Thursday, December 30, 2010

1978: The Deer Hunter

Michael, Steven, and Nick leave their small Pennsylvania town and their lives as steelworkers and recreational deer hunters to fight in the Vietnam war.  And everything they know is turned upside down.

This is probably the most interminable and confusing disturbing movie I've ever seen, including The Godfather Part II.  Once again, I felt like I was missing something, because this film made absolutely no sense to me, especially the pacing.  The first hour (literally) consists of Steven's wedding, its reception, and a hunt.  Then suddenly they're in Vietnam and are somehow captured.  The scene during which they're prisoners drags on and on, a few more things happen very quickly, and then without any transition suddenly one of them is back home.  The scenes that drag increase the tension, which I'm sure was intentional, but it's overdone to the point that it just gets really annoying.  When time skips ahead, you're left wondering, "But what about what was just happening?"  I kept hoping that we would go back to it later, but that didn't happen.  There are several story points that were never resolved for which I can think of no logical explanation.  I have to wonder if the filmmakers just over-estimated an audience's ability to fill in plot holes, or it's not supposed to make sense, or it would make more sense if I was watching it in 1978, or the filmmakers just messed up.  But if that were the case, I don't think this film would have won 5 Academy Awards.  I think it was probably intentionally confusing to make the point that life and war are chaotic, but that knowledge doesn't make this film any easier to watch.

I did appreciate the performances of both Christopher Walken and Robert De Niro, at least in the scenes that I actually understood.  However most of the three hours I spent watching this I was trying to figure out how what was currently on the screen related to the previous scene.  I hate to feel this way about a movie, and part of me wants to watch this again at some point to see if I understand it better then, but the rest of me says that I can live a long, happy life without ever revisiting this film.  The things I actually got out of it are incredibly disturbing, which I'm pretty sure was the point of the movie, so at least I grasped that concept.  But as for the story and the pacing, not so much.  I can't tell you very much about other aspects of filmmaking that went into this movie because I was so distracted by the confusing storyline that I missed them.  I don't want to advise people not to watch this film because obviously some people really like it, as it's #135 on the Internet Movie Database's Top 250.  I'm just not one of those people.

Coming up next: Kramer vs. Kramer

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

1977: Annie Hall

Alvy Singer and Annie Hall are two New Yorkers searching for love and the meaning of life.  They can't decide whether they're better off together or apart, so they break up and get together again multiple times, all the while being philosophical and entertaining, as characters in Woody Allen films tend to be.

I find this film very interesting because it's mostly made up of vignettes that are not in chronological order, which gets a little confusing until the viewer realizes that chronology isn't essential to the story.  The best aspects of this movie are how the characters interact with the audience and each other, and the clever little jokes that are distributed throughout the film.  I find myself not really caring what the characters do, but having fun watching them nevertheless.  This is a very weird position to be in as a movie-watcher, especially when you know it's intentional.  Woody Allen is a brilliant comedic filmmaker, which this film demonstrates with its dialogue and structure.

That being said, I don't think Annie Hall is his best film.  I didn't find it as intriguing as Crimes and Misdemeanors, or as amusing as Love and Death.  I don't understand what is so amazing about this movie compared to other Woody Allen films, but for some reason this is the one that gets recognized.  I guess I should just be glad that any of his films won Best Picture, since comedies hardly ever win.  This is certainly not a typical Best Picture Winner, and it's a fun break from serious dramas.

Next: The Deer Hunter

Sunday, December 19, 2010

1976: Rocky

One of the contenders for heavyweight boxing champion has broken his hand and won't be able to fight.  So the reigning champion decides that as a publicity stunt he's going to pick an unknown club boxer to fight him for the title.  He randomly chooses Rocky Balboa, who has nicknamed himself "The Italian Stallion."  Rocky is pretty much a bum who fights occasionally, works for a loan shark on the side, and is beginning to develop a relationship with a shy pet store worker named Adrian.  Rocky doesn't know that this fight is a publicity stunt, so he gives his all to train for the championship.

At its surface, this may look like a typical rags-to-riches story, and to some extent it is, but it's more than that.  Rocky doesn't care about publicity or renown or money; he just wants to prove to himself that he can do something significant.  It's interesting to me that the writer, Sylvester Stallone, who was then relatively unknown, insisted on playing the lead role himself.  Apparently he, like Rocky, wanted to prove to himself that he could do it.  And now everybody associates Sylvester Stallone with Rocky, and it's difficult to imagine anyone else playing the part.

This is a well-told, inspirational story with a great cast, a fabulous script, intriguing characters, a magnificent soundtrack, and an epically intense boxing match.  Even if you're like me and know absolutely nothing about boxing, I think it would be hard not to enjoy this movie.  You can't help but like Rocky and want him to win the fight and the girl (he only wins one of them, unfortunately, but that makes this movie a little less predictable, which I also like).  But of course, Rocky also wins the hearts of Americans, the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the chance to make five sequels, so it all works out.

Up next: Annie Hall

Saturday, December 18, 2010

1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Randle P. McMurphy was in jail, but there is some question about his mental health status, so he is sent to a state mental institution for evaluation.  While there, McMurphy creates as much mayhem as he can, stirring up the other inmates and waging war against cold, calmly dangerous Nurse Ratched.  It becomes clear that he isn't mentally ill, but the mental hospital decides to accept him anyway.  McMurphy is proud of himself for beating the system, but he soon discovers that some places are worse than prison.

I think this is one of the most profoundly disturbing films I've ever seen, especially towards the end, which I won't spoil for you in case you haven't seen it yet.  It's a very uncomfortable story, but it's told extremely well.  The character development is fantastic; every minor character has clearly defined traits, and the main characters are utterly fascinating.  McMurphy isn't a very nice guy, and I probably wouldn't like him normally, but one can't help preferring him to Nurse Ratched, who is pretty much inhuman.  The dialogue is very realistic, though the profanity is a little excessive.  The camera work and editing are brilliant, making an uncomfortable story even more so with an unusual amount of close-ups.  I literally backed away from the screen a few times.  This isn't a fun film to watch, but it's powerful and very well put together.

This is the second of three films to win all five major Academy Awards (the first, if you don't remember back that far, was It Happened One Night in 1934).  Louise Fletcher certainly deserved her Best Actress Oscar for her brilliantly eerie portrayal of Nurse Ratched.  Jack Nicholson is an amazingly talented actor, and his performance as McMurphy is one of his best.  Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director were equally well-deserved, in my opinion.  This film is certainly well worth watching, but not if you're in the mood for a feel-good movie.  I guess it's kind of fun to recognize some of the patients, like Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd when they were younger, and there are a few upbeat scenes, but mostly this film will just make you glad that you're not under the control of Nurse Ratched.

Coming up next: Rocky

Monday, December 13, 2010

1974: The Godfather Part II

This, the only Best Picture winning sequel of a Best Picture winner (so far), further develops the story of the Corleone family from two different angles.  Part of the film goes back in time to see the young Vito Corleone begin his life in America.  The rest of the film picks up several years after the first one left off to show Michael Corleone's rise to power in a rapidly changing world.

I have heard this film called the best sequel ever made, but personally I thought this movie was totally inferior to The Godfather.  While the first movie told an intriguing story in a fascinating way, this one tells an okay story in an almost completely incoherent manner.  The jumping back and forth between Vito's story and Michael's story could have been very interesting, but I expected them to relate to each other more.  I felt like the editors just put scenes in at random, so that there was very little cohesion to the story.  Maybe this was done intentionally, to symbolize the lack of organization in so-called "organized crime," but it's very confusing, and makes this film difficult to watch.

Of course, I'm perfectly open to the possibility that I missed something.  That was how I felt throughout most of the film: like I was missing something.  Maybe in a few years I'll watch it again and it will all make perfect sense, but after watching it the first time, I am utterly baffled.  Mostly, I was disappointed because the first movie was so great that I expected this one to be better than it was.  But there were a few aspects that I liked.  Robert De Niro does a tremendous job as the young Vito Corleone, especially considering that his character almost exclusively speaks Sicilian.  He also won Best Supporting Actor, which is interesting because Marlon Brando won Best Actor for playing the same character in The Godfather.  I wish there were more scenes in this film from the Vito storyline and fewer about Michael, who was really getting on my nerves by the end.  Some of the story and character development was really good, don't get me wrong, but again, it was all very confusing.

The Godfather Part III was nominated for Best Picture in 1990, but it didn't win, so I won't be including it in this blog.  However, the first two movies have intrigued me enough that I think I might have to watch it anyway.  Hopefully it will be easier to follow than this one.

Next up: One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

1973: The Sting

Johnny Hooker is a small-time con artist who accidentally cons a man working for big-time criminal banker Doyle Lonnegan.  When his partner is killed for this, Johnny vows to get even by swindling Lonnegan with the help of major con artist Henry Gondorff.  What unfolds is one of the most well-told stories ever created on film, which I was thrilled to have an excuse to watch again.

The plot twists are so intricate and unpredictable that it takes more than one viewing to fully appreciate them.  Certain scenes could be interpreted several ways, and it's up to the audience members to draw their own inferences, which may or may not turn out to be correct.  The script and character development are phenomenal.  Robert Redford and Paul Newman are unsurprisingly fabulous as Hooker and Gondorff (and they're also ridiculously good-looking, which doesn't hurt).  Every aspect of filmmaking is utilized perfectly to tell this fascinating story in the best possible way.

With a premise like this, one might expect a heavy, depressing movie, like The Godfather.  But the tone of this film is decidedly upbeat, in a mischievous way.  This is greatly aided by the soundtrack, which consists entirely of ragtime music.  What an extremely odd choice by the filmmakers, since the film is set in the mid-1930s, and ragtime was most popular in the 1900s-1910s.  I really want to know how they came up with that.  But whatever their reasons, the film wouldn't be the same without the soundtrack, which works remarkably well to complete this absolutely amazing film.  Seriously, this is one of the best, and currently most underrated, movies to win this award.  If I had to change one thing, it would be Robert Redford's character's name.  It's difficult not to chuckle when everyone refers to him as "Hooker."  But other than that, this is one of the closest things to a flawless film I've ever seen.  And it actually won 7 Oscars, so kudos to the Academy.

Next: The Godfather Part II