194-195: The War Room, There Will Be Blood

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194: The War Room

Political documentaries tend to often be very polished and dictated by the rules of the party the documentarian is following. The War Room is a different kind of beast and probably one of the last of its kind. It started out as a simple doc following the managers of Bill Clinton’s campaign to become the President of the United States. At that time he was considered to be an outsider, some redneck from Arkansas who didn’t stand a chance in the highest political arena imaginable. As time moved on Clinton started to grow into a political force to be reckoned and the people behind the scenes and their unorthodox way of working became something of legend. The War Room tells their triumphant story and it is totally riveting. It is hard to put my finger on what it is that’s so compelling about it. Is it the unlikely friendship between the manic passionate James Carville and the calm calculated George Stephanopoulos? Is it the unprecedented look behind the scenes of a political campaign? Probably both. The War Room will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the last truly honest depictions of political maneuvering.

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195: There Will Be Blood

Something very strange happened the first time I watched There Will Be Blood. All through the opening sequence I heard a very annoying piece of music that was totally out of whack with the original soundtrack. It was very distracting, but I powered through. I found There Will Be Blood to be a very powerful piece of work even if the first sequence still bothered me at the end. For years I dreaded returning to Paul Thomas Anderson’s opus, just because of that experience. Now, years later, I returned to There Will Be Blood and miraculously the opening was devoid of any annoying double soundtracks and it was a lot better than the first time I watched it. Now I could take in this brilliant movie from A to Z without distractions and what an experience it is. Daniel Day Lewis’ performance is compelling as anything he has ever done, the photography by Robert Elswit is spellbinding and the music by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is hypnotic and the conclusion will have you reeling in your seat. I still think Magnolia is Anderson’s best, most complete movie, with There Will Be Blood a strong second.

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181-184: Harry Potter Marathon, Part 2

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And here we are at the other end of our Harry Potter marathon and I must say that it hasn’t been the chore I was expecting it to be. Watching these movies in order in a short amount of time is really beneficial for someone like me… someone who hasn’t read the books. It keeps fresh the enormous amount of details that need to be remembered to make sense of it all and adds to the appreciation of this movie series.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

From now on the proverbial excrement hits the fan. At the end of Goblet of Fire we were witness to the resurrection of Voldemort and now the race begins to save the world from his clutches. With a new director at the helm, David Yates, who would go on to direct all the remaining movies, the series takes on a much more dire tone. Gone are the whimsical elements from the story up to make room for more teenage angst, ever more perilous adventures and dark secrets revealed. At Hogwarts the situation is worsened by the arrival of Dolores Umbridge, a spy for the Ministry played wonderfully by Imelda Staunton, who turns the school into something that more resembles a prison. Harry, meanwhile, tries to convince the world that Voldemort has indeed returned, but nobody wants to believe him. Even his friends start to doubt him. His inability to convince anyone and the doubts about his own role in the whole scheme of things start to take their toll on Harry. Thankfully Daniel Radcliffe is able to shoulder this burden and give Harry enough depth to make these trials believable. The character Harry Potter seems to be in capable hands.The film ends with a spectacular sequence inside the Ministry of Magic with wall-to-wall visual effects and another riveting confrontation between Harry and Voldemort. I had my problems with Order of the Phoenix, but they are outweighed by the enjoyment of so many of the other elements.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This is the point where I started to lose interest when the movies were first released. To be honest, I felt left out, because so many of the concepts in this movie were foreign to me. Much in Half-Blood Prince seemed only enjoyable when you actually had read the book. But now, with all five preceding movies still fresh in my head, I must admit that I was wrong. The puzzle pieces fell into place more easily now. You just have to really pay attention to ever detail, because everything comes back in some way, shape or form. In Half-Blood Prince a new element is introduced: the Horcrux, an object infused with part of someones soul. It turns out Voldemort has hidden several of these Horcruxes and Harry (together with Dumbledore) vows to retrieve all of them and destroy them, in order to weaken Voldemort to the point where he can be killed. This provides a framework for the rest of the movies with several encounters revolving around these objects. But that’s not all. Draco Malfoy is chosen as the sacrificial lamb to do Voldemort’s bidding, the Weasley home is attacked by Bellatrix Lestrange, Sirius Black’s niece or killer, and a very important character is killed at the end of the movie. All very dramatic stuff. That is why the casting of Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn is so important to this movie. He is the perfect combination of lighthearted and dramatic. His acting is a breath of fresh air in the often quite heavy atmosphere of the Harry Potter world. Imelda Staunton had the same task in Order of the Phoenix, providing comic relief. All in all I really liked Half-Blood Prince, mostly because of the intense dramatic moments.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

And so the ending begins. Battle lines are being drawn, sides are taken. Harry, Hermione and Ron are on the run from the Death Eaters, who have taken over the Ministry and attacked the wedding between Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour. From that point on the story of Part 1 becomes a road movie about our three heroes trying to make sense of the whole mess. Ron becomes more and more angry at Harry for not doing enough to safe the wizarding world, Hermione is trying real hard to solve all the riddles that are thrown at them and Harry is hard to work to find the remaining Horcruxes without getting himself killed. If you are expecting a rollicking adventure movie this time around you are in for a surprise. While there are certainly moments where the story picks up the pace, the majority of Part 1 takes on a very subdued tone. A quiet before the storm, if you will. Once again, watching Part 1 in the theater was a boring and confounding experience for me. I hardly knew what a Horcrux or a Death Eater were, so you can imagine that this time around I liked Part 1 a lot more. I started to feel a lot of empathy for these kids who are thrust into this otherworldly adventure that is way beyond their years. No child or teen should be made to carry this burden. One of the most endearing moments comes when Harry asks Hermione to dance at one of the worst moments possible and for a few minutes they forget everything that is happening around them to enjoy the moment as they should have if the circumstances were different. Although the movie as a whole may not be the most exciting adventure of them all, I think this installment has a lot of heart and in that regard is a good setup to what is to come next.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

And what comes next is the culmination of everything that transpired prior to Part 2. Voldemort has acquired the tools and the army to once and for all to take over the wizarding world. Everything comes to a spectacular close with Harry and his friends trying to discover the last Horcruxes, the Order of the Phoenix taking back Hogwarts and ultimately Harry preparing himself for his all important duel with Voldemort. As with every installment of the Harry Potter series. A lot of ground has to be covered before we get to where we are going. It is understandable that they split Deathly Hallows into two parts. If the book is half as dense as the movies, than that is one hell of a book to get through. Together these movies take up nearly four and a half hours of your time and not a lot of it is wasted on frivolous nonsense.

This is Harry Potter’s Return of the Jedi. This is the moment everything comes together and the big finale kicks off. Thinking back to the first movies in the series I didn’t think these kids could have acted their way out of a paper bag when the story would become more dramatic, but they have grown… a lot. Radcliffe still isn’t the best actor ever, but he holds his own across from a powerhouse like Ralph Fiennes. I could get behind what he was going through and that is a lot more than I expected. Emma Watson and Rupert Grint are still his trusty sidekicks and though there is a lot of frowning and scowling going on they carry the weight of everything their characters went through on their shoulders.

I really liked the way Deathly Hallows worked out. A lot of the loose ends were tied up neatly, even though Rowling needed a sizable flashback to do so. There were some surprises in there, but I got the feeling that there was so much information to be conveyed that the movie moved just a little too fast through it all. Maybe I have to watch it again sometime to get every last detail of the story (or maybe just read the books). One huge gripe I have with the concept of the Room of Requirement. In Order of the Phoenix it was nice, but since then it feels as a way of dealing with dead ends in the plot and having people move in and out of Hogwarts undetected. It got a little tiring to see it pop up again and again as a deus ex machina. Other than that I really liked Deathly Hallows, Part 2.

The Sum Total

Well, has this marathon changed my perception of the Harry Potter series? Absolutely. As I said at the beginning, I had seen all these movies (minus one) before, but never fully appreciated the arc Harry Potter goes through during these movies. It is actually a great story about somebody who has to carry an enormous burden before he is in any way capable of doing that and the way he copes with that responsibility. Next to the story that is engaging and fun there is the enormous technical achievement of these movies. Producer David Heyman managed to produce eight (!) major blockbuster movies in about twelve years or so. These movies have beautiful scenery, fantastic art direction and spectacular visual effects, all of them produced on an extremely tight schedule. Like the Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter movies deserve an honorary Oscar or something for the sheer audacity of attempting this undertaking. And on top of that Heyman got the original cast to stick around when everybody was saying they could never pull that off.

It was a good decision to do this marathon, because it opened my eyes a little to what other people are so wildly enthusiastic about. It still isn’t Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but it has certainly made me curious and what do you know maybe I will read the books one day.

097: American Gangster


This is the seventeenth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

I think I have it figured out by now. I tend to watch long movies, many of them by Ridley Scott, in stints. I’ll watch thirty minutes or an hour and then I to take a break or watch something else. This is not because the movies aren’t interesting. No, absolutely not. It is because they have the tendency to be so dense and detailed that they more resemble a book than a movie. I don’t read a book in one sitting, so why should I have to do that with a movie? This may be sacrilegious to some, but that doesn’t really concern me.

American Gangster is a movie that fits the above described category perfectly. It is an incredibly dense crime drama about self-made man Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, the man who desperately wants to put him behind bars. It is the ’70s and Lucas inherits the keys to his mentor’s criminal empire. Instead of just taking over he decides to do things differently. He handles his business for what it is: business. That means providing a better product for a better price. He even travels to the deep jungles of Thailand to secure his drug deliveries in person, an action that earns him a lot of respect. Back home he takes care of business and he takes care of his family. He employs a lot of his family and moves his mother into a huge mansion. There is something charming about Frank that makes him irresistible and that something also covers up a ruthless side to him. A comparison can be made between Lucas and Nicolas Cage’s Roy in Matchstick Men, both are charismatic criminals with a decent heart. Scott likes his bad guys with a few additional layers.

On the other side we find Richie Roberts, a pit bull detective who is resourceful and brutally honest. When he finds an enormous amount of untraceable money he decides to turn it in instead of splitting it among his fellow detectives. This doesn’t sit well with the others. Does Richie care about this? No, not in the least. He wants results, but doesn’t want them at the cost of his soul. He stumbles onto a case around mysteriously pure heroin that is flooding the streets of Harlem. Everybody is dumbfounded by the manner in which Frank Lucas conducts his business and it takes a lot of time for them to even consider Frank as the culprit. Essentially American Gangster is a perfectly executed game of cat and mouse.

Scott isn’t interested in passing judgement on his characters. He leaves that up to the viewers of his movies, to make up their mind whether or not Lucas is a total bad guy or not. He shows Lucas as a ruthless killer who doesn’t hesitate to execute someone in broad daylight at a crowded market, but he also takes care of his family and friends and, ruthless as he is, he is always courteous to his victims. When he sets someone on fire he fires a bullet into the head to put his victim out of his misery. How is that for being merciful. Washington is excellent as the ever charming and quiet Lucas. He internalizes a lot of the emotions to make them explode onto the screen with incredible force. It is one of his finest performances.

As brilliant as Scott portrays Lucas, he has a little more trouble with Crowe’s character. The character itself is fine. He is an upstanding guy who will do everything to get the job done. The way in which Scott and Steven Zaillian approach this is by making him the unwilling half in a divorce from his wife (Carla Gugino). It is the standard plot about the husband who has more pressing things to do at his job than at home, but unlike Lorraine Bracco in Someone to Watch Over Me, Gugino isn’t strong to make us think that this would be a problem for Crowe, leaving him without the drama to offset his tenacity at his job. This hurts the otherwise intense drama a little bit.

One of the most annoying things about Scott (at least to other film makers) directing his movie is that he makes it look so incredibly effortless. American Gangster is a movie that takes place over the course of several years and in several countries. He switches back and forth between the two major storylines as if it is the easiest thing to do as a director. As always, the movie looks impeccable. Scott may truly be one of the best directors we have alive today. His movies may not always be the best storywise, and often a bit overlong, but nothing can be said negatively about the way his movies look. From The Duellists to American Gangster (and now Prometheus), nobody comes close to his mastery of the medium.

American Gangster is an excellent movie that deserves to be devoured again and again. It displays great acting, great cinematography and great storytelling. Certainly one of Scott’s best works.

> IMDb

071: Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade

Anybody who has seen King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters owes it to themselves to watch Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade, which is a great extension of that documentary. I am a gamer and this particular part of gaming history fascinates me. This was a time when nerdy guys could actually become famous and be regarded as somebody of value. Not like in today’s world where being nerdy is considered cool and potentially profitable.

In 1982 the arcade fever was at an all-time high. Arcades were everywhere and everybody wanted to play these magical machines that would eat all your quarters before you knew they were gone. Among the throngs of admirers there was a handful of players who were an arcade owner’s worst nightmare. These guys could play an arcade machine for hours on a single quarter. It was in Ottumwa, Iowa, that Walter Day, the owner of the legendary Twin Galaxies arcade started collecting data on the high scores of these brilliant young men.

He still does this to this day. His apartment looks like a mover’s nightmare with stacks of paper everywhere on the ground. But he is happy with what he does. He tells us that he really would like to start a musical career, but we all know that he will never stop doing what he is doing now. Just like George Lucas saying that he wants to start making smaller movies… yeah right. Now, thirty years after the demise of the arcades, it is time to get the gang back together. In Chasing Ghosts we see what has become of some of these bright young guys. While their lives may not have panned out how they wanted they still think back fondly off those hectic days when they were celebrities. Among them is also the nefarious Billy Mitchell, the hilariously ego-maniacal Pac Man record holder. Fans of King of Kong will remember him vividly.

Director Lincoln Ruchti keeps his judgment to himself and lets us make up our own mind about these players. For some the notion of this level of competition for these seemingly simple arcade games is ludicrous, but this doc also shows us that the seeds for services us gamers know and love today like Xbox Live and Playstation Network. These guys invented competitive gaming. They were pioneers and it’s a good thing that they are preserved for posterity. The way in which Ruchti tells his story is very engaging. There are nifty 3D animations that tell us in a matter of seconds the basic rules of the games that were played so much. The rest is predominantly a mix between archive footage and interviews with the protagonists.

Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade is an excellent documentary that will engage gamers and non-gamers alike.

> IMDb