Saturday, December 24, 2011

#20 It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Twas the night before Christmas
and all through Bedford Falls,
George Bailey was stirring,
he was climbing the walls.

He was raving and ranting,
getting sloshed in the bar
and swerving and crying
and crashing his car.

He came to a bridge
and in his miserable state
thought enough was enough
there was too much on his plate.

Is suicide truly painless?
He'll soon find out.
For the end was surely near,
of that there's no doubt.

Sir spoke to the angels,
 told them of George's plight
"Now look here, good Clarence,
you must set things right.

"You must save George Bailey
and make him see good things.
And if you're successful,
you'll  finally get your wings".

But first, some background;
in his past, here's the tale,
He saved his brother from drowning 
and his boss from jail.

All his life he dreamed 
of escaping Bedford Falls
but life got in the way
and kicked him in the...why hello, Mary! 

George liked Mary a lot,
when shove came to push
They went dancing, and swimming 
and she got naked with a bush.

His father asked him to stay
and take over at the  bank.
And protect it from Mean ol Potter,
the town's rich, evil crank.

George said no, 
but then Dad died. 
Potter schemed
and then George sighed.

He took Dad's place
and became a bank tycoon.
He let his brother go to college
and never did lasso that moon.

He married Mary and lived well
and his brother got married too.
I liked it in Cinderella
when she said "Bippity Boppity Boo".

They had three kids
and a wonderful life.
His brother was a war hero
George truly loved his wife.

Then one day George's uncle
went to make a deposit.
He had eight grand
and accidentally lost it. 

Potter found it and hid it
and cackled with glee.
"At last!" he cried.
"George is finished! The town belongs to me!"

George knew the bank auditors
would learn the money was gone.
He screamed at his uncle
at his wife, kids and mom.

That's what put him on that bridge
on that late Christmas Eve.
And that's where Clarence found him
and granted him a reprieve.

George wished he'd never been born
and Clarence made the wish come true.
And when George saw this happen
he became very blue.

His mother was a bitter spinster,
her nerves were frayed
Bedford Falls was named "Pottersville",
and Mary was an old maid.

His old boss was a bum
his kids were gone, too.
And his brother, oh his brother,
was dead.  Yes, it's true.

George wanted his life back
he regretted his words
He begged Clarence to reverse it,
death was for the birds!

Clarence did as he asked
and George whooped with joy
He didn't care about the money,
he was one grateful boy.

He hugged Mary and the kids
and accepted his fate.
He would soon be in jail
it was just too late. 

When suddenly outside,
George heard such a clatter.
He sprang to the door 
to see what was the matter. 

In came Ma and Ernie 
and Burt and Billy
and Violet and Sam 
and Annie and Tilly

The whole town was there 
and they all chipped in
The eight thousand was covered
with a wink and a grin.

"We love you, George, Merry Christmas!"
the town all cheered.
Up in Heaven, Sir smiled
and the dark clouds all cleared.

On the tree, the lights twinkle
and also the bell rings
which everyone knows
 means an angel got his wings. 

Review: Pretty cool timing on this one, no?  Wasn't easy busting out so many reviews to make this one by the 12/24 deadline. But I'm awesome like that. 
No, I hadn't seen this one either. I've got no good excuse, except that I thought I had sort of already seen it without seeing it, you know? As it's been parodied and redone a million times on every TV sitcom from the eighties and beyond. Second only to A Christmas Carol, this movie has been "reimagined" more than any other. But what I didn't know was that I only knew the last half hour. I thought that part was the whole movie, I didn't know it was only the Third Act. I also didn't know how dark and strange this story was going to be, with level of maturity well beyond what I expect to see in an Olden Times movie. 
I knew what was going to happen in the end with the town all giving him the lost money, and I feared very much that it would be a schmaltz-fest, but the movie earns that moment completely, with a deep and fully realized town of supporting characters that truly seem to live real lives separate from just supporting George in this movie, and with a love story that's compelling and realistic and with a great villain in Potter. By the end, not only did I not mind a schmaltz-fest, but I actively craved one. There was no other way to release the tension, to breathe again, and to allow George (and perhaps a viewer or two) to make peace with the fact that life doesn't always go as planned. The movie does such a great job of putting us in George's mindset; experiencing his frustrations at never getting to leave town, and keeping us from seeing what a truly wonderful life George has, just as he can't see it, until the end. It's a great cathartic ending to a truly wonderful and unique movie. 

Stars: Five out of five.

Next, "On the Waterfront" and then, "The General". But those will come next year.  See you then. And, Merry Christmas. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

#21 Chinatown (1974)

Plot summary (with spoilers): Jake Gittes. Private Eye. Los Angeles. 1937. Jake has some pictures to show his client, Curly, who hired Jake because he suspects his wife is having an affair. He's right. Curly leaves the office all broken up and a new client enters, a Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray. Mrs. Mulwray suspects her husband is cheating too, and wants Jake and his partners to find the evidence. Jake takes the case and winds up tailing Mr. Mulwray for a bit. Turns out Mr. Mulwray is the Chief Engineer for the Dept of Water and Power. Turns out he is also cheating on his wife. Jake takes pictures of Mulwray with the girl, and the next day they somehow turn up on the front page of the newspaper. Jake goes back to his office, and his partners do that thing in movies and TV where they try to tell him something and to stop talking, but Jake has a racist Chinese joke to tell, and they let him tell it despite the fact that Faye Dunaway and a Chinese guy are behind him in his office. Faye Dunaway says she's Mrs. Mulwray, the real Mrs. Mulwray, and she'll be seeing him in court!
Jake knows he's been set up. A patsie. A stoolie. He's determined to find out from who. But soon enough, he finds out Mulwray's been murdered. He's called to the scene of the crime by his old partner Escobar, who's now a lieutenant. Escobar's interviewing Evelyn Mulwray. She tells him that she hired Jake to uncover evidence of her husband's affair, and Jake quickly goes along with the lie.
Then Jake goes to the water reservoir where he last saw Mulwray alive to search for any clues. He hops the fence, and starts walking down an empty canal, and is quickly knocked over by a ton of flooding water. He gets out and is cornered by two rough looking goons. One holds him down why the other busts out a knife. He says Jake's too nosy, then cuts his nose with the knife, because goons love puns.
Later that night, Jake has dinner with Evelyn where she thanks him for going along with her lie and offers to send him a check so it will look legit. She also says she'll drop the lawsuit. Jake has a hugely comical and distracting bandage on his nose. They do some noir-ish flirting and he wants to know what she's hiding because dames is always hiding something. She admits she was also cheating on her husband. He tells her he thinks Mulwray was murdered, even though the cops say he was drowned.
Back at the office, Jake gets a call from Ida Sessions, the fake Mrs. Mulwray from before. She says she was hired by someone to fake him out but won't say who. But because she likes riddles, she tells him to look in that day's obituary for a clue.
So, cut to it: The plot is immensely detailed and complex and loops around and around in incredibly satisfying ways and everything fits together perfectly like a thousand-piece puzzle of something blue. Jake learns first that Evelyn's father Noah Cross used to own the Dept of Water and Power along with Mulwray. Cross hires Jake to find the girl Mulwray was cheating on his wife with. Jake learns that someone is using dead people's names to purchase all the land in the valley, which is where the LA water is being rerouted to. He almost gets killed by the goons again, but Evelyn pulls up in her car and saves him. They race off, and wind up making mad passionate noir-sex. Later, Evelyn receives a phone call and scrambles away, asking Jake to stay there. But yeah, he doesn't. He follows her to some hideout where he sees her Chinese assistant and the woman Mulwray was having an affair with. Jake wants to know who she really is. Evelyn says it's her sister, Katherine. (Slap!  No wait, not yet). Then Jake gets a call from Escobar summoning him to a mysterious address. Turns out it's Ida Session's house. She's dead. Escobar thinks Evelyn did it and Jake is protecting her, but Jake laughs in the face of his ignorance. Escobar says Mulwray didn't drown, either. Salt water was found in his lungs. Jake goes back to Evelyn's house and discovers the salt-water pond in her backyard and the broken glasses at the bottom. He confronts Evelyn, accusing her of murder, but she denies it.
Stop lying!  Who's the girl?!
My sister!  (Slap!) My daughter!  (Slap!) My sister!  (Slap!) My daughter! (Slap!)
I really, really like this movie, but this uber-famous scene's a bit hairy for me. I mean, the slapping in time with the sister/daughter stuff skirts the line of ridiculousness. In fact, probably goes over it.
Evelyn admits her father raped her when she was 15 and Katherine was the result. (Wow, only a totally depraved creep would rape an underage girl. Isn't that right, Mr. Polanski?) Jake believes her, but he's already called the cops, thinking she was guilty of murder. He tells them to run they'll meet at Evelyn's assistant's house in two hours. And where does he live? Why, Chinatown, of course. Evelyn also says the glasses aren't her husband's because he didn't wear bifocals.
Then the cops show up and Jake tells Escobar the Evelyn is gone and is probably staying at her maid's in San Pedro. Escobar makes Jake go with them and says he'll arrest Jake for accessory to murder if they don't find Evelyn there. They arrive at what Jake says is the maid's house, and Jake asks for a couple minutes alone with Evelyn first. Escobar relents.
Jake goes up the house, knocks on the door...and Curly answers. You know, from the first scene!  That's fucking ingenious, I'll tell you what. Talk about the economy of characters. Jake sneaks out the back with Curly and asks him to meet Evelyn and Katherine in Chinatown and drive them to safety.
Meanwhile, Jake goes back to confront Cross for murdering his son-in-law and buying up half the valley with fake names, but Cross' goons grab Jake and force him to take them all the Chinatown.
The final confrontation takes place in Chinatown, where Escobar tries again to arrest Jake, while Evelyn tries to drive off with Katherine. Cross tries to stop Evelyn from taking his "granddaughter" (UGH) away from him, but Evelyn shoots him and drives off. Escobar calls at her to halt and shoots at her. He hits her and she crashes. Everyone runs towards the car and sees that Evelyn is clearly dead. Cross comforts a screaming Katherine (UGH UGH) while Jake stares in shock. Escobar barks at Jake to leave, that he's doing him a favor. Jake turns to go, then turns around as if to attack Escobar, but his partner holds him back.
Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown.

Review: So, as I said earlier, the plot twists and turns in dozens of extremely smart and satisfying ways that are basically too numerous to go into detail. I honestly can't remember a smarter script, period. And the best part is, at no point, not ever, did I ask myself, "Now why did Character X do that or go there?", which is basically unheard of for this type of genre. Everything makes perfect sense. No plot holes, no fuss, no muss. No suspension of disbelief required, with the lone exception of the dumb scene where Jake's telling the dumb Chinese joke and none of his partners interrupt him and tell him to shut up and turn around. And despite being extremely plot-heavy and needing a ton of exposition, the script still is able to bring three-dimensional humanity to all the major characters, and have scenes that are thrilling and emotional, as well as informative. The ending is memorably and appropriately bleak, too. There's a reason why "Chinatown" is now just a metaphor for hopelessly corrupt and depraved. Jack of course is great too, but Jack's always great.

Stars: Four and a half out of five.

Friday, December 16, 2011

#22 Some Like It Hot (1959)

Plot summary (with spoilers): It's a period piece. And not just cuz they're dressed like ladies. HEY-O!
It's 1929 and some cops and robbers are having a high speed Untouchables-type shoot out over some bootleg liquor.
Then we go inside a nightclub, where saxophonist Joe and bassist Jerry are playing in a band. They exposit all over each other for a bit while exchanging witty bon mots. The upshot is, they're poor, but they'll be getting paid tomorrow. Joe wants to gamble and double their winnings. Jerry thinks that's crazy, but Joe usually talks him into things. Suddenly, the nightclub gets raided by the cops for selling liquor, and Joe and Jerry barely escape without being arrested. They go to like, a musician's temp agency and ask for a new job. The only thing available is a job in Florida for three weeks, and they need a saxophonist and a bassist. Great! Except that it's an all-girl band. If either one of them played the sad trombone, they would surely play it now. Wah. Wah.
Then they go to some parking garage, and stumble upon a bunch of mobsters. Some mobsters have big machine guns while other mobsters have no machine guns. Very quickly, the only mobsters left are the ones with big machine guns. The mobsters see Joe and Jerry hiding and chase after them, but our heroes manage to comically scramble away. They decide they only have one option left.
Comic smash cut to--dudes looking like ladies. Joe and Jerry are in drag, stumbling on heels, walking to the train station. They sarcastically call each other "Josephine" and "Geraldine" and fret about pulling this off. Soon, they're passed by a sexy blonde with big bazooms and a cute little rear end. Jerry says it's like she runs on a motor and dames are like a whole different sex! They get on the train with the other girls in the band, and introduce themselves as Josephine and Daphne. Tony Curtis does a double take at Jack Lemmon for using a different name than planned. For some reason, that really tickled me.
So "Daphne" goes to the restroom and sees the hot blonde in the back sneaking some liquor. Her name's Sugar, and she sings in the band. She'll even sing to the President if you ask her nice. Sugar says her goal is to bag a rich man once they get to Florida, as a woman should. She complains that in the past she's always dated regular guys and wound up with the "fuzzy end of the lollipop" which is probably a really clever sex pun I can't quite figure out.
Once they arrive at the hotel, a rich man named Osgood Fielding III approaches. (Sidebar: I always wanted to be a "III" growing up. It just seemed so regal). But Osgood wants "Daphne".  D'oh!  Jerry fights off Osgood's advances, and slaps him for trying to get fresh, etc. Meanwhile, "Josephine" befriends Sugar and learns of her plans to snag a rich man. The other girls ask Sugar and Daphne and Josephine to join them at the beach, but Josephine begs off.
Cut to the ladies plus Daphne frolicking in the water and Daphne playfully getting the girls to jump up and down and keeps "accidentally" bumping into Sugar. It's not funny, per se, but it's right on the edge of being funny. Jack Lemmon is certainly trying his damndest. Meanwhile Joe hits the beach dressed as a man in a fancy yachting outfit. He manages to get Sugar's attention and is very rude and dismissive of her while dropping hints that he's a millionaire and owns a yacht. And he's totally doing something weird with his voice.'s a Cary Grant impression!  And I recognized it! This is officially my proudest AFI moment.
So they get back to the hotel room and Osgood calls Daphne asking for a date. Joe answers the phone and Osgood says he'd like to take Daphne out that night on his yacht. Joe says Daphne hates yachts but she'll be happy to meet him on the shore. He then hangs up and tells Jerry his plan, which is this: He'll pretend to be a millionaire and take the hot blonde bombshell onto the yacht all night and Jerry will stay in drag and fight off the advances of a horny old man all night. Jerry says, "Oh no, you don't!  I'll never do that in a million years!"
Jerry's in drag. Osgood takes him by the arm and leads him to his car.
Joe's on the yacht with Sugar. Joe tells Sugar he was hurt by a woman once a long time ago, and since then he is essentially asexual. She takes it upon herself to "cure" him through repeated kisses, and crawling on top of him, etc. "Anything yet?" "Nope. Nothing". This part's mildly amusing. Not laughing, but smiling.
Sugar's seduction attempts are intercut with Osgood and Daphne doing the tango on a ballroom floor. Jack Lemmon's deadpan thousand-yard stare as he's being dipped and twirled around finally gets me to laugh out loud.
Finally, it's the next morning. Joe and Sugar kiss each other goodbye, and Joe goes back to his hotel room. Wait a minute!  That means...oh, Hays Code, you poor thing. You're losing it, buddy.
Joe enters and sees Jerry still in drag lying on the bed and humming the tango and looking deliriously happy. Hmm. Jerry says he's engaged.
"Who's the lucky girl?"
"Me." says Jerry.
WHA????  Joe protests that men can't marry men!  That's just fucking insane. Next will come goats marrying household appliances or something.
Jerry says he plans to marry Osgood and then reveal all for quick annulment and large cash payout. He dances around the room still humming the tango. He reveals the fancy diamond necklace Osgood bought him.  Joe says they'll hock it. Jerry tells Joe that he can't see Sugar again because she'll know he's not rich. Joe says normally he would just hit and quit that, but he feels guilty now. He calls Sugar and tells her that he's been sent to the other side of the world on business and he can't see her anymore. She cries because it's true love or something.
Then the mobsters randomly show up, under the guise of having a "Friends of Italian Opera" convention. Joe and Jerry are all set to leave the hotel, but see the mobsters and go running back into their hotel room and back into drag. But the mobsters recognize them and chase them around comically. Then Jerry and Joe hide under a big table in one of the hotel convention rooms and the mobsters meet there, and different mobsters are mad at the original mobsters for letting two witnesses escape and they shoot the shit out of the original mobsters. Then Jerry and Joe pop back up and run out of the room and the new mobsters chase them.
Jerry calls Osgood and says they'll get married now, tonight, just meet him at the docks. They run around some more, and Joe and Jerry, still in drag, happen upon Sugar singing with the band. She's weeping and inconsolable. Joe approaches and tells her not to let any man make her feel this way. He kisses her. She accepts the kiss, and then leans back, shocked. "Josephine!" Joe and Jerry run away, and Sugar struggles with the fact that she was turned on. Ooh, very cutting edge, movie. Well done.
So Joe and Jerry run to the docks where Osgood is waiting in a little motorboat. Jerry introduces Joe as a bridesmaid. Then Sugar comes running up and gets on as well. The mobsters are left in the dust.
Then on the motorboat, Joe takes off his wig and tells Sugar he's a man. He says he's not rich, either. Sugar totally goes with all of it, and says she loves getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop after all.
(That's gotta be a sex pun, right? Let's workshop this: the "sweet" end of the lollipop is a rich guy, representing the ideal and the "fuzzy" end is a poor guy, representing what you settle for. Hmm. Do you suppose it has something to do with circumcision?)
Then "Daphne" tells Osgood they can't get married.
I'm not a natural blonde. I smoke. I drink like a fish. I can't have children.
Osgood blithely shoots down all these objections with assurances that he loves her still.
Jerry takes off his wig. "I'm a man, dammit."
Osgood doesn't flinch. "Nobody's perfect". Jack Lemmon does a beautiful double take that makes me laugh for probably the third time as credits roll.

Review: Again, we run into my problem with Olden Times comedies, in that they're not really funny. This was made in 1959, so it wasn't all that far back, and indeed it wasn't painfully unfunny, just not terribly funny either. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are fighting tooth and nail through sheer force of will to make me laugh and when it works, it does so despite the painful groaner lines and totally played out scenarios. I mean, there must've been  a dozen iterations of "What kind of woman are you?" "Oh, if you only knew", throughout the thing that I guess was hilarious and edgy at the time, but now is just corny. Plus, it has all the cliche moments of the "dudes look like ladies" genre, which is never as funny or as edgy as the movies think it is. Yes, I know, this movie probably invented most of those cliches, but that doesn't make them any easier to watch now.
However, Lemmon and Curtis are genuinely funny and personable, plus there's a bellboy I forgot to mention, a teen kid who hits on "Josephine" a few times, and he's super cheesy and keeps calling Tony Curtis "doll", and he's pretty good, too. Marilyn is fine, but definitely not at the caliber of the two guys.

Stars: Three out of five.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

#23 The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Better dead than red?

Plot summary (with spoilers): Tom Joad got out of prison. He was put in there for manslaughter. Got seven years, but paroled in four. He hitches a ride home to his family's farm in Oklahoma. He walks the last few miles, and first encounters an old family-friend, a preacher named Jim Casy. Casy has renounced his religion and thinks that labeling actions as "sinful" and "virtuous" are outdated concepts. There's only "nice" and "not-so nice", which sounds kind of weird and vapid, but not when Casy says it. 
Casy says he's broke and homeless. Joad invites him with him to the family's farm, where at least he'll get a nice meal and a roof over his head for one night. They arrive at Joad's house and discover it in a pile on the ground. They find a guy there named Muley, who is hiding out in the hay. He tells the story of how the deed holders of the land came into the fields one day and told everyone to clear out and then promptly bulldozed over everyone's homes. We see the giant Caterpillars from crazy low angles and in shadows as Muley tells his story in flashback, like they're evil monsters in a scary movie. 
Joad, Muley, and Casy continue onward to Joad's uncle's house, where the rest of the family is waiting. Everyone's thrilled to see Joad's out of jail, all 11 of them, especially Ma, who tells him that the bulldozers are coming tomorrow to level Uncle John's house too. The plan is for everyone to go to California and get jobs there. Random Joad family member found a flier that advertised for 800 orange pickers in Southern California, and that's where they can find their footing and start over.  
Why do other people own the deeds to their farms, anyway? Is this an Oklahoma thing? 
Anyway, the next morning, they all pack up their big truck and drive onto Route 66, despite getting a marked lack of  kicks. Grandpa Joad dies nearly immediately while on the road, so they bury him and press onward, kind of like in the first Chevy Chase vacation movie and just as unfunny. 
On the way, they encounter a campsite where a man tells them he just came from California, and it's just a shitty there as it is anyplace else, and he's heading back to Arkansas where he came from. The Joads don't believe him, and Tom shows him the flier. The man scoffs and says that everyone has that flier. Tens of thousands of men applied for the job that only needed 800. The Joads are in full-on "kill the messenger" mode, and tell the man to get lost, but they're privately terrified he's right. 
After much trials and tribulations, including Grandma Joad's death as well, the remaining Joad's arrive in California, where they are promptly told there is no work for them and are directed to the "camps", which are basically slums. When they arrive, they're swamped by children begging them for food, but the Joads insist they only have enough for themselves. After they cook their food, the children fight each other for sips of the broth water while the Joads look on this pathetic display, fearing they're witnessing their future. 
Then Tex Richman comes driving up, offering anyone who wants it a job picking fruit. A man asks for how much. Tex Richman says he doesn't know for sure, but around thirty cents a day. The man wants a contract before he'll agree to work. He says he's been burned in the past, and that the Fat Cats hire too many men for the job and wind up paying them far less than promised. Tex says take it or leave it. He calls the man an "agitator" and motions for the sheriff riding with him to arrest the guy. The guy punches out the sheriff, and then runs away. The sheriff shoots at him, and winds up killing a random woman. Joad jumps in and beats the shit out of the sheriff, and the Joads decide they need to leave before more cops show up.
Eventually, they travel north to another camp. They're offered five cents an hour and lodging in some tiny shack shithole. The Joad men eagerly take the job. After a few days though, the former preacher Casy takes Joad aside late at night and tells him he's met with some other men and they've decided to strike. The men have said the five cent an hour offer is temporary, and as soon as they get more guys, they'll drop it down to 2.5 cents. He says they need to strike and form some sort of united front, like they're all, I dunno, merging or joining together in a more perfect...accord, or agreement or amalgamation of similar goals. And maybe those "unions" let's say, will start out good and pure and save the working man, but then ultimately become just as corrupt as those who came before, leaving no easy answers in the future.  Joad says they're nuts. Last week he had nothing and this week he has a dollar. He's not going to mess with that. But then the cops descend on them and Casy struggles with them and one of them beats Casy with his nightstick to death and then Joad grapples with him and winds up beating and killing the cop.
He runs back to the camp. Ma Joad helps him hide. The family decide to leave that night, knowing that the cops will be looking for Joad. They barely get away.
On the road again, the truck overheats and they stall out and roll down a hill and into another camp. While there, they're offered work as well as a decent place to stay with indoor plumbing. They're told Friday nights are when everyone gathers and has a party and dances after a long week of picking fruit. The Joads are awestruck. How is such a thing possible? Who runs this camp? Why, the government does. 
That bitter laughter you hear is the sound of hundreds of thousands of future citizens of New Orleans, pay it no mind.
The Joads make some sort of home for themselves on the government property. but eventually the cops come sniffing around the place, looking for the man who killed one of their own. They're not allowed to search the camps without a warrant, so they plant interlopers to start a brawl during the Friday night dances. The campers are onto them though, and quietly quell the interlopers without causing any outward signs of fighting. Joad knows that the jig will soon be up, though. He takes Ma aside, and tells her he must go on his own. But he'll be there in spirit, wherever there are injustices in the world. He'll be there. Wherever there's a kitten up a tree, he'll be there. Wherever there's a House of Unamerican Activity Committee, he'll be investigated. And he leaves. 
Later, the rest of the Joad men learn of 22 days worth of work up in Fresno, so off the Joads go on their truck once again. Ma Joad says they were almost beat, but she's hopeful now that one day they'll be able to stop scraping and starving and have a real life. And that the rich folks will all die one day because they're no good and their kids are no good but folks like them, the real people, are the people who will endure. 
It's more than a little ironic that she pretty much looks like Rush Limbaugh. 

Review: Taken just as a story with a strong plot and mood, this is a pretty great flick. They acting is uniformly wonderful, and cinematic shots John Ford takes are haunting and memorable. There's plenty of artsy stuff going on here, from the decision to have almost no score, to the choice to have many of the scenes take place in the shadows, it's all very grim and hypnotic. And most of the actors are, to put it kindly, total uggos, which is also depressing. The black and white helps set the mood, too. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this is the first black and white movie I've seen on this list that I'd prefer to not see in color. 
But it's also a message movie, which I was not expecting at all. (No, I never read it in school, College Boy, I had no idea what it was about except poor people). Specifically, it's a Pro-Union, Pro-Communist, Pro-Class Warfare, Anti-Religion, Anti-God message movie, that came out just two short years before the start of our nation's most morally pure and rah rah fun time Capitalist War. There's simply no way this movie would be made today, unless it was some indie thing on a shoestring budget that played for one week at the shitty theatre in the big city next to the Gay Adult bookstore. 
I'm really quite surprised it was made even back then, frankly, and the movie certainly doesn't even pretend to be balanced in its Far Left Agenda, to the point of being a bit off-putting, and I say that as a lefty myself. I have to say, more than any other movie so far, it's made me reevaluate some of my assumptions about the Olden Times and the movies they made and the values they had back then.  
This movie reminds me of Requiem for a Dream in the sense that I can't say I really enjoyed it, as it was so unrelentingly brutal, but I feel better for having endured it. Not all art should be pleasurable, I guess. 

Stars: Four out of five.

Next, the comedy inherent in dudes looking like ladies in "Some Like It Hot", and then it's "Chinatown", Jake.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

#24 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Oh...yeah. Still awesome. Phew!

Plot summary (with spoilers): So an alien spaceship lands on earth, right? And all the Melmacian aliens start scooting around, picking up dirt samples and what not. But then the bad guys come riding in, in their giant metal gas guzzling machines called "cars" and start chasing the aliens!  The Man With The Keys pursues on foot. The aliens get on their ship and blast off...but leave one behind.
Mike's hanging out with with friends at the house. Elliot and Gertie are there, too. And Mary, the mom. They order a pizza and when Elliott goes out to get it from the guy, he hears a strange noise in the shed. He throws in a baseball...and it comes rolling back out.
Everyone thinks it's a coyote. (But they're so wrong, you guys!!)
Later, Elliott goes lurking out into the forest nearby his house, looking around. He deposits little piles of Reese's® Pieces  to use as bait. He stumbles into some tall grass...and sees the alien!  They both scream. Elliott goes running back home, where he tells his mom and big brother Mike, but they won't believe him. Stupid old people.
Maybe it was an alligator in the sewer.
Alligators in the sewer.
Maybe it was a goblin or a leprechaun.
It was nothing like that, penis breath!
HA HA!  Stupid Mike!  (Seriously, why didn't "penis breath" catch on? So much more clinical and nasty than "cock sucker").
Elliott says he can't tell Dad because he's in Mexico and Mom cries and Mike says stupid Elliott and everyone goes to bed.
But then Elliott sneaks out later. Sits on a lounge chair outside the shed with a flashlight, and waits. Eventually, the alien emerges. It approaches Elliott. Elliott's terrified, can't speak or scream.
But it's okay because he's friendly! Phew! He holds out his hand, and drops some Reese's® Pieces on Elliot's chair.
Elliott uses the Reese's® Pieces to lure ET into the house.
The next day, he fakes sick by putting his thermometer next to his lamp and then everyone leaves the house. He shows ET all his cool toys, shows him how Boba Fett fights Han Solo, the fish, the peanut bank, the trains. They're both connected, now.
Mike comes home from school.
I have to show you something. Remember, I have absolute power. Say it!
Don't push it, Elliott.
Mike does a Yoda voice and turns around and sees ET. Then Gertie walks in. She screams. ET screams. Elliott shuffles them all off into the closet. It's so funny! Mom doesn't see or hear anything. Phew!
The three kids stare with total wide-eyed wonder. Why didn't I ever find an alien growing up?  It's just not fair.
They ask ET where he's from, and he makes Elliott's models float in the air. He points out the window. Far off into the sky. The tip of his finger lights up. He makes Gertie's flowers bloom anew.
The next day Elliott goes to school while ET roams around the house. He drinks beer. Elliott gets drunk. He watches a movie. Elliott frees the frogs, stands on the fat kid and kisses the girl. ET discovers my Speak N Spell. I mean, Elliott's Speak N Spell. He needs to phone home.
Then it's Halloween, and the kids sneak ET out of the house as a ghost. Elliott and ET go off into the forest with equipment.
He have to get off and walk now, the path's too bumpy.
No it's not. ET makes Elliott and the bike fly. HOLY CRAP. They land in a meadow and ET goes about setting up his equipment. But he's looking bad, like he's getting sick.
Eventually, mom sits at home getting angrier and angrier. She goes out searching for her kids, but finds only Mike and Gertie.
By the next morning, the police are involved, but Elliott shows up, looking like crap. He begs Mike to find and help ET. Mike rides off into the forest and eventually finds the communication device...and then ET; gray and dying on the ground.
Mike cries out, not even sure how to touch him. He gets him home, and they reveal ET to Mom. She wants everyone out of the house. But just then, the men in masks show up, with plastic and wires and tubes and tests.
This is my house!
Elliott and ET lay sick and dying in matching hospital beds. The scientists question Gertie and Mike. So Elliott knows what it knows? No, Elliott feels what it feels.
The Man With The Keys begs Elliott to tell him how to help ET. Elliott says leave him be. But soon the connection between ET and Elliott breaks. Elliott starts to feel better. They pull him out of the room, as ET flatlines.
(And in 1982, it's at this point that my grandmother hands me some wadded up tissues from her purse and hisses at me, "get a hold of yourself, it's just a movie!")
There's nothing they can do. ET's dead. Elliott stands over his body, which is in a weird cryogenic-type box thing. He says his final goodbyes, and closes the lid, not noticing ET's huge red heart lights up right before the lid closed.
Elliott sees Gertie's flowers bloom again. He runs back to ET. He sees what we already saw!  THIS IS SO AWESOME.
He tells ET to be quiet, just a minute. He runs out and tells Mike. Mike jumps and hits his head. The audience laughs with intense release. I remember the audience specifically laughing there. We were sitting up right, probably the second row. It had been sold out. I remember everything.
Mike and Elliott sneak onto the van in suits while the men load ET. They take off. The men pursue.
Mom and Gertie get in the car.
They drive around into the van to the edge of the forest. Mike's friends meet them with their bikes. The bad men keep chasing.
Everyone pedals like crazy, but the men make a roadblock, blocking the way, holding their walkie-talkies threateningly.
But then...yes, then...ET makes them all fly. They sail over the heads of the bad guys and land safely in the forest. Mom and Gertie drive up, as the spaceship lands.
ET turns back to them, staring. He tells Gertie to be good.
And his finger glows. He point's to Elliott's heart. "I'll be right here".
And then he leaves, no doubt late for a congressional session with Senator Palpatine, and there's a rainbow in the sky.

Review: Yes, it's manipulative. Yes, it's schmaltzy. That ET apparently has to die and resurrect in order to communicate with his homeworld is ridiculously absurd. Yes, it's perhaps sometime a reader of this blog might assume I'd viciously mock. But it damn sure worked for me then, and it even worked for me now. I believe I've said before how Spielberg is a masterful, shameless manipulator, but does it in such an insidious way that the viewer becomes a Stockholm victim.  You know you're being shamelessly manipulated, by the beauty and majesty off it is such that you just don't care. Thank you almost killing and then not killing ET, Mr. Spielberg!  You're so kind! I imagine it's like the old rich man who knows the beautiful young woman isn't flirting with him because she finds him attractive but he finds the experience so pleasurable that he doesn't care.
This movie is expertly crafted, with no slow points or unnecessary scenes. We're put right into the thick of things immediately, and it perfectly captures the wonder and joy of childhood, and how every damn kid in the world would give their very last Atari Cartridge and GI Joe to be in Elliott's shoes. The scenic shots are great, the kid actors are utterly believable. Dee Wallace was pretty great, too. Why wasn't she in more stuff?
Anyways, though Spielberg's star may have gotten less bright in recent years, there's no denying his early genius. And this is probably his best. No, I haven't seen Schindler's List yet. It's coming.

Stars: Five out of five.

Next, "The Grapes of Wrath" and then then Tootsie's grandmothers in "Some Like It Hot".

Friday, December 9, 2011

#25 To Kill a Mockingbird

Racism. It's bad. So, so bad.

Plot summary (with spoilers): It's the 1930's in Maycomb, Alabama. Scout Finch is a young tomboy who lives with her brother Jem, and father Atticus. Atticus Finch lives a life of quiet dignity that comes with being the world's most perfect human. He's a lawyer who accepts food as payment for his services, like a pilgrim or Eskimo or something. He tells his children to never fight, under any circumstances. He abhors guns, but is still the best shot in town, even better than the sheriff. He'll put down a rabid dog for you, sheriff. All you have to do is ask. He's soft-spoken, wise, fair, non-judgmental, and won't even glare if you literally spit on him. Jesus once met Atticus and was like, "I'm out", before getting on His dinosaur and riding away.
So one day, Atticus goes off to work, and his children Scout and Jem play in the trees and dig wells and construct shelters and learn to control fire. They encounter a third child, a boy named Dill, who visits Maycomb in the summertime. Since his name is as equally stupid as theirs, they all become fast friends. Scout and Jem tell Dill all about Boo Radley, the mysterious neighbor who is locked up inside all day by his parents on account of being crazy and violent. They dare each other to run up to his front door and touch it before running away, and other childish pranks. (In my neighborhood, there was an old man whose driveway was on a hill and we would ride our bikes up his driveway and back down again and he would yell at us and tell us to get off his property, so it became a game to see who could quietly carry our bikes up the hill and get on them before the inevitable discovery, whereupon he would hurl open his living room window and scream at us to get out, as we'd jump on our bikes and pedal like crazy down the hill, laughing like maniacs. It was awesome. Hey...we were kind of assholes, weren't we?)  
Meanwhile, the DA asks Atticus to defend the negro Tom Robinson. Tom was accused of assault and attempted rape of a white woman named Mayella Ewell. Atticus agrees to take the case, and is promptly made a pariah in the town. Scout fights with boys in school who call Atticus a nasty racial epithet, and Atticus tells Scout she's wrong to fight, no matter what.
Before the trial, Atticus goes to the courthouse and sits vigil outside the jail. When a lynching party of goons, led by Mayella's father Bob, show up, Atticus tells them to turn around and go home. They're about to beat the hell out of Atticus when Scout, Jem, and Dill show up and shame the would-be lynchers into going home with their cherubic innocence.
Finally, the trial begins. Ooh, movie trials are usually juicy. Let's see how Atticus fucks that up. Atticus first questions Bob, who claimed to have discovered and witnessed Tom beating and attempting to rape Mayella. Atticus first ascertains that Mayella's bruise was on her right eye, which means...wait for it...the assailant was left handed. Even though only 10% of the actual population is left-handed, as we know, a good 80-85% of movie characters are left handed, provided a trial of some sort is involved. Basically, if you want to learn how to get away with any crime, become ambidextrous. Trust me, it will somehow work out for you. So yes, Bob is left handed, just like the assailant would have to be, and Tom not only is right-handed, but injured his left hand in a cotton gin and can't use it at all. When Mayella is questioned about this, she dissolves into screeching and baseless accusations.
Finally, Tom tells his story. He passed by Mayella's every day on his way to work. She would always have some chore for him. He helped her because he felt sorry for her.
At this, the entire courtroom gasps in disbelief and Atticus knows he's sunk.
Then one time, she tried to kiss him, but her father caught her and then beat her up.
Atticus gives his labored, lengthy, and deliberate closing arguments that ends with him basically saying "don't be racist".
To which the jury responds, "this is Alabama in the 1930's. What do you want from us? Guilty."
So, everyone goes home and Atticus is sad but vows to appeal, and Scout says, "Atticus, will you please lecture me for like the thirtieth time about how racism is bad?" and Atticus gladly does so. Then they all take a nap. I think this happens in real time.
Then Atticus learns that Tom was killed trying to escape is despondent.
Then Scout and Jem go trick-or-treating for Halloween, and Bob Ewell attacks them with a knife, as vengeance for Atticus humiliating him at the trial. Scout's knocked down, and Jem's arm is broken, but then they're saved by a Mysterious Man who winds up fighting and then killing Bob.
Later, Doc Old Windmill is finishing up putting a cast on Jem, and the sheriff tells Atticus that he's going to report that Bob fell on his knife. Which is weird, because it was self defense, but whatever. The sheriff says he doesn't want to get Boo Radley in trouble.
Yep, it was Boo who saved the kids. Turns out Boo was a nice guy after all, and the stories about him were based on ignorance and prejudice by people who didn't really know him. Scout wonders if the way they treated Boo could be a metaphor for the way people treated black people, but Jem tells her that's way too on the nose and obvious.
And then I think they take another nap.

Review: I haven't read the book since tenth grade. I remember liking it, but now I'm afraid to go back to it. I couldn't believe how dry and stale this movie was. Every scene is dragged out interminably, the trial in particular was like watching an actual trial in real time, and that is most certainly not a compliment. Of course, the message was probably somewhat radical in 1962, and after sitting through many shucking and jiving black characters in movies on this list, it's nice to see some sort of atonement for that, but man. So much talking about nothing. So much of Atticus patiently explaining the world to Scout, even though we the audience are not actually little girls and don't need to sit through all that. There's also plenty of scenes with the kids just fucking around, that don't advance the plot at all. Stuff like that works in novels, but needs to be streamlined for movies.
On the positive side, I'll say that the acting was very good, particularly the girl who played Scout and Gregory Peck. And I quite liked the scene where the kids shame the bad guys into leaving Tom alone and the scene where Scout and Jem talk about their dead mother while Atticus overhears them. It's also filmed well, with a well-established sense of place and time.  But most of this movie is worse than the actual South in 1930.

Stars: Two out of five.

Next, pure five star joy with "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial", and then, "The Grapes of Wrath".

Sunday, December 4, 2011

#26 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Plot summary (with spoilers): News comes out that the U.S. Senator of...a state...has died. A flurry of phone calls between other senators and the mystery state's governor ensue. Big corporate guy Jim Taylor tells the governor to appoint his favorite stoolie, but the people of the state want a populist reformer. The governor of the state tries to stand up to Taylor, but Taylor reminds him they're all in his pocket. Bwa ha ha. Then the governor and the other Senator, Joseph Paine, and talk about the main plot of the movie, even though they should both know it already. The upshot: Taylor wants the government to pay to build a dam on his property called Willow Creek and pocket all the excess money the job will cost and then eventually wind up selling the land to the government for far less than it's worth. They previously had enough votes to pull this off, but with the Senator dying, they need a new guy in there.
The governor's kids are all horrible child actors, and they squawk at their dad, encouraging him to appoint a "Boy Ranger" leader (like Boy Scout, but fake), Jefferson Smith, as the new senator. Jeff Smith just saved a bunch of kittens from a fire or something and he's a local hero. They say he's the most American man in the whole wide world, and he knows everything about American trivia and history. The governor thinks that his constituents will eat that up, and the naive Smith will still vote how the others want him to.
So Mr. Smith gets the job and goes to...wait for it...Washington. He's super naive and gosh-shucky and he tells Sen. Paine that his father used to work for him and he knows he's a super great guy and totally not corrupt and stuff. Then some staffers pick him up at the train station in DC and tell him to go to his office, but Smith is so in awe of DC that he goes on a tour of the Capitol Building, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, etc and shows up five hours late. What a dick.
So he meets his staff; some guy and also a pretty lady named Claudette Saunders. Saunders is none-too impressed with Smith's golly-gee attitude and says she didn't come to DC to "carry bibs for an infant with little flags in his fists". Heh. Good one, Saunders.
So then Mr. Smith goes to Congress and walks into the floor of the Senate and is totally blown away by how awesome it all is. Yeah, it would be pretty awesome, I must admit.
The press surround him and ask him what he plans to do as Senator, what changes would he like in his state. Smith stutters for a bit in that imitable Jimmy Stewart way, then says he'd like to build a national park for his Boy Rangers. And how much would that cost?  Nothing! We'd just borrow the money from the government and the boys would pay it back week after week, with a dime here and a nickel there.
Then red, white, and blue syrup begins oozing from Smith's every pore and the ghost of George Washington starts frenching him and the press applauds.
Okay, not really. But that's still a more likely scenario than the Boy Rangers paying back the government with nickels and dimes.
So the press gets him to pose for silly photos and then misquotes him and embarrasses him and basically point out that he's a minnow in a sea of sharks. So when the papers come out the next morning, Smith goes running around town punching out reporters. Which was...totally acceptable for a Senator to do in the 30's?
(BTW, I don't know when "senator" is supposed to be capitalized and when it's not. Please forgive me).
Smith goes to his gal Saunders and says he'd like help in drafting a bill to loan the money to the Boy Rangers. He says he wants to skip dinner and get it done tonight. Saunders patronizingly asks Smith if he knows what goes into making a bill a law. He doesn't.
So she tells him to imagine that she's a bill. Yes, only a bill. And she's sitting there on Capitol Hill.
She explains about committees and subcommittees and that the House and Senate need to reconcile the bills and have them voted on again and by the time she's done, he's completely demoralized. She thinks she's talked him out of it, but instead he's like, so we skip dinner then, right?
And just like that, she's smitten.
So the first draft of the bill is done, and Smith presents it on the floor of the Senate and the land he wants to build on is right next to...Willow Creek!  Paine says that they're already building a dam there, but Smith says he's confused. He's been there, and there's no need for a dam, so Paine and a couple other corrupt senators have a private meeting with Smith and Taylor where Taylor basically tells him to do what he says and he'll have a long, prosperous life in the Senate, but if he disobeys, Taylor will "break him". Smith is heartbroken to learn that Paine is bought and paid for.
The next day in the Senate, Paine stands up and says that unfortunately, he's discovered evidence that Smith owns Willow Creek, and he was trying to get the government to buy it and give it to the Boy Rangers so he could make a profit! Smith's flabbergasted. Paine unloads a pile of evidence, including contracts signed by Smith when he supposedly bought the land and when Smith denies the signatures are his, Paine produces signature experts that claim otherwise. All the while, Taylor smokes his cigars and goes bwa ha ha in the background and Paine starts to feel conflicted.
Meanwhile, Smith is disillusioned and heart broken and Saunders comforts him with her womanly sympathy.
About a week later, the Senate reconvenes to vote to expel Smith. But Smith is rejuvenated by Saunders' faith in him, and vows to fight back. He's given the chance to speak in his own defense before his expulsion vote and he begs the Senate to give him a week to find evidence to prove his innocence. The President of the Senate (aka the Vice President of the U.S.) denies him, and so Smith decides to refuse to yield the floor. As long as he's got the floor, no vote can take place. Yes, it's a filibuster. Smith accuses Paine and others of being in Taylor's back pocket and exposes the dam building scheme, and from up in the galley, pretty Saunders cheers him on. Paine affects great outrage and says he refuses to stand for this and walks out. Soon, all the rest of the senators follow him. Then Saunders signals Smith to look at rule no 53 in his Being a Senator for Dummies handbook, and Rule 53 states that if senators walk out, those remaining can vote to compel the others to return. Since Smith is the only one remaining, it's an easy vote. The others are compelled to return.
The media goes wild, but since Taylor/Murdoch owns the media in his state, they're all instructed to paint the story as if Smith is a guilty man desperately trying to stay out of trouble, and none of his accusations about Taylor are being reported. They also explain the filibuster rules: The speaker can't sit. The speaker can't stop talking. The senators compelled to stay can't leave the room. Man, I'd love to see this shit now in real life. Could you imagine?!  So much fun! Saunders encourages Smith to read aloud from the Constitution, which he does. Saunders finds out that no one is Smith's state is getting the real news, so she dispatches the Boy Rangers to print their own flyers and start passing them around all over the state. This state must be Rhode Island or Delaware, because otherwise this doesn't seem like a feasible plan. At Pro-Paine rallies, the Boy Rangers try to rush the stage and speak the truth, but are dragged out by Taylor's goons. A bunch of Boy Rangers in a go cart are throwing flyers out into the wind in town, and are forcibly run off the road by a carload of Taylor guys! Yeesh.
Meanwhile, Smith keeps talking. This goes on for 27 hours. Smith's voice his raw and almost gone. He speaks about truth, justice and the something something something. The other senators are actually listening, now. Some of them wonder why he's fighting so hard if he's guilty. Paine says either they believe this new guy or him! They fall in line, but seem to do so reluctantly.
Finally, Paine interrupts Smith to bring in what he says are 50,000 telegrams from the people of "my state" (sigh. Just name the fucking state already. What is this, The Simpsons?) urging Smith to give up. Smith reads a couple and his face crumples in defeat. But then he sees Saunders smiling at him from up in the galley, and he straightens up, and points his finger at a guilty-looking Paine and correctly guesses that the people in "my state" are not getting the full story. And he'll press on no matter what, until they do.
Then he passes out.
Several senators rush to his aide while Saunders screams and Paine backs out of the room. A senator says he's all right, he's just passed out, but then a gunshot goes off. Everyone runs towards it to discover Paine with a gun fighting of a page who's struggling with him. They wrestle the gun from Paine's hands and he staggers out into the Senate floor and screams that Smith is innocent confesses to everything.
And then we cut to black.

Review: No, really. We cut to black right there. No joyful triumphant reunion between Smith and Saunders, no Taylor getting arrested, nothing. We don't even see Smith regain consciousness. Super strange, but I liked it. In fact, working backwards, the whole last half hour or so, with the filibuster standoff was pretty damn great. Suspenseful and without too much sentiment and really fun to watch and imagine what a real-life scenario like that would be like. I'm quite the political junkie myself, so love political thrillers where everyone is scheming and duplicitous, in real life and in the movies. It's always like heroin to me. I just want more and more! And this version delivered at the end, but we took a long time getting there. The build up is slow, and Smith's naivete was at times too ridiculous to be believed. It was also a bit inconsistent. He's spoken of as a political buff who knows American history inside and out and yet he has no idea how a bill becomes a law. It was also annoying that the words "democrat" or "republican" never passed anyone's lips, which creates an artificial tone to the whole thing, kind of like with the made-up football teams in Any Given Sunday. I get that the movie didn't want to be partisan, but they could've resolved that by making the "bad" senators belong to both parties. And don't get me started on them refusing to name the state Smith is from. Why? What possible reason did they have for that? Is was just clunky and dumb.
Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur (Saunders) were both very good in their roles, as was the guy playing Paine, but many of the supporting characters where still doing the Olden Times acting shtick, with the funny voices and the stylized mannerisms. Not sure why Capra would let them get away with that.
In short, there's a lot to bitch about, but man, that last half hour was dynamite. This is my second Capra film, but already I can see he's a master manipulator of emotion just like Spielberg. And I mean that as a total compliment.

Stars: Three and a half out of five.

Next, is racism good or bad? Find out, with "To Kill a Mockingbird", and then speaking of blatant manipulation, it's "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial". I hope I manage not to cry this time.