IMDB #212 The Diving Bell and the Butterfly


Today we turn our eye to a French film, 2007's Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. When I say "French," I mean it's in Frenchman and about a Frenchman, though it was directed by an American (and thus ineligible for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, much like Clint Eastwoods Letters From Iwo Jima).

Sorry for the late posting on this one, but it's the sort of film that makes things like blogging seem a little less transcedent than normal, so this write-up was harder to start than most. This is the type of (true) story that leaves me with the impulse to hug my mom, kiss my girlfriend, high five strangers, write novels, hit home runs, and traverse countries.

This is a movie about what it means to be alive.


The Key Players:

Julian Schnabel, a Brooklyn-born painter in the Neo-Expressionist movement, is also the director of the biopics Basquiat and Before Night Falls. He's proved to be an auteur of unique vision, in addition to being a brash loudmouth with a penchant for self-aggrandizement.


Matthieu Almaric, our star, has been in a whole bunch of French films that I know nothing about (he has three Cesar awards), and last year was the bad guy in Quantum of Solace.

Screenwriter Ronald Harwood won an Oscar penning The Pianist (someone tell me how that film wins director, actor, screenplay but nor picture) is arguably the real innovator behind the film, coming up with a way to turn a very slim book into a rich and seemingly epic film.



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The Story:

Jean-Dominique Bauby (Almaric), 42, editor of the French edition of Elle magazine, begins the film in a hospital bed, in the confused and bleary aftermath of a major stroke. We begin the film with him, seeing from his eyes as he blinks the doctors and nurses into focus.

A doctor, standing uncomfortably close to the camera, explains what has happened, and asks Bauby to say his name. Although we can hear Bauby's confused inner voice, he is unable to speak- or move anything beyond his left eyelid.

Shortly afterward he witnesses, but is unable to protest as his right eye is stitched closed (since it can't close on its own). Another doctor then lays out the facts: he now has what's known as "locked-in syndrome," a very rare condition in which the body shuts down nearly completely, but the mind remains completely intact. Bauby can blink his left eye, and move his neck very slightly, but is otherwise paralyzed.

Bauby is trapped in his own body. The doctor tells him "two beauties" will arrive to help him, and soon Bauby meets Marie, a physical therapist who will help him try to regain the ability to swallow, and Henriette, a speech therapist who will help him communicate.

Henriette shows him a system whereby she reads him the letters of the alphabet (in order of most frequent use, E R A N I and so on), and he blinks when she reaches the right one. In this way, Bauby can painstakingly write sentences and whole thoughts, instead of just answering yes or no questions (by blinking once for yes and twice for no).

Bauby's first message via this system is "I want to die," to Henriette's dismay (and stern reprimand). The next day, however, he decides to stop pitying himself and thanks her for her help.

Bauby employs Henriette to call a publisher, with whom he had a book contract before his stroke (intending to modernize The Count Of Monte Cristo), and she tells them he intends to fufill the contract and write a book, now a memoir. He will, however, need someone very patient to take dictation, so the publisher sends a young assistant named Claudine.

The film then passes the time idly, like Bauby, detailing the writing of the memoir that became this movie, and his encounters with his friends, his three children and their mother Celestine (whom he never married), and the abscence of his father (who is 92 and too ill to visit him) and his current girlfriend (who can't bear to see him this way).

The Artistry:

In the course of my film studies minor, I learned of a process referred to as "suture," wherein the filmmakers employ common tricks to convince your brain that you are witnessing reality on the screen, not something pretend.

One of the most frequent devices by which they do this is the shot/reverse shot technique. They show you a view out of a window, then they immediately cut to a character looking out of that window- we immediately make the connection that we were just seeing that character's perspective (instead of, you know, the camera that took that first shot).

So believe me when I say that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is unusual because nearly the entire first half is the view from Bauby's perspective, without any corresponding view of him in a hospital bed. At 27 minutes into the film, we see a very brief flashback of Bauby in his life as a fashion editor, and not until 40 minutes do we spend any significant time outside of the bed (when Henriette places the call to the publisher, which we view from in front of the two of them).

The film takes his confinement and makes it as literal as it can, so we can feel the freedom when Bauby lets his imagination free him, lyrically relating to us passages from his book (which he composes, all in his head, in the three hours after he wakes up before Claudine begins taking dictation).

In fact, there are probably nearly as many shots of an underwater diving suit (the "diving bell" in which Bauby is trapped- his imagination is the butterfly) as there are of Bauby for a great while.

Visually, lauded cinematographer Janusz Kaminski treats us to much refocusing and shuttering of the lens in the early going, and creative use of stock footage and superimposed images to illustrate his flights of fancy later. Bauby kisses the wife of Napoleon (the patron of the hospital, once upon a time), sees acrobats in the halls, and attends a sumptuous feast with Claudine.

Harwood only breaks up his screenplay with three flashbacks: a scene where Bauby shaves his ailing father, a visit to Lourdes with his girlfriend, and near the film's end the moments right before his stroke.

I especially enjoyed the way the Lourdes visit, where his girlfriend insists on buying a bust of the Madonna and Bauby is made uncomfortable by cripples seeking miracles, underscores Bauby's indifference to religion. The real life Bauby was wryly cynical about religion, and included in the film is most of a chapter on how he's not of faith, but he'll take all the prayers he can get.

All this is accompanied lightly on the piano by composer Paul Cantelon's twinkling score, neither too sparse nor too mawkish, and well placed soundtrack selections.

THE ENDING! SPOILERS!

Bauby's book gets rave reviews, just as Bauby comes down with pnemonia- he sees some familiar landmarks as an ambulance takes him back to Paris for the first time. He dies in a hospital ten days after the publication of Le Scaphandre et le Papillon.

END SPOILERS


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Considering how much I feel like burning dvds of Juno and Michael Clayton every time I watch this (for, while decent films, there's no way they deserved Best Picture nominations instead), I'm going with higher.

The Legacy:

It's only been a short while, but given the four Oscar nominations (including Director and Screenplay but not picture wtf?) and multiple other awards, it's a safe bet for a long shelf-life.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Father's Day on the beach- this was filmed at the real beach near the hospital where Bauby lived. The tide recedes five hundred feet and comes back in and it couldn't be more cinematic.



Leftover Thoughts:

-It took Bauby ten months of blinking five hours a day to write his (albiet slim) book. What have you done with yourself this year?

-The soundtrack choices are nearly all American and not French, but they work really well, from Tom Waits at the beach to Joe Strummer over the closing credits.

-Controversy: Bauby's friends say the mother of Bauby's children skewed the film by over-emphasizing her role and making up entirely that his then-present girlfriend didn't visit.


Coming Up...

Tuesday, September 1st 8th: The Conversation

Thursday, September 3rd 10th: Ed Wood

This Week In Actual Movie Taglines

A look at the taglines for this week's major releases. How do studios try to hook us when they only have a sentence?

The Final Destination


Actual tagline: Just because you know it's happening, doesn't mean you'll see it coming.

OR: On August 28th, no matter what you do or how loud you scream, Death will find you.

OR: Rest in Pieces.

Other official slogans focus on the 3D aspect of the release, but I love the existentially frightening attempts of the first two here. Why not just go with You Are Going To Die, As Are We All ? Plus a standard lame pun! They covered all the bases.

Halloween II


Actual tagline: You can run. You can hide. Or, you can fight... LIKE HELL.

Why are the only two releases at the end of August two horror movies? Is the Saw franchise so unbeatable that all competition has to flee to a month earlier to make money?

Anyway, glad to know I have so many options available when being pursued by an unstoppable killer: A) Run, B) Hide, or C) Fight... LIKE HELL. Though I'm not clear if that last bit is supposed to be sarcastic or not, as in "Like hell you can fight! This guy is going to kill you regardless! Didn't you see the first one?"

Halloween II also has the tag Family is Forever, because it is about his sister or something. I'm not familiar with the doubtlessly complex neo-Halloween mythology.

IMDB #213 Changeling


Today we take a look at 2008's Changeling, "A true story" according to the screen right after the title appears. Join me as we find out how much "true story" credit we're willing to give a plot, how Clint Eastwood sort of thinks he's making a western all the time, and whether or not that kid is Angelina Jolie's son (obvious spoiler alert!- it totally isn't).

The Key Players:

This is our second entry with Clint Eastwood as director, but not our last- we'll get more glimpses of his bare-bones style in the director's with the Oscar winning Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven, and last year's Gran Torino.

Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski is most famous as the creator, showrunner and writer of the long-running "Babylon 5," but he's also a novelist and comic book author. Though he usually works in sci-fi, he researched the case of Christine Collins for an entire year after seeing an old court transcript.

Angelina Jolie, making her only countdown appearance (as of this writing), is of course the star of the Tomb Raider films, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Wanted. She won a Best Supporting Actress statue for Girl, Interrupted, and was nominated for leading actress for this film. She's also a frequent name in tabloids and such, and was of course in the modern classic of our times Hackers (shut up, that movie's awesome and you know it).

John Malkovich, also(?) making his only appearance in this project, is a storied actor and two-time Oscar nominee, with roles in projects like Dangerous Liasons, Empire Of The Sun, Of Mice And Men, and Being John Malkovich. He's also lately taken to producing artful teen comedies like Ghost World, Art School Confidential, Juno, and the upcoming Paper Towns (based on the excellent John Green YA Novel).

Rounding out the cast are Jeffrey Donovan (the spy-dude from "Burn Notice"!), recent Oscar nominee Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, "The Office"), and veritable "Hey, It's That Guy!" Denis O'Hare.



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The Story:

Single mother Christine Collins (Jolie) and her 9-year-old son Walter live a quiet, middle class existence in 1928 Los Angeles as we open. In short order, Christine is called into work unexpectedly, gets home late and finds Walter missing. She phones the police, who tell a shocked Christine that procedure is to wait 24 hours, since there are so many runaways that just come right back. The next day, they take her information, but can do little to find Walter, with nothing unusual reported in the neighborhood.

Months go by, and one day, a police captain (Donovan) visits Christine at work, to her trepidation. But it's good news- Walter is alive, says the cop, found in DeKalb, IL in the company of a drifter. When she goes to the train station, amidst a drum of reporters rounded up by the LAPD (happy to publicize doing something right during a time of constant accusations of corruption), she stops short- that isn't walter.

The captain assures her it is, that the boy's just changed during his ordeal- and "Walter" knows his name and home address. Somewhat mollified, Christine smiles unsteadily for the cameras and takes the boy home.

Soon she discovers that not only is this boy circumcized (Walter wasn't), but three inches shorter than her son. She goes to the police captain, who gets belligerent and shoos her out of the station. He sends a doctor the next day, who tries to convince Christine that severe shocks to the system can somehow cause a three inch shrinking (and as for the circumcision, well who knows what these derlict types may do to a child). After an article is published in the paper ridiculing her concerns, Christine goes on the offensive, getting written statements from Walter's dentist and teacher claiming this boy (who she's still been caring for) is not her son, and announcing her intention to file a civil suit to the press, with the help of a Presbyterian minister (Malkovich), who has made it a crusade to expose corruption and wrongdoing in the LAPD.

Of course, eager to avoid admitting any mistakes, the police captain has Christine involuntarily commited to a psych ward under "Code 12," which indicates a police request. The ward's resident Jack Nicholson type, a prostitute named Carol (Ryan), befriends Christine and points out all of the other "Code 12" women with little hope of getting out. As the minister tries to discover where she's gone, Christine tries to cope with an electro-shock happy doctr (O'Hare) and not lose hope...

The Artistry:

Changeling is a tense movie. As the trailer sort of blows the whole "not my son" angle, and the involuntary commitment, the entire beginning of the film is a slow buildup to things we know are coming. And the eventual revelations later are dosed out quickly, after long stretches of tensions. Eastwood paces his plot like a series of gunfights in a Western, I think- he's used to movies where the outcome can change in an instant, and the big finish of Changeling is frought with a constant interplay between one result and another (more on this in a second).

Jolie does an admirable job from scene to scene, making the transitions from histronics to insistence stubborness when needed. It's a subtle transformation- there's a little of the standard "fighting the good fight" when she's in the ward, but the rest of the movie she doesn't so much do the brave thing (i. e. taking on the entire LAPD) because she wants to, she does it because it's the only way to find her son. The rest of the cast mostly have time to hit the single notes their characters call for- Malkovich the helping hand, Ryan the mentor, Donovan the villain.

The gender polotics of this movie are an astounding example of what we were once capable of- as Jolie says in the extras, it's something you'd have trouble following along with if it dindn't happen in real life. Only eight years after it became illegal to deny women the vote, it was an easy job to railroad a single woman for an organization like the LAPD, and standards for involuntary commitment were frighteningly lax.

When the inevitable turnaround comes, it makes it all that much more satisfying. Changeling wasn't something I would've gone out and watched myself, but it's compelling in a much more personal way than I expected. It's a story, not a message movie, because the message in something this extremely backward and wrong just boils down to "What the f*ck!" the more you think about it.

THE ENDING! SPOILERS!

While the minister starts setting things in motion to get Christine released, the news breaks that Walter was among the boys spotted at a ranch in Wineville, CA, where a man named Dennis Northcutt is now accused of kidnapping, molesting and killing up to twenty children.

This lends plenty of credence to Christine's now-publicized claims that she was given the wrong child, and public opinion turns decidedly in her favor as she is released and the LAPD picketed by protestors.

After the proceeding trials, which are neatly intercut, Northcutt is sentenced to hang after two years' imprisonment (though not for Walter's murder specifically, as his remains are not identified),the police captain resigns, the police chief is demoted, and the mayor declines to run again. Christine holds out hope for Walter, and still calls missing person departments across the country for news.

Two years go by, and Northcutt sends for Christine, claiming he wants to tell her the truth about her son to assuage his conscience. She goes, but Northcutt panics at the sight of her and stammers that he "can't lie" to her because it would be a sin- he doesn't admit to killing Walter, and Christine watches him hang (in a tense, drawn out to infinity scene) the next day.

Three years after that, a boy is found, and after a brief moment in which we don't know which boy it is, it turns out not to be Walter, but a boy who was confined at the ranch with him. He, Walter, and two other boys had made an escape attempt, and the boy had laid low for years for fear of reprisal or punishment. In his story he mentions that Walter came back to help him during the escape attempt, saving his life, but the fate of the other boys is unknown.

Christine tells the officer that broke the case five years before (the one good cop in the film) that she now has hope for Walter for the first time in years, and we end.

END SPOILERS


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I'm actually pretty happy with it right here, on the fringes of the top 200- it probably could be higher without the manipulative ending (the least true-to-life part, as Christine Collins never visited Northcutt in prison and wouldn't have watched the hanging).

The Legacy:

Beyond the three Oscar (and nine BAFTA) nominations, it really hasn't been that long. It's yet to be seen what this will do for Jolie's career as a "serious" actress- her only upcoming project is the action movie Salt (and maybe Wanted 2 what?).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Actually very slim pickings on there, but there are a few interviews with Jolie and Eastwood that lay out the context a little bit:



Leftover Thoughts:

-Odd moment when Malkovich is describing the LAPD's corruption to Jolie and we see it depicted in flashbacks for some reason. We don't need that much proof, Eastwood. Whose perspective are we following here?

-Actual Tagline for this film: To Find Her Son, She Did What No One Else Dared. Does that not imply that she definitely finds her son?

-Donovan rocks a nice Irish accent in this film (much like in the recent season finale of "Burn Notice"). Real weird to see him as a villain, though.

-Differences between real life and film (Spoilers): Northcutt's mother actually was implicated in helping her son with his crimes, and at one point confessed to killing Walter Collins, recanting it later. Interesting that this was left out of the film- perhaps it clashed a little violent with Jolie's interpretation of the bonds of motherhood (end spoilers).

Transfigurations: Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban


So after catching the last two Harry Potter movies on cable (or whatever) and generally scoffing at the acclaim for the books (or some reason I once felt that Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fandom were mutually exclusive), I finally became a believer with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, our subject today in Transfigurations. Off we go!

The Crew:

Chris Columbus, tiring of rarely seeing his family AND RUINING OUR DREAMS, decided to merely produce this installment in the series. After Guillermo Del Toro and Marc Forster turned it down, Alfonso Cuaron was selected for the job.

After getting his start in Mexican tv, Cuaron proved no small shakes at translating literary coming-of-age stories to the screen with A Little Princess and Great Expectations. It was his Y Tu Mama Tambien, however, that attracted the filmmakers, though that film's overtly sexual post-adolescent themes are understandably muted here. He went on to make one of my favorite films of recent memory, Children of Men.

Steve Kloves returns on screenplay duties, while John Williams continues to compose scores and all. Our cinematographer (because this is the first time I've been compelled to look it up) is Michael Seresin, director of photography on such disparate films as Fame, Angela's Ashes, and Step Up.

The Cast:

Three major new additions greatly increase my appreciation for the series as well: David Thewlis plays the best teacher slash werewolf any student could wish for, and nobody plays crazy like Crazy Gary Oldman.

After Richard Harris's passing in 2002, Michael Gambon stepped into the role of Dumbeldore with a booming voice, a darker interpretation of the character, and a slight Irish accent.



NOTE: SPOILERS ARE RAMPANT HERETOFORE. HEREWITH? HENCEFORTH? THE POINT IS, THEY'RE EVERYWHERE!

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MAJOR DIFFERENCES

From a plot standpoint, events are naturally condensed into a more breezy timeline, and some exposition is lost. What I love about this from a cinematic standpoint is that while the book feels the odd need to refresh us on many, many things (opening with the line "Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways.", in case we were not aware), the film can just sort of assume that we will pick it up as we go along, if we don't know already.

The film removes the extended subplot wherein Harry receives a Firebolt (a fancy Quidditch broom) anonymously, and Hermione reports it to Professor McGonagall, suspecting it might be from Sirius Black. This causes an extended rift between Hermione and Harry/Ron which lasts nearly half the book. The argument between Ron and Hermione about Crookshanks's pursuit of Scabbers is much less touched-upon.

Perhaps now that the three leads were finally old enough to start developing an onscreen rapport, it was decided not to split them up as much as the book does (Kloves also loves Hermione more than Ron, and wouldn't want to write her out very much. More on this later).

The final major thing left out is the explanation of exactly how Sirius Black betrayed the Potters, what the Fidelius Charm is, and so on. This is seemingly the beginning of a trend in which major plot points are just left unexplained in later films (which never bother me, since I've read the books now).

MINOR DIFFERENCES

Before the great feast to start the term we're treated to a performance of a chorus of children holding toads, singing the words from the opening three witches scene of Shakespeare's MacBeth. Were they practicing all summer for that or something?

The burgeoning and inevitable relationship between Ron and Hermione is planted in the films earlier, with a furtive hand-clasp during the hippogriff class. This is in addition to an awkward aborted hug in film 2.

The restriction on underage magic seems to flutter in and out of existence in the films- Harry is seen at the very start practicing lumos maxima with his wand (if you know what I mean), but doesn't worry about getting in trouble until inadvertently blowing up his aunt. My operating theory is that in the films magic is restricted, but they can't detect it remotely with "the trace" as mentioned in book 7. They just punish people for things they hear about, like the hover charm in 2 or the patronus charm in 5.

Also, cut for time in the film are nearly all Quidditch scenes and lessons where nothing important happens. Oh well.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ THE BOOK

The book has the natural advantage of time, once again, and in book three especially we're treated to the revelation that there was a full-fledged history going on before Harry Potter was even born, one that consisted of much more than an evil wizard named Voldemort doing bad things. The adults in all the early books were fun enough and all, but they never seemed to have stories of their own until the third book- finding out about the marauders, Lupin's lycanthropy, and why Snape hates Harry's father so much (part of it, anyway), I've always found more engaging than the general good/bad dichotomy, at least early on.

The book makes all of the connections between the present day and the past clear, as well- the movie, despite liking the Marauders' Map so much that they made it a key part of the credits and DVD production design, never explain who they were (nor does Lupin explain how he knows what the map is, when he sees it).

The movie does retain plenty of the dramatic appeal, especially in the climactic scene when all is revealed in the shrieking shack (though it's not explained why it's called the shrieking shack), and it's the implied history that made me pick up the books in the first place. But why they couldn't have mentioned the friendship of Lupin, Black, Pettigrew and Harry's father in more detail in the film is beyond me.

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH THE MOVIE

Oh man, oh man. So many little things are happening, all around the edges of this movie. You can really tell that they spent more time on production, more time on FX, more time making it a cohesive vision. And as well they should- the Harry Potter books presented filmmakers with the opportunity to depict a world in which anything could be magical, at any time, but it took three films to run with it.

Just watch the first twenty seconds of this clip below (don't mind the foreign dubbing or brief red title thing):



As we pan into the leaky cauldron, we see a wizard absent-mindedly making his spoon swirl itself, a busboy make an empty bottle disappear, and the chairs put themselves up on the table. Just for a brief establishing shot of the Leaky Cauldron.

Beyond movie-only scenes like the candy that causes animal sounds, this attention to detail goes straight through- even the letters in the Harry Potter logo float in place this time, because why not. There's a giraffe running through all the portraits, brooms and quills that move on their own- every time I find something else I didn't see before.

It's also a great story, streamlining the plot of the book into a compelling mystery. Though it lacks the personal touches I mentioned above, it does include a new scene where Harry sees Peter Pettigrew on the Marauders' Map, which I like because it sets up the big reveal at the end a lot better- reading the book I don't see how one could possibly guess that Sirius Black is actually innocent until it's all laid out for you, but the implication that Pettigrew is alive in the film plants the seed in a more thorough way.

There are even some great lines that don't stem from the book at all- when Lupin is about to transform, Sirius tells him "You know the man you truly are Remus. This heart is where you truly live!". Or the spontaneously philosophical Dumbeldore off-handedly musing: "For in dreams we enter a world that's completely our own."

The camera-work is superb, as well- the seasons transition with the flight of birds, we transition straight through mirrors at inventive angles, or through the Hogwarts clock. From overhead we see dementors circling just as carrion crows did earlier, or a diminutive angle of a stone skipped over the lake telegraphs Hagrid's sadness at losing Buckbeak's appeal. It's magic behind the camera worthy of what's in front.


CONCLUSIONS: One? The other? Both?

I would definitely recommend both, and with a gun to my head I'd go with the film- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is probably my favorite film in the series so far on its own merits (it might be because I saw it before reading the book, unlike the following three).

It finds a perfect middle ground between the faithfulness that such a popular book requires and the inventiveness that a great filmmaker can bring.

Based on the first two movies, I didn't feel motivated to read Harry Potter books because I just figured I was missing out on a decent kids' story.

After I saw this movie, I realized I was missing out on an entire world, such as I might find in dreams.


Leftover Thoughts:

- Per the DVD extras: Alfonso Cuaron assigned the three principals an essay on their characters. In an hilarious case of excellent casting, Daniel Radcliffe wrote a page, Emma Watson wrote sixteen pages, Rupert and Grint just didn't do it.

-Another worthy addition to the cast: Emma Thompson's appropriately bonkers Professor Trelawny chews just the right amount of scenery.

-Parodies of HPPoA that are worth your time: Cleolinda Jones's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in Fifteen Minutes, and the Rifftrax (downloadable .mp3 commentary from the MST3K guys) is a steal at $4.

Next week, of course, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!

IMDB #214 Bonnie and Clyde


Today we steadily progress in the countdown with a film that launched the "New Hollywood" era, glorified a pair of two-bit grocery-store robbers that had no larger legacy (like John Dillinger managed on his own), and set new standards of acceptable screen sex and violence: a 1967 number called Bonnie and Clyde.

The Key Players:

Our maestro is Arthur Penn, director of the celebrated The Miracle Worker, the westerns The Left Handed Gun and Little Big Man, as well as the feature-film adaptation of Arlo Guthrie's famous song Alice's Restaurant.

Producer and star Warren Beatty had already made a name for himself in Splendor In The Grass before headlining this picture. A storied career followed- Beatty has been nominated for fourteen Oscars of various types, winning one statue for directing his communist epic Reds. Beatty was the real driving force behind Bonnie and Clyde in his role as producer, hiring Penn and screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton and receiving 40% of the final gross (which Warner Brothers had thought would amount to very little).

Faye Dunaway, making her second countdown appearance, has had a career that extends far beyond winning an Oscar for annoying the crap out of me in Network: from the highs of The Thomas Crown Affair and Barfly to the lows of Mommie Dearest and a cameo in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair.

Gene Hackman co-stars, but we'll discuss him at length in future posts, and Estelle Parsons won an Oscar for Supporting Actress for her work in this film.



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The Story:

A simplified version of history, as Bonnie Parker (Dunaway) spots Clyde Barrow (Beatty) trying to steal her mother's car in the driveway, and brazenly yells at him while wearing no clothes.

An immediate bond forms, as Clyde tells Bonnie he robs banks, and produces a gun- intrigued, she strokes the muzzle (I am informed this is pretty risque for 1967), but doubts he's telling the truth. So he robs a grocery store right at that moment, and they hit the road in a stolen car (after finally learning one another's names).

They embark on their fabled, meandering crime spree through rural Texas. The first bank they hit has actually gone under three weeks before (a nod to the Depression setting), but they get by squatting in foreclosed houses and robbing whatever gas stations, grocers, and banks they come across. They pick up a teenage protege, C. W. Moss during a job.

Eventually they meet up with Clyde's brother Buck (Hackman) and his wife Blanche (Parsons). Buck gets along with everyone, but Blanche, the obvious square of the bunch, and Bonnie detest one another immediately.

The gang has a few run-ins with the law- in an early bank heist, Moss inexplicably starts parallel-parking the getaway car, delaying the escape and leading to Clyde shooting the bank-manager in the face through the car window (in a very oddly-framed shot). Another time, they tie up and humiliate a Texas Ranger named Frank Hamer who has pursued them across the border into Oklahoma.

After a long time on the run, Bonnie implores Clyde to let her visit her family. In another scene, the power-happy gang take a couple hostage (Gene Wilder in his screen debut, and the improbably-named Evans Evans) and chatter with them like friends, only to abruptly kick them out of the car when Bonnie dislikes that the man is an undertaker.

Eventually Frank Hamer (who has magically transformed into a coldly efficient lawman) catches up with them, and various gunfights ensue: finally Buck is shot in the head, while Blanche is blinded by shattering glass. Bonnie, Clyde and C. W. make a hasty retreat as Clyde's brother dies on the grass surrounded by police, marking an abrupt shift in the tone of the film.

The Artistry:

As landmark as it was, Bonnie and Clyde is tonally jarring from my perspective. Long sequences of gun-fire end abruptly with Flatt and Scruggs' jaunty banjo tune "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."

The film seems to expect levity by showing our would-be master criminals joking around with terrified bystanders, or laughing at their own jokes, but the script doesn't really work that hard to make them three-dimensional, or like-able. There are a couple of scenes that deal with Clyde's bedroom impotency (and the desire for violence that that might imply compensates), and Bonnie's desire to write poetry and be something more than a yokel, but neither one really grows up in any way.

Although if they did, it wouldn't be a very accurate representation. As it is, the biggest inaccuracies are the movie-star looks and wardrobe the pair maintains while on the lam. Frank Hamer would never have been caught by them- he was a legendary, semi-retired Ranger brought in specially to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde, since the local police and FBI weren't getting results. Also, C. W. Moss is an amalgamation of two different associates of the Barrow gang.

Technically, it's a well-made film- it was one of the first film's to employ squibs (exploding packets of fake blood) en masse for realism, and Burnett Guffney more than deserved his Oscar for cinematography.

A small commentary, echoed by the direct descendant Natural Born Killers, crops up on the media's obsession with crime when reporters interview fame-hungry police and witnesses to one of the bank heists.

THE ENDING! SPOILERS!

Hamer tricks the blinded Blanche into revealing C. W. Moss's name- this leads them to Moss's father, who agrees to turn over Bonnie and Clyde in exchange for his son's pardon.

It all ends, of course, in the climactic massacre scene, in which a rustle in the bushes is the only prelude our two lovers get before they're riddled with bullets for a solid thirty seconds, shot from multiple angles at multiple speeds.

After a minute or so of ringing silence as the police look on, the screen tells us its "THE END."

END SPOILERS


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I can't say I was moved, but I've been desensitized, no doubt, by all of the screen violence and sexuality that Bonnie and Clyde opened the door for.

I'm still gonna go with lower, since innovation doesn't mask what were to me, flat performances in an uneven film. Alas.

The Legacy:

The National Film Registry feels that it's worth saving, and it's elevated the reputation of the real life Bonnie and Clyde well-beyond what it deserves. In plenty of documents like Bryan Burroughs' thoroughly-researched book Public Enemies, it's made clear that they were little more than hillbillies on a spree, little known outside of Texas.

In January it was announced that Hilary Duff (a manufactured pop-star) and Kevin Zegers (an actual actor who was in Transamerica) will star in a new version of the story (not a remake of this film in particular), The Story of Bonnie and Clyde.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Why not the ending scene (spoilers still involved, I suppose)? I watched and mostly just thought how awkward it'd be to act, with Dunaway sort of half in the car and Beatty rolling around on the ground (though as can clearly be scene in archival footage, in real life they were both in the car):



Leftover Thoughts:

-The compressed film version of events doesn't make it clear that the gang killed 14 people, mostly policemen.

-Blanche Barrow complained publicly about her shrill portrayal in the script, and Frank Hamer's widow actually sued the studio for writing him as so initially incompetent.

-Many historians strongly suspect that Bonnie, though complicit, never actually committed a murder or fired a gun herself (Dunaway is seen shooting several times in Bonnie and Clyde).

This Week In Actual Movie Taglines

A look at the taglines for this week's major releases. How do studios try to hook us when they only have a sentence?

Inglourious Basterds


Actual Taglines: If You Need Heroes, Send In The Basterds

OR: A basterd's work is never done.

OR: You haven't seen war untill you've seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino.

OR: several others.

One of the most ubiquitously promoted movies of the summer ends up with several official slogans, naturally. Four have quotes from the film, or the character posters have the format "Brad Pitt is a Basterd." Or you get the ones above touting the the film's in-your-face misspelling, which honestly has been annoying me all summer.

Of the title (spelled correctly in the early poster above), Tarantino says: "Here's the thing. I'm never going to explain that. You do an artistic flourish like that, and to explain it would just take the piss out of it and invalidate the whole stroke in the first place." Would it? Really? I think he just doesn't want to admit that he likes lolcatz.

Also I think people that have actually, y'know, seen war might take exception to that third one.

Post Grad


Actual Tagline: Now What?

OR: A Pre-Life Crisis.

As a former English major, I can sympathize with the idea of this movie, but not with the terrible play on "mid-life" in the second tag.

Shorts


Actual Tagline: Not So TALL Tales From The Director Of 'Spy Kids'

I once was a child. I can't remember if I found bad puns amusing then, but kid's movies sure seem to assume that all kids must.

IMDB #215 Good Will Hunting


Happy Tuesday, everyone! Today we take a look at yet another Best Picture nominee, 1997's Good Will Hunting- another deserving film beaten by Titanic (which is decidedly not going to appear on this countdown. L. A. Confidential, which also lost that year, is at #65 as of this writing).

So many questions. Will we set a record for f-bombs in a countdown entry? Will we find clues to Ben Affleck's later poor script selection in this early triumph? Do we like dem apples? And is it Will's fault? Is it?

The Key Players:

Director Gus Van Sant recently earned a second nomination for Best Director for Milk, and won a Palm D'Or for 2003's Elephant. A giant of indie films, if that makes any sense, he's also the auteur behind such celebrated films as Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, My Own Private Idaho, To Die For, and Paranoid Park.

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck famously launched themselves to fame writing and starring in this film. Affleck was the slightly bigger star at the time (starring in Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy), but Damon is the slightly bigger star these days. He's headlined three Bourne action movies and landed roles in The Departed, Saving Private Ryan, and the Ocean's series, and is also f*cking Sarah Silverman.

Ben Affleck's successes have been just as big, if less critically lauded (Armaggeddon, Pearl Harbor, The Sum Of All Fears), but his failures have been noticeably more spectacular, between Gigli and Daredevil). He's recently made a comeback of sorts with respectable roles in films like Hollywoodland and State Of Play and directing the well-received Gone Baby Gone, and he's also f*cking Jimmy Kimmel.

People under the age of thirty might not generally be aware of this, but Robin Williams used to be more than an utterly insane individual and bit player in awful family comedies. He was a respectable dramatic actor, winning an Oscar for his work here after nominations for Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, and The Fisher King. Granted he has always balanced art-fare with family-friendly crowd-pleasers, but even those used to actually please crowds: Jumanji, Hook, and Mrs. Doubtfire have held up all-right, and his voice-work in Aladdin is my favorite part.

He has always been utterly insane, though.

Stellan Skarsgard (The Hunt For Red October, Ronin) Oscar nominee Minnie Driver (Circle Of Friends, Grosse Point Blank), and Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Gone Baby Gone) round out our cast, but I should probably get to the movie already, huh?



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The Story:

Damon and Affleck's award-winning script is verbally dense, but the plot is rather simple: Damon plays the eponymous Will Hunting, an orphaned, wary 20-year-old from South Boston with a rap sheet, abandonment issues, and the mind of a genius.

Working as a janitor at MIT, he solves an advanced math problem left on a hallway blackboard, bringing him to the attention of renowned math professor Gerry Lambeau (Skarsgard)- the professor goes to his latest hearing for assault charges and convinces the judge to release Will, provided he meet weekly with a therapist.

That therapist, after a few hilarious failed-attempts with stuffier shrinks, turns out to be Lambeau's college roommate Sean Maguire (Williams), who develops a rocky rapport with Will.

Will also meets a British Harvard med student, Skylar (Driver), and struggles with letting her into his life, which previously consisted only of a few loyal friends (two of whom are played by Afflecks).

Can a young man find his way in the world, even if all he has are a genius intellect, loyal friends, an impassioned mentor, a concerned therapist, and the love of a beautiful woman? Stay tuned to find out.

The Artistry:

Good Will Hunting is a film that I remembered only for a few key scenes, since I had seen it so long ago: mostly the funny moments, like "How do you like dem apples?", or the "Afternoon Delight" scene.

But it's not hard to see how it ended up with nine Oscar nominations, even in a year dominated by the more technically expansive Titanic and L. A. Confidential. Danny Elfman's austere score plays nicely off of the many songs contributed by the late Elliott Smith (whose career also took off thanks to this movie).

While our good old Van Sant expressiveness occasionally takes hold of the lens, such as in the early fight scene, Good Will Hunting is still by far his most accessible film this side of Finding Forrester. Jean-Yves Escoffier's cinematography takes the odd turn into fractured-lens flashbacks, but stays clear and bright the rest of the time, and Pietro Scalia's editing is uniformly linear and well-paced.

It's the screenplay, on the other hand, that takes the most artistic indulgences- the film has the habit of pausing every fifteen minutes for a "For Your Consideration" type speech or fight scene. But the cast manages to make each of these scenes seem like something that could occur naturally, from the scenes reminiscent of Ordinary People between Will and his therapist to the the relationship melodrama.

Good Will Hunting was apparently originally written as a thriller, with government agencies trying to tempt Will into using his intellect to serve them- this seems to have been preserved in a long speech Will makes decrying international intelligence practices when the NSA offers him a job.

A constant undercurrent of the script is the class struggle that's such an indelible part of Boston's geography- the clash between the industry surrounding the universities and the slums on the edges so well-realized in subsequent films like The Departed and Affleck's Gone Baby Gone. Affleck's character has a monologue near the end of the film basically berating Will for nearly being stupid enough to ignore his ticket out of the lower-middle-class.

THE ENDING! SPOILERS!

After rejecting Lambeau's attempts to involve himself in the academic world and awkwardly breaking up with Skylar after she asks him to move to California with her, Will finds himself at a crossroads. After some soul-searching set to some music, we see him decide to take the NSA job.

Maguire, by now a friend through their sessions, finally breaks through in a climactic and Oscar-y scene in which they discuss Will's childhood, which was full of foster parents' abuse. Maguire tells Will "It's not your fault" more than a few times (ten, in fact), until he finally breaks into tears and gets the message.

Will drives to California, and leaves only a note parroting an earlier anecdote of Maguire's- he had to see about a girl, it says.

END SPOILERS


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Good Will Hunting I think, is something of a modern classic. It's not a film a whole bunch of people openly rave about (in part because it's so remarkably earnest), but it's something nearly everyone saw and liked.

After re-watching it, I'd say higher.

The Legacy:

Well, there's the awards and stuff, and the careers therein launched, but I'd say a clearer mark of cultural influence is parody: presenting Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season


The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Lots of choices on Youtube, for once, but in a pinch I'm gonna go with the scene where Robin Williams describes how he met his wife.



The abrupt shift to "No, I didn't rush the f*cking field, I wasn't there." gets me every time. And the way the clips of the game are worked in, and the overhead shots of the chairs in the office matching the bases- that's what's Van Sant brings to the table.

Leftover Thoughts:

-I love that this film has all the Academy pleasing speeches but also lines like "Can we get off of mothers? 'Cause I got offa yours last night!" in it.

-Actual Tagline for this film: Wildly charismatic. Impossibly brilliant. Totally rebellious. For the first 20 years of his life, Will Hunting has called the shots. Now he's about to meet his match.

Monday Roundup: Box Office

Shocking box office news this weekend, as it appears that effective marketing, good reviews, and positive word-of-mouth can lead to success as District 9 wins with an estimated $37 Million. I'm glad to see it do well (and hopefully I'll see it soon myself), though I'm kind of sick of reviews that all essentially make the point "Somehow a so-called 'science-fiction' film has actually delivered a powerful message about human behavior! Who'da thunk it?" There are no genres, people. Just good and bad. Get that through your heads.

The Time Traveler's Wife, which somehow cost $9 mil more than District 9 to make, opened third with $19 mil, behind a rapidly plummeting G. I. Joe at number 2. Elsewhere The Goods open meagerly, and Ponyo averaged a decent amount on fewer than 1,000 screens, though something tells me it won't approach its $183 overseas gross here in the states. And we finally, as a planet, have spent more on tickets for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince than on Transformers 2: Shia Labeouf Is Even Twitchier, thankfully.

That's really all I got this morning. Countdown entries coming up this week are Good Will Hunting and Bonnie and Clyde, plus the third Harry Potter movie on Friday!

If you're bored in the meantime, all four seasons of "ALF" are now available on hulu.com. You're welcome.

Transfigurations: Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets


Welcome back to my feature comparing movies to their source material. We continue our six-part Harry Potter series with the second book and film, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets.

NOTE: Again, all kinds of Harry Potter spoilers are rampant in this post, though mostly for this installment

The Crew:

As mentioned last week, our filmmakers are screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Chris Columbus.

The Cast:

Once again, the cast is huge and it really wouldn't do to recap everyone's storied career. Suffice it to say that our three stars, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, have all grown up a year and gotten better, and our already packed-with-ringers supporting adult cast adds Kenneth Branagh to its ranks this time out.



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THINGS THE BOOK DOES THAT THE FILM DOESN'T

1. Not to hark on this or anything, but- Subtlety

It's the little things, people. I know that the subtleties of the printed page are completely different, but Columbus is just too "gee-whiz!" of a director to be right for this series at all.

Dobby, for example, is in large part directly translated from the book (Toby Jones's rasping voice-work I mostly could've done without), but is initially seen inexplicably jumping on Harry's bed, a completely out of character moment.

Or the stairs in Hogwarts castle, which merit but a sentence or two about how they shift about in print (and move mostly in the background in future films) get a musical flourish and their own camera shots in Chamber, and then Harry and co. pass by.

This attitude carries once again into a spectacularly overdone Quidditch match (where Harry flies through the stands, and Oliver Wood's broomstick is shattered by a bludger), Hermione immobilizing an entire roomful of pixies with one speel (instead of two at a time), and the important-to-the-plot breaking of Ron's wand- in the book, he finds it broken after the whomping willow pummels the car, but in the film breaks it himself whacking it on the steering wheel. This after the flying car nearly gets hit by the Hogwarts express, a completely new idea.

It's the difference, I think, of existing in a world versus presenting it. As exposition-y as Rowling's books can be, they sort of take the whole magic thing as a given, and don't waste time emphasizing it (at least not more than other things, like characterization and plot). Columbus is less interested in Harry than he is in the scar on his forehead (which shows up a lot more in these two films than later ones, where Harry's bangs cover it up).

2. Advance The Plot In A Timely Fashion

As we find out at the end of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, a lot of the master plot has to do with Ginny Weasley, and small scenes from the book that seem inconsequential at first glance back that back that up: she looks pale and sickly at a point, she looks mortified when she sees Harry with Riddle's diary, and she seems about to tell Harry and Ron something one morning before Percy walks by.

Are any of these scenes in the film? No, though we do see Ginny's Harry-related nervousness early on, and she's around the whole time.

Other plot elements get shuffled, but the scenes that dealt with them are preserved: Gilderoy Lockhart is still introduced signing books at the book-shop, but he doesn't announce he'll be teaching at Hogwarts- he just shows up there a few scenes later.

Similarly, Harry still arrives in Borgin & Burkes accidentally, but doesn't eavesdrop on Lucious Malfoy- the scene seems to be preserved mostly because Columbus wanted a disembodied hand to suddenly grab Harry's wrist. Magic!


THINGS THE FILM DOES THAT THE BOOK DOESN'T

1. Have Excellent British Actors Bringing The Adults To Life

Again, by far my favorite part of these first two films is the stacked cast. Here, we spend some time around Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters), who scales back the more reactionary book character in a fun performance, and Mr. Weasley (Mark Williams), who has my favorite non-book line when asking Harry about Muggles: "Now tell me Harry, what exactly is the function of a rubber duck?"

Which is not to mention Alan Rickman's legendary Snape again (though I just did, I guess, because Snape is awesome), Maggie Smith's spot-on McGonagall, or Richard Harris as Dumbeldore- the late Harris's quiet, rasping Dumbeldore obviously stands out the most, since it contrasts with Michael Gambon's later interpretation of the character.

2. Pace The Big Finale A Lot Better

My problem with the end of the second book is that, after the first book's careful constructed obstacles, the finish is just four pages of Fawkes ex machina. In rapid succesion, Dumbeldore's pet phoenix shows up, pecks out the basilisk's eyes, drops the Sorting Hat in Harry's arms (which produces Gryffindor's sword), heals Harry's wound, and brings him the diary to destroy.

The film, in the rare instance of the cinema of spectacle helping an adaptation, spaces these moments out with a blind-basilisk chase-sequence and a small sword battle. Harry also stabs the diary all on his own.

I promise from now on that the "Things the film does" parts will be longer because the rest of the films do more things.

OTHER DIFFERENCES I NOTICED THAT ARE LARGELY INCONSEQUENTIAL

-When you use Polyjuice Potion in this film, you still have your own voice (but not, as we'll see, in the next one). Hmm?

-In an early example of Ron's lines getting given to another character (Steve Kloves seems to care very little for Ron), Hermione knows all about what a "mudblood" is.

-We do get to fly through the Harry Potter logo for the first time (a trend in all subsequent films), though the WB logo sort of falls out of the way.

-I mostly liked the way Parseltongue was depicted, though I find myself wondering why the basilisk only ever talked about killing things as it wandered about the castle. Why didn't Harry hear things like "I haven't molted in a while....this is really getting itchy...man, spiders sure are delicious...I wonder where they all went?"

-Hermione is a lot less of a scold in the films in general: here she seems hardly reproving of the boys arriving in a stolen car and damaging the whomping willow.

-I like the way Harry frees Dobby in the film better- hiding a sock in the diary, which Malfoy then hands to his servant. Tossing the sock over your shoulder seems like an iffy definition of "giving."

-The restriction on underage wizardy doesn't seem to exist in the early films- Harry gets no letter after Dobby uses a hover charm. More on this when we get to the fifth movie.

-Finally, John Williams score is once again a large culprit in the "golly gee!" sense that I dislike in these two first films.


CONCLUSIONS

So after two installments of Columbus-vision, I couldn't be happier to be moving on. The irony here is that if you're a book purist, these two films have been the hands-down best at keeping the story intact.

But that's the problem, they're not really films that way. The more you try to imitate another art form, the more you reveal that you can't do the same things.

Granted, Harry Potter isn't exactly a property that you can just hack apart in the service of movie-making, and it's not exactly a collosal failure that Columbus couldn't do both at once. But it's no wonder that the franchise went with an entirely different choice for the next film.

What Harry Potter books need are people who can tells stories with the camera to match the source material. Columbus was little more than someone trying to read the first two books to us as a bedtime story: serviceable enough, but he couldn't do the funy voices the way we like.

Next week, with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, we'll see how it's done.

IMDB #216 All Quiet On The Western Front


Today, folks, we'll be discussing 1930's All Quiet On The Western Front- yet another in a long line of Best Picture winners. Now, I know all works of art are open to interpretation, and let me know if I'm missing the point entirely, but I gathered one thing from this movie:

War sucks.

It seriously does.

The Key Players:

The director of this early talkie is the appropriately named Lewis Milestone, who won an Oscar for "Best Comedy Direction" (Two Arabian Knights) at the first ever Oscar ceremony before pocketing a straight Best Director statue for this film, two years later. He would go on to helm such classics as The Front Page (which was remade as this), the original Ocean's Eleven, and Mutiny On The Bounty.

Lew Ayres was catapulted to leading man status by his role here, and would later star in nine films in the "Dr. Kildare" series, a franchise which eventually spawned a radio serial and a tv spinoff. He's also, fittingly, a well known conscientious objector: during World War II he made headlines by volunteering, but only if he could serve in the medical corps. In 1948, legend has it that his costar in Johnny Belinda left her husband to be with him (an incident only notable sixty years later because that husband was some B-actor named Ronald Reagan, making him the only divorcee to reside in the White House).

Louis Wolheim (a prolific silent-film actor in one of his last roles), William Bakewell and Ben Alexander (former child stars whose careers were starting to slow down as they got taller), and a half dozen others (along with an amount of extras that would almost certainly be just CGI these days) round out the cast.



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The Story:

The movie starts with a paragraph claiming that the narrative here unfolded is "neither an accusation or a confession."

We then begin in Germany at the beginning of World War I, and we see several shots of people waving enthusiastically at departing troops. The populace talk assuredly amongst themselves about the righteousness and reasons for the war, and agree that it will most certainly be over before the years out (much like the British guarantee of "over by Christmas").

With all of this marching acting as a backdrop, we see a crazy, manic schoolteacher giving a speech to his young male students about the just causes for the war, and the glory of volunteering to serve. He tells them of his parents adulation, and the doubtless affections of young women (which two of the boys imagine with silly grins on their faces). He goes on for quite a while about how "sweet and fitting it is to die for the fatherland," then asks who's willing to serve.

Every young man in the class jumps up to serve, including our hero Paul (Ayres) and his classmates Kemmerich, Kropp, and Behn. The shots of their ecstatic faces as they leap out of their seats to volunteer (except Behn, who needs to be cajoled into it) are truly frighteningly done (or just a serious case of early-sound-era over-acting).

We then follow the recruits to boot camp, where your standard sadistic instructor puts them through the rounds. After just a few marching drills, however, they're called to the front.

Then the nightmare begins: non-stop artillery shelling, endless rain and mud, and little to no food greet our eager young soldiers (all those classmate somehow assigned to the same unit, too). Behn is the first casualty, blinded by shrapnel and then cut down by machine gun fire from the opposing French lines.

A wizened old hand named Katczinsky teaches Paul and co. which noises mean you should drop to the ground, and how to beat off rats when they get rare meals. They start to lose their grip as the endless shelling prevents sleep: Kemmerich, Paul's best friend, flips out and runs out of the trench, getting shot in the leg.

Then we get an epically long battle sequence, as the French charge, the Germans fall back, then retake the original trench they occupied in the first place. A war of inches indeed. The fellows return to find Kemmerich on the verge of death, unaware (until someone accidentally blurts it out) that his leg has been amputated. He dies shortly thereafter, and several more battles ensue.

Eventually Paul is severely injured, and taking to the "dying room" in a Catholic hospital, along with Kropp.

The Artistry:

For a film that was produced three years after the advent of "talkie" pictures, the relative mastery of the battle scenes in this film is astounding. Seemingly endless explosions, thousands of extras, and multiple well-executed side-tracking shots of soldiers running one way or another reminded me of countless more modern war films. Sixty years before Saving Private Ryan (which Spielberg says was patially inspired by AQotWF), battle scenes were plenty impressive.

The story, simple as it is, is brutally straightforward. The novel is narrated by Paul, but it only becomes clear that he's the main character of the film when the others get killed, one by one.

Every now and then, in between battles, the soldiers take a moment to espouse basic philosophic questions undermining the concept of war. They wonder why countries go to war, and one soldier suggests it's as simple as one offending the other. In response: -"You mean there's a mountain over in Germany gets offended by a field over in France?"

THE ENDING! SPOILERS!

Paul miraculously recovers, and leaves Krupp on his deathbed after earning a furlough. He returns to his hometown, and finds the populace mindlessly enthusiastic about the cause, with no idea what the trenches are really like.

He stops by his former teacher's classroom- the old man is now giving the same speech to an even younger class than Paul was when he left- he asks Paul to tell them of the glory of war.

Bitter, Paul tells them: " I can't tell you anything you don't know. We live in the trenches out there, we fight, we try not to be killed; and sometimes we are. That's all."

He returns to the front, to find only Katczinsky and a few others remaining of his old company. He and Kat warmly reunite, but an airplane drops a shell nearby, injuring the older man's leg. Paul starts to carry him to the infirmary, but another bomb drops, and a piece of shrapnel kills the man while he carries him. Paul doesn't realize this until he reaches the camp, and then his spirits fall when he finds his last friend a corpse.

A short time later, a despondent Paul sees a butterfly just beyond the trench. He reaches out for it, and a French sniper shoots him in the chest, his hand frozen mid-reach.

END SPOILERS


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

As a narrative film, it drags quite a bit to tell a simple story, but for contemporary achievment, it's no wonder the awards and influence heaped on this film. I say higher.

The Legacy:

In addition to the awards previously mentioned, and National Film Registry inclusion, Hitler banned the film in Germany in the late 30s and 40s, and in various other countries that have wanted to quell anti-war sentiment at other times.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Well, there's always a clip reel set to System Of A Down songs! Or maybe the last scene in the film, spoilers and all:



Leftover Thoughts:

-There's one great, great sequence that gives away that this movie was intially going to be a silent film. Kemmerich has a nice pair of boots from his uncle- when he dies, we see another soldier get them, and then a shot of him marching proudly in the lines. He's shot and killed, and we see the boots on another soldier, who gets killed in turn. This is all done wordlessly, a great visual tranisition.

-Another cool shot, included above, of an earlier image of the line of troops glancing backward, one by one as the march through the rain, is superimposed on a military graveyard- the ghosts of those young men, all dead by the film's last shot, looking back one last time.

-Apparently before they had the power to ban it, Nazis tried releasing live rats in theaters to disrupt screenings of All Quiet On The Western Front. Because that would totally work: Man, war is really a futile and pointlessly cruel endev- AAAH! Something on my foot!

The Countdown: Burgeoning Competition



As I did when I started this journey, I decided to scan the inter-webs for other people who have embarked on similar quests. And while the ones that were limping along more than a year ago have floundered out of regular updating, there are some new people attempting similar epic movie-marathons with me.

A pair of buddies at The 250 Rundown blog announced a two-person contest to watch the whole list at the end of July. They've been posting dueling recaps of a couple of paragraphs or so, with movie posters at the top, and have covered 10 randomly-ordered entries in the top 250 so far. They've also decided to post their own 1-10 ratings to contrast with imdb's (and have collectively rated Sin City an 18 out of 20 and The Graduate 1 out of 20, to give you an idea of their tastes).

And then we have two pronouncements of intention with no followup- essentially the imdb countdown equivalent of orphaned tweets. This blogger preludes her boyfriend's idea to watch the whole list, and her intent to blog along the way- this was post eleven days ago, so perhaps content is forthcoming.

And someone else posted a similar announcement to countdown (actually countdown, like me: 250 to 1) the 250, and they even registered the domain BackBeatFilms.com to do it, which is more than I can say for myself. That was June 22, though, so I'm not going to hold my breath.

This Week In Actual Movie Taglines

A look at the taglines for this week's major releases. How do studios try to hook us when they only have a sentence?

District 9


Actual Tagline: You are not welcome here.

A subtle, actually intriguing tagline! Well done, Tristar- I sort of want to know more about why I would not be welcome in District 9. My impression is that it’s because I am... an alien?

Bandslam


Actual Taglines: Where there’s a Will, there’s a way. AND Music Has The Power To Rock Your World. AND Band Together

‘Cause that goofy lookin’ dude is named Will, get it? Eh? And I’m glad that Summit Entertainment also let me know that music, can, in fact, rock my world. Here I was relying on tectonic plate shifts and junk, when all I needed was one of the stars of “High School Musical” to get rocking.

And finally, the standard fallback of movie taglines, the lazy pun "band together." Har har.

The Time Traveler’s Wife


Actual Tagline: None?

In some internet places, it seems like people think it’s “If you hang around long enough, you’ll see me disappear,” but there’s nothing official. New Line seems to want to stick with “From the acclaimed bestseller” on the posters, which is definitely better.

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard


Actual Tagline: They liked Live Hard, Sell Hard so much they just made it part of the title.

Movie subtitles are the ultimate taglines: when star power and hype aren’t enough to get across to people what the movie is about, just describe in in the title. The Goods is clearly about some people selling some stuff. Hard. With a vengeance. Or whatever.

IMDB #217 Crash


Man oh man, readers. The other day I was thinking to myself that I haven’t disliked any of the countdown entries, not really, since Network. That’s reasonable, sure, since I’m sorting through the ostensible “top” movies of all time, but still, you can’t like everything.

Lo and behold, but what do I see at number 217? It looks like a 2004 Best Picture winning film called Crash!

Fun fact: Paul Haggis, the writer, director, and producer of Crash, thinks that you- yes, you- are a racist. Sorry, but he really does. In fact, not only does he think you’re racist, but he thinks everyone you know is racist as well, and that all you or any stranger you may encounter will ever talk about is racially charged issues, hurling epithets and reductive stereotypes all the while.

So magnanimous and epic is Haggis’ 112-minute film, I’ve decided to give the regular format amiss and recap every scene of the film, because nearly every single one teaches us an important lesson about how totally racist we all are. We’ll cover the cast and other trappings as we move along. Let’s do this!



Crash: The Most Important Movie About Race Relations Ever, Unless You’re Asian, Because Then You’re Probably Too Busy Human Trafficking To Care

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Scene 1: We open in the aftermath of a car crash. A character we’ll call Black Cop (Don Cheadle) and his partner, Latina Cop (Jennifer Esposito), have been rear-ended. Cheadle philosophically wonders if, living in L. A. as they do, where there’s no interpersonal communication, they resort to crashing into one another to feel something.

Or whatever. Latina Cop scoffs, and then gets out to yell at the other driver, an angry Asian Woman. Asian Woman claims Mexicans don’t know how to drive- Latina Cop, however, scoffs at the competency of Asian drivers, and mocks the other woman’s pronunciation of “brake,” which is of course “blake.”

This is what Crash is like. Every minute of it.

Anyway, Black Cop gets out of the car, and walks to a nearby crime scene (the cause of the traffic jam and subsequent rear-ending). There’s something in the grass by the highway. But what?

Scene 2: We then go back to “Yesterday,” as the screen title tells us. We meet Persian Shopkeeper (Shaun Toub), who is in a shop trying to purchase a gun for safety reasons, only to be called “Osama” and so forth by the white clerk, who mistakes him for an Arab.

Fortunately, Persian Daughter is there to calm him down, and after her father leaves, she takes the gun and chooses a box of red bullets to go with it.

Scene 3: We then meet two black men, whom we will refer to as Ludacris (because he's played by Ludacris) and Little Black Brother (Larenz Tate), since he's Black Cop's little brother. Anyway, they walk out of a diner, and Ludacris complains that the waitress, despite being black herself, intentionally gave them bad service because she believed they wouldn't tip well. Which he then didn't, because "am I going to tip for that kind of service."

Then, he scoffs at a passing white woman who walks closer to her husband as they near, offended at her assumption that they're thugs. Then, he and Little Brother carjack that same couple. Nice. Paul Haggis would like you to know that this is called "dramatic irony."

Scene 4: Black Cop is called to a crime scene, which boils down to this: a white undercover cop has shot a black undercover cop at a gas station. It may have been racially motivated. A shocking twist, I know.

Scene 5: The white couple that was car-jacked, it turns out, was none other than the White District Attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his High-Strung White Wife (Sandra Bullock). They're home, waiting for Latino Locksmith (Michael Pena) to finish on the door. High-Strung White Wife angrily demands that the locks be changed again tomorrow, because she thinks Latino Locksmith looks like a gangbanger or something.

White District Attorney dismisses her concerns, which only exacerbates her high-strunginess.

Scene 6: A new character, Racist White Cop (Matt Dillon), argues with his Black HMO Rep. over the phone about his father's care. He then takes out his residual anger by pulling over a black couple doing naughty things while driving.

His partner, Naive White Cop (Ryan Phillippe) looks on uncomfortably as Racist White Cop orders the couple, a Black TV Producer (Terrence Howard) and...uh.. Black TV Producer's Wife (Thandie Newton- not a lotta women have jobs in this movie), and proceeds to run his hands all over the woman in a grossly inappropriate way, which causes her to cry and her husband to meekly let it slide if they can be let go.

Scene 7: Persian Shopkeeper cannot close the door to his shop- he is convinced there is a problem with the lock. If only there were a locksmith to call...

Scene 8: Black TV Producer and his wife are now home, and she angrily berates him for doing nothing while she was molested. He discourages her from reporting the incident, then meekly claims what was he supposed to do, they were cops, etc, and then yells at her for provoking it, essentially. What? Somehow the movie seems to think that this is an equally weighted argument for the rest of the film. Let that be a lesson ladies- don't mouth off to cops, or you're just encouraging an all-too thorough pat-down (this message brought to you by Paul Haggis).

Scene 9: Latino Locksmith returns home to his daughter, who worries about bullets coming through the window, as happened in their previous home. He gives her an imaginary bullet proof cloak, which we in no way suspect will be important later, because Paul Haggis is the most subtle writer in the world.

Scene 10: Ludacris and Little Black Brother, in the stolen SUV, thoughtfully debate race relations (apparently hip hop music is music "of the oppressor" because it encourages a criminal lifestyle. C'mon, black people! You must reject this large portion of your culture entirely! Does Paul Haggis have to spell it out for you?).

Then they accidentally run over an Asian Man, who gets stuck under the car. They freak out, debate what to do (all the while referring to him as a "Chinaman") and ultimately leave him in an ER driveway and speed away. The van that Asian Man was about to get into remains by the road, the keys still in the door.

Scene 11: Naive White Cop asks his chief for a new partner. The chief, who is black, is very condescending and tells Naive White Cop that he can either apply for a solo car by pretending to have "uncontrollable flatulence" or just shut up, because it's not worth their careers to go after one racist cop in a huge, racist organization.

Scene 12: Latino Locksmith replaces Persian Shopkeeper's lock, but tells him the door still won't close because the frame needs to be replaced. Persian Shopkeeper gets irate and hardly listens, calling Latino Locksmith a liar and cheat for not fixing the problem. Latino Locksmith, fed up, throws the receipt in the trash and leaves without payment.

Scene 13: Ludacris and Little Black Brother cannot sell the stolen car to a ring of car salvagers because there's Asian Man blood in it, alas.

Scene 14: Black Cop is en flagrante with Latina Cop when the phone rings- it's his mother, and he begs off by telling her he has to go, as he's having sex with a white woman. Latina Cop is miffed, and he explains that "Mexican" wouldn't have upset his mother as much. She angrily informs him that her parents hail from Puerto Rico and El Salvador (Jennifer Esposito is, in fact, Italian in ancestry), neither of which is Mexico. This leads to this comeback from Black Cop:

"Well then I guess the big mystery is, who gathered all those remarkably different cultures together and taught them all how to park their cars on their lawns?"

Paul Haggis and co-screenwriter Robert Moresco probably high-fived in jubilation after coming with that one. One of them probably said "Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, here we come!"

And they were right.

Scene 15: Racist White Cop (who we don't care for at all, remotely) tries to help his ailing father in the bathroom.

Scene 16: Persian Shopkeeper finds his store burgled. Oh no!

Scene 17: White District Attorney is told of the white on black, undercover cop shooting. He determines at some point in here to go after the white cop to recover his image with the black community, after being car-jacked by two black guys.

Scene 18: Ludacris lectures Little Black Brother about how they're cool 'cause they steal from whites, but blacks who steal from other blacks are just petty crooks. Also his car breaks down and he refuses to take the bus. Because the bus is racist, somehow.

Scene 19: High-Strung White Wife takes out her residual car-jacking anger on her Latina Maid, telling her the dishes aren't clean, or put away (sheesh!).

Scene 20: Black TV Producer is at work on some tv show, when some dude (played by Tony Danza!) expresses concerns that the black character isn't "talking black" enough. Black TV Producer is troubled, but backs down once again and tells the young actor to ebonic it up for the next take.

Scene 21: Racist White Cop goes to his Black HMO Rep. in person to plead for his father (who apparently, used to employ black folks as janitors so he totally deserves treatment!). But he can't stop his inner racist from going on a rant about affirmative action, and how there were five white dudes who are better qualified for her job, and she calls security and declines to help him (though she does imply she could have helped if he wasn't a douche, because we all know low level HMO employees can totally reverse policy decisions and a doctor's diagnosis).

Scene 22: Persian Shopkeeper calls the locksmith company, angrily blaming Latino Locksmith for the robbery and demanding his name. No dice, they say, since he was told there was a door problem, not just a lock problem.

Scene 23: Black Cop visits his mom, who is of course a junkie. She asks after Little Black Brother, but who knows where he is? Also, Latina Cop tells us that Internal Affairs found something about the shooting case.

Scene 24: Black TV Producer's Wife visits her husband on set, and for some reason apologizes to him! What the eff? But he angrily storms off!

Wives, huh? They never understand how seeing them sexually assaulted makes us feel.

Scene 25: Persian Shopkeeper is denied insurance coverage because he was warned of the door thing. He reacts to this with uncharacteristic calm. (Uncharacteristic of his character, I mean. Not all Persians are irrationally belligerent, I'm sure. Oh, wait, damn- I'm being politcally correct. Haggis would say that means I secretly hate jews!).

Scene 26: Naive White Cop has claimed the fake flatulence for his transfer. Racist White Cop tells him "You think you know who you are. You have no idea." Oooh, all meaningful and stuff. Funny that Crash's official tagline would be spoken by arguably the least likable character (and that that role would be the only one to garner an Oscar nomination).

Scene 27: A brief montage, as Black Cop finds money in the boot of a car (which means the undercover black cop that got shot dead was shadier than thought), and Persian Shopkeeper simmers, before getting the locksmith's receipt out of the trash (which presumably has Latino Locksmith's home address on it for some reason?).

Scene 28: A heavily scored sequence, as Racist White Cop sees an accident, and discovers Black TV Producer's Wife trapped in an upside-down car! There is gas on the ground and the other car is on fire!

He quickly goes to help her out, but she screams and clamors for "anyone else" to help upon recognizing him. Talking to her like a child, he says he needs to get her out of the car because no one else is there yet. She agrees, and the gas catches on fire, and officers arriving pull Racist White Cop out. But he runs back in to save her, and pulls her free! Then, kaboom.

As paramedics lead Black TV Producer's Wife away, she looks back at Racist White Cop significantly. Racist White Cop looks awed by what has transpired, this insanely contrived series of coincidences we call life (or terrible, terrible writing). From now on, he will be known as Redeemed Racist White Cop!

Scene 29: Black Cop meets with representatives of the D. A., who want to put the white cop that shot the undercover black cop away for shooting with extreme racism. Black Cop points out that the undercover black cop had $300,000 in his car and was probably on crack, and thus perhaps provoked the shooting.

This leads to an epic speech from the D. A.'s main flunky (who is white), who literally says "F*cking black people, huh?" twice in the process of trying to commiserate with Black Cop. Yeah.

They offer Black Cop a deal- make the $300,000 go away so they can play PC knights for the public, and they'll wipe Little Black Brother's record of the car-stealing (and current warrant), and give him a new job! Black Cop looks troubled, but signs on.

Scene 30: Persian Shopkeeper waits outside Latino Locksmith's house, gun in tow. Uh-oh.

Scene 31: Another bravura sequence as Ludacris and Little Black Brother try to car-jack Black TV Producer, who picks this moment to grow a spine, fights them both, and somehow ends up driving away with Ludacris in his passenger seat, two cop cars in pursuit. He even takes Ludacris's gun in his indignant black rage!

He pulls over, and gets out to shout at the (all white) cops incoherently about being a man and stuff. Freakin' cops! Don't they know he's had a rough couple of days?

One of the cops is Naive White Cop, and he recognizes the guy from yesterday and convinces no one to shoot. They let Black TV Producer go, and he lets Ludacris go (after telling him "You embarrass me. You embarrass yourself."). Whew.

Scene 32: Our third mad-cap action sequence follows, as Persian Shopkeeper brandishes his gun at Latino Locksmith when he gets home, demanding recompense for his shop. Latino Locksmith's adorable daughter runs out to protect her father, since she's got the bullet proof cloak (remember?) and he doesn't.

But the gun goes off! But wait, she's unhurt? Wha? All involved are dumbfounded.

Scene 33: Black Cop drops off some groceries for his mom.

Scene 34: High-Strung White Wife complains to her friend that she's just angry all the time (it's not even about being car-jacked, she says. It's almost as if she takes her own aggressions out on other ethnicities!). Then she falls down the stairs.

After the previous explosion, car chase/standoff, and not-shooting of a child, it's not really that dramatic.

Scene 35: Naive White Cop (off duty, in his own car) picks up Little Black Brother, who's hitch-hiking after the failed car-jacking. They make awkward small talk, until Little Black Brother sees a toy statue of St. Anthony on Naive White Cop's dashboard and laughs (he has that same statue himself!). But Naive White Cop thinks he's laughing at him, and asks him to leave the car.

Instead of simply saying that he has that same statue, Little Black Brother gets angry himself, and reaches inside his jacket while loudly saying "I'll SHOW you what I'm laughing about!" So Naive White Cop shoots him.

Panicking, he dumps the body by the road and flees the scene.

Scene 36: We catch up with the beginning, as we see Black Cop in the field, finding his dead brother! And after all he did to help him, condemning an innocent man and everything. Snap!

Scene 37: Ludacris, now riding one of those racist buses, sees the long-forgotten Asian Man's van, still with the key in the door. He drives it away to sell it for cash.

Scene 38: That same Asian Man is finally found at the hospital by his wife, Asian Woman (the one from the very beginning that said "blake" and stuff! Funny that the only two Asians in the film are a couple. It's a small, racist world we live in.) He tells her to immediately cash a check in his wallet. Hmm?

Scene 39: Ludacris arrives at the car-selling place to discover humans in the back of the van, chained up and waiting to be sold! Oh, token Asians. Always selling your own kind for profit. The nefarious car-buying-dude offers to buy the people from Ludacris, but he looks troubled.

Scene 40: Black Cop takes his mother to identify her other son's dead body. She angrily blames him for the tragedy, for not doing enough to find Little Black Brother. Then she credits the dead brother for bringing the groceries from Scene 33.

Scene 41: Persian Shopkeeper, still stunned, tells Persian Daughter that that little girl he not-shot must be his guardian angel or something. His daughter hugs him, and goes to put the gun with the blanks (blanks! in the red box all along. Oh you clever Paul Haggis, you).

Scene 42: High-Strung White Wife calls her husband and tells him she sprained her ankle in the fall- the only person she could reach to help her was, of course, Latina Maid. Even her friend of ten years couldn't come help because she was getting a massage.

White folks, right?

Scene 43: Wrapping things up in a montage set to Best Original Song nominee "In The Deep," we see Naive White Cop burning his car to get rid of the evidence.

Clearly he has seen the world now, and is no longer Naive White Cop, but Cop Who Now Knows Who He Is, Having Previously Merely Thought He Knew Who He Was.

Redeemed Racist White Cop comforts his father, White District Attorney looks out the window, Black Cop finds his brother's statue at the crime scene...

Scene 44: Finally, Black TV Producer, who has somehow been unaware that his wife nearly died in a car wreck this entire time, watches children play around the car fire and thinks. His wife calls, and he picks up and says "I love you"- she smiles, and he smiles, so problems = resolved!

Scene 45: Ludacris frees the Asian people, not without making a few culturally insensitive cracks about chop suey and all.

Then, right before the credits, we see Black HMO Rep. get in a fender bender as well (more Crash-ing, eh?), and be all racist to the Asian driver that hit her. The cycle of life.

Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Lower? It should be buried. DVDs of Crash should be treated with less reverence than free AOL trial CDs. Stop renting it on Netflix, stop giving it high votes on imdb, stop telling people it's brilliant.

You notice that I went nearly this entire entry without mentioning this film's completely flabbergasting victory over Brokeback Mountain. This is because beyond being the culprit in one of the most inexcusably ridiculous upsets in Oscar history, Crash is just a pure piece of pretentiously patronizing putridity all on its own.

Leftover Thoughts:

-Wow, what a terrible film. I'll just leave you with a couple of links: One to the entry for Crash in Videogum's Search for the Worst Movie of All Time (this being the only film their entries and my list have in common), and another to a short piece on McSweeney's that sums up Crash in a few simple lines.

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