March 30, 2015

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Irvin Kershner, 1980
Continuing on to revisiting the second film of the Star Wars franchise. 2 down, 4 to go. Getting a little nervous finishing the originals and venturing on the originals. It should be said I have never seen the prequel films YET. So after all is said and done, it will be a journey of revisiting my past and taking a chance on a controversial trio of films that I never have given a chance to previously. There is a lot of hype surrounding The Empire Strikes Back, as it is widely considered the best film of the Star Wars franchise. This is understandable. A New Hope is basically a set-up piece for the Empire Strikes. By now you are already invested in the characters. And there is an eagerness after Hope concludes to see the continuation of the story because it leaves you hanging. But probably because there’s a sense of extensive detail to the Star Wars universe. You visit it and get wrapped up, don’t want to leave after the final credits roll, and want to go back there again. There is a level of engagement to these films that other franchises would love to have. Some have succeeded, but many have fallen short.

This is one of those beloved films that is truly difficult to criticize. Even reflecting on it now, what the hell is wrong with this film? Is it possible that this is a flawless movie? It’s undoubtedly one of the best sequels of all time. It takes the first film and builds upon it with its bigger budget, exactly what you want a sequel to do. With the Star Wars films in general, its the always entertaining classic battle of good vs. evil. But this film boldly breaks some of the conventional movie rules as well, in terms of challenging the good guy always wins concept. It’s refreshing to see an sci-fi/action film with some gray area. While A New Hope focused a bit more on Luke’s backstory and building his character (and really the good guys in general), Darth Vader has more of a presence in the second film and is more of a showcase of his unforgiving brutality. But between the set design, story, special effects, Empire is a timeless masterpiece. It only reinforces the fact that it’s a great idea to revisit this franchise, including this film specifically, years after seeing it for the first time. There’s new things to see, new things to appreciate. The classic light-saber battle may be in the depths of your brain, but let it come to the surface again. Come back to this one as an adult if you already haven’t, it’s worth it.

March 29, 2015

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

George Lucas, 1977
Making the decision to revisit The Star Wars franchise comes with some early thoughts. Is the franchise going to live up to the test of time? So often we go back to these films from our childhood, films that made an impact, and they just look horrendous. The special effects look campy, there’s bad acting, sometimes even the story itself seems elementary. And in my case, where it’s been 20 years since I’ve seen this film, those thoughts were certainly floating around in my head. First off, it’s actually a bit difficult to get the Star Wars films in your hands. Sure, you can go out and but the DVD’s at Best Buy or off of Amazon. But like most films nowadays, you can’t get that $4 rental from Amazon or iTunes. This is likely because negotiations are probably still going on pertaining to the digital release of the films. This will probably happen fairly soon seeing as Disney now owns the franchise. So we got the DVD from Netflix, put it in and pressed Play. The menu screen loads, and you hear that eternally familiar theme song.

The pacing of the story in the first film is really noticeable. There is a two hour window to squeeze in a lot of setup. George Lucas really does a fantastic job of keeping it moving along. In fact, damn. Watching “A New Hope” again really evokes a nostalgic feeling. George Lucas, what the fuck happened dude? This first film is really a masterpiece. The special effects are bafflingly good for 1977. The set design is elaborate, comprehensive, creative, innovative. The alien creatures, who clearly went on to influence every future Sci Fi film from The Fifth Element to Total Recall, are impressively constructed. This is a remarkable film that doesn’t necessarily feel like it was made 38 years ago. Did Lucas have this kind of foresight, where he knew that the air battle scene would look that good decades later? Even the light-sabers hold up. Sure, there are some of the dated effects like that electrical effect we see so much in films like Back to the Future or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but it feels excusable here. The only real criticism that can really made for this film is it feels like it lacks a certain occasional emotional component. Luke sees the incinerated bodies of his aunt and uncle outside of his home on Alderaan, and instead of grieving for a period of time he immediately departs his home planet to fight off the Imperial forces. Later, when Leia is reunited with her father who considered her lost and dead, there are no tears. But these are things that would likely slow things down, when it’s pretty important that the story moves forward.

March 14, 2015

Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kaufman, 2008

This is one of those films that after you process, it, it changes you. You want to tell your other movie-lover friends to go see it so you can gauge their reaction. They ask you “what’s it about?”. That’s the challenging task. “Okay, so it’s about a struggling playwright played by Philip Seymour Hoffman”. They reply “That’s it? That sounds kind of boring”. Your brain rattles, trying to come up with a better way to describe the film. “Okay, so it’s about a struggling playwright who works on an ambitious project after getting substantial funding and is able to recreate a miniature New York inside a massive warehouse that he purchases”. Closer. More descriptive, but no, that’s still not it. Maybe this is just another one of those films that you say “Just go see it.”

Synecdoche is one of those films sort of difficult to really discuss upon first viewing. It almost demands rewatching. The attention to detail, the exhausting carefulness that Kaufman clearly puts into his film. It’s one of those films that after looking back on it a few days later, there’s a dream-like quality to it. There is lingering imagery. Life and death. The fear of death, the neverending clinging to one’s mortality. Hypocondria, paranoia of being ill or falling ill. Parental pressures, the fear of losing your family or struggling to live without your family by your side. Career insecurities, self-doubt on the creative level. It’s also an examination of the American marriage, or at least a focus on a fading relationship. Complacency, marital boredom. Love lost, wandering eyes, jealousy. Kaufman is a genius when it comes to taking everyday life and completely manipulating it. Sometimes he is just toying with it slightly, with a minor hallucination. At others he is bending the world in different shapes and forms. He is an artist with a lot to say, and there’s not enough room in the massive warehouse to store it all. Hoffman’s Caden character is one of the more complex characters to come out of 21st century cinema. As he seems to grow more and more disconnected from reality, his artificial world seems to grow more elaborate. There are certainly people out there who will watch a film like this and pick it apart. It’s a complicated film. At times probably over-complicated. But that’s sort of what Kaufman has done with his screenwriting, so why would he not do the same thing while sitting in the directors’ chair? Nobody but Kaufman could conceivably make a movie quite like Synecdoche. He turns parts of upstate New York and New York City into an urban mind-field. The final result is some kind of surreal hybrid of Vanilla Sky, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. And who wouldn’t want that?

March 10, 2015


Denis Villeneuve, 2010
Every family has their secrets. The secrets can vary in severity. Some are innocent, like a mother that had gone on a momentary shoplifting excursion decades earlier. She lets it slip out over a dinner where she drank one too many glasses of wine with her college-aged kids. They all laugh about it, “oh mom!”. But some are more painful. Infidelity, buried under years of silence. Some are incomprehensible. Abuse, confinement, torture. Rarely are family secrets as brutal as the Marwan family secrets. Instead of discovering the secrets from their mother directly, they must learn about them from her last will and testament as her former employer / notary reads it all to them. Their mother was a woman that they appear to have never known fully, a woman that they struggled to understand. Daughter Jeanne is more restrained as she attempts to process it all, while twin brother Simon sits frustrated. Like most people, they assume the whole last will and testament process would be a rather efficient one. One where they could simply go through the typical procedure and get some closure and move on with their lives.

Their search for the newly discovered, unknown blood relatives leads them on an emotional journey, mostly traveled by Jeanne while Simon sits with it all for a while. The film is largely this search for answers. Villeneuve is a filmmaker not afraid to make his audiences endure some of the details. He is unrestrained, unfiltered, unapologetic. Because of this, Incendies itself is a difficult film to watch at times. The story itself is heavy. As the layers of the onion are unpeeled, the emotional toll grows bigger and bigger. Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulindoes a fantastic job with her Jeanne character. Empathetic and desperate for answers, you can see the weight growing on her. She must retrace steps of her mothers past, completely oblivious to the fact that they are places that her mother was so desperate to get away from. Her mother was so determined to create a new life for herself and her family. She was so determined to provide a life for her children that would differ from her own. A life without the same struggles, the same pain, the same subjection, the same drudgery. But while she was able to geographically escape the torture of her past, she was clearly never able to fully escape it psychologically. She must have realized in her final days that her children must know the truth, must know their true lineage. An exploration into the idea of future generations carrying their ancestor’s past, whether they like it or not. The story is a persevering attempt to seek closure, and you seek it as much as the Marwan twins do. You get the closure you’re looking for, leaving you wondering if it’s even enough after such a gripping story reveals such brutal truth.

March 5, 2015

DECENNIUM: Top 10 Films from 2000-2009

10. 28 Days Later (2003) (IMDB)

9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) (IMDB)

8. City of God (2003) (IMDB)

7. Oldboy (2005) (IMDB)

6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) (IMDB)

5. Adaptation (2003) (IMDB)

4. Vanilla Sky (2001) (IMDB)

3. There Will Be Blood (2007) (IMDB)
2. Children of Men (2007) (IMDB)

1. The Dark Knight (2008) (IMDB)

Blood Ties

Guillame Canet, 2014
The first thing you notice with Blood Ties is the loaded cast. Clive Owen, Zoe Saldana, Mila Kunis, Noah Emmerich, Marion Cottilard, James Caan. It almost feels as if someone owed someone a favor. How could it go wrong? Probably because Guillame Canet is at the helm. He wants to make his version of a 1970’s Period Piece like American Hustle. He knows the music. He knows the attire. He knows the cars. But it just feels lacking. That and the film has some problems with it. First off, Clive Owen is one of the best actors working today. But he is miscast here. He just doesn't fit the role as the dirt-bag criminal brother. His character just feels unauthentic. The neck and arm tattoos feel painted on. The accent, while not British, is not exact. Owen was actually replacing Mark Wahlberg for the role, who had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. But Wahlberg probably wouldn't have been really good either. You really need someone in the role who has more street grit, someone more erratic. Someone with more deep-seated New York ties. Maybe someone like Michael Imperioli. Not an English actor pretending to be a New Yorker. Another miscast is Mila Kunis who really brings nothing to her role other than her good looks. She is the typical cliched girl who can't resist the bad boys. That being said, praise is due to the casting choice of Billy Crudup who really nails his Frank role. Crudup is one of the more underrated actors working today.

There are problems with the film. Instead of being in the presence of complex characters you sit in the presence of caricatures. A good example is James Caan’s father character who really feels one-dimensional. Comes off as sort of an aged Sonny Corleone if he had lived to his later years. But without the depth that Coppola was able to add to that character. This character is just a slow moving, bitter Italian who spends most of his time angry at his late wife that he had left decades ago. His purpose in the film is really to only to force continuous confrontations between Frank and Chris, reminding them of their (here it comes!) Blood Ties. There is some poor editing in the film. Chris and Frank get into physical altercation with each other in Frank’s apartment. Frank kicks him out and tells him he never wants to see him again. He goes into work the next day only to be told by his commanding officers that they can’t have him working if Chris is living there. You would assume the response would be: “funny you say that! he just moved out last night. He won’t be coming around again. You have my undivided attention when it comes to me doing my job as an officer of the law”. But no. Instead he comes off as insulted, offended. Storms out. Did he completely forget about the previous nights events?

Blood Ties could be considered a bad movie with a good ending. The last half hour or so of the film is actually quite decent. A great car chase scene filled with all of the period automobiles which feels like it took a lot of effort to choreograph. A call back to a childhood event that really lands. Good final scene. That’s great, except for the fact that you have to bear the unsubstantial first 2/3’s of the movie to get to the good parts.