Sunday, February 28, 2010

If you want to be freaks, be freaks...

Nope, it's not Benjamin Braddock and Mrs. Robinson. It's Harold and Maude.

There are some films that I simply don't like. They leave a bad taste in my mouth. This happens when I don't like the characters and their motives or the general message of the film. Harold and Maude happens to be one of those films.

Yes, it's a beloved cult classic. If it were made today, it would probably premiere at Sundance and star big-name indie cred actors, such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Patricia Clarkson, though I would like to think that any young man who can win a date with someone as gorgeous as Patricia Clarkson is extraordinarily lucky.

Harold and Maude has been compared to The Graduate, which is an unfair comparison, considering how superior The Graduate really is. The Graduate captures a time and place and a satirical mentality disguised by understandable human emotions. There hasn't been a film quite like The Graduate since its release back in 1967. The only comparable thing about those two films are their wonderful soundtracks; The Graduate had Simon & Garfunkel sing its existential blues and Harold and Maude had Cat Stevens sing its free-spirited hues.

That said, Harold and Maude is a film that doesn't know its purpose. Deep down, it wants to question life and death, yet it doesn't. Directed by Hal Ashby, who also directed Being There, a film I didn't particularly like either, Harold and Maude is another film that acknowledges confusion, desires, life, death, dreams, and despair, but it doesn't confront it. Instead, it prods along rather aimlessly.

The film chronicles the gentle friendship between twenty-something Harold and seventy-nine year-old Maude. Harold (Bud Cort) performs fake suicide acts (hanging, drowning, cutting his hand) to get his rich mother's attention. Maude (Ruth Gordon) is a free-spirited senior citizen who intends to live her life to fullest, which means stealing cars and posing nude for paintings. How odd! How quirky! Did I mention they meet at a funeral? Their relationship takes a romantic turn.

But the romance doesn't bother me. No, not at all. They seem like they genuinely care for each other, which is nice. Who am I to be against a loving relationship? What bothers me are the characters themselves. Harold is a two-dimensional, lovesick idiot who seems unwilling to actually do something with his life. He's just an unsympathetically spoiled, privileged kid.

Maude wants to live on the stealing other people's cars? What a good idea! I'm sure you can find so much fulfillment by doing that. Sure, she's lived an interesting life, but what she does as a hobby causes distress to many people. And no, driving dangerously is not funny. At all. I don't find little old ladies doing horrible things cute or likable, sorry.

And, of course, the stupid ending made me mentally roll my eyes and mumble, "Whatever." Sure, Vivian Pickles does great comedic work here as Harold's self-absorbed mother and the Cat Stevens soundtrack kicks major ass, but Harold and Maude is ridiculous on so many levels that it makes no sense why it has become a revered piece of cinema. C-

Sunday, February 14, 2010

I will share my byline with you

Someone on my journalism class discussion board posted this page of "Journo Valentines" from CJR that I found rather adorable.

How about, "You are the Tracy to my Hepburn" or "You are the Leigh to my Olivier" or any other famous screen couple? Or even, "You are the De Niro to my Scorsese" or "You are the Siskel to my Ebert." You know, all in good fun.

Whatever it may be...Valentine's Day, Single Awareness Day, or Lunar New Year, have a great day, everyone.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Art Imitates Life, Literally

Welcome to the anti-western. It's a sad, sad genre. No more glorious John Wayne justice around here.

I ask pointless questions all the time: "Where did you buy this?" "Why is the answer to number five 6.52?" "Why did Pip end up with Estella, even though she totally ruined his life?" It annoys many people around me. They accuse me of thinking too much into things that don't matter.

So obviously, this brings me to how I simply don't understand why McCabe & Mrs. Miller is such a revered film. This is what Roger Ebert had to say in his Great Movies entry:

Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971).

I am clearly missing something. I haven't seen many Altman films, but I guess I don't need to watch another one if McCabe & Mrs. Miller is as good as it gets.

So, I think the movie is about this gambler named McCabe (Warren Beatty)? And he ends up in the testosterone-ridden middle of nowhere? And he wants to open a saloon and whorehouse? And he becomes partners with a prostitute named Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) because she understands women better than McCabe does? And McCabe falls in love with her, but she cares more about her opium? And some men want to buy McCabe's property and he refuses and the men decides that it's time to kill McCabe because this is how justice works in the unestablished west?

Um, okay...

The film is blurry. I can't hear the conversations half the time. The actors mumble their lines. A billion conversations are going on in a single scene. And apparently, that was the point?

I do like the part where McCabe delivers that monologue where he confesses his feelings for Mrs. Miller. That's really a sweet, lovely moment, especially when he turns and looks at the whorehouse. Almost a little too hopefully sentimental for the film's desperately cynical atmosphere.

Beatty and Christie's performances are terrific in this film, I just don't care much for the world their characters inhabit. Christie is the perfect firecracker here, though I wish her character belonged in an entirely different world that isn't nearly as grim and depressing. And as for Beatty's McCabe, I wanted him to win at the end of the day. Even under all that beard, Beatty is still pretty darn charismatic.

I understand this is a "slice of life" picture. Yet I've seen documentaries more engaging than this film. When I see a movie, I want to see a movie. Not a lifeless portrait filled with too much Leonard Cohen at random intervals.

So enlighten me, please. Explain why McCabe & Mrs. Miller is "perfect," or close to perfect. Ebert had his say. Not even the film's IMDb page includes any disgruntled viewers to refute. C

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Nora Ephron and the Art of the 90s Romantic Comedy

Nora Ephron directs one of the most shamelessly happy endings on this side of the rainbow. And you can't stop her because it already happened.

Notice the obnoxiously pink aisle at your local grocery store? Yep, it's February. And yep, Valentine's Day is just around the corner.

And while it's the month where single women love to talk about how much they love being single, it's also the month where those single women rent An Affair to Remember against their better judgment. Or because Sleepless in Seattle told them that An Affair to Remember is the best movie of all-time. Little do they know, they would probably be better off watching Sleepless in Seattle.

Whenever I proclaim my love for 90s romantic comedies, I'm typically just thinking of Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. There are several rare occasions that I include Jerry Maguire, My Best Friend's Wedding, As Good As It Gets, Notting Hill, Much Ado About Nothing (credit goes to Shakespeare, though) and Sabrina in my statement, but most of the time, I'm just actively thinking about Nora Ephron's cinematic fairy tales.

On a side note, I do think Jerry Maguire is a better film (not necessarily a personal favorite, though) than both Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail combined, since it's deeper than mere fluff. It's not generic. It's cynical, frustrated, and absurdly authentic on an emotional level. It's not even on the same level as other 90s romantic comedies. So there is technically no comparison. While most people seem to hail Almost Famous as Cameron Crowe's magnum opus, Jerry Maguire strikes a chord with me that goes beyond any bright-eyed anthem about sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll.

I felt compelled to write this post because of my recent viewing of Joe Versus the Volcano and the numerous times I've recently encountered Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail on basic cable. While I am not favorable towards Tom Hanks and Meg Ryans' first cinematic outing, I've fallen head over heels over their adorable selves in their iconic films together. I don't have any particular purpose for this post, though I do think I want to comment on the current state of romantic comedies or how I don't mind generic romantic comedies or how awesome it is to randomly catch Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail on E! or Oxygen. This post may result into a pointless rant, so I apologize in advance.

Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail make me feel nostalgic. There are sentimental reasons behind my adoration for these films. They remind me of a time when I was 10 or 11 and I started keeping a notebook for movie reviews. I wrote about movies I watched on Saturday nights on television--most of the movies were 90s romantic comedies. Not my favorite genre, but certainly a genre I don't mind watching and talking about. There hasn't been a genre that has evolved so much, yet kept its roots firmly pressed with both formulaic storytelling and sometimes, unquestionable originality, if you know what I mean. It's a versatile genre that's constantly evolving in a billion directions.

Ephron is a pioneer in the constantly evolving sphere of romantic comedies. If she isn't now, she certainly was one. In 1989, she penned the fairly entertaining, adorable, and endearing Rob Reiner-directed romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally and her screenplay was soon nominated for an Academy Award. Several years later, her screenplay for Sleepless in Seattle was also nominated for an Academy Award.

Ephron has an incredible knack for making extremely witty, pleasant films. Don't scoff this talent--I highly doubt Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, who both possess legitimate filmmaking talent, can ever achieve, or even attempt, Ephron's feats. (Nor would they want to, but just sayin'.) Ephron's films are several steps away from pure fantasy, yet they are so grounded, in a this-can-happen-to-you kind of way. In addition, Ephron knows how to cast her films well. Her actors, often Hollywood superstars, can play characters with relatable human desires and emotions.

Take Meryl Streep in Ephron's most recent film, Julie & Julia, for example. Streep, a Hollywood superstar, plays Julia Child, a cooking superstar, as this strangely relatable woman who just wants to share her love for French cuisine to American housewives! Streep's Julia Child is determined and ambitious, just like the rest of us.

Ephron's cast of characters are simply people we just want to hang out with. The characters that inhabit Ephron's romantic comedy universe are often upper middle-class folks who are well-read, culturally informed, and rarely make their own coffee in the morning. If we weren't already like them, we wouldn't mind being them.

Back to Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. They are films that rely on a generic formula. You've Got Mail more so than Sleepless in Seattle. They are also films that are inspired by classic films, again, You've Got Mail more so than Sleepless in Seattle. You've Got Mail is essentially a modern update of The Shop Around the Corner while Sleepless in Seattle is a happy-go-lucky love letter to a rather depressing romantic tragedy, An Affair to Remember. My point is, 90s romantic comedies are, Ephron's films in particular, old-fashioned at heart.

Sleepless in Seattle is a dream with an ending that feels right. You've Got Mail skews to a point where it's almost dangerously cynical. But that's part of Ephron's charm. She's aware that the real world exists and she profoundly acknowledges it in an often hysterical and oddly insightful kind of way. These pieces of surreal realism may be why Ephron's films appeal more to my friends' mothers than my friends themselves.

This brings me to the current state of generic romantic comedies. While many recent romantic comedies succeed by skewing the standards of their genre, the generic ones suffer miserably. Conventions are comforting, but not when they feel like a 12-year-old girl's short story. I am not going to defend those films, though. Made of Honor is a slow-burning embarrassment that comes off as stupidly cute in its own moronic oblivion. The Ugly Truth is perhaps one of the worst movies of the past decade and it's a shame that it did not garner any Razzie recognition because it's a truly horrible, offensive film (more so than innocent Razzie nominees Obsessed or Hannah Montana: The Movie combined). Love Actually, though not an awful film, is awfully cavity-inducing. I am sure the list can go on.

Although I did enjoy Dan in Real Life for one reason or another that I can't even specify, I do think future filmmakers of the romantic comedy genre should turn to classic Hollywood for advice, especially those eager to make the generic type. Ephron did so, with excellent results. I'm not advocating mindless remakes, but I'm advocating the charm that was ever-so-present in the battle of the sexes between Hepburn and Tracy or the lovingly screwball antics between Hepburn and Grant or the clever back-and-forths between MacLaine and Lemmon. Charm is the key. Desperately hoping the two lovers will end up together is the key. Finding two stars who can act toe-to-toe with each other is the key. Being ridiculously chaste doesn't hurt either. Then there you have a fine, though perhaps overly conventional, romantic comedy. But formula can be awfully charming sometimes when done correctly, don't you think?

So remember the classics. Aside for Ephron's films, the Sabrina is a genuinely sweet remake of a 50s Billy Wilder romantic comedy, Everyone Says I Love You feels like a dreamy musical from the 40s or 50s, and Only You is probably loosely inspired by Roman Holiday.

This entry has has gone nowhere, though I do think I have expressed my thoughts in a modestly abstract rant, a mixed bag of sorts. It kind of makes no sense. I guess many can argue that Judd Apatow has done the world of generic romantic comedy genre some favors or how Juno (absurdly overrated) and (500) Days of Summer (a film that I have not seen?! so I can't really comment aside from what I've heard?) satisfied your indie hipster appetites, or how Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind really is a romantic comedy, despite the fact it's totally depressing (I've only read the script, strangely enough), or how 13 Going on 30 and The Proposal are awesome (and they're fun, I guess), but those films simply don't contain the same DNA as a typical 90s romantic comedy, though I might be just being notalgic and have gotten all my emotions terribly confused. Perhaps we should go forward and not back.

But for this Valentine's Day, I do encourage you all to rent Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail because they are fabulously fun films and the chemistry between Hanks and Ryan will not disappoint. These films will make you smile, a core quality that is necessary in every romantic comedy. But I'm sure you know that already. I remain optimistic about the future of romantic comedies, the generic ones in particular. Hollywood will continue making them and I trust that eventually, the genre would hit another jackpot. Or, better yet, Nora Ephron will return to the genre that she once dominated and surprise us all. Bewitched was a decent enough starting point.

If you would like to read an expert strut his stuff, A.O. Scott from The New York Times has written an excellent article about the current state of romantic comedies, A Fine Romance, My Friend, This Is, published in 2008. The article continues to be relevant and brilliant. While I was Googling for some Nora Ephron information, I stumbled across Kid in the Front Row's hilarious post about how awesome Nora Ephron is. So make sure to check 'em out.

And I would like to open a discussion: What are your favorite conventional romantic comedies (happy endings, etc.) of the past 30 years? What would you like to see in future romantic comedies?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Pandora, our new theme park attraction

Sam Worthington tries to convince me that Avatar is indeed better than Titanic and True Lies. No luck.

UC Riverside sent me an acceptance letter a few days ago. In addition, I received an endearing pop-up brochure of the different departments at the university.

Avatar in 3D is very much like that pop-up brochure. It's impressive for about five minutes, but then the fascination fades. But unlike that pop-up brochure, I can't just tuck it away. I still have to stay in the theater for two-and-a-half hours. I didn't pay $10 for nothing.

James Cameron is a master of cultural phenomenons. He hasn't been original since 1991, yet his films are hyped to a point where they're simply unavoidable. Case in point: Titanic and Avatar. But the difference is, Titanic is a better film, if only slightly. Avatar only proves that, with all the endless cinematic magic that can happen with modern technology, a film is nothing without a great story.

Avatar contains odds and ends of other stories. It's Pocahontas, Jurassic Park, Castle in the Sky, and Splash all rolled up in one big, blue package, though I would much rather watch any of those aforementioned films. Even as Avatar's credits rolls, a poor man's "My Heart Will Go On" begins to hum in the background.

So welcome to the future. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic and ex-marine who takes over his deceased brother's avatar since they share the same DNA and in return, Jake might get new legs. Disguised as the Na'vi (the natives of a planet named Pandora) in their avatar form, the humans are able to roam more freely in Pandora. The scientists, led by Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), hope to gain the trust of the Na'vi and study the biology of the planet. But Pandora also contains some sort of precious mineral that Earth needs in order to survive.

Jake thinks being an avatar is really cool! Without any formal training, he's surprisingly competent and comfortable in his new giant, blue body. Now he can walk! Feel the mud on his feet! And, well, fall in love with his Na'vi mentor, Poca--I mean, Neytiri (Zoe Saladana), who wants to kill him, until she finds out he has a strong heart--because some glowing plant organism told her so? I'm barely an expert on Earth botany, so I'm not going to bother to learn about the various supernatural-spiritual plant life on Pandora.

No matter. Jake is the chosen one. He befriends the Na'vi. When the humans decide it's time to destroy Pandora and get what they want, Jake goes into superhero mode and protects the Na'vi, and of course, the woman he loves. What follows is an unexciting series of action sequences. Just when one is about to end, another starts. And it goes on and on and on. Typical Hollywood.

There has been a lot of hurrah about the groundbreaking visual effects in Avatar. Sure, it's impressive, but 162 minutes is a lot of time to stay impressed. Lots of glowing flowers. The trees are kind of lovely. Cool CGI birds. The thought that the actors and their movements were eventually turned into the Na'vi is pretty awesome. Nice waterfalls. There is so much to look at, yet so little I held onto. Avatar feels like a forgettable, never-ending amusement park attraction.

While tech geeks might marvel at the dedication that went into Avatar's visual effects, I am a moviegoer. I don't like effects-driven films, but I still like to entertained, excited, enthralled, compelled, and captivated. I like a film that grabs my attention and never lets go. Avatar is not that film.

The most interesting aspect about Avatar, ironically, is when the film is not in Pandora. Weaver's tough gal scientist is an interesting character who should have had more screen time. She is the stereotypical no-nonsense genius but possesses a conscience that the power-hungry crooks are eager to ignore. The human characters (including Giovanni Ribisi and Michelle Rodriguez) are the film's most captivating bunch.

However, the script is weak. And while some might argue that Cameron's vision isn't about the script, the script should be the foundation for any film. To add insult to injury, Avatar is not fun. 3D doesn't elevate the movie-going experience at all. I don't think watching it in 2D would've made a big difference. While I did get a minor headache, it wasn't a major distraction. I was bored.

Here is a film that has already made box-office history. It may very well go on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. What a shame, then. I wished I loved it as much as everyone else did. C

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Prettiest (and Bitchiest) Girl in Town

"Hey, Timothy Bottoms, why do you look so much like Nick Jonas? You don't know about him? Well, he'll be famous in 40 years. But by then, you'll hardly care."

There are film performances that simply resonate with you. They are few and far between, but fortunately, they exist.

For me, one of those performances is Cybill Shepherd's pitch-perfect portrayal of an attention-whoring, shamelessly manipulative small-town rich girl, Jacy Farrow, in Peter Bogdanovich's sexually-fueled coming-of-age story, The Last Picture Show. You may have heard of it.

The Last Picture Show is essentially American Graffiti, with more despair, anxiety, and nudity. That statement might be a slight exaggeration, though. It's a film I hated when I first watched it when I was 14. But here's a suggestion: Don't watch The Last Picture Show if you're a typical 14 year old. You'll hardly care, if you were anything like me. You'll hardly "get" the film, though whether or not you "get" a film depends on your cognitive development. Wait a couple of years, anyway.

It's been several years since I first watched The Last Picture Show, and boy, I'm surprised how much I don't hate the film anymore. Just say the title: The Last Picture Show. It's a beautiful title, isn't it? All the credit goes to writer Larry McMurty. The title itself strikes full-speed nostalgia and longing. A love letter to yesteryear. But really, it's one helluva title.

Enter Anarene, Texas, 1951. It's a classic small town. Everyone knows who's who. Yet the roads are empty. Tumbleweeds roll. Teenagers occasionally drive up to the local cafe to catch a burger. Or meet their dates at the local picture show. The local cafe, pool hall, and cinema are all owned by Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson).

Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are best friends. Duane is dating Jacy (Shepherd), the prettiest girl in town. And of course, you really believe Jacy is the prettiest girl in town, despite her insane antics for attention and admiration. Shepherd illuminates the screen, like a black-and-white beauty. She's absolutely gorgeous. Even Sonny is smitten. Because Jacy is unavailable, Sonny begins an affair with the coach's wife (Cloris Leachman).

But back to Shepherd's performance. Even when I hated the film, I appreciated Shepherd's performance. Whenever the film's engines are about to slow down, Shepherd appears, prepared to steal the show. When Jacy tries to lose her virginity to Duane in the motel room, Shepherd voices her furstrations in such an anxious, funny, and uncomfortable way that I didn't know whether to laugh or cringe.

If portrayed by any other actress, Jacy would be just another snobby rich girl who toys with all the boys in town. But Shepherd makes Jacy something much more than that. Jacy is another insecure teenage girl. She wants approval from everyone she meets. She wants people to think she's fearless, even when she's not, as indicated by the pool party scene. Really, who doesn't want people to think they're the bee's knees? In a way, Shepherd even makes Jacy oddly relatable.

However, Jacy thinks that she can go through life with her looks--not an entirely universal concept, so, not so relatable--but she realizes that sometimes, the situation goes beyond mere looks. And that frustrates her because she almost feels vulnerable and worthless.

But that's what makes Shepherd's performance so admirable. Jacy is a queen bitch--an alluring one, indeed--yet there are so many emotional layers to dissect.

After the filming of The Last Picture Show, Shepherd got Bogdanovich (a doomed love affair) and Leachman won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. While Leachman was fine in the film (I have a feeling her last scene cemented her Oscar win), Shepherd pinched me on the shoulder whenever she showed up on screen. I know not everyone feels the same way as I do about Shepherd's performance, but it's a performance that seduced me. Shepherd should have been at least nominated. What a snub.

As for the film itself, it's rather slow. Sometimes I wonder why the town won't just go ahead and implode already. It's Edith Wharton's Starkfield without the snow. While it's beautifully shot in black-and-white, with a lovely soundtrack, the film is mostly character-driven--perhaps a little too character-driven. But Bogdanovich illustrates the feeling of desperation with just the right mood and tone. It's a feeling that is most proactive after the age of 14, trust me. Perhaps that's why I felt like I understood The Last Picture Show better in my second go-around.

But no matter. Watch The Last Picture Show for Shepherd's performance--along with Johnson, Leachman, Bridges, and Ellen Burstyn's performances. But mostly for Shepherd's. Because she's just pure electricity. Shepherd's Performance: A, The Last Picture Show: B