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!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

No. 96: The Searchers

The Searchers (1956)

Starring: John Wayne, Vera Miles, Jeffrey Hunter

Director: John Ford

Awards: None… How is that possible?!

Fred and Ginger, Bogart and Bacall, Hepburn and Tracy…great screen teams, right? Well, in my opinion, there’s no better team than John Wayne and John Ford. Sure, they never acted together in front of the cameras. Fine, they didn’t have some catchy duo name. What they did have was real friendship, and you could see it in the love they put into their movies.

The Searchers is commonly regarded as one of - if not the - best Western ever made, as well as one of the best movies, period. I agree with both claims. Why? Well, you can read my list at the end of the post, or you can go watch the movie yourself. My vote is for you doing both!

Ethan Edwards (Wayne), a racist Native American-hating soldier, returns to his brother’s home to reunite with his family. After he's drawn out of the house by a ruse, the nearby Comanche tribes go on a killing spree. Ethan finds his brother’s house burned down, and everyone's dead but his two kidnapped nieces, Debbie and Lucy. The tribe eventually kills Lucy, but keeps Debbie. Ethan and his nephew Martin (Hunter) chase the kidnappers and after five years of searching they find Debbie, who’s now part of the Comanche tribe. They lose her and return home, where Martin is reunited with his maybe-fiance (Miles) and Ethan prepares for a final showdown with the Comanches. In a tense ending scene they do find Debbie, and Ethan brings her home. What happens to Ethan? Well, he strides off by himself. Who knows.

This movie is so gorgeous and so brilliant that it’s inspired many other movies (and… music?). One familiar example is in
Star Wars: A New Hope. The scene where Luke comes home to find a fiery house and his aunt and uncle’s smoking bodies? Straight from The Searchers. The desert scenes from Lawrence Of Arabia? Yeah, David Lean studied John Ford. There was also a band called The Searchers, and Buddy Holly wrote a song based on Wayne’s catch phrase in the film, “That’ll Be The Day.” Who knew?

While there's a lot of funny trivia about this film, the overall movie is anything but funny. Wayne as Ethan Edwards is brilliant - the quintessential anti-hero, but the character is sometimes so erratic and painfully biased that it hurts to watch. Unsurprisingly, the Native Americans are portrayed as caricatures, shown as tomahawk-throwing scalping beasts. And then there’s the deeper message. By the end of the movie, you realize that wanting to save Debbie isn't what drives Edwards; he’s driven by rage, and his own prejudice. John Ford was trying to make a serious comment about racism, and he succeeded. It’s just not easy to watch.

In short, if you like:

* The Duke
* John Ford
* Absolutely GORGEOUS cinematography
* Crying
* Badly stereotyped Native Americans
* Cowboys

Then you’ll like
The Searchers. Believe me, this is a movie anyone can like, and everybody should like.

I can’t even write about the next movie without being scared: No. 95,
Pulp Fiction (1994), starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. I'm not a big fan of splattering brains. Know how I said I was going to faint watching Unforgiven? Pshh. That was nothing. Well, at least you’ll have fun reading about me passing out. Stick around and read about it… I guess?

Monday, June 14, 2010

No. 97: Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant

Director: Howard Hawks

Screwball comedy – the phrase makes you think of everything from throwing pies to rapid-fire dialogue. In general, funny stuff. Are these things still funny today? Do obscure 1930’s jokes still make people laugh? Most screwball comedies seemed hilarious when they were made, but many don’t stand the test of time. Well, let me tell you folks, Bringing Up Baby goes above and beyond the test. I’ve seen it at least three times before, and watching it again still made me laugh out loud.

Professor David Huxley (Grant), a paleontologist, accidentally meets Susan Vance (Hepburn) and quickly gets mixed up in her various hare-brained schemes. Toss a leopard named Baby into the mix and soon David is missing his own wedding, off to Connecticut with Susan and Baby, and has lost the precious last bone of his museum’s Brontosaurus. Susan falls in love with Huxley, who is utterly oblivious and wants to return to his rather chilly fiancé in New York. After several wacky mishaps Huxley makes it back but is jilted by his fiancé. When Susan tracks Huxley down to bring him the missing bone, he realizes he loves her too, and all is settled atop the shaky Brontosaurus.

After three viewings of Bringing Up Baby I consider myself an expert, so let’s look at my expert opinions.

1) This movie is quite, quite good.
2) This movie is very funny, and has withstood time and changing senses of humor.
3) It should totally be higher up on the list. Really.
4) Cary Grant is never cuter or funnier than when he’s wearing glasses and perched on top of a dinosaur skeleton.

There are so many reasons to love this movie, and so few reasons not to. Unless you’re my dad, who usually has great taste in movies. For some reason, he doesn’t like Katharine Hepburn comedies. This is how our conversations go:

Me: Dad, how can you not like any Katharine Hepburn comedies. They’re classics.

Dad: Ehh…she’s annoying.

Me: No Dad. It’s her style of acting, it’s supposed to be funny!

Dad: No. It’s annoying.

Me: That’s irrational! You can’t just dismiss all those movies because you don’t like her voice.

Dad: Yes. I can.

So he’s not the most open-minded viewer when it comes to Kate. But if you keep an open mind to this movie, I guarantee you’ll find something you like.

In short, if you like:

* Katharine Hepburn talking a mile a minute
* Cary Grant in amazing nerd glasses
* The cutest leopard you will ever see
* Cary Grant’s fluffy negligee (long story, watch and find out)
* Great supporting actors, like Barry Fitzgerald and May Robson
* Brontosauruses (Brontosauri?)

…then you’ll definitely like Bringing Up Baby. And if you don’t like those things and are a cold-hearted humorless person, I still want you to watch it, it’s that good. You won’t regret it. And if for some crazy reason you don’t like it, you can come gloat in my face along with my anti-Katharine-Hepburn-comedy dad.

Love you Dad!

Even though it makes me sob, I love our next movie, No. 96. The Searchers (1956), starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford. One of the most beautiful films ever made, with a heartbreaking story and wonderful performances from all. Stick around and read about it!

Friday, June 11, 2010

No. 98: Unforgiven

Unforgiven (1992)

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman

Director: Clint Eastwood

Awards: Four Oscars, including Best Picture

When I was younger, my Papa Murray and I always played a lot of cards. Gin Rummy, Crazy Eights, Blackjack, and numerous types of Poker – with betting! We’d settle down on the closest couch, flip on the TV to whatever movie looked best, and prepare for some intense games of cards. There was only one problem; I was a newbie at cards, and it took me a long time to figure out what I was doing. So while I spent twenty minutes looking at one card, Papa would occasionally take a nap. One time, he accidentally hit the remote as he dozed off. It flipped to HBO. Deadwood. In my shocked seven-year-old state, I didn’t know how to change the channel. So I sat there, wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the violence and blood on the screen. Eventually, my mom came in and rescued me from the horrors, but I still treasure the now-funny memory today!

For a long time, the bad experience with Deadwood scared me away from watching Westerns. Unforgiven, our 98th AFI movie, is extremely and gratuitously violent, but is also quite gorgeous.

Things aren’t going well for William Munny (Eastwood), a retired ex-drunk gunslinger. He’s recruited for one last job, to kill two cowboys who disfigured a prostitute’s face. He recruits his old partner Ned Logan (Freeman), and they set off for Big Whiskey, Wyoming. There, they clash with the lunatic Sheriff (Hackman), and eventually kill the cowboys. Logan leaves, but is captured by the Sheriff and beaten to death. Munny is left alone to take his revenge on the Sheriff: in a now-iconic scene, he walks into the bar where Sheriff & Co. are waiting, and single-handedly shoots down the entire law enforcement department of Big Whiskey.

Analysis time… Hmmm. There was a lot I did like about Unforgiven, and not too much that I didn’t. This isn’t the sort of movie I usually watch, because I’m a wimp when it comes to blood and gore, but I actually liked it. Outside of the scenes with extreme violence, it was quite enjoyable. Certain scenes stick with you, like the one where Munny learns the Sheriff has killed Logan, and sets off to take his revenge.

Munny’s personal story is what makes the movie so gripping. His late wife worked hard to reform his alcoholic and killing ways, and he’s convinced that he can stay that way. But when Logan is killed, he takes his first drink in 10 years, and quickly reverts to his old ways. Is he really a heartless killer? Well, that’s the question. In some scenes, he’s as sweet and caring as a tough old cowboy can be; but in others, he’s a ruthless killing machine. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

In short, if you like:

* Lotsa violence

* Clint Eastwood as a killing machine

* Gorgeous cinematography

* Morgan Freeman

* Morgan Freeman’s voice

* The Old West

…then you’ll love Unforgiven. If you don’t like any of those, this might not be the movie for you… but watch it anyway. It’s quite good, you know. Some people seem to like it.

Movie No. 97, Bringing Up Baby (1938), coming up next. One of my favorite Katharine Hepburn comedies, plus Cary Grant and two leopards, so stick around and read about it!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

No. 99: Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner

Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier

Director: Stanley Kramer

Awards/Honors: Two Oscars, including Best Actress for Hepburn

Groundbreaking: what comes to mind? Revolutionary ideas, new technology, zombies bursting out of the ground? Well, maybe not the last one, that’s just for you horror movie buffs. Back on topic. Being the movie freak I proudly am, when I think groundbreaking, I think movies.

When Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner came out in 1967, its controversial plot made it the epitome of groundbreaking. The story centers around an interracial couple, John and Joanna (Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton) who meet, spend ten days together, and fall madly in love. They go back to Joanna’s home in San Francisco to get her parents’ (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) consent to marry. After some hesitation, her mother agrees. Her father? Not so much. John’s parents learn of their plans and also disagree with the marriage. Guess who’s coming to dinner? Everyone!

The families meet, and prejudice comes out from both sides. The final question: will bigotry triumph and prevent the marriage, or can everyone look past their differences and see what really matters? Watch it and find out.

I was a little hesitant about this movie. I had never seen the whole thing, and had heard many different reviews. However, after watching it there’s only one possible conclusion: this movie is really good. And very sad. But really good!

One reason it’s sad is the inside story. Tracy and Hepburn had worked together for years, and had been living together for a long time. During the filming, it was clear that Tracy was very ill, and this might be their last film together.

There’s a scene they do together in the movie that literally brought tears to my eyes: John’s mother is trying to convince Spencer Tracy’s character to consent to John and Joanna’s marriage. He’s opposed, but she eventually persuades him by saying he doesn’t get it, because he’s not in love anymore, and he doesn’t understand how the young couple feels. He responds by giving an impassioned speech about how he may not know much, but he is still deeply in love with his wife, and he understands how the couple feels. (He also gives them his consent.) While he’s speaking, tears pour down Hepburn’s cheeks, and you can tell she’s crying for real. It made me start sobbing too.

In short, if you like:

*Controversial plots
*Tear-jerking background stories
*Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s screen team
*Awesome 60’s décor and fashion
*Meaningful issues

…then you’ll like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Watch it!

Movie no. 98, coming up soon. Unforgiven (1992) directed by Clint Eastwood. Oh no! Not sure I’m prepared for that much blood and violence. If I haven’t fainted, come back and read about it.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

No. 100: Yankee Doodle Dandy

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz

Starring: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston

Awards/Honors: Four Oscars, including Best Actor for Cagney

I saw Yankee Doodle Dandy for the first time when I was around nine. I was in my obsessed-with-musicals phase, especially musicals with ridiculously elaborate tap dance numbers, so it fit right in. After working my way through a foot-high stack of tap-dance movies, I'd convinced myself that I was going to be the new dance star, and was going to be ten times better then Fred Astaire.

I was in a delusional state of tap-dancery. I spent months tapping my feet, everywhere from school to the grocery store. About six months after seeing Yankee Doodle Dandy, we happened to go on vacation. It was there that my dancing dreams were fulfilled. Slightly.

Our hotel had a gigantic marble staircase, just like the one in the famous White House ending scene in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Inspiration! Before my parents could discourage me from an undoubtedly horrible idea, I climbed up the many steps. I stood for a moment at the top, then proceeded to noisily tap my way down the staircase, just like James Cagney. Except he actually knew what he was doing. That escapade was the last hurrah for my would-be tap dancing career. My ardor died after I realized I was really, really terrible.

So, I have always loved this movie. It’s got everything: a quadruple dose of patriotism, Cagney’s marionette-ish tap dancing and a really heartwarming family story. Oh, and did I mention that it has great music?

Goodness. It is so hard to pick a favorite part of that movie. One part that always stands out is when Cagney’s character, George M. Cohan, puts on his first Broadway show, a musical play called "Little Johnny Jones." That's where he sings "Yankee Doodle Dandy," one of my favorite songs in the movie, and does some of my favorite dance numbers, too. I also love parts where they showcase the wonderful supporting cast, like Walter Huston, Joan Leslie, and James Cagney’s real-life sister Jeanne Cagney, playing Cohan's dancing sister Josie. (Josie!)

In short, if you like...

* America

* James Cagney

* Lots of dancing

* Tunes that will get stuck in your head forever

* Family drama that makes you sniffle

* Underdogs

...then you will most definitely like Yankee Doodle Dandy. And if you don’t like any of the above you should watch it anyway, because I guarantee there’s something in this movie for everyone.

Next movie coming up…drum roll… Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. I’m excited, because I like Tracy and Hepburn, and because I've never seen the whole thing. Stick around for movie number 99!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

100 Movies of Summer

Hiya, people.

I’m just a fairly normal teenager on her summer break. Well, except I have this kinda funky-sounding challenge that my wonderful parents gave me. See, I was with my friend in our local video rental establishment. We were looking to pick up some movies, and what we were looking at - well, they weren’t the best choices. Anybody see a little movie called The Hangover? That’s what we were looking at. I know.

Anyway, my parents caught sight of a list on the wall: the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films. Hmm. We left the store, and they said they had a challenge for me. I have to admit, my ears perked up; I mean c’mon, it sounds all super-ninja-James Bond-like! Secret shame: I’d love to be a ninja.

Sorry, distracted. They told me “Look. We think you should get back to watching quality movies, like you used to!” I used to watch a lot of classic movies. They think everything I watch now is awful, and I need to start watching older films again. “We think it’d be a great idea if you could work your way through the Top 100 list. Maybe you could start a blog and write about each one?”

So that’s what I’m doing this summer. I’m starting from the bottom of the list, number 100, and working my way to the top, number 1. First up, from 1942 - Yankee Doodle Dandy, starring James Cagney as the tap-dancing, flag-waving songwriter George M. Cohan. Stick around and read about it!