April 11, 2012

AFI Retrospective: 10 I'd Ditch

Okay, part two of this retrospective on this great project. First I talked about ten pleasant surprises, and now the much more difficult task of choosing 10% of these films to demote off the list, in my humble opinion. Let me start by saying: all of these films are great (some greater than others, or should I say some more agreed upon than others). All of them have something to recommend. But some of these could go for a reason or two, which I'll try to explain as best I can.

Top Ten I'd Ditch

Let me start by saying the Marx Brothers were total geniuses, and the scene above is so inspired and magical. Their other film on the list, Duck Soup, is absolutely required viewing. But by comparison, this spoof of the opera world just doesn't hold up nearly as well. It feels less like a coherent whole than the other film, and more like a series of jokes strung together, spliced together with some scenes about opera performers that we wait through to get back to the Marx shenanigans. I'd totally be happy bringing a different Marx film in in its place -- any suggestions?


I just wanted way more out of this story. I know you don't go to a movie like this for plot, but the characters need to at least engage me in a way that keeps me with them for two hours, and the first hour of this just took me out of it. The famous car chase scene is impressive, especially when viewed in a historical context, but not all that unique for a modern audience. William Friedkin made this right before he made The Exorcist, which is way more deserving of this list.


Here's the thing: I actually liked this movie. There's nothing necessarily wrong with it, it's just that at the end of the day it wasn't the most memorable. It's not especially affecting, the plot is simple and the acting is fine. It has a great moral truth to it, some amount of historical power in the canon, and truthfully it was a pleasant surprise. But I had to pick ten. That was the game.


There's maybe a tiny bit of irony in this choice, since Sullivan's Travels is really about the search for "social significance" in Hollywood. In fact, it's a pretty solid satire of the movie industry... but the fact is: I hadn't even heard of it before this list. I think it might have been the only movie on the entire list I'd never even heard of. And there's a reason: while it's cute, it's slight. Do cute, slight films belong on the list? Maybe. Does a more "important" one belong in its place? This is where it gets tricky.


6. The Apartment (#80)

There's just a lot of great comedies on the list, and in my opinion The Apartment falls short. It's a cute story, but the comedic payoff in terms of laughs-per-minute just isn't as high as, say, any of the Charlie Chaplin films, Some Like It Hot, or Bringing Up Baby. Plus, I'm not that enchanted with Shirley MacLaine's performance. Jack Lemmon, yes. Shirley, eh.


5. Unforgiven (#68)

The placement of this film on the list seemed like a way to collectively reward and honor Clint Eastwood for his many contributions to Hollywood and his long and, ahem, "varied" career. Now, I don't think much of him as an actor -- growl growl growl scowl scowl scowl -- but I will admit he has a subtle hand as a director. Maybe it's my distaste for a lot of his movies that influenced this, maybe it was my disdain for Westerns... maybe it's that this film seems like an examination of a genre that didn't really ask to be reexamined. When so many other genres are underrepresented, why are there so many Westerns??


4. M*A*S*H (#54)

Kiss my hot lips! There's some great, even inspired moments in this early Robert Altman film, but for my money his other efforts (Nashville especially but also The Player, not listed here) seem stronger and more focused. His style is one that takes some getting used to, with actors floating in and out of scenes, and the camera ambling around to create the authenticity of an outside viewer, and his other films do a better job of honing this tricky form.


I wrote: "while I'm not sure I agree that it's a brilliant film, it does perfectly personify the tropes of Hollywood crime drama that became so popular throughout the middle of the century, and which still heavily influence modern cinema." The movie does everything it can to be the purest form of film noir, but by following every single rule it feels less exciting than other films from this genre. Am I right? I guess I don't know, I haven't seen a ton of films from this era/genre, but something tells me there's more exciting examples of noir somewhere.


2. Shane (#45)

I likened this movie to an antique, a family heirloom that's pretty janky but you just can't bear to sell it at the family garage sale. I understand that many of the members of the AFI were no doubt Joey's age when Shane came to town, and remember this movie with great fondness. But for a contemporary audience, this felt like an indistinguishable effort, no better or worse than other Westerns at the time. There's also some badly staged fight scenes that don't belong in a good movie. I have no illusions about my bias against this genre, and I'd love for someone to convince me that these movies are good and not just relics.


1. The Wild Bunch (#79)

The truth is, I just got no pleasure out of watching this. The distinguishing feature that merits its place here was supposedly its revolutionary use of violence, but it seems to me that Bonnie and Clyde, made two years earlier, makes better use of gratuitous badassery and has a compelling story and vivid characters to boot. This had neither. Now, because I liked it the least of any movie on this list, I have no doubt that I'll go back to it someday to try to understand it. But for now, this would be the very first movie I'd kick off the list in favor of something else.

And there's my ten! Next, maybe ten that I'd add to the list? That'll be an interesting challenge!

Thoughts? Concerns? Cheers? Rants? Leave a comment!

April 5, 2012

AFI Retrospective: 10 Pleasant Surprises

Hey again, everyone -- long time no see!

So it's been about a week since I finished this blog project, and I wanted some time away to reflect on it. I've decided to wrap this whole project up with a four-part retrospective, starting with this one, where I'm gonna talk about the most pleasant surprises on the list! I had seen about half of the films on the list before, and so these were my favorites of the ones I hadn't seen.

Top Ten Pleasant Surprises

10. The General (#18)

It's a real weird shame that I had never seen any of Buster Keaton's films before, and this one alone definitely turned me into a fan. It's short, it's sweet, and it's legitimately hilarious. And it's 1927, folks -- no CGI, no fancy tricks! Just Keaton doing what he does best. I put this at the bottom of the top ten only because it was not such a surprise to me that I loved it as some of the others here were. Any other suggestions of his films that I should look up?

9. Ben-Hur (#100)

I often said when I was about to start this project that the whole crazy idea felt like a Sisyphean task, like a wild ancient Roman chariot race of improbability, and if I hadn't liked Ben-Hur so much, it might have been tougher to stay motivated for the rest of it. That was a major hurdle to jump right off the bat (mixed sports metaphors?!) but for all the preconceived notions I had about it, I actually had a great time watching it, and would do it again... the next time I was in the mood for that sort of thing.

8. Midnight Cowboy (#43)

The dirty-minded part of me was excited to finally see this 1969 film because it was the first (and only) X-rated film to win Best Picture. It ended up being a beautiful meditation on modern sexuality, and one of the only films on the list to feature any homosexual characters (including, it might be argued, our hero). It felt like it had been filmed yesterday, not 43 years ago!

7. Easy Rider (#84)

This was another film that felt so modern, like it was looking into the future of what films would be. As I went through the list, I found myself most attracted to this great period of American moviemaking, from the late sixties to mid-seventies... I think I wrote about it at some point... maybe about The Godfather, that it felt like a turning point between old and new Hollywood. It was a pivotal moment in many parts of American history, with the civil rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate, Stonewall... just out of necessity, these films start feeling so vivid, so necessary.

Honestly, when I read about the film before I saw it I thought: what? why? I like these actors but this movie sounds boooooooring. But my preliminary research ended up being very misleading: what transpires is a wonderful, simple, buddy movie -- perhaps the most purely patriotic on the entire list -- without any pesky subplots cluttering up the river. Katherine Hepburn is near her very best here ("Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.") and Humphrey Bogart won his only Oscar for this, beating out the legendary performance by Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. I suppose Brando was only 26 and Humphrey was overdue, so arguments against this don't (ahem) hold water.

Now, to be fair, this film really doesn't belong on this list in the first place, since very little of it is American. This is not me being biased against foreign films, it's just River Kwai really has no business being called an American film. But that's an argument I'll make later. This was another like African Queen where I read a little about it and thought, "uhhh boy. British POWs in Thai internment camps during WWII. Here we go." But it's actually a great adventure story. Maybe the most American thing about it is the sense of national pride and perseverance against a common enemy, but that alone does help this American stick with these guys until that iconic last moment.

4. Sunrise (#82)

This film holds the great distinction of having won a Best Picture award without the added distinction of being listed as a Best Picture over the years, since in the first year of the Academy Awards in 1927, Wings actually won Outstanding Picture, Production, and Sunrise won the award for Unique and Artistic Production. Wow. If that award still existed today, we'd see a lot more interesting films winning Oscars, I can tell you that much. My experience with silent films was limited at best before this list, but Sunrise was such a rich cinematic experiment that it felt like there had to have been sound! And it's 1927, folks -- that shot I posted above was a lot trickier to produce than it would be now. Have some respect.

3. High Noon (#27)
I've been very vocal about my lack of enthusiasm for westerns, and the examples on this list have been largely underwhelming for me (some of them will no doubt show up in the Top Ten I'd Ditch post, coming soon) -- but I can't deny the power and marvelous economy demonstrated in High Noon. A part of my problem with this genre is that it follows, without working too hard, too many of the same rules in every film, but High Noon seems to break the mold in several ways. I should actually watch it again, and this time with a group... any takers?

People asked me throughout this project what films were the most surprising, the most exciting, which ones I "liked" best... and while that's too large a question to usually answer with any efficiency, I'll be damned if I didn't recommend these top two films to anyone who would listen. This story of WWII veterans adjusting to civilian life once again just pulled every heart string I have, and Harold Russell's performance is absolutely unbelievable. In fact, he remains one of only two non-professional actors to be awarded an Oscar (the other being Haing S. Ngor for The Killing Fields), and the only actor to be awarded twice for the same performance. He deserved both. I can't say enough good things -- and I will absolutely watch this again with anybody who's up for it!


This film was down far enough on this list (only the sixth one I watched for the blog) that I saw it over two years ago, but throughout the entire project I have not been able to get it out of my head. Take fantastic actors (including very young Jeff Daniels, Cybill Shepherd and the phenomenal Timothy Bottoms), a gorgeous screenplay by Larry McMurtry, a melancholy approach to storytelling and cinematography -- AND the fact that it mourns the old West, something I would see so often throughout the list and grow to loathe -- plus its American New Wave pedigree -- and it turned into my very favorite new film on the list. Such a visceral experience. I still love that last monologue of Cloris Leachman's -- it hurts so bad, and yet I keep coming back to it again and again. And I have a feeling I'll do the same with this movie. Ahhh.

There were more of these on the list, of course, but these were the ten that stuck out to me. Next up: the Top Ten Films I'd Ditch. This should be fun. :)

March 27, 2012

Cine-Smackdown: #1-#10

All done! Just one more cine-smackdown to go -- and the hardest one of all, for sure. How do you deal with this line-up!? But I've played this game nine times now, and so this has to be just as ruthless. It's the only way to get it done.

1. Citizen Kane 
2. The Godfather
3. Casablanca
4. Raging Bull
5. Singin' in the Rain
6. Gone with the Wind
7. Lawrence of Arabia
8. Schindler's List
9. Vertigo
10. The Wizard of Oz

Of these ten, the only one I hadn't seen before was Lawrence of Arabia.

Of these ten, which would I move further up the list?
Oof. Well, this is where this gets tricky, because they can't go any further up the list than this. It's funny, I was just arguing against quantifying art. Hmm. Is it cheating to say The Wizard of Oz, since it's at the bottom of these? I arguably consider that film more of a classic than the three directly above it, and that its place in American cinema outranks those others.

Of these ten, which would I get rid of?
There's a couple of ideas here. Technically, Lawrence of Arabia has no business being on a list of best American films since its director, main actor, screenwriter (well, one of them) and production company are all European. That's not to say that it's not a good film, but it's a little meandering even when compared without its heritage in mind. I wasn't as taken by Casablanca or Raging Bull as I was with the others, so I might move those, too. But for argument's sake, let's say Lawrence gets banished to the desert.

Who in these movies do I want as my best friend?
I think it's obvious that in this situation you choose The Wizard of Oz. A legion of straw, tin and cowardly buddies! Also, Melanie in Gone with the Wind: loyal to the end.

Who in these movies do I want to have my back in a bar fight?
Vito Corleone (The Godfather) would have it outsourced, but it'd get the job done. But he and Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull) will spill a little too much blood, even for the situation. Something makes me want to say Cosmo Brown (Singin' in the Rain) since he'd dance-confuse my enemies and then pack a punch.

Who in these movies is your worst frienemy?
Scarlett O'Hara (Gone with the Wind) is the classic frienemy. She basically inspired Mean Girls. End of story.

Who do I take home to Mom?
When I look at this list, the men options are mostly tortured, lonely, egomaniacs or Nazis. I don't know if my mom would want me dating a scarecrow, either. God, it leaves me with Don Lockwood (Singin' in the Rain) -- but boy, what an option!

You're going on a date with these movies. Who do you agree to meet for coffee but never call again?
Lawrence of Arabia: too much sand in my ass. The food was good, though. I have to make that Moroccan winter squash stew again.

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then say you'll call but never do?
Casablanca: I would just end up saying something hurtful, like how I didn't give a damn.

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then not show up?
Raging Bull. No explanation necessary.

Who do you meet for a first date, ends up staying the night and makes you breakfast in the morning?
Singin' in the Rain would even make me a big star!

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?
Citizen Kane -- and our torrid affair would show up on the front page of the Inquirer. I swear to God, if he calls me a "singer"...

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!

#1: Citizen Kane

And finally we made it to the top. Citizen Kane. Orson Welles was 25 years old when he filmed this masterpiece of world cinema -- and as Bret so succinctly put it, "how old were YOU when you filmed your first best movie of all time?" Well, I was 24 when I started this blog and I'm 27 now. I can't hardly believe that, but it's true. And luckily, I don't think my best work is behind me -- but I can't imagine topping Citizen Kane as a writer, actor and director, and though Welles had an amazing career, he hit his peak at 25. The film premiered just before his 26th birthday. Wow. I spent my 26th birthday overserved at some dive bar, but that's neither here nor there. Onward!

Company: this came up quickly as I was called off from rehearsal, but several friends still made it! Bret, who cried at the end of this movie when he was a weird little 8th grader ("All he wanted was his childhood!"); Joe, art hound; Hannah, film fanatic; Matt, always up for cinematic adventure; Kecia, sunstroked from the weird March warmth and guzzling water; Ali, aloe-dispensing nurse; Paul, newly engaged but without his wonderful partner Ryan tonight; and Katie, once she got off work.

Cuisine: it was the last go around, so we made it a feast! Chips and salsa, M&Ms, several cheeses (hard and soft), salami and basil, fennel crackers, white grapes -- and Ali's raspberry almond cupcakes with roses on top. Themed! A fantastic and filling way to end this project.

Okay, two minutes in and we're treated to a shot like this? Oh my eff.

Citizen Kane topped this list the first time it was compiled in 1998, and again in 2007. It's just the ultimate combination of elements, and broke many conventions along the way. Where to begin? To start, Welles completely eschewed the idea of linear narrative, beginning near the end of the story and then doubling back to tell the story of the life of Charles Foster Kane (played remarkably and at various points throughout his life by Oscar nominee Welles), an egomaniac newspaper tycoon who made news and was news. Movies do this all the time now (I'd love to go back and count how many of them are on this list!) but Kane marked one of the first times this was done so successfully.

Now is as good a time as any to point out something Bret mentioned: the major plot hole in the movie, which is that Kane's last word ("Rosebud") is muttered in solitude. No one is in the room to hear him say it, but the film explores the world's fascination with this cryptic final message and the search for its meaning. But I think this in fact isn't a mistake: by the end of his life, Kane's private life is so public that even words spoken to no one are still heard. Perhaps that's the meaning of citizen here: the word really means "a member of a state" -- and Kane may have meant for his life to be his own, but by bringing himself into the public eye so readily and vigorously in his youth, he could never escape public scrutiny, even on his death bed.

A large portion of the film is told as though in a comic book: the pace of it is extraordinary, and montage is put to great use. I love the two-minute scene in which sixteen years of his marriage to his first wife (Ruth Warrick) is shown disintegrating in a series of vignettes over breakfast. It's quick snippets of dialogue, and only hair and wardrobe really suggest the passage of time. There's also the brilliant "News on the March" sequence near the beginning, after Kane's death, acting as a sort of public eulogy, a cinematic obituary, with a verging-on-cartoonish voiceover. You sort of don't know what you're watching, or if the whole film will be like this -- and then bam: lights up on the screening room where the film was playing. Meta!

The film also made incredible use of deep focus, thanks to the incredible cinematographer Gregg Toland. In shots like the one above, every plane of view is in focus, even the young Kane playing outside in the snow. This is not a simple technique to achieve, and requires a lot of precision and firm decisions. Here, Welles had to stage what was happening in the foreground, and time it exactly with what he wanted to have happening in the background. While wikipedia-ing deep focus, I was glad to see many great films, including many of this list, that make extensive use of this technique. (Shout out to the only Harry Potter film listed, my favorite: Prisoner of Azkaban. I will defend that movie to the grave.)

The young Kane is essentially sold by his parents to a banker, Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), who acts as his guardian and trustee. When Kane inherits his fortunes at the age of 25, he reimagines the New York Inquirer, steals all the best journalists from other news organizations, and generally lowers the quality standard of the news he's printing, resorting to flashy headlines and sensationalized scandals instead of real news. The film documents his rise to fame and glory, the disintegration of his first marriage, and his campaign for governor.

His first marriage ends when his wife discovers he's having an affair with the "singer" Susan Alexander (a weirdly horrible but perfect Dorothy Comingore), something he'd probably secretly wish could stay private but ends up on the front page of his own papers. Their relationship isn't much better -- in fact, it's probably worse than the first, given that Kane pushes his wife into an opera career when she clearly doesn't have the chops. After all, she's a "singer."

The great irony here is that Susan Alexander doesn't particularly want a public life, yet she marries Kane and is forced into one for his personal gain. He doesn't want to be made a laughing stock by his untalented wife, but rather than allow her to step out of the limelight, he pushes her to near-total exhaustion. She wasn't built to be a public citizen the way he was, and their marriage crumbles because, well, it's lonely at the top, Charlie.

His whole life, as the film portrays it, is framed in his pursuit of wealth and glory, but by the end, after two failed marriages and without a real friend, Kane is left alone at Xanadu, the unfinished pleasure palace named after a similar one built by Kublai Khan in the 13th century, with all of his stuff. This extended mirror shot, visualizing Kane's solitude, is something of a cliche today, but notice the deep focus! That's crazy.

Rosebud is in there somewhere.

Well, for those of you who don't know the twist about Rosebud at the end, I won't spoil it for you like it was spoiled for me as a child by this Peanuts comic strip. Seriously, how could I have known?! Needless to say, it's one of the great twist endings of all time, summarizing the entire moral argument of the film in one image. It's genius.

So let's see... Sensationalized news. Public scandal. Tortured childhood. The pursuit of wealth. Rags to riches. Failed marriages. Spiritual poverty. Unsolved mystery. Mediocre artistic talent. What isn't American about this movie? They got this one right, folks. It's no accident that Citizen Kane ranks as the masterpiece of modern cinema. Is it perfect? It's close, maybe as close as they come. It certainly has a lot to recommend, and very little with which to disagree. Do you love Citizen Kane, or do you think it's overrated? Does it deserve this #1 spot, twice over?

YOU GUYS. I made it to the end! A little under 27 months later!

Well, now what?? A cine-smackdown for the top ten on this list -- then a retrospective or two -- then maybe a poll about what to do for the next project! Thank you all SO much for reading, it's been fantastic to see all these movies. But I'll wait to wax about this for the retrospectives. On!

March 13, 2012

#2: The Godfather

Francis Ford Coppola may have done something for American cinema that no one had done before him. He redefined it. It seems to me that the more I talk to people about movies the more I hear the phrases "old movie" and "new movie," but I can't manage to pinpoint where the switch occurred. After watching The Godfather once again, I think maybe it happened in 1972. The French new wave was underway in America already and cinema was certainly changing with the times but something about this movie changed how we all think about how it should be done. This period (roughly 1967 to 1975) is maybe my favorite roughly-decade in all of cinematic history, and this movie's a major reason why.

Company: now, we hosted a fantastic Italian feast when we watched The Godfather Part II for the blog last May, but that time we watched both films, in order to get the context for the second. Not everyone made it through -- it's a big commitment -- but lots of friends were more than willing to play again! They included Matt, the only survivor of both movies from the last Corleone blog; Katie, his mervie-lerving gurlfurnd; and Kecia, who is really not a fan of Apollonia Corleone. Add to this the newly engaged Paul and Ryan, Kecia's beau Jeremy and dear sweet Adam and it was a full living room!

Cuisine: spaghetti ("spaghett!") and meatballs, Caesar salad, garlic bread, wine to beat the dickens, and even cannoli from some place in St. Paul! Bene.

I have to say first: this film and its two sequels are all adapted from one novel by Mario Puzo from 1969 and I'd highly recommend it, even if you've seen the films. It's fantastic. Okay, I said my piece.

Both films begin the same way: with the head of the Corleone family listening to someone asking for interference. In the second film, Michael as the Don listens to bribery, but in simpler post-WWII times, the Don Vito Corleone (Oscar winner Marlon Brando in one of cinema's great performances) listens to a man whose daughter has been abused. He wants justice, and knows his daughter's godfather is the man to bring it. This scene sets up the calm and unflinching nature of Vito Corleone as well as the scope of his power. Ask him for someone and it shall be done, not by him of course, but by one of his hired men.

This all takes place at his daughter Connie's (Talia Shire) wedding, where we are introduced to the entire Corleone clan -- the Don and his wife, his three sons (Oscar nominees James Caan and Al Pacino, and the wonderful but overlooked John Cazale) and his adopted son and consigliere Tom Hagen (Oscar nominee Robert Duvall) -- in one incredible half-hour-long sequence. That's one-sixth of the movie right there.

Oh and I forgot. The outsider of the family: Michael's girlfriend and someday fiance Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). It's easy to forget her because everyone in the family does at some point, even Michael. The second film chronicles their marriage but the first begins with the young lovers with an insurmountable obstacle. Michael can't let Kay know the extent of his family's business without putting her in jeopardy. Does he keep it from her to protect her, or perhaps because he's a chauvinist asshole who believes she couldn't understand? The movie honestly doesn't answer this, but Kay is nevertheless kept outside of the story, much as we the audience are.

Leave the gun, take the cannoli.

So it usually comes as a surprise to us that such brutal and fantastically executed crime happens right before our eyes, as in this scene where we've been lulled into complacency as an audience with talk of cannoli and then... blam. Coppola doesn't spend a lot of time explaining, he just launches us head first into this world's logic and expects us to keep up. We can't ever quite catch up to him, much as the police are never quite able to catch up to the Corleones (unless they've been bribed not to). I love that in the shot above, the Statue of Liberty is in the background -- liberty and justice, no doubt -- and even more importantly, that her back is turned to us. Don't look now.

The film follows the family's exploits and the eventual transfer of power from the aging Don to his most trusted son Michael, who returns to the country after his murder of a drug lord and a corrupt police captain. Pacino is amazingly only 5' 6" -- this wouldn't be important except that his tiny frame has never been so prominently featured in a film, nor has it ever in my knowledge been so menacing as it is here. All three supporting Oscar nominees from this film (Duvall, Pacino and Caan) lost to Joel Grey for his performance in Cabaret, but they might have won in any other year. Plus, this is not a movie that needed Oscars to be lauded for all of movie history to hear. Let that be a lesson to you, Harvey Weinstein.

One of my favorite shots in the whole film is this one, in which the aging Don warns his son against further violence. The shot almost tricks the viewer visually into believing that the men are looking each other in the face, but eye contact is never made here, and unfortunately for the Corleone's, Vito's warnings are too little, too late for a man whose elder brother and Sicilian wife were both murdered by the mob. The sequence at the end which splices Michael's revenge with the baptism of his own son is one of many phenomenal achievements in editing, contrasting the beginning and ending of life, the birth of innocence and the death of compromise. Michael's ruthlessness knows no bounds.

He even goes to great lengths to convince his sister's husband that he has forgiven him for abusing her, but justice is swift. As swift as a kick to a windshield.

This blog entry didn't function as most of them have, as a recap of events. I've seen this movie more times than most on the list, and I'm not only anticipating the ending, but also fully aware that this movie will continue to expose new, exciting discoveries to me as I see it again and again. But there are some things I will never know, just as Kay (and the audience) is shut out of the private conversations we so long to eavesdrop on. She can't know, and if the second film is any indication, maybe it's better if she doesn't. But boy, it makes for a thrilling story. I have to read this book again!

Only one left. There's no way that's even possible, but it really really is. Citizen Kane. That's it. I will have seen all 100 movies. Then... onto a new project? I suppose!

February 24, 2012

#3: Casablanca

Michael Curtiz's 1942 wartime romance Casablanca ranks highly on any "best of all time" list I can find, and yet it didn't enchant nearly anyone in my living room the other night... until the last scene at the airport hangar. What is it about this Best Picture winner that keeps people devoted as time goes by? (Sorry, I had to... no, that's a lie. I didn't have to. But I did.)

Company: Kecia, impatient moviegoer but dedicated friend; Ali, bride-to-be and film maven; Cuellar, newbie to my apartment and fellow bridal-party-bridesperson come fall; Adam, Gabe, Paul and Ryan, tribunal of homo moviephiles, lined up in a row on the couch

Cuisine: it was a feast! Paul brought white chocolate puffcorn (right? I didn't get any!), Cuellar and Ali brought homemade guac (with peas in it!?), peanut butter M&Ms and a plate of smelly cheeses and weird crackers (amen), and I created a fantastical new themed creation. Popcorn with olive oil, cumin, turmeric and Hungarian sweet paprika. Moroccan popcorn. I call it... Moroccorn. It could have been a flavortastrophe but it was actually delicious.

All right. It's December, 1941. Never mind that this for me immediately conjures up Pearl Harbor: we're on the other side of the planet, lambies. But the politics of the time are very important: Morocco at the time was a protectorate of France, basically meaning it was an autonomous collective being diplomatically and militarily provided for by France. This rule didn't end until 1956, and in the early 40s, when France was under German occupation, Casablanca became a hotspot for Vichy, Italian and Nazi military officials as well as a refugee haven for those wishing to escape the Third Reich and flee to America. 

One of those refugees is Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a fugitive leader of the Czech resistance against German rule. He has escaped from a unspecified concentration camp, which may not have struck too much of a chord with American audiences at the time, as reliable accounts of mass murder by the Nazis did not even make its way to the U.S. government until late 1941. To a contemporary audience, knowing what concentration camps did to people, Victor doesn't look like he's spent much time in a camp, but that's neither here nor there.

Victor and his wife, Ilsa (the stunning Ingrid Bergman), enter Rick's Cafe Americain, hoping to obtain letters of transit that would allow them safe passage to America from the bar's owner (and, incidentally, Ilsa's former lover), Rick Blaine (Oscar nominee Humphrey Bogart). It's very convenient that he happened upon some after being entrusted them by a crime lord. But if I was him, with that girl and that past, I maybe wouldn't want to help her out either, especially suspecting that she's still in love with Rick.

See, Rick and Ilsa had a love affair in Paris a while back, when she had believed Victor to be dead after attempting to escape the camp, but when she learned he was alive and in hiding, she left without explanation to go find Victor. Cold-hearted snake. At least she left a note!

So the whole story hinges on Rick's life-changing decision between love and virtue: does he keep Ilsa for his own, knowing she still loves him, or does he surrender the papers to her and Victor, guaranteeing them asylum at the cost of his own happiness? The fact that the entire plot hinges on this one moment gives the film a slow albeit steady pace until the very last scene when the decision is famously made, but by that time, the slow-moving story and Bogart's borderline-unlikable Rick had annoyed my whole crowd. Rick is overly sensitive (although, as Ryan pointed out, Bogie's "not sensitive enough to make me think he'd cry"), depressed and kind of a drag to be around. Watching him push everyone away, including sweet Sam the pianist and any other friend brave enough to approach him, is hard on an audience. I get that he's heartbroken, but Bogart's stoic style doesn't grab me, and I think it hampers his attempt at a character arc.

Plus, as Adam so astutely pointed out, the fact that Rick's biggest problem in his life is that he lost the girl makes him less sympathetic when the threat of real global violence, fascism and genocide loom around every corner. Shouldn't this tale seem more universal? (I keep coming back to The Best Years of Our Lives (#37 on this list) as an example of a wartime romance that works. Watching this made me want to rewatch that.) To be fair, though, like that film, Casablanca also chronicles a current conflict, and so maybe audiences really just wanted to be taken out of their lives and away from their troubles and watch an impossible and heart-wrenching romance when they went to the cinema.

The relentlessly romantic piano score provided by Sam underscores some amazing dialogue (and not just "Here's looking at you, kid" but a lot of great lines that people often forget, like "How extravagant you are, throwing away women like that. One day they may be scarce.") The film has a lot going for it, but for whatever reason it didn't strike a chord with my collected audience that night. I'm sure I'll give it several more chances in my lifetime, but just now it didn't rip at the heart strings the way I'd expected it to. Do I have higher expectations for it, given its untouchable status in the pantheons of great American cinema? Sure. Am I quicker to judge it? Maybe. Bloggy blog about it, why don'tcha.

Only two left, and the next one was recently voted by TIME Magazine readers as the greatest Best Picture winner of all time. With the Oscars on Sunday, my mind is certainly on Oscar history. The Corleones make an offer you can't refuse in The Godfather.

February 10, 2012

#4: Raging Bull

Martin Scorsese was hooked on cocaine after his success in the 1970s, but luckily was convinced to kick the habit by friends like Robert De Niro. He believed that Raging Bull would be his last film, and so he poured all his violent, drug-addled energy into making it. The result is a bloody chamber piece, telling the story of one man's fall from fame into obscurity and despair. Pretty heavy for a bright, sunny afternoon, but I'll take it. After the last one (Singin' in the Rain) it's pretty bleak up to the top of the list.

Company: Katie, spin classmate and beach-body-breakfast sous chef

Cuisine: poached eggs on a bed of kale, onion and Canadian bacon, with dill toast from Lucia's and coffee. Mmm. A champion breakfast.

Raging Bull is based on the novel of the same name, an autobiography of the middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta (portrayed famously by Oscar winner Robert De Niro). The film, shot in stark black-and-white, begins with a epilogue in 1964, when the aging and overweight La Motta practices a comedy routine. No sooner have we recognized De Niro under sixty pounds of added weight than we flash back to 1941, when La Motta loses his first match and begins his long, slow slide out of control. He and his brother, Joey (an unknown-turned-Oscar-nominee Joe Pesci), plot some involvement with local Mafia lords to get him his championship.

It's around this time that he falls for the beautiful and barely legal Vicki (another unknown and Oscar nominee Cathy Moriarty). He sees her every day at the pool, and in one of the film's most beautiful and understated sequences, he spends the day with her and finally gets her into bed. Never mind his steak-toting wife at home. After one table-smashing shouting match, she's out of the picture.

Just as he's about to ride the Vicki train, however, he has a change of heart, runs into the bathroom and pours a pitcher of ice water down his shorts. What's with the sudden change of heart? We don't really get a chance to find out before Cathy balls up and makes a move. "What are you doing? What are you doing?" he asks her, knowing full well what she's doing. He must also know why he reconsidered, but we aren't let in on this rare moment of weakness.

I guess that example underlines one problem I have with the story here: we're never really made aware of the larger relevance of Jake's story. What's the larger social significance of his pride, all his tragic flaws that make up one badly flawed human being, where's the redemption? And if the point is that there is no redemption, what are we meant to take away from the story that makes us better people for having seen it?

There are few flaws that Jake La Motta doesn't have: he's quick to anger, full of all-encompassing pride and jealousy, desperately needy but eternally suspicious of everyone around him. There's very little to like, really, which might account for the initial mixed reviews when this film hit theaters in 1980. It's gained respect and notoriety since then, especially as Scorsese proved himself to be one of the most respected and quintessentially American film directors of the last century (his Taxi Driver and Goodfellas also made this list; very few directors in the last quarter of the 20th century have three cited films), and is now regarded as one of the very best if not the best film of the 1980s. But I always hear that and think: but the 80s had only just begun! My point is, we love our central characters to have at least a shred of humanity, and it's maybe not until the epilogue portion of the film, where De Niro's La Motta is virtually unrecognizable, when we see through the cracks.

Okay well, that's just an amazing shot: a perfect metaphor for the end of La Motta's boxing career.

I know it's all autobiographical but all the Mafia tie-ins feel tacked on somehow. Maybe I just wanted this whole film to function like the middle section, where we see La Motta in the ring alternately contrasted with his rocky personal life. Do I want more joy, more redemption, more self-sacrifice? I suppose I do in real life, so maybe I want it in my movies too. Is that wrong?

My main struggle with Raging Bull is that I don't know what I'm supposed to take away from it. It's a biography, yes, and it's a sports drama, sure. I'm not a huge sports guy but I think that of all sports, boxing is the most exciting, the most visceral, and the most easily cinematic, so I can get behind the world being created here. I just don't know what the larger relevance is.

This blog entry hasn't been so much a review as it has been a looming question I'm left with. Katie and I both wondered. Anyone care to chime in? There's certainly a lot to recommend -- the film is very artfully crafted, with some of Scorsese's best direction and a legendary central performance from De Niro -- but as a whole it left me cold. Should a film ranked #4 on a list like this make me feel that way?

Chime in, please! I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Next up: we'll always have Casablanca.