Monthly Archives: May 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy: Upon Further Consideration…

NOTE: This is an amendment to a previous review of the same film.

When I first reviewed this movie, I don’t think I gave it nearly enough credit for how important it is as a film.  In a way, it may be the most important film of 2014.

One reason I feel this way is that it presents a very different kind of comic book movie – one that doesn’t need to be taken seriously the way The Dark Knight does (in fact, its inclusion of Howard the Duck shows just how little it wants to be taken seriously) and that combines many genres.  It proves that a good Marvel comic book movie can also be a very good comedy film, without either genre taking away from the other, thus paving the way to Deadpool.  Its aim is to have a lot of fun exploring a cool, interesting, and fully-developed sci-fi world.  Consequently, and perhaps paradoxically, Guardians of the Galaxy is great sci-fi even though it isn’t great science fiction.  By that I mean it doesn’t present viewers with new and interesting concepts that scientists or philosophers may be interested in exploring the way that Jurassic Park, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and Ex Machina do, but it does present viewers with a world in which they’ll want to become fully immersed – we all want to live in that galaxy.  The action sequences are also quite impressive, making Guardians precisely the kind of action movie that I can get behind.

Another reason why Guardians is important is that it uses music differently from other films.  Obviously, most movies today (particularly family films) rely heavily on recognizable pop songs, and it is by no means uncommon for them to be songs from the 1970s – consider how Despicable Me uses “You Should Be Dancing” in its final scene even though the filmmakers had contemporary pop artists at their disposal.  What makes the use of music in Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel so interesting is that there is never a sense that the music is something added once the scene has already been shot; the songs in these films were famously written into the screenplays and woven into the plot.  This is generally considered a big no-no in Hollywood: every screenwriter who’s made it in the business knows the rule that specific songs are never named in screenplays because it makes the producers, studio heads, directors, readers, etc. think about how much it would cost to buy the rights to those songs.  I think this used to be a bigger issue than it is now because films rely on expensive pop songs more and more, so producers know to put them into the budget, but it can still be difficult to get the rights to specific songs since some artists require a lot of convincing (see this article and read about getting the rights to “Mr. Blue Sky” for Vol. 2).  For this reason it is a very big deal that Gunn has set precedents for successful screenwriters scripting the songs they need to make the scene work best, allowing for more carefully-tailored soundtracks in films to come.

This isn’t the only interesting aspect of Gunn’s use of music in the Guardians films.  The reason why most filmmakers and film studios haven’t seen much of a problem with making music choices an afterthought, I think, comes from the line of thinking that film is a visual medium.  Usually, a film’s score is seen as something meant to enhance what the characters are doing on screen, and this makes sense in the context of film history since silent films were often shown with a live pianist offering an accompaniment.  Disney’s Fantasia, on the other hand, runs contrary to this thinking about film – rather than making the soundtrack subservient to visuals, Disney made a whole movie out of visuals that are subservient to the soundtrack.  I argue that the Guardians movies work in part because the characters are listening to the music as they fight, fly, work, and play, letting the music guide them.  Both the characters in the film and the makers of the film are using their experiences to celebrate the music itself, and the audience is invited to join in that celebration.  This idea that the scene is subservient to the music and that the music itself is sort of the main attraction (almost something to be glorified) is explored most explicitly in the second film, but I’ll explore that more in my separate review dedicated to Vol. 2.

The importance of the Guardians series in terms of its visual/aesthetic contributions to cinema must not be overlooked either.  I’m sure a lot of critics think the main way in which this film is visually impressive is in its use of CGI, with Rocket Raccoon looking remarkably believable in most of his scenes, but I’m more interested in Gunn’s use of color.  Most movies (made for adults) from the past decade or so have had very muted palettes, whereas the color palette of this film is, while too digital to have all the warmth I might like, more vivid and beautiful than that of most contemporary fantasy films.  Most of Disney’s live-action films today look frighteningly cold and lifeless, with the Beauty and the Beast remake resembling the rotting corpse of its animated predecessor, but Guardians isn’t afraid to fill the screen with bright blues and purples, swirling around like a friggin’ van Gogh.  This, I think, is why more films from the past two or three years have started moving away from the gray pseudo-realism that has consumed so much of Hollywood cinema: Gunn tried being colorful and succeeded, so other directors are finally feeling free to use pretty pinks and deep blues again, sometimes openly contrasting them with the look that most films have had as of late.  Between Guardians and La La Land, I might see cinema come alive again within my lifetime, and that’s a very exciting thing.

As important as I believe Guardians is, what I realized when I watched it for my second time is just how much I simply love it as a movie.  I love the characters and the comedy, and I want to spend all the time I can in this world.  I consider the opening titles sequence to Guardians to be one of the best in history because of how joyous it is, and for that matter, there are very few films that manage to be as joyous throughout at Guardians.  Unfortunately, I found myself checking my watch a few times since the film feels rather long, which is something that hasn’t changed since I first saw the film in the theater, but my appreciation for the film still keeps growing anyway.  It’s truly amazing to me that a film this silly, this fun, and this special was made in such a boring time for cinema, and I’ll gladly keep tipping my hat to Perlman and Gunn ‘til my hand falls off.  Sure it has its problems, but it’s a true gem of cinema for which I’m forever grateful.

The Fly (1958) Review

While I usually tend to think of 1950s monster movies as strictly cheesy, low-budget, pathetic B-movies, this film challenges that notion to some extent.  It fits the formula and has many of the same aesthetic qualities as the usual 1950s B-film, but it actually has quality actors and a budget.  Its writing is smart, and the forced happy ending gives away the fact that the studio execs had a close eye this film, which they never had on their B-films.  This film is shot in Cinemascope and with vivid Technicolor, suggesting it was meant to fit into the same family as War of the Worlds from 1953.  Still, it is, if we’re being honest, just a monster movie with weird effects designed to give some kids a cheap thrill.  As much as I like the screenplay and some of the visuals, the structure of the film sucks out all the drama, and the famous “help me” scene towards the end is so cheesy, bizarre, uncanny, awkward, and outright stupid that it makes the whole film a lot harder for me to swallow.  Thank heavens for the cool lighting and the great performances (who doesn’t love Vincent Price) that make this a fun horror classic.

Sunset Boulevard Review

Every now and again, I’m quite surprised which members of my family decide to sit down by the TV and join me in watching a movie that I wouldn’t think is his/her kind of thing.  This happened most recently when I was spending a weekend at my parents’ house and I put Sunset Boulevard on the big screen.  This is a dark, dramatic satire of Hollywood mixed with Gothic chills and romantic comedy from 1950, yet my 12-year-old sister decided to watch it with me.  What made this so special is that Sunset Boulevard happens to be not only a great film by one of my favorite directors, but also a very useful teaching tool.

The first reason why this film is helpful for learning about film history is that it concerns icons of silent cinema, so it re-introduces its viewers to the era with a focus on Cecil B. DeMille, cameos by actors from the time, and an impression of Charlie Chaplin (a very good one, I might add).  Oddly, this actually makes it a very good example of 1950s cinema as well.  The films of the 1950s generally seem to show an awareness of the fact that Hollywood was in a state of crisis as its studio system was falling apart and its Code was weakening, and this film, much like 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, parallels this with the crisis actors from the silent era faced when they had to learn how to succeed in the sound era.  This film, then, offers the flip side to Singin’ in the Rain, showing how tragic it was for the stars (like Lena) who couldn’t keep shining through the 1930s.  The one thing that makes this a poor example of 1950s film is that it can be seen as a film noir (a relatively small genre) due to its uncommon traits and tropes – voice-over narration explaining the story of how a man died, chilling exploration of the psychology of madness, a narrative about choosing between the good girl and the intimidating woman, deep, jagged shadows and wild chiaroscuro lighting, and general sense that everything is spiraling down towards a gloomy, unsettling end.

Best of all, Sunset Boulevard is a good example of a great film.  This is Billy Wilder at his best, bringing together a great cast and working through serious psychological subjects with a a healthy dose of comedy.  The script is smart, carefully setting up its rather forced story in a way that somehow still feels natural and giving nearly every significant character some wonderful, clever dialogue.  Gloria Swanson, of course, steals the show as Norma Desmond – I could taste the scenery she was chewing – and the performance she gives is surely one of the finest (and one of the most over-the-top) in all of cinema’s history.  The film is made that much better by its stunning visuals, which could have simply been there for the heck of it, but Wilder puts them to good use aiding the story, defining the characters, and saturating the drama.  The film that results may be rather slow and boring at times, but it is still one of the best introductions to Classical Hollywood cinema I know, and I hope to watch it with the rest of my family someday.  If Norma Desmond ever needed proof that the pictures didn’t get small, this is it.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) Review

The story of Baron Munchausen is an old one, even though there’s really not much of a story here.  I’ve seen the old German film adaptation of this story from the 1940s, and while many hold it as a great classic of cinema, I find it unbearable.  That being said, it is imaginative, and whimsical, so I wondered what a good director/screenwriter would do with it, so I naturally became curious about Terry Gilliam’s version from the ’80s.  (I also have a big fascination with ’80s fantasy cinema, so this one’s been on my list for a long time now.)  Fortunately, Gilliam greatly improved this story by giving it more structure, but unfortunately, he negates his improvements with an ending that makes little sense.

What I like about this film is that there is a clear main cast of characters and a clear quest that serves as a through-line for all of the zany misadventures around the world (and outside the world).  Unlike the 1942 film, it is very clear in this movie which of the characters have special abilities, what abilities those are, and what these characters have to do with the Baron, so none of them throw the audience off-guard or feel too random (it’s particularly helpful that they’re part of the opening exposition).  There’s also a sense that each scene – or at least each location on the baron’s journey – makes a contribution to the story, so the story doesn’t feel too random or arbitrary.  While all of this helps make the movie far more enjoyable to watch by allowing the viewer to focus on enjoying the fantasy, by the end of the film it is entirely unclear what has happened.  There actually doesn’t seem to be any possible explanation for how the events that have occurred could have possibly occurred, unless one buys into the artsy, peusdo-intellectual notion that two or three contradictory stories can be true at the same time in cinema, which is exactly the kind of sophistry I would expect Gilliam to express.  Still, as disappointing and irritating that I find it that the film makes no sense and seemingly has no point, the cast is good, the comedy is fun, and the visuals are, predictably, absolutely delightful, making this film worth the watch for any lover of fantasy.

Toni Erdmann Review

The past few years have seen a strikingly large number of films that have made a big splash unexpectedly, shaking up cinema and dividing critics.  From La La Land to Deadpool, or maybe even LEGO Batman, much of the fun of seeing a popular movie from 2016 is the experience of bafflement brought on by how unlikely it is that such a film could get a wide release in theaters with how far it strays from what studio execs normally like.  Toni Erdmann presents the European side of the story.  Some people I’ve known who’ve seen it find it entirely ordinary, whereas some critics think it’s a sign that cinema’s not dead.  As a contemporary German film, one would expect a certain set of features that this film does, in fact, have: hyper-realism, a focus on real world issues (without neatly simplifying them to straightforward sermons), unsettling use of nudity, sex, and violence, and unconventional engagement with America’s entertainment industries.  That being said, it does all this with a strange style – with a sentiment that’s difficult to pinpoint because it swings so far from being very objective, logical, and factual to being fun entertainment cinema, and then fully into raw depression.  With such a strange hodgepodge of emotion, it’s difficult for people to discern how best to categorize the film in terms of genre.

While it’s been marketed as a comedy, this feels sort of like cheating since most of the film isn’t as fun as the trailers (which give the impression of a Coen Brothers film) would have one believe.  There is clearly such a strong element of family drama in the film, and arguably some sort of political drama as well, in a sense, that there is good reason to think of this as a drama with comedic moments, but fortunately, the term “dramedy” allows us to stop worrying about such a dispute.  I would argue, however, that the film is first and foremost a comedy, and that’s because of how the film engages with Freudian comedy theory.  When the movie engages with comedy, it’s a kind of awkward comedy that doesn’t just let the viewer laugh at characters who act strangely or get into awkward situations, a la The Office, but rather makes the audience feel personally uncomfortable.  I almost feel bad about being in the room at a time when the characters are so vulnerable, and consequently I can’t help but laugh for the sake of release, and it’s also funny because of how unaware the characters seem to be of the absurdity of their own situation.  I think this is why, while the whole movie is, in a word, relentless, the funny scenes stand out as the most memorable.  The film essentially presents a panorama of all the different kinds of “confrontation with the uncomfortable” that cinema has to offer, but it’s the funny scenes that make it something particularly special.

JD’s Favorite Movies – May, 2017

Every Geek Day, I post a list of my favorite movies.  This time, I’m doing something different.

I’ve been having a hard time trying to figure out how to best rank films that I remember really enjoying, but I haven’t seen recently enough to have an accurate opinion.  Films like The Parent Trap (1961), Doctor Who: The Movie, Woody Allen’s ScoopBack to the Beach, and Strike up the Band all seemed like obvious choices for my list at one point in my life, but it’s been too long since I’ve seen them for me to know how to rate them.

So, while I’m working on re-watching a bunch of my old favorites, here’s a list of my top 25 favorites of all the films I’ve watched (whether for my first time or the millionth time) just within the past year, with links to my reviews of the films.

25. A Clockwork Orange

24. Dick Tracy

23. Amelie

22. The Goonies

21. To Be or Not to Be (1942)

20. Masters of the Universe

19. Aladdin

18. Beauty and the Beast (1991)

17. The LEGO Batman Movie

16. Metropolis

15. Love and Death

14. La La Land

13. Paths of Glory

12. Scrooged

11. Network

10. What About Bob?

9. Bowfinger

8. Annie (1982)

7. Carrie (1976)

6. Heathers

5. The Graduate

4. The Naked Gun

3. Singin’ in the Rain

2. Duck Soup

1. Phantom of the Paradise

The Dark Knight Review

I hate giving this film a positive review.  I really do hate to do it.  This film is just so gray and so obsessed with realism, whereas I like my Batman with color and camp.  This film more or less sums up everything I don’t like about DC’s current films – it’s all the top ways to ruin a superhero movie for J. D. Hansel all rolled into one package.  Every time I think the movie is finally starting to move towards the end, it takes another turn and goes off towards a different climax than I expected, drawing out the film as much as possible.  I know we’re all supposed to love this movie, or at the very least we’re supposed to love this version of The Joker, but even him I found irritating – he just never stopped talking with that annoying voice and dialect.  To put it simply, the version of Batman presented here is relentless in its efforts to make me take a grown man in a bat costume fighting a silly clown entirely seriously, and I just have to ask, why so serious?

Now, all of these complaints are issues I pretty much knew I would have with the film before I saw it, so my expectations were low to begin with, but there’s one thing that’s made me feel the need to give it credit: the screenplay.  Not everything about the writing tickles my fancy – I’ve already mentioned how lengthy and convoluted it seems – but this is to be expected since gritty action just isn’t my genre.  What I do know is that a good movie uses its first few minutes to build up “hype” for the rest of the film, and this film does just that, with an opening that is, again, not my cup of tea in terms of style, but still fun, captivating, and well-executed.  More importantly, I had no idea just how many quotes that are commonly used in pop culture – even used by me – come from this movie.  Watching The Dark Knight was, in this sense, like reading Shakespeare or The Bible because I kept learning more and more about where common phrases I take for granted (e.g. “Some people just want to watch the world burn”) originate.  For this reason, I’ll give it credit for bringing the superhero genre to a new level of classy, intelligent writing.