Category Archives: Film Appreciation & Retrospective

O Captain, My Captain

It’s always sad when a celebrity passes away and we’ve had some really notable artists leave us too soon just within the past year (Philip Seymour Hoffman comes to mind). Yet the news of Robin Williams’ death has affected me immensely, more so than I want to admit.

When my little sister told me the news Monday afternoon, it was sheer disbelief. How can a man so full of life (who we’ve now learned was hurting inside) be gone? This man, who played such an integral part of my childhood and contributing to so many life memories–how can he be gone? It’s like losing a close family friend since Robin Williams was exactly that to my family and I. Robin Williams gave us so much laughter and joy that I wish we, as his audience, knew a way to give it right back.

I literally grabbed my Robin Williams blu-rays and started perusing, going through those cinematic moments that made me remember such awesome times. Robin Williams is the single actor that inhabited movies that were highlights of my life, both good and bad. He made me laugh, cry, think and feel. Robin Williams’ movies will forever be vivid landmarks that I need to share a few of them.

As proof of a talented actor and performer, his magic and his talent left an unforgettable impression on me as an actor, director, artist, and more importantly, as a person.

Rest in peace, O Captain, My Captain.

MORK & MINDY (TV Series 1978-1982)

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As a little kid, I remember my parents laughing hysterically in our Daly City house on Morton Drive watching this show. One memory I have is being sick with a cold and my Mom snuggling me on the couch as we watched Mork & Mindy.

POPEYE (1980)
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My parents hated this movie, but I was leaning forward, because I loved Popeye growing up.

GOOD MORNING VIETNAM (1987)

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A late night drive-in near the airport and I was knocked out. I just remember my Mom and my Aunt going to this and every time Adrian Cronauer’s signature “GOOOD MORNING VIETNAM!!” yell would come on, it would wake me up in the backseat. I didn’t get it at the time, but watching it later in life gave me a full appreciation of what this man can do.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989)

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My oldest sister Jerianne wanted to go to prep school and I remember watching this as a kid thinking prep school was terrible. Yet if we all had Professor Keating as a teacher, it might be awesome. To this day, this movie kills me and has played such a huge part in how I teach now. The first movie I popped on when I heard of Williams’ passing was this and minutes in, I’m balling my eyes out.

HOOK (1991)

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The movie that I share with my cousins to this day. We quote it. We reenact scenes from it. We can watch this movie over and over and over. Hook bonds my cousins and I together. It’s our movie and Williams’ Pan is unforgettable. Bangarang, indeed.

ALADDIN (1992)

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What made me fall in love with animation was this movie, mainly because of how animator Eric Goldberg captured Robin Williams manic genius in the art form. One of his best performances. One of my favorite Disney movies. I remember wanting to see the movie so bad and I missed the movie opening day because my parents were busy. I remember politely telling my Mom that I can wait. The next day, she takes me to see it and buys me ever Aladdin-themed toy at the Toys R’Us right beside the theater.

MRS. DOUBTFIRE (1993)

Robin Williams In 'Mrs. Doubtfire'

I remember seeing this with my cousins that Black Friday since it came out during Thanksgiving. I remember laughing hysterically and glancing over at my family, my cousins, my aunts and uncles because we took over one whole row! It thrilled me just seeing everyone in my family laughing. This man did that. Again, another movie I share with my cousins. Every time I pass by the Mrs. Doubtfire house in the city, it always puts a smile on my face.

JUMANJI (1995)

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This movie with all its merits, actually carries a darker place with my family and I. We were going through a tough time with my Grandfather passing away and having to see my parents struggle with their business at the time. Jumanji helped ease some of the real life chaos in our lives and it was comforting to know that Williams was still there for us, through thick and thin.

THE BIRDCAGE (1996)

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My oldest sister Jerianne and I were stuck visiting relatives in the Poconos back east for a New York trip once. To escape the relatives, we found a movie theatre in town and they were playing this. To this day, my sister and I consider that the highlight of our trip, just laughing together away from the forced politeness of being around distant relatives. Just last month, my Mom and I popped this blu-ray on and we laughed our heads off.

GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997)

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The first time an actor really moved me and hit me to the core was Robin Williams Oscar-winning performance in this film, which happens to be one of my favorites ever. I remember being a young buck in film school and just being reduced to a puddle on the classroom linoleum floor when I saw this. I remember seeing it with my family, my grandmother and my uncle and aunt and just being so moved by it again. As a filmmaker, the movie is a constant inspiration. As an actor, it’s an example, thanks to Williams heartbreaking performance.

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998)

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I saw this one afternoon with my sister Jerianne and a friend. By now, I’m a die-hard Robin Williams fan and just remember being so melancholic right after. It was his performance in this movie that came through, despite the Oscar-winning visual effects. It was his melancholy that shone through, and know looking back it, perhaps it was coming from the actor’s soul honestly and truthfully.

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (2006)

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As we got older and my little sister Jerica grew up, it was rarer for us as a family to see movies together, but I’ll never forget seeing Night at the Museum at the Metreon in IMAX. My parents, my sisters and I wanted to rekindle that family movie night we used to have. We decided to go all out and see this movie on a random night during Christmas vacation. We had a blast and it felt like everything was well in the world.

Robin Williams has surely made more films that made such an impact on me as a performer (Insomnia, One-Hour Photo, just to name a few) and continued to make all of us laugh in whatever movie or TV show he appeared in (Happy Feet, License to Wed) but these are the big ones that I’ll forever hold in my heart. His presence on screen felt real and tangible, as if he were one of my uncles. His roles taught me a lot, perhaps its because he embodied them with full vigor and life.

Thank you, Mr. Williams, for being there throughout my cinematic endeavors. You will truly, truly be missed.

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Rock Me Amadeus

I always thought Amadeus was overrated. Last week at the local CostCo, which seems to have all these wonderful classic DVDs for an unbelievably low price lately, I bought the Special Edition Director’s Cut and decided to give it a second chance.

Immediately after the purchase, I just wanted to peruse the DVD. You know, skim through the scenes, check out the special features. I found myself captivated and sat through the whole movie. It was F. Murray Abraham’s Academy Award-winning performance as Italian composer Salieri that just kept me watching. And to think film buffs have turned this guy into a joke because he won the Oscar and disappeared. But his performance truly deserves recognition.

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He just gives such a textured, and layered performance. You hate the guy because he’s a jealous twit and despises Mozart. Yet you can’t help but root for him because his passion for music is so rich. He just wants to be as talented as Mozart. But he’s not. It’s the classic case of sympathizing with the antagonist but here you’ll never know it mainly because F. Murray Abraham’s solid performance never gives in to the cliched trappings of a villain.

Then came the scene where a bed-ridden Mozart (Tom Hulce) dictates musical composition to Salieri, helping him finish his masterpiece, Requiem. Both composers, struggling to create this absolute opus; frustrated and inspired all at once. It’s a tour de force performance by both actors, like an operatic duet of sorts.

I’m in awe. Mostly of my stupidity.

I should probably take a second look at the movies I’ve deemed overrated. First West Side Story, now this. I’m realizing that these two movies have wonderful elements in them that make them such worthy entries into the art form. Yet if there’s one thing that stands out with the movies I’m rediscovering so far, it’s the amazing performances of the actors.

Nobody Does It Better – A James Bond Appreciation

UPDATE: I just found out that Robert Altman, acclaimed filmmaker passed away today. I’m deeply sadden by the news. I might just write up one of these essays about his films and their impact on me and on the rest of the film world. I’ll keep Bond up for awhile for everyone to ponder and discuss on but you can expect a healthy tribute to Altman in the coming days.

I’m aware that I’m one of three people in the entire world who didn’t care much for Casino Royale. Perhaps it’s my penchant for vintage Bond. In all reality, Casino Royale was too much of a redefinition for me that everything that’s new and reinvented in the latest installment can be found in other recent cloak and dagger movies. I’m also aware that we are being reintroduced to a character that perhaps lacks a true identity; one going through a serious mid-life crisis. Bond was no longer special. He has become more efficient, bolder and bloodier . . . just like his fellow cinematic spies. Bond was once the man who inspired countless characters like him. Now, he’s been reintroduced to us much like everybody else. Who is this James Bond?

Watching James Bond in film school opened me up to the notion that Bond on screen (not in the novels) found his true identity in the era he was in at the time. What made Bond survive all these years is that he truly is a man of his time. One can take a look at all twenty past Bond films and see that Bond’s identity came from the geopolitical climate of the era he was in. When Dr. No came out in theatres in 1962, the world was at the height of the Cold War, and here was a mere secret agent doing his job. We knew espionage existed then, and to be personified rather suavely catered to the growing popularity of “the dashing bachelor.” Riding the crest of prosperity after WWII, young men of this generation weren’t ready to settle down. Domesticity was not their groove. They relished their independence, and around them formed a unique culture of cool.

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Thus James Bond strived. Sean Connery, too. As the Cold War stories and theories grew far more outlandish, so did our favorite British secret agent. Goldfinger came along and sealed a franchise.

By the early 70’s a new approach was needed for Bond because the Cold War didn’t seem to end. It was almost ridiculous, creating new political language: superpower, nuclear, arms race. So in many ways we needed James Bond, not just someone who can save the world, but provide escapist entertainment. We had Vietnam on our TV screens nightly. It was a time of rapid social experimentation, energy crisis and Watergate. Pop culture responded, and so did James Bond. We needed James Bond to make us feel warm, not necessarily safe. Live and Let Die (which is essentially a Blaxpoitation film) introduced a witty, lighter Bond in the likes of Roger Moore, who probably had the toughest role of stepping under the shadows of Connery and providing the ‘funny’ while balancing the tougher act of Bond. His tenure as Bond the Entertainer lasted till the growth of computer technology and the rise of the venture capitalist, 80’s Reaganomics and greed. Moore’s final bow as Bond in the underrated View to a Kill pits him against Zorin (Christopher Walken) an industrialist billionaire who plans to take over Silicon Valley and the world. Zorin would probably fit right in with the Bill Gates/Steve Jobs elite.

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By the time Timothy Dalton stepped in as James Bond, the Cold War was near dormant and the future and purpose of James Bond was uncertain. The same summer License to Kill was released in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. It seemed we no longer need a James Bond, no matter how tough or realistic. Bond was no longer relevant.

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We entered a new world order in the 1990’s, facing rapidly shifting global alliances. Real-world villains were smarter, more technologically advanced, and soon enough, it seemed there might be a reason, even a need, for James Bond. Enter Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye catapulting the series into heights never before seen in the franchise. Bond was back and his enemies ranged from terrorist arms dealers, media megalomaniacs even a fellow double-o agent. The last Brosnan outing, Die Another Day suffered greatly from the dramatic shift of political attitude when September 11th occurred. Released a little over a year after the tragedy, Die Another Day had no other choice but to be a nostalgic, bombastic film. We needed escapist entertainment yet again and Bond came through. Instead of taking the approach of actually tackling terrorism, the Bond filmmakers decided to make a yearbook film, homaging the past nineteen Bond films. Looking back at it, it was a necessary entry: one to celebrate the man that is Bond. Despite a new and gritty opening title sequence, a riveting fencing battle (yes, I’m a fencer) and some interesting psychoanalysis, the film is marred by bad CGI eclipsing the stunts that were actually performed. The spirit was right, but Bond lacked credibility because the world around him got serious and confused. He needed a different approach.

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Now that Casino Royale is wowing audiences, it seems Bond’s timing to reinvent himself is right. In this day and age, perhaps we need a Bond who is all work and no play. Real-life Blofeld’s exist and it seems necessary to restart Bond, reintroducing himself to a new world; a far more dangerous one. What saddens me is that the previous Bonds all did it with a sense of fun and a great deal of wit and charm. Now Daniel Craig’s Bond is poised to be tough and desensitized. There’s something wholly out of touch by a Bond who is desensitized to me. Bond needs to have a soul and a wit that’s uncompromising. I hope it comes through later on with Craig’s Bond.

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Perhaps it’s because James Bond movies don’t just rely on the performance of the actor playing Bond. The villains, the gadgets, the women, the locations, the music—all of it contribute so much to a Bond film. To have them stripped away isn’t getting rid of a formula; it’s stripping away a cinematic identity. Bond films are the only movies that created its very own niche; its very own genre and there is much merit to that. Call me crazy, but as a budding filmmaker, one would want to be involved in such an established franchise. One of the first questions asked to us in film school was “what would you do with a James Bond movie?” Many composer friends have mentioned to me of the dream of “scoring a Bond film.” This is what disappointed me in Bond’s latest adventure; not much is referred to what creates a Bond film. Over forty years of creating something unique, is now stripped off of anything special. It’s like watching a film noir with all the characters perfectly lit. Or Indiana Jones never brandishing a whip. Can you imagine Star Wars without “May The Force Be With You?” I know I can’t.

These movies need to be looked at as a whole, and yes, it’s unfair to be so cold to Craig’s Bond as he has just started his run as the man in the tux. Looking back at the Bond films recently, I realized that there’s really not much merit, in this blogger’s opinion, to rank the actor’s who played Bond. Bond’s own identity shifts with the times, but his character will always be the same. Each five have contributed a lot to a character that never lost his true character: a man with rapier wit, lethal charm and ruthless determination.

Here are my takes on the eras of Bond. Going from most recent to the very first one.

The Brosnan Era

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Still the most successful Bond in terms of earnings, I find The Broz’s take on Bond the most fascinating. His introduction as Bond in GoldenEye is probably the best but there’s a lot of veneers in The World Is Not Enough, that are rather interesting choices for Bond. His execution of Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) caused a huge uproar by purists (mostly Moore fans) as it was the most cold-blooded killing of a woman by Bond to date. For anyone who doubted The Broz considering him a poor Bond, watch his kill of Elektra. A layered, nuanced moment in perhaps the second best of his era. There’s much to be said for taking a franchise in its all time low and taking it to all new highs. Much of what makes the Broz’s Bond so delicious are the subtler things; the dodging of bullets in GoldenEye as he preps his gun, the way his eyes check out the ridiculous Christmas Jones (Denise Richards). “First things first” he says, obviously alluding to the only reason why she’s in the film, and the delivery of “No more foreplay.” He also fits Ian Fleming’s physical description to a tee. Many Bond fans consider this era the second golden age of Bond, thanks to the right elements, particularly the hiring of David Arnold as the composer of the new Bond films. Arnold hits all the right diminished notes a la John Barry.


Best Brosnan Bond Movie:
GoldenEye, then The World Is Not Enough

Best Brosnan Bond Song: It’s a three-ring toss-up: Tina Turner’s GoldenEye is seductive, Garbage’s sultry The World Is Not Enough is the epitome of the classic Bond song with wailing horns and progressive minor chords but I’d have to give it to k.d. lang’s Surrender by a hair, the end credits song in Tomorrow Never Dies.
Best Brosnan Bond Villain: Elektra King in The World Is Not Enough, Trevelyan in GoldenEye

Best Brosnan Bond Girl: Xenia Onatopp (Famke Jansen) in GoldenEye

The Dalton Era

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Dalton’s Bond is highly underrated. It was a serious take that actually had the right amount of subtle humor. Dalton’s Bond was highly volatile (as experienced in License to Kill) but you still didn’t miss the notion that he could have a dandy ol’ time (something that Daniel Craig can take a few notes from). There is believability to him that many overlooked and his Bond might just be ahead of its time. His Bond can kick major arse but he knows how to balance the two opposing notions that make Bond; serious but witty. When he unexpectedly lands on a yacht in the Mediterranean with a woman who “can’t seem to find a real man in her life,” Dalton’s Bond goes from dead-serious to debonaire. She invites him for a drink and suddenly there’s a slight twinkle in the eye. A perfect Bond moment if there ever was one.

Best Dalton Bond Movie: The Living Daylights

Best Dalton Bond Song: If You Asked Me To by Patti LaBelle. Popularized by Celine Dion, but in true Bond-ian fashion during the end credits of License to Kill

Best Dalton Bond Villain: Hands down, Sanchez (Robert Davi) in License to Kill

Best Dalton Bond Girl: Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto) in License to Kill simply because she’s hot.

The Moore Era

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Roger Moore’s Bond had the best villains: Scaramanga, Jaws, Zorin, May Day, Dr. Kananga! But if anything Moore’s Bond was the wittiest and most engaging, even if it goes overboard. He brought that “elegance under fire” charm to Bond with such poise and ease. Even though it may have made Bond a bit more effeminate and less lethal, his Bond had wonderful moments. I still get a kick when Jenny Flex (Allison Doody) introduces herself to Bond in A View To a Kill. His response, “of course you are.” Effortlessly Bond.

Best Moore Bond Film: For Your Eyes Only

Best Moore Bond Song: A tie between Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die and Duran Duran’s A View To a Kill or Carly Simon’s Nobody Does It Better from The Spy Who Loved Me

Best Moore Bond Villain: Jaws (Richard Kiel) Need I say more?

Best Moore Bond Girl: Dr. Holly Goodrider (Lois Chiles) in Moonraker is a fave of mine, but Jane Seymour as Solitaire in Live and Let Die is unforgettable.

George Lazenby

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A very athletic Bond, George Lazenby’s Bond is young and naïve, attractive and flawed. Lazenby’s lucky to have starred in probably one of the best Bond movies to date, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There are striking similarities to this film with the new Bond film; Bond contemplating resignation, falling truly in love, a more sarcastic James Bond, etc. There’s very little to go by as he only made one Bond film but I think the true success of this film lies with the music (the best John Barry James Bond score which was openly imitated by Michael Giacchino for The Incredibles) and Diana Rigg as Mrs. Bond. I think it’s apparent that Lazenby lacks the acting ability when he does his scenes with Rigg, who ranks high among Bond girls.

The Connery Era

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The epitome of James Bond. Sean Connery had the privilege of working closely with Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, giving him insight to the character and if Brosnan nailed Bond, and Daniel Craig is refreshing as Bond, Connery IS Bond. He paved the way for the world’s most famous secret agent, and even though his last “official” outing as Bond in the strange but fascinating Diamonds Are Forever was a bit uneven, Connery help shape a legendary character.

Best Connery Bond Film: Goldfinger
Best Connery Bond Song: Nancy Sinatra’s You Only Live Twice and Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger

Best Connery Bond Villain: Blofeld. The best Blofeld is Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice

Best Connery Bond Girl: Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman)

The Movies That Continue to Inspire

  As a film major, you learn to keep a list of movies that you can always go back to in reference. That’s why DVDs aren’t a waste of money for us cinema students, because we genuinely treat them as textbooks, constantly going back to those films that help shape our own styles and visions.

As I prepare an essay for a film class I’m taking this semester, I figured I’d share my findings on here as well. There are tons of movies I always refer back to but it seems these 25 films are the most constant. They continue to inspire me as a filmmaker, in all their creative aspects, from direction to design, to sound and screenwriting. In my humble point of view, these 25 films never fail to ignite the creative auteur in me.

25: GoodFellas
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In my opinion Scorcese’s best, better than Mean Streets and Raging Bull. The film is so visceral, literally knocking you down to the ground. I go back to this film just in terms of detail in direction and movement. It’s a long movie but it moves like a freight train and the impact of the scenes will continue to hit you after countless viewings.

24: A Hard Day’s Night
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Perhaps the movie that created MTV. I go back to this movie because of its sheer originality. Or maybe because it feels so fresh. You want to make movies that feel this alive and bursting in song, or at least, with some kind of musicality.

23: Jackie Brown
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Forget Pulp Fiction. Put aside Reservoir Dogs and the Kill Bill flicks. Jackie Brown is undeniably Tarantino at his finest. Tarantino has always been one helluva wordsmith but here it’s his complete realization of characters, and how he leisurely takes his time in revealing plot points and interesting character development.

22: Chinatown
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I’ve referenced Robert Towne’s killer screenplay numerous times on here. The acting is top notch. I’m not a huge fan of Polanski, but Chinatown is a towering achievement in screenwriting and performance especially if you have a copy of the script and you can see how the screenplay translates so vividly onto the screen. You want to be able to give direction that will service the script to the best of your directing skill.

21: Good Will Hunting
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Probably one of the best screenplay of recent years, and to think its written by this duo! Again, when a screenplay is that good, get a copy of it and see the DVD. Do a compare and contrast. Great screenplays translate well. This is another great example. Plus Robin Williams gives a tour-de-force performance as Damon’s shrink.

20: A Touch of Evil
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Everyone honors Citizen Kane, but I lean more towards this Orson Welle’s classic. It’s just how he paces the film. Clear direction and staging. The opening sequence is probably the best opening sequence in cinema history, one that has been copied, homaged and referenced to, most notably Robert Altman’s The Player.

19: Network
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Sometimes you want to make a film that will hit a nerve with your audience. The right elements just fell into play for this movie. Amazing ensemble. Unforgettable lines. (“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”) Underneath every filmmaker lies the desire to create a film that’s scathingly true. Network is the film that always comes to mind.

18: Cinema Paradiso
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If you love movies, you can’t deny the magic of this movie. Great storytelling. Epic in the most intimate sense. Avoid the 2002 Director’s Cut and stick with the original version. The director’s cut gives away too much in my opinion. What makes this movie a great reference for filmmakers is to understand what is essential in storytelling and editing. What parts do you leave out for the audience’s imagination? Not only is this a central theme in the movie but its also the strength of the movie itself. How much do you give, and how much do you leave up to the audience.

17: Heat
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Michael Mann is the epitome of style and Heat just oozes with it. The coffee shop conversation showdown between giants Pacino and DeNiro still keeps me riveted. It’s a clash of two titans but its the least violent scene in the film, yet it makes the most impact.

16: L.A. Confidential
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1997 was a great year for movies. L.A. Confidential is a marvelous film no doubt but the true strengths lie in its technicalities, particularly sound, editing, design and cinematography. One of the best lit scenes in recent history is when Kim Basinger enters the liquor store. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti lights everything beautifully; Basinger’s face soft and glowing, but that deep velvet black of her cape and coat is so rich and textured. Also, sound-wise, if you’ve got the home theater to muscle it out, check out the final duel in the motel. Great use of sound.

15: Singin’ In the Rain
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One of the best movies ever. But I always go back to this for music, sound, and staging.

14: Traffic
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Stephen Soderbergh’s my favorite director and this is his best so far. It’s just the no nonsense way the film is made. I usually refer to this film in post-production when I’m editing my films. It’s just how he puts all these fragments into a beautiful collage of a movie.

13: Jaws 
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Spielberg at his most clever. The film is a clear example of Syd Field’s 3-Act Structure but really it’s all in the direction of the film. Spielberg practically reinvented the whole tension/release pacing in modern cinema. Here, he shows his patterns clearly: the slow reveal of the beast, a character who resembles the hunted, etc. Spielberg has created new conventions here, and it’s always neat to go back to this film and see the techniques of a cinematic genius.

12: Rear Window
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One of my favorite Hitchcock film’s. With Hitchcock, where do I begin? All his films should be textbooks for any filmmaker! One of James Stewart’s best performances. You can see where Pierce Brosnan gets all his tricks.

11: The Sting 
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The definition of genre filmmaking, and my favorite: the caper film! This film and Magnificent Seven are films of such great bravado and camaraderie. Every filmmaker who would ever want to make heist/caper movies really should study this film in and out.

10: Band of Outsiders
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My love affair with the French New Wave. This is probably one of the best films to come out of that era.

9: All the President’s Men 
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This film has always been the prime example of less is more. If you want to just tell the story, no frills, no special effects, and still keep it interesting, this is the film you have to see. One of my favorites.

8: Do the Right Thing
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Probably referred to as the Citizen Kane of modern cinema because of its innovation in storytelling. There’s just so much to refer to. The editing. The writing. The direction. Not only is the film a masterpiece, it’s also probably one of the most important films ever made.

7: E.T.
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“You’re movie’s got to have heart,” a professor once told me. He then reminded me of this little movie.

6: 400 Blows
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Along with Band of Outsiders, this is probably the best example of the French New Wave. It’s the first film I ever saw in film school. (I saw this and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story in one sitting! Can you imagine? I went home and started writing!) I like how unconventional French New Wave is, and this film is a constant reminder of straying away from formula. Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is also one of my first movies in film school (and one of my favorite movies). Just prime examples of other cinematic routes outside of Hollywood conventions.

5: The Conversation
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Best use of sound in a movie. Period. I always thought Coppola’s Godfather films were his best. I’ll admit I’m partial to this film moreso than most of Coppola’s offerings. Much better than Apocalypse Now.

4: Ocean’s Eleven (1960)
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The epitome of style in a movie. Okay so the movie is kinda blah (the remake is much better), but the style! No wonder this final scene has been ripped off by Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs, Scorcese in GoodFellas, and in numerous cool guy movies! Stylish, cool. The remakes and the sequels it spawned reinvented and updated it, but if it weren’t for this movie, all those other cool guy movies it gave birth wouldn’t be as cool.

3: Raiders of the Lost Ark
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The movie that made me want to be a film director when I was a kid. To this day, when I see this movie, it just reminds me of the magic and adventure of film, and the limitless possibilities. More of an inspiration than a reference.

2: North by Northwest
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Hitchcock. Again.Where do I begin? My personal fave of his. I’m a huge Cary Grant fan. I did a whole spiel on this movie a little over a year ago.

1: Casablanca
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No other movie moves me the way this film does. I can see it over and over again and I’ll never get tired of it. Seen it on the big screen, seen it on laserdisc (my introduction to the movie, thanks to my Dad) and now seen it numerous times on DVD. Just everything about this film is ideal filmmaking. There is always something new to find and it encompasses the best of every aspect; music, editing, lighting, direction, performance, etc. You can have Citizen Kane (no doubt a masterpiece in its own right) but Casablanca, in my opinion, is the greatest American film of all time. They don’t make movies like that anymore.

The New Age of the Movie Musical

 

The Dreams – Anika Noni Rose (“Caroline or Change”) as Lorrell, Beyonce Knowles (“Pink Panther”) as Deena and Jennifer Hudson (“American Idol”) as Effie in Dreamgirls

 

When was the last time you busted out into song to explain your emotions?

 

I mean, let’s face it, when you’re in a deep heated fight with your friend, do you really get so fed up that words fail you and you have nothing left to do but to just hit that high b flat and belt “AND I AM TELLLLING YOOOUUU!!! IAAAM NOT GOOOING!”

 

Movie musicals have always been a hard sell.

 

Long consider passe on all accounts, due to the unrealistic nature of busting out into song, film musicals tend to be a laborious experience – melodramatic and cheap, with melody and lyric sucking the reality that cinema tries to portray.

 

Hollywood’s trying their best to create a new golden age of film musicals starting with Moulin Rouge!, a movie that faithfully reminded us that MTV’s real roots came from movie musicals and that music videos are condensed, high-content, coma-inducing versions of just that: The McMusical. Then came 2002’s Best Picture winner Chicago, reinventing the genre and taking a near-flawless stage show and turning it into a near-flawless motion picture event. It didn’t hurt to have Oscar-caliber performances (especially Catherine Zeta-Jones who stole the damn show and won supporting actress for Velma Kelly, a role that only a handful of women can portray) and the glorious music of Kander & Ebb didn’t hurt either (not like the cheesy AM Gold collection Moulin Rouge! decided to peruse).

 

After the success of Chicago, it seems that movie musicals have found a place in film once again. TV networks have started producing acclaimed stage classics such as The Music Man and Once Upon a Mattress, and it didn’t take long for MTV to finally realize the connection between music videos and movie musicals with their foray into the genre. Since then we’ve been treated with at least one or two film musicals a year, with Phantom of the Opera, The Producers and Rent, three classic Tony-winning shows with wonderful ideals but handled by the wrong filmmakers. This year promises an even bigger leap into the genre. So far, Disney Channel has produced High School Musical, which has the distinction of being the number one soundtrack of the year so far and Disney Channel’s most watched original made-for-tv-movie.

 

Yet the biggest news to come out of this year as far as movie musicals are concerned is the film adaptation of the beloved stage show Dreamgirls. Loosely based on real life singing group, the Supremes, the show follows the rise and fall of a girl group through the decades, their trials and tribulations. Effie (Jennifer Hudson) is the original lead singer of the Dreamettes, who is slowly pushed into the background (and eventually out of the group) by the group’s manager Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) and replaced by the prettier Deena (Beyonce Knowles) as the group gains celebrity by selling out.

 

The great thing about Dreamgirls is that I’ve always thought the show lends itself to a cinematic adaptation – not as a musical per se, but almost like a biopic, along the lines of Coal Miner’s Daughter, That Thing You Do!, Ray, or more recently, Walk the Line.

 

Musical biopics are a hot commodity in Hollywood. As a matter of fact, rumor has it that Rent‘s Jesse L. Martin will be starring in a biopic of Marvin Gaye (talk about casting of the century!) So if director Bill Condon is as wise as he’s been with a track record that includes Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, he’ll fashion the show along those lines. Dreamgirls is essentially a biographical musical and the tumultous pace of the show only lend itself to a strong cinematic adaptation. The characters are fascinating, the music is intoxicating, and the commentary the show has on the music industry is timely.

 

The music is also very accessible and radio-friendly to modern audiences. The show has produced now standard hits, particularly the R&B showstopper “I’m Not Going” which every diva knows the lyrics to and every Idol hopeful has probably sung to the disdain of prissy Simon Cowell. It’s a smart move to promote the music first before the movie and push it to the radios as early as two months prior to its holiday release. The soundtrack is being produced by today’s hottest producers in the music industry handling such talents as Alicia Keys, and Kelly Clarkson, and Condon has requested to update the sound to appeal to a younger audience.

 

It seems that Dreamgirls is poised to be a hit but that remains to be seen. The genre’s recent track record isn’t a strong one. Yet it doesn’t mean the movie musical is going to disappear anytime soon. Stephen Sondheim’s gothic tale of Sweeney Todd has been announced, attaching Sondheim’s first choices (and wise ones at that) with Tim Burton as director and Johnny Depp as ‘the demon barber of Fleet Street.’ There is rumor flying around of Into the Woods with a seriously interested Spielberg. There is OutKast’s hip-hop musical Idyllwild and the film version of Hairspray: The Musical.

 

The movie musical just might be back. Perhaps not at its height, but like Effie in Dreamgirls, they’re singing the same tune: “and I am telling you, I’m not going.”

Batnipples

Everyone talks about movies they love.

 

It seems that the movies discussed are always the usual film snobbery pickings; The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, and perennial favorite, Citizen Kane. But who wouldn’t love these movies? They’re near flawless. People write about great movies all the time. Film enthusiasts even write about overrated movies. For example, Premiere Magazine just came out with an overrated movie list that’s sure to infuriate any movie lover.

Why not write about underrated or ‘misunderstood’ films?

So I figured, for my holiday home theater experience, I’m going to revisit some so-called bad movies. First up, Batman Forever.

Last summer, the caped crusader returned to celluloid–revamped, retooled and re-energized by Memento director Christopher Nolan in the amazing Batman Begins, a film that definitely packs quite the punch. The DVD release last month gave way to a retooled boxed set of Tim Burton’s and Joel Schumacher’s renditions of Batman and his many adventures in the Batman Anthology DVD set which I purchased along with Begins.

 

As acclaimed and as wonderfully envisioned a film Begins is, my biggest complaint about Nolan’s interpretation is that it lacks spirit and brevity. After watching through all four Batman films in the anthology, I realized that I don’t give Joel Schumacher much credit. Undoubtedly, when it comes to cinematic style, Schumacher is the most flamboyant, bombastic director working in Hollywood today often tainting his films with bold operatic, colorful strokes. After watching Batman Forever, I discovered that his initial vision for the bat actually has some weight to it.

Long before Nolan and Christian Bale came along, we all believed Tim Burton was the one and only person who handled our beloved Bruce Wayne so well. His Batman is off-kiltered, poetic and theatrical all at the same time. And much like Sean Connery as James Bond, Michael Keaton has always been deemed the first and the best (even though, technically, Adam West is the first celluloid Batman). Tim Burton’s Batman is a well-balanced comic book film with Jack Nicholson cleverly cast as the Joker. Many still feel that Nicholson playing the Joker is a bit like asking Picasso to paint a fence . . . I wholeheartedly disagree.

Yet after revisiting Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, his vision may have gotten too dark for its own good. Returns plays like a dirge–a murky episode akin to a funeral procession. Returns has a handful of delightful moments, but for the most part the film is loaded with forced angst and sexuality so misplaced that the film hits all the right notes at all the wrong moments. It’s on to Schumacher’s colorful interpretations, and after the monochromatic and dull experience of Returns, Batman Forever I discovered is a welcoming affair.

Now, we all know Batman & Robin will forever go down as the film that ruined the franchise then and no one (not even Schumacher himself on the bonus disc) will disagree with that. Batman & Robin was a rushed effort and a prime example of a studio in desperate need of a franchise (take in mind, this was pre-Harry Potter days for WB).

Unfortunately, Batman Forever gets lost in Batman & Robin’s mess.

Batman Forever is a rare gem; one that now ranks high on my list of great comic book fantasy films. On the bonus disc, we discover that Batman creator Bob Kane’s favorite Bruce Wayne was Val Kilmer. And why not? Val Kilmer brings panache to Bruce Wayne, a key element that Michael Keaton desperately lacked. Val’s Bruce has wit and charm, but more importantly, he gives the man soul and charisma. It is said that it only takes a pair of sculptured lips to play Batman, but Val Kilmer’s take on Bruce goes far past the exterior somberness of Bruce’s torment. This is a man who picked himself up off the ground and tried to make a better man out of himself, even if it seems to be a daily struggle which is mirrored by his newfound relationship with Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Robin, adequately played by Chris O’Donnell. Val turns Bruce Wayne into a living, breathing human being and he has become my favorite Bruce Wayne/Batman (sorry, Christian Bale fans).

It’s important to note that Schumacher wasn’t inspired by Frank Miller’s interpretations (which are obviously the inspiration for Nolan) but with Bob Kane’s Batman/Great Detective comics of the 40’s and 50’s. Interestingly, this was also around the time Robin came into the foray. It was this era of Batman comics that sparked with humor, splashes of color and spirit. Forever cinematically captures that.

What gets me when I see the film are all the layers it has. The theme of duality is clear enough with Tommy Lee Jones’ Harvey Two-Face physically representing that element in the film. More fascinating is a strong sense of dark psychosis and sexual undertones amidst the flash and pomp. The film is a commentary on men depending on other men, and the lone female character (Nicole Kidman’s psychologist Dr. Chase Meridian) is the only one willing to explore those issues. Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey, who is actually pretty darn good here) looks up to Bruce Wayne almost as a larger-than-life hero. Yet there is a fine line when it comes to admiration and obsession and you can see in Nygma’s eyes when Bruce turns his mind-sucking invention down. “You were supposed to understand,” Nygma says. “I’ll make you understand,” he tells himself. Thus, the Riddler is born. Admiration becomes obsession. It’s a key moment in the film and it is a testament to Carrey’s abilities as a terrific and varied actor.

Leave it to Schumacher to finally bring out the homoerotic undertones of the Batman comics to celluloid. Of course there’s much hoo-ha over the BatNipples (which are inspired by leather fetish outfits), the Jean-Paul Gaultier-inspired statues that adorn Gotham City, with its perfectly-sculpted biceps and chiseled features. It finally makes perfect sense: it is a film about deep brotherly admiration played out with the growing relationship of Batman/Bruce and Robin/Dick and the older/younger brother playfulness of The Riddler and Two-Face. What’s nice about Schumacher’s bold decision to poke at the undertones is that he keeps it light and never overt.

Now if you like your Batman served dark and chilled, you may disagree with my newfound respect for this film. I rarely enjoy bold strokes in cinema, but this one brings out some fascinating and disturbing elements that’s worth mentioning in the history of Batman films. It was a brave step in the franchise, to play out such taboo issues—dark in a new sense, if you will. It’s too bad that fans applaud familiarity over innovation.

Cinema Paradiso – An Appreciation

I rented this film again because I wanted my parents to see it. Fortunately my Grandmother and Maria we’re staying the night and they saw the film as well. I like the original 1990 version because I think the re-release (the version we saw Saturday night) gave away too much. But nevertheless, it’s still one of those films that never fail to capture me. This is also my late Uncle Arnie Lapinig’s favorite movie.

The film is about Salvatore, a successful film director who returns to his hometown and reminisces about his childhood and his love affair with movies. Cinema Paradiso affects us on many levels, but its strongest connection is with our memories. We relate to Salvatore’s story not just because he’s a likable character, but because we relive our own childhood movie experiences through him. Who doesn’t remember the first time they sat in a theater, eagerly awaiting the lights to dim? There has always been a certain magic associated with the simple act of projecting a movie on a screen. Director Guiseppe Tornatore taps into this mystique, and that, more than anything else, is why Cinema Paradiso is a great motion picture.

The marquis of the ‘new’ Cinema Paradiso.

The unforgettable scene of Alfredo projecting the movie outside as Salvatore gleefully watches.

Salvatore (as a teenager) in love with the subject of his film, Elena. Again, one of the shots I love.

Ah, the final scene! Such a moving moment when Salvatore (now the successful filmmaker) finally “sees” the late Alfredo’s gift to him. Truly unforgettable!

That Glorious Feeling!

One of the things I want to do is to remake that unforgettable scene of Gene Kelly hoofing it in the rain in, what else, “Singin’ In the Rain.” I would love to remake just that classic scene with me as Don, letting out my inner Gene Kelly. Oh the dream to at least believe that I have an ounce of Gene Kelly in me! I might just do it soon. Put it right before a film or something.

I remember the first time I saw this film back in high school and it took me aback, hit me right at the chest and just wondered how amazing cinema really, truly is! The film itself is on my list of favorite movies of all time and it saddens me that the current generation snubs classic films. Most of my non-collaborative friends don’t even have one single classic DVD on their shelves!

Everyone thinks “Moulin Rouge” is a classic when Baz Luhrmann himself admitted he stole everything from this film.  (Maybe that’s why I have more of an appreciation for “Chicago” because it actually tries new things and the music is far better. The show itself, its music and its book, is near flawless and timeless.)

Arthur Freed, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly are geniuses in my book. It saddens me than no one makes movies like this anymore. Not musicals per se, but just films that have such life, grandeur, humor and a real sense of joy. A true cinematic experience in every sense of the word. Every filmmaker should have this film readily available in their heads for reference in terms of sound, cinematography and direction. This is a must for any filmmaker.

No one who loves movies can afford to miss “Singin’ In the Rain.” but you don’t have to take my word for it. http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/greatmovies/singing.html

Roger Ebert is so right. In 1952, the movie was advertised with the slogan “That Glorious Feeling.”

Today, that slogan still stands.