Wednesday, August 31, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 53
Writer: Deric Washburn (screenplay), Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Louis Garfinkle (story)
Director: Michael Cimino
Star: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep
“The Deer Hunter” has some good things in it, but the overall effect I got out of it was indifference. When I realized that the three act structure of the film would follow a character named Michael (Robert De Niro) before his tour in the Vietnam, during the tour and then the emotional aftermath when he returns home, I thought it was refreshing and couldn’t wait to dive in. Then, as the movie rolled on (and on (and on))) I began to realize that the film’s messages (the ones that came out when it wasn’t trying to be overly ambiguous) were nothing we hadn’t seen told better in other films. Ultimately, the movie feels ambitious, but in the sense that it’s overindulgent, overlong and overcooked.
The film’s first act mostly focuses on a Russian Orthodox wedding attended by Michael, his best friend Nick (Christopher Walken), the woman they both love (Meryl Streep), the groom (John Savage) and assorted drunken people. And yes, for awhile it’s very enjoyable to get such a slice of small-town life and see the joy and exhilaration of the celebration. But twenty minutes would have been fine…instead we’ve got another thirty to watch.
The main male cast are drunk for the first hour and ten minutes of the movie. I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not. Writer Deric Washburn and director Michael Cimino try give us one of those “this is how men really behave” feelings here. But let’s be honest with ourselves, guys. This isn’t how dudes really act when they are drunk. The actions we see here and the guys’ behavior is how men wish we could act while they are drunk. Here the characters have deep, logical, insightful conversations with one another, can drive wonderfully under the influence, go hunting and actually see well enough to shoot a deer, shower each other with beer on a pool table and perfectly play the piano. In reality, these characters would probably burp, pee in the corner of a room and then pass out on the couch.
The film picks up immensely once the men get to Vietnam, reaching its high point with an incredibly tense Russian Roulette sequence and nail-biting escape and rescue. Cimino does an excellent job of staging the Russian Roulette game, surprising us by having the gun go off in shot angles we would not normally expect. And yet, even here I have reservations about how to story tackles the subject. In the first place, none of the main men die here. Yes, I know what happens to Nick later, but still, the scene would have been more powerful had one of the main characters actually shot himself here. And, in many ways, it would actually serve to further underline Nick’s PTSD and psychosis in the third act. The only characters that die are faceless characters. The movie also goes out of its way to not characterize any of the Vietnamese people, whatever side they are on. In “Platoon” this worked because they seemed more like a force…more like ghosts, but here the creators had every opportunity to take a few moments to give a little depth to them and avoided it. It’s a missed opportunity.
When the Michael character gets home, the movie slows down and acts like it’s giving us real insight into its characters and their situations. But just about everything every character does here is expected and pretty predictable. Of course Michael isn’t going to want a welcome home party. And of course he’s going to be emotionally distant from Streep’s character, who of course will latch onto him not only because she loves him, but because he is a connection to the other man she loves. And we know Michael is ultimately going to go back to get Nick, but he will not be successful.
I feel like, despite my complaints, there is insight here and there are very deep, well-acted scenes. It’s just that I’ve just seen much better interpretations of the subject matter than here. For example, “The Best Years Of Our Lives” done two generations before about WWII, is much more emotionally shattering and intuitive in its portrayal of the men coming home from the war, scarred both emotionally and physically. And for all the suspense and horror of the Russian Roulette scenes, “Platoon” is so much better at showing the real terror and uncertainty of the Vietnam war. And hell, if I want to see a bunch of guys under the influence and scared about going to war, I’ll watch “Hair.” It has a better soundtrack.
More than that, this is the first time I’ve been watching a movie on the AFI Top 100 and thought “well, the critics must have loved this.” Today it’s business as usual for studios to release films (“The Reader”) that seem tailor-made (“A Beautiful Mind”) to be nominated (“Million Dollar Baby”) for a bunch of Oscars (“The King’s Speech”), even though the content (“The Queen”) of the movies themselves (“Babel”) may not merit the attention (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) they receive. That’s how I felt watching “The Deer Hunter.” Ooh, there’s the scene they shot for Streep’s Oscar reel! Oh look, an ambiguous ending that is bittersweet! Oh look, guys crying!
Look, I understand what Cimino was trying to accomplish here and I have a lot respect for what he did pull off. “The Deer Hunter” isn’t a bad movie, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as it could. It’s obvious and heavy-handed when it could have been subtle and impactful. It could have used a meat cleaver to chop off 45 minutes of fat. Sure, there were parts that were touching, and the performances of the leads are very good, but I also must say that I probably won’t remember most of the movie next month.
My Score (out of 5): **1/2
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 76
Writer: Eric Roth (adaptation), Winston Groom (novel)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Star: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise
There’s no way that “Forrest Gump” should work. If you told me to watch a heartwarming movie about a “simple” man who manages to be involved with almost every major event in American history from the 50s to the 80s and, in the process, reveal many of the underlying truths in our culture, I would have probably laughed in your face. And yet, here I sit, greatly admiring screenwriter Eric Roth and director Robert Zemeckis’ sprawling epic.
Perhaps one of the secrets of the movie is that it doesn’t frontload its political and moral messages. Instead, screenwriter Eric Roth engrains several simple, t-shirt-ready universal truths into the character of Forrest (played wonderfully by Tom Hanks), often from the lips of his beloved Mama (Sally Field), and repeats them often (“Stupid is as stupid Does,” “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”). Through those simple phrases we get perspective on defining American events, and a surprising insight.
Over the course of the movie, Forrest involves himself in the Vietnam War, begins the Watergate scandal, is one of the first investors in Apple Computers, almost becomes a member of the Black Panthers, helps to re-open American political relations to China and inspires John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I’m only scratching the surface here, there’s plenty more he gets himself mixed up in, mostly in quirky, original, memorable ways. Miracles happen early and often in Forrest’s life, beginning with the moment that he is running from bullies and his leg braces fall off. Instead of hobbling Forrest, when they fall off they free him, and he finds he can run faster than almost anyone else. Perhaps more miracles happen to him because he has a simpler mind and bigger heart than most, or maybe it’s because he’s smart enough to recognize them as miracles instead of just luck.
Just reading that last sentence misrepresents the movie as corny, oversweetened dreck, but it’s really not. There’s plenty of dark content here, thanks to Forrest’s true love and his best friend. We like Jenny (played by Robin Wright as an adult) almost immediately upon meeting her, thanks to the fact that she’s the only person who will give Forrest the time of day. There’s a beautiful scene early on where Jenny and Forrest run into her drunk, pedophile father’s fields to hide from him and she wishes to be turned into a bird. Roth revisits that moment twice later, first when the adult Jenny breaks down when she sees the house again for the first time in decades and later when Forrest has the house demolished, and each time it’s powerful.
Though Forrest remains slow and steady in his beliefs throughout his life, Jenny’s journey is really one of uncertainty and self-hate. She sleeps with a bunch of abusive losers and does a lot of drugs. In one scene she screams at Forrest, “You don’t even know what love is!” and at this moment she is, at best, a stripper. And that isn’t even her low point.
Forrest’s best friend is Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), who he meets in Vietnam. Dan is bright and cheerful at first, but hates Forrest (and himself (and God (and everything else))) after Forrest rescues him from enemy bombing and he loses both of his legs. And yet it’s obvious he’s a good man, and at one point gets almost violently defensive when someone calls Forrest stupid. Sinise is one of the best character actors we have today, capable of revealing so much without seeming to do much at all, and this is one of his finest performances.
In fact, I’m not exaggerating when I say that all of the performances here are aces. All the actors, from Fields to Hanks to Wright, understand the tone of the material and go for it. Director Zemeckis is a brilliant director because he understands the technical side of the medium as well as the human, storytelling side. He’s also a great chameleon, giving us great diversity in his movies (“Contact,” “What Lies Beneath,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” “Back to the Future” “Romancing the Stone”) but remaining distinguished as a filmmaker. Watching the above films, you can always tell it’s Zemeckis behind the camera. Recently he’s focused solely on completely CGI films like “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol.” I really wish he’ll return to live action soon, because an industry more concerned with 3-D and Transformers than story and substance needs him. Badly.
However, for as much works in the film, there are several things, both major and minor, which don’t. A small example is the random flashbacks to the actors as their ancestors (for example, we see Hanks as the head of the Ku Klux Klan and several generations of Sinise dying in battle. And for all the historical moments that are just right (Watergate), Forrest’s coining of the phrase “Shit Happens” and accidental creation of the smiley face t-shirt are badly done. Another problem is the shifts in character point-of-view that happen throughout and annoy, especially since it’s Forrest relating his own story in a voiceover is that is very omnipresent. James Cameron got away with shifting points-of-view in “Titanic” because he didn’t overdo the voice-over. Not so here. When the story shifts to Jenny snorting cocaine or contemplating suicide or, in general, breaking through the bottom of the barrel to find new lows, the film grinds to a halt.
Despite these new lows, we like Jenny and what an enigma she represents for Forrest…at least until the film’s last act. Here is where Roth’s screenplay goes off the rails and he begins to forcefully extract tears from the audience instead of allowing the story to crescendo into something transcendent. It turns out that Jenny has given birth to Forrest’s child and hidden the child from him for years. Why? No reason is given. And the only reason she’s bringing Forrest into the picture now is because she’s dying of AIDS. Suddenly, any sympathy I had for Jenny is gone. The introduction of the son is the only moment we see Hanks’ astounding performance falter a bit. Roth ignores an amazing opportunity to actually show Forrest become angry about something (a thing he has every right to be given the Lifetime-movie-of-the-week circumstances), and has Forrest immediately accept the situation and marry Jenny. The final moments of the movie show Forrest and his son waiting at the bus stop for Little Forrest’s first day of school, and it’s very charming, but it’s not earned.
In many ways, Roth took a second stab at this movie with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and I’m shocked he had no qualms about ripping himself off so freely. The results were horrible.
There are so many great things about “Forrest Gump,” and it almost reaches masterpiece status. If only it didn’t rely so much on bringing false tears to the audience. For a movie that is so honest and true for most of its running time, the tricks it tries to play on us in its final reels feels like biting into that gross piece of chocolate toffee cream at the back of a chocolate box.
My Score (out of 5): ****
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 50
Writer: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson (adaptation), J.R.R. Tolkien (novel)
Director: Peter Jackson
Star: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen
Note: Like other films which have had extended editions issued, my article will be discussing the original theatrical version of the film.
Though it’s obvious “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” like “Star Wars,” has been chosen for inclusion on the AFI Top 100 as a representation of the entire trilogy, I attempted to discuss the latter as a self-contained film and avoid discussion of the other “Star Wars” films. Here, it’s almost impossible because all this film represents is the set-up. It ends on a cliffhanger with no closure. Moments and plotlines set up here aren’t adequately explained and remain confusing unless you’ve seen “The Two Towers” or “The Return of the King.” Was I emotionally invested in the journey? Yes. Did that emotional investment result in any pay-off? Nope.
The movie is, of course, an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s much-beloved novel, unread by me. It focuses on an evil ring that a hobbit named Frodo (Elijah Wood) possesses and must destroy in the fires of Mount Doom. He begins a journey with several friends and picks up others along the way, forming the Fellowship of the title. One of the smartest things writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson (also the director) do is that they don’t dumb down the world. I know that there are thousands upon thousands of Tolkien readers who can tell me exactly what the name of every horn and sword means, but to me they might as well have been saying “The Horn of Aquafresh” or “The Sword of Prell.” Characters talk about things we are unfamiliar with in familiar, passing ways and, by doing so, it gives the world of Middle Earth a visceral, real feeling. More than that, Jackson and his co-writers aren’t afraid to stop and smell the roses. They drink in the details of the shire Frodo lives in before his quest begins, and does the same thing with the many beautiful locations the Fellowship visits over the course of the movie.
Of course, like any fantasy film, there are many questions the audience asks about logic that the screenwriters don’t bother answering, sometimes because they are saving it for a later film and sometimes just because. For example, why doesn’t the Fellowship just hop on those big ‘ole eagles and hitch a ride all the way to Mount Doom? Why couldn’t Gandalf just blow up the bridge before the fire creature reached him? Why does Mordor look close at the beginning of the film and even further at the end? If all Frodo sees while wearing the ring are horrible firey death images, why didn’t Bilbo see the same thing? I’m sure Tolkien fans can answer those in a heartbeat, but it’s not explained properly here.
For a film so steeped in location, ideas and moments, I must admit that the characterization is a bit flatter than I remember. Of course it would be extremely difficult to introduce such a huge cast and make all of them three-dimensional beings, but it’s still fair to ask that all the characters in the central Fellowship are properly fleshed out. Of all the main characters, the only two that really jump out at me are Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Boromir (Sean Bean). We immediately latch onto Gandalf because we sense his desperation, first at the betrayal of his old friend and later at the difficulty of the journey before the Fellowship. Boromir is a fascinating, imperfect human—always trying to be the best he can be but in over his head and knowing it. He has the kind of depth that is lacking in a major way from characters like Legolas and Strider, who are as boringly heroic as can possibly be, and as a result Boromir’s death at the end of the film comes as quite the punch in the gut.
And yet there is still so much to love. The setting is breathtaking, probably ranking as the most detailed, fantastic fantasy setting ever placed on film (sorry, Mr. Lucas). As the film unveils layer after layer of persons, places and things it becomes even more watchable and enjoyable. It’s suitably intimate when it needs to be, but when Jackson decides to go epic, the movie transcends just about every other blockbuster of this type. There are brilliant, creative shots that still linger with me years after seeing the movie opening weekend in theaters, like the one that begins on top of the tower Gandalf is imprisoned on, then drops through the earth into a literal hell of orcs. The high point of the film is the Fellowship’s journey through half-destroyed cave, cornered and chased by orcs all the while. There’s a long action sequence set on steps, and it’s just about a perfect meshing of special effects, stunts and music.
That entire sequence is so great that the last third of the film can’t help but feel a little pale in comparison. But the movie keeps going. And going. The places the Fellowship visits and the villains they encounter are interesting, for sure, but nothing comes close to reaching the heights of what has come before, and it begins to get a little bit tedious. It’s not bad, it’s just too much.
And then there’s the non-ending. For me, the best film in the trilogy is “The Two Towers,” which pays off many of the threads introduced here while still setting up the final movie. I’m torn as I reach the end of the article, because I think the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is tremendous, but this movie on its own falls a little flat. For example, it feels odd not to get a really good look at Gollum, who is so central to rest of the trilogy. And even though I know the characterization will improve in subsequent movies, it’s still not great here. And there’s only hints of the epic battles that would define these movies as the next step in the evolution of swashbucklers and special effects. If I were grading the trilogy as a whole, the rating would be higher, but I’m not.
My Score (out of 5): ***1/2
Sunday, August 21, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 20
Writer: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra (adaptation), Jo Swerling (additional scenes), Philip Van Doren Stern (original story)
Director: Frank Capra
Star: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
Of all those sad little feelings that slowly eat away at your soul, regret is possibly the worst. Not only does it make you wish you be anyplace else and anyone other than the person you truly are, but it makes it impossible to look ahead because you cannot accept the choices of the past. George Bailey (James Stewart) is a man of many regrets, the kind that seem small at first but snowball (not a pun, I promise) to the point where we doubt if he can ever truly be happy.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is co-writer/director Frank Capra’s best film, a near-perfect meshing of his quirky characters and underlying optimism with the outside world’s cynicism. From heaven’s point-of-view, we watch George grow up, take over the family business, get married and come to the brink of losing everything one snowy Christmas Eve. A guardian angel (second class) named Clarence (Henry Travers) is sent to stop George from committing suicide and, when George screams that he wishes he had never been born, Clarence grants the wish.
I’ve often stated that the majority of Capra’s films (see my articles on “It Happened One Night” and “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” or watch “Platinum Blonde,” “American Madness,” “You Can’t Take It With You”…etc.) have the opposite problem of most mainstream films. Instead of having a great first and third act and faltering during the second act, Capra’s films present us with uneven, hard-to-follow first acts and abrupt, almost non-endings. His movies really come to life in the second act, where he allows his main characters to become human by juxtaposing their personalities to the eccentric world around them. Here the problem is gone, with a charming opening, a real build and an ending that lasts just long enough to bring tears but doesn’t linger too long to get schmaltzy.
There are moments and characters here that are completely Capra. Look at the sequence where the pool opens up beneath George and his future wife Mary (Donna Reed, never lovelier). Now I don’t buy for a minute that a small town like Bedford Falls would have enough money to build a swimming pool under the gym, or that George and Mary wouldn’t realize the floor underneath them is moving, but since the performances are so endearing and because we know this is a Capra movie, we go with it. Then there’s the none-too-bright uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) who keeps crows and squirrels around the office, though no one ever complains about the mess.
There’s also a scene in the movie that is one of the sexiest in the history of film, though the characters barely touch. Mary’s beau has called her long distance and George somehow gets on the call as well. He and Mary stand next to one another, almost touching as they hold the phone, trying to keep the conversation going but unable to concentrate on anything other than one another. It’s beautifully done and a reminder to filmmakers in this “Friends With Benefits”/”No Strings Attached” era that sometimes the sexiest thing you can do is to keep it subtle.
Stewart’s previous collaborations with Capra resulted in pretty good movies, but his characters in “You Can’t Take It With You” and “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” are the unfortunately the blandest things in those movies. Luckily, in “It’s a Wonderful Life” the character of George is a beautifully realized three-dimensional protagonist, quirky, opinionated, charming and never, ever bland. If he were, the movie wouldn’t work and we wouldn’t accept the dark places George goes at the end of the second act. For me, it’s Stewart’s best performance in a career of great performances.
Every time I see the movie I’m always shocked by how dark it is. We remember the cute moments, like the swimming pool or when Mary gets trapped naked in a flower bush. What we may forget is that, seconds later, George learns his father has just had a stroke. There’s a moment where an old friend invites George and Mary overseas for a vacation, and he laughs it off, smiling brightly while declining. As soon as the friends leave he kicks his car violently, showing just how bitter he is that he never got to achieve his dream of leaving Bedford Falls. The film’s most emotionally shattering moment, and perhaps the high point of Stewart’s acting career, is George alone in a bar praying to God to help him before he kills himself.
Yes, the sequence in the alternate Bedford Falls (renamed Pottersville) feel a little overdone and George’s endless declaration that “this can’t be real!” feels like a beat repeated much too often, but this could be because the trope has been repeated thousands of times, from “Popular” to the Muppets, that it can’t but feel a little familiar and obvious.
The real magic comes when he’s returned to his life. When seemingly every person in town comes to George’s house to donate money, we’ve reached one of the most emotional moments ever put on film. It never fails to move me deeply and bring a tear to my eye.
Like all of Capra’s films, “It’s a Wonderful Life” doesn’t seem to age. In fact, the movie doesn’t feel like it has a specific time or place at all. When it was first released, parts of it must have seemed old-fashioned…I’m thinking specifically of the Dickens-like Mr. Potter…but today his bid to take over the entire town seems more than modern, as does the recession and tough times the town faces. Other moments that seemed up-to-the-second then have become old-fashioned for us today, but the blending of these elements makes it feel universal, able to speak to every generation equally. What a gift.
My Score (out of 5): ****1/2
Friday, August 19, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 59
Writer: Joan Tewkesbury
Director: Robert Altman
Star: Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine, Ronee Blakley
I guess I just wasn’t ready for a Robert Altman movie. I was 16 and my first encounter with the filmmaker was “Gosford Park.” I didn’t know anything about Altman, all I knew was that it was a murder mystery…and since I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan I was very much anticipating the film. All I remember is that I hated (HATED) it, and in retrospect that’s probably because the style of Christie’s novels and Altman’s films could not be more different. Because my expectations were so skewed, there was no way I could have accepted the film for what it was.
I didn’t see another Altman movie for the next decade.
Therefore, it’s not a coincidence that I’ve written articles on almost 70 movies from the AFI Top 100 list before I tackled the first Altman movie. But now here I sit, completely in awe of what Altman and writer Joan Tewkesbury have accomplished with “Nashville” and eager to dive into his films and see just what I’ve been missing. Hell, “Nashville” was so damn good I might even give “Gosford Park” a second chance.
The film has a huge ensemble of at least 20 major characters, but other than that, it’s hard to put a finger on what the movie is “about.” There’s plenty of music, but this isn’t a “musical.” There are love stories, but this isn’t a “romance.” It’s funny but not a “comedy.” It has political undertones, but it isn’t a “message” movie. Tewkesbury refuses to give the viewer an easy answer, instead focusing on making the characters as three-dimensional as possible given the huge cast and time constraints (the movie is really long at over two-and-a-half hours, but doesn’t feel that way).
And there are some fantastic, memorable characters at play here. I doubt if Lily Tomlin is onscreen more than 20 minutes in the movie, but in that time she creates a fully-realized woman that the audience falls for. It would have been easy to make her “the pushover mother with deaf children,” but there’s much more to her. There’s a beautiful moment where she goes to a club to listen to the young, handsome singer (Keith Carradine) who invited her, and Altman’s camera just watches her as she (and, by extension, the audience) contemplates how to feel about the singer.
Tomlin’s character is only the first of a great many, and one of the gifts of “Nashville” is that many of the characters may appear to be shallow at first but end up surprising the audience with their depth and appeal. There’s a man named Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), and I’m guessing Haven isn’t his birth name, who seems like your classic stuck-up asshole country star, but after a tragic shooting at a large musical event, he’s the first to spring into action and calm the crowd before it takes on a stampede mentality and people get hurt. Oh, and he does this while his arm is bleeding from being shot.
Then there’s the much-loved Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), who is the picture of a wonderful, loving songstress when surrounded by fans but, when alone, reveals her fears and anger toward her sad-sack husband (Allen Garfield). There’s a heartbreaking moment where she takes the stage after getting out of the hospital and can’t bring herself to sing because she wants to talk to the audience…something she never gets a chance to honestly do in her marriage. I’m guessing Shana Feste was taking a lot of notes and inspiration from this storyline in particular when she made the sort-of-good “Country Strong” last year, because many of these scenes are echoed beat-for-beat there.
Tewkesbury and Altman throw in dozens of small beats and moments that make the characters feel like people, and a lot of that comes from now natural the dialogue feels. I’ve only seen that one Altman film, but every person familiar with film at all knows that he’s famous for allowing his actors to speak over one another and talk like real people would. Barbara Baxley is given a long speech about the Kennedys (that foreshadows the shooting), and in most other movies it would seem theatrical and contrived, but here Baxley’s dialogue is so natural, and the word choice so honest that everything she says feels fresh.
In such a fantastic ensemble, two characters stick out like sore thumbs. The first is a BBC reporter (Geraldine Chaplin) who is so wrong-headed in everything she observes and the way she speaks to every character that she is immediately grating. Every time she gets onscreen, I cringed and rolled my eyes at most of her lines. There’s no moment where she becomes the real person much of the rest of the cast does, and as a result she’s nothing more than bad comedy. Speaking of bad comedy, there’s also Shelly Duvall as the most grating young woman I’ve ever seen, from her hair to her costuming to…well…everything about her. I know these characters are supposed to be annoying, but in a movie where a character like Haven can show such unexpected depth, this was a real missed opportunity.
The music throughout is very good, with a few standout performances from actors like Karen Black and Carradine, who sings my favorite song in the film, “I’m Easy,” in the aforementioned club scene with Tomlin. Because the movie is about so much, with so many characters and tonal shifts, the music is what keeps us consistently engaged. We see just about every style of country and gospel music, and therefore know that the types of stories we are watching will have that same type of variety.
What comes through more than anything else is the creators’ love for Nashville itself. Sure, Tewkesbury and Altman poke fun at aspects of the culture, but there’s a kind of love and admiration here that you rarely get from such epic films. From the traffic pile-up that turns into an impromptu party to Haven’s climactic declaration that “This is Nashville, not Dallas!”, this movie is a pleasure that makes me want to be part of the world. More than anything, “Nashville” has also helped open my eyes to a brilliant filmmaker I may have ignored, and isn’t that part of the point of the AFI Top 100? It’s “ranking” the movies, yes, but it also invites those who love film to open up new avenues in their viewing, and I’m very grateful for that.
My Score (out of 5): ****1/2
Friday, August 12, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 68
Writer: David Webb Peoples
Director: Clint Eastwood
Star: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman
The Western genre has always been unique in the way it embraces its characters’ histories. The other genres, from horror to period drama to comedy, tend to sidestep backgrounds and history, giving the viewer the feeling that the characters began existing the moment the film began, complete with one or two quirks or traits, but not much else. That is not so with the Western. Every Western on the AFI Top 100…hell, every great or even good Western…involves what happened long before the movie began just as much as what happens during the film itself. “Unforgiven” is no exception.
Clint Eastwood (who also directed) plays Bill Munny, who was, long ago, a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad man who was drunk most of the time and had a tendency to kill people when drunk. But that was before he fell in love and married a woman who set him on the right path. As the film opens he stands near her gravestone. He has two kids to take care of now and little money to do it with, so when a young man named the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) rides up with a very enticing offer, Munny finds it hard to refuse.
The offer is $1000 to any man or men who kill two roughians who have sliced up a whore’s face. After some initial resistance, Munny goes to his old partner Logan (Morgan Freeman) and the three of them set off together. Little do they know the town they ride toward is run by a sadistic devil of a sheriff named Little Bill (Gene Hackman), who will beat a man within inches of his life for carrying a gun into the town, but does nothing to penalize the two men who cut up the woman.
Much is made of who Munny was before and his effort to not be that man anymore. He sounds rehearsed every time he talks about the evil things he’s done and how he was saved from his wickedness. He refuses whiskey even when hit with a horrible fever. Munny seems to be over-insisting that he’s a changed man, and even though he is trying to deliver justice, he can only kid himself for so long since he will be murdering two men he has no personal vendetta against. When the film focuses on that inner turmoil it is at its best.
We want to know more about the Logan character and his relationship to Munny, especially since Logan’s death is the turning point for the entire movie, but writer David Webb Peoples is stingy in developing him much more than that he’ll cheat on his wife with whores. What gravitas is brought to the character is thanks to Freeman’s performance, and the character simply acts as someone to speak his deep thoughts to.
It’s a shame, because Peoples had the opportunity to deliver a really emotional sucker punch, but instead keeps shifting around to other characters. Richard Harris appears as English Bob, shoots some birds and then gets beaten by Little Bill. Harris is great, but his character has nothing to do with the drive of the story other than to show us Little Bill’s craziness (something perfectly illustrated elsewhere). He never encounters Munny or Logan, and nothing has changed after he’s left the movie.
The time spent with English Bob would have been better spent on Logan, or even on the fascinating, also under-developed, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), mistress extraordinaire, who puts the bounty out when Little Bill refuses to do anything.
Peoples seems to be trying to paint a diverse, interesting canvas of characters, and does to a degree, but the ultimate result is that the movie becomes unfocused when tension should be building. Luckily, the acting throughout is uniformly excellent and sometimes manages to make up for the scattershot script. I must admit, though, that there are a number of fantastic details Peoples presents us with that impressed me. Making the Scofield Kid near-sighted felt refreshing since ocular abilities is almost never addressed in Westerns, shocking since it is so important to everyone who owns a gun in those movies. Giving Little Bill a whip to further drive his horrors home. The Writer character explaining why Munny chose to shoot who he shot in what order after the fact. All great moments.
Eastwood is the most consistent of directors. He rarely shows off with the camera, and instead of using tricks or quick-cutting allows the scenes to breathe. This results in an even pace and slow build, both of which feel refreshing in an era where we are force-fed wild changes in pacing thanks to a generation afflicted with filmmaking ADD. What else Eastwood’s even-handed approach gives the film is a tonal consistency that might otherwise be missing. For instance, the film opens with a static distant shot of Eastwood standing over the grave of his wife while we read about his history with her. A moment later we are in a whorehouse watching a woman’s face be sliced up and urine being thrown everywhere. In any other movie, this kind of shift would bring everything grinding to a halt, but since it’s Eastwood and because his direction is so sure, we accept it simply as another part of the world he’s slowly presenting to us.
Despite not seeming to show off, Eastwood’s films have a style that is instantly recognizable. This film couldn’t be more different than “Changeling,” which couldn’t be more removed from “The Bridges of Madison County,” and yet they still feel like the same, sure hand guided them.
“Unforgiven” doesn’t match the same quality of the Westerns Eastwood did for Sergio Leone, like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” but it’s an entertaining, well-acted and directed film. I wish that the script had managed to rise to the quality around it, but even with that I still enjoyed myself a lot. Still, can I think of at least a dozen other Westerns that would be better placed on the AFI top 100? Yep.
My Score (out of 5): ***
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 13
Writer/Director: George Lucas
Star: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Note: In the case of “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” their inclusion on the AFI Top 100 is an obvious representation of the entire trilogy. Otherwise, why were the superior sequels not chosen? Still, my article will only address the listed film. Also, after a less-than-entertaining encounter with a re-release of Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush,” I’ve decided to, if possible, track down the original theatrical release version of all films on the list.
I love it when a movie announces its arrival with bombast and style. “All the President’s Men” grabs your attention immediately with the smashing of a typing key against paper. “Dead Again” opens with a loud musical note and the word “MURDER!” filling the screen. “Star Wars” explodes into our consciousness with John Williams’ lush score and the title filling almost every inch of the screen. It snaps us to attention and is the perfect way to introduce us into this world of lightsabers and jawas.
Writer/director George Lucas’ film is filled with such swashbuckling fun and so many moments that make you smile knowingly, that it might be easy to dismiss it as light entertainment. But then again, what the heck is wrong with a movie being “light”? Does that make the underlying themes and storytelling any less impactful? I don’t think so. In fact, one could argue that wrapping these themes and morals in a space adventure is much more difficult than dealing with things like “belief in a higher power” and “sins of the father” by stating them explicitly.
For a film that wears its “Flash Gordon” serial inspirations on its sleeve, Lucas actually does a few really gutsy and interesting things with the screenplay. In the first place, the film is basically driven by non-humans for the first twenty minutes. Sure, there are soldiers around and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) says a line or three, but these minutes are driven almost completely by two robots and a dude who might as well be one. Their faces are expressionless. Hell, R2-D2 can’t even speak—he beeps and boops when he needs to communicate.
And yet Lucas makes the sequences work and, in very subtle ways, communicates just about everything he needs to about the world (or, in this case, worlds) we are entering. After C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels under that gold suit) and R2-D2 crash on a desert planet, they argue with one another and choose to go in opposite directions. So, without having a human character babble on with exposition, Lucas shows us that not only do these robots (sorry, droids) have distinctive personalities, but they can also make decisions for themselves and form friendships.
The two droids soon become the possession of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who teams up with a desert hermit named Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to save the Princess from the evil Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) and join the rebellion. Darth Vader is overseeing the final touches on their new space station called the Death Star. With names like Darth Vader and Death Star, no wonder there’s a rebellion, these people aren’t even trying to hide their wickedness.
Also in the mix is scoundrel Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who begins by acting as a taxi for Luke and Obi Wan before becoming part of the plan to rescue the Princess…for the reward, of course. The characters aren’t deep, but then again, they don’t have to be. These are archetypes more than characters, though the charisma of the actors playing the roles (save for a bland Hamill) makes us care more than we otherwise would.
Films usually end their second act with the low point of the hero or heroine, but Lucas instead decides to use it as a rallying point for our heroes. The Princess has been rescued (though once out of her cell did a pretty good job of protecting herself), and now she brings together the rebellion to launch an attack on the Death Star. How, you ask? Well, turns out there’s this two-meter wide hole in the outside that, if a bomb is dropped into it, will explode the entire space station. Seriously. If you didn’t smile at the preposterousness of that plot development, there’s just no talking to you.
Lucas loves to paint around the edges of his frame, giving us beautiful sights that mesmerize quickly. Hell, the first shot of the movie is what we think is a pretty big space ship being overshadowed by a star destroyer that travels into the frame from above and just. keeps. going. Lucas would later eclipse this with us another variation in his “Revenge of the Sith” opening, but the moment still plays outstandingly well here.
And then there are the special effects. I know that Lucas went back multiple times to fiddle with the movie, but looking at the original theatrical version again, I have to say that it still looks great. From the dogfight between the X-wing fighters and the Tie Fighters to the interiors within the Death Star, the movie looks great. When the characters enter a bar, it’s enjoyable to see the puppets with the glittery eyes mixing in with humans in grotesque make-up. Sure, the special effects might not be as polished as the summer movies of today, but then again part of the fun of the movie is the line Lucas tows between the fantastic and realism.
John Williams’ score is, dare I say, the best of his career and perhaps the best in the history of film? The secret is that he hasn’t scored “Star Wars” like a space movie, he scores it like a dramatic action flick.
Ultimately, “Star Wars” is fun. It’s always a little smarter than it needs to be, always has another trick up its sleeve and is always eager to please. It grabs you immediately, keeps your attention and makes you invested in its characters and world despite the fancifulness of the film’s happenings. I think I smiled all the way through, all the way from Tatooine to the ceremonial hall that closes the movie.
My Score (out of 5): *****
Sunday, August 7, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 77
Writer: William Goldman (adaptation), Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward (book)
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Star: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards
For most of its running time, “All the President’s Men” is a fascinating, absorbing portrait of the slow, sometimes-desperate uncovering of the truth behind the Watergate break-ins. It takes a “just the facts, m’am” approach to its subject, content with the thought that the clues, details and conspiracies will be enough to make the film worthwhile while pushing aside characterization and emotional arcs.
The film begins showing us the details of the break-in, with a guard at the Watergate offices discovering a door has been taped so it cannot lock and reporting it to the police. Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), a reporter for the “Washington Post,” is called to cover the arraignment of the men who broke in, and is surprised to find they have an expensive lawyer on their side, the kind no one would expect. Woodward presses and begins to realize things aren’t right.
Another reporter becomes involved named Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), and though the movie gets thousands of the small details of journalism right, his first major interaction with Woodward feels wrong. Woodward has typed up his version of certain events, turns it into copy and then Bernstein immediately takes it away and starts to rewrite it, citing the fact that Woodward did not introduce the main person involved with the story until the third paragraph. I understand that Woodward’s character is meant to be a new reporter for the “Post,” but I don’t buy that. I have a Bachelor’s in Newspaper Journalism, and just about the first thing they teach us (aside from that the AP Stylebook is our bible) is to write news stories using the pyramid structure. There’s no way Woodward would have ever been hired in the first place if he didn’t know better and was burying leads like that in news stories. It’s a small moment, sure, but it took me completely out of the movie.
Woodward and Bernstein (fellow employees at the “Post” jokingly call them “Woodstein” and it sticks) don’t have a lot to go on at first, and watching the investigation take its first fleeting steps toward being viable is engaging because it feels so real. This is what real newspapermen do when following leads and trying to envision the facts of a story. They reach wildly through smoke and hope to catch something, making calls and using their names to get people to talk (though their job clams people up ten times as often). An entire scene is devoted to Woodstein cheering and using the fact that a secretary double-talked as a major breakthrough, even though nothing she said could ever be used in the paper.
From these shaky first steps, the duo continue punching water, making hundreds of calls (there’s a great long take of Redford juggling two calls that is both funny and gripping) and looking for something…anything…that can help them. Director Alan J. Pakula gives us a spectacular shot from God’s point-of-view that sums up their journey wonderfully. He begins close on Woodstein going through thousands of library request forms and then slowly pulling back and up, the tables and library around them creating a complex labyrinth.
We learn little about Woodward or Bernstein’s relationship outside of the investigation and even less about their personal lives. This is purposeful, and we do get to know them a bit through their personalities. Though Bernstein is better at the writing, Woodstein is fantastic with interviewing and knows how to contort a question or ask just the right thing so that, even if the answer isn’t explicitly stated, it’s inferred. There are interesting, barely visible moments in the first half where Bernstein is visibly annoyed by Woodward’s questions, but as the movie progresses Bernstein gets better at asking the right questions too. This movie gets another aspect of journalism exactly right in that many of the people being questioned just assume that the reporters know everything already and, as a result, tell the reporters much more than they knew in the first place and, sometimes, give a big breakthrough to the story in the process.
Despite the lack of character development, Hoffman and Redford shine. Redford, in particular, proves here definitively that he is one of the great actors in the history of film. Though his good looks sometimes work against him, here he simply disappears into the character, leaving no trace of the movie star we thought we knew. Also of special note is Jason Robards as editor Ben Bradlee, who convinces us early and often that he’s a grizzled editor who cares enough about the story to let the team follow it, even though more experienced reporters might have been better suited.
Pakula gives the movie the feel of a thriller even if we know the reveals and the ending, and for most of the movie the pace is taut and the events suspenseful. I’m surprised it flows as well as it does and kept me engaged as fully as it did, especially considering the lack of character development. Sadly, the movie is over two hours long, and by about the one-hour-and-forty-five minute mark the reversals and doors kicked open to reveal nothing become repetitive and the pace disappears. Things get a bit interesting again when Pakula begins to play up the conspiracy angle, with the reporters afraid their homes are bugged and are looking behind themselves all the time to make sure they are not being followed.
Then, suddenly, the movie ends. Structurally, it feels like we have reached the end of the second act, with high-ups in the government denying what Woodstein are writing and Woodward learning from his contact Deep Throat that his life is in danger. Then Bradlee gives him a motivational speech to end all motivational speeches…and the movie ends. There’s a little closure in the form of an AP teletype showing us headlines for the next three years, ending with Nixon resigning, but that’s it. It’s a non-ending that endlessly frustrated me, especially considering the care Pakula and writer William Goldman took in making sure all the details of the build-up were right. To make a bad metaphor, we see the dominos set up but aren’t given the opportunity to enjoy watching them knocked down.
My Score (out of 5): ***1/2
Friday, August 5, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 94
Writer: Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Star: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman
Watching “Pulp Fiction” is like opening a set of nesting dolls. Every time you open one up, another doll is found underneath, smaller but even more intricate. Though the movie takes place out of chronological order, it isn’t a puzzle. Each section of the movie can be enjoyed and understood on its own, but when put together the pieces become transcendent.
There are three major plot threads, all of which connect to one another in varying degrees. The first follows two hit men (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, both great) as they try to get back a mysterious briefcase belonging to their evil boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames). The second follows Travolta’s character Vincent as he takes Marsellus’ sexy, sexy wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out to dinner. Not a date, he insists. The third involves a wrestler named Butch (Bruce Willis) who is on the run from Marsellus but can’t leave town until he reclaims his father’s watch.
Each one of these storylines is hugely enjoyable and, as in all films from co-writer/director Quentin Tarantino, it’s the details that we linger on and remember after the film ends. His dialogue, which reads just half-an-inch above realism, is endlessly quotable, and I’ll do my best to not do any of it here, simply because it’s impossible to single only one or two speeches out. He takes his time setting up the characters and allowing the audience to get a feel for who he’s about to torture and maim, but in doing this he also weaves in plenty of little Easter eggs that will pay off later (or earlier, depending on the chronology) in the movie. In lesser hands, the set-ups and pay-offs would implode, but Tarantino’s (along with co-writer Roger Avary) writing is so crisp, so seductive, that you can’t help but invest wholeheartedly in it. Speaking of Easter eggs, another splendid thing about Tarantino films are the numerous references (Travolta dancing the twist) and homages (hello briefcase with unknown substance in it) to other films, making film buffs all the happier.
Tarantino and Avary takes their time setting things up and pays them off gradually, ensuring that what is happening makes sense in relation to the characters we’ve come to know. The even tone and pacing of the movie actually bring an elevated level of suspense to the proceedings than would be present in a movie that had more quick-cutting and thumping music. This is true of all of Tarantino’s work—look at the “Kill Bill” movies and “Inglourious Basterds”—but is most prominent in this film. Look at the scene where the Willis character arrives at his apartment, knowing that someone is probably there waiting to kill him. Tarantino’s camera follows him as he parks two blocks away and walks through yards to go into his building through the back way. The scene is shockingly quiet, and as a result (it seems to build forever even though it can’t be more than a minute or two long) the suspense becomes almost unbearable. The diner stick-up that climaxes the film is similarly tense because Tarantino takes his time getting to his point, not seeming to care that the audience is in their seats going crazy with anticipation.
The cast, on the whole, is brilliant. The writers have made a point of ensuring that all of the leads and supporting characters come across as fully fleshed out individuals, and the actors more than rise to the occasion. Thurman doesn’t have as much screen time as the other leads (though she does get the showstopper moment thanks to an adrenaline shot) but makes every minute count, and when she’s explaining her failed TV pilot with the kind of glee a kid on the schoolyard would speak with, you can’t help but fall for her. Willis seems at first like an odd choice, especially considering Tarantino’s dialogue, but makes his forlorn attitude and quiet demeanor work for his character. Harvey Keitel comes onscreen as the cinematic equivalent of an 11 o’clock musical number, and nails every line of his professional clean-up character. Instead of letting the article degrade into a list of praise for every actor in the ensemble (which it easily could), I’ll move on.
I do have to admit that the use of the word “nigger” throughout the film is way overdone and the one major thing about the screenplay that makes me grimace. It’s not that the characters use it, it’s that it’s used so often, and usually simply for shock value. It interrupts the flow of the movie. Sure, writers have been doing this for centuries…I’m currently re-reading Truman Capote’s work and constantly rolling my eyes at how often he uses “lesbian” and “faggot” simply to get a rise out of the reader…but the movie would have been stronger without it.
Tarantino’s visual style throughout is inventive without being too showy. The visual tricks he plays are usually subtle enough to not point themselves out to the casual viewer, like having a projection with older cars playing in the background while Willis is taking a cab-ride. His work with his editor, Sally Menke, is especially notable in how well it implies violence without having to show very much of it. Remember in “Reservoir Dogs” when a character lost his ear? Though we don’t see the act on camera, you remember seeing it. The same is true here with the moment Travolta pounds the needle into Thurman’s chest. I hadn’t seen the movie in a year or two, but I clearly remembered seeing the shot where the needle enters her chest. Watching the film this time, I was wrong. But Menke does such a great job of cutting around it that it feels like we have.
“Pulp Fiction” is a little over two-and-a-half hours, but feels like it’s just about the right length. The viewer feels exhilarated as the credits roll and immediately wants to see the movie again, partially to look again for all the little moments that connect the stories, but mostly because it’s just a damn great movie.
My Score (out of 5): *****
Thursday, August 4, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 86
Writer/Director: Oliver Stone
Star: Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger
“Platoon” is a horrifying, gut-wrenching film that leaves you dazed, depressed and conflicted. It’s also a masterpiece. I write that hoping that I don’t have to watch it again anytime soon.
The film begins in 1967 and centers on a young soldier named Chris (Charlie Sheen) arriving in Vietnam to fight for his country. As he and the other recruits land, they pass a pile of body bags about to be sent back to America. The metaphor is not lost on us.
Instead of wasting time and exposition on setting up the war, the infantry and our location, writer/director Oliver Stone simply cuts to Chris walking, hobbling and crawling his way through the jungles, immediately in over his head. He’s attacked by fire ants, leeches, mosquitoes and has several encounters with poisonous snakes during the film. We learn the most about his personality through annoying letters he writes to his Grandmother that are recited in voice-over narration. Stone seems to be trying to get his thesis about the war and how it changes men out through the voice-over, but ultimately it’s unnecessary and the conclusions Chris draws at the finale aren’t anything a smart viewer won’t come to on his own.
The movie is at its most tense when Stone drops us into a situation and lets the viewer play catch-up while the characters soldier on. He is honest and ingenious in doing this since real soldiers (I’m guessing) don’t know much about the situations they are getting themselves into before the fact and, ultimately, just want to get through it alive. By doing this, Stone layers the suspense brilliantly. For example, even if they can shoot the soldiers, then there’s some sort of fire-bombing happening, but even if they live through that there’s the fact that they lost their platoon, etc. It’s relentless and all the more real because of it.
I also have to say how wonderfully Stone shoots anarchy. At this point we’ve been force-fed “shaky cam” so long that, no matter what the movie and the circumstance, if anything is supposed to be a bit hard-to-follow or suspenseful, the shaky cam comes out. This is even if the sequence is completely at odds stylistically with everything else in the film. I’m looking at you, “Harry Potter.” Do you hear me, “Star Trek”? And don’t even get me started on goddamn “Battle: Los Angeles” or “Cloverfield.” Yes, shaking the camera disorients the viewer, but you know what else it does? It pisses us the hell off. Have you ever heard someone walk out of a movie and say, “That scene where the camera went all wobbly was just the best!” No. They say, “I need to go vomit my popcorn up in the bathroom, be right back.”
In “Platoon” Stone holds the camera steady, paying close attention to the lighting, the frame and the camera’s point-of-view. The sequence that begins when Chris and a fellow soldier are in a fox-hole and strain as they (and we) watch the fog and listen for any hint that the enemy might be close is a masterpiece in sustained suspense. The characters (and, as an extension, we) don’t know where we are, but by keeping the camera steady and the location visible, there’s even more apprehension. The Viet Cong could be anywhere in the frame, and Stone has fun teasing us that way.
Okay, “fun” isn’t the right word. Nothing about the movie is “fun.” This is an action movie where the action feels like a punch to the gut. At first, keeping Chris’ character two-dimensional felt like a blow against the movie, but it’s actually one of the only instances where it ultimately works in the film’s favor. Because we only know the basics about Chris, we can’t quite anticipate his behavior in any given situation. When he loses it for a moment and begins shooting the ground where a one-legged man is standing, we are horrified, but it still feels in character.
That scene and the ones that immediately follow, culminating in Tom Berenger’s Sgt. Barnes shooting a civilian and almost murdering a child, are so gut-wrenching you can barely watch them. Stone doesn’t shy away from the ugliness, nor does he show it off, he merely shows it as it is.
Barnes is a fascinating villain. He’s horribly scarred, been shot many times, and some of the men think he simply can’t be killed. He does abhorrent things early and often, and we know that he was never a good man. But, and this is a big however, we can understand how his time in Vietnam has twisted him further into becoming the monster he is. Stone creates another character, Bunny (Kevin Dillon), who is likeable enough at first but quickly begins to show signs that he could easily turn into another Barnes. This is what the war…the jungle…the men…the world does to these soldiers. In showing the men as simply and matter-of-factly as possible, Stone has inferred just how complex the war really is, so much more than the bang-bang-you’re-dead of most war movies.
It is also worth noting that, although the movie is super-violent, there is not a lot of gore. Even when it happens, it’s quickly cut away from, instead showing us the men’s reaction to what is going on. More than that, the Viet Cong soldiers remain a shadowy menace throughout. We never get very good looks at them, which, again, makes them even more menacing. Stone strikes the perfect (yes, perfect) balance of what to show and what to leave to the audience’s imagination, a lesson directors need to remind themselves of today.
“Platoon” doesn’t get into the politics of the Vietnam War, nor does it give any insight into the General’s battle plans or evasion tactics. So, in theory, it views the war neutrally, focusing instead on the men and their reaction to the chaos around them. And yet, if there was a film that makes a more convincing anti-war case, I have yet to see it.
My Score (out of 5): *****