Monday, June 30, 2014

Movie Guy: AFI Countdown 80 to 76

Okay, are you still with me after I bagged on Easy Rider? Good, let's continue...

The Apartment (1960)
This dark comedy was a bit controversial in its time given its themes of infidelity and adultery. (Apparently sexual harassment in the workplace was less of a concern to 1960 audiences.) Fresh off their success in Some Like It Hot (1959), director Billy Wilder and star Jack Lemmon find humor and genuine pathos in this very unconventional love story, and, of course, Shirley MacLaine is heart-wrenching and lovely. This is a great movie and it deserves far better than #80 on a list of the top 100.

The Wild Bunch (1969)
The Hollywood Western is one of those animals that is constantly evolving and there are films that serve as periodic "markers" of change: Stagecoach (1939), High Noon (1952), A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Unforgiven (1993), and this film by famed action director Sam Peckinpah. The story of four crude criminals trying to adjust to a changing West bears some comparison to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from the same year, but it is a very different movie: far more bleak and violent and with a largely different style - a style that is most closely associated with Peckinpah. Slow-motion violence has become a bit clichéd due to its over-use in B-movies that followed. Even some of Peckinpah's own later films relied upon it almost as a gimmick, but in this movie it works as the artistic flourish that it is intended to be. I don't love this film as much as some do, but I wouldn't contest its position on this list.

Modern Times (1936)
There are three Chaplin films on the AFI list, and this one holds the lowest position at #78. This must be something akin to favoring one daughter over another - or perhaps more like one niece over another. Such a great, funny film: where does one begin? At its core an indictment of industrialization, Chaplin manages to comment upon the Great Depression and the rise of Socialism, but with a knowing wink. Highlights include Chaplin singing a nonsense song, an episode in the jail with - actually, you know what? The whole film is a highlight.

All The President's Men (1976)
The Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration - leading to its ultimate downfall - is sometimes pointed to as the point at which the American people lost their innocence regarding the Presidency. We went from suspecting that our leaders might be misleading us to knowing that they had. Personally, I think it's naive to think the public had really been so long fooled, but it was still a very shattering moment for this country. Based on the book by the two Washington Post reporters who uncovered the conspiracy, Alan J. Pakula's film is suspenseful, consuming, and exciting.

Forrest Gump (1994)
It's difficult not to be moved by the tale of a noble but simple young man who - through single-minded perseverance and an awful lot of bizarre good fortune - becomes a hero and and a millionaire entrepreneur. The performances are impressive and charming, the special effects are astounding, and story is both witty and poignant. What I think some people forget in this movie about the "noble idiot" who achieves the American Dream, is that the lovable Forrest could not care less about that dream. His guiding philosophy is love and kindness. He puts others before himself, and he doesn't view wealth as something that must be accumulated nor does it place you above anyone else. It's hokey at times, sure, but we can all do with a bit of hokeyness in our lives from time to time.

The Apartment found its way to Broadway in 1968 as musical called Promises, Promises with music by Burt Bacharach and lyrics by Hal David. It was revived on Broadway in 2010. Dionne Warwick had a big hit in 1970 with her rendition of the lovely second-act tune "I'll Never Fall in Love Again."

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Movie Guy: AFI Countdown 85 to 81

Now, in the mid-80s, I'm going to probably start making some people mad, but first:

A Night at the Opera (1935)
This is one of two Marx Bros. films to make this list, and this is probably only because voters restricted themselves from including all the Marx Bros. films. Is A Night at the Opera actually that much better than A Night in Casablanca, Monkey Business, or A Day at the Races? Probably only by a few degrees of measurement. Perhaps Opera gained the edge because of some impressive operatic numbers from Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle. Whatever the case, it definitely belongs here, but don't let the exclusion of some of the other Marx Bros. films from this list dissuade you from seeing those as well.

Easy Rider (1969)
Okay, I know: avant-garde director, counter culture film, yadda yadda yadda. I believe that this movie is here because of the nostalgic "remembrances" of viewers who haven't seen this movie in decades (if at all, completely) and are recalling a much better film than this really is. I know that this will anger some people, but look: this movie is an extended music video, and not a very good one at that. It feels like  director Dennis Hopper had a very loose idea for a movie and then decided to flesh it out with some improvised or hastily-written scenes that create a very flimsy storyline. It also seems like he might have been stoned out of his mind for much of the filming. (He was.) In my opinion, this is a mediocre student art film with a great soundtrack and some aesthetically-pleasing motorcycle scenes. it doesn't belong in the top 100 films. Probably not even the top 200 films. I'm open to debate on this one, but I would just ask that you watch it again first, all the way through.

Titanic (1997)
There are plenty of Titanic haters out there. Anytime that a movie with a central love story and a young heartthrob is that popular, there is bound to be some backlash. To me, this movie is a modern answer to W.S. Van Dyke's great disaster film of 1936: San Francisco. (Curiously, this movie did not make the list.) James Cameron hits all the right notes to marry star-crossed love story with a real-life tragedy. The effects are brilliant. This movie would be in the top 50, I think, if not for the irrational backlash.

Sunrise (1927)
Also known as Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, this American film from German director F.W. Murnau has all of the Murnau touches, and it brings elements of German Expressionism to this story creating an almost fairy tale feel. If you're not accustomed to silent film, you might find some of the acting a bit exaggerated and hokey, but stick with it, because this story will draw you in. It is heart-wrenching and joyful and heart-wrenching and joyful again. There are very few silent films on this list, and this and Intolerance are the only two that aren't a comedy or a monster film. I think that speaks to the effectiveness of this story.

Spartacus (1960)
Based on the real-life story of the Thracian gladiator and warrior of the Third Servile War, director Stanley Kubrick paints some amazing scenes of battle, both in the arena and out. Kirk Douglas is great in the lead role, but it's really the supporting performances in this film that are the most compelling: Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis, Peter Ustinov, and Charles Laughton. We are all Spartacus.

BONUS - Since I mentioned it, here's the trailer for W.S. Van Dyke's San Francisco, even though it doesn't make the AFI list:
*Something fun to watch for in this film: There is a scene between Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy where Tracy takes advantage of director W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke's reputation as "One-Take Woody" by slipping in an ad-lib gag referencing Mickey Rooney (his young co-star in Boys Town). MacDonald reacts noticeably to the joke, and it's right there in the movie because: One-Take Woody. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Movie Guy: AFI Countdown 90 to 86

Moving on with the countdown of the AFI's top 100 films of all time, we come to positions #90 to #86.

Swing Time (1936)
A review of this film published in Dance magazine in 1936 states, in part, that "Astaire and Rogers are the picture; everything else seems to have been put in to fill the time between swings. Dance routines are fresh and interesting, dance is superb." hard to argue with that. The plot is plenty contrived but also cute. Astaire and Rogers carry the film almost entirely upon their shoulders, but they carry it well. It's a great dance film - great enough to be considered a great film without qualification.
Trigger warning: there is one number - highly impressive, technically - that Astaire performs in black face.

The Sixth Sense (1999)
I like this film, and I like M. Night Shyamalan as a screenwriter and director - even as he has fallen out of favor with audiences and critics. He has been accused of being a bit of a one-trick pony with each of his films having a jaw-dropping twist in the final moments, and, certainly, it is the "gotcha" moment in this film that probably earned it a place on this list. Future lists may omit it, since it is impossible for audiences to recreate that moment for themselves on subsequent viewings. Still, I think it is a clever, moody film. I like it. However, I also liked Unbreakable, and I am in the minority in that opinion.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)
The beloved reputation of this film really stems from a decade or so after it was originally released due to its being shown on television in the 1950s. I tend to favor the opinion of the audiences in 1938 that let this film flop. It's a cute movie, with lots of great quips from Cary Grant, and it has no shortage of laughs, but is it one of the 100 best films ever made? Hepburn has been much better and in roles where she seemed infinitely more comfortable. This movie, like others on this list, seems to be here out of nostalgia rather than actual merit. It's not a terrible film, by any means, but there are at least 100 more that are better, in my opinion.

12 Angry Men (1957)
Originally a teleplay for Studio One, this story got the big-screen treatment under the direction of Sidney Lumet. Even as well-received as the television version was, it still seems risky to make a movie out of a story that takes place in one room, around a table, and with no action beyond some heated conversations. It's a risk that pays off, however, because this is a riveting piece of cinema, aided in no small part by the performance of Henry Fonda as Juror #8.

Platoon (1986)
This movie has the distinction of being the first Hollywood film about the Vietnam War directed by a Vietnam veteran - despite what Michael Cimino would have us believe. (Oh, we'll get to The Deer Hunter. I have plenty to say about that film.) This is a film about the horrors of war, but it doesn't spend much time moralizing on that point. Director Oliver Stone simply puts us on the ground in the middle of a jungle war, and lets us draw our own conclusions. I'm really not sure why this film is so far down the list. I can think of at least one Vietnam movie further up the list that should not be ahead of this one.

Enjoy this perfect dance number from Swing Time featuring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire:

Friday, June 27, 2014

Movie Guy: AFI Countdown 95 to 91

Continuing from yesterday's blog, I'm going to briefly look at 5 more films from the AFI 100 list, starting today with number 95.

The Last Picture Show (1971)
Color technology has been around in films almost since the beginning of film, in some version or another. Early on, it was an expensive and time-consuming process to use color, and sometimes it didn't look entirely natural. In 1939, both The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind were produced in color, but for decades to come studios would still produce many films in black and white. By the late 50s and early 60s, the choice to use black and white was less a concern of budget and more simply a matter of artistic choice. However, by the1970s - when even low-budget films and television had been in color for years, the choice to use black and white ran the risk of looking unnecessarily audacious. There are some exceptions to this, however, and I think that this film is one of those. Larry McMurtry's bleak coming of age tale about teenagers in a small Texas town in the 1950s is brought to the screen by director Peter Bogdanovich, and there are some really incredible performances here. This is another movie that I think should be higher on the list.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
This film was a game-changer. A campy, noir comedy thriller that was simultaneously an homage to many genres of film and very much unlike anything that we had seen before. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then this may be the most beloved film of the last thirty years. Personally, Jackie Brown is my favorite film in the Tarantino oeuvre - probably owing to it being based on an Elmore Leonard novel - but it is difficult to deny the artistry and influence of Pulp Fiction

The French Connection (1971)
This film also shook things up a bit. We'd seen rogue cops before, but few quite as rogue as Gene Hackman's Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle. His dogged, by-any-means-necessary pursuit of heroin dealers culminates in one of the most memorable car chases in cinema history. This is another one of those oft-imitated movies - and with good reason.

Goodfellas (1990)
This is the quintessential gangster film. The Godfather films was an exposé of the American mob, but we still arguably viewed from a casual distance. Ray Liotta's first-person narrative as mobster/drug dealer/stool pigeon Henry Hill takes us unapologetically inside the inner workings of organized crime. The influence of this film can be felt by how many of your friends can recite Tommy DeVito's "How am I funny" speech in their best Joe Pesci impression. 

Sophie's Choice (1982)
Oh, this film. Just thinking about it rattles me a little bit. Meryl Streep is so beautiful in this film - in every sense of the word. I'm actually finding it difficult to write about it, because I am so moved by remembering the performances in this film - the damaged characters finding moments of something approaching joy despite the absolutely shattering realities of their lives. This is a very good film, and - like the four others in today's blog entry - probably deserves better than to be ranked in the 90s. 

Marvin Hamlisch's theme for Sophie's Choice truly captures the beauty of this film: joy with underpinning sorrow.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Movie Guy: AFI Countdown 100 to 96

I am a list-maker when it comes to movies. I am always adding to my checklist of "to-watch" movies from various other lists that exist out there: cult films, sci-fi films, westerns, etc. Perhaps one of the most respected lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years 100 Movies - updated in 2007 for the 10th anniversary of the original list. The list is selected by a jury of 1500 film artists, historians, and critics.(Perhaps 2017 will see yet another revision.)
Looking over that updated list, I realize that I have seen all 100 films, so I thought I'd share my thoughts on the top 100. (Spoiler alert: I don't agree with everything on the list.)
Starting with number 100 on the list:

Ben-Hur (1959)
The revenge story of wronged Jewish Prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is epic in just about every sense of the word. The ship battles, the gladiator scenes, and the climactic chariot race would not even be attempted now without CGI, and, of course, in 1959 CGI wasn't an option. Some have criticized this movie for being over-long, with some sequences prolonged unnecessarily, and I suppose I could see that argument, but, overall, this is just a great movie, and, personally, I'd put it much higher on the list.

Toy Story (1995)
Pixar showed us what a computerized animated film could be with this unusual story of jealousy and friendship among a group of toys when a newer, shinier toy is introduced. If you think about it too long, the central conceit of this film - that our toys can think and feel - is a little creepy, and some of the repercussions of sentient, "immortal," plastic beings would be explored in the sequels. However, this is not a movie that warrants a great deal of thought. It's just a familiar story of friendship explored in a very unique way. It's a pleasure to look at, and it is a lot of fun. Again, I would put this higher on the list than #99.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
This film's rampant patriotism was just what was needed in 1942, as we were a country heading into the Second World War. Many wars later, the sentiment seems a little on the hokey side. Still, Cagney's performance as George M. Cohan in this "biopic" is pure, unbridled song-and-dance man. Even if the veracity of the story is a bit suspect, the musical numbers were painstakingly recreated to look like Cohan's originals, and they are . . . pretty spectacular. I do think this movie belongs on the list, and position 98 seems appropriate.

Blade Runner (1982)
I do like this film, and, at first blush, I would like to see it much higher on the list. However, which version? There are as many as seven different versions of this movie. Why so many versions? Well, studio pressures and changes to Ridley Scott's original version are the easiest to blame, but this is a difficult film. Audiences continue to be confused about the ending, and there is much disagreement among critics about the pacing of the film. Again, I have great affection for this neo-noir, futuristic, moody thriller about a washed-up Blade Runner (Harrison Ford) hunting down a group of rogue androids ("replicants" as they are called in the film), but I do have to admit that it is a problematic film for many. I should just be thankful it's on this list at all, even if it's just #97.

Do The Right Thing (1989)
This quirky, slice-of-life comedy drama film from Spike Lee explores racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood during a very hot summer. This film was a reminder to mainstream (white) audiences that 25 years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, we still had a long way to go. I think the title refers to the difficulty of knowing which is the right path to ending oppression: non-violent protest or violent uprising? The movie doesn't so much answer the question as highlight its complexity. Twenty-five years since this film was made, the question should be asked: now how far have we come? I don't know, but I do think that the fact that this film falls a dozen spots behind a lesser (in my opinion) film like Easy Rider on this list is kind of telling.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Holding Out For a Hero

I was watching an older interview with Fred "the Hammer" Williamson about the European low-budget B-cinema industry of the 70s and 80s because, well, why on Earth wouldn't you want to watch an interview with Fred "the Hammer" Williamson about The European low-budget B-cinema industry of the 70s and 80s?! I mean, really.
Williamson didn't disappoint, either. He spent 99% of the interview talking about himself with all of the hyperbole and bravado that you would expect, all the while puffing away on a cigar and leaning back in his chair like he had James Bond in front of him, dangling upside-down over a tank full of Great White Sharks.
Please, Hammer. Don't hurt 'em.
It was beautiful!
At one point, in referencing 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982), Williamson described his co-star, Mark Gregory, using a term I had not heard before. He said that he "left no footprints in the snow." Williamson kept saying this over and over, and I finally got the meaning when he explained that he had to teach Gregory how to walk and look tough.
"Left no footprints in the snow."
"Light in the loafers."
"Confirmed bachelor."
Pick a euphemism: Williamson was letting us know that Mark Gregory (nee Marco di Gregorio) was gay. He even said - without a hint of irony - "not that there's anything wrong with that" or words to that effect.
It was an "entertaining" interview, to say the least.
There's no snow. I'm still confused.
It did get me thinking, though: how far are we, at this point, from having a big-screen, gay action hero in this country - not a straight or asexual hero played by a gay actor, but an honest-to-goodness, this-is-the-hero-of-the-film-and-when-it's-over-he-gets-to-kiss-the-guy lead character.
Yes, we do have John Barrowman's inimitable Captain Jack Harkness, the immortal omnisexual of Torchwood, but - apart from a limited, one-night-only showing of the premiere episode of the final season - Captain Jack has been limited to the small screen. Jack was also an import from the UK, where they are a good decade ahead of the U.S. in portraying homosexual relationships as something other than a punch line. If Captain Jack had made his debut on an American television program instead of the BBC's Doctor Who, would his same-sex relationships have made it past studio executives? Or test audiences? Hard to say.
He is smoking that cigarette with his entire face. Now, that's acting.
I will be curious to see if NBC's upcoming Constantine series will omit the Hellblazer character John Constantine's bisexuality in the comic books as was done in the 2005 Keanu Reeves film of the same name. Mystique's canon bisexuality in the comics certainly hasn't made its way into the X-Men movies. Jennifer Lawrence, the latest actor in the role wasn't even aware of this aspect of the character until it was brought up to her in an interview.
The closest we have come to a gay action hero as far as I'm aware has been Perry van Shrike in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but, first, he wasn't the lead, and second, there was a degree of tokenness about the character. He was called "'Gay' Perry," after all.
Strong, gay characters have been a part of action films for decades, but usually only in the role of the villain. A near exception is Dwayne Johnson's aspiring-actor thug in Be Cool, who is redeemed by the end (even if the actor's over-the-top performance is not).
My mistake. This picture is obviously from
VH1's Behind the Music: Los Umbrellos.
Will we ever get a Romancing the Stone with a John Wilder the novelist instead of a Joan (as played by Kathleen Turner)? Or perhaps instead of Michael Douglas's swashbuckling rogue, Jack T. Colton, it's Jacqueline.
Are we ready for that movie yet?
A 2013 poll found that 59% of Americans felt that gay and lesbian relations were morally acceptable - an increase of 19 points from 2001. So, the question is: how many more points are required before a homosexual main character or characters doesn't have to be relegated to art-house drama?
Or maybe a better question: do you wait for the points to change, or do you change the points by making the movie and showing audiences that it really is morally acceptable?
Yeah, I already know the answer.
But this conversation isn't over.