Sunday, October 23, 2011

1976 and final thoughts

Of the eight films remaining, Lynne joined me for Taxi Driver(at the Film Forum), Network, The Omen, and Bound for Glory. The rest were solo efforts. Taxi Driver will always be one of my favorites of all time. I’ve seen it on the big screen at least three times. Director Martin Scorsese may be a little uneven at times, but, unlike Coppola, he’s always maintained at least a glimmer(and often more) of his filmmaking genius. He stumbles from time to time, but his best is evident throughout his career. Was The Departed his crowning achievement? Did it really push him over the top into Oscar territory? Well no, but despite it all, I was happy to see him clutching that statue, despite how often I’ve derided its counterfeit charms. And that’s because Scorsese always brings exciting and interesting work. I honestly do think Taxi Driver is a work of genius and brings together the best of Scorsese’s directing, Paul Schrader’s writing, and one of Robert DeNiro’s best performances of all time. Scorsese and Schrader collaborated several times and this and Raging Bull the best of those collaborations. I’m also always impressed with Bernard Herrmann’s scoring. His work is classic, having been featured in some of Hitchcock’s best including Psycho and Vertigo, as well as Citizen Kane, just to name a few. Scorsese appreciated his work so much that he used Herrmann’s score from the original Cape Fear for his 1991 remake. His work in this film doesn’t seem at all dated, especially the main theme that accompanies DeNiro’s late night drives. Admittedly, I appreciate it so much that it may be a blind spot, as Lynne thought it was occasionally overbearing. I must admit that this is often a pet peeve of mine, so my fondness for this film may cause me to go easier on it. But I still love it.

Much of what you see above this paragraph was written in the earlier part of the month. And now it’s October 23. My self-imposed deadline. I may write more in this space on similar themes. But this entry will be the last specifically about the viewing experiences directly related to the list. So I’ll make my specific comments briefer than they might be otherwise. All the President’s Men is definitely one of the highlights of this list. On a list filled with the gamut of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford performances, these are career highlights for both of them. It’s also the best of director Alan J. Pakula’s “trilogy of paranoia.” No disrespect intended to Klute or The Parallax View, but this one’s the best. I mentioned before that The Bad News Bears is part of a trilogy of sorts by director Michael Ritchie. Though a crowd pleaser that spawned several sequels and a remake, this one was surprisingly subversive. It looks at the whole American obsession with winning and the notion that the ends always justify the means mentality and turns it on its ear. I caught the remake a few months ago. It was adequate, but couldn’t match this one. The Omen was a good film. I didn’t love it, but liked it a lot. Also an example of how something made by the studio system without a lot of directorial nuance can still sneak in some interesting ideas. The Front is a film I’d been meaning to see for a long time and didn’t disappoint. Certainly a compelling look at the whole red scare and a rare chance to see Woody Allen directed by someone other than himself. Marathon Man was certainly watchable, but everyone in the film from director John Schlesinger, to screenwriter William Goldman and, of course, Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier, have more notable credits to their names. Notable, to be sure, but months later, I barely remember it.

Network marks one of the finest works of the now deceased director Sidney Lumet on this list or in his career. All the performances are pitch perfect and the dense screenplay by Paddy Chayevsky is unforgettable. When I saw this film, I couldn’t help think of 2010’s The Social Network as Aaron Sorkin writes in a similar style, where characters are fiercely intelligent and the dialogue never seems to slow down. I’ll be watching this one again. I really liked Bound For Glory, director Hal Ashby’s biopic of Woody Guthrie starring David Carradine in the title role. It’s a little hard to get into as it moves at a leisurely pace, but in that way it moves past the artificial way that many biographies fall victim to. Screenplays are expected to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Few people’s lives can really be broken down that way. I don’t know that I liked it as much as some of his other works, but I may reserve judgment until I give it a few repeat viewings.

So there it is. The end of the project. I’m glad I embarked upon it and saw it to fruition. I think I might return to this space when I see other films that relate in some way. There are a number of films on the list I will want to see again. As well as others I will not. I may want to revisit some other Kubricks. As well as other selections from the oeuvre of Altman, Lumet, Scorsese, Godard, Peckinpah, Polanski, and others. Maybe a few remakes and sequels, successful, ill advised and otherwise. But for now, I’m going to catch up on other films that have fallen by the wayside. Also, I still haven’t seen the fourth season of Mad Men. And I keep hearing how good Breaking Bad is. Yeah, without the rigors of the list, I still think I’ll find entertainment options to keep myself busy. Check back here. I may find it in me to share a few thoughts.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

1975(Part 2)

The four remaining films of 1975 are Dog Day Afternoon, Three Days of the Condor, Smile, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I saw them a little out of order. Dog Day Afternoon was in late February at the Film Forum, part of a Pacino in the 70’s series. Three Days of the Condor was on March 11 via Netflix. Both were solo projects. Smile, due to its lack of availability, was actually screened with Lynne, my record holding screening partner with 24 titles, nearly one quarter of the total, in early April. It was actually the final title due to the difficulty of obtaining it. And One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was screened on March 13 with Lynne and Daniel. The first was yet another brilliant Sidney Lumet title and I was delighted to get a chance to see it on the big screen. Lots of great acting. Very believeable presentation of a somewhat unbelieveable scenario. I had seen it before and it only improved on repeat viewing. Condor was probably the best of all the Sydney Pollack directed Robert Redford films on this list. I know I’ve occasionally been hard on them. But this one was truly an unexpected delight. Honestly, its been awhile and I can’t properly articulate what really did it for me, but I look forward to seeing it again. All criticisms of the Pollack Redford pairings aside, I really enjoyed this one. Smile was good. It didn’t stand out. But as a trilogy, all directed by Michael Ritchie, this one, The Candidate, and The Bad News Bears make a fascinating study of competition in America. This one’s about a beauty pageant. Probably the least compelling of the three. But still quite watchable.

I’ve made much of Jack Nicholson’s performances on this list. I stand by them. I know his performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is quite often touted as one of his best. And he’s good in it. But it’s not my favorite. First, I must declare my baggage. I read the Ken Kesey novel upon which this film is based in high school. It may well be my favorite novel. I enjoyed the poetic imagery, the skewed perspective of the unreliable narrator, and the inspirational anti-authoritarian message. I saw a screening of the film a few years after I read the book. I wasn’t impressed. It seemed to lose a great deal of the dream like quality. The interpretation seemed to be very literal. In the intervening years I learned that Kesey was similarly disenchanted. Apparently, he had been involved with the screenplay to a point. Frustrated with the process, he threw up his hands, walked away, and decided to let the chips fall where they may. Still, the premiere was held in his hometown in Oregon. He was invited to attend. According to an interview I saw once, he said, “It’s like saying, ‘We’re raping your daughter in the parking lot. Wanna come watch?’” All that said, I was curious to revisit it. I wanted to believe that it was its own animal. That it could stand on its own. Perhaps as a film, if I could distance myself enough from the source material, I could appreciate it. I tried. But I still found it to be a shadow in comparison. Nicholson has his moments, but I don’t totally buy him as a tough working class guy. He managed it in The Last Detail and, years later in Prizzi’s Honor, but I didn’t see it here. Director Milos Forman was determined to portray a realistic depiction of a mental institution. The supplemental materials on the disc are rife with method acting stories and it sounds like quite a noble experiment. If he had truly divorced himself from the novel and made it his own, it might have been quite remarkable. But there are just enough vestigial traces of the impressionist style of the book that the end result is a bit of a mishmash. I still enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help wondering what a more experimental director like Terry Gilliam or David Lynch might do with it.


So sometime a little less than two months ago I invoked a maxim invented by Lorne Michaels. Which had been repeated by Tina Fey. I tried to make it a motivational something. A week later I posted an entry. And a few days later I realized a significant difference between myself, Lorne Michaels, and Tina Fey. They have people counting on them. If the show doesn’t go up, countless lives are affected. If I don’t post a blog entry, nothing happens. I have a vague sense of noncompletion. A nagging notion that I have to do that sometime. But ultimately, there are no actual real world consequences. So when real world things intervene, this becomes one of the first things to take a back seat. I mean, let’s be honest, this takes a back seat merely when I’m not in the mood. So, when a few days after my last posting, I found out that my rent was going up and I had to move, this blog was the least of my worries. A few days ago, I signed a lease. Which means I’m moving sometime in the next 20 days. So I probably shouldn’t even be doing this now. But I may find it a respite when moving stress becomes too great. So I may finish this soon. Or I may abandon it altogether. But it seems to me that if I can’t wrap it up by the one year anniversary of the beginning, that is, October 23, 2011, I will probably declare it finished. So whatever I can get done in the interim will be it as far as the initial 100 titles are concerned anyway. I may still use this forum to write about something. But that remains unclear. So if there’s anyone out there still paying attention, keep your eyes peeled. You may get closure or you may be frustrated. But something will definitely happen. Or not.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

1975(Part 1)

The first title in 1975 is Shampoo, directed by Hal Ashby, written by Robert Towne and Warren Beatty, and starring Beatty. Though this project has given me great appreciation for Ashby’s somewhat unsung talent, this was probably my least favorite. Harold and Maude is one of my all time favorites. The Last Detail, though to a lesser extent, was also great, and the upcoming Bound For Glory(1976) is also quite memorable. But Shampoo just didn’t really do it for me. I wasn’t surprised to read that, according to some sources, Ashby had less control over this film than his others. His star was falling somewhat and by getting involved in a Beatty project, he gave his career new vitality. But whereas Altman seemed to take delight in battling with Beatty, Ashby seemed to succumb. Ashby was the director, but Beatty pretty much ran the show, at least according to the account in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls. There were a number of good performances and it serves as a good time capsule and…well…honestly I’m having a hard time remembering exactly what I thought of it. This was over four months ago and I mostly recall trying to like it, but eventually growing weary. In approaching this writing, I found myself wanting to write about something else, so tonight I watched Ashby’s debut, 1970’s The Landlord. I wish Clooney had put this one on the list. It stars Beau Bridges as a wealthy young man who buys a tenement building in Park Slope. One of my favorite unintentionally funny lines in the film was, “Park Slope? Isn’t that a colored neighborhood?” If you don’t know why that is funny, ask someone from New York. What starts out looking like a caricature of both rich whites and poor blacks and then looks like it might segue into a heartwarming tale of unity winds up being neither. By taking elements of both genres and twisting it into an honest unflinching portrait of race relations in the 70’s it becomes something truly unique and truthful. Bridges’ character, Elgar, who believes he is enlightened, enters this world with the best of intentions and still ultimately winds up behaving, to some degree, like a plantation owner. But that’s not the extent of his character. What’s remarkable about this film is that the end somehow doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. Everyone hasn’t magically learned to live in peace and harmony. But there does seem to be a slight muted note of guarded optimism. Ashby had worked as Norman Jewison’s editor and got this project as a result of Jewison handing it off to him when he wasn’t able to direct. They apparently clashed over the ending, but congratulations to Jewison for launching this brilliant and too brief directorial career. And if Shampoo isn’t my cup of tea, it can, at the very least, claim credit for giving him the commercial success he needed to move forward.

I know I first saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail, oh, probably some time back in the ‘80’s on VHS. I’ve probably seen it once or twice since, perhaps once on the big screen. Even the first time I saw it, so many bits were iconic that I’d heard them countless times. I greatly envy those who saw it in theaters in 1975 with none of this baggage. And yet, despite all this, despite the recognition of large portions of the film, I think I enjoyed it more than any other time I’d seen it. This film has never stopped playing. Midnight screenings have played on college campuses continuously as well as alternative houses. Though I didn’t partake due to timing issues, its even played in one or more venues locally since I’ve been writing this. A musical version ran for a significant time on Broadway and is likely still touring the country. If anyone runs across this posting and hasn’t seen this film, I’d be doing you a disservice by disseminating any further details. Be it my previously stated rule that comedy suffers by deconstruction or the fact that there’s nothing new to say about this film, I’m going to stop here. If you’ve seen it you know what I mean. If you haven’t, see it and enjoy it.

I’ve devoted a lot of space to singing the praises of Robert Altman, and Nashville is always a title cited as one of his masterpieces. It deserves the reputation. As noted, well, sometime back around six months or so ago, this was a film I first saw before I truly appreciated how much repeated viewings deepened the Altman experience, as part of a large ingestion of Altman films at a screening room at the University of Dayton. I saw it again a few years later on VHS. Altman only achieved perfection with this style a few times, most notably with this film and with Short Cuts. He took a number of stories that likely could have each been their own films and spread them across a canvas, intertwining them. Often characters with a larger story might do a walk on in someone else’s story. The reason Altman’s films often revealed more on repeated viewings is that once one knows what the basic story is, it’s easier to experience the subtle naturalistic interplay between characters. The smaller revealing moments are much more fascinating than the machinations of the plot. In recent years I’ve thought that Alabama congressman Jeff Sessions is merely a riff on Henry Gibson’s character in this film. After seeing this again, I believe I need to restate that. Gibson’s character, the preening, conservative, miniature country version of Liberace, Haven Hamilton, has a great deal more dignity. I could go on and on about this film. It stands on its own and has so many hallmarks of what was best about Altman. It has a remarkable amount of good acting. I’m not a fan of country music, but I found the music compelling, entertaining, and illustrative. And of course, there’s an undercurrent of political satire that is omnipresent and yet somewhat subtle. Thanks for steering me back to this one, George. It won’t be the last time.

Jaws is a film that is often cited as the end of the auteurist movement of this period. It, along with Star Wars, ushered in the era of the summer tent pole film. The exciting and thrilling movie that everyone wants to see and now opens on thousands of screens after being talked about endlessly spurred on by a ubiquitous media blitz. I’ve never seen this film in a theater. The first time was sometime back in the early ‘90’s on a color TV set that could only display in black and white. The next time was maybe five or more years ago on DVD. This time on a 42” plasma was likely the closest I’d ever gotten to the big screen experience. I have to say that I found this film quite enjoyable. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw, Jaws lives up to the hype. The film is, of course, about a shark that surfaces on the beaches of a small New England town. The mayor wants to keep the beaches open. The sheriff(Scheider, who doesn’t like the water), wants to close them. It all ends up in a massive battle between man and shark. But the greatest moments of the film are in the character conflict. Shaw is a grizzled working class sort who thinks he’s better than everyone else, especially Dreyfuss, a spoiled rich kid who also happens to be a brilliant scientist. Scheider just came to this town because he wanted to escape the excitement of the big city and though he wants to do the right thing, probably thought this job would be a cakewalk. No doubt a big part of the concentration on character was because the special effects didn’t always work as they should. But the end result is thrilling. Often the best movie villains are those least seen as they build up in the audience’s expectation. Despite the films and the trends it would inspire, Jaws is an exciting, well crafted, and eminently watchable film.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

1975, 1976, and it’s time to wrap this up already

I’m going to do my best to stay away from self-flagellation here but I still need to be honest. Its been awhile since I finished all the titles on the list. The final 16 titles on the list were viewed from late February through early April. It’s now late July. While it’s true that I have trouble finishing things, there may be something more here. I think when it comes down to it, I just like watching films and discussing films more than I like writing about them into what more often than not feels like a vacuum. That being said, I appreciate the positive feedback I’ve gotten from some of you. That, coupled with the fact that I need to finish this is why I’m going to struggle through. Some of this are all time favorites of mine that I’ve seen multiple times. Some I’m lukewarm about. Some I barely remember. In the spirit of this experiment being what it is and striving to be no more, I will conclude this project by sharing all of the following entries with the circumstances under which they were watched and under the extreme delay I’ve approached to writing about them. I’m not going to try to find something that links these together. I’m not going to handicap the Oscars for the two years in question. I’m just going to finish this in whatever method I can. I recently started and finished Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants. In it, she says that Saturday Night Live executive producer, enigma, and sometime cryptic Buddha figure Lorne Michaels has a saying which I’m going to paraphrase and most likely butcher. “The show(SNL) doesn’t go on because it’s ready. It goes on because it’s 11:30.” I don’t know if any of this is ready. But it’s well past 11:30. Here goes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

1974(Part III)

I first saw Lenny, director Bob Fosse’s biopic of iconic comedian Lenny Bruce, written by Julian Barry(based on his play of the same name) and starring Dustin Hoffman in the title role, oh, probably around 20 years ago on VHS and recall liking it very much, though this was mostly a new experience that Lynne joined me for. I think this one has improved with age as many of the reviews of the time, those I’ve been able to unearth anyway, seem to be rather limited in their praise. I don’t find much not to like here, starting with the beautifully black and white photography, sure direction by Fosse, and a brilliant performance by Hoffman. If there’s one thread that connects Fosse’s work, it seems to be show business. But, as noted in my entry on Cabaret, there’s nothing stagy about his film work. The connective tissue for the film is pseudo documentary style “interviews” with(among others) Bruce’s wife Honey(Valerie Perrine) and mother Sally(Jan Miner) as well as Hoffman recreating Bruce’s routines. As a note on the trivial side, many will recognize Miner as Madge from the Palmolive commercials(“You’re soaking in it!”). By juxtaposing these scenes with the dramatized situations, we see that we’re being led by a number of unreliable narrators. Hoffman does a wonderful job of showing us a very flawed yet charming man, most charming in his stand up, and most flawed in his personal life. He talks his wife into group sex and then treats her like a whore for enjoying it. Fortunately, it shies away from making Honey a martyr either as they’re certainly both willing participants in their descent into drug abuse, a habit Honey embraces more eagerly at times. So despite Lenny’s semi deification due to his groundbreaking controversial material and early death, Fosse doesn’t show us saints and villains(with the exception of the U.S. courts who hounded him mercilessly), but instead he shows us flawed human beings. Though most of the standup bits serve to advance the story or introduce chapters, one in particular stands out. Hoffman apparently got an audiotape of an actual particularly embarrassing incident and performed it verbatim. Fosse chose to portray it in one long wide take, the camera staying static for the vast majority of the scene. Not only does it show remarkable discipline on the part of Hoffman, but by essentially keeping the point of view from the back row of the club, Fosse chose a daring but ultimately mesmerizing approach.

Thanks to Matt B. for loaning me his copy of director Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. I’ve often waxed rhapsodic about Lumet’s talents, but I’ll candidly say that this is not high on my list of his films. That being said, this film is exactly what it sets out to be. It’s a soufflĂ© of an entertainment, as Lumet himself acknowledges. I did enjoy most of the performances and found the film to be entertaining, though I think perhaps the information in the supplementary materials a little more intriguing. Much of Lumet’s work is, for better or worse, very serious, sometimes lacking in humor. He states in one of the interviews that he appreciated the challenge of doing something a little lighter and, in fact, that 1976’s Network( a film to be discussed more thoroughly at a later point) would not have been as humorous as it was if he had not made this film. If that is indeed true, I’m glad this film exists for that reason alone. Murder on the Orient Express presents a large ensemble star studded cast, many of whom barely have more than a scene or two, making this almost a highbrow very special episode of the Love Boat. Of course the emphasis is on highbrow and most of the cast is in top form. For me, the only exception was Albert Finney. I’m generally a big fan, but his work here was so mannered and broad that I found it somewhat distracting. I kept trying to like it and understand it, but he just didn’t do it for me. I must acknowledge that Lumet truly did create a soufflĂ©, especially in the sense that if I try to deconstruct it too much, this light entertainment could easily transform into an endorsement for vigilantism and ritualized murder with all on board serving as willing participants and/or accomplices. So I guess I won’t. Much.

I’m a big fan of Martin Scorsese, so it was a little bit of a surprise to me when I realized that I’m pretty sure I had never seen Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in its entirety. I had seen clips from it, I had seen significant sections of it on television broadcasts, but I’d never seen it all front to back. Thanks to Lynne for joining me for this one. This is the second of three Scorsese films on the list and Ellen Burstyn’s fourth. At the time she was a bigger star and essentially had her pick of directors. Though he had doubts about his abilities to direct a film with at woman at the center of it, Burstyn, basing her opinion partly on advice and partly on what she had seen in Mean Streets, figured that someone who could deliver gritty realism could bring it to whatever project he worked on. Though this power imbalance between director and star reportedly caused tension from time to time, the end result was quite good. Alice starts the film entrenched in housewife drudgery, married to a man who, though not a monster, is certainly lacking in some regard. Early in the film he dies in a car accident and Alice is left on her own with her young son Tommy(Alfred Lutter III). They start on a road trip with a planned destination of Monterey where Alice believes she is going to make a fresh start as a singer, a dream she’s had since childhood. Along the way she makes several detours, first with a regrettable choice of romantic partner(Harvey Keitel) and eventually a good hearted though flawed lug(Kris Kristofferson). Burstyn was apparently determined that Alice not make her next choice based on the man in her life and, due to some improvised dialogue by Kristofferson, managed an ambiguous ending. Alice doesn’t give up her dreams, but she may have found a man who won’t repress them. In the end, she may not have made the radical change she was hoping for, but she may have evolved a little into establishing her own identity. Scorsese achieves a real naturalism here and the scenes between Alice and Tommy are a huge highlight. Often, child actors are just made to look cute and say smartass lines, but Scorsese just let the kid be a kid, apparently often relying on improvisation, most notably in a scene where Tommy repeatedly tells a joke that I still don’t understand. Keitel is in fine form as always, especially in a scene where he frightens Alice into leaving town just to get away from him. Apparently, she was so unprepared to deal with Keitel’s intensity that Burstyn burst into tears following the scene. I wouldn’t necessarily put this in my absolute favorites with regard to Scorsese, but it’s definitely a significant footnote in his development.

I will freely admit that I’m intimidated to write about The Godfather Part II. I first saw it years ago on VHS and then not again until October of 2008 at the Film Forum as part of a double feature. So I can’t say it was exactly a new experience. But I enjoyed revisiting it regardless. Most sequels are unnecessary. They’re essentially remakes hitting all the main points of the original and, though many find them unsatisfying, they frequently make more money than the original due to name recognition. As a result, they’re deemed a success by the Hollywood machine, which is why they continually spew them out. In fact, sequels are so frequently bad, that when they are discussed, there are generally three exceptions that are cited where part twos actually exceed the quality of part one. Those exceptions are Superman II, The Empire Strikes Back and, well, you know. The Godfather Part II moves us forward to the late 1950s. Michael is still in charge, but the family’s moved out of New York to Lake Tahoe. As with the first film, we open with a celebration and with the godfather entertaining requests, but as we shortly thereafter witness an assassination attempt in the Corleone compound, it becomes clear that things are far from calm. This story is juxtaposed with the back story of Vito Corleone, first as a young boy in Italy and then in turn of the century New York, played mostly by Robert DeNiro. One of the interest in the contrast between the two stories is that, in many ways, Vito doesn’t seem to have much of a choice. That is, his choice is to be brutalized and maybe be killed by mob thugs, or to become one, and hopefully be more of a man of honor than those he replaced. As a result, he develops more of a moral compass than his sons do in his wake. Yes, he still engages in unethical behavior, but somehow he really seems to be operating from a core of decency. Michael, on the other hand, seems to always be trying to prove that he’s his late father’s equal, and repeatedly proves that he isn’t. He somehow managed to inherit a ruthlessness to his character, but his steadfast unforgiving nature means that he alienates all around him. In attempting to keep the principles of the family alive, he finds himself alone. There is ample reason to suspect that Michael has deep seated psychological flaws to begin with. After all, he started by deliberately distancing himself from his family by resisting his father’s attempt to protect him from the draft and enlisting. This need to have something to prove persists in his character throughout. But perhaps ultimately, what Vito built, though he tried to build it from a place of honor, was always rotten to the core because it was built on intimidation, murder, and thievery. I’ve read that Coppola wanted to deglamorize the romantic notions that many took away from the first film. Whether or not he intended to, he also seems to have created, in his portrayal of this family in the late 50s and early 60s, a metaphor for the disillusionment and decay of 1970s America. Vito seemed to represent the promise of the founding fathers and Michael is the caretaker as the chickens come home to roost. Vito did what he did for survival while Michael alienates those around him by trying to maintain something that is crumbling because it was never actually built on a solid foundation.

Lightning seems to have struck twice in two places in 1974, first with Coppola’s two films, and then with Mel Brooks one two punch concluding with Young Frankenstein. I saw this years ago on VHS, perhaps not paying proper attention to it. Then, after years of hearing people rave about it as well as seeing clips, I revisited it a few years ago, as noted before, on a double bill with Blazing Saddles at the Film Forum. I’m inclined to think that all Brooks’ films work better when viewed with an audience, as it spoke to me more in that setting than any other I’ve experienced. This one has quite the plethora of gags but, unlike Saddles, it delivers them in a more restrained and disciplined fashion. As a result, when a vaudeville or borscht belt sensibility emerges, the contrast is even funnier. They’re still hilarious, but Brooks seemed determined to truly honor the source material by shooting it in black and white and even utilizing some of the original sets. Not only does Brooks do an admirable job, but Wilder as Frankenstein(who also cowrote the script with Brooks) turns in a fearless and hilarious performance. The disc comes with a number of supplements, including interviews with contemporary comedians, one of whom points out that Frankenstein is a huge prick, engaging in all kinds of horrible behavior, but Wilder still manages to make it funny. And now I find myself tongue tied again while trying to deconstruct comedy so I’ll just end with a list of the standout performers that tied it all together. Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, and Marty Feldman as Igor. And that concludes 1974.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

1974(Part II)

I first encountered Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View maybe 10 years ago at the Film Forum on a double bill with the original The Manchurian Candidate. I don’t recall precisely, but it must have been some sort of paranoia double feature, which would be appropriate as this one is considered by some to be part two of Pakula’s trilogy of paranoia, bookended by Klute and All the President’s Men. Whereas The Manchurian Candidate is a satire of all the McCarthy era Red Scare nonsense, running with the idea that Soviet agents are brainwashing Americans and turning them into assassins, The Parallax View, if not a better film, takes the more frightening premise that such projects are actually undertaken by a homegrown shadow government. I was joined by Matt B. on this viewing who was very curious as he’d never seen it before. Warren Beatty plays Joseph Frady, a rebellious reporter who just happened to witness a political assassination, an event portrayed in the opening moments of the film in a prologue which concludes with an ominous Warren Commission like body concluding that it had been the work of a single troubled man and that there were no others involved, despite rumors to the contrary. And yet, as the action of the film begins to unfold six years later, more and more witnesses seem to be dying under mysterious circumstances. When someone close to him succumbs to such circumstances, Frady, no doubt acting out of equal parts self-preservation and curiosity, decides to investigate. Not only does he find ample evidence to fuel his suspicions, he stumbles across an organization called The Parallax Corporation, a group seemingly in the business of recruiting assassins. Frady manages to infiltrate the group and manages to repeatedly stay two steps ahead of them. Unfortunately, they usually manage to stay five steps ahead of him, and his mission is ultimately doomed. The film ends with another proclamation from the mysterious commission, stating similar findings that we, as the audience know, is patently a smokescreen. In context, this film actually follows similar patterns as Gatsby. Whereas Gatsby takes what we literally know, that the U.S. is run by the people who have always had the money and power and there’s no way to get into the club unless you’re born into it, films like The Parallax View go a step further, indicating that a shadow government, presumably run by similar folk, is actually in charge of everything. They pull the strings that need to be pulled to get their appointed candidates into office, and when someone unappointed or unanointed gets in, they have ways of making things balance out. And what we don’t fully realize until the end of the film is that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. We’ve only viewed the process of how patsies are created. Pakula creates a great tone here. Early on, we get a barroom brawl and a car chase that seem a little hackneyed, but once the film settles into its trajectory, it’s hypnotic. Beatty is at his best here as well, which I don’t mean as a lefthanded compliment. When the great films of this era are mentioned, this one usually gets left out, which is a shame as it’s a hidden gem.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, but I’m pretty sure this was only the second time. Whenever I saw it previously, it was most likely on VHS, certainly never on the big screen, and, as such, seeing it in a way that felt almost like the first time on a 42 inch plasma screen was certainly a treat. The film is shot beautifully, but it’s also a brilliantly acted absorbing film. Much has been made of where this film came in Polanski’s career and whether his personal life had an effect on the darkness of the story. Personally, I think his work was awfully dark before but, for the uninitiated, here are the details of his life that may or may not have scarred him in a way that turned him into a brilliant filmmaker. As a boy, he lived in WWII occupied Poland where his mother was murdered by Nazis. Only a few years before this film, his pregnant wife was murdered in his own house in Los Angeles by the Manson Family. I won’t get into his legal troubles as that all happened after this film. At the very least, he certainly seems capable of telling a story where one can’t depend on those whose job it is to protect us from evil in the world. In many ways, this is a faithful genre piece, set in the ‘40’s and, if you knew nothing about Polanski’s troubles or that the U.S. was going through a period where the authorities seemed less and less deserving of trust, it would stand on its own against all the best Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, etc. hard boiled detective movies. And yet, within this frame, the film always feels vital and alive. At the center of this great film is yet another brilliant Jack Nicholson performance. Nicholson is Jake Gittes, the aforementioned private dick at the center of all stories like this. A plot synopsis would be both too time consuming for me and likely confusing for anyone reading this. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating. Polanski wisely chose to excise the voiceover that was in Robert Towne’s original script. Though it may be a convention of the genre, the removal of it allows for a more intelligent audience, one that can figure things out along with Jake rather than having Jake spell it out for us. Polanski reportedly clashed with Towne over the ending, lobbying for a happy ending. Some accounts blame Polanski’s personal tragedies on the ending, but I’m inclined to believe that his brilliance and truth as a filmmaker very well might have driven him to push for the ending he gave us. The powers that be, represented in John Huston’s richer and more powerful than God character, Noah Cross, emerges at the end of the film victorious, while his daughter Evelyn(Faye Dunaway), who bore his incestuous daughter/ granddaughter dies, leaving her sister/ daughter to likely the same fate. As Jake wanders out of the wreckage, a friend mutters to him the now famous line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” The fatalism matches the genre, Polanski, and post Camelot Vietnam era America.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time with The Longest Yard. It’s very likely one of the best performances Burt Reynolds has ever given. It may even be, as many have said, the best football film ever made. It just wasn’t for me. I’ll admit that I don’t like sports. And maybe I should have someone like my friend Daniel to help me with this one and explain to me why I should like it more. I have actually seen a number of films in the world of sports that I found very watchable and enjoyable. But this one wasn’t one of them. I should also add that it’s a prison movie, and, on the Clooney list spectrum, not as entertaining as Cool Hand Luke and likely more entertaining than Papillon. It is certainly much higher quality than some of the other cheese Reynolds became known for later into the decade and beyond, but the writing and direction overall just seemed mostly adequate. Also, it seemed like the final game consumed something like the last 40 minutes of the film. I could do somersaults and twist myself in knots cherry picking the merits this film has, which it no doubt does. I just don’t feel up to it. I’m fine with this being all I have to say about it.

Matt B. not only joined me for The Taking of Pelham 123, he was kind enough to bring along his own personal copy of it. I had never seen it, but was certainly aware of it, especially as there was a big budget Hollywood remake of it only a few years ago. This is another film with great NYC locations and takes what would seem to be an absurd premise. What if someone hijacked a New York City subway car? The movie moves along at a great pace and, though the humor sometimes borders on cheesy, is a great deal of fun. Walter Matthau plays the transit cop trying to get to the bottom of it all and Robert Shaw is the mastermind behind the heist. The film is filled with great and believable performances but I’m going to focus on these two. I mentioned earlier that Shaw has been a real find for me on this list. He’s a much smarter character here than he was in The Sting and, most likely, more dangerous. He doesn’t have to say much or even really raise his voice for you to know that he is to be taken seriously. This is Matthau’s third of four performances on the list, but his span from the beginning to the end. His performance here is solid and holds the movie together and is really responsible for selling the final moment of the film when he figures everything out. Ultimately, though this certainly shows the seedier side of New York when it was at its seediest, Matthau actually is convincing as a good New York cop who takes his job seriously and makes justice prevail.