Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Gangs of New York (2002)

Being the avid film fanatic and intense film connoisseur that I am, I am ashamed to say that this film marks the first time I have ever seen a film associated with this sentence: “Directed by Martin Scorsese.” Don’t get me wrong. I have most definitely heard of his work, but until this film, it all remained unseen by me. Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Departed, Shutter Island; ALL unseen by me! Hell, Hugo remains unseen by me. That’s how detached I am from his films. However, given the numerous slots on “best films of all time” lists, the day that me and a Martin Scorsese film would cross paths was certainly bound to happen, given my intrigue of his cinematic library. While this may not be the best introduction to his films, it certainly is an acceptable and unquestionably good one.

The film begins in 1846 in, where else, California. No, no, no, it begins in New York, specifically in the Five Points area. The New York citizens and the new wave of Irish immigrants battle it out on the streets of New York. One man, played by Liam Neeson (back when he wasn’t doing vitriol-inducing sequels or befuddling adaptations of board games), gets murdered by the leader of the New York citizens, Bill the Butcher, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. His son, in a very strong scene, is devastated and infuriated by his death. He is placed in an orphanage and 16 years later, he returns to New York with a seething vengeance and the face of Leonardo DiCaprio. He also runs into an attractive and wily pickpocketer, played by Cameron Diaz, who falls for DiCaprio.

The theme of hatred lingers throughout the film whether it’s hatred of immigrants, hatred of corruption and deceit, and even hatred on oneself. Consider a scene where DiCaprio realizes that the pickpocketer has a history with Bill the Butcher. DiCaprio is repulsed by this discovery and yet he still ends up sleeping with her. The way love simultaneously frustrates, liberates, and confuses DiCaprio is masterfully depicted. It’s moments like that where the hate is simmering yet internalized. Sometimes, hatred is expressed via unrestrained, lurid, brutal, and well-choreographed fight scenes, including the climactic battle where all the frustration and rage felt by all culminates ferociously.
While I have previously mentioned that I have never seen any of Martin Scorsese’s other films, I do know one thing: he is a filmmaker. Not only for his masterful storytelling (I mean, he follows up the most intense battle of the film with one of the most poetic, clever, and revealing endings I’ve seen), but also for his apt for creating taut, powerful moments and framing necessary and unique shots. Some POV shots and other little cinematography tricks (i.e. blood on the camera) really immerse the viewer into the setting and character that Scorsese emphasizes. Also, he clearly knows how to get the most out of his actors. Not only do his actors pull off brilliant performances, but also he uses a distinct trait of each actor (Day-Lewis’ intimidating presence, Diaz’s playful, child-like smile, and DiCaprio’s mature, devilish charm), emphasizes it and uses it for the better of, not only their characters, but themselves.

Daniel Day-Lewis has a goofy mustache, an artificial eye with a bird-shaped pupil, and looks like the ringleader for a Sweeney Todd circus. Yet he not only remains intimidating and ominous, but also creates one of the greatest villains in movie history. He’s just so deliciously evil. Diaz’s playfulness adds on to the craftiness and vulnerability of her character. DiCaprio’s charm makes his plight for vengeance authentic with his voice that just sounds awesome whatever he says. I bet waiters can’t properly place his order without bowing and chanting, “I am not worthy!”

So, the good news to Martin Scorsese fans is that he doesn’t disappoint. He has crafted a film with exceptional performances, effective cinematography, and competent storytelling. Throw in some amusing moments and a plethora of gorgeous, bodacious nude bodies (thank you, Scorsese) and it makes for not a great film, but a film definitely worth seeing. At least so you can say that you have seen a Martin Scorsese film.

RATING: An enthusiastic three stars out of four

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Cry Freedom (1987)

Thinking of past movie memories brings me back to this going-away party held for my good friend, Tia. For the first 30 or 40 minutes, the guests watched the English dub of Princess Mononoke. I hadn’t previously seen it and I found myself finding the dubbing laughable and not really getting sucked into it. After the aforementioned time, the film was turned off. Months later, I watched it on my own. It was the original Japanese version that I viewed at home and I found myself absolutely in love with it. Now why the hell am I talking about this? Because I’m trying to make a point that some films get better after one or more repeated viewings. Cry Freedom falls under this category of films. Mildly.

The film opens in an effectively cold manner. Via extremely minimal lighting and black-and-white photos, it depicts the then-current turmoil of black South Africans. It shows them in slums that end up getting demolished by white South African cops, who claim that they are illegal. After that scene, we meet our main character, Donald Woods, a liberal, successful journalist, played by Kevin Kline. How do I know he’s successful? Because he has the classic 1980s working man look: stupid glasses.

Yet his character arc begins as a misguided man as he publishes an article about black activist Steven Biko, where he views Biko as an enemy. An angry black woman confronts Woods about the article. She tells Woods, “You are not a fool. You are uninformed.” Because of this statement, Woods decides to meet Biko, played by Denzel Washington, and through Biko, Woods realizes the hardships of black South Africans, along with the frustratingly persistent corruption of the police and the government. After the police beats Biko to death in jail and the truth about his death is not revealed to the general public, Woods decides to take matters into his own hands and spread the news, thus spreading awareness of Biko. This leads to an odyssey of bravery and complexity, as he tries to escape South Africa.

I mentioned the Princess Mononoke memory previously. Well, watching 1987’s Cry Freedom for the second time (I missed part of it due to a prior obligation and I needed to watch it again) reminded me of watching another movie: Hachi: A Dog’s Tale from 2010. During that movie, Hachi is a dog whose owner dies and yet continues to wait at the train station where he would meet up with his owner when he came home from work. At first, I wanted to remove the dog from the train station and leave it in the care of another family member. Then, I found out that this wasn’t just scripted movie nonsense. That actually happened. That historical context made the film better. That is the same case with Cry Freedom, minus the dog.

I mentioned that after Biko dies, Woods takes matters in his own hands and intends to spread the word about Biko and the circumstances that killed him, which leads to a journey of him trying to escape South Africa. At first, I felt that this part of the film and even a few scenes beforehand were deathly sluggish and Caucasian-centric. I felt that too much emphasis was put on how apartheid affects Woods and little emphasis on the effect of apartheid on black South Africans. I also noticed that the editing in this section was extremely awkward. Flashbacks seemed incompetently shoehorned in. Also, I felt that the originally evocative lighting began to grow dismal.

However, after remembering the fact that all of this really happened, the film, which at that point was starting to lose me, eventually won me over. After it had won me over, it didn’t seem sluggish anymore. I now felt that the Caucasian-centric aura of this section was actually apt because it shows that while not all people are in the same situation, the ones who aren’t can certainly feel for the ones that are. I already thought that Kevin Kline’s performance was good. While his simplistic character arc kinda held him back, he still pulled off a ferocious intensity. However, in this section of the film, there was a determination and hardiness about his character/performance that clicked with me. Also, the flashbacks didn’t seem all that misplaced anymore. I also realized that the lighting still remained dismal, but the other positive aspects make up for that.

My opinion of the ending changed, too (spoiler alert). At the very end, Woods, along with his family, gets on a plane (resulting in some great POV camera shots), escape South Africa, and go off to England to spread the news about the horrors in South Africa. However, we never seem them arrive at England. The plane disappears into the distance and we are given a list of black South African prisoners who died in prison and the false excuses the police gave for their death. My original thought was, “That was it? You spent the whole last third trying to get to England to spread the word and you aren’t even going to show him spreading the word?!?! I guess this was all about the white man, huh?” Eventually, though, I realized that when this film was released, apartheid in South Africa hadn’t ended yet. The movie was trying to say that no matter how powerful his words were, they could not solely ignite the shift towards freedom for black South Africans. South Africa still had a lot of work to do. That additional historical context added a haunting yet hopeful quality about the film that utterly impressed me.

However, there are some other flaws I can bring up that can’t be justified. First of all, Woods’ family, especially his wife, are absolutely dull characters. They add extremely little emotion into the film and they aren’t charming, funny, or captivating in the slightest. Second of all, this film feels like too different kinds of films: a PBS telefilm and a carbon copy of director Richard Attenborough’s previous film, Gandhi. It’s a PBS telefilm in terms of its sanitation, execution, and in its directness. Consider a scene where the police take Biko into custody for giving an illegal speech at a soccer (or football, what have you) game. At the end of the scene, one of the officers says, “I’m gonna catch you red-handed one day!” This is an utterly laughable line. It feels more at home in a Smokey and the Bandit film than in this film.

I also mentioned that this film feels like a carbon copy of Gandhi. First and foremost, Gandhi is one of the most ambitious and grandest biopics I’ve ever seen. Every scene is filled with widely framed cinematography, which is chocked full of great crowd scenes, exhilarating storytelling, brilliant speeches, and the devout, transformed soul of Ben Kingsley. It’s one of my favorite films. Cry Freedom has a lot of great crowd scenes that are expertly framed and a few speeches, but they feel too similar to Gandhi. I don’t call it a nod to Gandhi; I call it mechanical, forced, and derivative.

However, there are two exceptional elements of this film. I quoted a line from the film earlier and as you could see, the dialogue is, for the most part, well written. However, there are moments of dialogue that are searingly, penetratingly wry and honest. I don’t have any specific examples, but they are present and one who watches the film can definitely see it. The other exceptional element of the film is Denzel Washington as Biko (yeah, sorry about side-stepping him). When we first see Biko, we actually don’t see his face. It’s a shot that’s delightfully mysterious yet overdone, as if Biko is trying to be depicted as a pseudo-mystical deity. However, we do end up seeing the face of Denzel. We also discover his charismatic, sharp, and sly performance where he adopts a smile that’s simultaneously tender and roguish. These two elements plus the fact that most of the flaws become strengths definitely make up for some of the film’s perpetual flaws.

RATING: Three stars out of four

Monday, March 4, 2013

Full list of TV Guide's 100 Shows to See Before You Die

Yeah, you remember when I posted the updated list of VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of the 90s? I said in that post, "...opportunity knocked and I gladly opened the door." Well, guess what? Mr. Opportunity came back for a little visit.

OK, here's the story. For months, I struggled to find someone who posted a full list of TV Guide's 100 Shows to See Before You Die. While I found no luck with list, I did find the videos to it overtime. A few months back, I found the 50-1 choices on Dailymotion. Then, last night, I found the 100-51 choices on TV Guide's webpage, where the videos had apparently been posted for a while. So, I decided to make a list for myself. Then, last night, I realized that while I had the full list, no one else did.

It's not like VH1 where they always have a full list of ALL their countdowns, if not on their website, then on some blogging site posted by a secondhand source. But for the TV Guide show, no list could be find. So, I thought to myself, how selfish of me! I have this full list and I'm keeping it to myself? What a dickcheese, I am!

So, to that end, you, my fellow readers, are about to witness an unprecedented internet opportunity: to see the full list of TV Guide's 100 Shows to See Before You Die! P.S. Shows that made the list due to their appealing kitchiness will be marked, SBIG (So-bad-it's-good)

100. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
99. Little House on the Prairie
98. Fantasy Island
97. Beverly Hills 90210
96. Wheel of Fortune
95. The Muppet Show
94. Family Ties
93. The Real World
92. Bewitched
91. Diff’rent Strokes
90. The Flying Nun - SBIG
89. The Cosby Show
88. Land of the Lost - SBIG
87. MacGyver
86. Square Pegs
85. The X-Files
84. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
83. Law & Order
82. Temptation Island - SBIG
81. South Park
80. All In the Family
79. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
78. The Sopranos
77. Saved By the Bell - SBIG, to some degree
76. The Carol Burnett Show
75. Roseanne
74. Cop Rock - SBIG
73. Solid Gold - SBIG
72. Bonanza
71. Passions - SBIG
70. Doogie Howser, M.D.
69. Dynasty
68. Fear Factor
67. The Honeymooners
66. Three’s Company
65. Man from Atlantis - SBIG
64. Two and a Half Men
63. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!
62. Jackass
61. The Andy Griffith Show
60. Married With Children
59. Modern Family
58. The Smurfs
57. The Odd Couple
56. Good Times
55. LOST
54. Alf
53. Laugh-In
52. Welcome Back. Kotter
51. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
50. The Bachelor
49. Cheers
48. ER
47. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse
46. The Daily Show
45. The Wonder Years
44. The Oprah Winfrey Show
43. The Wire
42. The Facts of Life
41. Baywatch
40. Glee
39. The Hills - SBIG
38. Taxi
37. The Jerry Springer Show - SBIG
36. Gilligan’s Island
35. NYPD Blue
34. Mad Men
33. Charlie’s Angels
32. The Addams Family
31. The Swan
30. I Love Lucy
29. Match Game
28. The Brady Bunch
27. 24
26. The Office
25. American Idol
24. H.R. Pufnstuf - SBIG
23. Happy Days
22. The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
21. The Twilight Zone
20. Mr. Ed
19. The Golden Girls
18. The Fugitive
17. The Dukes of Hazzard
16. Roots
15. Saturday Night Live
14. Star Trek
13. Survivor
12. My Mother the Car - SBIG
11. 60 Minutes
10. The West Wing
09. Frasier
08. COPS
07. M*A*S*H
06. Deadliest Catch
05. Friends
04. The Simpsons
03. Jersey Shore - SBIG
02. Seinfeld
01. Sex and the City

Well, there's the list! Any choices piss you off? Yeah? Well, me too! The fact that South Park, I Love Lucy, Friends, and The Simpsons are ranked below Jersey Shore and Sex and the City is flat-out blasphemy! I understand that they aren't talking about the best shows of all time, but I'd like to think that I Love Lucy is probably in the Top 3 Shows to See Before You Die. I mean, think about it. Whenever you hear people referring to the greatest shows of all time, you hear The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and I Love Lucy! So, shouldn't that transfer to a Must-Watch list? WTF?!?! Well, that's my opinion. What about yours? Are there any shows you'd add or take away from the list? Also, what is YOUR favorite show of all time? Mine are...going to be revealed in a post that will be released God knows when! So, tell me your opinion. Go on. Fire away! I'm an open book. Later!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Invictus (2009)

Years ago, Clint Eastwood produced a cinematic feat and, for many years to come, sustained the significance of that feat. He developed a gruff, intimidating persona with a barely audible yet nerve-tingling dialect and, as always, that freaking cigarette. This is a persona that is as well known as the American Flag and has been the subject of many tributes and comedic monologues. If you don’t believe me, how many times have you impersonated Clint Eastwood or used the phrase, “Do ya feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” And don’t you dare say that you haven’t because you have. You know you have!

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. I’m sure you all are wondering, “Well, what’s the feat in developing a persona? Many actors can do that.” Well, actually the feat lies in his directorial credits. The viewer is left with a concrete, preconceived impression of him after watching him as an actor and then after you look at his directorial credits, you thoughts are summed up in one word: Damn! Who would’ve known that Dirty Harry could’ve made such sweeping, sad, fascinating, and occasionally comedic films?

I think he gained more variety and reverence as a director during the 2000s. This was the decade when he directed Mystic River, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and the Academy Award winner of 2004, Million Dollar Baby. So, since Clint Eastwood is making all these acclaimed films of cosmic vision and gut-wrenching drama, he deserves a film where his ideas can be executed in a way that’s visually gargantuan and yet narratively humble. Enter Invictus.

The film revolves around the post-apartheid era in South Africa. The hierarchy was so extreme that whites and blacks played their own, fitting sport, which were rugby and soccer, respectively. But now, former prisoner Nelson Mandela is the South African president and South Africa is doing everything they can to get the message across that the actions that were partaken in during apartheid were wrong. One of these objectives is to eliminate the South African rugby team, the Springboks. The Springboks, whose captain is Francois Pienaar, were previously not allowed to bring in black players and their colors were green and yellow, which were the colors associated with the apartheid era. It also doesn’t help that they are currently on a losing streak. However, Mandela sees hope in them, calls for the overturn of the Springbok boycott, and inspires the team to work hard and earn the World Cup as a way of uniting South Africa.

Surprisingly enough, while Clint Eastwood directed the film, Anthony Peckham penned it. He previously wrote Don’t Say a Word and went on to write the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film. While I can’t offer my critique on those films, I will say that he has crafted a witty, winning screenplay for this film. There are many scenes that permeate into the brain and stay stuck in there. There is a scene where the Springboks teach the black South African kids, who were born on soccer, how to play rugby that is charming and reveals the actors’ brilliant abilities to work with kids.

But one scene that particularly stood out to me was when the Springboks tour Mendela’s jail cell. While it is an inevitable moment, given the scenes of the Mandela/Pienaar dynamic, it is also plaintive and revealing. All Mandela wanted was a change and he was convicted because of it. It shows that the Springboks have to win the World Cup to convey that blacks are equal to whites.

The performances are certainly persuasive. Morgan Freeman always brings a commanding yet cuddly presence to every role and his role in this film, as Nelson Mandela, is no different. He is most certainly convincing as Mandela with a thick South African accent. Matt Damon, when he gets screen time (this will soon be discussed), is cogent as Pienaar. With his South African accent, Matt Damon officially makes the list of Pretty Boy Actors Who Can Really Act (the list includes him, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and a few others I am most surely forgetting). Yes, this film certainly has all of the qualities of a great film: the delightful screenplay, the earnest performances, the fact that they show the actual rugby team in the credits, and, need we forget, the cinematography that is expansive, clear, and cloaks itself in toned-down hues.

This sounds like it should be a great epic film. Unfortunately, it falters it two areas: structure and storytelling. For a film about the aftermath of an unpleasant moment in time, it feels safe and plasticized. The inspirational speeches are forced, clichéd, and minorly embarrassing. The teammates are shallowly written caricatures. They’re douchebags and then they’re supportive. The originality and depth is just overwhelming.

Also, as much as I adore Freeman’s performance, it annoys me how Mandela is used as a pawn in a trivial Cinderella story. There’s one moment at the end where he’s used in a pseudo-inspirational fashion. I won’t reveal anything, but I will say that, even though it really happened, the way the film handles it is disgustingly saccharine. Another flaw is that some scenes (the “looking out at the empty stadium while introspective or inspiration talk ensues” scene, the “many places watching the same event on television with many people hanging on every moment” scene) are obviously clichéd, but the film is so self-consciously epic that it feels that the filmmakers forgot that these scenes have been used in thousands of other films.

Did I mention that the structure of the film fails? By this, I mean that the film doesn’t know what it wants to be? What is the focus? Is it about Mandela? Is it about the Springboks? I don’t know. I’m guessing it’s about both, but when they are amalgamated, it feels like two different films. It doesn’t click. It clashes. Even worse, the first half offers no legit balance between Freeman and Damon. Damon is painfully underused, to the point that the Oscars nominated him under the category of SUPPORTING ACTOR! He’s the second name on the poster, for Christ’s sake!

For a film of this plotline, the “big game” is inescapable. Oddly enough, it is preceded by a chant/dance of the opponents that feels like the writer of Stomp the Yard hijacked the script. When it does happen, it is palpable albeit predictable. However, one thing nearly ruins that scene: SLOW MOTION! Usually, in a “big game” moment, slow motion is used when the protagonists make the winning point. Here, it is used when the Springboks start to take the lead and continues for 10 freaking minutes, at least! It starts to get old after about two minutes. Think about that! 10 minutes of slow-mo, including that distinct audio that starts to sound like the Hulk dubbed this film.

Overall, it’s not a bad film. It just could’ve been so much better! The performances are amazing, the camerawork is competent, and the screenplay can be pretty charming. However, the habitual and labored moments, the lack of focus and cohesive structure, and the safety of it all nearly suffocate it. It feels sanitized. However, sanitized products can be pleasant, as is the case with this film. The good qualities are so incredibly good that I can let it slide. In conclusion, on a scale of zero to four stars, I’d give this film an enthusiastic 3 stars!