Wednesday, April 21, 2010

197. Rosemary's Baby

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Director: Roman Polanski

Starring: Mia Farrow
John Cassavetes
Ruth Gordon
Sidney Blackmer

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 9

"Witches... all of them witches!"

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) have just moved into a large apartment in New York City's Bramford building. Rosemary is a very sweet and caring younger housewive, while Guy is a struggling actor mostly working on stage and in commercials. Shortly after moving in, Guy and Rosemary meet their neighbors Roman and Minnie Castevet (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon) who instantly become quite enamored with the couple. They are rather overbearing, but seem to be harmless. While Rosemary attempts to maintain some privacy, Guy becomes very friendly and fond of the couple. Soon Guy lands a lead role in a big stage play when it's actor unexpectedly becomes blind. After landing the role, Guy immediately says that he wants to have a baby with Rosemary and she agrees.

On the night that they are planning on conceiving, Minnie drops off two chocolate mouse desserts for the couple. Rosemary stops eating after a few bites and complains about the chalky under taste. A little while later, she becomes very weak and goes to bed. While asleep she dreams that a demonic force rapes her. The next morning she tells Guy of her dream, and he dismisses it and says that it was him who was making love with her. Sure enough, a few weeks later, Rosemary finds out that she is pregnant. Minnie and Roman learn the news from Guy almost immediately, and almost demand that she see a close friend Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Belemy), instead of the doctor her friend has recommended. Once visiting Dr. Sapirstein, Rosemary is instructed to take a herbal drink from Minnie's garden in place of regular prenatal vitamins.

Soon Rosemary's appearance becomes frail and she is tortured by horrible stomach pains. Her friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) is very bothered by her appearance after a meeting one afternoon. He calls her that evening to arrange a meeting for the night day. He says that he has some important information for her. The next afternoon when Rosemary attempts to meet up with Hutch, she finds that he has slipped into a coma. Rosemary is already growing suspicious when a package arrives that Hutch instructed his friend to send to her. The package contains a book about witchcraft that Hutch has marked and inscribed to Rosemary, "the name is an anagram." Soon Rosemary starts uncovering clues to the mystery of her noisy neighbors, and the very baby that she is carrying.

Rosemary's Baby is what I often refer to as a "domino movie." It takes a while to set up, but once all of the pieces are in place, it all comes crashing down. Each shot of the film is essential to setting up our characters and the story. Through this we gain an actual sense of care and concern for our characters, especially Rosemary. Even after watching it multiple times, you can appreciate how well the film is structured. Nothing compares to your first viewing of the film though. The last fifteen minutes is filled with enough tension and surprise to rival any of cinema's great "shock endings." It's a film that deals with the supernatural, but it's realistic approach is really what sets it apart from most thrillers of it's kind.

This film is blessed to have two strong female characters portrayed by two phenomenal actresses in Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon. Farrow gives the defining performance of her career as the soon-t0-be mother Rosemary. In lesser hands, the role could have become rather campy and ultimately ruined the entire film. However, Farrow's perfectly paced lines and genuine terrified looks prove that she was made for the part. Ruth Gordon is also excellent as the neighbor from hell, Minnie Castevet. Gordon received many accolades for her performance including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She is consistently annoying, yet surprisingly manipulating. The way her character twists and molds the people around her is subtle, but amazing when looking at the results. The male performances in Rosemary's Baby are merely footnotes compared to Farrow and Gordon.

It's safe to say that I am a big fan of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. I really do enjoy films that actually set out to tell a complete story, and not just focus on one main aspect. With this film, you get a complete look at a couple wanting to have a baby, a struggling actors desperate measures, the trials of noisy neighbors, and the power of manipulation. Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon highlight an amazing cast superbly directed by Polanski. If you are watching the film for your first time, I encourage you to stick with it for it's entirety. The run time might be long, but the payoff in the end makes the journey completely worth while. I strongly recommend seeing this shocking and well structured film.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

198. Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter (1945)

Director: David Lean

Starring: Celia Johnson
Trevor Howard
Stanley Holloway

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 8

"Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There'll come a time in the future when I shan't mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, I don't want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute, always, always to the end of my days."

A man and a woman are sharing a table in a crowded train station cafe. They have mutual looks of emptiness and despair on their faces. A rather chatty lady sits down and begins to talk to the couple. Soon the man gets up to leave and gently places his hand on the woman's shoulder. The moment seems rather insignificant, until we are taken back to the couples first meeting. Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) ventures into the small town of Milford once a week to do some shopping and take in a afternoon matinee at the local movie theater. One afternoon while waiting for her train home, she gets a small piece of grit in her eye. Luckily Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) is there and helps her remove the debris from her eye. This short encounter leads to an affair between the two, who are both married to other people. Their story, although short and fleeting, speaks volumes about the matters and desires of the heart.

Brief Encounter is a fairly simple film. I am usually quite turned off to films about infidelity. I remained open minded before and during my viewing of the film though, and actually found it to be a rather piercing and amazing tale. Different from films like Unfaithful, this film focuses much more on the emotional aspect of an affair, rather than the physical. With this angle, the film does test the viewers moral beliefs and actually leaves you rooting for their eventual happiness. The film's ability to do this, I think speaks to it's excellent story and the manner that it is told.

Our couple played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are absolutely wonderful together. The relationship while unconventional, maintains that feel of a classic cinema romance. Johnson is emotionally charged if nothing less. Her vulnerability comes across as the most authentic piece of acting in the film. Howard's performance is much more subtle, but equally as wonderful. The character's personalities compliment each other almost as good as Johnson and Howard do. Their complete performance as a couple is truly what drives this film.

Brief Encounter might be a film about being unfaithful, but it approaches the subject with class and maturity. It's never vulgar or crude, although it was still banned in a few countries during it's initial release in 1945. I liked this film very much. It's focus on the emotional aspects really did make the subject matter much more intriguing and thought provoking. This movie comes with an definite endorsement from myself.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

199. Good Will Hunting

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Director: Gus Van Sant

Starring: Matt Damon
Robin Williams
Ben Affleck
Stellan Skarsgard
Minnie Driver

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 8.5

"I just slid my ticket across the table and I said,"Sorry guys, I gotta see about a girl."

Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a closeted genius who works at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a janitor. A professor at MIT Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) posts a problem on the hallway board for his students to hopefully solve by the end of the semester. The next day while at a reunion of his classmates, Professor Lambeau is approached by a few of his students who are interested in who solved the problem. The next morning in class a large number of students has arrived to find out who might have solved the problem. No member of the student body steps forward, which leaves Professor Lambeau to post another more difficult problem. While walking down the hallway a while later, Professor Lambeau catches Will writing on the board, and attempts to chase him down. It turns out, that Will has been the one solving the problems all along.

Baffled at his identity, Professor Lambeau looks for Will and ends up bailing him out of jail for assault. Will is released on the condition that he meet once a week with Professor Lambeau and also seek conculing from a therapist. Will agrees and begins to torture therapist after therapist. It isn't until Will meets Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) that the walls begin to come down. Soon Sean starts to really breakthrough with Will, who soon strikes up a relationship with a Harvard student named Skylar (Minnie Driver). The only problem being that she is soon be moving to California. With job offers now coming, Will must make the ultimate decision about his future, but will it cost him his identity?

Good Will Hunting is your classic "underdog" storyline with an intellectual twist. Where the usual "underdog" films (i.e. Rudy or Remember the Titans) seem to divulge into sappy and cliche, this film paved a road of it's own due much in part to it's excellent writing. The screenplay was written by two young Boston natives, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, which proved to be their tickets to fame. They won the Academy Award for their work, which was justly due. Their raw look at the often forgotten about inner city side of Boston rang true with myself, as well as audiences world wide. What I like most about the writing is how it lends to the authenticity of the character of Will. Here you have this genius, but he talks just like an inner city thug, which he is as well. The three dimensions of Will are also written into the three main characters that surround him. We have his genius in Professor Lambeau, his troubled youth found in his best friend Sullivan, and his life long absence of love which can be redeemed in Skylar. Without giving away the ending, the film concludes in the way that is not only most logical, but also truest to the human spirit. The screenplay of Good Will Hunting lends greatly to it's success and, helps it to become one of the defining and most original films of it's genre.

The comedian taking the dramatic turn can prove to be rather deadly. Not many actors have the ability to transition between drama and comedy like Robin Williams. His performance in this film, all be it a short one, far outshines the rest. Keeping with our underdog theme, Williams plays the classic mentor character brilliantly. Some might draw comparisons to his character in Dead Poet's Society, and call the performances similar. I do not believe that is a good comparison. His perfectly timed and reserved demeanor makes his moments of intensity that much more effective. His scenes along side Damon can only be described as on screen magic. Knowing the star power of both now, it's neat to look back at the rising of a new star, and the true transition of another.

It's hard to not like a film like Good Will Hunting. The character of Will is so layered, that everyone should find a reason to root for his success. Where Damon and the rest of the cast give solid performances, it is Robin Williams portrayal of Sean Maguire that truly outshines the rest. Also the writing of Damon and Affleck hits with a sense of realism and sencerity that is rarely found in films of it's type. I remember in high school watching this film many times and really never getting too far past Will and his buddies. This time I was much more focused on the relationship between Will and Sean. True mentors in life are hard to come by. If you are fortunate enough, these people will shape your life. On a personal note, my life (a tad different from Will's) would not have been the same without my mentor James Brendlinger. He opened my eyes to a aspect of film, music, literature, and theater that I never knew. It is film's like Good Will Hunting that remind us of the impact these people can have on us.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

200. Big Fish

Big Fish (2003)

Director: Tim Burton

Starring: Albert Finney
Ewan McGregor
Billy Crudup
Jessica Lange

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 8.5

" There's a time when a man needs to fight, and a time when he needs to accept that his destiny is lost... the ship has sailed and only a fool would continue. Truth is... I've always been a fool."

Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) has lived a long life full of amazing journeys, or as his son William (Billy Crudup) sees it, just tall tales. On the eve of William's wedding his father is telling the story of the day his son was born, but the focus as usual lies on himself and not on his son. After a lifetime of hearing the same stories, William has had enough of his father's selfishness. It is three years until the two speak again, but when Edward's battle with cancer seems to be coming to an end, William must return home. His reunion with his ailing father seems like they had just seen each other the day before. Before his father becomes too ill, William wants to know the truth of his father's life. Soon we find ourselves looking back at the life of Edward Bloom (now played by Ewan McGregor). His tale is an unbelievable one filled with the most eclectic cast of characters that your mind could imagine. Soon William starts to see that maybe not all of the stories behind his father's life are tall tales at all.

Big Fish is the perfect example how a film's visuals can completely take you away. The world and life of Edward Bloom is perfectly interpreted by director Tim Burton. Those who are used to Burton's usual darkness will find this film to be much brighter. The use of blues, yellows, and greens are extremely apparent. There are still a few of the typical dark scenes from the Gothic mindset of Burton that we are all used to. Also the use of time aging things is done wonderfully. Early in the film Edward visits the small town of Spector. It's main street is a gorgeous patch of grass with beautiful buildings on each side. Later in the film, Edward visits Spector again, and time has brought an actual road which has lead to the town's ruin. What once was a town with a beautiful green centerpiece, is now a muddy rundown version of it's former glory. Most people will site Edward Scissorhands as Burton's masterpiece, although I really feel that his finest work is found in Big Fish.

I'd like to point out the two excellent performances by Ewan McGregor as the younger Edward Bloom and Albert Finney as the older Edward Bloom. In many films, two actors playing the same character tends to come off as two different characters all together. Not the case in Big Fish. Both McGregor and Finney present the exact same amount of charm, passion, and sheer likability. It is virtually impossible to not grow fond of Bloom by the film's first flashback scene. McGregor and Finney team up to give us one of the most likable and solid characters of the last ten years.

People connect with films for many different reasons. I have spoken of my wonderful grandfather on this blog before, and Edward Bloom reminds me very much of him. His legend was almost bigger than the man himself. That might be a large part 0f why I am so fond of this film. What cannot be debated are the excellent performances by McGregor and Finney. As well as the amazing vision for the film from director Tim Burton. Big Fish is like a mixture of The Wizard of Oz and Forrest Gump which is not to be missed.

Friday, April 2, 2010

201. Crash

Crash (2004)

Director: Paul Haggis

Starring: Don Cheadle
Ryan Phillipe
Matt Dillion
Terrance Howard
Thadie Newton
Sandra Bullock

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 9

"It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss touch so much that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.

is the story of several groups of intertwined characters dealing with racism and prejudices in present-day Los Angeles. Graham Waters (Don Cheadle) is an African-American detective torn between the job that he is addicted to, and the family which is constantly left on the back burner. Graham's troublesome brother Peter (Larenz Tate) has taken up a life of stealing expensive cars for money with the guidance of Anthony (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges). One evening, Anthony and Peter carjack an SUV belonging to Los Angeles' District Attorney Rick Cabot (Brenden Fraiser) and his wife Jean (Sandra Bullock). Once home, the Cabot's have all of their locks changed, but Jean is alarmed when the young man changing the locks appears to have gang related tattoos.

We follow Daniel Ruiz, the lock repairman home, and find that he has a wife and a daughter and is every bit your typical family man. He shares a tender story with his daughter before being called out to fix the lock of Persian general store owner Farhad (Shaun Toub). While Daniel is fixing the lock, he notices that the door is the real problem and attempts to tell Farhad the bad news. Farhad believes that Daniel is cheating him and sends him away. That night, Farhad's store is broken into and he instantly goes to find Daniel, with vengeance being the only thing on his mind.

Meanwhile, Tom Hansen (Ryan Phillipe), a cop new to the Los Angeles Police Force, is riding along with his new partner John Ryan (Matt Dillion). They pull over an SUV matching the description of a recently stolen vehicle, although the license plates do not match. Ryan begins to question the driver of the vehicle Cameron Thayer (Terrance Howard) about his night's activities. Cameron's wife Christine (Thadie Newton) soon starts to speak out of line and Ryan loses his patience. He performs a body search on Christine after she exits the vehicle and verbally assaults him. His search proves to be much more than inappropriate, prompting Tom to request a new partner and leaving Cameron to question his abilities as a husband and a man. Soon all of the stories start to blend together to break down many racial barriers, but at times raising new walls as well.

From my synopsis of the film, you would think that Crash would be extremely hard to follow. Luckily, screenwriter Paul Haggis is a much more talented writer than I am. Bringing to mind a previous ensemble film like Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, Haggis takes several different stories and connects them not only with it's characters meeting, but with the common theme of racial equality. What I loved about the story is that not every character ends up "richer" in the end. Some characters that begin "colorblind", soon start to see the world in black and white. Crash gives us one of the best structured screenplays, with often unpredictable results.

Speaking about the racial subject matter, this film's focus lies much deeper than the differences between black and white. Crash was made in a post 9-11 America, so the common misconceptions about people from the Middle East are present. This marked the first main exposure on film of what had been an almost epidemic in the years following the terrorist activities of 2001. Also, the film is set in Los Angeles, so many of the racial Latin issues are addressed. The blending of all the cultures drives the film's characters and story to give an almost universal appeal. It's message is definitely one of tolerance and changing past generations perceptions of the world.

Crash is one of those films that I think everyone should see at some point. The combination of Haggis' excellent screenplay and solid on screen performances makes this a very well made film. At it's climax though, it goes beyond the point of great film, and becomes culturally significant. I don't think we will ever live in a world free of prejudice or racism. Although, with films like this, our world is bound to be much more colorblind.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

202. A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Director: Elia Kazan

Starring: Vivien Leigh
Marlon Brando
Kim Hunter
Karl Malden

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 8

"Hey Stella! Hey Stellaaa!"

While searching for a new place to call home, Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) goes to visit her pregnant sister Stella (Kim Hunter) in New Orleans. While there, she meets Stella's often crude husband Stanley (Marlon Brando), who immediately takes a dislike to Blanche. Stanley often mistreats and abuses Stella, although she is often quick to forgive. This disappoints Blanche, as she feels that her sister deserves more. Stanley's dislike to Blanche begins to grow more harsh, and he soon starts to question the truth behind why Stella and his wife's family plantation has been taken away. He eventually finds that she had been exiled from her hometown for seducing a seventeen year old boy. This shocking revelation soon challenges the relationship between Stella and Stanley, as well as the sanity of Blanche.

Returning from A Streetcar Named Desire's original Broadway run is Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden, while Vivien Leigh starred in the play's first run on London's West End. The ensemble of these four actors proved to be one of the greatest in film at it's time. This accounts as the world's first exposure to the brilliant Brando, who is perfectly despicable as Stanley. The portrayal of a great villain makes it impossible not to love them and Brando gives us just that. Leigh gives easily the films greatest performance though. At first she often comes off rather annoying, but as the truth behind her past starts to unravel, Leigh proves to be nothing short of incredible. Her final scenes are easily some of the finest work of her career. It's not often that acting talent, as in the film, joins together to create such an undeniable overnight classic.

A Streetcar Named Desire is often referred to as one of the theater's greatest works, but I can see how some people would actually be turned off by this film. The first half of the film is filled with constant analogies and metaphors that can often become distracting from the overall story. I understand to some, that this is the appeal of a writer like Tennessee Williams. I actually found myself having to go back and watch a few scenes a second time. There is also the language barrier of 1940's New Orleans, which is riddled with accents and slang. Some might see this as a negative aspect of the film, and some could argue that it sets the tone. That being said, I encourage viewers to ignore the troubles (that is if you have any) like I encountered in the first part of the film. Luckily by the second half of the film, the writing becomes a little more straight forward and wraps up to be the classic it is billed to be.

It's hard to say anything negative about a film like A Streetcar Named Desire, which is so highly viewed as a classic. The acting is excellent from start to finish. The story and progression of the characters is also just as powerful. There is also the obvious metaphor of the cultural clash of two classes of people during a time of great transition in America. The only criticism I have is that the film can come across rather dated partly due to some of the language. Although, the film works just fine if viewed as a time piece of New Orleans during the 1940's. Overall, I would definitely recommend seeing this film.