Thursday, March 29, 2012

Love in the Afternoon (1957)

Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon begins by immediately informing the viewer where we are: Paris, France. The camera pans out on a photo montage of the city, until we can view the actual city surrounding it. A French voice over, narrated by one of the film's main characters, Maurice Chevalier, tells us that Paris is not unlike any other major city in the world, except for two things, the first being that people eat better, and the second being that people make love -- not better -- but more often. Then, the film shows humorous shots of men and women kissing each other in different situations throughout the city, all in public.

No international city may be romanticized in film more than Paris. If it is the setting of the film, then you can almost guarantee that the movie will revolve around a love angle, and Love in the Afternoon is no exception. Billy Wilder, as usual, wrote, directed and produced the film. He was assisted in the screenplay by one of his common writing partners, I.A.L. Diamond, and the film is based off a short story by a French author named Claude Anet.

We meet Claude Chavasse, a private investigator portrayed by Chevalier, who is currently on the job, surveying an individual through binoculars from a rooftop, at the request of one of his clients. There is no better private eye in the city, Chavasse emphasizes throughout the film, and we quickly learn that he is smart and diligent, evidenced by the fact that he keeps all his previous records stowed away carefully in his drawers. However, he must keep a close eye not only on his subjects, but on his daughter, Ariane, played by Audrey Hepburn, who is ever so curious, and fascinated by her father's line of work.

She is young, and is spoiled by her father, who shelters her and tries his hardest to keep her separated from his work. But the harder he tries, the more curious she becomes. She's a musician, and is seen throughout the movie carrying around a large cello -- which is about twice her petite size -- but when she's not playing, she occupies her time by eavesdropping on her father's business conversations.

But the key is not to take everything too seriously; the mood and ambiance of Love in the Afternoon is light and airy. The slow, upbeat music that accompanies the film is almost meant to intoxicate you. The situations that arise in the film are comedic gold, thanks in large part to a witty and humorous script by Wilder and Diamond.

For instance, the first humorous situation happens when Chavasse reports his findings to "Monsieur X," (John McGiver) who hired him to find out whether his wife is cheating on him, which he suspects. After careful surveillance, Chavasse comes to the conclusion that she is indeed cheating on him with a rich American playboy named Frank Flanagan, portrayed by Gary Cooper. Upon informing Monsieur X of the news, he pulls out a gun, and says he is going to kill Flanagan. Chavasse, after an uninspired attempt to convince him otherwise, simply asks for his payment upfront, for if Monsieur X commits the deed, he would be in no position to make any transactions.

Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon.
Ariane, however, overhears the entire scheme, and beats Monsieur X to the hotel to give Flanagan a heads up. After very quick planning, the unfaithful wife departs from the building via the balcony, while Ariane poses as Flanagan's mistress. When Monsieur X breaks into the hotel room, gun in hand, he discovers that it is not indeed his wife, and that Chavasse must have gotten his information wrong.

We quickly discover that Flanagan is a huge womanizer, who travels from city to city on business meeting mistresses along the way. He is unmarried, and tells Ariane, "I think people should always behave as though they were between planes." He doesn't believe in love, and puts it poetically when he says, "He who loves and runs away, lives to love another day." Though Ariane may pretend that she's fine with it, the truth is, and everyone knows it, she's in love for the first time in her life.

The lightness of the film may be distorted somewhat by the drastic age difference between Hepburn and Cooper. Though their character's ages are never specified in the film, the two actors were 28 years apart when the film was made -- 28 and 56, respectively. But Wilder handles it delicately and tastefully, never showing much more in terms of flirtation between the two other than a romantic dance or an innocent kiss on the lips. The viewer is left to insinuate the rest. The subject arises once in the film, when Ariane states her distaste for young men, saying, "Actually I don't much care for young men. Never did. I find them conceited and clumsy, and very unimaginative." This is bad news for Ariane's friend and band partner, Michel (Von Doude), who is in love with Ariane, and though he may be a more acceptable beau age-wise, Ariane is oblivious to it.

While he's in Paris, Ariane only visits him in the afternoon, when she sneaks off following her band practice, so not to arouse suspicious from her protective father. While Flanagan does indeed fancy Ariane, he continually states that it is nothing serious, and Ariane combats his lack of commitment by pretending that she is also a heartbreaker, courting man after man, and inventing elaborate stories of these alleged men to make it seem more believable. In fact, Ariane doesn't even divulge her true name to Flanagan, who eventually continues on his travels, only to return a year later on business, but also to resume his courtship with Ariane.

The film, like most features around this time, handles women in a  misogynistic manner, almost like objects, but that notion is used mostly as a vehicle to convey the overlying messages of requited love and mutual respect. Cooper in his ripe age plays the part convincingly enough, more with his eloquence than anything else. Hepburn, meanwhile, is a doll, soft-spoken and graceful, and was no doubt in peak physical form when this movie was made.

The humor culminates when Flanagan hires Chavasse to investigate Ariane's true identity, and as a result, hires him to investigate his own daughter. But the film, age difference aside, is about experiencing your first love, and realizing the importance of it when you are the recipient. Though Ariane and Flanagan both enjoy each other's company, they are polar opposites in their ideas of love. Flanagan is just living "between planes," while Ariane is head-over-heels, hopelessly in love. Again, despite the noticeable age difference, there is indeed a nice chemistry between Hepburn and Cooper, making the film that much more enjoyable. Indeed, there are much worse ways to spend an afternoon.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pi (1998)

Academy Award-nominated Director Darren Aronofsky has made quite a name for himself in the business, with hits like Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler and most recently the Academy Award-nominated Black Swan (all of which he wrote as well).  He's exibited plenty of tendencies in this stretch that have no doubt conrtibuted to his success: a strong, often obsessive protagonist, elements of ambiguous psychological agita and Composer Clint Mansell's prevalent scores, to just name a few.  But every successful auteur has to make that initial splash; for Aronofsky that was his 1998 directorial debut, Pi.

Pi is the story of Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a number theorist who resides in New York and lives a private life couped up in his apartment turned computer lab, searching for mathematical patterns in seemingly chaotic data sets.  When we first meet Cohen, he's analyzing the stock market, looking for that elusive string of connections in daily price quotes that can lead to a mathematical predictability in Wall Street.  There's no financial motivation here, it's strictly a compulsory obsession, and an unhealthy one at that.

Fairly early on we are exposed to the "attacks" that Max is prone to, some kind of neurological seizure-like deal, possibly brought on by stress (of which he experiences no dearth) that begin with a tremor in his thumb.  From the onset of each attack that occurs in the film, Aronofsky takes us through a series of staccato shots, ranging from Max throwing back pills, a usually graphic hallucination (a pulsing brain in a bathroom sink; an ant infestation) and his coming to in an undesirable location (a bathroom floor or the F-train at its final stop in Coney Island) with the remnants of a nose bleed.

Aside from a couple neighbors making daily cameos in his life, Max's only acquaintance is Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis), an elderly ex-numerologist who claims his obsessive research on the irrational number π is what gave him a stroke forcing him to quit.  The two play the ancient Chinese board game Go - heavily math-based - and discuss Max's progress in his attempts to patternize the world around him.  Robeson often voices the futility of it all and advises Max to take a "break", but this usually brings out his angry and defensive side in response.
Max Cohen, played by Sean Gullette, busy in his lab.

There are two additional and competing forces as well in Max's life.  One is a partner of a reputable Wall Street firm, Marcy Dawson (Pamela Hart), who has seemingly placed Max under surveillance and is constantly soliciting and harassing him in hopes of enlisting his services.  The other is Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), a Hasidic Jew who bumps into Max randomly at a coffee shop and overzealously engages in conversation about numerology.  We later learn that Lenny is part of a cult of Hasidim who are after Max's ability to ascertain the 216-digit number which pertains to the name of God.  It's this same number that Marcy feels will help her conquer the stock market.  This very same 216-digit number is what Sol had told Max he'd come across in his research, unrelentingly resulting in a computer crash, but not before the computer achieves some kind of self-conscience.

The film is shot in black and white and on a rough and grainy Super 16mm.  Aside from obvious financial reasons (the film was shot on a $60,000 budget), the generally smaller camera used for 16mm enabled Aronofsky to get the close up shots he'd need in Max's cramped apartment space.  The grainy texture mixed with greyscale contributes nicely to the uncomfortable non-linear sequences that add to the psychological tension during Max's many breakdowns and fits of paranoia.  Many scenes were filmed on location in the MTA Subway System, where the rough definition of greyscale aided wondrously in pervading a kind of gloomy madness during the most ambiguous psychological episodes.

Given its humble production, its loose transitions and its story's thematic eccentricities, Pi had every right to fail.  Thanks to Aronofsky, the cast and the crew, the film makes for a great psychological flick.  Many will call to mind David Lynch's revered Eraserhead which surely bares similarities in its alternative flair.  Pi, however, sticks to a more discernable plotline while intermittently spooking audiences with the fruits of Max's madness.  Gullette does a spectacular job in comitting to this troubled, one dimensional character, while Mansell's electronic score and many computerized sound effects thread together and add drive to scenes all while inviting viewers to experience bits of mania for themselves.
Darren Aronofksy, second from right, on the set of Pi.

In the film's culmination and final scene, Aronofsky leaves plenty of room for interpretation.  The film clearly wants for us to decide some things on our own, not the least of which pertains to how far one should go in the pursuit of a goal.  Throughout Pi we hear Max voice over why he began to search for meaning via numbers, and repeat his three formalized objectives, like a mantra.  It's in this way that we know when the camera points at some leaves trembling in the wind, or the spiraling tentacles of a packet of cream poured into coffee, that Max is looking for mathematical order in these shapes and that without his answer, they only provide a teeming anxiety that's becoming more and more unmanageable for him.  When is enough enough?  At what level of sacrifice in the quality of one's life must an individual put aside an obsession that defines him?  For Max, the answer to these questions pose just as unattainable as the problem's solution itself.

--Review by TheManDorf

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012) *Review 2*

In September of 2008, the first book of The Hunger Games trilogy, called The Hunger Games, was released by Scholastic.  Written by Suzanne Collins, it was geared for young adults, the same niche of readers who have propelled the Twilight series (and its movies) to such astronomical success.  As was the case with Stephanie Meyer's series, The Hunger Games transgressed both age and gender groups, appealing to seemingly everyone who picked it up.  And now, on the conclusion of its film adaptation's colossal weekend at the box office (earning an estimated $155 million and setting all kinds of records) fans of the books are talking about one thing: how did the movie hold up?

From the midnight Thursday shows to the Sunday estimates still coming in, two kinds of moviegoers entered theaters: those who have read the books and those who have not.  And that is the first obstacle any adaptation faces.  How does director and writer Gary Ross (Collins helped co-write the final draft of the script as well) satisfy the cults of fanatics who make it their business to know every detail of Collins's dystopia (the kinds who make take it upon themselves to map out the futuristic rendition of Panem) while simultaneously introducing it to newly invested others?  The answer, of course, is to reach some kind of idealistic medium between staying true to the books wherever possible and reworking one writer's work into a based-off but stand alone cinematic one.  Easier said the done.

Ross wisely chose to precede all footage with some introductory text about Panem, an oligarchical near-military state that is what the United States has become, and the Hunger Games, a free for all to the death between 12-18 year olds, two picked (one male, one female) from each of the 12 districts that make up Panem.  This lovely system, we learn, has been put in place by the Capitol (the governing center of Panem situated in today's Colorado) to remind all the Districts the danger of rebellion and anarchy.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen
The first quarter of the film takes place in District 12, a coal-mining district which lacks in just about everything else, especially food.  There are plenty of shots of impoverished citizens and families in squalor for audiences to understand the generally grey-stricken gloom which lies heavily upon the folk of District 12.  It's here that we're introduced to the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), an earnest sixteen-year old who illegally hunts game in the fenced-off woods to provide for her dazed mother (Paula Malcomson) and little sister, Primose Everdeen (Willow Shields).  Katniss is especially protective of Primrose, so it comes as no surprise that when her little sister is selected as the female "tribute" in her first year of eligibility to participate in the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers in her place.  This scene is one of several in the film that so deftly connect viewers to the helpless plight of citizens of Panem, and furthermore those selected for the Hunger Games.  To the credit of Gary Ross, you will not only feel but identify with the frustration and anger that is pent up behind Lawrence's stoic personage.

Along with District 12's male tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss begins her journey on a train to the Capitol where she becomes acquainted with Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a sort of dolled up representative-escort, and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the only ever Hunger Games champion to come out of District 12 who is tasked with the advisor/trainer role for the tributes.  These two members of Katniss's and Peeta's entourage provide a sort of balance in that Effie is ostensibly of the Capitol's crop in terms of her unquestioning attitude and support toward the Hunger Games, while Haymitch presents himself as a disaffected drunk, never buying into the glamour of the Games.

As the luxurious train ride there was something Katniss could only have imagined, the Capitol itself is absolutely beyond all comprehension given her humble origin.  It comes across as a complete antithesis of District 12, bursting with colors, waterfalls, loopy architecture and wonderful technological innovations.  Its people at all times flourish the streets and are simply entranced with either themselves, their surroundings or probably both.  In other words, Katniss has found herself in the desirable eye of the dystopian storm.

It is here Katniss undergoes her preparation for the Games.  She is immediately introduced to her fashion advisor, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), who is vital to her making a splash in the many pre-Games ceremonies and earning a devoted following, something that Haymitch describes as of the utmost importance to her survival.  In the book, Katniss forms a unique connection to Cinna.  As we are a fly on the wall to her inner monologue, we know she constantly remains skeptical to those around her, almost never opening up.  With Cinna it is different.  She feels a certain empathy resound within him and in turn comes as close to trusting him as any other character in the book.  From the dualistic standpoint of reader and moviegoer, the lack of development here was disappointing.  First and foremost I took issue with the casting of Kravitz who could not have been more stonefaced in his role.  It seems almost likely that this may in fact be the reason their relationship comes across so rushed - perhaps the Kravitz portrayal of Cinna in these crucial scenes was so devoid of efficacy that an executive decision was made to only give viewers the opportunity to witness them by way of the DVD menu.  For the non-reader moviegoer, I should think that their relationship comes across as almost arbitrary: it beginning with Cinna bursting onto the scene, Katniss uncharacteristically latching on to him, and then their melodramatic departure when she leaves for the Games.

On the opposite end of the Thespian scale was seasoned actor Stanley Tucci's portrayal of Caesar Flickerman, the television celebrity-personality host of the Hunger Games.  The character serves as the true archetype of Capitol citizenry.  While not without human emotion and courtesy (he'll engage a tribute and shatter their nerves during an interview) he just as willingly sanctifies the Games and all of its atrocities by endorsing its entertainment always, and providing analysis throughout with horrifying insensitivity.  This paradoxical clash of human nature is executed to perfection by Tucci.  Gary Ross has stated in interviews that before anyone else was cast, the role of Flickerman, in his mind, had to be Tucci.  In the movie adaptation, the role is perhaps even of a greater importance as it provides a vehicle to subtly impart backstory and commentary to the real life audience just as it does with the Panem audience.  It's a great tool that Ross and Tucci employ beautifully.

At left, Donald Sutherland as President Snow;
at right, Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane.
But who is at the center of the Capitol's dictatorial rule?  That would be none else than the haunting President Snow (Donald Sutherland).  His white hair and white beard match the uniforms of Panem's Peacekeepers (the muscle) and of course his emblem, the thorny white rose.  Though Snow doesn't appear in the first book until the very end, he does so from the onset of the pre-Games festivities in the film.  With a keen eye (and a firm grasph) on the Head Gamemaker, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), Sutherland does an excellent job of conveying the series' antagonist as the main manipulative force behind Panem and its Hunger Games.

And then there are the Games themselves.  Probably the greatest challenge Gary Ross faced in projecting the story was the violence that ensues.  There is no opportunity to shy away from the many murders that take place, committed by and against young teens.  Nothing was as impressive as to me than how Ross expertly maneuvered his way around this treacherous task.  By way of flashing montages, shaky camera work, quick pans and implicative splatters of blood Ross was able to ascertain the PG-13 rating, essential to the film's success.  As a side point, should censors probably review the fact that a film consisting of children murdering each other in cold blood can more easily reach the sensory organs of America's youth than that of one, for instance, which may boast a couple of nude scenes in the aiding of a love scene? Yes.  But that's its own essay altogether.

There is never a dull moment during the course of the Games and so much is kept true to the novel.  Katniss's skill with a bow is a marvel to behold on screen, and the Tracker Jacker sequence is pure suspense.  The score, a collaboration between T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard, is present throughout: a lulling country-folk-bluegrass vibe with an upbeat at times so as to remind you to not get too comfortable in the artificially woodsy, but genuinely fatal arena.  Among all that, however, two character dynamics stand out most.  One is the semi-romantic relationship between Peeta and Katniss which remains obscure and always wavering, teasing the audience endlessly.  When they finally kiss, it's to the delight of all, save Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss's hunting buddy and closest thing to a beau back home.  The movie takes a liberty in showing his reaction to their kiss while watching on a District 12 monitor (the book never leaves Katniss's vantage point), and we're given our first hint at a love triangle.  Hutcherson, who has stated how much he identifies with Peeta's character, gives a great understated performance as the self-deprecated and self-deemed underdog.  The chemistry between Peeta and Katniss, which in the book is a keeps-you-guessing sort, channels faultlessly on screen between Hutcherson and Lawrence.

The second dynamic is that between Katniss and Rue (Amandla Stenberg), the 12-year old female tribute of District 11 (comparable to District 12 in socioeconomic status).  In the arena alliances are not uncommon early on, and it is Rue who helps Katniss survive an early snag to set the grounds for their relationship.  Unlike Cinna-Katniss, the Rue-Katniss bond adapts with ease to the big screen from the book.  They immediately take to a sisterly kinship, protective of one another.  Rue's character arc is brief but heartfelt in large thanks to Stenberg's ability to win your heart over.

Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games
Series and Gary Ross, writer/director of The
Hunger Games film.
The end result of Gary Ross's adaptation of Suzanne Collins's novel is one that should have her smiling.  The movie holds true to so many of the book's greatest details, and takes liberties where they can improve on the cinematic version of the story.  For instance, how Katniss comes across her lucky Mockingjay pin is completely altered for the movie - but justifiably so as the time and scenes it would have taken to introduce the book's version would have been inefficient and encumbering.  In a late sequence in the film in which Katniss and Peeta are attacked by wild dog-like monsters, the book adds another defining physical trait to their beings that the movie leaves out (namely each bearing a likeness to the deceased tributes).  Once again, it is likely Ross investigated all avenues in trying to hold true to Collins's words, but in the end felt the CGI looked tacky, or that it would not come across as intended.  It's no secret a book's advantage is that it can use its words to describe most anything, and while cinema can't compete in that respect, it can use its visual/audio elements to address those ideas which a novel's words simply do an inferior justice.

Finally, one aspect that occurred to me while watching the film that never did so while reading the book was that feeling that we, just like the rest of Panem, are watching the Hunger Games.  It makes sense that it took the cinematic medium to bring that awareness out since, of course, during the course of a movie you are inherently watching.  It becomes an unsettling thought to consider yourself a spectator, but it's by no workings of chance that the notion may surface for moviegoers.  As touched on earlier, Flickerman's Games commentary are news-anchor style - much like that of a desk of analysts during halftime of a televised sports events - and in keeping with that are addressed directly to the camera.  It was at these junctures I felt the lines between the Panem audience and The Hunger Games movie audience most blurred.  It's a startling sensation, and one Ross surely sought to impart on viewers, that we should bear some part of the guilt of Panem's condoning inhabitants.  For when it comes down to it, they aren't a different or even more evolved species, they are humans, exhibiting some of the worst qualities of human nature but reminding viewers that we too are capable, and unquestionably have committed equal, if not worse inhumane societies and atrocities in our history.  As the movie adaptation is drawn from a piece of literature, fiction is drawn from one person's perception of life; end products such as The Hunger Games act as art's most entertaining, yet poignant reminders of who we are.

--Review by Mike Dorfman

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012) *Review 1*

This weekend, The Hunger Games took a serious bite into the record books. The film grossed $155.2 million, giving it the third highest opening weekend of all time (behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and The Dark Knight), making it the highest opening for a non-sequel in film history. At last Thursday's midnight premiere alone, it grossed $19.7 million, which in itself almost was enough to win the entire weekend. In short, the movie made some serious coin.

The books, written by Suzanne Collins, haven't been doing too shabby, either. Since the first book's publication in 2008, the Hunger Games trilogy has sold more than 23.5 million copies in the United States alone. Collins is also the best selling Kindle author of all time. Interest in the books picked up significantly as the release date of the film adaptation drew nearer, evidenced by the fact that 7.5 million copies of the series were sold following the release of the original trailer on Nov. 14 of last year.

Needless to say, expectations were high. Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) directed the film, and also co-wrote the screenplay with Billy Ray and Collins herself. The die-hard fans paid close attention to the casting, as Jennifer Lawrence was selected to portray heroine Katniss Everdeen, who, after her Academy Award-nominated performance in Winter's Bone (where she also portrayed a resourceful, care-taking adolescent), was a pretty obvious choice. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hensworth were picked to play Peeta and Gale, respectively, giving the younger female fans their own version of "Edward vs. Jacob," and Woody Harrelson was cast to portray the alcoholic mentor, Haymitch.

For an adaptation to become successful, it must unquestionably remain loyal to the book -- but in order to appeal to both the fan base and the casual moviegoer, it must also create its own identity while still capturing the book's overall essence. No easy task and much easier said than done.

Most people know the general synopsis of the film, so let me apologize for giving a rundown. The dystopian story takes place well into the future, following an unspecified post-apocalyptic event. The country is Panem, which is located somewhere in what was North America, and is ruled by President Snow, who is more a king, or an autocrat, than a president.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen
in The Hunger Games.
The country is divided into 12 districts, which starting from District 1, become more impoverished as they go on. Whereas District 1 is a beautiful, technologically-advanced Metropolis, District 12 is decrepit, and its inhabitants live from day-to-day and meal-to-meal.

Approximately 75 years ago, the Districts joined together in a rebellion against its totalitarian government, and lost. As means of punishment, the government enacted "The Hunger Games," a yearly tournament where two "tributes" -- a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 -- are selected from each District to compete in a tournament. The tributes are placed in an arena, and are expected to fight until the death until only one stands, all while the residents of the 12 Districts watch live on television.

Our story's protagonist, Katniss, resides in District 12. Since her father died in a mining accident, she's become the primary caretaker of her younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields), and her mother (Paula Malcomson.) As a result, she is way ahead of her years, and spends the majority of her time off in the woods, illegally hunting game with her best friend and hunting partner, Gale Hawthorne.

But let's fast forward. During the 74th Hunger Games, Prim is chosen as the female tribute from District 12, and Katniss immediately volunteers to step in and take her place in order to protect her. The male tribute chosen to accompany her is Peeta Mellarck, a boy who Katniss once shared a life-changing moment with.

The movie does so many things right. It devotes the majority of its attention towards capturing both the savagery and irrationality of the Hunger Games tournament itself, which it does well. But as the book appeals to all ages, including children, a lot of the violence is shown off-scream, and heard, rather than seen directly. But it's still there and still horrifying.

Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellarck.
Due to fine casting, the acting is superb, carried mainly by Lawrence, Hutcherson and Harrelson, and including nice contributions from a supporting cast of Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley, Elizabeth Banks and Alexander Ludwig. The latter of whom, Ludwig, portrays Cato, the male tribute from District 1; in fact, all of the teenage actors who portrayed the tributes did a fine job.

As with any adaptations, the die-hard fans will be able to find plenty of things to nitpick, with one of them being the lack of screen time devoted towards the outside world during the Games. A major theme of the books include the spectacle that the Hunger Games represents to Panem, and exactly how each District reacts to them is crucial. Besides from perhaps one or two quick shots to a couple of the Districts, it is mostly lacking, and the entirety of the movie takes place within the arena of the Games. It certainly excels there, conveying the evil that lurks behind each tree, both naturally and artificially created by the government.

Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne.

But I said before how a successful adaptation must obtain its own identity while still maintaining the true essence of it's originator, and I believe The Hunger Games does that. One of the keys is getting it right during the most important scenes. The culmination of the Hunger Games tournament, which of course I won't reveal, is shot perfectly, with the just the right distribution of violence and emotional emphasis -- it is after all, teenagers killing each other; remember, they're still innocents.

The score, also, thankfully devoid of pop music, composes music solely by a orchestra, and weaves seamlessly throughout the film, enhancing the film's ambiance.

I previously emphasized the burdensome task of adapting a book that is beloved by millions of people. To tamper with a world that has been transfixed within the heart and soul of its fans, and do it incorrectly, can be considered nothing short of sacrilege. However, The Hunger Games manages to stay true to its source and, at the same time, attain its own artistic merit. The result, undoubtedly, will give its loyal readers yet another thing to love about Suzanne Collins's creation.

~Review by Ddubbs

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Grey (2012)

On the surface, one may look at what the The Grey has to offer, and quickly surmise that it is a movie simply about a bunch of dudes who are being hunted by wolves. But then you start watching it, and you realize that the movie is actually... a bunch of dudes being hunted by wolves. It's not necessarily a bad thing, though. It just means that you know exactly what you will be getting.

I should be fair though. The Grey certainly emits nothing but pure, unrivaled masculinity, -- I believe there may have been one actress in the entire production -- between the wolves, the snow, the guns, the violence and lest not forget the new tough guy of film, Liam Neeson. It's unquestionably a movie that most guys will have to repay their girlfriends for after they somehow convince them to see this movie with them.

But that being said, The Grey does have a surprisingly sentimental and even romantic side. Amidst the fighting, the blizzards and the explicit language, there are more subtle, touching scenes thrown in that offset the savagery.

Directed by Joe Carnahan, who also wrote the script along with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, The Grey revolves around a group of oil workers in Alaska. Away from their families, the female gender, and pretty much civilization altogether, the men make a living in the frozen arctic. It becomes evident that most of the men have this job not for the love of oil drilling, but because they need a job. Liam Neeson's character, John Ottway, is the one who protects the men from the vicious wolves who prowl the area while they work. When he sees them, he shoots them.

But when traveling back home, their plane crashes, and the surviving men are left to fend for themselves in the frozen tundra with little food and warmth. Oh, and they're being hunted by vicious wolves. Ottway explains that wolves, while dangerous, are typically harmless -- except if you are near their den.

From that point on, the men know what they are facing, and The Grey essentially becomes a monster movie. At first, the wolves are shown casually, in less harmful circumstances. But then, they become the hunters. They lurk in the dark, and they are heard rather than seen. If The Grey accomplishes anything, it's the ability to make the viewer jump. Just when you think the threat has subsided, and you are lulled into a false sense of security, here come the wolves faster than you can blink an eye.

Liam Neeson in The Grey.
Though several men survive the crash, the number naturally dwindles down to a few, and once it hits a nice round number, we begin to learn a little bit more about the survivors (Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts.) as they try to walk their way towards safety. We learn a little about their personalities, their bravery and their backgrounds. But Neeson dominates, and even at his ripe age of 59, he's still a bad son-of-a-you-know-what.

So I mentioned the sentimental scenes that mix in with the violent scenes, which mostly involve flashbacks involving Ottway with his former lover (Anne Openshaw), which Ottway uses as reassurance during the darkest of hours. The same could also be said about the script. Most of the time, it's explicit, immature and almost childish, but every now and then, a line or two will come along that carries profound meaning or even poetic eloquence. It's almost as if Carnahan intentionally made the majority of his script unimaginable, so that the few meaningful lines would stand out more. Intentional or not, it worked.

The Grey will undoubtedly please those who simply wish to see an action movie, but it will also satisfy those who prefer a little more thought in their films. Surprisingly, the movie carries a reoccurring motif, revolving mainly around death, and knowing and accepting when it is your time to go. Even the title of the film alludes to it, though I won't divulge how.

The cinematography is also pleasurable to see. Though it takes place in Alaska, it was actually shot in British Columbia, Canada, with plenty of snowy landscapes involving mountains, trees and rivers. Also, the wolves are CGI, and look pretty real for the most part, and downright vicious. Wolves may be vicious creatures to begin with, but this film undoubtedly embellishes that fact, portraying them as blood-thirsty monsters. But no one will really question that, except maybe PETA. After seeing the movie, though, I think most viewers will be pleased that when they bought a pet, they stuck with a dog or a cat.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve is a movie about "the theatre," so appropriately it begins by introducing us to its players. Narrated by the esteemed theatre critic, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), we meet the star, Margo Channing (Bette Davis), the playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), the playwright's wife Karen (Celeste Holm), the producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff) and the director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill.) The quintet are seated around a table at the then-fictional yet prestigious award ceremony, the Sarah Siddons Society. But, moments later, we learn that the special honoree isn't any of the aforementioned characters. It's all about Eve.

Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is the one being honored, and she stands graciously and accepts the award, looking every bit like a star who has already received more glitz and glamour that one should receive in a lifetime. But the story isn't about Eve's award, but how she got to that award.

You notice my use of quotations around the word 'theatre,' and that is because the movie makes a point to glorify the concept of the theatre. Whenever the word is mentioned in the film, it is carefully enunciated, and spoken about as if it is some magical place that only a privileged few ever get to experience. Conversely, the word "Hollywood" is given the same connotation in the movie as if one was speaking about a junkyard.

And quickly, I wrote "then-fictional Sarah Siddon's Society" because, although Sarah Siddons was indeed a real actress, at the time the movie was made, no such society existed. However, two years later, the society was formed by prominent Chicago theatre patrons, stemming from the fictional society created in All About Eve.

But let's get back to to the movie. All About Eve centers around Bette Davis, who, as Margo Channing, represents an aging star. She's experienced nothing but success her entire life, but now she is 40-years-old and still playing roles of women who are almost 10 years her junior. She is very cognizant of this fact, but her closest friends -- who are also the coworkers I listed as her tablemates in the opening paragraph -- tell her of otherwise. Bill is her lover, and also her director. Lloyd writes the plays, and his wife, Karen, is also Margo's best friend.

But then one day, Karen meets Eve, and is immediately drawn to Eve's seemingly starstruck, humble and kind demeanor. When Eve says that she idolizes Margo, Karen arranges a meeting between the two. Right away, Eve allures Margo with a tragic tale that involves her late husband, and how Margo's play is the only thing that soothes her.

Bette Davis as Margo Channing in All ABout Eve.
Eve gives every indication that she is a pleasant, good-hearted and polite individual, and sensing this, Margo agrees to hire her as her personal assistant. However, it's a decision she soon comes to regret. Rather than an asset, Eve begins to turn into a parasite in Margo's mind. At first it's for subtle reasons; Eve is too organized, she's too likable. Things then take a turn for the worst when Eve worms her way into becoming Margo's understudy for her next play, and as it turns out, she's every bit just as good as Margo - only younger.

The true splendor of All About Eve resides in writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz's script. As far as screenwriting goes, it really doesn't get any better. The dialogue is so profound and poetic, that even though it not the typical dialogue you would ever hear any normal person utter, it's still succinct and forthcoming enough that you know exactly what the characters are saying -- and possibly even better. Mankiewicz's use of metaphors and deep sarcasm only help get his points across.

For example, with his script, you get lines like this one, from critic Addison DeWitt as he is describing his profession: "For those of you who do not read, attend the theatre, or listen to unsponsored radio programs or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself. My name is Addison DeWitt. My native habitat is the theater. In it, I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and a commentator. I am essential to the theatre."

But for a script to excel, you need the actors to deliver it to perfection, and they do. As much as I lauded the script, you can say the same thing about the ensemble cast of Davis, Baxter, Morrell, Sanders, Marlowe and Merrill. The group was a large part of the film's 14 Academy Award nominations (five of which were for acting), the most ever, now tied with Titanic, which also received 14 in 1998.

Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe and George Sanders
Like Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., a film that was released the very same year as All About Eve, the film is about an aging actress trying to stay out of actor purgatory. That's Bette Davis, and she plays the part spectacularly. The movie also touches upon the poisonous combination of ambition and greed, and the lengths one will go to achieve stardom, which I have no doubt still relates today.

One may also note another cast-member, a 23-year-old Marilyn Monroe, playing a young actress who is trying to break into the business. This was a few years before she hit big time, and actually represented the first important role in her career. Unsurprisingly, she is gorgeous in the role, and it's interesting to see what she looked like so young in her career. Though her part is small, she holds up very well among her bigger-named colleagues, and ironically, ended up becoming the biggest star out of all of them.

But, what does that matter? Because that's in real life, and we are discussing the fictional -- yet very real -- depiction of the theatre that is presented to us in All About Eve. In a quarter over two hours, the film touches upon many subjects, but right from the opening scene, you know who the film is all about, and you'll remain interested until you see how it culminates.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Can't Buy Me Love (1987)

There are times when you need to prevent yourself from viewing a movie through a critical lens, and just enjoy it for what it is. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must. On these occasions, tearing down the barrier that divides the movie and the critic can allow you to form an attachment to a film that is forever binding.

Can't Buy Me Love, whose title was undoubtedly inspired by the popular Beatles's song of the same name, appropriately opens with that very song. Right then and there, you knew the film would have good taste in music.

It is a popular theme in movies to take a close look at the high-school cultural hierarchy that exists in America. When this happens, it's always interesting to see how it is interpreted by each specific movie. It's so popular that any casual moviegoer can identify a handful of such movies off the top of their head, most of which will probably be fairly recent creations. However, Can't Buy Me Love, made in 1987, more than likely came first.

The film, written by Michael Swerdick and directed by Steve Rash, stars a young Patrick Dempsey as Ronald Miller. We first see him riding a lawn mower, staring longingly at "the cools" in his school, namely Cindy Mancini, played by Amanda Peterson. With curly, unkempt hair, goofy glasses, and a puny physique, Ronald is your stereotypical nerd. Cindy, meanwhile, has blond hair and a pretty face, is the coolest girl in school, and for Ronald, represents the unattainable.

Set in Arizona, the film makes sure to establish the relationship between Cindy and Ronald right away, and we learn that it is nonexistent. Cindy is seen standing on her own doorstep, confronted by her mother (Sharon Farrell), who says to her, "Why can't you be more mature like the Miller boy?" The camera then cuts to Ronald, who is mowing their lawn, which at that moment -- conveniently -- spits grassy residue back in his face. Cindy is reduced to laughter, and replies, "Mother, get serious."

Patrick Dempsey in Can't Buy Me Love
But in reality, Ronald has everything going for him. He's incredibly intelligent and a hard-worker, the latter of which earned him $1,500 from mowing lawns all summer long. But there's one thing missing that Ronald, a high school senior, wants -- popularity. He knows that, as a senior, he has one more chance to make his mark.

The opportunity finally presents itself when he's at the mall one afternoon. Ronald, having an interest in astronomy, plans to spend his summer earnings on a fancy new telescope. However, while at the mall, he discovers a better investment. He spots a distressed Cindy, who recently ruined her mother's best dress, and is trying to replace it to no avail. Since she can't afford the $1,000 for a new dress, that's when Ronald steps in. He gives Cindy a proposition she can't refuse; he'll buy her the dress, but she has to pretend to be his girlfriend for a month. And just like that, you have your plot.

Can't Buy Me Love is not original by any means. It plays off the most common of stereotypes, and the dialogue is fairly basic. But the movie has passion. Dempsey plays Ronald with a deep intensity, as if he knew that he was representing the geeks of America who all wish to have their chance with the head cheerleader.

Having no idea how to act "cool," it's humorous at first for the viewer to see Ronald's behavior. But slowly and surely, his plan actually starts to work. He ditches his nerdy best friend Kenneth (Courtney Gains) and makes new, cooler friends (Cort McCown, Eric Bruskotter). Cindy, abiding by their "contractual agreement," does her part by spending time with Ronald, and even gives him some fashion advice. And just like that, Ronald disappears and Ronnie is born.

As predicted, the new-found popularity develops an inflated ego in Ronald's head. He's pursued by other girls in the school, and suddenly, his popularity reaches "legendary status." But even though he's changing, the old Ronnie still comes out when he's with Cindy, and in another unsurprising turn of events, it turns out the two of them are actually very compatible. In a scene emblazoned in 80s cinema lore, Ronald and Cindy are together at an airplane graveyard, which until then was Ronald's "private place." By letting her in, she subsequently let's him in, and before you know it, Cindy starts to see Ronald in an entirely new light.

I probably didn't need to give that elaborate rundown of the plot. I could have given you one single line of plot synopsis, and you could have guessed the entire movie. But that doesn't mean you can't still enjoy the movie, or even come to love the movie. It's a story for the romantics at heart, and will remind everyone of that one girl in their lives who they never thought they had a chance with.

Dempsey and Amanda Peters riding off on a lawn mower.
The movie also scrutinizes social classes, and Ronald gives an impassioned and emotional speech on the subject later in the movie, which brings the movie back to it's original message. Though Ronald exhibits his plan to perfection, only to have it inevitably backfire in his face, he of course learns a valuable life lesson along the way that tells us that we can't really change who we are. He manages to put everything into perspective while delivering a perfect heart-wrenching speech to Cindy at the film's close, encompassing all that he -- and the viewer -- has learned in the last 90 minutes. It's a speech that will make the hopeless romantics of the world tremble with joy.

Call it cliche, call it unoriginal, but Can't Buy Me Love will make you feel something. It's an endearing movie that you can watch over and over again. Patrick Dempsey plays an extremely memorable character in Ronald Miller, and Amanda Peterson is nothing short of beautiful to look at. You may also note the introduction of a young Seth Green, who plays Ronald's younger brother, Chuckie. And like John Cusack lifting the boom box in Say Anything, Patrick Dempsey riding off on a lawn mower will be another 80s scene that you'll never forget.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Saturday, March 10, 2012

My Left Foot (1989)

Everybody remembers Daniel Day Lewis's performance that earned him his second Academy Award, portraying the greedy yet impassioned Daniel Plainview in 2007's There Will Be Blood. That film also made it impossible to drink a milkshake and not think of Daniel Day Lewis. However, fewer may recall the film that netted him his first Academy Award, playing Christy Brown in My Left Foot.

Lewis has portrayed a variety of characters in his career that have showcased his acting abilities -- ranging from oil tycoons, 19th century mob bosses, to wrongly accused Irish activists -- but never has a portrayal showcased his abilities more than his performance of the cerebral palsy-afflicted Christy Brown.

My Left Foot, directed by Jim Sheridan, tells the story of Christy, based on his own autobiography of the same name, which was adapted to the screen by Shane Connaughton and Sheridan. The fact that the Christy was able to tell his own story is a triumph in itself. Christy, who suffers from Cerebral Palsy, had one controllable limb -- his left foot. With that foot, he taught himself how to write and paint, and not only write and paint well enough for a man with one foot, but well enough to become an actual artist.

A lot of My Left Foot deals with ignorance in the early 20th century. The biopic begins at the very beginning of Christy's life, at birth in Dublin, Ireland. Right away, doctors know that something is wrong with him, and shortly thereafter, he is diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, a condition that affects motor abilities. The term "Cerebral Palsy" is a vague, and the symptoms of those who have it range extravagantly on a case-by-case basis. But so little is known about the condition that Christy is simply dismissed as a "cripple." In a blue-collar Ireland town, where families depend on hard work and labor to get by, it was almost considered shameful to have such a child.

That notion is evidenced by Christy's father, Paddy, (Roy McAnally), a man with a lot of pride but very little to show for it, who all but disregards Christy as his son at his young age. But Christy's mother, Bridget, played excellently by Brenda Flicker, certainly doesn't disregard. She gives him all the motherly nurturing and care that anybody could ask for, and never once questions why one of her children has to suffer. Christy is one of five children, having two sisters (Alison Whelan and Kirtsen Sheridan) and two brothers (Declan Croghan and Eanna MacLiam), none of whom are disabled.

Daniel Day Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot.
The young Christy Brown is played by Hugh O'Connor. Early scenes in the movie show the family surrounded at the dinner table, and Christy shoved aside, lying on the floor, as if he is the family pet. But we soon learn that there is more to Christy than meets the eye. He can't walk, or control his speech enough to speak intelligibly, nor as he had schooling, but the viewer finds out early in two separate scenes that Christy does indeed have normal human abilities.

The first scene involves Christy at home alone with Bridget. After hearing a loud noise, Christy crawls over to the top of the stairs to see what happened, and witnesses Bridget lying motionless at the bottom of the stairs. Using all the strength he could muster, he heroically topples down the stairs, and slams his left foot into the front door until he attracts attention from the neighbors, thus saving his mother's life.

The second scene, almost immediately after, shows the Brown family circled around the table, with the children working on their homework. One of Christy's brothers asks aloud, "What is 25 percent of a quarter?" No one else in the family knows the answer, and Paddy goes as far as saying, that "That's a stupid question. Twenty-five percent is a quarter. You can't divide a quarter of a quarter." Hearing this, Christy grasps a piece of chalk between his left toes, and begins to write something on the floor. His family watches as he struggles to writes something, but it's so sloppy that they shrug it off as gibberish. However, the viewer can tell that what he wrote is the fraction "1/16," thus answering the question and indicating that he is not only smart -- but the smartest one in his whole family.

The movie intertwines time in Christy's life. Every now and then we cut to "the present," which shows an elder Christy at a banquet, accompanied by a woman named Mary (Ruth McCabe.) Christy makes many attempts to court Mary, who actually happens to be reading his book. Christy is able to communicate with Mary easily, showing clear speech, therefore letting us know that somewhere along the line, he is taught how to clearly speak.

Daniel Day Lewis and Brenda Flicker
This comes to fruition when, cutting back to the past, Dr. Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw) knocks on the Brown's doorsteps one day. She is a physical therapist who works directly with individuals with cerebral palsy, and she wants to help Christy. This scene, at last, represents the breakthrough that finally arrived as far as medical treatment and understanding in Ireland. With Cole's help, Christy is able to become a competent member of society. He speaks clearly for the first time, and starts painting lovely pictures that eventually gain him acclaim. He also falls in love with Cole, which doesn't end too well.

But as Christy ages, his likability starts to go the opposite way. Once the young, misunderstood and tragic figure, Christy was impossible not to like. But as an adult, Christy becomes a drunk, and a belligerent individual. But it's understood, given what he has to go through.

As a biopic, the movie travels at a slow pace. But the point is to show that disabled does not mean dysfunctional. Christy is one of many handicapped individuals who have accomplished great things, even when society tells them they can't. And that's where Daniel Day Lewis's brilliance comes in. We know the man is pure method, and I can't even imagine the research he must have done before tackling this role. How he so convincingly plays a man who suffers from a condition that causes uncontrollable movement and unintelligible speech is beyond imagination. It's truly a unique performance like no other.

The movie doesn't only give us insight into the lives of individuals who require special needs, but also shows us the ins and outs of lower class families in early 20th century Ireland. But the point of the movie is to highlight Christy's accomplishments in the face of major adversity. His plight is extraordinary, no doubt, even if it didn't begin on the right foot.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Sponsored by criminal attorney Kenneth Mollins 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Say Anything... (1989)

The iconic scene in Say Anything... -- which features Lloyd Dobler, played by John Cusack, wearing a trench coat and standing outside the house of Diane Court (Ione Skye), raising a boom box in the air playing Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" while standing in front of his blue Chevy Malibu -- is not even all that conducive towards the film's plot.

The scene is also extremely antiquated; stereos have since been replaced by CD players, and then iPods, trench coats have been replaced by, well, anything but trench coats, and Chevrolet even ceased production of the Malibu in 1983, before bringing it back in 1997.

Alright, so maybe it's not conducive from a plot standpoint -- the scene doesn't even evoke a reaction from Diane, or at least one that we see. But it's the scene that resonates the most because it embodies the emotion that Say Anything... puts forth. The 1980s cult classic is about young love, and the desperation that comes with it, and the certainty of the love that one feels during a time of deepest uncertainty.

John Cusack, the pioneer of 1980s teenage/young adult romantic coming-of-age films, could not be more endearing as Lloyd Dobler. Perhaps he's not the most good-looking guy in the world, but he's tall, well-spoken, polite, funny and most importantly of all, sensitive.

Say Anything... is the third movie that Cameron Crowe wrote, but the first that he directed. Though he has gone on to make some outstanding films, one can make the argument that Say Anything... is his most memorable.

Set in Seattle, the film revolves around Lloyd, who, with his fellow classmates, just graduated from high school. Lloyd has his sights set on the Diane Court, the grade-A student who gives the graduation speech to her classmates as they prepare to embark on the next journey in their lives. Court sets the tone of the film, early, when she strays away from her prepared speech to let out her real feelings, "I have to be honest though, I have all the hope and ambition in the world, but when I think about the future, the truth is, I am really scared."

The iconic scene from Say Anything...
Every generation has their own movies that they relate to. They came out at the perfect time, when you were on the brink of adulthood, and somehow, they manage to capture your adolescent experience. As a member Generation Y, those films for me are Can't Hardly Wait, or American Pie. But for those who belong to Generation X, Say Anything... tops that list. Not one character in the film is sure of anything, except for Lloyd Dobler, who knows for sure that he loves Diane.

Lloyd first propositions Court through an endearing phone call, trying to convince her to go out with him. At first, she politely turns him down, but after a few romantic words, he makes her laugh, and she changes her mind. The two accompany one another to the big graduation house party (every movie has one), and the rest is history.

Diane is smart and pretty, but also has high values and is a "goody two-shoes," so to speak. She spends her time volunteering at a nursing home, and she regularly checks in with her father (John Mahoney), who she loves very much. Her parents divorced five years prior, and Diane chose to live with her father, and as a result, he became very protective of her. Diane idolizes her father, and that's why a stir is caused, when, midway through the film, the IRS comes knocking on his door, informing him that they will be conducting a criminal investigation on him for tax fraud. This antiquated notion throws Diane into a whirlwind, which conflicts with her growing relationship with Lloyd.

Though Diane has things pretty figured out -- she just won a fellowship to study in England for a year -- Lloyd doesn't. He has aspirations to be a kick boxer, which he labels as "a growing sport," and when asked what he plans to do for the summer, he answers, "to spend as much time as possible with Diane before she leaves."

Say Anything... doesn't attempt to provide answers, or solve any problems, but just tries to capture the uncertainty that comes with the transition from high school to "the real world" in a charming and committed way. But the real charm of the film stems from Crowe's script, where we get hilarious yet insightful lines like, "She's gone. She gave me a pen. I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen."

John Cusack and Ione Skye.
Along the way we meet other enjoyable characters, like Lloyd's friends Corey and D.C. (Lily Taylor and Amy Brooks, respectively), Corey's boneheaded ex (Loren Dean), and Lloyd's sister, played by his real sister, Joan Cusack.

Say Anything... puts a face to a generation of lost souls who did not know what their next move was. Though over 20 years old, and a bit outdated at times, the film still remains extremely relevant. And with the movie, John Cusack established himself as the representative of Generation X. When he speaks in the film, you could see his brain at work, searching for the right words to express his true emotion. Most of the time, he finds them, and other times, he just says anything that comes to him.

~Review by Ddubbs

Sponsored by criminal attorney Kenneth Mollins 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Muppets (2011)

It's time to play the music. It's time to light the lights. It's time to meet the Muppets. But first... it's time to write a review.

The Muppet Show may have been short-lived, airing from 1976-1981, but it's legacy certainly isn't. Jim Henson's wacky conception of the Muppets has since become a part of cultural lore. Before we can even speak as children, we already know who Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy are. Resultant movies, such as the 1975 The Muppet Movie, 1992's The Muppet Christmas Carol, and even the late 80's children's show Muppet Babies have all stemmed from Henson's creation to great success.

Jim Henson died at the age of 53 of organ failure, which resulted from streptococcus. Though he was the voice of many of the Muppets, including Kermit, longtime friend and voice actor Steve Whitmire took over duties as Kermit's voice, and Henson's legacy continued to live on.

So it's understandable that, in 2008, when buzz began circulating that popular comedic actor Jason Segel would be writing a script for a new Muppet movie, that the news was met with excitement by Muppet and movie lovers alike. Segel has a proven track record with his screenwriting, having written and starred in the highly successful 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Nicholas Stoller, Segel's buddy who directed the film, was also selected to co-write the script with Segel.

Segel is an avid Muppet fan, and in fact, next time you watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall, you may notice during the montage after he returns home from Hawaii, that his character can be seen playing the Muppets theme on the piano.

Walter, Jason Segel and Amy Adams in The Muppets.
Three years later, the movie was released and immediately received critical and commercial success. It's directed by James Bobin, who really is making his major motion picture directorial debut. The movie plays off the notion that the Muppets have been long forgotten. Jason Segel plays Gary, a very jolly man child who humorously is brothers with a Muppet named Walter. Gary's longtime girlfriend, Mary, is played very delightfully by the incandescent Amy Adams, who was an obvious choice for the role.

As a Muppet, Walter finds himself out-of-place in contemporary society. So to help him discover his roots, Gary purchases a ticket for Walter to accompany him and Mary on a trip to Los Angeles, where they can visit the Muppet studio. However, when they get there, they sadly discover that the studio is a rotted and decrepit. During their tour, Walter overhears the plans of oil tycoon Tex Richman, played by Chris Cooper, who states his intention to purchase the studio, only so he can tear it down and drill underneath, where an abundance of oil resides.

The last hope for the Muppets is for Gary, Walter and Mary to seek out the Muppets themselves, and reunite them to put one last final show to raise enough money to save their studio. They start with Kermit, and go Muppet by Muppet until they can round up them all.

The Muppets in travel.
The Muppets is everything that a musical should be. It is cute, adorable, amusing, funny and endearing. Segel and Stoller's script doesn't take itself too seriously. Many jokes are made to parody the film-making process, such as outwardly acknowledging the silliness of singing and dancing in public, and the phrase "travel by map" will become one of your favorite things to say.

Additionally, the music in The Muppets is fantastic. Original songs such as "Man or Muppet," and "Pictures in My Head," are delightful, and of course, you'll also hear Muppet classics like as the original theme as well as Kermit's famous song, "Rainbow Connection."

Segel, Adams and Cooper are all great, but the movie belongs to the Muppets. Watching the live-screen versions of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzy, Animal, Beaker, Scooter and Waldorf will evoke a huge wave of nostalgia that will remain with you long after the credits roll.

Whether you're a Muppet lover or not, there's very little to not like about the The Muppets. It's certainly directed towards children, but the comedy is intelligent enough that it could appeal to all ages. Also, I mentioned earlier how the film is a comeback movie. Segel's script depicts the Muppets as forgotten and irrelevant, which before this movie, they basically were. With that, the movie carries very real and relatable themes, such as redemption and the importance of friendship.

Jim Henson may be gone, but The Muppets reignites the magic that he conjured when he first created the characters over 30 years ago. Muppet or man, whatever, it doesn't matter, because Segel and Stoller's script brings them to life in the most real of ways.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Lilies of the Field (1963)

It has been a long-standing notion in cinema to romanticize the idea of the drifter. The mysterious, aimless, underachiever strolls into a new town and is exposed to a new set of cultural rules and customs. Furthermore, the idea of unparalleled independence is something that appeals to everybody at some point or another. Lilies of the Field explores those concept in a big way.

The 1963 film, directed by Ralph Nelson, is based off a 1962 book of the same name by William Edmund Barrett. James Poe adapted the novel for the screen. It stars Sidney Potier and Lilia Skala, who, in the film, could not be more different from each other.

The film opens with Homer Smith, played by Potier, driving into an Arizona farm in need of water for his car. The farm happens to be inhabited by a group of East German nuns, headed by Mother Maria, (Skala) and four other sisters (Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis and Pamela Branch.) All Homer wants is to get some water so he could move on and find some work. He's a handyman, who travels from place to place with his box of tools, looking for whatever he can fix.

Believing that Homer was sent to them by God, the nuns first ask him if he could repair their leaking roof. Homer, a nice guy, obliges, but then wishes to leave and continue on his way. But the nuns are not going to let their "gift from God" get away so quickly. They have a bigger plan for him.

The first twenty-five minutes of Lilies of the Field plays off as a screwball comedy. Though they don't pay him money in return for his services, the nuns offer Homer food, kindness and shelter -- the latter of which he rejects. With the exception of the Mother Maria, the other four nuns can barely speak English, and dinner in the farm becomes language class, with Homer teaching them English. The interactions between the German nuns and Homer are extremely humorous, and really showcase Potier's ability to act. The showcase was exemplary enough, in fact, that it was able to net him the Oscar for the Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1964.

Homer tries hard to leave, but just can't leave the poor nuns behind. Finally, the plot thickens when Homer discovers what the nuns have in mind for him: they wish for him to build a chapel on their farm. The small Arizona town only boasts one "church", and it is located in the back of an RV. To get there each Sunday, the nuns, walk miles down the street in the swarming desert heat.

Sidney Potier and Lilia Skala in Lilies of the Field.
Homer is incredulous at first, but for the viewer, there is never any doubt what he is going to do. Throughout the film, Homer is constantly asking for money in return for his services. But it is not truly what he is after. Homer is seeking self-worth, value and redemption. When he finally agrees, to build a chapel, he wishes to do it himself, and only himself.

A main theme of Lilies of the Field is unity in the face of diversity. Homer, an African-American, is not a religious man, and yet, he bonds with the devout East German nuns. Though they are as different as can be, they don't question one another's practices -- quite the opposite. They respect one another. When Homer does embark on his mission to build the chapel, he enlists the help of a local bar proprietor named Juan (Stanley Adams), and his Latin American friends, adding another example of people of different cultures coming together for a common cause.

Naturally, the film does contain some religion, with Potier showing off his vocal ability and singing some religious hymns with the nuns. Some bible verses are read too. When Homer demands payment at first, he recites a verse, "The laborer is worthy of his hire," to which Mother Maria responds with another verse, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." And just like that, you have your title.

While Lilies of the Field may romanticize the drifter, it also romanticizes the idea of accomplishing something. It puts aside some of the material items in life that people value, namely money, and highlights some abstract qualities, like unity, respect and acceptance. With such a message, it is undoubtedly a movie that many people can learn a lot from.

~ Review by Ddubbs