Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“I’ve got a flamethrower in my toolshed.” – Rick Dalton

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, opened three nights ago at my local multiplex. As regular readers of this blog can attest, I’ve been an unabashed fan of Tarantino’s work ever since Pulp Fiction was released twenty-five years ago, and have proclaimed more than once that his first movie, Reservoir Dogs, was the best first movie since John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. I also thought that Jackie Brown, the two Kill Bill movies, and Death Proof were unqualified successes. Beginning with Inglourious Basterds, however, I began to have reservations about Tarantino, reservations which increased with Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. This is not to say that those two films don’t have a lot going for them, they do, but it seemed to me that in both of them, Tarantino fell victim to the siren song of commercialism, and in his desire to put butts in the seats, so to speak, relaxed his artistic standards. In my review of Django, I wrote, “I would like to see Tarantino return to the more balanced approach of his earlier work, in which spectacle had no part, and violence, while integral to the lives of his characters, was not the film’s reason for being.”

I’m happy to report that in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino has taken a significant step in that direction. This is primarily a story about Hollywood in the late ’60’s, and about two men: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former TV star whose acting career appears to be in a death spiral, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s longtime friend and stunt double. It also deals with the Charles Manson clan, and with actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who lives with her husband, film director Roman Polanski, in the house next to Dalton’s in Beverly Hills.

Here, just to give you a taste of the movie, is the trailer for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

It has to be said that in this movie, Tarantino once again indulges a writer’s prerogative – which we saw him exercise for the first time in Inglourious Basterds – to alter history to suit his own purposes. Tarantino is more concerned with creating entertaining and effective cinema than with historical accuracy, and I, for one, am happy to accept his right to do that. We don’t go to the movies – not a Tarantino movie, at any rate – for a history lesson.

Having said that, I have to call your attention to the extraordinary detail that Tarantino lavishes on the props and sets in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We’ve come to expect this in a Tarantino movie, but in Once Upon a Time, he outdoes himself. He succeeds completely in re-creating the Hollywood of the late ’60’s, right down to the billboards, movie marquees, and bus stop posters.

In my review of Django Unchained, I referred to Tarantino as, “the rightful heir to Hitchcock’s title, The Master of Suspense”, and this movie provides additional evidence, if any were needed, for the legitimacy of that claim. The vast majority of the audience knows who Charles Manson was and what he and his followers did in the summer of ’69. This awareness creates a suspense in the viewer that is absolutely palpable, and which increases with each successive scene. This may well be the funniest film Tarantino has ever made, but the comic moments are so fraught with tension that you may not know whether to laugh or hold your breath. In that context, I invite you to watch carefully for the Mexican standoff without which no Tarantino film would be complete.

I can’t conclude this review without telling you of my one reservation about this Tarantino movie. I can watch a Tarantino film, with all of its violence and crude language, with a certain amount of detachment. After all, I’m used to crude language; that’s the way more and more people talk, especially in the movies. I’m also used to movie violence, and I like seeing the bad guy get the stuffing knocked out of him as much as the next person. But when a woman, especially a defenseless woman, gets the stuffing knocked out of her by a man in an unspeakably brutal way, that bothers me. I felt that way watching The Hateful Eight, and I feel that way about one scene in this movie too. I can’t help but wonder if the director is pandering to that segment of the audience that enjoys seeing a woman brutalized.

That one objection notwithstanding, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a masterpiece, one you shouldn’t miss. It features the extraordinary screenplay we have come to expect from Tarantino, along with exceptional performances by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. I won’t be surprised if both of them receive Oscar nominations for Best Actor. If you’re like me, one viewing will not be enough.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: Vertigo

This year marks the 60th anniver-sary of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which was originally released in May 1958. For Hitchcock, the 50’s was an especially fruitful period, during which he turned out one masterpiece after another with almost monotonous regularity. In the space of ten years, he gave us such unforgettable films as Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, and Psycho, among others. All of those films are now considered classics, but it could be argued that Vertigo is the greatest of them all. Noted author and film critic Robin Wood, in his excellent book Hitchcock’s Films (1968), calls Vertigo, “Hitchcock’s masterpiece to date and one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us.” In the 2012 British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound poll, Vertigo even replaced Citizen Kane as the best film ever made.

It begins with a scene at night on the rooftops above San Francisco. We see a uniformed policeman and a plainclothes detective, John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), pursuing a sure-footed suspect from one rooftop to the next. Shots are fired, and the suspect leaps across… Well, see for yourself.

How’s that for an opening scene!

We next see Scottie in the apartment of Marjorie “Midge” Wood, (Barbara Bel Geddes). Scottie and Midge are old friends, in fact they were engaged briefly while they were in college. Scottie has recovered from injuries he sustained during the rooftop chase, but has been diagnosed with acrophobia – a fear of heights – and has retired from the police force. He informs Midge that he’s been contacted by an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who wants to meet with him in his office. Scottie agrees to the meeting, at which Elster tells him of his concern about his wife Madeline (Kim Novak), who he thinks has been possessed by the spirit of someone long since dead. Elster wants Scottie to follow Madeline, to find out where she goes during her recurring spells. Despite his reluctance to get involved, Scottie agrees…

Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeline. The more time he spends with her, the more determined he is to protect her, and to solve the mystery of her spells. Part of the reason for his obsession is his detective mentality. He’s the “hard-headed Scot” who must try to make sense of the mystery he finds himself in. What he doesn’t realize is that he is the target of an elaborate deception, one which succeeds because, as unlikely as its premise may be, it is still the most plausible explanation for all that Scottie has witnessed. What other possible explanation could there be?

Vertigo was based on the 1954 novel D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. The screenplay is by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, and the beautiful costumes are by Edith Head. Both James Stewart and Kim Novak give performances that easily stand the test of repeated viewings, and the supporting cast is first-rate. The magnificent score by Bernard Herrmann is a constant presence in the movie, but so well suited to the mood and the action on screen that you may scarcely be aware of it. It is one of the truly great film scores, which you can hear in its entirety here.

One of Hitchcock’s great achievements in Vertigo is the mood he creates and sustains throughout the entire movie, a tension that persists until the very last frames. Critical to that mood is Hitchcock’s faultless pacing, which is the antithesis of the breakneck pacing you find in so many movies today. There is nothing rushed in Vertigo, which unfolds in its own leisurely way. It was his pacing as much as his mastery of plot development that earned Hitchcock the title, “The Master of Suspense”, to which I would add, “in Perpetuity”.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on June 30, 2018 at 2:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Movie Review: Lost in Translation

“The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.” – Bob Harris

Lost in Translation was written and directed by Sofia Coppola, and released in 2003. It tells the story of two people, Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a fifty-something movie star who has come to Tokyo to film a com­mercial for Suntory Whiskey, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman of twenty-one who is there with her husband John, a professional photographer on assignment.

In the scene that follows, we  get our first glimpse into the problems created by the language barrier, as Bob’s Japanese interpreter does a less than adequate job of translating the director’s instructions. A clear example of “lost in translation.” Note: When viewing this video, in order to understand the director and interpreter, it is necessary to click on the CC (Closed captioning) button in the lower right-hand corner of the video.

There is a 16-hour time difference between Los Angeles and Tokyo, and Bob and Charlotte are both suffering from jet lag, which is a constant presence in this movie. Unable to sleep, their paths cross in the hotel bar, where they begin to get acquainted. Though Bob has been married for 25 years – “25 long ones” he tells Charlotte – and Charlotte for only two, both are feeling increasingly distant from their spouses. When Charlotte asks Bob what he’s doing in Tokyo, he answers, “Taking a break from my wife, forgetting my son’s birthday, and getting paid two million dollars to endorse a whiskey when I could be doing a play somewhere.” Later, we see Charlotte talking on the phone with her friend Lauren, to whom she confides, “John is using these hair products. I don’t know who I married.” It’s interesting to contrast John’s nagging Charlotte about her smoking with Bob’s readiness to light her cigarette.

We see quickly that Bob and his wife are just going through the motions, as are Charlotte and John. With each other, however, they feel an immediate rapport, born in part out of their relief at meeting someone from home when they are feeling lost and alone in a foreign country. Charlotte is also attracted by Bob’s ability to make her laugh, and he by how natural she is with him. She isn’t at all impressed by his celebrity.

For my money, Lost in Translation is worth any number of big-budget action flicks. Watching Bob and Charlotte as they forge bonds of friendship and trust is one of the most satisfying movie experiences I can remember. These are people with real lives, real problems. I’m reminded of something I wrote years ago in my review of Bagdad Cafe:

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this movie is how much we come to care about these people and how quickly we are drawn into their world. Credit for this must go… to writer/director Percy Adlon and his wife and writing partner Eleonore, who understand that great cinema does not depend on spectacle and special effects, but on finding and exploring situations in which the audience can relate to their characters.

In short, this is an exceptional movie, with many subtleties that reveal themselves only upon repeated viewings. It’s a great date night movie, rated R only because of one brief, unerotic scene in a Tokyo topless bar.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on October 31, 2017 at 9:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Movie Review: “Pulp Fiction”

The truth is, you’re the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo, I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.” – Jules Winnfield

PulpFictionThere are undoubtedly people somewhere in the world, even here in the USA, who have never seen Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.  There may even be some who, having heard about the violence and language in the movie, have made it a point not to watch it.  But no one can consider himself a true cinephile if he hasn’t seen Tarantino’s breakthrough movie from 1994, any more than if he has never seen CasablancaPsycho, or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Pulp Fiction is just such a landmark film.  Following hard on the heels of Tarantino’s first effort, Reservoir Dogs – maybe the best first film since John Huston’s The Maltese FalconPulp Fiction premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, where it walked away with the prestigious Palme d’Or.  Later that year it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and snagged the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, an honor that comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with Tarantino’s masterful handling of dialog.

In the twenty-plus years since, Pulp Fiction has spawned more critical analysis (and out-and-out speculation) than any other film of its era I can think of.  It is not my intention to add to that analysis here; I just want to share my enthusiasm for this movie, and to encourage anyone who hasn’t seen it to give it a try.

So, what is it about?  Briefly, Pulp Fiction tells four interrelated stories, beginning with the story of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, two small-time thieves we meet in the first scene.  Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) have decided that robbing bars, liquor stores, and gas stations, their primary stock in trade, has become too risky.  “Restaurants, on the other hand,” theorizes Pumpkin, “you catch with their pants down.  They’re not expecting to get robbed, not as expecting anyway.”  Inspired by this reasoning, the two of them decide to rob the coffee shop where they have just finished their breakfast.

The second story concerns Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), two loquacious denizens of L.A.’s underworld on a mission to retrieve a mysterious briefcase belonging to their boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).

Their mission is successful, after a fashion, and when they deliver the briefcase to Marsellus, we meet Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), a boxer to whom Marsellus is offering good money to throw an upcoming fight.

Butch and his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) are the main characters in Story No. 3.  They are looking forward to a major change in their fortunes, one that could mean a move to Mexico or Bora Bora.

Finally, we have the story of Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s wife.  Marsellus has asked Vincent to take his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out for the evening while he, Marsellus, is out of town.  Despite some initial awkwardness, their dinner goes very well, as does the dance contest that follows.  But, to paraphrase the late, great Yogi Berra, “The evening ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

These four stories are woven together in masterful fashion by Tarantino, and sequenced in a way that continues to challenge viewers more than twenty years after the film’s release.  Every single member of the cast delivers a performance that stands the test of repeated viewings, but three deserve special mention: Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are simply extraordinary, and Bruce Willis will never give a fuller, more subtle, or more credible performance.

I have some parting questions for those who have already seen Pulp Fiction.  What happens to all these people after the events of the film?  For example, what happens to Jules Winnfield after he renounces the gangster life and decides to just “walk the earth”?  Whom does he meet, and what adventures does he have?  What happens to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny after they leave the Hawthorne Grill?  If I had been in Pumpkin’s place during his confrontation with Jules, I might have felt as Jules does after the events in Brett’s apartment: like I had dodged a bullet.  Does Pumpkin feel the same need that Jules felt to take his life in a completely different direction?

I know these are unanswerable questions, but I think about them anyway, which strikes me as a testament of sorts to Tarantino’s uncanny ability to bring his characters to life.  I invite the reader to share his or her thoughts on these or other pulpy matters in the Comments section below.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on January 31, 2016 at 5:56 pm  Comments (1)  
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Movie Review: “The Crying Game”

“A scorpion does what’s in its nature.”

crying_gameThe Crying Game was written and directed in 1992 by Neil Jordan, who had caught my attention in 1986 with his unforgettable Mona Lisa.  But why, you might ask, write about a film from 1992, and one that was so extensively reviewed at the time?

In the first place, The Crying Game is a favorite of mine.  It is one of a select group of movies that I can watch time and again with increased appreciation and new awareness of previously unnoticed subtleties.  Second, there exists a whole new generation of film-goers who may not know about The Crying Game.  If this review prompts even a few of them to watch this extraordinary film, I will be satisfied.  Note though that if I were to assign it an MPAA rating, it would be NC-17, not because I find the material objectionable, but because of the mature nature of the story.

The title The Crying Game was inspired by the song of the same name written by Geoff Stephens in 1964.  The androgynous Boy George would seem the perfect choice to sing the title track, and for those of you unfamiliar with his rendition, here is a video from French TV of Boy George performing “The Crying Game”.

The first half of the film takes place in Northern Ireland during the time of violent conflict known as the Troubles.  It opens at a carnival, where we see Jude and Jody (Miranda Richardson and Forest Whitaker) strolling hand in hand.  Jude is a local woman, and Jody, a British soldier on assignment.  The two of them have just one thing on their mind: finding someplace quiet to lie down together.  All is not what it seems, however.  No sooner do they find a secluded spot than Jody is assaulted at gunpoint by members of the Irish Republican Army who put a hood over his head, handcuff him, and lead him away.  What looked like a seduction was in fact an abduction.

Jody is taken to a remote location, where he is informed that if a high-ranking member of the IRA being held by the British is not released within three days, Jody will be shot.  During his captivity, he is guarded primarily by Fergus (Stephen Rea), an IRA volunteer.  Jody understands intuitively that his best chance of surviving lies in establishing a connection with Fergus.  He continually engages him in conversation, and at one point tells him the story of The Scorpion and the Frog.

These early scenes are fraught with danger and seasoned with gallows humor.  In the climax of the film’s first half, before the IRA’s sentence on Jody can be carried out, their hideout is attacked and destroyed by elements of the British army.  The second half of the film takes place “across the water” in London, where Fergus has fled to escape his IRA comrades.  He meets Dil (Jaye Davidson), with whom a romance begins to blossom, and Col (Jim Broadbent), the philosophical bartender at The Metro.  Ultimately, despite Fergus’ efforts to disappear, he is tracked down by his old friends in the IRA, who have sought him out for a new assignment.

The Crying Game makes an unforgettable first impression, and continues to grow on you with each viewing.  It unfolds much like life itself: it is full of unexpected twists and turns, and at one point after another, we find ourselves confronted by events we can’t control.  There is enough sadness here for three movies, but there is also kindness, pity, sacrifice, and redemption.  Perhaps more than anything else, The Crying Game is saying that we all act in accordance with our nature.  Jody is right about Fergus: he is essentially kind.  He’s right about Jude too: “Don’t leave me with her, man,” he tells Fergus. “She’s dangerous!”

Everyone connected with making The Crying Game should take pride in the finished product.  The highest praise must go to Neil Jordan for his screenplay and direction.  The Crying Game is an exceptionally intelligent movie, and challenges all manner of preconceptions.  Great credit must go to Stephen Rea for his nuanced, Oscar-nominated performance as Fergus, and to Forest Whitaker for his Jody.  From the very beginning, we feel like Jody is one of us, and share in his desperation.  As Jude, Miranda Richardson is scary!  As Jody mentions early on, Jude’s name suits her; we realize later that it is because of its similarity to Judas, the betrayer.  Finally, kudos to Jaye Davidson for an astonishing film debut and Oscar nomination, and for an exceptionally sympathetic performance as Dil.

What is it about The Crying Game that makes it so unforgettable?  I think it is this: At some point in our lives, we have all had our share of the crying game, whether we are male or female, black or white, gay or straight, or somewhere in between.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “No Country for Old Men”

“The point bein’, even in a contest between man and steer, the issue is not certain.”

No_Country_for_Old_Men_posterNo Country for Old Men was produced, directed, and written by Joel and Ethan Coen, who have been making movies since 1984’s Blood Simple, and have given us such well-known films as Fargo and The Big Lebowski, among others.  No Country for Old Men was based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, and released in 2007.

The story takes place in West Texas in 1980.  The first three scenes introduce us to the three characters around whom all of the subsequent action revolves: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, Anton Chigurh, and Llewelyn Moss.  In fact, we meet Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) even before the story begins, in a voice-over set against scenes of a West Texas sunrise, in which he recounts a little family history.  Take a look…

We’re given no such background information on Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), whom we meet in the next scene.  He remains as much of an enigma at the end of the film as he was at the beginning.  Javier Bardem’s performance as Chigurh, for whom breaking one’s word is abhorrent but taking a human life is of no particular consequence, is one of the most chilling portrayals of psychopathy ever to reach the screen.

In the third scene, we meet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin): hunter, welder, Vietnam vet.  Moss is a careful, capable man.  While out in the Texas badlands hunting pronghorn antelope, he happens upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, in which all the principals are either dead or dying.  He follows the trail of the “last man standing” and recovers a case containing two million dollars.  He is soon transformed from the hunter into the hunted, but as his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), says of him, Llewelyn “…would never ask for help.  He never thinks he needs any.” to which Sheriff Bell responds ominously, “He needs help, whether he knows it or not.”

No Country for Old Men reminds me of the stories in Close Range by Annie Proulx.  In both, we find the same hard-country settings, hard-bitten men, and mastery of dialect.  In addition, No Country for Old Men is full of dashes of dry humor like this: “You think this boy Moss has got any notion of the sorts of sons of bitches that’re huntin’ him?”  “I don’t know; he ought to.  He’s seen the same things I’ve seen, and it’s certainly made an impression on me.”

This is easily one of the most thought-provoking movies I’ve ever watched.  There is fertile ground for discussion regarding its treatment of the role of fate in our lives, symbolized by the repeated flipping of a coin.  Or about the often-referenced disappearance of traditional values, and even the effect on those values of the Vietnam War, which ended just seven years prior to the events of the film.  Finally, what are we to make of Chigurh’s cryptic question, “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

It is also one of the most enjoyable movies, and certain to reward repeated viewings.  Although it contains several violent scenes and clearly warrants its R rating, the overall impression that it leaves with me is not of its violence but of its realism and its humanity.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “Mrs. Doubtfire”

“All my love to you, Poppet.  You’re going to be all right.”

Like so many others, I was shocked and dismayed early this month to learn of the untimely death of actor Robin Williams.  I remember Robin from his “Mork and Mindy” days, thirty-six years ago.  By the time of his death, he had been in the public eye for so long that he had acquired an aura of permanence.

I’ve seen many of Robin’s movies over the years, and my favorite, “Mrs. Doubtfire”, is the subject of this month’s post.  For those of you who haven’t seen it – and for the many who have – I offer this review as a tribute to a great actor and uniquely gifted entertainer.

Mrs_Doubtfire“Mrs. Doubtfire” tells the story of Daniel Hillard (Robin Williams), his wife Miranda (Sally Field), and their three children, Lydie, Chris, and Nattie.  When we first meet Daniel, he is doing what he does best, voice acting in a children’s cartoon.  Rather than do a scene that appears to encourage smoking, Daniel abruptly quits his job and goes to meet his children after school.  He explains to the suspicious Lydie that he wasn’t fired, but that he quit for “reasons of conscience.”

At home, Daniel has arranged an elaborate twelfth birthday party, including a mobile petting zoo, for his son Chris.  The animals quickly get out of hand, and Miranda receives an anxious phone call at work from their neighbor Gloria.  When she arrives home early, the party is in full swing: ear-splitting rap music, animals loose in the house, and children jumping on the furniture, wilder than the animals.  This proves to be the last straw for Miranda, who is beyond furious.  When she pulls the plug on the boom box, Daniel tells a subdued Chris, “The party’s over”, which turns out to be true in more ways than one: Miranda wants a divorce.

At the custody hearing, the judge rules that Daniel will be allowed to see his children only on Saturdays.  For Daniel, who has never been away from them for more than a day at a time, this is an intolerable restriction.  When Miranda places an ad in the paper for a part-time housekeeper, Daniel decides to impersonate an English nanny, and with the help of his brother Frank, who is a make-up artist, Mrs. Doubtfire is born.

Robin Williams gives a virtuoso performance as Mrs. Doubtfire.  In my opinion, you can retire the trophy for “Best Performance by a Male Actor Playing a Woman”.  I’ve seen “Some Like It Hot”, and as much fun as it is, as played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, Daphne and Josephine are little more than caricatures of women.  I’ve also seen “Tootsie”, and cannot watch Dustin Hoffman’s Dorothy without being conscious that she is really a man.  With Mrs. Doubtfire, however, we – along with Daniel’s family and everyone else – are completely taken in.  Robin Williams is that good.

Sally Field has one of the most expressive faces in the movies, and as Miranda Hillard, delivers a note-perfect performance.  Pierce Brosnan gives a subtle, understated portrayal of Stuart Dunmeyer, her new love-interest.  The supporting cast is superb, as are the make-up and editing, and the choice of music is inspired.  On the whole, the film is so human and believable that we are more than willing to suspend our disbelief during the slapstick scene at Bridges Restaurant.

As my son Wescott pointed out to me, we can also retire the trophy for “Best Film about Divorce”.  “Mrs. Doubtfire” lays it all out for us: the pain and anger of the parents, the guilt and confusion of the children – it’s all there.  But the story doesn’t end there.  As Chris Columbus, the director of “Mrs. Doubtfire”, said in 1993, “I can understand the validity of showing people the ugliness of the world, but I also think there is a place for movies to leave people with a sense of hope.  If your film isn’t going to do that, I just don’t think it’s worth making.”  By the end of the film, Daniel and Miranda, who could never learn how to be married, have learned something about how to be divorced, yet remain a family.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on August 31, 2014 at 1:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Movie Review: “Million Dollar Baby”

“I got nobody but you, Frankie.”                 “Well, you’ve got me.”

Million_Dollar_Baby“Million Dollar Baby” tells the story of Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a young woman who grew up in difficult circumstances whose dream is to become a professional boxer, and Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), an aging fight trainer and the owner of a rundown gym called the Hit Pit.  As the film opens, Maggie has decided that she needs professional training, and she pesters the unwilling Frankie incessantly until he agrees to take her under his wing.

Maggie turns out to be a natural – a phenomenon – and under Frankie’s guidance, compiles a record of knockouts that leads in short order to a bout for the world title.  The outcome of that fight leaves both of them facing terrible choices.  Maggie’s decision, while tragic, is understandable, and seems to come easily to her.  Frankie’s is far more difficult, and comes only after the most in-depth soul-searching.  Whatever you may think of their choices, at the film’s end, Maggie is at peace with her decision, and Frankie with his.

Hilary Swank gives an extraordinary performance as Maggie Fitzgerald, and fully deserved her 2005 Academy Award for Best Actress.  She looks like a boxer, but whether boxing or not, she is always convincing.  Morgan Freeman turns in his customary excellent performance as Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris, a former boxer and all-purpose maintenance man at the Hit Pit.  Clint Eastwood seems to have an infallible instinct for what roles he is suited for, and his performance as Frankie Dunn is compelling from beginning to end.  His work as director is equally assured.  The fight scenes are brilliantly choreographed, and could hardly be more realistic.  You can hear the fighters’ punches miss their target.  You can feel Maggie’s pain when Frankie realigns her broken nose.

“Million Dollar Baby” was written by Paul Haggis, whose writing credits include “Crash”, “Flags of Our Fathers”, and “Letters from Iwo Jima”.  I am tempted to say that “Million Dollar Baby” is perfect as written, but in fact it shares a weakness with another Eastwood film, “Gran Torino”: Although the film’s protagonists are all realistically and intriguingly multifaceted, the antagonists are surprisingly one-dimensional, and exhibit few if any redeeming qualities.  It’s hard to imagine a more detestable character than Maggie’s greedy, ungrateful, unloving mother.  Or consider Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman, Maggie’s opponent in the climactic bout.  Not only is she introduced to us as a former prostitute and the dirtiest fighter in boxing, she looks like the very personification of evil.

Although this movie is rated PG-13 (“Parents are urged to be cautious.  Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers.”), I would state unequivocally that “Million Dollar Baby” is not appropriate for pre-teenagers.  Of course, levels of sophistication vary from one child to another, but I wouldn’t recommend “Million Dollar Baby” to someone I didn’t know unless he or she was at least sixteen.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “The Road Home”

The Road HomeThe Road Home is a 1999 film based on Bao Shi’s novel Remembrance.  It was directed by Zhang Yimou, who is better known in the U.S. for his martial arts films, Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).  It was released in China in 1999 as My Father and Mother, and in the U.S. in 2001.

The Road Home tells two stories, both of which take place in the remote Chinese village of Sanhetun.  The first concerns the unexpected death of the village schoolteacher, Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), and the determination of his widow, Zhao Di (Zhao Yulian), to have her husband’s body transported from the provincial hospital where he died back to Sanhetun in the traditional way – by foot – for burial.  As the mayor explains to the couple’s son, Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei), “Your mother doesn’t want to use a car.  She wants your father to be carried back.  She wants the coffin brought back on foot so your father won’t forget his way home.  It’s an old tradition, a superstition.”

It also tells – in flashback – the story of the courtship of Luo Changyu and Zhao Di forty years before, in 1958, a time of great political and cultural upheaval in China.  Luo was a new schoolteacher fresh from the city, and Zhao Di – played to perfection by the luminous Zhang Ziyi – was a young woman of eighteen living at home with her mother.  The story of their courtship is simple and timeless, and according to their son’s narration, has assumed legendary status in their village.

It is a story that, like much of Zhang Yimou’s work – I am thinking particularly of Not One Less – speaks directly to the heart.  Zhang understands as well as anyone that great cinema is not a matter of spectacle and special effects, but of finding and exploring situations in which the audience can identify with the characters.  Who among us doesn’t remember being young and in love, and the pain of being parted.  There is no spectacle in The Road Home, and no special effects either, just a beautiful Chinese girl with unruly pigtails and piercing black eyes, whose beauty of spirit stands out like her red jacket against a field of gold.

What Zhang Yimou routinely accomplishes with color has never been equaled by other directors.  His outdoor shots have the look and feel of landscape paintings.  A stand of birch trees in autumn, the wind blowing across a field of grain – one image after another takes my breath away.  Has any other director ever given us such a feast for the eye?  And not just in outdoor shots!  A bucket of water has never looked (or sounded!) so refreshing, nor mushroom dumplings so delectable.

In Chinese with English subtitles, The Road Home is perfectly suitable for family viewing.  It occupies a place of honor on my personal short list of favorite films.  Like a beloved fairy tale or a story told by your grandfather by the fireside on a winter’s night, it casts a spell that may never be broken.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on June 30, 2014 at 8:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Movie Review: “Groundhog Day”

“What if there is no tomorrow?  There wasn’t one today.”

groundhog_day“Groundhog Day” is a 1993 movie that asks the question, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”  It was based on a story by Danny Rubin, directed by Harold Ramis and stars Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a weatherman for WPBH-TV in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Andie McDowell as Rita, his new producer.

It is February 1st, the day before Groundhog Day.  Immediately following the five o’clock news and weather, Phil and Rita and their cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) drive from Pittsburgh to Punxsutawney to cover that town’s annual Groundhog Day celebration.  Next day, after taping their report, they head back to Pittsburgh but are halted by an unexpected blizzard and forced to return to Punxsutawney.  The following morning, for the second day in a row, Phil wakes up at six o’clock to the sound of Sonny and Cher singing, “I’ve Got You, Babe” on the radio.  (Not a bad choice, certainly, but wouldn’t “Yesterday Once More” by the Carpenters have been perfect?)  He soon realizes that he is reliving the previous day, as if it had never happened.

By day number three, Phil begins to understand that he is caught in a time loop of some kind, with no choice but to continue to relive Groundhog Day over and over.  In Ramis’ hands, this whimsical premise turns out to be a fruitful one.  Phil quickly grasps that there are no lasting consequences to anything he does, and that, no matter what, he will wake up the next morning and it will be Groundhog Day all over again.  Watching his repeated, futile attempts to break out of the time loop, I was reminded of Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”:

Here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice.

In these early scenes, we see clearly that Phil is a first-class jerk, arrogant, self-centered, and rude.  When asked, “What are you doing for dinner?” he replies, “Something else.”  He refers to the people of Punxsutawney as morons and hicks, and is not above using to his advantage the knowledge he has gained from having experienced this day many times before: to seduce the locals and rob an armored car, for example.

His attempts to charm the lovely Rita, however, seem doomed to failure.  “I know you’re egocentric,” she tells him.  “It’s your defining characteristic.”  She even recites from “My Native Land” by Sir Walter Scott:

…The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.

Being himself is getting Phil nowhere – literally – not with Rita and not out of the time loop either.  He finally comes to realize that Rita is worth trying to change for, and watching him make the effort, I was reminded of a quotation by George Eliot: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

Bill Murray and Andie McDowell are perfect in the lead roles, and the supporting cast is first-rate. With Bill Murray, there always seems to be an unspoken, ironic sub-text, some private joke, while Andie McDowell, on the other hand, is the soul of sincerity.

“Groundhog Day” is the ideal date night movie: It is romantic, yet projects a rare, mischievous kind of humor.  It deals with a question we have all asked ourselves:  “If I had my life to live over again, what would I do differently?” except that in this case, the question is, “If I had one day – today – to live over again, what would I do differently?”  Phil’s answer turns out to be the same as many of ours: I would try to be kinder.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on September 30, 2013 at 8:01 pm  Comments (3)  
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