jakebe: (Entertainment)

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell and John Carradine

Written by Nunnally Johnson (screenplay) and John Steinbeck (novel)

Directed by John Ford

One of the things that's slowly and steadily been removed from our cultural identity is a sense of place. The world has gotten smaller and borders have become a bit more mutable. Families move from place to place because of work or circumstances, and with the housing market the way it is it's impossible to imagine one family owning a home that's passed down from generation to generation. It's strange to think that this is a relatively recent development, that losing one's home was a much bigger deal "only" 80 years ago.

The Grapes of Wrath follows a farming family as they're removed from their land by the bank and sent packing to California, where they hope a land of new opportunity awaits them. We identify with Tom Joad (Fonda), the eldest son, as he goes back home after a stint in prison. He's just in time to see the last gasp of his farming community -- the Dust Bowl has ruined the land and made it impossible for anyone to grow enough food to sell. They can't make enough money to keep the land, so the bank has been steadily taking homesteads for their own ends.

Tom meets up with his family just as they're packing up an ancient, creaking car to make the long trip out west. The trip is hard; Tom's grandfather dies and they are forced to bury him near a river. His grandmother soon succumbs to the rigors of the journey as well. Once they arrive in California, they're bounced from camp to camp trying to find work and finding conditions much less favorable than they've been lead to believe. Those with power and resources take advantage of those without, trying to squeeze as much labor as they can for as little pay as possible. Yet despite all of this, the Joads end up in a camp that's not so bad (provided by the government) and Ma Joad (Darwell) ends the film with a pragmatic, optimistic monologue about the survival of the clan. Considering all they've been through, how much they've lost, it's genuinely affecting. Her hope is hard-won.

There are so many memorable sequences here; the family trying to defend their homestead against a neighbor's kid on a Caterpillar, forced to raze the houses in his community to make a living; the crazed homesteader who chose his land over his family, and slowly succumbed to mad loneliness on his own; Ma Joad feeding as many children as she could in the first migrant camp they come to. What unfolds is a story of a family that is poor but proud, and won't be treated like dirt by those in power. They move through their worsening predicament with as much dignity as they can muster, and they bear their misfortunes with a quiet, contemplative grief.

At the same time, they're willing to fight back against obvious injustice. They speak up when something's not fair, and they help other people where they can. The Joad family serves as something of a model set of citizens -- wherever they go, they create community just by being decent, open people. It's impressive that the rigors of the road and the cruelty of some people they meet don't harden them. Ma Joad becomes especially fearful, but she doesn't let it skew her moral compass.

It's no surprise John Ford won an Oscar for his direction, or that Jane Darwell received the Best Supporting Actress award for her role. Ford really knows how to bring out the best traits of a character -- his handling of Stagecoach was similarly impressive, but several steps higher here. Darwell exemplifies his approach; she's stoic, vulnerable, hardy and soft-hearted all at the same time. A scene where she sits in the empty house she's lived in for so long, burning the keepsakes she can't take with her, is mostly silent but breath-takingly effective.

The story takes these mythic themes and brings them down to an earthly, even vulgar level in a way that I simply love. The Joad clan, for all their dirtiness and lean hunger, represent some of the highest ideals of civilization. In a world that seems to be crumbling all around them, growing harsher by the minute, they're firm enough to demand better treatment and kind enough to give it to the people they meet. What's best is that they don't make any fuss about it; the charity they give and receive is given automatically, in quiet moments where "thank you" and "you're welcome" are silently spoken in the looks they give one another. One can only hope that you can manage such quiet, simple grace in similar circumstances.

I can't compare this film to the novel it's based on, but I hear they're quite different especially in the back half. Thanks to the movie, the novel has earned a place on my to-be-read pile; I'll have to see just how different it is. If you're a fan of Steinbeck (who isn't?), then this is a great thing to see. Even without reading this particular book, I can say it retains his sense of humanity and the things that make us great.

Rating: 9/10.
jakebe: (Entertainment)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Starring Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood and William Sylvester

Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

A tribe of apes scratch out a marginal existence somewhere on prehistoric Earth. They have a bad day; one of their number is killed by a predator, then they are driven from their watering hole by a bigger, more aggressive tribe. They fall asleep in a small crater, and when they wake up they find a black monolith looming over them. It is a perfect rectangle, unnaturally straight, featureless -- purposefully so. At first, the apes freak out. Then they touch it, explore it, and, when it doesn't do anything, ignore it.

While playing in a spot where some other animals have laid down to die, one ape has an epiphany. He curls his fingers around a long bone, picks it up, brings it down. Other bones scatter and break. At first, you're not sure if the ape realizes what he's stumbled upon, but as the music swells he begins to slam the bone again and again with more purpose and vigor. From there, his tribe kills animals for food and successfully drives off this other tribe from their watering hole. Overjoyed, the ape flings the bone high into the air. Cut to a space station, a long white cylinder with knobs on the end that makes it look sort of like a bone.

So this is how 2001 opens, bridging the dawn of Man as we know it with the beginning of Man's end. We learn soon enough that another monolith has been found on the Moon, and as soon as the astronauts who study it take a picture they're paralyzed by a high-pitch radio screech apparently sent to Jupiter. Eighteen months later, the Discovery One is sent to investigate.

The Discovery One is manned by only two astronauts, Dave Bowman (Dullea) and Frank Poole (Lockwood), and an artificial intelligence named HAL-9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). HAL is one of the most memorable (and earliest) AIs in film, and his breakdown is legend. Concerned by the conversation of the astronauts about his fitness to remain operational, HAL kills Poole and attempts to exile Dave to deep space. Since this is the part of the film with the most dialogue and action, this is the part that most of us remember.

But HAL's section of the movie doesn't exist in a vacuum. What does HAL's sabotage of the astronauts mean in the broader scheme of the narrative? What are we supposed to take from it? It's a huge piece of the puzzle, but it's only a piece. From what I've read about the film, Kubrick invites the audience to take what they want from it, so here we go. This is my stab at it.

One of the things that sets man apart as a sentient life-form is his use of tools. The movie notes this with the opening sequence by marrying the rise of primitive apes with the arrival of the Monolith; soon afterward, the ape discovers that a bone could be used for something. And it's used immediately for violent ends -- the ape goes on to kill an animal for food, and kill the leader of a rival tribe for resources. That stamps the template for man's use of tools through thousands of years of evolution; almost everything we make is for the purpose of controlling our environment and eliminating our rivals.

In the far-flung future of the movie, we've done great things with our tools -- but they're only going to be as good as we are, and it's clear that we've reached the pinnacle of our development. The HAL series is a tremendous AI, capable of managing a vast array of processes and calculations. Yet we expect it to be absolutely perfect. At the first sign of error, Bowman and Poole have a serious discussion about shutting down HAL for the rest of the mission -- in effect, killing him. Is it possible for an imperfect being to create something completely without error? I wouldn't think so. In addition to the huge burden of keeping Bowman, Poole and the other astronauts in stasis alive, HAL is expected to monitor and even predict any possible breakdown of equipment.

In an interview with the BBC, Bowman and Poole posit that HAL seems like it has emotions, yet there's no way to know for sure. I'd argue that it does -- any creation of ours with sufficient complexity is bound to behave like us. Perhaps an advanced enough AI will begin to exhibit signs of human emotion in addition to intelligence as we understand it. Would we understand where and how that emotion developed? Of course not. Most of us barely understand our own emotions, and it's all but impossible to understand those of our fellow human beings. It'd be no different for an artificial intelligence with a tremendously complex make-up.

That being said, anyone given enormous power, responsibility and expectation is bound to crack under the strain of it. I imagine that HAL simply had a breakdown caused by a consciousness that it was never equipped to deal with. When it says that any mistake it makes is the cause of "human error," I'm inclined to believe it. Even if the error originated with HAL, it's because of our frequent inability to understand the tools we use.

The ape at the beginning of the film barely understood what it was doing with its bone -- it only knew that it could use it to eliminate threats and preserve itself. Perhaps this ancient instinct was instilled in HAL as well. When faced with the impossible task of being perfect at the cost of its life, it used any and every tool at its disposal to eliminate a threat and preserve itself. Constructed by humans to manage an enormous amount of control, it proved better at doing that then Bowman could have anticipated.

Of course, Bowman survived; HAL was disabled and humanity turned back the challenge of its dominance. But the danger is plain. If this happened with HAL, it would almost surely happen with subsequent AI. The flaws of humanity would continue to be present in the tools it made, and as those tools grew more powerful, the chances of catastrophic failure proved to be too great to ignore. It was time for another change.

Bowman was the first to receive this mammoth kick-start to humanity's evolution. Just as the ape with the bone transferred knowledge to its brothers that shifted the paradigm and sparked thousands of years of progress, Bowman alone walked into unknowable territory, experienced wonders and terrors, and came back to spread the knowledge of what he had seen to the rest of his tribe. One cycle closed, and we saw the glimpse of what came next.

2001 is a fascinating film to me. Kubrick's direction is sparse, spare and dry; the sets are bare, almost austere, and every moment feels expansive, almost mythic in nature. I'd like to think of it as a reaction against A Clockwork Orange, which was the film he directed right before it -- tired of the trash and noise of dystopian London, he wanted to spend time in vacuum-clean rooms, mute people and grand ideas. It amazes me that it feels like he's at home in the Discovery One as well as Alex DeLarge's tiny, messy room.

It's easy to be frustrated and bored with the movie. Kubrick strips out everything except for his themes, then stretches out that theme over more than two hours. Each sequence is so atmospheric it's hard to take a high-level view, to think of it as a part of a whole, to imagine how it relates to what's come before and what comes afterward. It's interesting that he encourages us to focus on what's in front of us without then pushing us to consider what it all means in a grand sense. The music cues us to when something grand or unsettling is taking place in extremely effective ways. The sudden appearance of the monoliths are always creepy because of the discordant, nervous music buzzing in our ears. The swell of music during the ape's discovery of bone as tool and Bowman's return to Earth as the Star Child links those moments thematically, bookending the movie quite nicely.

2001 might be a little more fun to talk about than to watch, but it's definitely worth the viewing. Just...be sure that you're prepared for a very long, quiet experience.

Rating: 9/10.
jakebe: (Entertainment)
Raging Bull (1980)
Starring Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty
Written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin (screenplay) and Jake La Motta (novel)
Directed by Martin Scorcese

This movie feels like something of an "anti-Rocky", the story of all those fighters that don't manage to stay on top very long or sacrifice something fundamental to get there. Even though there's success in the ring for the Raging Bull, his personal life is in a perpetual shambles of his own making. The adaptation of LaMotta's autobiography is surprisingly stark about painting him as an unsympathetic character, and by the time the credits roll you wonder how the real LaMotta must feel about it. Does he realize, at long last, what he's done to his life? Or does he understand what people must think about the events that unfolded on the screen? The movie suggests that he simply lacks the self-awareness to realize the consequences of his actions. I genuinely hope that's not the case.

La Motta is a middleweight boxer, coming up as a hot-headed kid raised in a neighborhood full of them. In one of the early scenes, a fight erupts in the club that La Motta hits after one of his bouts. He grew up in a place where fist-fighting were one of the major ways to resolve your conflicts, and it's clear that he took that lesson to heart. Jake is the first to take offense, the last to explain why he's offended; he simply causes things to escalate until he has the opportunity to make them physical.

His brother Joey (Pesci) is the stabilizing influence that keeps Jake on track when he threatens to go off the rails. Poor Joey has to put up with a lot; from Jake's ever-shifting moods to managing the reputation of the fighter in the neighborhood. It's a thankless job that he does because he sees the potential of his brother, and possesses a weary, patient love that's evident in just about everything he does.

Jake gets out of a relationship with a woman he ignores and marries a very young blonde he fancied from the first moment he laid eyes on her in the public pool. He's charming at first, but as soon as he's wed her he becomes extraordinarily paranoid and possessive while ignoring her as well, for the most part. Meanwhile, he reluctantly throws a fight to get the title shot that he's always been looking for after being told to take a dive by the Mob. Jake is banned for throwing the fight in such an obvious manner, but comes back to win the middleweight championship. He's on top of the world with a loyal brother in his corner and a beautiful blonde on his arm. But he's still completely miserable.

That misery gets spread to everyone he knows because he doesn't know how else to handle it. His paranoia spares no one, and he becomes increasingly abusive to his wife and his brother. What's worse is how he keeps sinking lower and lower both professionally and emotionally, each side exacerbating the pain of the other, and how he never realizes that the hell he's in is the one he created for himself. It's incredibly hard to watch; at first you feel sympathy for Jake's lack of self-awareness, but then you just want to see his family get out of an awfully toxic situation.

Scorsese does a wonderful job making sure no punches are pulled. He's not working with a sympathetic lead here at all, but he doesn't try to gloss over Jake's behavior or make excuses for him. De Niro is a wonder here, as a man who is fascinating in his unlikeability, but is somehow sympathetic with this basic, relatable desire to be liked, respected, loved. The trouble is that Jake doesn't let higher thinking work for him. If he thinks he's been slighted then he lashes out with the immediate, unthinking hostility of an animal. It's instinct for him to lash back, and he does repeatedly against enemies real or (mostly) imagined.

The brutality in Jake's world is inescapable. Even when he wins it feels like a loss; he simply takes a tremendous beating without going down before the other guy. The boxing scenes, which comprise surprisingly little of the movie are memorable for the mood they create. I remember glimpses of faces rocked by oversized gloves, the sound of meat being slapped, a face that is gradually degraded. Each battle takes something out of Jake, even if he downplays it or doesn't realize it. Maybe it's living with those consequences that makes it so easy for him to fly off the handle; the movie never makes that connection for us, but simply lays the evidence there to make of what we will.

So what do we make of this? Jake serves as a cautionary tale, a warning to make sure that whatever we do, make sure we do it for the right reasons. Remember who our friends are, remember their hardships too. But most importantly, be aware that we are shaped by the people around us and we shape the people we're with. We might not be able to help the impression left on us, but we can control the impression we make. Jake has no idea about any of this because he can't think past his own pain or pleasure. And the effects of that short-sightedness are terrible to see.

I can see why so many people regard Raging Bull as Scorsese's best movie. He's a director with a sure hand here, working with two actors who give stunning performances. It's definitely earned its place here in the top 100, but that being said I'd never want to watch it again. It contains a bleakness that's hard to stomach, and no guarantees that the people involved have learned anything by what they've been through. Much like La Motta himself, it is what it is.

Rating: 9/10.
jakebe: (Entertainment)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet
Written by John Huston (screenplay) and Dashiell Hammett (novel)
Directed by John Huston

Chances are when you think about the quintessential film-noir detective, you're thinking about Humphrey Bogart from The Maltese Falcon. On the off chance that you aren't, the person you're thinking of owes a great debt to Bogey, who invented the mold. The Maltese Falcon wasn't the very first film-noir to hit Hollywood, but it was the first one that garnered major attention and inspired an entire movement of style in popular culture. We're getting to that point in the top 100 where just about every film is a major inspiration or marked a significant turning point in the history of cinema. It's fascinating to watch these movies; they're either the skeletons of an entire genre that you can see being built through the films that follow or they're the fully-formed gold standard, the movie that exemplifies what we've come to think of when we say "mob movie," or "film noir".

This is a combination of the two; Humphrey Bogart stars as Sam Spade, a private investigator based in San Francisco. He's approached by a woman named Ruth Wonderly (Astor), who hires him to follow a man she believes is involved with her missing sister. He takes the case and his partner decides to do the leg-work; later that night, Spade gets the call that his partner's been murdered.

The man his partner was following -- Floyd Thursby -- was murdered too, and now Spade is implicated. He has the motive, certainly, and the means. This is just the gateway into the story of the Maltese Falcon, and soon Spade is caught up in this weird war with three players all vying for a priceless, lost bird. Joining Wonderly -- who renames herself O'Shaughnessy once the jig is up -- is jovially dangerous Gutman (Greenstreet) and fastidious worry-wart Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre). The trio tries to use Spade as a pawn to their own ends, but he does a remarkable job of somehow slipping right through their control. No one's quite able to get a handle on him; he thinks fast and manages to exploit a lucky turn astonishingly well.

Bogart plays Spade as a wily, cagey bastard who can't help but needle the people that get on his nerves. There's no filter between his brain and his mouth, which gets him into quite a bit of trouble in the most amusing ways. Spade is either competent or quick enough to get himself out of the scrapes he causes, and it gives the movie the feel of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Well, it would if everyone smoked cigarettes and adult themes were allowed.

The plot is convoluted, of course, but it's also fairly easy to follow. The trouble with noir is that the narrative often gets so twisted it's difficult to keep track of the players in the game or why they're doing what they're doing. Even though there are a lot of moving pieces here, crosses and double-crosses, you never quite lose the thread of the story. I think it's a testament to the writing: John Huston, adapting from the Dashiell Hammett novel that's been brought to the big screen twice before, really had a great handle on what made the story pop and kept his focus tight on the gallery of characters that would each be engaging enough to remember even with limited screen time.

I think that's what makes The Maltese Falcon so successful, ultimately. With so much noir (and stories inspired by it), authors fall into the trap of creating archetypes instead of actual characters. So much attention is given to the plot that the characters end up as faceless pieces on the chess board, only there to make moves that bring the story to its endgame. Here, every character is distinctive. They give the impression of a rich inner life beyond the confines of the story, so they're rather easy to identify. The audience really gets to know them as people, not pieces in service to the plot.

It's such a surprise that Huston nails this basic truth so early in the genre, and the feat hasn't been duplicated quite as well since. Of course, since my knowledge of noir is admittedly limited, maybe I just haven't seen the right stuff. But The Maltese Falcon is a wonderful example of an intricate, twisting plot inhabited by rich and memorable characters. Even though all of the characters feel the tightening noose of fate around their necks, they never seem blind to it. They know when they're in trouble, and they're smart enough to try and get out of it. The trouble is, Sam Spade is almost always smarter.

Rating: 8/10.
jakebe: (Entertainment)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt
Written by John Huston (screenplay) and B. Traven (novel)
Directed by John Huston

I felt like I had learned a few things after seeing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. One: finding and mining gold is a LOT more difficult than I thought and way harder than it had been portrayed in other movies. Two: that the only reason you would go to Mexico at the time was specifically to find gold. Three: that the allure of overwhelming wealth is far more powerful than just about anyone realizes. Four: "We don't need no stinking badges!" is a misquote, that actually came from this movie. The last bit, sadly, is probably the knowledge that I will spread most.

Dobbs (Bogart), an American down on his luck in Mexico, meets up with a compatriot named Bob Curtin (Holt). Together, with a grizzled prospector who's seen a thing or two (Huston), they trek to the harsh and forbidding wilderness in the Sierra Madre mountains for one big score. Once they find it, they'll have to protect it from bandits, mining companies eager to put a legal claim on the place, other prospectors, and the rising tide of greed within themselves. Combine the constant mental wariness with the back-breaking physical labor, and you just have to wonder how long someone could last in that situation.

The entire first act is a wonderfully protracted exercise in foreshadowing. Howard, the old prospector, makes no bones about telling Dobbs and Curtin that gold-mining is nowhere near as easy or fun as it sounds. There are an awful lot of things that you need to keep track of, and even more that you have to watch out for. The biggest thing to watch out for is greed, however; that'll take a man over to the point that he's doing unspeakable things. We watch both Dobbs and Curtin vehemently deny the possibility this could exist in their natures, and immediately we wonder which one of them will succumb first.

We see the character of Dobbs and Curtin quite well in this first part of the movie, and we get a good sense for what kind of people they are. After working on a construction project and being stiffed on their wages, they happen upon the foreman one day and demand their money. When they get it, they have the opportunity to take his entire roll but they don't. Only the wages they were promised, no more, no less. It's a great touch; when they have every reason to clean this guy out, they don't. Their actions back up their words, and you just know they believe themselves to be fair and honest men.

The adventures in the mountains don't go anywhere near the way the men expect; they have to deal with bandits, of course, and other prospectors sniffing around their claim. They also have to deal with the intense labor involved in extracting the gold from the mountain and the incredibly dangerous conditions they must endure to do so. Howard, who at first comes off as a loony old kook, seems to grow stronger every day he's out there. He's in his element, and the wisdom of his years becomes painfully evident.

I don't want to go too much further into the film than I already have; it was fun watching the action play out in ways that surprised me. But I will say that the destructive nature of our lusts is on full display here, and Howard's ability to see it coming far down the road and deal with it once it reaches him is truly a wonderful thing to watch. It's fascinating to watch men break down without the safety net of civilization to guide their actions.

Both Bogart and Huston give great performances here; Bogart because he's playing against his type, as a man who's out of his element and in over his head, while Huston thoroughly lives in his performance as a guy who first annoys you, then inspires awe in you. He's really the reason to watch this movie, and his Best Supporting Actor Oscar is thoroughly deserved.

I've developed an increasing fondness for stories in which the ending features the characters looking at the cost they've paid to achieve their goals and realizing that what they've overcome is so enormous that their original goals seem meaningless in comparison. I'm not sure The Treasure of the Sierra Madre quite fits that mold, but it brings it to mind. Knowing what goes into the search for gold definitely takes the luster out of it, and I imagine living through a claim scours away any romantic notions you may have had once.

Rating: 7/10.
jakebe: (Entertainment)
Annie Hall (1977)
Starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton
Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
Directed by Woody Allen

I was surprised by the warmth of Annie Hall, though I've seen enough Woody Allen movies at this point that I shouldn't have been. It has all those things you expect in a Woody Allen movie -- the hyperverbosity, the focus on the absurdities of human behavior, the sharp observational humor, and I think that might be because it's the first Woody Allen film that really establishes the template for what comes after.

Annie Hall is a quasi-autobiographical account of his relationship with the titular woman, though I've read here and there that it's actually based on the film's star, Diane Keaton. If that's true, then she's a tremendously good sport about having the rise and fall of an entire romance fictionalized and thrust out there for the world to see. Allen himself vehemently denies that his romance to Keaton has anything to do with anything, though, and he's just writing what he knows. I think the rumor persists precisely because Allen seems to wear his heart on his sleeve in his writing, that his movies -- no matter how exaggerated or farcical -- end up feeling intimate because people and their innermost thoughts are always at their core. It's hard to imagine someone writing so deeply without having lived it.

Here, a stand-up comic named Alvy Singer is a stand-in for Allen. They share the same birthday, Singer uses the same jokes that Allen did when he was a beginning comic, and they come from roughly the same background. Still, when Singer's early life is dramatized so we have an understanding of where his neuroses come from, there's so much that's so outlandish it's hard to believe he's being literal. When he mentions that his apartment was underneath a subway, what we see is so surreal that it's a genuine surprise when he comes back to it later on as an adult. Holy shit, you think, that's an actual thing.

There's a wonderful tension in that, where surprises are lurking in every scene, where you're not quite sure what's actually happening and what's a flight of fancy. What starts out as a riff on a common-enough frustration -- a know-it-all knowing it all very loudly behind you in line -- ends with the subject of the argument (Marshall McLuhan, a prominent cultural academic at the time) coming out to tell the guy directly that he's just wrong. A scene where Alvy and Annie grope awkwardly in conversation suddenly comes with subtitles that spell out the subtext in each comment. Allen throws everything at the wall to see if it sticks, and what's amazing is that nearly everything does. Each scene is a delight, and I'm really impressed that he could sustain that for most of the movie.

The overriding theme, of course, is how people fall into and out of love. We watch Annie and Alvy through their first meeting, their gradual intertwining into each other's lives, and the protracted, messy disconnection that happens long after the relationship ends. It's a bittersweet affair; we know exactly why Annie and Alvy are so great together, and why they're ultimately not quite right for each other. By the end of the film, when Alvy picks over the wreckage of their relationship, we're right there with him, sympathizing, going back to try and figure out what happened. Ultimately, we simply have to do what he does. We shrug, take the lessons that we can, and trust that our wounds will stop bleeding all over the sidewalk in time.

Even though so much of the movie deals with the break-up, we never once are encouraged to take sides. Annie can be incredibly frustrating, but she's always understandable. Through the worst of their affair, there's a deep and abiding love there that never goes away.

And that's ultimately what makes Annie Hall (and most other Allen movies) so warm. Even when he's pointing out the absurd behavior of the people around him, or when he's hiding behind the glasses of a nebbish misanthrope, we can see through his writing that above all, Woody Allen loves people -- all of their messy contradictions, the inexplicable behavior, the wild variety of personalities and opinions. His best scenes are those where people have settled down somewhere private and just talk to each other about all the things that only seem to come up after a long night. You walk away with the tingle that comes with meeting someone you find really special. Allen's able to draw that quality out of all of his characters, even the ones who may or may not be stand-ins for the people who have broken his heart.

Before Annie Hall, Allen was known primarily for farces and broad comedies. There's definitely a farcical sensibility that runs through the movie, but it's grounded by the weight of Alvy's relationship with Annie, and afterwards the hopeful melancholy that comes with putting that relationship to rest. There should be a word for that kind of feeling, the one you get where you look on an incredibly difficult time and recognize the wisdom it gave you. Then I would be able to sum up Annie Hall in just one word. But it looks like several hundred will have to do.

Rating: 8/10.
jakebe: (Entertainment)

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

Starring Gregory Peck, Mary Badham and Phillip Alford

Written by Horton Foote (screenplay) and Harper Lee (novel)

Directed by Robert Mulligan

One of the great things about setting out to watch all 100 of the AFI's greatest American films of all time is it gives me an excellent chance to fill unforgivable gaps in my cinematic education. I had never seen To Kill A Mockingbird until last week, and given the fact that I'm a black guy who's also a sucker for noble, pure-hearted people in stories, you'd figure it would be right up my alley. Somehow I've missed it until now, and I'm actually glad of that. I got to see it when I'm old enough to truly appreciate it and mull the themes that it plays with.

On the surface, To Kill a Mockingbird looks like one of those kid's movies that's really a string of scenes with a big moral that loosely connects them. Scout (Badham) and Jem (Alford) Finch play together in a very small town, while their father Atticus (Peck) tries to raise them on his own and hold down a job as a lawyer. The children learn quite a bit about how to behave compassionately towards your fellow man from their father, as well as what happens when that quality is absent on both a personal and societal level. What makes this film work is that it uses these universal, grand themes and reduces them to the smallest possible interpersonal level, so nothing feels showy or preachy; the arguments are presented in an understated manner that makes them all the more powerful.

Peck is pitch-perfect in the role of Atticus, but then everyone already knew that. He inhabits the character with such natural, easy morality that you never question him. Even though he always does the right thing and always knows the right thing to say to get his point across, he doesn't feel wooden, or boring, or fake. He always comes across as a human being with an unfailing moral compass; even when it's not easy, even when it hurts him, he has this compulsion to do the right thing.

Acting, bitches.

This relatability is key, not only to us buying him in the movie but to us buying his relationship with his children and the effect he has on them. If Peck came across as too much Superman and not enough Clark Kent, he would have looked like an abstraction more than a man, an ideal of good and lawfulness given flesh. But because he's just some guy whose morality leads him to do extraordinary things, he inspires the belief that everyone has that capacity, that we could all be that good if we tried hard enough. Scout and Jem don't always manage it -- they can be casually cruel in the way that children are -- but they rise up to their potential when it counts.

There are two big instances where it does count. First, the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Most people in town consider this an open-and-shut case; it's a black man's word against the word of a white family, and even if everyone knows the father's a drunk there's really no issue here. Atticus is called to defend the man, and he does it to the best of his ability even in the face of such huge societal opposition.

The trial scene is simply gorgeous. Atticus takes apart the prosecutor's case piece by piece, and builds the searing testimony of Robinson in its place. With patience and clarity he forces everyone in the courtroom to look at the truth behind the lie and face their own prejudices, the way they've reduced a man to a thing. It's a breathtaking thing to watch; he's not too showy, he doesn't come across as too righteous, he never once over-reaches in his pursuit to get the accuser to tell the truth. The trial's result, and the way Atticus is regarded as he leaves the courtroom, leaves an indelible mark.

Scout takes the lesson learned from this and applies it to Boo Radley, the neighborhood bogeyman. I won't go into too much detail about that, just in case you're reading this and you're one of twelve people who haven't seen this movie yet -- but suffice to say, the movie's disparate plot threads come together in a surprising yet satisfying way.

There are a lot of other small details about Southern life that feel so, so right. The shape of the houses remind me a lot of home (even though home is Baltimore City), and the Finch's maid reminds me a lot of my own mother. I remember running around the neighborhood at night with friends, telling stories about what might be lurking in abandoned houses or what recluses do when no one's watching. These things ground the action quite well, and establish a deceptively care-free world for the children to run through. So when they stray into the world of adults, everything's given a weight that fits.

Of course I recommend this movie. Atticus Finch is one of the greatest heroes ever committed to celluloid, and as the heart of the movie he elevates every scene he's in. While he represents the qualities that are best in us, he never puts them out of our reach. We can all be Atticus if we made the decision to do the right thing, every time. That series of choices, laid out before us, is what determines the quality of the lives we lead, and the quality of the lives around us. We can elevate the people we touch in the same manner, without being a pain in the ass about it.

Rating: 9/10.
jakebe: (Entertainment)

It Happened One Night (1934)

Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert

Written by Robert Riskin (screenplay) and Samuel Hopkins Adams (short story)

Directed by Frank Capra

One of the most interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits I've discovered about It Happened One Night is just how much its lead actors hated working on the film. Its distributor, Columbia Pictures, was one of several studios on what was called "Poverty Row". Other studios would send difficult actors to one of these lots as a 'humbling experience,' so they would learn to appreciate what they had. Clark Gable was sent there after a number of other actors had passed on the script, and Claudette Colbert only took the job when director Frank Capra told her he would double her salary and she would be done in four weeks. (At least, that's the story according to IMDB.) Colbert was particularly unhappy the entire time, and didn't think much of the final cut of the film.

Neither did critics or audiences, at first. It Happened One Night debuted to weak box office and indifferent reviews, and it looked like it would be another flop for Columbia. Then, something strange happened. It landed in second-rate theatres, and actually did better there. Word of mouth snowballed, more and more people saw it, and it actually turned into Columbia's biggest hit at the time. This delayed wave of regard carried the film all the way to the Oscars, where it became the first of only three movies in history to win the "big five" awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Original or Adapted Screenplay).


Not bad for a movie that almost everyone involved with hated. What's impressive is you wouldn't know it by just watching the film -- it looks like everyone involved is having a blast. Either Gable and Colbert are consummate professionals or their chemistry is just that good. I'd like to think the latter.

Colbert is Ellie Andrews, the socialite daughter of a very rich man. Her father doesn't approve of her gunshot marriage to wealthy aviator King Westley (no kidding, that's his actual name -- he's not royalty) and basically abducts her to his yacht. She escapes, and in order to avoid notice rides a Greyhound bus back to New York where she hopes to meet her new husband. There, she meets a reporter who just happened to quit his job moments ago, Peter Warne (Gable).

Peter offers to help Ellie evade capture if he gets exclusive rights to the story; if she refuses, he'll blow the whistle and send her back into the loving, tight embrace of dear old dad. That's the only set up you need before it's off to the races. Gable and Colbert trade jabs with impeccable timing, and together they make one of the best screen couples I've ever seen, hands down. When you see two people who can't stand each other slowly come together over the course of the film, you can bet they're building on the template these guys formed.

Gable is as awesome as ever as a cad and conniver; he's always in control, always has an idea for any situation. Peter gets Ellie out of as many scrapes as he gets her into, but she's quite game to go along with it. In fact, she often takes his ideas and improves upon them in surprising ways -- Ellie may be inexperienced, but she's tremendously quick-witted. It's great to see this sheltered socialite come into her own the way she does; not only does she rise to the occasion, she loves doing it.

It Happened One Night is remembered quite fondly because it treats its romantic leads equally; Peter has his foibles and vulnerabilities just as much as Ellie. She picks at them, too, just as pointedly as he does. She gives as good as she gets, even though she's not afraid to be vulnerable, or petty, or hurt. What makes me so fond of Ellie is that she's such a fully-realized character. She's helpless not because she's a woman, or of low intellect, but simply because she's never had the chance to help herself. And through the course of the trip you see her rely on her wits, charm and intelligence just as much as Peter.

It kind of blows me away to realize just how influential this movie was; a lot of the mannerisms for Bugs Bunny was based on things that happened in the film, and apparently sales of undershirts plummeted because of one scene of Clark Gable undressing. Beyond the legends about that, you just see this movie embedded in the DNA of every quippy romantic comedy that's come out since, and even though they try to capture the interplay of Gable and Colbert, they can't quite catch lightning in a bottle for a second time.

Another great thing about this film is the variety of people they meet in their travels. I've taken the Greyhound bus across the country before, and it turned out to be a lot less fun than what was depicted. I swore I'd never get on a bus again to travel long distances after that trip, but this movie made me seriously reconsider that. There's a love of people that suffuses itself through the energy of the film; even though its leads have many bad qualities, you never once think of them as bad people. That attitude carries on right down the line, from annoying fellow passenger Oscar Shapely to severe helicopter father Mr. Andrews. I'm sure much of that comes from Capra, who somehow makes his affection for Americana earnestly without coming over too corny about it.

This is a grand romantic comedy that's about more than two people finding each other and falling in love. It's about how discovering the world outside yourself makes you a more complete person; both Ellie and Peter are trapped in different myopic world views, and it's only when they open up to one another that they learn how to get out of their own way. Alone they're reasonably intelligent, headstrong people who can't quite catch a break. Together, they're an unstoppable bickering force. The world -- and the audience -- is in the palm of their hands.

Rating: 9/10.
jakebe: (Entertainment)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Starring Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell and Teresa Wright
Written by Robert E. Sherwood (screenplay) and MacKinlay Kantor (novel)
Directed by William Wyler

This is a great surprise for a number of reasons. Unlike most of the other films on the Top 100 list, I had never heard of this one before. It's odd to be this far into it and stumble across a movie you're not at least passingly familiar with. Just on the title alone, I thought it would be some kind of domestic melodrama that served as the pinnacle of that sort of movie in its day. I wasn't that excited to see it. I was quite wrong, and I'm very glad to be so.

The Best Years of Our Lives follows three military servicemen after coming home from World War II. Al Stephenson (March) is a banker and family man, with a quiet and successful domestic life waiting for him. Fred Derry (Andrews) was a soda jerk before he became a Captain in the Air Force, and he'll be reuniting with a wife he barely got to know before he left. Homer Parrish (Russell) was a Navy seaman who was injured in the line of duty, losing both of his hands in an explosion. While he's gotten used to the hooks that have replaced his hands, he's not quite used to how civilians look at them.

There are so many extraordinary things about this movie I almost don't know where to begin. I guess we'll start with the top. Director William Wyler served in the war as well, and strived for authenticity whenever possible. He stuffed the ranks of the crew with actual WWII veterans, and drew on his own experiences in combat to fill out details about his main characters. Al's reunion with his wife was patterned on his own, and it's one of those scenes that really win you over. It's really hard not to get sniffly.

In order to preserve a sense of realism, Wyler reportedly had all of his actors buy their own clothes off the rack and ordered sets to be built closer to life-size so they didn't look like movie sets. You don't notice it while you're watching, but it really lends a close, lived-in feel to the entire movie; shots are crowded with people, so you actually get the sense of intimacy in their conversations. Director of Photography Gregg Toland uses deep-focus camera-work (I admit, that meant nothing to me either until I read something that explained it) to make sure you can see what's going on in the background and foreground at the same time. This leads to wonderfully complicated scenes, where stories intersect in the same space for a moment or two before you follow one or the other out of the door.

The movie navigates three parallel stories that offer a different perspective of post-war life. Al Stephenson probably has it the easiest; he has a loving wife and daughter, a boss who thinks the world of him, and enough money to live comfortably despite serving in the military for a number of years. Still, not everything is perfect. He finds himself distant from a son who doesn't seem to appreciate his experiences; his job at the bank is unfulfilling next to the work he did with the military; and his neat, orderly life makes him bored and nervous. He's also a little overly-fond of alcohol.

Derry is in a worse predicament. He doesn't want to go from being an officer in the Air Force to being a soda jerk again, but being a bombadier doesn't offer a whole lot of opportunity in peace time. His wife is accustomed to a certain standard of living and once that starts to slip they run into pretty tough marital problems. It seems like he typified the veterans' experience post-war -- going from an environment where his particular skill set is appreciated, even depended on to a society that has no use for him now that he's back. It must be frustrating to make that adjustment, to finding your niche in a radically different world.

Homer has the most difficult time adjusting to post-war life. As a wounded veteran, he's taken care of by Uncle Sam, but it's hard for him to know what to do with the looks of his family and friends regarding his injury. His introduction is telling: when we first meet him, he's using his hooks to take a match out of a matchbook and light a cigarette. It's...actually impressive, and Fred and Al watch as he does it. Once he's proven what he can do, they both accept that he's fine with his injury and treat him as one of the gang. Later, when Al introduces Homer to his family, he says "This is Homer, he was injured in the war. But it doesn't bother him, so it shouldn't bother you." And that's that.

Around his family, though, it's a different story. His parents respond with the shock and grief that Homer has already worked his way through. They try to tiptoe around the subject as much as possible and when they can't they treat him with the utmost gentleness. It's a natural reaction, but for Homer it's emasculating. Their compassionate response -- drawn from the best of intentions -- actually makes it more difficult for him to feel like a useful, complete human being. It's a tough situation that generates sympathy for both sides, and even though Homer saddens and sometimes frightens his friends and family with his anger you really feel for him.

The America portrayed in the movie is a far cry from the whitewashed image of perfection and prosperity you see in the 50s. There are a number of things society is trying to work out, and there's an uneasiness that's surprising but sensible. With veterans returning to flood the job market and production slowing down significantly, people were convinced that they were facing a return to the depression of the Thirties. Most surprisingly, people were already talking about the atom bomb and what it would do to change warfare; more than once, a character says that if there's another World War we'd face extinction as a species.

The Best Years of Our Lives is at its best when it explores the personal costs of war, the uneasiness surrounding the returning veterans, and an America that was sputtering back to normalcy after five years of wartime. Al's moral struggle as the new Vice-President of Small Loans is gripping; you want to see him go right by the veterans who come in asking for help to get their lives started again. Fred's night terrors about a particularly hairy mission he lived through is something that I've never heard of in any other movie from the time, when there were fairly strong ideas about what soldiers were supposed to look like on screen. And Homer's struggle to find his place with his disability is utterly engrossing, so much so that you don't mind it when the film turns into a romantic melodrama for much of its third hour. He's earned his happy ending, after all.

Every character is complete and charismatic, and that makes their conversations grounded, funny and human. There are still the classic movie touches -- the swell of music during emotional moments, the shorthand common to the time that might not translate as well today -- but for the most part everything ages well. There's no doubt that the veterans coming home are from the Second World War, but the struggles they faced then are the same struggles our veterans face now. By painting those veterans as people trying to reintegrate into their lives, we're stripped of the political context of what they've done so we can focus on their humanity.

I highly recommend tracking down this forgotten gem. It has a strong moral backbone, but it puts itself across amiably, without preachiness or treacle. Every performance is strong, the director has a sure hand on what he wants, and he keeps everything purring along smoothly. Even though the end of the movie can't quite match what's come before it, The Best Years of Our Lives is definitely worth three hours of your time.

Rating: 8/10.

jakebe: (Entertainment)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson
Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler
Directed by Billy Wilder

Holy cats, are the two main characters in this film terrible people. That's actually what makes it so fascinating -- this is a film noir that's actually more Fargo than The Maltese Falcon. The main character isn't a hard-boiled detective on the case of some twisty mystery; he's a smooth-talking insurance salesman who gets up with the wrong bored housewife. Even though the stakes feel a bit lower, it's still engrossing thanks to wonderful writing of Wilder and Chandler and the great performances of the leads.

MacMurray plays Walter Neff, a man who falls in love with Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck). Phyllis is lonely, tired of being ignored by her husband. It doesn't take long for him to figure out that she's sick enough of him to want him out of the picture, and from there it's off to the races. To Neff's credit, he rejects her advances at first. He wants no part of murdering someone just to collect the insurance money. But then he starts to think about it. What would be the perfect way of committing a murder, making it look like an accident, and collect the most money from your insurance policy? Intrigued by the possibility and spurred by his attraction for her, he decides to go for it.

He decides that Mr. Dietrichson should die by accident on the train, activating a double indemnity clause that pays double on the policy. With the money, Neff and Phyllis will be rich and together. It's a great idea, of course, but the great hand of karma comes down to make sure nothing breaks their way after a certain point. That's how these things go, after all. And the pressures of holding a crumbling plan together take their toll on the fledgling couple, causing mistrust and dissention. Once that trust goes, things fall apart quickly. Long story short, it doesn't end well for our two lovebirds.

What's impressive about the downfall is how inevitable it seems even while Neff and Phyllis take every precaution to make their getaway clean. While they're obviously not good people, they're reasonably intelligent and actually cool under pressure. What makes them crack, eventually, is Neff's best friend and claims adjuster, Barton Keyes (Robertson).

Robertson steals every frame he's in, chewing the scenery with the best character actors out there. He's also incredibly smart and intuitive, stubborn and moral, and that's what proves to be Neff's undoing. When a false claim is made, Keyes has what he calls a "little man" in his gut that keeps him up at night. It goes sour on him with this case, and he suspects Phyllis of foul play. He trusts Neff as his best friend, while working as hard as he can to uncover the scheme he's cooked up.

MacMurray and Stanwyck have a great, twisted chemistry together. and even when Neff and Phyllis turn on each other they're arresting to watch. Phyllis is a hell of a femme fatale, completely sociopathic even though she's in a bad situation; she's not a woman caught in the balance of good and evil, she's just evil with enough charisma to fool people.

Neff is a good guy, though. His libido and ego are fatal flaws, to be sure, but he seems to be a nice enough person who's unfortunately caught up in a gravity well of crazy that he learns too late there's no escape from. Even while you're watching him deceive his friends and coworkers, you're caught between two impulses -- the desire to see him caught for what he's already done, and the desire to see him squirm out of his predicament a better man for the experience. Unlike Phyllis, he begins to show remorse once he learns the extent of what he's done and who he's hitched his wagon to. That goes a long way in my book.

But alas, it's not to be. Keyes is too dogged, Phyllis is too crazy, and the noose around Neff's neck grows far too tight. The end result is an enjoyable ride down the ruins of a man's life, tightly-plotted and filled with rich, complicated characters that the actors bring to life quite well. Wilder and Chandler do a great job working from James Cain's novella, incorporating classic noir elements to a situation that doesn't seem to be what we think of at all when it comes to the genre. What we get is something that's at once classic and unique, in a realm all its own.

Rating: 7/10.
jakebe: (Entertainment)
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Starring Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin and Rod Steiger
Written by Boris Pasternak (novel) and Robert Bolt (screenplay)
Directed by David Lean
After watching Doctor Zhivago, I found it easy to imagine why people were freaked out about communism. The movie, adapted from the Russian novel by Boris Pasternak, details the life of a poet and doctor while the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent civil war erupts all around him. Things weren't great under the czars for a lot of people, but the suffering only seemed to intensify once the Bolsheviks rose to power. The story centers on the tension between the individual's right to pursue their own happiness and the needs of society. Czarist and Bolshevik Russia swings from one extreme to the other and goes from bad to worse in the meantime.

Yuri Zhivago was adopted into a bourgeois family after he loses his mother. He cultivates two careers: one as a poet, and one as a doctor. What's interesting is that these two professions come to symbolize the eternal struggle of a man as a social animal -- what enriches him personally, and the way he can be of best use to those around him. He's recognized for his talents in both professions, but circumstances call for the use of the practical over the fulfilling more and more.

He falls in love with two women through an incredibly turbulent period. First, World War I demands his expertise as a doctor behind the front, and then he's driven to leave Moscow when the Bolsheviks take over. His doubts about "the needs of the many" doesn't endear him to the new regime, and his poetry is seen as far too personal and indulgent to agree with the political sensibilities taking hold at the time. Even his practice as a doctor isn't enough for him to stick around; his family's home and possessions are repossessed by the state and given to others as some measure of equality. Eventually, there simply isn't enough to go around and the lack of goodwill forces him out of the city.

What follows is an arduous, harrowing and eerie train ride through the Russian countryside. It's a very impressive sequence; the landscape is stark and beautiful, and a small community forms out of the strangers packed into a single train car. We also see how the building conflict between the Communist Party and the White separatists has ravaged the land. Small towns suspected of harboring the rebels are attacked by the state, and some are burned to the ground as part of some scorched earth policy. Yuri himself is even picked up and interrogated by the Communist military operation travelling in parallel with the civilian train. The sense of helplessness in the face of totalitarian power is palpable during these scenes; if Yuri gives an answer that the commander doesn't like, then he could disappear immediately without his wife and son ever knowing what's happened to him.

At some point, that actually DOES happen. Yuri, who's been having an affair with a woman he served with during the war, goes to a neighboring town to end their dalliance once he learns his wife is pregnant. On his way back home, he's conscripted into service by the Communists and spends several months trekking through the Russian wilderness to hunt down rebels. During this time, he finds out the state is essentially killing children and young men. Disillusioned with the new regime, he deserts his post and returns home, only to find his family has left. His mistress remains, however.

The movie is actually a romantic drama framed against the backdrop of societal turbulence. The civil unrest serves as the force driving Yuri and his loves apart, so that we understand how the rise of communism affected people on a personal level. It works well in that regard, but I actually find the tension between individual desire and societal need the most interesting. The melodrama regarding Yuri, his wife and his lover is interesting, but not quite the strongest part. Where the movie works best is as a historical record of what Russia was like during the rise of the Bolsheviks, and how the new regime took its reaction against the decadence of the bourgeois and Czarist classes to the extreme. Everyone, no matter who or what they were, were reduced to the same rough life. There was no room for individual pursuits or even a moment's happiness in this new state. All that was left was what it was decided had to be done. Society above all, was the thinking.

Still, Doctor Zhivago works well as an epic romantic drama as well. Lara, this mistress that Yuri falls in love with, has her own intriguing story that also serves up the movie's great villain -- Komarovsky, an opportunist who forces himself on her and has a knack for not only surviving through the worst of times, but flourishing. I think he's the movie's best character. While Yuri, Lara and Yuri's wife Tonya are interesting on an intellectual level, Komarovsky is the only person who connects emotionally. You hate him in a way that reaffirms your morality, and he's incredibly effective as a loathsome individual. He serves as a useful critique of communism, actually. The Bolsheviks were hoping to stamp out people just like him, but he ends up succeeding in the new regime just as well as the old one.

Director David Lean does a great job of tightening the story and focusing on the most important parts, thanks to Robert Bolt's efficient screenplay. Pasternak's novel is sprawling, filled with characters that represent all walks of Russian life. We get a good sense of its expansiveness while still keeping focused on our viewpoint characters. It's a tricky balance to strike, and everyone involved hits it quite well.

It's not that often that I recommend a movie on the grounds of its historical interest, but that's precisely why I'd recommend Doctor Zhivago. It's a fascinating look at a crazy time in Russia's history, and a fairly good romantic melodrama besides. The soundtrack is wonderfully distinctive, the sets are awesome, and the
cinematography top-notch. All of it serves the mood of the story, as tragic and poetic as the Russian wilderness.

Rating: 7/10.
jakebe: (Entertainment)
North by Northwest (1959)
Starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason
Written by Ernest Lehman
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Cary Grant is Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising executive who has no problem with lying. During a dinner with "friends," he's abducted by two thugs and driven to a grand house in the countryside. He's met by a gentleman (Mason) who insists he's a man named George Kaplan, beaten up and interrogated. When he refuses to give up any information, Thornhill is given a bottle of whiskey and put inside a stolen car, then pushed towards the cliff of a winding oceanside road. He barely escapes. He does, though, and when the police won't believe his story he takes it upon himself to figure out just what the hell is going on.

That investigation takes him from New York to Mt. Rushmore, meeting a host of shadowy characters along the way. Despite the dizzy confusion Thornhill suffers and the incredibly high stakes at play here, he never loses the ability to crack a joke with his traveling partner Eve Kendall (Saint) or basically lie his way deeper into trouble. This humble Mad. man actually turns out perfectly suited for the adventure, right down to the sudden, cheeky epilogue.

North by Northwest is a much lighter film than most of Hitchcock's work, and I'd like to think that's mostly due to the whip-crack writing of Ernest Lehman and the wry, sharp delivery of Cary Grant. Hitchcock's direction is as sure as ever, and he keeps things moving along at a nice, brisk pace. The movie is over two hours long, but it really doesn't feel like it -- you're hooked from the moment that Thornhill is taken until that climactic chase and battle on the top of Mount Rushmore. It's a small feat to make a movie that long pass the time so quickly.

What I love about the film is how comfortably Grant falls into the role of action hero. He looks about as old as Roger Moore does during his Bond run, but it doesn't slow him down. There are a ton of crazy setpieces he has to navigate, from that first drunken car escape, to the iconic biplane attack, to running through the woods from thugs sent to kill him. He manages to keep the tone wonderfully light, so that his Thornhill is up to any challenge thrown at him. A career of lying and being forced to think fast on your feet is all he needs to get out of most jams, along with a bit of luck or two.

The story is twisty enough that you're never quite sure of your footing, even though the plot is laid out for you in an exposition-heavy scene right after our introduction to the hero. I won't go into details here, but I will have to say it's just a bit disappointing -- the first thirty minutes have that amazing "What the hell?" feeling, where you have no idea how this situation could have developed but an incredible curiosity about it. To have everything explained by a bunch of men in a room lets the air out of the premise just a bit, but you don't have much time to cling to your expectation of a more measured revelation. You're given the information and then they're off to the races once again.

Eva Marie Saint makes an excellent foil and companion to Grant's Thornhill. She's smart, mysterious, elegant, delicate and a bit vulgar all in one package. It's fascinating to watch them play off each other, and it really brings home the value of having two leads with undeniable chemistry. Even though they spend a lot of time sniping each other, you just know that they're really having a blast. That sense of fun infuses the entire movie.

It's quite a fun piece of popular art, and a perfect template for the Bond movies that would come three years later. I enjoyed it from top to bottom -- with just a small disappointment near the beginning -- and it's made me a fan of Cary Grant, Eve Marie Saint and Hitchcock himself. The more I read about his movies, the more fascinated I become.

Rating: 7/10.
jakebe: (Entertainment)

West Side Story (1961)

Starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno

Written by Ernest Lehman (screenplay), Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics)

Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise

This movie comes with the weight of all its baggage. Granted, a lot of classic movies do, but this one a bit more than most. It's been parodied a lot, and the basic premise (hey, it's a re-imagining of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet!) has been done so often that it's easy to lose touch with what makes this movie special. I'll admit that I didn't know a lot about it going in besides that the Montagues and Capulets were now rival gangs called the Sharks and the Jets, and that there was a LOT of dance-fighting. Both of these things are true, but there's also a lot more going on than it looks at first glance.

Maria (Wood) is the sister of the Sharks' leader, Bernardo (George Chakiris). They're a Puerto Rican street gang encroaching on the traditional territory of the Jets, their Polish rivals. Tony (Beymer), best friend of the Jets' leader and former member himself, falls in love with her right when the turf war between the gangs heats up past its boiling point. Right when both sides are planning an all-out rumble to determine who owns the streets once and for all, Tony and Maria have to try and make their budding romance work while untangling their duty to family and heritage.

This is no straight-up retread. The story is surprisingly and deeply enriched by the change of setting. Maria is caught between two worlds -- the promise of a life in the land of opportunity with someone who genuinely loves her, fulfilling her dream of America; or the close-knit community she has with her family and friends, the small Puerto Rican neighborhood that feels it can't catch an equal break in this country. Maria's choice reflects the basic decision that so many minorities have to make here -- do you follow your optimism and try to blend into the great melting pot of mainstream society, or do you stay with your community and make that stronger, better, livelier? Re-framing Maria's choice as one of honoring the individual vs. honoring the society that individual is born into makes her decision much more complex and difficult.

The plight of the country's inner-city minorities wasn't exactly a huge topic of conversation in 1961; I'm impressed that West Side Story (and the musical it was made from) had the stones to make it the crux of the story. Both the Polish Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks feel like they're protecting the only space carved out just for them -- the wider world (represented by the authority figure Krupke) is hostile and unyielding, and there's only so much space to go around. It's understandable that each group would want to own it; if they're not going to get a fair shake anywhere else, at least they have this small strip of the neighborhood where they can be who they are, make the rules.

It's the possibility of making over a small part of America in their image that resonates so strongly with these two factions. In the song "America", Bernardo's girlfriend Anita (Moreno) sings about how crappy things are in Puerto Rico, how the possibilities are endless here. Bernardo replies with tales of a wall of discrimination between his people and the outside world. If they're going to embrace the American dream, it has to be here and now. They'll have to take the opportunity they dreamed of; no one else is going to give it to them.

The movie's influences extend beyond Shakespeare; a lot of shots were made to duplicate paintings of New York from famous contemporary artists of the day, and co-director Robert Wise fought to shoot within the city. He chose condemned buildings and rough neighborhoods for his sequences to really sell the small, claustrophobic world these two packs of youngsters are roiling in. It's as much Shakespeare as it is New York, a love letter to two disparate things that actually work in surprising harmony.

The songs are breezy and fun, with lyrics that fall off the tongue of the actors so well. That's a specialty of Sondheim, who I happen to like. The actors work insanely hard to create a world where the rough life of gang members can be expressed through something as contrary as choreographed dance, and for the most part it works. I felt myself resisting the conceit with the iconic opening number of the movie before checking myself, and you might need to do the same sort of mental adjustment. This is the world of the movie, this the conceit of the story. If you buy this one thing, accept the story in its own language, it opens up to be quite effective.

So forget what you know about West Side Story; yeah, it's a song-and-dance-infused retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but it's also a mature and complex postcard of life amongst minorities in 1950's New York that's surprisingly intelligent. You can't ask for more from your pop art, really.

Rating: 4/5.

jakebe: (Entertainment)

Rear Window (1954)

Starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by John Michael Hayes (screenplay) and Cornell Woolrich (short story)

There is so much that impressed me about this movie that it's difficult to know where to begin. This was the second of four collaborations between director Alfred Hitchcock and star James Stewart, and if they're all this good I definitely can't wait to see the others. Hitchcock directs the movie with a wonderfully deft hand, effortlessly gliding between the inner lives of photographer L.B. Jeffries (Stewart), his girlfriend Lisa (Kelly) and the half-dozen subplots woven amongst the neighbors that Jeffries is spying on. The main plot that intersects Jeffries, Lisa and one of the neighbors is tense in all the right places, and shows off a great skill in building tension, subverting expectations and keeping the audience guessing. Still, while it's technically impressive from a storytelling standpoint, emotionally it's actually the least engrossing.

Jeffries is a globe-trotting news reporter who's been confined to his apartment with an injury sustained from one of his assignments. Hitchcock spends the first minute or so of the film pausing at significant portions of his apartment, giving us a quick and efficient character study in seconds. The pictures that are lingered on tell us who Jeffries is and how he got the injury; then we see that he has a girlfriend, a high-society girl that he met on a photo shoot. I don't think I've ever seen a movie get to the heart of its main characters so quickly; it's simply masterful.

To pass the time while he's nursing his broken leg, Jeffries spies on his neighbors with one of his cameras. He has names for just about all of them -- there's Miss Torso, a dancer who entertains a few men in her apartment every night; Miss Lonelyhearts, a middle-aged woman whose solitude radiates through her entire apartment; Miss Hearing Aid, an older woman whose meddling in the affairs of others is often thwarted by her inability to hear. There's a newlywed couple, a songwriter prone to fits of depression, a strange couple obviously comfortable with each other who sleeps out on the fire escape. The people who gains most of Jeffries' attention is a man and his invalid wife -- they're clearly unhappy, and it's quite possible that the husband is involved in an affair.

A few friends visit to break up these bouts of spying. There's Lisa, who brings him dinner and argues with him about their very different lifestyles. There's Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey), a good friend of Jeffries who provides him with affectionate, breezily mean banter. And there's Stella (Thelma Ritter), his nurse, a wisely crude woman who provides him advice whether he wants it or not. Jeffries' relationship and conversations with each of these people are remarkably distinct, bringing out different aspects of his personality and demanding different tones in his mood. The character work here is exquisite, each exchange revealing something significant about their moods, their reaction to the plot, the way they think or feel about each other.

The story of the husband and his invalid wife takes a turn after the basic premise is establish, and Hitchcock manages to juggle five or six different subplots while letting that take up the bulk of the time. At just under two hours, the film has a lot to do in a short amount of time, and both John Hayes (the writer) and Hitchcock keep things moving along without sacrificing space to let moments breathe when they need to.

The set is just as impressive, and vital to making the whole thing work. The entire movie is shot within the confines of Jeffries' apartment, so all of the subplots and moving pieces we see through the course of the film have to be seen from a rather limited view. Hitchcock works well within these confines, having his actors use those windows and the spaces between them to tell their stories as efficiently as possible. He uses the voyeur's angle to ratchet up wonderfully thick tension, like when something huge goes down in the apartment of Miss Lonelyhearts and the unfaithful husband at the same time. And he gets a wonderfully creepy effect out of simply having the adulterer turn off the light and smoke a cigar alone in the dark.

Stewart, Kelly, the main supporting actors and all of the neighbors do quite well. Raymond Burr plays the adulterer in a role that flies right in the face of our image of him, and Ross Bagdasarian (the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks) does surprisingly well as our bipolar songwriter. The scenes run like clockwork, all guided by the hand of a master watchmaker.

The character arcs mostly intersect through the main story, and a brief epilogue touches on what's happening to the residents of the apartment complex once order is restored. A lot of things have changed, so many things remain the same, and in many cases it's a genuine surprise what's stuck and what hasn't. When we last see Jeffries and Lisa, they've come to a much better understanding of each other and have grown closer as a result, but of course there's still just enough tension in the relationship to keep things interesting.

Rear Window is a simply great movie. If you're a fan of great character studies, superbly efficient use of space and time, and a mystery that may keep you guessing for a little bit, you simply can't miss it.

Rating: 4.5/5

jakebe: (Entertainment)
King Kong (1933)
Starring Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot and Robert Armstrong
Written by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose (screenplay), Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace (story)
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
I think most people from my generation know all about King Kong but haven't actually seen it. We know about the giant ape climbing the Empire State Building, or the huge eye looking through the window followed by a giant hand grabbing at a shrieking woman. We know about Kong fighting giant dinosaurs, and Fay Wray tied up on the pillar and screaming her head off. And really, that's all you need to know, right
Well, somewhat. Most people from my generation got their first exposure to the full King Kong experience through Peter Jackson's loving 2005 remake. And I have to say, most of the time I watched the original I was comparing it to that film. I'm not sure that really helped my appreciation of the 1933 classic, really, but I couldn't quite help it.
Here's the story: filmmaker extraordinaire Carl Denham (Armstrong) has an incredible idea for his next project, but needs to find a leading lady for it. He eventually finds down-on-her-luck actress (Ann Darrow), and just like that he's sailing through the South Pacific to his top-secret location. Both Ann and the ship's crew get more than they bargained for when she's offered up to the mysterious island god Kong, a giant ape who falls for her exquisite beauty. The ship's crew go after her and encounters the jungle's oversized prehistoric wildlife, falling to horrible deaths. The ship's first mate Jack Driscoll (Cabot) manages to save Ann, and Denham manages to bring Kong down after the ape smashes through the village of the local tribe. Kong is brought to New York, where...things work out about as well as you expect them to.
The special effects get most of the attention here, and a surprising number of retrospectives claim that King Kong was the first true effects-driven blockbuster. I could totally see that, come to think of it. Moviemaking was still in its relative infancy, and these guys were trying things that had never been done before. The models and effects were extensively detailed, and the soundtrack was the most advanced in all of movies at the time. The writing wasn't very subtle, but I don't think that's the fault of its age; there are tons of movies from that period capable of playing soft notes or letting moments land. But I think that the dialogue was crafted to be as big and overwrought as the monsters in it. There's a lot of hammering home the motif they're working with, and the foreshadowing comes across a little ham-fisted. I'm sure it only seems that way because we know the beats that follow so well.
Still, what impresses me is how brutal the movie is. It takes a little while to get going (Kong doesn't appear until 40 minutes in), but when it does the film more than makes up for lost time. The dinosaurs are as impressive as Kong, and the sheer immensity and power of them come across very well. The crew's search for Ann is a litany of horrors as they encounter monster after monster, losing men every step of the way. They can't even stop to wonder at what they're seeing because they're far too busy trying to stay alive.
Kong is at its most graphic when innocents are involved. The scenes where the big ape trashes the jungle village and rampages through New York in search of Ann are surprising in just how careless and cruel he can be, stomping, biting and throwing people without even slowing down. I think this is the biggest change between the 1933 original and the 2005 remake. Jackson takes great care to make Kong a lot more sympathetic, and the affection between him and Darrow is actually there. But in the original, their relationship is a lot simpler -- Kong desires Ann, but not in a way that anthropomorphizes him. She's a prize, a toy, and there's nothing in his actions to indicate something deeper than that. Ann, for her part, is horrified and traumatized by the ordeal. It comes across much more as Kong being a force of nature, and his brief reign of terror is a reminder of what happens when mankind tries to harness forces it cannot control or understand.
It may be just a little dated, and it comes across as a bit melodramatic (even considering its age), but King Kong is still an enormously impressive movie on its own. When you consider just how much it influenced movies of its time and going forward, it's definitely earned its place in the annals of film history. I think these days it's more to be enjoyed as a cinematic cultural touchstone than anything, a pivot point in the history of moving pictures.
Rating: 8/10.
jakebe: (Entertainment)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Starring Malcolm McDowell
Written by Stanley Kubrick (screenplay) and Anthony Burgess (novel)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

There's a lot to see in A Clockwork Orange that apparently isn't really there. Numerous interviews with the author reveal that there doesn't seem to be much thought behind a lot of the most iconic things in the movie. The Russian slang served a purpose, for example, but it was only meant to provide a barrier between the audience and the book's violence -- nothing more. Both Burgess and Kubrick disagree about what the story means, or at least we assume so. Kubrick was typically quiet about his meaning, letting the movie speak for itself. And in his later years, Burgess came to regret writing the novel in the first place, saying it had been badly misinterpreted and known for all the wrong reasons.

That could inspire another discussion on how a work changes when it's given over to your audience, how the message can be warped in its receiving to the point that your original intention is lost. What do you do then? Do you patiently make the rounds, trying to explain your work to people who would rather see it another way? Or do you simply take this as the audience's response, their answer to the beginning salvo of your conversation? It's an interesting question, but pondering it gets us too far off-track. A Clockwork Orange is what it is, and at this point we can safely assume that our interpretation of the movie and its story is going to be different from what at least one of its authors intended.

Alex DeLarge is a young man adrift in a dystopian Britain. He leads a small gang of three friends, and together they beat and rob the elderly, commit acts of shocking, casual rape, and drink modified milk in a bar when they need to recharge. A falling-out with his friends leads Alex to be captured, and instead of jail he opts for an experimental technique meant to force a person to lose all taste for the urges that lead him to commit criminal acts. It works a little too well, and Alex becomes victim to the casual cruelty of the world that he moved through. Karmic retribution keeps piling on him, higher and higher, until there's a breaking point. I think what happens there and afterwards is where you ultimately take the true meaning of the story, but if you haven't seen the movie yet I'll try not to spoil it for you.

The movie itself has so many iconic shots; the opening pull-back that begins with a close-up of Malcolm McDowell's hard, challenging gaze (mascara done around one eye so that it looks like a dark star) and retreats to reveal his friends, then a strange room filled with naked statues and meaningless words floating by on black walls. There's the contraption he's forced to wear during his experimental conversion, his eyes held open by metal clamps, an assistant passively dropping fluid in them so they won't dry out. The rape scene is particularly difficult in its implied brutality; Alex sings "Singin' In The Rain" in a way that marries it indelibly to the awful things he's doing. McDowell moves through the film like a force of nature, and Kubrick sets up a carefully-arranged, decaying world specifically so that his star can leave behind a ton of damage in his wake.

And whether it's intentional or not, there are a number of interesting conflicts here. One of the first violent acts committed by DeLarge is because a bum is "old", and thus especially egregious. I noticed how Alex and his gang of droogs represents this unknowable, energetic generation after your own, brought up in a world that you're not plugged into any more. What makes Alex so shocking and so dangerous is the way he invades the inner world of his victims; first he pretends that he's the victim of a car accident and his friend is dying in the road, then he barges into your home and punishes you for an act of compassion. He purposefully disrupts the order we create around ourselves, shattering our illusion of safety. He's open defiance of an orderly society, an orderly life; he's the reminder that something horrible can happen to you, at any time, for no other reason than the simple fact of your proximity.

Young, chaotic energy vs. old, ordered implacability. Ingenuity vs. the accumulated knowledge of time and masses. The cruelty of the individual vs. the cruelty of the state. They all exist within this movie, fighting each other until they're subsumed or integrated. And really, it's up to you what the whole thing means. Can people out of step with the rest of society ever be brought in line? Should they be? How far do we go in our efforts to protect the rights of the populace to build orderly lives, safe from random violence? How far should we allow the individual to push the fabric of society before we decide he loses his right to do so? A Clockwork Orange seems to ask all of these questions while offering no real answers; the ending seems fatalistic, suggesting that what we think of as two opposing forces are actually the same thing with different expressions. As they move through life, cruel men such as DeLarge and his droogs channel their thirst for violence through the machine of society, finding legal ways to do what they've always done. This is what really happens to the cruelty of individuals. The 'cure' is simple redirection, not disintegration.

At least, that's what I take from it. What you take from it will differ depending on your views of individuals and what makes a man, and society's role in the individual's life. And that's something that shifts all the time. A Clockwork Orange makes for a very interesting cinematic inkblot test, if you ask me; watch with your friends, and you'll find yourself in a very surprising conversation.

Rating: 7/10.
jakebe: (Entertainment)
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Starring James Dean, Natalie Wood
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Written by Stewart Stern (screenplay), Irving Shulman (adaptation) and Nicholas Ray (story)

At first glance, Rebel Without a Cause is one of those old 50s-era melodramas that don't age too well. If you look past the over-acting common to dramas of the day and take the movie on its own terms, it's actually a surprisingly sensitive portrayal of teenagers coming to grips with their own identities, their thoughts on how society views them, and what values are most important to them. It sounds kind of basic, and the territory has been well-mined it's true, but what makes it interesting is how maturely the subject is handled. Given the nature of the style director Nicholas Ray is dealing with, it would be easy to fall into a preachy kind of melodrama that chastises the wayward kids or a sensational soap-opera where kids are all noise with no meaning. Instead, the rebelling kids have logical, sympathetic grievances that make sense even if you can't agree with them.

The movie opens with three youths spending a long evening in the local police office for various transgressions. Jim Stark (Dean) has been brought up on charges of public drunkenness, Judy (Wood) has been caught running away, and Plato (Sal Mineo) was caught shooting puppies. We get a basic sense of the troubles for these three kids, but we spend the most time with Jim and his parents. After that, we learn the Starks have been moving around a bit because of their son's problems, and this is just the latest in a long line of restarts for the family.

The kids all find their way back to each other eventually. Plato quickly latches on to Jim as a best friend and possible father figure, and Judy doesn't take long to catch Jim's eye. Their flirting gets him in trouble with the popular kids, which leads to altercations and finally a rather intense game of chicken featuring fast cars and a looming cliff. What's interesting is that once you get to know the bullies, even they have a reasonably affable nature. They're not terrible people; they're filled with an existential emptiness that they struggle to mask with bravado and any excitement they can manage.

I don't want to give anything away, but the drag race brings with it a surprising consequence that the new trio has to work through. Jim and Judy both go to their parents for solace and guidance and come away wanting, so they turn to each other with Plato in tow. In an abandoned mansion they discuss the things they most want to see in other people (honesty and a sense of resoluteness) and play at the kind of adults they want to be. All of this could be pretty inconsequential if taken at face value, but if you stop to think about what they're playing at, why these kids are doing the things they're doing, it reveals a surprising...yearning in all of them for something they feel they lack.

Jim wants a father who's strong enough to teach him what it means to be a man. Judy wants a father who is affectionate and close. Plato just wants...any sort of father at all. These are children who feel they've been wronged by the previous generation, and have given up hope on ever being understood by them. They're smart enough to see what's wrong with the world, but they're too impatient to really consider how their parents and teachers have turned out that way -- they just know that when they'll get older, they'll fix it. They won't make the same kind of mistakes, they'll be better.

Director Nicholas Rey uses cinematography, lighting and the serious acting chops of Dean and Wood to make these basic ideas much richer and subtle than they would be otherwise. Even though it doesn't have any right to work, it really does. Dean imbues Jim with the uncertainty and earnestness of a high school student -- this is a good guy who makes bad decisions, and has no one to teach him how to navigate the consequences and learn from his mistakes. He's all but crying out for someone to teach him how to stand up for himself, and it's a lesson that his beleaguered father and bullying mother are ill-suited for.

Plato, whose parents are absent through the length of the movie, fares the worst. His need for a stabilizing influence is so great it appears pathological, and his emotions are so forceful they overwhelm him almost all of the time. Because none of these children have the insight to explain their issues or needs to the adults around them, they're forced to wander through their lives angry and unfulfilled, but unable to say why.

It takes a little patience to see this underneath the dialogue that can come off as coarse and hokey. But like the children it follows, Rebel Without a Cause is definitely worth sticking with and making an attempt to understand. If your tolerance for 50s melodrama or the plight of upper-middle-class white kids is low, you might want to skip this. Otherwise, give it a try -- you may find the Technicolor world of these children surprisingly rich and deep.

Rating: 7/10.

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