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AFI List: Titanic – 1997 (83)

Movie: Titanic Year: 1997 Genre: Historical Fiction, Drama

I love historical fiction stories. I’ve always been a little bit (ok, big) geek when it comes to history. It was one of my favorite subjects in school and, although I didn’t master it, I always got decent grades in that subject… probably because I have this OCD-esque, savant-ish skill for remembering dates (I tend to freak people out by remembering birthdays of random people). I hate that the sinking of the RMS Titanic was such a disaster and that so many people perished, but it has been a story I’ve been curious about since I was young.

So, for that reason, this movie resonated with me. Not necessarily that it was a great work of art – which it was (more on that later) or that the story was great (eh, there were a few things that didn’t sit well with me, but it wasn’t a bad story)… really, it was the fact that all the details made it seem as though they really were on the ship and that story really *could* have happened.

I credit that to James Cameron. From all I read, he was anal retentive (and, from the sound of it, that description might be a little charitable). However, the years of research, all the money invested, and the amount of time he took on the attention to detail seems to have worked. The film not only won all sorts of accolades, but won 14 Academy Awards, four Golden Globes, both of which this film won “Best Picture”. Overall, it seems to be universal that everyone thought this was a great film.

I do not disagree with the masses.

I have seen this film several times – I saw it in the original release in 1997 in the fall. I was working at a music store at the time and the soundtrack was selling like crazy. People buying it commented on the movie, and one of my friends finally talked me into going to see it. I was really impressed at the time. Years later, I saw it on DVD. Then, most recently, I went to see the 3D IMAX version for the 100th anniversary in preparation for this post (yeah… I know that was 9 months ago, but…) and then I rented it on Amazon because my oldest son was asking a ton of questions about it (including “hey Mom, were you on the Titanic?” …sigh). I have also been to an exhibit at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences with a number of artifacts from the sinking on display – which was a very cool exhibit and I highly recommend it if you get the opportunity to see something like it.

So, my opinion on the work of art: I mentioned before that James Cameron has a bit of a – reputation, let’s say – for having a focused attention to detail. While, for some, that can be annoying (again, being charitable here) to work with, that level of detail produced the kind of film that was worthy of all the awards it received. According to what I’ve found, Cameron started out as a science major in college, but switched over to art. As someone who dabbles in photography (and writing, incidentally), there is cross-over in those disciplines – at least in the arts, there are many uses of science. This film is a great example of that, in my opinion. Being obsessed with shipwrecks, the Titanic specifically, he says he was restless about his curiosity on the topic and approached 20th Century Fox about the idea of making a romantic historical drama based on the sinking of the ship. As part of his pitch, he requested dives of his own to see the wreckage first-hand. The popularity of other dives to the wreckage at the time probably worked in his favor, and he got the deal, including the dives. Promising the executives of a less-expensive and more realistic result probably didn’t hurt his case.

As someone who has to do research for whatever piddly things I write, I have profound appreciation for the amount of time, effort and money he spent on the research of this event. The dives not only gave him perspective (and footage) on the details from the time, but provided the crew with a desire to live up to the experience of the people that actually perished in the wreckage. As a result (and having seen the museum exhibit), I have an even greater appreciation for the details in the film: the dishes, the props, the costumes. Also, it is hard to remember the excitement about this so many years later, but this film was only the second time that the sinking was portrayed as the ship splitting in half and the details of how it sank being central to the opening scenes of the film – an important detail in the telling of the story for me. I also really liked that he placed fictional characters (Cal, Rose, Jack, and Rose’s mother, specifically) in the midst of real passengers on the ship. Kathy Bate’s character “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, the captain of the ship, and the quartet that played to the end being some of the more notable and famous actual characters from the film.

At it’s minimum, it the story is a love story between teenagers, set in the midst of a shipwreck. The teenage love story is one most people my age (certainly not old enough to have been on the Titanic, but I can remember what it was like to be in love as a teenager) can relate to. There is a formula to the love story portion of the film: a girl of privilege falls for a poor boy and, although their love ends tragically, she never forgets her first true love.

Most of the story is told in flashback, though, there are a few points mid-film that bring us back to the present day, and it ends present-day with some controversy about the ending – more on that later. The film starts with a diving crew searching for a valuable diamond that was reported lost at sea during the sinking and was never recovered. They discover a sketch of a woman wearing the diamond. An older woman, Rose, sees a story on the news about the sketch and search for the diamond and contacts the crew to tell them she is a survivor of the shipwreck, she’s the woman in the picture, and she knows the whereabouts of the diamond – that it is hers. They bring her on board to tell her story and get information on the diamond. She starts the story of her arrival to the HMS Titanic – she was going back home to the US after a vacation in Europe with her new fiance (Cal) and her mother. She is from a somewhat (formerly, we find out later) aristocratic family and is set up in a private suite paid for by her (currently) aristocratic fiance, who, we find out later, she really can’t stand.

We then learn the story of Jack, a poor boy from Wisconsin who has traveled throughout Europe as a sketch artist and has won a ticket for himself and an Italian boy on the RMS Titanic. He is returning home and the Italian boy is seeking a better life America. Jack sees Rose and falls for her immediately, but is told she’s pretty much off limits because of her social stature.

The first couple of hours after the ship’s departure, we learn about the ship: the designer of the ship takes Rose, her mother and fiance on a tour of the ship and points out all the features of the ship. Later that evening, Rose ends up arguing with Cal and her mother, and runs to the aft of the ship to jump off and commit suicide. Jack sees her and attempts to lure her back on board, only to catch her as she almost falls into the water, thus saving her life. He almost gets arrested for being a hooligan, but Rose insists she slipped and he saved her. As a gesture, Cal invites Jack to dinner with the aristocrats the next evening. Molly Brown provides a suit and he attends the dinner. He’s charming and polite, and has a good time at dinner. During the dinner, we learn a little more about other passengers on the ship (actual passengers). After the dinner, Jack invites Rose to attend a party on the lower decks. She gets away from Cal for the evening and joins Jack and has a great time.

The next morning, Cal confronts Rose about her attending the party on the lower decks and they have a fight. She tells Jack she can’t associate with him any more. However, throughout the day, she decides she can’t stand being with Cal and dislikes her mother using Rose (and her marriage to Cal) as a way to continue to fund their lifestyle, so she seeks out time with Jack. She invites him to her room to sketch her the way he did the women in France (he showed her some of his sketches in an earlier scene). He sketches the picture that was later recovered from the wreckage – and they get caught shortly after he finished the sketch. The spend a lot of time running through the ship avoiding capture only to end in the car storage, getting into someone’s car and making love.

Shortly after this scene is when the ship hits the iceberg and she starts to take on water. I’ll be honest, I had a hard time with this part because a lot of the mechanisms for saving the ship meant closing off safe escape for a number of people on the lower decks. The other part of this that didn’t sit well with me were the aristocrats that did not heed the warning and continued with their dinners or parties, but when shit got real, half filled life boats and left those on the lower decks on the boats because they separated classes. This was after several people in decks below them had already perished. It really bothered me that people think that way about other human beings, so in that respect, I think the way Cameron wrote and portrayed those scenes were well written.

The scenes on deck, I think, accurately depicted the sort of chaos I imagined would happen in that situation. There was a lot of running and screaming and a lot of people scared and confused. I could accurately sense the urgency and the fear those folks must have felt in that situation, especially the parents that were trying to save their children – and having to be separated from them. The part of the scene when the ship reached the breaking point, however, was amazing to me. From what I’ve seen, the front end of the boat took on the most water and, when it filled to a point, started to pull the ship down front first. I’m not an engineer here, but it seems to me that the weight of the front –  with the buoyancy of the back (as I think it was designed to work) proved to be too much and rather than the ship going down as a whole front first, the front just broke off – but didn’t detach all the way. So, what happened was the front went down – and gravity being what it is – a lot of people were lost off deck then – just went into the water. All of the sudden, the ship cracked in half, and the aft, which had been perpendicular with the water, slams back into the water and floats, thus throwing another large number of people into the water. Given the size of the ship, I can only assume the impact from the water from that height killed those people instantly.

The rear of the ship floats for a while, but eventually gravity takes over and the thread still connecting the front of the ship to the back of it pulls both parts down, taking many more of the rest of the people still on the ship with it. In the film, Rose and Jack were some of these people left at this point. They end up in the freezing water and search for a boat or a piece of wreckage to float on while waiting for help to arrive. Rose and Jack find a board to float on, but only one of them can get on it to float, so, being the gentleman, Jack encourages Rose to float on it and tells her the best thing she can do for him is to live a long life and have lots of babies. They tell each other they love each other. Unfortunately, many of the people who survived the whole sinking ended up dying in the cold water waiting for help to arrive. Jack was one of these people – at first, Rose wants to join him, but, in thinking about his last words, lets him go and finds a whistle to be rescued. After her rescue, you see Rose standing on another ship, wearing Cal’s coat (who also survived) and fishing the diamond out of her pocket.

We are brought back to the present where Rose fills us in on the rest of her life: she never married Cal, but did marry another man that she had a full life with. She never forgot Jack, though, and still thinks of him today. She then throws the diamond into the ocean. The film ends with the aged Rose asleep (or possibly dead – therein lies the controversy – though, I’ve always been of the opinion that she died after telling the story – that she needed to tell the story before she could die) on the wreckage recovery ship.

Overall, I enjoyed this film. I can’t say that 3D and/or IMAX added much to it; for sure it is a neat effect, but I don’t really think in enhanced things much for me.

Next up:  The French Connection (1971).

 
 

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AFI List: Pulp Fiction – 1994 (94)

Movie: Pulp Fiction Year: 1994 Genre: Lordy…

I am an indy film lover. Truthfully, those are usually my favorites. Probably for the same reason Indy Label music tends to be my favorite – they’re indy. They don’t fit the mold. They tear it all down and put it back together again, but in a pretty creative way. Believe it or not, folks, this started out as an Indy film.

Indy-pen-dent.

My earliest memory of this film is actually the soundtrack – remember how I have made commentary regarding the music in a film for almost every film on this list (except maybe Ben Hur)? The fact that I notice the songs – how they played (through a radio, for example) or how they are used for certain scenes? The selection of the songs? This is probably one of the films in my memory and of all I’ve seen so far that the music sort of made the film just *that* much better.

I owned the soundtrack for this film for MONTHS before I actually saw it… probably even a year. I used to run to the soundtrack to this film in college and, if it is possible to wear out a CD, I totally did it. Although I had no idea what was going on when these songs were played, I could not get enough of the soundtrack. I love surf music and this album is covered with it – Miseralou was my favorite and I swear, I had some of my best trail runs with that song. And I love Son of a Preacher Man which I belted out – loudly – in the car rides to and from work because, for some reason, I think I can sing that song. And, I (still) have a (giant) crush on Ricky Nelson so Lonesome Town is a perennial favorite for me and makes me all swoony when I hear it. And, yes, friends, I even love Jungle Boogie for all of it’s discoey goodness. All this awesome music in one place – the movie *had* to be a good one.

My friends, I was not disappointed.

My first viewing of this film was a memorable experience for me because I had never, ever seen a story presented that way and it blew my mind. Even better, I followed it, it made perfect sense to me, and I thought it was pure genius. By the time I got a chance to see it (I’ve always been late for watching movies it seems), I was long out of my film class and a couple of years removed as a Blockbuster employee. A few of my friends had seen it, but weren’t really all that impressed. Still, I had high expectations because the soundtrack was “soooo awe-suuume” (imagine a valley voice with a slight southern twang to it).

I saw it on video (I still had my membership card to Blockbuster and it was on the “wolfline” and within walking distance from my apartment) and I don’t really remember anybody else being there – I remember being totally sucked into the movie – the story – the freak show going on in front of me. I was disturbed by a lot of things (I’ll get to those in a minute) but was absolutely intrigued by how the stories were told and how they intersected.

I got that same sensation again when I saw it this time.

Clearly, Quintin Tarantino spent *a lot* of his youth reading comics – that much is clear. Not just from this film, but others of his I’ve seen – all equally gory, all equally weird. I think the thing that sets this one apart from the others for me is that it was the first to tell three different stories completely out of order and still (kind of) come full circle… with pretty awesome music.

So… first of all, let me say that after I wrote what I did about Last Picture Show being disturbing to me, I watched this film and did not feel disturbed in the same way. There is a lot of violence in this movie – and some explicit drug use which disgusts me and disturbs me. However, I think the uneasiness I got from Last Picture Show was because it was more realistic – I can relate to those characters because I lived in a town similar to that one. I can’t at all relate to any of the characters in Pulp Fiction – I don’t lead a life of crime nor am I involved with crime bosses nor am I a junkie. I don’t even do the Twist. So, the disturbing parts of Pulp Fiction were just that: pulp fiction. Figments of the imagination of a guy who read too many comic books. However… I will say this (and the reason I put “Lordy” as the genre) the film has some funny lines in it and some of those lines were placed kind of inappropriately (like Mia’s overdose scene) – I felt like a bit of a creep laughing at some of them – though the pig personality conversation at the end in the diner resonated with me because I don’t eat pork, either.

There are a few themes that I didn’t pick up on the first time that I noticed this time. The first is the use of the surf music – unfortunately, it is used in some of the more disturbing/violent scenes. I read that it was done that way to simulate (in a way) the way the Morriconne compositions were used for the “spaghetti westerns” of the late 1960s. I didn’t like it, but I got it. The other was the use of the bathroom – or using the bathroom. There were a lot of scenes of people (Vincent in particular) using or talking about using or emerging from bathrooms. It is funny, albeit a little juvenile now that I noticed it.

Another notable thing about this film are the actors in it. The casting was very well done in my opinion. John Travolta was pretty much the butt of a lot of jokes around that time. He had gained weight and the last film I remembered him in before this one was “Look who’s Talking” (fortunately for him, I didn’t remember Look Who’s Talking Two or Look Who’s Talking Now…) He was very far removed from svelte, hip swinging Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever. This was almost like a second chance for him, and it proved to be just that – he went on to make several films ranging from comedies to dramas to action films. Ironically, the last film I remember of John Travolta also contained Bruce Willis (he was the voice of Mikey in Look Who’s Talking). In spite of that film, he was still pretty much in his prime – smack in the middle of the Die Hard franchise, among others (the man was in 4 films released in 1994 alone – he was pretty busy). I read that it was considered a huge risk for him to do this film. Yet… I honestly couldn’t imagine anybody else playing Butch. It was as though the role was written just for him. Uma Thurman had quite a bit of success before this film, but will most likely be remembered only for her part in this film (well, and as that of Bride from Kill Bill, but that’s not on this list), primarily because she’s the face of the film. She’s the movie poster. Samuel L. Jackson is a very convincing as a bad ass turned straight and is pretty adept at scaring the crap out of people. Ving Rhames – this was the first substantial role for him that brought him to other films like the Mission Impossible franchise, as well as a slew of TV series in both recurring and walk-on roles. Even the much smaller parts were all pretty memorable: Christopher Walken – nobody else could have delivered the “watch up my ass” speech in quite the same way. Eric Stoltz as Lance the drug dealer – just looked the part. Rosanna Arquette as his stoner girlfriend. Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny – the start and the finish of the film. Harvey Kitel as the Cleaner. Quinten Tarantino as, pretty much, himself. As far as I’m concerned, just brilliant casting.

The story of Pulp Fiction is actually three individual short stories that were written individually and cobbled together to make a single story where the characters paths crossed. That was pretty cool in and of itself, but the way they cobbled it together – without making it linear and boring, yet still make sense – is what fascinated me.

All of these stories are held together by a collective element I’ll call Marsellus and Mia Wallace – they are in almost every scene and inserted in every story. Marsellus is a crime boss – or a Godfather, if you will. Mia is his wife, a coke addicted former actress.

Story 1: Vincent and Jules – they are the muscle of Marsellus’s crew and are responsible for “taking care of it” when people don’t pay or otherwise double-cross Marsellus. Their story starts when they are collecting a briefcase that some kids who got in over their heads had obtained. Jules customarily recites a passage from Ezekial in the bible because he thought “it was some cool shit to say”. After bumping off two of the boys, one comes out of the bathroom – gun blazing – and misses both Vincent and Jules. Jules takes it as a sign and decides to quit the business. Jules and Vincent take the 4th boy – their informant – to meet Marsellus and return the brief case when Vincent’s gun accidentally fires and he kills the boy in the car. They go to a friend’s house (played by Tarantino) to call Marsellus to get help cleaning out the car. Marsellus calls in his “cleaner” (Harvey Kitel) to help Vincent and Jules clean the car. They get the car cleaned, go have breakfast (get robbed – more on that in a minute), and then meet Marsellus in an empty bar to return the brief case where they meet Butch (more on that in a minute). Later that night, Vincent – doing Marsellus a favor – agrees to take out his wife, Mia. On his way to get Mia, he pays a visit to his heroine dealer Lance (Eric Stoltz) and buys some from him. He then goes to get Mia – the two go to dinner at a 50s themed place called Jack Rabbit Slims. They talk (my favorite line is when she addresses a rumor that a man was thrown out of a building for giving her a foot massage and says “when you scamps all get together you’re worse than a sewing circle) and win a twist contest. He takes Mia home and, while in the bathroom, Mia finds his heroine, mistaking it for cocaine, and snorts it. He finds her, takes her to Lance’s house to get an adrenaline shot, which he administers. She survives, and he takes her home and says goodnight. The next day, we see him at Butch’s fight, and then one more time in Butch’s apartment where he is shot… coming out of the bathroom.

Story 2: Butch – this story starts when he is a boy and is visited by a soldier (Christopher Walken) who was in POW camp with Butch’s dad in Vietnam and is bringing to Butch (at his deceased father’s request) a gold watch that was passed down from his great grandfather (and incidentally, was “up the ass” of both Butch’s dad and Walken). Flash forward to an adult Butch, now a boxer, making a deal with Marsellus (when he first meets Vincent in an empty bar) to throw his next fight. He agrees to throw the fight, but the next night, not only wins the fight but kills the guy he was fighting. He and his French girlfriend Fabienne are now on the run. He meets her in a hotel, showers (and I can’t believe I never noticed before, but there is Bruce Willis frontal nudity!) and the spend the night. The next morning, he looks for his watch only to realize Fabienne had not packed “the one thing I asked for” and he goes back to his apartment to get it. While in his apartment, he discovers a machine gun on the counter and that someone is (surprise, surprise) in the bathroom. It is Vincent, and when he opens the door, Butch kills him with his own gun. Butch takes off back toward the hotel, but at a stop light encounters a now very angry Marsellus crossing the road. Marsellus sees him and Butch tries to run over him, but ends up hit by another car. When both men come to, the start chasing each other until they end up fighting in a pawn shop. The pawn shop owner kidnaps them and calls “Zed” over to, we eventually discover, sodomize them. They take Marsellus first, and while he’s in the other room, Butch frees himself, almost escapes but then decides to save Marsellus so he selects from an array of weapons in the pawn shop, ending on a sword and killing the pawn shop owner. He manages to keep Zed at bay long enough for Marsellus to shoot Zed in the groin and deliver his famous “I’m going to go Medieval on your ass” line. Marsellus tells Butch they are even as long as Butch gets out of town and never comes back to LA. Butch agrees, steals Zed’s chopper and picks up Fabienne so they can leave.

Story 3: Pumpkin and Honey Bunny – the film actually starts and ends with these guys and their part of the story is actually pretty small in comparison. They are small-time hold-up artists – they usually go for banks or convenience stores, but are tired of hitting up smaller places for small returns. They’d like to just have one good one that will last a while. The start of the movie is them beginning the hold up; the end is the rest of the robbery scene that, if this film was done in a chronological order, would be after the clean up, but before the empty bar visit with Marsellus. So, just a couple of hours after Jules’s decision to quit the business. Jules, fresh off the miracle epiphany from the shoot out just a few hours before, decides to try to talk sense into Pumpkin (who he calls Ringo – Tim Roth) and explain – one criminal to another – why he’s giving up and what the Ezekiel passage now means to him – that maybe, he’s trying to be the shepherd to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny and help them see the light. He gives Pumpkin all the money in his wallet – about $1500 – takes his wallet and the brief case and he and Vincent leave.

I’m happy to announce that, although I’ve seen it a few years ago, this film still does not disappoint.

Next up:  Titanic #83 – I had to see it in the theater in IMAX 3D… post coming soon…

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2012 in AFI 100 Years List

 

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AFI List: The Last Picture Show – 1971 (95)

Movie: The Last Picture Show Year: 1971 Genre: Drama

Like Do the Right Thing, I had to bake my thoughts on this film… I’m not sure how I feel about the story. It isn’t the same apathy I had for Blade Runner, but I am not excited about it as I had been with the rest of the films I’ve seen so far. While vastly different, I couldn’t help but make contrasts and parallels between these two films because the Library of Congress held both in high enough regard to preserve them due to “aesthetic, historical or cultural significance”, a theme I thought about throughout watching this film – and likely one I’ll bring up while writing about it.

Truthfully, I’ve always been curious about this film, since my days as a Blockbuster employee in college. I’d walk past the cover, pick it up occasionally and read the synopsis and then put it back in favor of something funnier (I tend to enjoy comedies – laughing, to me, feels better).  I was curious, and I had free rentals so I could take anything other than a new release out for 3 days at a time. There were people I recognized, most notably Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd – who at the time were both leading promising careers in film and TV.

Yet, I always put it back.

So, when I saw it was on this list, I once again became intrigued. More time has passed and the film is now recognized for being aesthetically, historically or culturally significant, so there must be something to it. As I did my research, I became more and more curious about it and actually looked forward to seeing it. Randy Quaid, who I have loved in some of his sillier movies, was in it. Cloris Leachman, who I loved from Mary Tyler Moore and Malcolm in the Middle was in it. Eileen Brennan from Private Benjamin. Ellen Burstyn. I was surprised at how many names I recognized and was curious about the story. I couldn’t find this film through a streaming vendor, so, ironically, Blockbuster came to my rescue – I can’t believe I’m still in the system there, since it has been so long.

I’m not sure which of the three qualities – aesthetics, cultural or historical significance – the Library of Congress had in mind when they selected this film to be preserved, but if I were on the board, I would have voted for aesthetics. The film was shot in black and white, which was uncommon at the time. Bogdanovich used a lot of high contrast and lighting techniques to place emphasis, which I liked quite a bit (being a fan of high contrast black and white photography). The fact that it was in black and white made it all the much easier for me to place these characters in 1951 and 1952, when the story was taking place. The editing was a bit choppy, but it seemed to be intentional, as it was for some films from that era. I thought that, if anything, it gave the story a bit more credibility, especially as it relates to the film’s title. Another notable thing for me was the use of music in the film – all through radios (much like Do the Right Thing, incidentally) – that mostly played Hank Williams (Bogdanovich’s voice was the DJ in the film). And, I discovered that a song I always thought was a Norah Jones song was actually a cover of his song Cold Cold Heart – which was played a lot in this film (I’m not a big fan of country so my knowledge of that genre is pretty thin, apparently).

It is set in a small town, and having also grown up in a pretty small town, I could relate to the interactions of the characters – everybody knew everyone (and all their business) and news always spread quickly. I think about the LTE commercials where people, noses in their phones say things like “… did you hear…” and the response is “…that was so 17 seconds ago…” – this film had that same element only without the LTE network or our snazzy smart phones. That’s how small towns work.

The story is commonly referred to as a “coming of age” film. I usually have apprehension about films described this way because, in a lot of cases, that label is a pretty subtle way of describing “kids becoming sexually active”. Don’t misunderstand: there is plenty of that element in this story, some of which was kind of graphic (I was surprised by that, but that could be attributed to the realism of the way it was shot – it really seemed like a film from the 1950s rather than from the 1970s). To me, though, the story was more about how Sonny (who to me was the main character) transitioned from being a happy-go-lucky kid to being a man in the span of a year and through events to which sex was ancillary. It should be described, instead, as “turning point to maturity” as I saw it at least.

The story centers around three high school seniors (and soon graduates) from the fall of 1951 through to the fall of 1952 in a tiny, economically depressed Texas town. In the town is a man named Sam (the lion) who owns a pool hall, a movie theater and a diner. He runs the pool hall, he has an older woman running the movie theater and a woman named Genevieve (Brennan) running the diner. The boys – Sonny (Bottoms) and Duane (Bridges) – are poor, but happy. They are on the football and basket ball teams, and spend a lot of their time hanging out at Sam’s pool hall with another boy – Joe Bob, a mute that may also be mentally retarded. They also get almost all their meals from Genevieve (who is a fill-in mother for the boys) and watch movies regularly at the movie theater.

Jacy (Shepherd) is the daughter of a man that owns an oil field and Ellen Burnstyn (which surprised me… I didn’t think she was old enough to play Shepherd’s mother). Jacy is popular and pretty and one of the richest kids in the town and is the girlfriend of Duane, who she adores. Her mother, however, thinks she could do better than Duane and encourages her to see (and sleep with) other boys. At first, Jacy is repulsed at the suggestion and defends her relationship with Duane, but begins to think about her mother’s suggestions and, at a town Christmas party, accepts the invitation to another rich boy’s (naked) pool party by a friend of his (kind of a sleezy character played by Quaid) who wants to date Jacy.

At the start of the film, Sonny is dating a girl who, to be blunt, is bitchy to him. He breaks up with her. A short time later, he is asked by his football/basketball coach to take his wife Ruth (Leachman) to an appointment. Sonny picks her up and drives her to the appointment (which is a regular appointment) and brings her home. She seems to be instantly attracted to him and you can tell from the conversation she seems to feel ignored and is happy to have someone talk to her. She asks him to take her to the appointment in the future weeks and he agrees. During the same town Christmas party, they start a physical affair.

As 1952 unfolds, we discover that Jacy has developed a crush on the rich boy in town (not Quaid, but the host of the naked pool party) who tells her that he would date her if she wasn’t a virgin. She sets out to loose her virginity, considering her mother’s advice. It is around this time we discover that her mother is having an affair with one of the men that work for her husband named Abilene. Jacy first tries to loose her virginity to Duane. He comes to visit her in a motel, excited about reconciliation with her, but is unable to perform. She gets angry with him and he leaves. A short time later, Abilene comes to their house to report to her father, but her parents are not home. He convinces Jacy to go with him to the pool hall and she looses her virginity on one of the pool tables. He then takes her back home, and is rather mean to her – almost pushing her out of the car. She comes back inside, in tears, and her mother – knowing what happened, consoles her and continues to give her advice about marriage, relationships and sex with men, admitting that love is not always the same as marriage and that she has loved a man other than Jacy’s father.

It is also around this time Sam takes Sonny (and Joe Bob) on a fishing trip. Sam has always been somewhat of a father figure to Sonny (who seems to be orphaned – there are no parents for him in this film), for Joe Bob (his father is a preacher, but seems not to interact with him much) and for Duane (who does have a mother, but he doesn’t seem to live with her as she is very poor and possibly an alcoholic). Sonny sees this trip as a special event in his life (sort of a reconciliation after an unfortunate incident where some boys ‘helped’ Joe Bob loose his virginity with a town prostitute) and the two talked about women and life, Sam shows Sonny how to roll his own cigarettes and explains how he got the nickname “Sam the Lion” (from a former girlfriend of his that he loved deeply).

Sonny tells Duane about the fishing trip – and plans Sam discussed about fishing farther away one day – and upon discussing it, both boys agreed that getting out of town sounded like a good idea and decide to go to Mexico for a few days. They gather their money and tell Sam they are going out of town. Sam gives them advice and some money and tells them to be safe. A couple of days later, they return to discover Sam the Lion died suddenly. The boys are devastated. The diner is bequeathed to Genevieve, the movie theater to the woman that runs it and the pool hall to Sonny. Some money is left to Joe Bob. The entire town attends the funeral and mourns the loss of Sam, but the funeral seems especially difficult on Jacy’s mother who, overcome with grief, has to leave it early.

Eventually, the town settles into the new normal without Sam and the kids graduate. Duane tries again to get Jacy back but she refuses so he takes a job out of town. Jacy starts to show interest in Sonny (after another unfortunate incident with Joe Bob who kidnapped a young girl) and they begin dating (he admits to having a crush on her). He stops seeing Ruth (without telling her or explanation, breaking her heart) and continues on with Jacy until Duane comes back to town to confront Sonny (who maintained that they had not slept together but were seeing each other). The discussion escalates to a fight and Duane punches Sonny with a beer bottle, puncturing his eye and Sonny has to be hospitalized and wear an eye patch. Ruth makes one last attempt to see Sonny in the hospital and he refuses to see her (notably, Jacy never came to visit). After he gets out of the hospital, Jacy comes to see him at the pool hall and convinces him to get married. They take off to elope, and are pulled over in Oklahoma because Jacy had left a note (and hoped/expected to get caught). Jacy rides home with her father and Sonny rides home with her mother. During the trip home, Sonny discovers that Jacy’s mother was Sam’s girlfriend that gave him the nickname Sam the Lion.

A few months pass, Sonny is running the pool hall, Joe Bob is sweeping the streets, and Jacy is off to college. Duane comes home to visit before he is shipped off to the Army. Sonny comes to visit him, the boys reconcile about the fight and Sonny invites him (for old times sake) to go to the last showing of the town’s movie theater before it closes (the old woman just couldn’t keep it open). The boys – and Joe Bob – watch the movie (only three in the theater) and leave. Sonny and Duane hang out for the evening and Sonny drives Duane to the bus to see him off. He goes back to his pool hall to witness an accident where Joe Bob – while sweeping the street – is struck by a car and killed. The movie ends in a very sad scene where Sonny goes back to Ruth for comfort after Joe Bob’s death. At first she apologizes to him for not seeing him for a while and then gets understandably angry, throwing things and yelling at him. He sits, stoic, and takes it all. She sits down and demands him to look at her – she puts her hand out and he holds it – they cry and she pats his hand and tells him all is going to be OK.

Even reading this now, I can’t really put my finger on what bugs me about this story. It isn’t so much that it is depressing (which it is) or that there is no resolution to anything (which there isn’t, but I can use my imagination for that part… and there is a sequel which I’m debating seeing now). I guess it is the blatant wickedness of people toward each other. I still can’t fully understand why Jacy convinced Sonny to marry her if she just wanted to get caught. It is horribly mean, in my opinion. I can’t fully understand why her mother convinced her to sleep around when she admitted later it has brought her nothing but heartache and trouble and that she’s very unhappy – who would want that for their own child? I can’t fully understand why Sonny just abandoned Ruth the way he did – wouldn’t he want to be told a relationship was over? I know the realities of these things – and have experienced all of them first hand.

Maybe that’s the reason it did not sit well with me.

Next up: Pulp Fiction #94 – This one was a favorite of mine in 1994 when it first came out and I never tire of seeing it… if it is possible to wear out MP3s, I still regularly wear out this soundtrack… I’m really looking forward to seeing this one! OR Titanic #83 – I’ll try to go in order, but there may be situations where I’ll deviate a little and I think this might be a good reason… I’ve only seen this one in a theater and it is in the theaters now for re-release and it would be kind of cool to watch it that way again. I just have not decided yet!

Happy Easter!

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2012 in AFI 100 Years List

 

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AFI List: Do the Right Thing – 1989 (96)

Movie: Do the Right Thing Year: 1989 Genre: Drama

Starring: Danny Aiello, Spike Lee, Ossie Davis, John Tuturo, Rosie Perez,

I saw this film about 4 days ago. I have this on-going joke with friends of mine that I “bake” my thoughts – in other words, I’m a pretty pensive person, really, especially when I want to comment on something that could be a sensitive topic. So, I sit here at the computer, trying desperately to organize my thoughts about this and I decide to just bake my thoughts… this is the reason *this* write up also took a while.

I remember this film from my college film class and I must say, I had placed the memory of it deep into the folds in the back of my brain and forgot all about it until I saw it on the list and said “oh yeah… I liked that movie!” as we were reading the titles at work. A few days in advance of watching it, I couldn’t even remember the plot line, I’m embarrassed to say. The only thing I remember is that I really liked the movie and it seemed to move me.

I remember now why I liked it… and yes, it moved me again. Probably more this time.

I think I took a lot more away from this film this time than I did before – partially because of my difference in perspective: I’m almost 20 years older than when I saw it the first time; I’m a mother now; I’m divorced; I tend to be a little more patient and empathetic than I used to be. I tend to be a little more grounded now. I was idealistic and probably pretty naive back then, which I believe shaped my impression of the story itself. As I watched the film, though, I began to remember some of the impressions I had about it the first time – I remember liking (and being impressed with) how he was able to weave that many characters into a story. I liked how the characters addressed each other (back then, that was the first time I had seen it). I remember liking the dialog. I remember thinking that Mookie’s act at the end of the film was more of protection than anger because, at the time, the idealistic me didn’t accept the true anger people sometimes feel.

Now, however, having the perspective of a few years behind me, I see things a bit differently. I know that anger now, and I understand it better. Maybe that’s why I saw two major plot themes in this story: social/racial and generational. This film is renowned and recognized for the social impact, but the generational part of the theme I didn’t catch the first time I saw it – and isn’t really discussed in the research I’ve done. And, frankly, I don’t remember that part of the film from the last time I saw it…maybe because, most of the characters in the film were all older than me. But, now that I’m getting older and I’m evaluating my own life and what I’ve done with this wonderful opportunity I’ve been given, I think I noticed the generational aspect of the film and that it helped me relate more to all of the characters. I am simply blown away at the sheer talent of Spike Lee for this film – he wrote the whole thing in about 2 weeks, he directed it and even starred in it as a pretty pivotal character in the story.

From a technical stand point, there were two things I really loved about how he shot and produced this film:

  1. the use of music throughout the film – in addition to being a running geek, I’m also a music geek – well, music lover really – I have only scratched the surface of what there is to know about music and I seem to have a pretty ravenous appetite for learning about it. I appreciate music done well of almost any kind, so I tend to be sensitive to how it is used in films because, in my life, the music that I tend to go to as my favorites help ingrain memories for me – a soundtrack to my own life, if you will. Music, to me, was integral to this film. The most obvious is the heavy use of “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, which opens the film, is blasted from the boombox of one of the characters in the film, and is played in key parts of the film when the story reaches it’s climax. There was also the DJ, played by Samuel L. Jackson that narrates and plays a “soundtrack” to the day – starting with his emphatic “Wake Up! Wake Up! Wake UP!!” at the beginning, his begging folks to chill out and some of the commentary throughout the day… like having a narrator without actually being obvious about it. Finally, there is a score that is played (it was mixed a little too loud for my taste) but is key to a conversation Sal has with one of his sons.
  2. How he uses the camera – There were many ways that I took notice of the way he used the camera. All the shots were pretty tight – not a lot of background noise. He used a lot of bright, vibrant colors (and film to capture them) to illustrate different feelings and attitudes. I also loved the way he used light in his shots. Ok, so yeah, I’m a bit of a camera geek, too.

This film is set in Brooklyn, NY in the summer and is supposed to be one of the hottest days of the year. There are a lot of characters in this film… It opens with the neighborhood waking up to the DJ (Samuel L. Jackson) telling everyone to wake up – one-by-one, you are introduced to Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), the older woman who sits at her window and watches over the neighborhood; “the mayor” (Ossie Davis) the older man who is the neighborhood alcoholic; Radio Raheem who blasts “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy; Smiley, the mentally impaired man who tries to sell photos of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr; the four teens (one of which is a very young Martin Lawrence); the three gentlemen sitting on the corner evaluating the goings on in the neighborhood, Buggin Out, Mookie and his sister Jade; the Puerto Ricans, including Tina and her son Hector who live with her mother, the Koren convenience store owner, and finally Sal and his sons Vito and Pino, who own the local pizza shop. There are more characters, but these are the main ones that are most integral to the story.

Sal’s pizza shop has been in the neighborhood for years and his sons work with him in the shop. Mookie is their delivery guy. Mookie has a good relationship with Vito, the younger son, and with Sal, but his relationship with Pino is strained because, quite frankly, Pino is an asshole. He does not want to be in this neighborhood and makes that clear from the opening shot of the film and throughout constantly reminds us that he’s profoundly unhappy working in a “black neighborhood” and wants to work closer to their own neighborhood. The first interactions of Pino and Mookie set the tone for the remainder of the story as each character develops.

As the day unfolds, and gets hotter, you see many interactions with the characters: the teenagers open the fire hydrant to cool off the younger kids, but get an Italian guy’s car wet which starts a fight; Radio Raheem has a “blast out” with the Puerto Ricans, who eventually concede; we discover that Tina’s son Hector is Mookie’s son and that they are lovers in a quarrel over him not spending enough time with her; we hear Pino throwing racial slurs throughout to Mookie and all of the people coming in to the Pizzeria, and Mookie trying to talk sense into him (“who’s your favorite basketball player?” – “Jordan… but he’s different” says Pino).

Throughout the day, though, the story lines incorporated interactions between generations…

  • We have the septuagenarians The Mayor and Mother Sister (Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee) who have been through rough periods in their lives – rougher than what the kids are experiencing today – and tend to be voices of reason throughout the film. Both of them, but The Mayor in particular, act as protectors and parental figures in the neighborhood.
  • Next, we have the three on the corner as well as Sal – they appear to be in their 50s – still vivacious, reminiscent of “the good old days” and less patient with their children’s generation.
  • Then, we have Jade (Mookie’s sister), Mookie, Radio Raheem, Smiley, Buggin Out, Pino, Vito, and Tina – all in their late 20s or early 30s and a little high strung; all still a little angry.
  • finally the gang of teenagers (Martin Lawerence’s crowd) who are young, naive, think they know more than they actually do.

Then we get to the turning point when Buggin Out becomes annoyed that there are “no brothers on the wall” of Sal’s Pizzeria. Sal tells Buggin Out that he’s Italian and it is his place and he’s “putting American Italians on my wall”. The argument escalates to the point where Sal tells Buggin Out  to leave. Buggin Out decides to boycott Sal’s and goes throughout the neighborhood to recruit boycotters. Everyone declines: the teens because they love it (and have had it their entire lives – “I was raised on Sal’s pizza!” exclaims the girl), the Mayor because he wants peace and cooler heads to prevail.

Eventually, though, Buggin Out does find some boycotters in kind with Radio Raheem and Smiley. As the Pizzeria is closing, the teenagers ask for one more slice for the night so Sal lets them in. Behind, them, however, is Radio Raheem, Smiley and Buggin Out. Sal orders them to leave and tells Raheem to turn the music down. Raheem refuses, so Sal smashes his radio with a baseball bat. The two begin fighting and the fight spills into the street, Radio Raheem almost killing Sal. The police arrive to break up the fight, but end up choking Raheem to death. The crowd is stunned at the sight of their friend being killed in front of them – Mookie grabs a garbage can and throws it through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria. The crowd erupts into a riot – destroying the Pizzeria, finally, with Smiley setting it on fire. The fire crews arrive to attempt to put it out, but end up having to manage the riot instead.

The last scene is the next morning when Mookie returns to Sal’s to collect his salary of $250 a week. Angry, Sal throws $500 at Mookie. Mookie throws $200 back and says “I owe you $50”. Sal asks what he’s going to do and Mookie responds “You know… work… and get paid”.

My initial impression – when I saw this movie about 20 years ago – was that Mookie was protecting Sal by throwing the garbage can. I don’t think that today. He looked angry to me – and the crowd had not yet started to riot… they all seemed to be in shock. To me, it seemed like he felt a violent anger and, rather than directing it another person and risking more injury or death to a person, directed it to a building. The rest of the crowd followed suit. In a weird way, I think it did protect Sal a little – most of the crowd blamed him for Radio Raheem’s death – but I did not take away from that scene that Mookie was intentionally trying to divert attention away from Sal – he was dealing with his own anger and didn’t seem to think much about anybody else around him. The other thing I really caught this time around that I don’t remember thinking last time was the familial relationship between Sal and Mookie that was best displayed during their “reconciliation” the next day. Although it was quite strained between them, they still seemed to display a genuine affection for each other, in spite of the events from the evening before. Thus… to me, at least, showing more of a father-son relationship than anything – as though Sal thinks of Mookie as his kid – who screwed up – but he still loves him and cares about his well being.

I mentioned that the film moved me – I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve. That last scene moved me the most because of the father-son relationship I saw. The riot scene the night before made my heart break for the entire neighborhood, especially when you hear from The Mayor, having the benefit of wisdom, trying desperately to keep everyone calm and told them “let’s not do something now we’ll regret tomorrow”. My heart broke for Radio Raheem – to be murdered, basically, in such a way. My heart broke for his friends and neighbors – to see that. My heart broke for Sal – just trying to run a business and loving his customers – all of them – and to see one of them murdered broke his heart, too. My heart broke for the teens – so young to see all this violence.

I am really glad this film was on the list – it was really good to watch it again and I am still in awe of Spike Lee’s talent.

Next up: The Last Picture Show #95 – I had heard people rave about this one before, but I don’t know much about it… yet.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2012 in AFI 100 Years List

 

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AFI List: Blade Runner – 1982 (97)

Movie: Blade Runner Year: 1982 Genre: Science Fiction

Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah

My friends… it took me a while to write this post. Partially because I wasn’t left with a strong feeling about the film either way, and partly because I started a related project to this one, but I won’t comment on that just yet… I don’t hate “Blade Runner”, but I don’t love it, either. I’m just… I’m just…

meh.

I have discussed this project with my friends at work. When the subject of this film came up, the men were pretty excited that I was going to watch Blade Runner. They all seem to have a very positive impression of it and seemed to love it. Their excitement about it is somewhat infectious, so admittedly, I got caught up in their excitement and became excited about seeing Blade Runner, too. I do like some films in the Sci Fi genre – I am a fan of the Star Wars franchise (even using the nicknames Vader and Yoda for my kids). So, when I admitted I hadn’t seen it, those same men that were super excited about my seeing it let out a collective gasp followed (almost in unison) by the phrase “YOU’VE never seen ‘Blade Runner’?”.

(sigh) No… no I haven’t.

I don’t know what it is about this genre – some I love, some I’m apathetic about. I don’t hate any that I can think of, they – collectively – just don’t “do it” for me. I appreciate the creativity that goes into these stories and the imagery, but I guess, in my heart, I’m more of a realist. So… having said all of that, here’s my (most likely longer-ish) post…

Here’s where my “research” ahead of time might get me into trouble… once I started reading about this film, I went down a veritable rabbit hole of information, all leading to interesting facts and debates about this film. I know all about the various cuts. I know all about the actors and how they felt about Ridley Scott. I know how they felt about the final product (and I agree with Harrison Ford on a lot of it). I read the Wikipedia Cliff’s notes about the book and I think I got a good image of what the story was supposed to be… and am (as I usually am in this situation) profoundly disappointed in the departure from what I thought the story should have included from the book. But the debate of the versions… that intrigued me so much so that I felt like I had to see both the original 1982 theatrical release and the Scott Final Cut versions.

So… I did.

I get the debate now.

Short version of the long story: Blade Runners are bounty hunters for Androids called replicants. Replicants look like humans and are really only distinguishable by their lack of empathy (which can be measured by a VK machine – kind of like a lie detector). The replicants were banned from Earth long ago and are used on colonies for dangerous work. When they come back to Earth, they are “retired” or killed by a Blade Runner. In this case, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a retired Blade Runner who is enlisted to find 4 rogue replicants that have made their way back to Earth because the end of their service (about 4 years) is approaching and they want more time (read: longer life). His first stop is the manufacturer of these replicants who has an assistant (Rachael) we soon discover is also a replicant (with implanted memories), but doesn’t know it. Deckard leaves so he can find the first on his list – he finds and retires her while another replicant witnesses the retirement. Seeking revenge, the witness replicant tries to kill Deckard, but Rachael saves his life – after which he promises not to hunt her.

Meanwhile, on the non-crowded side of town, the other two replicants (Roy and Pris) befriend a lonely bio-mechanical engineer named JK Sebastian who lives alone in a huge building, but is surrounded by these creepy Franken-Toys (I can’t believe I’ve used that phrase in two posts now…) – he says “I make my friends”. Sebastian is suffering from a degenerative condition that ages him faster than his years – which is important in how the replicants relate to him. The replicants talk Sebastian in to taking the leader (Roy) to the owner of their manufacturer (Tyrell) and, after realizing there is nothing even Tyrell can do to help them live longer, Roy confesses his sins and kills both Tyrell and Sebastian (by poking their eyes into their brains – a pretty graphic thing I chose not to watch). While Roy is away, Deckard finds Pris (the last replicant) and retires her. Roy arrives shortly after Pris is retired and the two fight until Deckard almost falls off a building – Roy saves him at the last minute, delivers a soliloquy and dies. I’m ending it there because there were two different endings.

So… the things I liked about the film:

  • I liked the Neo-Noir feel to it – the mashup of early 1980s with early 1940s in the attire of all the characters – I actually even noticed a few cars that had that same mixed feeling.
  • I liked – generally speaking – the idea of the story – it made me think a little more about humanity and longevity and how we’d all like a little more time to just do a little more here on Earth.
  • I preferred the Final Cut version – I thought the clean up they did on the color and contrast looked much better and the imagery was just brighter
  • The hover cars were pretty damn cool

Here’s what I didn’t really like about it…

  • I hated the narration of the domestic theatrical release. I get what they were going for, I do – the noir narration typical in the 1940s, but you could really tell that Harrison Ford was *not* on board with it and he sounded so irritated. Thank you, Scott, for getting rid of that.
  • Although I didn’t read the book, I know that a major plot line in it (hence the name of the book) was the animals and that owning an animal was a big deal – it was a status symbol and it helped prove you had empathy – that’s why all the humans wanted one. Deckard wanted to buy an animal and had motivation for taking the job of bounty hunter. He didn’t really have any motivation for taking the job in the movie. He got up to leave Bryant’s office all huffy and “I’m still quit!” but Bryant said “Sit down – you *have* to do this” and he sat down like a chump and took the job. No real motivation.
  • Animals are only mentioned 4 times: the turtle during a replicant VK test, an owl when Deckard comes to Tyrell’s office the first time, the snake one of the Replicant uses in a strip tease show, and the owl at Tyrell’s office appears again in his apartment when Roy kills him. The turtle was a completely hypothetical situation and the owl and snake were both replicants – the characters talk about the fact that they are expensive, but never are real animals discussed… maybe I don’t have enough imagination for this or maybe, perhaps, I was sullied by an important plot line in the book missing from the film and would have been none-the-wiser had I not read that.
  • There is a unicorn dream that Deckard has (while in a drunken stupor, no less) – the unicorn doesn’t do anything – it is just running through a field. This 15-seconds is supposed to symbolize the fact that Deckard may also be a replicant and had implanted memories (because another cop played by Edward James Olmos puts an oragami unicorn at Deckard’s front door). The “dream”, though, was cut from the original theatrical release so the oragami unicorn at the front door in that version made no sense at all… aside from that, unicorns aren’t real, so it isn’t like he was remembering something from his past… so, the whole “planted memory” thing doesn’t hold water for me…
  • Did I miss the news that Noah is making a visit to LA in 5 years? Since when did LA ever get that much rain? It would have been better if they just didn’t say what the city was…
  • The eyes thing kind of creeped me out… I get the symbolism of it (eyes are the window to the soul and all that), but I just didn’t like seeing people die by having their eyes poked out. That gave me nightmares a couple of days later…

So… I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it. I found holes in the story, but I think that my imagination might have been turned off that day. I dunno. On to the next one…

Next up:  Do the Right Thing (1989) #96 starring Danny Aiello and Ossie Davis – I saw this one in Film Class, but as I talked about it today, I honestly couldn’t remember much about the story. I remember that I liked it when I saw it about 19 years ago… let’s see what I think now.

 
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Posted by on March 15, 2012 in AFI 100 Years List

 

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AFI List: Yankee Doodle Dandy – 1942 (98)

Movie: Yankee Doodle Dandy Year: 1942 Genre(s): Musical, Comedy, Biographical

Starring: James Cagney

I’ll be honest… I put this one off for a while because, well, I don’t like musicals. I dread them, in fact. They just aren’t “realistic” enough for me – hence the slightly sarcastic comment I made in my Toy Story review about the Disney folks singing to the Pixar folks about the “musical” argument for that movie.

Not. A. Fan.

So, I put this off a few days. But… I decided tonight that I would read the back story and see if it might be something I’d be more inclined to see tomorrow night… or maybe Thursday.

Once I started reading the back story, though, I became a lot more interested in this movie. First of all, it is a biography and I had no idea who the man was until tonight. I love biographies, especially of interesting folks, and friends, I find this guy interesting. His name is George M. Cohan (pronounced co-han). Maybe it is a generational thing or maybe I am just not as “into” theater and Broadway… I can’t explain it, but I had not heard of him. I can’t tell you how many times I sang “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as a kid, never thinking about the man that wrote the song… until tonight. He was a singer, traveling vaudeville actor, dancer and incidentally a great musical writer. And… he was a bit of a smart ass, a trait I can relate to. Next interesting fact: it has James Cagney in it. He’s kind of a bad ass in some of the gangster movies and, well, he’s snarky Irish man, so he gets type-cast a lot and that’s been my experience so far with James Cagney movies. I was surprised to discover that James Cagney is not only a great actor (totally deserved that Oscar), but a good singer and dancer, too.

There isn’t as much of a back story on this movie as I’ve found for others – it won a lot of awards, including an Oscar for Cagney. Cagney’s real-life sister played Cohan’s sister. They made their money back on the cost of the film. They took a few liberties with Cohan’s real life and some of the timeline, but stuck pretty close to events in his life. They won awards for the costumes…. that’s pretty much it for the business side of the film. To me, the more interesting part of this one was the life of the man it was about.

I think I was most surprised, however, about the fact that, for a musical, it wasn’t as “musical” as I expected. It isn’t the usual formula of people randomly breaking out in song to sing about the events or their feelings; the songs in this one were all contained to the shows or to him writing the shows. It was actually very well done.

The story starts near the end of Cohan’s life (he passed away the year this movie was finished, although, he did get to see it and really liked Cagney’s portrayal of him) as he is starring in a show called “I’d Rather Be Right” that features a singing, dancing Franklin Roosevelt. FDR calls him in to ultimately give him a congressional medal of honor, but before giving him the medal, decides to have a chat with him. Cohan tells FDR the story of his life in all flashback.

Cohan was born to a pair of traveling Vaudevillian actors who toured and brought their children with them – ultimately including them in the show (including George’s sister Josie) so theater and show business was all they knew. As he grew up, he became more of a star of the shows, and started to write skits and songs for the family (The Four Cohans) to perform. However, as he grew up and gained more popularity and praise for his work, his humility deminished and became more of a wisenheimer than his parents would have liked. My favorite scene is him getting a spanking from his father and his mother saying “not the hands! he has to play violin! oh… Not the face – he has to sing!” his father puts him over his knee, spanks his behind and says “this part has no talent!” – I’m still laughing about that one. Eventually, he breaks away from the family to write on his own, but has a hard time selling anything because of his lack of humility and his wise cracking.

Eventually, he worms his way in with another down-and-out playwright named Sam Harris who, when then worked together, made multiple hits, the first of which is a play about a jockey called “Little Johnny Jones” who rides a horse (pony!) called Yankee Doodle – that’s what the song was about – that made “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (actual name of the song is “Yankee Doodle Boy”) a hit. From this point on, the majority of the story is him and Harris writing plays, a bit of his relationship with his aging parents and his wife Mary (which was his first wife in reality – he was married twice), and songs from the shows he and Harris wrote and produced during this phase of his life. He apparently was in and out of retirement, never able to fully tear himself away from the theater.

A staunch patriot, though (he claimed to be born on July 4th, though there are disputes saying he was actually born on the 3rd), the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 prompted Cohan to try to enlist to fight in World War I. Told he was too old to enlist, he decided to entertain the troops and ended up writing the song “Over There” the World War I “fight” song. I first heard this song in the movie “1941” in the scene where Hollis Wood is kidnapped by the Japanese looking for Hollywood and, until tonight, had always thought of that scene when I heard this song. I have a different memory of it now. The movie ends with FDR giving him the medal of honor and him walking through a parade singing that song. Very sweet.

I was pleasantly surprised by this one in many ways and I recommend it!

On that note… it is time for me to go to bed.

The next on the list: Blade Runner (1982) #97 – still haven’t seen this Cult Classic yet – I’m intrigued by the gasps I’ve been getting when I admit I haven’t seen it yet… Besides, it has Han Solo… I mean, Harrison Ford, in it, so how bad can it be??

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2012 in AFI 100 Years List

 

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AFI List: Toy Story – 1995 (99)

Movie: Toy Story Year: 1995 Genre(s): Animated, Comedy, Family

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen

I was actually pretty excited to see this one again because I have long been a big fan of Disney animated films, even before I had kids. In fact, it used to be a tradition that my sister and I had at Christmas and for birthdays: we would buy each other a Disney animated film and build out the other’s collection – first we built out the VHS collection, and then eventually DVDs. Once we had kids it got difficult to manage and the tradition has since slipped away. I might pick that up again this year with her.

I have seen this movie a few times, but not really since I’ve had kids (believe it or not). My kids were born in 2005 and 2006 and by then, Toy Story was a relic. Cars was even kind of old by the time they cared enough to watch it, so they never really got into the Toy Story franchise until Toy Story 3 came out. I had forgotten how much I loved this movie and how much it made me laugh! However, this time watching it, I am a mother and I have a rapidly growing interest in the business behind the movies, so watch it with a different perspective.

So, first, the mother angle – one of the biggest chuckles from me was at the end when Andy becomes reunited with his toys (after they chase the moving van – see the story synopsis below) and his mother basically tells him that they had been in the car all along. I hear those words coming out of my mouth a lot around here and now the thought of the toys getting up and walking off by themselves (something I promised the boys would never happen) crosses my mind as I say it. Also, the relationship between the mother and Andy is poignant to me because it reminds me so much of the relationship I have with my boys as I see it. Although the movie didn’t discuss or show it a lot – it wasn’t even central to the story – resonated with me as a mother to two boys who are about the age of Andy in this movie. I thought it was really sweet.

Next… the business filter… One of the more interesting business facts about this film is the interest Disney had in it, long before Disney owned Pixar. The director was actually an animator at Disney and pitched an idea for a full-length computer generated animated film that was summarily rejected. He went on to found Pixar (no hard feelings). The film was being distributed by Disney, so they had a say in how it was produced and what the end product would be – and, even though they were not yet joined officially, took sole branding in the title of the movie (Pixar was added to the branding in later releases). They also rejected the first draft of the movie because they thought the Woody character was too sarcastic and threatened to take over the project entirely. The Pixar guys said “no, no, we’ll rewrite it… in 2 weeks”.

And they did. *that* amazes me.

Another fact I found interesting is the argument the Pixar guys had with Disney about the film being a musical. The Pixar guys absolutely did not want it to be a musical. At all. Disney, on the other hand, basically told Pixar “hey… that’s what we do” (in my mind, Disney execs sang that sentence… that would be funny). The compromise, if you can call it that, is that the soundtrack to the movie is filled with Randy Newman songs. I type this with gritted teeth because I do not like Randy Newman (sorry Randy). That dumb song from 1984 “I Love L.A.” ruined him for me. This sound track was no different. I am glad, however, that the Pixar guys stuck to their guns about this point – I think having the characters sing in this film would have completely ruined it.

From a technical point of view, the animation is still pretty phenomenal to me. I *cannot* believe how realistic things still look in this film after 17 years – and the attention to detail they have in there – scratches on the floor. Dents in the wall. The dog’s eyes dilating while he’s chasing the toys. I can’t believe this movie is 17 years old… now that I write that. The Budget for this film was $30 million and had only a staff of 110 people. Contrast that with The Lion King from just the year before with a cost of $45 Million and a staff of over 800. The characters were all built with clay first, then transferred to the computer design, when they then added the controls. Of all the characters, Woody was the most time consuming and difficult. I was surprised because I thought the dog would have been tougher since it was so realistic.

Fair warning… from this point on, I’m going to give my impression of the story, just in case you know the story or don’t want a spoiler…

The story is a pretty simple buddy comedy formula, only with toys. The toys belong to a young boy named Andy and come to life when nobody is around. There is the favorite (Woody the cowboy) who is, more or less, seen as the “leader” of the lot of Andy’s toys. On Andy’s birthday, he gets a new toy called Buzz Lightyear, which is an astronaut (and yes, he’s named after Buzz Aldrin… and yes, the contrast between the older cowboy theme contrasts well with the newer astronaut theme in the characters, I think).

Although Buzz doesn’t realize he is a toy, he quickly becomes Andy’s new favorite, which leaves Woody feeling jealous. When the family goes out for pizza, Woody tries to become the toy chosen for the outing (“you may bring one – ONE – toy” is a pretty common thing heard in my house, too) by trying to make Buzz fall behind the bed. Instead, Buzz falls out the window and the rest of the toys accuse Woody of trying to get rid of Buzz altogether.

Because Andy can’t find Buzz, he takes Woody to the Pizza place, but Buzz sees Andy carrying Woody into the car and hitches on to the car. While in the Dinoco (yes, from Cars!) gas station, the toys have a confrontation, fall out of the car, and are left behind. Hitching a ride on a delivery truck for the pizza place, they make their way into the restaurant (called Pizza Planet) which has a space theme. Buzz, still thinking he is a real astronaut, crawls into a space ship that is actually one of those “grab-a-toy-with-a-claw” games and Woody goes after him to try to save him. Unfortunately, Andy lives next to Sid, the creepiest kid on the planet – who blows up toys – and Sid happens to be good at Grab a Toy games. Sid grabs Buzz out of the machine and, because Woody can’t pull Buzz out, he gets Woody too.

This is the part that, I honestly think would creep out my kids. I mentioned that Sid likes to blow stuff up – he also likes to make Franken-Toys made with various parts of broken (or in his case destroyed) toys. Sid puts Woody and Buzz in his room and they are confronted with the Franken-toys which, honestly, kind of creeped me out. They try to escape, only to be chased by a very realistic looking family dog that looks kind of like a bull dog mixed with a pitt bull. During all of these scenes, Woody is unsuccessful at convincing Buzz he is a toy – but while Buzz is hiding from the dog during an escape attempt, he sees a TV commercial for himself and starts to believe Woody…

But, an indigent streak hits him, and setting out to prove to Woody he is real, he attempts to fly from the banister to an open window (an earlier attempt at flying was Buzz getting help from other toys and Woody’s response was “that’s not flying! that’s falling with style” probably the best line in this movie). He crashes on the floor, loosing his arm and becomes depressed. Sid ends up getting a rocket he ordered, and tapes Buzz to it, intending to blow him up. Buzz gets a reprieve, thanks to a thunder storm, and, overnight, Woody finally convinces Buzz they need to escape and get back to Andy. They enlist the help of the Franken-Toys (which they have befriended by now) and all toys meet Sid in the back yard to teach him a lesson by “coming to life” again – which freaks the kid out.

Buzz and Woody get over to Andy’s but not in time before the moving truck (I forgot to mention: Andy’s moving) and the last few scenes are Buzz, Woody, an RC (the car) trying to get back onto the moving truck. They do and they get back into the car where Andy’s mother says (as I know I have a million times) “see what happens when you look?” haha.

On that note… it is time for me to go to bed.

The next on the list: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). That one should be fun – James Cagney!

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2012 in AFI 100 Years List

 

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