'Cause a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man
The Godfather is directed and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola and is based on the novel of the same name by Mario Puzo. The film stars Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, and Diane Keaton.
A review of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather is easily one of the most useless things to be conceived in late 2018. Nothing can challenge the film's status as one of the greatest films in all of cinema, constantly in a tug-of-war match with Citizen Kane and Casablanca for the unofficial title of "Greatest Film Ever Made". Just going with the consensus and lauding the film for all of its film-making achievements and its influence within the crime/gangster genre would make this into a rather hollow review, and yet, that's exactly what I'm going to do anyway because, well, The Godfather is an excellent film from top to bottom, where any and all flaws are rendered useless by what the film does so well.
It's next to near impossible to pinpoint one exact thing that can be said to answer the question, "Why is The Godfather held in such high regard?" The truth is, there isn't one exact thing. As I've mentioned in past Best Picture winner reviews like Gone with the Wind, The Godfather is an example of a great film, the emphasis being on the word 'film' and not 'great'. That's always bothered me a little bit when I hear people say, "that's a great movie!" when talking about an MCU superhero flick or some other fun, entertaining film. Such a statement doesn't necessarily account for everything that is involved with making a film: the directing, acting, writing, editing, music, and so much more. Was said film great because the action was enthralling and it entertained you a lot, or maybe it was because the movie made you laugh a bunch of times? I don't mean to knock anybody's specific preferences in watching films; the statement, "that's a great movie!" just has much more structure and thickness to it when an argument can be made for all of the film's specific film-making components, not just one or two parts. For something like The Godfather, where every film-making component is executed with the utmost of expertise, the statement, "that's a great movie!" is almost an insult. This is film-making that will forever be in the history books, be a major topic of conversation in advanced film studies classrooms, and be influential to the crime and gangster genres for all of time.
Spanning from 1945 to 1955, The Godfather is the story of the Corleone crime family, headed by the Don Vito Corleone (Brando). The film opens with Vito hearing requests on the day of his daughter Connie's (Talia Shire) wedding. Vito's youngest son Michael (Pacino), attends the wedding with his girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), though Michael is reluctant to be any part of his family's business affairs. A series of violent events over the years, however, draws Michael into his family's business, and with Vito nearing the end of his career, Michael begins his journey as a ruthless crime lord.
I know, I know. I left out a lot of the specific plot details, which is something I usually don't do. The thing is, The Godfather's story moves like ocean waves; there is a lot of different events happening at once, but the various plot lines are all going in the same direction, working together to move things forward at a steady pace. For a film that's a shade under three hours, the plot is one of the more energetic ones you'll find for any lengthy film. At its core, The Godfather's plot is about Michael's transformation from family outsider to its new head of operations, with a series of interwoven events serving to propel Michael further along that path. The end of one violent act is the beginning of another, but there's a common denominator to it all: Michael is going down a path that he can never return from.
- It's a bit shocking to me that some people consider Vito Corleone the main character, because there's much more evidence available to suggest that The Godfather is the story of Michael Corleone and not Vito. Pacino gets much more screen time than Brando does, and I don't think there's any question that Michael is by far the more interesting character, being elevated by a stellar Al Pacino performance that is easily one of, if not his best performance ever in a film. At the start, Michael is the innocent and "pure-hearted" member of his family, wishing to go on and live a normal American life that is completely free from his family's business. That all changes when an assassination attempt on Vito practically forces Michael to not just stick his toe in the Mafia waters, but dive in head first altogether. The turning point for Michael is when he goes to an Italian restaurant to have dinner and discuss a truce with the drug lord Virgil Sollozzo and the corrupt police officer Captain Mark McCluskey.
Michael's face, moments right before he kills Sollozzo and McCluskey
Pacino's acting, particularly in this scene, is considerably some of the best ever put to film. He speaks no words as his eyes nervously bounce around the restaurant and his mouth slightly twitches, with the sound of a train rolling along in the background. This is the moment Michael knows that his life will change forever, the moment where he will become a permanent member of the world of crime and embrace the destiny that he so actively spent years avoiding.
- An interesting place where The Godfather deserves special praise is its use of violence, not just in how grisly that several character deaths are, but in how the movie uses violence as a mechanism for its majestic narrative. Every major act of violence that occurs in the film does not happen because the movie is trying to bash it into our heads that these are ruthless crime lords who go about their business with a nihilistic philosophy. Whether its waking up to find a horse head in your bed, to Michael killing Sollozzo and McCluskey in the restaurant, or to getting riddled with bullets at a toll booth, The Godfather perfectly places all of its major acts of violence in a way where every single one of them is essential to the progression of one of the plot lines. A character death always means significant consequences for one or more other characters, even if it is the death of a character that we've gotten to know for only a short while. Any time we see someone who looks as if they're about to pull a gun or a knife, it is a moment of extreme tension, drama, and excitement. There is absolutely nothing about the violence in The Godfather that is senseless or dull, and not even the most blood-filled action of an R-rated movie of the 21st century can come close to matching it.
- Yes, I do have a low point for The Godfather, but that's not going to make me downgrade the movie at all, because everything else is so wonderfully executed. Marlon Brando is a bit disappointing as Vito Corleone, which makes me wonder what exactly did the Academy see when they decided to hand Brando the Best Actor Award. Brando mumbles quite a bit throughout the film, and he lacks the poise that a man like Vito Corleone should be showing at all times. A role like this one should be something like Humphrey Bogart and Gregory Peck at their very best: commanding respect and admiration everywhere he goes, and not needing to say a word to obtain either. Even if he does get nearly shot to death early in the film, the Don of the Corleone Mafia family should not sound like he's impersonating the croaky voice of an elderly man lying on his deathbed. I can only imagine how much better that Vito Corleone would have been had Coppola worked some more with Brando to try and make the character seem more like a dignified antihero and not simply a fatherly boss head.
So then, how to conclude? Should I just go with the usual routine and praise The Godfather as one of world cinema's greatest features along with the likes of Casablanca and Citizen Kane? I could do that. Should I then go on giving endless love for the film's marvelous directing, other-worldly acting, and gruesome acts of violence that deserve immense praise, not criticism, because of how meaningful they are to the film's story? I could also do that. Instead, I'm going to end this review by praising The Godfather in a slightly different way: upon conclusion of watching the film, it's almost impossible to gather the words of what you just witnessed. It is a film that feels as if a divine presence came down and guided the actions of every person involved in the film's production, sort of ironic given the film belongs to the gangster genre. You cannot watch The Godfather in small chunks and think you can still get the same effect if you watch it scene by scene as opposed to setting three hours aside and watching it from start to finish. It is a film that you experience, a film that truly makes the most of the "move" part of what is meant by the word movie. The Godfather reaches a level of cinematic transcendence that only a small quantity of films to ever be conceived have ever been able to reach, and if you think any decent filmmaker of the 21st century can just rub his or her hands together and try to match the film's greatness, you are lying to yourself. The Godfather is the kind of cinematic work that not only transformed all of American cinema, it is living, breathing proof of how film-making is indeed, and always will be, an art form.
Recommend? Everyone should see this film at least once during their lifetime.
The early works of Studio Ghibli
Grave of the Fireflies is directed and written by Isao Takahata and stars Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara and Akemi Yamaguchi. It is based on the 1967 short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka.
By 1988, Studio Ghibli was still in its early stages, having released just one film (Castle in the Sky) prior to Grave of the Fireflies. Some may consider 1985's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind to be a Ghibli film, but that's a topic that would go into considerable length and one I'm not going to waste time mentioning here. Grave of the Fireflies was released in the same year as My Neighbor Totoro, and though both films are nearly complete opposites, they did assure that Studio Ghibli had a bright future ahead. Early on at least, Grave of the Fireflies seemed like a bold endeavor; animation is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind if we're talking about war films. But the fact that Grave of the Fireflies is a war film, and a highly successful at that, we might say that Grave of the Fireflies is something of an achievement in not just anime, but all of animation worldwide, having the guts to address more mature ideas and assure that animation isn't just fluffy kids stuff that needs to be brightly colorful and cheery all the time.
One major question surrounding Grave of the Fireflies is if the film is an anti-war film or not. Director Isao Takahata has denied the film being anti-war, and if the director says no, then it would seem the answer to the question should be a clear, "No." So if Grave of the Fireflies is not supposed to be an anti-war film (certainly, it can't be a pro-war film), then what sort of themes are inherent to the film? According to IMDb, Takahata wanted the film to express the lives of a brother and sister who are isolated from society, with the intention of invoking sympathy in younger people, particularly those in their teens and twenties. So based on this desire from Takahata, it would make sense to view Grave of the Fireflies as a film about survival: a battle that many war-time victims throughout history have had to fight.
The brother and sister that I brought up are the two characters at the heart of Grave of the Fireflies' story. A teenage boy named Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi/J. Robert Spencer) and his younger sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi/Rhoda Chrosite) are living in Kobe, Japan in the final months of World War II. Their home and most of Kobe are destroyed in a firebombing, and their mother dies from burns. The two move in with a distant aunt (Akemi Yamaguchi/Amy Jones), but tension rises between the two children and their aunt as rations diminish and more refugees come into the home. Seita and Setsuko eventually move out, finding a new home in an abandoned bomb shelter.
- This movie is a mere 89 minutes long, and the plot is pretty short on details. And yet, there is more honest emotion and heartbreaking realism in those 89 minutes than in several two hour war films. It's not just the fact that the movie centers on two young siblings who do everything they can to find food and shelter. It's also that Takahata treats the film with a special sort of tenderness, a kind of tenderness that implies that Grave of the Fireflies has absolutely no interest in chauvinism or in mawkishly declaring that all war is wrong. It's a movie about the survival of pure innocence: Seita and Setsuko are two innocent young children who have no control of when and where firebombings will occur; life for them turns into a matter of survival, survival in a setting where death and destruction are inevitable.
The movie opens with Seita dying of starvation in a train station, so right away, we become aware that not all will end well for Seita and Setsuko. Their journey is like the life of a firefly: their brightness and joy in this messed up world are short-lived. Setsuko asks her brother, "Why must fireflies die so young?" Seita and Setsuko share several happy moments like enjoying a bath together and singing while Seita plays on a piano. These moments are them lighting up their fires. But eventually, food is almost impossible to find and Setsuko falls ill. There's a moment where Setsuko crushes an innocent firefly in her hand the first time she tries to hold one. This moment is a microcosm of Seita and Setsuko trying to survive: they are the innocent fireflies, and the hand is the harsh realities of their war-torn Japan. No kind of patriotic preaching nor graphic pictures of war could create a microcosm that effective.
- It almost seems like sacrilege to try and speak badly of Grave of the Fireflies, and no, I'm not even going to entertain the thought of even trying to write bad things about the movie. The only disappointment comes from me: it didn't hit me right away how powerful this movie is. I had to sit down and take a bit of time to fully process everything that I saw. Of course, I think watching this movie reinforced my belief that some of the best movies out there take time to understand and fully appreciate it. For Grave of the Fireflies, it's a movie you can't just watch on a random Friday night and forget about the following Saturday morning. A film of this magnitude, one that makes you feel practically every emotion imaginable, is a work of animation that ought to immediately come to mind whenever the topic of greatest animated movies comes up.
The only thing I think left to discuss is the question of, "Why make this movie animated as opposed to live-action?" Surely, this movie wouldn't lose all of its emotional heft had it been live-action. What might the answer to that question be, dear reader? I bring back up what I said about how much more emotionally powerful this movie is because of how it centers on two innocent children. That sense of innocence just wouldn't be there had this movie been live-action. Whoever the child actors would be, we would run the risk of having seen them in other movies, a mental barrier that could hinder how effectively we could get invested in their performances in a live-action Grave of the Fireflies. But with animation, Takahata and Studio Ghibli have the power to craft their animated characters and give them expressive looks that can convey the kind of innocence needed for this movie to work so well. And you better believe that's exactly what Takahata and Ghibli do.
Being a movie that takes place during World War II, it would seem that Studio Ghibli was going for a "make it or break it" type of anime film, especially because of how young the studio was back in 1988. But any and all risks involved with making Grave of the Fireflies paid off, assuring that Studio Ghibli was an animation force to be reckoned with in the years to come. Thirty years later, and Grave of the Fireflies remains one of the most beautiful and heart-breaking films to tackle any subject related to war. It's almost shocking to think how short the movie is, and what it is able to achieve in such a short amount of time. Never underestimate the power of Studio Ghibli.
Recommend? Absolutely. This is essential viewing for all animation enthusiasts.
2004 Pixar: The Incredible Mind of Brad Bird
The Incredibles is directed by Brad Bird and stars the voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox, Jason Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, and Elizabeth Pena. The film won two Oscars for Best Animated Feature and Best Sound Editing.
In 1999, Brad Bird kicked off his directorial career with The Iron Giant, a movie that tanked so hard at the box office, it would seem like the miracle of the century for Bird to be entrusted with a film by Pixar, a studio who at the time was coming out with animated classic after animated classic. But strictly mentioning The Iron Giant's box office numbers isn't telling the whole story; The Iron Giant has gone on to be regarded as an animated classic, right alongside several of Pixar's earliest films, and Bird had conceived an idea of a family of superheroes back in 1993, back when he was attempting to break into the film industry. At first, Bird intended for this idea to be nothing more than a comedic superhero movie, but at the time, Bird had been struggling with things going on in his personal life, and according to Bird, some of those struggles trickled into his superhero idea.
Thus, we have our foundation for what would eventually turn into The Incredibles: the first Pixar film to not center on non-human characters like toys, bugs, or fish. Brad Bird retained much of his staff from The Iron Giant and found working with computer animation quite challenging. The animation crew was faced with considerably the most difficult thing to animate with computer animation: human beings. New technology needed to be created in order to successfully animate the kind of human anatomy needed for this kind of film: realistic skin and hair, clothing, and any other basic body movements you could think up (something as simple as lifting your arms up and down). All of these complications had Disney wanting a live-action version, but John Lasseter insisted on staying the animation route.
I do like to mention all of these production notes because sometimes, we get so wowed by what we see on screen that we may not give as much thought to how many hours of work went on behind the scenes. Some of our favorite childhood films have stories about how production was an absolute hell, which should enhance our appreciation for our favorite films, because it's our little way of saying to everyone who worked on our favorite childhood films, "Your hard work resulted in one of my fondest childhood memories, and for that, I am forever thankful." In the case of The Incredibles, I fondly remember seeing it for the first time ever back in 2004 in a theater with my whole family. Upon walking out, I remember stating how I wished I had superpowers, because I was so enthralled with everything I had just witnessed on screen, wishing that I could be one of The Incredibles.
I've seen the film a couple more times since then, and upon watching the film yet again, just so that I could have it fresh in my mind for Incredibles 2, I was amazed at how much in the film seemed intended for adults. Before I elaborate on that, here's what we've got with the story: Superheroes, otherwise known as just "Supers", work to fight crime and keep cities safe. One of these Supers, Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson), also known as Mr. Incredible, enjoys his crime-fighting lifestyle, using his super strength to catch criminals. However, public opinion eventually turns against superheroes, as superhero activities result in many cases of collateral damage, such as Mr. Incredible rescuing and injuring a man who was attempting suicide. The government initiates a program that forces Supers to abandon all future superhero activities, in exchange for them living quiet, peaceful lives like average citizens.
Fifteen years later, Bob Parr has married Helen Parr (Holly Huntger), who is formerly known as the body-strecthing Super, Elastigirl. The two have three children: Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack. Violet is an insecure teenager who is capable of turning invisible and creating force fields. Dash is a reckless young boy who possesses super speed. Jack-Jack is a baby who appears to have no powers. Bob works a white-collar job at an insurance agency, and though he loves his family, he detests the mundanity of his job and his suburban lifestyle. Bob goes out some nights with his friend Lucius Best (Samuel L. Jackson), formerly the ice-powered Super known as Frozone, as the two attempt relive their "glory days." Bob eventually gets fired from his job, but shortly afterwards, he receives a message from a mysterious woman named Mirage, who gives Bob the chance to take on a mission in which he will be sent to a remote island and fight a robot called the Omnidroid. The mission gives Bob the chance to become Mr. Incredible again, and though the action helps Bob improve his relationship with his family, he soon finds out there is a greater evil at work, one that forces his whole family to embrace their superhero identities.
- The power that The Incredibles has in terms of being equally appealing to both children and adults is nothing short of impressive. But like I just said, there is much more going on in the film that would grab the interest of the adults in the crowd. Bob Parr's job serves as a microcosm for the monotony of the American workforce; his entire workplace is designed to look like a dreary, colorless place that might as well have a banner that reads, "Where Dreams Go To Die." The villains have no hesitation towards using deadly force against the Parr children, who in return, have no problem with killing any of the villains, such as Dash outrunning several attackers and making them crash their flying vehicles, the attackers' deaths being a foregone conclusion. The portrayal of the villains in The Incredibles is like a satire of those undeniably harmless villains we may remember watching during Saturday morning cartoons. In addition, The Incredibles is a satire of the entire superhero genre, breaking down our conventional understandings of the genre and posing scenarios we may not have ever imagined, like superheroes getting married and having children as well as the possibility of superheroes becoming illegal. And while all of this is going on underneath the surface, there's plenty of high-octane fun to keep the kids entertained.
- Speaking of fun, that's another thing that The Incredibles is so good at: being fun. Every member of the Parr family and Frozone get a chance to show off their powers and have a shining moment. The movie always maintains its sense of fun, while also throwing in appropriate bits of humor whenever the situation calls for it. Brad Bird would go on to show in some of his later films, such as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol that he is quite the talent with directing action that looks clean, flashy, and memorable.
- Brad Bird wanted to make sure this film was great, and because of how much time and effort you can tell was put into this film, major flaws are nowhere to be found. Everything from animation to story to action is handled with the utmost care, which should have been definitive proof to the world that The Iron Giant was no one-hit wonder and Brad Bird is no box office fluke. I'm guessing Pixar just flat-out ignored The Iron Giant's box office results when taking Bird's superhero family idea into consideration, understanding that Bird had the animation chops, and all he really needed was a more organized and focused marketing campaign.
So in 2004, a family of superheroes would have seemed like a very out of left field idea for Pixar, who before The Incredibles, won the world over by applying heart, wit, and creativity in some unusual places: the toys in a young boy's bedroom, a colony of ants, and a motley crew of fish. But heart, wit, and creativity are the backbone of Pixar, and all three of these things are on full display in The Incredibles, a movie that, while not revolutionary in the way that Toy Story was, is full of incredible brains and incredible fun, capturing that magical quality of being as rewarding to children as it is to adults. I say the movie leans more favorably to adults, but in typical Pixar fashion, they find a way to make it work well for both sides. I and many others will never tire of quoting several of the film's terrific individual scenes (Frozone's "Where's My Super Suit?" scene is easily one of the greatest scenes in Pixar history), scenes that all work together to create a masterful whole that delivers one of the greatest waves of ebullience you'll ever experience in an animated film. I know this will sound incredibly lame, but I have to say it anyway: The Incredibles is an incredible film, from incredible start to incredible finish. You did an incredible job, Brad Bird.
Recommend? Heck yeah, if by some miracle you haven't seen it already.
Be vewy vewy qwiet. I'm hunting wabbits.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is directed by Robert Zemeckis and is based on the 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf. The film stars Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Charles Fleischer, Stubby Kaye, and Joanna Cassidy.
No introduction is needed for the massive collection of animated characters from the Golden Age of American animation. The likes of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Tom and Jerry were all, in one way or another, a memorable part of all our childhoods or at least characters we fondly remember watching at least a little bit during some point in our childhoods. We all have our personal favorites of certain Looney Tunes and Disney animated characters, but if any of us we're alive and well during the Golden Age of American animation, probably not a single one of us could have envisioned that we would one day get the chance to see all of these goofy, fun-loving animated characters on screen together. Here's one such example of that:
Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny together on the same frame? Inconceivable!
The opportunity to see moments like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny together on the same screen is given to us in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the film that did so much more for American animation than people may first realize: renewing interest in the Golden Age animated characters and paving the way for the Disney Renaissance. While I can't say that the likes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King would have never happened had Who Framed Roger Rabbit flopped, I find it hard to argue that all of those beloved Disney animated films still would have happened had things not turned out so well for Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The Disney animation department was in deep deep trouble following the box office failure that was 1985's The Black Cauldron. While the animation department saw a bit of a turn around following the box office success of The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company, there was no guarantee that Disney had gotten themselves completely out of the mud. Then in 1988, Disney agreed to have long-time animation fan Steven Spielberg come on as executive producer for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with then Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg firmly believing that a live-action/animation hybrid would rescue the animation department from an untimely death. Spielberg was able to convince the likes of Warner Bros., Turner Entertainment, and Universal Pictures/Walter Lantz Productions to "lend" their characters to appear in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, though he was unable to get permission for certain characters like Popeye and (*sigh*) Tom and Jerry. Robert Zemeckis got hired as director in 1985 after initially being turned down, as Disney saw how Zemeckis was able to change his fortunes with the success of Back to the Future and Romancing the Stone.
Now that all that backstory is under our belt, let's get to it with Roger Rabbit and his gang of trouble-making toons. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a little bit of everything: action, adventure, comedy, drama, and, oh yeah, mystery. The movie takes place in 1947 Los Angeles, in a world where "toons" act in cartoon shorts while interacting with real-life people and living in the nearby Toontown. R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern), the head of Maroon Cartoon Studios, is worried about the recent string of poor performances by one of his most famous stars, Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer), so he decides to hire private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to look into rumors about Roger's buxom toon wife Jessica (Kathleen Turner). Eddie despises toons, refusing to ever work for them again after his brother, Teddy, was killed when a toon dropped a piano on Teddy's head. Eddie is informed that Jessica may be romantically involved with Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the owner of both Acme Corporation and Toontown.
Eddie goes to a club, where he is able to secretly photograph Acme and Jessica playing patty-cake together. Eddie shows the pictures to Roger, who gets himself drunk and flees. The next morning, Marvin Acme is found dead at the Acme factory, a safe dropped on his head. Evidence gathered at the scene points to Roger being the culprit, and Toontown's superior judge, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), vows to find Roger and kill him with a toxic, toon-killing substance called the dip. Eddie learns from another toon that Roger may be innocent, and that Acme's missing will may be the key to his murder. The will is believed to give the toons ownership of Toontown. Eddie eventually comes across the wanted Roger, and in order to prove that the rabbit is indeed innocent, he will have no choice but to put aside his hatred for toons.
- Not surprisingly, there is a lot of silliness to be had throughout Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with toons getting whacked around the way you'd see Wile E. Coyote get smashed by the Acme products he uses to try and catch Road Runner or the way Tom gets all crumpled up while trying to catch Jerry. Every time a toon gets kicked, punched, or squished by a falling object, it's accompanied with all kinds of goofy sounds effects you'd remember hearing anytime someone got hurt during a Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry short.
But what makes the film's goofy nature even better is how it's so nicely balanced with the film's more dramatic side. We see Eddie Valiant struggle with the antics of Roger and the other toons, but as we come to learn early on, Eddie isn't the one grouch in the world of toons simply because he was born that way. Eddie is shown to have been enjoying a wonderful career working alongside his brother, but the actions of one bad toon take away both Eddie's brother and Eddie's joy. The film never lets itself develop a depressing mood because of Eddie's grief. How could it when there are so many zany toon characters constantly around him? And at the same time, the movie never becomes a goofy, extended Looney Tunes bit where nothing is taken seriously, because the movie understands that it is still a noir-style mystery, even if it is an unconventional one, since it happens to star cartoon characters. All in all, Who Framed Roger Rabbit has terrific balance, dishing out a nice helping of everything that I said before: action, adventure, comedy, mystery, etc.
- There's nothing about the film's technical achievements that hasn't been said already, the way the film is so able to make its toon characters look like they're an actual part of our world and not at all like someone's first attempt at doing computer animation. Interactions between real-life characters and toon characters are never the least bit awkward in movement, as if it was an actual toon sharing the same space as the real-life person, as opposed to the real-life person looking like they're pretending to play with some kind of stage prop/set piece and having a hard time doing so. Yep. I think that's all that needs to be said on that one.
- The only disappointing thing about Who Framed Roger Rabbit was that it couldn't get more cartoon characters to be signed on, even if those additional characters would get little more than a small cameo. Don't get me wrong. It's great that all of the Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons are on display here. It's just that seeing so many famous cartoons together at once might leave you hungry for a little bit more, because when else are we going to see all of these toons together again in another movie? And that's not a knock on the film's plot or characters. You just have to wonder: this was the one and only time that all of the big-name animation studious would put aside their creative differences and come together to have some fun, so why couldn't all of them buy into this great idea?
Believe it or not, but Who Framed Roger Rabbit also suggested an idea that the likes of Disney would gasp at: animation for adults. Sure, you had adult animated features like Fritz the Cat in the 70's, but adult animation was an idea nobody ever took and ran with back in the day. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not a pure kiddie flick by any means: it has drinking, swearing, sex jokes that are not at all subtle, and death, honest to God death! How many times would we worry about someone actually dying in a Looney Tunes or Disney cartoon? But despite these more mature elements, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is still a wacky, jolly good ol' time that hasn't lost an ounce of its greatness over the past thirty years. If there is possibly anything new that I can add, it would be this: Who Framed Roger Rabbit introduced to the world the possibility of attaching more mature, adult matters to animation, all the while showing that you can still maintain a fun and bouncy demeanor. A lot of animation that we know today I think can relate back to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which also took us back to the past and see more of the classic Golden Age cartoon characters. The movie is the bridge that connects the past and the future, and a triumph that the likes of the animation genre may never experience again.
Recommend? Watch it right away if by some miracle you have not seen it yet.
1971 Oscars: The time was just right for an out and out Best Picture Winner like this
The French Connection is directed by William Friedkin and is based on the 1969 non-fiction book The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy by Robin Moore. The film stars Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, and Marcel Bozzuffi and won five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was also the first R-rated movie to win Best Picture.
As of this review, there are ninety movies that have been graced with the Academy's most prestigious Oscar: Best Picture. Of those ninety movies, not a single one of them can be appropriately labeled as an action film, one in which characters settle their differences with fists, bullets, and pretty much any other form of violence one could concoct. On one hand, the inability of an action film to win Best Picture suggests that the Oscars have a historical dislike for action films, not considering them "artsy" in the way that the Oscars would consider a romantic drama or a lengthy biopic to be "artsy." But on the other hand, it could simply be a matter of the fact that action films have a harder time trying to do everything right: acting, story, editing, etc., and though several action films like Mad Max: Fury Road have been nominated over the years, one has yet to win Best Picture.
The one and only Best Picture winner that resembles the closest an action film has ever gotten to holding up that lovely golden trophy is 1971's The French Connection, which is a gritty, urban crime thriller more than a straight-up action movie. It has elements of an action movie, but it is, in and of itself, not a pure action movie. And while we're on the topic of action movies, it's worth mentioning that about ninety percent of all action movies released during the 21st century couldn't hold a candle to The French Connection, a movie whose visceral thrills have not dated in the slightest.
From start to finish, The French Connection is a fast-paced roller coaster ride that never lets you catch your breath, and even with all of the excitement to be had, there's never a slip up with the writing or the characters or anything else worth noting. Even having seen the film three separate times, I still have a difficult time wrapping my head around the masterful way the movie is able to incorporate high-energy thrills with such a smart and pragmatic story. Filmmakers frequently have it one way: You sacrifice story smarts for the sake of entertaining action, because general audiences mostly love to watch stuff go boom and watch human bodies get blasted to smithereens. And for something like the Mad Max films, you may not have the most layered story of all time, but god damn if those action scenes aren't the coolest things you'll ever see! The French Connection, meanwhile, should serve as an early example of how it is entirely possible to craft an intelligent story while also keeping your film super exciting. The only trouble is, you're not going to do it as well as The French Connection does it.
The plot appears to be basic stuff: New York police detectives Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider) are attempting to locate a narcotics ring they believe is running throughout New York, and the two go through a lot of undercover work in order to do so. However, there's much more going on than just Popeye and Cloudy attempting to uncover some secret drug deals and catch a few junkies: In Marseilles, wealthy French criminal Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is looking to smuggle $32 million worth of heroin into the United States, doing so by hiding bags containing the heroin inside the car of his unsuspecting friend, Henry Devereaux (Frederic de Pasquale). Meanwhile, Popeye and Cloudy begin to tail the young couple Sal (Tony Lo Bianco) and Angie (Arlene Farber) Boca, believing the two are involved in some kind of criminal operation.
Describing further plot details would be entering spoiler territory, and details are something that matter a lot in The French Connection. There are so many names and faces to keep track of, that on a first viewing, I am not sure how anyone could walk away fully understanding every nut and bolt of the plot, especially because of how swiftly the movie moves along. Someone playing devil's advocate might ask how can the story be so good if the movie is going at such a fast pace? To that question I answer: the screenplay by Ernest Tidyman has no gimmicks and doesn't leave anything to chance. Every little plot point and every minor character is accounted for, the movie providing closure to everything by the end. And the way the characters go about their business, there's no time to slow down and take a break. Charnier and his men want to get their operation completed as soon as possible, hoping to be back in France before the police ever realize they were there. Popeye and his team, meanwhile, know that if they don't expose the drug operation in time, all of their efforts will be in vain. Also, Charnier and his mean are no slouches. They are organized professionals and it doesn't take long for them to realize that police are on their tails. Because the characters need to work so quickly, the movie is going to be fast.
- Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, who I'll just call Popeye from here on out, is a massive force on screen, being portrayed brilliantly by Gene Hackman. As the poster says, "Doyle is bad news- but a good cop" and that sums up perfectly the kind of character that Popeye is. At his core, Popeye wants to do the right thing just like any other cop would: stop a gigantic drug smuggling operation and catch the crooks who are running the whole damn thing. But as we see several times throughout the movie, Popeye is a nasty and hot-headed individual, having no desire to wait around and think up a plan for chasing Charnier and his men. At the same time, however, Popeye doesn't make knee-jerk decisions or boast outrageous claims that would land him in hot water. When he believes something in his gut to be true, he sticks with it, no matter what anyone else tells him.
Let's be clear on one thing, though: Popeye is not a protagonist worth cheering for. There's a scene early on in which he and Cloudy go into a bar and force all the people there up on a wall. Popeye claims he's there to make sure the bar is "cleaned up" and in the process, he makes everyone empty their pockets, harassing some of the bar-goers (all of whom were real-life police officers), calling one of them a fat man, and making a "milkshake" out of some of the cigarettes and other crap he finds there. If The French Connection was released sometime within the past few years, there would hardcore, left-wingers and Black Lives Matter activists calling for William Friedkin's head. Anyway, Popeye is as ruthless as they come, Gene Hackman, without question, deserving that Best Actor Oscar.
- Of course we have to talk about that car chase. Considered by many to be one of the finest car chases in cinematic history, the car chase is something of the movie's thesis statement. Roger Ebert put it best in his review of this movie: The French Connection, as a whole, is like a chase, going beyond just its one chase scene. The chase itself concerns Hackman pursuing Charnier's hit man, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), who boards an elevated train after failing to kill Popeye moments beforehand. The flawless editing of the chase is one thing, but the absolute best part is how during the chase, there's always something of note happening outside of watching Popeye drive a car at breakneck speed. Popeye rams his car into a wall and narrowly avoids running over a lady walking with her child. Meanwhile, Nicoli makes his way to the front of the train, holding the conductor at gunpoint when he gets there. Nicoli shoots and kills a police officer on the train and forces the conductor to drive through a station. There's no time for chatter and no time for thinking up a plan. There's not even time to play exciting music, because the movie, like the car chase, is going so fast and doing so at such a heightened intensity.
- If there was any kind of low point in The French Connection, the ferocity of the entire movie would make it completely irrelevant. The movie masterfully executes everything that goes into its thrilling action and fast-paced story, that anything else isn't worth griping about. Sure, characters like Cloudy and Nicoli aren't going to be the most developed characters you'll ever meet, but they function the way they need to, and again, the movie simply doesn't have the time to do something extra like explore its characters deeply.
My most common complaints with the first forty three films to win Best Picture is that too many of those films are boring, overly long, and horribly dated. The vast majority of those forty three films I pray and hope to never ever have to watch again. The French Connection, meanwhile, is the polar opposite of the likes of How Green Was My Valley and A Man For All Seasons. It's a film with heated excitement from start to finish and a type of fast pacing that too many of the older Best Picture winners could only dream of.
I am still to this day completely awestruck by The French Connection. It's not every day you find a movie that can be so fast, and yet be so thrilling and still pack tons of wallop with its acting and writing. It's far from a nice-looking movie: being shot during a cold, depressing New York winter without any set ever being built. The movie is also shot with high levels of film grain, though I admit the Blu-ray version I watched had coloring changes that Friedkin did himself, much to the chagrin of cinematographer Owen Roizman. I don't think it mattered too much, because a movie like this needs to look unpleasant.
I can't praise The French Connection enough: it's a masterpiece of a crime thriller and is still to this day one of the finest films to ever win Best Picture. It won't be any less thrilling fifty years from now, and I could watch it time and time again and never get the least bit bored with it. The French Connection is a must for action movie lovers. In fact, I dare say it's a movie everyone should see at least once in their lifetime.
Recommend? Read that previous sentence again.
There's no place like home
The film isThe Wizard of Oz is a 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum's 1900 children's novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The film was primarily directed by Victor Fleming, but also received directing work from King Vidor, George Cukor, and Norman Taurog. It stars Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan, Billie Burke, and Margaret Hamilton. The film won two Academy Awards for Best Original Song and Best Original Score, but lost Best Picture to Gone with the Wind, which Victor Fleming went to take over directing when he left production.
A review of The Wizard of Oz almost 80 years after its initial release is probably one of the most useless things to be had. Me telling you just how wonderful the film is (and it is incredibly wonderful, not having dated in the slightest) would be about as useful as telling you that eating food is necessary to live or that doing drugs is bad for your health and mental well-being. The film has become such a staple of one's childhood that I make the assumption that every single person I meet has seen the film at least once, and if by some stunning miracle that a person hasn't seen it at all, then I would heavily insist that this be the next film that the person watches and that they watch the film as soon as possible.
Watching The Wizard of Oz as a child was certainly a treasured experience that everyone ought to remember, but watching the film as an adult is something of a entirely different matter, because as an adult, you have greater appreciation for The Wizard of Oz as a movie: how intensively the people involved had to work in order to make the film a success, what exactly makes the film such a timeless gem, and just how impressive the film's technical and visual innovations are, knowing that not one single computer was involved in the making of the film.
This is the first time that I feel no need to give a plot/story summary, because I'm sure for all of you reading this, you've seen the film and know the story, and you don't need me to repeat it. Instead, I want to bring up something that I've discussed in just a small handful of reviews I've done before: the criteria of a great film, and what it takes for a movie to be considered important. Cutting right to the chase, The Wizard of Oz is both a great film and an important one. Not many other films to ever be released can we say went on to become such massively iconic parts of popular American culture, as well as develop a legacy as a film that everyone and his brother knows and loves. The likes of Gone with the Wind and Casablanca are also great, important films that I encourage everyone to see at least once in their lifetime, but what The Wizard of Oz has that those films don't is the power of being a part of one's childhood, because The Wizard of Oz is very much a children's film- one that just about every child should come across while they're little and naive - and it is a children's film crafted with such human ingenuity and care that it remains just as equally appealing to adults.
- It should come as no surprise that The Wizard of Oz was nominated for Best Picture, despite losing to Gone with the Wind. Acting, direction, music, production design, and so on and so forth; all of it is fantastic, masterful examples of film-making done at its absolute best. The one I want to discuss though, is the film's use of color. Three-strip Technicolor wasn't exactly brand spanking new in 1939, but the way that The Wizard of Oz utilized Technicolor, it might as well have been re-invented. The film being a colorful, fantasy adventure masterpiece isn't telling the whole story. The use of color is an essential part of how the film tells its story, which includes specific color designs for the main characters. And before we march too far on ahead, I do want to acknowledge, the shot of Dorothy opening the door from her sepia tone house into the color explosion that is the land of Oz is still just as amazing today as it was back then.
Let's start with Dorothy:
White blouse. A blue and white dress. Red hair and red ruby slippers.
Dorothy Gale is our America, all right.
Then we have The Wicked Witch of the West
All black outfit, though she has green-colored skin
Black, representing a lack of color, and the one that tries to wash out all of the other colors. The Wicked Witch of the West is the evil presence that attempts to take over everything around her. She, of course, will stand out wherever she goes, because of how the color black stands out. Black is normally associated with what's bad and cruel in a film. Why else do you think several Disney villains, as well as the likes of Darth Vader, are dressed in this color?
Now, what about the green? Certainly, we cannot associate green the way we associate black. Green represents nature, growth, and fertility. It corresponds with safety, because one feels relaxed and at peace with green. Green also has great healing powers. Dorothy and company are trying to get to Emerald City, an explosion of green. Emerald City is the place of safety and healing. It's where Dorothy must go to find her way back to Kansas.
As for The Wicked Witch, she represents about the exact opposite of what Emerald City does. So how do you possibly explain the green for her? Well, green is a primary color of light, and the Witch is constantly in pursuit of Dorothy's red, ruby slippers. Hey! Red is also a primary color of light! Plus, the Witch uses red smoke to appear and disappear. In this case, the green helps the Witch stand out as one of the movie's primary figures, and she's in constant conflict with red and blue, colors mostly associated with Dorothy. It's a battle of primary colors. Quite subtle. Perhaps a little unintentional, but incredibly effective nonetheless. Whether you happened to realize it or not, The Wizard of Oz is dependent on the meanings of the colors it uses, and not just using color for the sake of a gimmick.
- The Wizard of Oz has a lot of goofs and technical blunders, some of which don't require too sharp of an eye to notice. I could dedicate an entire post talking about how many there are. However, if there is any film that I can forgive for sometimes looking like a movie set, this is the one. This movie was anything but a walk in the park for everyone involved in the production, and they cared. They really cared.
We'd be here all day if I kept going on and on about how and why The Wizard of Oz works so well, and how it fits into the criteria of a great, important film. Besides, analysis and praise has been done over so many times by so many others, that it's just a matter of which parts of the film stand out the most to you. For me, re-watching the movie for the first time in a while, it's the film's terrific use of color, not just for the sake of visuals, but for the sake of great storytelling.
At this point, what else needs to be said? The Wizard of Oz remains to this day one of cinema's greatest treasures, a film that works on every level imaginable, and one of those incredibly rare children's films that is just as pleasing to children as it is to adults. No one's love of movies nor knowledge of cinematic history is complete without The Wizard of Oz, a film that you can watch time and time again and never stop being enchanted with. It's as magical and uplifting today here in 2018 as it was back in 1939, and believe me when I tell you, timeless-ness, in this age or any other, is one of cinema's greatest honors.
Recommend? If by some miracle you haven't seen this film, stop whatever you're doing and go watch it
Bond is All In
Casino Royale is directed by Martin Campbell and stars Daniel Craig in his first film as Agent 007. The film also stars Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, and Judi Dench and is based on the novel of the same name by Ian Fleming.
By the year 2006, James Bond had starred in twenty different films over the course of 44 years, featuring a wide range of women, villains, gadgets, and action. The likes of Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Pierce Brosnan were the big three when it came to actors portraying 007 up until then, with names like George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton serving as one shot wonders (Dalton would portray Bond twice, to be exact) that happened to be wedged in the middle of the series. While the Bond film series never turned into a disastrous, money-leaking hazard that would have Ian Fleming trembling violently in his grave, the series has been something of a roller coaster, going through some high highs and some disappointing lows. We can point to the tweaks that Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan gave the character during their time in the role, as well as go on and on about the best way to describe how Sean Connery breathed life into the role. But as much credit as those three deserve for the time they put in to portraying James Bond, none of them could give Bond such the massive overhaul that Daniel Craig gives the character in Casino Royale, while at the same time delivering what arguably could be the best film in the entire series.
Casino Royale was Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, being written back in 1952, where it would go on to be produced as a 1954 TV episode of the Climax! anthology series and later in 1967 as a satirical comedy film. I have not yet seen the 1967 film, but from what I've heard, it's quite terrible. In March 2004, screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade went to work on writing a screenplay that would be highly faithful to the style of Fleming's novel, with screenwriter Paul Haggis writing the climax of the film. The screenplay was written with Pierce Brosnan in mind, but Brosnan had announced a month before that he was stepping down from playing Bond, having filled his contractual obligation of appearing in four films. Brosnan was also approaching 50, and he didn't want to upset fans and critics in the same way they were upset by Roger Moore hanging onto the role until he was 58. Thus began the search for a new, younger actor. Names like Karl Urban, Henry Cavill, Sam Worthington, and even Hugh Jackman were considered, but none of them could make the commitment.
Enter Daniel Craig. Craig had originally rejected the idea of playing Bond, believing that the series had become too formulaic. But upon reading the screenplay and seeing that the film would present Bond in a more raw and vulnerable manner, he changed his mind and agreed to take the part. Craig's casting was met with doubt and dissatisfaction from fans and critics, going as far to threaten boycotting the film. At the heart of the complaints towards Craig's casting was that Craig had blonde hair and blue eyes, and therefore didn't match the image of a tall, dark-haired, and handsome man that people were used to seeing in the twenty films prior. Oh how foolish those people looked by the end of 2006.
The Bond series had been weighed down by CGI effects and a nagging sense of silliness leading into Casino Royale, so there was a desire by Eon Studios to return to the more old-fashioned way of the stunt work and a hope by Purvis, Wade, and Haggis' to stay close to the darker side of the story and Bond's characterization in Fleming's novel. The fruits of those labors was the closest thing a Bond film might get to achieving an R-rating, as Bond is completely stripped of cheesy one-liners and a tongue-in-cheek approach. Instead, Bond is a cold-blooded, arrogant killer who has no desire to court to bed every beautiful woman he meets. We see this in the opening scene, presented in black and white. Bond gains his licence to kill and his status as a 00 agent when he shoots and kills the traitorous MI6 agent Dryden (Malcolm Sinclair), inter cut with scenes of a grainy, black and white fight scene in a bathroom between Bond and Dryden's contact, Fisher (Darwin Shaw). After Bond seemingly defeats Fisher, we see Fisher pick up a gun on the ground, but just before he can shoot Bond, Bond turns around and shoots in the traditional gun barrel opening, leading us into the opening credits.
The plot of Casino Royale concerns Bond going up against Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a banker who finances many of the world's terrorist organizations. Le Chiffre loses a large investment after Bond prevents the destruction of a Skyfleet airliner, and he hopes to earn the money back by setting up a high-stakes poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. Bond is entered into the poker tournament, with MI6 believing that a defeat will force Le Chiffre to seek asylum with the British government, in exchange for information about his clients. Bond is accompanied to Casino Royale by Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a British Treasury agent who is sent to protect the government's $10 million buy-in.
Normally, I like to think that the best Bond films are those that maximize the standard 007 formula in a way where everything comes together to work as robust as can be. But given how many components there are to the formula, it's admittedly very difficult to fit in as many components as possible without the resulting film seeming like a bloated, incomprehensible mess. As a result, it's inevitable that some of the parts, perhaps the gadgetry or the action, are going to get little to no emphasis whatsoever since you need your story or your Bond girl to be top-notch. So how does this apply to Casino Royale? Well, there are no notable Q gadgets to speak of throughout the film's 144 minutes (Q isn't even a character in the film), and the humor is incredibly sparse. What Casino Royale does is go all in (pun intended) for is considerably the five most important elements of the 007 formula: Bond's portrayal, the girl, the villain, the plot, and the action.
- Everything that Casino Royale attempts to maximize is done so in such an efficient manner that the film remains as equally investing the one hundredth time you it as it does the first time you watch it. This is the first Bond film that presents Bond as something of an anti hero. He isn't sex-driven or extremely charismatic in the way he normally would be in earlier Bond films. Bond is arrogant and vulnerable, with M (Judi Dench) condemning his actions early on in the film and even going as far as to tell Bond to seriously reconsider his future as an MI6 agent. This is not a James Bond that people were used to seeing. People have been seeing a Bond that always asks for his martinis shaken and not stirred, a Bond that delivers one-liners when the situation calls for them, and a Bond that had the experience to properly handle any tough encounter. This Bond when asked if he wants his martini shaken and not stirred, he replies with, "Do I look like I give a damn?" He seduces a woman in order to gain information he needs, and once Bond obtains the information, he leaves, instead of fooling around in bed with said woman. For the first time in the series, we see Bond in a dark place with himself, and Daniel Craig sells it beautifully.
- Casino Royale just might have the best Bond villain in the entire series in Mads Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre. Le Chiffre is no power-hungry overlord hell-bent on world domination or a greed-driven hotshot who hopes to bankrupt someone in hopes of some massive financial gain. Le Chiffre is thrust into a situation where his very life is in danger. Le Chiffre needs to win the poker game because he loses the money he needs to finance his clients, and this is his one and only chance to get back on track. If he loses the game, it's the end of the line for him. This makes Le Chiffre out to be especially human more than anything, because he has motivations that we can get behind and understand. There is no stroking a white cat or hiding out in some heavily guarded fortress for Le Chiffre. This is a man who finds himself in hot water, and he is desperate to do whatever it takes to get out.
- A rock solid Bond and a terrific villain in Le Chiffre are enhanced by an also terrific Bond girl in Vesper Lynd. We first meet Vesper when she accompanies Bond on a train ride to Montenegro, and the two have a great exchange of verbal sparring dialogue, attempting to read one another and guess what they came to Casino Royale for. Never does the film suggest that Vesper is anything resembling a Bond sex object, but rather a real life human being with real emotions and real goals. In one of the most emotional moments in the Bond franchise, Bond finds Vesper sitting alone in a shower while still wearing the fancy dress she was given to wear to the start of the game. Vesper had just witnessed Bond fight and kill two men, and is clearly traumatized by the event. Bond sits by her and comforts her, showing that despite how arrogant and flawed he may be, he still has a softer, more caring side. The script originally had Vesper sitting in the shower in her underwear, but Daniel Craig suggested that Vesper and Bond should leave their clothes on for the scene. The change was approved, and the scene is much more powerful because of it.
- So many high points. The action, on top of everything else, is riveting and completely devoid of anything resembling silliness. Daniel Craig pulls off a lot of his own stunts, including a death-defying leap from a crane when Bond is chasing a man in the first scene after the opening credits. Every action scene feels like a scene you wouldn't find in a standard action film, at least not until the finale, because they are all crafted and put together so wonderfully that you'll want to watch them again and again.
- The first two hours of Casino Royale take a lot of you, because they are that enthralling. As a result, you might be a little gassed for the final twenty minutes, mainly because the film slows down for a bit and lets you catch your breath, only to pick up speed again. That is not to say there's anything wrong with the final twenty minutes. It's just that the film temporarily halts its momentum right around the two hour mark, and because so, the thrill ride we're getting out the film suffers slightly.
Comparing more recent Bond films to older ones is kind of unfair, since the more recent ones have the benefit of technological advancements. And while several of the older Bond films look great for their time, very very few of them are up there with Casino Royale when it comes to being an absolutely fantastic Bond film from top to bottom. Some trade in eye popping action and humor for a well-rounded villain and a memorable Bond girl. Others take a good story and a solid villain in place of visceral thrills and creative gadgets. In other words, Bond films go for doing as much as they can with certain aspects of the Bond formula while minimizing other parts that don't need much focus because, again, it's just flat out impossible to make everything in the formula perfect.
So while Casino Royale is not immune to the formulaic approach, it's still such a stand out Bond film because of how much it gets out of what it goes all in for: presenting Bond in a darker, more serious manner, delivering a villain and a Bond girl who aren't stereotypical in the least, and action that is enhanced by its amazing stunt work. This all comes with an intriguing story that is a casino goer's wet dream, resulting in a Bond package that delivers the goods in all the right ways. The momentum might wane a little in the final twenty minutes, but that's hardly anything resembling a significant flaw for a film that isn't just one of the best Bond films of all time, but also one of the best films to be released during the 2000s.
Recommend? Absolutely. If you are brand new to James Bond, this is my recommendation for the first film to watch.
1988 Hollywood: And the action genre said to Bruce Willis, "Welcome to the party, pal"
Die Hard is directed by John McTiernan and stars Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov, Bonnie Bedelia, and Reginald VelJohnson. The film is based on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp and was the feature film debut for Alan Rickman.
Personally speaking, I refuse to believe that the action genre, as we now understand it in American cinema, existed before the 1980's, the decade where some of the most famous action stars of our time rose to prominence: Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Don Johnson. Sure, car chases, guns a'blazing, and fist fights all existed and had memorable moments in select films that some would argue fit into the action genre before 1980, but when we're talking about an action film: a movie that aims to provide exciting thrills with intense gunfire, fiery explosions, and blood and gore, I say to you, no, I do not believe that such a film exists in American cinema prior to the year 1980. When the 1980's finally did roll around, actions films, particularly great ones, were coming out almost every year. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mad Max 2, The Terminator, Predator, RoboCop, way too many to list.
And as acclaimed and masterfully crafted as several of the 80's action films like those just mentioned above were, it seems that none of them could quite reach the lofty heights of considerably the best action film of the 80's: Die Hard, a film whose inspiration and impact has molded it into one of the greatest and one of the most important action films of all time. Oh yeah, and you can throw in a film that has created an ever-growing pile of imitators, rip-offs, derivative works, whatever similar choice of words you'd want to use. Calling a film great is certainly a worthy complement. I want to think that every group of filmmakers working on a movie wish to make the absolute best of their project. Thing is though, great movies come out all the time, so I use the term great movie sort of loosely. But to call a movie important? Now that, that is an incredibly rare honor, and important is a word that I would only apply to a very select group of films.
To call Die Hard an important film requires a thorough understanding of the action genre and what its expectations are for us as viewers. To start with, the best actions films have a premise that will get your blood pumping and raise your excitement level to a fever pitch. Then, there's the matter of having cohesive and thrilling action sequences that aren't riddled by technical setbacks such as rapid-fire editing or earthquake-inducing shaky cam. But above all else, the best action films present to us a hero who isn't an invincible Superman who can take down all of the bad guys without blinking an eye. The hero is a flawed and vulnerable person, and when he/she finds themselves in a dangerous situation, we fear for their survival.
An exciting premise, top-notch thrills, and a vulnerable hero are all on display in Die Hard, and this leads me to the plot, which has quite a lot going on. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is an off-duty NYPD Detective who arrives in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to meet with his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). John is hoping to reconcile with Holly, as their marriage has been struggling since Holly moved to Los Angeles. Holly works at the Nakatomi Plaza, a massive skyscraper building being run by executive Joseph Takagi (James Shigeta). Takagi has recently completed an important business deal and is holding a Christmas Eve party on the building's 30th floor. But Christmas Eve at the Nakatomi Plaza is also the site of a heist for a group of German terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). The terrorists seize the Plaza and take everyone inside as hostages, except McClane, who manages to evade capture during the takeover. McClane is able to alert the LAPD of what's going on, but with everyone else in the building being taken hostage, he must rely on his own wits to combat the terrorists.
The one unfortunate thing about Die Hard is how it's a victim of its own success. When you have a film that has such an incredible legacy behind it, there are of course going to be other, creativity-deprived people who look at Die Hard and say, "Hey, that was awesome. I wanna do that too!" This has led to the birth of the "Die Hard on a ____" phrase, because Die Hard's premise, a lone hero fighting against a group of like-minded enemies within an isolated setting, has been exhausted and exhausted to no end in the years since the film's release. But this begs the question: Why is Die Hard's premise so susceptible to imitation time and time again? What is it about a lone hero fighting a group of enemies within one location that has led to so many films that pretend like they aren't Die Hard even though it's painfully obvious that the director and/or screenwriters saw Die Hard at some point in time?
- My take on what makes Die Hard's premise so enthralling is that it's the ultimate example of a hero defying incredible odds to come out on top. Again, nothing enhances an action film like a vulnerable hero being placed in a situation where we seriously question if they can actually succeed. John McClane is by himself facing off against 12 fully-armed terrorists who aren't stupid in the slightest. His only form of support comes in the form of radio contact with Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), a police officer who gets sent to investigate the Nakatomi Plaza after McClane calls 911. McClane throws a body onto Powell's car, leading to Powell calling in the LAPD for backup. McClane makes it obvious through his many radio conversations just how much of a stuck-up a-hole that he actually is, admitting to Powell later on that his jerk-ish attitude played a huge role in the unraveling of his marriage with Holly. One of the most famous scenes is McClane dragging himself into a bathroom after his feet get sliced up from walking on broken glass. By this point, McClane is completely worn out, and now, he can barely walk. McClane now has no choice but to dig deep inside himself and somehow pull through.
All of this and more is because of a carefully constructed script by writers Steve E. de Souza and first-timer Jeb Stuart. Anything that might seem like a negligent detail early on in the film, such as Holly putting face down a family photo of her and McClane, becomes a crucial plot element later on. The LAPD may be mere bystanders to all of the action going on inside the Plaza, but they try to take matters into their own hands, resulting in events that also propel the plot forward. The LAPD isn't there just because it makes sense for them to be there. They, along with McClane, affect the actions and decisions of Hans Gruber and the other terrorists. The plot is always moving, even if McClane seems to have stepped aside to take a breather.
- No one in 1988 could imagine that Bruce Willis, the guy who was only known as a comedic TV actor from the show Moonlighting, would go on to be one of cinema's most notable action stars. 20th Century Fox reluctantly gave Willis the role of John McClane after Frank Sinatra (yes, Frank Sinatra, because Fox was contractually obligated to give it to him) turned it down and Arnold Schwarzenegger declined to shoot the film as a sequel to Commando. Willis puts his all into the role, and complementing his terrific performance is Alan Rickman, who gives one of his best performances as Hans Gruber. Several of Rickman's reactions during the film are genuine (for the sake of spoilers, I won't share them here), and a meeting between McClane and Gruber during the film was unrehearsed, creating a better feeling of spontaneity between Willis and Rickman. The two work great together, and are easily one of the best hero-villain duos ever.
- I guess if I had to gripe about something in Die Hard, it's that some of the action/chase sequences between McClane and the terrorists are indecipherable, more from a mise en scene perspective. As McClane runs through the inner parts of the Nakatomi Plaza, it is not always clear as to where he is and what's around him. But this is being incredibly picky and these moments are far and few between that it doesn't diminish anything in the film in the slightest.
So to conclude, I want to bring closure to Die Hard being an important film, not just a great one. We can call Die Hard great by looking at its riveting action sequences, prodigious performances, and smart writing. But to call Die Hard important is to understand its ongoing impact on the action genre. The action genre, before 1988, never saw a film that so expertly portrayed a vulnerable hero who was stuck in one place and overcome seemingly impossible odds to prevail over his/her enemies. True, Indiana Jones was a vulnerable hero who had to overcome odds to achieve his goals, and Sarah Connor had to find a way to succeed against a seemingly unbeatable cyborg. But with John McClane, there were no gimmicks, recognizable outfits, or stuffy machismo. Die Hard is about one man, as much of a troubled human as you and I, who had no one but himself to save the day, and he had to do it without super powers or bulking biceps. It's the ultimate insight into how powerful the action genre can be, as a thrilling good-time, but more importantly, as a mirror into the struggles and resilience that drive people to go out and thrive. That is why Die Hard is important, and considerably the greatest action film to ever grace the silver screen.
Recommend? Absolutely. This is essential viewing for all film lovers.
More human than human
Blade Runner is directed by Ridley Scott and stars Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, and Edward James Olmos. It is based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick and is praised by many people to be one of the best science fiction films of all time.
Out of all the possible genres of film out there, the one that I can say I have the most personal preference to is science fiction. I enjoy watching as wide of a variety of films as I can, but for as long as I can remember, I have always had a soft spot for science fiction. To me, no other genre is as capable of being both smart and exciting as science fiction. Action is usually exciting, but more often than not lacks brains. Drama and biopics may normally be smart, but come up short on excitement. And while there are plenty of exciting, dumb sci-fi flicks as well as smart, boring sci-fi films, the likes of Aliens and the first two Terminator films are prime examples of how science fiction can be both smart and exciting. If there is any one function that science fiction normally serves, whether on film or in book format, it would be to create a fictional reality that, in some way, is a metaphor or thoughtful outlook on the perception of our own real world. It's not always just a bunch of gun-wielding heroes taking down killer aliens or evil robots. That is one end of the sci-fi spectrum that is best spent when one wants to do nothing but shut their brain off for two hours. One could also gravitate towards the other end of the spectrum where the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Metropolis hang out, where guns, violence, and action are practically non-existent, instead focusing on being as thoughtful and layered as can be. So as I go on and on about the endless wonders of science fiction, I'm sure you might be wondering, "If you're so affectionate towards science fiction, do you have a favorite science fiction movie?"
Indeed I do: Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.
Themes regarding man vs. machine are a classic in science fiction. Never will there be another film that so masterfully captures the idea of man vs. machine than Blade Runner. It is a movie that requires multiple viewings, challenging you to marvel about its bleak outlook on the future, as opposed to a glorious chrome paradise that others might suggest. Watching Blade Runner grows more and more interesting by the day, because we'd like to compare its version of 2019 with what the actual 2019 will be once it rolls around, which leads me to the plot.
In 2019 Los Angeles, the Tyrell Corporation has taken Robot evolution into what is called the Nexus phase. The creations are robotic beings known as replicants, who are virtually identical to humans. The replicants were superior in many facets, but were used primarily as slave labor in the process of creating Off-world colonies. A mutiny takes place on one of the Off-world colonies, resulting in replicants being declared illegal on Earth, facing the penalty of death. Special police officers, known as Blade Runners, are trained and given orders to hunt down and kill any replicants that are trespassing on Earth. One of these Blade Runners is Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who is trying to enjoy retirement. However, Deckard is brought back in by his former supervisor and is told that four replicants are running loose nearby. Deckard is ordered to hunt down and kill ("retire" as the film puts it) the trespassing replicants.
It would've been ridiculously easy for Ridley Scott to turn Blade Runner into a popcorn sci-fi action flick. The idea of a man running around and hunting down dangerous trespassers in an advanced, futuristic society is as good of a premise as you could get for a grimy shoot-em-up. You won't find any kind of shoot-em-up here. The most that Deckard wields weapon-wise is his signature pistol gun, and anything that can be appropriately categorized as action throughout the film's 117 minutes boils down to just some gunshots and a few landed fists. Even when we do have violent confrontations, Scott has them so elegantly shot, that the cinematography is nothing short of spectacular. Every death scene is drawn out with amazing dramatic effect that completely blurs the line between hero and villain. There is an age-old question about the film asking if Deckard himself is a replicant. If you've seen the Final Cut (there are so many different cuts that it would takes forever to distinguish them all), the one that seems to be the most recommended, there are clues throughout the film that highly support the claim that Deckard is indeed a replicant.
Deckard hardly resembles anything of a save-the-day hero. He is a troubled man who lives alone in a giant apartment complex, indulging himself with alcohol whenever he gets the chance. The first time I saw the film, I mostly thought it was just bland acting on the part of Ford, since Deckard barely smiles and sports a "just doing my job" attitude throughout. But upon repeated viewings, it became clear to me that it's not right to fault Ford for not being Han Solo, since we're not necessarily supposed to feel any better about Deckard just because he's completing one final assignment. If anything, we might be disappointed in Deckard because he never takes the effort to understand why the replicants are on Earth and what they hope to achieve.
There is a lot of intrigue in learning about the replicants' motives, further adding to how deep and complex that Blade Runner is. These are not machines who only desire world domination. They desire the chance to live, the opportunity to experience life the way a normal human would. The one thing that truly distinguishes a human from a replicant is, at least how it's explained in the book which I did read a while back, a sense of empathy. Deckard and other police officers administer what is called a Voight-Kampff test (coming from a paper by the famous Alan Turing), in which people are asked a series of questions in which their responses are recorded. The questions we see being asked usually come down to a situation in which an animal or other person is put into some kind of distress, such as how would one react if a turtle was flipped over in a hot desert, and it couldn't flip back over onto its feet? Again I must mention that Blade Runner is a film that cannot be fully appreciated and understood after just one viewing. There's just too much going on with its story, characters, and setting that no person could hope to catch everything on just one dry viewing. I've seen the film three times now, and each viewing has added something new.
- The movie is a visual splendor, even though the futuristic world it presents is a dark and depressing one. The opening shot of the film is an overhead view of 2019 Los Angeles with flames coming out of smokestacks from below. There is not a single shot in the film that looks as if it's taking place in the midst of a bright, shiny day. Rain is always falling, streets are overcrowded, and tall buildings are everywhere without a sign of green, grassy forests or colorful flowers. We are told that animals we see during the film, mainly an owl and a snake, are artificial, suggesting that these type of animal species went extinct some time ago. It's a world completely controlled by corporations and technology. Mother Nature is nowhere to be found.
Hold on, I just said the movie is a visual splendor. How in the world can that be true based on what I just described above? It is true that Blade Runner is a film dominated by murky, depressing colors. But the way that Ridley Scott and company go about putting together the neon, techno-fueled Los Angeles is remarkable in a finding beauty in ugliness sort of way.
- Blade Runner is enhanced, not diminished, because of its lack of action. There are only four replicants that Deckard needs to find and "retire", and there's a lot of investigative work for Deckard to go through before he can even get to one. While Deckard is on the hunt, we watch two of the replicants, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) meet with a man named J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson). Sebastian suffers from Methuselah Syndrome, which causes his body to age faster than normal. He and the replicants have something in common: being looked down upon by society because of their inherent differences. There's no time wasted watching Deckard pointlessly maneuver through buildings, trigger-ready. Blade Runner takes its time to set up its characters and deliver big pay offs when they finally clash.
- All of Blade Runner's flaws are so minor that you might not even want to call them flaws. Deckard gets together with Rachel, a replicant woman he meets at the Tyrell Corporation, but in a way that comes off as awkwardly forced. It's easy to look past given the richness of everything else.
My own take on Blade Runner is one that heavily mirrors that of the film's general consensus over time. I first watched it when I had to write an essay on it and Philip K. Dick's novel for a class in college. I didn't think too highly of it, but that was largely because I barely understood it what it was really about. Upon doing extensive research on the film and learning more about it, I could not resist repeated viewings. Now having seen the film on three different occasions over the span of a few years, it has become a sci-fi film that I know I will cherish for years to come. Ridley Scott has given us the finest cinematic example when it comes to talking about man vs. machine and the ever-growing role of technology in our always advancing society. Blade Runner is a neo-noir, frightfully realistic experience that rightfully deserves to be ranked among the very best of science fiction.
1980 retrospective: You have learned much, young Star Wars
The Empire Strikes Back, later re-titled Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back is directed by Irvin Kershner and stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Kenny Baker, and Peter Mayhew. George Lucas served as executive producer and wrote the film's story.
In 1977, George Lucas forever changed the film industry and the blockbuster concept with the release of his fun, fresh, and exciting Star Wars. The success was off the charts, giving way to helping shape Star Wars into the worldwide phenomenon that it is today. Taking into account the way that A New Hope ended, a sequel was inevitable, and the now millions of roaring Star Wars fans would certainly come back hungry for more. By 1980, the year The Empire Strikes Back was released, there was only one such notable example I can think of in which the sequel arguably surpassed its predecessor. That sequel being The Godfather Part II having out shined the worldly beloved The Godfather, though if you want my personal take, I thought the first Godfather was impossible to top (sorry to all you Godfather Part II and III fans out there). But with regards to Star Wars, how could George Lucas and company possibly find a way to not only keep his franchise going strong, but make it even better and more interesting than it already was before? The impossible did indeed happen. Lucas worked and worked his Star Wars brain cells enough to not only deliver a worthy follow-up to one of the cinema's most lauded treasures in A New Hope, but deliver a sequel considerably better than A New Hope.
Lucas heavily limited his involvement in The Empire Strikes Back's production, wanting be independent from Hollywood and also hoping to finance the film with his own money. It seemed like a foolish decision, as many Hollywood producers back then scoffed at the idea of investing one's own money in a project. Turns out the only real trouble that Lucas had during development was in writing the screenplay alongside science fiction author Leigh Brackett. Brackett wrote a first draft in early 1978, but she died of cancer before Lucas could get a chance to speak with her about it. This left Lucas with having to write the next draft himself, which is when he thought up the idea of using Episode numbering as well as the film's infamous plot twist. Lucas offered the directorial role to Irvin Kershner, but Kershner initially turned it down believing that he could never match the success that A New Hope achieved. Kershner's agent made him change his mind, though.
If we all thought A New Hope was a fun and exciting space adventure, then we have another thing coming with The Empire Strikes Back. The fifth episode in the Star Wars universe belongs in a rare breed of films that can be accurately described as a story in which the villain wins. I mean, the title The Empire Strikes Back would automatically tell you that this is a point in the Star Wars time period in which the Empire and the The Dark Side experience some form of success. It's not so open-ended like Wrath of Khan is as a title. So even though this is a film that has its villains emerge victorious, there's no reason to feel cheated or overly upset because there is no sense of closure with this movie. Yes, there will be another sequel. And besides, where's the excitement in watching nothing but the heroes succeed? And as this is a Star Wars villains' film, it requires a darker tone and a more ambitious approach in handling its character development. There is no greater indication of this than the infamous twist, which is so well known in the public eye that I don't know why I'm hesitating to just state it. I suppose I want to be kind to those of you out there who may be reading this and just happen to be new to Star Wars.
Taking place three years after the end of A New Hope, the Rebel Alliance is experiencing hard times in their on-going fight with the Galactic Empire. The Rebels, led by Princess Leia, were driven away from their home base on Yavin IV and set up a new base on the freezing ice planet, Hoth. Luke Skywalker sees the force ghost of the deceased Obi-Wan Kenobi, who instructs Luke to travel out to the swampy Dagobah system in order to find the Jedi Master Yoda and train with him to learn more about the ways of the Force. The Empire locates the Rebel base on Hoth and forces the Rebels to flee once again. Luke travels with R2-D2 to the Dagobah system, while Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C3PO fly on the Millennium Falcon, attempting to escape from Darth Vader and the Imperial Fleet. Han, Leia, Chewy, and C3PO eventually make it to Cloud City, where they meet up with Lando Calrissian, an old friend of Han.
Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and company all reprise their respective roles from A New Hope, and it is worth mentioning how much better Hamill, Ford, and Fisher are with their acting and handling of lines from the script. They all show a lot more confidence in what they're doing, not seeming as if they are trying to force anything or look as if they fear being fired at a moment's notice. But the thing that is really ironic about this film is how this was the least amount of involvement that George Lucas had in a Star Wars episode, and it is considered to this day by many to be the best chapter of the Star Wars saga. Considering that the film continued to take the franchise in the right direction and has basically everything you could want in a Star Wars film, how could you not say it's not the best Star Wars episode? Or let's take it a step further? What's not to say that The Empire Strikes Back should be considered the greatest film sequel of all time?
- The battle on Hoth is the film's most memorable action sequence, in which the Rebel fighter jets combat the Empire's sturdy AT-AT Walkers. Lucas was inspired by the tripod alien ships from H.G. Well's War of the Worlds in his creation of the Imperial walkers, and to successfully create the stop motion movements of the Walkers, animators studied the walking patterns of elephants. If you've seen an elephant walk, you can see quite a striking resemblance with that of how the Walkers maneuver. Anyway, what makes this battle so neat is how it really is a metaphor for the entire movie: The Rebels desperately try to combat the Empire, but this time around, Darth Vader and company are just too much to overcome. The Rebels' guns and turrets stand no chance against the mighty force of the Walker blasters, which easily destroy everything in sight. Even better is how the film can't mask anything or attempt to be sly with its animation or effects, having the battle take place in a bright, snowy environment where basically everything is in plain sight. Lucas planned for this to happen, feeling that he didn't want to "cheat" in a way that someone could with a space battle.
- Luke and Darth Vader engage in the film's lightsaber duel, and much like the Hoth battle, the duel continues to effectively tell the story without plummeting into sheer fan service. Luke tries several times to swipe at Vader, but Vader is able to counter nearly every one of his moves. Vader knows that Luke is good, but that he still has much training to still complete, and because so, Luke isn't able to win. Luke has his lightsaber knocked out of his hands, and gets surprised by a Vader sneak attack, which would be typical setbacks for a premature Jedi.
- It is a rather painful exercise to try and talk bad about such a highly regarded film like The Empire Strikes Back is. The only thing that I can say did upset me in some way was how little C-3PO made an impact on the story. The majority of the film is him following Han and Leia around, usually objecting to anything they choose to do and telling them the odds of survival, a massive no-no in the Star Wars universe. Having a character be annoying in a film is one thing, and that one thing is usually comic relief, but the goal should be to properly using said character's annoyance in a way that can enhance the story, instead of having them come off as wasted space. Han and Leia pretty much take the words right out of your mouth whenever they tell C-3PO to shut up, even going so far as to temporarily shut him down. And in case you were wondering, no, C-3PO is in no way annoying like Jar-Jar Binks was (not even close).
As with all great films, every great thing you could say about it has pretty much been mentioned before by someone else. So what possible new thing could I possibly leave you with about the most acclaimed Star Wars episode? Only this: if there ever was a debate about the greatest movie sequel of all time, then I'm stumped to think of a better choice than The Empire Strikes Back. Not The Godfather Part II, not Terminator 2, and not even Aliens, the latter two of these three being right up there with The Empire Strikes Back in my book. It didn't seem possible that a film as popular and as influential as A New Hope could be matched, let alone leapfrogged for the title "Best Star Wars Movie". But George Lucas did it. He made the impossible happen. He took a story, an idea, a galaxy of endless potential, and a saga that won the hearts and adoration of millions worldwide, and he made it even better. There will never be another The Empire Strikes Back, no matter how ambitious that the new trilogy gets with its new story. One can only wonder what this film would have been like had George Lucas been the director and maintained more creative control.
Recommend? Absolutely, though see A New Hope first.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: