Thursday, August 20, 2015

Paul's Favorite Films - Number Eight

Now that we're in the top ten, we finally get to take a look at my favorite filmmaker - Akira Kurosawa.

Most filmmakers have a difficult time breaking the language barrier, as their movies tend to resonate without their country. For some reason, Kurosawa's films work better in the United States than they do in Japan, giving him one of the largest international audiences of any filmmaker. Perhaps because most of his samurai pieces play out much like a western.

One of the main reasons Kurosawa's films have stuck with me more than the works of Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra and Billy Wilder, is because every single actor in a Kurosawa film is boiling with emotion. They don't use their face and voices to describe how they're feeling, but their entire bodies. Any role that Toshiro Mifune or Takashi Shimura performed under Kurosawa will show that his films are bursting with characters that don't want to hide anything from the camera and put everything on the line for the audience to witness.

Kurosawa's films take some of the better aspects of filmmaking, as they combine the suspense and thrill of a brilliant action movie, but the movies never lose touch with their humanity, all too often taking a difficult moral route. Films like "Rashomon," "Seven Samurai," "The Hidden Fortress" and "Throne Of Blood" excel at showing human trials at a time in history when humanity needed a little more hope.


But the tipping point that pushes Kurosawa ahead of other filmmakers in my eyes is his story of being a filmmaker, and the difficulty he faced in Japan. This may seem impossible, but back in the 1960s and 1970s, the Japanese film industry hated Akira Kurosawa. For basically the same reason we love him now - his films were far too western. Japanese audiences couldn't relate to these lone swordsmen who acted like cowboys.

After a string of films in the mid-1960s, the Toho film company got increasingly more frustrated with each film Kurosawa put out, as box office returns diminished and the Japanese critics didn't care for his movies. After his 1965 film "Red Beard," Toho let go of Kurosawa, and he entered into filmmaking exile. No Japanese film studio wanted to be associated with any of his work, for fear of being too American.

During the 1970s, Kurosawa only made two films, despite constantly looking for companies to fund his projects. One of these films, "Dersu Uzala," had to be made in Russian, since only one film studio in Russia was willing to fund the film. Kurosawa was at a low point in his life, where at one point he attempted suicide and failed.

It wasn't until 1980 that Kurosawa would catch a break. Having such a gigantic influence in Hollywood, two young filmmakers stepped forward to pay for Kurosawa's next movie - George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, the director of "The Godfather" series. This would lead Kurosawa's grand return to filmmaking, "Kagemusha," which was well-received around the world and finally shown that Akira Kurosawa was a filmmaking that transcended language barriers.

But, in Kurosawa's own words, "Kagemusha" was merely a set-up for his next film, a project he had worked on since "Red Beard," and would bring together the scale and size of films like "Seven Samurai," the atmosphere of "Kagemusha," and the personal turmoil that Kurosawa had experienced for over twenty years - his magnum opus "Ran."

Set in medieval Japan, during a time when waring factors would endlessly fight over land, a young shogun Hidetora Ichimonji rose to power, collecting the armies of his fallen foes. For fifty years, Ichimonji fought and conquered the majority of Japan. Now, Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) has reached an old age and is content with keeping peace throughout his land. He figures that his three sons feel the same way, and that is why he splits up his territories and powers among his sons, hoping that this will make everyone happy.

Turns out Ichimonji was wrong. Very wrong. He had forgotten that his sons grew up in a time of constant war and death, always seeking power and greed. Now his sons plan to fight among themselves to claim ultimate control over the land, while Hidetora watches his empire crumble right before his eyes.


Many have pointed out that "Ran" is a Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare's "King Lear," only replacing Lear's three daughters with sons. Kurosawa actually debunked this early on, saying it is merely a coincidence that "Ran" turned out a lot like "King Lear." Kurosawa said that his biggest inspiration for "Ran" was of a real Japanese shogun who gave his land to his three sons, and everything turned out for the better. Kurosawa then asked himself, "What if those three sons were actually bad people?"

There is an analogy early on in "Ran" where Lord Ichimonji has his sons each break an arrow, which they all do with no problem. Then he tells them to break three arrows bundled together, and none of them can break it. Ichimonji does this to prove that it is more difficult to break something when it has support from others, and that if his sons worked together, no one could defeat them.

Kurosawa said he heavily disagreed with that analogy. That there are plenty of ways to break three arrows, and that a family bond can be broken just as easily.

In Japanese, "Ran" translates to "chaos." An accurate description to this film, as we witness literal hell on Earth. Something that started off so simple and kind, quickly turns to brother killing brother, abandoning loved ones to acquire more power, and bloody battles that lead to massive castle getting burnt to the ground.

Lord Ichimonji witnesses all of those happen around him. From the beginning it is strange, as the new lord Taro, demands that his father give back the family crest and that he is in charge of every decision the kingdom will make, showing zero respect for the legacy of his father. After that, Taro outlaws his father's best troops from going along with him, to show Hidetora has gone insane in his old age and is no longer fit to rule anything.

Which leads to one of the greatest sequences I've ever seen, as Hidetora takes refuge in his last remaining castle, only for his two eldest sons, Taro and Jiro, to converge on him and assault the castle. Hidetora's troops are caught off guard and are overwhelmed by the stream of blood-red and sun yellow soldiers that continually enter the castle gates.


This isn't a war, but a massacre, as each body is rattled with arrows and musket bullets. One of the few survivors lies on the ground, holding his severed arm. Hidetora's concubines commit seppuku on each other, while hundreds of troops begin shooting the castle with fire arrows, setting the stone fortress ablaze. All while Hidetora sits atop the tower, watching his fifty-year legacy get reduced to ash.

The assault on the castle is complimented by the lack of any sound effects for the first half, only a haunting score that demonstrates the chaotic nature of Hidetora's senile decision to bring peace in a time of war and control. We are left with nothing but the strong visuals of bodies being brutally destroyed. No computer effects were used in "Ran," so when Hidetora walks out of that burning castle, every bit of it was real.

A reoccurring theme throughout "Ran" is the Gods that are watching all of this unfold. That these Gods either fell tremendous sadness for not being able stop man's self-destructive nature, or that there are no Gods at all. What kind of God would let a man so insistent on peace and prosperity watch his dream and empire fall apart? One of the most common shots throughout "Ran" is of large clouds, or the sun barely breaking through those clouds, as if the Gods are attempting to watch the horror unfold.


But what gives "Ran" its staying power are the resemblances between Hidetora and Akira Kurosawa. Both are men who have lived long fruitful lives, have seen large amounts of success and failures, and have essentially built empires. Yet when they least expected it, the world turned on them. Hidetora's sons betrayed his trust and disrespected him, while Kurosawa was forgotten by the Japanese film industry. Both are forced into exile, forgotten by the world for all the great things they had done. They even both attempt suicide and fail at that.

Hidetora Ichimonji is Akira Kurosawa. All his hopes, dreams, failures and personal tragedies are put on full display for the world to see. We watch as Hidetora is reduced to a quivering mess of a man who would rather pick flowers than face the trauma of his decisions, driven into senility. Kurosawa made "Ran" when he was 75, after dealing with 20 years of filmmaking exile in his home country. One of the greatest filmmakers of all time, unable to create his dreams.

Hidetora has more in common with Kurosawa than he does with King Lear.


In my look at John Carpenter's "The Thing," I mentioned there was one film that scared me more than that horror film. "Ran" is that movie. While I would certainly hesitate to call "Ran" a horror film, it is horrific in its tragic imagery. To watch Hidetora, a once powerful man with hundreds of thousands of troops at his command, be reduced to a walking ghost, powerless to stop everything he built from collapsing, is haunting to witness.

"Ran" is one of the greatest tragedies I've seen, complimented by a beautiful color palette that makes every shot of Hidetora stand out. Most of the background are drab and colorless, like rocky terrains, but the blood remains bright red and are impossible to miss because of the unimpressive backgrounds. But ultimately, "Ran" is about an old man who has seen enough war that he believes he can influence the next generation, unaware that life is constantly changing and will tear his weakness and kindness.


Mini-Review - "Ip Man 2" (2010)


This is the martial-arts equivalent of "Rocky 4." Even down to an ending speech from the protagonist about how he hopes his actions can help people change.

"Ip Man" was one of those rare martial-arts films that understood the simplicity of the genre, yet still managed to make these actions feel grand and meaningful. Along with "The Raid: Redemption," those two films were the best martial-arts movies since the days of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.

The plot follows up on the events of "Ip Man," as our titular character (Donnie Yen) has fled to Hong Kong and intends to open up a new martial-arts school for his style of fighting, Wing Chun, combining defense and attack into one fluid motion. The film follows the conflict of getting the school running, fighting off rival schools and a climax against an English boxer who will fight any Chinese challenger to show the "superiority" of the United Kingdom.

Part of the appeal comes from these being based on true events. While I don't deny that Master Ip did fight an English boxer, I do find the film's portrayal of these events to be less than satisfying. Most of the events throughout the first half of the film do not amount to anything.

Master Ip has a friend who can't remember anything that wanders the streets of Hong Kong, and we see him bring his friend food every once in a while. But this plot thread leads no where, as we don't even see one last meeting between the two. This is one of many scenes that add little to the film.

"Ip Man 2" tries to add too many new characters and plot details to the simple story of the first film, which soils the great moments. While the martial-art scenes are fun to watch, as always, this one left me feeling hollow and unsatisfied.

Final Grade: C-

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Paul's Favorite Films - Number Nine

No matter how much we learn and try to be better people, humans beings often end up making the same mistakes and fall into the same holes repeatedly. We can try our whole lives to be the moral and good-hearted people we possibly know, yet we will often fall prey to pride, envy, lust or especially greed. Because there is always room for more.

Have you ever wanted something so bad that you’d be willing to do anything to get it? That's being greedy, even if you have a good reason to do so. Granted, most people feel this way when they’re young and desire a new toy or their favorite box of cereal, even though their mother says it’s bad for them.

What if you were an American living in 1920s Mexico, shortly after the Mexican Revolution, and you have little more than the clothes on your back? This is the dilemma in John Huston’s 1948 film "The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre." A film that is told more in the style of a Joseph Conrad novel, where each scene acts as a small adventure that adds to a larger scale of the world these characters inhabit, all while we watch their humanity and souls get devoured by greed and paranoia.

The film starts in a bustling Mexican city, where Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) asks every American he can find to pay for his next meal, which ends up being the same guy three different times. Dobbs uses the money to buy a trip to the barber shop and as much whiskey as he can get his hands on. By the end of the day, hes flat broke again and finds Curtin (Tim Holt) at a homeless shelter, where the two meet Howard (Walter Huston), a grizzled old prospector itching to go out exploring for gold, as he goes on about why gold is so valuable.

"A thousand men, say, go searchin' for gold. After six months, one of them's lucky: one out of a thousand," says Howard. "His find represents not only his own labor, but that of nine hundred and ninety-nine others to boot. That's six thousand months, five hundred years, scramblin' over a mountain, goin' hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that went into the findin' and the gettin' of it,"


Dobbs and Curtin discuss what Howard had to say, that gold will make good men do evil things. "I know what gold does to men's souls," says Howard.

But the two men agree that it couldn't be true for everyone. That it all depends on the type of person and how greedy they are.

The next day, Dobbs and Curtin find work helping a "wealthy" Texan build houses. When it comes time for the Texan to pay up, he bails out and refuses to pay a cent to anyone. Dobbs and Curtin find this man in a bar and beat him to within an inch of his life to get the money that was coming to them.

All this time, the words of how avarice only affects certain men running through our minds, as Dobbs and Curtin nearly kill a man to get their money. And yet, the fascinating part is that we can't really blame them. They spent almost a month building houses in the hot Mexican heat, sometimes working twenty hours a day, and had nothing to show for it.

Shortly after that, Dobbs and Curtin find Howard and agree to use their money on something useful - going into the mountains to find gold. The three put up all of their money to buy the necessary supplies, food, water, mules and guns to go hunting for the treasure of a lifetime in the high mountains of the Mexican terrain.

At the beginning of the film, Fred Dobbs seems like a guy trying to make a living in a difficult situation, being stuck in a foreign land with no money. Dobbs says that he won't need much money out of this trip and he'd be okay with getting $10,000.

It isn’t until the signs of gold start to appear that Dobbs takes a turn for the worst. After their first full day of work, he immediately asks to start splitting the gold into three even piles, and that each man should be responsible for his own stash, including hiding it from the other two.


"This is the country where the nuggets of gold are just crying out for you to take them out of the ground and make 'em shine in coins on the fingers and necks of swell dames," says Dobbs.

When Curtin accidentally stumbles across Dobbs' hiding spot, Dobbs nearly shoots Curtin for stealing, even though Curtin was only interested in killing the Gila Monster that had crawled under that rock. Even after learning the truth, Dobbs still wants to beat up Curtin for even thinking about going near his money. Though Curtin saved Dobbs' life earlier from a cave-in, and Howards' knowledge of the area being the only thing that got him to this mountain, Dobbs refuses to trust anyone.

The man that was relatable at the beginning of the movie has turned into a twisted greedy and sort of evil caricature of his former self.

"I think I'll go to sleep and dream about piles of gold getting bigger and bigger and bigger," says Dobbs.

The thing that suddenly makes "The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre" scary and intense is that Dobbs' transformation into this monster is realistic and feels like it could happen to anyone if they were put in similar situations. Separated from society, collecting thousands of dollars every day, with two other people as your companions, but also their own self-interests. What do you do?


"The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre" offers three answers to this question with the main characters. Dobbs has become nothing but greed, to the point of risking all of his money to see if Curtin would fall asleep before him. Always wanting more and insisting on lavish rewards when he returns to society.

Curtin, however, is kind and logical about all of this. He was the only one to oppose splitting up the gold at the end of each day, because he didn't see the point in it. Curtin also risks his life several times to protect others instead of his interests. He doesn't mind if the trip takes a little while longer and if he has to deal with a paranoid partner, as long as he gets what is coming to him.

Howard is the middle man who sees both sides of argument, because he has been there. He has been Dobbs, never satisfied with the gold he has and always hankering for the chance to get more. But he has also seen gold destroy his friends and has probably done so a few times himself. He's experienced those hardships and has come out stronger.

Yet all three men remain believable. The audience relates to Curtin for remaining calm in this situation, respects Howard's knowledge and fears what might become of Dobbs. I would say we're supposed to pity Dobbs for how selfish and pathetic he could be, especially near the end, if Dobbs wasn't so undeserving of pity.

The scene that personifies this feeling is when one of the three gold hunters must to go into a nearby town for supplies, but none of them are willing to go, especially Dobbs. He’s afraid that if he goes, this will give the other two ample time to find his stash of gold. Howard points out that he should take his gold with him then, but then Dobbs becomes paranoid about the lurking murderous bandits nearby and that the gold would only give them more of a reason to rob him.

"If you was to run into bandits, you'd be out of luck anyway. They'd kill you for the shoes on your feet," says Howard.
Humphrey Bogart (Dobbs)
Dobbs replies with, "Oh, so that's it. Everything's clear now. You're hoping bandits will get me. That would save you a lot of trouble, wouldn't it? And your consciences wouldn't bother you none, neither."

By the end of the film, Dobbs reflects on some of the terrible actions he has done to get the gold that he feels rightfully belongs to him, leading to a soliloquy that is still haunting today as it was in 1948.

"Conscience. What a thing," says Dobbs. "If you believe you got a conscience it'll pester you to death. But if you don't believe you got one, what could it do t'ya? Makes me sick, all this talking and fussing about nonsense."

"The Treasure Of The Sierra Made" had many complications while being filmed. Originally an idea John Huston wanted to film in 1941, based on the novel by B. Traven, Huston waited until after World War II and filmed it deep in the jungles of Mexico, during the middle of the summer, and still went massively over-budget and took longer to film than expected.

Yet Jack Warner, the producer of the film and co-head of Warner Bros., was still willing to let Huston continue to make the film his way, because he believed what they were making was "definitely the greatest motion picture we have ever made."

While it took more than seven years to make "The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre," the result was a film with diverse yet interesting characters, a tight and focus story with a crisp and realistic approach, balanced and superb acting from the three main cast members and a message that spoke directly to the human condition of greed and paranoia. A film that wasn't so much about gold or the adventure to the gold, but the characters who set out for a fortune and instead found hardships and tragedy.

By the end of this film, we are as wise as Howard about what gold does to men's souls.


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Movie Review - "The Gift" (2015) - A Repackaged Gift


Anybody else get a strange sense of déjà vu with "The Gift"?

I ask this because, after looking around at some of the critical responses to this film, as well as Joel Edgerton's inspiration for writing and directing this film, it always feels like there is one film missing. A key film that "The Gift" owes most of its success to, whether the filmmakers knew it or not. That movie is "Gone Girl."

"The Gift" desperately wants to recapture the success and acclaim of David Fincher's dark marriage thriller. "Gone Girl" was a sleeper hit from 2014, as it snuck up and surprised everyone with its roller coaster ride of emotions, where you were never too sure if these characters were good, bad or misunderstood people. With tight writing to keep up the mystery and nerve-wracking performances from Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, there was never a dull moment in "Gone Girl."

I get an equal feeling with "The Gift," though not as strong in the performance department. It is so strange though that Edgerton would say the films of Alfred Hitchcock and "Fatal Attraction" were his biggest inspiration in creating this thriller, yet never mention "Gone Girl." I won't hold it against this film though, since "The Gift" does do many things differently, such as adding a middle man to make the past seem more prevalent.

Simon and Robyn Callen (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) are a married couple who have moved from Chicago to the Los Angeles area after Simon was hired on to a large business firm. The couple run in to an old friend of Simon's while in the city, Gordon Moseley (Joel Edgerton), a kind but socially awkward guy who is awfully nice to Robyn. Gordon finds their address, even though they didn't tell him, and he leaves several gifts on their doorstep, much to the irritation of Simon. Robyn wonders why Simon is acting this way, but Simon is unwilling to divulge his past to her, hiding something that Gordo "The Weirdo" is now obsessed with.


Much like "Gone Girl," it is difficult to discuss "The Gift" without giving away the many twists and turns throughout the film.

The driving force behind the film are the characters' obsession with the past. Gordon lives in the past, unable to move on and get over what happened because the world will not let him forget what happened. It painted such a sour image of him that this led Gordon to a criminal record and his family disowning him.

Simon, despite his insistence that he has moved on and made peace with himself over the incident, has not changed since then. He lives in his own world of success, and seems to forget the people he stepped over to get to this point.

Early on, Gordon talks about what Simon was like in high school. He won class president, but had the campaign slogan of "Simon Says!" He would use this slogan to make demands of what he thought the school needed, but Gordon is awfully specific about what Simon wanted, like more hours for sports. I think this has less to do with what Simon thought the school wanted and more what he wanted.


After we learn about Simon's behavior as a kid, he probably did some terrible things to get into the class president position.

Gordon believes that the past is what makes us who we are, and that it impossible to move on from it without forgetting who you are. Simon believes the past is behind us and that we should never have to apologize for a terrible act we did years ago, even if its repercussions are still being felt today.

Or, as Gordon says, "You may be done with the past, but the past is not done with you."

My biggest complaint with "The Gift" is that most of the thriller bits are cliché and predictable. Outside of the last twenty minutes, the film acts like your typical stalker mystery, where Robyn paces around her new and vast house afraid that Gordon has sneaked peaks at her when she least expects it.


There are even jump scares in this film, when those did not need to be there. As we've discussed before, jump scares are not scary but startling - the equivalent of yelling "Boo!" when no one expected you to. Several people who saw "The Gift" with me screamed when these scares happened, but were followed by laughter. As if to say, "I shouldn't have had to do that for this film. Screaming doesn't belong here."

Robyn is a welcomed addition to the film, where she takes an active role finding out what happened that made Gordon so strange, and a middle ground between Simon's anger and Gordon's obsession. She sees Gordon as a misunderstood misfit and wants to set things right, but agrees with Simon on Gordon being creepy and unpleasant to be around.

She is the biggest change from the "Gone Girl" storyline, acting as a mediator between two extremes. It is too bad that there were not many dynamic character changes between these three characters, aside from a revelation that comes two-thirds through the film. These characters remain stagnant, who refuse to budge on their positions with the past.

This makes "The Gift" far less of the emotional ride Edgerton was going for. Parts of the film work, especially the dialogue between Simon and Gordon as well as Robyn's role throughout the film. Rebecca Hall is in nearly every scene and she nails it every time. But other times, especially early on, are cliché and unnecessary. The ending makes the movie all worth it, but I just wish it didn't feel like "Gone Girl" until that point.

Final Grade: B-

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Paul's Favorite Films - Number Ten


We have now reach my top ten favorite films of all time. While films like "Strangers On A Train" and "Fargo" are immensely entertaining and capture a lot of the greatness of cinema, these ten films are not only some of my favorites, but are also the greatest films I have ever seen. I've gone over my 25 favorite films for months now, attempting to work out the proper order. But as many times as I've gone through the previous fifteen films, the top ten have always remained the same. These are the movies that I love more than any other.

Not to mention, there is an enormous range in the top ten, with films being as old as 1931 and as young as 2008, with no one genre repeating. Every film is wholly unique as the last one and capture the imagination and scope of cinema.

Let's start my top ten favorite films with...

I've often pondered about what I would consider the greatest film of all time. Not just what my favorite film is, but the single greatest achievement in filmmaking. A film that defines the power of cinema, and anyone could see to understand what a film can accomplish.

While obvious choices such as "Citizen Kane," "Vertigo" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" are certainly up near the top of that list, I do have my grievances with them, in particular with "Citizen Kane" and "Vertigo," to the point that I do not consider "Vertigo" Hitchcock's best work. Of course, the matter of the greatest film of all time is entirely subjective, like all film criticism, but there is one film I jump to when it comes to capturing a multitude of emotions and storytelling when it comes to cinema.

For me, the greatest film of all time is Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard." This is a movie that understands the strengths and weaknesses of cinema, by showing the lives that are created and then destroyed by the weight celluloid carries. Film is not only examined, but judged for how cruel yet necessary it is for people. From both in front of and behind the camera, cinema is shown as a self-destructive art form with beautiful yet dangerous consequences.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a Hollywood screenwriter that hasn't had a successful script in months and probably hasn't eaten a decent meal longer than that. When the feds come to take away his car, which he is several payments behind on, Gillis runs as far as he can, and pulls into a mansion that appears to be abandoned. But as he observes the decaying ruins, he finds the house has two occupants, including the once famous silent movie star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her butler, Max (Erich Von Stroheim).

It turns out that Ms. Desmond is wealthy beyond reason, but has nothing to use her fortune on. She refuses to go out into the world, possibly afraid of how far it has come since the silent era of filmmaking. Norma promises to make a return to cinema though, because she has spent years writing a screenplay big enough to fit six movies to use as her magnum opus and let the world know that Norma Desmond is greatest actress, without saying a word.


Part of the reason I consider "Sunset Boulevard" the greatest film is because of how close it resembles real life. As I said back in my look at "Singin' In The Rain," the end of the silent era is the most interesting era in filmmaking. While the Gene Kelly musical covered the topic in a positive and optimistic light, "Sunset Boulevard" is far more brutally honest - the beginning of talkies destroyed many careers and lives.

Gloria Swanson, who plays our aging silent star of a time long since passed, was a popular silent movie actress, and we see some of her silent roles in "Sunset Boulevard," also directed by her butler, Erich Von Stroheim in "Queen Kelly," "The Merry Widow" and the now famous "Greed." But once sound came around, Swanson disappeared and Von Strohiem pursued more of an acting career.

Now Swanson plays a star that has lost its shine, but does not see that as her fault. It isn't that she got bad at acting, but cinema became too much. The now famous quote, "I am big, it's the pictures that got small," being the key example of that.


"There once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world," says Desmond. "But that wasn't good enough for them, oh no! They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk."

All Desmond does is sit in exile in a mansion that is falling apart, screening only movies of herself, planning a comeback that will never come. She claims the world still loves her, but that she has merely been forgotten.

This cuts even deeper when it comes to Erich Von Stroheim, who had an extremely promising career in the silent era, both in Germany and Hollywood. Max even points this out in the film, saying in the early 1920s, the most promising directors were D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille and himself, which was true. But after talkies were invented, Von Stroheim directed two sound films, both of which were poorly received, leading to the once very skilful director taking up acting roles where he essentially amounted to the token Nazi in American films during WWII.

Now Von Stroheim plays Max, a man who is just as obsessed with the past as Ms. Desmond is. The difference with Max is he felt life was at its best when he worked together with Norma, which might explain why Max was her first husband. But after attempting to break into film again, he realized his place was with Norma, and became her servant - forever loyal to her word and protecting her from the world that has long since passed her by, fiercely devoted to the greatness of Norma Desmond.
The point of "Sunset Boulevard" is made clear - the world of film is harsh and forever evolving.


Filmmakers and audiences focus on the here-and-now, and rarely remember where it all came from. We discard the stars of the past at our leisure and have no regard for what that does to them. To many of these stars, cinema was their life, they cannot live without celluloid in their veins.

The relationship between Norma and Max is what makes "Sunset Boulevard" such an emotional piece. On her own, Norma's performance is over the top, near the point of parody. Her exaggerated gestures, wild movements and sneers make her seem like she is on the edge of madness throughout the film. But Max remains loyal and calm, because he sees more in her than just an aging movie star. He understands the restraint, courage and talent Norma has. Because he is dedicated to loving her, both the audience and Joe Gillis can find something to love about Norma as well.

"Sunset Boulevard" blurs that line between reality and fiction better than any other film I have seen. Real names of actors, like Tyronn Power, Bing Crosby and Alan Ladd, are used many times, famous silent stars like Buster Keaton are shown hanging out with Norma Desmond (nicknamed "the waxworks" by Gillis), and when Desmond visits Cecil B. DeMille on the Paramount studio set, DeMille is making an actual movie, "Samson And Delilah."

"Sunset Boulevard" understands the illusion of cinema and knows where reality begins, but to Norma Desmond there is no difference. She is obsessed with her star power and the movies she has created that she is blind to the world around her. Movie? Real life? To her, what's the difference?


To top it all off, "Sunset Boulevard" might have some of the greatest dialogue in any piece of cinema. Nearly every line in the film is quotable for one reason or another, whether it is Norma's constant need to back talk how much cinema has changed, such as, "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces."

There was also Joe Gillis' constant voice over narration, which described in great detail how the mansion was falling apart and how sad Norma's condition was, pointing out there is nothing wrong with being 50, unless you try to acting like you're still 25.

"Poor devil," says Gillis. "Still waving proudly to a parade which had long since passed her by."
Of course, there is the closing line of the film from Norma as her whole life crumbles in front of her, but she has now becomes so enamored with the past that she is oblivious to the fact that she is about to go to jail. Like most Billy Wilder films, the closing line is one of the best lines in the film.

"I promise you I'll never desert you again," says Desmond. "You see, this is my life. It always will be. Nothing else. Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

To me, "Sunset Boulevard" respects cinema more than any other film I have seen. It understands the power it has over people and the type of art it can provide, but also that movies can just as easily destroy the lives it builds up. That cinema is intoxicating and people will do anything to get back the star power they once had. "Sunset Boulevard" cuts so close to life that it forces you to take a step back and fully appreciate the level of detail Billy Wilder put into understanding just how far cinema has come.

It is not only one of my favorite films, but also my pick for the greatest film of all time. So why "Sunset Boulevard" only number ten on this list? Well, like I said in the beginning, this is a countdown of my favorite movies, and while I adore this film to death, there are some other films I love more than this classic film noir.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Movie Review - "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" (2015) - Oddites In Filmmaking


Every once in a while, I've come across a rare oddity in cinema where I can think of several reasons why a film should not work, and I still managed to enjoy the film more than I should have. "Guardians Of The Galaxy" was an example of that last year, a film that I foolishly called junk food with no substance but was still quite enjoyable. A stance that has changed since then to reflect one of the more memorable science fiction films of the last few years.

"Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" falls into a similar category that might change over time. At the time I am writing this review, it has been five days since I have watched this film, but my opinion on it has stayed roughly the same - An enjoyable popcorn flick that has no reason to exist.

I have not been a fan of the "Mission: Impossible" movie franchise. Tom Cruise is a charismatic actor who is not afraid to perform some insane stunts, but the stories are often the failing point of these films. Unlike other spy movies, like the Bourne trilogy and most James Bond entries, which focus more on the character and their attempts to overcome their egos and/or flaws while saving the world, the "Mission: Impossible" films are solely about stopping a global threat by whatever means necessary.

Good for a summer blockbuster, but that does not hold up on repeat viewings. You watch it once, know everything that'll happen and don't bother with the film again. The only notable aspects to these films are the crazy stunts that Tom Cruise must endure, like free-climbing the tallest building in the world. That is honestly the only part I remember about the earlier entry in this franchise.

Yet, as much as I hate on "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation," I can still say that I enjoyed it more than I disliked it. Perhaps this is because the film does not fumble at any point. The story is coherent, the characters are likable and the stunts are top-notch. This film exists in a strange paradox land where I don't see many reasons to like it, but I do enjoy it.

Set some time after the events of "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) is now down to four members, including Director William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), techie Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and field operative Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). Due to a recent mission involving terrorists using nerve gas, it has come to the attention of the IMF that there may be a higher power orchestrating these terrorist actions - the syndicate.

Hunt's suspicions are soon confirmed when the syndicate kidnaps him and intend to interrogate Ethan for information. While all of this is going on, the director of the CIA (Alec Baldwin) has called for a Senate oversight hearing to disband the IMF for their reckless disregard for protocol and endangerment.


What I found most fascinating about "Rogue Nation" was a speech Alec Baldwin's character gives when talking about Ethan Hunt. That he is both arsonist and fire fighter. Hunt might be creating these global threats to the world just so that he can be the one to shut them down. That his life is unfulfilled if he isn't stopping some megalomania from destroying the western hemisphere.

And for most of the film, Hunt's actions support this claim. He has tracked down the syndicate for several months, finding dozens of possible leads and actions, but has not come to a solid conclusion. He believes that it is held together by field agents from all over the world that have been considered dead, though no bodies were ever found. Hunt also thinks the syndicate is responsible for several terrorist acts all over the world, that have all had an impact on the economy or government of that country, causing a shift in power.

As Benji points out, it could be the syndicate pulling strings to change the world. Or, more likely, it could all just be a coincidence. Ethan has no proof that it is syndicate. In fact, he has no proof the syndicate even exists. Ethan could have created the syndicate in his mind so he would have a renewed purpose.

There is a surprising amount of depth for Ethan Hunt on this one, far more than any other "Mission: Impossible" film. The problem is that all of this basically amounts to a revenge plot, with Hunt wanting to get back at the man who captured him earlier in the film. Good build up, not so great pay off.


Like other entries in this series, the story of "Rogue Nation" is pretty forgettable. Most is spent on a disavowed MI6 agent working for the syndicate and her attempt to regain the trust of its leader (Sean Harris). She attempts to work both sides, helping Hunt hack into an underwater computer database, but then steals the data once he is out, leading to a motorcycle chase throughout Casablanca.

We don't learn much about her, even her name escapes me. All we know is that she loves being a spy but loves to dress up in skin-tight sexy outfits even more. This is what I mean about the story - the character that seems to be a major focal point is little more than a vehicle to get to the next scene.

That being said, I was never bored in "Rogue Nation." The action was consistent without that many gaps between each segment. Several were interspersed with some good character moments, like the previously mentioned Hunt making up the syndicate for his own gain, but also Benji attempting to work in a normal environment and failing terribly at it.

Simon Pegg gets several chances to shine in this film, as we see not only his comedic talent, but is ability to be dramatic as well. There are at least two points where Benji stands up to people bigger than himself, and he comes out being a man with his own mind and consciousness. Benji is the every-man that these films truly needed to keep them grounded.

The true star of "Rogue Nation" though has to be the stunt choreography. Much like with "Mad Max: Fury Road," there is very little computer effects throughout this film, so what we watch Tom Cruise weave in and out of traffic going well over 80 MPH, without wearing a helmet or any protective gear, that was really happening. But the true gem comes in the opening scene, where Cruise holds on to the outside of a plane as it takes off, without a parachute or support cables to keep him there. Just Cruise with a vice grip on that plane.


I'm not sure which stunt is more impressive, this or Cruise climbing that tower in Dubai. In any case, both stunts are worth the price of admission.

Overall, "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" is what I wish "Jurassic World" was like - a film that doesn't take itself too seriously, while still treating its audience with respect. This is one that knows it is a popcorn film and does its best to entertain with spy intrigue, competent characters and much-needed stunts.

Final Grade: B

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Movie Reviews Of "Southpaw" (2015) and "Rush Hour 2" (2001)


It has been a long time since a film nearly put me to sleep, especially in theaters, but "Southpaw" found a way.

The biggest problem with this Jake Gyllenhaal boxing movie is that the majority of the film is uninspired and taken from better boxing movies. Most of the film is spent on how Gyllenhaal's character has anger issues for no reason other than being a boxer, and how that is destroying everyone around him, which feels like it was taken directly from "Raging Bull" and "The Fighter." At one point, his life is destroyed and everything is taken away from him, but he is given one last chance to redeem himself in the ring, just like Rocky Balboa.

Boxing movies are meant to inspire and show that strength doesn't come from muscles and punches, but from determination and having a reason to fight beyond loving the sport. "Southpaw" take elements from other movies, but doesn't seem to grasp what it all means. Gyllenhaal starts at the top, already invested in his family and simply has anger problems. He has a multi-million dollar house and consistently fights at Madison Square Garden. Forgive me if I'm not invested in his fall and rise back to power, but that a spoiled brat of a character who consistently makes poor life decisions. It would be fine if those decisions seemed logical and thought-out, but "Southpaw" almost feels stream-of-consciousness, so all it gets is a roll of my eyes.

The only saving grace for "Southpaw" is Forest Whitaker, who plays the trainer that brings Gyllenhaal back up. Most of his scenes are forced and written exactly like any scene from "Rocky" that features Mickey, but Whitaker at least has a few emotional scenes where we find out his motivation to help out children.

Outside of that, "Southpaw" is boring, uninspired and a hodge-podge of other boxing movies. If you want the "Southpaw" experience, just have a boxing marathon of the Rocky movies and "Raging Bull."

Final Grade: D

Basic CMYK

Second verse, same as the first. Except even less prop fighting and martial art goodness, and more of Chris Tucker, though less obnoxious than the first.

At least this time, Chris Tucker learns to control the volume of his voice and can hold a conversation with a normal person, and without resorting to referring to Michael Jackson songs or dancing all over the place. Oh, he still does all that, but he is at least less willing to do all of that. Jackie Chan, however, is really starting to show his age, which is probably why there are so few extravagant fight sequences or ones that are mostly CGI.

The best part of "Rush Hour 2" is a fight sequence between Jackie and a gang of triad members climbing a building with a bamboo support structure, while Chris Tucker chases them up the building and interacting with all sorts of foreign customs. Jackie and the gang make it all look so simple, and it ends with a great stunt with Jackie and Chris holding on to one stick of bamboo on top of the building.

Overall, "Rush Hour 2," is more of what we got in "Rush Hour," except with a bit more characterization, better comedy from Chris Tucker, but less action. So it depends on what you want out of the films - If you want great action, watch the first film, but for comedy and characters, give this one a try.

Final Grade: C

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Paul's Favorite Films - Number 11

We finally have our first appearance of Alfred Hitchcock.

I have never watched a film where the Master of Suspense has yet to disappoint. Hitchcock's films are often basic and simple in terms of plot, but rich and eccentric in character and charm. His films are so often visually impressive that you wonder how he was able to pull off many of these shots in the 1940s and 1950s. Hitchcock took inspiration from the German expressionist film movement, with movies like "The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari" and "Metropolis" giving him ideas on lighting and use of shadows.

Even the films by Hitchcock that I do not care for, like "Dial 'M' For Murder" and "Rope," still find ways to be visually stunning and have suspenseful moments.

Alfred Hitchcock knew how to make take the audiences' fears, turn them loose and photograph it insanely well. I can honestly say that no one makes a film like Hitchcock.

With that said, there are many movies of his that I adore. The extravagant "North By Northwest" was my introduction to Hitchcock, while "Psycho" is always a nerve-wracking piece of horror. One of my personal favorites is "Shadow Of A Doubt," which was one of the first films Hitchcock made after moving from England to Hollywood, and Hitchcock often said it was his favorite of all the films he made.

But in terms of edge-of-your-seat tension, and teeth-clattering suspense, there is nothing better than "Strangers On A Train." This is Hitchcock at his most manacle and unforgiving. Though he had made suspenseful movies before this, "Strangers On A Train" amps it up to levels I've never seen before, all paying off in the most satisfying conclusion to any of his films.

While on a normal train ride, two unsuspecting strangers meet - the tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and the odd Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) who is full of "interesting" ideas. The two talk over lunch, though Bruno does most of the talking, as he pries into Guy's personal life, especially his romance with Ann Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a senator, and how Guy is attempting to file for divorce with his wife Miriam (Laura Elliot). But Bruno begins to concoct a new idea about how to solve Guy's problem with Miriam and Bruno's aggression towards his father - the two swap murders, that way no one will suspect a total stranger as the murderer.

Guy humors Bruno's ideas, but Bruno takes it as approval. After a rough meeting between Miriam and Guy, where Miriam says she refuses to divorce Guy and will forbid him from seeing Ann, Guy is so furious that accidentally calls Bruno and hangs up without saying anything. This is all Bruno needs to set his plan into motion.


The wonderful thing about suspense is that a movie can build it up from the very first shot, and continue building it up throughout the entire film. It is like pulling a rubber band - you want to see how far it'll stretch and how tiny the band can get before it snaps. Perhaps you apply too much force and the rubber band goes flying out of your fingers, meaning you have to start all over again. You don't know when it will snap or how much tension you must apply to it before everything unravels.

But it does not mean anything if you don't see the rubber band snap. That is something Hitchcock understood and gave us in full force in "Strangers On A Train."

The first shots of the film are of our main characters shoes, as we see the eccentric feet of Bruno and the plain travel shoes of Guy. We don't see their faces until they meet each other. This way these characters are as much a stranger to us as they are to each other. We watch as Bruno slowly reveals everything personal about Guy's life, so that when Guy gets uncomfortable, we are right there with him. None should know this much information about someone they've never met, yet Bruno knows more than most and has some interesting ideas about "harnessing life energy" and being able to smell a flower on Mars.

This is sold to us through Robert Walker's performance that feels off-kilter. Bruno is someone who sees aggression in everything and anyone. He talks to a few elderly party guests about how everyone has wanted to murder another person at some point in their lives, but we know that he had the guts to go through with it. He is barbaric, yet sophisticated enough to know when to keep his mouth shut.

Just ONE of your ideas for a murder, Bruno?

But worst of all, Bruno is persistent. Once he has gotten Guy's attention, even for just a moment, Bruno refuses to let go. You lock eyes with him, you must expect a speech about the best tools to murder a man. He will pursue his target for as long as he needs to, all with a creepy unnerving presence that says, "You will do what I say."

By the way he looks at someone, you can't be too sure if he is going to murder you or if he is only thinking about it.

Given Bruno's attitude towards other people, this leads to many dangerous scenes. Starting with the first time Bruno meets Miriam as she heads out to the town fair, he demonstrates his strength by breaking one of the games, and continues to follow Miriam on every ride she and her dates go on.
Bruno even takes a moment to buy popcorn, as if he is watching a film unfold.

Some of the craziest scenes in "Strangers On A Train," are enhanced by the cinematography, which plays to Hitchcock's strengths of shadows and absurdities. In one shot, Miriam and her dates are driving a boat through a cave, with Bruno right behind them. All we see are the shadows on the wall, as Bruno's shadow gets bigger and closer to the other boat and he slowly raises his hands up as if he is going to strangle her.


In the following shot, we hear Miriam scream.

Another intensely creepy shot is when Guy thinks he has lost Bruno in the country club, attempting to play a round of tennis. But as he looks into the crowd, Guy notices every head following the ball back and forth, except for one - Bruno, staring directly at him.

I'm convinced Hitchcock made Guy a tennis player simply so he could use that shot.

All of these magnificent shots heighten the tension even further, as we watch that rubber band slowly be tighter and thinner. But, to me, suspense means so much more if it actually pays off in a satisfying climax. The problem with other thrillers is that they'll have tense sequences, but it does not amount to me, mostly talking about what the characters learned while being at gun point.


With "Strangers On A Train," everything the film has built up to comes together when Bruno and Guy meet face-to-face at the town fair and have a fist fight on the merry-go-round. A police officer accidentally shots the ride operator, causing the wheel to spin uncontrollably, getting faster every minute. We watch as the two duke it out, while people stuck on the ride scream to be let off the ride and to be left out of the fight.

For once, the climatic moment in a thriller matches the suspense that it has built up, as we watch the world around these two spin out of control. Not only is this ending exciting, but it is satisfying. That rubber band has not only broke, but it exploded.

"Strangers On A Train" is Alfred Hitchcock at his most suspenseful. It takes full advantage of the strange set-up, and makes it seem almost plausible with the eccentric Bruno and weak-minded Guy. The cinematography enhances the tense moments to the point that you're sure Bruno is everywhere. This is one of the most exciting thrillers I have ever seen and always gets my heart racing.