Saturday, September 24, 2011

Love Story (1970)

This was another one of those films that I heard my mom talk about when I was growing up.  I knew it needed to be on our list--the score is also quite famous.  I didn't know what the plot was, but I was pretty sure one of the lovers would die.  I mean, why else would people love it?  I knew there had to be some element of tragedy.  And I was right.

And the opening scene is Oliver Barrett (Ryan O'Neal) sitting on snowy bleachers with his voiceover, "What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach, the Beatles, and me?"

Boom.  First expectation met--instant gratification.  Now, I asked myself why would the filmmakers tell you at the beginning of the movie that a lead character would be dying.  The only thing I could think was that this was an attempt to build tension throughout the film, to keep you interested, waiting and watching for the moment when the Grim Reaper would arrive.  It worked.  But this movie isn't really about death.  This was merely a vehicle for keeping you interested in the love story--and for bringing a strong sense of irony to the story.

This story is a love story and fairly predictable--boy meets snarky girl, and they engage in "verbal volleyball," taunting and swearing at one another so that at the end of their first interaction, Barrett declares himself to be "in love" with Jenny Cavalieri (Ali Macgraw).  These kinds of romances only happen in Hollywood!  They're two kids in ivy league college who fall in love, despite Barrett's family snobbery, get married, and then are separated by Jenny's death.

What is so true and beautiful about this film is the dichotomy--Oliver falls in love with Jenny--and his father, who doesn't approve of Jenny's low social background, disapproves of his son's choice.  Oliver, already a rebel to his father, pushes him away, and basically disinherits himself from his family's millions.  Of course, his relationship with Jenny was the straw that broke the camel's back.  He already had a growing hatred for his father and his father's plans for him.  But this final straw drew the line, and Oliver turned his back on his family.  Jenny urges reconciliation--she pleads with Oliver to restore his relationship with his father, knowing that life is too short not to be on good terms with those we love.  Yet, when Jenny ends up in the hospital, Oliver finally speaks to his father, requesting money without a true explanation of why he needs it.  His father later finds out that the money was actually for Jenny, comes to talk, but Jenny has already died.  He begins to apologize to Oliver, but Oliver, having learned from Jenny says to his father, "Love means not having to say you're sorry."  While we don't see an on-screen, dramatic restoration of their relationship, this line plants hope in the viewer that the bitter feud was over.  It was Jenny's death that brought the reconciliation between the father and son who were ultimately estranged because of her union with Oliver.

So, yes, this is a love story, but the ultimate message wasn't about "love at first sight" or "all your wildest dreams coming true."  Rather, the message is that true love is about making things right with each other--loving even when things aren't easy and when people aren't lovely.  Jenny loved Oliver despite the way he treated his father--and we find our hope as viewers that her love and constancy helped him learn to love the man he had grown to despise and to gain perspective on the fleeting nature of life.

Next up: The French Connection

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Patton (1970)

"The pure warrior...a magnificent anachronism." German Capt. Oskar Steiger on Patton.  General George S. Patton, Jr. is the template of the warrior poet, well-encapsulated by this film.  A philosophical conglomeration of reincarnation, Christianity, and uberpatriotism, Patton is memorable as both a WWII war hero and a his narcissistic wiles.  I knew little about Patton before watching the film, but apparently, George C. Scott nails his character.  Regardless of whether or not he was able to mimic the real Patton, Scott was excellent.  The film is excellent.  It is a military movie that even Amanda liked.  Patton is not just dramatically engaging but shows some fascinating insights into the strategy of the Allies during WWII and how Patton, "a magnificent anachronism," seems to be an ancient warrior stuck in a modern war.

Patton is a great character study driven by real history and sprinkled with several action battle scenes.  The battles were impressive, likely pulling a massive budget for the time.  Tight editing kept the action seamless and Patton kept the dialogue interesting.  It has a memorable score.  Well, really it has a memorable instrument--reverberating trumpets, but I honestly can't remember much else about the music.  My only technical complaint is that Patton always looked like he was shellacked in bad news anchor make-up.  Otherwise, you wouldn't know the film is 41 years old.

Patton, portrayed in Patton, is a somewhat self-promoting, disciplined, Jedi who truly believed it was his destiny to be a war hero, almost to the point of being a monger.  At a few points in the film he appeals to God for his mission to be a great war leader.  Naturally, that brings up the difficult question of how God feels about war.  (I'm not about to poke that hive).  But what was more central to the core of this film is how a man wants to be remembered. Patton wanted to leave a destiny of strong leadership and heroism.  It drove him to push himself and his soldiers beyond what some thought was possible.  He is accused, in what seems to be a critical tone, of loving his job as General.  It forces me to ask what my legacy will be.  How would George C. Scott play me?  What will people say that I love?  Prolly not Ben-Hur.

Next on the list: Love Story

Friday, September 9, 2011

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

I really liked the way this film began.  The lighting created a dark mood for the gambling outlaws as well as the way the light was filtered through the camera lens.  It had a gritty look to it which matched the tough-looking cowboys sitting around the poker table.  I knew I was going to like it--it felt much more modern than anything else from this time period.  Then, it changed.  It moved to full-on technicolor and lost its edge.  

As the film progressed, it was fun to get a deeper glimpse into the characters' personalities.  It was obvious that Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) was the brains of the outfit while the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) was the brawn with his gunslinging skillz.  The film became more playful than I have ever seen in a western (excluding any that had Don Knotts in them).  

Once the girlfriend was introduced, I lost a lot of respect for the film.  Burt Bacharach's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" plays through a dreamy 1960s sequence of Butch Cassidy riding a bike with the Kid's girl sitting on the handlebars.  It was weird.  And not western.  At all.

The storyline was interesting but predictable--outlaws trying to escape the Law.  They end up high-tailing it to Bolivia, and somehow the phantom-esque posse that was chasing them found them there anyway.  The only unpredictability was how the film ended (which was pretty much true based on the information I was able to find about the real Butch and Kid)--the final shootout shocked me and left me feeling quite unsatisfied.  But I won't spoil it for you.

If I were going to re-make this movie, I would have stuck with the tone that was set at the very beginning of the film and forget about trying to make the audience like the characters (I think their camaraderie would have endeared me to them anyway).  The cheesiness of the score really sent me over the edge into unbelievability.

As far as any spiritual insight--it was lacking.  I suppose you could point out how the pursuit of wealth never ends well and that holds true with what Paul said in 1 Timothy 6:9-10, "Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs."  

It got the attention apparently because so much money was spent making it (filming on location and hiring expensive actors).  It definitely needed to be reined in with a more cohesive tone.  I, for one, would have enjoyed it more.  However, I must say that I did enjoy it at times, and it wasn't a complete waste.  But don't expect Lonesome Dove.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ben-Hur (1959)

More like Ben-Hurry up and be over.  I fell asleep at least 6 times trying to finish this movie.  This almost-4 hour juggernaut has some great moments, hence the 11 Oscars it won.  There is a killer sea battle scene, the famous Chariot scene, and some touching moments when Jesus pops up on the radar.  But it is also one of the most boring movies I've ever watched.  Heston has a way of slowly...pacing...scenes with his long, awkward pauses between lines.  I won't mind if I never again have to watch his chiseled mug talk through gritted teeth and furrowed brow.  Sorry,  I just don't have the Heston fever.  

This movie presents a fictional story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince, who finds himself betrayed into slavery only to rebound into royalty in Roman government, similar to the story of Joseph (the one with the technicolor coat).  The story takes place during the life of Jesus in the Roman Empire, and I love the clever criss-crossing paths of Ben-Hur and The Christ.  As Ben-Hur is betrayed early in his adulthood and thrust into captivity, Jesus is just starting his active mission.  Then as Ben-Hur rises back through the ranks to his highest bearing, Jesus is bound in captivity.  A mirrored interaction happens between Judah and Jesus at two key moments, drawing attention to their switched statuses/stati.  As a final show of favor, Jesus heals two of Judah's special people in the midst of His Passion.  This draws another comparison between the two men, contrasting Jesus' love in the midst of suffering with Judah's hellbent mission to enact revenge on his betrayer.

I give Ben-Hur the stamp of "Never Gonna Watch This Again."  However, I can appreciate the beauty of the story itself.  If you can handle a slow-moving epic speckled with a few big action scenes hours apart from one another, then you may enjoy this movie.  If you like horses and lepers and rowing then this film has you in mind.  If you like naps, then rent it today.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Oliver! (1968)

Oliver! is the musical adaptation of Charles Dicken's classic novel, Oliver Twist. I actually have not read the novel and had very little knowledge of the story beyond what I could read on the back of the book. If this film did anything, it piqued my curiosity about the novel. I would like to read it for myself and get the full story (even though I am not a huge Dickens fan). Otherwise, I must say I wasn't very impressed with the film.

I generally enjoy musicals, but I think the many songs made for a sparse plot, which in turn caused me to not enjoy this musical. It seemed as if there was a song every five minutes. I was astounded at the number of performances in this film. I lost track. I found myself generally bored during the songs and eager to see where the plot would end up. I didn't feel like the musical numbers really helped move the plot along, and there was little time for the character development to take place. This made it seem unrealistic and the actors unbelievable--especially Bill Sikes.

I do feel I should say that the musical numbers were well done and the choreography pretty impressive considering the large groups of people in many of the songs. But, I really didn't enjoy them, as I said earlier. I don't find the songs to be that repeatable (with the exception of "Food, Glorious Food.").

Though I haven't read this particular Dickens' novel, I do think the film failed to capture what Dickens was trying to convey about the ill treatment of children in 19th century England. It was far too playful. I know Dickens is famous for trying to draw attention to the plight of the orphan (Great Expectations, David Copperfield, etc.). In this film, there was only one scene I felt really depicted this--during the musical number, "Boy for Sale." As Oliver is marched through the snow, the Beadle, Mr. Bumble, tries to sell him and has to keep lowering his price as no one wants him. He ends up selling him to an undertaker--showing the plight of many children of that time--death.

I would only recommend this film to theater types who enjoy a good melodrama (the whole thing was over-acted) and lots of songs with little thought for a detailed plot.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

A provocative film exploring racial tension in the South (tm), In the Heat of the Night has moved to the top of my list of favorite movies from this project so far.  It was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture in addition to several other categories, and it wins a pair of thumbs from this guy.  The movie stars Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a Philidelphian (and black) detective who not-so-serendipiditously gets recruited to help gum-smacking Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger) with a murder investigation in a racially hostile small Mississippi town.  Poitier and Gillespie deliver convincing performances in one of the most stylistic films we've watched so far.  The screenplay is wonderfully-engrossing and the movie could be enjoyed just for its crime mystery plot alone, not considering its artistic depth.

As mentioned, this movie is one of the first to demonstrate a style.  I don't know if I'm using that term appropriately in a film context, but it goes beyond creating a mood and has a definite stamp of artistry by director, Norman Jewison.  From difficult-to-shoot nighttime scenes to awesome 70's disco zoom shots to mobile shots with the camera moving along a moving train, car, and a chased man in the woods, the camera dudes had some work cut out for them.  The culture of the time is well-encapsulated with music by Quincy Jones, authentic vernacular (you dig?), and nostalgic scenes of the South like the juke-box cafe, railyards, abandoned factories, and a cotton plantation.

What I find super great about this film is that it goes beyond a "typical" racial tension story and explores the consequences of human darkness.  Many scenes occur at night, and one of the first character developments involves a policeman, who is supposed to be protector, plays peeping Tom on who we discover later is a teenage girl well-known for flaunting her wares.  The obvious and expected racism takes place early and frequently as Poitier's character is falsely accused, threatened, attacked, ignored, etc.    However, a powerful moment takes place in which Poitier himself is caught up in his own false assumptions about a suspect and his erroneous thinking is ironically called out by Gillespie.  Using a crime drama is a great vehicle for pushing along a story like this; bringing to light what is in the dark for the sake of truth and justice.  The story shows us the negative ramifications of not knowing the truth and how one iniquity performed "in the heat of the night" leads to more transgressions and further depth of depravity.

"...God is light; in him there is no darkness at all...But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another..." I John 1: 5, 7 (emphasis mine)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Dr. Zhivago (1965)

Dr. Zhivago falls into the "epic" category.  It's long--about three hours--, and it takes place during World War I.  I wasn't sure what to expect from this story.  I knew it was a love story, and I knew it took place during Bolshevik Russia, but beyond that, I had no idea.  I knew it was one of my mom's favorite movies.

It was nominated for Best Picture that year but lost to The Sound of Music.

I didn't like it.

Okay, I didn't entirely not like it.  Just overall.

Before I get into what I didn't like about it, let me give you a brief synopsis.  The story follows a young woman, Lara, who is raped by her uncle (by marriage) and then drawn into a weird incestual relationship with him.  She was engaged to be married to a young man named Pasha, who was working with the Bolsheviks for revolution.  She finally breaks ties with her uncle by shooting him and wounding him and marries Pasha.  In the meantime, Dr. Yuri Zhivago, who was orphaned at a young age, meets Lara and feels pity for her situation.  Later, they end up working in a hospital together, and Lara desires that Yuri not have to lie to his wife about their relationship, and she maintains a purity in their relationship, though it is obvious that Yuri longs for her.

Moscow becomes dangerous, and Yuri moves his father-in-law, wife, and son out to the country.  Yuri finds out that Lara lives in the nearest town, Yuriatin.  He meets her at the library, and their affair begins.  For some reason, Lara's scruples have disappeared.  Yuri continues meeting with her.  His wife, Tonya, is pregnant with his second child (his first was a son, Sasha), yet he goes to Yuriatin to see Lara anyway.  On the way, he is taken captive by the Reds and forced to be their medic.  He eventually breaks free and returns home.  He finds Lara and his belongings, but his family is gone.  He doesn't try to repair things with his wife or reunite with his children.  Instead, he lives with Lara and her daughter, Katya, until the political situation forces him to send them away to safety.

And now for my rant...

I am sick to death of films where people cheat on their spouses in the name of "true love."  It's annoying.  This film, which was quite racy for 1965 (especially standing next to The Sound of Music in Oscar nominations!), follows the age-old deception, "If it feels good, do it."  Never mind who you hurt in the process as long as YOU'RE happy.  And, we, as an audience, are supposed to applaud and hope that Yuri and Lara will be together--because they are in love.

Forget Yuri's wife.

Forget his children.

Forget that he abandoned them to go meet his mistress.

Forget Lara's husband, even if he was a crazy.

Forget her daughter.

And I'm supposed to fall into line and say, "Yuri and Lara forever!!!"

What kind of man abandons his family?

Not one that I will cheer for, most definitely.

What kind of woman cheats on her husband--the one she made vows to?

Not a woman I want to be like.

One of the interesting themes of the movie that Dave pointed out was that the Reds were stealing people's private lives--forcing communism, requiring that all people share everything.  And yet, Yuri, this poet with "subversive lines," retains his private affair with Lara and lives a secret life.  One man who was chained on the train to Yuriatin told the others in the boxcar that he was freer than all of them because the Reds couldn't take away his thoughts.  It's true--you can be forced to live a certain way outwardly, but no one dictates your inner life.

I'm just sad that Yuri and Lara chose to please themselves rather than serving their families.  Their sin robbed them of true freedom and left them alone in the end.  Many liked this film for the "love story" element.  If the message was about true freedom, I think Yuri and Lara are sad and miserable people, enslaved to their own desires and not free at all.