January 30, 2010

#95: The Last Picture Show

Next on the list is Peter Bogdanovich's black-and-white love letter to a disappearing American west. The Last Picture Show was adapted from a novel by Larry McMurtry, the screenwriter who later penned the Oscar-winning screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, and marks the screen debuts for Cybill Shepherd and Randy Quaid. Fun facts!

Company: just me and instant Netflix this time. It proved to be a good choice. I always love a buddy but this seemed to benefit from silence.

Cuisine: my dinner: baked tilapia and zucchini with fusilli. Completely delicious. Why don't I ever make fish? It's so easy.

Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd. Doesn't Timothy Bottoms look sorta like a mix of Paul Dano and that kid who played Peter Brady in The Brady Bunch Movie?

The Last Picture Show takes place on the eve of the Korean War in a small town called Anarene, Texas, and follows two friends, Sonny (Bottoms) and Duane (Bridges) as they graduate from high school. Both boys fall for the same girl (Shepherd), but Duane is dating her and Sonny ends sneaking around with the wife of his basketball coach (Cloris Leachman in an Oscar-winning performance). Duane's girlfriend Jacy's mother (Ellen Burstyn) is the richest woman in town but naturally in a loveless, thankless marriage, and finds ways to occupy her time.

Ruth (Leachman) looks on enviously at Lois (Burstyn) at a dance at Christmas.

The film is largely silent, and only scored by popular music from the time, a common practice now but an innovation then. Large spans of the film are silent save for a tinny Hank Williams song playing on a radio somewhere offscreen. Add this to the black-and-white palate and the near-total eye-level camera work and the film becomes a somber ensemble piece, in which no piece of acting feels fake and everyone, even the rookies, are on top of their game. The film scored four supporting actor Oscar nominations for Bridges, Ben Johnson (the winner), Burstyn and Leachman (the winner), and remains the only film in history to have that many supporting nods. I think this is a testament to how strong the cast is as a whole. I wouldn't have been surprised to see Bottoms and Shepherd with nominations too, but they were 19 and 20 at the time, and almost complete unknowns.

What made the movie a revelation at the time was how frankly it deals with sexual liberation. Sex is viewed as a pastime, even a game, in a place where there's barely anything else to do. One man, Sam the Lion (Johnson) owns the town's pool hall, the only restaurant, and the movie house -- without them, the townspeople would have literally nothing else.

Jacy experiences love amidst billiards.

It's as though sexual experience is the barometer by which a person's knowledge is measured. Everyone wants to have it, and then as soon as they have it, there's no further you can really go. They're back to being bored in their boring little town. What I loved is seeing how these kids, no matter what their dreams or ambitions, are destined to end up in this little town; mirror images of them exist everywhere, from the owner of the pool hall to the kind but weary waitress (Eileen Brennan). They're all so anxious to get going, to hurry up and have sex, as though they were racing the clock -- but against what? In this town, there's no rush, because even those who try to escape ultimately end up there again. You could even argue the character who goes off to war near the end of the film is destined to end in Anarene.

It's all too bad, because they're good natured kids, and all of them are pretty easy on the eyes too. The generation gap is clear -- the old men of the town shake their heads in disgust at the terrible high school football team, but you know those football players will end up as those men, rooting for but ultimately disappointed by a bad team.

Is this all a metaphor for the disappearing West? Bogdanovich shows clips of Red River and other Western classics, and paints such an emotional landscape that we feel like we're watching a Western, even though there's no horse or lasso or John Wayne in sight. The town feels like it's disappearing; even a hamlet of 1,131 people should feel more populated than Anarene, and yet it seems like a ghost town.

"Never you mind. Never you mind."

Maybe it's just a city of broken dreams, of young kids wishing they'd get out, having sex too soon and marrying the man who get them pregnant (the mothers of these high school seniors seem almost uniformly to be near 40), and then settling down to raise the kids. Is it a cycle of regret? Can anyone break it? The one who does is off to Korea. Will he come back?

Sonny watches the bus drive away. I'd imagine he could envision himself there.

I don't think the film provides any easy answers, and perhaps it asks you to formulate your own questions. At a glance, The Last Picture Show might seem like a cautionary tale for growing up too fast, but I have a feeling it would reward multiple viewings, like most classics. I suppose the story isn't especially revolutionary, especially now given that most movies employ sex as a plot point nowadays, but the emotional portrait of this small Texas town is certainly powerful.

I didn't think I'd like it as much as I did, but I think when I look back on this movie I'll remember the silence, powerful and awful and aweful, and how much can be said without words. Bravo.

Well, I got through six movies this month, ninety-four to go. Not really on track, but given what's been happening in my life, I think I did okay. I'll try to bump it up in February. Next up: a Royale with cheese. Quentin Tarantino's mid-nineties crime comedy Pulp Fiction.

January 24, 2010

#96: Do the Right Thing

Hey again! I'm back from a long movie drought, thanks to unexpected and joyful winter employment, and ready to kickstart this blog back into shape. How am I only on the fifth movie? This goal seems to grow rather than diminish as I watch on. How can that be?

Company: Anna, sister, available and prospective employee, awesome host

Cuisine: delicious homemade pizza (cherry tomatoes, spinach, pineapple, goat and mozzarella cheese, olive oil, garlic, oregano and Mrs. Dash on a Boboli whole wheat crust) and Chuck Cabernet, homemade fudge cookies (Anna: "Weight Watchers! One point each!"), carrots, and those supah-scrumptious French Onion pita chips from Trader Joe's with Holy Land hummus

The pizza was delicious ... and, as it turned out, cinematically appropriate.

But enough about the feast -- onto the flick!

This weekend I saw a movie that had been on my Netflix queue for a good long while: Spike Lee's 1989 joint Do the Right Thing, which was very controversial when it hit theaters during the first Bush administration. Upon further research, the title comes from a Malcolm X quote -- simply, "You've got to do the right thing." What that 'right thing' is exactly becomes a key point for discussion late in the film. Also: our current President and First Lady saw this movie on their first date. Talk about heavy!

This film also holds the embarrassing honor of being the only film on the AFI's list directed by a black man. (Sorry ladies -- there's not even one picture directed by a woman.) No more needs to be said on the matter except: wake up, AFI, and see the world of cinema that's not directed by straight, old white men. Moving on.

This is just such a money shot, I had to include it. Intimacy: staying cool on such a hot day.

The film opens with a saxophone (the score is by jazzman Branford Marsalis) and Rosie Perez doing angrier variations on the Roger Rabbit in late 80s fashions to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." At first, this opening sequence is strange and almost laughable, but it becomes clear by the end of the film that it's an expression of a deep-rooted frustration. I only wish it hadn't taken so long to get to that conclusion.

We are introduced to several characters on a single street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn, most of whom are African-American or Puerto Rican. In fact, for the first half of the movie, most of what we're seeing is introduction, mood setting, imagery ... and not a whole lot of story. I'm fully a believer that we can see nothing happen and it can be fascinating, but I'll admit my patience was wearing thin with the story by the hour mark. Portions of this hour-long prologue to the major events of the movie played like Altman, as though we were seeing Nashville (luckily, on my AFI list!) set in Brooklyn.

Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) "always watches."

The story follows Mookie (Spike Lee, the star and director), father to a child with Tina (Rosie Perez) and delivery boy for Sal's Famous Pizzeria, run by Sal (an archetypal but fantastic Danny Aiello), an Italian-American who has supplied the neighborhood with pizza for 25 years. He and the Korean grocer across the street are the only suppliers of food on the street, something noted by a sort of Greek chorus of old men sitting against a bright red wall near the pizzeria.

Their dialogue (mostly improvised) and the wall foreshadow danger, even on a cloudless, sunny, and sweltering hot day. The men make note of the fact that there are no black-owned businesses on the street, and the Koreans "haven't been off the boat for a year" before their market is a thriving business. This was when I realized: maybe this film won't be about any event. Maybe it will just be about making observations on the injustice of the African-American experience of the late 80s. Well ... I was sorta half-right.

Without spoiling everything, let's just say that small tiffs grow into miscommunication and misunderstanding, which grow into big tiffs, and lives are changed forever. You get the sense by the end that the tight-knit neighborhood will never be quite the same. But I think part of the genius here is that the plot is merely a jumping off point for many snapshots of simple, covert (and overt) racism and oppression. The Italians telling Mookie to "talk some brother talk" to his black friend, as a way to calm him. The local youth harassing a white man who bought a brownstone in the neighborhood. Whites saying that Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy and Prince are "more than" black, that they transcend their race. There's even a scene that's simply one character of each race rattling off racial epithets against someone else. No one is innocent, everyone is racist.

This brings us to what I think is most important about this movie: Spike Lee has made a movie about race that doesn't take sides. No one gets off free and clear at the end. Racism is everyone's problem, and everyone has to deal with the consequences.

This neighborhood is full of immigrants, some who were born here and some who were born elsewhere, who all want a right to turf, a right to life. They're all fully committed to protecting their honor and their pride, and no one is in the wrong. So if no one is in the wrong and no one gets off scot-free, who did the right thing? Did Mookie do the right thing? Did Sal? Did Radio Raheem? Who's our antagonist? Lee offers no simple answers, but rather hopes to facilitate a discussion. He ends the film with two distinctly different quotes -- Martin Luther King, Jr. advocating non-violence, and Malcolm X advocating violence as self-defense. Two quotes, two radically different schools of thought, but both stemming from the same problem, the complex problem that Do the Right Thing hopes to illustrate, probe and dissect.

How does it do? I'll leave that to you, because honestly, as much as this movie has been on my mind the last 24 hours, my head is spinning and I need some time to digest it.

Next up: #95. Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show.

January 13, 2010

#97: Blade Runner

I had seen Blade Runner once before, alone and uninspired by it, and now rewatching it I had forgotten most of why I hadn't cared for it, so I came at it with eyes as fresh as they could be.

Company: Moni and Asbjorn, fantastic aunt and uncle who have probably seen twice as many movies as I have; Stephanie, younger sister, gourmet chef and distributor of wacky vocabulary; Anna, older sister, recently consumed by a job search; Mish, Moni and Asbjorn's cat, who perched on my chest for portions of the movie

She just curled up on my chest. Jealous?

Cuisine: Stephanie's delicious fondue de poulet a la creme out of the Julia Child cookbook, white wine and leftover Christmas cookies (will they ever end!?)

Blade Runner is a 1982 "neo-noir" science fiction film by Ridley Scott, who had just come off from directing Alien (aaaand let's talk about why that movie isn't on this list). It was initially received poorly, faring badly with critics and audiences alike, but has since become a cult classic and has inspired scores of science fiction films, including the one most influential on this generation, The Matrix. Based on the fantastically-titled 1968 Philip K. Dick novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," Blade Runner opens with a scrolling-text prologue informing us that it's 2019 and masochistic humans have created themselves again in the form of Replicants, humanoids who are so similar to actual humans that they can only be told apart by Voight-Kampff tests.

World's most unnecessarily huge ceiling fan, or just visual trickery?

When interrogated, these humanoids have one dead giveaway: they cannot register emotional responses. They're being questioned because Replicants are no longer welcome on Earth after, having been shipped to "off-worlds" to be used as slave labor, they rebelled. We're so egotistical that our highest ambition is to replicate ourselves, and then when we don't like them anymore, we exploit them... and then we're actually surprised when they fight back? Incredible.

The plot follows Rick Deckard (played by a 40-year-old Harrison Ford -- how was he already 40?!), a retired cop whose job it was to track down and kill (or, more appropriately, "retire") any Replicants found on Earth. He's called in from retirement to find and kill six Replicants who, having managed to get back to Earth, want to increase their lifespan (Replicants were conveniently built to only live a set amount of time).

The first three movies I watched on this list were about big, somewhat happier themes like promise, hope, glory, fame and redemption. This is the first darker movie (no complaints here) and it's certainly one that takes its time introducing us to an environment.

The opening shot shows us Los Angeles in November 2019, a poisoned world on fire with industry and filth. But luckily for us, there's green grass on the other side ... of the universe.

Floating advertisements promise "a golden land of opportunity and adventure in the off-world colonies." After we've poisoned and destroyed this world (the book deals more intimately with man's relationship to animals, who have been all but eliminated from the planet), naturally we'd go find another. It's a macabre parallel of WALL-E -- even the loudspeaker voice was vaguely reminiscent of Fred Willard. Long stretches of the movie, accompanied by what could be described as futuristic smooth elevator jazz, just show us this post-apocalyptic world, almost as complete breaks from the narrative.

Deckard's hunt for Replicants is disturbed by his attraction to Rachael (Sean Young), a woman who is suspected of being a Replicant. It's difficult to confirm her status because she is a prototype for a new Replicant that can feel and has memories of a past. It's the first time he's been confronted with murdering something (someone?) who can feel. The rest of the film follows Deckard's pursuit and simultaneous bud of compassion of the humanoids.

A great shot: Deckard emerging from behind Rachael, as the line between human and android has grown too small to see.

An overarching theme of the film is the essence of humanity: what makes us human? Do we long for our humanity, or do we wish we could remove ourselves from it so the pain of life would be easier to handle? The last Replicant to survive, Roy Batty (played with sinister Aryan verve by Rutger Hauer), puts it this way: "Nothing is worse than having an itch you can never scratch." Is living a disease? Replicants are a slave to life: in the world of the film, they are created for labor, and their introduction to emotion has first warranted fear of their own expiration. Knowing they will die. I'd imagine the parallels with the AIDS epidemic if only the vast majority of the world either didn't care or didn't know about the disease yet. It was only the summer of 1982.

Deckard hunts Replicants in the most depressing lounge ever.

By the end, while I applaud the masterful cinematography and production design, I can't help but think that the film moved too slowly to be considered an action movie or a thriller, and didn't delve into its own questions enough to really warrant its position among great science fiction movies. Did it make me think? Sure. Did I want more? Yes! Do I think the time allotted (117 minutes!) could have been used more efficiently? Maybe. I watched the director's cut, which supposedly took out much of Deckard's voiceover (perhaps explaining the long silent stretches), but apparently Ford hated the voiceovers and I guess Ridley Scott wasn't crazy about them either. So: I'm willing to be proven wrong here, but when thrown in a pile with other greats of the genre, I think I might lose sight of Blade Runner. Some distance from it might help.

What do you think? Does
Blade Runner deserve its later accolades, or would you have been among the critics who dismissed it in 1982?

Next up: #96 is the 1989 "Spike Lee joint" Do the Right Thing.

January 11, 2010

Monologue Monday: Katie in Wet Hot American Summer

I saw this gem on my shelf and thought: aha! Yes! A monologue from this movie for my Monday mania.

Immediately I thought of Coop (pictured here) declaring his love for Katie -- "I don't care that you're bowlegged and I don't care that you're bilingual!" -- and nearly went for it, before I thought of both monologues Susie has -- "Leave your bullshit attitude and baggage at the door cause we don't need it!" and "I am busting my balls, woman!" -- and then I just couldn't decide. This movie is endlessly quotable!

But I settled on Marguerite Moreau's subtle but hysterical break-up speech, which ends up being a sort of heart to the film.

Katie: Listen, Coop - last night was really great. You were incredibly romantic and heroic, no doubt about it. And that's great.

But I've thought about it, and my thing is this: Andy is really hot. And don't get me wrong, you're cute too, but Andy is, like, cut. From marble. He's gorgeous. He has this beautiful face and this incredible body, and I genuinely don't care that he's kinda lame. I don't even care that he cheats on me. And I like you more than I like Andy, Coop, but I'm 16. And maybe it'll be a different story when I'm ready to get married, but right now, I am entirely about sex. I just want Andy. I just wanna take him and grab him and fuck his brains out, ya know?

So that's where my priorities are right now. Sex. Specifically with Andy and not with you. But you're really nice!

Any actor probably could've just said the words, but without overselling it for a moment, Moreau nails each of the stereotypes she embodies -- vanity, lust, and stupidity. The earnest way she says "I just want Andy" and her steadfast and commendably short list of priorities are topped only by the very last line, delivered as such an afterthought but probably one she should've started with. She's so iconic as the summer-camp counselor from the 80s, more so than any other character in the movie, that she might as well be one of the doomed in Friday the 13th. And in the end, we have loved Coop so much for trying, that when it all ends up for naught, our hearts break for him. Such a wacky, bizarre movie that succeeds and fails proudly, but certainly ends just right.

January 9, 2010

#98: Yankee Doodle Dandy

The third film on the list is the George M. Cohan biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy from 1942 (Mr. Cohan, who had final say over his own filmed life story, passed away a few months after the film's premiere) starring James Cagney as the Irish-American song-and-dance man who authored, composed, produced and acted in many of his own musicals and musical revues. The film is about as patriotic as Mom's apple pie wrapped in an American flag on Memorial Day in Washington D.C. A whole lot of red, white and blue in black-and-white here, people.

Company: me, myself and I. Yep, this was my first of these blogventures as a solo act. I do prefer company, but it was nice to be on my own schedule here.

: the bottom dregs of that bottle of three-buck Cabernet. Classy.

Before we continue, it should be noted (or maybe it should never ever be noted) that I was in a musical of Cohan's life (called George M! Yes, with an exclamation point) in seventh grade. All I really remember of it was that I tap-danced badly. Noted.

The whole film acts as a flashback, allowing us to reflect back over a life already lived. We open on Cohan playing President Roosevelt in a Rodgers and Hart musical called I'd Rather Be Right, who receives a telegram from FDR himself requesting his presence. The President then asks him how he got where he was today. Aaaand cue the biography.


We see everything: his birth on the 4th of July (he's barely out of the womb and his dad puts a flag in his hand!), running the vaudeville circuit with his endlessly driven family, and George's discovery of his talent and what it will cost him. This is the point where I expected the story to take a Gypsy sort of turn, showing us the biz tearing the family up, but their dance sequences continue to be choreographed with no irony, and seemingly there was no conflict in their lives at all until little Georgie became James Cagney. Perhaps the family really was idyllic, or maybe their dissent is glossed over for the sake of nostalgia. I suppose either one works.

Maybe that's why I liked the scene after the young Cohan is finally given tough love by his dad, played commandingly and with nuance by Walter Huston. "I've never met a performer who in the long run wouldn't rather be a great guy than a great actor ... that is, until I made your acquaintance." Woah, Dad! I love how the senior Cohan is seated, arms folded as though keeping his pride and love for his son back while he says it like it is, and maybe also to shield his own ego. The kid deserves it: he's already pretty full of himself, and has no trouble telling off adults who try to pay him less than what he knows he's worth. But how should he know anything else? From the start, his parents treat him as a businessman, a colleague, and an asset. To punish him, they don't hit him on the hand (he has to play the violin) or the face (he's got to sing) but on the ass. He doesn't need that to perform.

But perform he does, and perform perform perform. A contemporary take on this story might have asked that the stress of it all wore him down, or some similar angle to create a little drama, but in this happier and possibly truer version, very little gets in Cohan's way. He meets the girl, he has success (told through many fantastical montages! Oh, the montages!), he gets inspired for songs which invite more success, etc. Minor battles, like writing a song for his love only to have it taken away and premiered by another more famous actress, are treated lightly. It's a well-led life, to be sure, but maybe not the most interesting one.

Although that does beg the question: does it need to be any more interesting? George Cohan was a fantastically talented man who changed Broadway forever. His life is certainly worthy of adaptation, but do we as contemporary filmgoers now crave something more? Betrayal, revenge, greed, jealousy? Is it our modern cynicism that doesn't believe Cohan could have had it so easy? I say 'our' like it's collective and not just personal, but I really don't think I could be alone here.

James Cagney has charm for days (anyone else think he resembles Jeremy Renner? Maybe it's because I saw The Hurt Locker last night and it's on the brain), especially in the scene where a fan comes to his dressing room and believes him to be the age of his character. When he breaks out in a quickfire tap step, she cries out "Oh, your heart!" James Cagney can dance well, but honestly, he's no Gene Kelly. He seems to be concentrating a little hard, or maybe the songs just don't allow him much room to really shine, but he is joyous all the same.

And maybe that's the point, stupid. (Me, stupid. Not you.) The point is that it's joyous. The country needed to be reminded of why we were great in 1942, to make sure we were still the good guys. Maybe this movie was the antidote. It may not have started out so over-the-top but filming had begun on this film only a few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the film's cast and crew apparently resolved to make the film as uplifting as possible.

And the film ends that way, with one of the true lovely moments. Forget all the musical numbers. When George leaves the President's office, tapping down the stairs in a fit of joy, my heart jumped. Would that the whole film could have been as sublime as that one moment, but I'm glad it was there.

Now for a slew of much newer movies -- nothing before 1970 until #90 (Swing Time) -- including #97: Blade Runner! Get ready for Ridley and Harrison, folks. Until then, happy moviegoing -- and catch up on your Oscar bait! Now's the time -- less than a month before nominations are announced. To the cineplex!

January 5, 2010

#99: Toy Story

And now for something ... completely different.

Next up on the list is a movie which acts as something of a palate cleanser for the epic chariot race / Christ story of Ben-Hur, and the first movie on the list I've seen before. Toy Story holds the distinction of being the first full-length feature film to use only computer-generated imagery. Today this technology is as much a part of Hollywood as romantic comedies starring the latest sitcom hottie or year-end Oscar-hungry dramas -- in 2009 alone there were more than ten fully CGI animated features -- but in 1995, this was a very new technology. Thank God it was introduced in the hands of masters.

Company: Kecia, vivacious redhead roommate; David, culture vulture and insightful conversationalist; Sheena, sardonic Korean songstress; Anna and Ryan, sister and brother-in-law, both avid doers and do-gooders

Cuisine: three-buck Chuck, lemon drops (combined with Cabernet = not bad), and two trays of leftover Christmas cookies (two!), both of which were thrown out at the end of the night. All things must end.

This story of toys that come to life is familiar to most of us Gen-Y-ers, but I hadn't really seen it since childhood when it was aimed at me. Now, looking back, as with most animated movies, adulthood has only increased my appreciation for the wit and charm of this first of Pixar's efforts.

And as with most of Pixar's film (... okay, all of them), there's more than meets the eye. What reads to kids as a story about friendship and accepting who you are also computes for adults as a tale of rejection and obsolescence. Woody, Andy's favorite toy, is terrified (like all toys are) of being replaced, forgotten, and we are introduced to him and all the other charming characters in the bedroom on the very day that a new toy comes to town. Buzz Lightyear has lasers, a voicebox and "a very impressive wing span."

"It makes me feel really bad for ever throwing away any of my toys. I kept one of my stuffed animals because of this movie." -- Kecia

The first treatment of this script was meant to read as a metaphor for new Hollywood taking over old Hollywood (the first choices for Woody and Buzz: Paul Newman and Jim Carrey! Both were too expensive, however, and were replaced by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen) and a part of that flavor still remains. The script is funnier than I remembered (the best line is Rex, after he realizes they've been wrong about Woody the whole time: "Great! Now I have guilt!") and just as charming (the opening montage introductions, the toys that defy archetypes, Randy Newman's score, the hilarious sound design as Buzz and Woody hide in fast food containers to sneak into Pizza Planet, the wide-eyed reverence for Woody and Buzz by the aliens).

Another thing that strikes me about the movie is the code of honor by which these toys live. I'm told by Muppet fans that the story here greatly resembles The Christmas Toy, in which toys come to life when no one's looking and the punishment for being discovered moving by humans is to be frozen forever. The consequences are not so dire here (thank God Woody "breaks the rules" a little bit to "help everybody," or we might not have escaped the backyard hell of Sid Phillips, one of Pixar's great villains), but the code still exists. Some toys know to follow it, and some (ahem) don't.

After almost being completely saved, Woody and Buzz's fight erupts out of the safe haven of the minivan into the gas station parking lot, and at the sight of an oncoming semi (which I'd wager neither toy had ever seen), Buzz's survival instinct kicks in as he leaps out of the frame but Woody is so stringent about his code of toy honor that he drops dead. Luckily for him (and us) he's not crushed by the wheel, but this moment struck me as a core difference between the characters: Woody has abided by the rules all his toy-life, and it isn't his fault that he's Andy's favorite. That's just the way it is. So all of a sudden this fancy-pants "Buzz Light-Beer" (yes, it's said in this kids movie) shows up and takes over? I'd be pissed and confused, too! It's like the kid on the playground who plays by the rules, but doesn't end up having as much fun as the kid who climbed the fence or did back flips off the jungle gym. He's jealous, and a little envious, even though he'd never admit that he's just a goody two-shoes. But then of course, Buzz thinks to buckle up in front in the delivery truck, as Woody scoffs from the back and then gets wrecked. Safety first, kids: buckle up!

There's so much to love about the movie, it's hard to speak against it. But let's talk about the animation. Obviously it was groundbreaking at the time but how does it stack up given Pixar's subsequent efforts, and our collective standards for animation and 3D in 2010? Well, it's solid, but everything looks a little flatter here. Consider this chair in the opening credits:

Or the minivan in the scene at the gas station (baby in the front seat?? C'mon, Laurie Metcalf!):

I remember seeing Monster's, Inc. and reading about its steps forward: Sully's hair was so real it was hard to believe it was animated. But that was six years later. Here, textures are usually treated a little more simply, and the design for humans is a little primitive (one of the only complaints from critics at the time). With such a great movie, you need to find things to nitpick, and here they're tiny.

It's interesting to note that after Toy Story there's only three more recently-released movies that made the AFI's list in 2007: Titanic (1997), The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Now maybe it's just because this is the time period I grew up loving movies in, but this seems intensely stingy. You can bet at the end of this year and this blog project, I will be making revisions to the list and adding a couple movies from this era. But it begs the question: how long does it take for a film to achieve historical relevance? Can't we say that Up in the Air, a film that's only been showing for a couple of weeks, is historically relevant, and worthy of historian's commendation? And moreover, weren't there other, better movies made during this time period? Where is their representation on this list?

In the end, the good toys win, Andy's so excited to inexplicably have them back he doesn't even realize they dropped from the sky, Mom assumes they were there the whole time ... and no human is the wiser. Except Sid. And he deserved it. I like imagining him after the movie's done, being unwittingly tortured by his little sister Hannah. Maybe we'll meet grown up Sid in the threequel?

How about you, readers? When was the last time you saw this gem? If you rewatch it, what's different now fifteen years later? How well has the animation aged for you as a viewer? How has your perception of its thematic content and relevance changed?

Up next: the oldest movie yet, James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Til then, friends!

January 4, 2010

Monologue Monday: Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream

So I'm sitting at home brainstorming some more fancy cinematic feasts that this blog could ruminate over, and I thought I'd love to chat about some of my favorite performances and actors. I'm in fact stealing this idea wholesale from Nathaniel at The Film Experience, my favorite movie blog.

Every Monday I'll highlight a movie monologue I've found particularly insightful, brilliant and/or historical.

"It's a reason to smile."

Flipping through Ellen Burstyn's autobiography in a bookstore one day, I read that while she didn't mind losing the Oscar to Julia Roberts in 2000, she did say something to the effect of "everyone knows I should have won, but whatever." Ha! It's maybe true.

Ultimately, Julia Roberts didn't really need an Oscar to further her career, but Ellen (who already had one for 1974's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) could have used another to bump her late career into another level. She's been busy this past decade but not nearly busy enough -- her biggest movies were probably W. (as Barbara Bush), The Fountain, and the flop remake of The Wicker Man. Nothing even holds a candle to her historical performance in Requiem for a Dream.

Sara Goldfarb
: I'm somebody now, Harry. Everybody likes me. Soon, millions of people will see me and they'll all like me. I'll tell them about you, and your father, how good he was to us. Remember? It's a reason to get up in the morning. It's a reason to lose weight, to fit in the red dress. It's a reason to smile. It makes tomorrow all right. What have I got Harry, hm? Why should I even make the bed, or wash the dishes? I do them, but why should I? I'm alone. Your father's gone, you're gone. I got no one to care for. What have I got, Harry? I'm lonely. I'm old.

Harry Goldfarb: You got friends, Ma. ]

Sara Goldfarb
: Ah, it's not the same. They don't need me. I like the way I feel. I like thinking about the red dress and the television and you and your father. Now when I get the sun, I smile.

On paper, it'd be easy for this to be a terrible monologue -- the stream of thought is all over the place -- but Burstyn's delivery is layered, connected and yet erratic like an addict. The camera is relentlessly close to her face, showing every wrinkle and stress line.

"They don't need me!" No one needs Sara Goldfarb anymore, not even her one remaining blood relative, her son Harry. All she has now is a goal, an obsession, and while she knows it's ridiculous, it's too much to admit that it isn't working. She can barely say "I like the way I feel." Burstyn delivers the line like she's mustering every once of energy to believe it.

By the end of the monologue ("Now when I get the sun, I smile."), she's put on a brave face for too long, and we haven't left her face for the entire speech more than once, briefly to show Harry's reaction. The camera still stays on her, for an almost uncomfortable last moment, and she looks around, desperately looking for an escape.

A beautiful performance. What other moments in Requiem strike you as particularly memorable, ten years later?

January 2, 2010

#100: Ben-Hur

Well folks, it began. The blog-a-thon! And right on schedule: new year's day. Auld lang syne, kidlins.

The first movie on the AFI Top 100 (from the bottom up) is William Wyler's 1959 epic Ben-Hur, which I was surprised to learn was actually a remake (one of only two remakes to win Best Picture at the Oscars, the other being The Departed in 2006). Based on Lew Wallace's 1880 fictional novel of the same name (subtitled A Tale of the Christ), the story had been adapted for the screen not once, but twice before, silently in 1907 and then again silently in 1925, and it was the first work of fiction to be blessed by a pope (Leo XIII read it during his papacy). How's that for fun facts?

Company: Emily LeClair, college friend, movie lover and ultimately awesome confidant. Clocking in at 222 minutes, this is one of the longest movies on my list, so I'm glad I had a friend there for support.

Cuisine: vodka grapefruits, sugar snap peas and carrots, hummus and pita bread (a throwback to ancient times), petite quiches (leftover frozen ones from holiday parties)

The film follows Judah Ben-Hur (played with pointy-eyebrowed masculine intensity by Charlton Heston), a wealthy merchant in Jerusalem, who reconnects with a childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), who has just been made a commanding officer in the Roman Empire garrison.

At first they meet amicably (even longingly? good ol' Gore Vidal), but because of their political differences -- in a nutshell Messala is a power-hungry Roman (wearing red) and Judah is a peace-loving Jew (wearing white) -- they part ways. Then, by chance, Judah is accused and falsely imprisoned for attempting to kill the governor during his welcoming parade. Messala knows Judah to be a peaceful man, but sends him and his mother and sister to be imprisoned anyway. He is left alone in the Hur family courtyard in a striking image.

The Roman soldiers are outfitted in red throughout the film, and it becomes a strong symbol for power, corruption and, ultimately, bloodshed. I love that we're seeing him from behind trees and pillars, almost as if we're spies. The contrast here of earth tones against the red makes Messala seem even more alone in his knowledge -- he knows (and soon confirms) the whole thing was a big misunderstanding, but he justifies his decision to Judah by saying that he needs to create fear in the Jews and intimidate them by punishing a known friend. A possible study question here is: is wanting power inherently evil? Could Messala have risen to the status he aspired to without betraying his friend? Judah vows revenge, and for most of the rest of the film, he overcomes many obstacles in order to seek vengeance and to save his mother and sister.

Wyler is a master of imagery. I love the duality of the following images: first, as Judah, freed from the galleys on a battleship, looks down at the men who do not share his fate;

and then later, as Judah looks in on Messala, severely injured in the famous chariot race.

Notice that Judah is illuminated in the first image while the subject of his gaze is dark, suggesting that he is taking pity on the men below the deck, while in the second, as his vengeance and the chariot race have been won, asserting him to a place of power, he is cast in shadow while the men in the lit infirmary await him to come and speak with his enemy. The movie's chock-full of fancy duality like that -- mostly in the parallels between the two friends-turned-enemies.

Ben-Hur's back in full effect.

This whole time the Romans have been dressed in red, and once Judah is back to face his enemy again, the tables have turned: Messala is in white (albeit against the red wall of his home) and Judah's the one wearing blood. Maybe Esther's right: "It's as though you had become Messala!" Thanks a lot, Roman state! Look what you did!

So we're watching the movie, and the chariot race is over, and we think "all right, it's nearing the end ... but why is the book subtitled A Tale of the Christ?" when Jesus Christ appears and our characters are weaved into the crucifixion narrative. At first I thought it felt somehow tacked on, but as I reflect back on it, it's an essential part of this story of redemption and the power of faith. Rome has poisoned Judah, his family, and his best friend, to leave him near devastation at the end when, after sticking to his faith, Judah is saved. It's almost a Job story -- everything is taken away, and when it's hardest to do, Judah believes in salvation ... and so he gets it. A happy ending.

The film is unbelievably broad in its scope -- even by today's standards. There are many facts and figures about how much the production cost, but let's just say you can tell it's huge when the score doesn't seem melodramatic enough. I love old movie scores for that, the way they tell us just how to feel. When Judah and Esther kiss ... woah. But then some of the epic scenes (including the famed chariot race) are presented with no score at all, perhaps to bring the attention back to the narrative. Even the acting is broad -- rarely if ever overplayed, but always flirting with melodrama. Emily made a great observation that Charlton Heston is a less cute version of Paul Newman, who apparently was offered the role of Ben-Hur but turned it down because he didn't think he had the legs to pull off a tunic. Umm hello? Priorities?

Drop that hankie, Pontius Pilate! The anticipation is building to a terrifying frenzy!

In the end, Ben-Hur stands alone as an American epic. We see as many extras as you see in the Home Tree scene in Avatar, except that CGI, much less computers with movie-making technology, didn't even exist in 1959. Add on top of that the alarmingly emotional connection to the Christ story and the very real thrills of the action sequences, and you've got 222 minutes of epic. It's a chore to sit through, but the story is universal and compelling, and what more can you ask for, really?

So what do you think, readers? Have you seen this movie? Do you want to? Are you steering clear? And if you've seen it, do you think the story is universal despite its Christian origins?

A wonderful beginning to the diablogue! Next up: a movie I could watch nearly three times in the time it took to watch #100. Toy Story will be early next week!