Thursday, April 29, 2010


Year: 1953
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 45
Writer: A.B. Guthrie Jr., Jack Sher
Director: George Stevens
Star: Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jack Palance

How odd everything in “Shane” feels. It’s almost as if the classic tropes of the Western genre were purposely warped just enough to feel different but not enough to depart completely from our expectations. From the setting to the casting to the script to the direction—everything just isn’t quite right. And in most cases, that is not a bad thing.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. A mysterious man with a foggy past appears one day and must stand up against overwhelming odds to right a terrible injustice. In “Shane” the mysterious man is the title character (Alan Ladd), who becomes involved with a family of homesteaders in danger of being forced off their property by an enigmatic cattle baron. The man of the house (Van Heflin) strikes up a quick friendship with Shane that will be, of course, tested. The woman (Jean Arthur) finds herself attracted to the stranger, just as he is to her, and yet both know neither will ever act on those feelings. And then there is the son Joey, who quickly comes to adore Shane as much as he does his father.

But Shane isn’t quite the gunslinger you’d expect. He’s shorter than what we think our hero should, with hair that stays in place even after his big fight scenes and a shirt of bright blue. He orders a soda pop at the bar instead of whiskey. You get the feeling that John Wayne could probably down him with his pinkie. And the Woman might be secretly developing feelings for Shane during the film, but the most they are ever exposed is during an innocent dance between the two that is watched by her husband. A lesser movie would quickly set up a triangle between the Ladd, Arthur and Heflin and end the film with Heflin sacrificing himself, leaving Arthur and Ladd to have their happy ending. “Shane” is not that movie. At all.

Instead Ladd develops a fascinating friendship with Heflin. They bond over getting a huge tree root out of the ground, and if that sounds like an obvious metaphor, you would be right. In the movie’s only prolonged action sequence they team up with one another and fend off eight or ten men, smiling at each other and acting like pigs in shit the entire time. The film finds a reason for the men to come to blows before the climax, but is interested in the reasoning behind the disagreement, not the fisticuffs themselves. Director George Stevens made the conscious decision to not even show most of the battle, instead showing Arthur watching the men from inside the house. And yes, it ends against the upturned tree root, just in case you were wondering if they brought that metaphor back.

The villain these men fight against isn’t your usual man in a black hat, though he is a man and does wear a black hat. His name is Ryker (Emile Meyer…not Jonathan Frakes) and he is given more dimension than your usual Western villain. In fact, he gets his own monologue to explain himself and his actions, and does a fairly good job of convincing us that, while he is a bad man doing worse things, he isn’t a complete douchebag. Mostly, but not completely.

There is, of course, Jack Palance’s character Jack Wilson, who is a gunslinger Ryker has hired to ensure he is successful in his endeavors. Wilson is quite the intimidating presence, only speaking a few lines of dialogue but always being present, especially in scenes where he is not seen but spoken about.

The world these characters inhabit suits them well, because it too is just a little bit off. Time has given an extra layer of depth to the sets and the way the film was shot that helps to underline the just-a-little-offness of the proceedings. Director George Stevens shoots fantastically alive green vistas that are filled with awkward Hollywood sets. We don’t for one second believe that picture-perfect farmhouse could exist anywhere but in a film. Same thing with that Saloon that you could probably build out of Lincoln Logs. It works while still being a constant reminder that we are in a movie…but still, how cool is it to see the natural sunlight peak out from behind the clouds just as a character crosses a street in an important scene?

Despite the artificiality, the film is still able to achieve a great amount of emotional resonance thanks to its avoidance of gun violence expect for one murder and the climax. Shane is trying to get away from the violence that has haunted him throughout his life (this character arc reminded me a lot of the superior “The Quiet Man,” which was not a Western despite starring Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and being directed by John Ford) and does not react when one of Ryker’s heavies throws a drink on his new shirt. You get the feeling that what he can do when given the chance scares him as much as it excites him. Oddly enough, the first time a gun is shot it is when Shane is teaching Joey about how to use a gun, and the scene comes off as touching.

But when a gun is first used against another human being, it’s devastating. Not just that he is shot, but the fact that he is shot in such a humiliating manner and then pathetically falls back into the mud…the moment shattered me as much as the moment where Wayne shot out the Native American’s eyes in “The Searchers.” Though the moment serves as a way to raise the stakes for the heroes, “Shane” gives the death much more weight than the usual Western by exploring the toll the death takes on the character’s loved ones. We see the discussion of the funeral and the funeral itself, which are moments any other Western might easily dispose of.

One thing that made me pull my hair out was the repeated use of character names. A scene doesn’t go by without every character saying the other character’s name at least a dozen time. “Shane, what do you think about that, Shane?” “Joe, I dunno Joe, what do you think?” “Shane, I think whatever you think.” Jack Sher is listed in the credits as supplying additional dialogue, and I have a funny feeling all he did was insert character names in every line then collect his paycheck.

“Shane” isn’t my favorite Western, and doesn’t redefine the genre in the same way “The Searchers,” “High Noon” or “Rio Grande” did. And yet not every classic film needs to change the rules or break them. Sometimes just blurring them is enough.

My Score (out of 5):

Monday, April 26, 2010

Some Like It Hot

Year: 1959
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 22
Writer: Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Director: Billy Wilder
Star: Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe

“Some Like It Hot” says just about everything there is to say about comedy and says it just about as well as any comedy ever could. It’s difficult to believe that a film that is about cross-dressing men on the run from the mob could also be one of the wittiest, most literate films ever imprinted on celluloid, but there you go. It may not be the best comedy of all time, nor is it my favorite (see my upcoming entry on “Bringing Up Baby”), but you can make a strong case that it is the funniest.

The story, as it is, tracks two musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who witness the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and then go into hiding by posing as women in an all-female band in Florida. Lemmon finds himself involuntarily romancing a rich playboy ready to settle down while Curtis poses as a rich playboy (in addition to his drag get-up) in order to romance Marilyn Monroe.

It’s taking all of my power as a writer to not turn this review into a random reading of the movie’s best gags and zingers. Billy Wilder is the co-writer and director, so of course the film has the same gleeful cynicism that infects all of his best work. Lemmon and Curtis’ actions in the film make them terrible human beings. Lemmon gets engaged to a man gleefully while Curtis first poses as Monroe’s best galpal to learn what she wants in a man and then poses as her ideal boytoy in order to see what else is up her skirt other than a flask. And yet the movie never gets caught up in the morality of all of this silliness, so why should we?

Part of the reason we don’t is that the three leads are just so dang charismatic. Curtis’ dry wit and ability to deliver the funniest of punchlines with the straightest of faces keeps the movie from flying off the rails just before it goes too over the top for its own good. It’s also shocking to see how much he looks like comedienne Kathy Griffin when he is wearing drag. He is also one of the best examples of a giving comedian, often allowing the more overzealous Lemmon take center stage in most of their scenes together. And what a brilliant performance Lemmon gives, never giving a false beat as he transitions from the horndog in the upper berth to the smiling fiancĂ© in Florida. Together the men form a fantastic chemistry and then create an entirely different, even funnier, dynamic once they don their dresses and wigs.

And then we have Monroe, never curvier in a film and never more seductive. Look at the way she sings “I Want To Be Loved By You” in an almost see-through dress and the way Wilder teases us by playing with the spotlight on her. If the leading men/women of “Some Like It Hot” excel at delivering well-rehearsed comedy, Monroe compliments them beautifully by playing every line with a glorious spontaneity that no actress, past or present, has been able to match. When she woefully tells Curtis that the story of her life is that “I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop” you have no doubt that Monroe invented the line on the spot, even though it probably took Wilder fifteen takes to get her to even read the line properly on camera.

When the three characters share the screen the resultant scenes have a kind of comedic power that makes you laugh so much and with such consistency that you end up in tears. Think of the scene where Lemmon and Curtis watch Marilyn sing and dance for the first time. Or that splendid sequence where what is supposed to be an intimate get-together between Lemmon and Monroe in an upper berth turns into a party where the entire train seems to be invited.

It’s odd because, despite them working so well together here, “Some Like It Hot” is not the best performance of any of the three leads. Curtis’ best work was in “Spartacus,” Lemmon’s was in Wilder’s “The Apartment” (or perhaps “The Odd Couple” or “Glengarry Glen Ross”) and Monroe most shined in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Though much of the comedy springs from his three leads, Wilder ensures that his trademark style is not lost in the mix. The first few minutes of the film are (I think) wordless and is a pretty darn inventive chase scene between a hearse and the police. He also finds time to embrace some Marx Brothers-like slapstick when Lemmon and Curtis are on the run from the mob.

Speaking of the mob, we’ve reached the major fault of the film. Though most of the early stuff involving the gangsters in Mozzarella Funeral Home hits the mark, after that whenever the film shifts its focus, it falters. Gangster humor, however well-acted and shot, just does not belong in “Some Like It Hot.” This becomes painfully apparent during one of the climactic scenes that has Lemmon and Curtis hiding beneath a table while a ganger pops out of a birthday cake and wipes out his rival mobsters with a machine gun. The scene, by the way, is directly lifted in “Enemy of the State” and the plot has been rejiggered millions of times since, though “Sister Act” seems to be its closest homage.

Ah well. As someone says memorably during the film, “Nobody’s perfect.” “Some Like It Hot” may be imperfect when looked at under a microscope, but there are more perfect scenes in this comedy than any other.

My Score (out of 5): *****

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Streetcar Named Desire

Year: 1951
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 47
Writer: Tennessee Williams & Oscar Saul
Director: Elia Kazan
Star: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter

How easily and how willing we are to embrace the fucked-up world of “A Streetcar Named Desire” from almost the first frame. Perhaps only New Orleans could be the place that harbors such a complex southern belle, such a animalistic brute and such a torn pushover all under the same roof. Early in the movie, Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) looks at her new surroundings and says that “Only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe could do (them) justice.” I doubt even Poe could have created this world and these characters so successfully.

The film opens with Blanche arriving in New Orleans (of course we hear the famous dialogue about Elysian Fields and taking the title streetcar to get to her destination), a seemingly prim and proper southern belle adrift in a city that seems to have stopped caring about its southern belles a decade ago. She has come to live with her pregnant sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her husband Stanley (Marlon Brando). Over the next four months Blanche will lose every bit of her connection to reality.

The play was assigned reading in my Catholic high school. I find that a little shocking considering the play’s abuse, sexual speak, thinly-veiled dialogue discussing a woman driving her closeted gay husband to suicide and, of course, the climactic rape scene. Then again, we also read “The Color Purple.” For the film version playwright Tennessee Williams and collaborator Oscar Saul had to revise and rewrite some of the play to meet the standards and practices of the time, but the odd thing is that many of the changes, with their newfound subtlety, only add to the film’s impact, making this (dare I say) one of the only instances where a masterpiece of theatre has been translated more successfully to screen (sorry, “Doubt”).

Brando’s performance, of course, has gone down in history as one of the best male performances in the history of film, often uttered in the same breath as Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause,” Bogart in “Casablanca” and Nicholson in “The Shining.” And looking at the film today, it’s easy to see why. The magic in Brando’s interpretation of Stanley is his brute simplicity. He hisses like a cat at Blanche playfully, continues chewing on chicken as he gleefully destroys her life and unconsciously pulls lint from his shirt during a hugely important conversation that defines several of the other characters. In “Streetcar,” he’s the bomb under the chair that Hitchcock famously spoke about: We know he’s going to explode, probably sooner rather than later, and are screaming at the screen for the other characters to escape before it’s too late.

Perhaps another reason for the timelessness of his performance is the universality (did I just create a word there?) of it. Everyone knows a Stanley, don’t we? A handsome guy who is sweaty almost all the time, doesn’t smell very nice and speaks with his fists as often as he does with his mouth. We understand why Stella is ultimately attracted to him despite being so odious, which adds another dimension to the proceedings.

As much as Brando has gotten all of the press through the years, the performance that really fascinates me is Leigh’s Blanche. While the other three leads originated their roles on Broadway, Leigh was chosen over Jessica Tandy, who was the first Blanche on the Great White Way. Leigh portrayed the role on the West End, but even if she hadn’t, it’s easy to see why the producers jumped at the chance to have Leigh in the role. In addition to her box office clout (if she still had some, which I’m guessing she did), the producers probably loved the comparisons to Scarlett O’Hara that critics and audiences would draw.

What a tightrope Leigh had to walk for the role, and what a revelation she is. At times disgusting, at times sympathetic, at times surprisingly erotic and always complex, Leigh never makes you question who Blanche is, and you go along for the ride even when her motivations and actions don’t quite make sense in the moment. Look at the scene where Blanche greats a young man selling subscriptions and seduces him into kissing her. Now compare it to a date she goes on with her suitor Mitch (Karl Malden). Her methods of seduction are wholly different with either man, and yet the character remains consistent throughout. Here is a woman who has defined herself by her ability to seduce, and when she questions her own ability, she masks it with makeup and lowered lights.

There are many other small moments I could point out, from the subtle sickness in her face upon that thought that Stanley might want her sexually to her drunken battle at the film’s climax. It’s an actress’ tour de force that, for me, easily rivals her work in “Gone With the Wind” and it saddens me that it isn’t often compared.

Of course in a film filled with beautifully subtle writing, it would be the blunt moments that have become famous. Many people who aren’t familiar with the film still know of Brando’s “Stella!” rant. The moment is filled with raw emotional power, and to have a pregnant Stella walk down the stairs and erotically embrace her dripping wet husband moments after he beat her is one of the most stomach churning in film history. But I love how Williams and Saul created a new ending that is significantly different from the play by mirroring the scene in the final seconds of the film. Stella (apparently) realizes what Stanley did to Blanche and flees with her baby to the upstairs apartment, promising never to return again despite Stanley’s rants. The moment ensured that the film would pass the ethics code and get the film released, but in reality all it does is reinforce the circle of violence between these two characters, and instead of promising freedom for Stella promises that she’ll come down those stairs moments after the film fades to black and embrace her rapist.

The apartment Blanche, Stanley and Stella share is a marvel of set design. It’s at once gigantic and ominous and yet also shockingly cramped and claustrophobic. This is underlined in an early scene where Stella shows Blanche her “room,” which is basically a corner with a makeshift bed that has a curtain as a door. But even with the curtain pulled there are still two windows that lead to the living room that have no locks. There is no refuge anywhere in the apartment—even the bathroom is small and too cramped to escape for any length of time without going crazy from the claustrophobia. Director Elia Kazan knew exactly where to shoot the apartment to maximum effect, and it’s amazing to see the apartment morph over the course of the film. At the end it might as well be an insane asylum, and thanks to lighting and shadows it looks just like one.

In fact, the only time the movie falters a bit dramatically is when it leaves the walls of the apartment. No, not Blanche’s date with Mitch, but an early scene where Blanche arrives at the apartment then leaves immediately to go to a bowling alley where she meets her sister. It’s the only moment in the film where you can tell the director and writers stretching to make the movie not seem like a filmed stage play, and the only time it strikes a false note.

There’s more to talk about, so many memorable moments, like when Karl Malden is trying to prove his masculinity to Vivien Leigh by asking her to punch him in his stomach. Or when the flower woman directly out of a Val Lewton movie wanders onto Blanche’s doorstep. Or…or…but I should stop before the gushing begins.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” uses its equal parts subtlety and bluntness to maximum effect, and as a result hasn’t aged at all since its release. It looks at desires, actions and people I would be terrified to be any part of in a way that makes me unable to look away and then want to watch immediately again.

My Score: ***** (out of 5)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Do The Right Thing

Year: 1989
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 96
Writer: Spike Lee
Director: Spike Lee
Star: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis

Why is everyone so gosh-darned angry?

Every character in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” is angry about something, but what makes this film so beautiful is that their surface anger masks undercurrents that are, for the most part, completely unrelated to what they scream and shout about. The film uses racism as a connective tissue to show the fractured souls of some of the inhabitants of a Brooklyn block during a summer heat wave, but in doing so makes (almost) no character judgments. It seeks not to condemn or exploit, but to comprehend. When the famous riot sequence begins, your stomach lurches because the film has succeeded in making the viewer understand all the character’s points-of-view, even if you don’t agree with them.

Most of the first two-thirds of the movie views the neighborhood in a series of vignettes. Though it is an ensemble piece, the story’s pivotal character is Mookie (Lee), who is a delivery boy at Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. Sal (Danny Aiello) is a loud, proud Italian man with two sons (John Turturro and Richard Edson) who bitches out Mookie but admits that he thinks of him as a son. This does not sit well at all with Pino (Turturro) whose jealously over Sal and his brother’s affection for Mookie is masked with racism. Mookie has had a child with his very, very loud girlfriend (Rosie Perez), who knows Mookie will never be there for her when she needs it but forgives him every time he shows up at her door.

There are others, of course. Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) sits at her window passing judgment over those who pass, specifically the drunk but affable Da Mayor (Ossie Davis). Then there’s the aptly-named Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), who is always hissing hatred over the (gasp!) small scuff on his Air Jordans or the lack of photos of black men on Sal’s walls, and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who marches through the neighborhood showing off just how loud his boom box can go. A trio of men sit at a corner loathing the Asian family across the street for daring to open a supermarket in a black neighborhood when they always wanted to. Characters may love one another, but none seems to really like anyone else, and innocence and misunderstandings lead the elevated tensions throughout the day. All the while, the temperature just keeps going up and up.

“Do the Right Thing” seems to be directly inspired by one of Rod Serling’s masterpiece episodes of “The Twilight Zone” called “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” In that episode, a cul-de-sac of families cracked over the day after being told that aliens are coming. People were singled out for being too “different” and every action was questioned and generalized into being suspicious. That episode ended similarly as well, with the entire block imploding in a riot against one another.

There are so many questions in the film about why characters are the way they are and why they act the way they do. Why couldn’t Radio Raheem just have turned down that damn boom box? Why does Rosie Perez always forgive Mookie for disappearing for weeks at a time? What happened in Mother Sister’s past that makes her so unwilling to give Da Mayor any leeway in his actions? Then, of course, there is everyone’s actions at the climax, specifically why Mookie threw that trash can through Sal’s window and why the police put so much force into the arrest of Radio Raheem that they accidentally killed him. But please, stop me before I get started.

Of course, Lee doesn’t want to give us easy answers to the question, and if he did that would be a lesser film. Much hullabaloo was made over whether Mookie made the right choice in throwing that trash can, but the real issue, of course, is the murder of Radio Raheem by the police, even if it was an accident. But then again, Radio Raheem was about to murder Sal, wasn’t he? But then again, Sal shouldn’t have destroyed the possession he prized as much as his life. But then again, Radio Raheem shouldn’t have gone into the Pizzeria looking for trouble. Around and around we go…

It should be noted that Lee makes a fascinating thematic choice in how he handles two pivotal characters in the lead-up to the climax. Through the film, we are led to believe that Pino and Buggin’ Out are ticking time bombs that will eventually cause the riot. At the midway point in the film Pino almost causes an incident when he attacks the mentally handicapped Smiley verbally and then physically. Buggin’ Out desperately tries to cause incidents throughout the film, first when his shoe is scuffed and later when he sees that Sal doesn’t have any photos of black men on his wall. When the riot begins, Da Mayor hurries Pino and his family away from the carnage and Pino stands impotent while anarchy reigns around him. Buggin’ Out cackles and screams when Radio Raheem is killed, but is cuffed and taken away in a police car before he can do any damage. By reversing our expectations for these two characters he makes a brave choice, one that pays off because it makes the actions of the other characters all the more powerful.

There is one thing that I loathe about the film, and that is the needless epilogue where Mookie confronts Sal and demands the money he is owed. The film, for me, ends when Smiley walks through the still-burning wreckage of Sal’s and pins a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to the wall. Lee paints Mookie in an almost sympathetic light in this final coda, which dilutes and reverses much of the power the audience felt during the riot. Worse yet, it doesn’t add in any new layers to any of the characters, instead merely underlining questions we were already left with. “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” had the sense to leave the main characters in the midst of their riot instead of softening the impact by showing the characters pick up the pieces, and I oh-so-wish that Lee had followed suit.

Lee shot the film in a fractured visual style. Some shots, specifically the ones involving Da Mayor and Mother Sister, seem like they could have come out of a ‘40s Technicolor musical while other scenes and shots are purposely ugly. The style works fairly well for an ensemble film, with the approaches changing somewhat as we visit different characters. You can feel Lee trying to experiment with all of the crayons in the box throughout the movie, sometimes to greater affect than others.

None of us have the answers to the questions “Do the Right Thing” poses, and though I like to hope that race relations have significantly improved since the film’s release, I am reminded that racism isn’t really what the movie is about. It’s about rage. And that, sadly, is something the world still has much too much of, and I don’t see any signs of that ever changing.

My Score: ****1/2 (out of 5)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Toy Story

Year: 1995
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 99
Writer: Joss Whedon, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow, Andrew Stanton
Director: John Lasseter
Star: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles

In 1995, I was ten years old and my favorite toys were a ragtag bunch of action-figure dinosaurs. I put ketchup in the carnivores’ mouths and sent them to into epic battle against the peace-loving herbivores. By the end of the day no one was spared, including my mother’s carpet, which was often stained by my liberal use of condiments during the battles. I felt a twinge of guilt while revisiting “Toy Story” because, for the life of me, I cannot remember what happened to those dinosaurs. I can hope that they were donated to Goodwill and are currently sitting proudly on some other ten-year-old’s shelf in Northeast Ohio, but I have a feeling that they are lost somewhere in my basement, trapped in a large mislabeled Rubbermaid container.

“Toy Story” was, of course, the first fully computer-animated feature film and it’s interesting to look back on it today and realizing that, despite the newer breakthroughs in technology, the movie hasn’t aged. Sure, newer Pixar movies like “Wall-E” create entirely new universes while “Toy Story” took place mostly in a bedroom with a few detours to a gas station, pizza joint and neighbor’s home, but Pixar’s animated features have always been about the characters first and the showy visuals second.

The story, in case it has drifted from your memory thanks to the years of drug use, involves a competition between two toys for a young boy’s affections: Aw-shucks nice cowboy sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) and gleaming, technology-heavy spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Buzz believes he is a real spaceman and immediately garners the adoration of the rest of the boy’s toys, which include a slinky dog, Mr. Potato Head, Bo Peep and an etch-a-sketch. The villain is a burgeoning psychotic boy who lives next door and conducts horrifying experiments on his toys.

In other words, it’s a classic buddy-comedy formula. What I found fascinating in the choice of main characters is that it really is a none-too-subtle metaphor for old-fashioned traditional animation (Woody) verses new-fangled computer-generated animated (Buzz). Disney was in the midst of its renaissance of traditional animation at the time (“The Lion King” was released the year before) and would still be going strong for years, but most eyes in the industry were on the new, shiny object known as Pixar right then. It is interesting to see that the movie presents Woody as the obvious hero while Buzz is, for the first two acts of the film anyway, seen as a wrongheaded dumbass.

Though probably the least of any Pixar script save perhaps “Cars,” “Toy Story” still manages to have a witty script with plenty of invention that works just as well for adults as it does for children. It was co-written by one of my favorite writers, Joss Whedon, and you can feel the quick wit in several lines that would later become his hallmark (“I found my moving buddy,” is Bo Peep’s first reaction to seeing Buzz). Though the subplot of having Buzz believe he is a real spaceman for most of the film is tiring at times, the emotional wallop of having him fall and break his arm when he tries to fly out the window at the end of the second act is very powerful.

There are some troubling aspects to the plot. When Woody and Buzz get lost at a gas station Woody is more than willing to leave Buzz to die and save himself. Later, when Woody is trapped at the neighbor’s house of horrors he manages to throw a rope of Christmas lights to his home, but his “friends” decide to drop the rope and leave Woody to die. This makes the ending, where they reunite and are all huggy and lovey-dovey a bit unbelievable; I’d rip their motherfucking stuffing out and feed it to them if they left me with a serial-killer-in-training to die.

There are several plot inconsistencies and holes that are never addressed. The toys are, in general, a loud and rowdy bunch, so for the first half of the film we are led to believe that humans cannot actually hear them speak. But then Woody says something that is heard by a little girl, and later confronts the villain by speaking without moving his mouth. The rules seem to change for the needs of the story. In addition, if Buzz believes himself to be a spaceman, then I can’t fathom why he would pretend to be a toy whenever his owner walked into the room instead of confronting the boy. They didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the movie, but annoyed me long after the credits finished.

The movie is short…80 or so minutes by my clock. It feels just about right, though I would have liked to know more about the fates of the mutilated toys next door. In fact, I’m rather surprised it got so much into those 80 minutes without making the story feel rushed. After all, if you include the supporting cast there are about 20 major and minor characters inhabiting the movie, so the fact that the film is able to juggle them so ably is great.

One thing that I adore about the movie is the ease with which we are introduced to the toy characters. The scene is essentially a series of gags, with Woody wandering through the boy’s bedroom and reacting to each of the supporting characters, but the sequence is so brilliant at taking our knowledge of the toys we grew up with and spinning them into living, breathing characters that the sequence transcends any annoying clichĂ©s.

Visually, the film is beautiful without being overly indulgent. They are never showy just to be showy. There is certainly a sense of discovery in almost every frame of the film and you can tell the Pixar creative team adored the fact that they were creating this new world and new characters, but it never gets to be too much.

Looking back, I do find myself loving “Toy Story” quite a bit, but it does not transcend its genre. Despite being children’s animated features, I would never call movies like “Up,” “Wall-E” or “Beauty and the Beast” children’s films or animated films. I would just call them masterpieces. In “Toy Story’s” case, I would call it an animated classic, but it does not come close to ranking with those others.

My Score: **** (out of 5)

A New Beginning: Looking at the AFI Top 100

Who I Am: Robert Taylor. 25 years old. I’m currently in the midst of my first year as a Screenwriting Fellow at the American Film Institute Conservatory.

What I’m Doing: Over the next several months, I intend to watch every one of the films AFI has ranked as the Top 100 American Films. After finishing a film, I will write a critical essay on it, exploring every facet of the film from writing to direction to acting and everything in between. Does it deserve classic status? Why does this film have a place on AFI’s top 100? I have seen most of the movies on the list, but in some cases it’s been many years and they are beginning to fade from my memory.

There have been two “Top 100” lists released by AFI and I’m working from the newer one. I’m writing about the films in no particular order, because the ranking is so subjective. For example, “The African Queen” ranked in the top 25 when the first list was released and tumbled almost off the newer list, probably because it was not released on DVD and therefore was not as much in the public consciousness. Another example is that the controversial “Birth of a Nation” has been replaced by “Intolerance,” not necessarily because “Intolerance” is a better film but because we are in a different place politically.

After every five or six essays, I’ll publish a special essay about a film I feel has been overlooked by AFI and deserved inclusion.

Why I’m Doing It: I’ve always been a film buff, and though the hours are long and filled with writing, crewing and classes, I refuse to allow myself to walk away from the classic films I love. I’m surrounded by everything film related and will be for the next year-and-a-half, don’t you think I should embrace it as much as possible?

Your Thoughts: I’d love to hear your feedback on the essays and read your opinions and memories of the classic films I’m talking about, whether they agree or disagree with my assessments.