Monday, November 30, 2009

"Memento" is a Backwards Film, literally.

As the film's title suggests, this film is about mementos. However, they're not necessarily the kind that are kept for sentimental reasons. They're kept to help jog a memory. Christopher Nolan directs Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss (of "The Matrix") and Joe Pantoliano (also of "The Matrix") in this psychological-thriller about a man suffering from short term memory loss. He uses Polaroid photos and tattoos himself with clues to help him solve the mystery of his wife's death.

Pearce is excellent in the role of Leonard, a man desperately seeking answers and clues in the brutal death of his wife. He meets many people along the way, each of them offering a different piece to the puzzle. He spends his days collecting the pieces of his puzzle, documenting them one at a time. When he wakes up the next morning, his mind is blank, and the only clues are inked on his skin and photographs of people and items. These clues all help him to find his wife's killer.

This was a very interesting film, although it took me awhile to get through it. This is not a movie that you can turn on and walk away from. If you get up and miss one scene, you'll be lost, because the next scene will build from the last. I made that mistake, twice, as a matter of fact. I finally was able to sit down and watch the whole film from start to finish. The filming style is excellent, using color for the present-day part of the film, and black and white for Leonard's past.
This combination helps the film's watcher to keep abreast of Leonard's background, and helps us to understand what he's doing and why he's doing it.

The film's director took the short story "Memento Mori" written by his brother Johnathan Nolan, and adapted it into the superbly written script. Nolan has also directed "Insomnia" another equally excellent dark thriller, and one of my personal favorites in the genre. More recently, Nolan directed "Batman Begins" from which the late Heath Ledger garnered the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award posthumously.

As I watched this film, I couldn't help but compare it to the 1994 Dana Carvey comedy "Clean Slate" in which Carvey plays a detective who also suffers from short term memory loss. He plays a detective who has to testify in court, but due to an accident, his memory only lasts for one day (as it is with Leonard in this film). Carvey must rely on a tape recording of himself every morning recounting the events of the previous day. It's almost unfair to compare these two films, but nonetheless, it's amazing how closely related the overall idea of the two story lines are.

Watching this film is like playing a game of dominos. If you take out one scene, or one tile, you risk toppling all the rest and end up having to start over again. My advice to my readers, however many of you there may be, is to go out and rent this film, but watch it when the kids are in bed and the ringer on the phone is turned off. If you miss one scene, or one moment, you'll have to start over. Words to live by.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Powerful Performances in "There Will be Blood"

"There Will be Blood" is a powerful story about oil, money, greed and religion. The title of the film aptly describes the story of oil drilling at the turn of the twentieth century. I had mixed feelings about this film. On one hand, it was a film well-deserving of its 2008 best picture nomination. On the other, there were several scenes of superfluous dialogue that didn't seem to have anything to do with the rest of the story. But this was clearly a performance driven film.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview (in his second Academy Award-winning role), a successful oilman who travels the country at the request of farmers who believe their land is rich with oil. He operates on his keen sense of intuition. He travels to these places, only if he believes that there is actually oil. If his gut says there is, he goes, hires the local townspeople to set up a drilling operation, and pays them all an excellent salary. When a young preacher (played by Paul Dano) approaches him about his supposedly oil rich farm land, Plainview's life changes, at first, it seems, for the better. But as the film and story unfolds, he suffers setback after setback.

In the beginning of the film, it's 1902, and Plainview and one of his best friends are working on an oilrig together. Suddenly, the rope which is tied to the wooden structure of the tower snaps under the intense weight of the buckets of oil being hoisted out of the well. A large piece of woods comes crashing down to the well, killing his friend with its force. His friend has a son, the mother of whom, we later find out, had died during the birthing process. Plainview adopts the boy as his own, and the two, it seems, become unseperable. But then, tragedy strikes. His adopted son is working for Plainview on an oilrig. There is an explosion that knocks his son off the platform. While this doesn't kill him, it causes him to go deaf, and causes much tension between father and son.

This is, very much so, a performance driven film. Day-Lewis gives one of the most dramatic and intense performances I've ever seen from him. He is one of those actors who gets completely lost in each of the characters he portrays. He plays characters that, as much of a cliche as it is to say, you love to hate. He plays a sadistic, homicidal butcher in Martin Scorsese's 2002 film "Gangs of New York". In this film, he plays an oil tycoon who is sadistic, but yet saavy and business minded. The other stand out performance is Paul Dano as the young, tenacious preacher. His character, to me, can be compared to the modern day televangelist, relying highly on his strong belief that he is a messanger, sent by God to heal the sick and preach God's gospel. He reminded me of a turn of the century Jerry Falwell.

At times during the film, the long scenes of dialogue made me want to turn it off and take a nap. But the excellent performances never failed to suck me back into the story. With a running time of over two and a half hours, this is not a film that you can simply put on and then walk away from. You have to devote your time to it with as minimal distraction as possible. It's an excellent film with strongly acted roles and a great story. I highly recommend it!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

S.O.B. is a Huge Departure for it's Star

We've all seen Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, and as Maria in "Sound of Music" (one of my personal favorites). A loveable, seemingly magical nanny, a mischevious nun who is sent to govern seven children, and ultimatley falls for their milataristic erotic film star?? Yes, that's right.

The film opens with a musical number starring Andrews. Cut to a gentleman and his dog running on the beaches of Malibu. He drops, clutching his chest. He then crawls up the beach, towards a house to let someone know of his dire condition. Ultimately, he doesn't survive. Throughout the film, we are continuosly shown the body of this man, whom we later find out is a popular actor, his loyal dog remaining by his side. This is among the very strange events that unfold throughout a very strange film.

Andrews plays Sally Miles, one of the most popular movie stars in the world. Miles is married to Felix Farmer (played excellently by Richard Mulligan) one of the most successful directors in the business. Together, they've formed an unstoppable team, making hit after hit film...until one. In fact, the latest film is such a monumental flop, it sends its director into a nervous breakdown, one that he seemingly will never come out of.

During the first half of the film, the supporting players, played by William Holden, Robert Loggia, and Robert Preston, are trying to stop Felix from killing himself. As unfunny as this situation would be to any of us, Felix fails several times, each attempt more comically inept than the last. Probably the most comedic of the events is when Felix gets into his running Cadillac in a closed garage. When the groundskeeper finds him, he reaches in to pull the keys out of the ignition, but instead nudges the gear shift into drive, sending the car through the wall of the garage, down the dune, and into the Pacific Ocean.

Nearly half way through the film, Felix has an epiphany. He's going to buy his flop back from the studio, and re-cut the movie. The only caveat; his squeaky clean movie star wife must do a scene in which she appears topless. Understandably, she has serious morality issues with doing this. What will her fans think of her? What will this do to her career? And so on. But in the end, and with the help of a little liquid courage, she does it.

The fallout begins. The studio executives refuse to allow Felix to re-cut the film, claiming it will lose them millions of dollars. So he takes matters into his own hands. He leads the police on a high speed car chase, and ends up dying at their hand. His friends decide that a proper send off for the unconventional director is an unconventional one; a viking funeral.

I had many mixed feelings about this film. At first, I really didn't care for the movie. Do you ever have the urge to yell at the screen, because the hero is in peril, or the actors play their inept characters so well, that you can't help but to hate them? Well, that's how I felt at the beginning of the film. How the hell can so many people ignore a dead man on the beach? How can so many people be so careless? About half way through the film, I had a change of heart. The comedic happenings throughout the film were just too much to ignore. Probably one of my favorite actors in the film was Robert Preston, in a HUGE departure from his iconic role as Professor Harold Hill in the "Music Man". He plays a somewhat inept, slightly alcoholic doctor to Felix Farmer. His lines from the well-written script are delivered in such a way, it's hard not to follow his sometimes backward reasoning.

There were many surprises during this film. Obviously, one of the biggest is it's star, Julie Andrews, the squeaky clean Disney icon, is not squeaky clean. She swears like a sailor, drinks like a fish, and appears topless, albeit very briefly. But nonetheless, if you see this film, it will shock and entertain you.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Bandwagon is perfection!

So for those of you that know me, you know that I'm a lover of movies. All types. So I thought that I would start critiquing some movies (a la Roger Ebert...kind of) They won't necessarily be brand new movies, just some of my favorites, from my personal collection that I pull of the shelf and dust off from time to time, or ones that I haven't seen before that come in the mail via Netflix. Well, here goes nothing...!

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for musicals...that's right...musicals, especially those made by Fred Astaire. When I was six years old (again, for those who don't know me, this will be an FYI. For those that do, this will be redundant) I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. My parents and I (and our large following that is both sides of my extended family) traveled to San Francisco for the initial surgery. When I was recovering from surgery, I would watch movies. While most kids were into the action or sci-fi genres (some great films are in each of these genres) I was watching a classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers All of the nurses would come into my room after their shifts and watch them with me, amazed that a six year old had such refined taste. Almost 20 years later, that has not changed.

The Bandwagon is the best post Astaire-Rodgers film ever made, in my humble opinion (kind of the point of this whole endeavor). Suffice it to say, I will never tire of this movie. I had to search high and low to find a copy, but I finally found it on Amazon. The movie comes in a two disc set. The first is the re-mastered film, along with an optional commentary by the film's director, Vincent Minnelli's daughter, Liza (yes...that Liza). The second disc has a making of the movie featurette with interviews from the surviving cast of the 1953 film (there's actually only one surviving actor of the primary cast to date.)

When I was younger, it was the music and the dancing that fascinated me about these films. Now that I'm older, that's certainly still dazzling, but even more dazzling is the story (yes, believe it or not, most musicals actually have a story behind them, albeit sometimes, not a very good one.) This film is certainly no exception. Equally amazing is how closely the story of the film parallels the story of it's star.

In the film, Astaire plays a song and dance actor who is essentially retired and forgotten (a fact that is stated fairly regularly throughout the movie). Everything about this film makes me feel great. I got home last night, and I wanted to watch a movie. It was a toss up between Singin' in the Rain (another equally excellent musical film) or this one. There's some movies that entertain you, certainly, but they're forgettable. Then there are FILMS (some of which can be forgettable as well) This is an UN-forgettable film. Not only for the music and the story, but the warm fuzzy feeling it gives you after watching it, like the feeling you get when you're wrapped up in your nice thick comforter on a cold day. As the headlining song says "That's Entertainment!" This film certainly is that, and more. Enjoy!!

"The Taking of Pelham 123" is hit and miss

I'm sure you've all had that feeling of being really excited about something, be it a party, a new job, a date or a movie. I had that very feeling about this movie, and while it certainly delivered on action and suspense, there was that certain something that was missing. I liken it to going out on a date with a beautiful woman (or guy). But midway through, you figure out that there's just something a little off about her (him).

This is a remake of the 1974 film of the same name, which starred the late Walter Matthau. In this version, Denzel Washington takes over Matthau's role, as a public transit worker with a checkered recent past that unfolds with the film. No matter what you find out about him, your heart goes out to him. He's a family man who is simply trying to put bread on the table.

It's helmed by director Tony Scott ("Man on Fire"). Several of Scott's trademarks, are evident throughout the film, such as the casting of Washington, spectacular action sequences, and his use of quick, choppy camera movements. If you've never seen a Tony Scott film, his useage of these camera movements may be somewhat nauseating, but you'll quickly find that they add poignancy and intensity to his films.

There are a few actors who can play the role of the antagonist so convincingly, it sends chills up your spine. Examples would be Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith in "The Matrix" trilogy), Jack Nicholson, or more recently, the late Heath Ledger (The Joker in "Batman") or John Travolta (Gabriel Shear in "Swordfish"). In this film, Travolta plays Ryder, the tattooed, angry and jaded ex-Wall Street exec who has fallen on hard times. This was one of the first roles that Travolta took after grieving the loss of his son, who died unexpectedly last year. Seemingly an odd choice, but Travolta plays his roles, whether it's good or evil, with such enthusiasm that you wouldn't know that the man was still hurting. And no matter what role he plays, he always has a grin on his face, whether it's kind and genuine, or sadistic.

This film is certainly entertaining and full of suspense, but it's a very straight forward story with few twists. The twists that are in the film are somewhat formulaic of the action genre. The story is certainly well written and casted, down to the extras on the street. But if the film had been done with anybody else than Washington and Travolta, it wouldn't have worked. These actors carried the film.

"The Taking of Pelham 123" is a great popcorn movie. But it's just that, a well written and casted popcorn movie