Sunday, September 14, 2014

#767. 200th anniversary of "The Star-Spangled Banner"

Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) was a guest aboard the HMS Tonnant (yes, a British ship) when the bombardment of Fort McHenry began on September 13th, 1814.  The rest is history.  He composed "The Star-Spangled Banner," which became the national anthem in 1931, the next morning.  It's the defining moment of the otherwise forgotten War of 1812, a conflict I've come to study (in a strictly amateur fashion) over the years and admire as one of the defining formative moments of America's past.  It was a deeply unpopular war (although I struggle with finding popular ones) and as such probably did James Madison a lot of harm despite an otherwise stellar legacy (Father of the Constitution).  Key was a man of his time, a lawyer and proponent of slavery (yeah, kind of sucks) and so while building a significant legacy of his own was also part of an ignominious one that was hotly debated in his day and years away from being addressed directly.  They were days that pushed the country toward Civil War.  But for one brief moment, the survival of a flag was cause for immeasurable pride, relief, joy.  Other than the raising of another one during WWII, Old Glory has no more defining moment, one many Americans take for granted today, a song they find hard to appreciate, but it's some of the truest poetry we've ever produced.  To wit, the famous first stanza:

O say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Friday, September 12, 2014

#766. Mock Squid Soup: Burn After Reading

The second meeting of Mock Squid Soup, which oddly enough originates from a dude named Mock and another dude named Squid, is exploring the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading, released in 2008.
via Stand By for Mind Control

The Coen Brothers, otherwise known as Joel and Ethan Coen, have been making some of the quirkiest movies of the past thirty years (beginning with 1984's Blood Simple).  I'm sadly lacking in some of the essentials (Fargo, Miller's Crossing, The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, Raising Arizona), but I've been a die hard fan since the release of 2000's brilliant O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which conveniently enough for my personal tastes is a pastiche on The Odyssey).  My dad is a big fan of John Wayne, so I saw the original True Grit when I was a kid, but I love the Coen version more.  No Country For Old Men is a movie I actually made a personal holiday out of catching when it was in theaters, and while I appreciate it a great deal, it's one of those movies I really need to see again, because like everyone else my enduring memory of it remains Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh ("Call it, friend-o"), even though it was the culmination of a hot streak for the perennially underrated Josh Brolin I very much appreciated at the time.  And I love Tom Hanks in The Ladykillers.  One of his many classic performances.

But getting back to Burn After Reading, and why I selected an image of J.K. Simmons, I'm actually realizing for the first time in a while (because it's been a while since I saw it), that the image I want is actually probably John Malkovich:
via Cinematic Thoughts
I'm now pretty sure it's Malkovich who repeatedly utters a phrase...I cannot share on a family-friendly blog.  It contains the word "morons," and another word that ends with "king" but certainly does not begin royally.  I remember the phrase if not exactly who utters it (I'm pretty sure Malkovich now!) because I subsequently adopted it as my foul-mouthed oath to the world.  I have issues.  I indeed think a lot of people are "[...]king morons."  

Judge me.  But that's the major reason I love Burn After Reading.  For me, it's about as accurate a movie as I've ever seen about how the world really works, when there really are no competent people around and everyone's flaws are magnified into their dominant personality traits.  (I can be cynical.)

I know, I know, it's terrible.  But c'mon!  Okay, so maybe you don't relate.

I also love it because Brad Pitt is running around in an overtly comedic performance.  This was before Inglourious Basterds, which for me instantly became one of his defining performances.  (Great movie.  Tarantino found his perfect muse at last in Christoph Waltz.)

Speaking of perfect muses, other than Jeff Bridges, do the Coens have a better or more consistent one than George Clooney?  He's in the mix here, too.  I love Clooney, have ever since I saw him in ER.  I don't know why it took so long for everyone to admit the guy has charisma to spare, but at least it finally happened, and he landed in a perfect groove to exploit it.  I make no qualms about saying so.  Clooney exploits his charisma, sometimes for some truly dramatic performances (Syriana, Up in the Air, Three Kings), sometimes just being Old Hollywood goofy.  I think he's less consistently successful with wide audiences, not to mention critics, because he's so sure of his own skills.  It's not that he can't disappear into a part, but his movie career came about only after everyone discovered Clooney could be a star.  It wasn't a role, other than a few seasons on a TV show, that made him.  It was pretty much Clooney himself.  He's what Hollywood stars used to be, but stopped being decades ago.  Which come to think of it probably explains his whole career.

But getting back to Simmons, I love that his career finally became a thing, and it's the major development I take away from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies, where Simmons played the blustery J. Jonah Jameson, the one cartoon performance that's been completely owned in a comic book movie to date.  He's been consistently great ever since, and like Clooney all he has to do is do his thing.  Great in Juno (but everyone's great in that one).  Great in those All-State commercials.  Even if he isn't the one to...utter the phrase, he's still a great reason to watch this movie.

Maybe I've already spoiled the movie and perhaps even your opinion of me with some of the things I've said here today (but were they really surprises?), I don't know.  Just watch the movie.  Watch more Coens movies.  Watch more Clooney movies.  Watch movies.  They have weird ways of explaining the world around us.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


thirteen years:
perhaps an 
       unlucky number;
but these are
       unlucky times,
although saying so now
makes me wonder
if there are
       lucky times

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

#764. Three Underrated Best Picture Winners

Today, as the title suggests, I'll be talking about three underrated Best Picture winners from the annual Academy Awards celebration.  Specifically, Forrest Gump, Shakespeare in Love, and Gladiator.

Movie: Forrest Gump
Year it won the Oscar: 1995
Movies it beat out: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, The Shawshank Redemption
The argument: Now, I want to make it clear that I'm a big fan of both Pulp Fiction (a big fan of Quentin Tarantino in general) and Shawshank (other than critics, who isn't?).  But I unabashedly love Forrest Gump.  A huge popular hit when it was released in 1994, this adaptation of the Winston Groom book gave Tom Hanks his second Best Actor honor in as many years following Philadelphia.  Yet over time, its reputation has dimmed.  It became known as the movie that sees a character randomly weave his way through U.S. history, less "Life is like a box of choc-lates" and more..."Will you stop with the shrimp recipes already???"  For me, the more I've thought about it, the more Forrest Gump is so obviously more than just about the title character or his experiences.  I always loved Gary Sinise's Lieutenant Dan.  Probably more than Gump.  I loved Robin Wright's haunted Jenny.  I loved Mykelti Williamson's Bubba (the dead partner in Bubba Gump).  Sally Field is in there as Gump's momma.  Haley Joel Osment's first major role was at the end of the movie as Forrest Gump, Jr.

And you know what?  I think there's a secret message behind the whole thing.  Maybe I'm an idiot and am just now figuring this out for myself, but Forrest Gump isn't just a mentally challenged guy running (something literally) around the country and across the decades.  He is the country.  He's our idea of ourselves, something pure that manages to remain even in the midst of bitter tragedy.  Jenny and Lieutenant Dan are the characters who face the worst and are sometimes the worse for it, but Gump keeps intersecting in their lives even as they keep fighting to push him away.  The country grows darker, but Gump remains the same, the lives of those who cherishes grow darker, and for a moment, even Gump wonders if it's all worth it.  But then his resumes his life.  "You never know what you're gonna get."

The Academy typically awards its Best Picture honors to a movie it thinks represents a snapshot of the world, either as it is now or as it was or even sometimes as the movies themselves have viewed it.  Is there a better movie in that group of nominees to fit that model?  I think not.  There are two incredibly strong contenders, but when it comes down to it, Forrest Gump is a more profound statement, and in fact understatement.  This selection was definitely right.

The movie: Shakespeare in Love
Year it won the Oscar: 1999
Movies it beat out: Elizabeth, Life Is BeautifulSaving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line
The argument: Out of those alternate possibilities, I've only ever not seen Life Is Beautiful, the Holocaust movie that propelled a joyous Best Actor winner Roberto Benigni to literally dance over the seats at the ceremony.  And I love the rest of them.  Love them.  The big argument and indeed outrage was that Saving Private Ryan deserved the win that year.  It was another WWII movie, highlighted by the stunning depiction of D-Day in its opening act.  Shakespeare in Love seemed so incredibly weightless in comparison.  So why even consider taking its win seriously?

Because in the end, it is a love letter to the man in the title, the Bard, William Shakespeare.  Modern letters practically owe their existence to Shakespeare.  Even if you're one of the legions of former students who considered it torture to sit through one of his plays while in school, you have to acknowledge his mastery of the English language.  There was never anyone else and there hasn't been anyone since who has even come close.  And this says nothing of his perfect grasp of the human condition, from all angles.  So what does Shakespeare in Love have to say about it?  Does it even breach the question of authorship, whether Shakespeare even exists?  Of course not.  It doesn't have to.  It tackles the idea of a young man of the theater trying to come up with a masterpiece and apparently failing miserably.

I love the scene where Ben Affleck as a pompous leading actor demands, "Where is the play and what is my part?"  It's such a minor role, but it was the first time I loved Affleck.  I took that moment through the times even I questioned Affleck, the same as everyone else.  Gwyneth Paltrow won her Best Actress award as the woman who pretends to be a man, and inspires the young Shakespeare.  Sometimes it seems easy to despise how easy Paltrow has it, how much she takes her charmed life for granted, how she spins everything so annoyingly positive.  But then there are things like her effortless performance in this movie.  And poor Joseph Fiennes, forever in the shadow of his big brother Ralph, except this one perfect moment.

A love letter to Shakespeare.  Perhaps too bold an undertaking.  But it's something we owe him as a culture.  And when it happens, and happens so sweetly, it's worth acknowledging, I think.

The movie: Gladiator
Year it won the Oscar: 2001
Movies it beat out: ChocolatCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Erin Brokovich; Traffic
The argument: I'll admit, I love both director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe.  I think the whole argument against Gladiator rests on the fact that it's another historical epic, just a few years after Braveheart, to win Best Picture, and by comparison, or at least at the time, it just seemed to have less to love.  I think that distinction has muddled over the years, the less people love Mel Gibson.  Crowe himself engendered a lot of negative press following Gladiator (interestingly, the movie he starred in next, A Beautiful Mind, also won Best Picture; the dude was on a roll!), and has struggled to overcome that reputation for years.  I think he's turning the corner finally.  Maybe people will acknowledge Gladiator next?

Because it's brainy stuff.  I happen to favor that myself, so I never really got how people generally dismissed it as mindless entertainment.  Mostly, I guess, because the eponymous games back in ancient Rome were exactly that, and it became easy to reduce the movie only to those aspects.  Crowe' Maximus was a man driven by principle.  The later 300, and Gerard Butler's transformation into a near-parody of Maximus, might be said to represent everything that Gladiator became dismissed as.

Yet it's the discussions between Crowe and Richard Harris that I cherish, or the chilling menace Joaquin Phoenix brings to Commodus.  Interestingly, even the movie's use of computer wizardry came to be seen as one of its drawbacks, how Oliver Reed was digitally resurrected.  We marvel at modern technology while we secretly abhor it.  I don't know.  It's a wonder of the age.

I liked its competition, too, by the way.  Haven't seen Chocolat, but there others I vouch for, the same as the contenders for the other films.  But Gladiator soars on its simple ambition and indeed spectacle, which comes from all corners of its film-making.

No, these are movies I love, and will always defend.  They're worth defending, championing.  They won the Oscars, so other people thought so, too, at least at one point.  But their appeal endures.  They echo, in fact, in eternity.  I heard that somewhere...

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

#763. Pan the Man, off to an awfully big adventure

Rest in peace, Robin Williams.

In a lot of ways, his defining role was the adult Peter Pan in Hook.  I always loved this movie.  Rewatching it today had the effect of helping me realize something important not just about the movie, but J.M. Barrie's creation in general, that lost little boys and pirates are very much the same except: the ability to embrace happiness and family (which may be one and the same).  You may or may not know how Williams struggled in recent years with a divorce that gutted the financial legacy of a career that was sadly in decline.  He was a man who embodied joy in his best moments, but knew pain as well as any clown.  In the end, it seems his demons won out.  He is not a cautionary tale, though, but a model we can only hope to improve upon.  Hence Peter Pan.  Hence learning what he tried to teach, to live.  The little boy who didn't want to grow up, and succeeded in that aim for an awfully long time.
via G8ors

I haven't seen all of Williams' films.  I haven't seen Good Morning, Vietnam, haven't seen The Birdcage.  I loved everything I ever saw him in, though.  I loved Dead Poets Society (who doesn't?).  I loved Awakenings.  I loved The Fisher King.  I loved Aladdin.  I loved Mrs. Doubtfire.  I loved Flubber.  I loved Good Will Hunting.  I loved Patch Adams.  I loved Bicentennial Man.  I loved Insomnia.  I loved One Hour Photo.  I loved Happy Feet.  I loved License to Wed.  His cameos in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and A.I. Artificial Intelligence were crucial additions to brilliant films.  What Dreams May Come will perhaps one day be discovered for the great work of art it is.

The real tragedy is that he became so easy to take for granted.  He was a treasure, truly one of a kind.  He seemed to have boundless energy.  In his dark roles he was dark indeed.  Many of his roles, even his comedic ones, seemed tinged with darkness.  But his smile was infectious, a face born to smile.  If he never told a joke he'd probably still light up a room.  I have no idea why critics found it increasingly easy to dismiss him.  I have no idea why they hated Patch Adams so much.  That was his last big hit, too.  He was last seen on television in the midst of a comeback in The Crazy Ones.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

#762. Marvel has a 2014 Grand Slam

I really wouldn't have imagined this as possible, but movies adapted from Marvel comic books turned out to be incredibly reliable entertainment this year.

First there was Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  I liked the first one, too, and so that wasn't too surprising.  Then there was The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which I liked better than the first one. Then X-Men: Days of the Future Past, which I liked better than First Class.

And now Guardians of the Galaxy.  I had great trepidation for this one.  Unlike the previous three movies, it looked like it was going to be kind of a joke, which is why I don't tend to like Marvel movies as much as other people.  ("Kind of a joke" in that it tends to not take itself very seriously.)  As it turns out, this is probably the new poster child of a Marvel movie not only having a lot of fun, but also having a good story and having some real emotional investment in its characters.  Sorry, Spidey.
via What Culture
Unlike The Avengers, there's a good reason all these random characters end up joining forces.  It's not just that they're a bunch of misfits and hey! could make a pretty good team and/or need to overcome something that is bigger than any one of them.  They're all on individual journeys, and even when they don't realize they're headed in the same direction, they are.

Yeah, even Rocket.

So anyway, I really liked it.  It's kind of like Princess Bride without all the declarations of love disguised under the phrase "As you wish."  It's kind of Star Wars from the point of view of a kid who's really obsessed with Han Solo (Peter Quill is Han, Rocket is kind of Han, but also kind of Chewie, as are Groot and Drax).  It's even, for me personally, kind of Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda.

If it was only the one film, I actually think this would be an even better experience.  If they knock it out of the park with the next one, it could legitimately be the best thing to ever come from Marvel.  As it is, in a tough Marvel crowd this year, Guardians of the Galaxy stands out.  It might even be my favorite of the four.

Friday, August 08, 2014

#761. Mock Squid Soup: Stand by Me

Coming at us from Mock and Squid is a monthly movies bloghop, Mock Squid Soup.  The inaugural meeting concerns 1986's Stand by Me.

We're going to rewind a little before we reach the movie, however.  Stephen King's book Different Seasons was released in 1982.  The '80s were a boom decade for the Maine native.  This was the first time he consciously stepped away from the horror genre.  Clearly fans still found plenty to connect with, King's patented intimate viewpoint of humanity coming to the forefront of his storytelling for the first time.  The book was a collection of novellas that went on to great pedigree.  (Each of them are loosely associated with a season, so that's how the title came about.)  The first novella in the book is Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, which of course later became the movie The Shawshank Redemption; this is arguably King's best-received story to date.  The second is Apt Pupil, which also became a movie.  The fourth is The Breathing Method, which to date has not been adapted into cinema.  The third is The Body, which became Stand by Me.

Now, Stand by Me was a movie that for me originally was best known as the secret (or not-so-secret) origin of Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Wil Wheaton.  Later, it became, cruelly, perhaps the defining film of the late River Phoenix's career.  Rounding out an excellent ensemble were Cory Feldman and Jerry O'Connell as the other two lead boys as well as Kiefer Sutherland, John Cusack, and Richard Dreyfuss.
via Prime Movies
The irony of the movie is that the way the boys talk would become the pattern of geek talk, Internet speak.  The adventure itself is something that would become known as Spielbergian thanks to The Goonies from a year earlier (which was...directed by Richard Donner, with a script from Chris Columbus...based on a story from Spielberg), which for me actually means...Super 8, J.J. Abrams' 2011 movie.  Any fan of Stand by Me owes it to themselves to watch that one, too.

But I will round out this retrospective talking about River Phoenix.  The dude had obvious talent, from an early age.  He's this generation's James Dean.  Stand by Me remains his Rebel Without a Cause.  He made a few other movies, but none of them seem to have particularly stuck out in the same way.  The closest, and I'm always meaning to watch it, would be My Own Private Idaho.  The other one I've seen so far is The Thing Called Love, released in 1993, the same year he died.  It's about aspiring country music performers, and co-stars a young Sandra Bullock.  It may not be a classic but it's entertaining.  The lost movie Dark Blood was finally completed a few years back and released to the general public.  I want to see that, too.  It should be worth noting River's kid brother Joaquin turned out to be an exceptional talent, too.  You may know him best from Gladiator, but I'd recommend you catch Two Lovers.  He's received great acclaim in recent releases The Master and Her, and of course is perhaps best known for the notorious experiment known as I'm Still Here.  He also played Johnny Cash in Walk the Line.  I also recommend Buffalo Soldiers and Signs.
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