Monday, October 25, 2010

#19 Rocky (1976)

Rocky (1976)

"A distinctly American Film"

I’m back, baby. That’s right folks, I am not dead, and therefore the mission continues. We are 18 movies down, leaving only 1063 to go! And for our 19th movie we have a classic. This is one of the most referenced movies I’d argue in American film. Who hasn’t heard or seen the Rocky montage scene, with the big brass sound while he climbs those steps in Philadelphia, and if you haven’t seen that scene, who hasn’t seen another television show or movie make an homage to that scene? Now previous to last night, I had actually never seen the film, so these are my thoughts on the film without any previous experiences with it, so let’s take a look inside, eh?

The movie opens in a dingy boxing studio. Sylvester Stallone is boxing another man. The fight looks rough, neither of them is particularly graceful, but Stallone – Rocky – takes the man down. Rocky then retires to the dressing room where he takes a load off and nurses his wounds, beside him is another man doing likewise. Rocky gets 40 dollars, after fees, for winning the fight. It is at this point the credits roll, which I find very interesting. Behind the credits we can see Rocky walking through the dirty, dingy streets of Philadelphia. He enters his home, and the scene does not appear much better. It becomes apparent that Rocky is a working-class man, the pinnacle of Philadelphia-ness. He has a crush on a woman – Adrian – who is a very plain and shy woman who works in a pet shop he frequents. Most of his time is divided between his jobs – he works as hired muscle for a loan shark, and training in a boxing gym. Even at this gym he is not respected, as he loses his locker, a spot he’s held for 6 years, just because an up and coming stud needs one. Rocky’s trainer tells him “You’re not a contender, you’re a tomato”.

Rocky looks up to a man named Apollo Creed, who is the heavyweight champion of the world. Creed wants to have a bicentennial fight on new year’s eve, 1976, but his opponent has to bow out 5 weeks before the fight. Due to contractual and advertising obligations, Creed cannot afford to cancel the fight, so he comes upon a brilliant idea – he decides to select an unknown, unprofessional fighter to contest him. Ultimately he comes upon the name of Rocky, who he ends up selecting not for skill, or record, but for name – The Italian Stallion – a name he thinks will be easy to sell to the people. His coach even warns him against it, due to Balboa’s left-handedness, something Creed shrugs off with ease.

Upon his selection, Rocky is instantly beset upon by those who once derided him. People that scoffed at him now want his autograph, want to be his friend, and want to help him. The two that come to the forefront are his trainer, who sold out his locker and once called him “a tomato”, and Paulie, a friend who was really little more of a leach, trying to use Rocky to get him a job. He’s also important because he’s the brother of Adrian, the girl from the Pet shop who Rocky begins to date just previous to his being selected to fight. Ultimately Rocky ends up humbling the two with loud outbursts, but eventually accepts their offers of help.

What I found truly interesting during the training portions of the movie are the stark differences between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. Rocky is a humble, working class man, his speech is ungrammatical and plain. He’s not a particularly well trained fighter, with more guts than stuff. But also with Rocky is a good sense of morality. He shows concern, not just for his friends, but for anyone he comes across, trying to prevent a neighborhood girl he knows from falling in with the wrong crowd, helping a drunken man by taking him inside to keep him out of the cold. At the same time Rocky is proud, he takes personal insults extremely personally, lashing out at anyone who implies some bad mark on his character. This translates to his reasoning behind fighting. Rocky doesn’t fight for money or fame, as he tells Adrian on a date, but he does it to show that he “ain’t no bum”, to tell everyone that he’s not a nothing. Winning or being famous is irrelevant. In essence, Rocky encapsulates the working man. Creed, on the other hand, is the exact antithesis to Rocky in every way. He’s very well spoken, displaying a penchant for the flowery in prose. He’s also very greedy, and extremely arrogant. The fact that the man shows arrogance while having a Greek name is no coincidence, his hubris is the stuff of Greek tragedy, the most stark example coming when his trainer is watching videos of Rocky, and warning Apollo that Rocky means business, something that Apollo shrugs off. What’s more is Apollo’s reason to fight. He fights for wealth, he chooses his opponent because “it sounds catchy and is easy to sell”. What’s more remarkable is that most of the scenes with Rocky display him training, and training hard, the only scenes we see of Apollo is lounging about, or interacting with advertising men.

Anyways, Rocky sets to training and gets into shape. The famous montage happens and we see Rocky climbing stairs with ease. What I found more interesting was the scenes afterwards. Rocky visits the stadium the night before the fight, where he’s met by the fight promoter. Rocky tells the promoter that they got his picture wrong, referencing a depiction of him in the stadium. The promoter says, “Doesn’t really matter kid, so long as you give us a great show”. This scene results in the self-doubt moment common in the hero’s tale. Rocky is unsure that he wants to go through with the fight as he realizes that the whole thing is a sham, and he’s not going to win. Eventually his girlfriend Adrian spurs him to give it a shot.

As the two fighters prepare for the match, both prepare in exactly the same way, showing that at heart they are the same. The entrances, however, are very telling. When Rocky enters the fight, he’s very unassuming. He enters, flanked by his manager, signs a couple autographs, before stepping into the ring. Apollo, on the other hand is gaudy, and showy, as he enters dressed as George Washington in a mockery of the crossing of the Delaware. He then changes into a costume portraying himself as Uncle Sam, saying that he wants Rocky, and claiming he will go down in three rounds. Even the announcers are surprised by the showmanship of Creed, saying “I’ve never seen a fighter that concerned about his hair.”

So the fight starts. On the whole, Rocky gets pushed around, and beat up, though he gets some good hits. The third round comes and goes, and things remain largely the same, with Rocky getting punched around, but still getting some good hits on Apollo. As they go deeper and deeper into the fight, it appears to be much more equal blow for blow, and by the 15th round both men are on their last legs. The fight ends with both men still standing. Apollo grabs Rocky and says “There won’t be no rematch” signaling that he has been humbled by the fight, and Rocky says he doesn’t want a rematch. In the end, Rocky loses the fight, but it’s not really made a point, we never see Apollo being crowned the victor. Rather, we see Adrian fighting her way through the crowd, eventually reaching Rocky. The movie ends with the two kissing.

On a technical level, the movie was not particularly impressive. While the montage was absolutely brilliant, I didn’t think anyone’s acting was particularly spectacular, nor was the direction anything especially impressive. What I did like was the dialogue, and I thought Sylvester Stallone was well cast as his mumbling and garbled lines actually lend themselves to Rocky’s character. No, this film is more about ideas – the stark contrast between Rocky’s low class humility, and Apollo’s rich, capitalist hubris. Rocky is at its core what being an American is all about. Rocky is a foreigner – an Italian before an American – he’s poor, he’s humble, and most importantly, he’s normal. Both he and his girlfriend aren’t particularly attractive, and they both have hang-ups. When asked why he’s dating Adrian he says “We fit together, we fill gaps”. But the movie is at its core about a down-on-his-luck working class man being faced with an insurmountable opposition, and rising to the challenge, and, through hard work, training, and just plain guts, he rises to face the challenge. That Rocky loses is irrelevant. Rocky doesn’t need to win, he doesn’t fight to win, he fights to prove that “he ain’t no bum”, he fights to show that he shouldn’t be dismissed, and at the end of the movie, he accomplished this, and the movie accomplished this. The movie is nothing spectacular, but the ideas entailed in the movie are, and that’s why this movie is on the list.

Friday, June 4, 2010

#18 Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1993)

"A star studded, but ultimately disappointing film"

Our final Dracula movie this week is the Francis Ford Coppola film “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”. This is one of the more recent Dracula films, and the one I am most familiar with. While my reviews of Dracula and Nosferatu were my first screenings of those films, I have seen this particular film several times, the first of which being 5 years ago after I read the original novel. At first viewing, I rather liked the film, I was 14, and this movie was gory, erotic, and generally cool. Now, after having seen this film again, with perspective, and with a different sense of good and bad, I have different sentiments about this film.

The story in this film is the closest to the story of all of the movies here. The story begins with a prologue of sorts. It talks about where Dracula came from, how he was a Hungarian prince, who defends against the incursions of the Ottoman Turks. During the battle, his wife, his one love in the world, receives false information suggesting Dracula died in battle, and so, wracked with grief, she throws herself off a cliff. When Dracula finds out what happened, he forsakes god, and in the process, turns himself into a vampire. Cut to 1890s England. Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is told by his boss to travel to Transylvania to close a deal with one Count Dracula, who has been buying up property around London. The rest you’ve heard three times now, and this film is essentially the same thing, just with more sexual moaning, more nudity, and more blood. The only other difference is Dracula is made more human, and there’s a love story between Mina and Dracula that plays a much bigger part. One thing I do like about the film is that, like the books, the film is told largely through diary entries, which I thought was a very cool effect.

I found the acting in this film to be rather spotty. On the one hand, Gary Oldman as Dracula is absolutely stupendous, one of the best Dracula performances ever. Keanu Reeves, on the other hand, is not so good. As always, Keanu Reeves is completely bland and uninteresting. Winona Ryder I found to be off and on. Sometimes she’s good, and other times she’s very campy. And Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing I found to be silly. I cringed every time I heard him say “Ja”. The shooting is absolutely stupendous. There are a lot of cool shots, and a lot of cool effects in this film: scenes such as Dracula climbing down the castle, and effects such as Dracula being green mist, or the shots with the old fashioned camera.

On the whole, I did not like this film. This is actually the first of the films on the list that I didn’t really like. That’s not to say the film is bad, I just didn’t find it good, especially compared to the other two Dracula movies. One thing that truly annoyed me about this film is the gratuitous nudity in the film. And don’t even get me started on the sexual moaning. This film definitely could pass as a porno, and when I’ve been watching a lot of movies that do these stories great without blood, violence, or nudity, it just feels excessive. Why is this film on the list then? I think it’s because of all of the big names in this film. Reeves, Ryder, Hopkins, and Oldman, added to by the biggest of all of them, Francis Ford Coppola, that legendary director. This, if anything, is the reason why, I feel at any rate, that this film is on the list.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

#17 Dracula (1931)

Although the connotations of the concept and name “vampire” have changed massively in the last decade, especially with the advent of the popular book (and film) series “Twilight”, when I was a kid it was rather different. Vampires were something to be feared, to me anyways, they were scary, horrifying even. And the image that came to mind when one thought of Vampires was that of Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula; pale, regal, with a costume from the late 19th century, and piercing, striking eyes. This is the image of Dracula that has pervaded for what is now nearing on a century. It is a testament to the greatness of this film, and the great acting ability of Bela Lugosi.

This film, like Nosferatu, is quite true to the original novel. Unlike Nosferatu, however, this film features the actual character names. The story opens to a sequence that is rather similar to Hutter traveling to visit Orlok in Nosferatu. This time, Renfield is traveling to arrange a deal with Count Dracula. The whole sequence is rather spooky, and culminates in Dracula himself. Dracula talks to Renfield about buying the abandoned Carfax Abbey in London. After this is concluded, Dracula hypnotizes Renfield, and feasts on his blood.

The scene then cuts to an opera, where we are introduced to the main characters, Mina, Harker, and Lucy, accompanied by Dr. Seward. Dracula comes to the box, and the characters all become acquainted with one another. Later that night, Dracula visits Lucy and feasts on her blood, resulting the next day, in Lucy’s death after a series of failed transfusions. Meanwhile, Renfield has also returned to England, but has been institutionalized as his experience with Dracula has obviously driven him insane, and he rants endlessly about blood and life, primarily the lives of flies, spiders, and other arthropods. After befuddling the doctors, an expert is consulted, on Dr. Van Helsing, who, after interviewing Renfield, confesses a suspicion that a Vampire is to blame. A few nights later, Mina starts succumbing to the same illnesses Lucy showed. Van Helsing again lends his expertise, and through a series of stratagems, he proves to all that Count Dracula is a vampire. Despite all of his ensuing guiles after this dramatic reveal, Van Helsing and Harker eventually track Dracula to his lair in Carfax Abbey, and kill him while he sleeps, by driving a wooden steak through his heart.

The acting in this film is stupendous. Bela Lugosi is Dracula. He plays the role so well, and so true to the novel. He isn’t a monster, or grotesque, as described in Nosferatu, but a regal, suave, and smooth Count, who is quite capable of fooling and seducing just about everyone he meets. Bela’s accent, his delivery, and his gaze make this a truly stunning role. He isn’t the only great act in this film however. Renfield, played by Dwight Frye, also gives a spectacular performance. His portrayals first as a bumbling salesman put out of his element, and later as a deranged psychopath are equally compelling, and really add a lot to the film. Finally, Edward Van Sloan, who plays Van Helsing, also gives an excellent performance as the primary protagonist to Dracula’s antagonist. You feel yourself shouting “no!” when you see Bela Lugosi nearly lead him astray, only for him to flip the crucifix, and for you the viewer to release a sigh of relief.

The camerawork is also quite well done. The director Tod Browning has a lot of close ups, particularly on Bela’s Eyes, and on the little, insignificant insects that captured Renfield’s passion, and these are well done. Another great shot is the one of Renfield looking out of his cell door, and onto the field, where he sees Dracula standing, waiting. Another, equally great shot is the one at the end of the film, in which Dracula pushes Renfield down the stairs. These scenes are compelling, and you feel sorry for the deranged Renfield.

This film truly marks the start of the “monster genre” that dominated Hollywood and inspired viewers for another two decades, instigating other great monsters, such as Frankenstein, the Creature of the Black Lagoon, and the Wolf Man. I wanted to do a week of monster classics, featuring Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man, but neither Frankenstein nor Wolf Man were available on Watch Instantly, and moreover, a Dracula week was just too tempting. But I digress. This film is on the list simply because of what it did for film, and for the horror genre. This film really popularized Vampires, and provided an archetype from which all other vampire films were based. It established a lot of vampire tropes. And seriously, when you think of Vampires, the first thought that pops into your head, I can guarantee you, is that of Bela Lugosi, the king of Vampires.

Monday, May 31, 2010

#16 Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

"A Key Work in the history of film"

It can be argued that there is no story or character more adapted and done in film than vampires, and Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. It has been done so much that we are going to be doing a week of Dracula, and even then there are more to go on the list. Our first film in this our first Dracula/Vampire week is Nosferatu: eine Syphonie des Grauens, a German film released in 1922. Nosferatu was a film I didn’t know very much about. To be honest, the only time I had ever heard of it before a year ago was on an episode of Spongebob. But then again, the combination of Dracula – I used to avoid horror films like the plague – and silent films, which I haven’t looked at seriously until very recently. However, looking at the film now, I really wish I had discovered these movies earlier.
The story of this film is funny. Funny in that it very closely resembles the novel written by Bram Stoker that it’s based on, but is just slightly different. This is because the film makers could not gain the rights to the book. Instead of taking place in London, the story takes place in a small village in Austria Hungary. The main character is Thomas Hutter, a young, ambitious real estate agent, who has recently been wedded to a woman Ellen. The real story begins when Hutter’s boss, Knock tells Hutter that one Count Orlok is interested in buying a house in town, and Knock sends Hutter to sell him the house across from his. So, Hutter sets out, and starts exxperiencing creepy stuff. Despite the warnings of the villagers he meets, he presses on, eventually reaching the castle. Hutter is eventually successfully sells the house to Orlok, but in the process discovers that Orlok (Dracula) is a nosferatu (vampire), and is hell-bent on taking Hutter’s (Harker‘s) wife (fiancé) for his own. Orlok incapacitates Hutter, and sets out to get at Ellen (Mina). Hutter eventually comes to his senses, and the story becomes a race between Orlok and Hutter to get home first. Hutter succeeds, but Orlok is fast on his heels. In the meantime, Knock has become the equivalent of Renfield in the book, and starts going crazy. When Orlok arrives, as in the book, he comes by boat, and ends up killing everyone on board. When the boat arrives, the townsfolk suspect plague, and so put the whole town on quarantine. When people start dying, the townsfolk blame the whole thing on Knock, and so start chasing him through the town. Ellen, in the meantime, starts doing research, and learns that the only way to defeat the nosferatu, is not by a steak through the heart, but by seducing him the entire night, and getting him caught in daylight. She does this, much to Hutter’s dismay, and the film ends with Orlok dead, and Ellen dying in Hutter’s arms.
As I said before with Metropolis, I love the acting in these silent films. The concept of emoting rather than dialogue is compelling and different enough for me to find it interesting. Hutter is quite good, and Ellen is absolutely gorgeous, always a must for these types of films. Naturally, the show stealer in this film is Orlok. Playing the count, he is quite good, but as the Nosferatu, he is stupendous. It really is one of those seminal roles, like Boris Karloff playing Frankenstein’s Monster, or Bela Lugosi playing Dracula a decade later. The camerawork in this film is equally good, it’s nearly a character of its own. There are some truly spectacular shots of the beautiful Carpathian mountains. The film also does a great job with shadows. One of my favorite scenes is Orlok closing in on Hutter, and the scene shows the shadows of the claws of the nosferatu enveloping him. Another cool thing the film does is differentiate between night and day. Naturally this film came out before the development of lighting and night shooting, so the film shoots everything during the day, and differentiates with different filters – a yellow one for day, and a blue one for night.
The only problem I have with this film, as I had with Metropolis, is the music. These silent films generally had live music that was performed live to the music, meaning there is no audio tracks in these films. Because of that, when these films are restored, a composer comes in and makes a new audio track for the film. Usually these tracks are atrociously bad, and often do not match with what’s going on in the film. For Nosferatu, this is particularly bad. It got so unbearable that at one point I actually did mute the sound because it was that bad. However, int eh face of the overall excellence of this film, the music is tolerable.
Dracula seems to be one of those stories that has captivated audiences since the story was first published in the 1880s. It is one of the most done – or possibly overdone – stories and genres in film. From Les Vampyrs to Twilight, vampires have been sparking the imaginations of humanity for generations. And this is why this film is on the list. It’s one of the first – and certainly the first feature length – vampire films to ever come out, and the first Dracula adaptation. Because of this, this film has come to be a seminal – archetypal – film, and has come to establish many of the tropes common in vampire films. It’s also notable for its special effects and costume work, not to mention the stupendous job of Max Schreck as Count Orlok. All of these things combine to make one of the greatest, and most monumental movies in film, a film that needs to be seen by any patron of film.

Friday, May 21, 2010

#15 The Birds (1963)

"An interesting examination of the human psyche"

Our final movie of this our first of many Hitchcock weeks is The Birds. This movie is exceedingly notorious, and was, in fact, the only Hitchcock movie I knew of for the first, probably 14 years of my life. This movie is interesting in that it is nothing at all like the other Hitchcock movies of this week; the story is not at all complex, nothing is explained at the end, there are no big twists. The lack of twists in this movie can itself almost be considered a twist. Throughout the whole of the movie I was expecting a twist, expecting the crazy birds to be explained, but it never came. I was so surprised, I felt hollow inside because of it. But that’s the point. This movie isn’t about why or how, it’s about what. The film is really an exploration into what people do when a disaster sets in, how people respond to terror and mass hysteria, and in this realm, the movie is extraordinarily successful.
The film is about Melanie Daniels, a wealthy daughter of a newspaper magnate living in San Francisco. We first see her in a pet store, where she is picking up a bird, when she meets up with Mitch Brenner, a lawyer, who reveals that Melanie is quite the prankster. After their brusque meeting, Melanie takes a fancy to the man, and tries to find out where he lives, which turns out to be a sleepy little port town 60 miles up the coast called Bodega Bay. She follows him up there, and their courtship begins. During this period, however, weird things begin to happen, starting with a seagull attacking and injuring Melanie. Things get weirder and weirder as time goes on, resulting in the climax in which hordes of birds of many species start launching coordinated assaults on the people of Bodega Bay.
As can be expected in a Hitchcock film, the casting of this film is absolutely superb. Tippi Hedren, who plays Melanie, and Rod Taylor, who plays Mitch both do stupendous jobs. Mitch’s clingy mother, played by Jessica Tandy also gives a stupendous job. The shooting of this film is equally stupendous as always. There are so many great shots in this film, too many to count, and too many to list off. One of the most striking, however, is the first character who gets killed by the Birds. We are shown a man sitting down, with both of his eyes pecked out. The film then cuts to a closer look at him, then again to an even closer look at his eyes. It’s a very striking scene, and really sends a message to the viewers that these birds are dangerous. Another great scene is the scene from above showing the town from the perspective of the birds. Another striking part of this film is the sound. There is nearly no music in the film at all – the only music being a short number by the schoolchildren. This really gives a sense of isolation and almost paranoia. The film also does a great job with sound direction. It makes great use of the sounds of bird calls and the sound of flapping wings to really create tension and fear.
What this film does really well, however is the emphasis on the psychological aspect of the film. The truly key scene of the film is the Diner scene, just after the first major attack, and before the start of mass panic. You have Melanie telling people about the attack, and a bird expert telling people there is no danger. Slowly, but surely the people start to realize the danger, and start panicking. Then the attack comes, and after 10 minutes of action, we are returned to the diner, where we see everyone crying, the selfsame bird expert is cowering in the corner. Another great aspect of this film is the exposition. The film does a great job of building momentum. The action doesn’t begin until 40 minutes into the film, and those first 40 minutes are a story in of itself, which really gives you a chance to get to know and like all of the characters, giving the rest of the film meaning.
This is truly a great film. Although the birds are cheesy, and the action scenes are all very silly and cheesy, and the effects are quite stupid, the film is effective. The horror is there, the film is frightening. This film is on the list for a number of reasons. Firstly for it’s cultural impact. As I said before, this was the only Hitchcock film I knew of before I saw North by Northwest in High School. This film, not Vertigo, not Psycho, but this one. Second, the film is on the list for its investigation into how people respond to paranoia and hysteria. Thirdly, this film is on the list for Hitchcock, and his filmmaking ability. This movie took something as innocent as a bird, and created a terrifying monster. This film is a testament to the power and skill Hitchcock has in creating tension and horror. This man is truly the master of thrills.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

#14 Psycho (1960)

"Hitchcock is a freaking genius"

In the long list of movies that have had a profound impact on cinema, Psycho ranks among the greatest. So much of this film has become horror and thriller staple. And yet, at the same time, so much of this film is absolutely unique, and singularly great. This is an absolutely stupendous film. Everything is so thoroughly perfect and unique, that even a director copying the film line for line and shot for shot cannot compare to its quality. It is, simply, a perfect thriller.

As before, this film is so chockfull of unexpected twists, that I’m going to leave my synopsis minimal for fear of revealing so of the superb twists in this film. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is an ordinary divorcée living in Phoenix, AZ. She has an ordinary job at a real estate firm, and has an ordinary relationship with a man who comes down from California to visit her, but this all changes, however, when a particularly wealthy man buys a house with 40,000 dollars cash. Marion is sent off to deposit the money in the bank, but she instead decides to take the money and split. She decides to take the money to her boyfriend, as it’s revealed they plan to get married once the boyfriend’s debts are paid off. All the while, she becomes increasingly paranoid, and seems to be slipping into insanity throughout the trip. One night while she’s driving through California, it becomes so stormy that she’s forced to pull off into a hotel for the night. The one she chooses is the Bates Motel, a run-down motel off the main road, which is completely unoccupied except for the owner, a creepy man named Norman, and his ailing, insane mother. The rest of the movie is about what goes down between Marion and Norman, and its aftermath, neither of which I want to spoil, because they blindside you to such an extent that to give it away would ruin the movie entirely.

The acting in this movie is quite solid. Marion is solid, but the real show-
stealer is Norman, who plays his role absolutely superbly. He has so many great lines, you can just feel your skin crawling when he’s talking. The more amazing part of this film is the camera work. The camera feels like another character unto itself. Among the best scenes in the film are the shower scene, which is so incredible, I am at a loss for words just thinking about it. Another great one is after the shower scene when the film is showing Marion’s body, and panning around the newspaper containing the money, or another scene when the PI attempts to confront Norman’s mother. Hitchcock does such a good job building suspense, every scene is a nailbiter. The climactic end scene is just absolutely intense, and your hair is on end even at the end when everything has been resolved. Additionally, the music is excellent. It’s become such a part of our culture and the stereotypical slasher that you don’t even realize how well it goes to the film, but it does, and as with the rest of the film, builds suspense incredibly well.

So much of this film is so good. It is without a doubt one of the top 5 films I’ve ever seen, and the best suspense film I’ve seen yet. There is so much the film does well, and what I find more incredible is the film does it all without gore, without blood, without violence. None of the characters are hideous or grotesque. This film is a great example of showing just enough to get your imagination going, but leaving enough out to let your imagination run rampant. The suspense building is superb. And every one of the three MAJOR twists are pulled off so flawlessly, and blindside you so completely that your mouth is left agape at it. This film is a must watch. By the end of it, I guarantee you all you will be able to say is, “Hitchcock is a freaking genius.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

#13 Vertigo (1958)

"A Well Executed Thriller"

This week shall be Hitchcock week as I review three absolutely classic Hitchcock films: Psycho, The Birds, and of course, this one, Vertigo. I had never seen a Hitchcock film before this one, and I really wish I had seen them earlier. These films are absolutely incredible. The stories are excellent, the characters are engaging and multifaceted, and the twists are just oh so good. Vertigo really exemplifies all of these points. It also certainly doesn’t hurt that the movie takes place primarily in San Francisco, and I’m a sucker for films set in SF.

The story centers on John “Scottie” Ferguson, played by Jimmy Stewart (who you may also remember from “It’s A Wonderful Life”). Ferguson recently was chasing a criminal when he nearly fell to his death. This gave him a serious bout of Vertigo, and because of this, he decided to retire from the police force. He’s pulled back into work, however, when a man asks him to follow his wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), who has been acting very strangely. This is the essential action of the story, and I’d go further into it, but the plot is very complicated, and any effort to explain it on my part would not do it proper service (and might give away some very good twists, to boot). But needless to say, the plot is very cool, and some of the twists in the film are just absolutely amazing, and will totally blindside you.

The acting in this film is also very good. I am a big fan of Jimmy Stewart, and I thought he did a very good job with this role. He acts a lot like the character he played in Wonderful Life, but it still feels completely unique and engaging. Novak, the leading lady, does a very good job as well. More important to this film is the camera work, and Hitchcock is a true master of the camera. Hitchcock’s game is subtlety. You can’t watch this film passively; there are so many subtle clues leading up to the finale, the big reveal of what’s been going on in the film the whole time, and, as with Citizen Kane, you find yourself exclaiming “Oh!” about a hundred times. As a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, I found this extremely cool, and was into it the whole time. What I think makes this work even more is how little the film seems to progress through the middle. The film (or Ferguson) seems to get sidetracked a lot, and you find yourself asking where the film is going. The aptness with which all these seemingly unconnected lines are tied up at the end makes the film all the better.

I loved the setting of the film too. Being a resident of the Bay Area, I may be a little biased, but I thought San Francisco (and San Juan Batista) were such excellent places to shoot this film. The views are awe-inspiring. The shot where Ferguson and Elster are situated underneath the Golden Gate Bridge absolutely made my jaw drop. This is a little detracting of the film at the same time if you’re from the area, however, there are many cases in the film where the location jumps around, or the characters aren’t where they say they are, and a local will be able to point it out in a second, but it still works just as well.

All in all, this is a very well executed film. Why is it on the list? Simple, it’s a Hitchcock film. Hitchcock is one of those legendary, titanic, filmmakers, similar to Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick, whose films simply cannot be left out of lists like these. Moreover, this film is a showcase for the thriller genre, and generally on top ten or top 15 lists today, despite its mediocre reception upon its release. The film does a good job of leading you in one direction, and completely blindsiding you with the reveal. Basically this movie is awesome, and I’m going to stop attempting to (and failing at) sum up the words to express how cool this film is, and leave you with one command: “watch this film”.

Friday, May 14, 2010

#12 The Matrix (1999)

"An action film that has defined a generation"

The Matrix is one of those movies that has really come to define not just a genre, but a generation. With its cool visual effects, exhilarating action sequences, and awesome kung-fu, it has raced through the imaginations of every teenager and young adult since it first premiered in 1999. I remember watching this movie when I was 9 years old when it was fresh out of the theatres – it was the first movie I saw on DVD, and was the first movie I watched in surround sound. At that time I didn’t really understand what was going on in the film, but thought the kung-fu scenes were pretty awesome. This was my first time seeing the original Matrix all the way through since I first saw it those 10 years ago, and now it feels like I’m seeing a completely different movie. I appreciate the action films all the more now (especially now seeing its impact on the whole action genre), but can also appreciate the story and the philosophical aspects of the film.

The movie opens with a stream of green numbers and a female voice in the background. She’s making a phone call, and is talking about a guy. Suddenly she realizes that the phone is being traced. It’s too late, however, as the cops are already at her door, and she is brought into custody. We are then taken outside the building, where the police chief is talking to what would appear to be some FBI agents. They tell the chief that, because he went in too early, the woman will escape. Suddenly we are taken back to the lady, who, through some dazzling kung-fu moves, manages to fight off her captors, and breaks off running. We follow her through one very cool chase scene, ending with her answering a phonebooth, and getting sucked into the phone, just avoiding getting run over by one of the FBI agents, who was pursuing her with a garbage truck. How’s that for an opening?

The film then introduces us to the main character, Neo, who is played by Keanu Reeves. Neo is a computer programmer by day and devious hacker by night. Eventually he gets caught, and is brought into questioning by the same FBI agents we saw earlier in the film. Weird stuff happens, resulting in them putting a bug in his stomach. Neo then wakes up, implying it was all a dream. Later that day he meets up with a reputable hacker named Morpheus. Morpheus tells him that everything is a lie, leading to one of the most famous parts of the film, where Morpheus gives him a choice between two pills – a blue pill, which will return him to his ordinary life, or a red pill, which will allow him to continue to find the truth. Neo obviously takes the red pill, and Neo is shown the truth about life. The truth is that life is an illusion. Humans created AI in the early 21st century, and after an inevitable robots vs humans war, the robots ended up winning, and enslaving the human race to feed off their body heat as energy. The world we live in is a virtual reality to prevent the humans from resisting, and this virtual reality is called the Matrix. A number of humans have managed to escape the Matrix thanks to the efforts of a man everyone calls “The One”, and these humans have settled down in an underground city called Zion. From here, freed humans can hack into the Matrix to find and release people from its grip.
The main plot of this movie is that Morpheus believes Neo to be the second coming (possibly because his name is an anigram of one?), and Morpheus takes it upon himself to unlock Neo’s potential; It is revealed that The One is capable of bending, or even outright breaking the rules of the Matrix (physics, gravity, etc.). During this process, one of the freed humans betrays Morpheus to a group of programs, called “Agents”, whose job it is to uncover and destroy any freed humans trying to hack into the Matrix (These are the FBI agents we saw earlier in the movie). These Agents are super powerful, and can do cool things such as dodging bullets and punching through walls. The Agents capture Morpheus, and it is up to Neo and Trinity (the woman from the beginning of the movie) to rescue Morpheus. There’s much more to this movie, and if I tried to explain it all, it would take way too long, but I think I get the idea across.

The acting in this movie is ok. Keanu Reeves gives off the kind of performance you would expect from Keanu Reeves (bland and boring are the words I would use). I found the performance of his love interest, Trinity (played by Carrie-Anne Moss) to be equally uninspiring. The real show stealers in this film are Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne), whose performance in this film is just legendary, and the primary antagonist in this film, Agent Smith (played by Hugo Weaving). The direction in this film is very good, and the cinematography is incredible. There are so many cool shots in this film. One of my favorites is when Morpheus is offering the pills to Neo. It is done through the reflection of his pince-nez sunglasses, which show the red pill in one lens, and the blue pill in the other. The special effects in this film are just awesome. This is the film that truly popularized “bullet time”, and has many cool explosions. The depiction of the robots is also quite well done.

The action sequences in this movie are also well done, and downright riveting. One thing I particularly like about the hand to hand sequences is, rather than doing the traditional Hollywood thing and just showing the actor’s faces, this movie keeps the camera back, and shows the audience the full picture, truly highlighting the well-choreographed scenes. While doing this, however, the film still keeps us close to the characters. The stories of the characters are engaging, and you will find yourself emotionally attached to the characters, making it really exciting when Neo triumphs in the end.

Overall this film is well done. While I had problems with some parts of this film, namely the bland acting from the 2 most important characters, and several auxiliary ones, overdone shots (I dug the slo-mo, but they did it way too much), the film has really come to define the action genre, and this is why the film is on the list, primarily. So many things this movie popularized – bullet time, slow motion scenes, running off walls – have come to be action film clichés. This movie has really defined a genre. Another case can be made, I think, for the philosophical aspects of this film. The film goes the way of Blade Runner in that it asks the question, “how do you know you and what you see are real?”, and goes to explain a lot of supernatural phenomena. Although you might shrug it off after the movie is over, it really is a question that stays with you. The film is also interesting in how it plays with fate and faith, which come to be huge parts of the film. Overall, this film has excellent action sequences, and plenty of killing, but at the same time it asks some very probing questions that leave you asking questions, which is very rare in action films.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

#11 Blade Runner (1982)

"An exquisite marrying of new and old"

The second in this our week of sci-fi films depicting dystopian futures is the 1982 film Blade Runner. This film stars Harrison Ford, which should already set off some bells. This is one of those films that I had heard of, but never really felt like I had seen. In fact, I would not be reviewing this film now if it hadn’t been brought to my attention in my film class a few weeks ago. The ironic thing is, that after the first 5 minutes, I realized that not only had I seen the film before, but I had seen it several times over. Looking at it now seriously, critically ,and analytically, I found it to be excellent. In full, it is a superb combination of film noir, those hard boiled cop films of the 40s and, the rapidly emerging film genre of science fiction.

The film takes place in Los Angeles in the year 2019, and scientists have developed a robot, called a replicant, that looks and acts exactly like a human, except that the robot stronger, faster and smarter. Fear of these creatures has caused them to be banned on planet Earth. To enforce this ban, a new force was created, a force whose job it was to hunt and destroy any replicants hiding out on Earth. This force is called The Blade Runners. The viewer is sent to Los Angeles, which we discover is now a slummy wasteland, inhabited solely by those humans too poor to afford a trip to Earth’s now numerous off-world colonies. Harrison Ford is one of these humans, and was once a Blade Runner, before quitting due to psychological trauma. Ford is brought back onto the force after four replicants killed a number of people, including a veteran blade runner, and were now running rampant in the streets of Los Angeles. The rest of the film plays out like a detective film, as Ford investigates crime scenes, examines evidence, and hunts the four robot killers.

I found the acting in this film to be quite good. Harrison Ford plays a character that seems to be quite a lot like Han Solo from Star Wars. He’s smarmy and smooth talking, but ultimately knows how to get the job done. I thought the actors who played the robots also did a good job. You could really sense that they were humanoid, but ultimately lacked the emotions that set humans apart from replicants – one of the few cases in which I would say forced, or seemingly forced lines actually work very well. The directing is good, but the shots I didn’t find to be particularly striking.

This film is really interesting because it takes the character driven aspects of the hardboiled detective film noir of the 40s, and combines it with the serious science fiction films that had begun to pop up in the 70s, with Star Wars and Alien. The film feels grimy, and the character development is incredible. The characters feel so real; you even become attached to the robots. The science fiction is really quite nice as well. Though the movie never really goes into the details of what happened, the scenes of Los Angeles are very striking. The people speak a dialect that Ford in the movie describes as, “a mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you.” The feeling of dystopia is ever present, and you constantly find yourself wanting to know what happened.

The other thing I really liked about this film, is that Ford’s character is weak. He is always overpowered by the replicants, even the female ones. He has to rely on his own wits and ingenuity to survive, and every one of them is an ordeal. This is primarily because the film isn’t about the action, it’s not about cool action scenes, it’s about the emotions and motivations of the characters during the fight. This is truly proven in the ending scene of the film, which, as always, I will not give away. But trust me when I say, you’ll walk away scratching your head a little bit.

This film is on the list for a number of reasons. First is its cultural impact. I know I seem to be saying this with every film, but this one had some serious cultural impact on the sci-fi genre. A lot of aspects of this film are imitated a lot in sci-fi afterwards. It also asks a lot of interesting questions, such as what constitutes a human being, and how do we know we and our memories are real (the film actually goes so far as to put the famous Descartes quote “I think therefore I am” into the film).” Finally, this film is on the list for its excellent marrying of old and new. It combines film noir and sci-fi so well. While it certainly didn’t spark a genre or a trend to the best of my knowledge, it certainly perpetuated them. This is truly an excellent film, and if you love detective films, or sci-fi (I happen to love both), then this is certainly a great film to see.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Metropolis (1927)

"A biting critique of economic systems"

The movie Metropolis today would not seem at all remarkable. With science fiction and apocalyptic films selling at a dime a dozen nowadays, you would expect most people to shrug off the idea of a science fiction silent film from the late twenties. 5 years ago, I would have been one of those people. I used to absolutely despise silent film, but no longer. Metropolis is the first silent film I’ve seen to completion, and I loved it. The film is an incredible piece of criticism, with amazing scope and depth, and the special effects, for their time, are astounding.
The story of the film is amazing. It takes place in the distant future in a massive city called Metropolis. The city is socially divided. The workers, the vast majority of the city’s population work beneath the surface of the city, and live in houses below the machines. This is the entirety of the lives of the workers, they seldom even see the light of day. The small upper crust, meanwhile, lives above the city, enjoying the pure essence of luxury and recreation. The story revolves around one man, Freder Frederson, who is the son of the head and designer of Metropolis. He is schmoozing with his fellow upper class citizens, when he lays eyes on Maria, a simple worker’s daughter. Naturally he falls instantly in love with her, and chases her into the machine rooms. In these rooms, he comes face to face with the part of society he was largely kept sheltered from, when there is an accident at the factory and many workers are killed before his eyes. Confused, he confronts his father, who brushes the accidents off as “unavoidable”. Depressed and confused, he sneaks into the undercity where he experiences a day in the life of a worker. At the end of the day, he travels with the rest of the workers to listen to a woman who is a sort of prophet for the workers. This woman turns out to be none other than Maria. She urges the workers to be peaceful, and patient until a messiah-type figure – which she calls the mediator – can solve relations between the workers and the planners. After the workers clear out, Freder asks Maria for her hand in marriage, and she agrees.
Meanwhile, the inventor Rotwang tells Freder’s father, John of his latest invention – a robot that never grows tired, and can take the place of any human. The two then go to the undercity and listen in on Maria’s speech to the masses. He tells Rotwang to kidnap Maria, and make the robot take her as its form, and then send the robot down to encourage the masses to violence. The plan works, and the workers descend on the factories, and break all of the machines, in the process flooding their own houses. Mara meanwhile manages to escape Rotwang, and she and Freder go to the undercity and save the wives and children of the workers. The rest of the movie is about Freder and Maria trying to assuage the masses, and there is more to the film, but giving it away would defeat the purpose of watching the film.
This was the first silent film I’d ever seen, so I’ll give my thoughts on silent film. One thing I really like about silent film is the acting. In today’s film, actors are usually rated based on their ability to deliver lines, and their accent. Silent film doesn’t have this luxury, so acting is more about emoting. I really like this aspect. Silent film is all about saying everything without saying anything at all, and I find this really cool. In addition to this, Silent Film carries another aspect of theatre over to film, that of makeup. This film has stage costume and makeup, which I find to be really cool. It feels like I’m at a play, but I’m watching from the comfort of my own home. The thing I didn’t like about the film was the music. The music itself was incredible, but the problem was that it often doesn’t fit into the mood of the scene. Often you’d get some totally tragic scene, with highly upbeat music. For all I know, this could have been intentional, as part of the larger critique, but I found it a little unnerving.
The depth of the film was incredible. I found the most fascinating scenes of the movie to be the large shots showing the whole city. They are absolutely spectacular, and truly convey the true scope of the city. Additionally, the special effects were incredible. The scenes with the robot, and with the electricity were incredible. The coolest scene of all was when Rotwang was giving the Robot Maria’s form. It really makes you forget this film was shot in 1927. Another great thing about this movie was the cinematography. There are so many incredible shots in this film. From the very beginning, with the masses of workers, dressed in black, marching in lock-step, heads bowed into the elevator to go to work, while another similar group leaves another elevator, to the very end with large scenes of the worker mobs rushing into the bourgeois planners, the whole film just exudes modern day blockbuster.
This film is on the list for a number of reasons. This film is really one of the earliest science fiction films ever. The scope of this film, as I have said, is incredible. It’s as well thought out as any of today’s intricate sci-fi flicks (two of which will be covered this week). This film is on the list for its biting critique of capitalist ideology. John Frederson is the epitome of Robber Barons. He’s Rockefeller, Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie all put into one. His whole character in the first part of the movie is evoked through the scene early in the movie when Freder confronts John about the accident. But the film also condemns Marxist revolutionary tendencies. The ultimate theme of the film is peaceful cooperation, and agreement. In a world where “Marxist”, “Communist”, and “Socialist”, are still big buzzer words in today’s political world, this movie is still relevant, and its total timelessness is what makes this a must see for any lover of film.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street

The final in our week of horror is the classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. This is one of those seminal horror franchises. Similar to the Exorcist and The Shining, this movie sparked a large array of techniques and styles that have come to be horror film clichés. As with the other two, this is an extremely effective horror film. Not only does it feature a very young Johnny Depp, and an absolutely stupendous villain, but it also is very effective at playing mind games with the viewer, tricking you into feeling ease, and then unleashing a fright designed to get you to jump.
The story of this film is something most people are familiar with. It opens in a boiler room, where a hot blondie is running from a disfigured man with knives for hands. Just as the killer closes in, the girl is woken up. The film then cuts to the girl recounting her adventure to her friends. She tells them she’s frightened, and asks them to stay with her. In the middle of the night, the girl’s goofball boyfriend shows up, and they have sex, leaving her friends to their own devices. Later everyone falls asleep, and the girl wakes up and goes outside, where she meets the villain again. She makes a run for it, but the villain catches up and just as she’s about to get gored, the scene cuts back to the room, where it turns out that she’s been dreaming again. But she doesn’t wake up, and out of nowhere, the girl’s gut gets ripped open, and she is torn to shreds by nothing. The next day, blondie’s best friend, Nancy Thompson, begins to have similar dreams. For the rest of the film, Nancy has to fight sleep deprivation and insanity while she tries to find a way to fight the villain.
Personally I didn’t think the film was particularly well acted, with the sole exception of Robert Englund, who played Freddy Krueger, the villain. The rest of it just feels like cheesy 80s acting. However the director of the film, Wes Craven, who also did the Scream films and The Hills Have Eyes, does a great job. The film features many clichés, and it was hard for me to tell if they were his own design and made them into clichés, or if he was just copying them. Either way, he does a good job with them. The shots, were artfully done, and created a lot of suspense. A favorite of mine was the use of shaky cam in the first kill of the movie.
The movie also does a very good job with sound direction. It’s interesting, because throughout the film, you actually don’t see very much of Freddy. Most of his presence is done through sound, and I love it. Scenes where Nancy is looking for Freddy, and all you hear is the scraping sound of his knives, or his distinctive chuckle. It works extremely well, and every time you hear it, you feel the hairs on the back of your neck standing up.
The film also does a really good job blurring the lines between dreams and reality. The film doesn’t really show the character go to sleep. Often times the film will show a character for several minutes before you realize it’s a dream, and really adds to the feeling of paranoia in the film, as you start to fall into the idea that awake=safe and sleep=danger. It also plays with dreams within dreams which is a big part of the ending. The ending is also very strange. I won’t give the ending away, but all I’ll say is it is very confusing, and I’m still trying to figure out what happened. I guess it’s just another thing that makes this film so good.
All in all, this film is just an effective horror film. What does that mean? Well, if the last week has shown us anything, it’s that an effective horror film makes a good use of suspense. Horror isn’t about gore or violence, or big scary monsters. Horror needs two things to be truly scary. Those are a sense of the unknown, and some connection to reality. Every film this week has done this. The films are well aware of this, and use the sense of the unknown to build suspense to a thrilling climax. I used to shrug off horror, even avoid it, but I’m really coming to appreciate it as a genre, and am really looking forward to the next horror week, which should be coming soon!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Shining (1980)

The Shining (1980)

The Shining is one of those quintessential movies. So many things from this movie are referenced, quoted, or even outright copied. This is largely because it is an exceedingly successful horror film. Its ability to build suspense is such that, before bad things even start happening, you are utterly terrified. This film is a wonderful piece of horror, and certainly one of my most favorite movies of all time.
The story of this film is very interesting. Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson is an unsuccessful writer who is traveling to the Overlook Hotel, deep in the Colorado mountains for a job interview – he is going to be the caretaker for the Hotel during the winter. During the interview, it is revealed that weird things have happened to caretakers, who are driven insane by the solitude. The previous caretaker hacked his wife and two kids to pieces, and then killed himself. The film then cuts to Jack’s family, who are having breakfast. Later on it’s revealed that the son, Danny, has some form of ESP, and tells the future through the use of an alter ego, who he calls Tony (he describes him of as the little man who lives in his mouth). Tony sends various images to Danny, telling him that “the blood goes to the hotel”, causing him to pass out. A doctor is called, and it’s revealed during the checkup that Jack was an alcoholic, but had recently given up the stuff, and there had been cases of abuse in the family. The family then travels to the hotel, and are given a tour of the place, Danny meets a cook who has similar powers to him (which the man calls “the shining”). The man feigns ignorance, but gives the sense that the hotel is very dangerous. The family is eventually left alone, and, after a month of nothing, things begin to get weird. Jack begins to get touchy, and is easily irritated. Meanwhile, Danny starts seeing strange things, such as two twin girls, and rivers of blood flowing through the hotel. Eventually, Jack begins going insane, and, by the end, takes an axe and starts actively trying to kill his family, egged on by hallucinations he begins interacting with.
This film is stupendously acted. Jack Nicholson gives an absolutely amazing performance. He plays insanity incredibly well, and his lines are very well delivered. This film also features great performances from the mother and the son. The directing is also very good. Stanley Kubrick does an excellent job, and features many great shots. The film has a lot of still shots, and one of the most incredible things the film does is to contrast a lot of still, serene shots with behind the back shots with a lot of movement. The most memorable of these is the contrast of Jack sitting quietly in his study writing, with the over the shoulder shot of Danny riding his tricycle through the halls. This is extremely disorienting, and creates a lot of tension which builds nicely throughout the film to the climax, which is one of the most memorable in film. Another very famous scene is when Jack takes an axe, and begins battering down a door. When a hole gets cut into the door, Jack sticks his face in, and yells, “Here’s Johnny!”, which is perhaps the most memorable scene in the film.
Another thing I particularly like about this film is the mother, Wendy, who is played by Shelly Duvall. She plays a good and very intelligent survivor in this film, and is unusually “genre savvy” for a horror film. This is best exemplified during the climactic axe scene, where Jack has cut a hole in the door. He reaches his hand in to open the door from the inside, and Wendy grabs a knife and stabs his hand. The other thing I like about this film is the ambiguities. Throughout the film, it’s hard to say whether Jack’s insanity is through some supernatural force which possesses him, or whether it’s cabin fever and solitude. Even to the end the film isn’t exactly definitive.
This film is on the list because of its effect on culture and the horror genre. There are so many things in this film which are referenced constantly in popular culture. For example, the twin girls in dresses holding hands, the tricycle scene, REDRUM, “Here’s Johnny” (which itself is a reference to the Johnny Carson show). When I watched this film I was really quite surprised how many things in this film I had seen elsewhere. The pervasiveness of this film in pop culture is really striking. Moreover, this film is a great example of what horror should be. The film sets the exposition very well, and builds anticipation, and anxiety really well to a point at which, when Nicholson finally does get the axe, you are ready to jump out of your chair. The thing I like about this film is, while there is blood, there really isn’t a whole lot of gore. One person dies in the whole film. It’s just further proof that for a film to be scary, you don’t need explicit scenes of arms being pulled off, and people being disemboweled.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist is a movie which has evoked the fears of every child and young adult (and even some adults) for the past nearly 40 years now. My dad often told me that this movie is one of the few to truly scare the crap out of him. The description of the movie on Netflix says something to the extent that if you aren’t scared by this movie, then there is something wrong with you mentally. What’s my point? My point is that this movie has become such a cultural icon, its scenes, lines, and actions are well known to just about every American (I mean, who hasn’t heard of the projectile vomit, or the head spin thing?). The Exorcist is a cultural icon, and moreover, a highly effective horror film.

The plot of this film is extremely simple. A single mother actress is raising her daughter when suddenly the daughter begins to exhibit strange symptoms. After being paraded through a series of doctors, whose treatments are each more irrational than the last, it’s revealed that the girl has been possessed by a demon. It is up to an unsure (almost unreligious) Catholic priest, along with another, more experienced exorcist priest to save the girl from the demon who possesses her. That’s the story. In reality, however, it’s a series of cool shots, each getting more outrageous than the last. It starts with the bed shaking, to the girl turning a shade of green, screaming profanities, spinning her head around, and spitting vomit on people.

What this movie really does well is build suspense. This is one of those films where you really know what’s coming. It’s right there in the title, and the filmmaker is well aware of this. The whole film just screws with you. From the very beginning, with a shot (which at the time seems totally unrelated) of an Indiana Jones type character in the middle of the desert, the whole movie the audience is waiting for weird things to start happening, and by the time they do start happening, nearly an hour into the film, you are ready to urinate on yourself in anticipation. Personally, I did not find this film particularly scary. I attribute this more to an ability to separate myself from a connection with the character, and the fact that I find psychotic characters like the possessed girl to be absolutely hilarious (you’ll find more of this when I talk about The Shining on Wednesday), than any sort of comment on the quality of the film. I did find it very suspenseful, and the end scene is absolutely well done and exciting. The acting of this film is stupendous. The show stealer was definitely Linda Blair, who gives an absolutely jaw dropping performance as the girl/demon. Max von Sydow, who plays The Exorcist also gives a rather memorable performance, with the memorable line being, of course, “The Power of Christ Compels You!”. One aspect of this film I really like, is its focus on a particular item. This is done similarly to Dirty Harry. In Dirty Harry, Eastwood carries around a Six Shooter, so at the end you find yourself counting his shots, similarly in The Exorcist, the demon is not unleashing havoc because she is strapped down, so by the time you reach the actual exorcism, you find yourself keeping an eye on the straps. Another thing I like about this film is its emphasis on the supernatural. The movie states that there are some things which science simply cannot explain. I absolutely love the scenes where the girl is being consistently barraged by a slew of doctors, and in the end, the answer turns out to be a simple priest.

This film is an absolute masterpiece. Through its camerawork, superb writing, and excellent performances, the film deals out a great amount of suspense. The other great part of this film is how far it goes. The film features a very young girl spewing all manner of profanities, and all manner of lewd acts, the most notable of which being the girl impaling her vagina with a crucifix, and then forcing her mother to drink the blood from it. The other thing I find particularly interesting is that the film achieves a believably horrifying monster, without it being particularly imposing, nor impressive. Sure, it spews vomit, but it never inflicts serious harm on anybody (well, not exactly), and yet the demon is absolutely terrifying, and has been the subject of nightmares for thousands of people. The film is on the list for the suspense, and for its cultural pervasiveness. There are so many things in this film that are copied by so many people. I still remember watching the cartoon “Courage the Cowardly Dog Show” parody this film, and never quite understanding it (but still knowing what it was from). All in all, this film is a must see, but don’t bother coming if you have a weak stomach (also, if you can’t tell yet, definitely not a film for the kiddies). My final piece of advice, as with any horror film, is to not bring along someone whose seen the film before. The suspense and mystery will always get to be such that you cannot resist asking your fried questions pertinent to the plot, and it will always ruin it for you at least a little bit.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Pather Panchalli (1955)

Pather Panchali (1955)

What comes to mind when you first think of India? Let me guess, caste systems, jungles, elephants, and snake charmers. You can argue that these are little more than antiquated stereotypes, but the film Pather Panchali actually has a lot of these in there. Pather Panchali is primarily a series of philosophical and moral questions. The amazing part is that the film answers these questions without any discernable plot, and limited action. All in all, this film is slow, because of the lack of story, but also very engaging, taking a page out of Di Seca’s Bicycle Thieves with real life shots.
The film is about a family of Brahmins who have fallen on hard times. They live in a shack in the middle of the jungle, and appear to be living on the edge of starvation. What’s more, their extended family, who live very close by and are considerably better off, are reluctant to help their family, and at points even seem to despise that part of their family. The family is composed of a father Harihar Ray, mother Sarbajaya, daughter, Durga, son, Apu, and grandmother Indir Thakrun. Harihar is a noble priest, who aspires to more in his life, dreaming of becoming a famous playwright. For the entire movie, he is largely stepped on, as he is too ashamed to ask his boss for his paycheck. The family places most of it’s faith on their son, who they send to school, in the hope that he will someday make a living to support the family. Aside from that, there really isn’t much of a story, it just shows their lives through the years, demonstrating a few key moments.
Despite this, the film is very moving, especially its very tragic end, which in some ways mirrors the ending of Citizen Kane, and which I don’t want to ruin for those who haven’t seen it. The performances of the actors and actresses are very good. The mother, played by Karuna Banerjee is especially good, and I also liked the grandmother, played by Chunibala Devi. The children also give tremendous performances. The most important part of this film, however, are the themes. Among the most important include the importance and role of family, the nobility, but also cruelty of poverty, the moral justification of theft, and modernization in a very traditional community. The film provides very poignant answers to these, and it really is one of those films in which, upon its completion, you find yourself sitting down and having extended discussions about. The film features many very powerful shots. My personal favorites included the scene where Durga goes to wake her brother. She pries open his eyes, and you see them suddenly shoot forward. Another great shot is when Durga and Apu discover the electrical tower. The final shot was the one where the grandmother asks Sarbajaya for assistance, and she refuses, leading to a long scene in which the frail, hunched over grandmother hobbles over, it’s a powerful scene that brought me to tears the first time I saw it.
This movie is on the list for a number of reasons. Firstly, it features the great Indian director Satyajit Ray. Another notable “star” of this film is a very young Ravi Shankar (perhaps you’ve heard of him?), who provided the incredible music of this film. Honestly, I loved the music from this film, and could probably write several pages just on how incredible the music itself was. Ray seems to be well aware of how good the music was, featuring many scenes with no dialogue, just the actors and the music. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this film is on the list for what it accomplished. This film was done on a budget that was absolutely miniscule, 3,000 USD by wikipedia’s standards. Despite this, the film is a masterpiece, and I really think this is what makes the film so great. It tells aspiring filmmakers that you don’t need a big budget, you don’t need the best editing equipment, the greatest of A-list actors, nor Hollywood sets to make a great film, great films come from dedication, vision, and passion, not from money, a tip I think today’s filmmakers should definitely take to heart.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)

The Earrings of Madame de… (1953)

It’s interesting to think that, despite the countless differences between Bicycle Thieves, and this film, The Earrings of Madame de…, the general point of the two films is essentially the same: the idea that one, mundane little object – in bicycle thieves, a bicycle, and in this film a pair of earrings – can be the cause of the destruction of a person’s life. Everything else about the two films are completely different; one takes place in Rome immediately following WWII, the other in Vienna just prior to the outbreak of the Great War, one deals with the lowest of the low, the other, the highest of the high, one centers around a man, and the other centers around a woman. It all just goes to show the commonality of life.
The film opens with a shot of some fur coats, a woman is speaking off camera. The camera flows from the coats to jewelry. All the while, the woman appears to be trying to choose some item or another. In the end, she chooses a pair of earrings. We are presented with the main character, the Madame de…, played by Danielle Darrieux, a woman of dazzling beauty. She first travels to a church, where she prays for her plan, whatever it may be, to succeed. She then travels to a pawn shop, where she sells the earrings to pay off mounting debts. It turns out that the earrings were a wedding gift to her from her husband. To avoid suspicion, she pretends, later that night, to lose her earrings. The scene quickly turns comical, however, when the jeweler returns the earrings to the husband, and the husband actually ends up buying the earrings back. He then gives the earrings to his mistress as a farewell gift, who he is sending away to Istanbul. When she arrives at the city, she starts to gamble, and is eventually forced to pawn the earrings herself to pay off her gambling debts. The earrings are then bought by one Baron Fabrizio Donati, played by Vittorio di Seca, who was the director of Bicycle Thieves (the connections just keep coming). He is an Italian ambassador, and while he is getting on a train to return home, he sees the Madame de…, and falls desperately in love with her. Later on, they meet up again, and thus begins a courtship in which Madame de…, who is an incorrigible flirt, falls madly in love with him. The Baron eventually gifts her the earrings, and the rest of the film is about Madame de… trying to cover this up, and the consequences of such, right down to its very tragic ending.
The acting in this film, is once again spectacular. Danielle Darrieux started acting in films in 1931, and 23 years later she looks absolutely spectacular. She plays opulence incredibly, and despite her character’s extreme materialistic sentiments, and her initial heartlessness, she’s still a very likeable character. Vittorio di Seca proves to be just as good at acting as he is at directing. Charles Boyer, who plays the husband, is just as likely. Despite the fact that he would be considered the “bad guy” in this film, you can’t help but feel sympathy for him as well. This film is directed by renowned filmmaker Max Ophüls, who is known for his “moving camera” – he liked to have his camera never stop moving during a shot. The viewer gets to see many examples of this during the film, and the result is many spectacular shots throughout the film. The first of these is the very first shot of the film, which features the camera moving from one cabinet of jewelry to another. Another, and perhaps the most famous of them, is the montage of Darrieux and di Seca falling in love. This is done through a series of ballroom shots, each segueing into the next. It’s hard to explain, but very well done. Another great scene, is at the climatic end of the film, first with the duel, and then with its dramatic result. The great part of this film lies in the tragedy. It’s one of those films where you know it isn’t going to work out in the end. However, by the end, you really find yourself hoping it will.
This film is on the list, firstly for the camera work. The shots, as I said are spectacular. I also felt the film was on the list for the dazzling beauty of Danielle Darrieux, who to this day is still acting. I also feel the film is on the list for its story. It’s an amazing investigation into just how connected people can be, and, as I said previously, how one object can upend not just the life of the Madame, but everyone else connected to her. This gets to such a point, that the film starts making fun of itself with the jeweler, who ends up selling the earrings back to the husband on three independent occasions, with the husband not agreeing to buy it back on the fourth time. This film is a great one to see, and I highly recommend it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

It’s amazing at times to think of the fragility of life. The difference between a sweet, comfortable life and absolute poverty and despair is a razor’s edge. This is what the 1948 film Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) is about. The film takes a look at how easily a person’s world can come crashing down around his ears, as a man has his bicycle stolen, a bicycle pivotal not only to his livelihood, but his very happiness. The rest of the film follows the man through the streets of Rome as he tries desperately to recover his bicycle.
The film opens with scenes of the city of Rome. It then carries down to a group of poor, presumably unemployed men standing around. Another man comes out of a building their all standing around, and calls out a name: Antonio Ricci. Ricci answers, and we are introduced to our main character. The man is calling for Ricci because he has a job for him, a job which requires a bicycle. Ricci reveals that he doesn’t have a bicycle, but is so desperate for work, that he claims he can get one. He then leaves, and walks to where his wife is. Here we learn that the bicycle they did own was sold to pay for food. The two walk home together. His wife takes their bedsheets – a wedding present – and gives them to Antonio to be pawned. With this money, Antonio gets his bicycle back, and, the next day, sets off for work. After being briefed on how to do his job, he sets off into the city to begin his work. It isn’t long, however, before his bike is stolen while he is working, and, despite Antonio’s best efforts, the thief gets away. After this, Antonio spends the next day running all over the city of Rome trying to track down his bicycle.
The acting in this film is quite spectacular. Lamberto Maggiorani (Antonio Ricci) gives a very powerful performance. You can really feel his desperation, and later on, his insanity. Even as he descends further into madness, however, you still like him, still are rooting for him. Enzo Staiola, who plays Antonio’s son, also gives a very strong performance, despite his young age. He was my favorite character in the film. You can really see the love he has for his father, and the emotions he displays throughout the film are very moving. The shooting of the film is also very well done. This film is notable for its shots featuring real life, and real scenery, rather than Hollywood sets. You see a lot of normal people operating in the background. A lot of the scenes feel very manic, which is very appropriate for the film’s content. The real shots also make the film a lot more believable. The other thing the film makes use of, is the close up shot of the actor’s face. These shots serve to show off the acting talent of the entire cast.
There are a few shots in particular that I found astounding. The first is when Antonio pawns the sheets. The scene shows the sheets being given to a man, who climbs these massive shelves, bearing what appears to be thousands of other sheets. This film takes place in post-war (WWII) Italy, and this really shows the poverty of the country at the time. The other shot I liked was when Antonio asks his son to wait by a bridge while he went on his own to look for the bike. The shot stays on Antonio’s face, and after about 30 seconds, you hear off-screen someone shouting a little boy has jumped into the river. Antonio turns and slowly walks back, eventually breaking into a sprint as the woman’s voice off screen gets more desperate. This scene (which I’m opting not to give away) is one of the most powerful I have ever seen in my life. The last of my favorite scenes was at the very end, which is just too powerful to be explained on paper (not to mention my reluctance to give away plot spoilers), and really just must be seen.
I believe that this film is on the list for a number of reasons. The first is the way the film is shot. As I said before, this film uses a lot of shots featuring real life, rather than actors. This was truly revolutionary for the time, and is a technique still used to this day. I also felt this film is on the list for its numerous powerful themes and concepts, such as the moral argument behind stealing a loaf of bread to feed your family, and keeping things in perspective. This film, which I hadn’t heard of until I started this list, is truly a must see, and frankly I’m surprised this isn’t commonly included when people list off the great films (Citizen Kane, Psycho, Casablanca, etc.).

Friday, April 23, 2010

Dirty Harry (1971)

Dirty Harry (1971)

“Something you gotta ask yourself. Do you feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?” This is what everyone thinks of when Dirty Harry is mentioned. It really is a cool line, so cool in fact that Dirty Harry Calhoun (Clint Eastwood) says it twice during the course of the film. This film is truly a guy’s film: a beat-em-up shoot-em-up Eastwood western which is taken and transplanted into the modern day. This film is more than just a mindless action film though, this film sends a message about law vs. need, and if there are situations in which torture is acceptable (sounds quite relevant, doesn’t it?)
The film opens to a woman taking a dip in a rooftop pool. It then cuts to a sniper scope whose crosshairs are trained on the woman, before she is eventually shot. Cut to our main character, Harry Calhoun, played by Clint Eastwood, who arrives at the scene to look for any evidence. From the beginning, it is quite obvious that Calhoun is what one would describe as a badass. It’s the same character Eastwood plays every time, and the same character I will be reviewing several more times to come throughout this list. He’s a soft-spoken, quick drawing, shoot first ask questions later kind of guy. This is made obvious from the start where he is sitting in a hot dog stand when a bank robbery brakes out across the street. In lieu of any police nearby, Harry goes out on his own, and single handedly takes out all of the bank robbers, leaving one alive, who is reaching for his shotgun, leading to the famous line of the movie. Harry brings the remaining robber in, and we are introduced to the story: the man who shot the woman is threatening to shoot more unless he gets paid a ransom. Calhoun gets put on the case, and is given a new partner because all his standard partners are hurt. The rest of the film is a wild ride to try to bring the bad guy in, that goes through several interesting twists and turns through the picturesque city of San Francisco.
The acting in this movie is quite good, especially from Eastwood, who by this time, certainly knows how to deliver them. The performance of the antagonist Andrew Robinson is equally good. He doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time until the end of the movie, but what he does is very good. You really do end up hating him, and are happy when Eastwood, inevitably catches him. The action is also very good. There are several of them, and the director Siegel does a good job with them. For every single one of them I found myself on the edge of my seat. The best of these was the one in which the little girl was taken hostage, and the antagonist Scorpio had Harry running all over San Francisco with limited time to get from checkpoint to checkpoint.
The shooting was equally incredible. The film already does itself a plus by setting the film in San Francisco, which is my favorite city. The filming takes place all over the city, and a lot of it looks like a tourism advertisement for San Francisco, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are also a lot of very cool shots, such as the one with the scope zeroing in on the woman, the shots done where Harry is running all over San Francisco, and the chase scenes which cut to the face of the shooter, followed by a quick show of the effect, which does a good job of creating tension in the shootouts.
The film is more than just a mindless action film, however, the film also has an important message, and a couple interesting references. The fact that the film takes place in 1971 San Francisco and the central antagonist is named Scorpio is an interesting reference to the Zodiac Killer. Additionally, the film has a very poignant message firstly about getting the job done versus doing things by the book, and secondly about torture. This occurs late into the film where Calhoun manages to pin down Scorpio, and gets a confession out of him, but does it by torturing him. Because of this, the evidence is thrown out, and Scorpio gets off scot-free. Naturally, Scorpio goes back to his life of crime, and Harry is forced to catch the man a second time. With all of today’s talk about water boarding, torture, and treatment of POWs today, this makes the film even more relevant today.
So why is this film on the list? There are several reasons, actually. Firstly, this is a Clint Eastwood film. Clint Eastwood is so archetypal, so titanic in his defining of the action film genre, that it would be a major crime to leave the big Clint Eastwood films (this one, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, for example) would be a crime as bad as leaving out a Hitchcock film. Additionally, this film is on the list because it established what a good cop film is. This film paved the way for such films as Die Hard (also on the list). This film really is a must-see for any lover of action films!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Duck Soup (1933)

Duck Soup (1933)

It is surprising to me that when I asked my friends if they wanted to watch Duck Soup with me, they had to ask what it was. When I told them it was a Marx Brothers film, they looked at me as if I was some loony trying to indoctrinate them into my communist ideology. To put it more succinctly, it surprised me that these people had never heard of the Marx Brothers before. I had grown up with the Marx Brothers. I still have fond memories as a kid watching a Night at the Opera (which is also on the list). To me, that’s almost as bad as not knowing who The Beatles are in music. In many ways, it’s similar, for the Marx Brothers truly were trailblazers in comic cinema, helping to shape how comedies were made for decades to come. All three of the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, were comic geniuses, and this film, in many regards is their absolute best.

This movie doesn’t have much of a story, and for the most part, this is completely irrelevant. It’s less of a story, and more of a situation, or argument, from which the three brothers can begin their jokes. The central situation, takes place in the fictional nation of Freedonia, who is in trouble because they lack a president. They decide to appoint Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) as the president. Meanwhile, the neighboring country of Sylvania is aiming to take over Freedonia, and attempts to do so through several nefarious actions. As I said previously, however, this is little more than a front from which the Brothers can tell their jokes. There are many points where the characters digress entirely from the story, and you begin to forget entirely what the story is. However, this is a good thing, as the movie isn’t about a story, it is about making you laugh, and make you laugh it will. From the very first scene, where Groucho shows up late to his own inauguration, to the end when the movie descends into a massive flashing of 3 second clips, the movie will have you rolling on the floor.

Each of the three characters has their own comedic style: Harpo is the pure slapstick comedian. He doesn’t talk, but through his incredible pantomime skills, is still able to get his point across, in very funny ways. Chico is sort of a blend of Harpo’s slapstick, and the fast-talking style of Groucho. A lot of his jokes make use of puns:

Groucho: “So what kind of army should we have?” Chico: “Well boss, I think we should have a standing army.” Groucho: “Oh? Why is that?” Chico: “We’ll save money on chairs that way.”

Groucho’s comedy, on the other hand, comes entirely from his speech. He truly is a master of delivery and timing. You have to pay careful attention to what he’s saying, or else you will miss his joke entirely. In my opinion, he is the funniest of them all.

The film is really just a progression of scenes, in which the overall goal is to get you laughing to the point where you cannot breathe. For the most part, the film succeeds. Every scene outdoes itself, as the film gets zanier and zanier up until its hilarious climax. There are a few scenes which are truly notable, however. One example is Chico and Harpo’s experience with the peanut salesman, which turns into a sort of three card monty ultimately resulting in the salesman’s hat, as well as his sanity getting destroyed. Another notable scene, and perhaps the most famous in the entire film, is the mirror scene. In this scene, Harpo dresses up as Groucho, and through a turn of events, has to act as Groucho’s mirror image. This scene is absolutely incredible, and nearly flawless. It shows the amazing skill of the Marx Brothers, further proven by the fact that it is imitated so much in film and television. Duck Soup also features many instances of advances in visual effects, such as when Harpo shows off a tattoo of a dog house, out of which jumps a real dog.

So why is this film on the list? This film was not a box office smash, it didn’t win any Oscars; it wasn’t even liked in its time. However this film still deserves to be on the list, because, simply, it is comedy in its purest form. There is no story, no romantic interest to get in its way. There is no action to distract it. The only thing there is comedy; three guys trying to the best of their ability to get you laugh, and in this regard, it is perhaps the most successful comedy of all time.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Citizen Kane (1941)

What can be said about Citizen Kane that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over? The Orson Welles classic about a rich newspaper mogul’s life is on the top of most movie best lists, and the cinematography and storytelling are still mimicked even to this day. The hype of this movie is big, and it was one of my major inspirations for starting this little mission of mine. And, I’m glad to say, the movie certainly lives up to the hype.
The movie opens up to an old Kane (Welles) sitting in a chair, holding a snowglobe. A servant walks in, and Welles utters one word, “rosebud”, before letting the snowglobe fall out of his hand. The camera follows the snowglobe as it rolls along the floor. From this we see a newsreel giving an overview of Kane’s life: how he begins by investing his fortune into a newspaper, which eventually spans to cover the US, and expands into radio as well. From here, he goes into politics, but a series of scandals prevents him from attaining his goals. Finally, the reel shows us his last years which he spent as a recluse in his massive manor, the aptly named Xanadu. The reel then shuts down, and we now see that the reel was being previewed to a series of journalists. The editor states that the reel is good, but doesn’t go far enough. He then starts questioning the meaning of Kane’s last word, and so sends one of the reporters on a mission to find out what rosebud means. For the rest of the story, we the audience follow the reporter as he interviews key figures in Kane’s life, essentially reliving his life through the eyes of his friends, all to unearth the meaning of rosebud.
I found the story to be quite engaging, but it does seem to drag at times. To anyone planning on watching this film, I recommend you at least google/Wikipedia William Randalf Hearst, who Citizen Kane the character is based off of. The characters are complex and well played, and Welles does an extremely good job with Kane, a character you will come to simultaneously love and despise. His character is an enigma until the end, with the stunning revelation onto the meaning of rosebud. That point, now a movie cliché, serves as the tying end, the final explanation of the lynchpin of Kane’s character. Suddenly, everything Kane does makes perfect sense. Most viewers will know the ending of Citizen Kane, which has spoiled for more people than the ending of “Of Men and Mice”, but if you haven’t been told the meaning of rosebud, you are in for a treat.
The real meat to Citizen Kane, however, lies in the cinematography. There are so many memorable and powerful shots in the movie, which still to this day feel edgy and innovative. There were many occasions where I found myself just saying “wow”, as that’s all that can be said about the incredible shots in that movie. From the entry into the cantina, to the mirror room shot, to the powerful long shots with the imposing, broad-shouldered Kane/Welles in the distance, every shot one-ups itself, culminating in the long, rapidly moving shot of the end.
So why exactly is Citizen Kane on the list? Well that’s a stupid question, but I’ll answer it anyways. This movie was made in 1941, and was hated and derided at the time, because it was different, it was new, and it was innovative. At the Oscars that year, it was nominated for a number of awards, including best cinematography, best director, and best film. Surprisingly, it only won one singular award, that of best screenplay. The film lives on, however. Its techniques, story, and style have been copied hundreds of times over. Its extreme influence on how films are made and seen is one of the major reasons why this film is made, also the fact that this film, now approaching 70 years in age, still feels new, still feels relevant, and will most likely continue to do so through the generations is why this film is on this list, and will be on similar lists 50, 100, or even 200 years from now.