Saturday, June 19, 2010

not 250 - Toy Story 3

In previous years, I had probably seen about twenty or thirty movies in the theater by June. Although with my project this year, I've seen maybe ten. Last night was one of the ten that had been on my calender since I heard it was being made. Without getting into the details of what the film is about, let me say that Toy Story 3 is brilliant. It stands as the perfect goodbye to characters we have grown to love and appreciate, almost as much as the actors who provide their voices. With the addition of Toy Story 3, Pixar has assembled one of the greatest trilogies in film history. The final scene of this film completely surpasses any moment of the previous two, and will be sure to leave even the coldest heart in tears. If for some odd reason you have never seen any of the Toy Story films, I suggest you see them first so that you can appreciate the final chapter for the brilliant piece of cinema that it is. I am greatly anticipating Toy Story 3's home entertainment release so that I can have a marathon of all three films. A crowning achievement in animation and film. I could not recommend a film of it's kind higher. 10/10. 10/10. 10/10!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

185. The Exorcist

The Exorcist (1973)

Director: William Friedkin

Starring: Ellen Burstyn
Jason Miller
Linda Blair

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 9

"The power of Christ compels you."

The year was 1997 and I was living on an Air Force Base outside of Great Falls, Montana. At that time in my life, I was very active in my families' church. Although being fifteen, all I really wanted to do was give my parents hell. One evening I walked into the living room and pronounced to my father that I didn't believe in God and would no longer be attending church. He just smiled and said, "Okay." He then left the house for about thirty minutes and returned with a VHS copy of William Friedkin's The Exorcist. He made me watch it that evening. I was terrified to say the very least, but somehow managed to fall asleep. Around two o'clock in the morning, my father sneaked into my room and crawled under my bed. Then he proceeded to make it shake just as poor Linda Blair's did in the film. It is safe to say that I did not sleep a wink the rest of night, and was in church that very next Sunday. So I guess you could say that my belief in God exists today partly because of a demon possessed little girl and a father with a cruel sense of humor.

Movie actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is living in Washington D.C. with her daughter Regan (Linda Blair), while she works on her latest film. Things haven't been going so well for Chris. Her films script isn't to her liking and Regan's father is frustratingly absent. Added to these problems, Regan's behavior starts to change rapidly soon after moving in. At first her problems seem minor like some sort of depression, but it isn't long before she starts becoming violent. Doctors have not been able to explain any of Regan's behaviors including even a few supernatural occurrences. Chris not knowing where to turn talks to Father Karras (Jason Miller) about possibly performing an exorcism. At first he declines such an offer, but once he meets with Regan, he realizes that something must be done.

The Exorcist ranks on many lists as the essential horror classic. When it was first released in 1973, it shocked, terrified, and repulsed audiences. I would have to say for an almost forty year old film, it holds up quite well. The scenes of Regan's possession are just as iconic as they are scary. Much of the film's longevity can be credited to young Linda Blair. At the age of thirteen, she took on a role with subject matter that most actresses twice her age would turn away from even today. Blair's career never really took off, as most child stars seem not to. Although, her performance in The Exorcist will always be remembered for it's shocking content and mature approach to the role.

I have always really enjoyed The Exorcist. It provides a great story and was really the first film to use a child to scare the living daylights out of us. The only thing that I really dislike about this film is the cheap scare tactic they take when they cut the white demon face into random scenes of the picture. I have heard the director's defense in using it, but I still feel like it was out of place in an otherwise excellent picture. Overall, this film really thrives because of how serious it takes it self, which means that the typical "rules of scary movies" don't apply. If you have never seen this film, you owe it to yourself to do so... just don't plan on eating any split pea soup while doing so.

Monday, June 14, 2010

186. Nights of Cabiria

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

Director: Frederico Fellini

Starring: Giulietta Masina
Francois Perier
Amedeo Nazzari

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 8.5

"Guess there's some justice in the world. You suffer, you go through hell. Then happiness comes along for everyone."

During the first few months of this project, one director's work I have come to anticipate every time I see his name is Frederico Fellini. With the exception of 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita, I had seen very few of his films. I am happy to see that this is changing. He has a unique ability to find beauty in tragic situations, often giving the aura of a dream to his art. The next film on the list, Nights of Cabiria, comes from this amazing filmmaker.

Nights of Cabiria tells the story of a prostitute named Cabiria, played by Fellini's wife Giulietta Masina, who's life is consistently full of misfortune. Even though most of her days are troubled, Cabiria remains surprisingly optimistic. At the beginning of the film, we see Cabiria's boyfriend throw her in a river and steal her purse. She is saved from drowning from some local children. Once she comes to, she immediately leaves her heroes behind to search out the man who left her not so high and dry.

When it's obvious that her boyfriend has left for good, Cabiria continues on with her life trying to make the best of it all. Although burnt from her past loves, Cabiria still tries to find some sense of love in all of her interactions. When she finally meets a guy that she thinks could provide her with love, she is cautious, but jumps in whole heartily. Her bold move could come at a cost though, since it is not apparent if this new man is using her as well.

This film stands as the benchmark in Giulietta Masina's acting career. Rarely does an actress give us such an optimistic performance in a world that seems to be crumbling around her. Then again, that is what Masina was amazing at. She takes her audience and makes them fall in love with her instantly. Similar to her heart felt performance in La Strada, it is impossible to not root for her true happiness. Her turn in the film's final minutes leaves your feeling nothing short of inspired and generally happy.

Whether it be Fellini's masterful direction or Masina's endearing performance, there is much to admire with this film. This was the last film that Fellini would direct his wife. Although she continued to act, albeit rarely, well into her seventies. Also it stands as the first Fellini film to inspire a Broadway musical. Although the musical Sweet Charity turned the character into a dancer instead of a prostitute. Overall, this film does an amazing job at connecting with it's hope filled message. It's not difficult to see why a film like this is held in such high regard.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

187. The Best Years of Our Lives

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Director: William Wyler

Starring: Fredrich March
Myrna Loy
Theresa Wright
Dana Andrews
Harold Russell

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 7

"You know. I had a dream. I dreamt I was home. I've had that same dream hundreds of times before. This time, I wanted to find out if it's really true. Am I really home?"

Three men returning from World War II, head home to Boone City (a fictional city that is patterned after Cincinnati, Ohio) to continue their lives where they left off. The first night home, all three men end up meeting at a local bar. It becomes very prevalent that family man Al Stephenson (Fredrich March) has an alcohol problem. His wife Milly (Myrna Loy) takes the caretaker role, where she appears to be patient, yet slightly embarrassed. Al's daughter Peggy (Theresa Wright) is also along for the evening, and she immediately takes a liking to Army Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews). Derry is having trouble adjusting to being home with his rather shallow wife Marie (Virginia Mayo). The third serviceman Homer (Harold Russell) has lost both of his hands in the war. While he has adjusted well to his disability, his family around him is just learning how to deal with it. Added to Homer's stress is the insecurities he feels when around his girlfriend. The rest of the film progresses to show to trials and tribulations of returning to civilian life after war.

The Best Years of Our Lives highest points come from two of it's story lines. Homer's struggle with self confidence due to his disability and the budding romance between married Fred Derry and Peggy Stephenson. These two aspects are really what makes this film watchable. While they are good, they at times seem very dragged out. I am usually a fan of getting the complete story from my films, but it did feel a little too extensive. Otherwise, these two stories, along with it's performances, really anchor this film.

As you could probably guess, I was actually not a huge fan of this film. I don't feel that it has held up well over the years, as some of the films from it's time have. Although, there are issues that you can relate to today's society with alcoholism and the struggle with a new disability. I just found the film to be more of a time piece, than an excellent film. It also drags on much longer than it really should. It feels almost like an episode of Father Knows Best with just a little more edge. It's not the worst film I have watched so far on the list, but it's very far from the best. Overall, I really wouldn't recommend spending your time on this film.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

188. The Hustler

The Hustler (1961)

Director: Robert Rossen

Starring: Paul Newman
George C. Scott
Myron McCormick
Piper Laurie
and Jackie Gleason

IMDb Rating: 8
My Rating: 9

"You can't see it, can you Charlie? I mean, you've never been able to see it. I came after him. And I'm gonna get him. I'm going with him all the way. The pool game is not over until Minnesota Fats says it's over. Is it over Fats?"

"Fast Eddie" Felson (Paul Newman) is one of the best pool players in the country, with one giant ego to match. Along with his partner Charlie Burns (Myron McCormick), the two travel around pool halls and hustle their way into thousands of dollars. No longer content with just hustling for money, Eddie decides to take his talents and match them up against the best of the best. Eddie challenges Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) at Fats' home pool room. The two fall into a marathon forty hour pool match. At one point Eddie is up on Fats by $11,000, but refuses to quit until Fats says that they are done. Many drinks later, Eddie finds himself with only two hundred dollars and horribly drunk. Eddie leaves the pool room defeated and heads back to his motel room, where he leaves half of the two hundred dollars with Charlie.

Eddie meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie) at the bus station and the two soon seem to find a mutual attraction. It isn't too long until Eddie finds himself living with Sarah in her apartment. Charlie attempts to reconcile with Eddie, but is turned away when Eddie realizes that Charlie kept a percentage of the money from the match with Minnesota Fats. Charlie can see that Eddie's only desire is a rematch with Fats, and that he will stop at nothing in his path. Eddie soon forms a dangerous partnership with Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), who offers to help Eddie collect enough money for his rematch with Fats. Soon Eddie realizes that the road back to the rematch with Fats could come with great consequences.

There is much to love with The Hustler, most notably for myself being the first encounter between Minnesota Fats and Fast Eddie. This scene stands as my favorite of the film, and is by far one of my favorite showdowns in the history of film. What you have in this scene is two men not only playing against each other in a game of pool, but two men locked in a virtual stand-off of stamina and mental superiority. It is this scene that sets the film's tone and only builds the anticipation for the inevitable rematch. Most films would kill for a scene like this one, let alone in the first ten minutes.

The performances in The Hustler are all excellent, but Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats is in a class all his own. He may only be in the film for two short scenes, but his larger than life presence instantly grabs your attention and gains your respect. For most, Gleason was seen as the comedic driving force in the television program The Honeymooners. His dark turn in The Hustler added a dimension to the actor that many, myself included, had no idea existed. His movements are perfectly timed, with each word and phrase purposely placed. I've seen this film numerous times, and his performance is always what resonates the most after the credits have rolled.

This film for me is really about growth and maturity. Early in the film, Fast Eddie is an arrogant young man who really only seems to care about his money and being top dog. As the film progresses, we watch Eddie mold and grow from cocky and self indulgent to calmly confident and patient. The film uses tragic events very effectively to really define the qualities of Eddie at the film's finale. His rough road throughout the film leads him to this point, but stands as an amazing example of character progression.

When great sports films are mentioned The Hustler is rarely left out of the conversation. After watching this film again, it's quite obvious to see why. In the sports genre we tend to find favor with the lovable loser or underdog. Paul Newman does an amazing job in delivering us one in "Fast Eddie". With every new new revelation in his life, we find ourselves pulling for him more. It's the classic element to a film of it's kind, but structured much better than most in this film. Overall, The Hustler stands as not only an amazing film about an often overlooked sport, but a story about the events and decisions in life that define us.

Additional Material: Even though Paul Newman won an Oscar for 1986's Martin Scorsese directed The Color of Money, it's often overlooked. The film marks the return of Fast Eddie as he mentors young up and coming pool player Vincent Lauria played by Tom Cruise and is an excellent film in it's own right.