Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blog-a-Movie Month Thoughts, Clarifications and Acceptance Speech

Well, another Blog-a-Month challenge has come and gone, and again I have prevailed. Lance and Scott didn't even bother to claim victory, such was the enormity of the gap between us. I'd like to thank you, constant reader, for anointing me champion yet again. Without your comments and support, I wouldn't have been able to complete this most arduous and worthy of tasks.

Many of you have written and suggested different "reviews" for me to write. I'd like to clarify that I wasn't writing reviews, per se. I used to do that for my college newspaper, and what I've written during BAM month wouldn't fly there.

Early on, I wrote about how our own experiences and expectations inform our enjoyment (or lack thereof) of movies. I took most objective film criticism out of these entries and tried to judge them based on what I personally felt about the movie, which depended largely on how old I was when I saw it, what was going on my life, and what I'd heard about the film before I watched it. Proper journalistic film reviews do not and should not be written that way. But it's my blog, and no one's paying me, so I can do whatever I want.

My grading system reflects that. Sometimes, the hardest part of the pieces would come at the end, when I had to give it a mark. Oddly, a lot of times other people's critiques of the film would factor into the grade.

For instance, Taken probably isn't a D+ unless you factor in that it made a ton of money. When crappy movies are financially successful, this makes me angry, and I take that rage out on middling films. Ditto award-winners. Million Dollar Baby won Best Picture. I consider that a travesty. As a film existing in a vacuum, it's probably better than the C I gave it. But film doesn't exist in a vacuum, now does it? Black holes do. I think.

On the other hand, I tried to write about movies that I consider underrated, thus upping their grades. Ironically, I've now increased people's expectations for something like Kicking and Screaming to the point that they will almost certainly be let down. Trainspotting may not actually be an A+, but it came out when I was in college, and I had the time to watch it roughly 27 times.

I'll end the month with two more examples to illustrate my point: My favorite and least favorite movies of all time.

The Empire Strikes Back is the first film I can remember seeing in the theatre. I was four years old, and I don't think I'd seen the original Star Wars (A New Hope). Remember, this was in the days before most people had access to watching movies in their homes, other than on t.v.

I was enthralled (and a little terrified) from the first scenes where Luke is attacked by the snow monster. I was convinced it was the same one that lived at the top of the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland. Then came the AT-AT walkers. They could've ended the movie after the AT-AT attack, and I would've left convinced that there would never be a better one. By the time Vader reveals he's Luke's father, I think it's safe to say that my mind was not just blown. I'd say obliterated is a better term. I spent the next three years driving my dad insane by repeatedly asking the same two questions: "Is Darth Vader really Luke's dad?" (I was still hopefully clinging to Luke's assertion, "It's a lie! It's not possible!") and "When does the next movie come out?"

As I grew, the film grew with me. It's undeniably the darkest of the original flicks, and there are no wasted moments. Every scene either develops the characters or moves the story along (which cannot be said for the unfortunate prequels). It's got one of the greatest ad-libs of all time (Han's "I know" response to Leia's declaration of love), a great cliffhanger ending, plus Boba Fett and Lando Calrissian. Magnificent.

Nolanometer Final Grade: A+

Transformers is the perfect example of a very bad film that has now reached national disaster status because of the reactions of others.

I'm not going to go into everything that's wrong with this excruciating movie because it's New Year's Eve, and I have a party to go to. Lance does it here, anyway, and I'd just be repeating what he wrote.

What really makes me hate Michael Bay's cynical, clusterfuck of a film (and although I haven't seen the second one, from everything I've heard, it's even worse) is that it appeals to only the most base instincts of moviegoers. Actually, it doesn't even appeal to that. As Lance noted, the action scenes are loud and confusing. There's absolutely nothing likable about the film, at least for someone who has seen movies before and cares about the medium of film.

Yet, teenagers and unsophisticated adults (I chose that last adjective carefully- you should've seen some of the ones I discarded) made this a giant hit. Many will assure you that it's one of the best movies ever, if not the best.

Here's where personal bias comes into play. If you don't work with teens, you probably didn't have to hear over and over again how "amazing" this piece of dung is. You didn't see the way Bay and co. were able to market and sell this abortion to the unthinking masses. You didn't have to deal with the fact that rewarding detritus like Transformers with huge box office receipts only means that they're going to make more awful, noisy, plotless nonsense like this, and I'll have to hear about how "amazing" those movies are with every coming generation, while I have to try and convince them that there just might be more merit to, say, Shakespeare.

Anyway, on its own, Transformers is probably somewhere in the D range. But because I'm stuck with all these ignorant admonitions about its greatness, it's currently my least favorite movie ever. Until Michael Bay fucks up some other treasured childhood memory, that is.

Nolanometer Final Grade: F-

Again, thanks for reading all this indignant nonsense. I'm announcing my retirement from any other Blog-a-Month endeavors, as I'm going to have a son near the end of next month. From what I'm told, they take up at least 15 minutes or so of your time per day, so squeezing in mandatory blogs could be tricky. Have no fear; I'm not retiring from blogging in general. As long as you keep reading them, I'll keep writing them. Remember, without feedback, I don't know who's paying attention, so drop me a quick comment whenever you can to let me know you're out there.

As a parting gift, be sure to check out three special edition blogs to start off the new year. I'll be posting my top music and movies of the decade. So you've got that going for you, which is nice.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bowling for Columbine

Michael Moore's best movie is also his most misunderstood. He has a well-deserved reputation as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, but this is perhaps his least political film. People who haven't seen it (largely because they despise Moore and won't watch anything involving him) think it's a pro-gun control film, and that message is certainly present. But it's certainly not the overarching one.

What Moore set out to do was explore a question that most citizens just assume as a way of life in this country: Why do Americans kill each other with guns far more than anyone else does? What is it about our culture that causes gun violence?

As he points out in the film, if it were simply a matter of the number of guns or having access to them, Canadians would have even more gun deaths than we do. If it were violent video games or movies causing, then lots of other countries would have the same problem. If it were merely "a violent history," then wouldn't nations with a track record of starting wars (yeah, we're lookin' at you, Germany) have bigger problems?

There is simply something about the American character that causes us to solve our problems with firearms. Moore's thesis is that stricter gun laws would help, but more importantly, our attitudes need to change. We simply must learn to solve conflicts non-violently. That applies from the street corner to the Middle East.

Although we think of ourselves as a brave people, Columbine shows us to be a fearful nation, overreacting to every conceivable danger. It shows us Canadians who leave their front doors unlocked. It doesn't make them an ideal society; people still get robbed. It does show that they don't let fear govern their lives, along with their national foreign policy.

Most identify the movie by its final scene, where Moore confronts Charlton Heston, then the head of the National Rifle Association, who refused to cancel an NRA conference in Denver just a week after the Columbine shooting. Depending on where you fall on the political spectrum, you either saw that segment as an ambush of a harmless old man, or as a "gotcha" moment where the leader of a powerful and damaging organization is confronted with the consequences of his group's actions. You can probably figure out which side I fall on.

To me, though, the film's most telling moment is when Moore interviews the father of one of the Columbine massacre's victims. He asks the man, "What is it about Americans that makes us kill each other with guns?" The father replies, "I don't know, what is it?" Moore answers, "That's what I'm asking you!"

The film doesn't have a definitive answer (nor solution), but at least the questions it asks are fascinating and essential. In fact, I've had teenage students watch the whole thing, not even realize they've just viewed a documentary. Some of them even want to discuss it afterward. Believe me, that's quite a feat, no matter what your politics are.

Nolanometer Final Grade: A-

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Marley and Me

I don't cry at movies. Ever. In fact, I don't really cry all that much in general. Maybe once every couple of years or so at a funeral, but that's it. Occasionally, I'll get a bit choked up and feel some tears welling while watching something like this, but that's about it.

This movie destroyed me.

I know I'm not alone, especially because my mom told me about weeping when she and my stepdad saw it in the movie theatre. But moms cry all the time. And here's the thing: I had read the book. I knew exactly what was going to happen. From looking at the dopey poster and the goofy trailers, I thought they were going to turn the film into a schmaltzy romantic comedy.

I give the filmmakers credit. It could've easily been merely a vehicle for Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson featuring comic relief from an adorable lab. But it's really not a rom-com at all. There aren't a lot of sappy moments. The couple can't even "meet cute;" the story starts after they've already been together for some time. It's a far better movie than it has any right to be, since it's essentially just the story of a man trying to deal with his family, his career, and his dog.

Of course, the dog is key. Marley is "the worst dog ever," but that's part of his charm. Well, at least most of the time. He drives Aniston's character to the brink at one point; she even threatens to get rid of him for good. Ultimately, the sweet and adorable moments Marley provides (such as the touching scene where he calmly rests his head in a sobbing Aniston's lap after she learns she has miscarried) make him a valued member of the family.

I'm reasonably certain that I'm not spoiling anything by going into the ending here, but just in case you've never heard of this flick, you might want to stop reading now. Anyway, Marley gets old near the end of the film and eventually must be put to sleep. I knew this was going to happen. I had read the friggin' book. I thought I was prepared. But man, Director David Frankel really went for the heartstrings here.

If this were a movie about a dying person, I would've rolled my eyes and moaned at the emotional manipulation. But here's the thing: Dogs are better than people. They're more loyal, loving, giving, fun, repentant, protective, etc. One of my favorite sayings is "Lord, please help me be the person my dog thinks I am."

What the movie does well is show the loving simplicity of the relationship between a dog and its owner. All the other aspects of Wilson's life are complicated and full of trials and tribulations. But every day when he comes home, Marley's happy to see him. Marley will always go for a run. Marley will always chase the ball.

Until Marley starts limping a little. And then his stomach twists on itself. And then Wilson is hunched over a terminal Marley, lying limply on the veterinarian's table, and he's stroking the dog, and telling Marley "You're a great dog" over and over...

At that point, I was still holding it together...barely. But then they cut to a shot of the oldest son, putting in a videotape full of Marley moments with the family. Back to the vet's, where the camera shows the needle going into the i.v. tube, and it's all too much. If you've ever loved a dog through its natural life and had to put it down, you will sob just like I did. By the time they bury Marley in the backyard, and they ask the boy if there's anything he wants to tell his dog, and he tearily responds, "He knows," well, you'd have to be Stalin or Idi Amin or something to not be affected.

This qualifies as a pretty good movie that I never want to see ever again. It's just too much trouble to change that "Has gone ___ days without crying" sign hanging in my mantic.

Nolanometer Final Grade: B

Monday, December 28, 2009


A few weeks back, while discussing illegal immigration, a few of my more machismo boys suggested building "a giant wall, like in Doomsday!" Be reassured that I attempted to bring the conversation back to a more intellectual direction, but they kept referencing scenarios from this movie I'd never heard of with a degree of superficial reverence only teenage boys can muster. I saw that it was showing on cable, so I dvr'd it and took it on one night.

It's a loud, gory, unrelentingly stupid film. That's what I get for listening to my students. To be fair, it isn't horrible. It has its charms (likable or interesting lead characters are not among them). However, it plays like a mishmash of three or four different 80's apocalypse movies, with The Road Warrior being most prevalent, along with a dash of Escape from New York. What seemed fresh and edgy to these kids who've likely never seen the source material was hackneyed for me.

Doomsday straddles the line between wanting to be an big, suspenseful action thriller and laughing at itself, tongue firmly in cheek. Director Neil Marshall (who played it straight in the excellent The Descent) really needed to choose a side here and decide whether he was making an homage to those 80's films or just ripping off their most sensational aspects. He never quite gets there, and the result is a bloody mess.

Are you waiting for me to tell you the plot? Trust me; it doesn't really matter. The premise is that Scotland has been walled of because of a killer virus, and those left behind the wall (but immune to the virus) go all Mad Max. It's a zombie movie without actual zombies, just the dying and the insane. There's rape, cannibalism, and a stage show with pyrotechnics.

There is one truly unique, memorable aspect to Doomsday. If you like beheadings, this is your flick. There have got to be at least five or six different instances of decapitation. Some of them are posthumous, some of them sudden and shocking, and at least a couple are replete with the head still reacting after being detached or even shrieking as it flies through the air.

If that's your kind of thing, you may think this is the greatest movie ever. Twenty years ago, I'd be right there with you.

Nolanometer Final Grade: C-

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Incubus, Dostoevsky, Law and Order, white wine, NASCAR. What do all these things have in common? They are beloved by many, but I just don't get them. The Harry Potter phenomenon belongs at the top of that list.

Before the HP legions descend on me in fury, I'm not saying that Harry Potter is stupid, or poorly written, or trendy, or anything. I just don't get it.

When I tell this to fans of the franchise, they always look at me as if I just said, "You know what tastes good? Poop on a stick."

They always have the remedy: "Well, have you even read the books or watched the movies?"

I tell them yes, I read the first two books. They both struck me as elongated Scooby Doo episodes, where a group of young detectives must solve a mystery that reveals the villain at the end. They always say, "Oh, but it gets so much better!" Well, if I'm not into it at all after two full novels, I don't think a lightbulb's suddenly going to go off in my head when I plow through five more.

Then there are the movies. After yesterday's interminable viewing of Half-Blood Prince, I've now seen all of them except Order of the Phoenix. I guess I sort of liked Prisoner of Azkaban. That's about the best thing I can say for any of them.

Clearly, I'm missing whatever d.n.a. that causes one to like Harry Potter. There's really no reason I shouldn't. I like fantasy; the Lord of the Rings movies are great. I like coming-of-age stories. Many people whom I love and respect are huge fans of the series, most notably my wife.

I just don't get it. It doesn't work for me. I have complaints, but they're all pretty nitpicky.

I really dislike that although Dumbledore and the rest of the staff are supposedly powerful wizards, they don't do seem to do anything. Harry and his crew are left alone to battle evil on their own. Hogwart's also seems to have more double agents than all the seasons of 24 put together. Are there any "good," effectual, adult wizards? Not to my knowledge.

The kids are also put in unnecessarily dangerous situations. I found fault with some of the scenarios in Goblet of Fire. They were going to let one of the kids drown as part of the competition? What kind of school does that?

I know what fans will say: There wouldn't be a story if Dumbledore and the adults had their poop together. There needs to be danger. Ok, fine. Give me a reason why the kids are on their own so much; that's all I'm asking. I haven't seen it in either of the books I read or any of the movies.

I also can't deal with the wand fighting. The wands seem to be able to do lots of different things, with firing lightning the most common. But whenever there's a battle, it's just a lot of waving wands and people flying around. It leaves me cold.

Then there's quidditch. Quidditch is the dumbest game ever, and I will not argue this. You win and the game ends if you catch the snitch, yet only one person from each team is looking for it. Everyone else is flying around, bashing into to each other, trying to throw balls through hoops that net you only a fraction of the points that a snitch does. This makes absolutely no sense.

It's also incredibly dangerous. Presumably, players fall off their brooms all the time, from high in the air. As far as I know, there is no net nor safety precautions of any kind. Wouldn't this result in a lot of death?

I can also never really figure out what's going on. I know that Harry Potter fans could explain this to me, but the problem isn't that I am too stupid to understand complex plot structure. The problem is that the story never gains enough momentum for me to care about what happens next. I know there's a bad guy named Voldemort, but I still haven't figured out what he's doing that's so bad, other than boring me to death.

The Half-Blood Prince struck me as a bit darker than the earlier films, so it was perhaps more enjoyable. Still, I found myself bored by it, and my attention started to wane. The thing is, I know there must be something to it; it's got a great score on rottentomatoes (as do most of the other films). Whatever it is, I'm not getting it (although my wife didn't love this one either, at one point commenting that Prince "felt like it was going on forever," and also being confused as to what was going on).

I've come to accept that, for whatever reason, Harry Potter is just never going to grab me the way it does so many other people. It actually kind of makes me sad. I love a good franchise and anticipation of sequels as much as anyone, but I just can't share in the excitement.

Nolanometer Final Grade: C+

Saturday, December 26, 2009

My Ten Favorite Albums of the Decade

With the aughts coming to a close, I figured it was time to make some pop culture lists. Why? Everyone loves lists. They're fun to make, and they're even more fun to argue about. Here's my initial post to my top-10 t.v. dramas list, if you're curious.

Do you know what's really scary? I work with teens, and most of them have only a vague concept of what an album is. I'm not kidding. Ask them the song they're listening to, then ask them what album it's from. Most of the time, they won't know. It's a dying art form. But I'm kickin' it old school, so the following list contains only cd's that I actually own.

Disclaimer: Notice the word "favorite"? That's key. These are the ten albums that I played the most when I was alone in my car. This is not a judgment of musical quality, which is a highly subjective exercise, anyway. I'll leave the top-10 lists based on artistic merit to Rolling Stone. I'm a sucker for poppy tunes that make me sing along. The good news? That means you won't see any entries where I try to sound hip by naming some obscure Belgian triangle-playing outfit.

It was tough for me to narrow it down to ten, so first permit me a lengthy Honorable Mention list, in no particular order:

Pearl Jam: Backspacer (2009), U2: All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000), Taking Back Sunday: Tell All Your Friends (2002) and Where You Want to Be (2004), The Strokes: Is This It (2001) and Room on Fire (2003), Dashboard Confessional: MTV Unplugged (2002), Less Than Jake: In With the Out Crowd (2006), Jack's Mannequin, Everything in Transit (2005), All-American Rejects: Move Along (2005), Blink-182: Blink 182 (2003), Liz Phair: Liz Phair (2003), Yellowcard: Ocean Avenue (2003), Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Show Your Bones (2006), Fall Out Boy: From Under the Cork Tree (2005), Muse: Absolution (2003), Bloc Party: Silent Alarm (2005), Pink: Missundaztood (2001), Various Artists: Garden State Soundtrack (2004), Cake: Comfort Eagle (2001), Fountains of Wayne: Welcome Interstate Managers (2003), Regina Spektor: Begin to Hope (2006), Our Lady Peace: Spiritual Machines (2001), MXPX: The Ever-Passing Moment (2000), Radiohead: Kid A (2000), The Killers: Sam's Town (2006), Weezer: Make Believe (2005) and Raditude (2009).

On to the Top 10:
10. Coldplay: A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)
By far their best album. It appears they shot their wad here, because their last two haven't been close. I love "In My Place" and "The Scientist," but my favorite is the haunting title track from the end of the album. Moody, melodic, and brilliant.

9. Avril Lavigne: Under My Skin (2004)
I hear the snickers, and I don't care. Avril's sophomore effort displays a wide range of her considerable talent. From the angsty up-tempo of "He Wasn't" and "Happy Ending" to the heartbroken ballads "Don't Tell Me" and "How Does it Feel?" to her touching tribute to her deceased grandmother, "Slipped Away," this is a much more mature (but just as enjoyable) effort than her debut record.

8. Frightened Rabbit: The Midnight Organ Fight (2008)
I promise this is will be the only band on this list you've never heard of. If you like sensitive Scottish indie rock (and who doesn't?), give this album a try. If you enjoy this inspirational tribute to secularism ("Head Rolls Off"), then ask me to burn you a copy of the cd. I probably will, just to spread the unadulterated joy with which this video fills me:
I go to maybe one concert every two years, and this was the last one I saw. I even interacted with the band (i.e. yelled out something witty and got a response), but that's a story for another blog.

7. Jimmy Eat World: Futures (2004)
The first of two albums on the list of the band I'm anointing as my favorite of the decade. It's highlighted by a cadre of one-word song titles ("Work," "Pain," "Kill," and "Futures") that range from earnest to angry. It's capped of by one of the best album closers ever, the ridiculously epic "23." A confident album made by a band in its prime.

6. Sum 41: Underclass Hero (2007)
This criminally underrated album can't seem to find its way out of the door pocket of my car. Many of the tracks are filled with poetic, Canadian rage at lead singer Deryck Whibley's parents or ineffective politicians. "Walking Disaster" is the most foot-stomping anthem from an impressive field. But the record also has a soft side, with a few excellent ballads like "With Me" that I can only assume were aimed at Whibley's then-wife...Avril Lavigne. If you don't think that doesn't get it bonus points in my book, you haven't been paying attention.

5. Weezer: Green Album (2001)
The captain has just turned on the "every single song on the record is good" sign. Weezer's "comeback" album is the sweet blend of the poppiness of their first album with a dash of melancholy from their second. Clocking in at only half an hour or so, it makes every second count with hits like "Hash Pipe" and "Island in the Sun." I actually prefer the thrusting guitar beat of the opener, "Don't Let Go," the catchy, repetitive verses of "Simple Pages," and the soulful lament of the closer, "Oh, Girlfriend" (by far the longest song on the album, at 3:49). Weezer have had other good records this decade (see above), but this is the only one that doesn't contain filler. Nearly flawless.

4. The Killers: Hot Fuss (2004)
Just incredibly addictive. The Killers brought back the 80's and gave them an edge. The last time I air-keyboarded before hearing the superlative opener, "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" was probably for the Thompson Twins.

The album runs the gamut. You've got the dance club pulse of "Somebody Told Me." Then there's the distinct guitar riff and tortured chorus of "Mr. Brightside." Just when you think you've got the sound down, they bring in a gospel choir for the incredibly, stupidly fun-to-chant "I've got soul, but I'm not a soldier" in "All These Things That I've Done." The only downside is how front-loaded the record is, which makes the merely decent second half pale in comparison. But, my God. Those first five songs...

3. Jimmy Eat World: Bleed American (2001)
How often does an album change one's life, or at least one's perception of music? I have to give credit to my students for this one. They introduced me to JEW (yes, I know that Clarity was their breakthrough, but I'd never heard it) just before "The Middle" blew up. To be honest, if I'd only heard "The Middle," I probably wouldn't have given the band a second look. Although it's still JEW's most well-known song, it's one of my least favorites on the album.

I loved this record so much that it inspired me to start listening to other bands in the emo-pop genre. Without Bleed American, I might've never gotten into Taking Back Sunday, Jack's Mannequin, Yellowcard, or Dashboard Confessional. My faves here are "Get it Faster," "The Authority Song," "My Sundown," and of course, "A Praise Chorus."

2. My Chemical Romance: The Black Parade (2006)
I know lots of my contemporaries are turned off by the band's name, or hell, even the font on the cover. It does look pretty Hot Topic. Well, that's their loss. This is one of my favorite concept albums ever, and it's actually the first one I thought of when I started trying to figure out my top ten of the decade.

It practically sounds like a greatest hits album; there are seven or eight songs on here that I ended up putting on different mixes. The album is best played through from the beginning, however, which is what's such a shame about the way people listen to music nowadays, picking and choosing singles.

I love the Queen-esque bombast and theatrics. I love the soaring anthems. I love that this young band had the balls to go all-in at the risk of looking overly earnest and pretentious. I especially love the breathtaking tandem of "Disenchanted" and "Famous Last Words" that close out this brilliant rock opera.

1. Green Day: American Idiot (2004)
One of my favorite bands' best work- a quantum leap forward. I'm going to de-friend the next person who tells me Dookie is a better record. I just don't have room for that kind of stupid in my life.

American Idiot was released at the perfect time, just before the 2004 presidential election. Naively, I actually believed at the time that this album's power could help sway the populace away from the evil forces of Captain Shit-for-Brains. I was wrong, but that doesn't detract from American Idiot's brilliant amalgam of rage, despair, and hope.

How many other albums this decade spawned a Broadway musical? As I wrote in my blog about the show, one thing that struck me was that the first four songs are all home runs: The title track, "Jesus of Suburbia," "Holiday," and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." It's like listening to a greatest hits soundtrack of the decade. The back end of the album isn't exactly filler, either, with "Letterbomb," "Wake Me Up When September Ends," "Homecoming," and the sublime closer "Whatsername."

American Idiot is the reason that we should still treasure albums, rather than picking and choosing singles. It's a cohesive rock opera, and not only is it my favorite record of the decade, I'd also argue it's the best, period.


I wrote in an earlier entry that I feel that Milk should've won Best Picture last year over Slumdog Millionaire, and I won't beat a dead horse. I don't have anything against Slumdog; I just don't think it's nearly as weighty or timeless as Milk. I also realize that my connection to Gus Van Sant's biopic about slain San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk is largely personal and biases my judgment.

I moved to San Francisco in 2003, renting a flat with two roommates in a quiet neighborhood called Noe Valley, which borders the infamous Castro district (in fact, one of my cross streets was Castro). San Francisco is essentially run by a mayor and 11 city supervisors. My new address was in the same district Milk represented during his term in the late 70's.

In February of 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsome legalized gay marriage in San Francisco. Sure, he didn't have the authority to do this, and it was largely a political stunt, but it's hard to quantify how it energized the denizens of The City. One day during those few weeks, Eileen and I were driving through The City, and we began to get frustrated with what seemed like an unexplainable traffic jam. After 10 minutes or so, our exasperation turned to elation when we saw what was causing the hold up- we were nearing City Hall. The same steps where Harvey Milk had given rabble-rousing speeches 25 years earlier were now filled with a line of gay couples, many dressed for the occasion and holding signs, waiting to finally have their love legally acknowledged inside that beautiful building.

I honked the horn, and Eileen rolled down the window and yelled "Congratulations!" Many of those in line waved back, smiles lighting up their faces. Perhaps it's hard to relate, but this was one of the most purely happy moments of my life. For that one instant, all the old prejudices and ugliness died away, and all that remained was joy and love. Even when the state stopped and invalidated the marriages, everyone who'd been around those events had something that perhaps they hadn't felt before: Hope. Harvey's legacy lived on.

In 2006, I moved in with Eileen, at the top of the hill in the Castro. For the first time in my life, I was a minority of sorts; there were far more gay people in my building and neighborhood than straights (or "breeders," as we're sometimes derisively called).

The news that renowned director Gus Van Sant was bringing A-list star Sean Penn to the Castro in order to portray Milk's life on film had the neighborhood buzzing. The Castro got a facelift: The area's landmark, the struggling Castro theatre, was remodeled in a vintage 70's style for authenticity. Other businesses agreed to be superficially transformed with older signs and window dressings while posting notices (taken down during actual filming) that informed passers-by that yes, this was still, in fact, "The Sausage Factory." Only in The Castro is that the local pizza joint's name.

For a few months in early 2008, you never knew when you'd be detoured around Castro street, night or day. It never bothered me much. I loved movies, and now one was being made in my own backyard. One night, as I was coming home from playing softball across town, they were filming the scene where Emile Hirsch's character addresses the angry mob. I parked a couple blocks away and got out, hoping to watch film history. Instead, I nearly got frostbite while watching a bunch of 10-second takes that only involved extras. I saw the top of Van Sant's head at one point and called it a night.

The film would've had to be dreadful for it to be a disappointment for me. On the contrary, it's mostly everything that I hoped it would be. I give it a lot of credit for not shying away from Milk's sexual appetite and not depicting him as a politically correct saint (he affectionately refers to Diego Luna's character as "Taco"). Josh Brolin is great as Milk's assassin, fellow supervisor Dan White. Van Sant's inter-splicing of old newsreels with new footage lends the film a documentary feel. It's a fascinating window into San Francisco history.

Then there are the political implications. The movie's central battle (and eventual gay rights victory) is about a state ballot initiative, Proposition 6. Unbelievably, Prop 6 sought to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in California's public schools, with the possible power to dismiss those who supported them as well. It's nearly unfathomable to believe that this happened as recently as 1978, or that it would've passed without the mobilization of thousands of gay activists who chose to come out to their families, friends, and communities in order to show that gays were already valued members of society, not deviants and pedophiles, as the bill implied.

Of course, the movie came out just as the most recent controversy over gay rights flared up, with the state Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage and the subsequent ratification of Prop 8, which took it back. This was obviously a huge setback for civil rights (to read my feelings about it, click here), and a movie can't make that all go away.

Students sometimes ask me why I mark them down for saying something they don't like is "gay" or calling each other "fag." If I'm not gay, why do I care?

Well, I wasn't around in the 60's. I didn't get to protest segregation or the Vietnam war. This is my generation's civil rights battle, and in many ways it's the final frontier of the war. Movies like Milk show that those still battling gay rights are swimming upstream against the current of history.

Harvey Milk understood that 30 years ago. He knew as long as you can give people one thing, they would never truly give up. Had he been alive to see the passage of Prop 8, I think he would've shrugged, pointed to the increasingly frequent legalization of gay marriages all around the world, and repeated his signature line:

You gotta give 'em hope.

Nolanometer Final Grade: A

PS: For another excellent take on this film from the fascinating perspective of someone who was once on the other side, check out my colleague Joel Swett's blog.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Edition: It's a Wonderful Life

I hadn't seen this charming holiday chestnut until a few years back. My in-laws took my wife and I to see it at a quaint little theatre in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, near where they live. For those who don't know Colonial Williamsburg, it's an historic recreation of one of Colonial America's earliest settlements. Everyone dresses in authentic clothes and talks and acts like they're from the 1600's. It's basically like this episode of South Park.

Of course, I already knew the film's general plot: Man (Jimmy Stewart) feels like a failure and thinks about killing himself until ghost shows him how different things would be without him around. One of the things I liked about the film is that the protagonist's impact isn't overstated. It's not like Back to the Future II where Marty's dad is dead and billionaire Biff is married to his mom. Instead, it sends a much more subtle and attainable message. A simple life full of good intentions and good deeds is a life well-lived, and others will be affected positively by such lives.

That's the moral of the story that most people take from this movie, and it's a valuable (and true, I hope) one. However, there's another significant theme at play here, one that most people (including my staunchly Republican in-laws) either miss or refuse to see.

This film is virulently anti-capitalist.

The villain is a scowly old due named Potter who looks like Dick Cheney with glasses. He's a slumlord and bank owner. He's constantly trying to screw over the middle class people of the town and take advantage of his wealth. He's big business, capitalism without a conscience, and Jimmy Stewart represents the mom-and-pop industry that's in danger of being taken over.

Check out this scene, where there's a bank panic, and Potter offers "50 cents on the dollar" to the town's denizens. Stewart pleads with them to keep their money in the community bank:

Sounds downright socialist, doesn't it?

Still don't believe that one of America's most beloved movies criticizes one of the country's most cherished tenets? Well, the F.B.I. sure thought it did. They declared it "communist propaganda" in an official memo.

It didn't slip by everyone. Check out the comments on imdb from a user in Dallas. Although I don't agree with him politically, he's dead on about the film's themes:

The movie appeals to the socialist nature of one's sense of life, and was an anti-capitalist propaganda film on the virtue of altruism. For instance, people who wanted their money at the beginning of the "run" on the savings and loan were negatively painted selfish. Old Man Potter was painted as the evil banker, when in fact a much more interesting and accurate spin would be to look at the lives positively affected because Potter managed his bank so well (he had the liquidity to handle his depositor's claims). Good ol' George, presented as the epitome of the virtuous man, possesses in fact an ethics of self sacrifice. Incompetent Uncle Billy, having "lost" the banks capital in a brown paper bag, is nevertheless sympathetically presented as Potter's victim, when in fact he is merely the price of George's immoral (and anti-capitalist) practice of sacrificial nepotism.

The fact that thousands of Americans probably purchased this movie at their local Walmart this holiday season is both amusingly and maddeningly ironic.

Nolanometer Final Grade: B

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Zach and Miri Make a Porno

I understand what Kevin Smith was trying to do here, I think. He wanted to combine a raunchy, "R"-rated porn farce with a sweet romantic comedy. The problem is, certain things shouldn't be mixed together. Tequila and Dr. Pepper. Britney Spears and clipping shears. Raider fans and fire. Add Zach and Miri Make a Porno to the "failed experiments" list.

The first 45 minutes or so work well enough. I especially enjoyed the scene at their high school reunion where Superman and the Mac are gay lovers. There's the usual plethora of Kevin Smith dick jokes; the Star Wars porno they're making actually looks hilarious.

The film goes off the rails when it shifts from crass to cheesy. Zach and Miri must consummate their up-until-now platonic relationship on film. It's not romantic. It's gross. It made me legitimately uncomfortable. Such an intimate moment should not occur on film. Porn is voyeuristic by nature; actual "lovemaking" between two people who are just now discovering their love for each other should not take place in front of a cadre of onlookers, with the camera rolling. The whole thing is icky.

The scene doesn't work on a romantic level, nor does it work on a risque, pushing-the-boundaries level. It would've at least been daring had Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks bared all for their scene, as one would expect in a porno movie. Instead, they keep their clothes on and leave the nudity for porn veteran Katie Morgan and a tattooed, pierced Jason Mewes.

It becomes a completely different film at this point, basically a re-tread of When Harry Met Sally. The edgy, bawdy movie I'd been enjoying was gone, replaced by a predictable romantic comedy.

Kevin Smith is still looking for that elusive mainstream success, but hopefully he learned that Boogie Nights+Jersey Girl = box office poison.

Nolanometer Final Grade: C

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

2007: No Country for Old Men vs. There Will Be Blood

The good news is that a film worthy of Best Picture won this year. The bad news is that a better film didn't.

I have little against No Country for Old Men, only a couple minor quibbles. I didn't care for the way Josh Brolin's character would talk to himself in order to serve as a narrator. I also didn't like the shift in point of view when Brolin is killed. We'd been through so much with the guy, but his end is shown through the secondhand, too-little-too-late eyes of Tommy Lee Jones' sheriff. I just felt like the viewer gets cheated by the anti-climax.

I also had to google the meaning of Jones' description of his dream that abruptly ends the film. After reading some theories, I found one that makes sense for me. I regard the fact that a film doesn't give an easy answer and makes you reflect as a good thing, which I know puts me at odds with much of the American movie-going public. Don't worry; I'll blog about Paul Blart: Mall Cop tomorrow to make up for it.

No Country for Old Men is a great movie. However, There Will Be Blood is a classic, or at least will be regarded as such one day. Full disclosure: I have a sizable man crush on Daniel Day-Lewis that renders my opinion completely unobjective.

Still, There Will Be Blood strikes me as one of those films where every single shot is meticulously planned out. Paul Thomas Anderson's vision is poetic, even when its themes are ugly.

As I've stated before, the goal with any Best Picture winner should be to fast-forward ten years and figure out the one that will best stand the test of time. That usually means a film that's not just entertaining and well-done, but one that's also about something. The bigger the idea, the better. No Country uses Jones' character to act as a meditation on how violent the world is becoming, leaving behind those who yearn for a simpler time (that may not even have existed in the first place).

Blood's ambition is much more grandiose. It aims at the core of America itself, the idea of win-at-all-costs capitalism. Daniel Plainview (even the name's meaningful) is the ultimate embodiment of that spirit, and he is a monster, morally corrupt and devoid of any emotion except the will to crush his competitors. He's an oilman because it works well visually and a metaphor for the "blood" that he values, rather than his own human relations, but the character could've just as well been any captain of industry.

It is an indictment of one of America's most deeply-held values; thus, it's a film that makes many uncomfortable. It's certainly not as accessible as No Country, which likely ultimately cost it the Oscar. Nevertheless, There Will Be Blood will be the film taught in college classes decades from now, and it won't be limited to film theory.

Nolanometer Final Grades:

No Country for Old Men: A-
There Will Be Blood: A

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


To paraphrase Lance, you're not necessarily stupid if you liked this movie, but this movie was made for stupid people.

Sadly, this explains how it made so much money; it cynically targets our most base instincts. Just look at the poster; everything you need to know is right there. People want to identify with a guy who becomes an unstoppable killing machine in order to rescue his lost daughter. It's the perfect outlet for the rage we would feel in that situation. But why does the rest of the film have to be so mindless?

I can't remember all the points in the film that struck me as being ridiculous, but I do recall writing something on facebook to the effect of "Taken has plot holes big enough to drive a Hummer through, which is exactly the vehicle fans of this movie wish they could afford." I know one scene that bothered me is when he has the bad guy's voice on recording and somehow gets the right guy to say it, even though there are several men in the room.

I didn't even find the myriad action sequences all that enjoyable. Liam Neeson's enraged father beats the crap out of everyone who crosses his path. None of it's terribly inventive, and it happens over and over again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

There's also an underlying message to Taken that's insidious and irresponsible, especially in light of how xenophobic America has become: Europe is a scary place.

You can get kidnapped out of an upper-middle class neighborhood in Paris in the middle of the day because you flirted with a guy at the airport. It will be Albanians who do it, and you don't know where Albania is, but you're sure it's in Europe somewhere, and therefore evil. There's this huge sex slave trade network, and they don't care whom they steal, from whatever country. In fact, it's a bonus if you're an American. Oh, and just in case you're expecting the French government to help you (especially when your dad is friends with a higher-up), forget about it. They're in cahoots with the bad guys. Because they're French, and therefore evil.

Of course, anyone who's ever been to Europe could tell you this is ridiculous, that you're a lot more likely to encounter violence here at home. But I'm afraid that for a lot of the unwashed masses, this will only confirm their suspicions about traveling abroad. We just lived through eight nightmarish years under a yokel who never bothered with Europe until he was elected president, even though he was rich, and his father at one time was ambassador to the United Nations. I'll bet people who voted for Bush love this movie. As well as teenagers, of course.

All of this seems odd when juxtaposed with the fact that the film's star is an Irishman. Paradoxically, Neeson is the only thing I really like about the movie, yet I'm a bit disappointed in him for participating in such a vapid exercise. I understand everyone needs to get paid sometime, but even Love, Actually had more brains than this.

Nolanometer Final Grade: D+

Monday, December 21, 2009

Some Like it Hot

A few years back, I decided to try and watch all of the AFI's top 100 movies. I may never finish, as there are some I'm just not looking forward to seeing (Your ears are burning, Jazz Singer).

Sometimes, I don't see what all the fuss is about (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Manchurian Candidate). Other times, I like the film well enough, but its greatness doesn't connect with me, for whatever reason (The Maltese Falcon, Rear Window). Then there are those that I watch and say, "Yep. This is a classic. Even if it's hella old and in black and white, it's awesome." Casablanca and On the Waterfront are good examples.

Well, add Some Like it Hot to that last category. In a word, it's delightful. Comedy doesn't usually hold up as well across generations, but even watching it alone, I found myself lol'ing. One of the great things about watching these flicks is finally getting all the cultural allusions that have sprung from them. I mean, without this film, there's probably no Bosom Buddies! I never knew where that "I Wanna Be Loved By You" song with the "Boo-boo-be-do" line came from. It was also largely filmed at a locale where I've actually been, the Hotel Del on Coronado Island in San Diego.

Jack Lemmon and Jamie Leigh Curtis' dad are hilarious as cross-dressing musicians on the run from the mob. I especially enjoyed Curtis' husky woman voice and Lemmon's screwy facial gesticulations.

Then there's Marilyn. To be honest, I never completely got the appeal before. I'd never seen one of her movies, just a bunch of still shots (yeah, you know the ones I mean) and newsreel footage. Well, I get it now. She's sexy as hell. I can't say that she's much of an actress (her lip-synching is so off that I assumed that wasn't really her singing those songs until I looked it up), but who cares? Apparently, there was quite an uproar when the film was released (the Catholic League rated it "C" for "Condemned"), and I can see why. Even though it's just kissing, Marilyn simply oozes sex.

Then there are the not-so-subtle homosexual themes. Lemmon's character dreams of running away with an effete millionaire. The two make quite a couple, even if Curtis tries to reason with him, "What would a guy want to marry another guy for?" Ah, the innocence of 1959. Then there's the film's closing line: "Well, nobody's perfect!" I'll leave the context out to avoid spoilers, but it's funny, trust me.

Nolanometer Final Grade: A-

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Young Guns I and II

When I was growing up, I just didn't "get" westerns. All those grainy John Wayne cowboys and Indians flicks never grabbed me, and the slower-paced Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns tried my pubescent patience. In 1988, when I was 12, Young Guns was released. I suddenly liked westerns.

Despite its "R" rating, Young Guns was clearly a rock n' roll western; it was meant to appeal to teenagers. Not just the boys, either. The six leads were all eye candy to varying degrees, with Kiefer Sutherland being probably the most drool-worthy at the time.

I loved this movie. It was violent, it was cool, it had catchphrases ("Yoo-hoo! I'll make ya famous"). Sure, it was a bit over-the-top, but so was the ending of The Wild Bunch, and that's considered a classic. It also had one of the more shocking early death scenes of any film I can remember, killing off biggest-star-at-the-time Charley Sheen's character barely halfway through the film.

The thing is, I grew out of a lot of films that I loved as a teenager, or at least I saw the silliness in them as I got older. Not so for Young Guns and Young Guns II. I still love them in exactly the same way I did in my adolescence.

The films are ostensibly about Billy the Kid, but what's really appealing about them is the simplicity of their message: "Pals." It's about a group of guys who stick together no matter what, led by Emilio Estevez in his career-defining performance as William H. Bonney (a.k.a. Billy the Kid). Billy sometimes wields the group's bond like a club as he pressures them to act in an increasingly reckless manner, but he is a fiercely loyal friend at his core.

The sequel is better than it has any right to be, taking the remaining "regulators," now on the run for their lives, and introducing William Petersen as Billy's eventual murderer Pat Garrett, who betrays his former friend. Did Pat Garrett really run with The Kid's gang before he took the money to hunt him down? I don't know, and I don't care. The Young Guns movies should not be seen as Billy the Kid biopics. The relationship in the film is much more interesting that way, so it's fine by me. Sometimes I think I even like Young Guns 2 more than the original.

Young Guns runs at 40% on the tomatometer, with Young Guns II at 38%. That's about what I'd expect. Here's the thing, though: I've never met anyone who disliked these movies. Sure, they're not high art, but they are incredibly fun. I'm willing to bet they turned plenty of kids from my generation on to westerns as well.

Nolanometer Final Grades:

Young Guns: B+
Young Guns II: B+

This song remains my favorite "written explicitly for the movie" song of all time.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers

I have zero time tonight, so this will have to be a short one. This relatively unknown cult classic will appeal to you if:

1. You like horror films with creative/disgusting death sequences. My favorite is when Angela, the killer camp counselor, drowns a camper in an outhouse by using a larger branch to submerge the unlucky victim's head beneath the muck. Classic.

2. You like gratuitous nudity. Lots and lots of it. You're sold already, aren't you?

3. You like the 80's. The perms, mullets, and short shorts.

4. You like happy, yet oddly creepy camping songs that get stuck in your head for days. "Oooooohhhh, I'm a happy camper! I love the summer sun. I love the trees and forest; I'm always having fun!"

5. You like your movies to follow the plan: The promiscuous, drug-abusing teens go first, and that's that.

6. You like sequels where seeing the original is not required. I've actually seen the original, and I'd advise against it. They tell you what you need to know in the beginning around the campfire, anyway.

7. You like celebrity relatives. Angela is played by Pamela Springsteen. That's right, The Boss' sister. And the "Final Girl," Molly, is Renee Estevez, sis of Emilio and half sis of Charley Sheen.

I'm going to assume you can find this on dvd, but I still own a trusty vhs copy. It just feels right.

Nolanometer Final Grade: A-

Friday, December 18, 2009

Things Fall Apart: Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby

Both these films were directed by Clint Eastwood. Mystic River was nominated for Best Picture in 2002. Million Dollar Baby took home the trophy in 2003. What else do they have in common? Their absurd endings largely ruin both films. Spoilers follow. Read on if you dare. Oh, and as with most films I didn't particularly enjoy, I've only seen these once each, so if I get some of the details wrong, let me know.

Of the two films, I prefer Mystic River. It's got incredible performances from Sean Penn as an ex-con consumed with rage over the violent death of his daughter, Tim Robbins as his friend who just might have committed the murder, and Kevin Bacon as their cop buddy stuck in the middle.

The film builds toward an emotionally wrenching climax when Penn confronts Robbins on the banks of Mystic River and forces him to confess to his daughter's killing at the barrel of a gun. He stabs and then shoots his lifelong friend; it's devastating.

That is, until you find out that Robbins didn't do it. It was the brother of the girl's boyfriend. Why did he shoot her in cold blood, drag her body away, and hide it? I have no idea. The kid was just barely in the film. He had no motive, no character development, no role to play other than just appearing in a scene or two. There was nothing that made you say, "Of course, I should've known it all along!" Basically, it's more tragic if Robbins didn't actually kill Penn's daughter, so it's pinned on a fringe character with no back story.

I felt manipulated. If you want a twisty, crushing ending, fine. Set it up properly with a plot line that makes sense. But the film's central focus (Who did it?) can't come down to, "Oh, I don't know. How about the brother of the boyfriend with the gun he stole from the liquor store their family owns?" Just lazy, sloppy storytelling. Perhaps the book the movie's based on gives a more detailed sketch of this character, but I'm going with what I saw onscreen.

Million Dollar Baby
makes me even more upset. Much like Mystic, I was enjoying myself through much of it. It had all the right elements to enter the echelon of great sports movies: A young underdog upstart (Hilary Swank) who persuades a crusty, jaded trainer (Clint Eastwood) to give her a shot through much sweat and perseverance. As an added bonus, Morgan Freeman does what he does best: Narrating the action while occasionally showing some young pups what's up in the ring.

Then it all goes titanically wrong. Maggie earns an undercard championship bout in Las Vegas. During the fight she appears to be winning, despite cheap shots worthy of the WWE. Seriously, the Drago/Balboa bout in Rocky IV is more believable.

Then comes the piece de resistance. The bell rings, the ref waves his hands to indicate the round's over, and Swank is walking back to her corner. After getting herself off the ropes, her nemesis rushes her. Swank looks back, and her opponent unleashes a mammoth roundhouse flush to Swank's face. Again, the round has been over for several seconds. Swank is stunned and collapses toward her corner, where for some reason, the corner guy has set the stool out on its side, and, as Eastwood tries frantically to move the stool, her head lands awkwardly on a corner, snapping her neck and paralyzing her. Oh, and I'm pretty sure the cheater boxer wins the fight and doesn't get charged with anything, but don't quote me on that.

It's meant to be shocking and tragic. It's not. It's hilariously absurd, at least for anyone who possesses even one iota of boxing knowledge. It's a completely ludicrous turn of events, unworthy of a film that won Best Picture, for chrissakes.

The last 30 minutes become a completely different movie. Swank's cartoon-evil white trash family visit, attempting to get at her women's boxing fortune. She tries to kill herself by chewing on her own tongue, hoping the blood will drown her and end her suffering. She pleads with Eastwood to kill her, and he eventually does, thus ending her suffering and mine for sitting through this sham of an Oscar pick.

Nolanometer Final Grades:

Mystic River: B
Million Dollar Baby: C

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Boyz n the Hood

How often does a film truly change one's life, or at least one's perception of it? I cannot recall a movie that had a greater impact on my view of society and culture than tonight's entry, Boyz n the Hood.

I know what you're thinking. This white kid from the suburbs of Lafayette didn't know any black people, so this was a whole new world for me.

Nope. I knew several black people. I didn't know any poor people.

My entire experience with the environment where Boyz n the Hood takes place was riding in the car to and from the Oakland Coliseum for A's games. I saw the windows with bars on them and figured those people just didn't want anyone breaking in their house at night. Sure, I knew these urban areas were more violent and drug-ridden than where I came from, but I couldn't imagine the struggle that Boyz n the Hood so unflinchingly portrays.

The thing that struck me about the film was how the childhood experiences of the characters were very much like mine, yet they were also totally alien. I moved between two houses/environments due to divorced parents. I wanted to be like Ronnie Lott. I liked bbq's. I liked goin' to the store, even if I had no money. I would go anyway (Note: My sister and I recreated that particular exchange roughly 850 times after we saw this film on vhs).

Then again, I never saw a dead body on my way to school. My dad never had to shoot at anyone who broke into our house. There were never toddlers belonging to crack moms wandering in the streets. Perhaps most significantly, no one ever pointed a gun at me. I never had any of my friends get shot (or fire on others). My dad lived in Martinez, then Pittsburg. That was as close to "hood" as I got.

It's an amazing film with outstanding performances from Laurence Fishburne as an intellectual if somewhat distant father determined not to let his son fall victim to the culture of violence that has claimed so many young men. Cuba Gooding Jr. overcomes a truly ludicrous shirt in his breakout role.

Speaking of breakouts, Ice Cube delivers the film's signature line with understated grace, lamenting the lack of attention paid to the tragic death of his brother Ricky, an aspiring football star: "Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care about what's going on in the hood. They had all this foreign shit. They didn't have shit on my brother, man."

It's the father of all "hood" movies, and still the best one. I'm betting it taught a lot of sheltered suburbanites like me "what was going on in the hood," without glorifying the violent or illegal aspects of that life. That's quite a feat.

Director John Singleton was rewarded by becoming the youngest-ever Best Director nominee at 24 (besting Orson Welles, who, as I understand it, is hella old now). However, Boyz n the Hood wasn't nominated for Best Picture. I have no problem with the inclusion of winner Silence of the Lambs or JFK, which are both iconic. I haven't seen Prince of Tides, although I understand it's a chick flick. I have seen Bugsy, and it's about 1/16 the movie Boyz n the Hood is, and about 1/100 as memorable. Then there's Beauty and the Beast. A cute little Disney cartoon is a more important contribution to the film canon than a landmark movie that essentially created an entirely new genre?

You know, if I were some sort of wacky conspiracy theorist, I'd say that the Academy has a habit of throwing films largely starring/produced by people of color a few bones with lesser nominations, but very rarely acknowledging those films as being among the best. But that's just crazy talk, I'm sure. No evidence for that at all, despite these past two blog entries.

Oh, and Terminator 2 got robbed this year as well. Prince of Tides? Please.

Nolanometer Final Grade: A

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

1989: Driving Miss Daisy vs. The Field

I finally got around to seeing 1989's Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Driving Miss Daisy. I was 13 when it came out, and my only impression of it then was that it was "an old people's movie." I wasn't too far off. The youngest person in this movie is probably Dan Akroyd, in his 40s at the time.

Still, that doesn't make it a bad movie. In fact, I quite enjoyed it. Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy are great, and I particularly dug Freeman's soft, deferential Southern cadence. It takes a very insular view of race relations in the deep South without resorting to stereotypes. Miss Daisy doesn't think she's a bigot, but she does have a habit of saying "those people."

You probably know the rest. Freeman's character is hired to drive her because she's getting older, and she's initially resistant. A bond is slowly formed, they become lifelong friends, she drops all prejudice, and he ends up feeding her in the old folks home in a touching final scene. It's a sweet little film, and not heavy-handed like another film I could name that won Best Picture in 2005.

However, it's not Best Picture material, particularly not in a year with as many quality films as 1989. You know what's amazing? If you're anything like me, you're probably looking at all the posters listed above, and you're saying, "No way. It lost to Glory? And Do the Right Thing? What were they thinking? Here's the crazy thing: The two most enduring, relevant films of that year weren't even nominated.

I admit that I've only seen Do the Right Thing twice, and not recently, so I can't make the best case for its merits. As far as I'm concerned, it's still Spike Lee's best, most impassioned work. Although it does lose points for introducing the world to Rosie Perez (but gains some back because she goes topless).

Glory, however, is one of my 10 favorite films ever. I watch it at least once a year; it holds up extremely well. Even moments that could've felt forced and trite are delivered with such poetry by Freeman and Denzel Washington (who won Best Supporting Actor) that they are weighted with emotionally validity. Freeman's undressing of Denzel is a particularly outstanding monologue:

[Trip and Searles are about to fight when Rawlins steps in]
Rawlins: Look, goddamn it! The whole world gotta stomp on your face?
Trip: Nigger, you better get your hands off me!
Rawlins: Ain't no niggers around here! Understand?
Trip: Oh, I see, so the white man give you a couple a stripes, and suddenly you start hollerin' and orderin' everybody around, like you the massa himself! Nigger, you ain't nothin' but the white man's dog!
[He starts to walk away, Rawlins stops him and slaps him]
Rawlins: And what are you? So full of hate you want to go out and fight everybody! Because you've been whipped and chased by hounds. Well that might not be living, but it sure as hell ain't dying. And dying's been what these white boys have been doing for going on three years now! Dying by the thousands! Dying for *you*, fool! I know, 'cause I dug the graves. And all this time I keep askin' myself, when, O Lord, when it's gonna be our time? Gonna come a time when we all gonna hafta ante up. Ante up and kick in like men. LIKE MEN! You watch who you call a nigger! If there's any niggers around here, it's YOU. Just a smart-mouthed, stupid-ass, swamp-runnin' nigger! And if you not careful, that's all you ever gonna be!

I've always thought that one of Glory's best attributes is its magnificent score. I own the soundtrack and can listen to it beginning to end, then press play again when the cd runs out. This is where Driving Miss Daisy really loses points, by the way. It's got that 80's keyboard sound; totally out of place with its mid-1900's setting. It completely dates the film.

Glory is also one of the few movies I can show students that they all "get," even though it doesn't talk down to them. Heck, I don't even get complaints that it was made "back in the day." As a plus, it's one of the few historical Hollywood epics that is actually fairly accurate as to its source material, according to my Civil War professor at Davis, anyway.

Unlike Glory and Do the Right Thing, the other two posters I put at the top of the entry did earn Best Picture noms, and both of them would be better choices than Daisy (the other two nominees were Dead Poets' Society, which I find overwrought and more than a little homoerotic, and My Left Foot, which also fits the definition of "nice little movie").

Field of Dreams is definitely corny and saccharine, but it does capture the beauty of baseball and its role in American history and culture (I still prefer Major League as my favorite baseball flick). Twenty years later, people aren't saying "Now, drive slow to the Piggly Wiggly." But they do say "If you build it, he will come." If you say the line "Hey, dad. Wanna have a catch?" to the right man, his eyes will well up.

Born on the 4th of July
has its issues (it's too long by 20 minutes), but Oliver Stone's biopic of paraplegic Vietnam vet Ron Kovic perfectly captures the naivete of small-town, patriotic Americans and how they were sucked into a war they didn't understand by a government who didn't understand it, either. It also exposed the dirty little secret of how we treat our soldiers when they return from war. The veteran's hospital scenes alone make this a worthy film.

Apparently, the Academy wanted something safe this year. Driving Miss Daisy is the last non-rated "R" film to win the award. Clearly, they preferred a submissive, polite black man to the angry, violent version, either in the Civil War or modern-day Brooklyn.

Nolanometer Final Grades:

Glory: A+
Do the Right Thing: A-
Field of Dreams: B+
Born on the 4th of July: B+
Driving Miss Daisy: B

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

2005: Brokeback Mountain vs. Crash

Although I rarely watch the Oscars (last year may have been the first time in my life that I watched it from beginning to end; I must be getting old), I do usually pay attention to who's nominated and who wins. Unlike the Emmys, which tend to leave out deserving shows (The Wire was never nominated. End of conversation), or the Grammies, which have become a complete and utter joke, the Academy's choices are usually competent and defensible to some degree.

However, they almost always seem to get the Best Picture winner wrong, in my not-so-humble opinion. To me, the voting shouldn't be that hard. Which film will hold up best over time? Which one will people still be watching and analyzing 10 years later? You want people to look at the list of winners and say, "Yeah, I remember when that came out" rather than "What's that one about again?" The most egregious modern example is, of course, 1998's travesty of Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan. It honestly pains me a bit to even write that. Last year wasn't as bad, but in a few years people will look back on Slumdog Millionaire as a heartwarming romantic novelty, not a timeless, politically charged piece of art like Milk.

Nevertheless, at least I liked Slumdog. The same cannot be said for Crash, 2005's winner.

is the kind of movie teenagers think is "deep." Teens typically don't like dramas unless they're extraordinarily heavy-handed, which Crash is, in spades. I can't site a lot of specifics because I only saw it once, a few years ago, but I recall a lot of anguished slo-mo scenes.

Then there's the pseudo-intellectual babble of the film's coda: "It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something."

What does that even mean? People in Los Angeles get into car accidents because they long for human contact? There's really no other way to interpret it, is there? No deeper metaphorical level I'm missing? To me, that statement epitomizes the film. It aims to be a brilliant and incisive swirl of clashing cultures and identities, but it's ultimately hollow at its core.

Prediction: In ten years, people will say, "What's Crash? Is it that one where Matt Dillon's a racist cop, or is it the one where James Spader gets in car accidents to get his rocks off?

Contrast that with Brokeback Mountain. Will people ever forget this movie? It's become a cultural touchstone. Sure, the argument could be made that it's mostly known as a source for comedy routines. But that's only because the movie's breathtaking beauty made it a big enough mainstream success that everyone gets the reference.

Consider that if this film wasn't pitch-perfect in every way, what a mockery it would've become. Most of the jokes that are made put others in the film's situation (like this one); they typically don't poke fun at the film itself.

Anyone who's seen it knows there's little that's funny about the situation. It's heartbreaking, tragic, and revolutionary. Ten years from now, it will be known as a landmark of American film, and people will scratch their heads and wonder, "How did that not win Best Picture?"

Good question.

Nolanometer Final Grade for Crash: C+
Nolanometer Final Grade for Brokeback Mountain: A-