Sunday, October 24, 2010

By the numbers

A lot of people are saying that the movie The Social Network is a zeitgeist.

Zeit-geist: n. The spirit of the time; the taste and outlook characteristic of a period or generation.

I disagree. Facebook could be called a zeitgeist, but the movie about the creation of Facebook is not.

(500) Days of Summer is a zeitgeist. It's a movie by, for, and of my generation. The best thing about this movie is the creative approach it takes to the traditional plot of any boy-meets-girl film. It's about a young man named Tom, and his relationship with a young woman named Summer.

The story is told in non-chronological order, like Pulp Fiction and Memento. There are also many plays on POV, with surreal, fantastical, or exaggerated sequences that crib from other film genres. Pop culture is woven into the characters lives in such an organic way that it's impossible to tell where the cultural references stop and the characters begin.

This is the way so many millennials, or Generation Y, experience life. We have an endless internal index of movies, shows, music, books and characters with which we can annotate occurrences in our daily lives. We see our experiences reflected in the media that we consume and share with each other. We deepen our interpersonal relationships by sharing our media and experiences. We love to tell people why we love the things we love. I'm doing that right now, right here on my blog. We put an emphasis on sharing similar interests with our significant others. We expect them to like the same bands, the same movies, the same shows. Thanks to Facebook and other social networks, we can now like and share our friends experiences. Our internal collection of references grows, our networks expand, and we find that our lives are inextricable from the context we seek to create around them. A context of cultural touchstones and the approval of others. Our experiences are the sum of their parts, not the sequence in which they happened, which is why we so enjoy nonlinear narratives in books, movies and other media.

(500) Days of Summer is truly representative of my generation. Tom, the main character portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is frequently seen wearing t-shirts declaring his love of a certain band or film. His apartment is littered with similar references. Even the music he listens to is audible and acts both character development and plot device. One of the first things that makes him really notice Summer, played by Zooey Deschanel, is that she hears a The Smiths song he is listening to and comments about how she also likes that band and song. Tom is floored. He so closely identifies with that music that the simple fact that Summer also enjoys the music means, to him, that they are perfectly compatible. He also takes pride in thinking that The Smiths are vintage and not well-liked by the general public, so he considers his taste, and Summer's taste by association, to be extremely rare and sophisticated.

Considering the fact that The Smiths have almost 900k fans on Facebook, you begin to see how this frame of mind can be misleading. This film also highlights another generational problem: we are in love with love. A large chunk of Gen Y are hopeless romantics, and its no wonder considering the fact that we grew up on John Hughes's work and other movies like Pretty Woman and The Goonies. We take breakups harder than most. All we see is a cacophony of references to our failed relationship. That show we used to watch together. That movie or band we both liked. That shirt I wore when we first met. Our internal index works against us, and we find ourselves dissecting it to try and find the cause of our broken romance. And we blame ourselves. The true romantic in us cannot blame love, it blames itself, and it almost enjoys the suffering- for nothing is quite as beautiful and romantic as heartbreak.

In short, the cinematography is impressive and very emotive. The screenplay is inventive, the dialogue is fresh and believable. The acting is first-rate, both Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are magnetic and charming. The soundtrack is impeccable, for all of the reasons I list above. It's the mix tape we all made at some point for someone, that described a relationship from start to finish.
(500) Days of Summer is entertaining, beautiful and quirky. I couldn't think of a better love-note written by Gen Y and addressed to everyone. It says "this is who we are. this is what our life is like, and we hope you like it." I liked it. I hope you will too.

If you want to see a love note written by Gen X and addressed to everyone, watch High Fidelity. John Cusack's Lawrence of Arabia.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why I love sports movies

I love sports movies. Sometimes in spite of myself, sometimes in spite of the fact that I don't follow sports in real life. There is a charm to the standard sports drama that never fails to appeal to me. It's the underdog story, the inevitability of the underdog to win, and the satisfying righteous nature of that mega-happy ending. Sports dramas are reliable that way: they enthrall, they inspire, and they're usually pretty straight-forward. Sports comedies follow the same plot structure, only the defeats and short-falls are hilarious instead of heartbreaking.

Dan also loves sports dramas. And, since I've been subjecting him to every manner of "I know you don't want to watch this movie, but it's an important movie that you should like", I decided to watch a couple of movies I knew we'd both enjoy.

I started off with The Greatest Game Ever Played. I figured this was a sure-thing. Dan loves golf. Dan loves Boston. This was a movie about a famous golf player from Boston. The fact that it's a Disney movie directed by Bill "Game Over, Man" Paxton, starring Shania TheBeef gave me pause, but I was doing this for Dan, so I put it on my Netflix queue. I'm so glad I did. Most of my family members are avid golfers and I've lived in Massachusetts my whole life, yet I had never heard of Ouimet and "The Greatest Game Ever Played". It's an incredible story and I really feel that this movie did it justice.

The Greatest Game Ever Played is partially a biopic of two golfers (Francis Ouimet and Harry Vardon) and partially about the world of golf in 1913 and how these two players changed golf forever.

Vardon came from humble backgrounds to be the most successful and famous professional golfer of his time. Francis Ouimet was from a working-class family and grew up at the foot of a prominent country club in Brookline. Ouimet was inspired by Vardon at an early age, and Ouimet finds himself playing in the U.S. Open against Vardon. Ouimet and his ten-year-old caddy, Eddie Lowrey, are amateurs, but determined to win. The resulting round of golf was called "The Greatest Game Ever Played" by local papers.

The story itself is so incredible that Dan and I took to Wikipedia several times to see what amount of Disneyfication was going on, but the most unbelievable aspects of the story are the ones that are true. And Bill Paxton is actually a pretty good director. He does an excellent job of character exposition and gives a great moody undertone to balance out this mega-happy ending. Paxton even gets artsy with us, using clever camera angles and cutaways to illustrate the nerves Vardon and Ouimet feel before every swing of the club.

Shia LaBeouf is likable and just awkward enough as the young golfing prodigy Ouimet. But what I liked the best in this film were the supporting performances. Elias Koteas as Ouimet's father, with a flawless French Canadian accent, is a tough blue-collar guy who just wants his son to succeed, but not in golf. Stephen Marcus (you've seen in him as Nick The Greek in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) is bombastic as Ted Ray, the big golfer with a short temper. And this film would not be half as good as it is without Josh Flitter as Eddie Lowrey, Ouimet's loyal, wise-cracking caddy. My favorite scene from this film is the one where the men in charge of the U.S. Open try to manipulate the pair into replacing Lowrey with "a proper caddy". Lowrey bursts into hysterics, in a way that was instantly recognizable and believable as the way that any kid reacts when they feel betrayed and heartbroken. "They told me you'd want to..." he chokes out between sobs to Ouimet, and it got me. My heart was wrenched.

Another thing I liked about it was how it visually contrasted the world of the rich club members and the world of the golfers. The former is polished and cold, the latter is dingy and earthy.

The other sports film I watched with Dan was The Blind Side. It was good. Not "deserved to be nominated for Best Picture and for Sandra Bullock to win Best Actress" good, but simply good. The real power to this film, like The Greatest Game Ever Played, is that it's hard to believe it's all true. It is simply incredible that anyone could escape the life that Michael Oher was living. It's incredible that anyone would take a person they hardly knew into their family, with few questions asked. That story itself is well worth watching, and leaves you with a good feeling. Other than that, this movie is pretty standard. I think the reason Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for it was because the role proves that she can act and that she can pull off a Southern drawl quite nicely. But she doesn't exactly disappear into the role of Leigh Anne Tuohy. I just think she's so very much like Leigh Anne Tuohy that no one else would have even been considered for the role. The character, in spite of being based on a real person, is very Bullock-esque. I was very much aware that I was watching Sandra Bullock. It's still a sin that she won over Gabourey Sidibe's performance in Precious, but at least now I have a little more perspective. Tim McGraw and Kathy Bates are also in this movie. They're okay, too. I really wonder if those roles were given simply because the real people got to pick who would play them in a movie. I could see Leigh Anne picking Bullock, Sean picking McGraw and Miss Sue choosing Kathy Bates. Nothing spectacular.

I did really enjoy Quinton Aaron as Michael Oher, but the performance confused me. The role is very similar to Precious in Precious, but without the narration, we lose our concept of the character's inner thoughts and feelings. Through much of this movie we are simply left to wonder why Michael is so cryptically stoic. I feel this is the place where the film falls short. Those moments where Michael does express himself, on the field and off, are the ones that really let this movie soar. But we don't see enough of them. The way we see Michael portrayed in the movie, and the real-life clips and photos at the end seem like two different people. The movie-Michael is withdrawn, stone-faced and insecure. The Michael we see in clips and photos flashes wide grins, and seems to have personality oozing out of his pores. This disparity bothered me. I would have liked to know more about how he felt in those times, and seen that big friendly personality emerge more often.

Where I do think the movie triumphs is showing how those of us who live outside of the harsh world of the ghetto are the ones with a blind side. We don't know what it's like for those people who live there. We don't hear or see anything about them unless they're being arrested or killed. And we don't do anything to help them because of it. All Michael Oher, and so many other young people, need a safe environment surrounded by people who truly care about them in order to succeed. This is the same lesson Precious provides, but it's delivery will make most people uncomfortable. The Blind Side is able to deliver the message that love is what saves people while not making people uncomfortable with their ignorance or inaction to "the other America". Which is why it was more successful than Precious. But that isn't important as long as people are taking that idea to heart at the end of the film, and I hope they are.

The Blind Side is a great family movie, and it is heartwarming to see how the entire Tuohy family falls in love with Michael. Kind of made me want to run out and adopt a football player.

If you want a sure-fire, feel-good, mega-happy ending, go with a sports movie every time. Others I recommend are The Natural, Miracle and Rudy.

And feel free to dump some Gatorade on someone the next time they do a good job. Nothing says "Nice work!" like being cold, wet and sticky.


Going BUMP in the night

Halloween is just around the corner. It's my favorite holiday, because we get to dress up, eat candy, and get a good scare in. I have always been sensitive to horror films, but I love them because they produce such a strong emotional reaction.

So, in honor of my favorite holiday, here are some of my favorite scary movies. Six seems like a good, spooky number:

The Shining- Stanley Kubrick knows how to make hypnotic and violent movies, Stephen King knows how to write stories that evoke our most basic fears. Together, with the ever-talented Jack Nicholson, they created one of the most iconic horror films of all time. Who can forget the blood crashing out of those elevator doors? Who isn't terrified by the concept of your own family being turned against each other? This movie still gives me the creeps, no matter how many times I've seen it. Part of its genius, and part of the reason why any child who sees it at a young age is scarred for life, is that we see most of the action from 6-year-old Danny's point of view. The scenes with him rolling around the vacant hotel on his big wheel, hiding in the kitchen (which Stephen Spielberg later used in Jurassic Park), and the end sequence with the hedge maze will never leave your mind. The acting is stellar and the pacing is flawless.

A young family is hired to care for an old hotel during the off-season, but it seems they are not alone, and some buildings are not composed of simply brick and mortar.

The Exorcist- If you've seen this movie and didn't think it was that scary, watch it again. Once you already know the dark things plaguing poor Regan, the hints scattered by director William Friedkin along the way are like breadcrumbs leading to a place you know you don't want to go. Part of the horror is that the answer to what is wrong with Regan is so simple, but a world of non-believers fail to see it, and the girl suffers greatly as a consequence. This movie scarred an entire generation of people. My mother, and most women my mother's age, refuse to even discuss this film. They won't even joke about Ouija boards. The Exorcist's success in horrifying us is that it makes the most ridiculous concept- demonic possession- seem perfectly real. Linda Blair is a wunderkind.

A young actress calls upon a priest when her daughter becomes plagued by a horrible illness.

Audition- Can there be anything more frightening than discovering the person you love is not who they seem to be? This brilliant Japanese horror film has some pretty powerful thoughts about the dangers of sexism, trust and innocence. I can't forget this movie. When people tell me about acupuncture, this film leaps to mind, its graphic scenes coating my eyeballs like a paint no thinner can remove. It will haunt you. It will disturb you. Click on the title for my full review.

A lonely man accepts his friend's offer to "cast" him a new wife, who turns out to be a much better actress than he bargained for.

Silence of the Lambs- I adore this film. It is incredibly watchable and entertaining, yet sophisticated and creepy. Anthony Hopkins IS Hannibal Lector. Accept no substitutions. He fills up this monster of a man in a way that is totally terrifying. And the final scene with Ted Levine in the claustrophobia-inducing basement is unforgettable.

Jodie Foster plays hot-shot FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling, tapped by her mentor to crack a serial killer case. In order to get to the bottom of who "Buffalo Bill" is and why he's skinning his victims, she turns to an imprisoned, murderous, former psychiatrist Dr. Lector for clues. The rabbit's hole he leads her down is far darker and twisted than Clarice ever could have imagined.

The Ring- Normally, I don't recommend re-makes. However, the slick sensibility of the American version of The Ring lets the frightening concept of the curse shine. This film is cold and calculating, and it scared the hell out of me. I watched it by myself at 11:00 a.m. on a bright, sunny day, and I was still too spooked at night to turn off the lights. The impending sense of dread this film creates, the inescapable nature of the curse, knocks down every "it's only a movie" sensibility you could hold.

A young reporter is determined to discover the reason behind her niece's sudden, violent death. But, some secrets go viral once they are let out.

Beetlejuice- Okay, so this one really isn't scary, but it's just a great movie that's damn fun to watch and it reminds us why we go looking for frights on October nights. You can't beat this cast: Alec Baldwin. Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones. Helmed by Tim Burton, Beetljuice is the perfect mix of funny, scary and heartfelt.

A recently-deceased, young, country couple find themselves having to share their home with odious city-dwellers. They seek a way to drive them out, but their desperate measures begin to interfere with the kinship they feel with the new family's Goth teenage daughter.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Doctor is in

I've got two online courses and weddings, showers, parties and other such happy time-consuming things going on in my life. This is reducing the time in which I can sit on my couch and blog. I'll have to start mobile blogging during my lunch hours to get caught up.

Doctor Zhivago is one of those movies that I felt like if I didn't see it, I would be missing out on this huge cultural icon, like Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia. These films are epics, they're truly larger than life. They can only be described with words like sweeping, lavish, classic, and grand. They are big in every sense of the word, and they are long. Doctor Zhivago has a 197 minute running time. However, I cut this down by doing something borderline sacrilegious: I skip the overture, intermission and entre act orchestrations. I know, I know, these movies are like operas and each character and theme has its own music and by skipping these things I miss out on the bigger picture. But, there are plenty of movies that achieve an operatic-like soundtrack without needing overtures and intermissions, Lord of the Rings (1) and Star Wars (4) come to mind as examples. So, if you can't quite carve out three and a half hours in which to watch Doctor Zhivago, skip the music bits. The story is strong enough to stand on its own.

Doctor Zhivago takes the story of the Russian communist revolution and uses the story of two star-crossed lovers to frame it. Yuri Zhivago, the titular rich young physician, and Lara, the working class girl. Fate brings them together and tears them apart time and again. In the meantime, they each live through the worst parts of the communist revolution. It is, at its heart, a story of how in a nation where people are forced to share everything, everyone loses everything they hold dear. It is incredibly romantic, but it's so much more than a romance movie.

The cinematography is what makes this movie a masterpiece. The emotion of each scene is told by the camera. My favorite example of this is the first opportunity Yuri sees to begin an affair with Lara. He is draped in shadow, his face obscured, while he makes his shameful proposition. Lara, surrounded by a halo of light, nobly refuses his invitation, even though she admits she admires him a great deal. The dialogue is subtle, and the acting is as well, so if it weren't for the use of light and camera angle the viewer might not notice the power of morality at play in the scene. There are also several scenes featuring the odious Viktor Komarovsky, and the tension is shown in the shadows and cramped spaces in which he always brings Lara.

The costumes are accurate as possible, and flatter the actors without upstaging them. The makeup is the real costuming achievement in this film. The characters are shown to age. They reflect their nation as Russia becomes a shell of its former self. Poverty, fear and the ravages of time are shown on their faces with makeup.

The real stars are the sets and location. Russia herself is the silent character, and by showing the same places over and over again, changed by the revolution, slowly becoming more desolate and sad. The colorful flowers and blue skies seen in the happier times of Zhivago's life are replaced by gray streets and white snow.

The acting is just unbelievable. Not for one moment do you see any of the actors as anything else but their characters. Omar Sharif gives one of the best performances ever seen. If I had to rate performances in a top five, this is number two. The only performance I've seen that can top it is Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. This isn't entirely surprising. After working together on Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif teamed up with director David Lean to bring us Doctor Zhivago. Sharif originally wanted to play Pasha, but Lean cast him in the lead after Peter O'Toole passed on the role. Best twist of fate ever. Sharif gives a performance that spans a man's entire life and does it with a style that you just don't see anymore.
Julie Christie also astounds in playing Lara. She gives us a character that, in spite of all the hard knocks in her life, remains true and loving. Never bitter, never breaking down. Tom Courtenay is remarkable as Pasha. Courtenay shows the character's progression from an optimistic young man hungry for justice to a hardened war criminal who rules with an iron fist in a chilling and familiar way. If good people can become monsters, this is how it must happen.

The music really is amazing. It captures the scale of the story while still giving a feel of the individuals making up that story. There's no other way to describe the soundtrack, it's epic. It's operatic. It's the strong current in the ocean of this movie.

Doctor Zhivago is one for your bucket list. I'm so glad it was on mine. I'll never forget it.
Here's a little taste: