December 31, 2010

2010 Movie Review

This is my sixth year doing this year-end list, a sort of retrospective of the films I've seen this year. Narcissistic? All right, whatever. This is the internet, this is my blog.

This year was different from other years in that I had a big, time-consuming cinematic goal to get through (the entire AFI Top 100 in one year) which took up a lot of moviegoing energy. Now, I'm not disappointed in myself in getting through only 55 of those films (31 of which I'd seen already) -- I'm actually glad that I've stopped worrying about a deadline. I'm making slow and steady progress: I still got through more than one a week! But it didn't allow for as much time to watch other movies, and I did do a lot of rewatching (which I don't normally do) for the blog. Still, the numbers are comparable (listed with my fave film of the year):

2005: 69 (Dogville).
2006: 79 (Little Miss Sunshine).
2007: 87 (Ratatouille).
2008: 74 (WALL-E).
2009: 85 (Up in the Air).
2010: 75.

Anyway, excuses be gone! It was a good year all the same. I had a hard time narrowing down a top ten, and I'm actually surprised by it. I had this inkling in January that by year's end more films from the AFI list would make their way onto this list, but only one has, and it's #95. The Last Picture Show still haunts me for some reason. The only other ones here that aren't really from this year are two I watched in a Halloween marathon, and they were both so effective and exciting that I can't get them out of my head even now.

Narrowing it down to ten is hard enough; picking one favorite has become personal torture. This year it comes down, as it has the past couple of years, to a smart, sublime thrill of a live-action film and the year's Pixar offering. The Social Network so accurately captures an entire generation's struggle with the world the way Network and The Graduate did, in a way that will certainly hold the test of time. It's won nearly every major critics award (as though no other movie was made this year, but don't get me started) so it's nearly a lock for the Oscar. But I don't want to give up hope on the most emotional movie of the year: Toy Story 3. I knew for a long time (a decade, I think) that a second sequel was coming, and everyone loved the first two, but I don't think anyone anticipated such a fitting, heartwarming and devastating conclusion to this groundbreaking trilogy. I cried so much, laughed so much, jumped so much. A movie that took me everywhere.

So how do I choose between them? ... Well. Great question. Ack. I was gonna sleep on this but I know it will just end up being six of one and half-dozen of the other. So this year, there's a tie.

My Top Ten of 2010

  • Black Swan
  • District 9
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Inception
  • The Kids are All Right
  • The Last Picture Show
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  • El orfanato (The Orphanage)
  • The Social Network (my [other] favorite!)
  • Toy Story 3 (my [other] favorite!)

The Next Ten

  • An Education
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
  • The Gold Rush
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
  • In the Loop
  • Mary and Max
  • Paper Moon
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • A Single Man
  • Swing Time

Amazing Performances

  • Everyone, especially Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie, in The Hurt Locker
  • Timothy Bottoms and Cloris Leachman in The Last Picture Show
  • The cast of In the Loop (no better ensemble this year than this)
  • Carey Mulligan in An Education
  • Jeremy Renner in Dahmer (not a perfect or even great movie, but such a fearless performance)
  • Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen (they hold that entire movie up!)
  • The cast of The Kids are All Right (Annette's garnering awards attention but the whole group deserves credit)
  • The cast of The Social Network (pitch-perfect casting)
  • Meryl Streep in A Cry in the Dark (is there anything she can't do?)
  • Belen Rueda in El orfanato
  • Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone
  • River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho
  • Natalie Portman in Black Swan

Great Moments/Scenes/Lines

  • The opening bomb sequence (The Hurt Locker)
  • Ruth's "What am I doin' apologizin' to you?" monologue (The Last Picture Show)
  • Pick Yourself Up (Swing Time)
  • "Apple juice. Apple juice flood." (Fantastic Mr. Fox)
  • “You’re not a woman.” (An Education)
  • Normandy (Saving Private Ryan)
  • The final number (Xanadu)
  • Ariadne's street-bending (Inception)
  • The table ballet (The Gold Rush)
  • So many lines but mostly Steve's line deliveries (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs)
  • "I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try - but there's no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing... Did I adequately answer your condescending question?" (line of the year, from The Social Network)
  • Tina's death (A Nightmare on Elm Street)
  • Laura's game of pili-pili (El orfanato)
  • "Meet me at the waterfront after the social." (Sleepaway Camp)
  • The campfire scene (My Own Private Idaho)
  • That shot where it looks like Nina has six thousand arms (Black Swan)
  • The bone structure monologue (Paper Moon)

Best Endings

  • The Last Picture Show
  • Easy Rider
  • The African Queen
  • Toy Story 3
  • The Social Network
  • Dawn of the Dead
  • Sleepaway Camp (best ending to any movie, ever... EVER)
  • Prayers for Bobby

Worst of the Year

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (bored!)
  • The Wild Bunch (worst of the AFI this year)
  • Xanadu (but love to hate it)
  • Sleepaway Camp (worst of the year! but again, LOVE to hate it)
  • The Blind Side (just a gloss of irritated over this whole movie)

All 75 Movies I Saw (for the first time) in 2010

  • Ben-Hur
  • District 9
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Yankee Doodle Dandy
  • (500) Days of Summer
  • Do the Right Thing
  • The Last Picture Show
  • The French Connection
  • In the Loop
  • Swing Time
  • Platoon
  • The Hangover
  • A Night at the Opera
  • Easy Rider
  • Sunrise
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Spartacus
  • Grave of the Fireflies
  • Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
  • The Wild Bunch
  • The September Issue
  • All the President's Men
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox
  • An Education
  • Dahmer
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • It's Complicated
  • Eagle vs. Shark
  • Moon
  • Xanadu
  • Unforgiven
  • Black Sheep (2006)
  • The African Queen
  • Toy Story 3
  • Away We Go
  • American Graffiti
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • Sullivan's Travels
  • Inception
  • The Gold Rush
  • Mary and Max
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
  • Rocky
  • Date Night
  • Ponyo
  • Roman Holiday
  • The Social Network
  • MASH
  • A Cry in the Dark
  • Funny Face
  • A Single Man
  • Zombieland
  • Dawn of the Dead (2004)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  • El orfanato
  • Sleepaway Camp
  • The Proposal
  • The Blind Side
  • The Evil Dead
  • Winter's Bone
  • Blood Simple
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I
  • My Own Private Idaho
  • Thirteen
  • Grizzly Man
  • How To Train Your Dragon
  • Intolerance
  • It Happened One Night
  • Prayers for Bobby
  • Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
  • Black Swan
  • Exit Through the Gift Shop
  • The Crying Game
  • Paper Moon

December 22, 2010

#46: It Happened One Night

Another film of which I had no previous knowledge. Love those. Frank Capra's 1934 comedy It Happened One Night holds the honor of being the first film to win the Big Five at the Oscars (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay), a feat that would not be repeated until One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Silence of the Lambs (both on the list!), but as far as these screwball comedies from the 1930s go, it ranks for me somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Company: all alone once again.

Cuisine: Wheat Thins and Diet Coke.

The story opens on Ellen Andrews (Oscar winner Claudette Colbert), a spoiled heiress, marries a fortune hunter "King" Westley (Jameson Thomas) against the will of her father (Walter Connolly), who snatches her away from her new husband before the couple can consummate the marriage. He wants the marriage annulled. She wants offa that boat. She jumps and somehow eludes speedboats (?) to escape. Once on the lam, she's determined to be reunited with her beau and boards a bus for New York.

On the bus she meets Peter Warne (Oscar winner Clark Gable), a down-on-his-luck journalist who recognizes her as the runaway socialite and strikes a bargain: if she will give him an exclusive on her story, he'll help her reunite with Westley. If not, he'll expose her and collect the reward. It's a clear-cut premise with a promise of comedy!

The dialogue, predictably, pits the wordsmiths against each other. He's a journalist, she's a firecracker: it works. It's that type of humor that just makes you chuckle (e.g. when the bus hits a bump and she sits on his lap, he says "Next time you drop in, bring your folks!") but not double over with laughter, and neither Gable nor Colbert is quite as zany as, say, Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby.

Tease! With that curl!

That's not to say that they don't bring dutiful chemistry and charm to the roles they're given -- it's just that perhaps the roles are not as well written as one would hope. Or maybe because so much of the movie simply watches the two outlaws on their way to New York. Of course, there are sweet, charming moments:

"Holy jumpin' catfish, you drive a guy crazy!"

... like when he takes off his shoes, rolls up his pants and carries Ellen across a shallow river ...

... or the famous hitchhiking scene, in which Peter claims superior knowledge and ends up being upstaged by Ellen's leggy legs ...

... or even the gentlemanly charm Peter displays by continuously putting up a blanket partition to maintain some privacy for both of them, calling it "the wall of Jericho." These vignettes all add up to what the formula asks, which is that the leading lady falls for the leading man, then through a misunderstanding we think all is lost.

It's an interesting plot device: the journalist down on his luck who discovers a story and changes his life with it. Very similar, actually, to Sullivan's Travels and scores of other journalism movies (like Network? maybe) that use the reporter as a catalyst or vessel for the extraordinary events of the movie. I'm not complaining -- it works -- but I just hadn't ever really thought of it as a common cinematic device before.

The end is somewhat predictable but still sweet -- and the last image really lays on the cute, so you end with a little "awww." It's not a movie that's going to change your life, but I suppose it's one of those that you really could rewatch. A sweet little valentine of a movie, if not particularly memorable.

Not gonna get another in before Christmas, so HAPPY HOLIDAYS to all y'all, and I'll catch ya on the flip side with #45: Shane. Maybe this Western will break my streak of boredom with Westerns...?

December 21, 2010

#47: A Streetcar Named Desire

Elia Kazan's triumphant film version of Tennessee William's Pulitzer-Prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire begins with that haunting jazz theme that has been in my head for years since I've seen it and only now do I realize that I didn't make it up like I'd thought. Turns out it's been there, accompanying my thoughts like Blanche DuBois in New Orleans after she leaves Belle Reve. That's a comfort.

Company: alone. Somehow it felt right to see this one alone. I've said that a lot lately, mostly because I haven't cajoled other viewers into joining me in my blogventures, but that wasn't really the whole point of the blog, and as 2010 draws to a close I'm glad it's enriched my life.

Cuisine: red wine.

Blanche DuBois (Oscar winner Vivien Leigh) appears out of smoke and boards the titular streetcar, unknowingly on a journey towards her own personal purgatory. She shows up at the doorstep of her "little sister," who is in fact older than her by less than a year. Stella (Oscar winner Kim Hunter) and her working class husband Stanley (Marlon Brando, the only major cast member not to win an Oscar) offer to put Blanche up for a while, after hearing her story that the family farm has been "lost" and that she's been given leave from her teaching position to come visit.

But all is not well in the state of Louisiana. It'd be one thing if she was just coming to visit, but Blanche is in no hurry to leave. She hurls quick insults at her sister and brother-in-law disguised as charm, her patter like a nervous songbird. Stella is used to this business, but she's a stranger to Stanley, who immediately distrusts her and digs into her past to find some answers.

We continually see our (anti-?) heroine in mirrors, as if to say there really are two Blanche DuBoises: the Southern belle leading an inexplicably glamorous lifestyle and the injured woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I don't know if it's dictated in the original play that she should sing "Paper Moon" as she gets ready one evening, but that song is perfect for Blanche: a dreamer's ode to love that's made of cardboard and muslin. As her visit to her sister's grows longer and longer, her facade begins to crack, much to the chagrin of Stella and the delight of Stanley.

Stanley and Stella's marriage is already a shaky one on account of Stanley's physical and emotional abuse, and adding the nut-burger sister into the tiny two-room apartment doesn't help. Stella does stand up for herself in the form of running upstairs to the safety of ... the upstairs apartment ... but Stanley is a charmer and wins her back every time he yells "STELLAAA!" Hunter plays Stella with a real backbone and plenty of grit, but the chemistry between her and Brando is so real that you understand why they end up back together time and time again, even if you yourself might not. But come on. You probably would.

Blanche finds some companionship in Harold "Mitch" Mitchell (Oscar winner Karl Malden), Stanley's dopey co-worker. His sick mother wants to see him settle down so he's on the marriage fast-track (wow, I've been watching too much of The Millionaire Matchmaker lately), and Blanche arrives just as the pressure's mounting. Their date is beautifully executed by both actors, who both long for each other but can't quite commit for their own respective reasons.

Here, and nearly everywhere in the film, Kazan keeps the camera close on his actors (in the apartment scenes it's nearly impossible to be too far from anyone, and in fact as the story goes on the apartment set actually got smaller to create a stronger sense of cabin fever among the characters). This not only reminds us that this is truly an actors' film, but even more amazingly it's essentially a quartet for Brando, Leigh, Hunter and Malden. Minor characters come and go but these four carry the entire melodrama on their shoulders. (Note: all but Leigh performed in the original Broadway production, and several minor characters are holdovers as well, which is nearly unheard of today. Leigh replaced Jessica Tandy to boost star power, but she had performed the role in London under the direction of her then-husband, Laurence Olivier.)

Awkward dinner party.

William's play didn't win the Pulitzer for its thematic brilliance but for its fascinating understanding of the characters and its beautiful dialogue (it brings to mind the wordplay in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- they sure don't write plays like they used to!) The scene that stuck out for me was the one in which Blanche, home alone, encounters a young man collecting for the Evening Star. Their quick scene packs so much emotional punch and then ends as suddenly as it began. Love it.

Get out of here quick, before I start screaming!

All four performances are of course legendary (this film was the first, and remains the only film besides Network, to win three acting Oscars, with Brando losing to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen -- and not to knock Bogart's sweet sea captain, but Brando's tortured torturer deserved it for this) but Vivien Leigh's central performance as the fading belle stands out for me. Just listen to her vocal work as her facade cracks near the end of the film, and the new register she suddenly brings to Blanche's desperate pleas for a way out of her fantasy. Perhaps because she was the outsider in rehearsals for the film, the only one who wasn't on Broadway with the rest -- supposedly Kazan thought that helped her performance, and you really have to agree. Now seeing this film again (I missed this summer's Guthrie staging) I appreciate even more how difficult a role Blanche is.

Another interesting talking point about the film is the wealth of changes made by the Hollywood moral code. References to Blanche's late husband's homosexuality are entirely omitted in favor of his being called "weak," but losing that crucial back story for Blanche does mar the audience's sympathy. Also, the ending is quite changed (won't say how, for spoilers' sake, but look it up on IMDb if you care or dare) as to punish the wrongdoers, whereas in the play the tragedy comes from the wrongdoer not being truly punished. This to me would be maybe the only reason to attempt a remake, to keep in the bleaker and truer ending. Otherwise, the film is nearly flawless. Don't you love it?

Don't know how many more of these I'll get through before the new year but I'm pretty happy with how far I've gotten in a year's time, even if I didn't make all 100 in a year. Speed isn't the point, I suppose. I'm also gearing up for my year-end film review, which is always fun to do.

Next up: the sweet Capra comedy of 1934, It Happened One Night.

December 13, 2010

#48: Rear Window

I recently read somewhere that Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 thriller Rear Window acts as a metaphor for the moviegoing experience. What the what? But wait for it, it actually makes a whole lot of sense. His films keep coming up on this list (North by Northwest already screened, Psycho and Vertigo are near the top) and I think I set myself up to think they'll be more action-packed. "It's Hitchcock! It's a thriller! So much action!" ... especially when many movies on this list go by without much in the way of spectacle or thrill. But what I keep forgetting is Hitchcock's mastery comes from making you wait.

Company: Steph, in a Daniel Boone cap; Marla, sister, wife of a Kiwi, home for a short while

Cuisine: I don't think I ate anything. Trying to shed that winter weight.

Famed photographer L. B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart -- Steph and I can do terrible impressions of him) is holed up in his Greenwich Village apartment after suffering an injury (what it is, we're never sure) during a shoot. One leg in a cast means he's confined to a wheelchair, and in an apartment without elevators, he's stuck. The apartment itself even has stairs up to the door, meaning he could not get out in a hurry ... or lock the door, which would come in handy later. Bored after several weeks, he slowly becomes a Peeping Tom, doing some recreational spy work on his neighbors across the courtyard.

"I think there's going to be trouble around here."

The lives of most of his visible neighbors -- the married couple to his left, the ballerina in her underwear, the lady with the dog, the songwriter to his right -- are unremarkable and mundane, but he's intrigued by a salesman across the way, a man whose name, he comes to learn, is Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), whose bedridden wife suddenly disappears. Jeff's "amateur sleuth" work, and his subsequent accusations of murder, do not impress or especially interest his cop buddy, Lt. Doyle (Wendell Corey), but they do finally light a fire under his nurse (a wonderful Thelma Ritter) and his supah-beautiful girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly).

I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but suffice it to say most of the plot points are revealed through minutiae that Jeff perceives through his binoculars and the epic lens pictured above. In this way, Jeff and his confidants seem to represent the audience, with his apartment's rear-view window acting as a movie screen. Through visual clues, Hitchcock asks us to keep up with Jeff's thought process, linking these bits of information together to solve a mystery.

Miss Lonelyhearts ventures out for a night on the town.

The main action of the film is mundane at first glance, and in fact almost plays as a silent film. There's very little scored music, only incidental tunes floating in from different apartments, and background noise like birds or traffic. It's easy to tune out of this, and dismiss the film as being uneventful, but Hitchcock's hand is in every shot, carefully crafting it. Each of those compartments have such clearly defined action, even if it seems like nothing is happening.

After a while Lisa, imagining the worst, and Stella, ever practical, wander out into the courtyard to investigate, and the fourth wall is broken. Jeff, who couldn't quite commit to the idea of a relationship with Lisa, finds his love for her ignited when she becomes a part of the movie he's watching. There's something innately sexual about being a Peeping Tom, about watching without being watched, and seeing something we shouldn't. The filmgoing experience is much the same -- it's the nature of eavesdropping, and perhaps why we loves the movies so much. Involving his cronies in the mystery brings the film to a nail-biting final act.

See what I'm talking about with those compartments? These three windows so perfectly define and separate the three elements of this part of the story, perhaps as a comment on their separation from each other and from us, the audience.

When Thorwald finally (and thrillingly) realizes the location of his Peeping Tom, he confronts him and in a race against time, he threatens Jeff's life, pushing him ...

... through the window behind which Jeff has been so comfortably perched. Now he too has become a part of the action. An intense and complicated metaphor, I know, but I think it all makes sense ... right? Again, the climax of the movie takes place sans musical score, which adds to the silent-movie feel.

A very different film from North by Northwest, to be sure, but Rear Window has those trademark Hitchcock touches that I've come to love, plus it functions as a larger story about why we love movies. What more could you ask for?

Next up: Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh battle it out in Tennessee William's masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire.

#49: Intolerance

Whew! This one was a doozy: it took me several sittings to get through this over-three-hour beast. D.W. Griffith's silent epic Intolerance (surtitled Love's Struggles Throughout the Ages) is the oldest film on this list (released in 1916! over ninety years ago!) by nine years, in fact (the next oldest is Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush, released in 1925). I don't know much about D.W. Griffith but he also directed several other important silent films, most famously Birth of a Nation (1915), and the fact that his film stands apart from all the others on this list by nearly a decade indicates that Intolerance is meant to represent an entire era of filmmaking. If any film on the list needs to do that, this one seems appropriate, spanning four interweaving stories told throughout millenia and showcasing spectacle I never thought possible in 1916.

Company: alone. Sister Stephanie offered graciously to watch with me, but as it ended up happening on instant Netflix over several sittings it wouldn't have been too convenient for anyone I'm sure.

Cuisine: well, at various times: coffee, peanut butter and Domino's. I watched the last chunk during the SNOMG of December 2010, and well, wild horses couldn't have gotten me out of this apartment.

"Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking."

The film follows four stories -- one set before Christ during the fall of Babylon; one set during the crucifixion of Jesus; one set in the French Renaissance, before and during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre; and one set in modern America -- that chronicle "love's struggle with intolerance." Mary is seen rocking her newborn baby in the cradle throughout the film in between segments, which cut back and forth between storylines with increasing rapidity.

This film has been remastered and re-released several times, and the cut available to me on Netflix had two traits I'm sure were not part of the original. A score is played throughout, which sounds like it was made by one or two electronic keyboards. At times it's useful, at times it sounds like MIDI. I'll admit though, it does distinguish each storyline. The other element is that each storyline has a sort of hue (like the green above) that also aid to differentiate and delineate the narratives. I think if this has honest to God been black-and-white and entirely silent, I wouldn't have made it through the three hours and seventeen minutes.

The film is also, as is the custom with most silent films, treated with titles along the way, which lend a helping, guiding hand but can also confuse the audience. I'm not sure if 100% of them are Griffith's original titles (some appear to be in more modern fonts than others), but some of them are actually poetry ("The loom of fate weaves Death for the boy's father"). My only complaint about some of them is that they stay onscreen too long -- for a film that's already such a chore to sit through, it doesn't make it any easier when I'm looking at the same words for 20-25 seconds.

The story I connected with the most was the modern story, of the Boy and the Dear One, who fall in love, have a child, have the child taken away by mistake, and deal with the violence and destruction of their lives. Perhaps it's because it was the modern story that it was the easiest to follow, or perhaps because it was the most detailed -- it did feel like it was paid more attention than the other stories, but maybe that was just my interest speaking. In any case, it's a gorgeously told story, with an especially beautiful (and, mind you, entirely silent) performance from Mae Marsh as the Dear One (pictured above).

Babylon under siege.

What impressed me most about the film was the scope of spectacle that I just didn't think was possible ninety-four years ago. I mean, look at these images!

And look at all those extras -- more than 3,000! The budget for the film was supposedly $2 million (nearly $50 million by today's standards) and although the film flopped at the box office, it's gained a legacy over time, as many of these types of films tend to do.

Perhaps the less harsh moral overtones of this film explain why it replaced Birth of a Nation (a film that's been accused of being overtly racist) on this list in 2007. This film battles against the more overarching theme of intolerance and hatred, which maybe isn't quite as partisan.

My favorite shot in the film comes late -- when the Boy has been falsely accused of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. The preparations are being made here, with three officials about to go behind the wall on the right, each ready to cut a string that will release the trap door under the noose, supposedly so no one person would be solely responsible for the hanging. What a shot this is! I love that all the men ascending the stairs are on the same foot, too. Just a geeky detail.

The film is referred to as "the only film fugue," which I find really interesting. A fugue is defined as "a composition in two or more voices, built on a subject (theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation and recurs frequently in the course of the composition." It's true, there is no one main plot, it's only the four "sub-plots" which function together. A fascinating musical way to look at film, and now of course I'm trying to think of any other films that could be viewed as fugues. Maybe some Woody Allen or Robert Altman film? Not quite as neatly divided, maybe, but those are the only examples in contemporary cinema I thought might come close to that definition.

"Instead of prison walls -- bloom, flowery fields."

By the end of it all, I did feel like it went a little long, that the editors could have made a few cuts and gotten it down to even two-and-a-half hours without really missing any of the story, but the long shots of the Dear One thinking something over or crying or staring longingly at the Boy make me think that the film maybe functions as a tone poem, too. Film was such a new medium at the time and I suppose the true spectacle, even above the costumes and massive sets, was the novelty of cinema in itself. I'm just so flabbergasted that this was made ninety-four years ago. Wow.

Finally over that hump! It was a joy to watch, but a pain to sit through. Some movies are just like that. Back to more familiar territory next: Jimmy Stewart is the perennial Peeping Tom in Hitchcock's Rear Window.

November 30, 2010

#50: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

"The world is changed. I feel it in the air."

Nothing much hasn't been said about Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy that won seventeen Oscars total at the beginning of the last decade, so trust that probably nothing you read here will be all that insightful. (I don't know how often I'll be able to use that disclaimer here in good conscience, knowing that the top half of this list will probably be even better movies than the bottom half.) Nonetheless, I'm growing up in a generation that has these three films to thank for our incredibly high moviegoing standards. And I have to at least try.

(PS: perfect movie day conditions [cold snowy day] plus nothing to do all day plus roommate skipping work equals ... we ended up watching all three. We were in it to win it. AND really, isn't this movie on the list, the newest of the 100, as a placeholder for the entire trilogy? It is.)

Company: Stephanie, Tolkien loyalist and film-score-singer-alonger; Kecia, does a perfect ringwraith screech

Cuisine: as it was the day after Thanksgiving, we had a smorgasbord of leftovers -- scrambled eggs with roast chicken, proscuitto and green peppers; Gruyere au gratin; toast; coffee; and homemade pumpkin cheesecake near the end.

J.R.R. Tolkien's trio of novels is really one story spread out into three books to prevent broken backs, and the three films were similarly split, although the films make a much more linear narrative than the books do, and the books encompass a different set of events than the films do. But I'm not critiquing the books: this is a movie blog, and I haven't read the books (Stephanie tried but hasn't finished). This film begins with a prologue, narrated by Galadriel the elf (Cate Blanchett), chronicling the creation of the rings of power, and the One Ring To Rule Them All. In the first few minutes, we're treated to a taste of the computer-generated imagery that the entire trilogy will showcase, in the battle at the foot of Mount Doom. The camera sweeps over an impossible number of elves and men fighting Orcs and Sauron, and your breath is taken away. And it won't come back for several hours.

Flash forward several hundred years to the shire...

... and the ring falls from hobbit to tinier hobbit, who inherits the task of its destruction. Frodo (Elijah Wood, only 18 during this filming!) and three pals (Sean Astin, who should have been at least nominated for his work in Return of the King, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan) unwittingly begin an incredible journey that takes them everywhere we can imagine, and hunted by freaky Dementor types.

But of course, the drama is heightened by Frodo's inability to keep his shit together. It'd be one thing if he just had to carry the damn thing to Mount Doom and avoid getting stabbed or tortured, but that ring! It has a mind of its own! And it wants to be found.

When taken alone, Fellowship still stands alone as a remarkable feat of storytelling, but my favorite shot in the entire film is this one, in which a frightened villager takes refuge in a very vulnerable spot while the ringwraiths speed past him, with only one goal in mind. I love the efficiency of the shot, and the way it encompasses so clearly the entire feeling of the first film: regular people involved in and terrified by a conflict they have no way of fully understanding. The whole world to our eyes seems magical but I think the Shire really represents ordinary folk, and that hobbits are regularly peaceful creatures who don't belong in such a violent world. It's not in their nature.

"Even the smallest person can change the course of the future."

The complicated politics involved in keeping Frodo and the ring safe from Sauron run deep, surely simplified in the film version, but Frodo, our tiny hero, agrees to take the ring to Mount Doom, even after facing many dangers so far. He feels as though the task has fallen to him, but in this scene at Rivendell, it seems that no one else can agree on who should take it, or perhaps that everyone else knows to be afraid. Frodo, on the other hand, is just innocent and ignorant enough to take responsibility from his much more eligible friends and embark on a journey that will last him several more months, and us several more hours.

And several more thrills. Creepy cave monsters abound in movies nowadays, but few as humongous and terrifying as the Balrog, which Gandalf (Oscar nominee Ian McKellen, the only performance from the trilogy to be so honored) famously slays but in doing so falls to his death. It occurred to me on this viewing that when he lets go of the bridge ("Fly, you fools!") that perhaps Gandalf the Grey had the foresight to know that he would be brought back to life as the more powerful Gandalf the White. I don't know if I necessarily believe that, but this time around I thought, "whatever, he could have pulled himself up ... or magicked himself outta there."

This battle with the Balrog seems so final -- in any other movie it might have been the end -- but Fellowship, I had forgotten, has about an hour left after this. I don't know if I felt like the rest of the film was a letdown, but it's hard to top that bridge duel. But we've got a lot more story to pack in before the film's end, inevitably leading to Two Towers (which does not stand alone as well) and the finale, Return of the King (which does). The Fellowship visits the elves, paddles down the river, battles with Uruk-hai, loses a member (Boromir) and parts ways, leading to the next film's need to tell three separate stories (Frodo and Sam encountering and travelling with Gollum; Merry and Pippin's escape into Fangorn Forest and befriending Treebeard; and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas anticipating and finally leading the battle at Helm's Deep). If the middle section drags, it's not the fault of the other two films, but ultimately it does what it needs to do -- tell the story.

The Lord of the Rings ushered in a new era of CGI, certainly, but also told an immensely complex story to fans and newbies alike without alienating too many. You can't please everyone, but you can sure as hell try, and I'm very glad Peter Jackson and his crew made a valiant and commendable effort. We're not likely to see this trilogy's equal any time soon.

Next up: from the newest to the oldest. 1917's silent epic Intolerance.

November 3, 2010

Cine-Smackdown: #51-#60

The fifth cine-smackdown, chumps! Half-way done, and feelin' fine. Now that the weather's cooling off, I'm seeing frequent moviegoing, movieblogging and movieloving in my future.

51. West Side Story
52. Taxi Driver
The Deer Hunter
54. M*A*S*H

North by Northwest
The Gold Rush
60. Duck Soup

I had not seen M*A*S*H, Rocky or The Gold Rush previous to the blog. Sometimes I think I like to see movies that are new to me more, but it's still fun to revisit the classics.

Of these ten, which would I move further up the list?
It might just be my penchant for lightness right now, but I'm thinking Duck Soup just now. At only 68 minutes, it doesn't have much not to recommend, and doesn't veer off the path too much to stir up much complaint from me. For some of the same reasons, The Gold Rush is probably my second choice.

Of these ten, which would I get rid of?
It might have to be M*A*S*H: there are other films that deal with war more effectively, even comically (see the upcoming Dr. Strangelove), and other Altman films I prefer to this one (Nashville is one, The Player is another that didn't make the list). While I understand its place in American cinema, it just doesn't have as much to recommend it for me as the others here.

Who in these movies do I want as my best friend?
Michael from The Deer Hunter maybe. He goes all the way back to his worst nightmare just to save his friend Nick from roulette doom. Or maybe the Little Fellow from The Gold Rush. He's not super resourceful or helpful (at least, on purpose) but we'd probably have a few laughs after I snapped out of my hunger coma.

Who in these movies do I want to have my back in a bar fight?
Um... duh. Rocky. He's not gonna back down when Apollo Creed comes after me! Also, maybe Eve Kendall (North by Northwest): she's tricky and could probably entice the enemy into giving up.

Who in these movies is your worst frienemy?
Anita (West Side Story): way to betray me just because my boyfriend killed your boyfriend! Or the crazy guy from Jaws. Let's go nowhere near that guy. Or those bitches who blow off Charlie Chaplin for his awesome New Year's dinner-party-stravaganza in The Gold Rush. The Plastics of the 20s.

Who do I take home to Mom?
My mom looks a whole lot like Margaret Dumont from Duck Soup, so my first instinct is to bring home the men of Freedonia, but something tells me I'd just end up with a leg in my hand and my hat on fire. I'd probably have to say the Little Fellow again! That bread roll ballet! My mom would love that.

You're going on a date with these movies. Who do you agree to meet for coffee but never call again?
Rocky. You're all right but I'm not crazy about boxing. Although I admire your stamina.

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then say you'll call but never do?
Taxi Driver: you're hot but way too mysterious for me. I like there to be a little less mystery in my romance, and that Herrmann theme is pressing all the wrong buttons ... or are they the right buttons? Whatever.

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then not show up?
M*A*S*H: somehow I think Hot Lips has it out for me.

Who do you meet for a first date, ends up staying the night and makes you breakfast in the morning?
Tony (West Side Story) is not only a good singer, but is also Polish: he might have a good pierogi recipe. Be still my heart!

Who do you meet for a first date, ends up staying the night and then leaves in the morning without saying goodbye ... and steals your favorite sweater?
Iris (Taxi Driver): can I really blame her? She's only 12, and she's had a rough life. Someone should really go try to save her from a life of prostitution.

What other questions would you have asked about these movies? I'd love more ideas! Leave your thoughts, reactions, passionate defenses and harsh critiques in the comments!

#51: West Side Story

"There's a place for us ... somewhere, a place for us..."

West Side Story holds a special place in my heart. The stage show, not the movie. Ten years ago I was in a production of the Bernstein/Sondheim/Robbins musical in my hometown with two of my dearest friends (both of whom were here tonight) and it was an amazing experience, not in small part due to the incredible story (that source material ain't shabby) and music. To a lesser extent, the film version strikes a chord, and although it is outdated in many ways, it still remains an incredible example of a musical story transferred to the screen.

Company: Kecia, known as Rosa (a Shark) in that production; Ali, known as Consuela (also a Shark); Sheena, Sondheim fan; Katie, wants to dance like that (don't we all); and Matt, Katie's berfrend who showed up in the middle

Cuisine: We went all out! The roomie was in her element here as she cooked up a film-appropriate feast:

first, chicken and black bean empanadas (for the Puerto Rican faction) ...

... followed by New York-style pizza, one veggie ...

... and one margherita. I have not eaten this well for any movie so far (except maybe Cabaret, damn those fish were tasty! What is it about musicals that make me want to eat extravagantly?) and it left me full for several days.

Onto the movie! West Side Story won ten Oscars in 1961, nominated in nearly every category it was eligible (notably, and appropriately, not in the leading actor categories, as Richard Beymer [Tony] and Natalie Wood [Maria] did none of their own singing) and still stands as a major achievement in the history of the movie musical. Telling the story of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set in present-day New York amongst warring immigrants is ballsy, but composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim (a baby!) and choreographer Jerome Robbins created a masterpiece that, while somewhat dated, still rings true and presents the most consistently masterful score, with tunes like "Somewhere," "America," "Maria," "Tonight," and "Mambo."

What's still groundbreaking about the musical is its brilliant musical storytelling. The entire prologue is without words, and yet we are told an entire story through song and dance (but mostly song). So many musicals written now forget to, or can't manage to, weave a musical narrative, but West Side Story is a textbook example of blending story with song.

I always thought the screen version felt long, and at two and a half hours it does start to drag. The musical numbers were rearranged slightly to lessen this problem, but it slows nevertheless. That is not as much of a problem for me as what wasn't really an issue then but what's glaringly apparent now: the cultural casting of the Sharks and the Jets. Natalie Wood (Maria) is a Russian American woman playing Puerto Rican, and George Chakiris (Bernardo) is Greek, and while it's perhaps only a technicality, it does interrupt a story that's mostly about relations between two warring factions. Partially as a result of this, Natalie Wood's performance as Maria suffers from lack of believability. Add to that that Marni Nixon dubbed all her singing and she's very easily forgotten. The performance is bland.

But what you remember about her and Richard Beymer (as Tony) is not their acting, and certainly not their chemistry, which Robbins and co-director Robert Wise try to inflate with directorial flourish. It's a love story, folks: we need to believe these two are in love, and we need to care deeply. Richard Beymer (also dubbed but at least ethnically appropriate, although just as tan as many of the "Sharks") has the range of a styrofoam cup.

Perhaps these two lead performers are doomed to walk in the shadow of the much showier supporting roles, Anita and Bernardo (Oscar winners Rita Moreno and Chakiris, respectively). At least they do their own singing.

Casting and the out-of-date vernacular aside, we're left with a gorgeously romantic epic about forbidden love that's clearly told with visual panache. Most of the numbers transfer very well to the screen (the Mambo at the gym is one of the most exciting dance sequences in cinema, and "Gee Office Krupke" is great fun), while others suffer from cinematic treatment (the quintet that ends Act One fails to find a way to cinematically represent all five points of view at once, something that's comparatively simple onstage).

Where the film enhances the source material is through Wise's and Robbin's direction. I particularly love this shot, after Bernardo and Riff lie dead and abandoned after the Rumble under a red overpass, as though the city and their surroundings have finally gotten the best of these arrogant young kids constantly toying with death. If there's any blood on the ground, we can't see it, but the image is bold and haunting.

My other favorite shot is this one, from "Somewhere," the hopeful if not altogether convinced number in which Tony and Maria affirm "a place for us" that exists outside their realm of knowledge. The stark colors behind them, as well as the lighting on the actors faces, suggests doom: sometimes, it truly is black and white, and gray doesn't stand a chance. The directors know it, the audience knows it; only Tony and Maria are still wishing against wish that the colors can be blended, that they can be together.

I just had to include this shot. Air!

West Side Story broke new barriers for musical theater, and is still a gold standard by which other musicals today are judged (amazingly, it won the Tony for Best Musical in its year to the safer The Music Man). The film adaptation is a classic in its own right but is not without its problems. I don't think this is an invitation for a remake, but I wouldn't rule it out, folks. Hollywood goes that way.

Now. I must take a moment to recognize that with the publishing of this entry, my blog is half-way finished. Only took me ten months! Yes, it's going slower than I expected, but slow and steady wins the race, my little chicklets. A cine-smackdown, and then onto the newest film on the list: the first entry in Peter Jackson's visionary saga The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.