Monday, January 31, 2011

M.W.B.'s 12th Favorite Movie: O Brother Where Art Thou?

Just to keep things interesting, I am going to start up a monthly post series on a topic absolutely essential to the betterment of the world- my favorite movies. So without further ado (and since it is the last day of January), I give you a review I wrote when I was fourteen years old. I would polish it up a bit to bring it up to par with your extremely high standards, but in case you have forgotten, it’s the last day of January.

Rarely does a movie come along that is not only laugh out loud funny, but also exceedingly intelligent. What the Cohen brothers have created in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is something like a cross between the “Three Stooges” and Homer’s “Odyssey” played against the backdrop of the Great Depression.

Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) and two other convicts, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) escape from prison to retrieve a 1.2 million dollar treasure that Everett claims to have stolen and buried. However, they have only four days to recover it, before its burial place is flooded as part of a new hydroelectric project. Coincidentally, this is also the day when Everett’s wife, Penny (Holly Hunter) is planning to marry another man.

The parallels in the movie, to Homer’s “Odyssey” are unmistakable for a well-rounded intellect such as myself. From a one-eyed giant (played by John Goodman) to three beautiful women who seduce the travelers, the Cohen brothers have made the classic tale their own by adding their characteristic wry humor.

The melodic aspect of this movie had been a much discussed topic. Some have even categorized it as a musical. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but music does play a major role in the film. Almost every scene is set to the tune of an old-timey bluegrass song, I doubt you’ll be able to keep your foot from tapping along to the Soggy Bottom Boys version of “Man of Constant Sorrow”.

The makers of the film have produced a brilliant ensemble cast. I can’t imagine any of the characters being played by anybody else. Who better than George Clooney to play the hilarious know-it-all, Everett, or John Goodman as the temperamental one eyed Bible salesman?

Everything about this movie is absolutely spot on, from the washed out color tones, to the signature humor that clearly identifies this movie as a Cohen brothers creation. It has an old-fashioned and welcoming feel, and isn’t quite like any other movie I’ve ever seen.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Oscar Contender No. 1: True Grut

An attribute that I always admire in movies is the ability to defy the expected. It is this characteristic that progression in filmmaking relies solely upon and it is filmmakers who are not afraid to challenge the status quo that will leave their footprint on the history of cinema.

The Cohen Brothers have a reputation as being “mainstream” directors who go against the grain with outrageous plots inundated in intelligent dialogue and allegory for those with a sharp enough eye to catch it. They transform Hollywood actors into legendary characters and never let themselves be restricted by things such as genre. Their unpredictability is not shock-driven, but is rather a byproduct of that rare desire to make a movie without caring what the general public will think of it. This quirkiness goes hand in hand with the Cohen Brothers name. It has come to be expected.

I was as shocked as the next person to hear that the genre-busting brothers were to remake the John Wayne classic, “True Grit”- perhaps the most garishly Western movie ever to come galloping out of the sunset. Now, let’s face it. Westerns aren’t what they used to be. Desert showdowns and 20-gallon hats have been done until they were more tired and dry than a Texas tumbleweed. They were episodes of cheap gallantry at worst and rough-and-tumble humanism at best.

John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn, I would argue, fell somewhere toward the former end of this spectrum. Jeff Bridges does not seek to mimic him but instead creates a Rooster out of the “real west”. He is probably smelly, not pleasant to travel with, and isn’t quite the gun-slinging spring-chicken he presumably once was. His ally is the plucky fourteen year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who is on a quest to avenge her murdered father. As far as grit goes, the duo certainly isn’t going to run dry any time soon.

The Cohen Brothers put into play some of the elements that made the classic Westerns great- spellbinding landscapes, moments of tense isolation broken by the thunder of gunfire, and larger-than-life characters who gradually become more and more human.

When we are introduced to Mattie and Rooster, it is evident that these are two characters that have experienced the wildest of the Wild West and are right capable of taking care of themselves. But Mattie is growing up and Rooster is growing old and even the grittiest of the gritty needs a healthy dose of friendship to help them along the lonesome trail of life. You can’t fend for yourself until you can fend for others.

I never expected the Western to make a comeback with modern audiences. I don’t expect that it will. But it is in giving new life to one of the most formulated genres around that two filmmakers pushed the boundaries of their own ability as well as the ability of today’s moviegoers to appreciate a piece of good, old-fashioned filmmaking.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reader's Pick #1: East Of Eden

The confusion of adolescence, the eclipse of love and jealousy, the concern with one’s origins, and the innocence of a first-time film actor meld into one great emotional surge of a movie that is Elia Kazan’s “East of Eden”.

The film is based on the latter portions of John Steinbeck’s epic (and hefty) saga, focusing on the dynamic of the Trask family in sweeping, picturesque California. We are engaged especially with the younger of two sons, Cal (James Dean), and his relationship with his father and brother. The Trask family patriarch (Raymond Massey) is an aspiring businessman with a preference for Cal’s dutiful older brother Aron (Richard Davalos) and a want to control that which he does not understand.

Cal is heedless and daring. He is also intelligent and business-savvy and tries to win his father’s affection by assisting him in ventures with vegetable refrigeration. Nevertheless, his father’s love continues to be directed toward Aron whom the father feels he can better relate to, leaving Cal to be valued only with authority and disregard.

No one can ever forget the first time the world clamped eyes on James Dean. His hunched figure on the sidewalk in his tawny sweater and quizzical gaze, peering up from beneath a shock of tangled hair became a symbol of adolescence, of being misunderstood, and of wondering where life is going to take you.

“East of Eden” was the first of James Dean’s three films and the only one released during his lifetime. Unpolished by a lack of experience, Dean’s performance is guileless and raw; we can’t take our eyes off of him. Having yet to assume an acting style of his own formation, Dean flavors his performance with an appropriate smack of Marlon Brando influence and a measure of feral improv. His inexperience lends its self exceptionally to a role that requires budding virility charged with vulnerability and insecurity.

Jo Van Fleet plays Kate, Cal and Aron’s long lost mother who has broken free from her husband’s domination to become the madam of a successful local brothel. We learn that it is from her that Cal inherited his high-strung personality and intellect as well as his financial diligence and it is because of this semblance to his mother that he has become estranged from his father. He differs from her only in his desire to please and be loved by her husband.

Just as Cain murders Abel in the Biblical story that was the inspiration behind Steinbeck’s novel, Cal’s romance with Aron’s girlfriend, Abra (Julie Harris) pushes Aron to his breaking point, recklessly enlisting in the military- an act which had previously been against his and his father’s ideals. And making his father question how well he really understood his beloved son.

“East of Eden” is both tender and lurid in its fervent look at the complexity of human growth and familial bonds. It makes clear the necessity to forgive in order to progress, and it expresses our need to understand one another because that which is misunderstood can never be loved.

It is because Cal sought to understand that in the eyes of moviewatchers, he will never grow old.

What Critics Do For Fun

Here is how I spent the last several hours of my life. Don't even ask about the carpet.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Books That Even A Movie Snob Can Love

True, I may spend every waking moment of my life in passionate dedication to the movies. I may have more movies on my Netflix queue than there are books in the library. And yes, the thought of entering the movie section at Barnes and Nobel with a gift card in hand is almost too pleasurable for me to physically handle. However, I am not completely illiterate. In fact, I enjoy a good book just as much as the next self-proclaimed intellectual. So without further ado, here is a list of the books that I would read even on the opening night of a Tarantino movie.*

No, this one isn't on the list just to confirm that I am, in fact, an intellectual. Through its philosophy of the weightlessness of life, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Milan Kundera examines the fleeting artistry of politics, love, death, women, men, and above all, thought in a way that only an intellectual could appreciate.

Chocolate and Sandra Boynton. Need I say more?

I can think of no one who paints a better picture with words than my author friend, Judy Sutcliffe. "A Collection of Old Men" is a series of exquisite portraits of elderly gentlemen who entered her life at one point or another. It is modestly beautiful and refreshingly personal.

I'm not going to lie. I don't understand a word that ever dripped out of James Joyce's pen. Example: He gnawed on the recititude of his life; he felt that he had been outcast from life's feast.

But how can you not love that?

Yes. It is a dead-serious book on gnomes. Written by Wil Huygen, "Gnomes" is as interesting as it is irrelevant.

I can think of at least fifty authors whose way with words I dearly long to posses. Dean Bakopoulos is among them; but unlike Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare, Bakopoulos, who is a professor at Iowa State University, will inspire you to try. His book, "Please Don't Come Back from the Moon" is delicately surreal as it makes a point about our desire to fill in the blanks of life and society by replacing the absent and becoming absent ourselves, in return.

"A Confederacy of Dunces" is the darkest brand of comedy around. It is grotesquely, royally, bitingly, funny with dialogue the likes of which could only be found in a book.

Yes, I know it's on every ladies' book club reading list in the country, but "Like Water For Chocolate" is just about as sensual an allegory as you are likely to find. Dinner will never taste the same again.

The Mistress of Murder- The Dame of Death... I am an absolute sucker for anything Agatha Christie. It's the murder mystery genre the way it should be done... a deadly concoction of rapier-like wit, acute knowledge of human nature, and logic so airtight it just might take your breath away.

Bad pun intended.

*While waiting in line at the theater, of course.

Friday, January 7, 2011

It Isn't Easy To Runaway From Your Career

“The Runaways” is advertised as being a lot of things. It is supposedly the story of the rise and fall of the first all-girl rock group. It is said to be an inspiration for young women to follow their hearts and defy the standards of society. It is allegedly a period piece, dramatizing life as a teen in California’s 1970s music scene. It is publicized as the movie where “Twilight” costars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart share a kiss. Yet, in much the same way that the real Runaways defied their origins as an advertising gimmick of sorts, all of the previously mentioned elements play but a small role in the 2010 film, titled after the ‘70s rock band.

And that is the first misleader. Of the five members of the band, three are all but ignored and one is written as a fictional stand-in with no lines, due to a legal battle involving her real-life counterpart. Instead, attention is directed toward the personal lives of guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), both of whom were in their teens when they played with the Runaways.

Currie is a bleach-blonde California girl, complete with bell-bottoms and a love of David Bowie. Her parents are divorced and her father is an alcoholic. She doesn’t fit in at school and seeks to escape her suburban hell by hanging out in dingy dance clubs. It is there that she meets the young, leather-clad Joan Jett, a female electric guitarist with a black guitar pick and her own interpretation of “On top of Old Smokey”. The two become united with the eccentric record producer, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) through the notion of starting an all-girl rock group. The rest of the musicians seem to materialize out of thin air and before too long the band is on the road to stardom in a station wagon stuffed with drugs, alcohol, and hormones.

Due to their popularity with “Twilight’” fans, Stewart and Fanning’s turn towards more risqué material was a guaranteed audience draw for many of the same reasons that the Runaways became a big hit. Not surprisingly, the actresses’ maturity levels appear to be leaps and bounds ahead of the media’s. I have not seen the “Twilight” films, but if Stewart’s performance as Joan Jett is overshadowed by their fame, it will truly be an infamy. She is not a great actress, but rather a great chameleon. Her body’s actions transform her into a detailed and physically perfect replica of Joan Jett, even if the script doesn’t allow for much development beyond that.

Fanning is the polar opposite of Stewart. Where Stewart appears hunched, bored, and dumbfounded when confronted with her own celebrity, Fanning glows with confidence. Her “Cherie” is not a carbon copy of the singer, but rather her own interpretation of the person who would have developed out of Cherie's life circumstances. Fanning shows wisdom by taking creative liberty with the unsubstantial material she is presented with and using it to create a relatable character.

In “The Runaways”, much attention is paid to Currie’s emotional instability when it comes to dealing with fame. She passes out repeatedly, steals drugs from her sick father, and eventually winds up folding linens in a wedding shop after leaving the band. But no amount of drugs or drama can falter Jett’s thirst for music. Even while in a hazy stupor during a party, she still manages to show a girl the correct way to strum a guitar. It is moments like these that define what “The Runaways” is all about. It is a movie about shaping your career. About creating a life based upon your passions, not on running away from your insecurities. Unfortunately, many young celebrities make decisions based upon the latter and end up destroyed by their profession. Joan Jett defied this scenario and went on to become one of the greats in her medium. I can see Fanning following in her footsteps.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Got Milk?

Harvey Milk liked Opera and played football in high school. He had heavy eyelids, protruding ears, and at one point grew a moustache. He worked on Wall Street, in an insurance firm, and served in the US Navy. He ran for office three times before he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978.

He is an American icon because by assuming public office, he was the first openly gay man in the United States to do so.

The life of Harvey Milk did not throb with heroism, nor was it especially political; it was simply the life of right man in the right place at the right time. This is something that a biopic could easily ignore in light of his historic impact on the American gay rights movement. However the 2008 film “Milk” is a compilation of the right director, the right actor, and the right screenplay—and the result is as humbly momentous as the man it mortalizes.

It is a film that encompasses the very soul of American cinema. Boisterous demonstrations to a soundtrack of honking bullhorns and chanting voices radiate a sense of urgency and empowerment; tender love scenes cause goosebumps to spring up on the back of your neck, real footage from the 1970s interspersed with a perfectly recreated world of the California hipster-haven arouse nostalgia, and an operatic candlelight vigil and epilogue warrants moist eyes.

Watching Sean Penn act in this movie, there is no doubt that he is one of the great actors alive today. The conviction and humanity that Penn brings to his every performance manifests its self here with overwhelming veracity. With a smile on his face and not an ounce of gallantry, he assumes the character of a man stuck in life, and who pulls himself forward and brings America with him.

The most complex element of the film is Milk’s relationship with his fellow supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin). It is all too clear that White’s overt homophobia casts a dark shadow over his self-esteem. His “perfect” family and equally “perfect” principles take on a lurid edge as he tries to better associate himself with Milk and becomes jealous when public image prohibits him from embracing his own individuality. Perhaps this is why he assassinated Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone on November 27, 1978.

The story of Harvey Milk is not uniquely isolated to the gay community or even the gay rights movement. Milk was a man who stood up and fought for all the people who were being forced to sit down. He defied the odds by opening the door to a better America that we are still trying to walk through today. We are a country of individuals with every opportunity to use that individuality to make a difference for our nation. A movement begins with an idea and an idea begins with a person; it may take time to spread but we are a determined nation and we will get there. America is only as great as the citizens who make their voices heard.