AFI #80: The Apartment

If you’re like me and you love Mad Men you really owe it to yourself to see The Apartment, the 1961 Academy Award winner for Best Picture. The film has to be the inspiration for the popular TV series, either that or Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner is the reincarnation of director Billy Wilder. The comparisons are numerous.

The Apartment is about a low-level employee at a big insurance company (played by Jack Lemmon) who has found an interesting way to get ahead — he loans out his apartment to company executives to use for their extramarital trysts. Everything seems to be going fine until one of the executives messes with the gal he has a little crush on. It’s a romantic dramedy set in 1960s Manhattan.

The film is classic Billy Wilder, who also directed such great films as Some Like it Hot and Sunset Boulevard (both of which rank high on the AFI list). What sets The Apartment apart for me is the wonderful and quick-witted dialogue and the spot-on performance by Lemmon. While Lemmon did not win the Oscar for his role (he lost to Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry) he was superb and was recognized with a Golden Globe. Lemmon was brilliant in so many roles, and for me he’ll always be The Odd Couple’s Felix Unger, but I’ll now add his portrayal of bachelor C.C. Baxter to the list of his memorable characters.

Shirley MacLaine was also nominated for an Oscar for her work in The Apartment (she lost out to Elizabeth Taylor), and her adorable elevator operator Fran Kubelik was nicely done. Fred MacMurray plays the awful head of “personnel” who is the Don Draper of the film. I have always equated MacMurray to his role as the perfect dad on My Three Sons so it was weird for me to see him as a womanizing ass.

The office scenes in The Apartment were pure Mad Men. The women were all secretaries and sleeping with the executives. The executives were always smoking and drinking and cheating on their wives. One secretary is even fired after spilling the beans on MacMurray’s affair (apparently sexual harassment wasn’t a legal issue in 1960). It’s a very enjoyable film and a real throwback to a time that seems like generations ago but wasn’t really all that long ago. Definitely worth seeing.

Next up: The Wild Bunch

AFI #81: Spartacus

The term epic is defined as heroic, majestic, impressively great. An epic motion picture is one that spans generations like The Godfather or one that is grand in scope and story. Spartacus is without question an epic motion picture, and not just because it’s more than three hours long. Typically an epic also involves a hero who achieves greatness and for me the character Spartacus embodies the term. And while Spartacus the film is perhaps an hour or so too long, Spartacus the character is one of the greatest in film history.

The film was made in 1960 and directed by Stanley Kubrick who would go on to make such classic films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and The Shining. Until Spartacus I think the epics were a bit corny and it’s easy for me to compare Spartacus to Ben Hur (which readers of this blog will remember I did not like). While Ben Hur (#100 on the AFI list) was poorly acted and the plot was ridiculous, Spartacus kicks it up a notch with tremendous acting by Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov (who won an Oscar for his role). The plot tells the story of the Roman slave Spartacus, who leads a slave uprising and eventually takes on the Roman army in a deadly battle for freedom. And while the story doesn’t end well for the slaves, I like the realism there and of course the legend of Spartacus becomes more powerful than the life itself. I wasn’t around in 1960, but I bet Spartacus was considered trailblazing in its time. Just think…only a few years later Kubrick made Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange. These were not simple Hollywood stories, but rather the start of a new era of film making and it’s easy to see why Kubrick was so influential.

I am surprised Spartacus didn’t even get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, even though it won the Golden Globe for best picture. Awards (and lists like AFI for that matter) are so darn subjective. Interestingly, the film that did win the best picture Oscar that year (The Apartment) is next on the AFI list so I’ll get an immediate comparison.

Kind of lost in the story is the fact that it’s based on actual history. Spartacus lived from around 109-71 B.C. and did indeed lead a slave rebellion against the Romans. In fact, Spartacus himself is referenced throughout literature, film and pop culture and is often considered one of the greatest heroes in human history. It’s interesting that so many of our heroes are forced into action because of oppression. I suppose the reason I’m not a hero, for example, is because I have such an easy life in comparison to men and women like Ghandi, Joan of Arc and MLK. I wonder if being a hero is something we’re all born with but it only comes out in dire circumstances? Hope I never have to find out if I am Spartacus!

Next up: The Apartment

AFI #82: Sunrise

Well, it was bound to happen. I’m nearly 20 movies in to my countdown and I finally had my first “WTF” moment. I can’t believe Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is on any list of top films let alone the AFI list of the 100 best American films of all time. I have nothing against so-called classics. And I don’t even mind silent films — I enjoy a good Charlie Chaplin flick and understand the cinematic importance of early films like The Birth of a Nation and Battleship Potemkin.  In a 2002 critics’ poll for the British Film Institute, Sunrise was even named the seventh-best film in the history of motion pictures. I get that it was 1927 and technically the film was a first in many areas. I just don’t care — the film was ridiculous.

Here’s the entire plot (SPOILER ALERT!): A married man who lives in the country has an affair with a sexy woman from the city. The vixen tries to convince him to kill his wife so he can run off to the city with her. The next day he takes his wife on a boat ride and as he’s about to reach over and strangle her he has a change of heart. The boat docks on the shore and when she gets off she runs to a cable car…he follows…and they end up in the city. He continues to follow her until they end up at a wedding, at which the man breaks down and cries, begging his wife for forgiveness. She forgives him, and then they gallavant around the city — he gets a shave and then they take a photo — then they go to a carnival where they dance and eat a fancy meal. On the way back to the country a freak storm hits and capsizes the boat and in the morning he ends up on shore and thinks his wife is dead. A search party confirms her body is lost. The city woman is thrilled and comes over to grab her man, but he is furious and tries to kill her! Just when he’s about to snap her neck the wife is miraculously found alive. The man and wife live happily ever after and the city woman presumably slinks back to the city.

It’s a silly premise, but even more than that the guy is an ass. First, he cheats on his wife. Then, within one 24 hour period he tried to kill his wife and his mistress. And his wife forgives him FOR TRYING TO KILL HER and then moments later is all lovey dovey. It’s so unbelievable that even if it is a landmark in cinematography I could care less because the plot had me shaking my head from start to finish. This is one of those “classics” that gets listed as a “best of” based on pure industry snobbery and high brow artistic B.S.

Next Up: Spartacus!

AFI #83: Titanic

I have to admit that when I began this strange journey there were a couple of films that I didn’t want to see again and Titanic was right near the top of the list. I remember seeing it when it came out and thinking it was a silly love story and then the hype around it made it seem even more unbearable. Titanic is the second-highest grossing movie of all time, behind Avatar (nice work Mr. Cameron). But what really made me hate the film was that damn Celine Dion song!

Well, the memory does play some funny tricks on us. I think all this time I have been selling this film short. Watching it with my son yesterday I really enjoyed it, and even the 11-year-old special effects were pretty awesome. Plus, I kind of forgot all about the cool imagery of the underwater Titanic shot by Cameron and the amazing reproduction of the ship itself. I think I read somewhere that Cameron paid so much attention to detail that even the ship’s china was a realistic replica of what was on the actual Titanic.

The other thing I really liked about the film was the performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, my favorite actor. He made Jack Dawson into a compelling character with a youthful spirit that was both exciting to watch and I think true to the time period. The film also was the first major film for Kate Winslet (following Heavenly Creatures and Sense & Sensibility) and she was simply stunning in the film. I think she’s a great actress, but I don’t find her attractive anymore because every time I see her she seems to be smoking and that’s a huge turnoff!

The real star of the film though is the ship, both the scale model and the actual Titanic. The wreckage shots at the beginning of the film are real, shot by Cameron and a crew from the Russian ship Akademik Mstislav Keldysh. It’s incredible to see those shots and then when Cameron fades into his reproduction it’s as if you are literally travelling back in time. The scale model was built off the coast of Rosarito, Mexico where Cameron shot the external and disaster scenes. The massive scale of the shots of the ship breaking in half and sinking are awe-inspiring.

Yes, the love story is hokey. And (Spoiler alert) when that old lady throws the diamond overboard at the end I wanted to scream! But the special effects and period work makes it all worthwhile.

Next Up: Sunrise (a silent film from 1927)

Spotify After One Month — A Review

Sitting here listening to The Decemberists on Spotify, I realized it has been about a month since the Swedish import landed on American shores. The interwebs have been jam-packed with reviews, some enthusiastic and some…well…not so much. I really am not in the mood to discuss the  music business or the future model for which musicians will or will not be appropriately paid for their work. I simply like listening to music and I have a few thoughts on Spotify after a month. So here goes.

The Positive

  • The most obvious place to start is with the selection of music available on the service. Holy crap! Spotify has millions of albums from every genre and frankly it’s a bit overwhelming. I have tried to “stump the band” and so far Spotify has won most every time. In fact, of all the artists I’ve searched for I can only think of one that wasn’t available — Arcade Fire. I’m sure I will find more as I look around, but the selection is incredible. Additionally, I have found a bunch of relatively obscure albums and some different versions of albums that are not readily available on purchase sites like Amazon and iTunes.
  • On the technology side, Spotify impresses. I have the application running on my Mac at home, my PC at work and my iPhone and the music streams seamlessly and the apps work great. I was worried the mobile app might lose connection to the service, but so far I’ve had very few interruptions whether I’m listening in the car or at the gym. In fact, since I loaded the iPhone app I haven’t listened to anything but Spotify and love it. I can see where I might want to listen to a radio style app now and then, so I don’t have any plans to kill Pandora, but if Spotify adds a radio-like service Pandora will be in deep shit. I understand Spotify has a feature called “search operators” which allows you to create playlists based on various search terms but I have not yet had the chance to try that. I have been so obsessed with listening to bands I like that I haven’t had time to explore the playlists feature at all.
  • I have been running a one-month free trial of Spotify premium so I’ve been able to use the mobile app and that has made all the difference. In order to get the full Spotify experience you really have to have the top-of-the-line service which truly lets you listen to anything, anytime, anywhere. But at $10 per month it’s a no brainer…I am definitely going to subscribe once my trial ends.
  • Along with listening to my favorites, and digging up some blasts from the past, one great side benefit of Spotify is that I have been able to explore full albums by bands I had heard about but hadn’t heard beyond a single or two. A good example is the latest from Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi. I had heard the song “Two Against One” with Jack White on vocals, but I wanted to hear the whole album and certainly didn’t want to buy it based on one song. I called up the album on Spotify, listened to it all the way through, and it’s amazing. So I starred it and now I can listen to it whenever I want. And I didn’t have to buy it. Cool.

The Negative

  • I’m unimpressed with the way you organize the albums and songs you like in Spotify. I am used to iTunes, where I can easily sort through my music by artist, genre, album or song and hit play. Spotify may have millions of albums and songs, but the interface is awkward for keeping music you like and want to listen to often. The service lets you “star” songs or albums you like, and you can click to see your starred music, but it’s not easily sortable. They have work to do here.
  • I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but so far the hardest part of using Spotify has been deciding what to listen to. I’ve literally sat in my car for minutes before driving off trying to think of what to queue up. The application does not make for good browsing, so you have to search through the invisible music bin in your mind to choose what to play. It’s harder than you think! One thing I love about iTunes is that it’s tailor-made for browsing and then choosing what to play. The browsing process helps me decide what to play and I miss that with Spotify. To solve this issue, I have tried to think about what I’d like to hear before I get in the car or get on the treadmill, but even that is tough because there are so many choices. I know…tough problem to have!
  • I’m not really sure what to do with the social pieces of Spotify. On the right side of the app I can see all of my friends who also have Spotify, and I can see what they are listening to and can “subscribe” to any of their playlists and listen to them. I haven’t fully explored this part of Spotify yet and haven’t even made a single playlist of my own yet. I am sure I’ll figure out the value once I play around more. Also, from my PC at work I’ve clicked on the social share feature a few times, which is supposed to post what I’m listening to on Facebook or Twitter, but each time I’ve tried that it hasn’t worked. Might be a work firewall issue though so I’ll have to try it at home or on the mobile app.
  • The home page sucks. It profiles only a handful of new releases and does not offer a “since you like X you might like X” feature. Amazon does this well, but Spotify is seriously missing the boat on promoting artists and helping users find new music they might like.

Overall I have to say I love Spotify and I’m sure they will address some of my minor complaints in the future. But truthfully, for $10 per month it’s the musical steal of the century. I’m hooked.

AFI #84: Easy Rider

I think I know why Baby Boomers voted this film into the top 100 — they were clearly stoned when they watched it and everything seems more interesting when you are high (or so I’ve been told). Easy Rider is so typical of the 60s in that it was friggin overrated! I couldn’t believe how awful this film was after believing the hype that it was some kind of mystical representation of the 60s counterculture. I call bullshit.

This is how the film is billed: Two counterculture bikers travel from Los Angeles to New Orleans in search of America. I don’t think they were searching for America at all. No, they weren’t searching for anything, rather they were just riding their choppers to New Orleans. Along the way they meet some other hippies, they pick up a confused lawyer, then — spoiler alert — everyone gets killed. The most unbelievable part is that even though the characters barely spoke in the film (and when they did they said “dude” and “groovy” a lot) the film was nominated for an Oscar in 1969 for best screenplay. Clearly the Academy voters were stoned as well. Seriously, I understand the 60s were a time for dropping out and experimenting with drugs and all that counterculture crap — but this flick was anything but groovy dude. If you remember liking it, try seeing it again without the influence of drugs and I’m sure you’ll agree with me that it’s much ado about nothing.

Next Up: Titanic

AFI #85: A Night at the Opera

There’s a moment in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters in which Woody’s character is having an existential crisis and contemplates killing himself. As he wanders around New York, he stumbles into a random movie theater and it turns out the film playing is a Marx Brothers film. After a few minutes, Woody starts laughing and realizes that it’s the little moments — like enjoying a Marx Brothers film — that makes life worth living. He is so right.

I’m going to just go ahead and say it: if you don’t think the Marx Brothers are funny you are not a member of the human race. The Marx Brothers pretty much invented comedy, and not just slapstick humor but really clever comedy that keeps you on your toes. From Groucho’s word play to Harpo’s physical humor to Chico’s dim-witted “everyman” it’s all amazing and it leaves you in stitches. I had seen A Night at the Opera in the past, but that didn’t stop me from laughing out loud several times as I watched it again on my flight to Pittsburgh on Monday. The woman sitting next to me smiled each time I let loose a guffaw and it was probably louder than I thought because I was wearing a headset. I have to provide a clip for you because if you haven’t seen this you’ll crack up and even if you have you’ll be reminded how great these films are. Here’s a classic scene from A Night at the Opera:

A Night at the Opera was made in 1935 and it’s as funny today as it was back then. You know that saying that sometimes you have to stop and smell the roses? The Marx Brothers are the roses! Do yourself a favor and make some time in your life for A Night at the Opera or another classic Marx Brothers film.

Next up: Easy Rider