Friday, November 28, 2008

My favorite film for each letter of the alphabet: Alphabet Meme

This was started by a guy who runs the website and it's made it's way around the internet like chain mail. I was tagged by Dan Johnson at

A is for Apollo 13 (1995), my favorite film from my childhood. It's an amazingly tight and exciting docudrama that even made me want to go to space camp and be an astronaut. Ron Howard has rarely ever been so good. There are a lot of good As, however: American Graffiti, the best coming-of-age film ever, in my opinion, as well as

B has a lot of good sci-fi flicks: Blade Runner, Brazil....but I'm going to go with Back to the Future (1985), another classic film that I grew up on and I find unforgettable.

C is for Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1973), neo-noir film and one of the greatest classics of all time. A great story of such emotional resonance and poetry. The dialogue and performances by John Huston and Faye Dunaway are to die for. Charade, Citizen Kane, City Lights, City of God, City Confidential, and a family film I really like called Cheaper by the Dozen were all ones I considered

Although, I was thinking of drawing attention to the old-school sci-film The Day the Earth Stood Still which is being remade, D is for Double Indemnity (1944). When we talk of good dialogue, the way Billy Wilder was superhuman in his ability to write sharp stylized dialogue, and there's no better example of this than the interplay between Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck's characters as they attempt to plan a perfect murder.

For E, I couldn't really think of too much, except the musical Evita (1996), which made a splash in the 90's but had a rather short shelf-life and only people who followed Madonna's career incessantly would even remember this. Perhaps, Alan Parker's dismal rep or the timing (musicals didn't really regain their steam until Moulan Rouge or Chicago, let alone operettas) sunk the film, but it was an interesting piece of work. The score was great, Antonio Banderas did his best work here, and the subtext is almost as detailed as a textbook on Latin American history.

F is for From Here to Eternity (1953) which stands as my favorite war film. Montgomery Clift plays a tragic antihero in an army private in Hawaii during World War II who refuses to play the bugle or box for his company, out of principle and Frank Sinatra won an Oscar as the man who befriends him and lives to tell the tale. Also famous for the make-out scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr.

G is for Grand Hotel a Best Picture Oscar winner that doesn't get much credit for anything these days. It starred five of the biggest stars of the 1930's and was set in a hotel where the lives of five guests intertwine, it’s breezy, lively and light-hearted enough to rival an art deco musical in escapist value. At the same time, it is a very telling story of class conflict that resonates with a lot of weight when the five stories come together so serendipitously

H is for High Noon, socially powerful, tightly coiled, notable for its score, cinematography, social climate in which the film was made, the gun battle at the end, and its real-time gimmick that was the precursor to the TV show 24. I can't really think of too many other H's but House of Sand and Fog comes to mind, or from the same year (2003) Hollywood Homicide. In the latter, Harrison Ford sort of mails it in as a cop who doesn't care about his job and wants to sell real estate while on duty. Not many people got the joke but I did.

I could be for It's a Wonderful Life or another Frank Capra classic It Happened One Night, but I'll go with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

J is for Junebug (2005), the North Carolina-set family melodramedy (new word I just coined) that launched Amy Adams' career. The other ones that come to mind are the historic picture Jazz Singer, Sam Mendes' docudrama of an uneventful war Jarhead, and the recent It film Juno. However, Juno tried just a little too hard to be hip, and Junebug just let it all flow naturally.

K could easily be for King Kong, but I wasn't crazy about the old King Kong and have yet to see the new one, so I now have a choice between two older films, neither of which is regarded as a great classic but which I'm personally fond of. There's Vincente Minelli's musical Kismet which came at a later point in his career and he denounced as a failure in his autobiography. Don't be so hard on yourself, Mr. Minelli, I personally loved the musical take on the Arabian Nights tale with the enchanting songs including "Stranger in Paradise." However, in honor of my grandmother's birthday, I will go with the John Huston film Key Largo (1948) where the bar where much of the film was shot at, still stands on Key Largo. Modern-day gangster films need to show a lot of carnage to illustrate just how bad the gangster is, but Edward G. Robinson showed that all you need is some flair and style and a muggy facial expression.

L is for Last Samurai (2003). The art direction is superb and it stands out quite a bit from all the recent historical epics because of its sincerity. Ken Wattanabe gives a great performance that's deserving of that Oscar nomination and as an interesting footnote, it was Tom Cruise's last big successful role before Oprahgate derailed his career.

M is for Manchurian Candidate (1962), an amazing story, political thriller, mystery, and showcase of great acting. This movie had people worrying about ammending the constitution to include foreign-born citizens as eligible for the President and had me worrying about John McCain, a former P.O.W., as being President as well.

N was originally for Network, before I remembered that North by Northwest (1959) also begins with this letter. Thrilling, romantic, endearing, shot in great locations, everything a good film should be, and it's the epitome of Hitchcockian style

O is for On Golden Pond (1981), the story of a somewhat dysfunctional father-daughter relationship that a daughter attempts to fix in her father's last days, starring real-life father and daughter Jane and Henry Fonda. Katherine Hepburn was also in the film. To show that I don't completely dislike the Coen Brothers, I would have included their Mississippi-set epic Oh Brother Where Art Thou, and truth be told, it was pretty much a tie between these two great films.

P was one that I had the most difficult time with, I could think of three that I really liked: Prairie Home Companion, Pirates of the Carribean and Paths to Glory, but I chose Prairie Home Companion (2006) largely because I already have enough from the action/blockbuster genre on my list. PHC was Altman's swan song and was an eerie foreshadowing of his imminent death within a few months of the film being released. The movie is highly entertaining, quietly profound, and has all the strengths of an Altman film.

Q is for Quiz Show (1994), Rob Redford's gripping docudrama about the Game Show scandal of the 1950's with performances by John Turturro and Ralph Feinnes that make for two very interesting portrayals of real-life figures who everyone knew so little about beneath the surface (i.e. they are basically remembered as two guys who cheated on a game show but no one even knew why)

For R, I'm going to go a little foreign with Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game (1939), rated consistently near the top of the best films of all time by Sight and Sound's decennial poll.

S, like P, has a lot of options I consider of equal merit: Star Wars, Singing in the Rain, Swing Time, Stagecoach, Searchers, etc. To break this tie between musicals and Westerns, I'm going to go with a biopic, Billy Wilder's Spirit of St. Louis (1957), which I saw in 9th grade and absolutely loved. It was quite an achievement to be able to make us engaged to what was essentially a one-man show.

People will always remember Citizen Kane, but for me Orson Welles is a genius because of his last film (in America, at least) Touch of Evil (1958) which is my T.

The letter that took me the longest to think up a film is Undeclared (2006) for the U. Starring Justin Long, Jonah Hill, Lewis Black and Maria Thayer, the film is a spot-on comedy that brought me back to the days in high school where I was scared to death over not getting into my top choice college.

V is for Vertigo (1958). Just the story alone makes it a winner. Tell a three-line summary of this film to anyone and see if they're not intrigued. I imagine that there was the most consistency on this letter among the other lists without actually looking.

For W, I'll go with the culturally delicate and serene cop drama Witness (1985) in which Harrison Ford must hide an Amish boy from corrupt cops in an Amish community where he is a fish out of water. I was also strongly considering Wild Strawberries, just to prove that I've seen more than one foreign film, but no need.

X is for X-Men 2 (2003), the best in the trilogy although I will take a bold stand in saying that X-Men 3 is almost as good.

Y is for You Can Count on Me (2000), the brother-sister relationship piece which launched Laura Linney and Mark Ruffallo's careers. It almost won Kenneth Longorean an Oscar for screen-writing as well.

Z is for Zoolander (2001). To be clear I don't really like this movie and only find it mildly tolerable, but Z is a letter which gives me very little manuevering room

10 Movies that should be remade and why

There has been a saturation of remakes in the past decade and three of my picks are among these remakes that never really capitalized on the possibilities of the original:
1. Around the World in 80 Days (1956): The 2004 remake was a Jackie Chan film with his combination slapstick martial arts comedy geared towards kids. Movies are sometimes worth remaking if they can update the plot and I can envision a modernized version of this film where 80 Days could be compressed to 8 days (perhaps, 8 days without an airplane?). The story is a great one with a lot of potential: It invokes the thrill of the chase, has room for lots of fun cameos and can be more visually stunning with advances in cinematography.
2. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963): Another film that centers around the thrill of the chase, Stanley Kramer's film that starred one of the greatest comedic ensembles had a certain social value to it (theme: when there's enough money on the line, people sacrifice their morals). The film was made purely for comedic value in 2001 but I would like to see it done again with more pathos.
3. Charade (1963): A combination thriller and continental comedy based around a May-December romance, Charade was as elegant as it was entrancing. The film was remade in 2002 in a Mark Wahlberg-Thandie Newton vehicle called "The Truth About Charlie" but failed mostly due to miscasting the leads. With the right setting and good casting, the film has the opportunity to be popular again since the storyline is so solid. Like "Rat Race" the name of the original film wasn't used which opens the door for a more officially branded remake.
4. Wait Until Dark (1967): Speaking of Audrey Hepburn films, this film about a blind woman who slowly works her way out of a dangerous situation has the potential to be a great thriller with an economy that few films are able to pull off today. Like a play, the drama is mostly confined to one room but the challenge of filming Point-of-View shots from a blind person's perspective during climactic scenes could lead to stroles of brilliance.
5. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969): This seems like an easy enough film to be geenlit considering that reinventing original Bond titles is in vogue and the original never quite reached its full potential considering Sean Connery was replaced in the lead role with a man half his ability. The film could easily be inserted into the new Daniel Craig James Bonds because of its emotional core, allow the chance for
6. Sabetour (1942): Hitchkock wasn't just responsible for creating some of the best genre-defining thrillers of his day but his filmography also has a pretty deep bench of sleeper hits. That's why a golden ticket here would be to stay away from the ones that are so well-known and look for the hidden gems among them. Rebecca and Family Plot are two films that come to mind, but I will go with Sabetour. It has the classic innocent-man-forced-to-turn-in to-hero plot that Hitchcock replicated with "39 Steps" and "North by Northwest," but it is far less well-known and contains some of Hitchcock's greatest scenes: The Statue of Liberty fight, the man escaping into the movie theater, the protagonist trying to fool a blind man. It also has some political undercurrents that reminded me of the most previous election in which the words "socialist" and "communist" being thrown about.
7. The Freshman (1925): Harold Lloyd was a silent comic who outsold Charles Chaplain (and Buster Keaton for that matter) at the box office but is far less known today. One of his best films is about a nervous kid on his way to college who ends up going through a set of trials and tribulations that lead him to making the winning plays on a football team and impress the girl he likes. I've always been curious to know how this film might fare with sound and have a feeling that in the right hands it could transcend the cheap high school comedy genre.
8. The Towering Inferno (1972): Firemen have been glamorized since 9/11 and remakes of disaster films have proven to be pretty effective since "Perfect Storm" and "Poseidon" entered the scene. The original Towering Inferno had an all-star cast including Fred Astaire and William Holden, and it earned an Oscar nomination for best picture. A disaster film would never be in contention these days which means this film really needs to be recognized
9. Salt of the Earth (1954): A film about striking workers in New Mexico, the backstory is equally as interesting. It was made by the original members of the Hollywood 10 who refused to answer questions before congress and got blacklisted from Hollywood. I would like to see a remake that might even incorporate some more of this backstory, since the subtext is fairly obvious that the makers of the film have everything in common with the strikers they're portraying.
10. Lost Horizon (1937): Like Hitchcock and suspense, it would be great to bring back the lost idealism of a Capra film. His most complex film, in my opinion, was one of his earliest ones that was also one of the few films of its day to borrow far Eastern philosophy. Lost Horizon explores the universal questions of whether paradise exists on Earth and whether we'd be skeptical if we found it.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Review: Quantum of Solace

Q's parting advice to James Bond before setting off for his retirement in "The World is Not Enough" was 1) to always have an escape plan and 2) never let them see you bleed.

It appears James Bond didn't take this advice and it has worked out for the better. Bond appeared to have wrapped up the entire series with Die Another Day's array of homages and outlandish gadgets, and most importantly, the end of Bond's contract.

But in a decade where sequels are money, Bond didn't adhere to exiting at what would have been an opportune moment. Like Batman Begins and Superman Returns, the dapper British agent got a remake. While I tend to see this later trend of reinventing franchises as a commercial ploy more than anything else, there's been a distinct change in Bond that I've come to enjoy: Mainly, the Daniel Craig incarnation of Bond is one who bleeds.

Pierce Brosnam would rip through armies of henchmen, without even messing up his hair or spotless tuxedo and frankly it was getting a little old.

The new James Bond series injects something that makes the series consequential: risk. Bond is capable of getting hurt, he feels remorse, he's capable of learning, and he's got room for improvement.

I have watched every James Bond films and I enjoy them as I do a film genre where I can see how every film deals with each of the checkpoints: Beautiful scenery, sexy girls, elaborate lairs, megalomaniacal villains, and cool-looking gadgets. I do wish Quantum of Solace had more gadgets and the villain was a little more distinctive, but I have gotten a little tired of seeing Bond bed every woman and shoot every villain just because it was some protocol for the scriptwriters to follow and it was great to see the screenwriters actually approach these issues. Furthermore, it has started to get a little jarring to see what has happened in the news with Guantanamo Bay and the Blackwater scandal to still have one of our iconic heroes on screen taking lives first and asking questions later.

So that's what Quantum of Solace bought to the table, even further expanding on the direction that Casino Royale was taking the franchise. The action occupied, perhaps, a little too much time on the screen, but it was excellently choreographed. The Bond girls were striking and exotic, Jeffery Wright nailed his role as Felix and Mattheiu Almahric does what he can with a limited role. The film also takes us to some beautiful locations: Haiti, Italy, and Bolivia. Most importantly, however, Daniel Craig gives us a Bond who feels like a real person, flesh and blood, and that is a massive improvement.