Thursday, April 28, 2011

High School (Wiseman. 1968)

"It's nice to be individualistic, but there are certain places to be individualistic."

Cinéma vérité - ever heard of it? Most of my readers will probably answer that question with a no. This is what makes the 1077 Films to See Before You Die so amazing. It introduces people to all sorts of new genres that they would have otherwise never sought out. Cinéma vérité means "truthful cinema" in English. It is a sub-genre of documentary film making that uses naturalistic camera techniques to try and create an actual "slice of life." A sub-genre of this sub-genre is direct cinema. This is what we would now call the "fly on the wall" documentary filming style. This style creates a voyeuristic frame to actual, non-staged events.

The most famous of the direct cinema directors is Frederick Wiseman. Though Wiseman is not a fan of the term, he earned this reputation with films like Titicut Follies (1967) and most famously, High School. This is a film that puts a camera in the most awkward and unforgiving of places - a public high school.

Interestingly shot and uncompromisingly telling, the film would go on to become one of the most controversial documentaries in American history. In fact, the film was actually banned from being shown in Philadelphia for the way it depicted the city's educational system. With this picture, Wiseman became an unintentional warrior in the counter culture movement. He filmed the generational gap between the administration and students as if it were a living and breathing character. Without a script, Wiseman was able to create a good guy and a bad guy using just the words of the people in front of the camera. It is an incredibly interesting look into the public schools of the 1960s.

There is one particular scene where Wiseman is filming young high school girls as they model clothes. We see the high school aged women walking around as the teacher points out all of their flaws. She calls them fat, unattractive and even tells them that they will have trouble finding husbands. This was not a school the embraced people's differences. They make that abundantly clear.

In another scene we see a girl being punished for her short skirt. As the authority figures try to establish common ground with the obviously confused young lady, we hear an adult say "It's nice to be individualistic, but there are certain places to be individualistic." To which the student responds "I didn't mean to be individualistic." The times are a changin'. And this Pennsylvania school is not ready to hear the music.

I will say that as "direct" as this film seems, I do not buy the concept of Wiseman's no bias shooting style. He has the reputation as a filmmaker who just sets the camera down and films what is happening, but is this really the case? How could it be? This is a heavily edited and manipulated work of documentary. And though I believe that what Wiseman presents is true, I do not believe that it is an honest representation of life at Northeast High School. Wiseman made one of the most manipulative films I have ever seen with High School.

This is not a film that I would watch for fun. This is a film that you might come across on PBS. It is an educational look into human behavior and artistic film making. If you are looking for a film to help you formulate an opinion, I would point you toward anything made by Wiseman. He is an interesting filmmaker who directed and shot one of the neatest works I have ever seen. High School is a great movie.

High School: B

My Next Film....Bonnie and Clyde (Penn. 1967)

American Beauty (Mendes. 1999)

"I am 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course I don't know that yet, and in a way, I am dead already."

Some critics say or write controversial things to get a lot of attention for their reviews. Me, I am not like that. My job is to tell you what is good about a movie, followed by what is bad about a movie and then wrap it up with whether or not I liked the whole production. And though I do believe Clueless is a masterpiece, I still do my best to not push the agenda of my personal favorite films. If Clueless is my most controversial choice for a masterpiece, its counterpart would be my most controversial choice for a piece of garbage. I hate American Beauty. Here is why....

I understand that American Beauty may be the most highly acclaimed film of the last twenty years, but I am still unable to see what the hype is about. The film works incredibly well on certain levels, but it falls flat overall. But it is only fair to go into the screws that hold this film together. The most notable screw in this film would have to be Kevin Spacey.

Spacey gives the performance of his life as Lester Burnham. In the early moments of the introduction, we learn that Burnham is going to die. His death may be a sweet escape from his disastrous home life. His wife is a "bloodless, money-grubbing freak." And his daughter is even worse. She is confused about how to be herself. Pretty standard teenage stuff, right? What makes things worse is that she does not hate her father. She feels sorry for him. She thinks he is pathetic. And he might be - seeing that the high points of his day consist of masturbating in the shower and fantasizing about sixteen year old girls.

Lester is a character that continuously flips our perspective on the plot. At first we laugh at how ridiculous his family problems seem on the outer layer. He is okay with us laughing at his pathetic life. After we dive more deeply into the story, our pride begins to hurt as we see him fall more and more into a mental state of pathetic self-loathing. It is a devastatingly emotional performance that won Spacey the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Maybe the greatest aspect of American Beauty, the art direction is out of this world. It would be difficult to find a film that is easier on eye than this one. In one of the most memorable scenes, Mena Suvari is swimming in a sea of dark and beautifully red roses. The red pops out from the screen in the most affective of ways. It could symbolize lust, death, blood, desire or a variety of other emotional color-triggers. This scene is perfectly complemented by the background score. We are listening to a score that creates a feeling of awkward sexuality. This is an interesting combination that Mendes works brilliantly.

With all of the being said, I hated American Beauty. I have watched this film eight times in my life, and I am yet to enjoy a single viewing. Why? I strongly believe that American Beauty is the single most pretentious and self-important film I have ever seen. Its self-insistence is rivaled only by its lack of entertainment value. And the pretentious stupidity hits the high point in the film's most famous moment.

Wes Bentley plays the mentally damaged Ricky Fitts. He films dead bodies, deals drugs and is not ordinary. He falls for Lester's daughter and shows her the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. What does he show her? A freakin' plastic bag that is blowing around in the wind. And we watch this scene in amazement for one of two reasons. Either we are pretending to see the nonexistent deep symbolism or we are dumbfounded by the stupidity of it all.

And though the ending is "shocking", I am at the point where I no longer care about the outcome. Roger Ebert says that a good film can never have too many scenes. I believe that American Beauty throws around superfluous filler in abundance. And though it is difficult to dismiss the efforts of a brilliant cast and director, a film should always be reviewed on its entertainment merits. In that case, American Beauty sucks.

American Beauty: D+

My Next Film...High School (Wiseman. 1968)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Johnny Guitar (Ray. 1954)

"Spin the wheel. I like the way it sounds."

The western is a genre of film that carries its very own visual. When someone says they would like to watch a western, your mind almost automatically envisions John Wayne riding horseback to save the day from the horrible Indians (Native Americans, Mr. Wayne). This image is rather difficult to combat because the majority of popular western films do fall under that visual. But through the 1077 Films to See Before You Die I have found a western that is completely different. Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar is one of the most interesting films I have ever seen - especially from its particular genre.

In 1954, Nicholas Ray had not yet made his masterpiece, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), but he was still a well known filmmaker. When Joan Crawford bought the rights to a novel that was set in the American West with a tough female protagonist, Ray was almost instantly signed on to direct. This was the first step to making Johnny Guitar an interesting movie. Because if we know anything about Nicholas Ray, we know he likes to create some very specific undertones in his films.

It is commonly known that Ray directed one of the most homoerotic "man films" of all time with Rebel. And this would later become a trademark of his feature films. Some critics, like Roger Ebert, like to argue that this trend started with Johnny Guitar.

The film tells the story of a woman who owns a saloon on the outskirts of a small town. This woman, Vienna, is played by the noticeably manly looking Joan Crawford. She presents herself like a man and carries a gun like a man for the majority of the picture. She is loud, confident and structured. And though we are told that she is in love with Johnny Guitar, we never really feel their chemistry. Is this a Nicholas Ray look into bisexualism? Vienna is a man on the inside, and an unfortunate looking female on the outside. In fact, one famous line in the film has Vienna's bartender stating that he "never met a woman who was more man."

But this is not all that hides below the surface of Johnny Guitar. Vienna has an enemy in "town" by the name of Emma. This bitch is crazy. She is supposedly in love with the Dancin' Kid (one of the few other characters) and loathes Vienna because the Kid is in love with her instead. This is a surfaced plot-pusher because it becomes obvious who Emma is actually obsessed with.

Underneath it all, I am convinced that Emma and Vienna had a sexual relationship prior to the events happening in the film. Their hatred is very personal, and Emma uses words like "tramp" to describe Vienna's completely moral behavior. Their chemistry is through the roof, and the sexual tension between the two is thick. I am not sure if Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge knew what type of film they were making, but I would guess that Ray knew what type of film he was directing.

You can also feel the undertones in the way that the men in the film are treated. Though the picture is entitled Johnny Guitar, it is not really about his story. Guitar just rides into town with nothing but guessed it....guitar, and we eventually learn that he is an ex-gunman and former lovers of Vienna's. Other than that, he is relatively unimportant to the whole thing. He, like all other male characters, is turned into a paste in his dealings with either Vienna or Emma. I am not sure if I have ever seen a western that had such little focus on the leading men. This is unfortunate, because Sterling Hayden is outstanding.

I have a hard time believing that Nicholas Ray was trying to make a western with this movie. He had an understanding of his source material that the rest of his cast may have lacked. But this is a film about a woman scorned. What happened to her? We never find out. But we do get to see how it ends. This is one of the quirkier and most roundabout films I have ever seen. Watch it as an entertaining western or as a messed up love rectangle. Either way, I think you will like it.

Johnny Guitar: B

My Next Film...American Beauty (Mendes. 1999)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Let the Right One In (Alfredson. 2008)

"I'm twelve. But I've been twelve for a long time."

"A teenage girl risks everything when she falls in love with a vampire." Yuck. That is a one line synopsis for the film that redefined the concept of the vampire. As a coldblooded American male who also loves movies, Twilight (2008) is my enemy. It is the film that made consumers take the idea of a monster lightly. As unfortunate as 2008 was for the vampire community, one film put forth a solid effort against the Robert Pattinson-led melodrama.

Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In is a film that takes the vampire concept very seriously. In fact, it very much reminds me of the Nosferatu pathos. We are forced to understand that being a vampire is a curse. Though we ultimately fear the monster, we feel pity for the person inflicted by the nightmare. These feelings are intensified in Let the Right One In because our monster is a child. And she befriends another child. We are tricked into watching a highly emotional coming of age drama under the pretense of a horror flick.

This is not a horror flick. It is a very grim and dramatic look into the fragile psyche of twelve year old children. The film follows the story of a boy named Oskar. He is a very skinny, pale and awkward child with uninterested divorced parents. He is constantly feeling alone and has no understanding of how to reach out and make friends. He is violently picked on by a couple of his classmates - who go as far as to force him underwater and nearly drown. Oskar gets his release by stabbing the courtyard tree with a rusted pocket knife and fantasizing about standing up for himself. It is here that meets Eli. And everything changes.

It is pretty obvious that Eli is not your normal twelve year old girl. She cannot remember her birthday, but she knows that she is somewhere around Oskar's age. Without giving anything away, Eli is a vampire. But this does not frighten Oskar. He is at a tender place mentally where he is not shocked by the cruelties of the world. They are both forgotten and cast aside by the others, but they have each other. "Will you be my girlfriend?" Oskar asks. To which Eli responds "Oskar, I'm not a girl." Now we know.

I think the best part of Let the Right One In is its innocence. Like most coming of age stories, all we see are two young people trying to get a grasp on their feelings and ideas. Love, attraction, bullying and neglect are all presented with a childlike sense of confusion and hopelessness. John Ajvide Lindqvist based the screenplay off of his own novel, and if the book is even half as emotionally driven as the film - it should be considered a must read.

It is the strong emotional content that makes the vampire plot so dynamic. This film takes you all over the place. There is some blood throughout the film. It is also quite violent. Let the Right One In does what films like Pan's Labyrinth (2006) could not. It combines two brilliant, but polar opposite, aspects of storytelling into a perfectly crafted plot.

Aside from the plot, there are some really interesting things going on in this film. The color scheme is particularly interesting. There are no "happy colors" in Oskar's world. Everything is shadowed in a darker red or gray. Even human blood resembles a red so dark that it is almost black. Black - the color of death. This is a beautiful film to look at, and we notice this in the very early going. Even the opening credits are calmly, but also urgently, striking.

The title of the film comes from the legend that a vampire cannot enter a building without being invited. Vampire or not, I invite you to see a foreign film that will make you respect the well made monster movie. Eli is a child. Eli is a monster. We are proverbial concerned parents. We are afraid of her. This is one Hell of a movie with a jaw-dropping ending.

Let the Right One In: B+

My Next Film....Johnny Guitar (Ray. 1954)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Guys and Dolls (Mankiewicz. 1955)

"Luck, if you've ever been a lady to begin with - Luck be a lady tonight!"

Sinatra and Brando are two of the biggest stars to ever walk the face of the planet. Men and women alike find themselves weak in the knees over either of these two leading men. Sinatra's normal look is suave, charismatic and charming. Brando is usually tough, blue-collar and gritty. Any film that can mix these dynamics must be considered "must-see" material. It is too bad that film was never made. Instead, we are forced to settle with the 1955 smash hit, Guys and Dolls. The 1077 Films to See Before You Die has a very deep appreciation for musicals. And though this film is a solid effort, it is also the weakest I have seen so far.

Based on one of the most famous and well-loved stage musicals in history, Guys and Dolls is a star-studded homage to the older stage production. Though the story is only slightly changed, new songs are added to accommodate the will of Frank Sinatra. From the outside, we think that the film follows good ol' reliable Nathan Detroit (Sinatra). But we very soon understand that this film is about Sky Masterson, or more so - Marlon Brando.

How can a film with Sinatra and Brando be weak? Well, the starting point has to be the lackluster chemistry between the film's two biggest stars. Frank is very used to being the star of the show, but in Guys and Dolls the star is Marlon Brando. He plays the suave and sophisticated Sky Masterson. And though it hurts to admit, he does not do a very good job. He constantly seems out of his comfort zone in this role. His singing is below par, and his believability is below the floor. Brando may be famous for also having a successful stage career, but he does not fit into this picture at all. It is my least favorite of Brando's performances.

On the other side, we are given a classic Frank Sinatra performance. Sinatra and Nathan Detroit are pretty similar characters, and if they aren't, Frank convinces you that they are. He carries Brando in almost every scene that they have together. Though Brando would easily be considered a better actor, Frank is much more comfortable in this atmosphere - and you can see this while watching.

Of course the music in Guys and Dolls is very famous and memorable, but Brando is even able to mess that up. He practically mumbles through the production's most famous song, Luck be a Lady, all the while looking very stiff and awkward. It is almost unfortunate that we are forced to watch this scene even happen, but then we remember that we are watching THE Marlon Brando.

I understand that I have focused the majority of this post bashing Marlon Brando. I think the reason for that is he took me out of the picture. I did not believe him for a single second. And though Guy and Dolls works on several levels, he almost singlehandedly ruins all of them with his cardboard stiff performance. I think that this was a great film on paper, but the cast- other than Frank and Vivian Blaine- was simply not interested in making a quality picture.

At the end of the day, who am I to trash the greatest actor of all time? I just pray as a film fan that this is NOT a person's first exposure to the legend of Marlon Brando. His performance is bad enough to ruin almost all of this film's redeeming qualities. I love Guys and Dolls, yet I was reduced to "working through" this rendition.

Guys and Dolls: C

My Next Film....Let the Right One In (Alfredson. 2008)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Hughes. 1986)

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Remember when I said that John Hughes does not have another film on the 1077 Films to See Before You Die? Well, that was obviously not the case. With a list this large, it is almost impossible to remember everything that it features. Though it has the reputation as one of the most loved and quoted films of the 80's, I actually managed an entire childhood without seeing Ferris Bueller's Day Off. From what I have been told, this is utter blasphemy. I was promised a sweet-heart pop comedy, but I was given a typical "me first" journey through a bunch of now-cliche pop culture references.

Now do not get the wrong idea, this is a film that works on multiple levels. It is, if anything, an incredibly sweet picture. It tells the story of a high school senior named Ferris Bueller and how he managed to trick his parents into letting him stay home from school. And though this plot does seem thin, the much deeper ethos is presented in the character of Cameron Frye.

Cameron, played decently by Alan Ruck, is a high school student who is constantly in the shadow of his father's materialism. His father, who is not shown on screen, has allowed a rare-form Ferrari to become the center of his life- while pushing his son around in the process. With all of that being subtly introduced, we take a look back at Ferris Bueller and see him as an action oriented therapist for his best friend. He is not just playing hookie to see the Chicago sights, he is helping his friend feel any kind of self-worth. It is a much deeper idea than we can see on the surface.

But this is the problem with Ferris Bueller's Day Off- it dwells directly on the surface and never dives into anything meaningful. John Hughes likes to do this in his films which famously include the likes of Sixteen Candles (1984), Weird Science (1985) and The Breakfast Club. These are all cut-and-dry examples of how the MTV generation recognized the parental-teenager gap. Being a teen is so difficult, parents just don't get it. Bleh bleh bleh.

The most ridiculous "John Hughes" moment in this film is the way that Cameron decides to confront his father. I understand that this is not a film that swims in realism, but the entire concept that confronting the heat will solve his problems seems out of this world to me.

It is hard to believe that I have made it this far without praising the performance of a young Matthew Broderick. His dangerously smart, confident and sly portrayal has gone down as one of the finer character works in Pop-film. We all know that Broderick went on to become the toast of Broadway, but his silver-screen charisma shines through in abundance as Ferris Bueller. He may be the only thing about the film that we believe. And like the John Bender's that came before him, he is a lasting John Hughes representation of 80's unconventionality. This is easily one of my favorite performances from any 80's film.

I have seen worse teen films than Ferris Bueller's Day Off , but I have also seen much better from the genre. Though it is far more sweet, it lacks the lasting emotional connections that Hughes created in The Breakfast Club . This is a movie that is only about entertaining..and it does entertain. Full of heart and sentiment- Matthew Broderick turns this film into something more than it looks like. John Hughes is a legend in "Me generation" film-making, Ferris Bueller's Day Off shows you why he deserves that reputation.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off: B-

My Next Film....Clueless (Heckerling.1995)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Producers (Brooks. 1968)

"Don't be stupid, be a smarty. Come and join the Nazi party."

As we know, there are few things funnier than the story of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. That is why it was so easy for Mel Brooks to make a film which directly mocked that story. We also know that Brooks is not the type of director that would push the envelope with his brand of humor. In fact, his biggest flaw is his debilitating desire to be liked by everyone. It is this flaw that makes a film like The Producers seem so very bland and humorless. The 1077 Films to See Before You Die must enjoy torture by making film fans sit through this very inside-the-box comedy.

I should not have to point out that I am obviously kidding about Mel Brooks and Adolf Hitler. Brooks is a filmmaker and screenwriter who seemingly gets off on making jokes in the worst of tastes. He is known as a sort of "spoof" director, but The Producers does not parody something the way that we might be used to seeing. Instead of blasting an actor or a genre, Brooks tackles what was once thought impossible. He made a joke out of Adolf Hitler - and based a film around it.

On the surface, Hitler is a relativity small contributor to The Producers. The film follows the story of a once great, now washed up, Broadway producer named Max Bialystock. In the midst of an awkward romp with the elderly "Hold me, touch me"- Bialystock is introduced to the neurotic and socially inept, Leo Bloom.

Bialystock is played by the comedy veteran, Zero Mostel. Mostel's performance is spot on. He presents a character with whom it is nearly impossible to relate. Bialystock even has a disgusting comb-over to add to his already icky demeanor. His personality is a perfect match for his appearance. He is selfish and irresponsible. He even takes advantage of little old ladies. His moral shortcomings are unrivaled in the history of comedy.

On the other hand, Leo Bloom is played by a newcomer at the time named Gene Wilder. Of course, we all know that Wilder went on to do some pretty iconic stuff- Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)- but at this time it was questioned if he could hold his own opposite Mostel. Not only did he succeed, but he completely outshines his co-star. Wilder's character was so timid and adorable, so defeated and unhappy that it was impossible to not love him. Even as we watched him slip morally, we hoped that we would get the best of things. He deserved the best of things.

Mostel and Wilder's chemistry keeps The Producers from becoming too out of control. The idea that a producer could make more money from a flop than a hit can be presented believably, but that is about this film's extent for believability. Though it is never stated, it is rather obvious that Bloom and Bialystock are Jewish. In one scene, they are embarrassed to be wearing Swastika arm bands. As they throw them in the trash we see both characters spitting on them in disgust. This type of moment is needed to occasionally knock us back into reality.

Mostly because of Mel Brooks' extremely successful Broadway musical adaptation, we are already familiar with "Springtime for Hitler." This is the musical that is supposed to be the biggest flop on Broadway. Though the show is noticeably awful, the man cast as Adolf Hitler (Dick Swan) was so hilarious that the show became a gigantic hit. Swan mocks the infamous legacy of Hitler by portraying him as a slick and smarmy flower-child with a very limited vocabulary. To this day, critics and movie lovers are not sure how Brooks got away with this. Maybe he knew that his idea was so offensive that it would be looked upon as genius. Whatever he worked.

The Producers is an outrageous and zany comedy that will keep you laughing throughout. In terms of comedic films, Mel Brooks has a bundle of great ones, and few good ones and a couple of stinkers. The 1077 Films to See Before You Die has a deep respect for Brooks' contribution to comedy. And though Blazing Saddles is a much funnier film, The Producers is his best work. This is an Academy Award winning film that anyone interested in comedy should see. Go ahead and study Mostel's timing, Brooks direction or Wilder's brilliance. Either way, you cannot miss.

The Producers: A

My Next Film....Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Hughes. 1986)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mulholland Dr. (Lynch. 2001)

"The way you know the movie is over is that it ends. And then you tell a friend, "I saw the weirdest movie last night." Just like you tell them you had the weirdest dream."

Have you ever had a dream that did not make any sense at all? After thinking about it all day, you eventually realize that you will never make sense of what was going on. You eventually turn to a friends and say "I had the weirdest dream last night, and I hope I never have it again." This is the exact same feeling that a viewer gets after watching David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. This is my second Lynch film from the 1077 Films to See Before You Die, and I am not sure that I have an honest reaction to go along with it.

Mulholland Dr. does not really have a story to follow. What we can put together is that there are two women, Rita and Betty. Rita was just in a car accident and does not have any memory of her identity. Betty is a small town girl who has moved to Hollywood to become the next great actress. They are played by Laura Harring and Naomi Watts, respectively, and share an awkward chemistry that creates the classic uncomfortable Lynch feeling. They are the fundamental characters in the film, yet we never do learn much about them that could be considered concrete.

While on the subject of content, I do want to point out that Mulholland Dr. is probably most famous for its girl-on-girl love scenes. These were fun, but they did seem to lack importance in regards to the narrative.

But narrative is not a concern for David Lynch. Not only does he refuse to compromise with the audience, but he also blatantly disregards the entire concept of a secular premise. The scenes in Mulholland Dr. all make relative sense on their own, but they do not connect with any of the others. This is just like Lynch. He created a dream-like mythos that frantically moves from one moment to the next without any explanation. And though you may not intellectually follow the action, you still try with the mad intent of forcing Lynch to tell you something meaningful. He never does.

What Lynch does do- is he challenges you aesthetically with spinning and rotating camera angles. There are several stand alone shots that have the individual merit to impress. Also, Lynch created an almost constant feeling of urgency and edge-of-your-seat suspense by using various tunnel shots throughout. Visually, Mulholland Dr. is under the disguise of a film-noir. But conceptually it is nothing but surrealism.

If you are looking for a film that will deliver an everlasting message, you should probably avoid anything Lynch- but especially Mulholland Dr. Again, I am not sure what my opinion of the film really is, but I do know that it was very entertaining. David Lynch is a master at poking a filmgoer's big kid brain. He presents questions that you cannot answer, and introduces you to techniques that you have never seen before. He is a master filmmaker with no desire to be well received. Mulholland Dr. is a brilliantly crafted film with a confusing, but rewarding, non-secular storyline. If you like dreams, you will love this film.

Mulholland Dr.: C+

My Next Film....The Producers (Brooks. 1968)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Princess Bride (Reiner. 1987)

"My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Fairy tales are for little kids, right? This would be the case an overwhelmingly large amount of the time. And as we know, I am not the biggest fan of little kid movies. This is why Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride is such an important film in my book. The 1077 Films to See Before You Die is filled with movies that are targeted towards adults or children. This is a film that can be equally enjoyed by men, women, boy or girl of every age and demographic....though a lot of us would not like to admit that.

The Princess Bride opens with a young Fred Savage sick in his bed. His grandfather, played by Peter Falk, offers to read him a story that is filled with "fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love and miracles." Though this sounds like a typical telling of a storybook fairy tale, we can tell that there is going to be something original about this narrative. And it all starts with Falk's wry deliveries in telling the love affair between Princess Buttercup and Westley.

Buttercup is played by the gorgeous Robin Wright. Throughout the first part of the picture we see a developing romance between her and the farm boy, Westley. He is played by the hilarious Cary Elwes. The chemistry between the two is heartwarmingly palpable. The simple phrase "as you wish" has never had such romantic power. But like in all fairy tales, true love cannot be had that easily. Princess Buttercup is kidnapped by a group of scoundrels, and the poor farm boy is assumed dead at the hands of Dread Pirate Roberts.

But as William Goldman's screenplay playfully points out, our main characters cannot just die off that quickly. In an unexpected twist, Westley returns as the Dread Pirate Roberts to save the love of his life. Along the way, he defeats and befriends two fellow outlaws in Inigo Montoya and Fezzik. These two are played by Mandy Patinkin and Andre the Giant, respectively, and add some very quirky comedic angles to the story.

It does not take long for adults to realize that they are not watching a legitimate fantasy love story. Instead, they are watching a maturely crafted parody of not only fantasy and fairy tale, but also of the swashbuckling films of the easy days. Elwes' debonair Dread Pirate Roberts character is a seemingly direct homage to the Errol Flynn heartthrobs in films like Captain Blood (1935). This makes the character that much more hilarious because his suave demeanor is not backed with the same impeccable sense of masculine sexuality. It would be like me putting on boxing gloves and pretending to be Rocky Balboa.

Reiner and Goldman have no problem poking fun at their own film within the dialogue and action, and this is what makes The Princess Bride a great movie. It never allows you to rest on one joke for too long. It is a constantly moving parody that never runs out of punchline. I would say that this is a finer film than anything Mel Brooks made after High Anxiety (1977), but Elwes' performance in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) actually makes that statement rather difficult to stand behind. In the end, the fact that I can honestly compare Reiner with Brooks on a comedic scale is pretty impressive on its own.

Rob Reiner was on a roll in the mid to late 1980's. His films were all very sweet and original in their ability to make an audience fall in love. And though he did go on to make stinkers like North (1994) - the film that Roger Ebert famously reviewed with- "I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.", his contributions to 80's pop culture are difficult to deny.

The Princess Bride epitomizes the idea of fun for the whole family. It is sweet, sentimental, fun and hysterical. And though the film does contain some kissing, missing out in this classic would simply be inconceivable.

The Princess Bride: B+

My Next Film....Mulholland Dr. (Lynch. 2001)

Rosemary's Baby (Polanski. 1968)

"He chose you, honey! From all the women in the world to be the mother of his only living son!"

Few filmmakers are surrounded by more controversy than Roman Polanski. His wife, Sharon Tate, was the victim of the highly publicized Manson Family murders in 1969. If that was not enough, he was also convicted for the statutory rape of a 13 year old girl. After this, Polanski fled the United States in order to avoid prison.

Sadly, this is how the majority of non-film lovers remember Roman Polanski. But we cinophiles choose to remember the Polanski that made several amazing films. The 1077 Films to See Before You Die features a few of his best works - including my personal favorite of his, Rosemary's Baby.

This is a horror film that crosses over into the realm of a psychological thriller. Rosemary's Baby follows the story of a young married couple as they move into a creepy apartment complex. Their elderly neighbors are unusual, but friendly. And after Rosemary becomes pregnant, she eventually becomes dependent on them. By now, most of us know how the story of Rosemary's pregnancy ends. In fact, Polanski chooses to throw the mystery in your face. This is not a film that will shock you with a twisting ending.

In fact, Polanski does not even need the ending to be kept a secret for you to be interested. This is mainly because of Mia Farrow's perfect performance as Rosemary. She is the one who is impregnated by the Devil. She is the human being that has to make sense of what is happening around her. And her performance is so perfectly done that we actually see her as a human being- and not a caricature of the innocent. Our hearts break as we watch her desperation become more and more inescapable.

The breakout performance in Rosemary's Baby is given by acting veteran, Ruth Gordan. She plays Rosemary's nosy next door neighbor, Minnie Castevet, who also has a flair for the occult. The interesting dynamic here is that Farrow was a virtual newbie to the film industry, yet Gordan was able to overshadow any green from her portrayal. Their communication was so natural that you could easily believe the Grandmother-esque dominance that Minnie had over Rosemary. For this, Gordan was awarded an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in 1969.

I would be crucified by film snobs if I did not mention the ridiculous performance by snob-favorite, John Cassavetes. Rosemary's Baby helped cement him into the snob-cult vernacular. Though the character of Rosemary's husband is not particularly defined, Cassavetes is always cool.

Anyways, Polanski's screenplay is one of the most original in all of film. Not because of content or dialogue, but because of how he chooses to present the film. He was able to blend elements into Rosemary's Baby that created a very Hitchcock suspense/Carpenter horror feeling of urgency and eeriness. I cannot stress enough that Polanski gives you the ending less than a half an hour into the film. But his original take on supernatural suspense still manages to keep you interested for over two hours. None of today's filmmakers, besides maybe the Coens, have the ability to manipulate an audience this way.

So yeah, Rosemary gives birth to the child of Satan. We all already know the ending. Me telling you to watch this for a shock would be like me telling you to watch Sherlock, Jr. for a laugh. Some have said that Polanski is not a director of interesting stories, but rather interesting ideas. This comes to life in Rosemary's Baby. And though Roman will never be able to return to the United States, his body of work remains a must-see for every generation of film fans.

Rosemary's Baby: A

My Next Film....The Princess Bride (Reiner. 1987)

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene. 1920)

"I must know everything. I must penetrate the heart of his secret! I must become Caligari!"

Have you ever seen anything directed by Tim Burton? How about the RHCP video for Otherside? If you have, then you have seen the two things most obviously influenced by one of cinema's fist ever horror films. In 1920, Robert Wiene released a German picture called The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This is a film that features some of the most interesting long shot camera angles I have ever seen. With noticeable camera artistry and trip-tastic set designs, Cabinet is a film that astounded me aesthetically.

And aesthetics is exactly where I would like to start. The most original thing about this film is the fact that it is shot in mostly long shots. This is the case because of the numerous twisted and manipulated sets. These camera shots were needed to display the entire enormity of the backdrop, but they also created an uneasy feeling for the viewer. Willy Hameister's cinematography forced us to look in on the action from an impossible distance. We were left helpless and confused. It is a terrifying feeling.

But it is the sets and backdrops that really compliment the camera work. Cabinet featured settings of twisted roads, angle and dimension defying staircases, knife like grass and razor sharp trees. The look of the film is scary and unusual enough to directly endorse the horror ethos. Though these gigantic, cardboard theatrical sets must have been significantly less expensive than some of the D.W. sets of the time, this is not why Wiene used them. He was an incredibly meticulous filmmaker. He knew and understood the power that his sets could have. His film was dealing in the violent, supernatural and uneasy- he needed his set to match. He succeeded.

Though the film is absolutely an aesthetic experience, it is also a pretty decent horror flick. It tells the story of a crazy carnival worker and the somnambulist that he has power over. After a string of mysterious murders, people begin to suspect the unusual and spooky somnambulist. It is then that we fall into the ever-twisting and supernatural world of the crazed Dr. Caligari. And his is a world that you will not easily escape from. It is an interesting story throughout.

Horror is a pretty easy genre. And silent horror films have a tendency to stick in your mind for a longer time. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not an exception to the rule. Its blue and bronze color schemes create a lasting and spooky visual to go along with the mind-altering sets. Wiene did not use the modern scare tactics that horror directors are reduced to using today. This is a film that is creepy on content alone. You'll like this one.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: B+

My Next Film....Rosemary's Baby (Polanski. 1968)

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Asphalt Jungle (Huston. 1950)

"Here's to the drink habit. It's the only one I got that don't get me into trouble."

Marilyn Monroe is really really good looking. Like, she is really good looking. That was my initial reaction after my first viewing of The Asphalt Jungle. This is a film that the 1077 Films to See Before You Die has deemed a significant work in film-noir and crime drama. This is one example of how the list can be correct. Which is nice - considering how wrong it has been lately.

This film tells the story of a few high profile criminals and the jewelry heist that has brought them all together. Though the heist goes as planned, double-crosses and pressure from the fuzz eventually lead to everything unraveling. This second act of the film actually shows these criminals as they try to escape the heat.

The Asphalt Jungle was directed by the much acclaimed John Huston. This is a man who was most famous for his work on the film-noir classic, The Maltese Falcon (1941). Huston was certainly under some pressure to make sure that his next noir was at least on par with his magnum opus. So he sought out and cast an acclaimed cast of actors to make sure this film did not fail. The most famous person in the film was a relative nobody at the time, Marilyn Monroe.

In 1950 the world had not yet been introduced to the sultry and seductive powers of Marilyn. In this film, she plays the mistress of the crooked lawyer, Emmerich. Though her role in the picture is actually very small, it is still the most memorable part of the film. Seeing a young Marilyn on screen is like watching a screen legend being born. It is an interesting look into the pop culture icon's rise to fame.

And though Ms. Monroe is a the most distracting, she is not the only interesting aspect of The Asphalt Jungle. Nominated for four Academy Awards, this picture had an incredibly well rounded cast and production team. Obviously, John Huston's direction is perfect and his screenplay is twisting and interesting.

Harold Rosson's Academy Award nominated cinematography is very pleasing to the eye, especially for a film shot in black and white. The lighting is very dimmed and the mood is set with flickering lights and overcast shadows. Rosson's shooting style for The Asphalt Jungle is a perfect representation of what a noir should look like.

But my favorite part of this film is the emotionally effective ending. After Dix Handley, a wounded criminal, makes it back to his home in Kentucky he has one of the purest emotional moments I have seen in film.

In this one scene, Dix (Sterling Hayden) becomes filled with childlike regret for his life choices. He is again surrounded by the things that make him happy. He is okay to die. And as he collapses we see the woman that loves him. She yells for him. He does not answer. She is in frantic tears, but Dix is finally at peace amongst the things that he loves. It is an emotionally striking moment.

All in all, The Maltese Falcon is still the greatest film-noir ever made. But John Huston put forth an incredibly solid second effort with The Asphalt Jungle. This is a film that will entertain everyone. It has several points that transcend its most convenient genre definition. This was one of the more entertaining films I have seen so far.

The Asphalt Jungle: B+

My Next Film...The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene. 1920)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Reisner. 1929)

"He refused to rehearse the stunt because, he explained, he trusted his set-up, so why waste a wall?"

If you go back through My Adventure Through Film you will find my entry on a film called Sherlock, Jr. That film was my first experience with the Hollywood legend, Buster Keaton. A gigantic name in silent film, Keaton is widely considered one of the most important comedic actors in history. I did not find a thing about Sherlock, Jr. to be funny. Maybe the 1077 Films to See Before You Die understands that comedy can be very hit or miss. That is why they included another Buster Keaton film that was actually hilarious, Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. follows the story of a lovable screw-up named William Canfield. Canfield (Keaton) is the far from the tree son of the cantankerous riverboat captain, William 'Steamboat Bill' Canfield. After being reunited, the father and son duo try to captain a riverboat together, but- like in any other Keaton film - things go horribly wrong. This leads to several zany and impressive physical stunts that make the film stand out from Sherlock, Jr.

I have said that Buster Keaton is the closest thing film has ever had to a living cartoon character. His films almost always consist of him throwing his body around for the sake of a dangerous and outlandish physical stunt. Keaton is physical comedy. He does all of his own stunts in his films, including one of the most famous stunts in all of the early days.

There is one very memorable scene in Steamboat Bill, Jr. where Keaton is outside in the middle of a horrible wind storm. As he is trying to find shelter, trees and buildings are crumbling around him. A frantic Keaton finds himself standing at the base of a house when the front begins to fall towards him. But Buster is able to avoid being squished by standing directly in the path of the window. This is an impressive stunt because it left very little room for error. While watching the film, you can actually see his shoulders shrink as the wall falls. Even Buster Keaton, the living cartoon character, was nervous about this one.

This is what actually makes the films of Buster Keaton interesting. His films always incorporate an early sense of campy danger. His stunts are far more impressive than his comedy is funny. If anything, you should watch his catalog for that reason alone.

Though I still do not see many redeeming qualities in Sherlock, Jr.- I can now see why film buffs still go crazy for Buster. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a film with a lot of heart, wit and jaw dropping stunts (for 1929). Right now, Buster Keaton has a 50% success rate with me. I can only hope that the upward trend continues.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. : B-

My Next Film.....The Asphalt Jungle (Huston. 1950)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Performance (Cammell. Roeg. 1970)

"The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness."

Gosh, the 1970's must have been awesome. I am jealous of anyone who got to live the life in that turbulent time period in pop culture history. The 1077 Films to See Before You Die is a list that contains films from every decade since the 1910's, so I usually try to save 70's films for when I really need a pick me up from the depressing foreign stuff. Performance was not only a pick me up, but it was also a punch in the gut, kick in the head and knee to the testicles. It has been said that, unless you lived it, nobody will ever truly be able to understand the early 70's. Performance unashamedly proves this statement - making it one of the coolest films I have ever seen.

Chas, played by James Fox, is a violent gangster living in a rough part of East London. Though he takes great pleasure from his work, he is often not given the respect that he deserves from his boss. After carrying out a hit that was not supposed to happen, Chas leaves town to lay low for a while. This is where he meets the eccentric retired rock star, Turner.

Before I get any deeper into that, I want to give James Fox some credit. Much like Peter Weller in Naked Lunch, Fox is a stone faced, suit wearing tough guy in the middle of a culture shock. His monotone reactions to everything make the film hilarious. In fact, without Fox's believable performance in Performance, the film would have have been far too outrageous to even sit through.

But the glaring high point of the film is the character named Turner. Played by Mick Jagger, Turner is a drug and sex addicted former rock star who has disappeared into retirement in order to write a memoir. Jagger is nothing short of brilliant in this role. He oozes with dirty and bi-gender sexuality that is actually a little confusing. The directors of Performance actually liked the gender neutral look of Jagger and tried to emphasize it throughout the whole thing. This just added to the confusion that was the sharply edited storyline.

In the early 70's, British filmmakers were all about trying to combine the infamous London underworlds to create a lasting picture. This is what Performance tries to do with combining the mobsters with the psychedelic pop stars. This is a frantic mixture that is only made even more wild with Cammell and Roeg's trigger happy editing techniques. The first hour of the film seems like one long and continuous edit. There are very few lasting camera shots, but this directly reflects the filmmakers' desires. A viewer is not supposed to be calm or comfortable during Performance, and we never do get there.

Easily the most memorable scene in the film features Mick Jagger doing what he does best, singing. The scene does not really have much secular purpose, but it is the most fun you will have during the film. In what seems like a precursor to the music video, Jagger sings and dances his way through a song that WILL get stuck in your head. And the song is actually pretty good. It is a moment in film that you will never forget.

Though it is impossible to say that Performance is a well made picture, it is still a very cool experience. This film featured ideas that noticeably influenced several British filmmakers, especially Guy Ritchie. Think- Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) meets a watered down Rocky Horror. It is a combination that works. I will remember this as one of the most out of this world cinematic experiences I have ever had. This is one of my new favorite films.

Performance: B

My Next Film....Judge Priest (Ford. 1934)

Akira (Ôtomo. 1988)

"He's not your friend, he's ours! If somebody's gonna kill him, it should be us!"

Animation is very hit or miss for me. I am not usually the biggest fan of kid movies, so most animation is completely out the door. With that being said, you would think that anime would be prefect for me because it is animation with adult content. Anime is just defined as animation from Japan, but the term has now taken leaps into its very own genre. This all started with Katsuhiro Ôtomo's Akira. Though the film is widely considered a classic, I was not the biggest fan of my first animated feature from the 1077 Films to See Before You Die.

Akira is based on the Katsuhiro Ôtomo manga of the same name, and this is the first flaw of the picture. The story follows a young biker gang member named Kaneda. One of his childhood friends, Tetsuo, has accidentally fallen into a a secret government project that leaves him with exceptional psychic superpowers. Now, for the safety of the futuristic neo-Tokyo, Kaneda and a group of adolescent psychics must reluctantly join forces to stop Tetsou from releasing Akira.

I'll admit that the plot does sound pretty cool, but Akira is not a cool film. Its main issue is that Ôtomo tries to cram six volumes of manga into a two hour film. There is way too much going on at once during the whole thing. Several characters and elements are introduced without any real explanation. It seemed like Ôtomo simply refused to trim the fat off his own creation. Some films, especially animation, can get away with a lighting fast pace. But Akira was simply not interesting enough to make it work.

Though the tempo of the film was frantic to the point of nausea, Akira could have been saved if the content was even in the least bit satisfying. Instead of a sufficient narrative, this picture hits you over the head with futuristic looking nonsense. The viewer is also rewarded with a mass amount of mature elements like blood, gore, foul language and even a pair of cartoon breasts. I would not watch Akira with my mother - not that I would even watch it a second time in the first place.

But, like almost every film on the 1077 Films to See Before You Die, Akira does have a redeeming quality. The visual effects and animations throughout the entire thing are mind boggling. This was one of the most colorful and artistically well-crafted films I have ever seen in my life. Akira is one of the films that introduced this style of animation to the rest of the world - and that must count for something.

I really did hate Akira. I mean, this is not even close to the hatred I had for Dog Star Man - but I can honestly say that I will never approach anything else made by Ôtomo (unless it is on the list). In fact, Akira has put a sour taste in my mouth regarding all of popular anime. Gross? Yes. Confusing? Kinda. Well made? Maybe. Entertaining? No.

Akira sucked.

Akira: C-

My Next Film....Performance (Cammell. Roeg. 1970)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Wild Strawberries (Bergman. 1957)

"The truth is that I am forever living in my childhood."

I love movies. They are practically my life. The thing I love most about them is that they have the power to stick in my mind forever. This happens in a way that no song or novel could ever achieve. It is a feeling that does not allow any other feeling to compare. In my journey through the 1077 Films to See Before You Die I have watched some horrible and some breathtaking picture shows that I know will stick with me and make me a better critic in the future. With all of that being said, I have come across a film that I am sure will change the way I look at movies. In 1957, Ingmar Bergman released a film called Wild Strawberries. This is a film that I will never forget.

The film tells the story of an elderly professor, Isak Borg, who has lived his entire life bitter and cold hearted. As he drives to a ceremony in his honor, he is forced to recognize and confront what he calls the emptiness of his existence. He reminises about his lost love, horrible marrage and even his intellectual fortune with a grumpy and pessimistic outlook. On his trip, Borg makes a few sentimental stops and meets several people that help him to better understand the world. Eventually professor Borg is able to overcome his inner-coldness and rest in bed with an at-ease heart. But it is not the happy ending that makes this a great film.

Bergman's script, which he wrote while in the hospital, allows a viewer to see the film through many different perspectives. At the start we merely see the picture through the eyes of professor Borg, but as new characters are introduced we are given new angles to see the story. This is most easily seen with the introduction of Sara - the cheeky virgin. Played by Bibi Andersson, Sara is an energetic and sharp contrast to the stone cold professor. She brings a much needed energy to Wild Strawberries and also supplies the viewer with a fresh life outline. It seems that professor Borg is trying to avoid happiness throughout the film, but Sara is all about embracing it. She is a very refreshing inclusion to the cast- which is a tribute to Bergman's ability as a character developer in film.

Also, Bergman has a way of making a moviegoer care deeply for his characters. His script puts everyone on an even emotional landscape that makes the whole thing feel very real. This also has the power to make a viewer feel very uncomfortable during Wild Strawberries because the subject matter is very emotionally raw. In fact, there are two scenes in particular that put you in the center of action you feel as though you should not be watching. During the car ride, you witness an abusive couple trying to cover up their hatred for each other with novelty excuses. And in the most memorable scene you see professor Borg's son refusing to be a father for his unborn child. These are very real and uncomfortable moments, but Bergman and his cast have the subtle abilities to address them with class.

Another thing that is interesting about Wild Strawberries is its very Bergman shooting style. The film is shot in a low saturated black and white that is very easy on the eye. If you focus on Bergman's deliberate usage of black and white you may actually forget that the film is not shot in color. The manipulation of color is most obvious in the flashbacks of our protagonist. We see modern day professor Borg, cold and stiff, in a suit of black amongst his white-clad childhood memories. It symbolizes the man and his loss of happiness through old age. We as consumers are very quick to forget the craftyness that goes into making a film stand out visually...but Bergman does not let us forget. He drives the point of editing and color scheme into your brain. You notice it be accident but remember it on purpose.

I still have to say that The Seventh Seal (1957) is my favorite film by Bergman. But Wild Strawberries is a deserving second place. After watching it a second time, I realized that this may be one of the top foreign films I have ever seen. It is not a very long film and there are no ridiculous plot devices or tricks. This is just a subtle exploration through the memories of an elderly man. I strongly reccommend this to anyone interested in film. You will leave with a better understanding of how movies should be made.

Wild Strawberries: A-

My Next Film....Akira (Otomo. 1988)