Monday, December 28, 2009

The 2000s, A Decade in Retrospect...I discover The Godfather

[from The Godfather: Part II]

The 2000s, A Decade in Retrospect is a series where I will be professing my love to the pop culture wonders that I discovered during this decade, but not specific to this decade.

When I was eleven, the only legitimate live-action "classic" I've seen and loved, released before 1990 was Rain Man. I loved the movie to pieces. Thought Dustin Hoffman was fantastic. Tom Cruise as well. The ending touched my tremendously. I still think positively of that film, though repeated viewings have diminished my heightened adoration.

But The Godfather was the film that turned on my curiosity for the realm of cinematic classics. I'd like to think that, without The Godfather, I would have never touched It's a Wonderful Life, The Philadelphia Story, or Roman Holiday with a ten-foot pole. Anything before the 80s would still be, sadly, off-limits for me, as far as my interests go.

I saw The Godfather by accident.

I was surfing the TV Guide website on my old dial-up Internet connection, looking for a movie to watch with my mom for the remaining duration of a lazy Saturday afternoon. I told her that The Godfather was going to be on network television today later in the afternoon. While I may have been bored, sitting in front of the television for four hours watching a single movie didn't sound very inviting.

But my mom managed to live forty years of her life avoiding The Godfather movies altogether. She said she wanted to see it. I told her I was uninterested.

I remember seeing The Godfather movies on the shelves of the local video rental store and while I was curious about them, a 70s mafia epic was never supposed to suck me in. I still preferred Mary Kate and Ashley movies at the time.

But I was really bored. When the movie started, I decided to sit down and give that sepia-tinted world a whirl. I knew I could leave at any time. But I didn't leave, unless you count in the occasional bathroom breaks.

While I wasn't too impressed with the first half-hour or so (I have learned to appreciate those scenes by now), the iconic scene when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) goes to the restaurant and shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey to prove his allegiance to his family pulled me right in.

There aren't many scenes like that and even less that are so well-acted and well-directed. The intensity boils at such a high temperature that the moment everything cracks, it feels like someone just kicked open that imaginary cinematic door for the film and the audience become one.

Pacino's performance was the reason I stayed around to watch that phenomenal scene. He is simply an incredible actor. While his recent film choices have been questionable, Pacino has unquestionable screen presence. I couldn't leave my seat, not after the moment where Michael tells his girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton) about who his family is and what they do.

While I wasn't completely sucked in yet, but I was already partially invested in Michael Corleone. I tend to forget about Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) altogether. I haven't seen many Brando films, but from what I have seen (this and A Streetcar Named Desire), I don't care for him, but that might as well change in the future.

That said, Michael Corleone is my favorite film character of all-time.

This is perhaps why I love The Godfather: Part II. I saw it two years after I've seen the original (I don't know why it took so long) and thought it was absolutely brilliant. In the winter break of eighth grade, I watched The Godfather: Part II four times. And considering it clocks around 3 hours and 20 minutes, I believe I achieved something fantastically awesome. Or that I have no life. But either way, it was worth it.

Parallel storytelling has never been done better. Robert De Niro is intimidating, touching, devastating, cunning, and self-assured as young Vito. The scene where Vito kills Fanucci is a powerful scene, the kind that you watch and gasp for breath afterward. And when Vito joins his family and tells baby Michael that he loves him very much, we get a telling glimpse into the Vito-Michael dynamic.

We realize that Michael's destiny has always been to inherit Vito's crime empire. While Vito may have respected Michael's initial wishes to not be part of the bullet parade, Vito knew, deep down, that Michael was the only son with the potential to keep things in order.

We see Vito's rise juxtoposed with his son's modern personal downfall. Michael has everything a mafia don desires: Intelligence. Power. Success. Michael is sucking up the American Dream with a vacuum. But his personal relationships are crumbling.

Michael's wife, Kay is pregnant and unhappy; Michael has failed to keep his promise to make the family business legitimate. Michael's brother, Fredo (John Cazale), is jealous and angry of his worthless and easily replaceable position in the business. Michael's sister, Connie (Talia Shire) is still mad at him for what he's done to her husband and tries to distract herself with escapades with randon men.

While Vito was loved and respected by his family, Michael is too cold to be embraced by anyone. He can get the job done, but no one close to him is going to bother to congratulate him at the end of the day.

The Godfather: Part II also features two of the most criminal Oscar snubs of all-time: John Cazale and Diane Keaton. Sure, Lee Strasberg is an interesting antagonist and Talia Shire delivers a good performance, but Cazale and Keaton's performances are explosions in epic proportions. I think of Cazale in the boat house scene. I think of Keaton in the hotel room scene. The fact that their performances were dismissed by the Academy back in 1973 was, and always will be, blasphemous. I can't think of better examples of Academy injustice.

But it goes back to Pacino, who is brilliant in every frame of the film. I have never felt so much sympathy for a fictional murderer in my life. I think of the person Michael was, and the person he became. He didn't want any of this. But he's completely capable in fulfilling his duties. He's incredibly good at the job he unwillingly (and over time, willingly) does. Somewhere down the road, he got lost. He doesn't know if he's doing this for his family, his deceased father, or for himself. But he's constantly keeping everything together when he so desperately wants it to all shatter.

The last scene is heartbreaking, every time I think about it. It masterfully creates the desolate state of loneliness. Michael has lost everything he cares about. He has become the man he feared he would become.

But the transformation is complete and there's no going back.

Yet he does in The Godfather: Part III. I love that movie and will defend it when necessary. I even wrote a self-titled "love letter" to the film this past summer because I wanted to.

Pacino is, once again, excellent in The Godfather: Part III. Michael is softer now and more like Vito. But his ex-wife, Kay, still doesn't respect him. Michael's family business is still not legitimate, although he really is trying this time around. It's a riveting portrait that is indeed crumbling, yet everything still feels so alive.

It is an inescapable spiral that never ends.

I became obsessed with The Godfather for a while. I went on GangsterBB practically everyday to read the posts. I watched films that Godfather fans enjoyed (Scarface sucks, GoodFellas rocks). I watched a crapload of Pacino movies for a period of time because damn, the man's thrilling to witness as any character in any movie. I even read Mario Puzo's novel, which pales in comparison to the films.

While the choice trilogies of my generation usually included only The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean, I rebelled and embraced The Godfather. Because there is no other story in cinema quite like it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

It's Christmastime once again...

In celebration of the most wonderful time of year, I'd like to share a Christmas song that is often overlooked during the holiday season. It is John Williams' "Somewhere in My Memory," the theme to the 1990 Christmas classic, Home Alone. It's absolutely the sweetest thing. In fact, it purely reminds me of church choirs, candy canes, homemade cookies, and warm, friendly fireplaces. Please enjoy...

I hope you all are able to spend Christmas with your loved ones! And wear plenty of layers to fight the winter frost! I do know it's surprisingly chilly here in the west coast.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The 2000s, A Decade in Retrospect...Gossip Girl

[from the "Vanity Fair" August 2008 photoshoot]

The 2000s, A Decade in Retrospect is a series where I will be professing my love to the pop culture wonders that I discovered during this decade, but not specific to this decade.

Teen drama has never been so sensationally addictive and relentlessly glamorous until Gossip Girl entered my life in the summer of 2009.

When the ultimate Upper East Side teenage high society queen, Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) and the sunny, charming "it" girl Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) finally meet eye-to-eye on a rainy day in Central Park, I was sold. Blair spills her heart out to Serena: Blair's father left her mother for a male model, her boyfriend has been acting weird...and her best friend wasn't there for her as all this unfolded.

Bitching, back-stabbing, and uncomfortable confrontations. All that comes to an abrupt halt. Instead, we see Blair and Serena as who they really are and who they really want to be: best friends. Could Gossip Girl be a show with a...soul?

After years of rejecting the glitzy teen phenomenon, I became a fan. Gossip Girl turned out to be less shallow than I initially thought it was. Oh, yes, it may take place in a delusional universe of impeccable fashion sense, poreless skin, lovely make-up, drool-worthy shoes, and last but not least--perfect hair! served with a fair share of teen drinking and sex. But it's also a show with surprisingly likable characters and a cast with young, attractive talents who can deliver surprisingly engaging performances.

And to top it off, the picturesque New York cinematography and hip-chic soundtrack is literally to die for. Kristen Bell's narration as the mysterious title blogger adds to the scandalous! factor to the show, just like sugar and spice does to any dish.

On an aesthetic level, Gossip Girl completely dominates.

But underneath all those fabulous designer items, it's really, a superbly entertaining television show. Especially season one. I'm sad to say that it has gone slightly downhill, or, slightly crooked, in terms of quality. But season one is blessed with so much pure, melodramatic fun to a point that it's deliciously irresistible.

I was familiar with Gossip Girl producer, Josh Schwartz's previous project, The O.C., a teen soap focusing on the privileged youth of Orange County. I didn't watch the show religiously, so naturally, I didn't have high expectations for Gossip Girl. I also knew that Gossip Girl was adapted from a series of books by Cecily von Ziegesar, but trashy teen novels were never my style. If I had to spend time pouring over hundreds of pages of words, I prefer to read something that would stimulate my mind, thank you very much.

(I did admittedly finish the first book in the series recently. So why are people complaining about Twilight being a literary atrocity when Gossip Girl exists? Thanks for the idea, von Ziegesar, but thank goodness Schwartz and co-creator Stephanie Savage came in, like the TV superheroes they truly are, and reconstructed von Ziegesar's ridiculous UES world from an annoying toxic wasteland of robotic idiots to a world that's a little more...human.)

The pilot episode of Gossip Girl drew me in immediately. Peter Bjorn and John's "Young Folks" always remind me of that alluring opening sequence. The entire cast is fueled with endless chemistry.

The fairy tale romance between middle-class loner, Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) and redeeming party girl, Serena van der Woodsen is the most endearing romance since the mini love story in Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" music video. Their romance was briefly threatened by the arrival of Dan's blatantly boho-styled friend Vanessa (Jessica Szhor), but then Dan and Serena just continued being awesome. Too bad the refreshing take on the Ross-and-Rachel concept only lasted one season until it all went downhill.

The troubled golden couple, Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford) and Blair Waldorf added some tension to the seemingly pitch-perfect landscape of lovely penthouses and sparkling martini glasses. While I originally thought Serena may be the continuously threatening corner of the central love triangle, it turned out to be the notoriously boozed-up local bad boy, Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick), who has his hard-to-crack heart set on Blair.

Then there's Dan's ambitious, social-climbing little sister, Jenny (Taylor Momsen), who tries to fit into her snobby private school--especially Blair's inner circle--without a pricey outfit from Bendel's. And it wouldn't be a proper teen soap opera without some middle-aged romance added into the mix: Dan's ex-rocker father, Rufus (Matthew Settle) and Serena's socialite mother, Lily (Kelly Rutherford) were once old lovers in their wilder days. They inevitably reconnect.

Season two happened. The sometimes-frustrating, sometimes-interesting will-they-won't-they cat-and-mouse game between Chuck and Blair commenced in a style that even John Hughes would have found to be too angsty. Then Jenny destroyed her pretty face and hair with a heavy load of eyeliner and a constant bad hair day. Then Dan had an unnecessary affair with an English teacher that I didn't give a damn about. Yet Nate was useless (as usual), until we met his horrifically devious family that happens to include the most badass grandfather ever.

There goes a completely unbalanced season. Ended on a fairly high note, though.

Unfortunately, the first ten episodes of season three didn't do any favors for the show. But with the amazing mid-season cliffhanger, there may be hope for Gossip Girl after all. The most recent episode brought back what I loved about the show in the first place: blackmail, back-stabbing, bitching, the great relationships, and the surprisingly good acting.

Ed Westwick continues to be criminally underrated, simply because he's on a CW teen soap opera. He has convincingly molded Chuck from the bad boy/date rapist he was back in season one into this mature, caring young man who is destined for great things. There were moments in season two, despite the overly angst-up writing, where I just thought, damn, why doesn't Ed Westwick get major award recognition for this? This is character development done right. His achingly touching performance in "The Debarted" (3x12) proves that he can strike gold twice. Just like any good actor would.

While I wouldn't call myself a super-duper "Chair" (Chuck/Blair) obsessive, I do like their scenes together. Westwick and Leighton Meester have this electrifying, passionate chemistry that I can't deny. Their unforgettable limo scene in season one, ingeniously set to Sum 41's "With Me," has been etched in my memory forever. But I prefer to see Meester's Blair as a lone warrior, fearlessly tackling her enemies on her own, with vulnerabilities to boot. That is when Meester is the most fierce and interesting. The funny thing is, Blair's a bitch, but she's just too human to fill us with despair.

Another thing I adore about the relatively impressive latter half of season three (so far) is Taylor Momsen's Jenny. She may have the drabbest outfits (and isn't she supposed to be rich now?), but her gradual rise to teenage queendom is completely enticing. I love that Jenny is becoming a bitch--a drug-dealing bitch, no less. I love that she practically has no friends since she alienated her gay stepbrother Eric (Connor Paolo) from her queen bee lifestyle. And since they called truce, it makes you wonder: Did they really mean it? In short, I love Jenny's storyline this season and I don't care if you disagree.

And...who knew Chace Crawford had such good comedic timing? The days where Nate constantly looked stoned, confused, and clueless are officially a thing of the past. I welcome the randomly lovesick Nate who learned to emote and do heroic deeds that I actually want to root for.

While season three may be looking up, season one is still one of the most perfect seasons I've ever witnessed, especially by teen soap opera standards. Even if Gossip Girl never returns to its former glory, it will still hold a certain place in my adolescent heart. Every teenage girl needs a show in her life that's totally corrupt, full of random love triangles, and acted out by gorgeous people. Gossip Girl successfully fills that void to the very brim. With sin, squalor, and lots of xoxos.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The 2000s, A Decade in Retrospect...ION airs The Wonder Years

[images courtesy of The Wonder Years]

The 2000s, A Decade in Retrospect is a series where I will be professing my love to the pop culture wonders that I discovered during this decade, but not specific to this decade.

"Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you're in diapers, the next day you're gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a town, a house like a lot of other houses, a yard like a lot of other yards, on a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back, with wonder."

In the uneventful summer of 2007, I stumbled upon the late-eighties coming-of-age half-hour dramedy, The Wonder Years. The show delicately chronicles the adolescence of Kevin Arnold during the escalating confusion and violence of the Vietnam War.

I was immediately hooked. ION played three cycles of the entire show, thankfully. I was able to consume all six seasons in a very short period of time. I was completely in love with a television show for the very first time.

The performances. The script. The amazing soundtrack.

Fifties, sixties, and seventies pop never sounded so cool and timeless. I used to listen to The Stylistics' "You Are Everything" and Bob Seger's "We've Got Tonight" back-to-back because those songs always reminded me of the scenes in the show and how much I wished my adolescence was filled with that kind of innocent puppy-love romance.

While I've always love nostalgia when used effectively in every artistic medium I've ever encountered, I've never seen it done like this. The show is, and always will be, a sweetly sentimental masterstroke of television genius. You don't have to live and breathe knowledge of mid-twentieth century Americana to completely relish the hormonal antics of The Wonder Years. It simply the best television show I've seen about the process of growing up in suburbia.

Fred Savage's brilliant turn as Kevin showcases an adolescent under the influence of angst, infatuation, humor, heartbreak, brattiness, and confusion. Savage is a natural; the obvious crux of the show. Season four highlights Savage's capability to believably deliver the most heartbreaking moments of adolescence.

Speaking of season four, it is perhaps one of the best seasons of any television show ever. I was left speechless when I watched the captivatingly dramatic, achingly devastating two-parter, "Heartbreak" and "Denial." I got teary-eyed when Kevin discovers the necklace Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar) leaves on his bus seat, shortly after their break-up. I got even more teary-eyed in the aftermath of the break-up when Winnie tells Kevin that she wants to be friends and Kevin insists he doesn't want to be friends. He honestly believes, in his achingly fragile teenage heart, that he loves her. And we believe that too.

To me, Kevin and Winnie are the ideal sweethearts, simply because they aren't perfect. Their relationship is confusing, like all relationships are. But they keep coming back to each other because well, they can. I've always wanted a relationship like Kevin and Winnie's, but I'm already at the latter edge of adolescence, so I guess it's a little too late.

Being a Kevin and Winnie fan, I embrace season six with opens arms, which is my second favorite season of the series. Some fans may feel cold towards season six, but after those random missteps in season five, season six is a refreshing surprise. But it's the most human and consistent season. It makes me wish there is indeed a season seven. But thanks, ABC and the TV gods for annihilating the existence of a season seven for me. My life is sorrowfully imperfect without it.

I especially like how Kevin and Winnie matured into two teenagers who can be a steady couple and work out problems together. Kevin is no longer pining for Winnie because he doesn't have to. And Winnie isn't playing games with Kevin anymore because she knows that Kevin cares for her--always have been, and always will. Winnie may not be the most likable character, but McKellar's performance makes us see her the way Kevin sees her: flawed, yet a desirable object of affection.

And in one of my favorite episodes (from season five, amazingly enough), "Double Double Date" shows the chemistry between Savage and McKellar at its most electrifying and fantastical:

It's good to be a teenager, right?

While I may adore The Wonder Years for the adolescent romance between Kevin and Winnie, the supporting characters are also memorable.

Jack (Dan Lauria), a middle America breadwinner, who is, I believe, what 80% our fathers really are like. Jack Arnold is the anti-Bill Cosby because fathers like Jack are real, not products of the laugh tracks of sitcom land.

Wayne (Jason Hervey), is another character that strikes a chord with me. He's a bully of an older brother, but he's also human, susceptible to all kinds of vulnerabilities. One of the great things about season six is that Wayne matures into the kind of man who can be relied and trusted. The New Year's episode shows Wayne at his most authentic; he's more than a caricature of childhood or a comedic stereotype--he has a heart that can be broken.

Daniel Stern's narration as the "older Kevin" is also one of the grander highlights of the show. The lines that hit home and choked me up are mostly in narration, a role that Stern plays wonderfully.

The Wonder Years is not a perfect show, though. There are episodes that are terribly preachy. There are several rotten episodes (mainly in season five) that I try to weed out of my memory. Kevin's best friend, Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano), always annoyed me. Thank goodness most of the episodes does not focus on the Kevin and Paul friendship because I couldn't care less. I was actually glad when Kevin found new best friends in season six because well, people change.

But despite these minor flaws, The Wonder Years is still amazing. There is so much emotional authenticity to the very best episodes that most shows of its kind can barely achieve or even come close. I feel like a thorn get stuck in my heart every time I re-watch some of the scenes on Youtube. Now, all they have to do is release the damn show on DVD...and perhaps this is just wishful thinking, but I'd like the original music on it too, please!

Elf, a Christmas classic in the making

This has been a depressing decade for family-centric Christmas classic wannabes. Truth is, there hasn't been many. Thankfully, Jon Favreau's 2003 Christmas family comedy, Elf exists.

When Will Ferrell delivers a great performance, he delivers a great performance. The man has legitimate talent, which makes you wonder why he even allows himself to star in distasteful atrocities of cinematic doom. Just watch Ferrell in The Producers and Stranger Than Fiction. He can convincingly sing and dance and search for the meaning of life.

Most members of the (not so) prestigious Hollywood "frat pack" are capable of some sort of acting greatness, but not when they resort to the downgraded cheapness of bathroom humor.

But Elf is a delightful mixture of semi-distasteful humor (toned down for the kids) and genuine warmth that celebrates the over-the-top sentimentalism of the Christmas spirit. Ferrell sells it, through and through. Even if it means running through the streets of Manhattan in yellow tights.

The film opens in the North Pole. Buddy the Elf (Ferrell) is obviously bigger than all the other elves at Santa's Workshop. He finds out that he's really human. Buddy's mother gave birth to him, without his father's knowledge; his mother has since passed away.

But Buddy's adopted father, Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), encourages Buddy to find his adopted father in New York City. Before Buddy begins his adventure, Santa (Edward Asner) warns Buddy that his father is on the naughty list.

Buddy arrives in New York City, dressed in his laughably cartoonish elf costume, eager to meet his father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan). Walter is a frustrated workaholic at a children's book publishing company and clearly thinks Buddy is insane. Walter initially tries to escape Buddy's constant pursuit of a father-son relationship, but after a DNA test makes it clear that Buddy is indeed his son, Walter brings him home.

While Walter's family (son, Daniel Tay; wife, Mary Steenburgen) quickly warms up to Buddy, Walter sees Buddy as another problem for him to solve. Walter's already under pressure to produce a new children's book idea for the company.

Meanwhile, Buddy falls for a department store employee (Zooey Deschanel), who can sing a wonderful rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

Very few comedies make me laugh out loud. That might be a reason why I avoid them or show very little interest in them. But Elf makes me laugh. It's filled with clever one-liners and ridiculously absurd scenes. The film is also surprisingly touching; it's almost a coming-of-age, search-for-identity film, disguised in red-and-green wrapping paper.

Caan embodies a disgruntled modern Scrooge terrifically. The character doesn't call for ditzy comedy, but the way Caan delivers those cold-hearted lines is funny in its own chillingly sarcastic way.

While some may argue that Deschanel's deadpan deliveries and astounding indie chick quirkiness is not everyone's cup of tea, she is a damn good singer. She makes "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" sound like an essential for a Christmastime mixtape.

The arrival of an egocentric children's book author (Peter Dinklage) is a hilarious scene. Dinklage establishes how much of a fearless comedian he is, who can nearly overshadow Ferrell's overbearingly optimistic joker. In fact, Dinklage even beats up Ferrell's Buddy because of an unintentional insult Buddy makes. It's a scene that you expect to get old, but doesn't.

Elf fits into the Christmas film genre scheme perfectly. Christmas in New York. Ice skating at Rockefeller Center. Gimbels department store. Central Park. Mean corporate workaholics. Kickass Christmas soundtrack. It's a silly, endearing family movie. But that's not all there is to it.

Instead of being one big, sloppy continuation of cliches, the film is surprisingly original and warm--a quality that we don't see very much in the genre anymore. Yes, it is predictable, but it's the journey that matters. There is some sort of heart and good intentions to be found in Elf, underneath all those sparkling Christmas lights.

Time to make room for Elf...right next to Frank Capra's 1946 classic, It's a Wonderful Life. And no, that is not an exaggeration. Elf is, undeniably, a Christmas classic in the making. A-

Friday, December 11, 2009

Katharine Hepburn: the woman, the romantic

This entry was written for the Katharine Hepburn Blog-a-Thon over at Encore Entertainment.

On-screen, Katharine Hepburn epitomized independence, intelligence, and talent.

But off-screen, she was human, even a romantic. In Hepburn's autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life, I connected with an actress without a script in sight. Her autobiography may not be a literary masterpiece by any means, but it is achingly personal and extraordinarily touching.

Hepburn was often a fiesty spitfire on screen, yet her off-screen persona was merely a reflection of that. Deep down, she was just as vulnerable as the rest of us.

Hepburn grew up in an educated, progressive family. She was the first to discover her brother's dead body, presumably a suicide. After her divorce from her supportive husband, she felt a sense of guilt that she finally repaired towards the end of his life. She also had to overcome a tough "box office poison" phase, which ended with the success of classic romantic comedy, The Philadelphia Story.

Behind the scenes of Woman of the Year, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy fell in love. Tracy was married. The affair created quite a scandal, yet in Hepburn's autobiography, she didn't feel any sense of regret. It is widely understood that Tracy and Hepburn's romance was not perfect, but in her autobiography, Hepburn wanted to remember the affair the way she wanted it to remember it. Tracy was a complex man, but Hepburn saw him as her greatest object of affection. Like us, she wanted to believe that they were indeed soul mates.

While Me is far from a Hollywood tell-all, it is an engaging window into the life of one of the silver screen's most iconic, striking film stars and the industry she lived in. Hepburn may not have been the most eloquent writer, but I have a feeling that she was one helluva conversationalist.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The cute stalker or the dreamy coward? Take your pick.

Wow, Duckie is lurking in the shadows, just like a creepy stalker he actually is.

This entire post is a spoiler. So beware.

Love hurts. But you already knew that.

Yet that is precisely what Pretty in Pink is about. Duckie (Jon Cryer), Andie's (Molly Ringwald) sweet-faced, puppy-eyed best friend, is also deeply, deeply, deeply in love with her. He is so in love with her that he would ride his bike by her house everyday and pretty much stalk her at the record store where she works. But in the end, he loves her enough to let her go, so she can end up with the dreamy, popular Blane (Andrew McCarthy).

In the original ending, Duckie and Andie were together in the end. The test audience didn't like it and Ringwald didn't like it either. Ringwald confessed that she would have liked to see Duckie and Andie end up together if Robert Downey Jr. had played Duckie because she thought Downey was "cuter." Quite understandable.

The official ending has been the topic of much debate over the past twenty-three years (or at least IMDb makes it seem that way). I believe that most women, twenty-three years later, realized that, if they had the chance to go back in time, they would choose the "Duckie" of their high school lives, over the "Blane." Nothing screams love more than undying dedication, no matter how unnatural and creepy it is.

Unlike Andie, most women saw how Duckie has matured. He is finally able to let Andie go. They sympathized with him and loved him for his heroic act. Andie doesn't see those qualities in the same light.

But I'm still a teenage girl. To me, Andie's choice is completely justified. Compared to Duckie, Blane seems the more mature throughout. Blane is most likely not deliberately failing his classes or obsessing over her in a disturbingly prepubescent way. While Blane is a douche-slash-wimp, he genuinely cares for Andie. And Andie is completely infatuated with him. The heart wants what it wants. And let's face it: On a superficial level, McCarthy was a more handsome young man than Cryer was. McCarthy was certainly the dashing knight in a shining armor in every sense.

And for the short time I have been alive, I have only learned one important lesson about love the hard way: A person isn't the perfect match for you unless he/she loves you. (Everything else, I learned from the movies.)

Despite how accurate Pretty in Pink is, the film itself is still pretty mediocre. Those eighties John Hughes teen movies aren't clicking with me. The film is rather tedious. Ringwald is rather unlikable and difficult to connect with. I want to shoot Duckie in the face the entire time for being stalkerish and annoying. But hey, McCarthy is really, really dreamy every time he shows up on screen.

The central question remains: Who would you have chosen--Duckie or Blane--and why?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A movie that makes me want to hang out with friends--a rare phenomenon

St. Elmo's Fire | dir. Joel Schumacher | rel. 1985

Once in a while, I see a movie that is so obviously flawed, yet so completely endearing and lovable. I withdraw from the film's universe with a big, goofy smile on my face.

St. Elmo's Fire is that movie.

In the same breath, I would also like to point out that I never cared for The Breakfast Club, a film released in the same year as St. Elmo's Fire that, like St. Elmo's Fire, also featured prominent members of the "brat pack," a group of up-and-coming actors from the eighties. I wrote a review for The Breakfast Club several month ago, with the hope of re-reviewing it after I re-watch it with my English class. (The Breakfast Club was used as the cinematic companion piece to The Catcher in the Rye.) Well, my English class certainly loved it.

The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire are very different, despite the fact that they are both prominent "brat pack" movies and share several actors. The former is about high school and the latter is about post-college life. Because of their general classification, they are often compared to each other. The Breakfast Club usually wins the comparison battle.

If you would like to convince me that The Breakfast Club is indeed the greatest high school movie ever made, please feel free. For the time being, I would like to convince you that St. Elmo's Fire is the greatest movie about dumb people ever made.

St. Elmo's Fire is about a group of recent college graduates from Georgetown University. They struggle to come to terms with adult obstacles. Since the writers of this film naturally wondered why these drastically different people would ever be friends, they gave the audience the excuse that the characters really don't remember who met who first and why the hell they are even friends. It is just a fact that we have to accept. Director Joel Schumacher establishes this sense of warmth and trust between the characters that makes their friendships strangely believable.

The seven friends meet at St. Elmo's Bar & Restaurant and discuss their difficult lives. They ponder the meaning of life while they curiously venture into the world that would become their lives.

Alec (Judd Nelson) and Leslie (Ally Sheedy) are the golden couple of the group. Although he is a Democrat, Alec finds a higher-paying job with a Republican senator. Alec hopes that marrying Leslie would finally terminate his unfaithfulness. Leslie doesn't know about Alec's unfaithfulness, but she is still hesitant towards the idea of marriage.

Alec's best friend, Kevin (Andrew McCarthy), is an aspiring journalist without a byline. He's sensitive, yet pessimistic about love. Kevin is secretly in love with Leslie, but holds back his knowledge about Alec's unfaithfulness.

Kevin is roommates with Kirby (Emilio Estevez), who is attending law school. But he's willing to quit law school to become a doctor to impress Dale (Andie MacDowell), an older woman who he has been smitten with since his freshmen year at Georgetown. Kirby forms an almost stalkerish attachment to Dale and surprisingly, Dale doesn't seem to be scared.

Jules (Demi Moore) is the party girl of the group. She has a drug problem and her monthly paychecks aren't enough to fuel her high maintenance lifestyle.

Billy (Rob Lowe) is the frat boy of the group. He has a wife and baby, but he can't keep a job to support them. He plays the saxophone well, but it is a talent he doesn't seriously pursue. He is often irresponsible and unfaithful to his wife.

But Wendy (Mare Winningham), the virgin of the group, has faith in Billy. Wendy comes from a well-to-do family who is eager to see quit her social services job and get married to a good husband. Unfortunately for her family, Wendy has a crush on Billy. In return, Billy has an almost creepy interest in Wendy's virginity.

How do these people know each other? Who cares?

None of these characters are very smart people. But the point is, most young people are not smart. They can cheat on their girlfriends, hoping that marriage would solve all their problems. They can change their political party affiliation to get a higher-paying job. They can fall in love with their best friend's girlfriend. They can be compulsive liars and have drug problems. They can even stalk the woman they claim to love. They can even infatuate over a guy who probably isn't worth it. Or have a weird obsessive interest over their friend's virginity.

What do I know about what people can do and feel?

I do know that St. Elmo's Fire is a wonderfully entertaining movie. It is not a movie that captures realistic situations, but it is a movie that captures realistic emotions. When Kirby finally gets his romantic moment with Dale, I feel for his triumph. Or when Kevin confesses his love to Leslie. Or even in the dramatic scene where Leslie confesses to Alec why she refuses to marry him. I feel for these characters, no matter how inane they are.

I wasn't alive in the eighties, but St. Elmo's Fire epitomized what I knew about the eighties: horrible fashion, obnoxious hair, cheesy music (and what was up with Lowe's dangling earring?). But it was a decade that defined youth as we know it. Although some may credit the fifties for inventing the teenager, MTV, John Hughes, and the brat pack revolutionized what it meant to be a teenager. St. Elmo's Fire explores the aftermath of youth. No one can be angsty forever, yet they just want to hang on.

Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The truth about an ugly rom-com starring attractive people

The Ugly Truth | dir. Robert Luketic | rel. 2009

Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler are two fairly attractive people, but neither of them have enough charisma or charm to keep the formulaic engine of The Ugly Truth spinning.

The main downfall of The Ugly Truth is that it is too blindly ambitious. It desperately wants to be a cleverly risque romantic comedy. The writers (shockingly composed of three women) must have aspired to re-invent the romantic comedy genre, but that is impossible when they stay so much within the confines of the predictable pitfalls of the genre. What makes The Ugly Truth so offensive is not because its often raunchy and distasteful humor, but how much it wants to be something more than a crowd-pleasing romantic comedy--and how it fails so miserably.

The Ugly Truth never goes beyond what its audience would expect, assuming that the average moviegoer has seen a conventional romantic comedy before, yet it teases its audience that it is breaking barriers by cracking some perverted one-liners. I've seen junior high boys make cleverer sex jokes than the ones in this script. A good adult romantic comedy understands the usefulness of subtlety. Unfortunately, The Ugly Truth is far from good.

Heigl stars as Abby Richter, a control freak workaholic and producer of a local Sacramento morning news show. Ratings are down, so the show hires Mike Chadway (Butler), a misogynist creep who hosts a show called "The Ugly Truth," much to Abby's dismay. Mike is a relationship expert who passes sexist comments as relationship advice. But no matter how insanely offensive Mike is, the ratings for Abby's news show are increasing. People like to watch the outrageous unfold.

Although Abby disapproves of Mike's superficial outlook on love (and of course, lust), Abby seeks Mike's help to snag her the perfect man (Eric Winter).

I have to admit that the film does have a clever set-up that could have worked as a decent television satire, but the writers try so hard to be vulgar and outrageous, like Mike's show, that it's difficult to care about the more human side to the characters. It's a classic battle of the sexes scenario, but boy, has Hollywood seen better days.

The film has an annoyingly perky supporting cast that aren't even worth mentioning because of the unfortunate material they have to work with. None of them are very funny, nor does the script allows them to be very funny. The humor the supporting cast is equipped with are so ridiculously stupid that for the writers to expect its audience to laugh is offensive and demeaning.

The "romance" that eventually blooms between Abby and Mike is not only predictable, but it just doesn't work. Abby realizes that Mike is, deep down, a hopeless romantic and a decent man who wants to be a good role model for his teenage nephew. But does that excuse him from being a frustrating jerk and enforcing every over-the-top male stereotype? And Mike realizes that Abby is actually quite endearing and falls in love with her flaws, but unfortunately, that doesn't make Abby more likable to the audience.

There is no question that Heigl aspires to be the next romantic comedy star, but she doesn't have the "it" quality that is so apparent in Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, and Sandra Bullock. Men might like her because she's easy on the eyes, but she doesn't have the instant approachability that women often seek for in leading ladies. Heigl lacks warmth. And for her, comedy seems to be a relatively unnatural reflex.

Gerard, on the other hand, wants to be in romantic comedies as much as Humphrey Bogart did. But the genre just doesn't fit him. He knows how to let loose, but I don't know if that's enough. And the next time he tries to play an American, he should work on his American accent.

I will admit, I laughed once or twice during The Ugly Truth, but I pitied the film's desire to be so outlandishly different, but so unable to break out of any confine. The only reason that anyone should want to watch such a formulaic movie is because they genuinely want to spend 90 minutes with two likable characters, in hopes that they would fall in love in the end. Abby and Mike do not that fit that bill.

You'll be better off watching The Proposal.

Rating: 3/10

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I Want These Things To Happen In My Life

I want...

my younger self to visit me
(This film is so underrated. And I prefer Bruce Willis in non-action genre roles.)

to see my future
(Jennifer Garner is awesome.)

to become my older self in the present
(Is it just me, or does Tom Hanks look kind of pervy in Big? Or just in the movie poster?)

a long-lost twin
(Because I grew up with Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen in my life.)
(Because Lindsay Lohan successfully tricked me into thinking that her roles were played by actual twins.)

a body-swapping experience
(Probably not with any of my family members, though)

a "what if" scenario played out in my dream so I could see what could have been
(Every time I watch this movie, I end up on the brink of tears. Thanks for the emotional manipulation, Nicolas Cage & Co.)

another "what if" scenario so I can appreciate my own existence
(Because this movie is as welcoming as a warm fire place and hot chocolate.) matter how sentimental the experience might be.

I haven't seen 17 Again yet, but I kind of want to be my younger self in the present too. Maybe the actual viewing of the film would change my mind.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Casablanca improves as time goes by

Casablanca | dir. Michael Curtiz | rel. 1942

Film class is warming up. I'm still barely learning anything, other than some mildly interesting Hollywood gossip, but the quality of the films we watch have significantly improved.

After completely destroying the thirties for me in a matter of a few short weeks, my class delved into the forties. And boy, were things different. Great films, such as Gaslight and It's a Wonderful Life, entered my existence.

A perfect film, Casablanca, was rediscovered. I finally learned how to appreciate one of the most iconic classics of all-time.

I was thirteen when I first saw Casablanca. I thought it was decent, but I was barely paying attention. I was probably daydreaming throughout the entire film. I probably wouldn't have been able to summarize the plot for you back then if you asked.

There is just something about Casablanca. It just doesn't hit you that the film isn't really filmed in Casablanca. Or that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are far from the picture-perfect Hollywood movie couple. Or that the plot itself is somewhat outlandish and coincidental.

Casablanca is like a great Shakespeare play: things don't seem absolutely logical or perfect, but there are just some great moments that cements itself in your mind forever; all those little things create this amazing whole.

Casablanca is a truly timeless film. It's as simple as that.

World War II has been portrayed on film countless times since 1942, the year Casablanca was released. The setting of Casablanca, a place where refugees once passed by in hopes of obtaining visas to travel to America, is exotic, intriguing, mysterious, and foreign.

An audience also loves a sentimental, tragic hero. Always have, always will. We all have this instinct to side with the underdog, especially when the underdog is a glorious cinematic character. Bogart's Rick Blaine fits the description perfectly.

Add a beautiful woman, a long-lost Parisian romance, a bar full of intrigue, several sentimentalists, some great, boozy jazz music--and you have a complete marvel of a film.

If you think Casablanca is a cinematic atrocity and feel no reason to reconsider, I have nothing to say to you. If you don't remember Casablanca being a great film, I urge you to reconsider. If you have never seen Casablanca, I urge you to see it now.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Out of Bedford Falls, into modern day cynicism

I was eleven years old when I saw my first black and white film in its entirety. The film was It's a Wonderful Life. I was able to catch the annual NBC broadcast that year and I was fully blown away by Frank Capra's sentimental ode to the precious gift called life.

Even then, I somewhat related to James Stewart's underdog hero, George Bailey. I wanted to get the hell out of the suburbs--which may or may not be worse than the film's little piece of Americana, Bedford Falls--and seek greater things. Like most pre-teen girls, I wanted to be famous, important--anything but an ordinary person. At the same time, I couldn't shake off the connection I had for the suburbs. It was my home, a place that I was familiar with.

It's a Wonderful Life became a holiday "home" for me. Every time I watched it, I felt like I was revisiting a lovely old friend. Watching it in the middle of October was no different.

After enduring the ridiculous crappiness of Sergeant York and Boys Town in my BS high school film class, It's a Wonderful Life felt like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I don't care if I wasn't going to learn anything new, I was just grateful that I was going to watch a movie that I knew I was going to enjoy.

Being the cynic I am, I realize that it was completely ridiculous that Bedford Falls would be so different without George. I don't think that if George never married the sweetly radiant Mary (Donna Reed), she would become an old maid and librarian. I don't think Mrs. Bailey would turn into such a stern-faced lady either just because her darling son George doesn't exist.

But I understand Capra's point that every individual's life has the power to impact the world. It's fueled with the kind of optimism that modern audience, like myself, have to struggle to accept.

Then rolled in the happy ending: George's friends helps him raise the $8000 the villainous Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) stole; the Building and Loans can continue its hopeful existence. A bell rings and our favorite second-class angel, Clarence gets his wings. Merry Christmas to all.

It was my fifth viewing. I didn't think I was going to once again shed some tears.

I wonder if this kind of heartstrings-pulling, tearjerking optimism can ever work in a modern film. I'm not even sure if it quite works with a modern audience. My classmate told me he thought the ending of It's a Wonderful Life is silly and emotionally manipulative.

Critics and audiences complain that "happy endings" in modern films are cliched, sentimental, and trite. Modern romantic comedies with happy endings are often considered dumb and uncharming (and the truth is, many are). Serious filmmakers tend to avoid making those kind of films. Steven Spielberg attempted to revive the spirit of classic romantic comedies and underdog stories with The Terminal several years back. I think I was the only person who enjoyed it.

Is this generation so pessimistic to the point that we can rarely appreciate a winning hero and a losing villain? So how long will it be until amgiuous, unsatisfying endings become a tired fad in so-called "quality" films?

I understand that relentless originality is in demand. The era for Capra-esque films are long gone. But there are some people who still want to see a great film about the victorious underdogs or a couple who ends up together in the end of the film. I want to see another Forrest Gump (I know some people feel otherwise) or another When Harry Met Sally. I'm not asking for more silly, ditzy feel-good flicks, but I'm asking for the kind with a genuine heart at its core.

Happy endings don't have to be crap, if that makes any sense...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Film class blues

I haven't blogged here in quite a while. Maybe it's because I'm busy. Or maybe it's because I just haven't felt like blogging in a very long time. But I feel like venting a little, so bear with me here.

I just wanted everyone to know that the class entitled "Film of the 20th Century" at my school is useless. I would know this because it's part of my daily academic schedule. It is the most mind-numbing, ridiculous class I've ever taken.

We sit there and watch movies, but we never really discuss anything. We have tests about the actors in the movies and the scandals the actors were involved in. Of course, classic Hollywood scandals are fun to hear about, but they're not really beneficial in appreciating the art of film.

There is sort of this ongoing "joke" in that class, though. Well, I guess I'm the only person who finds it remotely hilarious.

Instead of watching actual Charlie Chaplin and James Dean movies, we watch movies based on their life. Although I'm not complaining--watching Robert Downey Jr. and James Franco play Chaplin and Dean, respectively wasn't too horrible; at least I wasn't watching Jennifer Love Hewitt play Audrey Hepburn--I think it would make more sense if we actually watched some Chaplin and Dean movies.

All we've done is watched this Chaplin short film and five minutes of East of Eden. Come on...

It's not really the "20th century," by the way. It's more like, "the 20th century starting from the 1930s." We've watched sentimental pieces of mush, such as Boys Town and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. We've watched the mildly amusing and funny My Man Godfrey. We watched a mediocre gangster flick, The Public Enemy. And we watched the fairly epic (for its time), King Kong.

Now we're in the 1940s, and we're in the middle of a fairly boring film called Sergeant York. At the end of this film, I'm supposed to think Gary Cooper is awesome, but I think High Noon would've been a better example of Cooper's acting abilities.

So how is everyone doing?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Bring film criticism back to the nerds, yeah!

I tend to be slow when it comes to news of great personal importance. If it doesn't air on CNN or show up on the Twitter pages I follow, I have no idea that it happened.

When I read this, I wanted to make a post about this, even if blogs all over the web have already had their say. Being a lifelong fan of At the Movies since the Ebert & Roeper days (and then watching pioneers, Siskel and Ebert battle it out on the web archives), this piece of news interested me greatly.

I made my monthly Internet trip to Stop Ben Lyons! yesterday and nearly died of extreme happiness. Disgraced film critic, Ben Lyons was recently fired from At the Movies, along with his co-host, Ben Mankiewicz.

Lyons is the son of film critic, Jeffrey Lyons. Before his stint on At the Movies, Lyons made frequent guest appearances on his father's film criticism show, Reel Talk, which was canceled earlier this year. Obvious nepotism aside, he eventually became the supposed "movie expert" of E! Entertainment and wrote a column for E! Online called "The Lyons Den." In recent years, he is infamously known as the joke who referred to I Am Legend "the greatest movie ever made."

Last year, ABC hired Lyons and Mankiewicz in hopes of taking the TV icon of film criticism, At the Movies in a new direction, or most importantly, to attract younger viewers. Mankiewicz, grandson of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane) and grandnephew of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Cleopatra, All About Eve), was previously known from his introductions of classic films and cartoon shorts on Turner Classic Movies and as co-host the talk radio show, The Young Turks.

Ratings for At the Movies dropped by 23% during the 2008-2009 season. Many placed the blame on the new set (instead of the traditional balcony, they had a very un-cinematic high-def TV screen), the lousy music, and the critics' round-up (which I admittedly liked, and was disappointed to see it fizzle out), but mostly, the show's two critics had to carry most of the malicious burden--especially Lyons. Sites and articles criticizing Lyons populated the Internet, such as Stop Ben Lyons!, Criticwatch's Ben Lyons Quote of the Week, and Roger [Ebert's] Little Rule Book.

On August 5th, it was announced that ABC made the wise decision (that they didn't make last year) to replace Lyons and Mankiewicz with A.O. Scott of The New York Times and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, both of whom filled in, rather fantastically, as Richard Roeper's co-host during Ebert's absence from the show.

Who said free speech is dead? I'm sure the constant attacks had something to do with the inevitable axing of Lyons.

I'm not someone who likes to see people fail. I was actually hoping that Lyons would become a better film critic as time passed, but it never happened. He constantly had that ridiculous smirk on his face and felt a neccessity to praise the most obscure actors in a movie. It seemed like he never recovered from his controversial decision to place the Twilight trailer on his "3 To See" list earlier in the season. I initially thought it would be fun to watch Lyons week after week making strangely idiotic comments, but I could only suffer so much.

The things that Lyons have been criticized for are things that I might be guilty of doing at one point or another, so I do feel an iota of empathy for him. But then again, I don't get paid for making a fool out of myself on national TV while being considered by some as a legitimate film critic.

The new season is set to air on September 5th. And that is also when I will start watching At the Movies again. Scott and Phillips are both insightful, clever, and witty film critics. These two have the potential to create brilliant banter and I wish them all the best as the new hosts of At the Movies. This partnership has the potential to rival the good ol' days of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Just maybe...

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Low Presidential Approval Ratings on Film

W. | dir. Oliver Stone | rel. 2008 | 4/5
Nixon | dir. Oliver Stone | rel. 1995 | 5/5

I've always found tragic figures to be the most fascinating people of all. Winners have always bore me and always will. It's probably because I'm cynical product of an adolescence shadowed by unjust wars and a corrupt government where "winners" and "heroes" seem more relevant in fairy tales, not in Washington D.C.

Failures, at one point or another, wanted to be great, even heroic; they have been easily captivated by the heroic storybook image of the knight in the shining armor or the prince charming on his glorious white horse. Those images are often sold--a product, shamelessly marketed--that represents an almost unreachable dream that America has once promised. But these tragedies are truly provoked enormous ambitions, which usually provokes the final downfall.

Throughout the years, my disappointments and failures have easily eclipsed what many would consider moderate achievements. In a world of flaws, we have been taught that it is okay to be worth less than we really are; being the loser once in a while is only human. Failure builds characters; losers are the more complex characters in literature, anyway.

In director Oliver Stone's presidential biopics, W. and Nixon, Stone delves into the lives of two disgraced American presidents who couldn't be any more different from each other. Richard Nixon would have hated George W. Bush; Bush completely epitomized the silver spoon mentality that Nixon detested.

Being someone who lived through the fear, insecurity, and economic uncertainty of the Bush presidency, I was able to understand W. more than I did Nixon. Although Stone could have given the Bush presidency a more proper biopic treatment, W. is a fair attempt at portraying an unpopular president. It's a breezy, entertaining, and sympathetic look at a clueless, ex-frat bro POTUS, who really belonged on a living room couch, sipping beer and watching ESPN, not in the White House. Stone emphasized Bush's desire to impress his father as a motivation for his political ambitions, despite Bush's disinterest in the career, which does make Bush a more sympathetic, even tragic, figure in the film's context.

But no matter how great a performance Josh Brolin gives as a sympathetic Bush (the voice, the mannerisms--all spot-on), this does not excuse what Americans had to go through in the eight years of the Bush presidency. Unlike so many, I've never been under the impression that Bush was "stupid" or "clueless" about what was happening to his country. Yes, Bush may have been slightly manipulated by those around him--this film hints that Bush was just another pawn in VP Dick Cheney's (Richard Dreyfuss, delivering a terrific impersonatnion) empirical ambitions--but that never stopped him from doing what was beneficial to him and those who were close to him. Bush is not a brilliant politician by any means, but he barely blinked as his country crumbled.

On the surface, especially in interviews, Bush has given me an impression of a potentially fun uncle, a family man, a guy who enjoys a cold beer, football, and backyard barbeques. Brolin's performance and Stone's script almost embraces that idea; too often, we're convinced that Bush is just a regular Joe, not one of the worst presidents Americans have ever elected into office (and even that is questionable). But these are precisely the reasons that make Bush a fascinating subject for a biopic--he seems too much like the good guy to ever be the bad guy. Maybe he genuinely thought God wanted him to be president--who knows? I can't fall for every single bit of sympathy Stone wants his audience to feel, but I can understand where everything is coming from.

It's too early in the post-Bush Administration phase to fully care for W., but this film has the potential to have more worth over time. We'll just have to wait and see.

Since Stone's Nixon was released more than twenty years after disgraced president Richard Nixon resigned, the film was able to allow more time for history to reflect itself than W. allowed (W. was released when Bush was still in office). While watching Nixon, I was reminded what Roger Ebert wrote in his Frost/Nixon review: "Nixon was thought to have been destroyed by Watergate and interred by the Frost interviews. But wouldn't you trade him in a second for Bush?" My sentiments, exactly.

It seems like Nixon will never be forgiven for Watergate. At the time, he was the only president who has ever been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Presidents before him have performed even more outrageous tactics, but they had more charm, charisma, and magnetism than Nixon ever possessed. Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Nixon insists that the president was a decent man who was hated by his people. And once again, Stone plays the sympathy card.

I was born long after Nixon's presidency ended. This lessens my ability to have strong opinions on Nixon. I don't really know anything about Nixon, other than what I've learned from history class and what I've seen in short news footage. There are people who think Nixon did an excellent job with foreign policy (with help from Henry Kissinger, here played magnificently by Paul Sorvino) and there are people who could never forgive him for the cover-ups that led to the inevitable Watergate scandal.

But since I did not live through Nixon's presidency, I was allowed to view Nixon the way Stone wants his audience to see his subject: I saw Nixon as a tragic Shakespearean figure that nearly equals the sympathy I had for the fictional Michael Corleone. He only wanted his family to be proud of him and his wife (Joan Allen) to support him. It made me wonder: Would a viewer who has never lived through the Bush presidency feel the same way about W. and Bush himself?

I tend to have the same sympathies for fallen greatness as Stone does for Bush and Nixon. I feel a great amount of compassion for those who have been disgraced by the public and have been labeled legitimate failures by the media. It is with this attitude that I find Bush, Nixon, Pierce, and other presidential failures far more intriguing than Kennedy, Washington, Clinton or Jefferson ever will be--maybe with the exception of Lincoln because that's a "winner" with multitudes of complexities and contradictions.

Second chances aren't easily attained. Most publicly humiliated failures evaporate forever. What also evaporates is their shot at greatness. Instead, things unfold differently. Tragedies often happen to people who have the potential to be great.

W. is a flawed film. It has choppy editing. It falls into the annoyingly shaky camera pitfall. The film feels a little incomplete at times, like it's missing several scenes. Sometimes the film wants to be a satire, sometimes it want to be a serious biopic. There are moments where I feel like I was watching a SNL skit with a higher budget. But I enjoyed the film immensely; I was finally watching a film that highlighted a period of history that I lived through.

In comparison, Nixon is the far more ambitious film and the better-made film, by miles. Stone returns to black-and-white flashbacks technique that he used in the Oswald flashbacks in JFK. Hopkins doesn't look like the Nixon I remember from the photographs, but he brings a certain warmth to the man, which many seem to find inaccurate to the former president's character--I found it all too appropriate. If I had to sit through a three-hour film about any character, I have to feel a connection to the character. So if that means Hopkins had to soften Nixon a bit, I'm all for it. Hopkins' delivery of Nixon's farewell speech may be the most touching moment I've ever seen in any film and I do not think if that moment would be as effective if Hopkins portrayed Nixon as a calculating, heartless crook throughout.

Because Stone and I seem to be kindred spirits on the subject of tragic public figures, I gladly applaud the director's ambitious visions to capture what may have occurred behind closed doors and to find the missing pieces of the puzzles to these somewhat misunderstood men.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Headline News

It's past midnight and I can't sleep. So, random question: What is your favorite political film(s) and why?

This would make a splendid blog-a-thon. Considering how amazing this idea is, I wouldn't be surprised if someone has already given it a whirl.

I ponder this question because I just recently watched Oliver Stone's latest biopic, W. and since I'm a casual Stone fan, I liked it quite a lot. I was expecting an over-the-top SNL-esque dramedy, but I was surprised by its serious yet sympathetic approach to a disgraced president.

I'm watching Stone's Nixon this weekend. I still don't think Anthony Hopkins looks anything like Richard Nixon, but seeing how everyone loves the performance and considering how it's Anthony Hopkins and all, my expectations are still fairly high.

Expect reviews for W. and/or Nixon. Possibly. Or I might be too busy mourning summer's inevitable end.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Divorces happen, get over it

Fireproof | dir. Alex Kentrick | rel. 2008 | 2.5/5

I try not to reveal details about my more personal life on this blog, but since the film that I'm about to discuss does touch upon a certain detail about my faith, the subject seems appropriate.

I'm a self-described on-again, off-again Christian. For the past few years, I've been a little more like Gandhi when it comes to Christianity; Gandhi once said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

I've been going back to church in the past few months in hopes of well, improving my life one way or another, and honestly, I've never felt so isolated, lonely, and frustrated in my entire life. The people there are certainly nice, but they all go to the same schools, have the same interests, and I can't seem to connect to them on a more friendly, personal level. I don't know if it's because I'm such a hard shell to crack or I just hate hiking, camping, and attending dinner parties with people I don't feel completely comfortable with.

I think what I'm trying to say is that I've associated with Christians for my entire life. The ones who aren't crazy are generally nice people who just want everyone to be friends and love each other. The ones that are crazy think Bush is a great president just because Bush claims that he loves God. My own mom is a devoted, socially conservative Christian and I love her, despite our differences.

But ultra-conservative Christians can't seem to keep up with the modern world. Things change, and sometimes I wish The Bible is as open to interpretation as the United States Constitution. Many Christians don't think so, although what they believe is what they believe. They have the right to exercise their freedoms and no one has to force them to change their minds.

Although we can all appeal to them and beg them to reconsider--and we'll have to do that again and again. They're a tough crowd...

I'm not trying to tackle any of the star controversial issue (gay marriage, abortion) but something much simpler: divorce. Yes, divorce. I don't understand why divorce is so wrong in the grand scheme of things. There is actually a small snippet in the Book of Matthews that discusses how horrible divorce is and I simply don't understand. My parents were divorced when I was very young and I've always thought it was rather fitting. I guess it would've been nice if I were raised in a nice, happy family, but shit happens--not just in my life, but in stormy marriages that were just not meant to last.

This brings me to the church-funded movie, Fireproof, a piece of Christian propaganda opposing divorce. It's about a married couple played by Kirk Cameron (yes, the kid from Growing Pains) and Erin Bethea who just fight all the time about the most stupidest of things; the wife complains that the husband's always looking at dirty images on the Internet and saving up for a boat they don't need when they could be using the money for repainting the back door and the husband complains that the wife nags too much about everything.

So it obviously seems that this couple are headed for a divorce. The wife is the PR of a local hospital and she is even being wooed by a nice doctor--so why bother staying in an awful marriage to a constantly pissed off firefighter? But the husband's father comes to the save the day by putting the husband on a "love dare"--a project that will save the marriage. The project puts the husband on a 40-day (lol why couldn't they name Kirk Cameron's character Noah?) journey of tips on how to save the marriage. Tips include not saying negative things, doing nice things, planning a nice dinner, etc. for each of the forty days. After a magical talk with his father, the husband immediately converts to Christianity. It's nice how miracles work.

Having the husband as a dedicated firefighter allows the writers of this film to include some horrible analogies of the responsibilities of a firefighter and the responsibilities of a spouse. And they are all relentlessly cheesy and lame. Halfway through this movie, My Mom The Christian actually turned to me and said, "This movie is a lot like a Hallmark movie," a genre that we've often made fun of since our viewing of Loving Leah.

But what bothers me about my mom and the bulk of Christians (even more than the fact that they think God wanted Bush to be president) is that they think a movie is immediately 200% more awesome if God is somehow positively involved in the plot as the central moral compass. There are some great movies where God plays a positive role, such as The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings, but why must they flock the theaters to witness something as meritless and lame as Fireproof?

I mean, it's not like Fireproof was directed by God, anyway.

Fireproof offers nothing refreshing about "saving" a marriage. It's an amateur, yet admirable, piece of filmmaking. The "admirable" part comes from the fact that it was made with a relatively low budget--but that's about it. The script is a Hallmark rip-off and the acting is stiff and laughable. The comedic moments are well, amusing, to say the least, but there is one scene that I can't get out of my mind...

There is this scene where the husband (I can't even bother to IMDb their names, so I'll just call him Kirk Cameron) is surfing the net and checking out boats (his fave hobby) and this random ad with this girl pops up on screen with the words "Wanna See?" underneath. Since he's a fan of pornography, he has this amazing internal struggle. He walks away from the computer, opens his "love dare" book and it says that he has to resist temptations such as pornography. So Kirk Cameron has no idea what to do.


As you can probably tell, I LOVE this scene. I couldn't stop laughing. It's probably THE funniest scene I've ever seen. I mean, he could've saved the computers to download Christian rock songs and sermons off the Internet but NO he chose to annihilate his entire computer!!!

Watch the entire moral dilemma unfold here:

I think I actually wrote everything preceding this video just because I wanted to build up to the climatic moment that IS THIS VIDEO. The entire scene is actually more hilarious (with the neighbors watching) but this video really builds up all the intensity that makes the scene awesomely...bad and amazing at the same time. Because it's unlikely I'll find anything funnier than this.

Anyway, I think I kind of love Fireproof the same way I kind of love the "Bet On It" scene in High School Musical 2. Fireproof reminds me of the videos I had to watch in my freshmen year health class. It's an uncomfortable film to sit through, has way too many random montages set to random Christian rock songs, and it doesn't enlighten its audience with anything new. The Kendricks Bros. (who also made two other Christian-centric movies) probably had their heart in the right place, but this film is so cliched-muddled, lame, unintentionally hilarious, and to top it off, a message that is so backwards, that no scene ever feels truly genuine.

Even as the end credits roll, I still believe that well, DIVORCES HAPPEN, GET OVER IT.

But this film is so funny...I just CAN'T GIVE IT A BAD RATING. So I'm just going to do some sort of a weird breakdown:


Okay, that brings my total down to a 6.5/10...pretty impressive (a 2.5 on the 5 star scale). Anyway, I kind of want to watch this movie for my next hypothetical slumber party. I would love to do a commentary throughout this movie because that's all I did last summer on AIM with my friend with the "Bet On It" Youtube video.

So anyway...why am I so lame again?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Potter Battles Dark Forces and Teenage Hormones

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince | dir. David Yates | rel. 2009 | 4/5

I wouldn't call myself a die-hard Harry Potter fan. I read the books. I watched the movies. I grew up with Harry Potter, so there's no point avoiding a phenomenon.

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has always been my least favorite out of the seven-book series. The novel dragged on with boring details of ridiculous teenage relationship drama, lightly sprinkled with more engaging darker moments. Reading the book was a frustrating experience for me because I kept wanting to know more about Tom Riddle's (who later became the powerful, yet villainous wizard, Voldemort) past and the mysterious Half-Blood Prince, whose old Potions textbook shows his brilliance.

I didn't care for the sudden romance between Harry and his best friend's boring, charmless (and according to the book, she seemed slutty, too) little sister, Ginny, or how the witty, intelligent Hermione was overcome with jealousy over Ron's new girlfriend. I realize that this is all high school a la Hogwarts, but there is nothing I love more than a little bit of drama (proven by my week-long obsession with Gossip Girl). I blame Rowling's inability to make me care about any of the relationships.

But the tender romantic moments translated well on-screen. The director, David Yates, and the screenwriter, Steve Kloves, clearly knows how to make me care about the raging hormones of these teenage characters more than Rowling does. Sometimes less is more.

Let me just say it: The movie is better than the book. I think I just flipped off a bunch of Harry Potter purists by saying that, but this is my opinion and I'm going to stand by it. I realize that this movie can be confusing without reading the book (according to my mom), but it does stand very well on its own. It shaves off the more uninteresting parts of the book and even if it did shave off some integral parts, I don't remember. It surely didn't affect the movie. I haven't read this book in at least three years. Too bad I don't have photographic memory.

The first part of the film can be best described as a charming and funny romantic-comedy, with signs of impending doom. The second part is darker and full of suspense. The change in tone is gradual, and because of what the earlier scenes masterfully hinted, the change is well, inevitable. Dark times have always been a norm in poor (and extremely lucky) Harry Potter's life. Being the chosen one isn't easy sometimes.

Adventures undoubtedly lie ahead for Harry in his sixth year at Hogwarts. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) wants to know what his nemesis, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), is up to. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) wants Harry to get close to the new Potions professor, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), who once taught Tom Riddle (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin) and may have slipped some information of dark magic that Tom, now Voldemort, found useful; Dumbledore wants Harry to find out what that piece of information is. Harry also finds a Potions book that makes him seem like the Potions Master he never was, but the book's mysterious origins, being the property of the "Half-Blood Prince," triggers some curiosity.

But Harry still wants to be a regular teenager and hang out with his friends--an internal battle that seems to be continuously fought and continuously lost. No matter how disturbing this may seem to Harry's best friend, Ron (Rupert Grint), Harry is infatuated with Ron's little sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright), who has suddenly gotten more attractive (in context). Ron is facing his own battles with the flirtacious Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) but ignorant of Heremione's (Emma Watson) love for him.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Harry Potter movie without the incredible cast of British actors. Over the years, a Harry Potter movie has become a sort of showcase of Britain's finest actors. Broadbent joins the cast as Slughorn, a suck-up to pure brilliance and greatness, but fearful to evil and menace. Broadbent is hilarious, especially in a scene where he holds a small party with his favorite students in his office and questions Hermione about her muggle (mortal) parents' occupation as dentists, but the performance never fails to show the human qualities in Slughorn.

Helena Bonham Carter returns as Bellatrix Lestrange, one of Voldemort's most trusted minions, in a truly terrifying, insane, and devilish performance, with her wild hair and full witch attire. Alan Rickman is again, a scene-stealer, as a the morally ambiguous and fascinating Professor Severus Snape, who seems more like an enemy than a friend at times--or somewhere in-between. Gambon reprises his role as Dumbledore and continues to mentor young Harry, as the boy wizard tries to understand the often dangerous, yet magical world around him.

The young actors are decent in their roles. I've gotten so used to Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint as their characters that there is no use for me to complain. Although Radcliffe can be as bland as a piece of paper as Harry, there are scenes when he brings a genuine sense of warmth and humor to his performance--and I can only wish that happens all the time. As supporting players, Grint delivers dependable comedic relief when he comes under the spell of a love potion and Watson injects her usual girlish charm in her performance. (And I'm still kind of wishin' Harry and Hermione would have ended up together! The chemistry between Radcliffe and Watson is still terrific.) Wright, as the love interest, is wooden, missing the small spark of spunk she seemed to have in the previous installment. There is also Evanna Lynch, who plays a Luna Lovegood so dreamily in-the-clouds that it is impossible to fall in love with the character all over again.

But out of all the younger actors, it is Tom Felton who delivers the most outstanding performance. I've never really gotten the appeal of Malfoy, or Felton's Malfoy, for that matter. Malfoy is simply a pathetic boy who acts tough. But in this film, Felton makes Malfoy more human and vulnerable than ever. Felton's Malfoy wants to show that he has what it takes to impress Voldemort, but he doesn't realize the price he has to pay. At heart, he's innocent, spoiled, and amazingly pathetic--and I don't know whether to laugh or sympathize with the poor kid. As Felton's Malfoy stood there, with a wand in his hand--shaking, crying, threatening--I finally cared about him. In short, Felton manages to bring more complexity and internal conflicts to Malfoy than I could have ever imagined.

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel magnificently mixes lush tones to the film--shades of grey, blue, green adds a certain beauty to Rowling's universe. I didn't expect anything less from someone who has also photographed Amelie, one of the most gorgeous-looking films I've ever seen. The special/visual effects are, like many of the predecessors (perhaps with the exception of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), fantastically breathtaking.

The Half-Blood Prince is an immensely entertaining film. Clocking at about 2hrs and a half, it managed to keep the kids tight in their theater seats and relatively silent. It may not be the best film in the series (that award goes to the action/adventure-high Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), but it's dark, sinister, funny, tender, heartbreaking, and emotionally compelling. Being second best is not that bad, right?