Movie Review – “Hoop Dreams” (1994)

 

 

There is a moment in 1994’s “Hoop Dreams” that turns this documentary from a tale about dreaming for the NBA into a story about finding a relatable middle ground between your dreams and reality. It comes about halfway through the film when it becomes clear to one of the two high school-aged boys that he cannot continue on this path, due to a lack of money, and thus will not get into a proper school that will be noticed by the NBA.

At that point, you think the rest of the movie is going to be a downer as we watch his dreams fall apart and everything unravels. But he loves basketball so much that he will not let a little thing like that stop him. If anything, it motivates him further to stand out even more.

“Hoop Dreams” is a documentary that follows the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, both aspire to become the best basketball players they can be and be in the NBA. Gates and Agee both live in small poor neighboorhoods just outside Chicago, but they manage to join St. Joseph’s high school, the premier basketball school that can serve as a jumping off point to any major college they want to attend. The film chronicles their four-year journey through high school, their ups and downs, steps forward and their mishaps, whether that is a insufficient income, a fractured knee or losing power at home.

 

 

Part of the reason I had little interest in seeing “Hoop Dreams” was because of my knowledge of sports, yet never hearing the names William Gates and Arthur Agee associated with the NBA. But as I watched the film, I realized it was not just about these kids but the almost impossible journey one must take to get into professional sports. It’s just being the best you can be, nor is it being the best player on your team, but being the best out of a million people trying get into a professional sport. Whether that’s the MLB, NFL, or NBA, you have to stand above literally everyone else trying to get in.

And that’s just to get in the door, let alone staying there and making an impact. Everyone trying to get into a sport thinks they are the next Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning or Babe Ruth, but the truth is a player like that only comes along once every decade.

This makes “Hoop Dreams” a cautionary tale about the consequences of setting your dreams for an impossible goal, and the inevitable fall. But what gives the film its heart is how these two get up from that fall and find new ways to pursue their passion and love of basketball. They learn to translate that joy for sports into their lives, and to watch these real boys go through that transformation is one of the most uplifting experiences I’ve seen.

Final Grade: A-

 

Mini-Review – “Tombstone” (1993)

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I can see “Tombstone” becoming a guilty pleasure for me – A film that romanticized the old west, far less concerned with historical accuracy and more concerned with showing how amazing these times were.

On paper, “Tombstone” does very little differently from any other film adaptation of the incident that occurred at the O.K. Corral between Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and bunch of outlaws and cowboys, in particular John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine.” What the film changes are the characters and the amount of detail that goes into the violence and gun play.

Doc Holliday receives a major face-lift, now being played by Val Kilmer, as a man who seems to have a death wish. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and thought that the western air might improve his condition. All moving west did was proved to be a fortuitous occasion for Doc Holliday, as he spends his days playing poker (possibly cheating at it), and still claiming to be the fastest gun around, even in his condition. His vocabulary knows no bounds, as does his friendship with Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell). Holliday is certainly the best character in “Tombstone,” being a man with nothing left to lose and just wants to spend his last days enjoying himself, like we all would.

Other adaptations of this story have usually gone light on the violence, but “Tombstone” fully embraces the impact these guns would have back in the day, when even a shot to leg or arm was basically fatal. We see Wyatt Earp go charging into a room of unsuspecting cowboys, on horseback, and guns them all down without any remorse or second thought. The final confrontation between Earp and the lead cowboy is less of an epic strategy between both parties and more an outburst of raw anger.

Overall, “Tombstone” was a blast to watch. Val Kilmer’s performance was both heart-breaking and hilarious, while the absurd amount of violence is startling to say the least. The film has changed historical events to suit its needs, but with story of the O.K. Corral being adapted so many times, it is nice to see something vastly different out there.

Final Grade: B+

 

Mini-Review – “The Crow” (1994)

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Imagine “RoboCop” if it was all about metal and demonic powers instead of punk and technology. Your result would be “The Crow.”

In this city, every Halloween is filled with fire, chaos and all-out rage. The police are helpless against the roaming street gangs who rule this town with a bloody fist. These normally common thugs feel like they can do whatever they want, including murder a defenseless man and then rape and murder his fiancée. But one year later, this man, Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) is resurrected by a strange crow, and is now set on getting revenge against the men who murdered him and his girlfriend.

Like with “RoboCop,” the reason this film works is because of the somewhat dystopian future the film portrays and a solid performance from the lead actor.

This city of “The Crow” reminds me of Gotham from the Tim Burton Batman films, with lots of gothic architecture and a never-ending night. Half of the city seems to be burned out and the other half belongs in the junk yard, let alone be inhabitable. We see very little of the people living in this city, outside of the vermin that rule the streets and the cops that fail to stop them. These criminals have zero concern for others and live every day like it was their last, eating bullets and washing them down with copious amounts of booze.

And then we get our protagonist, Eric Draven. Brandon Lee, who was unfortunately killed before the film was completed, communicates with his eyes throughout most of the film, as he relives the pain and misery of losing his girlfriend all over again, only to be refilled with a purpose when he realizes the men who did all this are still alive. Yet there remains a quiet humanity to all of this, as Draven sends some time helping out a little girl that he and his fiancée looked out for and the cop (Ernie Hudson) that stayed with his girlfriend while she suffered in the hospital.

This is not a film for the faint-off-heart, but if you’re looking for a dark, edgy and unforgiving gothic horror action film, then “The Crow” will not disappoint.

Final Grade: B+

Mini-Review – “Primal Fear” (1996)

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“Primal Fear” is an exception to my dislike of courtroom dramas, because of the harsh urban landscape that this film paints and its ever-present sense of right and wrong.

In this film, where an altar boy (Edward Norton) is on trial for allegedly murdering a well-known priest and a high-profile defense attorney (Richard Gere) takes his case and gives the boy every opportunity, there is always this looming presence of a corrupt city that Gere’s character, Martin Vail, is doing his best to fix. Shot in Chicago, we only ever see the broken landscapes of the city, including burnt husks that remain of buildings, giant holes in street and an entire decrepit neighborhood that was bought by the church, only to see half of it get torn down and the other half still standing, as if to remind the town who has power in this neighborhood.

The people’s attitude reflects this landscape – harsh, blunt, prone to attack and uncaring. These people have very little to believe in, so they can’t even bring themselves to stand up for more than a cheap meal. The media is relentless, always asking for more information about the killings and terrible things happening around town so that everyone can be reminded of how awful people can be.

This makes Vail’s struggle so fascinating. He’s a man who will take a case, not because of the money or fame (though that certainly does help), but because he believes in the justice system. He feels that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and his clients are never guilty. Vail’s goal is to give this dying city something to hold on to, and remind them that this world does not own them.

“Primal Fear” becomes less about a courtroom case and more about saving an innocent life.

Of course, part of the reason this film is so memorable is due to its twist ending, which I won’t dare spoil here. Let’s just say most courtroom dramas don’t have a twist ending, and even though I knew it was coming I was still shocked to see everything unfold like it did.

If you’re looking for a different kind of courtroom drama and want some great suspense out of it, give “Primal Fear” a shot.

Final Grade: B+

Mini-Review – “Contact” (1997)

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This is a strange movie to look at, because the main focus point is on two subjects that I despise talking about, religion and politics. Throw science into the mix and you have a recipe for a film that is bound to make everyone unhappy, no matter what they might believe in.

Yet “Contact” walks the fine line between science, politics and faith and seems to find a meeting ground that all three try so very hard to agree upon – the search for the truth.

In this film, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is a radio astronomer, who is an atheist, and ends up locating an alien transmission from the star system of Vega. Ellie uses logic and reasoning throughout the process, even as the rest of the world has different interpretations after the news breaks. Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) is a former priest who writes about science and religion, and constantly opposes Ellie for her lack of religious beliefs in the face of something so overwhelming. There are also several key political characters throughout the film that are cautious about every step taken, for the sake of security, for both America and the world.

What we get is a realistic interpretation to the world reacting to the news that we are not alone in the universe. Some are thrilled and want to help, while others are devastated that God would have created other life in the universe besides us. Others see the aliens as our saviors and even our new gods.

But one point is made clear throughout the film – No one has the right answers. Perhaps that is to the films strength and enforces the point that the world is what you make of it.

“Contact” is a fascinating piece that discusses many issues that are still relevant today, especially issues that Hollywood does not like to talk about. The strange thing is that it finds a way to make everyone happy. Whether you believe in logic and science or faith and God, there is something to be admired in “Contact” and is certainly worth checking out.

Final Grade: A

 

Mini-Review – “From Dusk Till Dawn” (1996)

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This is an instance of a tale of two movies, where plots that have nothing to do with one another, usually from vastly different genres, come together into one off-kilter film.

“From Dusk Till Dawn” is the second film I’ve recently seen by Robert Rodriguez, and at times it does have a similar feel to “El Mariachi,” as a loner (or in this case, loners) is outnumbered and possibly outgunned, but uses his resourcefulness to outwit the vastly superior group. The difference this time around is that that is only the focus for the second half of the film.

The first half focuses on a couple of dysfunctional brothers (played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino) running from police and the Texas Rangers after breaking one of the brothers out of jail, robbing a bank, and killing roughly ten people. Tarantino’s character lives in his head, where he thinks he hears women telling him to do sexual activities to them, and is constantly screwed over by his short temper and itchy-tigger finger. While Clooney, in his first starring role, plays the cool one of the group, who makes all the plans and does his best to keep his head around his temperamental brother.

This makes the first half of “From Dusk Till Dawn” the best part of the film, as they make their way from the middle of Texas to the Mexican border, while evading police and causing even more unnecessary trouble. This gives us some great moments between Clooney and Tarantino that shows they’re both messed up in the head and just want the best for one another, despite screwing themselves other at every turn.

But the second half takes not just a U-Turn on the plot, but the car turns into a rocket and shoots right at the moon.

Suddenly, there’s a plot about vampires taking over a bar in the middle of Mexico, and now the brothers (along with their captives, one being played by Harvey Keitel) have to survive the night without being killed or turned into a child of the night.

This plot turn is not bad, nor is the make-up on the vampires and the creative ways they must fight off the vampires. But it is so jarring to go from a family crime plot with plenty of suspense, to a vampire shoot-em-up story that practically drops everything in favor of its new story.

Overall, “From Dusk Till Dawn” is a fun ride with two different halves that don’t mold together. I preferred Clooney and Tarantino arguing about how crazy the other one is while the cops are hot on their tale, but watching a kid turn a Nerf squirt gun into a vampire killing machine is also enjoyable to watch.

Final Grade: B

 

Paul’s Favorite Films – Common Themes

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This final entry in my favorite films countdown is going to be different from the others. I would like this one to be as interactive as possible, because I want your input and thoughts. If you have extensive film knowledge, or even if you don’t and only know about these 25 movies I’ve mentioned simply through my reviews, I want to hear what you have to say.

 
The question I’d like to ask is – what do you think are the common points that connect these films together? What do any of these 25 films have in common, if anything? You don’t have to relate all 25 together, but I would like to see what you think even two of these films share. This could be anything from common plot points, to characters, themes, atmosphere, message, tone, production values and anything that you can think of.

 
And, for those that do have a massive film knowledge, there is an optional question – With these common points in mind, what other movies can you think of that also share those points? Just to give myself some recommendations for the future or to possibly rethink another film in a whole new light.

 
I’ll give this a starting point and talk about the most common type of story throughout my favorite films – the misfit in a world of misfits.

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There are several of these twenty-five films that focus on a particularly strange character, for one reason or another, in a world that is either full of characters that are strange of a different variety or characters that contrast the protagonist. At times, his/her behavior is not so different from a passionate and driven individual, but in a world where that is frowned upon, this character is seen as an outcast.

 
Jefferson Smith was ridiculed by the majority of Congress in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” for staying far too close to the ideals of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, just like Edward D. Wood Jr. was never taken seriously in “Ed Wood.” Both of these characters stayed true to their passions and outlook on life, even when everyone seemed to be against them. In a way, they are both films about fighting the system for ones’ beliefs.

 
Other examples include Marge Gunderson and her husband Norm being the only competent and intelligent people in “Fargo,” Tobey Maguire and Resse Witherspoon being literally from a different time in “Pleasantville,” WALL-E being the only creäture to have come in contact with Earth for over 700 years, and of course Kanji Watanabe in “Ikiru” daring to challenge the bureaucratic symbol of Japan when he realizes that he has so little time left to live.

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We also see this go to opposite extremes with characters like Bruno Anthony in “Strangers On A Train” and Reverend Harry Powell in “The Night Of The Hunter.” Two characters that have a lot in common, but are also radically different. They are in love with themselves more than anything else and love what they do. They both have silver tongues, but to varying degrees. Harry Powell can convince just about any body to join his side by using religion and God to his evil benefits, while Bruno is more crazed and people are merely fascinated by his theories.

 
Characters like Kanji, the Tramp in “City Lights,” Marge and George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life” are not afraid to challenge what is expected of people. One could say that they live in a world separate from the one they inhabit, and wish to show everyone else the benefit of this other world. One free of hate, greed and selfishness, and instead replaced with self-less passionate people.

 
Which brings me to the next common theme throughout most of these films – hope.

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Perhaps there is a subconscious reason why I chose “Son Of Godzilla” and “Mothra Vs. Godzilla” of all the films in the series to be on this countdown that even I wasn’t aware of. Not because I think they’re the best Godzilla films, but because they are the two most optimistic of the series. For a series that includes nearly thirty movies of a giant monster destroying Japan, those are the two that choose to show mankind battling these monsters in a whole new way and focus on making a better world for the future.

 
“Son Of Godzilla” does this through not only the human endeavors to perfect a weather machine and make lands in Africa and South America fertile, while “Mothra Vs. Godzilla” has a theme of removing distrust in the world for the sake of protecting humanity. That a world divided is much more easily conquered and that the biggest threats can only be taken down together.

 
We see hope shine in so many of my favorite films. Hope for George Bailey and the struggle of man against the industry in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” hope for the Tramp and to not judge others by their status in life in “City Lights” and hope for the survival of the human race “WALL-E,” so that they can understand there is a lot of world out there.

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To opposite ends of that, we have films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Ran,” which were founded on pillars of hope and kindness, only to watch it all turn sour and rotten. In the case of “Ran,” Lord Ichimonji was blinded by pride and love for his sons to see that they were greedy selfish people who wanted nothing more than control over the entire kingdom, even if that meant destroying everything their father worked for. “Apocalypse Now,” has hope in the characters that travel down this navy patrol boat, as they want to get this done and over and move on to the next mission. But as they travel further down to the river and into the maws of hell, we see them turn to desperation and drugs, in trying to hide from the tragedies they’ve witnessed.

 
But if there was a common type of story told throughout my top 25, it would the tale of a “loner,” like Kanji Watanabe or Marge Gunderson, as they put their beliefs and morals on the line, against a threat that is not uncommon. It could be something as simple as cancer or their own greed, like “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre.” And as the film progresses, we learn this loner is not unlike us and their struggle is just as simple.

Or, to put it in the terms of one of my favorite quotes, these characters are realizing they don’t want to merely survive, but to live.

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Some of these characters knew from the beginning what it meant to live, like Marge, and is content with her life with Norm, despite everyone else in the film trying so hard to get “a bit of money” and failing at it. Others realize it over time, like George Bailey, who is so caught up in his work that he never realized just how big of an impact he had on Bedford Falls until he saw what the town would be like if he never existed. There are even characters that try their best to live, given their surroundings, like L.B. Jefferies in “Rear Window,” as he makes up names and back stories for every one of his neighbors.

Then you get characters like Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” who is merely surviving, but lives in her own twisted world where she is the living the dream and can’t wake up from something that has since turned into a nightmare.

But these characters are fighting for something the chance to live, and to give this chance to others as well. Whether they are running from giant monsters, hiding from a shape shifting alien or loving every second of the gangster lifestyle, there is something worth fighting for in all of their minds.

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Anyway, those are the common threads I noticed between most of my top 25 favorite films. There are a few more obvious ones, like how James Stewart is in four of these films or reoccurring directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa, but I decided to go with something a little more interesting.

What do you think my 25 favorite films have in common? I would really like to hear what everyone has to say and I cannot wait to see the varying responses. And remember, if you think there are any other films that aren’t mentioned in my countdown but you think I might enjoy due to those commonalities, be sure to mention those.