Friday, July 22, 2016

Mini-Review - "Tombstone" (1993)


I can see "Tombstone" becoming a guilty pleasure for me - A film that romanticized the old west, far less concerned with historical accuracy and more concerned with showing how amazing these times were.

On paper, "Tombstone" does very little differently from any other film adaptation of the incident that occurred at the O.K. Corral between Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and bunch of outlaws and cowboys, in particular John Ford's "My Darling Clementine." What the film changes are the characters and the amount of detail that goes into the violence and gun play.

Doc Holliday receives a major face-lift, now being played by Val Kilmer, as a man who seems to have a death wish. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and thought that the western air might improve his condition. All moving west did was proved to be a fortuitous occasion for Doc Holliday, as he spends his days playing poker (possibly cheating at it), and still claiming to be the fastest gun around, even in his condition. His vocabulary knows no bounds, as does his friendship with Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell). Holliday is certainly the best character in "Tombstone," being a man with nothing left to lose and just wants to spend his last days enjoying himself, like we all would.

Other adaptations of this story have usually gone light on the violence, but "Tombstone" fully embraces the impact these guns would have back in the day, when even a shot to leg or arm was basically fatal. We see Wyatt Earp go charging into a room of unsuspecting cowboys, on horseback, and guns them all down without any remorse or second thought. The final confrontation between Earp and the lead cowboy is less of an epic strategy between both parties and more an outburst of raw anger.

Overall, "Tombstone" was a blast to watch. Val Kilmer's performance was both heart-breaking and hilarious, while the absurd amount of violence is startling to say the least. The film has changed historical events to suit its needs, but with story of the O.K. Corral being adapted so many times, it is nice to see something vastly different out there.

Final Grade: B+

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Mini-Review - "Bernie" (2011)


If there's one strength to "Bernie," it would be keeping the reveal that everything which unfolded was based on a true story until the end of the film, as we see the real Bernie Tiede sitting down to a conversation with star-Jack Black.

I was blown away to find out that everything I had just witnessed occurred in real life, and Richard Linklater decided not to gloat about that until the film was finished. Part of this is because these events seem so unbelievable - a story about the sweetest and most-caring man you'll ever meet, Bernie (Black), attempting to comfort a rich-widow (Shirley MacLaine), and the two end up being great friends, to the point that she smothers him and makes it impossible for Bernie to have a life of his own. Being unable to say no to anyone, Bernie ends up taking far more drastic measures than one would expect.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that "Bernie" was based on true events, due to the many interviews throughout the film. We spend close to half the film talking to the locals of Carthage, Texas, as they gush about how Bernie was an outstanding citizen who put the needs of everyone above his own, how he was the best thing that happened to the town and that he'd even make God blush. I was under the impression that these people were merely actors, since many of the descriptive details they would use had hilarious timing.

Turns out, everyone they interviewed were the actual townsfolk of Carthage, recalling their best memories of the real Bernie.

Again, if the film had opened up with the knowledge this was based on what really happened, the film would be very different. If we were told at the beginning, we would have no room to think about what was happening, because everything already had a fixed ending. By keeping that knowledge away from us until the film was finished, we suddenly have to look back on everything we witnessed, everything we were told, and realize those were many points-of-view and opinions coming together to form some sort of truth.

In other words, we find out the fiction we just watched is actually reality.

It was the simple things that made "Bernie" so memorable, whether through the random acts of kindness by Jack Black that told us this man doesn't have a mean bone in his body or the crazy interviews throughout the film that paint a great picture of Carthage. This leaves us with a quirky and somewhat dark comedy about a small town all coming to the same realization - "That man was so nice, I never expected him to ever do something like that."

Final Grade: B+

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Mini-Review - "West Side Story" (1961)


You know, after a while you get used to hardened street gangs bopping around New York City battling it out in a turf war by snapping at each other and using dance moves that would make any ballerina jealous. It took me a while, but I can't say that I've seen something like that before. You just start going with the flow and embrace the absurdity of it all.

"West Side Story," based off the famous stage play about two New York gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, battling it out to see who will reign supreme, while two members of the opposing gangs end up falling in love, is loosely based off William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."

The Jets are filled with punks who are, possibly by their own admission, not all right in the head due to their lousy upbringing. For them, they've only been able to find love and acceptance from the street and each other. This is their home and they're not going to give up without a fight.

The Sharks are originally from Puerto Rico and immigrated to America to start new and better lives than the ones they had back home. They keep facing adversities though from police officers and their own employers, who clearly look down on them. When the Jets push back on them, it seems like all the rage has finally boiled over and they're unwilling to step aside and be pushed around again.

This leads to a boiling point where both sides have their reasons for doing this, helped by great performances from the leaders of both gangs, Russ Tamblyn for the Jets and George Chakiris for the Sharks. These two put everything on out for the audience to see, letting not burning and searing emotion go unchecked.

Of course, the musical numbers are also memorable in their own right. Every song works in its own right and has stood the test of time by continuing to entertain audiences to this day. I enjoyed the Sharks performing "America" that shows the good and bad of living in American and Puerto Rico, as well as "Jet Song" and the amount of detail it goes into with the life of a street gang, which was great for setting the tone and mood of the movie.

Overall, "West Side Story" plays out like an extravagant and modern take on Shakespeare's tale, while still having its own identity through its songs and vibrant color scheme, with the dance numbers being just as intoxicating as the songs. This is one of those timeless musicals that even people who don't care for musicals, like myself, can enjoy. Get ready to have many of the songs stuck in your head for days and to be snapping a lot, because this one is quite catchy.

Final Grade: B+

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Movie Review - "Ghostbusters" (2016)


It isn't too often that a movie comes along that has people so heavily divided. Well alright, that's not true, this happens about once every three months and happened with "Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice." But there are many camps and trains of thought when it comes to the newest "Ghostbusters".

Some complaints for the film stem from living in the shadow of its predecessor, with the original 1984 film often being considered one of the greatest modern comedies, and that this film is merely a carbon copy of the original, with the exception of the other complaint people have - the all-women cast.

The thing is that production on a third Ghostbusters film had been in contemplation for years and was stuck in development-hell for over a decade. The writers of "Ghostbusters," Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis (who also play two of the lead Ghostbusters) couldn't come up with a satisfying story, certainly not helped by the lukewarm response to "Ghostbusters 2." Eventually, the project was shelved while Ghostbusters gained more and more of a following over the years.

Enter writer-director Paul Feig, who has previously given us "Bridesmaids" and one of the best comedies from last year "Spy." While Feig is known for his collaborations with Melissa McCarthy, it should be noted that Feig had a talent for writing funny female characters. When Feig took on "Ghostbusters" he went in the motto of "telling a story never you've seen before. Or tell a story you've seen before, but in a way you haven't seen it."

It also helped Feig that he hired Katie Dippold to co-write the film with him, who had previously written "The Heat" and several episodes of "Parks And Recreation."

So where do I fall on the newest addition to the Ghostbusters legacy? Do I think its sexist or a pale imitation? Actually, "Ghostbusters" is far from either.

While comparisons between the 2016 addition and the 1984 film are unavoidable, especially since the first movie is so well-loved, I believe this film does enough to distance itself from the predecessors. Not just in casting the four main leads, but how these characters interact with each other and their defining character traits.

Besides, a movie should stand or fall on its own merits rather than being compared to other works. "Ghostbusters" is not a sequel, and could hardly be considered a remake, but more of a re-imagining.

Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is a professor at Columbia University looking to gain tenure and finds out that is jeopardizes when a book she published years ago on the paranormal has resurfaced and is causing a bit of a stir. Erin confronts her friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), about putting the book online, when Erin finds Abby has a massive lab equipped to locate and hunt ghosts, including an eccentric lab assistant Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Abby agrees to take the book offline if Erin joins them for one mission, where the three have a face-to-face encounter with a ghost.

With renewed spirits and purpose, the three decide to join forces and construct a way to show the world that ghosts are real and might be dangerous. They get the help from a local Subway attendant, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) and a dim-witted secretary (Chris Hemsworth), while gang slowly uncovers a plot by the mysterious Rowan (Neil Casey).

The true strength of this film comes from the four main leads, who are all delightful and hilarious to watch. Each of them stands out with distinct personality traits, including Patty's street knowledge clashing with everyone elses' raw intelligence, Erin's surprisingly tragic childhood being the reason the Ghostbusters were formed, and Jillian's complete disregard for safety and basic manners.

Each of these girls was enjoyable in one form or another, with particular focus on Kate McKinnon, who makes sitting down to chat with the mayor hysterical. She's certainly the brains of the group, but don't let her know that or she might dissect the brains to see how it can blow up. Leslie Jones adds a great balance of humor and attitude, where she is an outsider to all the technology and supernatural events, leading to some of the best jokes like when she runs into a walking mannequin. But Patty still understands the seriousness of this situation and is sympathetic towards other characters, leading to her being the most caring member of the group.

Melissa McCarthy tones down her usual over-the-top attitude from "Spy" to give us the most balance member. The best parts of her character are in her relationship to Kristen Wiig's character, as their bond was formed by being the only two who ever understood one another. These two make up the heart of the film through their comradery and perseverance.

All four of these characters are written like some of the greatest female film characters, like Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley - they are fascinating and sometimes characters that just so happen to be female. They are humans before they're women.

The gender of these four is rarely brought up in "Ghostbusters," and they hardly act any differently than a man would do in their situation. Sure, the film will occasionally make a joke about their genders, but they are few and far between. Honestly, I didn't find that their genders mattered at all. These four characters would have been just as funny, sympathetic and entertaining as men, but then we would have missed out on some great scenes from Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones.

With all this being said, is "Ghostbusters" fantastic? Not really. Outside of the four protagonists and a few scenes involving Chris Hemsworth, there is nothing that particularly stands out about the film. The story is bare-bones "misunderstood heroes have to stop the oncoming apocalypse," the villain gets the job done and the effects are decent, but get worse as the film progresses oddly enough. When we're introduced to the first ghosts, there is a lot of detail in the outfits and skeletal structure. But by the time we get to the climatic battle, some of the ghosts are less than impressive, when it looks like our heroes are hitting nothing at all.

But "Ghostbusters" knew where to put the majority of the focus - The lead characters and the comedy. While this film is far from perfect, it does nail the characters bouncing off one another and giving us some great comedy that we didn't see in any previous Ghostbusters film. I do believe that Paul Feig's movie lived up to the "tell a story you've seen before, but in a way you haven't seen it."

So before you say that "Ghostbusters" is trying to be anti-male or that it is a weak remake of the 1984 film, I would highly recommend going to see it for yourself before you make that assessment. Even if you end up hating the film, at least now you can point out why it was so terrible. And if you do end up enjoying it, then something good did come out that.
Final Grade: B

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Mini-Review - "Lethal Weapon" (1987)


I know "Lethal Weapon" was the first buddy-cop film, but I can say that it is one of the most successful of its genre and was the blueprint for dozens of buddy-cop films that would follow.

So what exactly did the film do that earned that status? Well, among many aspects, "Lethal Weapon" gave us two vastly different characters, one likable and relatable and the other tragic and misunderstood, put into a situation that brings out the best and worst in both, giving us a full range of emotions and thrills.

We watch as Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) deals with his own emotional baggage and deals with every violent police situation in the worst possible way, always being reckless with no regard for his own life. Riggs puts the lives of others ahead of his own, because he sees himself as expendable and danger to everyone around him. He lives out of a trailer on the beach, with his dog as his only companion, after the loss of his wife.

Meanwhile, Roger Murtaugh (Donald Glover) is a family man who just turned fifty. He doesn't have much to call his own, just his wife, children and a boat that he doesn't know how to fix. And he is content with that. He has found his happiness in the world and wouldn't want to change that for anything, except possibly making a better world for his children to grow up in.

There is little of solving the case throughout "Lethal Weapon" and more of Riggs and Murtaugh talking about their problems with one another, ultimately coming to respect each other. Murtaugh is blown away by Riggs' dedication to the job and his selflessness, while Riggs appreciates that Murtaugh can find his own happiness in a world that he finds so bitter and harsh.

Later buddy-cop films like "Rush Hour" focus more on the crimes and action sequences, but "Lethal Weapon" is drawn to the characters and how the police force brought them together. Though there are some thrilling action moments in the film, they feel almost personal by the time we see Riggs holding a sniper position while Murtaugh keeps a grenade on him to protect his daughter.

It is less about the scenarios and more about the dynamics between the characters. It is about how these cops become buddies.

"Lethal Weapon" is a classic 1980s action film, like "Die Hard" and "The Terminator," that keep the characters in front of the high-octane action, so that when we see our heroes almost enveloped in a ball of fire, we are invested in their imminent destruction.

Final Grade: A-

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Mini-Review - "The Sting" (1973)

the sting

Imagine "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid" if it were a gangster film from the 1930s, and you'll get "The Sting." High on energy and enthusiasm for the craft and loving detail to the time period, combine with wonderful chemistry between Robert Redford and Paul Newman to the point that you are convinced these two were made for one another.

If I'll remember "The Sting" for anything, it's the amount of detail it goes into creating an homage to classic gangster films, like "The Public Enemy" and "Little Caesar." It came be so easy to do a bad gangster homage - put a couple of guys in some fancy suits, have them talk like the Bronx is the only place that ever existed and have lots of shot-outs. But "The Sting" took story elements of the young nobody that wants to beat the system, make a name for himself, and added small details to the background and setting, like the lack of extras. Add in some 1920s music and you get a flawless re-creation of a timeless gangster film.

It is odd that a film so enriched in a different time period can become timeless. For a film made in the 1970s, re-creating the 1920s, "The Sting" is an oddity that matches the tone and atmosphere of many other gangster films, while still having its own charm through the relationship between Redford and Newman. Redford's charisma and bravado bounces off Newman's cool-headed attitude and confidence that any scene with the two of them is intoxicating.

"The Sting" is a must-watch for fans of gangster films and anyone fascinated in observing different time periods clashing. Watch for pre-"Jaws" Robert Shaw playing Doyle Lonnegan, an Irish-man with a bad temper and a lot of money.

Final Grade: A-

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Mini-Review - "Witness For The Prosecution" (1957)


If you told me a year ago that Billy Wilder directed a courtroom drama based off an Agatha Christie play, I would have avoided it like the plague. And I did.

Courtroom dramas are some of my least favorite movies, because more often than not they all tell the same type of story and find new ways to use legal jargon that I do not understand to justify their actions. Now this isn't to say that all courtroom dramas are terrible, I recently did a review of "Primal Fear," which I adored for its portrayal of a decaying city that needed someone to stand up for the little guy. "12 Angry Men" is another great example, for being the most human and by far the most captivating courtroom drama I've seen.

I can add "Witness For The Prosecution" to that list now, as Billy Wilder stuns yet again with another wonderful entry in his extensive library.

The film follows Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), who is recovering from an illness, as he takes on a "hopeless case" of an American, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), who reportedly murdered a rich-old widow to get at her money. Wilfrid quickly learns there is more to the case than one would expect, especially when it comes to Vole's wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich).

Part of the reason I enjoyed "Witness For The Prosecution" so much is due to Charles Laughton's performance, as a man who has seen his fair share of unbelievable court cases, but realizes those days are coming to an end for him. He screams at the top of his lungs during the trial and puts his entire body into his conviction and determination that his client is not guilty, even though his body is clearly giving out over time. Yet that stops Wilfrid from giving a sarcastic comment or nasty criticism, especially towards his nurse, Ms. Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester).

Laughton plays the role like an aging Sherlock Holmes. Wise and confident, yet vulnerable and a bit perplexed. He has years of experience, but still loves the thrill of solving the case and proving it to the entire world. To him, this is all still new and he loves dissecting the case almost as much as picking on Ms. Plimsoll.

Because of Laughton's performance, "Witness For The Prosecution" keeps the typical wit and charm you see in Billy Wilder films like "Some Like It Hot" and "Double Indemnity," without sacrificing the gravitas of the court case. The film is able to flip between uproarious moments between Wilfrid and his butler, and down-to-earth moments with Vole and his wife falling in love.

Overall, "Witness For The Prosecution" is similar to "Primal Fear" in how it takes the normality you'd expect in a courtroom drama and flips it on its head. Both films give us great characters who want to make a better world through justice and the law, even when all hope seems lost. This one is powered by many great performances, with Charles Laughton leading the way. I thoroughly enjoyed this one from start to finish without ever getting tired of seeing the courtroom, which might be a first.

Final Grade: A-

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Mini-Review - "The Spirit Of St. Louis" (1957)

spirit of st. louis
Jimmy Stewart playing Charles Lindbergh. I want you to let that sink in for a minute. The classic every-man of cinema now playing a historical figure, the first man to fly from New York to Paris in a single-engine plane.

In theory, this sounds like a good idea. You'd have a film where most of it would take place in one location, so you'd need to cast someone with natural charisma and charm without ever dulling.

The problem with this is now that Jimmy Stewart is so iconic and unique of an actor in his mannerisms and the way he speaks, that you can't see him playing a living, breathing person. Anytime I saw Jimmy trying to be Charles Lindbergh in "The Spirit Of St. Louis," I didn't see Charles Lindbergh, I saw Jimmy Stewart being himself.

As much as I love James Stewart as an actor, and believe me I adore this actor more than most others, I can't take the man seriously when he's trying to be a historical figure. Stewart works better when he's allowed to be his own man, rather than someone else.

Strangely enough, "The Spirit Of St. Louis" was co-written and directed by Billy Wilder, the only time Wilder and Stewart worked together. This one lacks most of the charm that came from other Wilder films like "Sunset Boulevard" and "Some Like It Hot," choosing to play just about everything straight without many quirks or personal touches. Granted, Wilder probably wanted to stay as close as possible to reality, but from a man who was oozing with personal style and substance, it is a bit disappointing to see a film directed by him that really could have used it.

Overall, "The Spirit Of St. Louis," was a fine distraction. Nothing to special about this one, but nothing terrible about it either. While having James Stewart play Charles Lindbergh is off-putting to say the least, he does a fine job as usual with the role and keeps the film from getting stale. Save this one for a rainy day or if you feel like watching every Billy Wilder film at some point.

Final Grade: C

Friday, July 1, 2016

Mini-Review - "You Can't Take It With You" (1938)


I'm still surprised it took me this long to watch a Frank Capra/James Stewart film, especially since I adore "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" and "It's A Wonderful Life" as much as I do. Surprisingly, this film, "You Can't Take With You," is the only Capra/Stewart production to win Best Picture, and it's not hard to see why.

Part of this is due to competition, with "Mr. Smith" coming out in 1939, arguably the greatest year in cinema history with "Wizard Of Oz" and "Gone With The Wind" among others, and "It's A Wonderful Life" having to compete with "The Best Years Of Our Lives" and the return of so many great actors and directors from WWII. But more so, "You Can't Take It With You" has the best compilation of performances out of the three films, with every actor turning in a captivating and unique performance, and Lionel Barrymore leading the way.

The story is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, about a young man born into a rich and prosperous family (Stewart) falling in love with his receptionist (Jean Arthur), who is the only seemingly normal one in her eccentric family, led by her grandfather (Lionel Barrymore). The two try to make their families accept the other, since they're recently engaged to be married. But while her family is accepting of him, his stuck-up and snobby family does not approve of marrying someone so low on the totem-pole. Unbeknownst to all of them, his father (Thomas Mitchell) is planning to buy up a twelve-block part of land where hundreds of people live, so that he can sell the land and make a fortune, and the grandfather is only one left on the block who is unwilling to sell his property.


While the story is convoluted and a bit confusing to follow, it still holds many of the traits we've come to know and love in a Frank Capra film. Every character feels fully fleshed out, even the ones who only have one or two lines are full of life and want to speak their mind, and add to the overall sense of community, like the town is one massive character that lives and breathes just as much as you or I do.

There was one scene near the end that reminded me of the ending to "It's A Wonderful Life," and it brought a smile to my face as the selfless actions of the grandfather for many years have finally brought him to this moment, where the town can finally show just how much it cares about this one man.

There were also several moments that reminded me of an underrated Capra film, "Arsenic and Old Lace," which was also an adaptation of a play. Both have similarities, in that both take place almost exclusively in one location, while still having a cast of dozens, mostly wild-and-crazy people who have been cooped up for far too long.

The heart-and-soul of this movie comes back to Lionel Barrymore's performance, as an old man on crutches who gives up every room in his house to family members and others who want to pursue their dreams, like learning to make fireworks or building toys. He believes that one shouldn't spend their life at a job they hate, but instead do something that brings them joy. This is a man full of youth and spirit, even if his body doesn't reflect it. Practically the opposite of Barrymore's Mr. Potter in "It's A Wonderful Life," we see someone who wants people to be free and see that money isn't the most important thing in the world.

Overall, "You Can't Take It With You," is a great film with some quirky humor, some stand-out characters and some wonderfully beautiful moments scattered throughout. The film feels like a combination of "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "It's A Wonderful Life," by packing in these zany characters in one tight place but still having plenty of heart and soul. I would recommend watching this one with subtitles, since the most up-to-date version I watched had poor sound quality and couldn't always understand what the characters were saying. Other than that, this one was a truly great Capra classic.

Final Grade: A-