Wednesday, November 27, 2013
#39 - Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
This semester has completely kicked my ass. Teaching four classes in two cities 75 miles apart from each other all on the same days of the week has taken a definite toll. However, having today off from teaching because of Thanksgiving break has given me new life, and I'm ready to hit the final 3 class days head on and put this semester behind me. With that in mind, I dove into one of my all time favorite films, for the first time on Blu-ray.
A couple of fun facts about Dr. Strangelove. First, Peter Sellers and Stanley Kubrick HATED each other. They did not get along at all during the filming of this. I don't really what they disliked about each other, or how that constant funk on set produced such a fantastic movie, but that's what I heard. Also, Sellers was supposed to play a fourth role in the movie; the part of the southern bomber pilot, Major Kahn. I always wondered why they didn't end up using him in the role, but upon this viewing I realized that maybe there was a thematic reason for the decision. As the story centers around this bomber crew being cut off from their home base and home country through any means of communication, the cast also needed to be completely separate from the cast of the base and the cast of the war room. If Sellers had played Kahn, there would be a metaphorical connection between the bomber crew and the war room. It's a stretch, but maybe it would spoil something about the movie; lower the stakes somehow.
Another thing that occurred to me as I watched the film again was that I wonder if there is another movie in existence where the titular character has so little screen time. I'm sure there must be films where title characters never appear, like in Waiting for Godot, but it just hit me as odd. Not that I would want too much more of Strangelove. He's absolutely perfect. The scene at the end where he's proposing they gather hundreds of thousands of people in caves to survive the Russian doomsday machine, and how they'll need to choose women based on how sexually alluring they are is a riot. I'm not sure who wrote that and knew it would pay off to boil the entire plot of the film down to a sex joke, but it is hilarious.
Sorry for ruining Waiting for Godot...
DVDs Left to Buy: 4
Next Film: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
#40 - The Sound of Music (1965)
Not sure why I felt the need to pick up this uber edition of The Sound of Music. It was an Amazon deal of the day months ago, and even though I already had a blu-ray copy for my shelf (A very nice gift from my friend Jenn's father), but it felt right to upgrade to a set with this much pageantry. As you can see, the set includes a commemorative book, and postcards, but the little box in the upper-left hand corner is a music box, which is kinda cool.
I really shouldn't like this movie. It has so many of the qualities that I've railed against in other musicals. First, much of the music is spontaneous and inherently unrealistic. Even many of the songs attempted to be put into context, like when Maria is teaching the children how to sing, is unrealistic because the kids are able to jump in in perfect unison, offering up variations on the original song, but again singing in perfect unison. These sequences do jump forward in time, so maybe there's an argument to be made that the children's talent is the result of hours of practicing with Maria, accumulated in an almost montage. I can get past that, but then we have songs where characters are singing for no reason other than we haven't had a song in a while. No one acknowledges that Maria is sitting on a bus traveling to the Von Trapp home and singing aloud. I don't want to complain about this idea too much because it doesn't really bother me as much as it used to. I took a studies in drama class years ago that introduced me to a lot of unrealistic narratives, and really changed my outlook on what people can do when they purposefully move away from realism, and thus made me a lot more tolerant of the musical genre.
Beyond that, the music in Sound of Music is really catchy and enjoyable. There's no song here that I particularly dislike, and it makes for a fun film. Also, the music is used to a greater purpose than just allowing the characters to emote. Songs are repeated in different contexts to convey shifts in tone in the story. These shifts often make the tone that much darker because they're juxtaposed with songs that were first heard as a product of joy. Probably the best example of this is when the Von Trapp family is singing the goodbye song at the festival. We can guess that they're preparing to flee their home, possibly forever, and it makes this song that was funny and light-hearted the first time solemn and melancholy the second time around.
Finally, I have to say that this is just a visually beautiful film. The settings are all picturesque and larger than life, like it was shot inside of a fairy tale book. Every shot works to capture this world perfectly. I'm also a fan of how conscious the director was of the Proscenium. This works very well as a film, with the multiple settings and the sheer spectacle, but every shot feels like you're watching the events unfold on a stage. It's a great element of the adaptation to pay such homage to the source material.
By the way, if this was going to be a bad review, I would have titled it "A Note to Follow So" as in So what? Whateva! Gosh! And even a long long way to run can possibly set an expectation for a bad review (commenting on the film's length, which is quite long as far as lengths go), but actually I'm a fan of the length. Well, I mean I'm a fan of the fact that we build to a very obvious conclusion with Maria's marriage to the Captain, and then move past that to the Nazi presence and the running. I'm glad we still get a happy ending, but having a conflict beyond a cold, distant father who has to learn to love his own children is very welcome.
DVDs Left to Buy: 4
Next Film: Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb
Sunday, September 15, 2013
#41 - King Kong (1933)
I had never seen the original King Kong, but rather have only been subjected to Peter Jackson's 2005 remake, which I found to be very long and boring and that's probably why I've gone about 2 months without watching this next AFI movie. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised by this film version, to the point where I may consider upgrading to the Blu-ray at some point.
The best part of King Kong is that it's efficient. We don't spend an hour and a half waiting for Kong to show up because the entire film is only 100 minutes long. Characters have wants, and they pursue them in a timely manner; it's very considerate. I'm a big fan of the way the character's are portrayed here - especially Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), the movie director who sets out on the expedition to find Kong in the first place. He's a smooth-talking hollywood type for sure, but there's a humanity to him that I remember distinctly lacking from Jack Black's performance years later. He's very aware of his crew's safety every step of the way; unwilling to take unnecessary risks just to make a movie, and when things look dangerous, he's the first to tell everyone to turn around and go back to the ship. It's only when his leading lady Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) is kidnapped by the locals and offered as a sacrifice to Kong that he willingly leads a rescue party into danger, and even in that action he doesn't take his camera. It's really well done, and brilliantly acted by Armstrong.
The one thing Jackson's version has over the original is the way they portray the Ann Darrow character. Naomi Watts is a fantastic actress, and I enjoy the showmanship she brings to the role, as well as her attempts to bond with Kong in order to save her own life. On the other hand, Wray's performance being completely feminine in contrast to the ship's crew surrounding her is more thematically interesting. It definitely facilitates the whole Beauty/Beast dynamic they work to set up.
An argument could also be made that Jackson's visual effects are far superior to the 1933 claymation, but actually I was really impressed with that as well. I haven't seen a lot of old monster movies that use this technique, but watching Kong battle a giant snake, or flip a tree trunk over to dump his human pursuers to the water below wasn't so bad that it caused me to disconnect from the action. And Kong really is a monster in this version of the film. It's been 8 years since I've seen the remake, but I remember Kong being a little too human and loving toward Darrow. He still pursues the blonde girl here, but is much more willing to chew people or crush them into the ground because he is not a sympathetic character.
Finally, I do have one big criticism of the film. There are literally thousands of languages in the world, and Kong lives on an extremely isolated island alongside an indigenous people, who worship him as a god. However, the captain of Denham's boat has no trouble speaking these people's language. He's apparently fluent and that makes no sense to me because they must have their own language that's unique to that island. So, if anyone has an explanation for that, I'm all ears.
DVDs Left to Buy: 5
Next Film: The Sound of Music
Tuesday, September 3, 2013
#83 - Titanic (1997) With Rifftrax
You may be unfamiliar with Rifftrax, or even it's predecessor Mystery Science Theater 3000, in which a man (Mike Nelson) and his two robot friends watch the worst movies imaginable and make fun of them. After MST3K's departure from Television, Mike Nelson along with fellow MST3K alums Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett started Rifftrax, where they record MP3 commentaries to accompany all kinds of films ranging from the public domain garbage you'd see on the old show to modern day blockbusters. And I'll give you a hint: it's annoying to have to try to play the mp3 and the movie at the same time and keep it synced up perfectly, so after you buy the mp3 from rifftrax, go to your favorite illegal download website and find a digital copy of the film with the Rifftrax already laid over the film's audio. It's brilliant. But make sure you actually buy the Rifftrax and support a great site who is truly doing something amazing and unique.
There are three AFI movies currently in the Rifftrax catalog: Star Wars, Casablanca, and Titanic. I've seen the Casablanca one and will likely post about that after I do my regular Casablanca post in about seven years (I'm not making great progress on this list...). I had forgotten that I bought Titanic sometime last year, so when Rifftrax offered me a coupon and I went to buy the 300 riff, I was surprised to find that I owned Titanic in my library. I immediately set to work finding people to come over and watch it and unwittingly continued a tradition of watching Rifftrax on my birthday (last wear we dined our mines on the Twilight riff).
Now, you can go read my first post about Titanic when I originally came to it on the list seven years ago (or something like that), and you'll see that I'm not a fan of James Cameron's epic. It is long, with an entire cast of flat and uninteresting characters, and Cameron's use of dramatic irony is painfully obvious. However, when DiCaprio is running to catch the ship with his newly won ticket and screaming that he and his friend are the luckiest guys in the world, and Kevin Murphy jumps in with a joke about how Cameron is no longer foreshadowing, but "fiveshadowing" I knew I was in for a fantastic journey. The riff doesn't make the film any shorter, or even really feel shorter, but it is infinitely more entertaining this way.
I wish I could pull more examples of good jokes from the riff, but they've all meshed in my head into a single wonderful experience. The crock pot beef stew, and birthday cake helped too. I recommend checking this out, along with a lot of other great Rifftrax because all of the ones I've seen have been hilarious, and I just bought the Star Wars prequels and that's going to be amazing. If you like jokes about hippie Bill Paxton, vulgar old Kate Winslet, and James Cameron's iceberg sized ego, then you won't be disappointed.
DVDs Left to Buy: 7
Next Film: King Kong
Monday, July 15, 2013
#42 - Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
I heard recently that over the course of his life, Warren Beatty had literally thousands of sexual partners. I think maybe this is a big reason why Bonnie and Clyde is considered such a great movie, because for Beatty to play a character who is so against sex and intimacy and be believable as that character is maybe the best performance ever caught on film.
The story is simple enough. Clyde is a bank robber and general low-life. He meets Bonnie while considering stealing her mother's car and the naive young woman is inexplicably drawn to the criminal, all too willing to run off with Clyde and help him rob banks for the rest of their lives.
Other than Beatty's performance, there wasn't much here that really blew me away. It's hard to get a grip on Bonnie's character and figure out what's motivating her besides her naive ideals about Clyde. I like when Gene Hackman turns up as Clyde's brother and he and his reluctant wife join the gang. The wife is annoying though, and her bickering with Bonnie just makes Bonnie more annoying.
Don't have much else to respond to on this one.
DVDs Left to Buy: 9
Next Film: King Kong
Monday, July 1, 2013
#43 - Midnight Cowboy (1969)
I think my first time watching Midnight Cowboy some ten years ago, I was probably really put off by the homosexual content in the film. With my upbringing, I definitely went through a homophobic phase of my life, and the idea of two men kissing and having sex was truly repulsive to me. I wouldn't say I'm ashamed of that time in my life, so much as proud of how far I've come since then. It's amazing to me now - rewatching the film - how much I wouldn't let myself get into and enjoy because of a couple of scenes with homosexual content; especially since all of said content is implied.
This is a really amazing film. It's wonderfully dramatic, but with a subtle humor that sneaks up on its audience. It has a fantasy element that pops up throughout, and makes the film really as melancholy as it is sexy or funny. I thought these moments of getting a glimpse of Joe's fantasies running through his head in real time was incredibly effective. Switching to see Rico's fantasies about settling down in Florida at one point was a little odd because until that point we only saw Joe's fantasies. So, it feels inconsistent with the rest of the film, but I can't complain because it's so heartbreaking to see Rico musing about this life in Florida that he is never going to have. Gorgeous.
Both Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are fantastic here. There's a great Looking Back featurette on the Blu-ray in which Hoffman talks about all of the compliments he gets for playing Ratso/Rico, and he shrugs it off giving all of the credit to the source material - talking about how the novel has pages and pages of descriptions of the Ratso character. I didn't realize before that Dustin Hoffman got cast in this and The Graduate at the same time. I knew he was much older than the character he plays in Graduate, but here he actually looks like a much older man, and you have to love the parallel of both movies being on the AFI list, and both ending with Dustin Hoffman on a bus. I like Jon Voight, but unlike Hoffman I would never put him on a list of my favorite actors. Listening to him interviewed, I think (and hope) he realizes that he's never done anything as good as Midnight Cowboy.
DVDs Left to Buy: 10
Next Film: Bonnie and Clyde
Friday, June 14, 2013
# 44 - The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Going into this one, I was racking my brain trying to remember if I've ever seen it before. I remembered renting it, but wasn't sure if I had time to watch it before it had to be returned. However, as the opening scene began, and Cary Grant was escaping his marriage to Katharine Hepburn, and his final act of spite against her is to put his entire hand on her face and shove her backwards into her house, I knew I had seen this before. For the life of me, I can't figure out how it escaped my memory; it's really frickin' good. Definitely not one of the best films I've ever seen, or even one of the best comedies, or even one of the best comedies on this list, but really very good.
Really what sells this is the cast. I'm a huge fan of Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart, and them all being in the same movie together is fantastic. Of course, Grant and Hepburn also worked together in Bringing Up Baby, so I was familiar with their ability to bounce comedically off each other, and didn't know what to expect from throwing Jimmy Stewart into the mix, but I was pleasantly surprised. I absolutely loved his scenes - whether he was with Hepburn, or his photographer, Elizabeth (Ruth Hussey). And of course my favorite scene is when Stewart is drunk and goes to visit Cary Grant's character to tell him off. The two men both dominate the scene (if that's possible) and it makes for one of the most hilarious interactions I've ever seen in a movie.
I'd love to see this performed on stage sometime. I know they've remade the film a couple of times, but that sounds awful to me. The fun of seeing these characters interacting in live theatre would bring a whole new dynamic to the love triangle (love rectangle if you count Hepburn's fiance, but I doubt anyone does).
My one big criticism of the film is the ending, where Hepburn ends up going back with Grant. I think that if you face palm a woman into her house, you pretty much forfeit any romantic future with her, and I didn't quite buy how quickly Hepburn's affections turned to Grant in the end. I think a much better ending would be for Grant to give his blessing for Hepburn and Stewart to wed, fostering a new romance between those two, and a life-long friendship between all three. Of course, let's be honest, if I had written The Philadelphia Story someone would have ended up hilariously dead, and the only people who would be happy would be the audience.
DVDs Left to Buy: 10
Next Film: Midnight Cowboy