April 30, 2010

#72: The Shawshank Redemption

Like it or not, The Shawshank Redemption, it's a pretty big deal to be able to say that the internet thinks you're the best movie ever. IMDb users rank this film as the best movie of all time, which really says more about its overall appeal than it does about its quality. While those two things don't need to be mutually exclusive, it's rare to find a film that's as good as everyone -- everyone -- says it is.

Company: Kecia, who has happily been present for a lot of these lately.

Cuisine: I closed a show the night we watched this, and Kecia ordered us some Green Mill takeout (delicious sausage, mushroom and goat cheese pizza and boneless Diablo wings ... my favorite!). Chase those with a couple Summer Shandys and it's a fantastic, delicious evening.

With the help of one of those old timey songs ("if I didn't care, would I feeeel this waaay?") we are transported back to 1947, when Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison for the murder of his wife and her lover. Did he do it? We all like Tim Robbins so we think "probably not" ... but we'll follow him either way.

Off to Shawshank Prison, which is painted here as an oppressive, life-sucking monster of a penitentiary. Pay close attention to the way the building is framed and it becomes clear that Shawshank is as much a character as Andy Dufresne or anyone else.

In fact, the whole film seems to be a three-hander between Dufresne, his prison and Red (a magnificent Morgan Freeman), an inmate who claims his guilt and befriends Andy after initial skepticism. He's a self-proclaimed kind of Sears-and-Roebuck, "a man who knows how to get things," which proves useful to Andy and many others. He's a connection to the world outside. He's also given the arduous task of most of the 142-minute film's narration, but Shawshank's omniscient, reflective narrator succeeds where most films with this kind of narration fail, for two reasons. One: for Pete's sake, it's Morgan effing Freeman. The man could read the list of ingredients in mayonnaise and you'd still pay to see it. Two: Stephen King's prose is so lyrical without seeming flowery or even especially cinematic. We hang on his every word, and I'd venture to say a large part of the film's success falls to that combination of narrator and narrative.

In short, prison is cruel, and especially cruel to newcomer Andy, who soon gets ahead by offering banking advice to prison staff. Before long, he's climbed the ladder of influence so high he actually keeps the book for the warden (Bob Gunton, an underappreciated character actor in an underappreciated performance).

It's through this relationship with the warden, and his deepening companionship with Red, that the film's complex themes of freedom, judgment, betrayal and revenge start to unfold. The film is long but feels swift thanks to Frank Darabont's fierce direction, and contemplative and chilling thanks to Thomas Newman's dissonant and swelling score.

"The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry."

A sequence in a screenplay like the one about Brooks, an old gentleman whose rejection from Shawshank after fifty years leaves him listless and lonely, could have become sappy or overly harsh, but James Whitmore brings such a tenderness to the character that he completely changes the course of the film for the remaining inmates and for us. We can't look at anyone the same: is this what they have to look forward to? A lifetime in prison, and a slow, anxious and fearsome march toward death once they're booted out? This scene at the film's middle changes everything.

"There's something inside that they can't get to, they can't touch. Hope."

It inspires Andy Dufresne, and some time later he brings a little hope to the unremarkable lives of the prisoners of Shawshank when he plays a duet from "The Marriage of Figaro" over the loudspeakers. It's another example of deft direction that we too can't help but stop and simply listen to the song. In a way, it's another example of what I felt happened in Titanic to Jack and Rose and the other characters: we care for them so deeply, and once their romance takes a back seat to their fight for survival, by extension we care for everyone else. Here, everyone wants out, and when Brooks finally gets it, it gets the best of him. We care so much for him, for Andy and Red, that when freedom gets the best of Brooks, we know that without a change it will happen to all of them, too.

Andy's hope for redemption (ah! the title!) comes and goes swiftly, and when all hope seems lost, he still clings to what he said. Have I ever rooted for a hero more? He dreams of an escape to Mexico, but after so many years, has he lost the will to fight?

The film's ending, giving no spoilers, is a pure expression of the triumph of the human soul, and what's more universal than that? Is that why the film is so universally praised? Aside from its beautiful production value and fantastic performances, at the end of the day it's a film about hope, which really never goes out of style. And now fifteen years later, it's aged so well, never really seeming dated. Just goes to show: good actors + good production + good source material can't hardly fail.

I'm heading to New Zealand for my sister's wedding on Monday and something tells me I won't get the next film in before I leave, but you never know. It's Saving Private Ryan, one I have somehow managed to miss, and the last film before another cine-smackdown (I love those). If I don't see you beforehand, farewell, and I'll be back May 11th!

April 27, 2010

#73: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The Hole in the Wall Gang, led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, are all dead now... but once they ruled the West!

I saw a lot of familiar names scroll by in the opening credits of George Roy Hill's 1969 western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Conrad Hall, an amazing cinematographer (awarded with an Oscar for his work here); William Goldman, your favorite screenwriter and mine (also Oscar'd); and Burt Bacharach, who I first knew from his cameo in the first Austin Powers (I know that dates me, but c'mon), who wrote the score (which also won an Oscar, somewhat strangely). These artists and their elements collaborated to make a movie which, to me, is less than the sum of its parts.

Company: just me this cloudy afternoon.

Cuisine: sauteed beef tips with zucchini, cherry tomatoes and onions -- a delightful summer lunch!

Cards is serious business.

The film introduces us to two bandits whose reputation proceeds them -- in fact, when the card player in the center of the photo above realizes for the first time that he is addressing the Sundance Kid (played by a swoopy-haired, mustachioed Robert Redford), he immediately concedes. He knows you don't mess with a guy who can shoot with that kind of precision.

The Kid and his partner, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman, of the dreamy eyes and the creamy dressing), are outlaws of the West, and leaders of the Hole in the Wall Gang which near the film's beginning are questioning the duo's leadership. They're not always around, often pulling jobs by themselves. One gets the sense that they've all known each other a long time and these complaints have been a long time coming. In this way, we begin at the end of the duo's famed run.

Life is pretty peachy for the first half-hour of the film, which introduces the couple as a bickering but understanding pair. Cassidy seems to dream up schemes, while the Kid is usually skeptical of their worth. They both have feelings for the same woman, Etta Place (Katharine Ross, in a nearly thankless role), but it seems neither of them need or want her the way you'd want someone you truly love. Is it because they're too busy thieving to truly appreciate her, or are they cold, heartless bastards? The film doesn't really make it clear. In a sweet montage starring Newman, Ross and a bicycle (a new technology!) Burt Bacharach's Oscar-winning "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" grates on the nerves as a) the style of the music is completely anachronistic to the time period, and b) the lyrics have absolutely no connection or relevance to the romance unfolding before us, besides maybe "because I'm freeeeee... nothin's worryin' meeeeee..." It seems like a strange choice. And don't get me started on the chorus of "ba bada ba's" later on during a chase scene. It's nearly laughable. But moving on...

Suddenly, during one particular heist, a dark group of men on horses are unleashed and the duo is forced to flee. This score-less chase is over twenty minutes long, and it left me wondering how Bacharach was not allowed to score it while he added his dippy sixties chorus to the other chase scene. What we're left with is an intense cat-and-mouse game that leaves both men wondering how, if ever, they can really escape the law.

Well ... that's one way.

It just ain't what they pictured.

To escape the law for good, Butch suggests escaping to Bolivia, where he's heard the pickins are ripe and the livin' is easy. (It's shots like this one that make the movies worthy of art -- thanks, Mr. Hall.) He's met with hesitance by Etta and Sundance, but eventually, after learning basic Spanish, the pair fumble their way through enough bank robberies to live quite luxuriously. But still neither is satisfied of their success nor their safety. In fact, in America they were feared to the point that their victims would open the door and let them in without question; in Bolivia, they don't have the luxury of infamy. When Etta suggests she head back to America, neither has any objections -- what are these guys chasing? It begs the question: when will they stop? Neither is ever truly appeased by money, and neither is motivated by love. The film can only end one way.

And it does, in a famous, beautiful last shot that fades back into sepia, as though we're seeing it in a scrapbook detailing another time. In the end, the men seem to be symbols more than real characters, prototypes for what we like to imagine the West was like. It helps that both men are unbelievably attractive, but it's telling that while the film was nominated for seven Oscars (and won four), the actors weren't recognized. I suppose the film isn't about their performances, it's about creating a mood. The danger there is that the film's elements don't all quite fuse together effectively to leave a real lasting impression, and for that reason, besides a few choice moments, Butch Cassidy is largely forgettable.

Do you agree? Feel free not to. I'm torn on this one.

As an afterthought, I do need to add that when it comes to this or 1969's other acclaimed western, The Wild Bunch, there is no contest that Butch comes in first. Just sayin'.

Next up is another from 1994, this time adapted from a Stephen King short story: the prison drama The Shawshank Redemption.

April 21, 2010

#74: The Silence of the Lambs

I can't imagine that this entry will be very long, because of most what can be said about Jonathan Demme's 1991 horror classic has already been said. But this blog isn't really used for making life-changing observations about film, it's really just me talking about movies, and whether or not what I end up writing is particularly profound, well ... that remains to be seen. The Silence of the Lambs asks a lot of its audience, right from the first shots and those pulpy titles, and it seemed for my roommate and I almost too much to handle at first.

This picture is evidence of that.

Company: Kecia, big movie fan and great horror-movie buddy; and a surprise guest, Ali, nurse on the go who got off work early and stopped by about a half-hour into the movie

Cuisine: Carlo Rossi Chianti (for obvious reasons), a gyro from Dino's for Kecia (for lamby reasons), and delicious queso dip (I was going for a bean-themed dip and somehow ended up at queso, but still: so. delicious. Here's the recipe!)

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster in her second consecutive Academy Award-winning performance) is an FBI agent-in-training assigned to interview a serial killer and plumb him for information on a killer at large, known only as "Buffalo Bill," who has been kidnapping, torturing, and murdering young women. The setup Demme gives us to meeting our mastermind antagonist is genius, particularly seeing Starling's reaction to a picture of one of his victims but never showing the gory details of the photo. It's twelve minutes into the movie and all we want is to see him. After a long walk down the hallway ...

... where we see only an empty chair facing what must be his cell ...

... the camera rounds the corner to find Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, also an Oscar winner) staring right at us. Not only is this creeptastic and freaky, but it also leads us to believe that he is all-knowing, that he can see right through us, that he knew we were coming to see him. A truly brilliant criminal mastermind, he toys with Starling before ultimately dismissing her, but through the course of the investigation, they create a bond that goes beyond criminal and detective into psychiatrist and patient, a playing field that gives Lecter the upper hand once again. It's savage and terrifying enough even with a plate of glass between them -- imagine if he was free!

That famous first scene is only six minutes long. Six minutes. Jeez.

He begins to lead her through information about Buffalo Bill, who is in the process of kidnapping a senator's daughter.

Hey, you're a size 14, aren't you?

How fascinating that his hand has the word LOVE tattooed on it, as though these unspeakable acts he's performing are all done out of love. The movie does an incredible job of balancing the parallel cat-and-mouse storylines of Lecter/Starling and Buffalo Bill/Catherine Martin. God. I gotta read this book. Don't be weirded out, but I love reading about serial killers -- they're fascinating.

I've seen this movie several times but it's been at least two or three years since I last sat down with it. This time around, I was particularly struck by Jodie Foster. Nearly universal acclaim has been set on Foster and Hopkins (they are both truly brilliant), but what an amazing stroke of brilliance to cast Foster in this role. My generation knows her largely for her work post-Silence which has never quite topped her one-two punch that landed her two golden guys, but prior to this film, two details about her life as an actress seem to qualify her here. One: she started acting at a very early age and America knew her before this for her work in Disney films, and then later, primarily for Taxi Driver and Freaky Friday. Moviegoers knew her as a young, innocent thing -- true, as a girl who had played a prostitute at age 14, but nonetheless, as a starlet. Two: she had her fill with deranged men in real life with John Hinckley, Jr., who stalked her relentlessly and finally attempted to assassinate President Reagan in order to impress her. What a better fit for Clarice Starling than a woman who knew first hand how it felt to be in that position.

Without question, one of the most effective tricks played on us in the film (without giving anything away) is the sequence leading up to Starling's visit to Jame Gumb's home. We've already been treated to Dr. Lecter's fantastic escape, and now this! It's enough to make you lean back in your chair and grab onto anyone near you, no matter how you feel about them. Forget everything: this is a scene that requires you to hold onto somebody. Demme could not have created a more horrifying and spine-tingling journey through that basement (what basement in the world is that maze-like? Cripes!) and I believe that I didn't breathe the whole time Starling is in it.

Another thing I noticed this time around is that so much of our view of Starling is in extreme close-up, as though we too are psychiatrists trying to follow her journey through Lecter's twisted games of logic. At last, when she receives that phone call from the now at-large criminal, the camera pans slowly away from her, leaving her alone for the first time. What a perfect detail, leading us inevitably to the last shot of the film ...

... as Hannibal walks free, prepared to "have an old friend for dinner." The camera watches him disappear into the crowd, and finally (mercifully), the credits roll. O. M. G.

I'd wager that there hasn't been a more effective thriller since (I'd love opinions on that one) and I wouldn't be surprised if we don't see one for a while. This kind of film doesn't come along every day. Oosh. Just as creepy as I remember, every time. Well done.

More thrills are on their way: the next movie is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: one I remember liking a lot but one I rated only three stars on my Netflix queue. Clarifications to come.

April 20, 2010

#75: In the Heat of the Night

There's something about the late sixties as a pinpointed time in American history that provided a run of amazing cinema. A part of it was the stateside recognition of the French New Wave (which I learned about while researching Easy Rider and which I really need to read more about), but more responsibility can be assigned to the tumultuous political and social environment at the end of that decade. How else could a landmark film like Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night be made? So far on this list this era is seeming to produce the most memorable films for me personally (I'm thinking particularly of The Last Picture Show and Easy Rider) and this one is right up there.

Company: just little ol' me again.

Cuisine: luckily I've broken out of my prolonged sickness, and somehow lost eight pounds from not being able to swallow much during that bout with tonsillitis. Now I'm in a super healthy phase, so today's lunch is baked tilapia with a toasted garbanzo salad I picked up from the Wedge and a Divine Grape kombucha. Delicious. Somewhere in there I also devoured a banana with peanut butter. Has a flavor combination ever produced more joy?

We open with Ray Charles. Would that every film did. The title song, as well as the fantastic jazz score by Quincy Jones, is such a specific choice for this film -- a film that sees a lone black man in a small, ignorant and unimaginably racist white Southern town is underscored by a type of music that's so easily identifiable with the African-American experience. This detail alone puts us on Virgil Tibbs' side from the start, but we don't see him until after we've been introduced to a murder case, headed by the police chief Gillespie (Academy Award winner Rod Steiger). For no other reason than the color of his skin, Virgil Tibbs (a fierce and exciting performance by Sidney Poitier) is suspected as the murderer, but embarrasses everyone when he points out he was passing through the town after visiting his mother, and more importantly, that he is a police officer himself.

I suspect Gillespie hasn't seen many black people in Sparta, Mississippi, much less had prolonged contact with them, and so he looks appropriately fascinated when he discovers that Tibbs is not only a police officer (and paid much more than him besides), but Philadelphia's premiere homicide authority. Suddenly, for him and for us, the tables have turned. For obvious reasons, Tibbs is eager to leave the town, but when Gillespie admits they could use his help, you sense the whole civil rights movement's sharp intake of breath. For a white man to lay himself vulnerable at the feet of a black man, well ... it's 1967, babies. This means business.

"They call me Mr. Tibbs!"

What follows is a modern-day film noir mystery thriller, following the cops through the duration of the investigation, but of course what makes the film so different is the overlying racism present in every white person's eyes. How specific each character's reaction to Tibbs is: Mrs. Colbert, the wife of the murdered man, as she eyes up Tibbs in the police station; Sam Wood, the police officer who discovered the body, as Tibbs asks him to take him through the night of the crime step by step; Delores, an easy teenager, as she confesses a vital piece of information to Gillespie with Tibbs in the corner. These details make everything simmer.

The slap heard 'round the world.

Then we come to perhaps the most memorable moment of the film, one that had huge implications on a cinematic audience in the heat of the late sixties: the moment when a suspect being questioned slaps Tibbs for insolence, and Tibbs, without missing a beat, slaps him right back. No matter how many times I see this scene, it's still so exciting. This was apparently the first, if not one of the first, instance of black retaliation without punishment committed to the screen. Supposedly this reaction is not in the book upon which the film is based, but it was included in the screenplay, and Poitier was quoted as saying "I'll tell you what, I'll make this movie for you if you give me your absolute guarantee when he slaps me I slap him right back and you guarantee that it will play in every version of this movie." How's that for transcending past cinema into politics and social concern?

The heat is on when Gillespie refuses to punish Tibbs for his retaliation, and at this moment we sense a real turning of the dynamic between our two heros. We start discovering a lot more about him -- he's alone, without a wife or children, in a town that feels it doesn't really need him -- and it figures he's the kind of guy who's used to being right. But all his worst fears are summed up in Mr. Tibbs -- not only his racist tendencies but also his fears and insecurities about his job and what he thinks he knows about the human condition. The scene at his house confirms all this, and we see that while he's got a long way to go, he's being opened up bit by bit.

He gets his redemption at the end of the film, when the case has been closed and he bids Tibbs farewell as he catches his train. "Virgil ... you take care, you hear?" With a hint of a smile we see he's gained respect for a man he originally thought nothing of, and that maybe his audience in 1967 could find it in their hearts and minds to do the same for their fellow man.

The film was an enormous success, thanks largely to the star performances of Poitier and Steiger, and won Best Picture of 1967 over formidable opponents (among them The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, both on the list, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, also dealing heavily with racism). It stands today as both a well-crafted thriller and an important reflection of a deeply wounded and divided nation.

Tonight, the next: break out the fava beans and the nice Chianti folks, because it's time for your favorite serial killer mastermind and mine. #74 is The Silence of the Lambs.

April 15, 2010

#76: Forrest Gump

I was nine when that feather floating lazily across the theater screen for the first time in Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump, so naturally I have a lot of distinct memories and a good amount of love for those memories of the movie. But coming back to it at 25? Fascinating what changes and what stays the same.

Company: Kecia, reticent redhead roommate; Sheena, luscious lazy ladyfriend; Stephanie, seriously serious sister

Cuisine: Kecia's baked ziti creation, Steph's bag of Munchies, beers all around (still fighting this sickness so I didn't partake) and a bowl of chocolates (on-sale Easter M&Ms) of course

Mama always had a way of explainin' things so that I could understand them.

That feather floating in sync with Alan Silvestri's main theme (the one that stays in your head and won't leave) lands at Forrest's feet as he waits at a bus stop, and he saves it as a souvenir. Naturally, it has to come back at the end, but we'll wait for it. In the meantime, he strikes up a conversation with the woman sitting on the bench with him, and since he has little to no social sense, he doesn't know to stop talking. I had forgotten what segway gets him talking about his beginnings, but it turns out to be her shoes. "I've worn a lot of shoes..." Really? That's the best you could do? Eh. I guess it's as good as any segue you're gonna get.

We see his life through his eyes, the struggles, the pain of his disabled and nearly friendless childhood. What I didn't know was that in the book of the same name upon which the film is based, Forrest is actually an autistic savant -- and he didn't have braces on his legs. Why would you change such crucial parts of the story for the film? Because a crippled kid with an IQ of 75 is more exciting to root for than an autistic boy who can "run Forrest run" just fine?

You can sit here if you want.

Never mind what Hollywood did to the story. What we're presented with is essentially a love story -- an unorthodox one, yes, but at its core Forrest Gump is a chart of where two people go in life and what brings them back together.

Dear God, make me a bird, so I can fly far, far, far away from here.

I found it remarkable that a fictional film set in the context of familiar events could still manage to make Forrest and Jenny seem like the only two people in the world. The sequence showing their childhood friendship (and yes, even the much-maligned "run Forrest run" sequence) is still very touching, mostly because of Forrest's blind devotion to a girl who will never, maybe can't ever love him as much as he loves her. The score doesn't leave anything to the imagination -- thanks to Alan Silvestri, we are told exactly when to swoon and exactly when to cry. That's not a bad thing, it's not a movie about subtlety.

It's a movie about the choices we make, and where we end up. Like the choice Jenny makes to play Bob Dylan naked at a club and not expect to get cat-called. No one said she was the brightest bulb in the pack, I suppose. But as they grow, Forrest's devotion to her never wavers, even when it seems like she is making her own way. Do we resent her for the times she spurns Forrest's advances again and again? No, we follow her blindly, like Forrest. Despite it all, she does know what's best for him, like when she tells him if he's ever in trouble in Vietnam, "don't be brave, Forrest, just run."

And run he does. Forrest thrives in the army largely because of his focus and intense devotion to detail, but I'd argue also because of his unshakable moral compass. He never thinks for one moment that Lieutenant Dan (a brave performance by Gary Sinise) might prefer dying with his honor in the forests of Vietnam, but instead carries him and several others to safety. It's not his intelligence or his wit that saves him, it's just his knowledge of what's right and wrong. How American a story is that? You don't need to be smart to succeed, you just need to know what's right.

The film has been criticized for dumbing down this period of American history, for making a Disney-fied pop-culture melodrama out of the 60s and 70s. While I agree that some events are made to seem that way, isn't that kind of the point? Think about our protagonist. We're seeing this time period through his eyes. Wouldn't we see it a little simpler? This isn't Platoon, for God's sake. And thank God.

Jenny and Forrest keep reuniting, but ultimately keep splitting. Here they reunite after Gump is swept up unknowingly (a la The Tramp in Modern Times) into an anti-war protest. They can't seem to stay together. Why? Don't they belong together? Haven't we been told they are a perfect match? Maybe not. But a part of the genius of Tom Hanks' performance as the titular Gump is the tiny way he grows up, little by little. It may not be much, but he does. Especially when he rediscovers a now-paraplegic Lieutenant Dan.

Lieutenant Dan didn't want to be called crippled just like I didn't want to be called stupid.

Suddenly Lt. Dan has a disability, too, and he doesn't know how to deal with it. Forrest has known all his life how to 'deal' with his shortcomings, but now he's encountered someone who can't face their own. Their connection is a big part of what makes the second half of the film work. Forrest gets life lessons all over the place, holds up his promise to Bubba to become a shrimp boat captain, and reunites with Lt. Dan once again and finally (by chance) makes good on the promise. It's as though luck is very kind and close to Forrest, in no small part thanks to major historical events.

Soon it's all said and done, and Jenny finds him one last time, to break two huge pieces of news: he's a father (what a beautiful, tiny scene that is) and she's contracted a fatal unknown disease (presumably AIDS, which she somehow hasn't transmitted to Forrest Jr. -- plot hole!) ... so now she's finally ready to be married to Forrest. I know, I know, it's very sweet, and how it was meant to be and all, but come on man! His whole life he's loved you more than anything and now all of a sudden when it's right for you and you know you're on the brink of death, now marriage is okay? This does not put me in Jenny's corner, but of course it's still sad when she passes. And still beautiful when the circularity of it all comes back to bite you on the ass at the bus stop with the two Forrests at the end. Melodrama be damned, it's still sweet.

So it's not a perfect movie, and there's some fascinating arguments about how the film is "a call for conservative values" and a movie for Republicans. Look it up, read about it. I'm not gonna write all that here, but when you take a second look at it, it does sort of make sense. But I get why it's on the list -- is there a more American movie listed? Even Yankee Doodle Dandy might not hold a candle!

Well, that's twenty-five movies down! I'm a quarter of the way there! No time to celebrate though, because I'm just a little behind schedule. Next up is #74: Mr. Tibbs and the famous slap heard round the world in In the Heat of the Night.

April 11, 2010

#77: All the President's Men

After a jarring opening sequence where the date "June 1, 1972" is typed like gunshots, we see President Nixon about to address the House of Representatives, smiling like he's got nothing to hide. But as an audience, we know better.

Alan J. Pakula's 1976 political thriller All the President's Men was based on a book of the same name by Bob Woodward (played in the film by Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (played by Dustin Hoffman), two Washington Post journalists who helped to unravel and publicize the Watergate scandal and the Nixon campaign's sabotage attempts against their Democratic rivals. You could argue that this year was maybe one of the best Best Picture line-ups ever (this film, along with Network, Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory all lost out to Rocky), with four of the five (all but Bound) on this AFI list. Not a light moment in any of these, it seems. The country was seriously mad as hell in the mid-70s.

Company: just me again. Getting kinda sick of this.

Cuisine: Ceruforoxime (my new antibiotic for my swollen tonsils ... delightful) and Throat Coat

Woodward and Bernstein investigate.

The film follows closely the endeavors of these two journalists as they struggle with unwilling and possibly unrealible sources, skeptical editors, and threats against their lives. The scandal that ultimately led to Nixon's resignation obviously had huge political and social implications for Americans in the mid-70s, but how does it affect our conscience today? In other words, does this film still speak to us today?

Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) whispers encouragement.

Certainly we can relate to the idea of untrustworthy government, of cover-ups and lies and dishonest politicians. But All the President's Men still seems to me like a movie that doesn't really get made anymore. There were no late-night car chases, there was no sex scene ... the film took itself very seriously, and while I don't need a car chase or a sex scene in a thriller, I do think that as a movie-going public we've moved past the time when "words as weapons" is enough to excite us the way it used to. I'm trying to think of a modern example ... maybe In the Loop, but that's so obviously a satirical comedy. Maybe that's a jab at special effects and the average moviegoer's attention span, and maybe it's meant to be.

That's not to say that the film isn't well-crafted, but I did find myself wishing it would move quicker. That probably mirrors some of the journalists' frustrations with how slowly their investigation was going thanks to their hesitant sources. Hoffman and Redford do their best to move the film along, and their supporting players (particularly Holbrook as Deep Throat, Jason Robards as a cranky newspaper editor and Jane Alexander as a frightened bookkeeper who fears she knows too much) turn in nuanced performances that makes the film worth watching. But it did raise questions for me and for a 21st-century audience: will we still sit through a two-and-a-half-hour "thriller" where the war is with words and words alone?

I don't know the answer, but based on the success and awards haul of the film, I'm guessing the audience in 1976 said yes. Have we evolved past this kind of film? It's a question to which I just don't have an answer. Hmm.

Next up is a film that's maybe a little easier to digest, but still has a lot of debate surrounding it: Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump.

April 7, 2010

#78: Modern Times

"A story of industry, of individual enterprise -- humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness."

Modern Times is one of three films on the list by the great silent-era star Charlie Chaplin (the other two being The Gold Rush and City Lights) and one I'm proud to say I've seen and loved before this. I think there's a lot for actors to love in Chaplin: his economy of movement, his creativity, his clarity, and most obviously his joy in storytelling.

Company: just me. The little tramp.

Cuisine: red wine. Thinking thin.

Tighten those bolts!

First we see sheep being herded out of a pen, which then blends into workers shoving their way out of a train station. It's not subtle but at least it's clear and arresting. We open on The Little Tramp, working in a factory tightening bolts on an assembly line for probably pennies a day. Life ain't easy for the guy, and we can tell he doesn't belong.

Get back to work!

It seems Big Brother is watching him, even on his bathroom break! This is one of Chaplin's more overtly political films, most obviously satirizing the lack of opportunity for the lower class in America during the Depression, and specifically at the expense of efficiency in the technological revolution of these ... wait for it ... modern times.

Soon it's clear that we're seeing man only as an extension of a machine, and soon, solely as a machine without human qualities. The assembly is only serving the factory as an extension of a machine that already exists; you get the sense that as soon as they invent a machine that can tighten bolts, the Tramp would be out of a job. Chaplin is warning us here against treating humans as machines -- at one point, the Tramp is even the subject of a test run for a feeding machine that would eliminate the need for a lunch break. Of course it goes terribly wrong, and ultimately the Tramp has a nervous breakdown (going so far as to spray his co-workers with an oil can -- we get it!) and is thrown out of the factory.

In a series of mishaps (welcome to his world), the Tramp lands in jail on trumped-up charges. After discovering that the world inside prison is a much more accommodating one that the real world, he continues to look for excuses to end up behind bars, even going so far as to take the blame for an orphaned young woman (played by the lovely Paulette Goddard) when she steals a loaf of bread. The two tramps form a bond and dream of a better life.

"We'll get a home, even if I have to work for it!"

Luckily, the Tramp has a work voucher, and lands a job as a night watchman in a department store. Each of these plot points really serve as ways to highlight Chaplin's unbelievable dexterity and comedic talent. Of course, roller skating near a giant drop-off is cringe-worthy, and had me gripping my seat in terror.

The film treats the Tramp and his 'gamin,' as she's called, as children wandering through a world of adults, but are we meant to think that they're delinquents? Or are they just dreamers, showing us the world could be better if we didn't take everything quite so seriously? I don't think of either of them as real criminals; they're both regular people in unlucky circumstances that have had to resort to drastic measures in a hostile economic environment. Chaplin's career spanned for several decades and became the prominent comedian during the first World War, a time when people needed a break from the everyday grind, a break from remembering how messed up the world really was.

The world needed to know that an abandoned shack was sitting somewhere waiting for them, too. Although "it's no Buckingham Palace," the couple are nearly poetic in their ecstasy for their newfound home. One of the best bits, one where I actually laughed aloud, was when the Tramp jumps into the lake only to find it's about a foot deep. The timing. The timing! This scene is certainly one of my favorite sequences, because it seems to sum up so concisely what the film is about -- making the best of unfortunate circumstances, and making a little luxury out of nothing.

Nobody said waiting tables would be easy.

Soon both he and she have found work and everything is looking up. We even hear Chaplin sing a nonsense song (supposedly the first time his voice was ever heard onscreen -- this film of course came out long after talkies were in fashion) at the high-end restaurant where he's waiting tables and she's dancing. Of course, their plans are foiled when she's recognized as that orphan on the run, and the pair yet again has to make a break for it.

After so much, after so many mishaps, she plops down near the end of the film and asks, "What's the use of trying?" The ultimate tragedy! Giving up hope! But the Tramp is relentless, and convinces her that there will always be a second chance. It's one of the great endings and one of the great poetic moments on film to watch them walk off into the sunset, pausing only to remind her to smile broadly as they face a new adventure.

I had truly forgotten how compelling and exciting Chaplin's storytelling is. The last silent film I watched on this list, Sunrise, was much less about storytelling and more about expression and emotionality. Here, you rarely even need the title cards to know precisely what's happening. I also liked finding out that after this film Charlie Chaplin had a brief six-year marriage to Ms. Goddard, even knowing that it wasn't all sunshine and roses as the end of this film would maybe lead you to believe. He did woo a lot of ladies.

All right, next up is #77: back to the 70s with All the President's Men.