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I hate, hate, hate people who look at movies–especially older movies–as just a step in the line to the movies we have today.  It’s a slap in the face to life, by extension, and I will explain why. (Foswi, this is primarily for you.)

I am a staunch historian, and I thoroughly believe in the value of studying history.  If you do not, you might as well stop reading this blog.  We’ll just never get along.  To that extent, is it useless to study ancient warfare in a modern context?  Are there no pracitical applicable lessons to be learned from tactics that defy era, technology, or weaponry?  I think you out there in someplacewhereyou’restaringatacomputerscreen should be thinking to yourself, “No, there is value in knowing that stuff…”  Because  you’re right.

Or, let’s think of this in terms of books.  Does it make sense to stop reading  Hamlet, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, The Lord of the Rings, Black Boy, Brave New World, Romeo and Juliet, The Giver, etc. just because there are the Harry Potter series, the Twilight books, the Time Traveler’s Wife, and various James Patterson and Stephen King books topping the New York Times Bestseller list?  Should we leave the past behind and only allow only what is new and pretty and shiny to be let in?

I think not.

The problem is the genre of film allows this to easily happen.  And many people who watch movies (or passively read about movies) tend to think only the little that is said without thorough investigation into the actuality of history.

Point 1: Michael Bay is awesome…but not really.

The Island

Michael Bay, as many know, is the champion of all things pretty, and mind-numbingly explosive.  After all, you don’t make a name for yourself with blockbusters like Bad Boys, Bad Boys II, The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, The Island, Transformers, and Transformers II (directed all by Bay) without some level of skill.  I mean, seriously.  That’s an impressive list of movies, with impressive DVD sales, and everything.

But let us be honest.  The movies star nice looking people, blow a lot of things up, include heart-racing, adrenaline pumping, action and car chases (or meteorite destroying drill malfunctions, what have you), and fun technological advances.  They’re like James Bond films…just without James Bond.

These movies have made millions.  They have loyal fans of adults, teenagers, and children alike.  They’re fun to watch, made millions in the movie theaters.  But they suck.  They have no deeper meaning, make me thoughtful in no way, and generally make me dumber, because I actually could have been learning something while I was wasting time watching pretty people run around.

Point 2: There is more to history than just history.

Citizen Kane

A friend of mine (after reading a former post of mine) responded thusly:

I’ll disregard the opinion of anyone who thinks Citizen Kane is great for anything more than its innovative transitions and camera angles.

While said tongue-in-cheek, there is, I know, a part of him that believes this to be true.  And this is why I am angry.  I love Citizen Kane, in the same way I love Schindler’s List.  Sure it’s a little on the long side, but the story is great, the acting is believable, the direction is flawless, and the overall impact: unforgettable.

The ease with which Americans, modern people, I’m not sure who this list should (or actually does) include, forget the past when it comes to movies is disturbing.  Yes, movies are more entertaining today.  Movie from yore are a little boring.

Except that’s not true.  I defy anyone to watch The Apartment and not be complete enraptured.  Peeping Tom is one of the creepiest movies I’ve ever seen.  (If you have a Netflix account, I believe it is streaming live.   You should go watch it now.  Better than Drag Me To Hell.  Creepier.  Stranger.  More interesting.)  And you know what, It Happened One Night is the quintessential romance that cannot be improved upon in a modern way.  There are just old movies that age well, and have stayed good for a reason.  Citizen Kane is one of them.  Beyond the transitions and camera angles. (We’ve all heard the “Oh my gosh, there’s a ceiling” reaction.)  But let’s talk about the role the dining room table plays in the movie.  Did you ever think about that? Or how about the scene where Welles types out the rest of a horrible review of his wife’s disastrous operatic debut?  The acting is top notch, better than Sean Penn in Milk.

I am struck by many things.  Here’s a short list:

  • People today seem so averse to watching older, or just pain old, films.
  • People tend to devalue the impact of older movies because modern counterparts tends to be more engaging, which they equate with “better.”
  • People tend to devalue the fact that most older movies have a deeper theme than most modern movies, even modern movies based in classic stories.

This is why the market for older movies should be booming, not dying away.  This is why people should actually sit down and become their own movie reviewer.  If you take the time to watching a movie a week, you’ll watch AFI’s Top 100 movie list in less than two year.  Probably less than a year, considering you’ve seen a lot of them.

Why is it people are so ready to agree, or disagree with the statements of critics and film historians, but are so rarely willing to make their own original statements about the movies themselves.  People, you, staring at your own screen.  Say what’s on your mind.  Be willing to say Citizen Kane sucked, but don’t you dare say it’s boring without backing it up.  I’m not about opinion’s with no evidence.

Just have an opinion, and make it your own.

A lot of people consider The Usual Suspects to be a great movie.  I don’t even consider it good.  Here’s why:

Imagine you were watching a movie (not hard to imagine), and in the vein of Citizen Kane, there is a question that keeps getting asked over and over and over again (E.g. What is rosebud?  Why Rosebud?).  That one’s a little more difficult.  Better yet, think about it in terms of a mystery–Who is the serial stalker?–and people keep asking “Who did it?” over and over and over again.  You expect that from some movies.  In the case of mystery movies, it really drives the plot, it’s the essential question that motivates why the story movies along and what goal the investigator has.

In a more complicated (not that most mystery movies aren’t complicated), movie like Citizen Kane where you have a guy at the beginning of the movie calling out “Rosebud!  Rosebud!” and people wonder what it is, the essential question works  a little differently.  In Citizen Kane, it was a starter to the almost epic biography of a man, his life, and what he most valued, which it turns out is Rosebud–this isn’t answered until the end of the movie, as a big reveal to explain what he really valued in life even though he couldn’t have it.

The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects

Then there’s The Usual Suspects, which operates like a high class caper film.  It’s like a mystery, a mystery with the driving question: “Who is Kaiser Soze?”  (And, if you’re familiar with the restaurant Moe’s, which I love, then you’ll know the movie was popular enough for them to make a ‘Who is Kaiser Salsa’ salsa flavor after the movie.  That’s some pretty big stuff.  You know a movie has real popular weight when it’s satirized in restaurant food names.)  And, if you know the tricks of mystery capers, the solution will be one of three.

  1. Kaiser Soze will be a character we know, possibly the character we know the best in the film. (E.g. Fight Club)
  2. Kaizer Soze will be a minor character introduced at the beginning of the film with a small motive that is referenced at the end of the film with a big reveal.
  3. Kaiser Soze will be a character we don’t see until the last scene of the movie, a reveal that gives satisfaction to a something like a real life chase. (E.g. Zodiac)

But we know the answer before we start the film because the film was directed by Bryan Singer.  And Bryan Singer is a film nerd.  He’s actually a nerd in many senses (e.g. comic book) but he’s a film nerd.  He probably knows movie history in and out, has seen all the film noirs like Laura, The Big Sleep, and The Maltese Falcon that defined The Usual Suspects.  So he knows which way the pendulum must fall.  The greatest, and most personally pleasing solution for directors like Bryan Singer (please note any movie by M. Night Shayamalan).  The most pleasing solution is to have the answer in front of you the entire time.  He will always choose option one.  No questions asked.

This makes the movie, plotwise, almost boring to watch because we’re only introduced to one main character that plays through the entire movie–Verbal.  So the answer is staring (literally, staring) at us right from the beginning. Also, the plot doesn’t make much sense.  We are told a story from the beginning through Verbal, but I couldn’t not really keep track of the story.  At once we were in California, then New York, and characters saying things that should mean something but meant nothing.  They decided to kill someone.  I knew not who the person was or what their importance was.  I was bored.

Thank goodness Singer is an excellent filmmaker.  Because technically, the movie is quite creative and interesting to watch.  He sets his film shots up very well, does a lot with color, tone, and mood in his scenes, and though unevenly edited, has a good overall flow to his film.  He made a great film noir, in the tradition of The Big Sleep, and for that I can fault him nothing.  The Big Sleep is so twisted with its own plot complications that the movie itself doesn’t actually make sense–this is a pretty well known fact in the film community.

But, let me say this.  I think the movie is pretty good–if only for the knowledge that it does well what a filmi noir is supposed to do.  That being, confuse, confound, confirm the dearth of life, and potentially have an interesting reveal at the end.  But the plot isn’t there, and it should be there.  A movie is in essence a story in pictures first.  And if I like the pictures, but don’t really get the story, why should I care?

At least The Big Sleep flowed.  A movie I consider to be only a step below The Usual Suspects is The Black Dahlia, which is a pretty awful movie in its own right–a film noir like The Usual Suspects, with too much plot for an audience to care.  Usual Suspects is a far cry from the much more carefully laid out, and classier film noir, LA Confidential.   It does not, cannot compete.  So, while The Usual Suspects may have its thousands of die-hard fans, this guy here isn’t, and there’s a reason why: it’s just not interesting enough to be good, let alone great.

You judge for yourself.  6/10.

Precious Movie Poster I would not expect a movie starring Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, and Mo’nique to be very good.  I would expect it to be a slightly better version of Glitter.  But when I saw the previews for Precious, even the all star cast (with a not so great acting reputation) couldn’t convince me not to see the movie.  It was too relevant to a teacher in an urban area.  It was too exciting not to see, especially seeing the hype surrounding the movie, and a 90% ranking on RottenTomatoes. Watching the preview, I thought it would be a movie I would hate.  It would be a movie that had too much drama.  Too urban.  Too far away.  But it wasn’t, not at all.

The movie is about an overweight teenage girl, who goes by Precious, in New York City.  We first see her in math class in high school.  She likes math class, she likes her math class teacher.  She doesn’t do anything in math class, and her teacher doesn’t seem to notice.  Then she is called to the principal’s office, where we discover the real issue.  This movie is not going to be an inspirational movie about a girl who loves math and eventually goes to Harvard.  This isn’t Dangerous Minds, and it certainly won’t be Freedom Writers.

We find out Precious has a child.  We find out she is pregnant with another one.  And, a few minutes later, we find out her father is the father of both of her children.  And Precious’ mother hates Precious for being “given” more children by her husband than she was.  Precious lets it slide.  She lets a lot of things slide.  She feels a lot of things, and her frustrations with her mother are not the most important.  She is still dealing with rape, incest, being not only a teenage mother, but a teenage mother with two children.  Life for Precious, in other words, ain’t been no crystal stair.

And that’s the point of the movie.  We see her go to a new “alternative school,” where she does a little more work than she did before.  She meets new friends.  Has a nice nurse when she has her baby.  Has a lovely teacher who works for her to try and help her.  But her mother still throws glasses and potted plants at her neck.  She even hurls a TV down the stairs at Precious and her child.  And Precious loses her home (for the better).  Precious finds out her father, the one who raped her, dies, a small victory.  But it is immediately undercut by the news that he had AIDS.

Now Precious has two children, one with Down Syndrome, AIDS, and no home of her own.  And with that same expressionless face she keeps moving through her life, without taking anything for granted.  She revels in her children.  Reveals the truth of her pregnancies, begins to come to terms with it, but in the end, her life still sucks.

It sucked from the beginning, and it sucks at the end.  The film has a sense of uncompromising honesty and dissatisfaction to it that it hurts, in places, to watch it.  It is not an easy film to watch.  Precious is a girl who isn’t great to look at, but she is impossible not to watch.  When she is tripped, and falls flat on her face, it hurt.  The care for her child still in her was already a real concern in my mind.  The movie’s sense of brute force with so little hope attached is what I like most about it.  It makes no promises to its viewers, and I only promise to hope it is good.

It was good.  It was really good.

4/4

5/5

10/10

Sometimes I wish I had been born British.  I have a feeling my sense of humor is more British than anything else.  As I wander through some of the most hilarious movies moments that reel through my brain, they all tend to be British, not American.  I do not find many American (note: many, I did not say all…) comedies funny.  I don’t know why.  It might be an attitude issue.  It might be a preference.  It might be something else.

Regardless, the reason why I bemoan my preference for comedic style is because I went to the movie theater the other night (a rare gift of a mid-week Federal/school holiday) to see the movie “The Men Who Stare at Goats.”  I was excited for the movie.  It has an all-star cast, and a preview that promised a hilarious premise with some very good potential.

The movie begins with Ewan McGregor, a young newspaperman who interviews a supposed werido, and shortly thereafter (no connection in events) is dumped by his girlfriend for a one-armed man.  The fact that the man she is attracted to has only one arm seems to have been a significant focus of the filmmakers.  They obviously though it quite funny.  I didn’t really find it that funny.  Yes, she caressed it, fondled it, held it.  But it just wasn’t funny.  Even by the end of the movie, the camera found its way back to the fake arm, and I kept finding my way back to the idea that this just wasn’t funny.

Back to the plot.  In an attempt to not end up just another nameless, uneventful, laughable death, our newspaperman decides to travel to Iraq, to become a war correspondent, in hopes of leading a better life, and in hopes of wooing his lover back with his tales of daring-do.    This is where he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney, pictured above, staring at a goat) who was a part of a secret government cover-up.  Also, a dance instructor.  Currently on a secret mission–which remains a mystery for most of the movie.  While our newspaperman and our suspicious Secret Agent traverse the Iraqi terrain, Cassady recounts his adventures in the army as part of a secret brain trust, those men with special abilities.  He is particularly clairvoyant.

Along the way, Kevin Spacey’s character is introduced.  He is the force of evil in the film–as much as there can be.  He is also somewhat clairvoyant, but not nearly as good as Clooney.  So, he enacts his revenge against the group, in more ways than one.  That is all I’ll give for plot.

And, in my ongoing rant with movies, it’s as though the funniest moments in the movie are because of who is saying something, and not what they are saying.  Like in Anchorman, whenever you hear people quote it, you never hear people just say it.  They say it with the character inflections.  Probably because it wouldn’t be that funny without the particular character actors saying it that way they do.  A friend of mine doesn’t impersonate Will Ferrell, he does a great Ron Burgundy.

But what’s funny about saying un-funny sentences strangely?  If it isn’t funny in its own right, if it’s only funny because of how someone is saying it, why bother with it at all?

The lack of clever lines in this movie is about the only strike I would give it.  The acting is hilarious.  Clooney is a very competent actor.  Jeff Bridges, playing the role he was made for, plays it well.  Kevin Spacey is hilarious.  Ewan MacGregor engages in a very funny conversation about Jedi warriors.  And I’m sure the conversation would not have been as funny if he has not already played a Jedi warrior in the Star Wars films.  Again, funny in the context of who is saying it, but not funny beyond that.  Not funny at all.  Particularly weak as a script, although strong as a concept.

Judge for yourself though.  I am admittedly biased in a negative way.

I would rank it 2.5 out of four stars.

3 out of 5.

6 out of 10. (One of the lower grades I normally give.)

Good.  By no means great.  Somewhat memorable.  Maybe a good Christmas gift for a few.  A decent movie night movie.  Not too much beyond that.

Although the trailer was so good, they probably should have started with that and moved on from there to make the movie.  Alas, if only most movies would take that advice.

Are his movies even worth it?

Are his movies even worth it?

I keep waffling on the issue of documentaries.  I hate the, except when I love them.  There seems to be little middle ground, based on my own personal reactions.

The Evidence for the Prosecution:

1.  Documentaries can be boring.  An Inconvenient Truth – This has to be the worst quality documentary made.  I don’t like getting political when I rate movies.  Even when it concerns politics I agree with.  You cannot give me enough money to say a poor movie is interesting when it isn’t.  This is why this type of review is worthless. A perfect review of this type of movie is only a political move.  This movie is boring, and not boring in the deliberately slow-paced manner, which I typically enjoy.  It’s just not good.  It is a glorified PowerPoint presentation.  It is surprising, shocking, and meant to be moving; on most counts it fails because it does not engage me.  At all.  This first type of documentary is all too common.  It’s the reason most documentaries go on the shelves of stores…and stay there.  No one’s interested in being bored.  The coffee table edition is more interesting.

2.  Documentaries as propaganda.  Triumph of the Will – Probably the best example of propagandism, the film by Leni Riefenstahl (spelled right the first time!) about the rigid professionalism, determination, and divinely ordained nature of the Third Reich I have had to watch three times for classes.  The first time was in high school, just a clip of the beginning.  The second for a class called The World between the Wars in college.  The third was for another college class: The History of Film: Part II.  I’ll admit.  The film isn’t that engaging, but it’s one hell of an interesting movie.  It was interesting all three times.  Not exactly documentary, incredibly staged and all factual, but technically documentary.  Because we know it is propaganda, its value as a piece of recorded history is lost.  As a piece of fiction, presenting the fictionalized version of a true event is great.  As a documentary is cannot be taken with much seriousness.

3.  Documentaries as a time waster.  The Up Documentaries – This set of documentaries is amazing.  Other people know this. You should know this.  If you don’t–watch them!  But be prepared to waste a lot of time.  The problem is this series is well edited, but takes footage from people’s lives when they are 7, and revisit their lives every seven years, from 7 to 42.   This is the straightest set of documentaries I have ever seen.  I think they are revealing, interesting, and engaging on every level.  But be prepared to use up about 10 hours of time watching these documentaries.  Which is the problem.  As documentaries are generally a labor of love for the directors, there is so much content that they do not want to sacrifice that they should.  Information that seems unnecessary, out of place, or useless is included.  Why?  Because the director understands why it fits it.  The director has hours of footage for every minute in the films.  Why not include a little extra?  But still, 10 hours?

The Evidence for the Defense:

1.  Documentaries can be really interesting. Spellbound – I will never be able to get past this documentary.  I think this is the first documentary I truly thought was amazing.  It was shameful to watch because I saw glimpses of how nerdy I was as a child, I saw the way parents drive their children just to win, and I saw how cruel children can be on themselves.  But mainly I just laughed out loud at the absurdity of the nerdiest thing on ESPN–the fierce competition for the title of Spelling Bee Champion.  This documentary you must watch.

2.  Documentaries as understanding.  Hoop Dreams – I knew when I started working with disadvantaged youth, the realities of their lives were disastrous.  The problem was I never thought about it in the long term.  Even after the first year, I never thought about where those students I taught would move after I was done teaching them how to use a comma with nonessential information.  This documentary reminded me of what issues they face: standardized test bias, social pressure, rough neighborhoods, limited resources, poor education, and institutionalized practices that look a lot like discrimination.  The scene where, after a student has made it to college, but lives in a house removed from the main campus where other athletes live–all black, all removed, all separate–is shocking.  These events are not from the sixties, or seventies.  They are from the ’90s.  They could be from today.   The movie made me understand, again, what issues really plague urban youth.

3.  Documentaries as entertainment.  Super Size Me – The movie was done to entertain.  Without the cameras there, would the man have undergone his personal experiment to eat McDonalds every meal of every day for a month?  Doubtful. It was only done to be filmed.  A staged documentary, just not staged like Triumph of the Will, so I’m willing to go with it.  This movie is just funny.  Interspersed with interesting facts about the fast food industry, and one man’s body decline because of the food he eats, the movie was made to demonstrate a point.  It demonstrates that people need to eat less fast food.  It makes it’s point.  I still eat fast food, and will always go for a Whataburger Honey Chicken breakfast sandwich whenever I get into a town that actually has a Whataburger.  But the movie did make its point.

Verdict:

The drawbacks of documentaries are just too much to risk.  I have trouble enough finding a good documentary.  The semi-interesting facts of the History channel work like 60 Minutes reports rather than historical research.  And while I wanted to be fair by presenting an even number of documentaries for both side, the fact of the matter is I could come up with several more documentaries that I did not enjoy, and had trouble coming up with three that I did enjoy.  The sheer enjoyment factor should win, but I won’t let it.

Documentaries do one thing, generally, very well: they tell a good story.  When they fail to do that they are awful.  A movie, after all, exists to tell a story.

All of the bonuses of movies, like cinematography, direction, editing, acting, etc. are lost in the necessity of a documentary.  Almost never will a documentary be able to demonstrate artistic merit and the factual entertainment that defines its genre.  Because I stake so much of what a movie is based on what a viewer can see, I must dismiss documentaries, generally speaking, as a failed genre.  There are just too few good documentaries to make the genre worthwhile.

Feel free to point out an excellent documentary.  I have a feeling that means I’m not going to get very many comments on this post.