Monday, January 25, 2010

#382: Caché (2005)

Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Daniel Auteuil & Juliette Binoche

Georges, a public television personality and his wife Anne are being terrorized by an unseen observer. They receive video tapes of their own front door, taken from a distance. The tapes are wrapped in sheets of paper with disturbing, childlike drawings, each with a streak of red across the subject of the image. The couple tries to continue lives as normal, but paranoia begins to eke its way into their personalities.

It's hard to imagine that Alfred Hitchcock didn't have a roll in the making of this film. It's so up his alley that it almost seems like it's 50 years too late in the making, though at the same time has a modern feel to it. I suppose the fear of the unknown is timeless.

Now, some spoilers.

The end of the film at first seemed like one of the most lame ways to go that I could imagine - you don't find out a single thing. You don't know who was watching them, you don't even know the full intention of why a man had killed himself. Majid, whose parents worked for Georges' parents when they were kids, may have killed himself out of guilt or out of pure anger for the way Georges treated him in his childhood. Basically, everything was left open, and you realize there may have been no threat whatsoever to Georges and Anne besides the threat posed by their own fears.

But then! What a surprise I got when I found out that there was a subtle inclusion at the very end of the film that tells us that we haven't half of the story. Majid's son, who played a very minor role in the film, is seen with Georges' and Anne's son amidst a crowd of students waiting to be picked up from school. These two characters have no reason of knowing each other, and who knows what they could be discussing, or what plots are possibly being made by Majid's son.

There are no cheap tricks with this film, and coming out of it is initially disappointing, but this one has stuck with me for days now. While I might not recommend it to everyone off the bat, it's worth a shot.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):
In the scene right after the main character leaves Hajid's apartment and hides in a movie theater we can see posters of several European successful films. One of them is "La mala educación" by Pedro Almodóvar, another one is "Les choristes" (2004) directed by Christophe Barratier.
Voted "Best Film of the Noughties" by UK newspaper The Times.

Friday, January 22, 2010

#383: Serenity (2005)

Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Sean Maher, Alan Tudyk, Gina Torres, Jewel Staite, Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin & Chiwetel Ejiofor

The crew continues their adventures on the outer rim of Joss Whedon’s visions of the future, where China and the United States merged to become the powerful Alliance. The mentally unstable and psychic River Tam is being hunted down by The Alliance because she might have obtained top-secret information from while she was being studied in the government’s laboratories. Luckily, River has been under the protection of Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew, who have evaded both The Alliance and the mysterious, murderous monsters known as Reavers. The ship directs its ways through the ‘verse to discover what dark secret is being hidden by the authorities.

Whedon’s imagination of the future is so colorful, it’s got so much to take in. Aside from the fusion of Western cultures with Chinese, the lingo used is witty and smart with a great dose of comedy. No character overlooked – each has a highly distinct style in appearance, speech and attitude.

Whedon’s style is very distinct, using a very high level of contrast in color. For example, the characters will be plunged into shadows until a brilliant white light is shot directly on to them. Not only was there contrasts in the color used on set, but it’s clear that they raised the contrast during the editing process as well, making the characters appear in a comic books style.


As far as plot, there is not much that I can complain about as far as the film goes. However, there were some disheartening choices when seen in the context of the entire franchise. The Firefly series hinted at a very colorful history to Shephard Book, but not only did he have an extremely small role in the film, but he was killed off while there is so much more to answer. Another major character, Wash, was killed off almost unnecessarily at the end of the film as well. It makes me think that Whedon was running out of time, had too many ideas, and tried to squeeze it all together.

A must see for all Firefly fans, nonetheless, and probably one of the best films to be made based on a television series.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • There is an inside joke printed on some of the crates in the cargo bay. Some of the crates have the message "Reusable Container: Do Not Destroy" printed on them (they are visible behind River after the Reaver has been shot). The original set for the ship, from the show "Firefly" (2002) was destroyed (even though creator Joss Whedon swore he'd make use of it again), and therefore could not be reused for the movie (the set had to be rebuilt from scratch).
  • This is the first film to be released by Universal on HD-DVD (High Definition DVD).
  • Among the buildings shown in the opening sequence (where voice-over narration describes the "terraforming" process) are the Emirates Towers, key features of the skyline of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. A skyscraper in the foreground of the same shot is based on designs by Sir Norman Foster (Lord Foster), including the Commerzbank headquarters in Frankfurt and the HSBC building in Hong Kong.
  • The key phrase, that Dr. Simon Tam uttered to put River to sleep, "Eta Kooram Nah Smech!" in Russian means literally "this is for hens to laugh", meaning "this is very ridiculous".(presumably also as it is so random a sentence as to never be spoken by accident)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

#384: The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Cast: James Stewart & Margaret Sullavan

Alfred Kralik, the assistant to the manager of a gift shop right around the corner from the main boulevard in Budapest, is hesitant to hire the young and talented Klara Novak from the start. Throughout her time at the store, the two can’t stand to be near each other. What they don’t realize is that they have each fallen in love with each other through their anonymous pen pal letters to each other.

Does this premise ring a bell? Of course it does. The film (based on a play by Miklós László) was the inspiration for Nora Ephron’s
You’ve Got Mail (1998). Due to this fact, this post will be more of a comparative study (although, let’s face it, not much of a study) rather than my usual standard review.

There are two vast improvements made by
You’ve Got Mail. First off, the location. I understand that the play was written and took place in Hungary. However, this doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to set it there. Normally I’m all for keeping the original locale, but it has nothing to do with the story. If they at least decided to have non-American accents used, it would be a step up. But when the main characters are clearly American in a set that doesn’t look particularly Hungarian, you might as well set it in the States.

Next, the female lead and her relationship with Kralik. Klara is often rude to Kralik for his insincere reception. Klara comes across as bitter, but at first I let it slide; he was rude to her as well. But once Kralik discovers that she is his pen pal, he is very kind to her – even romantic. However, she continues her streak of insults without apology. Nora Ephron brilliantly fixed this up in two ways. First, she made Klara’s character (renamed Kathleen Kelly) extremely likable, and when she blurts out an insult, Kathleen immediately feels horrible about it. Second, the female lead’s position in society is brought up to date. Kathleen Kelly is not just a salesgirl; she’s the owner of a small store that is fighting against the large corporation that’s taking her business, which is owned by her e-mail pal Joe Fox. Kathleen Kelly has a much more meaningful reason to detest Joe Fox than Klara Novak’s hatred of Alfred Kralik. The relationship didn’t resonate nearly as brilliantly as Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

Speaking of Tom Hanks, I was amazed at how similar he is to James Stewart in both performance and appearance. I think I can go as far as saying that I believe Tom Hanks to be the James Stewart of our age.

I don’t mean to bash this film; it absolutely has a charm to it, and though it was outdated, it certainly had a je-ne-sais-quoi that led Ephron to bring it to this day and age. James Stewart was clearly the backbone of the film, and his wit and charm certainly influenced Tom Hanks’ role of Joe Fox. Some scenes in
You’ve Got Mail were taken almost directly from The Shop Around the Corner, most notably the scene when the male lead discovers that he has been writing to his business foe. If I had to guess, the similarities between these two scenes were intended to support the humorous side of the male lead and his good nature, which was pulled off flawlessly on both accounts.

Outdated, but a lovely lighthearted film.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • According to Bright Lights Film Journal website, when Kralik mentions "You read Zola's Madame Bovary," Klara immediately corrects him: "Madame Bovary is not by Zola," she snipes. The joke here is that though Klara knows who wrote Madame Bovary, she doesn't understand that she herself is living exclusively in Emma Bovary's world of impossible ideals.
  • The play, "Perfumerie" (also known as "Illatszertár"), was copyrighted 10 November 1936.
  • To make sure his film was stripped of the glamor usually associated with him, Lubitsch went to such lengths as ordering that a dress Sullavan had purchased off the rack for $1.98 be left in the sun to bleach and altered to fit poorly.
  • According to the Book "Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise", ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ is the most meaningful tribute possible to the owner and employees of the long vanished Berlin clothing firm of S. Lubitsch.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

#385: Ace in the Hole (1951)

Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling & Richard Benedict

Journalist Chuck Tatum, who was fired from his previous big-city gigs, has landed a new job in Albuquerque. Not used to being in the small town, Tatum detests the stories he covers, nothing being as juicy as he’d like. He finally gets his big story when a cave-in at an ancient Indian burial ground traps Leo Minosa, a worker at a rest stop. Tatum learns that he could be saved within only 12 hours, but instead convinces the sheriff to dig through the rock from the top, giving time for the story to develop. While Mr. Minosa waits, trapped under the rock, a throng swarms to the site to witness the action firsthand.

Not much stuck out in this film for me. It was a film that just had to be made in the 1950’s – the film industry probably wouldn’t be complete without a criticism of the extraordinary measures journalists may take. But it wasn’t really a great film. The only performance that is worthy to be mentioned is Kirk Douglas, who makes a great sleaze.

The movie was a failure in its time, as you can see by the all-negative Fun Trivia section to follow. It seemed to have had a second wave in the past 15 years or so, having critics praise the film for having a real ‘bite’. Yes, it’s scathing… but I also found the whole thing a point that’s been made too often, and it’s lost its importance. People know not to trust the media at this point. An hour-and-a-half film just wasn’t necessary to tell me that in gross exaggeration.

I give it a C.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • When the film was released, it got bad reviews and lost money. The studio, without Billy Wilder's permission, changed the title to "The Big Carnival" to increase the box office take of the film. It didn't work. On top of that, Billy Wilder's next picture Stalag 17 (1953) was a hit and Billy Wilder expected a share of the Stalag 17 (1953)'s profits. Paramount accountants told him that since this picture lost money, the money it lost would be subtracted from the profits of Stalag 17 (1953).
  • Actor Victor Desny brought a lawsuit against this film while the script was being written. He claimed the film was an unauthorized version of the Floyd Collins story. Collins was actually stuck in a cave years earlier, as mentioned in the film. Since Desny owned the rights to the Collins story, he claimed copyright infringement. Desny prevailed, although Wilder appealed. The California Supreme Court ruled in Desny's favor. (Desny v. Wilder, 46 Cal. 2d 715, 299 (Cal. Sup. Ct. 1956).)
  • The studio constructed a replica cliff dwelling at a cost of $30,000. The set was located behind the Lookout Point Trading Post on U.S. Route 66, west of Gallup, New Mexico. After filming was completed, the set was left intact and the owner of the trading post used it to draw tourists to his store.
  • Residents of Gallup, New Mexico were hired as extras. They were paid 75 cents an hour for a ten-hour day. Extras earned an additional three dollars if they could bring an automobile to the set.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

#386: The Great Silence (1968)

Director: Sergio Corbucci
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski & Vonetta McGee

The small village of Snowhill, Utah is in an upheaval through the winter of 1898. The winter has been so brutal that the poorer citizens have to steal in order to survive. Living in the mountains, they become branded as outlaws by the sheriff. With a reward for their capture – dead or alive – bounty hunters are enjoying the luxurious life. That is, until the deadly assassin Silence is hired by the African-American resident named Pauline, who wants revenge for the death of her husband at the hands of the head bounty hunter, Loco. Silence got his name because wherever he goes the silence of death follows. However, Loco learns of Silence’s one weakness. Silence will only shoot his victims once they have already drawn their gun, allowing him amnesty from the law due to the right to defend oneself. Meanwhile, a new sheriff arrives in town, sent by the governor to restore order to Snowhill.

I’ll start off with the most obvious changes in Corbucci’s classic from the standard western. The landscape is covered in snow, which is highly unusual for the genre. Ennio Morricone captures the silence of the snowy mountains flawlessly with his extensive use of glockenspiel and harp, but maintains his rugged western feel.

The film has a great political message throughout. Rather than depicting the characters as malevolent outlaws, they are all working within the law. It is the government that has failed in this film. The bad guys are the outlaws who are essentially hired by the government to kill off outlaws. The outlaws themselves in this case are only trying to survive, and were put in this position by the government’s irresponsibility. Even the good guy is on an equal footing as the bounty hunters, killing under the protection of the government. In this way, The Great Silence is a step ahead of all other westerns of its time by giving each character an incredibly strong personal history created by the corrupt government.

One quick addition that I must include to the idea of a greater background to the characters is the fact that Silence is actually a mute. While nearly all heroes of the Western genre are the silent types, none of them have any particular reason to be. This film actually includes a sequence as to why he doesn’t talk, and how that came to be.

Corbucci is also ahead of his time for his casting of a woman of African descent as the lead female, and as the love interest of a white man. This was highly unusual, considering it was filmed not after but during the Civil Rights Movement, and during the same year as interracial marriage became legal in the United States.


The film is notorious for having a very bleak ending. First off, it’s essential to note that this is only one of two endings filmed, though it’s also the only one people have much access to. Even so, the murder of Silence at the end was clearly the finale that Corbucci wanted, as many have analyzed Silence as a representation of Christ. In the end, Silence does not defend everyone in life from the corrupt, just as Christ in human form was unable. A link has also been made between Silence and Che Guevarra who had fought unsuccessfully to defend his people. One of the main analyses that indicate these two links is the fact that just before he is killed, his hands are destroyed. This of course could refer to the crucifixion, but can also relate to Che Guevarra, whose hands were chopped off and sent to Fidel Castro after his death.

This is by far my favorite Western I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the genre is severely limited. Still, I would recommend this to fans and newcomers to the genre alike. Bravo, Corbucci!

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • Jean-Louis Trintignant had agreed to do the film in order to help out the producer, who was a friend of his.
  • The snow in the town of Snow Hill was created by gallons of shaving cream.
  • Jean-Louis Trintignant agreed to play in a spaghetti western under the condition that he did not have to learn any lines for the role. That's why the main character conveniently became a mute in the story.

Monday, January 18, 2010

#387: Rain Man (1988)

Director: Barry Levinson
Cast: Dustin Hoffman & Tom Cruise

Charlie Babbitt, the money-hungry yuppie car dealer from L.A. has absolutely no reaction when he gets the news that his wealthy father has died. What does get an emotion out of him is that the father has given all of his money to Raymond – a brother that Charlie never knew he had. What makes it worse for Charlie – Raymond is retarded.

Of course, as you all know, what Charlie understands in the beginning is nowhere near the truth. Charlie learns throughout the film what it means to be an autistic savant. Hoffman puts on a stellar performance, possibly the best of his career, portraying a man in a world of his own. Watching him makes you wonder what is going on behind those vacant eyes of his, but only the smallest bits of information come out of his mouth. Despite this handicap, Hoffman says so much.

The film caused a great shift in public knowledge of autism, though not necessarily bringing it a step closer to truth. Like Charlie, before this film was released, a great many people did not distinguish autism from mental retardation. After the film, however, the view of autism has gone in the opposite direction. It is often assumed that all autistics are savants, not only thanks to Rain Man, but also thanks to all of the parodies that this film has spurred.

This one’s all about Dustin Hoffman. Amazing performance.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • The script originally had Raymond as happy and friendly, but after an initial reading Dustin Hoffman successfully lobbied for Raymond to be a withdrawn autistic.
  • The scene in the airport was cut by most airlines on their plane trips... except Qantas. They even promoted one of the movie's writers to first class once when he traveled on their airline.
  • During the shooting of the casino scenes, Dustin Hoffman would go off and play games like blackjack. After production was halted to look for him, someone was assigned to watch him during takes.
  • Barry Levinson specifically instructed composer Hans Zimmer to avoid strings in his score as he felt it would make the film too sentimental

Sunday, January 17, 2010

#388: The English Patient (1996)

Director: Anthony Minghella
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott Thomas & Willem Dafoe

A man with an indistinguishable accent has been found near a plane crash in 1944. His face is horribly burned, and he has lost his memory. His weakness makes it difficult for him to be moved with the caravan full of hospital workers, so a makeshift hospital is set up in an abandoned monastery in Italy. Hana, a Canadian nurse who has lost all of her relations in the war, stays to take care of him. A mysterious character named Caravaggio arrives at the monastery, and he is certain the patient still has his memory in tact. While Hana begins to allow herself to love an Indian bomb detector who arrives soon after Caravaggio, the patient begins to remember how he came to his current state. While working for the Royal Geographic Society in Cairo, he becomes enamored with a married English woman, Katherine. Their relationship unravels along with the patient’s memories, leading us to the striking final act.

With such a complex premise, this is one heck of a long movie. This seems to have turned off a lot of viewers, but for me, I was riveted throughout. The performances by everyone were outstanding.

Juliette Binoche doesn’t belong in our generation; she is so comfortable in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Fiennes exhibits an ambiguity that has become a trademark for his characters. He shows a great potential for malice, but all due to his love for a woman. Dafoe’s resentment towards the patient is also brilliantly unraveled throughout the course of the film, and it is hard to look at anyone but him while he is on the screen, never knowing when he is going to burst. And then there’s Kristin Scott Thomas, whose performance as a woman torn between two lovers shines.

This movie requires a lot of patience, but I found it to be well worth it.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • The Germans who shoot at Almazy's plane at the beginning were actually tourists roped into the production because they couldn't afford any more extras.
  • Was the first digitally-edited film to win an Academy Award for Best Film Editing (Walter Murch). Murch began editing the film mechanically, but then switched to the Avid system after his son suffered a medical emergency so that he could work from his home while his son recovered. Murch writes about the experience in his book "In the Blink of an Eye (2nd Ed.)."
  • In the scene where Hana is being pulled up to see the paintings in the church, the electric power and smoke for her "torch" was being piped through the seemingly real rope on which she was sitting.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

#389: Election (1999)

Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick, Chris Klein & Jessica Campbell

How can a Nebraska high school election make the front page of national newspapers? Do anything you can to stop the overzealous, Straight-A student. Start with getting the popular quarterback to run against her. Does that not do the trick? Then throw in the quarterback’s lesbian sister who plans to overthrow the student board.

This is one of my favorite comedies of all time. It is the movie that first brought Reese Witherspoon critical acclaim, nominating her for a Golden Globe. It is also the first film for Chris Klein, who went on to teen comedy fame with the American Pie films. And of course, Matthew Broderick always chooses some class films. His character goes through hell in this film, and it's easy to say he deserves it, though he maintains his charisma nerdy charisma throughout. It's also interesting to see him play a high school teacher for the first time, a turn-around from his most famous role as Ferris Bueller.

What makes the film so smart is how Mr. Payne demonstrates both the thoughts and the actions of the characters separately. On the outside, George Washington Carver High School is the picture-perfect school, with all teachers being extreme motivators and all students fitting perfectly into their own cliques. Everyone has a smile on their face, and they are all working for the future. At the same time, we see the school's most awarded teacher, Mr. McAllister, setting himself to crush the top student, Tracy Flick, while Tracy has no problems fighting back and threatening to destroy McAllister's personal life.

And you can never go wrong with the soundtrack from Navajo Joe.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • In the text of a newspaper article in the film: "If you've paused the film in order to read this entire article, your time would be better spent renting Citizen Ruth (1996) from your local video store. Do you know how hard it is to write these fake few stories for newspaper movie props? I've got better things to do."
  • When Tracy rips up the posters of Paul in the school hallway, the theme form Navajo Joe (1966) (which was also used at the end of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)) plays in the background.
  • Since the movie was shot in a real High School (Papillion La Vista High School, Omaha, Nebraska), adjacent classrooms had real class going on while some scenes for the movie were being done. In the soundtrack, some background noises come from real teachers and students. The director decided to leave that in as to give the movie a more realistic sound.
  • Reese Witherspoon's portrayal of Tracy Flick was voted as the 45th Greatest Movie Performances of All Time by Premiere Magazine.
  • Ranked at #9 on Entertainment Weekly's 50 Best High School Movies (2006)

Friday, January 15, 2010

#390: 2 Days in Paris (2007)

Director: Julie Delpy
Cast: Adam Goldberg & Julie Delpy

The American Jack and his girlfriend, the French Marion, are on vacation throughout Europe. For the last leg of the trip, they are staying with Marion’s parents in Paris for two days before they fly back to the States. In Paris, their relationship is tested by the unconventional French conventions that Jack can’t begin to understand.

The best part about this film is that it’s not about French customs seen through an American’s eyes, but through the eyes of the English-speaking French who understand what the American sees and try to make him understand. The problems the couple face are not at all unheard of, but it is still completely unpredictable as a foreigner.

The cinematography and choices of location are perfect. The film captures the contemporary Parisian style flawlessly, and it brought back many memories for me that I probably wouldn’t have remembered otherwise. Delpy also manages to poke fun of French culture in a very endearing way, and it made me understand and love the French culture just a little bit more.

Amazing film, though I’d be interested to see what people think if they’ve never been to France. I may just buy the DVD, so if you’ve never been to Paris, and you’re reading this, hit me up.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • The characters of Marion's parents are played by Delpy's real life parents, Albert Delpy and Marie Pillet.
  • Marie Pillet, Julie's mother, was actually one of the '343 salopes' back in 1971.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

#391: Mulholland Drive (2001)

Director: David Lynch
Cast: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring & Justin Theroux

While being driven down Mulholland Drive, a woman is about to be murdered. Just as the man in the front seat is about to pull the trigger, a car crashes head-on into their limo. The woman is the only survivor, but she has lost her memory. She finds refuge in an apartment whose owner just left with some suitcases. The next day, however, the aspiring actress Betty shows up. It is her aunt’s house, and she assumes that the woman is a friend of her aunt’s. When the truth is discovered, the two put any clues they can find together to discover the woman’s identity.

I’ve seen bits of this film before, but other than that, I’ve never had any experience with David Lynch. Based on this film, I get the feeling that his style requires that you really relax your mind, though on first instinct you want to analyze everything. Everything is very dream-like, and has its own sense of logic.

I’m going to be honest, I wasn’t impressed by anything at all in this movie but the style. Acting was not so hot, the soundtrack was boring with an overload of synthesizer, and even the cinematography doesn’t stand out. But this film does provide a lot to talk about, having a very loose ending which can be interpreted in a million different ways.

It’s a conversation topic. Not a whole lot else.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • The film is dedicated to Jennifer Syme, a young actress whose story is startlingly similar to that of the character of Betty - but who in fact died after the bulk of the film was completed.
  • ABC executives rejected the original pilot version of the film because, they thought Naomi Watts and Laura Harring too old to be television stars, among other reasons.
You may have noticed that I have skipped a film (#392 - Paris, Texas). It was on my Netflix Queue since #500, and the day that it got to first in line, Netflix removed it from their available DVDs. I decided to skip it for now, because Netflix also said it will be available online "soon". So, when that day comes, I'll jump back.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

#393: Garden State (2004)

Director: Zach Braff
Cast: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman & Peter Sarsgaard

Andrew Largeman returns home to New Jersey for the first time in years to attend his mother’s funeral. His trip unexpectedly turns his life for the better. While in the waiting room to check on a headache problem, he meets the life-loving, ever-optimist Sam. She’s a compulsive liar, but she’s cute, and they have a connection right off the bat. He spends his few days at home with her and his old classmates who have all gone on to bigger and weirder things (one invented silent Velcro, another digs graves, you get the idea).

It’s so unfortunate what kind of reputation this film has nowadays. It’s completely linked with the hipster movement, and it’s almost shameful to say that I’m a fan today. But it was chosen to be an iconic film for those types for good reasons. It’s got a great quirky sense of humor, it’s got loads of color to keep your eye on the screen, and it has a wonderful message overall.

Though Portman is a bit over-the-top in her half-glass-full attitude, she’s still a sight for sore eyes. After the first viewing of the film, she might be a bit annoying, but I’d love to know somebody that happy with life. Zach Braff is also pretty good, but he’s been outshined. Fortunately, his directing made up for it – and with his debut film!

But most importantly, the soundtrack is one of the best I’ve ever heard. It brought
The Shins to fame, but used their music so well with the overall mood of the film. Honestly, it might be the best soundtrack I’ve ever heard.

Oh, and I’ve totally been to the restaurant that Largeman works at in the beginning of the film (it’s not Vietnamese, but a Thai restaurant called “Sea” in Williamsburg). Woot!

A good movie for a rainy day.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • The cue for the seeing eye dog to mount was, "Love 'em up," while the cue for the dog to start humping was, "Who's your bitch?"
  • The motorcycle is a Russian/Ukrainian Dnepr.
  • During the swimming pool scene (when Andrew cannot swim) the fog was not there for effect. The site was originally chosen because the Manhattan Skyline was clearly visible but it just happened to be incredibly foggy on the day of filming.
  • The Vietnamese restaurant in Los Angeles in the beginning is actually a Thai restaurant - Sea in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. Walking through the kitchen the background voices can be heard conversing in Thai, not Vietnamese.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

#394: Cloverfield (2008)

Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas & Odette Yustman

A going-away party for Tokyo-bound Rob Hawkins is abruptly interrupted when a Godzilla-like creature attacks New York City. Through the handheld camera being held by Rob’s best friend Hud, we witness the initial emergence of the creature, the escape routes from the city that prove worthless, and Rob’s heroic attempt to save his girlfriend who is stuck in what appears to be Trump Tower at Columbus Circle.

The talk about this film before its release was electric – figuratively, and literally. The initial trailer for the film (which I can’t find online, unfortunately) showed only one scene in which the head of the Statue of Liberty comes to a screeching halt on a New York street, with no title or information on the film shown. As its release date came closer, more trailers were released, and multiple websites were created to spur on talk about what exactly the creature was.

The anticipation was worth it. The handheld camera makes the action oh-so-much more intense. Its effect on the overall style of the film is profound, but is brought even further to reality by Reeves’ small choices throughout the film on the reaction of the New Yorkers. The greatest example must be when the Statue of Liberty’s head falls into the street, very few are looking at the iconic image directly – most are looking at it through their camera-phones.

The film has a perfect amount of comedy weaved into the thrilling action, and this comedy is best acted out through Lizzy Caplan, playing Marlena, the sarcastic barely-acquaintance of Rob, and Hud’s love interest. Overall, the cast is good, though nothing particular. It’s really the work behind the scenes that made this film phenomenal.

Get some popcorn and watch this if you haven’t done so already. It’s so worth it.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • The title "Cloverfield"; initially just a codename for the movie, is named for the boulevard in Santa Monica where the Bad Robot offices were located during the making of the film.
  • The decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty in the street is inspired by the poster for John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981), which depicts the head of the Statue of Liberty lying in the middle of the street.
  • Images from King Kong (1933), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and Them! (1954) are hidden within the film. Each image is seen extremely briefly, for only a single frame, during a camera edit. The "Them!" picture is shown at 00.24.06, the "Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" picture is shown at 00.45.27, and the "King Kong" picture is shown at 1.06.55. A brief clip of Rob and Beth at a train station is seen with the "King Kong" image at 1.06.51.
  • According to Neville Page, creature designer - the monster is a baby in a new environment - "spooked" and looking for its mother.

Monday, January 11, 2010

#395: Casino (1995)

Director: Martin Scorcese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone & Joe Pesci

One of Las Vegas's greatest casinos, the Tangiers, is in the hands of mobsters. When the Jewish-American Sam "Ace" Rothstein is noticed for being a great handicapper, bringing in the bucks like no other, he is recruited to manage the casino. The mob bosses are skimming the profits from the casino, while Nick Santoro ensures that the money gets into the right hands and keeps the gangsters in line. While on the job, Rothstein meets his future wife, Ginger, who works as a hustler at the Tangiers. Of course, their arrangement can't last long, and the troubles that are brought to the Tangiers have a lasting impact on the city of Las Vegas.

I wish I enjoyed mafia movies. I really do. I've tried so many times. Alas, I wasn't into this one. Maybe I just don't have enough to relate to in the film - I've never been to a casino, I've never been in a physical fight, and I've never done anything remotely illegal for money. Oh, and I only say "fuck" 2.3 times per minute.

I really don't have much bad to say about the film, though. Sharon Stone was remarkable, and seeing her descent from a young, sexy, live-out-loud hustler to a drug-inducing, wrinkle-ridden ho is outstanding. Robert De Niro also is on top form here, becoming a very likable mobster who somehow maintains his morals.

But that's the thing. Yes, the acting is great... but I just don't see what else there really is. It was 150 minutes of something that I didn't really care all that much about. A big problem with this is that there isn't any humor whatsoever, which is why I liked Ocean's Eleven so much. I really hope I can get into The Godfather when it comes around... what a let-down that could be for me.

Welp, if you enjoy mob films, this might just be for you.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):
  • The word "Fuck" is said 422 times, including in the narration - 2.4 times per minute on average. The film also holds the Guinness world record for the most swearing in a film.
  • Martin Scorsese stated before the film's release that he created the "head in the vise" scene as a sacrifice, certain the MPAA would insist it be cut. He hoped this would draw fire away from other violent scenes that would seem less so by comparison. When the MPAA made no objection to the vise scene, he left it in, albeit slightly edited.
  • As they were shooting scenes in Las Vegas set in the 1970s, the husband of an elderly woman extra was given a period-correct leisure suit to wear by the wardrobe department. However, instead of providing the woman with period clothes, they told her, much to her chagrin, that her out-of-date attire was just fine.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

#396: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Director: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Brad Pitt & Casey Affleck

Jesse James was one of the greatest outlaws of American history. After he and his brother Frank fought as Confederate guerillas in the Civil War, they started one of the greatest gangs ever to exist. They became living legends in the 1870’s, when they robbed banks, trains and stagecoaches. After many members of the gang were killed in 1876, they recruited new members, including the young Robert Ford. Robert idolized Jesse in childhood, but his view of the great antihero begins to change shape while living in the James household, and decides to kill his former idol to collect a state reward.

The premise of the film is wonderful, studying Robert Ford rather than the more infamous Jesse James. Of course, we know what happens to James from the outset. It is Affleck’s portrayal of Ford that really makes the film interesting. Ford’s view of James is carefully analyzed, showing how legends can often be far from the truth.

However, this was one boring movie. It doesn’t help that I couldn’t understand about half of what the characters were saying with their greatly slurred Southern accents. I also found the narrator’s voice one of the most lulling performances in recent history. It was really only the last 10 or 15 minutes of the film that really stood out to me, describing what happened once Jesse James was killed.

Certainly a good choice for history buffs. Otherwise, meh.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • When Jesse goes looking for Jim Cummins he introduces himself as "Dick Turpin". Dick Turpin was a legendary English rogue and famous historical highwayman romanticized in English ballads and popular theatre of the 18th and 19th century. Dick Liddil introduces himself as "Matt Collins", which is actually a play on the name of Liddil's wife, Mattie Collins.
  • According to Andrew Dominik, Brad Pitt had it put in his contract that the name of the movie was not to be changed.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

#397: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea & Karl Hardman

While Barbra and Johnny are visiting their father’s grave, Barbra starts to get the willies. Johnny jokes that a man across the cemetery is coming to get Barbra, without realizing… he
is, as are thousands of other people who seem to be acting as if in a trance. Barbra escapes, though Johnny isn’t so lucky. She finds safety in a house found a bit off the beaten path, as did a few other survivors. Despite their best efforts, there is no way of knowing how long their barricades will hold…

Who would have thought that such a low-budget film could be so terrifying? I somehow never got around to seeing this classic until today, and even 40 years after it was released, it’s still pretty damn creepy. Ebert actually criticized parents who allowed their kids to see this film, after he witnessed a young girl crying in her seat. The ending is also absolutely awful, leading social commentators to go nuts – though this take on the script was apparently unintended.

Despite being filmed in black and white far after color made its way into the mainstream, the special effects got me a bit squeamish. It probably would have been even worse if I knew that the ‘things’ (which are never called ‘zombies’ in the film) were actually eating ham with chocolate sauce.

This film was ahead of its time. Compare it to Hitchcock, who was the master of horror at this point in time. It’s as if Romero said, screw this psychological crap, let’s just freak the crap out of people! What a classic. Two detached thumbs up!

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

The zombie hand that Tom (Keith Wayne) hacks up with a kitchen knife was made of clay and filled with chocolate syrup.
When the zombies are eating the bodies in the burnt-out truck they were actually eating roast ham covered in chocolate sauce. The filmmakers joked that it was so nausea inducing that it was almost a waste of time putting the makeup on the zombies, as they ended up looking pale and sick anyway.
S. William Hinzman and Karl Hardman, two of the original $300 investors had small roles due to a shortage of available talent. Another investor was a butcher, who provided some blood and guts.
One of the Walter Reade Organization's publicity stunts was a $50,000 insurance policy against anyone dying from a heart attack while watching the film.
Some of the groans made by S. William Hinzman when he's wrestling with Russell Streiner in the cemetery are authentic. During the struggle, Streiner accidentally kneed Hinzman in the groin.
The Evans City Cemetery was the cemetery used in the original version of the film, but it could not be used for the 30th anniversary edition. Before filming the new footage, a tornado had torn through the Evans City Cemetery, and ironically, it unearthed several graves.
SPOILER: The social commentary on racism some have seen in this film was never intended (an African-American man holing up in a house with a white woman, a posse of whites shooting a black man in the head without first checking to see if he was a zombie). According to the filmmakers, Duane Jones was simply the best actor for the part of Ben.

Friday, January 8, 2010

#398: Killer of Sheep (1977)

Director: Charles Burnett
Cast: Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy & Eugene Cherry

At the slaughterhouse, Stan rounds up, kills and skins sheep on a daily basis. When he gets home, he is encountered by the people of the Watts district of Los Angeles, including his friend Bracy who is trying to buy a car engine, some friends who are trying to involve him in crime, and his children who are having a hard time finding how to take control of their lives with the color of their skin.

There is no question why this film has been selected for preservation by the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The straightforward filming, with no tricks at all - I doubt the camera even pans at any point in the film - gives a great sense of what it was like in the black community in the 1970's. This was aided by a fantastic soundtrack, using songs from some great names - which is why this film became unheard of until 2007: the rights were never secured for the songs.

Many critics have compared this film to Italian neo-realism, due to its documentary-style filmmaking with nonprofessional actors. This is particularly strange considering it's coming from a poor African-American in a time when styles such as Italian neo-realism simply were not accessible to people in his situation.

While it's remarkable that this film even exists today, I wasn't particularly interested in the film. There's no plot, which is something I just can't get over. Yes, it gave me a very clear impression of what life must have been like then and there, but it just didn't pique my interest. I tried.

Ah, well. For anyone interested in African-American history, this is really a must-see. If you need a plot like me, I'd pass.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):
  • Burnett encountered actor Henry G. Sanders in the elevator of the building where he worked. He immediately asked him to do a screen test for the film, because he found he had an unusual face.
  • Charles Burnett made this film when he was still at UCLA and for a budget of $5000.
  • No permits were obtained in the filming of the movie.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

#399: Greed (1924)

Director: Erich von Stroheim
Cast: Gibson Gowland, Zasu Pitts & Jean Hersholt

McTeague grew up under the pressure of a mother who vowed he would have a real career, rather than continuing to dig in the mines. When an unlicensed dentist came through town, McTeague became his apprentice, and soon had his own office in San Francisco. When his friend Marcus came to the office one day to bring his girlfriend Trina for an appointment, McTeague instantly fell in love. While Marcus and Trina wait for the previous patient, the maid offers to sell lottery tickets. First Trina hesitates, saying they are illegal, but eventually buys one ticket. Later, McTeague tells Marcus that he kissed Trina while she was sedated, and Marcus selflessly offers to leave Trina so no tension exists between them. When Trina wins $5,000, Marcus fills with jealousy, Trina grows into the world’s worst miser, and McTeague suffers the consequences.

Stroheim’s directing led to what is undoubtedly the best silent drama of all time. Under his direction, no scene was filmed in a studio. Both indoor and outdoor scenes in San Francisco and Oakland were filmed on location, as well as scenes in Death Valley. In these scenes, which were filmed in August in 125-degree heat, it was required to lay wet towels over the camera. This approached resulted in some horrible casualties, including death, but the imagery is absolutely remarkable, and nearly unheard of in such an early year in film history. All of this is extraordinary as it is, but then it must be remembered that the film originally ran 9 hours, the remainder of which has been destroyed. This tragedy has caused this film to be dubbed as the holy grail of cinema.

The lighting in indoor scenes was nothing but brilliant, as well. Often requiring walls to be knocked down in real buildings to make room for the equipment, the scenes came out to perfection. The sight of a dark silhouette at the back of a room beating somebody unconscious is something nearly impossible to create in black and white, with less-than-perfect quality of the 1920’s, but the image came out flawlessly.

It’s hard to estimate acting potential in a silent film, but I’ve got to say, they did a pretty darn good job of it. Of course, some of it was a bit exaggerated, but that’s just a consequence of having no sound available at the time. Big props to Zasu Pitts, who was one of the biggest weirdos of all time.

The historical relevance is what makes this film absolutely incredible, but even aside from its production, it is a great film all-around.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • The original version was 42 reels, and ran for 9 hours at 20 fps. Von Stroheim then shortened it to 24 reels (just over 5 hours - the "Director's Version"). It was then cut again, not once, but twice. The first time by Rex Ingram, who cut the film down to 18 reels, and forbade Stroheim to let anyone cut it again. The final cut was performed by MGM editing department's Joseph Farnham acting on orders from Irving Thalberg, who without having read the book ("McTeague") or the script, cut the film down to 10 reels. This final version was released with a runtime of 2-1/4 hours. No copies of the earlier versions were made, and the entirety of the 32 reels that did not make the final release version were destroyed - along with all of the outtakes - so that the silver could be extracted from the film celluloid. It is in this way, that most of the movie was lost forever.
  • MGM's first feature-length movie.
  • Jean Hersholt was hospitalized after he lost 27 pounds during the filming of the movie's climax in Death Valley.
  • The only screening of the original complete director's cut was for a small group of reporters. One wrote a glowing review of it, using words like "wonderful" and "brilliant" to describe it, but lamented the fact that nobody else would ever see it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

#400: The Incredibles (2004)

Director: Brad Bird
Cast: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Spencer Fox, Sarah Vowell & Jason Lee

After a string of lawsuits against the superheroes of the world, they’ve been forced to remain in their secret identities. Among them, the former Mr. Incredible works in an insurance agency to support his wife (the former Elastigirl) and his three kids, two of which have already shown signs of superpowers while the third is still an infant. An unexpected message is found in his home offering him a job in which his powers are required. The chance to perform at his best once again is too tempting, but he soon discovers that he is in fact working for who used to be his biggest fan who is now bent on killing all superheroes, especially Mr. Incredible himself.

What makes The Incredibles especially stand out is beyond the exterior of a great action/comedy animation is its use of themes inspired directly from Ayn Rand. The moment this connection is made, the viewer will never quite see the movie the same way again. But first, let me give a brief summary of Ayn Rand.

Rand was a Russian-born American writer and the founder of objectivism. This philosophy puts emphasis on the individual, demanding that one strives to be the best, and talent should always be promoted. She also rejected altruism, believing that it supports those who have no reason to be supported. Spreading her philosophy through her two greatest novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, she became one of the most controversial characters in American literature.

The Incredibles takes all of the greatness from Atlas Shrugged and takes only the good stuff from objectivism. Throughout the film, various characters make the statement that if everyone is special, then nobody is. With superheroes representing talented people, we see that some people are special, and their work should be appreciated, not brought down to mediocrity. However, the film rejects Rand’s disdain for altruism and family ideals (of which there is no sign in the characters of Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead). Family is one of the most important themes in the film, and of course altruism is a must for any good guy in a superhero flick. Also, in true Randian flare, a great visual reference is made when Mr. Incredible is holding up a gigantic spherical robot on his shoulders, paying tribute to the classic image of Atlas holding the world on his shoulders, which was the cover of Atlas Shrugged.

But I simply can’t end with my praise for the Randian themes. The film has got both flesh and blood, so now let’s talk about what we see outwardly. The characters are each so colorful, and the voice acting is second to none. The action is thrilling; nobody will get through this movie without wanting to run as fast as Dash, who finds himself so fast that he can run across water. And the action is enhanced greatly by the jazzy score by Michael Giacchino, whose music references back to the classic James Bond scores. Other references to 60’s action films are made throughout, such as the googie architecture (see the trivia section below), and most especially the montage of interviews with some of the main heroes just before they were forced underground.

This is one of Pixar’s best thanks to its highly original animation style, its energetic soundtrack, and its – ahem – incredible story. The film is undoubtedly the most action-packed of all Pixar films, and it’s a great watch, no matter how many times you watch. I’m hoping this first step into the top 400 is a sign that the horrible choices Empire had made are coming to an end…!

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • Syndrome's zero-point energy beam is based on an actual physics concept, the zero-point field, demonstrated in 1948 via the Casimir Effect and essential to Stephen Hawking's theory that black holes eventually evaporate. Harnessing the zero-point field would be quite a feat, as it would yield a truly infinite source of energy.
  • The unusual architecture in the film was based on a distinctive style of 1950s space-age futurism known as Googie, most often seen in coffee shops and bowling alleys of the era. Tiki architecture, another 1950s pop style and often considered a form of Googie, is also exemplified in many of the island sets.
  • In the whole movie, you can see 35 explosions, 189 buttons being pressed, and approximately 640 gunshots.
  • Edna, the costume lady, is based on Edith Head, who worked as a studio costume designer on hundreds of movies over more than fifty years.
  • Samuel L. Jackson was cast as the voice of Frozone because Brad Bird wanted the character to have the coolest voice.
  • The name of the island that Mr. Incredible is summoned to, Nomanisan Island, is a reference to the well-known book title: "No Man is an Island", written by Thomas Merton, in turn a reference to John Donne's Meditation XVII, 'The Bell': "No man is an island, entire of itself..."