Thursday, July 3, 2014

Movie Guy: AFI Countdown 65 to 61

There are a couple more of my personal favorites in today's batch.

The African Queen (1951)
The action romantic comedy has become a popular genre in films, and this is one of the earliest and the best. The chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn is undeniable, even early on in the film when their alliance is practical but uneasy. Director (and screenwriter) John Huston guides us easily between sharp banter and tense action sequences, and presents us with one of the most darkly funny lines in cinema:
"By the authority granted to me by his Imperial Majesty Kaiser Wilhelm the Second. I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution." (Even out of context, that's funny.) 
If you aren't cheering at the end of this film, you may not be getting enough Vitamin B12 in your diet.

Network (1976)
Speaking of darkly funny, Paddy Chayefsky's satirical screenplay somehow managed to predict Morton Downey Jr., Jerry Springer, Glenn Beck, and the glut of "reality" television that we as a viewing audience are subjected to/ voraciously consume. What I love about this film is that it's hilarious, but there are no real jokes. The entire movie is the joke. Oh, sure, there are a few good one-liners here and there - William Holden is in this movie, after all - and I guess you could argue that the final voice-over narration delivers the punchline for which the entire movie has been the set-up, but I think that cheapens the experience. Warning: If you're one of those people who gets really mad when you read an Onion article that someone has posted on Facebook, you might not really "get" this movie.

Cabaret (1972)
In my opinion, there are two film versions of successful Broadway musicals that make significant changes from the stage versions but are still good movies in their own right. One is Milos Forman's 1979 version of Hair, and the other - the more successful critically and financially of the two - is Bob Fosse's take on this 1966 Kander and Ebb musical. Most of the characters and subplots from the Broadway version have been excised and replaced with stories from the original non-musical play version I Am A Camera, from the original novel Berlin Stories, or completely new creations. The character of Cliff is now Brian, and there are significant changes in the two lead characters. A few songs were also cut, but a few more were added, written by Kander & Ebb. What you get is an altogether different story that still hits on the major themes of the stage production: the wild hedonism of pre-socialist Germany, the insidious rise of the Nazi party, and a foreshadowing of the nightmare that Europe would become under the Third Reich. Joel Grey is the one casting carry-over from the Broadway version as the clownish but insidious Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, and Liza Minelli brings her larger-than-life style to the now American Sally Bowles. If you're a big fan of the Broadway version, you may take issue with some of the changes, but this is also a great film just as it is.

American Graffiti (1973)
In between the dystopian sci-fi thriller THX-1138 and the groundbreaking space adventure Star Wars, writer/director George Lucas gave us this coming-of-age story about teenagers in 1962. During a night of sock hops, cruising, and drag racing, a group of recent high school graduates contemplate their plans for the future.  This is fun movie directly relatable to the Baby Boomers who were there and indirectly for anyone who graduated high school and said, "What now?"
There is a sequel called More American Graffiti that brings back most of the cast and is highly underrated, in my opinion. 

Sullivan's Travels (1941)
Oh, I really like this movie, and I find that it's not one that many people have heard of, actually. This may be because star Joel McCrea doesn't have the name recognition or following of a Jimmy Stewart or a Cary Grant. However, don't let the fact that you may not know many (or any) of the actors in this film mislead you to think that this isn't a superior piece of cinema. What starts out as a light-hearted comedy ends up taking us places that we don't expect to go. It is funny, moving and inspiring. This is one of my favorites on the list, and I'm actually reluctant to say too much about it, because I'd really like you to see it for yourself. By the way, if you saw L.A. Confidential, Kim Basinger's character was made up specifically to look like Veronica Lake: the lead actress in this film.

Since I mentioned the musical Hair, I will say that the original authors of the 1968 Broadway show were rather unhappy with the 1979 movie version. What I think this movie has going for it is the addition of a cohesive plot (by Michael Weller), inventive choreography by Twyla Tharp, the brilliant eye of director Milos Forman, and a highly charismatic performance by Treat Williams. With all due respect to James Rado and Gerome Ragni, their "plotless", almost stream-of-consciousness, concert musical may not have translated well to the screen on its own, and the fact that a decade had passed since the Summer of Love meant that the tribal hippies would be viewed by audiences a little more subjectively.

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