawa's killing method to Sam Peckinpah's, but I suppose virtually any other director of a war film will apply in that a single death (even of an enemy) often doesn't carry much weight, normally, but each death seems to matter in this---no one just gets smoked, they're having to run for their lives, escape swords, hide, and beg before the deed is finally done, with the camera often times lingering on their lifeless bodies for moments afterwards. These are some of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed, some of the most meaningful, and it was only 1954!

Can I help you?
Also, it's impossible to not be on the side of the samurai, from the first moment we meet their leader, Kanbe Shimada (Takashi Shimura) who pretty much shines with Morgan Freeman-calibre charm throughout the the film, we immediately put our faith and trust in him to guide the farmers to victory (which he mostly does at the expense of his brethren). After he's shaved his head, rescued the child, and is walking down the road, there's a great shot of the back of his head (as seen by the younger man who asks to be taken on as his disciple) and it's a simple thing but very powerful. He's constantly running his hand over his head as he thinks, considers, or even laughs at things, so it's a clever kind of attention given to the item that in the end, gets the job done (for the most part).

During a senior film seminar my last semester at the U, we were made to attend The Last Samurai (the one starring Tom Cruise). Largely due to the strength of this film, Seven Samurai (Seven *believable* Samurai) I was not able to stomach it and left just before the ending, honestly considering asking for my money back.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

News from TL, The Help, Midnight in Paris

Clearly I'm behind AS ALWAYS. I just barely finished getting the gift cards off to the winners of the BEST MOVIE EVER project despite being no where close to finishing watching your recommendations; I'm still doing them (even if no one is really reading this anymore after I quit Facebook. Again). If you are reading and not just getting here by image searches on Google, you should shoot me a comment because I'm wondering if it's even worth doing another contest for April (which is probably when I'll finish your film suggestions). I'm thinking maybe a magazine subscription for a prize this time. Tell me what you think.

I had most of a review finished for my other . . . outlet and planned on doing the rest of the Best Picture nominees up properly also, but something has happened that has left me feeling a little disenfranchised about certain things, not the least being what I'm okay doing in order to get my content published and playing ball in the journalism field vs. being true to my own values as a writer. Telling me something I've written needs a paragraph break is fine; dismissing my content (which I put at least a pint of flesh and blood into) for needing . . . get this . . . MORE LINKS----I dunno if I can be okay with that. There are more issues, none of them major, but let's just say I gained a bigger perspective about all this. Anyway, enough bitching.

The Help, 2011. Directed by Tate Taylor
starring: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard

"An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s decides to write a book detailing the African-American maid's point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis." (IMDB).

I didn't expect to like this very much so I was pleasantly surprised when I really enjoyed it. I mean, as much as you can enjoy a film about a bunch of pampered, racist, bullies, I guess. I don't know how realistic it was, since I wasn't around in Jackson, Mississippi during the sixties, but I'm sure that for every true story or situation mentioned there were about a hundred more disturbing, not-so-smoothly addressed ones that could not and never will be resolved simply by putting them into a narrative (that ends more or less on a positive note). The best thing about this film are the characters, they're interesting, well-written, and portrayed very well by each respective actor.

I think the most difficult thing about this film for me was having to try to figure out how I felt about it from a human standpoint. Obviously it's a story, obviously it's gotta end and tie up more or less neatly, but sometimes there are social issues that you really just can't lighten. Like, at all. The film was a decent production, and like I said, I enjoyed it, but I have this nagging issue with so much of the behavior shown in the film (as I'm sure many others do, too) that no matter what the outcome, no matter how rightly humiliated the perpetrators eventually were in their own ridiculousness----there's just absolutely no excuse for it. It's like there's this safe kind of distance from all this pain and suffering because it's being shown in a fictional film, but . . . that doesn't really work for very long when you admit to yourself that the events in this film and much, much worse really happened and are still happening. I like that Aibileen and Minny actually took a stand and tried to do something, indicating they were doing it for their children (and so that Skeeter could "put a stop to all this,") but you can't just let people off the hook with, "sometimes courage skips a generation." That really got me pissy.

Midnight in Paris, 2011. Directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams

"A family travel to the French capital for business. The party includes a young engaged couple who are forced to confront their differing views of a perfect life." (IMDB).

Seriously, this one is in my top five, ever. I was dumbfounded by it, was so utterly impressed and excited by it (even days later) that thinking about it just makes me giddy and happy like nothing else. This is such a writer's film; I had no desire to go to Paris (in the current year or any others prior) but seeing Gil (Wilson) walk around, discovering everything, and getting inspired by everything he sees was enough to make me want to go a little. I loved every minute of this.

1. If you want to see how to be the world's most awful spouse to a writer, pay special attention to Inez (McAdams). Actually, I think she'd be awful to anyone she married, really. All the interrupting, condescending, and complete disregard for Gil's work and feelings? What a bag.

2. Hemingway: "My response is that I hate it. If it's bad, then I hate it because I hate bad writing. If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it even more. You don't want the opinion of another writer."

3. Adrien Brody as Salvadore Dali and the entire discussion among the surrealists. This is maybe going to sound a little snotty, but if you know anything about Bunuel and the stuff he did (or were forced to watch it for hours as a film student) you'll find this whole exchange hilarious. Predictable but hilarious.

Also HOT.
Perfect. All of it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

If you're curious about this year's Oscar nominated films you can check out my reviews on Examiner, I'm writing up all nine one by one:

The Descendants

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

One I ended up liking very much (after the second viewing), the other had a few problems, many of which I wasn't even able to categorize successfully until I started watching Moneyball yesterday. By about the third minute in (and I'm not a baseball person, at all) I found myself immediately thinking, "I don't care what happens in this film but I already know I don't want it to end." I had to shut it off to go to work, which damned near killed me, because I was so engaged in watching. I think that, more than anything else is a requirement for a Best Picture nominee----things don't have to be peachy and sunshiny all the time, clearly, but the film has to make us think, I don't want this to end.

Look for my review of Moneyball later tonight, if you want.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Shawshank Redemption

I think at least four people suggested this one; it really might be the best movie ever made.

The Shawshank Redemption, 1994. Directed by Frank Darabont.
starring: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton.

"Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency." (IMDB). 

This film succeeds because it's a great story (Stephen King) done by a great director (Frank Darabont) with a great cast (everyone involved). Props also go to Thomas Newman, who did the music. But it's not just that everything comes together so brilliantly as a production, obviously it does, but there is something about the overall message going on here that literally causes me to cry every time I think of it . . . it's emotional, it's heartbreaking, but it's uplifting, too.

This is the story of Andy Dufresne and Ellis (Red) Boyd Redding. Andy is new, quiet, keeps to himself, is "a cold fish;" Red is the opposite---a man who can get things (smokes, sipping whiskey, posters), a man who knows things (being rejected for parole, who to avoid in the showers, what happens the first night new inmates arrive), a respected man inside the prison. Their story together becomes one of friendshiphumanity, and hope: Andy develops a true friendship with Red, uses his intelligence and humanity to make others comfortable, more free-feeling, and eventually escapes.

So Red and Andy are obviously the key players here, but the supporting ones are pretty brilliant, too. The stuttering Heywood (Bill Sadler, "Alexan-dree Dum, Dumas, Dumb Ass?"), the quiet, in-the-background Italian guy (Richie Apriel from The Sopranos!), slippery Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), dorky question-asking, cell tossing guard (Dr. Romano from ER), and my personal favorite, Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), aka Kelvin from LOST aka Brother Justin from Carnivale.

Seriously, this guy was one hell of a bad ass, constantly removing his prison hat for extra intimidation and getting all the killer lines:

"You speak English, Butt-Steak?"
"What the Christ is this happy horse-shit?"
"You tell me, Fuck-stick, they're all addressed to you!"

Is it a sign of immaturity that I find the way he uses curse words *hilarious*? Total prick, he was, but gifted with language, I'll give him that.

The director's choices thrill me to no end. From the steamy little love session going on between Andy's wife and lover (sorry, but it's kinda hot) to the respectful way Brooks's last scenes are filmed (revealing just enough for it to be tasteful, and with that remorseful accompaniment), to the tilt up the building during Andy's first entrance, to Red's seriously awesome swagger through the yard and later childishly giddy grin when he walks out the front gate, to probably my favorite driven close-up of all time----Warden Norton's sudden dart to the needlework covering the safe when the cops come for him  ("His Judgement Cometh and That Right Soon," CROSS-STITCHED!)---even the cornfields and gravel roads at the end get me a little excited, not to mention the ocean. Everything just . . . worked.

And think for a minute about the things people say to each other in this film----when was the last time you were really struck by the seriousness, the weight of peoples' words? Damn, man!

"You underestimate yourself."
"Every man has his breaking point."
"Get busy living or get busy dying."
"Salvation lies within."

"Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things."

Monday, February 13, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day, 2012!

I was a senior when this video came out, and though none of the douchebags I went out with even remotely looked as good as Stephen Dorff (and clearly I was no Alicia Silverstone), this video still resonates. Look for a delicious cameo by (then unknown) JOSH HOLLOWAY, aka James Ford, aka Sawyer, as the conniving hottie that steals A's bag just before the end. Looks like my favorite southern boy had the grin down even back in 1993.

Enjoy the best thing to come out of the 90s:

Friday, February 10, 2012

Citizen Kane

And um, Hot!
Check out pretty much any top film list ever made and you'll see this one in the top five, every time. I remember discussing it with some of my mother's friends once, as they could not figure out what the fuss was all about and asked me what I thought. I defended it, and gave a sort of half-assed explanation of what "deep focus" meant and why it was important in the film, and that the film was about mystery and popularity, and loss, but I was probably 24 when I was recycling all this bullshit, and had no true idea of what I was really saying, much less what the film was really about. I think I know a little more now.

Citizen Kane, 1941. Directed by Orson Welles.
starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore

"Following the death of a publishing tycoon, news reporters scramble to discover the meaning of his final utterance." (IMDB).

Though heavy with flashbacks and told out-of-sequence, the narrative of this story is quite simple: a journalist seeks to uncover the meaning behind the word, "Rosebud," the last word spoken by Charles Foster Kane (Welles), a world-famous publishing icon. The man interviews Kane's colleagues, one ex-wife, and consults the diary of a former guardian but in the end, gains absolutely no insight into what the word meant to Kane and deems it a forever mystery, though the film's conclusion reveals to the audience that "Rosebud," was the word printed across Kane's childhood sled (which is tossed into a furnace and destroyed).

A heavenly revelation?
In many ways the story is relevant today; a study of a famous person's public self vs. their private one---or leaving aside fame, posing the question of just how well we think we know the people in our lives. Charles Foster Kane revealed very little of himself throughout his life, but the purpose of the film is to piece together the things he did reveal in order to answer the question no one else could. It's said many times (by those who knew him) that Kane wanted love, only did things on his own terms, and was shown to be a collector of things, be they statues, adorations, or people---and that it's not enough to know what a man did, but rather who he was.

The technical aspects of this film (lighting, deep focus, moving camera, composition of shots, montage sequences) aren't just fancy, artistic flair---they're instrumental in understanding Kane, they're clues! More even than deep focus (of which lighting obviously plays a key part), the lighting in this film reveals all its secrets. Who's in the dark? How is Kane lit, how much of his body is showing? What items are in the foreground, and why? Consider the sizes of things, the settings, the actors, what's grandiose, and what's larger than life? How much emotion is shown in Kane---how close does the camera get to his face, and when? While it's fun to nerd out on a lot of this stuff (and as I sort of discovered when I was trying to get other people as excited about this film as I was), lip service doesn't pay unless you've seen it, and even then, trying to use words to describe a lot of this is pointless----you really just have to see these images together in a whole to get not only their full effect but to appreciate their uniqueness and power.

There are two occasions where Kane lets his guard down, not directly, but to the two others being interviewed (Thatcher, Susan Alexander). The first is early in the film and Kane's young life, arguably the most crucial sequence, when Thatcher assumes guardianship and takes Kane from his parents, the second is after Susan leaves Xanadu and Kane not only destroys her room but begins to cry. Scattered among the film are bits of dialogue, mostly from either Bernstein, Leland, or Susan that suggest Kane wanted acceptance and love but was unable to reciprocate any himself.

"It wasn't money he wanted . . . "
"All he really wanted out of life was love. He loved Charlie Kane, of course, and his mother."
"You never give me anything that belongs to you, nothing that you care about."
"If hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man."

Most of the discussions on the theme of this film revolve around Kane's loss of childhood, signified by the sled, Rosebud. I don't think it's his lost childhood he's lamenting at all, but rather the loss of his mother, the abandonment he suffered at her hands, no matter how well-intentioned she may have been. Were it only his childhood he wanted to reclaim, he'd have been able to form true and loving relationships with the women in his life, and he probably would have been able to find real happiness, eventually. When his mother decides to send him away to lead a more dignified life with Thatcher as his guardian, she cuts herself out of his life and in effect, makes him into an orphan. "Why aren't you coming with us, Mom?" he questions, as his father, childish, and somewhat of a buffoon, blathers on in the background about big lights and money. He not only refuses to shake hands with his new benefactor but charges into him (using Rosebud as a battering ram). Later, we see young Charles less than enthusiastic about his Christmas present (from Thatcher), a replacement Rosebud, and eventually after deciding to go into publishing, spends much of his time smearing and making political trouble for the man who took him away from his beloved mother.

That he saved her things is also significant; he mentions them almost in passing the night he meets Susan, telling her, "I was on my way to the Western Manhattan Warehouse in search of my youth," where all his mother's things were in storage. At the film's conclusion, one of the assistants (just after another finds one of Susan's jigsaw puzzles) notices Mary Kane's stove, collected and stored alongside numerous other priceless statues. The snow globe of Susan's that he seems to treasure so much is a token to not only his childhood, yes, but of his childhood home, the safety of his mother, and the only love that he had ever known (for which he spent the remainder of his life pursuing a replacement).

"Mother is the word for God on the hearts and lips of all little children."
Et tu, Charlie?

Friday, February 3, 2012

A League of Their Own

"She's done."
A League of Their Own, 1992. Directed by Penny Marshall. Starring: Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Lori Petty.

"Two sisters join the first female professional baseball league and struggle to help it succeed amidst their own growing rivalry." (IMDB). 

I like old school Tom Hanks, and this is one of my favorites. The shot of him peeing alone makes this film worth watching. Without coming off sounding too dismissive or ill-supportive of women filmmakers (and women in general) I have to say that this film would have been nothing without Hanks; he steals every scene and saves the film from being mostly cheesy and . . . chick-flicky. The music was a little weak, and some of the dialogues between the women were not that great, but luckily there are a collection of scenes toward the end (not involving Hanks at all) that are interesting, well-done, and show the powerful love/hate relationship between the two sisters, Dottie (Geena Davis) and Kit (Lori Petty).

The first is when Dottie, the star player, is at bat and Kit must pitch to her, knowing everything she knows about how good Dottie is and everything that's happened between them. The shot of Dottie walking to the plate is *amazing* and so incredibly bad ass I wish almost wish I hadn't sent the disk back right away because I want to watch it again. The second is a little more emotional, when it's Kit's turn to hit, Dottie will be catching right behind her, and she's sobbing uncontrollably, unable to bring herself out of the dugout to face her. It's pretty major.

Marla Hooch is good, belting those balls out and shattering windows ("Okay, honey, now the left," her old man says, as all the boys fielding her hits back up and groan loudly) and John Lovitz was nice as the arrogant scout. Call me crazy but I thought Madonna was a total distraction in this, and that her banter with Rosie O'Donnell was forced, not funny, and went on too long. Keep in the bit about the bosoms flying out, though. That was clever.