Broadcast News (1987)

Broadcast News

Broadcast News – 1987

Director – James L. Brooks

Starring – Holly Hunter, William Hurt, and Albert Brooks

Every few years, maybe once or twice a decade, there is a movie that is a watershed moment for the audience.  Specifically it fundamentally changes how the audience perceives their relationship with how they see the world.  A film comes along, and playing with delivery, intention, or the pre-conceived notions of the audience, turns the world on its head, and shows us something familiar in a whole new way.

Films like the Lumiere brothers short “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”, “The Man with the Movie Camera”, and “12 Angry Men”, sideswiped their audiences by manipulating what they were expecting and adding what they never saw coming, in the process waking them up to a whole new way of looking at things.  Shit, even the Sixth Sense caused a whole generation of movie goers to not only watch out for twists, but to almost expect them.  The visceral reaction inherent in the unknown is an addictive, and revelatory experience. It is just this sort of reaction that all films try to go for, but few ever really manage to pull off, not to mention on the scale that is required of a cultural event.

So it was with a certain amount of excitement that I approached seeing how the media shapes and packages the information we consume, making it more palatable, while all the while leaving us craving more.  Broadcast News was one of those films that tried for, but for my money, didn’t quite reach that sort of cultural status.  While I found the actors fun to watch, the script funny, and the story engaging, I felt like it was never able to accomplish its goal of revealing the drive and desires of the media structure that existed in the late 80s and early 90s.  Where the 24 hour news channels of today seem almost theatrically and blatantly disingenuous about their goals and motivations, the news culture that this film seeks to expose was one hiding behind the impression of integrity and virtue, so I felt like I kind of already knew the ending to the story.

The focus of the film is focused squarely on truth in journalism, in particular with the relationship between popularity, ratings, and honesty in the reporting of the news.  Holly Hunter plays Jane, a producer and champion of ethics at a big television news station, who ends up butting heads with Tom, the dumb yet likable reporter who knows that he hasn’t earned what he’s given, feels bad about it, yet succeeds and advances despite himself.  William Hurt is the perfect actor to play Tom, because, truth be told, I liked him simply based on the fact of who was playing him.  To further complicate matters, Aaron, Jane’s workplace confidant, and secret admirer, immediately distrusts Tom based on the budding attraction between him and Jane.

Basically, in the eyes of Jane and Aaron, Tom represents all that is wrong with how the news is presented and delivered.  Attractive faces with little to no knowledge of or interest in the details of the actual facts, delivering the “stories” that are really more geared to engage and attract viewers than to disseminate information.  Seeing this as a personal affront to her code of ethics, Jane, tries first to take a stand against him, then to educate him, and finally, after relenting to his obvious charms, starts to compromise her beliefs and principles.  The false, yet believable emotion that Tom brings to his reporting, begins to win her over proving just how effective he is as a voice-box for the network.

Ironically, I don’t know that Tom’s use of false tears during a story about date rape was really any more or less manipulative than Jane’s juxtaposition of a picturesque Norman Rockwell painting with the less than dignified life of a newly returned veteran.  At best they are equally manipulative, and at worst Jane actually takes it a step further by hiding it a little better than Tom was able to.  And therein lies one of my problems with this film.  The message wasn’t ambiguous enough that it wasn’t obvious what they were pointing at, yet it wasn’t black and white enough to end the film convinced about one side of the argument or the other.  The film had a certain selective subtlety that seemed a little too inconsistent for my liking.  Ultimately I would have liked the film to take a bit more of a stand, whether I agreed with it or not.

Few people in Hollywood are so simultaneously revered and nearly as unknown as is James L. Brooks.  Famed for being one of the original writers and a producer of one of my favorite shows, The Simpsons, that is really where my knowledge of him ends.  To look at his list of movies that he’s directed is to be rather disappointed.  The Adam Sandler film Spanglish was one that I thought was supposed to be pretty awful, but  As Good as it Gets, with all of its Oscar wins, was supposed to be pretty great.  Despite all the acclaim,  I never had a real urge to see it, so for all I know it’s equally as good as Spanglish.  And of course, Steel Magnolias.  I’ve heard of it, but that’s really about it.  Now that being said, everyone else I’ve talked to about Broadcast News seemed to really love it, and the fact that I was only luke-warm on it leads me to believe that I must be missing something, or that perhaps I need to watch it again.

Like I said, William Hurt is fun to watch, Albert Brooks is funny, and Holly Hunter plays a character that is just like other characters of hers that I like a lot.  Unfortunately, those positives still don’t make the “just okay” movie that it was, the “exceptional” movie that I was hoping it would be.  Rather disappointing.

I’ve Seen It, and Now So Has She…

So in the ongoing process of reviewing the movies I had already seen when starting this, here are 25 more films from different years, genres, and nationalities.  Thanks to her going nuts on our movie collection in an attempt to catch up, all of these films were simultaneously reviewed by my lovely wife, Ashley, as well as by me.  Enjoy!

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Though not as phenomenal as some of his work, The Man Who Knew Too Much, is one of the really good Hitchcock films.  Jimmy Stewart is always pretty likable, but it’s Doris Day who really steals the show for me.  The one thing that the original has over this remake is the ever-wonderful Peter Lorre.  I could watch that guy eat breakfast!

“Don’t F with Doris Day or she will sing you a song!” – Ashley

The Great Escape (1963)

Partly remembered for it’s fun story, and partly because of Steve McQueen, The Great Escape is also worthy of remembrance for being one of the last (as far as I could find anyway) really great, ensemble films.  The list of famous actors that make an appearance here is a pretty astounding one.  Everyone from the CEO of Jurassic Park, to Flint of “In Like Flint”, to the vigilante from “Death Wish”, and plenty more, make an appearance in this film.  Oh, and the story is pretty good too.

“This movie might be set in a prisoner of war camp, but I would liken it to the con or heist movie genres, so it was actually quite enjoyable.” – Ashley

La Battaglia Di Algeri (AKA: The Battle of Algiers) (1965)

The gritty and raw style of this film owes much to the cinema vérité camera work, and black and white film stock, which served to mimic news reel, or documentary style footage.  The cast of actors, or non-actors as they were, was chosen for their look, and the emotional heft they brought the subject matter, with the only “real” actor playing the leader of the French military force tasked with quieting the then French colony, Colonel Mathieu.  As a testament to its message, the film was banned in France for a number of years, before being re-edited and released later on.  As powerful and prescient today as it was when it was filmed, it speaks to our current situation with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the nature, and victims of terrorism.

“It’s a war movie!” (said with fake excitement) – Ashley

C’era Una Volta Il West  AKA Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Gorgeous!  This film is so lush, and beautiful that when I first saw it, it took my breath away.  Though I do love the Man With No Name trilogy, this film, in my humble opinion, is  absolutely Sergio Leone’s masterpiece!  Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and god help us all Claudia Cardinale.  If you haven’t seen this film, you are doing yourself a grand disservice!

“One of the best movies this list has introduced me to!” – Ashley

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

I saw this film around two decades ago, and I liked it a lot.  I was amazed at how much I liked it really, but it wasn’t until I watched it recently with my wife for her first time, that I was blown away.  Dustin Hoffman is so, so very good, and unfortunately for him, John Voight was so incredible that he still hasn’t yet managed to attain such heights again.  Fred Neil’s “Everybody Talkin'” performed by Harry Nilsson, is such a perfect song to capture the wonder, and spontaneity of New York city, as well as the despair and fear that come when good fortune you’re riding flips upside down and smothers you instead.  One of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen.

“Two hustlers find love.” – Ashley

Serpico (1973)

Though I’ve seen Serpico, I never fell in love with Serpico.  It’s a good film, that I, more than likely, should give another chance.  Known as one of the big tent poles of 1970s cinema, this film went a long way in defining the social, and political unrest of the urbanites of the time.

“Al Pacino grows a beard and takes down some corrupt cops.” – Ashley

Jaws (1975)

The godfather of the summer blockbuster is also an incredibly effective horror and suspense film.  This film comes from the young and hungry Steven Spielberg that helped make a lot of the movies that I grew up on, not the tired schmaltzy Spielberg that ruins every movie he makes now in the last 30 minutes (Don’t believe me?  Take, A.I., War of the Worlds, Minority Report, Saving Private Ryan, and Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World, and the all terrible Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, The Adventures of Tin-Tin, and Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.).  So basically, Jaws was good.

“The push-zoom in it is great, other then that, meh.” – Ashley

Network (1976)

Though Network has some pretty interesting things to say about the nature of television and the nature of fame and martyrdom, and is definitely considered to be another one of those “important” movies from the seventies, I didn’t like the film really at all.  I found all the characters to be pretty repellent  people, and not in the least compelling on any other level.

“I hated every character in this movie.” – Ashley

Airplane! (1980)

The absolute funniest movie that I had ever seen when I was ten years old, it turns out is best marketed towards the young and those who are young in the head.  It didn’t manage to hold onto its title when I recently re-watched it, but it was still really fun to watch.  Leslie Nielson easily steals the show with his trademark deadpan delivery, and square-jawed good looks.  I will always love it for the joy it brought me in my youth.

“Better then the parody movies done today but still not my favorite kind of comedy.” – Ashley

The King of Comedy (1983)

Robert De Niro’s selfish, celebrity-obsessed, Travis Bickle is in love with the idea of fame, so much so that fixates on it.  It is all he sees and all he desires.  At times, tense, at others comic, the film goes a fair way towards predicting the phenomenon of instant fame that shows like American Idol, and YouTube have come to inspire. “The King of Comedy”, just may be one of Scorsese’s lighter works, but one of Martin’s lesser works is often times better than someone else’s best.

“Robert De Niro being creepy.” – Ashley

The Terminator (1984)

I was raised on this film.  I have probably seen it upwards of 100 times.  It is incredible.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger is bad.” – Ashley

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

This little flick is a fossil of another time, a time when the name Eddie Murphy meant you were going to see something that was actually funny.  Not solely for children, no fat suits or unnecessary makeup, but an actual, honest to God funny movie.  Murphy made a fair amount of them in his heyday, my only guess is that he just ran out of funny stuff to say, and now is only capable of making crap.  Too bad.

“Oh, I didn’t know Eddie Murphy use to be funny!” – Ashley

‘A’ Gai Waak Juk Jaap (AKA: Project A, Part II) (1987)

I went through a big Hong Kong cinema phase in the mid to late 90s.  Films like A Better Tomorrow, My Lucky Stars, Full Contact, and Hardboiled filled my movie collection.  Some of my favorites were the films of Jackie Chan, including the Project A films.  Packed with action, impossible stunts, and lots of slapstick humor, these films are intensely rewarding, and loads of fun.  Though I like Project A, Part II a lot, I wouldn’t put it as my favorite of Chan’s films, that honor would go to the absolutely insane Drunken Master II.  The last half an hour of that film was just about the craziest thing I’d ever seen in my life.

“Jackie is a god.” – Ashley

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Another film that I suppose I should devote another viewing to.  Most people seem to love, A Fish Called Wanda, however I thought it wasn’t all that good.  Since it was written by John Cleese, I should by all rights love it, so I can only assume that I saw it at too young an age.

“A raunchy comedy from the 80’s that is actually still funny for a first time view.”      – Ashley

The Naked Gun (1988)

Another of my favorite films from when I was 10 years old.  Leslie Nielsen rode the slapstick gravy train for many years, culminating in The Naked Gun.  Though the films sequels turn out to be rather hokey and one-note, the original film still stands out as one of the best examples of this type of comedy.

“Not bad but just not my kind of comedy.” – Ashley

Die Hard (1988)

As an only child, I spent a lot of time watching movies.  Every Friday night I would have my Mom drive me to the local video emporium, where I would pick up the newest action movies, along with the grossest or most obscure comedies and horror films.  I remember renting Die Hard when if first came out of Video.  I put the VHS tape into the VCR, sat back and spent the next two hours and twelve minutes getting my mind blown!  Easily one of the best action movies ever, and the best Christmas movie by a long shot.  Absolutely deserves to be on this list.

“My husband looks like Bruce Willis, so I’m allowed say how much I like how little his shirt is on in this movie, right?” – Ashley

Total Recall (1990)

Far and away the best film that either Arnold Schwarzenegger or Paul Verhoeven ever had anything to do with, and both men made some goddamned awesome films!  Groundbreaking visual effects, a truly compelling science fiction story, and action for days.  I was lucky enough to see this film in the theater, where at the tender age of eleven, I fell in love.

“Amazing special effects makeup. I wish they still did makeup this way.” – Ashley

Terminator 2: Judgment Day  (1991)

Not as impacting to me as the original, but this was yet another fantastic film.  James Cameron at the peak of his career thus far (yes I am including the disappointing Avatar).

“Arnold Schwarzenegger is good.” – Ashley

JFK (1991)

As a devout fan of film, I have a constantly shifting set of films that revolve in and out as my favorites of all time.  Reed’s The Third Man,  Kurosawa’s High & Low, Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, and of course Oliver Stone’s JFK.  This labyrinth of a film traces the known facts right along side the potential possibilities, watching the two dance with one another, seeing what happens.  Some of my favorite cinematography ever committed to celluloid juxtaposes the black and white of the accepted reality of the Warren Commission with as many points of view as there were watching that day on the grassy knoll.  Black and white, high and low, right and wrong, fact and fiction.  All blend together in this film, tied by the exceptional cast, character actors and famous faces alike.  The best you’ve ever seen Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, and Michael Rooker in any film.  This is one of those films that no matter what time it is, if I find it starting on TV, I will watch it all the way through.  I think I’ll go watch it right now.

“Was there anyone who didn’t want to kill Kennedy?” – Ashley

C’Est Arrive Pres De Chez Vous (AKA: Man Bites Dog) (1992)

This mockumentary about a vicious serial killer being followed by a documentary film crew attempts to find the line between documentation and complicity.  A dark film with some very subtle comic undertones, Man Bites Dog is more uncomfortable than it is successful.  It felt about 45 minutes too long, which would have shortened the film by about half.  Interesting, but ultimately not really very good.

“Oh this was suppose to be a comedy?” – Ashley

The Crying Game (1992)

It’s been a while since I’ve seen this film, so my only real memory of it is that I managed to see it twice in one weekend, once with each of my parents who didn’t know what it was about…awkward.

“Despite knowing the spoiler twist for a couple decades now I found this a really interesting look at the fluidity of human sexuality.” – Ashley

Dead Man (1995)

Long, slow, and still.  Three things that describe the films of Jim Jarmusch.  Dead Man is all of those things, and it was great.  Not a film for every occasion, nor is it for everyone, but if you appreciate thoughtful introspective and occasionally spiritual films, this one may pique your interest.

“So fucking boring!” – Ashley

Fargo (1996)

Of all the Coen Brothers films to put on this list, both this film, and Raising Arizona are two of their most average.  They are certainly good films, not nearly as reprehensible as Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty, or The Ladykillers, but also not even close to as good as Miller’s Crossing (my personal favorite Coen Brothers film), The Big Lebowski, or Barton Fink.  That being said, Fargo did open up the Coen Brothers’ sensibilities to a whole new crowd of viewers and introduced the masses to William H. Macy, and Peter Stormare, so in that respect, it was a good choice.  Otherwise, a real missed opportunity for this list of “best movies”.

“I love that the lead is a smart strong women. Really great movie too.” – Ashley

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Awful, over-hyped, manipulative, horror-porn along the likes of Hostel, and Hostel 2.

“Yeah, yeah we get it Jesus got his ass beat.” – Ashley

The Aviator (2004)

Even genius doesn’t shine all the time.  Yet another movie where the mega-talented Scorsese teams with the mega-mediocre DiCaprio, and turns in underwhelming results.  One of the greatest living cinematographers in the world said it best, describing The Aviator as a “handjob” for Hollywood, and while I don’t think it’s quite that, he certainly spends the entirety of this film writing an elaborate love letter.  Cate Blanchett was really wonderful as Kate Hepburn, if only DiCaprio could do some acting that isn’t just his usual approach of squinting and leaning forward into the camera.

“Leonardo is actually tolerable in this movie. Though he still can’t do an accent worth a shit.” – Ashley

So, there you have it.  Another 25 in the bag.  See you next time!

Rain Man (1988)

Rain Man

Rain Man – 1988

Director – Barry Levinson

Starring – Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, and Valeria Golino

What is more awful, the imitation of the famous character, or the famous character, himself?  It’s not as easy a question as I was guessing that it would be.  With such well-defined mannerisms, speech patterns that inspire imitation, and the constant repetition that drives it into the brain of the collective public, a film like this one can easily become parody.  Before seeing this film, my only knowledge of it was of the imitation of Ray Babbit that just about everyone seems to know, regardless of having seen the film or not.  I had grown rather sick of these imitations and had developed the opinion that I didn’t like Rain Man because of it.  I felt that Dustin Hoffman’s performance as the aforementioned Babbit was hammy and over the top, and I wrote off Tom Cruise as having played himself…again.  All before having seen one frame of film.  I was wrong.

For something that could have easily delved into the realm of the predictable, layered with melodrama, and schlock that I feared so much, Rain Man keeps a remarkably level-headed assessment of Hoffman’s mentally challenged Ray and his hot-headed brother, Charlie played in a remarkably subtle way by Cruise.  Immediately my impression of the film shot up as the characters turned out to be not only grounded in reality, but more importantly, utterly believable and even likable as well.

Driven mostly by his anger, and to a lesser degree by his fear, Charlie Babbitt,tries to fill the hole inside himself with things and with money.  Constantly he is reminding himself of what the world owes him, and it is with this attitude that he greets the news of his estranged fathers death.  Not willing to deal with how this makes him feel, or his own sense of loss, Charlie looks simply at what was left to him, and feels he is owed more.  He is not a terrible or a bad person, he is just so filled with anger, it’s all he can feel anymore.

The majority of his father’s money, it turns out, has been left to a brother, that Charlie never knew he had.  Ray Babbitt, the new-found brother, immediately becomes a target for Charlie’s anger, despite the fact that he’s unable to understand, let alone deal with either the anger or the blame.  Charlie is left with the choice of leaving with nothing, or leaving with Ray, hoping to get a sort of paltry ransom from the executor of his father’s estate, and the rest of the film deals with the two brothers learning to find value in one another.

While the union isn’t ideal for either of them at first, the two brothers eventually get to know each other, and in time come to trust each other too. As I mentioned before, Tom Cruise, wasn’t yet the Tom Cruise we know today.  The 1988 version could actually play more than one character, each one with subtlety and definition, too.  Watching Babbitt stretch and grow, first straining against then breaking through the confines of his anger, was one of the most rewarding experiences thus far in this endeavor.  Combined with the muted performance that Dustin Hoffman turns in, Rain Man showed itself to be the real deal.

While not my favorite of what I’ve seen during this little endeavor, Rain Man was surprisingly good.  What could easily have fallen back into the gimmick of method acting or even a plain, stale buddy movie, really blossomed into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  Well worth it.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Man Who Sho tLiberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – 1962

Director – John Ford

Starring – Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, and Lee Marvin

In the westerns of the thirties, forties and fifties, there was a clear line of right versus wrong, good guy versus bad.  At the beginning of the film, when someone new rides into town, all you have to do is check out the color of his hat, and by paying careful attention, you can fairly reliably ascertain whether they are a hero or a villain.  In the films of the late sixties and seventies, the west is filled with anti-heros, outlaws, and characters whose motivations are all colored in shades of gray.  A good man and a bad man are harder to tell apart, both through their deeds and their choice of clothing.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is roughly halfway between these two extremes.  Our main character may be obviously good, but he has a limit and can be pushed over it.

A sort of companion piece to the earlier Jimmy Stewart film, Destry Rides Again, this film explores the somewhat darker side of being an upstanding citizen.  Where in Destry, Stewart played a character who overcame the danger and conflict through sheer force of will, never letting his ideals falter, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance sees him as a strong-willed man left with no further options than to turn his back on his idealism and resort to violence.  Whether one film was a commentary on the other, or if it was just a sign of changing times is something I can’t say for sure, but together, each illustrates the glory and the grime of standing up for what you believe in using what is essentially the same character as a means of illustration.

Liberty’s story is a familiar one.  Jimmy Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, a well-meaning yet naive lawyer, who while on a stagecoach heading into the small town of Shinbone runs afoul of a local desperado and general bully, Liberty Valance (the one from the title).  Valance, played by the deliciously malicious Lee Marvin, beats Stoddard to such a degree that he is in need of treatment by the local nurse/doctor, which forces him into the lives of the local restaurant proprietors (including the love interest of local tough guy and town hero Tom Doniphan played by John Wayne).

As Ransom mends, he searches for a legal means of defeating Valance, educating the town, and unbeknownst to him he works his way into the heart of the restaurant owner’s daughter Hallie Stoddard.  As this affection becomes more and more plain, Ransom runs the risk of ostracizing his best and only chance of beating Valance at his own game.  Without Tom Doniphan standing in between the outlaw and himself, Ransom will be forced to either use violence and maybe live, and or stick by his ideals and likely die.

Well, hopefully the title of the film should explain that someone, at some point, actually does deal with Valance, but the grand question is who, and ultimately the question becomes Does it matter?”  The world is a violent place full of trials and challenges.  Is rising to face those challenges on those terms a failure of character?  Does it diminish the fact that you do what you can to find a better way, or does the need for self-preservation trump such minor concerns?  Not to mention if you go against your ideals, resort to violence, then find out that it wasn’t even you who ended up solving the problem, what then?  Are you still culpable for the choices you made, or do you get a pass?

(***Warning Spoilers***)

The film posits that it is all about perspective.  Ransom Stoddard, gets teased, taunted, beaten and worn down so low, that he finally picks up a revolver, squares off with Liberty Valance, takes aim, and shoots.  Liberty ultimately got what he wanted.  The high-minded, goody-two-shoes, was knocked from his high-horse and forced to come down to his level.

Ransom drew, shot, and Liberty ultimately died, but it wasn’t Ransom’s bullet that did the killing.  Tom Doniphan, watching from the darkness, made the shot that killed Liberty Valance and saved Ransom’s life.  The towns people held Ransom up as a hero, and by saving his life, Tom made sure the woman he loved was happy, but did it negate or tarnish Ransom’s sacrifice?  I think it did.  Ransom took the woman Tom loved, whether he meant to or not, so through his bullet Tom responded by robbing Ransom of  both his ideals and the ability to deal with the problem himself, although ultimately it cost him everything.

Tom tells Ransom what he did, freeing and trapping him with his choices at the same time, but it doesn’t change what everyone in the town thinks happens. The outcome is still the same.  The only ones affected are Stoddard and Doniphan.  Their perception of their own actions defines how they see themselves, and ultimately informs their actions on into the future.

(***End Spoilers***)

That’s pretty heady stuff considering that Destry Rides Again was really more of a typical hero cowboy story about men wearing white hats saving damsels in distress from the men in black hats.  Wayne’s Doniphan and to a different yet just as important degree Stewart’s Stoddard are each wearing multifaceted hats made up of constantly shifting shades of gray.  Each man is not what you might consider a bad guy, nor are they as undeniably good as compared to the heroes of earlier westerns, but I would argue that this makes them each more compelling characters, capable of a more realistic portrayal, and ultimately more relatable to the audience.

Definitely worth a look, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is leagues better, in my opinion, than another John Wayne film Stagecoach, but not nearly as good as some rather grittier and challenging westerns out there like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Oxbow Incident, and a film not on this list (though it should be), The Proposition.  Check it out.

Beat the Devil (1953)

Beat the Devil – 1953

Director – John Huston

Starring – Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Jennifer Jones, and Gina Lollobrigida

So you’re fond of the big stars of the hollywood system?  You like yourself a little bit of character acting, done by character actors, huh?  What’s that?  You like the whole thing tied together by a famous, yet dependable director?  I guess I have the film for you…to skip in favor of something else.

Unfortunately, for all of us, Beat The Devil doesn’t quite live up to what it could have been.  Though the film doesn’t really make any obvious miss-steps or do anything overtly wrong, it still manages to fall rather flat, and be somewhat un-inspired.  All of the individual elements that make up this film are, on their own, very successful, but when they are tied together they cease to gel.

The plot.  The plot is tricky, mostly because I don’t really remember it.  What I do remember, however, is… International playboy, and conman…I think…, Billy Dannreuther (Bogart), and his gang of cronies (the best part of the movie played by talented character actors Peter Lorre, Ivor Barnard, and Robert Morley) are planning a heist of some kind when their ship is delayed and they are all stranded in a small coastal town in Italy.  Mix in some love interests in the form of the sexy Gina Lollobrigida, and plucky Jennifer Jones, whose husband, the straight man, Edward Underdown, tries unsuccessfully to stymie the shady dealings the entire time.

Beyond that, the plot is a mystery.  It’s simply an excuse to let these elements mingle, and with any luck, turn into cinema gold.  Unfortunately, the luck doesn’t quite hold out.  Instead, the charm and quick paced, sarcastic dialog of Billy takes the place of any plotting or exposition.  The sexy femme fatale wife of Billy, played by Lollobrigida, never really seems at odds with the spunky, young, love interest, Jones, who overtly swoons over him despite her husband, and the gang of cutthroats who threaten her at every turn.  Nothing builds on anything else, everything just sorta stops in its tracks before it can really get started.

The cinematography seemed like it was trying to borrow from the immediacy and off-the-cuff nature of Italian Neo-Realism, but paired with the convoluted plot and lack of motivation, it just seemed a little rushed and out-of-place.  Shot in black and white, in mostly real locations rather than studio set-pieces, Beat the Devil seemed much grittier than a lot of films of the studio system.  This had the unfortunate effect of making them seem somehow lower budget, or like it had a rushed production or something.  I’m not really sure why, but it just seemed…light.  Like it was missing something.

I realize that I’ve just spent this entire review bemoaning the film, but I really didn’t think it was bad, it was just…blah.  There were bright spots though.  Some of the dialogue was snappy and fun.  The interactions, and rivalries that play out amongst Peter Lorre and Robert Morley as the gang of criminals was very entertaining and watchable, and in fact, those were actually the best and most memorable parts of the film.

After watching Beat The Devil, it makes me appreciate films that ARE able to pull off all of the different elements that this one tries.  Films like The Third Man, The Big Lebowski, the original version of The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets, After Hours and even His Girl Friday, which are able to flawlessly combine humor, action, danger, and even things like dark humor and death, to make something memorable, funny, and better than the sum of their parts.

It’s my impression that the only reason for the inclusion of this film onto this list of greatest films ever made, is the strength of its potential, rather than the success of the result.  The hope is that when everything comes together you should have something really special, not something that you have trouble remembering a few minutes after its finished.

Not a bad watch, but if you’re spending your time looking through the list of movies you must see, you’ll more than likely want something more gratifying.

“Gina Lollobrigida – beautiful. Movie – meh.” – Ashley

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s – 1961

Director – Blake Edwards

Starring – Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, and Mickey Rooney

I’ve heard for years about Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  Nothing concrete mind you, nothing in-depth about the plot, the themes, the writing, or any of the lead or supporting actors.  Apparently, what I had been hearing about was Audrey Hepburn.  Her style, her grace, and most of all her fashion sense.  While by and large Audrey is most definitely deserving of all the acclaim she has garnered over the years, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is definitely it’s own beast, above and beyond such things.

For those, like me, who have only been privy to random rumblings about minor aspects of this film, here is a breakdown of the story.  Audrey Hepburn plays the young, beautiful, quirky, carefree, flakey, and wholly unreliable Holly Golightly, a character who wrote the book on what real-life actresses like Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel, and Chloe Sevigny have built plenty of their roles on.  Her charm and magnetism carries her through life, drawing people to her both for good and ill.  She seems to live in a bubble protecting her from any real sort of responsibility, keeping her real thoughts and feelings at an arm’s-length from anyone who might try to get close to her.  Mind you that doesn’t stop anyone from trying, prospective suitors, friends, and even family, keep trying to reel her back into reality, and are forever willing to forgive her for struggling to keep them away.

Even the square-jawed, perfectly coiffed, understanding, new neighbor, Paul Varjack (played by a George Peppard with super Technicolor blue eyes), runs into the same brick wall that everyone else does.  Where everyone else eventually gets the hint, Paul maintains his pursuit of Holly despite her track record of flighty behavior, and gold-digger-esque tendencies.  Paul himself is a slave to what made him a success as well.  His claim to fame is a novel that he wrote with the support of his well-to-do mistress, without whom he would still be in dwelling in relative obscurity.

Assuming both Holly and Paul were able to maintain the same frame of mind, they would make a good couple, but Paul has grown tired of his shallow existance, and yearns for something else.  In the end, all of Holly’s qualities that attract Paul, end up keeping him at arm’s length.  The free-spirited, irresponsible behavior that seems so attractive at first, ends up actually being a bundle of paranoia and anxiety, unable to let go of a failed formula for love and success. That isn’t quite the glamorous image that is presented in the marketing of the film.

This film is much closer to the films of the seventies than it’s release date lets on.  It is more concerned with the exploration of the damaged side of the young miss Golightly, and mr. Varjack than it is with showing off the lush, lavish, fun lifestyle of the sixties.  It seeks to juxtapose the unfulfilled, unhappiness that both Paul and Holly are subject to, with the carefree party lifestyle that both are living (on the surface anyway).  In the end, non-stop drinking, lurid rendezvous’ with faceless strangers, and the absence of any sort of responsibility will only contribute to the feeling of worthlessness.  Holly’s telephone, locked away in her suitcase, is representative of her isolation from and fear of the actual relationships, commitments, and everything else encompassed by “the real world”.

On script writing duties is Truman Capote, a man who I know little about although I’m more curious than ever to read more of his work.

The director, Blake Edwards is no stranger to popular, well regarded movies.  Though this does seem to have a somewhat deeper subtext than a lot of his other movies, it does share a fair amount with some of his other films (I’m going from memory here, it’s been a while since I’ve seen anything.), most notably “The Party” from 1968.  The party scenes in both films share a certain voyeuristic quality as the audience simply observes the merriment and mayhem as it happens.  They don’t so much expound upon what we already know of our characters as much as they give us a inkling of the time and the place in which they live.  There is some humor there, but it is more descriptive than it seems on the surface.

I have to say I was surprised by how much I liked this film.  On paper, a film about two broken socialites doesn’t seem all that engaging to me.  I really like Audrey Hepburn, in everything I’ve seen her in, so it was a no-brainer that I’d like her here, but I can’t shake the image of George Peppard as Hannibal from the A-Team, so he was a bit of a harder sell at the outset.  It’s a good thing he didn’t smoke a cigar in this film or my suspension of disbelief would have been gone and it would have pulled me out of the film entirely.

Truthfully though, his character, Paul, was the real heart of the film.  While Holly, along with her sense of style, is the centerpiece of the film, Peppard does most of the heavy lifting in terms of character growth, exposition, and engagement with the audience.  Peppard is to Hepburn what Joseph Cotton is the Orson Welles in “The Third Man”.

The film’s one failing grace, and really it’s just a sign of the times in which it came out, was the overtly racist, and unflattering view of asian culture put forth in the form of Holly’s upstairs neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi played by the shitty Mickey Rooney.  Rooney’s portrayal serves no purpose except for getting cheap laughs at the expense of a people perceived as being simply ignorant, pajama-wearing, slow-witted, buffoons.  Luckily it doesn’t ruin the rest of the film, though it is unfortunate.

All in all I would say the film paints an accurate picture of loneliness, and as a bonus it crafts a realistic and satisfying ending that allows the characters to grow beyond their selfish, opulent trappings.  Overall, I’d say it’s definitely well worth the time, and worth a watch.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Don’t worry.  The cat’s fine.” – Ashley

The Wolfman (1941)

The Wolfman – 1941

Director – George Waggner

Starring – Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Bela Lugosi

When mention is made of the “Classic Universal Monster” films, inevitably the first ones that spring to mind are Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman.  Given enough time to consider the category of film you might eventually think up The Mummy, or The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but these are just monsters whereas all of the other three are more fully realized characters.  It just so happens that these characters also happen to be monsters.

The Wolfman in particular, is the most similar to the audience.  He is an everyman, someone who, unlike Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, we get to know before he becomes a monster.  He is every bit a human being, someone who is scared of what is happening to him, and remorseful of the crimes he has committed because of his affliction.  But does this humanity, this pathos make the Wolf Man story better than that of Dracula, or Dr. Frankenstein?  Not quite.

The story is simple enough and fairly well-known, a man bitten by a strange wolf while out during a full moon, finds himself turning into a wolf himself and roaming around killing for pleasure.  Ultimately he must either find a cure or he must be hunted down and killed before the killing will stop.

While a lot of the same elements are in place as they are in Dracula and Frankenstein (Count Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi even makes an appearance as a Gypsy afflicted with the werewolf’s curse), Lon Chaney, Jr. isn’t quite up to the challenge of acting opposite someone like Boris Karloff, and the imagery doesn’t hold as much terrific horror as the gothic imagery put forth in Dracula.  The film didn’t seem like that much of a surprise.  Instead I felt like I knew the entire time what was going to happen.

The imagery, set design, and music all seemed much more formulaic to me than in either of the other two, on top of the less convincing story and powerful acting, The Wolf Man was just unable to get from under the weight of its big brothers.  Where it did succeed admirably, was it’s ability to draw the audience in through its main character.  In each of the other two monster films, the showpieces were the monsters.  These inhuman, alien beings, lacking much in the way of recognizable human characteristics, served to menace the villagers, despite their best efforts (frankenstein) or because of them (dracula).

We were introduced to the Wolf Man, however, while he was still a man.  We are given insight to his somewhat troubled relationship with his father, and his competitive relationship with his dead brother.  We see him pining away after the local girl, and the awkward situation he is put in when he’s introduced to her fiance.  So right away, we can relate to him.  He is a man, first and foremost.  A man who eventually has one more problem thrust upon him, the whole turning into a wolf against his will and killing, thing.  The unfortunate part is, this history we’ve built up never plays a part in the story beyond the introductions.  We are able to sympathize with him at first, but eventually he just becomes “another guy” that we don’t really care all that much about.

Despite it’s not being as good as some of the other Classic Monster films, The Wolf Man is still definitely worth a watch, although I would contend with its position on this list if only because it seems like a “well we can’t leave The Wolf Man out” type of pick.

“Always listen to your neighborhood gypsy” – Ashley