Wednesday, October 19, 2011

#41 Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Sherlock Jr (1924)

So here I am, sitting down in Mid-August to write the first of 6 reviews for movies I watched way back in March. Needless to say, this is going to be a very entertaining experience for me. Unfortunately, I feel this is going to require me to preface this review with a warning to readers that this review may not be anywhere near as thorough or detailed as my previous reviews. As I said, I watched these movies nearly 6 months ago, and although I have notes on the movies that I recorded while I watched them, deciphering these notes and trying to understand what the hell the me of 6 months ago was talking about would probably be more difficult a task than simply writing this review based on vague memories of watching the movie, which are really more memories of how I felt about watching the movie than remembering specific facets of the movie itself. And before the more sensible of my readers come out and say, “why not simply rewatch the movie?” I’m going to go ahead and tell you the peanut gallery to shut it. Calculon does not do two takes!

Anyway to the movie. How do I do these reviews again? It’s been so long that I’ve completely forgotten. Ah yes, I think I always start by identifying my notions and sentiments going into the film. Unfortunately I don’t have some witty or mildly entertaining anecdote about watching this movie as a kid, or being an ignorant, uncultured swine of a high school student. In fact the only anecdote I have about Buster Keaton was blown in the last review. Really this review should be considered the second of a two part review as I watched this movie and Our Hospitality as a sort of double feature as the two came together on the VHS that I watched both these movies on. Generally I don’t like reviewing movies with the same director or actor back to back because then I feel like I’m going to be just running over the same ground, which I feel ends up rather boring to readers and I’m banking on the fact that my readership has a poor memory so they won’t notice when I come back and say the same things 5 months later. But anyway! Here I am, reviewing another Buster Keaton movie directed by Buster Keaton and starring Buster Keaton. I came into this movie after having just seen Our Hospitality, a movie I quite liked, so I was expecting good things, and, I am happy to say that I was in no way let down in my expectations

Yes, this is the part where I summarize the plot. I really don’t like doing the part, and if anything, it’s the part of these reviews that really turns me off from writing the reviews in the first place. But it definitely takes up space, and that is always a plus. I suppose it’s rather like stuffing your pants with paper towels – It adds nothing substantial to the package aside from boosting your ego because it makes you appear much more impressive than you actually are, and it makes the unobservant think you are manly, or in this specific case, cultured or intelligent, but ultimately, when someone bothers to open it up and have a look, you are revealed as a shallow shell of a man who has absolutely nothing to offer. Well that was a fun dive into meta-discussion, wasn’t it? Where was I again? Oh yeah, avoiding the actual review in a sad, sorry attempt to insert some kind of wit into what I don’t doubt is usually a very dull overview of a movie most people have already seen.

This is going to be a tough overview to give as there really isn’t too much of a plot in this movie. Buster Keaton plays a lovable loser who plays the physical manifestation of the general theme of this movie, with which we are greeted at the movie’s opening – that someone who divides his time equally between two tasks will succeed at neither, or to put it in terms more familiar to players of Civilization 4 (if you’ll allow me an attempt at my best Leonard Nimoy impression) “If you try to catch two rabbits, you will lose them both.” Anyway, the point is that Buster is working as a film operator, but he dreams of being an ace detective, because of this; predictably, he’s rather incompetent in both vocations. In spite of his general ineptitude, however, he’s somehow manage to attract the attentions of a beautiful young lady, and so on top of his two chosen vocations, he also blunders about trying to secure her affections, which, possessing neither money nor confidence, he fails at miserably, resulting ultimately in him seemingly losing out to a big jerk who also manages to pin a theft charge on poor Keaton. The movie then gets very weird as a dejected Keaton, after failing to find the man who really committed the theft for which he is blamed, returns to the theater where he falls asleep on the job and we enter into a very bizarre dream sequence within a movie within a movie (Not kidding, it’s like Inception before Inception). Keaton takes on the role of the “World’s greatest detective, the crime crushing criminologist Sherlock Jr.” The movie changes pace entirely now as we watch Keaton live out his fantasies as Sherlock Jr. who plays the suave and sophisticated foil to the blundering, oafish Keaton. The next 20 minutes or so feature Sherlock solving the crime, in what appeared to me far more like a James Bond film than a Holmes tale. In the end, Sherlock gets his man, and by a strange coincidence, Keaton somehow manages to get his man and the girl, without having done anything other than fall asleep at his job. A touching sentiment, I thought.

There were definitely a lot of things I really liked about this movie. It was well acted all around. It was very cleverly written, both from the gags, which were hilarious (more on those further below), and the dialogue and general story. The problem I’ve found with movies such as this one – that is movies without any truly visible plot – is that the characters and context sort of get written out of the movie. Actors like Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, and Buster Keaton got their starts in Vaudeville, and as such, most of their movies are really just their vaudeville acts and gags being transplanted directly to the silver screen. The result is that in movies such as Duck Soup, the characters end up not at all compelling – you never care for their well-being. This is not the case with Sherlock, Jr. You actually find yourself rooting for the characters, you want them to succeed, and you feel sorry for them when they fail. I think, especially for a movie as nonsensical as Sherlock Jr., that is a very impressive feat.

For me the most impressive part of this movie was the gags, and there were quite a lot of them. They ranged from something as simple as Buster slipping and falling repeatedly to things as impressive as Buster undergoing a costume change while jumping through a window or riding a motorcycle on the handlebars. Every one of the gags was expertly pulled off. In this movie I saw my very first banana gag in which the joke was played completely straight and it was simply hilarious. I felt like an oafish cartoon character, pointing and cackling at something as banal as a man slipping and falling on a banana peel, but I couldn’t care less; it was expertly pulled off.

The effects were equally well done. I loved the scene at the beginning of the dream scene where Buster is going through a slew of scenes as something that was once on-screen has since gone away, causing him to fall over. Considering that this movie came out in the early 20s, when film was really just starting to find its identity, the effects in this movie, which only runs in at about 40-50 minutes are just plain spectacular.

My only real problem with this movie was, predictably, the music. Naturally, true to myself, I neglected to note what composition this one was, but as with other silent films I’ve seen, the music is sporadic, overly-modern, and very seldom corresponds to the mood of the particular scene. There was one part where I swear the composer just transposed the James Bond theme to the movie. To say the music was jarring would be putting it very lightly. In spite of this, however, I still found the movie fun, enjoyable, easy to watch, easy to follow, and the zaniness of the gags had me rolling on the floor in very little time.

So why is this movie on the list? I think it’s there because as a movie it is a perfect demonstration of the skill of Buster Keaton, both as an actor and as a director. The pacing in this movie is just superb, it very seldom slows down. The jokes Keaton brings to the movie are classics, and very soon to be cliché and staples of the silver screen. The stunts and special effects, particularly for this time are just spectacular. It has been said that Buster Keaton is the greatest actor-director who ever lived, and seeing both this movie and Our Hospitality, it is clear to see why. The man is a comic genius.

Monday, October 17, 2011

#40 Our Hospitality (1923)

Our Hospitality (1923)

It is unfortunate to me that previous to the formation of my list I had never heard of Buster Keaton. I knew of Charlie Chaplin, and had known of him for some time before the formation of my list, all the way back to my Sophomore year in High School when I watched Modern Times in my History class and thought of it as dull and unfunny. But Buster Keaton was a man wholly unknown to me. It wasn’t until I was formulating my list and was talking to my Dad about great movies that he brought my attention to Buster Keaton. However during this time a great many movies were being recommended to me from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Seven Samurai to Gosford Park and No Country for Old Men. Because of this Buster Keaton, owing to the fact that he was recommended to me by my Dad, a man who seems to be constantly recommending me things while my mind is wholly set on doing something else, was put to the back of my mind, and so I have now watched 39 other movies without even giving this great star of silent film a second thought. It was only last month when I was perusing my list for movies to watch that I came upon Buster Keaton, which I must admit, was chosen only because I was starting to realize my movie selections thus far had been fairly top (read: 60s and 70s) heavy. However, now that I have finally gotten my fill of Buster Keaton I am wholly ashamed of my ignorance of Buster Keaton and I am delighted that I finally motivated myself to watch these films. So now here is our first in a double feature of Buster Keaton films, Our Hospitality.

This movie is essentially a play on Romeo and Juliet set in the context of the infamous feud between the Hatfields and McCoys in the early 1800s. It starts out with a prologue: it was a dark and stormy night when a member of the Canfields arrived in Kentucky and immediately left for the rival McKay’s house where he manages to kill the last male heir to the McKay line, but at the same time losing his own life in the process. When the uncle of the Canfield’s receives word of this his once mediatory and peaceful demeanor is changed almost immediately: “my two sons must be taught to avenge his death,” he says. Meanwhile, on the McKay side, a baby boy named Willie McKay (Buster Keaton) is left orphaned and is sent to his last living relatives in New York, where he grows up in peace, comfort, and solitude. This lasts for 20 years until young Willie, now a fully grown young man, receives word that he has inherited his family home in Kentucky, as such, Willie decides to embark on a fancy shmancy train for Kentucky. While on the train, Willie sits next to a gorgeous young woman (Natalie Talmadge), and, after a series of hilariously awkward scenes, the two of them begin to hit it off rather well. After a long series of zany scenes, the train manages to arrive in one piece in Kentucky. The two of them descend from the train, and Willie is invited to dinner, and then the woman meets her family. It is at this point that we see the conflict of this movie – predictably, the girl is the daughter of Joseph Canfield. Eventually Joseph realizes that this young man whom his daughter has invited to dinner is his enemy, as do his two nephews who he has taught to avenge their father’s death. The two nephews stalk their unwitting prey through a number of scenes, but thanks to a number of very narrow escapes, Willie escapes the machinations of the Canfields, unscathed and none the wiser. It is not until Willie arrives at the house of the Canfields for dinner that Willie realizes the great danger which he is in, however he also realizes that so long as he is a guest in the house of the Canfields, the obliged hospitality of the Canfields prevents them from killing him. What ensues is a game of cat and mouse in which the Canfields (minus the girl who is unaware of all this) are trying desperately to get Willie to leave the house, and Willie is doing everything in his power to stay. Eventually the Canfields succeed, and what ensues is a chase scene between Willie and the two nephews and the daughter, who, now wise to what’s been going on, is doing everything she can to save the life of Willie. Eventually both Willie and the daughter end up in a river leading, predictably, to a waterfall. Thankfully Willie’s nimble acrobatics ensure that both Willie and the girl escape the harrowing falls. The defeated Canfields, meanwhile, unsuccessful in their chasing of Willie, return home to find that Willie has married the girl, and that the two of them are now in-laws. The Canfields appear as though they are going to shoot Willie, but Joseph instead embraces his new son-in-law, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The acting in this movie is just superb. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I adore the style of acting that you see in silent films. The idea that you have to be able to emote and convey emotion effectively in motion picture without being able to actually say anything means that the actors are actually emoting – it’s easy to tell how the character feels, and what their desires are. It’s much more flamboyant, but in a good way. The lead in this movie is naturally Buster Keaton and he’s just excellent. He’s funny, but he’s also very likeable. The result is you the audience falling out of your chair in laughter when he’s caught in sticky situations or when he, say, slips on a banana peel, but at the same time you feel sorry for the guy. You really want him to succeed – you want him to get the girl, to reconcile with the Canfields, but at the same time you find yourself looking forward to moments such as when he’s stuck in the Canfield’s house without being able to leave. In general he is just an effective protagonist in general. The female lead, which isn’t actually given a name, is played by Natalie Talmadge, who I’ve since discovered is Buster Keaton’s actual wife. I thought she was absolutely gorgeous in this, and I think once again this goes back to the style of silent film – I love the makeup used on characters, and for Talmadge it really worked. As for her performance, she was compassionate and timid, really too much of a nonentity in this film, in my opinion. I think if anything she is the audience, watching from the sidelines and hoping that nothing ill befalls our hero, but not really doing anything about it. The rest of the Canfields did a good enough job, but I didn’t think any of them were anything spectacular in particular, this movie is primarily about Buster Keaton and in terms of casting and characters this is made abundantly clear.

As for other parts of this movie I was pleasantly surprised. As I mentioned before, I liked the makeup and costuming in this movie. I don’t presume to be an expert on 1830s, but the costumes felt authentic to me and I definitely got the sense that I was in 1830s America. I also liked the props. I remember reading something – I think on IMDB – about how the train used in the movie was actually designed to be as authentic as possible. The cinematography to me seemed to be standard silent film fare, but I quite liked it. My two favorite scenes in this movie were the train scene and the waterfall scene. In particular I loved the train scene. I fear using the phrase “comedic gold” but the train scene just epitomized it for me. It truly was comedy at its most fundamental; there was no story, no context, it was just 10 or 15 minutes of hilarity. I was laughing the whole time. The waterfall scene was great in another way. I love how it starts because you can see it coming, meaning the tension is already there. And then from that point, the way in which the film milks the tension, draws the movie out for as long as possible brings the movie to a boiling point. It was excellently done. There were some other superb scenes in the movie, such as the “cat and mouse” scenes I described earlier and the fishing scene, but truly the two aforementioned scenes stand out most prominently in my mind.

The music, I am delighted to say, was actually really good. This is another thing I mentioned in previous reviews of silent films I’ve done. The problem I’ve noticed, or at least it’s been a problem for me is that since these silent films when they came out were accompanied with live music, when the movies were remastered and put onto DVD or VHS, they had to be rescored. The problem comes in because generally the man doing the rescoring decides, rather than recreating the music as it may have been performed when the movie came out, will instead make an original composition which reeks of modernity. In my experience the rescores feature a lot of marimba, a lot of discordant tones, and music that often doesn’t correspond in any way to the action which is occurring on screen. The result is jarring music which I usually turn off half way through the movie. With Our Hospitality this was not the case. The movie featured a lot more piano and a lot more sounds reminiscent of what one would expect a 1920s era silent film to sound like. The result was rather than getting a lot of jarring noise coming from my speakers which took me out of the mood, I got a score in perfect harmony with the movie. Surprisingly, I actually bothered to write down the writer of the rescore for this movie, so if anyone wants to watch this, I highly recommend you watch this movie with the Hunsburger score.

I think one of the best things I’ve gotten out of this little project of mine is an appreciation for silent films. They are just so cool. I love just how different everything feels. You can really feel his vaudevillian roots coming to the forefront in a number of extended scenes, but at the same time the movies are well written and well paced. This movie was just plain excellent. One of the funniest things I have ever seen. Roger Ebert has called Buster Keaton quite possibly the greatest Actor-Director of all time, and it shows in my list, which has 5 movies by Buster Keaton. This movie in particular is fantastic and in my opinion, easily deserves its place on this list.

Friday, April 1, 2011

#39 The English Patient (1996)

The English Patient (1996)

"You're in love with him, aren't you? Your poor patient. You think he's a saint because of the way he looks? I don't think he is."

Since I have started this list, I have seen a great number of good old movies. Films such as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Psycho, and the like are films which to me just exude brilliance. They are the types of films that you know are going to be stunningly excellent from the moment the opening credits show, and not just because of its reputation. It’s really hard to explain, but for me, I can just feel the greatness of the film coming off the screen, and as I’m watching the movie I intuitively know that I am watching one of the greatest movies of all time. This has really only happened a few time; the aforementioned Casablanca, Citizen Kane, as well as Kubrick movies such as 2001, or others such as A Bridge on the River Kwai and Seven Samurai. This hasn’t been true of every movie on the list. Although I absolutely adored movies like The Princess Bride, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and Planet of the Apes, I just didn’t get that sense. Although the number of “modern” movies off the list which I have watched has been rather low, one thing I have come to notice from watching movies off the list as well as from personal experience, I really haven’t gotten that “great movie” feel that the above listed movies do. It’s a shame, and I soon was beginning to feel as though they just don’t make movies the same way, that is, until I saw this movie.

The movie opens with a man flying a biplane in the desert. A woman is sitting in the passenger seat. He flies over a German 88 and is shot down. His burning corpse is later pulled from the wreckage of the plane by some North African Berbers who later put something on him to lessen his burns. We then turn to a woman, Hana, who is serving as a nurse in the army during World War II. We follow her around for awhile while she administers to wounded soldiers. Over the course of this exposition, we learn that the man she loves is killed, followed soon after by her best friend. She soon after becomes depressed, and vaguely suicidal. After some time, the division she is traveling with wants to move forward, but Hana doesn’t think the dying patient she is tending to, the pilot who was shot down at the beginning of the film, is capable of making the trip. As such, she decides to stay behind with her patient, in order to make his last days as comfortable as possible. Begrudgingly, the officer in charge of the division allows it, and Hana and her English patient get settled into an abandoned Italian villa. The rest of the movie revolves around the English Patient, as he remembers his past. We learn that he was once not actually an Englishman, but a Hungarian nobleman and archaeologist, named Laszlo. He was working on an international dig in North Africa prior to World War II. He and his crew are joined by an English couple, Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton. In the beginning it seems that Katharine and Laszlo do not get along at all, but after some time, just like any film pair who initially hates each other, they fall in love. The next hour or so of the film talks about Katharine and Laszlo’s tryst. What’s excellent about these scenes is that they are not night and day; Katharine still loves her husband Geoffrey, and so there’s a nice bit of conflict throughout this second act of the film. At the same time as Laszlo is remembering all of this, all is not peaceful at the villa, as Hana and Laszlo are joined by a Canadian soldier and scrounger, David, who has been sent to the villa to keep the two of them company. They are also joined by a bomb squad, led by a Sikh named Kip, who have been traveling through the Italian countryside disarming bombs, booby traps, and mines left over by the Germans. These characters serve for the most part as the comedic relief to the drama of Laszlo’s story, and the sheer charm of these characters and their antics help to alleviate a great deal of tension. Also during this time there is a subplot of a romance which occurs between Hana and Kip. Things start looking bad though, as we are taken back to Laszlo’s story. Katharine’s husband is beginning to become suspicious of Lazlo and Katharine’s affair, and begins trying to find out the truth. Katharine, worried over the implications of their affair becoming public, ends her relationship with Laszlo. Laszlo is devastated. Additionally, inevitably, war breaks out. Because of the fact that the archaeological society was working in and mapping the North African desert, which would come to be of key strategic import to the British War Effort, and because the archaeological society was international in nature, namely that it was manned by Germans, the society is broken up, maps claimed by the British, and all of Laszlo’s beautiful research is for naught. So Laszlo returns to his dig-site with his crew one last time to pack up his things and move out. Geoffrey is supposed to fly Laszlo back to civilization, but he’s drunk (I think, it was kind of unclear), and so he botches his landing and crashes in the desert, dying immediately. Katharine, who was flying in the backseat, survives, and Laszlo carries her from the wreckage and into a cave, but she’s badly hurt, and if she doesn’t get help soon, she’s going to die, so Laszlo needs to walk across the desert to find help. Meanwhile, Hana and Kip continue with their romances, and there are a few tense moments where Kip almost gets killed by a bomb. Later, the war ends, and Kip’s best friend is killed by a bomb while Kip is having sex with Hana. He blames himself and breaks off their romance. At the same time, Laszlo’s life is finally drawing to a close, and we learn that the Canadian, David, is not all that he says he is (unsurprisingly), and was actually a reporter in Africa, and friend of Geoffrey’s. He lost his finger, he alleges, because Laszlo is actually a German spy, and so he is determined to kill Laszlo himself. Finally, Laszlo reveals the truth. He managed to walk across the Sahara, incredibly without dying, and gets to a British military base. While he’s begging for help, it’s revealed that he’s a German, and so is put on a train to be deported. His pleas go unheard because he’s a German. Determined to save the love of his life, he breaks free from his railed prison, and escapes to the Nazis, where he sells information in exchange for a plane and medical supplies so he could save Katharine. He gets back to her, but she has died. He takes her into his plane, and takes off for home, planning to bury her, but is shot down by Nazis, bringing us to the beginning of the movie. After hearing this, David decides not to kill him, but Hana, who has now heard the full tale, and upon the begging of Laszlo, administers a lethal dose of painkillers, finally putting Laszlo out of his misery. The movie ends with the rest of the crew now parting ways.

The acting in this movie is absolutely superb. Ralph Fiennes gives a stunning performance as Count Laszlo. He’s great in the beginning of the movie as a snarky know-it-all, who doesn’t seem to have any emotion or compassion but for his work, he’s great in the middle of the film as he seems to abandon everything for Katharine, and he’s just absolutely stunning as a mortally ill patient who has lost everything. Everything he does is filled with emotion, and by the end you can really feel the weight of the burden he is carrying as he hides the truth about himself and his past. Kristin Scott Thomas is good enough as Katharine. While her performance wasn’t as truly awe-inspiring as I think Fiennes’ was, she was charming, and she did capture Katharine’s carefree, spirited attitude well. Much better in my mind was Juliette Binoche, who played Hana. Hana’s character is a multifaceted one. She’s still a young woman, full of life, very free-spirited, in a way very similar to Katharine. However at the same time, she’s a character who at this point has lived through a lot of traumatic moments in her life, something which she constantly has eating away at her, but something at the same time which she feels compelled to ferret away. Finally, she’s a very matronly character, one who sees problems in life, and goes out of her way to try to fix those problems. Juliette Binoche does a phenomenal job of portraying this complex character, and doing it in a very compelling, and most importantly for me, a very charming way. She is simply fun to watch for me. This movie also saw excellent performances by Willem Dafoe who played David, and the recent Oscar Winner Colin Firth as Geoffrey. I think my favorite supporting role though, was Naveen Andrews as Kip, the Sikh. After I got over the awesome factor of seeing Sayid in something else (still awesome), he gives a fantastic performance. The thing I like particularly is that there really isn’t much to this character. He’s basically supposed to be written as a B romance to Laszlo and Katharine’s A. But Andrews really brings such a charm to the role, he’s just plain fun to watch, and made what could have been a blasé subplot, into a very compelling piece of cinema, and at the end of the day was an excessively good performance.

As for the direction, it was also good. Cinematography was good, a number of fantastic shots. What I liked more though was that the cinematographer was well aware of where he was, and got some absolutely stunning shots, making fun of the stark and beautiful Sahara desert. I also loved the writing. Author Michael Ondaatje and Screenwriter Anthony Minghella (also the director) does an excellent job telling the story, especially with the pacing. I like the way the opening shots begin out of context, confusing, and incoherent, and I like that over the course of the movie it all comes full circle, making for an excellent catharsis when that opening shot is brought back, but with the context that brought the scene about. I also really liked the way the film used the Hana scenes as a comedic relief, helping to keep the film palatable through the mentally draining, and oft depressing scenes that come to be Laszlo’s story. It was one of the most effective uses of comedic relief I’ve seen in a long time. Another thing I liked about this movie was the way director/writer Minghella plays with preconceptions and assumptions he knows the viewer will make. He’s well aware of cliché and plays with the audience’s heartstrings by setting up clichés but averting them at the end. One great example of this is when Kip is sent away to diffuse a bomb towards the end of the movie. Minghella does a great job with the set up of this scene, first foreshadowing Kip’s death with ominous words of warning from Hana, and by playing around with the tank and the circumstances of the bomb. This sets the cliché aware audience on the notion that Kip is not going to make it through the scene alive. At this point Minghella knows he has you, and plays with you some more, building tension to a fever pitch. Then, suddenly he releases the tension by showing that Kip didn’t actually die. It was a very effective scene. Perhaps even more effective than this are the last few scenes of the movie, when the full extent of the tragedy of the story is realized, and then, finally, and especially, Laszlo’s death. These are some of the saddest scenes I have ever seen in a movie, very nearly bringing me to tears. All in all, it was just perfect, a fantastic movie.

As I said previously, there are some movies where you can just tell that it’s a great movie. From my personal experience, I get this much more with older films than I do newer ones. Sure you can say that this has to do with nostalgia, or hype, or what have you, but whatever the rate, it’s there for me. The English Patient is the first time I’ve seen a (relatively) modern movie and actually got that sense of greatness that I’ve gotten in the past, a sense that I’ve seen something greater than myself, a movie that stayed with me for long after I’d left the library. I have always heard there is no such thing as a perfect movie, but this is as damn close as you can get: great acting, great directing, great writing, great pacing, and an extremely moving movie. I loved this movie, I don’t know how many different ways I can say it. Why is this movie on the list, though? Just because it was a great movie. Ignore the awards, ignore the hype - ignore all of that. I don’t consider this movie to be on the list because of any specific actor or director of note. It may have some influence, but I am not aware of it. This is just a great movie, simple as that. I would without thinking twice place it up among the likes of Citizen Kane or Casablanca any day of the week, and that is why The English Patient belongs on the list.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

#38 Get Carter (1971)

Get Carter (1971)

“Frank wasn't like that. I'm the villain in the family, remember?”

Over the last year or two, Michael Caine has rapidly beginning to become my favorite actor. Initially I had only known him as Alfred in the new Batman movies, but recently I have been watching more of his older movies, understanding what he’s done, the movies he’s been involved in, and his influence on the British cinema. This first began when I realized that one of the leading actors in Zulu, a movie which has been for many years a veritable classic to me and indisputably one of my all time favorite movies. Since then, I have seen several others of his films and started to truly gain an appreciation for him. I began to see, and to some extent still do see him as a sort of British Clint Eastwood. Like Eastwood, Caine is a blond-haired actor with a very distinctive, very plebeian accent and manner of delivering lines. Also like Eastwood, Caine plays a lot of roles involving him being an anti-hero of sorts; although he possesses a moral system, he is perfectly willing to break those morals in order to get what he wants. Also like Eastwood, Caine is a complete badass and is exceedingly satisfying to watch on screen, especially when he’s in a position of power. This comparison is especially relevant in the context of the film Get Carter. It has much in common with Eastwood’s film Dirty Harry. They both came out around the same time, they featured similar actors, and covered similar topics: the rising crime of the 70s and vendetta and vigilantism, they are both extremely quotable, they both are a representation of the fears and problems of their time, and they both were significantly influential to the action genres, becoming distinguished demarcations of each nation’s respective action cinema. It should also be noted that they are both great films.

The film opens in a gang headquarters in London. Many gang members are gathered around watching a series of pornographic slides. It is at this point that we see Michael Caine, and he looks very bored. He gets up, and what I presume is the gang leader asks Caine – Carter – if he’s sure that he wants to go north. He says that the Northerners are rough, and won’t take kindly to a London boy poking around up there. Carter brushes the man off, saying that he needs to discover the truth about what happened to his brother, and so is determined to go north, to Newcastle. The credits role as we watch Carter on the train north. Finally, Carter arrives in Newcastle, and gets himself a room in a boarding house. From there, Carter begins reconnecting with his brother Frank’s old friends, and starts, essentially, poking around. Eventually, Carter infiltrates and questions Cyril Kinnear, the major crime kingpin in Newcastle. From Cyril we also learn that Carter is quite the badass himself. Finally, Carter leaves Cyril’s hideout, and soon after receives a number of threats from some of Cyril’s henchmen, demanding that Carter leave town immediately. These threats only further solidify Carter’s belief that Frank’s death – officially he was killed by a drunk driver – was not an accident. After evading, and eventually capturing and interrogating Kinnear’s henchmen, Carter gets a name – Brumby. Brumby, we learn, is a kingpin controller of gaming arcades, Carter says, “Ever been in an arcade there and put a penny in a slot machine? Well, it belongs to Cliff Brumby. Like as not the bloody arcade as well.” Carter soon confronts Brumby, but soon learns that the name was a false lead. Carter returns to find his house and friends attacked. The next day two henchmen try to force Carter to go back to London, but Jack evades them, and soon meets up with Brumby again in a parking complex. Brumby tells Carter that Kinnear killed Frank, and offers him £5000 to kill him. Carter refuses. Soon after, Carter learns that Frank’s child Doreen was involved in an amateur porno filmed in Kinnear’s apartment. Jack concludes that Frank found out about this film, and for that reason was killed. Carter also learns that Brumby was the man who leaked the movie to Frank. Irate, Carter tracks down Brumby, and throws him off a building. The rest of the movie involves Carter systematically killing anyone even remotely tied to the death of Frank, including pinning the murder of a prostitute (who Carter killed) on Kinnear, resulting in the complete dismantling of Kinnear’s empire. The film ends with Carter successfully killing the last man, and is just about to destroy his gun when he is shot – sniped from afar by an unknown gunman who Kinnear hired just prior to being arrested. Tragically, Carter dies, the movie ends with the tides washing his lifeless corpse out to sea.

The acting in this movie is generally fairly good. Michael Caine naturally is absolutely superb. I really like the way in which he comes off on the surface as an affable, friendly, nice guy, but underneath he is a spiteful, angry, vicious man who will break your face and throw you off a building without even batting an eyelash. The skill with which he is able to blow off or even turn on those who he was once being very friendly to is incredible. I particularly loved his rage after seeing the pornography Doreen participated in. You can tell he is absolutely seething with rage, but he still remains cool, calculating, and emotionless. It is only once he confronts the man who actually pulled the trigger on Frank that all of his anger is unleashed. Even greater is Carter’s joy when he realizes that he finished the job and got away with it. That last moment before he is killed is euphoric, even if you are simultaneously horrified by the viciousness of the acts perpetrated by the protagonist. The rest of the roles in this film are generally nonentities. No one was particularly excellent, but then again, no one needed to be. Petra Markham was decent as Doreen, and I also liked John Osborne as Kinnear. The only truly excellent non-Caine role in this movie I thought was Brumby, who was played by Bryan Mosley. You really got the sense that Brumby was trying his darnedest to act the tough gangster, but it’s very obvious that he’s out of his element. I particularly liked the scene where Brumby tries to hire Carter to kill Kinnear for him. On the one hand is Carter, the cool, calm, and seasoned veteran in these types of affairs, and a man who is genuinely in his element. On the other is Brumby, and bumbling fool clearly out of his element, trying to bargain without any chips. The dichotomy is excellent, and really made by the excellent acting on both sides. Truly though, this is Caine’s film, and he easily exceeds the mark.

The directing and cinematography in this film is rather hit and miss. Truly there are some great shots in this film. One I particularly liked is after the bridge scene, when Caine is evading Kinnear’s men. The scene is shot in a top-down style, showing the chase from overhead. It’s very disorienting, but also very effective, and essentially a demonstration of the style of the whole film: disorienting, but effective. The pacing of the movie is also rather bad. There are some segments, such as the last half hour, where the plot is driving and everything moves quickly. However there are also moments where the movie drags, and plods along. Personally I chalk this up to shoddy writing. I feel the movie at times tries to be too clever, too subtle, to the extent that most of the time it’s very difficult to know what the hell is going on. There were many points during the movie where I was completely lost and didn’t understand why Carter was doing what he was doing. I think the real problem is the movie has nonexistent, or else terrible exposition. Nothing is ever clearly explained, and while I’m a big fan of subtlety, this movie was just way too subtle. Another thing the movie did poorly was explain who characters were, what their relation to Carter is, and their importance. I knew who Brumby was because he actually got a decent bit of exposition, but nearly every other character goes completely unexplained. The movie doesn’t actually tell you what the hell Carter is doing in Newcastle until maybe 45 minutes into the movie. It’s infuriatingly frustrating. I think if I had to give one word to describe this movie from a directorial and writing standpoint it would be muddled. It’s really irritating particularly because I think fundamentally the film’s premise is excellent, and they’re backed by the perfect man for the role, and this damn good movie could have been a great movie if only they had explained what was going on a little better.

So why is this film on the list? For a number of reasons, I’d say. The first reason is the excellent acting of its lead actor. Michael Caine is truly in his element in this film, definitely one of his best performances. The influence this movie had on film is also noteworthy. Like Dirty Harry, this movie is extremely quotable, a fact which is definitely helped by Caine’s distinctive delivery style. Additionally this movie is on the list for its controversy, in a sense. Initially, this movie was reviled, primarily for the pornographic nature of it, and the total remorselessness with which Carter executes his targets. It seems completely pointless and gratuitous, but really that’s what makes this movie great. American film critic Pauline Kael enjoyed the film for its “calculated soullessness”, and I agree with her. Although the story is plodding, and the exposition shoddy, the action scenes in which Caine blows his way through everything and anything standing in his path are riveting and engaging. I didn’t quite understand why he was doing what he was doing, but they’re enjoyable all the same. It’s a reflection of the times the film came out of in the same way that Dirty Harry is. For this it is considered to be one of the greatest British crime movies ever made, and thus has earned its spot on the list.

Monday, February 28, 2011

#37 Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

"It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms."

Have I yet mentioned that I love college? I get to take all kinds of very interesting classes on topics I like, whilst avoiding those I don’t. I have access to far more reading material than I could ever have thought possible, the internet connection is faster and a lot more stable than back home, I can access at any time just about any movie I can possibly think of – thereby making the completion of this list all the easier. What’s even cooler is how well working my way through this list is complemented by classes I am taking. A fairly sizeable portion of the movies I have watched and subsequently wrote about on this blog have been watched directly as a result of in class viewings of movies, or as direct recommendation given during lecture. The movie I shall be reviewing today, Kind Hearts and Coronets, was recommended to me in just such a way.

The movie opens to show a man entering a jail. We soon learn that he is a jail warden, and tomorrow he shall execute the first lord in the last couple centuries. The warden enters the cell in which the Lord is being held, where we soon learn he is preoccupied with writing his memoirs. From this, we soon delve into the life story of Louis Mazzini, 10th Duke of Chalfont. He says he is born of an heiress of the D’Ascoynes, an illustrious family which held the title of the Duke of Chalfont. This heiress ended up marrying Mr. Mazzini, who was an opera singer. As a result of the unfavorable match, the D’Ascoynes disinherited the woman, and, with the subsequent death of Mr. Mazzini upon the birth of their son Louis, Mrs. Mazzini was condemned to a life of extreme poverty. Louis is raised an aristocrat by his mother, hopeful that someday the D’Ascoynes would reconcile with her. Eventually Louis grows up and his mother dies. Denied employment, accommodation, or even the right to bury his mother in the family tomb by the D’Ascoynes, Louis curses and reviles his family. Left without a mother and an income, Louis takes up residence with his childhood sweetheart Sibella. When Louis’ advances on Sibella are spurned in favor of a wealthier man, Louis embarks on a grand scheme: to become the Duke of Chalfont by killing every D’Ascoyne between him and the title. Through the course of the rest of the movie, Louis systematically orchestrates the “accidental” deaths of six of the eight D’Ascoynes, with the other two dying without Louis’s aid. In the meantime, Louis manages to secure his own independent success at his employment, whilst become ingratiated to various prominent figures in British aristocracy. He also manages to secure a favorable marriage to Edith D’Ascoynes, the widow of one of the killed D’Ascoynes. Suddenly Louis found the shoe on the other foot as he now held the power and wealth while those who once spurned him – notably Sibella – were mired in poverty and marital issues. Sibella implores Louis to marry her, but, remembering how cruelly she spurned him before, he haughtily refuses. Finally, Louis kills the last D’Ascoyne and achieves the rank for which he had always been searching, but just as he was at the apex of his glory, his dreams come crashing down around him as he finds himself to be the primary suspect in a murder investigation. It appears that Sibella’s husband committed suicide, and she has pinned it on him in a spiteful act of revenge. In spite of mounting an effective defense, he is condemned to death. Just as he is being taken to jail, Louis meets with Sibella, who promises to give him an out, and clear him of all charges if he will marry her. So we return to the present; Louis reveals that he agreed to Sibella’s bargain, but time is nearly up and no word has come. Just as he is about to be hanged, however, his savior arrives as Louis is acquitted of all charges. Louis exits the prison to find both Sibella and his wife Edith waiting for him. The movie ends ambiguously as it turns out that Louis left behind his memoirs and the damning evidence therein, in the jail.

The acting in this movie is simply superb. Dennis Prize, who plays Louis, was excellent. He does a fantastic job portraying the character of Louis, who is arrogant, and haughty, yet also a man of relatively simply and honest desires. I particularly love Prize’s delivery of lines. He’s perfectly flippant, making for an uproariously funny film. Equally good is Joan Greenwood, who plays Sibella. She does an excellent job of portraying a silly and vain girl, while later showing Sibella equally as a vindictive, spiteful, and very clever girl. It’s a natural progression and it doesn’t seem at all odd that she makes this transition. The true show stealer in this movie, however, is the supremely talented Alec Guinness, who plays every D’Ascoyne, including one female. Every single D’Ascoyne role is unique and interesting, and Guinness’s performance for each role is superb.

The directing in this film is quite good. The cinematography is decent, though nothing truly to write home about. The real notable part of this film comes in the writing. The way in which the story is told is excellent; the idea of a flashback is stupendous. The comedy is wickedly funny. I really like that the comedy is subtle; if you aren’t looking for it, you are not going to catch it. The only real problem I had with this movie was the pacing; it tends to drag a bit, but on the whole I don’t think this is so bad.

So why is this film on the list? For a number of reasons. Firstly, the movie is on the list for the superb performances of Alec Guinness. The ability of Guinness to play 8 different roles and to play them all superbly is just phenomenal. Secondly, this film is on the list for its wicked humor. In many ways it is the perfect representation of British humor. What the humor this movie really reminded me of was the play The Importance of Being Ernest. In the same vein, it is a movie which contains many hilarious jokes, and yet it never explicitly tells you that jokes are being made. Finally, this movie is on the list for its controversy. The movie studio which Kind Hearts and Coronets came out of was very conservative, and enforced strict regulations on the sort of themes and messages the movie was allowed to convey. Director Robert Hamer blazed trails in the studio by creating a movie which upended every idea encapsulated the studio. I know it doesn’t seem as though I’ve liked this movie very much, owing to the uncharacteristic short review, but this is owing more to the fact that I’m operating on very little sleep, after having recently finished writing a long paper, and on a very limited time scale, than to any sort of ambivalence to the film. This is unfortunate, as I truly adored this film, but such is life. Anyway great film: watch it if you don’t believe me.

Friday, February 25, 2011

#36 The Princess Bride (1987)

The Princess Bride (1987)

"Let me sum up. Buttercup is marry' Humperdinck in a little less than half an hour. So all we have to do is get in, break up the wedding, steal the princess, make our escape... after I kill Count Rugen."

It’s hard to admit, but I was unaware of Rob Reiner’s classic “The Princess Bride” until fairly recently. Oh sure I knew all the famous quotes by heart, and I probably even watched the movie a couple times in various classes during Middle and High School. But I was never actually aware of what I was quoting when I was making these references. I think I first discovered the movie either Senior year in High School or last year, and it wasn’t until 3 weeks before my first “official” viewing of this movie that I had ever actually watched the movie all the way through, from start to finish. It is something I am grandly disappointed in, but at the same time, this sort of thing is conceptually the reason for this list. Take away the blog, mission statements, book full of movie notes, and (ill kept) deadlines, this list of mine is fundamentally about me seeing those seminal classics that my derision of film in my younger days had caused me to miss out on, and because of this, most of these movies I have never heard of, or else only been vaguely aware of in the past. I think this is what gives strength to my blog; most of these classic must-see films are new ground to me, and so I come into them with essentially no opinion, helping me to see these movies through a clear lens. All ranting aside, I am delighted that I finally managed to watch this movie; it was certainly one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen off of this list so far.

The movie opens with a sick kid in Chicago. He is home from school, and to keep him company, his mother has invited his grandfather over. The kid is disappointed by this, disliking his Grandfather and his antiquated style and nature. This disposition changes immediately, however, when the Grandfather presents the child with a present. Excitedly, the kid opens the gift, only to discover that it is a book. The grandfather reveals, however, that this book is special; having been passed down through the family for generations. The grandfather offers to read the story to the kid, and, reluctantly, he agrees. The grandfather then tells the story of a beautiful noblewoman, named Buttercup, who fell in love with her servant Wesley. Their happy tryst is soon broken up, however, when Wesley has to go away, and while sailing to his destination is intercepted, and presumed to have been killed by, the fearsome Dread Pirate Roberts. Time passes, and Buttercup is now engaged to the Prince of the realm, Prince Humperdinck. Days before the marriage is to take place, however, Buttercup is kidnapped by a rambunctious group of mercenaries, who plan to kill Buttercup in order to instigate war with the neighboring country. The mercenaries, who are composed of Vizzini (the brains), Inigo Montoya (a skilled swordsman), and Fezzik (the brawns) soon reach the neighboring country, but are pursued by a mysterious masked man. This man manages to defeat Inigo, Fezzik, and Vizzini in various (humorous) tests of abilities, and finally reaches his prize of Buttercup. At this point he reveals himself to be Wesley in disguise, and the two set off to live together. Prince Humperdinck has other plans, however, as he is in hot pursuit of Wesley, eventually catching up to him. Buttercup is “rescued” and Wesley is imprisoned and tortured. Some time passes, and after Humperdinck learns the true identity of Wesley, has him killed, while also revealing that he doesn’t love Buttercup at all, and is just using her as an excuse to instigate war. The now master less Inigo Montoya and Fezzik, having discovered this, set off together to find Wesley (Inigo also desires to kill “The Man with 6 Fingers on his Right Hand”, who he discovers is in the employ of Humperdinck). They find the corpse of Wesley, but, after taking him to a miracle worker, discover him to be only “mostly dead”, and so he is revived. Together, the three storms the castle, rescue Buttercup, and both kill the 6 fingered man and humiliate Humperdinck, before finally making their escape, into the sunset. The Grandfather finishes his story, resulting in the kid becoming more appreciative of his grandfather and books (as well as kissing).

The acting in this movie all around is excellent. Cary Elwes is fantastic as Wesley. His flippant delivery and matter of fact lines combine for a very hilarious, but equally lovable, compelling, and sentimental character. Mandy Patinkin (who I saw in Dead Like Me long before I saw this movie) was simply superb. Like Wesley, he was charming and lovable, while also stirring and inspirational. The twinkle in his eyes when he gives his monologue about the death of his father was touching, and his duel with the 6-fingered man is a Crowning Moment of Awesome if ever I’ve seen one. Robin Wright as Buttercup was decent enough. She pulls of haughty in the beginning, and her transition to love for Wesley was convincing, although she doesn’t really have any presence, and seems to me to be more of an object than an active participant of the film. I thought the portions of the film where she holds out hope that Wesley will come for her (after he is captured by Humperdinck) to be particularly flat. Andre the Giant, who plays Fezzik, was alright, but then again, he didn’t really need to be anything spectacular, but all the same he was lovable, and he had great chemistry with Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya. Wallace Sheen who played Vizzini was excellent as well. His monologue when he has a battle of wits to the death with Wesley is a classic. Chris Sarandon (Prince Humperdinck) and Christopher Guest (Count Tyrone a.k.a. The 6-Fingered Man) were very good. I really liked their characters, especially Humperdinck. Sarandon really pulled off the sly, clever, genre-savvy villain well. He was deceptive, always alert, and yet at the same time extraordinarily haughty, and Sarandon does an excellent job conveying these characteristics in every scene he is in. I especially liked Sarandon showing Humperdinck’s vanity showing through when he discovers the depth of Buttercup’s love for Wesley. Equally fantastic were Fred Savage as the kid and Peter Falk as the grandfather. They were absolutely adorable together, and had a wonderful chemistry that engages you from the very start of the film.

The directing in this film is spectacular. Rob Reiner is a prolific director, and in this film he is clearly in his element. The cinematography is quite good, but more in an “Adventures of Robin Hood” way as opposed to a “Citizen Kane” kind of way. That is to say, the camera work is good, but it’s not an important player, it is merely effective in displaying the scene and showing the proper proscribed tone and feeling desired. The pacing in this film is simply fantastic. The movie grabs you in from the moment the grandfather enters, and from there the movie moves along quickly, always maintaining an upbeat attitude which keeps you entertained and enraptured the whole way through; the movie never really bogs down. The writing in really this film’s crowning achievement. What I especially like is the way in which writer William Goldman manages to write a script that is absolutely hilarious, without making the movie a comedy, strictly speaking. The movie doesn’t get so bogged down in its own absurdity that the plot and characters are left to the wayside as, say, Duck Soup or Monty Python does. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing that the latter movies do that, just that for The Princess Bride, this is extremely effective. I also quite like the manner in which the story is told and the fact that it is told to a captive audience. Goldman does a superb job of using the interruptions of the kid to serve as a way of creating tension and further engaging the audience. I also like that the movie’s plot operates on several levels; on top of the main plot of the love between Buttercup and Wesley, there is also the story of Inigo’s drive to avenge his father by killing the 6-fingered man, as well as the profound change which the kid undergoes as he becomes enraptured by the story. This multiplicity of plots does not lead to a bogging of the movie, and in general is very effectively carried out; you are equally engaged in all three stories. Perhaps the strongest point of the film is its dialogue, which is superb. There are so many great lines in this film that I could probably fill up a good portion of this review simply listing them off. It is this great quotability which has created the immense popularity, particularly online, of this film.

One thing I was particularly struck by in this film is its style. Rob Reiner does a splendid job of blending various comedic styles of other prominent comedy filmmakers into one hilarious movie. In particular I noted while watching this movie that it appears to be a combination of the fast paced dialogue of The Marx Brothers, with the absurd and spontaneous humor of Monty Python, with a dash of the distinctive style of Mel Brooks, and finally, with a little touch of Rob Reiner himself to make this movie the fantastic classic that it is. You can see elements of each popping up here and there and it is just splendid to see such diverse styles mixed so artfully. I loved every minute of it.

Finally, I liked the themes expressed in this film. While the film is absurd, compelling, and devilishly hilarious, it simultaneously has wonderful and heartwarming themes which connect it. The first is the idea of legacy, which is expressed several times throughout the film, starting at the beginning: the book, which, the grandfather says, has been read from father to sick son for generations in their family. Then there’s also the legacy of the Dread Pirate Roberts, who, Wesley reveals, had retired long before he himself took the moniker. Instead, he reveals, one Dread Pirate Roberts passes the title on to a successor just prior to his retirement, just so the new Dread Pirate gains the benefit of an established reputation, rather than having to make one for himself. The second and more prominent theme is that of an appreciation for older media and lifestyle. The kid at the beginning of the film is addicted to video games and sports, and is visibly irritated when he finds out that his grandfather gave him a book. However, by the end the kid is enraptured by the book, and develops a newfound appreciation for the more antiquated things in life, something I think many people in today’s world could stand to develop.

I think for many people, the inclusion of this movie as one of the 1081 greatest movies ever made (as of February, 2010) to be a no-brainer, but for the sake of the blog, let’s identify why this movie is on the list. This movie is on the list because it was directed by Rob Reiner. As I implied previously, he is a prolific director who can claim credit for two other films on this list. Additionally, this movie is on the list for its incredible cultural impact. It seems rather fitting that this movie, one about a kid finding alternative forms of entertainment whilst confined indoors would eventually become a staple of rainy-day, sick-day, or substitute showing in school and home environments. I think I must have seen the first hour of this film (without realizing the name of the movie) at least a good 10 times in various classes of the course of primary education. Moreover, this film is tremendously popular as a source of quotations and references. Finally, and most crucially to me, is the writing. This film is a superb blend of multiple styles of comedy with romance and action and adventure. I think the grandfather phrases it best: “[The story has] fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles,” and it is the seamless blending of all of these elements into one grandiose story which has earned this movie a spot on my greatest movies list.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

#35 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

"In my practice, I've seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn't seem to mind... All of us - a little bit - we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear. "

The first time I had heard of the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” it was from a friend and neighbor from last year. I had told him about this little project of mine, and the first thing he asked was whether or not Invasion of the Body Snatchers was on the list. I checked, as he asked me at a time when I was creating the list, and I straightaway told him that it was. I almost immediately put his query out of my mind. It was about three months later when I was home from college and I was watching Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which is a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine, and in the episode I was watching involved the characters falling asleep and being assimilated by the plant-thing which was visiting them. I didn’t really make any sort of connection until the very end, when one of the characters pointed at one of the other characters and unleashed a chilling scream – a scream I recognized. I remembered being a kid and watching a movie which took place in San Francisco and involves plants assimilating people and that blood curdling scream at the end of the movie, something which had horrified me ever since. I soon looked the movie up and discovered that the title was Invasion of the Body Snatchers; I also learned that it was a remake. I soon also discovered that the original was on the list (and was the one my friend was referring to), but the remake was not. I was upset, being that it was a film which had a profound effect on me (and which has a fairly good IMDB/RT score), but ultimately didn’t. So we finally arrive at the present day, or rather the present day of three weeks ago, as that’s when I watched this movie. I came in, knowing that while the film held similarities to the one I had seen, it was different, but equally good if not better. All the same, I was expecting to be dissatisfied by the film in comparison to the Sutherland version which I had by this time come to adore, and to be completely honest, by expectations proved to be true, and I know what you’re saying: that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I disagree. I liked this movie, it was rather good, but all things considered, I still prefer the Donald Sutherland version.

The movie opens in a psychiatric ward in Los Angeles. Police have brought in a clearly deranged man to ask a psychiatrist’s opinion on his mental condition. The psychiatrist initially dismisses the man as crazy, but eventually hears his story. The man’s name is Dr. Miles Bennell, and several weeks ago he had returned from vacation to his home town. Almost immediately he is notified to strange goings-on which occurred in his town while he was gone; a large body of residents seemed to have become hysterical, and were demanding to see the Doctor, and yet now that the doctor had returned and was attempting to set up appointments with these residents who not two weeks before were desperate to see him, now didn’t care to see him at all. Additionally there were a number of people who thought one person was not who they said they were – a young boy who was insistent that his mother was not his mother, and a young lady who insisted that her grandfather was not her grandfather. Miles investigates these cases, but thinks them unfounded as there is nothing to suggest they are not who they say they are – their personality, memories, etc. were the same. However the people remained persistent, insisting that there was something deep down, something in their eyes that was disingenuous. Things continue normally for a time, as Miles pursues a rekindled romance with his old flame, Becky Driscoll. This reverie was cut short, however, when a friend of theirs calls both of them over to his house, to show him a strange body they had found in their house: the body was featureless and didn’t even have fingerprints, but physically it was similar to the man who had called them. We soon learn that there are plants which are able to create a body which takes your form while you sleep, eventually killing you and taking your place. We also learn that this is what had been occurring while Miles was gone, and now nearly the entire town was taken over. Miles tries to evade the efforts of the subverted town to forcibly change him, and watches as his escape attempts are thwarted and all of his friends are taken over, culminating, tragically, by the loss of his love Becky. Ultimately, Miles escapes the town, and the body snatchers pull off their chase, revealing that Miles’ escape would not foil their plans of world-subversion. Miles flees to the highway, where he learns that there are trucks laden with the body snatchers’ seed pods heading all over the country. Miles makes a desperate plea for help, and is ultimately taken in by the LA police force. So we return to the beginning of the movie as Miles finishes his story, and the psychiatrists are ready to commit the man, that is until another officer comes in talking of a crashed truck bearing large seed-like pods. The movie ends optimistically with the psychiatrists ordering the notification of the FBI to the existence of the body snatchers.

This movie was originally made as a B-movie, and true to B-movie form, the acting in this film is rather mediocre. There really was not a single actor in this move who I thought gave a “good” performance. Kevin McCarthy, who played Miles, was especially sporadic. His performance was plagued by overacting and hammy delivering of lines. He’s too forceful when subtlety was needed and too limp when he needed to be strong. Similarly, Dana Wynter, who played Becky was underwhelming as well. I especially didn’t like her melodramatic portions, which came off more as annoying than moving.

The movie makes up for its mediocre acting with great directing, superb writing, and a very compelling premise. The cinematography in this film is clever and effective. There are several cool shots, such as the decision to show a number of driving shots from the perspective of someone sitting in the front seat of the car. Another good series of shots were the various escape or runaway scenes, which were very easily accomplished. Additionally, the modus operandi of the storytelling in this film is effective. I like that this movie is told through a flashback of a man who we know for a fact makes it out of town alive. This leads to a determinist viewing of the film in which you know, ultimately how the film is going to end, and yet the film plays up suspense, and makes the characters sufficiently likeable, that you still find yourself hoping that the movie does not play out in the way that you think it’s going to play out. The play with the lighting in this film is equally likeable, and it brought to me, visions of the spectacular plays on lighting of the famous film noirs such as Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon.

Most compelling of all for me is the premise of the film. The idea of alien plants which create seed pods which, essentially, steal your soul while you sleep, seems, at least to me, very original. The ultimate result is, in a similar vein to Hitchcock’s The Birds of 8 years later, a film which turns a harmless object, or something you wouldn’t consider at all terrifying, into something wholly horrifying. Perhaps the most striking portion of this film comes about 2/3 of the way through the film, when Miles, and by extension you, finally discover the full extent of the plant’s contamination. Previous to this point you had only known seriously of about three or four people who had been taken over, and suddenly you are shown that the entire town has been turned, and turned right under your nose. Ultimately, however, what makes this film effective in my mind is not the plant, or the main characters being taken over, but the overriding aims of the plants. They seek not to destroy; not to control, and not to subvert, but rather, their ultimate aim is to enrich humanity. The plant sees their actions as being beneficial to humanity – by removing love, happiness, sadness, anger, or any other emotion, any form of conflict is removed from the planet, and so world peace shall finally be brought about. Ultimately, however, this peace is brought about as a loss of any semblance of free thought will, or even personality, bringing up the question, is peace worth bringing about if you cannot fully appreciate the achievement? This notion carries obvious communist-capitalistic or anti-authoritarian connotations, and the ultimate horror of this film comes about as a result of the conflict of these ideas. The idea of subversion is abhorrent to you, but the idea of an end to conflict is not. So, while inside you feel for Miles, at the same time you wonder if the work of these plants is not, at least in some vein, a good course to follow, do their theories have merit. This conflict is shown in Miles himself, who opposes and resists the plants, but never truly gives a reason for why he is resisting other than human nature.

This conflict is where, in essence, the original differs from the remake. In the original, the plants, while disgusting, were not truly horrifying. There was very little sense of urgency in the film, and you never get the sense that the subverted humans are threatening, or in some cases, even dangerous. The remake takes this concept, and makes it infinitely more horrifying, by turning the humans monstrous. Whereas in the original the subverted humans are virtually indiscernible from their original persons, the humans in the remake were more zombie-like, more aggressive, and, when motivated, more monstrous. The thought of subversion is terrifying, assimilation is something to be feared and avoided, shown fully in the final, striking, terrifying, and chilling ending. This shift turns the late-70s remake into less of a question-raising horror which makes you answer questions, and more of a straight horror film. Ultimately I prefer the remake to the original; not because it takes place in San Francisco (which is awesome), not because it stars Donald Sutherland (also awesome), and not because the remake has the benefit of nostalgia for me, but rather because the remake achieves what I consider the original to have failed on; to successfully turn the plant into something horrifying. The remake is terrifying completely and totally. Just watching the ending to this day runs chills down my spine, which is something the original does not accomplish. This may be a result of the less optimistic ending of the 1978 remake compared to the original, but all the same, the original did not have the same effect as the remake.

Don’t get me wrong; I really liked this movie. It was the quintessential B-movie. It was very effectively carried out, and was enjoyable to watch. Its status as a classic, its great influence on the sci-fi and horror are profound and evident, and its quality as a directing and writing masterpiece is also evident. Its place on this list is secured in my mind. Ultimately, however, it fails as a horror, and I would consider it inferior to the remake. That being said, on the whole I like both films, but I like them in different ways. The remake is great when you want to quite simply have the bejeebus scared out of you, if you want a resonating chill and horror to remain with you for several days after the fact. But if you want to have a movie which makes you think, consider, and reconsider your views of the world for weeks and even months after seeing the film, then the original is a much more adequate, and it is this lasting, cerebral effect brought about by this film which is why the original is on the list and the remake is not.