July 22, 2008
AFI 100: On the Waterfront
Having come from the generation that knew Marlon Brando primarily as Superman's dad, Dr. Moreau, and the default punchline for Johnny Carson fat jokes (once Raymond Burr kicked the bucket), it's amazing to see the guy at the top of his game, making every actor unfortunate enough to share a scene with him look like a rank amateur. Made in 1954, On the Waterfront seems right on the cusp of the transition from old-school "stagey" performances and new-fangled "method acting", with a Brando leading the charge, mumbling and stuttering his way through his portrayal of Terry Malloy, small-time hood with a heart of gold (or, at least, a weakness for blondes). This film would have been a perfect 10 for me were it not for the ending, which I found too pat and the ruination of what would have otherwise been a pitch-perfect and unrelenting piece of noir. Humorous aside: I was completely broadsided by the "coulda been a contenda!" bit--as god as my witness I always though De Niro delivered that line in Raging Bull. Learn somethin' new every day. 9/10
June 02, 2008
AFI 100: Tootsie
"My friend Pete and I are doing this thing where every night we are going to watch one of AFI's top 100 movies."
"How many you going though?"
"Well I only have Star Wars and Tootsie, so we just keep watching those two over and over."
I'm fairing better than Liz Lemon in my quest to watch the AFI 100, but, when Sydney Pollack died last week, Tootsie was my go-to movie as well. It's not on my my list, but I wanted to see if it was as good as I remembered.
Verdict: it certainly is, though for reasons entirely different than I recall. I was 11 when I saw the film in the theater and, at the time, enjoyed it primarily because Dustin Hoffman played a man who dressed up like a woman. It was only watching the film as an adult that I recognized that Hoffman does no such thing: he plays a man (Michael Dorsey) and he plays a woman (Dorothy Michaels), but at no time does he play a man playing a woman, at least in the sense of talking in an unbelievable falsetto, over-sashaying, and never letting the audience forget that there's a y-chromosome underneath the pantyhose (all while we're supposed to believe that everyone in the film is hoodwinked).
Apparently the Tootsie script is used as an example in all the screenwriting books (so says Lemon), and it's clear why: the whole thing hangs together remarkably well, even given the preposterous premise. Yes, enduring the "It Might Be You" montage sequences is like getting a gnat in your eye, but the rest of this film is sublime. 9/10
"You were a tomato!!!
RIP Sydney Pollack
May 09, 2008
AFI 100: The Bridge On the River Kwai & Nashville
The Bridge On the River Kwai: Ah man, this movie has everything: war and valor and girls and adventure and crazy plans and Obi Wan Kenobi. I thought it was good-but-not-great until the midway point, when our plucky band of heroes bifurcates into two groups, who spend the remainder of the film striving for diametrically opposed goals (one wants to build the titular bridge, the other endeavors to blow the mofo up). Modern Hollywood could never make a movie like Kwai, one in which the audience has absolutely no idea who the hell to root for. I had my doubts that any ending could live up to the fantastic premise, and was pleasantly surprised when they pulled it off. Hornswoggling myself into watching movies like this is why I started the AFI 100 Project in the first place. 9/10.
Nashville: I'm a big fan of a number of Robert Altman movies (Short Cuts and The Player foremost among them), and always defended the director against accusation that his films were unnecessarily long, rambling, and as uneven as the horizon of a Lunar Lander game. And do you know why I stuck up for Altman? Because I'd never seen Nashville. Now, having done so ... yeah, okay, I guess I can see their point. In the hands of a good film editor, Nashville could have been a fantastic 100 minute flick, but the other 60 minutes is something of a drag. Protip: the point of having your actors ad lib their scenes to to keep the great, spontaneous, authentic moments and shitcan the rest, not to just spice the whole kit and caboodle into your already overlong opus. Not bad, and Altman's genius is apparent throughout, but a pair of lopping shears short of greatness. 7/10
February 15, 2008
AFI 100: Yankee Doodle Dandy
So far in the AFI 100 project, the two films for which I had the lowest expectations--the silent movie and, now, the jingoistic musical--have been my favorites. Having never seen James Cagney in the role of a tough-guy, the skill with which he "played against character" was lost on me, but it hardly proved necessary to enjoy this biography of song-and-dance man George M. Cohan, who, along with the rest of his family, entertained legions around the turn of the (last) century. But the story of the showman's life is really just bookends for the film's second act, which is essentially an hour-long montage of Cohen's greatest hit, including "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Over There," "Give My Regards to Broadway," and "Grand Old Flag" (I had no idea one guy wrote all of those). Though there is some wincable acting and a couple of scenes that max out the corn-o-meter (the bit with the teens, 10 minutes from the end, is like a rejected Hee-Haw sketch), the bulk of the movie is so thoroughly delightful that you're willing to forgive a lot. Even the blackface.
And holy smokes, that Cagney can dance.
My rating: 9/10, best so far!
Next up in the AFI 100 Project: The Bridge on the River Kwai and Nashville.
February 11, 2008
AFI 100: The French Connection
The French Connection wasn't next in the AFI queue, but, earlier today when I heard that Roy Scheider had died, I decided to watch it anyway to honor the man.
A thoroughly entertaining film, but I'm a bit mystified as to how it wound up with the 1971 "Motion Picture of the Year" Oscar, but less inclusion (albeit just barely) on the AFI 100 list. Apparently it is famous for its "renowned car chase scene" (as the back of the DVD calls it), but it was bound to have at least one given that 50% of this movie involves one person following another. Seriously: there are cops stealthily tailing suspects on foot, cops running full-bore after suspects, cops slowly trolling behind suspects by vehicle, cops barreling after suspects at breakneck speeds, etc. At one point in the film there are two chases going on simultaneously: a security guard saunters after a suspect inside an elevated train, and, at street level, Gene Hackman races after the train in his automobile. It's, like, they had so many chases slated for the film that they had to start scheduling them concurrently.
Anyway, none of this detracted from my enjoyment of the movie. I'm a sucker for 70's-era stories set in inner-city America (see also: Rocky), and The French Connection illustrates why: the combination of grainy film-stock, openness about racial tensions, and devotion to method acting make them seem more authentic--even when they are big-budget and largely preposterous thrillers such as this one. 8/10, and RIP Roy Scheider.
February 05, 2008
AFI 100: Sophie's Choice
Yesterday was Superbowl Sunday, so Pa Baldwin and I spent the afternoon as so many fathers and sons do around the nation: gathered in front of the big screen TV, drinking beer, and thrilling to the emotional rollercoaster that is Sophie's Choice.
All I really knew about the motion picture ahead of time was The Scene; from that I extrapolated that the whole film was set during the Holocaust. I was therefore confused when the film opened in 1947, with the eponymous Sophie safe and childless. Okay, thought I, it's a framing device: we'll get 10 minutes of this, an hour and a half of the main narrative, and then a brief epilogue. Wrong again, chief. The bulk of the film is a John Irvingesque relationship drama with genuinely funny moments, thanks to the comic styling of Kevin Kline (in his first movie!) and an extended sequence involving a reformed prude that can only be described as hilarious (an adjective I was pretty sure would not appear in this review). All this was good but not great. Without The Scene, I'm confident that Sophie's Choice would have long since been forgotten.
And, I must admit, the punch-in-the-gut impact of The Scene was somewhat muted by my (a) foreknowledge of the event it depicts, (b) familiarity with Streep's acting prowess, and (c) having previously endured Schindler's List, The Pianist, Into the Arms of Strangers, and probably a few more, the memories of which I have suppressed. Not enough to keep me from tearing up, but I didn't end the evening rocking in the corner, either. Definitely a haunter, though: The Scene has popped into my head half a dozen times since last night, and I keep watching the clip on Youtube*, seemingly against my will.
I'm finding it hard to assign a rating to Sophie's Choice, mostly because it was so unlike what I had expected. I think I'd need to watch it again to really form an opinion--maybe Pa Baldwin and I will do that on Father's Day. For now, 7.5/10.
Next up in the AFI 100 Project: Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Bridge on the River Kwai.
* A warning to those who have never seen Sophie's Choise: watching this will not "ruin" the move, but, as I have said, will undoubtedly lessens its impact to some degree. If you ever expect to watch the film in its entirely, I'd strongly recommend foregoing the clip.
January 24, 2008
AFI 100: King Kong
I'm only and hour into the 100 minute King Kong, but I'm so bored that I figured I may as well start typing. According to the AFI, this film is one of cinema's "greatest," but, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, I do not think that word means what they think it means. I'm guessing that, in this case, the ol' double-k got the nod for being one of the most influential films of all time, but lord knows that 's not the same as greatness. Needless to say the special effects are outmoded, but I don't hold that against the film. After all, the quality of a movie shouldn't be judged by the caliber of its effects--which is exactly the point: strip them away from King Kong and you're not left with much. The acting ranges from workaday to wretched, and while the plot is moderately interesting, the middle third, which serves only to showcase the Amazing Stopmotion Animation!!!, is interminable if you don't find the f/x breathtaking. I will give the film props for lethality, though: I assumed that all death in this film would take place off camera, if at all, but, no, kong fucks up half a battalion of folks with extreme prejudice. The subtext of the film--that the real monsters are the humans, while Kong just wants to live in peace--is intriguing; too bad the filmmaker doesn't do much with it. Maybe Peter Jackson utilizes the material better in his 2005 remake. 5/10.
Yeah, chickened out of watching Sophie's Choice this week. I will try to work up the nerve to do so next.
January 18, 2008
AFI 100: Bringing Up Baby & City Lights
It was Ye Olde Tymey Romantick Comedy night in the Baldwin household this evening.
Bringing Up Baby: Knowing nothing about this film beyond the title, I assumed it was just the "oh no, we're pregnant!" film of its era, a 1938 version of Knocked Up minus the lingering shots of Seth Rogen's ass. As it turns out, "Baby," in this case, is a leopard, which the brother of Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) has sent from Brazil to Connecticut as a gift to -- ahh, you know what? The leopard doesn't really matter. It's really just one of this screwball comedy's endless MacGuffins designed to throw Vance and Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) into a succession of zany situations. Lots of funny scenes (this restaurant bit, particularly from 5:37 on, is particularly inspired) and great lines ("Susan, you've got to get out of this apartment!" Huxley exclaims when he discovers the leopard in her room. "I can't," Vance explains, "I've got a lease."), but very little plot to tie it all together. Hypothetically the narrative is Huxley and Vance falling in love, but as Vance loves Huxley at first sight and Huxley is never given a reason to want to spend another moment, much less the rest of his life, in the company of Vance (aside from the fact that she's Katharine Freakin' Hepburn, obviously), this framing device is paper thin. Thus, the film feels less like a long, funny story and more like a standup comedy routine, a series of setup-straightline-punchline scenes just gummed together with a resolution tacked onto the end for the sake of closure. Which is fine, but wears thin at around the 45 minute mark--about half this film's running time. 6.5/10
City Lights: I was prepared to stoically endure this Charlie Chaplin "comedy" for the sake of checking it off my list, but holy smokes, I can't remember the last film that made me laugh this hard. Chaplin is so masterful that the gags succeed even when you see them coming a mile away--you know what the joke is going to be, but nothing can prepare you for Chaplin's sublime execution (e.g., the "Spaghetti Scene", which starts at 2:10 in this clip). Slapstick usually leaves me cold (I've never understood the appeal of the Three Stooges, for instance), but Chaplin imbues each pratfall with so much humanity that you feel like watching a close friend fall through an open manhole--now that's funny! I could level the same charge against City Lights that I did against Bringing Up Baby--it's more of a collection of sketches than a cohesive narrative--but the central premise, Chaplin falling for a blind flower girl, is so bittersweet that it pervaded every shot, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Plus, the final scene is amazing. 8/10
The next film in the AFI 100 Project will be ... oh, god. Sophie's Choice. If I'm going to break this resolution, I guess now's the time to do it.
January 11, 2008
AFI 100: The Last Picture Show
Plowing through all of these old movies, I expected most to be tame and staid. Perhaps the rest are, but The Last Picture Show sure ain't. Larry McMurtry meditation on sex and death in a small, Southern town is pretty much just a hodgepodge of scandals all intertwined into a two hour narrative. The black and white cinematography and stilted delivery of lines in the first 15 minutes made me think this movie has been made shortly after the day in which it is set, 1951, but it rapidly becomes far more risque than that era would have allowed. (In reality, it was made in 1971--a fact that became apparent to me when I started recognizing actors, such as an impossibly young Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd.) Featuring a stellar performance by Ben Johnson, a fine balance of humor and pathos, and the most awkward sex scene I've seen on film, I can see why The Last Picture Show (just barely) made the AFI 100 list. 7.5/10 ... but I'll throw in another .5 for Cybill Shepherd's cans.
January 09, 2008
The AFI 100 Project
I just discovered that, late last year, the American Film Institute revised their List of the 100 Greatest Movies of All-Time [pdf]. Looking over the list, I was a little surprised at how many I have never seen.
Here's the breakdown, with films I've seen in green, films I haven't seen in red, and films I have seen but don't really recall well in yellow: