Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Greatest Trailers of All Time: MIRACLE ON 34th STREET

One of the great things about old trailers is how so many of them went out of their way to emphasize how different and unique the films were, even if the opposite was true. There's no better example than the trailer for George Seaton's beloved classic MIRACLE ON 34th STREET, a wonderful film, no doubt, but not one that we think of bizarre and unclassifiable.

Part of the reason for the unusual (but effective) concept of the trailer was to hide the fact that MIRACLE ON 34th STREET is a Christmas picture, since Fox opened the film in May 1947 (actually 62 years as of this Saturday), apparently because Zanuck argued that it would do better in the summer (he was right - it was one of the biggest hits of '47). I love the idea about how it's a film that's so unclassifiable that the studio doesn't know how to sell it ("Is it a romantic love story? Is it an exciting thriller? Is it a hilarious comedy? Make up your minds!"), but it's the word of mouth (supplied by such Fox contract stars as Rex Harrison, Anne Baxter, Peggy Ann Garner and Dick Haymes) that really sells the picture, so no matter what season it is, it's a film worth seeing. It would all be laughable if it were any movie other than MIRACLE ON 34th STREET, but since it really is all those things they describe it as (I had no idea that "groovy" was around back in '47), you've got to let it pass. This is one of the few classic movies that really lives up to it's classic trailer:

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"I Was Hiding Under Your House Because I Was Scared and Because I Love You" - Pete Docter and Bob Peterson's UP

Whenever a new Pixar movie comes around and everyone struggles with superlatives to praise it, they usually tend to focus on one element, lest they sound like they're merely repeating their review of the previous Pixar film. RATATOULLIE has the best script; FINDING NEMO has the best design; WALL-E is the most artistic; CARS is the least good, ect. With their latest film UP, the point of praise is going to be pretty easy, as it's easily the funniest Pixar film to date. The ads may be selling UP as a fantasy/adventure, and it certainly has those elements, but what everyone will be talking about afterwords will be the comedy, and justifiably so. Some of the biggest laughs I've had in a movie in the last few years are in UP, and like any great comedy I find myself looking forward to seeing it again in order to see what I missed when I was laughing so damn much.

My favorite Pixar film to date remains MONSTERS, INC., which was also directed by Docter, and the two share remarkably dense, clever and creative screenplays (this one written by Peterson, Ronnie del Carmen, and an uncredited Thomas McCarthy) to their immense credit. With both pictures they're populating these worlds with not just memorable characters, but unique ones - all of them funny and fresh and unlike most anything you see in movies these days - and then go wild with them. The best example (and my favorite, as evidenced by the accompanying pictures) is unquestionably Dug, the talking dog (voiced by Peterson), who is one of the most charming, lovable and unique characters to come along in most any movie in a long time. I got to see a rough version of the opening 45 minutes of UP at last December's Butt-Numb-A-Thon, and not knowing very much about the picture I was delighted when Dug popped up and had hoped that the filmmakers would keep him and some of his most hilarious moments ("Squirrel!") out of the public eye until the film's opening. Well, if you've seen the film's trailer then you know that idea has gone to hell, and even though the cat (or dog) is out of the bag, I'm still a little reluctant to go into detail as to just what makes Dug so great. But I will say this: Docter and Peterson have created the first movie dog that I can remember that personifies just why dogs are so great in the first place. The unrequited love and affection they give, their excited and inquisitive nature and their honesty and devotion are much of what I love about dogs, and I see all of that here in Dug. He feels to me like what a real dog would say if he could talk (or if his thoughts could be read), and on top of all that, Peterson does a wonderful job voicing him, and his line readings are so hilariously perfect in many cases that Dug may very well be my favorite Pixar character of all. What's also wonderful about him is just how unexpected his presence in the picture is; at no point are you expecting a talking dog to pop up, and when he does, you're wondering jst where they'll go with it, so the fact that he makes UP so wonderful is, to me, a true testament to the creativity if Docter and Peterson. I haven't had a childlike reaction to a movie character like this in ages, but I think that says something about Dug, and I also think it's quite likely that many others will soon feel the same once they see him.

Something else that's refreshing about UP is in how it restores the simple sense of fun and adventure back into Pixar's filmmaking. The last few Pixar films have all been ambitious to a fault, as if they knew that by being Pixar movies they all had to be something other than mere entertainments and had to say something "important" to prove their worth. UP is just fun, plain and simple, though it is by no means lightweight or insignificant, and by not taking itself too seriously it's actually Pixar's best in a while. It's not heavy-handed, self-important or cloying, it's just a well-told yarn that gives off nothing but 100% entertainment and leaves you with a big 'ol smile on your face. There are definitely moments of poignancy (especially at the beginning) and through the sheer likability of the characters it proves it's got a lot of heart to go along with the laughs. Anyone who knocks this for not being WALL-E is exactly the type that this picture mocks, those who can't truly live and enjoy life. Yes, there are a lot of movies about fulfilling your dreams and have an adventure no matter what your age, but so many of them are phony and half-hearted, while UP is one of the few that truly seems to get it. Everything this movie accomplishes it does so because it feels totally genuine and heartfelt, and it doesn't condescend to the audience in any way. UP is exactly how you feel when you leave the theater and how you remember the film long afterwords, and it's going to stay that way with you for a long time. Squirrel!

Monday, April 20, 2009

No More Room in Hell: 30 Years of George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD

I grew up in a world of civil servants. My father was a fireman (later a fire chief) and my mother, after having brought up us Kiernan kids, went back to work as a receptionist at a local hospital. Most everyone in my parent’s social circles, be they friends or relations, worked for counties or townships and served the people more than they did themselves – cops, medics, other firemen, telephone men, gas workers, even priests. They all made decent livings and, most importantly of all, were decent people, those who could be depended upon when you needed help, the kind of people who were (are still are) the backbone of America. I’d never met any kind of intellectuals or liberal hippie types growing up; everyone was what you would classify as middle class (the working middle class in this case), and they were never the type to talk trash about the government, have key parties or discuss Moliere, because they simply weren’t those kind of people. It was a good childhood, and although I knew early on it was not a life that I could live for myself, it gave me a core set of values and ideals that I keep with me through this day, along with a respect for those who do the kind of work that my parents and their friends did. It takes a certain kind of person to run into a burning building, chase a purse snatcher or give someone CPR, and I’m proud to say that I’ve known people like this all of my life and can call some of them family. But rarely do I ever see them portrayed convincingly on a movie screen.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I first sat down to watch George A. Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD on January 17, 1985. I knew it was a zombie movie, I knew it was set in a shopping mall, but that was about it, and Romero’s zombie epic hit me like a ton of bricks. Going beyond all the elements that have made it so popular over the years – the gore, the zombies – DEAD OF THE DEAD was a major revelation to me because (and granted, I’d seen a lot of fantasy-type stuff that appealed to kids of the era before it), it was honestly the first time I’d ever seen an existence like the one I knew of in a movie. The characters in DAWN OF THE DEAD all felt like people I knew in one way or another, and they acted like real people to me, too. The choices they made were the kind that honest, decent people made only in the name of survival and their actions were worth rooting for because of the good people they were. In most similar-type genre movies that I’d seen before it was usually the scientist or the military man who were the lead characters, but here it was cops and helicopter pilots who were people I understood, even related to. Anyone one of them could be my dad, my uncle, a neighbor, anyone I grew up with, and I felt I could follow them through this adventure as a fellow survivor of the oncoming apocalypse and be alright. I knew these people had my back and I'd have theirs, too, even giving my life up to ensure their survival if I had to. And it should go without saying that I absolutely understood the appeal of holding up in a shopping mall. Those places were special to me at the time, the kind of place you went to only on weekends, special occasions or during the holidays, and whenever you did, you’d find something new, something cool. Not just a place to buy stuff, but another town to visit, all bunched together with a roof over it where it would never get too cold or too hot. Beyond just the whole consumer culture satire (which I definitely got), the mall setting remains part of the genius of DAWN because it made the film something everyone could understand and relate to. After all, when all hell breaks loose, who wouldn’t think of holding themselves up in the local mall?

It’s this element about DAWN that is the one reason I believe it’s endured for so long; DAWN OF THE DEAD reaches beyond class systems to become a film that can appeal to most anyone. Romero understands the working class of America better than most any American filmmaker I can think of, and he made a film that showed the bravery and will of these folks in a manner that was completely respectful and honorable. But the film is also very smart, quite clever, and emotionally powerful at points (its many effective shifts from extreme horror to comedy to action to sometimes tender drama can leave a stunning effect on the viewer), so much so that it can admired by intellectuals and even film critics (well, some film critics). And if you’re not that bright then, yeah, it’s as gory as fuck and has a lot of zombies getting blown up and shit, so it’s definitely a picture that can be appreciated with several brews in ya, no question. While you might not look at it as a picture that requires you to think, even dumb folks tend to think about what it says it afterwords, and I think that's saying something, and when you talk about films that have universal appeal, DAWN OF THE DEAD isn’t brought up enough, but it damn well should be. Yes, certain elements seem a little dated (specifically Tom Savini’s makeup FX, so revolutionary back in 1979, but have been outdone by many, even Savini) and it’s not quite as technically proficient as many other great films can be (seen theatrically, Michael Gornick’s cinematography contains so many out of focus shots that it’s sometimes embarrassing to watch). But it’s brilliantly edited by Romero and scored with a perfect selection of Romero-chosen library music and a score by Goblin for an effect that still makes DAWN a one-of-a-kind film experience for me. I look at DAWN OF THE DEAD as being 100% unique and original (amazing when you consider it’s a sequel!), a film that hit upon something in the American psyche that we still carry with us, a crystallization of both what makes us great and what’s wrong with us at the same time, about how the world is going to end due to our own self gratification. It’s not a hopeful film in the end, but it’s still, in an odd way, also a celebration of those people in this country and in this world who are good and decent and are going to be swept up by all this when the shit goes down, as tremendously humane film a film as it is a violent one (and it's pretty damn violent). I doubt anyone would have anticipated that when DAWN OF THE DEAD opened 30 years ago today that not only would we still be talking about it, but that it would be a film whose relevance hasn’t faded one bit. The fact that we are, however, says less about shitty state of the world or movies than it does the power and the greatness of George Romero as a filmmaker. He understands us better than many of us do ourselves, and he brings us to places that we may not want to go, but probably will eventually. This is just part of what makes DAWN OF THE DEAD not only the greatest American horror film of all time, but one of the great American films of all time. And it will most likely outlive us all.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I Heart Zooey Deschanel - Marc Webb's 500 DAYS OF SUMMER

If you are a heterosexual male with a brain and a pulse, chances are you have a crush on Zooey Deschanel. Since I happen to be such, I do indeed a big ol' crush on Ms. Deschanel, and what I'm talking about here is a crush - nothing more, nothing less - and no reason to call the cops or hire bodyguards or anything. Yes, I'm fully aware that she's engaged to the lead singer from Death Cab For Cutie (lucky bastard), so this is but a mere distant appreciation, but I happen to think she's the bee's knees. I really don't know just what that expression means (honestly makes no sense), but it's meant to denote a certain admiration in a person, and since I also happen to admire Ms. Deschanel for her works as an actress and as a singer on top of her external loveliness, the bee's knees it is, unless I find out that it's not meant to be complimentary. How about I just call her a vision of loveliness and leave it at that?

My feelings for Ms. Deschanel have come to the forefront thanks in part to her starring role opposite Joseph Gordon Levitt in 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, which recently screened as the closing film at the SXSW Film Festival here in Austin. In as such that Zooey Deschanel represents a fantasy girl for men who like smart women, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER feeds off that fantasy by giving us the ultimate scenario of meeting Zooey Deschanel, finding out she likes the same music we like (The Smiths!), discovering that we have a lot in common and that she really is the coolest, smartest and all-around prettiest girl to ever walk the earth. She's hip without trying to be hip and lovely and charming in a 100% natural kinda way, the ultimate early 21st Century dream girl. Like in any other movie romance you need people who you can fall in love with, too, and for my money Ms. Deschanel unquestionably fits that bill, and I suppose if you're a young lady then Mr. Gordon Levitt will likewise suffice, and he makes for a good surrogate for the young men in the audience with Zooey crushes. I have been told that there are some (stupid people, mostly) who are not quite as bewitched by Zooey Deschanel as others are, who find her acting ability lacking and her musical skills wanting, and all I can say to them (aside from, "Are you a fucking moron?") is that they are probably not the target audience for 500 DAYS OF SUMMER and they should probably steer clear. But for the rest of us, this picture is pretty much cinematic Zooey catnip, the sensitive young man's equivalent of a Nora Ephron click flick, although this one is actually good. Directed with much creative energy by music video vet Marc Webb, it's definitely a picture with its heart in the right place and a pretty good feel for many ups and down of young love. It's also got a sense of whimsy to it that I liked in the end, though I suspect others won't take to it, working overtime to throw caution to the wind and be a film that captures a feeling more than a thought, and it's admirable in how sincere it is in trying to do that. More than just getting you to remember what it's like to fall in love and have your heart broken, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER wants you under its spell so it can do that to you, too, and its secret weapon is, no surprise, Zooey Deschanel, and no surprise, it worked on me, though I guess I'm a sucker for it.

Still, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER may not perhaps be a defining film of its generation but it is one that the generation can certainly be proud of. But it does seem to catch the spirit of the moment, at least as best as I can summarize, feeling like a 2009 kinda movie through and through, though I hope that doesn't date it in another 5 to 10 years. And Zooey (we're on a first name basis now) is a vital part of that, the character of Summer being as sweet and lovely and bright and creative a young lady as one would ever hope to meet and fall in love with. Perhaps the character of Summer isn't anywhere close to the real Zooey Deschanel, but it doesn't matter. The real Zooey is indeed young, talented, and unquestionably beautiful in a natural and unforced way, but wherever Zooey ends and Summer begins (if they ever meet at all) it feels like the person you think she is or want her to be, which is kinda what movies are all about. No doubt Zooey Deschanel will go on to many more roles in the years to come and will eventually prove herself to be more than just the character of Summer, but for this moment in time, Summer she is and that's just right for all concerned. It is, in a sense, an ideal Summer movie.