Movie Project #7: About Schmidt [2002]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

About Schmidt [2002]

About Schmidt [2002]
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Jim Taylor, Alexander Payne
Country: USA
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, June Squibb, Kathy Bates
Running Time: 125 minutes

Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is a man who has lost everything. At the age of 67, he has retired from his long-held position as an actuary at a prominent Omaha insurance company. Without work in his life, he has too much free time and doesn’t know what to do with it all. He starts to notice little things about his wife (June Squibb) of 42 years that bug him now more than ever — her incessant need to collect ceramic figurines, in particular, really gets under his skin. When he comes home to find her lying face down in the kitchen, dead, he seems oddly calm about it (at least on the outside).

Schmidt is also in the process of losing his daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), who is engaged to be married to a waterbed salesman named Randall (Dermot Mulroney). Warren rarely sees her as it is (she lives several hours away in Denver, Colorado), and now he’s worried he will never get to spend any time with her. It’s as if everything is slipping through his grasp all at once.

About Schmidt [2002]

When his daughter turns down his idea of visiting weeks before her wedding, Warren decides to take a road trip in his newly-purchased RV instead. He visits places from his childhood, all within the Midwest, only to find that everything is different. With all of this change in his life, Schmidt’s only form of solace is writing letters to a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy whom he sponsors via the Plan USA foster program. Amusingly, Warren writes these letters as if he were speaking to an adult. In essence, they are a form of therapy for him. He rambles on about many different subjects, basically jotting down whatever thoughts are flowing through his head. These moments give us glimpses into his mindset, humanizing what on the outside appears to be just a grumpy old bastard.

It’s perfect then that Jack Nicholson breathes life into this emotionally-barren character. This isn’t the type of performance we would expect from Jack; he is not loud or wildly animated. In fact, he is rather subdued and he plays Warren with a certain amount of sadness. Schmidt is the perfect encapsulation of the company man, someone who has devoted their whole life to work when he is simply just a cog in the machine. When he retires, someone takes his place and things move on as if nothing changed. It’s depressing, really, but that’s how things go.

About Schmidt [2002]

Warren’s interactions with those he meets on his journey (and later, in Denver) are priceless. He befriends a married couple at an RV park, but that leads to disastrous results when he picks up the wrong kind of signal from the wife. When he arrives in Denver, he struggles to bond with the new in-laws. Randall’s mother, Roberta (Kathy Bates), is the exact opposite of Schmidt. Her freewheeling attitude and extroverted behavior makes him very uncomfortable, though at the same time it seems to bring him ever so slightly out of his shell.

There is humor in the film — mostly in the form of the eccentric people we meet along the way — but it would be erroneous to label this as strictly a comedy. Although Warren is a flawed man, by the end of the film we finally learn more about who he really is. About Schmidt proves that self-discovery is possible at any age, and it shows just how much fun (and emotional) this journey can be.

8/10

Advertisements

Movie Project #6: Catch Me If You Can [2002]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Catch Me If You Can [2002]

Catch Me If You Can [2002]
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Jeff Nathanson (screenplay), Stan Redding (book), Frank Abagnale (book)
Country: USA
Genre: Biography/Crime/Drama
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Amy Adams
Running Time: 141 minutes

I’m always a sucker for “truth is stranger than fiction” narratives, which is why I made Catch Me If You Can one of my first selections from this year’s project. An imposter movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, a possibly rejuvenated Steven Spielberg… it has all the ingredients for a fun, memorable adventure. For the most part it works, but it doesn’t quite reach the levels it could have.

The story, set in the 1960s, is certainly interesting enough. DiCaprio plays a fresh-faced teen named Frank Abagnale, a con man who manages to pose as a pilot, doctor and lawyer all while earning himself millions of dollars by the age of 19. Tom Hanks is Carl Hanratty, an FBI bank fraud agent who catches onto Frank’s scheme and pursues him endlessly throughout the decade. Both are broken, lonely men who have pushed themselves beyond the point of exhaustion with their cat-and-mouse game. No matter what Hanratty does, Abagnale seems to be one step ahead of him.

Catch Me If You Can [2002]

It’s doubtful that Frank envisioned life as a con man, but his first taste of success pushes him farther and farther down the rabbit hole. If he could impersonate an airline pilot, gain access to their payroll system and even get invited into the cockpit on several flights — with minimal effort, mind you — why stop there? When Hanratty gets hot on his tail, Frank just shifts gears and becomes a doctor, somehow getting himself a supervisor gig at a hospital. At one point, Frank even pulls a fast one over Hanratty, escaping arrest by claiming to be a member of the Secret Service.

Watching Abagnale finagle his way out of tricky situations is always entertaining, though there are several moments that raise questions about just how true his claims really are. In particular, there is a scene near the end of the film in which he somehow manages to escape an airplane as it is landing — it’s as dubious as it sounds. As the film is based mostly on Abagnale’s own stories, it’s reasonable to assume he took some liberties in telling them. Perhaps in the end, he is still conning all of us watching his tale unfold on film.

Catch Me If You Can [2002]

And yet as wild and crazy as this story is, Spielberg never quite lets it reach the next level. The film overall feels safe and never really finds its footing. At times, it comes across as a comical, light-hearted adventure, while other times it gets bogged down by the drama surrounding the two leads. It’s still a fun watch, to be sure, but I can’t help but imagine how this would play out with an edgier filmmaker.

At the very least, the film does have a stellar cast to fall back on. DiCaprio and Hanks, though neither are at their best, are both effortlessly compelling, and they make for a memorable duo. Amy Adams, in one of her earliest roles, is a real highlight, playing the sweet and naive love interest of Abagnale. Christopher Walken is also terrific as Frank’s father who has issues of his own with the IRS.

Even with its flaws, Catch Me If You Can is a likable film that manages to make its extended running time feel shorter than it truly is. It’s not the best film from anyone involved, but it’s fine for what it is.

7/10

Movie Project #6: Catch Me If You Can [2002]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Catch Me If You Can [2002]

Catch Me If You Can [2002]
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Jeff Nathanson (screenplay), Stan Redding (book), Frank Abagnale (book)
Country: USA
Genre: Biography/Crime/Drama
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Amy Adams
Running Time: 141 minutes

I’m always a sucker for “truth is stranger than fiction” narratives, which is why I made Catch Me If You Can one of my first selections from this year’s project. An imposter movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, a possibly rejuvenated Steven Spielberg… it has all the ingredients for a fun, memorable adventure. For the most part it works, but it doesn’t quite reach the levels it could have.

The story, set in the 1960s, is certainly interesting enough. DiCaprio plays a fresh-faced teen named Frank Abagnale, a con man who manages to pose as a pilot, doctor and lawyer all while earning himself millions of dollars by the age of 19. Tom Hanks is Carl Hanratty, an FBI bank fraud agent who catches onto Frank’s scheme and pursues him endlessly throughout the decade. Both are broken, lonely men who have pushed themselves beyond the point of exhaustion with their cat-and-mouse game. No matter what Hanratty does, Abagnale seems to be one step ahead of him.

Catch Me If You Can [2002]

It’s doubtful that Frank envisioned life as a con man, but his first taste of success pushes him farther and farther down the rabbit hole. If he could impersonate an airline pilot, gain access to their payroll system and even get invited into the cockpit on several flights — with minimal effort, mind you — why stop there? When Hanratty gets hot on his tail, Frank just shifts gears and becomes a doctor, somehow getting himself a supervisor gig at a hospital. At one point, Frank even pulls a fast one over Hanratty, escaping arrest by claiming to be a member of the Secret Service.

Watching Abagnale finagle his way out of tricky situations is always entertaining, though there are several moments that raise questions about just how true his claims really are. In particular, there is a scene near the end of the film in which he somehow manages to escape an airplane as it is landing — it’s as dubious as it sounds. As the film is based mostly on Abagnale’s own stories, it’s reasonable to assume he took some liberties in telling them. Perhaps in the end, he is still conning all of us watching his tale unfold on film.

Catch Me If You Can [2002]

And yet as wild and crazy as this story is, Spielberg never quite lets it reach the next level. The film overall feels safe and never really finds its footing. At times, it comes across as a comical, light-hearted adventure, while other times it gets bogged down by the drama surrounding the two leads. It’s still a fun watch, to be sure, but I can’t help but imagine how this would play out with an edgier filmmaker.

At the very least, the film does have a stellar cast to fall back on. DiCaprio and Hanks, though neither are at their best, are both effortlessly compelling, and they make for a memorable duo. Amy Adams, in one of her earliest roles, is a real highlight, playing the sweet and naive love interest of Abagnale. Christopher Walken is also terrific as Frank’s father who has issues of his own with the IRS.

Even with its flaws, Catch Me If You Can is a likable film that manages to make its extended running time feel shorter than it truly is. It’s not the best film from anyone involved, but it’s fine for what it is.

7/10

Movie Project #45: The Pianist [2002]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Pianist [2002]

The Pianist [2002]
Director: Roman Polanski
Genre: Biography/Drama/War
Starring: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann and Frank Finlay
Running Time: 150 minutes

It’s always difficult to watch films about the Holocaust, and it’s especially challenging to write about them afterward. What can be said about one of the most horrifying events in all of mankind? Because of this, it has taken me ten long years to finally see The Pianist, Roman Polanski’s film based on the World War II memoir by Polish-Jewish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman.

Adrien Brody stars as Szpilman, and the film begins with a German bombing during one of his popular radio station performances. It doesn’t take long for Germany to defeat Poland, and they quickly begin pushing the Jews into ghettos with extremely poor living conditions. This only gets worse as the Germans linger in the country, with Jews being executed randomly, and many of them being sent to concentration camps.

The Pianist [2002]

Eventually Szpilman becomes separated from his family, and he is forced to live in hiding from the Nazis. He must rely on the hospitality of others, but this becomes increasingly difficult as the war goes on. Jews begin turning on each other, and the Nazis start wiping out entire areas for no reason. Soon many ghettos are looking like post-apocalyptic war zones.

This destruction makes for an exceedingly arduous viewing. The punishment is relentless, and quite frankly we do not need to see most of it. The devastation and tragedies just keep getting piled onto Szpilman with no end in sight. There is no humanity or compassion at all, except for a brief glimpse at the end. It’s harrowing to watch, a painful look at an absolutely darkest time.

The Pianist [2002]

The attention to detail in The Pianist is astounding, and this is to be expected given Polanski’s own Holocaust survival tale. This is an extremely well-crafted film, one brought together by Adrien Brody’s well-deserved Oscar-winning performance. Szpilman’s physical and mental deterioration over the years is hard to watch, but Brody’s dedication to the role is admirable.

While watching The Pianist, I wondered what separated Szpilman’s story from thousands of others during the Holocaust. Was it the fact that he was a well-known musician? Or perhaps that he received a rare moment of compassion as the Nazis left Warsaw? Ultimately, this question does not matter. At the end, this could have been the story of any number of survivors, and The Pianist is an exemplary portrait of this.

8/10

Movie Project #40: Chicago [2002]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Chicago [2002]

Chicago [2002]
Director: Rob Marshall
Genre: Comedy/Crime/Musical
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly
Runtime: 113 minutes

I approached my viewing of Chicago with an open mind. I was feeling optimistic — after all, I had went through a good run of musicals (Singin’ in the Rain, Moulin Rouge!, Dancer in the Dark) that made me look at the genre with renewed interest. Maybe I was being biased for no good reason and I just needed to see a few strong musicals to make me a fan. I was all set to love this, especially since the film was set in my city (albeit in the 1920s). All of the pieces were aligned, but alas, Chicago didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

Based on the stage musical of the same name, Chicago revolves around two murderesses who are in jail and awaiting trial in the 1920s. Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) is charged with the murder of Fred Casely (Dominic West), her lover who never gave her the broadway gigs he promised her. She dreams of being a vaudeville star like Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is also sent to jail after killing her husband and sister, whom she finds in bed together. Faced with the prospect of death sentences, the two women enlist the services of highly talented lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to set them free.

There is also a sense of jealousy between the two women. Velma is the queen of the roost, so to speak, and she gets all of the headlines due to her past popularity. Roxie is envious of this and does everything she can to weasel her way into the newspapers — much to Velma’s dismay.

Chicago [2002]

Now, while some may find interest in the satirical plot, the appeal of Chicago lies in its bombastic song-and-dance numbers. This is a film that revels in its visual style, piecing together large and exuberant dance routines with a distinct Jazz Age flair. The set pieces are fantastic; the costumes, flamboyant. It’s easy to get lost in the flashy showtunes, despite the fact that most songs are utterly forgettable. “All That Jazz” is a treat, but nothing else really left a mark on me.

Ultimately, that is the biggest problem I had with Chicago. Outside of the glitz and the glamour, this is a film with very little substance. I enjoyed the spectacle of it all, but everything felt shallow, and I lacked any real connection to the characters or the proceedings. Taken on its merits, there is a certain amount of charm. I was just hoping for more… substance.

Chicago [2002]

Still, there are some brilliant performances that beg to be recognized, particularly that of Catherine Zeta-Jones. She is absolutely stunning as Velma Kelly, and it was always a treat to watch her on screen. I have no complaints about her winning an Oscar — she really is that damn good. Zellweger and Gere are also up to the task in their performances, though they did not leave as much of a lasting impression. Special mention should be made of two entertaining supporting roles — John C. Reilly as Amos Hart, Roxie’s cuckolded husband, and Queen Latifah as “Mama” Morton, the strong and independent matron of the Cook County Jail.

While I did enjoy Chicago overall, I just didn’t connect with it in the way I was hoping. I get the appeal of it, and its visual style is certainly impressive, but it’s a bit of a head-scratcher as to how this won Best Picture in a year stacked with great films.

7/10

Movie Project #12: The Bourne Identity [2002]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a second round for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Bourne Identity [2002]

The Bourne Identity [2002]
Director: Doug Liman
Genre: Action/Crime/Mystery
Starring: Matt Damon, Franka Potente and Chris Cooper
Runtime: 119 minutes

Sometimes I amaze myself when it comes to looking at how many movies I missed from the last decade. I didn’t really start (over)indulging in film until just three or four years ago, and I never bothered with a lot of the major blockbusters. That’s how I skipped out on Casino Royale (or Bond films period), and a lot of the big-budget action flicks from recent years. Because of this large gap in my movie-watching history, I made sure to include The Bourne Identity in this year’s project.

Looking back ten years later, it’s weird to see Matt Damon look so young. Regardless, he is more than capable as the ex-CIA operative, Jason Bourne, who is rescued from the Mediterranean Sea with no recollection of his past. His only hint comes from an account number to a Swedish safe deposit box that is surgically implanted in his hip. He quickly learns that he has better reflexes and hand-to-hand combat skills than the average person, and a trip to the Swedish bank reveals even more curiosities: the deposit is box full of passports with different aliases, several types of currency, and a handgun. The CIA is alerted to Bourne’s bank visit and soon he finds himself on the run with no clue as to why.

The Bourne Identity [2002]

Bourne hitches a ride with Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente), an unassuming pedestrian who accepts a $20,000 offer to get him to Paris. Soon she becomes targeted by association, and the two embark on a wild adventure as Bourne attempts to learn who he is, as well as who is trying to kill him.

As far as spy thrillers go, this is a good one. There are moments of groan-inducing cliches, but for the most part this is a well-crafted adventure that rarely lets its foot off the pedal. A car chase scene through the streets of Paris is exhilirating, as are the moments when Bourne encounters hitmen who are out to eradicate him. There is never a shortage of adrenaline-pumping action and suspense, and the film even manages to include some romance (though not a major focal point, thankfully).

The Bourne Identity [2002]

The movie has a good set of villains in place, with Bourne’s former boss Alexander Conklin (Chris Cooper) leading the operation to get rid of the ex-operative once and for all. The hitmen sent after Bourne are intimidating, especially “The Professor” (Clive Owen) with his extraordinary sniping skills.

The Bourne Identity is a fun thriller with a little more brains behind it when compared to others in the genre. It feels a little dated now, but it’s still an entertaining watch with plenty of thrills. I am looking forward to seeing the rest of the trilogy in anticipation for this year’s entry in the series.

8/10

Video Game Review: Fatal Frame [Playstation 2, 2002]

Fatal Frame [Playstation 2, 2002]

Fatal Frame
System: Playstation 2 (also on Xbox)
Genre: Survival Horror
Publisher: Tecmo
Developer: Tecmo
Release Date: March 4, 2002

When the scariest video games of all time are discussed, it never takes long for Tecmo’s Fatal Frame series to get brought up. This is a series that thrives on its haunting atmosphere, with mostly helpless protagonists faced against an endless onslaught of ghosts and general creepiness.

The original Fatal Frame takes place in an abandoned Japanese mansion. You play as Miku Hinasaki, a young woman who ventures to the mansion to look for her older brother, Mafuyu, who has been missing for two weeks. When she arrives, she realizes that the place is actually haunted, as old folklore stated, and she starts to uncover startling secrets about the family who once inhabited the home. Tales of gruesome murder and torture are unearthed, and now the mansion is crawling with ghosts. Seriously, they are EVERYWHERE, often appearing in places you would not expect.

Fatal Frame [Playstation 2, 2002]

The only way that Miku can combat the ghosts is by using the Camera Obscura, an antique camera that possesses the ability to damage and capture spirits. When an attacking ghost appears, Miku must keep it within the camera’s shot while waiting as long as possible before taking the picture, as this will maximize the damage. Of course, this is easier said than done since this means Miku will be face to face with disturbing ghosts that are moaning and trying violently to grab her and cause harm. It’s pretty damn crazy.

The camera can be upgraded over time, but the enemies grow stronger as well. Throughout the entire campaign, there is a vast feeling of uneasiness. Fatal Frame excels at keeping you on edge, as you never know what to expect. Ghosts randomly spawn all throughout the mansion, even as you backtrack through previously explored areas. Sometimes they will pop out when you open a door, other times they will just randomly appear behind you. The tension can be almost unbearable at times.

Fatal Frame [PS2]

Unfortunately, as the ghosts grow stronger and become more plentiful, the game’s difficulty spikes drastically. By the time I reached the last chapter, I was ill-suited to deal with the powerful spirits that just so happened to be in damn near every room and hallway. Perhaps I had been using medical herbs and high-powered film too liberally in the first half of the game, but I had a hell of a time making my way through the last chapter. Exploring the house in each chapter usually reaps dividends in the form of bonus items, but it’s hard to actually get to these when there are hellacious ghosts around every corner. I felt the game could have been more balanced overall, as this was a major inconvenience for me.

The game’s controls also take some getting used to. They are in the vein of Resident Evil’s old school survival horror, and the game uses fixed camera angles set up in each area. This can cause moments of disorientation when the camera abruptly switches to a different angle. Once I got the hang of it, this didn’t bother me, but I can see how it would be an issue for some.

Problems aside, Fatal Frame is still a damn good horror game that is more than worthy of its “scariest game ever” label. This is a game that deserves to be played in the dark with the sound turned way up. Try not to wet yourself when the music slowly builds up while you hear ghosts moaning in the walls. You know there’s a ghost (or two, or three) lingering around, but you have no idea where. This is the essence of Fatal Frame.

8/10

Movie Review: Irréversible [2002]

Irréversible [2002]

Irréversible [2002]
Directors: Gaspar Noé
Genre: Crime/Drama/Mystery
Language: French
Country: France

I have heard over and over again that Irréversible is one of the most disturbing movies ever created, and finally I had to see what all the fuss was about. Let’s just say that by the time the credits rolled, I was absolutely speechless.

First things first, believe everything you have heard. This is a brutal and often downright disgusting film, and it is painfully hard to watch. The movie is about a woman named Alex (Monica Bellucci) who is out partying with her boyfriend Marcus (real-life husband Vincent Cassel) and her ex, Pierre (Albert Dupontel). After leaving the party, she is brutally raped by a stranger (Jo Prestia) while walking home alone. When Marcus and Pierre find out what happened, they set out to get revenge on the asshole by taking justice into their own hands.

Irréversible [2002]

Irreversible is told in reverse chronological order (a la Memento) so the brutality begins right away. In the early moments, we are taken to a gay nightclub called Rectum (how subtle) where the two guys believe the rapist is hanging out. While they frantically look for the assailant, the camera is twisting and turning all over the place, making it difficult to see what is happening. Although the frequent camera shifts are initially difficult to stomach, they actually work out quite well. We don’t really NEED to see everything that is going on in order to understand the frenetic actions on screen. The topsy-turvy camera is a major part of the movie, although it thankfully gets toned down a bit as the film progresses.

During this critical early scene, the music is undeniably fierce. Thomas Bangalter’s (one half of Daft Punk) score is tense, and often terrifying in its own right. His music truly adds to the frantic pace during the early-goings. He definitely encapsulated the raw experience on screen, although it is not what I would expect from one half of the electronic duo who created “One More Time.”

By the time the infamous rape scene happens – about halfway through the movie – it is beyond difficult to watch. All of that shaky camerawork I mentioned earlier is gone during this scene. Instead, the camera sits stationary while we are forced to watch Alex get raped for nine straight minutes. It is absolutely disgusting, and to call it “fucked up” is an understatement.

Irréversible [2002]

Still, even with the obscene violence and sheer brutality, Irréversible remains a fascinating film. The brilliant reverse storytelling makes you think about the events from a different perspective. The soundtrack is menacing and perfect for the actions on screen. And the camera work initially seems out of control, but somehow it just works. Kudos to Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel for having the cojones to go through with something like this.

This is not a movie for everyone, and there is no doubt that this is a cruel and punishing 90 minutes. There are no boundaries here, which makes for an unpleasant, yet stimulating experience.

Simply put, Irreversible is a stunning film that just does not hold back.

9/10