A collection of my noteworthy work prior to this blog, comprised mostly of former reviews.

North by Northwest

Originally published April 7, 2011 in The Column, Northwestern College’s student newspaper

Alfred Hitchcock might be the most recognized name in all of filmmaking. The enduring, multi-generational popularity of his work has no equal, and long after the movies of Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson seem dated, Hitchcock will still be playing to practically universal appeal. Just look at the state of things over thirty years after his death. In this month alone, Rear Window is screening at the Uptown, and the Riverview is doing a showcase of some of the Master of Suspense’s most recognized and beloved works, North by Northwest, Psycho, and Vertigo. It is the former Riverview screening that I attended Monday, revisiting Hitchcock’s last Carey Grant vehicle for the first time in years.

Hitch once joked, “I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach.” While it is true that practically all of his 50+ films involved some sort of murder, intrigue, or mystery, they were surprisingly varied in their approach to the topic. He made comedies (The Trouble with Harry), dramas (Vertigo), romances (Notorious, Rear Window), spy thrillers (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, The Man Who Knew too Much), films shot all in one take (Rope); even late into his career he was still inventing new genres like slasher horror films (Psycho) and disaster movies (The Birds). With North by Northwest, Hitchcock abandoned the self-serious tone of his (at the time) unsuccessful Vertigo (which most now consider his masterpiece) and revisited the classic cross-country fish out of water espionage genre that made him such a success in the thirties and forties.

Re-teaming with Grant (who starred in the very similar Notorious thirteen years earlier) and enlisting Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Ernest Lehman (The Sound of Music, Sabrina, West Side Story) Hitchcock set out to give audiences his most expansive spy thriller yet. With iconic sequences ranging from the renegade crop duster to the harrowing escape down the face of Mount Rushmore, North by Northwest is quite possibly the biggest movie Hitchcock ever made. Throughout it, one definitely gets the sense that Hitch is trying to top himself; to, before his career was out, give the definitive work encompassing nearly every genre that he’d played around in. The jokes come more abundantly than in even Hitch’s goofiest comedies; the love story is emphasized even more than in his purest romances; the suspense and intrigue are played up, almost to a self-referential level. To make room for all of this, the movie is far longer than most of Hitchcock’s similar romps (almost twice as long as his previous farce masterpiece, The 39 Steps), but it doesn’t waste a shot in the process (although there may be a few, as Hitch put it, excessively “impudent” shots toward the end).

Sure, sometimes the movie crosses the line from unbelievable to ridiculous, (why is it necessary to kill a man with a crop duster and not just, I don’t know, shoot him?) but the quality of the screenplay and the craft of the performances (Grant on top of his game, Eva Marie Saint giving one of the better Hitchcock blonde performances, and James Mason owning every scene as the villainous Van Damme) keep it fun and fresh, as opposed to distracting and silly. At the end of the day, even if you can’t put it into words, it’s easy to understand Hitchcock’s timeless appeal. His movies entertain, even while they challenge; they are surprising, even while remaining familiar; they touch on our most deeply-rooted hopes and fears and they ruthlessly exploit them for everything they’re worth. I highly recommend, not just North by Northwest, but any Hitchcock movie you can get your hands on, especially while they are playing in theaters.

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127 Hours

Originally Published: February 10, 2011 in The Column, Northwestern College’s student newspaper

Pretty much everyone knows the story by now. You may not recognize the name Aaron Ralston, but the campfire tale of the unfortunate hiker who got his arm pinned under a rock and had to free himself with a pocket knife is pretty well-known; and for good reason. Such tales lend themselves well to hypotheticals. Could you sever your own arm – flesh, muscle, bone, and nerve – to free yourself and go on living? This is the basic question 127 Hours poses, alongside others, both more primal and heady.

127 Hours was directed by Danny Boyle (Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire), a filmmaker who has always had prodigious skill but also a penchant for favoring style to a fault. There’s a lot of style in 127 Hours, but Boyle is batting right in his strike zone and the movie is better for it. With a host of tricks up his sleeve, many of which we haven’t seen since the days of silent cinema (where man vs. nature films were far more common, as nature doesn’t speak), Boyle sets out to shatter the fourth wall and get inside the audience’s heads. His ambition is not merely to engage with sight and sound. He wants us to feel what Aaron Ralston (James Franco, in the best role of his ever-escalating career) feels, taste what he tastes, smell what he smells, think what he thinks. Film is foremost a sensory medium, and Boyle is determined to tell a story that could work nowhere else. Immersive isn’t even the right word here. I’d be more likely to describe it as eerily connective. I kept feeling for my arm to make sure it was still there.

The villain in 127 Hours is a rock. It does not move but once the entire film. It does not speak. It does not change. It does not think. Its sole motivation is to obey gravity. It just sits there, indifferent to the plight of its captive. And yet, it might be one of the best villains I’ve seen in a while, especially considering the audience knows, for the most part, how the story is going to end. We know the rock cannot be beaten. It’s the perfect metaphor for any number of challenges including life itelf. Aaron’s attempts to overcome the rock are entertaining, not because their potential success carries any dramatic value, but because their inevitable failure is morbidly fascinating. Poe made a career out of this. As long as he is fighting the rock, Aaron is doomed to die, and the audience is compelled to sympathize with him. The movie is almost entirely set in the small crevice that serves as Ralston’s prison. Boyle uses limited flashbacks and dream sequences (never longer than a minute) to give the audience a taste of Ralston’s mind. As he digs deep inside himself for the strength to do the unthinkable, he reflects on both his dreams and regrets. They are shockingly simple. Ralston wasn’t a murderer or an adulterer. His worst crimes were ignoring his mother’s phone calls and being a little too sure of his wilderness survival prowess. And yet, in a film about survival, that’s even worse. He’s just like you and me.

The movie has been out for almost three months and was re-released into more theaters a week ago to capitalize on its Oscar nominations (including best picture, which if I had it my way, it would win), but it has yet to find much of an audience. This is understandable I suppose. The idea is perfect as a conversation starter, but as a ninety minute movie it sounds like a bit of a drag and a bummer taboot. The truth of the matter is quite the opposite. The movie is too involving. It is too interesting. Boyle sets out to bring every single member of his audience to that decision point. Audiences no longer go to movies to be engaged. They don’t go to movies to be challenged. They go to be diverted. 127 Hours, while entertaining, is certainly not diverting. Afterward I felt exhausted, but I walked out with a rush of euphoria. Maybe I just might be able to cut my arm off if I had to (I mean, maybe. I’d probably pass out a lot and cry, but if I got through all that, maybe). Maybe, with all of the machinations of the world that spin out of human control, the best thing that can happen to somebody is that they lose their arm to get some perspective. After all, people are not rocks. More than gravity motivates our actions, and though that sound trite, we all need that reminder every now and again. While you might not get the chance to lose your own arm to learn these lessons, with 127 Hours, you can get pretty close.

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Tangled

Originally written December 5 and published January 2 as part of my Facebook recap of the best movies of 2010

It has been a while since Disney turned out an animated classic without the Pixar label attached to it. This phenomenon wasn’t lost on the studio execs at Disney (it was printed very clearly on their diminishing box office receipts), and a few years back they stuck the Pixar guys, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, in charge of the mother studio as well. This experiment has produced a drastic increase in quality, from Bolt to The Princess and the Frog, but audiences have understandably been hesitant to restore trust in the studio who not too long ago would have tricked them into paying real money to see Home on the Range. More than anything, Lasseter and Catmull have been charged with restoring the reputation of the mouse house, and Tangled is their biggest step in that direction yet, as well as the first true Disney classic since The Lion King.

Tangled is an update of the modern Disney formula in both a classical and contemporary direction. On the one hand, the movie is a return to the princess film, formerly Disney’s bread and butter. It features multiple musical numbers and follows the structure of many of Disney’s most beloved fairy tale riffs. On the other hand, it features neither a helpless princess nor a charming prince, but a quirky, rebellious teenage Rapunzel and a smooth-talking bandit named Flynt Rider. The story strikes both of these tones pretty consistently, sometimes favoring the sentimental as in the beautiful flying lanterns sequence, and sometimes leaning towards incredibly goofy as in the scene where a bunch of hardened ruffians sing about their dreams.

True to the form of Pixar, the script draws more from the humor of classic Warner Bros. Looney Toons than from anything Disney has done. Tangled is at its best when it is at its most manic and humorous, and it contains the single greatest running horse gag in the history of cinema. The use of cut scenes for comedic emphasis is also effective and strikes a more knowing, mature tone than other recent Disney efforts. The adults in my theater were laughing even harder than the kids, who were laughing pretty hard themselves. The ability to entertain universally has made Disney the most popular animation studio over the years, and although Tangled draws as much from the Pixar (and even from the, gulp, Dreamworks) school of thought on how to do this, it remains in essence a Disney production.

If the movie has a single flaw, it might be that it draws almost too well from all of the best Disney has to offer. Sometimes it feels like a buffet, taking precise helpings of romantic, adventurous, and comedic (or more specifically, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and the Lion King) rather than crafting them around the needs of the story. The film tells a good story (see my previous explanations of how people from Pixar were involved), but it is stylistically bipolar at times and maybe a little too eager to showcase how it can do all things for all people. At the end of the day though, I didn’t really care all that much, and neither will anyone who goes in expecting a great time this holiday season. Tangled is the kind of fresh storytelling that made Walt Disney Animation Studios the premier studio for family entertainment for most of the history of movies. It effectively restores the reputation of Walt Disney animation, and for the first time in ages, I can say with confidence that I am truly excited about the next film from Disney.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Originally published December 9, 2010 in The Column, Northwestern College’s student newspaper

Nobody needs me to review Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Pretty much everyone who would bother to read such a review is just looking to have their opinion validated. If you’ve managed to avoid all things Potter until now, there is nothing I could do short of forcing you to watch it at gunpoint that would get you into the theater, and if you’re like most of my generation and have been swept up in the hysteria, well… I don’t think even threatened force could keep you away. After six films that have scored around a billion dollars worldwide a piece and a book series that’s kind of popular too, Harry Potter really has nothing left to prove. And so to both of these theoretical readers, the hardened cynic and the cultist, I will affirm that you are both right. This Harry Potter film is the best film of the series for fans of the books, but for the uninitiated, it could be a very, very long two and a half hours.
Despite my affinity for the book series, I’ve always been a vocal critic of the Harry Potter films (excepting Cuaron’s exceptional Prisoner of Azkaban). Spanning four directors over seven (eventually eight) films, it has felt at best like a collage of about thirty percent of the most story-driven moments from the books, with some contrived additions to make each film feel a little like its own entity. With so many different visions and so much ground to cover from books that top 800 pages, things get lost in the mix. One character who gets a lot of screen time in one film will be ignored in the next one, for no better reason than something had to go and while one director liked that character, the next one did not. The writers and directors didn’t even know how the series was going to end until the sixth film started shooting.

But here, after over a decade of Potter mania, the studio executives made a decision, albeit one mostly for the money, that saved the final adventure of the franchise from falling prey to the same issues that have plagued the series. They split the final book into two films. It made perfect sense at the bank (two billion dollars is mathematically more than one billion dollars), but it also made sense on the screen (350 pages is a lot less space for a film to cover than 700 pages). What results is the most literal interpretation of a Harry Potter book brought ever to screen. For the first time ever, audiences can watch a movie that actually takes them along an emotional roller coaster similar to the one J.K. Rowling intended. And although the seventh Potter book is a long cry from the best of the series, any Potter book is better than a Potter movie, and for fans of the book, this couldn’t be more of a dream come true.

Those Potter actors (the three “teenagers”), who I have previously criticized for being mere placeholders who just had to avoid dying or obtaining any physical deformities over the last ten years, finally get a chance to showcase their acting chops. Those long sequences in the forrest give Hallows Part 1 an emotional anchor no film prior really had. Character actors don’t get a lot of time on screen, but Brendan Gleeson and Bill Nighy both shine in their brief moments. Director David Yates has now made three films in the series, and it is clear that he is more comfortable with the material than most of his predecessors. This film is clearly the most adult of the series, featuring brutal violence, torture, and some sexual content that never would have worked in the earliest PG-rated children’s films. The series has also completely adopted the shaky cam, naturalist shooting style that Cuaron introduced in the third film. Gone is that kitschy Hollywood magic that the series sometimes has played around with a little too much.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 won’t win anyone over to the side of the Potter universe. In fact, I would venture to say that any newcomers who venture into the theater will be less interested in taking the plunge after seeing the film. But for those already submerged, it is a breath of fresh air. In fact, with all of the backstory set in place, and no real attempt at exposition outside of the new information previous films did not cover, this Potter film has more room to breathe than most fantasy epics. I’d go so far as to sat it is one of the best big budget fantasy experiences since The Lord of the Rings.

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Sunset Boulevard

Originally Published November 4, 2010 in The Column, Northwestern College’s student newspaper

Occasionally I enjoy revisiting my favorite classic films. Though Sunset Boulevard has been considered one of cinema’s most enduring classics for many years, I personally discovered it only a few years ago. Back then, I still watched movies three or four at a time, trying to uncover the secrets that would lead me to be the next Steven Spielberg; blowing through films that one cannot possibly fully grasp in merely one viewing. However, I distinctly remember that I was unable to pass over Sunset Boulevard. There was something unsettling about it. To someone fresh out of high school, whose film experience was still limited to contemporary blockbusters, superhero movies, and saccharine sports dramas, seeing a movie intentionally targeted at disturbing the viewer was odd to say the least. Revisiting it this week, the experience has only changed in that I can more clearly express the movie’s impact. For anyone interested in film, storytelling, or humanity in general, this is one of the most essential works of art of the twentieth century.

Sunset Boulevard is kind of one big contradiction. A giant in terms of storytelling, production value, acting, and direction, this 1950 Billy Wilder classic makes one feel sentimental for a bygone era of Hollywood storytelling that the film claims never existed. On screen is a scathing indictment of all that Tinseltown tries to hide under its glitz and glamour, from narcissist starlets whose life and ego eclipse their beauty to once-ambitious writers whose wide-eyed enthusiasm and passion slowly dim as they fight to pay the bills. The ideals Hollywood sells, like true love, individualism, idealism, and integrity, all fall prey to the world that writes about them. But Wilder injects his tale of rapacity and squalor with the flourishes he laments the system lacking. Sunset Boulevard has a soul and craft that makes a better argument for cinema’s golden age than even such a skillful deconstruction can shoot down.

It is even more difficult to pigeonhole Sunset Boulevard into a genre. It has all the makings of a great dark comedy, an exciting film noir, or a doomed romance. Some of the funniest, scariest, and most romantic moments in movie history are all contained within the film’s runtime, and the harsh contrasts of the script make for an emotionally exhausting experience. One moment Joe Gillis (William Holden) and his writing partner Betty Schaeffer (Nancy Olson) are walking hand in hand through the Paramount Studio’s lot, sharing all their dreams, hopes, and the imagination that makes the film business seem so magical. The next, Gillis is engaging in a pretend romance with aged starlet Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), in order to take care of his increasing debts. Can you have the one of these without the other? The film poses the question, but doesn’t provide an easy answer.

Upon Sunset Boulevard’s release, many felt that Wilder (The Apartment, Some Like it Hot, Double Indemnity) had betrayed the trust of the film industry, breaking silence on many of the issues that threatened to destroy the illusion of moving pictures. For instance, the movie shines an especially bright light on what happened to many of Hollywood’s silent stars when sound arrived in 1927. Gloria Swanson was herself a relatively forgotten silent film diva. She played her 50-year old faded star with an intensity that was lost when actors could use more than just their faces to convey emotion. Max von Stroheim, who plays Norma Desmond’s butler Max, was a real disgraced silent film director whose career never made it past the dawn of sound. Many other Hollywood figures, like H.B. Warner, Buster Keaton, and Cecil B. DeMille, all play themselves in some of the most self-deprecating bit roles in movie history.

I’m almost convinced that Sunset Boulevard could, with no changes, play in theaters today. It is as relevant to show business now as it was in 1950. Even though there aren’t a whole lot of silent stars remaining in Hollywood, how often do we read about troubled former celebrities who are only remembered for a few moments when their obituaries take us by surprise? The problems Wilder addresses aren’t social or political or based on a single event. They are problems inherent in human nature. It’s this understanding that defines all of the greatest film’s of all time, from Casablanca to Citizen Kane to the Godfather, but even by that gold standard, Sunset Boulevard seems  exceptionally frank, painful, and intimate. It’s a movie that reminds us that nothing ever really changes; also that they just don’t make em like they used to.

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Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Originally Published September 9, 2010 in The Column, Northwestern College’s student newspaper

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World kicks things off by playing the Universal Studio’s opening logo (you know, the geo-thermal circling globe with the triumphant music in the background) as if it were the 8-bit intro title to an old school Nintendo game. If that thought doesn’t amuse you, you probably don’t think you will enjoy Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. This doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it. Edgar Wright, the director who invented the rom zom com (romantic zombie comedy) with Shaun of the Dead and then the bromance/Agatha Christy-esque murder mystery/buddy cop action flick with Hot Fuzz, has delivered what could be the ultimate genre mashup of all time and if any part of the indie/video game/romantic comedy/musical/comic book/action film appeals to you, there is a good chance you will be more than engaged during the film. You might even spend your hour and a half, as I did, with a stupid grin plastered across your face. But you probably haven’t been wooed into the theater (because, based on box office figures, the film has wooed practically nobody into the theaters), because it just doesn’t appear to be something you’re interested in.

Edgar Wright once said in an interview that he wants to make the kind of films that would have blown his mind when he was thirteen years old. This spirit of playfulness and creativity is what has made him one of Britain’s most recognized budding talents. And while most thirteen year olds today are “blown away” by undemanding nonsense  like Transformers or Grown Ups, thirteen year-old Wright was clearly a little more discerning. His movies might be every bit as extreme and silly as his American competition, but even his goofiest send-ups have at their core a heart of gold and a mind like a steel trap. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is no exception. Based on a popular graphic novel series of the same name by Brian Lee O’Malley, the movie paints a highly stylized image of modern twenty-something society, so ridiculous and yet also so accurate that it might one day be considered the definitive movie on the subject of most of you reading this review right now.

Whether Gen-Y’ers like it our not, our generation is going to be defined by video games, texting, concerts, coffee, social networking, parties, and slackerdom. What Scott Pilgrim essentially does is take all of these ordinary ideas and create a surreal fantasy world out of them. What if there was an epic adventure, but it was set in Toronto, Canada, and the protagonist was a jobless slacker, and the story’s epic battles were fought as if they were video games, the plot set around concerts and parties, the foes hipsters and vegans and skateboarders and indie music producers? And what if the golden fleece the hero sought was nothing more adventurous than love or self-respect or responsibility? Such are the battles (though less dynamic and surreal) that we all face, and whether you approve of modern youth culture or not, it is in this setting that many must learn to grow up if our generation is to progress.

The film’s cast is made up of Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth-Winstead, Jason Schwartzman, the guy who last played Superman, and every indie darling under the age of thirty who didn’t get a role in Inception. The huge cast is yet another way Scott Pilgrim recreates young adult culture. Characters flutter in and out of the plot, as though plot itself has been reworked to appear more like a real social structure. Through split frame phone sequences, texting, on-screen animated text, rapid-cut pacing, and hundreds of shots that are truly unlike anything anyone has ever seen ever, Edgar Wright has pretty much re-invented all of film language to mimic today’s young adults. This is the reason why he is a really big deal pretty much everywhere except America. It is also the reason why his movies typically don’t find a major audience until long after they have left theaters. Because while he clearly wants to entertain youth with his films, young theatergoers are finicky, and more than that, they are terrified of anything that looks remotely different.

But everyone in college should (and eventually will) see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. As an adaptation of six graphic novels and a film made by human beings, it’s not flawless. But it is one of the most unique and artistically interesting films released this year. As big Hollywood studios release more and more sequels, remakes, re-imaginings, and sequels to remakes of reimaginings (next year, we’re going to start getting movies based on board games. I’m not kidding), we risk losing these distinct voices that, for reasons I cannot explain financially, are still making themselves heard across the world. Whatever misgivings you might have about seeing this movie, let me dispel them now. Yes, Cera plays the same character he has in every single film, but that is no reason to dismiss his performance. He’s hilarious and spot-on as the puppy-eyed slacker Scott Pilgrim, and he pulls off the film’s intense action and musical sequences with a physical presence I never would have predicted he had. Yes, the movie plays sound effects from Zelda and covers a social scene you may have no interest in, but it is hilarious and as much an indictment as it a celebration of modern youth culture. It is an important film about growing up and taking responsibility, and it is destined to make its way into the “Why didn’t I see that when it was in theaters?” hall of fame. You can save yourself from a painful face palm when you catch it on TNT in five years. Contrary to popular opinion, it is still in theaters right now.

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