All posts by Engagingculture

I’m a normal guy who watches a lot of movies. I love to compare techniques, cinematography, and acting, but I’m really amazed at what makes movies successful. Why does one film make piles of money while another falls flat on its face? I hope to help other normal people enjoy more good movies and avoid the garbage.

Three Colors: Blue (1993)

There is almost too much to say about these three films. In fact, only one film in the trilogy actually made it onto the IMDB Top 250 list, that being the final film, Red. Although these are each excellent as stand-alone works, they are best when seen as a whole. For that reason, I am going to review each of them separately. For the unfamiliar, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s last work, “Three Colors Trilogy” takes its name from the colors of the French flag and its themes from the ideals represented by those colors: blue (liberty), white (equality), and red (friendship).

Blue, the first of the trilogy, takes place in Paris. It stars Juliette Binoche (Unbearable Lightness of Being, The English Patient, Chocolat) as Julie, the wife of a famous composer. She has to deal with a great deal of unwanted freedom when a car accident claims the lives of her husband and her daughter. At first, while recovering in the hospital, she tries to kill herself by swallowing a handful of pills stolen from the hospital, but she cannot. From that point on, she seems to devote her energy to disassociating herself from the memories of her past, a sort of emotional suicide. She sells the family home and all the furniture, moves into a small apartment in Paris, and even destroys her late husband’s last and highly anticipated composition. Along the way, she befriends Lucille, her downstairs neighbor; falls in love with Olivier, her late husband’s aid; and helps Sandrine, her late husband’s mistress who is carrying his child.

Because of its name, Blue, you can’t help but look for that color in the film’s carefully crafted images. With his expert usage of color, Kieslowski has forced the audience to pay attention to the slow-moving story that is unraveling on the screen. The most noticeable visual technique would be the odd fade-out/fade-ins that occur four times in the film. At each of the four points, Julie is at a crossroads, having to decide whether to push back the memories of her life before the accident, or to acknowledge them.

For a large part of the film, Julie is in a trance, trying to shut out the world around her. This could be a very boring role in a less capable actress’ hands, but Binoche turns in the best performance of her career. We frequently see Julie swimming completely immersed in a pool, bathed in a blue light, which symbolizes her past life. At one point, she immerses herself completely and stays underwater for as long as possible. But soon, she has to come up for air. In the same way, Julie can’t help but re-establish the connections with her past, and like the continent upon which she resides, she shifts from a state of liberty into a state of union. She gives the family home to her husband’s mistress’, completes her husband’s unfinished composition, and even builds a relationship with Olivier.

Being a trilogy, of seemingly unrelated films, there are little Easter eggs that will become prominent as you view all three films. Pay particular attention to the scene where Julie is at the courthouse. She walks into a courtroom where a trial is in session, and the audience is briefly given a glimpse of a divorce trial. The significance of this odd scene is revealed in White, where Julie walks in on the trial in the background. I am not in agreement with the IMDB list. I think that this is the best of the films when viewed separately. I believe that Red received a higher ranking because people use it to refer to the trilogy as a whole. Kieslowski did an amazing job of using film as a form of literature, combining the cinematography, music, lighting, and dialogue all to bring emphasis to the overall thesis of the film. I’m not a huge fan of foreign films, but this is one that can be viewed again and again.

Rope (1948)

20110403-102615.jpgAre there a special few individuals to whom the laws don’t apply, perhaps because they are educated at the finest schools or because they come from families with money or influence? What makes murder such a horrifying sin? Why don’t we cringe at other sins? Are there some sins that make the sinner feel superior? These are some of the questions that Rope concerns itself with. Not that it is a movie about these things, but as I watched it, my mind went to these questions. Rope is simply an adaptation of the true story of the Leopold-Loeb murder that took place in Chicago in 1924. In said murder, two wealthy and intelligent young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, killed Loeb’s 14-year-old second cousin Robert Franks for no other reason than the thrill of the kill.

In Rope our murderers are two similarly wealthy and presumably intelligent young men named Brandon and Phillip. However, instead of dispatching of a 14-year-old boy in the back seat of a rented car, they strangle a peer named David in their shared apartment and stow his body in a large trunk. The signature Hitchcockian twist comes when instead of disposing of the body in a more traditional manner, these well-to-do young men host a cocktail party and use the makeshift coffin as a dinner table, and the guests of honor are the boy’s father, aunt, and fiancé. It seems like the perfect murder, but an admired professor named Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) begins to sense that something is disturbing about this party and their master plan begins to unravel.

20110403-102233.jpgMy father had amassed a nice library of Hitchcock films by the time that I was old enough to start watching them. My first venture into the world and mind of Alfred Hitchcock, and my enduring favorite of his collection was North By Northwest. But I recall watching this nearly forgotten gem after Birds had scared the pants off of me and I was thoroughly hooked on the style, humor, and suspense of the master.

I believe that I was around 12 or 13 when I first watched Rope. It was on one of the lonely afternoons I spent alone after school waiting for my parents to arrive home. It may have been a forbidden activity, that might have originally drawn me to the cabinet filled to the brim with VHS gold. But it was the quality of the selections that drew me deeper in. 20110403-102217.jpgI am so very thankful that my parents didn’t care for most of the pabulum that was churned out during the late 70s and 80s. Instead they possessed a library of classics and future classics. Forget Airplane or Karate Kid, I would get to those later, I had Young Frankenstein and Indiana Jones to keep me company.

I’m not sure why Rope caught my eye with its unassuming title, mixed reviews, no guffawing humor, bodily functions, explosions, or nudity. In fact it fails to catch the attention of the adults it was created for, but in spite of all of that, it remains one of my top 5 all time favorite Hitchcock films, even though Hitchcock himself called it a failed experiment. You can actually watch a large portion of the film in a wonderful 3 part documentary on the making of the film called “Rope Unleashed.” Continue reading Rope (1948)

Monsters Inc. (2001)

I’m not very good at this whole “watch a movie a week and write a review on it” thing. I easily watch 3-5 movies a week, but the problem is, I would much rather watch another movie than write a review. Especially when it’s a movie like the one that is on the slate for today. But alas, I made a commitment and so I’m gonna keep it.

20110327-173353.jpgThe most difficult part of writing a review for Monster’s Inc. Is that it is an animated film and we tend to treat these movies simply for their entertainment value for kids. But I think that animated films can have great value apart from mindless entertainment. And that is the area in which Pixar films in recent years have excelled above their peers in the animation business.

Everybody is doing computer animation, but the thing that elevates Pixar’s films and recently some of Dreamworks’ offerings (Flushed Away (really, it’s actually pretty good), Kung Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon, and Megamind) is the story. It’s not just about hyper-realistic imagery and the creation of a fully submersible world. Those are all pointless if you don’t have a story with characters in which the audience of both children and adults will invest their emotions.

20110327-173258.jpgMonster’s Inc. at its core is the inversion of a horror film. Normally, kids are wetting their beds at the idea that monsters live in their closets and are going to come out to scare them. Monsters Inc. simply admits this epidemic of home invasion as fact and then goes inside the closet to tell the story from the monsters point of view. It turns out that monsters don’t particularly enjoy scaring children, it is simply their job. Monstropolis (the Narnia on the other end of these impressionable children’s wardrobes) runs on the screams of children. But because human children are flooded with violent movies and television shows at increasingly younger ages, they are getting harder to scare and consequently Monstropolis has a scream shortage.

It seems to me that most animation studios would have been content to leave the story there then throw in a lot of cultural references to make the movie funnier. But Pixar understands the value of irony and as it turns out in this universe, these monsters know just as little about us as we know about them, and that makes monsters deathly afraid of human children.

20110327-173112.jpgAdd to that two of the most likable characters in all of Pixar’s movies, second only to Woody and Buzz, and you’ve got a movie that went toe-to-toe with Shrek, and by all counts lost that battle. But I would invite you to rematch both films and decide for yourself which has aged better. I think that Monsters Inc. could do equally well today, but I’m not sure I could say that about Shrek.

Essentially Monsters Inc. is a great buddy comedy. On one side you have the purple spotted horned Bear-cat named Sully. He looks ferocious which makes him great at his job, but in reality, he is just a big softie. John Goodman did a good job voicing him as he is the most dynamic of the characters in the film. And playing the Laurel to his Hardy is the effervescent Billy Crystal placed in the body of a green volleyball with one giant eye and an even bigger mouth. They make an odd couple to be sure and lift what could have been a mediocre movie to Pixar gold.

20110327-173150.jpgAnymore, it is pointless to mention the superb animation that is present in these movies. But in its time, the computer animation rendering of every frame featuring Sully took 11 hours to complete because the movement of each of his 2,320,413 hairs. With a frame rate of 24 fps that is nearly a month of processor time to create a single second of footage.

This might not be the highest grossing or the best reviewed of any of the Pixar movies, but it is a solid and highly entertaining movie that I have confidence my kids will he showing their kids one day.

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Words have failed me in attempting to describe this movie. I tried to write this review in early January, and here we are in late February and I am just now revisiting it. It probably doesn’t help that in that time span we have purchased and moved into our first house. We have lived in houses before obviously, but this is our house.

Anyway, onto the movie. Have you ever had a dream that freaked you out and left you gasping for breath as you rushed back to consciousness? When your loved ones come in the room to check if you are okay all you can say is I had a bad dream. Invariably they will ask what it was about, but we can’t say because 1) the dream is quickly retreating into our sub conscience, and 2) because no matter how well you explain what happened in the dream you sound psychotic. Mulholland Dr. is that creepy dream.

If you are not familiar with the works of David Lynch, I would recommend this movie as a good starting place. Also, the trailer doesn’t nearly do this film justice. The film and its core concept are too complex to boil down to a two-minute clip.

I like to compare it to music. If you’ve ever bought a song off iTunes because someone said that you would enjoy it; then analyzed the song and broke it down into all Its parts, you probably found that it wasn’t enjoyable at all. With that in mind, you have the sense of what it is like to convey the power of a film in which you can lose yourself. To truly enjoy it, you must surrender yourself to it. As Roger Ebert said, “If you require logic, see something else.”

David Lynch loves to make films which defy logic, but Mulholland Dr. follows no conventional plot structure, it simply ebbs and flows like a dream. I think it’s worth mentioning that this movie is an expanded version of an ABC television pilot. You thought Lost was confusing, I could imagine people cursing at their televisions in frustration as more questions arise with no answers in sight.

Also, this film features what I think should have been at the very least and Oscar Nominated performance by Naomi Watts. It would have been more deserved than Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball, and far more that Renée Zellweger for Bridget Jones’ DiaryNaomi Watts is engaging on both sides of the coin of her character. On one hand she is Betty, the perky and naïve, but very talented newcomer to Hollywood. On the other, she is Diane, the frustrated and depressed reality of the too-good-to-be-true Betty. She pulls this off so well that I didn’t realize that it was the same actress playing both parts until well into watching the film the first time. I’m still waiting for Ms. Watts to reach the climax of her career, she has made a number of good films, but nothing to set her apart from every other fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde in Hollywood.

I thin that this film displays the secular hope for redemption. Diane is so depressed and disappointed with her life that she elaborately constructs a dream-place where things have gone better for her. We all have regrets, failures, and things that we wish we could change. But the good news is that in Christ, the dream becomes reality. Not that all the bad things disappear when we have Jesus; but that when we have Jesus, we have the strength to endure reality, with the hope of a future redemption and glorification with Jesus.

Do yourself a favor, check out Mulholland Dr. set aside all the distractions and just let it wash over you. Then come back and give me all your theories about what is really going on. There are literally dozens of different theories. If you’ve already seen the movie, you can check them out at Mulholland-Drive.net. I think this film will be successful in creeping you out and will stick in your head for days.

Content warning for my more conservative readers. This film contains several disturbing and violent images as well as a few graphic scenes of topless women engaging in passionate kissing.

Toy Story 2 (1999)

Well, after a crazy couple of holiday weekends I am attempting to get back on schedule with my reviewing of the IMDb’s Top 250 movies of all time. Though I’m sure I’m going to fall behind again. We close on our new house on Friday and then the next two weeks will be a blur as we move all of our accumulated crap across town. But this isn’t a Christmas card… on to the review.

I was and am a fan of Toy Story. It was magical. A great story which birthed a whole genre of animation. It came out when I was 12. I was a little bit older than it’s target audience, but I was still too young to recognize the significance of this groundbreaking film.
However, when rumors of Toy Story 2 began to circulate, even at my tender age, I was already jaded enough with production companies money-making tactics to know not to expect much. The original plan was for Toy Story 2 to be a direct to DVD release. To this day, Disney has only created one worthwhile sequel without the help of the masters at Pixar, that being Fantasia 2000. To illustrate my point, let’s briefly review Disney’s track record with sequels.
The Rescuers Down Under
The Return of Jafar
Aladdin & The King of Thieves
Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World
The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride
The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea
Lady and the Tramp II: Scamps Adventure… I could go on, but I think I made my point.

So when the folks at Pixar brought the script and some storyboards for what would eventually become Toy Story 2 to Disney, they made the smart decision to pour their resources into this sequel. Most sequels simply dilute the story and characters like too much water added to good Scotch. But not all sequels are bad. The best sequels take the original film at face value and then seamlessly expand from there with a movie that stands on it’s own merit instead of being propped up simply by the success of it’s predecessor. For instance, I loved Terminator II: Judgment Day from the moment I first watched it, but it took me several years to build up a desire to watch the original Terminator.

So what about Toy Story 2 earned it a 100% fresh rating from the aggregated rating site Rotten Tomatoes? Well, to answer that question I re-watched the movie a few times, some with my kids and some by myself. And I think it comes down to two main issues which play themselves out over and over again in this film. First is the film’s ability to entertain both the young and the young at heart. My kids love it because even though it is now over 10 years old it looks great with an attention to detail that Pixar has become known for. The colors and textures are light years (no pun intended) better than the original, and that’s saying something because it was beautiful and the improvement came in just 4 year’s time. Also, my kids are continuously quoting lines from these movies, and I believe it’s because the movie isn’t pandering and condescending to “their level.” The dialogue is incredible for a kids movie and it is carried by a voice cast that has expanded its diversity to include Joan Cusack. But my kids watch it over and over and hear different things every time. The story is easy enough to understand that you could follow it even if the sound on your TV went out, but everything about the story is enhanced because of the humorous and touching script.

I love the movie because of the little movie homages, the inclusion of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” from 2001: a Space Odyssey in the opening video game sequence, Rex chasing after the car in a nod to Jurassic Park, and the hilarious twist that Zurg didn’t kill Buzz’s father… he is his father! When my kids watched The Empire Strikes Back for the first time and Vader spills his big secret, one of my kids said it’s just like Toy Story. Speaking of twists, though I can’t remember the first time I watched this film, I am willing to bet that I was surprised at the devious selfishness of Stinky Pete. And even though we are used to movies like this now, this one is simply action packed, with at least 5 distinct chase scenes, two shootouts, several covert operations, and epic surroundings for all of the above make this movie one that I find it hard to rip myself away from.

But not only is this story entertaining for all ages, but it is a classic because it is so well done and we can see the shadows of many Pixar greats yet to come in it’s deep library of scenes. I don’t know that we would have had the emotionally crushing opening montage from Up were it not for the “When She Loved Me montage in Toy Story 2. The same goes for the door warehouse chase scene from Monsters, Inc. It would have been impossible had Pixar not broken ground in Toy Story 2 with the chase through the airport baggage area. Also, think of as many animated films as you can that have made you want to both laugh and cry, applaud and think, remember and wonder. I would be willing to wager that almost all of those films are from the storytelling magicians at Pixar. They just have the ability and lack of inhibition that lets them expertly dive into issues that most animated or childrens’ films won’t touch. Issues like loss, rejection, abandonment, fear, identity, purpose, and love.

Just take this film for example and you will see Woody’s crisis of purpose as he battles with a desire for eternal life and fame. But to get it he must reject the very reason he was made, as he taught Buzz in the first film, life isn’t worth living if you aren’t being loved by a child. At the same time, the roundup gang treats Woody as if he is the promised messiah who has come to save them from the darkness and loneliness of storage. There is the mistaken identity of Buzz, and the matter of who is the real Buzz is not determined by who has the cooler tool-belt, but which action figure bears the name of their owner. This is a unmistakable Christian ideal, we are who we are not because of some inherent goodness in us, but because we bear the name of Christ.

Who knew that a simple movie about the secret lives of toys could go so deep as to teach its viewers something profound about themselves. That is the art of film-making, the magic of Pixar, and the reason why I can’t stop watching movies. Because movies have this ability in common with Scripture. I love Scripture because it can destroy me one minute as it reveals my sin, then restore me as it reveals my Savior. And I keep watching movies because I hope that the next one will cut me open to my core and teach me a little bit more about myself. If my kids watch the Toy Story movies and want to act like Woody or Buzz, that is fine with me, because both characters exemplify the type of behavior and strength and purity of character that I wish everyone had and pray that my children will develop. I can’t say that about every cartoon character. The thing that makes Toy Story great is the desire it creates in its viewers to not only observe greatness but to pursue and attain it.

Movies Set at Christmas

Merry Christmas everybody. While my wife watches A Christmas Story (1983) for the 10th time and the kids fall asleep among the wrapping paper, I am thinking about movies that are either set at Christmas or remind us of Christmas without being “Christmas movies.” You won’t find the traditional Christmas favorites on this list, but you might find some fun movies to watch with your sweetie on a cold winter night.

5. Gremlins
What better than a movie that had trouble getting past the MPAA because they believed it was too scary for its target audience. This movie doesn’t even make me think of Christmas, and I didn’t even watch it until I was in college. But who wouldn’t want to get a cute fuzzy monster like Gizmo under their Christmas tree. In fact, I think it was partly because of this movie that Furbys became popular 15 years later.
4. The Family Man
Jack (Nicolas Cage) is given the chance to live the life that he could have had if he had followed his heart. It is a retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life. The film emphasizes the importance of having family and friends in your life. Christmas just happens to be the backdrop for this hypothetical journey. Don Cheadle as the street wise angel really makes this film.
3. Batman Returns
Everyone has had a Christmas when they got one too many pairs of socks or when their crazy relative has a little too much egg nog and started spilling all the family secrets. That’s nothing compared to Christmas in Gotham City. The Red Triangle Gang jumps out of a giant present, mess up the Christmas decorations and attempt to install the super creepy Penguin (Danny Devito) as mayor. It’s not all bad however, it inspired a crazy woman to make a homemade skin-tight shiny black leather cat suit.
2. Trading Places
It’s a simple concept. Take a well-to-do Harvard alumnus named Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd) and set him up for a fall. Then take a street bum Billy Ray (Eddie Murphy) and put him in his old job to see if he can make it on the stock exchange. Pretty soon, Winthorpe’s a suicidal gun-toting thief dressed as Santa and Billy Ray’s scolding house guests for making a mess of his nice clean rug. Throw in Jamie Lee Curtis as a lady of the night and you have a heartwarming holiday classic. Or not.
1. Die Hard
Holiday office parties are the best! The boss gets tipsy, you see a whole other side of your co-workers, and international terrorists take everyone hostage in the office building! Well, at least that last one sounds fun for John McClane, a New York city cop who is attempting to surprise his estranged wife on Christmas Eve. But instead of a gift, he brings the pain. Who needs a “ho ho ho” when you can have a “yippie kai-yai motherf***er.” And McClane gets into more mischief around Christmas in Die Hard 2, but I think by Die Hard with a Vengeance he learned to stay home for the holidays.

These are some of my favorites. Can you think of some others?

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

I’m really glad I decided to tackle this mountain of film called the IMDb Top 250. In this post, I want to take a closer look at#248, Shadow of a Doubt. I consider myself a Hitchcock fan, but this is one of his masterpieces that I had never seen before. I’m not sure why I avoided it for so long, perhaps it was simply lack of opportunity. But no one has an excuse to not see this film. Heck, you don’t even have to pay for it. You can watch the whole thing right now on YouTube. In fact, Alfred Hitchcock on The Dick Cavett Show in 1972 said that Shadow of a Doubt was his favorite of all his films. Being familiar with his films and sharing his dry and bleak sense of humor, I can see why.

The actors were superb, famous in their time, but not superstars. Teresa Wright, who remains the only performer ever to be nominated for Oscars for her first three films (The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver, The Pride of the Yankees), stars as young Charlie (Charlotte) who is tired of being a ordinary girl in an ordinary family. She believes that inviting her Uncle Charlie from Philadelphia will invite some much needed happiness to her depressing surroundings. But Uncle Charlie, portrayed superbly by Joseph Cotten who had a role in Citizen Kane and starred in The Magnificent Ambersons, has his own secret reasons for leaving Philadelphia to stay with his sister in Santa Rosa for an undetermined amount of time.

Hitchcock collaborated with Thornton Wilder, author of Our Town, to portray Santa Rosa, California as Hometown U.S.A. With warm lighting and a friendly atmosphere, they deliberately makes us prefer the small Santa Rosa to the cold and industrial backdrop of Philadelphia. Hitchcock wanted to slowly introduce some darkness to these bright and cheerful surroundings. This was a social commentary in his day. While this film was produced and released in 1943, it is set in 1941. Many people my age wouldn’t even blink at the simple two year difference, but anyone who lived during those two years knows that they weren’t ordinary years. The bombing that occurred on December 7, 1941 irreparably changed the world the same way that the arrival of Uncle Charlie did that peaceful family and especially his admiring niece Charlotte.

Critics were quick to call this film cynical or morally vague, words that would come to characterize Hitchcock’s style of film-making, but in the wake of the great depression, a gruesome war, and the ever-present fear of nuclear holocaust the world itself became much more cynical and morally vague.  Much like Uncle Charlie, Hitchcock entered our country in a time of peace, as a welcomed guest, and he forever changed our whole way of thinking about movies.

As we get closer to Christmas, I know that I will inevitably see at least a scene or two from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. If you think about it, Hitchcock is like the anti-Capra. Another classic-film lover named Bill Wren said on his blog Piddleville, “Shadow of a Doubt presents us with an almost quintessential American town of the 1940′s. It’s almost Capra-esque. In a way, Shadow of a Doubt is George Bailey’s Bedford Falls from It’s a Wonderful Life except where Capra brings an angel to it, Hitchcock brings the devil.”

The singular flaw that prevents Shadow of a Doubt from being one of Hitchcock’s elite is the completely formulaic and totally unnecessary romance. It feels totally contrived and out of place. Perhaps this was Hitchcock’s way of showing that although young Charlie has grown through her ordeal, she hasn’t yet grown enough to see that the addition of others to your life will not make you happy if you cannot first be happy alone. If this was his aim, he was very subtle. Today, they would make a sequel in which we find out that her love interest is in fact a serial killer himself.

So what happens when young Charlie realizes the truth about her beloved Uncle? Will she get a chance to reveal his secret, or will he choke her into silent submission? I won’t ruin that ending of the movie for you. Take an hour and a half off and watch it yourself. By the end, you will be humming the Merry Widow Waltz and contemplating the state of the world. What do you think of Uncle Charlie’s assessment of our lives? “You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie.”

Thanks for watching with me. Next week provides a jump from pre-television wartime to fun loving computer animation and offers a much more lighthearted film, Toy Story 2. I hope you’ll join me.

My Sassy Girl (2008) – Review

After watching the Korean version of My Sassy Girl, I was doing some research and found out that, because of the popularity of the film in Korea, a remake was made in 2008. It was originally slated for a full theatrical release, but the negative response after the trailer below came out, was enough to force it into a bare-bones direct to DVD release.

I totally agree that the trailer was less than satisfactory. But the problem was that no one even gave the movie a chance. They immediately began to compare it to the Korean version; and in doing so they lost the ability to view the remake on its own merits. While it is a remake of the basic plot and story, many of the social and cultural ideas present in the original simply don’t translate well across the gap. In some ways I would have liked to see the remake depart even more than it already does from the original script and story.

The remake stars Elisha Cuthbert. She is probably best known for her role as a former porn star in The Girl Next Door, but Jack Bauer might have to kill you for thinking of her that way since she also plays his daughter on the hit TV show 24. Cuthbert revisits the role made famous by Jeon Ji-hyun. In the original, this character was nameless; but in the remake, she was given the name of Jordan Roark. Jeon Ji-hyun was more than simply sassy, she was insane. She didn’t playfully slap, she delivered full right hooks. And all of that physical comedy just made me dislike her more. I personally preferred Cuthbert’s performance. Her physicality was more flirtatious, although she was more verbally abusive than her nameless counterpart.

I couldn’t place the lead actor until I searched for him on IMDb. His name is Jesse Bradford, and he’s best known for his role in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Bring It On. But I remember him best in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet where he played the very small role of Romeo’s manservant Balthasar. Bradford plays our leading man, Charlie Bellow. Charlie is almost nothing like the original’s Kyun-woo. He was a slacker engineering student and a womanizer, but Charlie is a business student who wishes to get a management job at the tractor company who had employed his father for decades. Charlie is also whitewashed to become the typical lovable yet naive guy-next-door, and all of the characters more carnal tendencies have been forced off on a completely useless best friend character.

I loved the cinematography of this film, it was a delight to look at. Yann Samuel the young French director behind Jeux D’enfants (Love Me If You Dare) filmed in the rich colors of the fall to signify the transition of our characters. These two meet in the general “opposites attract” pattern,, and the audience is led to believe that Charlie through his calculated work ethic will add some much needed structure to the unbridled enthusiasm of Jordan. While Jordan in turn will provide Charlie with a passion for life and the ability to think outside the box his parents have created for him. These two would have had some kind of obstacle to overcome, then one or both of them would realize that they are made for each other and would reveal it to the other in a grand fashion. Oh wait, that is exactly what happens in this movie. In fact, this is a purely according to formula romantic comedy if you stop watching after one hour. But as the couple is dancing the night away, reunited in their love, the story keeps going. And it’s not showing the happily ever aftermath of their romance. This film is more like real life, our couple has more obstacles to overcome.

I was entertained, but thoroughly unsurprised for the first hour. Though, because I knew the original, I wasn’t surprised by the ending either. I knew that unless those responsible for the remake were completely inept, this was going to get a lot deeper before the curtain closed. And it did. I can’t ruin the ending for you; you’ll have to splurge and pick this one out of the $3 bin at Wal-Mart. It is very entertaining and touching. And it was refreshing to watch a romance that was more than physical. In fact, in the original, they never even kiss. While the American version was not that conservative, all they add in this version is a kiss. My only complaint about the last thirty minutes of the film was that it only lasted thirty minutes. As in the original the couple agrees to part ways for a certain time, but the American version shortens this time to one year instead of two and in another case shortens a year to only one day. The time of their relationship was shortened as well. I don’t understand the reasoning behind this condensation. Perhaps a long relationship without sex is anti-American.

I think the producers and distributors of this film made a big mistake by listening to the opinions of the elitists who saw the original and thought that American audiences would have been better served by a dubbed version. I don’t think that most Americans have an issue with foreign film, most just can’t relate to foreign issues. The original film was edgy because of the role reversal of the male and female in a male-dominated Korean society. But in a country that preaches gender neutrality and equality, seeing yet another woman walk all over a weaker male character wasn’t edgy or even entertaining. But I don’t think that people gave this a chance, it is a better romantic comedy than most of the mindless drivel filling the theater. Oh well, what can you do?

If you’re watching the IMDb 250 along with me, the film for this next week is one off the few Alfred Hitchcock movies that I haven’t seen, Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

My Sassy Girl (2001)

With a little spare time on my hands, I got to watch #249 on my list. It is a wonderful little Korean romantic-comedy called, My Sassy Girl. And at 137 minutes I needed all the spare time I could get. That’s right 2 hours and 17 minutes! In all fairness, I did watch the director’s cut which was about 20 minutes longer than the theatrical release, but I can see the guys cringing now. A rom-com with the same running time as Mystic River and Dune. But despite its length, it was actually quite good.

First Half

Let me be the first to say that I am not a fan of the contemporary romantic comedy. They are overly-formulaic, cliched, mindless, and saccharine. The plot structure of all romantic comedies follows the same basic structure. Boy meets girl (or vice versa), then there is some sort of spark. Either they hate each other, or they instantly fall deeply in love. But either way, they have a conflict. Some sort of roadblock to their blissful romance. And usually, through a series of generally funny (sometimes touching) events, one or more of the characters goes through a personal change. This change dissolves the roadblock and the couple can live happily ever after. If it doesn’t end happily ever after there is still a message of the power of love to conquer all. This structure isn’t inherently bad, it has just been overplayed.

So what makes My Sassy Girl different from the sea of pabulum that floods theaters every year? I’m talking about movies like: Monster-in-Law, Must Love Dogs, Failure to Launch, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Music and Lyrics, Good Luck Chuck, 27 Dresses, Fool’s Gold, Made of Honor, The Proposal, It’s Complicated, Leap Year, and Valentine’s Day. I’ve seen all of those, and most are watchable and some are even entertaining, but none of them rise above mediocrity. It’s like eating a turkey sandwich on Thanksgiving when you really want a feast.

To examine why this film is better than the rest I must examine what makes a movie great in the first place. In other words, what is it that most people are looking for when they watch a movie? The easy answer to that is entertainment, but I believe that a larger goal is escapism. We watch movies to be transported from the monotony of our lives for a couple of hours. A great film is written and acted well, and successfully creates an engaging experience that captures the viewers’ imagination and sustains their interest. The best films do this with skill and artistry and will emotionally move the viewers and give them something to think about. These movies stay with you, long after you leave the theater.

Is My Sassy Girl one of these movies? At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I don’t really think so. I am tempted to sing the praises of this film because it was well received in Korea when it was released, and nearly every critic loves it. But I personally think that foreign films are up there with modern art, jazz music, and anything French on the “I pretend to enjoy this because it makes me feel superior to you” list.

Second Half

Let me introduce you to Kyun-woo. He is our slightly perverted, mostly innocent, slacker leading man (think Seth Rogen in Knocked Up). This film (based upon a series of supposedly true stories posted on the internet) tells the story of the first and last time that he falls in love. One day, on the way to pay his grieving aunt a visit he saves a beautiful drunken girl (whose name we never learn) from being hit by a subway train. She stumbles about and after vomiting on a fellow passenger she points at Kyun-woo calling him “Honey,” then passes out on the floor. Unable to leave her in this state, he picks her up and carries her to a motel where instead of receiving a thank you, he gets a large hotel bill and a night in jail. This unnamed sassy girl calls him after he gets out and tells him to meet her at a coffee shop. There she orders for him and forces him to pay then calls him a liar. Later, after confessing that her boyfriend has just broken up with her, she passes out again. Being a gentleman, he takes her back to the same hotel. And as he takes care of her, he vows to heal her sorrow.

I don’t want to spoil the film, though I doubt many of you will ever watch it anyway, but these two grow closer through some funny, touching, and painful moments. This girl is not just sassy, she is downright violent. But despite her inability to handle her liquor and her love of beating him, his affections for her grow. That is until she has him write a letter expressing his feelings for her. She writes a letter as well, and they meet to bury these letters under a tree where they will meet in exactly two years to see if they are meant to be together. And just as they met in a train station they part ways in a train station, their destiny hanging in the balance of two years time.

As in most romantic comedies there is a element of personal change. During these two years our slacker becomes a success. He improves himself in almost every way and he arrives at the tree exactly two years later to reunite with his lost love. I refuse to tell you whether she comes or not. You’ll have to watch it for yourself, but remember this movie is not your average romantic comedy. Expect the unexpected.

Overtime

I enjoyed My Sassy Girl because it was deeper than your average romantic comedy dealing with issues of grief, destiny, and time travel (seriously). But that being said, I disliked the overall tone of the film. I’m no male-chauvinist, but if I had a girl that treated me as badly and humiliated me as much as she does him, I would leave her, forget about destiny. That was one of several cultural roadblocks that made this movie hard to watch (especially the first half). Also, I’m sure this is a cultural thing too, but I didn’t feel like the film flowed very well. It was choppy in portions, and dragged on in others. I appreciated the length of time that was represented in the film as it made everything more plausible. I’m not one of those, “If its got subtitles, it ain’t fit to watch!” types, but the film itself was just too long.

This one is worth a watch, it is a beautiful and moving love story. But I’m still not sure why it did so well in Korea, outselling Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter which were playing at the same time. Perhaps what the film’s leading man says is true, “Koreans like melodramas.” It’s still pretty hard to find this film in American markets, so many will settle for the American version which was released direct to DVD in 2008. I’ve seen them both and I’ll tell you what I think about that version and how it stacks up against the original in my next post.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Well, it is time to get my countdown underway. Let me remind you that I am working my way through the IMDb Top 250 list as it appeared on November 15, 2010. I had to do this because of the flexible nature of this online user generated list. In fact, even after only one week, The Nightmare Before Christmas has moved up to #249, and if you look at it today, the list (particularly here at the bottom) may look much different.  So, I will do my best to add other films that jump on and off the list while I am on this journey and we can watch them together once my journey is through.

This movie was released when I was ten years-old, and I remember wanting to see it not so much because of the animation technique or the big names attached to it, but because I thought the Burger King watches that my friends had were cool. I was not allowed to watch it at that time, because my parents thought that it was too dark and frightening for kids to watch (the same reason Disney pushed its release off to Touchstone Pictures). It wasn’t until I was well into high-school and my goth phase that this movie once again caught my eye.

Burton’s Batman was one of my favorite movies in Middle School. I remember coming home from school popping Batman in the VCR and being thrilled by Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. When I later found out that the same mastermind who directed Batman, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands, was the man who dreamed up this film, I had to see it. I remember getting wrapped up in the gorgeously dark scenery so skillfully and painstakingly created through the use of stop-motion animation. I remember tapping my toes to the addictive music of Danny Elfman. I simply enjoyed it, filed it away as a pleasant holiday movie, and went on with my life.

As I watched this magical film again today, I was struck by a few observations.

First, it was NOT directed by Tim Burton. Everyone ties The Nightmare Before Christmas to Tim Burton. While he wrote it and produced it, it was directed by a man whose name isn’t even in most movie fan’s vocabulary. Henry Selick. Do a quick IMDb search, and you will see that Henry Selick had just as much to do with the look and feel of Nightmare as Tim Burton did. He adapted Roald Dahl’s James and The Giant Peach long before Burton tried his hand at Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And he skillfullly directed the wonderfully rich and dark Coraline. Clearly this film is great because of its collaboration. Tim Burton’s concept and characters, the lyrics and music of Danny Elfman, and the hard work and dedication of hundreds of artists are held together and made better by the creative glue of Henry Selick’s direction.

Also, watching this film again, I had all sorts of thoughts about the nature of Halloween vs. Christmas, the commercialization of Christmas, and the feelings of longing for something more fulfilling than the amusement of fright. But the biggest thing that caught my attention was the wordplay in the title. It is a cute and clever twist on the first line of the well known 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” But it got me thinking if there was something deeper in the title. What is the nightmare before Christmas? Is it referring to Halloween? Jack? Perhaps the nightmare is that sense of longing that Jack and Sally feel. But because I have Movies on the Brain, my mind cross-referenced to a scene in the 1997 Steven Spielberg movie Amistad where one of the slaves is looking through a Bible illustrated with drawings of biblical events. One slave says to the other that he is beginning to understand this book. As he shows the other slave a picture of Christians being attacked by lions in the Roman Coliseum, He says, “Their lives were full of suffering. Then he was born (pointing to a picture of baby Jesus in the manger), and everything changed.”

Do you see the connection? Jack Skellington (The Pumpkin King) is revered in his native Halloweentown, but he has grown tired of the same old routine. While wandering through the forest, he stumbles across and opens a portal to Christmastown. He is intrigued and impressed by what he feels in this magical place. Although devoid of any reference to the Christian origins of Christmas, besides a quote from the kidnapped “Sandy Claws” who shouts, “Haven’t you ever heard of peace on earth, good will towards men?” Jack’s feelings aren’t totally dissimilar to the emotions that accompany the new birth. Much like Jack Skellington, our lives are empty and we continually search for something more until we stumble across the meaning of Christmas. Sadly, the true meaning of Christmas is never unearthed but it still raises all sorts of ideas about the comparison of the death symbolized in Halloween to the life that is found in Christmas. Our lives before Jesus are the real nightmare before Christmas. Our lives were filled with suffering then Jesus was born and everything really did change.

Not all of my posts will be this religious in their thrust. That is just what came to my mind. Join me next time for #249 the Korean Romantic Comedy, My Sassy Girl. I’ll probably watch the American adaptation of the same title as well to compare them. See you then and remember, there is no cure for movies on the brain.