Monthly Archives: February 2011

Oscar Month: You Can’t Take It With You

By Tom Kapr

As part of my Year of Movies, during the month of February I will be focusing on past Academy Award-winning films, facilitated in large part by Turner Classic Movies and their annual 31 Days of Oscar marathon, in which they air nothing but Academy Award nominees and winners every hour of every day for 31 days, leading up to and eventually eclipsing the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on February 27. Throughout the month of February, I will be posting short articles on films that have won Academy Awards in past years, most of which I will not have seen before. So you can expect me, by the end of the month, to be even more of the classic film snob of the Incidental Dog crew than I already am. (I’m sure the other guys will love it.)

You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

A few weeks ago, I lambasted a beloved Frank Capra film, so it seems only fair I publish a review of You Can’t Take It With You to restore balance to the force. Much less groan-inducingly outdated or desperately sincere than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or It’s a Wonderful Life, You Can’t Take It With You may be Capra’s best film.

Written by Robert Riskin (who also wrote the screenplay for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) based upon the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, You Can’t Take It With You is a story about two families. The Vanderhof/Sycamore family are a middle-class bunch of eccentrics, much loved by their neighbors. The Kirby family are affluent bankers; they aren’t much liked by the neighborhood, and their plans to tear down the old neighborhood for the bakers’ profit don’t make things any better. Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) works as secretary to Tony Kirby (James Stewart), who falls in love with her, setting their extremely diametric families on a collision course. Subversive enough to keep from being maudlin and emotionally grounded enough to keep from being overly wacky, the film is both a heartfelt drama and one of the funniest romantic comedies I’ve ever seen. I laughed out loud several times, which I don’t usually do when I watch a film alone.

Jean Arthur and James Stewart have wonderful chemistry, which would come in handy a few years later when they again would co-star together in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Everybody in the cast is pitch-perfect: Spring Byington and Samuel S. Hinds as Alice’s childlike parents; a young and beautiful pre-fame Ann Miller as their second daughter who is (what else) an aspiring dancer; Mischa Auer as her very Russian dance instructor, who stops by as often for dinner as for dance lessons; Donald Meek as a bank teller and fledgling toymaker; Mary Forbes as Tony’s uppity ice queen of a mother. However, veteran actors Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold are the real stand-outs as the patriarchs of the Vanderhof and Kirby families, respectively. Barrymore especially carries the film, but as the two families slowly converge on each other, Arnold becomes just as much of an on-screen presence. Their scenes together are magnificent.

If I have one quibble about this film or its casting, it regards Lillian Yarbo and Eddie Anderson. A couple of African-American actors, Yarbo of course plays the Vanderhofs’ maid. (Anderson plays her fiancé.) Nobody in the family ever looks down on either of the two, and it is apparent that their characters have a deep affection for this eccentric family and vice versa; and Anderson’s character waits on the family not out of obligation to them but because he loves his fiancée. Taking everything into consideration, there is nothing really egregious about their place in the film; still, it is racial stereotyping, a product of a time when blacks were still seen as inferior to whites, when black characters in films were almost always in a position of servitude toward whites. Yarbo and Anderson’s characters seem as much a part of this eccentric family as any other member of the ragtag household, but still, they’re a black couple serving a white family. Regadrless, I do love this film, and both Yarbo and Anderson are as much a reason as any of the rest of the supporting players.

You Can’t Take It With You was honored by the Academy as Best Picture of 1938, as was Frank Capra as Best Director. Whether or not it deserves it is up for debate, considering it was up against such heavy hitters as the Errol Flynn swashbuckler (and another favorite of mine) The Adventures of Robin Hood, Jean Renoir’s war classic Le grande illusion, and the film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. But it was certainly much more deserving of its honors than was Mr. Deeds two years earlier.

Spring Byington received a nomination for her supporting role, which is good, though I’m surprised neither Lionel Barrymore nor Edward Albert were nominated for their roles. The film’s four other nominations were for Joseph Walker’s cinematography, Gene Havlick’s film editing, John P. Livadary’s sound recording, and Riskin’s wonderful screenplay, which lost to Pygmalion.

Learn more about You Can’t Take It With You at the Internet Movie Database.

Oscar Month: The Red Balloon

By Tom Kapr

As part of my Year of Movies, during the month of February I will be focusing on past Academy Award-winning films, facilitated in large part by Turner Classic Movies and their annual 31 Days of Oscar marathon, in which they air nothing but Academy Award nominees and winners every hour of every day for 31 days, leading up to and eventually eclipsing the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on February 27. Throughout the month of February, I will be posting short articles on films that have won Academy Awards in past years, most of which I will not have seen before. So you can expect me, by the end of the month, to be even more of the classic film snob of the Incidental Dog crew than I already am. (I’m sure the other guys will love it.)

Le ballon rouge (The Red Balloon) (1956)

The Red Balloon is one of the stranger winners in Academy Awards history, and the strangeness is three-fold. In 1957, it won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar over Robert Lewin’s war drama The Bold and the Brave, Andrew L. Stone’s thriller Julie, Federico Fellini & Tullio Pinelli’s highly regarded La Strada, and William Rose’s dark comedy The Ladykillers. Here’s the first part of the strangeness: there is almost no dialogue in The Red Balloon, which is strange not in regards to its worthiness (for a screenplay is much more than just characters saying things, and The Red Balloon has a beautiful structure) but as a rare distinction in the history of the category. The second part of the strangeness regards why it was even considered for this category, again not because its screenplay is unworthy, but because the film is only about half an hour long, making it a short film and not a feature; and I would be surprised if this distinction was not just a rare one, but a unique one. However, it is the third part of the strangeness that is the strangest of all, for The Red Balloon was not nominated in the short film category. Yes, this short film, perhaps the only short film in the history of the awards to be nominated outside the short film category, was not nominated in the short film category. I, for one, would certainly love to hear the Academy’s explanation for that anomaly of anomalies.

My recent viewing of this film on Turner Classic Movies was my third experience with The Red Balloon. I had seen it as a child. The only impression I had of it from all those years ago was that it was boring and foreign (being a French film). My second experience happened in college when my Fine Arts professor showed it to us during class one morning. It didn’t make much of an impression on me then either, but I’m sure the atmosphere created by my snickering classmates didn’t help. (I admit there may have been some snickering on my part too, though it is more likely I used it as an opportunity to catch some Z’s.)

This third encounter finally cemented the film in my consciousness, and it turns out The Red Balloon is a beautiful, whimsical, sad yet ultimately uplifting film. (If you watch the film, you’ll discover how paronomastic it is for me to say that, yet I mean it sincerely.) The plot is simple: a boy (played by Pascal Lamorisse, son of the film’s writer/director Albert Lamorisse) finds a red balloon, which he takes with him to school and then home, where the balloon is unceremoniously tossed out the window by the boy’s guardian. (I get the impression these people “caring” for the boy are not his parents.) But instead of rising up and up into the sky, the balloon hovers around outside until the boy sees it and lets it back in. For the rest of the film, the balloon follows the boy around, while we quickly learn that this balloon is the first friend the boy has ever had. His classmates are bullies, as are the adults in his life, and the now-sentient balloon takes delight in teasing them, even psychologically tormenting his principal after the man locks the boy away as punishment for the disruption the balloon causes at school.

Spoiler alert

The ending is a tragically beautiful display of love as the boy heroically tries to save the balloon from the neighborhood gang of boys who want to pop it, and then as the balloon gives its life because it refuses to abandon the boy. It is one of the most agonizing death scenes in all of cinema, the death of the Red Balloon. It put me in mind of how I felt when Wilson the volleyball was lost at sea in Cast Away. I cried when I saw that scene at the theater, with Tom Hanks’ pitiful cries of remorse as he watches the only friend he’s known for the past four years float away into oblivion. That scene is deeply emotional because we, the audience, have projected humanity onto this inanimate object right along with Tom Hanks’ character in the film. Wilson, however, was just a volleyball. The Red Balloon has life, has thought, has emotion, and is as much a main character as the boy himself. It’s a heartbreaking scene that thankfully ends on a happier note as all the balloons in Paris suddenly flock to the boy and lift him above the city and away from all this misery and loneliness.

I highly recommend you take a half-hour and watch this film. It is available for streaming on Netflix. Or, you could even watch it here.

Learn more about The Red Balloon at the Internet Movie Database.

Korean Cinema #4: The Good, the Bad, the Weird

By Nathanael Griffis

I love Westerns, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is legendary among them, so I was fascinated when I heard about a 2008 Korean remake by director Ji-woon Kim. The Good, the Bad, the Weird takes the simple story outline of Sergio Leone’s classic Western and places it in 1930′s Japanese-controlled Manchuria. There is little left of Leone’s story, which is a good thing because it allows Ji-woon Kim to provide his own vision.  The story follows the “weird” Tae-goo, played by the awesome Kang-ho Song, who steals a treasure map from the Japanese army that the “bad” Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee) wanted to steal and the “good” Do-won (Woo-sung Jung) was protecting. Did you follow all that, or is it easier to say the weird guy has a treasure map and everyone else wants it.

You're welcome, ladies.

This film is awesome–rife with plot holes and physical impossibilities, but just a blast despite any so called “flaws,” like revolvers that never need to be reloaded, shotguns that miss from close up, artillery that can’t hit anything except the ground, and minor characters whose problems are never resolved. These “flaws” don’t hinder the film but make it all the more endearing. It never takes itself too seriously, and if you take it seriously you’ll be severely disappointed. I was watching it with a friend, who was for the first few minutes pointed out problem after problem and didn’t enjoy the film until he just let it go and lived in the ridiculous nature of what was occurring.

Ji-woon Kim is able to get away with this because he understands the concept of the “plausible impossibility.” We know that a man who just shot five bad guys should have no problem getting the leader of the gang if he has a clear shot, but as long as you show us the dust blast off a wall next the bad guy’s head, we’ll accept that he missed. The action sequences are built upon the impossible and consistently rely on this style to create an enjoyable experience. It feels reminiscent of Indiana Jones in that aspect. The fun is in waiting for the next creatively orchestrated impossible scene to appear. The action is creative and fun, and some of the best I’ve seen in a while. The opening train scene is a great example of how to introduce characters. Tae-goo is introduced by kicking down a door and shooting a bunch of soldiers in the back. He’s a coward and self serving, but endearingly goofy. Do-won the bounty hunter with a bottom-line attitude only aims for the bad guys. Chang-yi takes a malicious pleasure in the chaos and violence he creates. From the framing of the shots, the score, and the costuming Ji-woon Kim utilizes every aspect of film making to build character and conflict in the first fifteen minutes.

No snarky comment. Kang-ho Song is awesome. That is all.

The humor is amazing, and Kang-ho Song shows he’s a master at both sides of the actor coin. The man can make you laugh or he can make you cry. He inhabits a character who is a perennial loser, a foolishly brash petty thief, who can indiscriminately kill and remain likable. His ability to charm an audience reminds me of Tom Hanks. Eli Wallach’s Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly definitely had a comic tinge to it, and his chemistry with Clint Eastwood was great, but here the humor and the redemptive quality of a man who’s been driven from his home is the focus. It was a smart move to shift the focus from the less interesting Do-won to the engaging Tae-goo, and it gives the film its own personality. The story is not nearly as engaging as Leone’s original, and Chang-yi is no Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef). That’s the biggest flaw of the film. Ji-woon Kim missed the intrigue that Lee Van Cleef brought to his scenes. Chang-yi is sadistic but little more. There is an attempt to make him out to be a philosopher type, but little is fleshed out. Also, keeping the numerous gangs and their motivations in order gets quite confusing by the end, but luckily it gets lost in the action and humor.

The end scene still holds true to the classic three-way Mexican standoff. It’s well shot, but can’t measure up to the original and is hurt a little bit by having to maintain a consistent stylized action. The final scene would have been better if it had been less stylized and more realistic, but then it would have been inconsistent, a hard decision for the director, so I don’t want to fault Kim for it. The a lack of the Morricone score hurts too, but that’s forgivable. The music composed by Dalparan and Yeong-gyu Jang is great and keeps the movie flowing, but it doesn’t have the presence and grace of a Morricone score.

Overall, I was ecstatic after watching this. It’s definitely a great group movie, and I suspect it is the type of film that even subtitle haters will stop rolling their eyes at and enjoy. It was a lot of fun, and I really needed something after Chan-wook Park’s heavy and disturbing Vengeance Trilogy.

Next up: Ki-duk Kim’s 3-Iron.

May not be in a graveyard, but it's still pretty cool.

Better Remembered: The Goonies

By Steven Moore

We revere certain films that were important to us as children. Many of the films that we grew up with, watched over and over again, and think fondly of during our mid-life crisis years, are not just bad but downright awful. These films are better remembered than watched. This series of articles aims to destroy your childhood memories, taking away the nostalgia that warms you whenever you think of a terrible movie like Critters, or even classics like Star Trek: The Motion Picture. However, I also want to try to rediscover what it was about these movies that made me personally love them. I hope to come out the other side with a new, more honest appreciation of those films that helped form my cinematic maturity.

The Goonies (from left): Kerri Green, Josh Brolin, Corey Feldman, Sean Astin, Ke Huy Quan, Jeff Cohen, and Martha Plimpton

A few months back a group of friends and I decided to watch The Goonies. This was a movie that I, as I’m sure many of you do, hold up high as one of the cornerstone films of my childhood. The desire to have a Goonies-esque experience of my own launched many ill-advised childhood adventures, one involving getting stuck on top of a water tower for an entire day. The Goonies is a cornerstone film for any child of the eighties, and there is no way to argue against that. However, The Goonies is an awful film. Somehow written by Steven Spielberg and Chris Columbus, the terrible writing is accentuated with bad acting and contrived slapstick comedy that comes together to produce a jumbled mess of a movie.

If you own the DVD and have watched the deleted scenes, you know about the octopus. While this scene was rightly cut from the film, it is a more extreme example of what is wrong with the movie as a whole.  The group has just splashed into the cavern where One-Eyed Willie’s ship has been trapped for hundreds of years. Suddenly, they are attacked by an octopus that just kinds of lies there while the kids wrap its tentacles around them. Eventually, the gang fends off the octopus by literally feeding it 80’s pop music, to which it can’t help but boogie down, while simultaneously fleeing for its life.

"Hey you guys!" (The late John Matuszak as "Sloth")

I feel like this scene was cut from the film, not because it doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the movie or because it’s too silly, but because the special effects are so bad. In other words, it wasn’t the supremely awful writing and filmmaking choices that left this scene on the cutting room floor; it was a technical limitation. Other similar scenes remain in the film. Most of Data’s gadgets are equally absurd. The pinchers of power he uses to save himself from a pit of spikes are awesome–when you’re ten years old. When Data greases the log to keep the criminals from catching him, we are treated to not one, but two crotch shots, which is hilarious–when you’re ten years old.

Of course, all the logic and aesthetic problems of The Goonies didn’t matter when I was ten years old. I wanted to go the goondocks and explore those caves and search for One-Eyed Willie’s treasure. When the group finds Chester Copperpot and realizes they’ve gotten farther than a famous explorer, it was a liberating moment for me. Just because I am an inexperienced kid and have no idea what I’m doing doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. In some ways, I’ve carried that idea through my adult life as well.

The Goonies instilled a sense of adventure in a generation of kids. It may have been a silly, unrealistic, badly conceived adventure, but it worked somehow. My kids felt the same way when I showed it to them. I’ll just warn them not to watch it again when they grow up.

A True Hollywood Story: From the set of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”

An inside exclusive by Tom Kapr

Director Kevin Reynolds sits beside the camera. “Okay everyone,” he says, “quiet on the set! Rolling film. And… ac–”

“Hang on,” Kevin Costner interrupts.

“What’s the problem?” asks Reynolds.

“I’m not ready,” replies Costner.

“But we’ve been prepping for hours for this one scene of dial–”

“Okay, I’m ready. Action!” Costner shouts.

Reynolds looks at the ground dejectedly. “Action,” he mutters to the cast inside his head, where Robin Hood is played by Daniel Day-Lewis.

Morgan Freeman is looking at Reynolds. He then looks over at Costner, who has his face bent toward the ground, his eyes tightly closed, obviously trying very hard to be English.

Freeman rolls his eyes, takes a deep breath, centers himself, and speaks: “Christian!”

“What?” says Christian Slater, standing just off-camera.

Everybody looks at Slater, who is focusing on Morgan Freeman, one eyebrow cocked, waiting. Freeman looks at Slater and nods subtly toward Costner, who still has his eyes closed. Slater cocks an eyebrow in Costner’s direction. “Oh, right,” says Slater. “My bad.”

Reynolds sighs. “Cut!”

“No, no, it’s okay,” says Costner. “Keep rolling, we’ll go again.”

“Let’s try it again,” mutters Reynolds. He has a brief flashback to the set of Fandango. His eyes twitches.

Morgan Freeman is still looking at Christian Slater. He then looks back at Costner, who is again concentrating on the Saxon warrior within. Freeman takes another deep breath, trying again to center himself. It’s a bit harder this time, but suddenly he has a vision of a tall man on a beautiful Mexican beach fixing a boat, and is overcome with peace. He opens his eyes, full of Moorish fire, and bellows: “Christian!”

“Hm?” says Christian Slater, cocking an eyebrow toward Freeman. Costner keeps his eyes closed. Freeman desperately clings to his vision of tropical paradise.

Reynolds sighs. “It’s alright, just keep ‘em roll–”

“Cut!” yells Costner. He walks off to nearby line of trees.

“Ah… it happened again, I’m sorry,” says Slater. “Maybe Kevin’s character should have a less confusing name? Hm? Are the writers on-set?”

Costner is gazing into the distance, imagining rolling plains covered with millions of the majestic tatanka.

Reynolds is unconsciously muttering to himself about a post-apocalyptic world in which all the glaciers have melted and covered the world in water. Surely, he thinks, that would be better than this.

Freeman has his eyes closed, and is back on the Mexican beach. He again sees the tall man working on the boat. The man stops his work and smiles at him, then transforms into a small golden statue, as the sand turns into velvety red carpet. Freeman smiles a big, toothy grin. Suddenly, a strange man in shorts and sneakers, with long scraggly facial hair and a red baseball cap, comes jogging across the beach. He jogs past Freeman, stops, turns around, and says, “I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.” He grabs the golden statue and jogs back from whence he came. The smile disappears from Freeman’s face.

Slater has one eyebrow cocked, looking around at the other actors for validation. “Right?” he says. “Less confusing names?”

Reynolds snaps out of his hallucinatory state, takes a few seconds to remember why he is in a medieval forest, sees Costner is nowhere to be found, and is overcome with happiness. “Alright, let’s take five! We’ll get it when we come back.”

Morgan Freeman sighs. “I hope.”

Oscar Month: The 1955 Academy Awards

By Tom Kapr

As part of my Year of Movies, during the month of February I will be focusing on past Academy Award-winning films, facilitated in large part by Turner Classic Movies and their annual 31 Days of Oscar marathon, in which they air nothing but Academy Award nominees and winners every hour of every day for 31 days, leading up to and eventually eclipsing the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on February 27. Throughout the month of February, I will be posting short articles on films that have won Academy Awards in past years, most of which I will not have seen before. So you can expect me, by the end of the month, to be even more of the classic film snob of the Incidental Dog crew than I already am. (I’m sure the other guys will love it.)

Having seen eight of the films from 1954 that received Academy Award nominations, I thought I would take a look at all of them in the various categories in which they appeared. I begin with the film I saw this week for the first time, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, directed by Stanley Donen of Singin’ in the Rain fame.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was nominated for five Academy Awards in 1955. Its only win was a two-fer: Adolph Deutsch and Saul Chaplin took home Oscars in the category of “Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture.” This award, as well as its nominations for “Best Cinematography, Color” and “Best Film Editing,” are the three of the five categories in which Seven Brides seems deserving. Although, there is a peculiarity about the win.

Seven Brides won the Best Musical Score Oscar over A Star Is Born (now generally considered the superior film), but it was conspicuously absent from the “Original Song” category, for which composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Ira Gershwin were nominated for their song “The Man That Got Away” from A Star Is Born. In other words, there have always been certain inexplicable Oscar nomination anomalies–and I’ve just invented a new tongue-twister. (This category also gave White Christmas its sole nomination for Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”)

Seven Brides‘ other two nominations were for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, neither of which it deserved. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is one of those films that I am constantly asked if I have seen. I finally have seen it, so I finally can say yes; but now, I foretell that when I say yes I am in for a debate. I cannot fathom this film’s popularity, especially over half a century later. It might more accurately have been titled Seven Kidnapping Victims Who Develop Stockholm Syndrome Over a Long Winter of Being Held Hostage in the Mountains by Seven Brothers. And that doesn’t even describe this film’s most bizarre and disturbing plot development, which occurs during the final scene. Women like this movie?

The film does have merits, going back to its three deserving nominations: the music is great, the cinematography is beautiful, and the editing is impeccable. It also has one of the most fun, entertaining, and well-choreographed dance scenes in musical history–when the seven brothers (the colorful shirts in the still below) go into town for the barn-raising festivities and use fancy footwork to vie for the affections of the young ladies of the town.

The phenomenal dance scene from "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," before the film's sanity begins to deteriorate.

As a whole, the film doesn’t hold up. Even its popularity from its own time in the 50′s is a little surprising. It’s far too simplistic (I’ll even go so far as to say sexist) to deserve any nominations for writing or Best Picture. But then it seems musicals used to get away with that sort of thing quite often.

I could have shown a picture of the apartment complex set from "Rear Window." Instead, here's a largely irrelevant shot of the film's star Grace Kelly. You're welcome.

Seven Brides‘ spot in the Best Picture nominations should have gone to Rear Window, which was nominated for Hitchcock’s directing, John Michael Hayes’ screenplay, and Robert Burks’ cinematography, but, in one of Oscar history’s most glaring omissions, not as one of the best films of the year. (Rear Window was also strangely absent from the art/set direction category, despite featuring one of the most memorable, unique sets ever built–the apartment complex and courtyard as seen from James Stewart’s character’s window.) Rear Window is my personal favorite from 1954, and I’m shocked it didn’t get a Best Picture nomination, but at least the film that did win for Best Picture that year was entirely deserving of the honor. That would be On the Waterfront.

Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando have electrifying chemistry in "On the Waterfront."

On the Waterfront was nominated in 12 categories and deserved every one. All five of its foremost actors (Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, and Rod Steiger) were nominated, which must be a record (but don’t quote me on that). Brando and Saint took the gold, and for my money, if those two had won solely on the basis of their make-out scene, I’d say they deserved it, because it may be the best kiss in all of cinema. (Just thought I’d throw that in there.)

Waterfront also took home awards for Richard Day’s art/set direction, Boris Kaufman’s cinematography, Gene Milford’s editing, Budd Schulberg’s writing, and Elia Kazan’s directing. Leonard Bernstein was nominated for his dramatic musical score but lost to Dimitri Tiomkin for The High and the Mighty. (There were two separate music scoring categories in 1955: “Best Music, Scoring of a Musical PIcture” and “Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.” Musicals were so popular, they essentially had their own category.)

Other favorites of mine that were classy contenders at the Academy Awards in 1955 were the Edward Dmytryk-directed The Caine Mutiny, which was nominated in seven categories including Best Picture and Best Actor for Humphrey Bogart (his third and final nomination after 1942′s Casablanca and 1951′s The African Queen, for which he won); Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which won for its art/set direction and its visual effects; the post-nuclear horror film Them!, whose giant killer ants lost in the visual effects category to 20,000 Leagues‘ giant killer squid; and the Friz Freleng-directed Sylvester-and-Tweety short Sandy Claws, which lost in the animated short category to Mr. Magoo.

(Learn more about these films and the 1955 Academy Awards at the Internet Movie Database.)

Korean Cinema #3: Lady Vengeance

By Nathanael Griffis

Spoiler Alert: Some key aspects of the film’s ending are revealed and discussed.

Coolest tattoo ever.

Imagine that a producer crossed 12 Angry Men with Seven and The Descent and then let Darren Aronofsky direct it. The result would be something close to Lady Vengeance (called Sympathy for Lady Vengeance in some translations). As a warning, I will be discussing some significant spoilers, because in order to truly analyze this film one has to talk about the ending. I know I held back on Oldboy, but that was a spoiler for which the surprise aspect matters deeply. Lady Vengeance (2005) is Chan-wook Park’s final film in his Vengeance Trilogy, which as a whole is a truly staggering achievement in film making. It is about a 19-year-old girl who is wrongly imprisoned for the murder of a child and upon release hunts down the man, and actual killer, who schemed to have her placed her in jail.

The film starts off reminiscent of Oldboy in many ways, which gave me concern, because I was hoping for something different. Geum-ja Lee (played by Yeong-ae Lee) is released from prison and begins to set in motion her plan of revenge. The music and the film’s visuals show a refined and polished look compared to Chan-wook Park’s two previous films, and there is still the trademark graphic violence and sexuality throughout, but Lady Vengeance examines the morality and spiritual implications of revenge. The entire film surrounds Geum-ja trying to find atonement for her role in the death of the little boy Won-mo. The final scene of Geum-ja pleading with her daughter to live a pure life is the most hopeful of the entire trilogy and shows atonement as a possibility–consequences aren’t avoidable, but one can still find hope and strive toward a pure and good life.

Geum-ja and daughter sharing a lovely moment, while a creepy guy looks on.

Much like Park’s other films this one starts off with multiple character threads that connect together. His editing style is harsh and sudden. Time lapses quickly, and the audience can’t look away for fear of missing something. Geum-ja’s plot to catch Mr. Baek (played by Min-sik Choi, who you’ll remember as Oh Dae-su in Oldboy) reaches a climax about midway through the film, and I was feeling dissatisfied–but then things became interesting. Geum-ja discovers Mr. Baek is a serial killer of children, and realizes she’s not the one deserving of revenge. She finds the parents of the murdered children and offers them all an opportunity to take revenge on Mr. Baek.

What unfolds is one of the most honest, bold, and profound discussions of sin, atonement, and the moral and spiritual consequences of violence. The parents agree they will kill him, but some can’t partake in the act itself. It’s a horrific scene as the parents each get an individually allotted time to exact violence on Mr. Baek. Chan-wook Park takes his time as we watch them literally rip one of the most despicable villains ever to pieces with various knives, axes, hammers, and scissors. They then return to Geum-ja’s bakery and have a heart-wrenching talk over cake. I know that sounds strange, but watching parents sing happy birthday to their dead children is haunting. Every character matters in this film, and the ability to introduce them all in such a short span is something other directors and writers should take note of.

Putting the gun down might make the hug more comforting.

The performances are all around astounding, including small roles from Kang-ho Song and Ha-kyun Shin (who also starred in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). Min-sik Choi is astounding and somehow delivers a human quality to a despicable man who kills children. Ultimately, this film rests on Yeong-ae Lee’s shoulders, and she delivers one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen. In one extended close up of her face she simultaneously laughs and cries with a malicious hint of enjoyment mingled with the guilt of the violence she’s orchestrated. I give a lot of credit to Park, because he consistently gets amazing performances from every actor. The depth of his actors’ performances is impressive when one considers that some are only on screen for a few seconds.

After watching this trilogy I want to see everything Chan-wook Park has done, and I have to say that this is a crowning achievement of the last decade of film. Because people will be curious, I’d say Lady Vengeance is my favorite. Its message of possible atonement gives the violence we see a purpose, and even though I left exhausted and drained, the characters achieve something. They learn and change, and that gives it a head over the others. Then it would have to be Sympathy at #2 for its stunning visuals and more fleshed-out characters. Oldboy is amazing and has amazing action scenes, but the characters leave a little to be desired as a whole.

Next, I’ll be leaving Chan-wook Park behind for Ji-woon Kim’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird.

On Trial: Case #001 – Tom Cruise

The Defense, presented by Nathanael Griffis

There is a viewpoint floating out in the ether that Tom Cruise is a bad actor, that he doesn’t make good movies, that he’s annoying, that he’s a crazy goofball. I respectfully and forcefully disagree (though I may not be able to argue against the last point). His ridiculous running style aside, Tom Cruise is a fantastic actor. He’s been nominated for three Oscars and seven Golden Globes (of which he’s won three), and numerous other accolades. He’s shown range in comedies, dramas, and genre films. Most of the criticism of his acting is that he’s too passionate–that he doesn’t have subtlety or the ability to lose himself in a role. Basically, he yells a lot, and this is all people remember. The reason they remember it, though, is because he is amazing at playing a character that lets his emotions build up and then explode. If anything, he has probably been typecast in these roles, but he wrote the book on releasing emotion on screen (not literally). He does take roles that require more subtle touches: Rain Man, Eyes Wide Shut, & Interview with the Vampire come to mind.

If you simply go through his filmography, the resume he’s accumulated is staggering. The directors he’s worked with are the best: Kubrick, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, both Ridley and Tony Scott, Oliver Stone, Ron Howard, Sydney Pollack, Rob Reiner, Cameron Crowe, Paul Thomas Anderson, Edward Zwick, Michael Mann; and I’ve left some out. I think a lot of the criticism of Tom Cruise comes from his off-screen activities. There also seems to be this ridiculous notion that he’s an action star, which is a sneaky way of trying to lump him in with sub-par actors. The truth is that in real life just about everyone’s a little strange. We all do and say crazy things. If you look at the things he’s done, chewing out cameramen or Matt Lauer, it’s not all that deplorable. He’s also barely an action star. Sure he’s done the Mission: Impossible movies, but that’s only a recent development. Minority Report has some action in it, but with the exception of the Mission: Impossible franchise, even his action-packed films, like Collateral, rely on strong story and characters.

What normally happens with criticism of an actor of Mr. Cruise’s caliber is that the whiny internet trolls have to begrudgingly qualify their insults with some phrase like “A Few Good Men was awesome, though.” The evidence speaks louder than the cover of the National Enquirer claiming Tom Cruise is a big meany. So, I leave you with his filmography for you to view and eventually accept that Tom Cruise makes amazing films. He’s here to stay and will be remembered. Perhaps this fact only builds a greater stubborn jealousy in his critics, but I’m willing to risk it.

Selected* films of Tom Cruise:

Taps (1981)

The Outsiders (1983)

Risky Business (1983)

Legend (1985)

Top Gun (1986)

The Color of Money (1986)

Cocktail (1988)

Rain Man (1988)

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Far and Away (1992)

A Few Good Men (1992)

The Firm (1993)

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Jerry Maguire (1996)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Magnolia (1999)

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Minority Report (2002)

The Last Samurai (2003)

Collateral (2004)

War of the Worlds (2005)

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Valkyrie (2008)

Knight and Day (2010)

*Some films have been excluded from this list because of their lack of notoriety and for space concerns.

The Prosecution, presented by Steven Moore

Never mind that Tom Cruise is kind of a dick in his personal life. If an actor is a douche in real life, it has no bearing on how talented they are or how well they perform their roles. Never mind that Tom Cruise has been in some of the best movies ever made. His film canon is impressive, and he repeatedly chooses films that are amazing. (Who can forget the game-changing Legend). Never mind that Tom Cruise is one of the greatest talents in stunt work of our generation. All that’s beside the point.

Tom Cruise just sucks. That’s all. I see a trailer for a movie he’s going to be in, and I immediately have no interest in seeing it. Something about the guy just makes me want to go anywhere his face isn’t. You can argue that I’m just jealous of a five-foot-tall psychopathic control freak who constantly has to try to re-ingratiate himself to polite society, but I’m not alone. We are legion. When I’m at a function where I don’t know anyone, all I need to do is throw out an “Ugh, I hear Tom Cruise has a new movie coming out.” The ball only starts rolling from there. Soon a crowd is gathered, and we unite as brothers and sisters of humanity through our mutual disgust of Mr. Cruise.

It’s not rational. It’s not even fair. But it’s damn near universal. Ray Bradbury wrote a short story about a man who hacks his way into the heart of an unexplored jungle. There he finds creatures whose very presence trigger a flight response in him. When he tries to fight it, he begins vomiting uncontrollably. There is no reason for him to feel this way. The creatures are tiny, harmless, and benevolent. Tom Cruise is like that: tiny and harmless (not sure about the benevolent part), but something about him makes my skin, and a lot of other people’s skin, crawl. Oh, and in the story, the creatures turn out to be the real earthlings, while we are descendants from Martians. I think the conclusion is pretty obvious there. I rest my case.

A Review of “The Fighter”

By Alban Yee

I became interested in The Fighter only after seeing the promotional display at the theater. It featured a quote from Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss describing it as a “proletarian true-life sports drama about an athlete who battles alongside and against his family.” Once I read this, I knew I was hooked. These are the kinds of movies I deeply enjoy. Rudy comes to mind. October Sky, although not a sports drama, is another classic I love.

What separates The Fighter from those other movies is the elevation of typically cliché characters into real people with complex emotions and motives. Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) isn’t just a washed up crack addict dreaming of his glory days. He loves his younger brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and battles his addiction in order to get back into his brother’s life. Their mother Alice (Melissa Leo) could easily have been painted as a two-dimensional, self-serving control freak, but under her horrible outward actions, Leo is able to show a mother who loves her children and wants the best for them.

It is a credit to the acting and the script that the movie played out more like a documentary than a movie. I was drawn in immediately and felt like I was being given access to the broken, nitty-gritty details of their lives. And some of those details were ugly. The detail and flow of the trashy family dynamic left me feeling angry, ill, and impressed all at once. In fact, one of the more vicious fight scenes in this movie takes place outside the boxing ring. When a Jerry Springer-type brawl broke out between Micky’s girlfriend and sisters on his front porch, I was so “close” to the action that I cringed and had to look away.

True to its character, the film doesn’t have a big, Hollywood “heart” moment. When it does come, it comes subtly in the form of acknowledgement, humility, and compromise.  Some of it is unspoken, as oftentimes is the case in real life.

The Fighter delivers what the promotional display promised: an Oscar-worthy, character-driven drama. The acting is excellent, especially by Bale (be sure to stick around during the credits–you’ll have an opportunity to guess which real person was played by which actor), and the director never lets you forget that these are real people with real hearts. It is an excellent film, and one that I am happy to recommend.

Oscar Month: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

By Tom Kapr

As part of my Year of Movies, during the month of February I will be focusing on past Academy Award-winning films, facilitated in large part by Turner Classic Movies and their annual 31 Days of Oscar marathon, in which they air nothing but Academy Award nominees and winners every hour of every day for 31 days, leading up to and eventually eclipsing the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on February 27. Throughout the month of February, I will be posting short articles on films that have won Academy Awards in past years, most of which I will not have seen before. So you can expect me, by the end of the month, to be even more of the classic film snob of the Incidental Dog crew than I already am. (I’m sure the other guys will love it.)

Is that really supposed to look like Gary Cooper?

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

It is difficult to assess a film when seeing it for the first time nearly 75 years after its release. Having acknowledged that critical caveat, I will now say that some films can knock my socks off no matter how long after their release I see them. Metropolis (1927) is one of the those films. Even in its unfinished form, Metropolis is still an edgy sci-fi film. Buster Keaton’s The General (1927) is one of those films. It makes most modern action-comedies look amateurish. Stagecoach (1939) is one of those films, containing what is still possibly the single greatest stunt sequence in cinema history and paving the way for every Western and every chase scene in every action film after it.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is not one of those films.

Oh, it’s a decent enough film, and I’m glad I watched it, but this is one that has not stood the test of time. Everything about it is overly simplistic, from the dialogue to the characterizations to the plot. Nothing about it stands out. Nothing about it is all that memorable. It dealt with some social commentary that I appreciated–the plight of struggling, starving farmer families, the responsibility of the financially affluent to help their fellow man–but that was handled in an overly simplistic manner as well.

Raymond Walburn was the Stephen Fry of his time.

Mr. Deeds is weak especially compared to other favorite Frank Capra films of mine, like Meet John Doe, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington–all of which suffer a bit from Capra’s penchant for sentimentalization, and some of which also have simplistic shortcomings, but all of which create memorable characters in memorable scenarios saying memorable things.

Mr. Deeds won the Academy Award in 1937 for Capra’s directing, but surely there must have been a better contender. I have to admit that this may be the first film of 1936 I’ve actually watched, so I can’t compare it to the other films released that year. The other four nominations it received were Best Sound Recording (really difficult to judge after 75 years), Best Writing (for which I’m surprised it was nominated), Best Picture (which it lost to The Great Ziegfeld amongst eight other nominated films), and Best Actor.

Best Actor. I love Gary Cooper, but this was not one of his finest performances. His character of Longfellow Deeds is supposed to be a simple small-town man, almost childlike but with good common sense, who gets taken for a chump by nearly everyone he meets when he inherits his uncle’s $20 million estate and has to move to New York City. But Deeds comes off far too childlike in some scenes. Cooper has played this type in other better films, like Meet John Doe and Sergeant York, but even in Sergeant York I found his characterization cloying at times. Just a bit too “aw shucks ma’am.” Here that “aw shucks” attitude is amplified to the point of annoyance. Did he deserve a nomination for his performance? He’s not bad–well, in a handful of scenes, it’s pretty bad. I suspect he was nominated for being a popular actor in a popular role.

Gary Cooper literally blows in this film.

As for Cooper’s co-star, Jean Arthur, she’s playing almost the exact same character she would play a few years later in Capra’s own Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It’s kind of a thankless character, a fiercely independent professional woman who realizes what a nice guy Deeds/Smith is and reforms her worldview. It’s also basically the same character Barbara Stanwyck played in Capra’s Meet John Doe–though Stanwyck nailed that role in a way Jean Arthur couldn’t. Meet John Doe made me fall in love with Barbara Stanwyck. Jean Arthur–she’s pretty good in Mr. Smith, for what the role needed. She’s pretty forgettable in Mr. Deeds.

If I sound cynical, I don’t mean to be. But some films just don’t age well. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington suffers from this same problem, but at least Mr. Smith had that wonderful climactic Senate filibuster scene. Mr. Deeds ends in a courtroom where Deeds is being tried for insanity, and the villains are villainous, and Deeds is self-effacingly heroic, and everything just wraps up a little too nice and neat and quick. It all seems a bit silly through the 2011 lens.

All these criticisms aside, it’s still a pleasant two-hour diversion. But if you’re looking for something more substantial–or if you’re looking for immortal cinema–Mr. Deeds Goes to Town just doesn’t hold up.