Tag: film (page 2 of 20)

Movie Review: Casablanca

There are some iconic scenes in fiction, and a lot of them happen in watering holes and cosmopolitan places where people gather. The Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars, Knowhere of Guardians of the Galaxy, The Prancing Pony in Bree from Lord of the Rings… the list is extremely long. When it comes to films, there are few taverns that have had quite as much influence on the tone, composition, and nature of goings-on within such places as Rick’s Cafe Americain. After all, everybody comes to Rick’s. That is the name of the play upon which the unquestionably classic film, Casablanca, is based.

Courtesy Warner Bros

The year is 1941, and it is early December. The city of Casablanca is relatively neutral territory, even if it is controlled by Vichy France and the oversight of the German Reich. It is a hotbed of clandestine activity, from smuggling to gambling and even the sale of exit visas, which desperate refugees require to flee Europe for the promise of freedom and opportunity in America. Many of these sales happen at Rick’s, where the proprietor is surprisingly neutral and reserved, conveying only quiet bitterness and healthy scepticism towards both starry-eyed freedom-fighters and ironclad fascists. All of that changes, however, when the one woman who has ever truly captured Rick’s affections walks into his cafe, asking the piano player to play the one song Rick insists he never plays, and changes things in Casablanca forever.

It is pretty clear that Casablanca is adapted from a stage play. The settings, dialog, and even the lighting of the scenes could easily be recreated by a savvy director and a good stage crew. In the 1940s, many films were produced in this way, opting for a faster route from script to screen rather than saddling the production with glitz and glamour. In fact, when it was released, a lot of people didn’t expect anything groundbreaking from Casablanca; it was just another of the hundreds of films being produced by the studios. But even as it was being made, those directly involved with its creation knew that it was something special.

Courtesy Warner Bros
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…”

A big reason for this is the talented, international cast. Only Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Dooley Wilson (Sam), and a minor role or two were American actors. The woman in question, Ilsa Lund, was played by luminous Norwegian actress Ingrid Bergman. Paul Henreid, Ilsa’s husband and a reknown freedom fighter named Victor Lazlo, was Austrian. Many actual refugees played roles of all types in the film, including the main antagonist, Major Strausser, who was portrayed by Conrad Veidt, a German who had himself fled from the Nazis. This gives the entire production of Casablanca a palpable sense of authenticity and earnestness. In one of its most famous scenes, Lazlo leads the people in Rick’s in a rendition of “La Marseilles”, and during the scene, many of the actors burst into tears on set. The nature of this cast is one of the things that makes Casablanca singularly special.

There’s also the fact that every single leading role is brilliantly executed. Bogart hadn’t done any romantic work before Casablanca, but watching Rick’s carefully crafted demeanor crack under the pressure of Ilsa’s presence is clear evidence of the actor’s talent. Bergman smolders, and the two have electric chemistry. Just as good is the interplay between Bogart and the inimitable Claude Rains, who plays Casablanca’s prefect of police Louis Renault with equal parts legitimate sleaze and good-natured humor. Henreid is compelling as a man who has witnessed horrid injustice first-hand and will stop at nothing to combat it, and Veidt gives Strausser real menace barely contained by the sort of impersonal, surface-level diplomacy that villains use just long enough to get what they want. Even smaller roles have real talent and nuance behind them, from Wilson’s unflappable and loyal Sam to Sydney Greenstreet’s unabashedly profit-minded underworld magnate. The performances in Casablanca are more than enough to keep an audience riveted to the screen, far moreso than any amount of modern special effects or computer-generated gimmickery.

Courtesy Warner Bros
The 40s were a great time for hats.

Full of classic quotes, unforgettable scenes, scintillating performances, and a true time-capsule of the atmosphere of its day, Casablanca has a lot to offer an audience even in the 21st century. What was once anti-Nazi propoganda now plays as dramatic historical fiction, as uniformed German officers never occupied Morocco and the MacGuffin of the film, the “letters of transit”, never existed. Still, as a setting for intrigue, drama, romance, and suspense, Casablanca and Rick’s are the foundation upon which many future tales were built. It is film noir at its finest, a shining example of a tightly-produced character-driven story, and one of the best films ever made.

Movie Review: Interstellar

There is a sense of awe and wonder that comes over a lot of people when they behold images from deep space. Astronomers and physicists have long theorized about what awaits us in the void: new habitable worlds, wormholes, distortions of time, and so on. When filmmakers turn their eyes to this material, to what the future might actually hold, their visions take the form of films like 2001:A Space Odyssey and Moon, exploring not only science, but human nature and evolution. Now, Christopher Nolan has taken an exploratory flight into this rich and textured material with Interstellar.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Environmental damage has lead mankind to the point that food is becoming scarce and the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere is depleting at an alarming rate. In survival mode, most humans have turned inward, eschewing science and engineering for farming. One obstinate man, test-pilot-turned-farmer Cooper, struggles to both make a living for his family and teach his daughter, Murphy, the truth. A phenomenon in Murphy’s room points Cooper in the direction of a hidden silo, where the remains of NASA have undertaken a daring, last-ditch effort to save humanity by relocating it to another world. The task of finding that world falls to Cooper and NASA’s scientists, but the means of getting to our potential new home will mean that he may not return until Murphy is much older… if she’s alive at all.

Christopher Nolan, as a filmmaker, has a proven record for the correct means to frame and present a shot. The depictions of cosmic phenomena in Interstellar are clear, intriguing, and at times, breathtaking. Nolan has also proven that his films ply towards fidelity for the real and the scientifically possible. One of the hallmarks of his Dark Knight trilogy, for better or for worse, places the world, villains, and gadgetry of Batman squarely in the realm of the feasible. Interstellar‘s physics and science, while at least partially theoretical, are presented with as much fact and fidelity as possible. Between these two aspects, Interstellar has elements that could have lead it to be this generation’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Courtesy Warner Bros.
Believe it or not, folks, space has three dimensions! Maybe more!

However, Christopher Nolan struggles with one of the most vital aspects of effective filmmaking: the human factor. The moments of awe-inspiring visuals, impressive and breathtaking all on their own, are often interrupted with a scientific explanation or an oppressive orchestral sting from Hans Zimmer’s bombastic, grandiose score. A great deal of this film’s significant run-time is occupied with in-depth scientific explanations of this or that portion of the goings-on, and while the film never makes the mistake of talking down to its audience, it does seem to have trouble properly conveying human emotion in the same way it does theoretical extra-dimensional concepts. This is a stumbling block Nolan has run into before, and he’s still not quite at a level of showing humans being human as, say Steven Speilberg, who was originally slated to direct Interstellar.

Thankfully, Nolan has the good sense to line up a well-rounded cast of excellent actors. It’s unfortunate that he has to make them work so hard to squeeze the right amount of emotional complexity out of his surface-level script, but these are masters of their craft. Matthew McConaughey, who has been enjoying a bit of a revival in his career, is completely comfortable and incredibly adept at conveying everyman pathos that makes scenes with his daughter deeply effective and puts his point of view squarely in line with that of the audience. Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain do the bulk of the non-main-character heavy lifting, every bit as effective and engaging as Matthew, bridging the gap between Nolan’s clinical, distant perspective on the human experience, and the realities of our everyday lives. It’s hard work, and the strain shows in places, but gets the job done.

Courtesy Warner Bros
When you’re not sure how to do the human thing, get the most human actors you can. This is one of them.

That is actually an apt description for the experience of Interstellar as a whole. In terms of a hard sci-fi epic that pushes the boundaries of our notions of what is possible in space exploration, it gets the job done. It’s very well constructed, and definitely takes the audience on a worthwhile journey, but the experience could have been tightened, the moments of wonder more awe-inspiring. There is a moment in Inception where the film stops explaining itself, and lets its story and drama unfold without further comment or pretense. That moment never comes in Interstellar. Its “twists” being either predictable or superfluous and its science suffering from nigh-constant in-universe fact-checking undercut what would have otherwise been a very effective storytelling experience. Interstellar could have been a breathtaking epic of proportions not seen since the days of Kubrick, and clearly had that ambition. The fact that it falls short of that mark just means that its flaws are all the more glaring, at least to someone like myself. It’s quite good, and worth seeing on the big screen, but I sadly doubt it has the kind of staying power we’ve seen with some of Nolan’s other work. What Interstellar does, it does well, but it could have done more.

Movie Review: Good Morning, Vietnam

“GOOOOOOOOOOOOD MORNING VIETNAM! It’s Oh-Six-Hundred, what does the Oh stand for? OH MY GOD IT’S EARLY!”

I don’t think the 1987 Barry Levinson film Good Morning, Vietnam needs any introduction beyond that.

Courtesy Touchtone Video

Airman Adrian Cronauer, United States Air Force, was the main radio personality stationed in Crete in the 1960s. During the Vietnam War, he was transferred to run a morning program for Armed Forces Radio out of Saigon. He brought his own style, his comedic style, and a taste for modern rock-and-roll music. Unfortunately, his personality and energy run counter to those of his superiors. He does his best to maintain his independence and commitment to the truth, and starts befriending locals. Things begin to get complicated when he runs afoul of both a vindictive base commander and the mascinations of the Viet Cong. The troops love him, though – if there’s ever a time to be reminded of the importance of laughter, it’s wartime.

Before we delve into the people responsible for bringing Cronauer’s true story to life, we should take a step back and consider that this film, broadly considered a landmark comedy, also took it upon itself to depict the conflict in Vietnam in very human terms. When Cronauer isn’t cracking jokes over the radio and flipping off authority, he’s teaching people English slang and trying to get to know a local girl and her brother. None of these secondary characters are treated as parodies or charicatures. In a time when the United States was still wrestling with its conflict against Soviet powers, this film eschewed jingoistic viewpoints and presented both the Americans and the Vietnamese as what they are – human beings.

Courtesy Touchtone Video
Every character in this film feels very real.

Barry Levinson, Good Morning, Vietnam‘s director, was already a veteran film-maker in 1987. He worked with Mel Brooks, and had major success with The Natural. He clearly demonstrates that he has an excellent sense of balance and timing in his direction. The comedy that practically runs rampant through a great deal of the film is balanced out perfectly with character development and the aforementioned pathos. All of the shots are clear, and everything is clearly defined. But I feel I’m stalling a bit, so let’s get to the heart of the matter.

It is a great tragedy that we recently lost Robin Williams. This film is one of his best performances. Much like the direction, his work is very well balanced. When he’s on the radio or mouthing off, his comedy is fantastic and side-splitting. When he’s teaching people or trying to relate to his ladyfriend or her brother, he’s likeable and charming. And when he’s faced with adversity, we believe his agony and frustration. On top of his comedy skills and improvisation, he was a fantastic actor. We miss him already.

Courtesy Touchtone Video
His performances are, thankfully, immortalized.

Good Morning, Vietnam is a bonafide classic. It is a slice from the past that tells its story with authenticity and earnestness. Despite the fact that it’s told from an American perspective, it shows the conflict in a very human light and keeps us engaged from beginning to end. And the comedy is on-point and fantastic. It’s available on Netflix, and if you haven’t seen it, even if it’s been a while, you should call it up. It’s a fantastic watch.

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

It really feels like Marvel Studios can do just about anything. Back when it was announced as a film, Guardians of the Galaxy felt like a risk, an out-of-the-blue change in direction. Most franchises prefer to play it safe, sticking with the recognized story and character beats known to work. But Marvel’s big idea dreamers do not rest on their laurels. They looked outward from the world of the Avengers and began to pull in more threads from the greater universe. But they’ve done this before – several years ago, Iron Man was relatively obscure in comparison to other superheroes that have graced the silver screen, and now Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr are practically synonymous. Marvel takes chances. They try new things. And they went back to the well of obscurity and elevated a band of five cosmic misfits into this summer’s most anticipated blockbuster.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

Peter Quill was eight years old when he got abducted from his homeworld. Having grown up among a rather nasty band of pirates called the Ravagers, the Terran is on the trail of a mysterious orb people are paying good money to acquire. There are also those who would rather kill than pay: Ronan the Accuser, a Kree extremist, dispatches one of his chief lackey, Korath the Pursuer, to retrieve the orb. Quill (who for some reason calls himself ‘Star-Lord’) escapes to Xandar, home of Ronan’s enemies. Ronan sets the assassin Gamora on the trail, while the Ravagers post a bounty for Quill, a hefty sum saught by Rocket (an enhanced raccoon) and his best friend Groot. When they wind up in prison together, along with a well-spoken but driven maniac named Drax, they hatch a scheme to escape and split the reward for the orb, even as Ronan hunts them down.

As a complete, start-to-finish film, Guardians of the Galaxy has a consistent and strong storyline that is not difficult to follow. Its tone has a tendency to vary, but that is definitely a strength rather than a weakness. James Gunn, director of Slither and Super, is just as adept with comedy as he is with emotional scenes heavy with pathos. In the final equation, it balances out extremely well. The heavier scenes pulls us into sympathetic embraces with our characters, and their comedic turns let off some of the pressure to pave the way for more antics and action.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
Something tells me they don’t want to talk about having a personal relationship with Galactus.

These characters, in addition, are definitely worthy of their places in Marvel’s cinematic universe. In particular, I was very happy with Gamora’s characterization. In my previous discussion, purely based on some erroneous conjecture, I feared that she would exist as the ‘token girl’ and disappoint in doing little more than rolling her eyes at the tomfoolery of the males. Thankfully, she is very much her own character, with agency, drive, and independence, from start to finish. I was wrong in what I said before; I couldn’t be happier to admit that. What we see on screens is most definitely the deadliest woman in the galaxy, and Zoe Saldana brings her to vibrant, captivating life.

The two CG characters, Rocket and Groot, are incredibly well-realized. Rocket, in particular, is a wonder just to behold. While we’ve seen mo-cap characters before, Rocket is easily believable with his attitude, outlook, pain, and power. You actually feel something for the little guy. Similiarly, Groot conveys a great deal without saying more than a few words. His expressions, actions, and presence all speak to an individual that means well, and that can’t help but stand out in light of other characters behaving in very selfish ways. As for Drax, I definitely need to see the movie again because I swear I missed some of his loquacious dialog in the middle of all the ray-guns and explosions. I like what they’ve done with him and I’m eager to see more.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
“I’d flash you my business card, but my hands are too full of guns.”

The glue holding the entire endeavour together, however, is Chris Pratt as Peter Quill. This man is going to be very busy in the years to come. He carries the mantle of leading man very well. His performance draws out the best in the cast around him, and he very much gets both what motivates his character and how the audience can relate to him. Under the flippant demeanor and die-hard nostalgia is some very real pain and more than a couple unresolved issues, and as I mentioned before, the whole film exists in the same balance between the two feelings. Both the actor and the story do more than just walk that line, however; they outright dance on it.

I could spend a lot more time discussing the villains, universe, and greater implications of Guardians of the Galaxy, as it is a surprisingly dense film in terms of lore and setting. There is a huge universe implied in almost every shot of the movie, and I am merely scratching the surface. What I will say is this: we have not had a romp through space like this since Serenity, and even that had a rather intimate scope within which to tell its tale. In many ways, Guardians of the Galaxy is the direct opposite of the previous Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that just makes them two sides of the same excellent coin. The previous film was a powerful story of intrigue and personal trial with a very modern bent; this one is a deliberate throwback to more whimsical tales like Flash Gordon or Star Wars, but bearing extremely modern sensibilities. The universe we behold has a very lived-in feel, is filled with color and wonder, and clearly contains perils and unknown terrors that are ripe for the exploration. It expands Marvel’s cinematic arm exponentially, and gives us just the right mix of heroes and villains to leave us wanting more.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
Even minor characters have distinct personalities and memorable traits.

As a movie-goer and erstwhile critic, I would say Guardians of the Galaxy is exemplary science-fiction action-adventure storytelling that I unreservedly recommend. As a long-standing fan of the comics, particularly since I picked it up back when Dan Abnett was starting to write the team we see on screen, I could not be happier. Much like our first real shot of the Avengers, seeing these misfits, murderers, and makers of mayhem come to vibrant life tugs at all of the right strings in my heart. Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly what you want and precisely what we need in the middle of summer surrounded by drek and drudgery: a damn good time at the movies. It is definitely worth seeing. Just don’t be surprised if you do, in fact, get hooked on a feeling.

Return of the Jedi (or possibly Sith)

Courtesy LucasArts

Maybe it’s because I’m hopeful Guardians of the Galaxy evokes the old feelings of wonder that came with A New Hope. Maybe it’s the discovery of the excellent X-Wing Miniatures game. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. But whatever the cause, I have been on a sizable Star Wars kick lately, and a big part of that is the time I’ve been spending in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

I did a first impressions post a few years ago when the game was in beta, and upon reflection, I ended up being a bit harsh in the name of blunting my nostalgia. I think leaning towards objectivity is good for anybody looking to present a review of entertainment for a wide audience, but I think it would have been okay if I had talked more about my curiosity and excitement about a new facet of the universe opening up and less about the clunky mechanics and the opinions of non-fans.

Playing it now, I’m definitely hooked. I’m curious to see where the various stories go. I’m doing my utmost to avoid spoilers, and I’m actually enjoying the quest structure. It doesn’t feel like a grind – I’ve never had more than two or three quests in my log at any given time. “Kill X amount of Y” only pops up as a bonus, and since I get jumped by uppity bunches of Y on my way to the objective anyway, why not pull in a little extra XP? It does still have a lot of mechanical similarities to World of Warcraft, but the little differences do more than their fair share in setting the game apart. The bottom line is, even moreso now than back in the game’s beta days, I see potential.

I think that’s been what keeps Star Wars a positive thing in my mind. For all of its flaws and missteps, the universe Lucas created has always contained the potential for truly great storytelling. The military sci-fi bent of Rogue Squadron stories, the antiquated feel of Tales of the Jedi, the way Dark Forces felt like so much more than a DOOM clone because you were stealing the Death Star plans… I could go on. Lucas may not be the best director or a very good scriptwriter, but the seeds he sowed almost 40 years ago were in very fertile ground indeed.

I’m interested in exploring the Edge of the Empire RPG, probably after I move, if I can rope my new housemates into it. I’m expanding my collection of X-Wing Miniatures. I’m going to play a lot more of The Old Republic. And I am keeping a wary eye on this new film of theirs. While I don’t agree with the official word ejecting the expanded universe as canon, JJ Abrams has always been more of a whiz-bang director than the intellectual contemplation that Star Trek really demands. In spite of my cautious curiosity, though, one thing is certainly clear.

Star Wars is back in my life. I enjoy Star Wars quite a bit. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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