Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Just You and Me, Kid

The Pursuit of Happyness comes out on DVD this week and although I have put it off doing so for a long time, I knew that I was eventually going to have to say something about it because the film has a lot of significance for me personally. I remember when I first saw the trailer, I said to myself, "That's a film I'll be watching with my dad," and I was right. We got to see it together at the theatre and we both got pretty emotional over it. The reason being that it was basically our story that we were seeing represented up there on the screen.

Back in the mid-70's, while my father was a musician on the road, he met my mother, a singer. They got married, had me and then when I was 9 months old, my mother left. For three years it was just the two of us travelling the road and sleeping in hotel rooms until he met and married a wonderful woman who became my real mother and my dad proceeded to get into the budding video business (I also got two brothers and two sisters out of the deal, which is pretty cool). Incidentally, my biological mother has since tried to become a part of my life but the results have proven (at best) awkward.

Being that I was so young I have very little memory of what actually transpired during the period of time that it was just me and my dad. I do have a vague memory of going to sleep in a hotel bed one night (I seem to recall that we stayed at the Holiday Inn a lot) while my dad was watching something on the TV set. He's also told me that there were times when we would have to sleep in his manager's office (me in my crib and him on the floor) because he couldn't even afford a hotel room. Whatever else happened, though, he said he always made sure he had enough money to buy for food for me. That was his priority. Whatever mistakes he might have made, I came first in his life. He always tried to do the right thing by me.

Pursuit of Happyness is also a story about a father who, though he is certainly far from perfect, struggles to do what's best for his son. Will Smith, in a magnificent performance which earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination, plays Chris Gardner, a man whose wife leaves him and who basically ends up living "on the street" with his son, Christopher, as he enrolls in a stockbroker internship program. As it turns out, Christopher is played by Smith's own real-life son Jaden, and their relationship is incredible. The off-screen affection brings an intimacy to their on-screen chemistry that perhaps would have been lacking had they cast just another cute moppet in the role (not to mention the fact that the kid is awful good).

As the publicity proudly proclaims, the film was "inspired by a true story" and actually tends to "ring true" quite often. Chris Gardner, for example, is a complex character. Some might find to be a little too "angelic," but he he certainly has his faults. At one point Chris' fear and frustrations cause him to start yelling at his son and while some people might find this to be a miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers as it could make Chris "unsympathetic," it actually makes him far more believable. Chris Gardner is a good man, but he is a real man. This was something my dad mentioned that to me as we left the theater. "You know, that is very true to life, Damian," he said. "When you're down and scared, you will take it out on the people you love." This is one of many examples of the film's insight into human nature.

In another one of the film's profound scenes, Smith and his son have a heart-to-heart conversation where the boy asks, "Did Mom leave because of me?" Any child who has ever had to endure the separation of their parents thinks this at one point or another. Although I anticipated Smith's response to be: "No, Mom left because of me, not you," the film actually has a better answer. Smith says: "Mom left because of MOM and you didn't have anything to do with that." This is absolutely right.


As far as I'm concerned, though, Smith's most sublime moment in the film comes near the end when after many weeks of working in the program, he discovers that he will get the job he has been working so hard to get. The subtlety in Smith's facial expression as he struggles to contain the immense emotion inside of him is remarkable. Tears start to well up in his eyes, he politely thanks his new "bosses" and quickly leaves the building. The subsequent image of Smith walking amidst a crowd of faces is one of the few painstakingly accurate depictions of overwhelming joy, gratitude and relief that I've ever seen in a film. He rushes immediately to the daycare where his son is playing, picks him up in his arms and just holds him tightly as he weeps. Despite all of the struggle and hardsip, the times of fear and doubt, he has achieved his goal and, what makes it even more rewarding, he has someone to share it with. He is not alone in the world. He has someone to love. Someone who loves him. Not to get too "mushy" here, but no matter how poor Chris Gardner may have gotten, he was already the richest man in the world.


Like its central character Pursuit of Happiness is not perfect. It does have its flaws (it tends to push the boundaries of "coincidence" a few too many times for my taste) and, although it is technically competent, it is not brilliant. The cinematography, the editing and the music are all effective but not particularly memorable. The real reason to see the film is for the performances of Will Smith and his son (and not to forget Thandie Newton who has a somewhat thankless role as the mother). Also, it's worth watching simply for the wonderfully touching and life-affirming story that it tells. It is not a great movie, but it is a very good movie and there's a lot of truth and sincerity contained within its frames. It has far more "heart" than a lot of movies out there and although it feels at times like a typical Hollywood "tear-jerker," take it from someone who knows, life can often resemble a good, uplifting Hollywood movie.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

1927 as presented in Singin' in the Rain

1927 was a very important year for cinema history, arguably THE most important year for cinema history (although 1939 is also pretty high up there). In addition to giving us films like Keaton's The General and College, Lloyd's The Kid Brother, Murnau's Sunrise, DeMille's King of Kings, Lang's Metropolis, Gance's Napoleon, Browning's London After Midnight, Hitchcock's The Lodger and Lubitsch's The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (any one of which would be worth writing a lengthy post about), it was also the year of the first Academy Awards celebration, in which the winner was William Wellman's Wings (try saying that five times fast!) as well as the year that a little film called The Jazz Singer was released, a film which instigated a major change in the face and "voice" of Hollywood.

With such a plethora of significant films and monumental events surrounding this particular year, I had difficulty choosing precisely what to write about for Goatdog's 1927 Blog-a-thon,. So, I decided to take a rather different approach. Rather than contributing a post about something that was released in/occurred during 1927, I would write about a film that takes place in 1927. Not just any film though, one where the setting is crucial to the story and themes of the movie, one where the year 1927 is so wrapped up in the identity of the film that it would be difficult for any self-respecting cinephile to think of the year without somehow thinking of this film. I am referring, of course, to that great American musical Singin' in the Rain.

I was in high school when I first saw this movie. It was part of a weekly film class being hosted by my friend and fellow film buff Tucker. Prior to seeing it in its entirety, all I knew (or thought I knew) of the film was its titular dance sequence, which I had seen once on television as a young kid and which ran through my head everytime I saw the box sitting on the shelf in the video store (with that iconic image of good ol' Gene hanging off that streetlamp). Naturally I knew there had to be more to the movie than just that one number, althougn it certainly stands well on its own, and getting to view it in context greatly enriched its significance for me. I also got to trace the origin of another song ("Good Morning") which I used to hear quite frequently, usually by my mother who would greet me cheerily upon my waking up to get ready for school. At any rate, I loved Singin' in the Rain and not just because it was a great movie, but because it was a great movie about movies. Like Trauffaut's Day For Night, it's an affectionate love letter to an art form that has given us many wonderful products. As a lifelong lover of films, I immediately responded to it.

At the time I saw it I was relatively ignorant of the forced shift toward "talking pictures" that took place in Hollywood. Singin' in the Rain not only introduced me to that piece of film history, it dramatized it in a very effective (and very funny) manner. The film brilliantly captures the extreme unease and fear that gripped Hollywood in the last gasp of the silent era. Much of the situations seen throughout, though exaggerated slightly for humorous effect, are based in solid fact. The recreation of the sound "promo" that the studio head shows his guests at the party, for example, is simultaneosuly hilarious and eerily accurate (as is their reaction in calling it "vulgar"). Frustrations with the new technology (such as synchronizing the sound with the image, being forced to hide the microphone in costumes and/or furniture, stars with unappealing voices either losing their jobs or needing to be dubbed, etc) are all beautifully staged.

There are also, peppered throughout Singin' in the Rain wonderful moments that have little or nothing to do with the Hollywood's "identity crisis." They serve merely to provide a context for the film, an environment in which movies are, pardon the expression, "paramount." In the early scenes, for example, things like the frighteningly dangerous level of obsessive behavior demonstrated by the start-struck crowds ("Zelda! Oh, ZELDA!") as well as the parasitic attention of the press (personified in the obnoxious gossip-mongerer Dora Bailey) celebrate, and also parody, the "importance" of movies both in the decade its representing (the 20's) AND the time the movie was actually made (the 50's). Later in the film, reality and fantasy are so intertwined that it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish the two. Debbie Reynolds crying "Here's one thing I learned from the movies!" before throwing a pie into Lina Lamont's face or Gene Kelly being unable to properly express his emotions to the girl he loves without all the trappings of a "romantic scene" illustrate this. I remember being rather amused to learn that in the making of Singin' in the Rain a microphone was hidden in Debbie Reynolds' blouse so her lines could be heard more clearly, which coincidentally resulted in her heartbeat being heard during one of the dance numbers. This is a world where reality is a movie and the movies are reality.

The film also provides a few brief glimpses into the "magic" of movie-making (the fist-fight being filmed atop of the stationary train as the painted backdrop rolls by behind it, the use of a pianist to provide "mood music" for the actors as they perform a scene, etc). This was done at a time before most audiences were "savvy" to the details of film production and these little bits provide a wonderful "inside-look" to the behind-the scenes mechanics of filmmaking as well as a way to sort of "pay respect" to where movies have been and how far they'd come. Signin' in the Rain is the perfect example of cinema revering itself, acknowledging its own history and, at the same time, having fun with it. The latter is very important as there are a few gags that only someone actually acquainted with the process of filmmaking would notice. I love the fact that the costumes made for "films within the film" are all in glorious color even though this was a time when all the movies were black-and-white. I also love the Busby Berkley-style overheard shot that finishes the song "Beautiful Girls" followed by a cut to a camera shooting it that is at least ten feet away and AT EYE LEVEL! There is a marvelous little clip of Gene Kelly's acrobatic antics from his version of The Three Musketeers that is used as one of the Lockwood/Lamont features in the film, a chance for Gene to "play" with his own on-screen image. These are touches thrown in by people who love movies for people who love movies. And yet, Despite all of its in-jokes, homages, references and industry insights, Singin' in the Rain, never forgets that it is still a Hollywood movie and, perhaps more importantly, a studio product. Whatever "jabs" it contains are all good-natured. Unlike Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, it lacks any satirical edge. The filmmakers are unapologetically producing a piece of pop entertainment in the grand tradition of Hollywood musicals and while doing so wisely avoid biting the hand that feeds them. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the studio (represented by Millard Mitchell) being portrayed in the best possible light while the real "villain" of the piece is, of course, a spoiled actor!

In re-reading what I've written so far I realize that this post has become more of a tribute to the movie itself than a treatise on the historical period it purports to represent, so before I end up "gushing" too much I'll finish up with a story my mother likes to tell about this film. When she was terribly ill with a fever once as a young girl, she was lying on the couch in her living room when Singin' in the Rain came on TV. To this day she swears that she was not only perfectly well during that 103 minutes, she actually felt great. Nevermind, of course, that once the movie was over she went back to feeling terrible, it's remarkable that a film, any film, could have such a physical effect on a person, but it makes sense that if there were one that could it would be this one. Certainly Gene's blissfully defiant "footing it" in the downpour can bring a smile to anyone's face, but the overall tone of the film is so delightful and so joyous that I would maintain it's impossible to watch any of it without feeling good. It is a work of such sublime beauty and vibrant energy that it epitomizes the best kind of "classic movie experience" a person can have. It's a great film, one of the greatest, and whenever I hear the year 1927 mentioned, or the topic of the end of silent cinema/the beginning of the sound era comes up, I can't help but think of it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Why Windmills?

"How do I do a film called 'The Old Mill' When I don't have an old mill?"
"Well, first you've got to change the title."
--STATE AND MAIN (David Mamet, 2000)

Not too long ago Andy Horbal addressed the question (asked of him by many people I've no doubt) of why he adopted the name "No More Marriages" for his site. As a fellow-lover of Hamlet I knew immeidately where the name came from but did not know why he chose to use it, particularly for a film blog. If it were a literary or theatrical blog, then I could understand. As it turned out, I think he did a great job explaining his reasons (you can read his post on the subject here). In the comments section I mentioned that someday I might do the same for my bog: elaborate on how/why I arrived at its title. Well, that time is now. So, here's the answer for any of you out there who might've been asking yourselves: "Why did he choose to name his blog Windmills of My Mind?" For those of you who weren't wondering that, I'll explain it anyway.

For anyone who may not recognize it, the title is a not-so-subtle reference to the Oscar-winning song from the film The Thomas Crown Affair. I am referring, of course, to Norman Jewison's 1968 original with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway and not John McTiernan's 1999 remake with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo (although the song happens to make an appearance in that film as well). It can first be heard over some very 60's-style opening credits and is "sung" by Rex Harrison's son Noel (who apparently inherited his father's gift for speaking song lyrics in tune).

It's a very cool little tune (if you've never heard it before, you can listen to it here) and it made a big impression on me when I first saw the film, not just hecause of it's jazzy style and haunting melody but because of it's amazingly poetic lyrics:

Round, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning wheel
Like a snowball down a mountain or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that's turning running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes of it's face
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind

Like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of it's own
Down a hollow to a cavern where the sun has never shone
Like a door that keeps revolving in a half forgotten dream
Or the ripples from a pebble someone tosses in a stream.
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes of it's face
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind

Keys that jingle in your pocket, words that jangle your head
Why did summer go so quickly? Was it something that you said?
Lovers walking along the shore and leave their footprints in the sand
Was the sound of distant drumming just the fingers of your hand?
Pictures hanging in a hallway and a fragment of this song
Half remembered names and faces but to whom do they belong?
When you knew that it was over you suddenly aware
That the autumn leaves were turning to the color of her hair

A circle in a spiral, a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning wheel
As the images unwind like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind

This is often precisey how I feel about the state of my own mind: like everything up there is just running around in circles, like I am frantically trying to organize the messes both up there and in the world that surrounds me, finding meaning in things that on the surface seem meaningless, finding order in things that seem chaotic, searching for truth when others say that there is none to be found. Starting this blog wasn't just an excuse for me to be able to talk to the world, to share my thoughts, to have a voice. It was also a way for me to work out a lot of my own ideas, to see if the things I think/believe/hold to be true really make sense, to provide an opportunity to hear as well as to be heard. I realize, of course, that at times it may resemble the incomprehensible rantings of a madman, so as I was searching for a fitting title to this blog, in addition to my affection for this song and the film it accompanies, I thought it could almost serve as a sort of "warning" to anyone that came onto my blog as to what they might be in for.

And so, I had at last decided on a name for my blog. All that remained was for me was to change it slightly from the song's official title "Windmills of YOUR Mind" to "Windmills of MY Mind" for the obvious reason that it is my blog and these are my musings coming from my mind (incidentally, I'm not the only person who's thought of this as I've since encountered at least three other blogs with the same name; I guess it was too good of an idea to be completely original).

Initially this blog was not intended to be a film blog. It was simply going to be a blog about whatever I chose to write about, but I realized very early on that a blog about anything and everything can easily become a blog about nothing. My blog needed an identity, a focus. Hence, as a self-proclaimed lover of film (and since it was two films blogs that a film blog (you can read that announcement here). It ended up being sort of fortuitous that the title of my blog originated from a film. I have to admit that if I had a chance to do it over again and had planned on making this a film blog from the very beginning, I probably would've gone with a title like: "Are Women Magic?" Something a bit more subtle and obscure perhaps but no less fitting since it comes from a great film about making films. Also, as silly as this may sound, since most people list the links on their sites alphabetically (including me), Windmills of My Mind typically ends up being put on the bottom while something like "Are Women Magic?" would be near the top. A minor point I know, but not perhaps an inconsequential one. At any rate, I'm happy with my name for now and I don't intend to change it.

I'll close this already sickening self-indulgent post with one final word. It's virtually impossible nowadays to think of a windmill without somehow making a connection to a Quixotic sort of quest: fighting giant monsters, which aren't really monsters, with armor and weapons that aren't really armor and weapons. I knew this associtaion would also probably be made and I didn't mind it at all. Understand that I do not see myself at as a Don Quixote-like character, but I certainly feel like it sometimes. There is a profound speech (probably worthy of being featured in my "Great Cinematic Speeches" series) given by Don Quixote's creator Miguel DeCervantes (as played Peter O'Toole) in the 1972 musical film version of Man of La Mancha. The last few lines especially pretty much sum up what I consider to be my philosophy toward life:

"I've been a soldier and a slave. I've seen my comrades fall in battle or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I've held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no brave last words, only their eyes, filled with confusion, questioning "Why?" I don't think they were wondering why they were dying, but why they had ever lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? To surrender dreams--this may be madness; to seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness! But maddest of all--to see life as it is and not as it should be."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Becoming Bond: the use of elevators in Casino Royale

There's a moment early on in Casino Royale where a character named Dryden, a traitor to the British government, is seen going up in an elevator... or as they call it in England, a "lift" (although the scene takes place in Prague and I happen to live in America). Inside, the numbers shown counting up are 3, 4, 5 and 6 before it cuts to a shot of him entering his office. This was something that failed to catch my attention when I first saw the film back in November but upon re-viewing it on DVD this week, the question struck me: "Why did they not show a 7?" Was it just that the sixth floor was the elevator's destination? Does the building even have a seventh floor? Was it a totally arbitrary decision or could there be some other reason why chose to cut away on the "6?"

Since the sequence goes on to show Bond sitting sinsiterly in the shadows of Dryden's office, waiting for him to arrive so he can complete his required second kill and officially become a "Double-O" agent, I began to theorize that perhaps director Martin Campbell and editor Stuart Baird didn't show the "7" because Bond hasn't even become "007" yet (an event which is represented in the opening credit sequence that follows). If so, this wouldn't be the first time that 7 has been used for such effect in a Bond film (the most notable probably being in Goldfinger where the ticking bomb is diffused with only 7 seconds left). Then again, when I posed the question on the IMDB boards someone else suggested that they cut away at "6" because Craig was the sixth Bond (an interesting theory certainly) while still others dismissed it as being completely meaningless. Either way, perhaps I was making more of this than necessary.

However, another rather astute poster (apparently prompted by my suggestion) proceeded to mention something they noticed which intrigued me: the film both opens and ends in scenes that prominenetly feature an elevator. What fascinated me about this obervation was the possibility that the elevators themselves might be significant. In fact, when I thought about it I realized that elevators pop up all over the place in Casino Royale and are sometimes accompanied by a significant, perhaps even life-changing, event. To name a few such occasions:


-Bond uses an elevator (of sorts) to continue pursuing a bomb-maker in the film's rather spectacular opening chase sequence.

-Bond enters an elevator after conversing with "M" in her home and being temporarily dismissed from MI-6.

-Vesper Lynde (Eve Green) steps into an elevator and tells Bond to "take the next one" because there is no room in there for both "him and his ego" (later, of course, Vesper will deny Bond entrance in another elevator but for an entirely different reason).

-In an elevator with Vesper, Bond pulls a gun out of an envelope and then, when he realizes the situation is far more dangerous than he first anticipated, tries to send Vesper away but the elevator doors close forcing him to include her in on the ensuing fight in the stairway.

-In the film's climax, a remorseful Vesper (having betrayed Bond) commits suicide in an elevator that is submerged in water while Bond tries unsuccessfully to save her.


Now, one could argue that this is all merely a coincidence. That these elevators don't mean anything at all and that their appearance throughout the movie is no more important than the appearance of common things like automobiles, shoes, laptops or stairs... but I don't think so. I think the filmmakers are employing the elevator as a sort of recurring motif. Like clocks in Back to the Future , bathrooms in Pulp Fiction, television sets in The Manchurian Candidate (the original naturally) or mirrors in Death Becomes Her they visually represent one of the major themes of this film. When one thinks about the fact that elevators are used for transporting people, one realizes that entering an elevator is embarking on a "journey" of sorts. Granted, it's a rather short journey and it only goes up or down, but it nevertheless takes a person from one place to another and in this film Bond himself (a character who in most of his previous adventures has no "arc" or undergoes any sort of change) has a journey of his own. It takes him from the rough, inexperienced, physically and emotionally vulnerable novice to the tough, hardened professional we are all familiar with. His attitude toward women and his cold-hearted approach to his job all but cemented by the time we reach the film's final image of (SPOILER FOLLOWS) Bond looking down at the injured, prostrate, villainous Mr. White (on a set of stairs as it turns out) introducing himself as "Bond, James Bond." (END OF SPOILER) At that moment, this particular journey (the one of "becoming Bond") has ended, the destination has been reached and the transformation is complete. Bond has arrived.

As I said in my post "Do You Want to Go See a James Bond Movie?" (written just before Casino Royale was released) I am a HUGE Bond fan and although I was skeptical of Daniel Craig for the longest time, he eventually won me over. I like his harsher, grittier, edgier take on the character because I've always felt that, when there is so much at stake, Bond can and should be a bastard (this is one of the major reasons why I liked Timothy Dalton; I think his interpretation was/is highly underrated). The movie itself is easily the best Bond flick since Brosnan's debut feature Goldeneye (which, coincidentally, was helmed by the same director) and arguably one of the best in the entire series. From a technical standpoint it's very well done. The cinematography is quite good (which it normally isn't in a Bond film) as is the editing, the music score (though portions of it can be heard spottily throughout the film, David Arnold deliberatly saves the James Bond theme in all its glory for the film's conclusion), the pacing, the script/dialogue and the performances... not least of all Daniel Craig. Although the filmmakers tried to create a somewhat "different" Bond film, it still includes the requisite amount of action, beautiful girls, fast cars, exotic locations and just general "excesses" that Bond movies need to have. However, what sets Casino Royale apart is that it also has a degree of subtlety, a strong dramatic backbone and an emotional element rarely seen in the series. Some have even called it the best Bond film to date. I don't know about that (my vote still goes to Goldfinger), but it's certainly up there.

However, all of this has been expressed before (and more eloquently) by people other than myself and since there is nothing new I can really add to the plethora of opinions on the latest Bond epic, I'll shut up now... except to say that the next time you watch it (or the first time if you haven't seen it yet) pay special attention to the elevators. It doesn't mean that it will necessarily increase your understanding of the film or cause you to appreciate it more than you would otherwise, because nobody is ever going to mistake the Bond series for great art, but sometimes there can be depth and artistry involved in them... if we know where to look.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Credit Card for Filmmakers

I think I might've unintentionally offended Dan Eisenberg of Cinemathematics when I (jokingly) accused him of stealing my "Great Cinematic Speeches" feature with his contribution to the recent Billy Wilder Blog-a-thon. I did say that as long as he gave me credit for it I didn't mind, but I'm unsure as to whether my sense of humor was coming across properly or not. It's always so hard to be witty or sarcastic in writing without seeming mean or petty. At any rate, it really didn't bother me at all.

However, if he so wishes, Dan can legitimately accuse ME of theft as I am shamelessly copying his most recent post where he juxtaposes the beginning of Truffaut's Day For Night with the well-known Wed Anderson American Express commerical. I remember first seeing this commercial in the theatre before a movie (couldn't tell you which one though) and loving it. I'm not certain but I suspect Anderson also directed the ad as well as appeared in it. It certainly seems like something he'd do. If so, I think the idea of having prominent filmmakers direct AND act in these credit card commercials (where the filmmaker's personality can be seen in the style as well as the content) is a fabulous idea. I've seen the Wes Anderson ad probably fifty times now, so I think I'm ready for a few new ones featuring a different director. I caught one that M. Knight Shyamalan did on TV one night and it didn't particularly impress me.

This one, however, had me in stitches:

Again, I don't know whether Marty himself directed the ad or not, but his ability to poke fun at himself is wonderful. Here's a brilliant artist who (as the ad indicates) takes his work seriously, but not himself seriously. I think it's very possible that the Academy was simply waiting for him to do this commercial before giving him his Oscar.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Another Interesting Movie Quiz

Dennis Cozzalio is doing another one of his fun movie quizzes over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. I have to admit that I love these things (even if they are somewhat of a humbling experience as they remind me how much more I still have to learn about film). Anyway, here are my answers to this latest quiz (my responses to the first one can be found here).

1) What movie did you have to see multiple times before deciding whether you liked or disliked it?
I didn't really "get" (and consequently didn't enjoy) 2001 the first time I saw it. Took me a couple more viewings, as well as reading some literature on it, to properly love and appreciate it for the great masterwork it is.

2) Inaugural entry into the Academy of the Overrated.
Quinten Tarantino. Whenever I hear this guy praised as a "genius," hailed as "the next Scorsese" or referred to as the "voice of a generation," my heart just sinks (and no, I am not particularly looking forward to Grindhouse).

3) Favorite sly or not-so-sly reference to another film or bit of pop culture within another film.
Gosh, where to begin? There are so many to choose from. I think I'm going to pick Burton's homage to Deliverance with the image of the Joker's hand emerging from the noxious chemicals in Batman.

4) Favorite Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger movie.
I'm sorry, but I have no idea who these people are.

5) Your favorite Oscar moment.
When Roger Moore joined Sean Connery onstage at the 1989 ceremony and introduced himself as "Bond," that was something I had been waiting my whole life to see. Oh, it was kind of neat that Michael Caine was there too.

6) Hugo Weaving or Guy Pearce?
I plead the fifth.

7) Movie that you feel gave you the greatest insight into a world/culture/person/place/event that you had no understanding of before seeing it.
I know I've said this many times before and will no doubt have cause to say it again, but Schindler's List changed my life. As someone who was relatively ignorant of the Holocaust prior to seeing the film (as were a lot of people my age unfortunately), it certainly opened my eyes to the enormity of that dark period in history, but it also confronted me with how truly evil we human beings can be as well as illustrating the extreme level of nobility and heroism of which we are capable. As a friend of mine said: "Few films have unpacked quite so beautifully or honestly both the darkness and the light within the human soul."

8) Favorite Samuel Fuller movie.
Confession time: I have never seen one of Fuller's movies.

9) Monica Bellucci or Maria Grazia Cucinotta?
Monica is sooooo beautiful!

10) What movie can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?
It is absolutely IMPOSSIBLE for me to watch Young Frankenstein without feeling good.

11) Conversely, what movie can destroy a day’s worth of good humor just by catching a glimpse of it while channel surfing?
I haven't seen Armageddon. since I first subjected myself to it in the theatre, but did manage to catch a few seconds of it on TV not too long ago. My entire day was ruined.

12) Favorite John Boorman movie.
Need you ask? See #3.

13) Warren Oates or Bruce Dern?
Bruce all the way, baby!

14) Your favorite aspect ratio.

I'm flexible. As long as the style and subject matter of the film seems to "fit" its aspect ratio, I'm not too picky. Still, you gotta love those colorful landscape shots in glorious cinemascope!

15) Before he died in 1984, Francois Truffaut once said: “The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it.” Is there any evidence that Truffaut was right? Is it Truffaut’s tomorrow yet?
I'd be interested to know precisely what Truffaut meant by "resemble." In what way exactly would a film "resemble" the person who made it... and why only one person? Is he predicting that films of tomorrow will cease to be collaborative efforts?

16) Favorite Werner Herzog movie.
If we can count films he's acted in as well as directed... Incident at Loch Ness. I just love that movie.

17) Favorite movie featuring a rampaging, oversized or otherwise mutated beast, or beasts.
I'm almost tempted to give the same answer I gave to the last question... but I can't. I gotta go with the "ultimate" monster movie: Jaws. I must admit that I never tire of watching that film. In fact, I have to view it at least once a year (usually in the summertime).

18) Sandra Bernhard or Sarah Silverman?
God, I hate Sandra Bernhard!

19) Your favorite, or most despised, movie cliché.
Whenever someone says the line: "I'm goin' in!"


In re-reading my answer to this question, I noticed that I forgot to make it clear that it was my most DESPISED movie cliche and not my favorite. My favorite movie cliche would have the be the always beautiful shot of the drapes swirling gently in the wind to indicate someone has just escaped out the window. Thank God nobody in the movies ever owns venetians blinds.

20) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-- yes or no?
I really don't understand all the ill will that is directed at this movie. Granted, it may be the least of the three (soon to be four) Indy films, but compared to most other Hollywood fare, I think it's still quite good.

21) Favorite Nicholas Ray movie.
Only seen one: Rebel Without a Cause

22) Inaugural entry into the Academy of the Underrated.
I don't think Bruce Willis gets enough credit for his acting.

23) Your favorite movie dealing with the subject of television.
Well, Network first comes to mind and I suspect it's the film most people will choose. Rightfully so, of course, as it was certainly a very prophetic film on the changing face of television... but then again, in many ways so was The Truman Show, so (just to be different) I'm going to go with the latter.

24) Bruno Ganz or Patrick Bauchau?
Ganz gave what I consider to be on the finest performances ever committed to celluloid when he played Hitler in Downfall.

25) Your favorite documentary, or non-fiction, film.
Clear Cut: the Story of Philomath, Oregon (but my reason is somewhat embarassing to admit).

26) According to Orson Welles, the director’s job is to “preside over accidents.” Name a favorite moment from a movie that seems like an accident, or a unintended, privileged moment. How did it enhance or distract from the total experience of the movie?
The lobster scene from Annie Hall is such a wonderful example of two people who love each other just laughing and having fun together that the "reality" of the moment and the "fantasy" of the scene become virtually indistinguishable from one another.

27) Favorite Wim Wenders movie.
Oh man, this is pathetic but... I've yet to see a Wim Wenders film too.

28) Elizabeth Pena or Penelope Cruz?
By default: Elizebeth Pena (not a big fan of Penelope Cruz).

29) Your favorite movie tag line (Thanks, Jim!)
Just to throw a little more love at the movie: "If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones."

30) As a reader, filmgoer, or film critic, what do you want from a film critic, or from film criticism? And where do you see film criticism in general headed?
In our intensely relativistic age, I understand that a lot of film criticism essentially boils down to personal opinion (as, one could argue, does art analysis in general), but I wish there was more of a concerted effort in the criticism "community" for some degree of objectivity. Even if it proves to be something that is not actually attainable, I think it should be some type of "goal" or "end" to which all aesthetes strive. As it is, critics nowadays not only proclaim their subjectivity, they seem to actually celebrate it, thus leaving very little room for any kind of change, progression or personal growth. It's a very safe place to be, something they can almost "hide behind." After all, one can never be "wrong" when there is no such thing as "wrong" in the first place. That's why I admire critics who seem to have at least some sense of consistent criteria which they bring with them to their evaluations rather than merely being caught up in their own wittiness (such as using hyperbole and making clever puns out of the title of a movie they didn't like rather than trying to specify what was poorly done about the film).

Basically, I hope that the film critics of the future are more like Roger Ebert than Richard Roeper.

EXTRA CREDIT: Do movies still matter?
Movies will always matter. To me, that's like asking: "Does painting still matter? Or theatre? Or music? or dance?"

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Great Cinematic Speeches: "M"

As I was re-visiting Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Kirk Douglas, James Mason and Peter Lorre last night, I was reminded of yet another soliloquy to add to my ongoing list of great movie speeches: the "defense" that Peter Lorre's child-murdering psychotic gives as he stands trial in Fritz Lang's "M." It is certainly a harrowing bit of cinema made all the more riveting by Lorre's intense performance as the seriosuly disturbed individual who "just can't help himself." As always, if you haven't seen the film yet, SPOILERS may follow.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Did the Butler FINALLY do it?

This weekend's release of 300, Zack Snyder's cinematic "translation" (to use Robert Rodriguez's term) of Frank Miller's well-known graphic novel has lots of people very excited, not the least of all comic book fans. I happen to be one of those fans. I was very much looking forward to the film and, having just seen it, it fulfilled all of my expectations. There is, however, another reason why this film's release, and all of the hype surrounding it, pleases me. It's because I am confident it will accomplish something that I've been hoping will happen for a long time: it will turn Gerard Butler into a star.

For those who may not know, Gerry (as he prefers to be called) is the 38-year-old Scottish actor who plays the role of Spartan King Leonides with conviction, authority and gravitas. He's someone whose career I have been following for several years now and despite the fact that I think he has everything a fellow would need to become an enormosuly successful leading man and A-list movie star (looks, talent, charisma), the level of fame and celebrity available to the likes of Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale seems to have eluded him... hopefully until now.

Though I didn't realize it until years later, the first time I saw Butler was in a minor role in the film Her Majesty Mrs. Brown. He wasn't particularly memorable in it, but then it's hard to be when you're working across from Judi Dench and Billy Connelly. Apparently he also appeared briefly in the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. Kind of funny given that years later Butler's name would be one among dozens of potential successors to Brosnan (though, quite frankly, all it seems an actor needs nowadays to be considered a possible Bond is a penis).

To this day, though, the first time I really consider "seeing" Gerry Butler in a movie was in Wes Craven's Dracula 2000 where he played the titular vampire. The film itself, to use tremendous understatement, is certainly no masterpiece but does have some interesting ideas, a few halfway decent scenes and boasts an effective Van Helsing in the form of veteran actor Christopher Plummer. The biggest impression left on me when I first saw it, though, was by Butler himself. I vividly remember Dracula making his entrance on screen and thinking to myself "Whoa! Who is THAT?" First of all, the man (and I'm secure enough in my sexuality that I can say this) is gorgeous. Secondly, he had remarkable presence. Over the course of the film, Dracula does very little talking and yet Butler still commands the screen whenever he's on it. When he does speak it's in a rather sinister whisper, giving him far more strength and power than if he were waving his arms about and shouting angrily. Despite the massive shortcomings of the film, I think Butler's interpretation of the character is good enough to deserve a place beside such great screen Draculas as Lugosi, Lee, Langella and Oldman. It's amazing that a film which is so overblown and corny can have an element of such subtlety and dignity. I made it a point to remember Butler's name because I was convinced this guy was going places (I thought the same thing of Natalie Portman when I saw her in The Professional).

Over the next few years Butler's face would pop up on occasion, either playing a supporting role in a rather forgettable movie (Reign of Fire, Timeline or the Lara Croft sequel) or a prominent role in a made-for-TV mini-series (BBC's The Jury or TNT's Attila). When it was announced that he would be playing the Phantom of the Opera in the big screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's popular stage musical, I was one of the few people who was actually pleased. At the very least, I knew that he could act the part and would have the requisite amount of menace, sympathy and sexiness. I was also hopeful that it might finally lift his career to the next level, but unfortunately it did not happen. If anything, it probably hurt him. Butler's limitations as a singer did not endear him to many "phans" and, as one critic astutley observed, he had the un-enviable job of being "the guy who's not Michael Crawford." After the film's upsetting reception I realized I was going to have to wait a little longer for Butler to get the attention I felt he deserved... although during this time Butler was making the rounds of the talk-show circuit (Leno, Ferguson, Ellen, etc) demonstrating his immense charm and ease and, through the process, winning a few female fans. That sexy Scottish accent I'm sure didn't hurt him either.

Also during this time, Butler managed to show up in a couple very good, though perhaps not hugely successful, indie movies such as The Game Of Their Lives (also known as The Miracle Match), a charming little film about one of the great upsets in sports history. There was also Dear Frankie, a tale about a deaf boy (Jack mcElhone) living with his mother (Emily Mortimer) who has told him some rather rosy untruths about his father, a terribly abusive man from whom she is feeling. Butler plays a character known only as "the stranger" that she hires to pretend to be his father. In spite of how it sounds, it's actually a very charming, very sweet (though not maudlin) film and a film that Butler should be proud of, despite the fact it wasn't going to be turning him into a "above-the-title" actor.

Now, with 300, Gerry finally lands his first "real" leading role in a high-concept Hollywood blockbuster (in which he performs admirably well) and I think it's high time. Perhaps from now on, whenever the name "Gerard Butler" is mentioned, the typical response from people will no longer be: "Who?"

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The REAL Zodiac

I know the TRUE identity of the Zodiac Killer!

After going to see (and loving) Zodiac last weekend I decided to take home the 2005 film The Zodiac for comparison. As it turned out, David Fincher's movie was far superior, but something interesting did come from viewing this version. I was about five minutes into it when, lo and behold, I saw one of the same faces that I had seen in the other film: Philip Baker Hall, the actor who appeared in such films as Hard Eight, Magnolia and a whole host of others. In this one he plays the chief of police in Vallejo. In Fincher's film, he's a handwriting expert. At first I was amused by this coincidence"... but then I realized what it actually suggests.

Philip Baker Hall is the Zodiac Killer!

Think about it. Why else would he possibly want to appear in not just one but TWO films based on his own handiwork? Also, Hall is 75 years old, so he was certainly alive during the time of the actual killings.

In one of his messages Zodiac wrote: "I am waiting for a good movie about me. Who will play me?" Clearly he was hoping that he would.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Poster Pet Peeves

A while back I wrote a post entitled Is There Nothing New Under the Sun? in which I drew attention to the fact that the one-sheet for the soon-to-be released Becoming Jane was shamelessly imitating the same design from the posters for Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Lack of originality is just one of my many "poster pet peeves." Today, when I saw the one-sheet for an upcoming comedy called The Nanny Diaries, I was reminded of yet another one.

Look at the image below and see if something doesn't jump out at you.

Do you see it?

That's clearly Scarlett Johansson sitting there on top of the film's title (I know because I not only recognize her pouty expression but I see her name conspicuously placed beside her). So who is that sitting next to her? Well, I can tell you who it's not. It is most decidely NOT Laura Linney! So, why on earth have they placed Linney's name on the opposite side of the boy in exactly the same corresponsing spot as Johannson's? That just makes no sense whatsoever! I wish this gross miscalculation in "name placement" were an isolated incident but, unfortunately, I have observed the phenomenon on many a movie poster.

I understand, of course, that the graphic elements on a movie's one-sheet are usually designed independently from the copy, which can often end up creating some sense of incongruency in the final product. This is why I greatly respect movie posters that have the images and the words interacting in a creative way (in the case of Stranger Than Fiction, for example, it actually emphasizes one of the major themes in the film, which any good movie poster should do; it ends up being not only very funny but somewhat profound).

I also realize that actor's agents probably fight "tooth and nail" to ensure their client's names get displayed in a certain manner when it comes to all publicity surrounding a film. I can just hear the telephone conversation now: "Oh, and I want my boy's name to be centered above the title and on it's own line. I don't want any other names next to it. I also want it to be in the biggest type on the page. Everyone else has to be smaller. (pause) So what if he directed the movie? He's not getting his name larger than my client's. (pause) I DON'T CARE WHETHER HE FINALLY WON HIS OSCAR OR NOT! LARGEST LETTERS ON THE PAGE! GOT THAT? AT LEAST TWICE AS LARGE AS EVERYTHING ELSE! (pause) Well, okay. If it absolutely, positively must be smaller than the title... but we have to get another 20 million for that!"

Still, for all that, one would think that the artists (and I use that word deliberately) who are ultimately responsible or the poster wouldn't want to compromise the unity of the entire piece. Even if it meant little more than a simple flip of the photo (which would actually solve the problem more often than not), surely it would create a better impression for the movie than having one of your star's names placed next to the likeness of a small boy. As it stands, it looks like a case of "the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing" (which is what happens when these things are done by committee). Whether it's ignorance, laziness, stubbornness, apathy or just plain stupidity, mis-attributed names on movie posters is a major annoyance and I just don't see any excuse for it.

The ONE time that I saw it occurr and it didn't bother me was for the remake of Freaky Friday. Given the body-switching gimmick of the story, this particular mis-placement turned out to be a rather clever aspect of the film's one-sheet.

In fact, since the movie itself to Freaky Friday was suprisingly good, I wonder if I'm not giving the "poster people" enough credit here. Is it perhaps possible that they engineered the name-switch on purpose? Could it be that creativity has not completely disappeared from the "art" of movie publicity?

You decide.

Saturday, March 03, 2007


Now, I'm not necessarily saying that this guy stole my feature... but I posted my own piece on the Few Good Men speech only a little over a week ago.



Now here is someone, on the other hand, that I know for sure took my idea. However, he did give me credit for it, so I guess I don't really mind. Plus, he chose a great speech. :)