Thursday, November 7, 2013

Family Movie Night #3

Movie suggestions are still aplenty, so there are more reviews that are sure to follow. Of course, if you’re reading this and you have any suggestions for films you think I should watch, just post a comment and I’ll be sure to add it to the list.

“When Harry Met Sally...” (1989)

Boy, I sure have been watching a lot romance movies lately, haven’t I?

Not just any romantic movies though, ones that take place over an extended time. “(500) Days Of Summer” was the first, and now we have a movie about the developing relationship between two people who initially hate one another over the course of twelve years.

The difference between “When Harry Met Sally...” and “(500) Days Of Summer” though is that the latter is more about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character changing as a result of his relationship with Summer. The former, on the other hand, is about how the relationship between Harry and Sally changes as a result of both characters changing.

The film begins when the two, of course, meet each other and share a road trip from Chicago to New York. There is that initial spark where Harry (Billy Crystal) admits that Sally (Meg Ryan) is attractive, but Sally turns him down. 

As the film progresses and years pass before they see each other again, both Harry and Sally have become rather different people. Their experiences in New York have changed them as individuals, to the point where they can now find people who they once found disgusting to be trusted companions. 

Sally, the once high-maintenance woman focused on her career, now has the job she wants but wants to focus on other things like her boyfriend. Harry, the self-centered guy who feels he has to question everything that doesn’t fit his worldview, now always tries to find a chance to make someone laugh or crack a joke at something. 

In short, the two lead characters are growing up.

The environment these two live in and the people they surround themselves with are changing who they are. Opening their eyes to new possibilities that they had never considered, including relationships with one another. 

For me, “When Harry Met Sally...” is a core example of a film strictly about the characters and their journey through life. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan capture these roles so well that you forget you’re watching the actors and become one with these people. It is an effective romance because it doesn’t get bogged down in anything superfluous or out-of-place and focuses on just giving what is necessary to Harry and Sally.

Final Grade: B+

“Amadeus” (1984)

I freely admit that I know next to nothing about opera and know very little about music. What I do know about is the passion and energy behind someone’s taste for life and how well that translates on screen. 

“Amadeus” makes it clear that you don’t need to know anything about how music operates to enjoy what happens. Through the subtle way in which F. Murray Abraham speaks about how Mozart changed his life through his music and that through the same drive is the need to kill him. This is where the true energy of the film lies.

During the late 1700s in Vienna, the once famous Court Composer Antonio Salieri (Abraham) reflects on his life and all the sins he has committed. The most heinous of which being the years in which the world-renowned Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) lived in Vienna and bested Salieri at every turn, leading him to renounce his faith in god and swear to ruin Mozart.

What ties everything together nicely is that this story is being told entirely from Salieri’s perspective, as he explains it to a priest. Salieri starts out as a religious man who thanked god every day for giving him all he has, including his musical talents. Once Mozart arrives, who is a giggling child who can never refuse a part or an open invitation to make himself look like an idiot, Salieri begins to question what God was thinking. 

It’s not that he believes God doesn’t exist, just that God is cruel, unfair and has a bad sense of humor. Mozart, this immoral and improper man, creates music that is befitting of the heavens. Yet Salieri, who has spent his life worshipping the lord, has his music reduced to mediocrity in the face of Mozart. You can see where Salieri is coming from, thus making his actions just.

In a way, “Amadeus” is more of a confession of Salieri’s sins than anything else. Yet, Salieri knows that confessing his sins won’t change anything. Though he may have outlived Mozart, his music still speaks louder than ever, making Salieri stick out every less. This is why both he and God laugh, through Mozart’s insane giggle. 

“Amadeus” also offers a portrayal of Mozart that is both funny and touching. Though he may behave childishly, it could be interpreted that he does so through his lack of a proper childhood, always performing instead of playing. He has a simple view, but one that is understandable without going over the top. This makes Mozart’s triumphs all the sweeter, and Salieri’s defeats more bitter.

Overall, “Amadeus” is a stylized masterpiece with outstanding performances from Abraham and Hulce, a tight script that never looses momentum and a beautiful soundtrack that fits the theme and mood of the story. Like Mozart’s music, if anything were removed or replaced in this film, it would cease to be the excellent work of cinema that it truly is.

Final Grade: A+

“Almost Famous” (2000)

It is interesting I would follow up “Amadeus” with another film centered on music, with “Almost Famous.” This time, the film is focused on the late 1960s and early 1970s and the impact of rock-and-roll. However, unlike “Amadeus,” if you are unfamiliar with the musical styles of this era, you will more than likely get lost or lose interest.

Fifteen-year old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) has spent the last four years of his life learning all he can about rock-and-roll and wishes to become a great rock journalist. An opportunity arises for him when Rolling Stone magazine gets ahold of some of his work and wants him to cover the low-profile band Stillwater and their tour across America. Much to his mother’s (Frances McDormand) irritation, William agrees to join the band’s hijinks of booze, drugs, sex and rock music while learning the ins-and-outs of why music can be so powerful.

As I previously mentioned, I know very little about music. Of course, I’ve listened to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, David Bowie and Elton John, but I can’t for the life of me describe what makes this type of music so emotional and heartfelt like I do with cinema. Movies click with me, but most great music just goes right over my head, especially rock-and-roll. Meaning that much of the dialogue and breath of this film is lost on me, because it doesn’t try to draw in those who are not familiar with the craft. 

Instead of focusing on something I can’t adequately describe, there are other reasons why I didn’t find myself enjoying “Almost Famous” that mostly revolve around the resolution of all things.

The beginning of the film is quite solid as it tells the disjointed adventures of both William and Stillwater as they have quarrels and mistrust, while William decides between having fun with the band or being accurate with his story. However, once the climactic moment in the film occurs, it feels like “Almost Famous” can’t make its mind on what it wants to say and loses track of what previously happened.

For example, from the start there is a central focus on William, with every main action revolving around him. Yet once Will has made his decision, the film switches focus on the lead guitarist of Stillwater, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) as he reflects on the decisions he’s made since joining the band. William, our main character, is practically left with nothing to do.

Not to mention William is the same person he has at the beginning of the film as he is at the end of it, while Russell is the one who at least gets some character change. This makes me believe that during the last act, the movie suddenly decides to switch protagonists, like it can’t decide who to focus on.

I also question what the audience is supposed to walk away from “Almost Famous” learning. I want to say its moral is to be honest yet unmerciful, since multiple characters tell this to William, but when he does so it comes back to bite him in the butt and nothing good comes from that. 

If there is no moral or anything to learn other than an appreciation for rock-and-roll, then why even bother with the film?

Overall, “Almost Famous” starts off nicely with its string of “This Is Spinal Tap”-Esque shenanigans with a good grasp of character and pace, but runs out of steam near the end and becomes indecisive on what it wants to do or say. The film has a good grasp of rock-and-roll and speaks passionately about it, but it doesn’t go anywhere with it.

Final Grade: C

“Ben-Hur” (1959)

I’ve always had a problem with movies over three hours in length. Maybe it’s because of my attention span or because of the films I watch, but once it gets over three hours long it becomes more a chore to sit through.

A three hour movie needs to have a good reason for being that length, since it’s twice the time of the average human attention span. For example, “The Dark Knight” is over 195 minutes, but has so much going on and has such interesting characters that I’m excited when it has multiple climaxes. In the case of “Seven Samurai,” it moves at a fast enough pace and never slows down that the film ends up feeling more like an hour and a half instead of well over three and a half hours.

“Ben-Hur” is a case of a film over indulging itself on it’s own image. As it tells the story of Jesus’ time on Earth and the connecting story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and his struggle against the Roman Empire, the film takes its sweet time to give the audience story or character drama and instead focusing on the majesty of the landscape and scope of this epic.

For example, there is a sequence near the beginning of the film where we see a vast market of people returning to their homes to be counted and categorized. This scene is followed by a seemingly never ending stream of Roman soldiers and their trek through the town of Nazareth. These scenes go on for quite a while before the audience learns anything about the main characters, such as Ben-Hur and Messala (Stephen Boyd).

To be fair, there are some wonderful sequences throughout the film with flawless execution and perfectly paced. Near the one hour mark in the film, there is a colossal ship war, clearly done with miniatures and set pieces, but the craftsmanship and the camera angles enhance the scene to the point where you don’t care if the set pieces aren’t real.

Not to mention the famous chariot race sequence, in which Ben-Hur and Messala finally meet to have their ultimate battle. This particular scene sticks out because of the consequences of what would happen should a warrior make even one mistake during the race. We see firsthand how much contestants fall and what happens to them, and it’s not pretty. This makes the threat of losing even more potent.

However, I ultimately couldn’t get behind many of the main characters and their struggle in a Roman oppressed society. While these wonderful sequences were gems to behold, there just weren’t enough of them to keep me interested after watching it for over three hours. It is in the nature of epics to indulge themselves in the grandness of the past, so I don’t mind the rather slow pacing of “Ben-Hur,” but it certainly doesn’t help the film either.

Final Grade: C

Final Thoughts:

With this group of movie reviews, we come across my first A+ film, with “Amadeus.” It is odd that a film so strikingly similar, “Almost Famous,” would be so much lower on my rating system. 

I’ve mentioned this prior, but when I watch a movie, the main aspects I focus on are the characters and the story of their struggle or triumph. “Amadeus” impressed me through the passion of characters like Salieri and Mozart, but also made them feel human through their weaknesses, such as envy and pride. “Almost Famous,” on the other hand, while having solid character arcs, didn’t feel solid in what it wanted to do with the story, especially near the end. 

I realize I’m sometimes harsh on certain movies, such as my grading of “The Passion Of Joan Of Arc,” but that is only because I’m so passionate about cinema. When I watch a great movie, I’m passionate about what made that film so great and about telling others why they need to see it. When I watch a film that is a challenge to sit through, I’m passionate about why it made me uncomfortable and why I feel the film should be avoided. Just know that my passion runs very deep and comes right from the heart.

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