Thursday, June 24, 2010

La Haine (1995)

This movie is so fantastic, so intense, so stressful, and so badass, that I had to take my dog Mo for a walk just to shake loose.

Anyone reading this blog probably knows that I have been going through the AFI 100 years, 100 movies list, and that those postings have moved to Scene Stealers. Well I just watched "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and I wanted to watch something off the list that I could write about over here. I remembered my friend Kevin was talking about this French movie that took its inspiration from Spike Lee's most renowned joint.

The film is "La Haine" or "Hate" for you Francophobes, and it follows three youth, Vinz, Hubert and Said, the day after their friend, Abdel, was shot in nearby riots. The entire film takes place over the course of one day and looks at the tensions between the police and the various ethnic groups that make up the Parisian ghetto.

The entire film works as a parable. We have three characters, each with their own drives and responses to what has happened, and they are offered to the viewer as the three paths to choose from. We then watch as Hubert, Vinz, and Said all move within their world each representing a different philosophy. There are parables within the story as well. One of my favorites comes when our three main characters are hiding from the cops in a restroom. Be warned. The language is salty.

Now I realize that from this one scene this film could appear to be a light hearted comedy of errors. I assure you this is not the case. It is intense and masterfully constructed. Even the digressions are well placed, meaningful and beautifully crafted. Here are two trailers for another small taste.

The film's pacing is a free fall and the entire time you are just waiting for the characters to slam headlong into the approaching ground. In spite of that tension, the movie is exceedingly enjoyable and the characters are easy to sympathize with.

Give it a try, but just in case you need it when you're done with "La Haine" here is a picture of Mo. Feel free to print it out and take it for a walk.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

1 Year, 100 Movies Is Moving

That's right. What started as my little blog project has been picked up by my good friends over at Scene Stealers. From now on all of my entries will post over there. Here is the first one which Eric just put up.

It's a recap, but soon new ones will start coming again.

And if you've become a fan of my blog, fear not. With the 100 movies project moving to Scene Stealers, it frees up my blog to talk about other things, like how awesome the Dr Who theme song is, and why ABC would cancel Flashforward while keeping the train wreck that is V.

So stick around. There will be plenty to talk about.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

You've Got a Friend in Me-#99 Toy Story (1995)

Though I prefer Wall-E or The Incredibles, if you are going to put a Pixar film on a list of 100 important films, then it should be Toy Story. Toy Story changed the game in animation, and made everyone look at animated features less like cartoon fodder for kids, and more like a movie. Just six years earlier, Disney had made a comeback with Little Mermaid, but was already slipping back into it's old ways of kiddie musical schlock, when Toy Story (1995) hit the scene.

A film that was built on story and character, Toy Story explores jealousy, friendship, insecurities, and danger, and does so in way that both children and adults can relate to. Woody and Buzz's argument on the bed top, could just as easily be transposed onto the playground or into the office. Pixar was doing something that few have done before. It was going smart.

Now most films that are intended for children, but want to appeal to adults will throw in a vulgar moment or two. Think of any Shrek movie. From Pinocchio's thong to almost anything that comes out of Donkey's mouth, you have a stream of vulgar fart jokes or sexual innuendo that are intended to fly by the younger viewers and land directly on the adults like a vaporous cloud. To use an earlier example, and to stick with Spielberg, granpappy of Ol' Dreamworks, think of the "penis breath" comment in ET. It is pushed in to give a little shock laugh, but is really pretty unnecessary and pretty unfunny.

So then 1995 comes along and Toy Story comes out. It was well written, the characters were believable and had to take real risks and make real sacrifices to move forward or solve their problems. The obstacles that Buzz and Woody encounter are solid. This is excellent film making, and is perhaps the smartest move in children's film since the Muppet Movie in 1979. Take two scenes as examples. Buzz's fall from the railing in Sid's house, and Woody's emotional collapse under the milk crate. These scenes are foils to one another. When Buzz has just found out he is a toy, and is trying to prove to himself that he still has the same value he thought he had, he mounts the railing, extends his wings, and jumps. This time it is without the spectacular gravity defying results of before, and instead ends with an arm breaking crash.

Later in the film, Woody is trapped under a milk crate and Buzz has given up. Woody explains to Buzz that being a toy is better than being a space ranger. In doing so, Woody must face the reality that Buzz is a pretty great toy, and admit the truth that his position as Andy's favorite may be supplanted.

We have all at one time or another, thought we were greater, more talented, more special than we actually were. When the truth comes out, it is devastating. We have all also had a moment or two when we have felt we were being replaced by a slicker, shinier model. These are human stories. Within the context of Toy Story, they just happen to be animated. And really this what Pixar does over and over. In each of its films, it tells real human tales of risk and loss, of big falls and emotional victories. Pixar has had minor bumps along the way, but for the most part its enduring consistency in quality filmmaking has been remarkable. And of course it all started with Toy Story.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

# 100 Ben Hur (1959)

So Ben Hur. First off I would like to say that a beginning overture and an entr'acte or intermission are the best and should be used in any film over two and a half hours. I think it's sad we don't see them anymore. By listening to the music, the overture not only gives you a moment to find your seat and enjoy some popcorn, but helps you get into the right mindset for the movie you're about to watch. The intermission gives the viewer a physical and emotional break. We have time to visit the restroom, grab a beverage, or just take a deep breath. Both of these are sad casualties of the modern theatrical film market. Okay now that I've got that off my chest.

I know that most of the attention that this film gets is that is big, it's epic, and it has an awesome chariot race. Well that's all true. The scale of this film is incredible. The story moves from Judea to Rome, and follows Judah Ben Hur, a jew who lived during the time of Jesus. This film has remarkable sets and at a time long before you could build them in your computer. In the chariot race, when someone is shown being dragged behind their chariot, it is probably an actual person. It is definitely not a computer generated double. Though every thing about this movie was larger than life, what I found really compelling were the scenes that were smaller in scale. Scenes between only two characters. Scenes such as the scene early on when Judah welcomes back his old friend Messala, now the newly appointed tribune of Rome. This scene between two people establishes an old and dear friendship, the way the two are still some similar and how they have grown apart. It also points to their developing conflict, which is the main conflict in the story.

There are also a number of these scenes that involve Judah and Esther, and establish or build on the love story. Part of the reason why these scenes work and are believable, is that they are allowed time to breath and play out. Most of the scenes maybe small in scale, but each is long. So we can see Judah as he struggles with Messala's militance and desire to stomp out rebellion, and we can see that Judah is torn by Esther's engagement to a man in Antioch. By giving the scene and character the time to develop, the viewer is not shocked when Judah tells Messala that he is against him and his plans, or when Judah positions himself for a not-so-goodbye kiss from Esther. It would be easy to cut these scenes down in order to get a cut of Ben Hur that is two hours and forty-five minutes, instead of it's three and a half hours, but it would utterly destroy the film. This film is really long and really great, and that's the way it has to be.

Jesus is in this movie, but he's here in a really compelling way. Not with the heavy handedness that a modern focus group or megachurch would most likely insist upon, but with a subtlety and gestural grace that is remarkable. We don't see Jesus cast a wizard performing miracles here and there. What we do see is a character that comes in at specific times throughout the story, and we watch as the other characters react to him, and are changed. There is a little Deus ex Machina going on with some of the emotional transitions that occur when Jesus is around, but when you put God in your movie, that's probably gonna happen. Still most of the scenes are so distinct from the rest that they are weighty and powerful.

We have a number of different ethnic groups in this film, and though Jew may not be played by Jew, or Arab by Arab, each of the characters is strong, proud and veers sharply away from bald stereotype. For a film from 1959, it needs few excuses made for it.

I really only have one thing to say about the chariot race. George Lucas, if you're going to ripoff er I mean pay homage to this chariot race in Episode 1, then please do it right. You have the blueprint right here, and there is none of the unnecessary teeth gnashing, annoying announcers, or fart humor of your tragic representation. Done. Now watch Ben Hur's chariot race and be blown away with awesomeness.

This is not a film to start after 7 or 8 pm, but make sure you get a viewing in at some point.

Friday, June 4, 2010

It Arrives Tomorrow.

So to the four and a half people who are checking this out, I guess June 5 is day 1.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Project #1 AFI's 100 years 100 movies (2007) in 1 year

So my wife, Jaime, and I were discussing what to do with this blog. She suggested writing about movies, or my daily life, but I wanted a bit more structure. When I mentioned that I had always wanted to watch the current AFI Top 100 Films list in order from 100 to 1, she said, "Write about that." I think it's a fine idea. Now this might not be the only thing that I write about in this blog, but it's where I shall begin.

Rules of Project #1

I will watch all of the films on AFI's 100 years 100 movies within one year. I have recently reinvested in Netflix, and am due to receive Ben Hur in the next couple of days. When that happens, the countdown begins. I will try and post my blog entries within 24 hours of viewing each film. The postings may be critical, whimsical, or random. I intend on just writing about the film in whatever way feels natural, and hopefully begins the dialogue.

Now I understand that whenever you discuss a list of any kind there can be some heated debate. Know that I am not suggesting that the AFI Top 100 is the definitive list. It's not the list to end all lists. Still the list is easily accessible, and all of the films on it are important, even if you disagree that they are "the greatest of all time."

So join me for some, or all of this project. Watch films at your leisure or at the breakneck pace I intend. I think this will be a good time.

Here is the link to AFI's 100 years 100 movies.