STUFF I HADN'T SEEN BEFORE
An American Werewolf in London (John Landis)
This was a fantastic experience. The film is great, an intoxicating blend of hilarious humor and terrifying horror. Those two element intensify each other, and the result is a very satisfying film. The music, which consists of mysteriouso cues by Elmer Bernstein and songs about the moon, is very witty.
The DVD was really nice. Although the picture got grainy from time to time, it was nothing out of the ordinary for a film of this vintage and budget. The remixed DTS 5.1 track was great, adding an extra element of fear to several scenes, most notably David Naughton and Griffin Dunne being stalked by a wolf on the moors at the beginning; there is no telling where that howl will come from next...
One unsettling aspect of the DVD was the inclusion of a 1981 featurette on the making of the film. Director John Landis, a former stuntman, performs in the Piccadilly Circus scene at the end. Landis says, "No stunt is worth dying for." While Landis' talent at making people laugh is never in dispute, his negligence that caused the deaths of Vic Morrow and two children on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie has haunted his career since, and the unwitting reference to it here adds an uneasy element to the package.
Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow)
I didn't really warm up to this picture. Although competently made, the essential allure of being a vampire, and therefore immortal, is undercut by the scruffiness and filth of the lives of the nosferatu depicted in this film. Adrian Pasdar's inner conflict doesn't really wash, and there isn't too much chemistry between him and Jenny Wright, although a deleted scene (shot with infrared film) included on the DVD is better than anything that appears in the film.
Tangerine Dream's score is suitably bland.
Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron)
Now, this is more like it. The performances are excellent, the sex is hot, the photography is awesome. In the best tradition of the road movie, the characters are delved into further and further as they get farther from their starting point. This is a film about penetration, both physically and psychologically.
All I can say is to see it. The characters are fresh and the filmmaking is inventive, and the conversations have a crackle to them reminiscent of the best banter from His Girl Friday (but in Spanish).
Tombstone (George Pan Cosmatos)
Before I sat down to see this, my friend Tim mentioned that I would do well to watch Kurt Russell's performance in this film. He said that Val Kilmer is great in the showier role of Doc Holliday, but that Russell's understated Wyatt Earp was a tour de force in its own right. Not surprisingly, his analysis was correct. The film needed a rock for its center, and Russell provides that rock, his natural amiability and confidence lending the role a a certain depth that would not have been there otherwise.
Actually, the entire cast in this film is fantastic, with standout work being done by Sam Elliot and Powers Boothe. The only false note struck is Dana Delany, who seems out of place here.
I rented the 2 disc set of this film, and the presentation is excellent, with one of the crispest and colorful picture transfers I have ever seen (the film's color scheme, which is a direct contrast to the sepia-styled "pseudo-daguerreotype" images Westerns usually have, is a major element in its aesthetic), and the DTS audio delivers Bruce Broughton's powerhouse of a score, which is sort of the dark side of his euphoric Silverado music.
Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
I hadn't seen this one in years, and it was even better than I remembered it. As soon as I saw it, I thought of it as Quentin Tarantino's most focused work. Now, when many of the themes explored in the film are a bit closer to my personal experience, I have to say that it is one of the few films that truly improves with each viewing.
Of course, Robert Forster's quiet performance as Max Cherry anchors the film, but Samuel L. Jackson's Ordell is a very interesting mess of contradictions. Dismissed by Melanie (Bridget Fonda) as being nothing more than a two-bit hood, Ordell is actually a very shrewd businessman (he does have a lot of money) who has looked at life and seen possibilities. If he is feeding off of human weakness, then so are many others, and his attitude towards Cherry (an unstated respect when Cherry refuses to take the racial bait) is a reference to that.
Tarantino also distinguishes himself with his use of music. What the characters listen to give you a hint as to what they are feeling, of course, but Tarantino gets the audience as entranced by the Delfonics, for instance, as Max Cherry gets.
American Beauty (Sam Mendes)
This film was one I loved when I first saw it. I hadn't seen it since, and I am glad because it made the experience fresh for me when I saw it again.
On this viewing, my second, Thora Birch was a revelation. I am surprised that she has not done too much since this film; her performance is masterful. She portrays a character who is discovering herself. Her feelings and thoughts run deep, but she keeps them in check with a frivolous exterior in public. The film depicts her growing relationship with Ricky (Wes Bentley) as being a reaction to his honesty as well as a connection on a deep level.
In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman mentions that he had a hard time with the end of this film...
...when Lester (Kevin Spacey) decides he is not going to have sex with Angela (Mena Suvari). I was surprised by this, because it was an element of the film that absolutely rang through as true to me.
Lester is not entranced by the actual person that Angela is, but rather the image that she projects at all times. When she tells him that it is her first time, that bubble is burst, along with all of his images. The fantasy sequences show how Lester thinks of her, and when she is finally revealed, he no longer sees her as a woman and a sexual being, but rather the timid child she really is.
Angela is a representation of the child/whore image that is currently very popular, as seen with the popularity of Brittany Spears and Christina Aguilera; they project images of unbridled but unattainable sexuality.
Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes)
This film is what "The Newman Factor" refers to. I saw this film in the theater, and the thought of revisiting it again was one that was very exciting to me. There are two things that made me most excited about seeing the film again... the performance of Paul Newman and the score by Thomas Newman.
Paul Newman's role as John Rooney is a classic example of modulated performance. He communicates so much with so little, allowing the economy of his bearing to tell the viewer more about the character than any amount of scenery-chewing could hope to.
Thomas Newman's music is the culmination of many threads in his career, most obviously his unique "Americana" sound, formerly essayed in such works as Fried Green Tomatoes, The Shawshank Redemption, Little Women, The Green Mile and The Horse Whisperer. The quiet, hypnotic strains for strings and piano take over the film several times, most notably in the final confrontation between Michael Sullivan Sr. (Tom Hanks) and John Rooney.
What struck me about my excitement was that it brought out how an extra element of appreciation exists for a well-made film by film score enthusiasts. In addition to the aspects of the movie appreciated by everybody, film buffs will also mention an effective score or photography; film music buffs will go even deeper, analyzing how the score works with the film. In a case like Road to Perdition, Paul Newman's lauded performance would have been an element of the film that anybody watching the film would have noticed, while Thomas Newman's achievement is something only film score fans would really pay attention to (although the score is effecting the reaction of everybody who watches the film). I hereby deem this element of my obsessions "The Newman Factor." I will no doubt refer to it again.
Tom Hanks is great in the film, playing (thankfully) against type, and Tyler Hoechlin as Michael Sullivan Jr. is a great find. I must say, however, that the other major star of the film is veteran cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, who also worked with Sam Mendes on American Beauty, the DVD of which has an hourlong discussion of what they did on that film. It is with Road to Perdition, however, that he has found a perfect vehicle for his instincts for elegiac moments and muted colors. Too bad both films were shot in the Super 35 format, but Hall apparently watchdogs the film through the printing stage, so the anamorphic theatrical prints of American Beauty and Road to Perdition didn't look as flat and grainy as most films do that were shot in that format.
It is to Sam Mendes' credit that he understands what the contribution of such artists as Thomas Newman and Conrad Hall can do for a film and allows them the freedom to create.
Incidentally, this DVD makes one wonder what, exactly, the fuck is up with Dreamworks Home Video. There have been not one, not two, but three different editions of this film on DVD. There is a pan-and-scan Dolby Digital edition with special features, and widescreen Dolby Digital edition with special features and a widescreen DTS edition with less special features. Why do those of us with the capacity for high-end reproduction have to compromise either on sound quality or on added value material?