La La Land (2016)

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As Sebastian and Mia, Gosling and Stone simply glow…

A little less than a week ago, I finally got to buying four classic films starring the legendary Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. Those two cinema icons are some of the few I can watch and have all the worries of my life wash away. That feeling came to me a lot while watching the visually glorious La La Land. It manages to balance being loyal to both the old school and the current.

After his highly entertaining movie Whiplash in 2014, director Damien Chazelle is proving he is more than a one trick pony. In a year of many downers across the globe, here is one of the years clear front-runners for best picture, and it is jubilant and energetic and toe tapping fun. The opening number (“Another Day in the Sun”)  is like one we never have seen, and may never again: it takes place in a traffic jam. How many other musicals can say they have a dance number in a traffic jam? That alone is stunning.

Emma Stone has never been better. She stars as Mia, a young wanna be movie star who has been trying and failing at auditions for years, scrapping around working at the coffee shop right next to where they filmed a scene with Bogie and Bergman in Casablanca. Eventually, she meets Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian. He is a die-hard devotee of Jazz, who plays at locals but never gets to have his music heard. Their personalities collide in another number with dancing that had shades of Astaire and Rodgers.

Learning dance numbers can never be easy, and we can see how much rehearsal was put into learning the numbers. One easy way to see this is that each number is, for the most part, shot by Chazelle in long takes. In other words, the actors had little to no room for error.

There are other minor roles, including Oscar Winner J.K. Simmons who proves there really are no small parts. There is also singer John Legend as one of Sebastian’s old friends, proving he has some actual talent beyond the singing world.

Of course, the music is stellar all around. Composer Justin Hurwitz has made a soundtrack (which I bought very shortly after seeing the film) with tunes that leeches happily on your brain and heart for the next couple months, if not the rest of your days.

Parents, it makes me happier than I thought possible to say that this movie is not that bad for young people. The rating is PG-13 rating is for swearing, and that is it (there is one F bomb, and someone gives the finger to another character, but that is it). All the language is no worse than that of a typical middle school lunchroom (minus the dancing). No violence or sexuality of any kind (minus kissing). If your kids are in middle school, they are ok with this film.

Is this really what it is like to work in Hollywood? I can only assume yes. There has to be struggle and strife to get a good start. La La Land makes that clear. It also makes clear that making a musical must be fun. You will get that sense through the whole time you are sitting in the theater…tapping your feet.

It has seldom felt so good to be a fool who dreams.

Overall: Five Stars *****

 

 

Life, Animated (2016)

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Owen Suskind, the autistic man at the center of “Life, Animated”

Seldom have I been able to find it harder to start talking about a movie. Then again, seldom have I had an emotional response than the one I had when I first saw Life, Animated, clearly one of the best films of the year.

It is a documentary of Owen Suskind. He, along with interviews of his parents and older brother Walt, tells what it is like living with autism. We learn he was diagnosed at age 3, and was virtually quiet most of his childhood. His only time he was social was when he would watch Disney movies with the family.

The movie does not bore us with the facts we could find online about autism, or spend too much time talking to doctors and researchers. We just get a glimpse at the life of an extraordinary mind that (like others on the spectrum) see the world in a totally different way.

I guess there is no way around it: I should mention that I myself am autistic (I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome back in High School).My escape as a kid was movies, and I can still remember the covers of every Disney film we owned (I moved on to more than Disney films. I assume it was to broaden my horizon.) There is a part in this movie where Cornelia (Owen’s mom) says how, while the world changes (believe me, change is very difficult for people with autism), the movies stay the same. I could not have put it better myself.

Parents, there is one awkward reference made in the film by Owen’s older brother Walt. It is about how to get Owen to learn about sex (being that he watches only Disney movies, obviously nothing more happens past the kiss). Aside from that reference, and some occasional swearing, the movie’s ok for Middle School and up.

While it may be obvious, I feel it should still be noted that not everyone with autism is the same. Those that have it have varying degrees. Nevertheless, if Life, Animated is not the best movie about what it is like living with autism (with the possible exception of Rain Man) , I have yet to see it.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

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Very rarely has dialogue been better than that displayed between Hopkins and Foster…

Murray: “Is it true what they’re sayin’, he’s some kinda vampire?

Starling: “They don’t have a name for what he is”.

A quarter of a century since The Silence of the Lambs was first on the big screen, and there really is still no actual name for who many consider the greatest movie villain of all time. True, you could call Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) a cannibal, but there is far more to him than that. I would argue he may be the smartest (fictional) character in cinema (the only other I would place higher would be HAL 9000.) It is only more spellbinding when you remember he is on-screen for twenty minutes or so.

For those who have not seen the movie, Lecter is not the main character. The main character is Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). As a trainee in the F.B.I., she is sent by her boss Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to talk to Lecter. The goal: see if Lecter can help in the case of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), a serial killer currently on the loose. Buffalo Bill is finely played by Levine, but he can’t keep up with Lecter.

The film was one of three films to win the five main Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor, Lead Actress, and Screenplay (the others were It Happened One Night from 1934 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from 1975).

I offer now how it won each award. The screenplay, written by Ted Tally (based off of the book by Thomas Harris) tells a story that goes far beyond the basic find the bad guy plot thriller. It gets as deep into the psychological field of the mind of a killer as any film. For Director Jonathan Demme, he masterfully balances the time needed we need to see what we need to of Lecter and Starling. It is evident that staying with Starling more than Lecter is actually a better choice than the contrary. As for actor and actress, neither Hopkins or Foster will ever be remembered for anything more than their roles in this film. Foster is one of the best examples of courage in film (you can see her fighting her fear just by looking in her eyes). Hopkins (who said he based his performance off of Katherine Hepburn, Truman Capote, and HAL 9000) could quit acting, and cure cancer, and he would still be remembered more for playing Dr. Hannibal Lecter (just looking at him, you think “Lecter” before “Hopkins”.)

Parents, there is no secret this movie deserves its R rating: High School and above. Obviously, there is a lot of swearing (some F bombs, and the use of the four letter C word that is not crap), dialogue about sexuality (including a disturbing sequence in front of a mirror that almost shows complete male nudity for 5-10 seconds) and a LOT of violence.

Winning the Best Picture Oscar is never easy (there are a lot who did not deserve to win and a lot more that did). To date, The Silence of the Lambs is the only horror flick to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also had some good competition as well (I have not yet seen Bugsy or The Prince of Tides, but Beauty and the Beast and JFK are still masterpieces in my book). It is clear that The Silence of the Lambs will live on as long as there are fans of horror films (both good and bad).

Ironically, the lambs will never stop screaming.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

 

 

 

Nosferatu (1922)

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The shadow of Alfred Hitchcock was not even this creepy…

As a kid, the older a movie was, the more it intrigued me.

I yearn for the days when I thought movies depicted real life, despite how absurd the circumstances. Perhaps it was because I possibly thought that it was documenting the events as they happened. A little bit of that feeling comes to me every now and then, and it does every time I watch the orignal Nosferatu (though I know it is pure fiction).

While I have not seen every vampire flick, I doubt any are as artistic or influential as the original Nosferatu. It is almost a century old, but has survived as the quintisential horror flick about vampires. At the time of its release, it was panned (by Bram Stoker’s widow) for being a rip off of his classic Dracula. Director F.W. Murnau could not get the rights, so they changed the names of the characters.

Thankfully, the film survives, and teaches us that being a vampire is not something one would aspire to be. We know th e rules of being a vampire: they die in sunlight, they can’t get near garlic or a cross, they drink blood, etc. Yet in this film, being a vampire is not the equivalent of being a hunky guy with his shirt off (as of this writing, I have not seen any of the Twilight films, nor desire to). Being a vampire is more of a disease, and if you don’t believe me, look into the eyes of Count Orlok (with an immortal performance by Max Schreck).

The story is relatively simple: Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is sent off to Transylvania to talk to Orlok about buying a house opposite him and his wife Ellen (Greta Schroeder). When Orlok returns, all goes horribly haywire.

You may be wondering if a movie over ninety years old can still be scary. Probably not as much as it was when first released. Yet there are still some creepy moments. There is one scene in particular where the Count sees a picture of Ellen and comments “Your wife has a beautiful neck!”.

I don’t care how old the movie is, or whatever the circumstances maybe. When a dude says your wife has a beautiful neck, get yourself (and your wife) as far away as possible from that person. It is beyond creepy.

Parents, the movie is probably ok for kids seven and up. I mean, the movie is a vampire movie, but keep in mind it is from the 1920s. There is hardly any blood (there are some swears, but not any big ones.)

All in all, like a vampire, this film will live on (even in sunlight). The artistry is revolutionary, the music sublime (it reminded me of when I first truly discovered zombies playing the original Resident Evil game at nine years old), and the overall effect spot on terrifying.

Nosferatu is a film to quench any film lover’s thirst for movies.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

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Errol Flynn is still the definitive Robin Hood.

For the life of me, I still find it hard to believe that the original choice for Robin Hood was James Cagney. While he was undoubtably talented and remains one of Hollywood’s greatest legendary stars, The Adventures of Robin Hood would have been a totally different movie. Fortunately, he walked out, and in stepped the pinnacle of swashbucklers, Errol Flynn.

While I have not seen all of the films based off of the mythical archer, I still say this film is the best. True, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves  (1991) did at least have a great villain played by Alan Rickman (which almost overshadowed the horrible accent by Kevin Costner in the title role), the Disney film from 1973 is still very underrated, and I have heard ok things about the 2010 film with Russel Crowe. Still, no one could have brought the swashbuckling charm like Flynn did back in the day (besides, who else could enter the castle by beating up the guards with a deer carcass? Exactly.)

The story is virtually known to everyone: Robin Hood (Flynn) is an outlaw after King Richard (Ian Hunter) is out on his crusade and his brother Prince John (Claude Rains, one of the best supporting actors of the golden age) is put in charge. His taxation of the people knows no bounds. Helped by Sir Guy of Gisboure (Basil Rathbone, of course), only Robin Hood (and the merry men) of Sherwood stand in their way.

In the scene where Robin Hood enters with the deer to the dining hall, Flynn’s charisma is on full display. He owns the entire room, carrying for no one in the room. That is, of course, until he meets Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland, who, at the time of this review, is still alive at the ripe age of 100). That they fall for each other goes without question.

Most film buffs (myself included) agree that the best year in movies was 1939, giving us such films as Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, both landmarks in progressing color films. The Adventures of Robin Hood was made a year earlier and in Technicolor. It is truly a glorious film to behold even before you consider the story. The colors of the film jump out at you as much as the action on-screen.

Parents, this film is ok for any kid who can sit through a movie. There is action, some characters die, but there is no blood. It might also be a bit educational in a way: you get to see a film where the actors are actually doing the action themselves.

Originally, a sequel was going to be planned, but World War Two occurred, and by the end, the actors were no longer members at Warner Brothers. The only true problem with the film is that I wanted more. Directed by Michael Curtiz (who would later go on to do classics like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca), it truly is too short of a film. When it comes to great action, wonderful visuals, stellar performances, and grand storytelling, The Adventures of Robin Hood is a bullseye every time you watch it.

As the man himself might say, “Fluently”.

Overall: Five Stars *****

Room (2015)

Jacob Tremblay discovers what lies outside the room.

Jacob Tremblay discovers what lies outside the room.

I feel like I am walking on the thinnest of ice right not.

Room is definetly one of the year’s very best films, if not the best, but how do I convince you to see it?  For starters, I could say that it was playing an hours drive away from me, and it was more than worth the trip. I could say it has probaly the best performances you will see all year. What I can’t say is what you may feel personally, only that I felt emotions as strong as I have in any theater experience I have had in my life.

The movie is told through the eyes of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who has spent his entire first five years of life in a shed with his “Ma” (Brie Larson). She was kidnapped at seventeen by a sadist called Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) and has used her as a sex slave for seven years. Eventually, she was pregnant, and bore Jack.

At this point, some spoilers are unavoidable (they are also in the trailer), so stop reading now if you wish. The first half of the film is life in the room, the second half is life after they escape. The first half is quite difficult to sit through, but it is well worth it (I spent much of it with my hands clasped together like I was praying).

One of the key successes of the film is telling it through young Jack’s eyes. We observe some of what the adult characters are talking about, but not always how they feel about it. We don’t know how Ma got into that situation until she tells Jack a story (which he does not want to hear). We don’t exactly find out what happens to their captor, because Jack is less interested in that and more in the new world. It must be credited that the screenplay is wonderfully done by Emma Donoghue, who wrote the book.

Now we come to the acting. I forget to mention two thespians, though not in the film for long, still shine as Grandma and Grandpa. It is Joan Allen and William H. Macy. However, in the next few months, when people come to me and ask about Brie Larson, I will mention that there is no way she cannot be nominated for an Oscar. Almost every emotion her character could go through as a new mom she goes through like it was second nature.

Still, if there is anything you will walk away remembering (and there will be a lot), it is the performance by Jacob Tremblay as Jack. I have always been a fan of child performances in films, but this is not a performance. It is an embodiment. There are no times in the film where I see the 8 year old actor acting. It is the best performance of 2015, and I will be angry if he is not nominated for an Oscar.

Parents, due to the subject matter, I can safetly say that only the most mature of High Schoolers and above would be ok for seeing this (we hear some Old Nick raping Ma, but we don’t see any of it and it does not last long).

One of the reasons Room is difficult at times is knowing that, sadly, these situations happen in real life. I cannot say if you will like Room or not, but I can promise one thing: You will not soon forget it.

Overall: Five Stars *****

Rebel without a Cause (1955)

Natalie Wood, Sal Minea, and James Dean.

Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, and James Dean.

When you look at the starry sky, you don’t notice the stars that have been shining the longest. You look at the ones that shine brightest. The same is true for Hollywood: The stars that are remembered are not the ones who shine longer than others, but brighter. There is no better example of this than James Dean.

In only three films (the other two being East of Eden and Giant, both of which he was nominated for an Oscar), James Dean showed more star power than most actors do in 3 decades. Sadly, this was attributed to his early death in a car accident on September 30th, 1955 (almost a month before Rebel without a Cause was released. East of Eden had already been released and Giant would be released the following year). Afterwards, the legend of James Dean began, and has no sign of ending.

In Rebel without a Cause, he plays Jim Stark, which is arguably his most famous role. Stark is the new High School kid who has trouble making friends. The film starts with him being brought in to the police after drinking. We also meet his parents (Jim Backus and Ann Doran), who have their own problems (basically Jim’s mom wears the pants in the relationship).

There are also two supporting characters of great strength. We first meet Judy (Natalie Wood), who is having a rocky relationship with her father. The second (and probably most messed up of them all, is Plato (Sal Mineo), who sees Jim as a friend and more.

Parents, the movie was in the 1950s, so there is nothing totally horrible (though some characters do die in dramatic ways). I still think any teenager (especially one interested in old classic films) would benefit greatly from this film. The film still catches the essence of teenage drama better than almost any other film I have seen.

It is sad, though, when you think about the fate of the three main stars. Dean died in a car accident, Sal Mineo was murdered in the 1970s, and Natalie Wood, of course drowned.

In the end, though, it is all about James Dean. His short career is still the biggest “what if” in Hollywood history. There is a scene in the movie where Plato is talking to Judy about Jim. Plato says that he is “sincere”. In the end, that described James Dean and his acting.

Overall: Five Stars *****