Sunday, October 31, 2010

Day 114: The Shining

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #49
Year: 1980
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall

Well, this didn't go according to plan. Originally, I was going to write about The Exorcist tonight. I had a pretty nifty idea, too, analyzing my views on the film across the three distinct parts of my life that I had seen the film – way too young, way too religious, and now, as an adult atheist. Alas, I didn't get a chance to rewatch it as time ran out, so I'm falling back on another horror film to complete the Halloween double feature. The Shining, in my humble opinion, is the greatest horror movie – and one of the five greatest movies period – ever made. It is the best film by a brilliant director with a half dozen masterpieces, and it contains the best performance by one of the best actors of all time. It is without a doubt a horror movie, but its appeal goes far beyond the traditional bounds of the horror audience. It's what people who don't think they like horror movies should watch if they want to get scared. It's psychologically harrowing, but it's also visually impressive, and its script boils a sometimes impenetrable Stephen King tome (and aren't they all?) down to just its essential salts. To drop an overused term, it's a true tour-de-force, and an absolute convergence of everything going right in every possible way.

The Shining is a movie composed of scenes. This sounds like it should be a given – aren't all movies composed of scenes, after all? – but it really isn't. Some movies work in extremely long sequences, some impress you with dialogue or visuals, some use similar filming techniques throughout the movie that don't lend themselves to distinction among scenes. The Shining is two-and-a-half hours of great scene after great scene, each completely unique, and each incredibly memorable. If I wanted to, I could retell the movie scene by scene in this very blog entry having not seen the film in several months. Almost every scene has solidified itself as a famous, classic scene, too. "Redrum," the little girls in the hall, and "Here's Johnny!" at bare minimum have become part of the national consciousness, and at least twenty more scenes are completely brilliant and memorable as well – I'm partial to the scene where Wendy (Shelley Duvall) runs through the Overlook and sees bizarre things including a man in a dog suit giving oral sex to a man in a tuxedo and blood pouring into the hotel lobby.

Of course, The Shining's scenes wouldn't seem so brilliant if they weren't tied together so brilliantly. Stanley Kubrick is a master of composition, and in the history of cinema there is perhaps no movie more perfectly paced than this one. Sometimes it's slow and methodical, sometimes everything moves terrifyingly quickly, but always it is exactly what the material demands. Even though Stephen King apparently doesn't like Kubrick's take on his book, his material is made so much stronger by the steady hand of the master director. This is one instance where the movie is absolutely better than the book, even if the book is pretty damn great in its own right.

The Good: I'd rank the scene where Wendy discovers Jack's manuscript (hundreds of pages of "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.") among the five scariest movie moments of all time. From that point on, shit just endlessly goes down.

The Bad: It's one of my five favorite films ever; I don't think it has any flaws.

The Skinny: See above.

Day 113: Let the Right One In

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #205
Year: 2008
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson

Welcome, boys and ghouls, to the first of two horror movie posts I'll be doing today in honor of Halloween! I'll be the first to admit that the atmosphere of Let the Right One In has almost nothing to do with typical Halloween horror movies, but I'm on a big Swedish film kick right now (I just reviewed the stellar The Girl Who Played With Fire for my paying writing gig), and All Hallow's Eve is the perfect excuse to blog about the last one remaining on the Top 250. And while the atmosphere of director Tomas Alfredson's brilliant 2008 vampire picture isn't particularly "Halloween-y," it's certainly creepy, and is unequivocally "horror." And yet the horror movie tone isn't what prevails as the most pervasive vibe of the film. It's the beautiful reflection on how hard growing up is. Human or vampire, being twelve sucks – everyone is bullied, everyone is uncomfortable, everyone is lonely, and no one knows how to deal with new feelings like falling in love. Let the Right One In has plenty of bloody, disturbing images, but they're a mere backdrop for the tender tale of twelve-year old boy Oskar and twelve-year old vampire Eli, whose relationship is as bizarre as it is touching.

One of the biggest strengths of the supernatural side of Let the Right One In is its respect for vampiric legend and tradition. The very title is derived from an oft-forgotten aspect of vampire lore, that a vampire may only enter someone else's home if they're invited in. In one scene, Eli asks Oskar to invite her in, and when he refuses but makes her come in anyway, she starts to bleed all over her body. Oskar quickly realizes his mistake and tells her she can come in. It's just one of many scenes that show the collision of Eli's vampirism and Oskar's very real, human love for her, and it examines how those competing elements learn to coexist. Lying naked in bed with Oskar, Eli is asked if she wants to go steady and replies "I'm not a girl." Oskar doesn't ask any questions, and it doesn't change his mind about wanting to be with her. Even when he catches on that people are being killed that Eli may continue to live, he doesn't mind, and in the film's best (and most wonderfully shot) scene, she even comes to his rescue by killing the bullies who torment him throughout the movie. In her own unconventional way, she validates his love.

If we can fairly call Let the Right One In a horror movie, then it is the best horror movie of the last ten years at least. While so much of the horror scene today looks to gross-out "torture porn," scary "jump-out" scenes, and an abundance of sweet, sweet titties, Let the Right One In is a quietly introspective film that retains all of its scare factor, reminiscent of the genre's heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s. There's a place for check-your-brain-at-the-door horror, of course, but that place isn't the IMDb Top 250.

The Good: The slow, methodical nature of a movie with a subject matter that has been done diametrically the opposite (and badly) for so long is extremely refreshing.

The Bad: The scene where a character is attacked by cats looks pretty terrible, and doesn't fit tonally.

The Skinny: I'd have it higher than #205, but then, I'm a bit of a horror nut, and seeing a genre that I love done so well makes my heart smile.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Day 112: The Philadelphia Story

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #250
Year: 1940
Director: George Cukor
Starring: James Stewart and Cary Grant

In the NFL Draft, the dubious title of "Mr. Irrelevant" is bestowed upon the player taken with the last pick in the last round. Applying that parlance to this project, The Philadelphia Story is the Mr. Irrelevant of the IMDb Top 250. It has since risen to #242, but when I began this blog, it was stuck in 250th place – just barely on the list, and awaiting the release of a popular, well-made movie to knock it off. With that in mind, The Philadelphia Story does feel a bit like a 250th best movie. It has the hallmarks of a classic 1940s film – a great script and a better cast, namely – but its resonance as a great film today is questionable. One could even say that in the seventy years since its release it has become, erm, irrelevant.

During the era in which this film was made, people went to the movies primarily to see movie stars. The Philadelphia Story brought them. Katharine Hepburn had yet to establish herself as the great actress that she is generally agreed upon as being today, but James Stewart and Cary Grant were two of the most popular leading men in Hollywood, and the chance to see them compete over a beautiful lady's love on screen is just the kind of thing that 1940 audiences (and modern AFI types) went crazy for. And Hollywood knew that if the shoe fits, you must wear it – big-name casts like these brought their A-game to every production and earned every letter of their names that would appear on the marquee. Grant and Stewart are both phenomenal in this, and even though Katharine Hepburn generally annoys the living piss out of me, she's definitely tolerable when surrounded by such likable actors.

The Philadelphia Story is also one of those oh-so-charming screen adaptations of plays that were written the year before that everyone in early Hollywood loved making so much. And like most of those films, one can understand how they might be better on a stage. In movie form, this honestly just feels like something that Turner Classic Movies runs at 3 AM on a weeknight and that some white guy in a smoking jacket and ascot would praise as "a psychologically harrowing rumination on lost love" on an AFI special. Aside from James Stewart and Cary Grant being positively charming every time they appear on screen (in anything), The Philadelphia Story could slip off the IMDb Top 250 anytime and my heart wouldn't be broken.

The Good: I would buy an album of James Stewart movie monologues. That voice! His performance and Cary Grant's were both fantastic.

The Bad: I didn't care about any character, least of all Katharine Hepburn's, who divorces one man, gets engaged to another, kisses a third, and tries to look noble in the last five minutes by doing the "right thing" for all of them. At least Scarlett O'Hara was nice to look at.

The Skinny: Alas, it's already irrelevant, but not nearly irrelevant enough for my tastes. Get it off the list, please.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Days 110 and 111: Kill Bill

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #134
Year: 2003
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #208
Year: 2004
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Uma Thurman and David Carradine

Tonight, I'll be blogging both parts of this two-part movie in one post during the commercial breaks and halftime of the Suns-Jazz game. Seeing as Volume 2 isn't so much a sequel to Volume 1 as it is a second act to the same film released a year later, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to talk about one without talking about the other, and trying to separate the film into two posts would just end up feeling awkward. Somehow, even though I consider myself a fan of Quentin Tarantino's work, I had never seen the Kill Bill flicks until these past two days. I liked them. They had their fair share of flaws – we're talking about what essentially amounts to Tarantino at his most expansive for a solid four hours here, so some dead space is inevitable – but overall, they're an enjoyable viewing experience, and they're packed with more "Oh shit!" moments than any of his other films – and Tarantino films are infamously loaded with such moments. So even though the last four hours of film I've consumed have been a somewhat uneven experience, they've been mostly quite good, and almost always a lot of fun.

I spent way too much time preparing for this blog post by thinking about how feminists – or, rather, my stereotypical view of extremely radical feminists – might have felt about the Kill Bill movies. On one hand, Uma Thurman's character is a strong, independent female lead. She kicks massive amounts of ass and doesn't apologize for it. She is a one-woman unilateral wrecking crew on a revenge mission of the most deeply personal nature imaginable. She doesn't take shit from anyone, least of all men who think they can take advantage of her just because she's a woman. On the other hand, though, she relies completely on men to provide the means for her mission. A male kung fu master trains her, and a male sword maker forges for her the Japanese steel she needs. When she finally completes her revenge four hours and countless corpses later, she does it in order to be a loving mother and settle into domestic life. Plus, this is a script written by a man that tosses the word "bitch" around like it has the right. In short, I have no idea how the average feminist felt about these movies, but I do know they send out a lot of mixed signals as to the role and status of women. Fortunately for me, I don't really care, and I watched these movies primarily to be entertained. I've just been made keenly aware of the feminist view of movies since Roger Ebert has been re-tweeting all kinds of links on the subject lately, and it's not often that I watch a movie with a female protagonist as strong as Thurman's Beatrix Kiddo.

As I alluded to before, the Kill Bill saga is a truly epic endeavor by Quentin Tarantino. Stretching across two movies, ten chapters, and four hours, it tells the story of a pregnant bride (known only as The Bride for the first three hours or so, but later discovered to be named Beatrix Kiddo) shot in the head on her wedding day by an ex-lover, the titular Bill. The story isn't told strictly chronologically, so we only get occasional glimpses into the motivations of Beatrix and Bill over the course of the films. Origin stories come and go and characters are introduced and killed as Tarantino sees fit. The only thing that's for certain the entire time you're watching the movies is that they absolutely will culminate in a showdown between Bill and the Bride. As another Tarantino character, Lt. Aldo Raine, would say, he's "a slave to appearances," and despite its sometimes unpredictable nature, Kill Bill is very much a genre film, and without the foregone conclusion for an ending, it wouldn't really be the movie Tarantino set out to make. So we get to enjoy the satisfying conclusion that we could have seen coming as soon as we knew what was going on in the movie, about five minutes into the first part.

The movie isn't without flaws, though, and a lot of them can be attributed to its marathon length. Had Tarantino shaved off the weakest hour of Kill Bill and sewn the two shortened parts into one three-hour movie, he quite possibly would have ended up with his longest and best film. But he didn't, so we have to suffer through a fully animated origin story for Lucy Liu's character that had me checking my watch every five minutes. To take that specific complaint one step further and make it a general one, we have to watch far too many scenes that don't include Beatrix, and considering their characters will almost uniformly meet their fate at the edge of her blade, it's difficult to care about anything that happens to them along the way. I'm not saying these scenes are entirely useless, but they really should be a lot shorter. There's a whole Yakuza intrigue subplot to this movie that Tarantino tries to convince us matters, but everything that isn't directly linked to Beatrix's revenge feels superfluous, precisely because QT does such a good job with the scenes that are.

So Kill Bill doesn't quite rise to the level of Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, or probably even Reservoir Dogs. It's a little too smugly aware of its campiness, and it's certainly longer than it needs to be. But is it entertaining? Oh, hell yes. If the trail of bodies that this film's characters so recklessly leave in their wake doesn't make you smile, then I would presume that your idea of entertainment is somewhat different from mine. It's a bit exhausting, so I'm not sure how often I'll revisit it, but I consider the four hours I spent watching Kill Bill to have been four hours well spent.

The Good: The score by The RZA, about whom I know nothing, reminds me of Ennio Morricone's Western scores in some very positive ways. Anytime the camera focuses on Beatrix's eyes and we hear a certain theme, for example, something incredibly fucking awesome is about to happen.

The Bad: The animated origin story for O-Ren absolutely fell flat for me.

The Skinny: It's hard for me to understand why Volume 1 is seventy spots higher than the more consistent Volume 2, but I'm more than okay with both films being on the list.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Day 109: Sin City

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #95
Year: 2005
Director: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino (as guest director)
Starring: Bruce Willis and Benicio Del Toro

Netflix is being slow, so I'm holding off on writing about the Kill Bill movies until tomorrow and Thursday. I still wanted to keep with my Tarantino-movies-that-aren't-Reservoir-Dogs-or-Pulp-Fiction theme, though, so here's a movie that QT was tangentially linked to as a "guest director," whatever that is. The 2005 screen adaptation of Frank Miller's Dark Horse Comics noir Sin City may prove to be the most influential comic book movie of all time when history is written. The entire concept of the dark, gritty comic book film starts here, and it remains probably the darkest and grittiest of them all. But was it any good? Well, that's a little bit less certain.

If Sin City has one thing going for it, it looks more like its source material than any other comic book movie. The dark, shadowy, mostly black-and-white rendering done in post-production gives it a unique visual identity that's truly unlike anything we've seen before or since. It's not arbitrary, either; it's the camera-produced version of Frank Miller's art from the comics. If there's anything that will keep people talking about Sin City for decades to come, it's the visuals – and rightly so. But the movie itself I'm not too fond of. I may or may not have alluded to it in the blog, but I'm a big comic book fan, and I've always considered Frank Miller to be the most overrated figure in comics history. I respect and appreciate what he did for Batman and Wolverine, but his creator-owned franchises are uniformly boring, shocking-for-shock's-sake, and horribly overrated by people both within the comic community and without. Sin City is his worst crime: a gritty, modern pastiche of 1940s noir, complete with done-to-death plots and needless, stylized violence. The movie does an incredibly accurate job of bringing that to life – Miller himself is one of the directors – but it's that very fact that makes me dislike it.

But I get Sin City. It's influenced stuff that I like; I just really don't like it. Seeing it all the way at #95 makes me wonder exactly what the IMDb users were smoking when they saw it, but I realize that I'm the minority when I say I don't like it, especially considering how perfectly I fall into its target audience. I'm a male, aged 18-24 who reads comic books, for chrissakes. So while I don't expect Frank Miller to drastically change his style to impress jaded assholes like me, I do have every right to criticize what I don't like in his work. For my part, though, I doubt if I ever watch Sin City again.

The Good: The visuals.

The Bad: How fucking hard it tries to be badass.

The Skinny: I'd rather not see it on the list at all, and #95 is laughable.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Day 108: Inglourious Basterds

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #74
Year: 2009
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz

If Inglorious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino's most pronounced love letter to genre cinema, then consider this blog post my love letter to Inglourious Basterds. I assure you that I have no intentions of using hyperbole in this post, although I'm certain some of it will come off that way. I hold this film in a kind of reverence usually reserved for the likes of Citizen Kane and Casablanca. No other movie, even ones that I ultimately prefer over it, had the immediate effect on me upon watching it that Inglourious Basterds did. There was no "growing on me" process; I went to the theater, loved it, and then went to the theater two more times to watch it again before it left screens. I bought the DVD the day it came out, and have watched it three more times since then. The sixth time lacked a little bit of the punch of the first five, but it was still evident what a great movie this is, and how much I'll probably always love it. It's dangerous to declare movies that have only been out for a year "classics," but I don't feel uncomfortable giving Basterds that title at all. It's a goddamn classic.

The first time I saw Inglourious Basterds was at the midnight premiere on the day of its release. The theater was packed, and Tarantino had everyone on a string. In the great opening sequence, "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" – the film's erstwhile title – every word from Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, in an Oscar-winning role) amplified the tension one more notch, until Tarantino masterfully and mercifully allows a break for some comic relief, when Landa pulls out his giant, Sherlock Holmes-esque pipe. Everyone in the theater went from hushed terror to relieved laughter in a split-second. Moments later, Landa's men storm into the house where the scene takes place and shoot at the Jews hiding underneath the floorboards with machine guns. The audience reaction? Shock. A swirl of emotions was already running through our heads, and we knew something bad was bound to happen, but when it finally did, thanks to expertly crafted suspense, it was still jarring. And unlike some of the scenes in and Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction that were primarily meant for shock and awe and weren't rooted in any kind of familiar or terrifying reality, the first scene of violence in Inglourious Basterds is directly tied to a universally known chapter of history that digs at most everyone's heartstrings in the same way. Tarantino doesn't let his film become preachy, though. He treats the Jewish element of World War II more playfully than any other director has to date. Instead of making Basterds a pity-fest, he puts the power in the hands of the Jews, who go through the film doing one thing and one thing only – killin' Nazis.

Of course, Basterds is a Tarantino film, and it wouldn't be a Tarantino film if there weren't numerous nods to classic genre cinema. Essentially, this is a Spaghetti Western set in World War II France instead of late 19th century America. Music from Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone-referencing scenes – the entirety of "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" can be traced back to Angel Eyes' first scene in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – drive this point home. But note that I said "essentially," because Tarantino never works inside one genre. This also pays tribute to the old Italian war film it borrowed its title from, 1978's The Inglorious Bastards, without coming anywhere close to remaking it. There's anachronism, too, and while that usually bothers me in movies, it's hard to imagine anything besides David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" being played while Shoshanna arms herself for battle with haute couture and handguns. The film's climax is a bloody blaze of glory that proves itself well worth the wait and ticket price.

But some people left Inglourious Basterds disappointed. They saw trailers that consisted of Brad Pitt talking about killin' Nazis, expected two-and-a-half hours of killin' Nazis, and were disappointed when they got about ten minutes of killin' Nazis and two-plus hours of talking. Pardon my French, but fuck those people. If there was a snowball's chance in hell that a movie heavy on action would be better than the movie he made, Tarantino would have made it. He didn't. He made the right film, and one of the best film's of all time. Don't forget that for all its badass scenes that exist in the collective unconscious, Tarantino's muse, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, is a three-hour movie with incredibly lengthy stretches of sparse dialogue and no action. It's the visual vocabulary and the ability to read between the lines of the script that make it great, and to a less subtle but nearly equally excellent degree, Inglourious Basterds is the same way, and that's a bingo.

The Good: The ensemble cast led by Waltz and Pitt was mostly flawless across the board...

The Bad: ...except for B.J. Novak's role as Private Utivich. Either he doesn't fit in this movie, or I jut can't condition myself not to yell "RYAN THE TEMP!" every time he's onscreen.

The Skinny: When I finished my theater-hopping marathon and saw this film three times, I declared it my second favorite movie of all time. It's still undoubtedly in my top ten. So yes, I'm okay with it at #74, though I would like to see it higher.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Day 107: The Bourne Ultimatum

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #152
Year: 2007
Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Matt Damon and Julia Stiles

If I was in a bad mood, I would probably use this blog post as another soapbox deriding the IMDb Top 250's tendency to inflate and overrate well-made American summer action movies from the last five years. Well, I'm not in a particularly good mood, and my sentiment about the list isn't incorrect, but I'm going to be lenient with The Bourne Ultimatum because it is a damn fine movie. I first saw it on DVD while eating pizza at a neighbor's house, and it absolutely demanded my attention. I was grabbed immediately by Paul Greengrass' camera work, which would be annoying in so many movies but suits the tone of Ultimatum so well that it has to be commended. So many action movie scripts insult your intelligence and the shaky camera becomes a gimmick meant to distract you from that fact, but this film is smart, well-acted, and consistently exciting of its own merit. The shaky cam becomes an added bonus enhancing the already great film rather than a ploy to make a bad movie seem good. I can't say the same about the rest of Greengrass' filmography, I'm afraid, but it seems that The Bourne Ultimatum was a perfect storm of sorts for the director.

On the subject of Greengrass' other films, The Bourne Supremacy is one of them, a movie which precedes Ultimatum in the Jason Bourne trilogy, but doesn't find itself on the IMDb list. In fact, neither does series opener The Bourne Identity, directed by Doug Liman. Without doing a thorough analysis of the list and relying simply on my memory, I'm almost certain that this is the only third movie in a trilogy that makes the list without either of its preceding films for company. That doesn't mean anything, per se, except that the Bourne movies represent a rare case of a series actually getting better as it goes along. That probably won't continue into the fourth movie, which will probably be made without Matt Damon or Paul Greengrass attached, but at this moment in time, it's nice to reflect on the series as a self-contained trilogy that got better as it went along, and that's landmark.

I'm not going to talk plot here, since Ultimatum is the third movie in a trilogy that more or less requires some knowledge of the first two movies. The entire trilogy is worthwhile for anyone who likes action movies that don't rely purely on cliché and adrenaline. Matt Damon isn't your archetypical action star, and he brings a performance to the movie that you just wouldn't get with the likes of someone cut from the Schwarzenegger mold. Damon's three performances as Jason Bourne have gone a long way in changing the way action movies are cast, and overwhelmingly for the better. There hasn't been a better pure action flick since The Bourne Ultimatum, and until there's a similar convergence of talents operating at the peak of their powers, there won't be.

The Good: Shaky cam done right.

The Bad: Perhaps a bit too much reliance on knowing what happened in the first two films. The comic book writer's credo is that every comic is someone's first comic, so you need a certain amount of background in every issue. Ultimatum kind of just dives right in. Yes, I'm saying this because I watched it before I watched the first two.

The Skinny: I'd like to see it lower, but I don't mind seeing it on the list.

Day 106: Toy Story 2

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #234
Year: 1999
Director: John Lasseter
Starring: Tim Allen and Tom Hanks

Middle installations of trilogies are rarely the best film of the three, and more often than not, they're the worst. There's no pressure to draw in a new audience (because the first movie did that if you're being allowed to make a second) or finish out the series strong, because that's what the third movie is for. With the notable exception being The Empire Strikes Back (and maybe Oldboy if the first and third "Vengeance" movies don't hold up once I watch them – but that's not a true trilogy in the sense that the more episodic ones are), second movies in trilogies don't maintain the legacy of the films that surround them. That's very much the case with Toy Story 2. While Toy Story introduced Pixar Studios to a wide-eyed, gaping-mouthed world, and Toy Story 3 packed the emotional punch of a thousand freight trains, Toy Story 2 exists as a merely highly entertaining entry in the canon. That's right, highly entertaining – and even a bit emotionally resonant. Make no mistake, Toy Story 2 is very good; it just doesn't stand a chance of going down as a classic by anything other than association with its fellow trilogy members.

We might as well tackle the emotional aspects of this film first, since those are the only bits that warrant much discussion. When Andy's mom has a garage sale, a sweaty, dorky collector-type snatches up Woody for his huge collection of Woody-related memorabilia. Woody realizes how popular his brand once was, and he becomes obsessed with the idea of a domestic life with cowgirl Jessie, horse Bullseye, and prospector Stinky Pete. Unbeknownst to Woody, though, his toy pals have set out to rescue him. The convergence of the two parties creates a lot of tenderness, and this is the movie's greatest strength. Woody eventually snaps out of it and realizes that his place is at Andy's, and he manages to steal away Jessie and Bullseye to come with him. It ends exactly as it's supposed to, and it even adds some new friends to the gang along the way, but there's some truly tumultuous moments. In that respect, it helped pave the way for the grimness that Toy Story 3 – yes, grimness; how many kids' movies show the protagonists hurtling towards their fiery death and completely accepting their fates before finally being saved at the last possible moment? – would subject young audiences to eleven years later.

At the end of the day, though, Toy Story 2 is just entertainment. I saw it in theaters when I was nine, loved it, got the VHS for Christmas one year, wore it out with the help of my younger siblings, and can revisit it anytime and be genuinely captivated for two hours. But it doesn't quite hold up as a great movie, in my opinion. Maybe it's just because I feel compelled to compare it to the other movies in the trilogy (as well as the rest of Pixar's work), but I really think it's missing something intangible. That's not to say there's anything wrong with being an entertaining movie, and if anyone ever asks if I want to watch Toy Story 2, I have a hard time seeing myself saying no.

The Good: Introducing Stinky Pete, Jessie, and Bullseye is done flawlessly. However, I love Western characters in just about any form, so I'm biased as hell.

The Bad: The Buzz storyline with Emperor Zurg and New Buzz isn't all that riveting. Yeah, it's all setting up a Star Wars reference, I get it.

The Skinny: I probably wouldn't keep it on the list if I had to re-draft one.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Day 105: Arsenic and Old Lace

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #249
Year: 1944
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: Cary Grant and Raymond Massey

I kind of love when I get the chance to watch one of the bottom ten movies on the IMDb Top 250 for this project. I don't particularly know why, but there's just something about watching one of the movies that just sneaked in by the skin of its teeth that feels really rewarding. It's also partly because in the back of my mind I know that if this were the 251st-ranked movie on the IMDb when I set out to do this blog instead of the 249th, I would probably never see it. Arsenic and Old Lace has all the characteristics of a 240s movie (excluding Mulholland Dr., thank you very much) – it's a damn good movie, but there's no way in hell it's a crowning achievement or, God forbid, a masterpiece. Like a few other movies on this list that were adapted from stage plays – Rope, Harvey, Who's Afraid of Viriginia Woolf? – it feels exactly like a stage play. With that fact comes limited scenery, heavily implied visuals, and, somewhat uniquely to Arsenic and Old Lace, borderline fourth-wall breaking knowledge of a camera by the characters. And as with most films based on plays, the strength is undoubtedly the script.

Arsenic and Old Lace has been called a black comedy, but I'm not sure I completely agree. The subject matter is grim – a family of lunatics whose members, respectively, kill lonely old men and bury them in the cellar, sew other men's faces on their own to evade arrest, and believe themselves to be Theodore Roosevelt – but it's dealt with in such a farcical manner that it's hard to call this a black anything. Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, something of a straight man to his crazy family, and his own mental health deteriorates over the course of his wedding night as he has to deal with insanity from his brothers, his aunts, and an inept team of policemen and psychiatrists who drop in at the house periodically. His poor, oblivious wife sticks beside him through the multitude of events she either isn't aware of or doesn't understand, and soon a strain is placed on his one-day-old marriage, too. Of course, there is a happy (and hilarious) ending to the madness, but the madness was never anything other than humorously delivered in the first place. Arsenic and Old Lace shares some characteristics with true black comedies, but I think the delivery keeps the tone light enough to prevent it from earning the distinction.

This movie really does all that anyone could ask it to, even if it does feel a bit like someone just set up a camera in a civic theater and edited out the crowd noise later. The script is whip-smart, rapidly executed, and consistently hilarious, and the casting is pitch perfect. Its characters are likable despite their various, erm, quirks. It's relatively unambitious, but it follows through on everything it attempts. It's the perfect #249 movie.

The Good: The script! Funny lines every five minutes at worst and every other sentence at best.

The Bad: You can really only call this movie "adequate." It's by no means great. It just does what little is expected of it.

The Skinny: #249 is exactly where it should be.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Day 104: Oldboy

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #112
Year: 2003
Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Choi Min-sik and Yu Ji-tae

I love using this list as a way to discover national cinemas I've never explored before. While it undoubtedly causes some overgeneralization ("I've seen two Russian films, so Russian films are...") it also allows me a jumping off point for future viewing, and it introduces me to directors I'm not familiar with – something I'm always in favor of. Indeed, Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is the first Korean film I've ever seen. Blending elements of Japanese art house cinema with the less surreal elements of David Lynch's mind-bending mysteries, Chan-wook creates a stylistic identity all his own that emphasizes visually interesting shots, psychologically taut storytelling and dialogue, and scenes that would make the audience cringe – if they weren't so tastefully shot. Oldboy is, indeed, a revenge movie, befitting of its place in Chan-wook's "Vengeance Trilogy." But boiled down to its essence, it's a detective story centered on an unwilling detective with, we eventually find out, an unreliable version of what's happened to bring him to the point at which he currently finds himself.

It's impossible to discuss Oldboy without divulging a little bit of plot; it's just too complex. Since I feel the need to move the plot along to the ending to adequately discuss the film, there are SPOILERS ahead. Also, this might read a little bit clunky because I'm not going to use character names, so bear with me. Yeah, I find Korean names kind of cumbersome. Sue me.

After a context-free opening where a man holds a man by his collar over the edge of a building, Oldboy's first scene is deceptively lighthearted: A drunk man behaves boorishly in a police station until he is released. He calls his daughter on a pay phone to wish her a happy birthday. How thoughtful of him! Cue craziness. He's kidnapped and thrown into a hotel room. He learns on television that his wife has been killed and his daughter has been adopted by a Swedish family, and that he is a prime suspect in his wife's murder. His captors keep him docile with drugs and feed him only fried dumplings, and for fifteen long years he's kept in this hotel room. He's finally released, and he goes to a sushi bar to "eat something living," which turns out to be a writhing, whole octopus. He passes out, and the beautiful young sushi chef takes him home with her. They fall in love, and he continues his quest for revenge on his captor. He finds him, and is issued an ultimatum: Find out why I did this to you in five days and I will kill myself; don't, and I will kill your girlfriend. He takes on this charge, and finds out that the man who imprisoned him went to high school with him, and he caught him having sex with his sister. The man spread this around the school, and the captor's sister was eventually killed, either by suicide or by her brother's hand, after developing a phantom pregnancy. The revenge-seeker visits his captor to tell him that he knows why locked him up, that his payback was for his captor's payback.

But the imprisonment wasn't the payback at all...and this is where Oldboy blasts through the stratosphere: The fifteen-year imprisonment was actually a fifteen-year conditioning and hypnosis period, and the woman who our protagonist fell in love – and consummated that love – with was, in fact, his daughter, and all of it was orchestrated by the captor. Forced incest in exchange for tattled-upon incest. From here, our protagonist (rightly) melts down. He begs forgiveness for his past sins and cuts out his tongue as a gesture that he'll never tell his daughter if his captor agrees to do the same. The captor agrees, but after seeing flashbacks of the day that he assisted in his sister's suicide, he blows his brains out. Our protagonist recruits the same hypnotist who made him fall in love with his own daughter to erase that part of his memory. He awakens from the hypnosis to find...his daughter, whom he embraces with a smile. Does he know who she really is? Roll credits.

Holy shit.

While Oldboy will always be talked about primarily for its amazing single-shot corridor fight scene – which is amazing, don't get me wrong – that one-two punch of the plot twist and the ambiguous ending is something Christopher Nolan can only dream about pulling off with as much subtlety – and I think that he is the fairest comparison point here. While I do believe that Nolan is a great filmmaker (possibly even the best working today), his use of plot twists and ambiguous endings would be a lot easier to stomach if they weren't all revealed by characters delivering monologues explaining them. In Oldboy, our protagonist (Oh Dae-su, if you must know his name) discovers that his lover is his daughter by thumbing through a planted photo album that showed her progressively growing up into the woman whom he knows as his girlfriend. The twist is in the visual, and Dae-su's horrified reaction is all the audience needs to understand the gravity. As to the ambiguous final shot, it's delivered with no more than a tiny smile: possibly wry and mischievous, implying known incest, or possibly just happy, happy to have the woman he loves back in his arms. It's the Mona Lisa smile of foreign cinema, and it's all we need to wage endless debates about the movie's ending.

All in all, Oldboy is one of the best foreign films I've ever seen. It's action-packed, mind-bending, well-acted, well-scripted, gorgeously shot, and expertly woven together by a director whom I'm now enticed to learn much more about. CNN called it the third-best Asian movie of all time in a 2008 poll, and while I used to think that sounded kind of high, I don't really have a problem with it anymore. It's tremendous on every level.

The Good: The last half hour pulls no punches in plot or visuals. Pure brilliance.

The Bad: Truly nothing.

The Skinny: I can dig it a lot higher than #112. The more I think and write about it, the more I like it and want to watch it again.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Day 103: The Kid

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #193
Year: 1921
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan

Okay, before we dive into this thing, a few stray observations: Through the poster above, famous stills from the film, and the few clips I had seen, I thought The Kid's Jackie Coogan was a girl. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the character and the actor are both, indeed, boys. Second, The Kid is officially the oldest movie I've ever seen, which I somehow feel is worth noting. Now, onto a duly short post on what is undoubtedly the shortest film in the IMDb Top 250. Clocking in at a mere 50 minutes – just a hair longer an hour-broadcast television episode – The Kid is nonetheless a crucial entry in the canon of American film. As its opening title card proclaims, the heartwarming dramedy brings "smiles – and perhaps a tear." With no sound and no advanced filming techniques, Charlie Chaplin effectively transfers human emotion to celluloid as well as anyone could be expected to under those circumstances.

In its brief running time, The Kid introduces a distressed mother abandoning her baby when she decides to commit suicide, the accidental adoption of said baby by a charming, mustachioed tramp (Chaplin, duh), the mother's change of heart and quest to find her child, the bond that the tramp forms with the boy, and the final, happy union of these three (arguably) kindred souls. As far as plot goes, only about three or four things of consequence actually happen; most of the film's value lies in its countless physical gags and its terse emotionalism. Chaplin sells the beautiful semi-fatherly bond he has with little Jackie Coogan with his mannerisms and facial expressions, and once that's established, the sky is the limit with the gags. In a particularly impressive one, Coogan throws rocks at windows while Chaplin poses as a traveling window salesman, walking one step behind him to replace the broken glass. It's an endearing sequence, and not smiling during it is irrefutable evidence for the lack of a soul.

Aaaaand, there's not much else to say about The Kid. It's a charming, brief film that is among Chaplin's best-known for good reason. It only takes as long to watch as a rerun of Law & Order, so you really have no excuse not to watch it.

The Good: I absolutely love the "traveling window salesman" bit.

The Bad: I wish Chaplin went back and did narration once the technology developed like he did for The Gold Rush. It would make some of the less exciting sequences more interesting.

The Skinny: I can dig it at #193.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Day 102: Full Metal Jacket

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #81
Year: 1987
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Matthew Modine and Adam Baldwin

This is a convenient post to do today since I covered another Vietnam War movie in yesterday's edition of the blog. Full Metal Jacket is considered by many to be the last masterpiece Stanley Kubrick's storied career would produce – only the semi-surreal, semi-enjoyable Eyes Wide Shut would follow it – and to some it is the quintessential Vietnam movie. In fact, a friend of mine whose grandfather served in that conflict says it's the closest he's seen Hollywood getting to recreating his experience there. Alright, fair enough. It certainly doesn't eschew any realism in its ultimate goal of being an entertaining film. But somehow, and perhaps it's just because Apocalypse Now is so fresh in my mind, it just doesn't measure up to what its director is capable of, or what its genre has the potential to deliver.

Now before you go kicking my ass, allow me one concession: Yes, the entire boot camp portion of Full Metal Jacket is brilliant. It adequately demonstrates the emotional distress of military training, gives the film 99% of its famous scenes and lines, and lends it its title in a truly chilling context. But how many people remember what happens after boot camp ends? Yes, yes, "Me love you long time," but how much else? Chances are, not much. Full Metal Jacket is sadly one of the most front-loaded movies of all time, and its depictions of the Tet Offensive and life for American soldiers walking around Hanoi simply aren't that interesting. Hell, the main character ends up becoming a journalist, and I still can't muster up the energy to care about what happens to him. Unlike the wholly unique Apocalypse Now, this movie mostly uses recycled war film elements to tell a far-too-familiar story about missions, battles, the boredom between those things, and the "world of shit" that is combat.

It pains to me to say these things, because between 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining alone, Stanley Kubrick easily carves out a place for himself as one of my five or ten favorite directors of all time – and most of his other films are fairly remarkable works that add icing to the cake – but I can't in good conscience describe Full Metal Jacket, on the whole, with any word other than "overrated." Accurate, perhaps, but interesting? For the most part, no.

The Good: Extending the boot camp/training act into a short feature length film would significantly improve my opinion of it. I just went over to Netflix to see how long that part is, and it's 46 minutes. That's well on its way to being a film.

The Bad: To zero in on one thing, there's no great performances. To to be more general, over half of it is boring.

The Skinny: #81 is way over the top, and to be honest, I'd be perfectly comfortable if it missed the cut entirely.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Day 101: Apocalypse Now

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #36
Year: 1979
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando

Welcome back, one and all, to Twohundredfifty. I got my second wind after a week off and I'm ready to plunge into the rest of the list. This post is on a movie that I actually watched about a week ago but waited until now to write about, and having had time to think about it, I'm pretty close to declaring it my favorite war movie of all time. Apocalypse Now is Francis Ford Coppola's grand epic of the Vietnam War, based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It follows the young, ambitious Captain Benjamin Willard played by Martin Sheen on a mission to "terminate with extreme prejudice" an Army colonel who has gone rogue in Cambodia. In a simultaneously wondrous and terrifying journey down the Nung River filled with encounters with fascinating characters (See Robert Duvall's death-obsessed Col. Bill Kilgore and Dennis Hopper's panegyric, drug-crazed photojournalist), both human nature and the nature of combat are exposed for the ugly things that they truly are. By the time Willard finally encounters Col. Kurtz, played chillingly by Marlon Brando, his views on the war and his mission are so skewed that he can barely distinguish right from wrong.

I think Apocalypse Now is the most important accomplishment in exposé-style war films since 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front. The Best Years of Our Lives came close, but it depicted the challenges of life back on the home front for returning soldiers rather than the effects of war itself. Coppola's masterpiece showed the Vietnam War for what it truly was: a senseless return to man's primitive state, a drug-induced fever dream, a dark, dank, sweating, starved horror that couldn't be explained rationally or mapped out effectively by generals or presidents. It was a horrifying chapter of American history, and better than anyone else ever would – even Stanley Kubrick whose Full Metal Jacket became so famous –Francis Ford Coppola captured it on film. A combination of powerful, visually oppressive cinematography, a fantastic screenplay, and stellar performances from the entire cast made this possible, but it's the climactic showdown between Brando and Sheen that sends the film into the stratosphere and makes it an "all-time greatest" candidate.

All of the performances of note in this film are excellent, but the most important (and probably the best) is Martin Sheen's role as Captain Willard. His story somewhat mirrors that of Ulysses – he is on a journey by boat, forced to encounter a wide array of bizarreness and horror in an episodic fashion as he goes toward his destination, and he is ultimately changed by everything he witnesses along the way. His end is much different than Ulysses', though, and his chilling encounter with Brando's Col. Kurtz is nothing that he could have prepared for no matter how many napalm attacks and drug-addled photojournalists he brushed up against beforehand. Sheen plays the role with a brilliant passivity, never raising his voice above a detached monotone, and we quickly realize that Willard is, just as the audience is, a mere observer of the horrors of war. The way he remains reserved while all hell breaks loose around him gives the film its center, and it is without a doubt the finest performance he has submitted thus far in his career.

The Good: Best war movie ever, probably.

The Bad: Coppola had to do rewrites of the Kurtz scenes because Brando was too fat to do what he wanted him to. Come on, Marlon!

The Skinny: #36 is damn high, but for this movie, I can get behind it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

One Hundred Days In, A Break

100 movies in 100 days! Whew! That sounds like a feat in and of itself, but alas, I'm only 40% of the way done. Even so, I'm really burned out. People warned me that this would happen, and I believed them but trucked on anyway. I guess you could say I've been defeated by the list. I'm not watching 250 movies in 250 days; instead, I'm watching 250 movies in, at minimum, 257 days. I'd like to think I earned it.

This reprieve does give me a chance to ask people for requests, though. I plan on coming back with Apocalypse Now on Monday and Oldboy on Tuesday, but if any readers shout out some other picks, I'll certainly take them into consideration!

Thanks for following the blog. You guys are the greatest. I'll talk to you in a week.

Day 100: Slumdog Millionaire

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #102
Year: 2008
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Dev Patel and Freida Patel

Longtime followers of my blog may notice a few things right away in this, my 100th post at Twohundredfifty. First, I'm no longer typing out the English versions of the numerals representing what day I'm on. Now that I'm into triple digits, it would make the titles far too clunky to keep typing out the words every day. Second, if you read my Twitter (, you know that I'm taking a one week vacation from the blog after this post. I had some idea of how burned out I would become by watching and writing a thousand words about a movie every day for 250 days, but I really had no fucking idea. I need to rest, I need to watch some things that aren't obligatory, and I need to focus on my studies with one less interruption for a week. I'll be back next Monday with a post on Apocalypse Now. Third, you may notice that I just wrote about Gandhi and now I'm writing about Slumdog Millionaire. You may think I'm trying to get the Indian stuff out of the way all at once so I don't have to think about it for any longer than I have to. And, well, there it is. But seriously – it was a coincidence.

Slumdog Millionaire exists as a landmark in my personal experience in my life as a movie lover. For one, it came out in 2008, which was the first year I made an effort to see every movie I thought would be nominated in major categories at the Academy Awards. I had watched the Oscars every year for a decade, but I mostly just watched it to see movie stars and root for the few movies I had actually seen. Also, Slumdog Millionaire was the first movie I ever watched on a computer – albeit somewhat less than legally. Now I watch a considerable portion of the movies I see on Netflix Instant Queue right here on my Macbook Pro, but two years ago, I could barely comprehend that the Internet had full movies in it, just waiting to be watched. The video quality for this particular film was poor, but I loved it. It was only then that I realized the democratization sweeping film, consequences be damned. Of course, watching a movie from your laptop will never replace going to the cinema, but to but it bluntly, it'll do in a pinch.

But on to the movie itself: I liked Slumdog Millionaire, but I didn't love it. I thought the way it dealt with time was well done, bouncing from the game show studio, to backstage where Jamal Malik was being tortured, to the places throughout India where he gathered the life experiences necessary to answer the questions. The way the screenwriters made his experiences tie in to the questions being asked him was often very clever. The portrayal of urban India was stark and eye-opening. But for me, something was missing. The movie was always competent, sometimes good, but never great. The performances left a lot to be desired, the way the script tied everything together was sometimes a little bit hokey, and the Bollywood ending did not jell with my cultural experiences at all. Admittedly, I haven't seen the movie since that first viewing, and my opinion may have softened since then, but gimme a break – I've been doing this thing for 100 goddamn days.

The Good: The depiction of modern urban India. The ensuing controversy over whether it was accurate was mostly propagandists defending the very slums that Danny Boyle was exposing, and hopefully things start looking up with this film as a small part of the reason why.

The Bad: Probably the ending. I get it, I just don't like it.

The Skinny: #102 is way too high. If I saw this on the list in the 240s, I would probably be okay with it.

Day Ninety-Nine: Gandhi

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #168
Year: 1982
Director: Richard Attenborough
Starring: Ben Kingsley and Martin Sheen

Despite being one of the surest things come Oscar season, especially in the acting categories, the epic biopic is one of the most maligned genres of film. Everyone in history with an inspiring or interesting or important story has become fodder for screenwriters to schmaltz up, and these projects inevitably find their way to the tops of great actors' most wanted projects lists. Hell, I've more than once contemplated buying a screenwriting software to write a Wright Brothers biopic. It's a totally logical genre to work in. With that status, however, comes a perception that it's "too easy." After all, retelling a story that was already interesting with a skilled cast and crew will still be interesting, and depending on the nature of the story, it could even be called – gulp – Oscar bait. Whether Richard Attenborough was baiting the Academy when he set out to direct Gandhi, a retelling of Mohandas Gandhi's struggle to gain independence for India, the subsequent split between India and Pakistan, and eventually his assassination, he brought home eight gold statuettes for the picture. The film is probably best remembered today for Sir Ben Kingsley's stellar performance in the title role. Kingsley is of Gujarati Indian descent himself, and no one else could have pulled off the performance quite like he did. But was the film great?

In a word, yes. It's easy to criticize a three hour movie that, with the exception of adding a fictional journalist character played by Martin Sheen to help with plot exposition, basically imagines that there were cameras set up as history was unfolding (in English). Particularly cynical people could even say that Kingsley performs in "brownface" and that Gandhi should have been played by a Bollywood actor instead. These aren't completely invalid criticisms (well, the last one might be), but the execution is just so perfect and Kingsley's performance is just so moving that it's ultimately inconsequential what this movie is; it's clearly more about how it's done.

Plot synopsis is immaterial when talking about one of the best-known stories in 20th century history adapted into one of the best-known movies from the 1980s, so I'll spare you that. Instead, what's important to take from this movie is the message that Gandhi preaches, that change can come through nonviolence and whether you're Muslim, Hindu or otherwise, you should love thy neighbor as thyself. Christians in the West think they have a monopoly on this kind of thought, but Gandhi did a much better job of preaching it than most of their figureheads. Gandhi is two sides of a coin: On one hand, the peaceful opposition to British imperialism gained India its independence, and on the other, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist who wanted India to retain the regions granted to Pakistan. It's a sobering message. We can gain so much by remaining nonviolent, but if one man with a gun decides he doesn't like it, a peaceful ideology can't shield us from bullets. The film ends (and begins) on a tragic note, but it doesn't undo all the good that Gandhi did in his lifetime, and it beseeches us all to act as he did.

The Good: Sir Ben Kingsley wouldn't be knighted if it weren't for this performance. 'Nuff said.

The Bad: It's a bit too long.

The Skinny: #168 sounds good to me.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Day Ninety-Eight: High Noon

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #127
Year: 1952
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly

The first Western I can remember watching was Shane, which I saw in the eighth grade. As anyone who has attempted to show Shane to a fourteen-year-old might imagine, it immediately soured me on the genre. It wasn't until I was exposed to the Westerns directed by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood that I became a fan of films set in the Old West. Those movies were everything that Shane wasn't – violent, colorful, interesting, and most importantly, real. Leone's directorial efforts were a direct response to what he saw as a false impression of the frontier that traditional American Westerns envisioned. There were good guys, there were bad guys, there was a black and white code of morality, and that was that. With Leone firing the starting gun, this trend was reversed and no less than seven of the ten greatest Westerns of all time (in my opinion) were produced between 1965 and 1976. Tonight I took all of these experiences and biases into my first viewing of High Noon, a black-and-white American Western from 1952. Even though it's considered a classic, I was a little bit worried I wouldn't like it. Well, it was no The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – what is? – but I wasn't disappointed with it in the least. It's very much representative of the era of early Hollywood Westerns, and considering its quality when stacked against so many of those films, it should probably be the genre's ambassador.

Gary Cooper is his typically stoic self as Will Kane, a retiring lawman, leaving town at 11 a.m. on a Sunday with his new bride (played by Grace Kelly as one of the most beautiful movie characters I've ever seen) when the report comes that Frank Miller, an infamous outlaw he once arrested, would be coming in on the noon train, flanked by three members of his gang (including a very young Lee Van Cleef.) Kane decides to take one last job as Marshal, and sets out to recruit volunteer deputies to stop Miller and his gang from taking over the town. Unfortunately, he lives in a town full of cowards who won't volunteer, his deputy resigns because he wants to face Miller alone, and his new wife and former lover are both planning to leave on the noon train, with or without him. When Miller and his gang finally roll into town, Kane faces them by himself. The rest lends itself to spoilers, so I'll stop there. In any case, a simple plot summary belies what makes this movie great. True, it's a genre picture, and it probably falls under the category of that which Sergio Leone was rebelling against, but it's executed so fucking well that it transcends the hundreds of budget Westerns that were being churned out every year in the 1950s.

On top of that great execution, High Noon has one interesting gimmick working for it. Most notably, it very nearly takes place in real time. Every actual minute is represented by a minute on screen in the town of Hadleyville, and that gives the film a claustrophobic, suspenseful feeling of dread. Time elapses and we miss pieces of conversations among other people in the town when the camera is set on another. All of this just contributes to the stunning climax and its iconic closing shot. It's not epic in scope like so many Westerns are expected to be, and it lacks some of the meta awareness of the post-Leone world, but for its era and its style, there's no better Western than High Noon.

The Good: The real-time device, the flawless integration of "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling," the stunning beauty of Grace Kelly, and the launch of Lee Van Cleef's career.

The Bad: Gary Cooper won Oscars for this and Sergeant York. Both are great films, but he acts exactly the same in both. He doesn't play characters so much as he plays himself. Fortunately, Cooper himself is apparently an utter badass, but his performance in this didn't impress me. Also, the title inspired the title of Shanghai Noon, a film which came out one year after Wild Wild West. People really liked their terrible Western comedies in 1999 and 2000.

The Skinny: Something would be very wrong if High Noon wasn't on this list. Its position suits me fine.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Day Ninety-Seven: Harvey

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #200
Year: 1950
Director: Henry Koster
Starring: James Stewart and Josephine Hull

One of the best things about writing this blog is watching movies that I had no interest in seeing before I started the project, added to my Netflix Queue when I began it, hyped through the roof for myself after reading about, and being incredibly satisfied when I actually watch them. James Stewart is one of my favorite actors of all time, and as soon as I found out there was a movie where he's followed around by a 6-foot-tall rabbit that only he can see, I got unbelievably excited – and I got more excited yet last week when Netflix made it available for Instant Queue. Harvey defied my expectations, but was still brilliant in a completely different way than I anticipated.

Before I did much reading on Harvey, I imagined that a movie about a man and his six-foot-tall invisible rabbit friend would be mind-bending, dark, and proto-Lynchian. That's not the case at all. It's a comedy of errors in which the main character happens to be followed around by a giant rabbit. Whether the rabbit really exists or not remains elusive at first, but at a certain point, it's acceptable as an audience member to believe that Harvey really is a pooka following James Stewart around. From there, the large, colorful cast of characters whose opinions on the rabbit's existence and reactions to each other drives the plot and generates the comedy. It's funny, but still, there's some kind of natural reaction that one has when taking for granted that there's quite possibly an invisible rabbit in every shot that makes the mind work harder than it generally would while watching an otherwise standard comedy film. James Stewart does everything right and then some in selling it, sometimes making it obvious that Harvey is around with sight gags like holding doors open and pulling bar stools out for ostensibly nobody, but more often giving incredibly subtle cues to the audience to indicate the rabbit's presence. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the role, and though I haven't seen Cyrano de Bergerac for which Jose Ferrer won the award that year, I'd have a hard time giving it to anyone but Stewart.

I think this film finds itself ranked among the greatest movies ever sixty years after its release not because of its comedy but because of its undeniable weirdness. It must have had some influence, however slight, on Donnie Darko, the quintessential giant humanoid rabbit movie. Mostly thanks to the wonderfully bizarre premise and James Stewart's brilliant performance, Harvey is a movie that I constructed sky-high expectations for in my mind only to have them all met. This will be a very easy movie for me to recommend to those who ask, now and always.

The Good: The possibly-because-of-low-budget, possibly-to-keep-the-mystery fact that we never actually see Harvey. Is he real?

The Bad: I'm not sold that the head psychiatrist actually *gets* Harvey. From what I can tell, he got drunk and simply believed James Stewart's character. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

The Skinny: #200 sounds exactly right to me.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Day Ninety-Six: Forrest Gump

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #37
Year: 1994
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Tom Hanks and Robin Wright

Alright, folks, fair warning: It's been a busy week, and my general mood and sleep deprivation might make this blog post a little grumpier than I intend it. I'll start with my main contention, and you can decide if you want to keep reading: I don't like Forrest Gump. Still with me? Okay, here's why. Forrest Gump is a cop-out answer to the "What's your favorite movie?" question. It is an absolutely standard account of late 20th century American history that drops a character for whom I have little sympathy into events which the director gives me no reason to care about. People whose other favorite movies are Father of the Bride and Billy Madison think Forrest Gump is a deep, wonderful, moving film and well deserving of the "best ever" title, when in reality, it's just that it's the only relatively long, relatively serious movie they've ever seen. And chances are they only saw it in the first place because TNT, TBS, USA, and AMC have apparently signed a contract to make sure not one goddamn day passes that Forrest Gump is not on television. Even the supposed anchor of the film, Tom Hanks, does not give one of his better performances, and there was never a moment that his iconic line about the box of chocolates did not annoy me. Yes, I was a cynical five-year-old. Everything about this movie screams overrated Oscar bait, and the fact that this is the thirty-seventh greatest movie ever made according to IMDb users and, say, Precious and I Am Sam are nowhere near the list makes me scratch my head. The plot of Forrest Gump is familiar to anyone with a pulse, so I won't waste words or energy retelling it. In fact, I'm not going to get my blood pressure any higher by continuing to write about this movie at all. I'm sure I'll take lots of hate for this, but I don't think Forrest Gump is an interesting movie, and frankly, I'm happy to get it out of the way now so I don't have to write about it when I have the patience to praise its minimal strengths.

The Good: Sally Field is good in it, I guess. At least as good as she is in Mrs. Doubtfire.

The Bad: Probably the frustratingly good reputation it enjoys.

The Skinny: From #37 to off the list is a long way to fall...and I hope it breaks its legs when it lands.

Day Ninety-Five: Manhattan

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #224
Year: 1979
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton broke up in 1971, but that didn't stop Allen from trying to keep the flame alight in the context of his films. His two most famous pictures, 1977's Annie Hall and 1979's Manhattan, both cast the two former lovers as current lovers. Fortunately for Allen, their real-life chemistry translated incredibly well to the screen, and he was successful in using their relationship to write some of the greatest romantic comedies of all time. Manhattan follows a simple premise – a married man and a divorced man in a relationship are both in love with the same "other woman" – but is carried to greatness by Allen's hilarious script and trademark neurotic performance. Manhattan, with its great supporting cast consisting of Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep and Anne Byrne, was Woody Allen's most complete film at the time of its release, and has arguably stood the test of time to remain his best.

As with so many movies named for their setting, Manhattan is perhaps less about the specific people involved in the story and more about the city it's set in, and the way that lives can intersect in such interesting ways even when faced with the improbability inherent in living in such an immense place. In the opening scene, gorgeous shots of New York are narrated by Allen's character talking into a tape recorder to try to decide how to start Chapter One of his book. He changes his mind about what he wants to write every few seconds, but one line is never irreparably changed: "He adored New York City." Indeed, this scene, which tells so little about the specific interactions that are to come, says everything one needs to know about the theme of the film. It is Woody Allen's love letter to Manhattan itself, not to Diane Keaton. The romantic comedy genre is the framework he chose to put it in, but that's secondary. Manhattan is really about Manhattan.

Since Manhattan is a Woody Allen movie, there is a certain amount of highbrow writing to be expected. It is executed deftly and even pokes fun at itself in the form of Diane Keaton's intellectual, pretentious character early in the film – who pronounces "Van Gogh" as "Van Goch," thinks Ingmar Bergman is too hung up on Kierkegaard, and only enjoyed one piece in the entire Museum of Modern Art's lower floor. By the end of the film, every character, even those engaged in adultery and flying across the ocean without their lovers, is ultimately likable. That's one of Allen's victories with Manhattan. He creates a cast of characters with problems average people should have no sympathy for and makes them all endearing. As Allen's seventeen-year old girlfriend tells him that she's flying to London for the summer, he elects, as he always had, to stay behind. It's the last scene, and the final shot is on his smirking face. After all, if he didn't stay in Manhattan, what would this film's point really be?

The Good: The script, as with most Woody Allen films.

The Bad: Meryl Streep gets less than five minutes of screen time! She could have really shined here, and it's a shame she didn't have a bigger part.

The Skinny: Deserves its place.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Day Ninety-Four: Network

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #214
Year: 1976
Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: William Holden and Faye Dunaway

As I mentioned in my post on Rocky, 1976 was possibly the greatest year in the history of film, and whether Network was the best movie released that year, it certainly made some of the most lasting contributions to the medium. Anchored by no less than five terrific performances – three of which took home Oscars – Network is Paddy Chayefsky's semi-dystopian vision of a world constantly tuned into the television, beholden to its stars' commands yet utterly detached from what's happening, onscreen and off. Peter Finch stars in his last film released before his 1977 death as Howard Beale, a TV news anchor who has been fired by his network and has taken to using his last broadcasts as a vehicle for his outspoken ideas about the world. In an extremely famous scene (and one of my three or four favorites of all time) he implores America to go to their windows, stick their heads outside and scream "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" When an ambitious, cynical programming executive played by Faye Dunaway realizes that Beale's broadcast increased ratings by unbelievable margins, she misappropriates his message of action in the face of certain doom as a catchphrase for a new show. Soon a studio audience yells in unison that they're as mad as hell and they aren't going to take this anymore, and The Howard Beale Show is born. And that's just the central plot. The rest are just as damning of the television industry's ratings game, and while the film is ostensibly about a news department at a TV network, almost no actual news is reported in its two hour duration. It's as if they knew all about the age of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News that was to come.

Network offers a rather exaggerated version of the news world that we live in today, but it's still chilling. In a less direct fashion than David Straithairn's speech as Edward R. Murrow that bookends George Clooney's fabulous Good Night, and Good Luck, the entirety of Network serves as a reminder that the way TV has been used pretty much nonstop since its inception is not at all the way it was envisioned by its founders. The endless ratings war, the reality show about the terrorist group, and The Howard Beale Show itself all foreshadow things we can see in network television in 2010. In this sense, we're not so different from the sheep sitting in Beale's audience, blindly screaming out our windows and writing to our Congressmen because someone on the television told us to. The writing was on the wall in 1976, but television has continued to be used less often for the good envisioned by men like Murrow and Fred Friendly and more as a vessel for crass commercialism and the plug-in-tune-out mentality. I'm not even saying this to point the finger at other people so I can sit in my ivory tower without cable – I watch TV, too, and I watch some of the dumbest crap it has to offer. Network wasn't necessarily Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet's crusade against television in general. It specifically targeted the ability to use TV as a means for social change and warned against networks becoming too obsessed with ratings for fear of literally producing a death toll for entertainment's sake. Since Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers exist, I'm not sure we've learned our lesson.

Beyond all the social commentary, Network is quite simply one of the greatest movies ever made, with one of the greatest casts ever assembled. Peter Finch shines as the "mad prophet" Howard Beale, William Holden gives one of his greatest performances ever as Max Schumacher, his craggy, middle-aged producer, Faye Dunaway offers a terrifyingly obsessed performance as the ratings-mongering programming exec, Robert DuVall is downright evil as the president of the network accountable only to their corporate owners (Again, sound familiar?), Beatrice Straight holds the record for least amount of screen time for an Oscar-winning performance as Max's wife, and a whole slew of supporting actors and actresses perform admirably and make this arguably the best-acted film of all time. Sidney Lumet also turns in one of the finest directorial entries of his storied career, and he brings Paddy Chayefsky's amazing script to life. Network didn't spawn an entire subgenre of film like Rocky, so in that regard, perhaps the best choice for the Best Picture Oscar was made. But the superior film by far is the one I'm writing about now, and while I can't quite decide if I prefer it or All the President's Men, it is without a doubt required viewing for anyone worth their salt about movies.

The Good: Since I can't pick just one of the phenomenal performances, I'll go for the script, complete with its incredibly prescient indictments of television.

The Bad: Is it a little preachy? Nah, never mind. There's nothing wrong with this movie.

The Skinny: #214, eh? I'd probably put it in my personal top 25, but I guess I'll be happy that it's on the list at all. I'm not sure if I expected that.

Day Ninety-Three: Finding Nemo

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #154
Year: 2003
Director: Andrew Stanton
Starring: Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres

In a lot of ways, Finding Nemo is the most broadly appealing Pixar movie outside of the Toy Story trilogy. If you want tender sentimentality, it's got it. If you want laughs, there's plenty to be had. If you like recognizing voice actors in animated movies, Ellen DeGeneres is now known to an entire generation as "Dory." If you like lushly animated worlds, Finding Nemo brings the ocean to life like no other movie has. Everything that Pixar does well they do here as well as they ever have. It is a beautiful, touching, funny movie that deserves all the praise it has received since its release and then some.

I remember seeing TV spots for Finding Nemo in early 2003. At that point, I was a goddamn motherfucking junior high school student who mostly liked movies with tits, blood, and swears because I was such a big badass. Riiiiight. Point is, I was still stoked through the roof for Finding Nemo. There was no target audience that the trailers did not reach. The film didn't disappoint, either. It was a fast-paced romp through the ocean filled with comic peril but also very real emotional distress as a father clownfish looks all over the ocean for his lost son who has been taken as an aquarium fish by an Australian dentist. As he and his frustratingly airheaded traveling companion Dory encounter sharks, jellyfish and sea turtles, they form a bond as strong as any Pixar relationship this side of Buzz and Woody.

Somehow, though, Finding Nemo has lost a lot of buzz in the critical community. Decade-end lists were quick to point out the emotional power of Up, the cinematic scope of WALL-E, and the well-delivered message of Ratatouille, but, by and large, Nemo was left out in the cold. That's unfair. Finding Nemo is a hugely appealing, advertising-campaign-launching, theme-park-ride-inspiring merchandising machine, but it's also a wonderful movie, one deserving of the highbrow critical accolades afforded its Pixar brethren, and one that I can endlessly rewatch without ever getting tired of it. And even if it doesn't withstand the test of time and is good for absolutely nothing else, it taught us all one valuable life lesson: Just keep swimming.

The Good: It's the most broadly appealing Pixar movie.

The Bad: It's one of those movies that has become so overquoted that the scenes that get overquoted lose some of their power.

The Skinny: I'd have it even higher, probably.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Day Ninety-Two: Saving Private Ryan

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #46
Year: 1998
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks and Matt Damon

In high school, I had a history teacher who said he couldn't stand Saving Private Ryan. It seemed to defy all logic that someone with as generally good taste in film as his could actually hate what is widely considered one of the greatest war movies of all time, so we pressed him for details. He had no problem with the depiction of World War II – in fact, he said he's spoken with veterans who were at Normandy who say the opening sequence is as close to capturing the battle as anything they've seen. He didn't mind the performances, or the cinematography, or the script. No, he had a problem with the premise that the United States Army would send soldiers behind enemy lines to rescue one man. Granted, he had a fair point; the Army would likely never risk more than one life to save one life, regardless of the situation, but saying that this made the movie unwatchable seemed a little over the top. If we accept that Spielberg is making a piece of fiction and that he doesn't pretend it's based on a true story, then we're left with one of the best war movies ever made, and perhaps the one with the greatest cinematography of all time.

It's difficult to say if a war movie made in 1998 has had a huge influence on war films that have come since – partly because 1998 was relatively recent, and partly because big-name war movies just don't get made that often anymore – but I can see Saving Private Ryan's stamp much more clearly in another medium: video games. The Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series rip some of the scenes from this film almost shot for shot, and the cinematic look that those games have been praised as having owes a huge debt to Spielberg's camera angles and fast-paced battle sequences. For being one of the most sobering, horrifying depictions of war ever captured on film, the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan are absolutely gorgeous. Spielberg doesn't shy away from showing the horrors of war as they really are, and with a jaded 1998 audience, a great script, a great cast, and an R-rating behind him, he's able to do basically whatever he sees fit. It's a bold proclamation, but I think Saving Private Ryan as a directorial work is a step up from Schindler's List.

There are basically two kinds of war films. One makes the viewer say "Awesome!" when things blow up and people die. The other makes the viewer think about the bitter cost that war imposes on human beings. Saving Private Ryan falls under the latter category. Matt Damon has three brothers, and they all die. Tom Hanks comes to save him, and he dies. Men are killed by methods that could easily be considered "cool" in, say, Inglourious Basterds, but here, it's tragic. And yet, the ultimate message is uplifting, and, for my American readers, patriotic. How anyone could look at the cemetery at Omaha Beach filled with white crosses representing American soldiers without understanding the importance of what our military does for us and how important the Second World War was for our freedoms is beyond me. Men like Captain John Miller (Hanks' character) made this country what it is today, and even if it takes watching a film like Saving Private Ryan to remind us, we should all stand up and salute our military for helping let us live the way we do. If that's too schmaltzy and flag-waving, you'll forgive me, but it's the truth.

The Good: This is Spielberg's finest hour as a director, in my opinion.

The Bad: Matt Damon hadn't quite come into his own as an actor yet, and Hanks acts circles around him. Funny, since the opposite would probably be true if this film was made in 2010.

The Skinny: Very deserving of its spot. God bless America.