Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Movie Review: "The Phantom Of The Opera" (1925)

How many well executed elements does it take for a movie to become more than just good? Can it really take just one fantastic performance from a wonderful actor for the film to transcend so many other ones that came before it? 

I believe the answer is no.

I’ve always felt that truly great cinema always has more than one element that makes it worth watching. For example, when I wrote my review of “The Passion Of The Joan Of Arc,” it lead to an interesting discussion about the film and silent cinema where I realized that Maria Falconetti, who played Joan of Arc, did give a performance that changed how acting was pursued from that point on. Yet, even with this revelation, I still couldn’t bring myself to say the film does anything for me. “The Passion Of The Joan Of Arc” may have a revolutionary performance, but that’s about it. That’s not enough for me to recommend the movie to others.

We have another beloved silent film from the 1920s that falls into the same category, “The Phantom Of The Opera.” I can understand why this would be so well received upon its release and could continue to entertain audiences even today, through the makeup and performance of Lon Chaney, also known as “The Man Of A Thousand Faces.” The problem is that once the initial affect of Chaney and his sunken-in eyes and massive jaw have faded away, the film doesn’t have much to offer.

I think most people are aware of the story of the Phantom (Lon Chaney), of a man who was once a great composer and intellect yet became badly scared and was rejected by society, forced to live underground and hide within the catacombs of the opera house.

One day though, the Phantom discovers a new talent of the play, Christine (Mary Philbin), and is smitten by her. He begins to send cryptic and angry messages to the directors, saying to give Christine larger roles or else terrible fates will befall them. As Christine’s fame begins to soar, the Phantom makes his presence known to her and wishes to make her the greatest star in the world, if she promises to accept him as her master.

First off, the performance of Lon Chaney is wonderful. He did his own make-up and design for the Phantom, and it works to keep him intimidating yet mysterious. I can understand why his face in this film has translated to one of the most iconic images of horror. It is a difficult face to forget and the moment of his eventual reveal is suspenseful and perfectly paced.

Also, I enjoy the use of color filters used throughout the film. As you can tell, this is a silent film but it takes full advantage of using filters to add atmosphere and tone to many of the scenes. The brightly lit opera house has a yellow filter, while the dark torture chambers deep below Paris are a dark purple. Though it is strange during the giant party when everything is in proper color, only to go back to filters once the scene is over.

However, outside of those elements, I couldn’t find myself getting drawn into the film. The story is rather unremarkable and the characters, outside of the Phantom, don’t have much going for them. Christine is mostly reduced to playing the damsel in distress, while her boyfriend Raoul is merely set on saving her. Many of the scenes that lack the Phantom just leave me wanting to see more of the only interesting character.

So while Lon Chaney is the vehicle that drives the greatness of the 1925 version of “The Phantom Of The Opera,” it is honestly not enough for me. A great performance and make-up can only take a film so far, especially when the remaining story and characters fail to pull their own weight. 

If you enjoy the story of the Phantom, really like great make-up or are interested in learning more about horror icons, try this one a try. If you’re in it for an involving story like me, don’t be surprised if you don’t exactly what you came for.

Final Grade: C

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Hopper #5

A small group of films today. Just two, but ones that are quite different and have very little in common other than the fact they both are on celluloid. These also come with different experiences while I watched them, with one being good and other being abysmal. 

The sad truth is that if you have a bad experience while watching a movie, it will color the outlook you have on the film. For example, I was deathly ill when I first watched “Fight Club.” I tried to pay attention to this complex web of subplots and metaphors, but all the headaches, runny noses and cough syrup made me woozy and sleepy. Much of the film was lost on me. 

To this day, “Fight Club” is a strange piece of work that escapes me and have yet to give it another try, all because of the experience I had with it. Thinking about the movie only revives unpleasant memories that are best left forgotten. This certainly isn’t the films’ fault, but it is something that cannot be helped.

With that said, let’s take a look at...

“Thor: The Dark World” (2013)

A word of advice: If you can help it, avoid going to a movie that you know will gross a lot at the box office on opening weekend. Or at the very least, go see it during the theater’s least busiest hours.

Opening weekends tend to drag out the people who have little respect for those around them. They go see movies like “Thor: The Dark World” intent on having a good time with their buddies, but believe that they’re the only ones in the audience that matter. They’ll speak as loudly as they want, text on phones even after the film has started, constantly leave to refill their popcorn and soda and even whip out the e-cigarette. 

That is the curse of opening weekend. You bring so many people of different creeds and backgrounds together that you’re bound to have some who lack proper theater etiquette and ruin the whole experience for everyone.

Because these people forget that film is an experience. Not just a source of entertainment, but an intimate moment between you and the world of cinema, as you witness the unbridled power of the moving picture. It captivates and enthralls you, makes you feel like you’re a part of their world. 

To see the glimmer of a smart phone out the corner of your eye takes you out of that moment. Once you’re out of that moment, it’s hard to get back into it. Especially when the same people keep doing it constantly. 

If it seems like I’m rambling on about this subject, its only because I am. If you came to read about my thoughts on “Thor: The Dark World,” I apologize. As I write my thoughts and experience with the movie, the only thing that comes to mind is how rude and irritating the people in the audience were.

Also that it needed more Loki. 

The few scenes that deterred me from those sitting across from me as they drew another smoke from their e-cigs were the ones that featured Loki (Tom Hiddelston), the Asgardian god of trickery, as he does a great many things, including mess with his brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth), get revenge on those who have wronged him, save the universe from the Dark Elves alongside Thor and secure his rightful place as the ruler of Asgard.

When Hiddelston is on screen, you can tell he is having a blast. His energy shines through every time through the simplest gesture or smile, which makes Loki the character that I want to root for. 

“Thor: The Dark World” builds off of Loki’s character through “The Avengers” and focuses on his downfall, but also the reasons for why Loki chose to attack Earth in that film. In “The Avengers” his reasons weren’t fully explained, but here we get a better idea through Hiddelston’s interactions with his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins).

The true shining moments are when his sense of humor is exposed. There’s a scene where Thor breaks Loki out of prison and Loki believes he should be disguised. Being the god of trickery, he can make himself or others look like anyone he wants. Hijinks ensue, Thor gets a new look and another Avenger is thrown into that mess.

Overall, while there were parts of “Thor: The Dark World” that I enjoyed, the experience of watching it was diminished by those around me. Unfortunately, that is what I will walk away from this movie from. Not remembering the action sequences or the comedy, but the lack of respect and etiquette on opening night (and Loki).

Final Grade: N/A

“12 Years A Slave” (2013)

When this film ended, I was reminded of a quote that filmmaker and illustrator Don Bluth once said about putting terrifying imagery in children’s movies, “As long as you have a happy ending, you can put anything in front of a child and they’ll be fine.”

While “12 Years A Slave” may not be terrifying and certainly not a children’s film, that quote still rung in the back of my mind. 

This is a film that doesn’t shy away from showing the brutality and harsh world of being a black slave during mid-1800s America. We see every last detail of the world that Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives when he is kidnapped from his home in New York and sold as a slave in the South. Solomon fights to survive every day, as he deals with whippings, unforgiving overseers, incompetent slaves and backstabbing from everyone around him. 

This attitude of savagery and cruelness is constant throughout the film, as it should be. We are meant to sympathize with Solomon and his struggle to endure that which he wasn’t supposed to be apart of. 

It is not until a traveling carpenter, Bass (Brad Pitt), comes to town that this consistent stress is alleviated. He seems a man far ahead of his time, who sees that white men and black men are equal in the eyes of god and that slaves are more than just property, much to the chagrin of Solomon’s master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). 

This leads to the climax and resolution of the film, which is quite possibly where Don Bluth’s quote resonates with me. It speaks volumes about not only Bluth’s work as a filmmaker, but also the impression “12 Years A Slave” leaves me with.

While I may not fully agree with Bluth’s feelings about terrifying imagery being coupled with a happy ending, this kind of philosophy does leave the audience with an impact. To see our protagonist triumph after all that has happened to him and to reclaim that which he lost makes his victory all the sweeter. It is a simple yet effective way to make us care and appreciate the main character.

On top of that, “12 Years A Slave” is superb from a technical standpoint. I found myself being impressed constantly by the cinematography and sound work. Many shots of the film will go uninterrupted by edits and linger on the full affect of scenes, such as Solomon being whipped or nearly hung to death. 

There are also many scenes that lack music and instead focus solely on sound effects. The rustling of leaves and sloshing of mud is often more effective than an entire orchestra, especially with so many scenes taking place in the cotton fields or on a ranch. 

Overall, “12 Years A Slave” is an impressive piece of work, with wonderful sound design, cinematography that matches the longing and hopelessness of the situation, underscored but captivating acting by Ejiofor and Fassbender and mood and atmosphere that never lets up. A depiction of slavery that is honest and unmerciful, even if it’s not always fun.

Final Grade: B+

This guy is not amused by those who text and smoke during the movie...Do not upset him.

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.