Wednesday, May 19, 2010

189. Harvey

Harvey (1950)

Director: Henry Koster

Starring: James Stewart
Josephine Hull
Victoria Horne

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 9

"Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this world Elwood, you must be" - she always called me Elwood- "In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant."

Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is one of the most genuine and polite people you will ever meet. If you pass him walking down the street you will be acknowledged with at the very least a smile and tip of the hat. At first everything seems completely normal about Elwood, well that is until you meet his best friend Harvey (Himself), an imaginary six foot rabbit. Elwood's sister Veta (Josephine Hull) and niece Myrtle (Victoria Horne) have grown tired of his antics and decide to take him to a mental institution. When Veta arrives with her brother, the doctor makes a mistake and believes that Veta is the one that is insane and they commit her instead of Elwood. With Elwood on the loose, it's up to the hospital's staff to find him and get him back to the clinic.

Harvey is one of those films that just leaves you feeling genuinely happy. The film was adapted from the stage by it's original writer Mary Chase. It's story is one of tolerance and acceptance. The people surrounding Elwood constantly question his sanity, but it is these people who act like they are insane. Each character is very well developed. The few side stories that are present, are just as interesting as the focus on Elwood. There are of course the laughs as well. Josephine Hull's neurotic sister character is a source of many of them. You would be hard pressed to not find something in this film that you could enjoy.

Elwood P. Dowd serves as one of my all-time favorite role for James Stewart. He plays the role with perfect timing, especially in his scenes where he is miming that Harvey is there with him. There is one particular scene that resonates with me every time I see the film. In a dark alley Elwood tells one of the hospital's doctors how Harvey and he first met. The way he tells the story captures the entire heart and imagination of the film in one brief moment. There are a dozen films of Stewart's that you could say have his greatest performance, Harvey just so happens to be right near the top of my list.

Harvey was my grandfather's all-time favorite film. I remember as a kid him showing it to me, and always being upset that I never got to see the rabbit. Watching the film now, the physical absence of Harvey only adds to the film. Was he really there, or was it all in his mind? Either way, this film holds up just as well today as it did when it first came out. With James Stewart leading the pack, Harvey is a classic comedy with all the heart you could ever ask for in a film.

Just for fun: If you have seen Harvey and happen to be looking for a similar film, check out 2007's Lars and the Real Girl.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

190. Sunrise : A Song of Two Humans

Sunrise : A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Director: F.W. Murnau

Starring: George O'Brien
Janet Gaynor
Margaret Livingston

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 8.5

"For wherever the sun rises and sets, in the city's turmoil or under the open sky on the farm, life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet."

It's the summer time and love, rather lust, is in full bloom. A woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) and a local country-side farmer (George O'Brien) are having an affair. The woman desperately wants the farmer to leave his wife and run away with her. So she proposes that he murder his wife (Janet Gaynor). The farmer and his mistress work out a plan to make the murder look like an accidental drowning. The next day the farmer informs the wife that they are going to go on a date across the river. When the man gets the opportunity to push her overboard, he backs out, and his wife senses that something is wrong. When they arrive on shore the wife attempts to escape into the city, but her husband catches up to her. As the day progresses their love for each other starts to resonate again and their day in the city gets grander and more romantic with every new stop. While they are heading home in the boat, a terrible storm comes upon them and could ruin the two's newly found love.

Sunrise actually caught me by surprise. The silent film genre is not one of my favorites to be honest. I love great dialogue in film, and silent films of course do not have that. However, this film succeeds in my book even with no vocal dialogue. The feature that was most apparent for me was the gorgeous imagery. The best example of this being the scene where the farmer and his wife go to the fair on their day out. It was not your typical fair as it felt like it was nine hundred feet tall and could only exist in your imagination. Also the music by Willy Schmidt-Gentner gives this film a lyrical voice. The score never appears overbearing, but serves as an almost guide for the characters actions and expressions. The cinematography and score come together to bring us a very good technical film, especially by 1927's standards.

I also really enjoyed the story. It's remarkably well structured and never once heads down the avenue's of cliche or predictable. I found myself actually never really trusting the husband, and being very much in the same mindset of his bride. As the farmer earns back his wife's trust, he does so with the viewer as well. Without giving anything away, the film's conclusion is rather poetic as sometimes changing your actions can still bring up original intentions. Just as much as the visuals pull you into the film, so will it's story.

One of the things that is great about this little project of mine is instances like these. If it hadn't been on the list, I probably would have never seen this film on my own. It was nice to enjoy a simple story, that when reflected upon at the end, had quite a great deal to say about love. Overall, I can't really say anything negative about the film. It's beautiful music and visuals make this film an absolute joy. It's easy to see why Sunrise : A Song of Two Humans is regarded as one of the greatest silent films of it's and any era.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

191. King Kong

King Kong (1933)

Director: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack

Starring: Fay Wray
Robert Armstrong
Bruce Cabot

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 8.5

"Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast."

Filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) needs a few things to finish his latest project. One of those things being a leading lady, whom he discovers quite by accident in Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). Denham convinces Darrow to be his next star and they soon find themselves on a boat headed to the film's shooting location, Skull Island. Once on the boat, Anne meets First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) and soon the two become quite smitten with one another. When the film crew finally arrives to the island, they attempt to make peace with the natives, but are chased off. Later that night the island natives sneak onto the crew's ship and kidnap Ann. They intend to deliver her as a sacrifice to Kong (Marlon Brando... kidding), a giant gorilla who inhabits the island. When Kong arrives, he discovers Ann tied to an alter and takes her back into the jungle.

The crew set out to rescue Ann from the island and along the way encounter a lost world filled with dinosaurs. They eventually find Ann and attempt to make their escape, but with Kong close on their tail. They eventually make it back to the boat and capture Kong while he is wrecking the natives' village in search of Ann. They knock Kong out with some gas bombs and bring him back to New York City, where Denham plans on displaying Kong on the Broadway stage. The opening night of the show, things do not go as planned and Kong escapes into New York City and searches for Ann. This all leads up to the classic showdown where Kong must fight off an aeriel assault atop the Empire State Building.

King Kong is the iconic "giant monster movie" that has been referenced in countless films, and has inspired just as many. It's been remade a total of four times, but nothing really compares to the 1933 version. I actually loved the 2005 effort from Peter Jackson, but the characters are so far removed from this original, it's difficult to even compare them. Even though the film is seventy-seven years old this year, it still entertains as much as it did the day it came out. The special effects might be a very dated, but the story remains just as strong. When watching the film, it does feel like you are not only watching a science fiction classic, but a piece of history.

The performances are all solid in this film. There is not really a stand out performance from the actors, as the focus really is set dead on Kong. Although, Fay Wray is endearing as Ann Darrow. For the most part Kong is as ferocious as you would expect. The only criticism I might have is when Kong first sees Ann, his expression mirrors that of a drunk man drooling over a pretty woman. It's really our first view of Kong and it's met with a bit of a chuckle. Otherwise, everything plays exactly out how you feel it should.

Skip to the next paragraph if you are unaware of how the film ends. I have always been a believer that Kong was just very misunderstood. While some movie monsters were hell bent on killing and destruction, Kong did it all for love. From the moment he set eyes on Ann, there was something there for him. So when he escapes from his chains in New York, what is the first thing he does? He goes looking for Ann. Atop the Empire State Building, he fights off the planes not only in protection of himself, but of Ann too. He falls to his death, and the film is summed up in one of it's final lines, "it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast." We've all done stupid things for love, Kong just happened to destroy a city for his love.

This is another one of those films that my grandfather showed me when I was younger. I remember his rants about how Godzilla was a joke compared to Kong. About a week after my viewing, he took my cousin and I to Universal Studios to go on the Kongfrontation ride. We were absolutely terrified, or at least I was. So based on another scaring moment from my childhood, I whole heartily agree. Kong could beat up Godzilla any day of the week. Overall, King Kong is your classic monster movie with a little bit of heart mixed in. You owe it to yourself to take the time to see this cinema classic.

just for fun: the universal studios KONGFRONTATION ride that is now out of operation.

Monday, May 10, 2010

192. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Director: David Fincher

Starring: Brad Pitt
Cate Blanchett
Taraji P. Henson

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 5.5

"It's a funny thing about comin' home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You'll realize what's changed is you."

Instead of being born with the soft skin baby and good health that most of us were, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) was brought into the world resembling a man well into his eighties. His mother died in child birth, leaving his father Thomas Button terrified and confused. Thomas leaves Benjamin on the doorstep of a local nursing home caretaker Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who takes Benjamin in without hesitation. This is the home that Benjamin will grow up in as he ages backwards. Every day his appearance grows younger and his health improves.

Early on in his life, Benjamin meets the love of his life Daisy (played by Elle Fanning and Madisen Beaty as a young girl and Cate Blanchett from her late teenage years on). She is the granddaughter of a resident at the nursing home where he lives. The two spend much of their younger years pining and missing each and every opportunity to be with each other. Through out Benjamin's life he goes on many adventures including getting a job on a tugboat with grizzled Captain named Mike (Jared Harris) and aiding the Allied Forces in World War II. Benjamin's story might seem unusual, but when looked at has something that we can all identify with.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the film on the list that I was most looking forward to watching again. The previous and only other time I had seen the film, I did not care for it in the least. After my second viewing I can honestly say that my feelings have changed, although not by much. I will say that David Fincher's vision for the film is absolutely incredible. The cinematography is very visually appealing. Fincher's usual film noir style lends wonderfully to this film, but that is pretty much where the good things end for this film. It must be said though that the film does look amazing.

The majority of my problem with this film lies in Eric Roth's screenplay. He should sue himself for plagiarism. For myself, this screenplay is far too similar to Roth's previous Academy Award Winning screenplay for Forrest Gump. In my description of the film, I tried to stay away from all similar themes to Gump, and even that was virtually impossible to do. I'll spare my usual rant at all of things the two films share, but it's safe to say that the only thing that they don't have in common is a football scholarship. Roth is indeed a talented screen writer with films like Munich, The Insider, and The Good Shepherd on his resume. Sadly for myself, this film's story and structure was far too similar to Forrest Gump for me to enjoy it at all.

Overall, I look at this film much the way I do with films like James Cameron's Avatar. Intentional or not, the stunning visuals distract from a recycled story. At least in the case of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Roth borrowed from his own work. Even though I particularly did not enjoy the film, I can still appreciate it's high points. Brad Pitt as Button gives a marathon performance, which did deserve it's numerous nominations. Also as previously stated, David Fincher gives us another visual benchmark on his already sterling resume. With a better screenplay, I know I would have absolutely loved this film. I would only recommend seeing this movie if you were say a technical arts student and needed inspiration for a project.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

193. Ed Wood

Ed Wood (1994)

Director: Tim Burton

Starring: Johnny Depp
Martin Landau
Sarah Jessica Parker
Bill Murray

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 8.5

"Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else's dreams."

Edward Wood Jr. (Johnny Depp) is a down on his luck theater director and producer who's aspiration to become a filmmaker is easily his greatest passion. When Wood reads an article about a film based on the life of Christine Jorgensen, the first person known to have gender reassignment surgery, he feels like he would be the perfect director. You see, Wood himself is a transvestite. He is not homosexual, he just likes to wear women's clothes. Through the help of his girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) he sways the head of the studio and lands himself as the director of the film, eventually titled Glen and Glenda. When the film is released, it is panned by both the critics and the studios.

While working on Glen and Glenda, Wood meets childhood idol and Hollywood horror icon Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau). The two instantly strike up a friendship, and Wood offers to put Lugosi in his film after he learns that Lugosi cannot find work. Through his next few projects, Wood gains an eceletic group of friends, which all leads up to the trials and tribulations of the production of his masterwork Plan 9 From Outer Space. The film really only focuses on Wood's life through the 1950's, which stood as the beginning and groundwork for much of the filmmaker's legendary cult status.

When it comes to film, Ed Wood is a prime example of "the right man for the job." When watching the film about director Edward Wood Jr.'s life, there is no doubt that Tim Burton was the obvious choice. Wood's life was littered with the strange and bizarre which lends to Burton's personality and talent perfectly. Burton gives us a view without judgement of the cult director who was constantly judged through out his life by friends, critics, and colleagues. While there may have been better directors working at the time of the film's release, the story and tone of Ed Wood only seems fitting in the hands of Burton.

My favorite part of this film is the relationship between Edward Wood Jr. and Bela Lugosi. It's a different twist on the classic mentor and student relationship, as it's often difficult to tell who is helping who the most. Lugosi's wisdom and advice give just as much as Wood's desire to see Lugosi kick his drug habit so that his star can once again rise. Both Johnny Depp and Martin Landau are excellent in the film. Landau won the Academy Award in 1994 for his performance, which was indeed well deserved. The focus on the friendship between the two was unexpected, but proved to be the film's best feature.

I really enjoyed Ed Wood. Even though the subject is about "the worst filmmaker of all-time", this film is absolutely wonderful. Martin Landau and Johnny Depp are excellent, as they bring life to two extremely interesting men. Tim Burton was an obvious choice to bring this story to the screen. By far one of the greatest works of his career. Overall, I give Ed Wood a very strong recommendation.

194. Letters from Iwo Jima

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Starring: Ken Watanabe
Kazunari Ninomiya
Tsuyoshi Ihara

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 8

"If our children live safely for one more day, it would be worth one more day that we defend this island."

During World War II, the Japanese occupied island of Iwo Jima is the last barrier between the United States military forces and the main island of Japan. Iwo Jima would prove a perfect base for the American forces to attack, which the Japanese are aware of and are ready to prevent. The initial plan of attack plays out like a suicide mission, but when General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is given command of the island, he sets out with a different goal in mind. This angers other leaders under General Kuribayashi's command and also others stationed on the island. This even causes a few of them to leave. As we learn more about the existing conflicts between the ranks, we also get a view into the current and past lives of many of the soldiers. This film is from the Japanese point of view of the war, and is the companion to Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers.

It's rare, not unheard of mind you, that a World War II film released by an American director shows any point of view of the war other than the United States'. Letters from Iwo Jima is exactly that, a look into the lives of the people that saw us as the threat. This film really just gives us a sense that even though the United States was at war with Japan, we were really not much different. Soldiers had to leave their wives and families behind to defend their country, just as we did in the United States. This film also shows that you can make an excellent war film without littering it with propaganda. Letters from Iwo Jima succeeds because it tells a story, rather than just taking a bias and slanted view at war.

Ken Watanabe gives the memorable performance of this film. His calmness set against the background of an unknown fate and an inevitable invasion from a much larger army really stands out. Where everyone around him is in hysterics, Watanabe's General Kuribayashi leads with poise and confidence. In most films, it feels like every leader portrayed is trying to be as Patton-esque as possible. This is the complete opposite of that, and ultimately succeeds by doing so.

In the grand scheme of war films, Letters from Iwo Jima might not rank as one of my favorites, but it is definitely a refreshing view of war. There are the usual intense explosions, but the unbias angle and view of the soldiers fears and worries really set this film apart. More film than propaganda, I enjoyed it far more this time than my initial viewing in theaters during the Oscar season of 2007. As mentioned earlier, this is the companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers and in my opinion, Letters from Iwo Jima is the better film and story of the two.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

195. The Kid

The Kid (1921)

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Starring: Charlie Chaplin
Edna Purviance
Jackie Coogan

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 9

"A picture with a smile... and perhaps a tear."

A young mother (Edna Purviance), knowing that she cannot take care of her new baby, drops him off in a fancy car with the hopes of a better life. The car that she drops the baby off in is soon stolen. Once the thieves find the baby they drop him off in an alley. A Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) is passing through the alley when he finds the baby. Although skeptical at first, he eventually takes the baby home and raises it as his own.

Five years later, the Tramp and the Kid (Jackie Coogan) are living together much like father and son. Although, sometimes it is difficult to tell which one is filling which role. Together the two scam the locals with a window washing repair service to put food on their table. At the same time, the mother of the kid has become a famous theater actress and does charity work in hopes of finding her former child. Soon the paths of the woman, the Tramp, and the Kid cross setting up an almost inevitable reunion.

Writer, director, and star Charlie Chaplin has crafted such a simple story, it's difficult to believe that so much can be taken from it. It's moments of physical comedy are absolutely hilarious. There is no doubt when you are watching the Tramp run away from a fight with a local brute that a true comic genius is at work. The film also has a way of capturing your heart. I am not sure if it is the gentle banter between the Kid and the Tramp, or just it's simple message of love no matter what blood might run through your veins. Either way, this film steals your laughs, just as much as it does the same with your heart.

This was honestly the first time I remember watching a Charlie Chaplin film. I might have seen a few when I was younger, but none actually come to mind. Part of why I took on this project is so that I could experience films I might not normally give a chance to. When I finish the 250, this is one of those films I plan on going back and watching again. I found myself filled with joy throughout the entire film. The "wholesome comedy" is truly a lost genre in today's film scene. I enjoy a dirty joke just as much as the next guy, but it was Bill Cosby who said, "too much swearing for a performer is like dropping your pants, how do you up the ante?" In a film like The Kid there is no need to up the ante. It's equal blend of physical comedy keeps the viewer satisfied and pleased until well after the credits have passed.

Monday, May 3, 2010

196. Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Joseph Cotten
Teresa Wright

IMDb Rating: 8

My Rating: 8

"I have a feeling there's something inside you that nobody knows about... something secret and wonderful. I'll find it out."

Charlotte Newton (Teresa Wright) is growing bored with her mundane life at home. Everything just seems the same. She decides that a visit from her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), whom she is named after, should lift her spirits. Charlotte feels that he is really the only one that understands her. She heads to the post office to mail him a letter, but while is out receives a telegraph saying that her uncle will be coming to visit. This excites Charlotte and she explains this event as an example of the connection that she and her uncle share.

When Charlie arrives he charms the local ladies club, and becomes quite popular around town as well. As we saw before Charlie left town to visit his family, two detectives are following him closely. We find that Charlie may be suspected to be the murderer of a series of East Coast widows, who is commonly referred to as the "Merry Widow Murderer." As Charlie's stay becomes longer, his actions become stranger leading Charlotte to investigate at her local library. What she finds could change her family and her Uncle Charlie's lives forever.

Shadow of a Doubt is a good film, but if you go into the film expecting a classic Hitchcock twist or something to that effect, you might be disappointed. The film doesn't have that shocking conclusion like say Vertigo or Psycho did, but it is a very solid story. Where this film shines is in the character of Uncle Charlie. You can account the character's brilliance to both the writing and the performance of Joseph Cotten. Either way, the manner the character seems to be just going along normally even though he is being accused of murder, lends perfectly to either his innocence or insanity. So Shadow might be a little straight forward, but it is still quite good.

In my mind, Shadow of a Doubt plays out like what it would be like if an accused serial killer was a member of a typical 1950's television sitcom family. When viewed this way, the film takes on a completely different dimension. I am unaware if this was Hitchcock's intention, but it is definitely the way I would go into viewing the film. Overall, the movie keeps you guessing till the end in true fashion of the master director. It is however one of his least suspenseful films. What it lacks in suspense though, it makes up in excellent storytelling. A fun piece of trivia: this was Alfred Hitchcock's favorite film of his own.