Monday, February 28, 2011

AFI/BFI #215: Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967)

Director: Stanley Kramer
Writer: William Rose
Composer: Billy Hill
AFI Rank:  99 (1998), - (2007)
BFI Rank: -

      64%
             


Both on screen and off you could say this classic movie was somewhat of a family affair. The trio of Stanley Kramer, William Rose and Spencer Tracy had previously worked on It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World just 4 years earlier, Kramer and Tracy also pairing up on Inherit The Wind in 1960. Add to that the fact that this was Hepburn and Tracy's ninth film together, having started back in 1942's Woman of the Year. There was an accompanying and often complicated off screen romance which lasted until Tracy's death just 17 days after the filing wrapped on Guess Who's Coming. Watching today you really have little idea how sick he really was. Hepburn knew and her tears are real. The studio was nervous and both her and Kramer put up their salaries as backing for Tracy dropping out. It proved to be one of his most memorable performances, nominated for a posthumous Oscar. Hepburn won for best actress, her second of four, a record still not broken today. She never watched the film. The memories were too painful.

With the exception of a few scenes the action takes place all within the house over a single day. Scenes outside or away from the house take advantage of this and each feels like an escape, in fact one scene literally is. Every masterpiece has its flaws and for me there is just a single scene involving some dancing outside the house that is more jarring that was probably intended. It is there to remind you that this is 1967 and the times they are a changing.

The acting talent on display throughout the movie is breathtaking. Poitier, Tracy and Hepburn play off each other beautifully. Just when you think one will steal the scene, one of the others steps up. I'll avoid the sporting analogies but it is a real team effort. Much of the best acting is done without a single line of dialog, especially earlier on in the film. Hepburn's real life niece, Katharine Houghton, admirably performs her part but is never really a part of the game. Beah Richards as Poitier's mother surprises you when she finally opens up. Rose's script is the real star at the center of all of this. It won him the Oscar, something The Ladykillers should have done a decade earlier. "You can do the watusi, but we are the watusi."

It received another 8 Oscar nominations in addition to the wins for Rose and Hepburn. Quite an achievement when you consider that the same year brought us such classics as In The Heat Of The Night, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, Doctor Dolittle, Camelot, The Dirty Dozen, In Cold Blood, Casino Royale and The Jungle Book.

The film has aged incredibly well and is as fresh today as it was over 40 years ago. I watched it in HD via Netflix streaming and I can say it looks incredible. No blu-ray release yet and so I highly recommend it. It is not the original aspect ratio at full 16:9 but then the 40th Anniversary DVD was presented in the same ratio. It was originally filmed in 1.85:1 and so this is not too criminal.

If you have not seen this, you should. It will surprise you. The journey is not predictable even if the destination is. If you have not seen it recently, I suggest you take a fresh look as much has changed since it first saw the light of day and I believe the movie is even stronger as a result.

             

Sunday, February 27, 2011

AFI/BFI #216: Toy Story (1995)

Director: John Lasseter
Writer: John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Joe Ranft, Joss Whedon, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow
Composer: Randy Newman
AFI Rank:  - (1998), 99 (2007)
BFI Rank: -
      100%
             


What can I say about Toy Story that has not been said already. Unless you have lived in a cave or been in a coma for the last 15 years then you are probably intimately aware of the continuing adventures of Buzz and Woody. I must have seen it 20 or 30 times. Once in 3D. If by some slim chance you haven't then what are you waiting for? Maybe you think it is just a kids movie. It isn't. This film gave the whole world their first real glimpse of the genius of John Lasseter. Joss Whedon even had a hand in the screenplay. Pete Docter would go on to direct Monsters Inc. and Up, Andrew Stanton A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo & WALL-E. Joe Ranft had worked on Beauty and The Beast and the Lion King for Disney already and provided the voice for Wheezy in Toy Story. The sheer amount of talent focused on this one project is astounding in retrospect.

It was nominated for 3 Oscars and John Lasseter was given a Special Achievement Award by the academy for the development and inspired application of techniques that have made possible the first feature-length computer-animated film. An incredible achievement given the Academy's usual reception of such drastic advances in film making. There was some tough competition that year. Randy Newman lost out to Menken and Schwartz for Pocahontas. Christopher McQuarrie took home the Oscar for his incredible script for The Usual Suspects, for which Braveheart was also nominated.

Toy Story is also among the top ten in the BFI list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14, and the highest placed (at #99) animated film in Empire's list of 500 Greatest Movie of All Time.


             

Friday, February 25, 2011

AFI/BFI #217: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Writer: Robert Buckner, Edmund Joseph, Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein
Composer: George M. Cohan, Leo F. Forbstein, Ray Heindorf & Heinz Roemheld
AFI Rank:  100 (1998) 98 (2007)
BFI Rank: -
      91%
             

Ok. This is going to be a tough sell. A black and white musical that is nearly seventy years old and is also probably the most patriotic American film ever made. It was the next movie on my combined AFI and BFI top 100 lists and I had committed to myself to watch them all in order. I really enjoy musicals so that was not to be a handicap, and the timing couldn't be better. I decided to watch it the same day as my US citizenship swearing in ceremony. The rampant patriotism of the ceremony itself would help prepare me for the red, white and blue extravaganza that is Yankee Doodle Dandy.

I had never seen it before, especially growing up in England. In fact even today it has not seen a UK DVD release. To be honest I hadn't even heard of the film before I had set myself the challenge, which of course was the point of the exercise. I was familiar with George M. Cohan's music but not the man himself. I basically did not know what to expect, my favorite way of seeing a movie.


Yankee Doodle Dandy is a musical biography of George M. Cohan, the man who owned broadway. It was made while he was still alive and so pulls some of its punches (George had to approve its release). As a musical biography it succeeds well, even better as an historical record of George's stage performances. Cagney did his homework. You cannot help feeling though that without Cagney this film would have been a forgotten memory by now. He steals every scene and boy can he dance. For those of you like me who only thought of him as a gangster this will be a revelation, just as it was for audiences at the time. Watch him dance down those stairs and then think about what that would really involve. He took home his only Oscar as George.

This was also the movie that Michael Curtiz directed right before Casablanca. He was nominated for the Oscar for Yankee but won it for Casablanca the following year.

Is it a truly great film? I am still on the fence to be honest. It doesn't have worldwide appeal for one thing. But put into context alongside the first world war, the McCarthy witch hunts, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the escalation of the war, this is truly a great American film. The 2-disc special edition comes with a nice bonus, the well put together Warner Night at the Movies, 1942 introduced by Leonard Maltin including trailers, a newsreel, musical short subject and "Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid".  I'm very glad I watched it and it brought me a new found respect for James Cagney, but I don't expect to wear out the DVD anytime soon.

             

Sunday, February 20, 2011

AFI/BFI #218: The Killing Fields (1984)

Director: Roland JoffĂ©
Writer: Bruce Robinson
Composer: Mike Oldfield & David Bedford
AFI Rank:  -
BFI Rank: 100


      91%
    

The Killing Fields would be an exceptional movie for any Director. The fact that it was Roland Joffé's first makes it astonishing. He would follow it up in 1986 with the equally outstanding The Mission. He would later say that although he loved making them they were somewhat of an albatross around his neck. He was nominated for an Oscar, Directors Guild Award, BAFTA and a Golden Globe but took home none of them. There was some pretty stiff competition in Amadeus and Paris, Texas

My aim in documenting my viewing of these critically acclaimed movies is not to review them but to hopefully persuade you to see them. I also personally believe there is nothing better than seeing a movie when you know absolutely nothing about it. No critical plot revealing trailers. This is especially hard for a film based on a true story, especially one so news worthy. If you are young enough that shouldn't be an issue here.

The screenplay itself was based on Sydney Schanberg's  New York Times articles and he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Those works and more were recently collected in a single volume, Beyond The Killing Fields. Bruce Robinson's next project was to write and direct Withnail & I, but more on that in another review. 


Sam Waterston and Haing S. Ngor

Sam Waterston portrays Sydney with an incredible nervous energy that keeps up the tension throughout what could have easily become a very long and tedious movie. But the real standout is Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran. A Cambodian and doctor turned actor, this was his first ever role and with it he became only the second non-professional actor and the first southeast asian to win an Oscar.

The Killing Fields is a british film, ranked 100 in the BFI's top 100 and not making either of the AFI's lists. Perhaps that is the only way this truly American story could really be told.

I was initially worried that the film had dated badly, especially during the opening with Mike Oldfield's synthesized soundtrack playing underneath but I needn't have worried. David Bedford's orchestration as the picture progresses helps keep The Killing Fields somewhat timeless, a rare achievement for many films of the 1980s. The only exception being the use of John Lennon's Imagine at the film's climax which very nearly descends into Hallmark Channel territory. That decision was named the lowest point of the year in Time Magazine's Cultural Highs and Lows of the Year.

Chris Menges cinematography is breathtaking and rightly earned him an Oscar. The sunset scene that graces the original poster is in itself worth the award. He had just come off of Local Hero and would join Roland on The Mission.

The film clocks in at potentially boredom inducing 141 minutes but the script defies that with a superb structure broken into acts that at times feel almost like separate movies. This is a film to be savored and deserves your full concentration. Put down the iPad or laptop.

At the time of writing The Killing Fields is only available on DVD in the UK and US. There is a Dutch Blu-ray available but it is not remastered and is poorly reviewed. I watched the film via Netflix streaming in HD. There was some noticeable artifacts which may have been caused by streaming rather than in the source, and without seeing the DVD I cannot recommend which is the better one to see. It is also available via Amazon On Demand. Ideally put the Blu-ray on your Amazon wishlist and wait for its inevitable release.

27 years later this is still a must see film, maybe even more so today for a new generation of viewers for whom the phrase "The Killing Fields" has no meaning.

                  

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Journey Begins.........

I love film. I always have. I have an emotional connection to cinema far beyond any other art form. And it is not just about what ends up being committed to celluloid.  I have always been intrigued by the process from pre to post production and what happens behind the camera. Growing up my heroes were the writers, production designers, cinematographers, sound designers, stunt men, special effects artists and of course the directors. This love has been at times unconditional. My tastes are broad and eclectic, from European Art House films to Bruckheimer Blockbusters. Recently I have felt, to quote the great Jackie Chan, that my focus needs more focus.

And hence my quest for Crucial Cinema begins. A Big Screen Bucket List of sorts. So where to start? There are no end of lists of critically acclaimed movies.

There have been many great books on the subject such as Jason Schneider's excellent 1001 Movies To See Before You Die, the wonderful and highly recommended Defining Moments In Movies, Leonard Maltin's 151 Best Movies You've Never Seen and Roger Ebert's Four Star Reviews (1967-2007).

There are the entertainment media's lists such as Yahoo's 100 Movies To See Before You DieThe New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made or Time Out London's 100 Best British Films.

Then there are the industry lists, usually voted on by a panel of experts including actors, directors, writers and movie insiders. It is on the last category that I plan to start my journey, specifically the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Movies and the British Film Institute's BFI 100, the anglo-american angle suiting me particularly well.

To assemble my list I started with the 1998 and 2007 AFI lists. There were a total of 23 movies that were dropped and a new 23 added in 2007 and only 5 movies in common with the BFI list. Combining the 3 gave me a ranked list of 218 Crucial Movies. An before you ask, yes, I do realize that this ignores the great wealth of international and world cinema but I save that for a future voyage, this maiden one will be somewhat biased.

I won't be setting myself some sensational goal such as watching all 218 in 218 days, or even in one year, as that would defeat my real purpose here which is to see and truly enjoy each of these classics and to document my experience here. I have seen 92 of the 218 films at some point in my life already but I plan to work my way through the entire list in reverse order.

So wish me luck and a safe trip........

"But our trip was different. It was to be a classic affirmation of everything right and true in the national character. A gross physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country. But only for those with true grit."