AFI #57: Rocky

I was 10 years old when Rocky came out in 1976 and it had a huge impact on me. It’s hard to believe that it was more than 35 years ago, but what is really cool is that the film still has cultural relevance. For one, it’s a quintessential underdog story that is referenced still when someone defeats huge odds to succeed whether in sports, politics or just in life. The story also speaks to the American dream of someday rising above your station in life to make it big, something politicians still allude to today when trying to sell their vision for America. And of course, watching it during the NCAA tournament makes you root even harder for the 15 seeds of the world.

Rocky doesn’t always get a lot of credit for being a great film though…and I think that’s a shame. Yes, it won the 1977 Academy Award for Best Picture, and of course it made this list, but people think of it as a sports movie and it’s really not. In fact, watching it again (for the umpteenth time) I was struck by how few boxing scenes the film includes. The entire bout between Rocky and Apollo Creed took up less than 15 minutes of the film’s 120 minutes. The rest of the film is about Rocky’s struggle prior to getting his shot at the title and his awkward but endearing pursuit of Adrian. This is an everyman who is just trying to get by in life, looking for a way to make a few bucks (legal and otherwise) and looking for a person to share it with. This is really evident in the scene just prior to the fight when he tells Adrian that he doesn’t think he can beat Apollo, but that it’s ok because all he wants to do is go the distance and that in and of itself will prove to him that he has some worth. It was never about winning for Rocky — it was about his own strength and fortitude to survive. A lot of fans didn’t like the fact that Rocky doesn’t win the fight against Apollo, but it was never about winning. I think that’s a mistake a lot of people make when thinking about this film, or other underdog situations (nobody really thinks Lehigh is going to win the NCAA basketball championship, and that’s okay, because simply by doing their best they got through the first round and that’s a huge win on its own).

Rocky is also about great performances, none better than Sylvester Stallone’s. Sure, his legacy will be that of an action hero with little talent, but he’ll always have Rocky as proof that he can not only act, but he can write a hell of a screenplay. He was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Rocky, and he was nominated for writing the screenplay as well (a feat only Charlie Chaplin for The Great Dictator and Orson Welles for Citizen Kane accomplished before him). Talia Shire was also wonderful in her Oscar nominated role as the shy Adrian, and Burgess Meredith and Burt Young were also nominated for their roles. It’s rare for a film to have such a recognized ensemble cast at Oscar time and that’s a tribute to great writing and directing.

Of course, Rocky is also memorable for its score (which ironically was not nominated). There are few films in American history that are as connected to music as is Rocky. Anytime you hear that music you think back to the film, and every time you think of an underdog you can almost hear the score in your head. Bill Conti made a name for himself in Hollywood with the score, but it also earned him a hit on the Billboard music chart when Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky) reached #1 in July of 1977. Turn it up loud and enjoy:

Back to that 10-year-old kid in 1976 — I watched the Academy Awards from our apartment in San Diego that night rooting for Rocky to take home the prize, an underdog not only in theme but for the Oscar going up against the likes of All The President’s Men, Taxi Driver, Network and Bound for Glory and just like in the film the underdog surprised everyone. I think I became a huge movie fan that very night…and I know I played the hell out of the soundtrack (which of course we owned on 8-track) that whole year!

Next up: Jaws

AFI #58: The Gold Rush

The Gold Rush is the second Charlie Chaplin silent film on the AFI Top 100 list and there’s yet one more down the line. This one finds our hero the little tramp on the Alaskan frontier trying to make it big during the gold rush. This one is really slow for my money and not nearly as funny as Modern Times and I suspect not nearly as good as City Lights (at least I hope). I really don’t see why AFI had to include three Chaplin films in the list since they are all pretty much the same. But hey, it’s not my list.

I got bored with The Gold Rush and gave up after an hour.

Next Up: Rocky

AFI #59: Nashville

I have a love/hate relationship with the late director Robert Altman. On the one hand, he made some films I really loved including MASH, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Fool For Love and one of my all-time favorites The Player. On the other hand, he also made some piles of dung including Popeye, Dr. T and the Women and Pret-a-Porter. He made Short Cuts, in which he pretty much ruined some of my favorite Raymond Carver short stories and gave us full frontal nudity by both Julianne Moore (thank you) and Huey Lewis (yuck). And then there was Nashville, which I watched for the first time this weekend. Nashville makes the AFI list, as does MASH. How can the AFI be so inconsistent?

For me, Nashville was 159 minutes of WTF! I can’t say I hated it, but I definitely didn’t like it. Again, we find ourselves in the early 70s where for some reason film directors feel compelled to shock and confuse us with so-called art. Nashville revolves around a handful of people in Nashville over the course of several days. The characters are interconnected, but it’s not always clear how or why. There’s the aging country singer trying to stay relevant. There’s a television producer working on a concert for a non-traditional presidential candidate (we see vans for the candidate throughout the film and hear his ramblings over a loud speaker but never see him). There’s a gospel singer with two deaf kids and a husband who has political aspirations. There’s a BBC reporter wandering around town interviewing everyone she thinks is important. There’s a young hippie woman visiting home from Los Angeles. There’s a guy who shows up in town to make it in the music business. There’s a woman hiding from her husband also trying to make it in the music business. There’s a beautiful but untalented singer trying to make it in the music business. There’s a young rock band on the verge of breakup. There’s a famous country singer teetering on the edge of sanity. And of course there’s Jeff Goldblum riding around on a three-wheel motorcycle picking up and dropping people off for no apparent reason. You get the idea — pure Altman madness.

The film shuffles back and forth between the characters and the conversations in dizzying fashion. Random people have sex with each other. There are many painstakingly complete musical performances from the characters (awful if you don’t care for Grand Ole Opry style country music — and who does?). I don’t have a problem with the sort of slice of life style of this film in which the viewer quickly bounces back and forth between scenes, but for me the trouble with Nashville lays in the lack of character depth. I don’t have a clue about the motivations of these characters.

WARNING: SERIOUS SPOILER ALERTS

I don’t know why Barbara Jean is so tortured. I don’t know why Tom wants to sleep with Linnea so badly and I don’t know why when they finally do sleep together she simply walks out afterward and he could give a shit despite hounding her for days to meet him and declaring his love for her. I don’t know why L.A. Joan is in Nashville nor why she doesn’t seem to care that her aunt is dying. I don’t have a clue where presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker stands on issues beyond his hatred of lawyers. I don’t know why Elliott Gould and Julie Christie make random cameos as themselves. I have no idea if Opal actually works for the BBC or if she’s just insane and I don’t know why Jeff Goldblum is riding around on a motorcycle and doesn’t have any lines in the film. And most of all, I have no flippin idea why Kenny randomly decides to shoot Barbara Jean! I don’t even know if she’s dead when the film ends. At least in Days of Our Lives we have some context. This is just random weirdness.

I think AFI has its head up its ass on this one. As for Altman, MASH deserves its high place of honor on this list…but The Player is so much better than Nashville. Not even close. Oh, and the Academy Award judges are clueless as well. Nashville was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. It won for Best Song, a slow little ditty performed by that “well-known musical genius” Keith Carradine. Here, see how much of this garbage you can stand:

Next up: The Gold Rush

AFI #60: Duck Soup

If you don’t laugh while watching a Marx Brothers movie you are not a member of the human race. It’s just not possible to not laugh. If I ever end up on death row my last wish is going to be to watch a Marx Brothers marathon. I guarantee I’ll go out smiling.

Duck Soup is the second Marx Brothers feature on the AFI top 100, following A Night at the Opera at No. 85. I have to admit that if given the choice I preferred A Night at the Opera, but they are both hysterically funny films. In Duck Soup, Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, the newly selected president of Freedonia and while he’s running around enjoying his time in the spotlight he is unaware of a secret plot my neighboring Sylvania which has designs on taking over Freedonia. Harpo and Chico play a pair of spies who have been asked to monitor the activities of Rufus T. Firefly. Hilarity ensues.

Like a lot of Marx Brothers features, the individual bits are more recognizable than the films. You may not have ever seen Duck Soup, but surely you have seen this famous scene:

Of course, the scene has been spoofed by tons of comedians including the famous spoof with Lucille Ball and Harpo Marx reenacting the scene in 1955 on an episode of I Love Lucy:

Trust me, if you’re ever feeling down go on YouTube and watch some Marx Brothers bits. They won’t solve your problems, but you’ll surely forget about them for a while.

Next Up: Nashville

AFI #61: Sullivan’s Travels

One of the reasons I decided to watch and blog about all of the films in the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 American films of all time was to discover some gems I hadn’t ever seen. Nearly 40 films into the list, I hadn’t really been blown away yet — until last night. I had never even heard of Sullivan’s Travels, No. 61 on the list. Admittedly, I was skeptical for that very reason, plus it was made all the way back in 1941. I held out some small hope only because it was made just a year after one of my favorite films, The Philadelphia Story. Not only did I enjoy Sullivan’s Travels, the screenplay reminded me of The Philadelphia Story because of its lovely sarcastic wit.

Sullivan’s Travels is the story of wealthy Hollywood director John L. Sullivan, who is tired of making fluffy comedies because America is in a depression and they deserve to feel the emotion of the times. When his studio points out he has no idea what it’s like to be one of the downtrodden, he foolishly decides to go undercover as a tramp to see what it’s like. He sets off in dirty and torn clothing with only a dime in his pocket to learn enough to make a “commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the average man.” Along the way he meets a discouraged young actress who is ready to give up on her dreams, leave Hollywood and return home. Hilarity and powerful lessons about the human spirit ensue.

There is so much to like in this film. Sullivan is played by Joel McCrea, well-known for his many roles in Westerns. McCrea provides a real charm to the character that is reminiscent of Cary Grant and the dialogue is brilliantly funny and even edgy. The scene where his butler first sees him dressed in rags is classic:

Burrows: I don’t like it at all, sir. Fancy dress, I take it?
John L. Sullivan: What’s the matter with it?
Burrows: I have never been sympathetic to the caricaturing of the poor and needy, sir.
John L. Sullivan: Who’s caricaturing?
John L. Sullivan: I’m going out on the road to find out what it’s like to be poor and needy and then I’m going to make a picture about it.
Burrows: If you’ll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.
John L. Sullivan: But I’m doing it for the poor. Don’t you understand?
Burrows: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy, I believe quite properly, sir. Also, such excursions can be extremely dangerous, sir. I worked for a gentleman once who likewise, with two friends, accoutered themselves as you have, sir, and then went out for a lark. They have not been heard from since.

This sort of exchange is repeated throughout the film and caused me to laugh out loud more than once. The screenplay was written by Preston Sturges, who directed the film as well. I have heard of Sturges, but when I looked up his filmography on IMDB I saw that I have never seen any of his films. I now plan to check out quite a few others! By the way, this is also the first film on the list that was available in its entirety for free on You Tube. I actually streamed it to my tablet.

Sullivan’s Travels was also my first introduction to actress Veronica Lake. The only thing I knew about her prior to seeing this film was that a model was “cut” to look like her in the film L.A. Confidential so creepy men could pay to have sex with her. Nice. Veronica Lake is absolutely beautiful and had quite an interesting life. She made nearly 40 films and TV shows before dying at age 50 from hepatitis. She was also the daughter-in-law of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. She was well-known for her beauty, particularly her long blonde hair which she often wore covering one eye and giving her the nickname The Peek-a-boo Girl. She is classic 1940s Hollywood glamour.

Another interesting fact about Sullivan’s Travels is that the film Sullivan was going to make about America’s poor was to be called O Brother Where Art Thou? Yep, the Coen Brothers used the name as an homage for their 2000 masterpiece starring George Clooney. The things you learn when you do a little homework! Also, Sullivan’s Travels did not garner any Academy Award nominations, maybe because it came out the same year as a little film called Citizen Kane. By the way, Citizen Kane lost most of that year’s Oscars, including Best Picture, to How Green Was My Valley. Ah, hindsight.

Next Up: Duck Soup

AFI #62: American Graffiti

I think a lot of so-called great films are fully dependent on the generation of the viewer and as I make my way through the AFI Top 100 there have been several examples of this generational bias. American Graffiti is definitely a film that reaches a certain demographic. Set in the early 60s and made in 1973, the film is not much more than a nod to that mythical time known as “the good old days.” For director George Lucas, the film is a bit of a love letter to his teenage years growing up in small town Northern California when kids cruised the streets and pranked each other with shaving cream and the biggest issue was whether or not they should leave this Rockwellian dream for the big city (or in this case, college “back east”). American Graffiti captures that moment in time quite well, and it obviously had an impact on viewers of a certain age.

That being said, for my money American Graffiti is just an average film that isn’t even among the best of its genre. The Hollywood Knights is basically the same plot but a much better film overall. Barry Levinson’s Diner also delivers the same emotion and is one of my favorite films of all time. I think American Graffiti gets more recognition because it’s Lucas’ first film and because it stars young actors who later become very famous, including Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford. It’s an enjoyable little film, but it’s certainly not one of the 100 best American films of all time.

Nostalgia is a great film genre that has delivered some amazing films. Last year’s wonderful Super 8 comes to mind. But nostalgia films are by their nature going to be more meaningful to those who lived during a similar time and can therefore relate to the nostalgia. I’m not a baby boomer, and I can appreciate how cool it must have been in the 50s and 60s to cruise your car up and down the street and have burgers delivered to your car by a hot girl on roller skates, but I’m not going to be moved by a time period that I didn’t live through. I imagine baby boomers don’t feel the same way I do when I watch Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club. And that’s okay, but don’t tell me American Graffiti is one of the best films ever. It’s not.

By the way, I’ve seen bits and pieces of American Graffiti before but this is the first time I’d ever sat through it beginning to end. There are some memorable scenes (like the one in which Toad tries to buy some whiskey and ends up in the middle of a hold up). But seeing it all the way through — the damn thing has a really depressing ending. Cindy Williams almost dies in a car crash, Toad gets killed in Vietnam, Milner gets killed by a drunk driver, Steve ends up selling insurance in Modesto because he doesn’t go to college and Curt moves to Canada. Geez…good times.

Next up: Sullivan’s Travels