AFI #20: It’s a Wonderful Life

250px-Donna_Reed_with_James_Stewart_(1946)Okay, let’s get this out of the way straight off — I had never seen It’s a Wonderful Life before last night. I know what you’re thinking. I swear I’d never seen it. Does that make me un-American? Nah, it makes me a Jew.

If this is one of your favorite movies, or you think of it as a Christmastime tradition, you may want to stop reading because I’m about to skewer this piece of crap. It was all I could do to get through it, and given I’m a huge James Stewart fan that’s saying something. Let’s begin with the obvious. What a bunch of sappy garbage. God talking to angels and mean old Mr. Potter trying to take over the lovely town of Bedford Falls. It’s ridiculous. I’m already on the record saying I think Frank Capra is a horrible director who makes awful films (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for example which I trashed earlier in this countdown). The screenplay is silly. The plot is even sillier. It’s a pure rip off of A Christmas Carol.

I don’t know what this film has to do with Christmas frankly, given that the only connection it has is that it ends on Christmas eve. Why did this become a Christmas tradition? It makes no sense (maybe simply because it is a rip off of Dickens?). Is it a Christmas film because God and angels have speaking roles? I won’t even go into the ridiculous religious themes of the film with all the praying and guardian angels. Yuck!

I’ll say one good thing about this film — in spite of everything else it has some decent performances by James Stewart and Donna Reed (quite the 1940s babe by the way!). Reed makes you want to settle down in a town like Bedford Falls and have a bunch of kids. Stewart is his usual wise but somewhat silly good guy. Oh, one more good thing about this — I don’t have to watch it ever again! Go ahead, say I’m a grinch. Bah Humbug!

Next up: On The Waterfront

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AFI #21: Chinatown

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It has been quite a few years since I’ve screened Chinatown so I was looking forward to watching it again — I was not disappointed. I love this film for a couple of reasons. First, it was made in 1974 but it takes place in the 1940s and it’s a wonderful homage to the classic noir. Credit to director Roman Polanski for that, and say what you want about the guy’s personal life he’s a hell of a director. For me though Chinatown is his best and will be his film legacy (unfortunately his personal legacy will always be about his rape conviction and his wife’s murder by the Manson gang). With Chinatown Polanski delivers us to 1940s Los Angeles and a film that could just as easily have starred Humphrey Bogart as Jake Gittes and Lauren Bacall as Evelyn Mulwray. The film works as noir on every level from the cinematography to the dialogue to the plot.

But the real star of the film is Jack Nicholson who delivers a perfect private eye with just enough toughness combined with smarts and sarcasm. And really, nobody does sarcasm like Jack. Early Nicholson is the best Nicholson for my money, whether it’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Easy Rider or The Shining. His performance in Chinatown is classic Jack. Coupled with Faye Dunaway you have a memorable film couple that does indeed hold up against Bogie and Bacall and Hepburn and Tracy. How gorgeous was Faye Dunaway in the 70s? It’s no coincidence by the way that both Dunaway and Nicholson are all over the AFI list, Nicholson for this and the aforementioned Cuckoo’s Nest and Easy Rider, Dunaway for Network and Bonnie and Clyde.

It really shouldn’t be a surprise that I love Chinatown — I’m a sucker for noir, whether it’s classic like The Maltese Falcon or neo like LA Confidential. Who doesn’t love a good private detective film? Sam Spade. Philip Marlowe. Jim Rockford!

Finally, Chinatown also brings us one of the most demented plots in noir history. It’s not enough for there to be murder, corruption and sex — Polanski and writer Robert Towne throw in incest for good measure. How creepy is John Huston’s character Noah Cross. I love it when Jack asks him why he needs to buy up all the real estate in the Valley, after all he he’s already worth $20 million or so. Cross says “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.” It’s not enough for him to be rich, he has to leave a legacy that includes being the most powerful man in L.A.

So what does it take to be a private eye? Just ask J.J. Gittes: “Let me explain something to you, Walsh. This business requires a certain amount of finesse.”

Next up: We crack the Top 20 with It’s a Wonderful Life

AFI #22: Some Like it Hot

SomeLikeItHot_063PyxurzAt No. 22 on the AFI top 100, Some Like it Hot is the highest ranking comedy on the list. This means a couple of things. One, I should not expect to laugh as I complete the remaining 21 films on the list. Two, the sense of humor of the AFI voters leaves something to be desired. This film is the classic case of a film that has a funny premise but does not deliver on the promise. Sure, it’s funny to see Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis dressed like women. Yes, Marilyn Monroe plays her ditzy blonde for a few laughs. And sure, the funniest line in the film is saved for the end as goofy Osgood Fielding delivers a deadpan “nobody’s perfect” upon finding out that the “woman” of his dreams is in fact a man in drag. But over all the film isn’t that funny. In fact, it’s rather ridiculous.

In 2000 the AFI put out its list of the 100 funniest films of all time and Some Like it Hot was number one. But just a quick look through the top 10 provides nine films that are much funnier than Some Like It Hot, including the likes of Tootsie, MASH, Annie Hall, Dr. Strangelove, Airplane, Blazing Saddles and Duck Soup to name a few. Some Like it Hot would barely crack the top 100 of my list. I’d say the AFI has a blind spot for modern comedies, but their top 100 included newer films like Groundhog Day, Big, Diner, Bull Durham and Caddyshack. All, by the way, much funnier than Some Like it Hot.

Look, don’t get me wrong. It’s a nice little film with some great performances by Lemmon and Curtis — especially Lemmon who was nominated for an Oscar. But it’s just not that funny. You want funny? Watch American Pie, The Wedding Crashers or Borat!

Next: Chinatown

AFI #23: The Grapes of Wrath

“Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”

It’s really not fair for me to rate The Grapes of Wrath as a film considering John Steinbeck is one of my favorite writers and the novel is an American classic. Director John Ford never had a chance articulating this incredible novel in a two hour movie. The novel has so much depth and so many layers that the film couldn’t touch, and of course the film barely scratches the surface of those themes. The novel, of course, ends in shocking fashion with Rose of Sharon feeding a starving man from her breast and Ford was just not going to touch that with a ten foot pole in 1940. Additionally, former pastor Casy is a key character in the novel and he hardly plays a part in the film. Casy is the spiritual center of the novel and it is he who provides Tom Joad with inspiration to fight for justice. That said, I guess I’ll say a few good things about the film.

grapes-of-wrath-filmThe film was made not long after the fictional events of the Joad family would have taken place, and given that it was pretty bold of Ford to adapt Steinbeck’s novel for mass audiences. The dust bowl and depression was an horrific time in American history and one of the most important aspects of art is that it can provide people with a way to look at their own situations and the situations of those around them. For that reason the film is important and even though it doesn’t do the novel justice it still does a good job portraying life for the folks who were run off their land during the dust bowl and the difficulties they found out West.

Beyond the story there are some great acting performances, most especially that of Henry Fonda who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar but lost to James Stewart for The Philadelphia Story and for the record that is one of my favorite films and it is by far Stewart’s best performance so I’m not going to complain about Fonda losing. Jane Darwell actually did win an Oscar for playing Ma Joad and she was definitely a highlight in the film. She keeps the family together through difficult times and Darwell is terrific. She is a great actress who also had key roles in Gone With the Wind and Mary Poppins to name a couple.

Lastly the great John Carradine played Casy, and while he wasn’t in the film much he was great when he was on screen. In fact, I’ll leave you with my favorite line from the film…uttered by the fallen pastor Casy. It’s a line directly from the novel and one that scholars use to help answer the question of whether Steinbeck was an atheist or not. I suggest he was, as evidenced by this quote from Casy, along with similar anti-religious lines in a variety of his novels:

“Maybe there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue, they’s just what people does. Some things folks do is nice and some ain’t so nice, and that’s all any man’s got a right to say.”

Next up: Some Like it Hot