95. Open Your Eyes
If you had no idea what movies were and someone sat you down and explained them to you in very academic and very abstract terms, you’d go see Open Your Eyes and then be like “Oh I get it now.” This is a movie that does everything that a movie ought to do. It tells its story both visually and through well written dialogue, it experiments a bit with the narrative but not to a degree that’s alienating, it sticks a toe in pretty much every genre there is, and explores themes so universal and timeless that it’s a 1997 Spanish film that still resonates today.
The story focuses on Cesar, a fairly detestable playboy who gets away with using and discarding women because his face is his meal ticket. One day, that very face gets mangled and reconstructed beyond recognition, and Cesar can no longer define himself by his looks. As he sees himself in the mirror, and through the eyes of the people he cares about, he resists reckoning with who he really is, instead seeking a drastic means to restore his old life.
Open Your Eyes does a terrific job of putting you in this character’s shoes, making you feel what he feels, making you question your sanity as well as his. Cesar’s journey is not straightforward in any way, shape or form; his readjustment period is presented to us non-chronologically, we see moments in which he’s gripped by despair and others in which he’s living a suspiciously perfect life. You’re not only uncertain about when events are transpiring, you’re not even sure what’s real or not, and soon Cesar finds himself losing his own grip on reality as well. A doomed romance runs through the film, we even take a turn into outright sci-fi, and to say more would be to ruin a storyline that keeps you guessing.
Unless you’ve seen the remake, Vanilla Sky. In which case you probably won’t be guessing all that often. Oh well. Vanilla Sky is a perfectly good movie, but Open Your Eyes is pure cinema. A noir sci-fi psychological horror romantic thriller dealing with themes of love, loss, identity, and self worth, it’s absolutely worth your time.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): LOW. The lead’s assholery makes for some laughs but the tone gets somber later.
Adrenaline (Excitement): LOW. A single exciting scene in a car.
Awe (Visual Impact): MODERATE. A well shot movie (though the Times Square scene is the one aspect of Vanilla Sky that beats out Open Your Eyes).
Anxiety (Suspense): HIGH. Tons in the second half as you’re put in the shoes of a character whose world may not be real.
Affection (Emotional Impact): HIGH. A terrible situation even for an awful character, but it’s devastating because…
Applicability (Real World Resonance): HIGH. …it’s easy to imagine yourself in his situation.
Appreciation (Construction): HIGH. Confidently handle a lot of tonal shifts and a story that jumps around in time.
“It’s like space without the stars.”
“Oh that’s beautiful! That’s poetry that is.” ~ Nigel and David, Spinal Tap DVD Menu
94. This Is Spinal Tap
If you’ve got the DVD, This is Spinal Tap becomes an all immersive multimedia experience. The disc is loaded with bonus features, all of which 100% commit to the idea that Spinal Tap is a real band. There’s the famous commentary track featuring Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer in character that some say acts as a sequel to the main movie. Not only does the group update the audience on what they themselves and many of the film’s subjects are up to since their tour (a surprising number are dead), but they refer to a lot of offscreen shenanigans that were left on the cutting room floor. The feeling of verisimilitude increases when you discover some of these moments are actually in the deleted scenes. Watched all together, these scenes run nearly as long as the film itself (taken with the commentary there’s essentially a Spinal Tap trilogy on this one disc), and they’re a treasure trove in their own right.
But the film itself is the thing, and good as those deleted scenes are, they enhance my appreciation of This is Spinal Tap because they’re NOT as funny as the feature. The movie was assembled in the editing room like a real documentary, supposedly a hundred hours of loosely structured footage was pared down into the 80 minute film. Seeing a collection of footage that missed the cut, all presented in a shapeless mass, drives home that all the best stuff made it into the movie. Not only that, it was woven into a real story.
Any movie this loosely scripted is going to break down into little vignettes, all of which are quite funny. But a surprisingly affecting arc emerges, along with some genuinely likeable characters. Nigel, Derek, and David, although entitled and spoiled, come across as nice guys who are more trying to play the part of what they think rock stars are. As they tour through North America and the crowds begin to dwindle, you see the group try and eventually fail to keep up a brave face.
The hilarity along the way is what we really remember, like the arrival of the all black album cover, the Stonehenge reveal, and Derek’s incident with airport security. But underneath it is an all too relatable fear that your dreams will die when faced with cold reality. Not to mention, you can’t help but wonder, would it be the worst thing in the world if Spinal Tap disbanded and maybe had to try their hand at something else? Is the last minute reveal that Tap is big in Japan a lifeline for the group? Or is secretly a tragic ending?
In any event, if you have the DVD you can watch the movie, then get a sense of what happened to the group by immersing yourself in the special features. But even setting aside all the material than enhances the experience, This is Spinal Tap is a timeless gem, and a top tier comedy.
Adrenaline (Excitement): N/A
Anxiety (Suspense): N/A
Awe (Visual Impact): LOW. The grimy documentary look suits the movie.
Affection (Emotional Impact): MODERATE. Hard not to feel for Spinal Tap even if you’re laughing at the misfortune they’ve run into.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): HIGH. We’ve all felt like we’re kidding ourselves with our aspirations at one time or another.
Appreciation (Construction): HIGH. Considering how much was shot, that the movie has a flow and an arc in addition to the humour is incredible.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): HIGH. “He died in a freak gardening accident.”
93. Star Trek: First Contact
I can’t act like I’m any kind of Star Trek fan, but I do have this fascination with Patrick Stewart. I love how you can see a photo of him and not immediately know if it was taken in 1987 or last week. I love the way he brings such theatricality and dignity to all these genre parts. And though his multi-decade run as Captain Picard would let me enjoy both those qualities in abundance, the sheer number of TV seasons I’d have to watch puts me off.
But I got talked into watching First Contact thanks to a friend’s simple pitch; Patrick Stewart as John McClane. Where else do you see Patrick Stewart indiscriminately firing a machine gun, crawling through air vents, losing his sleeves so you can see that he’s surprisingly ripped, or giving bombastic militaristic orders to his dwindling crew? No, seriously, I want to watch more of this, so where else do you see it? Not in any of the other Star Trek movies, I’ve been told. The one after this is about the Space Amish or something. The laid-back James Cromwell segments of First Contact give me a bit of an idea of what that might be like, and I’m good, thanks. But no matter, the bulk of the film, involving Picard waging a fierce war with the Borg infestation on his ship, is tremendous.
The only pre-reboot Star Trek film I’ve seen is The Wrath of Khan, which I liked very much but which looked and felt like a particularly good made-for-TV movie. First Contact has many of Khan’s strengths but is a lot more cinematic in its scope, its look, and its presentation. The Borg make for frightening, highly dangerous villains, Stewart-as-action-hero is terrific fun, and the pitched battle between them makes for an incredible story. I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to anything else in the Star Trek universe, but if this is as good as it ever gets for me then that’s just fine.
*FULL REVIEW COMING SOON*
Amusement (Humour/Elation): LOW. Bit of a lighter touch in the Earth scenes, which doesn’t always jive well with the ship happenings.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): LOW. Has aspirational thoughts about what humanity as a whole might be capable of.
Affection (Emotional Impact): LOW. Everyone on the Enterprise is really talking all these apocalyptic events in stride so we kind of do as well.
Appreciation (Construction): MODERATE. I like how there’s basically no first act, we’re thrown into the thick of it right at the start and the pressure stays high throughout.
Awe (Visual Impact): MODERATE. The Enterprise has never looked more dangerous or cinematic, I’m assuming.
Anxiety (Suspense): MODERATE. The Borg are overwhelming and frightening, though the constant cuts back to Earth diffuse the tension.
Adrenaline (Excitement): HIGH. It’s Die Hard meets Alien, of course it’s exciting.
“Now John, I know you would never say so during the production, but did you ever have a moment when you felt like this is crazy, this was never going to work?”
“No. I never have any doubt. Because I believe it could happen… in the near… future.” ~John Woo, Face/Off Commentary
Why does the face swap have to happen because of science?
No, really? At a conceptual level, Face/Off is about a lawman and his quarry switching places. Fantastic. Let it happen because of magic. Have a scene where the hero is chasing the villain up a transmission tower or something. Lightning strikes, and when they come to they’re in each others bodies. Done! Our movie is off and running in twenty minutes at most. Instead, Face/Off opts to have the switcheroo happen through highly advanced surgery. Which necessitates a complicated story in which our hero and villain have to choose to switch faces. That’s what makes this movie so goofy and delicious, the sheer amount of time it spends trying to make its insane premise seem plausible.
So our villain is introduced via an inciting incident involving him killing the six year old son of the hero, then there’s a time jump to his capture in a climactic set-piece that involves a plane and car on a collision course, helicopter chases, and a shootout in a huge hanger. You feel like you’ve already watched a two hour movie with the middle hundred minutes lopped out before you even get to face swapping.
After that, the story has to jump through so many hoops to get us to a point in which the hero and the villain have fully assumed each other’s identities. Villain has planted bomb, hero has to disguise himself as villain to get information on where it is but goes to jail to do it, villain wakes up from a coma and becomes hero so he can diffuse his own bomb, hero has to bust out of jail to stop him… We’re two thirds of the way in before both characters are in place for their first real face/off, and from there it’s a dizzying bombardment of Mexican standoffs, people repeatedly attacking mirrors and wildly unnecessary boat chases.
And I’ve just been talking about the wacky story structure. In addition, Face/Off is our second and final run-in with John Woo, who was fresh off the boat when he got handed a script that originally took place in the future. But that aspect wasn’t interesting to him, so he made it a contemporary film that had to keep a single piece of bizarrely advanced technology (the face swapping procedure). Woo grafts his trademark balletic action sequences and motifs (doves and crucifixes) onto a story that doesn’t support them. He treats this silly premise with more melodrama than you can even imagine. He’s got Messrs Travolta and Cage, two of the great overactors of our time, in a scenery devouring competition. Joan Allen is in the movie too, giving a sincerely good, utterly unnoticed performance as the hero’s wife. And on top of that, it’s the late 90s, a time in which action scenes have visible stuntmen and wirework, a time in which heroes were MEN but they cry a whole lot because they’re also COMPLEX. If anyone involved realizes how funny this movie is, they never let on.
Yeah, it’s the “So-Bad-It’s-Good” pick of my Top 100. Face/Off is one where you hear people go “Oh I remember that being good.” A revisit might change their minds on that, but what does “good” matter, really? The movie is a blast, it doesn’t matter why.
*FULL REVIEW COMING SOON*
Applicability (Real World Resonance): N/A. It reminds me of the time I swapped my own face with my arch nemesis. Come on now.
Affection (Emotional Impact): N/A. Not for a lack of trying on the movie’s part.
Awe (Visual Impact): LOW. It’s that sun soaked Los Angeles 90s action movie look I have a soft spot for.
Anxiety (Suspense): LOW. I feel a lot of things during this movie, but I don’t feel worried.
Appreciation (Construction): HIGH. For all that I talked about the contortions the story goes through, within those contortions I truly do admire how good a job the writers did.
Adrenaline (Excitement): HIGH. The action scenes are a bit more widely spaced than Hard Boiled given that the story rarely allows for them to occur naturally, but what’s here is as magnificent as ever.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): EXTRAORDINARY. Wait, it isn’t a comedy?
“…” ~Buster Keaton
91. Sherlock Jr.
A 45 minute flick about Buster Keaton fancying himself a detective, this one’s sort of trapped in the netherworld between being a short film and a feature. But if it’s good enough for the AFI’s Best Comedy Films list, it’s good enough for this little nickel and dime website.
Is Sherlock Jr. Buster Keaton’s greatest work? I’ve tried to watch as many of his shorts as possible, but it’s not something I can say with any authority. Nor can I say if this movie is really funny (you’re more likely to say “Wow” than laugh out loud at Sherlock Jr.). All I really know is that Keaton was one of those early artists who revolutionized what film could be. On a technical level, this is like the best magic show you’ve ever seen put on film. How does Keaton interact with the movie he’s projecting in a theatre? How does he jump into that old lady’s suitcase? What were the logistics of that entire climactic car chase in 1926?
There’s nothing at all quaint about Sherlock Jr. In fact, with every new CGI superhero smackdown that reaches theatres, this movie only gets more dazzling. Buster Keaton had no choice but to make his films with in-camera trickery. And we’ve been so trained to look for the seams in modern day special effects, we’re not equipped to deal with a stark looking 1920s film where stunts happen before our eyes without any cuts or camera movement.
If you’ve never seen a Buster Keaton movie, this is the one to start with. I mean, it’s 45 minutes, it’s not going to wear out its welcome.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): N/A.
Anxiety (Suspense): N/A.
Affection (Emotional Impact): LOW. Low key heartbreaking to see Buster wrongfully accused, and relieving to see his name cleared in the end.
Appreciation (Construction): MODERATE. Not a wasted moment, all the elements are set up and then it’s all comedy all the time.
Adrenaline (Excitement): MODERATE. Some really daring stuff in the big chase scene.
Awe (Visual Impact): HIGH. Though the movie doesn’t look amazing the way we’re accustomed to movies looking amazing now.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): HIGH. Tips more to the elation side as you see some stuff you can’t believe.