Sunday, December 26, 2010

No. 88: Easy Rider

Easy Rider (1969)

Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson

Directed by: Dennis Hopper (and produced by Peter Fonda)

Awards: Nominated for 2 Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Nicholson

I heard conflicting opinions about Easy Rider before I ever watched the movie - everything from “it’s unwatchable” to “it’s my favorite movie of all time.” My poor brain was confused, so I decided to do some background reading. I read five different reviews (including the original 1969 New York Times review) and it didn’t help - at all. I definitely ended up more confused than before I began.

* “Easily one of the most overrated films of all time, Easy Rider, a definite product of its time, is a pretentious, indulgent and self-satisfied bore.”

* “The movie is a cultural landmark.”

* “It's pretty but lower case cinema.”

* “Easy Rider is a motorcycle drama with decidedly superior airs about it.”

I gave up on trying to determine its value, and decided to just sit and watch the movie. For future reference, probably the best plan of action.

Anyway, Easy Rider is a motorcycle drama teetering on the brink of camp – but when put in historical context, it’s somewhat redeemed (I’ll explain that later).

Two stylin’ 60’s-era bikers, Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper), cash in on a drug deal and use their earnings to go on a bro-cycle road trip to New Orleans. Along the way, they meet a herd of hicks, visit a hippie commune, try every drug imaginable and, while in jail, pick up an alcoholic named George (Nicholson). The movie turns dark when George is killed by a group of hippie-hating Texans, and when Wyatt and Billy eventually get to New Orleans, what do they do? Go on an extended acid trip in a graveyard with two hookers. Classy! The two bikers head back home, and are shot and killed by two hillbillies who “think it’d be fun to scare the bejesus out of them.” It’s a depressing ending to...dare I say…not such a great movie?

We can start with the good. The best thing about Easy Rider is Jack Nicholson. In the role that made him famous, he’s fantastic at showing both the funny and the weary side of an alcoholic. Peter Fonda is the better of the two bikers; his acting seems less wooden, and more realistic. Maybe it helped that they used real drugs to film the drug scenes? About that historical context: when the film was released, it shocked America. Older people were feeling out of touch with the counterculture - hippies, drugs, protesting! - and young adults identified with the movie’s themes.

On the bad side: a lot to talk about. Dennis Hopper’s acting? I’m sorry, it’s simply horrendous. The blaring soundtrack didn’t work for me – but to be fair, I had a raging headache, and my slightly sensitive ears didn’t like “Born To Be Wild” screamed over and over again. I also didn’t love the sets and color schemes, but they were of the period, so there it is.

So, if you like:

* American-flag embellished motorcycles

* Jack Nicholson at his sly, early best

* Early hippie motorcycle bro-mance

* Steppenwolf, The Byrds and lots of 60’s music

..then you’ll love Easy Rider.

Next up, Frankenstein (1931) – starring the always-intriguing Boris Karloff. I’ve seen this one before, but I love it, so I’ll be more then happy to watch it again and review it. Stick around and read about it!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

No. 89: Patton

Patton (1970)

Starring: George C. Scott and Karl Malden

Directed by: Franklin J. Schaffner

Awards won: 7 Oscars, including one for Best Picture

First off, I'd like to say I'm truly sorry for not posting in what, 2 months? I mean, I'm a busy teenager, but it doesn't take too much effort to sit and write a post. From now on – I promise! - there will be a lot more posts coming your way.

When I sat down to watch Patton, I was a little apprehensive. I didn't know much about the movie; the only thing I knew was what my parents told me - that Patton swears like a sailor. That didn't bother me - I've seen Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas. Not too much shocks me now.

Quite frankly, I think Patton is the story of a madman: General George S. Patton. The movie begins with his famous Army "pep talk" in front of an enormous American flag: one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history. The rest of the movie follows his military exploits through Europe and North Africa - the whole time, trying to balance his insatiable need for attention with being a good leader.

Patton has major highs and lows. Low? The Army suspends him for slapping a troubled soldier. High? The general marches his troops across the continent, demolishing a good chunk of the German army and contributing to victory in Europe. When the movie's over, the theme becomes clear: Patton was a successful general who got results - but his big mouth and egotism consistently damaged his career.

There were a lot of things I liked about Patton. George C. Scott is amazing, channeling Patton's manic energy and craziness to a tee. Karl Malden is equally good as General Omar Bradley – it’s a less showy part than Scott's, but just as impressive and entertaining. The location shooting (Spain, Morocco, Italy) and sweeping cinematography work together beautifully, the Francis Ford Coppola script is engaging, and the soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith will stick in your head for ages. I'm warning you about the music. I found out the hard way.

There weren’t too many negatives, just a few small details. Scott can go too over-the-top and makes his character a little unwatchable. Malden is believable as Omar Bradley (“The G.I.’s General”) but his goody-two-shoes dialogue can make you cringe.

Let’s summarize. If you like:

* Military men with big egos

* Inspiring speeches - with liberal profanity thrown in for flavor!

* Karl Malden’s bespectacled self

* World War Two history (Oh hey, Dad. You don't like this, do you?)

* Soundtracks that permanently stick in your head

..then you'll like Patton. A lot.

Next up, Easy Rider (1969) - starring and directed by the recently deceased Dennis Hopper, and also featuring Peter Fonda. According to my mom, the movie is unwatchable. Should I be looking forward to this? Either way, stick around and read about it!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

No. 90: The Jazz Singer

The Jazz Singer (1927)

Starring: Al Jolson, May

McAvoy, Walter Oland

Director: Alan Crosland

Awards: Special Oscar to Darryl F. Zanuck for producing the “revolutionary” motion picture (But not a real Oscar!)

When I say "silent films," is the first word you think “snoozer?” Well, not for me. Even though I’m supposed to be a 14-year-old teen girl with no attention span, I actually like silent movies. A lot!

I think silent films require a completely different type of attention. The acting isn’t always stellar and seems herky-jerky at times, but something about the stark silence is mesmerizing. In The Jazz Singer, there’s a weird blend of silence and then sudden blasts of musical noise. It’s a strange mix – but it works.

I should probably clarify a bit. The Jazz Singer isn't a completely silent film. In fact, the reason it was revolutionary was because of its incorporation of dialogue and recorded music. The tagline says it all - "See him, and hear him sing!" Even though most of the film isn't talking, and the sound quality is horrible, this film was a big deal.

Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson) is a Jewish cantor’s son who’s expected to become a cantor himself - but all he wants to do is sing jazz. He runs away from New York City, and his disapproving father (Oland), to become a vaudevillian. Ten years later he returns home to star in a Broadway show, but on opening night - which coincidentally happens to be a Jewish holiday - he’s informed that his father is dying and he must choose between his family/religious values (i.e., singing in synagogue) and his blossoming career. He picks family values. But his father dies anyway! And he still gets to be a Broadway star! Great moral-of-the-story, right?

Anyway. Let’s talk about the movie. I found The Jazz Singer had a lot of pros and only a few minor cons. I liked the film’s themes – they were simple but provocative, and left you thinking about choices and decisions. The raw emotion in silent films always interests me because it puts the acting so over-the-top, you know? I also liked the way they used black and white in this film. It’s not meant to be artistic, because they weren’t that technically advanced yet, but today, it looks really complex.

A few minor cons. I was – how do I put this? - a wee bit scared of Al Jolson’s acting and singing style, especially his strange puppet-like dancing. It may have been popular then, but it comes off a bit frightening today. I definitely didn't like the use of blackface, but I guess that was - unfortunately - part of entertainment culture.

So in short, if you like:

* Lotsa good jazz tunes

* Super-extra stereotyped Orthodox Jews

* Flapper dresses

* Strange, marionette-ish dancing

* Broadway musical numbers

* The mesmerizing lure of silent movies

..then you’ll probably like The Jazz Singer.

Coming up next: Patton (1970), starring George C. Scott and Karl Malden. This is another one that I’ve never seen, so I’m intrigued – stick around and read about it!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

No. 91: My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady (1964)

Starring: Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn, Stanley Holloway

Director: George Cukor

Awards: 8 Oscars, including Best Picture

I don't think I've ever started writing a post with negative thoughts about the movie. Well, that’s not true anymore – because you know what? I’m throwing this down: My Fair Lady is not a good movie. I know, it’s a shock. I’m usually a pretty positive person. But to my surprise, I found it so bad that I admit: there may have been fast-forwarding. Yep, that painful.

In the case of this movie, the problems far outnumbered the shining moments. Audrey Hepburn’s character is annoying and over-the-top, and seems ill-cast. The songs aren’t all that great, and the script adaptation seems awkward at times. In short – eh. Not so great.

I may dislike My Fair Lady, but I’m still obligated to summarize the horrors, so here goes.

Professor Henry Higgins (Harrison) is a misogynistic and bad-tempered phonetics genius who overhears ill-mannered Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn). He’s appalled by her poor speaking, and makes a bet that he can turn her into a “lady,” and take her to a society ball. After months of hard work, Eliza goes to the ball and it’s a great success. But Higgins takes all the credit for Eliza’s work, and she leaves in a rage. After she's gone, Higgins realizes that for all his mocking, he misses her. He finds her, they squabble, and she swears to never return. BUT - of course, she does, and it’s a sort-of-happy ending. I suppose.

So. Why on EARTH is this movie on the AFI’s list? I really don’t quite know. There are many far more deserving musicals that were omitted. Films like Cover Girl (1944) or Shall We Dance (1937) – now those are good musicals. Good songs, good scripts, and most important – no Audrey Hepburn squawking in a painfully shrill voice.

It's not like there are absolutely no good things about My Fair Lady. Rex Harrison is hilariously rude, and even though he acts atrociously to Eliza, she’s so annoying you don’t even mind. Stanley Holloway turns the bit role of Eliza’s comically drunk father into one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie. And admittedly, some of the Lerner and Loewe songs like Why Can’t The English? are pretty good.

So not everything is bad - just most of it. Sadly, I’m not in a hurry to recommend it.

Next up, The Jazz Singer (1927) – starring Al Jolson. This movie is all about film-industry firsts; it was the first film to incorporate sounds and dialogue. Should be interesting, so stick around and read about it!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

No. 92: A Place In The Sun

A Place In The Sun (1951)

Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters

Director: George Stevens

Awards: 6 wins, including Best Director

My mom and I go to a gym together - and we do some intense working out. Much to her chagrin, there’s something I like to do in addition to working out – read the tabloids people leave on the machines. The other day I was flipping through People, and I read an interview with Elizabeth Taylor. One question asked something like “what was the best movie you’ve ever acted in?” And what does Liz say? She says the first time she ever really acted was in A Place In The Sun – and you can sure tell.

At first glance, A Place In The Sun appears to be just another soap opera – nothing special. But after seeing it, there’s no way you can say that. The characters are vivid and incredibly dramatic, but not in a clich├ęd way. The script is tense, emotional and perfectly suited to the cast of characters. And don’t even get me started on the artistic details, like beautiful cinematography and gorgeous costumes!

Young George Eastman (Clift) is a poor relation to the wealthy Eastman family. He gets a low-ranking job at their company so he can learn the business, and there he meets fellow worker Alice Tripp (Winters), a blue-collar girl. Their relationship is against employee rules, but they begin dating. Everything goes smoothly until he meets and falls head over heels for society girl Angela Vickers (Taylor). With Angela's help he begins climbing the job and society ladders, but there’s a problem – Alice is pregnant. She blackmails him into agreeing to marry her, and he concocts a plan. He takes her boating and plans to kill her - but just when he decides against it, Alice stands up; the boat capsizes, and she drowns. George is arrested on murder charges, and after a brutal cross-examination by the district attorney (played by Raymond Burr – Thorwald from Rear Window!) he is sentenced to death. A tortured Angela visits him one last time in his cell, and I have to say, it’s one of the saddest movie goodbyes you’ll ever see.

There are so many great movie dramas. What makes this one special? Well, one thing that differentiates this film is the passion you feel from all the characters. Under George Stevens' direction, the close-ups of the actors are tense and every angle showcases a different feeling or reaction. The perfectly executed art direction, seen in the many shadows of this black-and-white film, matches perfectly with the acting, and adds depth to every scene.

Still, there’s more than just characters and artsy stuff. A Place In The Sun was based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (1925). And while I’m sure it’s a very good book, it’s a pretty lengthy tome, and not exactly accessible to most viewers. Most Hollywood studios were rightfully apprehensive about turning it into a movie. But Paramount Studios took the plunge, and took a book that most consider “stuffy” and “old-fashioned” and turned it into a modern romance that spoke to viewers when it opened in 1951, and still holds up today.

My final verdict?
Love it. Really, it’s a great movie, and I’m glad to find it’s still appealing to viewers today.

In short, if you like:

* Gorgeous black-and-white cinematography

* Stories with extremely depressing endings

* Elizabeth Taylor at her jaw-dropping beautiful best

* Amazing period sets and clothing from designer Edith Head (Ladies, this movie is worth checking out just to see Liz Taylor’s dresses, they’re that good.)

* Montgomery Clift at his most tragic

* A memorable and talented supporting cast

…then you’ll love
A Place In The Sun.

Next up on my list; No. 92,
My Fair Lady (1964), starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. Ehh… I’ve seen it before. I like it, but it’s not my favorite, for reasons we'll discuss. My parents aren’t even that nice. They just hate it. So, this should be interesting! Stick around and read about it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

No. 93: The Apartment

The Apartment (1960)

Starring: Jack Lemmon, Fred MacMurray, Shirley MacLaine

Director: Billy Wilder

Awards: 5 Oscars, including Best Picture

I’m a huge Billy Wilder fan - I’ve seen pretty much every film he’s ever made.
Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot…the list goes on and on. I only have one problem with Billy Wilder films: Fred MacMurray.

Well, let me explain that. See, I grew up watching all of MacMurray’s really
nice Disney films, like The Happiest Millionaire, and Follow Me Boys. So when I finally saw Double Indemnity, I was in shock. Nice role model Fred MacMurray playing a bad character – how could it be? I thought that was horrible, and then I saw The Apartment. Thanks, Billy Wilder. You just ruined my happy childhood.

I’m not saying
The Apartment is a bad movie – in fact, I think it’s a very, very good movie. It showcases Billy Wilder’s dark humor, and balances romance and comedy, with a touch of sadness. All three stars (Lemmon, MacLaine, and MacMurray) are perfectly cast, and plunge deep into their characters’ personalities.

C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) works at a huge insurance company and has a little secret – he allows the company’s managers to use his apartment to conduct extra-marital affairs. Baxter’s boss, the callous Jeff Sheldrake, (MacMurray) discovers the scheme, but instead of shutting it down, uses it himself to meet with his latest flame, elevator operator Fran Kubelik (MacLaine). Only one problem – Baxter’s had a crush on her forever. On Christmas Eve, Sheldrake returns to his family, and Fran’s left in the apartment. Depressed, she attempts suicide, but Baxter finds her and in the course of her recovery, realizes he loves Fran, and also realizes that Sheldrake’s only using her. Now, because of “the apartment," Baxter’s about to be promoted – but will he pick his job, or love? He picks love, and Fran picks him. Happy ending!

The movie is great because of the characters. Lemmon as Baxter displays his usual frantic neat-freakness, but brings greater emotional depth to his character then his other comedic roles. MacLaine is tear-wrenching as Kubelik, who can’t get over Sheldrake, no matter how bad he acts. And MacMurray as Sheldrake is equal parts slippery and sly – the perfect modern villain. When Billy Wilder cast the movie, he picked the best.

In short, if you like:

* Billy Wilder films

* Dark, melancholy humor

* Sarcastic and witty dialogue

* Wonderful movie references (
Grand Hotel’s playing on TV, The Music Man is in theaters…it’s fabulous.)

* Jack Lemmon straining spaghetti through a tennis racket

* Life-changing conversations over gin rummy

* A wonderful cast of Yiddish-accented characters living in Lemmon’s apartment building

…then you’ll love
The Apartment. Watch it. Really.

Coming up next, No. 92,
A Place In The Sun (1951). Yessssss! I have to admit, I love this movie, and I can’t wait to write about it. Starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, this film is an unabashed soap-opera – with a good plot and great actors. Stick around and watch it!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

No. 94: GoodFellas

GoodFellas (1990)

Starring: Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci

Director: Martin Scorsese

Awards: Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Pesci

I was at our local video store the other day, renting GoodFellas. While waiting, I had a conversation about the movie with the guy working the counter. His advice? “Take your vitamins before you watch it.”

That sounded super negative. But they were just cautionary words to make sure my brain was…prepared? After watching it, I can honestly say you do need a little moment of preparation. I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty profane and violent. But once you steel your mind to watching it, believe me - you’re going to like it.

Henry Hill (Liotta) has always wanted to be a gangster. The local mobsters take him under their protection, and Hill works his way up the mob chain, starting with petty theft and moving on to bigger heists with friends Jimmy Conway (DeNiro) and Tommy DeVito (Pesci). When a heist goes sour, Hill’s drug-dealing career starts catching up with him and eventually, Hill is captured in a massive narcotics bust. He stands trial, and when he commits the ultimate betrayal by ratting out his friends, he’s forced into witness protection with his family. Oh, such a happy ending.

So why is this movie good? Well, I could just say it’s a Scorsese movie, and not say another word. But I’d rather discuss all the details. One thing I love about the movie is how connected you feel to the characters. You root for the underdogs, you gasp when someone you like gets whacked…you feel like these people are your friends (albeit pretty scary friends).

Another thing Scorsese excels at is carving out a niche for each character. In the mobster movie genre, it’s all too easy to depict gangsters as pizza-eating, machine gun-toting caricatures. And you do see a bit of that in the movie. But the way that it’s done is unlike any other representation. The characters all have their own quirks and temperaments, and by the end of the movie, you’ll never be able to lump gangsters into one mold again.

In short, if you like:

* Martin Scorsese

* Lotsa oozing blood

* The most delicious-looking Italian food ever. Period.

* Multiple types of killing - if you’re into variety

* Really beautiful camera work - freeze frames, insanely long tracking shots, you name it!

* The soundtrack - it's brilliant how the music adapts and changes according to each decade, like the shift from Italian nightclub music to Eric Clapton.

* Shaving garlic with a razor (One of the best scenes in the film.)

…then you’ll love GoodFellas. And if you don’t, well, who needs you? Just kidding. Try it out!

Next up: No. 93, The Apartment (1960), a Billy Wilder film starring Jack Lemmon and Fred MacMurray. I’m really excited for this one - I love both the director and the stars’ other films, so stick around and read about it!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

No. 95: Pulp Fiction

Blood splatters the back seat of a car. Brains land in Samuel L. Jackson’s hair. And, you start…laughing? That's what happens when you watch Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. It’s a weird phenomenon, and I assumed it wouldn't be my thing. Well, that’s not true. I know I said I was terrified of this movie, and for some of it, I was. But to my eternal surprise, I really, really liked it.

The gratuitous violence and constant swearing are unavoidable - but once you get past it, and focus more on the characters and their quirky stories, you'll enjoy the movie. I'm not sure I'd recommend it to everyone, because Pulp Fiction is an acquired taste. But there are so many cool things about it, and if you don't mind the gore, you should check it out.

Pulp Fiction features four main stories that eventually intersect. The movie zig-zags around Los Angeles, following shady characters like Vincent Vega (Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Jackson), hired killers with a passion for guns, drugs and burgers. We also see Mia Wallace (Thurman) snort and O.D. on heroin, a bizarre couple's attempt to hold up a diner, an aging prizefighter obsessed with a family heirloom, and a couple of psycho pawnshop owners with some pretty crazy stuff in their basement. While the stories don’t sound similar, they all connect in some way. Trust me - it makes sense after you watch it.

Now, there’s something you should all understand. I’m not a big fan of violent movies, at all. I like comedies. I like Aladdin. Not exactly splattering brains. But I somehow managed to enjoy Pulp Fiction. How? Maybe because Tarantino balances the violence with just the right blend of actors, characters, and humor. I mean, this movie is absolutely hilarious! So many exchanges are just classic, especially between Travolta and Jackson. All the characters in the movie were perfectly cast, and they all have great timing. So maybe that’s why?

In short, if you like:

* Splattering blood

* All sorts of weaponry

* Samuel L. Jackson with an Afro

* John Travolta dancing (but not like nice Danny Zuko in Grease)

* Amazing, graphic camera work

* Hilarious and quotable dialogue

…then you’ll like Pulp Fiction. I know I did. Still, I can’t recommend it for everyone without a label: "Warning: Pretty Freaky." But good freaky.

Next up: No. 94, Goodfellas (1990) – a bloody Scorsese classic. Jeez, they really pile on the blood movies all at once, don’t they? The AFI couldn’t have given me say, a musical or a comedy? Oh well. Stick around and read about it!