Airplane! (1980)

airplane

“Can you fly this plane and land it?

Surely you can’t be serious.

I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”

Every comedy fits somewhere on the spectrum from dry and detached to Airplane! This movie is the biggest, most successful spoof ever committed to celluloid. Without this movie, and a few others, it would seem as though a spoof can’t sustain an entire movie. While my personal tastes lean on the drier side, I can’t help but be charmed by Airplane! for its overwhelming commitment to not being committed to anything. It shoots for laughs and hits its mark at an astounding accuracy for what seems like such a flimsy concept.

The film is a parody of the 1957 airplane disaster movie Zero Hour!, drawing on its structure and even large chunks of its dialogue. But like a page out of Mad Magazine, Airplane! holds nothing sacred, leaping from one gag to another with no regard for emotional investment. It just wants to make you laugh. It “follows the story” of an airplane flight gone wrong when the pilot and much of the crew become sick with food poisoning, leaving a troubled pilot responsible for landing the plane.

Many comedies hold one premise at their center and use it to mine for comedy (Dr. Strangelove: exaggerating the absurdities of the Cold War). Airplane! doesn’t abandon this tactic, coming back to character flaws and familiar airplane jokes for a good portion of its laughs, but it also pulls jokes from nowhere. Sight gags and one-liners are abundant, and the filmmakers abandon all coherence in favor of a ridiculous spoof. A lesser movie would try to hold some emotional ties to the audience, but Airplane! is smart enough to realize that those ties only take away from the point of the move. In its purest form, a spoof has nothing realistic or conventional to get you invested in its characters, and Airplane! is the purest of spoofs.

I wonder as I watch Airplane! why it seems so much more successful than MASH. Both movies are socially problematic by today’s standards, but MASH seems more mean-spirited about it. I also think that MASH is incredibly coy with its humor, glorifying its gags so that you really get a sense of how proud of himself Robert Altman was while shooting the movie. Airplane! seems more on the audience’s side. It has more fun, acknowledging how ridiculous it is, and I think MASH is still caught in the weeds of realism when it feels like it could just be purely ridiculous instead.

I definitely enjoyed Airplane! more when I was a kid, but my tastes have changed, and I still hold a lot of admiration for this movie. It’s one of the boldest comedies out there, and comedies aren’t made the same way anymore. There’s a formula now, one with an emotional payoff and lovable characters, and Airplane! just wouldn’t fit the mould today. It’s fast, smart, and wholly ludicrous in its approach to comedy, earning it a spot among the greats.


Films Left to Watch: 858

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Under the Shadow (2016)

Under the Shadow

“They’ll always know how to find you.”

I felt pretty ambivalent about Under the Shadow, a recent addition to the 1001 List that I don’t expect will remain there for very long. The movie has had great acclaim among those who have seen it, and it was the English submission for best foreign-language film at the Oscars, although it didn’t earn the nomination. I think this is a really smart film by someone who clearly knows how to make a movie, but I don’t think it was ever entertaining or original enough to get me invested, even though it seemed right up my alley.

Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a former medical student in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War in the 80s. Shut out by societal norms and verbally berated by her husband for her progressive views, she is left alone to care for her daughter Dorsa when her husband is drafted for medical work in the military. Her stressful life only worsens as a missile finds its way into her apartment building, and her neighbor suggests it may be carrying evil spirits.

My biggest problem with the film is the use of boring genre tropes, no matter how disguised they are. The film is slower than the typical supernatural horror movie, but it plays out the same way, only with more suspense. Many critics claim the film is two movies: first-part social drama and second-party horror. It makes sense given the slow-burn introduction to the supernatural elements, but the first-half also felt like a lot of exposition for what the movie ultimately wasn’t. Under the Shadow is a really unique historical geographical piece, but it still feels like Annabelle or the Poltergeist remake, a tiresome rehash of the same thrill sequences.

The movie is still better than those other movies, of course, for a number of reasons. Its style is distinct, and it has some really unique visual choices that make the movie memorable on an aesthetic level. Thematically, too, there’s a lot more to play around with. The anti-woman society feels like an additional, powerful antagonist in the film, and for a while I wondered if that was what the movie was about. By the end, though, I wasn’t convinced. Under the Shadow wraps up with a familiar cat-and-mouse showdown with a demon that feels all too familiar, and I don’t think any themes relating to Sharia law or social conservatism were followed through, even though they were promised. The film goes for subtlety, but for me, it missed the mark and fell into tedium.

I’d like to revisit Under the Shadow in the future because it feels like a good movie. It’s shot with precision, visual flair, and unquestionable talent, but I just couldn’t find myself enjoying it. I think if it went farther with its themes or had a more unique twist on the supernatural thriller, I could have fallen in love with the movie. I was hooked from the synopsis, but I gradually lost interest when I didn’t feel that the potential of the film was being realized. I want to see a horror movie where Sharia law is the demon, not just a plot point. If any movie wanted to take a stab at a similar concept, I’d be on board right away.


Films Left to Watch: 859

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Boyhood (2014)

Boyhood

“What’s the point? I mean, I sure as shit don’t know. Neither does anybody else, okay? We’re all just winging it, you know? The good news is you’re feeling stuff. And you’ve got to hold on to that.”

The big sell for a lot of films, and other works of art, is scope. It’s the awe you feel when you pick up Infinite Jest, or you watch Michael Apted’s Up series. It’s what Sufjan Stevens capitalized on when he claimed he would record an album about all 50 states in America (though this one was a lie). I think a lot of people equate scope to greatness, especially when an established “visionary” is involved. There has been no better example of this big scope fascination than with Boyhood, which Richard Linklater shot using the same cast of actors over twelve years. Thankfully, the scope holds up, and Boyhood is an unquestionably beautiful movie.

There’s not some convenient “through line” to connect the different years of footage, and Linklater instead chooses to jump straight from year to year without some magical tell, using expository dialogue (or simply the visuals) to indicate how circumstances have changed over the years. The scope of the film is really nothing more than tell the story of a boy’s life. It sounds impossible, but he includes a mix of key moments (moving houses, high school graduation) with some pretty normal moments (going bowling) to round out 12 years of the protagonist’s life – as well as you could for a three hour movie.

My measure of success for Boyhood was how well a lot of these scenes ring true. It’s what drew me to Moonlight, a movie with a similar structure (and longer gaps). I also had the unique experience of growing up along the same time period as the protagonist almost right down to the year, so I got to experience the soundtrack and cultural events of my youth in a really resonant way. (Linklater nails the soundtrack, too, with big names like Britney Spears or Lady Gaga to mark the time period and also less familiar artists like Wilco or Arcade Fire that I associate even more powerfully with my youth.) In terms of the meat of the story, though, I think Boyhood relies on its resonance. Is the dialogue genuine? Does it hinge too much on either Linklater’s script or the shtick of the movie? Thankfully, I think about 90 percent of the movie feels real enough for a movie of this design, and Linklater unifies life with art in a really smart way, writing around the physical changes or life experiences of the actors to add authenticity to the movie.

Some bits in the middle seemed cliché, particularly the middle school bullying and peer pressure bits. I think movies have a hard time getting these tropes right, and they always come across as stock scenes included in any movie about children in school. I did, however, really enjoy the “camping” scene in the abandoned house when a young Mason falls victim to peer pressure in a really believable way: by seeing another boy get bullied for his hesitance to sex and beer and by pretending to be cool with those things as a result. I think a lesser movie would just have Mason himself get bullied, but scenes like that one are a little more dynamic and felt closer to my own experiences as a result.

Aside from some too familiar scenes, I think Boyhood takes a wide target and hits its mark appropriately and powerfully. Every scene is important to Mason’s life, but there’s a balance of big moments like the above quote and little moments of learning and growing. We get a lot of gaps due to the scope, but Linklater doesn’t seem explicitly interested in those gaps per say. We don’t need to know why Mason pierced his ear, and we can in fact infer or draw on our own experiences as to why he did so. Linklater is more concerned with beautiful moments throughout a boy’s childhood and what they can tell us about the human experience.

I’m also wary of three-hour movies, and I think Boyhood almost earns it. The final act seems too long, as if Linklater was having trouble letting go. I was actually really impressed by the pacing for the first few hours, and I felt like the three hours was flying by, until I realized that the 17-18 year old Mason is just a really long segment. In terms of unity, it feels unbalanced for this reason, and I was waiting for Linklater to finally accept that his subject just wasn’t a boy anymore. There are some really great scenes in this final sequence, but a few could definitely have been cut. I would have been satisfied with a lot of “cut to black” moments before the actual moment hit, which wasn’t nearly as powerful a time to end the film as some that came before. It’s a small gripe, but it sit with me strange because it dominated my thoughts for the last thirty minutes of the movie.

Boyhood is another “big scope” achievement, and like most of the famous ones, it pays off. Linklater is no fool, and he understands how to tell a story, even if he does so in a way that’s never been attempted before. I’m glad Birdman won Best Picture, but I suppose there’s nothing wrong with Linklater picking up Best Director if we’re to believe that award is more for the process than the product, because Boyhood is a really resonant, beautiful product, and one that I’ll be curious to revisit later in my life.


Films Left to Watch: 860

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The Conversation (1974)

The Conversation

“I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder.”

Thrillers today are too focused on story, I think as I watch The Conversation, Coppola’s entrancing mystery-thriller about a paranoid man who listens to other people’s conversations for a living. There’s an entire world to this movie- a sad world where lack of privacy is a given. A world where a shred of empathy could be your downfall, but you still cling to the hope of some kind of decency. This is a mystery where you can stop worrying about the story for long intervals just to immerse yourself in a character, and I think we’ve lost a lot of that in mainstream thrillers today.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a private-operating surveillance expert who is tasked by a mysterious client to record a conversation between a young couple in a public square. Caul is incredibly cautious and paranoid about being a victim of surveillance himself, and he distances himself emotionally from others, including his girlfriend who knows very little of his actual life. He becomes obsessed with the details of the conversation he records in the square, suspecting that the young couple may be in some serious danger.

The movie is slow in terms of plot because there’s not a lot of actual plot. There are some really cool sequences of Henry piecing together the audio, refining its quality to understand new pieces of the mystery while older segments are constantly repeated. Mostly, though, Coppola seems interested in his protagonist. There’s a fascinating sequence in the middle where Caul visits a surveillance convention, mingling with other surveillance expert, and his iconic status in the world of surveillance becomes apparent. I love when movies can bring some niche culture of individuals to the forefront, and The Conversation does so delightfully with surveillance junkies in a really thrilling way that you just wouldn’t see done the same way today.

Coppola wrote and directed the movie, and you can see his cohesive vision throughout all parts of The Conversation. It’s not meant to be an epic like a lot of his other movies. It’s more focused and ripe with details, like Caul’s love of the saxophone or all the little ways he maintains his privacy. The movie is easily more of a character study than a mystery, and that only makes the mystery more elusive and enticing. Coppola achieves the unique task of making you less concerned about whether anyone is in danger but more concerned with how the protagonist feels about that. It’s an exciting, violent scenario presented in a slower, more reflective way, and I think that’s a sign of mature filmmaking.

The Conversation is a delightful, underseen find of a movie. It’s as good as Coppola gets, and I like that you can see a more nuanced side of his work with this movie. It doesn’t shoot as wide as The Godfather, but it hits its mark beautifully nonetheless, and it’s definitely worth your time.


Films Left to Watch: 861

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Field of Dreams (1989)

Field of Dreams

“We just don’t recognize life’s most significant moments while they’re happening. Back then I thought, ‘Well, there’ll be other days.’ I didn’t realize that that was the only day.”

Movies like Field of Dreams are manipulative. But to butcher Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, all movies are manipulative; some just do a better job of hiding it. I don’t think Field of Dreams does a great job of hiding how manipulative it is. It’s drastically melodramatic, and its entire story is guided by a voice of God with the most reactionary protagonist you could possibly write. That being said, the movie is an 80s staple on all accounts. For the type of movie it’s trying to be, it’s one of the best, with all the limitations that come along with that.

Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) lives a simple life in rural America, when one day he hears a voice from above: “Build it and he will come.” Ray then sees a vision of a baseball field in his own backyard. Compelled to break the cycle of his life and finally do something “that doesn’t make any sense,” he builds the baseball field. When major league players from years past start appearing as spirits to play ball on his field, he’s led on a journey to discover the true purpose of the field he created.

Field of Dreams doesn’t take a lot of risks, but it’s got the formula down with some cool plot points along the way. James Earl Jones brings a fun performance as Terence Mann, a visionary novelist turned cynic who accompanies Ray on the latter half of his journey, expanding on the themes of the film and serving as one of several foils on the concept of regrets and finding fulfillment. The other major foil is Archibald “Moonlight” Graham (Burt Lancaster), a retired ball player who played only one inning in the major leagues before giving up his dreams. This character is much weaker in comparison to Mann, but he provides fine filler towards the end of the film with a fitting emotional payoff.

The final scene of the movie is probably the most memorable, when a half dozen miracles heap themselves onto Ray’s baseball field in a single stretch of twenty minutes, each more dramatic than the last. These kind of scenes can leave a bad taste in my mouth. The lack of subtlety shouldn’t be unexpected, but it still surprises me every time. This is a movie you shouldn’t think too much about if you want to enjoy it. Again, with that being said, it fits the bill nicely with some competent storytelling to wrap up any mysteries the film had spun up.

This is an understandably popular and beloved movie, although I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it these days. It’s not something I’ll see myself returning to, but if I did, I’d probably feel the same way I do now: that I have no problem with it. It’s charming in its 80s way, and you really couldn’t ask for more from a movie with a name like Field of Dreams.


Films Left to Watch: 862

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MASH (1970)

Mash

“I wonder how a degenerated person like that could have reached a position of responsibility in the Army Medical Corps!

He was drafted.”

Wanda was a slow, feminist triumph from the year 1970. Robert Altman’s MASH is an unfunny, sexist triumph from the same year. I didn’t like the movie, but it was a triumph nonetheless, scoring 5 Academy Award nominations and securing a place in cinematic history on a number of “Top American Films” lists. I think there’s a lot to appreciate about MASH, so I can’t say I don’t get it, but I definitely didn’t enjoy it.

MASH follows a looser, episodic series of antics surrounding a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH). The movie takes place during the Korean War, but there’s clearly a parallel to Vietnam given the time of release, well before the big-name Vietnam films would start hitting theaters. There’s also no surprise that the movie was made into a TV show for how episodic it is. I took a prolonged break from the movie halfway through and had no trouble picking back up in the middle, despite the fact that I didn’t really want to finish it.

I enjoy dark comedies, but something about the style just didn’t sit right with me. There’s a goofy Mad Magazine approach where nothing takes itself seriously. I think that’s what worked so well for the movie, given its playful approach to some of the darkest subject matter of the 70s, but it doesn’t hold up for me today. Comedy has changed for the better, or maybe I’m just of a different time, but there’s nothing subtle about MASH. Even overlooking the sexist, unsettling missteps that the film makes, there’s no comedic substance. MASH isn’t shooting for much commentary, and when over-the-top sight gags are the entire pitch for the movie, I find it hard to latch onto anything.

In one famous scene, the characters set up a trap for the antagonistic female nurse “Hot Lips” where they convince her to take a shower, then raise the tent that surrounds her as she begins showering, revealing her body to the entire camp. Again, the abhorrent depiction of females in the film aside, the gag is lazy. The film is not only overtly masculine, but it seems to shoot for the lowest common denominator. I’ve heard that the TV show improves on the hollowness of the movie by rounding out the characters, but I still wouldn’t care to watch it.

The movie is a sort of anomaly for me in this process. It’s maybe the least enjoyable experience I’ve had, as I haven’t found much to learn from MASH. I don’t see much artistic merit in it, but there are plenty of movies without much artistic merit that are still watchable. MASH isn’t one of those movies either. It seems severely dated, perhaps as dated as a movie can get in terms of content, and I haven’t been so tempted to browse my phone during a movie for a long time. I don’t plan on watching it again, and hopefully I won’t ever have to.


Films Left to Watch: 863

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Wanda (1970)

Wanda.jpg

“I don’t have anything. I never did have anything. Never will have anything.”

Wanda is beautiful. It’s the strange, reflective film that seems lost in cinema’s history. It feels like a classic: the way it’s shot, the mood it creates, its feminist triumph, but Wanda is shrouded in mysterious obscurity. Its director, writer, and leading actress Barbara Loden died of cancer before she could make another film, and there’s a lack of breadcrumbs leading back to the movieIt has reasonable acclaim among viewers but is almost never discussed in 2017, though it demands as much discussion as any other great film. Maybe I’m still lost in the facade of this movie and of Loden’s life (particularly after reading Nathalie Léger’s A Suite for Barbara Loden on the subject), but I think there’s undeniable merit to not only the mystery but the movie itself: a tale of loneliness.

Wanda follows its titular heroine, a lower-class woman in her 30s in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania, through a sequence of tragedies that only highlight her obscurity to the world and her harrowing passivity. She hands custody of her children to her ex-husband, citing her inability to provide as a mother. She’s used as a sexual object and then promptly forgotten by the men in her life. She then finds strange comfort in being the accomplice and victim of abuse to a petty criminal whom she calls Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins).

There’s a lot of French New Wave to Wanda, so much that I often mistake the movie for a French-language film in my mind. The pacing and editing is very Godard, not surprising considering Loden was an outspoken fan of Breathless. There’s also a subtlety to how the film conveys its themes in a way Godard would (and perhaps does) admire. Loden gives herself no triumphant speeches, no sudden bursts of clarity. The story is ripe with despondency and aimlessness from the opening shot, and it only continues to dominate each frame in a deliberate pace. The editing is also experimental: how events jump forward abruptly while still giving time to sit and marinate on more personal moments in between. As Loden supposedly said, “it is easy to be avant-garde but it is really difficult to tell a simple story well” (Léger). Yet she does both in the French tradition.

It’s only fitting, given her triumph on the screen, that Loden’s auteurship be examined. Loden’s mystery, her charming but saddening passivity, translates magically from life to screen. The screenplay, not entirely clear in its intents, lays a framework that suggests only Loden had the vision to direct and star in the film. Not only her performance but the way she’s framed, how we’re able to identify with her world – it’s masterful direction. Wanda is as much evidence for auteur theory as any other film, and Loden is one of the most underappreciated auteurs of the 20th century for this single film which translates a sole vision confidently, proving that fewer cooks in the kitchen is often the way to go, particularly for a piece such as this one.

Wanda also plays on subversion, picking apart the masculine landscape of conventional cinema. Mr. Dennis is the film’s cruel hyper-masculine figure, but he seems weighed down by insecurity, reaching desperately for control. Even when he abuses Wanda, we identify with her as the more powerful figure. Dennis is a criminal, but a bad one, constantly making mistakes and proving himself out of his element while Wanda watches curiously, hoping passively that something good can come out of this. We also see Wanda not as a feminine or masculine figure, but as a dynamic blend. She rejects motherhood out of practicality for the lives of her children and herself, a progressive display even today. But she also strives for femininity in other ways, such as desiring to curl her hair or wear nice dresses, and she is shut down by Mr. Dennis for attempting to do so. Wanda seems to assert that women are often forced into passivity, into a zombie-like state as Loden describes it, no matter what changes they strive to make.

If ever a film demanded a Criterion release, it would be Wanda. History has glanced over the film, just as it glanced over Loden, and it deserves to be seen. I was entranced and inspired by this movie, and hopefully in due time, many others will have the same experience.


Films Left to Watch: 864

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