Monday, April 30, 2012

"If I Wanted to Kill You, You'd Be Dead Already": Godfather Analysis Part VI

Go to Part V: "Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again."

I have argued that Pulp Fiction, despite what most people believe, is not actually a very violent film. I stick strongly to that belief. I don’t want to say the same thing about The Godfather because I believe it is rife with violence, but it is worth noting that the first violent scene (the garroting of Luca Brasi) comes 42 minutes into the film. This suggests that violence exists in the film only when necessary. It places the focus on family (the subject of the opening wedding celebration), on loyalty (the subject of the meetings Don Corleone has, as well as the help he provides Johnny Fontane), and it is about business (the subject of the meeting with Virgil Sollozzo).

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods Movie Review

Joss Whedon has built a strong cult following around his projects that have a tendency to subvert genre conventions and put a new spin on familiar stories. His short-lived TV series “Firefly” and the follow-up film Serenity was a sci-fi space western. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which most people forget was a movie before it was a popular TV show starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, took the dumb blonde caricature who is always the first to die in horror films and made her the hero, an ass-kicking, smart-talking, wooden stake-wielding defender of humanity. As co-writer along with Drew Goddard, who directs, and producer of The Cabin in the Woods, Whedon turns his attention to the slasher/horror/torture porn set of genres and sub-genres.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Damsels in Distress Movie Review

Damsels in Distress is Whit Stillman’s fourth film and his first in 14 years. If his first three films fit together as a sort of trilogy (some characters cross over) of early 1980s Urban Haute Bourgeoisie (a term created by one of his characters in Metropolitan, Stillman’s first film), then this one takes off in a new if slightly familiar direction. For one thing, Damsels in Distress is his first film that focuses almost exclusively on female lead characters (he even gives them the title). More importantly, whereas Stillman’s earlier films were grounded in the real world, his latest has a setting that belongs more in the realm of fantasy.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

La ley del deseo [Law of Desire] Movie Review: 25 Years Ago This Month

In the 25 years since Law of Desire Almodóvar has refined his filmmaking and writing styles to the point of near perfection. Looking at this older film you almost have to ignore the occasional stilted dialogue and acting and focus instead on his themes, which were as rich and fulfilling then as they are now.

Almodóvar has always been fond of setting films with films or plays within films and Law of Desire is not different, featuring both. He’s also always pushed the boundaries of acceptability in filmmaking and here he opens with a sexually explicit scene that, it turns out, is being directed by Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela) as part of a film that will make him even more of a celebrity. Pablo has a fairly strong habit of engaging in both drugs and promiscuous sex with young men he meets while out in his hometown of Madrid. His regular lover Juan goes away on an extended holiday leaving open the opportunity for Antonio (Antonio Baderas) to take his place and become jealous to the point of making some very poor decisions.

"Never Tell Anybody Outside the Family What You're Thinking Again": Godfather Analysis Part V

Now that we’ve been introduced to all the major characters in the film, gotten a sense of their personality traits and seen the power of Don Corleone’s persuasion, it’s time (only 33 minutes into the film) to put the plot in motion and meet the villain. This section opens with Corleone sitting down with Tom and Sonny to begin discussing the possibility of becoming partners with Virgil Sollozzo. Vito asks Tom if he’s too tired and Tom remarks that it’s okay because he slept on the plane. This seemingly banal piece of dialogue does a few things: gives us a time reference so we know this is immediately after Tom’s trip to California; indicates Tom’s professionalism in his loyalty and service to the Don; and shows that the Don wants to get things moving quickly and be well-prepared.

Friday, April 20, 2012

"He Never Asks a Second Favor When He's Been Refused the First": Godfather Analysis Part IV

Go to Part III: "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."

The next section opens with some stock footage establishing shots of Hollywood and then a few long range shots of Tom making his way around the studio back lot until he finds the soundstage where Jack Woltz is. We know from the last conversation in Don Corleone’s office that Tom was meant to go to California that night. These establishing shots remind us of that conversation and the problem that Johnny is having with getting a part in a new war film.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"I'm Gonna Make Him an Offer He Can't Refuse.": Godfather Analysis Part III

Go to Part II: "No Sicilian can refuse any request on his daughter's wedding day."

The family portrait now includes Michael and Kay.
Now Johnny Fontane arrives to the great joy and surprise of Vito, who proclaims that he came “all the way from California.” Tom, being realistic and perhaps a little jealous, points out, “it’s been two years. He’s probably in trouble again.” Of course, Tom turns out to be right as he’s come to ask a favor of the Don.

American Reunion Movie Review

Their careers long on the wane, their faces puffier and showing the first signs of aging, the original gang from American Pie and American Pie 2 is back together for a sequel that no one was really clamoring for. They’ve been brought together in the past by the end of high school prom, summer after first year at college and a wedding. Now in American Reunion, the title denotes not only the high school event during which the guys hope to get a final taste of the lost youth and freedom they haven’t experienced for a long time, but also the gathering of one-time hot young actors for a film that could be better considered as a “Where Are They Now” documentary.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"No Sicilian Can Refuse Any Request on His Daughter's Wedding Day.": Godfather Analysis Part II

Go to Part I: "I believe in America."

After the dark interior opening, the film cuts to a sunny exterior shot of the wedding celebration with music playing and people dancing. This virtuoso opening sequence brilliantly introduces us not only to most of the important characters in the film, but also to some of the key plot points, although we don’t know it yet. The opening sequence in Corleone’s office has an average shot length of just under 27 seconds. The remainder of the wedding sequence averages just under 8 seconds per shot – an indication that the sequence moves quickly, cutting between exterior and interior scenes, revealing all the characters and some of their personality traits that will figure prominently later.

From My Collection: Inside Man Movie Review

I’m kind of a shameless sucker for heist movies. I love the team camaraderie and the way the films are usually structured, often beginning with an opening heist teaser, followed by a gathering of the team members, the training and planning stages and finally the execution. Spike Lee’s Inside Man turns a lot of the conventions of the genre on its head by beginning with the heist and allowing it to unfold with the audience in the position of the hostages and the police. We don’t know what the plan is, what they want to steal, or how they plan to make their escape. Hell, we don’t even know who is involved. It all gets pieced together slowly over time as the main detective slowly catches on, at which point it’s too late.

Monday, April 16, 2012

From My Collection: The Departed Movie Review

When Frank Costello asks a man how his mother is and he replies that she’s on her way out, Frank’s rejoinder, “We all are. Act accordingly,” sets a tone for the film. As the title suggests, death hangs like a pall over Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. It is a film in which most of the characters live with the fear of death around them at all times. They are cops and they are criminal mafia.

The story is of two young men, played by Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, who become embroiled in an elaborate plot to take down Costello’s crime organization from one end and infiltrate the Massachusetts State Police Force from the other. Damon plays Colin Sullivan, the mole inside the State Police investigative unit for organized crime. He is recruited by Costello as a boy in an extended prologue that introduces most of the major players. Then there’s DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan, a new police recruit fingered for a special deep undercover assignment to help bring Costello down.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Hunger Games Movie Review

I like futuristic dystopia stories for what they suggest about humanity at present and where we are ultimately headed if we continue down certain paths. But I generally like the vision to make some sense. I don’t necessarily demand a lot of back story and exposition to explain how the future became such as it is, but I would like it to make some sense according to what I know of the world today. Even when our real life timeline inevitably reaches the fictional year of some such movie or story and it turns out the vision hasn’t really panned out, in the best ones we can find some parallels and maybe say, “Well, it’s not 100 percent accurate but I can still see it as a possibility.” The year 2001 came and went and although we have yet to develop the capabilities to forge deep space travel as depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey, we have been to the moon since the film’s 1968 release and humanity has explored (via unmanned probes) the far reaches of our solar system. Blade Runner presents a vision of Los Angeles in 2019 that is not close to coming to fruition, but still looks like a possibility in some more distant future.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Project X Movie Review: 25 Years Ago This Month

Where have all the social message movies gone? As I plumb through the films of 25 years ago I continually come up against movies that speak to the socio-historical context of the time. Many of these movies have an agenda. Maybe it’s a lack of hindsight, but I don’t see the same type of issues movies coming from the studios nowadays. More than likely the answer is to be found in the fact that the message movies have always been few and far between, but they are more likely to stand the test of time and be remembered years later.

Jonathan Kaplan’s Project X deals with the issue of animal welfare in the context of the military industrial complex at the tail end of the Cold War. It’s a real do-gooder of a movie that wants to portray the government and especially the military as cold and unsparing as you move further up the chain of command. The top officers and bureaucrats are viewed as calculating and rather inhuman while the enlisted men, serving as surrogates for the average viewer, are compassionate while they follow orders.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

25 Years Ago This Month: April 1987

The Police Academy franchise continued in April 1987 with the fourth installment, subtitled Citizens on Patrol. Each film in the series earned less at the box office than the previous chapter leading me to wonder how they went on to make parts 5, 6, and 7. The only actor who could reasonably be called a star in the entire series is Steve Guttenberg and he bowed out after the third film. Everyone else was famous for nothing other than their roles in this lifeless, flaccid, completely unfunny comedy series. David Spade made his film debut here as one of the titular citizen police officers. Sharon Stone also makes an early film appearance.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Last Days of Disco Movie Review

For his third feature film The Last Days of Disco, Whit Stillman graduated to better financing and a bigger budget, but maintained his unique writing style and characterization depicting the “Urban haute bourgeoisie” of his first film Metropolitan. Again the characters are well-educated Ivy Leaguers and New England liberal arts college graduates who spend a lot of time talking. Stillman’s Barcelona brought these characters to another country, but this time he brought them back to New York City, where the well-to-do of that first film paraded around in tuxedos and ball gowns discussing philosophy, literature and social mores. The setting has changed slightly with the characters frequenting the dying disco scene of the early 80s, but the conversations are similar.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Chaplin Movie Review

The problem that plagues most biographical films is the way they try to encompass far too much. In my experience, the best films about historical figures have honed their stories to focus on one period in their lives or on one particular aspect. It’s nearly impossible to depict an accurate sense of a person’s life in the space of a feature film. How do you distill what usually fills several hundred pages of printed words to a story that fits into so short a time span? Richard Attenborough tried it with Gandhi and though the result is a well-regarded film, it is also remembered by most people (myself included) as more than a bit boring. Several of Attenborough’s films focus on real historical figures, but his next straight biographical film was Chaplin in 1992.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Charlie Chaplin's A Countess from Hong Kong Movie Review

As Charlie Chaplin entered the twilight of his life he struggled to get films made the way he was accustomed. Exiled from the United States, he no longer had the playground of his own studio to make films in the painstaking manner that was his style.  Because he was in thrall to a studio that was not his own, he had constraints in terms of budget and time. After leaving the United States for England in 1952 he only made two more films in the next 25 years.

We can possibly blame the quality of his final film, A Countess from Hong Kong, on this among several other factors. For Chaplin, A Countess from Hong Kong represented many firsts: first color film; first widescreen film (despite his ridiculing of the format in A King in New York); first comedy not starring himself; first time directing international movie stars. The effect of all these factors is a film that is both not funny as well as technically shoddy.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The State of the Blog: Year 2

Today is the two year anniversary of the start of this movie blog. It has turned out to suck up a lot more of my time than I really expected and still I haven't been able to do all the things I have planned.

It rather unfortunately still sits here on blogspot, which I absolutely do not want. I still want to build this thing into a real website with new and classic reviews and other features. Some kind of blog might remain part of the final product but the focus would be a movie website.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Charlie Chaplin's A King in New York Movie Review

A King in New York is probably Charlie Chaplin’s most deeply personal film. Though he claimed he was just trying to make people laugh with another comedy film, there is no denying the overt political arguments he makes with his screenplay. The film is undoubtedly critical of the United States and its policies in the 1950s regarding political party affiliation. A King in New York was Chaplin’s first film made outside America because he’d already been exiled from the country he called home for almost forty years. His exile was the result of allegations that he was a member of the Communist Party. By all accounts, Chaplin loved America and was devastated when he was not permitted to return. With that in mind, we can read A King in New York as a cathartic experience for Chaplin to have made it when he did.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Charlie Chaplin's Limelight Movie Review

Buster Keaton (left) makes a brief appearance as Calvero's partner on the stage.
As Charlie Chaplin’s popularity began to fade his work output slowed considerably. He took longer and longer to complete scripts. His script for Limelight took him about four years to finish. In it he explores the effects of an irrelevant career on an aging Vaudeville performer. Chaplin plays Calvero, a once great Music Hall entertainer who now finds himself receding into obscurity as the world moves on around him. The film takes place in 1914, presumably on the eve of the First World War, but the amount of time that seems to pass in the narrative suggests that the war should have begun during its course. Yet there is no mention of war at all. This is a mistake, I think, because the presence of the war could have added a very real dimension to the Calvero’s downfall. As the world teetered on the brink, who had time for music halls and stage entertainment? Chaplin’s own fall from grace similarly coincided with the start of WWII.

Barcelona Movie Review

Whit Stillman’s Metropolitandrew on his own experiences going to debutante balls and hobnobbing with wealthy socialites. His second film, Barcelona, similarly drew on his own life, this time mining the time he spent living abroad. Ted and Fred Boynton are cousins who share Ted’s apartment for a short time when Fred turns up unexpectedly as part of a Navy advance man ahead of the arrival of the Sixth Fleet’s shore leave. Ted works for an American company out of their Barcelona office. Fred is a brash outspoken American who vehemently defends the United States’ honor against the frequent verbal abuse levied by Spanish locals. Ted is a bit more reserved, though no less a patriot, and versed in some of the subtleties of Spanish culture.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux Movie Review

The only film for which Charlie Chaplin grew a real mustache.
The vast majority of silent film stars faded into obscurity rather quickly with the advent of synchronized sound. Directors tended to fare better as their craft was built around telling stories. We forget (or in most cases don’t know) that John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock started in silent films. Actors tended to have the most trouble transitioning to sound films. Charlie Chaplin was most famous for his iconic tramp character who was necessarily a silent character. He made some headway by continuing to make artistically viable and successful films in the silent tradition with City Lights and Modern Times. But eventually something had to give.

The Great Dictator was his first dialogue-driven film, but even that had strong roots in the silent traditions. Truly it was not until Monsieur Verdoux in 1947 when Chaplin released his first film conceived entirely as a talking picture. Think for a moment about how incredible that is – that’s fully 20 years after the beginning of the talkies.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Metropolitan Movie Review

On the cinematic evolutionary line after Woody Allen but before Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach is Whit Stillman. He wrote and directed three films all released in the 90s and then disappeared for 13 years (his fourth film, Damsels in Distress opens this month). As a writer he stands tall among the giants of literate screenplays written by, for, and about educated people. His characters are often reflections of his own upbringing in a world of upper class privilege and Ivy League education. His stories explore issues such as social group dynamics versus coupling, distinctions between social classes, and conservative political values. He’s a writer unafraid to give his characters interesting things to say and have them sound intelligent. If you find yourself occasionally lost, it’s quite possibly because the conversation is centered on something outside your experience.

Classic Movie Review: Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin was ahead of his time in most respects when it came to his filmmaking. The greatest irony being that he was late to the game when it came to making talking films. His first film conceived and made completely with dialogue was The Great Dictator, released in 1940 – more than a decade after the advent of synchronized sound and dialogue. But even if he was the last significant holdout clinging to silent film, The Great Dictator was well ahead of the curve in terms of world politics.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Classic Movie Review: Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times

At a time when synchronized sound was the standard in moviemaking, there was increasingly less room for the silent stars, especially comedians who relied so heavily on pantomime to make their comedy work. Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character was universal in being voiceless and without language he had no firm ties to a particular geographic location. He could be Russian or Japanese or Brazilian. The sentimentality of his stories could be understood anywhere in the world. Chaplin’s last completely silent feature film, City Lights, was released in 1931, four full years after Al Jolson’s profession, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” in The Jazz Singer ushered in a new era for motion pictures. Chaplin made Modern Times between 1932 and 1936 and though it is for all intents and purposes a silent film, it does utilize sound effects, a synchronized musical score and some spoken dialogue. It was Chaplin’s way of sticking to the type of film making he knew best while giving a small tip of the hat to the new mode.

From My Collection: American Pie 2 Movie Review

I’ll usually be the first one to rail against sequels that are nothing more than a retread of the first film. These films are cynical ploys to earn more money using the same formula a second or third time. And of course audiences tend to fall for it every time. This is especially true in the comedy genre: take a group of people in a comedic scenario, have them do funny things, wash, rinse, repeat. Then take the same group and put them in a slightly different scenario to repeat similar gags. I did not find this to be the case with American Pie 2.