Back to the Basics

The Apartment

Two weeks ago, I wrote that I wanted to resurrect this blog and start writing again. Two…weeks. Oops.

With that acknowledged, I wanted to spend today reminiscing some of my favorite films. Any time you are disappointed with the current state of film or feel that there’s nothing of value playing in your local theater, recounting the movies that made you fall in love with the medium can be a breath of fresh air. And since you don’t need yet another negative review of “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2,” let me share with you a few of my favorites.

On the Waterfront

Though Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” scene is often the one remembered from this 1954 film, there are a multitude of strong performances. Karl Malden as Father Barry and Lee J. Cobb’s Johnny Friendly are two of the best characters from classic Hollywood. Though awards aren’t everything, the film basically took home all of the Oscars with achievements in writing, directing, cinematography, and five(!) acting nominations on top of a Best Picture win.

Saving Private Ryan

A completely different kind of film, Steven Spielberg’s WWII tale is one of the best war films ever shone on the silver screen. Like most films of its kind, there are a slew of top-notch actors peppered throughout the film (Paul Giamatti, Ted Danson, Nathan Fillion, Bryan Cranston, to name a few) in addition to the main cast. The opening scene on Omaha Beach is considered by many to be the most accurate portrayal of war in film and the filming techniques that Spielberg uses are perfect. The whole film is shot beautifully and it succeeds by being both entertaining and hauntingly real.

L.A. Confidential

A year before “Saving Private Ryan” was robbed of Best Picture by “Shakespeare in Love”, another great film was ignored in favor of a romantic tale (“Titanic”). “L.A. Confidential” is the story of 3 very different 1950’s detectives who are all caught up in the same case from different angles. The movie may sound pretty standard at first, but throw in Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, and the setting of Los Angeles and you’ve got cinematic magic.

The Apartment

Taking it back to 1960 for what I often refer to as my favorite movie, “The Apartment” is a Billy Wilder film starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Lemmon plays a young employee at an insurance company who tries to climb the corporate ladder by allowing his superiors to use his conveniently located apartment for their extramarital affairs. Things turn for the worse, however, when he discovers that the elevator girl he’s in love with is one of his bosses’ mistresses. The chemistry between Lemmon and MacLaine is fantastic, the characters moving, and the film is wonderfully shot in black and white. The Apartment is one of the best comedies ever written and was an instant favorite the minute I watched it.

Though this isn’t an exhaustive list of my favorite films, they are a few that have been imprinted on my mind in recent years. Film is something that is immeasurably personal and everyone has their own tastes and preferences. Soon I will be getting back to reviews, but today I just want to enjoy some personal favorites. I would also be interested in hearing about your own favorite films in the comments below.

Happy viewing.

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Resurrection

Star Wars 7Inspiration can be a hard thing to find. Sometimes the monotony of life can pull us away from the passions that we would normally pursue and in their place we devote all of our attention to simply waking up and checking off our daily list of tasks.

For the last 3 months I’ve neglected this blog because I had lost that inspiration. January-March is often considered the time of year for films that the studios have no faith in. Perhaps the mediocrity of films such as “The Wedding Ringer”, “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Jupiter Ascending” played a part in my new-found apathy. Whatever the reason, it’s time for a comeback.

From my perspective, the movies could also use a comeback. Aside from a few successes here and there (“Guardians of the Galaxy”, “Interstellar”), 2014 was a rather disappointing year at the theater. Oscar bait like “The Imitation Game” and “Foxcatcher” left something to be desired, whereas many of the anticipated summer blockbusters fell flat.

But that’s the past. Let’s talk about the future.

Though the first few months of 2015 were a little bumpy, this year has the opportunity to be one of the biggest the industry has ever seen. If not in quality, then certainly in box office dollars and anticipation.

Here is a list of the franchises that have a new installment in 2015 (more notable series in bold):

Taken, Divergent, Paul Blart, Monsters, Avengers, Mad Max, Pitch Perfect, Poltergeist, Entourage, Insidious, Jurassic Park, Ted, Terminator, Magic Mike, Despicable Me (Minions), Mission Impossible, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Fantastic Four, Hitman, Fast and Furious, The Transporter, The Maze Runner, Hotel Transylvania, James Bond, The Hunger Games, Rocky Balboa, Star Wars

There is something to be said, of course, for originality and fresh storytelling. Is it a little hypocritical to anxiously look forward to these properties while also at times complaining about the lack of new ideas in Hollywood? Probably. But the sheer magnitude of franchises being revisited is incredible. If there were new Indiana Jones and Batman movies coming out this year, basically everything I have ever loved would be present.

Obviously this could all end very poorly for me and any others waiting for these films. I can already tell you that “Furious 7” is an absurd letdown. That being said, 2015 is poised to be a juggernaut of a year and could be a much-needed return to quality entertainment.

So on this Easter Sunday, I’m bringing back the reviews and looking forward to what might be a great year at the movies.

Happy viewing.

Another Piece on Robin Williams

Robin Williams

There are by now, I’m sure, thousands of articles available on the Internet about the passing of the comedic genius Robin Williams. Why write another? Because if you’re anything like me, Williams was more than just an actor or stand-up comedian. He was a friend, a father figure, and a guide into worlds that were before unknown.

Though he was originally known for outlandish characters, he eventually made a name for himself in dramatic acting with films like “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Will Hunting,” for which he won an Academy Award. Aside from those listed already, some of my favorites from his filmography are “Patch Adams,” “What Dreams May Come,” “Insomnia,” and “Hook.”

I can still remember the day that I saw “Patch Adams” for the first time. It was a day or two after Christmas ’98. I went to the theater with my brother and cousins because even at an early age we knew that Robin Williams was a funny guy. Was it a masterpiece? Of course not. However the film left an impression on me that has stuck with me to this day: The importance of laughter in life can never be overstated. Not exactly “Carpe diem” but it’s something that has affected me for the better through the years. It is one of many influences that have allowed me to overcome the tough days and to embrace the hope of a better tomorrow.

Comedy, and art in general, has the ability to pierce into our souls and provide a truth that we didn’t even know we were looking for. The stories we view on the silver screen can shape who we are just as much as any person in our lives. That’s why the passing of great actors (especially those who die too soon) is always a burden we’d rather not face.

Sadly in the case of Robin Williams, it appears that his own demons were the cause of death. There was no plane crash or sudden explosion, only the internal struggle of a man drowning in despair. It is a sad cliché that some of our funniest entertainers quietly suffer from what they deem a hopeless existence. Mental health is a puzzle whose pieces we are only beginning to run our fingers around.

As we take a few moments to mourn this great actor, here are a few of his most memorable scenes. The park scene from “Good Will Hunting” is often thought of as his best.

Whichever film or scene you most treasure from his work, Williams will be remembered for the laughs he provided to audiences in the past and to future generations as well. I will miss his wild antics and booming voice. I will miss his quick-witted humor and dramatic roles. I will miss the friend who taught me to laugh, even on days such as this when I don’t want to.

Thank you for contributing a verse.

PS-This seems as good a place as any to remind those reading this in America that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number is 1-800-273-8255.

Happy viewing.

An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object: Thoughts on a Batman/Superman Film

Superman_-_Batman_logo
This weekend in San Diego, the Super Bowl of geeks AKA Comic-Con took place. Through the years this event has become less about cosplayers and basement-dwellers and more about Hollywood teasing future products. The latest of these teases occurred at the Warner Bros. panel, where “Man of Steel” director Zack Snyder revealed that his film’s sequel will also feature the Caped Crusader. This presents amazing possibilities as well as major challenges. Let’s talk about the cool stuff before I become Negative Nancy.

This is DC’s best possible response to Marvel’s Avengers

Although the idea of a Justice League movie would be absolutely incredible (and probably still happening), Batman and Superman teaming up is the perfect short-term response DC could have had. A 5-year-plan for Justice League similar to what Marvel did in Phase One sounds both too simple and too lazy, not to mention it would essentially be DC admitting that Marvel caught them with their pants down. Instead of spending time on a B-level character getting their own film, DC and Warner Bros. are throwing their 2 heavy hitters into the same film. This way they can test the waters without losing another $100 million on an awful Green Lantern film.

History is on the film’s side

What I mean here is that there is a long history of these 2 characters meeting up to take down villains like Lex Luthor and Darkseid. There is also a strong chance at success at the box office. The Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan combined for nearly $2.5 billion and Snyder’s “Man of Steel” has pulled in close to $650 million on its own. Combining these two characters would easily challenge the domestic all-time leader, “Avatar”, at $760 million.

Batman didn’t need a reboot

I’ve heard a few people say that they would have preferred a Batman reboot to this joint adventure. Really? Tim Burton’s original film was made in 1989. In 23 years, Batman had 7 films under 3 directors. You could make the case that we haven’t seen every possible origin story he has, but do we really need to see his parents die a 4th time in a quarter-century? This is another reason why these 2 characters teaming up now is a better idea than adding 3 B-listers down the road. We know these characters. Anyway, there will probably be a little bit of reinvention for Bats because a new actor is wearing the cowl. Stop crying.

Now let’s talk about some of the challenges this film will face.

Make the conflict between the heroes a small part of the film

These are 2 very different heroes with different belief systems and fighting capabilities. It would be nonsense to believe they could just team up without ever getting in each other’s way. This film should be about more than their conflict, though. If they try the “Spider-Man 3” approach where they just team up at the very end to fight the main villain, the film has been wasted. Also, “The Avengers” already focused a good portion of their film to conflict between heroes (as they should have considering they were working with several different heroes) so let’s try something a little different here.

Making the realistic tone work

Although Superman and Batman joining forces has happened many times in the history of comics, the heroes are usually not bound by the real-world approach that both “Man of Steel” and the Dark Knight trilogy incorporated into their stories. If you look at Batman and Superman through that lens, there is a serious imbalance of power. Though Superman doesn’t change much, Batman becomes a much less formidable vigilante. Even if the film tries to steer closer to the realm of fantasy, there will be an entire generation of people who will cry out over inconsistency or say that it’s too hard to swallow. I believe this to be the film’s biggest challenge because we are no longer talking about Batman in crime films, but superhero Batman fighting villains from other worlds.

These are just a few thoughts I’ve had since hearing about the Superman/Batman film on Saturday. I’m sure there are other points to make, so feel free to comment below. Happy viewing.

Valentine’s Day for the Single Movie Lover

Lonely Theater Girl

On Valentine’s Day, there are two kinds of people. The first group is full of young couples who are in love, children joyfully passing around little cards at school and married folks who just want to eat a nice meal out on the town. The other group hates this group.

This Valentine’s Day I find myself in the second group which wonders who came up with this silly holiday. But let’s get past accusations of greeting card company conspiracies and hating on people who have a significant other. Today has come to be about celebrating that which you love. For me, that’s sitting in a reclining chair (at the theater or at home) and watching the beautiful artistry of film.

Whether it’s the silent shenanigans of Buster Keaton, the classic romanticism of “Casablanca” or the explosive spectacle of “The Avengers,” these fleeting images can be every bit as captivating as a budding romance. I remember the first time I watched “Saving Private Ryan” or one of Billy Wilder’s films and the kinds of emotions they pulled out of me as I sat mesmerized.

But, like any other relationship, there can be rough patches where you wonder if you’re just wasting your time. I remember the pain of watching “Battleship” just as vividly as any good experience at the theater. However, maybe seeing a really bad film like that makes one appreciate quality filmmaking when they see it. Without knowing how truly horrible a production can go, you’d think the business of making movies is a walk in the park.

For all of its flops, near-misses and money-grabbing mistakes, film is a movement that can speak to all of us in just the right way. No matter what the story is or what differences in taste are accounted for, the right movie at the right time can be as therapeutic or fulfilling as time spent with a loved one.

Or so I hope as I sit in a recliner and wander through my Netflix queue on Valentine’s Day.

Batman Countdown: In Nolan We Trust

After the catastrophe that was “Batman and Robin,” Warner Bros. worked hard to find a way to reintroduce their beloved cash cow. At one point, there was a Batman/Superman film in the works starring Colin Farrell as the Caped Crusader and Jude Law as the Man of Steel.

“Batman Begins” (2005)

In 2005, director Christopher Nolan had only made three feature-length films, one of which being the extremely low-budget “Following.” Who knew he would set the benchmark for comic book filmmaking?

As common knowledge as it is today, Nolan had the daring idea to bring comics into the real world (or at least as close as possible). This would be the opposite approach of the cartoonish “Batman and Robin” and, overall, very different from just about every other comic book adaptation up to that point. There is still a certain level of suspension of disbelief required, but audiences didn’t have to deal with anything THAT ridiculous.

Christian Bale, somewhat similar to Nolan, was little-known to most Americans. At best, he was “that guy from ‘American Psycho.'” His performance is interesting because he does well with separating the two very different sides of Bruce Wayne. He plays Wayne the billionaire as a bit of a jerk, filled with arrogance. When he’s not in the public eye, though, Bruce Wayne’s true character is revealed.

Unlike, say Spider-man, Batman’s origins were fairly unknown to the general audience, so the unfolding of Bruce’s past endeared the character even more and allowed us to get the full picture. Honestly, the only real complaint I have with this film are the poorly executed action scenes. There are some days I might even prefer it to Nolan’s 2008 sequel.

With a nearly impeccable cast, compelling origin story and bold direction, “Batman Begins” pulls off a miraculous resurrection for the Batman franchise.

Best line: “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored, I can be destroyed, but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.”

“The Dark Knight” (2008)

Sequels almost always disappoint. With the exception of a small handful of other comic sequels, “The Dark Knight” is pretty much the only one to break the mold.

The same cast from “Batman Begins” improves marginally by replacing Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhaal. Adding onto this stellar group are Aaron Eckhart as District Attorney Harvey Dent and Heath Ledger as the Joker.

“The Dark Knight” was an evolutionary step in the comic book genre. Mixing iconic villains like the Joker with a classic gangster vibe produced a cultural phenomenon that broke box office records like they were nothing. It also established Christopher Nolan as one of the best working directors in the business.

Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker, becoming only the second person to do so. His death had a hand in both the box office take and cementing the film in history.

Tonight’s midnight premiere will tell whether Christopher Nolan can pull off another miracle for this Goliath of a franchise. Have you got your tickets for “The Dark Knight Rises?”

Happy (midnight) viewing.

Batman Countdown: 1989-1997

One day closer to “The Dark Knight Rises.” Time to talk about the most popular Batman films back when no one knew who Christopher Nolan was.

“Batman” (1989)

Although Superman got his own film in 1978, the superhero formula for film was still in its infancy back in 1989. “Batman” was kind of a bold pioneer for the genre, which is what made it so great when it turned out to be well done.

Director Tim Burton, coming off of “Beetlejuice,” controversially decided to cast Michael Keaton in the role of Bruce Wayne. Similar to Heath Ledger’s casting of Joker, critics were easily shut up after seeing the film.

Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker gave the film a sense of legitimacy. The veteran actor was able to capture both the viciousness of his character and his appreciation for laughter. Combining Burton’s dark tone with a healthy dose of comic book camp, “Batman” is easily the best of the 89-97 series. Too bad we’ll never see Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face.

Best line: “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”

“Batman Returns” (1992)

According to interviews, Warner Bros. really wanted Tim Burton to return for this Bat-sequel but he wasn’t interested. So, the execs told him he could make “a Tim Burton movie” instead of just “another Batman movie.”

Makes sense, because this film is pretty much an overkill on the dark tone most Burton films take. Some people like it, but I’m not the biggest fan of watching penguin people spit up black ink.

Other than Michael Keaton, who reprises his role as Bruce Wayne, most of the cast is brand new. With Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Penguin (Danny DeVito) and the evil Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), “Batman Returns” is at no loss for quality bad guys.

Although it’s a good movie (and I love Catwoman here), it really doesn’t have much to do with Batman. He’s in 3 of the first 30 minutes, which is weird considering its his franchise. Then again, it won’t be the only time that Batman sits in the background while villains get to have all the fun.\

Best line: (Catwoman executes series of flips, landing between Batman and Penguin) “Meow.” (Building behind her explodes)

“Batman Forever” (1995)

So long Tim Burton, hello Joel Schumacher. After studio execs deemed “Batman Returns” to be too dark, they hired Schumacher to return the series to a more kid-friendly environment.

If you watch the film knowing that it takes place within the world of a comic book, and not our world with its rules, then it’s a pretty good film. Realism is not even in this film’s dictionary.

Picking up the cape and cowl this time is Val Kilmer, who is surprisingly a really good combination of Wayne and Batman. Where “Batman Returns” had dark, grotesque villains, “Batman Forever” is more along the lines of a cartoon brought to life. There’s no human being more cartoonish than Jim Carrey as the Riddler. Also enrolling in the Over-the-Top School of Villainy is Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face.

What I really love about this film is that it actually gives Bruce Wayne something to do. The psychology of Batman is explored as he tries to deal with the guilt he feels over his parents’ death. It’s a dark side of the film that offsets the humor. I also enjoy seeing Gotham City in a more unique light. Burton’s films designed the city as a more gothic New York City, whereas this film has it looking like no other city in the world.

The film itself is a mixed bag, but “Batman Forever” is a worthy addition to the franchise (despite the guilty by association judgment it gets for leading to a certain other film).

I would also like to say that this film has some great scenes that the studio forced them to cut in order for it to be better for children. I’ve heard Schumacher has a director’s cut in mind that is about 35 minutes longer. Unfortunately, you can’t really count deleted scenes as part of the movie, so we’ll just chalk this up to the studios screwing over another film.

Best line: “Then it will happen this way. You make the kill, but your pain doesn’t die with Harvey, it grows. So you run out into the night to find another face, and another, and another, until one terrible morning you wake up and realize that revenge has become your whole life. And you won’t know why.”

Well, that’s it. There were definitely no other Batman movies after that. Huh? What do you mean Bat-nipples? Ok, fine.

“Batman & Robin” (1997)

Just like Tim Burton went overboard with the darkness in “Batman Returns,” Schumacher cranks up the camp and cheese to 11 in this franchise-killing installment.

George Clooney plays Bruce Wayne playing George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman takes Poison Ivy over the top and Alicia Silverstone tries to be Batgirl. What a combination.

Studios got a taste for the millions to be made off of toys and product placement from “Batman Forever,” so they pretty much forced Schumacher to make the most kid-friendly, toy-sellingest movie of all time. Although it’s a horrible, horrible film, the studios definitely got what they were looking for.

The interesting part is that the studios LOVED the dailies and were planning to let Schumacher make a fifth film called “Batman Triumphant” until critics destroyed “Batman and Robin.”

A fun game to play is Name One Thing About “Batman and Robin” You Actually Liked. So far, I can say I like the design of Robin’s suit at the beginning of the film (sans nipples). Unfaithful to the comics and a joke to the masses, “Batman and Robin” is one of the, if not THE, worst comic book films ever conceived.

Best line: “There is no defeat in death, Master Bruce. Victory comes in defending what we know is right while we still live.”

Tomorrow, it’ll be time to talk about Christopher Nolan and how he saved Batman from the dark corner “Batman and Robin” left him in.

Happy viewing.