Monday, August 30, 2010

Day Fifty-Nine: Casablanca

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #15
Year: 1942
Director: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman

As I'm sure is true for many people, Michael Curtiz's Casablanca was my introduction to classic cinema, to that lost era of Hollywood where black-and-white was the norm, Technicolor was unusual, and actors and actresses were called movie stars. I was immediately enamored by the film. I wanted to seek out more movies like it. The first things I noticed were the amazing screenplay – including Dooley Wilson's brilliant rendition of "As Time Goes By," which had this metalhead YouTubing Frank Sinatra for a week – and the less-is-more aesthetic that drives the picture. One setting, Rick's Cafe Americain, houses the vast majority of the screen time. The remainder is split between flashbacks to Paris, shots of Captain Renault's office, and The Blue Parrot, a rival nightclub owned by renowned human trafficker Signor Ferrari. With a fairly limited scope, the film's script is allowed to breathe free, and it's ten times better for it.

There's probably no more essential movie in the history of film than Casablanca. That isn't the same as calling it the greatest film of all time, because, while it's close, I don't believe that it's quite that. But for one to have truly have an understanding of cinematography, of screenwriting, of soundtrack, of acting, and indeed, of Hollywood itself, Casablanca is mandatory viewing. It wasn't the first great talking picture – that was All Quiet on the Western Front – or the most ambitious at its time – that probably goes to either Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz – but in 1942, there was no better movie than Casablanca, and it would be decades before a better one was made. Everything that people see movies for is present and executed to perfection, and with a concise 100-minute running time, it doesn't overstay its welcome in the slightest.

It would be pretty easy for a film with a reputation as good as Casablanca's to become overrated, but for once, the hushed, reverential tones with which a classic movie is discussed are completely justified. Anyone worth their salt on movies loves, or at least respects, Casablanca. It tells a great story, and doubles as a parable in support of U.S. involvement in the Second World War without ever feeling like propaganda. Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine is one of the all-time greatest cool guys in film, and Ingrid Bergman perfectly plays his love interest and female counterpart, Ilsa. This movie has been referenced and aped and parodied so many times, that even first-time viewers will feel like they've seen it before; it's a part of the collective unconscious at this point. For anyone who has yet to actually sit down and watch it, though, the experience will still be incredibly rewarding. It's one of the greatest movies of all time. 'Nuff said.

The Good: There's a number of things that could be said here, but I think the screenplay stands out. No movie had more quotes on the AFI "100 Years...100 Quotes" list, and even though I normally hate AFI, that list is pretty good.

The Bad: A few of the alleged nationalities are extremely unconvincing and it'll be hard not to think of damn near everyone in the movie as American. That's not a big issue, though. It's not like they were going to subtitle the whole thing for realism's sake.

The Skinny: The top 15 is very, very high for any movie, but this one actually deserves it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Day Fifty-Eight: Children of Men

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #188
Year: 2006
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Clive Owen and Julianne Moore

The dystopian/post-apocalyptic world has become one of science fiction's most tired clichés. It's difficult to find a new take on it that hasn't been done to death by Orwell or Bradbury or Asimov. In 1992, author P.D. James found one such take with her novel The Children of Men. In James' dystopia, conception became impossible, and as a result, no new children were being born. The youngest people on Earth were in their late teens and were worshiped like gods. Wars raged in the street and religious cults arose trying to find the meaning of life in a childless hell, where the population was constantly shrinking and the last person to die would be the last human being on the face of the planet. When Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón set out to direct a film adaptation of the book, there was considerable buzz in spite of a limited release. The result was every bit as great as one might imagine it would be given the concept, and introduced the world to a great director with a unique vision revolving around long, uninterrupted single camera shots that can feel sickeningly real at times. The movie wasn't a box office success, but science fiction lovers and critics alike showered it with praise.

Children of Men
is notable primarily for two things: the direction and the use of soundtrack. The latter becomes evident very early on in the film when our protagonist (played brilliantly by a perpetually unimpressed Clive Owen) is making his way toward a government office and King Crimson's "The Court of the Crimson King" starts playing. I remember thinking when I saw the film for the first time that this was the most brilliant use of popular song as film score I had ever seen. I had also recently seen Zack Snyder's Watchmen abortion, in which every overplayed classic rock song he could think of apparently perfectly fit some scene from a comic book that was perfect without sound and didn't need to be adapted in the first goddamn place. But I digress. "The Court of the Crimson King" makes so much sense in Children of Men that I started to reconsider the use of rock music in film altogether. You have to see it to know how well it's done. The greatness of Cuarón's direction takes a little longer to reveal itself, but it becomes abundantly clear during a scene where Owen, Julianne Moore and the rest of their group are driving through treacherous gang-rife territory when they get attacked. There is an approximately ten minute sequence composed of one shot from one camera positioned inside their vehicle. When it would be more comfortable to cut to another shot, we're forced to see what the people in the car would have seen. It's an unflinching act of cinematic heroism that single-handedly puts its director in the upper echelon of modern directors.

The rest of the film is pretty great, too. The visual storytelling succeeds in communicating the complex and tragic sci-fi story, and the acting is all top notch. It propelled its director near the top of a lot of screenwriters' wish lists. He headlines a class of great (relatively) young Mexican directors along with Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo Del Toro who are going to make a huge impact in the next decade of film. Children of Men is a shining example of why this is a very good trend for the industry.

The Good: Direction and soundtrack.

The Bad: I can't put my finger on one thing. This doesn't feel like a "greatest of all time" movie to me, but I still can't quite tell you why.

The Skinny: I can dig it on the list, and I can dig it at #188.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Day Fifty-Seven: Unforgiven

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #105
Year: 1992
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman

Clint Eastwood earned his first Oscars for Unforgiven, a Western that owes as much to early American entries to the canon like Shane as it does the spaghetti westerns that serve so obviously as the film's chief influence. Clint took home gold statuettes for directing and Best Picture, and Gene Hackman won Best Supporting Actor. It also picked up an award for Best Editing and was nominated in five more categories, making it (unofficially) the most-loved Western in Academy Awards history. Symbolically, Unforgiven represents Eastwood acknowledging and paying tribute to his past, making a great Western to pick up all the critical acclaim that eluded his early masterpieces in the genre, both as a director and in collaboration with Sergio Leone.

Unforgiven has been called all kinds of pretentious things, but most of all some kind of exposure of the true Old West that doesn't shy away from reality or darkness. Well, okay, it is, but so was Once Upon a Time in the West off the top of my head and probably a half dozen other, earlier movies. So we're going to throw the idea that Unforgiven was revolutionary in some way out the window right now and just talk about it as a Western and as a movie. After a brilliantly shot and fast-paced opening scene in which a prostitute gets her face cut up by a flustered customer, the movie slows down considerably as we get to know the sheriff of the town where the abuse occurs (played by Hackman, who earns his award) and the men who aim to collect the bounty the prostitutes have put on their assailant (a trio comprised of Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Jaimz Woolvett). Other interesting characters come and go as well – in particular, Richard Harris's English Bob is fascinating, if a bit superfluous – but the movie is all about the mounting tension between the protagonists and the sheriff, culminating in the requisite gunfight between the two parties. This film's gunfight doesn't fit the mold of honorable combat to determine who is the quickest draw, though. Without spoiling the ending, the movie gets a lot of its "this isn't your typical Western" praise from the shootout that occurs in the final ten minutes of film.

Clint Eastwood's career is endlessly impressive, and his filmography just keeps growing and gaining new masterpieces, but in a lot of ways, he truly became the beloved director that he is today with Unforgiven. He was the Man With No Name and Dirty Harry and Josey Wales before this, but he wasn't regarded as the matchless auteur that he is now. So many of the camera techniques and visual plot devices that have come to define his work began here, or at least were perfected here. It's not to say he didn't direct any great movies before this – I might even prefer The Outlaw Josey Wales over Unforgiven – but the Academy started paying attention at the right time. As a director, this may well be his masterpiece.

The Good: For Westerns I typically think first on cinematography, but here it has to be a tie between the huge ensemble of stars that offers so many great performances and the fact that Eastwood truly became Clint Eastwood, Director with this film.

The Bad: Jaimz Woolvett hasn't done much notable work besides Unforgiven. There's a reason for that.

The Skinny: Deserves its spot.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Day Fifty-Six: District 9

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #122
Year: 2009
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley and Jason Cope

In a year rife with big budget science fiction flicks (Star Trek and the ubiquitous Avatar spring to mind, among others), one underdog film grabbed genre mastermind Peter Jackson's attention and caused him to sign on as a producer. That was the understated and brilliant District 9, an allegory about apartheid in South Africa that centered on a tragically earthbound race of aliens who can cause people to metamorphose into creatures not unlike themselves, stranded because of a spaceship malfunction. The apartheid message is sometimes delivered a bit too heavily, but the film is one of the most fun – and truth be told, best – movies of 2009.

Despite some modern-looking production values, I think District 9 really hearkens back to the era of low-budget science fiction movies that still managed to be visually impressive and interesting. There are so many special effects and animations that were actually pretty simple to execute in this movie that James Cameron should be embarrassed for thinking the only way to do sci-fi visuals properly is to throw money at them. The lightning gun technology, the spaceship, and the transformation of our human protagonist into a "prawn" – the South Africans' derogatory term for the alien race – are all visual highlights of the film. Showing how adept he is with a small budget, director Neill Blomkamp's feature debut shows a ridiculous amount of promise for future work where he'll actually have big studio money behind his projects. Who knows what that will do for his career.

As the film progresses, it mercifully becomes more of a science fiction film about the aliens and their relationship with South Africans than the faux-documentary laid thick with apartheid allegory that it starts as. Unfortunately, the transformation of the film from being one style to another, even though it's for the better, makes the movie feel jarringly piecemeal at times, and when the documentary-style cinematography reappears toward the end of the film, it feels both unwarranted and cheap. These are things that Blomkamp will be able to work on as he tackles future projects, but it's not unfair to point them out as flaws. As visually striking and fun to watch as District 9 is, it has some technical flaws that hinder it considerably. Still, in a strong year for movies, it implanted itself in people's memory banks and sits comfortably above the halfway point on the IMDb Top 250, so apparently folks had no problem looking past its flaws to see the meat of the picture. Fortunately for them, that meat is filet mignon. District 9 is officially science fiction royalty, and I wouldn't be shocked if in twenty years it's talked about with the same hushed and reverent tones that the original Star Wars trilogy is discussed with now.

The Good: The lightning gun effect is really damn cool. So are the prawns. And the spaceship. In short, the movie's visuals are the best thing about it.

The Bad: Inconsistent style. Blomkamp never should have done any of the mockumentary shots in the first place.

The Skinny: #122 is damn high, and I'd have it a lot lower, but I won't say it doesn't deserve its spot on the list. It's hard to think of many science fiction movies that deserve it more.

Day Fifty-Five: All Quiet on the Western Front

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #235
Year: 1930
Director: Lewis Milestone
Starring: Lew Ayres and Louis Wolheim

When I wrote about Letters from Iwo Jima, I referred to a formula for war movies that has been done to death, a sort of theme on which hundreds of directors have offered their own variations. As far as I know, that all comes from to All Quiet on the Western Front. In this masterpiece of the early talking picture era, the young recruits that serve as our protagonists go through all of the stages of dealing with war that their successors would go through, and for being the earliest film in this vein, it's possibly also the best.

The pacing is rapid at the beginning, and in the first fifteen minutes, the boys go from zealous optimism about joining the military to acceptance that the war isn't as fun as they thought it would be to the grim realization that their friends are dropping dead all around them. As the film wears on, there are moments of light – one young soldier, Paul, gets leave to go home and visit his mother, for example – but the overwhelming tone of the movie is darkness and depression. This is in stark contrast with the war films that would come in the decade to follow.

The most significant point for discussion regarding this movie is indeed how different it is than what would come out during World War II. Once the government started regulating the film industry more closely, war films usually served as propaganda. Even the classic Casablanca was ultimately an allegory for why isolationism was dead and the United States should get involved in the war. Coming out of World War I, however, the country was disillusioned by war, and All Quiet on the Western Front hit home hard. In fact, the film went so far as to keep its protagonists German as they were in the novel. Within ten years, Germans would be portrayed as bloodthirsty Huns, but in 1930, they were the same wide-eyed boys who went off to the battlefields and came back emotionally scarred. The disparity between this film and the output of the 1940s was so great that it was not permitted to be screened during the Second World War. Naturally, this makes it a better film than much of the propagandist output of the next decade. All Quiet on the Western Front doesn't pull any punches in portraying war as it truly is, and its anti-war message is rarely stated outright. Seeing what war is like is enough to make most people have a little bit of pacifist sentiment, and with advanced-for-their-time camera techniques and a great script, Lewis Milestone's masterpiece succeeds in just that.

The Good: The unblinking portrayal of war that was more graphic than anything that had been released up to 1930.

The Bad: Some of the scenes that do explicitly express distaste for war are a bit heavy-handed.

The Skinny: I'm shocked to see it this low on the list, honestly. I think Top 100 would be reasonable.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Day Fifty-Four: The Seventh Seal

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #117
Year: 1957
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Max Von Sydow and Bengt Ekerot

Some movies are so inseparably associated with one particular line or scene that even people who have never seen the movie – or even seen the famous scene or heard the famous line in its original context – will recognize the bit in question if they were to walk by a television that was showing it. The Seventh Seal is one such movie. No one with an even passing interest in film is unfamiliar with the scene where a world-weary knight played by Max Von Sydow plays chess with Death, played coldly by a black-cloaked Bengt Ekerot. The scene has transcended the movie. Most people probably don't even know that the movie is Swedish; they just know that a dude plays chess with Death, and they know that they're supposed to know that. They often don't know that what lies behind that iconic scene is ninety minutes of beautiful allegory directed by one of international cinema's all-time heavyweights.

I saw The Seventh Seal shortly before I started this blog and haven't had a chance to rewatch it yet, but I vividly remember being struck by how powerful it was. Von Sydow's knight, Antonius Block, returning with his squires from a Crusade, disillusioned by the fighting, to find that his homeland has become overrun by the Black Death creates a stark backdrop for what unfolds over the course of the film, but it isn't so much about the Black Death, or even really about the knight himself, as it is about the concept of faith and how it is interpreted by disparate people, and how it affects them. A single line – translated here, I don't know enough Swedish to offer any kind of interpretation on the original line – from Antonius Block best defines the movie: "Faith is a torment. Did you know that? It is like loving someone out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call." This sums up the take-home message of the film, and perhaps even director Ingmar Bergman's own beliefs.

Despite the tone of the sentiment offered by our protagonist, The Seventh Seal is not a bleak movie. It oozes with the joy of life. The plague is ravaging Sweden, our hero is back from a mindless, bloody Crusade and finds himself questioning God, he's playing a game of chess with Death himself, and yet, a certain exuberance shines through the whole picture. The supporting cast, a family of entertainers, manages to be gleeful no matter what awfulness life throws at them, and their high spirits rub off on Antonius. The movie keeps its very serious tone, but its message isn't that a godless, cruel world is a bummer; it's that come whatever may, life is worth living, and optimism is the only truth. There's plenty of shadowy cinematography and some dark scenes, but The Seventh Seal is full of light, and it remains perhaps Bergman's greatest triumph.

The Good: Perhaps the timelessness of the chess scene(s) makes it the only right choice.

The Bad: There's some pacing issues that make it feel like either the scenes should be shorter or the film should be longer. Forgivable, though.

The Skinny: Deserves its place.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Day Fifty-Three: Letters from Iwo Jima

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #209
Year: 2006
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya

It's odd that it's taken me this long to see Letters from Iwo Jima; when it was released at the same time as its companion piece, the also Clint Eastwood-directed Flags of Our Fathers, I went to the theater with the history club at my high school to see that film – my first Eastwood picture – and loved it. Critically, the rumination on life on the home front for the raisers of the American flag in the iconic photograph taken at Iwo Jima that Flags of Our Fathers offered was considered a fairly pedestrian effort by Eastwood, while Letters from Iwo Jima, told instead from the Japanese perspective and taking place almost entirely on the island of Iwo Jima itself, raked in all the praise and Oscar nominations. The theaters in my hometown didn't get Letters from Iwo Jima, though. They probably thought that the kind of people who go to movies here wouldn't like to read subtitles to a Japanese script for two-and-a-half hours, and they were probably right. Either way, I didn't see the film until now when I decided to watch it for this blog, and I can't quite side with the critics. While Letters from Iwo Jima provides a perspective on one of the most famous battles of World War II that is rarely seen in the West, Flags of Our Fathers is simply the more interesting film. That doesn't mean Letters isn't a good movie, though, because it certainly is.

The most notable thing about this movie is that it sees Clint Eastwood directing in a language that he presumably doesn't know. Bilingual actors and on-set translators may have helped, but any way you slice it, it's incredibly impressive that Eastwood managed to get such moving performances out of people speaking a language that he – and the majority of his audience – couldn't understand. Ken Watanabe, one of the hardest-working and best actors of the last decade, shines in a rare leading role as the Japanese general in charge of defending Iwo Jima, and a cast of unknowns (unknown to American moviegoers, anyway) backs him up with poise.

As far as what we actually see onscreen, Letters from Iwo Jima isn't so different from, well, every war movie in the All Quiet on the Western Front tradition ever made. There's character development about the lives that the soldiers left at home (In this case, we learn about their lives in the form of letters they write from the island, which is a nice deviation from the standard trope.), there's scenes that graphically show the horror of war, there's some discussion of the war's futility, there's tragedy, and there's eventually resolution. There's nothing wrong with that – All Quiet on the Western Front was a phenomenal movie, after all, and aping the formula of something that works is always better than aping the formula of something that doesn't. But even though the film is in Japanese and the letters home written by the general and the private add a bit of another dimension to the movie, it's just hard to get excited about something we've seen this many times. I'm a Clint Eastwood nut, and hell, I bought this movie and would even give it something like an 8 out of 10, but I'm not seeing how this gets on the list and Flags of Our Fathers doesn't. It's worth your time, and at the very least it will hold your attention, but I'm afraid Letters from Iwo Jima belongs in the same category as Million Dollar Baby as a very good but still highly overrated film from one of the best directors of all time, Mr. Clint Eastwood.

The Good: Clint directing in Japanese impresses the hell out of me.

The Bad: The plot is a carbon copy of every war movie plot ever. It's more interesting than something like The Thin Red Line or The Longest Day, but it's still no masterpiece.

The Skinny: I can deal with it being on the list because it's so good at what it does, but there's no real excuse for this being rated nearly a full point higher on IMDb than its companion film.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Day Fifty-Two: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #67
Year: 1975
Director: Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones
Starring: Graham Chapman and John Cleese

Some movies defy analysis. It doesn't stop analysts from trying to analyze them, but they exist on the screen and the screen alone and dissecting them only takes away from their greatness. I felt that I was doing Duck Soup a disservice when I blogged about it, and I fear I may be doing the same here. The only difference is that I actually have written academically, erm, "academically" about Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In my senior year of high school, I wrote a paper about the use of anachronism in the film and how it contributes to its satiric message. Yes, it was mostly tripe, but it did force me to think about a movie that I had always loved but never truly thought about. I realized that while I still loved the film, it was not one that I enjoyed more after thinking about it. It's much more fun to just revel in the silliness.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is less a proper movie than a series of comedy sketches all related to the legends of King Arthur. In that way it's a lot like the King Arthur legends themselves – there wasn't one canonical tome, the legends exist as a loose association of stories with the same characters. In that way, the Monty Python troupe did a fitting tribute to their source material. Beyond that (Along with the anachronism and satire that I have written at length about elsewhere – if anyone wants a copy, let me know. But you don't) there's little more to talk about besides the genius of the wildly disparate sketches and gags. Somehow, I don't think talking about the sketches will be nearly as useful as watching them. Explaining something funny is never as funny as seeing it. I can't even give a list of my favorite parts, because every sketch knocks it completely out of the park. This is my favorite straight-up comedy movie of all time, so I don't want to weaken any of the sketches with unnecessary explanation. In short, if you somehow haven't seen this movie, you owe it to yourself to watch it. There's probably never been a funnier two hours of film.

The Good: The sketches are all masterfully written and executed.

The Bad: The animated parts provide something to break up the sketches, but are generally less interesting and less funny than the live-action bits themselves.

The Skinny: It's actually really refreshing to see a silly comedy this high on the list. I'd have it higher on my personal list, but I'm satisfied with its position.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Day Fifty-One: Memento

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #28
Year: 2000
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Guy Pearce and Carrie-Anne Moss

I have a Word document right now that I use to keep track of my thoughts on where the movies I watch for this project will eventually fall when I finish this blog and reconsider my list of personal favorite movies. Before tonight, I had only seen Memento once, and it was firmly rooted in the "Only Seen Once, Need to Rewatch and Reconsider" section. After doing just what that category suggest I do earlier this evening, I promptly moved it to the top of the "Entirely Possible, Consideration Needed" section and just shy of the "Locks" section. Christopher Nolan's first studio movie remains a landmark in his filmography and a strong candidate for his best film.

Nolan's films have often been called mindfucks, and depending on your definition, I suppose they are. They're not David Lynch movies or Takashi Miike movies, but in his own slickly produced and hyper-intelligent way, he does boggle the mind. He presents a concept which is presumably unfamiliar to his audience – whether it be short-term memory loss, magic, or lucid shared dreaming – and shines minimal light on it in the precise way that will bend minds when he brings out his big reveals and twists. In Memento, the reality is revealed in tantalizingly short segments that appear in reverse order of their occurrence and are spliced with scenes – shot in striking black and white – of Leonard, our protagonist, talking about his short-term memory loss condition and his situation to an anonymous person on the other end of a hotel room telephone. The story only reveals itself to us in short segments because Leonard can only remember things in short segments, and this device really helps to bring the audience into the movie. The big twist, if you want to call it that, is executed so deftly that even at this early stage in Nolan's career he appears to have the experience of late-era Hitchcock. Unlike someone like M. Night Shyamalan who has become known for his twists and lambasted for the very same, Nolan's have become not only a calling card but a mark of his brilliance as a director. He doesn't live and die by the plot twist, but when he decides to pull one out, it's always well-executed and feels right.

Memento stands out among Nolan's work for two big reasons: its R rating, and its cast of relative unknowns. Both work to its advantage, and both are direct results of the fact that Nolan himself was a relative unknown at the time of its release. While Nolan has gotten amazing performances out of Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Hugh Jackman, Leonardo DiCaprio and a dozen more A-listers, it's a nice, if unnecessary, luxury to be undistracted by the presence of movie stars, especially when tackling the heady subject matter that Nolan is never shy about. Unfortunately, that also makes it one of Nolan's least-seen movies among the masses, which is downright criminal considering how great it is. Memento's protagonist may not have a short-term memory, but the movie will be embedded forever in your long-term memory.

The Good: Nolan's storytelling.

The Bad: Once again, I'm at a loss here. There's just nothing bad about Memento.

The Skinny: Belongs on the list, and belongs very high on the list.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Day Fifty: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #70
Year: 1957
Director: David Lean
Starring: William Holden and Alec Guinness

Well, it's been fifty days since I started this blog. It doesn't feel like it's been that long, and I'm pleased to say I'm still enjoying the project every bit as much as I was at the beginning. 200 days and 200 movies remain, and hopefully I'll keep those of you currently reading with me for the duration and pick up some new faces along the way! It's nice to have this milestone coincide with my viewing of a really fantastic movie. The Bridge on the River Kwai consistently feels like the classic that it's heralded as being, and the entire film is a joy to watch. Although the setting is primarily split between a World War II Japanese POW camp and a treacherous jungle, the prevailing atmosphere isn't at all bleak. What with the Brits in the camp constantly whistling a now-famous theme and the men in the jungle trudging forward with steely resolve, there's no chance for the all-too-common war film questions of "What if we die here today?" and "What are we fighting for?" to be dwelt upon for long. That isn't to say the movie doesn't address some of the underlying issues that come with war; it just chooses to address them in a somewhat unusual way without losing any of its old school war picture cred.

Also, I'm just going to get this over with because I'm finding it particularly hard to write about this movie without using them, so beware: SPOILERS AHEAD!

The film follows two officers – well, one officer, but that reveal comes later – with very different views on how one should behave in a prisoner of war camp. Both Alec Guinness' Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson and William Holden's Commander Shears were captured by the Japanese and taken to Colonel Saito's POW camp, where he has plans to build a bridge with British and American labor. Nicholson opposes the plan at first because of the Geneva Convention's banning of officers doing hard labor in wartime prison camps. Shears opposes it because he doesn't want to help the Japanese win the war, or perhaps more accurately, because he's lazy and just wants to use his energy to figure out a way to escape. Nicholson comes around when Saito says he'll let him run the show, and he becomes obsessed with building an immaculate bridge that will withstand the test of time. Meanwhile, Shears successfully escapes and is conscripted by a special force committed to blowing up the very same bridge that he would have been working on. The two reunite in the film's fiery climax, which also serves as its conclusion. I won't come right out and say what happens even with my spoiler alert shield up because its immense power would be lost if it were to be explained. I'll simply say that it's one of my all-time favorite movie endings already, and that there couldn't have been a more perfect closing to an already great film.

The Bridge on the River Kwai marks one of those rare times in history when the Academy knew exactly what it was doing for a year. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Guinness), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score, Best Film Editing, and Best Cinematography. Usually when a movie makes a giant sweep at the Oscars – like Slumdog Millionaire, to use a recent example – the film is hugely overrated and the Academy is clearly trying too hard to play kingmaker. In 1957, that was not the case. The Bridge on the River Kwai deserves all of the acclaim it gets.

The Good: The ending, which is basically only the last five minutes but starts about a half hour before then. So, so, so good.

The Bad: Nothing comes to mind. The film is very nearly flawless.

The Skinny: After one viewing I'm thinking of it as a personal top 25 candidate, so #70 is more than fair.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Day Forty-Nine: The Elephant Man

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #93
Year: 1980
Director: David Lynch
Starring: John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins

Between the years of 1977 and 1980, David Lynch, one of my all-time favorite directors made two movies that I can't watch. Don't get me wrong – I'd count both of them among my favorite films. It's just that I find both Eraserhead and The Elephant Man deeply unsettling, and for completely different reasons. The former is a visually striking, surreal journey that sees Lynch pulling out all the stops to deeply disturb the psyche of the viewer. The latter is actually a "normal" film when compared to most of its director's output, but the light it shines on the human soul is so tragic that I find it unbearable to watch more than once every few years. I have notoriously dry tear ducts, but The Elephant Man has made me cry. More than once. It makes you feel infinitely sympathetic toward a character with a beautiful heart and mind but an ugly exterior, then makes you watch how horrible more physically attractive human beings act toward him. It shies away from nothing, and it fills its viewers with a sense of self-loathing for even being a part of a race that is capable of such cruelty. Pair Lynch's approach to telling Joseph Merrick's heart-wrenching true story with my own childhood phobia of physical deformities – one which I am thankfully long since over – and you have a cocktail tailor-made to get the tears flowing.

David Lynch has gone on record as saying he chose to shoot The Elephant Man in black and white rather than color so that people wouldn't misinterpret it as a horror movie when they saw the eponymous character on screen. I don't think that would have been a problem given the nature of the script, but it's difficult to imagine this film any other way besides black and white now. The cinematography is gorgeous and Merrick's deformity is never hard to look at. What's much harder to look at is the behavior of the people who are not (physically) deformed, which is all, of course, by design.

Lynch as a director has been criticized as not being able to make movies that don't fulfill his surrealist idiom. That's a generally fair criticism – have you ever seen Dune? – but in this case, he takes the techniques that served him so well in the film's less accessible predecessors and uses them to create a movie that a broader audience can enjoy. It's difficult to watch, but unlike the bulk of his filmography, it's not difficult to understand. I haven't seen The Elephant Man in over a year, and I may not watch it again for a while, but it has stuck with me in an irreversible way, and possibly even made me a better person. It's not a point of entry for getting into Lynch's trippier works, but as a standalone film, they don't come much better – or sadder – than this.

The Good: Lynch's approach to telling Merrick's story which is at once sensitive to the subject matter and unflinching in showing its harsher realities.

The Bad: If it counts as a negative, I find it very difficult to watch. I cry every time Merrick cries out "I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am...a man!" Chills just typing it.

The Skinny: Deserving of its spot, even if it's a bit odd to see it ranked higher than any of Lynch's films that are more indicative of his style.

Day Forty-Eight: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #231
Year: 2008
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett

When The Curious Case of Benjamin Button first hit theaters, I was its most ardent defender. It's just like Forrest Gump, the naysayers would insist. No, I would say, it's not. Forrest Gump relied on real historical events to show the impact of its protagonist on the world, while Benjamin Button was a completely fictionalized account that followed the life of someone who was born old and aged backwards. This twist on the plot had never been done before, so certain cliches were inevitable and, indeed, forgivable. But the best thing about it is the makeup and special effects, my assailants continued. Shouldn't a movie nominated for a Best Picture Oscar be more than something nice to look at? It is more than that, I protested. Sure, it looks great, and they made Brad Pitt look believable at every age, but it's also a great, touching movie with fine performances and an interesting plot. But isn't the message a little banal, they would ask. No, I would reply. When has a carpe diem message been a bad thing in the past? Isn't it at least a little ironic that a movie about using the little time we have on this earth wisely is three and a half hours long and feels every minute of it? I had to give them that one. Now, I'm inclined to give them all of those points. In two years, I went from thinking The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was one of the best films of 2008 to thinking it basically sucked. Sorry, fans.

Visually, Benjamin Button is one of the highlights of an otherwise somewhat drab year. Fincher knows how to construct a scene, and with the help of some of the most immaculate makeup since The Elephant Man in 1980, Brad Pitt is consumed by the role of Benjamin Button, a Cajun baby born as an old man who ages backwards until he dies as an infant. CGI does its fair share, but the makeup artists pull the weight, and the crew was rightly rewarded with an Achievement in Makeup Academy Award. Speaking of Pitt, his performance is fantastic, although we probably shouldn't expect anything different at this point. In my humble opinion, he's the best actor in Hollywood today to have never won an Oscar for a performance. Unfortunately, the greatness basically stops there.

For a movie that tries so hard to be epic, Benjamin Button fails on almost every front. In one particularly grueling sequence, the very nature of serendipity is plainly explained to the audience, removing any possible power the scene may have had. The worst part about that scene is that it's the only part of the movie shot the way it's shot, and that it is of no relevance to the bigger picture the movie tries to paint. Fincher probably just thought it would be something fun to try, so he tried it, and threw it into the movie. This is just one of numerous examples of the film's disjointed nature. The final product has its strong points, but they're so inundated in flaws that the whole is weaker than the sum of the parts.

This movie isn't bad in the same way that Adam Sandler flicks, romantic comedies, and sequels to horror remakes are bad. Instead, it's an overambitious mess that isn't executed all that well and that hangs its hat on its ostensibly epic nature and pulls out no tricks that we haven't seen done before and done better. 2008's Best Picture nominees, with the possible exception of Milk, were all so underwhelming that people tricked themselves into think Benjamin Button was a great movie. Hell, I definitely did. Having had two years to think about it, no one should be fooled anymore.

The Good: The makeup.

The Bad: The directorial execution.

The Skinny: Should not be on the list.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Day Forty-Seven: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #75
Year: 1968
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood

If this blog, whether intentionally or not, exists somewhat as an unsolicited promotional tool for the IMDb, then I shouldn't feel too uncomfortable pointing out one particular feature there that has helped me countless times: the FAQs. Whenever a movie blows my mind, I run over to the FAQ section on that film's IMDb page and see what theories exist about that which confuses me. If I decide that the movie was interesting enough to watch again, I take some of these ideas in with me and make up my own mind about it. This probably sounds an awful lot like "cheating," but it soothes my brain. Besides, this blog entry would be the text equivalent of a drooling, blank expression without a little help from the FAQs.

Let's tackle the accessible parts of this movie first, since there is a decent portion of it that can be appreciated without thinking too hard. The first twenty minutes of the film, called "The Dawn of Man," start the ball rolling with some of the best scenes of the movie – and space isn't even involved. The common interpretation is that the apes discover bone tools with the influence of the first monolith to appear. (Note: I won't be tackling the concept of monoliths or what they do in this blog entry. There just isn't time, space, or brain capacity for that here.) My initial interpretation was slightly more subtle, though along the same lines. I felt that the apes weren't discovering the use of tools or weapons so much as they were discovering the concept of violence. Until the first ape murders one of his own, the hostility among the creatures is limited to verbal scuffles. They probably understood violence in some abstract way, but the existence of weapons brought it to the surface and truly gave a vicious streak to early man for the first time in prehistory. The shots in this entire sequence are a brilliant introduction to the movie that proves to only be tangentially related to the rest of it. The entire middle portion of the film depicting the power struggle between our two astronaut protagonists and their supercomputer captain HAL-9000 is also brilliantly scripted and shot, and is easily understood. Other wonderful and perfectly accessible parts of 2001 are the score, which made Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" one of the most widely recognized pieces of classical music among people who don't listen to classical music, and Kubrick's pioneering cinematography in the first feature film ever to use a front projection camera.

The less accessible parts of the movie presumably have plenty to offer as well, and I look forward to future viewings of the film. It should be noted that I had no idea what was happening for the last half hour of this movie. Our protagonist makes his way to Jupiter through the part of space that looks exactly like an acid trip, and then he turns up in a clean white apartment (commonly called a "hotel room" by reviewers, but I'll be damned if I've seen any hotel room that looked like that) with a monolith, where he ages his way to death in a matter of moments and then turns into a fetus and then the movie ends. I seriously re-watched the closing scene three times, then read about it, and am still going to need to watch the movie again to even comment on it. But hey, I love movies like that. I don't want to live in a world where great directors can't occasionally melt our brains. Stanley Kubrick is usually a fairly accessible filmmaker whose films are fantastic but raise few questions. 2001: A Space Odyssey – especially the third act – shows his other side, and I think I like it.

The Good: My favorite part of the movie was "The Dawn of Man," but I've detailed lots of great things about the movie above.

The Bad: I wonder if Kubrick could have gotten his point across with the psychedelic stuff on the way to Jupiter a bit quicker. Desaturated pictures of space are awesome for five minutes, but not ten or fifteen.

The Skinny: #75 sounds great to me.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Day Forty-Six: Brief Encounter

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #215
Year: 1945
Director: David Lean
Starring: Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard

Feature films that come up shy of the ninety minute mark are an interesting beast. In the modern era, they're often films where the director had very little to say or very little ability to say it, so they cut the movie mercifully short. In early Hollywood, those negative connotations were nowhere to be found, and succinctness was often something worth commending. Brief Encounter is a splendid little film that clocks in at 86 minutes and doesn't present much in the way of premise. Quite simply, a British housewife is fed up with domesticity, meets a handsome doctor at a train station, meets him once a week, falls in love with him, and eventually has to let him go to restore her marriage. This doesn't require hours of exposition and development, so director David Lean doesn't give us that. He says everything he needs to say in under ninety minutes, and the film is better for it.

Sadly, "better" doesn't mean "good" in this case. This is one of the more head-scratching entries on the list that I've come across so far. There are really just the two characters – aforementioned housewife Laura and aforementioned handsome doctor Alec – neither of whom are terribly multidimensional, and Lean practically insults us by letting Laura tell us everything that goes through her mind with poorly written narration rather than just letting the actors act. The open-on-the-ending device is somewhat cleverly used, but it's blindingly obvious that that's what's happening within the first five minutes of the film, so it's an ultimately wasted technique. Maybe audiences loved this in 1945, but even for its time it's thoroughly unimpressive.

A big part of why this movie hasn't held up is because in 1945, an extramarital affair – even without any strong sexual implications – was scandalous. Now, meeting a man for drinks at a train station once a week and taking a spin in his canoe is far from the sordid event that it was when Brief Encounter was released. Unfortunately, the entire movie hinges on the affair being taboo. Sure, one could point to Laura's dissatisfaction with domesticity as some kind of early manifestation of feminism on film, but the actual implications of this in the movie are far too weak to hold any water. This is essentially a movie about a woman who falls in love with someone she isn't married to who she leaves so she can stay with her husband because that's the right thing to do. That's about as far from feminism as it gets, so I don't buy that this is a women's lib picture.

Brief Encounter is not an awful movie. It has decent performances given the pedestrian script, and it's directed quite well, if a bit minimalistically, by a perfectly capable filmmaker. The score is even pretty cool; it's centered on Rachmaninoff's gorgeous second piano concerto. I just can't fathom how it would cross someone's mind to put this in the Top 250, or to have it ranked highly on a personal list. It's just not that good.

The Good: Can I say the score even though it wasn't specifically written for this film? Rachmaninoff makes my heart smile. If I can't, I'll say the succinctness. As it stands, this movie is average, but at 100+ minutes, it would flat out suck.

The Bad: The premise just doesn't do it for me. Maybe I shouldn't watch a 1945 romance film directly after something written by Charlie Kaufman ever again.

The Skinny: I don't think it deserves to be on the list.

Day Forty-Five: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #59
Year: 2004
Director: Michael Gondry
Starring: Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet

I tend to steer clear of romantic comedies. Some of that is because, yes, ninety-nine percent of them are among the most shamefully profit-motivated, dire pieces of trash ever committed to film, but perhaps an even bigger part is that I've never been in love myself, and I can't relate to characters who would get into all kinds of wacky antics for a woman or a man. Boiled down to its essentials, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a romantic comedy. Sure, it's a mind-bending, surreal, Charlie Kaufman-penned romantic comedy, but it's still very much within the genre. All that being said, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that while I enjoyed this movie, it didn't speak to me, because I could never see myself getting so hung up on someone that I'd want to surgically erase them from my memory. I won't hold that against the film, though, because I know that most of the population has felt that way, and I'm just a loser who doesn't know any better.

But seriously, folks – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an entertaining and truly innovative movie with Charlie Kaufman's indelible stamp all over it. It's one of his best scripts, right up there with Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, and the script is what really drives it. Michael Gondry does his part to create the dream world that most of the movie takes place in, and his sets straddle the line between David Lynch surrealism and Terry Gilliam world-building, to aesthetically pleasing effect. Much has been said about Jim Carrey's performance as neurotic writer Joel Barish. For example, he's not a drooling idiot with a stretchy face and a penchant for physical comedy and stupid voices like every other character he's ever played. Carrey actually pulls off the role with class, and never resorts to the safety of goofiness that he usually relies upon. Kate Winslet is good but never great, and the supporting cast is excellent except for Elijah Wood, who annoys the shit out of me every time he plays someone besides Frodo. (That laugh, why the fuck does he laugh like that? Why do they let him?)

Conceptually, the movie is pretty sweet. The idea of a company – using some very real-seeming technology – erasing people's memories of their exes for a price is pretty fascinating and leads to lots of ethical questions, which Kirsten Dunst's character addresses in the last reel. If Lacuna Inc. were real, its business would probably be outlawed, whatever benefits it offered its clients. As a premise for a movie, the company's existence is interesting, and the explanation for its product is just fleshed-out enough to be believable. Charlie Kaufman really knocked this one out of the park.

So I don't fully understand the motivations of the characters in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and maybe it is just a little bit hipster, but for what it sets out to do, I can hardly imagine any movie pulling this off better. I really liked it.

The Good: Charlie Kaufman is one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood today, and this script is no exception. "Psychologically taut," as his mom might say.

The Bad: Elijah Wood is bad, but not distractingly so. From a personal perspective, the worst part is what a matter of life and death is made of relationships. But that's just because I'm a cynical bastard, so I'll go with Elijah Wood.

The Skinny: #59 is definitely too high, but I could go for this being on the list somewhere in the 100s.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Day Forty-Four: Once Upon a Time in the West

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #24
Year: 1968
Director: Sergio Leone
Starring: Henry Fonda and Jason Robards

With each successive Western I watch, I become more and more certain that it's my favorite genre of film. Somehow, Sergio Leone's critical masterpiece – the superior The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is limited to being his fan favorite, I think – had evaded my viewing until this morning. Within ten minutes of beginning to rectify that wrong, I realized what a heinous oversight it had been on my part not to watch this film sooner. Once Upon a Time in the West is everything that Sergio Leone showed us that he was capable of doing in his Dollars trilogy applied to a much more serious and, yes, more epic end. Long, wide shots and extreme closeups abound, as well as a classic Ennio Morricone score and plenty of western malfeasance. The execution is basically the same as Leone's three most recent films, but the framework it's set against makes those look like he was just warming up, even if the ambition somewhat exceeds the amount of success he finds, ultimately rendering The Good, the Bad and the Ugly the better film.

There's an unbelievable amount to say about this movie's meaning, and most of that comes from Leone's intentions when making it. He wanted to take shots and scenes directly from classic American Westerns, then turn their meanings on their heads with ironic reversals, eventually creating a much darker message than those old Hollywood cowboy movies offered. Leone respected these films, but he never believed he could say what he wanted to say while sticking to their idiom – thus spaghetti Westerns were born, essentially – and Once Upon a Time in the West was to be his crowning achievement in reversing the meanings of those old movies.

Just because I think it's extremely impressive, here's a list of the movies that Wikipedia lists as films with scenes referenced in Once Upon a Time in the West: High Noon, 3:10 to Yuma, The Comancheros, Johnny Guitar, The Iron Horse, Shane, The Searchers, Warlock, The Magnificent Seven, Winchester '73, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Last Sunset, Duel in the Sun, Sergeant Rutledge, and My Darling Clementine. In addition to these that are listed, I spied a very obvious reference to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre near the film's climax, so who knows how many more are present. This guy was like Quentin Tarantino on crack. Critics (or idiots) could point to this list and see plagiarism, but the ironic ends to which Leone applies these scenes in showing what he believed to be a truer portrait of the West than Hollywood offered is more than commendable, it's brilliant. It shows an understanding of genre filmmaking that no one before or since has come anywhere near.

All this technical stuff aside, Once Upon a Time in the West is just a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Sure, it's not in the league of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in terms of re-watch value or fun, but it takes on the tall task that Leone set out to accomplish and manages to be not only watchable rather than self-indulgent but actually incredibly entertaining. The four solid headlining performances from Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, and Claudia Cardinale certainly help, but the script and especially the cinematography really carry the film. Even with the dozens of references to previous Westerns strewn throughout, the movie works cohesively as a well-oiled machine, as flawlessly as the big steam engines that serve as backdrops for some of its most crucial scenes. If you don't like this movie, you probably don't like movies, and that's it.

The Good: If The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the best film that Sergio Leone directed, then Once Upon a Time in the West is the best Sergio Leone film. His mark is all over this thing, and without him, it falls flat on its face.

The Bad: A few scenes might be a little too long. I think Leone saw how much people liked the graveyard shootout scene in his previous picture and decided to test out his boundaries. If that's true, he found them a few times here.

The Skinny: #24 is mighty high for any movie, and it wouldn't quite be that high on my personal list, but I can deal with it. Anything this ambitious that succeeds so frequently deserves special mention.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Day Forty-Three: The Green Mile

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #91
Year: 1999
Director: Frank Darabont
Starring: Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan

I can't even joke about how Frank Darabont only makes movies about inspirational black men serving time in prison that have been adapted from Stephen King books right now. This movie was just way too good. There is almost definitely no movie more similar to The Shawshank Redemption than The Green Mile, but I can't even consider that a criticism. Both movies are so damn good in their own right that whining about their similarity and the fact that they share a director (and source material author) is all but invalid.

Just to make this easier on me, MASSIVE SPOILERS LURK AHEAD! There, now we can get started.

If the two movies are going to be compared anyway, it makes sense to start with where they differ. In Shawshank, human resilience and grit wins the day. Andy escapes because he just keeps chipping away at that hole in his wall with a rock hammer, and Red gets out because he is perfectly honest with his jailers when he's brought up on consideration for parole. Relatively small tragedies punctuate the film, but the two main protagonists are freed, and the main antagonist is dead. That's the ending everyone wants. In The Green Mile, we fall in love with John Coffey, the gentle giant who can heal ailments, but he gets executed, and his co-protagonist is cursed to live an exceptionally long life and watch all his friends and family die. There is no catharsis. Great things happen all along the way – and sad ones, too – but the ending offers no closure, except that of John Coffey's death. It makes the prevailing tone a hell of a lot bleaker than that of Shawshank, that's for sure.

The points of similarity come through mostly in the writing and direction. The Green Mile and Shawshank are filmed in a pretty similar way, and both create that claustrophobic, imprisoned feeling for the viewer that Darabont is so great at capturing. While the camera is inside the walls of this prison, you're going to feel hopeless. I think it's fair to recognize Darabont's direction slightly less than I did when I wrote on Shawshank since he basically self-plagiarized all of his techniques. It's still impressive and still a pleasure to watch, but it shouldn't be mistaken for something original, even within his own filmography.

The comparison to Shawshank that The Green Mile has earned which is the biggest compliment as the most accurate assessment is that it pulls off something truly epic in scope while managing to feel totally unpretentious. Frank Darabont spent over three hours telling his audience about a convicted murderer on death row who can heal people with a power that he received, in accordance with what all the characters believe, from God. That could be a formula for making the schmaltziest movie of all time, but it's entirely engrossing instead, and I've never talked to anyone who didn't love this movie. I'm a stone-cold atheist and I had no problem accepting that this character, within the context of the film's universe, received his magical power from God. I was seeing things in strict black and white moral shades that I don't even believe exist. Stephen King and Frank Darabont and Michael Clarke Duncan and Tom Hanks sold this to me, and I didn't even put up a fight. It was that good. Make no mistake, The Green Mile is deserving of the praise it receives.

The Good: That rare combination of epic feel and unpretentiousness.

The Bad: I'll be honest, both lead performances are highly overrated. Tom Hanks is doing his "Tom Hanks with a southern accent" character, and Michael Clarke Duncan overacts the shit out of a few key scenes. The script and cinematography are strong enough that the performances aren't distracting, but they certainly aren't great.

The Skinny: I can deal with this at #91. I really liked it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Day Forty-Two: Duck Soup

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #221
Year: 1933
Director: Leo McCarey
Starring: Groucho Marx and Harpo Marx

While a lot of the Charlie Chaplin pictures on this list might feel too antiquated to the casual modern viewer to be good for much, the Marx Brothers' rambunctious style of comedy – one which combines classic vaudevillian slapstick with carefully measured witticisms and biting satire – remains accessible and, more importantly, hilarious even today. Duck Soup is the only Marx Brothers film that made its way onto the Top 250, and while it isn't considered their finest hour by the troupe's most devoted cultists, it's an excellent entry point to their work and a fine movie in its own right.

Duck Soup finds Groucho Marx taking over as president of the fictitious nation of Freedonia and waging war on neighboring Sylvania so that he can wed, and eventually take the money of, the pompous Mrs. Teasdale. The plot doesn't particularly matter since it just exists as a vessel for the Brothers' hysterical satire about war, espionage and bureaucracy, Groucho's plentiful blink-and-you'll-miss-'em one-liners about Mrs. Teasdale, and a whole lot of physical comedy gags involving Harpo and Chico. That sounds like an oversimplification, but it really isn't. I don't mean that as an insult at all, though. If you consider that more comedies are made than films of any other genre, and that this one, which was released in 1933, has found itself being judged as one of the 250 greatest movies of all time, it should be clear that the humor in it is top-notch. Like most Marx Brothers films, Duck Soup is infinitely rewatchable, sidesplittingly hilarious, and by the grace of God (and Netflix), extremely easy to find.

Seeing as it is a 68 minute silly comedy, there isn't necessarily a lot to blog about. Sure, I could overanalyze its message as an anti-war film – which I don't believe it has – or the poignancy of Groucho's satire in the sensitive political times that the film was released during, but I won't. Instead, I'll suggest that you find a copy of the movie, whether instantly on Netflix or via a physical copy, watch it, laugh the entire time, and thank me afterward.

The Good: Funnier than 99% of the comedies that come out today, and made with a 1933 sense of humor. Of all the great comedy in the film, Groucho's one-liners are by far the best part.

The Bad: Too short! I mean, it might run long in the tooth if it topped 100 minutes, but they could have easily milked it for more than 68.

The Skinny: I can't believe it's only #221, and I can't believe that it's the only Marx Brothers picture on the list. Needs to be much higher, and needs to be joined by Animal Crackers and A Night at the Opera.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Day Forty-One: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #237
Year: 1993
Diretor: Henry Selick
Starring: Danny Elfman and Chris Sarandon

I was thinking about waiting to do this one until either Halloween or Christmas Eve or Christmas, any of which would have been more relevant than August 12th, but oh well – I worked from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. today, and I did not at all feel like watching a movie when I got home. Instead, I'll be covering a movie that I've probably seen twenty times since its release. It's a minor holiday classic, and probably my favorite animated film of all time, so I shouldn't have any problem singing its praises for a few paragraphs.

The Nightmare Before Christmas follows Jack Skellington, the king of Halloweentown, as he faces a midlife crisis and finds himself questioning the merits of Halloween. Feeling empty, he stumbles upon Christmas Town and becomes immediately obsessed with that cheery holiday. He decides he and his Halloween cronies will try to pull off Christmas this year, and while his intentions are in the right place, the execution is painfully flawed, and he very nearly ruins the holiday. All this is driven by a classic Disney soundtrack written (and primarily sung) by former Oingo Boingo mainman and frequent Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman. Naturally, though, with Elfman and producer Burton pulling the strings, the result is much darker and much more tongue-in-cheek than the typical Disney fare, and it gives the film a dimension that helps to thrust it head-and-shoulders above films like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.

The most notable thing about this movie is the animation. For the first time in history, stop motion photography looked seamless and gorgeous, and actually suggested that there might be a real future in feature-length animated movies that weren't hand-drawn. (Toy Story confirmed this two years later.) I won't pretend to fully understand how stop-motion animation works, but the team behind Nightmare did an amazing job of moving their little figurines around and photographing them to create the illusion of motion. The illusion is so convincing, in fact, that the movie could pass for rudimentary computer animation – unlike the tragic current trend of making a film with rudimentary computer animation and trying to pass it off as stop-motion. 9, I'm looking straight at you.

The only real tragedy in this movie is that even though it was Tim Burton's baby – he wrote the poem it was based on when he was working as an animator for Disney in the early 1980s – he didn't get the chance to direct it because of his obligations behind the camera on Batman Returns. If he did, it probably would have been even better than it already is, and it undoubtedly would have become his best film. As it stands, The Nightmare Before Christmas is still my favorite animated movie of all time, and a true classic of the genre that we should kiss Disney's feet every day for boldly distributing.

The Good: The animation.

The Bad: A few of the songs have some laughable lyrics, but if you consider them tongue-in-cheek – which they are – everything is alright. But still, "I am the clown with the tear-away face!"

The Skinny: Way higher than my 237th favorite, probably in my top 25. But yes, it deserves to be on the list.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Day Forty: The Killing

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #185
Year: 1956
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Sterling Hayden and Elisha Cook

Most of the discussion surrounding The Killing, a 1950s noir classic centered on a failed heist of a racetrack, is about its director. That's fair; Stanley Kubrick would go on to direct more classics – including a whopping nine films on the IMDb Top 250 – than just about any other director ever. Unfortunately, it's precisely that that makes hordes of people question the quality of the film in question. It seems to be the consensus that The Killing is only even watched today because of what its director would go on to do later in his career, and that it isn't worth the praise that's been heaped upon it after the fact. I'm not sure if that's entirely fair; I enjoyed The Killing as much as any noir film I've ever seen.

Like the people who say this movie is only talked about because of its director, I think it's important to consider it in the context of Kubrick's career. Unlike those people, however, I think it's useful to look at it much as I look at Taxi Driver for Martin Scorsese: as a brilliant introduction that shows us some of the techniques we would see more of in later, more fully realized masterpieces. Sure, The Killing has a pretty standard plot that pulls out most of the standard noir devices, but it's obvious that the hand of a master is guiding the process. The way the chronology is assembled, the series of unfortunate events that unfolds after the first failure in the heist plot, and the look of utter hopelessness on the protagonist's face in the long closing shot are all indicative of the power that Kubrick already wielded at such a (relatively) tender age.

The entire 83 minute movie is spent setting up, executing, and dealing with the aftermath of the heist at the racetrack. As such, there isn't a whole lot to talk about in terms of message or meaning, or much to read into beyond what's committed to the celluloid – not that that should matter. What you see is what you get with The Killing. It isn't the tangled web that some of Kubrick's later works would be, but it's still an occasionally psychologically taut, high quality film, and one well worth your time.

The Good: Following the plot and seeing how the heist unfolds singlehandedly puts this movie's bread on the table. You sure as hell won't be watching it for...

The Bad: ...the performances. Yikes. Not even competent, most of them.

The Skinny: Of the nine Kubrick films on the list, it deserves its spot the least of the ones I've seen. I still think it deserves its spot, though.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Day Thirty-Nine: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #66
Year: 1948
Director: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston

Ah, the backend of a two-part post. You'd better believe this movie is unfairly going to get the shaft. I'll give it my best shot to do it just a little bit of justice. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, like part one of today's double post, is a study of the effect of the gold rush on men's souls. Unlike that earlier film, though, it's a very serious treatment of the topic, and it doesn't shy away from some of the more grim realities of prospecting, including but not limited to murder. The movie follows three gringos living in Mexico – played wonderfully by Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt – who set off into the mountains to strike it rich as prospectors. Once they find a little bit of gold, they all start to get paranoid that the other guys will take their share. Living in fear of each other and the countless banditos that patrol the area, they are effectively driven mad by the gold.

Then there's the stinking badges, which the banditos don't need. There is possibly no line in movie history that has been paid homage to, parodied, stolen, copied, aped, plagiarized, and lampooned more than "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!", spoken by the Alfonso Bedoya when Bogart asks him where his badges are if he is indeed with the police. The line has become so ingrained in the national subconscious that any ten-year old kid who has never so much as heard of this movie would recognize it in a cold screening. The delivery of the actual line in its actual intended context, of course, is superb. Despite its decades of misuse, the source still holds up remarkably well, and that's a credit to Mr. Bedoya's performance.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a Western in a very general sense, but it's not one that looks like a Leone or Eastwood or Peckinpah film. The landscape is mostly mountainous, there are no lawmen or bounty hunters or cowboys or Indians. But the Western atmosphere pervades just the same, and the same vibe is felt when watching. It's not terribly fair to judge it against other Westerns, though; it's a traditional Hollywood movie made in the classical tradition, and it's no wonder that Bogart made it in the same decade that he made The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and The Big Sleep. Even though those films are (presumably) very different, they (presumably) have a similar Golden Age of Hollywood feel about them, and it's best to think of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in that context, not the context that Sergio Leone would establish fifteen years later. It's a great movie, even if some of that comes from the fact that it feels like it's supposed to be great.

The Good: There is a Wikipedia article entitled "Stinking badges." 'Nuff said.

The Bad: SPOILER ALERT: I didn't like seeing Bogey go. Even when he was devolving into a barely human greed machine, he was the most likable character.

The Skinny: #66 is really high for any movie and I'm not sure if I can totally get behind it here. If it was somewhere around #100 I would probably be a little more comfortable with its placement. Deserves to be on the list, though, without a doubt.

Day Thirty-Eight: The Gold Rush

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #176
Year: 1925
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin and Georgia Hale

My wireless connection has been acting up at home, so I'm doing two posts today to make up for skipping yesterday. By either coincidence or divine circumstance, the two films I'm writing on – Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush and John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – happen to be indelibly linked. Both examine the tremendous weight that the hunt for gold places on the human soul and the consequences it holds for relationships and mental stability. While The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which I'll discuss in more depth in my next post, won a screenplay Oscar for its very serious treatment of the subject, The Gold Rush offers a more comedic approach. But that's not to say it's a wholly lighthearted affair. Like most of Chaplin's best work, the film is anchored by its most serious moments, and there are plenty.

The Gold Rush has two scenes in particular that have become canonized as shining examples of Charlie Chaplin's greatness as a performer, but taking them out of context belies their depressing nature. In one scene, Chaplin's tramp and his hirsute companion Big Jim are sitting at the dinner table in their windswept cabin in the Klondike region. They haven't eaten in days, and their friend is lost outside in a blizzard. Chaplin saunters to the stove, and we see that he's preparing one of his boots in a boiling pot of water. He carves it like a Christmas goose, and he and Big Jim manage to choke it down. It's comical that they are eating a shoe, and that's all that seems to be remembered about the scene. But it's totally spirit-crushing that they're eating a shoe because they're starving to death on the Alaskan frontier, trapped in a shack because the blizzard outside is too strong for them to leave. In the other iconic scene, Chaplin entertains his dinner guests – including his love interest, the beautiful Georgia – by stabbing two rolls with forks to make them look like legs and doing a soft shoe dance routine on the table with them. We learn shortly after this that he had only dreamed this, and that he fell asleep waiting for dinner guests that never came. The dance routine is brilliantly executed and very funny, but it only happens because Chaplin was stood up by the only person he cares about in the Great White North while she was too busy partying with a burly, handsome jerk. Taken as a whole, the movie is only as funny as it is bleak.

Now, of course, there's a happy ending. Chaplin and Big Jim find their mountain of gold and become millionaires, and Chaplin gets the girl. This is a classic comedy, and nothing different should be expected. The somewhat contrived ending is hardly the point; the hour that leads up to it is. The Gold Rush is Chaplin at his bipolar best, and both the silent version and the 1942 version with narration by the star and director himself are worth watching.

The Good: The comedy is almost always born out of agony, and for having as much slapstick as it does, it's a very serious movie.

The Bad: Typical 1920s continuity and tape issues. Only distracting if you let them be.

The Skinny: Very deserving of its place.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Day Thirty-Seven: Kick-Ass

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #162
Year: 2010
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Aaron Johnson and Chloë Moretz

Enjoy this post, Kick-Ass lovers. This is probably the only year that someone doing an IMDb Top 250 blog will be able to write about it. When people criticize the list for being biased toward new, popular movies, this is pretty much exactly what they mean. Since it was on the list on the day that I set out to write this blog, though, I get to write about it. I'm more than okay with that, because Kick-Ass is one of my four or five favorite comic book movies of all time, and I watch every goddamn comic book movie that comes out.

Kick-Ass is a simple enough concept for a comic, but it still feels fresh. In an eight issue miniseries by Mark Millar with pencils by John Romita, Jr., a young man with no superpowers of any kind decides to become a superhero despite that handicap, and rises to popularity on the Internet when a video showing him protecting a victim of gang violence is posted to YouTube. He decides to call himself Kick-Ass, meets two highly trained weapons masters called Big Daddy and Hit-Girl bent on vigilante justice, and is drawn into a trap involving a fourth superhero called Red Mist. This is all brought to the screen mostly faithfully by director Matthew Vaughn, and in the places where the adaptation deviates from Millar's original script, it actually improves upon the source material. Where Millar sometimes goes a little wild with comic book nerd in-gags, Vaughn offers a more universally appealing look at the world of Kick-Ass – and he keeps most of the over-the-top violence and foul language that makes the comic what it is.

By far the highlight of the film is the way that Chloë Moretz plays Hit-Girl, a thirteen-year old girl with a taste for homicide and a filthy vocabulary. Like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver and Natalie Portman in The Professional before her, she plays the adolescent girl who is wise beyond her years through no fault of her own, and like those other actresses, she brings a combination of badassness and tragedy to the role. Also like those other actresses, it's obvious that she has a bright future ahead of her. Sure, Kick-Ass isn't a Scorsese or a Besson, but it doesn't try to be. All it tries to be is a fun popcorn movie that will elicit some "Aw, hell yeah!" moments as well as some uproarious laughter out of its audience – not at all an uncommon goal for a Mark Millar work – and in that right, it was a blistering success.

So I think we've succeeded in proving that Kick-Ass is a very fun movie. But there was really never any question about that, unless you're Roger Ebert. The real question is whether it should be on the IMDb Top 250. As of press time, it's one of four 2010 films on the list, along with Inception, Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon. The list stretches back to 1921's The Kid, which allows for a total of 2.8 movies per year. That doesn't make 4 a ridiculous number at all (even though it is only August), and I don't think it's fair to say that these movies only made the list because they're fresh in peoples' minds. There's plenty of years on the list that are better represented than 2010, so that can't be a criterion used to keep it off the list. Personally, I think Kick-Ass belongs. For what it attempts to do, hardly any movie has done it better. It shares list real estate with fellow comic book movies The Dark Knight, Batman Begins and V for Vendetta, which, if you added Iron Man and X2 to that list, would be all of the greatest comic book movies of all time. It's a controversial pick, to be sure, and some of the non-comic book movie company it keeps on the IMDb Top 250 could inspire eye-rolling in the first degree, but I stand behind the placement of Kick-Ass at #162. Let's just see if it's there at this time next year.

The Good: You heard it here (and everywhere else on the Internet): Chloë Moretz is going places. I seriously wanted every scene to just be Hit-Girl swearing and killing.

The Bad: Christopher Mintz-Plasse sucks so bad. He was funny in Superbad, but that's because he is probably just like McLovin in real life. Let's try to keep that mug and that voice out of all movies in the future. Thanks, Hollywood.

The Skinny: I dig the placement at #162.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Day Thirty-Six: Taxi Driver

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #40
Year: 1976
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster

After a short introductory phase to his career consisting of movies ranging from total flops to minor successes, Martin Scorsese became the Martin Scorsese that we know and love today with 1976's Taxi Driver, a film that explores the psyche of a cab-driving Vietnam veteran with undiagnosed insomnia who gets wrapped up in the lives of the people he encounters on his route. I'll be the first to admit that it's a complete and utter travesty that it took me until now to see this movie. I can hardly think of any movies that are more universally praised and critically acclaimed, and I generally like Scorsese's work, so it's unforgivable that I never saw it. After going back to see it, it's obvious what an impact Taxi Driver would have stylistically on Scorsese throughout the rest of his career. Robert De Niro delivers a top-notch performance as Travis Bickle, and Jodie Foster paves the way for Natalie Portman in The Professional and Chloë Moretz in Kick-Ass with her role as a preteen girl with her innocence shattered by her lifestyle, even though Portman and Moretz didn't play child prostitutes like Foster does here. Pound for pound, this is one of Scorsese's finest moments as a director, even if my weird obsession with Gangs of New York prevents me from calling it his masterpiece.

The beauty of Taxi Driver is that, up until its climax, very little happens. Sure, Bickle shoots that robber in the convenience store, but he spends the rest of the first three-fourths of the movie driving around, talking to people, watching porn, working out, and buying guns. He saves most of his energy for his grand finale, which more than justifies the buildup. SPOILER ALERT: He kills three gang members to protect Iris, Foster's preteen prostitute. What's beautiful and tragic about it is that it doesn't really feel like he did it in an attempt to clean up the city or make an example or even because he cared deeply about Iris and didn't want her to get hurt. It essentially feels like he was bored with all of the wakeful hours his insomnia brought him, so he decided to do something violent. He originally wanted to assassinate a presidential candidate, and hell, he didn't even want to live through the ordeal; he left a note for Iris saying he'd be dead before she'd see him again, and in an iconic shot, he sits on the couch after the shootout with all of his guns empty, pointing his index finger at his temple and repeatedly pulling the trigger with a depraved smile on his face. Instead, he gets to be a hero, and the papers write about the great thing he did as if he wanted the publicity.

The denouement is something that has been debated endlessly, and I won't add my contributions simply because I don't know what to think. Bickle drops off the woman he had been courting at the beginning of the film at her house, pays her fare for her, then drives off. He hears a distorted sound, looks into his rear view mirror, and the scene cuts. Scorsese has said that this is meant to represent the fact that Bickle is not a hero, and that he could snap again at any moment. That's satisfyingly unambiguous, even if it is a bit of a cop-out on Marty's part. The movie wouldn't be as great as it is without its ending, and De Niro sells it hard with those steely eyes of his.

The Good: Even if it wasn't technically the thing that set Scorsese up for one of the greatest directorial careers of all time, it effectively was. He comes into his own and pulls out a lot of the tricks we'd see in future works here.

The Bad: It might be slightly overrated, just because I've seen it on so many people's lists as their #1 movie of all time. I can't quite dig that, but it is extremely good.

The Skinny: Deserves its place.