Friday, June 20, 2008

Category Five: My 5 Favorite Film Endings (Twist)

The other day I offered up my five favorite film endings that weren't twist endings. As I stated before, I mean the literal ending of the film, as in the last seconds before it goes to black.

Twist endings have an upper-hand because they are undoubtedly going to force a major reaction. Good endings, ones that feel natural (or at least plausible) totally change everything you just saw and add a whole new element to the film when viewing it for the second time.

Bad endings make you want to throw something at the screen, outraged at the sheer audacity that someone either thought you would think it made sense or didn't have enough confidence in their film to let it end normally.

In this case, I was again looking at the literal ending of the film, which made it a bit tougher. Rarely is the major twist revealed at the very, very end.


#5: Psycho

Way before twist endings were cool (and then stopped being cool), Hitchcock dropped a HUGE one. We thought we were watching a film about a crazy old lady that hurts her son's fledgling motel business by killing the guests, but he loves her so much that he tries to keep it a secret.

Turns out it's much more complicated than that. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is totally off his rocker and thinks that he's his mother, inhabiting both personalities and killing anyone that could possible thwart that reality.

His mother's decomposing body is found in the basement dressed up in her nicest sweater, sitting innocently in a chair. Norman is subdued and taken to jail.

The movie loses almost all of its momentum when there's a lengthy, boring pseudo-scientific explanation for why Norman did this, but really it doesn't tell us anything we don't already know.

Thankfully, it's saved by the final shot of Norman as we hear his thoughts, which have now switched back to his mother's thoughts. That grin on his face is incredibly creepy, even more so when his mother's dead skull is superimposed over the image right before the fade out.

I only wish it had faded to black instead of the shot of the car being pulled out of the mud.

#4: Seven

I debated for awhile about whether or not this was actually a twist ending. Make no's a hell of a climax. I haven't seen the film in a few years but checked out the ending, which still packs a wallop.

I've decided it counts as a twist for two reasons:

1. While we're likely expecting something big to happen when John Doe (Kevin Spacey) leads the detectives out to "the other victims", we probably think his plans involve killing them, not coercing one of them into killing him.

2. Knowing the ending adds an element to the film when you watch a second time, as Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) takes on a new importance, making both her relationship with her husband, Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) and her secret with Detective Somerset (Freeman) preludes to a horrible tragedy.

After the climax has occurred, we see police cars dealing with the aftermath as Freeman's narration takes us out: "Ernest Hemingway once wrote 'The world is a fine place and worth fight for.' I agree with the second part."

Considering what we've just witnessed, it's hard not to agree with Somerset's take on it.

#3: The Sixth Sense

I envy anyone that saw or will get to see this movie without knowing that there's a twist to look for. I knew beforehand and figured it out one scene before it was revealed.

But even if you're expecting a twist, (hell, even if you figure out what it is) that doesn't make it any less jaw-dropping. It's perfect because it doesn't take anything away from what you've just watched. In fact, it makes it that much better upon a second viewing.

Malcolm (Bruce Willis) finally realizes the truth when his wife (Olivia Williams) drops his wedding ring onto the floor. A number of other things (the table blocking the door, the cold air, the blood on the back of his shirt) make the answer undeniable.

We do get a few quick shots from earlier in the movie, but it doesn't get monotonous. Instead, we get to see more of the opening scene where Malcolm was shot (and died).

Now knowing that he must go, he sits down and tells his wife that he loves her. Perhaps hearing him in her sleep and thinking it's a dream, she tells him goodnight.

We fade to a quick shot of their wedding video, showing them dancing together. It's a reminder that they both have to move on before they can be happy again.

#2: Memento

This whole movie is a trip. I'm still not entirely convinced that Christopher Nolan wrote this script the way that it appears on screen. He swears he didn't write it forwards and then move things around later. Either way, it's still genius.

There are a number of twists revealed throughout the film, some from scene to scene and some that stretch across the entire film. The fact that half of the film runs backwards makes this only natural.

The end (or beginning, actually) of the film has a number of twists. Lenny (Guy Pearce) is Sammy, the man he keeps telling a story about. That is, he accidentally killed his own wife (who didn't die in the attack that gave him the condition) through insulin overdose when she tested his condition. Lenny already killed the other attacker but obviously didn't remember it, so Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) has used him a number of times to kill people he wants to get rid of.

But the main reveal is that Lenny manipulates himself so that he'll kill Teddy. He's not a cold-blooded killer, but he knows he'll do it if he believes that Teddy killed his wife.

What I love the most is how the film ends in a comical way, with Lenny looking around and asking, "Now, where was I?"

#1: The Usual Suspects

Does anything even need to be said? Though it spawned a trend that I hate where "twist" movies feel the need to repeat dialogue and/or shots to make sure we understand what's just been revealed, in this case we need the help to process the bombshell that's being dropped.

It starts with the dropped cup of coffee. We want to know what Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) just figured out. At first, we don't understand what he sees on the corkboard. What do all of these names have to do with anything?

But then it starts to sink in. What really sells it is the reveal of Kobayashi on the bottom of the coffee mug. Pure brilliance.

Then, just when we we're starting to realize that Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) made it all up, we cut to him walking down the sidewalk, as he slowly loses the limp and stretches out his hand. And gets into a car with Kobayashi (or whatever his real name is). Verbal is Keyzer Soze.

Kujan runs out after him, but he's seconds too late. He's left standing alone on the sidewalk, looking around in confusion, whatever what the hell just happened.

And so are we.

Craig Brewer Is Just Light-Skinned

Eager to check out some Blu-ray movies on my new player, I moved some films that were available in that format to the top of my Netflix queue. I wound up with Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan at the same time, only later realizing they were both written & directed by the same guy.

This guy.

As you'll no doubt notice from glancing at his picture, Craig Brewer is white. I wasn't aware of this fact until I checked him out on IMDB. After watching Black Snake Moan (and knowing the plot of Hustle & Flow), I was curious.

I was a bit surprised to discover that he was white, but that surprise grew ten-fold after viewing Hustle & Flow, an excellent movie that realistically portrays the life of a small-time pimp in Memphis trying to break into a rap career.

Terrence Howard deserves A LOT of credit for making that character sympathetic and a person worth rooting for, all while not shying away from the ugly truth about what he does for a living. It wouldn't have been the same without him.

But what raised it from "great performance" to "great movie" status is the range of characters that Brewer created. Djay (Howard) takes center stage, but the film is filled with rich characters whose struggles we can understand and relate to.

Of particular note is Key (Anthony Anderson), a lover of music who gets by doing sound for churches. He wants Djay to be the next big thing so he can go to the top along with him. In addition to helping create the music, he has to work out things with his wife, who isn't so happy about him spending all of his free time with a pimp.

There are plenty of other diverse characters, and of these, only two are white. One is a boy who plays piano at Key's church. He has a real ear for rap even though, as Djay humorously points out to Key, he's white. (And as played by D. J. Qualls, he's the whitest of white guys.) But Key counters that he's just "light-skinned."

Intentional or not, I couldn't help but think of Brewer himself, a white guy who obviously has a real passion for rap. Not just rap music in a general sense, but specifically underground Southern rap music.

This love of music continues in Black Snake Moan. While that film drops a couple of rungs on the believability scale, it's not going for complete accuracy. Samuel L. Jackson plays Lazarus, a retired and depressed jazz musician. He's a predecessor to Djay in a sense, as Hustle & Flow discussed jazz's influence on rap.

It's hard to explain (even the trailer can't fully describe things), but his character finds Rae (Christina Ricci) unconscious in a ditch and takes her in his home. He discovers that she's a nymphomaniac and believes God has put her in his path so that he can cure her. So he chains her up in his house while doing so.

The film feels a lot like A Streetcar Named Desire in that there's a lot of steamy tension and semi-controlled violent outbursts. It just doesn't take itself as seriously.

While having a "half naked white woman" chained in your house might make this sound like a softcore porn, it's actually a pretty heart-warming tale about a makeshift father-daughter relationship. Not to say there isn't any sexual content (You can't just tell us that she's a nympho, after all.), but that's not the point of the story.

Music is again a running theme in the story, though not necessarily the main one. Lazarus begins playing again, which aids in Rae's healing process and ultimately gives him a new purpose in life, thus "raising him from the dead."

Lazarus doesn't have as many facets as Djay (and, thus, isn't as realistic), but the film still has a number of interesting African-American characters.

I can't wait for whatever Brewer comes up with next.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ode to an Ad: "Unbreakable" Trailer


The majority of complaints about movie previews fall into one of two categories:

1. They give away too much of the plot.

2. They don't really give you a sense of how good (or bad) the movie is.

Point number one is well taken, but it's worth noting that in the "olden days," trailers gave away much more than even the most revealing one's do these days. Films were much more of a spectacle back then, and advertisers wanted to get everyone out of their house and into the theaters by showing them EXACTLY what they could expect see.

Times have obviously changed, as theater-going is no longer an event. It's just something you do on the weekend.

Yet advertisers are still faced with the obstacle of luring people out of their homes (or away from other activities) into the theaters. Even when dealing with lovers of film, the advances of home theaters and the convenience of Netflix makes it that much tougher to convince someone to spend an evening in the theaters (not to mention driving, parking, and likely eating somewhere).

Trailers need to show enough to gain the film-goer's interest, but if they show too much, that person will feel as if all of the surprises are gone.

The second argument, that trailers don't always let you know how good or bad a film actually is, is also valid, but it just means that people are doing their job. While I do feel that there is some art involved in the making of a great trailer, it is primarily advertising. When given a bad film to market, it should still result in the best possible trailer.

I think a more legitimate complaint would be that some trailers fail to give you a sense of the film's tone. That happens more often than you'd think. In order to appeal to a wider audience, a film's true style is sometimes hidden during the marketing campaign.

This trailer for Unbreakable doesn't hide the fact that it's going to be a slow movie. The entire two minute preview is spent giving us one real piece of information about the plot.

The film itself plays out at a similar pace. Some find that frustrating, but I think it's full of rich detail and totally works for the story it's telling. Whatever your opinion, the point is that the trailer lets you know upfront that if you're looking for a fast-paced film, you'd better look elsewhere.

And in this particular case, the slowness of the trailer makes it impossible to reveal too much of the film's plot. While this style wouldn't work for all (or even most) trailers, they could all learn a lesson from it when deciding how much story the audience needs to learn to be interested.

Granted, this is a bit of a special case because it came from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, hot on the heels of The Sixth Sense's major success. Name-dropping that film is all it takes to get a lot of people excited.

But ignoring that for a moment, the trailer gives us a tantalizing bit of information. Bruce Willis' character was in a horrific train accident, was the only survivor, and doesn't have a scratch on him.

It's impossible to hear all of that information and not wonder why. Your mind jumps to all sorts of places. There's lots of possibilities, but we want to know the real answer. And we're shown that Samuel L. Jackson's character knows something about what's going on, which leaves us wondering who he is and how he knows about this.

The answer to this question (at least the basic answer) is actually delivered fairly early in the movie. The rest of the film is Willis' character rejecting the idea, eventually accepting the idea, and finally learning what he must do with this new information.

Many people that make trailers wouldn't have minded showing all sorts of details from Unbreakable, probably stopping just short of revealing the final twist (which, for the record, I'm not a fan of, as it adds nothing to the story).

And really, it wouldn't have necessarily been an awful thing to answer that question in the trailer. (The equivalent reveal would be the "I see dead people" line from The Sixth Sense, which is shown in that film's trailer. And I'm pretty sure Unbreakable's first major reveal happens earlier than that one did.)

But by only giving us as much as was need to pique our interest, it allows that much more of the film to be a surprise. I saw the film because I wanted to know what the deal was with Willis' character, and the film delivered that...slowly and powerfully (which is also what I was expecting, thanks to the magnificently edited trailer.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Category Five: My 5 Favorite Film Endings (Non-Twist)

A great ending can leave a lasting impression. A smile on your face, a laugh in your belly, a tear in your eye, or a heavy weight on you soul.

Conversely, a bad ending can ruin a perfectly good movie. If it's a great movie, the ending might not necessarily RUIN it, but it means that you're forced to add "except for the ending" when discussing it as a great movie.

Here is a list of my favorite endings to film that aren't twist endings. I've separated those out for two reasons. One, the obvious fact that by the very virtue of being a twist ending, they pack a huge punch. Two, I figure I can get another list out of those.

But before I present the list, let me be clear what I'm talking about. I literally mean the ending of the film. Not near the end. Not the awesome scene that's right before the little tag at the end. I mean the moment before it cuts (or fades) to black. Sure the stuff leading up to that influences how great of an ending it is, but these films end at just the right moment.

And I think it goes without saying since we are talking about film endings, but here's the warning just the same: THERE BE SPOILERS!

#5: Being There

The book does not end the same way. In fact, I was impressed with how the author took his own pretty short book and expanded it into a two hour plus movie without it feeling unbearably slow.

That's not to say that it doesn't feel slow because it does...on purpose. It's a simple movie about a simple man.

We never learn much about Chauncey. He's a gardener. He's learned most of what he knows from television. And he has some sort of learning disability, though it's never fully explained.

By the end of the film, Chauncey is a well-known figure in both America and across the globe. No one can figure out who he is or where he comes from. Despite the fact that all of his advice is in actuality gardening advice (which people take for metaphors) there are plans to make him the next president of a major company. The current president, whom Chauncey has become close friends with, has just died.

Meanwhile, Chauncey wanders away from the funeral and attends to a small tree. And then he literally walks on water. Just to make sure we're paying attention, he sticks his umbrella under the water to show us this isn't supposed to be an illusion. Then he continues on his merry way, pausing to take care of some other branches.

It's nonsensical, yet at the same time, it makes perfect sense for this character whom we really know nothing about.

#4: The Godfather

While it's up for debate, the majority of people would agree that this is Al Pacino's best role. For those of us that are used to "crazy yelling" Al, it's remarkable to watch him play Michael Corleone, a quiet subdued "good son" who ultimately winds up in the family business that he was desperately trying to avoid.

In the last scene, Michael's entire demeanor has changed. It's not so noticeable at first because his character is fairly emotionless (externally, that is) from the beginning. But you can see it in his eyes. They don't react to his sister's sadness at her husband being killed. They don't betray his lies as he swears he had nothing to do with the killing.

As if it weren't bad enough to lie in the first place, he then tells his wife not to ask about his business. That's pretty horrible, but he takes it a step further and tells her that, just this once, he'll allow her to ask. He treats it so that telling her the truth is a compromise on his part instead of what should be expected.

And when she asks him if he had his sister's husband killed, HE POINTS BLANK LIES TO HER.

She's relieved. But she doesn't really believe him. She tries to tell herself she does, but that only lasts as long as it takes to walk out of his office. Then she turns back, watching as his associates gather around him.

One looks her in the eye before closing the door, forever separating her from her husband, and finalizing the transformation of Michael Corlenone from the man he was to the man he has become.

#3: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

What makes this ending work so well is that EVERYTHING has been previously set up. McMurphy has faked being lobotomized. He's spoken of the escape plan that involves ripping the water fountain out of the ground and hurling it through the window. And Chief, who for most of the film was thought to be at least as crazy as everyone else, has been shown to be probably the sanest one of all. He doesn't belong here. He's a prisoner.

If ever a murder could be completely justified, this is it. McMurphy wasn't in any real pain and could have lived for many years to come. But he was already dead, because the McMurphy that Chief smothers is not the McMurphy we've fallen in love with during the course of the movie.

With that mercy killing done, Chief has had enough. That this place would do this to his friend is too much for him to take. So he strains and struggles, pulls the water fountain free, hurls it through the window, and runs off into the woods.

The sound awakens the other patients who begin to cheer for him. And though we might not hoot and holler, we are cheering right along with them as we watch Chief disappear into the night, finally a free man.

#2: Monsters, Inc.

As fate would have it, I can't find videos of my favorite two endings. Hopefully I can describe them well enough that it won't matter. (Or at least well enough that you'll want to go check them out again.)

If I didn't love Boo and want to adopt her as my own, the movie wouldn't have worked at all, much less the ending. But the fact is that she's amazingly cute and fun.

The last we see of her is an incredibly sad moment, where Sully has to take her back home and leave her there. She opens the closet to scare him, but there's nothing there except her clothes. "Kitty?" she asks. Thankfully, it cuts away before she starts crying, which is undoubtedly what happened.

Meanwhile, back in the world of the monsters, her door is shredded so that Sully can never see her again.

Cut to some time later where things have changed. Now they gather the laughs of children instead of their screams. Everything and everyone is happy.

Except for Sully. He still keeps the drawing that Boo made of the two of them, along with a piece of the door to her room.

That's when Mike takes him aside to show him a secret. He's rebuilt the door from scratch, carefully gathering all of the pieces of wood. And it only needs the final piece before it will work.

Sully goes through the door and appears in Boo's room. All we can see is him as he looks around, searching for Boo.

And then her voice, with that high pitched squeal of excitement. "Kitty!" And a big smile on Sully's face before we cut away.

Man, that ending makes me cry out of happiness every single time. Actually, I just teared up writing about it.

#1: say anything

While the 80's did a great job of making high schoolers feel like real people with real problems, this film has two extra elements. One, John Cusack. Simple as that. And two, the subplot featuring Diane's father's tax evasion, which results in him being put in prison.

Even when Lloyd visits him in prison, trying his best to patch things up between him and his daughter, Diane's father insists that it's a bad idea for Lloyd to go with her to France where she plans to attend art school.

And you know what? He's probably right. We're talking about people that just graduated high school. Sure, they're in love now, but things could change and cause a lot of drama for both of them.

While the film doesn't really address what will happen down the line, it does hint at those feelings of wondering where their road will take them.

In the final scene, Lloyd and Diane are sitting in the airplane as it takes off. She's headed to art school. He doesn't know what he wants to do with his life other than be with her.

Diane is nervous, mainly about the flight, but really it's a way to show that she's nervous about everything that's yet to come. So are we.

Lloyd tries to calm her, explaining that it's just some turbulence, and that once the "seatbelt light" dings off, everything will be okay. He means in regards to the flight, but again, it's a subtle way of assuring her and us that they'll be okay.

The film doesn't try to act like this is the best idea. They are both nervous, and you can see that they aren't so sure this is a good decision.

They focus on the light. We focus on the light. Then suddenly it DINGS. Cut to black.

Perhaps their relationship doesn't work out in the end. But at the moment we last see them, everything is absolutely perfect. Including the ending.

Women Wear Pants Too: Jodie Foster

From time to time, I'll highlight a lady that gets to do more in Hollywood than just play the wife/girlfriend/romantic interest.


I know she's a pretty obvious choice, but that doesn't mean she's not worth highlighting. All the writing I've done about The Silence of the Lambs recently got me thinking: When was the last time Foster played a character that was just a romantic interest?

We're talking about a woman who broke into mainstream by playing a child prostitute in Taxi Driver. Her character's only slightly forgettable because she shares the film with one of cinema's greatest creations, Travis Bickle. But when they have scenes together, she completely holds her own with DeNiro. And she was only THIRTEEN when this was filmed. (Funny enough, Taxi Driver and the original Freaky Friday, in which Foster plays the daughter, were released in the same year.)

Admittedly I haven't seen any of her films that she made in the 11 years after this, and it's highly likely that she plays a character with little more to do than be a love interest. But in 1988, she won her first Oscar for The Accused in which she plays a rape victim enraged at the negligible punishment her attackers receive on account of her being a "questionable character."

The sad truth is, this mentality still exists today, though I'd like to think it's not at rampant. The film is still relative now, so I can only imagine the impact it created when it was released 20 years ago.

In 1991, she of course had The Silence of the Lambs. I don't think I need to say anything else about that.

Since that time, she hasn't made many films, but only once has she played a character that could be written off as "love interest," when she appeared in Maverick alongside Mel Gibson. He definitely takes the center stage in that film, but her character was still pretty fun.

But take a look at her other films. Nell. Contact. Panic Room. Flightplan. Inside Man. The Brave One.

While not all of these films are good, they all give her the chance to play tough, out of the ordinary characters. Of particular note is her character in Inside Man, which could just have easily been a man. The fact that it's not automatically makes the part unique, but Foster takes the character to a level even above that.

It should also be noted that Foster has directed two films in this period, one that she appeared in (Little Man Tate) and one that she did not (Home for the Holidays).

The latter film is arguably the most generic in terms of female characters associated with Foster during the past decade and a half. But she didn't appear in it; she directed it. Not to say that a film directed by a woman automatically gets a free pass (It definitely doesn't.), but there aren't enough female directors, let alone actresses that also direct.

Flora Plum, the film Foster has been trying to make for years, sounds more like the kind of material I'd expect her to direct. While the hopes of that ever getting made are slim, I hope she can find something else she's passionate about and bring it to the screen.

I'm sure there's another masterpiece left in her. I just don't know whether it will be a film she directs or a character she plays. Maybe both. Guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Lethal Weapon" Is Uplifting

Last week I talked about how Die Hard is depressing. Talking about Die Hard, especially when considering the entire series, always makes me think about the Lethal Weapon films. While there are a number of differences (one is a buddy cop series while the other isn't...even though it tries sometimes), right now I want to focus on two specific ones.

1. While the Die Hard films don't get better as they go (The first is leaps and bounds above the rest [and above almost all action movies, period], but I would place the third one as next best and perhaps even put the fourth above the second.), the Lethal Weapon films each get worse.

2. The Lethal Weapon films take the Martin Riggs character in the exact opposite direction of John McClane. And they make that change a prominent part of the story. (I think this could have made it a much better film series if it had been done successfully, but its lack of grace and subtlety in this area ultimately becomes its downfall by the time you reach the fourth film.)

The first time we meet Martin Riggs, he's trying to work up the courage to kill himself. Not your typical action hero behavior. His wife was killed, and he's not dealing with it well.

Partnering with Roger Murtaugh puts some purpose in Riggs' life. He befriends Murtaugh and his family, eventually fighting to save them.

He's definitely changed by the end of the first film. He's no longer suicidal. But he still has that crazy streak, which makes him lovable.

Then in the second film, his dark past gets dug up as one of the villains admits to being his wife's assassin. And on top of that, Riggs' love interest is killed. Not many films would do something like that, especially that late in the film. Having not had a love interest in the first film, you expect her to stick around. Her death is pretty shocking.

This knocks Riggs down pretty far in the stability department. While he doesn't become suicidal again, he's definitely depressed.

That changes in the third film when he meets his match (and much more playful love interest) in Lorna Cole, a fellow cop. It would have been a total cheat to kill off this love interest as well, but aside from that fact, this was a natural progression for his character.

While the third film isn't great by any stretch of the imagination, it doesn't out-stay its welcome like the fourth one. In this film, Riggs' is expecting a baby. He's now a family man. And he's so connected to Murtaugh's family that the romance/pregnancy in that family affects him just as much.

They pound the "family" message too much, even going so far as to end the film with a group "family" picture that includes Leo Getz.

So if Die Hard is about the futility of man, Lethal Weapon is about the restoration of the soul. But as time has taught us again and again, it's a lot easier to avoid being cheesy when you break a character down than when you build him up.

In other words...I'll take futility.