Wednesday, August 31, 2011

#55 North by Northwest (1959)

So this is Hitchcock, huh?  I thought he'd be fatter.

Plot summary (with spoilers): Roger Thornhill is a snappy ad exec with two ex-wives and a cavalier devil-may-care twinkle in his eye. (Think Roger Sterling).  He rides a cab over to a restaurant for an important meeting with some clients, then remembers that he needs to send his secretary a telegram. At the same time, some shady men enter the restaurant and ask the waiter to page a "Mr. George Kaplan".  The waiter does so, just as Roger raises his hand to call the waiter over.  He asks the waiter to send the telegram, which is something that happened in 1959 I guess, and the shady men think he's responding to the page. Thornhill gets up to follow the waiter to the...let's say Telegram Room, and the shady men block his path and then stick a gun in his ribs and order him outside. They pull him into a car, call him "George Kaplan" repeatedly, and all the while Roger seems mildly annoyed but not nearly as scared as he should be. He makes several cracks about asking to be kidnapped another time when he's not so busy. They take him to the house of Lester Townsend. Townsend interrogates him about being a CIA spy, and Roger says he's not a spy, but they don't believe him and finally force him at gunpoint to drink an entire bottle of bourbon and after he passes out, they put him in the front seat of a car and start it so that it's about to drive off a cliff.  But Roger suddenly wakes up and drunkenly turns the car around and starts down the road, swerving wildly.  Heh. The bad guys follow him, but Roger passes a local policeman who pursues. Roger looks up at the cop car behind him and gets a drunken irritated look on his face and keeps driving, until he finally slams on his breaks at a Stop sign, causing the cops to rear end him. The bad guys drive away as Roger's arrested. The next morning, Roger's mother bails him out and he's instantly on trial just like in Sullivan's Travels.  I refuse to believe the judicial system worked that way. Roger claims some bad guys kidnapped him and forced him to drink and drive and no one believes him of course, not even his mother. They go to the house and a woman who was there last night calls Roger "George" and tells the cops he drank too much and borrowed someone else's car when no one was looking and they were very worried.  Roger demands to talk to "Townsend" who was there last night, but the woman says Townsend works at the UN and is there right now.  The cops drop the whole thing and let Roger go because clearly nothing at all fishy is going on here.
Roger and his mother somehow learn that the real "George Kaplan" is staying at a hotel (??) and they go there to confront him. There's a friendly maid and a valet who talk to Roger and think he's George even though they admit they've never seen him before. This goes on for a while, with Roger and his mom just hanging out in George's hotel room after stealing a key and then just looking at each other not knowing what to do. Roger sees a day planner or something and sees that Kaplan has a meeting the next day in Chicago. Finally, the phone rings, and Roger for some reason answers. It's the goons from last night, calling to see if "George" is in.  Roger says he's not George, but that claim is pretty hard to believe at this point.
He and his mom book it to the elevator and get on just as the goons are getting off.  They double back and get on the elevator too. So now Roger, his mom, the goons, and a bunch of extras are all on the elevator. Roger keeps looking at his mom and trying to indicate to her that those are the bad guys and finally she gets it and says, "You're not really going to kill my son, are you?"  Everyone in the elevator stares at her in awkward silence. The elevator opens, and Roger dashes it, fully ditching his mom and runs outside and into a cab.  He heads for the UN where he finds Townsend, who is not the man from last night. He explains to Townsend that someone else is in his home pretending to be him, and suddenly someone throws a knife in Townsend's back. He falls over into Roger's arms.  Roger: A: Grabs the knife.  B: Pulls it out of Townsend's back. C: Brandishes it as people scream and D: Stands still while a nearby photographer takes his picture. Then he throws down the knife and runs out. Roger is dumb.
Then there's a weird exposition scene where a bunch of CIA guys stand around and talk about how poor Roger Turnhill is an unfortunate fall guy who is taking the rap for being a spy named George Kaplan when George Kaplan doesn't exist.  The real spy is some other mystery person who is spying on a guy named Van Damme who is Russian or something and bad (feel free to imagine Jean-Claude, because it's fun). The goons work for him, and he was the one earlier pretending to be Townsend. Then the CIA people stare at the camera and say, "Is everybody clear on that?"
Roger, wanted for the murder of Townsend, decides to flee by train to Chicago and confront Kaplan. He sneaks onboard without buying a ticket and when the conductor chases him, a sexy blonde woman named Eve sees all this go down, and protects him by telling the conductor he got off.
Then they have dinner on the train, and she's all super sexy Jessica Rabbity, and he hilariously says that he hates the part where men have to converse with beautiful women and pretend they don't want to sleep with them and she says why pretend?  Eve says she recognizes his picture in the paper and knows he's wanted for murder but doesn't care. He says he would invite her to his place but doesn't have one. She invites him to stay at hers. The double and triple entendres are all doing it doggy style at this point.
Back at her private car, they make out on the bed awhile until the porter comes and Roger hides in the bathroom while the porter cleans the car or something.  There are a lot of maids and service people in this movie. Then Roger comes back out, all "where were we?" They kiss some more, but the camera lingers on her lying female eyes of deception that DO NOT CLOSE even while kissing.
Outside, the porter knocks on another car, and it opens and it's Van Damme and his goons. The porter hands them a note from Eve that says, "I've got him. What are your orders?"  DUN DUN DUN.
At Chicago, Eve gets off the train with Roger dressed as a train employee, carrying her luggage. In fact, every passenger has a red-capped train employee carrying their luggage. If this movie has taught me nothing else, it's that people where really lazy in the Olden Times.
The cops are in Chicago with pictures of Roger, looking at all the passengers, but Eve and Roger in costume breeze on by. Roger says he has to get to a phone booth and call Kaplan and arrange a meeting. Eve says she better do with while he changes. Roger agrees. Suddenly, a tied-up train employee in his underwear jumps off the train and says he was robbed. The police start frantically searching each train employee, but there are dozens of them among hundreds of departing passengers, and Eve and Roger manage to slip away.
Later, Eve the LIAR says she talked to Kaplan and they're to meet at a bus stop on the highway. But she looks all super conflicted and stuff. Roger goes there by himself and gets off the bus. It's a totally empty long stretch of highway. He stares for awhile, not sure what to do, while a few cars pass him by. Suddenly, a low flying and cinematic crop duster plane starts trying to dive-bomb him and also firing at him. He runs and dives and runs more and the plane keeps going around in circles lining up for another shot and Roger runs into the street where a giant oil truck almost hits him and then the crop duster crashes into the oil truck and everything goes boom. Roger runs off.
Roger hitches a ride to Kaplan's hotel, having figured out Eve lied to him and tries to confront Kaplan there, but he already checked out (and doesn't exist).  But Eve is there. He pretends to not know she lied and asks her to dinner. She gets a phone call and writes down an address on a scrap of paper on a notepad and then tears it off and says she has to leave now for an important meeting. Roger lets her leave and then uses a pencil to scribble on the notepad and see what she wrote. Clearly, this is what The Big Lebowski was riffing off of with the penis drawing, so that's cool. He follows her to an auction, where she's all schoompy with Van Damme.  Van Damme is buying a special statue thing that has secret microfilm in it that will maybe destroy the world or something. Perhaps "lasers" are involved. Roger confronts them both and calls her a fucking whore like ten million times but in polite Olden Times language and her eyes burn with shame and tears because girls are weak. Van Damme signals his goons who wait by the doorway to grab Roger and kill him dead. But Roger's new plan is to make a bunch of crazy bids that are both way too high and way too low on the auction items and cause such a spectacle that the cops arrest him, which they do.  No sooner is he arrested that the cops are informed by radio to take him to blah blah place where he meets the exposition CIA guys from earlier who explain to him the whole plot including the new fact that Eve is the super secret real spy! But now Van Damme is suspicious of her and so they concoct a plan for him to confront Eve in front of Van Damme and company in a public place and she'll shoot him with a gun with blanks and then run away. They do this and it all works out. So now Van Damme trusts Eve and will take her on his secret spy trip with her to wherever where she can find out his secret plans to whatever and kill Americans probably. But now Roger doesn't want her to go, and angrily confronts the CIA guys about sending a "girl" to try and stop the bad guys. The CIA guys look duly ashamed for employing and training an attractive blonde woman. But they insist Eve carry out the mission she trained and signed up for and still right now is telling Roger she wants to do, almost as if she has her own agency and autonomy. They check Roger into a hospital, as he's supposed to have been shot, but he breaks out and goes to Van Damme's hideout, which is a giant house right by Mt Rushmore, because sure it is.
He stares in the window while a goon talks to Van Damme and Eve just hangs out pretending to still be Van Damme's girl. He continues to...just stare and watch because there's literally no fucking reason for him to be there, and if he's discovered he'll expose Eve and this is just super dumb. They talk about how they're taking a private plane to wherever in a few minutes and soon they'll have taken the statue to wherever and then they'll win! But then Eve goes to the bathroom and lucky for Roger the goon tells Van Damme he doesn't trust Eve and then shoots Van Damme.  But Van Damme isn't killed, because the gun had blanks and the goon explains it was the gun that Eve used to "shoot" Roger. Now Van Damme knows Eve's a double agent and Roger knows he knows so now there's a point to him being there. Still dumb. Van Damme's plan is to take her up in the plane and then throw her out, which is way more dramatic than just killing her right now. But Roger warns her and they mange to overpower Van Damme and steal the magic statue and run away. They dramatically attempt to climb down Mt Rushmore as the goons and Van Damme give chase. At one point, a goon catches up to him and leaps upon ad exec Roger and fights him while CIA agent Eve screams like a girl and watches, doing nothing. Roger pushes the goon off and down he goes off Roosevelt's nose and into oblivion. Another goon falls as well. Then Van Damme struggles with Eve and tries to push her off, but Roger punches him out, but she falls anyway, and barely clings to the ledge. Roger tries to pull her up, but slips himself. Now he's holding the ledge with one hand while holding Eve with the other. Van Damme walks forward all cocky and steps on Roger's hand, but is suddenly shot by the CIA agents, who have magically materialized, perhaps summoned by the statue. Eve is slipping...slipping...Roger pulls...and suddenly, a jump cut and they're back on the train, married, and he's pulling her into bed on the top bunk.  Nice.

Review: There's a lot of good stuff here, a lot of fun humor, some great sexual chemistry between Grant and Eva Marie Saint, who was particularly great.  Lots of quotable lines, and the crazy bidding at the auction was something almost straight out of Naked Gun. Made me laugh a lot. I guess the funny/not funny demarcation line for me is sometime before 1959. The plot was complicated and dizzying, which was fun, but also super sloppy and lazy at times, which was not. Very reminiscent of Dexter, actually. The statue and the microfilm inside it and its purpose was maddeningly vague and an obvious macguffin. It really just seemed like Hitchcock wanted to do this cool cinematic scene and those funny or sexy lines of dialog, and didn't really care how we got there at all. The pacing was weird, too. Sometimes things were way too rushed, and other times they took forever cluing is in on stuff we had long since figured out. It's the rare movie that is actually less than the sum of its parts. But the parts were admittedly pretty great.

Stars: Three out of five.

Next, "MASH", with a Hawkeye, Trapper, Henry, and Hot Lips who I don't know at all. And then "The Deer Hunter".

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

#56 Jaws (1975)

In the summer of 1975, while I learned to hold my head up without assistance, (um...because I was an infant, not because of some tragic accident) Steven Spielberg went about creating the summer blockbuster.

Plot summary (with spoilers): On the sleepy hamlet of Amity Island, a group of teenage hippies are having a drunken beach party.  A pretty girl asks a pretty boy to go skinny dipping, and they race off to the beach, shedding clothing as they go. The girl is like the world's fastest runner, swimmer, and clothing remover, and is in the water and swimming far out even before the boy reaches the shore. He struggles with his shirt, giggles drunkenly, then passes out. The girl calls to him, laughs playfully, then she somehow misses the super scary orchestral music which indicates an impending shark attack, and is first nibbled on and dips slightly into the water.  She cries out, more scared really than in pain. It's pretty awesome. Then she's grabbed again, and the shark has a sense of the dramatic and thus spins her around in circles for awhile while she screams and the sea bubbles and turns red, and then finally pulls her under.
The next day, the boy reports to the new sheriff Martin Brody that his girlfriend has gone missing, and he suspects she drowned. Martin and the boy quickly discover her chewed up body on the beach, however. Which is weird, given the size of Jaws. Shouldn't she have been completely eaten?  Anyway...
The coroner rules the cause of death to be a shark attack, so Brody shuts down the beaches as a safety precaution. Very quickly though, his decision is overruled by the Greedy Mayor who doesn't want to scare away tourists during the summer season and lose a bunch of money. He strong arms the coroner into saying the girl died in a boat accident, and Brody agrees to keep the beaches open based on the coroner's revised findings, even though he knows or strongly suspects that the coroner is full of it.
The next day at the beach, everyone's swimming and having a good time, except Brody.  He sits on the beach, scanning the water worriedly, not letting his kids swim. There are potential targets everywhere. The shark music starts up again, and people weirdly still don't freak out. We see shark POV and see all the dangling, yummy legs and feet ol' Jaws has to choose from. Suddenly, a little boy (!) on a raft cries out while the water gets all bubbly and red around him.  Brody sees him from the beach and jumps up.  He screams at everyone to get out of the water, and everyone does, except of course the little boy.  After a moment, a scared woman in a bathing suit steps forward uncertainly, calling out her son's name, while everyone else stares at her, clinging to their loved ones.  It's pretty heartbreaking.
There's a town meeting where a bunch of townspeople are talking all at once, screaming at Brody and the Greedy Mayor. Brody announces they're closing the beaches, and the townspeople...object.  Huh?  What is this, Springfield? The Greedy Mayor says they're only closing for 24 hours, which upsets Brody. Everyone starts yelling again, until some guy starts literally running his nails along a chalkboard. Everyone turns and looks at the live action version of the Springfield's Sea Captain, named Quint. He talks all folksy and dramatically and has a beard and offers his services to catch the shark for a hefty fee.  Everyone just stares at his weird ass mutely, then go back to yelling at the Greedy Mayor. If you think his character is fun and over-the-top, or if you think he's stupid and over-the-top, you're right.
So, the little boy's mom puts up a $3,000 dollar reward for the corpse of the shark who killed her son, which sends a bunch of yahoos into the water. In one pretty cool scene, two old men on a dock manage to hook Jaws with some bait and wind up breaking apart the dock, leaving one of the men stranded in the water. He barely manages to swim back to shore without being eaten.
Meanwhile, Brody hires science marine biologist guy expert Matt Hooper to show up and say science things. Richard Dreyfus is only two years older here than when he was playing a high school senior in American Graffiti, and kudos to him for the convincing transformation. Then some yahoos manage to catch a tiger shark, and bring it ashore. Brody and the Greedy Mayor are thrilled, but Hooper thinks the bite marks aren't big enough, based on the marks left on the girl. He suggests opening up the shark to see if the boy is still in his stomach, as sharks take several days to digest their food. The Greedy Mayor has a point for once, as he thinks a little boy "spilling out onto the dock" would be slightly upsetting to some. And of course the Greedy Mayor wants to reopen the beaches for the 4th of July the next day, so he wants desperately to believe they have the right shark.  Brody has his doubts, but is  overruled.
The next day, the beaches full of people who at first don't want to swim until the Greedy Mayor basically orders his lackey to take his family into the water. It's pretty funny.  Other people get in as well.  Then, a couple of kids pull a prank and go swimming with a fake cardboard fin.  Everyone screams and gets out of the water, but while that's been going on, in another part of the beach, the real Jaws shows up again and chomps a dude right in front of Brody's kid.
In the aftermath, the now Humbled Mayor swears he thought everyone was safe, and feels super guilty. Brody manages to get him to pay Quint's fee, and then hires Quint to go off in a boat with him to get the shark. Matt Hooper also goes along.  The plan is to harpoon the shark and then drag him close and inject him with strychnine that Matt brought.
Matt and Quint don't get along because Quint is Salt of the Earth and Matt is some know-it-all elitist liberal, and Brody's stuck in the middle. At one point, Brody tosses chum into the water without looking and suddenly the shark emerges. I can totally hear the 1975 theatre audience screaming right there. Brody's stunned, walks backwards a bit and says the famous line, "we're going to need a bigger boat".  They manage to hook the shark with a harpoon attached to a yellow barrel. They try to use the barrel to track him, but he takes the barrel underwater. That night, the three of them drink and tell tales and bond as men do. Quint tells a long rambling monologue about how he and his fellow navy men were on a boat that sank in the Pacific during WWII and they were surrounded by tiger sharks who picked them off one by one, until two thirds of them were killed. If you thought that monologue was awesome and intense or if you thought is was corny and ridiculous, you're right. Then they sing the song, "Show Me The Way To Go Home" and are having a great time until the shark attacks. The boat shudders and all that, and this seems like the perfect time for the final battle, but instead they just harpoon it again and it disappears again.  Hmm...keep it moving, people.
The next day (sigh), Jaws shows up again, and they harpoon it again, and Matt says the shark is much too big for the syringe of strychnine to pierce the shark's skin or whatever, so Quint decides they should drag it into shore and beach it. Brody tries to radio the Coast Guard for help, but Crazy Quint goes all Captain Ahab on his ass, and bashes the radio with a bat.  They start trying to pull the shark in, but he's too heavy and too strong, and causes the boat's engines to overheat and die.
The next plan is for Matt to be lowered underwater in a flimsy ass metal cage and then throw the syringe into the shark's mouth when it attacks. This doesn't work because the cage looks like it's made of aluminum, and is instantly smashed to hell by the shark. Quint and Brody think Matt's dead, but he swims over to the sea floor and hides behind some rocks, using his tank to breathe.
By now the boat is falling apart and sinking, so Jaws appears on the hull and OMG, it's not a shark at all, it's some crazy rubbery animatronic thing that's somehow become sentient! What a twist! Quint tries to run away, but the weight of Jaws tilts the hull and forces him to slide feet first into Jaws' waiting open mouth. He's killed very noisily and gruesomely.
Now, even more of the boat has sunk, and Jaws tries to eat Brody, who's hiding as best he can against the far wall. He throws an air tank into Jaws' mouth.  Then he climbs up onto the mast, which is the only thing not underwater, and gets off a lucky shot with his rifle, exploding the tank and the shark.  Horray!
The boat's completely gone now, so Brody clings to some wreckage and tries to swim ashore. Matt resurfaces now that the coast is clear.  Brody's relieved he survived.  "And that's not all", says Matt.  Suddenly, the little boy from earlier also surfaces.  Brody's stunned. "H-How?"  "This is a Spielberg movie.  Spielberg doesn't kill kids, no matter how implausible it might seem.  Didn't you see War of the Worlds? Spielberg likes to undermine and ruin his movies with some takesey-backsey bullshit in the third act".
The kid smiles. "Hey mister, how did you manage to kill that shark with a walkie-talkie?"  Brody looks down and sees his rifle has turned into a walkie-talkie.
"I-I don't understand.  This is crazy".
"Yes, it is.  And stupid.  Don't forget stupid".

Review: Of course, that didn't happen.  The boy died and grown men sometimes carry guns. But this was obviously a less kinder and gentler Spielberg. And this movie was all the more better for it. I think for its genre it's pretty good, and many of the plot devices here have become enduring staples of most horror movies. Everyone knows the famous story of how the shark didn't work right, so they had to not show it until the end of the movie, and that served to create suspense, and also set the template for 90+ percent of monster movies that have come after. There's also the boneheaded politician character who doesn't care about the people's welfare, as well as the nerdy guy and the tough guy who must work together despite their differences.
But on top of all that, the suspense here is genuine, the scares are great, the way Spielberg played with expectations, making you wonder who was gonna get it next, all great. It was also smart to change up the movie an hour in, and make it about the main three guys and not the whole town, because there's only so many times you can plausibly have people keep getting into the water.  Quint was...weird.  I really can't decide how I felt about him, or if the movie was making fun of him or not, but I guess he worked in the end as a great foil for Matt, who was my favorite, and it was believable that he would do something stupid and self-destructive like break the radio. At the very least, he wasn't boring, unlike Brody. And then of course, I can't not mention the amazing soundtrack, which is perhaps one of the best ever, right up there with Star Wars, Raiders, and Superman.
All in all, a fun experience, but something I suspect I would've liked a lot more a long time ago, before so many imitators.

Stars: Three and half out of five.

Next, "North By Northwest", and then back to Altman again for some fun with the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

#57 Rocky (1976)

Gonna fly now....

Plot summary (with spoilers): Rocky Balboa, the big palooka with the heart of gold, is in the middle of a match with some other dude. The guy full-on head butts him--like, what is this dirty MMA shit?--and Rocky loses it and pounds the guy in the dust, winning the match. During his lengthy walk home through the rather ethereal and calm streets of Philly, he encounters a group of corner boys singing and drinking wine from the bottle. They greet him warmly, he takes a swig, and he continues on his way. At his little home, he greets his pet turtles and fish, and moves the fishbowl over to the turtle container so they can all say hi. Then he changes his shoes and sweater and tells us we're all very special.
The next day at the pet store, he encounters shy mousy little Adrian, who has glasses which is movie shorthand for ugly and shy, and he tells her a joke he rehearsed the night before. It's actually really quite endearing. Then Rocky goes to his day job, which is working as an enforcer for a loan shark. He hassles a guy who owes 200 bucks, but can only come up with 130. Rocky's supposed to break his thumb, but can't bring himself to do it.  His loan shark boss lectures him on being too nice, and Rocky feels bad. He goes to his local gym, to workout and train for his next match.  He tries to open his locker, but it won't budge, causing him to take off his hat and pull out a little slip of paper with the combination, which is an extraordinary detail. Turns out though, the locker has been given to another boxer, and Rocky's supplies are hanging on a coat hook.  Rocky confronts the gym owner Mickey, who spits out pieces of the set and growls some nonsense about Rocky not trying hard enough to deserve a locker, and I'm sorry I just can't take The Penguin seriously at all.
Rocky's pissed but doesn't let it get him down. He hangs out with his friend Paulie, who looks exactly like you imagine he does, and also happens to be Adrian's brother. Paulie says that Adrian has agreed to go out with him, and they head over to Paulie and Adrian's house to pick her up. When they get there, turns out Paulie was full of it, and Adrian doesn't want to go out. She says she's cooking a turkey in the oven. Paulie goes over to the oven and throws the turkey out the window. Adrian screams at him and runs back down the hall and into her room. Rocky shifts uncomfortably and says that "maybe" this isn't a good time and he should come back later. Boy, Rocky can really read a room. Paulie though, is adamant that Adrian get the fuck out of the house for a little while and bangs on the door to her bedroom. Rocky walks down the hall, all nervous tics and yos, and says to Adrian that she'll have a good time, he swears. Adrian finally opens the door and agrees to go out with him.
They go to the ice rink, but it's Thanksgiving day and the ice rink has closed early. Rocky begs the guy to let Adrian skate for a little bit, and the guy agrees to ten minutes for ten bucks. Aw, Rocky. That's so sweet, yo.
He runs along Adrian as she skates, talking a mile a minute about his life and hers and his pets and his boxing and the fact that he's never broken his nose, and explains the history of the term "south paw" (something to do with New Jersey) and basically is so nervous he can't shut up for a second, while Adrian takes it all in and offers very little in return. She does ask him why he's a boxer though, and Rocky says it's because he can't sing or dance. He beams proudly. "HEYYY-OHHH!  Bada bing!"  Well, this is upsetting.  I think I'm falling in love with Rocky.
They walk back to Rocky's place, he's over the top solicitous, asking her if she liked skating, liked dinner, had a good time, enjoyed the weather, the topography, the architecture, Pennsylvania, the earth, the solar system. She says she did. He asks her in. She says no. He cajoles. She goes inside. Rocky sits down, takes his coat off, while Adrian stands in the middle of the room with her arms crossed, trying desperately to resist the irresistible. She says she should go and Paulie will be worried about her. Rocky yells out the window, "Hey Paulie, your sister's with me!" It should be trashy and dumb but it's sexy as hell and warm and self-deprecating to boot. She goes to the door. Rocky stands up, kinda blocks her, but not in a way that's intimidating. He begs her to stay, moving in closer. She resists. He asks her to take off her glasses. She doesn't, but neither does she resist when he takes them off for her. He takes off her hat, too. They kiss, finally, then sort of fall to the ground in a pile by the doorway as we fade out.  Damn.
Some time later, Rocky's training at the gym when the grizzled Penguin tells Rocky that some men want to talk to him. While all this has been going on, we've been treated to a few scenes with the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Apollo Creed, who was supposed to fight another boxer in Philadelphia in about a month's time, but the guy got injured, and now Apollo's decided to give an unknown a shot at the belt. He and his entourage poured over countless locals until they discovered "The Italian Stallion", aka Rocky (the Italian Stallion is his porn name). Apollo's men approach Rocky and offer him the deal. Terrified, Rocky reflexively says no, but the dude convinces him otherwise, saying that this is the ticket out of the minors, and offering him 150 grand.
Suddenly, Rocky's real popular. He does a press conference with the arrogant and condescending Apollo, and while the sportscasters make Italian jokes, Rocky sits with now girlfriend Adrian and Paulie and basks in the fame. Mickey comes to Rocky's house, hat in hand, and tells of his past success as a fighter, and asks to be Rocky's manager. Rocky turns him down, but then when he leaves the house, Rocky screams at him through the closed door, saying that Mickey never respected him or his abilities, and calls out his transparent ploy. But then he agrees to let him mange him anyway.  Not feeling this storyline.
Rocky gets up the next morning, drinks some raw eggs, runs up those famous steps, but can hardly reach the top without gasping and being doubled over in pain.
Meanwhile, Paulie gets jealous and lashes out at both Rocky and Adrian, but later proves useful as a PR guy, getting the press to show up and film Rocky training in a walk-in freezer, where Rocky hits cold slabs of hanging meat. Apollo meanwhile preens and showboats and is more interested in finding a cool outfit to wear when he enters the ring than in training. His trainer worriedly watches Rocky on TV, beating the hell out of the meat and bloodying his knuckles, but can't even get Apollo to turn his head and look.
Then Mickey trains Rocky to run faster, climb higher, do one handed pushups and hit that meat even harder.

Oh, we're gonna need a montage/Oh, it takes a montage/show a lot of things happening all at once/remind everyone what's going on/and with every shot, show a little improvement/to show it all would take too long/that's why you need a montage (montage)/oh, we want a montage!

And he climbs those steps two at a time, and the camera swings around and Rocky throws up his hands and runs in place and if your heart isn't beating just a little bit faster, you're not human, period.  Even with some twee fucking lyrics like "Getting strong now/won't be long now". 
In the eleventh hour, Rocky's plagued with self doubt. He visits Adrian, says he doesn't think he can do it. Adrian: So, what do we do?  (Psst: Adrian!  You're supposed to say, "you can do this, Rocky!  I believe in you!"  Look, do you need me to take over?  Because I will do it.)
Rocky subtly moves the goalposts and says doesn't care about winning, he just wants to go all 15 rounds and prove he's a contender. 
The match. Rocky wears a robe that's too big with ads on the back that Paulie got paid for.  Apollo Creed enters like it's the WWF, dressed as George Washington with a giant red white and blue outfit and top hat. He points at Rocky and says "I want you!", which the announcer hilariously and unnecessarily clarifies is a reference to the "military recruitment poster with Uncle Sam". Like that was seriously right out of Best in Show.
Round One.  Apollo taunts Rocky, making little jabs, dancing around the ring. Rocky eventually lays him out with an uppercut to the jaw. Apollo staggers to his feet. The bell rings. They go back to their corners, and Apollo's manager tells him that Rocky doesn't know that this "isn't a real fight" and that Apollo needs to take him down now. 
Round Two. More of the same. Both fighters get in good hits, no clear superior fighter is established. Rounds 3 through 14 pass in a blur, and both Rocky and Apollo are bloody and beaten down and snarling insults at each other everytime they get in a clinch. Rocky's nose is busted, Apollo's ribs are cracked. Both mangers want to stop the fight, but neither Apollo or Rocky agree. 
Rocky's eye is sealed shut, so they cut open the lid. Rocky, I think we should see other people.
The fight finally ends, with both men still standing. Rocky bellows "YO, ADRIAN!  ADRIAN!!"  Adrian races through the throngs of cheering fans. 
The announcer says it's a split decision. Rocky isn't even listening, just keeps calling out Adrian's name. 
She reaches the ring, he races to her.
The announcer says Apollo Creed is the winner.
Rocky takes Adrian in his arms, says he loves her. They kiss.  Needless to say, Rocky has his own definition of the word. 

Review: Wait, what?  Rocky lost?!  How the fuck did I never know that?!  That's amazing!  This is a great movie, you guys. Forgive me, I didn't know. Stallone has always been sort of a nonentity to me.  I never disliked him really, but when pressed I couldn't exactly think of a good thing to say about him, either. He's always come across as very polished, very 80's, very much a cartoon like Arnold or Van Damme or something. I mean, I liked Demolition Man okay, and Rambo II was fine, and very much of the 80's. The only Rocky movie I'd ever seen before this was Rocky IV, where he ends the Cold War by beating up Dolph Lundgren, so I truly had no idea just how far the series had fallen up to that point. There are a couple of weak moments, though. I didn't like Burgess Meredith's overacting or the character of Paulie, really, though both those storylines are dealt with okay. Talia Shire did fine. Though how she stumbled into two great classic franchises, I'll never know. Also, there were a few rough edits, including a scene where Rocky and Paulie exchange two lines of dialogue ("Are you sure she'll go out with me?" "Yeah, she's thrilled.") and then thirty seconds later in they say exactly the same lines again. Bad, bad editing. But of course, the low low budget is clearly part of the movie's charm.
I certainly wasn't at all prepared for how good Stallone would be in this, and how natural and uncalculating and un-cartoon like. And unlike anything Ahnold's ever done, this movie succeeds in part because of Sly's presence, not in spite of it. And Rocky the character? Well, he's just freaking adorable, is what he is, and practically angelic in both looks and deeds. I also didn't realize the match itself would be tacked on the end almost as an afterthought, and I never thought in a million billion years Rocky would lose. That's totally brilliant, that he lost but didn't really care. The writing is sometimes too earnest and sappy, and Rocky is too, but somehow the director manages to make you complicit in the sappiness, very much in the old school Spielberg way, where your heart soars and your nose crinkles simultaneously during certain scenes and lyrics like "getting strong now/won't be long now/gonna fly now".  But somehow the heart wins out. The triumph of the human spirit is a very appealing notion.
I can't believe I'm even asking this, but should I watch any of the other ones, or is this totally the law of diminishing returns?  

Stars: Four and a half out of five.

Next, another big one with "Jaws", and then my first Hitchcock movie ever, "North By Northwest". 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

#58 The Gold Rush (1925)

Betcha didn't know there was a gold rush in Alaska in the late 1800's.  Okay, maybe you did. Whatever.  What, you think you're better than me, college boy? 

Plot summary (with spoilers): The Little Tramp is a gold prospector in Alaska in the Olden Times. He's dressed like he always does, but he also has a little pick-axe or whatever. It's snowy and cold outside. He has no luck and during a horrible storm encounters

The cabin of escaped fugitive, Black Larsen

He goes inside and the escaped fugitive himself is eating a turkey leg or something he's cooked on the fire.  He tries to kick the Tramp out, but every time he opens the door to shove him out, the storm hilariously blows the Tramp back in. This happens about twenty times or so.  Then a third dude shows up, prospector Big Jim, who recently discovered a mine filled with gold but had to take shelter in the cabin when the storm showed up. Big Jim bullies the supposed bad guy (who owns the freaking cabin for God's sake) into letting him and Charlie stay there. After a couple days, they're all starving, so they draw cards to see who will go out and get them food. Poor Black Larsen gets the low card, so off he is sent into the storm, despite owning the freaking cabin. 
Then more time passes and Big Jim is so hungry he does that Looney Tunes thing where he imagines Charlie as a giant chicken and chases him around the cabin and tries to shoot him. Meanwhile, Black Larsen finds Big Jim's campsite and starts eating his food.  Good for you, Black Larsen! 
Charlie tries to get Jim to see that he's not a chicken, and Jim sometimes realizes this and stops chasing him, and then fails to realize it and starts chasing him again, over and over, and Charlie does physical "comedy" during this that is indeed impressive but not particularly funny at all. Then a bear shows up, so they shoot and eat it.  Phew.
So they part ways and Jim goes back alone to his campsite, where he spies Black Larsen eating his food.  They fight, and Larsen knocks Jim out with a shovel and steals his supplies.  Then he's killed by an avalanche. (Black Larsen, not Jim).
As for the Little Tramp, he goes into town (?!) and goes to a dance hall, where he meets

Jack, the ladies man
His special girl "Ginger"

Ginger is mad at Jack because he's flirting with other ladies, but it's right there in his name, so I'm not sure what her problem is. She tries to make Jack jealous by dancing with the first dude she sees, which of course happens to be Charlie. He falls madly in love with her, and even gets himself a picture of her.  (I dunno...there was one lying around on the bar.  Maybe she's a performer?)  

Then he finds a cabin near town.  In fact, it's 

Less than the throw of a stone away

which is wonderfully specific, Title Cards, thanks. He sees a man inside eating a big meal, so he pretends to be ill and passes out in front of the man's door.  The man brings him inside and gives him a drink and food and Charlie gobbles it all up and then the man says he's going a'prospecting for the next few weeks and Charlie is welcome to stay at his cabin while he's gone. So, faster than you can say "plot contrivance", Charlie has himself a new place to live. Then, Ginger and her girlfriends happen by, having a snowball fight.  I imagine the cabin is less than the throw of a snowball away from where they live. Charlie invites them in for some drinks, and they do so, while Charlie goes to get wood for the fire. Immediately, Ginger discovers the picture of herself under Charlie's pillow--forcing us to imagine what Little Tramp Onanism might look like--and shows her friends.  They all laugh and get all Mean Girls, deciding to mess with him. Charlie comes back and they ask him if he would like to have dinner with them on New Year's Eve next week at 8:00pm. Charlie says sure and then they leave and he spazzes out and rips up his pillow and feathers fly everywhere and then she comes back in having forgotten her gloves and it's awkward but kinda funny, I guess. 
So then New Year's comes, and Charlie has little gifts he's bought all the girls and dinner plates set up, and we cut back to the dance hall and see Ginger and the girls hanging out with Jack and laughing. Charlie falls asleep and dreams of entertaining the girls by putting dinner rolls on his forks and making them dance in that one "best of Charlie Chaplin" clip you've seen on TV all the time. Also, what a terrible dream. Then Charlie wakes up after midnight and trudges into town, just as Ginger decides to go with Jack and the girls to the cabin and fuck with Charlie some more.  Man, Ginger just sucks. When they get there, though, Ginger sees the little gifts and the place settings and feels bad and when Jack tries to kiss her, she pushes him away.  He gets mad and forces himself on her, and she slaps him. The next day at the tavern, she feels bad and writes a letter, 

Sorry for what I did last night. I hope you can forgive me. I love you, Ginger.

Aw...well isn't that sweet.  Maybe she's not such a bitch...oh.  She gives it to Jack. Jack reads the letter and laughs it off, then Charlie shows up and Jack tells the bartender to give the letter to him. Charlie reads it, and is so happy. He rushes into Ginger's arms, and just then Big Jim shows up. He claims to have found a mine full of gold, but can't find it anymore because the knock on the head with the shovel that Black Larsen gave him made him forget where it was. He insists Charlie take him back to the cabin right then, and figures he'll know where the mine is from there. But Charlie just wants to be with Ginger.  Fortunately, Big Jim is much stronger and carries him out of the tavern. They get back to the cabin, but there's another storm and this one blows the cabin partially off a cliff, then there's "wacky" hijinks, where they almost fall off the cliff and keep titling the cabin like a seesaw and finally they get out and find the mine and then they're millionaires. 
They get on a boat heading back to America all dressed up fancy and whatnot, and Ginger is also on the boat and Charlie sees her while dressed in his old mining clothes for a photo-op, and she thinks he's a stowaway and offers to pay his fare, and that makes him realize that she's not pure evil so he reveals that he's rich and now he has the girl, the money, and everything, even though she was a total bitch so whatever. 

Review: I don't know.  This just isn't funny to me.  I really admire the fact that just like last time, there's a real attempt to tell a full story here with lots of depth and pathos, but just like last time, even at 80 minutes, there's a ton of filler. This could've been a really good 30 minute short. And while Charlie is clearly gifted in the way he can move his body (in a way that Harpo most emphatically is not) it's still not really funny.  Just interesting. Like watching a circus performer. But have you ever watched a circus act and been impressed for any more than ten minutes or so afterwards?  There's a reason why this sort of performance art doesn't exist anymore, I think. It's just not that great.

Stars: Two and a half out of five.

Next, two enduring classics that I've somehow managed to never see (yet feel as if I have): "Rocky" and then "Jaws". Just when you thought it was safe to blah blah blah blah joke. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

#59 Nashville (1975)

Plot summary (with spoilers): Super great opening credits introduce the 24 person main-character cast with an voice over infomercial-type guy, excitedly explaining to us that we're about to see "Robert Altman's Nashville" without commercial interruption", and then he says out loud the names of the cast while country music plays, in a way that's very reminiscent of those old album commercials on TV (Act now!  Get 50 songs of the price of ten!).  Very clever.
Then we see a van with VOTE HAL PHILIP WALKER FOR PRESIDENT; THE REPLACEMENT PARTY on it, as we're treated to a man on a recording blasting out of the van speakers, pledging that he's not like those other guys and wake up America those Washington fat cats are blah blah and all that Ron Paul third party goodness we love but don't ever vote for.
We go into a recording studio where we meet the first batch of characters; there's Haven Hamilton; the old timey boot-in-your-ass country guy, currently recording a song about America's 200th birthday.  His wife Lady Pearl and their adult son are also there.  Plus, there's a BBC documentary filmmaker named Opal.  Haven stops the recording and insists that Opal leave the studio, so the son takes her to another room where she watches Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin, yay!) sing gospel songs with a black choir. Opal speaks excitedly and hilariously racistly about African singers and how they're just a choir robe away from their primitive dancing and gyrating relatives on the other side of the planet. She's a just a real peach, that Opal.
Cut to the airport, where huge Nashville singing sensation Barbara Jean is returning home after some time in an out of state hospital being treated for burns caused by an accident involving a firey baton. At the airport, we also meet an old man whose wife is sick in the hospital and his niece Joan, who just flew in from LA and has announced that she's changed her name to "LA Joan", which means she really needs to die right now. And we meet the singing trio Bill, Tom, and Mary.  Bill and Mary are married and Tom is the womanizing one, played by an inexplicably kinda hot Keith Carradine, way before the years caught up with him and ground him into dust. Lily Tomlin's husband Delbert Reese is also there to pick up a man at the airport who is Hal Philip Walker's campaign manager and is trying to get Delbert (who is a manager for several country singers) to get Linnea and others to endorse Walker's campaign. Okay, and plus there's a waitress who can't sing but doesn't know it and another country singer named Connie White who is a rising star but not as famous as Barbara Jean. Oh, and there's a military Sargent guy who's there to watch Barbara Jean get off the plane even though he doesn't know her.  And there's probably more.
So Barbara Jean gets off the plane and gives a little speech and everyone claps and such. But then she passes out, so her security team and handlers descend upon her and break up the mini-rally.  People begin to disperse the airport. As everyone leaves, a few cars get in an accident and clog up the whole freeway, leaving all the main characters in a traffic jam.  They chat for a while, and for a moment I get excited, thinking that the whole movie will just be these people having conversations while waiting for the traffic to clear up. But it's unfortunately over pretty quickly, although we do meet a few more characters, including a black country singer named Tommy Brown, and some goofy guy with glasses who abandons his car in a very ominous Falling Down sort of way. Funniest part of the whole movie: the BBC doc lady is interviewing Lily Tomlin and asks about her kids.  Lily says her children are deaf and the BBC lady exclaims "oh, how awful!" and Lily tries to say they're perfectly happy and she should meet them and the BBC lady says "no, I couldn't possibly, it would be so sad!" while vigorously shaking her head and I laugh for like five solid minutes.
Then the movie ends.

Review (also with spoilers): Okay, just kidding, but a play by play just isn't going to work with this movie.  Basically, these people fritter about for three hours, singing endless songs and having interpersonal dramas.  A lot of the stories worked for me: Lily Tomlin the bored housewife has an affair with Tom the singer after he relentlessly pursues her for the whole movie, and then is humiliated when he makes his next booty call before she's even left the hotel room. The waitress is hired to "sing" at a bawdy club and when she gets booed off the stage for not being able to sing, she is forced to strip to earn her pay for the night.  Lady Pearl is being interviewed by the BBC lady and gives a hilarious monologue where she laments the deaths of both Jack and Bobby Kennedy, and fights back tears as if recounting the deaths of close family members. Barbara Jean has a scene where she's clearly still high on drugs from the hospital and she's supposed to be giving a concert and instead just starts telling endless stream-of-consciousness monologues like a meth head.
A lot of the stories were kind of boring or just underdeveloped: The black country singer is called out and derided by other black characters for being a sellout. There's a limo driver that doesn't know his place.  The old man's wife dies in the hospital and he's sad.  LA Joan doesn't do or say anything interesting at all.  The Sargent who seems to be in love with Barbara Jean for some reason. The BBC lady is probably crazy and not even from the BBC. And so on.
And there's singing.  So much fucking singing.
The movie ends with all the main characters at a political rally for Hal Philip Walker and Barbara Jean opens the rally with a song, and the Falling Down guy very predictably shoots her and then is taken out by the marine Sargent guy. Then Haven in a state of shock and possibly shot in the arm himself, hands the mic to Connie White the newbie singer, and insists that she continue singing.  And she does!  And Lily Tomlin and her gospel choir also keep singing and the rally doesn't even disperse, as the Falling Down guy is dragged away.  I loved that whole part.
In general, Robert Altman is a mixed bag for me. Didn't care for Gosford Park, hated The Gingerbread Man and Cookie's Fortune, thought Dr. T and the Women was just okay, absolutely loved Short Cuts, The Player, and Streamers. (Very soon will be seeing M.A.S.H. for the first time). His style of filmmaking is obviously incredibly unique and special.  Lots of directors put you "there" in a very cinematic way; you're right next to the main character, or sometimes even seeing through his or her eyes and feeling totally immersed.  With Altman, you're "there" in the sense that would occur in reality.  If you're really "there" at a political rally for example, then you don't get to hear or see everything.  Everyone's talking at once, no one's concerned with making sure you understand what's going on. And while that can be intriguing and engaging sometimes in a movie, it's also a bit confusing and off-putting, at least for me.  I had to watch this movie twice just to get a handle on who the fuck everybody is, and I think that's a bit much.  But I liked parts of this movie a lot, especially the ending.  The singing got real old real fast, though.

Stars: Um...three.  No, three and a half.  Yeah.

Next, more silence with "The Gold Rush" and then I guess I'll finally see "Rocky", yo.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

#60 Duck Soup (1933)

Sigh.  All right, so...they're back.  And now there's a fourth, even less funny one called Zeppo. Let me just make sure Waldorf and Statler are ready to watch with me.

Waldorf: Well, you gotta give'm credit.
Statler: Why's that?
Waldorf: They're gonna keep on doing it until they get it right.

Plot summary (with spoilers): There's a fake country called Freedonia and they're out of money and some rich lady will loan them money, but only if the king or emperor or whatever resigns and they put in this dude she likes named Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho).  Kinda a cool name, so there's that at least.
So then there's a big ball or whatever to welcome the new King Firefly. The ambassador of a neighboring country named Tretino (the man, not the country) wants to woo the rich lady Mrs. Teasdale and get money for his country too, but his pretty friend Vera warns him that Mrs. Teasdale has a crush on Firefly so he probably won't get any.  Then they hatch a plan for Vera to seduce Firefly and Mrs. Teasdale will go to Tretino in her grief. Then Mrs. Teasdale introduces Firefly's secretary (Tretino) to Tretino and they talk about how Firefly is due to arrive any minute now and Tretino sure hopes he isn't late and Tretino says he definitely won't be late and then starts singing about how late Firefly isn't going to be and then everyone in the ballroom starts singing about how Firefly will arrive when the clock strikes ten and then they keep singing and singing and then all line up and face the doorway and the clock strikes and they sing and sing and then the song ends and...OMG.  You will not fucking believe it.  HE'S LATE.  It's funny because they said he wouldn't be late.
And then he shows up, but comes sliding down a pole in the middle of the room and joins everyone looking in the doorway and then they see him and phew.
Then Mrs. Teasdale talks to Groucho and he calls her fat and stupid and ugly and says "don't leave in a huff if you take a taxi you can leave in a minute and a huff".  Oh God, this is really happening again, isn't it?
Then Tretino shows up and Groucho is a dick to him because he thinks he's after Teasdale's money and Groucho wants it all to himself. So then Groucho sings about how he'll be a great new leader and everyone sings and blah.
Next scene. Tretino reveals he has employed two spies to spy on Groucho and figure out a way to unseat him somehow or something. The two spies turn out to be Chico and Harpo. Chico's the one who is funny because he's Italian and says horrible puns with a horrible fake accent.  Harpo is the one who doesn't talk and is basically a sociopath. In this scene, Tretino and Chico talk and Harpo honks his horn and produces giant shears which he uses to cut up Tretino's clothes and white paint that he uses to fuck up various things in Tretino's office.  (Okay, there was a kinda funny part when a lady brings in a telegram and Harpo reads it and gets pissed and crumbles it up and Tratino says "what did it say?" and Chico says, "He just gets mad because he can't read"  I chuckled.  Honest to God).
Then the scene ends with Chico promising to spy more on Groucho.
Then they're outside selling popcorn in a little kiosk in front of Groucho's castle or whatever and there's a hot dog vendor there, and Harpo's a total dick to him for no reason at all and steals the guy's hat over and over and honks his horn over and over and they all fall down and seriously I cannot fucking believe this shit. The scene ends when Harpo burns the guy's hat up. And the guy is just like "Why you little...." and all that.
So then Groucho sees them and hires them and tells them to come up to his office and there are more hijinks and Zeppo is also there  Harpo keeps cutting shit and also has a bunch of tattoos on his body and he seriously needs to go to jail.  Then Zeppo tells Groucho to goad Tretino into slapping him so that he'll have to leave the country but Groucho winds up slapping him instead which leads to Tretino declaring war on Freedonia.
Then Chico and Harpo are total assholes to the hot dog vendor guy again and burn his new hat.
Then Groucho flirts with Mrs. Teasdale, asks for a lock of her hair.  Then he says, "I'm letting you off easy.  I was gonna ask for the whole wig", in a cadence that suggests a joke, but there's no actual joke.  This is a running theme. He also says his father was a little too headstrong and his mother was an armstrong and the Headstrongs married the Armstrongs and that's how darkies were born, which is a racist word but also doesn't make any fucking sense as an actual joke.
Then Tretino enlists their help in breaking into Groucho's house and stealing his war plans. So they break in and lock Groucho in the bathroom and then dress up like Groucho to steal the plans from Mrs. Teasdale. Wacky stuff happens.  Then Groucho breaks out and does shtick in front of a mirror with Harpo dressed as Groucho, where they synchronize their movements like on all those Bugs Bunny cartoons and Bette Midler in Big Business and it's played out now, but it had to be pretty cool in its day, and wasn't bad now, I'll admit.  Though it goes on too long.
Then Chico and Harpo are arrested as spies.  Groucho says they'll get ten years in Levenworth or maybe eleven years in Twelveworth. Chico says something something rhymes with worth. A military guy runs in and says Tretino has troops on Freedonia's soil, this means war. A congressman guy says that will raise Freedonia's taxes.  Chico says he has an uncle that lives in Texas.  No, taxes!  Dollars, taxes.  Yeah, he lives in Dallas, Texas! Then there are two hundred thousand more puns.

Statler: These seats are awful
Waldorf: Why, can't you see anything?
Statler: That's the problem, I can see everything.

So, then everyone sings a song about going to war, which starts out kind of fun and silly because of the sheer amount of extras all singing and dancing in perfect crazy choreography, but ultimately goes on too long.
Then there's a war and they keep shooting at each other and Groucho accidentally shoots his own men, and then offers to pay Zeppo five dollars if he'll keep it under his hat and then takes the money back and says he'll keep it under his own hat and that's the fucking joke there.  Then the other army invades but Tretino gets his head caught some debris and is stuck like he's in a stockade and the brothers throw vegetables as him. Then he surrenders and Groucho says, "sorry you'll have to wait until the food runs out" then they throw shit at Mrs. Teasdale too.

Statler: Just when you think this show is terrible, something wonderful happens.
Waldorf: What?
Statler: It ends.


Review: Better than A Night at the Opera, if I may damn with faint praise. I actually chuckled a few times, which is a few more than the other movie, and I admire the spirit of the thing, I guess.  The mirror thing was pretty cool, too. But Groucho's jokes for the most part aren't actual jokes, and he's the only tolerable one of the whole lot. Chico fucking grates on my nerves and Harpo is a complete overacting, smug, scenery devouring unfunny piece of shit, like Jerry Lewis times a thousand. Fucking hate him. Zeppo was a zero who didn't even register as a person, but at least he wasn't offensively horrible like Harpo.  At any rate, I'm done.  There are no more Marx movies on this list, thank god.

Stars: Two out of five.

Next, "Nashville", which is pretty exciting, and then "The Gold Rush", my second of three Charlie Chaplin movies.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

#61 Sullivan's Travels (1942)

Plot summary (with spoilers): We begin in media res--which is a pretentious hipster phrase I like using--two men are fighting on top a moving train.  One man shoots the other several times in the chest and the second man falls onto the first, making him stumble back and they both fall off the train and into the water. "The End" comes onscreen, for we are indeed watching a movie. Movie director John L Sullivan (Sacramento shout-out!) is screening his new movie to two studio executives.  They don't like it because it's not funny and that's why people come to see movies nowadays. They need escapism.  Sullivan says he's tired of making shitty comedies from the Olden Times, which immediately makes him my new hero. He's clearly seen Yankee Doodle Dandy, Swing Time, and A Night at the Opera. He wants to make socially conscious art and adapt from Sinclair Beckstein's new novel, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? while the studio heads want him to make a sequel to last summer's big hit, Ants in Your Plants. Heh. But Sullivan's no sell-out.  He wants to make a movie about pain and suffering and the human condition.  The studio heads scoff at him and tell him he knows nothing of human suffering, having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth.  He realizes they're right, and sets off to become a hobo for a few weeks until he can learn what it's like. 
He has his butler get him some shabby clothes.  His second butler tells him it's a really bad idea, and not only is he kinda making light of real homeless people (called hobos or tramps in this movie, so I'll just go with that, don't hate me), but he's also risking a lot.  The studio heads convince Sullivan to put his business card in his shoe, should be ever need to identify himself, and to let his staff follow behind him in a big motor home. 
Cut to Sullivan walking down the highway with the classic hobo outfit, including a stick with a bag tied to the top while a giant motor home follows behind him by about twenty feet. Heh. 
But then a little kid in a...motorized go kart?  Mini-car of some kind?  Dunno...offers him a ride.  He jumps in and the kid goes barreling down the highway at top speed and the motor home is forced to catch up with him and all the staff in the motor home go crash boom bang and fall on top of each other and the negro chef falls into some batter and looks like he's doing whiteface and blah blah shitty comedy shitty comedy and in the end the motor home crashes and Sullivan gets out of the kid's car and tells them he's going off on his own and will meet them in Las Vegas in a few weeks.
He meets up with a lady and asks her for a dime for dinner but she's a lonely old widower who takes him home and changes his clothes and takes him out to dinner and a movie and it's his movie and he's super bored watching it while a kid behind him kicks the seat, someone else loudly unwraps candy, and a baby cries. Wow, some things really do never change. Anyway, that night he sneaks out of her house through the window and falls into a barrel of water and then is freezing cold.  He hitches a ride from a trucker who lets him sleep in the back, and when the trucker wakes him up the next day he discovers he's right back in Hollywood.  He goes into a diner and buys a cup of coffee with his last remaining dime. A beautiful blonde woman there buys him ham and eggs. They chat for a bit, and he learns she's a failed actress who would like to go back home to the East Coast, but can't because she has no car and is broke. What he doesn't learn, ever, is her name.  She's known only as The Girl in the credits, which is a pretty refreshing bit of honesty, really.  If all Hollywood movies did this, more than half of them would include a token female character named "The Girl".  He tells her he can borrow a car from a friend and gets his own car and starts driving her back, but his butlers report the car stolen and he and The Girl are thrown in jail.  He must call his butlers to get him out, and soon he's back home at the mansion with The Girl.  Once she learns who he is and his plans, she says she wants to go with him on his next "pretend you're a hobo for a day" experiment.  He puts up a token protest, then goes along with it.  They hitch a ride on a train and find themselves staring at a couple of other tramps. Sullivan says, "hey there, fellas. How do you feel about the current economic condition?" and the tramps hurriedly stand up and step outside and start working their way to the next car.  Ha, nice! Anyway, by the next day, Sullivan is sick and sneezes super big and "comically" over and over, and The Girl is starving and when the train slows down, they jump out and make their way to a little diner.  They beg for food and the diner owner takes pity on them and gives them coffee and donuts.  Sullivan asks what city they're in.  Las Vegas, of course.  Las Vegas!  Have you seen a large motor home around here?  Why sure, right over there to your right.  (Oh, fucking come on).
Yes, Sullivan's whole staff are right there, so Sullivan and The Girl board the motor home and get fresh showers and food and Sullivan's personal doctor says he's too sick to continue pretending to be a bum for at least a few days so they all hang out in the motor home until then.
A few days later, Sullivan the The Girl set out to play Tramp House once again, and there's montage of them walking through Tramp Cities, eating scraps cooked on the bonfire, until one day they're just sick of it and go racing back to the motor home which had been following them.  Total time elapse: three days.
The studio heads reveal they've been taking notes and photos of Sullivan's scary walk on the wild side, and are very excited to make the Oh Brother movie, now. Sullivan asks The Girl what she's going to do now, and she hints that she wants to stay with him and have his babies of course, but he reveals that he's already married.  DUN DUN.  Actually, they revealed that at the beginning, but I forgot to throw that in there.  Anyway, he tells her it was a marriage of convince that his business manager suggested to save on taxes (traditional values FTW!) but now his "wife" who lives elsewhere makes him send her money every month to keep the marriage a secret and won't grant him a divorce. He can't get one without her permission because whatever 1941 laws or maybe the movie is full of it, who knows. The Girl is sad. Sullivan says he's going to go around one last time to Hobo City and give everyone five dollar bills in a gesture to make him feel okay about exploiting them.  He does so at night, and one of the tramps sees him and decides he wants more than five bucks. He hides behind a corner, and ambushes Sullivan, bashing him on the head with a bottle.  They're right by a rail yard, so he drags Sullivan onto a railcar and leaves him there. Sullivan's out cold, so the tramp steals the rest of his money and his shoes, then goes running through the rail yard. He trips on a rail and the money goes flying. As he starts to desperately scoop it all up, a train comes barreling down on him and for some dumb reason he tries to outrun it instead of getting out of the way and he's smashed.
The next day, Sullivan's staff and The Girl go around town to all the hospitals, police stations, and morgues.  At the morgue, they say a man was brought in last night, too obliterated to identify. But they checked in his shoe, and....uh oh.
Meanwhile, Sullivan wakes up groggy in another city. He wanders off the train, which is stopped at a railway station.  The rail employee gives him shit and starts pushing him. Sullivan is still really put out by his head wound and can barely stand. The guy pushes him again, and Sullivan falls to the ground. He jumps back up, pissed, with a rock in his hand and starts hitting the guy with it.
The next scene, he's on trial for assault with intent to kill.  He's still too groggy, can't remember his own name, and can't defend himself.  So..the trial was later that day?  The Olden Times were really fucking efficient when they wanted to be. He's sentenced to six years hard labor at some weird work camp/jail hybrid place where Sullivan, now coherent, tries to tell people who he is, but of course no one will believe him.  He tries to get a phone call or write a letter, but the Evil Warden (is there any other kind?) doesn't like his shitty attitude and won't let him.  So all day, he must break rocks with his shirt off and get treated like shit by the other inmates.  He sees one guard with a newspaper that says "Hollywood Director Sullivan Mysteriously Killed" and knows no one is even looking for him.  His goose is well and truly cooked. The warden announces that that night the prisoners are getting a special treat, a field trip to a local church to watch a movie.
Turns out, it's a black church, and the pastor tells his parishioners to not be judgmental and that all have sinned etc and they nod and agree and sing a sweet gospel ditty as the prisoners are brought in. The movie they screen is a dumb Disney cartoon where Pluto gets into all kinds of wacky trouble, and Sullivan notices with awe that all the prisoners and the black churchgoers are laughing their asses off.  And soon, he is too.  Nice twist.  Did not see that coming. Though of course the bit players have to ruin it a bit by hamming it up huge and doubling over and almost literally rolling in the aisles at fucking Pluto falling down.
So, the next day Sullivan comes up with a great idea.  He "confesses" to the "murder" of famous Hollywood director John L Sullivan. His picture is in the paper, and The Girl sees it and she tells everyone else.  Soon, Sullivan's rescued from jail because also famous Hollywood directors are free to hit whoever they want with rocks, duh. Why do you think Lily Tomlin hates David O Russell so much?
The Girl tells Sullivan that his "widower" married his business manager when they thought he was dead, which means they're now divorced (uh...okay) and so now he and she can get married and she'll become Mrs. Girl Sullivan.  Yay! The studio heads excitedly tell him that his story got a ton of great publicity and now they can definitely make Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? into a monster hit. But Sullivan doesn't want to do that anymore, because he still doesn't really know about suffering.  He only now knows what he doesn't know.
And what he does know, is people need shitty comedies.  Now more than ever.  Onto Ants in Your Plants 2!  

Review: Well, not bad at all.  Lots of great twists, I really didn't know where the movie was going at all, which was fun. At first I thought we were just going to see Sullivan and The Girl try and fail to "suffer" over and over, which was cute for a while, but then the third act manages to get Sullivan in real trouble which generally played well. The "insta-trial" was super dumb and embarrassing. They were clearly straining really hard to make it believable that Sullivan would be unable to contact any of his friends and they don't quite make it, but whatever. Also, some of the early "comedy" scenes were as horrible as they have been in every Olden Times movie I've seen save for Bringing Up Baby, although there was some smart stuff, too. It's actually kind of frustrating that a movie with some really sharp lines and a knowing grasp of what's absurd about the shallow Hollywood elites would resort to cheap "people falling down" crap at all. The twist at the end with Sullivan realizing the power and value of the silly comedy was pretty neat and I totally didn't see it coming. Personally, I find engrossing dramas of human suffering to be as much or even more a form of escapism. But I seem to very much be in the minority on this. I appreciated that the black churchgoers were portrayed with dignity and respect, something that was so rare back then, that the President of the NAACP wrote director Preston Sturges and thanked him for it. (I guess the President politely overlooked the earlier scenes with the dumb black chef).
And yes, the Coen Bros titled their movie based on the fake book in this one.
I'd like to see this remade.  Drop the shitty comedy stuff, amp up the smart satire, make the third act more realistic and dangerous for Sullivan, and you've got yourself a movie.  Maybe even get a real director to star in it.  Ooh, I know! Starring Martin Scorsese. Written by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Spike Jonez.  Done.

Stars: Three and a half out of five.

Next, the fucking "comedy" "geniuses" known as the Marx "Brothers" assault my eyes and ears again with "Duck Soup" and then one I'm really looking forward to; Robert Altman's "Nashville".

Monday, August 1, 2011

#62 American Graffiti (1973)

That is one bitchin' ride, man.

Plot summary (with spoilers): So yeah.  This is the movie that inspired Happy Days, the show everyone in my generation watched and loved until Ted McGinley showed up. 
The year is 1962. Four friends have just graduated high school and are going out for one last night on the town before real life intrudes. There's Steve (aka Richie Cunningham himself, Ron Howard, severely testing my theory that all ginger dudes are inherently hot), Curt (nerdy, overweight Richard Dreyfuss who looks crazy young and yet will play a grown up scientist just two years later in Jaws, I'm interested in seeing how that works), Terry (that ugly old guy "Charles Martin Smith" who's in every third movie playing ugly old guys, google him), and John (guy I've never seen before who's playing a proto-Fonzie character). 
At the start, Steve and Curt discuss the fact that they're both leaving for college the next day while the other two are staying behind. But Curt hedges a bit and says he might not be going, after all.  He wants to stay in town and go to Junior college. Oh, Curt.  Don't do it, buddy.  I know whereof I speak. Steve doesn't want to hear that nonsense and insists that they're going to college together tomorrow, dammit. 
Steve announces to Terry that he's going to let him borrow his car while he's away at college, which is pretty generous, and Terry immediately wants to take it for a spin.  He drives off. Then John drives off in his spectacular yellow car (I don't know car names) that's in the pic above. I guess these friends aren't terribly interested in hanging out on their final night together. Then Steve meets up with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams, aka Laverne and Shirley's Laverne or Shirley, whichever is the dark-haired one) and tells her quite reasonably that he still wants to go steady with her, but would like to take a break while he's 3,000 miles away at school, and see other people. Laurie chokes this down and pretends very hard to be okay with it.  
Then, everybody goes "cruising".  By which I mean, they drive their gorgeous boat cars up and down the road over and over again and have conversations with drivers in other cars when they're stopped at traffic lights, like they're at a bar or something. Thanks for destroying the ozone, dicks. 
Curt is riding with Steve and Laurie and he sees a beautiful blond woman (The Thighmaster Suzanne Somers) in another car smile at him and mouth something.  He rolls down his window and says "what?!", but the light turns and she goes around the corner.  Curt begs Steve to follow her, but he refuses, so Curt gets out of the car to try to find her on foot.
From this point on, all four guys are basically separate for most of the movie with their own storylines that are intercut with each other, but I'm just gonna tell each one separately.
John sees a car full of girls at a light and starts hitting on one of them, and then asks her to get in his car. The girl refuses, and so he asks if anyone in the car would like to join him. "Well, my sister would".  "Great!  Your sister, your mother, whatever".  Way to play it cool, John.  So, someone in the back of the car who John can't even see gets out of the car and gets into John's  It's like internet chatting. Turns out the someone is a 12 year old girl, which makes it even more like internet chatting. John tries to get her to leave, but her sister has already taken off. The girl (Carol) says she's real mature for her age and wants to make time with a boy. John is rude to her at first, but then defends her when another guy in another car says something mean to her. Then some girls in another car throws a water balloon at John, but he ducks and it hits Carol. They laugh at this, then get out of the car and spray the girls' car with shaving cream. It's wacky and they bond. John tries to trick Carol into saying where she lives, but she insists that she wants to stay out all night until she finds a man. So he calls her bluff and starts uncomfortably and hilariously trying to hit on her, and she immediately spills her address. When he drops her off, he kisses her on the cheek and it's quite sweet.
Terry drives Steve's car around until he meets a girl named Debbie who's impressed enough to get in. She wants alcohol, so he goes to a liquor store and does the "I lost my ID" thing which doesn't work with the clerk, so he stands outside the store and asks an old man to buy some booze for him. The old man takes the money, buys some wine, and then disappears out the back door. Heh.  Terry borrows more money from Debbie and then asks someone else to get him some liquor. The guy says yes, then disappears inside for a bit. The camera stays on Terry, then suddenly the guy races out with a paper bag with a bottle of booze, throws it at Terry, and then runs away, immediately followed by the clerk who has a gun and shoots at him several times.  WTF.  Seriously, what just happened?  Anyone seen this movie?  The guy apparently ran out without paying, I guess?  And gave the booze to Terry anyway?  He put his life at risk to get some stranger booze, and got nothing out of it but the cost of the bottle? This does not make sense at all. 
Anyway, they go to Makeout Hill or whatever, drink a little, then decide to go off into the bushes to have sex instead of the back of the car like proper folk, and by the time they get back, the car is stolen. 
Steve and Laurie go to a dance where Laurie starts crying and Steve feels bad and says he no longer wants to see other people and promises to pretend to be monogamous while away at college. A teacher at the dance warns them to stop dancing so close together and Steve triumphantly tells him to "kiss a duck" because he's graduated already. I say we bring back "kiss a duck".  That is some seriously hardcore shit.  But then Steve and Laurie go to a diner and break up again and then make up again while driving away and then break up again at Makeout Hill and Laurie winds up kicking Steve out of her car and driving off, leaving him. He stumbles upon Terry and Debbie and they all walk back into town.
Curt goes on his search for the hot blond, and sits on a car that belongs to some greasers who are in a gang called "The Pharaohs" where they wear matching jackets with their gang name on them, just like the Bloods and Crips do. The Pharaohs make Curt go with them and force him under the threat of violence steal quarters from a pinball machine and then later to tie a chain to a police car which causes the rear axle to come off. The Pharaohs are impressed with Curt's abilities and try to make him join their knockoff bullshit Disney gang. He politely promises to think about it. He then goes to the local DJ, Wolfmann Jack, and begs him to read a note on the air, asking the mystery blond woman to meet him at the local burger joint in an hour. While there, Curt sits in his car and suddenly this phone that's attached by a long wire  to this giant box starts to ring. Curt walks up to the giant box and answers the phone, even though it's obviously not his cell.  Weird. The person on the phone claims to be the blond, and says she'll meet with him the next day, but Curt says he'll be gone off to college the next day.  Aw. Go, Curt!
Steve, Terry, and Debbie get back into town and Steve goes off on his own. Terry and Debbie find Steve's car parked at the burger joint and try to steal it back.  The thieves catch them and start beating the tar out of Terry. John drives by at that point and fights both of them off. Then Steve learns from some kids in the diner that Laurie has gone off with Harrison Ford, who is a drag racer who has spent the movie trying to find and challenge drag-racing champion John to a race. Everyone rushes off to find Laurie, who they all agree should under no circumstances be around Harrison Ford. They find them outside of town on a long strip of road. Harrison Ford challenges John to a race, and John agrees. Steve begs Laurie to get out of the car first, but she won't. Terry says "Go!" and they peel out.  Harrison Ford is barely pulling ahead when his tire blows and he goes flying off the road and flips upside down. Everyone runs over and bizarrely, Laurie and Harrison Ford are already out of the car, barely even injured. I guess seat belts are for suckers.  Steve pulls Laurie away from the car and John helps Harrison Ford and the car blows up. 
The next morning. Everyone's at the airport to see Curt off to college. But Steve isn't going, because Steve is again back with Laurie and has decided to ruin his life for the chance to knock her up and never amount to anything.
Curt disappears onto the plane and everyone watches it take off.  The most depressing title cards ever tell us that John was killed by a drunk driver two years later, and Terry went MIA in Vietnam, and Steve is single and an insurance agent and Curt is a writer in Canada. The End.

Review: I think this movie invented the "high school kids celebrate their last night of childhood" genre of teen movies, and it's probably the best of that sad little genre. The individual stories were nice, some better than others, and Richard Dreyfuss stuck out in particular as a very likable and interesting character and he definitely had the most interesting arc. I'm not sure what it added up to though, besides a mildly interesting character study. I mean, Robert Altman does this stuff much better, and spices up the boring parts with Julianne Moore's crotch. There's not much really wrong with it (apart from the stupid title cards) I laughed, I cared, but not a lot. I think this is a movie for a specific group of people, namely who were in high school in the 60's and actually cruised around in those boats. On that level, it's no doubt a very compelling time capsule, but for the rest of A truly great movie puts you "there", no matter how alien that world is to you in reality.  Earlier AFI entries come to mind: The Last Picture Show, The Shawshank Redemption, In the Heat of the Night, Pulp Fiction. This one kept me at an arm's length. I know this is the movie that inspired George Lucas to cast Harrison Ford as Han and later Indy, so if nothing else, that's pretty great.  Also, if there were no Graffiti, there would be no Happy Days and quite possibly no Ron Howard the director. Which would mean that Clint Howard would be under a bridge somewhere, trying to steal your firstborn son unless you give him gold. 
So, there's more pluses than minuses, is what I'm saying. 

Stars: Three out of five.

Next, "Sullivan's Travels" (?), and then...oh god.  "Duck Soup".