Wednesday, September 30, 2015
For most of the run time of "The Warriors," I was confused as to whether this was supposed to be a post-apocalyptic tale or if it was a prequel to "RoboCop."
The gang leader at the beginning of the film makes it clear there are nearly 600,000 gang members in the New York area. Everything is drenched in graffiti, and each gang has its own unique theme and method of attacking, from baseball zombies, to rollerbladers with Andy Samberg haircuts, to women that allure you in and strike you least expect it.
This is a strange take on the gang war, where it seems the entire city of New York is against this small gang for a crime they did not commit. It does not feel like "The Warriors" is saying anything against gang violence, since our heroes end up using the same violence to solve all their problems and are witnesses to a lot more of it. Rather, gang violence is the vehicle to move the plot along.
And from that perspective, "The Warriors" certainly isn't a bad film. Like "Bloodsport," it accomplishes what it set out to do and entertained me throughout its just time. Am I going to watch it at some other point? Probably not. It was a serviceable film, but didn't do anything too extraordinary, besides paint a gloomy else-world New York where gangs have taken over.
I'm glad I watched "The Warriors," just to know where some of its famous lines came from, but it did not do anything for me.
Final Grade: C+
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
This is the epitome of a "no plot, just fight" kung-fu movie. Even hours after watching "Bloodsport," I cannot recall the story, other than - guy goes to martial arts tournament to kick some ass.
There are certainly times for story and character development, but in the hour and a half run time more than 75 minutes is dedicated to watching Jean-Claude Van Damme helicopter - kick, spinning heel kick and perform perfect splits while punching his opponents in their privates, leading him to be the inspiration for Johnny Cage in "Mortal Kombat."
"Bloodsport" has nothing on films like "The Raid: Redemption" and "Ip Man," even though the three have a lot in common. "The Raid: Redemption" might have focused more on the fights, but we cared about these characters climbing to the top of this massive building. They were fighting for something and had a reason to keep going other than to extend the run time.
In "Bloodsport," I never cared if Jean-Claude lost. I knew he would get into a good fight, but whether he was defeated meant nothing to me. He was just another face in the crowd that could punch really well.
Overall, "Bloodsport" was rather forgettable. It certainly didn't do anything wrong, but there was nothing that stood out besides Jean-Claude doing what he always does - Being the most physically fit kung-fu master while having the strangest accent.
Final Grade: C
Monday, September 28, 2015
Now entering the home stretch of this countdown, we have come to the three films that I consider perfect. When I use the term "perfect film," I mean one that succeeds at everything it set out to do. There is not one bad or average scene in these films, no wasted bits of dialogue, every performance delivers its emotional punch, and the pacing never drags on more than it needs to. Every part of these films is meticulously planned out to create a movie that is nothing short of a masterpiece.
These are the three films that deserve to be put in a museum and preserved for all eternity, to showcase how powerful and varied cinema can be as an art form.
For the first of these three films, we must go back to the beginnings of cinema. If there is one reoccurring trend among my favorite films, it is to showcase film history and films about filmmaking. "Sunset Boulevard" and "Singin' In The Rain" use the end of the silent era of movies to enhance their scope yet doing vastly different variations, with one being a light-hearted musical and the other a film noir. "Ed Wood" is a biographical picture on one of the worst filmmakers in Hollywood, but chooses to portray him in a positive light by making him an eternal optimist. On the other side of that you have "Ran," which was as much about Akira Kurosawa's downward spiral in the Japanese film industry as it was about its medieval lord.
Suffice to say, movies about movies are the ones I cannot get enough of.
While this entry isn't about filmmaking, the history behind why it was made makes it stand out more than any film from that era. Now that two films on this countdown have talked about the end of silent films and beginning of talkies, it is time to look at a film made during that era, Charlie Chaplin's 1931 comedy "City Lights."
There was a time where Charlie Chaplin's character of The Tramp was the most recognizable image in the world. A simple design of a lovable guy, always on the receiving end of the authorities, who only seemed to have a need in helping others. In the dozens of short films released between 1914 and 1919, as well as feature-length films like "The Kid" and "The Gold Rush," the Tramp would make us laugh with countless slap-stick sequences and tug at our heart-strings just seconds later.
This is what made Charlie Chaplin a household name - his ability to bounce between comedy and drama so easily, yet pull off both so well. Perhaps it was because his stories were simple. They had to be, because of the technical limitations at the time. Chaplin relied on his body and unbreaking camera movement to make the audience laugh, while using his face and body movement to get them invested in his struggle.
This took a drastic change when sound was introduced in 1927.
Chaplin, who grew up as a vaudeville performer, believed that it was much easier to reach someone by using visuals instead of audio. That by talking to someone instead of showing it, is only distracting and annoying. As such, Chaplin was resistant to ever making a talkie, despite insistence from film studios.
By the beginning of the 1930s, there were no more silent films being made. Everyone wanted to watch talking pictures and found it hard to relate to characters that didn't talk like everyone else. So Chaplin set out to prove a point - that even if talkies were the only type of films being made, silent cinema could still be just as powerful as any other film. That there would always be a place in the world for characters like The Tramp.
The result was his most emotional film with some of the greatest comedic long takes in cinema history, with "City Lights."
The film follows Chaplin's character The Tramp around a growing metropolis, as he gets into all sorts of antics with cops, a dance club and a drunk millionaire that he befriends after the Tramp saves his life. But the one who catches the Tramp's eye is a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) that thinks he is a rich man who can afford to buy all of her flowers. The Tramp decides to play along with this charade so that she may live a happier life.
Right out of the gate, "City Lights" takes the opportunity to mock talkies. The opening scene depicts the city officials opening up a new monument to "peace and prosperity." When the representatives get up to speak, we only hear the sound of a kazoo (played by Chaplin) in the place of their talking. As if to say the words coming out of their mouths are nonsense and pointless dribble.
This is followed by the reveal of the Tramp sleeping on their peace monument, and doesn't realize that he isn't supposed to be there. His first reaction to people yelling at him is to tip is bowler hat in their direction. It's not like he went out of his way to hurt anyone, the Tramp doesn't know any better.
Chaplin had considered making "City Lights" into a talkie, as he couldn't make the story work at certain points, in particular making the blind girl think the Tramp was a millionaire. But he decided against it, though still giving the film the full orchestral treatment and sound effects throughout the film.
Instead, Chaplin lets the Tramp's body language and pantomime be the dialogue for us. The world around him looks down on the Tramp, mostly because of his social status and appearance. He is a bum with no friends, but wants nothing more than to make friends with everybody. Every character in this film talks at the Tramp, but he hardly says a word. Then again, he doesn't need to.
This is what made the Tramp so endearing - He chooses to rarely speak, and lets his actions speak for him.
Those actions throughout "City Lights" are some of the best Chaplin put to film. Every comedic sequence in this film is memorable for one reason or another and still make me laugh simply thinking about them. The previously mentioned opening sequence with the peace monument has the Tramp attempting to climb down, with his pants getting stuck on the sword of the statue while attempting to stay in one place with "The Star-Spangled Banner" plays. While all of this is going on, the Tramp simply tips his hat to anyone yelling at him.
The comedy throughout "City Lights" seems so effortless that it feels smooth and elegant, like a ballerina. In fact, that's how I would describe this film - as a comedic ballet, where one comedy bit glides right into the next one while making it look easy.
In one particular instance, the Tramp and millionaire go to a dance club (after a few drinks, most of which gets poured down the Tramp's pants). The floor is slippery from all the dancing and there is only table left. When the Tramp's chair gets taken by the nearby table, he steals another chair and every partakes in a game of musical chairs, resulting in the Tramp wanting to fight someone else, only to slip on the floor.
But the shining instance comes when the Tramp must take part in a boxing match. Being a coward, the Tramp spends the entire first round hiding behind the referee, bobbing and weaving with the movements of the ref, much to the irritation of his opponent. In the later rounds, the Tramp gets the rope to the bell tied around his neck, so anytime he goes to his corner to rest, the bell rings and he starts the round again.
Once the comedy gets going, it never stops. There are few cuts and edits between these sequences, so the movement of the Tramp matching the referee and the look of disgust on his opponent's face makes it all the more gut-wrenching hilarious.
I have no problem saying "City Lights" is the funniest film I have ever seen. There is a timeless quality to it that you don't get out of most other comedies.
But, like so many other great Chaplin films, "City Lights" gives us a poignant romance that makes the Tramp more than just a bum that gets into a lot of slap stick.
The flower girl is blind, so she cannot see the Tramp for who he is - a bum. She can only judge him by what he is - Generous, giving and selfless.
In one of the final scenes in the film, the Tramp has secured $1,000 from the millionaire, and immediately heads to the flower girl to give her the money for her rent. As he is about to, he takes $100 and puts it in his pocket, for his own needs. But he kisses her hand, looks at her and gives her the extra $100, simply shrugging the whole thing off.
In "City Lights," people look at the Tramp and see his baggy pants, torn jacket, pale face and beat-up cane, and stereotype him as something to avoid. This makes the Tramp little more than an outsider. But the blind girl doesn't see that, and is only aware of his actions. She may think he is a millionaire, but it comes across less like she cares about his money and more about his kind and caring nature. She constantly says that he doesn't need to do this for her, but he is more than happy to help her out.
This all leads up to the ending, which I will not spoil, where the situation is reserved and gives us one of the most emotional moments in cinema. That it isn't about what your social status is in life, but that you accept people for who they are. That a tramp can be just as rich as a millionaire if you give him a chance.
The fall of silent cinema is unfortunate, considering that it has a power that films today lack. Without dialogue, without the need to be relatable and realistic, silent films used their given tools to transport us to a place where cultural boundaries didn't exist. These films stay with you far longer than most sound pictures because they don't need to talk to tell a story.
Yet, these films have been forgotten. Lost in time due to being so far behind the times. While filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin excelled at silent cinema, it is now a blessing and curse. No one will go out and see his films unless they actively search for them. But to those that do find his films, they will witness something magical.
Monday, September 14, 2015
Sometimes the best films are the ones that seem like they're not even trying.
Alfred Hitchcock was quite possibly the best at doing this. Most of his great suspense work is seemless, you don't even notice that your nerves are tense or that your breathing has increased. Hitchcock baited the audience in with someone we could trust, showed us his fears and insecurities and then plays with them, like a puppet master manipulating the audience instead of the puppet. We care about these characters because Hitchcock made us care.
This brings us to Hitchcock's shining achievement in filmmaking, as debatable as that sounds. His 1954 thriller, "Rear Window," feels different from his other films yet right at home at the same time. Hitchcock loved to play with perspective, with films like "Lifeboat" and "Rope," the former of which being set entirely in a small lifeboat stranded at sea, and the latter being shot like a stage play taking place in one large apartment. "Rear Window" falls into the same category, but with a clever set up that leads to a point of view that I've never seen before.
L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart, last time you'll see him on this countdown, I promise) has been laid-up in a New York apartment for six weeks with a heavy cast on his broken leg, after taking a daring photograph in the middle of a busy raceway. Jefferies has little to do while trapped here other than stare out his window and spy on his neighbors, even going to the point of nicknaming each of them, including Ms. Torso, the ballet dancer who has different men over every night, Ms. Lonely-Hearts, the aging woman who drinks herself to sleep and the nagging couple who can't stand the sight of each other.
Jeff also has a girlfriend who is obsessed with him, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). But Jeff sees the two of them going nowhere, since she is absorbed into the New York lifestyle of fashion, gossip and looks, while Jeff wants to see the world through a lens.
As Jeff is falling asleep one night, he begins to hear and see things that he shouldn't have - like a woman's scream, several trips in and out of an apartment in the middle of the night, and saws, knives and rope. Jeff puts the pieces that he knows together, as suspects that a murder has taken place.
The first point to note is "Rear Window" takes place entirely from Jeff's apartment. Nearly every camera angle is from the perspective of his window, as we rarely zoom in on the faces of those Jeff is watching. Like Jeff, we are restricted and forced to see everything from one point of view, confined to what we can see from a large window. We only see what Jeff sees, which makes piecing together a murder quite difficult.
This is what makes "Rear Window" so unique. Everything we see is shown in plain view and without telling us anything. Instead, we're shown the images and piece together the puzzle along with Jeff. Of course, the puzzle is incomplete, as we only see fragments of the what goes on in the Thorvald house. But where would the fun be if we saw everything that happened in their house?
Jeff is incapable of interacting with what he sees through that window. He can only make snide comments about Ms. Torso being so friendly with every man who walks through her door or the song writer that can't finish his newest number. While he puts everything together and realizes that it equals murder, we watch only his eyes dart around. He is powerless to stop anything from outside his window from happening, including Lisa going into the Thorvald's apartment to find clues.
Which brings me to the biggest reason I love "Rear Window." Because of Jeff's inability to interact with anything he sees, his tendency to spy on people who don't know they're being spied on and the limited point of view, "Rear Window" takes a strange stance on movie watching. After all, when we are watching movies, are we not spying on private lives?
Think of Jeff's window as the movie screen, which the opening of the film shows the curtains opening up like a theater curtain. We don't know these people, but they're going about their daily lives, unaware that we are watching them. In a sense, watching a movie is voyeurism. It is wrong to spy on others, but we do it every time we go to the theater.
"That's a secret private world your looking into out there," says the detective Jeff hires to investigate this incident. "People do a lot of things in private that they couldn't possibly explain in public."
"Rear Window" is one of the rare films that puts the protagonist in the same position as the audience - bound, limited to a restricted point of view, quick to make assumptions about everything he sees through his screen, taking a passive role throughout the film and keeps everything out of arms reach, including the people who care about him.
Perhaps that is the reason Jeff doesn't want to be Lisa. Not because the two of them are from very different worlds and both of them are unwilling to accommodate the other, but because Jeff is only interested in what we can see through his lens. Jeff loves photography and spying on his neighbors, looking at others from a far distance.
Lisa is more than willing to indulge Jeff in his obsessions to spy, and offer him fancy dinners with champagne, give him free publicity in the New York photography scene. All in the hopes that Jeff will settle down and marry her. Yet Jeff keeps his distance, as Lisa even points out one night while they're making out, his body might be here, but his mind is on the other side of the room.
It isn't until Lisa becomes apart of his little spy game and actively searches for answers to the murder that Jeff begins to notice her. He sees the adventurous side of her that gets him excited.
The strange part of all this is that each room Jeff spys on has a relationship to him and Lisa. The Thorvald's and their constant nagging show exactly what Jeff wants to avoid with Lisa, while Ms. Lonely-Hearts is what Jeff is doing to Lisa - leaving her sad and feeling unwanted. The composer is searching for something to love, and ends up creating a beautiful melody which becomes Jeff and Lisa's song. While a newlywed couple who have recently moved across the way spend the entire film with the shades down, only to bicker about money by the end of the movie.
I'm not sure if that was intentional or not, but that is part of the charm of "Rear Window." Every moment adds up in this film, even though it never feels like it should. Most of the time, the images feel random and only add to the slice of life that Jeff is now stuck in. But as the clues to murder pile up and we watch these families and loners change over time, everything falls into place. It takes multiple viewings, but each time this film gets better.
"Rear Window" manages to do all of this without even trying. This all feels so laid-back and non-chelant, a film that takes place entirely from one room with a massive view. It walks a tight rope between entertainment and believability, but in this case that rope is so tiny that it is practically invisible. Which makes the film look as though it is walking on air.
Thursday, September 10, 2015
I often find myself asking one question all the time - Above all else, what should a film be?
Over the course of this countdown, we've seen twenty different ways to answer that question. A film can be atmospheric like "Seven" and "The Night Of The Hunter," or it could be touching like "It's A Wonderful Life" and "Fargo," while others could be suspenseful like "Strangers On A Train." Of course, every once in a while, we get an analytical film that touches upon social issues and cultures of all shapes and sizes, like with "Ran" and "WALL-E."
But, when it comes right down to it, none of this means anything if a movie isn't one thing - entertaining.
I'm not afraid to admit it, for all of cinemas' subtleties, advancements and vast range of storytelling, that would go no where if audiences did not have fun with these films. The reason I hate films like "Casablanca," "Blade Runner" and most Ingmar Bergman movies is quite simple, I do not find them entertaining. Film is certainly an art form, but it is also a form of entertainment, like any other media or art form. If art does not give you any enjoyment, then it fails.
I bring this up, because we have now arrived in my top five favorite films of all time, and we are starting off with what I consider the most entertaining movie I have ever seen. For others, they'll jump to the original trilogy for "Star Wars," or the Indiana Jones films, and more recently the "Lord Of The Rings" trilogy. While I have a blast with each of those movies, there is one movie that makes me smile all the way through. A film that has never failed to get me excited and appreciate how much fun cinema can be.
That film is Ishiro Honda's 1964 monster epic, "Mothra Vs. Godzilla." Oh yeah, we're going back to the Godzilla franchise.
While "Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan" is still the film I have watched more than any other, "Mothra Vs. Godzilla" is most likely the second highest, and certainly the Godzilla film I have watched the most. This was strange as a kid, since my favorite Godzilla movie growing up was "King Kong vs. Godzilla," for having a long and drawn-out battle between two titans atop Mt. Fuji. Though, over the years, I realized the plot and characters did not hold up and the only reason to watch the movie was because of the final confrontation, like most giant monster movies.
But "Mothra Vs. Godzilla" taught me that it was possible for a daikaiju film to have a strong narrative that was as interesting to watch as the monster scenes. That a monster movie shouldn't be only about the monsters, but the people effected by these monsters and their attempts to combat them, or simply survive.
Granted, looking back on this, 1954's "Godzilla" covered this topic better than any other monster movie, but that film didn't have Godzilla fighting a giant moth and the advanced effects they would have in 1964.
The film starts with a massive typhoon hitting Japan, destroying an industrial park area. More surprising though is that a giant egg washes up on a Japanese beach, leaving everyone surprised as to where it came from. Before researchers can find out about this egg, a business man by the name of Kumayama (Yoshifumi Tajima) buys the egg from the local fishermen and intends to make a theme park with the egg as the center attraction.
A local reporter (Akira Takarada) and his photographer (Yuriko Hoshi) look into the matter and find that Kumayama is being funded by one of the richest business men in Japan, Banzo Torahata (Kenji Sahara). As the two discuss their plans, they're visited by two unexpected guests - Mothra's twin fairies, who claim that the egg belongs to Mothra and that it must be returned to them, before Mothra hatches and causes great damage across Japan.
Though this might be the least of their problems, as it seems that typhoon washed ashore something bigger and more dangerous than Mothra.
"Mothra Vs. Godzilla" has an interesting atmosphere, unlike any other monster film out of Japan. Other than "King Kong vs. Godzilla," this was the first film Toho would make that has two monsters battling it out. Prior to this, they focused on solo monster endeavors, like "Rodan," "Varan" and most notably, "Godzilla" and "Mothra." As such, Toho wanted to make this match-up feel grand and epic, or at least more so than usual. Their solution to this was to carry over as many themes and atmosphere from "Godzilla" and "Mothra" into this film.
"Godzilla" was a morbid, gritty look at the lives of a frail Japan being savagely beat down by a giant monster, made of the same atomic fire they had witnessed first hand. Throughout all the destruction and chaos, the film chooses to focus on individuals stuck in this unbelievable scenario, like a shot where Godzilla is about to destroy an apartment complex and we see every window full of people looking up in never-ending horror.
"Mothra," however, was less about the frailty of man, and more about the horror of man, in particular greed. In that film, Mothra's twin fairies are kidnapped and forced into show business, with Mothra traveling across Japan to save them and destroying anything in its path. Ultimately, "Mothra" is about the pain that man inflicts upon itself.
One might think these two have little in common. One is dark and disturbing, while the other is whimsical and prone to break into musical numbers. This is why these two were born to fight one another. To watch these two drastically different styles of filmmaking and atmosphere clash and give us a product that is the best of both films.
Much like in "Mothra," this film finds something of the giant moth's being used to make a profit. Both Kumayama and Torohata are unwilling to give the egg back, since Mothra has no legal power. Where this film differs is that these men are far more fleshed-out than the villain in "Mothra."
Kumayama saw an opportunity to make a name for himself and refuses to let it go. It seems to be less about the money for him, and more about reputation, as his projections for how much they'll make out of this are lower than Torohata's numbers. When the fishermen complain that they haven't gotten their money for the egg and the land to build the park, Kumayama insists that he will pay them back the next day, even though there's a rumor the park will never open due to the bad press.
By the end of the film, Kumayama is a desperate man who wanted everything to be fair, only for Torohata to betray his loyalty and use him to become even more powerful. Simply because that's how business works.
"Mothra Vs. Godzilla" takes the themes of greed and capitalism of "Mothra," but gives it a more human touch by making the characters relatable and sometimes heart-breaking, like those being destroyed in "Godzilla."
The size and scope of "Godzilla" is also still in full effect, though is enhanced by having superior effects in this film. In particular, Godzilla's opening rampage is one of the most haunting monster sequences I can think of. It starts off with Godzilla rising out of the ground, as if he were a zombie ready to feast again. Once Godzilla reaches Nagoya, we start with seeing Godzilla's figure way in the distance, only for the camera to get closer and closer, until Godzilla is destroying a building right in front of our faces.
This sequence makes full use of rear projection and super-imposing images of Godzilla over live shots of Nagoya fleeing from this monstrosity. "Godzilla" used this a few times, but here we see Godzilla tower over the massive city landscape, to the point where it looks like he is still miles away and is already bigger than most of the skyscrapers.
For this reason, and many more throughout the film, "Mothra Vs. Godzilla" has the best effects of any Toho monster film. During the 1950s and 1960s, no other film studio was doing what Toho did and was doing so well - they made creatures bigger than anything we had constructed up to that point and making them seem believable and still terrifying. We would fight it with everything we had, even though we were sure it wouldn't do anything.
The filmmakers understand the scale and power these abominations possess, and that they offer a struggle we might lose but certainly worth fighting.
Unlike almost any other monster film, the military in "Mothra Vs. Godzilla" is intelligent. They understand what they're fighting and know that it cannot be stopped, only incapacitated or moved to an area with fewer casualties. They lure Godzilla to an area with no civilians, and drive him to where they want him to go with fire, with the effects crew accidentally setting Godzilla's head on fire at one point (though it is shocking to see on film). Once there, the military unleashes millions of volts of electricity on Godzilla, which do down Godzilla at one point.
Once again, this makes the characters not feel like they're putting on a performance to the camera, but that they're humans doing their best to fight something beyond their power.
This is why "Mothra Vs. Godzilla" is the most entertaining movie to me. It takes my favorite movie genre of giant monsters, never skips on a chance for exciting action with one-of-a-kind effects, and still plans out every scene, character and monster fight to the last detail to give us a movie that respects its audience. It combines eye-popping visuals with a great story, something you don't see too often in the monster genre.
Of course, the crowning moments in the film are the fights between Mothra and Godzilla. Mothra, being a creäture of beauty and kindness (in terms of monsters), does not fight like any other monster. She prefers to out-wit her opponents and get them in a position where they cannot hit her, using her maneuverability and wind to keep them away. Godzilla is a monster of brute strength and will take a threat directly to the face if he has to. Together, these two have a cat-and-mouse style fight, where you're never too sure who is the cat and mouse.
This is made more suspenseful when we're told that Mothra is dying and has little strength left, but will use the last of it to stop Godzilla.
The battle at the end of the film is as fun to watch, though I always find myself switching sides on who to root for. Mothra's egg finally hatches and gives birth to two Mothra larva, who immediately head for Godzilla to fight him. This turns into a battle of brains against brawn and the monster equivalent of David against Goliath. The twin Mothra's can only dodge Godzilla's atomic ray (which apparently is now strong enough to melt solid rock) and use their webbing to slow him down.
What helps sell these fights, as well as any scenes with Godzilla and Mothra, is the music. Composer Akira Ifukube scored nearly every Toho monster film between 1954 and 1995, but "Mothra Vs. Godzilla" is his best work. His style of music was not to ecompany the scene, but enhance the atmosphere and give some moments a bigger emotional punch. This is the film where Ifukube would nail down the classic Godzilla theme, which would be used in nearly every Godzilla film from that point on. That theme carries a power that matches Godzilla's slow methodical pace, but also his immeasurable strength, like a bomb that has crashed and could go off at any moment.
Yet the quiet almost lullaby of Mothra's theme provides a nice contrast to the Godzilla theme. These pieces of music perfectly capture their respective characters, and makes their fights far more intense when their themes are also fighting for control.
"Mothra Vs. Godzilla" is a great example of every film aspect coming together to produce the most entertaining film in the Godzilla franchise. The effects have never been better, the writing is logical and relatable, the acting matches the writing perfectly, the music is larger than life and makes so many scenes better, and the monsters are still amazing to watch. This film manages to take what "Godzilla" and "Mothra" started and makes it even better, providing a film that always makes me excited when I see it.
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
No matter what a movie is about, it is impressive every time a film can go the entire length and not use a word of recognizable dialogue. "Shaun The Sheep" falls into this category, and garners more acclaim for being both animated and family-friendly.
While the story is far from innovative, as a flock of sheep head for the big city to rescue their owner, the clay-animation is breath-taking as always from an Aardman production, as we have seen in other films like "Chicken Run" and "Wallace And Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit."
This time around, the animation jumps out far more due to how lively the scenery is. Due to the lack of dialogue, we are free to pay more attention to the finer details, like how each of the tuff of fur on the sheep moves or how the water is so graceful and pleasant. Many of the smaller points in "Shaun The Sheep" are the ones I remember the most, like Shaun getting his motivation from passing buses and billboards.
While I would take "Wallace And Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit" over "Shaun The Sheep" for its grand scale and never-ending barrage of jokes, I have nothing but respect for this film. It teaches children and adults that you don't necessarily need dialogue to tell a story. Film is a visual medium, and sometimes we get more out of an expression or gesture than we can out of any words. This is far more difficult in animation, when you're dealing with something not human and have to sculpt everything by hand.
Then again, when everything turns out just right, it makes the result all that much more special.
Final Grade: A-
Sunday, September 6, 2015
Pixar is one film studio that continually pushes the boundaries of what a movie can and cannot do. Their worlds are not built around logic, but imagination. Instead of telling a story that we can relate to, we are transported to a new world filled to the brim with relatable characters, and timeless tales that appeal to young and old.
But one thing Pixar has been missing is an absolute masterpiece.
Don't get me wrong, there is not a bad Pixar film. But as good as "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles" are, they are still innovators that began the 3D animated genre. These films were still trying to figure out the boundaries of what is possible. Notice the lack of humans in the early Pixar films? Maybe that's because they didn't trust their animation of humans to look believable. It could be more lenient with toys, bugs, monsters and fish because of their vast imagination and storytelling.
It wasn't until 2008 that Pixar would produce their masterpiece, a film that not only takes what "Toy Story" started, but perfects it. This movie was Andrew Stanton's "WALL-E."
Every time I watch "WALL-E" it gets better. I find something new that I did not pick up on before, like robots in the background, scenes that reinforce continuous themes and character motivation. I remember once watching "WALL-E" on television, but missing the first thirty minutes. Later that day, I wanted to watch the scenes I missed on Netflix, and I ended up rewatching the entire film.
I watched "WALL-E" twice in one day and didn't mind. That was the point where I fell in love with this film.
Sometime in the 29th century, the earth has been evacuated due to all the trash and pollution, allowing man to live out in space, while robots clean up the mess. After 700 years though, the trash has hardly even begun to be resolved and there is only one machine left to pick it all up - WALL-E, who after so much time of being active and possible alone, has developed a personality and a curiosity of the trash he handles, to the point of collecting the many unique times he finds.
One day though, a surprise arrives in the form of a space ship that drops off a probe - EVE, who is looking for something and continually fails to find it. WALL-E is fascinated by the sight of another robot and intends to show EVE the wonders that the vast world has to offer, including a green plant that he just discovered.
There is so much to love about "WALL-E," but let's start with the most obvious - the lack of dialogue throughout most of the film.
The first line of dialogue is spoken 40 minutes into the film. Yet "WALL-E" is able to say so much without saying a word. We see that WALL-E has been alone for a long time, that a massive corporation, Buy 'N Large, has taken over the world and controls every basic function of human existence, and that as long and hard as WALL-E has been working, building several spires of garbage that trump many of the buildings throughout this city, he isn't even close to being done, but he is more concerned about exploring and discovering than he is solving this problem. The garbage isn't going anywhere and neither is he, so WALL-E might as well have some fun with it.
WALL-E is like Sisyphus if he came with his life and learned to love it. Like the film keeps telling us with references to the copy of "Hello, Dolly!" that WALL-E keeps with him - there's lots of world out there. So go out and see what it has to offer.
"WALL-E" takes what makes silent films so powerful, their ability to give us this in-depth universe without saying a word, and gives it a bright color pallets and one of the most believable and fascinating romances in recent memory.
The great part of the relationship between WALL-E and EVE is that isn't hammered in with sexual tension and is instead replaced with companionship. Much like the relationship between Marge and Norm in "Fargo," as well as George and Mary in "It's A Wonderful Life" to a lesser extent, WALL-E and EVE only need to look at each other to appreciate their existence. Simply being in the company of the other is their greatest gift.
EVE is bound by her directive, like all other robots it seems. But as she witnesses WALL-E and his passion for learning everything he can about the world around him, EVE learns there is more to her existence than just her mission. WALL-E seems to have that effect on robots, allowing them to break out of their routine and see so many possibilities, as a reminder that any creäture shouldn't merely survive, but live. WALL-E's sense that one can be more is contagious.
EVE's joy when she learns how to dance or her curiosity when she touches a light bulb and lights it up drives her evolution, while also making WALL-E appreciate her even more. And all of this while still being about two animated robots. That is impressive, to say the least.
Some criticize "WALL-E" for its portrayal of humans. At the end of the first act, we are introduced to what humans have become after 700 years in space - they are blobs, confined to floating wheelchairs, never noticing the world around them and always in need of machines for assistance.
But I think "WALL-E" isn't attempting to predict the future, merely to point out a trend in human behavior - to rely more on temporary solutions than one should, in replacement for what should be permanent solutions.
The floating wheelchairs were meant for old people to move around, yet now everyone seems to be fused to these chairs. They do this because it was easier to move around that way, much like it was easier to travel into space than it was to clean up the earth. In a way, humanity has been reduced to the state of small children, where everything is provided for us, so we would have no need to walk anywhere, and we are only concerned with our toys.
This where that line from "Hello, Dolly!" takes on a whole new meaning - there's lots of world out there. So don't see it from the confines of your floating wheelchair.
Technology was meant to make man evolve and become more advanced, not make life easier. "WALL-E" has taken that trend to its logical conclusion - where man has not advanced for 700 years, because it was easier to survive than it was to live.
The great way that "WALL-E" goes about this is to not give grand speeches about stopping pollution and corporate take-vers, but to have us be eye-witnesses to what we are missing, and letting the audience draw its own conclusions. Instead of giving us a glimpse of what life should be like, we can be evangelists to a better life style.
When WALL-E is on earth, for example, the storage truck that he has converted into a home is full of odds and ends he has collected over the years, including plastic spoons, rubber ducks, christmas lights. Owning things isn't a problem for WALL-E, but as we see through the copious amounts of useless trash in the world, it is when owning things leads to irresponsible behavior that it is.
Yet the humans onboard the spaceship are anything from slobs, it is that they are living the only lives they know how to live - confined to a wheelchair. Everything is automated, and the only human on the ship who has a job is the captain, who complains that he has so little to do. All of this demonstrates that humans strive to accomplish something with their lives and do something meaningful. When that opportunity arrives in the form of a return to earth, it is no surprise that the captain jumps at the chance.
All of this, as well as the robots learning to follow more than their directive, contributes to the theme of being more than what you were born (or made) to be. To realize our full potential and that the easy way out not always the best option.
Finally, one of the notable aspects of "WALL-E" are the many similarities to another great science fiction piece - "2001: A Space Odyssey."
I'm not talking about minor nods, like how the auto-pilot for the space ship has a big red eye like HAL-9000 or "Also Sprach Zarathustra" playing when the captain learns to walk, but continuous themes of evolution and technology throughout both films. This makes "WALL-E" is a wonderful companion piece to "2001."
Of course, the problem with this is "2001: A Space Odyssey" is one of the most ambiguous films of all time. It seems like every time someone watches it, they get an entirely different meaning out of the film. So my interpretation of "2001" might be different from everyone else, yet still worth noting.
And I see "2001: A Space Odyssey" as thus - It is the tale of man's evolution, which was achieved when we learned how to use tools. To find items that would help us become more than we could be on our own. But eventually, man would evolve to the point where our tools would over take us, in other words, technology. We would rely on those tools far too much, and we would no longer advance as a species. Man could only evolve further by conquering its tools.
"WALL-E" shows those tools have now become more advanced than us. We created tools that can run our lives for us and have now gotten to the point that they can run a spaceship on their own, and the only human doing anything is giving the morning announcements. Our reliance on those tools has left man's evolution at a stand still, or perhaps a de-evolution as we see in through the many pictures of the previous captains. As the figures of the captains grow larger, so does the auto-pilot's control over the ship.
It isn't until we learn that man must do more than survive that our evolution can begin again. At times, "WALL-E" feels like a natural progression of "2001: A Space Odyssey," which makes both films even better.
"WALL-E" is the best film out of Pixar's amazing library. While still containing the classic trademarks of a Pixar film, it tries so many filmmaking techniques. From the lack of dialogue, to the gender reversal of EVE being the hero, to the continuous themes of learning one's potential and striving for more. This is one of the few films I can watch over again and never get tired of.
Friday, September 4, 2015
Fun fact about myself: I'm an avid sports fan. I love all of my local Washington state teams, including all the Seattle sports teams like the Mariners and Seahawks, and when I have nothing better to do I'll watch SportsCenter and see the highlights of sports from about the country. I go to as many baseball games as I can, and attend as many Eastern Washington University Eagles football games when I can find the time.
I choose to write about movies over sports because I feel like I can describe and critique a film more passionately than I can football and baseball. It isn't that there is nothing to discuss with sports, thousands of sports journalists and radio talk show hosts would strongly disagree with that, but that film is a language that I better understand.
But one thing I've always done is keep my worlds of sports and cinema separate from each other. For simple reasons - they have nothing to do with each other. Sports and movies are vastly different forms of entertainment that have very little in common. Sports films are a different story, as they are more about underdogs overcoming impossible odds, while using a particular sport as little more than a backdrop.
However, "Trainwreck" is rare instance where film and sports collide, without using any sport movie tropes, and it feels natural. Sports are not there to make the actions of our heroes seem grand or worthy of a massive audience, but because sports play a massive part in these characters lives, whether they know it or not. From Bill Hader's character interacting with all sorts of sports figures, including Amar'e Stoudemire, Tony Romo and LeBron James, to Amy Schumer's sex-crazed lifestyle that leads her into a relationship with WWE wrestler John Cena.
No matter how crazy and dramatic the story gets in "Trainwreck," sports always seem to be around the corner.
I adored Bill Hader's character throughout this film. Always considering the feelings of others, while not being in the sports therapy business simply for easy access to front-row tickets. There's a scene where Bill interacts with a group of guys that only seem interested in getting seats to the Knicks or Yankees game, and not being his friend. He even admits that before he got his job, he didn't care about sports.
Bill doesn't see all of this as a stepping stone to see the greatest athletes of our time, but to help others be the greatest they can be. It also helps that he has a great sense of humor about it all, especially when failing miserably to play basketball against LeBron James.
If there is any problem with "Trainwreck," it is that many scenes go on far longer than they need to, and most of the drama with Amy Schumer and her father feels tacked on and does not amount to much by the end of the film. Most of those plot threads are resolved by the end of the second act, which made me think the film was over, only to find out there was another 40 minutes left. This film will have you checking your watch a couple of times.
I will remember "Trainwreck" for Bill Hader's performance and being able to combine sports, comedy and cinema into a near seamless blend where everything felt natural. It never felt like the athletes were more than cameos, but extensions of the world to show the scope of how sports have touched this world. While it is long, most of the jokes work and the drama with Amy Schumer and Bill Hader is far from intolerable. I respect "Trainwreck" for making sports look great in cinema without being cliché.
Final Grade: B
Wednesday, September 2, 2015
From the tragic and depressing "Ran," we move on to the film that makes me cry tears of joy every time.
The strange mystery of life is that it can be simple yet complicated at the same time. Our struggles, dreams and the many lives that we touch make the journey perplexing, as we strive to make our time in the world matter, yet many obstacles stand in our way. But the joy of living is that the greatest enjoyments are always right there with us. Everything that we've accomplished stays with us, and the greatest pleasures are often the simplest to find.
This is why I've always felt cinema has had a difficult time grasping what it means to live. To do so takes time, progression and a level of relatability to goes beyond being a character in a story, but a living breathing person. Few films have accomplished this, but the movie that does this best is Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life." This is one that goes beyond being a holiday classic, and becomes the tale of all men, aspiring to lofty dreams and end up creating something even better.
Frank Capra began working on this film immediately after World War II, intending to create something that all men and women could understand and smile about. Capra only ever had one person in mind to play the lead role, James Stewart, who had also gotten back from the war. In the end, they created a timeless fantasy that both Capra and Stewart had said many times was their personal favorite.
George Bailey (Stewart) has spent his entire life in the small town of Bedford Falls, but from a young age had big dreams and goals of going out into the world and exploring its vast and magnificent wonders. But every time George has an opportunity to journey outside of this shabby hunk of earth, his giving and caring nature causes him to come back to these people.
This is a man who feels trapped by walls of nickels and dimes, like a great eagle stuck in a tiny bird-cage. All he wants is to spread his wings and learn from the world.
Bedford Falls is a town run almost completely run by one man, Mr. Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who sees others as little more than dollars and a means to an end. If he doesn't own it, his desire is to crush it so that no one can have it. But one establishment Potter can't get rid of is the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan, started by George's father, as a way to get the citizens of Bedford Falls out of the slums without crawling to Potter.
George's father admits that Bedford Falls isn't a place for anyone to live unless they're willing to submit to Mr. Potter, who constantly calls the Building & Loans a charity ward for undeserving people.
But the great thing about "It's A Wonderful Life" is that, for the first two-thirds of the film, we get to meet these "undeserving people." And not just a couple of citizens, but roughly half of the town. Ernie the enthusiastic cab driver, Burt the dedicated yet quirky police officer, Violet who likes to have a good time, Mr. Gower the owner of the drug store who loves George to death, Mr. Martini the foreign owner of the bar (shocking), the entire Bailey clan full of independent people not afraid to speak their mind, especially about Mr. Potter. There's a slew more that we get to know intimately.
This doesn't feel like a collection of people living in the same area, but a town that has known each other for years. People who have grown up together, gone through loses together, learned from one another. It is a community that helps the lonely individual become more than he can on his own.
George is the definition of a selfless man. At the drop of a hat, he gives up his trip to Europe to keep his father's establishment from falling into Potter's hands. When he gets married to the girl of his dreams, Mary (Donna Reed), the two give up their honeymoon money after the Great Depression begins. George even gives his kid brother Harry all the money he had so that Harry could attend college, where he would meet his wife.
Though George would do anything for his fellow-man, he is not without a spine. George is always willing to crack down on Mr. Potter's attempts to get the Building & Loan, even to the point of calling Potter a "warped, frustrated old man."
George Bailey has many similarities to Marge Gunderson from "Fargo," both are kind-hearted individuals who put others first, yet have a quiet strength that they must keep. The difference between the two is that Marge has found enjoyment of life's simple treasures, while George never gives up on his dream to eventually leave Bedford Falls.
In a way, that makes George a more relatable character - he is imperfect. He is frustrated with how his life has turned out, and never being able to leave his home town, no matter how hard he tries. At one point, George admits that he has every day of his life planned out, and none of that includes marriage or working in the loan business. George isn't unkind about any of this, but it is secretly building up inside of him, waiting for the right moment to explode.
Eventually, that moment does come.
On Christmas Eve, George's uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaced $8,000 as the bank examiner shows up. George and Billy spend the entire day retracing his steps, destroying his office, to find nothing. In a moment of anger, George snaps at Billy, saying that one of them is going to jail and isn't going to be him. He goes begging to Mr. Potter (who secretly has the misplaced $8,000) and Potter repays him by calling the police on George.
As the night progresses, George's frustration builds and all the slightly bad things in his life become big gaping problems, like the drafty house and his daughter coming home from school sick. After praying for help from God and getting punched in the face for his troubles, George considers taking a leap off the city bridge and ending it all.
That is until his Guardian Angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), steps in. I mentioned this was a fantasy, right?
George, still angered about everything that has happened tonight, begins to think that everyone would be better off if he wasn't around. Like Potter told him, he's worth more dead than he is alive. This leads to the now famous sequence of Clarence showing George what the world would be like if he was never born.
In any other movie, this type of sequence would feel tacked on and forced. But in "It's A Wonderful Life," it is a necessary scene to demonstrate the theme of one man effecting so many lives. Plus, because we've spent the last hour and a half getting to know this town, the impact of seeing their dark and uncaring other halves hits us as much as it hits George.
Our little family has turned bitter and ugly.
It is at this point we learn how much of a caring and righteous individual George Bailey is. George saved his brother from drowning, and his brother would go on to save thousands of lives in WWII. By continuing his father's work, George provided hundreds of low-income people with good houses. He created a family with Mary that will lead to several more generations of Bailey's that will be instilled with his values.
This isn't the story of one man touching so many other lives, but how every person touches so many lives.
"Strange, isn't it?" says Clarence. "Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"
Ultimately, this leads to the best part of the film, the ending. In my opinion, this is a perfect ending. I could watch the last ten minutes by itself and bawl my eyes out. If I watch the other two hours though, that only makes it worse, not to mention there are at least two other parts in the film that make me cry.
Perhaps it is the songs the town of Bedford Falls since at the end, as they all celebrate the season and George Bailey. Perhaps it is the somewhat corny but necessary message of "No man is a failure as long as he has friends."
Or it could be the film was building up to these last ten minutes. Showing George do these incredible things yet still remain an imperfect individual, spending so much time on the citizens of Bedford Falls, the sequence of showing George what everything would be like if he wasn't born - everything has led up to this. The point where Bedford Falls shows George that same kindness, to remind us that people are life's greatest gift.
"It's A Wonderful Life" is one of the very few films that speaks to everyone who watches it. Even if this film doesn't make you cry or weep, there is still a connection to our need to improve the world. That if we strive for our biggest dreams, even if we don't reach them, we still end up creating something to be proud of. It is a film, not about man, but about the individual.