Rocky

I’m blogging through the AFI top 100. You can read more here.

Released in 1976, a small independent film written by and starring a mostly unknown actor won best picture. This film had a lot against it. It was very low budget, the script was written in the course of three days. The casting was tumultuous with the producers not believing that the lead actor was right for the role he created and the other principal roles weren’t cast until late in the game. Yet, it reached $117 million at the box office – an absurd amount for a film in that day. It received ten Oscar nominations and won three.

So this one my top the list of the “I Can’t believe you haven’t seen it already.” I have seen so many scenes, clips, and “making of”s that I feel like I had already seen it. And I had seen a lot of it, but sitting down and finally watching it knowing what I know now about how unusual it was that it succeeded, makes the event more enjoyable. Watching it in sequence did make one thing clear to me: Rocky is definitely not about boxing.  All good sports movies have this in common, but I was struck by how little time is actually spent watching boxing during the run time of the movie. The final fight is pretty short and other than a few minutes of fighting at the beginning the rest of the movie is more about Rocky and his relationship with Adrian.

Watching Rocky in the context of a modern view really does make one question how it could’ve won best picture, but in 1976 we were still willing to accept a fictional story about an every-man who went from not being able to climb some steps without getting winded to beating the heavyweight champion in a few weeks. The greatest achievement of this film is that it shows a good man, a blue collar, normal guy – and does it without showing life to be hopeless and cynical – and yet somehow it is almost universally loved by audiences, critics, and the industry.

As with watching most movies from this time, the cinematography was much more simplistic. Mostly medium-wide shots of any given scene while close ups were rare and extreme close ups were non existent. The camera is static and outside of the action for pretty much all the movie except for the scenes where Rocky is running, but even those are wide and are pretty simple tracking. Compare this to the Creed films – especially the first Creed wherein there is an entire fight shot in one long stedicam shot. Not to take away from Rocky – it was original – it was THE original. It does hold up quite well in spite of this. And the slow-pace and simple story is something that we miss today in modern cinema. It’s innocent and fun – and that’s rare on this list.

Rear Window

I’m blogging through the AFI top 100. You can read more here.

Rear window isn’t a perfect movie, but it is darn close. This is another one that I was embarrassed to say that I’d never watched before. I was very familiar with it and I’d probably seen about half the movie watching various documentaries and youtube videos talking about the greatest films, and there is no doubt that this one deserves to part of any list of the greatest American movies.

I don’t want to oversell it, but it is so unique, so unmarred by its age, so beautifully shot, it’s hard to ignore the brilliance of the film. If you’re not familiar with it the film takes place entirely in one room, but the story is happening in the surrounding apartments. Jimmy Stewart plays Jeff, a photographer who is laid up in his apartment after breaking his leg. In an era before air conditioning and netflix he has no choice but to entertain himself by watching his neighbors in the surrounding buildings who all leave their windows open. He has nicknamed several of the characters and becomes increasingly involved in their daily activities. Eventually he becomes concerned at the suspicious activities of one of his neighbors whose wife is suddenly no longer present.

The brilliance of the film is the fact that while the story is taking place around the neighborhood and beyond, the entire film takes place from the perspective of the main character who never leaves his living room. Despite this we have a compelling a-plot, coupled with a love story, and several sub plots – all told visually as he looks in on various neighbors and gets snippets of their life. There is almost no score throughout the film – instead you’re allowed to feel the eerie calm that comes with being unsure about one of your neighbors being a vicious murderer. There is only natural sound – which often includes the sounds of one of the neighbors playing piano – a happy sound that is often dissonant with the feeling that the lead character is experiencing.

This is such a different film that everything that is similar would be considered derivative, which is why any aspiring filmmaker both loves it and hates it. It represents a spent idea that can be rehashed only as a tribute, and it has many times. It’s one of the standard episodes of a long-running show. It is fun to see Castle‘s take on it. I recently stumbled across Family Guy‘s tribute to the classic film. Once you’ve become a plot that people mimic repeatedly, you know you’re a classic film.

The Birth of a Nation

I’m blogging through the AFI top 100. You can read more here.

The Birth of a Nation is a awful reminder of the world that was, and perhaps the world that still is to some degree. It’s a ficticious account of the Civil War and life following. It’s the oldest film on this list, having been produced in 1915. At over 100 years old the piece is remarkable for a number of reasons: its racism, its length (the first 12-reel/3 hour film), and its unique position as the first film to be screened at the white house.

I’m aware that there was a remake that was intended as a sort of correction to the numerous faults of the original. I haven’t had a chance to view it yet, however.

I don’t have much good to say about this film. Any three hour long silent film is going to strain to keep the attention of any human born after 1910. It is dreadfully boring and would be difficult to watch even with a less objectionable subject manner. But seeing as this film was used as a recruitment tool for the revitalized KKK in the earlier part of the last century, I don’t have to explain why I’m shocked that it was chosen for the AFI top 100. There is no doubt that it was the most historically important film of 1915, but any number of films over the 100 years were a higher quality and more truthful.

Much of the first half of the film could be seen as a relatively acceptable fictional account of the Civil War. The main objectionable part of this is the large number of roles played by white men in black face. The second half of the film really goes off the rails when it begins to depict a fabricated version of the antebellum south that is besieged by an uncivilized and tyrannical black political majority. The film then shows the creation of the Ku Klux Klan who rides in and saves the day. The film has quite rightly been the subject of a great deal of criticism for its inaccuracies and general racist tone. The one thing I’ll say about it is that the fact that this film is still in the modern vernacular at all is an indication that censorship has not won out. The film was an early victory against film censorship. While I’m very much for free speech, and I’m glad it wasn’t censored (for the president censorship sets, mind you, not because I do not find the matter abhorrent.) I wish censorship could’ve been tested on something that was less objectionable.

Lawrence of Arabia

I’m blogging through the AFI top 100. You can read more here.

Lawrence of Arabia is a phenomenal epic. As I watched this sprawling film I wondered if it had been made today how it would be different.

As with many of the movies on this list Lawrence of Arabia enjoys a massive run time. Of the six cuts of the film the shortest is over three hours and the longest adds more than half an hour. It’s likely that if it were released today it wouldn’t have been allowed this considerable length. Viewed through the eyes of a modern day film fan, Lawrence of Arabia appears to have poor film economy as shots that would often be cut from today are allowed to play out. Sequences that would be shortened via times shifts in the edit are shown in full length so as to give the viewer the feelings of tedium, scale, and fatigue which the characters are experience.

The film has an all-male cast of characters. If it were made today there would be some great fictionalizing to assure that there were equal representation of the sexes. Likely the reporter who covered Lawrence would be made into woman. Though not a love interest, because if it were made today then then rumors of Lawrence’s sexual orientation would’ve made them play up that supposed aspect of his life.

Also most of the film’s violence is rather muted. With a few notable (and there fore more impacting) exceptions, very little blood is seen and never do we see a person getting shot or stabbed up close and in many cases we don’t see it at all. If this film were made today there is no doubt that it would’ve been a hard R with realistic violence. I would actually point to this film as an argument for making war movies less violent while still making them great.

The film was also made during a time when wide shots were a sign of production value. Small budget movies can’t afford to shoot on location, pay crowds of extras, or build large set pieces, but today many large budget films still choose to focus on the performance rather than scenery by using long lenses to focus on the actors. This was no the case for Lawrence of Arabia; even many moments that were more intimate were shot in medium shot, while shots that would be shot in medium today are shot in wide, and shots that might require wide today are ultra wide in this film.

Not every change would be negative. If it were shot today they would likely actually shoot the night scenes at night. In the 60s, even in large budget pictures they would shoot day for night whenever they could and it’s painfully obvious in this movie – which is otherwise a gorgeous film. It’s obvious that they’ve simply filtered the camera lens because of the shadows – the shadows wouldn’t be so harsh after sunset in reality.

Also if it were shot today all (or at least most) the parts would played by people of the appropriate race. In the film as it sits the majority of the Arab people depicted were played by well-known British and American actors wearing makeup. While Hollywood still gets accused of “white washing” it’s usually done in fiction where the character’s race is changed for the sake of casting – in films based on true events it is increasingly rare to see any race depicted by a person who isn’t of that race.

The film is beautiful and compelling. Perhaps most interesting is to read the many historical discrepancies that made the film controversial at the time. Though at the very least it is interesting to consider that at a time when the west was still largely considered the great, white hope this film dared to depict the west as largely treacherous; as they scheme to take control of the Arab empire after using their armies to conquer the Turks. Though, admittedly the hero is a white dude, though in this case it seems that has the benefit of being true.

Doctor Strangelove

I’m blogging through the AFI top 100. You can read more here.

There’s no accounting for taste. That’s all I can say regarding the inclusion of “Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” in AFI’s top 100. I perhaps could think of 100 movies that were not on the list that I believe to be better than this film.

It’s one of the few comedies that made the list, so naturally I expected it to be humorous. While I found some remnants of wit that were not lost on me, much of the film was just odd rather than funny. It seems a combination of realism with odd interjections of the heightened reality that I normally associate with satire, but with a duller uptake than most similar movies. In moments it comes off as mildly humorous, other moments it comes off as over-the-top-goofy, other moments it comes off as odd, and still other moments the film appears to take itself seriously. It’s this indecision about what genre it is in that makes it difficult to watch.

The whole film feels much like a shaggy dog story – one of those jokes where everyone acts as if it’s the funniest joke they ever heard, but when they get to the end of it, there’s no joke. This is the first film I’ve watched on the AFI top 100 that I truly don’t get. I’m sure those who love it – and I know there are many who do – will flay me for saying so, but I really believe it is highly overrated and perhaps only so because it was directed by Stanly Kubrick who famously directed dark, cynical dramas. I think much like the first time a comedic actor does a drama, people were shocked at how seemingly adequate a comedy director he was and that was more the cause of the interest in the film.

One thing I will note about this film that is a curiosity: it is the fourth I’ve watched on this list that was shot using black and white long after color film had become the norm. I’m reminded of young Frankenstein which received the same treatment and is far more deserving of a place on this list than this film. I suppose the most I can say about it is this: perhaps contextually, during the cold war, this film had great value. And perhaps its addressing the cold war with a wink and a nod (if a cynical one) was more important that I realize. The Berlin wall came down shortly after my 4th birthday, so admittedly I was only so aware of the threat of nuclear war and how much people really wanted to see an offbeat comedy based around it.

Taxi Driver

I’m blogging through the AFI 100. You can read more here.

For those who aren’t familiar Taxi Driver is about an mentally unstable veteran who deals with his insomnia and general dissosiative feelings toward the world. He has an unsuccessful relationship with a woman who is disgusted by his choice in dirty movies. After a run-in with a pre-teen prostitute and tries to liberate her from her lifestyle. He purchases several unregistered guns and teeters between assassinating the presidential candidate that his would-be girlfriend is campaigning for, and killing the man that pimps out 12-year-old Iris.

Taxi Driver is an odd movie. Aside from the fact that it feels like multiple plots surrounding the same character, it manages to meander while also having a speed uncharacteristic of it’s genre. It’s dark, somewhat twisty, yet notably faster paced than most of the dramas on the AFI top 100. It’s a well-acted film with plenty of intrigue and drama, but it also is heavily stamped by it’s era. Not because of the clothing styles but because of the filming style and score. I say this because many of the movies on this list have a quality that makes them feel timeless, but this one feels more dated.

When the film comes to it’s conclusion I didn’t find myself as certain about what the worldview of the filmmakers is, which I think is a good thing. This film didn’t have any preachy positive view for sure, but nor did it have a totally cynical, angry view that I expected.

It’s odd to watch this movie with a 33-year-old Robert DiNero who hadn’t yet become the caricature we’ve come to know today. 14 year-old Jodie Foster, who was already a well-known face, was having her break-out cinematic performance. Both of course are fantastic and it’s easy to see why this one made the list. I found it surprising that considering how dark the film gets, it ends on an up note.

Schindler’s List

I’m blogging through the AFI top 100. You can read more here.

Ok, so there is absolutely no doubt that Schindler’s list a phenomenal film. Personally I’d move it from #9 to #1 if it were up to me. I think that it cannot be undersold for it’s raw emotion and power of storytelling and it has the benefit of being a true story (in the top 10 Lawrence of Arabia is the only other one.)

I could tell you all the amazing thing about this film (which everyone already knows is awesome) for 1,000 words or more; how it effected me emotionally, how important it was in being truthful about the Nazi atrocities during WWII, and how fantastic it is from a cinematographical standpoint. Or, I could be my weird self and talk about the one thing that I’m usually talking when this movie gets brought up in conversation. And say something controversial: this movie isn’t perfect.

I’m one of these strange people who takes the scriptures seriously. So when I read “Let there be no hint of sexual immorality in you” I take it seriously. No, I don’t think that films shouldn’t be allowed to have objectionable content. But I do believe that there is no situation that truly requires full frontal nudity. I know, I know, how stupid and unartistic of me to believe that there could be a limit to the pallet that we should choose from. I’m bringing this up because whenever I say this, someone says to me “what about schindler’s list? Don’t you think it was necessary to show how terrible it was?” I certainly agree that we shouldn’t cut the scenes that show the indignities the Jewish people suffered at the hand of the Nazis. But I do disagree that this means that we must depict full, frontal nudity to communicate something. I believe this actually removes the art. Me personally, I believe the only reason to show full nudity is if you believe that the viewers are so desensitized that they can’t imagine a thing without being shown it directly.

Having said all this – it was not my major takeaway from this film at all. I only bring it up because it’s been brought up to me so much. This film’s power is found not only in its film value, but also in its truth. My favorite moments come in the film’s end when Oskar considers all he could’ve done to save more people and regrets wasting his life before he took on the task of saving the lives of his factory workers. When he’s assured that generations of people will go on living because of him, he finally flees the oncoming soviet army. This is all punctuated and enhanced by the final scene when the real survivors and their families visit Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem, setting a stone on his grave marker as they walk by.

I’ve often said to my friends that young men should attend as many funerals as they can, as it will make them consider what they’re doing with their lives and what they want to do with their lives. In the same way, this movie should have a similar effect on anyone who is watching. You will find yourself asking, how am I spending my resources? How am I spending my life? Who will benefit from the way I spent my resources? Who will be grateful for the way I lived? Whose life will be better because of mine?

Modern Times

I’m blogging through the AFI top 100. You can read more here.

Charlie Chaplain has three films on this list. One of a few actors or directors (or in his case both) that AFI seemed to have a particular predilection towards.

That isn’t to take awat from this, or any of his film’s originality. For they were all original, but let’s not forget that Chaplaim made his films in an era where practically everything set to celluloid was original. I know, how dare I suggest that the great Charlie chaplain was overrated. Ah but I do. Not that he wasn’t a talented, hardworking director – not that he wasn’t a genius, but Modern Times is actually evidence of his limits.

The film was released in 1937 almost ten years after sound had first been introduced to the motion picture, yet Chaplain still chose to make a silent film. I don’t believe that this decreases the film’s value today, but it does show an inability to adapt. It must be noted, however that he did use a steady stream of sound effects, musical numbers, and even a few specific lines throughout the movie. Yet this movie’s lack of sound was one of a few reasons this film didn’t do well critically or commercially when it was released, despite Chaplain himself being a household name at the time of its release.

Modern Times is impressive, but only if you assume that it represented the era. Thematically it certainly did, but technologically and narratologically (there’s that word again) it didn’t. I believe that this movie is a great film and perhaps one of Chaplain’s best, but I’m not sure I agree that it belongs on this list (especially considering, as I’ve already pointed out, he has two other entries that made the cut)

I personally found myself more frustrated by what felt like a constant insertion of physical comedy. If I were watching a movie that came out in the silent era I would expect this and be delighted when more sophisticated forms of humor arise. As this film was produced after the silent era I found myself being less patient with what seemed like needless sequences of silliness that failed to advance the plot or teach us anything new about the characters. I know. I’m watching this film through modern eyes, but I believe that was the same error that led the AFI to put this film on this list.

Ironically Modern Times was behind the times at its release. now despite this, I want to be clear it is a great film, and worth watching. But it to be it represents an indulgent project by its director seeking to hang on to an era that had only recently passed.

To Kill a Mocking Bird

I’m blogging through the AFI top 100 you can read the others by clicking here.

This is the first movie I’ve blogged about which is a second viewing for me. To Kill a Mockingbird is a truly great American film based on one of the contenders for “The Great American Novel.” I say this to be clear about my reverence for this film and it’s source material. There is no doubt that it is fantastic nor is there any doubt that it is of great value.

 

I want to be clear on that before asking a rhetorical question. Is it possible that one of the greatest films of all time is a bit over-sold? I had seen bits of pieces of the film growing up, but I first recall watching it in its entirety when I was in 10th grade after reading the novel.

Interesting that the book was rejected upon Harper Lee’s first attempts at publication for being a series of stories rather than a single narrative, as I must say the film feels like a series of stories that are thematic rather than narratological in their purpose. This isn’t to at all invalidate this style of story-telling, but I will say it is rare in film. Even as I was writing my thesis project I was often encouraged to weed out not only scenes, but even individual lines that didn’t serve the narrative. I’m saying this in part to recognize that To Kill a Mocking Bird is format breaking and perhaps id the book had not already been very successful at the time of the film’s production, a script written as this was wouldn’t have been released.

These essays were never intended to be a complete analyzing of any given film’s values and detractions, but rather some brief observations at this stage of my understanding of the medium. I say this because I want to suggest that to Kill a Mocking Bird a fantastic story, but an imperfect film. To nit-pick there are plenty of obvious continuity errors in the courtroom scene that wouldn’t cut the mustard in even the smallest Indie Film festival today. I found it hard to believe in the way this narrative is crafted that the Atticus we’re presented throughout the film wouldn’t struggle more with the choice to let Boo go if he did suspect him of having murdered Bob Ewell.

These are small issues in the broad scheme of the film, but I consider them as I recall the criticism I received while working through my own screenplay.

Having said this there can be no doubt that the film’s story is anything but incredibly important and laced with difficult truths about an era of American life that is full of shameful happenings like the one depicted. It is especially interesting to think about in referencing to the release of Go set a watchman the initial draft of To Kill a Mockingbird in which Atticus was originally a segregationist. Because Watchman takes place many years after the events of the final draft Go Set a Watchman wrongly (IMO) gets labeled a sequel when the Atticus in Mockingbird was a further evolution of the character seen in Watchman.

 

 

The Godfather Part II

I’m Blogging through the AFI top 100 you can see the other entries by clicking here.

The Godfather Part II was the first successful sequel. Yes, bond movies had come before it, but we all know that the Bond films have virtually no connection to one another aside from their protagonist. This was the first movie that enjoyed enough success and left enough open to create a follow up, which many argue is superior to the original.

This also makes the Godfather Part II unique on the AFI list: it’s the only sequel to make the top 100. What is interesting to me is that despite the general assertion that part II is the best of the trilogy, the original Godfather is ranked higher. Originality is often given more credit in film value than over all quality.

The Godfather Part II has one issue for me. It is three and a half hours long. This meant that I couldn’t watch it in one setting. The reason for the length of the film is that it is essentially two films in one. The A plot continues the story from the first film, following Michael Corleone as the new head of the Corleone family. The B plot follows the story of the young Vito Corleone, the now diseased “Godfather” when he first came to the States and started his “Olive Oil Import” business.

The Story of Vito is pretty straight forward and, assuming you’ve seen the first one, you know how it ends up so while it isn’t uninteresting it lacks the raw drama that the story of Michael does, where we’re not sure who will go to jail, who will live, and who will die. Both are, of course, well acted, well written, and masterfully directed. I hope to never watch it again any time soon. I just heard from a friend last week that he watches the Godfather films every year. More power to him. I don’t particularly enjoy watching the decent of men further into organized crime. I believe that the appeal of the films to most men is three fold: Power – there is something interesting about watching powerful men who cannot be beaten that appeals to the average man. Family – father issues, dealing with siblings, murdering your brother-in-law – all things that men can relate to. And a third thing that I assume exists, but whatever it is it escapes me. But I’m sure there is something else that appeals which I’m not given to understand.