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6Jan/10Off

A Clockwork Orange (1972)

Clockwork Orange

Note: This is #52 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009. Ding!

A Clockwork Orange features Alex DeLarge (Malcom McDowell), a young thug in a near-future Britain overrun by moral decay and gangs of hyperviolent youths. Alex isn't exactly a hero (he's a vicious rapist and a murderer) and he's not an anti-hero since he's neither a stand-in for the common man nor possessed of any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Instead, he's the central figure in a rather stylishly presented thought experiment dealing with free will and the nature of goodness.

When Alex's misdeeds finally catch up with him thanks to treachery within his own gang, he's arrested and put in prison. Eventually he volunteers to participate in a radical new program that pairs drug-induced nausea with scenes of horror and violence to condition him against his base nature. By the end of his treatment, Alex can't even think about violent or sexual acts without being crippled by waves of sickness and pain. Now rendered harmless, he's dumped back into the world. But unfortunately for Alex, the world is still cruel without him and he is completely defenseless when he comes back into contact with those whom he has wronged in his salad days. And so we're supposed to ask ourselves: was it wrong for the state to do to Alex what it did? And should they undo it?

I've got the same problem with this film that I had with the book by Anthony Burgess upon which it was based (see my review of the book here). That is, the central moral question that it invites us to wrestle with is so trivially easy to resolve in my mind that it makes the entire escapade seem vulgar with little payoff. Of COURSE the state was right to do to Alex what it did --or at least no more wrong than it would have been to lock him up for life. We're invited to think about whether robbing him of choice makes this one-time villain "good," but to me that's an irrelevant question. He's not hurting people any more (remember, we're talking pre-meditated rape and murder here). Sure he can't choose to be good or bad after the psychological conditioning, but neither can any of the people who were locked up or executed. Yes, there's the question of the slippery slope down from terrible crimes to any sort of irreverent or antisocial behavior, but the movie explores that even less than the book did. Alex's situation simply isn't the dilemma to me that director Stanley Kuberick think it to be.

That said, the film was interesting to watch, even if it was a bit slow and talky in a lot of places. Kuberick's definitely got his own sense of style, with lots of extreme close-ups (often involving eyes), stark scenes, and weird camera angles. Visually, the only thing that I think fell really flat was his 1972 vision of what the future was going to look like. It didn't age well, and screams of wonky design that's so far of from what we now expect the near future to look like that it's visually jarring.

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30Dec/09Off

Movie Review: MASH

MASH

Note: This is #51 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

I was kind of familiar with the television series of the same name that spun off from this movie, so MASH wasn't completely new ground. Like the TV show, the movie features an ensemble cast, but the main players are three Army doctors pressed into service as field surgeons during the Korean War: Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), and "Trapper" John McIntyre (Elliot Gould).

Oddly, the movie is episodic, featuring a series of interconnected stories that last 15 to 20 minutes each. The common theme that runs through all of them is the three doctors (and to a lesser extent their comrades) trying to retain their mental balance in the face of the wartime horrors that keep coming to them on stretchers and operating tables. Mostly this is done by desparately scrabbling for humor wherever it can be found, from sneaking a microphone into a tent so that two people's lovemaking is broadcast over the loud speakers to fooling a the camp's meloncholy dentist into thinking that he has committed suicide only to give him a new lease on life when he wakes up. There's a strong streak of anti-establishment rebellion running through almost everyone in the camp, but especially the three doctors. Those few, like Nurse "Hot Lips" Houlihan, who do not embrace absurdity and black humor of their situation are targeted for humiliation and ridicule until they finally break down and either get with the program or get carried away in a straight jacket. If National Lampoon covered the Vietnam War (or the Korean war, for that matter) the results would be pretty similar to MASH.

MASH is billed largely as a dark comedy, and I get that to some extent. Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould in particular have a great, understated comedic tilt to their performances, and they're fun to watch and listen to. And I get the vibe about how the only way they can endure their situation is to laugh in its face while they're elbow deep in the gore of the war's victims. But by and large I just didn't find MASH that funny. Dark, yes. Often absurd, yes. But not really funny. Still, dark and absurd aren't that bad, especially when you've got some great performances. Plus I also liked the style that director Robert Altman brought to the filming, with long shots, extreme zooms, and overlapping conversations. I hadn't seen anything much like that in my movie list for this experiment, but I can see how it affected subsequent films.

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24Dec/09Off

Movie Review: Easy Rider (1969)

Easy Rider

Note: This is #50 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Easy Rider stars Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as Wyatt and Bill, who while flush with cash from a drug deal strike out for New Orleans in search of freedom on the open road. Along the way they smoke a lot of pot, meet a groovy hitchhiker who takes them to an experimental hippy commune, and pick up a drunkard of a ACLU lawyer played by Jack Nicholson. Wyatt and Bill are pretty rough around the edges, and this provokes the deadly ire of the rednecks they encounter on their way to Louisiana and eventually Florida. In the end, we're expected to believe that the duo failed in their search for freedom in America, and anyone who dares to embrace the counter culture is doomed to disaster and harsh vibes, man. And by "harsh vibes" I mean a hillbilly with a shotgun.

I suspect that Easy Rider is one of those films whose real significance eludes me mostly because I didn't live through its debut and didn't experience the new but irrefutable ideas that it embodied. Marijuana and cocaine, while absent from my own personal life, seem ordinary staples of the television and film I see. Hippy communes seem quaint, and two dudes riding motorcycles across the country hardly strikes me as "WOW!" material. And the finale where Wyatt and Billy drop acid with a couple of prostitutes in a graveyard just left me cold and annoyed. So mostly at the end of this movie I was left with a "What the hell?" kind of feeling and not all that impressed. I can see how it could be seen as a landmark in film making and a cultural touchstone, but alas I still didn't enjoy it.

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16Dec/09Off

Movie Review: The Wild Bunch (1969)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Note: This is #49 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

The Wild Bunch is interesting because we essentially follow a group of villains with one hero (or, arguably, just another kind of villain) just hanging around on the periphery. The bunch in question is a group of old school, wild West outlaws who have made a long career out of robbing stage coaches, banks, and railroads. But in the year 1913, they're starting to get long in the tooth and looking for either a life beyond their guns or one big score to set them up for retirement. The group is led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his old friend Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine, who has the coolest name EVER). After botching one robbery and shooting up half a town's worth of innocent bystanders, they flee south and get tangled up in the Mexican Revolution. Dogging them is Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who is a former member of the bunch himself and out of prison on the condition that he recapture Pike and his gang.

The movie is very much about a group of aging men staring at the upcoming end of an era that they themselves defined. There's lots of marveling at newly minted automobiles and machine guns, children being dangerous, and the entire concept of revolution plays not only a concrete but symbolic role in the film. There's some great character development going on, particularly with Pike and Deke where we get to see why they are who they are and how much despair their current situation causes them. Also, there are a lot of gunfights. Very violent ones, in fact, and capped off by a spectacular shootout in a Mexican military camp that calls back a powerful image that ran through the opening credits: a group of children forcing a small group of scorpions to fight a swarming mass of fire ants until they are eventually worn down and torn apart.

So I liked this one. It's violent and unpleasant, unlike a lot of other more pulp-minded westerns from this project so far, but it strikes me as a very good piece of film making and story telling in general.

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9Dec/09Off

Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Note: This is #48 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is kind of weird, as if it can't figure out what kind of movie it wants to be. Cassidy (Paul Newman) and Kid (Robert Redford) are the leaders of The Hole in the Wall Gang, which is your typical wild west kind of affair. They spend their time in brothels, saloons, and the scenes of crimes like train robberies. When they hit a train one too many times, though, the railroad owner hires a group of super lawmen who are like a gang of Terminators on horseback in that they don't ever stop coming after the duo and they unerringly follow their trail. So Cassidy and Kid flee to Bolivia with a romantic interest Etta Place (Katherine Ross) where they experiment with both crime and walking the straight and narrow path.

What's weird about this film is that it almost seems like the script and direction were determined by committee. There are scenes that could be out of any Western movie, then you get this weird non-sequiter with Cassidy in a bowler hat tooling around on a bicycle with his girlfriend while someone croons "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" in the background. Then you'll get Cassidy and Kid fleeing across the landscape from the Terminator Posse followed by a sepia toned photo montage showing their fancy pants lark in Cony Island. The tone of the movie also slingshots around, a bit, with the rakish and wise-cracking duo making all kinds of jokes or humorously fumbling over their impromptu Spanish during a Bolivian bank robbery just before a scene with murder and violent gunplay. And then there's the ending, which is bleak and violent beyond anything else in the movie. Things just seems all over the place, and while that could be interesting in a genre bending or deconstruction kind of way (are we at post modern film making already?) the whole experience just didn't seem to gel to me.

The film is probably worth watching for the performances of Newman and Redford alone, and there are a few really great scenes --I'm thinking in particular of the one where Cassidy bests a rival gang leader and the one where they exchange words with an amusingly loyal accountant guarding the booty from a train robbery. So it's not bad, but it just doesn't strike me as a masterpiece the way some other movies on my list have.

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2Dec/09Off

Movie Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Midnight Cowboy

Note: This is #47 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Good God, that was depressing. More so because for some reason I had gotten this movie mixed up in my head with Rhinestone Cowboy, a 1984 movie starring Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton. They are VERY different.

To whit, Midnight Cowboy follows Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a young man from Texas who packs his bags and heads to New York City during the 1960s. Buck, who has been told he's good at sex, aims to become a gigolo for wealthy New York women but is met with limited success. Which is to say no success. It's just plain painful to see this naieve young man dress up as a cowboy and try to hit up older New York women for paid sex. This quickly results in Buck being destitute and utterly alienated from a city full of millions of people. Enter Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a small-time thief with a bad attitude and a worse chest cold. Ratso initially conns Buck out of $20, but eventually the two form a bond born out of mutual alienation and dispair over their predicament in life. The remainder of the movie explores this relationship and peels back revelations about Buck's and Ratso's past lives. It ain't pretty.

I suppose that Midnight Cowboy marks the beginning of the gritty, dark, and depressing period of films during the 1970s --the kind of stuff that explores urban decay, estrangement, and despair. It's certainly got all those traits in spades, along with a tragic ending, though there's no denying that the story of Buck and Ratso is powerful and bittersweet. These guys are ugly and sad, but they ARE human and the observant viewer will almost certainly find something to empathize or identify with. Just don't watch this one when you're bummed out to start with.

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26Nov/09Off

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Bonnie and Clyde

Note: This is #46 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

If you're looking for a good example of a film that represents the cultural zeitgeist (double word score!) of its era, In the Heat of the Night would be a good candidate. It tells the story of Black Philadelphia police detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) who is at first accused murder while passing through a small Mississippi town, then grudgingly recruited by the bigoted local police force to help solve the crime. Along the way, Tibbs --who has a stick up his own bum-- has to learn to work with sour and semi-bigoted Police Chief Bill Gillespi (Rod Steiger) while overcoming prejudices of his own.

The movie works well enough as your basic murder mystery, with your list of suspects, motives, forensics technobabble, and detective work. But marbled through all this are unmistakable messages about Black/White relations and bigotry on both sides of the race card. Gillespi and the other police officers are suspicious of Tibbs, who seems disdainful, cold, and uppity. Tibbs, for his part, has a huge chip on his shoulder (albeit for understandable reasons), and does things like let his own preconceptions lead him to mistakenly suspect the town's biggest racist of the crime. What I like is that it's largely a movie without clear-cut villains. Well, except the obligatory lynch mob of rednecks wielding baseball bats. They're clearly villains. And the guy who actually committed the murder that touched this whole thing off. I guess he's pretty clearly a villain, too. Okay, so so maybe it's more that it's a movie without clear-cut heroes. Except that's not quite it either. Well, you know what I mean. All the heroes are flawed. Or something.

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18Nov/09Off

Movie Review: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Bonnie and Clyde

Note: This is #46 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Here's a pretty accurate plot summary of Bonnie and Clyde: Bonnie and Clyde fall in love, try to escape the Great Depression, commit violence, get famous, die in a hail of gunfire, leave beautiful corpses.

That's pretty much it, but there's a lot more if you look beyond the plot. Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) is a bored Texan waitress who meets Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), an ex-convict fresh out of jail. Both are faced with a meaningless life in the grip of the Great Depression, so after introductions are made Clyde sweeps Bonnie into a life of bank robbers and other crimes, but she comes willingly since she sees it as a means of escape. The movie strikes this weird tone that straddles light hearted love story and violent crime drama as the two try to assume some populist Robin Hood stature in the eyes of sharecroppers and other folks made destitute by the Depression. Both clearly announce their identities at the beginning of each heist and even pose for pictures and send in bad poetry about their exploits to the newspapers. They even accumulate a posse in the form of a like-minded but none too bright gas station attendant C.W. Moss plus Clyde's older brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his harpy of a wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons).

The Barrow Gang, as they are called, achieve the notoriety they're after, and even some amount of respect from the common man. But as the film progresses both the characters and the audience start to see them as doomed. "You best keep running," says Bonnie's mother in their final meeting. It's fascinating to see how this group, which is tied together by circumstances of their own making, evolves and reacts to each other. Bonnie and Blanche hate each other, and everyone becomes frustrated by C.W. Moss for continually screwing up and putting them in danger. In a very existential fashion, they must all deal with their inevitable doom by making use of what time they have, and to their credit Bonnie and Clyde make a go of it. They enjoy a brief flash of happiness, escape, purpose, and love before they're killed violently in a trap of their own slow making. Roll credits.

I also feel that there's probably more going on with the cinematography and direction than I'm capable of appreciating, since the film really looks and feels different than anything else I've seen in this little experiment. But it's something that seems just beyond my ability to recognize and appreciate. Still, it's good enough just as a character drama.

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12Nov/09Off

Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Note: This is #45 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Man, I'm really of multiple minds on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? On the one hand, it can basically be summarized as "Two crazy, spiteful people are horribly mean to each other for 131 minutes; local couple taken along for the ride." But on the other hand, the film makes a dark counter-point to the idealized American dream and the 1950s concept of the perfect American family living out a quiet and happy life. It's also interesting if shocking to see these characters at work on each other.

The story, such as it is, focuses on George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), an aging couple living in a small New England college town. It's evident pretty much immediately that they hate each other. George is an Associate Professor and Martha mostly goes on about how she's the daughter of the University President. The movie opens on the couple at 2:00 a.m. as the couple stumbles home from a party and Martha announces that she's invited a couple of fellow party-goers back to their house for a night cap. The young couple, Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis) arrive and quickly get pulled into the vortex of spite and cruelty inherant to the older couple's relationship. What's more, the venom spreads between the four characters and by the end of the movie everyone hates everyone else and is doing their utmost to hurt each other. Badly.

And man, what performances. While Elizabeth Taylor is the butt of many jokes here in 2009, she gave an incredible performance in this role, only eclipsed by Richard Burton as her husband George. These two in particular REALLY sell their crazy hate for each other and draw you in; you can feel the spite so palpably that it's often uncomfortable and the movie actually takes effort on the viewer's part to watch. What's better (or worse, depending on your perspective) is that this isn't the kind of over the top farcical crazy where you can just write it off as "Oh, that's just a character in a movie exaggerated for effect." No, you get the feeling that this is how two wicked, cruel people who really, really hate each other and who despair for their life's lost potential would act if they didn't know or care that you and I were watching. It's horribly good.

It's also worth mentioning that this is the most vulgar movie I've come across yet in this experiment --indeed it's the only one to date. But true to the spirit of keeping it terribly real, the script is filled with pages of "God dammnits" and "son of a bitches" as well as all manner of crude innuendo. Apparently it was a bit of a controversy at the time, even if it seems relatively tame now.

So, this is a hard one. I'd recommend seeing the movie, but warn you that you're in for something that smacks of a stage play ported to the big screen (which it was). You've got to be in it for talking (and screaming) heads and to experience the characters and the drama, because that's the territory to which it sticks. But the performances are amazing.

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7Nov/09Off

Movie Review: The Sound of Music (1965)

The Sound of Music

Note: This is #44 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Well, THAT was certainly wholesome.

Where to start? Well, Julie Andrews plays Maria, a young woman with a terrible haircut and aspirations to become a nun. But Maria is really bad at being a nun, what with all the skipping vespers in favor of singing and prancing the hills of Austria. As a way of letting her sew her wild oats (or getting rid of her, if you take a more cynical view), the Mother Superior sends Maria into town to serve as a nanny for the seven children of an Austrian naval Captain who has lost his wife and replaced her with a huge stick up his bum.

Initially the children are bratty and try to put the new nanny in her place, but after singing some songs and making them some truely horrendous clothes out of curtains, Maria gets on their good side and begins taking them out to cavort and play. This puts her at odds with their father, as the loss of his wife has left him wiht a dearth of humor and a surfeit of discipline. He also, however, has retained his love for Austria and a disdain for the Nazis, who were trying to shoulder their way into the country on the eve of World War II.

As you could guess from the title if you didn't already know, The Sound of Music is a musical, with lots of tunes and lyrics by the famous composers Rodgers and Hammerstein. Again I was struck by how many of the songs I recognized and kept saying "That's from this?" every few minutes. There are a few pretty iconic numbers in there, like "Do-Re-Mi," "Edelweis," and "Climb Every Mountain" and it was entertaining to see where they had originally come from before seeping into popular culture at large.

It's also noteworthy that I watched this one with my wife and two young daughters (age 5 and 2), and the kids were mostly transfixed by the movie. They loved the songs and the scenes with the von Trapp children, especially if they were singing. The music is good and recognizable, and the movie is not bad if you don't mind something so saccharine. With Nazis.

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28Oct/09Off

Movie Review: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

To Kill a Mockingbird

Note: This is #43 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

To Kill a Mockingbird is based directly on Harper Lee's novel of the same name, so if you've read that book (you have, haven't you?) you should know the plot minus a few minor changes. The film centers on Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), a Southern gentleman working as a lawyer during the Great Depression. Atticus holds strongly to his principles of respect, empathy, and justice and in his orbit are his two children, six-year old daughter Scout and ten year old son Jem, as well as a precocious neighbor boy Dill. When Atticus is assigned to defend a Black man accused of raping a White woman, his principles are put on display as he does his best to defend the man, whom he believes to be innocent but whom many in the town want to lynch without a trial.

Reviewing this movie is kind of hard, since I read and loved the book so much. While the movie stays mostly true to the book, there's a whole lot more substance and subtleties to the latter. The movie chooses to focus more on Atticus and the trial, where the book had Scout Finch as the central character, and gave you an idea of what it was like to grow up in that place and in that time and under the care of that man. The book also had the mystery of the Finches' enigmatic neighbor Boo Radley running through it, which plays a relatively small role in the movie.

Still, this was a great film and even a diminished portion of Harper Lee's work is still a filling one. Gregory Peck did a great job as Atticus Finch, and his courtroom scene where he defends Tom Robinson is second only to the one where he has to inform Tom's wife of the ensuing tragedy. It's good stuff, and you should see it. But read the book first.

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21Oct/09Off

Movie Review: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia

Note: This is #42 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Well. That was also epic. Actually, for film with such a large feel and a 227 minute running time, Lawrence of Arabia is fairly easy to summarize. It follows the life of British Army officer T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) as he rides back and forth over the deserts of Arabia during the early parts of World War I. Lawrence, initially seen as a bumbler and an overeducated fancy pants, is tapped to make an expedition to meet with some local Arabian tribal leaders and convince them to aid Britain in its fight against the Turks. Lawrence does so and as a result undergoes a transformation as a person --for good in some ways and for ill in others. That's pretty much the story.

There's a lot more to appreciate in the details, of course, but while Lawrence of Arabia does tell an interesting personal story about its title character (based on a real person, even), what I kept really appreciating about the film was how it was made. It feels huge, mostly because its makers seemed to go out of their way to get wide, sprawling shots that showed characters set against the forces of nature --particularly deserts. There's one scene where after making a near-suicidal trek across a desert with a band of Arabians Lawrence turns back just miles from water to retrieve a fallen comrade. His servant waits for him, and it's amazing to see a film maker have the guts to pace the scene so that we are staring at a huge, bleak sandscape for minutes on end, seeing Lawrence's returning figure grow from a barely visible speck to a full man (well, two men and a camel). This is the kind of pacing that permeates the whole movie, making growth not just a figurative payoff, but a literal and visual one. I don't think you'd see kind of thing in today's mainstream movies.

It should also be mentioned that Peter O'Toole did a pretty darn good job as Lawrence. He doesn't play the character as a straight-up, larger than life hero, nor does he play him as just a simple man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Instead, the performance balances on the small space in between those two positions, with Lawrence as competent and smart (particularly in how he understands the levers necessary to move the Arab people into action), but also awash in events that are larger than him. Even by the end of the movie, I wasn't ever really sure I had a bead on his character; some things about him were still private and unknown, no matter what we had seen.

So, good movie if you've got about 4 hours to devote to it. Bring something cool to drink.

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14Oct/09Off

Movie Review: West Side Story

West Side Story

Note: This is #41 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

A while back I decided to better myself by not using epithets like "super gay" to describe things. I mention this only because it makes describing my first impression of West Side Story kind of difficult.

This is a movie that starts with New York City tough guys snapping their fingers jauntily and trying to dance in an intimidating fashion. DANCE in an INTIMIDATING FASHION. Things culminate into a major dance fight between the two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks --the latter of which are a gang of recently immigrated Puerto Ricans. I know it's a musical, but the whole effect is so risible that I just about busted a gut. Just watch the trailer below.

From there, the movie dances and sings its way to a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story, complete with the balcony scene and the tragic ending. I had a few issues with the story, such as the drastic way that the two leads, Tony and Maria (Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood) fall head over heels in love. But okay, again this is a musical based on a stage play --Romeo and Juliet, even-- and I can grudgingly accept some shortcuts where character development is replaced by a song and soft lighting. And the songs by and large are pretty good. As has been the case with other musicals I've watched as part of this project, I found myself recognizing many of them even if I didn't know they originated with this movie.

But another complaint I have is with the slingshotting tone of the film. There's the whole dance fighting thing I mentioned before, plus there are light-hearted "Officer Krupke" songs that contrast pretty starkly with more somber themes such as race relations, bigotry, and disillusionment with the American dream. And then there's the whole murder thing and an attempted rape thrown in for good measure. It's like we're watching Archie and Jughead prance around one minute, then seeing them hurling racial slurs and trying to stab each other the next.

Again I guess they're being true to Shakespeare by throwing in some comedy with the tragedy, but it was still hard for me to get a bead on the movie. West Side Story is okay, but there have been movies where I liked the dancing better (Swing Time) and ones where I liked the songs better (Singin' in the Rain).

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7Oct/09Off

Movie Review: Spartacus

Spartacus

Note: This is #40in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Man, watching Ben-Hur and Spartacus in rapid succession is kind of grueling. The two movies require 410 minutes between them to see, and they both deal with ancient Rome and some beefy, lantern-jawed dude who escapes slavery. In the case of Spartacus, the eponymous dude in question is played by Charlton Heston and the story is good enough and compelling enough to keep my attention.

The film opens with Spartacus, a slave in the Roman empire, condemned to die for being too unruly and rebellious. He's "rescued" by another slaver who decides to train him to fight as a gladiator, but Spartacus eventually grimaces his way out of his chains and sparks a slave rebellion that sweeps through Italy towards the southern coast where the slaves hope to purchase passage to freedom.

Like Ben-Hur, this movie feels really epic even though the events only span a few years and focus on a few locations. Heston chews his fair share of scenery, but he certainly does emote "definat slave who won't be pushed around" pretty well. And like with that other movie the designers of the sets and costumes did a fantastic job, as I really got a strong sense of place and time from this movie. And for anyone that just wants to be entertained, there's some great action scenes and adventure elements to the movie as well. Anyone who isn't interested in seeing Spartacus being trained as a gladiator and fighting for his life for the entertainment of pompous Roman nobles just probably doesn't want to be entertained.

So, again Spartacus is really long and not to be entered into if you're not ready for it (it's got an intermission, for crying out loud), but I found it to be one of the most entertaining movies I've come across on this experiment.

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30Sep/09Off

Movie Review: The Apartment (1960)

The Apartment

Note: This is #39 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

The Apartment is one of the few movies where I'm not quite sure why it's on this list. I feel like I'm missing something.

It features Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter, a sad sack corporate drone for a New York insurance company who is never able to enjoy his cozy apartment because he has been bullied into making it available to his employer's corporate executives so that they can invite ladies over for extramarital affairs. So most nights find Baxter standing morosely on the street underneath his own apartment window, seething and waiting until he can go home. He's doing these favors mostly because he hopes that they will fast track him to a big promotion, but you also get the sense that he's just a pushover and really going nowhere. Then comes along Fran Kubelik (Shirly McClain), the cute elevator girl (elevator girl? Oh, right, 1960) with whom Baxter becomes smitten. The only problem is that Miss Kubelik is herself smitten with the one of the other executives, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred McMurray), who starts inviting her back to Baxter's place and stringing her along for a tryst.

Billed as a "romantic comedy" The Apartment seems kind of short on laughs. But the performances are good. Lemmon is good in the role and sells his whole lonely, frustrated bachelor role pretty well. And McClain is also good as Miss Kubelik, playing her not as a ditz but as a young woman who's almost earned the right to call herself world-weary and jaded, but not quite. And there's some neat commentary in there about the life of a wage slave owing everything to a slothful feudal lord. Both Baxter and Kubelik fawn over Mr. Sheldrake in their own way, and each are disappointed and unfulfilled by what they get out of it.

So the film has some nice character work and development, some good performances, and it's cute. My wife watched this one with me, and she enjoyed it as well. It just doesn't seem to me to be quite on the same level as some of the others that I've watched in this experiment.

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23Sep/09Off

Movie Review: Psycho (1960)

Psycho

Note: This is #38 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

For those of you who don't yet know, the plot of Psycho starts with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a secretary who steals $40,000 from her employer so that she can elope with her boyfriend. Now you know! On her way to her new life a storm forces Marion to pull over for the night at a remote motel supposedly run by creepy dude Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his decrepit and homicidal mother. Things start to go badly as Norman tries to cover up his mother's shower related crimes and put the inevitable investigators off the trail. Psycho is the last of the Alfred Hitchcock film on my list, and I found it to be one of the better ones. This despite the fact that I already knew the big twist about Norman Bates that gets revealed at the very end and the fact that I knew all about the iconic and shocking shower stabby stabby scene. It's really Hershey's chocolate syrup going down the drain!

But while the film's intended effects were surely dulled by such familiarity, it didn't detract from the fact that it was a genuinely creepy and suspenseful flick --basically an early example of the slasher genre. Perkins is genuinely creepy as Norman Bates and I appreciate Hitchcock's decision to film in black and white despite the established popularity of color films because the stark lighting adds to the overall effect of many scenes. And I'm not sure what's up with those birds, but there sure were a lot of them hanging around in the background of almost every scene.

So even though I enjoyed some of Hitchock's other movies more than Psycho, this is one of those that I'd recommend to anyone not too squeamish to sit through it if for no other reason that to directly experience something very well done that has permeated popular culture. Sometimes it's best just to see something at its source.

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16Sep/09Off

Movie Review: Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur

Note: This is #37 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Well, that was epic. To boil it down, Ben-Hur tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charton Heston), a contemporary of Jesus Christ who enjoyed the luxuries of the Roman Empire until he chooses to stand against the politics of his long-time Roman friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd). When Messala sees a chance to frame Ben-Hur for an attack on a local political official, he takes it and sentences his one-time friend to a shortened lifetime of slavery on a Roman war galley. Ben-Hur's mother and sister are also imprisoned on the same charge. Obsessed with revenge, Ben-Hur vows to return and punish his enemy, and the balance of the movie sees him wrestling with both his circumstances and his hate. Though Christ only makes a few cameos in the movie, His influence is felt throughout the film, both in the religious reformations He is enacting and through the spiritual awakening that takes place in Ben-Hur simply on the basis of their brief contact.

Charlton Heston's acting may have edged up against hammy more than a few times, but there are none the less several impressive things about Ben-Hur. The effort put into costumes and sets alone was pretty spectacular, easily on par with anything you'd see in modern movies like The Lord of the Rings. A few colloquialisms aside, the movie really looks like it's taking place in its own world and gives you a sense of history. There's also the famous chariot race scene where Ben-Hur and Messala have their final showdown in a contest that made me think, perhaps not coincidentally, of the "Greased Lightning" scene in Grease. Still, it's a pretty fantastic sequence and I can see how audiences at the time were wowed by its scope and action.

So at 3 and a half hours long Ben-Hur isn't something you're likely to just pop in on a whim, but it's really pretty good if you're prepared for an epic set in another time and place.

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10Sep/09Off

Movie Review: North by Northwest (1959)

North by Northwest

Note: This is #36 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

The third the four Alfred Hitchcock movies on the list, I think I like North by Northwest the best (at the time of this writing I've already watched Psycho as well as Vertigo and Rear Window). This is probably because it's got the most straight forward thriller-type plot and some pretty iconic scenes. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is high power executive who accidentally gets involved with some goons, some spies, some microfiche, a MacGuffin, and and Abraham Lincoln's enormous nose. The main drama and intrigue comes from Thornhill's trying to figure out the nature of the mess he's gotten into when some henchmen kidnap him in a case of mistaken identity and repeatedly try to kill him. Thornhill turns out to be more resourceful than anyone might have guessed (himself included), but he has help in the form of a mysterious blond bombshell (Eva Marie Saint) who turns out to be more than she first appeared.

As I said, the plot if pretty engaging and it moves along quickly. It's essentially a spy caper, only with Cary Gran'ts everyman character sitting in for your typical James Bond lead (well, "typical" from the vantage of 2009 if not 1959). It's a fun story, even if it's not as meaty as the other films I've sampled from Hitchcock's library.

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2Sep/09Off

Movie Review: Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo

Note: This is #35 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

More Alfred Hitchcock. This time, in Vertigo, detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stuart) develops a fear of heights after a close call involving a fleeing criminal, a tricky jump, and a lot of gravity. After retiring from the police force, he's hired to trail and old college friend's wife (Kim Novak) because the friend thinks she is possessed by some dead spirit and doing some pretty weird stuff. Ferguson falls for the wife (of course!) and a deeper mystery begins to reveal itself, culminating in some very startled nuns with a lot of clean up to do.

That doesn't sound like a very exciting summary, but really to say more about it would spoil things unnecessarily. Vertigo seems like a pretty good example of Hitchcock's "twist" endings, but oddly enough the audience is deliberately made aware of the twist long before the main character is. I guess it's interesting to see him work it out and be affected by it, but honestly I have to think that it would have been more effective to delay things a bit. I read once that Hitchcock once illustrated the concept of suspense by describing a scene where a family sitting down at the dining table rigged with a deadly bomb underneath. The audience sees the bomb, but the family on screen does not. That's the kind of thing going on in the last quarter or so of Vertigo.

So overall I thought the film was okay, though honestly I didn't find it all that suspenseful nor the plot that compelling and it was pretty long with stretches of slow pacing. What I did enjoy was just seeing Hitchcock's film making style on display. It really does seem radically different from the other classic movies I've seen up to this point --much more dramatic camera angles, musical scores, lighting, and other effects. Plus we're getting into some subject matter that's more risque relative to what I've seen before --a man cavorting with a married woman and getting caught up in cold-blooded murder. It's interesting to see the audience's sensibilities change along with the film makers' --or vice versa.

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26Aug/09Off

Movie Review: The Bridge On the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Note: This is #34 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Of all the wartime movies I've seen so far in this experiment, I think The Bridge On the River Kwai comes in pretty high on the list, if not at the top. It's got some great characters, some psychological heft, some moral quandaries, and explosions. In addition to all that, it's got one of the most tense and riveting climax scenes that I've seen in a long time --I was literally leaning towards my TV with my hands balled up in my lap until it was over.

The story, based on a novel of the same name, follows characters that all start off as prisoners in the same Taiwanese labor camp during World War II, but which soon branch off. The first group is a large group of British soldiers whose leader Obi-Wan Kenobi (played by Alec Guinness and for some reason constantly referred to as "Colonel Nicholson") sees it as their duty to help the camp's Japanese commander build a bridge over the River Kwai. This has the troublesome effect of allowing the Japanese railroad to traverse the bridge and thus aid the enemy's war effort, but Nicholson's warped sense of duty compels him to lead his men in giving their utmost effort anyway.

The story's second group of characters starts with U.S. Navy Commander Shears (played by William Holden), who escapes the labor camp only to be forced into a small commando unit whose mission is to return to the newly constructed bridge and blow it up real good. Accompanying him are Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) from the British Special Forces and a wet behind the ears Canadian Lieutenant.

What I liked about this movie was the tension and relationship that developed between the British Colonel Nicholson and the Japanese camp commander and how Nicholson gets it into his head that it's actually his duty to help the Japanese. There's some great contortion of morals and ideals going on there, and it's interesting to see the viewpoints of all three groups ironically juxtaposed. The movie does a great job of capturing and communicating this kind of dramatic tension that the audience can see clearly even if none of the individual characters can until the final seconds of the film.

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