Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Fantasy #3 - It's a Wonderful Life (1947)

I love this movie. It's a Wonderful Life is the one where George Bailey is really nice but then he looses a lot of money and never followed his dreams, so he tries to commit suicide, but then an angel comes down from heaven and shows him what the world would be like if he'd never been born. The world is terrible, and the movie is about how one man's life affects a lot of people. There's a fine line between actually inspiring and cheesy, and to me this is actually inspiring. It's a Wonderful Life makes me cry every single time and that is good film making. I find that it makes me happy and gives me faith in my fellow man. You're right, Jimmy, I say to myself - It is a wonderful life. And it's nice when that's how a movie makes you feel.

I would definitely say this a great movie. I think the concept is very memorable and something about it very effective. It just really portrays its theme well and it doesn't have to spell everything out to you. It sticks with you; It makes you think to yourself "What would happen if I had never been born?"It's something that you can genuinely reflect on. There's a reason we see dozens upon dozens of parodies of this movie - The issue of whether or not we've had any effect on the world bothers everyone and it's a relatable motif - That's important in a story.

The storytelling in It's a Wonderful Life is really great - You get invested in the story and you follow the characters and it tells the tale it wants to get across. Even though the movie is specifically trying to deliver a moral, the story still manages to stand by itself, and unlike Miracle on 34th Street, it's characters are actually interesting, and entertaining. It doesn't really have a whole lot going for it as far as cinematography goes - I suppose the lack of snow in the alternate universe is a nice touch - but that doesn't really take away from the movie. It is a little bit old. The acting can be outdated and of course Mary's a librarian, but I don't think it really suffers. It's charmingly outdated at this point.

The best part of the movie, of course, is not only are the cop and cab driver named Bert and Ernie (and still friends in the alternate universe, which I love), but the evil banker's name is Henry Potter. And what's a nickname for Henry? Yeah - Harry. Coincidence?

An interesting observation: It's a Wonderful Life is sort of like a reversed A Christmas Carol. They both discuss divine intervention, what people think of you, poverty and the effect of people's pasts on their present - George Bailey and Scrooge even have similar jobs. What's interesting is that , besides the main characters, is the messages are different - A Christmas Carol says that people can change and grow, and It's a Wonderful Life says that people affect others' lives more than they think they do. Alright, fine. The real difference that while A Christmas Carol makes the point that things can get better, It's a Wonderful Life says that they're pretty fantastic already. A Christmas Carol is all like "Take action, change yourself, love your fellow man, form a union," and It's a Wonderful Life is like "Stop whining, you're fine. You have new dreams now." Those are almost exact opposites from fairly similar stories.

They're still very similar stories though - They have similar tones, both of them even rally against corporate greed and poverty, and talk about how it's important to help people. A Christmas Carol is written under the assumption that people don't understand this, and It's a Wonderful Life is written as if they do. I think the difference in perspective comes from the fact that A Christmas Carol is telling us that we need to be different and get to a place where people help each other, and It's a Wonderful Life is telling us that we're already there, and should keep doing what we're doing. I thought it was an interesting contrast.

Fantasy #5 - Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle on 34th Street is the one where Macy's hires a department store Santa Clause who thinks he's actually Santa. It's about fantasy and faith and trust and believing in the goodness in people's hearts and all that. It's very sweet and heartwarming. The guy who plays Santa (It's Edmund Gwenn) is really the best Santa ever, so you do root for him and believe in him, and the little girl, Tiny Natalie Wood, is charmingly adorable instead of just annoying, so that whole plot line is really interesting and engaging.

The romance subplot, however, with the mother and the lawyer/neighbor is sort of just boring and drags the whole movie on. It's definitely necessary, because that plot puts the Santa message in a more mature context, to make the movie connect more with adults, but it is not interesting. They are just not compelling charcters - I know the woman is serious and can't trust and I know the guy's...a lawyer? I can't even think of an actual personality trait that this character has. They are not little fake people that you love and connect with. They're just boring. This is a whole half of the movie that is no good - and look at how much of the poster they take up! It's disgusting!

Miracle on 34th Street is a nice Christmas movie. It's heartwarming and it fills you with joy and hope. The post office resolution doesn't really make any sense, but I think it's excusable because it's heavily implied that the judge is really giving in to the spirit of Christmas and public pressure. The religious overtones are obviously appropriate to the season. I really like the part when the little Dutch girl is absolutely delighted that Santa Clause can can understand her - I think that's really sweet. But I don't find this movie that impressive. Mostly because of the boring romance participants, but also because nothing stands out about it. It doesn't have great cinematography like Lawrence, it's not funny like Groundhog Day, it's not unique or innovative, it doesn't have any great performances or a really terrific story. It's not a great movie, but it is good. I guess.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Fantasy #7 - Harvey (1950)

Harvey is a Jimmy Stewart movie about Elwood P. Dowd, a man who is friends with a six foot three white rabbit named Harvey that only he can see. It's...very strange. Most of the plot comes from the fact that Elwood's sister and neice are terribly embarresed by Harvey, and want to have Elwood committed, but they run into trouble when there's a misunderstanding about who the crazy one is. Elwood's sister (Josephine Hull - who also played one of the aunts in Arsenic and Old Lace, fun fact) also sometimes sees Harvey, and throughout the movie, other people have encounters with the rabbit. One of the employees of the insane asylum, when looking up the definition of "Pooka" (It's some sort of spirit guide - that's what Harvey is) finds a message to him written in the encyclopedia - "How are you, Mr. Wilson?"

Harvey talks a lot about mental health - whether Elwood's really crazy, whether everyone else is crazy, whether Harvey exists, whether it's right to commit Elwood, whether it's ethical to change his personality to get rid of a single harmless abnormality. It's not what I expect from a movie from that time period. Elwood does seem genuinely sort of off, too. He goes through the same rituals with everyone he meets, he invites perfect strangers to dinner, he wont let people politely put off these invitations, he drinks a lot, he hangs out in the same place all the time. He's just not quite right. Between that and the way the existence of Harvey is treated (and filmed - Harvey is always in the frame, even though there's nothing there), this comes across to me as a very unique movie, especially for the 50's. I'm surprised that it got made then to be honest, and I'm not surprised that it's remembered.

There's also that really creepy portrait of Jimmy Stewart with the rabbit sitting behind him - I think that contributes to this movie's reputation a lot, because something about it gives the rest of the film just a slightly sinister ambiance. I think most would agree with me when I say that Harvey is a terrifying power (Who can stop time) who just happened to align himself with an unassuming man.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Fantasy #8 - Groundhog Day (1993)

Groundhog Day ended up being a much darker movie than I thought it was. I was, of course, familiar with the general plot, which has been blessed upon sitcoms ever since, but I had never seen the whole thing, just bits and pieces. I thought it was a much lighter comedy, like Ghostbusters. It is not like Ghostbusters. Groundhog Day has all kinds of suicides and existential questions and messages about how people hate you and sometimes homeless people just die and there's nothing you can do about it. It's a pretty intense movie experience.

So Groundhog Day is about Phil Connor (He's Bill Murray, in case you don't know), who is a jerk and a journalist who's reporting on Groundhog Day. One day he wakes up and it's still Groundhog Day. And then the next day is still Groundhog Day, and the next, and so on. I'm sure you're familiar with the concept. Usually I'm not a fan of these sort of plots because they tend to be, you know, repetitive, but this movie doesn't have this problem - it doesn't make the mistake of showing you the same footage over, and over and over again, thank heavens. It really explores all of the possibilities of living the same day over, which I haven't seen anyone do as well since.

Groundhog Day really does have a lot of pretty deep themes - It's about living each day like it's a lifetime (Subtle, right?), redemption and how people can change and grow and what's really living and I feel like there might be a theme about arrogance somewhere in there, and how much you can control - There's many layers of this film, many messages. Groundhog Day reminds of A Christmas Carrol - Divine (?) intervention causes a lonely caustic mean person to redeem them self. See - parallels. It also kind of reminds me of The Birds, if only because the main fantasy plot device is never explained at all, mostly because it's not important.

Now, as I'm writing this post, it becomes more and more obvious to me that I love this movie. I love how deadpan Bill Murray is, I love all of the bit characters, I love how the movie takes advantage of the humor you can get from repeating things, and I love that the day is Groundhog Day, the silliest holiday in existense. I found out that Woodstock, Illinois, the town where this movie was filmed, has little plaques in different places from the movie, like the place where Bill steps into the puddle, and now I want to go there. It's only six hours away. I think it's worth it.

Fantasy #9 - The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

So here’s the thing about movies – they don’t age well. Watching an old movie is not like reading an old book. Reading an old book is roughly the same experience as reading a modern one, but watching an old movie is totally different. Not only have acting and filming styles changed, but technology is miles and miles better now. We have better film, better sound, and better special effects. I know that a lot of people don’t think that you need technology to tell a good story and that good-old-fashioned elbow grease is far more effective and all that, but I just don’t think that’s true. Not in movies, anyway. A really old movie is just not going to measure up to a more recent one, simply because of the restrictions of the technology. Half of movies is how good they look, and a movie that does not look good is not going to be able to effectively tell its story in such a visual medium.

This is slightly less of an issue with The Thief of Bagdad, though. Not because it looks good, because it doesn’t, but because technology is the least of its problems. The Thief of Bagdad is a silent movie and it is weird. I cannot believe that movies got as popular as they did without sound. It is not a fun movie experience. It forces people to mime, it doesn’t allow for real, subtle acting – everything has to be big – and it makes the characters really hard to tell apart. Obviously, at the beginning of movies, the actors weren’t that important to movie makers. I can’t see how they could have been.

I guess my point is that this is simply not a sophisticated movie. Not in story - the beginning is an Aladdin-esque love story and the second half is very…video-game-y, of all things. You have guides and little objects to gather and monsters to fight, it was very strange – not in acting, not in themes or visuals. When I compare this movie to the other films in the project, it just doesn’t have the same amount of depth or thought put into it. It doesn’t have as much to say, or hardly any symbolism. What they put on the screen is all there is to this movie. It was charming for…twenty minutes, maybe? But then it just kept going. This movie was over two hours long.

I just cannot comprehend why the American Film Institute thought this movie needed to be on this list. Maybe because Douglas Fairbanks is in it? Because it’s old? Is it…the Pegasus? I don’t get it. I can tell you that this movie has virtually nothing on the rest of this entire list.

Crisis Averted - An Interlude

The worst thing nearly happened to me my friends - I nearly had to switch to WordPress. WordPress. Blogger was simply not cooperating with me, as Blogger is want to do (...I've been reading a lot of British literature lately), but WordPress is ugly and confusing. Blogger has birds on it - You know, like The Birds, the classic movie - and everything was already here. I was panicked - I didn't want to have to move every single post to a new blog and lose my lovely birds. I didn't know what to do - that's, uh, that's what's been holding up my updates for so long. That's it. Not simple procrastination - that would be silly, especially since I now have little less than a year an more than 70 movies.

Anyway, turns out all I had to do was switch to Firefox.

Fantasy #10 - Big (1988)

In Big, a kid, fed up with his childhood, makes a wish to a carnival fortune-telling machine. He wishes that he was "big." As in, grown up. The next morning, he wakes up as Tom Hanks, gets a job at a toy company, falls in love, and spreads the joy of child-like innocence. And it has that piano scene.

Big is about the contrast between adults and children, creativity, and innocence. Tom Hanks is superb in it, and really bizarrely young, but the rest of the cast didn't stand out to me at all. I like the storyline and I thought the themes were really strong and I really liked the piano scene, that was really fun. I thought that they had the kid acting a little younger than he actually was, but that was the only thing that stood out to me as a significant flaw.

Big is...okay. It was definitely a good movie, and I was entertained, but it didn't really make a big (heh) impression on me or stick with me or anything like that. I wasn't left thinking about Big after the movie was over. It was just sort of two hours later. I don't have that much to say about Big. Nice movie, not a waste of time, well-acted, but it was definitely not a movie that I would call great or innovative or anything special. It's alright.