Film Review: The Hate U Give Delivers Excellent Performances But Comes Off a Bit ‘Preachy’


Amandla Stenberg as Starr Carter

The Hate U Give is based on the young adult novel by Angie Thomas and it’s perhaps because the story was originally targeted to a young audience that the film version feels a bit like an after-school special. Don’t get me wrong, the message is important for kids and adults, and the film does a very good job of exploring several key race-related issues — but as an adult with what I think is a fairly good understanding of these issues there wasn’t much new here for me and as a result the lessons feel somewhat preachy and the plot felt predictable.

I’m not in any way trying to minimize the black lives matter movement, just simply suggesting that the plot of the film didn’t strike me as powerful the way, say, a Spike Lee or John Singleton film might have handled the subject matter. Of course, as I said, the target audience is young adult so it was perhaps not as raw or emotional as an adult-focused film might have been.

Regardless, there are certainly some great lessons in the film about black lives matter, police brutality, race relations, black-on-black crime, the drug war, teen relationships and several more. In fact, George Tillman Jr squeezed a lot into two hours. The events in the film felt real, from the white/black relationships at the predominantly white school to the community response to police violence against an unarmed black teen. The story was clearly ripped from the headlines and anytime film is used to shine a light on injustice it’s good for the art form.

The plot was indeed predictable, from the shooting to the reaction by both the white and black community. Of course, if you watch the news at all and know what’s going on in the black community in America specifically as it concerns police brutality the plot would be predictable. I think, though, what was not cliche was the depth of the characters, specifically teen protagonist Starr Carter and her father Maverick Carter. Starr, in particular, was a compelling protagonist because she was literally caught between the two worlds of her privileged white school and her crime-ridden home life in the ghetto. This dichotomy pulled at her and her response to the violent act that the film centers around was quite complicated and it evolved as the plot thickened. Her father was also a well-developed character who came up in the violence-infested drug culture and even served jail time, but who used that experience to try to raise his kids to end the cycle of violence and to empower them as black Americans. Maverick Carter was doing more than the best he could for his family given their circumstances, and in fact, tried hard to educate his kids while supporting his community rather than abandoning it. He is quite a noble figure and it should be no surprise that Starr, in particular, was such a thoughtful and mature young woman.

And then there are the performances in the film. The story may have felt like a made for TV movie, but the acting was first rate. Russell Hornsby (Maverick) was tremendous as the fiery patriarch of the extended Carter family and I won’t be surprised to see him rewarded come award season. Hornsby has done a lot of TV and a few films, but I couldn’t place him while I was watching the movie.

Which leads me to the overwhelming star of this film, Starr herself, 20-year-old Amandla Stenberg. Best known for her work as young Rue in the first Hunger Games film, Stenberg’s performance as Starr was breathtaking. She showcased all of her emotional talents in the film, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. Whenever she was on the screen, she lit it up with pure charisma. Stenberg brought so much emotion and depth to her character that she has undoubtedly proven she is a tremendous actor and will be a force in the future. I am not alone in declaring Stenberg the next Hollywood “it” girl as I suspect she is on her way to becoming a huge star (pun intended) and we should expect numerous accolades and awards down the road — if not right away for this performance. I wanted to see this film specifically after I read an interview with her in Vanity Fair recently. She is intelligent, beautiful, and quintessentially Generation Z (post-Millennial). She has already set herself apart as a young actress, but she’s also a political activist and LGBTQ advocate who has already been named “Feminist of the Year” (2015) by the Ms. Foundation for Women. She recently reported that she had stopped using a smartphone due to its effects on mental health. The term “woke” may have been invented for her!

In summary, a nice film with a powerful message and incredible performances. I would have loved it if it were a touch less predictable. Or maybe I was just uncomfortable that white people in the film were called out for trying to appropriate the black lives matter movement! Like I said, complicated issues all around and good food for thought.


I Am Spartacus!


In the early 1940s, as American workers still recovering from the Great Depression found themselves still facing difficult working conditions, upwards of 75,000 Americans joined the American Communist Party as a way to rally around worker rights. The movement was focused solely on improving America and not on aligning with the Soviet Union. One of those who joined the movement was novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who along with a handful of his friends in Hollywood, fought to improve working conditions for everyone involved in the film making industry — not just studio heads and famous actors.

But as the “Red Scare” grew across America, fueled by political rhetoric and fear, Trumbo and his friends were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and when he and others refused to name names he was blacklisted from Hollywood and jailed for 11 months. Trumbo was an American citizen, born and raised in Colorado, and he spent time in prison because of an idea. For years during his Hollywood exile, Trumbo continued to write screenplays under a series of pseudonyms and won two Academy Awards he could not collect. After more than a decade on the blacklist, he was finally able to return to public life and work under his own name thanks in large part to actor and producer Kirk Douglas who hired him to write Spartacus and despite significant pressure against doing so from the industry and congressional representatives, credited Trumbo publicly with writing the screenplay.

I am writing about this today because yesterday I watched the film Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston and it struck me as eerily familiar. I knew a little bit about the Hollywood blacklist and the Red Scare, but I didn’t know Trumbo’s story and I certainly didn’t know how things exploded so quickly in Hollywood toward the exclusion of some of the best talent in the movie industry. The film was fantastic by the way, and Cranston undoubtedly deserved his Academy Award nomination. If you have not seen it, do so right away. And tell your friends to see it. Frankly, the story is so timely every American should watch it today.

It’s 2016, nearly 70 years since the blacklist began and Trumbo served time for an idea, and I’m afraid America has learned nothing from its own history. Nada. Bupkis.

Here we are experiencing another “red” scare. And while nobody has been blacklisted or jailed yet, we are one election away from sheer madness and a repeat of one of the darkest periods in American history. Back then, the red scare was fueled by people we knew — John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Hedda Hopper, Walt Disney and a great many members of congress and the political landscape. Americans were being divided. It was madness.

Today, we are experiencing the exact same thing. Exact. Same. Thing. Except instead of Communists, we are being systematically told that the enemy are Mexicans and Latino-Americans, Muslims and Muslim-Americans, African-Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community. Anyone who conservatives and xenophobes consider “others” or different from themselves can’t be “real” Americans and must therefore be a threat to our country. You know, the country that Donald Trump wants to make “great” again. In this case, “great” means white and Christian and male.

But you know this. We all know it. Trump and his goon squad aren’t even attempting subtlety. They are proud of their blatant racist and sexist rhetoric. And what’s worse, it seems to be working. This is another “red” scare, make no mistake about it. But the bigger issue is, what can we do about it?

Which brings me to Spartacus. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the climactic scene of the film occurs when Spartacus steps forward to his accusers and exclaims: I Am Spartacus. He knows that by doing this he will be killed, but he knows too that he is right and that he’d rather die for doing the right thing than run away or hide behind others. But it’s at that point when everything changes — one by one each of his fellow gladiators step forward and exclaim: I Am Spartacus. Frankly, it’s one of the greatest scenes in film history and yes, it was written by Dalton Trumbo while he was on the blacklist. How friggin’ cool is that?

The blacklist began to end when Americans stood up and said: No More. First Kirk Douglas and then Exodus director Otto Preminger. Then one by one the blacklist fell and Hollywood got back to the business of making films. Yes, it took a while to heal, but eventually Hollywood healed. Three words took down the blacklist. I Am Spartacus.

So to those of you who think what Donald Trump is doing to America is OK, I say this:

I Am Mexican-American.

I Am African-American.

I Am Muslim.

I Am Gay.

Stand up for the “other” with me. Scream it loud and scream it wide. I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!


The Purple Reign of Prince Rogers Nelson


In the summer of 1984 I had just graduated from high school and the world was my oyster. I had car and a hot girlfriend, I was heading off to college in late August, and I quit my job without telling my parents — I had nothing but time. My girlfriend and I went to the beach, we sneaked off to find places to be alone and we did whatever 18-year-old kids do. And the soundtrack to that summer was Purple Rain.

Prince was already huge by then on the heels of 1999, which catapulted him from a fringe R&B artist to rock and roll royalty. MTV was in its heyday and Prince had enormous hits with 1999, Delirious and Little Red Corvette. Purple Rain was released in June, though we had already heard tracks from the album on the radio and by June we knew all the lyrics and dance moves from the videos. When the film hit theaters, we lined up to see it at the largest theater in the area to take it all in with the giant screen and Dolby sound. It was, for us, a revolution.

Prince was larger than life and one of the first true crossover artists with appeal to R&B, Soul, Rock, Pop and Alternative music fans alike. He was George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson rolled into one. Thriller had come out six months earlier, and like everyone we liked it and danced to it and loved the music videos. But Michael was safe. He wasn’t really dangerous. He wasn’t subversive. He wasn’t sexual. He was mainstream and our parents liked him. Prince was everything MJ was not — and he made our parents nervous which made us like him even more. If Prince came on the radio while we were in the car with our parents, they blushed at the lyrics and we secretly laughed inside knowing we alone knew Little Red Corvette was not about a car.

Eighteen year old kids are like halflings — not really kids and not yet really adults. We were exploding with sexual energy and Prince made us feel grown up. I heard someone once describe Prince as “oozing sex” and that feels right. His lyrics were sometimes raw and sometimes double entendre, but almost always sexual in nature. They hit us right in our sweet spot and we couldn’t get enough.

And then there was Purple Rain. After watching the film the first time (and we watched it over and over) we felt like we understood Prince. We knew the film was semi-autobiographical, whatever that means, and we knew he expressed himself through his music. Purple Rain was about a young man overcoming his rough family life and his desire to have his music understood to reach his dreams. “The Kid” breathed via his music. And we felt it in our bones. When he plays Purple Rain after his father shoots himself, we are in that audience feeling his pain and his love. And like everyone else, we finally understood Prince.

But the movie is secondary really. Purple Rain is about the music. Top to bottom, song for song, it is a marvelous album. It’s a rock opera. You can dance to it, grind to it and cry to it. It’s soulful and it rocks. A lot of great mainstream albums came out in 1984 including Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Van Halen’s 1984. But 1984 will always be about Purple Rain for me and my friends.

Purple Rain was (and is) a great album and it has the most meaning for me because of when it came out and the impact it had on me. But it’s not even my favorite Prince album! That honor goes to 1987’s Sign ‘o the Times, which is a much more mature record musically and lyrically. In Sign ‘o the Times Prince shows us he can write about more than sex and women. The Village Voice wrote that it: “established Prince as the greatest rock and roll musician of the era—as singer-guitarist-hooksmith-beatmaster, he has no peer.”

I admit I haven’t listened to much of Prince’s more recent efforts. I’m sure they are wonderful and I’ll probably spend some time with them now that he is gone. It’s been about 24 hours now since we first heard the news that he was gone, and I’ve listened to nothing but Prince since then and I’ll probably listen to Prince all weekend. I will relive the hits and marvel at how great they were (1999 is actually playing on the radio in the car dealership service waiting room as I write this). And I will listen to deep tracks and remember them too. I’ll probably download Sign ‘o the Times and Parade and Around the World in a Day and listen to them in their entirety as well. And I will miss Prince. But he left a lasting legacy. We’ll always have his music. And for that we should all be grateful.

‘Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish life was never ending,
And all good things, they say, never last’

Len’s Top 10 Films of 2013

With the Academy Awards just 10 days away it’s time for my annual list of my favorite films of the year. I tried to hold out until I saw all the films I wanted to see before compiling this years list, but unfortunately I just didn’t get to them all so this will have to do. With apologies to the films I haven’t seen, namely Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis, here are the ten films I enjoyed the most in 2013:

  1. In A World — This was the most charming and unexpected surprise of the year for me. It’s not going to win any awards, but it’s sweet and funny and exactly the kind of film I  love. I didn’t know Lake Bell before seeing this film over the summer, but she is a force to be reckoned with. Bell, who you may know from her role as Sally Heep on TV’s Boston Legal, wrote, directed and starred in this film. A triple threat I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more about over the coming years. Great supporting work as well by the very talented Demetri Martin, Rob Corddry and Nick Offerman.
  2. American Hustle — Of all the “big” films this year I enjoyed American Hustle the most and think it should win Best Picture. For me it is because of the performances that it was so great, despite criticism that the performances were way better than the film. Christian Bale is absolutely brilliant in this film and he has really cemented himself now as one of the top actors in the world.
  3. The World’s End – I love Simon Pegg and I cannot lie. The World’s End is a great continuation of the series of otherworldly send ups by the guys that brought us Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. I laughed hysterically      throughout this entire film even as the ending turned into a weird post-apocalyptic zombie alien freak show. Pegg and his crew are the best comedy troupe working in film.
  4. The Way Way BackEveryone I know who saw this little film over the summer loved it and for good reason. Who doesn’t love a good coming of age film, especially one where Steve Carell plays the bad guy! If you were ever a 14-year-old boy, or knew one, you’ll love this film. For me it’s really a throwback to the John Hughes/brat pack 80s style. Sam Rockwell is perfect as the oddly cool older guy who shows young Owen how to come out of his      shell and make the most of his life.
  5. Kill Your DarlingsThis great little indie film about beat generation poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs that creeps up on you and tears you apart. Don’t be fooled by the subject matter or the fact that it stars Harry Potter – this is a great story of friendship, betrayal and forbidden love during a time when being different could literally be risking your life. Daniel Radcliffe shows his adult acting chops, but the star of the film really is Dane DeHaan, who steals the film as the boy who other boys want to be – and be with. DeHaan is a rising talent who was also great in another film I liked from 2013, The Place Beyond The Pines. Keep an eye on him! Excellent supporting performances by the great Michael C. Hall, the guy who played “Richard Harrow” on Boardwalk Empire, Jack Huston, and Ben Foster as William Burroughs.
  6. The Wolf of Wall Street – I’m not going to make any apologies for loving this film despite the despicable nature of the characters. Yes, they ruined people’s lives, but this film is wild and crazy and a million laughs. People are sure wound up about the fact that the film glorifies the lifestyle of criminals, but so did The Sopranos and I didn’t hear anyone complaining about it. Leo is my favorite actor and he doesn’t disappoint as Jordan Belfort. It’s another tremendous role for Mr. DiCaprio and he deserves the Oscar nomination.
  7. Star Trek Into Darkness – The new cast of Star Trek is making me excited again for the series. I have always been an “original” cast guy and never found an interest in the Next Generation crew, but going back to the original characters in an earlier time was a brilliant move for this franchise. This is what science fiction action movies should be like.
  8. Gravity – I really had no interest in seeing this movie, but finally gave in and saw it in 3D. Sometimes when your expectations are really low you are apt to be surprised and that was the case with Gravity. The special effects were ridiculous. I still have no idea how they shot it, but director Alfonso Cuarón is a genius. It sure ain’t Y Tu Mama Tambien! I also like the subtle theme of evolution and rebirth at the end.
  9. The Book Thief – I’m always skeptical of a film from a novel I loved but I thought they did a tremendous job with The Book Thief. I was curious how they were going to deal with the narrator (it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the narrator is death himself) but they did an OK job with it. I think they could have gone further with it truthfully. Fabulous performances by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson and the kids were terrific. Bring your handkerchief!
  10. Dallas Buyers Club – Congratulations to Matthew McConaughey for graduating to full-fledged actor status in the past couple of years. Surely Dallas Buyers Club is his coming out party, but don’t discount his great      performance in 2012’s Mud and his soon-to-be Emmy winning performance in HBO’s True Detective. He is so good in this film it’s only a shame that he’s up against Christian Bale and Chiwetel Ejiofor (whom I think will win).  Jared Leto will win for his role as a transvestite AIDS victim and believe me none of us ever thought we’d hear anyone ever utter the words “Academy Award Winner Jared Leto.” But good for Jordan Catalano…he’s a better actor than a singer.

I’d also like to mention a few other films from 2013. For me, the biggest letdown was Her, which I was really looking forward to. I thought it was good, but it could have been great and it wasn’t. I liked 12 Years a Slave, but it was slow. I liked Captain Phillips, but I didn’t think it was all that. I thought Blue Jasmine was just okay, although Kate Blanchett was remarkable and gave one of the most memorable female performances ever. I didn’t see the aforementioned Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis, which I will and perhaps (Maybe. Hopefully) adjust this list. I didn’t see August: Osage County and have no desire to. Same with Philomena. Same with that Mary Poppins crap. I still haven’t seen The Butler. Still want to see The Wind Rises, Adult World, Lone Survivor, All is Lost, Enough Said or Before Midnight. I still have a ways to go, but it sure seems like 2013 was a great year for film.

Len’s 25 Favorite Films of All Time


Having just completed watching, in order, the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American films of all time, it begs the question:  what are my favorite movies of all time? There’s really no logic to a personal favorites list – there are many reasons for why a film etches itself into a person’s psyche enough to make it a favorite. I can tell you this, I love to laugh and so many of my favorites are comedies (how else do you explain the fact that Stripes is one of my all-time favorites). I also came of age in the 1980s, so there are tons of films from that decade amongst my favorites.

I make no apologies for loving films that aren’t considered great by critics. Critics measure films differently, as do each of us. Sometimes I’ll love a film simply because of the mood it creates. I do tend to go for films with great scripts, which is perhaps why some of the films on my list may not even be that well known…the dialogue may have captured my heart. Interestingly, only six of my top 25 are also on the AFI list. Not sure what that says about my taste, but then again I tend to go for the indies and the comedies and the AFI has a very poor sense of humor and hardly notices smaller “art” films. Again, taste is a funny thing. After all, I didn’t like Citizen Kane, the top film on the AFI list, and for some reason the AFI left Borat off its list which would definitely be in my top 100!

So, in alphabetical order, here are my 25 favorite films:

All The President’s Men (1976) — Made me want to be a writer.
Almost Famous (2000) – Cameron Crowe is one of my favorite writer/directors.
American Beauty (1999) – Alan Ball is one hell of a writer (see this and Six Feet Under if you don’t believe me)
Annie Hall (1977) — Perhaps the best American movie ever made and still Woody’s best
Baby, It’s You (1983) — My favorite John Sayles film, and that’s saying something given his incredibly underrated filmography
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) — Newman and Redford in American classic. Defined “buddy” pictures
Casablanca (1942) – #3 on the AFI list for a good reason. Here’s looking at you kid.
Diner (1982) — Beginning of Barry Levinson’s great career. Best ensemble cast ever put together.
Diva (1981) — Best French film ever made!
Empire of the Sun (1987) — Spielberg’s best kept secret! Is that a young Christian Bale? Why yes it is.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) — Dude, that’s my skull!
Field of Dreams (1989) — If you build it, he will come! No secrets here…this is my all-time favorite film.
Five Corners (1987) — Jodie Foster, Tim Robbins and John Turturro in John Patrick Shanley written gem you’ve probably never heard of let alone seen.
High Fidelity (2000) — Hard to pick a better John Cusack film. Written by Nick Hornby, one of my favorite authors so there you go.
Hope & Glory (1987) — Academy Award nominee for Best Picture by John Boorman.
Into the Wild (2007) – Incredible true story, great acting, great directing by Sean Penn and the most hauntingly beautiful soundtrack by Eddie Vedder to go with it
Lost in Translation (2003) – Sophia Coppola is a genius.
Manhattan (1979) — Woody’s second best. You’ll fall in love with Mariel Hemingway.
The Philadelphia Story (1940) — Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart. Ahead of its time.
The Player (1992) — Have to watch several times to catch all the cameos!
Pulp Fiction (1994) – Quentin Tarantino is a sick fuck, but he’s brilliant.
The Right Stuff (1983) — Amazing cast, incredible screenplay and it’s all true!
Rocky (1976) – Invented the underdog story. Yo Adrian!
She’s Gotta Have It (1986) — Spike Lee’s hysterical first film is still my favorite, although I think Do The Right Thing is a better film. Either way Spike Lee is one of America’s top 2-3 directors.
Stripes (1981) — Don’t leave…all the plants will die!

This is my list and it probably contains some films you either hated or didn’t see. But that’s what makes film (and art in general) so great. These films speak to me. What films speak to you?

AFI #1: Citizen Kane

CitizenKaneStill_1Well, what started as a fun little project on April 17, 2011 has finally come to an end on this the last day of 2013. Ironically, this project began and ended with a disappointing film. I may be in the minority, but I didn’t like AFI #100 Ben-Hur at all, and I can’t say I enjoyed the apparent best American film ever made, Citizen Kane. I didn’t dislike Citizen Kane, I just thought it was much ado about nothing. It certainly isn’t the best American film of all time in my opinion. There were, however, so many amazing films on the AFI list and the project was well worth the experience.

I get that Citizen Kane was ahead of its time in terms of cinematography and editing, but the truth is I’m not a filmmaker so I don’t really care about that. The most innovative technical aspect of Citizen Kane is the extended use of deep focus, according to Wikipedia. Good for Orson Welles. I don’t think any of the other films on the AFI list made the list based on technical merits, yet a jury of 1,500 film artists, critics and historians determined that Citizen Kane was the greatest movie of all time. Okay, I’m not here to disparage the AFI — after all I chose to watch the films on their list. But I’ve seen a shitload of films in my time, some on this list and some not, and I can think of tons that are better than Citizen Kane. Of course, art is subjective.

I did, however, like the themes embedded in Citizen Kane. What I got out of it was that life is about more than acquiring things and wealth, and that happiness is found in the little things. For Charles Foster Kane that meant at the end of his life, a life in which he achieved great wealth and power, he was never happier than when he was a child playing in the snow with his sled. As someone who values life’s simple pleasures I can relate to that message. Critics have also suggested the film is an indictment of capitalism itself, and I can see that and I appreciate that sentiment too. To think that Welles broached these subjects on film in 1941 is pretty impressive given the heightened patriotism of the World War II generation.

So, I don’t agree with the AFI jury but that shouldn’t be a surprise. I didn’t set out to critique the list, but rather to complete a project and the AFI list was as good a list as any. I have to admit though that finishing this quest is both fulfilling and a little bittersweet. I need another list! I have thought of a few ideas, but I’m open to suggestions for the next project. I have considered watching the entire James Bond catalog in order. Or watching every Woody Allen film in order despite having already seen them all and knowing that my wife hates Woody. Anyone know a good list of the best indie films? I’ll be taking suggestions but I suspect I’ll want to launch into something new pretty quickly so send your ideas pronto.

All that said, I’m not quite finished with this project. Several people have asked me during this project about my overall impressions of the AFI list, whether there were any major surprises either way, and of course what are my favorite films. I suspect I have one or two more blog posts coming over the next day or so on these subjects so stay tuned.

Thanks to all of you who followed along with me on this crazy trip. In the 20 months since I started it I moved to California and back, changed jobs twice and had a friggin’ heart attack. I watched movies that I rented at stores, borrowed from the library, downloaded off the Internet, and streamed on NetFlix, Amazon and Google Play. I watched films by myself, with my family, and a few times with friends. It was tons of fun!

Happy New Year!


AFI #2: The Godfather

TheGodfatherAlPacinoMarlonBrandoThe Godfather is likely the most critically acclaimed film of all time, even though it did not take the top spot in the AFI survey. Still, it’s hard to find any critic who does not place The Godfather among the greatest films ever made. When it was released in 1972 it was the highest grossing film that year and for many years held the record for the highest grossing American film. It won a handful of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and a Best Acting Oscar for Marlon Brando. The film cemented Francis Ford Coppola’s position among the best American film makers, and it catapulted Al Pacino into legendary actor status — which he formalized two years later with his legendary performance in The Godfather Part II.

But there is something else about The Godfather that struck a chord with viewers and has made it such an enduring film. My personal view is that the film speaks to the American immigrant experience and the success of the underdog and that certainly resonates with most Americans. But more than that, The Godfather was the first film to delve into the psyche of the American criminal and give us insight into the motivations of truly bad people. That and we love a good mob hit!

There were plenty of mobster films before The Godfather, but they were caricatures of mobsters, with the likes of James Cagney sneering and shooting his Tommy gun. In The Godfather we have much more robust characters. In The Godfather Part II we learn what drove Vito Corleone to a life of crime, essentially his inability to provide for his family in any other way plus the revenge of his own father’s murder. In The Godfather we see a more measured and mature Vito trying to keep his family where it is while avoiding the pitfalls of the growing narcotics trade. His maturity is in stark contrast to Sonny’s youthful exuberance and lust for power, which ultimately gets him whacked. But the real story of The Godfather is the precursor to Part II, in which we see a young Michael return from war thinking he could stay away from his family business only to be dragged in when things get personal for him. As he sees his father shot he gets a twinge of understanding for the family business, and then when his wife his killed in Sicily and his brother is gunned down he returns to America fully engaged in the family business. It is this change in Michael that provides the climax of The Godfather when Michael kills off the heads of the other four mafia families and whacks Moe Green as well to establish the family’s dominance not just in New York but across America. We see how that turns out in Part II, but the change in Michael is fascinating to watch and he ultimately becomes a much more ruthless killer than his father.

I don’t know anyone who likes The Godfather that doesn’t root for the family, even though we know what they are doing is against the law and immoral. We cheer when Michael kills Captain McCluskey and Sollozzo in the restaurant and we love when Clemenza strangles Connie’s husband for setting up Sonny. Not only do we love it when Clemenza kills Paulie for setting up Don Corleone, but we celebrate his famous line following the kill — “leave the gun, take the cannolis.” We feel compassion for the Corleone family when Sonny gets killed and when Michael’s wife is blown up in Sicily. We root for the killers. It’s the phenomenon that later has us relating to Tony Soprano and Dexter Morgan. Before The Godfather killers didn’t have feelings.

Of course The Godfather is one of the most quoted movies of all time, especially among men but even women love the bad guys. “Don’t ask me about my business Kay.” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”  And the most famous line, #2 on the AFI list of best movie lines ever: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

So, do I love The Godfather? No, but I like it a lot and understand its place in the history of American film. I also liked Part II, but as I said in that review I think you can’t separate the two films as they are really part of the same story, especially when you consider how Coppola shot the films out of chronological order. I’m not saying it should be seen chronologically, but when you understand the chronology the films are better. The films also gave us several iconic characters and has spawned hundreds of tributes and references. George Lucas, for example, said that the baptism scene in The Godfather was his inspiration for the scene in Episode III when Anakin Skywalker kills the separatist leaders and announces the beginning of the Galactic Empire. If there were no Godfather there would have been no Goodfellas or Casino or Sopranos. The Godfather is truly a great and important American film.

Next: Citizen Kane

AFI #3: Casablanca

casablanca_movie_poster“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”

These lines uttered by Rick Blaine set into action events that change the lives of several unsuspecting people who find themselves in Casablanca at the onset of World War II. When you think about it, it’s not much of a plot and it takes place over the course of just a few days…nevertheless Casablanca went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture and become one of the most beloved films of all time. A great many films have been about more important subjects and featured far better performances, but there is something about Casablanca that resonates with so many film goers.

It’s certainly a great love story. Rick and Ilsa fall madly in love in Paris but as the Germans roll in she leaves him standing at the train station in the rain. Why? Because the heroic husband she thought long dead has turned up alive. Upon running into each other again in Casablanca, she is torn by her feelings for Rick and her allegiance and love for her husband. At the same time, Rick finds himself questioning everything he believes in, and while he is heartbroken by the loss of Ilsa he knows the choices he must make are far greater than he. Yes, it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

It’s also a war movie, and World War II to boot. You have French patriots and Vichy sympathizers and Nazis, who always account for a great war picture! There is a mysterious American and hero of the underground. There are the profiteers like the unfortunate Ugarte and bar owner Signor Ferrari. You have the dueling national anthems. You have the intrigue of the passage to Lisbon and the murder of the German couriers.

But for me what sets Casablanca apart and what lands it not just at #3 on the AFI list but also among my personal top 10 is the brilliance of the screenplay. I know what you’re thinking…of course he likes the words, he’s a writer. But I submit to you that Casablanca is so great because it consists of some of the greatest dialogue ever performed on the silver screen. The wonderful words begin at the very start and continue unabated until the final line of the film. Yes, Casablanca is one of the most quotable films ever, but the dialogue is special even beyond those nuggets. But just for sheer fun, here’s what everyone remembers:

“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” — Captain Renault

“We’ll always have Paris.” — Rick

“Here’s looking at you kid.” — Rick

“Play it, Sam. Play “As Time Goes By.” — Ilsa

“Round up the usual suspects.” — Captain Renault

“I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” — Rick

“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” — Rick

But it’s not just these iconic lines. Every bit of dialogue is brilliant. Here’s a particular favorite of mine:

Renault: I’ve often speculated on why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a Senator’s wife? I like to think that you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.

Rick: It’s a combination of all three.

Renault: And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick: I was misinformed.

And yes, the performances are enduring. Can you think of Humphrey Bogart and not think of Rick? No matter the great performances, Claude Rains will always be Captain Louie Renault. Ingrid Bergman won three acting Oscars…remember for what films? She was not even nominated for Casablanca. It doesn’t matter, she’ll always be Ilsa Lund.

Casablanca is 102 minutes of movie perfection.

Next: The Godfather

AFI #6: Gone With the Wind


Based on the Margaret Mitchell novel, 1939’s Gone With the Wind is arguably the most popular film ever made and one of the most successful as well. It is of course the story of the American south during the Civil War, but really it is simply a sweeping and epic story of love. Note that I didn’t call it a love story, because it’s not that. It’s more like a misguided or forbidden love story. Surely the main characters love people who don’t return their affection in the way they’d like. Scarlett O’Hara loves Ashley Wilkes, but while he sometimes thinks he loves Scarlett, he is really only in love with his cousin Melanie Hamilton. And for all his bravado, Rhett Butler loves Scarlett despite her inability to return his affection. All of this is set against the demise of their beloved south, although Mitchell surely romanticizes the lifestyle far too much.

It’s truly hard not to enjoy Gone With the Wind. It is a classic of American film and the story is wonderful. But for my money Gone With the Wind is one of the greatest films ever because of its tremendous performances. And that begins, undoubtedly, with Vivien Leigh’s tour de force as Scarlett. Has there ever been a more epic female character in the history of film? Leigh’s Scarlett is beautiful, charming, manipulative, strong and tragic — all at once! Leigh’s Oscar-winning performance is one for the ages and I defy you to take your eyes off of her when she’s on the screen. Leigh made plenty of films over her career, but she will always be immortalized as Scarlett O’Hara and rightfully so.

Clark Gable, who surprisingly did not win the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal as Captain Rhett Butler, was almost as epic as Leigh. Butler is the epitome of the leading man…he is smart, handsome, strong and savvy. He makes millions during the war as a profiteer, knows how to have a good time, and is the only man who sees beyond Scarlett O’Hara’s facade and truly gets her. Unfortunately for Butler he truly loves Scarlett, and that leads him only to tragedy. By the end he at least knows when it’s time to get out! Gable’s Butler is one of the best male characters ever to be captured on film, and if you disagree…frankly I don’t give a damn.

Gone With the Wind is the definition of an epic and it deserves its lofty place on the AFI list. It is indeed an American classic.

Next: We crack the Top 5 with Singin’ in the Rain

AFI #7: Lawrence of Arabia


“The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” — T.E. Lawrence

Let’s see, a four-hour movie set in the Arabian desert with no women in the cast and long, drawn out scenes of emptiness. Yeah, that’s good for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture. Lawrence of Arabia is nothing if not ambitious. The trick indeed is not minding that it hurts.

If I’m being honest I didn’t really like Lawrence of Arabia. I mean, I sort of liked the first few hours, but by the time I got to the three-hour mark I was done. I made it to the end, but I lost interest around the time the Arab army attacked Damascus. I get that Director David Lean was going for long and slow to simulate the vastness of the desert, but he could have easily told this story in 120 minutes instead of 227. And yes, the cinematography was wonderful but after a while it too got boring. It’s interesting to me that The Bridge on the River Kwai (also directed by Lean) was #36 on this list despite being a much better film in my humble opinion.

Alas, I was not an AFI voter so my opinion doesn’t count. I did enjoy quite a bit of Lawrence of Arabia. I thought Peter O’Toole was great, but I’m a big fan. He’s one of those actors who always seems to play Peter O’Toole in films (my favorite, for the record, was 1982’s My Favorite Year). O’Toole has this amazing way of looking both serious and like he’s up to no good at the same time, which was a key attribute of his Major T.E. Lawrence. I also thought Omar Sharif was fabulous as Sherif Ali and Anthony Quinn was brilliant as Auda Abu Tayi. Too bad I can’t say the same thing about Alec Guinness, who was miserably cast as the Arab Prince Feisal — really, you can’t find a middle eastern actor to play the role of a sheik so you cast an old white British guy? Was Omar Sharif the only middle eastern actor in Hollywood at the time?

The film also has some very classic lines, so kudos to the screenwriter and likely the real Lawrence may have had something to do with it as well given the film is based on his life and the book he wrote about it. Here’s a gem:

General Murray: I can’t make out whether you’re bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted.
T.E. Lawrence: I have the same problem, sir.

Ultimately I’d say Lawrence of Arabia was decent but too damn long. Certainly not one of the top 10 American films ever made. One of the most ambitious…sure.

Next, another behemoth: Gone With the Wind