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Breaking Away (1979)
Getting it figured out is like a bicycle race
In a bicycle race, "breaking away" describes the often-desperate solo move a rider makes in a bid to win the race. Most riders are bunched together for shared protection against the wind, and to keep an eye on their rivals--a group is always more efficient than an individual. But in moments of confusion, a single rider might just get a jump on the group and, with superhuman effort, beat the odds against going it alone and emerge victorious.
In "Breaking Away" we follow the exploits of four misfits just out of high school who contentedly contemplate a future as dead-enders. They aren't particularly smart, athletic, or good-looking, and they lack any sense of direction in their lives. Moreover, as townies, or "cutters" in a college town, they wear a spell of invisibility in their dealings with the students--the differences are painfully obvious. When they hang out on campus or lamely try to chat up the co-eds, they might as well be ghosts haunting a town they used to inhabit. Something happened when they graduated from high school and didn't go on to college: they became cutters, no better than servants, in their own confused eyes.
When we meet Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher) we think, here's a guy who might be able to break out of his own rut. He seems to be a kid with a little more on the ball than the others. But then we see that he's also the most confused--by far. Dave is wrapped up in a fantasy world where he's an Italian bike racer, a champion of a sport virtually unknown in America at the time. That Dave's charming misfits of friends take him and his delusions in stride shows us the bond of their friendship and shared misery, and just how far off the map they've all slid.
After a chance encounter with a beautiful sorority girl (Robyn Douglass) Dave pretends to be an Italian exchange student in an effort to woo a girl he believes would otherwise be way out of his reach. He draws on his obsessive knowledge of Italian culture and his own quirky charm to fool the girl into seeing him as someone fresh and new, an outsider, but not a misfit. The romance seems to be going somewhere, and Dave feels he's finally breaking away.
While Dave is conducting his fraudulent personal life he also has an opportunity to race with the Italian bike racers he had worshiped from afar. It's his chance to get recognition from the masters of the sport. He may not have much going as a cutter, but he's certain the Italians will see his racing ability and welcome him as one of their own. But when he shows that he can keep up with them in the race, naively hoping for their approval, they throw him into a ditch. Dave's fantasy world comes crashing down.
When Dave realizes that the Italians will fight to protect their turf just as much as the Americans he resents, his first reaction is to give up--"everybody cheats" he says resignedly. And he rejects the friends who had looked to him for something more--his three chums and their own struggles, and the sorority girl, who had seen in him something special.
Only Dave can save Dave, but it is his father's hard words that prompt him into action. To Dave and his friends, a "cutter" is someone who doesn't measure up to the college kids who are going somewhere in their lives. They affect being misfits because a misfit is one rung on the ladder above how they see themselves, which is as losers. But Dave's father points out that "cutters" were the original stonecutters who built the grand buildings on the campus. They may not be college-educated, Dave's father says, but to them "cutter" is a badge of honor for the hard-working men who built something real out of the flat earth. Dave will never be a "cutter", he says, meaning a man of accomplishment, unless he finds something equally real to do with his own life.
The Indiana Little 500 is a bike race the university holds that is taken very seriously by the groups that participate. At the time, it was the largest race in America, and fraternities counted some of the best American bike racers on their squads. But to Dave and his friends who are invited to race, it is a chance to prove to the students (and themselves) that their lives so far weren't just wasted time.
Yes, Dave is a gifted bike racer, but we already knew that. But the Little 500 (and life) requires that one rely upon not just inner strength, but the creative use of the strengths of others. It is a team race. What Dave learns when testing himself against these college students that he never felt would give him the time of day, is that the biggest obstacle to his own success was himself.
"Breaking Away" is a rich visual tapestry of life lived outside the spotlight. The characters are not fancy or sophisticated, and their life goals are simple and well within reach. It is themselves they struggle with, and their perceptions of themselves. "Breaking Away" is the story of kids who had let their own self-image degrade to the point that a fantasy world, and a life of bitter resentment, seemed like their best option.
Liar Liar (1997)
Darning with faint praise
"Liar Liar" is an example of what happens when great comedy goes good--it gets ignored. Liar Liar is a good-hearted comedy that nobody seems to take too seriously. Sure, it's very funny, but if nobody's feelings get hurt (apart from trial lawyers) it can't be "great" comedy, can it? Did anyone mention that this is Jim Carrey's funniest performance on film? Okay--I will.
In Liar Liar Jim Carrey plays a lawyer who is a compulsive liar, which makes him an attorney with a bright future. When the lying spills into his personal life, his son Max makes a birthday wish that for just one day his father will be unable to speak a lie.
The wish comes true, and Jim Carrey delivers a career-topping performance as a scheming lawyer who craves the chance to lie but just can't get the words out of his mouth. Watching Carrey contort and fume in the angst of a jerk who would rather bash his own head in than tell the truth, you see an early Jerry Lewis, the deft interplay of soulfulness and belly laughs. Carrey's character is not a clown or buffoon, he's a real guy who's let his own ego run away with him. And his comeupance isn't a public pillorying, it's just an hilarious struggle between good and evil within the tortured soul of a trial lawyer. And since it's Jim Carrey, there's plenty of yuk-yuks.
Jim Carrey's choices of roles show that he desires to be taken seriously as an actor. Very well, but let's not forget to take him seriously as a comedian, the greatest of our time. Liar Liar shows Carrey's performing at his wackiest and most tenderly felt.
Gary Ross is the heir-apparent to Frank Capra
"Pleasantville" is a masterpiece of thematic cinema wrapped in Gary Ross's tenderly-handled powers of visual storytelling. It is a human story about human aspirations and human failings. In the end it is life-affirming, but nothing is white-washed along the way.
TOO MUCH TV
"Pleasantville" is the title of a fifties-style TV show whose reruns dominate the viewing habits of cynical siblings Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon. They scoff at the perfect world portrayed on the TV, but their own lives are on a cynical downward tilt. When their personal negativity reaches critical mass, they are sucked into the TV set and into the absurdly positive world of Pleasantville.
WHAT'S OUTSIDE OF PLEASANTVILLE?
But the human kids in the TV world soon discover that all is not as it seems in Pleasantville. The smiling people all around them are only black-and-white representations of human characters. They don't smile because they're happy, they smile because they're on TV. In fact there is no joy nor sorrow in Pleasantville, and nothing of human emotion is allowed to show--until Tobey Maguire goes to work.
YOU CAN'T STOP SOMETHING THAT'S INSIDE OF YOU!
Tobey plays the well-meaning snake in this monochromatic garden of eden. It is Tobey who prods the Pleasantville People into revealing their hidden colors, their humanity. But it is not just human beauty that is let loose, but human ugliness as well. Ross is determined to show us that a chaotic, real world where truth and beauty vie against our darker impulses is the only world where humanity stands a chance of not just persevering, but prevailing. Otherwise, we will simply fade to black-and-white.
"Pleasantville", released in 1998, was the first feature to be processed digitally in its entirety (and NOT Star Wars Episode One). Although this is not an "effects" movie, techniques developed for Pleasantville are just now being adopted on a similar scale by effects movies. Gary Ross was ahead of his time both thematically and visually.
Ritchey's masterpiece of brawling and banter
Come on, guys, if a film offers bare-knuckle boxing, high-scale larceny and low-brow laughs (plus a pivotal scene in a topless bar), what's not to like? "Snatch" is classic Ritchie, from the scheming gangsters who are too smart for their own good, to the hapless low-lifes who clearly AREN'T too smart for their own good. Did somebody say "derivative?" Have some more popcorn, chief, we're trying to watch a movie here!
"Snatch" is the story of two amiable London low-lifes (Stratham and Graham) trying to make an honest living promoting illegal boxing. When they go to buy a new office trailer from a band of gypsies (led by Brad Pitt), they find themselves drawn into a violent and sardonically humorous turf war revolving around a stolen diamond that keeps getting stolen. Stratham and Graham are perfect as two smart guys who can't manage to do a single smart thing, and Brad Pitt is masterly as an inscrutable (and unintelligible) British Gypsie. Suffice it to say that fists and firearms are central to the conduct of the movie, and Ritchie leaves no blood unspilled.
Ritchie populates his movie with a gaggle of very original secondary characters chasing the stolen diamond. They've all let their greed get the better of themselves--and they realize it. The result is a lively running banter of insults interspersed with trademark Ritchie sight gags. Just as in "Lock Stock..." you can expect a multi-threaded plot-line--Ritchie seems honor-bound to make his viewers run to keep up. No matter, in the end everyone is given at least one chance to shoot, stab or steal from everyone else in the movie, so if you've lost track of who's doing what to whom. ..they all are!
Yes, many aspects of "Snatch" will be familiar to viewers of "Lock Stock..." Somehow this is construed as a negative by people who maybe ought to lighten up a little. For the rest of us who enjoyed "Lock Stock...", "Snatch" is Ritchey at the height of his powers, giving everyone and everything a swat with a bloody whoopie cushion.
Independent Hollywood's Most-Envied Movie
Memento wins the award among independent- and aspiring directors as the film "pitch" they most wished they'd come up with. Memento is a little film that breaks a great deal of ground in the narrative art, and there is not a director around who doesn't envy the simplicity of the concept and the lean facility of its execution. Okay, there are plenty of directors who will dispute this, but aren't they just envious?
Watching Memnto is also one of the most gut-wrenching experiences a viewer can undertake. Imagine you're wearing virtual-reality goggles that only allow you to see a very narrow slice of the world. Like looking through a three-foot-long tube, you can see what's right in front of you but nothing else. Is there anyone else out there? Friend, enemy? The director decides exactly what you're allowed to see in a world that begins with a violent shooting. As a viewer, you will spend the entire experience flinching like you were about to get cold-cocked, because you're not allowed to look over the shoulder of the protaganist. You see only what he sees, and he suffers from short-term memory loss. So you grapple along with him to get control of a violent situation.
As a work of art, the film stands alone. It is not just a great narrative, it is a twisting, looping theme-park thrill ride, the mega-coaster, where most people rave about the experience and a few puke their guts out. This is not a date-flick, unless you're the Marquis de Sade. It is a timeless achievement in the visual art of storytelling, and I don't care what those other guys say, they all wish they'd directed it.
The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
Let's not pick on multi-millionaires
**SPOILER ALERT**SPOILER ALERT**SPOILER ALERT**
Since The Matrix Revolutions is the finale to the Matrix series, I want to talk about the finale of the movie, so, WATCH OUT I'M GOING TO TALK ABOUT THE END OF THE MOVIE.
First a brief synopsis of the backstory: Matrix--loved it, watch it once a week. Matrix Reloaded--don't know, I fell asleep halfway through. Matrix Revolutions--close to the first Matrix, but there's only one Matrix, so why are we trying to compare apples and metaphysicists?
I want to start by saying "hats off" to the Wachowski brothers, creators, writers and directors of the Matrix, but in the spirit of full disclosure, I hardly ever wear a hat anyway. Today, however, I'm wearing two hats--that of a fan and that of a critic. I think it's testimony to the power of the Matrix concept and execution that those of us who love it most still feel a vital need to pick at it. Sorry guys, they treated Shakespeare the same way.
As I understand it, the Brothers W had conceptualized and storyboarded the complete trilogy long before they made their first pitch. They had acquired their artistic vision via lives spent poring over comics, particularly the large-panelled action genre, whose highly-foreshortened visual framing shows in the directors' apt use of eccentric, heroic camera angles. And when they had finished shooting and editing the last scene of the last movie, the entire trilogy is said to be almost exactly true to their original storyboards. These guys knew what they wanted to say, and persevered in their vision through the excrutiating task of wrapping three action/FX features in the space of four years.
Therefore I think it's interesting what they seem to be saying in the last movie. Originally, we're led to believe that the Matrix is a microcosm, a virtual world that most of us who lie huddled dreaming in our network-enabled pods believe is the real and only world. We're just here to supply electricity. But when Morpheus hacks into the Matrix and flushes Neo out of his pod, he welcomes him into the real world, a gritty, post-apocalyptic place where people are wiser but not happier. Life may not be easy here, but at least it's real life and people are in control of their own destinies, as meager as they are. And they're fighting to regain their former world.
But Morpheus is a chump--he's being used by the Oracle. In the Matrix Revolutions we see that what humans want for themselves is of no account, that the battle for Zion is an illusion, a vanity, and that Neo and the warriors of Zion are in fact pawns in a political macro-contest of will between rival factions of renegade software. We were better off hooked up to the electrical grid, when our highest thoughts and aspirations were at least good for a few kilowatts, and nobody starved to death.
I thought it was interesting that at the end the Oracle was addressed as "Oracle" that just before death Neo and Trinity glimpse the "Sun", and that Agent Smith, the dominant, evil software entity, replicates himself until he's ninety-percent of the software available.(Mr. Bill?) Surrealists see a world where we are nothing more than puppets dangling on strings; the Wachowskis see a world where we are nothing more than fuelcells that have the power to stand on two legs and be deceived, in this case by the all-powerful Software Creator, who manages our destinies as disinterestedly as we manage our own pet's destinies.
But come on, Senors Wachowski, if the Matrix and the little lives of the people within it is a meaningless illusion created by self-serving renegade software, then what are you trying to say about yourselves, the all-powerful creators of the Matrix movies, a world of rich experince certain to excite and entrap us humans, but ultimately just an attractive illusion. Are you playing God here, guys, a brutal and disinterested Oracle? Or more ominously, are you trying to become God's boss, Mr. Bill?