Friday, October 28, 2011

#244 Night of the Living Dead (1968)


Director: George A. Romero

Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon, Charles Craig

Despite its initial impression of being a comedically, low-budget horror flick, the original Night of the Living Dead packs a decent punch, even without its "horror classic" appeal. A sister and brother mourn the death of their mother at a cemetery-- when the brother goes missing after trying to scare his sister, things escalate. Before long, Barbara finds herself trapped in an old farm house with a group of strangers, all trying to survive against a mob of the risen dead. It seems these zombies have a taste for human flesh, and according to the radio, the entire nation seems to be under attack.

Although delightfully tacky, this film does still have its moments of gruesome horror and suspense. For its time, this film was one of the crudest ever produced... with animal organs used as the zombie's edible props. Even though I am not a fan of the horror genre, I do have a love for this film. It is engrained in me after all of the cultural allusions that have developed as a result. In addition, I happen to know it was also filmed in an old cemetery very close to my high school in my hometown. Brownie points.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

#243 Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)


Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Woody Allen, Claire Bloom, Stephanie Roth, Mia Farrow, Jerry Orbach, Bill Bernstein, Martin Landau, Greg Edelman, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Jenny Nichols, Joanna Gleason

Another example of Woody Allen's best work, Crimes and Misdemeanors is witty, adult, dark, philosophical, stark, and sumptuous. It follows two leads down two very different struggles, both happening simultaneously in Manhattan (where else?). Martain Landau plays an inspiring (and Oscar-nominated) role as Judah Rosenthal, a successful, married, and highly respected eye surgeon who is fed up with living a double life. When his mistress of two years, Dolores (Huston), threatens to expose their relationship to his wife (as well as reveal some shady embezzling Judah has done), Judah realizes he must take a drastic move to end his extra-curricular affair once and for all. Lost on what to do or where to turn, he goes to his brother Jack (Orbach), who convinces Judah to take Dolores out. "My people will take care of it. You won't be a part of it."

Meanwhile, somewhere else on the island, Woody Allen is living as Cliff Stern, a documentary film-maker with a not-so-successful track record in his career and a crumbling marriage. Forced to take a job to be his ridiculous brother-in-law's (Alda) biographer, he meets Halley (Farrow). The two grow as friends until Cliff finds himself madly in love with her, to a point that his paranoia over his brother-in-law's lame advances on Halley almost drive him mad.

The film celebrates Allen's familiar existentialist tone... and convinces us that only New Yorker's really know how to fuck up relationships properly. Alan Alda shines as a pretentious dope, and Woody's neurosis wiggles and trills off the screen until you feel like you yourself may walk away from this movie bumbling and wringing your hands together. In a Dovstoyevskian conclusion, the film examines the nature of the human conscience, the theme of religious guilt brought on by tradition, and the hopelessness of having hope.

Another Woody Allen classic that I'd happily recommend onto a friend.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

#242 The Producers (1968)


Director: Mel Brooks

Cast: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, Kenneth Mars, Lee Meredith, Christopher Hewett, Andréas Voutsinas, Estelle Winwood, Renée Taylor, David Patch

When a Broadway producer, Max Bialystock (Mostel), sinks so low as to sexually entertain over-the-hill ladies for checks to fund his projects, he finds himself ripe and ready for a new scheme. Enter Leo Bloom (Wilder), a timid, anxious, OCD accountant who in the process of examining Bialystock's books accidently blurts out that with a little clever book-keeping, it is possible to make more money with a flop than a success.

After some clever convincing, Bialystock convinces Bloom to give up his stuffy, lonely life and go in 50/50 with him on producing the biggest Broadway flop in history: Springtime for Hitler. The two seem to do everything perfectly: hire the worst writer with the worst script, the worst director, and even the worst cast. They find, however, sometimes a bunch of wrongs do make a right...

This film was actually hysterically funny on all accounts-- with no shortage of lude and slapstick humor. Gene Wilder's character's neurosis was a star-player in getting laughs, and each actor's commitment to the ridiculousness of their role was refreshing. I love this film, and I have high doubts that its 2005 remake can even hold a candle.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

#241 City Lights (1931)


Director:Charles Chaplin

Cast: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee

Sunday, February 27, 2011

#240 Dr. Strangelove (1964)


Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, James Earl Jones, Keenan Wynn, Peter Bull, Shane Rimmer, Tracy Reed

Saturday, February 12, 2011

#239 The Double Life of Veronique (1991)


Director: Krysztof Kieslowski

Cast: Iréne Jacob, Halina Gryglaszewska, Kalina Jedrusik, Aleksander Bardini, Wladyslaw Kowalski, Jerzy Gudjeko, Janusz Sterninski, Philippe Volter

The Doube Life of Veronique is the tale of two women, both played by Iréne Jacob, although two separate people, in two separate parts of Europe, living two separate lives. One woman is Weronika, a Polish singer, and the other is Veronique, a French music teacher. When Weronika has an unfortunate, unexpected death, Veronique feels an unexplainable and irreconcilable grief, as the two women--whom we know have never met, share an inexplicable strong emotional bond.

The film then follows the life of Veronique as she is courted by a unique stranger, a puppeteer living near her home. The dreamlike, elusive character of Alexandre serves as a jumping point for a series of quiet meditations on many of the things about life we cannot explain nor express. Dreams, hallucination, imagination, superstition, intuition... all realms of the personal which each human experiences entirely alone in their lifetime.

The film's feel reminded a lot of Amélie without the cheeky humor (and yes, I realize this one came first). The unusual romance is whimsical and fantasy, and the movie as a whole is a clever expression on some of the hardest things to capture about human nature. Very beautiful. Slow. Contemplative. This is what I consider to be a worthy-of-your-time romance. I wish more people were still making movies like this.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

#238 The Awful Truth (1937)


Director: Leo McCarey

Cast: Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy, Alexander D'Arcy, Cecil Cunningham, Molly Lamont, Esther Dale

A silly little comedic romance– again, wholly carried by the dynamic Cary Grant and his opposing leading lady's (whomever she may be at the time) charisma and likability as a couple. In the story, two sweethearts' jealousy and suspicions lead to a quickly-arrived-upon divorce. The real drama, however, is involved in the time leading up to the finalization of their arrangement: as the two begin dating others, bumping into one another at inopportune moments, and parade through a variety of uncomfortable, chuckle-worthy situations. The inevitable, however, does arrive... and on the night that their divorce is going to become official to boot. The two find themselves under very expected circumstances alone at a secluded cabin. Dot dot dot...

The charm of this film, again, is purely the dynamism that exists between the two lead actors. The script carries legend of being extremely improvised, and it shows. The laughs are in the subtleties, the timing, the facial expressions... some of the brilliant things about films (and real life) that can never be translated into writing. The role of dancing, songs, games, drinks, and even simple introductions all play a key role in bringing these two bickering lovebirds away from one another and simultaneously right back into each others' arms.

Although I often wonder how so many Cary Grant movies made the 1001 list since they are all so simplistic, silly, and sweet, but then I find myself enjoying each one as much as the last.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

#237 The Birth of a Nation (1915)


Director: D.W. Griffith

Cast: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, George Siegmann, Walter Long, Robert Harron, Wallace Reid

Appropriately described as one of the most revered and reviled films of all time, The Birth of a Nation is a film we simply wish to discard despite its groundbreaking stylistic and technical elements. Based on a rather racist play by Thomas Dixon entitled "The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan," the film spans from a pre-Civil War era, through Lincoln's assassination, to a post-war age where racial rivalry is at its peak. Showing African Americans in the worst light with the most blaring racial stereotypes, the film dually functions as a piece of racist propaganda, suggesting that their rise to liberty was the downfall of Aryian civilization. Showing Klan members parading in on stallions to a song of victory, murdering "crazed" blacks all along the way, certainly makes the film's standpoint clear, and sickeningly so.

Despite the horrors that this film projects, it simultaneously offers some of the greatest leaps and advancements made by any film. It is often said that this is the pioneer motion picture to define modern cinema, being the first to include key shots such as match-on-action, shot-reverse-shot, and even camera techniques such as tracking.

The three hour long drama is widely-debated and of course rightfully controversial, and I by no means would suggest the film is any form of pleasant viewing. The sick feeling it will leave in your stomach is probably not worth its historical significance to the artistry of film. But nevertheless, if you are persistent on seeing where it all started (or are just pursuing a crazy goal of watching all 1001 like me), try to prepare yourself for what is sure to be, however relevant, a difficult viewing experience.

Friday, January 28, 2011

#236 Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)


Director: Mervyn Leroy

Cast: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, Ginger Rogers

An imaginative, comedic, and even politically-pointed musical comes in the form of Gold Diggers of 1933. The film is essentially the story of a few young showgirls who are struggling to keep food on the table by any means–stealing milk from the neighbor, begging for jobs, and even canoodling with wealthy men. When one of the girls, Polly Parker (Keeler), falls for the musician across the alley, Brad (Powell), the women are surprised to find he is not only talented and kind, but he also happens to conveniently be from an extremely wealthy Boston family (only in Hollywood, I swear!). Providing music for the girls' latest musical (and even volunteering to be a stand-in when the leading man hurts his back), Brad is able to formally court and become engaged to Polly. When Brad's family finds out about his relationship and on-stage escapades, his brother chooses to intervene.

However, when the brother mistakes Polly's roommate Carol for Polly, he offends the wrong person when he calls showgirls cheap and vulgar. To seek her revenge, Carol enlists their friend Trixie to continue to dupe the brother (and the family lawyer) into falling for their false affections and also into buying them tons of lavish gifts. With Brad and Polly in on the joke, they even trick the brother into thinking he has drunkenly made love with Carol, and to "pay her off," he writes a check for 10k. It's only when Carol's true identity is revealed that we find that these two characters have real affection for one another.

The film includes four extraordinary stage productions, all coordinated by Busby Berkeley. Highlights include a sparkling rendition of "We're in the Money," light-up violins playing "Shadow Waltz," and the sparked-with-politics "Remember My Forgotten Man." Forgotten Man demonstrates the difficulties for the men and women during the depression, taking into account the veteran's of WWI whose owed-admiration was already being tossed aside.

The film is short, funny, and takes drastic plot twists. The musical numbers are quite segregated from the film, though brilliantly directed and performed, and interesting as well for their strong hard-hitting political statements. A light, easy watch.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

#235 Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991)


Director: Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola

Cast: Francis Ford Coppola, Eleanor Coppola, Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, George Lucas, Dennis Hopper, Sam Bottoms, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne

A brief look into the making of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's epic, ruinous masterpiece that immediately followed his success with parts I and II of the Godfather trilogy. This documentary includes footage, diary entries, and sound recordings collected by Coppola's wife, Eleanor, all chronicling the making of the film.

Filmed on location in the Philippines, Coppola brought his entire family along with an enormous Hollywood production team to shoot the film over the course of what was supposed to be only a few weeks. Instead, it turned into years of filming and editing, with endless disaster: financial, physical, and emotional. Dealing with typhoons, firing main actors, the jungle conditions, the Philippine army warding off rebels, a heart attack, an overweight, unprepared Brando, placing all of his personal assets up for collateral to cover the new budget, and Coppola and his wife seriously both teetering on the edge of total insanity, the documentary focuses on the overwhelming obstacles behind the final product.

Despite all these obvious hurdles, some of the most interesting moments of the film were the views into Coppola's struggle with his own faith in the film's outcome. Often staying awake for days on end, personally re-writing the script, making up new scenes, and basically winging it, Coppola's methods during the shoot can only be described as feverish intoxication. His wife was able to capture via sound byte (unbeknownst to Francis at the time) much of his insecurities about the project turning out. Footage of Francis obsessively working and smoking cigarettes over a typewriter, giving actors' inspiring character direction, along with general interviews about his "artistic vision" for the project brought me back to memories of my own creative fever in the past. It made me wonder why I ever stopped craving that, and at the same time, I felt relief to not have a life full of such anxiety anymore.

Regardless, it's a great documentary to go hand-in-hand with viewing Apocalypse Now, and I highly recommend it. If it does not, on some level, inspire you then I truly question your being alive at all. It's really that grand.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

#234 The Red Shoes (1948)


Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Léonide Massine, Albert Bassermann, Ludmilla Tchérina, Esmond Knight

This film chronicles the story of Victoria Page (Shearer), a girl discovered by a sharp-edged, stuffy ballet director for her raw passion for the art form. When his leading lady announces she plans to marry, Boris Lermontov (Walbrook), seeks his new star. Victoria's rise to stardom happens in tandom with a young composer who Boris also gives a chance, a young Julian Crasner (Goring). Together the trio put on one of the greatest ballets entitled "The Red Shoes,"which tells the story of a young girl's red dancing shoes which once put on, dance her to her death.

Unbeknownst to Boris, however, Page and Crasner fall in love, and it's then that Boris is forced to scheme a way to get back his star (with whom he is undeniably infatuated). The film slips off into a dreamy dance sequence of the ballet "The Red Shoes." It was this inner-film performance that set the stage for so many other films' long production numbers (think An American in Paris)! Beautifully performed, it not-so-surprisingly becomes a foreshadow of the real heroine's demise.

Recently having seen Black Swan in theatres, I can't help but draw a comparison between these two plot structures. Without the sex and special effects, we are taken on a similar ride through the ill-fated course of a great, recently-discovered dancer. Also, over the summer, I read Anna Karenina, which I, again, can't help but draw connections to from this film. The allusions and inspirations preceding and following this film seem endless, and it's not hard to understand why. A must-see for any dancer, but also well-worth anyone's time who can appreciate stage-style performance.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

#233 Diner (1982)


Director: Barry Levinson

Cast: Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly, Ellen Barkin, Paul Reiser, Kathryn Dowling, Michael Tucker, Jessica James

A bunch of college-age buddies gather together at the Fells Point Diner to shoot the shit until sunrise in the winter of 1959. Walking into the scene, you know they are the regulars: hollering at the waitress and looking as comfy in the booth as they might in their own beds. The group of six chums, despite their individual trials (an upcoming marriage, a pregnant friend with benefits, a gambling problem, a marriage going stale), the camaraderie between the guys remains the solid baseline of the film's plot.

Supposedly a semi-autobiographical account of director and writer Levinson's own experiences, the film's mini-plots are almost entirely irrelevant. The mood of the film is truly its core: nostalgia and the nerves that accompany a coming-of-age period. Supposedly, all of the scenes shot in the diner were saved for last after the cast had had time to get to know one another on a comfortable level– a clever move by Levinson to bring genuinity to the scenes. It's more fair to call the film a series of comedic vignettes as opposed to a full-on narrative, which only heightens the nostalgic sensation. Their memories become ours.

Although I am by no means a horny man with 6 best friends in 1959, I am nevertheless a post-college girl with a fond diner history of my own. The film is merely a popcorn, feel-good comedy, but with the heart that most of these 80s era movies also inexplicably pack. Safe for repeated viewing, and in fact, I even encourage it.

#232 A Star Is Born (1954)


Director: George Cukor

Cast: Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, Tommy Noonan, Lucy Marlow, Amanda Blake, Irving Bacon, Hazel Shermet

Esther Blodgett (Garland) is a small-town girl who has worked her whole life toward making it big. When she finally makes it to a touring gig with a live orchestra, she gratefully bides her time while she awaits "the big dream." But her big break comes in a most unexpected form: the famous actor, Norman Maine (Mason), now working his way to the bottom through the habit of heavy drinking, sees something special in Esther. Together, they jumpstart her career into full-on stardom, celebrating their union in marriage along the way.

But while it was a beginning for the duo, it was the end of something else for Norman. As his career continues to plummet, his drinking continues to escalate. When Esther decides to leave her career to be by his side during recovery, Maine takes matters into his own hands.

The film is vibrant and inventive, and Garland's performance of "The Man That Got Away" was something I've been long overdue to experience. (Her 1961 comeback performance of that song has been spun as one of my favorite records for a few years now.) For its time, this film was one of the most expensive ever made by Warner Bros., however, it unfortunately will never be seen in its original form again. While it was released with astounding interest, 30 minutes were evidently butchered out of the film to shorten its run-time at the suggestion of some east-coast moneymen. And though the soundtrack remained in the Warner Bros. vaults, the footage was never recovered. Eventually the film was "restored" with stills and the original soundtrack running... I knew something was fishy when that long stretch of stills and montage ran after the first hour. This portion of the film is actually somewhat awkward and unsettling.

Still, on many occasions, I felt like this film was truly just a stage for Judy Garland to showcase her talents. The surrounding narrative, though at times extremely heavy, at times still seems toss-away against her musical performances.

Frankly, despite Judy's odd facial expressions and over-plucked technicolor look... and despite the somewhat obvious cheap-shots to stick in a song... I loved the film. A great classic musical to rival all others. Judy Garland enthusiasts... must-see.

On another interesting note: this film and the film I watched just prior, Apocalypse Now, both quote the same T.S. Eliot poem within their scripts. In Apocalypse Now, the insane photojournalist via Dennis Hopper quotes, "This is the way the fucking world ends. Look at this fuckin' shit we're in, man. Not with a bang, but with a whimper, and with a whimper, I'm fucking splitting, Jack." In A Star is Born, Mr. Libby quotes the same line when referencing the end of Norman Maine's career, "This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper."

Saturday, January 15, 2011

#231 Apocalypse Now (1979)


Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Cast: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Albert Hall, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper

During the Vietnam War, Captain Benjamin Willard (Sheen) is prescribed a dangerous and top-secret mission to track down and terminate the command of a certain Colonel Kurtz (Brando)... with extreme prejudice. Having gone renegade in Cambodia, Kurtz is believed to have made himself a god to the natives, carrying out murderous and insane practices under the command of no one but himself. Captain Willard faces a harrowing journey of both the physical horrors of war as well the mental/emotional, as he battles with his own renegade feelings, doubts of authority and waning dedication to "the cause."

Setting aside all of the details of the creation of this film, (which I believe are very much a part of what makes this film so fascinating), Apocalyse Now is already an epic masterpiece. Perhaps one of my favorite films of this project so far, (having viewed a number of war epics for this project already), I am stricken and entranced by the way Coppola has chosen to remove the story from "the horrors of nam" to simply the madness of war. The ethereal take on the opening and end portions of the film provide a trance-like view into the fog of psychosis surrounding the organized execution of a nationwide mass-murder mission.

Some of the most intense moments of the film were those which were unplanned, unedited, and unscripted. Sheen's tirade alone his room at the film's start was merely Coppola letting the cameras run as Sheen drunkenly stumbled and threatened the film staff. Brando's shadow mystery (and strongest line "You're just an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill") were all unintentional due to Brando's unpreparedness for the shoot. Some of the most captivating wreckage and violence were the result of an unexpected typhoon which devastated most of the sets, and the murderous slaughter of the bull... was real.

A very powerful film, which now added to my dossier, will no doubt be on regular rotation. Also, looking forward to someday soon reading the book The Making of Apocalypse Now by Peter Cowie. From what I've already sampled, the story of this picture's filming seems intense.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

#230 Narayama Bushi-Ko [The Ballad of Narayama] (1983)


Director: Shohei Imamura

Cast: Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Takejo Aki, Tonpei Hidari, Seiji Kurasaki, Kaoru Shimamori, Ryutaro Tatsumi, Junko Takada, Nijiko Kiyokawa, Mitsuko Baisho

In a remote mountain village in 19th century Japan, all inhabitants face an unusual and unfortunate destiny: at the age of 70 they all must be carried up Mt. Narayama to be left to die. In a primitive, hand-to-mouth existence, the natives of this village live out surreal and horrific scenarios on a daily basis (the local second-born sons take out their sexual frustrations on the neighborhood dog, a family is buried alive for taking too many potatoes...), making the unstoppable approach of each of their mountain-journeys far too ordinary.

The film chronicles one particular family, the Nekkos, who are anticipating the matriarch's, Orin's, 70th birthday. Her eldest son bares the task of taking her up the mountain, and her peaceful, dreamlike acceptance of her own mortality is astounding. What is so unexpected, however, is that we soon find that this useless ritual is the quality that gives their characters their humanity.

The film is slow, but illusorily so. The feelings of normalcy that this film injects into such unbelievable circumstances enables the mountain journey of Orin and her son Tatsuhei to feel impactful in a surprising, unexpected way. An interesting and unsparing examination of societal evolutions--left unchecked will develop in a direction that prove irreversible and unexplainable, yet nevertheless unstoppable.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

#229 The King of Comedy (1983)


Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhardt, Diahnna Abbott, Shelly Hack, Ed Herlihy, Lou Brown, Tony Randall

The King of Comedy follows the story of the pathetic shmuck named Rupert Pupkin (De Niro). A wannabe stand-up comic for late night talk show, he follows Jerry Langford's (Lewis) every move, even indulging into full and deep delusions with cardboard cut-outs in his own home. As he makes one legitimate take at becoming a star, his process indeed becomes to slowly cross the line into the realm of the twisted, as he conspires with another one of Langford's much-feared female stalkers.

This film came post-John Lennon's murder and serves as a dark warning into the dangers of celebrity worship. While it's true that it seems to be a large departure from what we might expect from both De Niro and Scorsese, I was able to draw some interesting comparisons between this film and another project they did together: Taxi Driver.

Both mentally unstable men at their beginnings, the characters of Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle both lead themselves into situations where they are bound for humiliation. And each for their own crime are able to receive a certain level of fame and recognition.

No wonder De Niro and Scorsese gravitated toward this script... and I am glad that they did. A sad, but fascinating movie. I love me some dark humor, yes I do.

#228 Tongues Untied (1989)

Director: Marlon Riggs

Cast: Marlon Riggs, Michael Bell, Blackberri, Kerrigan Black, Gideon Ferebee, Essex Hemphill, A.J. Honey, Larry Duckette, Gerald Davis, Paul Horrey

With the feeling of 80s guerilla New York City fine art, Marlon Riggs brings us his documentary on black, gay America via the Black Men Loving Black Men revolution. Using fiction, accounts of his own life as a black gay man, civil rights movement footage, clips from (then's) modern media, dance, and poetry, Riggs paints a picture of an entire facet of Americans silenced by their inability to express themselves.

Of course, being a white, straight woman– how can I even begin to understand the context of this film? Is this film for everyone? To me, it was speaking to its own kind– it was speaking a language I didn't quite fully understand. Un-silence yourselves, speak, be heard, be unafraid. A powerful message to those who I imagine were masking an insurmountable amount of fear and pain with anger during this time.

Being who I am, I cannot change the angle from which I see this film. As an impartial audience, I can only step aside and acknowledge the film for what it is, and also, what it is not. I was not able to appreciate its format– the humor?, the poetry, the artistry that Riggs used in this film mostly repelled me and seemed dated beyond salvation. The message, however, is of course timeless and as important as ever. I am happy to have viewed this film, despite my non-enjoyment of the message's delivery.

#227 Spartacus (1960)


Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis, John Gavin, Nina Foch, John Ireland, Herbert Lom, John Dall, Charles McGraw

When a rebellious Thracian slave, Spartacus (Douglas), is purchased by Baitius (Ustinov), the owner and operator of a gladiator school in Capra, he sets into motion a chain of events that forever change the destiny of millions. When forced to fight in the arena for the amusement of some visiting Roman nobility (in particular the leader of the Roman military, Crassus (Olivier)), a revolt spurs and the slaves free themselves. Leading his people into a revolution and campaign to leave Italy once and for all, Spartacus forms a legion of ex-slaves and gladiators strong enough to face legion after legion of Roman soldiers.

Taking the fair Varinia (Simmons) as his wife, Spartacus makes headway with his armies– all the way to the sea. But when they realize they are trapped on the shore without ships, Spartacus is forced to march on Rome and face Crassus once and for all.

Most of the film I spent curiously examining for any sign of Kubrick. Not so surprisingly, I found none, and it was only after the film that I read that Kubrick merely "took this on as a gig" after producer Douglas fired his standing director, Anthony Mann. It's a beautiful movie, and out of the context of Kubrick, it's not-so-surprising. A film full of interesting, twisted relationships as only can be expected when involving Roman nobility, and the battle scenes are indeed epic (for 1960). How fortunate that they put back in the classic "snails and oysters" scene between Olivier and Curtis! Also, I can now somewhat place one of my favorite films, Gladiator, into its proper context of being somewhat of a backwards homage to Spartacus. A true hero film.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

#226 Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)


Director: Charles Reisner, Buster Keaton

Cast: Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence, Tom Lewis, Marion Byron

William Canfield Jr. (Keaton) has just arrived home from his school in Boston to visit his estranged father whom hasn't seen him since he was a baby. His father, of course, is William Canfield Sr. (Torrence), but is perhaps more commonly known by the name Steamboat Bill. As owner of the town's old and trusty steamboat, Stonewall Jackson, Bill Sr. is facing hard times as John James King (McGuire) has just announced his new "palace on the water" steamboat called The King.

Steamboat Bill is devastated when he finally meets his son– terribly disappointed that his tweedy, silly, and also in love with King's daughter, Kitty (Byron). Bill Sr. tries to make Willie into a real man, but Willie is more interested in showing his affections to Kitty. When Steamboat Bill gets put in jail, Willie begins a haphazard rescue mission. Things get even more crazy when a cyclone blows through the town, destroying everything and putting everyone, and particularly our hero, in peril.

The film is adorable and even has its moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity. Buster Keaton is an acrobat and part of the magnificence of this film is fantastic physical humor. His expressions, tumbles, and tricks absolutely steal the movie away! Memorable scenes include trying on hats with his father (poking fun at Buster Keaton's real-life fashion), an umbrella mishap with the police chief, and fighting the cyclone winds. Many of the stunts were extremely dangerous and somewhat unplanned, including having entire full-weight walls fall inches away from Keaton.

Definitely take the time to watch this short comedy classic. Even non-appreciators of silent film I think will be presently surprised by the physical splendor of Keaton. Really excited to see another film from his repertoire!

Friday, January 7, 2011

#225 Novecento [1900] (1976)


Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Cast: Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Dominique Sanda, Francesca Bertini, Laura Betti, Werner Bruhns, Stefania Casini, Sterling Hayden, Anna Henkel

I've been working on this epic, historical political drama for a few nights now. Viewed in its original cut at a whopping run-time of 5.25 hours (with poorly dubbed-in voices instead of subtitles mind you), the film required more than the standard dosage of patience.

So what defines "epic" in this case? Masterful... or simply really, really long? Honestly, it's hard to say. Even the director himself seems not to know, as the film exists in many versions-- some even cut down by 90 minutes. Supposedly, Bertolucci says in these cases, 'Nothing important was cut.'

Well, that really summarizes my feelings about this film, and it's not stemming from a shallow place. In fact, my favorite film of all time (Gone With the Wind) is a long one too-- I have no time limit for films! But 1900 truly lacked relationship, momentum, and defining moments. The importance of this film is in the passage of time–politically and in the specific relationship of the two star-crossed friends: the landowner and the worker during fascist Italy. Over the course of five hours, the director is OF COURSE enabled to show the gradual and radical changes. He is presented with a unique opportunity to pace in what can feel almost like real time... (Isn't that incredible by the way? Films allow us to believe in years passing in hours. We are truly transported!) And while I understand that this film was never, on any level intended to be any shape or form of entertaining, but rather, was intended to live amongst the great political dramas, I stand my ground in saying that this film lacks Glue. It lacks cohesive qualities that make it feel seamless with direction.

Instead, we are jolted uncomfortably along with characters we don't quite understand. We watch history unfold (and without a good understanding of Italian history.. GOOD LUCK!) without any vehicle for emotion.

This films packs a lot of events into 5 hours, but it doesn't pack much heat. The fire and emotional impact only arise when there is extreme violence or sexual crudeness on screen. Moments. Never by plot or character.

For me, although it is always a great experience to invest yourself more deeply in stories (ie. I always prefer long, epic novels to short books), in this case, I could've done without 3 hours of this film.

And on a completely separate note, I also could've done without seeing young Robert De Niro's full frontal.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

#224 From Here to Eternity (1953)


Director: Fred Zinnemann

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, Philip Ober, Mickey Shaughnessy, Harry Bellaver, Enerst Borgnine, Jack Warden

This is a film that boasts being credited with one of the steamiest on-screen love scenes ever put on film. And while I must say, the sandy, salty romp in the surf between Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster is nothing to be ignored, it was not sumptuous enough to sustain the entire film from becoming a rather large bore.

In 1954, the film won an endless number of awards, particularly from The Academy, taking big-time Oscars like Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Reed), Best Sound, and Best Writing. And while I see the film's value to an America that loves the military and its 'boys,' I had a hard time understanding how this film had managed to be such a blockbuster.

Well anyway, it follows the story of three army men: Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a transfer top bugler who is hard-headed after a tragic history with boxing; Sgt. Milton Warden, a noble, loyal man who is lovesick for his Captain's wife; and Pvt. Angelo Maggio, a scrawny, loud-mouthed, and good-natured smart alec who gets himself into trouble on a regular basis. All stationed in Hawaii in the peacetime days leading up to the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor, we witness their struggles with their superiors, one another, and even love/loneliness.

I have nothing against the acting, score, mis en scene, or any of the goodies that make up great films. I guess my gripe comes from my personal opinion of this straight-on pro-military film. While it does make points on the limits and sometimes absurdities of the US Army, it does in many ways still celebrate the men and the structure that perpetuate the machine of war. For me, someone who finds the entire institution of military to be nonsensical, I have a hard time enjoying a film about the innermost workings of that very institution. While there have been other military films that I have not only tolerated better but actually greatly appreciated, this one fell flat for me almost immediately on all fronts.

What makes this one of the best films of all time? Someone explain this to me-- I really am curious! Did it just come at the right time?

I think that I get it. The ultimate macho man movie with heart... but I can still only honestly give it 2 stars on my scale of personal enjoyment. Lo siento, FHTE enthusiasts...