Sunday, January 29, 2012

Just Another Review of Moneyball


I don't like sports films.  At all.  I mean really. Some quick unpopular opinions: Hoosiers was boring. Field of Dreams had some good moments, but overall was dull.  I did really love The Natural, but that's because it's a fairy tale, not about sports at all.  I like Grimm, I don't like sports.  I don't watch them, I think they are a waste of billions of hard-earned dollars.  There, I feel better having gotten that out of my system.

If Moneyball had been about baseball, I wouldn't have liked it.  Instead, it's about courage and ambition and how family effects business decisions and geeks v. tradition and lots of other human stuff.  Really, it seems that Sorkin is giving baseball the same treatment he gave Facebook-- it's about people, not about sport.  Well, it's not just about people, it's about risky business decisions and how it pans out.  But "panning out" has as much to do with relationships and a personal perspective that includes one's past.  In a sense, Moneyball is this years' Social Network, but not quite as good.  That still leaves a lot of room for good.

The one other thing I loved about Moneyball besides the script was the two main performances.  Pitt didn't look or sound like Pitt at all before 2011.  And this can only be a good thing.  This was a very human performance and his pacing was so different.  Not once did he give us his trademark grin.  And Jonah Hill was simply fantastic as the shy, geeky kid just coming into his own.  This is the kind of performance Hill should do more of, because he can actually act.  The couple comic lines he did here is more funny than many whole films he was in.  

I highly recommend this film, especially to people who don't like sports films.  That's what Jessica of The Velvet Cafe did for me, and I'm passing it on to anyone else who thinks a movie about baseball statistics must be the dullest thing ever.  Baseball statistics ARE the dullest thing ever.  This movie is wonderful.  

(originally posted on the Filmspotting Forum)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Ultimate War Movie

War movies are spotty.  It seems to be their nature.  There is only one war movie I can say that I enjoyed pretty much all of it (Apocalypse Now), but most of the rest of them have aspects which are wonderful, but the film as a whole doesn’t quite work.  And war movies should work.  There is heightened drama, high stakes, danger at every turn, and lots of opportunity for powerful performances.  It seems that perhaps most war films assume that the audience is involved in the heightened drama as well, or that an excellent beginning will woo the audience into buying the rest of the film.  But it never worked that way for me.  I can be wooed by beauty, by a great performance, even by a score that is emotionally resonant, but the drama of war doesn’t do it for me itself.  It needs something else.

I’ve gone so far as to make a list of scenes that I could put together to make the greatest war movie in the world.  If we could just put them together, it’d be magnificent.  Well, maybe not, but that’s my dream. 

Here’s my ultimate war movie:

The opening dialogue from Inglourious Basterds 

Boot camp from Full Metal Jacket

D-Day from Saving Private Ryan 

Surfing from Apocalypse Now  (can you imagine this right after the sequence of SPR?  Talk about an increase of tension)

Riding across the desert from Lawrence of Arabia (How the Arabian Desert became adjacent to Vietnam is an interesting subplot)

The President and his staff consider dropping the bomb: Combination of 13 Days and Dr. Strangelove (don’t ask me how to work that out, I’m not a screenwriter)

Capture and torture of David Bowie from Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (significant aspect of any war movie)

Peace and a concert between enemies from Joyeux Noel 

And finally: Ending it all with dropping the bomb from Dr. Strangelove and blowing up the world from Escape From Planet of the Apes (because I want my film to be the final word in war movies).

(In the comments, I invite you to post your favorite war scene that you’d like to see in the greatest war movie ever)

Ah, that’s a great war film.  It covers a variety of aspects of war, sees how it all works together, brings great flimmaking, deep emotional drama,  intense action, comedic elements and a bit of a dig at war all in one film.  But who could make a film like that?  Who could make it interesting?  And who would be able to keep all these different elements from contradicting one another to make a coherent film out of a mess of themes?

Of course, Stephen Spielberg.   Or at least Spielberg back in the day.  The Spielberg who made Close Encounters or Raiders of the Lost Ark, he could do it.  Saving Private Ryan had a great opening sequence, but it didn’t carry that intensity throughout the rest of the film.  But if Spielberg was at the top of his game, he could do it.

Honestly, I had thought that the best Spielberg moves were behind us.  I will always appreciate his early masterpieces, but even A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, which I love, was admittedly mixed in tone and theme.  Schindler’s List was the final great Spielberg film, and although it takes place at war time, it isn’t really a war film, but a Holocaust film, which I consider to be a different animal.  But War Horse proved all my assumptions wrong.

War Horse is that perfect war movie. It can carry different emotions and different themes because instead of telling the story of one soldier, or one troop,  or the story behind a war, it uses a horse as a means to carry us from one aspect of World War I to another.  Although I might be overly praising Spielberg in this review, at least equal credit should be given to the screenwriters, Richard Curtis and Lee Hall, who took a book and magnificently brought a complex story to the screen, so that the group of children I saw the film with were in turns enraptured and shocked, both silenced and unable to stop talking about what was happening on the screen.

Wait, did I say children?  At a war movie?  Yes, children.  There are some intense sequences in the film, and a young child wouldn’t understand what was going on, but a ten year old and up would be entranced by this marvelous film.  I brought my eleven year old daughter to it, and while she was disappointed by the absence of blood, she loved the cinematography and the story almost brought her to tears.  Almost.

I had no such option as being simply “dusty eyed”.  No, the tears rolled freely down my face as the final set of sequences occurred.  In fact, I would say that the final half hour of this film is probably the most moving cinematic experience I’ve had with a 2011 film.  No, War Horse isn’t going to be my favorite film of the year.  But if it were a less magnificent year in film, it certainly would be. 

Did I cry because it was manipulative?  Oh, yeah, it manipulated me.  In the same magical way Close Encounters does or Schindler’s List.  It wasn’t cheap sentiment.  It earned it.  It gave me time to feel for the characters, even a couple horses, and the final sequences gave me a couple surprises I didn’t expect.  My daughter said, “I knew it would end like that” and I gave her a list of the things we couldn’t expect, and she agreed.   Yes, sentiment wins the day, but why not? 

It is a rare animal (so to speak) to have a war film that determines to show the good in every man instead of the evil.  And isn’t it true that in war the altruistic and  compassion could be seen as well as the evil monster that lurks in the human breast?  I wish that we would have more films about saints and not just monsters.  Why can’t we have heroes that sacrifice themselves dramatically as well as those who blow other people up?  War Horse shows us that it is possible to have an immensely entertaining and satisfying film about persistence and charity and generosity and even friendship between enemies.  Because of the short story nature of the film, it could give more opportunity to this side of humanity than otherwise could be done.  We have a scene in no man’s land that reflects the true story behind the film Joyeux Noel, another that borrows some of the intensity of Saving Private Ryan,  camradarie between officers that reminded me strongly of another great war film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.  But we also have an amazingly emotional scene having little to do with war for the first half hour of the film that is a story or rural England and daily struggle between the classes. 

What more can I say about the film? So much more.  I find, for myself, that it is the great movies I can’t stop talking about, and the poor films I have difficulty to say anything at all about.  And I could write pages about War Horse.  But it wouldn’t be fair to do an analysis of this film.  It is all there, and any child could appreciate this film.  I could write an essay on class struggle in the film, on the unique perspective of the “enemy” troops,  on the moral message.  But I couldn’t write it near as well as it is simply presented in the film.

Just go watch it.  In the theatre.  Bring your kids ten and up.  And bring a hanky. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Meek's Cutoff: Review and Analysis

Although I grew up in Southern California, Oregon is my chosen home, and I love it.  Not only do I choose Portland over Los Angeles, I choose Oregon cinema over Hollywood.  I'd much rather see Gus Van Sant than Michael Bay or James Cameron and I'd rather watch Kelly Reichardt over Kathryn Bigelow (not that I would deny watching any of their films).  And Kelly Reichardt is the most Oregonian of all filmmakers.

She has made three films, all of them quiet, meditative, perhaps some would call them ponderous.  Old Joy, her first, is about two friends who live in Portland who drive to the wilderness to have one more adventure together.  Wendy and Lucy is about Oregon's most prevalent social problem, homelessness, and gives a very personal viewpoint of the issues (more on that film another day).  These two films were made very inexpensively, around Portland.  They have a beauty to them, but something holds back.

All of Reichardt's abilities and preferences work so well with the subject matter of Meek's Cutoff: the travails of travelling on the Oregon Trail in the beginnings of such pioneering.  Finally Reichardt was able to purchase really excellent equipment and to film outside of the Portland area.  The stark landscape of Eastern Oregon is contrasted with the gorgeous beauty of the skies.  Please, someone, give her a million dollars to shoot her next film with the full potential of her abilities.

Yes, the film is ponderous, but it only highlights the nature of such traveling, when a day might lead you only a few miles.  Also, like Wendy and Lucy, it is told from a female perspective, and we get a strong sense of how women are kept out of the loop in decisions that their lives depend on.  Important conversations are muffled, hard to hear, or just don't take place within earshot.

It is easy to get frustrated with the film.  Honestly, knowing Reichardt's nature, I waited until I was fully alert and able to really take in her film, so as to give it my full attention.  (New Years Eve is a great time for me-- I'm not doing anything, and everyone else is busy with their own celebrating).  It would be frustrating, except that it is supposed to be frustrating.  We are supposed to get the idea of how it felt to be a woman on the Oregon Trail, dependent on men-- some wise, some idiotic-- to determine the best course for everyone.

I have a friend with whom I have been having an argument with.  He proposes that women were never oppressed, at least in American history, and perhaps not in ancient history. He tells me "How can a segment of society be oppressed when men have to kneel on the ground and ask their permission for marriage?"  This is the biggest load of rubbish I think I have ever heard.  This movie is a perfect example of how women have quietly oppressed throughout history (when they weren't violently oppressed in war or rape).  To only give men decision making powers and then to allow women no right to speak to those decisions because they weren't involved in the conversation is oppression.

This movie is told from a female point of view.  Not a feminist point of view, necessarily.  And not from the view of a particular woman.  Rather, the viewer is almost a fourth woman amidst the travelers.  We hold back when the women hold back.  We can't hear everything because the women can't hear everything.  We are only given certain pieces of knowledge, but there is much we are not given.  Perhaps this is frustrating.  But, on the other hand, perhaps we can understand more about the perspective of the quiet and lowly who are not given enough power to participate in decision making.  Children in families.  The homeless, who are kept out of policy decisions.  Women in patriarchal societies.  This is oppression.

The film is slow and can be frustrating.  But it is also beautiful and brilliant.  It is one of the best revisionist Westerns ever, alongside of Unforgiven.  I highly recommend it, but be ready for what you are about to see. 4/5

Below is a brief analysis of the film that contains spoilers.  Please do not read if you haven't seen the film yet:

Meeks Cutoff is a film in two acts.  The first act revolves around Meek and the growing distrust of his ability to guide the troop.  As this plays out, we experience the frustration of the women, and we learn of how difficult the trail is when there is little chance of finding water.  Perhaps most of us are have some knowledge of the difficulty of pioneering life-- we have read some of the Little House books, we have played the Oregon Trail games (in which you die from cholera as frequently as you breathe-- no wonder Oregon only has a few million people a hundred years after a million people traveled that trail).

The film is roughly based on a true incident, which created the alternative trail Meek's Cutoff, that runs from Vale, Oregon to The Dalles at the Columbia River.  Stephan Meek, a fur trader, suggested avoiding the Blue Mountains because it was thought that the Indians were murderous in that region. You can see in the map that it split into two parts.  This is because, as hinted at in the film, the party original party split into two parts, one going north, another going south.

The movie takes place while the travelers were in Lost Hollow (which they named) where they couldn't find water. Probably, in the film, the reason they were carving "LOST" on a rock is to name where they were. Here is a quote from Betsy Bayley, who traveled from Ohio to Oregon in that trip:

We camped at a spring which we gave the name of “The Lost Hollow” because there was very little water there. We had men out in every direction in search of water. They traveled 40 or 50 miles in search of water but found none. You cannot imagine how we all felt. Go back, we could not and we knew not what was before us. Our provisions were failing us. There was sorrow and dismay depicted on every countenance. We were like mariners lost at sea and in this mountainous wilderness we had to remain for five days. At last we concluded to take a Northwesterly direction . . . . After we got in the right direction, people began to get sick.

You can read a fuller explanation of the history in this Wikipedia article.

The movie changed a number of facts of the history.  In the original Meek Cutoff party, there were around a thousand wagons, while the movie represents only three.  Many people died in creating the trail.  They did eventually find water, but it was not an Indian who led them, but Meek himself, discovering a creek.  The company did not follow Meek anymore, however after water was found.  They did meet an Indian, historically, who gave them information for a blanket, but they did not follow him.

But to get involved in the history is to lose the power of the film, and what its true message is.  The film is not there to give us a history lesson, although much about the history of the times can be learned.  It is to teach us about ourselves.

Given the fact that the story of the second act isn't historical, what is his place in the film.  The whole second act revolves around him and whether the party should trust him to lead them.  Why is this so significant?

Reichardt and the script writer, Jonathan Raymond, went to some lengths to give the Native man a true voice.  They hired Kristin Parr and Joan Burnside to translate the words written in English into Nez Perce, a language the Cayuse Natives of the Blue Mountains most likely spoke.  Reichardt made the decision to not offer a translation of what the Cayuse spoke, wanting us to only see the perspective of the emigrants.

One of the most telling parts of the Cayuse's speeches is the conversation he holds with the moon, near the beginning of his section of the film:

 "What does the earth say? I don't know. What does the sky say? I don't know. Who are these people? I have no idea. This still might be just a dream. I'm not sure. If onlymy brother were here I would have someone to talk to. Brother moon, you're very quiet tonight. You're no help at all.  Is it a dream? I don't think it's a dream. I don't know these people. But they've come to me and they've spoken to me. They've made me bleed. I am almost sure they exist. That means this isn't a dream. If this is a dream, what a dream."

Eventually, the Native man agrees to arrangement that he is offered by the emigrants:

"For red, I'll take you to water."

Given all this, what is the film about?  What is the point?

It is all about trust.

At the very beginning it is clear that Meek is no longer trusted by the party.  He had led them to where he had no idea where he was going.  One might as well follow one's own intelligence as to follow Meek, as he was as ignorant as the rest of them, and more dangerous because his pride demands that he continue to seem knowledgeable.

The women had to trust the men completely, and we, the viewers in the place of the women, are forced to participate in that trust.  Such trust is frustrating, stressful and often painful.  Some of the men were worth trust, some were not.  But the trust had to be given anyway, despite the wisdom of the men.  There was no other choice.

Finally, the Indian came.  They didn't know what he knew, but it was determined that he knew more about the area than Meek.  But trust requires more than knowledge, there has to be a benevolent attitude as well.  The Indian could be leading them to life or death.  And since they didn't share a language, they couldn't determine if the Indian was worth trusting as well.  Emily fixes the Indian's shoe in order to make him worthy of trust.  Millie finally breaks down because she can't trust the Indian, even though most of the rest of the party had.

Also, it turns out, the Indian didn't know whether he could trust this party of "Bostons" as well.  They had already proven themselves untrustworthy by beating the Indian, just for his lack of understanding.  They offered the blanket, and they fixed his shoe, but are they really trustworthy?  Should he lead them to water or should he just let them die?

The climax of the film really happens at the end of the wagon loss.  When Emily takes up the gun and points it at Meek, she is making a determination of trust.  She distrusts Meek, because he is neither knowledgeable nor benevolent.  They already knew the first, and he proved the second by his racist stereotypes, and his attempt to kill the Indian for no reason whatsoever apart from his personal prejudice.  The message of the film isn't about the necessity of trust, but about the choice of trust.  How do you know who to trust, even if you have insufficient knowledge?  In the end, Emily decides to trust in the devil she doesn't know, rather than the one she does.

Because, in the end, what did they know about the Indian?  He was alone in the wilderness, seemingly without connection to the rest of his tribe.  Why?  Was he a criminal, of sorts?  Was he simple-minded?  We don't know.  We can't understand him.  Emily makes the decision based on the fact that she assumes he knows something and that they accurately communicated to him that they wanted water and that he would actually bring them to it.  That's a lot of assumptions.  But really, what is the choice?

Isn't that what all of life is?  We make decisions based on what we determine is sufficient knowledge.  But this knowledge is based on trust of other's knowledge, and their positive use of that knowledge.  If the right person lied to us, then all of our life is pointless.  If a doctor isn't knowledgeable enough or doesn't have our best interests in heart, then we could die.  Trust, even without enough knowledge, is necessary for life.  But it could also lead us to death.

One way or the other, we have to make a decision to trust someone. For good or for evil.  And who can dispute our decision?  Because they have to make the same decisions themselves, based on the same quality of knowledge. Life is based on faith, like it or not.

Just Another Review of Winnie the Pooh

(Part of this review was posted as a comment in Bill's Movie Emporium, which you can visit if you click the link to the right)
Deep in the hundred acre woods, where Christopher Robin played/ We find the enchanted neighborhood of Christopher's childhood days. 
I don't remember watching Winnie the Pooh as a child, but I know I did-- on one of the many incarnations of the Disney television show, if nothing else.  My real introduction to the shorts came when my son was a toddler, and I was desperate for anything to make him not force me to read The Cat and the Hat again and again.  Wow, was I charmed.  The original three shorts were masterpieces.  The quiet gluttony of Pooh, the anxieties of Piglet,  the depressive Eeyore, the controlling Rabbit, and the supposedly wise Owl--  how wonderful they all were.  And the songs were both catchy and clever.  Later, Tigger was added in as the rambunctious sufferer of ADHD.  Part of what I loved about the films is that they kept all the charm and winking of the original books, added another layer with fourth wall references as well as some Disney magic.  The three original shorts didn't work as well thrown together to make  a "feature film" out of it in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.  And the fourth short, Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore lost some of the magic.  Nevertheless, the original shorts are among my favorite films of all time, individually.
There had been attempts made to bring Winnie the Pooh back to the screen.  A Disney television show was created, which was dull and simply moralistic.  From that show a couple films were released in the theatres, my favorite of which was The Tigger Movie, but all of them lacked the charm of the original, and especially the quality of the animation.
This last year, Disney tried again.  This time, they purposefully tried to re-create the magic of the first three shorts I loved so well.  The animation was very much the style of the originals, and the writers worked hard to re-establish what made the original shorts great.  They took the basic plot from an original story by A.A. Milne, they added a generous helping of sly humor, and the kept the characters to the simple stereotypes they were.  And for the most part it worked.
A mild controversy occurred about the film because of its run time.  It is only a few minutes over an hour. Even with the cute Toy Story short with it, it was a very short film.  Some said that the film wasn't long enough to pay full ticket price for.  I could understand what they meant, but in principle I agreed with my friend Bill, who said that what matters isn't length but quality.
I think if I had seen WtP in the theatres I would have been disappointed.  It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy my time with WtP, but that as much as it strove for the quality of the earlier shorts, it didn’t quite make it. For one, the songs were of lesser quality (of course, they had to be, because the Sherman Bros. weren’t writing them). But, in fact, the film was TOO long. They took a Pooh story that would have normally been told in 20-30 minutes and stretched it out to twice the time. It had all the charms of the earlier shorts, but not more than them, but added twice the time. I enjoyed the film, but I think it could have been trimmed more– if nothing else, the songs could have been shorter.
Oh well, at least we’ve got the real Pooh back again, complete with the charm, the breaking of the fourth wall, and the sly humor. How wonderful.  Thank you, Disney.  I can't wait to watch the next one. 3.5/5