June 29, 2012

Top 5 Films of 1986

Big Trouble in Little China, directed by John Carpenter

Deciding on my favorite movies from any year is tricky, but it's even tougher when it goes back to my childhood. I was 10 years old in 1986, and it's impossible to separate the films I love from what engaged me at that time. There are some new additions that I caught recently, but the top picks hearken back to the late '80s. Even so, I'll stand by this list (no pun intended) as representing a strong group from a solid year. Other options were Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Fly, The Color of Money, Manhunter, and The Karate Kid Part II. I could argue with any of these making a Top 5 List, except maybe the last one. The sweet sounds of Peter Cetera do make it a contender, however. I haven't seen Children of a Lesser God, Down by Law, The Name of the Rose, and River's Edge, so those might also be worthy contenders. Let's check out the list and see what made the cut!

Stand by Me, directed by Rob Reiner

Honorable Mention: Stand By Me
I didn't see this charming Rob Reiner movie until this past January, and it's sad that it took me this long. The coming-of-age story doesn't feel dated and chronicles that time right before reaching young adulthood. There's a definite nostalgia to this film, especially due to its framing story with Richard Dreyfuss looking back on his adventures in the late '50s. The talented young cast includes River Phoenix, Kiefer Sutherland,  Jerry O'Connell, Wil Wheaton, and John Cusack, among others. Adapted from the Stephen King short story "The Body", Stand By Me will continue to be discovered by new generations for years to come.

Star Trek IV, directed by Nicolas Meyer

5. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
My friends and I were big fans of both the Star Trek TV series and movies growing up, and one of the main reasons was this highly entertaining time travel movie. The "fish out of water" story combines wonderfully with the sci-fi elements to deliver a surprisingly funny story. It's clear that William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and the entire gang knew each other so well that they're able to have more fun this time around. The Earth may be at risk from a mysterious probe, but the stakes never feel too serious. Even the oddball solution of using humpback whales to save the day works because we're engaged with the main characters. This enjoyable movie has showed up on several previous lists for me, and I doubt this is the last time it will make an appearance.

Platoon, directed by Oliver Stone

4. Platoon
Oliver Stone's recent output like World Trade Center and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps may have diminished his standing as a top-notch director, but it's hard to deny his talent. One of his best films is Platoon, a personal project for him based on his time in Vietnam. Back when he was more than a bad punchline, Charlie Sheen brings the right level of innocence to Chris, who struggles to figure out the right way to deal with the chaos. Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Sergeant Elias (Willem Defoe) offer different points of view about the emotional state needed to survive. As their conflict builds, Stone conveys the grand mess that just keeps getting crazier as the story progresses.

Hannah and Her Sisters, directed by Woody Allen

3. Hannah and Her Sisters
Woody Allen has directed so many great movies, and there's a pretty large group that you could place near the top of the list. One of my favorites is definitely Hannah and Her Sisters, which combines drama and humor in a realistic fashion. Allen's character shifts more to the background, and the three female leads (Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, and Barbara Hershey) take the center stage. The entire cast is excellent, including Michael Caine in a tricky role of lusting after his wife's sister. Sometimes forgotten amid the raves for Annie Hall and Manhattan, this movie stands right with them and deserves the same level of attention.

Aliens, directed by James Cameron

2. Aliens
What more can be said about this movie? Given all the attention on the franchise after Prometheus, there's little more that I can write about this excellent sequel. James Cameron incorporates his own style into the series and transforms Ridley Scott's vision into a military conflict. This time it's war. While a few flaws show up after repeated viewings, Aliens remains a powerful action movie that packs a mighty punch. The editing from Ray Lovejoy (The Shining) is pitch-perfect and sells the epic scale. When many people think of the series and Sigourney Weaver's iconic Ripley, it's this movie they remember the most. I slightly prefer the original, but that takes nothing away from this remarkable success.

Big Trouble in Little China, directed by John Carpenter

1. Big Trouble in Little China
John Carpenter's offbeat adventure is an underrated gem that deserves a lot more attention. Kurt Russell spoofs the blustering action hero while his buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) saves the day. While it's easy to dismiss the over-the-top story, that wouldn't give enough credit to Carpenter and his star. The tongue-in-cheek approach works much better than expected and offers consistent entertainment. I can't say enough good things about this clever genre mishmash. Kim Cattrall, James Hong, and Victor Wong join the fun, but this is Russell's showcase. He seizes the opportunity and shines within Carpenter's excellent framework.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list. Should The Golden Child or Crocodile Dundee make it? You should also check out the archive of past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.

June 26, 2012

List of Shame: Easy Rider (1969)

Henry Fonda in Easy Rider

Standing alongside Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, Easy Rider is an iconic film that embodies a worldview from a specific time period. Earning a remarkable $41 million at the box office, the low-budget road movie remains well-known today. The latest version of the American Film Institute's 100 Movies list places it at #84. While I don't put too much stock in those rankings, it's interesting to note its staying power. The movie is trapped in the late '60s, yet its themes of being free and stepping away from society remain with us. It's a definitive example of the New Hollywood and gained extra notoriety for its tumultuous production. Director Dennis Hopper clashed repeatedly with the crew, and most of the drug use on screen was real. I've resisted this movie for a long time, so this List of Shame series has finally pushed me to check it out. Will I pack up my bags and head out in the countryside? Let's get to the questions while I get the camp fire ready.

Easy Rider – Directed by Dennis Hopper; Starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Antonio Mendoza, Phil Spector, Mac Mashourian, and Karen Black

So, what's this story about?
After completing a drug deal, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are flush with cash. They hop aboard their motorcycles in California and start a long journey to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Along the way, they meet up with some hippies at a commune, pick up small-town lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), and dodge close-minded rednecks. Their days are spent on the endless roads of the American countryside, while the nights include drugs and chatter around the campfire. By the time they get to New Orleans, it might not be such an idyllic spot for the outsiders. While they aim to be free, these guys may have problems escaping the confines of the dominant system.

Dennis Hopper directed Easy Rider and acted in it.

Why has it taken me so long to see this movie?
Honestly, watching hippies taking drugs and riding motorcycles didn't sound like a thrilling movie. It seemed like a relic that wouldn't offer much to me today. The clips of Hopper stumbling around New Orleans and their campfire chats looked pretty dull. I acknowledge this wasn't a fair assessment. It was on my radar as a film that I should see, but I kept finding reasons to avoid it. This was an obvious choice for this series because I'd resisted many chances to seek it out in the past. In one sense, my expectations were correct, but they also simplified an interesting and pretty depressing look at the future of this country.

Easy Rider, directed by Dennis Hopper

Does the story hold up well today?
This is a tricky subject because it depends on which aspect of the story is the focus. Looking specifically at the styles and manner of speaking, Easy Rider is locked into its late-'60s era. On the other hand, Wyatt and Billy's motivations are pretty universal. Like so many disaffected groups over the years, they're looking to step apart from the conventional society. Their success in actually fulfilling that goal is another story. All they really do is ride around and do a lot of drugs, culminating in an LSD trip at St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans. By that point, it's difficult to take their honorable intents too seriously. Considering the counter-culture themes, it's interesting that Wyatt goes by Captain America. His jacket includes a giant American flag, and he seems fairly positive about what people can do. This isn't an ironic outfit designed to get a laugh, which would be the case today. In a weird sense, he expects too much from this country and is destined for grave disappointment.

Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider

Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
The story focuses mostly on the leading duo, though many others enter and leave the scene. Peter Fonda is perfect to play a laid-back biker, and he's the moral center for the movie. This Christ-like role could easily feel heavy-handed, but he underplays the big moments. On the other hand, Hopper stumbles through the movie and seems as lost as his character. He's the right guy to play the more volatile Billy, but it doesn't make him very interesting. The supporting player who steals the show is Jack Nicholson's George, an eccentric lawyer along for the rider. The image of him wearing a football helmet on the back of Fonda's motorcycle is priceless. Nicholson gets the best lines and doesn't waste them in this star-making role. He's only around for a limited time but sticks with you more than anything else. The neurotic but well-meaning George is the right part for an actor who plays crazy better than anyone. It's sad that the female roles are so inconsequential; they're reduced to prostitutes and hippies looking to hook up with the leads. Hopper and Fonda might have idealistic views of America, but they fall short with the opposite sex.

Easy Rider, released in 1969

What are some of the most memorable scenes?
The first act spends a lot of time on Wyatt and Billy riding while rock tunes blare on the soundtrack. Everyone remembers "Born to Be Wild" by Steppenwolf, which is strongly identified with this movie. When you combine that with songs from Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, and other prominent artists, you have what amounts to a '60s version of a music video. While those iconic moments stick with you for a while, it isn't enough to carry an entire movie. The other major scene is the final campfire talk where Fonda utters the famous "we blew it" line. There are several ways you could read this statement. On a basic level, he's saying that Wyatt and Billy have wasted their time and money on drugs and prostitutes. I believe that's too simple. The next step is indicting the entire hippie generation, which had a chance to make a difference and failed. If you want to go another level, Fonda could be summarizing the U.S. itself. Has this country become a corporate, uncaring mess? Regardless of its meaning, it doesn't completely make sense in the direct context of their discussion. It's like he knows what's to come and is just foreshadowing their inevitable demise.

Henry Fonda in Easy Rider

How does this beloved film live up to the hype?
Unlike earlier choices like In the Mood for Love and Once Upon a Time in the West, my expectations weren't as high for Easy Rider. Like I explained above, my reservations about seeing it were pretty high. In one sense, it's an entertaining movie with engaging themes and several interesting characters. I don't expect to return to it any time soon, however. I understand why it's become such a cultural linchpin, but it also meanders into fairly dull territory. There's a point where their goofball behavior starts getting irritating. Even so, the downbeat ending is stunning and avoids getting overly sentimental. The dominant society wins the day, and loners stepping away from the fold are proceeding at their own risk.

June 25, 2012

1980s Comedies Marathon, Part 2: Pretty in Pink (1986)

Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink

My first post for this blog covered Sixteen Candles, which I hadn't seen prior to that time. It was part of my 1980s Comedies marathon, which also included The 'Burbs, Trading Places, and After Hours. I was still developing the format, and these movies offered a perfect way to get started. More than a year later, I figured it was time to go back to the subject of my first marathon. There still are some major '80s comedies that are blind spots for me. I grew up during that time, but I was a bit too young to identify with the high-school films of John Hughes. He didn't direct Pretty in Pink, but his stamp as the writer is all over this 1986 tale of romance and class. Molly Ringwald returns once again to play the lead role for Hughes, and it remains well-known more than 25 years later.

What's this movie about?
Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald) has a good sense of fashion but doesn't get along well with the rich kids at school. She lives with her heartbroken Dad (Harry Dean Stanton), who's struggling to get back on his feet. Her best friend Duckie (Jon Cryer) has feelings for her, but she doesn't see it. Andie's charmed by Blane McDonnagh (Andrew McCarthy), a fancy lad from the other side of the tracks. She's embarrassed by this gap, and he faces nastiness from his friends. His best friend Steff (James Spader) is rough on him about their relationship. With the prom approaching, Blane must decide where he stands. Does he care more for Andie or his shallow rich friends? Meanwhile, she tries to deal with growing feelings for a guy who may be ready to run for the hills.

Pretty in Pink, starring Molly Ringwald

Does the story hold up well today?
Pretty in Pink is definitely locked into the 1980s with its fashions, music, and specific take on high-school romance. However, it also conveys that Hughes touch that makes it feel timeless despite being connected to the time period. I'm likely responding this way because I grew up in the '80s, but I know that younger people have similar reactions to Hughes' work. Teenagers can identify with finding romance with someone from another social circle and dealing with the ramifications. The conflict might not be as simple as the rich kids/poor kids situation presented here, but it still works. It's not as sharp as other Hughes films like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, however. It might be easy to blame Director Howard Deutch for this difference, but that's too easy. The Hughes elements are all there, and much of it still works, but it's hard to catch lightning in a bottle every time.

Pretty in Pink

What are the signature moments that embody the ‘80s and its movies?
There are plenty of good examples for this question, but I'll just focus on the soundtrack. The final scenes with "If You Leave" by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark playing are iconic and firmly connect that song with this movie. I challenge you to listen to it and not have it stuck in your head all day. It's an endlessly catchy melody that's only usurped by the painful events on the screen. But I'll return to that later. Several scenes take place in a bar with a house band, and those performances fit perfectly in the mid-'80s. Bruno plays "Rudy" early in the movie, and The Rave-ups perform several rockabilly tunes during Andie and Blane's big date. Also, the Psychedelic Furs' title track still gets airplay on retro shows to this day. The music sets just the right tone for this breezy picture and helps it to glide quickly through its 96-minute running time.

Jon Cryer in Pretty in Pink

What performances stand out as remarkable and/or ridiculous?
Molly Ringwald plays her typical role, but she can't compete with the unstoppable force of Jon Cryer as Duckie. He steals every scene, and the movie suffers when he takes a back seat in the second half. His best moment is the dance performance while lip syncing to Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" in the record store. It's the highlight of the movie and makes us wonder why Andie can't see him as more than a friend. Duckie's unrequited love takes center stage in the early going, but she only has eyes for Blane. James Spader brings his trademark arrogant and sleazy demeanor to Steff, the evil rich guy. He throws lavish parties, hooks up with Ellen Tigh from Battlestar Galactica (Kate Vernon), and wreaks havoc throughout the movie. Annie Potts is also a lot of fun as Andie's boss and friend Iona with her many different hairstyles. I also have to mention Andrew Dice Clay showing up as a bouncer named the "Dice-man", which is a nice touch.

Andrew McCarthy in Pretty in Pink

What are some of the most memorable scenes?
It's impossible to cover Pretty in Pink without discussing the ending, which has riled up audiences for years. It makes sense that Andie might have problems seeing Duckie as more than a friend. The problem is that the movie spends so much time showing why he's a great guy. Blane means well, but he has little in common with Andie. Also, he seems to have very little personality. All it takes is some pressure from Steff to get him to turn his back on her. Andrew McCarthy gives a speech in the end to win her over, but her response seems out of character. Hughes wrote the entire film intending to bring Andie and Duckie together, but test audiences didn't like it. Ringwald talks in a DVD feature about not feeling the connection with Cryer, and her behavior sabotages Hughes' intentions. This makes it trickier to decide what I think about the end. It feels like a betrayal of Duckie's arc, but would that have been completely satisfying either? On a related note, Iona's final scene also feels out of place. Her conservative makeover reminds me of Ally Sheedy's change in The Breakfast Club, and neither feels like the right move for the character.

Pretty in Pink, directed by John Hughes

Have I really missed anything by not seeing this movie?
Despite some issues in the final act, there's enough within Pretty in Pink to make it worth the time. It mainly suffers in comparison to other superior films from Hughes. It maintains that classic '80s feeling that's hard to recreate and makes for an easy viewing. The music is top-notch, and the environment is populated with colorful supporting characters to enhance the main story. I didn't care whether Andie got together with Blane, and their romantic moments were the least interesting part of the movie. However, that plot sets the framework for Cryer, Potts, Spader, and others to leave their mark. It's worth checking out if you're a Hughes fan or just looking for nostalgia for a decade filled with great comedies.

On a related note, my wife noticed an interesting connection between Pretty in Pink and a poster hanging right behind our TV. For more details, check out this post from her excellent blog Lansdowne Life, where she takes on creative projects and home decorating.

Next week, I'll join Tom Hanks and Shelly Long as they wade into The Money Pit.

June 23, 2012

The Champion of Robotic Acting: Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984)

Arnold Schwarzenegger is known today for his distinctive accent and robotic speaking style. He's a star throughout the world for blockbusters like True Lies, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Total Recall. Let's journey back to 1984, when he was a bodybuilder with just a few roles under his belt. He had starred in Conan the Barbarian two years earlier, but that performance didn't seem to promise major stardom. James Cameron was an up-and-coming director looking to make his name, and a $6 million sci-fi thriller gave him that chance. After considering Lance Henriksen, OJ Simpson, and others, he settled on Schwarzenegger for the title role. Expectations were limited for The Terminator, but it spawned a mega franchise and a huge career for a future star (and California governor). Lines like "I'll be back" crossed in the pop-culture lexicon, and three sequels and a TV series expanded the story. Today, I'm going to explore what made Schwarzenegger the right choice to play the Terminator and delve into Cameron's effective use of the actor in the movie.

The Terminator's first appearance is an iconic moment that perfectly introduces the efficient killer. While his reason for being there is obvious to us now, it's pretty mysterious for a first-time viewer. He arrives naked and walks with clear purpose towards three punks. While they joke about seeing a giant naked guy strolling by with no shame, his goal is clear. "Your clothes, I need them now." When Bill Paxton's punk leader refuses, it's only seconds before the Terminator has killed one and injured the others. There's no joy in this brutal violence; it's simply the easiest way to accomplish its goal. With just a few lines, Schwarzenegger makes it clear that he's a force to be reckoned with and may be unstoppable. He looks like a man, but there's something different that we can't totally place. Since the film's prologue showed us the robots of the future, we could make the leap that he's affiliated with those machines. Cameron masterfully conveys plot during the precise early scenes. He wastes little time with introducing the Terminator, his human opponent Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and doesn't slow down the pace.

The next few Terminator scenes are quick and show him preparing to take down each Sarah Connor. He takes a memorable trip to a gun shop and starts buying all the latest equipment. Unlike the "learning computer" of the sequel, there's no joy in handling all the firepower. The store owner is killed without a second thought, and the Terminator uses the same approach to take out the wrong Sarah Connor. Schwarzenegger isn't a very expressive actor, and he was especially flat during his early career. He shows no personality during these killings, and that makes him perfect for the role. Few actors could avoid putting their own spin on the robot. Even Robert Patrick's chilling Terminator in the sequel lacks this completely emotionless use of destruction. Schwarzenegger's imposing physique also plays a role in creating the menace.  While it's interesting to consider how Henriksen would have played this role, it would have been a much different movie.

While the first half-hour is mostly set-up, the story really kicks into gear once Reese, Sarah, and the Terminator meet in one place. This happens at the Tech Noir night club, and it's one of Cameron's most effective sequences. He uses slow motion to indicate the impending danger for Sarah that's only a few feet away. When Reese's shotgun blasts end the silence, it's a startling effect that leads to a massive shootout. The Terminator will kill any bystanders who get in his way, and some unsuspecting club goers aren't lucky souls. The scene lasts about three minutes and uses the ominous score, club music, and gun shots to great effect. The Terminator survives a massive amount of damage, so it's clear that he isn't just a really strong man. Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton scramble messily to get away, while Schwarzenegger moves with precise grace. The contrast between their desperate attempts to survive and his focused acts is stunning. This fight also begins the Terminator's degeneration from man to robot. With each successive battle, he looks more like a machine.

While Sarah and Reese flee the cops and the Terminator, Cameron finds a clever way to present loads of exposition without slowing down the movie. He gives Biehn a serious amount of dialogue to explain both the future and the machine's goals. This also leads to the famous lines about how the Terminator "will not stop, ever, until you are dead!" Instead of wasting time presenting all of this information about the robot, Cameron deftly inserts this material into an action scene. There are few examples in any movie that handle this amount of exposition so well. Following the chase, Sarah and Reese appear to be safe at the police station. Meanwhile, the Terminator is regrouping and doing some surgery on his hand and eye. Looking in the mirror, he barely looks like Schwarzenegger anymore. The make-up is starting to take over, though a few key moments still remain. The "I'll be back" scene with the police desk attendant seems like a disappointment before we get the punchline of the car driving into the station. Its effect is only enhanced by the action that follows. Even 30 cops have little chance against the determined killer who senses he's close to finishing his mission. Sarah and Reese avoid him once again, but it's clear the vice is tightening on them.

We're getting close to the explosive finale, but Cameron finds a way to insert the movie's biggest joke into the prelude. While the Terminator sits in the hotel and ponders its next move, the attendant shows up outside the door to complain about the smell. Cameron gives a quick glimpse at the robot's options for his next line. It's like a rudimentary video game where you pick the right words to say and determine the computer character's reaction. The Terminator settles on "fuck you, asshole" among options like "please come back later" and "go away". Schwarzenegger reads this line with no inflection, and that makes it a lot funnier. Cameron would take this one moment and expand it greatly in the sequel. He recognizes the inherent silliness in the actor's approach, which he also uses in True Lies.

Schwarzenegger exits at the 90-minute mark and lets Stan Winston's amazing creation take over. He only has 16 lines in the movie, yet it feels like he's involved in nearly every scene. Even when Reese and Sarah take center stage, they're often talking about the Terminator. Biehn and Hamilton do excellent work and are superior actors, but it's Schwarzenegger who's the prime attraction. Cameron understands how to use his robotic acting and makes him an intriguing villain. While a few of the effects might seem dated, The Terminator has lost none of its power 28 years later. It's a fast-paced, white-knuckle thriller that doesn't overstay its welcome and delivers a serious jolt. While the sequels (particularly Terminator 2) would have their moments, none can match the success of the original. Much of the achievement comes from casting Schwarzenegger as the machine. I wouldn't call him a good actor, but his set of skills is perfectly matched with this iconic character.

June 22, 2012

Top 5 Phillip K. Dick Adaptations

Inspired by my Blade Runner post earlier this week, I'm taking a look at my favorite movies adapted from the work of renowned sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick. While reviewing the options, I was surprised by the limited amount of films that come from his work. I expected the decisions to be much tougher for this Top 5 List. Even so, this is still an impressive group, especially when you get closer to the top. If you're unfamiliar with Dick, here's some quick background on his career. Born in 1928, he published 44 novels and 121 short stories during a career that spanned three decades. His works often focus on themes of personal identity, spirituality, and the dangers of governments and other powerful entities. Dick's writings have also been adapted for the stage and comic books while earning many prestigious awards over the years. They've also influenced other intriguing films like The Matrix, eXistenz, and Inception. I expect that more of Dick's stories will appear in movies going forward. Let's check out the picks before I get lost in a surreal dreamworld, unless I'm there already!

5. The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
This low-key thriller drifted under my radar when it was released and received mixed reactions from critics. Catching up with on DVD, I was surprised by its charm, particularly with the mystery. Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have good chemistry as a politician and dancer who meet by chance and seem destined for a romance. It may not be that easy. Well-dressed strangers are observing their every move and determined to keep the couple from getting together. The stakes may be a lot higher than just the fate of their relationship, but Damon's David Norris refuses to give up. There's no grand twist at the end, but that fits with the relaxed feeling of this clever film. In his directorial debut, George Nolfi does a solid job presenting a world where your fate may not be entirely in your hands.

4. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
This Richard Linklater mind-bender has a similar look to Waking Life but cranks up the paranoia. Shot in live action and then animated, its unique look enhances the feeling of a world falling to pieces. Keanu Reeves stars as Bob Arctor, an undercover agent who infiltrates a drug culture and becomes addicted to Substance D. This nasty drug induces hallucinations and causes him to question his reality. The plot twists repeatedly, and it's never clear who's telling the truth. Although the effect is disorienting is bound to lose some viewers, it's also an intriguingly messy film. Robert Downey Jr. and Winona Ryder join the fun, and Reeves' acting style works perfectly for the confused lead character.

3. Total Recall (1990)
Get your ass to Mars! In one of his best films, Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Douglas Quaid, an ordinary guy who gets more than he bargained for when he goes to Rekall, Inc. for a mental holiday. Embroiled in a giant plot involving evil guys on Mars, he heads to the Red Planet. Of course, this thrilling trek could all be part of the implanted excitement. Based on Dick's short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale", Total Recall is both a clever genre film and a high-flying Schwarzenegger action vehicle. The villains are two of my favorite character actors, Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside. These guys can chew scenery with the best of them and are the perfect foils. Ironside in particular gets one of his best parts as the nasty henchman; he was born to play this type of role. When you add this to the style of Paul Verhoeven, you have a classic in the making. The over-the-top ending is a bit much, but that fits right with the crazy Dutch director's full-on approach. I'll be interested to see how the remake with Colin Farrell stacks up later this year.

2. Blade Runner (1982)
This renowned sci-fi vision from Ridley Scott holds up remarkably well 30 years after its original release. One reason for this durability is the enhancements to the effects and story made in the subsequent cuts following the theatrical version. If there's any downside to this movie, it's the slow pace and difficulty to connect with the cold lead character. Even so, the stunning cinematography and remarkable physical sets make up for these issues. Blade Runner remains one of the pivotal movies from the genre and will likely have considerable staying power. There's a strong possibility that Scott will return to this universe in the future, which could open up a whole new generation of fans to this impressive movie.

1. Minority Report (2002)
Placing this Steven Spielberg action epic in front of  Blade Runner  might seem like a strange move, but it shows how much I like this movie. It provides a nearly perfect mix of sci-fi, thrills, and believable characters while blazing through its 145-minute running time. There are several remarkable sequences, particularly a surprisingly tense moment when Cruise's John Anderton hides from spider-like robots in a bathtub. Samantha Morton does excellent work in a tricky role as Agatha, a "pre-cog" who holds the key to the mystery. Along with being a great sci-fi film, it also works as an "innocent man on the run" chase picture in the realm of classic thrillers from the '50s and '60s. Combing those elements with gorgeous cinematography, Spielberg delivers one of his best movies.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list. Are you a big fan of Paycheck? You should also check out the archive of past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.

June 20, 2012

The LAMBcast: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Last week, I joined host Dylan Fields from Man I Love Films, Fogs of Fogs' Movie Reviews, and Joel Burman of Deny Everything for the latest episode of the LAMBcast. The topic was An American Werewolf in London, the 1981 horror comedy from John Landis. It's an interesting film that works 30 years later because of its offbeat sense of humor. Landis excels at this type of comedy, which doesn't feel locked into a certain time period. The highlight is definitely the special effects from Rick Baker, particularly during the stunning transformation sequence. There's no way this type of scene could work so well with computer animation. David Naughton plays the lead role of David Kessler, who's backpacking through England with his buddy Jack (Griffin Dunne) when they're attacked by a vicious creature. Following this encounter, David starts changing into something that isn't human. He also begins a relationship with Nurse Price (Jenny Agutter), but this happiness may be short-lived. For more details, check out the LAMBcast and let me know what you think!

June 18, 2012

The Ten Best Directors of All Time Relay Race

After participating in the Best Actor and Best Actress relay races, I was ready to take a breather from making the tough decisions about the film greats. However, I've been tasked once again this week to give my input into another subject, the best directors of all time. Bill Thompson from Bill's Movie Emporium has passed the baton to me to continue making the difficult choices. I think this might be even more challenging than the other lists.

Nostra from My Film Views provided these original rules for this relay race back at the start:

“So what’s the idea behind the relay? I’ve created a list of what I think are the ten best directors. At the end of the post I, just like in a real relay race, hand over the baton to another blogger who will write his own post. This blogger will have to remove one director (that is an obligation) and add his own choice and describe why he/she did this. At the end the blogger chooses another blogger to do the same. We will end up with a list (not ranked in order) which represents a common agreement of the best directors. If you are following the relay race it is also a great way to be introduced to new blogs!”

Here are the entries from the other participants so far:

My Film Views (The originator of the list, and the ten that he began with were: Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Hayao Miyazaki, Darren Aronofsky, Martin Scorsese, The Coen Brothers, Akira Kurosawa, and Christopher Nolan)
Southern Vision (Replaced Christopher Nolan with Krzysztof Kieslowski)
And So It Begins… (Replaced Darren Aronofsky with Ingmar Bergman)
Surrender To The Void (Replaced Steven Spielberg with Lars Von Trier)
Cinematic Paradox (Replaced Lars Von Trier with Paul Thomas Anderson)
Defiant Success (Replaced Krzysztof Kieslowski with Sidney Lumet)
“…Let’s Be Splendid About This…” (Replaced Quentin Tarantino with Abbas Kiarostami)
1001Plus (Replaced Paul Thomas Anderson with Billy Wilder)
Cinema Sights (Replaced Billy Wilder with F.W. Murnau)
Bill's Movie Emporium (Replaced Martin Scorsese with Werner Herzog)

Here is the current list of 10 directors that arrived on my doorstep:

Alfred Hitchcock

Stanley Kubrick

Hayao Miyazaki

Werner Herzog

The Coen Brothers

Akira Kurosawa

Ingmar Bergman

Sidney Lumet

Abbas Kiarostami

F.W. Murnau

My Removal
Once again, I'm sticking with my approach to avoid removing directors if I'm not as familiar with their work. The prime example for me is Abbas Kiarostami, who is a blind spot for me. I did see Certified Copy last year, but that is the only film that I've caught from his career. It isn't fair to remove him for that reason, so Kiarostami is safe. Most of the others deserve their spots because of their unique approaches to cinema. The one exception for me is Sidney Lumet, who's directed plenty of impressive movies. While he's a very good filmmaker, I don't consider him one of the all-time greats. Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and others are excellent, but they don't bear a signature style. Lumet is a talented craftsman and deserves the acclaim, but he's the odd man out from this group of remarkable directors.

My Addition
This current list includes an impressive group of international directors, but it's missing one of the legendary artists from right here in the States. John Ford shot more than 140 films during his 50-year career and left an indelible stamp on this medium. He's known for classic Westerns like Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, but he also succeeded in other genres. The Grapes of Wrath and The Quiet Man are just a few examples of other films that earned great acclaim from audiences and critics. Ford began his career in the silent era and built a reputation of being efficient, which explains the crazy amount of movies from his career. He was extremely influential on the filmmakers that followed, including some that occupy this list. For example, Orson Welles claimed to have watched Stagecoach repeatedly to prepare for Citizen Kane. Ford has a signature style that makes him one of the all-time greats and a definitive choice.

Who's Next?
I'm passing the baton to Eric from The Warning Sign, who'll make the next difficult choice from the many unlisted directors in this ongoing relay race. Take it away, Eric!

Readers' Choice Marathon: Blade Runner - The Final Cut (1982)

The amazing sci-fi images of Blade Runner

One of the more remarkable years for sci-fi was 1982. Within a short time period, we saw the release of Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, The Thing, and Blade Runner. All three movies are relevant today and hold up very well. Ridley Scott's ambitious film is actually more beloved now than it was when it originally appeared. There are several likely reasons for the continued interest. First of all, the vision of urban decay remains stunning and doesn't look dated. Most importantly, Scott has repeatedly tinkered with this movie and offered new cuts. The Director's Cut removed the awful voice-over narration and included slight tweaks that possibly changed a major plot point. In December 2007, he returned with The Final Cut, which Scott proclaims is the definitive version. Chris from movies and songs 365 suggested that I check out a special edition of a movie with extra scenes, and Blade Runner was the obvious choice since I hadn't seen this version. You should definitely check out Chris' blog, which covers lots of great music and movies. It's a tricky combination, but he makes it work. Let's check out the questions before my replicant life runs out!

Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott

The year is our far future of 2019, where androids known as replicants live on Earth and other planets. Los Angeles is a bleak city with constant rain and dreariness. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a former cop who worked as a Blade Runner to "retire" the replicants in the past. He's commissioned by his former boss Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) and officer Gaff (Edward James Olmos) to take down a group of replicants who've returned to Earth. These Nexus-6 models have been wreaking havoc as they work to extend their four-year lives. Led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), they seem willing to do anything to prevent their impending deaths. Deckard also meets Rachael (Sean Young), a new replicant model who believes she's human because of implanted emotions. He starts a relationship with her, which becomes difficult when she's targeted for retirement. At the same time, indications appear that perhaps Deckard has more in common with the escaped replicants than he realizes.

Harrison Ford as Deckard in Blade Runner

Blade Runner includes a few action scenes, but those occupy a small portion of the two-hour running time. Writers Hampton Fancher and David Peoples are more interested in creating a specific mood and raising interesting questions about what it means to be a human. Are the replicants less important because they were created? Rachael's emotions are manufactured and her memories are fake, but she still interacts with others like a person. Deckard barely registers any emotion, while Batty and Pris (Daryl Hannah) are powder kegs of love, anger, and regret. Bryant and Gaff are cynical figures who seem to care little about anyone. They're likely manipulating Deckard, while Batty saves his life. These complexities are what raises this film above your typical sci-fi adventure. This version strongly implies that Deckard is a replicant, which only solidifies the theme of questioning whether the androids are truly expendable. The humans have destroyed the society and glide through the rainy streets like shallow husks. Transforming the lead character into a machine only solidifies the negative feelings towards the society. If the character we follow for most of the movie turns out to be a construct, it seriously lessens the hope for this world's future.

Sean Young in Blade Runner

It can be tricky for first-time viewers to find an emotional connection with the characters. Deckard is a cold guy who treats his romance with Rachael in a clinical fashion. When you consider the idea that he is a replicant, however, it's easier to understand his character. Despite his subdued demeanor, Deckard's still interesting because Ford sells the behavior. He functions as the lead character in a detective story, and his mundane approach matches the gumshoes of the film noir era. Also, the bleak environment of this future city makes this attitude a lot more believable. The most engaging characters are Batty and Pris, and they receive a limited amount of screen time. This is a smart move by Scott because they retain a mysterious allure. Rutger Hauer can play Batty as an over-the-top guy and never grow tiresome during the quick appearances. His climactic monologue carries more weight since we're just starting to understand his motivations for staying alive.

Joanna Cassidy as Zhora in Blade Runner

The final showdown with Deckard and Batty is a classic moment, particularly because it plays out much differently than you might expect. In most films, when you put the hero and villain on a roof, it's very likely that the bad guy is going to take a dive off the edge. This is also a common form of death in Disney animated films. The prime difference here is that Deckard and Betty aren't your typical stock characters. Viewed from a certain perspective, Batty and his group are the heroes, and Deckard is the bad guy gunning them down. I should also mention the abrupt ending following this scene, which gives us little chance to digest what's happened. This version ends faster than the awful theatrical ending, and it works much better. Another fun sequence is Deckard's encounter with Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), which starts are a basic conversation and shifts into a foot chase. Wearing a snake around her neck and serious glitter, she makes quite an impression during the brief screen time. Scott actually digitally added Cassidy's face to the action in place of a stunt woman from the other versions. While this doesn't have a dramatic effect on the scene, it's a cool example of the intricate changes that he made to this cut.

Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott

Another reason that Blade Runner resonates so strongly is the visual style, which shows great ambition. From the first long shots of the flames shooting in to the air above the city, we know there's a master running the show. Scott's most comfortable when he's shooting massive sets that dwarf the puny individuals roaming the streets. While the "spinners" soar through the air, the camera glides by giant advertisements that loom over the urban environment. When you combine this footage with Vangelis' elegant score, the effect is spellbinding, even on the small screen. The Greek composer also wrote the score for Chariots of Fire, which took home the Oscar. Scott's vision would not create the same effect without the powerful score. While the shots are gorgeous, they do have a detached feeling that's shared by Robert Wise's striking work in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Both look remarkable, but they can also overtake our interest in the story. In Scott's case, I believe this is by design and fits with the overall theme of the emotionless world.

Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner

This question is easy. This is one of the seminal sci-fi films that hasn't lost any of its impact today. The Final Cut delivers an even better experience, and the improved effects bring a modern feeling to the 30-year-old movie. The entire movie looks brighter, and these sharp details are a pivotal element to creating a believable world. I will give the caveat that there are some minor flaws that slightly lessen my opinion. On repeat viewings, the glacial pace stands out, particularly during the second act. This is a small issue and fits with the more thoughtful approach from Scott. This isn't an adventure film like Star Wars, yet it could still use an injection of energy before the impressive finale. These are minor quibbles with such an intriguing movie, but it pulls it down just below my favorite movies.

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