Week 9: Black Cloud (2004)

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Black Cloud
Written & directed by Rick Schroder 
Rick Schroder
Starring Eddie Spears, Russell Means, Julia Jones, Tim McGraw, Rick Schroder
Cinematography by Steve Gainer
Distributed by Old Post Films Inc.
Running Time: 97 Minutes

Before Viewing

Being born and raised in Arizona means that I am pretty familiar with Native American culture. I’ve seen it in film, on TV shows, in museums, and in real life. There’s a lot of pride that goes along with it, as well as misunderstanding and even tragedy. I prefer looking at the noble aspects of it, especially after teaching a novel to my reading students one year, ‘The Brave’ by Robert Lipsyte, that examined the struggle one young man had as a Native American of mixed decent who used boxing as his way out. Interestingly enough, a few years ago the film ‘Black Cloud’ came out, and the director, Rick Schroder, came to the high school I worked at to promote the film when it was playing at the Phoenix Film Festival (before I go on, yes, THAT Rick Schroder, from ‘Silver Spoons’, which I watched as a kid). I heard about the film and saw that it was very, very similar to ‘The Brave’. I was intrigued by that, and always had it in mind to check it out.

My Thoughts After Viewing

Seeing the words ‘Written, Produced, and Directed by Rick Schroder’ at the beginning of a film don’t do a whole lot to inspire confidence in a movie viewer (especially if you grew up seeing him call himself ‘The Ricker’), but I will give him a lot of credit here. He did two things right:

  • He hired an outstanding cinematographer

and

  • He made me actually care about the outcome of the final fight.

Some of the shots in this movie are downright breathtaking. Now, I may be biased because I live in and love Arizona, but the shots of the sky filled with meandering clouds and the beautiful vistas and mesa of John Ford country were just up there with some of the best I’ve seen. In fact, those shots made me aware of the fact that I would love nothing more that to take a jeep trip to those areas to conduct my own video safari. I WILL do it one day. The boxing sequences look great as well- as good as anything in a popular boxing movie, but also done with some of the newer video innovations like speed/strobe effects. Raging Bull still has the best boxing sequences in my opinion, but that was more art than boxing.

When you watch a sports-related film, you KNOW that the protagonist will be somehow involved in the championship match/game/bout/shootout. More often than not, you know the underdog WILL win because Hollywood thinks we all want a happy ending. With dramas, though, that’s not always the case. The protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to win for the ending to be satisfying (think Rocky. The first one, that is). It’s a credit to both Schroder and Spears that, after all Black Cloud had been through, I would have felt cheated if the final outcome didn’t go a certain way. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he won (trying to be vague so I don’t spoil it), but that the film was moving towards a certain outcome, and anything less would have been dishonest. Fortunately, Schroder let the story go where it should have. Because of the acting and emotional journey we go on with Black Cloud, we really DO care about what happens to him.

That’s not to say there weren’t some issues. Some of the dialogue is flat, a  few of the characters are stereotypes (especially the African-American guy and his posse that he fights at the end), and some of the situations are predictable. For example, there’s a sequence in the film where everything is going right…. our hero is back with is girl, his best buddy has found the girl of his dreams, they’re at a bar having a good time… you just know it’s time for something bad to happen. I was actually hoping that the scene would cut and our heroes would at least end the night on a positive note, just to be different, but no…. OF COURSE it’s time for something bad to happen. The film also draws a lot on Native American imagery, to the point where it’s almost a distraction. I mean, how many screeching eagles and Native American dancers do we need to see? We know Black Cloud’s a Native American- we don’t need that many reminders. Not that the imagery doesn’t have it’s place, but it becomes a bit heavy-handed after a while.

Black Cloud is pretty much your run-of-the-mill formulaic sports film. You won’t find anything groundbreaking, but there are some good performances. Russell Means is solid as always, and Eddie Spears does a good job as well, but I’ve seen Tim McGraw do better (to be fair, this was before Friday Night Lights). Spears as Black Cloud the youth has the right mix of confusion, rebelliousness, anger, and redemption without going overboard. My favorite part was early, when he kicks Ricky Schroder’s butt. Can’t say I haven’t ever wanted to do that! But seriously, for his debut, I think we can say that Rick Schroder as a writer may need to expand a bit and not stick with the familiar, but as a director, he did a commendable job. 

The Final Verdict

It’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s worth a look. It’s a good movie for teens. The story is pretty predictable, but the shots, especially those outdoors, look beautiful. Worth seeing to study the Northern Arizona landscape/cinematography.

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Week 8: Stir Crazy (1980)

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Stir Crazy
Directed by Sidney Poitier
Written by Bruce Jay Friedman
Starring Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Miguel Angel Suarez, Georg Stanford Brown, JoBeth Williams, Barry Corbin, Craig T. Nelson, Erland Van Lidth
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Running Time: 108 Minutes

Before Viewing

When I was a kid, it was a great time to be a movie fan due to one reason- the proliferation of means to access films at home. The early 80s saw the rise of cable TV as well as the accessibility of movies on VHS and Beta. This meant that you could now see movies you may have missed in the theatres on your television, and more often than not, you could see the multiple times a week! Now, I was only 7 when the 80s started, but I remember seeing much of its films- ‘classics’ like The Black Hole and Urban Cowboy and Explorers and Red Dawn, to name but a few. I saw a lot of movies- except for the rated ‘R’ ones. My parents were pretty strict on that, and I don’t say I blame them. What happened was that through cable, though, I got to see snippets of these adult gems. Movies like Trading Places and Risky Business had some classic scenes that I got to grab some sneak peeks, but I never got to see the whole thing (not until much, much later). Stir Crazy was one of those films. I remember seeing trailers and teasers for this Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder buddy film (one of four they made together), and it looked funny. Through the magic of HBO, I even got to see a few bits here and there. It’s one I always wanted to see but hadn’t. Then, the other day, I was linked to a wonderful blog, Big Media Vandalism, where the excellent Odienator posted Big Comedians In The Big House, his review of the film. My interest was renewed, and I decided to check out the whole film for myself.

My Thoughts After Viewing

If you want a breakdown of the film’s plot, check out Odienator’s link. It’s very thorough and offers an excellent perspective of the film. What I want to touch on are the performances. Remember, I was not totally in the dark about the film, having seen bits and pieces here and there, so when I watched the whole thing, some fond memories sprung up seeing some things again in over 20 years.

Just to quickly recap the story, Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor play Skip and Harry, two struggling entertainers who, during a trip out to Hollywood, get falsely accused and convicted of a bank robbery. This plot device really exists to get them into prison, where the movie shines. First of all, Wilder’s fish-out-of-water persona makes the film. To him, it’s like a resort with really strict rules. He freaks out upon arrival, but once there, he actually sees that it could be a learning opportunity (he is a playwright, after all). He has this naiveté that is a source of a lot of the laughs. When he goes to see the warden (Barry Corbin!), he actually has a list of grievances that he want to share in order to make prison a better place. He tries to be a peacemaker and a mediator in many situations, even going so far as to try to befriend Grossberger, the biggest, baddest man in the prison (‘He killed his entire family and all of his relatives in one weekend, and then he killed some more people that reminded him of his family.’) We find out that Skip has a natural talent for riding bulls, which makes him valuable in the warden’s eyes because the warden puts a lot of money on winning the prison rodeo. He wants Skip to ride in the rodeo, but Harry and two other convicts they befriend have another idea- they want to use the rodeo as a means of escaping from prison. Skip and Harry go along because they don’t want to spend 125 in prison (‘Oh God, Oh God… I’ll be a hundred and sixty-one when I get out.’). In order to make a deal, the plan is for Skip to refuse to ride until the last minute to make the warden desperate. The warden’s deputy (a young Craig T. Nelson!) tries to break Skip’s spirit, but only succeeds in creating many of the funny moments in the film. Skip has the outlook of a child, and actually comes out of every ‘punishment’ a stronger person. He even ends up befriending and taming Grossberger!

If Wilder has the best physical comedy scenes in the film, Richard Pryor has the best lines. Harry is very much a man of the late 70s/early 80s. He gets fired from his job in the beginning of the film when a cook accidently uses the ‘oregano’ in his bag as seasoning at a dinner party, only to find out it’s his very, very potent stash (his description of his stash is funnier than the reactions of the partigoers) . Harry just wants a fun time. He’s not the idealist that Skip is, but they’re friends and so he goes along. When they get arrested, one of the funnest scenes (and one of my favorites) is when he and Skip are going to the holding cell, and so he tells Skip to walk with attitude so that people won’t mess with them (‘That’s right… that’s right.. we bad!’). Although at best Harry looks scared, Skip looks downright epileptic. Harry’s a lot more streetwise than Skip, but he’s just as afraid of being in prison. He serves as Skip’s buffer to the rest of the prison community and has some excellent lines that sound great mainly because it’s Richard Pryor saying them. When I watched this film, it was with some sadness because of my final memories of Richard Pryor, seeing him at some awards show after the MS had taken away a lot of his movement and speech. In this film he’s so vibrant and alive- that’s how I want to remember him.

The supporting cast is great. It ‘s fun to see familar faces like Barry Corbin and Craig T. Nelson, and the actors who played their prision buddies were solid as well (especially Grossberger, who sings a hauntingly beautiful prison dirge that makes you wonder how that voice can come out of that humongous body). The film itself is a bit weak storywise, but it’s fun to see the film evolve into an escape flick at the end (even though we find out that the whole escape sequence didn’t actually HAVE to happen). The story’s not important here, though. The important thing is to see two men at the top of their game do their best to make us laugh. Boy, do they succeed.

The Final Verdict

If you enjoy laughing, you can’t go wrong watching this film. It’s a perfect representation of screwball 80s comedy. Wilder and Pryor are at their best.

Side Note

With this review, I already surpassed the film total from the last time I tried this. 8 weeks in a row! Yay me!

Week 7: 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967)

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2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Written by Jean-Luc Godard
Starring Marina Vlady, Joseph Gehrard, Roger Montsoret
Cinematography by Raoul Coutard 
Distributed by New Yorker Film (US)
Running time 87 minutes

Before Viewing

Over the past few years, I’ve really become a fan of French cinema. In particular, I’ve enjoyed the films of François Truffaut. In fact, I’ve been intrigued by the French New Wave movement for some time now. I’ve done a lot of research and reading about the movement, and I even delivered a lesson on the movement to a French class when I filled in as a substitute teacher. One New Wave director whose work I haven’t seen yet is Jean-Luc Godard. I’ve queued up a number of his films to see, having read about his contributions to the New Wave movement, and I know some of them are considered classics. However, I’m a sucker for a good title, and one of his caught my eye: a film called ‘2 or 3 Things I Know About Her’. It just sounds mysterious. Some basic research told me that it’s the story of a Parisian housewife who turns to prostitution to supplement her family’s income. Interesting, right? I got my hands on the Criterion disk and decided to make it my first Goddard film.

My Thoughts After Viewing

In honor of the title, here are 7 or 8 Things I Want To Say About This Film…

#1. Although the story is about a housewife who resorts to prostitution, it’s not really about that. In fact, there’s not really a plot to the film per se. However, in the end, that becomes its strength as its more a character study and a chance for Godard to, well, philosophize- and he has a lot to say about consumerism, modernization, America, Vietnam, and more.

#2. The ‘Her’ the title refers to is actually one of three things- the city of Paris, the housewife Juliette, and the actress Marina Vlady who plays Juliette. In fact, the opening sequences of the film say as much. However, the film never really delves as much into the life of the real actress as it does the first two. Godard seems to be very critical of the modernization of Paris. We’re never shown the historical or quaint side of Paris (I don’t recall seeing a shot of the Eiffel Tower once- contrast that with the French New Wave classic The 400 Blows where the tower makes up the opening sequence). In fact, it’s always shots of ultra-modern apartment buildings that look like concrete wastelands- and everything’s always under construction. He’s much more sympathetic with the housewife, never visually seeming to pass judgement on her.

#3. It’s shot in a pseudo-documentary style that I just found fresh (even in this day of The Office). Characters would just turn, look at the camera and comment while the action was going on, then go back to what they were doing. It was clear the actors were aware that the camera was there, and it make us active participants in what is going on.

#4. Visually, the film  is gorgeous. Godard’s camera seems to have a love affair with Juliette’s face (like the camera work in Lost In Translation and Scarlett Johanssen’s face). Marina Vlady’s face is beautifully plain. It’s not overdone or extremely made up, which gives her an air of reality. The shots of the city, although of bland buildings and cluttered landscapes, have an urban beauty all their own. Godard and his DP compose shots that just seem to fill each frame with something interesting. One shot comes to mind- an image of a bridge being built and painted. In the upper right-hand area (though not exactly in the corner) is a man painted a column. It’s framed in a  way that seems almost claustrophobic and really illustrated how the modern world in encroaching on Paris. Products, posters, and advertising seem to be everywhere the camera looks. In one of the most famous shots from the 60s, a cup of coffee becomes a symbol of the universe, and some of the camera work with the coffee is inspirational in its creativity. In the film, there are a number of long, unbroken shots where people speak off-camera, characters come and go, and the camera never moves. I love the static shots that last minutes because the camera functions as an observer who is just taking in the atmosphere (and, by extension, puts us in the same role).

#5. Godard himself serves as the narrator of the film, and what’s interesting is that he speaks, for the most part, in hushed whispers. It’s almost like he’s sitting there next to you in the theatre, commenting on what he sees on the screen. I’ve never seen a film narrated like that. Usually the narrator is loud, omniscient, and ever-present. Here Godard sounds like he’s trying share secrets with the viewer. His words are very deep and his language is very dense. In fact, a lot of the dialogue in the movie discusses the nature of language and how it shapes our perception of the world. There are a lot of beautiful lines, like when the narrator is looking at a tree and states: ‘Should I have talked about Juliette or the leaves, since it’s impossible to do both at once? Let’s say that both, on this October evening, trembled slightly.’

#6. The film itself plays like a reflection of its time, and does so successfully. The movie in a lot of ways is not timeless- it’s clear that it take place in the 60s due to all the references in it to the Vietnam War, President Johnson, and so on. Yet at the same time, as the essay in the liner notes provided with the film point out, you could replace ‘Vietnam’ with ‘Iraq’, and the sentiments would still be the same. I absolutely agree. Godard is very critical of what is going on at the time, and he makes no bones about it. The symbolism in the film is extremely overt and easily makes a point. It’s very much a political archive of the late 60s.

#7. Although the film really isn’t about anything in particular, we DO get to see Juliet somewhat engaging in her money-making ‘activity’. However, there’s nothing sexual or sensual about it. She doesn’t seem particularly interested in what she has to do, not do her clients seem particularly lustful. In fact, in one scene, Juliette and another girl are made to walk around with airline bags over their heads (interesting enough, the two airlines on the bag are TWA and Pan Am, both no longer in existence. Score one for Godard!). Another client, a younger man, places a mirror down next to the bed and asks Juliet if she minds. She shrugs in reply. It’s interesting to hear her talk about sex in regards to her prostitution, as it doesn’t bother her. It’s weird when we see her with her perpetually distracted husband and kids. It’s hard to tell if she finds any joy in them. In one heartbreaking scene, she drops her hysterical daughter off at a day care that also serves as a brothel! If anything, it’s like she never has any fun. There’s no passion in her marriage OR her ‘profession’.

#8. There are two scenes near the end of the film where Godard breaks away from following Juliet and allows us to hear two conversations which are interesting, but I found myself wanting to go back and see what Juliette was up to. One of the scenes involves Juliette’s husband talking to a woman in a restaurant, the other involved a Nobel-prize winning writer talking to a student. There’s something voyeuristic listening to these conversations, but that’s OK. That’s the point. The whole movie is about being a voyeur and uncovering secrets.

On the whole, it was a film that wasn’t like anything I had ever seen before. It intrigued me, captivated me, and inspired me. It’s amazing to see some of these masters at work. I guarantee if a young filmmaker today attempted something like this, it would never get off the ground. It’s not a commercial project, it doesn’t have mass appeal, but honestly, it’s one of the most compelling arguments for cinema as an art form that I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. I learned more about the potential in filmmaking from this film that I have from any of the books I’ve read.

The Final Verdict

If you’re the type that insists that your movie follow a traditional narrative structure, contain plot twists, or wow you with explosions, you’re better off skipping this one. But if you have an open mind in regards to what a movie should be and love cinema (and, in particular, the moving image), you shouldn’t pass this one up.

Week 6: The Room (2003)

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Yes, this is the ACTUAL movie poster. No, that's not Michael Jackson.

The Room
Directed by Tommy Wiseau
Written by Tommy Wiseau
Starring Tommy Wiseau, Juliette Danielle, Greg Sestero, Philip Haldiman, Carolyn Minnott
Cinematography by Todd Barron
Distributed by Wiseau-Films
Running time 99 minutes  

Before Viewing  

My goal in doing this ’52 Movies in 52 Weeks’ is to try and see some classics, both vintage and comtemporary, in order to expand my knowledge of film as well as to simply see some great movies. I’ve aimed for quality, strived for expanding my cultural awareness, and been truly impressed at what I’ve seen so far.  

However, the other day I was looking at a list of the 50 Worst Movies of All-Time on Empire’s website, and one movie jumped out at me. The usual big-budget studio suspects were there, like Gigli and Howard the Duck (which I saw back in the theatre when it came out), but one movie caught my eye- Number 10, a film I had never heard of called The Room. The writer claimed it was now considered ‘The Citizen Kane of Bad Movies’ but that it had built up a Rocky Horror Picture Show-type following.  

I read the info and was kind of perplexed. Why pick on a bad indie film? The movie was written, directed, and distributed by one Tommy Wiseau, who  had an idea and wanted to make a movie. I mean, why not? He even played the lead. Empire’s info didn’t say much other than it was bad but it had developed a following. I decided to investigate. I’m glad I did.  

After reading more about the film and checking out its trailer, I decided I needed to see it for myself for two reasons. First of all, I was genuinely curious about how bad it could be. Wiseau allegedly raised $7 million to create this film, there were other people acting in it, people still pay to see it, the marketing materials said it was in the same spirit as a play by Tennessee Williams…  it couldn’t be that bad, could it? The second reason was a bit closer to home…. many of you know that I love cinema and have dabbled with creating my own short films. I would LOVE to be in the same position Tommy Wiseau was in when he conceived and created this project. I would love to have professional equipment, and a cast, and a budget…. but my fear is that the film I would create would be (dis)regarded the same way. My fear is that people would see it and think what I made was something amateur and akin to whatever The Room looked like. With that in mind, I decided I HAD to watch this film as both a learning exercise on what not to do, and as a way to assuage my fears.  

My Thoughts After Viewing  

Oh. My. God. Where to begin? There’s just so many things… wrong with this film.  

I was going to say the best part was all the ‘pillow shots’ of San Francisco (you know, establishing shots between scenes), but then I found out that it was stock footage (so they didn’t even shoot it for this film. Imagine that). They’re great shots, and when you see the beauty of the landscape, your first thought is ‘Maybe this isn’t so bad’.  

Once the actors open their mouths, though, it all goes downhill. Fast. Or should I say, ‘Once the actors open their mouths and you hear words come out a second or two later’, because many of the scenes are badly dubbed. In fact, you would think you were watching a dubbed foreign film except for the fact that their lips match what you hear. It’s just not done very well. The outdoor rooftop scenes are all green screen, and technically, they were actually somewhat nicely done. They look like footage from CD-Rom video games from the 1990s, so that works there- if you liked that kind of thing 15 years ago. The movie was shot on a set, so the apartment looks fake. In fact, except for the few scenes shot in a park, a coffee shop, and a florist, everything was done on a set. If you’re going to go for that indie feel, at least rent a real apartment.  

And to be honest, I think that’s the problem. Mr. Wiseau WASN’T going for the indie feel. No, he appears to be a proponent of the ‘Go Big Or Go Home’ mentality, but in his case, he didn’t realize what it takes to go big. He had a idea, he had some equipment, he had some actors…. the only thing missing was the talent. And a script. And some realistic dialogue. And a quality control person. Just because you have $7 million dollars doesn’t mean that you’re on par with the big studios. There are people out there that could a better job with some high school drama kids and a Flip camera.  

The story itself isn’t complex (man loves woman, woman loves his best friend, they cheat, man finds out), but the problem is that Wiseau added about a hundred different plot points that either skew the story off into bizarre realms or are NEVER RESOLVED. For example, Johnny (Tommy Wiseau) works at a bank. He loves a girl. The girl is bored with him, and actually hates him, but you wouldn’t know that from the SEX SCENE FOUR MINUTES IN! There’s a lot of sex scenes in this movie, and they’re bad. They look like someone prepared for shooting them by watching a bunch of cheap porn. I hadn’t been that embarrassed watching a sex scene since my mom let me see Kelly McGillis’ washing scene in ‘Witness’- and that was hotter! He brings her a gift, they have sex, all seems good- but in the next scene, she’s telling her mom she hates him. Of course, they have sex again 10 minutes later. But, that happens, right. However, there’s also a neighbor kid Johnny mentors (who is either a very old-looking 18-year-old or an extremely young 30-year-old) and helps out financially in fact, Johnny’s such a good guy he pays the guy’s college tuition AND his rent- in San Francisco, mind you. Oh, and when a drug dealer comes to shoot the kid, Johnny and Mark (the guy that’s banging Johnny’s girlfriend) disarm the guy and take him downstairs to meet the cops with all the believability of a couple of kids performing a skit in their Freshman English class. There’s a friend who’s a psychologist who quit the movie halfway through, so the rest of his lines are given to some guy who’s there at a party- but you can tell the lines were obviously supposed to come from the first guy. There’s Lisa’s mom, who tells her daughter she has breast cancer with the same emotional intensity you would use ordering a pizza (and then it’s never mentioned again. Ever). There’s couple who show up and fool around in Tommy’s apartment, get caught, and…. nothing. I think he promised a lot of people roles in his project and needed to do something with them. 

And there lies the problem. Forget the wild plot, the fake skyline, the cheap wanna-be porn scenes, the endless ‘let’s toss a football around’ clips (they literally toss a football around like 5 times), the cheesy R & B slow jams that pepper the soundtrack, the repetitive ‘lets show we’re changing the scene by flashing some stock footage of the city’, forget that they use wierd phrases like ‘future husband’ fifty times instead of one ‘fiancee’, forget all that- the biggest sin that the movie commits is that no one can ACT, least of all our maestro, Tommy Wiseau. To begin with, he has a horribly thick unrecognizable accent, so have the time, you’re trying to figure out what he’s saying (or dubbed). Everyone else tries, but they just aren’t any good. When the scene is a dramatic one, they turn the ’emotionally overwrought’ knob all the way up to 11, making us wince. What Tommy needed was either a dialogue coach to tell him that his actors SHOULDN’T SOUND like they’re acting, or a friend to tell him his $7 million would have been better off spent somewhere else. This movie exists as a vanity project for Tommy Wiseau- and he’s so vain, he probably thought the whole thing was about him. 

It’s so bad, it’s funny. I found myself laughing at the dialogue. I’ve read that since it’s debut, he’s tried to market the film as a black comedy. No way. You can tell that the actors are trying to be serious, and that’s the source of the comedy. Trying to pass this film off as intentionally funny reminds me of Pee Wee Herman saying ‘I meant to do that’ after he crashed on his bike. I’m not buying it. I will say this- this movie is bad, but I watched it with a smile on my face. I can see why it developed a cult following- there’s no way someone would INTENTIONALLY make something this bad. It’s the proverbial train-wreck, complete with decapitation, mangled bodies, and blood, and that’s why you can’t look away. You’re actually entertained by how inept it is. 

I did learn something, though. I’d like to think that ever do get to make my own film, I at least have a baseline to show me what it would be like to hit rock bottom, so I should be able to avoid it at all costs. 

The Final Verdict  

Will it kill you? No. Should you watch it with friends? Sure, if you’re ready to laugh and not take it seriously. 

 And God bless you, Tommy Wiseau. If you can get people to give you a buck to see this movie, you’re a step ahead of the rest of us wannabe filmmakers.

Interlude One: My Top Ten Movies From The Past Decade (2000-2009)

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As the year came to a close, I saw a number of these lists pop up- favorite movies from the past decade. It’s an interesting exercise to create such a list because it was an interesting decade. I went from age 26 to 36 in that time. I had a kid. My other kids grew up, started college, moved away. The world went crazy for a time there. But there were movies, lots of movies to keep us grounded and to forget the times. The following list is, after much thought and deliberation, my personal top ten favorites from the 2000s. Keep in mind that these are the ten I enjoyed the most. I’m not saying that they are the ten most culturally significant, the ten ‘best’ films of the decade, or even the ten most important films made. These are simply ten movies I saw in the past ten years that I have enjoyed and that have really stuck with me. Without further ado, and in no particular order:

1. American Psycho – (2000) – the book creeped the hell out of me when I first attempted to read it, and although I love it now, the gory parts are best left skimmed over. When the movie came out I figured it was going to be a typical slasher/gorefest, so I didn’t see it for many years. It wasn’t until after I reread the book and the satire clicked that I truly enjoyed the novel- and by that extension, I decided to see the movie. I was pleasantly surprised. Director Mary Herron crafted a wonderful black comedy that stays true to the nature of the book. Christian Bale is awesome as uber-Yuppie/psycho killer Patrick Bateman. The film is smart, funny, and not gory at all. It just goes to show you can make a great horror film without resorting to cheap shock tactics.

2. Surf’s Up – (2007) – Between my twin daughters and the birth of Stephanie, I saw many kids movies during the decade, and my favorite by far was this delightful film about a penguin who wants to be be a pro surfer. It was creative, using a pseudo-documentary format to hook me as a viewer as well as not playing down and dumbing the story for kids. The film also had some terrific voice acting, not relying on the same ones you hear from time to time, but actually bringing in ones that fit their characters. Jeff Bridges as the Big Z? That’s like The Big Lebowski for kids!

3. The Wrestler – (2008) – I enjoyed pro wrestling to an extent as a kid during the 80s, and this film touched on that nostalgia while also giving Mickey Roarke the opportunity to showcase his talents. The acting was outstanding (Marisa Tomei as a stripper? It works), the story touching, the wresting solid, and it was like 1985 all over again. I felt so bad for him because it’s clear he couldn’t let go of the past, but that’s mainly because the future didn’t hold anything for him. There’s just a lot of little touches that make this film for me, like the ‘Randy the Ram’ Nintendo game and other memorabilia.

4. Twenty-Four Hour Party People – (2002) – One of my favorites of all-time, not just the decade. Michael Winterbottom’s look at the life and death of Factory Records hits close to home for me because Factory’s music was really a soundtrack for my teenage years. Having read numerous books about New Order and Joy Division, it was nice to see many of those familiar events dramatized (if not exaggerated, but with Tony Wilson, that was the point!). The fact it was shot on digital gives it a documentary feel that makes us really feel like we were there during the rise of the Manchester music scene. As someone who followed it from afar during the late 80s/early 90s, it’s like a found treasure.

5. The Mayor of the Sunset Strip – (2003) – This documentary, based on the life of LA DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, is a look at a truly remarkable life. When you see the photos of Rodney with everyone from Sonny and Cher to David Bowie to Blondie to Coldplay and you see him the middle of so many different eras in popular music, always on the forefront, you’re reminded of ‘Forrest Gump’. I had no idea who Rodney was before I saw this film, as I watched it I felt sorry for him (for a man with so many friends, he seemed lonely), and when it was over I was glad to know him.

6. Napoleon Dynamite – (2004) – I know some people love this film, others hate it. I’m in the former because I grew up with people just like Napoleon, people with the same wild unverifiable stories and quirky characteristics. I laughed out of recognition the first time I saw this film, and every time since it has been out of nostalgia. The neat thing about this movie is that even when you discuss it with people who DIDN’T like it, there are enough scenes that are good that even they can’t help but remember them and smile.

7. Riding Giants – (2004) – I remember the name Stacy Peralta from my childhood. As a teen, he was one of the first world-class skateboarders who became known in the mainstream world, and as an adult, he’s turned into a fine documentary filmmaker. This film, his second, is an outstanding documentary on the world of big wave surfing that just drew me in (and I can’t even swim, much less surf!). I love Peralta’s documentaries because he does so many new things visually and technically to advance a genre that can be pretty straightforward. The things this film does with still visuals, in particular, were pretty groundbreaking to me when I first saw them on the big screen. Bonus points here because I got to see this film at a local screening held by the Phoenix Film Foundation and actually met Mr. Peralta afterwards.

8. Lost in Translation – (2003) – Sofia Coppola’s second movie was a project that touched me personally. I went to Japan as a teenager through a cultural exchange program, and so I ‘get’ the sense of wonder and the feelings of being overwhelmed that we see from the characters. Take the opening shot of Bill Murray’s character looking wide eyed at the lights of the Tokyo skyline. That took me back to my first few moments in Japan and the joy I felt at being there as well as the apprehension I felt at being there alone. I also loved Bill Murray in this film, as my experience with him in film growing up was as him being ‘the life of the party’ type, and here he was so subdued and sad. It’s a beautiful film visually as well as from thematic standpoint.

9. (500) Days of Summer – (2009) – in my opinion, the best film of 2009. What I loved about this film was that in many ways, I lived it. Tom’s issues and dilemmas were close to my own at one point in time. It felt like a movie made by my peers, especially with all the references to The Smiths and Joy Division. I loved the technical aspects of the film. I loved the music. I loved it’s creativity. I liked how it took an honest look at relationships (the split screen ‘Expectations/Reality’ sequence was one of the best things I’ve ever seen done in a movie because it’s so truthful). If you haven’t seen it you, do so now. I’ll get you a copy.

10. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith – (2005) – before you haters come out of the woodwork and tell me how George Lucas ruined your childhood, let me start by saying I don’t care. I loved this film for what it brought to the Star Wars mythos. It’s not high art, but it wasn’t meant to be (kinda like the originals). The movie was filled with so many emotional moments that it drew me in, like Order 66 and Anakin’s march into the Temple to massacre the Jedi. And personally, I *love* the fact that the main impetus for Anakin Skywalker becoming Darth Vader, the Dark Lord of the Sith, was over a chick. I mean, why not? Guys have done stupider things for girls. The movie looks and sounds great. I’ve always been a fan of what Lucas has done, and he didn’t let me down. Here’s hoping that with Star Wars finished, you get to make the kind of movies you really, really wanted to, George.

Honorable Mentions: Marie Antoinette, The Aviator, Revolutionary Road, Cars, Moulin Rouge, The Alamo, Miracle, The Rules of Attraction, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Week 5 : The Virgin Suicides (2000)

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The Virgin Suicides
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Written by Sofia Coppola (Film) Jeffrey Eugenides (Novel)
Starring James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett
Cinematography by Edward Lachman
Distributed by Paramount Classics
Running time 97 minutes

Before Viewing

In all the years I’ve been watching films, I’ve seen two things from Sofia Coppola that are polar opposites. First of all, her role in ‘The Godfather Part III’ has to be one of the worst acting jobs ever committed to celluloid. I mean it, and I feel bad saying it, but it was THAT BAD. I read that she stated it was hard working for her father (especially during the love scenes) so I’ll cut her some slack, but it really ruined the film for me. I’m glad she didn’t like the experience, though, because it probably lead us to the second point- behind the camera, in my opinion she’s one of the best American directors of this present generation. ‘Lost in Translation’ is a beautiful film, one of my top 10 favorites of the past decade and one that hits close to home for many reasons. I also think ‘Marie Antoinette’ is a very underrated film, a stylish film lesson loosely disguised as a biopic. In fact, I think ‘Marie Antoinette’ should serve as a model to young filmmakers trying to think outside the box. I LOVE her work as much as I love her father’s work.

‘The Virgin Suicides’ was her first movie. I’d heard good things about it, but hadn’t seen it. Given that I loved Coppola’s other films, I figured it was time to give it a shot.

My Thoughts After Viewing

This film just pretty much reaffirmed my feelings towards Sofia Coppola the filmmaker and goes to show the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

The narrator tells you right off that the 5 Lisbon sisters commit suicide, so you really spend the movie anticipating it, especially when the youngest one attempts it at the beginning. This created in me a sense of foreboding, as I knew it was going to happen, waited for it to happen, and this sense of anticipation kept me uneasy but also drew me in. The film is told as a flashback from the point of view of a group of neighborhood boys fascinated by the Lisbon girls and their mystery, and that’s what I think was what made it interesting- you got both sides of the story. You saw these poor girls who were stifled to the literal point of death by an extremely overprotective mother and you saw these boys who wanted nothing more that to help liberate these girls. Everything about the Lisbons seems oppressive- their bland house, their dying trees, their drab car, even the dresses they wear to the dance seem… unfun, which is sad because the girls themselves look like they would normally be full of life if not for their dreary parents. Lux (Kirsten Dunst) is the most vivacious of the girls, and naturally the source of most of the conflict in the household. She’s the only sister who actually isn’t what the title indicates, and that’s actually a crucial part of the plot of the film. She’s asked out to a dance by Trip (Josh Hartnett), the young cool ladies man who falls HARD for Lux. He persuades Mr. Lisbon (James Woods) to let him ask Lux to the dance by getting dates for all the girls so they’re not alone. It appears Trip is as enchanted with the girls and their mystery like the neighborhood boys, but interestingly enough, when he gets what he wants, he loses interest right way (humorously, we get to see him as an adult as he recaps his side of the story, and it’s clear he’s paid for his sins of youth). His actions start a downward spiral that leads the sisters to their title actions. It’s typical, right, that the cool guy gets what he wants, but the sensitive young man (men, in this case) don’t. The neighborhood boys reach out to the girls, ‘living’ life with them through travel magazines and the journal of one of the deceased sisters, and one of the saddest (but most beautiful) sequences shows both the boys and girls jubilant in their liberation- until you realize it’s a dream sequence, a ‘what could have been’ segment. There’s not going to be a happy ending for the Lisbon sisters, but we knew that going in, didn’t we?

From a technical standpoint, the movie is filled with great shots and sequences, some of which show the dreamlike fascination that the boys have with the girls as well as the undercurrent of repressed sexuality. In fact, in some ways I felt like I was watching a horror film, even though I knew it wasn’t going to be one. There are some small touches that just fit with the youthful style of the film, such as the title sequence that looks like doodlings from a young girl’s journal or the pseudo-iris shot that shows that Lux has written the popular boy’s name on her underwear (you’ll know why when it gets to that point). I love when filmmakers use the camera to actively draw us into the nuances of the action. There’s a great level of technical excellence that give what is really a small independent film a big-budget look. James Woods and Kathleen Turner are great as the oppressive parents (aside- Kathleen Turner sure didn’t age well! Compare 80s KT with 2000s KT and see what I mean), Kirsten Dunst captures the rebelliousness of being young in a way that isn’t cheesy or stereotypical (like you see on a lot of TV shows). All together, the film is funny without being silly and melancholy without being depressing. If you’re talented like Sofia Coppola is, it’s probably no big deal.

As an aside, speaking as a father with 2 older teenage daughters, I have to say that had I seen this movie before they started high school, it would have absolutely terrified me. But my girls are good girls, and we didn’t have ANY issues (Thank God). Stephanie starts high school in 2016, so that gives me six years to prepare.

The Final Verdict

A haunting, fascinating look at the dark side of suburbia that isn’t too melodramatic. What a great debut film. Definitely check it out. And if you have daughters, don’t let it scare you!

Week 4: The Last Days of Disco (1998)

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The Last Days of Disco
Directed by Whit Stillman
Written by Whit Stillman
Starring Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin, Tara Subkoff, Robert Sean Leonard, Matt Kesslar
Cinematography by John Thomas
Distributed by Gramercy Pictures
Running time 113 minutes

Before Viewing

Those of you that know me know that my worldview was influenced by growing up in the late 70s and 1980s. I look back on that period fondly, especially when it comes to media. Some may say (hell, HAVE said) that I might even be stuck in that time period, and I wouldn’t argue. My idea of what becoming a young adult was like came from seeing characters like Alex P. Keaton. Money was important, wealth was important, material items were valued, and the like. This was something I wanted to achieve as I by no means grew up privileged. When I look back on that time now, I probably wanted to be something like the character of Patrick Bateman from ‘American Pyscho’ (minus the homicidal tendencies, obviously). Fortunately, I outgrew that. Still, I do enjoy studying the shallow materialism of the era.

The first thing about the film ‘The Last Days of Disco’ that caught my eye was the title. I remember the era as a child, so I didn’t get to experience it firsthand like an adult did. I vaguely remember the film coming out at the end of the Nineties, but I didn’t hear much about. However, recently I was reading about the film and decided to get a copy since a) I liked some of the cast and b) I liked the era. I’m not familiar with the other works of director Whit Stillman, but apparently he does great character studies, so I thought it was worth checking out.

My Thoughts After Viewing

The strength of this film is certainly the characters, and by extension, the dialogue. There’s something refreshing listening to the conversations these characters have. To be honest, the conversations border on unrealistic- these characters have discussions unlike those that most people have when they’re out with their friends. However, this isn’t a documentary, it’s a movie, so that’s OK. I’m amused by listening to the characters talk about things like ‘Lady and the Tramp’ or their Ivy-League days. They don’t talk like anyone I know. In fact, at certain points I even wished that I could jump into the discussion. I suppose that some people might be turned off by the dialogue, feeling it a bit pretentious, and I wouldn’t blame them. I liked the depth and complexity of their conversations, and that’s a credit to the writer Stillman.

The movie centers on two women who working in a publishing house by day but who frequent the best disco in Manhattan at the beginning of the 80s. Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are recent college graduates who certainly have ambition. Alice is a sweet, cute blonde and Charlotte is her total opposite in many ways- raven-haired, petty, the kind of person who likes to point out the faults of others but doesn’t understand why it would offend them. Although Alice and Charlotte work together, hang out, and eventually share an apartment, it’s not clear that they even really LIKE each other (Alice says as much). The run in a fairly close circle that includes other recent college graduates who are now lawyers, ad-men, and even disco managers. One thing I enjoyed about this film was the fact that even though these were young characters, they didn’t have that ‘oh, woe is me because I’m young and the world won’t listen’ mentality you see in some of the young adult-centric films of the past decade. These characters aren’t mad at their parents or upset about having to fit in with society- they just want to have fun and live life, and they do.

There’s a bit of a plot concerning some illegal activity at the club, but it’s really just convention that exists to bring all the characters together. Any pleasure we get from the movie is from listening to the characters talk, not in watching what they do (although the dance sequences are fun, and the soundtrack is outstanding- they didn’t spare any expense to get an authentic disco soundtrack). I particularly enjoyed the job Chloë Sevigny did (her Golden Globe from the other night was well-deserved), and I couldn’t stand Kate Beckinsale’s character- which means she did a great job as an actress. The supporting cast (mostly men) was also solid. But this film is really about these girls, and in the end, it’s gratifying to see that they both get what they deserve.

The Final Verdict

It’s definitely worth seeing if you like character studies or smart dialogue. If you prefer plot-driven or fast-paced action films, you might think it’s a bit slow. I enjoyed it.