Wednesday, June 23, 2010

#166 Midnight Cowboy (1969)


Director: John Schlesinger

Cast: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Sylvia Miles, John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes

Joe Buck (Voight) is a young man from Texas who has just quit his job as a dishwasher and hopped on a bus to New York City. He plans to make a big buck by 'hustling' from wealthy, upper-crust ladies, but it turns out he's the one that gets hustled. Slow to catch on to the New York way of life and standing out like a black cat in snow with his cowboy get-up, he loses just about everything, including a bit of his pride.

He befriends a scammer, Ratso Rizzo (Hoffman), and what at firsts seems to be a relationship formed out of necessity soon becomes a close camaraderie. Rizzo's illnesses become a concern for Buck, and for the sake of friendship, he finds himself doing things he never imagined himself to do.

Having heard about this film from a friend years ago, this was not at all the image I had painted in my mind. I never expected this to be a film about friendship, and further, I never expected this to be a film starring Dustin Hoffman. I thought the film was not only emotional, but it was masterfully filmed. The flashbacks, though jarring and confusing, gave hints into Voight's character, and I appreciated that-- he was a man of few words. Hoffman, as always, was a captivating presence as Rizzo.

When this film was released, it was rated X (no admittance under age 17). It was the first rated X film to be shown on television, to a president while in office, and to win an Oscar. It eventually had its rating dropped to R without removing any content of the film, interestingly enough.

I had heard bad things about this movie, but I found it be rather classic in nature. I can see where a lot of later films have drawn influence from it, and I respect that. And who knew Jon Voight was actually hott at one point? Weird. Anyway, I give it 4 stars for being just centimeters below what I would call cinematic gold, and I would definitely love to see this movie again.

Monday, June 21, 2010

#165 Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)


Director: Robert Benton

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, Justin Herry, Howard Duff, George Coe, JoBeth Williams

Ted Kramer (Hoffman) is obsessed with his job, and he stays late to tell jokes with the boss. Joanna Kramer (Streep) is a housewife who is losing it, and she chain smokes on the couch at night. And then, suddenly, she leaves her husband and 5 year old boy to find herself. Lost, upset, and conflicted, Ted has to learn how to be a decent father. He has to learn to juggle his two lives-- his life at home (grief, loneliness, fatherhood) and his professional life as a successful, stressed out art director. In a way that is not too sickenly sweet to stomach, this film is the story about a man becoming... well, a real man... a father.

When Joanna returns over a year later to fight for custody of her son, things get even harder. When Ted loses his job in the middle of the custody battle, things get even harder yet.

And well, the ending is something I won't spoil in this review.

Even though Hoffman and Streep are two of my favorite actors (especially Hoffman!), I was reluctant to watch this film based off of its description. I figured it would be cheesy and sentimental-- and worst of all, not real. But with Oscars for not only best actor, best actress, but even best picture! Well, I gave it a try.

I was moved by the simplicity of this film. Having seen its poor imitators (Big Daddy much?), I was pleasantly surprised with the honesty of this film. The moments of father-son bonding were never unreal, never too contrived. They were simple, and they were warm. One of the most outstanding moments of the film is Dustin Hoffman on the stand as a witness in the courtroom. I paraphrase: "If a woman is every much as equal to be in the workplace and be a strong woman, then why does a man not have an equal right to be a loving, nurturing single parent?"

I thought the acting was brilliant, and I thought it was just the right amount of emotion. I am really pleasantly surprised to love this film. Delightful.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

#164 The Jerk (1979)


Director: Carl Reiner

Cast: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Caitlin Adams, Mabel King, Richard Ward, Dick Williams, Bill Macy

Navin R. Johnson (Martin) is a dimwitted, but lovable man who was raised in a rural poor black family-- and he doesn't know that he's white. Once he finally figures this out, he goes off into the 'real world' to live his life, and he gets into all sorts of trouble along the way.

The comedy of this film is throwaway and awesome. I actually have always hated Steve Martin in all of his movies, but people reassured me that this is 'his only good film.' I actually loved this movie from beginning to end, and it made me laugh consistently. While it's super silly and extremely contrived, the characters are ridiculously loveable, including Bernadette Peters who plays Navin's main love interest, Marie Kimble.

I would definitely watch this film again and recommend it to others. Most importantly, it redeemed Steve Martin, if only slightly, in my mind.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

#163 Blue Velvet (1986)


Director: David Lynch

Cast: Isabelle Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Hope Lange, Dean Stockwell

Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is back from college to take care of the family hardware store after his father suffers a serious stroke. On his way home from the hospital, he stops to throw rocks in an empty field and discovers a human ear lying in the tall grass. Taking it to his neighbor, the local detective, they promise to look into the case, but Jeffrey needs to butt-out. The detective's daughter (Laura Dern) spills some information about the case, and Jeffry takes it upon himself to do some mystery-solving of his own.

This leads him to the apartment of Dorothy Vallen (Isabella Rossellini)- a deeply disturbed and tortured lounge singer who seems to be mixed up in some awful, dirty business. Jeffrey witnesses as Dorothy is sexually abused by a torturously evil and mentally disturbed man named Frank Booth, and he uncovers the truth about Dorothy's kidnapped family.

All of this wraps itself up into a romance with the detective's daughter, a twisted sexual relationship with Ms. Vallen, a jealous jock boyfriend, a perverted clown, a man in a yellow suit, and a blue velvet fetish.

The film seemed to me to be making some brilliant observations about suburban society and its under-belly. What on the surface is tulips blowing in the wind and fireman riding by waving in slow motion--is really a dirty apartment building full of bourbon, perversions, abuse, and secrets.

Though beautifully shot and continually surprising, the actors of this film aka LAURA DERN were really quite awful. Every time I found myself slipping into the dark world that rests beneath the surface... butterface Laura Dern popped on screen and killed everything. One of the most amazing and disturbing scenes of the film is the appearance of Dorothy Vallens at the house of the detective. Ghostlike and somewhat possessed, she is clinging at Jeffrey, and it is completely beyond amazing/horrific. Then, cut to Laura Dern, who is making the most god awful crying face I have ever seen captured on film. This woman is far more horrifying than anything else that was happening in the film. Ruined it for me.

I also don't want to spoil the ending of the film, but I found it to be SO disappointing. The director really opened an interesting door with how long he let the guns be pointed in suspense at the end, but then he chose to bring it round full circle back to Happy Days. It's obvious he was making a nod back to the beginning of the film-- he even re-used some of the footage-- but it didn't leave me in a good place. The calling-in to dinner and scene in the park were just a little too much for what I could stomach. I wanted an ending that revealed something or left it just a little uncertain. I can't decide if it was a cliche ending, or if it was cliche to make a point.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

#162 Dancer in the Dark (2000)


Director: Lars Von Trier

Cast: Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey, Cara Seymour, Vladica Kostic, Jean-Marc Barr

Bjork plays Selma, a Czech immigrant mother working in an American basin factory-- secretly hoarding away money to pay for an operation for her son's eyes. Selma is going blind, but she doesn't want anyone to know. Her friend helps her at the factory, explains what happens in the movies when they go, and she walks along the railroad tracks to get home from her job at night. Her son is destined to the same fate unless she gathers enough money-- and she is so close to doing so.

Finally, she confides her secrets to her landlord and friend who has a secret of his own: he is broke, and he can't tell his spending-happy wife. Stealing the money from Selma, he forces her to kill him to get the money back. A trial, more lies, uplifting moments, and capsizing hope.

The film is a musical, full of self-aware interludes of Bjork performances. The film gains almost a technicolor brightness in fantasy-- the only world where Selma can find refuge from the physical and emotional darkness of her life. The story was so suspenseful that when a song came, I nearly crawled out of my skin with impatience to get back to the film's reality. I wept through the last 45 minutes of the film, quite inconsolably.

Although low budget, shaky, sometimes frustrating, and sometimes even TOO MUCH-- the film moved me in a big way. Not just through story but through artistry as well.

I found it to be brilliant.

#161 Neco Z Alenky [Alice] (1988)


Director: Jan Svankmajer

Cast: Kristyna Kohoutova

Czech-filmmaker, animator, and puppeteer, Jan Svankmajer, creates one of the most bizarre and hyper-imaginative adaptations of Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland perhaps ever made. The film is a gothic and dark examination of the story, and through the use of only one actress (Kohoutova) and loads of handmade puppets, he examines dark themes such as the danger of routine, overeating, and materialism.

The imagery and characters are more creepy than charming, constructed from household objects that seem to be glazed in rot and formaldehyde, it is definitely not a children's movie. The animation and editing are in themselves a disturbing and choppy production--their movements in addition to the jarring, sharp sound effects make this film seem absolutely twisted.

For anyone who is interested in stop motion, animation, puppets, gothic stories, fairy tales, and/or experimental film-making... this is a must-see. There were too many strange and jolting things about this film to be anything but spectacular. Definitely disturbing though. I was impressed.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

#160 2 Ou 3 Choses Que Je Sais D'elle (1967)


Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Cast: Joseph Gehrard, Marina Vlady, Anny Duperey, Roger Montsoret, Raoul Levy, Jean Narboni

In my opinion, this film is borderline unwatchable. The title translates to "Two or Three Things I Know About Her," 'her' being Paris, not the main protagonist of the film, Juliette Jeanson played by Marina Vlady. Godard uses Juliette as a metaphor for materialism in 1967 Parisian society. Juliette is a wife and mother of a middle-class suburban family, and twice a week, she prostitutes herself for money in hopes of getting beyond her stale life. Godard believed this was very much so a metaphor for the way the people of Paris prostitute themselves for money and possessions. The film is splattered with bits of anti-American sentiment vs. worship/fascination of Hollywood.

The reason, however, I find this film practically intolerable is not the subject matter. The message of this film is unreachable through the format. The film cuts back and forth between scenes of a construction site and scenes of slow-moving Vlady, talking in monotone about her feelings and ending every sentence with "I don't know." You can tell that she has lost something valuable. A personality, a vigor-- something is wrong. But her words might as well have been singing "three little monkeys jumping on a bed." The significance of her speech was so convoluted with flowerly philosophy that it was truly senseless.

I barely made it through this film, even after breaking it into two sittings. I enjoyed Breathless by Godard, so I was very unhappy to hate this film so much. The message isn't important, but as a graduate of a communications degree, I can't help but be turned off by works of art that fail to clearly speak.

Friday, June 11, 2010

#159 American Graffiti (1973)


Director: George Lucas

Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Harrison Ford

Coming into this film, I was expecting something a bit more epic-- a bit more serious in content. It turns out, American Graffiti is Grease without the musical numbers... 16 candles without the 80s garb. It's the story of two young men in the 50s, having their last night out on the town before they fly east for college. They meet opposition from both friends and girlfriends who are staying back home, all of whom are dealing with their own series of mishaps.

Structured a lot like the 80s teen-flicks, each character really has its own plot-- only meeting with other characters every so often throughout the film. The content is light-- meeting up with chicks, going to the burger joint, racing hot rods through town, etc.

Basically, I felt like American Graffiti was a popcorn classic that you enjoy because it IS "classic." To me, however, that feeling was lost. I'd never heard of this movie until recently, and I wasn't very entertained by it.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

#158 All About Eve (1950)


Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Cast: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Gregory Ratoff, Marilyn Monroe

Of all the despicable villains cast on-screen, what could be more vicious than a woman? My skin crawled the entire movie through. Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is the definition of pure evil.

All About Eve is story of theatre actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and her friends-the playwrights, directors, and sponsors who adore her. It's her story, of course, until Eve wanders in. Star-struck and simple in her dirty trench coat, she slowly works her way out of the rain and into Margo's dressing room, stuffed with a cascading gut of sweet talk and humble pie. Within ten moments of her screen presence, any woman in audience to this film could sense it-- Miss Harrington is anything but innocent.

The film is the twisted and confusing tale of Eve Harrington's life, intertwining with that of fame, friendships, and Ms. Channing. What on the surface can cooly play as another heavily-coated 1950 Hollywood dialogue picture... hides a cunning, fly trap of deception, cheating, and what I believe to be... the making of a great film. Never underestimate the viciousness of women, especially to each other. It's a private hell that exists only in our world, and it fascinates me to watch it from the outside sometimes.

The film also placates to other palettes. It has all the glamour of old Hollywood with champagne, elaborate gowns, and even a cameo from Marilyn Monroe herself.
The film won 6 Oscars including Best Male Actor (George Sanders), Best Director, Best Costuming, Best Sound, Best Screenplay, and even Best Picture. Other nominations included Best Leading Actress (both Baxter and Davis), Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Cinematography, and Music.

Yes please.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

#157 The Queen (2006)


Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Helen Mirren, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam, Sylvia Syms, Tim McMullan, Robin Soans, Lola Peploe

The central figure of this film is Queen Elizabeth II (played by Helen Mirren) just after the death of Princess Diana. Tony Blair has just been named Prime Minister, and Elizabeth juggles the traditions of her life-long job with the innovation of her people's beliefs. Getting glimpses into the relationship of Diana to the royal family, and leaving the likes and dislikes to ambiguity, the audience of this film never really needs to form an opinion for or against the queen. We sit as quiet contemplators. Do we feel pity for her? Do we understand her? Or are we disgusted?

Politics, as with any country, are strongly connected to fads and passions that are created and felt by the masses. Movements and incidents rise into high-profile, highly emotional situations--sometimes without reason. The film addresses the queen's method of dealing with these things in the past, and her struggles to break tradition for the death of Princess Di-- a woman who no longer was a member of the royal family but had somehow remained a beacon of light for the UK as well as the rest of the western world.

It's a classic struggle of old vs. new, tradition vs. modern, and the stiffness of the characters and plot are appropriate for the content. I enjoyed the film, but I was not blown away. I did not enjoy Alex Jenning's portrayal of Prince Charles.

I was alive when Diana died, and I remember being fascinated by her and the royal family at the time. I had never stopped and wondered what things looked like from the other side, and as a young girl, of course I was oblivious to the political controversies wrapped up in the situation. Even more interestingly, I was very in-tune even as an elementary school girl to what the world (my parents included) were feeling. What did I know or care about Princess Diana? Why was I suddenly so emotionally invested? Emotions are mimetic behavior, and if the pulse of Diana's legacy was strong enough to reach me, I have to imagine how easily it reached others more familiar with her life story.

Diana was indeed a beautiful woman and inspiring philanthropist, but how did her death manage to become larger than her life? And was it really so strange and horrifying that the queen, a woman who was born without choice into her duties to the nation, wanted to follow the traditions she was taught? I can't decide.

Quet. Thought-provoking. Dull. Enlightening. Concise.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

#156 Breathless (1960)


Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger, Jean-Pierre Melville, Henri-Jacques Huet, Van Doude

A young thief named Michel kills a cop and heads to Paris. He hopes for two things: to get the money he's owed so he can escape to Italy... and to bring the American girl, Patricia, he is accidently falling in love with along with him. Patricia being totally clueless to his secret life as a criminal, the two reluctantly fall in love with one another through banter, cigarette smoke, and sex. Eventually, she uncovers the truth about his character and makes a series of decisions that ultimately affect both their lives.

Upon reading other reviews of this film, all I read over and over was "this is an art student's film." I can't even begin to act like I know anything about film, technically or thematically. My only acquaintance with that type of knowledge comes from one Intro to Film course in college and years of friendship with my budding director friend, Eddie. This film, though, was fresh. It was incredibly sloppily edited, but with purpose. The dialogue was chosen both carefully and carelessly. This could be an interesting comparison or it could make me sound like a complete idiot, but it really reminded me of some of Andy Warhol's films.

There have been a few films on the list so far that I've just felt like a dummy when trying to write about them afterward. I feel like there is lots of great significance in this film not only to the apparently-esteemed career of Godard, but to film-making in general. I'd like to do some reading about this film, or maybe watch it again sometime with the commentary activated.

I do know, however, that the characters are charming and likable despite their moral shortcomings. The cinematography and editing are interesting at the very least as well. A complex film made to look easy, I suppose. Looking forward to discussing this with some of my more-knowledgeable friends.