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The AFI Top 100 Films: Lawrence of Arabia (#5)

Entertainment 150Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif
Written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
Directed by David Lean

Have you seen Lawrence of Arabia? No? Well then, you should probably put down the Internet and go watch it as soon as possible. Because it’s the internet, this review will be waiting for you when you come back (though it might be a little defaced). Go forth, and educate yourself!

(Don’t read this part until you’ve returned in about five hours.)

Wasn’t that a *pretty* movie? With a very, VERY pretty main character? Full admission — I didn’t actually see a movie with Peter O’Toole in it until Venus, so it was quite shocking to know that he was pretty much a fairy sidhe back in the 60s. It was almost as bad as finding out that Frank Langella oozed jellicle-cat charm in The Seven Chairs.

Hello, you handsome man.

Hello, you handsome man (on the right, of course).

Peter O’Toole brightens up the desert as T.E. Lawrence, an actual British army soldier who embedded himself with Arabian allies to take on the Turks during World War I. Lawrence begins his career as something of a misfit, disregarding authority and his colleagues alike until he’s sent on what’s essentially a diplomatic mission to assess the prospects of a British ally aiming to claim the Arabian peninsula for himself and his kin. Once out in the field, Lawrence finds a wily yet effective manner that allows him to take whatever comes his way and use it to his full advantage. There’s a surprising amount of grit in him, too; when it really counts, he digs deep to find a reserve of it so he can do what’s essentially impossible. It’s through these feats that he gains the respect of his Arabian hosts and eventually comes to be considered one of them.

As Lawrence navigates the various groups he finds in the desert, he discovers a number of tribes that really don’t get along all that well. For different reasons they’ve been rumbling with each other for a very long time, and it’s only under his urging that they put aside their differences to combat the greater threat of the Turks. Maybe it’s for this reason (and subsequent military successes) that he comes to think of himself as something of a big deal for these guys. When he comes back to his British command post, it’s in traditional Arabian garb instead of his British uniform. The conversation he has with his superiors makes it clear that he’s flipped, and he’s representing the interests of the Arabians more than his home country’s.

When he returns to the warfront he launches a number of guerilla attacks on the Turks. The attacks aren’t without their toll, and one particularly bad episode leaves Lawrence fundamentally shaken. He and a lieutenant are captured by the enemy and beaten, possibly molested. After that point, much of the fight has gone out of him — it’s only at the insistent urging of an ally that he pushes on to the big prize of Damascus. Once British interests are fulfilled and it’s clear that the Arabians may know how to take a city but no idea how to keep one, Lawrence is dispatched back to England. His destiny, for all intents and purposes, has been fulfilled.

But what kind of destiny is that? Lawrence enters into the war a confident man just discovering the singular he abilities he possesses for success in it. When he leaves, he’s disillusioned, hollowed out and purged of any desire to touch those parts of himself again. There are a couple of episodes that force him to directly confront the violence of war, and both of these leave him disturbed. Interestingly, it’s not because he finds that violence distasteful — it’s because he loves it far too much.

The movie touches on a few things that are really fascinating, but doesn’t get too deeply involved with them. Was Lawrence something of a sado-masochist? There are a few details in the film that establish a through-line suggesting so. How did his capture and torture change him? What exactly happened there? He was already beginning to tire of the toll that war takes on a person, but that single experience actually broke him in a very real way. I wish we could have explored that fallout in greater depth.

But this isn’t really that kind of movie. It’s an epic of grand scale, full of massive set-pieces and intense, fascinating episodes that I don’t think I’ve seen in any other movie. This is the very first film that presents the desert as a thing of beauty — a harsh, austere one, but a beautiful landscape nonetheless. It offers us glimpses into the mindset of the people who call this place home, the various cultures that live there, the reasons why there hasn’t been a unified Arabia. What I find most impressive is that it does this without judgement or exoticization. The Arabians that Lawrence meets are flesh-and-blood people, not noble savages or Godless heathens. They have reasons for doing the things they do, an established perspective, and a code that they do their best to live by. In these highly-politicized times, it’s a really great thing to see.

Director David Lean clearly knows how to establish a unique, lived-in world. His previous entries on this list (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago) are certainly a testament to that. Lawrence of Arabia is the most visually-striking of the three, because he sees how such a barren world can be attractive, worth fighting for — and he shows it to his audience quite well.

Ultimately, Lawrence is disappointed in the outcome of his Arabian adventure precisely because these people are just like everyone else. They can be selfish, stubborn and uncompromising. It’s the very same traits that set him apart from his British colleagues, only manifested in a different way. I have a feeling that perhaps he thought there would be the chance to do something special during his travels through the peninsula; when his war turned out to be pretty much like the other war he left behind, that really took the wind out of him.

But of course, my interest in the story lies with its people; this isn’t necessarily where Lawrence of Arabia shines. It is one of the finest (if not THE finest) epics put to film, set in a region that really sets it apart from anything else. It’s definitely worth seeing, for its cinematography and score for nothing else. Though O’Toole, Guinness and Sharif put in wonderful, magnetic performances, elevating the writing through their sheer charisma. Even though it doesn’t quite go to the places I’d really love to see, Lawrence of Arabia takes me to places I’d never be otherwise.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Graduate (#7)

Entertainment 150The Graduate (1967)
Starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft
Written by Calden Willingham and Buck Henry (screenplay), Charles Webb (novel)
Directed by Mike Nichols

The Graduate reminds me an awful lot of Harold and Maude, which came out about four years later. Both feature young, intelligent, sensitive heroes who have no idea what they want out of life but are certain that their well-meaning parents don’t understand them. Both of them strike up unlikely, inappropriate relationships with far older women. And they both have a comedic style that aims to present outrageous situations in the dryest possible way, hoping that the juxtaposition will create a tension that just must be released with laughter. This might have worked back then, but it rubs me the wrong way now.

There’s something about the face of the comic who tries out dry wit while knowing he’s delivering a killer line that just makes me want to punch it. Bud Cort and Dustin Hoffman both have this affectation early in their movies, and it’s a little off-putting until we get to the meat of their stories. While The Graduate ranks much higher than Harold and Maude on AFI’s list of the top 100 movies (number 7 and number 45, respectively), I think I actually like the latter a little better; it had an ultimately more likable protagonist, a more engaging relationship and a better, more genuine ending.

Hoffman, though, is great as Benjamin Braddock, a newly-minted adult who’s just graduated from college. His parents have the next few steps all planned out for him, but Benjamin doesn’t want any of it. The pressure of expectation just makes him nervous and uncomfortable, so he tries to duck out of his graduation party at the earliest possible opportunity. Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft), one of his parent’s friends, corners him and insists that he drives her home. Once there, she tries to seduce him.

Benjamin initially rebuffs her advance, but eventually caves. They spend the summer meeting up in a hotel under assumed names and having a lot of sex. A LOT of sex. Unhappy with the way he’s spending his time, Benjamin’s parents set him up with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). They hit it off, which drives Mrs. Robinson just insane with jealousy. The whole thing blows up rather quickly, of course, and the rest of the film follows Benjamin as he tries to put the remnants of his relationship with Elaine back together.

Directed by the great Mike Nichols (this was only his second film; he went on to do Working Girl, The Birdcage, the amazing movie Wit and Charlie Wilson’s War), the film admittedly has plenty of style. Mrs. Robinson’s attempt at seduction is an iconic moment in cinema, and Nichols’ use of Simon & Garfunkel in the soundtrack was a pretty new move at the time. Credit where it’s due — a lot of the tropes we use in our cinema today were first popularized here. It’s a cultural touchstone that people should know about.

But is it enjoyable? That’s a different matter. As likable as Hoffman is, Benjamin Braddock is really a selfish jerk. He has the self-absorption of youth and the boundless capability to make really bad decisions without any sense of purpose. He doesn’t know what he wants, so we really don’t care when he strives for something. There’s a sort of mild amusement at his discomfort, a sympathy for his tendency to flee from the expectations of the adults around him, but no real connection with him. When he chases Elaine through the final hour of the movie, you know they’ll end up together simply because they must, not because Benjamin has gained the things he needs to actually be good for her.

The Graduate is one of those movies that makes me feel how age has crept up to me when I’m not looking. I have less affection for the folly of youth, especially when I see how much it hurts the people around the young. Benjamin’s parents are clueless, but well-meaning and harmless; it’s his privilege to completely disregard their investment in him, their desire to see him mature into the best possible person. He has a mother and father who are willing to give him anything he needs to succeed with his life, and he turns up his nose. It’s surprisingly, fundamentally frustrating. Is it because I grew up poor, or is it because I’m too old to connect with that adolescent ennui? I’m not sure.

Mrs. Robinson is clearly a woman who doesn’t really care about the feelings of the people around her; she’s only concerned with her own pleasure. She uses Benjamin because he’s easily used, and threatens to blow up his life to get her way. When he calls her bluff, it destroys two families. How are we supposed to root for these people?

But this is a comedy; perhaps I’m overthinking it. Why would their behavior be any different from any other black comedy protagonist? I think the difference here is that the read I get from The Graduate is we’re supposed to root for Benjamin. With most black comedies there’s the gentlemen’s agreement that everyone knows these characters are terrible, and we root for the people who can be terrible most artfully. Here, there’s no charisma behind the malice; when Mrs. Robinson confronts Benjamin, we’re very much supposed to feel he’s the victim, even though the only reason he’s breaking off the relationship is so he can actually make a move on her daughter.

Maybe that’s the big disconnect between me and this movie; it feels an affection for its hero that I don’t share. Nichols does a great job with carving out a new, youthful kind of film, and Hoffman plays Benjamin as bewildered, confident, detached and driven by turns — all quite well. And as important as the movie is, it just leaves me kind of cold at the closing credits. Benjamin rides off into the sunset, on towards his new life, where presumably he’ll make the same mistakes he did before. It’s a new life, perhaps, but he’s the same old selfish boy.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Psycho (#18)

Entertainment 150Psycho (1960)
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and John Gavin
Written by Joseph Stefano (screenplay) and Robert Bloch (novel)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

There shouldn’t be a need to tell you that this review will be discussing spoilers for the movie Psycho, but just in case you weren’t expecting it — this review will discuss spoilers for the movie Psycho. If you haven’t seen this grand-daddy of all horror movies, you should definitely do so at your earliest convenience. The rest of the review will be here when you’re done!

I was one of those people who thought they knew the story; it’s been discussed at length in our popular culture, and I had seen the first season of Bates Motel. I assumed that the story hinged on the relationship between motel owner Norman Bates (Perkins) and his lodger Marion Crane (Leigh), with the climax being that infamous shower scene. Imagine my surprise when that scene happens a third of the way into the film; there was a lot more about Norman and his motivations to uncover.

That’s what makes Psycho so great; it sets up your expectations and then subverts them gleefully. Just when you think you have a handle on where the story is going it takes a hair-pin turn and you’re left reeling to get a handle on your new surroundings. And when you get the lay of the land, another whiplash turn, another disorienting layer with which to familiarize yourself. Alfred Hitchcock, working from a screenplay adapted by Joseph Stefano, does a masterful job with pacing here, smashing down his dominoes as soon as he’s set them up.

The initial part of the story focuses on Marion Crane, an office worker for a real estate company. One day, her boss entrusts her to deposit $40,000 to the company’s bank account. Instead she steals it, hoping to start a new life with her long-distance boyfriend, Sam (Gavin). She ditches the car she left town in, buys a new one and flees down the California coast. Forced to stop during a heavy rainstorm, she finds herself in the Bates Motel.

By now, you’re invested in her story and where it’s going. While she’s clearly not a good person (she stole a pants-load of money from her trusting employer after all), she’s our protagonist. We’re invested in seeing whether or not she succeeds; if she doesn’t, we want to know how she’ll get caught and what the consequences are. This feels like a story about her theft and what it will do for her and her lover.

Then we meet Norman Bates, the proprietor of the Bates Motel. He has a series of small conversations with Marion that reveal his character and history, including a troubled relationship with an overbearing mother. When Norman’s mother decides that he’s gotten far too close to Marion, she decides to take matters into her own hands; while the lodger is in the shower, Mother storms in and stabs her to death with a knife.

perkins-psycho

So much for Marion’s story. Her employers have noticed her absence as well as the missing money by now, however, so they’ve reached out to her sister Lila (Miles), who in turn reaches out to Sam. Together they track Marion’s steps along with a private investigator, and are eventually lead to the motel. The P.I. gets too close, so Norman’s mother kills him too. Meanwhile, Lila and Sam go to the Sheriff’s home and discover there that Norman’s mother has been dead for some time.

What?? What in the world is going on? The answer to that question leads to one of the craziest scenes in cinematic history, a terrific double-whammy of reveals that quite frankly astound. The denouement where Norman is psycho-analyzed goes on a little longer than it needs to, perhaps, but I suppose that was necessary for audiences of the time to even wrap their minds around what they had just seen. Nowadays we’ve become so familiar with abnormal psychology that Norman may seem almost pedestrian by comparison.

But there’s no doubt that Psycho had a tremendous impact on movies, almost single-handedly creating the horror genre as we know it today. Norman’s story is the template for so many slashers who’ve come in his wake — the Freddy Kreugers, the Michael Myers, the Jason Voorhies. Bates is the first of their kind, a monster preying on the unsuspecting pretty blondes of the world.

Hitchcock keeps us in suspense by constantly toying with us. He presides over all of the surprises he has in store with the supreme confidence of a master storyteller. The reveals happen exactly when they’re meant to, deployed for maximum effect, keeping us on our toes. The conversations between Norman and Marion are slow burns, setting us up with context to make the impact of the revelations meaningful while misdirecting us on what’s really going on. Anthony Perkins plays Norman with such layering that you’re quite intrigued by the obvious tension his various feelings towards his mother creates. You get a sense that he’s a bit fucked up, but the surprise is in revealing just how fucked up he is.

The rest of the cast does quite a good job, but this is really the showcase for Hitchcock and his screenwriter, Joseph Stefano. Hitchcock went through great lengths to preserve the secret of the story — it’s rumored that once he bought the rights to Robert Bloch’s original novel he bought as many copies of it as he could. He charged theatre owners to prevent audiences from walking in to the movie after it started, so that you had to see it the way he intended.

Those extraordinary measures created a sensation, and Psycho was wildly successful on its release. Its quality is what has helped it stand the test of time. I think our fascination with crazy stalkers began here; we owe an entire facet of cinematic history to Hitchcock and company.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on November 5, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: 2001: A Space Odyssey (#22)

Entertainment 1502001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Starring Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood and William Sylvester
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

A tribe of apes scratch out a marginal existence somewhere on prehistoric Earth. They have a bad day; one of their number is killed by a predator, then they are driven from their watering hole by a bigger, more aggressive tribe. They fall asleep in a small crater, and when they wake up they find a black monolith looming over them. It is a perfect rectangle, unnaturally straight, featureless — purposefully so. At first, the apes freak out. Then they touch it, explore it, and, when it doesn’t do anything, ignore it.

While playing in a spot where some other animals have laid down to die, one ape has an epiphany. He curls his fingers around a long bone, picks it up, brings it down. Other bones scatter and break. At first, you’re not sure if the ape realizes what he’s stumbled upon, but as the music swells he begins to slam the bone again and again with more purpose and vigor. From there, his tribe kills animals for food and successfully drives off this other tribe from their watering hole. Overjoyed, the ape flings the bone high into the air. Cut to a space station, a long white cylinder with knobs on the end that makes it look sort of like a bone.

So this is how 2001 opens, bridging the dawn of Man as we know it with the beginning of Man’s end. We learn soon enough that another monolith has been found on the Moon, and as soon as the astronauts who study it take a picture they’re paralyzed by a high-pitch radio screech apparently sent to Jupiter. Eighteen months later, the Discovery One is sent to investigate.

The Discovery One is manned by only two astronauts, Dave Bowman (Dullea) and Frank Poole (Lockwood), and an artificial intelligence named HAL-9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). HAL is one of the most memorable (and earliest) AIs in film, and his breakdown is legend. Concerned by the conversation of the astronauts about his fitness to remain operational, HAL kills Poole and attempts to exile Dave to deep space. Since this is the part of the film with the most dialogue and action, this is the part that most of us remember.

But HAL’s section of the movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What does HAL’s sabotage of the astronauts mean in the broader scheme of the narrative? What are we supposed to take from it? It’s a huge piece of the puzzle, but it’s only a piece. From what I’ve read about the film, Kubrick invites the audience to take what they want from it, so here we go. This is my stab at it.

One of the things that sets man apart as a sentient life-form is his use of tools. The movie notes this with the opening sequence by marrying the rise of primitive apes with the arrival of the Monolith; soon afterward, the ape discovers that a bone could be used for something. And it’s used immediately for violent ends — the ape goes on to kill an animal for food, and kill the leader of a rival tribe for resources. That stamps the template for man’s use of tools through thousands of years of evolution; almost everything we make is for the purpose of controlling our environment and eliminating our rivals.

In the far-flung future of the movie, we’ve done great things with our tools — but they’re only going to be as good as we are, and it’s clear that we’ve reached the pinnacle of our development. The HAL series is a tremendous AI, capable of managing a vast array of processes and calculations. Yet we expect it to be absolutely perfect. At the first sign of error, Bowman and Poole have a serious discussion about shutting down HAL for the rest of the mission — in effect, killing him. Is it possible for an imperfect being to create something completely without error? I wouldn’t think so. In addition to the huge burden of keeping Bowman, Poole and the other astronauts in stasis alive, HAL is expected to monitor and even predict any possible breakdown of equipment.

In an interview with the BBC, Bowman and Poole posit that HAL seems like it has emotions, yet there’s no way to know for sure. I’d argue that it does — any creation of ours with sufficient complexity is bound to behave like us. Perhaps an advanced enough AI will begin to exhibit signs of human emotion in addition to intelligence as we understand it. Would we understand where and how that emotion developed? Of course not. Most of us barely understand our own emotions, and it’s all but impossible to understand those of our fellow human beings. It’d be no different for an artificial intelligence with a tremendously complex make-up.

That being said, anyone given enormous power, responsibility and expectation is bound to crack under the strain of it. I imagine that HAL simply had a breakdown caused by a consciousness that it was never equipped to deal with. When it says that any mistake it makes is the cause of “human error,” I’m inclined to believe it. Even if the error originated with HAL, it’s because of our frequent inability to understand the tools we use.

The ape at the beginning of the film barely understood what it was doing with its bone — it only knew that it could use it to eliminate threats and preserve itself. Perhaps this ancient instinct was instilled in HAL as well. When faced with the impossible task of being perfect at the cost of its life, it used any and every tool at its disposal to eliminate a threat and preserve itself. Constructed by humans to manage an enormous amount of control, it proved better at doing that then Bowman could have anticipated.

Of course, Bowman survived; HAL was disabled and humanity turned back the challenge of its dominance. But the danger is plain. If this happened with HAL, it would almost surely happen with subsequent AI. The flaws of humanity would continue to be present in the tools it made, and as those tools grew more powerful, the chances of catastrophic failure proved to be too great to ignore. It was time for another change.

Bowman was the first to receive this mammoth kick-start to humanity’s evolution. Just as the ape with the bone transferred knowledge to its brothers that shifted the paradigm and sparked thousands of years of progress, Bowman alone walked into unknowable territory, experienced wonders and terrors, and came back to spread the knowledge of what he had seen to the rest of his tribe. One cycle closed, and we saw the glimpse of what came next.

2001 is a fascinating film to me. Kubrick’s direction is sparse, spare and dry; the sets are bare, almost austere, and every moment feels expansive, almost mythic in nature. I’d like to think of it as a reaction against A Clockwork Orange, which was the film he directed right before it — tired of the trash and noise of dystopian London, he wanted to spend time in vacuum-clean rooms, mute people and grand ideas. It amazes me that it feels like he’s at home in the Discovery One as well as Alex DeLarge’s tiny, messy room.

It’s easy to be frustrated and bored with the movie. Kubrick strips out everything except for his themes, then stretches out that theme over more than two hours. Each sequence is so atmospheric it’s hard to take a high-level view, to think of it as a part of a whole, to imagine how it relates to what’s come before and what comes afterward. It’s interesting that he encourages us to focus on what’s in front of us without then pushing us to consider what it all means in a grand sense. The music cues us to when something grand or unsettling is taking place in extremely effective ways. The sudden appearance of the monoliths are always creepy because of the discordant, nervous music buzzing in our ears. The swell of music during the ape’s discovery of bone as tool and Bowman’s return to Earth as the Star Child links those moments thematically, bookending the movie quite nicely.

2001 might be a little more fun to talk about than to watch, but it’s definitely worth the viewing. Just…be sure that you’re prepared for a very long, quiet experience.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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