Saturday, February 1, 2014

Fine British Craftsmanship

#36 - The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Kalamazoo has been blessed with a great gift.  The Alamo Drafthouse, which is a chain of movie theaters popping up here and there has opened up downtown, and they delight in bringing old classic films to the big screen again.  This is the first time their schedule has coincided with my quest to see all of the AFI movies, but I hope as I go into the 35 best films ever made that I'll have the opportunity to see more of these classics on the big screen.

I've never seen The Bridge on the River Kwai before.  Despite it's length, it's excellent.  There's a lot to love in this unconventional war epic about a platoon of captured British soldiers who are made to build a bridge to connect a crucial railway.  When the officers refuse to perform manual labor, as outlined in the rules of the Geneva Convention, they are tortured into submission.  This is the only movie outside of the Star Wars trilogy that I've ever seen Alec Guinness in.  His portrayal of the stubborn Colonel Nicholson.  I have to say that I had to spend a lot of time trying to analyze Nicholson's character motivations in this.  His willingness to be locked up alongside his officers in an oven for weeks without hardly any food or water because he refuses to have his officers doing manual labor alongside the enlisted men is pretty out there.  But, as he explains at one point, if he gives in to the Japanese colonel in charge of the prison camp, then he'll just continue to take advantage of him and his men until they're all dead.  The film is a stone's through from satire however when Nicholson ends up using his officers to help finish the bridge later in the film.

Then of course is the moment where Nicholson discovers the attempt destroy the bridge with explosives and leads the Japanese Colonel straight to the British soldier set to push the button as soon as the first train crosses.  When he figures out what's going on, he tries to prevent the destruction of the bridge, leading to a number of unnecessary deaths before coming to his senses and pushing down the plunger on the explosives.  His reasons behind this are beautifully complicated.  As he wins over Colonel Saito and begins to work with him and his men to build the bridge, he and his men take a pride in its craftsmanship.  They find an elegance to achieving something impossible and Nicholson understandably doesn't want to see all of that effort mean nothing.  Surely some level of temporary insanity can be attributed to his character arc, what with his time spent in the oven, and the circumstances he's forced into throughout the entire film.

Thanks to the Alamo, I know a little history of this one.  I know it was Katharine Hepburn who suggested David Lean as director, who hated the experience because they shot on location in an actual jungle for almost a year and it was a nightmare.  I know that Alec Guinness and William Holden hated each other because Guinness thought Holden was just another hot shot Hollywood actor.  Finally, I know that Holden's character did not exist in the original Novel that River Kwai is adapted from.  It's interesting to think how the story would function without Shears, because he's not just thrown in to give the film a stereotypical American hero.  His journey through the film is fascinating, and it enriches the themes of the rest of the movie.

DVDs Left to Buy:  3
Next Film:  Annie Hall

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Hook and Release

#37 - The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

It's been a while since I've gotten to a movie on this list that I hadn't previously seen.  I really didn't know anything about William Wyler until seeing his epic Ben-Hur at the beginning of this project, but now I see that he was a very versatile director.  Maybe I'll look into more of his work, but I'm reluctant since his two contributions to this list both suffer from the same flaw: they are extremely long.  It didn't bother me in Ben-Hur, but this film did not need to be nearly 3 hours long.

Despite its length, I did really enjoy the movie about 3 military soldiers trying to re-assimilate into their old lives after world war 2.  Thematically, it's interesting that while the men are at the same point in their lives in regards to coming out of the war, but at such different points in their personal lives.  Al has been married for years with 2 kids, Fred was recently married before leaving for the war, and Homer has a girlfriend who has to adjust to the fact that Homer lost both his hands in battle.

I think this film is so long because it feels like each character is the star of his or her own little movie.  Some of these are more interesting than others.  Fred falling in love with Al's daughter would be much better if Fred's wife didn't get consistently more awful as the movie goes on.  Granted, the audience would have a harder time rooting or Fred if he left a loyal wife for another woman, but her character arc feels forced.  The mini-movie I was most interested in watching was Homer's.  I didn't realize until late in the movie that the actor playing Homer was an actual amputee.  I was really impressed with how competent he was with his prosthetic hook hands.  It doesn't make his performance any less impressive that he's had to adjust to his disability in real life, and I appreciate Wyler's choice to cast an actual amputee to give the character an added believability.

Unfortunately, we go long periods of time without seeing Homer.  Al and Fred do a fair job of holding up their respective storylines, but Homer is the emotional center of the film and I really wanted him to be our main character rather than Fred.  I guess that was impossible to hope for since Fred is our traditional Hollywood handsome leading man.  And I wouldn't say that I want Fred's story cut completely.  My favorite scene is near the end, when Fred is walking through a proverbial graveyard of old bombers.  As he climbs into one to sit in the cockpit, the score and cinematography are beautiful; helping us see exactly what's in his head without any need for flashbacks or voice over.  I feel like that scene more than anything is what put The Best Years of Our Lives on this list.

DVDs Left to Buy:  3
Next Film:  The Bridge on the River Kwai

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Bet you $105,000 you fall asleep first

#38 - The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947)

With the holiday and the semester finally being over, I had been putting this one off.  But with this being Humphrey Bogart's birthday, it felt right to jump in and get this one done.  Not only is this a fantastic film, it's my favorite Humphrey Bogart film, which is obviously saying a lot given the competition on this list alone.  Bogey is not an underrated actor.  Sure, he matured in a different time, and his performances may not strike modern audiences as being as realistic as what actors today are capable of, but he definitely understands what a great performance requires.

Here, Bogart plays Dobbs, an American living in Mexico begging for enough money to get from meal to meal, but everything changes when he meets an aging prospector who promises to take him into the mountains to dig for gold.  It isn't long before the men, along with a third partner, find a rich vein of gold in the mountain and have amassed over 100,000 dollars worth of pay dirt.  Unfortunately, the richer the men become, the less they trust each other, and that's where the fun begins.

Bogart's performance is fascinating in its depth.  Dobbs' character reversal is gradual and non-linear, meaning his decline to a greedy darkside is not strictly progressive or constant.  He descends into episodes of paranoia and psychosis, but he also periodically rebounds to the point where it feels like he and his partners have finally achieved a level of trust.  Of course, it's always temporary and Dobbs can't help but let the thoughts that his partners will inevitably turn on him and steal his gold gnaw away at his sanity.

The film is a solid two hours and you'll definitely be aware of the length.  It's not a movie I can throw in and watch for fun just because the length is so dense.  This is not a criticism of the film though.  Everything in the film is crucial to making Dobbs' character arc believable, and the film's length is a necessary byproduct of that.

If anyone's interested in checking out The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I have a special edition DVD that I have no use for since upgrading to Blu-ray.  Free to a good home.

Now, I have to go so I don't keep that dame waiting; whoever she is.

DVDs Left to Buy:  3
Next Film:  The Best Years of Our Lives

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Mein Fuhrer!

#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

A Long Long Way to Run

#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

Tale as old as time

#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

Near. Far. Wherever You Are.

#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