Well, here we are—the end of the year! Week 52 out of 52! To conclude this year’s film appreciation resolution, I thought it would be most fitting watch the ‘greatest film of all time’, “Citizen Kane”. My not-so-secret secret is I actually have seen this film before, 10 years ago in a film study class. However, I remembered very little of it, so I figured it still made sense to cap my list of “influential and culturally significant American films” with a viewing.

“Citizen Kane” is the biopic of the fictional Charles Foster Kane, a character based on several wealthy magnates (most significantly and famously being William Randolph Hearst). The film begins with a news reel announcing Kane’s death and then cuts to a reporter tasked to understand the significance behind Kane’s final utterance: “Rosebud.” The reporter makes his way to various individuals from Kane’s life, all who tell a more personal and detailed version of Kane’s dramatic rise and fall in financial, political, and romantic arenas.

I don’t have a hot take on this film. Everything that could be said about “Citizen Kane” has already been written. Hell, even the film’s Wikipedia page clocks in at over 18,000 words (11,000 more than year-opener film “Lawrence of Arabia”). Some folks herald the film for its influential narrative structure, cinematography, and film making techniques. Others have come to view it as boring, meandering, and view its contributions to the form as overstated, or worse, flat out stolen. Still, all of the baggage of legacy aside, I really enjoyed “Citizen Kane”. The film is a uniquely American story and remains as relevant as ever. Kane reminds me of Richard Branson, Rupert Murdoch, or even Trump himself, pulling back the curtain on what is so charming and dangerous about men like them.

Is “Citizen Kane” the best film of all time? I don’t know—is it really possible to pick any film for ‘best ever’? But I do believe that “Citizen Kane” is a perfectly told story about a search for meaning in one man’s life. It continues to challenge viewers to consider what is true, what is valuable, and what is important in life. It was a wonderful way to conclude the year.

Thank you for reading. ☺️

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I actually really enjoyed the premise and delivery of “Holiday Inn”. Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby), a singer, is engaged to performer Lila and set to quit stage performance when dancer Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) convinces Lila to stay with him to dance and romance. Jim takes this rather well and leaves solo to become a farmer, hoping to get “holidays off” for once. But after a miserable, full 365-days of farming, Jim gets the idea to convert the farm into an inn (with dining and entertainment) and work *exclusively* on holidays—as 15 days of heavy business could provide for the whole year. He hires Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) to perform with him and they start to fall in love when—uh oh—a freshly dumped Ted sees the potential to steal Linda for his dance and, you guessed it, romance.

I thought this movie rather brilliantly used character, music, and the holidays to tell a unique version of the classic love-triangle story. The film progressed from holiday-to-holiday like chapters in a book, using themes from that holiday to accentuate the character drama (Valentine’s Day = romance; Independence Day = fireworks/aggression; Thanksgiving = feigned thankfulness, etc.). I really liked Bing Crosby’s character and I appreciated that there was time when hard work once meant ‘providing for yourself with as little effort as possible’, rather than with endless toil. The script is still funny and the dances, usually what I care least about, had clever quirks to keep me interested (a slow dance is unexpectedly sped up; fireworks are used at a dancer’s feet).

In case I’ve sold you on this movie, I do find it necessary to point out that this film IS a product of its time. There are moments that this is neat, such as during the propaganda-laden Independence Day sequence. The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred during this film’s production and so producers spliced-in a chest-beating film roll depicting America’s military strength. Conversely, there’s a rather cringe-inducing blackface sequence during Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Like, really bad. Like, the film emphasizes the blackface, several times, and it takes place in front of Ted’s African American maid and her kids. It reminds you how tame “Baby It’s Cold Outside” actually is.

Still, the history-fan in me believes that, with a disapproving preface and disclaimer, it’s important to watch the unedited version of this film and understand the history of casual racism in America. There’s a lot of things we got wrong back then—including the chrysotile asbestos used by the production used to mimic snow. This is all apart of the film’s legacy, a legacy that includes everything from the introduction of the song “White Christmas” to the source of the name for the Holiday Inn hotel chain. In all of these ways, this film is deeply interwoven in our culture, warts and all, and worthy of its place on my list.

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Airing for days at a time during the holidays, it’s a shocker that I’ve never seen “A Christmas Story” all the way through. Naturally, I’ve seen bits and pieces—a tongue frozen to a pole here, a leg-lamp there. But I did not grow up with this film as a part of our Christmas-tradition rotation and so can’t say I even knew what it was about. Ends up, that was probably ok. Trigger warning if this film is special to you: This movie is lame.

“A Christmas Story” is a movie about Ralph Parker and his singular goal of getting a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle for Christmas. As all of the adult, authority-figure characters around him are concerned he’ll “shoot [his] eye out”, a bit of clever strategy is required on Ralphie’s part to ask for the gift in just the right way. The story is buttressed by a bunch of other anecdotes of Christmastime in the ‘40s: a friend getting his tongue stuck to a pole, living with the neighborhood bullies, getting punished for cursing, dad fighting with the furnace, mom fighting with dad over a leg-lamp, etc. And that’s about it.

The whole thing is basically “Nostalgia, The Movie”. Which I guess works if you have nostalgia for the 40’s OR if you grew up watching the film and are nostalgic for it. As I fit into neither camp, I found the film to be boring. Like the “Goonies” or other overrated ‘it’s fun because the kids yell and curse’ stories, I could not deal with how whiney everyone was. The plot wasn’t that interesting and the extra anecdotes were about as organized and purposeful as an episode of “Family Guy”.

I suppose the film does a good job of capturing what it was like to be a kid want a specific present. My one chuckle was between the tossing aside of gifted socks and having to wear the bunny suit on Christmas morning—every kid I grew up with remembers getting things he/she didn’t want or having to pretend to like something for another family member. Hell, I probably still do it. But that fun Christmas morning sequence wasn’t enough to save this rose-colored, uninteresting story. If I want to see an adult-narrated nostalgia fest for a time that didn't really exist, I'll put on "The Sandlot."

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So, “Die Hard” is legit one of the reasons why I embarked on this year’s cinematic journey. It was about this time last year when I heard everybody having the classic debate (“Is ‘Die Hard’ a Christmas movie?”) and I had to bow my head with the shameful shyness of a student hoping to not be called on. I hadn’t seen “Die Hard”, or D’Hard as it’s come to be known around our house, so I packed 51 films around it and here we are. Now that I've seen “Die Hard”, I must say—yes it's a Christmas movie, and a damn brilliant one at that!

Die Hard is about John McClane (played by greedy and lazy Bruce Willis, of course), NYPD detective and estranged husband/father, arriving in Los Angeles to reconcile with his wife Holly. He heads directly from LAX to the Nakatomi Tower where he hopes to run into Holly at her company’s Christmas party. That is, until German terrorist Hans Gruber (played brilliantly by the loved, late Alan Rickman) shows up. Gruber and his goons take the entire party hostage and get to work on cracking the company’s central safe when McClane begins subverting their plan, offing Gruber’s men one by one. Gruber repels police attacks but can’t manage to swat away fly-in-the-ointment McClane, who chips away at Gruber’s plan until it’s just Gruber, him, and a scotch-taped gun. Of course, McClain saves the day.

“Die Hard” could have easily been a stupid movie, but it somehow manages to comment on and enhance the action genre, while being endlessly fun. The film exists in a universe of action films (with references to Rambo, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the old westerns of Roy Rogers) and relishes in our American brashness and propensity for making things up as we go along (in contrast to Gruber’s exacting German strategy). I thought the film did a great job of developing McClain as a real-enough person and balanced his unnaturally good fighting skills by forcing him to operate with bare feet—as a mere man. I thought the John/Al radio relationship was better than the whole of “Lethal Weapon” and I loved the use of “Ode to Joy” throughout the film.

I’m sure the fact that I adored this film while shitting on the likes of "The Deer Hunter" or "Raging Bull" has something to do with my maturity, but I’d argue that I’m just responding to a well told story. With the exception of the “chief and federal cops were stupid while local and front-line cops were smart” trope, I thought the characters were freshly conceived and well developed. The film was fun and funny entertainment and right up my alley. I immediately recognized that this film holds up. Oh, and I finally understand why every-other action movie is referred to as “Die Hard on a ______.”

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With my mixed reactions to Martin Scorsese and to Robert De Niro, I went into Taxi Driver with a bit of suspicion. Then, when the film started and I realized it’s something of a film noir piece (evident by the dreary night scenes and saxophone), I rolled my eyes with annoyance as film noir is one of my least favorite genres. But as the film rolled, I found myself realizing, scene by scene, that I was NOT hating it. And by the end of the film I wascaught off guard with my surprise: I really liked this film!

Taxi Driver follows 26 year old Travis Bickle, played by De Niro, as he distracts himself with his taxi-driving job. Initially straight-edge, quirky, and a bit of a loner, we find Bickle’s naiveté endearing until he accidentally takes his date Betsy to a porno. For this she dumps him and we begin to turn against him a bit, realizing that he’s a bit mentally ill and (by modern day standards) something of an incel. It’s at this point that he descends into depression and obtains black market guns with the plan of assassinating presidential candidate Charles Palantine (the candidate Betsy volunteered for). During this time, he encounters Iris, a—get this—12 YEAR OLD prostitute (played by a young Jodi Foster) and develops a harmless friendship with her. The film’s climax has Bickle trying, and failing, to murder Palantine. Licking his wounds, he enters a shootout with Iris’s pimp and predators and the epilogue depicts Bickle as a hero for saving Iris.

Weird, I know. And yet in this film is a stark realization about how thin the line between insane destructiveness and valiant heroic potential can be in a person. I thought it was fascinating how Bickle began as a man who has the trust of the audience and then loses it (at one point, exemplified brilliantly when the camera literally gives up on filming him and moves away; covered in a great CineFix list). We realize that he’s a sick man but can’t stop watching out of curiosity and dread. When he saves Iris, only we know the twisted irony that this local hero might have been a national villain.

Some folks refer to Taxi Driver as an anti-hero tale but I think anti-villain is just as appropriate. Then again, it doesn’t really matter how you define it, it’s a story that obliterates character norms and the patterns of good and evil in a character. I found this delightful. Throw in a score I eventually learned to love (Bernard Herrmann's last), some great performances, and classic lines (“Are you talkin to me? Are YOU talkin to me?”) and you had a surprise last minute entry on this year’s list!

Anyway, this will weirdly do it for non-themed films for 2018! We have just four more weeks to the year’s end and to celebrate, I will be watching Christmas themed films. Catch me next week for that!

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I wanted to use this year‘s project to visit the work of famous filmmakers. I of course explored Kubrick, and Coppola, and Hitchcock, and Scorsese; their art is certainly famous and influential. But I wanted to make sure that I somehow visited the blockbuster king and my very first favorite director: Steven Spielberg. I’ve see a lot of his filmography but somehow managed to miss his science fiction classic “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. On this, the month of its 41st anniversary, I finally had reason to encounter this film (*hears groans*)!

“Close Encounters” is a simple ‘first contact’ story, larger in scale than “E.T.” but smaller than “Independence Day” (with 100% less carnage). The film starts with a series of abnormal ‘encounters’—missing aircraft show up, planes almost crash with an object, and strange electrical activity is occurring. Electric utility worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is dispatched to repair a power line when he witnesses his first UFOs. Like others who witness them, he is mesmerized and in awe. What begins as simply defending his observation turns into obsession as he begins searching for UFOs and crafting a rocky plateau from visions in his head. Eventually realizing the rock was Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, he books it there in time to witness the government make contact with a series of UFOs. The common language between the species?—music. With all distracted in astonishment, Roy makes it down to the welcome wagon and makes contact himself.

I adored this film. It’s a simple “first date” between two forms of higher-intelligence and I thought it was really refreshing to have an alien movie that didn’t have war or invasive scientists with poor judgment. I loved how Spielberg explored the theme of communication, turning mathematics into music (through an often French-speaking main, no less). I loved the progression towards the encounter and I loved the nods to “2001”. As someone who loves the “Spielberg face” shot— a pan towards a character’s face as he/she reacts in awe—this film has one every 5 minutes. Oh, and I never tired of the music—ba, daa, dah, duh, daaaaaaa!!!!

For as much as I enjoyed the movie, my biggest critique is that it wasn’t “E.T.”! I know that seems unfair and strange but I think the opinion stands because Spielberg directed both. “E.T.” borrows themes, designs, and sequences from “Close Encounters” and manages to be a superior film—more refined, personal, and meaningful. I also thought the film’s pacing was purposeful but slow and the final act that doesn’t offer much in the form of action (just characters staring at the majesty of it all for 30 minutes). Still, despite my love of “E.T.” I found myself enjoying this film fully. From the performances, to the effects, to the music, I think “Close Encounters” deserves its place on the science fiction reel of classics!

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“The Deer Hunter” is the third of three films about the Vietnam War on my screening list this year and I must admit that I haven’t had the best luck getting into this sub-genre. I found myself liking “Apocalypse Now!” enough for its epicness and just tolerated the dreary slog through “Platoon”, so I was looking to this flick to redeem the genre. It didn’t. I again find myself in a difficult interpretive position—how should I rate a film that has clear cinematic victories but that I could not stand to watch?

The movie opens with beautiful shots of Clairton, a gritty steel town in Pennsylvania. As we meet the characters, Director Michael Cimino contrasts their somewhat bleak industrial landscape with the characters’ joy of preparing for and celebrating a large Russian Orthodox wedding ceremony (ironic, and the first in a long list of contrasting imagery). This introduction goes on for nearly ONE HOUR. Seriously. I’m all for world building and character development, but this sequence makes Peter Jackson look conservative in the editing bay. The sequence finishes with a deer hunt before three of the guys prepare to ship off to Vietnam.

Act two then cuts to the war, where our boys are captured by the NVA troops. This is where the film’s most famous and challenging scenes are: Imprisoned in soul-crushing conditions, the POWs are forced to play a game of Russian Roulette by their cartoonishly evil North Vietnamese captors. This dramatic and heartbreaking scene is a brilliantly acted, somewhat on-the-nose metaphor for the low-value of life and randomness of death. The movie then returns to America where you get to see how each of the guys has been affected—mentally, physically, and emotionally—by their experience. We learn that De Niro’s Mike Vronsky no longer has his same zen-like passion for killing (deer). We also learn that Walken’s Nick Chevotarevich has been drugged and traumatized beyond recognition when Vronsky returns to Vietnam and casually searches for his friend DURING the fall of Saigon (officially where the film lost me).

Upon its release, “The Deer Hunter” was considered to be the best American epic since “The Godfather.” And I gotta admit, it has an epic scope, ambitious story, beautiful cinematography, full character arcs, excellent performances, and contains real deep, arty metaphors about the human condition. But unlike “The Godfather”, this film is hardly fascinating. It’s boring, and dreary, and self-important, and insincere, and incredulous. After 80 minutes of meandering around, the film relies on the intensity of a Russian Roulette scene to build tension and shock the audience. The film revisits this fatal game two more times, which is pretty exhaustive for an activity that has no evidence of actually occurring during the Vietnam War. Many forgive the film for this under the guise of artistic discretion; I couldn't believe it enough to do so.

Still, I think that “The Deer Hunter” is an excellent short film about two friends trapped in a game of Russian Roulette—surrounded by 165 minutes of drab fluff.

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Comedy films were hard to include on this list because what a person finds funny can be specific and tied to a moment in time. But I wanted to include a few of the “classics” from a variety of eras and landed on a few films, “Animal House” being one of them. And, at the risk of catching a lot of shit for this because I know it's popular, I honestly thought it was just ok.


Functioning as a series of skits stitched together (the famous toga partycould practically be its own short-film), I’m not sure a plot recap is worth it, but here it goes: Two college freshmen seeking admission to a fraternity end up at Delta Tau Chi, a rambunctious mess of a frat full of alcoholic students (although most seem to avoid school). As a result of their poor academic performance and a series of conduct policy violations, the frat is then placed on “double-secret probation” but the clan continues to drink and screw. This leads to the revocation of the Delta’s charter—which leads to more craziness—which leads to their expulsion—which leads to a zany finale in which the frat guys fight back in their own way.

At its best, “Animal House” is a hilarious and subversive movie about pushing back against out of touch authority figures. From the principal, to the ROTC/drill sergeant guy, the mayor, other frat leaders, bullies, Delta brothers had to, and did, deal with each in their own fun way. I loved the films commitment to gags and reoccurring laughs, such as the accidental horse death or the golf ball in the soup. And the film was super fun in many scenes (my favorite being the “Shout” sequence during the toga party).

But I think that in many ways, the film is showing its age in ways I can’t ignore. Never-mind the chat about if fraternities are even relevant to today's college experience, there was a ton of jokes and premises that don’t play in 2018, such as the large gag around stealing copy-film out of the trash to cheat on a test. And finally, not trying to be an unfun snowflake, but the ‘getting girls drunk so they’ll finally have sex with you’ motif that ran through out the ENTIRE film felt indelicate and cringey by today's standards. But in short, the story just meandered around skits. With no characters you’re meant to care about in a serious way, when skits don’t land, the movie doesn’t.

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As I predicted, these reviews have immediately become harder to complete with a new baby at home!!! 😆😑😴 This review was an additional challenge because—and I know the film is dear to a lot of people, so I want to tread lightly, but—I just didn’t click with this flick.

"Casablanca" is the classic-Hollywood story about Rick Blaine, an ex-pat club owner who set up shop in Casablanca, Morocco. The Casablanca in the film is full of French refugees fleeing Nazi domination but Rick is somewhat indifferent to their plight, preferring the economic security of neutrality. It’s in that moment that his ex-love Ilsa came walking through his door. Ilsa pleads for Rick’s help saving her husband Victor, a resistance leader, but Rick’s heartbreak and preference towards safe-gambles keeps him distant. It’s in this way that the film works on two levels: At a macro level, the film is about keeping resistance alive when backed into a corner. At the micro level, the film is about a once heartbroken man who, when faced by his former lover, is required to work up the courage to care about something again.

Now, there’s plenty that I like about this film. I think the subject matter (refugee crisis and an indifferent America) is incredibly relevant in today’s news cycle. I also liked how the film used personal relationships to tell a larger story about World War II. In a sense the war plays out, not militarily, but through the choices of each individual character. Rick quite literally represents pre-War America: a man out to make a buck from anyone who will give it without declaring a side in the escalating conflict. His balancing-act of a character’s journey (indeed, the balancing act the film plays as a whole) was an impressive literary feat.

However, for all of the film’s cleverness, classic lines, and famous theme song (now the Warner Bro.'s TV tag-theme!) the film wasn’t exactly my type. As I felt with “A Streetcar Named Desire”, adapting stage plays into movies can feel a bit 'flat' to me and the melodramatic acting just contributed to the feeling that I was watching a play. The story felt too convenient, coincidental, and the characters simply didn’t feel real to me. Maybe it's because I once broke down on the Great Movie Ride during the "Casablanca scene" and I'm harboring bad feelings...I don’t know, but I'll have to give this another shot one day!

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Week 43 - Halloween [1978]

Happy Halloween everyone!

When I was assembling my film list for this year, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch the grandfather of modern slasher films, named after today, for this day. “Halloween” is also the last of my October-block of 5 horror films and the first movie in the final 10 films of 2018! This year is winding down fast people! Last but not least, as you may have read, during my screening (with about 11 minutes of runtime left) Cindy informed me that her water broke! We went to the hospital and my son was born! After a whirlwind few days, about 44 hours later, I was able to watch the last 11 minutes, so here we go—

Halloween is the story of the menacing, emotionless, psychopathic, and somewhat-supernatural serial killer Michael Myers. As a young boy, Michael killed his teenage sister and was admitted to a mental institution. Fifteen years later, Michael escapes, dons a painted William Shatner mask, and goes on a killing spree. Primarily targeting teenage women, Michael begins to track student and babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). The two showdown in the film’s finale where the “final girl” fends him off long enough for a male doctor to come in and deal with Michael more concretely—the 70’s were so not woke!

Halloween did a great job of building upon “Psycho” by alluding to the gruesome serial killings of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Uncomfortably long, voyeuristic takes, shot framing that suggested something bad could be around every corner, and the gradual reveal of information in a scene all played on the most natural of fears: something evil could be lurking nearby and we don’t even know it. The music (composed by director John Carpenter himself) added a chilling and dramatic underlining to even mundane action and the storytelling played as a sharp critique of the type of risqué teenage behavior that supposedly results from absentee parenting.

I think where the film lost me (a bit) was by playing up Michael’s supernatural strength. For me, Halloween began as the scariest of this month's 5 films because of its grounded plausibility. I don’t believe in reanimation, or zombies, or the devil, or ghosts—but a madman with a knife is simple and uncomfortably real. But the guy gets stabbed in the neck, eye, and chest, gets shot 7 times, falls off a balcony, and still keeps coming. Even Monty Python’s Black Knight would have given up by then! Combine this with a few clunky plot coincidences and the suspension of disbelief that made the film so initially chilling began to wear off. Still, “Halloween” remains worthy of its ‘classic’ status and begins a story that—based on how well it’s 10th sequel is doing—is clearly captivating people to this day.

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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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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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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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AuthorJahaungeer

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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AuthorJahaungeer

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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AuthorJahaungeer

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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AuthorJahaungeer

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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AuthorJahaungeer