AFI #77: All the President’s Men

I was 10 year’s old when All the President’s Men came out and I remember going to see it with my family at the Campus Drive-in on El Cajon Blvd. in San Diego. I know it may be hard to believe, but the film had a major impact on me even at that young age. I knew then I wanted to be a journalist. Over 30 years have gone by and I’ve probably seen the film a dozen times or so, and each time I am glued to the action as if I had no idea of the outcome. Watching it yesterday was no different — it is undoubtedly one of my all-time favorite movies. But as a bonus, this time Connor watched it with me and he loved it! How cool is that?

It seems to me that Watergate marked a critical turning point in American politics. I’m sure we knew politics wasn’t all pretty, but when the events of the break-in and cover up came to light in such a public way America lost its innocence about just how corrupt government can be. If you look back at the record, Nixon wasn’t such a bad president — he was just a bad person. In the nearly 40 years since Watergate we have come to expect that politics is a dirty game played by people who most likely don’t have our country’s best interests in mind. Reagan began to divide us along ideological terms, Bush continued his legacy, Clinton created  a mockery of the office with his sexual exploits, Bush Jr. used the office to advance his personal agendas and now a weak and vision-less Obama presides over a fully corrupt government that can’t even agree on what to disagree on. At least during Watergate Americans pretty much agreed on the fact that Nixon was a crook. But looking back the frat boy antics of Watergate seem like child’s play compared to going to war without cause, purposely dividing the nation along class and moral boundaries and bailing out special interests. Should we long for the days of Watergate?

All the President’s Men is wonderful because it’s a great detective film, with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. And of course it’s even more compelling because it is based on fact rather than fiction. It features great acting and powerful moments of realization. It also features some very cool directing by Alan Pakula, especially in the way he weaves in real footage. I love, for example, the scene where Woodward and Bernstein are working alone in the newsroom while the rest of the staff are gathered around the TVs watching Nixon being sworn in for a second term. The Nixon swearing-in is real footage which makes the scene feel even more real. Pakula does this several times during the film and it’s very unique. And of course the film is chock full of great performances by Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Warden, Hal Holbrook and more. Interestingly only Jason Robards, for his portrayal of Ben Bradlee,  won the Oscar. In fact, All the President’s Men didn’t win for Best Picture. It was nominated along with Rocky, Network, Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory. That’s a hell of a year for film — Rocky won by the way!

All the President’s Men made journalism seem important and romantic. It was a noble calling. I remember reading David Halbertam’s The Powers that Be in college and thinking being a journalist was one of the most important jobs in the country. How many of us feel that way today? Journalism itself has fallen victim to the times of division. We either watch Fox or MSNBC. We believe the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but not both. Local news has become nothing more than the crime report and a vehicle for advertisements. The Internet has given us the ability to read more news than ever, but none of it has any teeth — the lie of “balance” has given way to articles with no heart and mind. The Fourth Estate has become just another tool for the corporatocracy.

Regardless of how you feel about journalism, All the President’s Men surely harkens back to a different time. It’s a great film and an important film. And just like then, today if you want to know who is in charge of things all you have to do is what Deep Throat said to Bob Woodward — follow the money!

Next Up: Forrest Gump

AFI #78: Modern Times

When it comes to a film that was made in 1936, the natural question that comes to mind is does it hold up almost 80 years later. I’m happy to say that Modern Times definitely stands the test of time. Charlie Chaplin was brilliant, and not only did he star in the film he also wrote it, directed it and wrote the damn score. Chaplin is one of the most talented men in the history of the motion picture business.

In 1936 the country was in the throes of a depression and about to enter World War II. Modern Times tells the story of a factory worker who is unable to keep up with the demands of the “modern day” American worker and who accidentally gets caught up in the labor movement while trying to simply provide for himself. He befriends a young woman who is living on the streets due to unfortunate circumstances and together they try to find work and carve out a little piece of the American dream — a dream that in 1936 was pretty hard to come by. Chaplin’s tale is a social commentary, but it also makes you laugh out loud. It’s funny because it is a silent film, but that never bothered me because the action was great and the acting was well done. The story was pretty universal as well so I knew what was going on without the dialogue, which is a testament to Chaplin’s brilliance. I bet 1936 audiences were riveted by the film.

If you’ve never seen a full Charlie Chaplin film I highly recommend it. Modern Times is one of two Chaplin films in the AFI top 100 (the other is City Lights at which comes in at #11). I’m really looking forward to that one because if it’s even better than Modern Times it’s going to be excellent. I had never seen a complete Chaplin film, although I did very much enjoy the Robert Downey Jr. biopic so I felt like I knew a lot about Chaplin’s life. But you just can’t fully understand the guy’s abilities until you see him in action. He was a very physical comedian, but he could also make you laugh with the raise of an eyebrow or a look in his eye. Could you imagine any of today’s comedic actors trying to make us laugh without speaking? Maybe Jim Carrey could pull it off but that’s about it.

Chaplin is an icon and a key figure in the history of American film making. He also co-founded United Artists back in 1919 and it is still a pivotal part of the film industry. Amazing man.

Up Next: All The President’s Men (one of my all-time favorites!)

‘Hanna’ is a Bad Ass

I wanted to see Hanna when it came out in theaters earlier this year but didn’t get to it, so this weekend we watched it on demand. Man was it ever worth the $5. I absolutely loved this film.

Hanna is the story of a 16-year-old girl who was raised by her father to be an assassin. As the story unfolds we find out why, and the story is really compelling. The plan is set loose with Hanna out for revenge on a CIA agent with a dark secret. The plan doesn’t exactly go as hoped, so Hanna is forced to journey on her own to meet back up with her father. The action is great as Hanna works her way toward her father with hired killers on her tail.

Hanna reminded me so much of two of my favorite films — The Professional and La Femme Nikita. Like Luc Besson, who directed those films, Hanna director Joe Wright understands how to get the viewers heart racing. The film is exciting from start to finish, and even during the slower scenes Wright keeps the intensity up using heart-thumping techno music from The Chemical Brothers. The music adds to the overall feel of the film — it has a real French feel even though Wright is British. If you’re not familiar with Wright, you might be interested to know his two films prior to Hanna were The Soloist with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. and Atonement, a Best Picture nominee in 2008 (I thought it was indeed the best film that year even though No Country For Old Men took home the Oscar).

Also in 2008 the 13-year-old actress from Atonement, Saoirse Ronan, was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress for her performance. Wright knows a good thing when he sees it, so he cast Ronan as Hanna and she delivers big time. Her portrayal of the young assassin is so intense, but at the same time she can be so tender and reminds you that she is only 16 despite the fact that she was raised to kill. If you remember Ronan from Atonement you’ll undoubtedly remember those searing eyes. Those eyes should get a best supporting actress nomination themselves! The sky is the limit for Ronan, who also starred in The Lovely Bones in 2009 which I didn’t see but will add to my list.

Not to be outdone by the young Ronan, the villain in the film is played to perfection by Cate Blanchett. Always amazing, Blanchett plays a creepy CIA agent with a southern accent who knows Hanna’s secret and must kill her to hide it from the world. Eric Bana plays the father and he does a great job letting Ronan and Blanchett do their thing.

I was really blown away by this film and now I can’t wait for Wright’s next release, a new adaptation of Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law. Wright is brilliant. Hanna could have been so cliché, but he delivers by creating an unmistakable European mood pumped up by the techno music and the intensity of his actors. Bravo!

AFI #79: The Wild Bunch

I like a good western as much as the next guy, in fact I count several among my all-time favorites (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Magnificent Seven for example). The fact that The Wild Bunch made the top 100 plus the DVD case said it was one of the best westerns ever made, I was expecting to really enjoy the film. So much for hype. I got about 35 minutes into the film and couldn’t take it any more…

I think there is something about the late 60s and film making that I just don’t get. I think directors like Sam Peckinpah and Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider which I really disliked) were either stoned or simply trying too hard to be different that they forgot about the fact that films still need a story to be interesting. The Wild Bunch was so slow and the acting was so over-the-top Western camp that it hurt to watch. I’m sure this film was considered “different” when it came out because it wasn’t a John Wayne/Gary Cooper type western, but it was just flat out dull.

Next: Modern Times

Magical Realism on the Shores of Japan

I don’t tend to give out five-star ratings very lightly; in fact, the only book I’ve read this year that was worthy of five stars was Cloud Atlas. Until now. This morning I finished Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and it was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long, long time. 460 pages hasn’t gone by so fast in a while! Murakami’s novel came out in 2002 in Japan but was released in the U.S. in English a few years later. I had heard of the book, and the author, but I hadn’t read it nor anything by Murakami. I guess I had some preconceived notion based on stereotype that Japanese novels were always about World War II or Geisha girls and what not, but of course like any cliché that couldn’t be further from the truth. Kafka on the Shore is a brilliant novel that crosses multiple genres and takes the reader on a strange journey that would make Franz Kafka himself proud.

The novel tells the story of 15-year-old Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home to escape his father, a famous sculptor and possibly a mad cat-killing psycho. The other protagonist is Satoru Nakata, a 60-year-old man who lost most of his intelligence after a strange flash in the sky during World War II and who as a result can talk to cats and make it rain fish. The two are connected but never meet, and in the spirit of the magical realism of the novel may in fact be the same person! Nakata is also on a journey, having killed Kafka’s father (maybe, or perhaps it was Kafka acting through Nakata). Kafka ends up in a quiet beach town where he may or may not have discovered his mother and sister, both of whom abandoned him and his father when Kafka was four. Nakata is not so much running from the murder charges as much as he’s running toward an event that may set him free from his chains and potentially shed light on Kafka’s life story. Along the way we meet strange characters like a pimp dressed up like Colonel Sanders, a pair of Japanese soldiers from World War II who have not aged and who guard the entrance to a magical place that may be the gateway to heaven (or hell), and a transgender librarian who helps Kafka discover his place in the world. Oh yeah, Kafka may also be sleeping with his mother and gets a hand job from a teenage girl who may be his sister. Can you see why Kafka on the Shore has been compared to a Greek tragedy and a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel?

Murakami’s novel is certainly Kafkaesque, but it’s also tender and funny and inspiring. Both Kafka Tamura and Satoru Nakata are honorable and empathetic characters who as a reader you can’t help but root for. Kafka has clearly had a troubled childhood and his father didn’t help matters. When he runs away from home he is searching for himself as well as his mother and sister and like any coming of age story the trials he goes through, both mental and physical, shape his future in a positive way. Nakata is a tragic character because he is dumb and lives on a “sub city” from the “Governor” as he says. But he’s also a strong character because he is unselfish and good (he kills the mysterious cat killer only to save the lives of other cats he has befriended and because the man encourages him to kill him). But for me it’s the magical realism that makes the story so amazing. The reader never really knows what is real and what is not in the story. Some of the characters and events may or may not be what they appear to be, and may even be figments of Kafka’s imagination. These mysteries do not ultimately reveal themselves but rather the reader is left to ponder them at the conclusion of the book. In fact, after the novel was published Murakami put up a website for readers to ask questions and it received more than 8,000!

Kafka on the Shore is the kind of novel that reaffirms why I love reading so much. I literally couldn’t put down my Nook and several times fell asleep on the sofa reading because I didn’t want to put it down and go to bed. I highly recommend it, especially if you like magical realism, and even if you have no idea what magical realism is this novel is a great introduction to it. As for me, expect to  see a whole bunch of Murakami books added to my “to-read” list.