New Series: Why you should Love this Movie

In recent days I’ve been thinking a lot about a question that was posed at a conference I attended. The speakers were debating the merits or demerits of a certain sect of cinema – whether it helps or hurts its cause – and they posed the following quandry:  “how do people who don’t know much about movies, who don’t follow or study film, how do they hear about great films?  How do they become aware of movies that deserve to be seen?”

This struck a chord with me.  I grew up in Northeast Tennessee, about as isolated from Hollywood as possible.  People liked movies a lot – our Cineplex was constantly filled despite its terrible quality (I recognize this in hindsight now).  But even for me, someone who decided that the study of cinema was to be my life’s pursuit, I was not aware of the vast quantities of incredible movies that get a small release and miss the mainstream entirely; films that we simply never hear about because our market is too small and, at that time, the connections of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime had not yet been established.

So then, my thoughts turned to the question.  How could I be a part of the solution – spreading the word about certain films, old and new, that deserve to be seen by broader audiences?  I know that most of the people who read this blog are probably family or friends, either from back home in Tennessee or those I’ve met here in Movie-land, but primarily people who are looking for the good stuff; people who would love to see great movies but just don’t hear about them.

Thus, I got the idea to start a new series of posts entitled

Why you should Love this movie

These will be short posts about a film (a la the Criterion Three Reasons videos), in which I expound on why that movie deserves your attention.  My hope is that this can be a bridge for people who are not connected to the film world to find works that are powerful, uplifting, and potentially life-changing. I hope you’ll come along this journey with me.  Hopefully this will be of some use to you.  Hopefully it will give you a longer Netflix queue or a conversation topic for the workplace.  Hopefully this can start the effort to get the word out and improve our viewership and critical response to a world I care deeply about.  Thanks for stopping by and keep an eye out for this new series coming soon.


Film Review: Grand Piano

Hitting all the right notes, this low-radar thriller is pitch-perfect.

Grand PianoF

A ridiculously fun premise lures the viewer into this exciting musical thriller.  Smartly shot and an auditory tour de force, it presents a surprisingly amusing ride through perfectionism and rediscovering purpose.  Aptly born of a man with history as a Composer, director Eugenio Mira orchestrates some stunning visuals, great performances, and a musical score to make any classical fan happy.

Grand Piano centers around a special example of the title item and the young man destined to play it. Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is a piano prodigy on the edge; returning to the stage after a performance anxiety-induced mental breakdown, he prepares to make his comeback at a memorial concert for his mentor’s passing.   Selznick is reunited with the one-of-a-kind Bosendorfer piano he learned on and more importantly, with the “unplayable” piece that recently put him out of commission.  However, all his fears about retaking his place behind the ivories skyrocket to new heights when he finds a note in his music saying he must perform perfectly or die.

Built on a great script by recent Sundance victor Damien Chazelle, Grand balances good story and engaging technical execution.  Elijah Wood turns in a fantastic performance as the terrified pianist. With some help from the camera work, he produces a believable enactment of the concerto.  Further, fellow castmates Kerry Bishé, Tamsin Egerton, Allen Leech, and Alex Winters provide excellent performances that give the world flavor.  In particular, John Cusack’s dedicated villain and Don McManus as the friendly, sage-like conductor are both superbly acted, creating respectively a perfect foil and prod for the protagonist’s journey.

Also on display is the beautiful cinematography and lighting.  Art Deco stylisms permeate the film, lending a regal quality to the already beautiful concert hall, while heightening the narrative tension with visual language.  In particular, the use of strong, contrasting lines of color draw the eye to the subject in classy fashion.  Also, DP Unax Mendía finds new ways of showcasing the title item in a flurry of inventive shot choices.

But without one element specifically, the film would have surely flopped.  The score is magical and integrates seamlessly into the narrative, sliding easily between the on-screen performance and the non-diegetic space.  Melodic and technically complicated, the orchestration compliments the film’s tone and vice versa.  Capping it off, “La Cinquette” proves to be just as complicated as promised, lending a perfect climax to the narrative arc.

Grand Piano is wonderfully shot, simply written, and tight for its narrative purpose.  It marks a great first step onto the world stage for a crew of young, talented filmmakers from around the globe – all of whom have promising futures.  As a thriller, it provides a roller coaster of pleasurable tension sure to please audiences of any age.  A fun watch, this musical gem exhibits a solid appreciation for music, translating that respect beautifully into the cinematic arts.


SFC12: The Deer Hunter

Strap in, folks.  This is one is going to be rough.  With only a month left in my Summer Film Challenge 2012: Apocalypse Edition, I am getting in the Olympic spirit and making a strong, “Final Lap” push to finish the remaining 11 films before the summer is out.  Ryan and I recently got a great opportunity to cross one of our shared classics off the Challenge in spectacular fashion.  Ryan’s internship in Santa Monica happens to be very close to a tiny little theatre called the Aero, which is affiliated with the American Cinematheque – a society dedicated to the preservation and appreciation of classic cinema.  So, we carved some time out of our busy schedules to make the trip down there one evening and saw the 1978 Best Picture winner, The Deer Hunter, on the big screen.

And let’s just say that I doubt anything on earth could have really prepared us for it.

How is one to talk about this film?  The Deer Hunter is a powerfully disturbing movie, one that I don’t know that people can “like” but rather one that we can appreciate for it’s intense realism and unrelenting dedication giving me a true picture of the chaos of that age.  I have never seen a film about the Vietnam war that more viscerally and unashamedly depicts the horrors of war than Deer Hunter.

Briefly summarized, the film revolves around the lives of five small town friends who live, work, and hunt together.  Robert De Niro stars as Michael, a disciplined and introverted hunter drafted into Vietnam with his friend Nick (Walken).  They enjoy their last days of civilian life celebrating the marriage of their buddy, Steven (John Savage) and then all three are shipped overseas to experience the barbarity of war directly.  **SPOILER** The pair are abducted and stuck in a prison camp where they are forced to play Russian Roulette for the amusement of their captors.  Barely escaping alive, Michael and Steven return to the US, while Nick, still dealing with the emotional and psychological turmoil of his experiences, devolves into a madman.  Michael learns of this and flies back to Vietnam to bring his friend home, only to find him still competing in Russian Roulette games for money – all traces of sanity gone.  His last game goes sour and, upon bringing the fallen hero home, the community mourns the loss of their friend.  **END**

Normally, this is the part of the review where I would begin making jokes about the way Walken acts. However, here I cannot even begin to criticize his work.  Giving the greatest performance of his career, Christopher Walken masters the happy-go-lucky turned Kurtz character and gives life to one of the truest, most heart-wrenching roles I have ever seen.  His portrayal of the man caught up in the “Fascination with the Abomination” that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness explores is without doubt the epitome of that philosophy embodied.

Beyond Walken’s masterful performance, which earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, the rest of the cast gave phenomenal performances.  Robert De Niro’s serious intensity plays out brilliantly as we watch his character’s love of hunting and rigorous discipline be stripped away as the horrors of war beset him.  And what can one say about Meryl Streep, other than that she is the perfect chamelion – morphing into whatever character she is given and providing a flawlessly passionate performance as always.  The supporting cast shines brightly behind the stars, adding to the story-world’s marvelously real feel, and ultimately they made me believe in the protagonists all the more. Really brilliant all around.

What truly inspired me about The Deer Hunter was the fact that it sought to be a film about “Life After”. Most films about war seek to express the visceral intensity of a single moment in history.  For example, Saving Private Ryan, a film I have never been particularly fond of, is about the extreme situation several thousand soldiers went through in storming the beaches of Normandy.  Consisting almost entirely of that ONE scene, the film then ends with a shot of the old man crying as he remembers that ONE moment in his life.

Deer Hunter chooses a different and, in my opinion, higher path by focusing not on the life-changing event itself, but on the life AFTER that event.  Instead of doing what countless Rom/Com’s do, this film starts on a marriage and then examines what life does to the newlyweds after the honeymoon. Rather than taking that low-hanging fruit of simply recreating a battle, Deer Hunter looks at the effect war has on the soldiers who fight it.  Not stopping at death, the filmmakers make us look at the life after that, and it is that narrative and psychological step which makes this film so much better than any war film I have ever seen.  It perfectly reflects the introspection that the Vietnam War forced Americans to partake in – exploring the world as it really is rather than as it is cinematically portrayed.

To illustrate how powerful this film is, let me tell you that by the end of the film, Ryan and I began to hear people in the audience weeping.  Not tears quietly running down faces, but great heaving sobs which racked my soul as well as theirs.  To me, a 21-year-old college student who’s only experience with war is having family and friends who knew it, the film meant to me only as much as an intellectual and emotional insight into the mentality of post-war America at that time.  But, to those people in the audience, Deer Hunter meant a return to the atrocities they had to live through themselves – either firsthand or by the memories of those friends and family who might not have truly made it back from Vietnam.  My heart went out to those people now living their own “life after” and I can honestly say a hearty congratulations to the filmmakers for making such a profoundly touching movie as this.

To recommend this film to you, I must highly caution that it is not something to be trifled with.  If you are seeking a war film that will lift your patriotic spirit and give you hope, then please find another film. The Deer Hunter is easily one of the most gripping and intense cinematic experiences I have every taken part in and so I do promote it to anyone who is looking for a film that can change their life.  If you are willing to be broken down to the core by a film that has no qualms handing you a tough three hour experience, you will hardly find a better candidate than this film.

Final Rating:  10//10

One final thought before I let this go.  This is the one and only film about the Vietnam War you will ever see that does NOT have a sequence set to CCR’s “Fortunate Son”!   🙂

Well there you go!  Let me know what you thought of this film in the comments below.  Also, check out the podcast below that Ryan and I did reviewing this film!  It gets interesting…

As I said previously, I will be rushing headlong towards September 5th – the first day of school and what Ryan and I have deemed the end of summer – trying to watch the remaining 10 films I have left, plus finishing my tv show.  I have never completed a Summer Film Challenge on time as of yet but I intend to make the last year of existence my first victory there.  So, get ready for a “Slew of Reviews” in the coming weeks and I hope you will join me in this race to the finish of the…

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SFC12: Field of Dreams

Well here we are again.  Another Summer Film Challenge 2012 review, and this time we turn to a classic which neither Ryan nor I had seen.  When we put it on the list, I had really high hopes for it, despite the fact that I knew a lot of what it was about.  Yet, I was really underwhelmed by what some consider a really fantastic film, and I can only say that they must be referring to the potential this film had when they called it Field of Dreams.

Let me first say that when Ryan and I were considering adding this film to our list, I was rather excited. I have a particular affinity for baseball movies, likely because it reminds me of a part of my childhood. So, knowing that this was considered to be a classic bit of American cinema about the great American pastime, I had really high hopes for loving the film.

Part of what I think through me off about Field of Dreams was that I, like any self respecting filmmaker, knew that it was about a guy hearing a voice telling him “If you build it, he will come.”  That part is such common knowledge that I doubt anyone could watch this film with no understanding of its cultural importance.  I also had been **SPOILED** that the phrase was a misdirection, making you think it means Shoeless Joe when it really refers to Kevin Costner’s estranged father.  Now, it is important to note that while I watched the film, I had forgotten that latter part, so I came in thinking “I know what this movie is about, but I just can’t remember it.”  Thus, with some spoilers in place already, my expectations were that Field of Dreams would be about a man trying to build a baseball field in his yard so that he could connect with an old hero.  But clearly my expectations were foiled.

The greatest criticism I have for this film is that there is absolutely NO CONFLICT!!!  When I started college as a young and ignorant filmmaker, I questioned every convention about storytelling – including the necessity of having conflict in a film.  But then I saw Adaptation and was set straight, and this film did nothing but reinforce my certainty that there must be some form of opposition that the characters must deal with.  As I just mentioned, I expected the film to be about the financial and social struggles of a man living a form of the Noah story.  However, I was stunned when, less than 20 minutes into the film, the field was built and the family was moving on to bigger things.  I found myself wondering what was going to happen next and I think I was able to shift my thinking to enjoy the rest of the film.  However, I cannot ignore the fact that what I thought was going to be a central conflict of the film was not even an obstacle for the characters.

The problem is that this set the precedent for the rest of the film.  My friend Ryan had a great thought about the relationship between Ray (Costner) and his wife Annie (Amy Madigan).  Yet, this again removed a very strong potential source of conflict from the mix.  Further, the issue was raised that the family would not be able to pay for the farm if they built the field and for a time that financial issue became a challenge as Annie’s brother, the locale real estate broker, threatened to take their land away.  But, one short game of baseball later, that fell apart too.  Try to convince an old Freedom Fighter to go to a baseball game with you?  No Problem!  Baby girl nearly dies from a bit of hotdog? No Problem!  For heaven’s sake, hearing voices in a large, isolated place is exactly how The Shining came about and even THAT was not enough to slow our heroes down!

All work and no problems make Costner a dull boy….

Really what Field of Dreams is is a glorified Lifetime movie.  It is heart-warming, touching, inspiring, with a solid base of great moral lessons about having faith amidst adversity (?), supporting family no matter what, etc.  Yet it doesn’t have the type of serious external adversity found in other Hollywood films, which makes character transformation and and strong values so poignant.  Honestly, I would say this is, at best, a pre-Sandlot film – explaining how Mr. Mertle lost his eyesight.  It simply doesn’t hold weight.  For me to care about a character’s growth, he/she has to struggle to over come something to get there, so that the development is in fact earned.

Sad to say, this film very simply underwhelmed me.  I was just bored with it and, while I liked some of the acting and the bright tone was very well made, I just can’t get behind a story that involves no real change.  **SPOILER** I mentioned earlier that I had forgotten that the film was about the father.  Well, it only took me about half the film to remember because they began “subtly” reintroducing that concept, and I say “subtly” because half the time the references are so vague that one would never see them and the other half are the type of (ironic appropriate) baseball bat smacks to the head that I have come to hate.  It simply isn’t set up well and therefore doesn’t pay off in the end the way it should.

Still, Field of Dreams is a classic and it definitely should be seen.  While I think it is one of the weakest classics I have ever seen, it still does hold emotional merit and power which earns it the right of being on certain best film lists.  However, prepare yourself for a film that lacks the mental stimulation and topical poignancy that other masterpieces of cinema past.  It’s no Citizen Kane, but how can you say no to the Mariner and Mufasa?

Final Rating:  5//10

Yup!  One of the only 5’s I have ever given for a Summer Film Challenge movie, and I am sure that some of you disagree with me.  Let me know what you thought in the comments about Field of Dreams and my review.   As usual, below you will find Ryan’s and my podcast review for this film:

Next up on the plate is another classic, but this one has a much different tone (and reception).  So, join me again soon for my SFC12 review of the 1978 classic:  The Deer Hunter.  

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SFC12: The Apartment

Time for yet another review for the Summer Film Challenge 2012: Apocalypse Edition.  My Senior Seminar class is drawing to a close and, between researching the narrative capabilities of interactive video games, I found time to sit down and enjoy a nice date night with my girlfriend.  We enjoyed a nice dinner and then decided to check out the next film on the SFC12.  And, while that normally would have been a TERRIBLE idea, this time turned out to be a really good thing.  So, without further ado, here is my review for:

This film really surprised me.  Partially because I didn’t research it at all and, by sharing proximity to such films as Dark City and Pan’s Labyrinth, I assumed it would be a dark, noir-ish film.  However, I was pleasantly surprised that it was a more humorous film, though it didn’t lose that topicality and poignancy.

I feel the best way to describe The Apartment is to say that it is one part Philadelphia Story, and one part Arsenic and Old Lace.  There is a dry, witty humor to it that is mixed with a really serious underlying social issue being examined.  The plot revolves around C.C. Baxter, an up-and-coming business man in an insurance firm, and the favors he does for his bosses.  In short, he relinquishes his apartment to them for their extra-marital dalliances, and in return they help him rise in the company’s ranks.  Everything is going fine until the boss catches wind, and then becomes a client of the apartment as well, taking the girl Baxter likes and leaving him high and dry.  Baxter has to choose between letting the girl he likes get taken by this heartless boss, or risk his job to stand up for her.

The plot and storyline are a beautiful mix of frustration humor and simply witty writing, which plays perfectly with the great cast they have.  Jack Lemmon is a personal favorite of mine and I felt this might have been his best role ever, though I can only assume that it was after his experiences at the apartment that he ran away, became a musician, and started cross-dressing his way into Marilyn Monroe’s heart.  Similarly, Fred MacMurray gave a phenomenal performance as the insensitive boss, and it makes sense that after the events of this film, he went back to school, became a professor and invented Flubber. 🙂  All joking aside, both leading men did fantastically, and Shirley MacLaine played the beautifully torn woman caught in the middle of it all.  Even if the plot had been terrible, I feel this cast would have worked flawlessly together.

But the plot was NOT terrible.  In fact, I found it to be one of the best for its time that I have come across.  As I mentioned earlier, it is a fascinating mix of both witty humor that one expects from a Jack Lemmon film, and social commentary on the burgeoning roles of women in the workplace and society.  The film goes a long way to objectify women as simple sex-objects, yet shows the men doing so to be evil, conniving individuals that you quickly come to hate.  Thus, while recreating the world of post-war boom for women entering the market place as workers, The Apartment provides beautiful commentary on the sexism rampant throughout that time, and I find that very empowering.  The film speaks greatly to women’s individual value and promotes the kind of selfless hero that I absolutely love.

Ultimately I think the film was a masterpiece.  Both entertaining and poignant, The Apartment is a great example that a film can be those things simultaneously – a fact that seems to have been neglected in the past few decades.  Simple things like the bubbling champagne at end being a metaphor for the sexual and emotional tension between Baxter and Fran are wonderful reminders of the smart filmmaking of days-gone-by.  Refreshingly “old school” yet progressive in spectacular ways, The Apartment should be at the top of any cinema lover’s list.

Rating:  10//10

Suddenly, I really want a Derby…

There you go!  Film number four down and only 12 more to go.  In fact, I have seen a couple of other films while writing this review and so expect more Summer Film Challenge 2012 critiques to be up soon.  Let me know what you thought of The Apartment, and as is usual now, check out the lively discussion below between Ryan and I about this film and his take on one of my personal favorites, The Secret of Kells:

Thanks for sticking with me and I will see you all very soon for another review on the Soontobeangel blog.

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