April 19, 2011

#33: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

One flew east, one flew west...

Only three times in Academy Award history has a film won the Big Five (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay). We've already seen the other two here, and now the third: Milos Forman's 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I've read the book, but I've never seen the stage adaptation. From what I understand, this doesn't stray too far from that version, although Kesey was apparently pretty upset about Forman's decision to stray from the Chief as central narrator. I think the film works well without that detail, but ... I didn't write it.

Company: alone, on instant Netflix!

Cuisine: sugar-free vanilla latte from Bob's. All one needs.

It's 1963 and the film opens on a mountain range somewhere, presumably on the west coast, underscored by what sounds like a musical saw. It's eerie, weird and appropriate. Soon we move to the Oregon State Hospital, a mental institution where Randle Patrick McMurphy (Oscar winner Jack Nicholson), a criminal convicted of statutory rape serving his sentence on a prison farm, has been transferred for evaluation. He seems like a regular guy, and he's not crazy (just regular Jack Nicholson crazy), he's probably just trying to get out of hard labor. He makes a good pass at it, asking the audience what they define as "crazy." Is McMurphy just as crazy as any of the other patients?

Perhaps the craziest one of them all is the one who seems the sanest, and for that reason, is the most dangerous: the tyrannical and unflinching warden of the floor, Nurse Mildred Ratched (Oscar winner Louise Fletcher). She has a schedule, a plan, an unmoving dedication to crushing the spirits of the men she oversees with subtle humiliation, rationing and most of all that deadly stare. The men of the ward, varied in their mental states and afflictions, are too terrified of her to do much soul-searching or healing that would give them their freedom. When McMurphy sees this hierarchy with sane eyes, he plans to overthrow Ratched and free all his fellow bunkmates.

One great example is his act of defiance in watching the World Series that Nurse Ratched has refused to allow on a technicality. She will not turn the television on, but he sits in front of it anyway, and suddenly acts as though it's on. The men join him, much to Ratched's dismay, who provides the scene with her trademark icy glare.

Perhaps one of the masterstrokes of this film is Forman's simple direction, keeping everything nice and orderly, the way Ratched would like us to view the hospital, from simple, adequately lit angles. As McMurphy's hold over the ward increases, the filming of it becomes more antic. Brilliant. It doesn't hurt that every actor, especially the non-incapacitated men of Ratched's therapy group, is in top form, carving living, breathing characters from stutters, droopy eyes, limps, constant smiles, etc., and bringing them together to create the anguished landscape of this hellhole.

It's so much more rewarding, then, when by an amazing chance, McMurphy manages to steal the hospital bus and take the men on a fishing trip on a hijacked boat. The eight-minute fishing scene is truly the most relentlessly joyful of the film, and for a brief moment relieves us and reminds us that these are regular guys who for whatever reason are uncapable of functioning in regular society. They seem to do an okay job of it at sea.

The tables turn, however, when McMurphy has two major revelations: a) he is not, as he thought, guaranteed release, that he is at the mercy of Ratched and the psychiatrists of the ward who have the power to keep him incarcerated; and b) only some of the men in the ward share his fate. Many of the men actually have the power to leave at any time, but have chosen not to. I found this apathy to be one of the most culturally resonant themes in the film. How many of us are incapacitated, unable to fix something in our lives, but find it so much easier to live with it than to invite hookers with booze into our ward and have an all-nighter?

Whatever the larger social implications, Cuckoo's Nest really boils down to a fascinating dual-character study between McMurphy and Ratched. I'd say that Nicholson and Fletcher (both definitive in their roles and deserving of the accolades) won their Oscars just as much for themselves as they did for each other. Does that make any sense? What I mean is: their chemistry is so spot-on, their demented game of cat-and-mouse is so enticing that we can't help but watch. Even knowing the ending like I did, and having seen the film before, I found myself unable to stop watching either actor when they're onscreen. Luckily, they rarely appear in the same shot together, so the audience is hardly ever forced to choose which actor to watch. Nicholson has the simpler job (simple?!) in what is nearly a screwball comedy for its first half, but he provides McMurphy with such trademark dexterity and sexual energy that he entrances everyone onscreen.

For my money, I think Louise Fletcher has the much more difficult role, the one in which restraint and cold calculation are her main weapons. Fletcher masters this, never stooping to caricature or camp, but always keeping her cool. And my god -- that icy stare! Those arched eyebrows! Supposedly this role was offered to nearly a dozen other major actresses of the time, but for one reason or another they all turned it down. I think the film benefits from having a lesser known actress in the role, but poor Ms. Fletcher will now always be associated with this devilish bitch.

Is this what makes the film (and the story) so American? Devil's advocate warning: it's very clear that the good guys are the childlike men and the bad guys are the rule-enforcing women in charge. Is this just a tale of adolescent rebellion? That's maybe cynical, but a review for the most recent Broadway revival makes a fair point.

A battle to the death.

The final act, in which McMurphy hosts an all-night party for the patients with the aide of two booze-toting whores, only to fall into a drunken sleep before his planned escape and face the consequences in the morning, is mesmerizing and cathartic. I won't spoil it, since everyone should see this and be surprised, but it's a horrifying and wonderful ending to a great American film. "I feel as big as a damned mountain." AH!

Do I love the film? I don't know if I could say that. It's entertaining, certainly, and feels larger than itself, but because of the dreariness of the setting I'm not sure I could watch it very often. That's probably my one complaint, though I hardly think that was on anyone's mind while making it. Regardless of the misogynist undertones, it's a good story, well told. Isn't that what I always claim I want from a movie? Put it to bed.

Next up: the only sequel on the list! I'm not sure whether to watch The Godfather first before I watch The Godfather: Part II, even though the first film is #2 on the list. How big of a sequence-stickler do I have to be here? This might be the one exception I make, though I'll save the first film's entry until later.

April 11, 2011

#34: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

"Someday my prince will come..."

... yeah, if you're pretty and haven't got a mean bone in your body. Luckily, our heroine, the first of the Disney princesses, has little to worry about in those two departments, and not even a cranky, vain bitch can stop her from riding off into the sunset. Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the second of only two animated films on this list (blasphemy!) but truly serves as a placeholder for the entire Disney canon, and while it may not be the best of the Disney films, it is still the very first entirely animated full-length feature film, which carries plenty of historical significance. I hadn't seen this since childhood (and neither had anyone with me last night) so it was almost like watching it for the first time. LOVE that.

Company: Kecia, roommate, co-conspirator and dreamer of spring cleaning; Adam, actor and Henry Sweet Henry songstress; and Katie and Matt, hipsters in matching glasses

Cuisine: raspberry vodka and diet Squirt. I had finished my leftovers before everyone ordered Chinese food so the sweet smells of soy and MSG were in the air.

I love harmonizing with myself in a well, don't you?

Snow White's simple plot begins in a far away storybook kingdom, where a magic mirror tells the reigning bitch-on-high that she is not, as she believes, the fairest in the land, and that that title belongs to a young girl accurately named Snow White, who just happens to be her stepdaughter. Aw man. Stepmothers always get a bad rap.

The queen, insane with jealousy, tells her royal huntsman that he must kill Snow White and bring her heart back to the queen in a box, but the huntsman is luckily not so quick to anger -- he tells Snow White she must run into the forest, for reasons never explained to her.

It turns out the forest is not very keen on having Snow White there ... or maybe it's all just made up in her head that branches, trees and logs come to menacing life for the sole purpose of freaking her out. Either way, this sequence is the first of many in the film like it: operatic montages, light on plot and heavy on emotion. In fact, for an 84-minute film, I'd say about the middle 45-50 minutes is largely plotless. Very little actually happens. Snow White wakes up from her panic attack ("I'm so ashamed of the fuss I've made!") and summons all manner of woodland creature, who miraculously follow her and do her every bidding, including doing some major spring cleaning on a strange house they happen upon in the woods.

As Disney princesses go, Snow White may be one of the lamest: her three main attributes are beauty (but what Disney princess doesn't have it going on?), the ability to control animals with her warbly-ass singing voice (okay, that's actually pretty impressive when you think about it), and most of all, kindness. That flawless compassion certainly comes in handy, but it kind of goes to show that she's not the most complex protagonist Disney was destined to create. But look, too, at the number of films on this list with stories centered squarely on a female character: I can count them on two hands, and I even cheated a little. Think on that, AFI.

"It's home from work we go!"

The house she happens upon, cleans with the animals (whistling while she works), and curls up in for a exhaustion nap belongs to seven dwarfs (dwarves? dwarfs!) who mine diamonds nearby. Who they mine for and why they live in such a dilapidated shanty when they have access to great quantities of such precious gems are mysteries the film opts not to explore. I assume their work ethic, as shiny and spotless as Snow White's kindness, and their virtue is being put on display as we see them head home from work, if nothing else to show the parallels between the folks in our title.

When they arrive home, they're stunned by the spic-and-spanness of their home and even more perplexed to find a princess passed out across three of their tiny beds. Ms. White and the dwarfs, however, are actually a perfect match: they're all kind and virtuous, and every last one takes great pleasure in a hard day's work. What a message for rough times, eh?

But Snow White will teach these tiny tots some manners. The animals had informed Snow White that the dwarfs have no mother or woman figure of any kind in their lives, so it's no surprise I suppose that their house is filthy and they don't even know how to wash up. Common men! They're so feral! Thank God a princess happened upon them and took pity on their hygiene!

This middle act is punctuated by long montages of animals being cute and dwarfs engaging in sight gags, but it dawned on me that a lot of this brand of visual humor had never been available to the movie-going public before feature-length animation. How delighted they must have been to watch, enamored, as cute little animals fell into socks or teacups and dirty dwarfs, as pictured above, learned to wash their faces. These extended lazzi sequences, perfected in later years by geniuses like Tex Avery, shouldn't really be that surprising for Mr. Disney, who hadn't ever had to sustain a story for so long before. Give the man some credit.

Then suddenly, we're jolted back to reality. It's not all washing up and dancing, White. The evil queen thinks she's gotten rid of her rival for good, but the mirror tells her it just ain't so. So she hatches a plan, underscored by operatic music played to the melodramatic hilt, to entice the princess with a poison apple. Of course, she'll have to go in disguise.

This is just an amazing face to be making as you surprise your stepdaughter.

La-da-dee-dum, just makin' a gooseberry pie for Grumpy so he'll like me as much as the others--OMG. There the old hag stands at her window. Would you accept fruit from that woman? It's not like Snow White doesn't have access to produce. But since it's a "wishing apple," oh well, then, that makes much more sense. Never mind the fact that this ugly old biddy could probably wishing-apple herself some new hands that didn't look so arachnid-like, Snow White. One bite and:


What a gorgeous moment, that we don't even see our heroine bite the apple that dooms her, we only see the witch's reaction to her hatching plan. The dwarfs arrive home just in time to see their princess sprawled out on the floor and have mere seconds to put together the pieces and dash after the witch, who runs herself into a dead end at the top of a super-stormy mountain cliff conveniently located nearby. Her avarice, it seems, leads to her untimely end, which is significantly less satisfying than the fates of other animated villainesses (e.g. Ursula), but at least she got what was coming to her.

An hour after we last saw him, the huntsman, wandering aimlessly in the woods, happens upon the glass coffin, kisses Snow White's corpse and magically revives the princess, who is in mysteriously good spirits and sports no bed sores from months spent on her back in the woods. But here's where it really gets interesting, kids.


The film ends with the happy couple considering the castle, supposedly where the prince lives. So... wait. We have interpretive options here.

a) Snow White wakes up, magically revived by "true love's kiss," and lives happily ever after with her prince in a castle that is actually on a mountaintop but for weather-related reasons just looks like it's suspended in the clouds.

b) Snow White's prince joins her in death and carries her off to heaven.

I honestly think these are two equally valid interpretations, but I know which one everyone believes. Am I morbid? No. I just think it's interestingly (and ambiguously) visualized. If nothing else, rewatching this classic makes me want to revisit all those golden-age Disneys. And even though it's easy to make fun, it's truly cinematic bliss, if only at times (the "Someday My Prince Will Come" sequence is classic, among others).

Next up: one of the only films to win the Big Five at the Oscars (the highest on the list!): Milos Forman's winning adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

April 6, 2011

#35: Annie Hall

I first saw Woody Allen's classic comedy Annie Hall in college, and here's what that great mind had to say back then:

"Annie Hall... I somehow dreaded [it] because my only experience with Woody Allen was Hollywood Ending which was pretty close to bad. But this was cute. I fell asleep at parts, but overall it's really sweet and interesting and funny. I'm not sure I'm a fan of his comedy style necessarily but this is one to watch, if nothing else because Diane Keaton was a hottie back in the day."

Okay, so many things wrong here, Max.
1) Don't base your entire opinion of a director on one film.
2) Why why why did I watch Hollywood Ending before I saw ANYTHING ELSE Woody Allen has ever done?
3) You fell asleep. How dare you.
4) Diane Keaton, while she may be many things, is not quite a "hottie." Sweet, wonderful, cute, brilliant in this film: all yes. Hot: eh. Maybe not.

Let's rethink this evaluation, shall we?

Company: Stephanie, protector of ancient artifacts, Paul Simon / Sigourney Weaver enthusiast, omelette auteur

Cuisine: tomato and bean salsa omelettes with bacon and wheat toast (how did I not photograph this?) and coffee

"The universe is expanding and someday it will break apart..."

Right from the start of his film-opening monologue, it's clear that Alvy Singer (Oscar-winning director and nominated actor Woody Allen) has a rather nihilistic worldview. Okay, nix the rather. For a stand-up comedian he's nearly relentlessly macabre, constantly worried about death and all but incapable of relaxation or happiness. This was the Woody Allen the world knew well by this point, an actor and playwright of stage and screen formless comedies in the spirit of the Marx Brothers, with thin plots to link a barrage of comic gags. But Annie Hall marked a departure for him: while it's still very much a comedy, the film functions as a partial autobiography (although Allen apparently denies this), and a very heartfelt one at that.

Simply put, Alvy meets, woos and falls head over heels for the title character (played with ditsy abandon by Oscar winner Diane Keaton). The film follows their relationship through to its conclusion, which wouldn't be such a feat in itself except that Allen finds a fantastically exciting series of modes of commentary. Most of the scenes are just Allen and Keaton talking: in bed before sex, in bed after sex, getting coffee, making up dialogue for strangers while sitting on a park bench, or famously, as above, while standing in line at the movie theater, listening to some bombastic asshole behind them blow smoke up his own ass about Fellini and Marshall McLuhan. Finally, when he's had enough, Alvy steps forward and addresses us directly, and the stranger behind them comes up to defend himself when, from nowhere, Alvy produces a living, breathing Marshall McLuhan (whose name I actually recognize from books I had to read in my media studies concentration) who shoots down the stranger's delusions of understanding. "Boy, if life were only like this!"

At various other times, Alvy and Annie look back at the past, sometimes literally. As seen above, they both have a clear view of one-year-earlier Annie and her actor boyfriend, also blowing smoke where the sun doesn't shine. It's the literal visual version of 20-20 hindsight. To quote Alvy, boy, if life were only like this, we would always have the last laugh, putting irritating people in their place and understanding in full detail the problems of our past.

I wonder to whom Allen owes this brand of comedy he so clearly claims as his own in this and later films. From what I read, it sounds like he loves and references Fellini and Bergman, two directors whose filmography is unfortunately mostly foreign to me (no pun intended). But this relentlessly self-deprecating brand of neuroses is what drives us crazy as an audience ... and ensures our attention until the end.

Diane Keaton is at the top of her game here, a perfect match for Allen and a great foil to his neuroses. I wouldn't say that Annie is a female version of Alvy; that would be selling her performance short. They work together so well because and in spite of their similarities. Two such similar people would probably, under normal circumstances, drive each other nuts, but these two actors have crafted such wildly disparate characters, two totally hopeless dopes who somehow just click, without either being able to explain why. Her babbling rants are a pleasure to watch as she jumps from thought to thought with such grace and ease, never letting us see the actor's work. It's a great comedic performance, and one of the only comedic leading ladies in recent cinematic history to be so lauded.

It makes me wonder: is this brand of neuroses necessarily American? Or is it, as Alvy might say, Jewish? That this all takes place in Brooklyn, a densely Jewish part of New York, is very telling. There's something in this rapid-fire, Sid Caesar-style babble of young-ish lovers spouting their own version of their respective therapists' psychoanalysis to each other that's simultaneously endearing and off-putting, and I expect that's Allen's intent.

But a part of why Annie Hall works so well is that old Roger Ebert saying: the more specific a movie is, the more universal its message (I'm paraphrasing). Here, we can see our own instincts, fears and desires in these two lovers because they're not so far from us, even if we don't have therapists to tell that to. In spite of these two dopes being pretty far from what we'd call a leading lad and lady, they worm their way into our hearts as quickly as in any classic romance.

Equally balanced with the whimsy is that sense of serendipitous nostalgia that every good romance has. How can you see the shot above, with a sunset kiss at the Brooklyn Bridge, and not be moved? It's a master stroke to balance this comedy this way, and I can't say I entirely understand how Allen does it, but he does.

(Okay, I just had to include a shot from this great sequence, if nothing else because of the coincidence of what comes next on my list. Brava.)

"I'm paying for her analysis and I'm getting screwed."

Therapy for these characters is not over. Not like we're surprised. In fact, the events of the movie probably lead to more analysis for both of them, not less. But maybe the moral here is ... don't overthink it. Sometimes a relationship just works the way the best kinds of movies do: seemingly without much effort. (Huh. That's hitting home for me right now as I type this.) Spend too much time on the couch and maybe you're bound to end up like poor Alvy, manifesting neuroses for yourself without meaning to by talking out your problems with someone unrelated to them.

Eh. Suffering's funny. Welcome to most of Woody Allen's career. "You know how you're always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it's so difficult in life?" he lovingly "pontificates" near the film's sweet finale. That might be his mantra summed up in a question. Hmm. He's another director I should probably retrospect on this blog at some point, eh? Probably couldn't hurt.

PS: I've seen more of his films now than when I first saw this. In addition to Hollywood Ending I've seen Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Pretty bad for a supposed film buff. Work on it.

Next up: the other animated film on the list, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!