Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Top 15 of the 1940's

Top 15 of the 1940's:

15. Double Indemnity (1944)
Famed film critic Leonard Maltin called it the "best film noir". I disagree (my choice is coming up), but it is a great one, one of Billy Wilder's best movies, which is really saying something. It's one that has no real flaws in it. Fred MacMurray is a wonderful leading man, Edward G. Robinson is his always tremendous self, and Barbara Stanwyck is the standard bearer femme fatale. Well shot, well written, I love it, just maybe not as much as its all-time reputation might hype up.

14. Bambi (1942)
A movie that really impresses with its care and detail. The changing of the seasons is lovingly animated and told, the shooting of Bambi's mother is as emotional as ever, and the frightening and thrilling forest fire is as impactful as ever. Not the best Disney movie of the decade, but a classic for a reason. One I didn't have a ton of love for or connection to as a child, but one that is really impactful as an adult.

13. Foreign Correspondent (1940)
This is probably Alfred Hitchcock's most sadly forgotten masterpiece. It's a thrilling adventure, one I much prefer to his more famous 1940 movie, Rebecca. The classic umbrella sequence, as well as the plane crash (one of Hitch's best sequences, period) as well as the deliciously evil turn from future Santa Claus Edmund Gwynn help to make this one of the Hitchcock movies I always recommend, as even too many Hitch fans haven't caught up to it.

12. Act of Violence (1949)

Act of Violence concerns itself with the guilt and anger felt by two soldiers who survived the horror of a Nazi P.O.W. camp. One of the soldiers, Van Heflin's Frank, was the leader of the group that'd been shot down by the Germans. Robert Ryan plays Joe, the only other man to make it out of the camp alive. Joe blames Frank for the deaths of the other men, and has tracked him down relentlessly in a bid to right the thing he feels has been wronged. Frank moved his family from Syracuse, New York all the way to southern California just to get away from Joe's vengeful quest, assuring himself that Joe won't continue following.

Frank's survivor's guilt must've been mirrored by that of legendary director Fred Zinnemann, who'd escaped the dangers of WWII with his brother just 10 years previous to Act of Violence, but lost both of his parents in concentration camps. Van Heflin's wonderfully layered performance carries the movie, especially in the scene where he explains to his wife Edith (Janet Leigh, in her first role of significance) exactly why Joe blames him for the soldiers' deaths, and what he's been carrying around with him since then. Robert Ryan is creepily effective as Joe, single minded in his pursuit, to the point that he tells his girlfriend he just doesn't love her enough to care what she thinks about his intent of violence retribution. It's a really tremendous noir flick that needs to be seen by more people.

11. Key Largo (1948)

The less famous of the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart noir collaborations (plus Lauren Bacall in the final Bogie/Bacall pairing), Key Largo is a terrific movie. Bogie has long been one of my favorite actors, and this is one of his best performances. He had one of the most emotionally expressive faces I've seen, and we see so much play out in his eyes and his facial "body language" as his disillusioned WWII vet Maj. Frank McCloud struggles with discovering a reason to fight, in this case against famous gangster Johnny Rocco, deliciously played by Edward G. Robinson, who is keeping a small hotel full of people hostage as a small hurricane passes through.

Playing as a sort of oppositely cast version of The Petrified Forest (an underrated sort of pre-noir which served as Bogie's big break as the gangster holding people hostage, it was also the movie that made me fall in love with Bette Davis), Key Largo plays out more fascinatingly with Bogart and Robinson playing a sort of cat-and-mouse/battle of wits game that plays out with about as high a body count as a claustrophobic movie like this can manage.

10. Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
One of the great dark comedies ever made, it was an idea Orson Welles had for a movie that he wanted Chaplin to star in. Chaplin had not often been directed by anyone but himself, and wasn't gonna start at the age of 58, so he bought the script, re-wrote it, directed it, starred in it, and wrote the score for it (a typical day at the office for control freak Chaplin). It's the story of a man who marries women, kills them and takes their money. It abides by the production code of the day by not letting Chaplin get away with it, but coming out just after WWII, Chaplin can't help commenting "One murder makes a villain, millions a hero." I've only seen 2 Chaplin movies I would call "genius". And while I think his The Gold Rush is superior to this, Monsieur Verdoux is certainly his other.

9. Stray Dog (1949)
The earliest of Kurosawa's many masterpieces, Stray Dog is about a young post-war Tokyo cop who has his gun stolen on the train home one hot summer day. This gun later turns up as the murder weapon in another case, and sends the young officer on a manhunt to find who stole his gun. One of Kurosawa's under appreciated non-samurai movies, Stray Dog has a palpable sweat to it, evoking those unbearable summer days and humid nights. Wrapping that setting around a cop movie was a good choice, and having his favorite actors Toshiro Mifune (as the young cop) and Takashi Shimura (as the veteran helping him out) as his stars was a typical bit of brilliance.

8. Beauty and the Beast (1946)
The earliest screen take on the famous fairy tale, Jean Cocteau's movie is magical in every sense of the word. He created a fairy tale real world, where Belle comes from. And he created a darker, slightly creepier, but also whimsically fascinating world for the Beast's castle. The basic outline of the movie will be familiar to most people thanks to the famous Disney take on it, so there's no need for plot description, but I'll say that Cocteau took me to a world I wanted to see more of, and told me an engaging and delightful tale while I was there.

7. Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947)
So I'm allowing a few short films to sneak onto my lists here and there, and I think Mickey and the Beanstalk is a perfect one to let sneak. It's joyous, fun, memorable, and never loses re-watch value. I watched this short countless times as a child and now revisiting it as an adult I find it just as magical and funny and lovable.

6. Citizen Kane (1941)
What more can really be said about this, likely the most talked and written about movie in cinema history? I'll just quickly posit that obviously I don't put it as one of the 1 or 2 greatest movies ever made, it is most definitely a great movie. Orson Welles' work as director is incredibly ambitious and impressive, his work as writer nearly flawless, but it's his central performance as Charles Foster Kane that really carries this textbook of a movie. He doesn't need the aging makeup he's put in, he believably takes us through different stages of Kane's life with just body language and voice control. It's truly amazing work on every level from a man who was only 26 at the time. And for those who haven't seen it, yes Rosebud was his sled, but what does that mean?

5. Fantasia (1940)
A movie that I always wanted to see as a kid but was told I wouldn't like it, it was just animation with classical music and not a standard Disney story or anything. I thought that sounded great but I still wasn't able to see it until the age of 32. It was even better than I could've imagined. It's like the best ballet you could ever dream up. The animation tied to the music so much that they become of a single piece. I could actually do without the introductions by the music conductor, that's probably my only complaint. Each section needs some sort of break between them, but I would've been fine with a fade to black, moment of blank screen, and fade up into a new section. Regardless, the movie is gorgeous to look at, as transportational a viewing experience as you'll ever have.

4. He Walked by Night (1948)
Probably the most unfairly overlooked noir movie ever made. Serving as the blueprint for Dragnet's use of real police files, and having that shows creator and star Jack Webb in a small role, He Walked by Night is a fascinating police procedural noir with some striking cinematography, terrific performances, and a tightly wound script that never lets up, even if it only lasts 79 minutes.

Credited to journeyman filmmaker Alfred L. Werker, but directed at least in part by the legendary Anthony Mann (reports conflict on how much), the calling card of the movie has to be its finale, a flashlight lit chase through the L.A. storm drain system that shames the more famous, and very similar, chase at the end of The Third Man, released the following year. See this movie.

3. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Everyone has that movie that just makes them feel good. No matter what your mood is, no matter what's going on in your life, you can watch it and feel thoroughly good. Well, this is that movie for me. It's just so joyous and uplifting and happy, just like Santa Claus. I watch it every holiday season and my love for it only grows.

But as a movie buff I couldn't put it on the list if I didn't admire it from a filmmaking perspective too. It's got a tight script, is nicely photographed, and the acting by everyone involved is top notch. Edmund Gwynn IS Santa Claus to so many for a reason, and this Oscar winning performance will show you why. Natalie Wood gives one of the best child performances ever, Maureen O'Hara is her usual wonderful self, and John Payne is a great sense of decency next to Gwynn (who is really what makes this movie shine). So it satisfies anything I could want from it.

2. Notorious (1946)
One of the great performances from one of our greatest stars, Ingrid Bergman, is contained right here in one of the most low-key spy stories the movies have ever given us. It's really not a spy tale at all, it's the story of love and how these two people let their jobs get in the way, and put their country above themselves just long enough for things to get all screwed up, while we hope that they get out of it in the end. It's a nearly perfect movie, in my eyes, with Cary Grant's career best work, and Bergman's only being surpassed by another movie on her resume...

1. Casablanca (1942)
No surprise here, as this movie is in my all-time top 10. It took me a long time, in movie lover years, to finally catch up to it. It was one of those movies that you always hear is so great, so I resisted watching it for a long time because I was afraid of being disappointed. Instead, I was blown away. One of the great love stories, that of lost love, and time passed, and old hurts coming back to haunt you. The Bogart performance that should've won him an Oscar. Ingrid Bergman is luminous, you can see why the men are drawn to her. It's been called the greatest screenplay ever written, and in fact much of the dialog has so entered popular culture that I recognized nearly every scene upon my first viewing of the movie. But that didn't diminish it at all. Definitely the best movie of the 1940's in my book.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Matrix

So I rewatched The Matrix last night for the first time in 10-12 years. I'd seen the movie opening weekend, and multiple times over the next few years, but it had been a long time. The wife has called it her favorite movie but she hadn't seen it in a long time either and we'd been meaning to watch it together for years but didn't get it done until last night.

I'll start with some of the good. The beginning of the movie is pretty terrific. Trinity escaping from the agents especially. Running over the rooftops (sets reused from the great Dark City, shot on the same studio lot in Sydney), it's exciting, intriguing, and Carrie-Anne Moss is badass and wonderfully balletic and awesome to watch. When we are introduced to Neo, there's still a mysteriousness that really works well, and then seeing Trinity rope Neo into her world with such effortless sexiness and intelligence. I was beginning to think I'd been wrong about the movie all these years because this was truly terrific.

The Wachowski's set up the plot beautifully in letting Neo go down the rabbit hole into finding Morpheus and taking the red pill. Then comes the introduction of the machines they will rage against, and the training Neo undergoes to combat the machines. Unfortunately, this is where the movie starts to go off the rails as it abandons the philosophy and mystery and becomes the big dumb action movie it was setting up to be all along.

This is also where the movie forgets about Trinity being a certified badass and shushes her to the background for Morpheus and Neo to take over as the lead characters (it's a big dumb action movie, after all, and we can't have a woman taking center stage too much). The training sequences go well, the action scenes throughout are all very well made, but there's nothing there outside of the surface level action. The movie still keeps its endless referencing of other works of art, but forgets that there are characters it had been introducing and needing to deepen. Nope, any and all character development is done by this point. Barely sketched as archetypes, the characters end up as nothing but plot points. For example, why is Trinity in love with Neo? We are given no interactions with them that would suggest any sort of connection, much less a world opening kind of love. As my wife said, their relationship arc is essentially "you're pretty, I love you." Yeah, fuck it, they're both tall, thin, dark hair, light skin, pretty people (honestly they look so much alike they'd pass better as siblings than lovers). Yeah so they're in love. Why? Because plot.

The second half of the movie is just dumb action. And it's well shot, the VFX are good (though dated and obvious in many cases, they're still visually used well and work in context), and the actors are all committed to their non-characters. But there's nothing there to make me care about it. There's a lot of shots that tell us the filmmakers were thinking "isn't this shit blowing up and getting shot in slow motion like super awesome?" Eh, it's okay. But it's mindless action in a movie that set us up with something on its brain. This is why it's even more disappointing than most big dumb action movies that have nothing on their mind. The Matrix is set up as a movie that has something to say, but ultimately says little more than "isn't this cool?"

Then there's the point of the plot of Neo being "the one". Why is Neo the one? Because the plot says so. What makes him different than the others? Because the plot says so.

It would've been a more interesting development of the plot if everyone in the crew had had the same God-like powers Neo eventually develops. And they then have to battle the super-villain baddies in the form of the Agents. All Neo does is "free his mind", why couldn't they all have done that? Why weren't they all already there before Neo ever showed up? They know The Matrix isn't real, there's nothing to keep them from the God-like powers Neo possesses except that the plot wants to make Neo into computer Jesus. But the group all do the big jumps (or I guess we only see Trinity and Morpheus do that, but still), it's just that Neo has more of that ability? Why? The rest of the crew have obviously freed their minds enough to bend the rules of reality, why don't they just out and out break them?

This lends all the action scenes an inherent idiocy and pointlessness. Why doesn't Neo just wave his God hand and swipe away the agents and the bullets? Why does Trinity get scared about people chasing them? It's not real, they could fly away, or just imagine the biggest guns. For that matter, the bullets aren't real and they know it, so why bullets at all? When battling hand to hand in the subway fight between Neo and Agent Smith, Smith punches Neo in this video game-esque hurricane like punches. Why not punch that punch all the time? When you set up a world that isn't real and put superhero-like characters in it who then don't use their superpowers, it just causes confusion and frustration to the viewer.

So The Matrix introduced a ton of interesting concepts and thoughts into pop culture. Sure, none of the ideas are original but how many ideas really are? Expecting originality from a big blockbuster movie is too much pressure to put on a movie. And the ideas were taken from various philosophical and classic sci-fi sources the world over (Plato, William Gibson, Phillip K Dick, the animes Akira and Ghost in the Shell, among many others). Isn't that what good artists do? Take from a multitude of influences and repackage it through their own lens? The Wachowski's introduce these things into popular culture and use them well in the movie until they abandon them completely for Michael Bay-isms of big dumb action and stuff getting blowed up real good.

But I still can't rate the movie anything above a 5/10 because it just squanders all of the good will it had built up inside me in the first act. It's not bad otherwise, just dumb and pointless. But what a first act!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Don't Think Twice

The newest addition to my Hidden Gems columns over at

Writer/director Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 film Don’t Think Twice is the exact kind of movie the Hidden Gems column was made for. It’s a small, low-key, almost bittersweet look at the life of a group of performers in the improv comedy scene in New York City. The movie has a lot of comedy in it, both in the kind that’s funny and in the kind that we observe the group performing. Overall it’s also kind of a drama, but not really. It’s one of those great types of movies that reflects life in the most human and beautiful way. There’s friendship and love and jealousy and supportiveness and misfits-making-a-family and all other kinds of wonderful themes and behaviors.

We first see the improv group The Commune backstage getting ready for a show in the small theater they rent. Miles (Birbiglia) seems like a kind of leader of the group, though it’s Sam (Gillian Jacobs) that MC’s and takes suggestions from the audience. Sam’s boyfriend Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) is the charismatic “star quality” type performer of the crew, while Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), and Bill (Chris Gethard) fill out the rest of the scenes with able supporting work. But, of course, in the world of improv, there are no stars, because it’s not about the individual, it’s about the team and the overall performance and success of the show. That is until word comes one night that a producer from Weekend Live (the SNL stand-in for the movie) will be in the audience, scouting for talent.
We see what happens to the group as it begins to splinter when Jack gets the gig on Weekend Live. He is raised to a whole new bar of performance, one which the Commune gathers around the TV to hate-watch every week, simultaneously proud of Jack, jealous of his success, and disgusted at the lowest common denominator comedy. Jack, meanwhile, now has to navigate the cutthroat world of “me first” comedy that’s totally antithetical to the community that got him there. Miles becomes bitter, because he was Jack’s teacher. He should have that success, he taught Jack everything he knows (obviously ignoring the work Jack put into his craft, along with his natural charisma, and is a stance that hurts Jack's feelings, though he doesn't say it). Sam starts to see her relationship with Jack (lovingly handled in touching moments of subtlety by Birbiglia as a director) slowly crumbling away as Jack’s work schedule and their conflicting ideas and ambitions clash. Jack isn’t trying to leave behind his cohorts, in fact he’s willing to stick his neck out to try and at least get the others in the group onto the show as writers, despite repeatedly being told not to do that by those behind the scenes of the new show. Still, resentments and tensions rise, and relationships are put to the test, sometimes even during the performance of the show.

Just the story of Jack, Sam, and Miles is enough to make a good movie about, but Birbiglia as a writer also doesn’t skimp on characterizations of the other three in the group. Bill, Allison, and Lindsay are all given wonderfully written subplots so that we know who they are (and all three actors give really terrific and heartfelt performances too). They aren’t there just to fill out the scenery, these are all real people we come to know over the 92 minute runtime. And this is really solid writing, not just the “give each person one defining characteristic so that the audience can easily keep up” type mainstream comedy writing we’re so used to. It’s a wonderful ensemble of characters, each brought to amazing life by the cast.
Though I must admit, even as improv is a group activity, the stars of the movie are Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key as Sam and Jack. Jacobs’ huge eyes and delicate delivery lets us into Sam’s journey of owning her own power and talent and where she fits in the world. She is luminous in the role and I hope gets some real acting work from it as well, I’d love to see more of her. Key, as Jack, is truly extraordinary in his ability to show the rumbling, boiling, overflowing thoughts and ideas and emotions going on inside Jack that he may or may not share with Sam or the rest of the group. There are scenes that brought tears to my eyes in the humanity that Key brings to the role. Having only known Key from his work on Key and Peele and MadTV, I did not expect the depth of characterization he brings to Jack. Jack is complex and fascinating and that he gets to bounce off of the same qualities coming from Jacobs’ Sam is all the more intriguing and delightful to watch.

Mike Birbiglia is a stand-up comic by trade, that’s how I first came to know him with his specials like What I Should’ve Said Was Nothing, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, and multiple Comedy Central Presents showcases. He was always funny, but also often sprinkled in some poignancy and heart into the stories he was telling. And that’s what he slowly became, less stand-up comic and more long form storyteller. So, naturally he’s a great fit for the movies because he’s not just a joke man (though he does have great jokes). He made his first foray into filmmaking with 2012’s Sleepwalk with Me, based on his off-Broadway one man show of the same name. And while Sleepwalk with Me is really good, and you should check it out as well, it doesn’t have quite the impact that Don’t Think Twice has. Both are available to stream on Netflix, as are three of Birbiglia’s stand up specials.

Rarely do we get a movie with characters this well drawn, this balanced in the ensemble, to where we come out really caring about some of these people. Cameo appearances by actors like Lena Dunham and Ben Stiller (as hosts of Weekend Live) are nice, and not overplayed or overused by Birbiglia, since he knows his characters are the show here. They are the reason this movie works. The writing and the brilliant and unshowy work from each and every one of the performers, that’s what makes this movie such a gem.

Friday, January 27, 2017


What is real? Who are you? What do you need to become whomever it is you wish to be? Never have these heady questions been so thoroughly explored in a movie as they are in the 2011 documentary Kumare. New York born and New Jersey bred director Vikram Gandhi set out to look at spiritual leaders, professing a lifelong skepticism of anyone who claims to be more holy or more enlightened than anyone else. He was raised strictly Hindu, studied religion in college, but it never clicked with him. Among other things, there was always the resistance to leaders. Gandhi ultimately decided to take on this subject by becoming a guru himself. So he grew out his hair and beard, put on flowing robes, began carrying a walking staff with the Om symbol on it, and affected an Indian accent inspired by his grandmother. All with the idea of “let’s see what happens”. Will people follow this nonsense just because it comes from an exotic looking man with an accent? The social experiment could’ve gone terribly wrong, and the movie as well. But as Vikram says, it ended up being about “the biggest lie I ever told, and the greatest truth I ever discovered.”

He set up shop in the Tuscon and Phoenix, AZ areas, gained followers in yoga communities by spouting philosophy of real and gibberish words and yoga moves. He had practiced yoga for years himself, so his moves looked authentic. He led a “blue light meditation” meant to connect everyone through their blue light. But it was nonsense. He would preach to his followers that they, not he, had the answers. He repeatedly told them he was not who he seemed to be. "I am the biggest faker I know,” he says to them at one point. But people just dismiss that as guru Kumare's deep humility and allow their spiritual hunger to guide them back over and over again to Kumare and his teachings.

This may sound like the seeds of a prank movie, something Sacha Baron Cohen might dream up to put next to his Borat and Bruno characters. But Kumare is much deeper and more ambitious (and good hearted) than that. Kumare was started as a trick, but his teachings became a sort of "you already have all the answers" or "salvation lies within" kind of teaching that many self-help teachers and even religions preach. “You are the guru” he repeatedly tells them. Are we not all our own gurus?

So the movie then starts to consider the question of: if you achieve some amount of enlightenment from working with a fake teacher, is that enlightenment fake? The teacher didn't achieve it; the enlightenment was your own. Should you feel duped because you reached a place of higher truth for yourself in a different way than you thought you did?

That may make this movie sound like some highly intellectual exploration of these ideas, a dry and possibly unengaging scholarly exercise, but that's not the movie that Vikram Gandhi made, nor even the character that Kumare is. Kumare is very funny, and the movie is as well. I never felt it looking down on these people who come to Kumare for spiritual growth. Instead it looks at them and says, "wow, people are so hungry for connection and self improvement that they're willing to listen intently to a man who's telling them that he doesn't have the answers and is a fake."

The people open up to Kumare about their troubled relationships and childhoods and see the caring and loving eyes putting their full attention on them. That would be enough for any of us. How often do you feel like you truly have someone's 100% attention focused directly on you and lovingly listening to your every word? That could make being around Kumare intoxicating.

And this is where Vikram Gandhi starts having some serious internal conflict. He never meant to make a fool of anyone; he was really just conducting an experiment. But he’s actually making a difference in people’s lives, a real, tangible, happiness that is radiating through these people who’ve struggled through addictions, abuse, uncertainty, and more. He’s not trying to swindle anyone out of money, or sleep with all the women the way that some of the guru’s were that he began the project covering. One of his students worked two or three jobs to support her four children who are now grown and out of the house. She now feels guilty when she does anything for herself. Kumare is helping this woman heal that pain. That’s real. Just because Kumare is a character doesn’t negate that progress and much needed and deserved happiness.

What is he doing to these people? How will they react when he tells them he's not who they think he is? He has to tell them, he has to come clean, but what will that mean? Will people feel betrayed? Will they realize that his "it's all inside of you already" teachings were still true no matter what source they came from? Vikram struggles mightily with when and where and how to reveal his true identity to his disciples. He realizes that Kumare is who he wishes he were in his every day life. Not the fake accent and robes, but the attentiveness, the being fully present and aware and engaged with every moment in life. Really listening to people and communing with them from his heart. Why isn't he like that all the time? Kumare isn't just a character, it's inside him. It all came from him. Why can't he live his life that way? Is that how easy it is to become the one you long to be? Just do it?

How his disciples react to the bombshell I’ll leave for you to discover, but I’ll say that I wonder how I would react if I was one of them. I wonder if I’d have a different feeling about the movie if I weren’t looking in from the outside. If a man had led me into some happier place in my mind, I’d likely be pretty pissed that that man was a fake. But seeing the movie as I do, I see that Vikram Gandhi has a good heart, and Kumare brought that out even more in him. He even says, “My idealized self is Kumare.” And aren’t we all looking to become the best version of ourselves?