Monday, August 11, 2014

Music Class

Mr. Holland's Opus
Director: Stephen Herek
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Glenne Headly, William H. Macy, Olympia Dukakis, Jay Thomas, Terrance Howard, Alicia Witt
Released: December 29, 1995

Oscar nominations:
Best Actor - Richard Dryfus (lost to Nicolas Cage for Leaving Las Vegas)

This film, about a music teacher, expands a time span of 30 years. Richard Dreyfuss plays Glenn Holland, an aspiring composer, who takes a job as a high school music teacher to make ends meet while he writes his composition in his spare time. He teaches at John F. Kennedy high school in Portland, Oregon. Okay, follow along with me here for a second: the first class he teaches is the class of '63, which means that he started in the autumn of 1962...JFK didn't die until November 1963 so they kind of jumped the gun on that! And I suppose they could have named the school after him while he was in office, but does that ever happen? I'm certainly not aware of any Barack Obama High School that may be lurking out there! And even if they did, the school would have to have been brand new since Kennedy began his Presidency in 1960. All I'm saying is that they should have chosen another president to name their fictional school after. The timeline just didn't match. 

He is not thrilled about being a teacher and is exasperated with his students because they fail the tests and are horrible at playing their instruments. His teaching method is just to have the students read the text book and give them a quiz at the end of each lesson, but soon realizes that's not working for them. He starts playing records for them and tells them that rock and roll music and classical music aren't so different from each other and plays cords from famous songs of both genres on the piano. His wife, Iris (Glenne Headly) tells him to hang in there for four years and then they'll access their situation to see if he can work on his compositions full time so he can become rich and famous, except it doesn't exactly happen like that. 

Iris becomes pregnant and gives birth to their son, Cole (his full name is Coltrane as he's named after John Coltrane and he's lucky they could shorten it to Cole because Coltrane is a horrible first name!) who is deaf. It's not until he's well into his first year that they don't notice there's something off about him when they're at a parade where a loud siren goes off and everyone is covering their ears and babies are crying, but young Cole remains oblivious in his stroller, asleep. Unless Cole became deaf right that second, I'm a little confused. Didn't they notice there was something wrong with his hearing within the first week of his life? Even though babies can't communicate, they usually look at you if you're talking to them. My cat looks at me when I make a noise! They take Cole to a specialist who tells them not to use hand gestures with him. Obviously this was a time when sign language was uncouth and that specialist was an idiot because Iris finds it very difficult and frustrating to try to communicate with Cole while her husband spends most of his time busy with his work and students. 

We see a few of the connections he makes with his students. The first ever was with a student from the first class he taught, the class of '63. Gertrude (speaking of horrible names...) is a redhead (played by Alicia Witt) who needs help with the clarinet. I think he gives her good advice and bad advice. The good advice is when he tells her to just have fun when she's playing the clarinet after he plays her a record of "Louie Louie" and asks her what's the first thing that comes to her mind and she says, "They're having fun." The bad advice (and bad screen writing) was when he asked her what her favorite thing about herself was and she replied her hair because her dad told her it reminded him of the sunset and he said, "Play the sunset." What does that even mean? That doesn't make any sense. But maybe it wasn't bad advice because as soon as he said that, she nailed her solo. It was still cheesy, though. 

Another one of the students he mentors is a football player who has trouble keeping the beat played by a very young Terrance Howard...who would later star in August Rush, another movie about love and appreciation for music. When the '80s roll around, his son is now a teenager (and attends a school for the hearing impaired) and there are hints that he and his wife are having marital problems. Rowena is a girl from the class of '80 who is part of the spring musical production. She has aspirations of going to New York after she graduates (like, literally right after) to make it big there and she and Mr. Holland develop a near bordering creepy relationship. She invites Holland to run away with her and while he does meet her at the bus stop and give her an incredibly awkward kiss, he declines the invitation. He is working on a new composition that he has named "Rowena" and when his wife sees it and asks who Rowena is he makes up something about her being a mythical goddess and when Iris is at the school's production she sees the name of the main singer is Rowena and how many people are named Rowena? Plus Rowena is looking right at Holland when she's singing "Someone to Watch Over Me" so it doesn't take much for Iris to put two and two together, but she never mentions it to her husband. The movie is 2 hours and 25 minutes and if they had dropped this entirely pointless plot line, it would have been two hours. 

The death of John Lennon brings Holland and his son closer together. I was listening to a podcast review of this guy had seen it before and the other hadn't. The guy who had never seen it made me laugh when he commented, "Did people really treat John Lennon's death like it was 9/11?" Obviously he was exaggerating a tad, but I do see where he was coming from. It was all over the news, which was understandable...I remember the next morning after Michael Jackson died, the radio was playing a tribute to him, but the characters in the movie acted like it was one of their own family members who had died. Cole wants to show his dad something when he comes home from work, but  Holland tells him he's not in the mood because somebody died and that Cole wouldn't understand and then Cole tells him he knows who John Lennon and the Beatles are and Holland realizes that despite his son being deaf, he can still understand and know about music. At a music function Holland puts on for his son's school, he sings a John Lennon and Yoko Ono song for Cole called Beautiful Boy. I had never heard of it until I listened to it on the soundtrack. Holland apologizes in advance for his singing ability and let's just say this song sounds better when John Lennon is singing it. It's a sweet sentiment, but I can't think of too many teenaged boys who would be thrilled to have their dad singing such a sappy song to them! At least Cole couldn't hear his dad's awful singing!

The make-up department did a great job with aging Richard Dreyfus. He was 48 when he made the film. At the end of the film, Mr. Holland was 60, so they aged him down and up for the role. They didn't do such a great job with aging William H. Macy (or W.H. Macy as the opening credits has his name) who plays the assistant principal to Olympia Dukakis's principal, then the principal when she retired - he has the same buzz cut and glasses throughout the entire movie. It's as though the entire movie's make up budget went into aging only Dreyfus! When the movie wants to skip a few years, it will show clips of famous events that happened in those years. The only jarring part is when it skips from 1980 to 1995 without any clips. This is the biggest gap that the movie passes through and apparently nothing happened in the entire decade of the '80s! Nothing at all! I also have to laugh at how hard they're trying to make the 1995 class look so cool. Oh, look, there's two boys holding hands - we have gay students at our school now! It just felt like they were trying to hard to try to be cool with the times. At least in '95 it makes sense to have a school called John F. Kennedy High School! 

Mr. Holland is forced to retire because the school is taking away the budget for the music and drama classes. The school has put on a warm reception for him where many of his students from pass classes - including Gertrude, who is now the mayor, have come to perform one of his musical oeuvres. 

While a bit saccharine at times, it's an uplifting story. I would recommend watching it, but feel free to fast forward through all the scenes with Rowena! 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Sail Solo

All is Lost
Director: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Robert Redford
Released: November 7, 2013

Oscar nominations:
Best Sound Editing (lost to Gravity)

Back in 2010, I started reading the blog of Jessica Watson, a 16-year-old Australian who sailed around the world by herself. She started her voyage from Sydney in October 2009 and returned the next year in May. It was really interesting to read her blogs (which took me a few weeks to get through them; after all she had seven months of entries!) She talked about everything from describing how things worked on her boat to writing about her food supply and what she had for dinner and she often put up photos she took. Now while she sailed by herself, she wasn't exactly unassisted as she could call her family or the people who were assisting her with this journey on her radio and she often talked with them everyday. Of course, if she did get in any trouble, it would still be a pretty scary thing because she's out in the middle of nowhere! She roughed a few storms, but she made it home safely. 

While watching this movie, I was reminded of her, although it seems she didn't have as rough of a time as Robert Redford's nameless character...who is the only character in the entire movie. We as an audience don't know anything about him, except he is out sailing the ocean. I presume he's a retired man with a dream to sail the open seas. The film shows us he is an experienced sailor as he is shown doing everyday maintenance with the boat and knows how to pump out the water when his boat becomes flooded (which looks like a tedious and painful process!) 

Redford's character encounters a violent storm which results in his boat turning over a couple times, which, for me, was just scary watching...I can't imagine being in a scenario like that! He has to resort to using his lifeboat with his survival supplies because his boat is ruined and he watches his boat that you know he put a lot of time and effort (and money!) into sink beneath the water as he sits in his raft.  

This is real-life Survivor...there is no Jeff Probst, no tribal council, and no hidden immunity idols! And there is definitely no food reward challenges as he has to ration his canned foods and use his fishing gear in his survival pack. When he sees a large cargo ship, he uses a flair to catch their attention, but it doesn't work. He does this until he only has one flair left which you know is worth life or death. There was one scene where, when he's fishing, a shark pops up and grabs his line and Redford falls back into the raft. I was a little worried, that, excuse the pun, the film was going to jump the shark at this point and have a shark attack which wouldn't fit the tone of the film. Luckily, such a scene didn't happen. There are no attacking sharks, sorry to ruin that for you. We just see a swarm of sharks under his raft at one point, but nothing becomes of it. 

The movie is very sparse on dialogue. The most amount spoken by Redford is at the beginning when he's giving a voice over monologue. We later learn that's what he wrote in a letter he put in a glass bottle that he tossed out for somebody to find. Other than that, the only time he speaks is when he's calling for help on the radio and when he curses when everything goes to hell. And he says the word that anybody would say in that situation! There is something very cathartic about dropping the f bomb when you're really furious! Even with his near-mute acting, Redford gives a very riveting and captivating performance and you definitely feel for him when he is desperate to survive. If you were to ask me, I would have taken out Christian Bale for American Hustle from the Oscar nominees and put in Redford. It's been awhile since I've seen Redford in a movie (I think the last one was the movie he made with Brad Pitt?) and I couldn't help thinking, He looks like such an old man! But he is 77, so he is up there in age! I remember watching All the President's Men in my government class in high school and the girl who sat next to me and I both agreed he was pretty hot "for an older guy", lol.

In elementary school, we all learned the three major literary conflicts: man v. himself, man v. man, and man v nature. The last one is a definite theme in the movie, but I would also say man v. himself is prevalent as well. In the end, it's up to him about whether he wants to survive or not. I won't give away the ending, but it's not an ambiguous one where you're not sure what happens to know for sure whether he lives or dies, but it does keep you guessing to the very end.

I actually think it would be kind of fun to sail around the world...only if I knew what I was doing and only if the weather was perfect the whole way through. (Like that would happen...doesn't it storm in the ocean like 99% of the time?) I think a lot of people would balk at the idea because the solidarity would drive them crazy (even if they did have a phone and Internet access). But Jessica Watson said there was always some maintenance or cleaning to do and she would blog, watch a DVD, or read books in her space time. See, that's what I would like: I have a pile of books I need (and want!) to read, but I don't always have time to just settle down and read them. I would love to have seven months of solitaire just to read books and watch movies and catch up on TV shows. Of course, I'd probably think, This is great! for the first week or so, then I'd probably want to get back to land! 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Let's Make Lots of Money

The Wolf of Wall Street
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Matthew McConaughey
Released: December 25, 2013

Oscar nominations:
Best Picture (lost to 12 Years a Slave)
Best Director - Martin Scorsese (lost to Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity)
Best Actor - Leonardo DiCaprio (lost to Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club)
Best Supporting Actor - Jonah Hill (lost to Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club)
Best Adapted Screenplay - Terence Winter (lost to John Ridley for 12 Years a Slave)

My city's newspaper movie reviewer liked this movie, but he commented that he saw a few walkouts and the article got a few feedback letters from readers saying they walked out of the theater. Now I have seen a few movies in the theater I wish I had walked out on mainly because they were long and boring. This movie is long (three hours) but it is not boring. But I'm doubting its the length that made those people walk out. This movie is not for everyone. Let's just say it earns its R rating. There is plenty of vulgar language, nudity, and drug use. If people are going to be bothered by that, then they shouldn't see an R rated movie about a self-centered rich guy! What are they expecting?!

Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) adopts the Gordon Gekko motto of "Greed is good" and makes riches as a stockbroker earning something like $49 million a year. I had never heard of this Belfort character and didn't realize he was a real person until this movie came out. I enjoyed DiCaprio's performance of him, but would not like him if I ever met him in real life. He was a bit of a smug jerk, but I suppose most rich people are smug jerks...I would probably be a smug jerk if I were rich! The film breaks the fourth wall with Belfort talking to the audience. I love the bit at the beginning where he's  walking out of his mansion, talking to the camera as he sips on a mimosa and tosses the glass flute and the rest of the unfinished drink in a bush behind him. I thought little moments like those were great.

Belfort tells the audience that that he made $49 million last year, but it pissed him off because "it was just 3 shy of a million a week." Now the line delivery is hilarious, I won't deny that, but seriously? If you're complaining that you're not making a million a week, you really need a tall glass of STFU. I would be happy if I made one percent of what he made!

Matthew McConaughey has a small cameo as the executive who takes a young Belfort under his wing and molds him into the stockbroker he will eventually become. When he is forced to quit his job because of Black Monday, Belfort, desperate for anything, takes a job at a small Long Island firm that sells penny stocks. He impresses the crew there with his charming salesman tactics...he was someone who could sell ice to an eskimo. There's a great scene where he's making a big sell to some unassuming schmuck and everyone is gathered around him as he's making the deal. Belfort teaches the others how to scam people out of their money and soon they are lucrative and Belfort starts his own firm called Stratton Oakmont where they make even more money...because now they're conning rich people into paying lots of money for worthless stocks instead of average Joes. One of the people who Belfort takes under his own wing is Donnie (Jonah Hill), this socially awkward weird guy who lives in the same building as Belfort but notices that Belfort drives a nice car and wants to know what he does.

Everyday is a party and spectacle at Stratton Oakmont. They bring in strippers, monkeys, marching bands, bet people to shave their heads, and don't forget the drugs. There were a lot of people who worked there and they all seemed to be making millions of dollars which I didn't really get. How are all these people making so much money? Wouldn't Belfort want all that money? I have no idea how stockbroker firms work anyway...which is probably why I'm not rich! There's an amusing scene where Belfort's dad (Rob Reiner), who manages the firm's expenses yells at Belfort for spending thousands of dollars on a business meeting dinner.

Before he acquired his riches, Belfort was married to a woman named Theresa. Having already seen his future, you know they do not stay together because he's married to a blonde bombshell. I figured he was going to dump Theresa as soon as he started raking in the dough, but that's not the case. He meets Naomi, the blonde (Margot Robbie) and cheats on his wife with her. His wife catches them together and they get a divorce. I think he does feel bad for hurting his wife, but after five seconds he realizes he has a more beautiful woman and marries her...then starts cheating on Naomi!

If there's anything that Belfort loves more than women (well, then besides his money), it's his drugs. He is a hard core drug user and one of the most memorable scenes involves him and Donnie taking something called lemons which is a quaalude that doesn't exist on the market anymore. They both take one, but after thirty minutes (and watching an entire episode of Family Matters without laughing), they decide the drugs have lost their effect and take a second one...and after that they take a third! Well, turns out these drugs need 90 minutes to kick in...which seems like an awful long time to wait! Or maybe it was 60 minutes, I don't remember...that's still a long time. Belfort gets a call from his dad telling him to use a different phone because the feds (led by Kyle Chandler) are onto his scam and have tapped his phone. He drives to the country club in his Lamborghini and the drugs don't kick in until he's talking to his dad on the pay phone and suddenly can't speak and looses all function of his muscles. He wants to get home quickly to warn Donnie and his wife and thus begins a hilarious segment of him having to crawl down stairs and into his car. I heard this scene lasts about 25 minutes! It does go on for awhile, but I guess since I was so entertained by it, it didn't seem that long to me. I felt a little unsure whether I should by laughing or not because here was this guy who was totally impaired by drugs and could have killed someone by getting into the car. Luckily he didn't. In fact, he's so out of it, he only remembers driving very slowly and not hitting a thing and his car being in perfect shape, when in fact, later a police man comes to give him a ticket for reckless driving and we see his car as being totaled and wrecked beyond ruin.

I knew that scene was played for laughs when later we get a very serious scene involving Naomi telling Jordan she wants a divorce and he tells her he's not going to take his children away from him (I didn't know why he said "children" when I think they only had one daughter...?) and he then attempts to kidnap his daughter and nearly kills both of them when he almost crashes his car.

Eventually Jordan's scam catches up with him and he is caught by the FBI (while filming an infomercial, no less) and is sentenced to two years in prison. With all his extravagant things, Belfort didn't do a very good job of hiding his money from the IRS...even though he tried to put it in a Swiss Bank (although that did not go over very well), but I couldn't really blame him. If I had all that money, I would want to buy nice things too...even if that money was obtained illegally! I think that would be anyone's first impulse. Look at poor Walter White: he had enough money to last a lifetime (several lifetimes!) but the only things he ever bought with it was a nice bottle of champagne and a new car for his son. At least his money will go to his kids under the disguise of rich benefactors. But that would suck to have all that money and never get to spend it! So I can't blame Belfort for going a little crazy with it. So don't obtain money illegally!