Monday, December 28, 2015

Doctor Zhivago - 1965

"Doctor Zhivago" - 1965
Dir. by David Lean - 3 hrs. 17 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's a quote by Dr. Cornel West, from his memoir "Living and Loving Out Loud," where he explains his affinity for Russian novelists (and I don't have it in front of me).  To paraphrase, he says that no one knows misery like the Russians.  "Doctor Zhivago" is proof of this; it's a tale of personal troubles told on an epic scale, in an epic movie, against a backdrop of being told repeatedly and by various sources that personal concerns are meaningless.  Do the troubles of these people amount to a hill of beans?  Who knows, but it's an engaging, engrossing ride to find out.

The train - a metaphor for the film's run time.

The story of this film is extraordinarily complicated, centering around a handful of characters and how they keep bumping into one another over time.  The story essentially centers them all in Moscow, where they are all pulled in different directions.  There is Yuri (Omar Sharif), a talented young doctor and poet, and his wife Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin).  Lara (Julie Christie) is pulled between two men; Victor (Rod Steiger) is older, connected, and aggressive, Pasha (Tom Courtenay) is a young idealist with little clue as to what's happening beneath his nose.  The story is told during a period of great instability in Russia, which forces all of the characters into situations they would never willingly put themselves into.  But we know from the initial framing device that two of the characters have had a child, who was lost (as in misplaced, not as in she died), and who was the product of a grand romance, as evidenced by a slim volume of poetry authored by Yuri.

There are a lot of things to commend "Doctor Zhivago" for, and one thing that you're just going to have to deal with if you want to watch it.  That thing is that this is a very, very long movie.  That's a valid reason to avoid this film; I've certainly passed on watching films that cross the three hour mark, and I wouldn't judge you for doing the same.  I'd argue that there are plenty of reasons that you might want to watch this, but in terms of movie experiences, there is a difference between going for a jog around your neighborhood and running a marathon.  But if you're in, this is the last I'm going to hear about the length of the film being a detriment, because it's not as if "Doctor Zhivago" meanders, or wastes that time.

This is a really big, story.  It's an epic, with all that that implies.  We follow characters from childhood to death, through both sides of marriages, through wars (as in multiples).  We change settings over and over again, as life demands it of these characters.  Yuri has the misfortune of having skills that are in demand (his medical ones), that get him essentially kidnapped and forced into military service more than once.  He also has skills that aren't (his poetry), which is personal, emotive, and earns him repeated admonishment from others that the time for the personal is over, replaced entirely by the value of one's service to whomever is in charge.  This means that when the military wants a doctor, they just grab the nearest one and force him into service.  As you might imagine, this takes its toll on Yuri's marriage, which ends up being of less concern to him as to the danger his existence puts his mistress in. 

Omar and Julie, bed-stressing.

Ultimately, everything about this movie is absolutely beautiful.  The scenery, from the cities to the endless snow, to the countryside, is the sort of thing that makes one want to book a vacation there in haste.  I'm not sure that it would have been possible to cast three more beautiful people to center a film around than Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, and Geraldine Chaplin.  The story itself is full of emotion; one angle of which is Yuri's attempt to carve out a life of personal meaning alongside what is expected of him.  Even as things happen that would sour even the most positive of us, Yuri shows that life is meaningless without poetry (which you can take literally, or figuratively), the simple act of survival doesn't matter if it's not in service to something else, and Dr. Zhivago makes a persuasive argument that one's personal feelings and expression are paramount, even above Communist ideals.

It's kind of pointless to rate a film like this; "Doctor Zhivago" is justifiably on the list when people start talking about the all-time greats.  Where it lands kind of depends on your personal tastes, but it's a real accomplishment in cinema.  This is a film where everyone involved went big without any hesitation, and then completely knocked it out of the park.  The fact that I could go see this movie fifty years later with a decently-sized audience in an actual movie theatre says everything that needs to be said about this film's enduring appeal. 

5 / 5 - Theatre

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - 2015

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" - 2015
Dir. by JJ Abrams - 2 hrs. 15 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

First things first, yeah, there's probably going to be some spoiler talk here.  The internet's been remarkably good about not blowing anything contained within "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," but if you're checking out a review about the movie, you probably have already seen it and wonder what other people think.  And I thought it was pretty damned good.  I also have been sick of the overexposure of the original batch of films for quite some time now, and really wasn't hell-bent on seeing this installment.  Turns out, part of that malaise was due to how poor the second batch of films were; what's to look forward to when the people in charge of the franchise haven't a clue?

This time around, we start in a small village on Jackoo, where Poe (Oscar Isaac) obtains a thumb drive (okay, not really, but kind of) purporting to contain a map explaining where Luke Skywalker (who is now a legend people have heard of, but never seen) is hiding out.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, the First Order (which is what the Empire has evolved into) rolls into the village, levelling everything and capturing Poe, but not his droid, who escapes with the Hello Kitty thumb drive.  One of the Stormtroopers seems to have a difficult time with the massacre, which leads to a whole lot of things happening.

Collect 'em all!!!

So where to start?  First off, the action in this film is all a lot of fun, never far away, and resembles the action in the first trilogy.  In fact, the whole film looks like the first batch in a very satisfying way.  Even more to the point, this film makes use of things from the first batch of films in a very satisfying way.  I don't know how much to reveal here.  Obviously, if you look at the list of actors in the film, it's not a secret that there are going to be some familiar faces.  They're blended well, and have skin in the game, so to speak.  Those characters are not just there to make you forget that Jar Jar Binks ever existed.  They are part of the story.  And really, the best aspect to the film is that the main characters all have motivations that are intertwined with the others; the characters are well-written and relatable, even when they're not the good guys, which goes one hell of a long way to getting an audience emotionally involved in the action material.

You have to provide your own airplane sound effects.

Secondly, even though this (and the entire franchise, really) are all-ages (read: kids) movies, TFA doesn't really insult your intelligence.  The humor is light, the monsters fantastic, and the aliens are all visually interesting.  The soccer ball droid is probably the most kid-friendly thing in the film, but it's not as cloying as the Ewoks were, either.  You'll be able to leave the theatre thinking you saw a pretty fun adventure movie, not a merchandising juggernaut. 

I think I'll leave it at that, rather than dig any further.  I'm pretty excited to see the next two films in this batch, which I absolutely wasn't going in to this one.  I viewed seeing TFA largely as geek duty, and left having enjoyed a pretty good film, one that I wouldn't mind watching again.  So even though I didn't think TFA was the greatest film ever made, it was enough of a success to rekindle long-dormant stirrings of fandom for me. 

4 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, December 14, 2015

Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp - 2012

"Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp" - 2012
Dir. by Jorge Hinojosa - 1 hr. 29 min.

by Clayton Hollifield

When I tried to search for "Iceberg Slim" on IMDB, it automatically took me to the page for "Ice Sculpture Christmas," instead.  Thanks, dorks.  Likewise, no dice on a trailer for this movie.  I guess I'll track down a poster or something, so forgive the lack of visual flair.  I recorded it off of TV, anyways, and just now finally got around to watching it.  I shouldn't have been in such a hurry.

So, who is Iceberg Slim, and why is there a documentary about him?  He's a legendary pimp (the real deal, not a comedy figure), mostly famous because he quit pimping after a few prison stints, and was urged to write about his experiences.  So he did, and sold a pretty large number of books (six million is the quoted number, which is a lot for the dinky publishing house he published through).  His books have famous fans like Chris Rock and Ice-T, thus this effort to share Slim's (aka Robert Beck) story.

Perhaps the question that should have been asked is why should people care about Iceberg Slim?  I suspect the entirety of that answer lies in Beck's books; I have one ("Trick Baby," but haven't read it yet), and I can buy the idea that an author is worth talking about.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of the world hasn't read Slim's works, and I didn't feel like this film got across the appeal of his work in a meaningful way.  Also working against my interest: the story is presented chronologically.  So Iceberg Slim is not presented as an author of important and interesting work, he's presented as a pimp (and let's be clear, that means that he ran prostitutes and took all of the proceeds from their work to pay for his own hair care products and general flyness) who bounces in and out of prison until that becomes too much for him, at which time he attempts to live a straight life.

I mean, that's not super-charming, right?  It's only after Slim reaches a breaking point with his day job as an exterminator that his then wife convinces him to write down some of the crazy stories he's been telling her, which are then organized and published, to some success.  Maybe there's a reason to have a romantic notion of what exactly a pimp is, and since Iceberg Slim is one of the few that people might have actually heard of, maybe it makes sense to introduce him as a pimp rather than an author.  Then again, it made me really not like the guy.  I don't have to like someone personally to enjoy their work,  But including a clip from an interview with Slim, where he's reunited with a former ho, he comes off cluelessly as to what exactly the girls were dealing with.  He asks, innocently enough, what made her go straight, and she tells him that people were assaulting and murdering prostitutes on the streets, and that was reason enough for her to get off the streets.  That doesn't seem to register with Slim at all. 

The best thing about "Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp" is that it did make me curious about reading some of his work.  What it did not do: make me want to watch this film again.  Pretty much every interviewee in the film stopped one paragraph short of giving some real insight.  They would, routinely, get up to the edge of something interesting, and then we'd move on to something else. 

2 / 5 - TV