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Category Archives: AFI 100 Essays

The African Queen

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

The African Queen is number 17 on the top 100 and it is unusual in several ways. For one, it’s the first movie on the list that I’ve watched that is less than two hours. It’s also the first non-drama that I’ve watched. The movie itself was unique at the time of its release in that it was shot on location in Africa using technicolor cameras. Technicolor wasn’t new, but it was rarely use outside of the studio backlot since the process required larger cameras.

If you haven’t watched this film, or if you haven’t watched it since it was restored in 2009 I recommend you head on over to your Netflix box and tune it to the African Queen’s frequency. The film is short, family friendly, and enjoyable by anyone who likes film.

The movie starts in a Methodist Mission Church (yeah, for reals) in Africa where Audrey Hepburn and her brother are ministering to the locals. Humphrey Bogart shows up to deliver some supplies via his small river boat, the African Queen. He tells them that a war has started in Europe. Shortly after he leaves the Nazis attack and burn down the village. The tribesmen flee and Hepburn’s brother dies shortly after. When Bogey returns to find the village in ruins and only Hepburn alive he offers to give her a ride up river. Shortly thereafter Hepburn’s character suggests that they go on a mission to sink the Nazi boat on lake Victoria.

They embark on a journey to navigate a part of the river that had previously been deemed impassable by boat. In the process they have some conflict and eventually (of course) fall in love. Whatever else this movie is; an adventure, a WWII movie – it’s primarily a romantic comedy which makes it very different from everything I’ve watched up to this point. It’s great fun and I really recommend that you check it out if you haven’t watched it before.

Goodfellas

Goodfellas is one of the films that I’ve studied the most without ever having watched all the way through. Goodfellas and the Godfather are referenced a great deal in pop culture – to the point that I spend a great deal of the time watching both saying “oh that’s where that’s from.”

The movie’s cinematography was somewhat groundbreaking. Many scenes take advantage of Steadicam motion for at least a portion of the scene and a few scenes are comprised entirely of one long shot. While this wasn’t the first time these techniques had been used it was the first time they had been used this well and to this extent.

The interesting thing about this being on the AFI top 100 is that the movie relies heavily on narration throughout the film, which is a big no-no in screenwriting. Narration is seen as a shortcut wherein the person is often telling instead of showing, but in this case it’s totally necessary for the expediency of the plot which covers a lot of ground, and they do a good job of showing and telling whenever possible.

Like many critically acclaimed movies, this movie’s plot is not terribly straightforward. Most popular, blockbuster movies have a clear objective, a singular clear conflict which, once resolved, resolves the plot. Many of the AFI top 100 have multiple smaller conflicts that resolve far before the movie is over. It’s less about a singular conflict and more about the events that shape the characters. Goodfellas is about the characters, who are played masterfully by the top-notch cast which is why it’s held in such high regard.

The story is odd because at it’s core it’s about a guy who seems to enjoy the perks of being a gangster, and oddly his wife is attracted to him because of the lifestyle, yet it comes at high costs with threats to his life and jail time. When he’s forced to leave the “Goodfellas” he still misses the adrenaline rush of organized crime. While not as laborious as others this film isn’t exactly what I would call it entertaining, though for those with a taste for a great deal of yelling, cursing, violence this might be more up your alley. I was shocked to find out at the end that this is true story about a real man who really went into witness protection. Like all movies on this list it’s well acted and well written, but like many movies on this list I could live without ever seeing it again.

The Godfather

I’m embarrassed to say that this was my first viewing of the Godfather. Yes, I know I should’ve watched ut years ago. My dad wasn’t that into gangster movies and I wasn’t begging to watch them, then I just never got around to it. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was a good movie or that I wasn’t interested, I knew it was going to be a heavy movie and most of the time whenever the opportunity arose I wasn’t in the mood to live through that.I’m sorry. Now that I’ve gotten through that I get to entreat you to the thoughts of a person who has an MFA and just watched the Godfather for the first time.

Just like the rest of these movies no one needs me to tell them that the Godfather is an excellent movie. I suppose that what I was the most surprised at was how much I found the movie to be enjoyable. I say that because many (if not most) of the movies on the AFI top 100 are laborious dramas where the plot is secondary to the characters and acting trumps intrigue. The Godfather has a clear plot that meanders a bit, but doesn’t get lost in the weeds too much. Despite its long runtime it manages to keep interest and made me want to keep watching.

I’m also embarrassed to say that aside from the original Superman that this is the first film I’m watched featuring Marlon Brando. I’m eager to get to the others on the list that have in the lead. But I’ll talk about him more when I get to those films. The true feature character of The Godfather is young Al Pacino starts the film trying to deny “the family business.” But ends the film having dawned (pun intended) the title of “Godfather.” It’s the story of generational sin. It speaks to the reality that many people live with; the seeming impossibility of avoiding becoming your father, or at least grappling with his sins.

The drama of the movie and the characters are all fantastic, but the thing that makes the movie truly great are the moments of dissonence with that drama. “Leave the Gun, take th cannoli.” being spoken simply after disposing of someone. Or a scene wherein the senior Don plays in the garden with his grandson as if he were a normal grandfather. It’s this combined with the drama, the acting, the dialogue, and the excellent cinematography that make this movie so unusual.

Raging Bull

I’d heard of the film Raging Bull, knowing that it was critically acclaimed, it starred a young Bobby DeNiro, and it was about a boxer. I’d seen a few clips from the film, but I’d never really known much about it. I was surprised to find out that it was based on a true story – not just a true story but on the main character’s autobiography.

This is another film (one of many in the AFI top 100) that is in the category of movies about a tragic male lead. Movies like this feature someone who has multiple flaws, in this case it is the famous boxer’s pride and paranoia. The story is a sad one, about a guy who never really found any sense of contentment. He alienated his brother, beat his wife, and took the fall multiple times due to pressure from power the be.

The film was shot in black and white even though it was released in 1980. While not unheard of, it’s rare enough that you have to sit up and take notice of anyone who chooses to do it when the option for color is standard. The cinematography is impressive to say the least, with one of the most famous push-pull shots in cinema history during one of the fight scenes.

The film is never what I would describe as “entertaining” or “enjoyable” but it is well acted and apparently truthful. I would also put it in a category as “these people just need Jesus.” I know it’s boring and cliché of me to say, but the people in the story would all have had much more easy, enjoyable lives – albeit more boring ones – if they’d submitted their lives to Christ – it’s not the first time I’ve said that about a film and it won’t be the last.

DeNiro’s performance is the most impressive part of the film – he plays a character through multiple life stages which is always challenging, and always powerful when a single actor can successfully play those different season of life. The details of the plot are mostly forgettable and the movie’s black and white color scheme makes it all tend to blend together. Having said that, there’s no doubt that it’s an impressive feat.

Citizen Kane

I’m blogging through the AFI top 100. You can see all of them here.

So, according to the American Film Institute Citizen Kane is the best film of all time. That’s a pretty heavy burden for any film to carry. It’s also perhaps why I haven’t gotten around to watching it until now. I wanted to reserve a time where I could devote my attention to the film and appreciate it for all its worth. I don’t even like to pick a single “favorite” film of my own. The biggest problem with Citizen Kane is it’s label. I can see that it’s a phenominal film, but for most of the movie I found myself having a hard time not repeatedly asking “Is this really the best film of all time?” Regardless, it is undoubtedly a remarkable film. Any movie that spans the lifetime of a larger-than-life character is an ambitious undertaking. Capturing the whole of the human experience in less than the span of a work day is something we take for granted in the film world, yet it’s no small task.

The movie of course tells the story of Charles Foster Kane who was a millionaire media mogul turned failed politician played by Orson Welles who also wrote, directed, and produced the film. It is dangerous for a director to write, direct, produce, and star in their film – as it’s possible they’ll become insulated and not hear the feedback necessary to make adjustments. More often they turn out less like Citizen Kane and more like The Room. Every aspect of this movie is admirable, but perhaps the most impressive thing is the performance of Orson Welles himself, who really does appear to be a man at many stages of life from the ideals of young adulthood to the unrest of middle age to the jaded disappointment with his life in old age.

This film is about a man who gained everything and died wealthy and largely unhappy. The movie starts with his death and his famous last word “Rosebud.” The movie then tells the sad progression of his life through interviews with his business partners and wife. The entire time the reporter who is doing the interviewing is trying to find out the significance of this final utterance, and yet, no one seems to know what “Rosebud” means. If you, like me already knew the ending of the movie it’s hard to imagine what it was like for those who hadn’t heard the original meaning of rosebud.

Ultimately we’re left with many potential takeaways. One of them is the simple reality that money cannot buy happiness. Though, I’m sure Daniel Tosh would be quick to point out that Mr. Kane never own a wave runner. Toward the end in a scene where Kane tears apart a room full of expensive possessions, we see what money and self focus earn a man and a yearning for the simple days of his youth. Something many Americans can identify with, which is perhaps why this has earned its place as the number one film of all time.

Blogging through the AFI 100

Last month I completed my Masters of Fine Arts in Film. An MFA is the highest degree one can earn regarding film, and yet I’m struck by the amount I still don’t know about the subject. Primarily I’m embarrassed at the number of classic films that I haven’t seen. I decided a while back that upon finishing my degree I would watch the the American Film Institute’s top 100 films. I’ve watched many of them, but most of them will be new to me. I’m making it my goal to reflect on each film, whether I’ve seen it or not, for 300 to 500 words each. My hope is that it will make me more informed as a film scholar and more cultured as a film maker. So here goes nothing.

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