Saturday, February 26, 2011

Days 176-179: Princess Mononoke, Modern Times, Metropolis, Gladiator

Thus continues my new "watch a few movies in a week or so and then blog 'em all at once" format:

Princess Mononoke was my least favorite Studio Ghibli film on the list (the others being the masterful My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away and Grave of the Fireflies), but it was still pretty damn good. It found a middle ground between Hayao Miyazaki's lighthearted kids' movies and Isao Takahata's dark, bleak hellscape in Grave that was at times disturbing and at others enchanting. And special props to Billy Bob Thornton's voice acting in the English dub that sold me on the film hook, line and sinker when he gave his, "These days, there are angry ghosts everywhere" monologue.

Modern Times started out promising but ended up boring, like most Chaplin pictures. It's another that I can "appreciate" more than I can enjoy. Not much to say about it. That Little Tramp sure gets into some wacky antics.

Metropolis is the film from this post that left the biggest mark on me. I saw it at the IU Cinema with live orchestral accompaniment, which is absolutely the way silent films should be seen. It was the most complete cut of the film that exists, which unfortunately still means there's some footage missing, but it felt complete. The first forty minutes or so had me extremely worried that it was going to be dull, but it really turned things around with its intermezzo, which saw personifications of Death and the Seven Deadly Sins doing all kinds of crazy shit and led to insane scene after insane scene, impressive not only for their scope and ahead-of-their-time special effects but for how well they hold up as exciting, provocative scenes nearly 100 years later.

Gladiator was the last film I watched for this portion of the list. Kind of a head-scratcher that it somehow won Best Picture, but it was an entertaining modern-day take on Spartacus with a solid lead performance from Russell Crowe and an unremarkable secondary one from Joaquin Phoenix. I dunno, the fight scenes were all really cool and it tugged my heartstrings a bit during the ending, but damn, I can't believe it's the 98th best movie of all time according to IMDb users and the best movie of 2000 according to the Academy. Had a good time watching it, but I'm confident now in calling it overrated.

In the next hunk of the list, expect reports on Pan's Labyrinth, Avatar, Cool Hand Luke and God knows what else. Until then, enjoy the Oscars tomorrow, everyone!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Days 173-175: Into the Wild, The African Queen, L.A. Confidential

Okay, so I'm behind, but I'm not as behind as you'd think. 175/250 is actually pretty damn good, and I have more than 75 days left to watch the remaining 75 movies on the list. I'm going to roll these three movies into one post not for any good reason besides saving time. I have a lot on my plate right now, and it's the reason I've watched some movies that I haven't gotten around to blogging yet.

Last Saturday I took in a double feature of on-list movies, starting with Sean Penn's 2007 masterpiece Into the Wild. Starring Emile Hirsch as "Alexander Supertramp," an Ivy-educated upper class white kid who decided that becoming a lawyer wasn't what he wanted to do and started living off the land. It's not Man vs. Wild romanticism; it's raw and visceral and real, even while its brimming with life. Hirsch gives an unbelievable performance, and so do all the people who he encounters on his odyssey – even Vince Vaughn. What I liked best, though, was the moral ambivalence of the whole thing. Is it right to burn your money and shed the trappings of phony society to live in the wilderness like man did in his glorious past? Well, maybe, but – spoiler alert – sometimes that means you starve to death, and what the fuck does that accomplish? It's a relatively simple film that still leaves you thinking. Deserves its place.

After I finished up Penn's film, I threw on The African Queen, a movie whose Humphrey Bogart coolness was relatively offset by its Katharine Hepburn melodrama. I'll make no apologies for not being a fan of Ms. Hepburn's work, but this was her at her least distracting. Bogart plays "crusty but benign" to perfection, and Hepburn is – gasp! – decent, stupid, unchanging voice and all. For taking place almost entirely on a boat and featuring no characters of consequence besides the two leads, it's surprisingly not claustrophobic at all and maintains a rather breathtaking feel throughout. It's not my favorite Bogey flick, but it is pretty much a masterpiece of classic Hollywood economy. Deserves its place.

Then earlier this week I watched L.A. Confidential, which I'm pretty sure is my favorite cop movie now. I don't pretend to be a fan of crime dramas. I like The Departed less than everyone else (though I still like it) and I won't even give any others the time of day. That was until I saw this movie. It's tongue-in-cheek about its genre but still manages to take it seriously. It's noirish without being neo-noir, and it winks at noir while embracing it. It's headlined by three amazing lead performances and, ironically, a lesser supporting role which won it one of its few Oscars in the year of Titanic. Quite simply, I loved it and have no problem recommending it to fellow movie buffs who could care less about cop pictures because if it changed my mind, it could change anybody's. Deserves its place.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Day 172: The Night of the Hunter

Ranking: #181
Year: 1955
Director: Charles Laughton
Starring: Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters

Charles Laughton was an incredibly prolific actor, both on stage and in on screen, but he only stepped behind the camera once in his illustrious career, to direct 1955's The Night of the Hunter. It's a shame, because more than probably any other non-Ford, non-Kurosawa, non-Bergman film from pre-1965, his single outing had a profound influence on so much of what I like. I loved every moment of The Night of the Hunter. It was at times uncomfortable and hard to watch, but it was so well-acted, and more crucially, so well-constructed from a directorial standpoint that it demands full attention. It has echoes in the work of everyone from Spike Lee, who included a direct callback of one of its recurring scenes in his masterpiece Do the Right Thing to Isao Takahata, whose Grave of the Fireflies so strongly recalls the latter half of Hunter that it at times feels like a tribute. So Laughton's lone film surely must be considered one of the finest of its decade, if not of all time.

Laughton owes plenty to Robert Mitchum, though – his terrifying lead presents himself as a preacher but goes on to do commit some of the most morally bankrupt acts ever recorded on celluloid, highlighted, of course, by his obsessive pursuit of two young children whom he would have no qualms about laying low for a little bit of money. In every line from his mouth and look on his face there is the mark of a truly depraved man, and Mitchum plays Rev. Harry Powell like his life depends on it. He was as prolific on the screen as his director was, and like his director, this was his high point. I've never hated anyone billed first as much as I hated Mitchum by the end of this film, so, naturally, he did his job.

The visual style of the movie is robust. When the children are boating down the Ohio River, the shots are gorgeously framed by bullfrogs and branches that seem to be lording over them and keeping them safe on their journey. When their mother sits dead in the front seat of her car at the bottom of that river, the way the undertow pulls at her hair evokes just the right amount of tragedy in the situation. Laughton may not have directed many films because of what a perfectionist he was, if The Night of the Hunter's careful brilliance is any indication. For all its perfectionism, though, it's still a raw, emotional wrecking ball of a film. It's hugely influential but unlike some films that can be described that way is also inherently watchable. I'd gladly give it two more hours of my life, and it's unquestionably the best movie from the 1950s not directed by John Ford, Akira Kurosawa or Ingmar Bergman. Which still might only put it in about 8th place for the decade, but still.

The Good: Everything that Charles Laughton put into this film. It's unfair for film connoisseurs that he only made one movie.

The Bad: The kids aren't great actors. I mean, they're kids, so whatever, but it's true.

The Skinny: I could deal with it a hell of a lot higher than 181, but it's nice to see it getting its due on the list at all considering its far from A-list status.