Tuesday, November 24, 2009

#98: Yankee Doodle Dandy

Just two posts ago, I detailed how much I was dreading watching Ben-Hur because of its insufferable length and my fear of its inability to hold up over time. I was happy to report that my fear was unwarranted and the length did little to detract from the overall picture. Now here we are, only two movies later and I've just finished watching the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy, yet another movie I was none too anxious to sit through.

Now, I love James Cagney. I've seen a number of his films, one of my favorites being The Public Enemy. He was an immense talent, but I wasn't so sure I was ready to see him sing and dance to overly patriotic musical compositions. My head is so chock full of memories of Cagney as the young gangster Tom Powers that the thought of him putting on tap shoes seemed almost degrading. Of course, yet again, I was completely wrong. I loved Yankee Doodle Dandy and Cagney's performance is outstanding, perfectly complementing the picture's patriotic tone and show stealing grandeur.

The film is based on the real life of George M. Cohan, a young actor who worked, as he put it, in "legitimate theater" and whose plays overran Broadway in the early 1900's (as evidenced by his pseudonym, "The Man Who Owns Broadway").

I won't go into too much plot detail because Kevin has done a good enough job of that in his post below, but Cohan's plays were of the "America first" type, with ample flag waving and patriotic pride. In fact, a little research shows that the attacks on Pearl Harbor occurred only a few days into shooting, so the filmmakers purposely aimed to make a patriotic film, and its release was even timed for around Memorial Day. Their approach succeeded. I finished this movie feeling good about my country, loving it and feeling thankful for those who have died for my freedom.

Nevertheless, for a movie to elicit that type of feeling, it must be good. You can try all you want, but if your movie stinks, your message is lost. Well, Yankee Doodle Dandy is excellent and I was enamored with it for its 2+ hour runtime. The songs are terrific (and instantly recognizable due to their cultural significance), the dances are impressive and fun to watch and the spectacle of the plays is a sight to behold. There were dozens of scenes where we would be shown a snippet of a play and I found myself wanting to watch every last one.

Coming up soon on the AFI Top 100 list are movies like Pulp Fiction, Do the Right Thing, and Goodfellas, three films I have already seen and love. Although there won't be too many upcoming surprises, Ben-Hur and Yankee Doodle Dandy have taught me to keep an open mind and give each film a chance because you never know, it might actually be good.

-Joshua Hylton

Monday, November 23, 2009

#98 - YANKEE DOODLE DANDY - Not just a stupid Black/White musical

As Josh and I were watching "Yankee Doodle Dandy", his roommate came home, immediately looked at the T.V. and said "This movie already sucks." Now, whether or not he was joking is up for interpretation but in my opinion, that is a common thought that goes through most young people's minds when they see a black/white film. Please don't get me wrong here though, as I am not trying to pigeon hold all people. I will be the first to admit that growing up, I thought black and white films were pointless. That there was no need for me to watch them and that they were for "old people." Well, that is why I am doing this countdown with my pal Josh. After each film, I am learning more and more how wrong I was when I was a child.

First of all, let me say that James Cagney portrayed one of the finest performances I have ever seen on camera (He did win the Oscar for Best Actor in 1942). I have never seen a person move the way that guy did. His tap dancing, singing and rhythm were absolutely perfect! Not to mention that ever song this guy, George M. Cohan, wrote was a classic! Everything from "Over There" to "Yankee Doodle Dandy" were all masterpieces!

This was honestly one of the first black & white movies I have ever seen that I watched with a blind eye. Not for one second during the film did I think of the film being in black & white. It just came across as a wonderful story about success on the big screen. The story is both heartfelt, funny and musically genius. Every time a song came on screen, Josh and I were tapping our feet and bobbing our heads. You couldn't help do that considering how catchy the film is.

I understand that many people in this day and age will look at a film like this, initially, and write it off. Trust me, I was not looking forward to watching it because of that bias that I had. But now, I just feel stupid and uneducated. This movie truly made me appreciate all types of cinema, even if it is a guy singing and tap dancing; which by the way was truly mind blowing.

If you are not familiar with the story, the film follows the "Four Cohans", which was a family that traveled all across the country in the late 1800's/early 1900's, singing and dancing. Their goal was to get picked up by a major theater circuit and make a living off of it. Their son, George M. Cohan, was always a stubborn kid. He knew he was the greatest and didn't take crap from anyone. It got to the point where he became blacklisted on the Broadway circuit. He finally found a way to get back in and then went on to become of the greatest playwright's in history.

There are a couple of scenes that I wanted to point out that really blew me away. There is a great scene where George Cohan is walking outside of one of his theaters where one of his new plays is opening. A man is standing outside criticizing the play, even though he has not seen it. The man is going on and on about how Eddie Foy (who is a competing playwright) is much better. Cohan walks up and starts talking to the man, as if he is someone else. Cohan is talking about how amazing George M. Cohan is and the mysterious man is talking about how amazing Eddie Foy is. Neither know that each of them are talking about themselves. It was a very cleverly written scene that took me by surprise. It just proved to me that the same comedy and wit we see in movies today, also happened back in the 40's.

I am so pleased that I have now seen this film and after I finish this list of the Top 100 Films, I want to go back and watch more James Cagney films.

On that note, I will end my review saying that "My mother thanks you...My father thanks you...My sister thanks you and I thank you" Goodnight!

-Kevin McCarthy

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

#99 - "TOY STORY" - The beginning of Pixar

I actually had the lucky pleasure of seeing "Toy Story" about a month ago in digital 3D and I must say that the animation still holds up today. Josh and I sat down and watched the film again tonight, to keep up with our journey of AFI's TOP 100 FILMS. We are doing the 2007 updated list, in which films like "Toy Story" were added.

Josh brought up a great point tonight during the film saying that it was the first "fully computer animated film" to come out. That is so odd to hear, considering how flooded we are nowadays with computer animation. It has almost gotten to the point where I am sick of seeing them. We were talking tonight about how we can't wait to see "Disney's The Princess and the Frog" because it will be hand drawn and a throwback to the 2D animation days.

What you have to appreciate about "Toy Story" are the huge improvements it made in the movie business. You may find this a bit extreme, but I compare the film to "Citizen Kane." What? How could I do such a thing? How could I down grade the masterpiece that is "Citizen Kane"? Well, here me out. Personally, I feel that "Citizen Kane," much like "Toy Story", had a massive impact on film making. "Citizen Kane" started a whole new style of film making that included deep focus, cameras going through objects, etc. "Toy Story" revolutionized how we make animated films. Instead of doing them hand drawn, let's just create digital characters instead. Now, with that being said, I would say that "Citizen Kane" is NOT the greatest movie of all time and "Toy Story" is not the greatest animated movie ever. Though, I admire what each did for cinema.

Josh pointed this out in his post as well, but there truly has been better animated films. My favorite animated film of all time is probably "Wall-E." That movie struck a chord with me in ways that live action films do. Wall-e's character came off a real person, even though he had minimal dialogue and was mini robot. The genius behind it was how the film makers brought him to life. I would go as far to say that "Toy Story" is my least favorite of the Pixar films. You can kill me for saying this but I loved "Cars" and I have to say that "The Incredibles" is definitely up there as a close tie for first.

I just really enjoyed how smart and clever this film was. Josh and I were talking after we saw it in theaters about how timeless it is. This film will never get old. Now, when I was a kid, I never really thought about what my toys did when I left the house. I was more curious about what my dog was doing. Did he talk to other objects in the house? But I guess, it is a very interesting concept to think about. Do your toys and things move about the house when you are not there?

I can't end this post without mentioning the music by Randy Newman. That song is that plays throughout the film is about as famous as the film itself.

There are two quick things I want to point out that kind of bugged me as I re-watched the film. 1) If Buzz (Tim Allen) thinks he is the real Buzz Lightyear and not a toy, why does he freeze when he's around humans, like the other toys? 2) I felt that it was a demonic for a kids film to have Woody (Tom Hanks) do the "Exorcist" head spin when he was trying to freak out the kid who always blew up toys. That just seemed a bit excessive to me.

I guess "Toy Story" was a blessing and a curse. It spawned an entire new age of film making but we have seen too many of them and the special nature of these films is starting to wear thin. It was great to back and watch the one that started it all!

-Kevin McCarthy

#99: Toy Story

Glancing through this AFI Top 100 list Kevin and I are counting down, I spot a good amount of movies I've already seen. I even spot some I saw as a kid, like The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars, but to me, seeing them as a kid doesn't necessarily mean I grew up with them. To qualify as a movie I "grew up with," it has to be something I watched countless times over the course of my childhood. There isn't a single movie on the list that falls into that category, except #99, Toy Story.

It's easy to see why this film is on the AFI Top 100 list. Part of their criteria is technical achievement and Toy Story deserves to be on the list for that alone. It was the first movie ever to be fully computer animated, sparking the new trend that is modern animation. Now it seems every week a new computer animated movie is being released and that is thanks to Toy Story.

However, its success didn't stem from its (at the time) lush visuals alone. It was an excellent movie to boot that perfectly captured the imagination of a child. One of the reasons I was so enamored with it, in fact, is because I used to wonder what my toys did when I left them. Did they come to life and play with each other? Did they eagerly await my return? I even tried telling them they could talk to me, hoping one would pop up and be my companion much in the way Hobbes was to Calvin in the excellent comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. Perhaps that is why I loved Toy Story so much.

Now, that doesn't mean it hasn't been eclipsed in recent years. If you ask me what the best computer animated movies are, I'm more likely to express my admiration for Wall-E or Finding Nemo and maybe even Monsters Inc. Heck, its sequel Toy Story 2 was better, but that doesn't prevent Toy Story from getting the recognition it deserves.

Pixar created a masterpiece with Toy Story (they're up to 10 masterpieces at the time being) and although I wouldn't call it the best computer animated movie ever, it's certainly up there and more than earns its spot on this list for its technical achievement and historical significance.

-Joshua Hylton

Monday, November 16, 2009

#100: Ben-Hur

Counting down the 10th anniversary edition of the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movies of All Time list is a difficult venture. Doing it in one year is even harder. When #100 is a three and a half hour epic, even getting started proves arduous. I can't say I was particularly excited about watching the 1959 Charlton Heston film, Ben-Hur, but now that it's over, I'm delighted to say that it was all I could have hoped for.

The tricky thing about the AFI Top 100 list is that the criteria that must be met for a film to reach it doesn't necessarily mean it has to be "good." Look at The Jazz Singer for instance. That film was on the older version of the list for technical achievement (it was the first talking picture), but ask critics what they think and more than a few will express their disapproval. Well, Ben-Hur meets the criteria and then some. It isn't only a technically sound film or only an Academy Award winner or only a box office giant. It's also a thoroughly enjoyable movie on top of all that and it still stands up today. Given how short our society's attention span has become, the fact that I made it through this movie without keeling over is something. The fact that I was enamored with every facet of it is even more amazing.

Ben-Hur is an epic for the ages, a film filled with so much grandeur you'll swear you're staring into the heavens, which is appropriate given the subject matter. In the film that takes place during the days of Jesus Christ, a Jewish man named Judah Ben-Hur, played by the great Charlton Heston, is seized by the Roman Empire after refusing to work as their informant by going against his own people. Flash forward years later and he's on a galley rowing to and fro at the request of the men on board. He is their slave, but soon a fight between ships breaks out and he breaks free, but not before saving the life of Roman Consul Arrius, played by Jack Hawkins, who takes him in as his son.

So much more happens than what I've detailed above, including a run in with Christ, a search for Judah's mother and sister and a spectacular chariot race late in the movie that works as a catalyst for Judah's revenge against his former friend, Messala, played by Stephen Boyd, but it would be impossible to fit it all in here. Ben-Hur is a multi-layered movie with a narrative as gripping as any I've seen and the three and a half hour runtime is justified because there isn't a single scene that could have been taken out.

Every facet of its production is simply mind blowing. The sets are extravagantly detailed and extras go as far as the eye can see. This movie was a gamble in more ways than one. Setting aside the fact that the film was a last ditch effort to pull MGM away from the brink of bankruptcy (which it did with an impressive box office intake), it also risked being overpowered by its elaborate design. The message and meaning of the picture could easily have been stripped away, but it isn't. The embellished design worked only as another piece of the puzzle in its prodigious scale. Nothing is taken away because of it.

Ben-Hur may have religious connotations, but it isn't necessarily a religious movie. What it does is center itself around Jesus Christ, but never focuses on him (in fact, he's only in a handful of scenes and you never see his face). This is a movie that can be enjoyed by Christians, atheists, agnostics or the undecided. Tack onto this amazing performances from the entire cast, an engaging musical score and a truly phenomenal chariot race late in the picture that is impressively shot and surprisingly heart stopping and you have a wonderful cinematic achievement.

If #100 is this good, I can't wait to see what the rest are like.

-Joshua Hylton

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"BEN-HUR" - An Epic Masterpiece...to say the least

Wow...I know that I am 50 years late on this one, but I just finished the 1959 version of "Ben-Hur". I am still trying to get over the fact that this film is #100 on the AFI TOP 100 list (the 2007 updated list).

To be completely honest, I was dreading the fact that I had to sit through a 3 hour and 40 minute film on a Sunday night. Since Josh and I are counting down from 100 to 1, we had to get this one "out of the way." Well, I can't think of a better film to kick off this countdown. There were times where my brain actually thought I was watching a modern day film because the effects, editing and score were so ahead of it's time.

Let me start off with the effects. I saw a film earlier this week entitles "2012", which was a $250 million epic directed by Roland Emmerich. Emmerich has yet to master green screen effects. Anytime he has a human being on screen and there is a disaster behind that person, it looks absolutely fake. So, I am sitting here watching "Ben-Hur", which was made 50 years prior, and thinking about how amazing the green effects looked. There was one particular scene where Ben-Hur (played by Charlton Heston) is floating on a piece of wood after a battle that took place while he was aboard the Roman ship. He dove in the water to save one of the Roman higher up's and there is a shot of both of them sitting on the wood while the ships are being destructed in the background. This shot looked absolutely EPIC and better than any green screen that I saw in "2012."

Let's talk about one of the film scores I have ever heard. Miklos Rozsa created one of the most memorable scores I have heard and I just listened to it less than 15 minutes ago. I walked up my stairs and into my room, humming the score. The particular scene when I realized it's true genius was the scene where Heston is on the Roman ship as one on the oar men. He had dozens of other men were operating the oars by hand. There was man at the head of the men, beating a drum which told Ben-Hur and the dozens of men how quickly to move their arms. This drum was synced with the film score and it just flowed perfectly. That stuck with me the rest of the film.

Being that the film took home 11 Academy Awards, it is known to be one of the best films of all time. I know that I am not breaking any ground here but I was truly blown away by how epic the story was. Even though the film was three hours and forty minutes long, I was not bored for one moment. There were just so many details to the plot that kept my mind interested. The film's major drama comes from Ben-Hur and Mesalla (played brilliantly by Stephen Boyd). Ben-Hur and Mesalla used to be child friends but when Mesalla went off to Rome, he came back with the task to take over Jerusalem. He asks his best friend Ben-Hur if he will help, but Ben-Hur politely declines, which begins the downfall of their friendship and the start of the film's story.

What made the film feel so epic was, while this story is happening between Ben-Hur and Mesalla, we are also learning the story of Jesus Christ. The film's plot takes place during Jesus' birth and death. All of the films plot points happen in between those two events and have effects on every character in the film. It is rather genius if you think about it. I also noticed many parallels between Jesus and Ben-Hur's character.

I am sorry that this blog post is going on forever but I want to point a few more things that I enjoyed about the film. I liked how the writers did not feel that the audience was dumb. In most modern day films, we get a text on screen that says that so many years have passed by, i.e. Ten Years Later. In this film, time passes and the audience figures this out by the character's dialogue and actions. There were moments where three years had passed in a simple cut. The filmmakers didn't have to explicitly tell us this, which was refreshing.

The film is RATED G. There is no chance this film would pass for less than a PG-13 in today's standards. There were definite moments of horrific violence, especially during the famous chariot race scene. There was some rather disturbing images during the scenes that took place aboard the Roman ship as well.

Finally, I can't blog about "Ben-Hur" and not bring up the chariot racing scene. Could that scene have been directed better? Not a chance! That was one the most riveting chase scenes I have seen in a film to date. Not only was it well directed, but the set design was perfect. The director, William Wyler, kept showing this shot from above that had a piece of statue in the frame. Wyler shows it each time the chariots rounded this one particular corner. Even the green screen/blue screen effects looked fantastic here. Roland Emmerich needs to take lessons from William Wyler.

In short, I am so happy to be counting down these films from 100 to 1. I have truly been missing out on some of the best films in history and "Ben-Hur" is one that I am ashamed to have not seen until now. I actually now feel bad for anyone who has not seen this movie.

-Kevin McCarthy

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Beginning Redux

Hi, my name is Kevin McCarthy and I do reviews for CBS RADIO and FOX TV. My pal Josh Hylton and I feel that since we are younger critics, people look down upon us, assuming we have not seen the necessary "classics." We have set out to prove everyone wrong by watching all 100 films, in order, from 100 to 1 in less than a year. Each week, we will watch at least, but probably more, of the films on the list and report back with our feelings. We did start a little prematurely this weekend with "The Maltese Falcon" and "The French Connection" but we will wait to post those as we approach them on the list. This weekend, we will be going into battle to watch a three and a half hour long film entitled "Ben-Hur." Wish us luck. P.S. Together we have seen a good amount of the films on this list already but we are going to re-watch all them and comment on each. My only issue is that my favorite film of all time, "True Romance", does not appear on this list. Therefore, it is not valid. Either way, I will adhere to this challenge and I welcome all negative comments. Good Night and Good Luck!

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Beginning

Hello one and all and welcome to the Counting Down the Classics blog. What is Counting Down the Classics you say? Well, it's kind of like the Julie/Julia Project except totally cool and way less feminine (maybe—we'll see where it goes). I, along with my co-blogger Kevin "BDK" McCarthy, will be counting down every movie in the American Film Institute's Top 100 American Movies of All Time list in one year and relaying our thoughts on them to you via this blog.

What's the reasoning behind this? Well, I'm only 23 years of age, so the argument is made that I'm "too young" or "haven't seen enough classics" (despite having already seen a good third of the movies on this list). While I can't speak for Kevin, I personally want to put these criticisms to rest.

I do not plan on reviewing these movies (but be sure to check out my current movie reviews over at my other blog, jhylton.blogspot.com). Although I will inevitably give my thoughts on why I do or do not consider the movie in question one of the "best," I simply want to discuss the different aspects of them. I want to go into why the movie is on the list, as well as whether or not it holds up today, because the mark of any great movie is its ability to last over the course of time.

It might be a frivolous exercise and it's sure to be laborious at times, but I'm excited about this personal endeavor Kevin and I are embarking on. Will we finish it? Hard to tell, but we're sure going to try.

It is important to note, however, that we are counting down the updated, 10th Anniversary list released in 2007 because we feel it is more timely and it allows us to reminisce on movies released post-1998 that deserve their rightful spot in film history (like The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring). With that said, let the countdown begin.