Friday, March 25, 2011

1973 - American Graffiti

This week, I saw a preview screening of Source Code starring Jake Gyllenhaal. I enjoyed it - I love all movies, remember - but I feel compelled to comment on one aspect of the film that left me wanting. First, let me say that I'm all for suspension of disbelief. Part of what makes the movie-going experience so wondrous is the fantastical element. It's an escape. I get that. Not every movie needs to be a thinker. And Source Code certainly centres itself around a highly implausible concept. Which is perfectly fine. It is what it is and I accept that.

But here's a tip, Hollywood. The attempts to justify implausible concepts with nonsensical science talk is probably unnecessary. You're really just adding to the implausibility. As a self-confessed science nerd, I find it less convincing when you try to cement the crazy idea in reality. The whole point is that it's not reality, so there's really no need for a scientific explanation. Charlie Kaufman didn't bother inventing some complicated theory of alternative physics to explain why a door behind a filing cabinet leads to John Malkovich's consciousness. He knew that it was a wacky notion and no amount of scientific analysis would make it any less insane, so he cleverly let the idea stand for itself.

And here's another tip. If you do decide to set up some scientific rules for the world of this narrative, it's probably a good idea not to ignore them during your resolution. Verisimilitude. Look it up.

Yesterday, I watched the first in our look at the Best Picture nominees from 1973...

American Graffiti
George Lucas
George Lucas, Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck
Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Wolfman Jack, Bo Hopkins, Harrison Ford
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

One night in 1962, four recent high school graduates cruise the streets. Steve (Howard) is heading off to college the next day and attempts to break the news to his girlfriend Laurie (Williams) that he wants to see other girls while he's away. Curt (Dreyfuss) has all but decided to forgo the college experience much to his friends' disgust. He spends the night chasing down a mysteriously gorgeous blonde woman he spies in a passing car. Terry the Toad (Smith) takes Steve's car cruising and manages to pick up a beautiful woman named Debbie (Clark). And Milner (Le Mat), the James Dean of the bunch, goes cruising for women but ends up stuck with a 12-year-old girl instead.

The similarities between American Graffiti and iconic television sitcom Happy Days are almost too uncanny to ignore. Apart from the obvious similarity in the time periods of both productions, they also feature the same star. Ronny Howard (as he was known then) found himself starring on the small screen show within a year of his leading performance in American Graffiti. George Lucas selected Bill Haley and the Comets' popular Rock Around the Clock to play over the opening credits to his film. And before the famous Happy Days theme song was written, the producers used the very same Rock Around the Clock to open each episode of the first season. Then there's Cindy Williams. In American Graffiti, she plays Howard's girlfriend, though she is probably better known for her co-starring role in the Happy Days spin-off Laverne and Shirley. In another coincidence, Richie Cunningham and Shirley Feeney go on a date in an episode of Happy Days.

These similarities are augmented by the episodic nature of the film's narrative to lend a distinct television show feel to American Graffiti. Many scenes play out like a comedy sketch, complete with a punchy conclusion, and the whole story takes place in just one night. Additionally, the four main characters, for the most part, lead separate subplots, only coming together at the beginning and the end. Consequently, we jump back and forth between each of these distinct storylines, in much the same way as an ensemble sitcom.

Irrespective of this small screen feel, American Graffiti is just plain fun. The lifestyle of this subsection of society is portrayed with much fondness by Lucas, who lends his own nostalgia of the time to his audience. The riding around all night in cars - or cruising, as it was known - looks incredibly entertaining, particularly the oddly dangerous activity of carrying on conversations with drivers of adjacent cars. Not to mention the prevalence of young girls gladly hopping into cars driven by complete strangers. (Did that really happen?) Adding to the nostalgia is the toe-tapping music. I didn't even grow up in the 1960s, but hearing all those rock and roll hits somehow made me long for days gone by.

Richard Dreyfuss in his breakout role is superb, even though he looks a bit too old to have just left high school. (He was 24 during shooting.) Another star in the making, Harrison Ford delivers a fine performance  as a cocky drag racer. Keen viewers will recognise Kathleen Quinlan (credited here as Kathy) in a small role as a friend of Laurie's. And that's Suzanne Somers as the girl of Curt's dreams. Also note the license plate of Milner's car, a reference to Lucas' earlier movie, THX 1138.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Best Picture of 2005

There is a contingent of Oscar pundits who consider the result of the 2005 Best Picture race as the Academy's worst decision in its storied history. Indeed, there are plenty who rank Crash as the worst film to have claimed the prestigious title. Of course, there will always be contrarians, for the Academy will never please all of the people all of the time. Besides, there is no real evidence to suggest that their 2005 decision was any more unpopular with the general public than any other year. Yet that myth persists. Comparing the public opinion of Crash with its main competitor, Brokeback Mountain, yields fairly even results. Brokeback Mountain clearly won the battle for the box office, yet Crash boasts a slightly higher score on IMDb's user ratings. (In fact, it just squeezes into IMDb's Top 250.) Over at Rotten Tomatoes, Brokeback Mountain scores higher with the critics, but Crash remains the victor with the audience. So, perhaps this particular contest garnered more attention because of the controversial accusations of the Academy's homophobia. Why else would they have snubbed Brokeback Mountain after it had won the Best Picture award at almost every other ceremony that season? But if that were really the case, it would never have received so many nominations in the first place, let alone won three awards, including a Best Director gong for Ang Lee. In any case, it is certainly not rare for an awards season darling to surrender the Oscar to another film. I say all this not only in defense of the Academy, but also to concede that I am respectfully content with their decision ... Whether it matches my own, however, I am yet to decide...

The nominees for Best Picture of 2005 are:
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Capote
  • Crash
  • Good Night, and Good Luck.
  • Munich
Interestingly, the list of 2005 contenders is not as diverse as in so many other years. The five films are all intense dramas that deal with some rather serious issues - murder, racism, terrorism, political scare-mongering. I suppose only Brokeback Mountain bucks the trend with its complex love story, but even so, it still spends plenty of time exploring the homophobic atmosphere of its setting, which puts it back in line with the other serious-issue nominees.

Both Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck feature superb performances, not only by their lead actors, but also by their talented ensembles. However, a verdict must be made, so rather unfairly, I will remove these two from the running first for the unjustifiably petty reason that their issues are "smaller" than those of the other pictures. The often gripping Munich will also exit the competition, mostly due to the gear shift it experiences in its final act.

And so the contest is boiled down yet again to Brokeback Mountain and Crash. As I write this, I still can't separate them. Crash's flaws are almost entirely forgotten by its barrage of scenes depicting devastatingly life-changing events for its characters. And those scenes are so powerful that I'm still considering ignoring the film's lack of realism and awarding it my top prize anyway. Brokeback's flaws - namely, the fact that the four leads are simply unbelievable as forty year olds - are minor in comparison to Crash's unrealistic contrivances, yet Brokeback's emotional impact, while potent, is outweighed by the other film's.

For the first time, I'm seriously considering announcing a tie. But that would be weak. Therefore, I will bite the bullet and recognise that my head is in a losing battle to my heart. No matter how hard my head fights against it, my heart clearly wants to award my meaningless Best Picture prize to Crash, and so it is done. Another match with the Academy.

Best Picture of 2005
Academy's choice:


Matt's choice:


Your choice:

You may voice your opinion in the poll above (or in the comments below) and I am especially interested in these results, so make sure to vote. Time now to venture back to the 1970s where we will look at a shortlist that includes several films that have cemented a place in popular culture.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1973 are:
  • American Graffiti
  • Cries and Whispers
  • The Exorcist
  • The Sting
  • A Touch of Class
Stay tuned...

Friday, March 11, 2011

2005 - Crash

This week, I managed to squeeze in a couple of preview film screenings. First, The Adjustment Bureau is right up my alley - a mind-bending thriller with dollops of humour. Matt Damon is plenty charming and Emily Blunt is simply captivating. Second, Win Win is an example of another of my favourite genres, the quirky independent feature. The dry script is occasionally simple, but the situational comedy scores. Plus, the cast, led by Paul Giamatti, is spot on. Two worthy pictures on which to spend your money.

Earlier today, I rounded out the 2005 Best Picture nominees with a viewing of...

Paul Haggis
Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco
Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, Thandie Newton, Michael Peña, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Shaun Toub
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
3 wins, including Best Picture

Things can get rough in Los Angeles over a 24-hour period - violence, crime, racism. The D.A. (Fraser) and his racist wife (Bullock) are carjacked by two black youths (Bridges & Tate). A young LAPD cop (Phillippe) watches on as his racist partner (Dillon) unnecessarily humiliates a film director (Howard) and his wife (Newton). A Hispanic locksmith (Peña) has trouble communicating with a distrusting Persian shop owner (Toub). Two detectives (Cheadle & Esposito), who are involved in a sexual relationship when off-duty, investigate the seemingly racially motivated killings of an undercover cop. Over the course of the next day, all these characters lives intertwine as they find themselves forced to deal with their own prejudices.

Crash's victory at the 2005 Academy Awards became the subject of some hyped controversy, but I'll save that discussion for the verdict post. For now, I'll try to communicate my odd experience in watching this film. It's true that Crash is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of flick, but my assessment seems to fall into a third category - love it and hate it.

Right off the bat, Crash attempts to be provocative. We witness several incidents charged with flippant racism, mostly involving the most clichéd of racist stereotypes. The characters at first seem one-dimensional, lacking subtlety or shades of grey. In fact, the abundance of totally irrational behaviour left me feeling tense and angry - which may be less indicative of the script's foibles than of my instinctive reaction to unreasonable bigots. In any case, a somewhat indistinct lack of realism permeates the first half of the picture.

But slowly, as the interwoven stories progress, the shades of grey begin to reveal themselves. Suddenly, we see a different side to each of the characters. The more conspicuously racist folks discover their compassionate side. Those who appeared righteous allow their prejudicial fears to surface. Each behaves in a way that is at odds with our initial assessment of them. For some, it takes longer than others, but in the end, almost every character is affected ... The whole thing is still contrived and unrealistic, but, hey, it's very effective.

Many intensely emotional scenes follow. (If you hate spoilers, skip this paragraph.) An unashamedly racist cop heroically pulls a black woman out of a car wreck - the same woman he had earlier molested during a pat-down. An angry shop-owner waves a vengeful gun in the face of a locksmith, pulling the trigger just as the locksmith's young daughter runs into his arms. Miraculously, she is unscathed. This latter scene in particular is incredibly powerful, despite its contrivances - I mean, the girl jumps at the exact second that the gun is fired? Even my vivid memory of this scene from my first viewing of Crash five years ago - and therefore knowing exactly what was about to happen - didn't prevent my eyes from welling up. However, while the emotional part of my brain gazed in awe, the logical part began to question the scene's conclusion. A man just fired a gun at your family and you just take your daughter inside and leave the crazy moron on the street?

This lack of realism is not aided by occasional bouts of melodramatic film-making. The close-up of Sandra Bullock's foot as she slips down the stairs may have been acceptable, but to follow it with a close-up of the phone hitting the floor - in slow motion, no less - is perhaps pushing it. Plus, there are simply too many coincidences. It's understandable considering the Altman-esque interweaving of several characters' stories, but without Altman's light-hearted touch, most of the links between characters seem contrived.

Being an ensemble movie, a great cast is imperative, and in that regard, the film succeeds. In fact, the subtlety of the performances lessens some of the film's superficiality. Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard and Michael Peña are particularly engaging stand-outs. Fans of Star Trek will be pleased to see Marina Sirtis in a small role. Likewise, fans of Lost should keep their eyes peeled for Daniel Dae Kim, who appears very briefly. And if there are still any fans of Who's The Boss?, they will appreciate the cameo by Tony Danza.

When all is said and done, I remain conflicted. Despite the layer of artifice that sits atop Crash, its emotionally manipulative impact is undeniable. Perhaps it is an example of the immense power that high stakes can give a story. With such serious life-and-death situations, a poor script can still be utterly compelling. Craving subtle and clever writing, the scribe in me wants to dismiss this movie ... but I simply can't.

Monday, March 7, 2011

2005 - Munich

Another awards season over. No major upsets at the Oscars this year and a relatively uneventful ceremony, save for Melissa Leo's expletive. I was glad to see The King's Speech as successful as it was, plus I managed to correctly predict 16 of the 24 categories, a fairly average result for me. If you would like a chuckle, here is the menu for the Oscars party I held this year.

I am back in New York City now after my month-long stint in Las Vegas, where I had an absolute blast performing with the Aussie Improv Comedy Explosion.

On Saturday, my darling wife Kat celebrated her 30th birthday. Her parents surprised her by flying in from Australia unannounced ... well, unannounced to her. After a delicious brunch, the four of us then trotted off to Broadway to judge just how well young Harry Potter can sing and dance. Daniel Radcliffe stars in the revival of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and, I'm pleased to say, he is a very impressive presence. His dancing is particularly extraordinary - he's right there with the ensemble as they perform their fancy Broadway choreography. The crowd's screams of delight were certainly warranted.

Recovering from a cold, I spent yesterday indoors watching movies, including another Best Picture contender from 2005...

Steven Spielberg
Tony Kushner and Eric Roth
(based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas)
Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Ayelet Zurer, Geoffrey Rush, Gila Almagor, Michael Lonsdale, Mathieu Amalric
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

After the horrific events at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped eleven Israeli athletes, later killing them, the Israeli government secretly organises an operation ostensibly to murder those responsible. In order to avoid having the assassinations traced back to them, they ask Mossad agent Avner Kaufman (Bana) to resign from the agency, allowing him to work independently of the government. Avner is given clandestine instruction by Israeli official Ephraim (Rush), who assigns him a team of half-trained covert officers - bomb expert Robert (Kassovitz), forger Hans (Zischler), driver Steve (Craig) and "cleaner" Carl (Hinds). With only scarce communication from Ephraim and aided by French source Louis (Amalric), the inexperienced assassins bumble their way through their assassination list, contemplating the ethical consequences of their actions along the way.

Munich is not your run-of-the-mill spy thriller. With such politically-charged themes, the picture also leans heavily towards psychological drama. In this way, director Steven Spielberg is able to do what he does best - focus on personal conflicts amidst a backdrop of international proportions. There is no denying the brilliance of Spielberg's film-making prowess, but, in this instance, he is almost too perfect. Some scenes feel over-rehearsed, especially an early scene in which Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir earnestly addresses her cabinet.

Where Spielberg's mastery works best, however, is during the suspenseful assassination scenes. Of particular note is the sequence in which the group aborts the detonation of a phone bomb when the target's young daughter unexpectedly answers the phone instead. Hitchcock would be proud.

The film's pace slows down considerably in the final act. The spy thriller elements that were so engaging throughout the earlier parts of the film give way to Spielberg's penchant for family themes. He focuses on Avner's paranoid internal struggle as he faces the fact that his actions may have grave consequences for his wife and newborn child. Clearly, this is the part of the movie to make you think. Although, having said that, there is plenty of political discourse throughout the spy portions of the film that will get the post-screening discussion moving, as well.

There are a variety of half-baked accents on display that are a little hard to take sometimes. Mind you, there's quite a diverse mix of nationalities amongst the actors, so it's difficult to tell whose accent is real and whose is not. I hate to pick on the Australians, but Eric Bana and Geoffrey Rush (both pictured) lead the assault on the Israeli dialect. Still, I suppose the blame would be more accurately placed on the contrivance that these characters would be speaking English to each other. Fortunately, these minor issues don't get in the way of the fine performances. The entire cast deliver superbly subtle and poignant portrayals. The standout is a pre-Bond Daniel Craig, who is strong and natural, and a little more successful in his attempt at the South African accent.