Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi “I fell in love with my work and I gave my life to it.”

 

The thing I enjoy most about documentary films is that the best ones offer a glimpse into a part of our world I previously knew little or nothing about. The very first film I ordered from Netflix, way back when their main business was renting DVDs, was The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Someday I’ll have to post a review for this site because it really is a wonderful experience, all about finding your niche and overcoming whatever obstacles you find in your way. It also has one of the most entertainingly despicable cinematic villains of all time, one Billy Mitchell, but I’ll save his story for a proper review. Had I never seen that film, I’d likely never have known that there are official world records for eighties arcade games like Donkey Kong and people willing to go to great lengths to set and maintain those records. Similarly, without Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I’d likely never have known about the person many regard as the best sushi chef in the world and his inspiring view of how to perform one’s work honorably.

Sukiyabashi Jiro is a tiny, ten-seat restaurant in the basement of a Tokyo office building. Every day, the owner and chef, Jiro Ono prepares a lunch and a dinner service for which he will charge 30,000 yen. Reservations are mandatory and sell out months in advance for a tasting menu of twenty pieces. Most people finish in under an hour, fast eaters in as little as fifteen minutes. That’s right, $300 for a meal where the chef decides what you eat and prepares each piece as you go. There are no abominable, cream-cheese infused California rolls, imitation crab sticks, or marble-sized chunks of wasabi. The 85 year-old Jiro has pared down sushi to its essence, seafood and rice, and serves it in the manner he’s spent nearly seven decades perfecting. His approach toward his craft is deceptively simple; he buys the best ingredients and prepares them in a way that accentuates their natural flavors. He goes about this by working only with suppliers that share his exacting standards. His shrimp vendor is an expert in shrimp. His tuna vendor approaches the daily auction with the attitude of, “I either buy my first choice or I buy nothing.” His rice supplier has refused to sell the same rice Jiro uses to other restaurants because, “if they can’t cook it, what’s the use?” Jiro then weaves all these wonderful ingredients together into a dining experience that’s so consistently excellent, it’s earned a 3-star rating from the Michelin Guide, an honor unheard of for a place this small.

Watching Jiro and his apprentices prepare the day’s food is absolutely fascinating, and it’s beautifully on display here. The cinematography is just gorgeous and the soundtrack, featuring large doses of Philip Glass, is inspiring. I mean it with absolutely no irony that I never realized watching someone prepare food could be so engrossing. Almost as fascinating is the dynamic between Jiro and his two sons, both accomplished sushi chefs in their own rights. The younger son, Takashi, opened his own restaurant at his fathers insistence, while the elder, Yoshikazu patiently waits for his father to retire so he can assume his proper place. The problem is that Jiro is still showing no signs of slowing down. It is to Yoshikazu’s credit that he seems resigned to his fate. Well, mostly.

Much is made here of the idea of being shokunin, a craftsman or artisan, and it resonated with me profoundly. It’ll be no surprise to those who know me that my work is something I take great pride in, and Jiro has inspired me to follow his example. His guide to being successful and respected is as brilliantly simple as his food. Once you’ve chosen what your life’s work will be, devote all your energies toward that end. One becomes better by continually searching out opportunities for improvement. Perfection is the goal, though it likely will never be attained. Jiro exemplifies this life and it seems to infect those who come in contact with him. It even appears to have informed director David Gelb; the movie’s runtime, at a tight 81 minutes, is the model of efficient excellence. In short, this is a perfect film, one absolutely worth seeking out.

AFI Top 100: American Graffiti (1973)

The eleventh in a series reviewing the American Film Institute Top 100 in random order.

“Don’t say anything and we’ll get along just fine.” – Cindy Williams as Laurie

 

Growing up as a child of divorced parents in Laurel, Maryland, a commuter town halfway between Baltimore and DC, I spent a good chunk of my afternoons parked in front of the television eating whatever junk food I could find in the cupboard and watching reruns of M*A*S*H and Happy Days on Channel 5. I enjoyed the former quite a bit but the latter never piqued my interest much. I mean, sure, it was funny some of the time, but I never really connected with Richie or Ralph or Potsie, or even understood why anyone would call themselves ‘Potsie’ (and this is from someone who spent years letting people call him ‘One Ball’). And don’t get me started on why these three high school crackers from Milwaukee would idolize a thirty year-old Jewish guy in a leather jacket. It just didn’t resonate for me on any level, and American Graffiti ultimately feels like little more than a Happy Days movie.

Any interest I had at all in this film came down to one thing. It was written and directed by George Lucas. Yes, that George Lucas. Greedo-shot-first George Lucas. And you can absolutely tell. The dialog is stilted and overblown. If you think Hayden Christensen was bad, try watching Richard Dreyfuss deliver lines like, “Stand by for justice!” It’s just atrocious. The plot follows, or more accurately, tries to follow a group of archetypes, er, teenagers in 1962 and the shenanigans they get up to over the course of a single night. Dreyfuss is the everyman who has doubts about going away to college back east, Ron Howard is a more date-rape-y version of Richie Cunningham, and Paul Le Mat is the coolest guy in town with his yellow deuce coupe. Harrison Ford shows up as a cowboy driving a ’55 Belair and does the best he can with his ten lines or so. Oh, and the bespectacled dork from The Untouchables plays a younger bespectacled dork here. The cast is good, but they’re just not given anything of real interest to do or say.

Like many movies of it’s time, it chugs along at a steady pace and then hits its climax two or three minutes before the closing credits with little or no warning. It’s as if writers back then had no interest in building tension. Maybe I’d have felt differently if I’d been of age and seen it when it came out, eleven years after it’s set. I wonder if people who grew up in that era react differently to it? That’s not quite enough time for nostalgia to set in, though, in my book. I’m not exactly chomping at the bit for a fond look at what high school life was like back in 2003, right? Most perplexing of all is this movie’s #62 position on the AFI Top 100, up 15 places in the latest poll. That’s ten ahead of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and thirty in front of Pulp Fiction. I just don’t understand.

 

Up next in the queue, 1946′s The Best Years of Our Lives, in which our hero discovers that war may be hell, but peace is the fucking worst.

 

Click here for an Index of my AFI Top 100 movie reviews.

Films I Used to Love: Romancing the Stone (1984)

The second in an ongoing series wherein I revisit films I loved when I was younger.

Romancing the Stone

“Cops?! What the hell do they want? I haven’t done anything lately.”

 

Recently, I’ve felt like Hollywood has forgotten how to make date movies. Upon re-watching Romancing the Stone, I’m more sure of it than ever. The perfect date movie should have enough action and a hot enough female lead to satisfy the male audience members and enough romance and a hunky enough male lead to keep the ladies happy. There should be funny elements that both can laugh at, and while the dialog and plot don’t need to be Oscar-worthy, they also need not be cringe-inducing. This film hits all those points.

At its heart, this is an adventure film, with romance novelist Joan Wilder (Springfield, Missouri’s own Kathleen Turner) sets off for Columbia to rescue her kidnapped sister. Along the way, she gets some help, and a little brown-chicken-brown-cow, from bird poacher/scofflaw Jack T. Colton (HPV’s own Michael Douglas). Hijinks and hilarity ensue. Honestly, the chemistry between these two is something rarely seen anymore. They have a great sense of timing, and there is genuine joy and affection in their eyes when they’re together. It’s so compelling to watch, they’d end up in two more films together, 1985′s atrocious sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, and 1989′s darker-than-Wesley-Snipes black comedy, The War of the Roses. Even though the totality of all three films is a bit mixed, the interplay between these two is consistently good throughout. If you’ve never seen the latter, it’s well worth seeking out. Not uplifting, mind you, but certainly worth a viewing.

Guys will be more than happy with the action here, and Jack is a great hero, a man living just outside the law, ready to use his sawed-off shotgun when in a bind, quick-witted, sarcastic… The kind of guy we all want to be until we realize that that guy is kind of a dick to be around. Women should, I assume, find the love story compelling. Joan starts off a little meek but gains confidence as the story progresses, so much so that by the end (spoilers), it’s she who takes on the lead villain while Jack is off doing, well, what Jack does. The only real issue I have is that it feels a little dated but not quite enough to make it nostalgic. Al Pacino’s wide lapels in The Godfather are correct for the period. Michael Douglas’s skinny tie/denim shirt combo here, just ludicrous. And the synthesizer-heavy soundtrack gets a little grating after a while. It’s as if the only musicians that could get work in the eighties were keyboard players.

While writing this, I’ve been trying to think of the last film I saw that fit the criteria I listed earlier. The only one that immediately comes to mind is another favorite, 2001′s The Mexican with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. It’s funnier than this one, but also darker, and certainly more cinematically ambitious. Now I feel like I need to watch that one again…

Films I Used to Hate: Lost in Translation (2003)

The first in an ongoing series where I revisit films I’ve seen but did not care for.

Lost in Translation“The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.”

 

I remember first seeing Lost in Translation when it came out on video and was wholly unimpressed. It struck me as the story of a tired old man pursuing a much younger woman, or alternately, one of a young woman so filled with ennui that she falls for the first old lecher who shows her the slightest bit of attention. It didn’t help matters that (spoilers) Bob and Charlotte never get around to consummating their love or that the climax involves the sharing of a secret that we the audience aren’t privy to. It was difficult to see how this could win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, though I wouldn’t exactly describe Finding Nemo as strong competition either. Before seeing it again, I’d have summed up my overall reaction as a resounding, “meh.”

What a difference ten years makes. Maybe my tastes have matured a bit since then, or maybe I’ve become more tolerant of films that don’t follow established plot norms. Or maybe at forty-three I’m more able to identify with a man who’s got more good days behind him than ahead. Whatever the reason, I had a much better experience this time around.

The first half of the movie solidly belongs to Scarlett Johansson. As Charlotte, she seems profoundly adrift. Just out of college, saddled with what will likely be a useless degree (honestly, who studies philosophy anymore?), two years into a marriage to a guy who’s already not that into her, it’s easy to see why she’d feel as if life has started to pass her by. Even though she tries to get her husband John (a supremely vapid Giovanni Ribisi) to engage, he’s oblivious, lost in his work. In Bob, she finds someone who has the luxury and the inclination to pay attention to her. He cares about her, about what she has to say, and he treats her as an equal. There is a sexual tension between the two of them, but to the film’s credit, they never really act on it. I originally saw this as an unrealistic misstep, but now it feels just right. They’ve already shared their most intimate thoughts and fears with one another. To add something carnal would only serve to cheapen the entire experience. He treats her as an adult who has value, something I’m not sure she’s experienced before. Armed with that knowledge and a newly-discovered confidence, she’s ready to begin her adult life. Although, that’s probably not the best news for John.

The second part of the film focuses more on Bill Murray as former action movie star Bob Harris. Originally, I didn’t care much for his performance, finding it understated and dull. I think my biggest issue might have been that I loved him so much as Carl Spackler and Dr. Peter Venkman. Sure, by the time this came out he had been in a few higher-brow movies like Rushmore, but he would also still appear in Charlie’s Angels and Garfield and I was having trouble letting go of the sarcastically hilarious asshole I’d come to love over the years. In retrospect, this film takes advantage of that. Bob has some funny lines here and there, but mostly it’s a pretty serious performance. Every now and then, we get a glimpse of Murray’s old self, much in the way that Bob still has moments when he must feel like his younger self. He acts like someone who used to have quite a bit of game but has since lost it, or more accurately, given it up. He’s resigned to the life he’s chosen but unfortunately, it’s one where he’s not very appreciated. Much in the same way he shows Charlotte she has value, she shows him he does as well. Sure, he’s initially attracted to her because she’s young, has big tits, and smiles at him in an elevator. Once they start spending time together, though, it’s the emotional experiences they share that change him. It’s an interesting symbiosis they share. Bob brings out the more mature side of Charlotte while she takes him back to a time when he was younger and more alive.

Which brings us to the much-talked about ending, wherein, before going their separate ways on a busy Tokyo sidewalk, Bob whispers something presumably profound to Charlotte that we are not allowed to hear. Ten years ago, I thought this was the biggest load of shit, and I was so very wrong. What he said to her is, quite frankly, none of our business. I don’t have any guess what it was, not do I care. All I need to know is that they were both changed by their time together in ways that are profound and that they are both better off for having met. We should all be so lucky, to meet one person in our life who makes such a difference, who gives us a glimpse of our true worth.

Jack Reacher (2012)

Jack Reacher poster at myopera.com

Jack Reacher poster at myopera.com

“Hell you say.” – Robert Duvall as Cash

 

My wife is a HUGE fan of Lee Child‘s books. She refuses to buy them in hardcover, though, so ever year or so, she spends several months in a state of literary tension, aware that there is a new Jack Reacher story out there yet unable to partake of of it. Her discomfort every time we go into a bookstore during this waiting period is palpable. It really is a site to behold, but it’s indicative of the kind of fans Child has. Everyone I’ve known who likes his books LOVES his books. The only other author I’ve seen exhibit that kind of devotion is Stephen King. These books are not like King’s. I’ve read exactly two of them, his 1997 debut, The Killing Floor, and the book this film is based on, One Shot. They’re pulpy, full of tough guys doing tough things, but they just didn’t speak to me in a way that made me want to devour the whole series the way my wife has. As someone who’s read the whole series, though, and invested hundreds of hours in this world of an ex-Army MP turned crime-fighting drifter, she definitely had some ideas about what our protagonist should look like and Tom Cruise was nowhere in the ballpark. He was such an oddball choice that she refused to see the movie in theaters. I had to wait for it to come out on Blu-ray and then wait for her to be out of town for the weekend before I could watch it. I’m happy to report it was well worth the wait.

It’s hard to describe what this film is other than to say it’s an action film from the late eighties/early nineties but with a decidedly 21st century sensibility. Think of it as Roadhouse without the Tai Chi, or Above the Law without the Aikido, or even Lethal Weapon without Danny Glover (he’s getting too old for this shit). As a writer Christopher McQuarrie has always done a great job with dialog, and this is no exception. The witty back and forth of The Usual Suspects is here, and Cruise does a great job delivering it. True, his not-so-vague threats would be even more menacing delivered by the 6′ 5″, 250 pound Reacher of the novels, but coming from 5′ 7″ Tom Cruise, they have an added punch, a humorous cockiness that belies his diminutive stature. He spends the better part of the film beating the piss out of men much larger than he is, cracking wise the whole time. This is an exceptionally funny movie, with most of the jokes coming from Reacher’s attitude toward the toughs he encounters. I laughed out loud when, just before he beats another bad guy into submission, he looks him dead in the eyes and says, with more than a little malice, “Remember, you wanted this.” There are subtle visual jokes here as well, like when two guys with bats try to beat Reacher and end up doing more damage to themselves. Or when our hero rolls into a nondescript local business and the sign outside reads DeFault Auto Parts, a reference to the fact that no one ever mentions the name of the town even though it was quite obviously filmed in Pittsburgh.

This is only McQuarrie’s second outing as a director, after the criminally under-seen The Way of the Gun, and it’s easy to see why he was chosen for the upcoming Mission: Impossible 5. The car chases are very well done, combining fast and slow sections that made it easy to keep track of where everyone was in relation to one another, a quality missing in many lesser films. The fight scenes were even better, especially one near the end that seemed like an homage to the 1987 Riggs-Joshua bout.

One thing I didn’t enjoy about the film was the relative dearth of Werner Herzog (yes, that Werner Herzog). He was certainly creepy here as a Russian gangster who’s missing a few fingers as well as concern for his fellow man. He’s only in the film for around ten minutes, though, and I’d like to have seen more. Apart from that, though, this really was an enjoyable film I’m looking forward to seeing again. I can’t decide if I want to wait until the next time the missus is out of town or if it might just magically appear on the video shelf at the house one day soon.

Jack Reacher is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

AFI Top 100: The Graduate (1967)

The tenth in a series reviewing the American Film Institute Top 100 in random order.

The Graduate poster at imp awards.com

“Ben, this whole idea sounds pretty half-baked.” – William Daniels as Mr Braddock

“Oh, it’s not. It’s completely baked.” – Dustin Hoffman as Ben Braddock

 

In my quest to watch the AFI Top 100, I’m always worried that the films will seem dated or that the themes won’t feel as relevant today. I probably need to stop worrying quite so much. Though the comedy of Duck Soup seemed dated and more than a little childish, most of the movies I’ve watched so far have included the things I look for most in quality films, fully realized characters that I care about, delivering well-written dialog, and filmed beautifully. The Graduate was no different, and was still very funny to boot.

Dustin Hoffman does as a great job here as Ben Braddock, a recent college graduate who’s overtaken with ennui, unable to decide what to do with his life, though it’s what’s on everyone else’s minds, especially his parents, who were helicoptering forty years before it was cool. He seems openly dismissive of the professions his parents and their friends have chosen, though unlike many young adults of sixties cinema, he isn’t able to turn those feelings into any kind of action. He’d much rather spend his time floating in the pool, soaking up the sun, even though it appears he’s even unable to take pleasure in that. For a time, he finds a measure of happiness in an affair with his father’s business partner’s wife, Mrs Robinson. She seduces him rather than the other way around (of course), and their courtship, for lack of a better word, provides many of the laughs. Ann Bancroft is wonderful as Ben’s paramour, exuding a confidence and sexiness that overlays a dissatisfaction that mirrors his. When he starts to fall for her daughter, though, she shows that there’s a mean streak underneath all her charm. She was nominated for the Best Lead Actress Oscar that year, rightly so.

The second half of the film, though not nearly as light-hearted as the first, shows Ben maturing, and it’s to Dustin Hoffman’s credit that it’s a very believable transformation. As he takes his first tentative steps into adulthood, you start to see an impish charm that was missing earlier. Counterintuitively, in taking positive steps toward growing up, he’s able to enjoy what almost seems like a second childhood. I imagine it was more enjoyable than his first. His Lead Actor nomination was also well-deserved. If anything, I wish we’d seen more of the object of his affection, the stunning Katharine Ross. She gets to show a little bit of personality and sass in the third act, but not quite enough for my taste. I can see what Benjamin sees in her, but only in the most superficial way. I wish we’d been shown more. That aside, the movie has one of the most appropriate endings I’ve ever seen. In the closing shot, once Ben has finally gathered the courage to act, to fight for the one thing he truly cares for, he lets a rare smile creep across his face. He seems satisfied, hopeful, but only for a second or two, then it starts to fade. You can already see the ennui creeping back in. It is a rare and interesting film that asks the question, “What happens after the credits roll?” and then leaves it to our imaginations to come up with an answer.

 

As a potentially interesting side note, this movie was rated G by the MPAA. There are a few very brief shots of Ann Bancroft’s bare breasts, though they’re almost like the shots of Pazuzu from The Exorcist. In 1976′s PG-rated The Front, the climax involves Woody Allen’s character telling a HUAC-resembling committee, “And furthermore, you can all go fuck yourselves.” It’s interesting to me that both these films would likely receive an R today for these small infractions. Is that progress?

 

Up next in the queue, 1973′s American Graffiti, in which our hero sees what George Lucas was up to in the six years between THX 1138 and Star Wars.

 

Click here for an Index of my AFI Top 100 movie reviews.

Blackfish (2013), Dear Zachary (2008)

I’ve been a fan of documentary film for years. The very first disc I ordered from Netflix, back in the pre-streaming days, was King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. I thought Rescue Dawn had some ludicrous plot points until I saw Little Dieter Needs to Fly and realized the feature hewed uncomfortably close to the documentary. And Grizzly Man, while ultimately tragic, also provided more laughs than some films that purport to be comedies (I’m looking at you, Cop Out). I’d happily watch any of these docs again today because they are so enjoyable. Lately, though, I’ve found myself watching documentaries that have such a profound emotional effect I don’t care to ever watch them again.

 

Blackfish poster at kittysneezes.com

Blackfish poster at kittysneezes.com

 

I’ve never been to SeaWorld, but I have been to the dolphin show at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. I found it enjoyable, but nothing spectacular. After watching Blackfish, however, I’ll never attend another marine mammal show as long as I live. The film is the story of the killer whale Tilikum and his involvement in the deaths of three people. It makes a pretty strong case that we are driving him and other orcas to aggressive and violent behavior by removing them from the wild when they are still calves and altering the natural hierarchy they would otherwise experience. Slightly less persuasive, but horrifically disturbing if true, is the suggestion that killer whales have a stronger sense of community than even humans do. If that is in fact the case, then we are torturing these animals by removing them from their families and keeping them in enclosures that couldn’t be more different from their natural habitat. Most frustrating is the holier-than-thou attitude exhibited by several ex-trainers who, rather than trying to bring attention to the situation stayed in SeaWorld’s employ long after they new Tilikum’s behavior was becoming more erratic. They try to paint themselves as victims of SeaWorld’s greed, when in reality, they were a bunch of little Eichmanns, more than willing to play their parts and collect a paycheck as long as they weren’t the ones being attacked.

 

Dear Zachary poster at collider.com

Dear Zachary poster at collider.com

 

While Blackfish deals with a corporation and its employees who are torturing sentient creatures in pursuit of profits, Dear Zachary is a story of a single evil person, Shirley Jane Turner, and how she destroys an entire family with more than a little help from the Canadian legal system. Though she was never convicted, it would be uncontroversial to say that she likely murdered Dr Andrew Bagby, the father of her unborn child. She then fled to Canada to avoid prosecution. Bagby’s parents followed her north of the border to try to get some sort of shared custody of their grandson with filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, a childhood friend of Andrew’s, in tow. The film starts as a way to introduce Bagby’s son to the dad he never had a chance to know, but it ends up being much more than that as the courts in Newfoundland repeatedly act in ways that are both inexplicable and infuriating. There are a few directorial choices here that get annoying after a while, but the blind rage I felt by the time it was over was well worth it.

In my life, I’ve been known to be a little emotionally detached. It’s not that I don’t have feelings, it’s just that I tend to keep the bad ones buried way down inside where they can’t hurt anyone, just like Marge Simpson recommended. I’d have made a great Stoic back in the day. I do have one outlet, though, where I can let out my emotions in an environment that is comparatively safe, and that is through films. I always enjoyed movies that made me cry because they let me access a part of myself that I normally kept pretty well hidden. These two films have shown me that there’s another emotion I can access with their help: anger. Now I just need to find more documentaries that’ll do so. I’m thinking The Fog of War

AFI Top 100: The Searchers (1956)

The ninth in a series reviewing the American Film Institute Top 100 in random order.

bfi-00n-xey

 

“Put an amen to it! There’s no more time for praying! AMEN!” – John Wayne as Ethan Edwards

 

I’ve been a fan of John Wayne movies since I was a kid. Back then, it seemed like every Sunday afternoon had one or two westerns on television, and his always seemed to be the ones that stuck with me. Across all my favorites, Rio Bravo, The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit, there was comfort in knowing that the Duke would always be playing some variation of the same character. Simultaneously stoic and sarcastic, he was always in control, calm on the outside but quick to draw his pistol when needed to defend himself or others. He valued honor and family above all else. He was a hero in every respect. What he never did was play the villain. Well, almost never.

I don’t remember The Searchers from my youth, though it might have been lost to the back of my mind because it didn’t fit with all the others. Oh sure, many of the John Wayne western tropes are here. It is, after all, ostensibly about a man’s search for his niece (Natalie Wood) who has been kidnapped by a Comanche chief named Scar (Henry Brandon). There are beautiful western vistas, gunfights, disdain for authority, and the ever-present John Wayne swagger. Ethan Edwards is nothing like any of Wayne’s other characters, though. From the beginning of the film, he is set up to be the most unsympathetic of leads. He’s a former Confederate soldier* who never officially surrendered and presumably spent the three years since the end of the Civil War committing crimes that have netted him a tidy sum of Union gold. He spends the better part of the film angry with everyone around him, yelling at, punching, and kicking friend and foe alike. He leers at his sister-in-law in a way that is so lecherous, I wondered if his nephew might not be his son. And let’s not tiptoe around the main issue; he is a horrible racist.

It’s not clear where Ethan’s hatred of Native Americans in general, and Comanches in particular, comes from, but it is strong and deep. Early on, he and a group of Texas Rangers come across a Comanche buried in a shallow grave. Ethan promptly shoots out both of the corpses eyes. Why? Not because he believes, as the Comanche do, that doing so will cause the dead man’s spirit to wander aimlessly forever, but because they believe it will. That’s some next-level hatred right there. By the third act, he’s advocating murder as a proper remedy for a woman who has slept with a Comanche. He not only views them as subhuman, but as able to infect white women with this condition. People who watched this in 1956 would rightly have been uncomfortable with the parallels between this and civil-rights era racism and lynch mobs. I only wish more had been done with this premise.

Sadly, the film spends 95% of its running time painting Ethan as a contemptible anti-hero, so much so it is implausible when he eventually has a change of heart. I think a more modern movie, focused on character development, would’ve shown a gradual progression as Ethan started questioning his beliefs for some external reason, became conflicted, and eventually saw the error of his ways. Instead, he is an absolutely horrible person with almost no redeeming value right up until the moment the plot requires him not to be, at which point he turns on a dime and never looks back. It’s not unlike the scene where Ethan’s nephew (Jeffrey Hunter) sneaks into a teepee at night only to emerge a few minutes later in broad daylight because that’s what’s required at the moment. Both were equally incongruous and jarring.

It was good to see John Wayne portraying a character different than what I was used to. I only wish he’d had more of a character arc rather than the abrupt turnaround with no explanation. Also worth mentioning is that this film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Director John Ford really knew how to bring the majesty of the Old West to life. Watching this at home on Blu-ray was just striking. I’d like to see it on the big screen some day if it ever makes the theatrical rounds again. One thing I absolutely don’t understand is how this went from #96 on the AFI’s 1997 list to #12 on the 2007 update. That’s a jump of eighty-four places, far more than any other film on the list.

 

* Yes, Rooster Cogburn was also a former Confederate, but it he seems to have made his peace with their defeat in a way that Ethan Edwards has not.

 

Up next in the queue, 1967′s The Graduate, in which our hero finds out what so important about plastics.

 

Click here for an Index of my AFI Top 100 movie reviews.

AFI Top 100: High Noon (1952)

The eighth in a series reviewing the American Film Institute Top 100 in random order.

High Noon poster at doctormacro.com

“You’re a good-looking boy. You’ve big, broad shoulders. But he’s a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.” – Katy Jurado as Helen Ramirez

 

Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has it made at the beginning of High Noon. He’s just married the young and beautiful (and Quaker) Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) and once he hangs up his badge and gun, they’re off to start a new life together as shopkeepers in another town or some such. There’s only one problem. Frank Miller, a crazed killer Will helped put away years ago has just gotten released on parole and he’s on his way to town. He’ll be arriving on the noon train, and everyone knows he’s got revenge on his mind. Against all advice, Will decides to stay and fight.

What follows is a Western that plays out in realtime, though without most of the traditional Western tropes. There are no sweeping vistas, no face-to-face showdowns in the street, and thankfully, no singing sidekick. [Look, I love Rio Bravo as much as the next guy, but Ricky Nelson's presence in that film is just unforgivable.] Most of the film unfolds as Will tries to raise a posse to fight off Miller and his gang. Despite everything he’s done for the town over the years, taking it from a rough place where women can’t walk the streets alone to a place where one can safely raise a family, there aren’t many folks willing to lay down their lives for what they perceive to be certain death. Except for Jimmy, the one-eyed drunk, of course. Through it all, Will remains stoic, going about his duty, refusing to run away, even when doing so would make the most sense.

This is a good film, though I wouldn’t describe it as exciting. It’s more of a meditation on duty and courage. Cooper embodies both of those, sometimes to a foolish degree. It’s one thing for a marshal approaching his twilight years to bravely stay and fight for what he thinks is right. But are we really to believe that when Amy demands that he leave with her, just a few minutes after their wedding, that he’d essentially say, “Sorry, babe, but the job I just quit is more important than you are”? I doubt it. In this way, I think Will’s tale is best viewed as melodrama, where the heightened emotion is an unwavering sense of duty. As a sort of cinematic ValueTale about doing what’s right, it works well, though I don’t know that I’d be that interested in watching it again. Apart from the one gunfight, that plays out more realistically than you’d see in most Westerns, there just isn’t enough going on here for a guy raised on more action-oriented fare.

 

Up next in the queue, 1956′s The Searchers, in which our hero wonders how big a racist you have to be to shoot dead Indians in the eyes.

 

Click here for an Index of my AFI Top 100 movie reviews.

AFI Top 100: The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The seventh in a series reviewing the American Film Institute Top 100 in random order.

The Philadelphia Story poster from http://images.moviepostershop.com

“Aw, you don’t look old enough to get married, not even the first time, but then you never did. She needs trouble to mature her, Kittredge. Give her lots of it.” – Cary Grant as C. K. Dexter Haven

 

I had my doubts about whether a romantic comedy from 1940 set among the wealthy would still hold up after all these years. After all, what lessons could possibly be gleaned from watching a group of socialites fret about what to canapés to serve at a posh, upper-crust wedding? I’m happy to report that high society, apart from being the impetus for getting James Stewart‘s working-class voice into the film, plays little more of a role than just providing the setting. The situations the characters find themselves in and the emotions that result could be told again today about any class of people with very little re-imagining.

Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn, reprising the role she played on Broadway) has divorced her first husband, C. K. Dexter Haven (the supremely charming Cary Grant) and two years later, is about to marry the self-made George Kittredge (John Howard). Haven has other plans, though, and enlists the help of writer-turned reporter Macaulay Conner (Stewart) to disrupt the event. What follows might seem like a comedic love triangle of sorts, though being released squarely in the meat of the Hays Code years, about the most lascivious thing you see is Stewart carrying Hepburn, both dressed in floor-length terry cloth robes, away from a pool while singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. The nice thing about the film is that it really does belong to Hepburn. She’s the lynchpin that holds the whole thing together, and not for once are we ever left doubting what each of her three would-be suitors see in her. She is so legitimately charming, she’s able to carry this movie having us believe she’s the object of Cary Grant’s, James Stewart’s, and John Howard’s affections.

And speaking of James Stewart, he really was a treat in this. After just having watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (which was released the year before), it was good to see he’d lost most of his doe-eyed innocence and even managed to pick up some cynicism, a drinking habit, and a mean, populist streak. I was beginning to wonder what it was Alfred Hitchcock saw in him that made him so right for the movies they eventually made together. After seeing him play a bit of a more believable, three-dimensional character here, I’m anxiously looking forward to watching them again as part of this series.

Back to the film, it’s interesting that each of these men has fallen in love with certain aspects of Hepburn’s character, and to be honest, she doesn’t make it easy to root for any of them consistently. She can be a little flighty, and perhaps didn’t have the best parental examples when she was growing up. But she’s a strong, independent woman who’s pretty sure she deserves to be loved for whom she is, not who her suitors want her to be. And that’s a lesson that women (or men, for that matter) can learn, no matter what time period or social class or city they live in.

 

Up next in the queue, 1952′s High Noon, in which our hero wonders what the hell Ronald Reagan was talking about.

 

Click here for an Index of my AFI Top 100 movie reviews.