Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Summer of Films: Body Double (1984)

Body Double is a more pervy remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Directed by Brian de Palma and starring Craig Wasson and Melanie Griffith, Body Double was a box office bomb which later proved to have tremendous legs over the long term. It also happens to be an excellent film.
The Plot
Like Vertigo, Body Double involves a man who has been set up to observe a murder. In Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart was asked by a friend to follow a woman he was told was suicidal. He watches her and slowly develops an obsession from afar. When she later appears to jump from a tower killing herself, Stewart’s testimony seals the deal with the law that she killed herself. However, Stewart’s obsession causes him to start looking for a replacement for the woman and, in the process, he stumbles upon the woman who pretended to be the supposedly suicidal woman and tricked Stewart into thinking the woman had killed herself when in reality she was murdered.
Body Double twists this formula slightly. The story begins with Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) losing his job as an actor and being kicked out of his apartment by his girlfriend, who is having an affair. Unlike Stewart’s character who suffers from vertigo, Scully suffers from claustrophobia. In his moment of need, a man named Sam appears and befriends Scully. They keep running into each other. Soon, Sam offers to let Scully stay in his luxurious home while Sam is out of town, provided he take care of the place and water the plants. Scully is thrilled and accepts. They toast their mutually beneficial arrangement, and in the process, Sam tells Scully to look through a telescope which is trained on the home of a woman named Gloria. Sam tells Scully that each night, Gloria does an erotic dance before she goes to sleep. Sure enough, Scully observes this dance.
With Sam gone, Scully continues to observe the woman. As he does, he sees a man who appears to be an American Indian. This Indian seems intent on harming Gloria. Soon enough, Scully is following Gloria. He tells himself that he wants to protect Gloria from the Indian, but it’s obvious he wants more. In any event, the Indian does follow Gloria and steals her purse at the beach. Scully helps, but his claustrophobia allows the Indian to escape. The next thing Scully knows, the Indian breaks into Gloria’s home as Scully is waiting to watch her dance. He tries to run to her home, but is too late. The Indian has killed her.

After this, Scully mopes around the house, upset at failing to save Gloria. Being the pervert he is, he starts watching porn. As he does, he sees a video advertised in which a woman (Melanie Griffith) is doing the exact same dance Gloria had done. Scully is suddenly suspicious. He tracks down Melanie and tries to determine if she had been paid to do the dance for him, and by whom. (As an aside, I find this to be a much more believable way for Scully to stumble upon the woman pretending to be Gloria than the way Stewart found the woman in Vertigo, which seemed far too random.)
Why This Film Works
Body Double is perhaps the best Hitchcock knock-off I’ve seen. This film not only captures the pacing and feel of Jimmy Stewart’s obsession in Vertigo but it feels even more natural to us. Indeed, unlike Stewart and Hitchcock, who were limited by the Hays Code, Scully is free to be more loathsome. This makes him more believable as a stalker and a peeping Tom. He’s also more believable as the dupe. Scully lies to himself about his problem and he comes across as not very bright. He’s not nearly as collected or as cautious as Stewart’s portrayal. That make it more believable that he would let himself be so easily manipulated and that he would make the wrong choices time and again.
Wasson does excellent work in selling this portrayal of Scully. Had Wasson not come across as so “innocent,” he would have been creepy and the audience wouldn’t have cared what happened to him. But as it is, he comes across as a guy who genuinely believes he cares about Gloria and wants to help her, and you actually do sympathize with him. This was all Wasson’s doing as an actor, as nothing written in the script sold this perspective. Personally, I always thought deserved Wasson deserved a better career.

Director de Palma deserves major credit here too. For one thing, his timing is perfect. The film never drags, but it also feels deliberate. It doesn’t rush. To the contrary, it takes the time it needs to make everything we see work. The images he picks help sell the story too. They paint Los Angeles as a maze, perfectly built for the cat and mouse game Scully plays with Indian. Making the characters actors helps sell the idea that the killer could disguise himself as the Indian, that Scully could find a way to join a porno, and that he would accept this arrangement in the first place. The film is very well cast as well, and it has an excellent score including the song "Relax" from Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
The film does have two weaknesses, though one is forgivable. The first, the forgivable one, is that Wasson can simply get a job as the lead in a porno so he can get to know Griffith. It’s certainly possible, especially with him being an actor, but it feels a little coincidental that it came so easily. The bigger weakness is that de Palma suddenly blurs the reality of the story at the end by making it unclear if all of this had just been a dream during a claustrophobia attack while on set. That’s adds nothing and it’s unnecessary. It’s also confusing and undermines the story. Still, this film is quite good and well worth your time.

[+]

Friday, July 25, 2014

Summer of Films: Gravity (2013)

Gravity was an instant critical hit. In fact, critics fellated it so fast that I suspect, many critics fellated it sight unseen. Having now seen the film, I can say that it is exactly what I expected: a dull film that got praised because the critics love the leftist director. Yawn.


Gravity was sold as many things. It was sold as top notch science fiction, though it has nothing to say. It was sold as visually stunning, i.e. the very purpose CGI was created, as if that alone can anchor a film. It was sold as a vehicle for George Clooney, who isn’t in this all that much. Finally, it was sold as an event. And like all events, it pulled in people who praised it to high Heaven, but who won’t remember it after the next event.
What it really is, is a disaster film. Gravity is the story of Sandra Bullock’s attempt to save her rectum after the space shuttle that took her into space gets turned into a million shards of shrapnel by a wave of shrapnel that originated when the Klingon moon Praxis exploded... er, when the Russians blew up a satellite, which caused a cascade of other satellites to explode, which caused a wall of shrapnel to race around the planet destroying everything in its path.

Bullock must now go from point A to point B to point C, while solving crises A, B and C, all the while trying not to go all weepy. If she succeeds, then she will have found a way to return to the Earth safely. If she fails... well, no sequel for her.

Nothing else happens.
This Film Sucks
That last line is kind of a give away, don’t you think? This film suffers from the problem that its screenplay is inherently boring... dullsville with a side of inertia. Yes, the scenes where the shuttle, the space station, and the Russian space station get torn to shreds are nicely done with some wonderful CGI near misses – sadly, they are also so complex that you can’t really feel any tension, all you can do is wait to see what happens because you have no way to track what poses a threat and what doesn’t. But beyond that, nothing happens in this script. Indeed, the entire script turns on whether or not Bullock can reach certain handles and think about certain solutions to various problems.
This is a problem. Here’s why...

What draws people to disaster films? For one thing, seeing the destruction allows people to experience things they fear (e.g. a building fire, a meteor strike, a nuclear war, a sinking ship) and wonder how they would handle them. But what really keeps people interested in these films is not the few moments of the disaster, it is the characters you follow who try to escape their fates. Now, I know that sadist Roland Emmerich thinks we see disaster movies so we can see millions of CGI people get killed, but he’s wrong. We see these films for the survivors, not the victims.

And in that regard, we need to like the survivors. Yes, they need to sell us on the reality of the danger and, yes, they need to sell us on the reality of their escape, but their greatest duty in the film is to win us over so that we actively pull for them to survive.

In Gravity, that duty falls entirely on the shoulders of Sandra Bullock. Unfortunately, she’s not up to the task. She’s monotone and depressed throughout and impossible to relate to. Moreover, they cut her off from everyone almost immediately. We lose touch with the Earth the moment the disaster strikes. The rest of the crew is killed at the same time. Clooney lasts longer, but not much – not that it mattered because she and Clooney had zero chemistry. So what you are left with is a woman with little charisma who has no one to talk to, no foil to work against, no one she needs to talk up or fight, and no one who can try to bring her out of her shell for us. You might as well have replaced her with a chimpanzee.
This really is bad filmmaking. When you look at all the great disaster films that the public has embraced, you see interpersonal drama. You see the hero who is constantly called upon to be selfless even as their instincts scream for selfishness. You have villains or people who want to lead the survivors wrong. You have survivors who are truly helpless and need to be saved. You have others who will rise well above what everyone thought they were capable of being. You have sacrifice, courage, love and loss.

You have none of that here.

All you have here is Bullock running a gerbil maze in space hoping to find the door to safety. There’s nothing heroic or inspirational. There’s nothing to fear either, as her death never resonates with us as any kind of a loss. Even worse, the destruction of the various space vehicles is so thorough and so instant that her survival feels like it was purely a fluke. Since she’s living on borrowed time, it doesn’t bother us as much if she finally succumbs to reality and dies.
This movie would have been greatly helped if Bullock had needed to save someone other than herself. It would have helped too if she could have stayed in touch with someone on the ground with whom she could express her inner thoughts. It would have been even better if she had run into something unexpected along the way. But none of that happens, and the end result is a deadly dull film.

So why did critics praise it? Likely because the visuals were impressive, though they grow old fast. It probably didn’t hurt that director Alfonso Cuaron is a leftist turd who always gets praise from critics, but rare connects with the public. Clooney too seems to be drawing more and more critical praise as the public slowly turns their back on him. Finally, I think the biggest reason is simply groupthink. Every couple years, a film comes along that all the critics praise because they know they need to maintain their herd credibility. This was one of those.

In the end, I can’t recommend this film. The visuals are no better than something about space from the Discovery Channel. The plot and characters are nonexistent. The film is an emotionless experience. I’d pass on this one.
[+]

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Summer Of Films: World War Zzzzz (2013)

Why did they make World War Z? I’m thinking it was meant as a sleep aid. On the other hand, maybe there really is a need for Brad Pitt to appear in a generic zombie movie? Most likely, they heard people talking about how the book should be made into a movie, so some Hollywood smart-ass bought the right to use the characters and the title of the book, though not the contents of the book, and slapped those onto a standard zombie film? Oy.

The Plot

If you heard that this was going to be a smarter zombie film, then you’ve been misled. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. Some dude wrote a book called World War Z. This book involved a UN scientist who roams the world tracing the beginnings of a zombie outbreak. As the infection slowly spreads, this scientist and others struggle to find a cure. After some time, the outbreak finally gets out of hand and a bigger struggle begins between the uninfected humans and the infected. Along the way, the book deals very intelligently with the idea of a zombie infection. Remember that? Well, forget it.

The film starts with Pitt and his family driving through New York City. Within seconds, the zombies attack. Within seconds more, New York City is lost to the zombies. Fortunately, Brad and family flee on traffic free roads in an RV they just happen to find to Newark, where they go a lootin’ and then break into an apartment building looking for safety from the roving bands of zombies. It’s possible this is just a normal night in Newark, but I suspect we’re meant to see this as zombie-related.
Anyway, the US is destroyed before the night is over, but Brad and family get saved and taken to live on a warship off the coast, provided that he agrees to investigate the zombie plague. He agrees and they ship him to Korea because someone in Korea wrote the word “zombies” in an e-mail... no, I'm not kidding. From there he goes to Israel and then Britain to meet Dr. Who.

With the exception of Israel, everything is destroyed, and Israel gets destroyed in a ridiculous way while Brad is there. In fact, throughout, the film does a very poor job of handling how this would really happen. For example, Israel builds a huge wall to keep out the zombies, which works until Brad arrives, at which point the zombies suddenly decide to climb the wall and the Israelis prove helpless. Huh? Why now? As Brad flees Israel, he jumps on board a commercial airliners... which was going exactly where? There's nowhere for it to go, so it takes him to where he needs to go, but it crashes, but he survives it because he's the star. All of this feels like it only happens to help move the plot.
Ultimately, Brad finds a partial solution and tells us there will be many sequels.

Why? Just why?

So why did they make this film? I don’t know. This film adds nothing to the zombie genre, something which even the crappiest of knock-off zombies films on Chiller tries to do. This film doesn’t try to be definitive either, like the one BIG film you should see to understand the state of the genre. To the contrary, it feels narrow and shallow. It doesn’t try to be the best of a tired genre either. In fact, it feels very bland and typical, and it's packed with clichés. There isn’t even that moment that grabs you, where you know the director was telling everyone: “This will be my signature moment which everyone will remember from this film!” So why make a film that adds nothing, does nothing special, doesn’t seem to have any special goal or voice, and doesn’t even have the one moment you know the director had been dying to jam into one of their films.

Money. Brad Pitt sells and "World War Z" was a milkable property. That’s all I can say.

Let’s compare this to what could have been. Most zombie movies are most interesting in the beginning, when the chaos is fresh. But almost all of them rush through this. A film that took its time and really showed you how this virus appears, how it spreads, and how it eventually overtakes the human ability to contain it would be excellent. This is something The Stand does well, as does Lifeforce, but few others. Even Contagion ended up doing a poor job with this aspect, which was sadly the very purpose of that film.
And to make this work in an interesting way, this time, people need to know these are zombies. If this stuff starts small, there is time for people to learn what they are up against, and still show them being overwhelmed by sheer numbers. This film doesn’t do that. It just says “commercial airlines were the perfect way to spread the disease,” and then it presents a scenario under which that can’t work – infection spreading in 12 seconds. Even worse, when the zombies strike in New York, no one except Pitt seems to have the slightest idea what is going on or even that they are facing something dangerous even though the world outside the US has already been destroyed. I guess New Yorkers live sheltered lives. And then, somehow, the city falls within seconds. Nonsense. Above all, zombie films need patience to present realistic time frames. This film had none... it needed it desperately.

This film also needed some other plot to maintain interest. Inject a love story. Have the main character save an orphanage or a zoo. Invent some counter-zombie. Do something other than run around gathering MacGuffins as you try to avoid zombies. Again, this film falls flat in that department. After making a big deal of Brad Pitt as some top investigator who can solve the zombie riddle, he gets sent to Korea for no valid reason. From that point forward, this film is just an action film without any logic to it.
Finally, give us a powerful ending. Either give us reason to believe the humans have won or give us something truly deep and dark. Give us something more than we already know: make the zombies conscious of who and what they are and what they have done – so far, no one has dared do that. Give us the idea of soul death as well as body death. Tell us this world isn’t actually our world, but it’s Hell, and we all face it. Those are endings that take bland zombie films to new levels. Alternatively, find a cure. Find the anti-zombie. Give us some moral or religious conduct that can save us all... give us a lesson to take away. Heck, give the zombies a hive brain, that would be new and interesting and more menacing. Don't just give us Brad Pitt in the lead.
These are the things any big budget modern zombie movie needs to do, but none of this happened here. All we got were a handful of hints at clever ideas from the book that were ignored in the film (in fact, there are websites dedicated to all the ideas in the book that got ignored here), then we got a pointless action film, and finally we got an ending that was sort of original but still underwhelmed.

This is sad, Brad. From a guy whose movies usually stand out as being smarter than everything else in the genre (e.g. Twelve Monkeys, Seven, Fight Club), this was a real disappointment.

[+]

Friday, July 18, 2014

Summer Of Films: Now You See Me (2013)

Magic is about misdirection. Unfortunately, so is Now You See Me. On the surface, this is a heist film in which the ultra-clever heist gets carried out by a group of impressive young stage magicians. The marketing even suggested that the audience would get a chance to guess how they do it. But nothing about this film is real. To the contrary, it presents disjointed and nonsensical highlights while trying to make you believe you’re seeing a workable heist film. Ultimately, the film is stylish enough to be enjoyable, but it’s very shallow with some major flaws.
The Plot
Now You See Me starts with four talented street magicians getting invited by an unknown benefactor to perform in Vegas as “The Four Horsemen.” These are: the arrogant illusionist Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), hypnotist Merrit McKinney (Woody Harrelson), escape artist Henley Reeves (Ilsa Fisher), and pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco).
To end their first show, they declare that they will rob a bank. To pull off this trick, they invite a French citizen on stage. This man is an account holder in the Credit Republicain de Paris bank, and he appears to be teleported to Paris, where he turns on a huge vacuum which pulls the money out of the bank’s vault and spews it out over the Vegas audience. Everyone is amazed, but the FBI is not amused. When the FBI discovers that the bank really was robbed, they send Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol Agent Melanie Laurent to investigate.
From there, the film becomes a game of cat and mouse as the outmatched FBI agents chase their own tails while trying to catch the magicians, who continue to up the ante. Their next trick, for example, involves robbing the show’s sponsor Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), an insurance company magnate who wrongfully denied thousands of claims in the city in which they perform the trick. Naturally, they drain his bank account while transferring his money to each of the people whose claims were wrongfully denied. He then hires Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who makes money revealing magicians’ tricks and debunking claims of magic, to pursue them.

Ultimately, the film finishes with a protracted chase scene in which the magicians rob a defense contractor while trying to evade Freeman, the FBI and the local police. The benefactor then reveals himself and his motives, and you won’t guess who it is because it makes no sense.
Smoke and Mirrors and Misdirection
This film functions by misdirection. On the surface, this film involves an ultra-clever heist perpetrated by a group of talented young stage magicians. They do this heist right before the eyes of the frustrated FBI and a talented debunker, and as they do, they keep the audience guessing what will happen next and what just happened. And if you shut off your brain, this heist will rival any other heist film for complexity, originality, and surprise.

But there’s a problem: the heist isn’t real. And I don't mean, this probably wouldn't work in real life. What I mean is that the film doesn't even pretend to show you a possible heist, it just shows you hints of heists and then tries to trick you into thinking you saw more.

To give you some examples, it doesn’t take long to realize that they would need to know too much information to pull off these tricks. How do they find everyone who got screwed by the insurance company and invite them to attend the second show? How do they learn the account numbers and passwords to each of those people's saving accounts? The film never tells you. Somehow they also get them all to use the same banking software on their phones, software that doesn’t exist and which impossibly gives you a real-time ticker on the amount of money in your account as if deposits were added in penny by penny. Then they need to find a way to get Caine’s bank to conduct a thousand wire transfers in real time, at their command to work with the stage show, late at night. Again, they never make any attempt to explain how this was done.
At the same time, they need to know if the guys who will chase them will run to the left or the right. They arrange traffic stunts that Hollywood’s best would struggle with on a closed set, only they do it on the open road during rush hour. They participate in heists they could not physically perform. Again, the details are never explained.

Even when they explain things, they don't explain them. Consider the bank robbery in Paris. It seems impossible. Then Freeman comes along and explains that they did it the day before, and they did it by replacing the real money with fake money so no one would notice. The film even shows you a flashback of these characters hovering around the bank in armored car uniforms. Ruffalo then asks how they made the fake money vanish. To this, Freeman responds “flash paper” and he causes some to burn up in his hand. Oh, now it all makes sense. Actually, it doesn’t. At no point is an explanation offered for where the fake money actually came from, how they got it into the bank, how they removed the good money and replaced it with the bad, how they got the good money to Vegas overnight, how they set off the flash paper, why no one noticed the residue, or any other part of how the heist would need to work. All you get is an assurance that it happened followed by the debunker declaring their actions explained and brilliant.
The whole film is like this. Throughout this film, you are given explanations for how things supposedly happened that only touch upon the highlights of what needed to happen, e.g. “oh, there were blanks in the gun,” but there is never any explanation for how they actually made this happen. And the few times there are suggestions, like seeing them dressed up as armored car drivers, only raises a million more questions. But each time, the cops or the debunker are there to smooth it over and tell you that this is indeed how it happened, now stop worrying about that! Meanwhile, the characters drone on heavy-handedly in a near narrative (it’s the narrative of the magic act superimposed on the rest of the action) about the nature of magic being about sleight of hand in such an authoritative way that it basically comes across as the film telling you to stop doubting the heist. This is the equivalent of having characters scream, “This is the real world! It’s not like we’re in a movie!”
This is an interesting way to make a heist film. On the one hand, I suspect that a good chunk of the audience won’t be using their brains as they watch the film, so they will feel like everything has been fully explained. But for people whose brains remain active while watching the film, this method becomes a problem. For them, the suspension of disbelieve just keeps getting harder and harder throughout, and ultimately you are left feeling like you are just watching a lie because the film never even tries to make any of it real. At that point, the question becomes whether the gloss and veneer of the heist is enough to overcome the realization that the whole thing is being pulled out of the writer’s rear end.

In many ways, that makes this film very much like Ocean’s Thirteen, which similarly abandoned believability for style. In Ocean’s Thirteen, that worked because they presented a world you wanted to embrace and characters with relationships you wanted to be part of. Here, the true fatal flaw is the casting.
Jesse Eisenberg is unpleasant. Here he’s smug and angry and you don’t like him. Woody Harrelson always plays a jerk, but he typically makes his character likeable by letting him take a beating, which lets him have an epiphany which brings the audience to his side. Here, his misbehavior is never punished and he gets to let his jerk side run unrepentant. Ruffalo is an ass politically, but can be likable on film. Only, here he comes across as angry and lifeless. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine both play characters you aren’t supposed to like. The rest of the cast is non-existent. So what you’re left with is a deeply unlikable cast you can’t rally around. They never give you a grand look into the world of magic either. So you have little to latch onto.

All in all, this is an interesting but very shallow film. It would have served the film better to have actually presented a genuine heist scenario or more likable actors. Still, it’s probably worth seeing, if for nothing else but its potential. Just don't expect to be impressed if you pull back the veneer.
[+]

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

North Dallas Forty (1979) v. Any Given Sunday (1999)

I really like North Dallas Forty... I just wish it gave a little bit more. North Dallas Forty is one of those honest 1970s exposes that introduced the world to the things the media covered up for years. It has a cynical veneer, but a genuine heart. It is also the best movie it could have been given the time period it was made. To talk about where it works and where it doesn’t, let me compare it to Any Given Sunday, which is a cynical disappointment.

Written by Peter Gent, who played for the Dallas Cowboys from 1964 until 1969, North Dallas Forty is widely considered an expose on the well-covered-up party-hard lifestyle of the Dallas Cowboys of the late 1960s as well as the NFL’s use of drugs to keep players playing through injuries.
The story centers around talented but aging wide receiver Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte), who functions as our eyes into the secret world of the team. Through his eyes, we meet manipulative quarterback Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis), who is modeled after Don Meredith, cold-as-a-fish fundamentalist Christian Coach B.A. Strother (G.D. Spradlin), who is supposedly fairly close Tom Landry, assistant Coach Johnson (Charles Durning) who does Coach Strother’s dirty work, and an assortment of other characters. The team presented here mimics the Cowboys in many ways, like their obsession with computerizing their coaching and recruiting, their penchant for stunningly debauched parties that never made it into the news, drug use, some abusive practices, and tolerance for anything so long as the player has talent.
Along the way, the film exposes the cruel nature of the game as players find themselves ruthlessly discarded the moment they lose their value to the team, and on the issue of pain killers. Indeed, this film really acts as an expose on the widespread use of pain killers to keep these guys playing through career and body threatening injuries. Today, you probably already know about the pain killers, but when this film came out, this was a well-kept dirty little secret and people were shocked.

As the film progresses, we see the coaches abuse the players, the players rebel in their way, and the destructive culture of these teams which made these men both predators and victims at the same time. It was an eye opening film because of this, and nothing that has come since has been anywhere near as damning.

Indeed, consider Any Given Sunday. Any Given Sunday is Oliver Stone’s expose on the NFL. But nothing he presents in that film is even close to being as damning as what you see in North Dallas Forty. The reason is that everything Stone purports to tell you is already widely known. Moreover, rather than focus on something specific, Stone tosses every cliché he can find at you and then builds his entire film around the not-shocking idea that everyone uses everyone else... an idea he does to such excess that it’s just not believable. Indeed, in Any Given Sunday, the characters are openly evil. No one is innocent. They hate each other. They spew anger. They talk about taking each other’s jobs, they plot against each other, and they interfere with each other’s careers. The conflicts are cartoonish. The abuses excessive. And yet, there seem to be no genuine stakes; when its all over, everyone is better off than they were when they started.
In fact, subtlety is a key difference between these two films. North Dallas Forty is an amazingly subtle film. Take Coach BA: it’s never clear if BA is bad guy, is a dupe, or just turns a blind eye to bad things. There are several times where you get the sense that BA has told someone to do something rotten, but you never see it. Does he really use Nolte to get Delma to shoot up? Or does he just turn a blind eye? Does he support the owner ridding himself of Nolte and his contract? Is there some other reason he supports getting rid of Nolte? What is he really thinking? You never know because Spradlin turns in an amazingly subtle performance that at once seems to suggest a man taking a firm course of action, but at the same time, a man deeply conflicted about what is being done and who seems to want to stop what is happening but who may see himself as helpless... or not. It makes BA a compelling villain and you want... nay, you need to know what he really believes because your lack of understanding of his true movies pulls at you... it frustrates you.
Compare this to any character in Any Given Sunday. Each of those people does the rottenest thing they can do and then they turn to some nearby character and give soliloquies reveling in what they’ve done. There is zero subtlety. Did Coach D’Amato (Al Pacino) try to undermine mobile black quarterback Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) or betray his owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz)? Of course he did and, in case you aren’t sure, he gives you a five minute gloating speech about how he got away with it. In Any Given Sunday, everyone admits to being evil and revels in it. That is not true in North Dallas Forty at all.
In North Dallas Forty, there is one moment that confirms that Quarterback Maxwell is actually a villain. After Nolte quits the team, Maxwell is only concerned that his name was kept out of the investigation (an investigation Nolte didn’t even know about until moments before... so how does Maxwell know?). Nolte looks at his supposed best friend and says, “You know everything, don’t you Max?” Maxwell responds, “That I do.” This is it, but this moment speaks volumes. It tells you that all the manipulations, all the decisions Nolte fought throughout were all known to and support by Maxwell, who was never his friend but used him the same way he used every other player on the team. Any Given Sunday couldn’t do this level of subtlety, and because of that, North Dallas Forty feels like a film which unfolds deliberately and smacks you at the appropriate times, whereas Any Given Sunday clubs you over the head scene by scene so you never need to use your brain to follow the film.
Indeed, there are a great many moments in North Dallas Forty that you just couldn’t see in Any Given Sunday. No one ever talks about getting cut, but it hangs in the air throughout. Moreover, when Stallings is cut, you get this chilling exchange: Nolte says, “Can you believe they cut Stallings?” and Maxwell responds, “Who’s Stallings?” There is no over-the-top speech, but the message is clear: get cut and you are no longer part of the family. Take the issue of race. Jo Bob spews racist anger at a black player during the week, but before an important game he comes and wishes him a good game. There is no speech about unity or what matters, but this simple line ("Good game") says it all. Delma is told to know the difference between injury and pain to help the team, which is a subtle way to say he needs to learn to play when injured.
The characters in North Dallas Forty are amazingly well drawn too. First, they are still real people who look like you and me – the NFL was still populated by players like that in the 1970s. And they have different personalities and outside lives. You’ve got the guys who seem like retards, but then John Matuszak delivers an amazingly insightful speech (“Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game!”). You’ve got macho party animals, who you are told fear “falling on their asses in Chicago.” You have a deeply religious quarterback, drug addicts, a cynic, brownnosers, etc. Each character has his own story within the story. You learn that many don’t even know why they play. You see how easily they are cowed by their coaches. You get philosophy:
Elliot: “He’s here to remind us that the meanest and the biggest get to make all the rules.”
Charlotte: “I don’t agree with that.”
Elliot: “Agreement doesn’t enter into it.”
By comparison, Any Given Sunday is packed with prima-donna athlete stereotypes: narcissists who work out 24/7, who are incapable of uttering a non-football thought, and for whom the violence of the game has bled into their lives. And they do nothing but exist against this backdrop.
There isn’t a likable or interesting character in Any Given Sunday. They are all deeply cynical. They are rotten to the core. They are out to screw each other and they see other people as obstacles they must crush beneath them. Are there really such people in the world? Sure, but few make it to adulthood without being permanently relocated to prison.

Where North Dallas Forty does fail in my opinion is that its punch isn’t strong enough. Unfortunately, this is part of the era from which it was made. The 1970s just weren’t a time when films could get as cynical and dark as they can today, so their punch was limited. So what happens here is about as strong as the film could be made. But it would have been better to see a greater impact on Nolte. Nolte should have been shown losing something more dear to him. As it is, he is essentially fired from a game he can no longer play and which he isn’t even sure he wants to play anymore. It would have been better perhaps to make Nolte desperate to win a championship, only to have that stripped from him for getting a conscience. It would have been a darker ending, but a stronger one.

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Summer of Films: The Hobbit (1977)

One of my favorite animated films is The Hobbit. This classic blows away the sluggish, misguided six-hour bore-a-thon in theaters today. This one had heart. It fit the book perfectly, both in terms of content and feel. It was so well done, in fact, that once you see it, it becomes impossible to separate from the book.

Adaptations of books are always difficult. Should you do a straight up adaptation or should you only use the book as a guide? And even if do you a straight up adaptation, how do you handle the things that work well in books but simply don’t translate to film? These are all common problems, but none of these affected The Hobbit. Indeed, The Hobbit did it all perfectly.
The Plot: Unlike the Jackson film(s), which use The Hobbit as a base to make a completely different film, the 1977 The Hobbit follows the story very closely. In many ways, watching this version is the same experience as reading the book, and that is a good thing. In fact, not only does this version follow the plot as written, but it even gives you a similar feel. To me, this is the most remarkable aspect of this adaptation. When you watch this film, you get the same sense of timing, of tension, and of adventure that you get reading the book. That is rare indeed. By comparison, the modern film is nothing like the book in any of these categories.
The Images: Interestingly, the images presented in The Hobbit fit the story so well that it becomes impossible to separate the movie images from the book after seeing them. What the animators have done which helps them in this regard is that they’ve taken the time to make each named character distinct, they’ve paid attention to how they are described in the book, and most importantly, they’ve avoided the urge to “be cool.” This is the problem with Jackson’s interpretation. Jackson wants everything in his films to seem cool, so he basically copies the style of other modern films and comic books. The Hobbit copied nothing. The result is unique characters who appear as imagined rather than unrecognizable characters meant to compete with other action and superhero flicks.
The Characters: The best thing about The Hobbit is that it maintained the character arcs throughout the film. Bilbo has a brave imagination, but lives as a cowardly ninny. As the story progresses, he must learn independence and how to endure discomfort and the unexpected. From there, he must find confidence, cunning, and finally bravery. None of this remains in the Jackson version, but it’s all here and it truly makes this Bilbo’s journey from what he was to what he becomes, which is the point to the books. Similarly, the dwarves are selfish blowhards who need to learn to be better people. Again, Jackson skips this and makes them all accomplished warriors. This film doesn’t. The end result is a movie with characters who actually grow before your eyes, rather than just move from scene to scene.
The Music: Interspersed throughout the film are several songs. Some are sung by the dwarves, some by the elves, and some by the goblins. The songs in the Jackson version are overproduced and uninteresting. But the songs in The Hobbit are amazingly memorable. Indeed, I can still sing parts of each even when I haven’t seen the movie in a decade. Not only that, but they add a feel to the film that the Jackson songs do not. When the goblins sing, it feels ominous. When the elves sing, it feels wistful. When the dwarves sing, it feels mischievous. And the reason is that these songs are simple but telling of the inner-character of the characters. Since Jackson’s characters have no inner-character, those songs are just entertainment.

The one downside I would say with The Hobbit is that the animation is a bit stark. It’s a lot like Charlie Brown where a couple squiggles pass for a battle. But ultimately, that’s not much of a flaw because the story is so strong and the rest of the animation is so spot on. If you haven’t seen this one, you absolutely should.
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Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy B-Day, America!!

Happy Birthday, America! And Happy Independence Day to everyone else. :D

We're going to shut down for a few days here. The film site will return on Sunday July 13th and the main site will return on Monday July 14th. Enjoy your holiday. Get away from the poison of politics for a while. Find the things that are really important in life. That said, feel free to drop by to chat. I'm sure many people will be around and I may (or may not) drop an article or two in the meantime. Also, don't forget to check out our list of patriotic films at the film site, Kit's article on American Exceptionalism at the main site, and Bev's reminder of the Declaration of Independence. Good stuff.
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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

My Favorite Films: Patriotic Films

With the Fourth of July upon us, it's time to explore patriotic films! Go America!

1. Gettysburg (1993): The ultimate Civil War film in the sense of being both about the pivotal battle in the war, but also letting each side explain why they fought and what they were fighting for. It also highlights the bravery and sacrifice of the average men who have risen up to defend America in her various hours of need. This film, in many ways, lays out the competing views of what America is about.

2. How The West Was Won (1962): Call this, "How America Was Made," this film highlights the growth of America from a small group of ambitious eastern states to the country that would conquer a continent to the industrial powerhouse of today. Along the way, you meet idealists, opportunists, crooks, heroes, and people just looking for a better life. What I love about this film is how it focuses on the common man as the builder of America rather than showing America as a puzzle constructed by the rich and famous.

3. National Treasure (2004): This movie should have been Indiana Jones 4: America's Masonic History, but it wasn't. What it was instead is a film that takes a fascinating tour of the lesser known parts of American history and weaves them all together into a compelling story told by characters who love this country: the historian determined to prove his family were not traitors, the immigrant who rose to run the Smithsonian, and the watchful patriot who protects America. You can't watch this without feeling love for our country.

4. The Longest Day (1962): Focusing on D-Day, this is one of the better war films. What this film does so well is that it captures the can-do determination of every strata of American society as we prepare to put an end to Hitler's evil empire. These aren't braggarts, pessimists, cynics or cowards... they are what we have come to expect when Americans call themselves to duty.

5. Apollo 13 (1995): Not only does this film highlight the American achievement of lunar landings, something no one else has matched yet, but it shows the amazing creativity of Americans when squeezed into a corner and given only a few hours to save the lives of men we care about even if we've never met them. That ingenuity and that dedication without self-interest are cornerstones of what make Americans exceptional.

6. Sergeant York (1941): In some ways, this film could be dismissed as presenting an old fashioned view of Americans -- isolationist/live and let live, self-effacing, simple, and dedicated. Those aren't values that modern television worships. Yet, these values are on display every day all around us if you just stop to look. Sergeant York really does embody something deep within the American soul.

7. To Have And Have Not (1944): The reluctant hero looms large in this one. Bogart is the typical American in attitude and persona. He doesn't have the snazzy uniform of the Nazis. He doesn't have the backing of authority like the French who run the island. He's dismissed by the world as self-interested. But we know better. Bogart is a guy with a strong moral code who cannot stand by and let evil triumph over good, and he's willing to risk his own life to defend his beliefs even though no one would blame him for looking the other way.

8. Battle: Los Angeles (2011): More than any other war film, this one lays out why Americans stand and fight. We fight to protect our friends, our family, our homes and our country, and we know why we fight when we do. Deeply un-cynical, this film stands firmly on the side of the middle-American so many elitists simply cannot understand. These people love this country and they fight for each other, and to them, race and gender are meaningless, as all that matters is the content of a man's character.

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