Wednesday, February 29, 2012

100 Movies - No. 61: Moneyball

61. Moneyball (2011)
Biography, Drama, Sport, 133 minutes
Directed by Bennett Miller
Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Moneyball is a refreshing change from the usual type of sports movie. How many times have you watched the story of an underdog triumphing? How many movies introduce us to a controversial coach who is initially resented because of his methods and then revered by all when he succeeds? This story is certainly a celebration of success, but not in the typical sense. In fact, it asks us to define success.

It’s based on the true story of how General Manager Billy Beane (Pitt) employed a new way of thinking in order to enable the Oakland Athletics to compete with the likes of the New York Yankees. He did this with just one third of the payroll of that available to the Yankees.The opening scenes show Beane negotiating with the team's owner. He knows that his payroll won't jump from $40 million to $120 million, but can he get a little more money to help the A's compete?

The first thing I was taught in my college marketing class was to define the problem. How you can analyze a problem if you don't know what it is? You won't solve anything until you know what you are trying to do. I find that I use the same technique in all areas of my life. If a friend needs help or advice, I ask a series of questions so that they can eventually define their own problem. It works. That's what Beane did at the start of Moneyball.

Beane’s first move was to hire Peter Brand (Hill); an economics graduate from Yale. Instead of relying on traditional scouting methods, Brand used statistical analysis to determine the true value of baseball players. Instead of paying huge salaries based on a player's potential, he sought out value by considering players who were believed to have flaws. These might include injury or advancing age. Beane collaborated with Brand to assemble a team on a low budget. Departing stars were replaced with players who were a good fit for the team.

I have a strong connection with the film because the way Beane and Brand think reminds me of how I manage my Fantasy Football teams. Which players are good value because age or injury has changed people's perceptions of their true ability? How much are this year's top draft picks really going to be worth when compared to proven veterans? I make those determinations every year when I build my team. Beane and Brand think like I do, and we tend to like people who are similar to ourselves.

I rely on my own way of thinking rather than following conventional wisdom. That doesn’t mean I will ignore everything, but I will question the opinions of others and decide whether I agree. It’s something I have done my entire life and one reason I review movies. You might not agree with me, and that's absolutely fine, but at least you know that I’m not just repeating the opinions of others. Take a look at my thoughts on The Artist if you want an example.

Groupthink is a dangerous thing. I encounter it every year in my Fantasy Football leagues when the rankings of the "experts" all start to look the same. If you go against the grain, you'll have to be ready to defend your view. As a result, people are afraid to say what they really think or act on their true instincts. It also happens in the workplace. In fact, you can find examples of groupthink every day if you seek out opinions on the Internet on just about any topic.

Back to Moneyball.

Look at how Beane's scouts present their opinions. How many are really their opinions, and how many of them fail to think outside the established framework?

The dialogue is intelligent and full of humor. Some of the scenes, such as Beane pursuing trades with other teams, are quite exciting. Pitt and Hill work well together and are in most of the scenes. One source of conflict is Coach Art Howe (Hoffman). He’s concerned about his own situation and future in the sport, and is reluctant to adopt Beane’s desired strategy.

I enjoyed Moneyball because it was different and the story was told in an appealing way. I won’t ruin the ending for those who don’t remember whether the A’s won the World Series, but I will say that the story doesn’t show a huge amount of baseball action. This is about the people behind the scenes and the way in which they affected the sport.

Rarely has 133 minutes of Dialogue been so interesting. The time passes almost too quickly. I've seen Moneyball about six times since buying it in January, so there's no need to wonder about the replay value. From my ramblings in this review, you can see how thought-provoking the story can be.

***Spoiler Alert***

One final point I would like to consider is Beane's decision at the end of the film.

Most of us are trained at a very young age to chase success and be the best we can be. Success is usually defined as having a good job, a great salary, expensive and prestigious possessions, and a traditional family. If we reach any of our goals, we set new ones and want more. We always want more.

Beane's final decision mirrored his thoughts on baseball management. He considered what would truly make him happy. I don't see people thinking along those lines very often. We are trapped by the expectations of society. It's groupthink on a grand scale. Ask your friends what they dream of. How many mention money? That's the wrong answer. Money is a tool that helps you live the way you want to live, but it's not the overall goal. The goal is different for everyone and should be what makes you happy. Does your lifestyle actually allow you time to enjoy that happiness?

Would you have made the same choice as Beane?

If you like Moneyball:

Another movie which includes baseball, but is really about something else is Field of Dreams, which I mentioned earlier in this series.

One of my favorite sports movies is Seabiscuit. It stars Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper, and tells the story of an underdog. Like Moneyball, several unusual methods are used to achieve success. The racing scenes are spectacular, but the movie succeeds due to the strength of the story and the quality of the acting. Bridges finally won an Oscar for Crazy Heart, but he's better in Seabiscuit.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

100 Movies - No. 60: The Mist

60. The Mist (2007)
Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller, 126 minutes
Directed by Frank Darabont
Starring Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden and Toby Jones

Frank Darabont hasn’t directed many movies, but three of them are in my collection. The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are both adapted from Stephen King stories and so is The Mist. Despite its lower budget, The Mist is another strong entry from Darabont.

The thing I like about Stephen King is that most story elements are based in the real world. We can identify with the type of town and the characters who inhabit it, but he usually changes one or two things to transport us into another world. In this instance, the other element is the mist. We learn that it has leaked through from an entrance to another dimension, along with some of the creatures from that reality.

The exposition is handled well and draws the viewer into the situation. After a brief description of David Drayton’s (Jane) home life, he travels into town with his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) and neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher). While the three are shopping in the local supermarket, a man runs in with blood on his face warning that there’s something in the mist.

Some of my favorite stories examine what happens when society breaks down. Stephen King seems to enjoy writing about it too. The Stand is one of the best novels dealing with the psychological effects of a catastrophe and The Mist delves into the same territory. Imagine the situation: you’re in a store and a mist descends outside. A man runs in injured and shouts a warning. Do you listen, or do you ignore the warning and assume it’s a natural phenomenon?

Some people are deeply rooted in routines. They know how much they earn and live one or two paychecks away from disaster. Their routine means that they rarely have to think about anything out of the ordinary. They may excel in one or two known situations, but be completely out of their depth when facing the unknown. That’s when we see who the real leaders are.

Who will crumble and who will adapt and remain calm under pressure? Will anyone lose touch with reality completely and start behaving in unpredictable ways? Would you steal to feed your family or kill to protect someone? The Mist shows what happens in just such a situation. The results are interesting to say the least.

My favorite character is Ollie (Jones), the assistant manager of the store. He’s a great example of how people are not always what they seem. Looking like an older version of Radar O’Reilly, he’s able to step up and make a difference in a crisis.

Darabont doesn’t spend a fortune on special effects, but the result is convincing to me. As the story unfolds, we see a variety of creatures. Some of them are close to creatures we know while others are like nothing we have ever seen.

Another interesting choice from Darabont is the use of sound in the movie. Most entries in this genre would feature music heavily during every action scene. Darabont chooses to just show the events as they happen without trying to influence our mood with music. There are a few muted sound effects for most of the movie, but nothing more. The result is that we are drawn into the situation even more as if we are left alone to think about how we would handle the situation. The one exception is in the last few minutes of the story when The Host of Seraphim (Dead Can Dance) is played during a pivotal scene. Its impact is greatly enhanced due to the absence of music in the remainder of the movie.

Darabont changes King’s original ending. It’s a brave choice and will annoy a lot of people. King remarked that he wishes he had thought of it. It’s a resolution of sorts and it’s certainly not typical Hollywood fare.

Darabont's films appeal to me because he isn't in a rush to tell the story. Scenes have greater meaning because the characters are established in our minds. If you think about Red in The Shawshank Redemption or Paul Edgecomb in The Green Mile, their actions seem authentic based on what we know about their characters. The same is true of David Drayton in The Mist. He's a rational man who cares about his family. His instincts are to protect people, but he won't rush into things without thinking. Darabont's world is perfectly crafted and everything fits.

If you like The Mist:

I have mentioned The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Although they are not horror stories, Darabont's style is all over them. It's likely that you would enjoy both if you like The Mist. Darabont also created The Walking Dead TV series and directed Season 1. It's well worth a look if you like the way he introduces his worlds.

You may have noticed that this 100 movies series includes very little horror. That's because I prefer psychological horror over gore, action and shocks, and there aren't many good options. The Mist feels like a throwback to classic horror and movies which have a similar feel include The Exorcist and The Omen. Both were made in the 1970s and are set in the real world. Like The Mist, the two stories take the time to develop the characters. You won't see much action, but the stories draw you in and make you care about the outcome.

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Monday, February 27, 2012

100 Movies - No. 58: Midnight in Paris

58. Midnight in Paris (2011)
Comedy, Fantasy, Romance, 94 minutes
Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Owen Wilson, Michael Sheen, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates and Marion Cotillard

Woody Allen has directed more than 40 movies and Midnight in Paris is one of his best. It’s a gentle comedy with a strong fantasy element. Like most of Allen’s movies, it relies on good writing and clever dialogue. That writing earned a Best Original Screenplay Oscar and was Allen's first Best Screenplay win since Hannah and Her Sisters won the 1987 Oscar. 

The fantasy element changes the entire feel of the movie, and although it’s revealed early in the story, I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. However, this would be a very short review if I didn't mention it at all. So please be warned that the remainder of the review contains spoilers. If you don’t want to know, it’s time to stop reading.

The story is built around Gil Pender (Wilson), who arrives in Paris with his fiancĂ©e, Inez (McAdams). He’s a writer hoping to find inspiration and she wants to see some of the local sights. The two explore the city with friends, Paul (Sheen) and Carol. Paul claims to be an authority on everything and Gil is annoyed by him, but Inez used to have a crush on Paul and enjoys his company.

One evening, Gil decides that he will take a walk alone to get away from Paul. He’s a little drunk and manages to get lost, and eventually finds himself sitting on some steps at midnight. It’s here that the movie changes tone. A vintage car stops and the people inside urge Gil to get in. They take him to a party and he discovers that Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are among the guests. He’s surprised at their names, and even more baffled when he’s introduced to Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll).

Gil has traveled back into the 1920s.

What would you say to Fitzgerald and Hemingway if you were an aspiring writer? Gil is both astonished and thrilled to be in their presence and mentions that he’s also a writer. The trip to the past isn’t permanent and he wakes up in the present the next morning. Was it just a dream, or was it real? Allen never explains how Gil returns from the past.

He tries to reenact the event the following evening, taking Inez with him, but she leaves before midnight. When the clock strikes, the car appears again and he’s back in the past. He’s introduced to other famous artists, singers and writers, and Gertrude Stein (Bates) critiques his manuscript. Gil seems at home in the 1920s and happier than when he is with Inez in the present. The people seem to understand him better and he fits right in.

The story is filled with interesting encounters. The characters spend a lot of time talking, and Allen’s imagination keeps things more than interesting. I found it quite gripping. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Hemingway and was reminded of Dan Simmons’ fictional book about him, The Crook Factory. Every encounter with people from 1920s Paris was both charming and intriguing. I found myself imagining how they must have lived, and what it would be like to exist in such a creative environment.

I first saw the film in the theater and members of the audience laughed often and left with smiles on their faces. All of the acting impressed me and Sheen was just about perfect as the insufferable Paul. The story was imaginative and different, and not at all what I expected.

Subsequent viewings on Blu-ray - both alone and with friends - have been just as rewarding. I find that I enjoy visiting this world. It is a magical experience seeing people such as Dali (Brody) and Picasso before they were famous. The setting is perfect, showing the contrast between modern Paris and the city as it was almost a century ago.

Wilson is as good as I have ever seen him in the role that Allen presumably would have played in his youth. I like Wilson’s quirky delivery and his character isn’t too far removed from the one he played in The Darjeeling Limited. Gil enjoys defying expectations and isn’t understood by his friends and potential in-laws.

Midnight in Paris is a rare thing. It's a comedy which relies on intelligence and situations rather than physical humor and shock value. The writing is inventive and clever, and charms you from the start. It's easy to identify with Gil and put yourself in his position.

On a deeper level, the film also examines the things that are important in life. How do you know when you find the right job? What attributes do you find important in a potential partner? If you're not comfortable in your present environment, should you adapt or look for something that suits your true nature?

If you like Midnight in Paris: 

Woody Allen is an acquired taste. Early efforts such as Play it Again Sam and Sleeper are very different to Midnight in Paris and rely on slapstick comedy rather than dialogue. Annie Hall prevented Star Wars from winning the Oscar for Best Picture and offers a combination of Allen's slapstick style and his dialogue-driven movies. It's certainly worth checking out Annie Hall if you like Allen's dialogue.

Allen's recent efforts also have a lot to offer and I would place Vicky Cristina Barcelona just below the level achieved by Midnight in Paris. You can rely on Allen to put together a strong cast and then get the best out of his actors. Vicky Cristina Barcelona earned Penelope Cruz a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson were just as vital to the mix. It's a charming drama with strong romantic elements and shows how much Allen has matured over the past four decades.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

100 Movies - No. 59: Million Dollar Baby

59. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Drama, Sport, 132 minutes
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Hilary Swank, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman

Boxing isn't a sport that I find appealing. I did follow the career of Muhummad Ali as a child, but haven't paid much attention since he retired. It's a brutal way to earn a living. I do admire people for the dedication it involves, but it's no longer something that I want to watch.

There have been several good boxing movies over the years, from Rocky and Raging Bull to Cinderella Man and The Fighter. Each of those movies attempted to show the character behind the gloves, and that's where my interest lies when I do watch a boxing movie. As a fan of Clint Eastwood, I was particularly interested to see whether he would bring a fresh perspective as he has done in films showing racism and war from unexpected viewpoints. He didn't disappoint me.

Million Dollar Baby depicts women's boxing and focuses on Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank). She thinks of herself as trash, works as a waitress to pay the bills, and often resorts to eating leftovers from the diner. She shows up at Frankie Dunn's (Eastwood) gym and begs him to train her. He refuses, so Eddie Dupris (Freeman) shows her a few techniques. Frankie eventually agrees to train her after seeing how dedicated she is. Boxing is her only hope of escaping her miserable existence.

Frankie has problems of his own and is trying to get in touch with his estranged daughter, so Maggie becomes an outlet for Frankie's fatherly affection in some ways. He soon sees what amazing character she has. She's not only determined to succeed, but is kind to her ungrateful family when she starts to earn decent money.

Eastwood deviates from the normal formula by showing some of the grim reality of the sport. Not every aspiring fighter succeeds and Freeman's character has to live with the loss of an eye after being injured in his 109th fight. The film shows the dangers of boxing and how cutthroat the business can be. The thing which elevates it is the realism and the delicate way Frankie and Maggie deal with adversity. I cared about these characters.

Million Dollar Baby lifted four Oscars. Eastwood was Best Director, Swank Best Actress and Freeman Best Supporting Actor. The Best Picture award was fully deserved and the final 30 minutes is extremely sad and difficult to watch. That said, I included this in my 100 movies series for a reason. It's another superb project from Eastwood and will be remembered as one of his best creations.

If you like Million Dollar Baby:

Of the other boxing movies I mentioned above, Rocky is the one I return to most often. It has strong characters and takes place in a similarly gritty setting, but the boxing element is much less realistic.

Many regard Scorsese's Raging Bull as the best movie of the 80s. I can't agree, but it's another that's worth your time if you enjoy stories about boxing. It's based on the life of Jake LaMotta and stars Robert De Niro.

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Saturday, February 25, 2012

100 Movies - No. 57: Memento

57. Memento (2000)
Drama, Mystery, Thriller, 113 minutes
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss

"What's the last thing you remember?"
"My wife...dying."

I remember watching Memento on cable and buying it a few days later. It was such an original way of telling a story that I was excited to show it to my friends at the earliest opportunity.

They hated it.

The opening scene shows Leonard Shelby (Pearce) killing Teddy (Pantoliano), but that scene is actually how the story ends. Leonard suffered a head injury when his wife was murdered by intruders and hasn't been able to form short-term memories since the event. He remembers everything up to that point, such as who he is and what he did for a living, but can't build new memories.

What would it be like to wake up every day and wonder where you were? What are you supposed to be doing that day?

In order to place the viewer in a similar position, Nolan tells the story in reverse. We see events unfold and new information is introduced each time. The information changes our perceptions of the events we have already seen and the people we have already met. Who can Leonard trust? How can he keep the information readily available if he's going to forget everything?

Nolan actually tells two stories. One is in black and white and proceeds in normal chronological order. This tells the story of Leonard's life before the accident. He worked as an insurance investigator and one of the claimants, Sammy Jankis, had the same problem with his memory. A tattoo on Leonard's wrist tells him to remember Sammy Jankis, and he's able to because it happened before he suffered the head injury.

A second story shows Leonard's hunt for his wife's murderer. This time, Nolan tells it in color and uses reverse chronological order.

Are you with me so far? Good.

You can see why my friends hated the film. It requires patience and your full attention to understand what is going on. Furthermore, Leonard is an unreliable narrator, so we can't trust everything. Nolan presumably did this to show that Leonard can't trust his own thoughts.

In order to function at all, Leonard employs a series of devices to aid his memory. He also sticks to a routine as much as possible. He takes photos of his car, his motel, and people he meets. As he finds out information about people, he writes notes on the photos.

Teddy is either a crooked cop, a complete liar, or both. He claims to be helping Leonard look for his wife's killer, but he makes several attempts to borrow Leonard's car. When you see the closing scenes, you'll understand what his true motive may be.

Natalie (Moss) is also claiming to help Leonard by providing information. Unfortunately, she also has motives of her own.

Leonard doesn't know who to trust. He also doesn't know how long he's been trying to avenge his wife's death. Because of the nature of the narrative, we aren't even sure that Leonard hasn't already killed the murderer at some point in the past. Are Teddy or Natalie using him for some other purpose? Are they even who they say they are?

I've seen Memento at least twice a year since I first saw it. It has endless replay value and it's interesting to see some of the events unfold when you know the outcome. Nolan gets the little details right as well as the big ones. Notice how Leonard forgets which way the motel door opens and how he brushes his hand against a glass in a restaurant because he's forgotten that he put it there.

Each time I watch a Nolan movie I think it's the best thing he has ever done. Whether it's The Dark Knight, Inception, The Prestige, or Memento, he treats his audience with respect. Rather than spell out every little aspect of the story, he allows the audience to draw its own conclusion. That alienates some viewers, as it did with my friends, but the payoff is worth it if you are willing to pay full attention.

If you like Memento:

All of Nolan's films are worth watching, but I would suggest Inception to fans of Memento as the script is just as complicated. Most of my friends hated that one too.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

100 Movies - No. 56: The Matrix

56. The Matrix (1999)
Science Fiction, Action, 136 minutes
Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss and Hugo Weaving

When The Matrix was released in 1999, it gave audiences something new. Some of the ideas had been used before, but the overall combination had not. It can be viewed as a cool action/sci-fi movie or as something a lot deeper.

Thomas Anderson/Neo (Reeves) has a regular job working in an office cubicle, but searches online for the identity of someone when he's at home. One day, his computer communicates with him by text messages and his life is forever changed. After following suggestions made by the messages, he meets Morpheus (Fishburne) and Trinity (Moss).

Morpheus gives Neo a choice and shows him how the world really is. It's been taken over by sentient forms of artificial intelligence and humans are nothing more than fuel. Human life no longer exists in the sense that we know it. Instead, experiences are artificially created in the minds of the imprisoned humans. Morpheus and a small group offer Neo the chance to fight back.

After the initial setup, we see Neo undergoing his training. Morpheus and his crew are able to impart knowledge of any kind within seconds by loading information directly into Neo's brain. We see him learn many different martial arts and his skills are tested in a fight with Morpheus. Success depends on Neo's belief in his ability rather than actual physical prowess. He's capable of jumping huge distances and moving at speeds which aren't possible in the world as we know it.

Morpheus leads a fight against the A.I.'s and believes that Neo is The One, as predicted in a phrophecy. If true, Neo might have the ability to liberate all humans and allow them to live real lives.

Action scenes are frequent and use slow motion to emphasize some of the moves. It's a cool effect and is part of the reason that The Matrix is one of the most popular science fiction movies ever made. As I mentioned earlier, it can be viewed as something deeper. It's up to you whether you see it as a comment on religion or on life itself. It's definitely a movie which can be enjoyed on more than one level.

If you like The Matrix:

The Matrix is the first part of a trilogy. Some fans think that the remaining two parts are weak and ruin the good work set up in the first part, while others see the trilogy as one long story. I'm in the latter group and believe that The Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions are essential viewing if you like the setup in the opening installment. Reloaded includes one of the best chase scenes I have ever seen. Revolutions is slower, but does offer a conclusion to the trilogy. I believe that most of the complaints are due to the fact that the effects seen in the opening installment were fresh and subsequent entries showed us a world that we already knew. Some of the mystery was gone.

I've already mentioned Avatar in this 100 movies series and there are clearly similarities. Both involve worlds created inside the mind and include long training sequences.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Hugo: Scorsese's whimsical homage to cinema

Hugo (2011)
Adventure, Drama, Family, 126 minutes
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz and Ben Kingsley

I didn't rush out to see Hugo in the theater because of the 3D aspect, but I wanted to see it before the Oscars. So I eagerly sat down to watch the 2D Blu-ray version when my review copy arrived this week.

When you think of Martin Scorsese, what comes to mind? My favorite Scorsese films are The Departed, Taxi Driver, Shutter Island, Gangs of New York and Goodfellas, but it would be easy to make the argument for Casino or Raging Bull to be on that list. Many of his films have moments of intense violence, but all of them illustrate how good he is at character studies. Hugo is a family film with no violence, but its characters are strong and I came away feeling like I knew the people being portrayed.

The opening scene sweeps us through a train station in 1930s Paris. We learn that Hugo (Butterfield) hides away in a giant clock tower and winds the clock. In fact, he's a genius when it comes to repairing machinery of all types. We see his father die in a flashback sequence and understand why Hugo is striving to repair a rusty old automaton that he worked on with his father. He has to stay hidden or risk being sent to the orphanage, so finding food and drink means he has to steal in order to survive. But there's never a sense that he's a criminal.

Hugo gets caught trying to steal cogs from a local toymaker (Kingsley), but finds a friend when he meets Isabelle (Moretz); the toymaker's granddaughter. The two spend a lot of time together. Her grandfather forbids her from seeing films, but Hugo sneaks her in to see a Buster Keaton movie at the local cinema.

The images of Paris as seen from the high clock tower are breathtaking. The whole look of the film makes it feel like an alternate reality, even though its world is largely contained within the train station.

The toymaker has a secret and Hugo's automaton has a secret. I won't reveal them here or dig any deeper into the story except to say that the conclusion of the film shows how passionate Scorsese is about cinema. Hugo wasn't quite what I thought it would be, but it turned out to be even better. I would still recommend the film as suitable for the whole family, but very young children might not grasp the significance of the conclusion to the story.

The quality of the acting is good across the board. Butterfield and Moretz carry the movie, but Kingsley's smaller role is memorable. The supporting cast includes Sasha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Jude Law, Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths. The characters all felt real and seemed as though they belonged in Hugo's world.

Is Hugo worth 11 Oscar nominations? I won't argue with any of them, although I don't think it will win any of the major categories, with the possible exception of Best Director. I could see the Academy rewarding Scorsese for making such a departure from his normal genres. What Hugo does deserve is recognition in some of the technical categories. The whole look of the film is superb and the Blu-ray presentation is just about perfect.

I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of story present in Hugo and I'm looking forward to seeing Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin if the movie adaptation of Ender's Game is released next year.

Overall score 4.5/5 

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100 Movies - No. 55: Love Actually

55. Love Actually (2003)
Comedy, Drama, Romance, 135 minutes
Directed by Richard Curtis
Starring Hugh Grant, Colin Firth and Liam Neeson

Here's a movie that works for Valentines Day, Christmas, or date night. But unlike most of the offerings for those occasions, Love Actually is both smart and funny. The reason it works so well is the writing and the acting. Richard Curtis is genuinely witty and knows what these actors are capable of. Although the movie is long at 135 minutes, I usually find myself wishing it lasted a little bit longer.

Most romantic comedies tell the story of one couple or two at the outside. Love Actually contains too many relationships to count and it doesn't restrict itself to romantic love. You'll also find the love between friends and family members. Some new relationships are formed, while others weaken.

There are so many good actors involved. Hugh Grant plays the Prime Minister and he's not in a relationship, but soon finds that he likes a member of his staff. Colin Firth plays a writer who sees his marriage threatened when his wife has an affair, but unexpectedly finds new love. Laura Linney's character has been in love with a work colleague for years, but has never acted on it. Her reasons eventually become clear and illustrate another kind of love.

My favorite relationship is the one between Daniel (Neeson) and his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster). Daniel's wife has recently died, leaving him to raise Sam. He worries that Sam spends too much time in his room, but eventually learns what the problem is. The relationship between the two is so warm and honest that it's almost impossible not to root for Sam as he attempts to resolve his problem. It leads to some of the funniest scenes in the movie.

You'll also find plenty of other good performances from the likes of Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy, Martin Freeman and Martine McCutcheon.

Not everything turns out perfectly for the couples involved. Some face threats to their happiness and not all of them can be completely resolved to their satisfaction. Love Actually examines love and the many forms it can come in. Some of the situations reach the expected conclusion and many are uplifting. A few are even surprising. I've just never seen a movie attempt to keep so many romantic threads alive throughout the running time. Against all odds, it somehow keeps us invested in the outcome of all the story threads by continually updating the progress of each.

According to my friends, I watch so many sad or depressing movies, but here's one that will lift your spirits. The opening scenes show how people allow their real emotions to show when they meet their loved ones at airports. That's essentially what Love Actually is about. To enjoy it fully, you'll need to allow your own emotions to show.

If you like Love Actually:

Hugh Grant has been involved in some of the best movies the romantic comedy genre has to offer. Try Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral or the charming About A Boy to see what I mean.

If you want a romantic comedy without Hugh Grant, Pretty Woman fits the bill. Richard Gere and Julia Roberts had great chemistry and the cameo from Hector Elizondo was just about perfect.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

100 Movies - No. 54: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

54. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Action, Adventure, Fantasy, 208 minutes (Extended Edition)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellan and Elijah Wood

The Lord of the Rings book trilogy has sold an estimated 150 million copies and Peter Jackson's films have raked in a further $3 Billion worldwide. Add in the home media revenue and it's clear that people care about The Lord of the Rings.

It's an epic story which focuses more on the setting than anything else. Tolkien created a world, a language, and then populated the world with countless characters both good and evil. It's essentially the story of a journey to destroy an evil ring, but it includes themes such as love, friendship, loyalty, and belief. It's not my favorite series of books, but it's one that I am glad I own. It's unlikely that a work of fiction will ever have a bigger impact on the way stories are told. This is a series that changed how we perceive fantasy stories.

Imagine being given the task of adapting such a beloved story for the big screen. It's impossible to please everyone when something has such a devoted following. There's also the problem of time. How can you adapt a story told on over 1,000 pages into a coherent film? The sheer scale of the story is daunting. Thousands of extras would be needed to create realistic battle sequences and some of the settings would have to be created by hand. The use of CGI makes a lot of things possible, but Jackson faced an enormous task.

So how did Jackson fare?

The end result is impressive and pleasing, but is not without a few flaws. Purists hate the fact that Tom Bombadil does not appear in the films. Other beloved sequences were either left out or altered, and the sequence of events was changed to fit the needs of the film trilogy.

The setting is just about perfect. New Zealand was an excellent choice and the opening scenes showing Hobbiton set the mood for the first part of the trilogy. We spend almost an hour in the Shire and it helps us realize what's at stake. The sets throughout the story are convincing and fit the overall mood.

The music is powerful too, and the film just wouldn't have the same impact without it.

There are a few things I didn't like, but that's down to personal preference rather than any kind of error:

I would have liked more dialogue and characterization so that I came away knowing these characters intimately. Instead, the emphasis is placed on battle sequences. That makes for a great spectacle, but, for me, it's not the most interesting part of the story.

I respect what was done to make the battles convincing, and the epic scale, but the story should have focused more on the journey. To be fair, it did succeed in that aspect with Frodo and Sam.

My third minor complaint is that the Orcs and the hobbits came across as a little too comical. I understand that hobbits are supposed to love life, but there were a few too many jokes. The same was true for Gimli.

But, despite those quibbles, I think Jackson achieved something remarkable. It's unlikely that we will ever see a better version because of the work involved, and I don't think we need one. I did feel as though I had entered Middle Earth and it was much as I imagined it.

The acting ranged from good to great. My favorite performances came from Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn and Ian McKellen as Gandalf, but there were so many noteworthy performances from the wonderful cast.

This first part of the trilogy is my favorite because it focuses more on story and characterization than the other two parts. It gives us our first glimpse of Tolkien's world. It's quite a commitment to watch all three extended versions of the trilogy. You'll need to set aside around 12 hours to see the whole trilogy, and that's not counting the special features.

I recommend Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring because it's a timeless story told on an epic scale. The time and effort that went into making it was not wasted and it deserves your attention.

If you like The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring:

The most obvious recommendations are the remaining parts of the trilogy; The Two Towers and Return of the King. The latter scooped 11 Oscars, bringing the total for the trilogy to 17. Peter Jackson is currently working on two Hobbit films: An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again, and many of the cast from Lord of the Rings will return. Expect the first installment to hit theaters in December, 2012.

Other fantasy series of note are Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. Although the Harry Potter movies are not as serious as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, they are a lot of fun and one of my guilty pleasures. The first Narnia movie was very good, but the second and third entries are gradually getting worse. I can't really endorse those as much as I would have expected after seeing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

100 Movies - No. 53: Lolita

53. Lolita (1962)
Drama, Romance, 152 minutes
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring James Mason, Peter Sellers, Shelley Winters and Sue Lyon

Stanley Kubrick was capable of working in any genre, ranging from historical epics to futuristic science fiction. He gave us serious drama and dark comedy. Lolita certainly has its serious moments, but it’s also filled with dark humor and is arguably his most controversial film.

Vladimir Nabokov’s book was about a 12-year-old girl and would have been an even more controversial film if Kubrick had kept Lolita at that age. In the film, Lolita (Lyon) is a 14-year-old and it changes the overall tone somewhat.

Professor Humbert Humbert (Mason) is a British author looking for a home in New Hampshire. He visits Charlotte Haze (Winters) who is looking to rent a room. Humbert is on the verge of leaving and looking elsewhere, but sees her daughter, Lolita, sunbathing in the garden. He decides to stay and becomes obsessed with her. From his viewpoint, Lolita is flirting with him. She kisses him and plays with her hula hoop right in front of him. Meanwhile, Charlotte is hoping to start a relationship of her own with Humbert and doesn’t notice the attention he gives Lolita.

Humbert’s obsession grows and he keeps a secret journal about his feelings, but he’s dismayed when Charlotte sends Lolita to summer camp 200 miles away. Charlotte then writes a letter to Humbert declaring her love for him and issues an ultimatum. She tells him to leave, or stay and marry her. He finds the letter hilarious and has no interest in her, but marries her to be close to Lolita. This act shows the extent of his obsession.

After the marriage, Charlotte decides to send Lolita to boarding school. Humbert fantasizes about killing her and spending the rest of his life with Lolita. Charlotte discovers his diary and true feelings and decides that she can’t live with the knowledge, leaving Humbert to pursue his plan.

Another key character is that of Clare Quilty (Sellers). The opening scene of the film shows Humbert tracking down Quilty and shooting him. The remainder of the film shows the events leading up to Quilty’s murder. Sellers plays the part well and tries to manipulate Humbert by pretending to be several different people. In Dr. Strangelove, the characters he portrays actually are separate individuals, but that’s not the case here. Sellers writes plays and wants Lolita to appear in one, but seems to have an ulterior motive.

We see everything from Humbert’s point of view and he’s also the narrator at times. Was Kubrick trying to make us empathize with Humbert’s feelings by placing us in his position? Was he trying to get us to root for Humbert and hope that he would somehow end up with Lolita?

The film is long at 152 minutes, but never seems to drag. Although we know that Humbert shoots Quilty, we don’t know why until we see the preceding events. Kubrick makes some of Lolita’s actions deliberately ambiguous so that we’re left wondering whether she was flirting with Humbert. The overall impression is that she’s not as innocent as she may appear.

The film is mainly about obsession and its impact on people’s lives. Humbert’s thoughts are far from pure. He wants Lolita and, although he doesn’t kill Charlotte, he certainly considers doing so. The choice to make Lolita 14 helped avoid some of the controversy, but this is still a film that will be emotionally upsetting for some. Much of its impact depends on our imagination and will vary from one viewer to the next.

Mason is particularly effective as the polite Englishman, while Sellers and Winters also play their parts well. Lyon doesn’t get much time on screen considering she’s the motivation for everything that Humbert does, but she’s believable in the role. 

If you like Lolita:

One of my favorite recent movies dealing with the topic of an older man becoming obsessed with an underage girl is An Education. It's an adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel and Hornby is a writer who never lets you down. He delivers an intelligent mix of drama and humor and Carey Mulligan was nominated for her excellent performance. It captures life in 1960s London and sometimes feels similar to the mood that Kubrick created in Lolita.

Monday, February 20, 2012

100 Movies - No. 52: The Lives of Others

52. The Lives of Others (2006)
Drama, Thriller, 137 minutes, German Language
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck

Most of us have never grown up in a regime that denies us freedom of speech, freedom of thought, or freedom of belief. Those terms were part of my study material leading up to my Canadian citizenship test which I took in January. Now, after swearing an oath and becoming Canadian, I'm reminded how precious those freedoms are. If you were born in East Germany before the wall fell, or in other parts of Eastern Europe, you will understand how different life was just over 20 years ago.

The Lives of Others is set in East Germany in 1984 and it focuses on some of the freedoms I mentioned above. We see a man interrogating a prisoner sometime in his past, and then watch him teach the importance of the techniques to a class of students. He's an expert in human behavior and body language and can tell when someone is lying. He also notes subversive behavior throughout society, right down to the students in his class. He's Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler and he's a member of the Stasi; a government secret police force.

The story focuses on author Georg Dreyman (Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Gedeck). Dreyman writes plays and one event in particular inspires him to write a book outlining the oppressive regime in East Germany. Put yourself in his situation for a moment. Who would you trust with your ideas? How would you try to get the book published in Western Europe?

Wiesler suspects something and thinks that Dreyman should be under surveillance, so he offers to supervise the operation himself. His team bugs Dreyman's apartment and Wiesler listens from his hideaway in the roof of the building, writing daily activity reports on Dreyman and his associates.

As the story progresses, Wiesler starts to think about his role and the purpose of his life. He's following orders, but is he doing the right thing? One of the themes early in the movie is that people remain true to their nature, but what is Wiesler's true nature? And so begins a powerful story of an author's fight to make his opinions known, and the intervention of Wiesler.

The three main actors all give terrific performances, but it's Muhe as Wiesler who steals the show. Pay close attention to your own feelings as you watch this film and note what happens to your opinion of Wiesler. The Lives of Others is a realistic and moving account that will evoke strong emotions if you allow yourself to be drawn in. If you are worried about subtitled movies, this is one that deserves your attention, so please don't let that stop you. I thoroughly enjoyed Pan's Labyrinth, but The Lives of Others rightly won the Oscar that year. It's one of the best foreign language films ever made.

If you like The Lives of Others:

I'm not going to suggest movies involving spying or secret government departments as there are plenty of those. Instead, I would consider watching Revanche. It's an intimate little film on a much smaller scale than The Lives of Others, but it closely examines the motivations of its characters. Some are obvious, but what isn't obvious is its conclusion. It shows how people make up their own minds about what matters most in life. The characters come to an unusual mutual understanding as a result. Like The Lives of Others, it's a German language film.

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

100 movies - No. 51: Leon: The Professional

51. Leon: The Professional (1994)
Crime, Drama, Thriller, 133 minutes (extended version)
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Jean Reno, Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman

Leon (Reno) is good at one thing: killing people. In other matters he's almost like a child. He can't read or write and he barely has enough skills to look after himself. He lives in an apartment building and hides away when he's not on a job.

Leon's neighbors include 12-year-old Mathilda (Portman), who lives with her drug-dealing father. When a corrupt cop (Oldman) murders her father and the rest of the family, Mathilda turns to Leon for help. This is where things start to get interesting. Although she's 12, Mathilda has more of an idea of how to survive in the real world than Leon. She offers to take care of him in return for protection and shelter. She also wants to learn how to kill people.

The premise is so unlikely, but it works. Leon teaches Mathilda the tricks of his trade. Some might find it inappropriate to watch a 12-year-old girl dealing with material of this nature, but Portman is superb in her first full-length feature. The two develop believable chemistry and love each other in some ways. The only other thing that Leon cares about is his beloved potted plant. The two are continually on the move to stay safe, so it's not much of a life for a young girl.

The movie works because of the strong relationship between Leon and Mathilda. It's interesting to watch her train and see the bond deepening between the two. Revenge is always on her mind and she tries to persuade Leon to kill the men responsible for murdering her family. The final showdown is intense and contains a lot of action for fans of that genre. But, unlike many action movies, we feel as if we know the main characters and we genuinely care what happens to them.

The Blu-ray contains the original 109-minute theatrical version and the extended 133-minute version. I recommend the latter to see the full extent of the relationship between Leon and Mathilda.

If you like Leon: 

Luc Besson has been responsible for some good action films over the years; both as a writer and as a director. He was involved in the screenplay for Taken, starring Liam Neeson, which is one of the best action movies you'll ever see.

If your taste runs to foreign language movies, Besson directed La Femme Nikita, starring Anne Parillaud. After being sentenced to death, Nikita is offered a role as an assassin for the French government. Jean Reno also has a small role and the movie definitely has a similar feel to Leon.

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

100 Movies - No. 50: The King's Speech

50. The King's Speech (2010)
Drama, Biography, History, 118 minutes
Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter

Have you ever been involved in public speaking? Even a small audience can be enough to take you out of your comfort zone. Imagine that you stammer and you're required to speak live to more than a quarter of the Earth's population. Throw in the fact that your audience is frightened due to the impending war against Hitler's Germany. A confident, optimistic and inspirational speech is essential.

That's the situation King George VI found himself in.

Historical dramas generally bore me. I'm not particularly interested in the royal family, despite living in the UK for the first 43 years of my life, and have no love for them at all. But for some reason, this works.

Tom Hooper directed the excellent The Damned United, but this is even better. He chose to shoot most of the film in dark rooms rather than focus on the potential splendor offered by Buckingham Palace. Apart from a scene inside Westminster Abbey, most of the rooms are drab. The story is character-driven and works because of the acting rather than the setting.

Colin Firth gives a brilliant performance as King George VI, although he isn't king when the film begins; he's the Duke of York. We see him stumble over an early speech in the 1920s and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Carter), seeks a speech therapist to help him overcome his impediment.

Doesn't that sound boring?

She finds Lionel Logue (Rush), who has a practice in London's famous Harley Street, and forces her husband to see him. Rush is great as the Australian therapist and supplies much of the humor in the film. The two initially enter into a doctor/patient relationship and eventually become friends.

If I had read that premise without knowing anything else about the story, there's no way you could have convinced me I would care about the characters or the outcome. But the quality of the acting overcomes all that and I did end up caring about a historical speech delivered by a monarch in whom I had zero interest. That says something about the power of this film.

Fans of the Harry Potter movies will be familiar with Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall and Helena Bonham Carter. It's interesting to see them here in serious roles.

The driving force of the story is the friendship between Logue and the future king. Indeed, Logue insists that the two function as equals and calls the Duke Bertie. He apparently has little respect for the monarchy and makes fun of it throughout. Strangely, I'm reminded of The Shawshank Redemption. The two main characters are in a difficult situation and yet manage to form an unlikely friendship, with each sustaining the other.

We are shown early attempts by renowned physicians to cure the Duke's stammer, but no progress is made. The Duke's wife finds Logue and arranges an appointment. Logue's methods are unconventional to say the least and provide some of the film's humor. It's a big step for the Duke to trust this irreverent foreigner and relax enough to make progress.

If you allow yourself to be drawn into the story, a peculiar thing happens. Rather than focusing on Firth's technique for stammering, you will start to think about the man he's portraying. There are scenes showing how he behaves when he's alone with his wife and his two little girls, and how they accept him for who he is.

Firth's portrayal isn't over the top. He's a reserved man who isn't used to speaking up for himself. Over the course of the story, we see him grow. He finds that he has a voice.

The R-rating is for language and it absolutely has to be there for the story to work so effectively.

The technical aspects of the film are superb. The sets, costumes, casting, sound and pacing are close to perfect. It won four Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Hooper), Actor in a Leading Role (Firth) and Original Screenplay (David Seidler). During his acceptance speech, Seidler revealed that he used to stammer. That explains why he was able to portray that fear so well.

The film won't appeal to everyone. It succeeds because of the dialogue and the strength of the story. There's no action and very little romance. If you like human interest stories, give it a try. It's among the best in that category.

If you like The King's Speech:

I don't know of any historical dramas with the level of wit and human interest that's present in The King's Speech. I did enjoy The Queen, with Michael Sheen as Tony Blair and Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II. It's worth your time, but doesn't reach the level attained by The King's Speech.

Director Tom Hooper was responsible for The Damned United, also starring Michael Sheen. It's a compelling drama about English soccer in the 70s. If you have any interest in the subject matter, it's a wonderful film.

If you're a fan of Colin Firth, his best performance before The King's Speech was in either A Single Man or Pride and Prejudice (TV mini-series, 1995).
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Friday, February 17, 2012

100 Movies - No. 49: Kill Bill Vol. 1

49. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
Action, Crime, Drama, 111 minutes
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu and Daryl Hannah

I’m a big fan of Chungking Express and remember reading that Quentin Tarantino cries when he watches it because he loves it so much. That’s how I feel when I watch the two Kill Bill movies. Within three minutes, I hear Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) and I’m transported into another world. It reminds me of what I'm in for. Every choice that Tarantino makes, from story, to dialogue and music, is absolutely perfect. I feel like he made this film with me in mind.

Uma Thurman was born to play the role of The Bride. I’m still not sure how she managed to keep a straight face as she spoke the dialogue.

It took me five years to bother seeing Kill Bill because I don't embrace things with senseless violence. The movie suggests extreme violence, but shows hardly any of it, just the result. The cuts are convincing and have the same effect as if you had seen the violent acts. I expected Thurman to prance around with a samurai sword, hacking people to pieces. In fact, she pretty much does, but there's so much more to the story.

First of all, she makes me care. Her back story makes her actions seem justified, but I also feel pity for O-Ren Ishii (Liu) when we see what happened to her when she was a child (brilliantly portrayed anime style). The film uses a number of tricks such as stills, black and white, slow motion, silhouettes, changing aspect ratios, and extreme close-ups. The pacing, humor, drama and action all seem to be woven together perfectly.

Kill Bill is a simple story of revenge. We learn in the opening scene that The Bride was shot in the head at her wedding rehearsal and spent four years in a coma as a result. The story isn’t linear, so the first person we see her kill is actually second on her Death List. Although it reveals that she successfully killed O-Ren Ishii by showing a line through her name, none of the tension is lost when we are shown their epic battle.

We see The Bride recover from her coma and visit Japan in search of O-Ren Ishii. There’s a great scene involving Sonny Chiba and we eventually see The Bride hunt down O-Ren Ishii and her minions. The showdown is approximately an hour long and it’s intense. Thurman looks like she can handle a sword and stunt double Zoe Bell handles the more difficult scenes.

It’s hard to think about the film without using the word perfect. The battle involves dozens of fighters as The Bride hacks her way through the obstacles standing between her and O-Ren Ishii. The contrast between those scenes and the final fight is stunning. Instead of being surrounded by a noisy mob, The Bride and O-Ren fight in a quiet setting. It’s a very effective transition.

I always watch Kill Bill Vol. 2 after seeing Vol. 1 and think of it as one long film. If you think that the characters feel incomplete, the concluding volume fleshes them out and makes them seem a lot more real. This first installment contains most of the action and fans of that genre should be happy with the result.

I watch the two Kill Bill movies more than anything else. It's four hours of fun and pure escapism. 

If you like Kill Bill Vol. 1: 

The most obvious recommendation is Kill Bill Vol. 2. There's more dialogue and less action, but if you love the first part, you're likely to soak up the additional information with glee. The final showdown is both unexpected and brilliant. I would have both volumes on hand when you watch the first, because you will probably want to see how the story plays out at the earliest opportunity.

All of Tarantino's films are worth watching if you like his style. The Kill Bill movies have the most action, but all contain the interesting dialogue and perfect music placement. It's a very particular brand of humor and you'll love all his releases if that's your preferred style. I won't say more than that because his name crops up later in this 100 movies list.