The Hunger Games – “a beautiful rarity in cinema”

Well, better late than never, right? As of this post, this film has already grossed over $460 million worldwide. Shockingly enough, I have yet to see it. I will make sure to do so in the next week or two. I can’t see these huge blockbusters in the first week or two…the crowds are too ridiculous for me and I prefer a quieter theater atmosphere. But enough about my own idiosyncrasies — our guest columnist William Buhagiar (see his past posts on the Harry Potter series) made sure to see it and was kind enough to submit his personal commentary. Here it is:

When it comes to the precarious topic of book-to-film adaptations, the opinions amongst fans of the source material are essentially unanimous: the book is always substantially better. When it comes to The Hunger Games, a shockingly violent, disturbing trilogy of books geared towards young adults, none of the fans (including myself) anticipated the first cinematic installment of Suzanne Collins wildly popular series to parallel the quality of the source material.

Shockingly enough, director Gary Ross has masterfully crafted a film that not only does the novel an extraordinary degree of justice, but has (arguably) improved upon the book. Directly prior to the dimming of the lights in the theater, I was apprehensive that perhaps my expectations were too high and my feelings toward the film would be lukewarm at best. But mercifully, I found the movie to be not only satisfying, but equally as suspenseful, riveting, intense and moving as the novel.

The Hunger Games is set during an unspecified time in a dystopian future – North America has been nearly annihilated by an implied nuclear war and is now the nation of Panem, a country comprised of twelve impoverished “districts” and a wealthy, lavish metropolis city simply referred to as “The Capitol.” The government is a totalitarian regime under the control of the cruel dictator President Snow, (a brilliant Donald Sutherland) and each of the twelve outlying districts are essentially servants of the Capitol, and labor tirelessly to provide the city with various resources – and District 12, the primary focus of the story, is a grim, poverty-stricken colony of starving coal miners. Established as both a punishment for a past rebellion against their government and a reminder of the absolute control the Capitol holds over the districts, Panem stages an annual event: The Hunger Games.

Once a year, each of the twelve district’s children between the ages of twelve and eighteen attend the Reaping, a ceremony during which two teenagers are selected by lottery to compete in the Games – a nightmarish fight to the death staged in an outdoor arena that is televised across the country and is mandatory viewing for each of Panem’s citizens. To the subjugated districts, it’s a terrifying reminder of the government’s power – to the Capitol, it’s the final word in entertainment.

When Katniss Everdeen’s younger sister, Prim, is announced as District 12’s female “tribute” during the Reaping, Katniss desperately volunteers to take her place in one of the film’s most heart-wrenchingly moving scenes. Katniss and her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta Mellark, are sent to the Capitol to be stylized, interviewed, and showcased for the sake of introducing Panem to this year’s competitors and to gain sponsors: wealthy citizens of the Capitol who could assist them during the Games by sending food, weapons or medicine that could ultimately decide their fate in the arena.

One of the film’s finest achievements is in the establishment of the futuristic country of Panem: the early scenes introduce the audience to the dismal, depressing squalor of District 12 and skillfully showcases the poverty and hunger that plagues it. Katniss, at sixteen years-old, is responsible for providing food for her mother and sister by hunting illegally in the woods surrounding her home. When Katniss arrives in the Capitol, the environment couldn’t be any more dramatically contrasted – the excess, outrageous fashion and ignorance of the Capitol citizens is palpable.

The brilliant talent that is Jennifer Lawrence (Oscar nominated for the indie flick Winter’s Bone) beat out several other actresses for the role of Katniss Everdeen, and rightfully so. Lawrence’s performance as the film’s bad-ass heroine is nothing short of extraordinary, and she carries the two-and-a-half hour feature masterfully, bringing to her character both the aggressive ferocity of a consummate survivor and the delicate vulnerability of a young woman thrust into overwhelming circumstances to spare the life of her beloved sister. She has a keen ability to make the audience experience her terror, desperation and grief just as she does throughout the film.

The supporting actors certainly deserve acknowledgement, as well. Josh Hutcherson, whose most notable role prior to The Hunger Games was in The Kids Are All Right,  plays Peeta Mellark: District 12’s charming, good-natured male tribute that harbors romantic affection towards Katniss. I found Hutcherson’s performance to be pleasantly surprising – his character could easily have been bland and forgettable, but mercifully this character became endearing and very enjoyable to watch. Woody Harrelson is Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss and Peeta’s alcoholic mentor and the only living District 12 tribute who has survived a past Hunger Games. His performance is certainly satisfactory, and though the treatment for his character came across as slightly watered-down, the pros regarding Haymitch undoubtedly outweighed the cons. Elizabeth Banks plays Effie Trinket, the irritatingly sprightly Capitol citizen assigned to escort Katniss and Peeta through their pre-Games interviews and training. Banks, in outrageous clothing, wigs and make-up, (typical fashion for the Capitol residents) provides well-needed levity beautifully. Her moments of comic relief were a necessary (albeit brief) departure from the often overwhelmingly grim atmosphere of the movie. Lenny Kravitz, an unexpected choice, plays Katniss’s compassionate stylist, Cinna, whose performance isn’t necessarily inadequate; but with very little screen time, it is ultimately the most forgettable. Caesar Flickerman, played by Stanley Tucci, is absolutely perfect as the oily, eccentric commentator of the Games.

Much of my apprehension regarding the film was the PG-13 rating, which inevitably indicated a substantial sacrifice in adapting the source material. Collins’ novel was brutally merciless in its portrayal of child-on-child violence and the descriptions of slaughter are truly shocking. Naturally, I doubted that the film would be able to properly convey the degree of intensity I felt during passages of the book. However, yet another of the film’s finest accomplishments was avoiding any explicit bloodshed with astoundingly clever editing and cinematography yet managing to establish just how horrific the Hunger Games are. None of the violence is ever glorified or gratuitous, and though the gore is significantly toned-down to avoid the R-rating, the suspense, intensity and terror are all there, which essentially renders the carnage unnecessary.

What I found to be the most incredible aspect of the adaptation is the level of quality the filmmakers have achieved. Blockbuster action films, more often than not, are mediocre at best – writing and acting are constantly secondary priorities whilst box-office earnings are ultimately a studio’s main concern. In the case of this film, however, Gary Ross’s pursuit was not towards earning as much money in ticket sales as possible, but simply making the finest film he could. The Hunger Games is a beautiful rarity in cinema: a large-scale, big-budget popcorn movie that delivers not just violence and explosions, but an expertly-paced, terrifically entertaining story that is beyond satisfying. I and the millions of other fans of the trilogy will now be forced to patiently wait for the sequel, Catching Fire, which has been given a perfect set-up at the conclusion of The Hunger Games. I was desperately hopeful that Gary Ross would return to direct the remaining two films – in my personal opinion, franchises should always stick with one director for the sake of atmospheric consistency, and his work on the first film is superb. Unfortunately, Lions Gate has officially announced that they have just begun a hunt for a new director. I can only hope their choice is respectable, and their new candidate is prepared to fill some very big shoes.

Soderbergh: Retiring from Movies?!

I just read on The Huffington Post yesterday that director Steven Soderbergh is seriously contemplating retiring from Hollywood to become a painter. The first thing that came to mind was (sadly) Brett Favre and all of the other famous athletes who have proclaimed a hasty “retirement” only to come back to their sacred ground before the new season even begins. So my feeling here is that although I’m sure Mr. Soderbergh is genuine in his feelings for wanting to explore new artistic ground, I’m sure that in due time the lure of money and familiarity of making movies will suck him back in. And this, for most movie buffs, is a good thing.

I vividly remember seeing Soderbergh’s feature-length debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape 22 years ago (Jeez, has it been that long?!). To this day, I think this is one of the strongest debuts of any director to come out in the last 50 years and remains one of his strongest efforts. To his credit, Soderbergh is one of the few filmmakers who dare to explore new ground and take artistic risks with new experiments. They may not all work or make for great movies (see Full Frontal or The Girlfriend Experience), but you tip your cap to a man seeking to push the boundaries and test new concepts. His style has a unique vision and “look” to it – the lighting in his films and use of color always stand out and immediately tells you that you are watching a Soderbergh film. Since Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the Oscar-winner has made some of the strongest films over the past two decades, including (the often-overlooked) Out of Sight, King of the Hill, Traffic, and Erin Brockovich – all mostly coming in his earlier years. The last decade – which includes the insulting Ocean’s Twelve and his poorly received Che – has not been nearly as impressive. I enjoyed Ocean’s Eleven thoroughly. It is a stylish, well-made film, but also a helluva lot of fun too with a terrific all-star cast. It wasn’t until the subsequent two sequels that I felt he perhaps “sold out” just a bit, and this is a shame because he still is one of America’s finest directors.

But I digress. Announcing your retirement from Hollywood? Is this not a wee bit dramatic? David Lynch manages to balance a number of artistic mediums. He makes a film every few years (and the rarity of it makes a new release of his seem more like an event), while still dedicating himself to his other artistic outlets such as painting, photography, and music. Lynch is a true artist – and can never be accused of being a sell-out by anyone. With three films currently in pre-production and his movie Contagion set for release, it will be interesting to see how Soderbergh segues into his new endeavor, if he does at all. The trailer for Contagion (see below) is very intriguing and personally, I can’t wait to see it. It has the look of being his best in years, but I won’t get ahead of myself.

I hope that Soderbergh proves to be more Michael Jordan (or Joaquin Phoenix, if you will) and less Barry Sanders when it comes to the act of retiring — because it would be a shame not to have his films to look forward to. I have a feeling this is all much ado about nothing — and coincidentally garnering much publicity at the very time his new film is set to be released. For fans of the director, I wouldn’t let this get to you and I wouldn’t be overly distressed. He’ll be back – -just cross your fingers that it isn’t for an Ocean’s 14.

On the Radar: George Clooney in ‘The Descendants’

Summer movie season is my least favorite time to go to the theater. The only good thing about it is when the summer starts to fade out and the excitement of the new Fall releases begins to percolate. These are usually the movies I want to see and this year looks no different. One film that I am especially excited about is The Descendants – and if you watch the trailer below, you’ll have a good idea as to why that is. First off, it is the first feature-length film written and directed by Alexander Payne since the amazing Sideways (2004), a film I thought belonged in the Top 10 movies of the decade. His short film, “14e Arrondissement” was, in my opinion, the very best to be included in Paris Je T-Aime. And now The Descendants, which looks like it has award nominations written all over it.

The movie looks like a tremendous vehicle for George Clooney. I have always liked Clooney, but have always felt that he fits ‘too easily’ in the roles that he takes on – even in those roles in which he has garnered much critical praise from. I am always thinking that, although quite convincing, he could have played these roles (Up in the Air, Three Kings, Out of Sight) in his sleep. From the looks of it, Matt King, the character he plays in The Descendants, gets him out of his comfort zone just a bit – and we, the audience, can perhaps have greater empathy for him this time around. Here, Clooney is trying to re-connect with his adolescent daughters after his wife suffers a terrible accident and falls into a coma. We can see that his relationship with his girls is strenuous at best – and when one of them breaks the news to him that their mom was having an affair, it shatters his world.

I can’t wait for the release of this movie. It looks like the typical grand fare that we have come to expect from Payne (Election and About Schmidt) – a wonderful blend of the tragic and lighthearted; heartbreaking and quite funny – with a pitch-perfect script and wonderfully sculpted characters to surround Clooney. I’m sure the Fall movies will bring with it much competition for Payne’s latest work – but for right now, I am eager to see what this movie brings.

Forget “Glee”: This Movie Shows the Real Deal!

I do not watch the television show Glee and I thank my lucky stars for that. I once had the misfortune of watching an episode (sorry, Tara) and remember trying to comprehend the reason for its enormous popularity. As a theater teacher and director, it all seemed so phony and so exaggerated to me. I couldn’t help but feel insulted as a viewer. From my experience, this was not a genuine reflection of the arts and musical theatre in the high school arena.

I’ve had many jobs in my life and I can say with absolute certainty that being a high school English and theater teacher was the most challenging job I ever had. But even with the many difficulties, obstacles, and hardships that I encountered directing the school’s theatrical productions each year, it was also the most rewarding work experience I have ever had – by far. Whether it was for the school’s annual musical or a scene worked on in drama class, the level of talent these kids displayed never ceased to amaze and confound me. The experience also proved to me that, when given the opportunity, kids of any age, from any background, can accomplish nearly anything. So many of my former students – several of whom I still keep in contact with and am forever grateful for knowing — inspired me to work harder to make our productions look as professional as possible. The experiences are cemented in my memory and I will take with me wherever I go – all because of the remarkable students I had.

So why am I sharing this personal information here on my film blog? Well, I recently watched the documentary Most Valuable Players directed by Matthew D. Kallis – and I must say, as a person who works in theatre and has taught HS drama, that I was moved and inspired by this rousing little film. The movie follows three (of the competing 27) high school theatre troupes in Lehigh Valley, PA on their way to the annual Freddy Awards, which are treated like the Tony Awards of high school musicals in the area. Like many areas across the country, Lehigh Valley is a sports-driven community – so much money, press, and attention is spent on athletics. This is a great thing. However, many school districts in our country have had severe budget cuts to their performing arts departments – some schools wiping the arts off the map completely. This is not a great thing and in fact, quite sad as the performing arts can provide so much to our youth, as illustrated in Kallis’ film.


I was amazed at the tremendous enthusiasm throughout the community surrounding the Freddy Awards – and not just from the students participating. The nominations are announced live on local television – and the ceremony itself is televised live and broadcast to millions of local homes. And just look at how packed that theatre gets for this annual event! The ceremony is held at the historic State Theatre in Easton, PA and is the brainchild of former PBS producer Shelley Brown. Shelley is in much of the documentary and her level of commitment to the arts, the Freddy’s, the students, and the community is beyond reproach. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but wish I was still directing high school students in wonderful musicals and plays – for no other reason than seeing the joy in all of their faces and the level of commitment made by faculty and students alike.

Most Valuable Players may not be the most important documentary made this year – but it does serve as a wake-up call concerning arts education in America. It shows us why the performing arts must remain in our schools and offered to young people who want to take part. Sure, the Freddy Awards provide these students with added incentive to push even harder (and the competitive nature of the ceremony is touched upon) – but really, you can clearly see just how dedicated they would be without them. As for the theatre instructors, their allegiance to their kids and exemplary work ethic is a wonder to watch. I only wish that every school district took part in something very much like this – it would make a significant difference in the lives of so many.

And the Good News: You don’t have to wait for Most Valuable Players to play at an art-house theater near you — or come out on Blu-Ray and DVD. The film was picked up by Oprah’s Winfrey’s channel (OWN) — and you can watch it Thursday, September 8th at 9:00pm EST. If you are a theatre-lover, an educator, a student, or (heaven forbid) actually watch Glee — this movie is a must-see!

RATING: 

Friday Flashback: The Great Dictator (1940)

At the risk of sounding like a genuine Film Snob, I must admit that I shake my head in disappointment at those who think that films like The Hangover, Wedding Crashers, and Superbad are among the funniest films of all-time. This is not to say that these movies – and recent films of their kind – are not funny. They certainly are – and I enjoy them very much. But when I watch a film like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (which I had the extreme pleasure of re-visiting last week), I am once again reminded of what truly brilliant comedies are made of. I very rarely use the word “genius.” In fact, I think the term may only apply to a mere handful of artists in the history of movie-making. And cinematic pioneer Charlie Chaplin is indeed one of those few.

Chaplin insisted on making silent films for years – even long after The Jazz Singer revolutionized movies and the “talkie” sound era began. With The Great Dictator (in which he wrote, produced, directed, starred and co-composed the score), Chaplin made his first true talking picture – and boy did he have a lot to say. Not only laugh-out-loud funny, the movie was the very first film of its time to use biting satire against the Nazi regime and in particular, Adolf Hitler. Nominated for 5 Academy Awards, The Great Dictator has long been considered a true classic of the cinema – and for good reason. The movie was also selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1997 for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”

With The Great Dictator, it’s as if outspoken Chaplin thumb-tacked images of Hitler and the swastika emblem on the wall and zipped dart after dart into them. It’s a scathing commentary on Nazism and on dictators like Hitler and Mussolini. On top of this, the film is hysterically funny (featuring some of film’s most classic comedic moments & scenes), and yes, even romantic (typical Chaplin). Chaplin takes on two roles here – and does a marvelous job in both (earning a well-deserved “Best Actor” Oscar nom). As the Jewish barber who has been hospitalized for 20 years after a plane crash during WWI, Chaplin’s character returns to his beloved barbershop in the Jewish ghetto, but because he has suffered severe memory loss, has no idea how drastically the world has changed and how brutally the Jews are treated. Oblivious to his societal status, the barber (who, Chaplin swore at the time, was not a representation of his infamous Little Tramp character despite obvious resemblances) stands up to the harsh stormtroopers who continue to invade the ghetto and humiliate its citizens.

Chaplin also plays the fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel, leader of Tomania (an allusion to ptomaine poisoning), and a riotous lampoon of Hitler. Chaplin’s Hynkel is wildly funny, though he does not mean to be. He is also terribly insecure, always seeking the advice of his Minister of Interior Garbitsch (pronounced “garbage” and wonderfully played by Henry Daniell) who is modeled after Joseph Goebbels. Jackie Oakie plays Benzino Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria, with showy arrogance. Hynkel and Napaloni are fighting over who will take over Osterlich (Austria) and the battle of wits between the two makes for some funny sequences. Billy Gilbert plays the feeble Minister of War (talk about your paradoxes) Herring, who is the subject of much of Hynkel’s abuse. Rounding out the lead cast is the beautiful Paulette Goddard who plays Hannah, a fearless resident of the ghetto and the object of the barber’s affection.

The scene that the film is most famous for is the one when Hynkel dances with a large, balloon-like globe, while he fantasizes about overtaking the world. He does this to Wagner’s Lohengrin, and at the very end of the sequence, the balloon, of course, pops. The scene I can’t get enough of – and I think it’s one of the funniest scenes in film history, is Hynkel’s first speech to his people – and Chaplin’s wonderful mockery of the German language. It’s an extraordinary scene that showcases the comedic brilliance and wonderful acting abilities of Charlie Chaplin. Do yourself a favor, and watch the video below.

The Great Dictator is no doubt a phenomenal cinematic achievement. Chaplin was never one to back down and was very politically-minded (see J. Edgar Hoover). Here, he has created one of the very best satires of all-time, not to mention one of our very best comedies. For those unfamiliar with Chaplin’s prolific canon of work, I would recommend The Great Dictator be your introduction to his genius. He does lay it on a bit thick at the end (when his barber gives the speech imploring Hannah to look up to the skies above), and though a bit melodramatic, I can forgive this as it is simply Chaplin speaking to his audience. Watching it again reminded me that, yes it’s funny watching a woman shit in a sink — but it is the stuff of Charlie Chaplin that remains timeless, original, important, and yes, remarkably funny, now 70+ years later.

Friday Flashback: Vampire Circus (1972)

Vampire CircusVampire Circus

1972
PG
87 min
Director: Robert Young
Cast: Adrienne Corri, Thorley Walters, Anthony Higgins, David Prose

Rating:

The 70’s were a very strange time for film – and for horror in particular.  Prior to the late-1960’s most horror fell into a pretty standard motif. Most were period pieces with classic monsters and relatively tame violence (at least by today’s standards).  But the 60’s saw radical changes in the horror film.  With classics like Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead, the horror had not only moved into our modern times, but to the very house next door.

The prototypical Hammer vampire: Exaggerated fangs and ruby-red blood.

So it’s interesting and rare to see a period horror film in the 1970’s, especially one that’s not attempting tongue-in-cheek parody of the genre. I’ve always been a fan of Hammer Studios and their body of work.  For those of you unfamiliar, Hammer is a UK-based studio known almost exclusively for its horror productions and in particular its reimagining of many of the famous Universal monster ensemble (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, etc.).  Hammer saw its greatest output from the mid-50s to the mid-70s thanks in large part to the frequent casting of Christopher Lee (usually in the role of Dracula) and Peter Cushing (usually in the role of Dr. Frankenstein or Dracula’s nemesis Dr. Van Helsing).  These greats embody the essence of Hammer and account for some of Hammer’s best performances, even when the material is not quite up to their legendary status.

Vampire Circus doesn’t feature Lee or Cushing. Count Mitterhaus is not nearly as frightening, in name or performance, as Dracula. And with the tagline: “The Greatest Blood-show on Earth” the movie pretty much sets itself up for potential that is nealry impossible to deliver.

Beware Count Mitterhaus!

The story goes something like this: The Count, living in the requisite creepy castle just outside of the village, seduces the local women into luring children to his lair in which to feed upon.  After losing his daughter, Professor Albert Müller convinces the other townsfolk that the time has come to raid the count’s castle and get rid of the scourge.  After an awkwardly staged battle, the Count ends up with a stake in the heart and his castle is burned to the ground… problem solved!  But, not so fast! Fifteen years later, a plague is ravaging the village.  The avengers assume it’s a curse bestowed upon them in the Count’s dying breath, but the local doctor isn’t buying it.  He feels that if he can get to a city, he can procure some medical treatments for the ailing, but the town has been quarantined by the surrounding settlements and anyone attempting to flee is shot on-sight.  The doctor, using his son as bait, manages to escape.

At the same time, a mysterious traveling circus comes through town.  Even though their arrival is suspicious, the villagers initially welcome the distraction from their fears of the plague.  The circus features a clown-faced dwarf, bizarre acrobatic performers, and panthers that seemingly morph into people. Amused at first, town leaders become horrified when young children start disappearing and turning up dead.  Of course, this is the work of vampires led by shape-shifter Emil, who turns out to be the Count’s cousin.  Their plan is to drain enough blood from the villagers’ children to revive the Count. 

No cross? No problem. A trusty crossbow will do.

Does the scheme work?  Will the villages be rid of their dreadful plague or will darkness consume them?  Will Count Mitterhaus rise from the grave and avenge his death or will the townsfolk again be victorious against the evil circus clan?  Although you probably have a good idea, if you really want to know, you’ll have to watch the film yourself.

Overall, it really isn’t that bad.  Rated PG, it has a surprising amount of graphic violence and nudity for its time, though mostly harmless (and hokey) by today’s standards.  The pacing and characterizations could be better and the presence of a heavy-weight performance by Lee or Cushing is missed.  It’s definitely a curiosity and it’s only through curiosity (and Hammer completists) that I would recommended it over many of the other entries in Hammer’s long catalog. 

As a final aside – it’s worth noting that the cast includes Lynne Frederick – future wife of Peter Sellers, and the circus strongman is played by David Prowse who would go on to portray the physical embodiment of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy.

Finally, for additional perspective on the film, check out this very clever post: What I Learned From Vampire Circus.

Another Needless Reboot? Oh Joy…

I know I’m a little late to the party on this one, but can someone please tell me what is the point of rebooting the Spiderman franchise? I know there can only be one answer, which is money (probably tons of it, which is sad in itself), but if you can give me a better explanation, I’d love to hear it. I thought Sam Raimi‘s first two Spidey films were pretty darn excellent — never mind the third one, which was an absolute disgrace. I understand they were making a fourth and that was cancelled. Now comes The Amazing Spider-Man, scheduled for release in the summer of 2012. I know I have asked this many times before on this very website, but…is Hollywood really that desperate and so lacking in the original scripts department? If so, I have a couple of treatments sitting right on my desk.

I can understand why Marc Webb would sign on to direct this. He was behind the wonderful (500) Days of Summer and a project like Spiderman could potentially put him on the Hollywood A-List for blockbuster films. I get that. Andrew Gardfield is a wonderful actor – I have enjoyed his work thus far and yes, he actually fits the part of Peter Parker quite well. They’ve also made sure to sign on a number of other very gifted Thespians to join in, including Martin Sheen, Campbell Scott, Sally Field, Denis Leary, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, and Julianne Nicholson (who I absolutely adore). Pretty nice cast. The trailer? It looks equally impressive — and if there were not three very recent Spiderman films, I would be super excited to see this.

My problem? Other than a few tweaks here and there…a new character introduced here, a different subplot there – what is point of all of this? I remember back in 2006 when I was duped into seeing Superman Returns with Brandon Routh and Kevin Spacey. It looked new. It looked nice. But I walked out asking, “What was the friggin’ point?!” It didn’t vary very much at all from the original 1978 film and quite frankly, wasn’t nearly as good. In essence, it was the same story of Clark Kent from beginning to end – just snazzier looking. I will not be duped again in July 2012.

In the end, it’s about the money. I understand that and I can appreciate the business that is Hollywood. But that doesn’t mean I have to fall for the trick. Each of us has the right to purchase a ticket to see a concert, a sporting event, a theatrical piece, and yes, a movie. We also have the right to stay away and not buy a ticket…to stand up and make the statement that we will not go to the multiplex to see anything you put on our plate. As an audience, we should be smarter than that and demand more. The upcoming Spiderman film bothers me. It is telling me that Hollywood execs think so low of us that we will buy  re-tread after re-tread. What bothers me even more — is that much of America probably will.

Remembering Amy Winehouse: by William Buhagiar

I can still remember, quite vividly, the first time I heard “Rehab” playing on the radio. For an hour or so after, I refused to allow it to vacate my memory. It stuck with me. Amidst all the generic, repetitive and ultra-manufactured pop music that tried so desperately to project nauseatingly boring bubble-gum perfection, here was a singer that so honestly, brutally, and beautifully sang of her flaws. It was a clever, catchy, wise-ass melody that was undoubtedly the most distinct tune I’ve ever heard on mainstream radio. Aside from being impressed with the lyrics, I can remember thinking: “My God, whose voice is that?”

For the following month or so, “Rehab” stayed amongst the Top 40 radio songs and I found myself constantly singing the chorus without noticing just how frequently I was doing it. Eventually I managed to catch the music video for “You Know I’m No Good,” and glimpsed the harbor for that divine, magnificent voice for the very first time. A comically enormous black beehive, frail arms covered in ink, long fingernails clicking along the rim of a glass of iced whiskey – it was Amy Winehouse, and anything but what I imagined her to be. Immediately, my level of intrigue skyrocketed. If “Rehab” ignited in me an insatiable level of curiosity, it was nothing compared to the effect “You Know I’m No Good” had. I was now familiar with only two songs from this sultry songstress, the first being a defiant anthem of her refusal to quit drinking get help and enter rehabilitation, and the second being a wildly unfiltered confession of her infidelity.

Soon she was on the cover of Rolling Stone and Spin, among others, accompanied by the subtitles “The Diva & Her Demons” and “The Dangerous New Queen of Soul,” respectively. And even though at the time I was only a fan of two songs of hers, I was nonetheless thrilled when she won five Grammy awards after her performance on February 10th, 2008 – at least somebody unique was getting praised for it.

A few months later, I was advised by a friend to listen to her first album, Frank, released in England in 2004. After hearing one song from the record, “You Sent Me Flying,” I needed no further convincing. The song was yet another brazenly honest re-telling of an incident that occurred during a crumbling relationship, with the lyrics: “And although my pride’s not easily disturbed, you sent me flying when you kicked me to the curb.” Immediately, I rushed home and hungrily downloaded every available Amy Winehouse song I could get my hands on, and instantly became passionately obsessed. Her gritty and modern lyrics were paired with classical, old-fashioned jazz instrumentals, essentially creating a musical dichotomy. The music sounded as if it was created decades earlier, but the songs would begin with “He left no time to regret, kept his dick wet with his same old, safe bet…” and “What kind of fuckery is this?” It was without a doubt the most unique ensemble of songs I had ever discovered, and I fell deeply in love with this no-bullshit, bad-ass British diva with the voice of an angel and the mouth of a truck driver who refused to make excuses for herself.

It began to irritate me that this remarkable talent was ferociously overshadowed by her well-publicized battles with drugs and alcohol, and every time I Googled her (which was a mandatory, daily ritual) I would always seem to be reading the most unflattering material. Because of how devoted I was to her music, it really was very easy for me to overlook it, and I convinced myself that it was simply tabloid fodder; that she would soon come out on top and promptly announce the release of a third album or impending tour dates. Whenever I would bring her up in conversation, I would constantly have to sift through the dismissals of her being a casualty of addiction to get to the reasons why I adored her: her music. Unfortunately, I still have to do this.

My adoration remained steadfast, and I hunted feverishly for more of her music. I scaled the most obscure corners of the internet and found underground, unreleased original songs, b-sides, covers and studio sessions – anything to hear more of that voice I came to worship. Her unreleased material was equally as satisfying as her albums. I found myself falling in love with not just her music, but the jazz, soul and R&B genre as a whole; in fact, many artists I regularly listen to now are the product of my interest in Amy Winehouse. I memorized her entire discography – each of her songs, an eloquent expression of her turmoil, all of them blazingly honest, and I couldn’t help but be captivated by the painful and undeniably beautiful humanity presented in all of her gorgeous melodies. Some of them were witty and very funny, such as “Addicted,” a jazzy tune all about her annoyance at a friend’s man smoking all of her weed; others were downtrodden and defeated, such as “Back to Black,” in which her grief is so severe she croons she “died a hundred times.” The Los Angeles Times very accurately labeled her “The Beautiful Voice of Despair.” Amy Winehouse had on me that bold, profound effect musicians have on every person who connects with their music, the connection that inspires the listener to think: “I get it.” I cannot think of a higher compliment to pay an artist, especially the artist who so magnetically utilized the word “fuckery.” Two years ago, in July of 2009, I decided to make my fanatical love for Amy Winehouse a permanent fixture, getting a caricature-like portrait of her tattooed on my left arm.

One week ago, while at work, I received 22 text messages and 8 missed calls within fifteen minutes – each either informing me of her death or curious as to how I was coping with it. I’m well aware of how perfectly ridiculous it seems to be bereaved to this level of extremity over somebody I’ve never met before, but I cannot stress how genuine it is. I remember the televised grief of Michael Jackson’s fans after his passing and my complete lack of empathy towards them, certain that I was incapable of mourning a stranger to that degree. The loss of Amy Winehouse is my first acquaintance with the death of a beloved artist; I will never see her in concert, and I will never get the chance to meet her and show her that her work profoundly impacted me so much that the only reasonable way of expressing it was permanently inking her into my arm. She joins Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison in “The 27 Club,” as she, like all of them, passed away at the age of 27. The only positive factor I can seem to apply to this is that she will always be remembered as a musical legend, as she deserves to be.

Amy Winehouse, to me, was never first and foremost an addict, an alcoholic, or the self-destructive nut-job the tabloids so frequently illustrated her as. She was a breathtaking talent, a musical genius, the most unique artist in years – a girl from the suburbs of London gifted with a voice that was blissful beyond comprehension. Unfortunately, she had her demons – but it was her demons that made her Amy Winehouse, and it was her demons that she embedded into her songs and so aptly translated into musical beauty.

It’s been reported that a dozen or so new and unreleased material has been discovered since her passing, one of which will be used for the next “James Bond” film. I pray that I will be hearing these new tracks soon, as I have been patiently waiting for new Amy Winehouse songs for years. Many fellow musicians and celebrities have also expressed their sadness over the loss of such an incredible talent; some, such as Adele and Lady Gaga, thanking her and crediting her with being a musical pioneer, paving the way and making it easier for the more unconventional artist to establish a career. Her groundbreaking, phenomenal second album, Back to Black, is now #1 on iTunes and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies since her tragic passing. I can only hope that now her music will be properly appreciated and her struggles with drugs and alcohol no longer the dominant aspect of her persona.

Of course, I never did get the privilege of meeting her, but judging by the copious amounts of interviews and footage I have seen, she was a charming, witty and hilarious woman. Backstage after one of her performances, a reporter asked her: “What did you think of your performance this evening?” to which she quickly replied, “It was a piece of shit. You look fit, though.” and walked away. During another interview, when asked if she considered herself a sex symbol, she instantly replied, “Only to gays.” Amy made no excuses for herself, never once tried to fit the mold of a proper pop artist, and always maintained a no-bullshit philosophy I cannot help but deeply admire and respect.

Since her death, naturally I’ve been replaying her songs constantly. If possible, my devotion to the soulful jazz singer has only increased. I’ll no longer enter her name in the Google search bar, hoping for news of an album release or tour dates. My worst fears regarding Amy Winehouse have been realized and she passed away at much too young an age. Now, my only hope for her is that wherever she is, she is still singing, and she is still maintaining that charismatic sense of making no excuses and tolerating no bullshit…or, as she so eloquently sang it: fuckery.

~~ by contributing writer, William Buhagiar

Friday Flashback: The Boston Strangler (1968)

Based on a true story, The Boston Strangler follows the police investigation of the notorious serial killer responsible for killing 13 innocent women in the city of Boston. Directed by Richard Fleischer, the film does a fine job of capturing the gritty and seedier streets of Boston as the police (led by Geroge Kennedy as Detective DiNatale) go from crime scene to crime scene hunting down their man. Fleischer utilizes some interesting camera work for this movie, especially his use of split screens throughout the film.

The movie stars Henry Fonda as John Bottomly, the chief detective who is ordered to take over this investigation, which has (for good reason) thrown the public and the media into an absolute tizzy. Playing the intriguing role of the strangler, Albert DeSalvo is none other than Tony Curtis. Because he was mostly associated with light comedic fare at the time, it took a lot for the studio to finally give the greenlight to casting Curtis in the chilling role of DeSalvo. Originally, Robert Redford and Warren Beatty were attached. So it came as quite the surprise to all when it was announced that Tony Curtis would be playing the iconic serial killer. And he does a wonderful job too! We don’t even see him until one full hour into the film, and by that time, the build-up to revealing the killer is overwhelming – but Curtis doesn’t disappoint. He is a family man and our first look at him is sitting in his modest living room staring at the coverage of JFK’s funeral on TV, with his young daughter on his lap. Then, we see him spring into action and get a glimpse of what makes this guy tick.

When DeSalvo is captured by police for an entirely different matter, the court realizes that he is ill and place him in a hospital to be examined and diagnosed. Clues are pieced together and Bottomly and DiNatale realize that they have their man. The scenes where Fonda is interrogating Curtis are enthralling to watch. The doctor explains to the police that DeSalvo may be genuinely sick – that he has two distinct personalities and the working family man literally has no idea of the unspeakable acts he has committed – so Bottomly must tread lightly in his questioning or DeSalvo will burst. Curtis is great in these interrogation scenes… he doesn’t overdo it at all and is quite subtle in his actions. The viewer can’t really tell if he is faking it or if he is truly ill.

The Boston Strangler is a very interesting watch, with a smart script by Edward Anhalt, based on the book by Gerold Frank. The camerawork and some of the techniques utilized draw you in even more than the gripping story already does. Though critical reception was mixed at the time of release, I think the movie has received much wider acceptance and appreciation over time. I’d recommend it just to see Curtis’ fine work which shows off his range. The last image that we see as the end credits appear is haunting and lingers in your mind long after – we see Albert DeSalvo standing in the corner of an all-white room – by himself, no musical accompaniment, as the camera slowly fades back and gets whiter and whiter.

Rent It or Skip It? 5 Flicks on DVD!

I do love the summertime, but I can’t stand summertime movie-going. With all of the inane sequels and remakes, on top of the annual big blockbuster “action” flicks being released, there are so few films playing in theaters that I actually want to go out and see. My solution? I am stuck at home renting more films than usual and staying away from wasting my money at the multiplex on schlock like The Green Lantern, Captain America, and yes…The Smurfs. So I thought I would do another quick recap of what I’ve been watching and letting you know whether you should RENT IT! or SKIP IT! These are not film reviews – just very brief thoughts on some of the movies you may have missed in theaters that I’ve been playing on the ‘ol DVD.

Miral (dir. Julian Schnabel)

Surely, one of the year’s very best so far and Schnabel continues to prove what a visionary he truly is. Other than David Lynch, Schnabel is the only other director I can think of who directs a film as if it were a painting on a canvas, with each shot just as visually striking as the next. Based on a true story (and on Rula Jebreal’s autobiographical book), Miral begins in Jerusalem in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli War, when Hind Hussein (a wonderful Hiam Abbass) comes across a number of children left orphaned in the street due to a bombing. She takes them in. Within months, her Dar Al-Tifel Institute was helping to educate thousands of children who otherwise would have been left for dead. Young Miral (Freida Pinto) is brought to the Institute in 1978 and most of the movie follows her growing up and trying to balance the love she has for Mother Hind and her father — and fighting for the love of her country she sees suffering at the hands of the Israeli army. Yes, this is a political film, but Schnabel really doesn’t show any bias towards the Israelis or the Palestines. In fact, he received cooperation from both countries before shooting. I held off watching this for a while, but Miral is a moving, inspiring, and  gorgeously photographed film. The musical score shines, the performances are strong, the direction is sublime, and the story is nothing short of moving.
VERDICT: RENT IT!

Peep World (dir. Barry W. Blaustein)

This one is a nice, small indie comedy written by Peter Himmelstein and features a nice ensemble cast. A dysfunctional family is getting ready to celebrate their wealthy father’s (Ron Rifkin, perfectly cast) 70th birthday. Tensions are at their peak since the youngest son Nathan (a spoiled and uncouth Ben Schwartz) has written a tell-all book exposing the family’s dark secrets. The book is an amazing success and even being made into a motion picture. His three siblings, of course, are not at all pleased – and it all comes to a head at daddy’s birthday dinner. Rifkin is terrific in his pomposity. Rainn Wilson, Michael C. Hall (TV’s Dexter), and Sarah Silverman play Nathan’s siblings. The very funny Lewis Black narrates the story. I thought the film was funny at times, and it kept me engaged. As the family’s dark sheep, Wilson turns in a restrained and moving performance. There is a moment near the end of the film where he opens up to Nathan and it is a very touching scene. In the end, I just felt that with the intriguing premise and impressive cast assembled, that the film didn’t go far enough – it could have dug much deeper and done much more. Despite this, I would recommend it – the script is crisp and quirky and the cast is fun to watch.
VERDICT: RENT IT!

Sucker Punch (dir. Zack Snyder)

After Snyder’s Watchmen, I was super excited to see this one. I know most don’t agree with me, but I thought Watchmen was one of the Top 10 films of 2009 and one of the best superhero flicks (if not the most unique) I have ever seen. The trailer to Sucker Punch looked equally as stimulating – especially how visually arresting it is. But alas, Snyder’s latest effort is shockingly, well…a bore. Yes, all of the visual aspects are captivating. But aside from watching all of the eye candy here, there is very little as far as story goes and the plot gets a bit repetitious after some time. Young “Babydoll” (a sexy, doe-eyed Emily Browning) is committed to an asylum for the mentally insane by her sexually abusive stepfather. She becomes the ringleader to a pack of beauties who are being mistreated at the institution — and, following her lead, they plan their massive escape to freedom. Throughout, the film alternates between the real world and the fantasy world that Babydoll slips into. The movie plays out like you’re watching a 100-minute video game and poor Scott Glenn…what the hell was he thinking signing up to be a part of this mess? As many have suggested, I didn’t find the film to be misogynistic. If anything, I do believe that Snyder is on the side of the ladies and has attempted to showcase the empowerment of women over their oppressive male counterparts, but really…20 minutes into this, I just didn’t care. Here is hoping to a much better effort from Mr. Snyder the next time around!
VERDICT: SKIP IT!

Insidious (dir. James Wan)

I don’t believe that a horror film needs a significant amount of violence or gore to be scary. Hell, some of the scariest films are ones that don’t show the viewer anything at all, but give the viewer the expectation of what might creep up from behind the curtains. But Insidious really didn’t scare me at all. Perhaps the PG-13 rating hurt it a bit and kept the filmmakers somewhat restrained, but this film really fell a bit flat to me. The first half is actually pretty good and sets us up quite nicely. Renai and Josh (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) have just moved into their new home with their three young children. Young Dalton has took a fall in the attic after seeing something (offscreen) that scares him half to death. The next morning, dad cannot wake him up as he has fallen into a coma that baffles everyone. Weird things take place in the new home and Renai convinces Josh to pick up and move again – but the strange supernatural events take place there too. It turns out, that the house is not haunted at all…it is their son. The second half of the movie falls short and does not live up to the lofty expectations that the first portion sets up for us. Lin Shaye is exceptionally good here as the older woman who works in paranormal activities and comes in to help the couple and their child. Patrick Wilson is a terrific actor, but isn’t given all that much to do here. Insidious is like taking a ride on the kiddie roller coaster at the amusement park instead of stepping into the daunting one where the delightful screams can be heard in the distance. It has its small thrills and is adequate for the faint of heart, but leaves you wanting much more.
VERDICT: SKIP IT!

I Saw the Devil (dir. Kim Jee-Woon)

What Insidious fails to do, this flick does in spades – it scares the crap out of you! I can’t believe how much I enjoyed this – and how impressed I was in the visual aspects of this film. Kim and cinematographer Lee Mo-gae make this grisly and gory film so engaging and so beautiful to watch from the opening scene to its final credits. And do not fool yourself either – this is one of the more disturbing films you will see, with enough graphic violence to please the most hungry horror buff. But it’s not really a horror flick…more of a revenge thriller – with elements of horror thrown in. It opens on a chilly winter’s night and pretty Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) is stuck with a flat tire. The psychotic Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) pulls up in a small children’s bus and offers to help. He kidnaps her and brutally murders the poor girl, chopping her up in pieces. Her fiancée, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) is an agent on the police force and of course, he wants his revenge. The rest of the movie is a brilliant cat-and-mouse game, with Soo-hyun doing everything in his power to torture the sadistic killer who can’t seem to stop himself. Choi Min-sik is absolutely superb in this movie – he is haunting, menacing, and evil incarnate. Kim Jee-woon has crafted a magnificent and absorbing work with visual elements that are nothing short of breathtaking. The script, by Park Hoon-jung, goes places that you would not expect, keeping you on your toes throughout. If you have the stomach for it, and you are into revenge movies – do yourself a favor and watch this film. It is easily one of the year’s very best.
VERDICT: RENT IT! — if you dare

OTHER MOVIES OUT ON DVD/BLUE-RAY:

Rango  (* * ½)  — RENT IT!
The Lincoln Lawyer (* *) — SKIP IT!
Kill the Irishman (* * *) — RENT IT!
Happythankyoumoreplease (* * *) — RENT IT!

Top 5 Tuesday: Martin Scorsese

I thought it was high time that The Lantern finally give one of America’s greatest filmmakers his due. In all honesty, I am somewhat embarrassed that it has taken me this long to post a list honoring the legendary Martin Scorsese. But to make up for my negligence, I thought it would be a good idea to get two separate Top 5’s composed by two huge Marty fans…Phil Carbo (who writes the ‘Ludovico Files‘ page) was gracious enough to share his personal favorites…and I have my own 5 faves here as well. And we are both in agreement…with so many classic films to choose from (including his many documentaries & shorts) since the late 1960’s, this was one challenging task. Five slots go way too quickly, and many great films are unfortunately left off both lists. Not only is he a master director constantly pushing the boundaries of filmmaking, but he has done so much for the preservation of film – and that, my friends, is pretty awesome. I mean really, is there anyone you would rather learn about the history of film than this guy? The man is a walking encyclopedia of movie knowledge. I can hear him speak about movies for hours and still want more. And to think that before becoming one of our most cherished directors, he was seriously considering a life as a priest. Instead, he became one of the most influential directors of the modern era — and at age 68, is still hard at work and entertaining us all. Here are our lists…they are surprisingly similar (so much for diversity…sorry guys), which surprised me just a bit. ENJOY!

Phil Carbo’s Top 5:

5. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

I’m sure many will think this is an odd choice and question whether this is truly one of the top-5 films of Scorsese’s storied career but to me, while not bringing the best plot or pacing to the table, Bringing out the Dead is a film that is quintessential Scorsese.  First, it reunites him with screenwriter Paul Schrader and the two have an undeniable chemistry.  Schrader’s scripts typically reveal the darker side of New York and this film is, despite its slow pace, a perfect vehicle for Marty’s trademark, hyper kinetic style: close-ups, dolly shots, lightning edits, fast motion and all enhanced with a classic rock soundtrack that is prototypical Scorsese.  Sure Nicolas Cage is over the top — but when is he not?  Marty’s vision here actually lends itself to the hyped-up, manic performances.  Filmed almost entirely at the darkest hours of the night, it progressively exhibits a surrealness and frantic absurdity that feels born out of a nightmare.

4. After Hours (1985)

Speaking of nightmares, the kinetic pace and off-the-wall oddness of this black comedy plays out like a bad dream for both Griffin Dunne’s character and the viewer. Little known fact: Tim Burton was originally attached to the project, which would have been interesting because After Hours seems like more of a Burton film…but Scorsese, of course, makes the material his own.  One of his few comedies, he once again exposes the darker side of New York as the city becomes a central character.  As mentioned, the film taps into many of the motifs we all find in our dreams (the reoccurrence of locations, the feeling that one is running and running but can’t seem to get away, and a seeming randomness to everything going on).  The film ends strangely (apparently a point of contention during filming), seeming to imply that the “normalcy” of a 9-5 office existence is not necessarily a bad thing.  Whatever you take from it, one thing is certain – this is one of Scorsese’s more visually arresting films.

3. Taxi Driver (1976)

This film and my next are pretty much no-brainers.  When one thinks of Scorsese, it’s impossible for Taxi Driver to NOT come to mind.  It is a dark and deliberately paced film and contains one of DeNiro’s top 5 best performances.  Story aside, it is impossible not to marvel at the craft of filmmaking Scorsese brings to this film.  From the opening shot of the taxi driving slowly through puffs of city steam to the shocking and graphic shootout (that ironically turns Travis from psychopath to hero – at least in the public eye) the entire film has an uneasy edge.  Marty developed his trademark themes of alienation and Christian guilt in early films such as Mean Streets, but with Taxi Driver he was at the top of his game, and in the process helped to define the gritty, maverick style that 70’s film is known for (and sadly missed).

2. Raging Bull (1980)

From opening frame to end, Raging Bull showcases the artistic genius of Scorsese like no other. Filmed in black and white (with one amazingly inventive color sequence), Raging Bull lays bare the tragic despair of Jake LaMotta, a man so full of self-loathing, that he abuses and alienates everyone around him, including his wife and brother with unspeakable brutality. Robert DeNiro once again proves his incredible ability to morph into character like no other actor of his time.  The violence both in and out of the ring is graphic, with close-ups of blood spurting from open wounds, and dialogue that makes some scenes downright uncomfortable to watch; all ultimately help us understand this unrepentant character.  This film was made during a difficult time in Scorsese’s life.  He was battling addiction and saw a bit of himself in LaMotta’s fall from grace. In this sense, it’s one of Scorsese’s most personal and autobiographic films (the theme of redemption comes up in many of his more accomplished works).  As a side note: It’s also the first time Joe Pesci would give an ass-kicking to Frank Vincent (a recurring cycle in several subsequent films until Vincent gets his ultimate revenge in Casino).

1. Goodfellas (1990)

I could easily write a Masters’ thesis on Goodfellas.  In my opinion, it’s not only Scorsese’s best, but it also happens to be my favorite film of all-time. It’s the first film that made me understand the medium as an art form. Goodfellas takes all the elements of great cinema to create the feeling that you are experiencing all of the joys, anger, paranoia, and desperation of each character.  And truth be told, I wasn’t even that interested in seeing it when released in 1990.  My friends had to convince me into going.  This probably had something to do with the fact that I had recently watched Sergio Leone’s ganster epic, Once Upon a Time in America, and while a good film, is just too slow for my taste.  At nearly 2 ½ hours, I suppose I expected the same from Goodfellas, but boy… was I wrong.  From the very moment the title zooms across the screen to a revving engine to Sid Vicious’ cover of “My Way” over the end credits, the movie never fails to electrify in its brilliance.  Scorsese has since made other phenomenal films in the genre (Casino, Gangs of New York and The Departed come to mind), but Goodfellas sets the gold standard for a plethora of the modern crime dramas that followed and remains the high-water mark of Marty’s career.

Peter’s Top 5:

5. Gangs of New York (2002)

I had about three different films in this slot before finally deciding on this ambitious work. More than any other Scorsese film in recent years, this one for me most resembles his stellar films of the 70’s & 80’s. I love the historical context of Lower New York’s “Five Points” district (1846 – 1862) and how Scorsese creates this past world. Daniel Day-Lewis gives another towering performance here as “Bill the Butcher,” the leader of the natives looking to oust all of the immigrants making their way to shore. John C. Reilly, Liam Neeson, and Jim Broadbent give fine supporting performances. I’m not a Leo-hater by any means and his performance here is adequate, but his irregular Irish accent does bother me. The production design and period costumes are stunning – and the camerawork is gripping. A majestic American tale – and my favorite Scorsese movie of the past 10+ years.

4. After Hours (1985)

I know many would put his other black comedy King of Comedy (1982) on the list instead, and I would have no problem with that. But for me, this cult classic is one of my all-time favorite comedies. Joseph Minion’s script is an absolute trip, the camera never stops moving, and the all-star cast turn in some great performances. This is a wonderfully quirky and imaginative “New York movie” following the many misadventures and dangers that sheepish Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) encounters one evening as he simply tries to make his way home. As Phil cites above, Tim Burton was slated to direct this first – but seeing it now, I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. This is a genuine Scorsese flick and a must-see for any fan of his work.

3. Taxi Driver (1976)

A classic, gritty New York motion picture. Seeing it years later gives you such an authentic sense of how Manhattan (especially the seedier parts of it) was in the 1970’s. This is early Robert DeNiro, which means he gave it his Method-best (wish he were still here with us, btw). As the lonely, dejected ex-Marine Travis Bickle, DeNiro gives us one of the silver screen’s most terrifying characters – a ticking time bomb that can go off at any time as he drives through the streets of New York late at night, disgusted at what he sees. Scorsese assembled a great supporting cast – led by a young Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, and Cybill Shepherd. Paul Schrader’s script is authentic and inspiring and Bernard Herrmann’s music captures Bickle’s state of mind perfectly. A graphically violent movie, it’s surely not for the faint-of-heart. But it remains a mesmerizing character picture with a fantastic denouement that resonates long after.

2. Goodfellas (1990)

A beautiful & explosive piece of filmmaking – and one of the very best mobster movies of all-time. I was always fascinated by how beautifully Scorsese and his creative team captured the many decades that this epic film spans…from the 1950’s through the 1980’s, Goodfellas encapsulates each period so well. The costumes, art direction, and music featured…all marvelously executed as we watch the rise and fall of the Lucchese crime family. Joe Pesci as the psychopathic Tommy DeVito is scary as hell, Lorraine Bracco was robbed of what should have been an Oscar-winning performance, DeNiro gives another well-crafted performance – and Ray Liotta does a terrific job of holding the entire film together. In fact, he has never been better. As impressive as the film is from a moviemaking standpoint, Scorsese managed to make this one hell of an entertaining flick – its 2 ½ hours breezing right by and you want another hour of it all. Love the “Layla” sequence and that impressive long tracking shot through the Copacabana is always a wonder to watch.

1. Raging Bull (1980)

In my opinion, this is Scorsese’s masterpiece. It is in no way one of those films I can turn on and watch at any time. I need to emotionally brace myself for this one because it is hard to stomach at times. Let’s face it…the guy is a fucking animal. Robert DeNiro is at the top of his game here as the brutish middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta,  giving arguably the best performance of his career and one of the greatest performances in film history. Joe Pesci is terrific as his brother. Calling Michael Chapman’s black-and-white photography breathtaking and stunning is still not doing justice to his work here. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is crisp and fierce. One of the greatest bio pictures ever made and an instant classic to be sure. This is a haunting, powerful film that is a mesmerizing piece of filmmaking. Marty’s best work to date.

Peter’s Honorable Mentions:

My Voyage to Italy (1999)
Casino (1995)

Friday Flashback: My Fair Lady (1964)

I’m not much of a movie musical kind of guy. More times than not, there is so much that is lost from the stage to the screen. The immediacy and magic of the live theatre is absent and we are usually left with shells of what the productions once were. In my experience, there have only been just a few musicals that have been successfully adapted for the silver screen – and George Cukor’s My Fair Lady is certainly one of them. Winner of 8 Academy Awards (including “Best Picture”), this classic piece of cinema is based on the Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner stage musical – which, in itself is based on the brilliant stage play Pygmalion by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. Shaw’s 5-Act play, a wondrous social satire, is inspired from the renowned Greek myth of the woman-hating sculptor who falls in love with his very own creation.

Set in Edwardian London, My Fair Lady stars the lovely Audrey Hepburn as the infamous Eliza Doolittle – a poor flower girl with a horrific Cockney accent and modest dreams of being “a lady in a flower shop.” Rex Harrison plays the arrogant, uncouth, impetuous Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics who haughtily makes a bet with a colleague that he can transform Eliza, a “deliciously low” piece of baggage, into a lady by passing her off as a Duchess at the royal Embassy Ball. Harrison was born to play Henry Higgins. He is absolutely marvelous here and took home the “Best Actor” Oscar for his multifaceted performance. Higgins takes the frightened and naïve Eliza into his luxurious home where he and his phonetics associate Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) clean her up and teach her how to speak properly. Gladys Cooper plays Henry’s mother – the only woman who can really put Henry in his place. And really, Higgins comes off like an absolute mamma’s boy in their scenes together. Stanley Holloway does a fine job at playing Eliza’s father Alfred P. Doolittle, a common dustman who is looking to profit from his daughter’s good luck.

Surprisingly, the musical is (for the most part) remarkably faithful to Shaw’s original work. Much of the earlier dialogue is still in tact – and Shaw’s societal statements (on language, education, social classes, et al) still come through very well. Cecil Beaton’s costume design is exquisite – featuring the lavishness of the upper class and the browbeaten garb of the lower class. The musical numbers are woven into the story quite nicely. It’s no secret by now that Ms. Hepburn did not do her own singing…I guess this was not her strong suit. Rather, her voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon. And Harrison doesn’t really have to do much singing. Most of his vocal work is him speaking in key. Musical highlights for me include the humorous “Just You Wait,” “The Rain in Spain” (which accompanies the classic scene not illustrated in the play), and “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

It is fascinating to watch Hepburn’s slow transformation from a poor, disheveled girl into a model of style and grace. It is equally fascinating to see all that Eliza is sacrificing in order to achieve her goals and win Higgins his bet. The chemistry between Hepburn and Harrison is riveting throughout. There is obviously something between the two – but both are too stubborn to relent. The one scene that always makes me tear up happens late at night, after a long and arduous day of trying to get Eliza to speak properly. Everyone is drained and feeling hopeless. Finally, after constant verbal attacks, Higgins gives her a confidence builder for th every first time: “think what you’re trying to accomplish. Think what you’re dealing with. The majesty and grandeur of the English language, it’s the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative, and musical mixtures of sounds. And that’s what you’ve set yourself out to conquer Eliza. And conquer it you will.” This, combined with Hepburn’s reaction to this speech, always makes me lose it.

My Fair Lady is a classic motion picture and a few years ago was ranked #8 in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years of Musicals” list. It is an enchanting piece of movie-making, to be sure and is part of an era when Hollywood was famous for its majestic and sweeping musicals. And for 168 minutes of its 170-minute running time, it represents all that is right in movies. The last minute or so has always bothered me — and I can’t help but feel that the brilliant G.B. Shaw is always turning over in his grave at what they did to his sensible and realistic conclusion. (SPOILER ALERT!) In the film, Eliza and Henry have just parted. They will sadly go their separate ways. Henry walks home alone and has a light-bulb moment…an epiphany. He loves Eliza. “Damn, Damn, Damn, DAMN!” he shouts, and breaks into “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” But does he do anything about it? Does he rush back to Eliza and confess his feelings? No! He slumps back home, plays an old recording of Eliza’s voice, sulks in his chair, and begins to wallow in self-pity — forever missing Eliza, even though they’ve been apart for all of perhaps 30 minutes. What happens next? Eliza is the one to cave in. She instantly walks back to Henry’s home and sees him stewing in his melancholy. When he realizes that she has come back, a Cheshire cat-like smile appears on his face…he tips his hat and asks, “Where the devil are my slippers?” as one would ask a maid. She smiles. She will stay. And the two live happily ever after. [INSERT VOMIT HERE] The play does not end this way — because it shouldn’t end this way. Shaw explains his reasoning in a rather lengthy epilogue. The Hollywood execs though would have none of that — and we are treated to Eliza, the woman, being the one to relinquish her power to the mighty male figure…and it always ruins it just a little bit for me. I hate that she does that. I hate that he “wins” that way. And I think it’s more than just another one of my little pet peeves. This is a big deal. In spite of this small travesty of an ending, I can’t help but return to this film often…because there is so much right with it, and the performances are wonderful. It remains one of my all-time favorite movie musicals. Sorry G.B.S.

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