Showing posts with label Desert Island Flicks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Desert Island Flicks. Show all posts

Jan 23, 2013

Toy Story (1995)

What is it about Pixar? Is it the characters, the look, the stories? Obviously, it's a combination of all of these things.  Pixar Animation is what the film industry could use more of, and that's exactly what I was thinking ever since I was a kid and first saw, Toy Story (1995) directed by John Lasseter.

It's still amazing to me to think about how computer animation sprung up into the mainstream, created a new visual form of storytelling, and revolutionized the landscape of modern cinema just during my own childhood.  It was clear from that first feature length computer animated film about toys that came to life, that Pixar was on to something that was going to change everything. 

I've got to be honest though, technological innovation aside, at 11 what made the movie resonate was the brilliant cast of toys and how they were personified and crafted into a completely original and imaginative world.  We all used to bring our toys to life when playing with them, and the concept wasn't merely captivating, it was entirely relatable to the kid in all of us.  It's why I still love the movie as an adult, and probably why I appreciate it even more now that I understand the work that's gone into making it.  

It's unbelievably rare for a studio to release success after success as is the case with Pixar.  If it can be attributed to anything, it's that they actually take the time to polish and refine their concepts. Stylistically they continue to push the envelope and tell creative stories full of adventure and heart, which makes it tough to pick a favourite among the bunch.  From toys to cars to monsters and fish, it's like they've found a way to tap into all of these brilliantly thematic worlds and add their own flavors.

I love that Toy Story demonstrates how a movie can appeal to all ages without sacrificing emotional investment.  That originality isn't simply about being different, it's about breathing new life into basic concepts, like friendship and love, when they've become so familiar and exhausted by the same story lines. Pixar seems to understand that a little bit of heart and style can go a long way. 

Pixar has really mastered the art of creating endearing and honest characters.  Buzz and Woody are no doubt at the top of that list, and their rivalry and eventual friendship is born out of a genuine conflict and very real emotions.  The desire to feel wanted and dealing with jealousy have rarely been addressed so powerfully in such an innocent way.

Quite simply, I could watch this movie a hundred more times without getting bored.  I felt bonded to Pixar at an early age, and the quality of their work has maintained my interest all of these years later.  With nods to my childhood and concepts that spark my imagination, films like Toy Story aren't merely for kids, they're genuine classics. 

Dec 4, 2012

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer, fun for all the children call, their favourite time of year.  And what holiday isn't a bit better with Charlie Brown?

Whether you've managed to make the most out of your own Charlie Brown Christmas tree, have fallen for the glitz of commercialism like Snoopy, or have reminded your fellow man what Christmas is all about like Linus did, I think most of us can agree that there's something special about the 1965 television hit A Charlie Brown Christmas. As one of the most memorable Christmas specials of my childhood (not to mention the special that started the series of Peanuts specials) A Charlie Brown Christmas is part of my holiday routine.  I even have the soundtrack along with the original Charlie Brown Christmas on vinyl.

"Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!" hollers Charlie Brown, the every-man of holiday depression and sorrow. I always felt sorry for Charlie as a kid. I knew he had it right, and I never understood why the other kids just couldn't cut him any slack. So he didn't get the aluminum tree like Lucy suggested. Even his dog was giving him a hard time. And therein lies the charm of this holiday favourite, because who hasn't felt disenchanted or out of sync with the holidays before?

Charlie's search for answers is full of charm. Lucy, in psychiatry mode suggests, 'maybe you have pantophobia' which she explains is the fear of everything.  'That's it!' Charlie exclaims.  Linus, confused by Charlie's mood states, 'You're the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.  Maybe Lucy's right.  Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you're the Charlie Browniest'.  Poor Charlie, once again typecast as a downer.

I love the fact that Charlie Brown ends up with the part of the pageant director who can't get anyone to listen.  He's in a prominent position pretty much so he can be walked all over.  Although when your friends can dance like that in repetition, you've kind of already got it made. The kid doing the shoulder shrug back and forth is my favourite. 

There's something truly enlightening about A Charlie Brown Christmas that you can't just find anywhere. I think nostalgia plays into it big time, because I saw it as a kid just like my parents did. Plus, if the cartoon strip isn't iconic enough, the ambient piano and raw recordings of the Vince Guaraldi Trio lends itself perfectly to the whimsy and reflection that Christmas inevitably brings.

Charlie Brown isn't saved by any sweeping miracles or a sleigh full of presents, but his frustration subsides when a series of minor mistakes brings his friends around to see the simpler side of things. In an increasingly cynical world, the message still seems to resonate with heart. It's not what you have, but who you have to share it with.

Sometimes the simplest messages ring the most true.  From Linus, from me, to you, A Charlie Brown Christmas is the perfect reminder for 'what Christmas is all about'.

Oct 22, 2012

Casino (1995)

If there's one director that seems to know a thing or two about turning stories about mobs into great movies it's Martin Scorsese. Take your pick, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Departed, he even directed the series premiere of Boardwalk Empire. He has done for mob movies what Spielberg's done for aliens, and although there's a tremendous variety in his incredible body of work, I find Casino to be the most endearing of Scorsese's films because of how it portrays such a romantic and realistic view of greed, of Las Vegas, and of success in all of its destructive forms.

I've always loved movies about gambling. Being a broke student for the first part of my life kind of encouraged that fantasy of winning away all my financial troubles and thinking that everything would be solved because of it. At its heart, Casino is about the exact same thing. The mob wants their skim from the casino, the hotel manager (Robert DeNiro) wants to take the gamblers, the gamblers want to take the casino, the girl (Sharon Stone) wants to take the manager to finance her bad habits, the friend (Joe Pesci) wants more than his take from the skim, the government wants their take in taxes, and the chain goes on and on. It's about a love affair with money, and how even with so much around there's never enough to appease anyone.

What makes Casino great is the depth of the story, and how each of the key roles brings a unique and dynamic conflict to the surface. DeNiro's character isn't so much concerned with the mob as he is about running a successful casino. He's talented and smart, and knows how to take advantage of impulsive gamblers. But his trusted friend, played by Pesciis one of those impulsive types and always seems to be on the verge of derailing what DeNiro's established. Then there's Stone, who plays the girl that knows how to get what she wants, and through her that we see what a well oiled machine the Vegas scene is for people who know what they want. 

As if there isn't enough to hold your attention in a story about gangsters, casinos, and crime, it's the fact that this select group of leads is always teetering on the edge of having it all and losing it all. This formula keeps Casino consistently sharp, and much like Scorsese's previous mob hit, Goodfellas, it gives the film a rich array of characters to bounce the action between. 

I love how the politics of Vegas serve as a fitting backdrop, and how winning and losing is expanded to incorporate the evolution of Las Vegas itself. DeNiro as Ace Rothstein (based on the real Frank Rosenthal) narrates at the end of the film, "The town will never be the same. After the Tangiers, the big corporations took it all over. Today it looks like Disneyland. And while the kids play cardboard pirates, Mommy and Daddy drop the house payments and Junior's college money on the poker slots. In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it's like checking into an airport. And if you order room service, you're lucky if you get it by Thursday. Today, it's all gone."

Signed copy of the Casino script at the Mob Museum.

Casino is captivating and beautiful to watch, and sparks the same kind of euphoria and rush as taking a ride down the strip. It's an adventure driven by money, a character piece defined by the worst traits, and an ultimate Scorsese flick that embodies that nostalgic Vegas vibe. I guess in some strange way every tourist still gets a kick out of the idea that Vegas was run by the mob.  Heck, we visited the Mob Museum while we were in Vegas because of it.  In my opinion, Casino is a no-risk gamble.

May 24, 2012

Almost Famous (2000)

To say that growing up is awkward in the best of circumstances doesn't quite encompass what it would be like to do so around those who you idolize. Few movies have really embodied this experience as well as Cameron Crowe's (loosely-auto-biographical) flick, Almost Famous (2000). In my view, it's one of the best movies about rock-and-roll, and the knocks that come from seeing the reality of your fantasies.

Some people love this movie because they want to be journalists, some musicians or critics, but what I really love about this movie is that it's about passion. I can relate to knowing what I wanted to do from a young age, and sharing that curiosity, that single-handed pursuit to find some answers in an overwhelming and personally uncharted landscape, is as engrossing as it is occasionally cringe-worthy.  That's just good entertainment in my books.

At its core, Almost Famous idealizes both the positive and negative rock stereotypes with successful twists, painting a great visual portrait of the '70s scene. The fictional up-and-coming group Stillwater experiences an entertaining range of hiccups on their tour, as high school student William accompanies them to write an article on the group for Rolling Stone magazine. The scenes with Will are arguably the best, not only because he's playing a fly on the wall a lot of times, but because his vulnerability brings out the utter absurdity of the culture he's thrown into. Despite William's love of being there, his reactions and reasoning are often the glue holding things together in a cast of conflicting personalities and superficial egos.

Almost Famous has a grit and rawness about it that makes it feel genuine, almost like shuffling through a stack of old records. There are enough little pop history references mixed in to make even the casual music fan feel in-the-know.  Even with the characters having pretty clear flaws, their predictability is kept in check by William's curiousity to understand it, and because of that everyone is along for the ride. 

The relationships between Will and his mom, Will and Penny (the lead groupie), and Will and the band all paint a different picture of the rock lifestyle.  It's apparent that the fine line between living the fantasy and dealing with the reality hits everyone hard when they suddenly stumble into either too quickly.  And that's probably what I like best about Almost Famous, it makes you feel like you're right there on the bus, on that tour.  You feel privy to inside information, and even though you know the fantasy can't last forever, you're still rooting for it to continue.  

Cameron Crowe is great because he really thinks about the music that he uses. More often than not, he allows his song choices to really be featured in his films, not as a crutch to aid in false emotion, but as an exclamation point to enhance the scene and allow viewers to really listen to the lyrics. The Tiny Dancer scene in this flick is the clear standout, but there are numerous examples in his work (like Secret Garden in Jerry Maguire or In Your Eyes from Say Anything).

Almost Famous is addicting.  And just maybe, it might leave you with that post-concert buzz, like you just skirted euphoria and witnessed something truly amazing.

Dec 13, 2011

A Christmas Story (1983)

We all have a Christmas story. Whether or not you've seen this movie won't change the fact that you've probably experienced some version of it growing up. Remember that toy you had to beg for as a kid? Or that Christmas dinner that didn't go right? That gift you absolutely hated? Or that snowsuit that made it so you couldn't put your arms down? These scenes are just the tip of the iceberg in Bob Clark's old fashioned homage to the traditional family holiday in, A Christmas Story (1983).

This classic centers around young Ralphie, a kid growing up in 1940's Indiana. Like all kids he has that one special toy in mind; the perfect reward, the ultimate Christmas morning highlight. For Ralphie it's the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200 Shot Range Model Air Rifle (or put simply, a BB Gun). His mother, his teacher, even Santa Claus all tell him the same thing, "You'll shoot your eye out!". And with that we have the makings of an entertaining couple of weeks as Ralphie sets out to prove that he really is deserving and responsible enough for such a gift.  

Interestingly, the style of A Christmas Story was actually the inspiration for the television show The Wonder Years. Although the story remains in the 1940's, Ralphie's thoughts are narrated from his perspective as an adult. It's hilarious having that additional commentary as Ralphie explains the detailed context of the things that were happening in his youth. The rules of double-dog-dares for instance, or the scam of Orphan Annie decoder rings, or the affect of electric leg lamps on the family dynamic.  Hindsight is 20/20 as they say, and the narration hilariously bridges the gap between childhood naivety and adulthood cynicism.

What makes this movie a classic in my mind is that even though some of the incidents may be a bit outlandish, for the most part it's an entirely relatable, heart-felt, and honest depiction of what it's like to be a kid at Christmas. Even though I grew up in a completely different era than when the movie takes place, and even though I wasn't born yet when this film was released, the experiences speak to generations who remember what those last few weeks of December were like as a kid.

A Christmas Story is an innocent depiction of childhood excitement marred in the less-than-holy realities that surround the holidays.  Stories about Santa and the North Pole are great, but to me Christmas is really about family and the conflict that occasionally derails good intentions. A Christmas Story reflects this best when you see how even a flawed day doesn't mean that everyone can't still enjoy themselves. 

And let's be honest anyway, as good as Christmas day is it's never as perfect as our anticipation leading up to it. 

In short, of all of the Christmas movies you're likely to see this season few will be as genuine and nostalgia induced as A Christmas Story.  In some small way Ralphie's experience is your experience, and common ground is a great place for comedy. Watch this movie! I double-dog-dare you to.

Nov 2, 2010

Star Wars (1977)

"Luke, I am your father".

As though growing up hearing that phrase countless times wouldn't have some influence on my love for Star Wars.

Truth is, as much as I got the Luke Skywalker comparisons, quotes, and references, I didn't really get into Star Wars until they re-released it on VHS in the nineties. I was born in 1984. That was one year after the last film from the original trilogy was released, and although I use this as the reasoning as to why I was named Luke in the first place (my parents deny this), like so many kids after me I wasn't born yet to experience Star Wars the first time around.

Nowadays, Star Wars seems to have become a milestone in growing up. Inevitably the first showing of Star Wars to any kid becomes an event. And why wouldn't it be? It's a movie that's over 30 years old and you can still find full sections of toy stores dedicated to its merchandise.

I can't remember the first time I saw it, but we had the toys in our house before I knew exactly what they were. I was 12 when Star Wars was re-released and at the time it seemed there was no better age to cement the notion in my mind that I would be an awesome Jedi. Again, I believed this held twice as much weight because of my name.

There are a lot of reasons to like Star Wars. It's an epic story about the battle between good and evil, it's a universal adventure with amazing special effects, there's a cast of memorable and diverse characters, and on top of all of that there's the Force. Who wouldn't want to be able to move things with their minds?

I think the reason that the movie and saga have been so well received though is because Star Was is about an obscure kid who unwittingly (in the beginning anyway) ends up playing a key role in changing the galaxy. It sounds ridiculous when put into that scale, but the truth is we all dream of having our own legacy and this is one for the ages.

Even now that the franchise has been merchandised to hell and back, Star Wars still beams with originality. It's no wonder the toys sell so well, where else can you get a Wookie or an Ewok, or a lightsaber? The fact that there are so many facets to the series is another substantial strong point. It's gone to the point where you could research details on these fictional planets or characters back stories. Personally, I wouldn't, but it's impressive that the movies have spawned so much material.

Lucas argued that the special editions helped further complete what the original vision for the trilogy was, but read any review from a critic or fan who saw those first films. Star Wars was groundbreaking then because it did something that no other movie had done before in its technical execution. CGI is an incredible asset to modern filmmaking, but it's so overused now that there's something romantic about watching the original trilogy and knowing that they actually had models and puppets and scenes built. That fake world was actually real. Someone constructed those scenes and costumes and had to make them come to life in person. I get the same rush when watching old war movies, knowing that the scenes actually had to be filmed like that.

Ok, so the technology is pretty cool too.

What I also like about Star Wars is that even though it's a futuristic saga that employed so many new techniques at the time, the basis of the plot is incredibly traditional. The lines between good and evil are clearly drawn, you have an obvious hero and villain, and there's an elaborate and well established challenge to overcome. Even though there are twists along the way, mainly surrounding Luke's family members, there really is no doubt that in the end Luke Skywalker is going to save the day. It's just like a serial from the 1930's or 40's, or a fairytale that your parents would tell you as a kid. This one just had lasers for extra punch.


As a filmmaker/editor I find George Lucas an interesting person to study considering that he went from obscurity to widespread fame himself following a film school path. Ultimately I think it comes down to imagination. He had a big dream, and he put the time and effort into it to make it work. Star Wars wasn't immediately fast tracked by a studio, it took a lot of convincing and a lot of guts (think about how many lame sci-fi flicks are out there, and how Star Wars might seem if you only knew it as words on a page). Lucas put a lot of time into planning and writing and re-writing until he had what he wanted and then he pursued it. And it didn't hurt that he acquired merchandising rights before studios really took advantage of them. His personal story says just as much about determination.

In the end, despite the marketing, the remakes, the remasters, the overwhelming heap of Lucasfilm pop culture, it's in that first film, Star Wars: A New Hope, with it's great characters, epic scale, and awesome adventures that you're quickly convinced you're witnessing something unlike anything else that's out there - including Star Trek, which has its own list of merits. Should anyone even attempt to produce a movie in the hopes that it will reach the same level of success, a movie that will resonate for generations between critics and fans alike, a film that will define and advance an entire genre, or a movie that will continue to make millions upon millions of dollars in merchandising decades after it was released, what can you possibly say? May the force be with you.

Aug 1, 2010

Modern Times (1936)

If there was one celebrity I would have loved to meet, it would have been Charlie Chaplin. The man and his little tramp character are not only still recognized internationally, but Chaplin acted, wrote, directed, produced, and composed the music for a range of films (many his own) that are now regarded as the classics of early cinema.

He was an independent man who wanted to do it himself, and on a path that took him from poverty to international success he acquired the means to do just that. I have nothing but respect for Chaplin's accomplishments and am amazed at how a single man was able to so dramatically change the landscape of a burgeoning entertainment industry.

It's incredible that Modern Times is now over 70 years old, and even more incredible that it's still capable of garnering laugh-out-loud reactions. True, slapstick is slapstick, but what made Chaplin such a force is how he merged social concerns, in this case unemployment and the mechanization of the workplace, into elaborate gags. You may recall the famous scene where Chaplin slides between a series of giant gears after failing to keep up with a conveyor belt that was going too fast. Or, a scene where a small flag falls off the back of a truck, and after picking it up Chaplin finds himself leading a group of striking workers.

The basic setups are simple, but there's always something endearing and honest about watching Chaplin's struggling little Tramp - the character he's most remembered for. So much could be suggested by showing the light and dark sides of a man who was down on his luck, or often just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Films like Modern Times established a connection and understanding with those real folks who at the time of this films release were smack-dab in the middle of the Great Depression.

I couldn't say it better than Nick Davis does in an excerpt from his review, noting, "[Modern Times] finds the comedy in the dashing of hopes, though it has both the verve to be funny for funny’s sake when it feels the urge, and the fortitude not to tidy up or erase every dark stroke in the picture. Orphans are not un-orphaned, and some of them permanently vanish. Lovers on the lam stay on the lam. The sidewalks and roads all feel dusty, as well they might in 1936. Though this is hardly The Bicycle Thief, Chaplin shows real conviction in evoking the dehumanizing routine of the assembly line, the political roils of factory strikes and Communist agitation, and the chintzy desperation of Depression-era have-nots".

When you consider how heavy some of these issues must have been in the mid-30s it seems incredible that Chaplin constructed such a successful comedy. Constructed seems to be the right word too because the structure of the film is clearly unbalanced; motivated by a series of smaller skits strung together in lieu of a classic plot arch. Yet, the film works because of the moral clarity of the Tramp.

It's not just the story of a funny little man, it's quite honestly the story of 'modern times' and the hardship that can accompany them. This tale of frustration took courage to tell, especially when the subject matter came from a man who had become wealthy playing a hobo. But, perhaps it took a man who had seen both sides of the coin to really understand the weight and levity of what was going on. In my opinion, Modern Times was Chaplin's most pitch perfect film.

And despite all the seriousness, at the end of the day Modern Times is a comedy that sticks with me. Chaplin and the feeding machine may in fact be one of the funniest moments in movie history, and I was literally in tears the first time I saw it. All the ingredients are clearly there - this is a comedy that will never go out of style.

Jun 9, 2010

American Beauty (1999)

At first I hated American Beauty. I saw it as a depressed, ego driven, modern fairytale about lives meandering out of control and the hopeless unfulfilled desires that make up the human experience. It's exactly what the movie is, but I thought what kind of view is that?

Blame it on the optimism of my 15 year old self, but at the time I didn't want to view life like that. I still don't. The funny thing is that when I did end up watching the film again I was able to see the wit that really makes American Beauty such a joy to watch. Depressing only as a dark comedy can be, the core message of the film is really about shaking ourselves of the daily apathy we comfortably surrender to. I think I had to grow up a bit to really appreciate this.

To me, American Beauty is still one of the best cinematic examples exploring themes of desire, image, and perception. The need to hide, cover up, and lie are fundamental to the illusion of perfection. It's no wonder that when we strive for this we end up continually hurting ourselves. American Beauty sets up numerous brilliant scenes with this notion in mind - the scene at the drive thru window for example.

The hilarious dramatics of the characters are essential to both building up and then destroying the barriers that we all create. The core meltdown that takes place within American Beauty is really about bringing the complexity back into the 'image' of modern life, and as explored literally in a scene between actors Thora Birch and Wes Bentley, standing naked for the world to see us for who we really are. Thinking of yourself in these terms can be frightening, but it's also what makes the film so poignant.

It's not all so heavy though. As much as the concept is captivating, the strength of American Beauty is wrapped up in the impulsive comedy that keeps the film fresh. The family dynamic is wonderfully chaotic thanks to the performances by Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, whose relationship in the film fluctuates between forced civility, contempt, and brutal honesty with some of the best dialogue in recent memory. The discussions around the dinner table are priceless.

Ultimately, I feel the need to come back to the fairytale of it all. Looking at this film realistically tells a depressing story about the state of things, and even though I'm not crazy about that post-modernist 'everything sucks' mentality, there is a light at the end of this tunnel. We're made to realize just how precious our own existence is and that it really is largely through our own choices and perspectives that we learn how to appreciate it.  The greatest upsets are the things we deny ourselves in the face of who we really are. While the superficial fantasy can be fun, beauty simply has to be more than what's on the surface to be truly fulfilling.

I don't think I could actually stand any of these people if they were real. However, in this bubble they all play off of each other like fire and gasoline, which is pretty exciting to watch. They're all perfectly messed up in an 'aren't-we-all' kind of way, and for the sake of my own delicate emotions, I think it's something that we should all get a little bit more comfortable with. Imperfection is the one thing we all have in common.

May 26, 2010

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

One of the greatest buddy movies of all-time, Steven Spielberg's E.T. (1982) makes my list of Desert Island Flicks for numerous reasons.

E.T. was one of the very first movies I remember seeing as a kid. It seemed to perfectly capture the adventure and mystery of finding an alien while maintaining the perspective of a wide-eyed kid like Elliott. It made the world seem bigger, while reminding us that there's nothing quite like home.

The unlikely friendship between Elliott and E.T. is just as entertaining and heart-felt today as it was over 25 years ago. Finding a movie that holds up from childhood to adulthood is rare, and in my experience is full of more disappointment than surprise - but maybe I was destined to love E.T. from the beginning. As a kid, even before I even knew E.T. was a movie, we had various E.T. toys in the house. Born in 1984, my age timed me well for the releases on VHS. If E.T. was good enough as a plastic figurine, it was only cooler when I first saw him move.


By all accounts, E.T. is and was a blockbuster success so I'm hardly the first person to bring it to your attention. However, you may find yourself wondering what E.T. is like after all these years. It was actually someone elses' review that had me pop in the DVD again. Here's the excerpt from Collin Souter's article that sparked my interest:

"I believe in a good time as well as a thought-provoking challenge. I have always said that the best films are those that manage to be both (and by “good time,” I mean a laugh and a cry, because, let’s face it suckers, we secretly love to cry at the movies). “E.T.” may not be an intellectual’s smorgasbord, but it does showcase a director at the very top of his game. By the time Spielberg made “E.T.,” he had learned all his lessons from his previous hits (“Jaws,” “Close Encounters,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) and misses (“1941,” which I know is debatable). For this movie, he turned inward, put his camera at child-eye level and went for the quiet moments whenever he could. And, still, he didn’t let us leave the theater until we felt as though we had just been on the greatest roller-coaster ride of our lives". 

Spielberg is what pulls me even closer to this film now. What I've always respected in his work is, quite simply, his storytelling. Be it dinosaurs, sharks, raiders or aliens, it all makes me feel like I'm watching the work of someone who really knows what it's like to dream big, to imagine, and to take full advantage of what the movies are and can be. There's no doubt that E.T. embodies this spirit.

I think Spielberg's intent is to surprise and please his audience by building on classic concepts and universal themes - friendship, love, loss, growing up, etc. His characters and subjects have been constructed (sometimes literally) so well that they become destined for countless pop culture references. As one of the most bankable directors in history he's clearly been doing something right, and I find it inspiring to immerse myself in the work of a director that managed to take the mainstream route to success without sacrificing quality or originality.


E.T. is a simple but powerful story, with endearing characters, an underlying theme of tolerance and friendship. It makes me feel like a kid when I watch it, not just because I was when I first saw it, but because the film captures that innocence and playfulness that brings out the kid in all of us. It really is an amazing example of inspired storytelling and direction.

And you want to talk legacy? Who didn't pretend their bike could fly?

Mar 1, 2010

Good Bye Lenin! (2003)

In what I consider to be one of the most original and entertaining concepts for a screenplay, Good Bye Lenin directed by Wolfgang Becker, chronicles the rapid change in East Germany after the Berlin Wall falls and western ideology invades. While you may be thinking this sounds like a history lesson, the real twist is that it's about a woman who falls into a coma before the wall came down and wakes up after the bulk of the change has occurred.

The story centres around Alex, played by Daniel Bruhl, whose mother is the woman in the coma. Due to her fragile heart and weak condition she's bed-ridden and doctors warn that any shock could do her in - clearly an issue when almost nothing is the way it was.

Becker's film takes place in East Berlin which gives us a front row seat to the sweeping changes that occur while Alex's mom is out. For a young guy in his twenties, the shift is both energizing and overwhelming. The invasion of western culture is initially revealed tongue and cheek (hey, look at all the choices in the supermarket now!) but the onslaught becomes a burden to Alex's situation and creates a strong message for how despite the new found freedom, it wasn't really the Godsend promised either.

To keep his mother stable, Alex retrofits her flat back to its East German glory - from the nightstands to the curtains and various Communist paraphernalia. In her weakened state Alex's mother's room becomes a microcosm of the country that was. Although, finding her old favorite foods is now made more difficult when the single brand she had been used to has been replaced with an entire row of options - ironically, all the wrong options for Alex's predicament.

Becker's film, while both lighthearted and upbeat, is actually quite successful at examining this defining moment in German history. The situation that Alex finds himself in gives him the opportunity to create the best of East Germany for his mother, the country that it was supposed to be, the country that he never really understood like she did.  There's optimism in the message, reminding everyone that it was supposed to be so much better than what had become of it.

I think it's easy to historically classify East Germany or the GDR as intrinsically evil (especially if you're from the West). With a communist government, they were a rival for just over 40 years after all. However, what Good Bye Lenin does so successfully is highlight the ordinary people behind the system who were really just trying to live their lives as happily as possible. Let me make it clear, Becker doesn't make excuses for the country or the powers that were, but instead he paints a picture that contrasts the ideologies from an East German perspective. The film explores how in many ways the invasion of consumerism and a free market really just created a new form of disparity - further emphasizing the radical transition.

Imagine being in East Germany and suddenly seeing western business take over, the range in selection, the quality and choice increase. At the same time, picture the tackiness of it all, suddenly Burger Kings and Coca Cola everywhere you look, secure government employment replaced by minimum wage retail positions, and a shift in thinking from 'the good of the people' to the consumer driven 'me lifestyle'. While there are significant flaws in both systems, the point is that neither side got it right. And while the west paints the end of the GDR as a victory, the film simply suggests that being East German didn't mean or doesn't mean that your history isn't worth valuing.

It's both hilarious and heartbreaking to see Alex cope with his mother's condition, hiding the truth outside, and maintaining the reality he's created inside. He goes as far as filming fake news reports, and getting the neighbours and old friends to go along with the lie. It's a human story that reminds us of the values that we should uphold no matter what the system of government. 

At it's heart, Good Bye Lenin is really about moving forward. Alex's story is about paying tribute to all those who had their lives turned upside down in the chaos. It's about giving East Germany, and all those people who grew up there knowing nothing else, a send off, a glimpse at what it was supposed to be, and perhaps most importantly, recognition of a new unified German history for a country that's only been re-unified for twenty years now.

Good Bye Lenin! is a charming, funny, and unique movie that brilliantly incorporates the chaos and excitement that surrounded the end of the Cold War. It's no wonder that it's regarded as one of the revival films for German cinema. Whether you're in the mood to just kick back or sink your teeth into something a bit heavier, Good Bye Lenin seems to balance these traits with the best of them. Simply, the Cold War never seemed quite so wonderfully innocent.

Feb 19, 2010

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

When lead singer David St. Hubbins deadpanned, "There's such a fine line between stupid and clever" I knew I was hooked. With the pitfalls and brief moments of success experienced by the band, there perhaps isn't a better quote to sum up the brilliance that is the rockumentary This is Spinal Tap.

The fictional metal group Spinal Tap was first brought to the big screen by fictional director Marty DeBergi (Rob Reiner) in 1984's This is Spinal Tap. I first saw it back in 2002, and at the time didn't have much of an idea what a mockumentary (fake documentary) really was. Shows like The Office and Reno911 now have the format down to a science, and even Christopher Guest, who plays one of the members of Spinal Tap, went on to star in and direct popular fake-docs like 2000's Best in Show and 2006's For Your Consideration.

It's without question that part of my love for This is Spinal Tap comes from its historical context - how it was one of the first mainstream attempts at the mock-genre, how it fused comedy with profound themes about identity and misogyny in rock/metal culture, and how along with mocking and playing into the stereotypes of rockstars, actually managed to create a successful/memorable group (outside of the movie Spinal Tap actually toured briefly).

I remember back in 2003 I wrote an essay about the film for a documentary studies class, commenting on Tap's handling of themes like sexuality, masculinity, and pop culture in general. My paper may have just been an excuse to watch the movie over and over again to call it research, but there is a message. Spinal Tap's charm and some of the most insightful moments come from the groups social commentary about their own position (raising questions like are rockstars really supposed to be role models?). These messages are delivered in an often blunt and precarious manner leading to laugh after laugh (as the group shows, a life of excess often makes it difficult to stay grounded enough for anyone to take you seriously).

Complications for the group revolve around their failing US tour, a racy new album cover, a Yoko-esque girlfriend, problems in management, and a series of mishaps on stage. It's an homage to rock history and the struggles that have plagued hundreds of groups. As a fan of almost all music, I found it easy to get sucked into this realistic world inhabited by characters desperate to fulfill their unrealistic expectations.

The boys of Tap are generally quite content in their bubble, but the realities of the world outside the tour bus seem to overwhelm them as every problem is merely a symptom of a much larger and ongoing conflict. They just want to live 'the dream', but little hiccups (which continue to snowball into bigger ones) keep interrupting. The documentary format allows for some great improvisation and banter, and although it's staged it comes across as relatively honest and revealing. You may not respect the group, but you do come to feel for them.

In yet another set back, the manager declares, "They're not going to release the album, because they've decided the cover is sexist" to which bandmate Nigel replies, "What's wrong with being sexy?".

The layers of the film are fun to explore. The history of the group is well established from their flower-child start in the sixties to their later transition into metal in the late seventies and early eighties. With brief interviews about their various albums and transitions, their lust for the stereotypical rock'n roll lifestyle ultimately comes into question and addresses how important the music really is.

Throughout this back story a recurring joke continues to pop-up about the band's past drummers, who only ever last a few years because of completely random and haphazard deaths. In an interview with DeBergi, Nigel recalls the passing of one drummer and quips, "You can't dust for vomit".

And who can forget the ever popular, "but this goes to eleven, it's one louder" from the hilarious interview scene between Nigel and DeBergi. Delievered with the confidence (or rather ignorance) of a rockstar, the scene in which DeBergi gets a demo of some of the bands equipment only reaffirms that nothing is ever easy to explain when it comes to sex, drugs, and rock'n roll.

If you have a love of music, or really, just a love of comedy it seems hard to go wrong with Tap. For all that the film did in paving the way for the mock-doc genre, for it's comment on rock culture, for it's own strong contributions to music (the soundtrack is also full of original and brilliant material), and for the wit and ignorant charm delivered by the boys of the group, This is Spinal Tap is undoubtedly in my rock, and movie hall of fame.

If you happen to pick up the DVD be sure to listen to the commentary track where the boys explain (in character) how DeBergi edited the film to make them look bad. It's like a brand new movie to hear them comment on the experience of being filmed.

"But enough of my yack'n, let's boogie!"