The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967)
Although I grew up watching westerns, I didn't see this classic until 2003. Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach are partners in a scam to turn themselves in for the same reward money over and over. Eventually they part ways unamicably (Eastwood leaves Wallach hanging from a tree), and Eastwood takes on a new partner. Wallach, not one to let end-of-the-rope bygones be bygones, catches up with Eastwood and forces him on a death march through the desert, where, by chance, they each hear a different half of a tale from a dying soldier about where he's buried some treasure. Unwilling to divulge their half of the secret, they must reforge their partnership and stay alive long enough to become rich (at which point, it can be expected, one of them will kill the other).
Before the Dirty Harry franchises and masterful directing and the empty chair, Eastwood distinguished himself in these Spaghetti Westerns (this is the third, but I never felt like I'd missed part of the story). He is cool as a cucumber, has a lighthearted smirk, and is the most proficient shooter in the world (which his adversaries always fail to realize until it's too late). Wallach's performance is gripping. He is obnoxious and dirty and mean, but also flattering and ingratiating; he wants to be your best friend and he'll kill you if you say no. Though Eastwood is right to not trust Wallach's volatility, if only he gave Wallach respect, Wallach would be a loyal friend, a somewhat despairing sub-theme of this otherwise fun and adventurous tale.
Along the way they must elude mean-as-can-be Lee Van Cleef and his band of mercenaries, also in pursuit of the treasure. At one point, Eastwood and Wallach find themselves on the wrong side of a river, with Union and Confederate soldiers bombarding each other daily in devastating battles, all to capture a strategic bridge that joins them. I was awestruck at the number of extras involved in these battle sequences, for what might have otherwise been a very low budget western. Taking a literal cue from a dying general, our duo decides the best way to cross the river (and to save countless lives, not that they care) is to destroy the bridge, thus ending the conflict. Side adventures like this one transform the film from simple genre piece to a true odyssey, where at every turn our heroes are met with unexpected adversity, or saved by happenstance.
As the film nears its end, Eastwood, Wallach, and Van Cleef find themselves facing off in the three-way duel promised by the movie's title (after an epic sequence in which Wallach circles a cemetery looking for a grave; I felt nauseated it lasted so long). And more than in any movie with a countdown, or characters waiting to see if their hero has perished or will emerge from the smoke, this movie knows how to ratchet up the tension until it pops. These three just stare at each other, daring someone to make the first move; pure deliciousness. (2nd viewing.)
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
A thoroughly pleasing film, in which an ensemble cast enacts the last performance of the famous live radio show of the same name, that, seven years later, is actually still on the air. Every character is quirky and fun, and is permitted to shine. Garrison Keillor in particular surprises me; he is even better on screen than on the radio.
Though the radio program persists, this film does mark some 'lasts'. Lindsay Lohan's career hasn't quite been the same (not on account of her funny performance here). More notably, this was director Robert Altman's last film before his passing that same year at the age of 81. His directing career stretches back into the 1950s. With 1971's MASH, he began to receive award nominations; he was nominated for Best Director five times, but never won (he received an honorary award in 2006). I began watching his movies with 1992's The Player, and have seen every feature length film he's made since then with the exception of The Gingerbread Man (1998). This includes Dr. T & the Women (2000), The Company (2003), and two of my very favorite movies, Cookie's Fortune (1999) and Gosford Park (2001). I can't speak highly enough of those latter two. Altman's body of work is simply amazing, and I feel fortunate that there are still so many of his movies I've yet to discover.
On a humorous note, and one that will tie in to some other movies I watched this same month (see below), on May 4, 2010 I watched Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep. Just ten days later I saw Altman's excellent The Long Goodbye (1973) (look for a cameo by Arnold Schwarzenegger). Just ten days apart. Yet I sat through that entire Altman movie without realizing it was a sequel (of sorts) to Hawks's classic. I'm dense. (3rd viewing.)
Michael Clayton (2007)
Simply put, this movie is perfect. If you haven't seen it, do so. I'll spare you further gushing.
This marks the directing debut for Tony Gilroy, who up to this point had penned many films, most famously the Jason Bourne trilogy. He followed (and borrowed actors from) Michael Clayton with the excellent Duplicity (2009). Next he wrote the screenplay for the American version of State of Play (2009), a superb film (though I'd recommend its even better British counterpart). If Gilroy would just stop with these Bourne movies (he wrote and directed the most recent in the series, The Bourne Legacy, 2012), he'll be on his way to being one of the great directors of our time. (3rd viewing.)
Inside Man (2006)
I guess when Spike Lee goes big, he goes big. Inside Man earned more money worldwide than the combined gross of Lee's next five most successful films. Like Michael Clayton, Inside Man treats us to the villain's perspective (though Clive Owen's bank robber is immeasurably more sympathetic than Tilda Swinton's corporate attorney). This is my favorite Denzel Washington movie, and one of my favorite of his roles. The day he and Clooney are in a movie together, the Earth will end because its purpose will have been fulfilled. (5th viewing.)
Warm Bodies (2013)
@ the Alameda Theatre and Cineplex.
Let's get the obvious disclaimer out of the way. I hate zombies. I hate zombie movies. I hate zombie games. I hate walking out of the supermarket and finding scrawled in the snow, "Survival" and an arrow pointing to the left, and "Zombies" and an arrow pointing to the right. I hate zombie costumes and zombie-themed candy and funny cartoon zombies and Shaun of the Dead and the billboards for World War Z. Hate 'em. So it is only with an ingenious marketing ploy on the studio's part, and an award-worthy open mind on mine that I even went to see this movie.
(In seeming contradiction to the above, I had an epiphany a while back, that I don't hate all zombies. I don't mind the zombies in Dungeons & Dragons, the type that are just reanimated corpses, through mystical means, who fight like skeletons and can be easily defeated. In D&D, zombyism isn't infectious. Which means anyone I'm fighting has been dead for a really long time, and they didn't necessarily die a terrible death either. What I hate are modern zombies, where 1) they try to eat you, which is disgusting and the absolute worst way to die, 2) they bite you and you become one of them, a total betrayal of all you stand for, and then 3) I am forced to fight you. With a chainsaw. No thanks!)
This film does have its gruesome moments, and there are some scary über-zombies on the prowl, so don't think it is completely lighthearted. But that aside, it's a cross between Romeo & Juliet's star-crossed lovers from warring factions, and the "popular girl falls for awkward boy, but hopes her friends don't find out" trope. Nicholas Hoult is perfect as the zombie who has always been a bit different (he hoards human mementos in an airplane), and Teresa Palmer as the survivalist trained to kill zombies, terrified for her life, yet able to tell that Hoult is unique. Their relationship is captivating, despite the macabre backdrop. From a sci-fi/horror perspective, the movie also delivers the goods on showing zombie culture (like the vampire culture in Daybreakers), i.e., what happens to zombies when they've basically won?
To Have and Have Not (1944)
When I first started streaming movies on Netflix in 2010, I thought I had discovered a limitless treasure trove of classic films, each more amazing than the one before it: My Man Godfrey (1936), His Girl Friday (1940), Holiday (1938), It Happened One Night (1934). The Big Sleep (1946) was the last of these, and then the market crashed: everything else on Netflix was crap. But The Big Sleep was so incredibly good; the perfect noir detective story, with sizzling chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Jump forward three years, and I'm perusing the classic section of my local video store (the excellent Video Factory on Park St. in Alameda, CA) when I see another Bogart/Bacall title, To Have and Have Not, their first together, and seemingly cobbled together from Casablanca's cutting room floor. The two movies have almost identical plots: Bogart is an ex pat who runs a bar in a politically unstable sea-side city. A beauty (your choice of Bacall or Ingrid Bergman) walks in the door, turning his life upside down and forcing him to choose sides in a conflict he was quite comfortably profiting from. Bogart and Bacall are magical together, exchanging sexually charged dialog too quickly for me to catch it all. I can't wait to watch this one again.
Dark Passage (1947)
Now hot on the trail of anything Bogart/Bacall, I turned to their third movie, one I had in theory seen at some point in my youth, but it was entirely unfamiliar. Beginning with a gimmicky first-person perspective whose only purpose seems to be to sidestep a special effects limitation, Bogart escapes from San Quentin Prison in Marin County and hitches a ride to San Francisco with motorist Bacall. At first Bacall seems to be just in the right place at the right time, but we soon learn that she knows Bogart, anticipated his escape, and specifically sought him out to give him a ride (it doesn't quite make sense, but when Lauren Bacall opens her car door, you get in). Bogart undergoes plastic surgery to conceal his identity, at which time we finally get to see his face (now as Bogart). The film is a bit clumsy, but the two leads are still good together, Agnes Moorehead delivers a marvelously shrewish performance, and the now antiquated San Francisco scenery is fun to explore. (2nd viewing.)
Key Largo (1948)
The last of Bogart and Bacall's four films together. Bogart, discharged from the Army, arrives at a small resort hotel in Key Largo to pay his respects to the father of a fallen comrade. There he meets Bacall, the comrade's fiance, and a gang of thugs headed by Edward G. Robinson. Robinson, on the lam in Cuba, is awaiting a rendezvous with various heads of the New York (or Chicago, I forget) family, to discuss business and his possible return. They don't want any trouble (though they don't have any manners either), and neither do Bogart, Bacall, or Bacall's father. But a hurricane traps everyone at the resort, and the situation gets supercharged when the sheriff comes by to pursue a local matter.
When I reflect on this movie, I like it more than my rating indicates. It's very well done. But ultimately its close-quarters violence, endemic to the noir genre, turned me off. I like tension, but I have a tough time with thrillers where the heroes are often powerless to defend themselves against the villain.
Meet John Doe (1941)
I'm a sucker for the incorruptible goodness of a salt-of-the-earth movie character. Amid the Great Depression, Barbara Stanwyck secures her position at her newspaper by fabricating a John Doe letter to the editor that lays out all that is wrong with the country, pointing the finger at the fat cats. Though the newspaper is owned by one of those fat cats, it can smell money in pandering to the common man, so it commands Stanwyck to hire John Doe as a columnist. She secretly auditions a number of down-on-their luck types, eventually settling for baseball-loving Gary Cooper, who, along with fellow hobo Walter Brennan (who also had a stint in To Have and Have Not), has been living under a bridge. Will Cooper, who just wants to work hard and earn a living, be corrupted by his sudden fame? Will Stanwyck become a political stooge for the paper's owner? Will director Frank Capra's sentimentality strike a cord with this modern viewer? Spoiler: No, no, and yes.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
2012, all told, was an exceptional year for movies, even if you ignore all the great superhero titles. Moonrise Kingdom is the best of them all, and my favorite movie since Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010). On a small island off the coast of Maine, a serious, misunderstood, and often violent girl (Kara Hayward) conspires to runaway with a serious, misunderstood, and often violent boy (Jared Gilman) stationed at a boy scout camp on the other side of the island. Her parents (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand) and his troupe leader (Edward Norton) must team up with the island's only police officer (Bruce Willis) to find the two before... well, they're on an island, so what's the worst that could happen?
Wes Anderson continues to astound me with his quirky, melancholy, and hilarious ensemble comedies. With the exception of the so-so Darjeeling Limited (2007), his movies keep getting better and better. Consider the excellent Rushmore (1998), topped by The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which in turn was outdone by The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and now Moonrise Kingdom. The only other directors with such a consistent track record (in my book) are Robert Altman (see above), David Mamet, and, the biggest contender, Hayao Miyazaki. (3rd viewing.)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
When the opening sequence of a movie shows the hero dying in a motorcycle accident, what remains for the movie to tell? We all die someday, sure, but won't a story of heroism be constantly undercut by such a banal end?
Lawrence: I crossed the desert that couldn't be crossed.
Chorus: Yes, but very slowly. The way you should drive.
Lawrence: I captured the city that couldn't be captured.
Chorus: Maybe just watch those corners?
Lawrence: I fought an empire even when my army had abandoned me. I endured torture. I am solely responsible for the creation of the Arab state. I should be worshipped!
Chorus: You should wear a helmet.
I won't argue with this movie being expertly assembled, from its majestic music, to its majestic landscapes, to its majestic battles, etc. The movie is big, fine. The problem is that Peter O'Toole's Lawrence is too flawed for my taste. Beginning as a bit of a fop, he soon gets a taste for battle and an even bigger taste of his own ego. He confesses that he likes the violence, and what seems like brilliant strategy at first begins to morph into endurance art (the sort my friend Brian Schorn performed at Mills College where he smiled into a camera for an entire hour), where his suffering is somehow a victory in itself. (2nd viewing.)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Speaking of movies where we see the main character dead at the beginning: Sunset Boulevard opens with a narration by William Holden, drawing our attention to his own dead body floating face down in a pool. But everything turns out okay after that, right?
(I have a theory that Hollywood is overly sympathetic toward introspections of their own industry. Mostly founded on Hugo's nomination for an Oscar in 2011; I thought it was somewhat fun, but can't account for its nomination except that it celebrates pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliés. The winner that year was The Artist, which more directly explores Hollywood, but was also worthy of the win. Last year's winner, Argo (Hollywood Saves Hostages), continues my suspicions. Sunset Boulevard was nominated for Best Picture, but lost out to All About Eve, a similarly-themed film about an aging Broadway star.)
Gloria Swanson plays a wealthy but forgotten former star of Hollywood's silent era, a plot that would post-date the transitionary stories in The Artist and Singin' in the Rain (1952). The role parallels Swanson's own career, which dates back to the very beginning of film, but ends abruptly in the early 1930s with the changeover to sound. Holden is a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who catches her eye. She hires him to rewrite a script, penned by her, that she is sure will launch her back into the spotlight. Holden can't say no to the money, but neither does he decline her romantic advances, in essence becoming her gigolo.
The movie is a noir thriller in that we fear for Holden's safety as we realize how insane Swanson is, and become suspicious about what happened to her previous husband. But Holden becomes such a sleaze bag, it's tough to root for him (especially since I already know he dies in the end). Swanson's performance is manic and tragic, a dark warning to anyone who too tightly embraces their own fame.
I rate this movie 2 stars not for its composition or artistic value, but because I just didn't enjoy it. As I learned while watching Julia, I get really uncomfortable with unlikeable protagonists.
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Forget everything I just said about unlikeable protagonists. In the opening scene of this Hitchcock cat-and-mouse thriller, one of the movie's two stars, the charismatic Ray Milland, plots to kill the other, his wife, not-so-bad-herself Grace Kelly. We're tethered to his perspective just as closely as we are to hers, and it's absolutely riveting. After Kelly accidentally kills the hired assassin, and Milland must act the concerned husband, Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) arrives on the scene to work out the details.
The movie's theatrical roots show, with just a few sets (it takes place mostly in their apartment) and long, patient scenes. This wasn't one of Hitchcock's more successful movies financially, but I'm happy to see that at least it's his 8th most popular over on IMDB. Though I've only seen it once, Dial M for Murder has jumped ahead of The Trouble with Harry as my favorite Hitchcock film.
85th Academy Awards
My boss was kind enough to take my girlfriend and I as his guests to an Oscar party at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, with the live telecast projected on the screen, and KQED's Michael Krasny on stage filling the time during the commercial breaks.
In general I'm not a fan of the awards, partly because they differ from my own tastes, and partly because I've seldom seen the nominated movies (they come bunched in December, and drown out other equally worthy films from earlier in the year). When the awards rolled around for the 2010 crop, from which I'd seen 78 different movies for this blog, I was rewarded with having seen 7 of the 10 movies nominated for Best Picture. 2012 was a more typical year for me though, and at this particular Oscar party I found myself having seen just 2 of the 9 nominated films (Argo and Lincoln).
My favorite moments include Jennifer Lawrence's win (and recovery from her trip up the stairs); Ben Affleck's gratitude toward wife Jennifer Garner, and her beaming with pride for him; Daniel Day-Lewis's Margaret Thatcher joke; Catherine Zeta-Jones looking really good post-baby, reprising her "All that Jazz" number from Chicago; and most impressively, Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger". That woman can belt it.
Host Seth MacFarlane's "We Saw Your Boobs" song was funny, but too consistent with the sexist tone of the rest of his jokes. Adele's "Skyfall", a great song, was less impressive live (well, telecast live) than in the movie's score.
Oh, and Moonrise Kingdom not being nominated for Best Picture, and not even winning Best Original Screenplay? That just reopens the wound from Gladiator's win over Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for the 2000 awards.
The only category I feel qualified to speak about is Best Animated Feature. I had seen four of the five titles by Oscar night (Brave, Wreck-It Ralph, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and ParaNorman), and have since seen Frankenweenie as well. Every one of those movies is excellent and worthy of the award. Brave's win continues Pixar's domination of the category: the studio has won seven times in the category's 12-year history, missing only for its two Cars movies (and thankfully so), and for Monster's, Inc. in 2001, which should have won over Shrek. More notably, though, Brave is only the second winner to feature a female lead (the other is Spirited Away, 2002), and a kick-ass one at that. (Here's a spoiler: Brave is not about a princess finding a prince.) Miyazaki's movies aside, feature-length animation is absolutely dominated by male characters. For every Elastigirl there are ten Mr. Incredibles, and that has to stop.
Hollywood: When you say half of all children are girls, what do you mean exactly?
Everyone Else: Well, half. It's kinda a math thing.
Hollywood: Yeah, but more specifically, like '3-4%' half, or more like '5-8%' half? If it's the latter, we might want to throw in a female character here and there. By the way, apropos of nothing, if we put lipstick and eyeliner on a snail, will kids know it's a girl? Or should we give the snail breasts too? Obviously, there are a lot of unanswered questions here.