Monday, June 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby

Daisy: You always look so cool. The man in the cool, beautiful shirts.

From every high school in America to the big screen, The Great Gatsby is the story of everyman Nick who gets wrapped up in the reckless, consequence-free lifestyle of his wealthy cousin Daisy and her former lover, the mysterious Gatsby. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t end well. Never one of my favorite books, I went to see it because it seemed like the perfect movie for Baz Luhrmann, kind of like Moulin Rouge but with better plot construction. I even sprung for 3D. Unfortunately, it didn’t really seem like a step forward for him.

One of the first things they tell you in film school is never to use narration. Then, every student rattles off all the films that use narration well as an excuse for why they should be able to use it. Well, the best argument a teacher could use against it is this movie. Tobey Maguire’s narration is over everything. Everything. Why let the audience contemplate what the characters are thinking when you can have Maguire read huge chunks of the book that explain exactly what’s happening? Pro tip, I don’t need him to tell me that it seemed like Gatsby was reaching for something when I can see DiCaprio physically reaching toward the green light. I got it. It’s not rocket science. If about fifty percent of the narration had been cut, the emotion throughout would have been a lot stronger.

The other problem is that when I go to see a Luhrmann film, I want to see something visually stunning. Don’t get me wrong, everything looks beautiful and there are a few particularly stunning shots, but it’s nothing like his earlier films. He used to take risks and push the limits of what was acceptable. Romeo + Juliet is the most 90s looking movie you’ll see because of that. But while this movie is pretty, it isn’t daring. Even the Jay-Z produced soundtrack has issues. It’s at its best the few times it blends the jazz that challenged conventions in the 20s and the hip-hop that challenges conventions today. But for the most part, the soundtrack feels like it was assembled at random from a playlist of someone’s favorite songs with very little to tie them together.

With the powerful cast and beautiful sets, this movie should have been spectacular but Luhrmann’s attachment to the book came back to bite him in the end. Definitely a pass.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Once Upon A Time In The West

Jill: What's he waiting for out there? What's he doing?
Cheyenne: He's whittling on a piece of wood. I got a feeling that when he stops whittling, something's gonna happen.
I'm not really big on westerns but there are a few that I love and this one tops the chart. Sergio Leone has a penchant for long, epic westerns that for all their tough characters and desert landscapes play like a love poem to the American West. His characters are memorable, exchanging quips with one hand on a gun, with a moral ambiguity that can make it had to tell the heroes from the villains and Once Upon a Time in the West is no different. The story follows Jill McBain a woman who was widowed just before she arrived to join her new husband on his farm. With her husband and his children murdered and thugs trying to intimidate her off her supposedly worthless land, she turns to loveable scumbag Cheyenne and Harmonica, a mysterious gunman searching for a gang leader named Frank.

For it's almost three hour run time, there's very little dialogue. Leone chooses instead to focus on the characters' expressions which gives the whole film a very cool feel. Harmonica is a man of few words but when he speaks, people listen. He's the stoic hero, a man with a mission, and nothing, not even a beautiful, willing woman, will distract him. When Charles Bronson is onscreen, he draws the audience's attention with his silence and the eerie harmonica music he plays.


It's a film that glorifies the lawlessness of the old West and the Old Testament judgement that goes with it. No one's a saint. They've made tough choices to survive but while some can overcome their pasts to a better, more hopeful future, others have defined themselves too much by it and are left with nothing in the end. And at the same time, it shows the inevitable end of that lifestyle. The coming railroad will bring civilization with it and people like Harmonica will no longer have a place in the world. Frank, for all his villainy, has a better understanding of the coming changes. The conniving industrialist will replace the hardened gunman. A man's sense of honor and justice will be replaced by the comfort of the law. It's a bittersweet ending but Jill represents the hope that the change brings.

Leone's sweeping film pays tribute the short lived but most enduring period in American history. It's one of the best westerns I've ever seen and I highly recommend it to everyone.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

American Psycho

Courtney Rawlinson: Listen Patrick, can we talk?
Patrick Bateman: You look... marvelous. There's nothing to say.
In this condemnation of 80s materialism, Patrick Bateman is a wealthy, upper class investment banker who is obsessed with appearance. His world revolves around looking better, wearing better clothes, having better business cards, and getting better dinner reservations than all his equally superficial social peers. Of course, his killer instincts become doubly apparent at night when his kills homeless men, prostitutes, and even the occasional business associate. But after an all out killing spree causes him to confess his crimes to his lawyer, Bateman discovers all traces of the murders have disappeared, proving that his peers would rather turn a blind eye to his true nature than be forced to examine their own lifestyles.

What makes this film so much better than an average serial killer film is the dark, understated sense of humor that accents it. Christan Bale's performance as Patrick Bateman is amazing at conveying his narcissism and complete lack of empathy. His explanations about his favorite musicians before his murders are hilarious as well as an eerie juxtaposition to the following carnage. And the business card scene with everyone exchanging slight variations on the same design is truly an amazing show of the trivialities that are so important in Bateman's world. If you can take the sex and violence, it's a highly entertaining film and a nice commentary on the extremes of materialism.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Where the Wild Things Are

Judith: Happiness isn't always the best way to be happy.

This wasn't a book I really read as a child and normally a film adaptation of a 300 word picture book wouldn't be something I'd pay attention to (considering the outcome of numerous Seuss adaptations), but after seeing the trailer for this live-action Spike Jonze's film, I knew it would be different. One thing that was obvious after seeing it was that this isn't a kids' film (unfortunately for the adorable little boy dressed as Max that we met outside the theater) and that may have cost it theatrical success, but for adults, it's an interesting look at what it means to be a child and what it means to grow up.

Max, a rambunctious, imaginative little boy, feels ignored and helpless. His sister is too busy with her friends to pay any attention to him and his mother is preoccupied with work and her new boyfriend. After throwing a tantrum, Max runs away from home, sailing across the sea to the land where the wild things are. He becomes their king and immediately gets all the friends and attention he wants. But when real problems start to interrupt his eternal playtime, Max begins to see that the world is more complicated than he thought.


Where the Wild Things Are is a beautifully shot film with wonderful sets and landscapes. The acting, especially by the star Max Records, brings the whole thing to life with the actors playing the wild things (James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, and Lauren Ambrose) doing a great job of emulating the childish behavior that script draws upon. And the childishness isn't always the idealized, joyful innocence we prefer to remember but also the stubbornness, pettiness, and selfishness. Max, angry at his mother, runs away from home and finds the wild things who are trying to calm down Carol, who's having his own tantrum and destroying their houses. And even though Max and Carol become friends, Carol's initial tantrum looms over the rest of the story as a threat to any sort of peace and happiness Max tries to establish. As king, Max concerns himself with the superficial needs of his subjects, but he is unable to take care of their emotional needs. Many of them are unsure of their place in the group, in constant need of love and reassurance, feeling that the others are treating them unfairly or that they are being replace by the ones they love most. All of them are children with none of the perspective that time brings. They're all so concerned with being hurt that they are heedless of who they hurt. Max, now in the role of a parent, is forced to look beyond himself and finally realizes how his own behavior has affected his mother. And so, he returns home to find his worried mother waiting for him with a bowl of soup.

But as viewers, this glimpse into the bittersweet memories of our childhood reminds us not only of the mentality children are struggling with but also shows us the immaturity of our own selfishness. Even when we're grown it can be difficult to see beyond ourselves and recognize that one friend doesn't preclude the other and just because we want something now doesn't mean we are owed it. This is certainly not a film for children but rather a film about children. A reminder of where we have been and where we are going.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Shanghai Noon

Roy O'Bannon: I don't know karate, but I know kar-azy and I will use it.

Shanghai Noon is one of those movies that most everyone saw when it first came out and then promptly forgot, but I think it deserves to be remembered. It's a charming comedy that holds up well and seamlessly blends the western and kung-fu film while simultaneously spoofing both. For all it's simplicity, it's a really well-written comedy that shows off the best of Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan. Having rewatched it recently, it struck me how few films are made that have a lighthearted sense of humor that can be enjoyed by all ages while not losing it wit and charm in trying to be inoffensive enough for families. A solid adventure, with a lot of clever references to older westerns that turns the stereotypes on their heads. A great movie for a rainy day.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

America in Film

A friend of mine who goes to grad school with a lot of foreign students recently discovered that most of them had never seen the Star Wars trilogy. While setting up a screening to correct this unforgivable lapse in their pop culture knowledge, he realized there must be lots of films they haven't seen that they should before they become Americans. So, he asked several of his friends for a list of films that are integral to American cultural history and films that helped shaped current pop culture.

It's an interesting question, really. How do you define America in a limited number of films? Is it the films you like best or the films that best known? What genres should get the most spots? What directors and actors do you include? For pop culture films, the list could be endless. It would be easier to just compile a playlist of scenes on YouTube. After all, no one should be forced to sit through Five Easy Pieces just to see the Chicken Salad Scene. So, after careful consideration, here are my lists:

How to Be an American in 10 Films:
1. Casablanca
2. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
3. Gone with the Wind
4. The Wizard of Oz
5. To Kill a Mockingbird
6. Singin' in the Rain
7. The Godfather
8. Rear Window
9. Red River
10. The Maltese Falcon

How to Understand Americans in 10 Films:
1. Star Wars
2. Indiana Jones
3. Back to the Future
4. ET
5. Rocky
6. The Terminator
7. Nightmare Before Christmas
8. Pulp Fiction
9. Fight Club
10. Ghostbusters

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Middle

Last week I wound up having to watch the first two seasons of The Middle, a sitcom I previously did not know existed, despite it now being in its fourth season. After watching an episode, I knew why. This show takes the basic setup up for a sitcom by centering on a supposedly average American family and manages to water it down into an unfunny, cliche, and unrealistic mess. It centers on wife and working mother Frankie, her stoic husband Mike, and their three kids Axl (the athletic one), Sue (the awkward one), and Brick (the nerdy one). Though they are supposed to be a middle class family living in a small Midwestern town, they seem to be constantly teetering on the brink of financial ruin, as indicated by them being unable to pay their electricity bill for four months, and live exclusively on fast food with the occasional frozen processed meal to add variety. Frankie is the main character and narrates the show which mostly consists of her complaining about her family and with good reason. Their kids are spoiled rotten, needing constant nagging to accomplish things as simple as picking up their socks to tasks that are obviously their responsibility like doing their schoolwork. They consistently flout their parents' wishes, occasionally showing levels of disrespect that most parents wouldn't put up with but the Hecks excuse or try to justify. Frankie, of course, lost her right to complain since she always comes to her kids rescue so that they never have to face the consequences of their poor choices, the impetus of many of the episode plots.

All this would be forgivable if the show had any wit or originality. The jokes that don't revolve around Frankie complaining often contain baffling lapses in logic. For instance, when Frankie is taking a bath because of her bad back, nine-year-old Brick wanders in and she asks him to turn on the hot water. Brick reminds her that he is not allowed to use the hot water (bringing up some disturbing questions about how he takes showers) but he turns on the hot water anyway. When Frankie asks he to turn it off, he winds up turning it up because apparently hot water faucets are so different than cold water faucets that when given two options of how to turn it off, he repeatedly chooses the wrong one. This and dozens of other ill-conceived jokes make me question whether the writers have so little imagination they couldn't come up with realistic jokes and they simply forgot they weren't writing for the Disney Channel. The whole tone of the show is toothless, lacking the guts to realistically make fun of anything (like Modern Family) and unwilling to alienate anybody by being absurd enough to get away with more ridiculous elements (like Arrested Development). I'm completely at a loss for how this show is still on the air and wouldn't recommend it for anyone, especially when there are shows like Parks and Rec, Modern Family, Community, and The Mindy Project. They may not be perfect but at least they have some guts.