Friday, July 13, 2018

A Lifetime in Film: 1988 Introduction

The year was 1988. The Cold War had warmed up considerably by then and the so-called 'party decade' was festively winding down stateside. The political and cultural influences on cinema were reflected in the themes, emotions and messages of late 80's cinema. Going through a list of releases from that period, it's almost like we couldn't stop celebrating, but still needed something to celebrate. And yet, despite this conflicting canvas, few people view the 80's as the best decade of cinema - usually it's overshadowed by the solemn dramatic classics of the 70's and the modern, heady blockbusters of the 90's. 


Despite all of this, 1988 shines brightly even 30 years on, and you don't have to look too hard to find some real gems. Take Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing (clocking in at over 80 minutes, even still), a cold, calculated concoction that, some have gone as far as to say, may have actually changed the world. Credited in some circles with causing the Polish government to abolish the death penalty, Kieslowski's film is a harrowing taste of modernity at a time when we may not yet have been ready for such in-your-face, matter-of-fact depictions of society's violent tendencies. 

John Waters' Hairspray on the other hand seemingly came out at exactly the right time, and perfectly bookended the most adventurous part of his career as a director. One of his 'tamer' films, Hairspray was not just flashy 60's nostalgia. Waters created a perfect anti-racism fable that, not only fit the times, but would unfortunately stay current for years to come (witness the 2007 remake). 

Waters was just one of many filmmakers with career highlights in the year 1988. Another was the Greek auteur Theo Angelopoulos. While he had been a veteran of historical melodrama up to that point, it wasn't until 1988's release of Landscape In The Mista film designed to stop you in your tracks and fully consider what's really important about the concept of the 'road movie' - it's not the journey or the destination, but the meaning of the whole endeavor that really matters. Landscape in the Mist was so shockingly innovative in fact, that many forget it was released in the 80's. It's impossible that a film this contemplative (and technically stupendous) could be released at such an 'innocent' time for cinema. 

After all, it came out at around the same time as Ivan Reitman's high concept comedy Twins. For my money, Twins may be Reitman's most enjoyable comedy, if not his best film overall. Looking back on it now, one is amazed by how effortless the laughs are, how sharp the humor is, and how enjoyable the performers are to watch on screen. Reitman has made a career out of making endlessly rewatchable comedies and that is no easy feat. Twins is now looked down upon... Why? Part of the fun is that the jokes are easy, yet the actors still pull them off wonderfully on screen. 


Lastly, I want to bring up the perfect antidote to the comedic overtones of Twins - George Sluzier's chilling thriller The Vanishing. It's a film that fills the audience with an inescapable dread. A great example of the surprising power of Dutch cinema, The Vanishing is one of those films that will not sit right with the viewer after it's over. For some reason, this made-up story feels a lot more real than the sensationalized true-crime podcast-bait of today. In '88, before the internet made them easy to consume, these types of stories had an extraordinary haunting power over society.

And here is the best part, these films didn't make it to the Top 15 movies list that I'm going to chronicle as part of my attempt to sum up 1988 - the year that was in film. That's how good of an year it was - I'm actually proud it's my birth year! I can't wait to watch some 15 of the most important films that came out that year, starting with the Dan Aykroyd/John Candy classic (I hope) The Great OutdoorsSee you then.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

New Series: A Lifetime in Film


Having just turned 30, and wallowed in my own chaotic insecure delusions about it for a few days, I've decided that the best way to embark on this next part of my life is to go back to doing things that fulfill me as a human being. One of them is regular exercise (especially running) and the other is watching and yes, writing about, film. The archives of this blog show my love/hate relationship with movies (I love the good ones and could care less about the bad ones), and I hope to add on to them by starting a new blog series: A Lifetime in Film. 

I have decided to look back over my life so far through the unforgivably honest frame of cinema. What was the over-arching theme in film of 1988 vs that of 2008? How has the art and science of filmmaking changed over my lifetime? What are some of the most notable performances and filmmaking careers of the last 30 years? I could probably answer these questions by doing some online research, but there's no better way to learn about cinema than watching movies. So I've decided to watch 15 notable movies from each year that I have been alive, starting with 1988 and ending with 2018.

OK, that's 450 movies that I have to watch and write about. Even now I'm unsure of the success of this series, but I'm 30! And there is something about that number that says "Do something with your life! However trivial, let it be something!" So I will.

So how did I get to the final list of 15 movies for each year? Well let's just say by using plenty of "Top" lists from such websites like Letterboxd, IMDB, BoxOfficeMojo, and RottenTomatoes. In fact, I have only come up with the list of 15 for 1988, and I won't bother creating the 1989 list until I'm done writing about the 1988 films.

What you can expect from this series, is about 17 posts for each year. The first will introduce the year, briefly touch on some movies that just missed making it to the list of 15, and preview the first film of the series. I will not spoil all 15 films in the beginning, so that hopefully you the reader can keep coming back for more. Then, I will have a post for each individual film that I plan on writing shortly after my initial viewing. The structure of these individual posts may vary, but they may mix in a short review, some background on the film/filmmakers and a look back on the film's legacy. Lastly, I will wrap up each year, by picking my most and least favorite films, and gathering my thoughts on what the year's films contributed to the history and future of the cinematic art form. 

Thank you again for reading my blog! I look forward to going on this journey of a lifetime with you. I'm sure there will be highs and lows that only cinema can provide.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

TC Tribute #16: The Firm: B-

A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov

It doesn't take a long time to realize that Tom Cruise's 1993 John Grisham-adapted starrer The Firm gave the actor an opportunity to do something he hadn't so far in his illustrious (Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July) career - totally slum it. In fact this is as close as Tom Cruise ever got to being the 'bland, one-note' screen presence that his most ardent critics were already accusing him of. And yet The Firm remains a curious, if not unique choice for him to headline at a time when scripts were surely stacking up at his agent's office with no end in sight. Part thriller, part critique of the corrupt justice system, Sydney Pollack's (Havana) film strays very little from Grisham's original text, albeit trimming it so as to fit within a two and a half hour running time.

Sight unseen, there are some warning signs that this film may as well be a disaster, not the least of which is that extraordinarily lengthy running time. Yet Pollack's casting of the film wins us over with bit parts from the likes of Ed Harris, Gary Busey and the extraordinary Holly Hunter who inexplicably ended up being nominated for an Oscar for 6 minutes of screen time! And while 'spot your favorite character actor' is fun to play for a while, we need an interesting story to get into. Grisham's tendency to write mainstream consumerist mysteries is warning sign number two, and yet the adaptation by David Rabe (Casualties of War), Robert Towne (Days of Thunder), and David Rayfiel (also (Havana), plays with time in a way that, while cliched by today's standards, keeps the mind at attention. It's a guessing game all the way to the end, even as the film's villains are slowly revealed and the consequences of their ruthlessness are in full tragic display.

The acting is certainly up to par for this type of film. Cruise has always been a fan of surrounding himself with talent and he once again succeeds at doing that without being overshadowed. Jeanne Tripplehorn is equal parts beautiful and complicated, Gene Hackman is having a great time playing a role he can do in his sleep, and Hal Holbrook's performance lends the film an air of credibility rarely seen in a Grisham adaptations. I won't mention any more of the performances because the varied famous people in bit parts serve to alleviate the running length of this film.

Which inevitably brings me to the editing work done by father-son team Fredric and William Steinkamp. The Steinkamps' work has always been problematic. Their editing is the opposite of dynamic and frequently their films are longer than need be. The Firm is no exception. No other technical aspect deserves mention, except for the Oscar-nominated score by Dave Grusin which sounds terrible in the film. Grusin has always written scores for albums rather than films, and his ill-fitting work on The Firm is the most egregious example of this tendency.

Still, there is a lot to recommend here. A strong script and great acting by many screen favorites is usually enough to put any film on my good side, but add a strong dose of "Cruise control" and you have a pretty good film for a Sunday afternoon. Just make sure you set aside enough time to watch it all the way through to the end
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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

TC Tribute #15: A Few Good Men B+

A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov

It's difficult to look back on A Few Good Men with anything but fondness. In a way, it's not just a film - it's a representation of a now bygone era. It's the type of film your dad says "they don't make  anymore." What director Rob Reiner's film reminds me most of is a time when movies were not afraid of being preposterous and didn't always fall back on the safety net of subtlety, as most 21st century dramas do. I miss that time and I truly miss the era that brought us A Few Good Men.

Rob Reiner has never called attention to himself as a filmmaker and while that puts focus on the characters, it makes A Few Good Men oddly forgettable, especially for visually inclined viewers. Fortunately, the film is endlessly re-watchable  a testament to the excellent performances by it's three leads (Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson) and a very strong supporting cast that includes the likes of Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon. Also its story line is one that actually is fairly universal - name a decade that isn't filled with 'potential war crimes' headlines and news stories. The film's universality in appeal from a political and entertainment standpoint is a testament to the way it uses cliche to it's advantage.

Most people will be entertained by A Few Good Men. Some may hold it up as an example of unspoiled filmmaking - a nostalgic piece of Americana to be revisited regularly in the decades to come. I don't have an issue with either viewpoint, and as the credits rolled I realized that I'd been the witness of something truly rare - a film that doesn't strive for greatness, but despite the lack of effort, immeasurably achieves it.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

TC Tribute #14: Far and Away B+

A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov

An idealistic blockbuster about the Irish immigrant struggle in late 19th century America, director Ron Howard's Far and Away has received an unfairly bad rap over the last decade. Long thought of as an overblown melodramatic epic, the film actually hides a fairly subtle message about class structure beneath all the scenic shots of the American countryside. For it was the coming of the immigrants in the late 19th century  that turned the US into a (less pronounced) "caste system", with the so-called 'aliens' dueling deep in the dark underbellies of the big cities.

Of course it would be simply untrue to call Far and Away a 'study' of those tumultuous times. Instead, Howard uses the tumult to provide the two main roles with plenty of character-building adventures and culture clashes. A good example is the film's prologue which portrays three rowdy but hardworking Irish brothers plowing their farm's land just before it is taken over by the Irish aristocracy in a tragic turn of events. This scene and the subsequent events that occur to main characters Joseph Donnelly (Tom Cruise) and Shannon Christie (Nicole Kidman) serve as a list of reasons why people immigrated to the US. The US wasn't simply the the Great White Light of the West, and in fact most Irish immigrants would have preferred not to have moved, but so often in these stories, people are running away from something, not going to anything.

Howard's film is anything but tightly constructed, as screenwriter Bob Dolman (Willow) leaves no stone unturned with his highly detailed script. Still, Howard never loses focus of the characters and either one of them is within the frame in almost every scene of the film. We find ourselves learning about the Irish culture through their experiences and confrontations, not through needless narration or exposition. Their love for one another is constantly challenged by the external nightmare they've been thrust into. Kidman's Christie is especially pitiful since she would have led a much more materialistically rewarding life had she stayed with her wealthy aristocratic family in Ireland. We are often made aware of that fact, most strongly when her wealthy family eventually shows up stateside in an attempt to take her back to Ireland.

Far and Away is many things, from a romantic drama to a survivalist tale and the fact that it works successfully within the various genres is not only a credit to Howard, but to the main performances as well. Cruise's Irish accent is certainly something to get past, but it isn't badly realized - we just aren't used to hearing him with the accent. The fact that he doesn't look Irish only exasperates the problem. Still, it is one of the more emotional performances of Cruise's career which is saying a lot, and it's nice to see his character have a true arch that we rarely get in big blockbuster movies. Kidman is less memorable as the spoiled rich girl who decides to throw it all away for love. As great an actress as she turned into later in her career (Eyes Wide Shut, Birth, many others) it's interesting to see her still mainly relying on her looks and charm in her early career. It's a smart move on her part, but the characterization suffers from it.

Overall, I can't help but recommend Far and Away. It's an astonishingly beautiful (shot in 65mm format), but gritty enough portrayal of the immigrant land rush inspired by the Manifest Destiny doctrine adapted in the 19th Century. This historical time period is strangely absent from current cinema, and the film refreshingly puts it front and center. Even if the players involved don't look back on the film as fondly as one would think, it's negative reputation is clearly overblown. It is indeed the perfect lazy Saturday afternoon movie