Friday, December 31, 2010

Personal Top 10 List

As readers will come to see, I don’t deal in obscure numbered lists that suit my personal needs. I know it presents an editorial dilemma and causes the writer to actually think about what they’re writing, and why, but you have to draw the line somewhere. When a writer can’t limit themselves to the confines of a simple Top 10 (or even Top 25) list it shows you just how truly poor they are at their chosen craft. In their minds they are probably thinking that the more they write the better it makes them look, or the smarter it makes them seem, but nothing could be further from the truth. 

In reality they come off desperate, trying to showcase too many pleasing answers to a question nobody asked. They also come off as elitist and arrogant, proposing that their pop culture, fan boy opinion is the be all, end all of general reference. Unless there is some sort of broad, regulated poll (such as the imdb Top 250) then any list anyone presents is entirely subjective to their personal tastes and opinion. 

Most of the time these lists are catered to personal preference, but presented as absolutes. The only thing you get dealing in absolutes, besides a savage light saber battle on Mustafar, is an argument. Therefore, presented below is my personal top 10 list to give you a bearing of where I’m coming from as a filmgoer and storyteller.  

10. The Outsiders (1983)

The Outsiders is a compelling story with relatable characters and an ensemble cast; there’s really not much more to say about this coming of age masterpiece. When the only privilege you have in your life is the people who are in it you realize the true value for family and friendship. Most films attempt to express this understanding through superficial, commercial themes such as sex and other derelict behavior, but The Outsiders remains pure and focuses on the heart and camaraderie of it’s characters. Sadly, in a fatal attempt at “improving” his film, director Francis Ford Coppola removed the powerful, emotional score that his father Carmine had composed and replaced it with rock songs from the 1960’s in the 2005 “Complete Novel” DVD release of the film. The result is a much more dated film that is not as sincere. Perhaps he had to prove that “nothing gold can stay.”

9. The Razor's Edge (1984)

Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugam, this remake of a 1946 film of the same name, The Razor’s Edge offers more insight, characterization, and plot developments than it’s two previous incarnations combined. Bill Murray stars and co-wrote the script to this World War I drama set in Chicago, Paris, and India. Long before he became the indie favorite of Wes Anderson, Murray dared to be taken seriously as an actor. Unfortunately, the world wasn’t ready to accept the serious side of the king of deadpan. The irony is that Murray brought a lot of humor to his portray of Larry Darryl, the disenchanted young man whose quest for knowledge leads him to the understanding of himself. Larry’s story is paralleled by his ex-fiancĂ©, Isabel Bradley (Catherine Hicks), and her husband, Gray Maturin (James Keach) as they struggle through the great depression. You can read into what you like, but the film will definitely ground your sensibilities as it relates to value, both inherent and material. 

8. The Ninth Configuration (1980)

Considered by the writer-director, William Peter Blatty, to be the actual sequel to William Friedkin’s adaptation of his best selling novel, The Exorcist, The Ninth Configuration has a lot to live up to, and doesn’t disappoint. Not a direct sequel, this film deals more with thematic elements and an inversion of ideas. While The Exorcist explores the dark side of humanity and theology, The Ninth Configuration looks more to the compassionate and sacrificial side. That is of course once the plot gets underway and reveals itself as more than a comedic document of true insanity. By far one of the smartest, funniest, and dimensional scripts ever put to screen. Stacey Keach plays Col. Vincent Kane, a psychologist put in charge of a remote military psychiatric hospital located in a castle in the pacific northwest of the United States. There he meets Capt. Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), a patient that may or may not be suffering from psychosis. Together the two teach each other about friendship, sacrifice, and salvation. Wrapped in an ensemble cast of unforgettable characters, The Ninth Configuration may just drive you crazy, or bring you back from the brink.

7. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption is one of those rare occasions where the film is actually better than the book, which is saying a lot, having originally been written by Stephen King. Writer-Director Frank Darabont has seemed to of made a career out of improving on greatness with his three adaptations of King’s work (four if you count the short The Woman in the Room (1983)). If this film proves anything it’s that you don’t need to have a ton of experience and technical know how to make a great film, you just need to know how to tell a story. That being said, technically it is a pretty flawless film that easily lends itself to repeated viewings, often with something new to offer.

6. Bad Boys (1983)

Bad Boys really should have been called “BAD ASS,” because that is what Sean Penn is in this film (just watch the clip below.). He plays a Chicago street punk named Michael “Mick” O’Brien (the surname says it all). After a drug heist gone wrong and the accidental death of his targets kid brother, O’Brien is sent to Rainford Juvenile Correctional Facility. There he is greeted with a communal shower of saliva from his fellow inmates and he begins to learn how things work on the inside. Ultimately he takes control of the action over the villainous Viking (Clancy Brown) and Tweety (Robert Lee Rush). Meanwhile on the outside a vengeful Paco Moreno (Esai Morales) sets his sites on O’Brien’s girlfriend (Ally Sheedy), just so he can get locked up in Rainford as well and, “smash that white dude.” Directed by Rick Rosenthal (Halloween II), Bad Boys is a brutal tale of love, revenge, and redemption.

5. Planet of the Apes (1968)

Planet of the Apes (1968) is one of those films that will never be equaled, always be imitated, and constantly recreated to a much lesser success. It is a true landmark, not only in the history of cinema and science fiction, but also in the realm of story development and execution. Based on a rather tame novel by French author Pierre Boulle, the initial premise is so evocative that it still captivates audiences over forty years after it’s initial release. A true measure of the power this film has is the franchise it spawned after the fact. Of course, in true Hollywood fashion, rather than investing in a great concept they continually cut the budgets of the subsequent films in half. However, corporate greed aside, the concept of this film is strong enough to carry any audience through all four sequels, both television series, a bitchin’ in depth documentary, a head scratching re-imagining, and ultimately a reboot prequel, which is actually a remake of the fourth sequel.

4. Into The Wild (2007)

The true-life story of Christopher McCandless couldn’t have been told better if it was done by a best-selling journalist, which it had been. Based on Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, Sean Penn shows his full talents as a filmmaker, honing the skills he had been developing since 1991’s The Indian Runner, in this adventure epic, which he adapted and directed. In the book Krakauer draws many parallels between himself and McCandless. Penn skillfully filters these anecdotes out of the story and keeps the focus solely on McCandless and his journey of unintentional self-destruction. After giving away his savings for graduate school, McCandless (Emile Hirsch) sets out on a cross-country odyssey, ultimately working up to a great Alaskan adventure. Void of a happy ending, the story is still inspiring, and not just because this young man lived more in two years than some people do in a lifetime, but because he had the courage just to exist, which most people are too scared to even dream about.

3. Escape From New York (1981)

Escape from New York is a film that transcends time, carried on the strength of it’s main character, the charismatic, gun-fighting anti-hero, Snake Plissken, played to perfection by Kurt Russell. He is just the right character for the world in which he exists. If the audience was traveling with anyone else, they might not make it home safe that evening. Plissken’s environment is only enhanced by John Carpenter’s masterful directing, utilizing all the talent and resources that made his early films great. As co-writer of the screenplay, Carpenter gives the audience just what they need to keep up and hits the ground running. His trademark synthetic score sets the fast pace for this film and Dean Cundey’s cinematography captures the gritty dark mood of the picture, while maintaining depth and elegance. The overall tone of the film gives it an organic sense of realism that would feel forced under any other circumstances. The 1996 sequel, Escape from L.A. is a perfect example of a forced failure. Although it is fun to watch, the only integrity is in the final moments of the film when Plissken has the last word.

2. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange truly has no equal. A visual triumph, Stanley Kubrick's picturesque cinematography blends beautifully with the ultra-modern, futuristic production design. Grounded in literary ingenuity, Kubrick’s film is based on a novel by Anthony Burgess. It tells the story of a teenage malcontent, “whose principle interests are rape, ultra-violence, and Beethoven.” Malcolm McDowell plays the lead character, Alex, who as a product of his own environment becomes so ruthlessly void of empathy that he inevitably winds up killing a lady and gets sent to prison. His only chance to forego the fourteen-year sentence for his crime is to volunteer for an experimental form of aversion therapy known as the Ludovico Technique. Upon his release it is revealed that the therapy worked a little too well. Alex can no longer do harm to anyone, even in the form of self-defense. When his past finally catches up to him the people he's wronged in the past place Alex in a situation where the only way out is suicide. 

1. Star Wars (Original Trilogy) (1977-1983)
I’m just going to let the video do the talking for this one. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

REVIEW: TRON: Legacy (2010)

Twenty-eight years ago a motion picture came out that was so far ahead of it’s time, audiences of the day couldn’t even comprehend what was going on in the basic plot of good versus evil. That movie was Walt Disney Pictures, TRON (1982). Written and directed by Steven Lisberger and starring Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner, Cindy Morgan, and Barnard Hughes, the film quickly light-cycled its way into cult obscurity. Given the technical advancements in digital effects over the last twenty years, it was only a matter of time before Disney went back to the well for a watered down re-visit to the game grid with TRON: Legacy (2010).

It’s taken a quarter century and we’re only now beginning to catch up to the ideas, concepts, and vernacular posed in the original film. With a script that was so dense with terminology it’s no mystery why audiences couldn’t wrap their heads around what the original TRON had to offer. TRON: Legacy plays to the strengths of common understanding in our contemporary cyber-world and adheres to the technical boundaries crossed by the original film. At no time will the average theatergoer feel bogged down or lost in a verbal onslaught of technical jargon. That being said, part of the enchantment of the original TRON was the then foreign concepts explored both in the dialogue and setting of the film. It gave the story a futuristic fantasy edge while still playing to that basic plot of good versus evil. Now that society, in general, has caught up to the concepts of TRON it somehow makes it less impressive.

The only area that has managed to surpass the limitations of the original film are the visual effects, which by all accounts almost make the original TRON look like a documentary because of the tangible realism and practicality of their design and execution. The effects showcased in TRON: Legacy are so clearly a product of their time and evolution that there is no mystery as to how they were created. In this regard TRON: Legacy aids in the full realization of what the original aspired to achieve.

The film did manage to convey a certain amount of respect, that is often overlooked, to both the audience and technology by not filming the entire picture in 3-D. This decision only enhanced the sequences set on the game grid, providing depth to the functionality of the environment. The scenes that were not shot in 3-D only strengthened the sequences that were, and showed the best understanding and use of that technology to date.
Surprisingly the most powerful element of the film is not the visual effects, but the electronic score, appropriately composed by the French Electro-Duo, Daft Punk. Following the tradition set forth by Wendy Carlos’ electronic score in the original TRON, Daft Punk brings a compelling aural sensation to the film by combining strong electronic themes with a traditional orchestral underscoring. The two even make a cameo in the film, which is the highlight of arguably the most dissatisfying part of the film.

If anything should have been cut, next to the ultra-bland heart to heart between father and son on the sailing train during the third act of the film. or at the very least re-thought, it is Michael Sheen’s forced Bowie-esque over-acting as the character, Castor/Zuse. In the middle of the movie he comes out of nowhere, completely pisses you off by camping up the tone of the film, and then gets blown up by CLU ten minutes later. This abrupt ending for the character only proves how completely useless and unnecessary he is to the advancement of the story.

The other gleaming absence of competent thought masquerading in TRON: Legacy is the lack of the character, TRON. In the first film, TRON, the character isn’t the main character, but he is the hero who saves the day. In this sequel, which bears his name, they downgrade him to a Darth Maul like assassin, ironically ruining his legacy. Fans of the original will be left feeling cheated, while new viewers will just be confused by Tron’s presence and lack of impact on the story, especially given the history presented in the film, not to mention, that title.

The one thing you can absolutely count on in TRON: Legacy is Jeff Bridges’ performance as both Kevin Flynn and CLU. Bridges manages to transcend time, thanks to those technological advancements, and appear twenty years younger as CLU and then as an aged up to date Flynn. Cosmetically they haven’t perfected digital de-aging, the tell is always around the mouth, but there are some shots when the youthful mask is very convincing. As Flynn, Bridges seems to be channeling his inner “Dude,” from time to time. Garrett Hedlund does a good job playing Flynn’s son, Sam and Olivia Wilde delivers a satisfactory performance as his savior and companion. Bruce Boxleitner also returns as Alan Bradley/TRON.

Joseph Kosinski makes the most out of inferior writing and too many producers. All of those voices trying to have their say deafens TRON: Legacy. The film is salvaged by amazing visuals effects, elegant production design, a mind blowing score, and reliable acting in an under developed story. If you expect anything other than to be entertained and visually stunned, “you’re entering a world of pain.”

End of line.

*******    7/10