Friday, February 29, 2008

My 2008 Movie Odyssey - Part II

The Fantastic Planet (1973)
This film kept popping up on lists of great animated films targeted towards adults, so I figured I would check it out. The visuals are creative and interesting to look at, though the animation is very simple, feeling more like an anime than a Disney film. The world it creates is interesting and wonderfully realized, and the story is a lot like The Secret of Nimh (only this time, instead of rats we have humans trying to preserve their society against giant aliens). I suppose I should put in a warning about the very high animated breast count, but what would you expect from a French film?

Juno (2007)
Well this kind of finishes off the pregnancy trilogy of 2007 (after Knocked Up and Waitress), and I must say I liked Juno the best. I always find it refreshing to watch movies in which the characters are verbally eloquent, it is a nice change from the profanity laced dialog that tries to be realistic but only serves to make the characters come across as unintelligent and dull. But with Juno, listening to her speak, I get the feeling that I would actually like to meet her in real life.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
It is an interesting look at global politics, and generally manages to show an important issue without broadcasting its Importance in every scene. Of course Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman are excellent, and the movie is further proof that Amy Adams should be in every other movie. On the other hand, the film wasn’t terribly funny, and I doubt it will stick with me two months from now.

Sky High (2005)
I think I would have liked this film a whole lot more if The Incredibles did not exist. It covers much of the same ground as The Incredibles, but in a simpler, shallower way. It is still fun to watch, but definitely has more of a kids’ aesthetic.

The Conversation (1974)
It is an interesting look into the world of bugging and surveillance, and it was fun following the twists and turns of the plot as Gene Hackman’s character tries to piece together the contents of a bugged conversation between two people, but I just could not get over the fact that the film is about lots of unhappy people either unwilling or unable to find joy in the people around them. Of course that probably says more about my personality and outlook on life than the movie itself.

Coming up next: two of this year's best picture nominees, and two science fiction films.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

My 2008 Movie Odyssey - Part I

Last year I managed to write a blurb for every movie I watched during the year. This year I'm doing the same thing all over again, though this time I'm only writing about films that I've seen for the first time. What makes this year special is that I am sharing my thoughts with you, my established readers, in the hopes that my musings will help you seek out more worthwhile movies and stay away from the worthless ones (and bring more frequent posts to this blog). Most of the entries will be in the form of mini reviews, but some will just use the film as a jumping off point to talk about something entirely different. Since I like groups of five, I will be releasing the blurbs in sets of five, in the order in which I see them.

Nuovo cinema Paradiso (1988)
As a love letter to movies, I really liked this film. I especially liked the picture of Buster Keaton displayed prominently over the projector in the projection booth. On the other hand, tales of unrequited/doomed love do almost nothing for me, so the romance portions of the film did little for me. After all, there was very little reason to introduce a love interest into the film in the first place, as the relationship between young Toto and his projectionist mentor was wonderful enough in its own right. The film would have worked better if it had focused more solely on this relationship. Still, a very fitting choice for the first movie of the year.

Pat and Mike (1952)
It was a mildly amusing film with some laughs from leads Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and I appreciated most of the feminist themes in the film about not restricting a woman’s role in society. However I did not like the battle of the sexes themes (though admittedly they were less in evidence here than in the similarly themed Adam’s Rib). Whenever we fight the battle of the sexes, everyone loses.

Death Race 2000 (1975)
I was a little surprised at how entertaining this silly film from producer Roger Corman was. It tells the story of a futuristic cross-country race in which the drivers score points by killing pedestrians and the winner gets to shake hands with the god-like president. Of course there are those who object to the brutality of the race, and so they resort to terrorist-like tactics to eliminate the drivers. If the film had been serious, trying to make an Important Statement on society’s view of violence, it would have fallen flat, but since the film realizes the inherent absurdity of its subject matter, it opts for a satirical take on the events, which actually ends up giving its audience something to think about in regards to violence anyway.

Indiscreet (1958)
If this film were made today, there would be several scenes of bed-hopping with its leads which would add almost nothing to the film except "realism." Like the production code or not, its presence did lead to some artful ways of handling adult subject matter when it could not be shown explicitly. Director Stanley Donen could not show leads Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in bed together, so for one scene he shot it as a phone conversation with a split screen. At the end of the conversation, their hands meet at the center of the frame, and even though they are in separate apartments, it is as if they are holding hands. This ends up making the whole scene much more visually interesting than a mundane one of pillow talk.

Hairspray (1988)
While the film was fun for the most part, it lacked the joy and energy that was prevalent throughout the recent musical version, and featured an underlying smug, mean-spiritedness that served to sour my viewing pleasure to some extent. Though the original has its merits, I would recommend the musical remake because it tells the story in a better, more entertaining way.

Coming up next: a French animated film and a Best Picture nominee for this year.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Top & Bottom of 2007 - #1

Here it is, my eagerly awaited (if it's not, humor me) top film and bottom film from all the films I watched for the first time in 2007. And, as an added bonus, you get an honorable mention as well. So sit back, relax, and try not to think too many unhappy thought about my two choices.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
It was a toss-up for me as to which film was my top film between this one and Children of Men. I even debated having a tie for first place, but decided that was cheap, especially since there is a tie at number 3. The ultimate tie-breaker ended up being the fact that I am more likely to revisit Pan’s Labyrinth more often than Children of Men. The visuals are wonderfully evocative, and the faun looks fantastic. The film takes some pointers from George MacDonald in that while there is a fairy world just beyond our own, it is fraught with danger and peril all its own, especially for humans improperly equipped to survive in a world run by different rules. Of course it’s no wonder that the young Ofelia wants to escape into the fairy world despite its dangers, since she lives in the middle of civil war torn Spain, with a cruel step father who cares less than nothing for her. As a kid I often dreamed that, even though I had nothing against my parents, I would learn that my parents were not my real parents and that my real parents were powerful, most likely supernatural, beings, and were ready to take me home to a fantasy world of wonder. This actually happens in Pan’s Labyrinth.

Honorable Mention
Rear Window (1954)
This was actually about the fourth viewing of the film for me, but the first time I saw it in the theater with a full audience, and in that atmosphere, it was like watching the film for the first time all over again. Watching the film on a TV I find myself straining to look in all the different boxes that are the windows of the other apartments, but blown up on the big screen there are so many more nuances to catch (and Miss Torso sure looks much better when she is taller than ten inches). Every time I watch a classic movie in the theater setting I am rewarded. I encourage everyone to seek out some of their favorite classic films on the big screen. You will not be disappointed.

Happy Feet (2006)
How on earth could a film this lame and implausible win the Oscar for best animated feature? I felt like I was watching a 100 minute Coke commercial, without the anticipation of the polar bears eating the penguins. The comedy fell flat, the musical numbers were dull, and watching an animated creature with no legs tap dancing just does not have the same appeal (nor is as impressive) as a real person doing all the moves. Robin Williams was way over the top in his roles, doing broad racial voice stereotypes, there was very little to distinguish the penguins from each other, and of course the villains in the film were the religious conservatives, doing their part to keep our hero from being his unique self. And then there is the completely implausible joke of an ending, where humanity decides to stop fishing because they saw a bunch of penguins tap dancing. I think what would really happen is Ringling Bros. would snap up as many of the penguins as possible and put their tap dancing in the center ring. Of course, what should you expect from a film with a moronic title like Happy Feet?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Top 5 Film Composers

In honor of today being the birthday of the greatest film composer of all time (John Williams, who else?) I decided I would grace you, my harmonious readers, with my list of the five greatest film composers of all time.

John Williams
So many of his scores have made their way into the mainstream, easily recognizable to everyone, even if they don't know what the music is from or who wrote it. His scores are immensely hummable, and while he is best known for his grand, orchestrally epic scores, he has also dabbled in jazz (Catch Me if You Can), Japanese style (Memoirs of a Geisha), a stripped down, harmonica-heavy sound (Sugarland Express), and of course the simple yet heart-wrenchingly beautiful (Schindler's List). Signature Scores: the Star Wars films (of course), Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman, and Harry Potter.

Max Steiner
If John Williams is the best of the current cinema, Max Steiner is the best film composer from the early sound era. He helped to define what a score entails, and is one of the first to really go all out with the music and using music throughout the whole film. The sounds of his epic scores are still being imitated today, and I wonder where John Williams (or any of today's great film composers) would be if it wasn't for Max Steiner. Signature Scores: Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, and King Kong.

Elmer Bernstein
So many of his scores are just so downright fun to listen to. Much like John Williams, he has also got a varied resume, with westerns (True Grit), epics (The Ten Commandments), and comedies (Airplane!). (He also did the score to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 film Robot Monster.) Signature Scores: To Kill a Mockingbird (featuring John Williams on piano), The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, and Ghost Busters.

Bernard Herrmann
It is impossible to talk about Bernard Herrmann without mentioning his partnership with Alfred Hitchcock. After all, he scored 8 films for Hitchcock (if you count the experimental soundtrack of The Birds a score), and also scored two films heavily influenced by Hitchcock (Cape Fear and Obsession). He also wrote the score for the world's most infamous radio broadcast: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds. Signature Scores: Psycho, Vertigo, Citizen Kane, and (though not to my liking, but others love it) Taxi Driver.

Carl Stalling
So for my final entry, I wanted to go with something a little unorthodox, and Carl Stalling fits that to a T. Though he never scored a major motion picture, he was very prolific, highly influential, and had a very unique sound. With the Loony Toons, he almost single-handedly defined what cartoon music should sound like. Also, how many of you out there got your first taste of classical music while watching Bugs Bunny cartoons? Signature Scores: it's hard to pick a few out, but Rhapsody Rabbit is a good example of his use of classical music.

Runners Up
Thomas Newman - He definitely has a unique style, but he is still fairly new on the scene, and he lacks signature pieces.
Danny Elfman - He has a signature sound and has several memorable scores, but his stuff still largely sounds like variations of the same five themes.
Ennio Morricone - He has a very unique sound, but is too much out of the mainstream to make the final cut (though he almost made the list).
Hans Zimmer - Very prolific, but too much of his stuff sounds the same, and he lacks individual memorable pieces.