Friday, September 20, 2013

Chaplin * * * 1/2

Charlie Chaplin grew up impoverished in England. After his mother was committed multiple times to an insane asylum, the teenage Chaplin got a job in theater and was a comic success in Vaudeville type shows. After getting a chance to tour the United States a couple of times, he was offered a job as bit player in a fledgling movie company. It was here that he invented his Little Tramp character and quickly became an international sensation. At the time, he was possibly the most famous man in the world. Around 1920 he co-founded the United Artists movie studio with a few other actors including Douglas Fairbanks. This gave him complete creative control over his movies and he directed films that are now considered classics, like The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights, The Great Dictator, and Limelight.

Chaplin used the last 6 minutes of The Great Dictator to express his political views, calling for peace just before the United States got involved in World War II. Although the ending is now considered great, it wasn't well received at the time. Chaplin was being increasingly political and many people viewed him as extreme left wing. By the early 1950’s the Red Scare was causing some people in the government to think that Chaplin was a communist. Chaplin had further problems in the 1940’s because he was involved in sex scandals, which angered many Americans. Chaplin had never become an American citizen, and when he took a vacation to Europe in 1952, he was told that that he would not be readmitted to the United States. Chaplin could have fought this easily, but instead made a statement that he no longer wanted to live in such a hateful country. He moved to Switzerland where he lived for the rest of his life.

Chaplin continued to make movies. Charlton Heston worked with him in the 1960’s, and described Chaplin as unpleasant to work with.

In 1972 the aging and ailing Chaplin was invited back to the United States to receive a special Oscar at the Academy Awards. In 1975 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. He died in 1977 at the age of 89.

The 1991 movie called simply “Chaplin” received mixed reviews because many critics felt that it focused too much on Chaplin’s personal life and not enough on his creative genius. I feel that it does both rather well. Chaplin lead a long, complicated, colorful and controversial life and this movie tries to hit all the major points, which makes the film feel rushed. You almost need a road map to understand all the things that happened in Chaplin’s life. The man had multiple relationships, 4 marriages, a large number of children, and he lost a paternity suit over a child that was most likely not his.

It is hard for me to dislike this movie because I am such a big Charlie Chaplin fan.

A very young Robert Downy Jr does a splendid job of playing Chaplin. He does the physical comedy so well that it creates the illusion that you are seeing the real Charlie Chaplin. The movie also features the fine acting talents of Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, Kevin Kline, and David Duchovney. Charlie Chaplin’s daughter, Geraldine Chaplin, does an extraordinary job playing her grandmother.

The movie does a good job of showing how Chaplin’s motivations derived from early unpleasant experiences in his life. It also does a good job of recreating early 20th century America.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

World War Z * * *

Certain characteristics of zombie movies:

1. Sooner or later in all zombie movies you will see a hoard of zombie-infected humans chasing normal humans. World War Z adds a new twist to this by having some very suspenseful scenes where the healthy humans try to quietly sneak past a hoard of zombies.

2.  Most of the older zombie movies have zombies who shuffle slowly.  The more modern zombies run very energetically after the humans.

3. All the George Romero zombie movies have the zombies resurrect from the dead.  That isn't very believable, so I prefer the alternative idea explored in 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks later, I am Legend, The Last Man on Earth, Zombieland, The Crazies and The Omega Man, where the zombie condition is simply a insanity causing disease, possibly a human form of rabies or mad cow disease that is spread from person to person.  World War Z seems to take both approaches.

4. The zombie condition can be spread to healthy humans, usually through a bite.  This leads to the concept of a Zombie Apocalypse where the zombie disease spreads so rapidly that it quickly overtakes most of the human race.  Most zombie movies are really just post apocalyptic movies.

In some movies, like 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks later, and World War Z, the infected person turns into a zombie in just a few seconds.  Although that is completely unbelievable, it does allow World War Z to have a couple of interesting scenes where a very large crowd of people become completely infected in mere minutes.

5. All the George Romero zombie movies and 28 Days Later explore the idea that despite the Zombie Apocalypse, man's greatest enemy is still the other non-dead non-zombie humans. World War Z does not take this approach. Instead the movie is about the search for the cause of the epidemic.

6. All the George Romero zombie movies have some sort of deep social message, while many of the other movies just focus on action.

7.  Almost all zombie movies have various degrees of gory special effects, some of which are extreme.  World War Z is probably the least gory zombie movie I have seen.

I don't think that World War Z covers much new ground, but the special effects are terrific and movie does such an effective job of creating suspense that it is worth watching.  Despite this, I can find a number of details that I can nit pick:

1.  The opening scene shows a family preparing their kids for school.  The next scene shows the family in a car when the zombie epidemic breaks out.  The very next scene is already nighttime, which doesn't make much sense, so the best I can figure is that the family car scene must have taken place after the kids had returned from school.

2.  Since there are a number of scenes where people are either running from zombies or trying to not get noticed by zombies, this was starting to feel repetitious.

3.  The main character, played by Brad Pitt, does a lot of globetrotting, going from country to country looking for the cause of the epidemic, but he never makes any progress.  Furthermore, the movie states that you would have to find the source of the epidemic in order to treat it, but that is like saying that you couldn't find a way to treat AIDS without first finding patient zero.

4.  The characters come up with a way to camouflage humans from the zombies, which I didn't find very believable, but believability is not a word that I would associate with zombie movies.

5.  Some of the early action scenes seem to be deliberately confusing.

As far as I am concerned, the best zombie movies are...

 1.  28 Days Later
 2.  The Crazies
 3.  Dawn of the Dead (1978 version)
 4.  Zombieland (which is a comedy.)
 5.  I am Legend

However, the best zombie related drama might not be a movie, but The Walking Dead television series.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines * * * 1/2

The Place Beyond The Pines is a unique movie because the main character changes about 40% of the way through the film and it changes a couple more times toward the end.  At first this feels like a betrayal toward the audience, because having invested  our emotional interest in one character, the movie asks us to change our interest to someone else.  However, this works because of  nature of story which explores how a criminal act influences the lives of many people.

Telling you more would give away too much.  

The movie has a certain real feeling about it because it does not try to the rush the story, but instead lets the characters interact with each other in a casual way that feels authentic.  Some of the entertainment value comes from the mood of the film, although some people might feel that the pace is a little slow.  At 2 hours and 20 minutes, the movie does seem slightly long.

It is likely to be the most unusual movie I will see this year, but I think that it deserves credit for being different.  It also raises all sorts of questions about its meaning and message that left me scratching my head, but the film is oddly engaging in this way.  It is the kind of movie that people will talk about for a long time.

The movie is rated R mostly for frequent strong language and some drug use.  There is minimal violence and no nudity.