Movie Project #34: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [1927]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [1927]

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [1927]
Director: F. W. Murnau
Writer: Carl Mayer
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Romance
Starring: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
Running Time: 94 minutes

(This post discusses the film’s plot at length, and therefore contains spoilers.)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, the first American film from German director F.W. Murnau, has developed an impressive legacy since its release over 85 years ago. It shows up on countless “best of” lists, and it is widely considered to be one of the finest silent films ever made (often serving as a gateway to the era, much like Chaplin, Keaton or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). Sunrise also has the distinction of being the first and only film to win an Oscar for “Best Unique and Artistic Production”, which at the time was considered as prestigious of an award as Best Picture. After finally tackling this undisputed classic, it’s easy to see why it is held in such high regard.

Sunrise tells the story of the Man (George O’Brien) and the Wife (Janet Gaynor), an impoverished married couple that lives in a farmhouse with their young child. Their relationship has seen much better days, as the two of them seem to be growing more and more distant with every minute. Much of this disparity can be attributed to the presence of the vacationing Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston), who has struck up a passionate affair with the Man. Not content to be just a summer fling, the Woman from the City proposes that the Man move back to the city with her. In order to get rid of the Wife, the Woman recommends drowning her and making it appear as an accident. Surprisingly, the Man agrees.

I have to admit that the dark nature of this first act caught me completely off guard. I knew the film wasn’t a conventional love story, but to have such unabashed sex and violence in the silent era came as a shock to me. It also had me hooked immediately.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [1927]

The Man brings the Wife along on a boat ride — to the city, he claims — fully prepared to commit this act of murder. Just as he stands above her, ready to end her life, he has a change of heart and breaks down crying. His wife, obviously distraught, goes into hysterics. Despite this horrifying encounter, the two of them proceed to the city anyway, with the Man desperately trying to make it up to her. He buys her food, gives her flowers and constantly apologizes. No dice.

It isn’t until they stumble upon a wedding in progress that their love is rekindled. The Man, realizing that he has made a grave mistake by breaking his own marriage vows, begs for forgiveness one more time, with the Wife finally accepting. Seemingly remarried (the scene, amusingly, even shows them leaving the ceremony first, much to the surprise of those waiting outside), the two are finally able to enjoy their time in the city together.

Just when it seems like we might get a happy ending after all, the film goes in *another* completely different direction. On their ride home, a terrible storm hits, causing their boat to capsize. The Man washes ashore, but the Wife is nowhere to be seen. Now, in complete contrast to the beginning of the film, the Man is desperate to save the Wife, even getting his neighbors and other townsfolk to search for her.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [1927]

When the Man retreats home, assuming the Wife is dead, the Woman from the City makes another appearance. Full of joy, the Woman attempts to get close to her lover, only for the Man to snap and turn into the same horrifying monster he appeared as during the first boat ride with his wife. Once again, the film comes full circle, as the Man attempts to strangle the life out of the Woman, only stopping once the townsfolk run in yelling that they found the Wife alive and (relatively) well.

And so it goes. The sun rises in the morning, and everything appears to be back to the way it was before the appearance of the evil seductress.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [1927]

A more jaded viewer could nitpick about the jarring transitions between the film’s three acts, but I grew quite fond of its meandering path. The way the film bounces back and forth between darkness and light works quite well, as does the way everything comes full circle in the end.

The film itself is also technologically impressive, and I can only imagine how bold and adventurous it was when it was released. Title cards are few and far in between, and Murnau uses slick camerawork and superimposed images to tell the story. There are some truly magnificent shots, including one in which the Man sits delirious in bed, feeling the presence of the Woman from the City holding him from behind (which we see, with her in a ghostly form).

In short, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is an essential film. Its influence is still felt today, and its three distinct acts offer a sense of unpredictability that continues to make this such an engaging watch.

9/10

Movie Project #27: The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]

The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]
Director: William Wyler
Writer: Robert E. Sherwood (screen play), MacKinlay Kantor (from a novel by)
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Romance/War
Starring: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O’Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Russell
Running Time: 172 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is on a whopping 24 lists at icheckmovies.com.

Accolades: Won 7 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Best Writing) + one more nomination (Best Sound), won BAFTA Film Award, Golden Globe Best Picture, National Film Registry, #179 on IMDB Top 250

At the time of its release, The Best Years of Our Lives was a monster hit. It won an impressive seven Oscars (plus an additional honorary award) and raked in the cash at the box office, second in revenue only to Gone With the Wind (which I will be reviewing later this year). The film was also released just one year after the conclusion of World War II, offering a fresh view of what life was like for returning veterans.

Perhaps most amazingly, it is still incredibly relevant over 60 years later.

The film focuses on three servicemen who form a friendship on their flight home to the fictional Midwestern town of Boone City. Each man is coming back to a completely different scenario, and all three struggle to come to terms with an America that is vastly different than they remembered.

The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]

Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was a respected Army Air Forces captain in Europe, and he returns to a beautiful young wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo). He attempts to get his former job back as a drugstore soda jerk, but the pharmacy is now under new ownership, forcing Fred to earn his way to a better position. His wife, apparently now interested in the luxuries of life, is not thrilled with Fred’s low-paying job, causing significant problems for their marriage.

Homer Parrish (the real life veteran, Harold Russell) lost both hands in the war and now has metal hooks in place of them. He tries to make the best of his disability, but struggles when confronted with tasks that he can no longer perform. It doesn’t help that his parents are now treating him differently either. At least he still has his fiancee, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), who eagerly loves him even though Homer continually tries to distance himself in order to not be a “burden.”

Al Stephenson (Fredric March) might have it best out of the three veterans, though he still has his own issues. Al has a nice family, including wife Milly (Myrna Loy), older daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) and a college freshman son, and he even gets his old job back as a bank loan officer. Better yet, the bank is pleased with his military background and offers him a promotion. However, Al is a bit too lenient in granting loans for other veterans, at least in the eyes of his superiors, and this presents a moral dilemma for him.

The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]

All three men have to deal with people treating them differently, and it sometimes seems that their only real sanctuary is gathering together at the local watering hole, Butch’s saloon. There they get good and drunk in the company of each other, the only people who can truly understand what they went through.

Nowadays, it’s discouraging to hear of veterans treated poorly by those who don’t believe in the wars they are fighting in. Shockingly, there is even an example of this in The Best Years of Our Lives. I couldn’t believe it when I heard a customer at Fred’s pharmacy ranting about how Hitler and the communists were actually the ones doing good in the war. Apparently Fred couldn’t either — he beat the living tar out of the man!

The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]

Perhaps most impressive about the film is that it doesn’t really have an agenda. I was worried that it would be a bit too heavy-handed, but thankfully that’s not the case. These veterans and their stories feel exceptionally authentic, aside from a love story that perhaps wraps things up too nicely. The performances from the three men are terrific, including the non-actor Harold Russell. He was so good that the Academy felt it necessary to grant him *two* Oscars — one for Best Supporting Actor, and one honory award “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.”

The Best Years of Our Lives runs a bit long, and the conclusion may be a little too optimistic, but it’s still a damn fine piece of cinema. Given the story behind it and its year of release, it’s easy to see why it was such a hit back then. It’s just a shame that so many of the difficulties it presents are still relevant today.

8/10

Movie Review: Drinking Buddies [2013]

Drinking Buddies [2013]

Drinking Buddies [2013]
Director: Joe Swanberg
Writer: Joe Swanberg
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston
Running Time: 90 minutes

From the day it was announced, Drinking Buddies seemed like a film after my own heart. Director Joe Swanberg’s latest “mumblecore” effort combines two of my favorite things: craft beer and the city of Chicago. Better yet, this was filmed on location at one of the city’s finest breweries: Revolution Brewing. Fans of good beer will appreciate all the little winks and nods at the Midwest’s many craft breweries (my own personal favorite, Half Acre’s Daisy Cutter, makes a cameo), but there is plenty to enjoy for movie lovers as well.

The film revolves around two co-workers at Revolution Brewing: Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson). They are great friends, always fooling around at work and then getting drinks afterward. Kate appears to be “one of the guys”, able to hold her own with the seemingly male-dominated brewery. Luke and Kate have an infectious chemistry and there is an undeniable air of sexual tension between them; the only problem is that their relationship is strictly platonic.

Drinking Buddies [2013]

Both co-workers are in separate relationships. Luke has been dating Jill (Anna Kendrick) for six years, and they have been talking about getting married. Meanwhile, Kate is in a relationship with music producer Chris (Ron Livingston). Everyone seems happy at first, but it’s awfully hard not to notice how much of a connection there is between Luke and Kate.

A couples weekend retreat to a Michigan cabin makes the differences especially glaring. While Luke and Kate are perfectly content to just sit around drinking and playing blackjack, Jill and Chris prefer to hike in the woods. These four couldn’t be more different, but then again, can a relationship really thrive if two people have all of the same interests?

This question and many more come into play in Drinking Buddies, and the “will they or won’t they?” stigma is always lingering. Yet what makes the film work is that it doesn’t go down the conventional route. While it sounds and even feels predictable, it isn’t. This film changes directions and takes detours before reaching an abrupt conclusion, one that is sure to split audiences.

Drinking Buddies [2013]

Through all of this, the film manages to remain incredibly authentic. All of its dialogue is improvised, further adding to the sense of realism. These characters all feel like real people, and hell, you may know some just like them. The entire cast here does a phenomenal job, and Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde deliver what may be their finest performances yet. The connection between the two is indisputable; they know it and we know it, but they also know it’s unacceptable.

Drinking Buddies is one of the better mumblecore films I have seen, and it examines male and female relationships in a way that isn’t usually realized on screen. While a bit more closure would have been nice, the performances alone make this well worth seeing (preferably with some craft beer on hand, of course).

8/10

Movie Project #22: His Girl Friday [1940]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

His Girl Friday [1940]

His Girl Friday [1940]
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Charles Lederer (screen play), Ben Hecht (play “The Front Page”) and Charles MacArthur (play “The Front Page”)
Country: USA
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
Starring: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy
Running Time: 92 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This has appeared on countless “best of” lists, and I am always looking to see more of Cary Grant’s work.

Accolades: National Film Registry, #19 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs

A lot of classic films have rapid-fire dialogue, but His Girl Friday may just take the cake. I would love to see the size of this script, which seems to pack three hours of dialogue into just 90 minutes.

Rosalind Russell stars as Hildy Johnson, a former news reporter who is eager to leave that fast-paced lifestyle, going so far as to get engaged to a rather plain insurance salesman, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). On the eve of her trip to Albany to make the marriage official, Hildy drops by the newspaper to tell her ex-husband (and editor of The Morning Post), Walter Burns (Cary Grant), about her plans. One problem: Walter is still in love with her and will do anything possible to win her back.

Played to manipulative perfection by Grant, Walter quickly gets to work at devising plans to keep Hildy from going to Albany. His methods are cruel but effective — he manages to get Bruce arrested no less than three times (including once by planting counterfeit money on him). This gives Walter more time to make his move.

His Girl Friday [1940]

It also helps that the “story of the century” is happening right now — the alleged wrongfully accused murderer, Earl Williams (John Qualen), is set to be hanged the very next day. The story is so juicy that Hildy cannot resist getting involved, even interviewing the man in hopes of getting him acquitted. The news story gets even bigger when Williams escapes from prison, making this a full-blown front page story. This series of events prompts Walter to amusingly exclaim “Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page!”

As a screwball comedy, the series of events grows wilder and wilder, and Hildy finds it increasingly difficult to get away and leave for Albany on time. It becomes apparent that Walter and Hildy are cut from the same cloth — both are “newspapermen” that get such a rush from breaking a big story, yet struggle to separate their personal and work lives.

His Girl Friday [1940]

In most cases, it would be hard to sympathize with either of these characters, but c’mon, it’s Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell! These two play off each other beautifully, and their chemistry is undeniable. Even though both play such dastardly characters, they are so much fun to watch.

The aforementioned rapid-fire dialogue is a real highlight of the film as well, even though it’s sometimes hard to keep up with the constant overlapping chatter. This is a film that benefits considerably from subtitles, and I was almost afraid to laugh just so I didn’t miss another great line. Regardless, the script (and its cynical look at the newspaper business) is relentlessly engaging, still providing fruitful exchanges so many years later.

9/10

Movie Project #20: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul [1974]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul [1974]

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul [1974]
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Writer: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Country: West Germany
Genre: Drama/Romance
Starring: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Irm Hermann
Running Time: 94 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I had never seen a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film.

Accolades: Won FIPRESCI Prize and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes Film Festival, part of the Criterion Collection and Roger Ebert’s Great Movies

Here’s a story that would have never happened if it weren’t raining one night in West Germany.

Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira), a 60-year-old widow, stops in at a local bar to wait out the rain on her walk home from work. She hasn’t had a drink in years, but she is drawn in by the exotic Arabic music heard inside. Upon entering, it’s as if time stops. The locals, mostly Arabs, stop and stare at her as she meekly takes a seat at the very first table. The server, Barbara (Barbara Valentin), slowly makes her way to the table, allowing Emmi to order a Coke.

The bar patrons continue to snicker at the newest visitor, hardly hiding their disgust. One of the women in the group snarkingly suggests that one of them, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), goes to ask her to dance. Much to her surprise, Ali takes her up on the offer, and even more surprising, Emmi accepts the dance. The two of them share a tender moment, and he offers to walk her home.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul [1974]

It’s still raining when they arrive, so Emmi invites him in for coffee. She professes her loneliness since her husband died, and Ali shares his own similar feeling — his days feel empty, composed of nothing but work and booze. They bond, he stays the night.

From here, they become a romantic couple, much to the surprise (and chagrin) of others. The age barrier is striking — there is at least a 20 year difference between them — but it’s the color of their skin that raises the most grievances. Ali is Morroccan, and during this period in West Germany, racism toward Arabs and other minorities is unfortunately commonplace. Foreign workers are “treated like dogs”, as Ali once states, and it is unfathomable to become romantically linked to one.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul [1974]

Emmi’s own children, now adults with their own families, even frown upon her new lover. One of them, her oldest son, smashes her living room TV upon hearing their news. At work, Emmi’s cleaning lady friends banish her from their little gossip circle, forcing her to eat lunch on her own. Ali is treated like dirt everywhere he goes — the local grocer, despite Emmi’s loyal patronage for years, even refuses to serve him since Ali speaks broken German. It’s all quite sad, really, especially as the blatant racism is so in-your-face.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul tells the most unconventional of love stories, but it beautifully shows that love knows no bounds. Unfortunately, its other message is still as relevant today, as racism is still a global issue with no sign of going away. How much disrespect can one person take before they snap, or their body just can’t handle anymore?

9/10

Movie Project #18: Three Colors: Red [1994]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Three Colors: Red [1994]

Three Colors: Red [1994]
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Screenplay: Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Krzysztof Kieślowski
Country: France/Poland/Switzerland
Genre: Drama/Mystery/Romance
Starring: Irène Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Frédérique Feder
Running Time: 99 minutes

Reason for inclusion: The Three Colors trilogy is widely considered to be among the best trilogies in history, and it has been a major blind spot for me. I had also never seen a Krzysztof Kieslowski film before this project.

Accolades: Three Oscar nominations (Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay), Palme d’Or nomination, Best Foreign Language Film from National Board Review, five César Award nominations, four BAFTA nominations, entry in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, Criterion Collection

In closing out the Three Colors trilogy, Red follows the French ideal of fraternity. Here we have a number of individuals that are all connected in some way, often without them truly knowing it.

Valentine Dussaut (Irène Jacob) is a beautiful young woman who stays busy by modeling and taking ballet lessons. One night while driving home from dance practice, she accidentally hits a German Shepherd with her car. Valentine finds the owner’s address on the dog’s collar and drives in that direction (presumably the owner is closer than an animal hospital). She notifies the owner, an old reclusive ex-judge named Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), though he seems completely ambivalent to the incident. He tells Valentine to keep the dog, which she does, and promptly takes it to the vet.

Three Colors: Red [1994]

Later, the dog, now fixed up thanks to the vet, runs away, ultimately going back to the judge’s house. Valentine rushes over there and discovers that Kern is eavesdropping on his neighbor’s telephone conversation. Apparently this is his post-retirement hobby, ad he has been doing this illegally for years. Valentine is appalled by his behavior, and she leaves with her dog, vowing never to return.

Yet there is something that keeps bringing these two together, and they form a platonic friendship despite their obscenely different views on voyeurism.

Another important relationship comes in the form of Valentine’s neighbor, Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), and his girlfriend, Karin (Frederique Feder). They are seemingly in love, but little problems keep popping up between the two of them, as is wont in ill-destined relationships. Auguste’s life is startlingly similar to that of a young Kern, and he keeps ending up in a series of near-miss encounters with Valentine.

Three Colors: Red [1994]

Fate is continuously acknowledged via these coincidences. Perhaps Valentine and Kern would have made a great couple if they had been able to meet at the same age; after all, they seem to be kindred spirits. It is possible that it is now her destiny to be with Auguste, who is currently going through a series of events similar to those that eventually made Kern a recluse.

The performances here are fantastic — the unlikely friendship between Valentine and Kern feels effortlessly authentic thanks to Jacob and Trintignant — and there is certainly a lot of depth to the film. Red asks the most questions out of the trilogy, and there are so many layers that it is impossible to unravel them in just one viewing. My gut reaction was an appreciation of the film, but I didn’t fall in love with it like I did Blue and, to a lesser extent, White. I suspect that this may change on later viewings, as now I know what to expect, and I can pick up on the subtle clues that Kieslowski drops throughout the film. I would love to revisit this sometime down the road, but as it stands now, this ranks third in the trilogy for me.

8/10

Movie Review: Before Midnight [2013]

Before Midnight [2013]

Before Midnight [2013]
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Genre: Drama
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Running Time: 108 minutes

This review is meant for those who have already seen Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. If you haven’t watched them yet, go do so before reading this review!

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset perfectly encapsulated that idealistic feeling of finding true love. Before Midnight takes that notion and grounds it firmly in reality, showing what life is like ten years down the road.

It’s not always pretty.

Surely a couple like Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) could be immune to the ups-and-downs of a long-term relationship, right? After all, so many of us fell in love with them as we watched them fall in love with each other. They seemed like such a perfect fit, and their back-and-forth dialogue felt so smooth and natural.

Before Midnight [2013]

Before Midnight shows us this couple, now living together for several years and proud parents of a set of beautiful twin girls. They are wrapping up a summer vacation in the beautiful countryside of Greece. Jesse has just dropped his son from a previous marriage off at the airport, reluctantly sending him back to Chicago to be with his mother. As it happens, Jesse is devastated at spending so much time away from his son, especially as he enters his formative high school years. The idea of moving to Chicago gets brought up in the middle of a normal conversation — Celine is immediately against the idea.

She has the opportunity to take on a new job — her “dream job” as she later realizes — and she wants to stay in France. This discussion is kind of glossed over during a long car ride, but it comes up later, as is wont to do. This one little (but big) suggestion gets under her skin, festering beneath before sneaking out in the form of little jabs and potshots.

Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship can immediately relate to the quibbles between the two of them, and quite frankly it can be difficult to watch Jesse and Celine spat back and forth. This is a couple that we have watched grow over the years in the most romantic way possible, and here they are middle-aged and bickering. It’s a stark reminder that no matter how a relationship starts, it takes some major work to see it through and keep that spark going.

Before Midnight [2013]

It’s not all melancholy in the film, however. There are several moments where we see glimpses of the couple as they were once before. A long scene at a Greek dinner party brings out some great stories, not just from them but also from their friends, both young and old. While the previous films rarely shined a light on anyone besides Jesse and Celine, here we are introduced to a handful of other characters, all of whom are interesting in their own right. It’s actually kind of refreshing to watch them banter with other people, especially given that their one-on-one conversations this time are a lot less pleasant.

But that’s the beauty of this film. Before Midnight feels entirely believable, even moreso than before. Hawke and Delpy still have flawless chemistry together, and as it goes with most Linklater films, the writing is excellent. While part of me is upset that I had to see Jesse and Celine this way, I am infinitely grateful to have experienced another 90+ minutes with them all the same.

9/10

Movie Project #7: Leaving Las Vegas [1995]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Leaving Las Vegas [1995]

Leaving Las Vegas [1995]
Director: Mike Figgis
Screenplay: Mike Figgis
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Romance
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands
Running Time: 111 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I heard this is one of the greatest films about alcoholism, a subject I have always found fascinating. I have also heard many great things about Nicolas Cage’s performance.

Accolades: Four Oscar nominations (one win for Best Actor), four Golden Globe nominations (one win for Best Actor), total of 29 wins and 19 nominations from multiple awards outlets

“I don’t know if my wife left me because of my drinking or I started drinking ’cause my wife left me.”

That one line perfectly encapsulates the life of Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage), an alcoholic screenwriter who lost control of himself long ago. After getting fired from his job, Ben decides to travel to Las Vegas to “drink himself to death.” A rather generous severance check allows him to do as he pleases in Vegas, and he continues to consume seemingly endless amounts of booze. Beer, vodka, tequila, whiskey… you name it, Ben will drink it.

Leaving Las Vegas [1995]

It is in Vegas where Ben meets another sad soul, a prostitute named Sera (Elizabeth Shue). The two of them immediately bond over their shortcomings, and both seem willing to overlook the other’s major faults. It isn’t entirely clear what draws the two of them together, other than both are incredibly lonely and desperate to find someone to care for them. Truth be told, there really isn’t a whole lot that they can do for each other. At one point, after Ben tells Sera that he cares about her, he makes a point to say, “You can never, ever, ask me to stop drinking.”

Sarah’s reply? “I know.”

And so goes this tragic tale. There is a strange affection between these two characters, even though their relationship seems doomed from the start. After all, can a hooker really help a drunk, or vice versa? Yet even though this is a bizarre couple, their relationship is completely believable.

Leaving Las Vegas [1995]

This credit completely and undeniably goes to Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue, both of whom have delivered arguably the best performances of their careers. Their chemistry is perfected to the point of absurdity, with each expertly portraying someone who has essentially hit rock bottom. There are others in the cast — such as Julian Sands as Sera’s brute of a pimp, or Ben’s old colleagues played by Richard Lewis and Steven Weber — but this is very much a two-person show. Cage won an Oscar for his performance, and I’m willing to forgive his last decade of shoddy work based simply on this alone. It’s that good.

Leaving Las Vegas was filmed on a very small budget, which paved the way for Mike Figgis to direct, write the screenplay and compose its music. He filmed most of the scenes on location with Super 16 cameras, and as a result the film has a very personal, authentic feel to it. His overtly jazzy soundtrack may be a bit too much at times, but it does fit in with the overall bleak, downtrodden nature of the movie.

As far as films about alcoholism go, this is one of the better ones I have seen. Leaving Las Vegas is painstakingly depressing, but its authentic nature hits all the right notes.

8/10

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook [2012]

Silver Linings Playbook [2012]

Silver Linings Playbook [2012]
Director: David O. Russell
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver and Chris Tucker
Running Time: 122 minutes

Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy by definition, but it is presented in a way that most in the genre are not.

Bradley Cooper (in a surprisingly subdued performance) stars as Pat Solitano, a former high school teacher diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After an eight month stay in a mental hospital, Pat is released into the care of his parents, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver). The only thing on Pat’s mind is a desire to reconcile his failed marriage with his ex-wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), who now has a restraining order against him due to a previous violent outburst.

Silver Linings Playbook [2012]

While having dinner at a friend’s house, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman who is going through a very rough patch as well (her husband just passed away in Iraq). They begin a peculiar relationship in which Pat attempts to communicate to Nikki through Tiffany. She agrees to help him if he will enter a dance competition with her, something she never got to do with her late husband. This shaky agreement works as a sort of therapy for both of them, as both seem to come to grips with their respective mental illnesses at the same time.

Familiar conventions of the romantic comedy genre eventually arise, particularly in the film’s final act, but the journey to this point is anything but conventional. Director David O. Russell’s inclusion of mental illness as an integral part of the storyline is a bit of a ballsy move, but he manages to portray both characters and their traits in a sensitive light.

Silver Linings Playbook [2012]

The chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence is electric, with both turning in what may very well be the best performances of their careers. It’s shocking that Lawrence is just 22 years old — she has the presence of a seasoned veteran in this. Perhaps most exciting is seeing Robert De Niro return to relevance with one of his greatest roles in years. His take as the OCD diehard Eagles fan shows glimpses of just how Pat Jr. began struggling with his own mental issues. Chris Tucker even has a small role that is worthy of a mention, largely because he is not as obnoxious as usual.

Silver Linings Playbook deserves credit for bringing something new to a tired genre, and even though it falls back on familiar tropes, it’s still a strong effort with a likable set of characters.

8/10

Movie Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower [2011]

The Perks of Being a Wallflower [2011]

The Perks of Being a Wallflower [2011]
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Genre: Drama/Romance
Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller
Runtime: 103 minutes

It’s not often that someone is able to write a (successful) novel and then both write and direct a film adaptation of that work, but that’s exactly what Stephen Chbosky did with The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The popular young-adult novel was published in 1999, and after taking on such projects as writing the screenplay for Rent and co-creating the CBS show, Jericho, Chbosky went back to his roots and brought us this adaptation.

The film follows the life of an insecure, shy 14-year-old named Charlie (Logan Lerman), who has suffered a series of traumatic events in his childhood. Now emotionally scarred, Charlie is anxious about entering high school, and he struggles to make friends (outside of his English teacher, played by Paul Rudd). Eventually, he finds solace in the form of two eccentric seniors: Sam (Emma Watson) and her stepbrother Patrick (Ezra Miller). They introduce him to new music (i.e. The Smiths, a staple of this type of film) and invite him to hang out with their group of friends, who they lovingly dub “The Island of Misfit Toys.” This includes a Buddhist punk (Mae Whitman), a blonde goth (Erin Wilhelmi) and a brownie-loving stoner (Adam Hagenbuch). Charlie fits right in with the group, and they help give him the type of friendship he so desperately needs.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower [2011]

At its core, this is a basic coming-of-age story, but Chbosky places a greater emphasis on emotions and the feeling of alienation. Everyone in Charlie’s newfound group of friends is alienated in some fashion. Sam has self esteem issues, and she has a habit of turning to older men for acceptance. Patrick is openly gay but is in an awkward secretive relationship with a jock who is afraid to come out. Charlie himself has been in-and-out of mental hospitals due to prior traumatic experiences. In a way, it seems the only thing keeping these kids going is each other.

Anyone who ever felt this way as an adolescent (and really, who hasn’t?) will be able to empathize with these characters. Since Chbosky wrote and directed his own work, he was able to present this in his total vision. The writing is sharp and witty, and the dialogue is delivered perfectly by an undeniably strong cast of up-and-coming talent.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower [2011]

Folks, keep an eye on the trio of Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller. These three have fantastic chemistry together in this film, and as individual performances, all of them impress. It’s great to see Watson step out after the Harry Potter series, and Miller builds upon his fantastic take as the demonic Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin. But best of all — and most surprising — is Lerman in the lead role. I haven’t seen any of his recent work, but he is most impressive in showing Charlie slowly coming out of his shell while still maintaining his emotional scars.

My only problems with the film are minor ones. As a high school coming-of-age story, it does rely a bit too much on familiar tropes of the genre (i.e. being cool for liking bands like The Smiths and showing a love of foreign film). There is also one moment that I still can’t wrap my head around. David Bowie’s song “Heroes” plays an integral part of the film, and the characters are all clueless when they hear this song on the radio. How can a group of kids that are so in tune with “underground” music not know one of David Bowie’s biggest hits? Given the importance of the song to plot development, it seems a bit puzzling as to its selection.

Still, small issues aside, I quite enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and I suspect that most will as well. I have never read the novel, but now I would like to, and that doesn’t happen often for me.

8/10