Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: Star Wars

Star Wars is a forty-year-old film this year.  I turn forty-two today, which means I existed for two whole years in a world without Star Wars.  I have no clear memories of those two years, so I don't remember a time when the film wasn't part of my life in some way.

I am told my Uncle Wayne took me to see the film sometime during its first release, but I don't remember seeing it for the first time.  I wonder what my two-year-old self experienced in that first viewing.  Was I scared?  Thrilled?  Awestruck?  More than likely it was a combination of all those and more.

What I do remember is the excitement I felt whenever the film came back around for limited re-release.  One of those releases marked the first time I was ever allowed to go see a film by myself, more than likely fueled by my parents having absolutely no desire to see the film again.  Likewise, I distinctly remember going to see the two sequels: Empire was at the Seaford Twin Cinema, an initial attempt by my father taking my sister and me to see it thwarted by a sold-out theater; Return of the Jedi was at the Midway Theater in Rehoboth along with my mother, my Aunt Vicki, my sister, and two female cousins.  None of whom cared at all about seeing the movie, at least not at the level I did, so I might as well have been seeing it by myself.

But, my excitement over those two films resulted directly from the deep connection I felt (and still feel) to the first Star Wars movie, a film whose existence is interwoven with mine on a primal level.  I honestly don't know what kind of person I would be if Star Wars hadn't existed in my life.  And, on a certain level, I don't understand people who are indifferent to the film because feeling that way would mean an essential part of me would disappear.

I have to confess that although my top ten films receive nearly equal admiration from me, I saved Star Wars for last because at forty years old it has been part of my awareness the longest out of any film I've ever seen.  And, it continues to be an active part of my life as new Star Wars films are made, and I have been able to share the experience with students, my Nerd Circle buddies, and, most importantly, my nephew, who has recently made a point of watching all the films in the series and has come to me with questions about the story and characters.


So, the significance of this film in my life perpetually evolves into something more than it was before.  That means something.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: It Happened One Night

In light of the debacle that was last night's Oscars ceremony, it might be appropriate to take a look at one of the classic Best Picture winners, one that unmistakably swept the top five categories of Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.  Of course, the same could be said for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but It Happened One Night has the distinction of being the first film to be so honored.  And, it accomplished the feat despite being a movie that no one, not even the stars, believed in except for the director, Frank Capra.

Made in the heyday of the Hollywood contract players, Clark Gable was loaned out to do the picture as a business move by his home studio; Gable was a reluctant participant as a result.  Claudette Colbert had to be coaxed into doing it with an increased salary and a promise to have her filming completed in one month.  Reportedly, she was a prima donna on set and would throw tantrums almost daily.

Despite the trials and tribulations of the production, the end result is one of the most smartly-written romantic comedies ever put to film.  And, being made before the enforcement of the MPAA production code, the film has a sense of daring even by some of today's standards.

There are a number of iconic scenes in the movie: Clark Gable undressing in front of Claudette Colbert, Colbert stopping a passing car by showing her leg.  But, my favorite scene is when the two of them seemingly improvise an argument to avoid capture by the police.  They pretend to be a married couple who are instigated into an old argument by the presence of the police officers.  Although the actual scene was scripted, the direction and performances make the exchange seem completely ad libbed, and it is a moment of real connection between the characters.  From then on, everything the characters say and do is seen within the context of them falling in love.

Unfortunately for modern romantic comedies, I judge them based on how they measure up to the film I believe set the standard for the genre.  Very few are able to match the wit and charm of It Happened One Night.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: Chasing Amy

Some might find it interesting that Chasing Amy is the only comic book-related film in my top ten.  And, it is only a comic book movie in that it is set within the workings of the comic book industry and makes references only those familiar with the genre would clearly understand.  One of the opening scenes takes place at a comicon, and it remains to this day one of the most authentic-looking depictions of a con I have ever seen on film.  Sure, it ventures at times into cartoonishness with the inker vs. tracer debate and the comic book panel discussion in which the character of Hooper X delivers his hilarious deconstruction of the Star Wars trilogy.  But, the feel of the con is spot on, right down to how the attendees look and act.

Written and directed by Kevin Smith, a comic book aficionado himself, Chasing Amy was something of a comeback for Smith, who had an indie success with Clerks but then misstepped in a big way with the dead-in-the-water Mallrats.  Chasing Amy showcased his writing talent and his ability to create interesting characters who find themselves in situations that involve authentic emotions, not just tongue-in-cheek slapstick or toilet humor, although there is plenty of both in Chasing Amy.

The story is about a comic writer/artist named Holden, who befriends and then falls in love with a fellow comic book writer/artist named Alyssa.  The problem initially is that Alyssa is openly gay, and so it seems there friendship will not advance to romance.  But, one thing leads to another, and the two begin a romance.  More problems arise when details about Alyssa's past comes to light, and Holden is torn on how to handle knowing the information.

Yes, this sounds like the typical set up for a standard romantic comedy, but Chasing Amy transcends the genre by having the characters' choices carry real weight and ramifications.  There are no sudden revelations that fix all the conflicts, no last minute reconciliations that give everyone a happily-ever-after.  Instead, we get a story about characters who are maturing into adults, accompanied by all the pain and heartache that comes with it.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: Eve's Bayou

Because of Eve's Bayou, you will never hear me offer too much criticism of the effects of social media or the advent of home entertainment.  A film this small and with such a limited release never would have crossed my radar if not for the internet.  Specifically, if I had not been regularly reading Roger Ebert's movie reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, something I was only able to do because of the internet.

From reading his reviews, I was able to learn about all kinds of films from a reliable source.  I didn't always agree with Ebert on his assessment of a film, but he always offered a comprehensive and varied examination of released movies, many of which never got much media attention and certainly wouldn't have made it to a theater anywhere within driving distance of me on the Delmarva Peninsula.

In 1997, Ebert released his top ten films for that year, and topping it was a film that received very little attention outside of film critics.  The fact that Eve's Bayou beat out such films as Titanic, Jackie Brown, and L.A. Confidential in Ebert's opinion intrigued me greatly.  As soon as it became available on VHS, I watched it and instantly fell in love with this charming and heartbreaking movie.

It is a family drama set in the Louisiana Bayou of 1950s or 1960s.  The Batistes are a well-to-do black family with a seemingly picture-perfect life, but there are secrets and bitter resentments simmering under the surface.  Samuel L. Jackson stars as Louis Batiste, the patriarch of the family and a doctor, who enjoys a certain measure of prestige and popularity in the surrounding community.  His wife, Roz (Lynn Whitfield), finds herself torn between her love for her husband and her sense of betrayal as his many infidelities begin to come to light.  Caught in the middle are their three children, who are old enough to know something is wrong even if they don't understand fully everything they see and hear.

The story is told from the point of view of the middle child, Eve, and opens with her very ominous narration: "Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others imprinted indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father I was 10 years old."  From that moment, I knew I was watching a film of striking originality and strong narrative voice.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: Alien

I think one of the reasons I am not more of a fan of horror films is that most of them are an exercise in combining and recombining the same old tropes and storytelling techniques with no real attempt to introduce some style or originality.  Not that it is fair to expect every genre film to be completely new and original - there has to be some recognizable qualities for films in a particular genre - but a good director will always try to present the story in way that feels fresh.

What makes Alien so appealing to me is that it finds a fresh presentation by mashing together two tried and true film genres (science fiction and horror) and breathes life into the more tired characteristics of both by switching between the two, keeping the audience in a state of off-balance for most of the picture.  At the moments it feels like a sci-fi adventure while others it is straight out horror with some now classic cinematic scares.

Although the beginning of a very successful film franchise that has managed to maintain a certain level of decent quality for the most part, none of the other films in the series quite achieve the sheer artistry that Alien does.  It is a film with a setting that looks gritty and lived-in even though it takes place in outer space.  It is a film with smart characters who find themselves completely out of their depth in a situation that threatens their very lives.  And, it is a film that gets a visceral reaction out of its audience nearly forty years after its release.  Most of the subsequent films just rehash these qualities.

Coincidentally, my first exposure to the Alien-franchise started with the second film, Aliens.  I was maybe 11 or 12 when I first saw it, and I remember feeling emotionally jostled and completely unsettled afterwards.  Year later, I would read Roger Ebert's review of the film and agree with his description that the sequel is two hours of really bad road.  A couple years later when I finally watched the first film, I found myself appreciating the creepy slow pace of its story and being more emotionally invested in the character of Ellen Ripley.  Of all the Alien films, this is the one I go back regularly.

Steve's Top Ten Films: The Color Purple

The first time I learned to separate a movie from its original source material came when I had to finally read Alice Walker's The Color Purple for a class years after having seen the film.  The novel is epistolary, told in letters Celie writes to God, her sister, and finally herself.  It has a very clear narrative voice and an emphasis on an extremely uncinematic main character.  The film version remains largely faithful to the novel, but it strikes its own narrative beats and finds different areas upon which to focus.

Maybe I benefitted from having the seen the film first because I have never felt that one is diminished by the other.  It's just that the film allows us to see the same story from a different angle.  Some things are lost in the translation, certainly, but there is a strong emotional depth to the film, and the characters come to life in way that the book never quite manages to pull off.

Part of the reason for this is due to the direction of Steven Spielberg.  The Color Purple was his first real foray into straight drama, and it gave him an opportunity to truly grow as a director.  His signature moves as a director are there: one or more of the characters looking at the sky at some celestial orb, camera-shots that pull into tight close-ups, long training shots that make up the majority of a scene.  But, here he finally employs them to tell a mature story dealing with emotional truth.

Although The Color Purple is one of the biggest all-time Academy Award losers (it lost all nine of its nominations, and Spielberg wasn't even recognized with a nom), it made Hollywood take notice of Spielberg as more than a genre director of very stylish popcorn flicks.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: Leaving Las Vegas


The other day, a student showed me the Story Bible for a fictional world he plans to write about.  Carefully, he took me through the details of the world and the various people who populate it.  

At one point, he said, "I don't know if this is the kind of story you'd read, Mr. Givens, but what do you think?"

I told him, "I don't have a particular type of story I like to read, but you gotta give me good characters.  You give me good characters, and I will follow a story wherever it goes, come hell or high water."

We then began talking about the characters in his story, and I was indeed fascinated.

As I started writing this review for Leaving Las Vegas, that conversation came to mind because the reason this 22-year-old movie has remained a favorite is due to the two central characters, Ben and Sera.  They are sad, incredibly flawed characters with issues that should render happiness an impossibility for them - Ben is a suicidal drunk; Sera is an abused hooker.  However, these two meet on the streets of Las Vegas and find some relief from their lonesome lives,

Leaving Las Vegas isn't a happy movie.  Ben and Sera are on a trajectory that will only leave them alone again.  But, the film offers a small sliver of hope that even two people who have gotten so low can still connect and offer each other a moment of love and acceptance.  And, you want them to have that hope because, despite their flaws, Ben and Sera are real people who generate real sympathy.  They are what make the darker moments in the film palatable.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

So, I'm cheating a little with this one as I have a very busy day ahead of me.  Previously, I wrote a review of for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for my W2WW series, and I am merely re-posting it here.  My thoughts on the film remain unchanged though.

Why watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Well, the cast alone is reason enough to give it a once over:

Jack Nicholson, one of the most devilishly gifted screen actors of all time, as Randle McMurphy, one of the most subversive, counter-cultural characters in literature.

Louise Fletcher, a terrifically under-utilized actress, as the icy, porcelain-featured Nurse Ratched, arguably the vilest villain in cinematic history.

And the inmates of the psychiatric ward played by the best character actors working in film.  Will Sampson, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, and Brad Dourif to name a few.

There's also the score.  The movie opens and closes with the sounds of a musical saw, creating an eerie, yet playful tone that perfectly captures what the audience experiences as the story unfolds.

Oh, yes, the story!  Funny and allegorical.  Sad but uplifting.  A power struggle between freewill and submission.  Between male and female.  That offers a subjective view on sanity and dares to question the imposition of societal norms.  And an ending that will inspire debate even among the most dull-minded of movie goers.  Who wins in the end?  Is there even a way to tell?

Sweeping the top five Oscar categories and taking in a tremendous box office for the time, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is hardly an overlooked movie, the kind I try to highlight in my W2WW series.  And, I would venture to say most people who would be inclined to read this blog and pay any attention to my ramblings have already seen the movie and/or read the book.  But, good movies (and books, too) age like fine wine and need to be savored over and over throughout the years.  This is one such film and should be brought out once in a while for yet another viewing.

Released the year I was born, this gem is among my favorite movies of all time, but not for that reason.  It is nothing short of a masterpiece in filmmaking that remains every bit as compelling and powerful forty years later.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: Fargo

I was only somewhat liking Fargo as I watched it for the first time.  In the first thirty minutes, the story was interesting, there were moments of light humor, and there seemed to be the makings of a bumbling caper, amusing but hardly original.  Then the film introduced the character of Police Chief Marge Gunderson, portrayed by Frances McDormand, and it took its first zig when I was expecting it to zag.

When Marge first appears, she is simple in spirit, somewhat naive, and comically nine-months pregnant.  I just knew that she would only solve the kidnapping case at the center of the movie's plot through unlikely coincidences and acts of comedic stupidity akin to something like Inspector Clouseau.  Then she arrived on the scene of a triple homicide, carefully assessed the clues, and reconstructed the circumstances of the crime with an accuracy and economy that would impress Sherlock Holmes.

From there, Fargo becomes an off-beat crime procedural as Marge pursues the kidnappers and begins unraveling the mystery through a persistent application of common sense and moral integrity.  This is a character who can correct another police officer's mistaken interpretation of a clue without making him feel stupid, keep her calm when meeting a mentally unstable classmate, and face down a cold-blooded killer and honestly ask him why he doesn't know that there is more to life than money.  She is the embodiment of classic mid-western values, and the film gently chides this innocent view of life while simultaneously embracing it as the one thing that prevails in the end.

With this in mind, all the characters of Fargo can be placed on a comparison scale of moral integrity and intelligence.  All the major characters, except Marge, are deficient in one or both of those qualities, and the failure they experience results from that flaw.  This also reveals a hidden structure in the film in that the plot events can viewed as a set up to eventually get the most intelligent and most moral character (Marge) face-to-face with the character who is the least intelligent and least moral, but who is the most dangerous because of it.

Fargo may not be the Coen Brothers most favored film, but it is their most flawless film in how its direct simplicity masks a deeper structure of connection between the characters.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: Disney's Beauty and the Beast

I've enjoyed some good-natured ribbing recently for my affection for this film, and I get why.  Disney's Beauty and the Beast is an unabashedly romantic movie and more than a little quirky given that the main love theme is sung by a teapot.  When compared to subsequent films that have more "modern" sensibilities, like Lion King or Toy Story, Beauty and the Beast can seem, at best, quaint and, at worst, outdated.

But, my appreciation for the movie hasn't waned since I first saw it as a teenager.  The reason for that is just as unabashedly romantic and quirky as anything found in the film itself: this movie quite literally and on a very real level changed my life.

I'll give you all a moment to finish your chorus of eye rolls before I continue to explain.

At the ripe old age of sixteen, I had developed quite a serious-minded outlook about life and about music and art specifically.  If an artistic creation, whether it be a novel or music or film, wasn't soaked in some esoteric high-mindedness or ponderous gloom, then it wasn't deemed fit for my consideration.  I saw no value in anything light and  fluffy, and something that even hinted at being sentimental was sloppy drivel.

There are reasons for why I had this attitude, but they are rather personal and little too involved to go into for this particular blog post.  Suffice it to say that when Beauty and the Beast came out I initially scoffed at it as being yet another mindless attempt by Disney to squeeze money out of a less discerning public.  The critical praise the film received upon its release did little to dissuade my prejudgments even though it was universally being acclaimed as one of the best animated films ever made and started making its way onto several top ten lists, including those of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

It wasn't until a teacher dared me to go see it because, as she put it, I really needed "to go see something fun," that I finally decided to go find out what all the fuss was about.  I went to see it on New Year's Eve 1991 with my mind made up that I would return to school to tell that teacher that the movie was just as ridiculous as I knew it was going to be.  As the theater darkened, my patented derisive smirk was at the ready and my biting sarcasm was ready to lash out and tear the sentimental heart out of this silly Disney propaganda.

But, then something happened.  Something I did not anticipate.  The opening number, although rife with the usual animated slapstick, was actually cleverly written and developed the lead female character very effectively.  Someone had put some actual thought and craftsmanship into the music, so by the time I heard what would become my favorite lyrics from the film's score ("But, behind that fair facade, I'm afraid she's rather odd"), the movie had already bypassed most of the roadblocks I had put up against it.

From there, the movie continued to make no missteps as the story, although charming and romantic, possessed real emotional weight at its core.  When the now-famous ballroom scene came on, I felt real tears forming in my eyes as the camera gently swept around the dancing figures of Belle and Beast while Angela Lansbury sang the title song.

Embarrassed, I wiped my eyes and resolved to pull myself together and not get pulled into the film so much.  This, I now see, was the last stand for my stubborn pseudo-intellectual snobbery, and it was soundly knocked away when I heard the film's villain sing, "Screw your courage to the sticking place!" in one of the films final numbers.  I shook my head in disbelief.  Did they really just make a Macbeth reference?  In a Disney film?

Well, I was completely in at that point.  This movie was perfection from start to finish, and I came out of it with a new appreciation for so-called family entertainment that managed to attain a high-level of quality.  As the years have gone on, the film has served as a reminder to me to not be so serious, that deep emotions and intellectual quality are not mutually exclusive, and that it is simply okay to feel transported by a movie without it having to have some sort corrosive subtext about the meaning of life.

In other words, we all need a little bit of quirky romance in our lives.

What-to-Watch Wednesday - The Nines (2007)

If a movie gives me something to think about then I can forgive it almost any flaw.  Such is the case with The Nines , a film that ponders...