Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"Do you love me?"

The Reader is a very well-made film with excellent performances by its extraordinarily talented cast. Stephen Daldry once again proves that he's well on his way to becoming one of the finest directors of his generation. The film is also eager--a little too eager, I might add--to ask hard-hitting moral questions to a point that it feels like it's spoon feeding the audience with its questions instead of telling an emotionally satisfying story.

Unlike more impressive films that questions and tests its characters and audiences' morals, such as Letters From Iwo Jima and Schindler's List, The Reader lacks a warm, approachable core. Daldry, who is capable of directing intense, brutally honest scenes that showcase a wide range of character development, constantly keeps his audience at a cold, uncomfortable distance. Daldry's approach nearly works until I began to feel too little for the characters in the very final moments of the film. Then I realize that I've been on a long, hard journey with these characters--I do care for them, but not without difficulty. Daldry wants us to feel like we're eavesdropping but rarely do we go beyond film-watching. I was constantly part of an audience, but never a witness.

Based on a German novel by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader begins with a torrid, secret affair between a fifteen year old boy and a thirty six year old woman. In 1958, a fever-stricken Michael Berg (David Kross) fatefully encounters Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor. Hanna takes pity on the boy and helps him home. A few months later, Michael recovers and finds Hanna to thank her for her kindness. Michael, with his innocent, schoolboy crush on Hanna, is immediately seduced by her. Hanna takes advantage of Michael's obvious trust and infatuation to get sex and, strangely enough, literature. Michael eagerly agrees to this; he is simply teenage boy in love. Erotic sex scenes follow, but under Daldry's direction, they never feel too gratuitous.

When Hanna receives a promotion to work in the office due to excellent reviews, she leaves her tiny apartment and disappears.

Several years later, Michael is a law student, with the opportunity to observe a war-crime trial that was a result of a popular book written by one of the survivors. To Michael's complete and utter shock, Hanna is the star defendent of the trial. Hanna, along with several other middle-aged women, is charged with locking up a group of Jewish women in a church when the church was being bombed.

But Michael possesses a secret about Hanna that will change the outcome of the case. I will not reveal the secret since it seems to be central to the film's advertising, but it is a secret that Hannah is so ashamed of that she would rather die than have it revealed to the masses.

Like Hanna, Michael is ashamed too, but for something entirely different: He feels guilt for ever loving Hanna--a guard of a Nazi prison, a criminal.

Many years later, an unhappy, recently divorced, and middle-aged Michael (Ralph Fiennes) begins to come to terms with his relationship with Hanna. He still feels the lingering guilt for never summoning up the courage to help Hanna, so he begins to help Hanna in a way that he hopes can benefit her, even in prison.

But the fact that Michael never tries to persuade Hanna to reveal her secret--which would have definitely changed the outcome of her sentence--frustrates me to no end. I haven't been more angry with a film character since Rolf in The Sound of Music. This is where the spoon feeding starts: Would you convince a criminal to reveal her secret if it could help change the outcome of his or her sentence, even though you feel shame for sharing an inappropriate relationship with him or her many years ago? Michael chooses the easy path, the cowardly path. But wouldn't most people in Michael's position do the same thing? Perhaps. We never know what we'd really do in a situation until we're really in that particular situation. But whatever we decide, we have to face the consequences--whether it's guilt, shame, or regret.

A film as thought-provoking as The Reader should immediately considered a worthy film, right?

I'm honestly torn between whether I like this film or not. As I said before, The Reader is a well-made film. The cinematography by Chris Menges and Roger Deakins is superb. The score by Nico Mulhay is wonderfully effective and provides intensity and tension when needed. Daldry does a great job showing character development and even in the midst of the film's rather cold surface, there are several moving scenes but those scenes aren't enough to provide a lasting impact. But they do make me think.

I tend to exaggerate when it comes to good performances (at the moment, I'm rather ashamed to bring up any examples) but Winslet and Kross deliver spectacular performances. I don't think I've been more impressed by Winslet before, which actually makes me wonder where I've been for the past ten years. (I haven't seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind...yet.)

Hanna is unquestionably a flawed and despicable character, but when Michael finally discovers her secret, my heart broke for her, even though I knew it all along. When Hanna finds a way to cure her shame (with Michael's help), I cheered for her. No one can ever forgive her for her terrible crimes, but redemption is always a second option. What I feel for Hanna is all due to Winslet's complex performance--a performance that is deservingly one of the frontrunners for this year's supporting actress line-up at the Oscars. Winslet sinks into all those layers of aging make-up, but she never loses touch with her character.

Fiennes gives a fine performance here as the older Michael, but it is Kross who steals his thunder. Kross is a promising newcomer who can go head-to-head with a master like Winslet; he has endless potential. Kross makes me care for Michael when it matters most, especially when I see how he sacrifices his adolescent social life just to maintain an affair with the woman he loves. Kross makes Michael whiny and naive, wishy-washy and cowardly, like many teenage boys, I'd imagine. In the same way I eventually sympathize for Hanna, I sympathize for Michael too, all due to the foundation Kross successfully builds in the first part of the film.

David Hare's screenplay is too bare to provide any grand emotional impact, but the performances and the direction do help. There is plenty to admire in the film; the positives outweigh the negatvies. The tough questions the film asks, which can feel forced and manipulativs, are rightfully asked. As much as I pondered, comfortable answer is nowhere in sight. The Reader features a guilt-ridden atmosphere of post-WWII Germany that ponders for easy answers but finds none. At its heart, The Reader is a haunting coming-of-age story. While a nation gradually heals in the shadow of its atrocious crimes, a man begins to mend his shameful past and a woman realizes that there is a cure for her secret shame. In the case of The Reader, redemption may be key.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Endings Blog-a-Thon: ROMAN HOLIDAY

When J.D. announced his Endings Blog-a-Thon over at Valley Dreamin', one film instantly came to mind...

William Wyler's 1953 romantic comedy, Roman Holiday

Nothing even came remotely close. Roman Holiday has by far one of the greatest cinematic endings I have ever witnessed.

The ending is altogether unpredictable, bittersweet, and eloquently done. It is an ending that I didn't quite see coming but also appeared to be completely inevitable. It is a genre at its most honest and heartbreaking.

Roman Holiday may have transformed Audrey Hepburn into a bonafide star, but it is Gregory Peck (along with that beautiful Roman scenery) who inhabits the film's heart and soul. The ending cements this: As Peck's character, Joe Bradley, leaves the press conference hall, he looks back with the memory of his short-lived holiday where he found joy and romance in his bland reporter's lifestyle. And Peck communicates every single feeling that I just described with zero dialogue. The music swells up, and Joe bids farewell to what could have been a lovely dream.

Since my write-up has been somewhat inadequate in describing the wonders of the greatest film ending ever, thank goodness for video and all its glory...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays!

...and I present you with this fabulous scene from the modern holiday classic, Elf.

I love Zooey Deschanel, but Will Ferrell is slowly growing on me. Ferrell's bursts of versatility in films like Stranger Than Fiction and The Producers continue to shock me. And he is completely charming in Elf.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ten Women I Admire In Film

I was tagged by Shawn back in November to do this meme. This entry has been a month in the making. I'll try not to disappoint. Anyone who wants to join in all the fun is welcome to do so.

This can be a character, actor, director, really anyone working on films. The only thing is, they must be a personality. You have to really know something about them. This rules out most producers, cinematographers, etc.

If you are a man, these man crushes [or men that you admire], obviously must be men. If you are a woman than I say they have to be a woman. They must be the same sex as the writer making their list.

You can choose anyone living or dead. They must be chosen due to their film content. If you choose Michael J. Fox and the only thing you like about him is his role in Family Ties then he doesn't work. But if you choose Michael J. Fox because you love Marty McFly, and you want to mention that you also love Family Ties, that is acceptable.
10. Amy Adams
At this rate, Adams is destined to be the future of Hollywood. After her scene-stealing performance as a smitten candy striper in Catch Me If You Can, Adams went on to an Oscar nomination for her spectacular performance as a young southern naivete in Junebug. Recently, Adams embarked on the challenge of playing a cartoon princess placed in the tough luck world of New York City in Enchanted and her performance was nothing short of excellent. I may or may not be shot for saying this, but I actually thought that Adams was better than both Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose and Ellen Page in Juno. As much as I enjoy watching Adams playing the naivete she plays best, I would love to see her play very different characters in the future.

9. Faye Wong
Wong has one of the most heavenly singing voice I have ever heard. Wong, as an actress, is nearly as heavenly. Rarely do I see an actress that is so natural, so unforced in her movements and speech. Wong's performances in Chungking Express and 2046 are just that. Her gift as an actress is her lack of self-consciousness and concerns for her role. She just steps into a scene and comfortably inhabits her environment.

8. Cate Blanchett
I've always felt indifferent about Blanchett's filmography. I don't care for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I hate Bandits. The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou may be the most disappointing film in Wes Anderson's filmography. Elizabeth is good, but not great. But I love Blanchett in all those films. The film themselves aren't extraordinary, but Blanchett usually is. The funny thing is, as much as I like The Aviator, I'm not absolutely crazy about Blanchett's Oscar-winning performance as Katharine Hepburn. But then again, I do like I'm Not There quite a bit, and absolutely adore Blanchett's performance. So yeah, she's definitely a mixed bag on some levels, but she's an unconventional beauty with a magnetic presence. I can't bear to look away whenever she's on-screen.

7. Audrey Hepburn
Hepburn was truly an original. Her natural grace, charisma, and elegance made her the bonafide star of classic Hollywood. My first Hepburn film was My Fair Lady, which is also my favorite Hepburn performance ever. Hepburn had a rare quality about her that made her instantly likable to the audience. She never had to prove anything. Even when Hepburn played a character as flawed as Holly Golightly, the audience sympathized with her. Hepburn knew how to create a character that stuck, with little apparent effort. Off-screen, Hepburn was almost just as fascinating. She had two failed marriages and one torrid love affair with William Holden (I'm completely fascinated by their relationship, by the way), but in her last years, found comfort in serving UNICEF.

6. Meryl Streep
Streep may not be the most beautiful woman in the room, but she has to be the most striking. Her grand exit from obscurity was in The Deer Hunter, but it was that powerful courthouse moment between her and Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer that made her a supreme Oscar-winner. And Streep has proven time and time again that she can play absolutely anything. From Woody Allen's lesbian ex-wife in Manhattan to Anne Hathaway's boss from hell in The Devil Wears Prada, Streep gives the audience a reason to love her and the Oscars a reason to nominate her whenever possible.

5. Elizabeth Taylor
Taylor's personal life has been almost as dramatic as the lives of her on-screen counterparts. But there is no denying that Taylor is a resilient soul. I love that about her. Taylor was a child star before she became the lady worth dying for. It took years before it was widely accepted that Taylor could be more than a cute child star. After she starred in the beautifully tragic A Place in the Sun, there was no question about it: Taylor was a grown-up actress. Like her contemporaries, Taylor could hold the screen by simply being on-screen. Her gorgeous looks and elegant movements simply made her and everything around her come to life. Taylor also has had the most electrifying chemistry with her male co-stars, from her then-husband Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

4. Diane Keaton
Fine, Keaton was undeniably half the genius that went into the creation of Annie Hall, but sometimes I like to be the devil's advocate and argue that Annie Hall is simply not Woody Allen's best movie or Keaton's greatest performance. To elaborate on the latter, Keaton's moments of sheer greatness was as Kay Adams in The Godfather trilogy. There are many different perspectives about Keaton as Kay and very few are overwhelmingly positive. But in Keaton's hands, Kay is more than a nagging wife--she represents all of Michael Corleone's lost hopes. In a pivotal scene in The Godfather: Part II, Kay confesses to Michael that she has received an abortion and in that particular scene, Keaton explodes in front of our very eyes. It's unfortunate that even with such a spectacular scene, she couldn't garner any awards attention. It's a shame, really. But I'm glad Keaton found work and plenty of awards in her career soon afterward. Her performance as Kay definitely helped.

3. Grace Kelly
Kelly is one of the most interesting and iconic figures of the twentieth century. She was an ice blonde and emulated classic glamour. No wonder Alfred Hitchcock was completely smitten with her. Despite Kelly's short filmography, she has sustained her status as a legendary Hollywood starlet, made even more legendary by her surprising marriage to the Prince of Monaco. Kelly often took roles that required her to do more than just look pretty for the camera. She wanted to prove to the world that she could act--and act she did. Kelly received an Oscar for her amazing portrayal of the wife of an alcoholic actor in The Country Girl. It has often been debated the Kelly didn't deserve the Oscar that year and Judy Garland did for A Star Is Born. Unfortunately, I can't join this debate since I haven't seen A Star Is Born, but I can say that The Country Girl does show Kelly as a talented actress with endless potential; she easily went toe-to-toe with the likes of Bing Crosby and William Holden.

2. Zooey Deschanel
Many things has happened in Deschanel's career since I first discovered her in her scene-stealing performance in Almost Famous. For one, she has found success in both independent and mainstream films. Secondly, she became the "she" in the indie rock band, She & Him and recently released an album entitled Volume One. Deschanel has a likable and adorable presence, albeit quirky and offbeat; she is the typical indie boy's crush. Since 2004, I have been following Deschanel's career quite closely (or more closely than any other actress) and is continuously impressed by her success. Her luminous performance in All the Real Girls has permanently cemented my positive opinion of her.

1. Katharine Hepburn
I love this woman. Ever since I read Hepburn's autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life, I have been charmed by this incredibly strong and fiesty force of nature. Hepburn epitomized sophistication, class, and confidence. She also embodied the values of early twentieth century feminism and everything Hepburn believed in simply became a part of each of her performances. By appearance, Hepburn was certainly not a great beauty, but she possessed everything else that made a woman attractive, intelligent, and interesting. As an actress, Hepburn exhibited passion and energy that led to four Oscar-winning performances. Her personal life, however turbulent, was a blessing that Hepburn ultimately acknowledged.

Lookalikes: Thomas Paine and Martin Scorsese

Of course I pay attention during history class!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"That's the way it should be"

This post's primary goal is to make up for the recent blogging drought. And to flaunt one of my favorite scenes in any movie musical ever.

So, who else loves Bye Bye Birdie (the 1963 movie musical) as much as I do? I watched the film during Thanksgiving Break and thought it was an absolutely hilarious satire. ("Ed Sullivan?! He's my favorite human being!")

But it is also, surprisingly, an exceptionally sweet film. The scene I posted exhibits all the charm and humor of the film. I love how Ann-Margret and Bobby Rydell have such innocent, adorable chemistry. Plus, Janet Leigh constantly amazes me. And "One Boy" is just such a swell song.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"But what if I'm not the hero? What if I am the bad guy?"

After I saw the film several weeks ago, I started planning this huge, mildly coherent review of Twilight. I just read my review a few second ago and found it too wordy, which really shouldn't be a surprise from anything I ever type or put on paper. So I deleted it and started from scratch.

There wasn't much to say, really...

Girl moves in with her estranged father in cloudy Forks, Wa. Becomes fairly popular in school, despite the fact that she's totally awkward and don't really mesh with the other kids. Meets a gorgeous guy who may or may not hate her. Finds out his secret--gasp--he's a vampire! Hot vampire really, really wants to suck the girl's blood but tries to control himself. (How sweet.) Instead, this other vampire really, really, really wants to suck the girl's blood but only difference is that he doesn't bother to control himself. Hot vampire and family tries to save girl and they either fails miserably or succeeds. (Take your pick.)

The film has an extremely thin plot, as many may have noticed. The heart of the film lies in the relationship between the girl, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and the vampire, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). The relationship itself has a certain intrigue about it, but the execution feels empty and lacking. The romance does have its share of touching moments, but not enough for me to care. Frankly, the individual characters are just not interesting enough.

Bella is somewhat interesting when she transforms into a minor sleth for several scenes until she falls into the unfortunate depths of the typical damsel in distress. Even Stewart, who does have moments of acting greatness--especially in those scenes with Billy Burke, who plays Bella's father--becomes enraptured in the cheesy dialogue and unnecessary montages. But I don't blame Stewart. Bella needs more backbone if she insists on being the protagonist of the series. It would be fine if Bella were another Mary Jane Watson or Lois Lane, but this film isn't about a superhero. This is Bella's story. Is it too much to ask for Bella to carry her own story? I do not have a single friend who likes Bella as a character. It's all about Edward...

To my frustration, Edward, the greatest love of almost every single female fan of the popular series, comes through as rather flat and boring. Sure, he seems like a pretty nice guy with a fine set of morals, but he makes me wonder: If you're over a century years old, but physically resemble a seveteen years old, do you also have to mentally resemble a seventeen year old? But Pattinson, although not alluring or charming enough to be the kind of fascinating specimen that every teenage girl would fall for, should be given some credit for delivering some ridiculous lines of dialogue without bursting into laughter.

And the whole one-hundred-plus-years-old-guy-with-seventeen-year-old-girl part still kind of disturbs me. I can't get over it, romantic fantasy or not. I mean, if you've been around for at least one hundred years, would you be attracted to a teenage girl--even if you did physicaly resemble a seventeen year old? Or, going back to my previous question, is aging--both physically and mentally--completely ceased the second you're turned into a vampire?

So many questions...

On the bright side, there is a lovely supporting cast. Burke, whom I mentioned earlier, does a quietly effective job as Bella's father. Peter Facinelli, who plays the patriarch of the Cullen clan, also does a great job with his role, despite the fact his face looks submersed in an amazingly thick layer of make-up. Taylor Lautner is also a welcome presence in the film, playing Bella's friend, Jacob. Lautner actually makes me glad that we'll see more of Jacob in the sequels (as my friends tell me).

I understand that director Catherine Hardwicke made Thirteen (which I promise I'll watch before the year ends) with a $2 million dollar budget. That doesn't mean that Twilight has to look like it was made on a low budget too; Twilight had a modest budget of about $37 million. So, where did it all go? The "special effects" (if you can them that) are laughable. There are scenes where Edward carries Bella while flying through the air (or jumping around with super high speed) and the "flying" just looks like bad animation. There is also a scene where Edward reveals why he can't go into the sun (he, um, sparkles) and the shimmering glitter on his face left everyone in my row in hysterics.

Honestly, Twilight just looks ugly and cheap most of the time. Fantasies should have an epic feel--and I'm sure there were plenty of people out there who would've loved to finance a phenomenon. The understated atmosphere of Twilight makes the film more bland than ever.

I may have a bit of a bias towards vampires or dark romances since I've never cared for them. I've never cared for danger or anything that would potentially kill me. The existence of Twilight doesn't help the genres much either. The film is ultimately a disappointment, although I wasn't expecting anything, since I am one of the few teenage girls left on this planet who hasn't finished reading the book. But if the film has any grand, redeemable quality at all, it is simply this: It's not boring.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out."

I am a proud frequenter of IMDb's Hit List. That tiny section on the bottom of the IMDb homepage makes my life a little bit easier and sunnier. I love my lists, commentaries, interviews, galleries, and random cinematic musings all in one accessible package. (For those exact same reasons, I adore film blogs as well.)

Recently, I found a link to FirstShowing.net's showcase of the full scans from "The 2008 Hollywood Portfolio: Hitchcock Classics." I understand the entry and the photoshoot are a bit old, but it's still a lovely set of photoshoots that deserves some mention at my neglected ol' blog.

The photoshoots are a collection of today's actors re-creating scenes from classic Hitchcock films. Some Hitchcock purists may find these pictures offensive and horrific, but I dig these kind of things--just as much as I enjoy remakes and Beatles covers.

The Vanity Fair website also features a gallery of the photoshoot, although the website does not show the full photos featured in the magazine itself. But the Vanity Fair website does include some background to the film's scene and the original still from the scene that the modern photoshoot recreated.

Personally, my favorite is Marion Cotillard in the recreation of that legendary shower scene in Psycho. The only two photographs that I don't totally dig are the ones with Emile Hirsch and James McAvoy in the Strangers on a Train photoshoot (awkward, much?) and Renee Zellweger (not looking much like Renee Zellweger or Kim Novak) in the Vertigo photoshoot.

I would love to hear what your opinions are of this lovely portfolio. But in this moment in time, I just feel like watching some Hitchcock. Who's with me? (I'm open to suggestions.)

And while we're on the subject, please check out Shawn of Deadpan's directors study of Hitchcock. It's definitely worth a read.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

"Man has a choice and it's a choice that makes him a man."

I've been wanting to discuss East of Eden for a while, which I watched in English class as a companion piece to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. (And thank goodness I didn't have to watch Demi Moore play Hester Prynne.) If you happen to wonder what a Puritan society and a WWI-affed Salinas Valley setting have in common, it's all has to do with the inner conflicts of good versus evil and a guilt-ridden human being's natural urge to achieve ultimate redemption. Who knew that Cal Trask and Reverend Dimmesdale had so much in common? Not to mention the religious undertones in East of Eden (Cal and Aron = Cain and Abel!)... Of course, that's what English class is for.

Admittedly, I'm not a huge John Steinbeck fan. I've never cared for his morally ambiguous storytelling and minimalistic writing. I have read The Pearl and Of Mice and Men and I have no interest in ever touching those novels ever again. So obviously, Elia Kazan's 1955 adaptation of Steinbeck's East of Eden surprised me. I have never read East of Eden (the novel), although Oprah certainly made me aware of its existence.

Since I've never read Steinbeck's novel (and I will--someday), I can only judge Kazan's film. And it's a terrific film indeed.

On the surface, the film seems to be simply about the rivalry between twin brothers, Aron and Cal. Aron's good, Cal's bad. But the story is much more complex than that. I immediately sympathized with Cal and his efforts to impress his father. I rooted for Cal while the poor kid tries to earn back the money his father lost in the lettuce business by investing into the bean business. I even cheered for Cal when he won the heart of his brother's sweetheart.

Cal is likable because he's direct and honest. He may lack social grace, but he can't help himself. On the other hand, Aron's just a suck-up and a bore. No wonder Abra wants to leave her pragmatic side behind and take a chance on Cal.

All this is attributed to James Dean's magnetic presence on-screen. Dean's charisma never ceases: A good actor should never hide his greatest devices. East of Eden may feel a little dated, but Dean's performance was ahead of his time. Even when I intensely disliked Dean's character in Giant, I couldn't help but feel a little for Jett Rink in his final scene. Dean's performance in Giant may have been his greatest work on film, but East of Eden proved that he was a mature leading man, an improvement from his performance in Rebel Without A Cause.

East of Eden was deservingly nominated for four Academy Awards back in 1956 in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director (Kazan), Best Leading Actor (Dean, posthumously), and Best Supporting Actress (Jo Van Fleet). Van Fleet won Best Supporting Actress for her minor yet effective work as the estranged mother of Cal and Aron.

I am aware that there is a remake set for a 2009 release date. It's unfortunate that director Ron Howard is no longer attached to the film because he would have been a very appropriate choice.

On a sidenote, is no secret that I love well-done fan-made music videos of great films. I recently found this wonderful East of Eden music video, set to The Killers' song, "Read My Mind."

Saturday, October 25, 2008

This was the last time to get it right...so did they?

High School Musical 3: Senior Year | rel. 2008 | dir. Kenny Ortega

Currently, a part of me wants to criticize the energetic, bubbly optimism of the obviously Disney-imagined world of East High. High school is sort of the purgatory of my life right now--I will not stand for any silly, fallacious accounts of it! Unfortunately, throughout my viewing of High School Musical 3: Senior Year, I failed to realize that I just paid ten bucks for a complete cheese fest--maybe because energetic, bubbly optimism is just as contagious as the common cold.

I felt completely "in the moment" when I watched High School Musical 3. When the Disney logo came on and Zac Efron's sweaty face (and gorgeous blue eyes) filled the screen, the audience went crazy. This was the first time I ever experienced a viewing experience when the audience reacted so strongly at everything on screen. They clapped at the end of almost every single musical number ("I Want It All" and "The Boys Are Back" received a loud, approving cheer from the crowds), went soft for every Troy and Gabrielle moment, swooned at Zac Efron every time he showed up, and laughed at every comedic moment--oh, the sweet sounds of both intentional and unintentional laughter!

Normally, I like to sink into my seat in a dark, silenced theater with only the screen blaring the sounds, but I don't think I would have had such a fun time without such an enthusiastic bunch around me. Never underestimate the power of an fantastic audience. Who knew middle-aged parents, pre-teen girls, teenage boys who have crushes on Vanessa Hudgens, and elderly couples would make such wonderful company? Honestly, I can't think of a better way to spend a Friday evening.

But even if I didn't have the company of such an energetic audience, the film itself has enough energy to last. The majority seems to agree that High School Musical 3 is infinitely better than it has to be--and once in a while, the general public is right. For starters, it is much better than its predecessors--by miles.

High School Musical 3 is every bit the predictable fluff that I expected it to be. But I never expected to be genuinely entertained and charmed by the shallow (but undeniably good-intentioned and G-rated) teen conflicts, the cast, and of course, the extravagant musical numbers. In short, I came out of the theater humming the tunes and feeling rather touched by the film's finale. Let's just say that if I were a pre-teen girl, High School Musical 3 would have set some unrealistic expectations for my future high school career.

The thin plot of High School Musical 3 is nothing but a slice of a high school fantasy. For one, the first scene concludes with the East High Wildcats winning their championship basketball game, set to the cool and catchy "Now or Never." While they may have won their championship game, the senior Wilcats at East High are uncertain about (what else?) their future. For jock Troy Bolton (Efron), he has to decide to pursue either basketball with his BFF Chad (Corbin Bleu) at his father's alma mater University of Alberquerque or consider Julliard as a possibility, where he can pursue his love for the stage. Besides, Troy's (supposedly) genius girlfriend, Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) already has her sights set on Stanford University.

Can Troy have basketball, theater, and the love of his life in one accessible package? Just use a single brain cell and you might come up with the correct answer after all... But this fun journey of teenage self-discovery is worth it.

Of course, the delightful journey includes the prom, the musical spring musical, and graduation! (Where are the tests? Finals? AP exams? Oh right, I forgot, this is high school in an alternative universe.) The senior class is staging a spring musical that chronicles their time in high school. Where there is a show, Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale) is there to steal it. Her scheme? Oh, not at all as impressive as her raging antagonism in High School Musical 2, but still pretty darn conniving: She demands her twin brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) to steal Kelsi's (Oleysia Rulin) best songs, which are usually written for Troy and Gabriella. Plus, Sharpay never minds causing some friction in the relationship between Troy and Gabriella. This time around, she has recruited the help of British transfer student by the name of Tiara Gold (Jemma McKenzie-Browne). But once again, Tisdale proves that Sharpay is the drama queen to beat.

I couldn't wipe off the goofy smile on my face the entire time.

The inspirations for the musical span several decades: There are touches of classic Hollywood and eighties-MTV in these Disney-glossed tunes on the High School Musical 3 soundtrack--in a good way. I've always been a fan of catchy Disney tunes (however nasally they may sound) and High School Musical 3 has one of the most mind-blowing Disney soundtrack that I have heard in a while. (Yes, mind-blowing.) All the songs are made of pure win--even the lesser ones. I was busting a move in my seat like an insane maniac: "Now or Never," "The Boys Are Back," "Scream," "Right Here, Right Now," and "I Want It All" really got me moving to the beat. Nothing makes me happier than fun, catchy pop tunes. The impressive choreography (especially in "The Boys Are Back") and higher-budget set designs are a sensational plus. Director Kenny Ortega never seems to shy away from an occasional comical flair.

The returning cast can all sing and dance well. But the film belongs to the major characters, and rightfully so!

There is no arguing that Sharpay is a stereotypical villain, but Tisdale constantly makes Sharpay something more. Sharpay's grand entrance into a typical East High morning contains as much unspoken drama as the character herself. But Tisdale's moment of glory is in the face of defeat. The audience wants to see Sharpay get back up again and when she does, we cheer for her--thanks to Tisdale--because she is every bit as vulnerable and human as the rest of us.

After several months doubting Efron's acting talent, I want to issue an apology: Efron is the true star of this film. Finally, a young actor worshiped by pre-teen girls (and many others) who can act, sing, and dance! Efron possesses a certain kind of genuine charm as Troy. The awkward teenage boy and troubled jerk from the previous films are no longer there. All that there is left is a sympathetic, all-around nice guy who just can't decide which path he wants to take in life. Efron's performance is the crux of the film; it's the kind of performance that convinces me that Hudgens's unapologetic blandness is pretty darn close to irresistible sweetness.

I can safely say that I spied an ounce of chemistry between Efron and Hudgens. I've been waiting for this moment to happen for a while... How essential, since this is a romance.

As much as I enjoyed High School Musical 3, the film isn't without flaws. There are moments thorughout the film that feels somewhat rushed. Some of the musical numbers--as amazing as they are--still have some room for perfection. The transitions still have a bit of an awkward made-for-TV quality--something they should have left out when they switched to widescreen. The three freshmen who are supposedly taking over our beloved class of 2008 in an upcoming High School Musical 4 are weak and uninteresting. (Yes, I'm talking to you, Tiara, Jimmie, and Justin!) And like any filmgoer, I would have appreciated a little more conflict.

Calling High School Musical 3 cheesy or predictable isn't much of a criticism. In fact, it's almost a compliment since it must have been exactly what the film was aiming for. But it's perfectly cheesy and predictable--and that is, by the way, the compliment of a highest order I can give to such a film. The film is about 112 minutes long, but it is probably one of the fastest 112 minutes of my life. High School Musical 3 may be a cavity-inducing Valentine for its core audience, but it also ceased all rain and thunder in my life that Friday evening. Being a teenager who just recently discovered that her entire future may unfold at any moment, I related to the premise of High School Musical 3. Like Sharpay, I want it all. But fortunately, I sat through a movie that almost has it all.

Rating: 8.5/10

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Screws fall out all the time, the world is an imperfect place."

The Breakfast Club | rel. 1984 | dir. John Hughes

The Breakfast Club
is often hailed as the greatest high school movie ever made. When I realized that I was one of the very few high school students who had not yet witnessed the pure brilliance of this John Hughes classic, I felt a little left out. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Before I delve into my opinion of this film, I want to discuss my experience as a high school student thus far. I attend a suburban high school with a lovely campus, much like the setting of The Breakfast Club. My high school has its share of nerds, jocks, cheerleaders, preps, and some others who would fall into the misc. category. But people kind of just mind their own business at my school. There is a lot of cross-pollination going on at my school. One can have brains and be involved in a lot of social activities. Nerds can be fantastic athletes. People have a choice to make friends or be a loner. I don't know if I'm just extraordinarily lucky or not, but I go to a pretty accepting school. People know each other and generally treat each other with respect. If a cheerleader were to speak to a nerd, it would not tarnish either party's social record.

Everyone is a little bit of everything around here.

I think one of the advantages of attending a fairly liberal school is that stereotyping is pretty minor and kept at an inoffensive distance. Perhaps that creates a more friendlier, less conflicted environment. Teachers are more aloof. Students choose to light up away from the school. Complete and total rebellion is kept at a minimum.

(I bet if several of my friends read this, they would give me the look the average middle-class person would give to President George W. Bush whenever he insists that America's economy is strong. But it's all about generalities and perspectives, my friends.)

Because of my experience (or lack thereof) as a teenager and high school student, I could not relate to or care for The Breakfast Club. I guess the most plausible explanation is that the film is simply dated. It has elements of the eighties glossed all over it--the fashion, the music, the hairstyles, etc. Then again, I love the eighties, so that couldn't have been a factor in my dislike of the film. But isn't stereotyping supposed to be a timeless message? Of course it is. Even if it doesn't happen at my school, I'm sure it happens in other schools. But I don't think Hughes executed his message about destroying the concept of stereotypes at all. In the end, I was completely lost in Hughes's mixed message about the world called high school.

The Breakfast Club centers around five teenagers who show up for a day-long detention at the school library: the brain (Anthony Michael Hall), the athlete (Emilio Estevez), the basket case (Ally Sheedy), the princess (Molly Ringwald), and the criminal (Judd Nelson). At first, they can't stand each other; conflicts are created. But little by little, they reach over their comfort zones, start talking each other and realize they have more in common than they initially thought.

All this felt forced and rather dull. The conversations aren't engaging and the characters aren't at all likable. I can't blame the performances--the young actors are quite good--but the characters definitely feel underdeveloped. Hughes is an interesting storyteller and creates somewhat authentic characters, but something is missing in his dialogue. Something doesn't ring true. So even though it might seem like it sometimes, no one is ever black and white. Okay, I get it... Then why couldn't these characters look each other in the eye before?

Apart being branded with their stereotypes, how do these kids really feel about the people they associate with everyday who are also branded with a similar stereotype? How do they feel about being part of such a group? Perhaps all my answers are answered somewhere in the film, but everything seems to be muzzled by excessive, annoying, and hard-to-relate to whining. Hughes doesn't really create a world for the high school, which makes his smaller world between these five teens harder to believe.

A major problem I have with the film is the ending. Comfort zones are broken down. Characters are changed. But do they change for the better? Do they finally accept who they are? Why must one of the characters change completely just so she could be accepted and loved by another character? (Yes, I'm referring to Sheedy's character.) Sure, I can understand how The Breakfast Club is a teen classic (Nostalgia? Maybe.), but it is nowhere close to one of the best high school movies ever. The film contradicts itself too much and lacks the truest emotions and wonders of being at such an interesting and sometimes difficult age.

Rating: 6/10

I will be re-watching this film as a companion piece to The Catcher in the Rye in my English class some time during the spring semester. So yes, this film will be re-reviewed to see if my feelings toward this film have been changed or not.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Alive and kicking: 7 Films

For the past month, my blog has been the perfect model of Super Neglection of Film Blog, unfortunately. I have been busy with life, which has been unfairly dominated by the multiple horrors of a new school year. It has only been a month and I'm already nerd-failing Pre-Calculus. Really. But enough of teen angst, let's talk movies.

I have seen seven movies since my last review of all three versions of Little Women. Seven. I'm pathetic, I know. My weekends are now not only dominated by school work, but also volunteer work at the library. I'm kind of on a path to be a (lol) librarian. I mean, I have to pretend to get somewhere in life and library science seems, well, not too bad.

Anyway, about all the films I've seen since my last post. Behold, incoherence!

- The problem I have with Princess Mononoke is that it is practically Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind all over again. I really, really, REALLY like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (thanks to J.D.'s recommendation--and surprisingly, it's pretty much my BFF's favorite Miyazaki film). Princess Mononoke is just a better-animated version (no, that's an understatement--the animation in Mononoke is insanely spectacular) of Nausicaa, with different characters. Both films have a strong environmental message and the way the message is executed feels so...similar. I understand environmentalism is a theme that Miyazaki often explores in his films, but he could have created a brand-new story. I mean, Miyazaki is so extraordinarily imaginative (duh) that any striking similarities between his films would result in some minor disappointment. I expected something new from the filmmaker. But even Miyazaki's lesser films are true works of art--and that is the case for Princess Mononoke.

- Newsies is awesome in a sort of, "Lol, it's a Disney musical directed by the director of High School Musical and it stars Batman" kind of way. But seriously, I love the songs. "Seize the Day" is my favorite. Not the best family film, but I like it a whole lot. And I'm in love with the soundtrack. How can you possibly NOT love Alan Menken?

- Okay, am I really the only person out there that did NOT know the "twist" in Psycho? Hitchcock is the man when it comes to slow revelations. I'm sort of like a filmmaker's ideal audience: Ignorant and guillable. I don't force myself to think ahead when I watch a movie. I just kind of sit there and enjoy the ride. But I love Psycho. It is probably my favorite Hitchcock film right now. For someone who loves fascinating fictional characters, Norman Bates is practically my obsession right now. I love the way Anthony Perkins portrays him. At first, Norman just appears charming, shy, and rather lovable. Perhaps that is his true nature. I don't know. I'm still waiting for Shawn's take on the character in his Hitchcock Marathon. All I know is that Perkins humanizes a character that has been so often villified in pop culture. But that shower scene is still badass.

- My thoughts on Amazing Grace is kind of "meh." It's okay, I guess. My mom wanted to see it because her sister said it was a great movie. The performances are decent, but it is kind of boring on the most part.

- Enchanted is really all about Amy Adams's performance. I love it more than Marion Cotillard's in La Vie En Rose and Ellen Page's in Juno. I smiled all the way through the movie, mainly because of Adams's fantastic performance. It is predictable and silly, but lots of fun. The story is, well, amazingly imaginative. I just thought, "Why didn't I come up with this story?" I also really like James Marsden in the prince charming role and--surprise, surprise--I actually really love Patrick Dempsey as the single father/divorce lawyer/possible love interest (c'mon, that is NOT a spoiler). I was really impressed by his performance, considering I've only seen him in the first two seasons of "Grey's Anatomy." The part where Dempsey begs Adams to not sing is just a little piece of comedy heaven.

- Charlie Bartlett has several entertaining aspects: It is a fairly intelligent teen comedy and a fairly decent coming-of-age story. Robert Downey Jr. and Hope Davis both give amusing performances. I kind of like the film...but I kind of don't. There are some things I didn't really care about, such as the central romance of the film. I didn't really sympathize with the Charlie Bartlett character. Plus, I didn't find the film to be very funny either. The film had trouble finding a balance between comedy and drama. I guess it tried to be too many things at once that I ended up not caring about any of the things they wanted me to care about. And honestly, it felt like a slight rip-off of Rushmore.

- I loved the first Anne of the Green Gables. The sequel, appropriately titled, Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel, is well, has several melodramatic and dull moments, but all in all, it's all about Megan Follows' lovely, enthusiastic performance as Anne Shirley. It's a touching coming-of-age story about finding a place to truly (cheesey moment) belong. I realize that Kevin Sullivan totally raped L.M. Montgomery's books to make his Anne sequels, but I kind of like his more epic take on the stories.

I'm kind of fascinated by the Jonas Brothers right now. Not in a, "Wow, they're hawt and their music rox" kind of way, but I just love memorizing random facts about them. I've watched tons of their music videos for no particular reason and a lot of the videos are really, really funny. In their "S.O.S" music video I love the part where Kevin Jonas gets so pissed at a text message he receives that he throws his entire cell phone away. Okay, nobody needed to know that. Anyway...

I hope you're all doing well. I've been trying my best to keep up with all of my favorite film blogs. Even though I rarely comment, trust me, I lurk.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Where's the balcony?

I watched the newly revamped "At the Movies" last night and I thought it was...okay, I guess. I don't want to be too harsh on the show or the two Bens because of how new everything seems to be at the moment, but there were definitely things that bothered me. Surprisingly, I liked a few things as well.

Things I Didn't Like:
  • Remember when I discussed Ben Lyons's weird fidget problem? Yeah, the guy couldn't stop moving. At all.
  • Now that I've addressed Lyons's annoyingly fidgety presence, I'll just go ahead and say it: Lyons was annoying. Period. He sounded like a robot (or cue card reader) who really, really wanted to be enthusiastic. When Lyons spoke about Don Cheadle and how the actor could do no wrong, he asked--in an extremely unnatural, awkward voice--his fellow film critic, Ben Mankiewicz, "Name a bad Don Cheadle movie!" The tone of Mankiewicz's response sounded like, "Why the hell are you asking me this insipidly random question to highlight Cheadle's greatness? He deserves better."
  • Why must it take place in front of a lame flatscreen TV? Why? Why? WHY?
  • Yellow. Orange. Ugh. The set is so...bright.
  • The show felt like a couple of friends discussing the movies they watched the past week, which is actually something I can do with my friends all the time. I don't need to spend thirty minutes of my life (one of Lyons's favorite phrases, I believe) watching that. What I used to love about the old show is that critics like Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and Richard Roeper (to some extent) had some extensive knowledge about the subject of film and the show just felt somewhat educational.
  • They messed up the whole concept of "Three to See." It was supposed to be the ranking of a single critic, not both.
Things I Did Like:
  • The whole "Critics Round Table" idea is kind of cool. I do hope they change it up a bit with the critics once a while, though.
  • Ben Mankiewicz seemed fine. Uncomfortable, probably, but fine. Hell, I'd freak out if the guy standing/sitting next to me couldn't stop smirking like an idiot.
  • Was I being too harsh on Ben Lyons? Possibly. Well, at least he's better-looking than Mankiewicz...?
So what is everyone else's opinion about the new "At the Movies"? Feel free to share.


There wasn't a "Five Links Friday" last week because (thinking for a good excuse--uh, never mind)...I forgot. I started school last week and the school year got really busy, really fast. I might end up neglecting this little blog throughout the school year, but hopefully, I will find the time to keep it afloat.

Monday, September 1, 2008

"I could never love anyone more than I love my sisters."

I recently read Louisa May Alcott's brilliant classic novel, Little Women, and it is one of the best books I have ever read. I picked it up because a very good friend of mine had very positive things to say about the novel, so I thought I'd give it a try. I wondered why I didn't read it until I was so late into my teenage years. It is primarily a children's book, but it is much better known as a "domestic book," nowadays, being read by people of all ages. Although some of the morals presented in the novel are a little too old-fashioned for the twenty-first century, Alcott's writing never ceases to create an undeniable sense of warmth and charm. Even in the culture of late nineteenth century, Alcott was able to create independent, vibrant female characters who could hold their heads up high in a male-dominated society.

The novel chronicles the coming-of-age of the four March girls: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Their father is a chaplain in the American Civil War and the girls are left to fend for themselves in their home in New England with their loving mother, Marmee. All four girls have defined characteristics: Pretty Meg yearns for wealth and finer things. Tomboyish Jo is an ambitious young writer. Delicate Beth is shy, but has a caring, gentle heart. Amy, like Meg, likes wealth, but she is unfortunately spoiled and childish due to being the youngest.

The March's next-door neighbor, Theodore Laurence--better-known as Laurie--becomes part of the March family's fiber. Laurie is a lonely young man lives with his wealthy grandfather and often finds solace in the kindness and warmth of the March family--much like any outsider who encounters the March family. Gradually, Laurie falls for the feisty Jo, only to discover she doesn't feel the same for him.

But through pangs of heartbreak and the bonds of love, the March family survives life's trials and tribulations--together. The March girls become women by enduring the many hardships found in their own flaws, journeys, relationships, and their pursuits of romance. Admittedly, I read the book with an old-fashioned mindset, only to realize in the very foundation of Alcott's story is a timeless message about growing up and eventual self-understanding.

Alcott's novel was such a success when it was first published that it inspired two sequels (that I yet to read), Little Men and Jo's Boys. Little Women has ever been out of print. It is one of the most popular books of all-time, transcending Alcott's expectation of it being simply a "girl's book." It is no wonder Hollywood can't keep their hands away from the novel--and I can't blame them.

I believe if there is a good story somewhere, there is a good movie to be made. But when I saw the 1933 and 1949 film adaptations, I was tremendously disappointed. Not only the two films lack the warm atmosphere of Alcott's novel, the casting for the films is atrocious.

OLD OLD OLD OLD OLD...yeah, sorry, but that's the painful truth.

Katharine Hepburn stars in the 1933 version as Jo March. Although Hepburn seems like a fantastic choice to play the fiercely self-assured female character, the actress couldn't exude the immature, tomboyish nature of Jo; Hepburn's voice and movements reeks of elegance and high society. In her autobiography, Hepburn stated she had a wonderful time making the film, but something about her performance didn't feel like she was giving it her all. Under the direction of Hepburn's favorite, George Cukor, Hepburn exhibits moments of excellence that never go a long way.

Sadly, the 1949 version was a remake of the 1933 version. The 1949 film has an entirely identical script to the 1933 version, only with several minor changes. I wondered: Why copy the script of the 1933 version when Alcott wrote 500 pages of film-worthy material?

One of the advantages of filming in black and white is that it is easier to control the lighting. The 1949 version is in bright technicolor so the weather outside was always, well, bright. The film is obviously filmed on a sound stage that looks cheap and clausophobic. It is one of the poorest sound stages I've seen from that era; I really got the feeling that the setting and the characters existed solely in a box.

Peter Lawford: Why is Elizabeth Taylor blonde?

As for the casting, June Allyson is a solid Jo March. In comparison to Hepburn, Allyson is a much better choice and delivered a much better performance. Strangely enough, the filmmakers decided to switch the age order of Beth and Amy, for no particular reason. Elizabeth Taylor is noticeable in a blonde wig as a selfish, greedy, and bitchy interpretation of Amy. Margaret O'Brien plays Beth with symptoms of Annoyingly Precocious Movie Child Syndrome nicely in-tact, especially when O'Brien delivers Beth's speech in acknowledgment of the character's declining health.

Unlike George Cukor, who is known more as an "actor's director," Mervyn LeRoy impressed me with a single shot: After the girls' father, Mr. March, returns home, the entire family is happily together for Christmastime. But behind their precious gathering, Laurie (Peter Lawford) looks in with longing and sorrow--a moment that spoke volumes about Laurie's character.

Being a huge fan of the novel, I found it difficult to fully embrace either of the films. I thought everyone involved in the 1933 and 1949 versions failed to capture the heart of the novel's sweet coming-of-age theme. For one, all the actors looks two times older than their characters. The 1933 version is especially awkward to behold, since all four actresses just looks so darn old in their matronly costumes. So much for coming-of-age...

I approached the most recent version made in 1994 with low expectations. Besides, I've actually seen the 1994 version a few years ago and remember not liking it at all. I was in my Vietnam War/mafia/investigative drama phase back then so sappy films where love triumphed all did not appeal to me all that much. But I've grown to appreciate those sappy movies throughout the last couple of years. And, even though I didn't like the 1994 version, I remember it being of better quality than the 1933 and 1949 versions.

I've came to the conclusion that even though the 1994 version is far from a perfect movie, it is probably the best adaptation of Little Women that we're going to get for a while.

Winona Ryder: I'm too gorgeous to play Jo, but hopefully my performance will make up for it. (And it does.)

Director Gilliam Armstrong's film is definitely the most well-made and well-cast version of Little Women. In addition, the film has a believably warm atmosphere that is absent from the first two films and has the attentive details a period piece deserves. Thomas Newman's dazzling, touching score is the icing on the cake. Unlike the script(s) for the previous versions, 1994's scripts emphasized the emotional core of the March family rather than settling on a summary of Alcott's novel.

The 1994 version of Little Women definitely made several stars who all happen to be working actors today. It is an talented bunch, with a single exception I would address later.

The four sisters are wonderfully cast: Winona Ryder is a terrific Jo, perfectly conveying the dreams of a young woman and the fierce head-strong ambitions of a determined writer. Kirsten Dunst is a surprisingly adorable young Amy, especially during a memorable (added) scene in a carriage where Amy tells Laurie (Christian Bale) that she wants to be kissed before she dies. The scene itself is a bit silly, but the way Dunst delivers the line with such innocence and wistfulness will put a smile on almost any viewer's face. Claire Danes gives a touching and heartbreaking performance as Beth. Although Trini Alvarado most definitely doesn't look the part of the beautiful Meg, she understood the character of Meg very well and it showed through her performance.

Unlike the 1933 and 1949 versions, the 1994 version is a true ensemble piece. The focus isn't all about Jo and her relationships with her sisters anymore--it's about every supporting character as well. Although the film is not a summary of the novel, Armstrong captures the spirit of the novel better than any director before her. She lets every actor an opportunity to shine.

Susan Sarandon is lovely as Marmee. Sarandon somehow knows how to portray Marmee on-screen in a lovingly didactic way without being overly preachy. Eric Stoltz plays Brooke, Laurie's tutor and Meg's eventual suitor. Although I don't think it is entirely appropriate to make Brooke into typical comedic relief, I think Stoltz does a good job with the material given to him. Gabriel Byrne is much too attractive to play the homely Professor Bhaer, but hey, this is Hollywood--all love interests should be somewhat attractive, right? But Byrne's performance is great and acts far from the notion of an afterthought.

I have mixed feelings about Bale's performance as Laurie. Like I said before, most readers could identify with Laurie's longing to officially belong in the March family. Laurie is a difficult role to perfect. Since Laurie is one of my favorite male literary characters of all-time, I'm very passionate about the way he is portrayed on-screen. Douglas Montgomery and Lawford from the 1933 and 1949 versions, respectively, looks twice the age of the character of Laurie in the films and are honestly, absolutely charmless. Bale, on the other hand, has a natural boyish charm about him that suited Laurie nicely. Besides, Bale has amazing chemistry with Ryder. So compared to the others, it is automatic that Bale is the finest on-screen Laurie.

But there is this scene in Europe much later in the movie where Laurie says to Amy, "I envy her happiness. I envy his happiness. I envy John Brooke for marrying Meg. I hate Fred Vaughn. And if Beth had a lover I would despise him too. Just as you have always known that you would never marry a pauper, I have always known that I belong to the March family," which makes Laurie sound like a serial killer who wants to take over the world--I mean, erm, the March family. I know that Laurie in "Part II" of Little Women (otherwise known as Good Wives) is kind of creepy, but he isn't that creepy. And sleezy, for that matter.

This brings me to Samantha Mathis as older Amy. Dunst sets the stage for a likable Amy and it seems to be up to Mathis to hold on to it or tear it down. Mathis does the latter, unfortunately. Mathis looks much too old for Amy since Mathis's appearance makes everyone look like they ceased aging during the past four years. It's just weird casting. In the scenes in Europe, Mathis's Amy just comes off as extremely snobby and annoying, enough for me to hate Amy in the same way I hated Juliette Lewis's character in Husbands and Wives.

This film is so nineties: The couples all have their passionate kisses, which is probably far from the customs of nineteenth century New England. But no matter--it makes the proposal scene between Jo and Laurie much more affective and emotional.

The 1994 version is the best version, but like I said before, it's a not a perfect movie. The film may be an accomplishment in aesthetics, with its gorgeous scenery, soaring score, and charming cast, but it lacks the emotional punch of the Alcott's novel. It is a great family movie with an insanely traditional but positive message aimed at young women, but it lacks Alcott's balance in storytelling and social commentary. Armstrong's vision is certainly an emotional one, but her film barely resonates with its viewers the same way Alcott's novel resonates with its readers.

My suggestion is, skip the 1933 and 1949 theatrical film versions and watch the 1994 version if you must see Little Women on-screen. But remember, the book is always available.

Ratings: 1933: 5/10, 1949: 5/10, 1994: 8/10

Friday, August 29, 2008

Five Links Friday (#4)

1. McCain taps Alaska Gov. Palin as vice president pick
Honestly, I didn't know much about Palin until McCain revealed her as his vice presidential candidate this morning. From what I've read, I don't think she's ready to be president; she has even less experience than Obama. I think the only reasons that McCain picked Palin was a) She's a woman, b) She's not old, and c) She has a sorta-kinda maverick streak.

2. Hollywood stars talk politics at Dem convention
Whoo! Politically active celebrities.

3. Peanuts Rocks the Vote
I'm a huge fan of Peanuts. I voted for Linus since he's always been my favorite Peanuts character. I guess the "issues" on the site are a bit silly, but it's all in fun and games.

4. John Lennon biopic comes together
So who should play John Lennon? Paul McCartney? Nowhere Boy is a nice title, though.

5. Telluride Schedule

If anyone is interested at all, the Telluride Film Festival schedule has been released. Among the films being screened are Kisses, Happy-Go-Lucky, and American Violet.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Can't you even imagine you're in the depths of despair?"

I'm so in love with Anne of Green Gables, the 1985 Canadian television mini-series, that I can't even really express my love in coherent words.

Meagan Follows is fabulous as Anne Shirley and those 199 minutes of my life were totally worth it. I think those are the only things I can say coherently about the film at the moment.

And I want to live at the filming locations of this film. Canada, here I come! Well, maybe in another couple of years...

I didn't think I could give this film a rating. It's hard to rate perfect things with a number scale. But I've settled on an understated 10/10.

Now I have to see the sequels, even though they are supposed to be kind of crappy. Oh well, who cares? As long as Meagan Follows is Anne Shirley, they will be totally worth my time.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Five Links Friday (#3)

Recently, I've been feeling quite like a typical moody, hormonal teenager. I've found reasonable solace in reading, considering I don't have to speak to people while I'm at it. I just finished Little Women this morning (I will be watching the 1933, 1949, and 1994 films versions very soon) and is finally tackling Twilight--so I won't feel too left out, of course.

I've found a nifty site to keep track of all the books I've read called 1. Goodreads. It's a lovely, easy-to-use site that reminds me of IMDb for books. My account is here, so if you do make an account, go ahead and add me as a friend (since I currently have none)!

So what have you all been reading? Please discuss and feel free to recommend me anything that you'd think I'd like.

This clever and creative 2. Empire Poster Quiz challenges you to guess the movie from just one letter from the movie's poster. It was deservingly a featured link on IMDb.

The official announcement of the new "Dancing with the Stars" cast will be on Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America" but 3. Gossip Sauce has the inside scoop on the new cast. The list might be fake, but the thought of Cloris Leachman on "Dancing with the Stars" is pretty darn exciting.

Presidential candidates 4. Barack Obama and John McCain reveals their top ten songs to Blender magazine in the "White House DJ Battle" article. On a side note, I absolutely adore the illustration on the page!

For the video of the week, I present to you 5. Star Wars 20's silent film style: The Story Of Luke and Leia. I saw another Star Wars "silent film" on Youtube about an year ago and liked it, but I thought this one was especially hilarious. And please don't tell me that I'm the only one who ships Luke and Leia (well, they shouldn't have been siblings!).

Well, that's all folks! Yeah, surprisingly short, right? :)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"Love me - that's all I ask of you..."

The Phantom of the Opera | rel. 2004 | dir. Joel Schumacher

Director Joel Schumacher is no stranger to campy filmmaking. He did direct Batman & Robin, right?

Well, the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's famous stage musical, The Phantom of the Opera, despite of its glorious sets, delicious costumes, and beautiful melodies, is a fine example of how all elegance and beauty can also equate to pure camp.

I have never seen Webber's musical, although I do own the musical's soundtrack with all the songs performed by the original London cast. I worship the soundtrack and listen to it quite frequently in the car, much to my mom's dismay. The songs, although they have lyrics that resemble wedding vows or Hallmark cards, are passionate and haunting. Even though Webber knows how to make his songs soar, those melodies would be nothing without the extraordinary voice talents of Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, who played the Phantom and Christine Daae on stage, respectively.

Afters years in development, the film version of the musical, The Phantom of the Opera was finally released in 2004. I will boldly say that Schumacher certainly made one of the most aesthetically-pleasing films ever. Unfortunately, it is also shamelessly over-the-top.

The film begins in black-and-white in early twentieth century Paris. An once-magnificent opera house was burned several years ago and all the opera house's contents are being auctioned off. The Viscomte de Chagny (Patrick Wilson) and Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson), bids for a music box with a monkey on top of it, and acknoweldge each other with a spark of recognition in their eyes.

Soon enough, the chandelliers come up and the old opera house magically transforms back into new. This has to be one of the most wonderful ways to unfold a flashback scene ever.

It is late nineteenth-century Paris in a popular opera house. A young singer, Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum) has been trained well by the masked and mysterious Phantom (Gerard Butler). Christine naively believing that the Phantom was the "angel of music" her deceased father promised. The Phantom, a brilliant man who constantly haunts and threatens the opera house, is determined to replace the opera house's big star Carlotta (Minnie Driver) with his young, aspiring protege. The Phantom gets his wish, through scare tactics and clever menace.

After witnessing Christine on stage, Raoul, the Viscomte de Chagny, Christine's childhood friend, falls deeply in love with the young woman. Little does Raoul know, the Phantom has developed strong affections for the young woman as well.

The relationship escalates into a dangerous game of the forces between love and lust, passion and mischievousness. The problem is, the film never plays it that way. Schumacher chisels the film into a mindless buffet of commercialism and pretty images. The film fails to be emotionally compelling or thoroughly romantic, although there are several successful moments that eventually drowns in the film's own visual vanity. The "Point of No Return" scene is a fine example: Rossum and Butler are electrifying in the scene, but those silly dancers in the background are not.

The performances by the actors are not very good, considering that their roles require fantastical singing abilities and some emotional range. Rossum, although sometimes a skilled vocal performer, does not have the allure of Brightman's soaring soprano voice. When Rossum is not singing, she makes Christine seem like an unapologetically passive and bland female character. Should weak female characters that act purely as a damsel-in-distress even be allowed in the twenty-first century?

Wilson's Raoul is an unbelievable bore; he is neither charismatic or charming. No wonder Christine is so fascinated by the Phantom, despite the fact that he may be a sociopathic creep. The filmmakers made a huge mistake by casting Butler, who is obviously more dashing and handsome than Wilson. The Phantom is supposed to have a frightening demeanor, not sporting a perfectly-cut opal mask as some kind of--to quote Roger Ebert--fashion accessory. When the mask is removed, Butler still doesn't look too hideous. Plus, I don't think he can even sing that well; his rendition of "The Music of the Night" is terrible. I don't care if Butler's voice fulfills Webber's dreams of a rock-heavy Phantom--Crawford still has one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard.

But what am I talking about? The flaws are what makes this movie entertaining. The supporting cast is fabulous with everyone giving reliable performances. Richardson and Driver are underused but serves their part in the story. Plus, Ciaran Hinds, Simon Callow, and Jennifer Ellison proves they are true show-stealers, even in their minimal roles.

Again, this movie is a wonder to behold. Some minor flaws are apparent in the somewhat sloppy and abrupt editing. I never liked fade-in scenes either, but they were done somewhat appropriately in this film. But fade-in still kind of sucks.

When I rate a film like The Phantom of the Opera, the score becomes entirely subjective. The film is a guilty pleasure, joining the ranks of films like Spider-Man 3, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, and even Schumacher's own Batman & Robin. At the end of the day, the thin storyline and mediocre acting in The Phantom of the Opera will not matter to anyone who genuinely enjoys Schumacher's interpretation of Webber's stage musical. They are just there for the gorgeous sets and beautiful songs because that is what seems to matter most. And I can't blame them.

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, August 17, 2008

At the Movies with...Lyons and Mankiewicz

I know this is old news, but is anyone looking forward to the new season of At the Movies, which starts September 6th?

I watched the most recent episode (which may have been the last new episode) of At the Movies with Richard Roeper and Michael Phillips. The two seem to be finally creating a sort of rapport, similar to the Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert days. Because of this, I will be tremendously disappointed to see Roeper and Phillips go come September.

Roeper and Phillips will be replaced by Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, both young film critics with famous surnames. I've heard of their better-known relatives, just not them specifically. By hiring Lyons and Mankiewicz, Disney is attempting to make At the Movies appealing to a younger demographic. Will it work? Will they lose their dedicated older viewers?

The new season will welcome new graphics, music, and even a new set. But I've always preferred the low-key design of the show. I'd love to see At the Movies keep the simple format, but that doesn't seem like the case: In addition to traditional "cross-talk" reviews, they will be adding "Critics Round-Up," which invities other critics to disucss movies via satellite. I hope the balcony will still be in tact.

Well, I, for one, look forward the new season and will be tuning into the two Bens. Are they good enough to even be involved with a show started by their terrific predecessors? Is the new look of the show any good? I'm curious to see how one of my favorite programs will do in its "new direction."

Of course, Lyons and Mankiewicz are enthusiastic to be the new co-hosts of the show:

"I am incredibly excited to be involved with such a prestigious show," said co-host Ben Lyons. "Reviewing films for a living is a thrill, and now that I will be a critic for 'At the Movies,' it is an honor and huge responsibility that I look forward to.”

“I am thrilled and honored beyond words to be joining the series,” added co-host Ben Mankiewicz. “As a movie fanatic, this is my dream job. Without question, I certainly have very big shoes to fill.”

To read more about Lyons and Mankiewicz, head over to Anne Thompson's blog.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Five Links Friday (#2)

A lot of videos this week, since I've been surfing Youtube quite frequently these past few days.

1. Trailer for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Warner Brothers moved the sixth installment of the Harry Potter series from its November 8, 2008 release date to July 17, 2009 earlier this week.
In making the announcement, Mr. Horn stated, “Our reasons for shifting ‘Half-Blood Prince’ to summer are twofold: we know the summer season is an ideal window for a family tent pole release, as proven by the success of our last Harry Potter film, which is the second-highest grossing film in the franchise, behind only the first installment. Additionally, like every other studio, we are still feeling the repercussions of the writers’ strike, which impacted the readiness of scripts for other films—changing the competitive landscape for 2009 and offering new windows of opportunity that we wanted to take advantage of. We agreed the best strategy was to move ‘Half-Blood Prince’ to July, where it perfectly fills the gap for a major tent pole release for mid-summer.”
- Full story at MuggleNet.com

I don't think this movie will make a difference in box-office receipts. There is a huge audience for the Harry Potter movies who will watch the film no matter what its release date is. But again, I don't think WB cares about box-office performance at the moment, considering The Dark Knight majorly owned the box-office. Warner Brothers have several other major releases this year, including Body of Lies, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Yes Man. I predict all the films will all do quite well financially.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is actually my least favorite book of J.K. Rowling's popular fantasy series. The sixth novel was a complete let-down, considering its predecessor took my breath away. Rowling forced the ridiculous teenage romances instead of revisiting the depths and complexities of plots and characters, like in her previous outing with the boy wizard. The only interesting thing about the sixth installment was the information about the villainous Voldemort's past, which brings me to how well-done and excellent the trailer is...

Instead of focusing on Rowling's own attempts at giddy fanfiction (Hermione getting jealous at Ron because he's snogging Lavender? Harry feeling the beast within him when he sees Ginny snogging someone else? Harry asking Luna to a party because he can't ask Ginny?), the trailer spotlights the Voldemort back-story in a perfectly dark, moody way. When I first watched the trailer, I just thought, "Wow, they made my least favorite book in the series into an appealing movie!"

I'm rather disappointed that they brought director David Yates back, though. I think we're stuck with Yates until the end of the film series. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is my favorite book in the series and I just didn't think Yates did the film justice. Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed the fifth film and liked the executions of the more emotional scenes. The problem was, it didn't have the spark of the first two Chris Columbus films, the whims of Alfonso Cuaron's film, or the epic visual flair of Mike Newell's film; Harry Potter of the Goblet Fire is my favorite film so far in the series and it's one that is hard to beat. I don't see Yates achieving what any of his predecessors achieved with the two-part finale either. Yates is more interested than the characters than storytelling, while Rowling knows how to blend both wonderfully when she's at her best.

On a side-note, I am strongly opposed to WB's decision to make two films out of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final installment of Rowling's fantasy series. If they can make one acceptable (if not perfect) film out of the 800+ pages of Order of the Phoenix, they can definitely make one good film out of Deathly Hallows. Personally, I don't like Deathly Hallows that much and I see opportunities for the filmmakers to cut out quite a bit (*cough*camping scenes*cough*).

But really, let's just say I'm still pissed that Harry and Hermione didn't end up together.

So what do you think of Harry Potter? Favorite movie? Favorite book? Favorite character? Favorite performance in the movies? Never read it? (I probably wouldn't have given a damn about the Harry Potter series if I wasn't growing up during the height of its popularity. There was no way to escape those books.)

2. Regis and Kelly: Anderson Cooper on the Lohans
I saw this video on James's blog and couldn't stop laughing.

Anderson Cooper is one of my favorite news reporters. Anderson Cooper 360 is one of my favorite news shows. I temporarily can't watch it because I don't have CNN right now, for some odd, unknown reason. (I'm insanely mad that I'm missing out the Obama-McCain debate on CNN.)

For those unfamiliar with Living Lohan, it is a reality show that "allegedly documents the daily lives of actress/singer Lindsay Lohan's family, with most of the focus on manager mother Dina, actress/singer sister Ali, brother Cody, grandmother Nana, who is Dina's mother and a former radio actress, and family friend Jeremy Greene, a music producer helping Ali with her debut album" (source: Wikipedia).

In the video, Cooper heavily criticizes the show and Dina Lohan's antics. Dina Lohan had fought back since (by contacting "OK Magazine") stating that Cooper's comments were "cruel" and "bad karma for him." Watch the video and judge for yourself. Personally, I still think it's hilarious after multiple viewings.

3. The Phantom of the Opera - Point of No Return
This film is probably camp at its best. Naturally, I loved it. I don't want to say too much about the film since I plan to write a review of it soon, but I still want to share my favorite scene.

"Point of No Return" is one of my favorite songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber's immortal stage musical. The lyrics of the songs have no punch; they're just oozing with sentiment. But telling someone that you like Webber's Phantom musical for the story and the song lyrics is kind of like stating that most of Rob Schneider's movies have a hidden philosophical meaning to them. It just doesn't make sense. The musical has always been about the aesthetics, and director Joel Schumahcer was the right guy to approach for the film version.

As for the scene, it shows that Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler don't exactly have the extraordinary voice talents of Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford from the original London cast, but at least they know how to make the scene hot. Well, except for the silly mime/circus/acrobat-like performers dancing in the background and those shots of Patrick Wilson's slightly tear-stained eyes. There are laughable aspects, yet the scene is passionate and visually fantastical. In the words of Paris Hilton, "That's hot." No, really...

4. Katharine Hepburn Online
I love well-made fan sites. For the past few years, I waited for a good Katharine Hepburn site to reach the web. Katharine Hepburn Online is a fantastic one, with a wonderful gallery a lot of good content. Finally...

I've seen my share of Hepburn movies, but I became completely enamored by her personality when I read her autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life. It is a sweet memoir written by an intelligent and charming woman who has lived her life to the fullest. What I really love about the novel is how Hepburn's personality and wit crackles through the novel with her entertaining anecdotes. It was definitely not written by a ghost writer, that's for sure. The memoir is not a tell-all book on the Golden Age of Hollywood, but simply a humble story of a woman's rise to fame, followed by life's various ups and downs.

So, anyone want to share their favorite Hepburn movies? Performances? Characters?

5. Free Jenna Now!
This is probably the funniest Internet marketing for a film I've seen in a while.

This is the deal (from Jenna Fischer/Pam Bessly's MySpace blog):
My name is Rainn Wilson and I've kidnapped the lovely Jenna, put her, bound, in the trunk of my firebird and logged onto her MySpace to send out this bulletin.

To free America's sweetheart, Pam Beesly, one half of the magic which is 'Jam', you must attend my new movie, 'The Rocker', which opens August 20th.

As soon as the film grosses 18.7 Mil, she will be released and given a peach smoothie.
Wilson and Fischer are friends and both star in the NBC comedy, The Office, so it's all fun and games.

It's a smart little marketing device that I found extremely amusing, but it still doesn't convince me that The Rocker is worth seeing. But good try, though.