Monday, August 11, 2014

Poowabah Poowabah Poowabah

#30 - Apocalypse Now (1979)

I've never seen the theatrical cut of Apocalypse Now and was debating on whether I should watch that version or the Redux yet again.  Fortunately, I watched this installment of the AFI top 100 with my roommate and he made the decision for me.  Maybe I'll watch the theatrical cut soon just to see the difference, but I tend to want to watch Director's Cuts to see how the film was intended before other forces step in.

I tend to reference Apocalypse Now at least once a semester while teaching.  I have an episode of a podcast I like in which a guy tells a story about when he was a kid and found his elderly neighbor dead on Thanksgiving.  The man was naked, looked horrified, and his dogs had eaten most of his flesh, which also killed his dogs.  It's a horrific image, but his love of horror movies as a kid made him so desensitized to violence that the first thing he thought upon seeing the neighbor was that it wasn't very convincing.  He claimed that no self-respecting horror director would ever let this flimsy effect out of the editing room.  This reminds me of the climax of Apocalypse Now in which an indigenous Vietnamese tribe slaughter a bull with a machete while Martin Sheen's character finally carries out his mission and kills Marlon Brando's.  A big criticism when the film came out was that the bull's sacrifice looked fake and ridiculous, but it wasn't fake.  The tribe that occupied the place where they were filming performed a ritual sacrifice of several animals before having a huge feast, so they caught it on camera and decided to use it in the film.  It always looked pretty real to me anyway.

I also know that Francis Ford Coppola had no idea how to end the film for most of its filming.  I like the ending, but wish the ritual of the bull's death had been explored a bit more in the exposition.  This could have given the parallel between the death of the animal and the death of Brando's colonel a bit more weight.  There's a lot there already: the brutality of it, the blood and blades, but I think elevating it to a religious experience could have been an interesting choice.

Immediately after watching Apocalypse Now, I took the opportunity to watch Hearts of Darkness, the infamous documentary about the film's production.  Produced by Coppola's wife, Eleanor, and including interviews with the cast and crew about 5 years after the filming, Hearts of Darkness is a phenomenally interesting documentary.  I can only compare it to Lost in La Mancha, the documentary about Terry Gilliam's massive failure at making a Don Quixote movie with Johnny Depp.  I wasn't aware of this film's existence until an episode of Community paid it homage.  In the episode, the character of Abed claims that the documentary is way better than Apocalypse Now and I have to agree with him.  In addition to the typical behind the scenes stuff that comes with a feature like this, Hearts of Darkness has a lot of secret recordings of Francis Ford Coppola insecurely talking about what a fraud he is, and why anyone would trust him to make a movie is inconceivable.  It's kind of adorable, especially knowing what a huge cultural impact the film was going to have once it premiered.

It's also interesting to see what might have been.  Originally, George Lucas was going to direct the film with a series of hand-held 16mm cameras.  They began filming with Harvey Keitel playing Martin Sheen's character, and if Marlon Brando didn't work out, they were going to offer that role to Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino.  Another fun fact is that they intended to film the movie in a month in the Philippines, but that country was still at war, and other terrible conditions pushed the production to well over 200 days.

It's amazing to me that the documentary genre is completely ignored by the AFI's Top 100 Films.  Maybe this is because they've only recently started to draw the same appeal as other genres, but I would argue that Hearts of Darkness should be on there even if it meant leaving Apocalypse Now off.

Next Film:  Double Indemnity

Monday, July 21, 2014

Long Short Long Short

#31 - The Maltese Falcon (1941)

I'm not sure why I hated this one so much when I watched it the first time years ago.  I like Bogey, I like noir, I like priceless bird statues, so this should be a perfect storm of awesome.  (Ironically, The Perfect Storm with George Clooney is pretty lackluster.)  I think what put me off this one the first time I watched it was the amount of exposition.  Particularly in the very beginning and the very end, the characters feel the need to force-feed the audience information for long periods of time.

Beyond the exposition, I really enjoyed the film.  In my memory, it's little more than a shitty version of The Big Sleep, but I now see why this made the list while the other did not.  The pacing in Maltese Falcon is much more compelling, moving smoothly from event to event as private detective Sam Spade works to figure out why people are dying for a statue of a bird.  Mary Astor is a much more interesting femme fatale when she's not serving as an exposition machine, and the level of obsession shared by many of the characters makes for a more dynamic ensemble of characters.  However, Big Sleep has Humphrey Bogart punting a guy in the face, so let's not dismiss it so quickly.

As I was watching Maltese Falcon, I couldn't help but draw parallels to my favorite modern film noir, Brick, the debut film of writer/director Rian Johnson.  Naturally, I was so certain that Falcon was the primary inspiration for Brick that I immediately watched the 2006 high school noir and got a little giddy when the main character Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) told the femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner) to signal him by honking her horn four times: long short long short.  In The Maltese Falcon, Spade tells the Mary Astor character that he'll ring her doorbell in the exact same way.  The structures of the two films, as well as the conflict centering around an inanimate object, and the hero always staying a step ahead of the seductress make these two stories very similar.  Brick even manages to have the big exposition filled ending, but Johnson's flare for language makes it as interesting to me as anything else in the film.  Yes, I'm saying Brick is better than The Maltese Falcon.  All of its strengths.  None of its weaknesses.

As of right now, I've finally managed to buy all 100 of the AFI Top Films.  Rounded out the collection with a copy of Buster Keaton's The General, and a VHS copy of Star Wars so I can watch the original version untainted when the time comes.  I also picked up an added treat to accompany Apocalypse Now:  the related documentary Heart of Darkness.  Looking forward to that.  There are still a handful of movies on the list that I want to upgrade to blu-ray before I get to them, but for now my collection is complete.

DVDs Left to Buy:  0
Next Film:  Apocalypse Now

Monday, June 30, 2014

Fredo's the Worst!

#32 - The Godfather: Part 2 (1974)

In preparation for watching The Godfather: Part 2, I went back to re-watch The Godfather, which I had seen once before and didn't care for.  I'll get to my discussion of that near the end of this project, but I will say that I liked the movie exponentially more the second time around, and it made me really excited to watch Part 2 for the first time.

I can see why this is dubbed one of the great all time sequels, but I can't see why some people think it's better than the original.  Godfather had a wealth of interesting and complicated characters, who you cared about right up until the moment they were brutally murdered.  Michael's (Al Pacino) rise to power was reluctant and obligatory but felt organic and real at every turn.  Part 2 does little to replace lost beloved characters, and focuses more on a storyline that is convoluted and difficult to follow at the best of times.  It was difficult for me to track the significance of many characters in the grand scheme of things.

That being said, there are a lot of things to like about Part 2.  I love the parallel timeline, jumping between Michael's storyline and the story of a young Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) rising to power in New York City.  A movie functioning as both a prequel and a sequel is not something I've seen many times.  Unfortunately, I found myself impatiently waiting for the next installment of Vito's young life, and probably would have been happy just watching that as its own movie.  My favorite part of the Michael storyline was yet another flashback, when near the end of the film we cut to Michael and his siblings waiting for their father to get home for a surprise birthday party, and Michael tells the others that he's enlisted in the military.  It's a great little scene, and it was nice to see James Caan return, even if they couldn't get Marlon Brando back for a cameo.

As much as I liked the parallel time lines at work in Godfather: Part II, it was often difficult to draw connections between Michael's story and Vito's.  While Vito rises to power, Michael is already the head of the family, and Michael's being interrogated by some sort of Senate committee has no bearing on what's going on during this chapter of Vito's life.  The one consistent theme between the two story lines is the emphasis on family, which is the best preserved element from the first Godfather movie.

I don't have much interest in watching Godfather: Part III due to the horror stories I've heard.  I probably will out of morbid curiosity.  Guess we'll see.

DVDs Left to Buy: 1
Next Film:  The Maltese Falcon

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Coocoo for Cuckoo's Nest!

#33 - One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

I was very happy to get to see yet another one of these AFI movies on the big screen, thanks to the Alamo Drafthouse.  I also recently saw Double Indemnity, but will re-watch it soon when I get to it on the list.  I need an excuse to buy the blu-ray anyway.

I have seen Cuckoo's Nest before, but don't remember exactly when or where.  I had an idea for one of my early film classes to write a paper comparing and contrasting the three films that won the top 5 Academy Awards (Picture, Screenplay, Director, Actor, and Actress), but I didn't end up doing that because the teacher wasn't a fan of the topic.  Still, it's very possible I watched Cuckoo's Nest and It Happened One Night around that time to see what the big deal was.  I didn't remember much about Cuckoo's Nest until I re-watched it at the theater, and I really should make a point of watching it more often because it is terrific.

The Alamo showed Cuckoo's Nest as part of its month celebrating villains, referring to Nurse Ratched, who I believe was also named one of the greatest film villains of all time by the AFI, but I have to disagree.  She's a great character, which is not to be confused with a good character.  She's arrogant, judgmental, and fairly coldblooded, but I tend to define a villain as someone maliciously evil.  The most extreme thing Ratched does is have Murphy (Jack Nicholson) lobotomized.  Yes, this seems rather harsh because all Murphy had done to that point was disrespect her authority and pretty much do whatever he wanted, taking the other patients along for the ride.  However, when Murphy sneaks two women into the ward for a drunken party, he's doing a lot of detriment to the other patients' therapy.  The party also leads to the suicide of Billy (Brad Dourif), who is caught in bed with a woman and can't handle the idea of facing his mother.  Yes, Ratched pushes this point too hard to scare Billy and drives him to kill himself, but Murphy has been undermining her at every turn and she finally snapped.  That's about as close to villainous as she gets, and even then she didn't maliciously try to force Billy to kill himself.

This is one of my favorite Nicholson performances.  His carefree portrayal of Murphy belies how terrified and guilt-ridden the character is all the time.  It's such a common and easy coping mechanism to dismiss everything as unimportant; makes you popular enough that you forget you're a prisoner in a psych ward.  It's only when Murphy is faced with something truly jarring that we see his true self peer out.  When he realizes that his time in the hospital isn't over when his sentence is, and the staff can keep him locked up indefinitely, that brings him crashing to Earth nicely.  When Billy dies and Murphy can't stand to blame himself so much so that he strangles Nurse Ratched, everything that Murphy was in the movie leading up to that moment is gone.  Gone forever once he's lobotomized and subsequently smothered by Chief.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is a perfect blend of slapstick comedy, satire, drama, and social commentary.  It's one of the more perfectly crafted films on the list, with a lot of laughs and feels.

DVDs Left to Buy:  1
Next Film:  The Godfather Part II

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Disney's First Glow in the Dark Princess

#34 - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

I haven't seen Snow White since I was a kid, and as it began, I was ready to praise the shit out of this thing.  However, after I sat through the entire thing, I did find some things to criticize.

At first, I was really impressed that Disney wasn't making a full-length animated just for the hell of it.  It felt like they came across this fairy tale and it was too big to be contained in anything less than a feature length film.  The film starts off strong, establishing the Queen's character through her vanity and giving her a clear want in conspiring to kill Snow White.  Then we establish Snow White and her budding romance with Prince Charming, and things get off to a pretty good start.  I was intrigued by how well the voice actors and animators captured the acting style of the period; it felt like I was watching an old Audrey Hepburn movie, but more colorful.

Unfortunately, the film quickly starts to stall for time.  An attempt on her life, sends Snow White running through the dark woods, where she stumbles on the home of the seven dwarfs, who are at work in a precious gem mine.  First she cleans, then they come home, then they get cleaned up, then they eat, then it's story time, then it's bed time, and on and on and on.  Occasionally, we pop back to the evil queen to see how her evil plan to hunt down Snow White is going, but most all of these sequences between White and the dwarfs is unnecessary for furthering the plot.  This is the Avatar of 1937: amazing technical aspects, beautiful to look at, but with an extremely weak story.

It is beautiful to look at.  A friend of mine suggested I spring for the Blu-ray on this one, and he was right.  The animation is phenomenal, especially the sequence where Snow White is lost in the woods and everything seems to be coming to life to get her.  I particularly liked the logs in the river turning into crocodiles.

Maybe the problem with the script is that there are like 8 or 10 writers credited with doing the adaptation.  That's literally insane.  Usually, a script does get passed around like that to multiple writers for polishing and such, but usually the final script is credited to the writer or writers who put the most work in on it.  Assuming that these 8 or 10 writers had the same level of input on the Snow White script boggles my mind.  Although, it would explain why the story is so compartmentalized and episodic with no strong through-line pulling us through the whole dwarf storyline.

The love story is really bizarrely thrown in too.  We see Prince Charming at the very beginning hitting on Snow White until she runs away and locks herself in her house.  The next time Charming is mentioned is when White is telling the Dwarfs about him and how in love she is with him.  What?  Then, we don't see him show up until the very end when he wakes her up with a kiss.  It's so shoehorned in and awkward that it's impossible to get invested in.  The romantic storyline between Snow White and Dopey is much more interesting.

I want to end with my favorite thing about this movie.  When the seven dwarfs get off work, they throw their day's take into their "vault" which is a wooden shed located directly next to the mine.  I found the flimsy wooden door protecting their loot funny enough, but when Dopey locked the door and hung the key next to the door (apparently so he would never lose it) I laughed out loud.

DVDs Left to Buy: 3
Next Film:  One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I've Forgotten My Mantra!

#35 - Annie Hall (1977)

Christ it's been a while since I've posted to this blog.  That's good though.  I've been keeping busy with teaching and taking a playwriting class, and reading and writing.  It's all good.  I certainly wasn't putting off watching Annie Hall because it's one of my favorite Woody Allen films along with Match Point, which I think I like so much just because it's so completely different from any other Woody Allen movie before or since.  Annie Hall is also unique amongst Allen's body of work in the way it uses dream logic and breaks the fourth wall.

I don't remember the last time I watched Annie Hall.  I've owned the DVD for a while, but never watched it, and when it came up on the list, I bought the blu-ray on sale, but that was weeks ago.  The blu-ray transfer looks great, and Woody Allen's talent as a writer is at its peak.  I love how complicated and varied the humor is here.  Besides the standard great one-liners Allen is known for, there's a physical comedy that pops up sporadically and is utterly spot on.  Also, Allen knows exactly when to explain a joke to his audience and when to let it sink in at its own pace.

A few things I didn't previously know about Annie Hall.  First, the role was written for Diane Keaton, who was having trouble finding roles that felt realistic to her actual personality.  Second, the moment when Allen sneezes over a container of cocaine was improvised, and there was a longer scene that was supposed to happen there but the actors couldn't stop laughing long enough to shoot it.  Third, the famous scene of Alvie and Annie trying to cook lobsters was improvised and not intended to be part of the movie; it was a screen test for the guy doing the lights, who was "auditioning" to light Coppola's next film.  Fourth, Paul Simon recommended Dustin Hoffman to play his role, but Allen just turned around and offered it to Simon.

One thing I did know was that Annie Hall beat Star Wars for the Best Picture Oscar that year, which is my all time favorite Oscar upset.  My second favorite is whatever beat James Cameron's Avatar.

DVDs Left to Buy: 3
Next Film:  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

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