May 29, 2010

#68: Unforgiven

In 2008, the AFI defined "western" as a genre of films set in the American West that embodies the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier. It's a genre with a vast history and a deep commitment to examining the American spirit. So why. don't. I. care?

It's not that I don't like westerns. It's that the westerns I've seen haven't struck me as particularly exciting, or that it's a genre stuck in a rut. Although I shouldn't blame the genre, maybe it's the obsession with this time period and its history that doesn't catch me. So far on the list The Wild Bunch disappointed me and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had a lot more to offer but still ended up feeling hollow. When you break it down, they're action/thriller/epics set in a specific time, and I like action/thriller/epics ... so maybe it's just the Old West that has me bored.

Company: alone ... couldn't really convince anyone to watch it with me :)

Cuisine: whole wheat pasta and broccoli alfredo, a Red Stripe

Or maybe it's the Clint Eastwood School of That-One-Face-He-Makes Acting (for that one face he makes, see above) that has me bored. Forgive me, but as soon as I see Clint Eastwood involved in something, I've immediately tuned out. Why? Because of that one face he makes.

But this is not starting out very constructive. Let me try to pick this apart.

William Munny (Eastwood) is an old farmer who hung up his Western Cowboy Hero hat long ago after many years spent as an outlaw. When a gang of unruly whores in a nearby town, led with vengeance by Frances Fisher, seek revenge for their beaten comrade, Munny is called upon to abandon his young children (which he does with little concern) and seek out the two criminals. A thousand bucks would certainly help his ailing farm. He enlists his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman, always welcome) for the hunt.

I'll give him this: as a director, Eastwood can create a mood. It's almost always a bleak mood, but it's a mood nonetheless. But Unforgiven, coming thirty or forty years after the western genre petered out, came during an era of Western resurgence (Dances with Wolves was another successful film set on the frontier) that petered out yet again. Here and there we get a throwback, but mostly ... it's dead and gone. Maybe this frontier doesn't interest us as much anymore, now that we have so many other frontiers. I don't know.

This is all so unfocused. Well anyway, the story goes that Little Bill (Academy Award winner Gene Hackman, doing something with nothing), the town sherriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, doesn't allow firearms in his town, supposedly in order to keep the peace. He's not a real peaceful guy, but guns are just so effective that if he eliminates them, it's seemingly down to hand-to-hand combat, and in that arena he usually emerges triumphant.

No one is innocent. Morality has gone out the window. The cops are usually the bad guys. Everyone's operating on their own plane of good and evil. Nobody has real control.

Characters die. Characters get vengeance. Characters take lives without blinking an eye. Surprisingly, characters eulogize. Munny has a striking moment with a young arrogant kid who makes his first kill, expounding on the feeling of killing a man (the most romantic thing I can recall about the film, actually).

In the end, what are we left with? Why am I a better person for having seen this film? Maybe this is what I wonder about this genre: how is it relevant? Unforgiven and the genre in general leave me with more questions than answers. Not that I don't love unanswered questions, mind you, but the questions I like unanswered are hot topics, juicy discussion questions. The one I get from this is: what is revenge, and when is it okay? *snooooze* Many other films have examined this in a more exciting way, and with better lighting. (Eastwood's films always seem to be poorly lit ... I could barely see anything through all of Million Dollar Baby.) I'd love some input on why I should love this film, because honestly I haven't got a clue.

Next up: one that has a couple more reasons to love it, but just as many reasons to leave that damn house while you've still got your dignity and your sanity. It's an evening of fun and games with George and Martha in Mike Nichol's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

May 27, 2010

#69: Tootsie

Liz Lemon says that Tootsie is the movie that is used as an example in all the screenplay books, and Liz Lemon ain't no fool. Well, at least not when it comes to being funny. All those performances, all those stars! And Dorothy Michaels. C'mon. She started everything.

And let me start everything by saying, how adorable is Teri Garr under that title credit? More about her performance later.

Company: my roommate Kecia on Benadryl. Everything was a little funnier.

Cuisine: sauteed beef tips and scrambled eggs. Protein fiesta!

The film opens, accompanied by an early-80s pop-synthesizer score that I want for my life, on an audition montage spliced with the auditioner, an out-of-work character actor named Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman), teaching acting classes, specifically to his friend and sometime lover Sandy (lovely, hilarious Teri Garr). The business is a bitch, and the business of teaching it is no consolation. Rejection is his middle name:

CASTING DIRECTOR: We're looking for somebody ... different.
MICHAEL DORSEY: I can be different.
CASTING DIRECTOR: We're looking for somebody else.

He comes home after a grueling day to find his friends and students awaiting him with a birthday cake, setting up the character as a social butterfly well-loved and -liked.

But things aren't actually so sunny for Michael, and Pollack's choice to frame him in perfect symmetry with Samuel Beckett is a subtle hint that he's maybe not so sunny. He can't get work, because no one likes him because he's difficult. A difficult character like him would be difficult to like if we didn't see the neuroses so specifically played and the hard work he puts into all of it. He is a talented guy, just doesn't like putting up with crap.

He coaches Sandy for an upcoming soap opera audition, and hits upon an idea: to go for the same part, dressed as a woman. Plot!

When we first get a glimpse of the finished product, we can barely recognize Hoffman under the outfit that makes him look like a librarian. With some fake eyelashes and a ridiculous Southern accent he's transformed into Dorothy Michaels, who lands the job as hospital administrator Emily Kimberly.

Soon, he theorizes that an actor's life is quite like a woman's life: you sit by the phone waiting for it to ring, and when you get a job, you've got no power. An interesting and subtle way to combine the plight of both men and women, and magically make a movie equally accessible to both sexes. Show me a contemporary example.

"You are psychotic," his agent tells him. "No I'm not," he replies. "I'm employed."

But with deception alone at its core, the film would be little more than a joke-fest. But Tootsie's genius is taking a simple plot element and exhausting all possible embarrassments for our hero(ine). Luckily, we're treating to so many outstanding supporting performances, all doing only what's necessary to make the most of their dialogue. Could anyone have delivered the line "I think we're getting into a weird area" better than Michael's roommate as played by Bill Murray? I doubt it. Plus, his rant when Sandy's trying to get into the apartment about the dream. I could just die.

Michael is very comfortably straight, and puts the audience at ease with his need to dress up as a woman, especially during a time when people just weren't comfortable with cross-dressing yet, and especially during the beginning of the AIDS scare and the demonization of gay people. WOAH tangent. But my point is, we accept Michael Dorsey (and Hoffman) as straight, and understand this Dorothy Michaels is not a drag persona but an alternate reality.

Dorsey's charm and verve on the set empowers the show's women actors and staff, and eventually the audience. Her fame skyrockets, and seemingly nothing can go wrong ... until, of course, everything does. He falls for his costar, Julie (Oscar winner Jessica Lange), whose father falls for Dorothy. But he also falls for his student, Sandy.

I never said I love you, I don't care about I love you! I read "The Second Sex", I read "The Cinderella Complex", I'm responsible for my own orgasms, I don't care! I just don't like to be lied to!

Has anxiety ever been more adorable? In the Neurotic Olympics, Michael and Sandy would come to a photo finish. While Teri Garr gives the most sporatic and wild performance in the film, it's also the most endearing, and in a way, it's Sandy and Julie who end up as the audience's portal to Michael/Dorothy. In a film full of nearly flawless performances, it's a marvel that these women (but I'm partial to Garr) create such memorable characters.

Tootsie just works. Sometimes movies just work. They don't make screwball comedies like this anymore; they may not know how to. Luckily, this one hits all the points on a great comedy checklist: great performances, hilarious dialogue, sticky situations, deception, redemption, change and love. No wonder it's one of the great comedies of all time. So many modern comedies owe a lot to Sydney Pollack's masterpiece.

Onwards and upwards. Next is another Western. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. Will I have any more luck with this one? My record so far with Westerns on this list has been lackluster. We'll see. Until then!

May 25, 2010

#70: A Clockwork Orange

All right, friends, I'm back. The blog has fallen by the wayside for many reasons, the most hindering of which were a) a fantastic family vacation to New Zealand where my sister got married, and b) a broken computer leading me to be without blog for some time. But I have three movies down that I need to catch up on, and hopefully this morning latte will help.

All right, so. A Clockwork Orange is Stanley Kubrick's 1971 dystopian masterpiece, and perhaps the film for which he will be most remembered (along with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove). Kubrick's filmography is as diverse as any modern director, and his hand on the camera is (or at least was at this point in his career, coming off two well-received master strokes) a blessing.

Company: alone this time, on Sheena's computer -- bless her heart for the loan.

Cuisine: a spinach salad. I can see the beach from here, and my body must follow.

The film opens with an ominous synthesizer and a close shot of our anti-hero, Alex DeLarge (played with complete arrogant abandon by a young Malcolm McDowell), hanging out at a seedy watering hole and drinking drugged milk with his fellow "droogs" (or gang members).

The four young men are near-terrorists in their neighborhood, beating old homeless men within an inch of their lives, breaking and entering into homes and, most famously, violently raping a woman while forcing her injured husband to watch.

A defining feature of this type of terror that the droogs inflict on their victims (and their audience) is the juxtaposition of extreme violence with beauty. As Alex prepares to rape the woman he sings "Singin' in the Rain" (reportedly because this was a song whose words McDowell knew), a song that the audience, still to this day, had associated with happiness and that blissful image of Gene Kelly with his umbrella. It happens so many times throughout the film, both visually and aurally, and if nothing else it certainly provokes a strong, even simultaneously violent response in the viewer. This dichotomy becomes a strong theme in the rest of the film.

After several evenings like this one (loftily referred to by Alex as "an evening of some small energy expenditure"), dissent spreads through the droogs, and when they confront Alex about his leadership, he makes it extremely clear that he is their one true leader, and nobody but nobody better betray him. Naturally, after a botched assault on a woman with penis statues and way too many cats, they do, smashing a milk bottle on Alex's face, temporarily blinding him and leaving him to the mercy of the police.

You know in futuristic films like this one that if the police get a hold of you, you're in for it (see also: ... yeah, pretty much every science fiction film ever). The police have no mercy, expressing their collective hope that prison will "torture you to madness." He's sent to prison for a fourteen-year sentence, and feigns an interest in the Bible to gain favor with the prison staff (although mostly he just likes imagining himself as Christ's torturer on his walk to Golgotha).

I just love this image of the prisoners getting their daily exercise by walking in a circle. Sometimes an image works to say several things at once -- I recently had this discussion with my roommate about the opening water-sprinkler image in Election (don't get me started, I love that movie) -- and this one shot comments on the dull nature of prison life as well as the cycle of torture inflicted on prisoners by making their need for exercise seem pointless.

Alex finally finds a way to escape this drudge when he overhears talk of a new experimental procedure that cures criminals of violent urges, and immediately volunteers, even without any idea of what's in store. Essentially he's trained through a sort of torture to associate violent imagery with sickness, to feel ill every time he's confronted with violence or even his own violent urges.

He has now been made the spectacle, the criminal as an experiment. The argument made is that it's unnatural for a human being to be stripped of moral choice, suggesting that human urges are incurable and beyond the understanding of modern science. But wouldn't it be nice if we could cure people of their meanness? Wouldn't that just solve our problems?

I'd seen the film once before and that's as far as I remember getting, but there's still another act, which I won't describe in detail here for the sake of convincing you to see it for yourself. Needless to say, everything comes full circle.

Alex is "cured" of his illness and released back into a society that fears and loathes him, although now he's not as quick to understand why. His past betrays him at every turn.

"I was cured all right."

The film, based on a 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess, works as a criticism of modern science, government, torture and the judicial system, and speaks to us today still about the fate of criminals and the flaws in human nature. Although the haircuts, fashions and nearly Shakespearean delivery of the dialogue (peppered with vernacular created by Burgess for the novel) set the film securely in the early 70s, it broke boundaries and still feels like it could have been made today. Or does it? Could a movie like this still be made? Has one been made?

Would that every film on this list made you think the way A Clockwork Orange does.

Still playing catch-up with all the blogs to write. The next is slightly more light-hearted: Sydney Pollack's textbook example of romantic comedy, 1982's Tootsie.

May 3, 2010

Cine-Smackdown: #71 - #80

The third cine-smackdown, chumps!

71. Saving Private Ryan
72. The Shawshank Redemption
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
The Silence of the Lambs
In the Heat of the Night
Forrest Gump
All the President's Men
Modern Times
The Wild Bunch
The Apartment

I had seen all but three of these (Saving Private Ryan, All the President's Men, The Wild Bunch) which may be my best odds of any cine-smackdown before or to come. I think I had pretty strong reactions one way or the other to almost all these films, so this should be an interesting one.

Of these ten, which would I move further up the list?
I'm probably a little biased here but as far as overall excellence goes, I'm pretty solidly in The Shawshank Redemption's camp. There's something so wonderful about a great story told well, and that's all Shawshank is and/or needs to be.

Of these ten, which would I get rid of?
No question: The Wild Bunch. I had such a hard time getting into that one. It seemed to me like the film was only on this list in recognition of its historical significance regarding violence. That just isn't enough for me. I'd venture to say this was my least favorite film on the list so far. The Apartment is a distant second of these ten.

Who in these movies do I want as my best friend?
Forrest Gump! He seems awesome, and his loyalty is unflinching. Captain John H. Miller (Saving Private Ryan) would do almost anything to protect me, but probably only because he's been ordered to. He also might lead me to my certain death. Red (Shawshank) and The Tramp (Modern Times) probably wouldn't be bad to have there in a pinch.

Who in these movies do I want to have my back in a bar fight?
Virgil Tibbs (In the Heat of the Night) for sure. Maybe not in 1968, but now-a-times. I would say Dr. Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs) because he would scare everyone off, but he would also scare me off. And if my back was turned, I would end up without a back.

Who in these movies is your worst frienemy?
Warden Norton (Shawshank) -- that chump! He'd take advantage of me forever and then kill my only chance at freedom... if I was Tim Robbins. But I can't imagine he'd act any different for me. Deep Throat (All the President's Men) seems helpful but won't show his face. C'mon man! I'd also say Fran Kubelik (The Apartment) -- she seems pretty flighty. If I gave everything I had to her she probably wouldn't care. No, YOU shut up and deal, Fran!

Who do I take home to Mom?
... Private Ryan? Oops. That's the whole point. I would take Clarice Starling (Silence) or Jenny (Forrest Gump) but they've both got too much baggage. C. C. Baxter (The Apartment) is so charming but he's got that cold and I don't want to get sick.

You're going on a date with these movies. Who do you agree to meet for coffee but never call again?
All the President's Men: you seemed interesting but you took yourself too seriously. I need someone with a sense of humor. I know I know, Watergate was important, but it's not really first date talk.

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then say you'll call but never do?
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: yeah, I said I'd come to Bolivia with you but... somehow I sense it's not a good idea in the long run. I might bail out like Etta Place... and leave you in that place.

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then not show up?
The Silence of the Lambs. You creep me out real bad.

Who do you meet for a first date, ends up staying the night and makes you breakfast in the morning?
C. C. Baxter for sure! And it would be delicious, even if it was just spaghetti. Forrest Gump wouldn't stay the night, but he would make me breakfast for sure. Maybe the medic from Saving Private Ryan.

Who do you meet for a first date, ends up staying the night and then leaves in the morning without saying goodbye ... and steals your favorite sweater?
Kecia had this answer ready: it's Butch Cassidy, or maybe the Sundance Kid. They had somewhere to be.

What other questions would you have asked about these movies? I'd love more ideas! Leave your thoughts, reactions, passionate defenses and harsh critiques in the comments!

May 2, 2010

#71: Saving Private Ryan

I don't really know how someone in my age demographic grew up and never sat through all of Steven Spielberg's WWII epic Saving Private Ryan -- I'm sure I watched some part of it in my AP American History class ... but that may also have been The Patriot or some other movie about war from the late 90s. I was probably daydreaming. In any event, I'd never seen it, and now, thanks to this blog, I'm all caught up, and I can finally take sides on that Best Picture Oscar debate. This was robbed.

Company: Kecia, closing her show and coughing up a lung doing it, poor thing

Cuisine: most of a bag of dark chocolate peanut M&Ms (don't ask what it's doing in the house, not because I don't know, but because I don't want to justify its purchase)

The film opens with a simple brass melody over the credits, reminiscent of taps maybe. First we see a faded American flag, the reds and blues pale and dull, an image that sets us up quite succinctly for the next nearly three hours. Then: a man, crumbling at a grave at the American Cemetery in Normandy. We have no idea who he is or whose grave it is, but we're about to find out. Ah! So the whole movie's a flashback, eh?

Steven Spielberg is just not the kind of director who lets his audience off the hook, and so it is here, that we jump back to June 6, 1944, at Omaha Beach, for what amounts to over 20 minutes of uninterrupted blood, gore, savagery, death, etc. You keep thinking, it's got to stop at some point, they can't keep going.

But when we settle on Captain John H. Miller (a wonderfully natural and calm Tom Hanks) we see through his eyes that it just won't stop. The Americans at that fateful beach are being wiped out, and minute after grueling minute we see them losing so badly. They're burning, they're decapitated, they're injured and screaming in pain. Much of the praise for the film has focused on its unrelenting and uncompromising view of combat, and while it's nearly unbearable even for someone with a strong stomach like me, you have to admit it's damn effective. After a while, it reminded me a little of the final scene of Platoon, in which you're so worn down from watching the violence that it actually becomes disorienting.

The Americans finally and miraculously prevail, and it's not a few hours before Captain Miller is informed of a mission: locate one soldier whose three brothers have all recently died in combat and send him home, as a sign of good will and charity in part but mostly as a publicity stunt.

I can't imagine having children right now, so consequently I can't imagine losing one, much less three. But I imagine losing my three best friends and then I think that starts to plumb the depths of the horror that Mrs. Ryan feels as she watches that old car drive up her impossibly long and perfectly pastoral driveway. Through the whole sequence, we actually don't see her whole face in any one shot, and I started to notice that Spielberg specifically blocks faces from us, mostly with lighting.

The men who are assigned to the mission to save Private James Francis Ryan appear over a hillside, which seemed at the time like the first time we'd seen any green (or any color, for that matter) in France, but we don't see their faces. In time, the metaphor becomes quite clear: the human cost of the war became so great that people began to lose count, lose sight of the human tragedy of the premature deaths of thousands of American soldiers. Now we see these men, not walking directly into combat but assigned a seemingly tamer mission, and Spielberg (along with the brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) won't show us their faces, their emotions. Soon enough he does, but what makes his work on this film so brilliant is the way he trusts his visual world to speak for itself without much dialogue. We hear screaming and some words in the first beach scene, but mostly it's indecipherable, especially because we're focused on the soldiers fully engulfed in flames.

See what I'm saying? Those silhouettes, man.

The men follow their orders begrudgingly, but complaining that their task is "a misallocation of military resources." As one says, finding one soldier is like "finding a needle in a stack of needles." How are they supposed to find one guy? He could literally be anywhere. These are men who are so desensitized to death that they have forgotten how much one life can mean. Plus, they're all risking their own lives trekking across the French countryside so that one man can be set free of military obligations. I can imagine I'd resent him. According to a couple sources, Matt Damon (who plays the titular Private Ryan) was not subjected to intense military training like the rest of the principal cast, but was brought on set much later just to film his scenes in order to stir up actual resentment.

But how can you resent that face?

Spielberg also cast Damon, an unknown at the time, for his all-American good looks, but didn't know he would sky rocket to fame after winning an Oscar for his screenplay for Good Will Hunting. Oops casting. But Damon is a formidable actor, bringing a deep life to a character it takes us almost two hours to meet and whom we get to know only for a few minutes before the final showdown battle.

A striking scene comes when Private Upham (a magnificent Jeremy Davies), an interpreter assigned to the mission despite his lack of combat experience, cannot bring himself to kill. It stops your heart: at this point you're over two hours into the film and all of a sudden you are met with a character to whom life still means something. I won't describe the scene in more detail, but it brings a vulnerability and a universal connection to the struggles of warfare that we've been watching this whole time.

More bloody violence and finally the story ends with a bookend, coming back to that old man at Normandy, hoping and praying that he's led a good enough life, a life worthy of the lives that were risked to save his own. A lovely circular image, and a tear-jerking end.

As far as war films go, it's hard to imagine one more brutally accurate and detailed as Saving Private Ryan. Although the film is only loosely based on true stories, it still manages to have an overwhelming sense of authenticity to it, which was probably a large factor in getting it on this list. Maybe at the end of this whole diablogue I'll go back and compare films by genre, maybe get some more suggestions by genre. Hmm.

My mind is almost nearly completely elsewhere as I'm heading to the airport in twelve hours for my family's trip to New Zealand to see my sister get married. But I got in one more blog before the vacation, and I'll be back real soon. Next up: let's get messed up. It's A Clockwork Orange, folks.