Thursday, August 11, 2011

No. 80: The Wild Bunch

For most of this month, stepping outside felt like walking into a full-blast microwave oven. The place to be in August? Not Kansas. So why then, on the one day - I mean literally, the one day - it's not over 100 degrees, would I choose to stay inside? Call it a classic case of writer's guilt. Pretty sure I just made that up, but it's true - after all, it's been almost a month since my last post. Worst of all, I genuinely liked today's film: AFI #80, The Wild Bunch.

I have to say, my parents tried their very best to make me think the worst of this film, but I was pleasantly surprised. The Wild Bunch is like the love child of a cheesy Spaghetti Western and a small-scale John Ford film – and that's a pretty good combo. It was directed by the flawed-but-sometimes-brilliant Sam Peckinpah, and stars an A-list cast, including William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Edmund O'Brien, and Robert Ryan.

After a bank robbery goes wrong, Pike Bishop (Holden) and his gang of aging outlaws head to Mexico. They’re being chased by Bishop's former partner, Deke Thornton (Ryan), and his band of vigilante bounty hunters. The outlaws get mixed up in the Mexican Revolution, and accept a job from Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), a self-appointed bandido: to steal weapons from a U.S. army train. The job goes as planned, but when one of Bishop's men embezzles a crate of guns, he's captured by Mapache's army and tortured. The outlaws leave the man, but eventually loyalty and honor force them to return for a rescue. This leads to a long and bloody shootout where – spoiler! – nearly everyone dies. One lone surviving outlaw goes off to join the war, but everyone else: goners.

I must say, whoever cast this movie did a fantastic job. William Holden and Robert Ryan only share a few scenes, but their chemistry and tension connect them like brothers. The supporting cast also gives great performances: Ernest Borgnine, Edmund O'Brien, and the other actors bring bursts of personality and energy to stereotypical Western parts. This film is notable for director Peckinpah's use of strong gore and violence (well, strong for the 60's.) This could have easily gone wrong, but the splattering blood adds another graphic layer to an already beautiful film. Add in music reminiscent of a modern Hans Zimmer score crossed with jangling Ennio Morricone, plus vivid-but-not-cheeseball cinematography, and you've got a winner.

Negatives? I didn't have many problems with this film, but there were a few wrong notes.

1) Ernest Borgnine is not the guy with whom you want to have a sensitive-man-to-man talk. Borgnine and Holden are great together when gunning down a town – but not in sleeping bags sharing their feelings. It's just awkward.

2) For the most part, I liked the art direction. But, after a while - no matter how beautiful that cactus might be - the endless, multi-angle, artsy scenery shots are a bit much.

So, if you like:

* A white-haired Edmund O'Brien, channeling Walter Huston in Treasure Of The Sierra Madre
* William Holden (because really, who doesn’t love William Holden.)
* Lengthy and gratuitously bloody gunfights
* A completely whistle-friendly, finger-tapping soundtrack
* Endings where everybody dies

...then you'll love The Wild Bunch.

Next up: AFI # 79, The Deer Hunter (1978). It’s directed by Michael Cimino and stars Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken. I’ve heard that this one's grim and a weeper - so break out your hankies, and stick around to read about it!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

No. 81: Modern Times

Silent films: I think it's fair to say they're an acquired taste. One of the first movies I ever saw was my mom's scratchy VHS tape of Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush." I didn't care that it was silent; my eyes were glued to the screen as I watched him skip around in his Little Tramp suit, dancing with potatoes in his hands. Ever since then, I've had a weakness for silent films. There's just something special about the ability to communicate a movie's story without ever speaking a word.

I love The Gold Rush - but my preferred Chaplin movie is actually Modern Times (1936) - AFI film #81. What makes Modern Times even more impressive is the year it was made; 1936. I have to say, Charlie Chaplin was pretty gutsy to release a silent film in the middle of the 1930's. Today's flick also stars Paulette Goddard - at the time, Chaplin's scandalous, live-in girlfriend.

Chaplin plays an incompetent (but hilarious!) factory worker, who often finds himself in jail or unemployed due to various mishaps involving - among other things - Communists, cocaine, and jailbreaks. He meets the orphaned, runaway "Gamine" (Goddard) and together, they struggle against a hard, industrialized society, trying to make a better life. They don't quite succeed, but eventually they do escape - and in the movie's last, warily hopeful scene, Chaplin takes the Gamine's arm like a gentleman, and carrying hobo's bindle sticks, they walk out of the city into the early dawn light.

One reason some silent movies feel boring: by today’s standards, the acting seems so campy. That’s not the case with Modern Times. Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp is over-the-top, but that’s why his movies are fun. Would Chaplin still be as revered today if he hadn’t created this larger-then-life persona, dancing like a marionette with a cane and bowler hat? I don’t think so. I love the Little Tramp character in all his films, but especially in Modern Times.

There are so many good things about this film. The comedy is definitely slapstick but it’s hilarious and cleverly staged, as well as pretty risqué for the 1930’s, with sexual innuendo, a cocaine gag, and other sly jokes. Chaplin and Goddard give simply wonderful performances, perfectly balancing joy and sadness. Add in memorable scenes like Chaplin singing his famous “nonsense song” in a mix of French and Italian - which was also notable for being the first time he spoke on film - and you’ve got one great film.

So, if you like...

* Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character. If you don’t, I don’t even know what to say.
* An engaging mix of slapstick gags and tender (non-verbal!) moments between Chaplin and Goddard.
* Cool set design, including gigantic, super-stylized factory machines.
* The catchiest French-Italian nonsense song ever. Hands down. I’m whistling it right now.
* A truly hilarious take on a serious topic: the employment and financial issues faced by Americans during the Great Depression.

..then you’ll love Modern Times.

Next up: a not-so-comedic film - Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 Western epic and AFI #80, The Wild Bunch. It features great actors like William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, so I’m excited. Stick around and read about it!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

No. 82: Giant

Readers, let me tell you something: I like the films of director George Stevens. I like Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and I especially like James Dean. I like melodrama and “epic” style. So why didn’t today’s film - AFI No. 82, Giant - appeal to me? Well, there are reasons. A long, negative list of reasons.

Negatives aside, I’ll give you the standard briefing. Directed by the usually-fabulous George Stevens and starring Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean, Giant (1956) clocks in at almost three hours. I nearly turned it off around the two-and-a-half mark, but showed remarkable strength and left it on. I’m proud of myself.

Conservative Texas rancher Jordan Benedict (Hudson) meets and marries the spirited Leslie (Taylor). The film chronicles their family’s rivalry with Jett Rink (Dean) - Jordan’s former ranch hand who made his own fortune in oil. Years pass, and when the now wealthy-and-sleazy Jett starts dating Jordan and Leslie’s grown daughter, old tensions flare again. More family drama: when the Benedict’s only son chooses to marry a Mexican woman, Jordan must confront his conservative nature. Eventually Jett gets his comeuppance, Jordan overcomes his prejudice, and all ends well.

No, I didn’t like Giant – but it has its good points. The best part of the film was easily James Dean. And I’m not just saying that because he’s adorable and he’s my computer wallpaper. The energy and charisma in his performance show exactly why, even though he starred in only three films, he’s still an icon today. In Giant, Dean made his character seem raw and pitiable one moment, abruptly greedy and power-hungry the next. The film also featured a supporting cast filled with then up-and-coming great actors, like Dennis Hopper, (delightfully angsty) Sal Mineo, and Carroll Baker.

And now, the not-so-good points.

1) Giant was advertised as “the next Gone With The Wind.” I don’t know who came up with that. Giant is like a bad GWTW with cattle.

2) It’s far too long. I have no problem with long movies - the aforementioned GWTW is one of my favorites. But Giant was much longer than necessary and honestly, I might have enjoyed it more if the editors had used sharper scissors.

3) Not all the acting is great. I love both Rock and Liz, but their performances were a little wooden. Liz isn’t very convincing in chaps and a cowboy hat, and for most of the film, Rock manages to make his character wholly unlikeable.

4) My biggest issue: the film didn’t live up to my expectations. When they name an epic melodrama Giant you expect it to be, well - giant? It wasn’t over-the-top enough to be epic, and not cozy enough for small-scale drama. George Stevens could have used a touch of David Selznick or a bit of John Ford; it felt like he didn’t know which direction to take the film.

And thus ends my thoroughly negative review. My next post promises to be far more positive - AFI No. 81, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). I love that movie. Love love love. Stick around and read about it!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

No. 83: Platoon

Readers, think back to the movies of your childhood. Most kids my age remember, you know, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Aladdin. I definitely saw those movies, but unlike most kids, a good chunk of my younger years were spent watching World War Two films. For this, I can thank my Dad. He introduced me to the strange magic of Cary Grant leading a doomed bombing raid over Tokyo, Robert Montgomery piloting a plummeting aircraft, stoic John Wayne leading his platoon into combat. Not typical kid movies, but they fueled my love for the classics, and left me enjoying war films today.

Still, I didn’t know a ton about today’s film: AFI No. 83, Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). I knew it was a bloody Vietnam War epic, and that it had Johnny Depp in a cameo role. And that was about it. After a little pre-viewing research, I became intrigued by both the cast (Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger) and the subject matter: the physical and psychological effects of Vietnam.

Chris Taylor (Sheen), a naïve college dropout, arrives in Vietnam and is shocked by the senseless violence. Taylor befriends the men in his platoon - including compassionate Sgt. Elias (Dafoe) - but is quickly hardened by constant combat and excessive drugs and alcohol. When the platoon discovers a village suspected of aiding Vietnamese soldiers, platoon leader Sgt. Barnes (Berenger) shoots a female villager in the head. Elias reports the killing to military authorities, leading Barnes to murder Elias. Taylor suspects Barnes, and seeks revenge. The platoon is ambushed, and during the battle, Barnes tries to kill Taylor, but an explosion knocks them both unconscious; Taylor, of course, has the strength to stand and shoot Barnes. The wounded Taylor is allowed to return home, and as he leaves the jungle, he weeps.

To my surprise, I really enjoyed Platoon. Not a perfect film – but it definitely has good and bad points. As always, let’s start with the good.

First: fantastic characters. Most of the actors are great, but Willem Dafoe’s performance - pre-Green-Goblin smirk, bright red bandana, dramatic death - was probably my favorite part of the film. Tom Berenger makes his character a hard-to-forget psychotic, and the aforementioned Johnny Depp is great in a supporting role - and also quite attractive. The location shooting - the whole movie was shot in the Philippines - adds yet another layer of depth to the film (especially when you’re watching it on a laptop four inches away from your face.)

I really did like most of the movie. I liked the plot; the actors; the artistic direction - what could be left?

Charlie Sheen. Mr. I-have-tiger-blood’s performance didn’t impress me, and in fact, felt almost - fake? Just a personal opinion, but that’s how I saw it.

So, if you like..

* Long, painfully drawn-out death scenes
* Willem Dafoe: officially the coolest soldier to ever to hit Vietnam
* Pre-winning Charlie Sheen
* A supporting cast filled with great actors: Forest Whitaker, Johnny Depp, etc.
* War-torn jungles filled with guerrilla ambushes and poisonous scorpions
* A fantastic 60’s-music soundtrack, featuring artists like The Rascals and Smokey Robinson

..then you’ll love Platoon.

Next up: Giant (1956.) Not one of my favorites, but I do love me some Liz Taylor and James Dean - stick around and read about it!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Blogpostless in D.C.

So, as most of you know, this week I'm in Washington D.C., competing in the finals of National History Day. Which means, uhhh.. I didn't finish my blog post before I left. Shameful, right? I swear - I watched Platoon - I really did!

Obviously, no blog post, so here's the next best thing: my ten-minute-documentary on Elia Kazan and the Hollywood Blacklist. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

No. 84: Fargo

Official confession time. I call myself a movie buff, but of the Coen Brothers’ many great films, I’ve only seen Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Pretty lame, right? I haven’t seen The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men, Miller’s Crossing, True Grit, or any of the rest. Until recently, I hadn’t even seen Fargo (1996) - today’s movie, and AFI film No. 84. Even worse? Fargo has been sitting in its original packaging on our family movie shelf. For at least a year. Oops.

I wholeheartedly enjoyed Fargo, and I regret not seeing it sooner. It was honestly one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, and that’s saying a lot. Any movie directed by the Coen Brothers featuring William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, and Steve Buscemi, a movie with lots of heavy Minnesotan accents and splattering blood, has to be good. I mean, it just has to be.

Fargo begins in snow-covered 1980’s-era Fargo, North Dakota. Cash-strapped Jerry Lundegaard (Macy) pays two petty criminals - Carl (Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) - to kidnap his wife so he can collect ransom money from his wealthy father-in-law. They do the deed, but on the road back to Minneapolis, things go wrong, bullets fly, and people get killed. Heavily pregnant - and highly intelligent - police chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand) must investigate the triple homicide. A few more murders later, Marge is just a step behind the criminals. She finally catches up with them – in a gruesomely famous scene involving a woodchipper. Fun! And justice. A surprisingly happy ending to a very gory movie.

Since I loved Fargo, I only have good points to discuss. First things first - the casting is brilliant. Steve Buscemi’s bug-eyed face enhances his character’s craziness, William H. Macy’s Lundegaard is simmering and scary, and Frances McDormand is simply fabulous. I also loved how the sets and locations felt real. The dingy bar, the cramped office, the ice-packed Minnesota highways – I felt like I could walk straight into the movie. The Coen Brothers are known for black comedy, and this script was brilliantly dark and witty. It won only two Oscars (Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay), but in my opinion, it should have won several more.

I couldn’t review this movie without discussing the look. One of the best things about Fargo was how, in some parts of the movie, the Coens chose to downplay all the spurting blood – and in other parts, when they wanted to fully show the gore, they used bright Minnesota snow to highlight the blood’s vivid red. The art direction, down to every gory detail, is amazing.

So, in all, if you like:

* Cartoonish Minnesotan accents (I’m sorry. They’re real!)
* Steve Buscemi discussing hookers and Waffle House pancakes.
* Steve Buscemi wearing a fur coat.
* Steve Buscemi getting shoved in a woodchipper.
* Intelligent, independent female heroines
* The Coen Brothers’ dark and witty dialogue

...then you’ll love Fargo. And I mean, you’ll love it. Would I lie?

Next up: No. 83, Platoon (1986.) The Oliver-Stone-directed epic about the Vietnam War is supposed to be a good one, and I’ve never seen it. Stick around and read about it!

Monday, May 30, 2011

No. 85: Duck Soup

Writer’s block: the bane of my existence. I like writing, but when I have no idea what to write, I tend to put it off until I feel more inspired. This post is only…oh…5 months late, thanks to ten volleyball tournaments, end-of-the-year finals, and one seriously time-consuming History Day documentary. But now it’s summer, and you know what that means? Consistent blog posting. And I was quite inspired by this movie.

With that lengthy excuse – um, introduction - let’s talk about film. I’m so excited to write about today’s movie, AFI No. 85: Duck Soup. The 1933 comedy, directed by Leo McCarey, stars the always fantastic Marx Brothers: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo, as well as the fabulously campy Margaret Dumont. The movie wasn’t exactly a box-office smash when first released, but time has turned it into a cult classic. Today it stands out as one of the Marx Brothers’ best, and one of the funniest films of the 30’s - an era known for its surplus of comedies because of the Great Depression. More important: it’s my favorite of all their films.

Wealthy, misguided widow Mrs. Teasdale (Dumont) is infatuated with wisecracking, cigar-chomping Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho). She persuades him to become the leader of a tiny country, Freedonia - great idea, right? Within hours of his appointment, Firefly does several song-and-dance numbers, insults the ambassador of nearby Sylvania, and causes general chaos. After more insults, a slap in the face, double agents, mistaken identities, and the famous Harpo-Groucho “mirror scene”, the two countries go to war. The comedic, crazy-quilt war features Napoleon hats, Davy Crockett fur, Civil War uniforms, battle-axes and tomato-throwing. In a scene that never fails to make me laugh, Mrs. Teasdale tries to celebrates the war’s end by singing the Freedonian anthem - and what do the brothers do? They pelt her with the tomatoes.

It seems that I say this about every movie - but in this case, it’s completely true: there are so many things to love about Duck Soup. The four brothers always have impeccable comic timing, but in this particular movie, they work together like clock gears. And they’re not the only ones who get laughs - the fantastic supporting cast (including Dumont and Louis Calhern) are equally entertaining. What do you get when you mix great actors, hilarious songs like “Just Wait ‘Til I Get Through With It” and “The Freedonia National Anthem,” an expert blend of sarcasm and slapstick? Near-perfect comedy.

So, if you like:

* The Marx Bros at their collective finest - even Zeppo!
* Margaret Dumont’s random outbursts into operatic song
* Slapstick, slapstick, and more slapstick (with a healthy dash of sarcasm)
* Bumbling secret agents
* Barely-disguised political satire
* Hilarious songs that will stick with you forever. If you watch this movie and don’t walk around singing the Freedonian National Anthem for weeks, there’s something wrong with you.

..then I highly recommend running, not walking, to watch Duck Soup. You’ll love it.

Next on the list: Fargo (1996) - directed by the always brilliant Coen Brothers, and starring William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard great things - stick around and read about it!

Friday, January 14, 2011

No. 86: Mutiny On The Bounty

Right now, I’m sitting at home with a mug of steaming tea, watching the wonderful Fred and Ginger flick Swing Time(1936). I have a nasty cold, and it’s not very fun. On the bright side: my mom has a cold, too! We’re hunkered down for the day (with the sleeping dog) watching classics. I could get used to this.

I kept putting off watching AFI #86, Mutiny On The Bounty. Why? Maybe I thought it wasn’t a fun movie, or it wasn’t interesting. Whatever I may have originally thought, I’m glad to say I was completely wrong.

In the late 1700’s, über-crazy Captain Bligh (Laughton) embarks on a journey to Tahiti with his first mate, Fletcher Christian (Gable) and a naive midshipman, Roger Byum (Tone). The Captain’s harsh and abusive treatment of his crew eventually causes Fletcher to lead a mutiny, leaving Bligh stranded in a longboat at sea. Fletcher and the crew flee, first living in Polynesian paradise, but ultimately forced into hiding on remote Pitcairn Island for the rest of their lives. Somehow, Bligh makes it back to England; the few crew members that supported him [including Byum] also get home, but are accused of mutiny and are sentenced to hang. Using his wealth and connections, Byum manages to escape the noose - but the rest of the crew isn’t so lucky. Bligh stays crazy as ever, and Fletcher and the mutineers live a lonely life on their island. An almost-happy ending? It was good. Anti-climactic, but good.

There’s a lot to love about Mutiny On The Bounty. My mom thinks Clark Gable looks best wearing a suit and fedora (or being Rhett Butler). Me? I think he looks just dandy in a sailor’s outfit. Charles Laughton is absolutely perfect as insane Captain Bligh - he creates a character so sadistic, it’s painful to watch. The stellar supporting cast adds humor and depth to the story, especially Henry Stephenson, Donald Crisp, and the wonderful Spring Byington. The dizzying camera shots of the ship are simply gorgeous, and the director made the most of South Pacific location shooting, bringing the colorful atmosphere of Tahiti through black-and-white film.

I honestly can’t think of anything I dislike about this film. The ending is a little unsatisfying; the movie is so grim that it just feels wrong to have a semi-happy ending. Other then that, it’s perfecto.

So, if you like:

* Sets that seem to have inspired Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean

* Caricatured seamen (bottles of rum and all)

* The craziest sea-captain you’ll ever meet – puffy-lipped Charles Laughton at his scene-stealing best

* Clark Gable in a fantastic sailor outfit. ‘Nuff said.

* Camera shots of the ship that make you seasick

..then you’ll love Mutiny On The Bounty.

Next up, No. 85, Duck Soup (1933) – the fantastic Marx Brothers classic. I love this movie. So, so, so, so, so much. I’m excited. Stick around and read about it!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

No. 87: Frankenstein

Frankenstein (1931)

Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke

Directed by: James Whale

Awards won: …none? [That’s ridiculous.]

When I walk through a video store, I get sidetracked looking at garish horror movies: blood splatters, dead bodies, vampires and zombies. But those aren’t the horror movies I like. I prefer the older horror flicks of the 30’s and 40’s, like the original Dracula (1931).

With this in mind, I was excited to watch Frankenstein again. I love the Mary Shelley book (1818), and this movie adaptation is always fun to watch. Read on!

Most people know the story of Frankenstein. Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Clive) ditches his fiancé (Clarke) to work on his grand experiment: creating a man from parts of exhumed corpses. He reanimates his man-creation (Karloff), and he quickly turns into a violent monster. The monster escapes, roaming and wreaking havoc on the countryside. Eventually Dr. Frankenstein and an angry mob trap the monster in a windmill tower, and burn the building down, destroying the “Frankenstein” monster.

After the movie, I thought “Wow. I’m going to have problems thinking of negative points to write about.” That doesn’t happen too often. Seriously - I loved almost everything about Frankenstein. It might not scare the same way modern horror movies do, but it still has goosebump-raising elements of shock and suspense. Every scene is rich in detail, which was rare for an early horror movie – it could have easily been complete camp. Boris Karloff’s performance is fantastic. The creepy way he smiles as he tosses a child into a lake, how he swings his arms as he slowly climbs the stairs, the way his fearful eyes react to a lighted torch – it’s really a timeless performance.

I can only think of a few minor negative points. Some parts of the movie are unintentionally funny; the monster’s incessant groaning made me laugh, but you know what? It didn’t make the movie any less enjoyable. Some of the dialogue was a little cringe-worthy (“My god, the monster is upstairs!”), but you know what? I still enjoyed the movie.

So, if you like:

* Incredible sets and atmospheric lighting, from laboratory to countryside

* Beautifully staged black and white cinematography, ahead of its time

* Mad-scientist crazies at their best

* A body re-animation scene that would inspire countless re-animations, from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Star Wars

* A good supporting cast. Though the story is vaguely set in Germany, their accents run from British to German to American

..then you’ll love Frankenstein.

Next up, No. 86: Mutiny On The Bounty (1935), starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. This is a good one – and a very dramatic one. Stick around and read about it!