Film Review: ‘Skin’ a Disturbing, Macabre Mess

The Skin I Live In (2011) Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has been behind the camera for 50 years and is considered one of the great European directors. I’ve been a huge fan since seeing Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) back in college, a film that I credit for helping opening my eyes to the wonders of foreign films. Almodovar’s filmography includes several favorites of mine, most especially Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1989), Kika (1993), and Matador (1986). All About My Mother (1999) is a bloody revelation. He has compiled a spectacular list of awards over the years and has introduced the world to a host of Spanish actors who have stayed loyal to him even as they found American success (see Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz).

Almodovar is one of those directors who, when he releases a new film, I immediately, without question, add it to my list to see. Which is why The Skin I Live In has been on my Watchlist since its release in 2011. I wish it hadn’t been.

One of the reasons I love Almodovar’s work is because his stories are at the far edge of mainstream. I mean, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down is about a guy who is so obsessed with a porn star that he kidnaps her in an attempt to make her fall in love with him. Talk to Her (2002) is about the friendship between two men who are both caring for women who happen to be in comas. Matador is about a man who is wounded by a bull and has lost his appetite for killing and it opens with a graphic close up of him whacking off. This is not the stuff of typical Hollywood boy meets girl tropes.

Almodovar can always be counted on for shedding light on the dark side of human nature, but methinks he went too far in The Skin I Live In. It was deeply disturbing. And frankly, it’s hard to discuss without giving away the big reveal, so I’ll dance around it.

The film centers around a successful plastic surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard (played by Banderas), who has lost his wife to a tragic accident. The loss haunts him so he holes up in his rural mansion to work on a breakthrough synthetic skin that in its development casts aside medical ethics. As part of the project, he is keeping a beautiful woman hostage in his home/laboratory to use as a guinea pig for his breakthrough skin treatment.

The plot thickens as his daughter is sexually assaulted at a party, which leads to her suicide, and Dr. Ledgard decides to take the law into his own hands. The result is a psycho-sexual, disconcerting chain of events that takes even Almodovar down a strange and unsettling rabbit hole. I mean, the film is categorized as Drama/Horror/Thriller and let’s just say Dr. Ledgard received a bit of inspiration from Dr. Frankenstein.

The Skin I Live In is hard to watch and while the acting is wonderful (Banderas is great as Dr. Ledgard and Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes is brilliant as the doctor’s assistant/mother) I was left uncomfortable with the taboos that highlight the film. And I am not easily disturbed by uncomfortable subject matter.

You really can’t have too many hangups if you’re going to enjoy Almodovar films. I found a list of his themes/motifs on the web, and they include: homosexuality; sexual perversion; female heroines; sacrilegious Catholicism; excessive kitsch and camp, stalking, prostitution, rape, incest, transexuality, and women urinating on film. These topics have not kept him from scores of awards, including two Academy Awards, five British Academy Film Awards, six European Film Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, nine Goya Awards and four prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.

Say what you will about Almodovar, but you can’t say he’s not a bold and brave filmmaker. His stories tend to be centered around woman, which in an of itself is interesting for a gay director, but some find his female representations to be misogynistic. I think his female characters tend to be powerful, either by their strength and beauty or by their deep matriarchal traits.

So, I didn’t like The Skin I Live In, but I’m still going to watch the other Almodovar films I haven’t seen yet, including the soon-to-be released Pain & Glory which is a drama featuring both Banderas and Cruz.

I give The Skin I Live In four stars out of 10.

Next on my IMDB Watchlist:  Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011)

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Film Review: ‘Amigo’ Brings to Light the Horrors of the Philippine-American War


Amigo (2010) Directed by John Sayles

I am a history buff, or so I like to think. But honestly I either never learned or simply forgot that the U.S. went to war with the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, from 1899 to 1902 U.S. troops invaded the small island nation to maintain control over it following it being handed over to the U.S. following the Spanish-American War. And while the Philippines are strategically located in the Pacific, the war was criticized in America by anti-imperialists including the likes of William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie and notably, Mark Twain.

It’s not a war that gets much attention in mainstream cinema, especially given the plethora of World War II and Vietnam War films that have come out of Hollywood. Recently, we’ve even seen a slew of films about the Gulf War and our conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan.

Director John Sayles has a history of highlighting the underdog, whether its organized labor fighting for rights in West Virginia coal country in 1987’s intense film Matewan, or local residents fighting the government in 1991’s City of Hope. Sayles also has a fondness for history, most notably with his 1988 retelling of the Black Sox scandal in Eight Men Out.

One thing you can also count on with a John Sayles film is that he’ll always give you interesting characters and complex stories. I’ve been a dedicated Sayles fan for decades and have seen most of the films he’s directed, including favorites such as the aforementioned Matewan, City of Hope and Eight Men Out, along with Passion Fish, Lone Star, The Brother from Another Planet, and The Secret of Roan Inish. My personal favorite is the 1983 coming of age story Baby, It’s You starring a 24-year-old movie newcomer named Rosanna Arquette. His filmography is tremendous and for an independent filmmaker he’s managed to cast so many great actors who have gone on to stardom — he pretty much discovered actors like Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, and Mary McDonnell to name a few who have each starred in multiple John Sayles films and gone on to award-winning Hollywood careers. It’s enough to make you forget he also wrote the screenplays for Piranha, Alligator and The Howling.

Amigo certainly fits the John Sayles bill. It tells the fictional story of a small village in the Philippine jungle that has been taken over by American troops and used as a base to take on nationalist guerrillas. Things quickly get turned upside down for the villagers, who while are not harboring nationalists are in multiple cases related to guerrillas hiding nearby who are determined to fight to take back their country from the Americans.

The film stars Filipino actor Joel Torre as Rafael, the village mayor who’s brother leads the nearby guerrillas and who’s son has run off to join them. Rafael is stuck between trying to appease the American soldiers while at the same time not turning in his brother and son. We never truly know where Rafael’s allegiance lays, but he’s certainly in a tough spot. It doesn’t help that at the same time his fellow villagers seem unsure of his ability to lead the village. It’s worth noting that Sayles chose to present the film in Filipino with English subtitles except for when the Americans speak. This serves to both create a realistic experience for the viewer and at the same time ensure a level of confusion among the American troops and native villagers that adds to the tension. In recent years Sayles has made several films using subtitles versus Americanizing the characters and this adds to the realism of his films and provides unique opportunities for native-speaking actors.

The American troops are led by Colonel Hardacre, a hard-ass soldier with no soft spot for the Filipino villagers. Played by the underappreciated Chris Cooper, Hardacre clearly doesn’t want to be in the jungles of the Philippines and is perfectly comfortable treating the natives like subhumans. Cooper is a regular in Sayles’ films, perhaps most memorably as the sheriff in 1996’s Lone Star. He’s one of those actors that seems to show up everywhere and is amazing in each role (see Conklin in the Bourne films and as the sexually-confused Marine living next door to Kevin Spacey’s iconic Lester Burnham in American Beauty). Cooper does have an Oscar, which he won for Best Supporting Actor in Spike Jones’ 2002 film Adaptation.

The tension in the film comes as the American troops try to hold the village while at the same times the guerrillas try to disrupt their activities and ensure village leader Rafael doesn’t spill the beans on his brother’s activities in the jungle. The American troops are a bunch of rag-tag kids with little wartime experience and their anxieties play out as the situation gets complicated.

Ultimately the film is heartbreaking, and while it is a fictional story the viewer gets the feeling in real life it very well could have played out exactly as it does in the film. I found the story compelling and intense, and as the story progressed I could feel the anxiety mounting and I was on the edge of my seat. I highly recommend it for the story and the acting, as well as for the history lesson.

It’s also worth noting that Sayles makes no profound statement about the war or America’s imperialistic nature, rather he leaves that for the viewer. Sayles makes films about tough subjects and doesn’t preach (unlike, say, Oliver Stone) but instead provides a realistic view of the situation and leaves the viewer to make his or her own decisions about the politics. Yes, I think Sayles chooses subjects like this war specifically because they are not among the best moments of our history, and for me that’s what makes it good art.

Lastly, I should mention that once again Sayles cast a few young actors that since the time of this film have gone on to bigger things. One of the young American soldiers is played by a 24-year-old Dane DeHaan who is a tremendous actor who most recently is well known for his portrayal of the Green Goblin/Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man films (with Chris Cooper as his father). The other young up-and-comer is D.J. Qualls, who I love as the loyal Ed McCarthy in Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Both DeHaan and Qualls have even more bright roles ahead.

I give Amigo an 8 out of 10 stars.

Next on my IMDB Watchlist: Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (2011)

New Movie Review Project Underway

A few years back I decided, for no apparent reason, to watch all of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American Films in order and blog about each. It took me about 18 months to get through the list, and at the end I felt a sense of accomplishment and at the same time I felt a little sad that it was over. In the years since that challenge ended I have given some thought to doing another list, but I couldn’t quite decide which list to watch.

Over the weekend I was flipping around the Interwebs and found myself going down a rabbit hole on the Internet Movie Database and that led me to notice that my IMDB Watchlist had grown to 136 films going back to around 2011. I’m the kind of guy who keeps track of the films I watch and the books I read, and so over the years I’ve used IMDB to flag films I haven’t seen but wanted to see.

That’s when it dawned on me — I should watch all 136 films and blog about them. It’s a totally random list, but each film made my Watchlist because at some point I wanted to see it. Having a project like this will encourage me to watch more than 100 films I want to see and give me a reason to blog about them.

The list is really diverse. It has mainstream films I just never got around to seeing, as well as indie films and foreign films I’ve read about but have not gotten around to. Streaming services mean it should be simple to get access to these films. The only question is in what order will I watch them? I thought about this and ruled out alphabetical and IMDB ratings. I decided I’ll start with the film that has been on my Watchlist the longest and count up from there. So, watch this space soon for a review of the first film on the list — 2010s Amigo from one of my favorite directors, John Sayles.

Why am I doing this? That’s a good question. Mostly because I love movies and I also love to blog and this project enables me to do both. Also, frankly, I have a lot of spare time at night on on weekends and it’ll give me something more productive to do than watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory.

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

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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!

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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

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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

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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