Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Day Eighty-Nine: The Lion King

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #146
Year: 1994
Director: Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff
Starring: Matthew Broderick and James Earl Jones

During the early 1990s, Disney was absolutely unfuckwithable as an animation studio. From 1991 to 1995, they consecutively released Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and Pocahontas – masterpieces all. According to IMDb users, the best of these films was The Lion King, as it is the only one to make the Top 250. (Personally I prefer Beauty and the Beast.) It is a fantastic film, and it remains one of Disney's greatest epics. Released a year before Pixar came along with their classic Toy Story, The Lion King challenged the very boundaries of what could be done with animation, and even today its take on the art of hand-drawn motion pictures is among the finest examples of all time. Scenes like the wildebeest stampede that takes Mufasa's life and the Triumph of the Will-style hyena goose-stepping show the painstaking attention to detail as well as the unprecedented cinematic vastness incorporated by Disney animators when they made this film. Unlike today when a great traditionally animated Disney film is an exception to the rule, in 1994 it was merely indicative of the quality that was expected of this studio.

The story of The Lion King is one that can be appreciated by people of all ages. It is undoubtedly a movie targeted at kids, but it doesn't pull any punches. In the film's first third, the lion patriarch and ostensible protagonist Mufasa is killed by his brother, Scar, thrown into a sea of storming wildebeests. Mufasa's young son Simba is made to believe he caused his father's death by Scar, who offers this accusation while Simba paws at Mufasa's corpse. The scene is tragic by any genre's standards, it just happens that there were theaters full of young kids watching it in this case. The rest of the film alternates between sunny singalong moments like the coming-of-age sequence, anchored by the worry-free philosophy of meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa and darker scenes like the exposition of the barren wasteland that Scar transformed the savanna into during his reign as king – but no moments are quite as high nor as low as Mufasa's death. It was this emotional complexity that Disney would roll over to Pixar for most of that studio's films. In a somewhat superficial sense, "it all" started here.

If there's one thing that's frustrating about the presence of The Lion King on the IMDb Top 250, it's that it is the only traditionally animated Disney film to make the cut. The studio has animated 49 feature length films since 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, including a significant number of movies generally considered to be classics. It's not to take away any of The Lion King's greatness, but the absence of movies like Beauty and the Beast and Bambi is conspicuous and, in short, wrong. Using a blog entry meant to praise one movie to lament the absence of others, though something I've done a number of times in the past eight-nine days, isn't particularly useful, so I'll leave you with this: The Lion King is a phenomenal, timeless movie, and it should be required viewing for cinema lovers of all ages.

The Good: The emotional power of the Mufasa death scene.

The Bad: "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" is not a very good song, especially when placed next to classics like "Circle of Life" and "Hakuna Matata."

The Skinny: Again, it's not the only Disney film that deserves to be on the list, but it does deserve to be here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Day Eighty-Eight: To Kill a Mockingbird

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #53
Year: 1962
Director: Robert Mulligan
Starring: Gregory Peck and Mary Badham

To Kill a Mockingbird. The name alone conjures up vivid memories for everyone who ever took a high school English class from the 1970s onward. It is perhaps the most ubiquitous novel of the 20th century, and the 1962 film version isn't far behind. It is an undisputed classic of the first order, and it solidified the greatness of Gregory Peck while introducing a young new actor in Robert DuVall. It was, at its time, the best adaptation of a novel ever committed to film. It confronted racism in America at a time when it badly needed confronted. It held a mirror to America, especially the South, and made the hero not some Western sheriff or war admiral, but a simple lawyer dedicated to fairness and truth who wanted to keep a wrongly accused black man from going to jail for a crime he didn't commit. This was a bold step in 1962. Not everyone read novels, but most people went to the movies. Going to the movies is the most passive pastime of all, and especially when films were cheaper to get into, most Americans were constantly up to date on what was in theaters. To Kill a Mockingbird communicated an important but somewhat uncomfortable message to more people than any piece of art in any other medium before.

A few years back, the American Film Institute released its list of the fifty greatest movie heroes of all time. Rather than Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones or James Bond topping the list, all much "cooler" characters than Atticus Finch, Gregory Peck's role in To Kill a Mockingbird came in at #1. Typically I hate citing something the AFI did to show that it's great or relevant, but here I think it's fair. Even in the category of "hero," one which is dominated by people who can do physically astounding feats and who use weapons to achieve the noble ends that they seek, Atticus Finch stands head and shoulders above the rest. He uses reason, words, and an impeccable basso Southern drawl to do what must be done. With some well-delivered monologues, it feels as though he has the power to stop racism dead in its tracks.

Thus far it sounds as though I'm calling this movie preachy. I'd like to point out that I don't mean to. In fact, it's far from it. While the racial implications of Tom Robinson's trial can be read into quite deeply, the film at face value doesn't go that far. It's narrated by Scout Finch, a young girl who has much more pressing problems than race relations in America – namely, learning her lines for a school play in which she was cast as a ham, and running scared from the enigmatic Boo Radley. Through her innocent eyes the trial is cast, and to take anything valuable from the film we have to look farther than she can. The film – and, indeed, the book – works on two levels with the added dimension of the protagonist who isn't quite cognizant of everything that's going on. To Kill a Mockingbird is a rare convergence of a great author penning a great book, a great screenwriter effectively capturing it, and a great cast and director bringing it to life. There's hardly been a more perfect storm in Hollywood history.

The Good: Gregory Peck's career-best performance as Atticus Finch.

The Bad: It's not a movie that nears my personal favorites just for taste reasons, but it's also not one that I can find any flaws with.

The Skinny: I'm fine with it at #53.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Day Eighty-Seven: Life of Brian

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #149
Year: 1979
Director: Terry Jones
Starring: Graham Chapman and John Cleese

Since I'm stuck on the back end of a double post at 1 a.m. with seventy-eight pages of reading yet to do before a 9:30 a.m. quiz, I figured I would follow up my review of the most epic movie I've ever seen with a brief post on the greatest epic satire I've ever seen. Monty Python's Life of Brian is equal parts Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, Spartacus and Monty Python's Flying Circus, replacing the sometimes heavy-handed delivery of epic nature inherent in those first three films with the utter silliness of the latter television show. Every member of the troupe fires on all cylinders here, and while I don't like it as much as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian is almost certainly the best film the Pythons ever made. Its whip-smart satire of epic films, mostly Biblical in nature, as well as the nature of religion itself, is unparalleled in any film before or since.

I really hate to cut my post short in such an unceremonious manner when this is really a tremendous movie, but I have such an unbelievable amount of real, incentivized work ahead of me tonight that I can't justify saying much more. I'll jump straight to The Good, the Bad and the Skinny and try to beef those up a bit. Sorry to huge Life of Brian fans who wanted a 2,000 word manifesto on the film. I implore you to write one yourself. I'd be happy to read it.

The Good: Since Life of Brian is still largely a sketch-based film, I'll give a list of my favorite scenes: The "I'm Brian!" parodying the "I'm Spartacus!" scene, "This is his shoe!" and the ensuing mob, and especially "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," which is still the post-show PA music for Iron Maiden concerts. Each of the last three times I've heard that song, I've been extremely happy.

The Bad: A few sketches fall flat. Hey, they can't all be winners.

The Skinny: I can deal with this at #149 even though it probably wouldn't approach that for me.

Day Eighty-Six: Spartacus

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #241
Year: 1960
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier

My personal history with Spartacus, a film I had never actually seen until tonight, is long and bizarre. In the 5th grade, I was obsessed with the improvisational comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? On reflection, it was a mostly terrible show, but I really loved it for some reason. The cast loved to take single ideas and make a joke about them in every single episode, whether it made sense to do so or not. One of these constantly recurring gags was from Stanley Kubrick's 1960 Rome epic; on nearly every episode, one of the show's four performers would announce "I'm Spartacus!" in some presumably comical context. So, since about the year 2000, I've been familiar with one scene from Spartacus. When Pepsi used the same scene for an ad campaign in 2005, I felt like I already knew it, and even this was five years before I would watch the film. That's how pop culture works sometimes. When something is too deeply ingrained in the public psyche, the creator sometimes loses ownership. So I took nothing more than my familiarity with the great scene where dozens of members of the slave army stand up to take the blame for Spartacus' role in their revolt when I sat down to watch the film tonight, and I found the other three hours extremely satisfying.

One thing kind of bugged me about the movie that I have to air out. The screenplay for Spartacus was written by Dalton Trumbo, the Johnny Got His Gun author famously blacklisted during the McCarthy Era as a communist. Some accounts say that the "I'm Spartacus!" scene is a metaphor for the solidarity felt among the blacklisted writers during the Red Scare. And that's fine. In fact, it gives the scene a nice second dimension and serves to enhance it. The result is a feel-good vibe of solidarity among disenfranchised parties. That's on one hand. On the other hand, Spartacus is a movie about a slave revolt – being released to 1960 America, no less – that steers as far clear of race issues as it possibly can. The only mention of race involves a trident-wielding Ethiopian slave chosen to fight against Spartacus in the film's first act. He is later called "a Negro," hardly in a manner any more racist than depicting him as a slave in the first place, and that's that. If Trumbo could insert a commentary on the writers blacklisted during the Red Scare, then he surely could have found room to make a nod to race relations in a film that so perfectly lent itself to the subject and in an era that so desperately needed such a discussion. It's silly to knock a movie for what it isn't, though, and what Spartacus is deserves heaps of praise.

The word "epic" as it relates to film is meaningless without Spartacus. Told in sprawling episodic fashion over some of Kubrick's vastest cinematography, it is a triumphant yet tragic story that could be ripped from the pages of Virgil (Please don't call me out on that, classics nerds). It traces the life of a hardheaded Thracian slave from his days working in Libya to his time in a gladiator academy, and from his role in leading a slave army to his crucifixion for revolting against the state. We get glimpses into his love life along the way, and Trumbo managed to write in a fairly beautiful romance with Varinia, a slave girl from Britannia played wonderfully by Jean Simmons. The movie is everything one would expect such an epic endeavor to be, and its iconic scene plays just as powerfully in context as it does in the countless send-ups and tributes that it inspired. It's not Kubrick's best picture, but it's quite possibly his most ambitious, and most of that ambition is capitalized upon magnificently.

The Good: "I'm Spartacus" is one of the most iconic scenes in the history of film, and with good reason.

The Bad: As with so many films this episodic, there's some disconnect between scenes. It's what made Ran feel so uneven, and it pops up from time to time here as well.

The Skinny: Just sneaking on the list at #241 sounds pretty good to me.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Day Eighty-Five: Toy Story

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #151
Year: 1995
Director: John Lasseter
Starring: Tom Hanks and Tim Allen

At some point after starting this blog, I decided that I should do all trilogies and multi-part series that appear on this list in their entirety on consecutive days in order. So somewhere down the road, there will be three days of The Lord of the Rings, three days of Star Wars, two days of Kill Bill, and perhaps a few others. Unfortunately, I thought up this awesome idea after I had already blogged about Toy Story 3. As such, I have no particular obligations regarding when I choose to blog about the first two films in that excellent trilogy, so tonight, having watched Mulholland Dr. (which I've already blogged about) with my brother, I'll be covering Toy Story. This is one of the movies on the list that I've been familiar with for the longest, having seen it in theaters as a kindergartner when it was first released. I've seen it countless times since then, and without watching it tonight, I feel fairly qualified to talk about it for a few paragraphs.

Toy Story is notable primarily because it was the first feature film produced by Pixar Studios, a company that has become a powerhouse both at the box office and critically – but you know that already. What the release of Toy Story really meant was an immediate and irreversible shift in American filmmaking away from the traditional animation style of earlier Disney fare (The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, etc.) and toward computer animation. There were purists crying that it wasn't real animation, and there were zealots proclaiming the death of traditional cartoons, but mostly there were wide-eyed consumers, impressed with something they imagined technology could do but had never seen realized so fully. Even at the age of five, I was one of these consumers. Because of Toy Story, I would grow up inundated in the world of Pixar, anxiously anticipating every new film, at first because I was a kid and I saw them as fun kid's movies, and later, after I became a film snob at age thirteen, because I appreciated them as some of the finest cinema that was coming out of America.

It's quite possible that it's just because of the age at which I saw it and how ingrained it became in my DNA as a result, but I think Toy Story transcends plot summary. If you don't know how Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear became united, if you don't know of their power struggle, if you don't know what happened at Pizza Planet, if you don't know how Sid treats toys, and if you don't know the meaning of the phrase "falling with style," you've probably spent the better part of the last fifteen years under a rock. As with most Pixar movies, Toy Story is less about what happens as it is about the associated emotions. I'll get a Pavlovian feeling of nostalgia every time I hear "You've Got a Friend in Me" until the day I die, even if it's been years since my last viewing of the movie that made it a hit. It might not be the best film Pixar would ever make, but Toy Story is essential viewing, and is perhaps the most important animated film ever made.

The Good: The revolutionary nature of a great computer-animated feature film in 1995.

The Bad: Tom Hanks and Tim Allen both perform admirably in their roles, but where later Pixar movies would perfect the casting of talented unknowns to make their films devoid of distraction, they kind of settled for letting two huge stars make characters sound like them. No offense meant to anyone, but that's kind of a Dreamworks thing.

The Skinny: #151 sounds low, until you learn that Toy Story 3 (as of the beginning of this blog) is in side the top ten, then it sounds criminally low.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Day Eighty-Four: Ed Wood

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #199
Year: 1994
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp and Sarah Jessica Parker

In a sense, it's ironic that Ed Wood is the 199th greatest movie of all time according to IMDb users. Its protagonist is arguably one of the worst directors of all time, and the likes of Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda would never make even a top 10,000 movies of all time list. Further adding to the irony, no other Tim Burton-Johnny Depp collaboration, of which there are seemingly hundreds, is a member of the Top 250, and Ed Wood is probably the least characteristic film of the duo's work together. Lastly, this is a comedy. It's a black comedy, but the films of Ed Wood and the vast majority of the film's of Tim Burton are not comedies. All that adds to Ed Wood overcoming some sizable odds to make this list. As one might imagine, it makes the cut despite its handicaps because it's really, really fucking good.

Ed Wood's story would be a tragic one if it weren't so ridiculous. He was a transvestite in an era that didn't understand, much less accept, cross-gendered individuals. He was a director, mostly of incredibly low-budget science fiction and horror movies. These were some of the worst movies ever committed to film, and they gained popularity only as so-bad-it's-good cult favorites. He was friends with ex-Dracula Bela Lugosi, whom he convinced to appear in some of his films. But that was mostly just so Lugosi could fuel a drug habit not befitting a man of his advanced age. Wood started making pornography and snuff films late in his career to make ends meet. He became depressed, drifted into alcoholism, and died penniless of a heart attack at the age of 54. All of this should amount to tragedy, but unfortunately, the only thing that Wood left for us to remember him by is an extensive filmography of terrible movies, and it's way too easy to mock them and forget the sadness of his life. This is the essence of Burton's biopic. Wood lives a hard, depressing life, but that doesn't make the flying saucers in Plan 9 from Outer Space any less hilarious-looking. Burton knows this, and he does his best to capture both sides of Wood.

Bizarre as it is, Ed Wood succeeds in a big way. Tim Burton – with huge amounts of help from Johnny Depp as Wood and Martin Landau as Lugosi – effectively communicates the shadow and light inherent in the story. True to the material, Burton resists the temptation to make the film visually busy like most of his work. Stark, simple black-and-white cinematography guides the plot, and the only visual effects present are the terrible ones in reenactments of Wood's films. Like, Ed Wood's life, his biopic is a constant battle between the tragic and the ridiculous, and there is no clear winner. That is, except for the audience.

The Good: Martin Landau's Oscar-winning performance as Bela Lugosi.

The Bad: Sarah Jessica Parker's existence. Or at least her performance.

The Skinny: Definitely deserves to be on the list, and probably somewhere right around where it is now.

Day Eighty-Three: Raging Bull

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #71
Year: 1980
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci

I have a few notable biases in film, none of which are terribly logical, but all of which are very real. Perhaps the strongest is my general distaste for boxing pictures. In my estimation, since I don't like boxing, and I don't really see the influence of the sport on culture or in my day-to-day life, a movie about it isn't something I want to see. "But Brad," you might protest, "You don't live in the Old West. Hell, you've never been west of Missouri. Why do you like Westerns?" Hey, I came right out and said my biases were illogical, so deal with it.

Fortunately, this bias didn't really enter into the equation when I watched Raging Bull last night. It's a movie about a boxer, true, but it isn't really a movie about boxing. We see footage from a number of fights, but the plot rarely hinges on their outcome. No, this is a film about the life of Jake LaMotta (played by Robert De Niro in an Oscar-winning role), a middleweight contender who is as wild outside of the ring as he is inside it. He spends most of his time with his beautiful wife (Cathy Moriarty) and his older brother Joey (Joe Pesci), but he treats them like utter shit. After a particularly vicious fight with Joey, they part ways. Jake Рand, in turn, De Niro Рgains sixty pounds after his boxing career comes to an unceremonious close. He opens a bar and starts doing terrible stand-up comedy for ten people. The film closes as it opens, with an overweight LaMotta sitting in his dressing room and soliloquizing about his present situation. He Рor, more accurately, cinema-obsessed director and uncredited writer Martin Scorsese Рoffers a line from Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront to sum up his fall from grace. "I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am." It's become clich̩ to quote that line since, but here, it's tragic and self-aware and beautiful, and it makes the film better.

So perhaps I overcame my boxing movie bias by watching Raging Bull. Or perhaps I've been overcoming it along with a number of my other biases by simply doing this blog. In any case, I loved this film. I'd put it very nearly on par with the excellent Taxi Driver in the canon of Scorsese-De Niro collaborations, and I'd rank it higher than any other boxing movie I've seen – a list which still excludes Rocky, for the record. Carried by strong direction and two phenomenal performances by De Niro and Pesci, Raging Bull deserves all the acclaim that it has garnered in the three decades since its release.

The Good: De Niro's performance is brilliant. I'm still astonished that he put on sixty pounds to play a character for one movie. That's dedication. Joe Pesci also gives a better performance than I've ever seen from him. Unfortunately, it's overshadowed by De Niro.

The Bad: Can I say that I don't care for the way it's marketed? Like Million Dollar Baby, Raging Bull is a movie that is about a boxer, isn't about boxing, and is advertised as if it's a movie version of Pay-Per-View fight night.

The Skinny: I'm probably down with Top 100. The exact location on the list I'm not as certain of.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Day Eighty-Two: The Secret in Their Eyes

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #175
Year: 2009
Director: Juan Jose Campanella
Starring: Ricardo Darin and Soledad Villamil

This post is probably going to be a little weird. The Secret in Their Eyes just came out on DVD yesterday, so I'm reviewing it for Weekend, the entertainment section in the Indiana Daily Student – and that is a shameless plug, by the way. The thing is, that review has to be 125-175 words, and my blogs usually run upwards of 500. So to save myself from too much rewriting, what follows on this post may see me exercising more brevity than I usually do for Twohundredfifty.

The Secret in Their Eyes became a familiar name to American film lovers during Oscar season earlier this year, when it garnered a nomination for Best Foreign Film – an award it would eventually win. The Argentinian film is the story of a vigilant federal justice agent played by Ricardo Darin who, along with his alcoholic best friend and a beautiful young lawyer, sets out to convict a man accused of the rape and murder of a young woman. They catch him and get him to confess to the crimes, but he slips through their fingers and is freed. He masterminds the murder of Darin's drunk friend, and drops off the map. Or so we think. In the film's penultimate scene, there's a brilliant twist that changes everything. It kind of feels like something you should have seen coming, but I definitely didn't. All of the performances are spot on, and director Juan Jose Campanella shines in familiar territory – he has directed a number of episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show which The Secret in Their Eyes is essentially an extended, Spanish language episode of. That's not a slight against it, though; the film clearly earned its Oscar. Through tense dialogue and claustrophobic camerawork the gravity that the movie's central crime holds for all of its characters is made abundantly clear, and every scene is important. If there was a film more deserving of the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, I haven't seen it.

The Good: With a movie this straightforward, you wouldn't really expect a big twist at the ending. And yet this movie has one, and it sends the movie through the stratosphere. Well played, Mr. Campanella.

The Bad: I totally went over 175 words on this review, so now I have a little extra work to do this week. That's more of a personal problem than a problem with the movie. I'm not sure the movie had any problems, or if it did, I didn't catch them. Great, great film.

The Skinny: I like it at #175. If I was going to arbitrarily name a place on the list to put it, I probably would name #175.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Day Eighty-One: No Country for Old Men

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #115
Year: 2007
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem

This is my first review of a Coen Brothers movie for this blog, and I have to admit, I'm pretty excited. They are without a doubt my favorite directors. They've dabbled in damn near every genre of film imaginable and have put their unique stamp on them all. My views on what films constitute the Brothers' masterpieces are pretty much in line with the general consensus; The Big Lebowski, Fargo and No Country for Old Men are the only Coen pictures represented on the Top 250, and those are my three favorites. Where I deviate from the list is that I wouldn't hesitate to include Barton Fink, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn't There and A Serious Man as well. Nonetheless, I'm happy to see their three best films on the list, and I'm excited to try to communicate my love for the Coens in writing for the first time in my life thus far.

No Country for Old Men can't be pigeonholed as a picture belonging to any particular genre. There's influences coming from everywhere. As with every Coen Brothers film, it's a black comedy, albeit their blackest by far. It's also a Western. It takes place in 1980 instead of the rough period between the Civil War and the First World War, but the sprawling, desert landscapes at the U.S.-Mexico border that the film uses as its backdrop are unmistakably Western. It's a drama, too. The Coens get some of their best ever performances from Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, and especially the brilliant Javier Bardem, who turns in one of my ten favorite performances of all time as murderous psychopath Anton Chigurh. It's also a revenge flick, an action movie, and an episodic adventure film. Unlike a film by, say, Quentin Tarantino, No Country doesn't wear its genres on its sleeve. It fuses them into one seamless motion picture that feels epic in scope without being weighed down pretension.

Of course, No Country for Old Men is perhaps most famous for winning the Coens their first Best Picture and Best Director Oscar. Sometimes these Johnny-come-lately awards go to great directors releasing films that aren't that year's best as an apology for past snubs – Martin Scorsese taking home the statuettes for The Departed comes to mind – but for the Coens, it was fair. In my opinion, No Country is only their third best movie, but it's still an absolute goddamn masterpiece that probably falls somewhere in my top fifteen films of all time. If you're not chilled to the bone when Anton Chigurh goes into a gas station and makes the clerk call a coin toss "for everything," then you probably don't have a pulse. If you've somehow evaded seeing this film over the last three years, for God's sake, please see it.

The Good: Javier Bardem's as Anton Chigurh gives the most chilling screen performance since Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

The Bad: If I was a moron, I would say the ending. I'm not, so I'll say...nothing. Nothing is bad about this movie.

The Skinny: Well, obviously I'm going to think #115 is too low when it's in my personal top fifteen, but I'm very happy to see it on the list. I would be outraged if it weren't.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Day Eighty: Spirited Away

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #56
Year: 2001
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Rumi Hiiragi and Miyu Irino

Disclaimer: Anime and manga nerds will probably find something to whine about below. Please know that I don't care, and am not interested in watching Neon Genesis Evangelion or anything else to educate me more about a medium I ultimately don't care about. Spirited Away is on the IMDb Top 250 because it is a great film, not because it's a genre picture providing fan service for Japanophiles. If you're offended already, stop reading, and don't comment. Thank you.

Okay, so I'm being a little misleading by showing the Japanese poster and listing the Japanese cast above. I watched the English dub of Spirited Away this evening. I rarely if ever watch dubs, and for every other foreign film on this list that I've written about so far, I've watched the original language versions with English subtitles. For Spirited Away, though, the consensus seems to be that the dub is very good and just as authentic as the Japanese version. Hell, the primary audio track on the DVD I watched was in English. It became immediately clear that it shouldn't really matter much what language one watches this film in; the universal visual language of Hayao Miyazaki carries every scene.

It should be noted that I don't really consider myself a fan of Japanese animation, either in print or on film. My experience is extremely limited, and I don't pretend to be an expert on the subject, but I have never particularly liked the way that people are drawn, and I've perceived that much of the Japanese animation that makes it across the ocean is lacking in detail. Spirited Away completely bucks these trends. The art is unmistakably Japanese, but the people aren't as bug-eyed as I expected, and the landscapes are far from undetailed. In fact, the current trends in American animation that can be seen on countless Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network shows are moving towards undetailed, unmoving backgrounds. Meanwhile, Miyazaki's work is some of the most lush, gorgeous, complete animation I have ever seen. Every corner of every frame is filled with little details to feast the eye on. The spirit world that protagonist Chihiro is thrust into is painstakingly brought to life by Miyazaki. Even though the world is bizarre and surreal and had to be built from the ground up, the attention detail makes it feel as real and familiar as any world I've seen.

I'm sure the story of Spirited Away – one involving two parents who accidentally go to a bathhouse for spirits with their daughter, who struggles to return home and rescue her parents after they're turned into pigs for eating food meant for the spirits – has numerous layers of meaning deserving of erudite analysis, but for me, it was secondary to the art. The writing is competent, the story is interesting, and the ending is satisfying, but none of that is the reason why this movie is so high on the Top 250, in my opinion. Most of the fun of watching Spirited Away comes from a visual standpoint. When I watch it again, I'll gather more about the story and unearth some of the symbolism, but I'll mostly be trying to gather more of the luscious scenery drawn so perfectly by Miyazaki. Either way, though, I'll be watching it again.

The Good: The beautiful, beautiful animation.

The Bad: The fact that I watched an English dub. I think I vindicated myself, but I'm still slightly ashamed.

The Skinny: #56 is too high, but right around #100 wouldn't be.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Day Seventy-Nine: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #150
Year: 1969
Director: George Roy Hill
Starring: Paul Newman and Robert Redford

It's no secret around these parts that I love Westerns, and until today, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was one of only two left on the Top 250 (along with High Noon) that I haven't seen. Reviews I had read about Butch Cassidy somewhat soured me on it; the general consensus was that it isn't a true Western but rather an action comedy set in the Old West. Since the Westerns that I like tend to be the grittier ones, the prospect of a lighthearted romp through the banks and saloons of 1890s Wyoming worried me a bit. Fortunately, it didn't take but fifteen minutes of the film to alleviate all of my concerns: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is all Western, and it's one of the most entertaining ones I've ever seen.

The most impressive thing about this movie is the unbelievable chemistry between male leads Paul Newman and Robert Redford, playing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, respectively. It's a classic partnership; a made-for-Hollywood team composed of two strong, masculine outlaws who share heists, a woman, and every waking moment. Both Redford and Newman give some of the best performances in Western history, and while all hell breaks loose around them, we're actually offered a pair of fascinating character studies. The more that their bank and train jobs go wrong, the more we learn about the duo, and the better the film gets. Everything comes together in the last act, when Butch and Sundance have fled bounty to Bolivia, started a new career robbing banks across that country, and end up in a classic Western firefight in the last scene. That scene is the most iconic – and most indicative of the film's vibe – of all. Butch and Sundance are trapped in a building with Bolivian militiamen and cops lining all the rooftops outside with guns ready to put them in their graves, and as they lie there bleeding to death, waiting to face their fates, the chemistry they've forged over the years still shines through. They jokingly insult each other, they plan for future jobs, they have a conversation which could just easily take place when they're not about to die, then they run out into the town, all guns blazing. The film ends on a famous still photograph and the audio of dozens, if not hundreds, of gunshots going off. This is a movie that kills its protagonists in the last scene, and still manages to leave you with a smile on your face.

So, are the people who call Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid an action comedy set in the West right? Well, that does describe the film – and not in a terrible Wild Wild West sense, either – but I don't understand why that has to be mutually exclusive from being a true Western. What makes a film a true Western? No one would argue that Shane and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are terribly similar films, and yet no one would argue that they aren't both Westerns. There's plenty of room within the genre for different interpretations, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is simply one such interpretation. And what a fantastic one it is.

The Good: Redford and Newman both deserved Oscars for their performances. Incidentally, neither were nominated, but the winner was also from a Western. John Wayne took home the gold statuette for his performance in True Grit.

The Bad: I know it's an iconic part of the movie, but I can't stand anachronism in Westerns, and the use of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" annoyed me.

The Skinny: Very much deserves its place on the list. I might even put it higher.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Day Seventy-Eight: The Wizard of Oz

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #121
Year: 1939
Director: Victor Fleming
Starring: Judy Garland and Ray Bolger

When I was very young in the early 1990s, there were two films that I insisted on watching constantly – often multiple times in a day. One was the perhaps inevitable 1991 Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, and the other was The Wizard of Oz. That's not only a testament to the incredible durability of the film, but also to its unbelievably modern feel. If you've ever tried to get a three-year-old kid to watch a movie and stay contented, you know how picky and whiny they can be. I will guarantee that the only movie from 1939 – and hell, probably the only movie from before 1980 – that Brad the Toddler would willfully watch is The Wizard of Oz, and not only did he want to watch it, he watched it multiple times per day. If it held up for the fifty years it took for me to see it, then it's fairly safe to assume that it held up in the twenty years since. And indeed it has.

Technicolor was still young at the time when The Wizard of Oz was filmed, but its cinematography remains one of the most effective uses of color in the history of film. For anyone who hasn't seen this movie, it shifts from black-and-white while Dorothy is in Kansas at the beginning to color when a tornado knocks her to the dreamlike Land of Oz, then back to black-and-white when Dorothy awakens from her reverie. The contrast between the black-and-white scenes and the color scenes, as well as the brilliant coloring of the landscapes in Oz, makes this one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen from a visual standpoint.

I'm not traditionally a fan of musicals, but in that area, too, The Wizard of Oz succeeds. It strikes a perfect balance of spoken and sung narrative, and the songs – especially "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" – have all become timeless classics. Unlike a lot of classic musicals, Wizard's legacy is less tied to its soundtrack and more to its atmosphere. Everyone can remember how they felt the first time they saw the Wicked Witch of the West, or the Lollipop Guild, or the Scarecrow, or the Emerald City, or the flying monkeys. There are more iconic images in this movie than in just about any other film ever made. It's almost senseless to talk about it because a three-year-old can enjoy it just as much as a ninety-three-year-old. Its appeal is universal. Its message is simple. Its status as a classic is undisputed. If you haven't seen it in a few years, do yourself a favor and watch it again. I think you'll find that it's just as great as it ever was.

The Good: For me, personally, The Wizard of Oz has a very safe, comforting vibe about it. I would watch this movie in a diaper sitting on the floor at my grandma's house while my parents were at work. That's not a connection that's easily forgotten.

The Bad: If anything, the fact that it has so many songs has soured me on it slightly over the years, but it hasn't changed my mind about how great it is.

The Skinny: #121 sounds fine to me.

Day Seventy-Seven: Seven Samurai

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #14
Year: 1954
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune

Thus ends a very enlightening week on this blog. Over the past five days, I watched Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's five entries on the IMDb Top 250 and, in so doing, went from being wholly unfamiliar with his work to being relatively well-versed. Just the five movies of his I watched probably propelled Kurosawa into my top ten directors of all time. His influence on just about every genre and every director worth his salt is evident in the sampling of his filmography that the list offers. I ended Kurosawa Week with the director's highest ranked (and best-known) movie, Seven Samurai. As if there were any suggestion to the contrary, it was excellent. The story of a village of fearful peasants who hire samurai to defend them from bandits who promise to steal their crops at the next harvest is brilliantly and epically translated to the screen by Kurosawa and an ensemble cast headed up by his two favorite collaborators, Ikiru's Takashi Shimura and Rashomon and Yojimbo's Toshiro Mifune. Not only is Seven Samurai one of the greatest foreign art films of all time, it also serves as an illuminating looking-glass into Japanese samurai culture for Westerners.

Though it never sacrifices its expert pacing and flow, Seven Samurai can be clearly divided into a prologue, two long acts, and an epilogue. In the prologue, we see the village come under attack by bandits. They don't invade, knowing that there's nothing there to take, but they promise to return at the next harvest. The townspeople wail and cry and run and hide. The village elder tells the men to find samurai to defend their crops. In the first true act of the film, they go to find samurai to fight for them. Once they find their first samurai, Shimura's brave Kambei, he helps them recruit the rest. In the second act, the seven samurai return to the village and prepare a battle plan to use against the bandits. They train the peasants to use rudimentary spears and build a small army. The bandits invade, and are defeated – though not without a cruel cost. In the film's brief epilogue, Kambei, Katsushiro, and Shichiroji watch as the villagers plant their new rice crop. "Again we are defeated. The farmers have won, not us," Kambei eulogizes as the shot tilts to show four samurai graves and slowly fades to black. This is an almost criminal oversimplification of one of the greatest movies of all time and perhaps Japan's greatest cultural product, but the wonderful subtlety of the film would be lost by merely trying to type it out.

Akira Kurosawa has left a bigger legacy on film than perhaps any other director. On each of the last five days, I watched one of his films and found its influence in other, more recent movies. Rashomon became every courtroom procedural ever made. Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars. The first half-hour of Ikiru became Brazil, and the rest became every seize-the-day movie about aging ever made. Ran changed the way we see period pieces and costume dramas and arguably perfected the use of color cinematography. And Seven Samurai directly influenced The Magnificent Seven and more abstractly influenced damn near every epic movie to come after it. This is excluding the forty-odd Kurosawa works that I still haven't seen. I won't try to convince anyone that he's the greatest director of all time, but I'm open to arguments that he isn't the most influential. I'm glad that I was able to get a crash course in his films this week, and I can't wait to watch more.

And for the record, I would rank the five Kurosawa pictures I saw this week as follows: Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo, Ran.

The Good: In 1954, no other movie was this modern, this visceral, this action-packed, this epic, or this important for the future of film.

The Bad: I was going to say that the cultural divide may have been an issue when it was first released, but honestly, samurai code and cowboy code aren't that different, so I'm sure it was never really an issue. In that case, I can't think of any negative points.

The Skinny: It probably wouldn't be as high as #14 on a personal list but I'll gladly defend it for the Top 250.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Day Seventy-Six: Ran

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #141
Year: 1985
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai and Mieko Harada

Akira Kurosawa has five movies on the IMDb Top 250. Four of them were released between the years of 1950 and 1961, a period that could be seen as a sort of Golden Era for the director. But then, out of nowhere, his 1985 epic Ran also makes the list. Twenty-four years after his most recent masterpiece (according to IMDb users), Kurosawa struck again, releasing his nearly three-hour reinterpretation of Shakespeare's King Lear. He reset the play in Sengoku-era Japan, and changed the plot significantly enough that it became his known but not so much that it became unrecognizable as a revision of the source material. The King Lear character is rechristened Hidetora, and rather than having three daughters to split his kingdom among, he has three sons: Taro, Jiro and Saburo. As in King Lear, the patriarch divides his kingdom among his children but leaves out his one loyal offspring. The plot progresses from there much like the original Shakespeare play, but with subtle yet notable differences that will probably only be picked up on by people very familiar with King Lear, or people who choose to look up the differences on the Internet – having only read King Lear once, I fall into the latter category.

I won't pretend to be some kind of expert on Akira Kurosawa's films. He had a very long career that touched on dozens of genres, and Ran is only the fourth movie of his that I've seen. However, with even my limited knowledge of his work, several things stand out about Ran. First of all, it's in color, and not only is it in color, it's extremely colorful. The costumes are brightly and garishly colored and earned a costume design Oscar for designer Emi Wada. When blood flows, it paints the entire frame red. Lush landscapes populate nearly every shot. It feels like Kurosawa is excited to be working in color and wants to show us everything he knows how to do. It never feels forced, and from strictly a cinematography standpoint, this might be the best of the four Kurosawa films I've watched this week. Beyond that, however, it was probably the worst.

Don't get me wrong, I liked Ran. I thought it was a solid adaptation of a great play with a wonderful visual identity. But the pacing of the plot and the way the script was written just made me think of how much better this would have worked as a miniseries. Stretched over five hour-long episodes, Ran could have been a masterpiece. But King Lear is Shakespeare's longest play, and trying to restage it while distinguishing yourself from it all in the span of two-and-a-half hours is a little bit ridiculous. In my opinion, Ran settles for being a very good movie instead of a great one partly because it tries to do too much. Lots of interesting ideas are presented, but they often disappear entirely within fifteen minutes of their introduction because Kurosawa had to fit something else in. Ran's greatest contribution to the Kurosawa collection is its gorgeous, colorful cinematography. From most other perspectives, I prefer the other films of his that I've seen this week. It's not that I didn't like Ran, because I did – it's just that it didn't come out as great as it should have.

The Good: Kurosawa works well in color. It's somewhat surprising that he didn't employ it much earlier in his career. Yes, I know that his first color feature came out in 1970, but his masterpieces primarily came out in the 1950s and '60s.

The Bad: I wasn't a fan of the pacing. Some things that seem insignificant take forever to happen; some things that seem crucial happen in the blink of an eye. Kurosawa did exactly what he meant to do, I'm sure, but it didn't work on me.

The Skinny: #141 is too high, honestly. Slap this somewhere around #240 and maybe I say it's fair.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Day Seventy-Five: Ikiru

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #244
Year: 1952
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Takashi Shimura and Shinichi Himori

In my blog post two days ago on Rashomon, I mentioned that I saw a lot of stylistic similarities between the work of Akira Kurosawa and that of Ingmar Bergman. When I said that, I was mainly referring to Bergman's work on The Seventh Seal. Now as I sit down to write about Ikiru, Kurosawa's tragic 1952 drama starring Takashi Shimura as a loveless bureaucrat dying of stomach cancer, I once again see the opportunity to draw a comparison with a work of Bergman's – this time, Wild Strawberries. Both movies are meditations on aging and dying, on on seizing the day and, especially, on giving life meaning. And just as The Seventh Seal came out after Rashomon, Wild Strawberries came out after Ikiru. That isn't to call Bergman a plagiarist; he was just one of the more talented people to be inspired by the great work of Akira Kurosawa.

In stark contrast to Kurosawa's more famous samurai films, Ikiru takes place in then-modern Japan and focuses on real issues of the day. Its protagonist is diagnosed with an ulcer – which he knows is code for stomach cancer – and is given six months to live in the first fifteen minutes of the film. From there, he tries to give his life the meaning that it had never had. The remainder of the film can be divided into thirds – his crazy night on the town with a stranger he met in a bar, his creepy-yet-endearing relationship with a young female coworker, and his wake. In the first third, Watanabe tries to enjoy himself by living to excess. He drinks, he sees a strip show, he hangs out with prostitutes, but the void inside him remains unfilled. In perhaps the film's most tragic scene, he sits in a chair at a dance hall, detached from everything going on around him, until the piano player asks for requests. He asks for "Life Is Brief," a minor-key dirge about seizing the day that he sings along to and, in so doing, realizes its implications for his own life. Tears well in his eyes and he realizes that what he's doing is not fixing anything.

In the next third, Watanabe tries to kindle a relationship with a beautiful former subordinate from his office. He sees her almost every day, but she eventually confronts him, telling him that he's making her feel uncomfortable. He reveals that he's dying of cancer and that he looked to her to try to learn how to live in a carefree way. She isn't able to give him very good advice, but he makes the best of it and resolves to do something meaningful in his job for the first time in his career. In the last third, we open with a portrait of Watanabe at an altar with his friends, family, and coworkers gathered around. It is his wake, and through the words of those in attendance and a number of tasteful flashback scenes, we learn that Watanabe had become more vocal at his job and became dedicated to build a park on top of a cesspool of disease-ridden water. We furthermore learn that he succeeded. He died at that park that he built, and in an iconic closing shot, we see Watanabe sitting on a swing there, singing "Life Is Brief" as he did in the club earlier in the film. The lyrics capture the essence of the film so well that it seems they were written for it:

"Life is brief. Fall in love, maidens,
Before the crimson bloom fades from your lips,
Before the tides of passion cool within you,
For those of you who know no tomorrow.

Life is brief. Fall in love, maidens,
Before his hands take up his boat,
Before the flush of his cheeks fades,
For those of you who will never return here.

Life is brief. Fall in love, maidens,
Before the boat drifts away on the waves,
Before the hand resting on your shoulder becomes frail,
For those who will never be seen here again.

Life is brief. Fall in love, maidens,
Before the raven tresses begin to fade,
Before the flame in your hearts flicker and die,
For those to whom today will never return."

Akira Kurosawa shows unparalleled versatility as a director with this film, and after three days of watching his movies, I'm prepared to consider him one of my favorite directors. Ikiru has a very clear-cut message, but it isn't weighed down by it. Instead, its darkness bears light, and it allows it to flourish as not only a character study, but as something greater and more universal. In many ways, this is one of the most influential movies I've ever seen. There's shades of its storytelling devices, its cinematography, its screenplay, its plot, and its performances in hundreds of films and television shows that have come out since its release. Seeing the source of so many of those well-known tropes evidences just how effortlessly Kurosawa transcends them. Ikiru is one of the greatest movies in the history of foreign cinema. Denying that isn't opinion; it's ignorance.

The Good: The first time Watanabe sings "Life Is Brief," I didn't know whether to cry with him, cut my wrists, or crawl out of my skin. The scene was beautifully shot, and, of course, it beautifully set up the ending.

The Bad: Nothing comes to mind.

The Skinny: #244 is criminally low. If the same movie were shot by an American or English director at the same time, this would be in the Top 100.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Day Seventy-Four: Yojimbo


Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #139
Year: 1961
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed this blog or has spoken to me for more than a couple of hours that I love Westerns. Set a movie in the American Southwest, give me an antihero with facial hair and tobacco for a protagonist, and watch me spend my money. More than any other Western director, I revere Sergio Leone, whose five films released between 1964 and 1971 are all among my all-time favorites. The first of those is A Fistful of Dollars, a movie in which Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name rides into a town torn by gang warfare where the only booming business is that of the coffin maker. Clint throws his lot in with both gangs for the money, gets found out, gets thrown in jail, watches total mayhem ensue as the gangs clash, then rides out of town at the end. It's totally awesome. And it's also Yojimbo. Almost line for line and shot for shot, Sergio Leone's first Western is a remake of one of Akira Kurosawa's best-known films. Of course, I didn't know that at first. I found out soon enough, but never actually watched Yojimbo to see how similar the two films were. Immediately after I started watching it, I felt kind of guilty about liking A Fistful of Dollars as much as I do. It's not a tribute or an adaptation; it's plagiarism.

Or, it would be had Leone not acknowledged what he was doing. In reality, the Italian production company in charge of releasing Fistful tried to secure the rights to do a direct remake of Yojimbo, failed, and were sued by Kurosawa's producers. The suit was settled in the end, and now both films stand alone as great representations of their respective directors and genres. At any rate, it's very easy to see why Leone wanted to remake Yojimbo – despite being set in Japan and the weapon of choice being samurai swords instead of shotguns, Kurosawa's 1961 film is basically a Western. It lacks the landscapes that define that genre, but the plotline could have easily been ripped from a John Ford picture – and it just might have been. Kurosawa openly admitted that the primary inspiration for Yojimbo was the American Western genre during the 1950s. There's influences flowing in all directions both to and from this movie, and the result is two endlessly entertaining hours of film. Take the three (translated) quotes below, for example, to see how different the tone of Yojimbo is from the very serious Rashomon:

"When the fight gets this big, they don't use coffins anymore."

"I'm not dying yet, I have quite a few men to kill first."

"I'll make sashimi out of them!"

It's clear that the badass one-liners that would become a hallmark of characters in Sergio Leone's Westerns had their roots in this movie. Unlike Rashomon, which used one rape and one death as a mirror for all of mankind's evils, Yojimbo shows death almost constantly for its two-hour duration and never once takes it seriously. Although Kurosawa is considered one of the founding fathers of foreign art film, it's highly unlikely that this movie helps that distinction. This movie exists primarily to pay tribute to the "taciturn loner" trope of American Westerns, and to make the audience smile early and often with great dialogue and exciting fight scenes. And, of course, lots of on-screen deaths. And so while I won't go so far as to Yojimbo call remotely revolutionary or, God forbid, "arty," I will say that I had a hell of a lot of fun watching it, and that it ultimately gave me a stronger appreciation for the still-excellent A Fistful of Dollars by showing me where it came from.

The Good: Dude, did you even read those quotes? It's a totally badass movie!

The Bad: It's an ignorant and unfair criticism, but I'll always harbor a slight prejudice against it just because I saw A Fistful of Dollars first and am such a huge Western fan. My better judgment says to call Yojimbo the better film, but my human nature keeps it in second place.

The Skinny: I've used this section to clamor for A Fistful of Dollars' addition to the list before, and I'll do it again – but not without saying that Yojimbo certainly deserves its place.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Day Seventy-Three: Rashomon

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #89
Year: 1950
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo

Hello all, and welcome to a very special week of Twohundredfifty. Until about two hours ago, I had never seen a single frame from an Akira Kurosawa movie. I've known for years that he's considered one of the greatest directors of all time and is paralleled only by Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman in terms of classic world cinema. I've just never been compelled to watch his movies. For this list, I knew I had the daunting task of watching and writing about five of his films – Rashomon, Ran, Ikiru, Yojimbo and Seven Samurai – so I decided to knock them all out in one stretch. That brings us to today, the first day of Kurosawa Week. My first film of his was 1950's Rashomon, and I was very impressed. I sensed a strong similarity to the Ingmar Bergman films I've seen, and while I'm not educated enough about either director's career to say for sure, I imagine that there was influence flowing in both directions between Sweden and Japan during those days.

Rashomon focuses on the murder of a samurai and rape of his wife by an infamous bandit. Four versions of the story are told and shown in flashback – the bandit arrested at the scene, the wife of the murdered samurai, the murdered samurai himself speaking through a medium, and a simple woodcutter who claims to have seen the whole ordeal. As one would expect, the stories vary greatly, and each character tries to make themselves sound as honorable as possible given the dishonorable circumstances of the entire situation. The bandit proudly confesses to raping the woman, but insists that he never meant to kill her husband and was forced to do so in combat. The woman says that the bandit left after raping her, and that she begged her husband to kill her. When he wouldn't, she fainted, and when she awoke, she found him with her dagger in his chest. The ghost of the murdered man claims that his wife gave herself to the bandit without resistance, then volunteered to leave with him. The bandit reacted honorably, asking the samurai if he let his wife live or not. The samurai pardons him and kills himself with a dagger. Finally, a woodcutter who has been listening to all of these stories claims that all of the previous speakers were liars and proceeds to tell the story as he saw it. In his version, the bandit begs the woman to marry him. She frees her husband, then calls both men cowards for not acting honorably. They reluctantly fight each other, and the bandit wins by a stroke of luck. When he returns to the woman, she runs away. The bandit takes the samurai's sword and leaves. It is popularly believed that we are to believe the woodcutter's story, as he had no vested interest in making himself appear more honorable by its telling.

All of that makes a wonderful nucleus for any film, and indeed, could have been the entire movie on its own. But Kurosawa takes it farther, and lets the lies and self-interest of the storytellers rattle the priest who serves as the film's narrator. The last ten minutes are a moving sequence of a faithless priest shaken by what he's heard and seen who finds a baby, fears the world it is about to enter, then has his faith restored by the woodcutter who volunteers to take care of it. The stories about the rape and murder take up the bulk of the film's running time, but those ten minutes take up the bulk of its meaning. My first impression of the films of Akira Kurosawa was a strongly positive one, and I can't wait to dive into the next four.

The Good: The final scenes are integral to the film's purpose rather than tacked on as a postscript to the testimonies, and they work unbelievably well.

The Bad: I don't know if this is a cultural thing, but every single laugh in this movie is totally fucking obnoxious. Everyone laughs in the most annoying way possible. And I love Amadeus. It didn't ruin the movie or anything, but I found myself constantly hoping characters wouldn't be amused again.

The Skinny: I'm a little nervous to say Rashomon deserves to be #89 because that's so high, but I have no doubts that it belongs on the list.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Day Seventy-Two: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #170
Year: 1998
Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Nick Moran and Jason Flemyng

(SPOILERS IN THIS POST)

For as long as there have been motion pictures, audiences have been interested in crime movies. Most people would condemn the actions of the characters in such films, but they're fascinated by their work. Inevitably, this interest led to a supersaturation of the market, and it's rare to find something truly innovative where cops, criminals, guns, drugs and money are involved. Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels doesn't exactly turn the genre on its head, but it offers a unique perspective into the motives and actions of criminals. Through sheer coincidence, the four lovable protagonists of the film wind up in the middle of a huge crime network. Four or five different parties want their heads, but no one knows who they are. Through just as much coincidence – and plenty of luck – everyone who is after them gets killed. None of this is because they're expert criminals. They aren't even criminals at all, really. They're just four kids trying to pay back a debt to a card sharp who cheated to beat them in a high stakes game of three card brag. They think they're doing something productive throughout much of the film, but it's the actions of everyone else that finally puts them in the clear.

The film is brought to life mostly by Ritchie's brash, Tarantino-goes-Cockney script and the incredibly English delivery by the cast. It's very easy to imagine Americanized versions of all of this movie's lines in Pulp Fiction, and the pace of the movie is kept at full tilt even when not much is happening thanks to the unrelenting one-liners and witty banter. The accents and vocabulary are difficult at times, and as an American, I probably only completely understood about 80% of what was being said, but even when I didn't know exactly what the characters were uttering, I knew it was awesome. Ritchie even comically acknowledges the difficulty of the dialects in the film by subtitling one character in plain English when he describes an incident that took place at the Samoan pub. It's this kind of innovation that made Guy Ritchie one of the most famous and critically acclaimed directors in England by the turn of the century – and the kind of innovation he desperately needs to find again before being labeled a creative burnout any more than he already has been.

To expound on the Tarantino point, it seems pretty obvious that Ritchie's early films were supposed to be England's answer to Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The prevailing atmosphere and directorial execution of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is way too similar to that of those movies for it to be a coincidence. And while Ritchie lacks some of the clever nods to past films, filmmakers and genres that Tarantino deftly puts into his flicks, he more than makes up for it in coolness. Maybe it's a cultural divide thing, but seeing these guys run through every swear word in the dictionary in those accents and smoking cigarettes all the time just oozes with awesomeness and rebellion. And as someone who's generally disinterested in crime movies, I found this one superb. See it.

The Good: Well, I put a spoiler alert at the beginning, so I won't hesitate to say that I loved the ending. The guys open their bag and find that their money is gone. In its place is a catalog of antique guns. They see the enormous value of the guns they just told their friend to dump in the Thames, and they immediately try to call him to stop him from throwing them in. Meanwhile, he's hanging over the bridge with his phone in his mouth trying to retrieve the guns from the ledge that he dropped them on. We get a freeze frame and credits roll. It's a perfect ending to a great movie.

The Bad: It was probably a little too derivative of Tarantino's first two features, but the fact that it's English makes it feel a lot more different than it really is.

The Skinny: #170 sounds about right to me. I'm really in an "agree with the list" rut right now. Oh well, I guess that's better than having to watch a bunch of movies that I hate.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Day Seventy-One: Psycho

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #22
Year: 1960
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh

Some movies have penetrated pop culture so completely that even if you haven't seen them, it feels like you have. When I popped Psycho into my DVD player today, I knew that as soon as I saw a shower, a murder wasn't going to be far behind, and that the killer wasn't the mother but the son dressed as the mother while the mother's skeleton sat in a chair. I didn't know much else, but that second point was crucial enough to make all of the movie's clever development useless to me. The big reveal at the end is that Norman Bates keeps his mother's corpse in his house and sometimes loses his mind and "becomes her" to kill people who stay at his motel. But I knew that going in, so at least forty minutes of development and red herrings were wasted on me. I was left to simply appreciate Hitchcock's storytelling and cinematography, both of which are second to none in this film.

Okay, that's not entirely true. I had no idea that the catalyst for all the murder and mayhem that takes place in the movie is an office worker absconding with $40,000 of her boss' money and stopping in a motel way off the road to keep from being pursued by a nosy policeman. In fact, a good thirty minutes of screen time roll by without any sign of Norman Bates. The movie at first appears to be simply about a dishonest woman stealing from her company and running away. Once she stops at the Bates Motel, though, it's obvious that no good will come of her time there. And indeed, shortly after a fairly innocent but still creepy conversation with the innkeeper, Marion Crane is murdered in the shower by a tall dark figure. Her friends and family start worrying about her – and the $40,000 – so a private investigator is sent to the Bates Motel to gather information. Again, there's an innocuous conversation and, soon thereafter, a murder. Before long, Marion's boyfriend and sister show up at the motel and the truth about Mrs. Bates is revealed when Norman tries to kill yet again and is thwarted. A psychiatrist explains Norman's mental illness to the survivors, and two of the film's best shots occur in the final two seconds or so. First, we see Norman sitting in his cell, thinking to himself in the "Mother" voice, and just before we go to the closing shot his mother's skull is superimposed over his face. It's delectably eerie, and way ahead of its time. Finally, while the title card reads "The End" we see Marion's car being towed from the swamp where Norman let it sink to hide her body. The credits roll, and the film goes out on a high note.

Let's revisit the fact that I saw the ending coming the entire time even though this was my first time seeing Psycho. It's not Hitchcock's fault at all. He actually does a brilliant job giving just a couple of hints at what's really happening that would easily be missed the first time around and surprise the hell out of an audience when they first see Norman in the dress. This is the fault of a generation of people who saw a movie and told their friends about it. I can hardly imagine anyone who saw the movie more than a week after its initial theatrical release not knowing what happened. The same goes for The Sixth Sense, or really any popular movie whose plot hinges on a big twist. Unless you left the room when people were talking about the film, didn't consume any media, and wore earplugs while you waited in line at the cinema, you were going to know what happened in Psycho before you ever saw it. Now, fifty years later, the same is true because of how strongly the film has been woven into the fabric of our popular culture. It takes away from the thrill of discovering the movie's secret, but it doesn't take away from the quality of the movie. Psycho is still one of the greatest psychological thrillers ever made, and no amount of overexposure will change that.

The Good: I thought the superimposed skull on Norman's face at the end of the movie was completely awesome and chilling. It's just subliminal enough to be truly unsettling. The stock answer of "the shower scene" is also an acceptable answer. It still has all of the power that it had in 1960.

The Bad: A few of the performances are awfully stilted. Not Anthony Perkins' or Janet Leigh's, thankfully, but a few of the supporting roles.

The Skinny: Of course it belongs on the list. It's a classic. #23 might be a tad high, but you won't hear me complain.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Day Seventy: 12 Angry Men

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #8
Year: 1957
Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb

It's rare for a director – especially one with as long and productive a career as Sidney Lumet – to have their debut also heralded as their best work. Most directors take a few films to truly find their identity, but Lumet's first film, a relatively modest cinematic adaptation of a stage play about twelve jurors burdened with the fate of a young man accused of killing his father, is often considered his masterpiece, and indeed, one of Hollywood's greatest masterpieces of all time. It's not a ridiculous series of claims; 12 Angry Men is truly brilliant and shows what can be done with a limited budget when you have a talented director and cast.

Nearly the entirety of the film takes place in the jury room of a courthouse, and nothing happens that couldn't happen as easily on a stage. While that sounds like a formula for a movie that would be more interesting in print, Lumet uses some clever tactics to keep the cinematography interesting, and the film is way more visually striking than it probably should be. A lot of movies try to arouse a feeling of claustrophobia in the viewers. That all started here, and it was never done better. On what one juror says is the hottest day of the summer, we're invited into a tiny jury room to sweat and debate with twelve increasingly furious men. Tensions mount, and at times it becomes so uncomfortable that we want nothing more than to be able to crawl out of our skin – or at least out of that jury room. But Lumet doesn't offer any repose. During the ninety minutes of debating and arguing, the camera never leaves the room except for one short bathroom break. The discomfort of the jurors translates to the viewers, and Lumet successfully overcomes the hurdle of having an entire film take place in one room by making it impossible to imagine the film taking place in more than one room.

Social justice is the 12 Angry Men's take-home message, but that's not to say it's a political film. It's simply an American film. It champions the criminal justice system and the power of the jury of peers and the American Dream. It shows that everyone deserves a chance at life and that if you're going to send someone off to the electric chair, you had better be damn sure that what you're doing is right. Less idealistically but perhaps most importantly, it's a tribute to the power of oratory. If Henry Fonda hadn't said all the right things to the other eleven men in the room, it's very likely that the jury would have been hung or that the accused would have been executed. Instead, he used his words to bring out the rational human being inside the eleven violent balls of emotion that sat around him. Not unlike James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Fonda's words are his weapon for good and democracy and justice, and he succeeds. I've talked about "little films" a lot on this blog: movies with limited scope that take one idea and play with it for the the entire running time. In the past, I've used that to call films unfit to be on this list. Well, 12 Angry Men is something of a "little film," but if it doesn't belong on the IMDb Top 250, I'm not sure what does.

The Good: The painfully awkward claustrophobia created by the cinematography. It gains something by being on film instead of on stage. On stage, you expect something to only occupy a certain amount of space. It takes a brave director to have an entire world of opportunity but to keep the cameras in one tiny room simply for effect.

The Bad: It's not one of my favorite movies of all time, but I have a hard time finding much of anything wrong with it.

The Skinny: #8 is a bit too high in my personal opinion, but putting it in the Top 250 is a no-brainer.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Day Sixty-Nine: Schindler's List

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #7
Year: 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes

In the seventeen years since its release, Schindler's List has become symbolically synonymous with the Holocaust itself. No other film has attempted to capture the bleakness of the most horrific genocide in the history of the world so completely, and there's no shortage of scenes that absolutely crush the soul. But while Schindler's List is a Holocaust movie, it's not one without hope. It's more accurately, in Netflix's words, about the "possibility of human goodness." We see the Nazis commit unspeakable acts throughout the film, but for every scene of evil, we're granted one of goodwill toward men. The prevailing tone of the movie is still unmistakably dark, but the glimmers of light that it lets in keep it from feeling exploitative of tragedy and offer an ultimately positive message.

This movie has come under some fire as being "uncriticizable" because of its indelible link to the Holocaust and an apparent fear among reviewers of being called anti-Semitic. Perhaps the reason so little professional negative press for Schindler's List exists not out of this paranoia but simply because it's a terrific, moving film with very few notable flaws. Sure, the scope of the project and the awesome weight that Steven Spielberg took on when he set out to direct it has probably allowed a few things to be swept under the rug, but that's more than forgivable. Beyond the tear-jerking development of the story, Spielberg does plenty right. The black-and-white cinematography is starkly striking and fits the tone perfectly, and when Spielberg introduces color for a brief scene featuring a girl in a red coat – and brings it back later on a corpse – the desired effect is deftly achieved. Liam Neeson's performance as Oskar Schindler, the business titan who pays off the Nazis to keep nearly 1,200 Jewish employees of his factories out of Auschwitz, is nothing short of brilliant. I don't generally consider Neeson to be a very good actor, but he knocks this performance out of the park.

At the risk of sounding like one of those paranoid closeted anti-Semites, I definitely think some of Schindler's List's legacy today comes from the subject matter. It's a great movie; there's no doubt about that – but it's #7 on the IMDb Top 250, and that just seems a little high. I can't really argue with it too much, though. I mentioned in my post on The Shawshank Redemption that while that epic is probably not the favorite movie of all time for many people, everyone who sees it accepts that it's great, and that made its position atop the list acceptable. Pretty much the same thing goes for Schindler's List. I've never met anyone who ranks it among their personal favorite movies, but then again, I've never met anyone who didn't like it. It's the quintessential Steven Spielberg movie, and the movie he was born to make. If you're like me and somehow made it to 2010 without seeing this film, do so.

The Good: The cinematography is the best of Spielberg's career, and this is one of the few times that it's actually a notable aspect of one of his films. Every shot is meticulously composed and looks great, even when it depicts something utterly dispiriting.

The Bad: There are moments that feel a little bit audience-manipulating and exploitative, but Spielberg always rescues them.

The Skinny: #7 is way too high, but it makes sense. See my last paragraph above.

Day Sixty-Eight: Mulholland Dr.

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #240
Year: 2001
Director: David Lynch
Starring: Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring

In what was perhaps an act of God, the second disc of the copy of Schindler's List that I received from Netflix yesterday had a huge crack running down its center, and I was unable to watch the last hour of that movie and blog about it on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. I don't know when I'll get around to finishing the movie, but I will say that I thought the first two hours were excellent, and included a lot of the best things I've ever seen from Steven Spielberg. Alas, I'll be double posting today, and the first post is one that I thought I may wait a little longer to get around to since it is one of my favorite movies of all time and I want to give it a fair amount of attention. In any case, today's first post is about Mulholland Dr., a movie that makes my personal top ten, and one that stands as the masterpiece of its brilliant, eccentric director David Lynch. Here Lynch finds a perfect balance between the extreme esoterica of his early short films and first feature, Eraserhead, and the more accessible weirdness of later works like Blue Velvet and the Twin Peaks television series. Originally intended to be a TV pilot itself, Mulholland Dr. was extended and labored over by Lynch for two years for a theatrical release after ABC shot down his proposal. The result is the most coherent, satisfying work in David Lynch's catalog of cinematic mindfucks.

Mulholland Dr., on first viewing, appears to be a collection of unrelated and often surreal vignettes following three main characters – Rita, played by Laura Elena Harring (in what surely would have been Laura Dern's role had Lynch chosen to cast her), Betty, played impeccably by Naomi Watts, and Adam, played by a cool-as-a-cucumber Justin Theroux – as well as an enormous supporting cast. Simply following (and being freaked out by) everything that happens demands all of the viewer's attention the first time through, and it might be difficult to understand what's so great about it. But after future viewings, and a thorough reading of the cryptic "David Lynch's 10 Clues to Unlocking This Thriller" enclosed in the DVD case, and readily available online, the movie starts to piece itself together. As it turns out, it's not the super-complicated film that it appears to be at first glance. Instead, there's a very clear delineation in the movie of what's real and what's not – it just takes multiple viewings and studious patience to discover what that is. Even after that first, most rudimentary revelation, the film is still rife with mystery, and after countless viewings, there's still things I'm uncertain I fully understand. That's what makes the movie so rewarding. It's obscure and opaque like most of Lynch's work, but its full meaning feels within grasp. Unlike an Eraserhead or an Inland Empire, it seems very possible to know exactly what Lynch meant by everything in Mulholland Dr.

(Brief sidenote: When I say things like "most of Lynch's work," I'm really only referring to his short films, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks (and Fire Walk With Me), Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., and Inland Empire, not his more mainstream and, with the notable exception of The Elephant Man, worse fare)

In a relatively brief blog post such as this one, it's impossible to dissect a useful amount of the film's plot. It's told in a nonlinear fashion, and what's actually going on remains relatively unclear for much of the film. Instead, I want to focus on two particular scenes from this movie that are among my top five or ten movie scenes of all time and say more about what Mulholland Dr. truly is than any plot synopsis could. Because it's unavoidable, SPOILERS LIE AHEAD:

In the first of these scenes, two men are sitting in a diner, and one begins to talk about a recurring dream he has. In the dream, he explains, he and the other man are also sitting in the diner, and he's afraid. There's a man outside, he says. He's the one who's doing it. The second man, clearly skeptical and confused but not unsympathetic to his friend, suggests that they walk outside where he sees the man in his dreams, prove that he isn't there, and move on. In an agonizingly long shot, they walk to the back of the diner to the dumpsters, where the first man believes the man from his dreams should be. When he steps up to the dumpster, instead of seeing nothing like he should in the real world, a grotesque, filthy man emerges from behind it. The man starts to have a panic attack. Fade to black.

In the second scene, Rita and Betty lie in bed asleep after making love for the first time. Rita's eyes open. "Silencio," she whispers. "Silencio." Betty doesn't awaken. "Silencio," Rita says again. "No hay banda. No hay orquesta." The whispers turn to screams. Betty wakes up, and the two resolve to go where Rita insists on going. They end up at a seedy nightclub – not entirely unlike the one Isabella Rossellini's character worked at in Blue Velvet where a man on stage declares that there is no band, and that all the music that they hear is a recording. A trumpeter proves the point when he removes his instrument from his mouth and the music keeps playing. The stage goes silent, and an opera singer comes out. She sings a beautiful aria with the voice of an angel, becoming more and more emotionally unstable as the music progresses. Tears run down her face, but she keeps singing. Rita is crying, too. Suddenly, the opera singer collapses in a heap on the stage. Her mouth stops moving, but the music continues. Rita has an emotional meltdown. Fade to black.

I didn't have to watch the film again to describe these scenes. The movie leaves that strong of an impression on the mind. If I could go back and become a fan of one of my favorite directors all over again, I would have started with Mulholland Dr. It is a flawless piece of cinema, and I'm pretty sure it just made me write the longest blog post I've ever written. If you're still with me at this point, God bless you, and watch this goddamn movie.

The Good: Those two scenes that I described haunt me as much now as they did the first time I saw them.

The Bad: In my opinion, this film has no flaws.

The Skinny: I obviously think #240 is too low – it comes in at about #6 on my list – but I'm just glad that a piece of cinema this challenging is on the list at all.