AFI 100 Archives

January 31, 2005

#100 - Yankee Doodle Dandy

Rounding out the very bottom of AFI's list is Yankee Doodle Dandy, a grand bit of patriotism straight from the middle of the Second World War. James Cagney plays George M. Cohan, the legendary Broadway producer/playwright/composer/entertainer in a largely fictionalized account of his life.

For a first film to whet our tastes for this list, I will say that I got about what I expected. I knew from the release date (1942) and the subject that it would be sort of a fluff piece, and that's indeed what it was; as Samantha astutely observed, it lacked much of a definable plot. The film mostly proceeds from ancedote to anecdote, each one mostly serving to show off Cagney's dancing talent (yes, he could dance -- something you may not have known if you've only seen him in gangster movies) and the musical sequences. I think the film succeeds on this alone, though, as the musical numbers are fantastic and Cagney himself is a joy to watch.

I enjoyed the film. Of course, if it is a musical, I can generally be expected to enjoy it. And there is certainly nothing to disagree with about this one.

February 6, 2005

#99 - Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Next up was Stanley Kramer's 1967 film about interracial marriage. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play parents coming to terms with their daughter's (Katharine Houghton, Hepburn's real-life niece) desire to marry an African-American man, Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier).

I admit to being a little inexperienced with the greats of the golden age of movies, so it was a treat for me to see Katharine Hepburn in an Oscar-winning role and Spencer Tracy (in his last film role!) so early in our trek. Hepburn was at her best when she was telling off her associate from the art gallery. Tracy looked very old (even though he was only 67), likely because he was very sick as well (he died 17 days after filming wrapped), but still had a commanding screen presence. Sidney Poitier is always a marvel to behold -- Samantha said it best when she said that "the most any parent could wish for would to have him come home asking for their daughter's hand in marriage."

The film itself had oddly comedic touches to it for a film with such serious and controversial content. Though I suppose that makes sense -- the seriousness probably needed the levity now and again to break the pressure. Of which there was plenty, by the way. I can only imagine how groundbreaking this film was at the time -- like if a film were made today about gay marriage. And it was done so well -- not preachy or high handed, just an honest look at some normal people struggling with big issues.

So mark another winner. The only thing I can really fault the film for is the insipid insistence of its theme song, "Glory of Love" ("You've got to give a little, take a little..."), which just sounded trite and gooey behind such a well-done movie. But I suppose that is the story of, that's the glory of love.

March 7, 2005

#98 - Unforgiven

Clint Eastwood directed and starred in this 1992 film, about a grizzled old gunslinger-turned-pig farmer who is lured into one last bounty chase. Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman and Richard Harris co-star.

I went into this movie gushing about the other two Eastwood movies I've seen (Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby), low-key but emotionally charged dramas where the characters are real people dealing with larger-than-life issues. I kind of expected Unforgiven to be similar. It was not. We still had a couple of real characters (Eastwood and Freeman, in particular), but I found myself looking at stereotypes with others. Also, I found myself not really caring about the characters -- something that was difficult to do for the previous films.

I felt mostly confused by the film. I wasn't sure who to root for. Eastwood's character is mostly likeable as the reformed outlaw -- until the end. Maybe that was the point. I don't know.

The movie is credited with being the ultimate western -- a commentary on the senseless violence, with a gripping cinematographic command of the western landscapes and locations, etc. etc. I guess I can see that. And I can understand and appreciate the ambiguity of the character's morals. But I don't have to like it.

March 21, 2005

#97 - Bringing Up Baby

Next entry is this classic Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn film from 1939, a screwball comedy about a paleontologist who gets mixed up with a flighty, beautiful girl with a pet leopard. Naturally, hilarious hijinx ensue.

Boy, I wasn't sold on this one right away. Davin pumped it up as one of his favorites, and I was expecting classic performances from the two leads. But instead I found Grant being nerdy and stiff and Hepburn being idiotic and inconsiderate. As it turns out, that's just the characters, and it's the characters that make this film great. The way Grant and Hepburn play off of one another for the entire movie is sometimes just too much to watch -- she's so nutty and won't leave him alone for a second, and he's just trying to get some money and a dinosaur bone for his museum... I think Grant's character reminded me of me, which may explain why the film was so painful at first.

But I grew into it. Once I realized that the breakneck pace and hijinx weren't going to quit, I settled in to just enjoy the ride. Once I got past the at-first-jarring characters, I could listen to the dialogue, which is snappy and inspired. And Grant's character became okay after an extended argument he had with an older woman while he was wearing a negligee, which ended in him jumping up in the air and yelling "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!" Hee hee. And the film is obviously very well done and meticulously directed. What fun.

The film is so fast and silly and brusque, and I wasn't expecting that. But if/when I see it again, I'll know what's coming, and I'm sure I'll enjoy it more.

April 11, 2005

#96 - The Searchers

This 1956 film by John Ford stars the inscrutable John Wayne as a Confederate veteran with a hatred for Indians on an obsessive search for his niece, who was captured by the Comanche. Jeffrey Hunter and Vera Miles costar.

As we continue our way through this list, it becomes more and more apparent to me that I'm not sure I'm old enough to appreciate the significance of many of the films we've been watching. Take this one, for instance. The websites say that it is John Ford's most revered western -- which is really saying something, considering Ford is apparently one of the best and most prolific western directors ever. It comments on the antiheroicism and moral ambiguity of Wayne's character and the evocative style of Ford's narrative, and how it was embraced by French critics.

All high praise. The problem is, I don't know how to appreciate it. I recognize that the movie is good, but because I was born a mere 25 years ago, I am so used to seeing movies with antiheroes and ambiguous morals, that this doesn't seem that different. Clearly, anyone watching this movie in 1956 would be surprised at Wayne's unsettling and uncompromising character, but in 2005, it is anything but surprising.

The only things that date it as being an older film are the classic western soundtrack and the obviously Technicolor landscapes. It is in these clues, I suppose, that I must begin making my critique. The fact that the movie seems modern a good 50 years after it was made must be appreciated. But that point is so subtle. I guess subtlety is the bread-and-butter of the cinemaphile.

At any rate, I enjoyed this movie much more than Unforgiven. Wayne is hilarious to watch -- he lives up to the stereotype. And I'm sorry, but I don't really think he's a great actor. The film is truly epic in its many plot threads and broad time scale -- a credit to Ford for keeping it all tied together, while still creating sympathetic characters and moving the central plot along. The cinematography is very nice. And the more I think about it, the more details and nuances keep coming out at me. Ford is truly a detail-conscious director.

Good flick. Glad we don't have any more westerns for a while, though.

April 25, 2005

#95 - Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino's 1994 blockbuster probably needs no introduction for the demographic that will probably be reading this. But for those of you who have been living under a cinematic rock, Pulp Fiction stars John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman and Bruce Willis in a number of out-of-order vignettes that twist together to form a bizarre, hyper-violent and -satirical film.

Samantha probably won't like this. But I have to say that this is probably my favorite of the six films we've watched so far. She has several problems with the film, which I completely understand and respect. But I think the pros far outweigh the cons.

The film is fantastically violent. I don't enjoy violent films either. Samantha says the violence is unnecessary and meaningless. I don't think so. Tarantino is making a movie about violence -- it has to be. If the movie was also lacking the satire and intelligence with which the violence is presented (something that the scores of imitators of this movie are missing), it would be a problem. Thankfully, it's not. The movie never takes itself seriously enough for the violence to truly be disturbing to me. If Jackson's character mowed down those characters at the beginning of the film and didn't soliliquize and crack wise about anything and everything before and after, and didn't have his moment of redemption at the end, it would disturb me. But in context -- I can understand why it's there. I'm not a man given to profanity either, but it fits somehow.

I love the way this movie unfolds. It just kills me. Something about Tarantino's sense of humor and irony does it for me. Travolta cursing a blue streak about a five dollar milkshake. Harvey Keitel showing up in the 'burbs at 8:30 am in a tuxedo. The situations these characters are in and the way they continue to act given the extreme violence, depravity and lawlessness that surrounds them is so non-sequitur and fascinating. The movie dissects the genre it's in.

Add the cinematographic detail (long takes, gorgeous shots with framing and perspective) and the fantastic acting (especially by Jackson and Maria de Medeiros, playing Willis' girlfriend) and you have what is understandably one of the most influential films of the 1990's.

Will you enjoy this film? If you see the violence and language the same way Tarantino does, then yes. I can. I'm not sure what kind of person that makes me though.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

EDIT - I'm rethinking this... stay tuned...

June 16, 2005

#94 - Goodfellas

Ah, yes, the first Scorsese film on the List (out of three, I think). Done in 1990, this one stars Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci as three up-and-coming mob guys from the 60's to the 80's.

Another seemingly violent and morally bankrupt film. We've been through a rough patch it seems, with this and two other movies we've seen so far for our little project. But this one was somehow less reprehensible than the others. I think it has to do with the fact that Scorsese is nonetheless telling a moral fable -- which Unforgiven and Pulp Fiction weren't really doing. Yes, the characters do some pretty terrible things, but it all catches up with them. And, in actuality, the only character who does truly reprehensible things (seemingly random acts of violence with no reason or remorse) is Pesci's character. DeNiro's character is ruthless and terrible too, but he has his reasons, however perverted.

Having said all that, it's a fascinating movie. If it is indeed based on a true story, I was continually amazed by the things that occur in the world these people inhabit -- the enormous amount of money being thrown around, the glamour, the way all the laws and rules seem to bend around these people, etc. I mean, it's a movie and movies are mostly fiction, but there seemed something at once utterly believable and astounding about this world. Perhaps it's the pedantic feeling that Liotta's doggedly "I'm just a normal guy" expression and acting lends to the whole thing. It's like, "Well, clearly this guy is just doing his thing, so this must be business as usual." And I guess it was to them. Weird.

The movie is of course meticulously constructed as well. The nearly three-hour running time goes by quickly. The soundtrack is true to each era the film passes through. Cinematography, editing, etc. etc. etc. I seem to say the same thing for each film we see. I really should pair each film we watch with a similar but much worse film with the same themes and genre from the same time period. Maybe then I'd really appreciate the way these films are crafted...

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

June 21, 2005

#93 - The Apartment

Billy Wilder's 1960 film stars Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray in a comedy/drama about an office worker who lends out his apartment key to his superiors for their romantic trysts in order to curry their favor, and a pair of such subjects that he gets tangled up with.

My first Wilder film, and a great introduction. I was surprised by the immediate frankness that he deals with the subject of extramarital dalliances. He does not dance around the subject anymore than he has to (considering it's 1960), and although he does have to, it is always clear what is being discussed. The "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" stuff is ever present, but always realistic.

Lemmon and MacLaine are spot-on, all the time. Lemmon is a busybody, a poor schmuck, a lonely romantic and a hero with a heart of gold all at once. MacLaine's eloquent-but-understated expressions perfectly portray fragile beauty. Their interplay is witty, tentative, and tender -- very much at odds with the crass, corrupt business world they seem to live in.

Wilder walks the fine line between a dark comedy and an ironic tragedy very well. This could so easy be overwrought, painfully didactic and just plain sad, but Wilder knows how to keep these sensitive situations funny -- not funny "ha ha," but funny "my goodness what a strange and unfortunate case."

Very, very good. I'm excited for the rest of Wilder's films. (I think he has more in here than Scorsese -- take that, Marty!)

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

June 30, 2005

#92 - A Place in the Sun

George Stevens directs this 1951 adaption of Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy. Montgomery Clift plays the handsome-but-aimless nephew of a rich industrialist who gets involved in a love triangle with a sophisticated socialite (Elizabeth Taylor) and a dowdy factory worker (Shelley Winters), with tragic results.

What a strange film. I wasn't sure what to expect out of this one, as I came into it having not read anything about it. From the trailer and the first half-hour, it seemed like some sort of pulp romance -- Cllift and Winters toying around at the door to her apartment, Clift and Taylor making doe-eyes at each other... Samantha and I were cracking jokes at the sappy situations. I just about lost it at Taylor's infamous "Tell mama... tell mama all" line.

But after that point, when the plot starts unfolding in earnest, we got a lot quieter, and the jokes we were cracking got a lot darker, and eventually I just found myself saying "Oh my God" and "you've got to be kidding me." Clift's character takes some unexpected but strangely unsurprising turns and the movie quickly turns to tragedy and courtroom drama. The characters and events become complex and the moral fibre of the movie becomes hard to discern.

The film honestly surprised me, which is a first so far in our little trip through movie history. And it kept our attention rock solid through to the bitter end. When I think about such nebulous praise as "great cinematography," I am reminded that such things are less noticeable outright than they are in the details, like the fact that some of the extraordinary shots (the radio on the dock with the boats going by in the background) hold your attention really well.

A good film -- made us think. That's all you can really ask for.

Note: This is also our first film with costume design by Edith Head, made somewhat more famous by the They Might Be Giants song "She Thinks She's Edith Head." At least five more films on this list have her hands in them. TMBG has taught me all sorts of trivia over the years...

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

July 17, 2005

#91 - My Fair Lady

In another entry that hopefully needs no introduction, we enjoy George Cukor's 1964 production of Lerner and Loewe's Broadway musical (which is itself adapted from George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion). Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn star as a pompous linguistics expert and the cockney flower girl he turns into a lady.

I must say this before I review -- I love musicals. I always have and I probably always will. This automatically puts My Fair Lady higher in my accounting. But even after that, I find something lacking about this movie. (Yes, insert hue and cry here... geez, calm down and let me talk.)

It's nothing about the production of the movie at all. It's impeccably cast, with Harrison reprising the role he originated on Broadway, and Hepburn filling in admirably for Julie Andrews (who was busy making Mary Poppins, thereby stealing the Best Actress Oscar from Hepburn that year). The book and the songs are fantastic -- classic Lerner and Loewe stuff. The Cinderella storyline gets me everytime -- I just eat it up. And the costumes! My goodness. The picture looks gorgeous all the way around. I can't believe the hats alone.

No, it's not the picture. I think it's the male characters in the movie (except Colonel Pickering -- he's a gentleman). First of all, there's Higgins. He really kind of represents a lot that I don't like about snooty academians. He's self-important, arrogant, inconsiderate and downright cruel in many instances. Why should I be the least bit happy when poor emotionally abused Eliza comes back to him? And Freddy. What's up with this guy? The stupid puppy-dog act isn't flattering in the least. Get a life, pal. Eliza seems to be quite a dear, as well as being particularly easy on the eyes. I really couldn't choose which of the two she should end up with. In fact, I think Pickering should adopt her.

Now I admit that the characters themselves are probably not the reason everyone enjoyed this movie and it was placed ninety-first on this list. I recognize that it is one of the best movie musicals ever made. But couldn't we have had some sort of more sensible resolution? I mean, "Where the devil are my slippers?" Seriously.

Sigh. I suppose that the film deserves the accolades it's received if I'm getting worked up about fictional characters. And I still enjoyed it. So there. Now leave me alone. Sheesh.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

September 10, 2005

#90 - The Jazz Singer

The 1927 classic stars Al Jolson as a rabbi's son who becomes estranged from his family because he wants to be a jazz singer... and that's about it. There's not much more to the plot -- like many musicals, the plot serves as a vehicle for the musical numbers.

I can only assume that this film is on the list for purely historical reasons. Because it is not a good film. Admittedly I have seen very few silent films, but Jolson's acting isn't very good, nor is that of many of the supporting actors. Many of the more intanglibes I've mentioned in previous reviews (cinematography, costumes, etc.) are lacking. What I can tell you is what I know regarding my viewing and things I've read.

The film is oftentimes called the first "talkie" -- that is, the first movie featuring synchronized audio and picture. To be honest, though, it isn't actually. And much of the movie is silent -- the Vitaphone sequences are limited to the musical numbers and immediately surrounding dialogue. What it is, however, is the first monumentally successful talkie. And apparently this is largely attributed to a scene where Jolson breaks into an ad-libbed soliloquy to his stage mother (who appears visibly startled).

I must admit that I can understand this attribution. That was the only part of the film that really seemed like a "movie" in the sense that we currently understand it. The rest of the film felt like another art form (which silent film really was, it can be argued) interspersed with some musical numbers.

It's cool to see Jolson, who was a legend on Broadway in his time. I'm sure the original viewers felt the same way, also contibuting to the movie's success. I can dimly sense the kind of stage magnetism he must have possessed. Other than that, the film is pretty dull. But I expected an education in film history as well as fun films by undertaking this project, so I have to take the former in absence of the latter, right?

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

October 8, 2005

#89 - Patton

Barrelling across the screen in 1970 was Franklin Schaffner's biography of World War II general George Patton, played by George C. Scott. There were other people in the film, but no one bothers about them.

This movie is Scott's picture, through and through. The iconic opening scene, with him dressed to the nines, ivory-handled six shooters and all, in front of a huge American flag, sets the tone for the whole film. Scott portrays a man who is not complex, but in that simplicity is fascinating. Like Wolverine, he is the best there is at what he does -- and that's wage war. He is uncertain and out of place anywhere but leading troops into battle. But when that's where he is -- wow.

Thankfully, the movie focuses mostly on that. It takes us from Patton's arrival in North Africa to push Rommel back, to the end of his maniac tirade through Europe with the 3rd Army destroying the German defense -- the time in Patton's life that he considers to be the pinnacle of his existence. Which is not to say it doesn't shy away from the more uncomfortable moments in Patton's life -- it illuminates several of the scandals that added to his reputation as brilliant but slightly unhinged.

The movie is a true war epic -- almost three hours long, sweeping across the geographic theater of WWII, with a rousing orchestral score and fantastic cinemotography. This alone would make it a great film -- and one that I would just sort of enjoy. But it's Scott's performance that puts it on this list and made it a fun watch. This is acting.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

November 20, 2005

#88 - Easy Rider

Dennis Hopper (star, director, co-screenwriter) and Peter Fonda (star, producer, co-screenwriter) bring us this slice of 1969, in the form of a "biker flick" about two long-haired hippies and their trip from LA to... well, we're not exactly sure where.

And not exactly sure why, for that matter. And hardly even who... we don't get Fonda's character's real name until the movie is almost over. This is not a film that has much in the way of definable plot. Or really much dialogue, even. So what's left, you ask? Mood. And it's all mood.

I did a little more research in this review than I have in the past. What I found was mostly what I find everytime... people talking about what makes the movie great. This time, it's the fact that it apparently encapsulates the feel of counter-culture America in the late '60s close to perfection. I can't really say that I completely understand that, given that I wasn't even a glimmer in my mother's eye at that point.

But I get an idea of what it's about, which was helped by a review I found that ran in the New York Times the day it opened. It isn't a bad review, but it is pretty clear that the reviewer doesn't "jive." He's not counter-culture (how can he be, he's writing for the NY Times), and he doesn't quite get it.

The mood of the film is hard to describe. It is, at once, free-wheeling and trapped, fearless and scared stiff, righteous and completely wrong. It is misunderstood, disappointed and sad, sad, sad. The pretty desert settings and rollicking rock & roll soundtrack only serve to sharpen this dystopic sense. I wish I could talk about more good things about this movie (like Jack Nicholson's scene-stealing role), but all they do is to serve this mood-setting that is incredibly jarring... but quite effective.

If this film is the mood of 1969, I think I'm glad I wasn't there. 'Cause I woulda gotten a haircut.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

December 12, 2005

#87 - Frankenstein

Mary Shelley's novel gets its quote-unquote definitive film treatment in this 1931 classic horror flick from director James Whale. A scientist (Colin Clive) creates life from death by building a creature (Boris Karloff) from parts of exhumed corpses. Hilarity ensues.

I don't think I have the cinema chops to appreciate this film. The things I've read laud the strength of the mood setting, and the excellent pacing. But to me, it just looks so dated. It's slow. The acting is wooden and melodramatic. The painted backdrops are cheap and look bad. The three different sets are dull looking. I don't know. I guess this was cutting edge in 1931.

I presume that this film is on the list because (along with Dracula) it basically created the horror film genre. So I can understand that. Perhaps this is why it seems so dated. I see the hunchbacked assistant and the lurching monster and while I know that this is the film that those (now) cliches came from, I still can't escape feeling that the whole exercise is silly.

Perhaps I would have a higher opinion of the movie if I saw the many imitations and parodies that followed. To my (and Samantha's) eye, it doesn't really stay true to the source material. But perhaps, compared to others, it does. I have a feeling, though, that I'll never find out -- which, for better or for worse, I don't think is a huge loss.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

March 15, 2006

#86 - Mutiny on the Bounty

We're back with more reviews of the AFI Top 100 after a three month hiatus. Next up is this 1935 naval adventure, starring Charles Laughton, Clark Gable and Franchot Tone, directed by Frank Lloyd. It is "based on real events" of the fateful later 1780s voyage of the British ship Bounty to Tahiti, in which the ship's first mate Fletcher Christian (Gable) leads a revolt against the sadistic, tyrannical Captain Bligh (Laughton).

History has some very different things to say about this mutiny than the film does. Bligh and Christian were not nearly as cut-and-dried characters as the movie portrays (Bligh supposedly was far more lenient than many naval officers of the time, and Christian was supposedly very moody and egocentric), and the reasons for the mutiny itself are also debated.

Despite this, the film is pretty effective at being morally ambiguous. (Indeed, I think "morally ambiguous" is a hallmark of many of the films on this list.) For the first half of the film, you are aghast at Bligh's cruelty along with Christian and the ship's crew, especially when compared against the idyllic life they enjoy for months upon reaching Tahiti. So we sympathize when the revolt finally happens.

But the scenes of Bligh and his loyal crew's 45 day, 3000 mile voyage in a lifeboat without adequate supplies starts to turn our hearts, as does the unenviable position that the mutineers are placed in, as they are eventually tracked down by the British navy and chased to remote Pitcairn Island, doomed to exile. And we start to consider that life on Tahiti would be awfully nice, but it is an indolent existence, gained at what cost?

Nobody really wins in this story, not even the men who pledge loyal to Bligh but are forced to remain with the mutineers, only to be put on trail anyway upon their "rescue." I guess the 1935 moviegoers win, as they were treated to a grand epic not often seen in that time period -- it was filmed on location at Tahiti and upon a life-size replica of the Bounty, over-budget at $2 million, and grand in length at just over two hours. The acting is fine, if pretty standard for the 1930s classic films we've seen.

The last point worth mentioning was the "bonus feature" on the DVD -- a period news reel about "modern day" Pitcairn Island, populated by the inbred descendants of the mutineers. We couldn't watch more than 5 minutes of this due to the extremely creepy Twilight-Zone feeling of it, and it just further cemented the overall "ick" feeling the movie provided.

Good flick, not really recommended, unless you're in to this kind of thing, I guess.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

March 28, 2006

#85 - Duck Soup

The four Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo) along with Margaret Dumont and Louis Calhern star in this 1933 screwball, satirical comedy. Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, the new president of Freedonia who is being spied on (Chico, Harpo) by the neighboring Sylvania, with the two countries eventually going to war.

I am beginning to realize that I am perhaps not enough of a movie snob for this list. The things I read to write today's review all pick either this movie or A Night at the Opera as the Marx brother's best film, depending on your sympathies. This was the Marx brother's last Paramount picture before moving to MGM and toning the satire and anarchy down a little in favor of more coherent plotlines and more sympathetic characters.

Satire and anarchy pretty much describe Duck Soup to a T. The "plot" is not so much a plot as a vehicle for Groucho's one-liners and the crazy physical comedy routines. But you have to have an appreciation of the dry, dry wit and the somewhat sadistic slapstick to enjoy this. I was chuckling pretty much throughout, especially at the more bizarre, non-sequitur stuff and the punnier of Groucho's lines. But Samantha barely cracked a smile, and there were several times when, at the end of a routine, we just kind of looked at each other like, 'Well, that was something, wasn't it?"

The jokes and humor are lightning fast and never stop, so if you miss something there's no time to turn to your viewing partner and ask, "Did you catch that?" without risking missing the next three jokes. Mix in the somewhat difficult to understand accents of Groucho and Chico and you have a recipe for disaster if you're not already on board.

I enjoyed the movie overall and there were several parts that were really, really funny, but I was taken aback by the lack of structure, breakneck pacing and the no-holds-barred satirical viewpoint. All of which leads me to believe that I would enjoy A Night at the Opera more. Which probably means I'm not enough of a movie snob.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

May 19, 2006

#84 - Fargo

1996 brought Joel and Ethan Coen's masterwork, a crime drama/dark comedy set in Minnesota. Frances MacDormand plays Marge Gunderson, a pregnant police chief from Brainerd, hot on the trail of a murder case that leads her to car salesman and Wayzata resident Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) who has done some underhanded things in his attempts to make some quick money. Naturally things spiral out of control and naturally Marge hunts it all down in between trips to the buffet.

Now, being from Minnesota myself, first of all -- yes, some people do really talk like that. Not everyone, but some -- especially the farther north you go. The Coen brothers are Minnesota natives too and they're poking fun at their home state throughout the film. The same goes for the almost debilitating laid back attitude of many of the characters in the film. Yes, Minnesotans can be laid back, but I know just as many high strung ones too.

So although the accent and the personalities are exaggerated, there is a grain of truth in every exaggeration. I was of course grinning throughout the film. The wonderful "Oh yeah?" "Yeah..." "No kidding." "Yeah." "Oh yeah?" dialogue is just so priceless. But probably not to anyone who hasn't spent some time "up north." But don't worry, the rest of the script is really well written too.

The entire film is very well done. The bro's walk the fine line between getting too serious and trivializing the events occurring. They really seem to know how a bunch of Minnesotans would react to what's going on. MacDormand pulls off the character like she was born there. The supporting cast are all spot on -- either blending in or sticking out like sore thumbs, depending. The cinematography is very fitting for the bleak landscape and storyline. You will find yourself alternatively laughing and cringing at how the characters behave.

I think I agree that while it may not be the most entertaining Coen brothers film, it is the best. Strangely, I think it has the most heart of any of them. Like many of the films on this list, it was at times painful to watch. But unlike some of the films we've seen so far, it was completely worth it.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

September 17, 2006

#83 - Platoon

Oliver Stone's 1986 film focuses on a platoon of soldiers in Vietnam -- chiefly a young recruit (Charlie Sheen) and his two sergeants, Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Elias (Willem Dafoe), who approach the war in very different ways. You can probably guess what else happens in the film.

Platoon fits in perfectly with the other morally ambiguous and non-entertaining films we've seen so far for this project (see Easy Rider, Goodfellas, Unforgiven). Non sympathetic main characters? Check. Senseless violence? Check. Samantha and Andrew didn't enjoy it? Check.

I'm trying to step back and see the film for what makes it great, besides chronicling one of the greatest American tragedies of the 20th century (which, near as I can tell, is criteria enough). I think part of why the movie is lauded is how it takes the setting and uses it to speak to a greater theme. War is hell, as they say, and it brings out the best and the worst in people. How one deals with that tells you a lot about their character.

Sheen's character tries desperately to hold to his naive conceptions about what his role should be. The difference between the two sergeants is stark and their inevitable conflict leads to tragedy in and of itself. Some find humor amidst the hellish situation. Additionally, the film does an excellent job of portraying the realism of war -- the confusion, the tension, the little nitty gritty details that separate "a rough time" with "absolute horror."

I'm not sure I needed to see this to know that Vietnam was awful. But now I have a better idea. And if this wasn't enough (it was, it was, please...), we get two more rounds soon. Ugh. I wonder if there will be as many films about Iraq.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

December 19, 2006

#82 - Giant

In 1956, Edna Ferber's novel was adapted for the big screen by George Stevens. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor star as Bick and Leslie Benedict in the story of a Texas rancher family across decades. James Dean costars as brooding farmhand Jett Rink.

Giant is exactly the kind of movie I expected to see when we started this project. At 210 minutes, it is indeed giant, but it needs that long to tell the entire story. The plot is rich, engrossing and complex, full of character intricacies, conflict and adventure. Hudson and Taylor are superb in their roles, playing them with elegance and emotion. Taylor looks just as smashing as the young debutante than she does aged 30 years as the family matriarch.

This is the first time I've seen James Dean on film. I must say, I think I understand what all the fuss was about. His style of acting is completely different from Hudson and Taylor -- much more moody and laconic. He's obviously very talented -- truly a shame he died so soon after.

The movie itself is gorgeous. The production values are very high and the sweeping Texas landscapes effectively frame the huge story. The movie makers convincingly bring the characters through different periods of fashion and generations of family.

Most surprising, however, is the social themes that the movie deals with. It must have been shocking to an 1956 audience to see sensitivity to Hispanic immigrants portrayed, even as stereotyped as the characters appear. Add in the effects of oil on the Texan economy and social world and a variety of interfamilial conflicts and you have a movie with important things to say -- things that still sound fresh after 50 years.

I was very impressed by this movie. I didn't even know it existed before I watched it, and now it's one of my favorites of the project.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

April 15, 2007

#81 - Modern Times

This 1936 film stars Charlie Chaplin -- who also wrote the script, directed, produced and composed the score. Chaplin plays his familiar Little Tramp character, who this time finds himself fed up with life as a assembly line worker and bounces from job to job interspersed with visits to the county jail and adventures with a newly-befriended gamine.

This was my first exposure to the dynamo who was Charlie Chaplin. As you can see from the brief description above, he was a do-it-all kind of filmmaker. Widely beloved and immensely successful during the silent film era, the advent of "talkies" pushed Chaplin and his character, the Little Tramp, to an interesting place in 1936. Modern Times is the last "silent" film of Chaplin's career, though it is not completely silent -- there are voices, though they are all from some sort of secondary source (a phonograph, a radio, a public announcement device), and there are some sound effects. But Chaplin uses these to further his satire of talking pictures and of technology in general.

Satire is Chaplin's bread and butter, and it satisfies here too. The Tramp haplessly, hilariously and heartbreakingly traverses the hazards of "modern society" with fantastic physical comedy and wonderfully inventive situations. The poor man just can't seem to hold down a job, having gone nuts at his factory job (getting caught in a large machine's gears, in the movie's most memorable image), and ignoring his duties as a night watchman at a department store by going rollerskating around the floor. He consistently finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, being jailed for participating in a Communist rally and for running out on a restaurant bill (after trying to get a policeman to pay it for him). And, in the movie's best scene, he is prey to technology run amok as the guinea pig for a time-saving feeding machine.

The Tramp can't hack it in this modernized world, and in his failure symbolizes anyone's desire to live the simple and idealized life in the face of conformity and a fast-changing world. The message is universal, and timeless. Chaplin's expressions, his bumbling attempts at kindness and generosity and his love shown through the friendship with a kindred soul are acting at its best. The production and cinematography is flawless (Chaplin was a notorious perfectionist and experimenter -- a dangerous combination for a filmmaker) and the entire 87 minute running time is full to the brim with wonderful scenes.

Great, great movie. We're excited to be seeing two more of Chaplin's films in the not too distant future.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

August 25, 2007

#80 - The Wild Bunch

Sam Peckinpah directs this 1969 western starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan. Holden plays Pike, the leader of a group of aging outlaws in the early 20th century where the "wild west" that they knew is disappearing.

Another western. Who knew so many westerns were so influential? I'm just not a big western fan, I've decided. In any case, here's another one. This one, along with the usual excellent cinematography and pacing, features some characteristics we've come to find common in AFI 100 movies: ambigiously moral characters and groundbreaking themes and/or technology.

I found myself, once again, not sure who to root for or who to like in this picture. Holden and Borgnine play the aging outlaw well -- they're despicable for their bloodthirstiness and total lack of regard for common morals, but equally sympathetic as men whose time has just plain passed them by. They don't fit anymore. The climax of the film (which I'll detail in a moment) is one of the more stirring climaxes in the movie's we've watched -- all the work going into building these characters and taking them through their paces pays off in a 20 second scene of close-ups between the outlaws' faces as they decide to embark on the last gunfight of their lives -- and you completely understand why it had to end this way.

What way is that? Only the bloodiest and most violent gunfight ever committed to film at that point. Peckinpah is the master of western gore. The slow motion bullet hits with blood splattering and flying flesh is an orgy of destruction, and Peckinpah is painstaking about the detail that went into it. Tarantino owes a lot to this man, but Peckinpah is Tarantino's superior. Trantino's violence has no purpose. Peckinpah works tirelessly to illustrate precisely why the violence takes place in the lives of these men. He also worked tirelessly to make it look as bloody as possible, which was pretty groundbreaking as well.

So. The themes continue -- the ones mentioned above, and also the theme of not being enough a film snob to fully appreciate this. Although I am learning more about the history of film. So we're still being successful.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

December 9, 2007

#79 - The Deer Hunter

Vietnam was the theme of many movies in the '70s-'80s and several of them are represented on this list, including this entry from 1978. Directed and co-written by Michael Cimino, it focuses on the lives of three blue collar men (Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale) in three acts -- before, during and after the war. Meryl Streep costars.

Chalk up another movie we're glad we watched but will likely never see again. Much like the world event that provides its backdrop, this movie is brutal. Vietnam destroyed men's lives in many ways -- and this movie shows the less obvious, more insidious ways.

It is not so much focused on Vietnam as it uses it as a frame for a character study of these three men. It spends a long, long time showing them in their native environs (steel town in the mountains of Pennsylvania) before it cuts suddenly to the war scenes. And they are not even the center point of the movie, as fairly soon we move back to Pennsylvania and start picking up the pieces afterward.

Thus, in its established format as a character study, the movie is extremely well done. I can draw parallels to my last review in that the time spent developing these characters pays off in spades -- this time, it's as we are torn apart watching them be torn apart by the horrors of war. Though the men are no great citizens, they are sympathetic characters and none deserve what they suffer.

I expected parts of the movie to be difficult to watch, and I was right, but not in the way I thought it would. I expected violence and bloodshed, as they are hallmarks of most war movies I have seen. There wasn't much of those, but there were intensely uncomfortable scenes for other reasons, both straightforward (Russian roulette) and more complex (some of the scenes involving DeNiro's character as he comes back to a town that hasn't changed but he has changed so much). The entire film works to great emotional effect.

The acting is great, naturally. DeNiro is almost a caricature of himself now, but he's very affecting in his role. The score is well fitted and very memorable. Things like cinematography didn't really stand out in this one, surprisingly, but you can't win 'em all, I guess.

Another movie that is obviously a touchstone for a generation, so it's good we've covered it. But I'm glad to move on. Two Vietnam movies down, one to go. Nice to have a break for a while.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

January 2, 2008

#78 - Rocky

The iconic boxing movie came in 1976, written by and starring Sylvester Stallone as a down-on-his-luck boxer who gets a shot at the world heavyweight title. John G. Avildsen directs and Talia Shire, Burt Young, Burgess Meredith and Carl Weathers co star.

Yes, we all know Rocky. Duh-duh-duuuuhhh, duh-duh-duuuuuuhhh. Running up and down the stairs. It's Stallone boxing. Big deal, right? Well, I guess it was, or it wouldn't be on the list. We've been able to come up with pretty good reasons why every movie we've seen so far is on the list, and "Archetypical Underdog Sports Movie" fits pretty well.

I had seen it before -- at least I think I did, that Rocky marathon at bible camp was a long time ago and kind of a blur -- so I wasn't exactly jazzed for it. But you know what? It was good. Stallone is great in the role that made him what he is. The story is tough to beat -- Rocky is a true Everyman, just a stupid guy with a really big heart, lots of love for the homely girl next door and the drive to make something incredible out of a once-in-a-lifetime chance. The supporting actors all do well -- Burgess Meredith particularly is great. The movie itself is very well made, considering the budget constraints -- great Philadelphia locations, rousing score, the whole deal.

Bottom line, it's a classic. If you haven't seen it, you owe it to yourself.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

February 2, 2008

#77 - American Graffiti

George Lucas directs this slice of nostalgia, made in 1973 but set at the end of summer in 1962. Four friends (Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith) spend their last night together in small town California before two of them head off to college.

Samantha had me looking forward to this one, but my overall reaction was that it was good, not great. I think that one's reaction to this movie has more to do with one's personality and behavior than other movies, and I'll explain why.

The movie does a marvelous job of painting a picture of youthful naivete and innocence, both in terms of the characters themselves, and of American culture in general before the '60s really took off. At the same time, the characters in the film are far from innocent in the conventional sense. They're troublemaking, they're pranksters, they're horny, they're hot rodders -- all in all, they're not people I would have identified with at all in high school. So while many people watched their antics and thought "Oh, to be young again," I was just thinking, "Yeah, high schoolers are high schoolers -- getting away with things I would never have dreamed of when I was that age."

But enough about me. The film is fun to watch. Lucas and his cast have set the scene to a tee -- everyone is utterly believable in their roles cruising the neon-lit streets. It's particularly fun watching then-nobodies like Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford (in a small role). Candy Clark is particularly great in an Oscar-nominated role as the slightly-ditzy beautiful blonde hanging out with the dork on a date that careens from ill-advised to outright disaster. The film does a good job of weaving together four different storylines and four different character development into a coherent whole. The music is outstanding -- dozens of number 1 hit tracks coming through the car radios that very effectively evoke the period. I can recognize all of this as being outstanding. It just didn't strike me as being personally affecting.

I would recommend the film. I enjoyed it, and you'll probably enjoy it more than I did.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

March 25, 2008

#76 - City Lights

We visit Charlie Chaplin's impressive body of work again with this 1931 production, featuring Chaplin's Little Tramp on a quest to raise money to pay for an operation to restore the sight of a poor flower girl, the object of his affection. Along the way befriends a drunken millionaire, who then doesn't recognize him when he's sober. Chaplin also co-wrote, produced, directed, scored and edited the film.

This review will echo much of what I said about Modern Times, the first Chaplin film we watched, so go read that first, if you haven't. Chaplin is the master of his craft, which is, of course, silent pictures (which aren't exactly silent, per se -- they have a full musical score and the occasional sound effect). Talkies were just coming into vogue at this time, but Chaplin held firm to his practice -- and produced what many critics believe is his finest film.

I have to agree, having seen three of his movies now (yeah, I'm a little behind on writing them up, so sue me). It's difficult to explain why these movies are so great. Let me try using an analogy. When people who are unfamiliar with the Beatles listen to them, they may hear things -- textures, arrangements, styles -- that they are familiar with, because they've heard today's bands use them, and they may think that it is old hat -- been there, done that, why are they so groundbreaking? But what they may not realize is that it is exactly the opposite -- the Beatles invented those sounds. Everyone else is just following in their footsteps. If anything is old hat, it's today's bands.

I think, in the same way, Chaplin's films had a pervasive effect on the themes and styles used in film and the forms of media that have followed: television, animation, online video, etc. So the slapstick, slightly absurd comedy and running gags that he does so well are tropes that I have much experience with and love, even before I knew he was the model for them. He sets them up and uses them to absolutely hilarious effect.

This is just the first thing I love about Chaplin. That's not all, of course. Chaplin is quite skilled at using satire to address universal themes -- in this film, it's the hypocrisy, prissiness, and arrogance of wealthy "polite society" and cruelty to society's less fortunate, lovable outcasts like The Little Tramp himself. His careful editing and directing is evident in the flawless construction of the 90 minute gem. And his acting is no trifle either -- the final scene is truly touching, in ways that tear-jerking dramas of the present day only aspire to be.

If you haven't seen any of Chaplin's films, fix that. This is the one I'd recommend. I don't really forcefully recommend many of the movies we've watched on this project, but I am doing so for this one. I guess that speaks as loudly as anything as to how good it was.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

May 29, 2008

AFI 100 Update: The Bottom Quarter (76-100)

For those of you just joining us, Samantha and I are in the midst of an ongoing project to watch the American Film Institute's Top 100 films from the first century of American film (1896-1996). We started our project over three years ago and we are now one quarter of the way through. Well, actually, we're farther than that -- I'm behind on my reviews. But still -- 25% done deserves a recap.

Our journey thus far has, more or less, been what we expected. We've seen 25 movies from a variety of eras and genres, with not a lot in common among them. Of course, they all are examples of high quality film making (at least relative to the time). Many of them have featured outstanding acting performances, controversial themes and technical advances -- but not all of them, and not all the time. For several, we have had to throw our hands up and assume that we're not film-nerdy enough to truly appreciate them. In that same vein, we have made it a game of sorts to try and figure out why each was included on the list, and we've been fairly successful in identifying one or several reasons for each film, even for the ones we don't "get."

We are hoping that the 'duds' (if you can call them that -- we're still learning a lot from the ones we don't enjoy) will become fewer and farther between as we work our way up. In the meantime, here's some highlights and lowlights.


  • The Apartment (#93). I think this one was straight-up the most fun to watch. Superb acting, heart-tugging plot, excellent direction.
  • City Lights (#76). Maybe there's hope for the film nerd side of me yet. I really enjoyed all of the Chaplin films we've seen so far and this is the best of them. Classic in the best sense of the word.


  • Easy Rider (#88). Mostly just really painful to watch. I'm not of the right generation, I think.
  • Platoon (#83). Though it wasn't as difficult to watch as The Deer Hunter, it was less redeeming. An ugly movie for an ugly war.

Exceeded Expectations:

  • Giant (#82). Then again, I wasn't sure what to expect, but the description on Netflix didn't really sell me. But it was an outstanding film.
  • A Place in the Sun (#92). A film that ended in an entirely different fashion than we were lead to believe after the first half an hour. Fascinating to watch.

Failed to Meet Expectations:

  • Frankenstein (#87). We at least were hoping for something entertaining. It wasn't even really that.
  • The Jazz Singer (#90). The first talkie, right? Well, not quite. Not even a fun musical -- just sort of a weird blend of two movie making styles.

How's that for some crazy recap action? More reviews coming soon. I may be doing two in a row from time to time in an attempt to erase my backlog. You have been warned.

June 1, 2008

#75 - Dances with Wolves

Kevin Costner directs and stars in this 1990 Best Picture winning epic about a Union soldier at a remote post in South Dakota who befriends a Lakota Sioux tribe of Indians.

Ugh. We had a tough time working up any excitement for this one and I'm also having trouble coming up with much to say here. You've probably seen this one and have an opinion about it either way. I found it entirely too long (not helped by the fact that we got the "extended version" from Netflix) and pretty snooze-worthy. The story is strong, but it got diluted by the lengthy running time. The acting was mediocre at best, especially Costner.

Many of the features of the other westerns we've seen hold true here (wide open vistas, etc). It does get points for turning the usual "savage Indian, civilized westerner" theme on its head.

It's an okay movie for what it's trying to do. But I honestly don't see what the fuss is about. And... that's it. Next.

#74 - The Gold Rush

The third and final Charlie Chaplin film on the list, once again written, edited and scored by the do-it-all filmmaker. The earliest of the three (1925), Chaplin's comedic sense is well honed as the Lone Prospector (who is a dead ringer for the familiar Little Tramp) who bumbles his way through turn-of-the-century gold rush Alaska, avoiding starvation in a blizzard, courting the saloon girl who doesn't know he exists, and (of course) striking it big and getting fabulously wealthy, through no fault of his own.

This is the most unabashedly comedic of the Chaplin films I've seen. Still present are his touches of tragedy (unavoidable as he's making us laugh about people amidst starvation and heartbreak) but I probably laughed the hardest at this one. The two iconic scenes (Chaplin feasting on a roasted boot and Chaplin using two forked-impaled dinner rolls to effect a dapper dance) are just the tip of the iceberg of the comedy on this one. It also features the happiest ending of the three, which is sort of satisfying. We're left on a happy note as for Chaplin's characters, though it kind of seems strange to see the Little Tramp actually getting the girl at the end.

As for the rest, I again must point you to my previous two Chaplin reviews, all of which is still applicable as Chaplin is again at the top of his game. The fourteen months it took to put the movie together are evident in the attention to detail.

I can't be too clear about this: seeing Chaplin's films are one of the best things that have come out of this project. Though I probably won't seek out seeing any more, I'm very glad to have seen these three and have an appreciation for one of cinema's greatest figures.

June 23, 2008

#73 - Wuthering Heights

We head to the golden age of Hollywood romanticism for this 1939 adaptation of Emily Brontë's classic novel. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon star as forever unrequited lovers Heathcliff and Cathy as life's events bring them together and apart in heartbreaking tragedy. William Wyler directs.

Here's another film that totally matches what I was expecting to see coming in to this project. Big stars, big stories, drama, action, passion! I may sound like a movie trailer, but what many movies claim to have, this one truly delivers.

First of all, Olivier and Oberon are tremendous. As Samantha put it, "These are very pretty people." Olivier is strikingly handsome, dark and brooding -- perfectly fitting with the character. His acting is at once understated and powerful. Heathcliff's immense contempt for Cathy in the later parts of the film couldn't be clearer on his face (perhaps because Olivier and Oberon didn't get along in real life). Oberon too is well cast as the beautiful but conflicted and selfish Cathy. It's worth the price of admission to see these two making doe eyes at each other.

But the rest of the film also matches up. The supporting acting (particularly Hugh Williams as Hindley) is fine. The Oscar-winning cinematography (by Gregg Toland, who would go on to become famous for his work on Citizen Kane) creates a perfect setting with strident dark and light hues reflecting the moodiness of the story. The screenwriting is excellent and makes the cuts necessary to craft a well-paced and concise film out of Brontë's sprawling novel (though purists may take umbrage at the second half of the book being completely left out). The California hills stand in well for the wild Yorkshire moors.

It's not an easy sight to watch these beautiful people destroy one another, but darn if they didn't put it together well. Chalk up another winner.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

October 6, 2008

#72 - Ben-Hur

The 1959 quintessential film epic stars Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince in the time of Christ, in a tale of revenge, redemption, and one huge chariot race. Stephen Boyd and Jack Hawkins co-star and William Wyler directs.

This movie is big. It's incredibly big. If this movie were a symphony, it'd be Mahler's 8th. MGM pulled out all the stops, and it certainly shows. The epic clocks in at 212 minutes (nearly four hours). It quite literally has a cast of thousands. It was fantastically expensive for the studio -- indeed, it was conceived as a gamble to stave off bankruptcy. Oh yeah, and the story too! Judah's fall from grace, galley enslavement, Roman adoption, triumphant revenge and Christian conversion runs the gamut of emotion and action.

The scale of the film alone would make it impressive, and as it stands, I think it is Ben-Hur's one lasting claim to fame. They just don't make movies that way anymore -- the film is the last great biblical epic that was financially successful. So in that sense, it feels quite dated. The film's length is not helped by the somewhat ponderous pace -- if it were made today, I'm sure the director would have slashed a lot of the character development in deference to the action scenes.

No, wait. Another claim to fame has to be the famous chariot race scene. It holds up extremely well, especially considering it was filmed long before any major advances in special effects. However, in a way, this dovetails into the epic sweep of the film, since thousands of extras and an entire life-size coliseum were used for the scene.

The other usual stuff (screenplay, acting, cinematography, costumes, score) are all up to snuff for AFI fare, though none are particularly impressive. Heston is Heston -- very intense. The supporting cast is strong. It's all very nice to look at.

So it's big. That's cool. I definitely get the sense of grandeur. But somehow it wasn't enjoyable as Giant, one of the other really big movies we've seen. I dunno. Maybe I'm not into swords-and-sandals as much. Anyway, if you like your movies big, this one'll do it for ya.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

October 15, 2008

#71 - Forrest Gump

Another movie that needs no introduction, but I'll do it anyway -- Robert Zemeckis directs this 1994 film about a simple man (Tom Hanks) living in complex times, from his youth in the '50s south through the latter part of the century. Robin Wright Penn and Gary Sinise co-star.

You have probably seen this movie. If you haven't, you should. If you have, you will probably agree with me on a number of things (that are good reasons why this one's on the list) -- that Tom Hanks is brilliant, the special effects were groundbreaking for the times, and the film is basically a love letter to an entire generation of Americans.

Fine. But this movie was a little different to me than most of these films have been so far. I must admit that I wasn't really looking forward to watching it. I don't specifically recall the first time I saw it, but I suspect it wasn't long after it came out, probably when I was 15 or 16. I don't remember being terribly impressed. Anyway, I feel kind of sheepish now, because I really enjoyed watching it this time around. And I'm at a bit of a loss as to how to break this down.

I consider myself a pretty balanced person. I can be rather cynical, but I can also be pretty idealistic. I don't think I was much different the first time I watched the movie. But something did change between then and now. This time, having ten more years of knowledge about and travel around my country and ten more years of experience in life and love changed my perception of the film. Today, I am hard pressed to think of a movie that embodies America more than this film -- both America's greatness and its flaws -- and that affected me emotionally somehow. Also, the themes played out by Jenny's story, themes of family tragedy, imperfection, redemption and enduring love, spoke infinitely more powerfully to me.

Now, I don't consider myself a patriotic person, and I am perhaps more aware now of why the US sucks than I was ten years ago. Also, I have shed a bit of the wild romanticism of being young that would naturally resonate well with the story of Forrest and Jenny's relationship. So it's confusing to me why I should be so much more affected by these themes today than I was when I first saw the movie. I see the film more for what it is -- tugging at our heartstrings in a bit of a manipulative fashion. But I'm more happy to let my heartstrings be tugged. Strange.

Anyway. I enjoyed the movie and it made me think. I guess that's what I should hope for from movies on the list.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

January 25, 2009

#70 - The French Connection

This 1971 crime thriller features Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as police detectives on the trail of a narcotics trafficking scheme. Directed by William Friedkin.

Many of the films we've seen so far on this project are linked by a common theme -- portraying a world where morality is not black and white, but cast in infinite shades of gray. And I've commented before that, by dint of my viewpoint as a Gen X / Millenial generation member, movies with ambiguous morals are not that impressive or groundbreaking to me. But the list just keeps throwing them at me, so I'll keep repeating the same things.

So it's police drama this time around. And wow, look at that, there are cops that aren't sterling examples of humanity. And things don't always have a happy ending. Shocking.

Look, I don't like to trivialize the major aspect of why this movie is on the List, but there it is. It's realistic. Great. Why is this so amazing, by the way? It's not like reality is that awesome -- I mean, I'm watching a movie, here. You can safely assume that I'm looking for some sort of escape from everyday life. I guess the point is that no other police dramas really took an honest tack before this one. Which just makes me wish (as I've commented before) that I had watched other similar movies from the era that aren't as good in order to get a clear sense of why this movie is great.

Yes, the acting was good, the cinematography was excellent, and the famous chase scene was a show stopper. But the plot was quite complex and tough to follow, and the appropriately ambiguous ending left me unfulfilled.

Meh. That's it. I don't know what our next film with ambiguous morals is, but maybe by the time we get there, I'll be able to review it in some new and interesting way. Feel free to suggest one.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

April 4, 2009

#69 - Shane

Yes, folks, it's another western (and not the last). This 1953 entry stars Alan Ladd as the titular character, a mysterious gunslinger who gets embroiled in a conflict between a homesteading family (played by Van Helfin and Jean Arthur) and a ruthless cattle baron. George Stevens directs.

Okay, okay, okay. I'm starting to come around on the westerns. I have disliked all of the westerns we've seen for this project, but I dislike this one less. I think the gap between viewing and reviewing this film (I saw it last May) actually helped because it seems better looking back. I gave it 2 stars on Netflix back then, but I changed that to a 3 while writing this review. How's that for growth?

Shane has many of the hallmarks of a good western: the simple story that never plays out as simple as it sounds, the universal moral conflicts of good vs. evil played out by people who aren't quite either, and the vast, breathtaking and imposing landscapes that frame it all. I have seen these now several times and am beginning to understand the subtleties of how they are used to good effect.

One thing that I think Shane has in abundance over other westerns are the characters. We've seen plenty of morally ambiguous characters, but everyone in this movie felt real instead of just needlessly complex. Shane himself is a hero, yes, but one who knows the same heroic qualities than enable him to save the day are the same qualities that mean he must not stay, leading to the heartbreaking and iconic final scene as the young boy who has idolized Shane implores him to come back as he rides away.

The relationships that develop between Shane and his adopted family members are natural, and the consequences that ensue due to the story make intuitive sense. I enjoyed the interplay between Shane and the family, between the family and the other homesteaders, between Shane and the ranchers. It seemed well constructed. We don't have to like the way the film turns out, but it is satisfying nonetheless.

The characters also appealed to me in a fashion that has been honed by many years of reading comic books and fantasy novels and playing computer games. I always enjoy seeing characters who are obviously powerhouses in their particular realm of existence match up against one another. If you rated every character in the movie on a gunslinging scale from 1 to 10, it's obvious that Shane gets a 10. Jack Wilson (played by a young and fantastic Jack Palance) gets a 9, which is plenty good enough to have him be a nigh-unstoppable force of evil in the movie. But Shane will get the best of him, and does. This is despite, or perhaps even because of, Shane's awareness of the Spider-Man Credo ("With great power comes great responsibility").

This curiously mechanical viewpoint on conflict is something I see and enjoy in a lot of media, so the fact that I get this feeling from this film isn't really unusual, but I figured it bore mentioning anyway.

So yeah. It's still a western, which means it is automatically hokey, backwards and artificial to me. The themes could have been easily explored in some other genre that I would have enjoyed watching more. But as far as westerns go, it was okay.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

August 2, 2009

#68 - An American in Paris

Vicente Minnelli directs this 1951 musical classic, starring Gene Kelly as American expat painter Jerry Mulligan, who falls in love with young French ingenue Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron). Nina Foch, Oscar Levant and a boatload of Gershwin tunes co-star.

We've been watching a lot of Gene Kelly lately. This isn't really surprising if you know Samantha at all, who more or less claims Kelly as her favorite classic movie star -- you know, from the era when movie stars were actually talented. This has been helped along by a Christmas gift from her brother Ben. But even if you're not a big Gene Kelly fan, this film is more than worth seeing.

First of all, let's get this out of the way: yes, there's a 17 minute ballet segment near the end that features no dialogue whatsoever. And yes, if you don't dig superb dancing, beautiful sets based on the works of prominent French painters and Gershwin music, you'll probably be bored. We thought we would be and we weren't. It's awesome.

The segment is emblematic of why this film is on the list. Gene Kelly's career with MGM was on the rise at a stratospheric pace, to peak with Singin' in the Rain the following year. Partially because of Kelly's influence, MGM was willing to take bigger chances on the size and scope of the movie musical, and this film is evidence that it was a good bet. The musical numbers, the sets, the large cast -- no expenses were spared. And it works. The film is a joy to watch -- a riot of color and energy.

The plot is forgettable, but you're not here for the plot -- you're here for everything else, and mostly that's Kelly. I know we're a bit biased, but I'm hard pressed to think of anyone in the current day and age that has the range of talent that he did. Between choreography, dancing, singing, acting, writing and directing, he was a showman to the hilt. Caron, trained as a dancer before making her film debut in the film, provides Kelly with a dancer partner more than up to the task. The Gershwin soundtrack is also worth the price of admission, and indeed ties the film together thematically better than the plot does structurally.

If you're going to watch one Gene Kelly film... well, watch Singin' in the Rain. But if you're going to watch two, watch this one as well.

(See this post if you're confused why I'm reviewing movies.)

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