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Saturday, April 30, 2011

G.F.E.M. - The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

If I had to pick one film from the last twenty-five years that could be considered the perfect cinematic achievement, I would probably pick the Shawshank Redemption.  While Pulp Fiction and Schindler’s List are truly great films, there is an ideology of hope and justice in the Shawshank Redemption that makes it stand out as the great cinematic experience of my generation.  Is it better than the other two aforementioned titles?  I don’t know.  That is subjective.  Still, one cannot deny accolade to director Frank Darabont’s wonderful use of imagery and metaphor to represent the underlying theme of the Stephen King short story: freedom from oppression; or just simply… freedom.

One man enters the worn and wretched prison of Shawshank.  His name is Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), and he carries with him the recent love for the world outside, a respect for life that is lost on the time-worn residents of the soul-crushing penitentiary.  Upon entering, he begins to captivate his fellow inmates with his unique perspectives, and his sheer and fearless honesty.  This becomes the bases of how he spends his time in Shawshank inspiring the inmates and sharing his love for life with all of those he considers his friends.

The story is told almost entirely from the perspective of a lifer named Red (Morgan Freeman) who, like most of the other prisoners, have given up on hope; given up on freedom.  They have allowed Shawshank to become part of their lives and have allowed the darkness of their surroundings to destroy their spirits.  However, during the years, Red begins to see the hope that Andy sees, and this hope ultimately redeems him as well as his friend.

From Andy’s initial incarceration to his triumphant escape, the Shawshank Redemption is filled with metephor.  Some are obvious: the bird “Jake” representing a connection to the outside, and the prison itself being lifeless and cold; some are a little deeper: the messianic ideas of Andy’s arrival and his effect on the men around him and his power over authority, and the way the men are child-like at times (take when Brooks carves his name into the beam as a young man would; right before his suicide).  We are faced with a reality in Shawshank.  It’s hateful, it’s ugly and it’s lacking any feeling.  The colorless, soulless building that houses the inmates seems to drain them.  The prison itself could be death, Andy: life (so to speak).  Or, there could be the equally complex ideas of oppressive authority and the ones who are passive to its powers, and how a single person can bring freedom to the people. 

There is a lot of imagery in the Shawshank Redemption but what is arguably the most striking moment in the film is when Andy bars himself in the warden’s office and broadcasts Mozart’s Le Nozze Di Figaro over the loudspeaker system.  This act of defiance captures the attentions of all the men in the prison and frees their spirits, if only for a few fleeting moments.  This brings consequences upon Andy, but his smile shows that he is willing to sacrifice himself to share just a little bit of his love for life with his fellow man.  However, it is the warden who finds that Andy’s clever nature has another side, as he, the oppressive master over his evil palace is crushed and driven to his end by his own greed, and by some handy accounting by Mr. Dufresne. 

There are many subplots in the film as well, so many that I will not go into great detail as I’m sure most who are reading this have seen the film and are more than familiar with its complexity.  It is a masterfully-told epic representing life and death, the struggle to be one’s self against the force to conform and of the simple idea that men are individuals, and any attempt at forced equalization leads to a tragic end for those who would impose such an adjustment to oppose man’s free will.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

G.F.E.M. - Once (2006)

Once is a strange film as it has an indefinable quality to it: a charm and a sort of peace and sincerity that make it seem entirely real. Occasionally, a film will come along, skip over audiences and will eventually grow a fan base via word-of-mouth, home video, and, in the case of Once, music. Once is not a musical per se, as the music is not exactly the showcase. Instead, it is part of the characters’ lives, and by extension becomes a character itself. Each scene where a song is played you feel the emotion of that character and you can feel how they feel. Once is a supreme cinematic achievement.

Once opens with quiet, and then fades into a soulful and saddened voice covering Van Morrison’s And the Healing Has Begun. His rustic acoustic guitar is tinny and contrasts nicely with its player’s rough and beaten voice. We see a street musician, standing in front of a store window, he then collects his tips with thanks. Later that evening, he is singing a wonderful song called Say It To Me Now. His acoustic performance is filled with pain, and when a strange woman approaches him and asks him who the song is about, she calls him on his lie that it is about no one. A brief meeting introduces us and then they two are brought together by, of all things, a broken vacuum cleaner.

At this point the two characters (who remain unnamed throughout the film; they are credited as Guy and Girl) begin to develop a relationship through music. In a music store the two begin to play together, Guy on the guitar, Girl on the piano. As a duet they play a song called Falling Slowly and they discover they have great musical chemistry, and they begin to further their relationship with each other on this foundation. The guy’s advances are met with resistance, however, and he discovers that the girl has a family back home. From here the two record with several other musicians they meet in a tavern and they the film ends the way it began.

Once’s male lead, Glen Hansard is the front man of an Irish band called the Frames, and he recorded along with the female lead, Marketa Irglova in a group called the Swell Season. The Frames’ former bassist, John Carney wrote and directed this terrific film and the love for music of all involved is apparent. Once is a different type of music film. It moves and feels like a documentary, as if we are voyeuristically following these two strange people around, examining their interactions. It is a very intimate and unique way of examining the characters in this sort of story. It has a distinctly indie feel, pushing the camera aggressively close to the characters giving it a claustrophobic feel. However, this is perfect for this sort of story. This deeply personal narrative is done great justice by this artistic choice.

Once is very unique. At first glimpse it may look like any film that popped out of Sundance but it is more than that. The deep examination and love for the characters, the way the music fills in the emotions of each scene, the way these two characters are never meant to be “together” but still seem perfect for each other, it’s all just so excellent. I recommend this movie a lot, and if you’re looking for a Friday night date flick, or a movie that is both entertaining and a little relaxing, this is a must-see. Hey! It IS one of the Greatest Films Ever Made.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

G.F.E.M. - The Apartment (1960)

Those who have talked movies with me at length know I love Billy Wilder’s films.  As far as I’m concerned, they are all purely brilliant.  The Apartment is one of those movies that just stands out in the mix and is one of his best creations.  What is so different about the Apartment is the tone.  It is sincere and humorous while covering a very serious and often-ignored subject: the effect of empty, purely physical relationships on various subjects.

The plot of the Apartment is a twisting path of incident and accident, coincidence and bad luck.  An insurance agent named C.C. Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon) has gotten into the unfortunate cycle of lending his apartment out to various higher-ranking employees for their illicit affairs.  His key gets around like a juicy rumor and at one point the poor fellow is locked out of his apartment on a cold fall night because the wrong key was left under his mat, he catches cold as a result.  Meanwhile, a young elevator operator named Fran Kubelik (a lovely performance by Shirley MacLaine) struggles with being the mistress of the big boss upstairs: Jeff Sheldrake (played with lecherous menace by Fred MacMurray).

For a film from the early 1960’s, the Apartment is quite sexual, though not gratuitously so.  Instead, we see the effects of various office executives’ selfish adultery on the two flawed leads.  To further complicate this already convoluted situation, Baxter has grown smitten by the lovely Ms. Kubelik.  She is obliging to his attempts to reach out to her, but she remains somewhat distant.  Her secret is that she is one of the women dragged to Baxter’s apartment (though she, herself, does not know who the paying tenant actually is) and the events that lead up to her making this discovery are both tragic and redeeming.  Shortly before Baxter lends his key to Mr. Sheldrake, he discovers the woman he crushes on is one of the women pulled into this office’s adulterous trap.  After a bitter departure of Mr. Sheldrake from Baxter’s apartment, reality catches up with the lovesick Fran and she, overwhelmed with grief, attempts suicide, overdosing on medicine found in Baxter’s cabinet.  Upon returning home, Baxter is at first angry with her for breaking his heart, but then, upon discovering her true state, stays up all night with the doctor down the hall to save her life.  He then continues to aid in her recovery, and they are drawn closer together.

This is the state of the Apartment.  Baxter is angry with Kubelik at the start of the third act, but his deep-seeded love and kindness take over when her life is in his hands.  Fran’s love for Mr. Sheldrake goes form frustrated passion to bittersweet indifference and ultimately, she flees the cruel executive and returns to Baxter, though the film ends before we see exactly how their relationship turns out.  Could this be because we “get it”?  Or, is it because the cycle of relationships before have been so tragic that we are spared a similar outcome between the two protagonists?

The best way to describe the Apartment is pitch-perfect, brutally honest, and superbly written and performed.  It ranks high on my list of my favorite films of all time, in part because it spares no detail in the cruel cycle created by the prurient players in their tragic game, and also because the script is one of Wilder’s best.  It falls just behind Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity for me as my favorite Wilder screenplay, and it is also my favorite performance by Shirley MacClaine. 

I also like MacMurray’s Sheldrake, who could be called the “villain” of the film.  He is cruel, and outwardly uncaring.  When he learns of Kubelik’s suicide attempt when Baxter calls his house Christmas morning, he refuses to come to her side in fear of his family finding out, and then fires his secretary for spilling the beans to Fran about his past relations (herself included).  He threatens Baxter with termination for not being accommodating to his affair and offers promotions as reward for obliging.  In a cheer-worthy moment, Baxter turns down a top-floor office and an executive position from the vile Mr. Sheldrake and leaves is job to escape the torment of having to witness his Fran be torn apart from the inside out after learning of the boss-man‘s intentions to divorce then marry Fran.

I adore this film.  If you haven’t seen it, seek it out.  It is arguably the best urban drama of the 1960’s and is one of the best films of Lemmon’s career.  The screenplay is smart and witty and, despite the dark turn of events the film takes in the second act, remains mostly upbeat and clever.  This is flawed romance at its best, and one of the Greatest Films Ever Made.

A Little-Late Film Review - Hereafter (2010)

How do you bore me? Let me count the ways. You bore me with your pretense and manipulation. You bore me with your three converging plots, especially the one that is completely pointless. You bore me with a male lead’s performance so earnest that I wanted to punch him in the face. Alright, I’ll stop plagiarizing Elizabeth Browning, but I have to say, this movie frustrated the hell out of me, and I needed some emotion to contrast Hereafter’s lack thereof.

Hereafter is an excessive piece about the way we deal with death focusing on three plots: A psychic named George (Matt Damon) who really can speak to the dead but hates his gift, a tormented boy who is unable to recover from his twin brother’s sudden death and his subsequent separation from his junkie mother by the authorities, and a French journalist who survives the tragic tsunami in 2005 but is traumatized by the events. The film flashes between the three plots fairly evenly, and they are all equally tedious.

The scenes with George are slow, and extremely frustrating. He mumbles and shakes his head about; he is shy and nervous and tries to keep people at a distance. George is also tormented by his enterprising brother Billy (Jay Mohr), who wishes to turn his brother’s “gift” into a gold mine, but George feels his gift a curse and shies away from human contact to avoid triggering it. He develops a relationship with a new arrival to his home city of San Fransico who he meets at a cooking class taught by Steve Schirripa doing his worst Emeril Lagassi impression, which he subsequently ruins after she pressures him into giving her a “reading” and he digs just a little too deep.

The boy, named Marcus, is a London resident who begins foster care after he is taken from his mother. It’s obvious he’s traumatized, but the foster family is getting frustrated with his tendency to disappear, but these departures are his attempts to see various psychics so that he can speak with his brother. This character is just designed to illicit sympathy and his story is probably the most boring of them all. However, there is one pretty funny montage of him speaking to various hacks who claim to be able to speak with his brother, and he is wise to their act.

Though not as boring as Marcus’ story, the story of Marie is arguably the worst part of the film. She is a reporter who is in shock after witnessing a girls’ death as a massive tsunami crashes through a coastal town. She survives, reunites with her lover/producer and they return to France. She begins to display odd behavior and is asked to take some time off, maybe write a book. She gets a book deal and writes a completely different book than she promised, but is ultimately published (of course she is).

So in the end the three plots converge at a book fair. Marcus approaches the reluctant George and harasses him into giving him a reading and George meets Marie and they fall in love… or something. The frustrating thing about this part of the movie is this is where your find out that all of that emaciated, subtitled dialogue between Marie and her insipid cohorts was all for nothing. She has a book at the fair, she makes some sort of connection with George, and they go out on a date. That’s it!

Hereafter is a long movie for two hours. It drags and drags and limps along, largely due to the massive amounts of fat added to the film in the form of weak and disjointed subplots. Most of the events in this film have absolutely nothing to do with the main plot, but they seem designed to give us glimpses into these characters and how they contrast with “normal” people. This is completely unnecessary, however, as all of these characters are completely transparent and their emotional struggles are about as subtle as a 60-foot flaming neon elephant trampling an Iron Maiden concert.

I hated this film. It’s an example of how drama can fall victim to bad pacing and boring characters. Everyone in this film is so blank-faced, and I guess that’s the trauma they‘re acting but it makes for a very boring experience. What’s worse is this is a film directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Peter Morgan! Eastwood did wonders with Mystic River and Gran Torino, I wonder why this is so weak. Morgan wrote the Queen, Frost/Nixon, the Last King of Scottland, and the Special Relationship. All are clever, smart scripts with fleshed out characters and pitch-perfect tone. I don’t know what happened here, but I’m guessing it’s something kind of like what happened with Crystal Pepsi or that awful Friends spin-off.

The Results:
Performances:  The performances are flat and boring, either completely lacking in emotion or using dramatic pose to manipulate the audience.  2 out of 5

Screenplay: Not awful, but far from what we've seen from Peter Morgan before.  Therefore, I have to hold him to a higher standard.  3 out of 5

Visuals: The movie has the visual style resembling a high-profile funeral.  Overcast skies, lots of dark clothing and a generally solemn tone.  This is obviously symbolic of the characters' grief, but as the acting and writing is sub-par, it doesn't work at all, it's just heavy-handed. 2 out of 5

Sound: The score in Hereafter is fine, it suits the material, but it, like everything else just lacks energy. 2 out of 5

Novelty Value: None.  This film is too pretentious and too dull to have any sort of entertainment value beyond it's intention.

The Verdict: Don't waste your time with this one.  It is excessive, slow and all around boring.  The numerous subplots take it all over the place only to have it meet back up in the end and amount to nothing.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

G.F.E.M. - The Hoodlum (1919)

Okay, okay.  I know the Hoodlum is not nearly as good as many of the other great silent comedies or dramas of film history.  I know it’s not even one of Mary Pickford’s greatest roles, but it is, undeniably, a great, great film.  The reason I chose The Hoodlum to open my Greatest Films Ever Made list is it goes back to the beginning, into the early days of cinema, and it stars the very first movie star.

Mary Pickford grew up on hard times, and acts of desperation are scattered through her early career.  I can only assume that she pulled a special something from inside her when she took this role.  The film follows a spoiled rich girl who is ultimately forced to live in crushing poverty by her father, who is concerned with her behavior.  It was a lesson from which she would grow and change.  The early days and nights in this hard-knocks neighborhood are tough for her, but over time she adapts and even becomes somewhat of a tough gal.

The Hoodlum was almost lost, and if it weren’t for the restorative efforts by the talented folks at the Mary Pickford Institute (yeah, she has her own friggin’ institute!) we may have never had the opportunity to experience her in one of her most radiant roles.  It’s not as well known, or even quite as good, as some of her more popular movies such as Less Than Dust from a few years before, but when you see it, I believe the Hoodlum shows Pickford as her most radiant. 

The transformation of Pickford’s character in this film just show how great of an actress Mary Pickford was.  But you may not know that, early in her career, she didn’t just show promise as a film actor, she invented acting as we know it today.  Due to the technical limitations of film at the time, it was difficult to express emotion and convey it in a way that the audience could recognize it.  Therefore, instead of using facial expressions, they used often exaggerated body language: hands in front of the face and wide eyes for shock or surprise, forearm to forehead for grief, arms in the air for frustration, hands at the chest for admiration or thanks, ect.

This wouldn’t do for Mary Pickford, who took a far more subtle, and thus more effective, approach.  Pickford’s lovely face and her gentle nature on screen (she was actually quite tough and even a little pushy in real life, a result of her early desperation in poverty), and she dared to act with her eyes, her mouth, and simpler movements.  She pushed the art of acting far beyond the flailing that was so common during the silent era.  In her earlier roles people were drawn to her radiance.  Her bright-eyes, and soft smile made her so famous, and as a result, she became the first real star of the still-new medium of film.  She earned, at the time, the equivalent of more than $10,000 a week by today’s dollars, and she was able to move her family out of disparity.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Official Announement: G.F.E.M. and the New Rating Platform

Something occurred last night.  I was reading a few film lists, just seeing where my favorites stood, just killing time when I managed to find a list online that had Citizen Kane at number 88, just under Kill Bill Vol. 2.  This really bugged me, as I am one of those trivial punks who would become enraged over something so pointless.  I then decided that maybe it's time for me to do a Greatest Movies List.

As I mentioned in the previous article, lists are a lot of work, and I don't think I would be able to do 100 of those so easily.  I then decided that I can offer a more open, free way of sharing my favorite works of great cinema by simply creating an article series and tagging it Greatest Films Ever Made (or G.F.E.M. for short).  My hope is to give people a topic of discussion and debate and to maybe even reach an audience with these films in hopes that they may inspire others as they have inspired me.

I have not officially decided which film I will cover first, but I will say that they will not all be older movies, and they will not be in any particular order.  There is not a fixed number of them that I will do but instead, as I decide to write an article I will carefully consider which film I will do next, and make an honest, and hopefully persuasive, argument for that movie.

One reason I'm doing this is because I believe that the truly great movies are lost on many people my age.  People in their late twenties who love movies and stare in ignorant bliss as they enjoy mediocrity (or worse) and settle for it.  My dream is to at least help to spark a revival of the great films in my generation and younger, so that they can persist and continue to prove that the movies are the one truly great American artform.  We've lost everything else.  Our TV is borrowed from overseas, the rock band that is generally voted the greatest is from the UK; if we do not embrace our achievements, we will lose our culture.

Films are the closest thing we have to time travel, as we have a chance to glimpse into the past and experience decades gone by, attitudes forgotten and culture in reverse.  Let us not forget that the movies are too an art, and many should be embraced just as we embrace a framed masterpiece in a gallery.  It's not trivial; films mean something, and the fact that this idea is lost on so many people of this day saddens me.  Therefore, I hope that this coming series inspires and offers readers a chance to discover the great films that may have been overlooked.

I am also announcing a new ratings platform.  Thus far, over the past six months or so, I've used a standard 5-star system to rate my reviewed movies.  I've decided that I will take this a little further and offer a category-based rating platform to more greatly examine a film by its individual parts.  These will be under five categories: Performances, Screenplay, Visuals, Sound and Novelty Factor.  The first four are pretty self-explanatory.  Performances are how the actors perform in their roles, Screenplay includes the writing and the story, and Visuals encompasses everything you see and includes directorial and SFX styling.  Novelty Factor is a little more of a wild card category that covers that inexplicable quality that some films have, as some films are entertaining and it can be difficult to pinpoint why.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Why Most "Best Movie" Lists Are Wrong

The web is filled with lists.  They are popular.  I like them.  I make them.  I try to make the effort to compile lists that are, at least most of the time, well thought out.  They can be a lot of work, and thus, they tend to make me not want to write anymore for a while when I make too many of them.  The reason for this is two-fold.  First is the compilation of the list.  I spend a lot of time thinking about how these lists should be laid out.  Second is the writing.  Boy is there a lot of writing involved.  Sometimes I look back on what I write in some lists and consider myself to sound somewhat asinine.

The one thing I think that makes lists popular is they can be informative.  If you are looking into discovering a new band or musical artist, a new author or a new group of movies from a particular actor or director, a list can be an informative way to delve into this new material.  However, some lists are not well-complied, not well-thought out, and as a result, are deceptive.

This brings me to my gripe.  If you are going to have a list entitled "The Best/Greatest Movies of All Time", you had better be prepared to defend your case.  I am fairly confident that most cannot, and that is why I am writing this.  I'm pretty sure anyone who would take the time to write a list of that title would consider themselves to be "into movies", so my charge for those of you who meet the criteria that is about to be laid out is to SEE MORE MOVIES.

First.  If you are writing a list because you just saw a movie and you loved it, then you are probably under the age of 18 and should just stop writing now as, unless you have grown up in a home where truly great cinema is highly regarded, there's a good chance you will probably say something stupid like "The Dark Knight is the greatest movie of all time."  Well, it isn't.  It's good, but it doesn't come close to the greatest movies of all time.  This is what I call the hype factor.  This is generally highly effected by the younger audience and has one simple rule: whatever film is popular at the moment is the greatest movie of all time.  The hype factor is nothing more than collective promotion of a film that a large number of people saw who wish to build further hype for that movie through aggrandizement and hyperbole.

Next is the idea that the last movie to win some award is automatically the greatest film of all time.  This can be trumped very easily.  It was 1942 at the Ambassador's Hotel.  The 15th Academy Awards are in full effect and the winner of the coveted Outstanding Motion Picture (Best Picture) Oscar is How Green Was My Valley.  Good movie.  But how many times does this one come up in conversation about great cinema?  How about how many times compared to Citizen Kane?  Well, How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane, a film that is one of the forerunners in the argument of what truly is the greatest film ever.

When you consider a list, you have to word things very carefully.  If you make a list called My Favorite Movies, and post it, I may or may not agree with you.  Hell, I may think you're an idiot, but then again you may think the same about me.  Still, since you said it was your favorite movies, that makes it your opinion, which is difficult to trump.  However, if you create a list called the "Best" or "Greatest Movies of All Time" you had better be prepared to make your case, because by using that wording, you are no longer sharing your opinion but are stating an argument for your list.  You had better be prepared to defend it.  If you can explain to me, logically, how Inception is a greater film than the Godfather, and it actually be a reasonable argument, not something stupid like "Because Inception was AWESOME!!!!" then you really deserve some sort of medal.  You really do.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Little-Late Film Review: The King's Speech

Perfect.  It’s a difficult task to find a perfect film, as film is a product of men and man is inherently flawed.  When a movie comes along that is even close to perfection, carefully treading the lines of fiction and reality that film seem to blur, it wins an Oscar, or is at least nominated.  When a film creates its own path, finding a new route through genre and storytelling, it becomes a classic.  Some of those "classics", however few there are, can be ranked among the greatest films of all time.

The King’s Speech is a breathtakingly beautiful, masterfully-written film that focuses on George, the Duke of York at the time of the dawn of England’s entry into World War II.  The film takes place over time, as we see his deep struggle with his own self-doubt and fear.  His reluctance stems from his severe speech impediment, which has crippled him socially.  After his father, king George V’s, death, the crown is handed to his brother Edward VIII, who’s own scandalous personal life would find him forced to abdicate.  At this point, the reluctant and fearful George VI takes his place among the English monarchs. 

All the while, George VI is working with an eccentric and outspoken speech therapist named Lionel Logue who’s unorthodox ways are either extremely insane, or utterly brilliant.  George, encouraged by his wife Elizabeth, begins the long and arduous process of overcoming his stammer.  His frustration and lack of tenacity is one of his largest character traits, his other is his temper, fueled by his own self-defeat.  Logue persistently uses George's own anger and traditionalism to unwittingly cure him of his fear of speaking.

The King’s Speech is a truly remarkable film.  The visual style is beautiful, filled with glorious wide-angle shots of some of England’s most astounding architecture.  Each shot is framed deliberately to both show us these characters and help us understand the world in which they live.  Soft lighting mixed with bright colors give the film the look of a great painting, at times it is quite something to behold.  The style and cinematography seem rooted in the Golden Age of cinema.  While watching I felt hints of Hitchcock and Mankiewicz mixed with some of the more common modern styles we are so accustomed to.

The most important part of a film like the King’s Speech is the screenplay, and David Seidler’s Oscar-winner is one of memorable joy and cleverness.  Most of Seidler’s previous writing credits are children and family films, which explained the rhythmic and upbeat dialogue in the film.  This style of writing (which was very common in the 40’s and 50’s but not so much today) is challenging, and it keeps the film fun and engaging.  The characters, however flawed they are, all seem human and likable because of their naturalistic yet formally delivered lines.  We believe these characters to be who they are, a level of cogency that does not rise very often in movies these days.  Aside from the naturalistic style of the screenplay there is also the quality of the comedy.  This is a very funny film, aside from being a drama set in one of history's darkest times.

Lastly, the performances in the King’s Speech are really the highlight.  The four primary characters are George (Colin Firth, who received an Oscar for this performance), Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter), Lionel (Geoffrey Rush) and George’s Brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pierce).  Every one of these performances are bright, lighting up the screen, delivering each line with energy and pitch-perfect execution.  Firth, Rush and Bonham-Carter are three of the greatest talents of this generation and with this film they have cemented themselves into film history.  Of this I am convinced.  If we put aside our black-and-white goggles, denying that all films of old are inherently superior to anything released today, it would not be hard to recognize the King’s Speech as one of the great examples of acting on screen, and should honestly ascend to the place held by the great film stories of all time.

So, back to the subject of perfection.  When a film is good, I say see it.  There are a lot of films released over the last ten or so years that I say “It’s so good!”  Sometimes people take my advice, sometimes they don’t.  I’m not going to say that about the King’s Speech (a winner of the Best Director (Tom Hooper) and Best Picture Oscars).  Instead, I will say the following, possibly controversial, statement: “THE KING’S SPEECH IS ONE OF THE BEST FILMS RELEASED IN THE LAST FIFTY YEARS.”  If that doesn’t anger the naysayers enough, I will proceed to call the King’s Speech one of the greatest films of all time, as I believe it is.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Little-Late Video Game Review: Minecraft

Occasionally, about once every few years, a clever little game is released that takes players by surprise.  Minecraft has been out for a while now, but it wasn’t until recently that I myself discovered this gem.  To my surprise it already had an extensive online community complete with its own Wiki, fan sites, tons of YouTube videos and an existing massive fan-base.

Minecraft is a very simple game in design, with grand potential.  You start in a completely randomly-generated world.  No two are the same, and there are always new things to discover.  You begin with nothing.  You have to travel to find trees to cut down with your bare hands, use the wood you gather to create tools, which allow you to expand your ability to now mine stone, which lets you make better tools.  You must build a shelter, light the blackness with torches made from the wood you find and the coal you discovered by happenstance.  From here, you expand your base, using the materials you gathered to build and build and build.  The passive creatures like chickens, cows, sheep and pigs provide other needed materials for survival.

You must, however, build your safe shelter before nightfall.  As the moon casts it’s gentle glow from the midnight sky, evil creatures appear to eliminate you: the Intruder.  Exploding Creepers, arrow-firing Skeletons, skittering Spiders and zealous Zombies seek to take you out, and only the light of your trusty torches can keep you safe.

Minecraft boasts an extensive crafting system as well.  A grid-based menu allows you place specific materials in a certain configuration to create tools and objects to help you in the game.  There are dozens of items to create from a huge list of materials.  Doors, minecarts, tools made from different materials, ladders, storage boxes and the ever-essential torches are just a tiny handful of options. 

The amazing thing about Minecraft is though you start each level the same, it always evolves into a new experience.  The mid and late game is filled with attempts to build even more extravagant and expansive structures.  Minecraft is the sort of game limited only by your imagination, and some players have used Minecraft to make some truly magnificent structures and levels.

The graphics in Minecraft look like early 90’s 3D.  At first glance they aren’t very impressive at all, but, for some reason, it is still breathtaking.  It is a mix of old-style and new technology that works nicely, sort of like 3D Dot Game Heroes, a game from last year that was just brilliant.  The light mapping is really nice, and sunsets look authentic against the 3D backdrop that resembles an NES game exploded by a mid-level 3D engine. 

Minecraft has a great online multiplayer component as well, with only occasional connection issues it gives friends a chance to build their world together.  The only real downside to this is that Minecraft does not yet have a dedicated server for online multiplayer, instead, one of the players must run a virtual server on their end in the background.  The server is free, however, and it isn’t much of a hassle to set up, just download and unzip, run it and provide your current DHCP IP address to your friends so they can connect.

There are also a ton of mods and texture packs that alter the existing experience.  Changing the way certain blocks look makes for a nice touch, keeping the game fresh while the mods give players new features and creatures to expand their experience.  Some of these are more reliable than others, but most work well, and I say this despite having a near catastrophic experience that almost cost me a save file.

The only real downside to Minecraft, occasional connection problems aside, is that, as it is still in Beta, there are numerous bugs that rear their ugly head.  These can manifest in collision issues resulting in sudden and unexpected falls from great heights, getting stuck in the environment, weird texture problems and the occasional disappearing player, animal or enemy.  However, given that it is still being worked on, that it bears a paltry $25 price tag, and that it is endless fun, these bugs, while frustrating at times, are forgivable.

Overall, Minecraft is a more-than-solid, casual gaming experience for all ages.  Each world is so expansive in scale that you can literally spend weeks upon weeks on one file.  On a single online game me and a friend were discovering new fascinating locales more than a week after we started, and this discovery continues to this very day.  This is a great gaming experience for more adventurous and cerebral gamers, who occasionally grow tired of “killing 10 of these guys” or fragging their opponents over their Internet connections.  If you want a unique gaming experience that will bring endless fun and freshness, Minecraft is a must-play.

A Little-Late Film Review: The Lovely Bones (2009)

Peter Jackson is a truly talented director.  He proves himself again by making a story about a teenager who is murdered by a pedophile into a beautiful film.  The disturbing plot contrasts the bright colors and glimmering effects of the afterlife portrayed in The Lovely Bones, and it does so with style and wonder.  Still, with all of his directorial chops in play, Jackson did not hit this one out of the park, but still makes its way around the plates.

The adapted story follows a young girl named Susie, played wonderfully by the new talent Saoirse Ronan, who is killed by a pervert named George (Stanley Tucci) while walking home from school.  She is lured into a creepy den dug out of the ground in a field and while she believes she escapes, it turns out that something more sinister occurred.  She soon comes to the realization that she didn’t make it out of that cellar alive, and she spends the rest of the film in her own personal “Heaven” looking down on her grieving family who are focused on finding her killer.  Her anger about her death leads Susie to wish retribution upon her murderer and this struggle between her family’s happiness and her own revenge becomes the focus in the story.

All of the performances in the Lovely Bones are good.  Mark Wahlberg continues to prove himself as a great dramatic actor, Rachel Weisz is convincing as the grieving mother, Stanley Tucci is perfect as the sickening villain and Saoirse Ronan herself, as the lead, carries the film with grace and perfect screen-presence.  The dialogue is good, but a little shallow at times, and despite some of the weaker spoken scenes, the stars elevate the material.  The actors are definitely not the problem here.

My problem with the Lovely Bones is it seems to have spent far too much time looking pretty and not enough time focusing on the story.  This leads to some pacing problems that should be beneath a veteran talent like Peter Jackson.  Dialogue scenes seem to either drag on or leave thoughts incomplete, and some of the scenes that are designed to show off the film’s art direction just seem to hang there like a painting on the wall rather than a film on the screen.

Another big issue is the way the imagery is used to contrast the moods of the film.  The visual tone of the family’s place in life is so muted and that it feels, at times, like one of Shyamalan’s weaker movies, not like the bright majesty of a film from the mind and talent of Jackson.  The mood of the afterlife is much more like Peter Jackson, but it seems as though a lot of it was ignored.  What Dreams May Come was a lesser film than the Lovely Bones, but its depiction of Heaven was epic and wondrous, while the afterlife here is claustrophobic and small.  It reminds me of Lord of the Rings versus the first Narnia film.  Jackson’s Middle Earth was extensive.  It felt real, and huge.  Andrew Adamson’s Narnia felt like soundstage melodrama, like a soap opera in scale, never letting the environments seem too open.  The differences are astounding, and here it seems like Jackson took a note from Adamson and that was not for the better.

The Lovely Bones could have been great.  It could have been a wonderful story of grief and redemption.  However, it is held back by some weak pacing and overblown artistic choices.  A story this emotional should capture you, making you feel connected to it.  The Lovely Bones, however, seems to keep the audience at a distance.  It just feels too much like watching a movie, instead of feeling like you are experiencing a great visual story.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Little-Late Film Review: Salt (2010)

We haven’t had a good Americans vs. Communists action movie in a while.  Dolph Lundgren wasn’t available for this one so we get Angelina Jolie.  I’m not complaining though.  Angelina Jolie is arguably the most beautiful and equally talented and convincing actress since Faye Dunaway.  She is a true “movie star;”  the kind that people will cherish for decades and decades as a screen beauty and a great talent.  So is this star vehicle a worthwhile experience?

Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a government agent who, as it turns out, is a Russian mole who emigrated to the U.S. as a child to infiltrate and attack when the time is right.  She is just one of many, and they are to know when the time is right to strike at the core of the American capitalist system.  After an interview with a political prisoner she sort of gets the signal and things start to fall apart for her as she becomes the subject of a skilled agent (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a long-time superior’s (Live Schreiber) suspicions.  She reaches out to her husband and does what she can to patch her home life, but after she finds he may have been killed her wrath takes over.  She begins a series of attacks on Russian and American officials.

After the first ten minutes or so, Salt is mainly a very long chase film with very little downtime.  The action set pieces are, however, very well done.  Opting for more practical effects than CGI (like the previously reviewed Unstoppable), the stunts are often convincing despite the fact that a normal person would not likely walk away from the barrage of metal-crushing crashes that Mrs. Salt endures throughout the film.  The stunts are smart though, and some are even original, a rarity in modern action.

Aesthetically, Salt does look good.  Soft blues and grays give an ominous feel and Jolie is both gorgeous and menacing.  It doesn’t try too hard to look “awesome” like some recent action films do and as a result feels more natural and believable.  That’s not saying that there aren’t some shots that are just breathtaking.  Some slow-motion stunts are hefty, and feel like classic Hollywood fun.  So, with the big stunts and the apparent scale of the film’s plot, why does it feel like it’s weighted down?

My biggest complaint about Salt is that it just feels derivative.  Though I thought both Avatar and Inception were both greatly overrated, but at least they felt fresh and exciting.  They moved, and you could feel the flow of the film.  Salt is very kinetic and exciting at times, and it still just seems to hang there.  Possibly with a little better editing this could have been a true classic, as it is it just feels like it is holding back.  The pacing aside, when I juxtapose the grandiose plot of Communist infiltration with the relatively narrow focus of the film’s events, it just seems like it was a great idea that wasn’t fully realized.

I, personally, would have found a film about the children in Russia, trained and sent to the States.  How they adapted and grew and how they executed a concerted attack on a massive scale.  This could have been a truly fascinating film and with this possibility hanging over it, Salt just seems weak.  This is the problem with a star vehicle like this: when filmmakers pay big bucks for a star like Jolie, they tend to want to make her (or him) the sole focus.  This is a marketing decision rather than an artistic one, and in braver hands, this could have been the next Blade Runner.  Unfortunately, it is not.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Little-Late Film Review: Unstoppable (2010)

Boy, there are a lot of movies that try to show us the inside world of a profession we never knew we wanted to experience.  We got the Fast and the Furious, Bring it On!, and ever so many more films that take the professions they portray so serious as to be comical at times.  These stories are always told from the perspective of a rookie, who is pressured to prove himself to the grizzled veterans, who begin by mocking him.  Shortly after the rookie’s acceptance, we get a line like “Welcome to the big leagues.”

This is true for all films like this.  Sometimes, like in the case of Unstoppable, it is successful in that it doesn’t so much focus on this rookie’s travels through the ranks, but more on a single event and how two rivals are forced to work together and depend on each other to save the day.  So what could be so menacing that these two men are so driven to put aside their differences?  How about a runaway train barreling down the tracks at full-speed filled with a very volatile chemical?

After a foolish mistake by a hapless engineer (Ethan Suplee), a very long haul escapes and there is nothing that can stop it (the cosmic forces that align to ensure this train’s escape are a little absurd, but I’ll let that one slide).  From here, we get a number of traditional character clichés that would appear in this sort of film: The frazzled, smart boss back at home base (Rosario Dawson), the criminally negligent and idiotic exec who never listens to the experts and causes the deaths of people (Kevin Dunn), the enigmatic stranger with all the answers (Kevin Corrigan) and then there’s the heroes…

Will (Chris Pine) is a former service member who suffers from personal demons.  A recent violent tangle with his wife has caused him personal pain, and his wife’s fear and anger has caused her to grow distant and cut off contact with him.  His attempts to reach out to her fail.  Frank (Denzel Washington), is a smart and skilled freight train worker who is very brave.  He is embittered by the fact that he is convinced Will was hired as his replacement, who he is forced to train.  He suffers from a similar at-home issue as he almost forgot to call his daughter on her birthday; she is angry about this.  Both of these home-side struggles are nothing more than a device to give these two characters something to talk about to connect and to provide a moment of redemption for them at the end of the film; they serve no purpose to the actual plot.

Clichés and contrivances aside, the performances are good.  Chris Pine was likable in Star Trek as he is here as well.  Also, Denzel Washington is consistently good and here he elevates what could have been a typical and uninspired character to a deep, and very real person.  These two carry about half of the film together, so the fact that their interactions seem real despite the weak material they have to deal with is a relief.  Rosario Dawson is good as well.  I like Dawson and think, given the right role, she could achieve Oscar-Winner status.  Kevin Dunn is the same as ever; he isn’t bad, so much as typical.  Then there’s Kevin Corrigan.  You may remember this performer as the coke-snorting Stock Market shark in the popular TV series Damages.  His performance is very strange; almost understated.  Early in the film he seems as though he doesn’t know what state he’s in, but in the third act he is an engineering genius.  This character is a very odd addition to the film, and Corrigan seems to have taken him in an unexpected direction that is almost uncomfortably strange at times. 

The action scenes are where Unstoppable shines.  The practical effects abound instead of leaning toward a CGI-heavy copout.  As a result, the moments of suspense are solid and tense.  You can feel the weight and power of the train as it darts along the tracks.  The landscape surrounding these scenes are also well-chosen, giving us the backdrop we need to feel just how fast this train is actually moving.  The well-done action set pieces were what kept bringing me back into the film after bouts of predictable dialogue.  My only complaint about the action is that, especially towards the end of the film, much of the more tense moments are shown to us from the perspective of news reels or computer monitors.  The shots that are on the train are obscured or shaky, making it difficult to see what the characters are doing to stop the train.  The news shots actually suck you out of the action, creating a disconnect.  This is really the biggest flaw in the action, but it is forgivable. 

Unstoppable is not a great film by any means.  It suffers from some strange directorial choices, clichéd characters, contrived and meaningless subplots and a perfect storm created by plot conveniences that probably could never occur in real life.  Still, there was a likable quality to the film, and the leads elevate the weak material.  Tony Scott is only an okay director, giving us such films as Man on Fire, Enemy of the State and Top Gun.  None of these films are bad, they are just like Unstoppable.  They are passable.  Unstoppable’s heavy, power in the form of the train is what saves it.  There is a very real feeling of menace you get from many of the shots.  If you can get past some of the sillier dialogue, this can be an enjoyable hour and a half for a less-discriminating film fan.