February 28, 2010

#85: A Night at the Opera

Thanks to my dad, I did grow up at least knowing of the Marx Brothers (I remember distinctly watching Duck Soup, which is luckily further up on this list -- can't wait to revisit!) and their style of broad, wacky comedy is near and dear to my heart. A Night at the Opera, filmed at the height of their careers, was their first film without their brother Zeppo (Groucho, Chico and Harpo remained) and proved to be even more popular at the time than Duck Soup, which is now regarded as their best film.

Company: just me. I should have taken this opportunity to invite people over for a comedy. That'll learn me.

Cuisine: my own special concoction: a Roma sausage and pepperoni pizza ($1.80!) with roma tomato, spinach, red onion and mozzarella added. Insta-health? Plus a Leinenkugel's. Delight.

"Is it just me, or is it starting to get crowded in here?"

The Marx Brothers started out in vaudeville and sketch comedy, slowly developing very distinct personas and using them throughout their film careers, and gradually found their niche in satire. They seem in their films to find their way into high society and then break it down from the inside out. In this film, they invade the high-art world of opera. All three of them were also talented musicians: there's a long section near the middle of the film where Chico and Harpo both play amazing piano solos, much to the delight of onlookers, and Harpo strums the harp like no one you've ever seen. Essentially, though, the film's plot serves as a jumping off point for their sketches, including this famous one where fifteen people are crammed into a tiny already-crowded room. When the last person opens the door, all of them spill out, and the scene fades to black, making the film feel more like a series of jokes than an actual coherent film.

I think that might be one fault of the film: the opera singers whose story makes up the real non-Marx plot are not really what the audience is watching the film for, and their scenes feel like time wasters between the funny scenes. What are they for? Couldn't you just give us what we want? Up until this point, all of their films had been released by Paramount, and for some reason they switched over to MGM for this one and never looked back -- perhaps that has something to do with it? There are also several moments in the film where the picture seems to cut away quickly and then come back. Is it something to do with film preservation? We're talking a 75-year-old movie here.

One thing I love about these old movies is the way the score is used. I noticed, particularly over the opening credits, that the score is oversized and melodramatic. Every note is played for its full dramatic value, and you get the sense that we are in for an intense ride. But it's not long before this film that talkies were introduced -- maybe less than ten years, right? The Jazz Singer was 1927? -- and the score was all you got. It did all the leg work. That certainly carries over here, and helped along by the subject material. Movie music is at its best when it sets a mood, but when punctuating jokes, the score can be inspired.

Look out below!

The anarchy ensuing by the end of the film can almost make you feel bad for anyone who gets in the brothers' way. They had been criticized for raising hell for innocent bystanders in their storylines, but it seems like the world of opera is on trial here, and so anyone involved is fair game. The backstage hijinx are especially impressive, even by today's standards, especially because there's no discernible special effects happening. That's all them. I can't help but think about the fly rails backstage at the theater where I work, and all the trouble I'd get in if I pulled those shenanigans. Those hoodlums!

I have wait twenty-five more movies to get to the other Marx film on the list at #60, so by then I can hopefully provide more interesting insight. For now, this is what you get. Up next: arguably the film I know the least about so far, 1969's Easy Rider.

February 24, 2010

#86: Platoon

The first casualty of war is innocence.

I didn't know Oliver Stone was a veteran of the Vietnam war, and so as a result I also didn't know Platoon is a semi-autobiographical tale based on his experiences. To be honest, this was one of those movies I didn't know much about, but that's always nice, isn't it? Introduced to something new, no matter how bleak (thanks, Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," for being the saddest music ever composed).

Company: Mike, brother-in-law, all-season-grilling expert and provider of diet teas; Anna, fellow unemployee and biscotti sous chef; Stephanie, new Science Museum employee and Bob Costas devotee

Cuisine: a whole smoragsbord! Teriyaki chicken wings (grilled outside!), carrots, chips, plus a bottle of diet Snapple -- thanks Mike!

"Rejoice, O young Man, in thy youth" ... and watch out for lightning.

The film follows (and is narrated by) a young soldier named Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), modeled after Stone, who drops out of college in 1967 to join in combat because he feels its his duty. His first steps off the plane we see during the credits are greeted by corpses in body bags and ominous warnings that "you don't belong here." We start to agree from the very first moments, where we're introduced to Taylor, whose stomach, like ours, might be a little too weak for the job. The audience sympathizes with the kid -- we wouldn't want to be there either! -- but he did volunteer, and so off he goes, in a platoon guided by two opposing role models, the fiery but compassionate Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the tough-as-nails hellraiser Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger).

We are dropped immediately into dense forests, and it's clear from the get-go that Stone is creating a world where up could just as easily be down for all we know. The soldiers hack through the foliage, and the disorientation and claustrophobia is so real right away. Add to that the soundscape -- the eery silence amidst the hum of the tropical forest -- and there's a sense that anything could happen. When enemy fire does come, it seemingly comes from all sides. Ebert points out that by refraining from setting up clearly where the good guys are in relation to the bad guys, Stone manages to make a war movie that is riveting without being exhilarating. This is a fantastic way to describe this sensation: war movies tend to make combat look like fun. This. does not. look. fun.

On top of pointless combat, you'll also enjoy menial tasks during your stay!

After only a week, Taylor remarks, he's already sick of being here, and counting down the days until he can be sent home. We feel for him. One could argue that one of the weaknesses of the film is the lack of straight-forward narrative and plot, but I think Stone intends for us not to be able to anticipate anything. Ambush could happen at any moment; it keeps us at the edge of our seats at all times.

At one point, Anna asked, "now ... what were we even doing there?" My 29-year-old sister. I don't fault her for this -- my oldest sibling was born a couple of months after the United States' official withdrawal from the war -- so Vietnam is not immediately within our contemporary frame of reference (our modern equivalent, of course, being the war on terror). When Mike explained that we were "saving" the South Vietnamese from the North Vietnamese, I couldn't imagine it being that simple. It wasn't, and the film doesn't make it that simple for us to understand either. Everyone is potentially an enemy, and it's this point that fuels a civil war within the platoon, "half with Elias, half with Barnes," as Taylor points out.

So much death and suffering -- and for what?

Without giving away too much more of the plot, let's just say that there's death everywhere you turn, and the soldiers are at varying levels of apathy when faced with it. As Barnes remarks dryly, "everybody's gotta die sometime." Is that really the best we can hope for in this hopeless situation? With no end in sight to the conflict, what other rational viewpoint is there? Stone has created an honest depiction of an unwinnable war that bears more than one resemblance to this year's Best Picture hopeful The Hurt Locker. They're similar films in that they don't really take sides politically, they just attempt to show real-time events as truthfully as possible, and both are, as Ebert says, "riveting without being exhilarating."

The final ambush is a terrifying, mind-blowing spectacle happening in 360 degrees: it's impossible to tell who's fighting for who or who's shooting at who. The terror is real, and the conflict turns into more than just Americans vs. Vietnamese -- it's man vs. himself. Watch Taylor screaming as he unloads his ammunition into the surrounding forest. What's a man got left once it's all over, when he's become so wrapped up in a war that neither he nor anyone else in his platoon can fully understand?

A final act of "military justice."

Stone appropriately leaves us with no clear answers. Relentlessly bleak and disorienting, Platoon is a war movie that seems to be crafted without executives or producers interfering at all -- the director ain't kidding around here. The emotional punch this movie carries is intense, and will stick with me for a good long while. I've been reading Randy Shilts' AIDS memoir And The Band Played On, and I saw parallels there too -- two escalating situations where the forgotten, the unwanted, the "grunts" are left without resources in an existential wasteland with no way out. Heavy.

Thank God for something lighter after that, because another war film right after this one might slay me. Luckily we're in for A Night at the Opera with the Marx Brothers next!

February 22, 2010

#87: 12 Angry Men

First we see a courthouse, then a courtroom inside, where a murder is hearing closing arguments before the jury retires to deliberate. Soon we get our first glimpse of the setting of the film, and its title, 12 Angry Men, simply but boldly positioned over the jury room. Sidney Lumet's 1957 adaptation of a teleplay by Reginald Rose has become required reading in its dramatic stage format for many high schools -- I remember reading Juror #8 in eleventh grade Honors English -- and it's clear to see why. It's a fantastically but simply constructed argument, not only about uncertainty, but also about prejudice.

Company: just me again, but Kecia (roommate, chef extraordinaire, first-time chili concocter and maker of funny faces) is in the kitchen whipping up a batch of chili, and damn, it smells good.

Cuisine: a Cutie orange. I bought a bag of these, thinking I'd have a couple and the rest would go rotten, but they will be gone by the time the week is over.

The story is simple: twelve jurors deliberate the murder trail of a young gentleman accused of stabbing his own father. There's one eyewitness, an old lady who saw the killing through her window across the street; another who claims he heard the boy scream "I'm gonna kill you" and then heard the body hit the floor of the apartment a second later, and saw the boy run out of the apartment, and a shaky testimony from the boy himself. Based on all the evidence, eleven of the jurors are convinced of his guilt and ready to send him to the electric chair, but then, behold juror #8 (played with great strength and silence by Henry Fonda), who believes it's possible that it doesn't all add up.

He breaks down the evidence given to them, piece by piece, until at last, another juror folds and votes "not guilty." One by one, each of the jurors, however hesitantly, caves, until the verdict is reached. This wouldn't make for much of a story if it weren't for the great attention to detail by each of these twelve actors.

I can't imagine it would be any easy feat to make each of these characters pop when they are twelve middle-aged white men in a black-and-white film, but the fantastic detail -- their positions in their seats, their gaits as they pace around the room, the way each individual gets distracted from the task at hand, the way they wipe sweat from their foreheads (or allow it to run) -- creates a vibrant room for conflict and stubbornness that engages us for a little over ninety minutes.

The leader of the resistance against Fonda is a crotchety gentleman (Lee J. Cobb, Willy Loman in the original production of Death of a Salesman) whose jury number is 3. He seems to have a vendetta out on the boy -- #8 even refers to him as a "public avenger" and a "sadist." "I'll kill him! I'll kill him!" screams #3 as he reaches his accuser. "You don't really mean that, do you?" says #8, calling some of the testimony into question. For a film in which there is little to no action at all besides arguments at a table, tensions certainly run high. Egos are bruised and it gets hotter and hotter. You feel as though you are there with them; you are as invested as the jurors are in this matter of life and death.

The tides start to turn as the jurors each question what they thought they knew, as they each grow ashamed of their own increasingly present prejudices against the boy. Lumet's mastery is exhibited by the way he frames the jurors, how he keeps track of all twelve at once. Of course, some of them have a lot more to say than others, but we feel the power struggle between them. Some may feel more entitled than others but in the end their votes all count equally and by law it's got to be 12-to-none either way. The pressure grows deeper and the camera crawls closer to their faces until only one is left and he collapses.

Rotten kids! You work your life out!

Lee J. Cobb's performance is extraordinary -- so governed by what he thinks he knows as a father and still so ashamed of his own bias. Watch his face after he exults this line: his meltdown is a wonder. I can't wait to see him in On the Waterfront.

A clearly and perfectly constructed courtroom drama. It's no wonder this film is ranked #7 on IMDB -- it's hard to argue against it. It's the late fifties and still the acting and filmmaking both seem so simultaneously modern and timeless. Wow.

Next: Oliver Stone's 1986 Vietnam account, Platoon. My brother-in-law suggested BBQ as a themed dinner, since "people get BBQ'd in the movie." Well, you get what you ask for. :) Til then!

February 20, 2010

#88: Bringing Up Baby

What a lot we could all learn if we watched more movies from the 1930s. They just don't make em like they used to, do they? I'm sure there's modern examples of quick-banter comedies with two charm-for-miles stars, but off the top of my head I can't think of one. It's amazing to think that Bringing Up Baby was panned by critics and spawned a "box office poison" title for Katharine Hepburn, but over time it grew up and is now regarded as the quintessential "screwball comedy" of the 1930s. Surely most of the time, cinematic genius is understood in its own time -- what happened here? Was it just ahead of its time? How can 1938 audiences hate what we now revere? Maybe a change of perception? Who knows?

Company: for the first time, I really wished I had someone with whom to share this movie. I've watched movies alone before for this blog, but this was the first time I wished it could have been shared.

Cuisine: a Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich. 140 calories. Delicious, sweet and satisfying, just like the movie.

From this opening scene, you know the movie's going to be fun -- Cary Grant posed like Rodin's Thinker, really thinking hard about how to get that million dollars for his museum. I also found it interesting that the first set up -- soon-to-be-married man is much too whimsical for his fiance who is not the leading lady -- is very similar to Swing Time. In fact, it's basically the same. Thanks, 30s! Cary Grant is a paleontologist looking to secure a loan for his museum from a wealthy philanthropist who meets Katharine Hepburn on the day before his wedding, who happens to be the philanthropist's niece. The plot is too complicated to sum up, but it involves a dog, leopards (tame and wild), fancy negligees, very quick dialogue, singing, and a hell of a lot of slapstick.

She wasn't kidding about that leopard, Huxley!

Essentially, through Susan's (Hepburn's) machinations, we see Dr. Huxley wrapped up in her craziness until he (nor she) can figure out how they got in that deep, and by then it's too far gone to try to climb back out ... and at some point he just gives up and goes along for the ride. And so do we. Luckily along the way we treated to lines like "Jeepers! Let's get out of here!" "The intercostal clavical! It's arrived!" and "If he gets some clothes, he'll go away! He's the only man I've ever loved!" I actually like imagining that most if not all the lines of dialogue in this screenplay end in exclamation points. (!)

This film also has the distinction of being the first known contemporary usage of the word gay, not meaning happy, but meaning homosexual. Huxley loses his clothes (and by loses, I mean, Susan steals them and has them sent to the cleaners in order to stall Huxley's departure), leaving him to walk around the house in a skimpy negligee, and when the woman who owns the house (Susan's aunt) arrives home, she asks who he is and, apparently more importantly, why he's wearing those clothes. He leaps in the air and screams "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!" Supposedly this wasn't in the script -- it was an ad lib by Grant, who was rumored to be bisexual. Juicy gossip!

The zoo truck! They've got Baby!

Explaining or analyzing the film too much only lessens the experience of actually seeing it -- but isn't that how it would be with every film on this list, and maybe every film regardless? Perhaps it's just that the screenplay and the performances seem so manically genius, so wonderfully paced and so wildly funny, that it's hard to know exactly what to talk about. For a couple of other interesting reads, as well as historical context, look up the history of screwball comedy. I know a couple films from this genre made the list, so it'll be great to have this as a reference point, since I'm not too familiar with classic screwball. (Glad I'm totally okay with admitting I don't know things. Welcome to blog.) Also, the AV Club recently a nice little retrospective on the film, particularly about the gender roles that Grant and Hepburn fill, and a little blip about why screwball comedies like this worked then and not so much now.

Oh, David! Look what I've done!

Look what you've done, indeed, Kate. Nice going. But by this time, we as an audience are so blissful that they're together and so winded from keeping up with them running all over Connecticut that we're almost relieved the movie's over so we can catch our breath. I half-expected Grant to end in the same pose as he started, chin on fist, only slightly more exasperated and mugging the camera. "Aw shucks, I fell for her!"

A delightful little snack of a movie. Onto the next: #87 is Sidney Lumet's 1957 jury drama 12 Angry Men, which I just watched three or four months ago. That blog entry might be a little stunted because of that, but it's a good film all the same and I'm happy to see Henry Fonda take on Lee J. Cobb again.

February 18, 2010

#89: The Sixth Sense

We as a moviegoing public have some sort of fascination with misdirection, don't we? Don't we love the thrill of realizing everything has changed in an instant almost as much as typical thriller-thrills? The best modern example of the 'twist ending' is certainly M. Night Shyamalan's 1999 supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense, a movie that rode its own popularity and cultural phenom status to six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. It stands as one of only a handful of horror films to be nominated for the top prize, and the last one to date.

Company: Kecia, roommate, comedy enthusiast and Shyamalan fan; Katie, would-have-been-12-when-this-came-out girl

Cuisine: beach club from Jimmy John's. Thanks, sub, for all your unnecessary sodium. You're still delicious.

This is a film that's familiar to most contemporary moviegoers, especially most who would read a blog about movies, but even so I'll try not to give away the twist. Basically, several months after a former patient breaks into his home and shoots him, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (a nearly expressionless Bruce Willis), a prominent Philadelphia child psychologist, is still haunted by the encounter and resolves not to make the same mistake with nine-year-old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a strange young fellow who, as it turns out, has visions of the dead. This plot summary will get you through most of the film -- what I had forgotten about it, and what makes it truly intense, is the way the film sustains a mood throughout. Most thrillers nowadays will cut away to something light, then back to the dark, to keep the audience guessing. Shyamalan never lets up -- his world is firm in its dreariness and sense of dread.

Don't follow that balloon!

This overwhelming, insatiable dread is aided by James Newton Howard's stringy score and Shyamalan's use of the color red. I had forgotten how blank the palette for this movie is, so much so that when the color red appears, it's extremely vibrant. In a scene I had nearly forgotten, Cole follows a red balloon up a spiral staircase at a birthday party, only to hear a ghost locked in a closet. Some cruel kids at the party, including the birthday boy, lock him inside, and in a truly terrifying moment, we see the balloon pop in sync with Cole's bloodcurdling cries. In this instance, and throughout most of the film, Shyamalan's use of pacing and timing is just right.

One problem I did have, though, was that since the performances of Osment and Toni Collette as his mother are both so good, I had a hard time caring too much about Bruce Willis, whose performance pales in comparison. He spends most of his time smirking knowingly and whispering small words. I get what you're going for, Willis, but there's a reason both of those other actors were Oscar-pegged and you weren't. A lot is asked of Osment, who was eleven at the time of filming -- much more, in fact, than a lot of other similarly praised child actors -- but what stands out to me the most is his sense of control and poise. For such a young actor, he holds his own extremely well with more experienced actors, most poignantly in the scene with his mother at the dinner table and in his confession in the car.

Toni Collette is one of our best actors working, and it's such a shame that this is her only Oscar nomination. She's often pigeon-holed as 'the ugly sister' or 'the weird girl,' but she's so real and vulnerable onscreen ... someone give her more roles already! Her sense of ease with a much younger actor in this scene is a testament to her craft -- watch the way she allows Osment to take complete control of the scene. She knows just how to play it. Good God, Toni.

I found the film much more rewarding now, having not seen it straight through for many many years. Of course, when you know the twist, there's so many clues along the way that would lead you to that conclusion, and while the film has been parodied to death, it stands up well. A few friends were shocked by its inclusion on the list, but I wonder if this film represents the shock, the misdirection, the thrill -- reasons we still love Hitchcock (and his four films on the list!) -- or maybe even the cultural phenomenon. Nobody knew who Shyamalan was before this film, and it's been his only true hit. In a genre that's usually lackluster, this one cleanly executes a surprise, and for that we remember it.

Back to the thirties, now, with #88: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and one very sweet leopard in Bringing Up Baby!

February 15, 2010

#90: Swing Time

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made ten movies together, and I'm ashamed to say I had never seen any of them until this diablogue, although I love many of the songs that came from them, written by Jerome Kern and other contemporaries. Swing Time is said to be their best collaboration, with the help of three Kern classics ("Pick Yourself Up," "A Fine Romance" and the Oscar-winning "The Way You Look Tonight") and a light storyline that allows room for several beautiful dances. Astaire and Rogers, well ... there's just never been anyone like them before or since.

Fun fact: Barack Obama quoted a line from "Pick Yourself Up" in his inaugural address. Nice throwback, O.

Company: Sheena, gassy but hardworking actress and model; Kecia, dance enthusiast, Ginger Rogers idolizer and retriever of cocktail ingredients

Cuisine: Sheena's famous (infamous?) cream cheese croissant -- literally, a block of cream cheese baked into a Pillsbury crescent roll (divine) -- and cocktails (sans ice cubes, not by choice)

SIDE NOTE: I realized while getting these photos together that if you don't want to read this whole entry but still want to get the basic jist of this film, just look at the pictures in this order and you'll pretty much get it.

Fred Astaire stars as a more charming version of himself, a gambler/dancer named John "Lucky" Garnett, who, after being tricked by his dance buddies into being three hours late for his own wedding, must come up with $25,000 in order to appease his bride's father and show his good intentions. The scene where he's made late for his wedding by his conniving co-dancers is almos unwatchably bitchy, but I think an audience in 1936 would have known that this was meant to be slapstick, not cruelty, and that it would be a catalyst that lead to better things. And indeed it does -- he and a friend head to New York to find the money, and meet-cute of meet-cutes! He ruffles the feathers of Penny Carrol (Ginger Rogers), whom he follows into the dance studio where she teaches. An adorable scene follows where he pretends not to know anything, and when she's fired for being unable to teach, he claims she's taught him an entire, perfectly synchronized routine.

The moment he sweeps her off her feet and hop-steps her around in a circle, we are transported to Movie Heaven. Watching the two of them dance, you can hardly keep your heart inside your chest -- they just don't make dancers like this every day.

Oh for God's sake, I just have to post the video. Talking about the two of them dancing is no substitute for watching the real thing. Sit back and watch.

I love her face as she realizes he's been able to dance all along, and how he sweeps her up and she just goes along, as though she has no idea, and yet they're perfectly in sync. To a cynic, this would be ridiculous, and normally I would say "phooey" but how. can you??

Of course, the plot by definition has to have at least a little dramatic tension, and luckily it's in a beautiful snowy wood. Luckily it's soon over, and while you could feel like the story is just getting in the way of the dancing, you don't have to wait too long.

"No other woman makes me want to be a blonde." -- Kecia

Astaire and Rogers seem so modern in their acting styles that it's easy to forget this movie came before almost any classic of American cinematic acting. The "method" embodied in Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando and the like hadn't really been established yet, and here are two dancers who are such gentle clowns, not playing people really but playing kindred spirits in a movie that begs them to be together forever.

Why even discuss the plot or the filmmaking or the acting or anything else, when the real reason this film belongs on the list is the match made in heaven of Astaire and Rogers? Their paired dancing is historical, of course, but really didn't they pave the way for every cinema romance ever after their ten-film streak? I think this film is probably the purest example of "meet cute" I've ever seen, and it proves that we love the movies best when they're fun, when Fred sweeps us off our feet and we start to dance with him. Bravo.

I hate to get back to a world of sadness or darkness but #89 is M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, and so onward I must trudge, under that creepy bed where some dead girl has a box for me. Maybe I'll keep this movie just a little longer, in case I need to pick myself up, dust myself off, start all over again.

February 13, 2010

Cine-Smackdown: #91 - #100

Well, I've made it to some sort of landmark in this crazy goal -- ten movies down! So now, for a retrospective.

91. Sophie's Choice
The French Connection
Pulp Fiction
The Last Picture Show
Do the Right Thing
Blade Runner
Yankee Doodle Dandy
Toy Story

I had seen five of these previously (Sophie's Choice, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, Blade Runner and Toy Story), and I definitely took more away from each one this time. I'm not sure if that can be attributed solely to the critical lens that I'm trying to use with this diablogue; it might just be time. Sure, Pulp Fiction was awesome when it came out, but marvelously it's still awesome now. It holds up well.

Of these ten, which would I move further up the list?
This is a hard first question, as it's the first ten, but I'd say in terms of overall achievement, either Pulp Fiction, The Last Picture Show or Toy Story. Do the Right Thing and Ben-Hur could get added if you went solely in terms of cultural significance and historical relevance, but overall I enjoyed those first three the most. This is what's gonna get difficult about this project: how do you choose just one when none of them can be compared?

Of these ten, which would I get rid of?
This is a little easier, because there's one film that sticks out like a sore thumb to me: The French Connection. William Friedkin made a better film than this one that had a larger impact on American cinema (The Exorcist isn't even on the list), and in terms of crime dramas/thrillers on the list, I'm not sure what really sets this one above the rest. Sweet car chase, though.

Who in these movies do I want as my best friend?
Andy from Toy Story seems like a good kid; I think if I was the age I was when I saw the movie originally, he and I would be total pals. It probably wouldn't hurt to befriend his toys either. George M. Cohan (Yankee Doodle Dandy) would be a fun guy to know but he's so busy with his career he probably wouldn't give me the time of day.

Who in these movies do I want to have my back in a bar fight?
Definitely Jules (Pulp Fiction) quoting imaginary scripture passages and being the world's most singular badass. Ben Hur and Radio Raheem (Do the Right Thing) are probably my runners-up, but they could be in the entourage.

Who in these movies is your worst frienemy?
Might be Duane Jackson (The Last Picture Show) because he seems like good, solid best-friend material ... but he's too proud and too excited to go and ditch me for the Korean War.

Who do I take home to Mom?
I'd say Sonny (The Last Picture Show) but I'm afraid he has a thing for older ladies so I don't know if that's such a good idea. If I was 100% sure that Rachael (Blade Runner) wasn't a Replicant I might consider that. Woody (Toy Story) is pretty charming, but he does have that pull string, and it's a little too short for me.

You're going on a date with these movies. Who do you agree to meet for coffee but never call again?
Maybe Blade Runner. It's awesome, but I don't really think we have that much in common. Or Ben-Hur: that date was just a chore to sit through.

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then say you'll call but never do?
I hate to say this, but it might be The Last Picture Show. I had a really nice time, and we had a few laughs, but by the end of the date you were sort of a downer. You're really cute, though!

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then not show up?
I would say Goodfellas but I'm afraid he would send Tommy DeVito after me. You don't disrespect those guys. Is it terrible to say Sophie's Choice is probably used to rejection?

Who do you meet for a first date, ends up staying the night and makes you breakfast in the morning?
Genevieve the waitress in The Last Picture Show, and not just because she makes a mean cheeseburger, but also because she's sweet and kind, and she probably has to get to work pretty early. She basically runs that restaurant by herself, you know.

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?
Without a doubt: Honey Bunny and/or Pumpkin (Pulp Fiction).

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!

February 11, 2010

#91: Sophie's Choice

Sophie's Choice is based on the novel of the same name by William Styron, a great American novel that won the National Book Award for fiction in 1980. I'd seen it before but thinking about the novel and the narrative, I was struck by how much more effective it was the second time around. I'd seen it once several years ago, and all that stuck out to me when I started it again was the famous "choice scene," but I took a lot more away from it this time around. Needless to say, I'm pleasantly surprised.

Company: Me again. I tried to watch this last night with some friends but we were all in too talky a mood. It ended up being red-wine-chat bliss.

Cuisine: Chipotle fajita burrito bowl. How is this movie appropriate? Because I need comfort food for this one, folks.

The story opens on Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young Southern man moving to Brooklyn in 1947 hoping to be a writer. He rents out a room in this fantastic pink house and settles down to write, but doesn't get very far before he meets two people who will change his life forever. He admits, in an increasingly intolerable but not wholly obtrusive voiceover, that he is "unacquainted with love, and a stranger to death" -- well, he's about to get quite the education in both areas from his upstairs neighbors, a Polish Catholic survivor of the Nazi concentration camps and her Jewish lover.


Meryl Streep supposedly got down on her hands and knees and begged the director, Alan Pakula, for this role. It asks a lot of an actress: not only does she need to master a Polish dialect, but believably speak English, German and Polish. Plus, she lost a lot of weight of the flashback scenes in Auschwitz and she wore false teeth. And that's before she's even done anything on screen. There's a reason this is lauded as one of the great cinematic performances of all time, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Minuet for five hands: Sophie and Nathan, with Stingo wanting in.

Stingo becomes fast friends with Sophie and Nathan (played by first-time movie actor Kevin Kline), but immediately distrusts Nathan. This probably isn't helped by the fact that this naive writer is falling head over heels for Sophie, too. Their first appearance together is ultra-theatrical, a war of words resulting in a break-up on the stairs of the apartment. And throughout the movie, she keeps going back to Nathan as he keeps coming back. Why do these characters need each other so badly? We discover their own individual reasons through the course of the film, hers being a little more interesting than his. The movie is named after her, after all.

A cliched image, but an effective one.

The movie becomes a three-hander between Streep, Kline and MacNicol, but wouldn't work so well if it weren't for Streep. There are many scenes purely devoted to watching her tell a story -- as if the actress didn't have enough responsibility already, she is given extremely emotional stories to tell without any aid except her face. It's miraculous, how she searches for and occasionally misuses words. There is no sense that this performance has been worked on -- it is only lived in. Soon we reach into flashback and it's almost a relief: it's exhausting to watch her so devastated, yet so poised.

It's not quite black and white. There seems to be a dull color to this whole sequence, a sickly color.

Just when you wonder what Stingo's real function is in the plot, we see him become a sounding board for Sophie to tell her story, someone who longs to understand her. And halfway through the film, we see the cruelty put upon her, having been imprisoned and sent to the camps for a minor crime, regardless of the fact that she is Catholic. I don't think any of this sequence is especially masterful filmmaking, but it works to elevate her performance, which is the only thing about the film I think people will remember in fifty years. The flashback is spliced with her narration, delivered directly to the camera so as not to let the viewer off the hook. You will engage.

One particularly effective scene here is one in which she is accused of attempting to steal a radio by a girl who can be no more than twelve or thirteen years old. How humiliating to be talked down to by someone fifteen, twenty years younger than you.

She does everything she can to survive, but nothing prepares her for the title choice.

When Stingo says he loves her and wants a family with her, she tells him that "it will not be fair for your children to have me as a mother." She isn't kidding. I don't want to spoil it in case you want to be surprised, but it will surprise you. Streep did the scene in one take, according to her, because she didn't think she could do it twice.

Her child screams but she cannot. Like Helene Weigel.

The scene is everything it's cracked up to be -- primarily, horrifying and heartbreaking. We're fifteen minutes from the end of the film and we finally get to the scene we've been waiting for. Ultimately, the story uses her relationships with the two men in her life as a narrative base from which to tell her horror story, and I think William Styron's genius was interweaving the two narratives, one clearly more engaging than the other, as a way to comment on her final choice at the end. Once again, she has two options, and she knows what she must do.

I can forgive almost anything I didn't care for in the movie because Streep's performance is so layered, so rich in detail and so emotional that we fall for her completely, broken English, subtle beauty, and all. And in turn, we fall for the movie too. That's no easy task for an actress, but somehow she manages it. Magic. Can you believe this is the last Oscar she won? She's been nominated twelve times SINCE this performance, and probably won't win again this year (thanks, Sandra). But how does a girl top this? I'd love to see it.

What do you think? Does the movie stand up on its own without Meryl's help, or is it going to be remembered primarily as a showcase for a legendary performance?

That's ten movies done! Woopee!! A retrospective on the first ten is coming up, and then #90, the first musical on my list: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time!

February 10, 2010

#92: Goodfellas

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.

Roger Ebert said that Goodfellas is the most important gangster movie ever made, even more so than Parts 1 and 2 of The Godfather. He makes some very solid points, but I just can't say I agree. I'd love to have a conversation with someone who truly love this movie and get a pitch on why I should too.

Company: Andrea, sister, hostess and crockpot chef; Stephanie, sister and Ray Liotta enthusiast

Cuisine: Mediterranean soup (ended up being sort of appropriate ... right?) and bread, good red wine (also appropriate)

The film is directed by Martin Scorsese, who has two other much more deserving films on the AFI list: Raging Bull (#4) and Taxi Driver (#52), both of which also star Robert DeNiro. (DeNiro also has roles in The Deer Hunter and The Godfather Part II, making him one of the most prolific actors on the list.) The story follows Henry Hill, played with loads of charm and loads of slime by Ray Liotta, a man who climbs through the ranks of the mob in New York from the 50s until the 80s. Based on a true story, we see Hill as a boy, growing up in the welcoming arms of the mafia, and slowly working his way up to a peak somewhere in the 70s. He's surrounded by colorful characters, most of whom he loves, but none of whom can really be fully trusted. He meets a girl, falls in love, marries her and keeps her mostly ignorant about his true life's work (he claims to be in construction, until Karen (played by Lorraine Bracco) puts all the pieces together).

One scene I found particularly exciting was the exchange between adulterous husband and suspicious wife. Taking a page right out of Hill's own book, his wife mounts him while he's sleeping and awakens him with a gun pointed at his skull. "Do you love her?" she screams, not sure if she wants to know, but just wanting control over any part of the situation. Their respective roles in the marriage are so clearly understood by the audience that this really throws us for a loop. But of course, Hill is a scumbag, and as soon as she breaks, he slaps her around and points the gun right back. "How d'you like it, huh!?"

This brings me to my major guff with this movie: Henry Hill seems irredeemable to me. He's certainly our protagonist, and it's clear that in the film's eyes he becomes a product of the organization that raised him. It's the mob that brought him riches and glory, and it's the same mob that took it all away. But why should we love him? Why should we be invested in his character?

I think it's that we are obsessed with the mafia as a sort of pinnacle of the American dream: people like Henry Hill come from nothing, work their way up the ranks, and by the time they achieve some amount of status, things are handed to them on a silver platter, in a world ruled by its own government, its own codes. Even the cops are in the palm of the mob's hand. By the time Henry Hill is at his peak, he doesn't barely have to lift a finger. What a life! I think we'd all love that, regardless of whether we're in a recession or not. What makes this different from a Cinderella story is the part we might love to watch even more than the rise: the fall from grace. What is that turning point? Where is the warning bell? They were all around, most obviously embodied in Tommy DeVito, one of the most feared and respected mobsters around, played by Joe Pesci as one violent and trigger-happy fella. It's probably a pretty good rule of thumb to say that if you're in a movie and you see Joe Pesci, run the other way. No good can come of that relationship.

They're in too deep to climb out now.

And no good does come of it. There is a great scene in which Hill is trying to cook dinner for his family, run a drug deal, and snap himself out of his paranoia about being followed by a helicopter. You get the sense that the walls are closing in around him just by watching Scorsese's deft direction.

By the end of it all, most everyone's either in jail, or banished to living in the suburbs. I think, "some punishment," but then I realized that Henry Hill has no hobbies, no marketable skills, and nothing left to live for. He's doomed. Yikes. In The Godfather, the outside world doesn't really exist; no one is ever really caught. Maybe this film wanted to bring a sense of justice to that world? I doubt that was the director's intention, and yet I can't help but make the comparisons. This is a good film with many fantastic performances, but I just can't subscribe to the intense needless violence and irredeemable characters. At least not now.

What do you think? What is our obsession with gangsters? Is that lifestyle so appealing that we can't help but make it an object of desire on screen, or are we so disgusted by it that we need to sensationalize the idea of the mob to make it all seem less threatening? I'd love to hear some arguments for this film.

Next up: #91 is Sophie's Choice with a legendary performance by the one and only Meryl Streep. Is the film as good as her performance? We'll see.

February 7, 2010

#93: The French Connection

The French Connection is the second of three movies on this list to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture of 1971. That's not a bad track record for one year. This is also the shortest movie on my list since Toy Story. When we clock in at under two hours, something is going right. I'm actually looking forward to a slew of 90-to-100-minute movies coming up! I always say: most movies could be about 90 minutes and no one would suffer too badly. Some need more time to tell the story, but most of the time I'd pick short over long.

Company: Just me this time.

Cuisine: cold leftover Chinese food from Star Dragon (better after a couple days in the fridge!? might be!) and Franzia Chardonnay

Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle and Buddy Russo are two New York City cops in the narcotics division who've been tipped off about a possible deal going down with, wait for it ... a French connection. For most of the first hour, we're introduced to them, not as characters really, but as products of their environment, which is its own character: a city depicted as a murky, seedy wasteland, dried up and surprisingly devoid of women. (I think the only women I saw in this movie were a couple in a bar and one who screams and pulls her stroller out of the way of an approaching car chase.) I'll say that there isn't much plot besides what I've already described.

Not really the tourist hot spot it's cracked up to be.

While it's not a long movie by classic/Oscar-winning standards, God, the first hour felt long. Doyle (played by Oscar winner Gene Hackman as a foul-mouthed, racist cop, and the only character we really get to know) is on the case, and follows several leads trying to sniff out these French drug dealers. Long stretches, accompanied by a fascinating jazz score that is at once cool and chilling, are devoted to watching Doyle follow a suspect around New York. Is this drama? I think it's meant to be, but I longed for story.

Shots like the one above are brilliantly staged by William Friedkin, who would go on to direct The Exorcist (amazingly, not on the list!), a hypertense thriller. If this film was as thoroughly exciting as that one, I might have been more inclined to care, but there were only a few moments -- this one in the window, and the scene on the subway car underground -- that elicited an emotional response. Most of the rest of it showed cat following mouse.

Car vs. Elevated Train! Who will win!?

But then came this scene! The one that stands the test of time! This chase sequence was something that had never been seen before, or maybe since, especially given the low budget and the lack of computer imagery. But one exciting scene does not a thriller make. After this, it's back to more following and more meandering around New York, and more of me wishing something more was happening!

Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman look for the bad guy.

The ending scene is staged the way a thriller's ending should be, and then ... the last shot? Without giving it away, I was disappointed. What did I sit through all this for? A satisfying ending, that's what!

I'm not convinced that I'm being overly critical here. I agree, the film has its masterful moments, and the cinematography certainly creates a landscape appropriate to the material, but I don't know that it resonates with a contemporary audience that has grown used to narcotics thrillers and has maybe grown tired of the cliches. What sets this apart from any other police thriller made since 1971? I can't think of an answer just now.

#92: Goodfellas is next. Hopefully I'm able to come up with more substantial arguments by then.