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Star Wars (1977)
The Duel of the Fates Has Just Begun....
I would hope that people who truly love and respect the STAR WARS story as much as I do will put behind any unrest they have for the 1st episode. It was spectacular and it is JUST the first in a line of three films we have to travel back to that galaxy far, far, away. If you hated the first episode, you have forgotten what it was like to experience that place from the very start.
No doubt, the 1st of George Lucas' saga is the best (with EMPIRE coming a close second), but the excitement is there, the galaxy has expanded, we see a younger version of Sir Alec Guiness played well by Ewan McGregor, and Lucas is behind it all more than ever. Watch Episode IV - A New Hope and remember what we will be arriving at. For God's sake, use your imagination. Any naysayers are forgetting what you were witnessing the first time around.
STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE - ****
Annie Hall (1977)
Woody's 1st Serious Artistic Achievement Mainly Because of Diane Keaton.
Until 1977, Woody Allen films were mostly screwball comedies. Pictures like BANANAS and EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX... were episodic comedies, films that seemed more like short television sitcoms along the Monty Python vein. He finally reached his full potential with what seems to be everyone's favorite Woody picture, ANNIE HALL. It is without a doubt one of his better films and foresaw a lot of the narrative techniques and content you can see in his great films of the past decade. This is Woody playing himself, more or less, for the first time, but it is Diane Keaton as the title character who steals the show in a heartwarming performance that won her an Academy Award.
Woody plays comedian "Alvy Singer", a comedian who hates anything that is not New York and who cannot seem to function outside of it. He is constantly bickering to best friend Tony Roberts about New York being considered a target for anti-semitism. He is, for the first time in his long filmography, playing himself, a self-hating Jew who has broken relationships with women. He even talks directly to the camera describing his paranoid self in the movie's first shot. After some brief intercutting of failed marriage footage, "Alvy" meets the peculiar, but sensual "Annie Hall" from Wisconsin.
At this point in ANNIE HALL, the film goes back and forth in time revealing the peaks and valleys of this sweet romance. "Annie" is a lonely girl, plain-looking, but with a quality Woody and the audience can't quite put a finger on. She grows more and more lovable as the story of these complete opposites evolves. It is still hard to figure out what makes Annie so delightful to the eyes and the mind. She is simple and endearing, which makes her more attractive to you as you watch. It is great acting by Keaton, who is so original in her choice of wardrobe and mannerisms (especially her need to relieve tension a certain way).
The film contains Woody standards like his fear of driving, his fear of bugs, or things that move in the dark ("you have a bug the size of a Buick in there"), and his mockery of Los Angeles. The scenes in L.A. are some of the funniest I've seen in all of Allen's films especially the physical condition that besets him as soon as he gets off the plane. "Alvy", like Woody, is always writing something too.
ANNIE HALL is not my favorite Allen film. That honor goes hands down to MANHATTAN, made just 2 years later. Keaton has a major role in that flick, as an intellectual "Annie" you could say. His great films of the 90's MIGHTY APHRODITE and DECONSTRUCTING HARRY are direct descendants of ANNIE HALL because of the overlapping narrative, Woody's talking to the audience or to imaginary people, and adorable love interests.
The one thing true of this film is that it is his warmest in regard to New York relationships and that is made completely possible because of Diane Keaton. "La-di-da, La-di-da," became as familiar to the American vernacular as "Yada-Yada" has in recent years to Seinfeld fanatics. ANNIE HALL is complex in structure, yet deceptively simple and entered Woody into the big leagues of artistic filmmaking.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Painful Opening of the Cinematic Curtains.
I first saw BIRTH OF A NATION in a film class and I found it very hard to stay awake. That was 8 years ago. My eyes stayed open this time to witness a film of monstrous racism and an epic feeling of sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, I know all of the significance and importance of the movie and how director D.W. Griffith invented the language of modern cinema, at least as far as the silents go. I must say that the influence, techniques, and legendary status of the picture goes out the window because of some idiotic ideas and horribly racist scenes that made my stomach churn.
Its a shame the first ever feature length film has few moments that can only be appreciated unless you consider them within the context of time. Filmed in 1914, there are massive crowd scenes, re-enactments of critical moments during the civil war, and even the first known depiction of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (done quite well by the way). Griffith's huge mistake was to show the KKK as heroes and to sympathize with the Confederacy ideals of a Southern republic.
Word has it that Griffith was raised by African-Americans and even loved them. He pays them no respect or even any credit for anything in this miserable play on race. That's really the problem. Innovative techniques aside, Griffith must have never realized the pain that is surely felt by African-Americans today who must study this film or even see it for its renowned "importance". BIRTH OF A NATION is for buffs only and believe me when I tell you this. I could not look past the white actors playing blacks as drinking, jumping, would-be rapists in dark-face.
And what is with the "mulatto" who tries to create a black empire only to be foiled by the "glorious" clan members ? Griffith shows great empathy for the clansmen who look a lot more ridiculous in their clown outfits than the actors in black-face. I don't mean to sound like a civil rights activist (I am a white guy from the suburbs), but BIRTH OF A NATION is a document not only of the racism that existed in the 1800's, but also of the early 1900's. The first ever film to tell a cohesive story, feature-length style, should be forgotten. Luckily, Griffith was able to redeem his social image as far as history has written it with some more imaginative films.
The Sting (1973)
A Lightweight, Clever Throwback to the Big Cons of the 1930's.
At first sight, THE STING appears to be nothing more than a television movie. It is entirely plot-driven with no real stand out characters or personalities. What makes the film work is excellent production design and a delightfully clever plot filled with many surprises. The movie is feather-weight emotionally, but the depth of the "con" and the way it is fashioned by screenwriter David Ward leaves you with a pleasant experience.
This is more Redford's film than Newman's, who reunite with George Roy Hill, director of BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. The legendary actors were more flesh and blood in that film, but here, they are merely players who carry the story along. With lesser actors, THE STING may have been a forgettable piece of work. Redford does all of the dirty work after Newman's initial "hook", but the omniscient presence of Newman, as big-time grifter "Henry Gondorff" exists throughout. A mysterious gloved character, a crooked cop, the FBI, and a seemingly bigger con-man "Doyle Lonnegan" (played by the late, great Robert Shaw) are some of the players who are involved in some events that seem to be manipulated by an unseen force. Is Newman as good as he claims in trying to clean out Shaw? We'll see.
The film is shot simply by Hill. No tricky angles or contrived camera movements are used. The action takes place simply in front of us. The production design by Henry Bumstead and James Payne recreates old-time Chicago through the use of built sets, matte paintings of a smaller sky-line, and some location shots. It gives the film an almost artificial look which is fitting considering it is a direct homage to the 1930's and the gangster pictures that so dominated that decade. The story is even furthered by title pages describing "the set-up, the hook, and the sting". They are turned like pages in a book, adding a drop of elegance to a crooked world. An iris is even employed in some scenes.
THE STING is definitely lightweight entertainment. It does not provoke much thought or insight into what is happening on screen. Fun is the word for this amusing little film that depicts a masterful plan for a big steal which would be impossible to pull off today. Look out for Ray Walston in a hilarious role announcing horse races and their results as they are "happening" just after receiving word of the "real" race results from a back room in the betting house. These are good con-men.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
The Talented Mr. Damon is Great in this Tense Psychological Thriller.
There are a lot of reasons to see THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. It is not your typical, run of the mill Hollywood thriller. In fact, it is refreshingly chilling and Matt Damon turns in what is by far his best acting job to date. He is able to shed the "Will Hunting" image here with a juicy role. It is a personality twisting story unlike, say, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, which was highly conventional and more of a slasher picture. I would equate it more with Ingmar Bergman's PERSONA. The audience is never totally clear as to why "Tom Ripley" wants to consume another personality which is all the more mysterious.
Anthony Minghella, director of ENGLISH PATIENT, sets the stage in late 1950's Italy, an exotic locale which adds to the suspense. As the film progresses and it becomes more apparent there is something deeply wrong with Damon, you almost begin to root for him to get away with his malicious acts. He is so effective as the quietly psychotic Ripley because his actions do not seem planned. He just kind of takes what is not his without reason.
The beauty of Rome, Venice, and Gwyneth Paltrow tends to hide the inner turmoil going on with Damon's character and Jude Law is oblivious to it most of the time. The madness builds slowly and Law, as the target of Damon's consuming desire, realizes it too late. Law has the looks and mannerisms of a 50's matinee idol which fits perfectly within the context of the film.
Some people have said THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY is like a Hitchcock film for the 90's. I would have to agree. Damon's ability to portray a fully realized, human leach is amazing at times and the fact that I actually had some sympathy for him proves it. There are scenes of utter shock and dismay, but it is the drowning build to the inevitable murder and mayhem that grabs you.
Poetic - Powerful - Simple: The Greatness of Cuckoo's Nest.
The opening shot of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST is a bleak glance at an Oregon morning. Stirring, haunting music plays gracefully on the soundtrack and a car approaches. Inside the car is one of film history's most remarkable characters. "Randle McMurphy" is about to bring hope, humor, and a glimmer of reality to some disturbed people in a mental hospital. Jack Nicholson as "McMurphy", is something of a paradox. Is this guy crazy or is he really the lazy, conniving criminal most believe him to be? That is the magical mystery and start to a journey into mental illness and the effect this man will have on some truly messed up men.
Milos Forman directs this all-time classic, which swept the Oscars deservedly, and holds up so well 25 years later. It is a simplistic film about small people living in their own small worlds. Manic moments are mixed with poignant acting all leading to an astounding climax. Not before or since CUCKOO'S NEST has a collection of different characters had such an impact on me. You could write a book report about each of the patients in the ward. The two most important people here are, of course, Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher.
Nicholson has his greatest moments in this picture. One brilliant scene has him doing an imaginary play-by-play commentary of the 1963 World Series to the group, who are not allowed to watch the game on TV. It is a poetic sequence and Nicholson goes crazy with his delivery, describing baseball with colorful anecdotes and profanity. "McMurphy" immediately makes an impression on the crazies and shows them how they don't have to stick to the "normal routine". He knows their names right away, he sprays them with water, he makes impossible bets with them, he introduces them to fishing, and he even gets a suffering young kid (played well by Brad Dourif) a "date".
Louise Fletcher plays one of the more reprehensible human beings in film as "Nurse Mildred Ratched". She is a hardened woman, one who makes the daily meetings with the group a contest to see who will win. Her stubbornness and lack of compassion for the poor guys is rather one dimensional. That's perfect because that is exactly who she is. Her strong will to keep things monotonous leads to a final showdown with the free spirited "McMurphy" in what is easily one of the most shocking and disturbing climaxes in recent memory.
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST does not try to make a statement about mental illness or how the unstable should be treated. Rather, it is a very simple portrait of the long days and hilarious scenarios that can come about when a mixed bag of suffering people are thrown together. Mental illness is nothing to laugh about, but the fact that Nicholson is not really crazy (at least in my opinion) allows us to be amused. He seems to love his compadres in the hospital. He is mislead, however, into thinking he can do as he pleases.
There is no denying the power of CUCKOO'S NEST. The two main powerhouse performances are golden, the cinematography is morbid and gritty like it should be, the "Chief" is great as Nicholson's right hand, ah, protagonist, and you care a lot about what will happen as the film moves on. The famous, final shot ironically happens to be an exit of a major character into that bleak, Oregon morning.
NOTE: I have never read the book and I find it hard to believe author Ken Kesey has never watched the filmed version. Comparing a book to a movie is impossible. They are 2 distinctly different artistic methods of story-telling.
The Iron Giant (1999)
An Absolute Wonder Which Cherishes Its Influences - The Best Animated Feature Ever !
Animated movies have long been considered strictly for children. The old Disney classics that started it all are indeed aimed at kids, but are still very watchable, even for adults. With the advent of TOY STORY and its countless mimics, animated feature films have taken long strides to be considered worthy of serious attention. THE IRON GIANT is just such an animated piece. The 87 minute wonder is, to put it mildly, incredible. Everything about it is good. I've also never seen so many influences and references in an animated film before.
This is a movie with a heart the size of the title character. A gentle, gigantic robot is rocketed to earth and befriends a 10 year old boy. The kid has a single mother (voiced nicely by Jennifer Aniston) and he is just looking for a friend, whether it be a squirrel, or even a 50 foot tall machine. The familiar premise is obviously out of Spielberg's E.T. One scene even has the giant reaching out his finger to the boy in much the same way ET did to 10 year old Elliott when he departed this earth. E.T. was an out of this world fantasy that took place on this earth. Here, it is animated and almost just as effective.
IRON GIANT takes place during 1957 in a small town in Maine. The 1950's was a time when the American public was fearful of atomic bombs and the possibility of alien life off the earth. Live-action sci-fi films of the 1950's always depicted the arrival of "dangerous" alien life and our efforts to destroy it. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is an influence on this film for evident reasons. Ultimately, the characters in that classic learn from the extra-terrestrial being and realize the dangers of the A-Bomb. It is amazing to see an animated feature which can relay this same type of message some 50 years later.
A beautiful and touching ode to BAMBI is witnessed about halfway through. It also brings back some tearful moments from the key scene in that great, hand-drawn film. Here, we see both hand-drawn imagery coupled with a computer-generated "iron giant". The title character is actually a 3D composition done digitally, mixed with the 2D action surrounding him. There are some highly imaginative shots of the robot mixing in with the film's environment. At one point, he appears to be a lighthouse until the lights begin to blink. I guess robots must blink too.
Enough analysis. I loved this movie. It is ranked #81 on the top list by other user authors for a reason. Not only is it escapist, fantastic entertainment for kids, adults, and seniors alike, it is an animated picture like no other. It combines the joy of SNOW WHITE and PINOCCHIO, the commentary of 1950's science fiction, and the wizardry and laughter of TOY STORY and its sequel. Do not miss this enchanting flick.
Easy Rider (1969)
A Far Out Document of the late 60's Encapsulates Counter-Culture America.
Not many films have documented an era of American culture the way it must have really been. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES captured the reality of the post-war 1940's. TAXI DRIVER is a masterpiece of social distortion and paranoia exemplary of the 1970's. No film other than EASY RIDER captures the late 1960's as seen by the American counter-culture. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper's story of two men who go in search of America and 'freedom' is a bona fide sign of the times. I may not have been around at the time, but it is great to see a film portraying the long-haired, hippie attitude towards an America in turmoil in the form of a biker flick, circa 1969.
EASY RIDER is an exploration of vast and desolate parts of the country. Of course, the stop at Mardi Gras is a necessity, but what Fonda and director Hopper are trying to tell us is that there was no 'freedom' as they saw it. The sprawling journey shows filmgoers the multiple frictions and shattered idealism of a generation in the midst of cultural change. Sex, drugs, and music were exploding socially and 1960's ideology may have come to an end in 1969, literally and figuratively speaking - much like it shockingly does in this film.
Peter Fonda plays cool "Captain America", otherwise known as Wyatt, while Hopper is a paranoid prophet of the hippies as "Billy the Kid". The stunning DVD version of the film notes the importance of Laszlo Kovacs, the director of photography. Much of the film consists of Kovacs' simple shooting of the riders as they travel spiraling highways and bigoted backroads. It is some beautiful footage and essential to the trip. A major deal is made, much grass is smoked, and the film takes off from there. Their ultimate goal is never clearly defined, but Fonda's final comment to Hopper may sum it up for viewers. Did they find what America was supposed to be about? I guess not according to Fonda.
There is a surreal experience at a commune the Kid and Wyatt stop at. These scenes are out of a Fellini film. One significant shot paints the commune with a 360 degree pan across the faces of the live-in hippies. The expressions on the faces all seem different, some grinning, others just zoned out. Kovac's amazing camera work (especially on the road with the bikes) along with a virtual who's who in rock music of the late 60's makes for a sometimes visceral filmgoing experience. The immortal 'Born to be Wild' blares over the opening title sequence and everyone from Hendrix to The Byrds are heard throughout.
EASY RIDER also contains one of Jack Nicholson's 2 or 3 most memorable performances, even to this day. As drunken lawyer "George Hanson", he creates an amazingly funny and perfect counterpoint to Hopper and Fonda. He realizes what the general public can think of the "long-hairs" and puts himself in danger just by traveling with them. A bizarre notion of alien presence in the U.S. government is part of a hilarious conversation Nicholson and Hopper have over Whiskey and smoke. His scenes on Fonda's chopper with the golden football helmet are absolute, cinematic classics.
Credit must be given to Fonda, Hopper, Nicholson, Kovacs, and Terry Southern for giving a new face to movie-making. They captured the era in a raw, jump cutting fashion. Maybe the hippies were not entirely right by trying to live off the land, or smoking dope all the time, but they may have been onto something.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
A Dizzying, Entertaining Peek Into Pro Football...Stone Style
Sports movies are tough to make. Creating the essence of the actual event is the toughest. Most films fall short in the editing process of the event or through sheer carelessness and lack of knowledge. ANY GIVEN SUNDAY is somewhat of an exception. It is hard-hitting and bloody like NORTH DALLAS FORTY. It is actually conventional when you think about it, like a warped RUDY. It is a hell of a lot more realistic than say, NECESSARY ROUGHNESS. These are all football films with varying degrees of success (except ROUGHNESS), but Oliver Stone, in his usual over the top way, throws a dizzying, mind-splitting film at us, much like the sport itself. This is why I liked it.
Oliver Stone began a wicked spell of filmmaking with JFK, evident in its editing style. Fast-paced, black and white mixed with color, documentary-like methods ensued in NATURAL BORN KILLERS, NIXON, and the ghastly U-TURN. Nothing is new here with ANY GIVEN SUNDAY. Football is a battlefield Stone chooses to depict and depict it he does. Even the most ardent fans of the sport do not really know what it is like for a quarterback to drop back and get rid of a piece of pigskin before 11 players maul him. You certainly get the idea watching this.
Al Pacino is the dried up head coach of the fictional Miami Sharks and he barks out the usual coaching cliches you hear in press conferences after real games. Pacino also seems to be sleep-walking through the picture. At times, he appears drunk even when he is not supposed to be. Cameron Diaz's character, a young chick owner, (yeah right) destroys any credibility the film may have had going in (Even the NFL would have nothing to do with this movie). Her constant bickering is so over-done, you almost feel like hurling much the way Jamie Foxx does every time he enters a game as the team's 3rd string quarterback. Realisticly speaking, this is not a very sane film about football. It is a maniacal celebration of the game. The scenes on the field are the ones I cherished. Beware of the locker room or domestic sequences.
No one has ever put such energy into football scenes in a film before. He definitely had some good consultants. There are some comical cameos - Johnny Unitas and Dick Butkus play opposing coaches. Lawrence Taylor can actually act a teeny bit and Jim Brown shares the film's best off the field scene with Pacino in a bar. Stone tries to show us how the game has changed. He resonates past glory with quotes from Lombardi, dissolves showing Red "the Galloping Ghost" Grange, and even Unitas handing off to Ameche. TV has changed everything, says the coach, and he is right. It seems to be all about the money nowadays.
That is the message, but you'll find yourself losing that idea in the lunacy of ANY GIVEN SUNDAY and the bone-crushing, ear-damaging football scenes. They are filmed and cut with such raw intensity, you feel like playing afterwards. This is definitely a film for football fans only unless you like big, sweaty men. Is there a big game at the end that needs to be won? Yes, and this surprised me considering how unconventional Stone usually is. Basically, surrender your senses and thought process to Stone's most entertaining film in quite some time.
mag*no*li*a - a tree with large, fragrant flowers of white, pink, or purple
A serious wake up call to the land of cinema has arrived with the incredible film MAGNOLIA. Human pain and suffering, as well as the ability to avoid making familiar mistakes, are hypnotically explored in P.T. Anderson's intricate motion picture. This is the best movie I've seen in over a year and hopefully will set a new example of realistic cinema depicting real human loss and tragedy. You grow and suffer with each and every character in this huge ensemble movie.
MAGNOLIA is indeed a sort of tree with varying branches of people, situations, and irony. To get into any plot aspects would be absurd. This is a 3 hour film that flies by so fast, you want more. You won't like every character, but you will find every character extremely interesting. I've rarely ever seen such deep character portraits in a major motion picture. The title makes much sense after witnessing such vibrant, different colors of the human spirit.
P.T. Anderson has arrived, especially after BOOGIE NIGHTS, which he parallels with this effort. His prior film had many of the same human aspects of right and wrong, life and death, but were guised by the porn industry. This guy just explodes with presence and energy, swallowing us with the events on screen. His camera roves everywhere and does not miss a beat. It takes place over a 24 hour period with roughly 12 major players whose lives interlock in multiple degrees of seriousness and sadness. Some begin sad and end hopeful, but these are the few and the lucky ones in this picture.
The standouts of the huge cast in particular were Julianne Moore as the shattered wife of TV mogul "Earl Partridge" (Jason Robards), existing now only to watch him die before her eyes of cancer. She is one of the unlucky ones, a character who made so many mistakes that she cannot do over. Philip Baker Hall is great as the host of "What Do Kids Know?" a game show with a truly engrossing side-plot. Hall is also dying and may have done irreparable damage to all around him.
John C. Reilly is the centerpiece of this extraordinary film. His cop character is the moral middle at the center of some nasty events. He is also the most likable character because he knows how to treat people, unlike most of the others. He sees how mistakes can't always be made up for. I must also mention Tom Cruise in a career altering performance that took some courage to do. He is completely original, yet not the end all and be all of a film for once.
This particular day, as captured and presented by writer-director Anderson, has had a profound effect on me. If you see it, you may know what I mean. Some scars last forever in this life and we all suffer and feel pain equally. MAGNOLIA is like FIVE EASY PIECES on speed. We see numerous people just trying to get along under some extreme circumstances in a labyrinth method, much like the structure of the film's title.