Little Black Box That Streams Thousands of Films! with 30-Day Money Back Guarantee

Friday, November 4, 2011

AFI/BFI #199: Sophie's Choice (1982)

Director: Alan J. Pakula
Writer: William Styron, Alan J. Pakula
Composer: Marvin Hamlisch
AFI Rank:  - (1998), 91 (2007)
BFI Rank: -


Sophie’s Choice was added to the AFI Top 100 in 2007 and after finally seeing it I can honestly say it’s absence from the original 1998 list was a injustice that has now been thankfully righted. As with many films I have watched so far from the AFI list, in both the viewing and the subsequent research I was a little embarrassed to admit I had never seen it. I was a fan of Pakula’s other films, especially All The President’s Men and The Pelican Brief, and had no idea he had not only directed Sophie’s Choice but adapted the screenplay also. Add to that the fact that it contains the strongest and earliest performances of three great actors, you cannot blame me for wondering why I hadn’t noticed the rock that I had obviously been living under for the last couple of decades.

If you have never seen the film, read William Styron’s book or heard about the choice that is at the center of the movie then stop reading and go watch it. Its as simple as that. If you need more convincing then read on.

There are many reasons that this film is on the AFI list, not least of which is the acting. Pakula understands his actors and he has directed eight of them in Oscar-nominated performances: Jane Fonda, Liza Minnelli, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander, Richard Farnsworth, Jill Clayburgh, Candice Bergen and Meryl Streep. Three of them, Fonda, Robards and Streep, took one home, Streep’s for this picture. Her performance is simply astounding. Kline, in his first film role, is simply brilliant and Cleese cast him in A Fish Called Wanda based on this performance. I also came away with a new found respect for MacNicol. I have always thought of him as an average actor but what he delivers here makes him great.

Sophie’s Choice may have gotten Streep her Oscar but there was no nomination for the picture itself. It did receive nominations but no wins for cinematography, costume, music and screenplay. In 1983 it was up against some stiff competition to be fair: Gandhi, ET, Tootsie, An Office and a Gentleman, Das Boot and The Verdict. Plus some other great films but not so much Oscar competition including Tron, Poltergeist and a little film called Blade Runner.

Kline, Streep and MacNicol
It’s not all perfect. The pace is almost unbearably slow at times and you might be tempted to bail early. I highly recommend you don’t. As the story progresses you come to appreciate the time that was taken earlier on. If you have to watch it in a couple of sittings, but definitely finish it.

I watched the US DVD release of Sophie’s Choice as right now there is little alternative. The quality was as you would expect for an early eighties film which has seen little to no remastering. The picture quality, mostly overly soft, varies throughout and a good remaster and blu ray release is definitely required for such a classic film.

Sophie’s Choice is hands down Crucial Cinema.


Friday, August 12, 2011

AFI/BFI #200: A Place In The Sun (1951)

Director: George Stevens
Writer: Michael Wilson, Harry Brown
Cinematographer: William C. Mellor
Composer: Franz Waxman
AFI Rank:  92 (1998), - (2007)
BFI Rank: -


Theodore Dreiser’s parable on the myth of the American dream was published in 1925 and first commited to celluloid in 1931 with the same title. When George Stevens approached Paramount with the idea of filming another adaptation they were less than excited about a remake so soon after the original. It’s funny to think of 20 years as once being considered too soon for a remake in Hollywood. Stevens sued them for breach of contract and they finally let him make it and thank god they did. A Place In The Sun is as much a masterpiece of American cinema as the book is a classic of American literature.

Those new to the blog may not know that I detest reviews of films that give away the plot. The best way to see a movie is when you know absolutely nothing about it. Even the trailer can be too much. My goal is to get you to watch the picture and hopefully I occasionally succeed. A Place In The Sun is just one of those pictures. The less you know the better it will be.

What I can talk about is the cast. In 1949 Elizabeth Taylor was just 17 and her leading man, Montgomery Clift, was just shy of 30. A great child actor she had done little to suggest what she was capable of here and the studio took a risk that paid off and launched her career as a Hollywood icon. Shelley Winters had only played glamorous roles and taking this part in 1951 must have took incredible courage. The result is simply incredible, a film that is as good today as the day it was made.

Taylor and Clift relaxing on location at Lake Tahoe

The film took home 6 oscars for Best Cinematography, Costume Design, Direction, Film Editing, Music and Screenplay. Clift and Winter both got nominations as did the production itself for Best Picture. Impressive considering there was some serious competition that year from An American in Paris, Quo Vadis, A Streetcar Named Desire, the African Queen and Death of a Salesman.

It is a little surprising then that the AFI dropped it from their revised Top 100 in 2007 and that Rotten Tomatoes has it at a paltry 75%. The book is far better as usually the case, and the film is much lighter more melodramatic than its 1931 predecessor. Some critics feel it is now dated and that is most likely why it was dropped. I personally feel it has held up extremely well and is in my books at least, Crucial Cinema.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

AFI/BFI #201: In Which We Serve (1942)

Director:  Noël Coward, David Lean
Writer:  Noël Coward
Composer:  Noël Coward, Clifton Parker
AFI Rank:  -
BFI Rank: 92


Produced specifically as a World War II propaganda film, In Which We Serve earns its place on the BFI list not only for its accurate portrayal of the Royal Navy but also for its stellar cast, wonderful script and superb direction. Coward’s script, originally hours long before trimming, is based mainly on his close friend Mountbatten’s command of the HMS Kelly that was sunk during the Battle of Crete. Not only did he write but he also directed, composed the music and took the starring role of Captain Kinross. It was a contingency of his involvement that he got that role and it is not too hard to understand why that was baffling and concerning to many inside and outside of the industry at the time. His performance is a joy to watch but is unquestionably at times hard to believe. He was very concerned about his ability to direct and John Mills suggested he bring in the greatest editor he knew, David Lean. This would be Lean’s first time directing and we all know how it went from there. Coward got disinterested with the mechanics of directing and eventually left it to Lean, not even coming to set when he was not acting. The script non-sequential narrative would make Tarrantino proud and with it Coward manages to weave a far more emotional story, moving from home and family to ship and back again.

Richard Attenborough is astounding in his first ever role which is unfortunately uncredited, and of course John Mills is superb. My favorite role of all though has to be Bernard Miles as Chief Petty Officer Walter Hardy. I had not heard of him before but his performance is outstanding and the most memorable of the picture.

More interesting perhaps than who was cast is who was not. Coward blocked the casting of James Mason because of his position on the war and he fired William Hartnell (Dr Who was another 20 years away) for turning up late on his first day of filming.

Nominated for two Oscars in 1944 it lost to another great propaganda movie, Casablanca. The previous year Coward received an honorary Oscar for his outstanding production achievement on the film.

Due to the wonders of the internet you can read the original New York Times review from the US premier in 1942 which helps put the impact of this movie into the context of the time. Watching today many younger viewers will be hard pressed to understand what all the fuss is about.

Some may find it hard going initially as you acclimatize yourself to the classic acting style of forties British films, something Coward is an accomplished expert in. A lot of stiff upper lips and not too many quivering lower ones there are a lot more truly emotional performances than you would expect. But once you are immersed in it the picture carries you along for the ride and what a ride it is.

In Which We Serve is unquestionably Crucial Cinema and one of those rare films that gives you a real glimpse into the past while remaining highly watchable.

Monday, July 25, 2011

AFI/BFI #202: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Director: Howard Hawks
Writer: Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde
Composer: Roy Webb (uncredited)
AFI Rank:  97 (1998), 88 (2007)
BFI Rank: -


 One of my favourite comedies of all time is Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972). I knew going in to this viewing that Bogdanovich was paying homage to Bringing Up Baby but that really didn’t prepare me for just how much of What’s Up, Doc? dna was inherited from Hawks’ comedy classic.

For Grant and Hepburn this was their second of four movies together. Grant had already proven himself a great comedic actor but Hepburn came to the picture with no background in comedy. It is hard to imagine whilst watching her superb performance that she needed intensive coaching to get there. Much of her final performance was influenced by Walter Catlett, who Hawks kept on set to help Hepburn with her performance and also played Constable Slocum. The resulting on screen chemistry is simply brilliant and there are very few 70 year old movies that have made me laugh as hard and as often as Baby.

The writing team of Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde is clearly a match made in heaven, so much so that they actually fell in love while writing the screenplay. Nichols had taken home an Oscar three years earlier for The Informer and would pen Stagecoach the following year. This was Wilde’s first screenplay based on her own original short story published originally in Collier’s Weekly magazine. She would deliver a few more movie scripts including Hawks’ I Was A Male War Bride and Red, Hot and Blue before spending the rest of her career in TV. For me this is their best work and was way ahead of its time, perhaps why it stands up so well today.

There is heavy use of optical effects in the picture and they were delivered by a personal hero of mine Linwood G. Dunn, pioneer of the optical printer and visual effects in general. He worked on King Kong, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Citizen Kane and virtually every RKO production including compositing the original RKO logo.

Given all of this it is surprising that the film was such a box office failure in it’s day. Hawks was even fired from his next production at RKO. He felt he had failed at the time but how much of that was due to the poor reception is hard to tell. In retrospect it is possibly his greatest movie.

I watched Baby on DVD (Amazon also has it on streaming) and it looked about as good as you could expect for a 70 year old picture. The two disc set as some nice extras including a commentary from Bogdanovich which is worth a watch. There is currently no Blu ray release date.

To fully appreciate it you need to give it your full attention. Laptops and iPads away. Bringing Up Baby is without question Crucial Cinema and for fans of What’s Up, Doc? and madcap comedies it is essential viewing.

Friday, July 22, 2011

AFI/BFI #203: Caravaggio (1986)

Director: Derek Jarman
Writer: Suso Cecchi d'Amico (uncredited), Nicholas Ward Jackson,Derek Jarman
Composer: Simon Fisher-Turner
AFI Rank:  -
BFI Rank: 93


If the BFI is looking for quotes to put on its upcoming Blu Ray release of Caravaggio may I humbly suggest they go with “Like Watching Paint Dry!” (Crucial Cinema).

Cheap jokes aside, much of this movie does actually involve watching paint dry but more on that later. You cannot fault Jarman for his vision and direction. What he manages to put on film is the life of Caravaggio in Caravaggio’s own style. Many scenes are delivered as if directly from one of his paintings giving it the feeling of a filmed stage production, with Caravaggio himself painting that same scene in many cases (hence the unique opportunity to watch paint dry). A passing familiarity with Caravaggio’s work while not essential will definitely let you get more out of this picture than you otherwise would. Recognizing why for example he is holding a painted Medussa shield in an early scene.

This all results in Caravaggio’s life being delivered almost as a passion play, and perhaps fittingly so. It plays to both Caravaggio’s life and the religious content which was the subject of most of his works.

It is for all those reasons I can see why it made the BFI Top 100, especially if voted for by those who saw it when it originally came out. Unfortunately for me that doesn’t make it an enjoyable film to watch. It has a decidedly eighties made for channel 4 feel about it and perhaps being from that generation I just find it more cringworthy than the older or younger viewer might. The real issue for me is the performances. These are all great actors in their debut or at least very earliest roles and although we all love their work now it is a little hard to watch here. Sean Bean is especially painful to watch. The stand out performance comes from Nigel Terry as Caravaggio himself, perhaps because of the theater like nature of the production.

Although Caravaggio received only a couple of film festival awards it does deserve it’s place in film history. Ultimately for me however it is simply not Crucial Cinema and if you have not seen it then I don’t suggest you go out of your way to do so.


Sunday, June 26, 2011

AFI/BFI #204: Goodfellas (1990)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese
Composer: Various Artists
AFI Rank:  94 (1998), 92 (2007)
BFI Rank: -


I usually don't need an excuse to watch Goodfellas but the AFI/BFI list gave me one all the same. It is unimaginable that anybody who loves films and is reading this has never seen it. If you haven't then I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you have either been in some sort of coma, incarcerated in a Thai prison or simply avoiding the worlds greatest movies as an ill advised bet. Go buy it now and watch it immediately. You won't regret it.

Goodfellas was nominated for 6 Oscars but Joe Pesci was the only one to take one home as best supporting actor in his role as Tommy DeVito. It is an astonishing performance, of which there are several in this film. Up against Dances With Wolves, Awakenings, The Godfather: Part III and Ghost, it should have done much better and I personally think time has shown it to be the better picture. A fact the british knew even then as it fared much better at the Baftas winning 5 of its 7 nominations. It is interesting that it occupies such a high place on so many top movies lists and yet is all the way down in 92nd place in the AFI Top 100.

This is undoubtedly Ray Liotta's greatest performance, head and shoulders above anything else he has ever done. I would love to see him make a Micky Rourke like comeback because what he delivers in Goodfellas in nothing short of incredible. The whole cast is pitch perfect.

Pileggi and DeNiro deliver an astounding screenplay with perfect pacing that pulls of a difficult blend of dark humor, friendship and love with an ever present underlying threat of violence that bubbles over in several graphic scenes. Scorsese's intention was to show the real unglamorized world of the mob. That is all helped along by a generous 2 f-words per minute, most of them delivered by Joe Pesci. Gordon Ramsay eat you heart out. 

Joe Pesci's unforgettable contribution: Funny how? What's funny about it? 
This is all helped along by Thelma Schoonmaker's ever brilliant editing (the editing of the final sequence is astonishingly effective at creating a sense of irritation and unrest) and Scorsese's choice of music. Certain scenes play out as mini music videos and were even filmed with the music playing on set to help with the timing. You will never listen to Layla the same way again. On top of all of that you have the superb cinematography of long time Scorsese collaborator Michael Ballhaus

There are so many stand out set pieces in this movie it is hard to pick just a few. Watch for one of the longest single shots in film history as they enter the Copa. Breathtaking.

I watched the HD-DVD for this review and it was beautiful. Not overly enhanced with a fair amount of film grain. The blu ray is the same transfer but with a Dolby Digital soundtrack and would be my recommended way to see this if you can. Some great commentaries and some worthwhile, if a little stale, extras. You may not be the kind of person that usually watches the special features but this is one of those movies that leaves you wanting more. This is a true story, however fictionalized, and you will want to hear more about the real people and events behind these characters.

Goodfellas is without a shadow of a doubt Crucial Cinema and one of the greatest american movies ever made.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

AFI/BFI #205: The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954)

Director: Frank Launder
Writer: Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat, Val Valentine
Composer: Malcolm Arnold
AFI Rank:  -
BFI Rank: 94

      No Score Yet...

To anybody under the age of 40 this is going to be a hard sell. The first and best entry in the series was made nearly 60 years ago and was based on the cartoons of Ronald Searle. Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat wrote, directed and produced over 40 films together but they will mainly be remembered for the St Trinian's films. The comedy may come thick and fast but it is gentle by today's standards and a younger audience may have trouble understanding what all the fuss is about. Like many classic british comedies you need to watch with a little pinch of nostalgia. Although people slam the modern St Trinian's and Carry On remakes it is hard to argue that they are truly that different. The formula is the same but they don't have the benefit of that nostalgia and as a result seem dated and flat, unlike their revered originals.

If I could make an argument for watching Belles then it would have to be the outstanding cast and superb performances. A who's who of british comedy led by the incomparable Alastair Sim in dual roles (Alec Guinness channelled him in The Ladykillers and was also brilliant in his own multi-role celluloid excursions), with Joyce Grenfell, George Cole, Beryl Reid, Irene Handl, Joan Sims and Sid James, all showing the expert comedic timing and delivery that made each of them a household name.

Sim was also Cole's off screen mentor
Launder had previously directed The Happiest Days of Your Life four years earlier with Sim, Grenfell and Cole and Belles owes a great deal to its predecessor. It is less risque than you might imagine, although for the time it probably raised a few eyebrows, especially the depiction of the sixth form girls. It is the youngest girls that are the real terrors though and are closer to Searle's strips. They never had nitroglycerin in my chemistry lab... 

It used to be very hard to get a copy of this in the US but that is no longer the case. I watched the US DVD release from Netflix and it looked pretty good for it's age. Amazon also has it for streaming in SD if that is your thing. Overall Belles is still a highly entertaining film and a perfect Sunday afternoon movie. It is vintage british comedy at its best.