Friday, March 07, 2014

1985: The Magic Year

     Every so often, a year comes along that produces an unprecedented bounty of cinematic milestones. Everyone is always quick to point out that 1939 was the patented Golden Year for film. It's true that '39 offered a great deal of certified classics: The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, among many others. For my money, the last best collective year for film happened a mere forty-six years later. Maybe I'm just sentimental (I was still coming of age), but 1985 to me was truly a magical time at the movies. Below are just ten selections from that particular year that helped build our modern film lexicon. In no particular order.

Real Genius
Neal Israel, who co-wrote and directed Bachelor Party (1984) and later produced Finding Neverland (2004); Pat Proft, who wrote for Red Foxx, Dick Van Dyke and the Smothers Brothers as well as The Naked Gun film series; and the late PJ (Peter) Torokvei, a trans woman and activist who began writing for SCTV and went on to co-write Back to School (1986) and Moving Violations (1986) both with Harold Ramis; all teamed up to write the ultimate '80s smart kids movie. But Real Genius is so much more. It's also one of the best college films as well as being infinitely quotable: "It was hot, and I was hungry."

The making of Terry Gilliam's true masterpiece is almost as infamous as the film itself. A sci-fi comedy Orwellian nightmare/fantasy by way of Monty Python only half describes this beloved modern classic that still refuses to fit neatly into any box. And is it fair to say that Brazil is a "modern classic" when in fact, like all the films we are examining today, it was made almost thirty years ago? It really does feel timeless. An especially marvelous feat considering it's still set in our not-so-distant dystopian future. Pryce, Palin, Holm, Hoskins and especially De Niro all turn in fine performances. Gilliam fought a literal war to preserve his vision. His battles paid off.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure
Tim Burton has lost many die-hard devotees in recent years, but back in '85, he was still the preeminent up-and-comer to watch. His one-two-punch of Pee-wee followed by Beetlejuice a few years later firmly established him as a populist art-house filmmaker to be reckoned with. Always with a slant toward the macabre, what starts off as a live action cartoon show parody quickly descends into a road movie from hell, and ends up on the Warner Bros. back lot in an all-out send-up of the movie-making business. It's still incredibly good stuff. In fact, I'd go as far to say if this film premiered in general release today, it might not only have a shot at Best Picture of the year, it may have had the heart of gold to win.

Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds have had a checkered history. They made Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and stopped talking mid-way through the enjoyably underrated Waterworld (1995) only to kiss and make up before collaborating on Hatfields & McCoys (2012). This was their first film together and inarguably the best. In a way, it's the best coming of age movie you've never heard of, since Breaking Away (1979), even though it only takes place over a relatively short period of time. It's another road movie, but this one has its roots firmly planted in reality (as opposed to Pee-wee) but not without making a few unscheduled stops along the way. A comedy that deals with not only growing up and growing apart, but also handles such themes as Vietnam with a sure hand. Spielberg saw Reynolds' student film on which this was based and gave him the funds to expand it into a feature. It brought Costner a load of exposure and propelled him on his way to household namedom. Worth seeing if just for the wacky plane guy and Judd Nelson playing a nerd.

The most breathlessly paced and witty film of the decade. Also quite possibly the best ensemble comedy of all time. A stylistic heir to director Robert Moore, who gave us Murder by Death in 1976 (one of the finest old dark house murder-mystery parodies), British born Jonathan Lynn (Nuns on the Run; My Cousin Vinny) turns in a true masterpiece. This is one film I can literally watch over and over and never grow tired of. And believe me, I have watched it over and over, in the same day no less. Tim Curry somehow manages to top his career best, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (made exactly ten years prior) and leads the wackiest bunch of potential murder suspects this side of Agatha Christie's Orient Express. Of all my favorite characters, that still vary week to week, Madeline Kahn's Mrs. White nearly steals the show every time; her "flames, on the sides of my face" monologue is truly brilliant. The late Eileen Brennan actually appeared in both Clue and Murder by Death, bridging the gap between two generations of black comedy classics.

Back to the Future
Everybody loves this film. What more can be said or written about it? Well, for starters, it's probably one of the weakest time travel movies ever made. To a degree, all time travel films that involve going to ones own immediate past are usually riddled with flaws and paradoxes. Even the nearly perfect time travel fantasy Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). Bill & Ted nailed the time loop paradox/circular causation theory in a very funny way (the "strange things are afoot at the Circle K" scenes); even if it doesn't make any sense that their future world almost doesn't exist because Ted's Dad almost sends him to military academy (if time exists in a linear fashion, how was their harmonious future world ever formed in order to send George Carlin back in a phone booth to help them in the first place if they hadn't already passed their test?). If your head is starting to hurt, it's okay. This is why I'm not allowed to talk about time travel theories with very many people. Back to the Future wants to have it both ways. It wants to be linear time travel (circular causation) and quantum theory (multiple time lines: change the past and the future becomes totally different) at the same time. You see, the majority of the film is linear, until bodies start disappearing in Marty's Polaroid picture up to the ending which is totally quantum. If you can overlook the critical flaws, it's a real hoot.

The Goonies
I've actually grown a little tired of this film. There, I said it. Most of the characters seem annoying to me now. So why is it on my list of the greatest films of 1985? Well, because it is one of the best films of the decade, despite whatever may seem cloying in hindsight. It's a film about friendship, and pursuing your dreams. God, I can't believe I just wrote that. It's transparent enough as it is. But maybe that's why it still has a hold over most people. It does wear its heart on its sleeve. And it's still incredibly funny, only in different places to me now. Like the scene in which Mouth is helping his Dad repair the leaky kitchen sink. And who wouldn't want to live in Astoria, Oregon? Surely one of the most atmospheric suburbs in all of popular filmdom. Spielberg provided the story (along with Chris Columbus) and Richard Donner of course directed. Thank God he made up for The Toy (1982); even if I still love Pryor and Gleason in that film.

Fright Night
Tom Holland, who wrote the criminally underrated Psycho II (1982), wrote and directed this modern horror opus, his seminal work. Roddy McDowell steals the show as Peter Vincent (a combination of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), a jaded late night creature feature television show host (remember them?) who learns all too late in the game that vampires really do exist. Chris Sarandon plays the creature in what surely must be a career high for the future voice of Jack the "Pumpkin King" in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Sarandon, who also played Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride (1987), was once nominated for an Academy Award for playing Al Pacino's flustered wife (yes, you read that correctly) in Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (1975). His suave and seductive vampire Jerry Dandridge is a tour de force of smarmy villainy. It's one of those rare occasions when you actually can't help but root for the bad guy. Skip the remake and revisit the original instead.

The Breakfast Club
John Hughes passed away unexpectedly in the Summer of 2009. He was only 59. His fans the world over felt like an older brother had died. For many of us, Hughes wrote the scripts for our imaginary childhoods. We may not have been raised in his fictional Shermer, Illinois, but the growing pains he so diligently adapted for us on film were most palpable. He peaked as a director in 1985 with his most affecting work. Hughes' original concept incorporated several fantasy sequences, but he chose to eliminate most in the final edit (the dancing scene with Emilio Estevez shattering the glass is about all that remains). The production underwent many personnel swaps (Ringwald was originally cast in Sheedy's role; John Cusack was cast in Judd Nelson's part but was let go because he was deemed not menacing enough; Nicolas Cage was also considered) but the most interesting casting choice would have to be Rick Moranis as Carl the janitor, who left due to creative differences. Sixteen Candles may have been more irreverent and Ferris Bueller might have had more fun, but it's The Breakfast Club that immediately comes to mind whenever I'm in a sentimental mood and feel like reliving my made-up adolescence. Rest in peace, Mr. Hughes. 

I still recall seeing this one in the theater, several times. The Westview Cinema on U.S. Route 40. I can picture the poster outside the cinema. I thought to myself at the time: oh, God; not another Western. The truth is, Silverado came out in that great void following Cimino's career-ending Heaven's Gate (1980) and Eastwood's great revival of the genre Unforgiven (1992). Incidentally, Heaven's Gate is nowhere near as bad as some people claimed. Long, yes -- bad, no. Sadly, in between, not much serious consideration was given to Lawrence Kasdan's entertaining sagebrush tale. What I have always admired most about the polished production (and I've revisited it often since those early days at the Westview) is how much fun the entire cast seems to be having, even the antagonists. Scott Glenn and Kevin Costner really do seem like brothers. The fractured past between Kevin Kline and Brian Dennehy's characters is quite believable. Danny Glover's character seems to be a bit of an afterthought, but there's real magic in his brief scenes along with those of actor Joe Seneca. John Cleese even makes the most of his Sheriff cameo, a true fish out of water. Only Jeff Goldblum feels superfluous; there were enough bad guys in the mix already. My friend Eddie will say the orchestral score is too much, but I think it's just fine. Unlike his dour Wyatt Earp (1994), this was Kasdan's love letter to the films about the Old West. 

honorable mentions:

Lost In America
The Purple Rose of Cairo
My Life as a Dog
Better Off Dead
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
Return of the Living Dead
Prizzi's Honor
Twice in a Lifetime
Rocky IV
Transylvania 6-5000
28 Up
After Hours
Out of Africa
Into the Night
When Father Was Away on Business
Sweet Dreams
My Beautiful Laundrette
The Color Purple
Heaven Help Us
The Sure Thing
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins
Once Bitten
Smooth Talk
The Trip to Bountiful
Dance with a Stranger
National Lampoon's European Vacation
Enemy Mine
The Official Story
Runaway Train
Year of the Dragon
Young Sherlock Holmes
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
My Science Project
Trouble in Mind
Weird Science
Brewster's Millions
Spies Like Us

among others.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Grandmaster

"A well-matched opponent is as rare as a good friend."

You may have missed it, but Wong Kar-wai, the man who gave us the rapturous In the Mood for Love (2000) as well as the playful (yet filled with longing) Chungking Express (1994) and the emotionally gripping Happy Together (1997) -- all featuring his screen alter ego Tony Leung Chiu-Wai -- has finally brought his long-gestating romantic martial arts epic based on the legend of Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man to the screen. And fill the screen with intense visual poetry he did. The version that was released this week on Region A Blu-ray is just one of three alleged cuts that Wong personally supervised of the film. This one, running the shortest, is not without faults. It feels a little compromised at times; episodic. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, you shouldn't let anything dissuade you from experiencing the immense artistry the film has to offer.

The Anchor Bay Blu-ray is quite exceptional and the on-screen English subtitles compliment the elegiac story beautifully. If I were looking for another Cinematic allusion to compare this visual feast to, I might use the oft-quoted adage from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." If you're looking for a straight-forward (though loose) retelling of Ip Man's life (better known as the man who mentored Bruce Lee), you may want to see Donny Yen's Ip Man (2008). Wong had something else in mind than acclaimed martial artist Yen, and he fashions a stirring minor-masterpiece, pulling many cinematic references out of his hat -- in such a way that Quentin Tarantino wouldn't have the ability nor the balls to execute. The secret to using a cue from another film or filmmaker is: subtlety.

Much of The Grandmaster (2013) is infused with this kind of shrewd awareness to other films. There are moments (especially the train station sequence) that recalled David Lean's Doctor Zhivago (1965) for me as well as the classic Spaghetti Western filmmakers that Tarantino so blatantly plunders on a regular basis. When the music cue from Leone's Once Upon in America (1984) finally arrived in Wong's film, I almost felt like crying. Ennio Morricone's music is just as beautifully moving now as it was then. But without the story elements that Wong was composing, it would have amounted to far less. And kudos to Wong for keeping the Morricone temp track (as I believe it was originally intended) in the final film; or at least in the version of it I was fortunate enough to watch.

This film will likely divide viewers, especially those unfamiliar with modern martial arts films or Wong's inimitable style (including heavy use of slow motion). Just as Tarantino's latest films seem to capitalize on trend as well as clich├ęd comic book or manga appeal, Wong's pallet is far more distinguished. I always felt that Wong Kar-wai's movies owed a substantial debt to the Nouvelle Vague; specifically: Godard, Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Melville. Just as Kurosawa's samurai epics were inspired by the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks, the martial arts film genre is in a way the spiritual heir of the same logical progression. Wong somehow manages to infuse all of this with a genuine love and appreciation for classic American Film Noir (and if Tony C. Leung isn't the modern successor of Humphrey Bogart, I don't know who is). Is The Grandmaster nothing more than a triumph of style over substance? Not in the least. There's substance to match the style.

And what a beautiful triumph it is.
12 Years a Slave

     Most of the characters in 12 Years a Slave have names, but they are all interchangeable. Their names are unimportant, and so too are the characters. The film feels stolid, even as it exhibits harsh brutality (most of which occurs in the background or off camera). There is no realistic passage of time as the title implies. Perhaps if the characters, any of the characters, had been built up -- I might have felt something more than the requisite emotions the film was engineered to wring out of me (along with the self-reverential score that drones on from nearly start to finish). This film, and last years Best Picture winner Argo, have proven to me that we have forgotten how to make movies. We don't tell stories anymore with film. We use story tropes. That is: we use words, phrases or images for artistic effect.  

12 Years a Slave is a collection of tropes, strung together by a loose narrative that should have felt more like an epic journey, or a Greek Tragedy. Instead, everything in it felt stagey or blocked to me. Especially the way extras would walk in and out of frame, or the way scenes were composed like people and objects posing for a photograph. Take for instance the way male nudity is unnaturally concealed in every single shot. So unnatural it almost felt something like a high school for the performing arts play using interpretive body language at times. Is it so hard to tell a story anymore? Must we constantly try to trick our eyes, confound expectations or over-complicate the process? There's a very clear and simple narrative trying to escape from the film, but like the main character, it's stuck in a quagmire of impassive landscapes and tedious thematics. The worst thing I can say is it felt Hollywood, like the totally rhetorical cameo of producer/megastar Brad Pitt who shows up to validate the goodness of white people.

I grew impatient and angry with the film. Angry because it demanded nothing from me, other than to endure the brutality I had already anticipated from it. But where was the heart of the film? Where was the human spirit that was fighting to endure (rendering the brutality worth experiencing)? I began to think about The Killing Fields, a film that deeply affected me in my youth. Why wasn't this film on the same level as The Killing Fields? Why was the passing of time, the waiting around idly until a sudden burst of violence and the development of characters such a huge problem here? When I revisited Schindler's List on Blu-ray recently, I was amazed at how coherent and intimate the difficult and sprawling production was. 12 Years a Slave is neither coherent nor intimate. It's incredibly impersonal. I suspect this is so because we are meant to feel how impersonally or inhumanely the slaves are treated. They are property. Like the book before it painfully elucidates. The true misfortune of the film is that it never amounts to anything more.

Worse yet, I never felt Solomon's true pain: the absence of his family. There's a moment in True Grit (1969) when Mattie, the young protagonist, cradles the enormous gun that belonged to her dead father. There is more in that single moment of wordless expression than in most of Chiwetel Ejiofor's whole teary performance here. Like The Passion of the Christ before it, after a while, what difference does one more flogging or indignity make? And unlike the film Glory, it never really put me in these character's shoes. Supporting Actress winner Lupita Nyong'o makes a very impassioned film debut, but if the film were more about characters, instead of epithets, allegories and exemplars, it may have earned my tears.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Sermon from the MVP

     Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once co-piloted a passenger jet with the head of the original Mission: Impossible squad in Airplane! (1980) as well as fought the legendary Bruce Lee in Game of Death (1978). He is also a retired professional basketball player and living legend, having set the NBA record six times for most valuable player (MVP). Let's just say this: he's got a lot of street cred. He also recently wrote a very insightful and near soul-searching piece online about The Oscars' Addiction to Lame Historical Dramas, as he titled it.

The gist of what I think he was trying to say, is that our historical films today have devolved into Best Picture fodder come awards season, and are largely just reenactments of historical events without putting them in any kind of context, the way that superior films of the same ilk have always striven to do.

He argues that films like 12 Years a Slave (this year's Oscar winner for Best Picture) are meticulously crafted but grueling exercises meant to drop us into a particular time period, but not help us navigate the emotional complexities and human dynamics they conjure up. To quote Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, the six historical drama nominees for Best Picture this year: "don't explore history as much as recreate it." That's a powerful and completely valid observation.

above left: human wreckage in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
above right: blood on the sand in Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

He contrasts them with previous Best Picture winners like A Man for All Seasons (1966) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962); a film that gets its point across with a single shot compared to over two hours of sadism. I was surprised he didn't mention Schindler's List (1993), a film I think completely warranted the Best Picture win simply because it actually attempted to put a human face on tragic events, not just expose us to a raw nerve.

If anything, Mr. Abdul-Jabbar's piece was a thinly veiled call to arms for artists to take back the reigns from the uncreative types who control the game (but couldn't write their own names in the snow) and start making films that explore human dynamics again as opposed to being dressed up nominee potential come awards season. He did applaud Alexander Payne's Nebraska for its attempts to actually enlighten us with regards to human relationships.

above left: A Man for All Seasons (1966); above right: Harold and Maude (1971)

Eloquently enough, he cites Hal Ashby's early masterpiece Harold and Maude (1971) as the type of unconventional love story that filmmakers today should be striving to make, as opposed to Spike Jonze's seemingly prescient but ultimately innocuous Her (that walked away with the Oscar for Original Screenplay). He took Her to task for being a "novelty" and for not having anything more illuminating to say about "love and humanity" than the underrated Lars and the Real Girl (2007).

above left: Her (2013); above right: Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

I'm really starting to like Mr. Abdul-Jabbar. He invoked two of my all-time favorite films, A Man for All Seasons and Harold and Maude in the same piece in addition to essentially calling out the Oscars as the self-congratulatory King & Queen homecoming dance that it is. He also reminded me that I need to watch Lars and the Real Girl again, a compelling film that deeply touched me. I mean, I liked him before. But now I'm really starting to like him.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Gender Wars

     Jared Leto is only the second person in Oscar history to win the Academy Award for playing a person of the opposite sex. But why isn't everyone applauding him as such? The first person to do so was Linda Hunt in 1982 for Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously, who won Best Supporting Actress for her vivid portrayal of not only a male dwarf, but a Chinese-Australian one. For the record, Hunt is neither a man, an Australian nor Chinese.

The 4' 9" Caucasian actress (who was diagnosed with a form of dwarfism when she was a child) was born in New Jersey and raised in Connecticut. The transgender community has railed against Leto's win of the same prestigious acting award for his role in last year's Dallas Buyers Club. Mainly because he is not a transgender woman in real life. He is simply a male actor playing a fictional character who was once a man, but decided to become a woman, who is also living with AIDS.

What kinda ticks me off, is the fact that not many in the media have really had the balls to come out and openly embrace the fact that Leto's character is in effect: FEMALE -- the way they did when Hunt won for playing a man. His character is not a homosexual, a cross-dresser nor an effeminate man in drag. He plays someone who began life as a man but chose to become a woman. That's kind of a big deal, especially on Oscar night. What's stopping anyone from completely playing a person of the opposite sex in a major film who isn't already transgender, living with AIDS or a half-Chinese dwarf? Okay, so it isn't the 1600s and we're not attending a theatre performance on the banks of the River Thames.

Generally speaking, Hollywood doesn't take those types of gender swap risks on a regular basis (Hunt won her Academy Award over thirty years ago); actress Felicity Huffman was nominated for Best Actress playing a transgender woman in Transamerica (2005); Hilary Swank won for playing a female to male transgender person in Boys Don't Cry (1999). No one got upset then. Then again, those performers didn't actually have ding dongs. Personally, the trans community are entitled to feel however they want about it, justified or not. But if they had things their way, it sounds as if instead of Dustin Hoffman playing a man with autism in Rain Man (1988), the part should have been played by an actual autistic actor.

Or instead of Hoffman as an out-of-work actor who impersonates a woman in order to find work in Tootsie (1982), the part should have been played by Meryl Streep, playing a man impersonating a woman who then falls in love with one of her female costars. Hell, at least she might have actually deserved an Oscar for that, instead of for playing one of those weird Spitting Image puppets pretending to be Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011).

The sad truth is, Hollywood is still largely just a pack of pathological millionaires, who may have been regular people at one point but have long since had their souls drained from all those paparazzi flashbulbs and gluten-free California health plates. Does it really matter who plays what sex and who wins a superlative for it? Ultimately the only thing that matters for an actor is how well they are able to translate the human condition. Were Hunt and Leto able to convey this effectively? The Academy seemed to think so. I guess you'll have to judge for yourself.