Categories
5 Stars Movies

City Lights (1931)

In the 1910s, the world was introduced to Chaplin’s tramp, who would go on to be possibly the first recognizable character the film world ever knew.

Starring in numerous amounts of shorts, Chaplin later made full length movies with his famous mustached character: So famous, even Adolf Hitler (who was only four days younger than Chaplin) was said to have based his mustache off of the tramp.

Categories
5 Stars Movies

The Searchers (1956)

At the 92nd Academy Awards, when Bong Joon Ho was accepting his Oscar for Best Director (for Parasite), he paid tributes to each of his fellow nominees. The first (and most memorable) was toward Martin Scorsese, which prompted an unexpected standing ovation. It was clear that Bong Joon Ho was paying tribute to a mentor.

In the filming industry, perhaps no other career is more vocal of paying tribute to mentors than that of a director. Most (if not all) have stated they have been in total admiration of a certain director that came before them, often rewatching their films almost to a degree of pure obsession. Certain names come to mind: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Welles, Kurosawa, Spielberg, Scorsese, Eastwood, Coppola, Lucas, Tarantino, and Spike Lee, to name a few. However, all the big named directors seem to have one person they all agree on that had influenced their career. That name is John Ford. Famously, when Orson Welles was asked the directors he admired most, he said, “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”

The winner of four Best Director awards (not including two others for short films) and the first winner of the AFI lifetime achievement awards, directors around the world are in some way, shape, and form in debt to Ford. He is most associated with the western. When we envision the old west, it is most likely seen the way Ford saw it. A time long ago, a relic. In a way, it is a way we sometimes look at the bible.

Though I am still in the mist of seeing as many of his films as I can (he made over a hundred, so I got a way to go), The Searchers is more than likely his most well known, and certainty the most studied. David Lean watched it to prepare for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and even a popular song from Buddy Holly was inspired by one of the film’s lines.

 Set in Texas, 1868, the door opens to the great outdoors of the west, as a returning Civil War Veteran visits his sister’s family. The man is Ethan Edwards (John Wayne, in perhaps his best role). He is tired and worn (as his face clearly shows), and wants nothing more than to take it easy. We learn his one main character trait: he is clearly racist. Not towards African Americans, but American Indians (mainly the Comanche).

Soon enough, the Comanche arrive, and kidnap his niece Debbie. He sets out to find her, only to realize that those accompanying him (especially the Reverend, played by the great character actor Ward Bond) are slowing him down. The only one truly able to stick his own with Ethan is Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), Debbie’s adopted brother, who Ethan is not fond of at all (Martin is part Indian). Undoubtedly, Ethan is not someone to mess with. There is a moment in the movie where he sees trouble, and just whips his gun out of the cover. That is one small moment when you realize that making this man mad is a death sentence.

Set just after the Civil War, first time viewers may find it strange to know that the quest for Debby indeed takes time. Five years in fact. This is shown in small touches, such as when Martin’s love interest Laurie (Vera Miles) is told she has been written by Martin. Not just one letter, but two letters in one year. It takes so much time that when Debbie is finally seen, she is no longer played by Lana Wood, but her older (and more popular) sister, Natalie Wood. Looking back, you realize that character development sometimes takes a while. How often have we heard (or experienced) times where God works on our character for months or even years?

In my view, there is a certain unique delicacy in a John Ford film. Each time you see how the camera is placed, you realize it could not be placed anywhere else. The shots can be put on pause, and you could study each one like you would a famous painting. In short, Ford was what all directors strive to be from the beginning: an artist.

While some directors are known for reshooting scenes until they are satisfied (most notably Stanley Kubrick), Ford was not one of them. He was a fan of getting the scene done on the first take (nowadays, this is especially attributed to Clint Eastwood, who has also stated his admiration of John Ford). Perhaps it was because he wanted the first impulse of the actor saying the line to be filmed, or because he was (reportedly) not a fan of dialogue, it is hard to say. The stories I have heard of working with him are, well, interesting, to say the least. The only person who seemed able to stand up to Ford was Katharine Hepurn (whom he became romantic with for a time). Regardless, the overall outcome seemed to work.

Even the comedy of the film is effective. For one reason or another, a vast majority of them involve the character of Martin: Just in the wrong place at the wrong time. My favorite is a fight scene between him and another man trying to win the affections of Laurie. The scene is not as over the top as the fight scene in Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), but it still should make you feel unexpected uproars of laughter. The same can also be said of an very unwanted battle wound for the Ward Bond character in a very unfortunate place. How did he get that wound? If you have to ask, you were not paying attention.

Parents, I am all for kids getting a head start on old classics (especially westerns). Still, it should be noted that the racism of the film is apparent (although what the Comanche do is indeed reprehensible). Still, the film has maybe two or three minor swears, so middle school and up would be fine.

There are certain movies which are blessed to have a great opening shot, or a great closing one. Very few have both, especially when they compliment each other by being virtually the same, like bookends. Just some that come to mind include Saving Private Ryan (1998) with the American Flag, 1917 (2019) with a soldier resting under a tree, and Parasite (2019) looking out the window into the street. Then there is The Searchers. After characters have returned, there is only Ethan Edwards left in the doorway. While others have entered, he stands alone, isolated. As he walks away, the door closes on him. Closes on the story. Closes on the old west. Lost to history.

Thankfully, never forgotten.

If it were, well…that’ll be the day.

Overall:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Categories
5 Stars Movies

Contagion (2011)

Around the age of 11, I was sitting at a cluster of desks in my fifth grade class when two of my classmates (Mary and Kelly) were talking about something. They both were holding a colored bottle of liquid. I asked what it was. It was some form of scented hand sanitizer. Since I was such a victim of peer pressure, I went home and told my mom about this new “fad”. We eventually had a lemon scented bottle in our down stairs bathroom that seemed to last until some point when I was in High School.

That flashback down memory lane is not to say that I am a germaphobe or anything, but that recollection has been coming up the past week or so. With all the talk about the Corona virus, my mind also turned back to the 2011 film Contagion. To say that re watching it was unsettling is a gross understatement. Still, that does not make the film any less effective. The film starts off in the most unsettling of ways: a pitch black screen with someone coughing. We then see Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), as well as a caption that reads “Day 2”. It is soon discovered that a mysterious virus has developed, and is killing rather quickly. On top of that, it is spreading even faster. The movie quickly shows that there is no point of view: We are watching the situation escalate as outsiders.

Oscar winning director Steven Soderbergh is known for movies with A list casts ( Traffic, the Ocean‘s films, and the under seen gem Logan Lucky). Contagion is no different. Along with Paltrow, the film also has Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Bryan Cranston, Jude Law, Elliot Gould, Jennifer Ehle, and John Hawkes, among others.

Each person seems to play their role with ease. Fishburne is calm and sincere as Dr. Cheever, the head of the CDC. The same demeanor can be said of Jennifer Ehle’s portrayal as one of Cheever’s head researchers. Jude Law shines as blogger Alan Krumwiede (who is told “blogging is not journalism”) trying to find the real conspiracy.

Then there is Matt Damon as Mitch, the every man just trying to protect his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron). Damon’s character is the only one we see who is immune to the disease (which I hypothesize would make Jimmy Kimmel not like this film). Even when he notices his daughter just wants to be with her boyfriend Andrew. You could tell that, if the world were not where it was, he would be supportive of the two dating.

One of the best things of the film is that it takes no stance (though certain characters do). There is a great scene when Cheever is being interviewed, and Krumwiede is brought in to debate him. We have both seen what has happened to this characters so far, and feel for both of them, making it all the more difficult to pick sides. We never get the point of view of the president. We are only informed that the president was moved underground. When I first saw the film, I pictured Obama. Now, I pictured Trump. That says a lot to how authentic a film feels.

Speaking of authenticity, the little touches of the film are pitch perfect: The zooming in of surfaces being touched by hands, certain characters processing horrible information, etc.

Normally, I would chastise a movie rating for being too conservative, but not for Contagion. This is a hard PG-13 rating. There is cussing (which seems to be the main factor for the MPAA), including one F bomb, but only mild talk about sex. The thematic material, however, is through the roof. We get one scene when a victim of the disease is getting their scalp removed. While we don’t see the brain (which makes it more creepy), we see the scalp flap over the dead person’s open eyes. So yeah, not a movie for kids.

As for the ending, the last thing we see is the caption “Day one”, which shows how the disease began. Even before the current state of our world, this ending was one of the most unsettling and scary in recent memory.

As someone who knows very little about the area of medicine (science was my worst subject), there are little comparisons I can make with this film and the Corona Virus (though washing your hands is definitely something I would strongly recommend). What does seem evident is that the virus of the film is (thankfully) more severe than that of the current one we face.

The other evidence is clearly in the film’s tagline:

“Nothing Spreads like Fear”

To fear something is normal. It’s how we react that is different . Whether it is remain calm and collected or to overreact (I understand wanting to buy hand sanitizer, but toilet paper?), we all cope with fear in different ways. Panic will happen in some degree, but I can’t think of when that is the answer. The same is depicted in this film.

Overall:

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Categories
2 1/2 Stars Movies

Onward (2020)

Coming up this November will be the quarter century mark of the release of Toy Story (1995), which was the birth of Disney/Pixar (though Pixar had done some of the animated shorts beforehand). Having seen all but two of their full length films (2015’s The Good Dinosaur and 2017’s Cars 3 got past my radar), the quality of the films of Disney/Pixar have nearly always been able to exceed all expectations, despite how high they may have been. With very few “duds” to their credit (most of the non-Toy Story sequels and Brave), the combined duo shows no sign of stopping, even if they make films of lesser quality. Which, sadly, brings us to Onward.

The brief history of magical creatures states that magic has been nearly lost and almost forgotten. While magic once thrived, scientific discovery had replaced it. Still, there are a few who still believe it exists, mainly the over eager Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt). After the death of his magic loving dad (because this is Disney, so the one parent rule is almost always in effect), he tries his darndest to be somewhat of an influence to his younger teenage brother Ian (Tom Holland).

As the film begins on his 16th birthday, the somewhat introverted Ian tries to stay somewhat distant from his much more extroverted older brother. That is, until his mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in her second Disney/Pixar film since A Bug’s Life) reveals a present to be given to both her sons when they turned sixteen. It is a staff, which will be able to bring there dad back (with the help of a rare phoenix stone their dad gave them as well) for one day. Unfortunately, trouble with the spell brews (pun intended?), and only the legs of their dad appear. They must then set forth on a quest to find another phoenix stone if they wish to see their whole dad before the 24 hour spell is over. Along the way in his (somewhat) trusty van Gwinivere, Barley passes on his knowledge of magic to his brother (who we discover is the one with magical abilities).

Compared to other films in the Pixar canon, there seems to be fewer supporting characters that stick out. The ones that do include a manticore (Octavia Spencer), Laurel’s new boyfriend cop, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), and some hard headed (and often funny) motorcycle pixies. And yes, we still get the Disney/Pixar treasured voice of John Ratzenberger, but it was so brief I admit I missed it.

There is also one (very minor) character, Officer Spector (Lena Waithe), who is officially the first openly gay character in a Disney/Pixar film. Sadly, this is more politicized than memorable. If you are going to include a homosexual character (in general, not just in animation), make it needed in the story itself. If Spector had not mentioned she was gay (though she does not use those exact words), I doubt it would make any difference to the outcome of the film.

The idea of being able to spend time with a dead loved one is indeed moving, but the way they established it seems just…awkward. I can understand the filmmakers wanting to add a twist of some kind, but just the legs? Yes, they find a way to communicate (somewhat) with them, but it just seems not as original or daring an idea that would expect from the studio.

Speaking of originality, when Disney/Pixar is at the top of their game, they give us worlds of endless possibilities. They have created countless universes with toys, bugs, monsters, cars, superheroes (even before the MCU), robots, emotions (!), and rats in the kitchen. Very few studios can say they have done something like that (save for Studio Ghibli).

That said, the universe of the creatures of Onward seems like it is from the minor leagues. Through out the film, I seriously had to remind myself I was watching a Disney/Pixar film, and not something from a lesser quality studio (I won’t name examples, but even the heads of other studios have to admit they have to almost always compete with Disney/Pixar).

Parents, the film is okay for kids provided you plan to have a conversation about the lesbian character, but I do admit I think the humor for the adults will be harder to find than it was in other Disney/Pixar films.

The deeper issues with being able to talk to a deceased family member did hit me at times (having lost my own dad a little less than a decade ago), but not as much as it could have. Consider the other great touching moments in the history of Disney/Pixar: Andy saying goodbye to his toys, WALL-E not recognizing EVE, Boo realizing (at the time) she won’t see Sully again, Miguel singing to Coco, the goodbye at the end of Toy Story 4, and, of course, the first ten minutes of Up. I would argue these (as well as moments which would produce “happy tears”) are groundbreaking moments for a child’s life as a movie goer (and some adults as well).

Disney/Pixar will, I am confident, still produce classics in the years to come (they have another film this year called Soul, which does look promising), but they need to remember to go Onward before going upward.

Overall:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.