Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Bridge On the River Kwai

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 36
Year: 1957
Writer: Michael Wilson, Carl Foreman (adaptation), Pierre Boulle (novel)
Director: David Lean
Star: Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, William Holden

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” is really two movies, one a masterpiece and one unnecessary. The masterpiece half follows the explosive relationship between a Japanese Colonel and his captive British Colonel over the building of a bridge on…*checks film title*…the River Kwai. The unnecessary half tracks a lying liar who has escaped the prison camp and must return to blow up the bridge.

Let’s start with the good half. A group of British soldiers have been captured and march into the Japanese prison camp in perfect formation while whistling a happy tune. Many of them have no shoes and are injured, but they still keep it up anyway. The scene reminded me of a moment from the original “Lord of the Flies” (made several years later in 1963) where the choirboys march across the beach after the plane crash, but it works better here. The group is led by the seemingly by-the-book Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness, amazing), and he immediately butts heads with the camp leader Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa, just as amazing). Saito needs the British soldiers to build the bridge, but Nicholson reminds him that, according to the Geneva Conventions (a copy of which he just happens to have on him), prisoners-of-war cannot be forced to do manual labor.

Saito needs the bridge built before a specific date or face committing ritual suicide, so he tosses Nicholson in a horrifying twist of the Greek Brazen Bull – a cramped metal box that slowly becomes scorching thanks to the hot sun. Days pass and both men refuse to give in…it’s an amazing battle of the wills. Finally Saito relents, and Nicholson oddly then chooses to go forward and build the bridge anyway (not just that, but build it as well as possible), claiming it will help with soldier morale. It slowly becomes apparent that Nicholson has gone mad.

This section of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is brilliant. There are beautiful, small touches, like the aforementioned fact that Nicholson just happens to have a copy of the Geneva Conventions on his person, and a small beat where we see Saito crying uncontrollably once he gives in. The writing couldn’t be better, and Guinness and Hayakawa are two of the best matched nemesis’ in the history of film. The film walks this amazing tightrope, because we understand who both of the characters are and yet every time they are onscreen they inevitably surprise us with their actions.

This is all so great that it almost makes you forgive the second story. A guy named Shears (William Holden) escapes from the same prison camp Nicholson is in, is rescued and pretends to be a Colonel for awhile to get better medical treatment. He’s soon caught and then blackmailed into going back into the jungle to blow up the bridge that Nicholson is building.

I get it, I do. Structurally, the idea of these two stories running parallel for awhile and then inevitably converging with the destruction of the bridge is very strong. But the Nicholson/Saito stuff is just so good that anything else just pales in comparison. It’s not that the Holden scenes are “bad,” they are well enough written and beautifully shot, but they just don’t have to be there. The movie would have worked just as well if we see Holden’s character escaping and then hear nothing from him until he and his band of soldiers arrive again to explode the bridge.

Perhaps a major part of it is that I just don’t like Shears’ character. Holden plays an asshole very well (see: “Sunset Blvd” and “Network”) but why are we supposed to care about this guy? He doesn’t care about anything other than getting home and getting laid, and his turn at heroism at the film’s climax doesn’t work. Watching the movie again, I was shocked to see that the major twist in the storyline (he stole a dead soldier’s identity!) was directly lifted in Don Draper’s character in “Mad Men.” Homage or unabashed rip-off? Hard to tell, especially since Shears is so similar to Draper’s character in general.

As I write that the entire storyline is unnecessary, I must admit that there is one great scene in Holden’s storyline. He and the other soldiers are bathing when several Japanese soldiers attack them. A bomb is set off, and literally thousands of birds take off from the jungle trees while a chase through the forest happens below. Seeing all those birds over the trees is an image I’ll never forget.

Of course, this is a David Lean movie, so there are plenty of similarly breathtaking images. He’d always had a great handle on the visual before this, just look at his Dickens’ adaptations “Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist” or the underrated, heartbreaking “Summertime,” but “The Bridge on the River Kwai” seems to be the tipping point in his career where everything went gigantic all the time. What’s amazing is that he’s one of the few directors who can give you grandeur without losing touch with his characters, and that’s why all his later films hold up much better than their VistaVision!/Cinemascope! contemporaries.

The film climaxes with the bridge exploding in a scene that is eerily reminiscent of the train crash in “The General,” and I must admit that Keaton did it better. I think it’s because Lean cuts to several vantage points during the crash, whereas Keaton just kept a single camera running. The editing, which was meant to underline the grandeur of the moment, actually manages to undercut it.

Despite my problems, I’d take a movie that reaches for so much and falters a bit over a movie that is content with just being “good” any day. And the problems with this film aren’t from laziness or tedium, they stem from the creators trying too hard. Even with the whole William Holden storyline pulling it back, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is a great movie. There are too many moments of genius throughout to be anything but.

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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Taxi Driver

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 52
Year: 1976
Writer: Paul Schrader
Director: Martin Scorsese
Star: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd

You first realize something might be screwed up in Travis Bickle’s head when he doesn’t complain about the traffic. Everyone in New York City, even those who don’t drive or never take cabs, complains often and loudly about the traffic. If roads are indeed the veins and arteries of a city, then New York is consistently in the midst of the worst heart attack ever. And yet Travis doesn’t seem to mind. He people-watches during all his time in standstill traffic, and what he sees around him sickens him.

Travis (Robert De Niro) is the taxi driver in “Taxi Driver,” and the movie follows his slow, sick slide into psychosis. He tries to become romantically involved with a political activist (Cybill Shepherd), but is rebuffed after thinking it was a good idea to take her to a pornographic film. He then attempts to take a twelve-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) under his wing, even though she insists she’s perfectly happy selling her body for money. All the while, he gets angrier and starts buying really, really big handguns.

Writer Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese present Travis in a series of seemingly disconnected scenes that slowly build his character. The voice-over narration tips us off that Travis might be a little…uh…psychotic, and when we see his handwriting this is confirmed since it’s scrawled in that creepy child-like way we’ve all seen on A&E serial killer specials.

But the really interesting thing is that, if you delete the voiceover, Travis doesn’t seem all too crazy in the film’s early scenes. He’s good looking enough, and when he charms his way into coffee with Shepherd’s character Betsy, he makes a speech at the diner where he talks about connections between people. I realized that, if you just look at this scene apart from the rest of the movie, the dialogue could easily be spoken by Ryan Gosling in his newest romantic comedy and not miss a beat. But in “Taxi Driver” the dialogue slowly gets under our skin. We become nervous…not because we think Travis will hurt Betsy, but because we still strangely empathize with his character and don’t want him to make a fool of himself. Shrader’s dialogue and characterization is just aces throughout this scene and every other - smart and brutal but still human.

To a certain extent, we all sympathize with Travis because we’ve all felt lonely and abandoned. Scorsese obviously does – when Betsy breaks things off with him the camera literally pans away, unable to show Travis’ world shattering. That’s the reason it breaks our hearts a little bit when the bullets start flying. We care, damn it. Though they aren’t tonally similar, if you compare Travis with similar characters from “Fight Club” or “American Psycho,” you will see that those films choose to make their anti-heroes all gloss and surface instead of really digging in. But Schrader and Scorsese aren’t afraid.

Soon he’s got a Mohawk and is planning a political assassination before murdering a bunch of pimps. Is he trying to “rescue” the women from their clutches? Perhaps he’s telling himself that. But then there’s the thought that these men are “keeping” Travis from these women he could love in one form or another…and because of them he has been abandoned once more. Is it revenge? Or has he just lost his mind to the point where he wants to lash out? Perhaps all of the above? The line is beautifully blurred and works any way you look at it, which just makes the writing and direction even more brilliant.

Of course, none of that would work without the right leading man, and De Niro is perfect here. He works well as the everyman, but there’s a hidden savagery in his eyes that allow us to segue with his performance into his mania. Shepherd is wonderfully appealing in her small, memorable role, and it makes you wish she’d get a great role to play with again, instead of guest-starring on “$#!+ My Dad Says” and “The L Word.” Foster is fine as the young prostitute, but even then had a knowledge and tenacity that make you think she would have been able to figure something better out.

The violence that climaxes the film is still overwhelming and brutal, not because of its savagery (it’s gross, but we live in an age of “Hostel” and “300” so we’re used to it) but because we do still care about Travis. Iris is there too, but we don’t fear for her safety so much as are horrified about how she’ll react to Travis’ actions.

I’ve had several discussions at AFI about whether the final moments of the film are a dream or not. I believe they aren’t, and not just because I really just hate movies with pseudo-dream endings (sorry, “Shutter Island”). The movie works much better if taken literally. There’s dialogue in the letter from Iris’ parents that subtly implies that she’s caught in a new type of hell back in Smalltown, USA, that would not be there had this been a “happy ending dream.” Also, my mind honestly just can’t imagine the final moments in the cab between Travis and Betsy, so understated yet filled with meaning, to be anything less than real. In fact, it’s almost too real and honest.

As I said earlier, “Taxi Driver” presents us with small disconnected moments in Travis’ life more than the slow-build narrative we would normally expect. And, really, isn’t that how we view the lives of everyone around us? Our best friends, our husbands and wives, our lovers, our co-workers…we only see small or long chapters of their life apart from the whole. There is only so much one can know or understand, and there will always be questions that remain.

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

Monday, November 7, 2011


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 100
Year: 1959
Writer: Karl Tunberg (adaptation), Lew Wallace (novel)
Director: William Wyler
Star: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins

For a movie that clocks in at over three-and-a-half hours, I was surprised to find that “Ben-Hur” left several stones unturned in its sprawling, epic story. Huge sections of the title character’s life have been glossed over or take place completely off camera, and the result is a long film that still seems like it’s missing a lot of its major pieces.

We begin with the birth of Jesus, then flash forward a number of years to witness two old friends clashing over religion. Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a Jew, and Messala (Stephen Boyd) is now a high-ranking officer in the Roman army who expects Ben-Hur to sell out his people. Things spiral out of control after Ben-Hur’s sister accidentally drops part of a roof on a nearby General, and soon Ben-Hur finds himself a slave on a Roman war ship. He’s intent on vengeance against Messala, and soon his circumstances change and he finds himself with an opportunity to find out what happened to his family and how to avenge them.

There’s one hell of a lot more, of course, most notably a subplot connecting Ben-Hur’s journey with that of Christ’s. When Ben-Hur is being dragged away, Jesus gives him a sip of water, and the favor is returned when Jesus carries the cross. These bookend scenes are very touching.

As soon as the prologue fades, screenwriter Karl Tunberg makes an odd choice in beginning with Messala’s character and not introducing Ben-Hur until about a half hour in. These scenes would have been better spent developing Ben-Hur’s family so that we really feel something when he’s separated from them. Then there are endless scenes of talk, talk, talk delivered by a cast that is decent, but not overwhelmingly great. Heston is fine when he’s underplaying the role, which isn’t often, but can’t seem to pull off the inner torment of the film’s final act. Boyd doesn’t have much of a presence, such a shame because this could have been a gem of a role in the hands of the right actor (Montgomery Clift, Tony Curtis, John Gavin).

The movie has two enormous set pieces, a sea battle and a chariot race (which I’ll get to later). In the first, Ben-Hur is a slave who helps to row one of Rome’s great war ships, and has a chance to escape during battle thanks to a small kindness by a Roman General (Jack Hawkins). Ben-Hur then repays the favor by saving the General’s life. I’m sad to say the special effects of the sea battle have aged horrendously, and much of it is laughable now. The balls of fire launched from the ships at one another are obviously fireworks shot from one miniature ship to another, and as a result the scene doesn’t get any real tension.

It is around this point where Tunberg begins to play fast and loose with the storytelling. Blink and you’ll miss the part where Ben-Hur and the General form a father/son bond and Ben-Hur is adopted and becomes part of one of the richest, most renowned families in Rome. Also missing is the fact that Ben-Hur becomes one of the best chariot drivers in the world while hanging around with his adoptive daddy. These are huge developments and affect everything that follows, but apparently there just wasn’t time for it. I feel like this leaves a pretty big hole in the viewer’s understanding of its hero (especially the evolution of his feelings and sympathies with Romans), and wish the film had explored this.

Anyway, not only is Ben-Hur suddenly a great charioteer, so is Messala! What a coincidence. They race one another in the film’s high point. If the ship scene doesn’t hold together at all, the chariot race is even more impressive today, simply because we understand that these are real people in real danger where real accidents could have easily happened. The entire sequence is shot beautifully, filled with edge-of-your-seat tension and the bloody pay-off is shockingly brutal. Ben-Hur defeats Messala, who is also trampled by horses and dies. Wonderful! End of movie, right?

Nope, we’ve still got almost an hour to go. Turns out Ben-Hur’s mother and sister were in prison for years and became lepers and were let out and joined a leper colony which Ben-Hur’s main squeeze knew about but didn’t tell Ben-Hur about but then he found out anyway and almost went to see them but didn’t but then almost did again but didn’t and then got all broody and then oh wow there’s Jesus and now everyone is cured and they all live happily ever after * catches breath * Phew. There are sporadic, wonderful moments in this final hour, particularly the aforementioned scene where Ben-Hur gives Jesus a drink on his way to die, but it’s…just…too…much. The arc of the movie was set up to me Ben-Hur verses Messala, and with him dead there isn’t really a point to keep going. There had to be a way to dovetail the family’s leprosy and the encounter with Christ in with the battle between Messala, but Tunberg doesn’t seem interested.

Director William Wyler guides the film with a steady hand. He shows off when he must, but tries to keep the film intimate on the whole, more interested with the characters than the explosions. This worked for him often in his career of great movies. “The Best Years of Our Lives” is rightfully in the top 100, but there is also “Friendly Persuasion,” “Funny Girl,” “The Children’s Hour,” “The Letter,” “Jezebel” and many more. He’s possibly the most versatile director in the history of film, and I admire what he tried to do with this epic movie even if the actors held him back from succeeding.

I wonder if making the movie longer (gasp!) would have helped, but then part of me thinks somewhere in the three-and-a-half hour film is a crackerjack two-hour action drama. The movie is good, no doubts about that, but it’s uneven and stumbles when it had a real chance to soar. Ah well, the chariot race remains one of the greatest sequences ever filmed, and time has only made it more impressive. “Ben-Hur” needs to be seen if only for that.

My Score (out of 5): ***

Sunday, November 6, 2011

E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 24
Year: 1982
Writer: Melissa Mathison
Director: Steven Spielberg
Star: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Drew Barrymore

Note: As with all other films in this series, I’ve gone back to the original theatrical version for this article, not the re-release version.

“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” believes in humanity, and that’s what makes it a masterpiece. The kids who find E.T. don’t fear him, they try to help him. They form a friendship with him and sacrifice things for him. Heck, even the man we think is supposed to be the antagonist turns out to be one of the good guys, who just wants to help the little alien. In any other studio movie, E.T. would be captured, killed and dissected before the first reel ends and, by the end of the first act, mommy and daddy alien would be returning for vengeance. So, in many ways, this PG-rated film with no sex or violence or language stronger than “Penis breath!” is actually ballsier than all its contemporary counterparts.

The story is so simple and straightforward that you know it kept the film’s writer, Melissa Mathison, up nights struggling to make it seem as effortless as it does. When a young alien is accidentally abandoned on earth, he’s taken in by a boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his friends. Elliott names him E.T. and begins a mission to get E.T. back home with his family. Like I said, the story is simple, but Mathison injects her script with much subtlety. She doesn’t spell everything out, and as a result you notice things on repeat viewings you haven’t seen before.

Take the almost telepathic connection between E.T. and Elliott. Where does it come from? Watching the film again, it seems like E.T. has a telepathic connection with his mother at the beginning of the film, and when he loses it with her, he creates one with the first boy he encounters: Elliott. Later, the connection is severed because E.T. is dying, but his family comes for him just in time, recreating their own connection when E.T. needs it the most.

Thomas is immediately likeable and sympathetic as Elliott. He’s too young to hang with his older brother’s friends and doesn’t appear to have any close friends of his own. When he first realizes E.T. can understand him, Elliott jumps around his room, showing the little alien anything and everything that is so important to his world (“and this, this is Lando Calirissian!”), and the moment feels so real. Of course this is how a young boy would introduce an alien to our world.

And then there are the flying bikes. I’m not going to even hypothesize why Elliott and, later, his brother and friends have to keep pedaling while flying if E.T. is pulling the strings, but it doesn’t matter. Seeing Elliott flying across the moon is, quite simply put, one of the best, most memorable moments in the history of film. Goosebumps. Lots of ‘em. And the scene where E.T. “dies” while Elliott screams for his friend remains like a fist to the viewer’s stomach, even when you know E.T. isn’t really dead.

Spielberg stages the scenes so that we rarely see adult faces (with the exception of Elliott’s mother, played by Dee Wallace). There’s a man (Peter Coyote) who has a lot of keys hanging from his belt who is looking for E.T. We expect he is the villain of the movie, and for the first two acts he does indeed seem to be, but once his face is shown, we realize that he’s not a villain. He’s a good man who wants to help Elliott and help E.T. I was surprised to see Mathison allowed Coyote’s character to be present for the finale to see E.T. off, but feel like it works.

The kids in the movie act like kids. They aren’t spouting off dialogue obviously written by someone much older trying to seem hip or cool. Let’s face it, kids (especially the ones in this movie) aren’t hip or cool when they are hanging out with their family. The interactions between the children feels very improvised in the best way possible; they talk over one another and argue even when they aren’t the focus of the scene. This is incredibly difficult to pull off and make feel natural, but Mathison does just that.

The first act of the movie is shot overdramatically. I’m not sure if “overdramatically” is a word, but if not, I’m creating it now. It’s not that we don’t see adult faces and that E.T. is mostly hidden for the first half hour of the film—those choices were wise and helped create atmosphere. I’m talking about the overuse of smoke, steam, dirt and dust in just about every scene. It’s great in the moment where Elliott has his first encounter with E.T. in the barn, but then the haze is in just about every other scene for no particular reason. There’s even a beat where Elliott puts a plate in the sink and turns on the water, only to have so much steam billow out you’d think you were walking over a subway grate in December. I know, I know. It’s not a huge complaint, but this movie has few flaws, and the haze’s incessant presence really did take me out of the movie.

There are so many things I love about “E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial.” It doesn’t age. The effects still work as well as they did when the film was first released. The acting. The direction. More than anything, it’s one of those very special movies that can put a smile on the face of the most cynical among us. It gives us “hope,” which is a word almost all Hollywood writers have long forgotten.

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

Addendum: As always, I avoided looking up awards, the film’s development history or critical reaction before writing the article. After posting, however, everything is fair game. I discovered that, for the 1983 Oscars, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” lost the Best Picture Oscar to “Gandhi.” Also nominated that year were “The Verdict” and “Tootsie.” To this I must say, “Really, Academy voters? I mean, REALLY?”