The A+ List: Citizen Kane (also Annie Hall & The Bicycle Thief)

And now we return to my list of all-time favorite films–those that I’ve awarded the rare A+ grade. For a film to earn that grade, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years if not decades.

Alphabetically, the next film on the list is Annie Hall. But I’m not going to write here about films I’ve written about before, so I’ll just point you to my Blu-ray review.

After that comes The Bicycle Thief. But I’ve written about that one, too.

So I’ll skip to the next film on the list that I haven’t written about extensively. And that happens to be the movie almost universally called the Greatest Film Ever Made.

Citizen Kane

Can any work of art survive a reputation as celebrated as Kane‘s? For as long as I can remember, it’s been the default answer to the question “What’s the greatest film ever made?” With a reputation like that, there’s almost no way a novice can see it for the first time and not be disappointed.

And sure enough, it’s status has slipped a bit in recent years. In Sight and Sound‘s most recent once-a-decade list of the The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time, it came in only second. But it came in first five times consecutively before that.

Cinephiles (including myself) love Citizen Kane because Orson Welles was so clearly in love with filmmaking when he made it. Everything about it, from the flashback-structured story to Gregg Toland’s deep-focus photography to Bernard Herrmann’s playful score brims with an adventurous spirit, as if everyone wanted to see what they could do with this new toy called cinema.

It’s important to remember that this was a first film for almost everyone involved–including producer, director, co-writer, and star Orson Welles. Most of the cast–veterans of Welles’ work on radio and the New York stage–had never worked on film. It was Hermann’s first movie score, as well.

Not everyone on Citizen Kane was new to movies. Cinematographer Gregg Toland used short lenses and very bright lights to accomplish amazing setups. Welles could place one person in extreme close up, another in mid-shot, and another in the distance and thanks to Toland have all three in focus. He could thus cover a scene in a single shot without it ever looking theatrical.

The story (a collaborations between Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz) could have been made conventionally. An egocentric newspaper tycoon (Welles) goes through life amassing political power and extreme wealth, but his self-centered world view blocks his ability to find love or real happiness. But into this story we have a production number, an opera, a newsreel, broad comedy, and tragedy of Shakespearian proportions. You can sit back and enjoy these set pieces, admire the amazing photography, and still be totally caught up in the story.

The structure of the story shows us Charles Foster Kane through multiple angles. The opening scene of his death feels like a horror film. The newsreel that follows it gives us his various public images, and provides an outline to help us follow the out-of-sequence movie that follows. In the five flashbacks that take up most of the running time, we see Kane from the point of view of people who knew, loved, and hated him.

You can’t discuss Kane without praising Dorothy Comingore, whose performance as Kane’s second wife outdoes all the others. Unlike other cast members, she was a Hollywood veteran–although stardom eluded her. It continued to elude her after Kane. To watch her subtlety age from an innocent young woman to a shrill, pathetic, yet sympathetic drunk is to wonder why this role didn’t jumpstart her career.

Perhaps Welles’ performance overwhelmed hers. He plays Kane theatrically larger than life, but that’s appropriate, because Kane is larger than life. A man of unending self-confidence and bluster, he does everything big. Even when he acts self-effacing, he’s promoting himself. I think there’s a bit of Welles in that.

You probably know that the story of Citizen Kane was inspired by the life of William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies. Hearst attempted–and to a certain degree succeeded–in suppressing the movie. But we have it now, and we should be thankful.

Citizen Kane screens at the Rafael this Sunday, May 31. According to a California Film Institute press release, Warner Brothers (which now owns this RKO film) will withdraw Citizen Kane from theatrical release the next day. Fortunately, this suppression is scheduled to last only through the end of the year.

The A+ List and The Adventures of Robin Hood

I’m embarking on a journey through my all-time favorite films–the ones that I’ve awarded an A+.

For a film to earn that grade, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years if not decades.

I started giving my favorite films the A+ grade in 2009. The list currently has 56 films, although it may grow before I’m finished. I strongly suspect that Fargo will make the list next year.

I plan to go through the list roughly in alphabetical order, but I won’t stick to that. I’ve written about many of these films extensively before; for those, I’ll just include a link.

And I’ll start, alphabetically, with what is arguably the most shallow, silly, and entertaining movie on the list.

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Not every masterpiece needs to provide a deep understanding of the human condition; some are just plain fun. And none more so than this 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler. For 102 minutes, you get to live in a world where virtue–graceful, witty, rebellious, good-looking, and wholeheartedly romantic virtue–triumphs completely over grim-faced tyranny. Flynn was no actor, but no one could match him for handling a sword, a beautiful woman, or a witty line, all while wearing tights.

If you look at it logically, everything about The Adventures of Robin Hood fails utterly. Robin Hood, the famous mythological rebel and defender of the weak, spends much of the film defending the monarchy. Much of the film, from the quiver that never runs out of arrows to Maid Marian’s idiotic way of hiding incriminating evidence, makes no sense whatsoever.

And the film makes violence look fun and helpful. There is a lot of action in the movie, and Robin and his men kill quite a few bad guys. But not a single good guy–not even an extra–dies.

And I won’t even mention historical inaccuracy.

And yet, when we watch it, we not only can but must forgive everything. We gladly accept this tale of medieval Europe not as it was, but as we want it to be. We imagine ourselves leaping about, fighting with sword, bow, and staff, making heroic speeches, and righting all wrongs by killing those who need to be killed.

This is, quite simply, the perfect swashbuckler.

A lot of people deserve credit for this masterpiece. It came off the Warner Brothers assembly line with two credited directors (one was taken off the film). You can’t call this an auteur film.

But here are the movie’s three best assets:

Errol Flynn

You don’t need to be a good actor to be a great movie star–Errol Flynn proves that beyond a doubt. His acting range was limited. But no one could buckle a swash like Flynn, and this was the movie he was born to make.

First of all, at this time in his life, he looked great; women swooned over him. He was not an acrobat (if you look closely, you’ll notice a lot of stunt doubling in Robin Hood), but he had an easy, natural and athletic grace, especially when he was leaping onto tables or fighting with a sword. And he spoke his lines with a simple conviction that made you believe the most outrageous lines. Consider this scene early in the film.

The movie gives Flynn not one, but three big entrances. With an audience, it’s almost impossible to not applaud for each one of them.

I recently wrote about Burt Lancaster’s swashbucklers. Lancaster was every bit as handsome as Flynn. He was an excellent actor. And unlike Flynn, he was an expert acrobat, thrilling audiences with his own impressive stunts. But he couldn’t quite pull off the dashing, devil-may-care personality that was Flynn’s stock and trade. When Lancaster gives a speech to his men, he comes off as human being (The Flame and the Arrow) or an actor trying too hard (The Crimson Pirate). Flynn comes off as the embodiment of graceful heroics.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

The Adventures of Robin Hood easily has the best musical score of any action flick I’ve heard. It’s rousing, majestic, epic, exciting, and joyful. The fight theme matches the flavor of a graceful swordfight without trying to synchronize with it. And the score is beautiful in its own right.

Robin Hood not only earned Korngold his only Oscar; it also saved his life. A Viennese Jew and a respected Opera composer, Korngold just happened to be Hollywood, working on this film when Hitler took over Austria. Had he been home, he would probably have been swept up in the Holocaust.

Perhaps Korngold’s appreciation for the assignment helped him create this great and influential score.

Technicolor

Today we take color movies for granted, but in 1938, they were something special. And the people who made Adventures of Robin Hood went overboard to make it especially special–in a good way.

Warner Brothers shot Adventures in the three-strip Technicolor process, which was just six years old in 1938. Only a handful of previous features had been shot in it, and none of them seemed to delight in the new technology the way Robin Hood did.

The movie is a blast of color. Bright greens and reds flow through it. Aside from one scene where Robin is tossed into a dungeon, there’s always something bright and colorful, usually a costume or an ornament, on the screen.

That super-saturated Technicolor look, amped up by Carl Jules Weyl’s art direction and Milo Anderson’s costumes, help create the feeling of a storybook without ever pressing the point.

Cinematographers Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito also deserve credit.

And all the rest

But then, so did so many other people who worked on this film. Consider the supporting cast: Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone conspire and glower as the fun-to-hate villains. Olivia de Havilland makes a beautiful and love-struck Maid Marian. She comes closest to being a real person (not that close), largely because she gets to change her mind.

And then there’s Una O’Connor and Herbert Mundin as the second romantic couple, considerably older and homier than Flynn and de Havilland. They’re essentially comic characters, but Mundin’s merry man gets a couple of admirably heroic moments.

Finally, let’s not forget the exceptional fight choreography, done by swordsman Fred Cavens, director Michael Curtiz, and archer Howard Hill. The fights are graceful, exciting, thrilling, and not in the least bit believable.

But The Adventures of Robin Hood doesn’t earns its A+ by providing realism. It earns it by being fun.

Death and families: Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (Blu-ray review)

No horror movie can come close to the fear, dread, and dark hatreds of Ingmar Bergman’s great chamber drama, Cries and Whispers. To watch it is to face the end of a slow and painful death by cancer. But that’s not all. This film, centered around four women and set almost entirely in one house, forces you to face the neglect and out-and-out cruelties with which we treat those who should be closest to us.

This is not escapist entertainment.

Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is in the last stages of a long decline. She’s weak, terrified, and often in horrible pain. Her two sisters–who can barely stand to be in the same room with each other–have come to the family home to help ease her passing. How do you face the death of someone you love? Or worse yet, someone that you think you should love, but there’s very little love in your soul.

image

One suspects that life has been easy for the stunningly beautiful sister Maria (Liv Ullmann). So easy, in fact, that she doesn’t know how to react in a crisis. When she watches someone’s suffering, she doesn’t rush forward to help, but holds back and cries. A respectable, upper-class wife and mother in late 19th century Sweden, she’s as immature and flirtatious as a teenager.

The other sister, Karin (Ingrid Thulin), is almost her polar opposite. She’s cold and remote. She does what she has to do, and behaves properly. But she can’t stand impropriety or physical contact.

The fourth woman is the household maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan). She’s been with the family for years, and spent many of those years nursing Agnes through her long illness. Unlike Maria and Karin, Anne truly loves Agnes. When Agnes complains of being cold, Anne crawls into her bed to keep her warm. Were they lovers? Hard to say. When Anne cuddles Agnes, the image is closer to a mother comforting a small child.

image

The confined story appears to happen over a few days. Flashbacks provide some backstory, and introduce us to Maria’s and Karin’s husbands. But even these take place in the family estate.

You can recognize the interior of the house easily; everything is red–walls, carpet, curtains, and furniture. At the end of a scene, the film fades not to black, but to red. It’s a strange choice, but the right one. All of that red produces a sense of blood, of passion, and of the womb.

image

Thank cinematographer and long-time Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist for those reds. He allows the crimson to dominate the image, without it ever looking false or getting out of control. Nykvist clearly deserved the Oscar he won for this picture.

imageAs you would expect, Bergman drew brilliant, loving, yet horrifying performances out of the four leads. When we first meet Agnes in an extended close-up, Andersson’s eyes look directly into the camera with a fear that we all must experience when we face our mortality. When Maria attempts to seduce a former lover (Erland Josephson), her face shows a combination of lust, fear, and pride, confidence, and a deep uncertainty.

I’d have a hard time naming another drama as intense or emotionally realistic as Cries and Whispers. And yet it flies by like an action movie, and has scenes that could have come out of a horror film.

First Impression

Cries and Whispers comes in the usual transparent Criterion case. The cover shows imagea close-up of Andersson–in black and white tinted red (of course.)

When you open the case, you’ll find, along with the disc, a fold-out dominated with an article by Cambridge professor Emma Wilson named–believe it or not–Love and Death. When you’re dealing with such dark matters,the comic reference is appreciated.

Like all Criterion Blu-rays, the disc comes with a timeline so you can bookmark favorite scenes. When you insert the disc into a player on which you played that disc in before, you’ll have the option to get back to where you left off.

How It Looks

Nykvist didn’t win that Oscar for photographing pretty pictures. Or sharp ones. Cries and Whispers uses defused light and soft focus. In other words, this isn’t the movie you use to show off your cool HDTV.

But the transfer does its job. Those ubiquitous reds are deep and rich, yet never bloom out of control. The atmospheric lighting, usually replicating sunlight or oil lamps, does exactly what it’s supposed to do. Neither Bergman nor Nykvist lived long enough to approve of this transfer, but I suspect that they would.

How It Sounds

I have no complaints about the uncompressed PCM 1.0 mono soundtrack. It’s the mix that Bergman approved, and it probably sounds as good here as it did in the projection room. It certainly sounds better than it would on a 35mm print with a 1973 optical soundtrack.

It also comes with an optional English-dubbed track. I didn’t listen to it. The newly-translated English subtitles are just fine.

And the Extras

No commentary track, but still plenty of supplements.

  • Introduction by Ingmar Bergman:1080i; 7 minutes. A subtitled interview from 2003. It’s rather long for an introduction, but it contains some interesting stuff.
  • Harriet Andersson: 1080p; 20 minutes. The actress in conversation with film historian Peter Cowie, recorded in 2012. Quite wonderful, especially the behind-the-scenes footage of the cast and crew goofing off while making this extremely serious film.
  • On-Set Footage: 1080i; 34 minutes. More of that footage, this time with commentary by Peter Cowie. An interesting overview of the film’s production.
  • Ingmar Bergman: Reflections on Life, Death, and Love with Erland Josephson: 1080i; 52 minutes. Interview with director and star from Swedish TV,1999. As I have not yet watched this one.
  • On Solace: 1080p; 13 minutes. 2014 video essay by cinema theorist  ::kogonada. Disappointing. His dull, monotone voice suggested a profundity that simply wasn’t there.

Criterion has done justice to one of Bergman’s best films.

American Cinema’s Problem Child: Birth of a Nation turns 100 today

D. W. Griffith’s Civil War and Reconstruction epic,  The Birth of a Nation, premiered on February 8, 1915, a hundred years ago today (at that time it was called The Clansman; the more grandiose title came later). Cinema changed irrevocably that night.

Much as we would like to, we can’t ignore or underestimate The Birth’s artistry, impact, and commercial success. Even the best films made before 1915 are static and crude. But Birth is fluid, dramatic, and stirring. Even today, it’s action climax–with a riot, an attempted rape, a small battle, and a brave band of heroes riding frantically to the rescue–can stir your blood and leave you ready to cheer.

Except for the very problematic fact that those heroes riding to the rescue are wearing white sheets. Yes, cinema’s first great feature film idolizes the Ku Klux Klan.

image

Like Gone with the Wind 15 years later, Birth tells the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction from a very white, southern, aristocratic point of view. The pre-war South is pictured as a paradise where everyone knew their place and were happy with it. Then the war came and ruined everything.

It’s important to look at Birth of a Nation in its historical context. Griffith was the son of former Kentucky slave owners impoverished by war and emancipation. The civil war was a living memory in 1915, almost as recent as Vietnam is today, and the Confederacy was still worshipped. White supremacy was automatically assumed and unquestioned–at least amongst people of European decent.

You also need to consider it in its film historical context. At the beginning of 1915, the earliest feature-length films were only a few years old. Americans were just beginning to make them, and most were four to six reels. The most daring directors, including Griffith, were still discovering and experimenting with cinema’s possibilities–learning to use close-ups, long-shots, moving cameras, and editing for effect. And only a handful of actors understood the subtle, intimate art of performing in close-up.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Griffith releases a 13-reel epic with an intermission and–in its initial run–a full orchestra. All those tricks that Griffith and his contemporaries invented melded together to tell a powerful story in a smooth, relatively sophisticated way. Birth of a Nation can’t claim the technical brilliance and professionalism of the best silent features of the 1920s, but it comes amazingly close.

The film surprised everyone. At a time when the take from a very successful movie was counted in thousands of dollars, Birth made six million for its investors and may have made 60 million at the box office. It was the first film screened at the White House. And people who looked down at the flickers suddenly had to acknowledge that there was something there.

The first half, concentrating on the Civil War, isn’t all that racist. If you have any significant experience watching silent films, you’ll squirm a bit at the servile slaves, the suggestion that a sordid interracial romance caused the war, and the white actors smeared with burnt cork. But really, It’s no worse than Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances.

But the second half, set in Reconstruction, takes hate to a whole other level. The ex-slaves, driven on by an evil mulatto (George Siegmann), take control of the city and oppresses the innocent white people. These hoodwinked former slaves even–God forbid–vote. In one memorable scene, the hero (Henry B. Walthall) refuses to shake the mulatto’s hand. I think this was meant as a cue for the audience to cheer.

(The special evil of mulattos is a common trope in racist mythology. Supposedly, someone who is half-white has the intelligence of a white man but not the moral fiber. If you think this stereotype died away with the civil rights movement, I suggest you revisit Lonesome Dove and consider  Frederic Forrest’s character.)

And let’s not ignore the sexual issues. Among the many horrible things these former slaves want, the worst is white wives. Interracial marriage, in Griffith’s mind, is a form of rape. One character throws herself to her death because a black man expresses his desire to marry her.

The movie has a happy ending, of course, The hero forms the Klan, which takes over the town (and, we assume, the South), and brings back white superiority. They even keep the former slaves from voting. One intertitle at the climax assures us that former enemies of the North and South have now reunited "in defense of their Aryan birthright."

One odd thing: For all of its Southern rabble-rousing, Birth treats Abraham Lincoln as a saint. When they hear about his assassination, the hero’s family are crestfallen.

The Birth of a Nation’s racism was controversial even in 1915. The NAACP formed largely in response to the film. There were riots and calls for its suppression. Even today, a movie theater can’t screen it with risking vandalism.

And yet, I think it should be screened. It’s too important a piece of film history to be ignored. What’s more, it tells a lot about American racism. The senseless fears generated by Barak Obama’s election are a direct ancestor of Griffith’s nightmare view of a politically active black South..

Harold and Maude–Still funny and inspiring after all these years

The 1971 comedy Harold and Maude fit the late hippy era as perfectly as Pink Floyd and the munchies. At a time when young Americans were embracing non-conformity, free love, ecstatic joy, and 40-year-old Marx Brothers movies, this counterculture romance between an alienated and death-obsessed young man and an almost 80-year-old woman made total sense. The broad and outrageous humor helped considerably.

image

I revisited the movie Friday night on Blu-ray. I can’t say I love it as much as I used to, but it’s still touching and very funny. And its message is still a good one. But the ending bothers me considerably more now that I’m much closer to Maude’s age than Harold’s. I give it an A-.

I first saw Harold and Maude a year or so after its original release, and fell in love with it immediately. I saw it countless times in revival movie theaters over the next decade. In the last 30 years, I’ve seen it only twice. The first time was on Laserdisc in 1996 or ’97, when I showed it to my son–who was really not ready for it. The second time was last Friday night.

As the story begins, Harold (Bud Cort) lives in a huge mansion with his very proper and aristocratic mother (a very funny Vivian Pickles). He appears to be about 20, with no responsibilities; he doesn’t work or go to school. But he has hobbies. He drives a hearse. He attends funerals. And he tortures his mother by staging fake suicides. Many of the movie’s biggest laughs come from Pickle’s mildly annoyed reactions to his ghastly fake deaths; she’s clearly used to them.

Then he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), another fan of funerals. She’s almost 80. She loves life–her own and others. While Harold is quiet and introverted, she’s loud and open to anything. She talks about her past political activism. She jokes, flirts, dabbles in the arts, and steals cars so that people won’t get too attached to material objects.

And of course she’s exactly what Harold needs. She opens him up and allows him to see that there is more to life than death. Within the space of a few days, they become close friends, then lovers.

The story could easily become sappy, but writer Colin Higgins and director Hal Ashby avoid the trap with broad and effective humor. Harold’s shrink, priest, and war-monger uncle are almost as funny as his mother (the priest has a short but pricelessly hilarious monolog near the end). Two encounters with a frustrated cop bring additional laughs. And a running gag where Harold continually sabotages his mother’s attempts at finding him a bride are priceless.

image

Even watching it alone–not the best way to see any comedy–I was laughing out loud much of the time.

But there are dark sides to the story, and not just in the funeral and suicide gags. Maude lets on briefly that her life has included some serious suffering. And one shot, so short you might miss it, tells you just how horrible her past had been.

Ashby handles the sexual part of their relationship carefully. There’s only one chaste kiss. The only time you see them in bed, they’re on opposite sides and not touching. The film is rated PG.

I can’t discuss Harold and Maude without mentioning the songs by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. At his artistic height, he was a brilliant singer and songwriter (if a bit didactic), and his songs fit this film perfectly, both musically and thematically. It seems impossible that the man who wrote “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” would become a fundamentalist who would embrace the call to murder a novelist. But we have to face the fact that it happened.

Now I would like to discuss the ending. So if you haven’t seen it, and don’t want your first screening spoiled, you should stop reading this now.

image

Okay. Is everyone here ready to read about the ending?

Maude commits suicide on her 80th birthday, just before Harold was to propose. It’s not entirely a surprise. Some casual comments she makes beforehand suggest her plan. “I’ll be eighty next week. A good time to move on, don’t you think?”

Now, if she was decrepit, miserable, and facing a horrible and fatal illness, I could understand her action. But she’s a very young 80, living life to the fullest. She’s just acquired a lover a quarter of her age. She has a lot to live for.

The filmmakers could have found a better ending. She might have rejected Harold’s marriage proposal, and sent him on his way, explaining that she doesn’t want to be tied down. She could be facing a horrible and fatal illness, and wanted to go before the symptoms took over her life.

Either of those could still have motivated Harold to do what he does in the movie’s wonderful last few seconds, when he drives his car over a cliff, then walks away strumming a banjo.

Die Hard: Even Better on the Big Screen

Sunday afternoon, I finally saw Die Hard in a movie theater. And not just any movie theater, but the Castro. I’ve liked this movie for a long time. But between the big screen, the powerful sound system, and the enthusiastic audience, it was a whole new experience.

And a great experience. I used to give Die Hard an A. Now I give it an A+.

To begin with, it has one of the great action hero plots. Very evil people, who don’t care how many innocent bystanders they kill to achieve their goal, take over a location where they control who gets in and who gets out. Luckily, one man (always a man) is in that location but out of their control. He plays cat and mouse with the bad guys, killing them one at a time while avoiding being killed.

By now, that plot is a cliché. But Die Hard did it first, and more importantly, did it best.

The movie’s power comes from its willingness to build a situation before the action starts. For the first 25 minutes, Die Hard is a relationship drama. NYC policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives in LA just before Christmas, hoping to reconcile with his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia). She relocated to California, with their children, for her job. She’s a rising executive; he’s a working-class cop. His attempts to reconcile turn into arguments; he acts like a sexist pig, then regrets it the moment she leaves the room.

All this happens in the new, not-quite-finished skyscraper where she works.

Then a dozen well-armed, highly-trained bad guys take over the building, kill a few people, then hold everyone hostage. But not everyone. They missed McClane. Barefoot and initially armed with only a pistol, he has to do what he can to stop them and save the hostages–including his wife.

image

Willis doesn’t play McClane as a superhero. He’s obviously very clever when cornered, but he’s clearly a regular guy in a horrible situation. He spends much of his time talking to himself, wondering how he got into this awful situation and why he just did something stupid.

He’s also, it’s quite clear, a very annoying person. But in this situation, he uses that character flaw to his advantage. He makes the bad guys angry, and when they’re angry, they make mistakes.

Much of the film’s pleasure comes from his discussions, via walkie talkie, with the chief bad guy. Alan Rickman plays one of the great, suave villains. He’s civilized, well-mannered, well-dressed, and witty. But he’s also a cold-blooded murderer. The hero and villain come to respect each other, and enjoy their talks, even though each wants desperately to kill the other.

But this is an action movie, not a drama. It’s filled with gunfire, explosions, and impressive stunts. These action scenes are as well-staged and as well-edited as any you can find. They keep the suspense and the adrenaline running throughout the movie.

They’re also, I should mention, very violent. Die Hard earns its R rating, and not for sex or nudity.

I missed Die Hard when it first came out, and saw it a few years later on Laserdisc. I rented it several times–both on Laserdisc and DVD. Then, when I was researching an article for PCWorld , 20th Century-Fox sent me the Die Hard box set, containing the original and the three sequels released as of that time.

But on Sunday, I finally got to see it properly. (Okay, it wasn’t a 70mm print, but it was a very good DCP, and aside from some soft scenes early on, I can’t complain.) When the screen fills most of your field of vision (I was in the third row), and you can’t hit a pause button, McClane’s sense of entrapment feels personal. After all, you can’t glance at the bookshelf or get up for food (at least not without missing something).

But the audience really made this screening special. Applause, laughs, and cheers turned the matinee into a group experience. You don’t get that feeling when you watch Die Hard in the living room.

The movie is so much fun that, even though I find more implausibility each time I see it, I don’t care.

If you doubt how good the basic story is, consider how many rip-offs we’ve seen since the original came out in 1988. We’ve had Speed, Under Siege, The Rock, Sudden Death, Air Force One, and last year’s White House Down. And those are just the ones I saw and liked.

Sequels are another story. The only really good one was Die Hard with a Vengeance, at least until it fell apart in the third act. The sequels to the rip-offs aren’t worth discussing.

But the original is one of the great action movies. And it’s much more fun in a theater.

The Castro screened Die Hard on a double bill with Scrouged. But other responsibilities (including writing this report) kept me for seeing the second feature.

Saving Private Lebowski at Rio Bravo: 25 movies added to the National Film Registry

As they do every year, the Library of Congress has added 25 additional motion pictures to its National Film Registry. According the press release I received Wednesday, "Selection to the registry will help ensure that these films will be preserved for all time."

Or at least until Congress cuts the budget to provide additional income for the Koch brothers.

The LoC doesn’t claim that these are the 25 best films not yet already in the Registry. Movies are chosen for their cultural or historical importance. They may show a way of life that few have seen and that perhaps no longer exists. They may represent a new technical or stylistic cinematic direction. They may have been huge commercial hits or developed a large cult following.

On the other hand, some achieved cultural or historical importance by being really, really good.

There’s only one movie on the list that I would give (and have given) an A+, Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo.

I may one day give an A+ to The Big Lebowski. But since I don’t give that high a grade to films less than 20 years old, we’ll have to wait a few years to find out.

I’m also glad to see Little Big Man on the list. I haven’t seen this film in many years, but I loved it when it was new. I might love it again.

Some of the films have strong followings, of which I don’t belong. Saving Private Ryan struck me as a mediocre war movie with a great opening sequence. And Rosemary’s Baby, for me at least, just barely works. I hated Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory almost as much as I hated the book. I’ve never even thought about seeing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; maybe I’m missing something.

There are a lot of films here that I would like to see, some of which I didn’t know existed until I read the press release. These include the unfinished Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day and Please Don’t Bury Me Alive!, "considered by historians to be the first Chicano feature film." Amongst those I’ve heard of but haven’t seen are The Power and the Glory, Preston Sturges’ first produced screenplay, and a major influence on Citizen Kane.

Someone should do a festival of all of these films.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 70 other followers