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The AFI Top 100 Films: Citizen Kane (#1)

The AFI Top 100 Films: Citizen Kane (#1)

Entertainment 150Citizen Kane (1941)
Starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Dorothy Comingore
Written by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles
Directed by Orson Welles

This has been a really hard review to write; I’ve had to think a LOT about Citizen Kane and why I thought about it the way I did. I completely understand why the American Film Institute has crowned it the greatest American film of all-time, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling curiously cold every time I think of it. Citizen Kane is, without a doubt, a technological masterpiece — but there’s an emotional distance that keeps me from truly engaging with it.

The film opens with the death of its protagonist, Charles Foster Kane. Alone in a tremendous mansion, he drops a snow globe and whispers the word “Rosebud” as it crashes to the ground. A newspaper reporter, curious about why the last word of such an important figure was so cryptic, tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. He interviews a number of friends, lovers and associates of Kane to get a feel of his life — and we learn about the man himself through the remembrances of the people he came into contact with.

So much of what we have come to take for granted in modern cinema — time-bending narratives, montages that cleanly track the change of characters over long periods of time, cinematographic composition — came from this movie. It’s mind-boggling to think how many staples of American cinema were conjured out of whole cloth here. Credit where it’s due: Citizen Kane created an immense chunk of film history when it arrived.

But maybe there’s something about its greatness that will always hold me at arm’s length from the work itself. Logically I know that what I’m seeing on the screen is genius, but it’s hard to be engaged by it. It feels like so much focus went into how the story was being told that the effect of the story suffers a bit for it.

I don’t doubt that Orson Welles, as co-writer and director, told the story exactly the way he wanted to tell it. In fact, his fight for creative control of his vision is legendary. Every shot was constructed in an exacting fashion, and he went to great lengths to make sure the story unfolded on the screen with the pace he wanted. You have to admire the certainty of his vision, and the uncompromising nature of its realization.

Charles Kane, however, is hardly a sympathetic figure. He starts out with the best of intentions, running for office and taking over a local newspaper under the ideals of populism, but his ambition and ego get the better of him in short order. It’s interesting that Kane’s dedication to his ideals wills him to great things, but his pride over his accomplishments warp those ideals to the point that they become far more self-serving. His ego is there from the beginning, where it comes off as high-spirited and charming, but even with the first bit of success you can see the road he’s headed down. And there’s not quite enough sympathy for him to wish something better for him. You see the dark side of his personality come out and instead of seeing him as a tragic hero, you think “Of course that was bound to happen. It really couldn’t have gone any differently.”

 

There is really nothing little about you.

“Awww shucks, I’m just one of the little guys!”

The central conceit — why did Kane say “Rosebud” with his dying words? — doesn’t quite provide me with enough motivation to care about the mystery being uncovered. Perhaps there’s a fundamental idea that I either don’t understand or don’t agree with, but the answer we’re given and its meaning fails to garner any sympathy or sense of tragedy from me, either. Kane lived the life that he chose to live, without sufficient self-awareness to know how he alienated everyone he had gotten close to. His circumstances were sad, sure — but you never get the sense that this weighed on him. When you come down to it, Kane is a man of naked, almost endless, ambition, and it doesn’t feel like there’s more to him.

And the movie lives and dies on this outsized figure. Perhaps upon repeated viewings I’ll see him as more of a complicated, sympathetic and tragic character, but this time around it simply feels like he has these ideals that are incompatible with the reality he’s in. His stubborn refusal to accept things as they are leads him to his professional success. But it’s also devastating for his interpersonal relationships; he treats people with the same inflexibility that he does the institutions he’s fighting against. His friends and lovers crumble the same way the powers that be do under his persistence, but the end effect is a lot less admirable.

Perhaps it’s the fact that he has this power — and it quickly corrupts him — that makes him less sympathetic than most. You never get a sense of the man behind the will, or at least attempts to humanize him don’t come across that well. From what I know of Welles himself, this makes sense. He, too, was a man of enormous ambition and drive.

And what that got him was an institution of a film that deserves its accolades and historical regard. Personally, though, there’s just not a lot here to embrace.

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Casablanca (#2)

Entertainment 150Casablanca (1942)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains
Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch (screenplay); Murray Bennett and Joan Alison (stage play)
Directed by Michael Curtiz

Even at number 2 on this list, I think this movie is underrated. This love story is unlike any other movie I’ve seen before or since, and I can see why so many people have fallen for it so hard. It has one of the best screenplays ever, featuring actors who are at the top of their game. There are no end of iconic moments and quotable lines, and even the ending is one of the most satisfying ever filmed. This is pretty much what a movie should be; perfectly executed in an artless, almost effortless way. Nothing touches Casablanca on that score.

Bogey plays American expatriate Rick Blaine, a bitter man who owns a casino and nightclub that attracts a wide variety of clients. Vichy French, Italian and German officials rub elbows with displaced refugees desperate to get away from the threat of the Nazis — preferably the United States. Rick is a neutral party, and his Cafe Americain is a safe harbor for anyone who can pay for drink and/or games of chance.

A petty crook shows up with letters of transit — papers that allow their bearer safe passage through Nazi-controlled Europe to neutral Portugal and her ports — planning to sell them at Rick’s club later that night. He’s arrested by Vichy Captain Louis Renault (Rains) before he gets the chance; he manages to leave them in Rick’s care before he’s pinched. An idealistic woman named Ilsa Lund (Bergman) follows the letters to the cafe, accompanied by her husband Victor Laszlo (Henreid). They need the letters so that Laszlo can continue his resistance work in America; Nazi officials in Casablanca are there to make sure he doesn’t make it out.

Ilsa and Rick have a history that makes his decision a difficult one. Suddenly, he has to weigh the bitter disappointment of the past against a moral decision that carries severe consequences for him. Can he live down his anger towards Ilsa? Does he break his carefully-maintained stance of neutrality? What does he say to the various forces pressuring him to fall one way or the other? It’s a decision point that not only decides the fate of several people, but determines just what kind of man he is. It’s heady stuff, and it’s a delight to watch Rick work through it.

The story alone is mesmerizing; Rick has to deal with an internal crisis while bearing incredible external pressure. The Nazis want him to do one thing, Ilsa wants him to do the opposite, and everyone from his frienemy Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet, who is just delightful) to corrupt cop Renault have their own ideas. He has to make peace with something he wasn’t remotely ready to tackle, forced out of his shell to engage in a conflict sweeping the rest of the world whether he wanted to or not. Bogart deftly shows us Rick’s broken soul through the cracks of his aloof, smart-alecky exterior. It’s truly extraordinary.

The rest of the film is populated with amazing characters, from torn Ilsa to stoic, moral Laszlo to good-natured, long-suffering Sam. Even the extras bustle in the peripheries of the screen; scenes are established with snatches of dialogue we get from the patrons’ tables in Rick’s cafe. The film moves through dozens of stories to hone in on the one it wants to tell, but it never lets us forget that they’re there. The story seethes with the bits of its fellows encroaching on its borders, and sometimes (during the duel of the anthems, for example) all of them coalesce into a single shared moment.

Behind the scenes, the shooting of Casablanca was fast and loose; I think this imparts an energy that you don’t see all the time with the polished Hollywood films of the 40s and 50s. The tales, true or not, of everything that went wrong with the movie and what the director and actors had to do to make things work just make me love it even more. To make something that looks so effortlessly great is no small feat — it’s even more impressive when the set is fighting you at every turn.

If you haven’t seen Casablanca yet, do yourself a favor and watch it. No matter how many times its scenes have been spoofed, misquoted and imitated, there’s simply nothing like the original. Of the 100 films on this list, this is the one I would say is the greatest — which means I’ll have to talk about why I disagree with the AFI’s anointing of Citizen Kane. That’s an essay for another time.

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Godfather Part II (#32)

Entertainment 150The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall
Written by Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay) and Mario Puzo (screenplay, novel)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

When Ryan and I were watching the AFI Top 100, we decided that it would probably be a good idea to save The Godfather Part II for review until we had seen the original. That way we get to see both halves of the story reasonably close to one another and we’re not forced to try and remember all the players and relationships for the sequel, because there are many. It was a good call; when you see this movie right after the original it feels like a natural extension — and completion — of the story.

Here we see the moral degradation of our anti-hero Michael (Pacino) as he maintains and expands the empire of the Corleone family; through flashbacks we see how his father Vito (De Niro) built the Corleone name in the first place. Both men engage in acts of ruthless violence to protect their place in the society they find themselves in, and it’s hard to imagine how their grabs for power could have played any differently. The parallels are striking, and it really serves to highlight the differences between Michael and Vito.

Back at the turn of the century, young Vito Andolini escapes Sicily after his entire family is killed for a slight to the Don committed by his father. He arrives in Ellis Island, is given the name Vito Corleone, and falls into crime as a youth after his meager job at a neighborhood grocery store is taken and given to the nephew of some Don. Through shrewd maneuvering he manages to take out this Don and gain control of the neighborhood. What’s interesting is what happens after that; Vito tries to look out for people who can’t look after themselves. He also goes back to Sicily to get revenge for his family. Even though slights are not forgotten, Vito conducts himself with something of a code — you give him the respect he feels he is due, and he can be a generous and loyal friend.

By contrast, Michael pushes away his friends and allies. The only thing he really understands is working through fear and intimidation. The enemies of the Corleone family multiply from the previous film, grow bolder. Perhaps it’s his outsider’s status or just his natural temperament, but Michael simply doesn’t have the knack for managing people that Vito possessed, and it shows. An assassination attempt early in the film triggers a series of violent retributions both within and outside of the organization. By the end of the war, Michael — like Vito — is victorious, but his mastery comes at a far heavier price.

The ending of The Godfather, Part II is a simple gut-punch that shows us just how far Michael has fallen from the principled youth at the beginning of Part I. The power he wields is absolute, and he has the mind to wield it effectively (if not subtly). But his circle of confidants has shrunken drastically, and the price of that power is something he realizes must be paid.

Michael is an anti-hero done well; he has enough expertise that you have to admire him for what he’s able to pull off. He’s smart and competent, and principled enough that you empathize with him. It clearly hurts him to do what he does, but at the same time the position he’s in demands that he do it. You want nothing more for him than for him to find a way to get out of this with his relationships intact, but there’s simply no way for that to happen. His cold, mean anger is “earned” by the end of the movie — he’s been deeply hurt by various betrayals, and while it pains him to cut himself off from his support network it’s an understandable move.

If anything this movie is even more epic than the original; Vito’s story gives it a weight and scope that definitely enriches the material. Just about everything that made Part I such a feat is present here, and stretched to see what else it can do. It’s a sequel that builds on what’s come before in just about every way — story, technique, the subtlety of the performances. Together, Parts I and II tell a wonderful American epic about the price of power and success, how the struggle to attain the American dream so often results in a hollow, meaningless victory.

I have to recommend that you watch both of these movies, as close together as possible. They’re immense, ponderous, deep and sprawling. But they’re oh so very good. I liked this movie a bit more than Part I, but only because the stories benefit from what’s come before. The work of being connected to the world of the Godfather has already been made; now we can really get our hands dirty, so to speak.

When you see this film and consider what De Niro and Pacino have done since (say, Analyze This or Jack & Jill respectively) you can see why people scream bloody murder; how could minds responsible for these performances possibly think those movies were good ideas? It boggles.

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Godfather (#3)

Entertainment 150The Godfather (1972)
Starring Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and James Caan
Written by Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay) and Mario Puzo (screenplay, novel)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

I’ve become fascinated with stories of regular people becoming extraordinarily bad ones. I’m not talking about the “fairy tales from a villain’s perspective” story that have become a bit of a thing; I’m talking about stories like Breaking Bad, that take a beaten-down high-school chemistry teacher, gives him a cancer diagnosis and an undiscovered streak of hubris, and watches him explode into a brief, shining star of a meth kingpin. These stories speak to the capacity for evil within us all, and remind us that all it takes are a few wrong choices and circumstances to turn us into nasty people.

I’d like to think that a lot of our preoccupation with the anti-hero in modern pop culture can be traced back to The Godfather, one of those cultural touchstones that everyone knows about it even if they haven’t seen it. Michael Corleone blazed the trail for Walter White in a lot of ways, starting out as a Marine and outsider of the Family and ending up ruthlessly seizing control of the organized crime scene. This movie shows us how he got there — through the continual threat to himself and his family.

But it’s not just the threat to the Corleone Family that molds Michael into the man he eventually becomes, and it’s not just being threatened that makes monsters out of any man. It’s the nature of the threat and the ultimate way we decide to deal with it. Sitting in on Mafia meetings, Michael soon learns that the confrontation they’re in is one of those that will only end in someone’s demise. Once it’s been reduced to an “us vs. them” scenario, survival becomes the only thing that matters. And Michael and everyone around him will try to do that at any cost.

What makes Michael’s journey from Marine to mob boss so compelling is that he does these horrible things for fairly understandable reasons. There’s a genuine love for his family within him, even knowing who they are and what they do. When they’re threatened he doesn’t retaliate out of malice or a spirit of vengeance — it’s merely the most expedient way to eliminate a mortal threat.

Perhaps it’s because he’s a military man that Michael proves to be so good at strategizing the Corleone family’s escape from complete ruin. A ruthlessly tactical mind reveals itself in the face of this adversity, and he’s all too happy to use it to not only save their place at the table, but grab a better one when the opportunity presents itself.

Who doesn’t love the discovery of a hidden talent? I’m not sure what Michael’s prospects would have been if he hadn’t gotten involved, but chances are quite good that he wouldn’t have been nearly as feared or respected doing anything else. That combination of regard and wariness that is afforded to the very powerful is a heady temptation; it’s no wonder that he fell under its spell.

Of course, the movie does an incredible job of stitching an epic out of a number of low-key moments. It’s grounded in the realism of 70s cinema, and that makes the iconic scenes feel natural and lived-in. There’s a reason that so many people in organized crime (apparently) idolize this movie — there’s a reason the folks on, say, The Sopranos quote and reference it as religiously as the Bible. It’s a romanticized look at an awful profession, grounded just enough that anyone can insert themselves into Michael’s shoes.

The cinematography, the direction, the acting — all of it’s perfectly placed. It serves as a template for just about every mob movie or series that comes after it. The importance of this movie to the cultural landscape simply can’t be understated. You can’t touch the legacy of The Godfather.

But for me, it keeps coming back to Michael Corleone and the fact that he was doomed to sink towards his worst impulses the moment he stepped into his sister’s wedding. Even though The Godfather takes great pains to paint the Corleone family as the “good” bad guys, they’re still unquestionably bad — and it’s important to note that Michael’s fall is a tragedy to be pitied, not an arc to emulate.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Gone With The Wind (#4)

Entertainment 150Gone With The Wind (1939)
Starring Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard
Written by Sidney Howard (screenplay) and Margaret Mitchell (novel)
Directed by Victor Fleming

When I was but a wee leveret in the wilds of Baltimore City, I loved Gone With The Wind. This was a time before it (or anything) was readily available, so I waited for it to air on TNT every year. I’d watch it in two parts on weeknights, then in its entirety the following Sunday evening. It was something of a tradition for me. I got to the point where I knew entire stretches of the movie by heart. I was that big of a fan.

I was really looking forward to seeing it as part of the AFI Top 100; it had been at least ten years since I watched it, even though I had seen it at least a dozen times. There’s always a sense of trepidation when you revisit a fond memory from your childhood. Does the story hold up as well as you thought it did? What little details do you notice now that flew over your head when you were younger? I know a lot more about slavery and the curious way Hollywood has approached the subject than I did back then; just how cringe-inducing would seemingly innocuous details seem to me now?

The answer is very. Gone With The Wind is a deeply problematic film, and not just because of the way it asks us to think of slavery as “not that bad”. True, it engages in a bit of revisionist history, painting the antebellum South as something of an American Eden. But the issues go deeper than that, right down to the core of the story and its heroine, Scarlett O’Hara. I had always gone with the popular opinion of Scarlett — she was a Southern spitfire, full of flint and steel, able to take whatever came her way and make the best of it. But on watching the film this time, I have to say that I think she’s a sociopath.

The movie is roughly four hours long, and a LOT happens in it, but the basic through-line is this. Scarlett O’Hara (Leigh) is one of the daughters of a wealthy Irish landowner in the South. Right around the time the Civil War is heating up, she’s set her sights on dashing Southern gentleman Ashley Wilkes (Howard). However, Ashley loves her neighbor Melanie (de Havilland) and they agree to get married just before every able-bodied man is called to fight. Through the troubled years of open rebellion, loss and reconstruction, Scarlett tries to survive, woo Ashley and resist the charms of scoundrel Rhett Butler (Gable). It’s a sweeping epic of a story with wonderful setpieces and so many memorable scenes. Rhett is a singular type of hero, complicated and contradictory, and you can’t help but feel that he should be throwing his affections after a better person than Scarlett.

Throughout her life, Scarlett manipulates and cajoles men into doing what she wants them to do; she marries twice not for love but to spite someone and propel herself into a better financial position respectively, and she tries to get Ashley to run away with her while her entire family is depending on her and Melanie is recuperating from an extremely difficult birthing and a harrowing trip from Atlanta back to the O’Hara’s plantation. She has disdain for just about anyone that she doesn’t have a use for and only thinks of them once they can do something for her. Simply put, she is the worst.

It’s actually a testament to the great charisma of Vivian Leigh that the character can be so reprehensible yet still engrossing. You find yourself caught up in her struggle despite her thoroughly amoral behavior, even if it’s because you hope the people she’s with make it through all right. Scarlett is caught between her dream of a romanticized life (Ashley) and the kind of life that she brings to herself through her actions (Rhett), yet both options feel simply too good for her; there are times where you really wonder if she’s even capable of love, or if her feelings for Ashley are some sort of self-serving reflex, or a passing desire taken root and amplified because it couldn’t be fulfilled.

I know it seems like I’m coming across really harshly with Scarlett, but really…her lack of empathy knows no bounds. She whips a horse to death outside of Tara and feels not the slightest bit of remorse, immediately moving on to the house. When Melanie goes into labor during the fall of Atlanta, all she can think about is how inconvenient it is for her and her plans to get out of the city. She volunteers at a veteran’s hospital just to pass the time, and pretty much bolts as soon as she gets her fill. Later, she goes back to try and get the doctor to preside over Melanie’s birth, but only so that she can get it over with and leave the city before Sherman arrives. Everything is only considered by how much it affects her; she is thoroughly, consistently selfish. It’s astonishing.

And her myopic, self-centered view of the world permeates the rest of the movie. Scarlett’s way of life is seen as idyllic, and the Northern interlopers who flood the sacked and razed land are only out to make a quick buck, hoodwinking naive and recently-freed slaves into serving their interests. The slaves themselves are either stupid and indolent (Prissy, as played by Butterfly McQueen), slow but completely content to serve their masters (field overseer Big Sam, as played by Everett Brown) or a caustic but doting servant (Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy — the role that made her the first African-American Oscar winner). There are some scenes that are shocking in their treatment of black people as little more than props — particularly one where a bunch of little girls are waving palm fronds over a bunch of sleeping belles.

I realize when Gone With The Wind was made; in 1939, Hattie McDaniel couldn’t actually pretend the premiere in Atlanta due to the Jim Crow laws of the time. She couldn’t sit with the rest of her castmates during the Oscar ceremony where she won for Best Supporting Actress. She couldn’t even be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery upon her death more than a decade later because they wouldn’t accept black bodies. In a roundabout way, the movie actually helped galvanize the black community into speaking up about its representation (and treatment) in the entertainment industry and the whitewashing of history. In truly American fashion, Gone With The Wind provided a mixed blessing by being so tone-deaf about its subject matter.

But it’s important to point out the image it bolstered at the time and how it informed the perception of the South for decades afterward. It holds up an idyllic, false image of a really ugly period of American history, and it holds up Scarlett O’Hara as its champion. She’s supposed to be the shining virtue of Southern pride — resourceful, proud and determined. But to me, she’s just cold, manipulative and selfish.

I wish I could simply take the movie for what it is — a romantic epic that tells a great love story, populated with indelible characters and great dialogue. Gone With The Wind is certainly that. But I think we’re meant to identify with — maybe even admire — Scarlett, and that’s just asking too much. The movie does what it set out to do exceedingly well, and Clark Gable gives one of the all-time great performances for a dashing romantic lead. But the heart of the movie is rotten, there’s simply no way around that. Once you realize that, the rot pervades everything in it.

Still, I highly recommend that you see Gone With The Wind. For better or worse, it’s a tremendous piece of our cinematic history. Just don’t confuse it for our actual history; you may end up coming away with the entirely wrong lessons.

 

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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 Wizard of Oz (#6)

Entertainment 150
Starring Judy Garland and Margaret Hamilton
Written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf (screenplay) and L. Frank Baum (novel)
Directed by Victor Fleming

1939 was a very good year to Victor Fleming. He won an Academy Award for (co-)directing Margaret Mitchell’s southern epic Gone With the Wind, and helmed what’s arguably an even bigger cultural touchstone in The Wizard of Oz. This is the first portal fantasy committed to the screen that feels wholly American, from the dusty Kansas farm where the action takes place to the melting pot of fantastic influences that inform the crazy landscape of Oz. What’s interesting is that the fantasy suggests a country ill-at-ease with its coming industrialization and a slight distrust of the authority figures that feel bigger than life.

Dorothy Gale (Garland) is a little kid who lives with her aunt and uncle on a farm in turn-of-the-century Kansas. After getting into trouble with her horrendously mean neighbor Miss Gulch, she runs away from home to save her dog Toto from being taken into the pound. On the road she meets a traveling fortune teller who uses a bunch of parlor tricks to make her believe her aunt will fall ill if she leaves home; Dorothy doesn’t quite trust him at first, but her concern for her aunt sends her running back to the farm. A tornado sends the Gales and their hired hands into the storm cellar, though, and Dorothy misses them. Forced to take shelter in her house, she’s knocked out by a window pane and transported to the magical land of Oz.

There, she meets a number of folks all looking for the things they’re missing — while she misses home, the Scarecrow wants a brain, the Tin Man needs a heart, and the Cowardly Lion needs courage. They agree to help each other travel to the Emerald City, where they’ll meet the Wizard and have him grant them their wishes. Along the journey, each one of them (well, except Dorothy) display the very attributes they’re looking for; it’s really their self-image that needs correcting. Nonetheless, both Glinda the Good Witch and the Wizard demand that they take care of the Wicked Witch of the West, who wants to take Dorothy out anyway for killing her sister.

Why does the Good Witch and the Wizard want Dorothy to handle their dirty work while they’re arguably more powerful than she is? Especially when they know that what Dorothy (and the Tin Man and the Scarecrow and the Lion) already possess the things they want most (or at least, have the power to attain them)? It’s a question that’s been asked or at least danced around, and some have even gone so far as to suggest Glinda is the true villain of the story. She suckers Dorothy into killing her rival, all the while knowing how to send Dorothy home. What’s her angle? And what are we supposed to make of it?

I’m not entirely sure Baum meant for the Wizard and the Good Witch to come off as badly as they do if you think about what they’re doing even a little bit. Dorothy and her compatriots are simply willing to do the things that those in a position of power won’t because there’s motivation for them to do so. They’ve been tempted with their hearts’ desire, an ultimate goal that they’ve been working towards through the length of the movie — why wouldn’t they do anything they could to get it? The fact that they each display the qualities they believe they’re lacking is more for us than for them, a reminder that we often judge ourselves too harshly when it comes to our shortcomings.

Regarding the film itself, it holds up remarkably well; I was quite impressed with the tornado sequence, which was tense enough to get my heart racing. The transition from sepia-toned Kansas to the technicolor world of Oz is stark and well-presented, though the set looks a *little* rickety these days. Even still, Dorothy’s three companions are wonderful; they sink into their roles with a vaudevillian’s physicality, and they’re so game in the performance that you’re willing to overlook the stitches and seams in their costumes to believe that they really are a man made of straw or tin, or a fearsome jungle beast who just happens to walk on two legs.

And of course, Margaret Hamilton is perfectly awful as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch. She’s mean and revels in it; she provides Dorothy with just the right push to make her stumble into her heroism. While the story itself might not make much sense, and the costumes and sets are a little dated (but state-of-the-art for 1939 audiences), the emotional weight of the performances really take this movie over the top.

Looking at the movie through a historian’s lens, I’m tempted to talk a lot more about what the patchwork of Oz’s fantasy means about us as a society. Is it possible that the reason the story took off is that it taught us to be self-reliant, that we have everything we’ve ever wanted already? It’d be a pretty powerful lesson in Depression-era America, where people all over the country were struggling to make do with less. And my eye is still drawn to the fundamental immorality of Glinda and the Wizard; it feels like there’s a subtext of government distrust there. It feels like Baum is warning us that the powers that be will take our needs and use them to manipulate us into reinforcing their position.

It sounds crazy, right? But it’s not really even a new argument. There’s a lot out there about the potential political and religious subtext in The Wizard of Oz, though I’m not sure how much of that was implanted by Baum, known by the filmmakers or widely accepted by critics. Still, it’s fun to think that there’s this crazy world of meaning right beneath the surface.

Whether or not you believe in the subtext, The Wizard of Oz is a great movie. The performances elevate the enterprise totally, and its impact on movie-making and fantasy in America cannot be understated. It’s neat that after all this time, there’s still nothing quite like it.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Singin’ in the Rain (#10)

Entertainment 150Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds
Written by Adolph Green and Betty Comden
Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

It’s interesting to me that so many movies chronicle the rise of the “talkies” and the demise of so many silent film stars once pictures had sound. It must have been the last truly apocalyptic moment in movie-making; the monumental shift in acting from pantomime and stage-ready hamming to smaller gestures and voice-heavy emoting saw an entire class of major stars suddenly fade in a few years’ time, giving rise to a new crop of actors who could look and sound the part.

Some films — like the amazing Sunset Boulevard — take a dramatic look at the toll on the psyche that summary rejection brings you. Singin’ in the Rain takes the path of the romantic comedy, instead, where the disruption of the talkies and the influx of new talent actually allows most of its stars to move on to bigger and better things. Of course, the broad plot is mostly window dressing for a number of really amazing musical productions — mostly choreographed by Gene Kelly himself.

Kelly is Don Lockwood, who is one of the biggest silent screen stars of his day with partner Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). They’re always in love on film, and Lina has taken to thinking that they’re lovers off-screen as well. Neither Don nor his former partner, Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) like Lina very much, though. When talking pictures hit big, Don’s voice is a perfect fit for the kinds of roles he plays — Lina, whose voice is shrill and high, doesn’t do so well. It’s decided that her voice be dubbed over with Kathy Selden’s (Reynolds), a struggling actress that Don almost immediately falls in love with instead.

It’s easy to guess where the film is going from that set-up, but the destination isn’t the point — how entertained we are getting there is. And that’s where Singin’ in the Rain really shines. Kelly and O’Connor have a great chemistry, and they riff off of each other quite well. Both of them are workhorses when it comes to song and dance, and they attack each number with a ferocity I don’t think I’ve ever seen. O’Connor’s work on “Make ‘Em Laugh” is rumored to be so difficult he was bed-ridden for three days trying to recover, or so the story goes.

Every. Single. Song.

They just dance like this for every song.

Hagen is great as Lina Lamont. She’s calculated her performance with just the right amount of charisma so that you love to hate her. She’s a ridiculously fun villain, and she understands just what she’s for in every scene. So many of the movie’s highlights belong to her; whenever the proceedings are in danger of becoming too sappy, she punches it up with the right amount of tartness.

But the movie unquestionably belongs to Kelly. When people think of the big Hollywood musicals of the 40s and 50s, this is the movie they think about — and with good reason. Every song crackles with energy, the cast is obviously having a great time, the whole affair moves with a briskness that makes its 100-minute running time seem even shorter. It’s an iconic movie, the one that every golden-age musical is judged against. It’s a timeless movie that somehow manages to catch the distinct style of entertainment in the 50s while chronicling a subject that swept through cinema twenty-five years earlier.

If your tolerance for musicals is low, then chances are you won’t really dig Singin’ in the Rain. If you’re curious about them, though, and wonder why a lot of those old movies have such a devoted following after all these years, this should be the film you watch to see why.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: It’s a Wonderful Life (#11)

Entertainment 150It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore
Written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra (screenplay) and Philip Van Doren Stern (story)
Directed by Frank Capra

Part of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life such an indelible movie is its inextricable tie to Christmas and the mood we all wish to be in during that holiday. We want to see the best in mankind, we want to believe that a community can come together to take care of one of its own when they’re in trouble, we want to believe that things turn out all right in the end. It’s a Wonderful Life indulges that desire in spades, giving us a bittersweet fable of small-town, picture-postcard America that’s at turns heartbreaking and life-affirming. It’s quite an interesting film, actually, when you think about it beyond its sentimentality.

James Stewart is George Bailey, a young man from the small town of Bedford Falls with a dream of traveling around the world. His family serves a vital function of the community; allowing the working poor to receive loans to start businesses and buy homes for themselves. Their nemesis is an old Wall St. type named Henry Potter (Barrymore), an exploitative slum lord who represents the ideal of the free market, I suppose. The only thing that stands in the way of his complete capitalist tyranny is the little Bailey Building and Loan Association.

George’s father has a stroke right when his brother graduates high school, which means he’s the only one who can run it — his brother isn’t ready and his father and uncle are both unfit now. He puts off his dream to sort out the mess, and his brother goes to college instead. When his brother returns, it’s with an enormous job offer that George knows he can’t turn down. He kills his dream of leaving Bedford Falls for the betterment of his brother, taking on the burden of running the Building and Loan by himself.

The pressure from Potter intensifies, especially after the market crash of 1929. George gives up more and more of his life, sacrificing the nest egg he had squirreled away for his honeymoon to prevent a run on the association. Meanwhile, his brother enlists during World War II, becomes a fighter pilot ace, travels the world and comes home to a hero’s welcome. On the day of the parade, George’s absent-minded uncle misplaces $8,000 of the bank’s money. Without that deposit, the Building and Loan is sunk and Potter wins.

Distraught, George berates his children and one of their teachers, yells at his wife, crashes his car and nearly commits suicide by jumping off a bridge. Here is the part of the story everyone knows — his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) comes down to show him a dystopian Bedford Falls where he had never been born to show him the difference he’s made in people’s lives. Filled with joy at knowing the effect of his good works, George races through the streets of Bedford Falls towards his home, just in time for a Christmas miracle of the community’s own making. It really is one of the finest, most touching endings in cinematic history. I’m not ashamed to admit it makes me cry, every time.

What makes the ending so effective is what makes the rest of the movie so interesting and surprisingly complex. A lot of people ding this movie for its sentimentality, claiming that it gives easy answers that wouldn’t quite fly in the real world, and I disagree. What makes George Bailey such an extraordinary hero isn’t just that he tries so hard to do the right thing — it’s that sometimes he actually fails to. He’s not a saint; it’s clear that he resents his family and his community because of the choices he feels he has to make, and he doesn’t take care to find an outlet for it. The final straw simply uncovers what was already there — a man who feels trapped by responsibilities that may or may not be his, by the burden of being the difference between people’s happiness and their oppression.

It’s completely understandable that George would feel this way; he’s regularly sacrificed his happiness for other people, and he never seems to get a break. The rest of the community shows their appreciation at times, but they’re also just people — subject to mob mentality, panic and petty thoughts. Most people don’t have the emotional fortitude that Bailey possesses, and it’s rather difficult to be fair-minded about people you’ve stuck out your neck for but end up taking the easy way far too often.

This is the problem of the idealist; the world really doesn’t mold itself to your ideals all that often. And that disappointment can lead to a sort of desperation, the attachment that something good must come of your beliefs and deeds. As that disappointment continues, it poisons into resentment.

What It’s a Wonderful Life does is remind us that we do make a difference with our actions, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. If we put goodness out into the world, it really does help. Life in Bedford Falls isn’t perfect, especially for George; his Building and Loan may be saved by the end of the movie, but it’s still stressed. He still has unfulfilled dreams that he’ll likely never be able to return to. He’s still surrounded by people who are prone to panic, small-mindedness and failing their own ideals. Nothing’s changed but his perception, and a newfound appreciation for the things that have gone right.

Capra has become known for his “perfect” Americana pieces, but I think this movie doesn’t quite get its due because of it. It’s a Wonderful Life shows us the worth of the transformative mindset, what happens when we let go of the expectation that good things will happen to us because we do good things. Karmic feedback rarely takes the form that we’re looking for, and success can take on a wide variety of definitions. George struggles, but he succeeds because his community does; they never would have been able to help him when he needed it most without his life lived helping them.

What makes me so enamored with that lesson is the idea that a life well-lived matters in ways we never see, but it also cautions us to take care of our own desires. Or at least, how we deal with them when they’re unfulfilled. We must pay attention to ourselves every once in a while if we’re to continue living our ideals.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a wonderful movie. For those of us who are community-minded, it’s a gem that justifies our beliefs and reminds us of the worth of the individual. There’s a lot going on underneath the candy-coated exterior of Bedford Falls, but isn’t that always the way of a small town?

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Bridge on the River Kwai (#13)

Entertainment 150The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Starring William Holden, Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins
Written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson (screenplay) and Pierre Boulle (novel)
Directed by David Lean

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a chronicle of what can happen to twist our logic into insanity through the fog of war. Whereas Apocalypse Now explores what happens when man is allowed to give in to insanity with none of the societal constructs we use to block (or in some cases support) it, this movie shows us a man whose values get so twisted through his wartime experience that he ends up collaborating with — and ultimately supplanting — his sworn enemy as a matter of pride.

That man is Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Guinness), an officer for the British army who was captured along with his platoon by the Japanese. The commandant of the prison camp, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), is under pressure from his superiors to build a bridge within a certain amount of time. It holds vast strategic value, enabling the Japanese army to get men and supplies to areas of Burma that would otherwise be impossible. This would give them a significant advantage in the Pacific theatre of World War II.

Saito demands that all prisoners work on the bridge — even the officers. Nicholson refuses that last bit, under the grounds that it’s forbidden by the Geneva Convention. The resulting stand-off unites the men behind Nicholson (who ends up being punished in a sweat box) and encourages them to sabotage the building of the bridge, at least until Saito is forced to blink first and release Nicholson. The victory of the prisoners, however, is short-lived when their commanding officer sees the state of the project.

Appalled at the shoddy workmanship on display, Nicholson steadily takes over construction. At first he wants to give the men something to do so that their discipline and morale is improved, but it soon becomes a chance for him to leave a legacy behind after the war. The bridge, to his mind, will stand as a testament to British engineering and workmanship. Its prompt completion will be a thumb in the eye of the Japanese, proving that the Royal Army can do what the Emperor’s Army can’t.

Nicholson proves to be a harder, more effective taskmaster than Saito. He demands more and more of his men, even pulling people out of the infirmary to work. Saito just fades into the background as Nicholson becomes the new commandant of the prison camp, subjecting his own company to grueling work and punishing conditions just to prove his worth. Never mind that he has taken over the enemy’s work for them, or that the bridge actively works against the interests of his side.

Meanwhile, the one officer who survived in an escape attempt from the prison camp is convinced to go back and sabotage the bridge. Shears (Holden) is an American grunt who leads an international commando group to blow it up, and a lot of the film is devoted to him slowly giving up his selfishness in favor of a higher ideal. It makes for a really nice parallel story as Nicholson twists his ideals to serve his selfishness without even realizing.

The movie can only end one way, and that’s with a confrontation between Nicholson’s group and Shear’s unit. It’s a great opportunity to show just how far Nicholson has gone off the map, and even though you know he’s out in a mental and military wilderness it’s shocking to see just how lost he is. The climax of the film plays out like something of a Shakespearean tragedy, and the survivors are bewildered at the wreckage that they’ve had a hand in creating.

What’s fascinating about this film is figuring out exactly where Nicholson went wrong. His intentions were…sound enough, I suppose, but there’s clearly a line that was crossed at some point without the officer even knowing it. None of the people supporting him asked him to check his bearings before moving forward, and at some point he became the very thing he had been fighting all this time. Is this where an unwavering commitment to ideals gets you? Or is it just that he had been applying them improperly all this time?

We have the benefit of distance with which to determine the answers to these questions, but none of the participants in this scenario really did. And maybe that’s the point — when you’re in a situation where it’s the norm for men to be cruel to other men, it’s impossible to even find your bearings, to know what’s an acceptable application of your ideals and what isn’t. That at best, men are likely to turn into Nicholson and at worst they become Kurtz.

The movie is based on the book of the same name, and Nicholson is an amalgam of various French officers that writer Pierre Boulle served under in the war. Despite his repeated claims that he wasn’t trying to take a dig at the British, a lot of people (even star Alec Guinness) thought it was an indictment of the British Army. I could certainly see that, though really only one man drives the problem that needs to be stopped. It could be considered an organizational failure that his course wasn’t corrected well before the climax of the film.

The performances are first-rate all around, and given its unique location considering it’s a WWII film it’s one of the sunniest war movies I’ve ever seen. The adventurous, almost breezy tone masks a surprisingly thorny tangle of ideas in this movie, and that’s what makes The Bridge on the River Kwai so great. It’s entertaining, and when you stop to think about it really sobering. It’s the kind of movie you see on Friday night and end up thinking about through Sunday afternoon.

 
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Posted by on December 4, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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