Groundhog Day (1993, Harold Ramis)

Groundhog Day falls under my rewatch category–the films I used to love (or like), but haven’t seen in five or six years. These films are ones that I saw multiple times, back when I used to see things multiple times. I think that practice disappeared when I discovered AMC in 1996 or so.

I was a little worried. I’ve seen Multiplicity, which I never thought was as good, more recently than not and it had me doubting the power of Harold Ramis. I hadn’t checked until now, but Movielens predicts a three and a half for Groundhog Day, which is damn close. Groundhog Day wasn’t just a pleasant surprise, it was a pleasant experience. I could skim over the philosophy of the film, its thesis, but imagine if Frank Capra had made a movie with Humphrey Bogart. It probably would have been close to Groundhog Day (except Bogart would have worked for a newspaper). I’ve never used the term Capraesque and haven’t particularly liked the usage of it I have read, but I think Groundhog Day is definitely Capraesque. I think he would have appreciated its thesis.

The film’s structure kept impressing me and I kept wondering where I was on time–a similar experience to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Groundhog Day is particularly nice in its intensity, it never shows or tells too much, just enough to inform the viewer and move the story along. The film’s flow is very important and there are a few mistakes–the most glaring is Chris Elliot’s character becoming a buffoon, which the mean Bill Murray always thought he was anyway. I remembered, watching it, that I’d made that observation before.

Groundhog Day Murray is probably Murray at his best, or near it. While he’s developed into a good dramatic actor, there’s an air of desperation that he hasn’t been able to shake since Rushmore. With the possible exception of The Royal Tenenbaums, it’s impossible to ignore it–it’s a sign on his back that says “I Want an Oscar.” Groundhog Day is before any such aspiration and it’s a sad reminder of how nice it was not to have to see it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Harold Ramis; screenplay by Danny Rubin and Ramis, based on a story by Rubin; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by Pembroke J. Herring; music by George Fenton; production designer, David Nichols; produced by Trevor Albert and Ramis; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Bill Murray (Phil Connors), Andie MacDowell (Rita), Chris Elliott (Larry), Stephen Tobolowsky (Ned Ryerson), Brian Doyle-Murray (Buster Green), Marita Geraghty (Nancy Taylor), Angela Paton (Mrs. Lancaster), Rick Ducommun (Gus), Rick Overton (Ralph), Robin Duke (Doris, the waitress), Carol Bivins (Anchorwoman) and Willie Garson (Kenny).


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Sin City (2005, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez), the extended version

When Sin City came out in the theater, three people told me to go see it. One of them had an opinion of film I respect, one had an opinion of it I–at the time–had no argument with, and one had an opinion I most definitely did not respect. But I’d read interviews with Robert Rodriguez where he said he intended the films to be viewed as separate stories (much like Pulp Fiction, which is Sin City‘s obvious inspiration–at least in terms of casting). One of the Weinstein Brothers, I believe, convinced Rodriguez the film’s audience were essentially dumb and couldn’t handle the stories separate, so spliced together they went. So I waited for the special edition DVD, which has all three films in their entirety….

Unlike Pulp Fiction, which has three stories and shared characters, Sin City isn’t the same movie from part to part. Rodriguez was never a particularly intelligent filmmaker, something Tarantino always has been. In fact, reading on IMDb that it was Tarantino’s idea for Clive Owen to talk his monologue–truly the best moment in the film–makes a lot of sense now. I thought it was just a moment of the comic book that wasn’t tripe.

I actually have a bunch of notes on Sin City, because some of the acting was so awful I had to make a list. Here’s the list, with some comments.

Elijah Wood. He doesn’t have any lines, but he doesn’t have a bad-ass, or even psycho scare. His casting is a goofy, poor choice. All Sin City proved was that he shouldn’t have made it past child acting, which Ash Wednesday already did.

Rosario Dawson is AWFUL.

So is Rutger Hauer.

So is Jessica Alba (in the cameo during Marv’s story).

Benicio Del Toro was laughingly bad. So was Brittany Murphy, but she was irritating. Watching Del Toro in Sin City is like… try to imagine Robert DeNiro as Robin (as an eleven year-old). It’s embarrassing. The Del Toro/Murphy scene is actually painful. A lot of the acting in Sin City is like it–it’s unbelievable that Rodriguez expects it to be taken seriously and not as a bad imitation of a car commercial.

Alexis Bledel–awful. She might give the worst female performance.

Michael Madsen is astoundingly bad. I always used to–when I was a teenager–confuse him with Tom Sizemore. The difference is not that Sizemore is good (he’s better than good), but that he’s actually capable of acting. Madsen isn’t.

Now, on to the good performances. Anyone turning in a good performance in this film must be amazing. The dialogue is so piss poor, they have to be.

Both Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton are good in their little intro sequence (Hartnett probably has the easiest time with the narration, because his is the shortest and, therefore, the best).

Mickey Rourke is fantastic, but the makeup is a bad idea. The whole “translation” of the comic book idea is stupid (and certainly testifies to Rodriguez’s inherent limitations). The comic book is not perfect–the writing is occasionally all right, but most of the dialogue and narration is awful. Miller simply isn’t very good, on page or screen. Rourke manages to convey real emotion, even with his face in plastic.

Clive Owen is excellent.

Tommy Flanagan (the guy with the scar) or Nick Stahl give the best performances in the film.

Jaime King is actually all right. Maybe even good.

The Willis narration ruins the sequence, because it doesn’t give him a chance to act. Jessica Alba was nowhere near as bad (just mediocre really) as I was lead to believe, mostly because her character does absolutely nothing. Some of the Willis stuff looks real good, but that narration just kills it. Miller’s narration makes an attempt at Chandler, but it’s a poor one. He misses Chandler’s point. Its characterizations are from a B film noir–a bad one–not Chandler. Not even Hammett. It’s like he’s heard some hackneyed detective narration on a sitcom….

The special effects–the “sets” and “locations”–occasionally work, but they mimic reality, but don’t seem to intend to–so when something is incredibly unreal, it sticks out. Like cars. Amusingly, the visual design (from Miller’s comic) has cops out of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, with full body armor, driving old cop cars to fit in with the 1950s motif.

I actually didn’t dislike Sin City. It’s certainly the best comic book movie in the last few years (since Hellboy, I suppose, then all the way back to Batman Returns or something). It’s just not very good–it’s like Pulp Fiction, but with a bunch of actors from the WB. There’s rarely any real human emotion to it and there’s a constant attempt to be “cool.” Pulp Fiction had some similar aspirations, but it was also about wanting to screw your boss’s wife, which is a layer Sin City doesn’t have. All of its characters, for the “noirish” dialogue (out of the missing Don Knotts adaptation–sorry, translation–of The Big Sleep), all of them talk straight from id. There’s no nuance. But it’s hard to dislike just because it isn’t a real movie. It’s not a serious attempt at anything. American Pie 2 is a more serious study of the human heart in conflict with itself.

Sin City is a comic book movie and I’m using comic book as a pejorative there….

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez; special guest director, Quentin Tarantino; screenplay by Frank Miller, based on his comic book; director of photography, Rodriguez; edited by Rodriguez; music by Rodriguez, John Debney and Graeme Revell; produced by Elizabeth Avellán, Rodriguez and Miller; released by Dimension Films.

Starring Jessica Alba (Nancy), Devon Aoki (Miho), Alexis Bledel (Becky), Powers Boothe (Senator Roark), Rosario Dawson (Gail), Benicio Del Toro (Jackie Boy), Michael Clarke Duncan (Manute), Carla Gugino (Lucille), Josh Hartnett (The Man), Rutger Hauer (Cardinal Roark), Jaime King (Goldie/Wendy), Michael Madsen (Bob), Brittany Murphy (Shellie), Clive Owen (Dwight), Mickey Rourke (Marv), Nick Stahl (Roark Jr./Yellow Bastard), Bruce Willis (Hartigan) and Elijah Wood (Kevin).


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Star Wars (1977, George Lucas)

Watching Star Wars as an adult–as a cynical adult–is an interesting experience. There are plenty of frequent reminders of the first film’s “faults,” from Alec Guinness and Harrison Ford deriding the dialogue to many of the second trilogy’s reviews citing it as a weak film. As near as I can tell, I haven’t seen Star Wars since early 1999, when I prepared for Episode I. I’m pretty sure I watched the original edition, from the “Definitive Collection” LaserDisc. This viewing was back when no one had any idea how stingy Lucas was going to be with the original versions of the films.

Tonight I watched a recreation of the 1977 version. It’s called the “Classic Edition” and, if you know where to look, it’s available online. I’d love to link to a torrent or something, but I’d rather not get the blog taken down, not before I get the beautiful new version up (by the end of the month, hopefully). This 1977 is pre-A New Hope even… The result–and the experience–is magical. Star Wars‘s brilliance is not impossible to quantify. This film is very much from the director of THX 1138 and American Graffiti–I’d love to say the Han/Luke relationship mirrors, resembles, or continues the Curt/Steve relationship from Graffiti, but someone else already has. The beauty of Star Wars, what kept people going back in 1977 and so on, is in the characters. Much like Graffiti, Lucas again creates this wonderful cast of characters, all of whom have these nuanced relationships with each other. It’s not R2D2 and Chewbacca playing the 3D chess, it’s C3PO looking at Princess Leia during the Death Star run. It’s Leia saying “Good luck” before the swing.

The swing is another example of something in Star Wars–unrelenting adventure. There’s a difference between unrelenting action and unrelenting adventure. Action is about killing bad guys, adventure is about beating impossible odds. Star Wars is about attaining the impossible dream.

Still, when I started watching the film–probably until the Sand People attack–I found myself trying to figure out what Lucas was doing differently back then. I was trying to identify how he went bad. It’s visible really early, during the Jawas selling the droids. Lucas used to be excited by what he was putting on film and he’s not anymore (at least not with the second trilogy, who knows if he’ll direct again). I’ve probably seen Star Wars fifteen times, the first time when I was three–and I can’t remember ever being more entranced than I was tonight, at twenty-seven.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by George Lucas; director of photography, Gilbert Taylor; edited by Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch and Marcia Lucas; music by John Williams; production designer, John Barry; produced by Gary Kurtz; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia Organa), Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin), Alec Guinness (Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), David Prowse and James Earl Jones (Darth Vader), Phil Brown (Uncle Owen), Shelagh Fraser (Aunt Beru), Jack Purvis (Chief Jawa), Alex McCrindle (General Dodonna) and Eddie Byrne (General Willard).


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Mozart and the Whale (2005, Petter Næss)

I’ve only been looking forward to this damn movie for two years. It missed its theatrical release date, but there’s probably a DVD on the way (which would have been the source of my illicit copy). It’s perfectly understandable why the film missed the date… it lacks any relatable center. My fiancée just said she wants a movie that shows the real difficulties of autism–Mozart doesn’t, because you can’t center a movie around someone operating on such a different level. The result, for Mozart and the Whale, is that Josh Hartnett isn’t really that bad… neither’s Rahda Mitchell. Their problems aren’t autism problems, they’re romantic drama-lite problems….

Mozart and the Whale was going to be the comeback of Ron Bass, who got a lot of work from the late 1980s through the late 1990s, when people finally got sick of him. He probably shouldn’t have staked it all on a Demi Moore vehicle (Passion of the Mind). It’s a shallow film, weighing in at ninety minutes. Many of these minutes are filled with music montages (not score, unfamiliar, but pleasant, songs). I spent the first half of it waiting for something to happen (hoping that Gary Cole was going to be Hartnett’s father and there’d be some more meat to the conflict)… but no. There’s no real conflict in Mozart, which would have been fine, it’s just that there was an attempt at it. A weighty attempt at it. Bass is famous for empty, dramatic endings and Mozart is no different.

It’s too bad, because Næss is an interesting director. Mozart doesn’t look like anything except itself, which is a lovely thing to be able to say about a newish director. He’s from Norway, so maybe that played a part… Oddly, for a film without a US theatrical release and a ninety minute running time, Mozart actually shot in the US. You can tell it throughout (I didn’t know where the location was–it’s Spokane) and the film has a nice feel.

The acting in the film is difficult to discuss–my fiancée gleefully pointed out I’d no longer be able to say Hartnett’s his generation’s finest actor, but he gives a great supporting performance in Mozart. If Mozart and the Whale had been about Billy Crudup banging his autistic brother’s girlfriend or something, Hartnett’s performance would have been extraordinary. It’s a character part in the lead… Mitchell (who I was really looking forward to seeing after Melinda and Melinda) ranges. The film misses her character’s best opportunity.

I wonder if there is a longer, better version of the film out there–there are a few moments, jumps in visual continuity, that certainly suggest it. But I’m not sure it would make much of a difference.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Petter Næss; written by Ronald Bass; director of photography, Svein Krøvel; edited by Lisa Zeno Churgin and Miklos Wright; music by Deborah Lurie; production designer, Jon Gary Steele; produced by James Acheson, Bass, Boaz Davidson, Frank DeMartini and Robert Lawrence; released by Millennium Films.

Starring Josh Hartnett (Donald Morton), Radha Mitchell (Isabelle Sorenson), Gary Cole (Wallace), Sheila Kelley (Janice), Erica Leerhsen (Bronwin), John Carroll Lynch (Gregory), Nate Mooney (Roger), Rusty Schwimmer (Gracie), Robert Wisdom (Blume), Allen Evangelista (Skeets), Kelly B. Eviston (Dr. Trask) and Jhon Goodwin (Rodney).


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