Sunday, June 30, 2013

Random Sunday Thoughts

Random Sunday Thoughts 

I haven't reviewed anything for a while because I'm not particularly interested in seeing most of the latest releases. Monsters University is probably worth my time, and I am curious as to whether Man of Steel is in the same league as The Dark Knight Trilogy, but nothing is jumping out at me as a must-see in theaters. I could pour a couple of hours of effort into reviewing an older movie, but the reality is that most people focus on what's new.

So, this morning, I found myself wondering all kinds of things about what makes a movie good, interesting, successful, or unique. That led to thinking about why bad movies get made, and why some of them are among the most popular in cinema history.

Other random thoughts had me thinking about such things as the IMDB Top 250, the best Denzel Washington movies, and catalogue titles that I haven't got around to seeing, which appeal for one reason or another.

I don't have one topic or title that stands out, so I have decided to write down these musings. Make of them what you will.

Observation 1 - An enormous number of people are entertained by a lot of crap

What falls into this category?

Reality TV
Dumb humor
The vast majority of superhero movies
Almost anything involving Michael Bay
More than 90 percent of sequels
Reality TV (I had to mention it twice)
Celebrities who can't act
Movies relying almost completely on special effects
Pointless remakes
Tired ideas that have been churned out dozens of times before

Observation 2 - I used to like some of the stuff in Observation 1

Twenty or thirty years ago, I used to rent stupid comedies, every superhero movie, and the latest Schwarzenegger movies on VHS. Why exactly? I don't find Schwarzenegger attractive, I don't want to look like him, and he can't act. Why did I watch anything that he was involved with? Did I expect things to suddenly improve, or did I actually like that nonsense? How is there a market for Terminator 5?

Observation 3 - The more we waste our time on things in Observation 1, the more likely that such crap will continue to be made

I've almost completely stopped investing my time in things the above categories, so I have done my part.

I have to wonder whether people actually enjoy the things they pay to see. It's one thing to attract a paying audience, but do people go home after Scary Movie 4 and start counting the days to the release of Scary Movie 5? Are they desperately hoping for another Jackass movie? Will every movie in the Transformers franchise make hundreds of millions at the box office?

Observation 4 - Most movies are made for audiences that I will never be a part of again

Twilight falls into this category. I don't care about vampires or teen romances. That said, I'll watch movies featuring those subjects if they are done well.

Do you ever watch a movie and think that the people on the screen are just saying the words? Someone loaned me a copy of Bad Boys recently. I like Will Smith, so I decided to give it a try, despite thinking that I wouldn't like it. It was tempting to stop watching in the first ten minutes, and I eventually gave up after 27 minutes of torture. There was no acting involved. It was like watching porn without the nudity. Characters appeared briefly, spouted a few unoriginal lines of dialogue, and trotted mercifully out of camera range. 

Observation 5 - People watch movies because of the actors involved, without any other considerations

I'm definitely guilty of this one. Over the years, I have mindlessly watched Schwarzenegger, Eddie Murphy, Michael J. Fox, Bill Murray, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, and a multitude of others. Some can't act at all, some have nostalgia value, and a few actually have some memorable performances to their name. Williams was superb in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting, and effective in Insomnia, One Hour Photo, and even Good Morning Vietnam. But he's also delivered more than his fair share of complete crap.

The casting is a useful guide when deciding what I might like, but there are no guarantees.

So what does make a good movie? I can't give you a definitive answer, but I can tell you what works for me.

The Director

I think this is a far more reliable guide than relying on the main actors involved. For example, I will be entertained by anything Quentin Tarantino releases. He could choose a genre I dislike, cast actors I either dislike or don't know, and yet still produce something I enjoy watching.

Other directors that I feel that I can rely on are covered in more depth in my Top 10 Directors and An Introduction to Foreign Language Film features.

The Story

If the story is strong enough, it can capture my attention even if I hate the genre. For example, religion doesn't interest me at all, but Doubt is a wonderful film with four strong performances at its heart. Politics also bores me, but I cared about Frost/Nixon and The Queen. I loathe films about ancient Rome, but Gladiator is effective entertainment. Biopics don't do much for me at all, but Control is just about perfect.

The Acting

This may sound obvious, but it's amazing how many movies become popular and make money without good acting. In contrast, a strong performance can sometimes save a weak or unoriginal story. I dread to think what Unstoppable might have been without Denzel Washington's performance, but it's actually something I return to often. Imagine One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest without Jack Nicholson, Dog Day Afternoon without Al Pacino, or even M*A*S*H* (TV version) without Alan Alda. Casting is vitally important to me.

The Setting

Sometimes, I want to escape to a completely different world. Avatar has a terrible script with childish dialogue, but it's watchable because of the setting. Films such as Spirited Away, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and My Neighbor Totoro, provide wonderful settings that I am always happy to visit. The Warriors somehow does a similar thing, despite the lack of proven actors and the low budget. David Lynch's worlds are masterful too, and always make me feel as if I am somewhere else.

Clever Humor

This is a tough one to define, and I've always had trouble nailing down exactly why something is funny. I mentioned that I can't tolerate dumb humor, but I do like to laugh. Good writing helps, along with actors capable of delivering lines with proper comic timing. Many of the things which make me laugh involve good actors making witty remarks, even though the general tone of the movie is serious. Nicholson, Eastwood, and Clooney all manage to pull off that delicate balance, although you wouldn't include them in a list of Top 10 comedians. Bill Murray, who appeared regularly in some of the comedies I now despise, has redeemed himself by turning in some of the best work of his career in recent years.

Drama and Emotion

This is the big one for me. I want movies to be serious attempts to tell a story, without looking for cheap laughs every 20 seconds. I want to care about the characters and the outcome of their story. I want to remember the story and feel compelled to revisit the characters and their worlds. I even want those qualities in some measure in genres other than drama. Die Hard works because Bruce Willis is a better actor than most action heroes, and the writing is good enough to pull me into the story. Liam Neeson makes Taken a must-see movie for the same reasons. Christopher Nolan gave us the best superhero trilogy because he chose real actors, and then gave us a reason to care about what was going on. They still have the cool special effects, but it's not an empty story. Ask yourself why you love Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight. Why was it so much better than other entries in the genre? Seriously, why did you care?

I'm not sure what the point of this post is. Maybe there isn't one. I'm just so jaded when I look at release schedules and see a tiny number of movies that I might like. Can we turn this trend around? Is it just me who thinks this way?

One of the most important decisions I ever made was to open up my mind and try foreign language films. There goes 95 percent of anyone who was still reading this post. It's not really that much effort to read subtitles. Do you like Inglourious Basterds? How much of that is in English? The main reason I love foreign film is that there is a chance of seeing something original; something with real ideas that doesn't feel compelled to deliver the expected outcome. The Hollywood machine churns out predictable films. Nolan was allowed to make Inception because of his success with The Dark Knight, but most movies with that level of imagination never come to fruition. Foreign films have their share of predictable crap, but the good ones are worth your time. Amelie is a delight; The Lives of Others is an extremely touching drama; The Three Colors Trilogy looks at life in ways you might not expect; Hayao Miyazaki has produced films with more heart than any other director, and I'm not just talking about animation. You can even see his films without having to read subtitles.

I know people who only buy music that makes the Top 40. I'm convinced that dumb comedies are popular because they are thought of as a safe option, that will surely have something for everyone. I urge you to question your own tastes and the decisions you make. What are your favorite films, and why is that the case? What movies made you feel as if you threw away your money? If you could finance a film, who would you cast, and who would direct it?

I'll leave you with my Top 10 Denzel Washington films (alphabetical order):

Crimson Tide
The Hurricane
Inside Man
John Q
Man on Fire
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 
Training Day

And here's my current Top 50 (alphabetical order):

12 Angry Men
American Beauty
As Good as It Gets
The Birds
Blue Velvet
The Dark Knight
The Departed
The Descendants
Dog Day Afternoon
The Double Life of Veronique
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Gran Torino
Grave of the Fireflies
The Green Mile
I Am Legend
In Bruges
Inglourious Basterds
Inside Man
Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2
The King's Speech
The Lives of Others
Midnight in Paris
Moonrise Kingdom
Mulholland Dr.
My Neighbor Totoro
No Country for Old Men
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Prestige
Pulp Fiction
The Pursuit of Happyness
The Reader
The Shawshank Redemption
The Shining
The Silence of the Lambs
Silver Linings Playbook
Taxi Driver
The Three Colors Trilogy
Up in the Air
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Philadelphia - Finally available on Blu-ray

Philadelphia (1993)
Drama, 125 minutes
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen and Antonio Banderas

There are all kinds of reasons why I might watch a certain movie. It may be the director, the actors, the subject matter, or because of a review or recommendation. What first made me want to see Philadelphia was the casting of Tom Hanks. But now, after broadening my film knowledge in recent years, I wanted to pay closer attention to Denzel Washington's performance, and Jonathan Demme's directorial choices.

Demme has been responsible for one of the best thrillers ever made (The Silence of the Lambs), one of the best concert films (Stop Making Sense), as well as quirky comedies like Something Wild. Philadelphia isn't like any of those movies in terms of feel or genre; it's a serious drama, with an important message.

The story begins with lawyers Andrew Beckett (Hanks) and Joe Miller (Washington) battling each other in court. Beckett wins the case, and is promoted by his firm. He is entrusted with the task of representing one of the firm's most important clients. He's young, successful, and appears set to excel in his field. Miller is exposed as a TV celebrity and opportunist, who is more concerned with winning money for his clients than being ethical.

Beckett is homosexual and contracts AIDS. He develops lesions all over his body, and some of them are visible. One of the firm's partners notices and fears that Beckett may have AIDS. Soon after, Beckett is fired.

Do you remember when you first heard about AIDS? I remember it as a time of great panic. Nobody was immune from the disease, and we learned that it could be passed on by having a blood transfusion or unprotected sex. Imagine being a nurse and having a needle accidentally break your skin, and wondering if you would contract the disease. But, despite the fact that everyone was at risk, AIDS was primarily considered a disease which affected the gay community.

Should someone be fired for having a life-threatening disease? Does it matter whether their current performance is exceptional, even though it will almost certainly deteriorate in the future? This story is about Beckett's fight to sue his former firm for wrongful dismissal. After trying to enlist the help of nine other lawyers, he eventual turns to Miller. We discover that Miller is severely homophobic, and his ignorance of AIDS makes him fear Beckett's very presence. The story educates both the audience and Miller during its two-hour journey. Although we know much more about AIDS now, it was important to hear stories like this when the disease was relatively new on the scene.

Miller's initial instinct was to get as far away from Beckett as he could. In fact, some people will never see Philadelphia for similar reasons. Homophobia is not as common as it used to be, but it still exists. Another reason that the film won't have a large audience is the debilitating nature of the disease. It's uncomfortable to see somebody become ill, knowing that they might well die. I understand the decision to avoid that kind of subject matter, but entertainment comes in many forms. The reason I enjoy Philadelphia is the strength of the central performances from Hanks and Washington.

The second half of the film focuses on the courtroom battle between Miller, representing Beckett, and the firm which ultimately fired Beckett. If you enjoy courtroom dramas, Philadelphia does well with that aspect of the story. Demme makes some interesting choices, occasionally making the actors speak directly into the camera. It has the effect of placing us in the position of the judge or the witness giving evidence, and grabs our attention.

Hanks was at his peak in the 90s and early 2000s, and this Oscar-winning performance is one of his best. Washington has been great for 20 years, and his performance should not be missed either.

Philadelphia also won an Oscar for best song (Bruce Springsteen), and closes with another nominee (Neil Young). The music fits the mood perfectly.

If you enjoy good acting, serious drama, or stories that really matter, Philadelphia is worth your time. Some say that it is dated and overly-manipulative, but sometimes it's good to manipulate the audience when the message is important enough to warrant it. This is one of those times.

The North American Blu-ray release is from Twilight Time, and is limited to 3,000 copies. The picture quality is pleasing and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track also does the job. It's available from Amazon, or directly from Screen Archives Entertainment, and comes with a small booklet.

Overall score 4.5/5

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