Friday, July 29, 2011

High Noon

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 27
Year: 1952
Writer: Carl Foreman
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Star: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges

“High Noon” feels like a crackerjack sequel to a great Western. It involves a villain, long thought gone, being released from prison and returning to the small town he almost pulled into anarchy upon to exact his revenge. All of the characters speak of this man, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), in hushed tones wizards would reserve for the word “Voldemort.” We get the impression that the entire New Mexican town once united to defeat him, which makes the fact that no one will stand against him save for the lone marshal Kane (Gary Cooper) all the more devastating.

Perhaps I wrote “marshal” too soon, since we first see Kane getting married and turning in his tin law-enforcement tin star in order to go on his honeymoon. He won’t be returning to the job anytime soon, either. You see, his wife Amy (Grace Kelly) is a Quaker. The moment the townsfolk find out Miller is returning, they put Kane and Amy on a carriage out of town, but Kane can’t leave.


Kane makes some vague assertions that Miller will follow them wherever they go, but the Wild West was still awful big, and claims like that hold little water. It becomes readily apparent that the townsfolk are more than willing to step aside and allow Miller back into their lives. There’s no real reason for Kane to stand up like he does, except for the little fact that it’s what is right.

Screenwriter Carl Foreman does a great job of creating a real town, filled with people who have existed before the film began and will after the movie ends. One of the most interesting relationships is Kane’s former connection to a town “businesswoman” named Helen (Katy Jurado), who is now in a relationship with Kane’s former best friend Harvey (Lloyd Bridges). Harvey has always been jealous of Kane, and is the kind of man who can make any situation about him, no matter how inane the reasoning. He’s weak, and when Helen calls him out on this, he becomes even more blindly enraged at Kane. Ultimately, Kane and Harvey trade blows under the guise that Harvey wants to “rescue” him, but it’s really nothing more than a pissing contest Kane isn’t interested in participating in.

Also fascinating is the odd connection Amy shares with Helen. Amy suspects that Helen is the reason Kane isn’t leaving, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. In their short conversation together, something “clicks” between them. The fact that Foreman developed this relationship at all is quite refreshing considering how women in Westerns traditionally get the shaft in characterization or storytelling.

While the story might not literally be a “ticking time bomb,” it’s just about as damn close as a movie can get. We learn early that Miller is coming in on the noon train, and from that moment that is all any of the characters can think about. Clocks are in almost every room, and when one isn’t handy a supporting character will helpfully report that “time is short!” Foreman crafts some outstanding moments out of this suspense, as when a members of a church want to debate, at length, exactly what the pros and cons are of standing up with Kane against Miller. The scene would be funny if it weren’t so sad, and that’s just the way Foreman and director Fred Zinnemann want it.

Though the screenplay is superbly structured and filled with absorbing moral quandaries, it’s not perfect. An early fight between Amy and Kane, moments after their wedding, feels more like something out of a bad ‘50s television show than one of the best films of all time. I feel that way about sprinkles of dialogue throughout the film—it’s not simplistic in a way that works for the characters but so direct that it causes a chuckle or a groan when it is supposed to work dramatically.

I have mixed feelings about the climactic chase sequence that occurs once Miller has arrived. It’s a little…blunt. The characters are too easily dispatched and I wish that there would have been a bigger cat-and-mouse element to the chase, rather than just shoot-out after shoot-out. I did, however, enjoy the way Zinnemann and Foreman involve Amy in the sequence, and like the way they underline what a hard decision it was for her because of her Quaker beliefs. It was a fine climax, but could have been much more.

Another problem with the finale is present throughout the rest of the film, and that’s the grating use of the song “Do Not Forsake Me O’ My Darlin’.” It’s a catchy-enough little ditty, but to have its melody play almost nonstop for the film’s last fifteen minutes could be annoying to even the most patient viewer. The patches of the song that are used earlier only take the viewer out of the movie instead of underlining what we’re seeing on screen, and that’s a shame.

Cooper and Kelly are great in their respective roles, with one major exception, and that is that I do not believe them as a married couple. Because they share so few scenes together in the movie, this isn’t a huge deal, but it would have been better if I was really rooting for them. It’s not that Cooper is way too old for Kelly, at least not fully (I still love Hepburn and Astaire in “Funny Face,” no matter how icky it is), but they simply don’t compliment each other as actors very well.

Despite my reservations, the final minute of the film is amazing. Seeing what seems like the entire town walk outside seconds after Miller falls dead to the ground to congratulate Kane, only to realize he doesn’t care anymore, is brimming with power, as is the moment he throws the tin star in the dirt. The filmmakers were brilliant in not dragging the moment down with lots of dialogue, simply letting the actors do their thing and pulling back the camera when the time came. The rest of “High Noon” doesn’t quite live up to that excellence, but it’s good enough that I wish they would have made a prequel.

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

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 21
Year: 1974
Writer: Robert Towne
Director: Roman Polanski
Star: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston

“You can’t eat the venetian blinds, I just had them installed on Wednesday” is the first thing Jake Gittes says in “Chinatown,” a knowing nod to the world the viewer is entering. We think we know the rules of noir…the black-and-white, the femme fatale, the dirty city see mostly at night…but writer Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski have other plans. The film is shot in lush colors that depict Los Angeles and its surrounding hills and valleys as a damn nice place to be. And the femme fatale? Turns out there’s more to her than there appears to be. The movie is still one of the most dark and twisted noirs ever produced but, like any great film, it plays with your expectations of the genre all along the ride.

Gittes is played by Jack Nicholson, who supplies the character with a seen-it-all attitude that can only mask inner pain. He’s a private detective who specializes in cheating spouses and says all the right things to his hurting clients even if his voice betrays a bit of tedium, as if he’s said this hundreds of times before. A woman who says she is Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray arrives at his office and hires him to investigate her husband, who is a big honcho in the Los Angeles water and power office. Days later, the husband is drowned, salt water in his lungs even though he didn’t die in the ocean, and the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) comes into play.

For my money this is one of the best screenplays ever written. If Raymond Chandler is considered the master of noir writing, one must agree that his work was all about mood and character over structure and story. His novels are a master’s course in style over substance (except perhaps in his screenplay to Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” where one could infer that Hitchcock demanded both), and I write that as a huge fan. What Towne does is bring all the style we expect from noir and connect it with a mystery story where everything ultimately connects in a surprising, fulfilling way. We get all the small noir flourishes, like Gittes using two watches and a tire to figure out when a character leaves a place, but also a big picture that can make sense when set apart from the shadows and double crosses.

And yet, to simply think of the movie as a mystery is missing the point. After all, none of the main characters really care about who is diverting water and, really, no one seems that shaken up about Mulwray’s death. The characters continue the investigation because they are fascinated with one another. Mrs. Mulwray shows up every reel or so for the first half of the film, as if she got bored at home and wanted to be entertained by Gittes. She didn’t have to come out to pick him up after he is beaten by orange growers, after all. Mrs. Mulwray is an enigma for both Gittes and the viewer; the more we learn about her, the more questions that are raised. Dunaway’s performance is masterful, keeping us at arm’s length enough so that we can still suspect she is a murderer but making us care enough about her to be devastated by the film’s final moments.

Towne and Polanski then begin to carefully layer on the details, always keeping them subtle. With water so important to the film, we begin to see fish everywhere—mounted on walls, sitting on plates with their head still attached, that salt-water fishpond that’s bad for the grass around it. Then there’s the fantastic, beautifully written scene where Gittes sees…something…in Mrs. Mulwray’s eye.

That isn’t to say that everything here is subtle. Nicholson’s furious slapping of an obviously horrified Dunaway in what is probably the best-remembered scene from the movie is wonderfully, purposefully, over the top. Gittes getting his nose sliced open (in a single long take that is excruciating to watch without wincing) is both a great way to make an impression and a great metaphor about the private dick in general.

Speaking of long shots, there are dozens in the movie, and almost none of them draw attention to themselves. They aren’t Brian De Palma-esque long shots—they seem simple (though I’m sure they were hell to light and set up) and are barely noticeable until you’ve seen the movie more than once. My favorite is the scene where Gittes faces off with Mrs. Mulwray’s father (a fantastic John Huston) that begins with Gittes waiting for the car to arrive and ends with the twosome in front of the sun setting in the distance.

The camera is often following Gittes (Nicholson is, as far as I can remember, in every scene of the movie), moving and angled just over his shoulder so that we discover things as he does. This is a great way to stage the scenes but, more than that, it adds a level of identification to the viewer’s relationship with Gittes. Since there’s rarely a reaction shot in these moments, we think how Gittes face would look and, in essence, become him.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score is one for the ages and, like the screenplay, probably one of the best ever written. It exists both with and outside of the action we see, sometimes contradicting it and sometimes gently supporting it.

And then there’s the ending. The question remains as to why Gittes took the baddies to Chinatown instead of taking them to Union Station and trying a getaway—not a flaw in the movie, just a question. It’s heartbreaking, but at the same time how could the movie have ended? What kind of happiness would the characters ever have had, even if they had escaped, and therein lies the real tragedy of the moment. And, even at the end, Towne and Polanski still manage to reverse our expectations. Honestly, has there ever been another film where someone can wildly shoot and manage to hit the driver from that distance? I don’t think so.

My Score (out of 5):

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Shawshank Redemption

Year: 1994
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 72
Writer: Frank Darabont (adaptation), Stephen King (novella)
Director: Frank Darabont
Star: Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, Bob Gunton

Movies concerning slight-of-hand and tricking the audience, as a rule, keep the audience at arm’s length emotionally because we expect the reversals. We know there will be double crosses. We’re looking for clues that set up that seeming out-of-nowhere twist. One of the many special things about “The Shawshank Redemption” is that you don’t expect the revelations of the final act, and instead of contradicting emotions set up previously, it only serves to deepen our existing emotions regarding the main characters.

Those main characters are Red (Morgan Freeman) and Andy (Tim Robbins). They meet in Shawshank Prison after Andy has been sentenced to two life terms for the murder of his wife and her lover. Red is in prison for murder as well, a murder he freely admits to having committed. Andy, on the other hand, quietly insists that he is innocent, a statement laughed at by the been-there-heard-that inmates at the prison. Over the course of several decades, Andy and Red develop as close a friendship as two people could.

Though Andy is the one who ultimately does all the magical hoo-ha at the end, it is Red who narrates the story, as it should be. It’s Red’s story. The “Redemption” of the title isn’t Andy’s, after all, it’s Red’s. The film purposely keeps Andy at arm’s length throughout the film, and Robbins’ understated performance underlines this. We feel as if we know Andy is a good man, but he’s still an enigma we can’t quite get a grasp upon. Red spends the entire movie, even after they become close, trying to understand who his friend is, and through this narration we come to understand so much about Red as a person.

Darabont, working from a novella written by Stephen King, takes his time setting up the world and these characters as three-dimensional beings trapped in what at first appears to be a limbo state. This goes for the prison guards and administrators as well. They might not physically be behind those cell doors, but they spend their days trapped in the same hellhole the men are. Darabont uses the small character moments to surprise us. Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown) is horrendously abusive and a bad, bad man, but he still allows the men time to enjoy their beer on the roof. Heywood (William Sadler) would be the prison idiot in any other film, but here he develops a personality and a set of morals. He might be slow, but he still does what he thinks is right. Even though the movie is almost two-and-a-half hours in length, it doesn’t feel long, because these small reversals in scenes surprise us and hold our interest throughout.

Because the characters are well-written, and because the acting throughout is spot-on, we don’t notice all of the small clues and tiny bits of information Darabont is feeding us. The most explicit the screenplay gets in playing its hand is when Andy has a long moment with Red explaining how he’s created an alternate person out of thin air to keep the Warden’s (Bob Gunton) illegally obtained money safe. I’ve seen the movie several times and there are still small details and the briefest of exchanges I pick up on here and there that underline just how brilliantly Darabont structured his screenplay.

It’s not that the pay-off was so ingenious and so well set-up throughout the first two acts, though. It’s also that it represents everything the movie has been building toward and feels like an honest extension of the plot and characters we’ve come to regard as people. The rarest of motion pictures (“House of Cards,” the underrated “Thomas Crown Affair” remake) can pull that off and get away with it.

In addition to Robbins’ terrific, understated performance, I was surprised to see just how subtle Freeman is here. He doesn’t play Red as an angry man who hates himself for what he did, which would have been the obvious way to do it. His Red is more torn down and acquiescent, not at peace with his actions but at peace with the fact that he’s going to pay for it with for most of his life.

Behind the camera, Darabont’s work is tremendous. Everyone remembers the two shots that set up the prison: the first is from helicopter and follows Andy’s bus toward the building before swooping around the imposing structure to follow the inmates walking across the yard toward the approaching vehicle. The second stares up the endless walls of the prison just before Andy walks in. But there is so much more. Darabont and his editor, Richard Francis-Bruce, allow the scenes to breath and the pace to remain steady throughout, even when it would be so simple to use quick-cutting.

Quibbles? A few small ones. The prologue showing Andy before his wife is murdered is needless, and since we can instinctually tell from early on that he’s innocent, why doesn’t Darabont actually show this in the prologue? There are other small point-of-view problems where we switch to Andy. Most of the time it’s fine because we imagine this is Red’s interpretation of certain moments and scenes that he assumes happened or was told to him, but in others there is no way Red would know. Oh, and it was pretty damn lucky that Andy got the cell on the end of the row, no? But again, these are quibbles.

It’s really a wonder this movie got made. Darabont was a first time director whose biggest credit was writing “The Blob” remake (which is really awesome, by the way). As far as I can tell, there’s three women in the entire film who are onscreen for about twenty seconds total. It’s two-and-a-half hours long. Freeman and Robbins weren’t marquee names. It’s a prison movie. The title is “The Shawshank Redemption.” It’s meditative. There are no action scenes. And even though it’s based on a Stephen King story, it’s not scary enough to be marketed as a “Stephen King Movie.”

Thank God it did, though. “The Shawshank Redemption” works on a human level first and foremost, but it’s also one of the smartest and well-constructed films ever made. It’s brilliantly written, beautifully directed and perfectly acted. That’s the trifecta.

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

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Clockwork Orange

Year: 1971
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 70
Writer: Stanley Kubrick (screenplay), Anthony Burgess (novel)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Star: Malcolm McDowell, Godfrey Quigley, Anthony Sharp

To me, the definition of “art,” whatever its medium, is the ability to create an emotional reaction the person experiencing it. Laughter, tears, empathy, sympathy, love, hate…whatever the reaction might be, if a piece of art creates some reaction, it is valuable. I’ve immensely disliked some of the movies on AFI’s top 100 list (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, “Sullivan’s Travels”), but there was still much in those movies that caused an emotional response from me, even if I disagreed with it.

So what should I make of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”? I felt numb throughout the entire film, moved to neither love or hatred. The film simply…was. Despite moments of wit, as a black comedy it wasn’t very funny. Despite moments of insight, as a parable it isn’t very clever. Despite moments of drama, the film isn’t very dramatic. And so on and so forth.

The film begins with the rapist/psychopath/murderer/other-evil-stuffer Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his buddies at a milk bar. They are soon beating up a homeless man in the cleanest alley ever and then break into a couple’s house, cripple the husband and rape the wife. On another night, Alex is caught after murdering another woman and sentenced to prison, where he is entered into a mental rehabilitation program and “programmed” to respond to rape, violence and Beethoven with immediately sickness. He’s released.

But his family doesn’t want him and, after bloody encounters with some of his former gang members and the homeless man he beat up at the beginning of the movie, he arrives on the familiar doorstep of the family who he beat and raped. The woman is dead now, unable to cope with her rape, and the man is wheelchair-bound. Then the film turns into “The Virgin Spring” for a reel or two, but with a bodybuilder and Gene Kelley impersonations.

I must say that there are very good things in the movie. The film is a technical marvel, like all of writer/producer/director Kubrick’s work. The first shot, which begins as a close-up on Alex’s dead, staring eyes (he’s not dead, just his soul and eyes) and the slow pull back of the camera, is a fantastic way to begin the movie. There are also moments of real wit, like the fast-forwarded sequence of Alex bedding two women whilst “The Lone Ranger” theme plays on the soundtrack. And yes, McDowell is very convincing as Alex, conveying a real psychosis sitting just beneath the surface of his charming demeanor. Oh, and that eye-holder-thingie is very creepy.

But then there’s everything else.

Yes, of course the rape scenes were disturbing, as any such scene would be. But really, there’s no emotional undertones for the rape scenes or…well…any other scene in the movie. Are we supposed to feel bad for Alex after the reconditioning (which he volunteered for) and that he’s being tortured by those from his past? Are we supposed to feel a swell of pride and happiness when he beats his mental blocks in the final sequence? He’s a rapist and killer. It’s impossible to feel any sort of identification with him.

Kubrick is obviously asking us to explore our feelings on good and evil, the lines therein and the areas of grey where the “good” guys are really in Hitler outfits and torture the bad guys. Or something like that. It supposed to be deep, right? If I want a deep examination of this type of material, I’ll rewatch the aforementioned “The Virgin Spring,” thankyouverymuch. Or, hell, even “The Last House On the Left” remake. I remember feeling very much for Monica Potter in that. Really.

So what’s left? The subversive comedy, I guess. But it’s more tongue-in-cheek than anything else and isn’t funny enough to make the movie entertaining.

I’ve already mentioned McDowell, but the rest of the acting in the film is either robotic or completely over the top. Psychotically over the top, in fact, which suits the movie, I guess.

A lot of this must have been very controversial back in the day. Today, this kind of sexual violence happens on “Private Practice,” but without the exposed breasts. I can get better political satire on “The Daily Show” or in any given issue of “The New Yorker.” Other “hugely controversial” films and television still hold up because their underlying stories and characters were engaging and interesting. Here we’ve got a lot of well-shot violence and…what else? I'm guessing that, much like the films "American Psycho" and "Fight Club," much of the audience "gets" that it is supposed to be parody, but a certain sect of the movie's superfans support the film for what it blatantly states and not what is between the lines. I don't write that as a criticism, just as an observation.

Oh, and can someone please explain to me what exactly “A Clockwork Orange” is supposed to mean? Anyone? Bueller?

So how to rate the movie? No movie with this type of technical mastery can really be a bust. I’ll remember certain scenes and shots from the movie after everything else has faded simply because they were so pretty to look at. McDowell is certainly a good psychopath. And yet I kept asking myself over and over…”so what?” In it’s own way, the movie is unclassifiable and exists on its own spectrum.

So I guess I’ll give the movie two stars and throw up my hands.

My Score (out of 5): **

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath

Year: 1940
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 23
Writer: Nunnally Johnson (screenplay), John Steinbeck (novel)
Director: John Ford
Star: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine

Oh, “The Grapes of Wrath,” in which things suck, everyone is depressed, and then it gets worse.

In fourth grade I was traumatized for weeks after reading “The Pearl,” especially the sequence where the innocent child is shot to death. In sophomore year of high school I was surprisingly unmoved by the ending to “Of Mice and Men.” Even though Oprah told me I should, I didn’t enjoy “East of Eden” no matter how much I tried to care. The novels of John Steinbeck are not exactly subtle—the books I’ve read use beautiful images and lots of depression to make blunt statements about “morals.” Yes, I know so many of them are “classics” and are “revered” and whatnot, but they just aren’t my kind of story. If the guy floats your boat, great, I’m happy for you.

There have been fantastic movies made from Steinbeck’s work—Elia Kazan’s “East of Eden” is a masterpiece and should have, for my money, been on the AFI Top 100. To me, writer Nunnally Johnson and director John Ford’s adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” feels like being punched repeatedly in the face for two hours. Characters overcoming great odds is great, hey, movies would be out of business if we didn’t have it, but come on! A sledgehammer to the face can’t be as painful as what these characters go through!

But I get ahead of myself. The film opens with Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returning home after a four-year stretch in prison. What did he do, you ask? While at a dance, another man stabbed him so Tom beat him to death with a shovel. How or why a shovel made its way onto a dance floor is left unclear. Anyway, he returns home to find his family has been evicted and have moved to a cousin’s home, a cousin who is also being evicted. With hope in the form of a flier asking for workers in California, they set out on Route 66 (which should have been re-named Route 666 after the toll it takes on this family). Then more horrible stuff happens to them.

Perhaps it’s just that the bad stuff is just so unrelenting. We don’t get to know who these men and women are outside of being screwed over again and again, so why should we care about them? Up until the final act of the film, the happiest moment in the entire movie comes when a diner clerk gives the children two candy canes for a penny instead of a nickel. Seriously.

Every other pseudo-happy moment is undercut with something horrible. Hey, we’re going on a road trip across the country and…oh…Grandpa is dead. They finally made it to California and…oh…Grandma just died too. We finally found a place to camp out for a week and get a little money and…oh…Tom was beaten, killed another guy and is now wanted by the police again. We finally (finally!) found a great place to live and work run by the Department of Agriculture and…oh…Tom has to run away. You just want to grab the filmmakers, shake them and scream “Let these people alone for five minutes!!!” Yes, I know three exclamation points is a bit much, but I was really feeling it there.

I’ve been on Route 66 and know it travels through some of the most amazing, beautiful parts of the USA. Why couldn’t we have a moment, just a moment, where the family just looks out of that weighed-down truck, smiles, and takes in the beauty around them? Or thanks God for the chance to see these sights so many others never see in their lifetimes? I’m not asking for a showy scene or a switch to Technicolor, but I would like a character-based moment of them enjoying something…anything about their life or journey.

Ford, who made some fantastic movies during his lifetime, shoots the movie in the most economical way possible, and it really suits the film’s tone and energy. The only time he gets a little flashy is when he shows us the P.O.V. of the front of the truck, and those shots are quite engaging and work in the context of the scenes they present.

No member of the family develops a personality…just issues the rest of the bunch has to deal with. Grandpa is going crazy. Grandma is getting more and more frail. Rose-of-Sharon’s husband walked out on her and she’s pregnant. Tom is wanted for murder. Any insight into who these people are in addition to their problems is sorely missed.

Look at Tom. I think Henry Fonda is a great actor, but who is Tom? What is he, other than angry? We first see him guilting a truck driver into a ride to his home. Is he grateful? No, he immediately yells at the driver and demeans him. We never see him grieve over the deaths of any of his family members, and he never seems very happy to see them. At the film’s climax, he tries walking out on his mother (Jane Darwell) without saying “goodbye.” Instead of being grateful for work, and knowing he’ll get the family thrown out of the peach farm if caught, he still decides to wander off and cause trouble on his first night there.

And don’t get me started on his final speech to his mother. Oh, well, I guess I already have. A character in that position, from that background, would never speak in the way Tom speaks. Look at the dialogue:

“I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eating the stuff they raise and living in the houses they build - I'll be there, too.”

When did Tom Joad turn into Batman?

Even worse is Ma’s speech that closes the film. Darwell is probably the best thing about the film, and can show so much sadness and emotion with her eyes, but her speech here makes absolutely no sense in the context of what the family has been through. It’s just Steinbeck and Johnson speaking to America directly without bothering to remain true to the character they created.

My Score (out of 5): **

The Apartment

Year: 1960
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 80
Writer: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Director: Billy Wilder
Star: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray

The apartment in “The Apartment” is nothing special. The air conditioner that may or may not work sits next to a relatively comfortable couch, but other than that, there are no bells or whistles to be found. The walls are paper thin, and the paper on those walls is slowly peeling off. You need a match to light the gas oven. There’s no closet space anywhere to be seen.

Upon first glance, you might also say that C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is nothing special. One of the hundreds of drones working in an unfriendly office space, he’s not rich. Or overly handsome. Or has any family or close friends to speak of. But he’s ambitious in his own way. Baxter is more than willing to whore himself out to get that three-window office next to the big boss Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Sure, he’s not technically a prostitute, but he regularly allow strangers into his apartment for hours at a time to have their own trysts in order to get ahead at work. It’s all the annoyances of prostitution without the warm bed.

His fate is destined to cross with the wonderfully named Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator operator who wears flowers and likes that he takes off his hat in the elevator. She also happens to be having an affair with Mr. Sheldrake, who is married. Things begin to get complex.

Most Billy Wilder movies seem to exist out of time and place, perhaps because they are so singular. It’s a shame, then, to see that sections of “The Apartment” have dated rather badly, and not just because the main characters’ jobs are antiquated. Perhaps it’s because so many of the film’s conceits have been copied so often since the film’s release. We sense a familiarity with so many of Wilder’s (along with his co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond) tricks that we wish the pace would pick up. Anyone who’s seen a romantic comedy or a telenovella knows just about everywhere the story will go (with one exception), making the build-ups to the major reveals moot.

It’s not hard to figure out, for example, that the woman Mr. Sheldrake wants the apartment for is Miss Kubelik. Or that his secretary is his old flame. Or that he’ll fire her and she’ll tell his wife. And how many almost identical sequences have we seen to when MacMurray makes promises that he’ll leave his wife soon? For me, the worst offender is in the third act, but we’ll get there soon.

The one moment that still works viscerally is Miss Kubelik’s attempted suicide. The build-up to the moment is heartbreaking, and the long sequence where Baxter finds her in his bed, becomes increasingly alarmed and finally, desperately, goes to his doctor neighbor for help. We cringe when the doctor repeatedly, violently, slaps Miss Kubelik to get her to wake up.

Of course, one could (successfully) argue that the suicide-attempt and later intimation that Baxter is also suicidal are pretty out of line with the tone of other scenes in the movie, such as the one where Baxter is in what he thinks is a job interview and gets so excited he squirts an entire bottle of nose spray across the office.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on the movie because, honestly, there is a lot here to love. Even taking into consideration the tonal shifts and (sadly) dated nature of much of the movie, which adds a level of predictability that was not there upon first release, I still enjoyed it. Really.

Another touchstone of Wilder’s films is his careful characterization of his women. I’ve already written about my love for Betty and Norma in “Sunset Blvd.” and Phyllis in “Double Indemnity,” so you won’t be surprised to know that Miss Kubelik is no exception. She isn’t a fluff sexbomb who just wants a husband. She’s in love with Sheldrake, damn it, and has her eyes open about the amount of pain the relationship is going to cause her (“When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara.”). Wilder is subtle about the way her relationship builds with Baxter, never giving us “big” moments or “easy” chemistry scenes together. We may hate parts of Miss Kubelik, but we still grow to love her, thanks also to MacLaine’s aces performance.

Lemmon is also very good as Baxter, though most of the shifts in tone stem from his few moments of overacting (singing while making spaghetti, the aforementioned nasal spray bottle). When his character gets drunk alone on Christmas Eve, Lemmon does not overdo his drunkenness, a blessing after seeing how far over the top he went in “The Days of Wine and Roses.”

Wilder uses the space and shadows of the apartment well as a contrast to the bright, over-stimulated office environment. His camera here is much more subtle than in many of his other films, and it suits the movie well. The black-and-white is stark and uninviting, underlined when Wilder purposely places us in locations (Broadway, the Chinese Restaurant) where we would normally expect warm, blazing colors.

Despite the intricacies of the screenplay and how well Wilder sets things up and pays them off (however predictable this may be today), for me the false ending of Miss Kubelik going back to Sheldrake (after she almost committed suicide, no less!) and Baxter getting that swanky job on the top floor doesn’t work. It feels like the token bad romantic comedy moment that sets up the sweeping ending more than anything else. Perhaps this is because Wilder has set up the journeys of both characters so well and strengthened them palpably over their time shared in the apartment…but it just doesn’t feel right. Ah well, at least we get this amazing closing line out of it: “Shut up and deal.”

Sure, “The Apartment” might seem a little ordinary today, like the title abode in the movie, but there’s still more than enough to recommend. Even though all the trappings here are familiar and have been copied hundreds of times, that does not mean that they have been done better than they were here.

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

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Wild Bunch

Year: 1969
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 79
Writer: Walon Green, Sam Peckinpah
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Star: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan

“The Wild Bunch” is violence. Every scene deals with the build-up to violence, the act itself or the immediate aftermath. It does not judge the violence it presents or the men at the film’s center. These men are not heroes, and though they would be considered villains in any other Western, since the film does not present us with any heroic characters, they are all we have to identify with.

William Holden plays Pike, the leader of the Bunch of the title, a group of outlaws who, for most of the movie, are attempting to steal and sell a stock of weapons (including a machine gun). Pike’s group is being shadowed by Robert Ryan’s Deke. Deke used to be a member of the group, but was caught and now much catch them to gain his freedom, otherwise he’ll be hanged. All this happens during an uncertain period in the American West, with the time of such outlaws coming to an end. At one point, one of the outlaws is dragged behind a modern car for hours. The metaphor isn’t subtle.

The film opens with one of the most astonishing action set-pieces I’ve ever seen. It’s a bank robbery orchestrated by Pike’s gang that turns out to be a set-up by Deke. Instead of playing it out like a chess game, everyone just starts blowing everyone else away. Dozens of bystanders in the town are murdered in the crossfire. Even the priest gets it. The blood and guts aren’t focused upon, instead quickly filmed and cut away from in order to create a mood of chaos, violence (of course) and destruction.

The movie never reaches this high again. From the set-piece, we know that the Wild Bunch are villains we really shouldn’t like (they kill women and children!) and that they are all going to be dead by the end of the movie. This isn’t the kind of film that would present such a gutsy opening and then redeem these guys—it simply informs us that it has set them on their path for death and we’re in for the ride. Another none-too-subtle metaphor: the first images of the movie are that of a group of scorpions being killed slowly by hundreds of fire ants.

The characters are well-developed considering that they are so unlikable. Instead of being characters we simply loathe, the gang are, for the most part, characters we find watchable, particularly Jaime Sanchez’s Angel, who tries to send a crate of guns to those rebelling against the warlord who has taken over his hometown (and the gang just happens to be in business with). Oddly enough, the least interesting characters in the group are the leads. I’m not even sure why Ernest Borgnine’s character was in the movie, and though Holden’s Pike is given flashbacks to pad his motivations and background, but they do little to turn him three-dimensional.

The most absorbing character in the movie is Ryan’s Deke, because he can’t have any motivations. He has to catch these men he’s worked with before, has to out-think them and has to ensure their deaths no matter how he feels about the whole thing. In any given scene, we’re never quite sure what he’s thinking or feeling, and that paradox makes him fascinating. One moment I missed from the movie is the group’s relationship to him. It’s implied Holden was his good friend, though something stated more explicitly in a movie where everything is stated explicitly and underlined for good measure would have been nice. Instead, they just treat him like a force of nature instead of a human being, which sounds cool when I type it but doesn’t work as well in execution.

Director/screenwriter Sam Peckinpah and his co-writer Walon Green seem to be intent on subverting as many Western genre conventions as possible, though in much more obvious ways than, say, “The Searchers.” The most obvious, already stated, is having the “heroes” be villains, but there are many others. Holden falls off his horse instead of mounting it like a pro. Many of the extra soldiers who are killed off are fifteen year old kids, not grizzled extras. Every woman in the movie is either a prostitute or canon fodder (or both).

The tone of the movie is somber and brooding (in other words, perfect for a Western), though there are two major shifts that come out of nowhere. The first is when a Mexican soldier repeatedly accidentally fires off a machine gun and almost kills dozens of people and the second is when it seems like an entire town is simultaneously laughing at a single person. Where did these moments come from and why weren’t they cut out?

In addition to the opening bank heist, there are two other big set-pieces. The first involves stealing a train out from under the nose of Deke, who just happens to be on one of the train cars. There’s some nifty direction and tension built here before the train starts moving, but instead of gaining momentum (sorry about the analogy) as it builds to its climax, the sequence peters out as the train speeds up.

The third is the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink climax, which involves the aforementioned machine gun and the deaths of what seems like hundreds of extras. It’s not quite on the scale of when Rambo killed an entire country, but it’s up there.

But what do these beautifully staged scenes and sequences add up to in a film where the audience has no emotional stakes in the story or the characters’ fates? Not all that much. I’m a sucker for a well-done action flick, and I was never bored watching “The Wild Bunch” and became involved in the major set-pieces, but more for the technical mastery than because I cared about what was going on. It’s obvious that Walon and Peckinpah meant to reinvent and subvert the Western genre by bringing realism (I use that as a relative term) and legitimate, consequential violence to the world of O.K. Corrals and Stagecoaches, and that they do. But perhaps they took it a step too far and cut off the audience’s emotional response in the process. There are great things in this film, but in the end it’s merely good.

My Score (out of 5): ***

Monday, July 4, 2011

Easy Rider

Year: 1969
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 84
Writer: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern
Director: Dennis Hopper
Star: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson

The magic of “Easy Rider” is the ease (not a pun, I promise) with which it observes and explores a moment in our culture’s uncertain history. For most of its running time, the film astounds with its restrained, straightforward observations of America. It’s such a shame that the movie spirals off-base in its final act with sudden, heavy-handed biblical references and incomprehensible plot developments.

The movie opens with Peter Fonda’s Captain America (he has an American flag sewn onto the back of his jacket) and Dennis Hopper’s Billy exchanging cocaine for a lot of money. They roll the money, stick it into a plastic hose and then slide the hose into the gas tank of Captain America’s (awesome) motorcycle. It’s one of the more ingenious ways to hide thousands of dollars, right up there with the stamps in “Charade” and the painting in “The Thomas Crown Affair” (and this is probably the only time these movies will be compared to “Easy Rider”). The duo get on top of their bikes and begin a cross country journey that will end at Mardi Gras.

Hopper (also the director and co-writer) sets the first scene of the film next to an airport landing strip, and any conversation the characters have is drowned out completely by the sound of landing planes. Though the moment is annoying itself because it just lasts too damn long, it alerts the audience to the fact that, for most of the movie, dialogue is unnecessary and mostly negligible when spoken. And yes, the first half hour of the movie has only a few lines of dialogue as far as I can remember, and what is said is superfluous. It might as well be a silent picture you watch while playing some of your favorite tunes, and I mean that as a huge compliment.

As a director, Hopper (with his co-writers Fonda and Terry Southern) is content to show us the story with simple, haunting images of the American landscape shot from mercifully empty roads with some fantastic classic rock songs playing on the soundtrack. The guys are just being guys, doing tricks on their cycles and contemplating deep things while looking forlornly at the horizon. On my way to Los Angeles I drove as much of Route 66 as is left drivable (which is probably less than half), and these scenes left me drooling and aching to get in my car and just start driving…it didn’t matter where. One could argue that this type of scene (the guys riding, breathtaking landscapes, rock and roll) is done much too much in the movie, but I couldn’t get enough of it. The repetitive nature of the moments made the film almost hypnotic.

The duo’s day in a commune (they are brought to it by a hitchhiker they pick up) is intriguing to see today…we watch the (almost entirely) young people desperately attempting to retreat to an innocent, back-to-the-basics lifestyle despite the weather and ground making it impossible to create a harvest. There’s an amazing 360 degree shot of the group circled for prayer and, as the camera slowly pans around, it makes the time to capture in every face in the circle and linger briefly. We have time to contemplate them, wonder how they got there and think about what their story might be.

We also wonder about Captain America and Billy, where they came from and how they got to know each other. They rarely speak to each other for more than a few lines, but then again, they don’t really need to. They work as non-characters—better at representing us as observers than themselves. Both are very good actors, but you won’t get that from this movie—the performances are almost nonexistent.

We are introduced to a slimy lawyer George (Jack Nicholson) when the two are arrested for riding in a parade without a permit. George joins them on their trek to Mardi Gras and there’s a beautiful image of George in a football helmet on the back of the motorcycle. There’s also a sweet scene of Captain America gently explaining to George how to smoke pot. While most of the movie would work as a silent movie, George’s hypothesis on how aliens have already invaded and are working amongst us must be heard to be believed.

Suddenly George dies, and the movie goes off the rails. He’s murdered by a bunch of thugs who mock and berate the trio in a diner (the scene works wonderfully at getting under the viewer’s skin and making him uncomfortable), and then is barely spoken of again. Captain America and Billy say he would have wanted them to finish their trek (instead of, you know, being taken to a mortuary and sent home to be buried), and they do just that. Wait…what?

And then Captain America turns into Jesus.

The metaphor is horrendous, ham-fisted and completely out of line with the rest of the movie that has led up to it. He, Billy and two hookers (one of which is Karen Black) have a really bad trip in New Orleans and we even hear church music playing loudly. There’s a scene where Captain America doesn’t quite say “This is my body, this is my blood,” but he might as well have.

By the time we reach the contrived, cringe-inducing ending that has both our leads killed off by a passing truck, the metaphor has gotten so heavy-handed you can’t help but roll your eyes.

Why couldn’t the movie have just kept observing? It could have gotten the same point across in a more subtle manner by making the diner scene the finale. We get that these men will never be accepted into normal society, we don’t need them literally blown away to underline that.

Many of the images and moments, mostly the smaller ones, linger beautifully after the film ends. This movie doesn’t ask us to swallow easy answers to life’s questions or judge those who are quickly judged. Despite its third-act implosion, I can’t help but love the trip.

My Score (out of 5):

Friday, July 1, 2011

Intolerance: Love's Struggle Through the Ages

Year: 1916
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 49
Writer: D.W. Griffith, Anita Loos
Director: D.W. Griffith
Star: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Margery Wilson

Well, that was an ordeal.

Three plus hours. Four distinctive storylines spanning thousands of years. Innumerable variations on the word “Intolerance.” Babylon. Beheadings. Jesus. Wine. Angry Catholics. Hopeful geraniums. Cars racing trains. Lillian Gish rocking that damn cradle.

To steal a quote from the esteemed Dr. Ian Malcolm, it seems that the filmmakers “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

There’s one heck of a lot here. Writer/Director D.W. Griffith (in case we forget that at any point in the movie, he makes sure to remind us by stamping his initials on the bottom of every title card) gives us four stories of intolerance throughout history. The first is about the fall of Babylon at the hands of the Persians. The second is about Jesus. The third is about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and the final one tells of a family trying to live despite outside forces conspiring for their downfall.

The intercutting between these four stories doesn’t work, plain and simple. Yes, intercutting between several subplots that touch upon a similar theme to create a cohesive film has been used before (“Crash,” “Short Cuts”) and used well, but the stories are so dissimilar here and the intercutting so random and oddly timed that all it accomplishes is frustration and the immediate destruction of whatever tension had been built.

Even worse is the method Griffith uses to cut from story to story. It’s Lillian Gish rocking a cradle. And rocking. And rocking. It feels like she rocks that damn cradle for an hour of the movie’s three hour running time (obviously not, but it feels that way), and at times she’s rocking that cradle so intensely any child inside would be dead from being thrown back and forth against the wood. Yeah, it’s a metaphor, I get it. But it’s a bad metaphor and all it adds to the film is the possibility of a drinking game that could end in alcohol poisoning.

Why did Griffith feel the need to create four movies instead of just one? One really well-done movie about intolerance would be so much better than two pretty-well-realized stories and two tedious messes. The Christ subplot and the Massacre subplot are treated as superfluous throughout, almost to the point where we forget they exist until they appear again. The Massacre one in particular is bad. Really bad. The acting here, especially that of the Queen, is so hammy and overdone (and I’m saying this understanding the different styles of acting in silent films) that it would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. Even the quite daring development of killing off the main characters at the end of the Massacre arc is nulled since the same thing happens in the Babylon arc.

The “modern” storyline is just depressing. Really, how much abuse can these poor people take before the viewer just stops caring and tunes out. The main character is called the Dear One and here’s what happens to her over the course of the arc. Her father loses his job. Her father dies. She falls in love with a criminal. Just as her criminal boyfriend goes straight, he is framed for theft and sent to prison. She has a child while the now-husband is behind bars. She gets a cold. Her child is taken away from her. She is almost raped. Her husband, who just got out of prison, is charged with the murder of her near-rapist. Her husband is sentenced to death. The Governor denies her pleas to stop the hanging. I love a melodrama as much as the next Douglas Sirk fan, but this is too much. Tyler Perry would watch this and say “Whoa dude, maybe you should simmer this down a little bit.”

The Babylon storyline held my interest the most, not because the characters were engaging or the storyline moved me, but because there were plenty of neat toys and sets to oogle. The main city set is probably one of the coolest images ever put on film, and the battle scenes are fantastically choreographed and shot on a beautiful, epic scale. Griffith also is not afraid to shy away from the violence, showing multiple beheadings, stabbings and spearings during the invasion scenes, which have a surprising impact, perhaps because I was expecting none.

The title cards are also troublesome, beginning with the fact that there are so many of them. In the same way that the intercutting made the tension lax, the numerous cards do it in lesser ways. It’s also that the cards are so unnecessary in most cases. Some have trivia and tidbits that Griffith thought we might find interesting, like that each man in an army must perspire every day. Others just blatantly state stuff we are seeing on the screen. We don’t need a card telling us the wedding just ran out of wine if we are seeing characters tipping over wine jugs and realizing they are empty. Others are just inadvertently funny, as when a card simply says “the hopeful geranium” or the many, many, many times Griffith uses the word “intolerance” or some variation of the word that isn’t really a word (“he was intolerated for a term”).

No discussion of the movie would be complete without mentioning its close association with “Birth of a Nation” (unseen by me) and “Broken Blossoms.” There are black men in “Intolerance” in the Babylon plot, but they are called Barbarians and have horrible, cliché tribal costumes and markings. They also don’t look happy, possibly because they saw “Birth of a Nation.” I’ve read multiple times that this is Griffith’s apology for his portrayal of black people in “Birth,” but though I understand that point-of-view, I’m not sure I agree with it. Perhaps instead of apologizing, he’s simply stating that he did not appreciate the “intolerance” his last movie received from sane people everywhere. But I write that knowing that “Broken Blossoms” showed us the first interracial romance ever on film, even if the Asian man in the film was played by a white man and had an opium addiction. How muddied the water gets the more you try to see through it.

I had the distinct feeling that I was being preached at for almost all of “Intolerance.” But to what end? Isn’t this movie, by its very definition, preaching to the choir? What person is going to go into a movie called “Intolerance” and think “I wonder if being intolerant of other people is a good or evil thing?” In case you couldn’t tell from the first few paragraphs, the moral of the movie is that intolerance is bad. I have told you, in the two seconds you took to read that last sentence, what Griffith takes over three hours to convey. Thank me later.

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