The Overlook Hotel, a popular, historic summer destination in the Colorado Rockies, closes every winter due to its snowy inaccessibility. Aspiring writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) accepts a position as the hotel’s winter caretaker, bringing along his wife and young son to the empty hotel for the season. Between patrolling the grounds and light maintenance, Jack is hoping to have plenty of peace and quiet to focus on his writing. However, isolated and subject to the supernatural forces lurking within the hotel, Jack’s mental wellbeing begins to deteriorate. He becomes a great risk to his family and himself (the most sterile and spoiler-free way to say that!).

In addition to some awesome, classic imagery, "The Shining" likely draws power from the numerous interpretations it provides the audience. From the very first revelation that the hotel was built on a Native American burial ground to the hotel’s art and architecture, a story about the folly of Manifest Destiny emerges. Repeated warnings on the dangers of isolation and the early meetings with Danny’s psychologist shows the dangerous power and dark side lurking in all human minds. And, forgive my leaving the obvious, "The Shining" is clearly a classic ghost story with visits from the eerie, wooden Guests of past seasons.

But for me, the most powerful story was that of Jack’s alcoholism. It was pretty clear (in my eyes) that "The Shining" was a metaphor for a father’s destructive alcohol abuse. The winter representing his isolating coldness and the maze-like hotel hallways and—well—the actual maze representing Wendy and Danny’s feelings of entrapment. Ironically, Stephen King allegedly didn’t care for the film for leaving the book’s family and alcoholism themes out but I thought they were pervasive. The movie wasn’t powerful to me for because it was a real-story of an axe wielding mad man, but because that is likely what it feels like to be stuck in an abusive relationship.

The Shining was the fourth and final Stanley Kubrick film I will screen this year and his track record with me is mixed; but I gotta respect his style. I think he’s great because he was willing to swing for the fences. He put all of himself into his craft—sometimes to confusing effect and other times inspiring greatness. Despite "The Shining"’s initial slowness and clunky dialogue, the film is genuinely creepy and exciting. Like all Kubrick films, it is technically brilliant and its characters are his most painfully real. I liked it a lot!

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AuthorJahaungeer

When I was a kid, a lot of my friends and I considered “The Exorcist” to be a golden standard for horror. None of us had seen it mind you, but there we were on a playground, 25 years after the film’s release, talking about ‘knowing’ that it was the scariest film ever. Clearly the film has maintained a reputation for itself and for that reason, I’ve managed to stay away from it after all these years. But not anymore, thanks to this silly film project.

“The Exorcist” surprised me, for many reasons. I was surprised that the film dedicates its opening 38 minutes to character and world building before ever delving into anything supernatural. I was surprised how logically the film laid out Regan’s medical diagnosis and her mother’s paranoia/frustration with doctors. How ineffective science and medical technology juxtaposed with Regan's possession as equally frightening and horrific. How the film plays on closeted fears of mental illness and disfigurement as an unsavory but effective horror trope. Most of all, I was surprised that I liked it.

I think the film earned the reputation that it has for how seriously it took its subject matter. I mean, a lot of really stupid stuff happens during this movie: bed bouncing, head twisting, split pea soup vomit—it could have easily been really dumb. But it was all shot with a deadpanned seriousness that challenges the audience to accept its story. I don’t believe in possession, or anything supernatural for that matter (although I’m overcoming a head cold and ‘get’ exorcizing evil from one’s body) but the movie worked for me because I believed that the characters’ trials and reactions were real. The demon was hardly effective for having a laughable fondness of the “c-word” but when it began to make claims about Father/Dr. Karras’ mother, I sensed its true evil.

It really had me thinking about movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and why they loom so large in our memories. There were gangster films before "The Godfather" and space movies before "Star Wars", but for the first time, these films created tactile worlds, characters with dimensionality, and did so without ever winking at the camera. Perhaps this is what the Exorcist did for horror. It was an early example of taking a “based on a ‘true story’” premise, shooting it with high production values, true character arcs, pretty good special effects, well executed horror, and adding just the right pinch of myth to ensure an enduring reputation.

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Last week I wrote that I didn’t care for the horror genre and, while that is true, every rule has its exception. And for me, that’s zombies. I really like zombies! From "The Walking Dead" (I made it 7 seasons before giving up on the writing) to "World War Z", and especially the lighter fare like "Shaun of the Dead" and "Zombieland", I like 'em! Ripe with metaphor and structurally more of a disaster story than pure horror, zombie tales scratch a very specific itch, so I knew I had to make room for this one.

George Romero’s "Night of the Living Dead" is the granddaddy of all zombie films. Though incredibly simple (girl runs from undead to farmhouse, meets with others who barricade the structure, and fight with each other on how to best outlast the growing danger), the film draws its strength from the unfair advantage of getting to set the rules on zombies. The characters and the original audience didn’t know what they were dealing with and learned about the undead through the gradual reveals of character testimonials, glimpses from the radio and TV, and most tragically, from fatal mistakes. Even knowing the rules of zombies (as the rules established by Romero mostly continue to this day, intact) it was exciting to watch the story gradually unfold.

At the time, critics interpreted the insatiable undead hoard as a criticism of capitalism; the ignorance and anxiety of the living as a critique of America’s involvement in Vietnam. But for me, what stuck with me the most was the film’s handling of race, radical in 1968 and relevant to this day. Allegedly, Romero didn’t go looking for an African American lead and Duane Jones just auditioned the best, but the brilliance of the choice was apparent immediately. From young, white Barbara’s hesitation to trusting and accepting Ben’s help (in the face of her imminent doom, mind you), to Harry Cooper’s rejection of Ben’s leadership, and finally, to the redneck posse conclusion of the film, this movie took a story about distrust and fear and turned it to 11 with the stain of American racism.

Unbeknownst to me, I coincidentally scheduled this screening on the week of the film’s 50th anniversary! Reflecting on this, I’m delighted by how much it holds up. While the zombies weren’t made with expensive effects (the film used chocolate syrup for blood) and their occasional energy or grasp of tools was dubious, I was reminded that even genre films hold up when anchored by a good story. If you like the zombie genre and somehow managed to miss this one, you need to check out it!

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AuthorJahaungeer

Welcome to the first of five weeks, counting down to Halloween, in which I turn to classic American horror films! I gotta come clean and share: This is NOT my genre. I do not pay to be made uncomfortable. But here I am, unable to avoid the impact horror has had on cinema. I figure this project is as good as any excuse to finally check these films out, so I thought I’d start classic (and easy!).

"Frankenstein", adapted from Mary Shelley’s classic book of the same name, is the story of a monster brought to life through the demented experimentation of scientist Henry Frankenstein. Sequestered from the world and unaware of his strength, the monster escapes and unintentionally terrorizes the local town. After learning about the drowning of a young girl, the town’s citizens erupt into anger and embark on a witch-hunt for the monster in a climax that will eventually pit Frankenstein against his very creation.

In alignment with the book (which I have actually read, and liked), film tackles some pretty classic themes: parenthood, obsession, the search for knowledge, the inability to control nature, the nature of life and death, man’s relationship with creation (and therefore his god), and the perils of science unchecked by ethics. But watching from a modern perspective, I couldn’t help but see new takes on the story. From the influence of environment on criminality to the destructive privilege of the wealthy—after all, Henry Frankenstein skirts responsibility and is saddled with little more than a need for bedrest and the ironic irritation of a father yearning for him to produce a grandchild. With this poignant end, film plays like a modern, two-act Twilight Zone episode (or "Black Mirror", for the younger folks).

The influence this film had on all film to follow is evident in every frame. As the move played, I kept seeing seeds that would lead to films from "Back to the Future", to "The Prestige"; from E.T. to Age of Ultron (and of course "Young Frankenstein", but that doesn't count!). The slow cuts and relatively score-less scenes meant the film relied less on jump-scares and more on the fear of the unknown and Boris Karloff’s fantastic character-work. The Monster was terrifying, not for his wrath, but for childish and uncontrollable nature. But perhaps as expected, I’d argue it was the humans who were most scary in this film. From a cavalier relationship with the power of creation to straight-up mob mentality, for 87 years, Frankenstein has forced its audience to reflect on the true nature of monsters.

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I once had detention in high school. Just once. I can’t even remember why I got it, who issued it, or even what year this was, but I distinctly remember sitting around in a Saugus High bungalow (one of the ones against the back hill, by the aqueduct) for an hour in detention. I hadn’t seen The Breakfast Club yet, but I can assure you, it was nothing like it.

The Breakfast Club is about five teenagers stuck in Saturday detention. Each teen hails from a different high school clique (one, a popular girl, the others, a jock, a geek, an outcast, and a delinquent). As the movie progresses, these different folks learn that they have similar problems, most of them having to do with their shitty parents and them sorting out their identities—as influenced by their peers, the adults in their lives, and themselves.

There’s a lot to like about this film. The writing was pretty stellar and the film was simple and beautifully shot. I thought the quintet’s relationship blossomed naturally (there was forming, and storming, and norming, and...self actualization, if I can hop models). It was a beautiful balancing act that demonstrated John Hughes’ strengths were as much about script mechanics as they were about ‘understanding teenagers’. I liked the Allison Reynolds character, was roused by the flare gun twist, and really liked Emilio Estevez’s tad melodramatic monologue.

But I have a secret: I hate stories about teenagers. Like, a lot. I’m recognize this probably has more to do with my own issues than the trope-y storytelling itself. To be honest, I don’t extract a lot of meaning from that portion of my life and I think that stories about identity are inherently narcissistic. I know, I know; core to the human condition and all—but whatever—I suspect that adult Claire Standish doesn’t think too much about how difficult it was to reconcile her new friendships with the expectations of her bitchy friends when she’s got rent to pay. LOL. So there it is: I found myself enjoying the film, technically, but I couldn’t get into the spirit of the characters.

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AuthorJahaungeer

I have a weird track record with Martin Scorsese films. I know he’s a huge director but I’m still trying to figure him out. Maybe it’s that I’m a LA kid watching New York films I just don't understand. Sometimes I like them. Sometimes I tolerate them. Sometimes I even hate them.

I loved Goodfellas. Like, way more than I thought it I would. I mean, it wasn’t The Godfather but that was clearly by design. The Godfather is a gangster opera, a white-collar affair. Goodfellas was self-referentially a blue-collar gangster film. It was messy, and unromantic, and fun as ——.

The film covers so much ground that it’s hard to summarize. In essence, the film is a classic rise-and-fall story—a portrait of Henry Hill, an American gangster, who associated with the Lucchese crime family. It begins by explaining Hill’s seduction to the Mob and times when his connections were good to him. It drifts into poor choices and the moments in which his actions began to grow costly. After a stint in jail, Hill gets involved deep in the drug trade and this sends him down a criminal path that eventually pits him against his old Mob associates.

Again, against all expectations, I loved this film. I loved the characters. I love that they’re quick and witty and just playful enough to fool you into liking them before reminding you that they’re genuinely bad people. Especially Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito, a remarkably likable and unlikeable character. I love how precarious that balance is. I love the film’s frenetic style. I love the way the plot bounces around from middle to beginning to end. I love that the narrative point of view seems to “float” between two main characters in a way that was organic and gave me chills. I loved the juxtaposition of crime in the 50’s against crime the 80’s. And of Hills first court case and last court case. And the use of laughter as symbolism. And did I mention I loved Joe Pesci?

Seriously, this was a good one. It's probably as dense, and dark, and grimy as Scorsese's other film's, but this one manages to hit its mark and stays entertaining.

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Vertigo is a film lauded by critics as one of the greatest films ever made, often jostling for the top-spot with Citizen Kane. But to my untrained eye, its mess of a plot kept me distracted from all of the sharp cuts, smart framing, splashes of color, and beautiful Bernard Hermann music that I’ve come to know and love in a Hitchcock film. I didn’t hate the film; I suppose I was just a bit disappointed by it. I felt like I was ready to assign it 5 stars within the first 30 minutes and then slowly peeled star-after-star away as I became less enthused by the story (I finished around 2.5 stars).

The film starts as a classic mystery. James Stewart’s John Ferguson retires from police work after coming to terms that his vertigo-inducing fear of heights is a risk to the department. Soon after, he’s recruited by old college friend Gavin Elster to follow Elster’s wife Madeleine around. Elster believes she is possessed and a possible suicide risk. It’s up to Ferguson to get to the bottom of the mystery and keep Madeleine safe, but not before he falls in love with…yada yada…. And that’s all I’m going to give you!

I’m choosing to not go further because it would both ruin the Hitchcockian plot twist(s) and because what starts off as a solid premise gets increasingly implausible and lame. It began to feel like a soap opera. The characters were damaged and obsessive in a way that probably felt really artsy in the late ‘50s (and during the film’s ‘80s revival) and yet, by today’s standards, felt particularly dated and uncool.

Of course, the technical filmmaking is top notch, as should be expected. The vistas of a younger San Francisco were a lot of fun and I was both intrigued and impressed by the fact that the California Missions were shoehorned into the story. The film has a lot of (fake) history and that appeals to me. But ultimately, the characters and story had me looking at my watch more than I’m proud to admit.

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Fargo begins with a desperate family-man in debt and concludes with a foot bobbing around in a wood chipper. I guess you could say it’s the cinematic exploration of the marriage between the phrases “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” and “That escalated quickly.” It’s a film that exists between genres (crime, comedy, drama), straddles the line between subtlety and grandiloquence, and with characters so unique and morally grey that you can’t always decide who you’re rooting for. And it’s great!

Let’s break it down: William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard is in debt and has several shady ploys in motion to recoup his losses, the most devilish of which is the staged kidnapping of his wife to extort his wealthy father-in-law for money. The kidnapping, carried out by Gaear and Carl (Steve Buscemi—always a favorite—and Peter Stormare) goes south when the kidnappers are pulled over by a cop and before you know it, there are 3 dead bodies to account for. That’s when Francis McDormand’s Marge Gunderson arrives, the spunky and very-pregnant Brainerd police chief, to embark on an investigation across Minnesota on a trail that will hopefully lead the police back to Lundegaard, in North Dakota. Bismark, that is—not Fargo—only the opening scene takes place in Fargo!

I loved this film. It was dark, and funny, and interesting. The characters were Midwestern caricatures, but portrayed with an uneasy realness that had you rooting for them and fearing them. Francis McDormand’s Marge Gunderson was damn hilarious. She’s seriously one of my favorite comedy performances of all time and will likely be on my top-10 favorite new characters from this year’s film screenings. And for all of the wit, there was a weighty darkness (and a likely manufactured "based on a true story" tag) that kept the story grounded. Finally, the north-Midwestern setting, with its whitewashed landscapes and “Ohdontchaknow”s, was the otherworldly cherry on top.

Nothing else to say but I loved this film!

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AuthorJahaungeer

Man, when I don’t connect with a film, these get really hard to crank out…

Platoon is an anti-war flick and the first of its kind from a Vietnam War vet, Oliver Stone. The film follows fictional U.S. Army volunteer Chris Taylor (played by Charlie Sheen) and his year-long, hellish experience in Vietnam, ending with the New Year’s Day Battle of 1968. Despite Taylor’s initial greenness and struggle to fit in, he eventually finds a place for himself in his platoon. Sergeant Barns (Tom Berenger) and Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) serve as the two influences/narrative forces tugging on the men and on the story—with Barns serving as a brutal “ends justify the means” hard ass and Elias serving as a “live up to our ideals” moral balance. Guess which one is the first to go in an anti-war film?

First thing’s first, comparing this film with “Apocalypse Now” is unavoidable. They are both Vietnam War films staring a Sheen. Where ‘Apocalypse’ uses the war as an acid-trip backdrop for adapting “Heart of Darkness”, this film is a straight depiction of the destructiveness of war, which each character getting a soul-crushing mini-arch over the film. It was far more ground in reality, but less cinematic or exciting. This was clearly by intent (I read one review of how hard it is to make an anti-war flick without glorifying war in some way and this film pretty much succeeds) but I easily liked “Apocalypse Now” much more.

I suppose it’s because I personally didn’t click with this film; probably for really lame reasons. While I liked the duality of the Barns/Elias influence, I generally found the film to be dull. Things meant to make war seem unromantic succeeded, creating an unexciting watch. The low budget, un-epic-ness of the film shone through and the story, involving broken characters in an intentionally depressing slog, was hard for me to latch onto. I'm probably sounding unintelligent or not empathetic, but from my contemporary perch, the “war is hell” narrative played like something of a broken record I’ve seen before. I don’t disagree, but I don’t feel like I need to be told.

That’s not to say the film wasn’t good, or necessary, or important for a certain audience. It strikes me as another in a long line of films that our country needed to sort its shit out after the Vietnam War. A depressing and messy war begot depressing and messy art…and that’s ok. I'm just not in that audience, I suppose.

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Annie Hall is a romantic comedy about falling out-of-love. In the film, Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer is trying to analyze what went wrong in his relationship with Annie, brilliantly acted by Diane Keaton. His introspection starts with his childhood and moves forward into their tennis court meeting. From there, we get to see their relationship blossom, plateau, and decline, eventually concluding in a stereotypical, well intended-but-awkward friendship. The film is funny, and real, and heartbreakingly sweet.

You would think that a film co-written, directed, starring, and from the narrative perspective of Woody Allen would be about Woody Allen, but it wasn’t. I mean, sure, the film had plenty of comedy about Allen’s Jewish identity, cringy and voracious sexual appetite, and personal hang-ups. But Diane Keaton was the real star (I mean, the film is named after her character). She comedically and convincingly portrays a small-town girl as she navigates what ended up being a quarter-life crisis relationship. It was a real butterfly act watching Annie shed her naivety for confidence, showing how a mismatched relationship and life detour can shape who we become.

I probably loved this film because I’m a sucker for “nebbish guy internal monologue” driven comedies (a niche, I know!). “Scrubs” is still one of my favorite shows and this film reminded me of it quite a bit. Especially in its use of format changes and breaking of the 4th wall. I mean, I thought I was watching “When Harry Met Sally” but realized I was watching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. Or both, sort of. Allen’s ability to tell a genuine story about love while using crazy dream-sequences, time travel, and even animation to place us inside his head was a tremendously clever balancing act and one that succeeds.

If I remember correctly, “Annie Hall” was the last film I added on this year’s film list and I did so on a whim. I knew nothing about it but it kept coming up on “best comedy”, “best romance”, and “best Oscar winner” lists (that’s right, this is the film that beat "Star Wars" for ‘Best Picture’). In the end, I thought it was a tremendously funny and rewarding film and, if you can stomach Woody Allen’s style and character, totally worth a watch.

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Last week, Cindy and I moved apartments. Despite budgeting time to fit in my weekly film, the move was absolute chaos and so, for the first time since starting this, I missed my screening by a whole week! So forgive my tardiness but here we are, a week later…

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For the few folks who haven’t seen it, Rocky is the story of a amateur boxer from Philly. Something of a neighborhood staple, and bit of a loser (probably a few years past his fighting prime) Rocky struggles to fit in his passion for boxing, the need to scrap together a living, and wooing pet shop employee Adrian Pennino with his bad jokes. It is at this moment when heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed needs to find a challenger to ensure his payday. He picks Rocky in a publicity-fueled suggestion of opportunity: give a local Philly-boy a chance at the big league heavyweight title. The story then follows Rocky, the clear underdog, from his training through to the match, showing how the spotlight turns his life upside down.

For being a boxing movie, there’s actually not that much boxing going on. I probably liked the film more for this reason. The sport is mostly the backdrop for a character story, with the film spending an almost exhausting amount of time simply following Rocky around and letting the audience soak him in. My sister Javaneh even joked that most of the movie seemed to still shots of Rocky just walking through town, talking to the locals. But the tactic worked. We learn that he’s a strong errand-boy but is pretty soft on the people he’s meant to intimidate. He frequently admits to being dumb but is pretty articulate, understanding, and respectful. And, after a pretty assaulting first date with Adrian (romantic by 1976 standards???), the unfeeling tough guy becomes more of a lover than a fighter.

The film had a lot of great imagery. It has a clear Jesus-symbol-thing, frequent self-reflective mirror shots, and is even self-referential to the black-verses-white dynamic of the fight. But probably most of all, the film paints itself as a story about America. Set in America’s-birthplace Philadelphia and on the bicentennial (1976), this film was dripping in a tarnished red, white, and blue. It felt like another film that tried to sort through America’s identify in a post-Vietnam era. The Philly in Rocky is generally rundown, grimy, corrupt, and had some pretty broken/damaged people living in it. But there was community there. And the fight itself makes a farce of opportunity, capitalizing on the story of America to push a few bucks. But there was heart there.

What’s interesting about this film is that Apollo Creed isn’t really a villain (he’s actually depicted as a respected, talented, albeit overconfident opportunist). The villain is the struggle to get anything done anymore—to be great. It’s how hard it is to pick yourself up and push yourself. The film offers America a shot at redemption through pure grit and pure heart. There’s Rocky, who knows the fight is stacked against him but finds the endurance to push on, to his manager Mick Goldmill, who after 76 years is finally getting a chance to make a winner, to a local community who finally has something to believe in. And for me, that’s why Rocky continues to endure as a relevant and inspiring film: it’s a much needed story about grit and endurance; something to believe in.

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In the mid 1930’s, an unyielding drought turned the unanchored, over-cultivated soil of the Great Plains into dust and winds pitched this dirt into the air—ruining several states’-worth of farmland in the process. The resulting Dust Bowl forced the eviction of 3.5 million Americans, many of whom travelled west to California in the largest migration event in American history. A few short years later, in the Spring of 1939, John Steinbeck released his novel “The Grapes of Wrath”. By October of that year, a film version went into production and it was turned around and released by January of 1940. While the film holds up, it wouldn’t necessarily be my first pick for entertainment. Rather, it stands more prominently as a time capsule for a moment in American history often overshadowed.

Like the book (which I haven’t read, BTW), the film follows the Joad family as they upend, pack up the jalopy, and hit the road for a better life in California. This is the dreary version of “suitcase and a dream”, folks: After losing relatives on the treacherous, desert journey, they arrive in California to learn that it’s hardly the promised land. In a migratory “tale as old as time”, California “locals” detest and harass the “Okies” (from Oklahoma), forcing them out of town and back on the road. Farms *actually* offering work then pit the disproportionate surplus of hands against one another to drive wages menacingly low. It’s against this backdrop that the Joads must struggle desperately to stay together and survive.

I admit, this film wasn’t really my speed. It was pretty aggressively depressing; even a third-act rewrite that turns the novel’s grave finale into an almost-happy ending wasn’t enough to engage me. I get that this was entirely the film’s purpose and I suppose that watching it from within the Great Depression may have produced some sort of cathartic, misery-loves-company stress relief, but it was just kind of sad and boring to me.

And yet, despite not particularly caring for the film, I will admit that it sort of stuck with me. The first thing that stands out is its pretty severe anti-capitalism bent. Being released smack dab between America’s two Red Scares, the film’s stance was fascinating to me and demonstrative of how scarring the Great Depression truly was for a whole generation of Americans. This has to be one of the earliest examples of the "social justice Hollywood" we've all come to know and love/hate. I also want to praise Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell’s performances. Darwell (who would later portray the “Bird Lady” in Mary Poppins) was as much of the anchor of the film as she was for the Joad family. There's not much of a happy ending you can give a story the ends with a drive to Fresno, but a few stirring monologues did the trick enough.

And that's all I really have to say on The Grapes of Wrath.

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In the final act of Dances with Wolves, Chief Ten Bears of the Sioux people asks Kevin Costner’s John Dunbar to stay and share a pipe “for a while”. Dunbar narrates: “With Ten Bears, it was always more than a while. There was purpose in everything he did.” Clocking in at about 3 hours (for the theatrical version I watched; I can’t speak for the 4 hour “extended version”), I would say this line summed up Dances with Wolves perfectly. The movie methodically and expertly depicts how a relationship forms between people originally weary of each other, taking the necessary time to show each ponderous glance as assumptions dissolve and new perspective is formed. In this way, Dances with Wolves is a brilliant film.

The story is a simple one. John Dunbar, a decorated Civil War Lieutenant is stationed in the furthest reaches of the frontier, at his request. There, in a chance encounter depicting his humanity, he meets the local Sioux tribe and finds himself in a tenuous truce with them—from him, they hope to learn about the advance of other “white men” and from them, he looks for something of a gateway to the frontier, symbolized through his desire to see buffalo (or “tatanka” in the Sioux language, the first word shared with him and the people). The film makes great effort to depict his growing relationship with the Sioux people and his eventual relationship with Stands With A Fist, a white woman abducted/adopted by the natives as a child. These ties continue growth through love, war, and friendship, until they place him at odds with his original purpose in the frontier: the U.S. Army. Man, even as I type this, it sounds cliché and eye rollingly smug, but the great character work keeps this film from ever feeling as shallow as Avatar.

I know if you go looking for it, there's a lot of things people cite in their concerns with the film. My personal gripe was how wooden Costner’s narration was, like a bored voice-over in Ken Burn’s The Civil War. But for others, its length seems to be prohibitively long. Also, the film seems to have a challenging reputation from people on both sides of the “woke movie” divide. For some, the film is criticized for being a “white man savior” film, like Laurence of Arabia, where for others it is viewed as another cliché “white man is cartoonishly evil” film, like the aforementioned Avatar. And its historical accuracy is pretty shaky in big ways.

But for me, the film excels, not for its reliance on historical reality but in its very real depiction of what an unlikely bond forming looks like. The film has tremendously rich characters of all sentiments and spends a great deal of time showing the audience how each feels about their present situation. And the film’s great length allowed the audience to see how complex true perspective change is and requires. Throw in your typical stunning Western visuals, some brilliant and charming animals (doubling as vivid narrative symbols), an absolutely fantastic score by John Barry (composer of Out of Africa and the James-freakin-Bond theme), and you end up with a film that just landed with me in an unexpected way.

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AuthorJahaungeer

Co-written and directed by George Lucas, and yet something of an outlier in his professional career, American Graffiti is a film that uses ’50’s/’60’s car culture in a coming of age/“first night of the rest of their lives” type of story. Though I’m typically unenthusiastic about deep-dives into teenage culture (known for low-stakes, cliché drama), Lucas created some really great characters in this one.

First things first, American Graffiti is a beautiful movie. Each shot has a crystal-sharp foreground and a depth that glowed with all the nostalgia it evoked. Lights burned into the film like the neon draped throughout the frame and looked great reflected off of the waxed cars. I was also impressed by how well the film establishes the main 8 or so characters within the first 30 minutes, splits them, and then sends them careening around the town and through the story, like a narrative version of the cruisin’ it depicts. The film expertly used its classic rock soundtrack, and the DJ Wolfman Jack interludes proved to be a brilliant framing device.

I enjoyed all of the characters, but was most rooting for Richard Dreyfuss’s Curt Henderson. Lucas goes to great lengths to show Curt’s struggle to find purpose in a new phase of life, bouncing him between a school that has moved on without him, to adults who expect so much of him, to a gang who sees promise in him, to an adoring new crush (who likely doesn’t exist). In fact, it’s not just Curt who goes on a transformative journey: each character experiences a natural and honest growth over the course of the film. In fact, the film is such a good start-to-finish character piece that I found the concluding, on-screen epilogue to be a bit jarring. This extra information was both unnecessary and yet a natural conclusion for the characters. It was definitely a sobering means of transitioning the audience back into reality.

I never really understood ’50’s-era nostalgia but I think this film really laid it out for me. I suppose it’s not about hot rods, and burger joints, and greasers, and classic rock. I mean, sure, all of that stuff was there, but it’s really about the largest generation in our nation’s history sharing a collective adolescence before life and history forced them to grow up in an abrasive, at times traumatic way. American Graffiti was filmed just 11 years after the time it purports to be staged in and yet, in that time, the United States became an entirely different country. In this way, this film’s use of nostalgia (as well as most of the ’80’s/’90’s-era nostalgia that is so hot right now), isn’t so much about returning to a moment in history as it is about returning to a moment in life. Yes, stories of adolescence feature low-stakes, cliché drama—but maybe we all miss when our lives knew nothing more.

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AuthorJahaungeer

I was really looking forward to seeing Alien. After “2001”, it was one of the few ‘culturally significant science fiction’ films I hadn’t yet seen. Throw in a famous movie monster and some iconic sequences (facehugger, chestburster, etc.) and I assumed I was guaranteed to have a good time. And while I’d file this under the “glad I finally watched it” column, I wouldn’t say I particularly loved it.

 

I know, I know!—let’s get my preferences out of the way: I’m admittedly not a huge fan of horror and I struggle when I can't buy into a character or two. While I ultimately learned to like Ripley, in general, I found the crew to be uninteresting, unintelligent, and underdeveloped. They all seemed to be victims, less of the alien or their company, but of their own bad decisions. The motives that drove the story felt like clunky plotting masquerading as “mysterious”. And while I understand why some folks say the “effects still hold up”, there were a few "meh" puppet shots and a some glaringly choppy bits (in particular, a bad jump-cut between puppet Ian Holm and actual Ian Holm).

 

I’m not trying to seem like I’m in a full-on Alien-hating camp; there were things I liked. Like I said, I learned to like Ripley and enjoyed seeing her grow in confidence out of necessity. The film was also tremendously well shot. Close-up framing of the crew’s faces added to the feeling of claustrophobia (one of my favorite shots was a full shot of Ripley depicting the moment she’s the “last one standing”). I also thought the addition of a “fourth act” was brilliant and generated some of the most sincere tension/action in the film.

 

I know some folks really like this film and I’m sure seeing it on the big screen in ’79 was a hell of a trip. After all, it combines Star Wars-level visual effects with Jaws-like tension. Also, after perusing other reviews of the film, I’m now actually really intrigued to give Aliens a go as it seems different in ways I prefer. But as far as the original film is concerned, it played like an uninteresting bottle/horror episode of Doctor Who, just without the Doctor to clean up everyone’s mess.

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AuthorJahaungeer

Knowing nothing about it but that it's a ‘political thriller’, I chose The Manchurian Candidate to be my 4th of July week movie. What a topical, surprising, and undeniably American choice! For those like me who didn't know, The Manchurian Candidate begins with the capture and brainwashing of a platoon of American soldiers in the Korean War. The men are returned to America believing that Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw busted them out of capture. In reality, Shaw was the primarily brainwashing victim and now that he’s returned, he begins conducting a series of political murders at the subconscious prompting of the Soviets and a treasonous American operative. Major Bennett Marco (also a member of the captured platoon) begins piecing together what happened to them and works tirelessly to foil the Soviet plot before a major political assassination can occur.

 

The film has its strengths and its weaknesses. I enjoyed Laurence Harvey’s Raymond Shaw, Angela Lansbury absolutely rocked it as Mrs. Iselin, and Frank Sinatra played a dazed drunk just too well. My favorite feature was the excellent and inventive camerawork. Shots like a rotating hypnosis-demonstration transition, the use of monitors to display action in static press conference scenes, less-comfortable, askew angles, and documentary-styled convention shots provided an enduring flair to this otherwise aging film. On the other hand, sloppy coincidences, Janet Leigh’s confusing character Rosie, and an over-seasoned helping of ‘60s racism/sexism detracted from my full enjoyment of the flick.

 

I think what I found the most fascinating about the film is how its flexible central theme has allowed the film to endure as a relevant story. When the film came out in 1962, it reflected the fear of communism, witch hunting, and technological anxiety of the time. But by the end of 1963, audiences were apparently less focused on the brainwashing-element and more on its depiction of assassination. Certainly, the film parallels JFK’s murder, the first of many American assassinations in the ‘60s. But watching from today, I was awestruck by how adaptable the film was as a metaphor for what’s going on right now—at a base level, the film is about Russian indoctrination to influence a presidential election. Heh.

 

For that reason, the film exists in a gap between an aging relic of the Cold War and a relevant thriller for the modern age. I am curious how well the 2004 remake of this film adapted the premise and I may give it a watch. But if you're reaching for an early-'60s political commentary film, I'd stick with Dr. Strangelove.

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AuthorJahaungeer

Well, happy half-way through 2018 everyone!!! Just as my film list started in January with a lonely man in the desert, I mark this mid-point in June with a lonely man on the frontier—Shane. I know there are plenty of classic Westerns I could have tackled before Shane, but I was particularly drawn to this one because of how frequently it was quoted, nodded at, and paid homage to in one of my favorite films, last year’s Logan. In a way, my desire to better understand that film put me on the path to this year’s binge-project. So you better believe I was excited for this film and pleased to discover it totally holds up.

 

Shane is an American story and a human story. The central conflict in the film is a battle between frontier-America’s two great heroes: the rugged, nomadic cowboy and the puritanical, homesteading farmer. Essentially, in the film, a small bunch of famers settle a Wyomingite valley (legally, thanks to the Homestead Act). However, their fences and irrigation directly threaten the livelihood of a cattle baron named Ryker, a man accustomed to free-range ranching. So, he and his unsavory cowpokes harass, insult, and injure the farmers in an attempt to provoke their voluntary eviction. And I gotta admit, unpleasantries aside, his complaints made a lot of sense. Like a bearded Thanos, I formed a twisted sympathy for the antagonist, adding depth to the story and placing all responsibility for resolution on our protagonist.

 

Which brings us to Shane. Shane is a charming, baby-faced anti-hero on the run from his violent, gunslinger past. He meets Joe Starrett and after some consideration, agrees to work on Joe’s farm, forming a friendship with Joe, a fatherly mentorship with Joe’s son Joey, and something of an affection-triangle with Joe’s wife Marian. Shane has clearly seen some shit and seems grateful for his new, simplified life when the ranchers’ harassment escalates. The situation in the valley worsens until violence seems to be the only tool remaining and Shane, knowing himself to be the most experienced gun fighter with the least to lose, once again resigns himself to violence.

 

This film holds up for a multitude of reasons. Like I said, Shane is an American story and in a narrow sense, land rights in the American West continue to be a source of conflict. From a wider perspective, the film explores great questions about man’s attraction to the frontier v. preference for civilization and establishment, outgoing industry v. economic development, and even established populations v. migrant ones—in direct parallel with America’s conflicts, today.

 

But as a human story, Shane holds up as a delicate reminder that violence is sometimes the only remaining option against a bully. And yet, it cautions that those who employ violence may never be able to 'normal' again. Shane is a reluctant hero. He is a man who tasted the ‘normalcy’ of the nuclear family and yet, after almost finding a place for himself, was called back to battle. This message spoke valuable multitudes to a nation still healing after World War II but is also unbound from time and from reality. It’s how the message of Shane could resonate so profoundly with me and with a fictitious mutant superhero, named Logan. This film still earns 5 out of 5 Grand Teton vistas and deserves a curious watch from everyone today.

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AuthorJahaungeer

In 1930, World War I (then known as “The Great War”) was still fresh in the social memory of much of the world. Artists, poets, novelists, and newest of all, filmmakers were producing art that sought to make sense of the enormous cost of the war—or designate it as senseless. In 1929, German Novelist Erich Maria Remarque wrote “All Quiet on the Western Front” and one year later, Universal’s Carl Laemmle Jr. adapted the story into film. I have not read the source novel and went into the film cautious (as it's the oldest film on this year’s viewing list); I didn’t know what to expect and certainly didn’t think I would love it as much as I do.

 

The film begins in a classroom where a professor waxes on about the virtues of military service. We break away to glimpse at the military aspirations of several students before jumping forward into the reality of their grueling military training. By the time the boys reach the front lines, they are hungry, scared, and begin suffering casualties immediately. We spend so much time with the company as their mental state is worsened by bombardment, burnout, and boredom that I was almost rooting for them when they finally got a few licks in against the enemy—me only later remembering that the “enemy” was the Allied Powers (you know, us). The film continues down this dark path, pausing only temporarily to nourish the soldier’s (and thus, the audience’s) hunger and lust. Even then, we are constantly reminded of what these boys have lost and by the time the film’s most likable character, Stanislaus Katczinksy, suffers a major blow we’re emotionally and intellectually wrecked. 88 years later and the film still punches like a black and white Toy Story 3.

 

Perhaps in the similar vein to the “modernity-bias” I expressed after King Kong, I was shocked and delighted by how good this film was. I was enthralled by the film’s narrative genius, likely the result of expertly adapting the novel. For example, I loved the excellent use of props to symbolize the passage of time, disposition, and life (such as the decorative helmets yielding to practical ones, Kemmerich’s boots, the coffin defensive, and butterflies). I also liked how the film seemed to drift among its characters, only finding a real connection with the main character Paul as the 2nd Company begins to shrink and he is left as sort of "the last man standing".

 

Finally, I was thoroughly impressed by how well made the film was, even by the standards of modern technique. From excellent tracking shots, to the sound design (with constant shelling driving you to empathize fully with the maddening soldiers), to practical effects like dirt explosions, bunker shaking, building collapses, and those hands—those barb-wired, clasped hands. In fact, for me the weakest element of the film was the acting (over pronounced and often silly) but even then, there was enough character progression to keep you grounded and invested.

 

For all of the war scenes, the film’s greatest power was in portraying Paul’s “shell shocked” mental state in contrast to those at home, still bombastic and unsoiled by the horrors of war. It is in this way that the film reminds the audience that any latent, nationalist/militant attitudes are, and will forever be, accountable for the physical and emotional scars of every soldier sent to war. And to this effect, the film works and continues to work. Evidence of this can be seen in how fearful governments were of it: the film was banned in Australia, France, Italy, Austria and, of course, by Hitler’s Nazi party in Germany for its anti-war message. While these bans may have been lifted, the message continues. Thus, the film will remain forever an important “must watch” for anyone in consideration or support of a declaration of war.

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AuthorJahaungeer

Going into this week's screening, I actually knew very little about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I was aware that it stars Robert Redford and Paul Newman and that it had the distinction of being the “longest movie title” on my year’s film list. I actually didn’t even realize it was a western, seeing a Wikipedia thumbnail of two gunman sans hats and assuming it’d be like Dirty Harry or something. 

Anyway, it is a western but a really unique one. It sort of picks up right in the middle of its characters’ journeys and shows them in decline. A life of bank/train robberies has already made Butch and Sundance legends but marks them as targets. The first act has the two gradually realizing their rope is shortening while the second act forces them on the run. The final 45 minutes, though strange, depicts them fleeing to Bolivia (just as the real Butch and Sundance are suspected to have done), again running out of options. 

The movie owes everything to its wonderful script and excellent character work. Butch and Sundance’s quick and playful banter hooked me. The dialogue dragged this film out of any western-film clichés and towards a more contemporary buddy flick. When I learned that the script was penned by William Goldman, the author and screenwriter of The Princess Bride, I immediately saw his humor and sympathy portrayed in the characters. And Redford and Newman were perfect for their roles, bringing their characters’ good looks, brooding glances, and witty language to life in a way that was natural and down-right charming. 

Like Bonnie and Clyde two years before, this film is a buddy anti-hero flick that stretched Hollywood into new places. Not all of the experimenting panned out for me: Some sequences (such as the playful bike-riding scene and the a cappella montage soundtrack) seemed to reek of the hippy-era and didn’t age nicely. But I can forgive the movie for this because of the film’s lasting influence on character. Thanks to flawed, smart, and charming characters, this film seems to be to westerns what Guardians of the Galaxy is to sci-fi. It’s a funny, slow-burn of a movie and totally still worth a watch. 

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AuthorJahaungeer

Rear Window is about a photographer named “Jeff” (played by James Stewart) who, confined to his apartment with a broken leg, has nothing to do but look out the window. In doing so, Jeff learns about the individual and interconnected lives of his neighbors, inventing his own backstories for each one. Initially, this newfound, voyeuristic hobby does nothing but satisfy an itch of boredom but this changes when he decides that his neighbor may have committed murder. Fearful and intrigued, his spying increases and becomes more brazen. He begins to share his theories with his nurse Stella, his detective-friend Tom Doyle, and his too-good-for-him girlfriend Lisa (played by the stunning Grace Kelly), who all engage his suspicions in their own way.

 

Let’s get my gushing out of the way: this film was really great and still holds up! Shot entirely from within Jeff’s room and on a custom built city-courtyard set, the movie felt like it was made for the very purpose of conquering the storytelling challenge it presented. And this is achieved, serving as a prime case study to Hitchcock’s mastery of the form (probably one of the more pretentious sentences I’ve typed recently, but totally true). At face value, the plot is relatively simple but expands in scope by spending time on Jeff’s imperfect relationship with Lisa’s perfect―everything. This worked well thanks to Stewart’s charming drawl/delivery and Grace Kelly being, well, Grace Kelly.

 

If I could be permitted one gripe, it would be that I found the ending to be less satisfying than the one I thought the film was headed towards—the one in which Jeff and his cohorts continue to descend into paranoia and accusation. And yet, the ending we got still beautifully balanced Hitchcock’s trademark suspense with a bit of humor and spirit.

 

I realize this is a weird tangent, but if I may be permitted one: Recently, I’ve been fascinated by John Koenig’s “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows”, a blog/art project that seeks to invent words for obscure emotions. One of my favorite made-up words is “sonder”, which is constructed to mean “the realization that everyone has a story”—the notion that every person in the background of your life has an existence that is as “vivid and complex as your own”. I kept thinking back to this as the film balanced developing Jeff and Lisa against the backdrop of Jeff’s neighbors. These neighbors start out as glimpses of caricatures and conclude the film as terrifically well-developed supporting characters.

 

As someone who lives in an apartment building, borders neighbors in 4 directions, and has a view to countless other apartments and balconies, I can’t help but think of the wide range of the human experience taking place before my unpracticed gaze and without my realization. And while I am saddened by the inability to better know this, it’s perhaps best to leave my neighbors to their privacy. :D

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AuthorJahaungeer