The Big Lebowski (1998)

lebowski

Oh the Coen Brothers.

I feel the need to preface this review with my general thought about the Coen Brothers.  I understand their appeal, and they’ve made a few great films, but I think they get more credit than they deserve.  Fargo was great, and I’ll review it some time in the future, but some of their other films I’ve seen just didn’t make any sense to me.  They remade True Grit, a film I don’t think needed to be remade.  It’s one of those that seemed like it’d be beyond the pale to remake.  I didn’t care for Burn After Reading, and I may get No Country for Old Men when I watch it again.  Nonetheless, if studios keep paying them to make movies, they must be good at it, or at least have a wide enough appeal.

The Big Lebowski

Jeff Lebowski, or “The Dude,” gets caught up in a strange case of mistaken identity as two men attack him at his apartment and urinate on his rug.  The rug, of course, that “ties the whole room together.”  He confronts the real Jeffery Lebowski, the man the intruders were trying to extort money from.  He confronts the other Lebowski, and is sent on a whirlwind adventure as a courier, heist-man, baby daddy, slacker bowling enthusiast for the next hour and forty-five minutes.  He encounters nihilists, Lebowski’s conceptual artist daughter who wants the Dude to father her child, a porn producer, and a brat kid.  I’ve probably forgotten a few people but that was all that came to mind.

The fact that the Dude is essentially a slacker who has little to do in life, aside from bowling and drinking White Russians, plays into a certain segment of the population: the slacker, underachiever who is perfectly content there.

I get the sense that this movie may be better or at least more enjoyable if experienced either drunk or on drugs.  I don’t know, the appeal with a slackers mentality offered for me moments of pure genius, but that seemed more hit and miss.

As annoying as Walter was in this movie, I think he is as important in tying  the whole movie together as the Dude is.  John Goodman does a phenomenal job with this character.  Everything has to do with Vietnam, and instead of asking, “Am I right?” he instead asks, “Am I wrong?” when making a point.

Though he had a very limited role, Jesus (John Torturro) was entertaining and had even expressed interest in doing a spin-off film.

I  liked the times when Sam Elliott was on-screen.  His brief monologue at the end of the film was refreshingly honest and real.  The film was funny…at times, and I also didn’t like it when Donny died, but it was enjoyable to a certain degree.

This film has a significant cult following.  Lebowski Fest has been held every year since 2002.

The Guardian criticized this film, saying it was “a bunch of ideas shoveled into a bag and allowed to spill out at random.”  I tend to agree, but at the same time I recognize the merits and why The Big Lebowski has a devout following, of which I am not a part of.

The Big Lebowski is a film that is a part of our culture, and is considered one of the better comedies of the last 20 years or so, so its influence and presence can’t be denied.  With that in mind, I did not like this film.  It was too much of a random assortment of things with little direction, slow pacing at times, and I get the sense that I could watch it another dozen times and still not fully get it.  It appeals to some, and I am not one of that some.

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

The Battle of Iwo Jima, a definitive and essential victory for the Americans in World War II.  In 2006 Clint Eastwood put out two movies related to this battle.  Flags of our Fathers was from the American side, and Letters from Iwo Jima the Japanese.  The former did more than twice as much at the box office, but this one is considered the better of the two movies.  I assume this since Letters is part of the 501 Must-See Movies and Flags is not.

Letters from Iwo Jima takes a look at the Japanese military station on the island from their preparations for the American invasion on through the battle.  About a third of the movie takes place prior to the battle, and the rest goes through the various military divisions as they fight the battle.

The film largely centers around two characters: General Kuribayashi, played by Ken Watanabe (Inception, Batman Begins), the Japanese commander,  and Saigo, a baker-turned-soldier played by Kazunari Ninomiya.  Kuribayashi is unconventional in his tactics, oftentimes throwing Japanese tradition out the window.  This is likely because he spent time in America and had built good relationships with some American military officers.  While his loyalty is to Japan, I get the sense that he doesn’t buy into a lot of the preconceived notions about Americans that many of the rank-and-file soldiers have been taught.  He does not underestimate them and was simply trying to make the best of a bad situation, even at the expense of his own culture.

Saigo wrote many letters home to his wife, and his story traces throughout the film from losing a friend to dysentery prior to the battle to watching his entire platoon commit suicide once they knew their position was lost.  He survives to the end, and is taken prisoner by the Americans while he attempts to bury one of his commanders.  He did not ask to join the Army, and it gave new perspective in each flashback of him, whether it was his forced recruitment to the Army to his refusal to shoot a dog who barked too much.  His refusal to shoot the dog lead to his disgrace and deployment to Iwo Jima.

There was a great struggle dealing with the balance of old Japanese customs and new ways of operating in battle.  Numerous times throughout the film the hard-line traditionalists stuck to their customs.  The members of Saigo’s unit that committed suicide pulled the pin on a grenade and held it next to their body.  I found that to be incredibly disturbing, but if that’s what normal is for someone and how they’re brought up, I suppose it makes sense.

Something I really liked was the use of color in this movie.  It is given a darker tone throughout the movie, and at times everything almost has a blue/grey tone, where a few parts of the Japanese uniform are different colors.  Perhaps the filmmakers are reflecting on the inevitable defeat that many of the Japanese officers on the island  have embraced.  As they have seen and heard reinforcements either destroyed in other battles or planes being moved back to defend Japan itself, the situation becomes more and more bleak throughout.

The direct interaction with the American soldiers took place mostly at the end of the film.  An American is wounded during the battle and is given quarter until his death by the Japanese.  It was good to see this humanization, mercy, and grace on the part of the soldiers.  After the American’s death, one of the Japanese soldiers pulls out a letter his mother had written him.  It brought things down to earth for the Japanese as they realized the Americans were not all that different: they had mothers who wrote them letters, they had people at home they were fighting for.  Unfortunately the other interactions with the Americans are at the end of the film when they’re pillaging things from dead Japanese soldiers, or shooting those that were trying to surrender.

I enjoy studying history, and for me this was informative for me.  I know some about World War II and the Battle of Iwo Jima, but this both informed and brought different perspective for me.  I will probably watch Flags of Our Fathers at some point.  I felt this movie ran long, and at times dragged.  It was good that most of the film was subtitled since the main language was Japanese. It made me engage and pay attention more than with other movies.  I probably won’t watch it again, but feel enriched because I have watched it.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)

I must confess a bias going into this.   I know very little about the film, but honestly, I’ve never been much of a Meryl Streep fan.  A lot of my exposure to her has been in awful films (the only two that come to mind are The Manchurian Candidate and Lions for Lambs), but I guess I haven’t realized what her appeal is.

I do like Jeremy Irons though.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman tells a story-within-a-story, with the parallels taking place between the characters in a movie, and the actor and actress playing them.

Charles Smithson (Irons) is pledged to be married to a girl when he becomes infatuated with Sarah Woodruff (Streep).  Sarah is seen as a tainted woman for the actions related to, you guessed it, a French Lieutenant.  As Charles and Sarah’s affair grows, Charles reaches the point where he breaks off his engagement to go after Sarah after she goes missing.  He loses his fiance, and the sizable dowry she’d bring to the marriage, and has his name scorned and shamed throughout England.  He eventually finds Sarah, who has since changed her name and identity.

In the real world, Mike (Irons) and Anna (Streep) continue an affair during the filming, the first time they cut to the current day they have slept together.  The story lines between film and real life are similar: they enjoy the first stages, have to decide whether to leave their current lives for the other, and a resolution.

The scenes throughout the film are very well shot.  I especially liked early in the film where Sarah is standing out at the edge of the dock (for lack of a better word), and looks out at the ocean, symbolically waiting for her love to return.

The story-within-a-story format is unique in film making, which can provide another layer and perspective.  It also allows for multiple endings, which is what happens in the book the film is based on.  I just got this feeling throughout the movie that the real world side of the film added little to the overall story.  The story being filmed could have held its own quite well, but the added layer on the other side of the camera helps tell a more unique story.  It also probably contributes to the timelessness that love, or in this case inappropriate love, can be.

As far as the acting is concerned, I thought both Irons and Streep did a very good job.  I wasn’t very convinced at Streep’s British accent, but it was nice to see the contrast between film and real world.  She did have a good, convincing monologue when Sarah tells Charles her real story and the ruse she’s living.

My opinion of this movie is that it’s complete, unique in format, and cinematographic-ally well shot, but I would not watch it again.  It was more or less a “blah” type of movie in my opinion.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

As it is the end of the month, some of my movies will be going off Netflix Instant Watch, so here we are.

Aside from bits and pieces that I’d read about this film, I went in with very little expectations or pre-conceived notions of what I was in for.  Sonny (Pacino) and two accomplices, Sal (John Cazale) and Stevie (Gary Springer) are intent on robbing a bank.  Right as the robbery starts though, Stevie chickens out and takes the getaway car.  It becomes quite clear that this is their first robbery, as Sonny seems to improvise almost everything he’s doing.

There are many missteps throughout the early part when the actual robbery takes place.  Stevie leaves abruptly, there is very little money in the safe as it had been picked up earlier in the day by a money transport service.  Sonny gets travelers checks and lights the ledger for those checks on fire.  The fire and subsequent smoke that went out of the building alerted other local business owners that something was up.  All of a sudden the police arrive and it moves from a robbery to a hostage situation.

This film was based, supposedly, on a true story of a bank robbery that took place in Brooklyn.  It was in the early 70s, the main characters were Vietnam veterans, and as war tends to do to soldiers, they had changed drastically.  There are a few cutaway scenes with Sonny’s mom and wife where they describe him to the police and how he had changed.  A large crowd forms outside the bank, news crews arrive, and a vast majority of the movie is spent dealing with the exchanges between Sonny and the police, while Sal stands guard with the hostages.

It’s interesting to look back on the time period this movie takes place and how quickly the crowd polarizes and changes throughout the standoff.  It’s revealed that Sonny is robbing this bank to be able to pay for a sex-change operation for his lover and ‘wife’ Leon (Chris Sarandon, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor).  This elicits some chuckles from the police, and whistles and teasing from the crowd as Sonny frisks various people who enter the bank for various reasons.

Dog Day Afternoon came out the year after The Godfather: Part II, and Pacino was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his role in each film.  He lost both times: to Robert De Niro in 75 and Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) in 76.  I thought he was incredibly annoying and ill-prepared for the robbery, and the scatter-brained logic and way of making things up got a little redundant, but once the film became about the hostage situation a lot of that seemed to calm down.  His performance late in the film, specifically when he has one of the bank tellers write out a will for him, shows the balance and acting range Pacino had at this time.

While he was in a supporting role, I found Sal’s character to be almost if not more intriguing thank Sonny.  The way John Cazale carried himself in this film I think speaks to something of a lost art in Hollywood.  His presence in the film: the facial expressions, tone and attitude of his voice, really bring to life Sal’s character and adds so much depth.  Sidney Lumet was very skeptical when Pacino suggested he take the role.  Lumet thought he was too old, and just wasn’t a good fit.  He quickly changed his mind once they read together.  There’s a line in the film where Sonny asks Sal what country they should flee to, and Cazale improvised “Wyoming,” even though he was just supposed to remain silent in the script.

Something unique I learned about John Cazale is that he has a unique distinction.  Every one of the films he was in ended up being nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.  While his role in The Godfather: Part III was archived footage and was released twelve years after his death.  Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather, The Conversation, and The Deer Hunter are all part of the 501 Must See Movies Project, so I look forward to re-watching or watching his performances in each of these films.

Overall I enjoyed this film.  I found it dragged at times.  When it felt like I was getting to the end of the movie and checked the time, I was really only about halfway through the film.  I was not expecting most of the film to take place in the bank, as I said I knew little about Dog Day Afternoon when I first watched, but I think that adds a lot.  It reminds me of something like Twelve Angry Men where the movie takes place in one spot.  They do a good job with this one place though.  I probably won’t see this one again, but it’s nice to have a reminder of how good John Cazale was as an actor, and there was a time in Al Pacino’s career where he did great films and was far better than he’s been recently.

My Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Casino Royale (2006)

Bond. James Bond.

I would’ve liked to have written this review a week ago with the new Bond film, Skyfall.  I went and saw Skyfall opening day, but this review is not about Skyfall, it’s about Daniel Craig’s first Bond film, Casino Royale.

One other Bond film, Goldfinger, is part of the 501 must see movies, but since I don’t own it, it will probably be a while before I review it.

Over the past few years I’ve made it a point to watch all of the Bond films, as I’ve seen bits and pieces of a few of them, and never did watch them over Thanksgiving on TNT as is customary in some households.

The franchise had finished with Pierce Brosnan in 2002 with arguably the worst Bond film of them all, Die Another Day, and needed a fresh start.  What better way to make a fresh start than go back to a younger, rougher Pre-Dr. No Bond.  While the franchise seemed to be sputtering with weaker stories, Casino Royale renewed interest and brought Bond into the 21st Century.  Just as a note: I think Pierce Brosnan did a lot of damage to Bond, though a good deal of that probably falls on the writers and the weak stories they wrote.  He’s easily my least favorite Bond, but I digress.

The choice for the new Bond is the all-important decision that could’ve made or broken the franchise’s return.  Daniel Craig does a lot with this role, and I especially liked the raw and at times immature and inexperienced spy.  In a way it humanizes him as more than a martini-drinking womanizer who’s also a great spy.  I thought the next movie, Quantum of Solace, left a lot to be desired and they seemed to linger in Bond’s youth and inexperience a little too much for my liking.  However, this review isn’t about that, so I won’t venture much into that film.

Scrolling through his filmography on IMDB, only 3 movies pop out, Elizabeth, Road to Perdition, and Munich.  Casting his in a role as big as Bond was an incredible risk, but luckily a good script, good action, and a well-balanced cast all play important roles in Casino Royale’s success.

James Bond, having just been elevated to the rank of ‘OO’ status at MI6, takes his first mission after killing a mole within MI6 and one of his contacts.  Using black and white in the opening scene where Bond gets his first kill adds so much.  It makes the scene stand out, and basic format in a way reflects Bond’s youth as a spy.

One of the things that makes for a good Bond film is the chase scene.  They do a great job with the one in Uganda, and Bond shows his youth in getting caught, pictured, and published executing a low-level member in the group MI6 is trying to take down.  One of the few things that has bothered me about Daniel Craig’s Bond is his run.  I like to call it the “Craig Run,” and I cringe a little whenever I see it.  It’s something that is unique to him as far as I know.

I realize Judi Dench is older than when the Brosnan films were out, but it took a little adjusting to her ‘M’ being older during an earlier time in Bond’s career.  I think she does great at anchoring and acting as a voice of reason and moral center for Bond.

I found Eva Green to be an acting delight, an have been disappointed that she hasn’t had very much more note-worthy performances since Casino Royale.  She, as with Craig, progress and carry the weight of going from guarded people to falling in love, which if In His Majestry’s Secret Service was any indication, does not fare well for the lady.  While I did like some of the callbacks in Quantum of Solace to Bond’s relationship with Vesper ,something central to Bond film sis the fact that they stand on their own.  With Casino and Quantum, it’s more like a two-part rather than stand alone.  Nevertheless, it was good to have resolution with Vesper’s character by the end of Quantum.

Le Chiffre, though not the big fish villain of the film, works.  He’s not the greatest villain, and I’d probably put him more middle of the road as far as Bond villains are concerned.  He does a good job of being at least somewhat heartless, but I found him at times to be more desperate than anything else, especially when he’s torturing Bond.

One minor character that I enjoyed was Mathis. Giancarlo Giannini does a good job performing here, though personally I found him one of the few true good spots of Quantum.  His role in the next film is very limited, but adds so much to Bond’s character as a sounding board and voice of wisdom as Bond remains tormented with what happened in Casino Royale.

Visually this movie was very good, and pushed the envelope well without going too over the top (Roger Moore?).  Realism in film is something I find engaging and enjoyable.  When ideas start to get to far away from reality, in this type of film at least, it becomes less enjoyable for me.  The torture scene, and especially the dialogue between Bond and Le Chiffre, was hilarious.  It’s a good representation of Bond’s playfulness while remaining competent as a spy.

An interesting side note: in the car flip scene before Bond and Vesper are tortured, Bond’s car flipped enough times to break the world record.

Having watched all 3 Daniel Craig Bond films, I feel like one of the major themes in his story arch has been redemption.  With Bond as a young and somewhat inexperienced spy at this point, he tends to fall for things that older Bond’s don’t.  The way he misjudges people, especially in Casino Royale, and learning from his mistakes so they wouldn’t be repeated.  He remains polished, but still self-aware that he doesn’t always do the best or right thing.

The 501 must-see movies book proclaims at the end of their description of the film, “Best Bond since the 70’s.”  I am almost in agreement with this, though personally I think Timothy Dalton is the most underrated Bond of them all, and at least after Craig’s 3 films is a solid 3rd-best Bond behind Connery and Craig.

I have watched Casino Royale a number of times already, and it will remain one that I can watch every year or two and find entertaining and enjoyable.  For those who have been disappointed with the direction Bond had been taken with Craig’s predecessor, this movie resets the franchise and helps them move forward while keeping elements essential for James Bond.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

Star Wars.

I mulled over what movie to do this week.  With it being Halloween, I thought maybe The Blair Witch Project or something along those lines.  This seems right though.  With Disney buying out the rights to the Star Wars franchise and announcing plans for Star Wars: Episode 7 in 2015, I find it appropriate to at least attempt to tackle this titan of Hollywood.

Unlike Star Trek, which I have very limited experience, Star Wars is something I know a heck of a lot more about than the average person on the street.  I don’t claim to be a complete Star Wars geek: I’ve never dressed up as a Star Wars character, don’t have original action figures, and I can’t name 74 things that are wrong in the films.

However

I have read probably a third of the Expanded Universe books and have watched 4 of the 6 movies more times than is probably healthy (I’m still trying to figure out how I can block out Episodes 1 and 2, but I digress).  The announcement of an Episode 7 makes me more than a little giddy.  I’m anxious to see what stories they translate onto the big screen.  I could see the Jedi Academy trilogy as a strong possibility, although some of my favorite EU stories come from Timothy Zahn, so I’d be delighted if the Thrawn Trilogy (and introduction of one of the EU’s most well-known-non-movie characters, Mara Jade) was used.  Time will tell.  Hopefully they’ll do better than some of the more recent ventures (Star Wars: The Clone Wars).

Episode 4 is the one that started it all, and as such, it seems appropriate to be included in the 501 Must-See Movies book.  I, along with many others, believe that Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back, is the best movie of the saga, at least in its stand-alone power, acting, story progression, and plot-twists.

I have seen New Hope numerous times, but for the purposes of this review, I will watch through once again and, well, review it.  I have chosen to watch it on the 1995 VHS version because 1) I finally figured out how to use the VCR with my current TV, 2)I haven’t been too thrilled with the digitally remastered version (I have New Hope on DVD and Blu-ray), and 3) It gives the closest to the original as any version, so new things that have been interjected (Greedo shooting at Han first, Han’s encounter with Jabba the Hutt in Docking Bay 94, etc.) and as such take away from the original film.

It goes without saying that I love this film, so most of the rest of this will be about things I think work well and I enjoy in watching this.  Also there will be a lot of spoilers…

One of the main themes in this film is fate.  There seems to be so many things that fall perfectly into place: The droids dropping on the planet Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi live on, the interconnectedness of the Skywalker family (as revealed in episodes 5 and 6), the droids reuniting after their separation on Tatooine and coming into the possession of Luke.  If the escape pod had landed on any other planet, the plans wouldn’t have made it into the Rebellion’s hands.  I’m sure this can be explained by the Force and the interconnectedness of all living things.

It’s interesting how many more questions come up in watching this knowing the back story that’s been told in Episodes 1 through 3.  The fact that C-3PO doesn’t recognize Tatooine or the Lars family even though that’s the planet and place on the planet where he was built.

Mark Hamill was almost exclusively a TV actor prior to Star Wars.  He works well and his character is an intriguing case study throughout the movies as he moves from being a boy to a man, idealistic to realistic, and losing his innocence.  In New Hope, he is primarily wearing white or light clothes, an intentional move to represent his youth, naivety, and innocence.  He wears greys in Empire Strikes Back and black in Return of the Jedi.

Alec Guinness, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, provides a strong, centering role in the movie.  His character represents one of the last of the old guard, a key to the past that hasn’t been re-written by those in control.  Perceived as crazy by some, I find his performance sobering and informative, and I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for Guinness.

Obi-Wan’s character is one that’s been interesting to see back story on in the new trilogy, and also to read about in EU books.  His force ghost actually stays around for 10 years after Episode 4, or 6-7 years after the films.  One of the last things he says to Luke before parting for the next life is that Luke is, “Not the last of the old Jedi, but the first of the new Jedi.”  This changing of the guard was important and necessary as Luke was re-establishing the Jedi Order in a far different time from when the order was exterminated.

The lightsaber scene between him and Darth Vader seems so primitive compared to the battles in Episodes 1-3.  The fact that both Obi-Wan and Vader are about 20 years older than in Episode 3 probably plays a big role in this.  His saying to Vader that he’d become more powerful if Vader strikes him down is more than likely in reference to his ability to become a Force Ghost, which he’d learned from his master in the time between Episodes 3 and 4.

Darth Vader’s character encompasses evil: big, intimidating, dark.  James Earl Jones, who I would listen to if he was reading the phone book, brings to life the intimidating needed for this character to be convincing.

Harrison Ford works great as Han Solo.  In an interview at the beginning of the VHS, George Lucas explained that Ford was the 5th person to read for the part, and wasn’t really seriously considered before the audition.  Lucas had 5 people read for every part, and Ford’s addition as a reader was more to fit that system.  It’s good that he read for the part.

Han’s banter with Leia in this film and the others is fitting since they eventually marry and have a family.  It provides a lot of the comic relief.  The banter between the two droids, C-3PO and R2-D2, takes the cake though.  They banter like an old married couple, and since they’ve been together for over 20 years in the Star Wars Universe, it makes sense.

For the time period, the special effects were probably cutting edge.  A lot of the effects people were very young.  Lucas also said in the VHS interview that the average age was 24, with quite a few guys being 18, 19, and 20.  This young, idealistic type crew seems fitting in a movie like this since it has a lot to do with idealism.

This is definitely a movie that ‘I will watch again.  Since my wife has not seen any Star Wars movies, that is something that will take place before Episode 7 comes out.  This movie evokes strong emotion:people either love or hate it.  I love it, but also recognize why it’s divisive.  It re-defined American cinema, and brought about a lot of the commercialization of films that has become commonplace these days.  It raised the stakes in special effects, though I think a movie like Tron, which will also get reviewed at some point, had a far bigger impact in terms of CGI.

I think this movie is fun, complex, and one that can be enjoyed with each viewing.  I notice different things each time I watch a Star Wars film, or see it in a new light as I’m transitioning into different stages in life.  If cinema is something that allows people to take a break from reality and get lost in a fantasy world: Star Wars exemplifies the film industry better than most.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.