Top 100 Album Review: #30 – Blue, Joni Mitchell (1971)

An Extremely Personal Expose About Relationships

Completely exposed, Joni Mitchell touches a nerve featuring all textures of a relationship. Her infatuation, longing, loneliness, and heartbreak is cracked open for all of us to see.

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Rolling Stone’s Ranking: #30/100
My Rating:smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

The first two CDs I ever owned were Lou Bega’s Mumbo Number 5 and Joni Mitchell’s Blue. What do you want — I was a weird kid. Riding around on bus #22, I jammed out to the folk goodness of Joni Mitchell as we caravanned down cow-covered patches in western Hanover in Virginia.

I shouldn’t say I owned it; I overheard it being played by my sister and my mother, and after one of them left it in the CD drive, I got in the habit of listening to it while playing some of my favorite browser-based games (Archmage or Sissyfight anyone?). As a 13 year old, I did not exactly catch what all the lyrics were about. I much more appreciated the solid tunes and the earthy tones of the singer-song writer genre that was pretty absent from my 90s music diet.

Listening to this as a thirty year old is quite a different experience — past people and places bubbling to the surface with each track.

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Top 100 Movie Review: #3 – The Godfather (1972)

The Offer We Just Can’t Refuse

A front row seat to the underbelly of Mafia crime, the movie about the Corleone family has plenty of malevolent retribution to enjoy.

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Marlon Brando who won Best Actor as Vito Corleone.

American Film Institutes Ranking: #3/100
Awards: Nominated for eleven awards with one being revoked and winning Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.
My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

This is one of the heavy hitters of film, obvious by how high it is ranked (#3!) but also by its universal acclaim. Unfortunately, I’m not 100% on the bandwagon. Don’t get me wrong. I find this movie very good and enjoyable, but I’m not quite sure I would put it in my top five movies of all time.

There is something intoxicating about seeing the inner workings of the mafia, and Francis Ford Coppola’s movie does a wonderful job of characterization — there are rememberable people, interactions, and changes amongst the cast over the course of the movie. The fact that no one is safe from the violence adds an additional level of intrigue, never knowing who might be the next one to “sleep with the fishes.”

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Top 100 Book Review: Ubik – Philip K. Dick (1969)

Unbalancing Thriller That Makes You Question

Science fiction at its best: taking advantage of temporal-spatial qualities to take advantage of our intuitions. 

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My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

I really think science fiction, the genre as a whole, is under appreciated. There is some really good writing out there, and just because the settings might be geeky, futuristic, or entail allusions to higher level math, it gets disregarded. The format allows authors to explore things that just wouldn’t otherwise be possible; when you don’t have to worry about what is plausible, you are free to explore the human condition unabated without typical restraints.

Where this can go awry is that things can get too zany when authors get drunk off the power of not having to tell a tightly-knit story. This can be a delicate thing to balance, using the unconstrained conventions of the genre but still having to tell a coherent narrative that can be appreciated.

Fortunately, Ubik does both of these well and gets the most out of both sides.

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Top 100 Movie Review: #34 – To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Who Doesn’t Want to Emulate Atticus Finch?

Even with a slightly white-washed script, “To Kill a Mockingbird” can swell the spirit and can recreate the magic from the book. 

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Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson.

American Film Institute Ranking: #34/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for eight, including best picture and director, while winning three for Best Actor (Gregory Peck), Best Adapted Screenplay (Horton Foote), and Best Art Direction.
My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

First, I think it has to be appreciated the challenge this director and screen writer faced: they had to take one of the most beloved pieces of literature and transmute it onto the silver screen. This was no small task.

Their approach was to put more focus on Atticus Finch than Scout which is a pretty-big deviation from the book. There are both positives and negatives because of this narrative change, and people’s feelings about this movie can usually be tracked back to how they view this slight of hand. Atticus is such a beloved figure of moral inspiration that having him be the center brings his edifying persona to the forefront, allowing fans of the book to get more of a favorite character. The downside is that the story strikes an odd tone, being almost silent on the African American plight.

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Top 100 Movie Review: #97 – Bringing Up Baby (1938)

I laughed — Once.

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Katherine Hepburn as Susan Vance, Cary Grant as David Huxley, and the titular character Baby the Leopard.

American Film Institute Ranking: #97/100
Academy Awards:
None
Director: 
Howard Hawks
My Rating: smooth-star

What is comedy?

It’s a tricky question to answer and is the crux of my problem with this movie. What makes someone laugh: do you prefer witty, ridiculous, crass, situational, ironic, play-on-words, role reversals, self-depreciating, or some combination of the above? This movie has universal appeal with a resounding unison of positive reviews. This is quite different from how it was described at the time of its release, with phrases such as “box-office poison” and such a bomb that it threatened Hepburn’s film career with critics.

Somehow through syndication, this movie gained a steamroller of momentum and now is regarded as the quintessential screwball, romantic comedy that created an entire genre. I can’t help but agree with the original opinion. While the movie appealed to my love of wacky and imaginative, the delivery made this one of the most frustrating films I’ve ever watched.

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Top 100 Movie Review: #17 – The African Queen (1951)

A One-Set Movie Starring Mismatched Lovers

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Rose Sayer, the fastidious and devout saint (played by Katharine Hepburn), Charlie Allnut, the vagabond and loose sailor (Humphrey Bogart), and the main set of the movie, The African Queen.

American Film Institute Ranking: #17/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for four (Best Actor, Actress, Adapted Screenplay and Director) winning Best Actor for Humphrey Bogart (his only Academy Award).
Director: John Houston
My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

“How can we put Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in close proximity for a couple hours and let them work their magic?”

Enter the adapted screenplay by James Agee (who also wrote a top 100 book of all time “A Death in the Family” which I review here). The African Queen is an interesting movie just from the set up alone: about 90% of the movie involves the two main characters floating down a river in a steam boat with the entire focal point on their relationship. There is some window dressing to get them there, but none of it matters. What is important is that Humphrey and Katharine are stuck together and have to work through their differences. This movie explores the classic motif of mismatched lovers using  stereotypical traits that are diametrically opposed (messy vs. clean, prude vs. crude, etc.). Thankfully, we have two power houses of Hollywood that end up pushing this ridiculous script along and somehow make a successful go at it.

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Top 100 Movie Review: #38 – Double Indemnity (1944)

The Walls Are Closing In. 

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Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray as Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff

American Film Institute Ranking: #38/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for seven, including best picture, director and actress, but losing all seven.
My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

The story goes that this was a hard movie to get approved to make — those in charge  felt like the script’s content and story were too maniacal and didn’t pass the Movie Picture Production Code for moral standards. The characters are indeed awful, and there was more than one time that it made my skin crawl. The set up is a a classic reiteration of trying to commit the perfect murder to collect on an insurance policy, but this time it is a scheme between an unhappy spouse (Phyllis Dietrichson) and an insurance agent (Walter Neff) to knock off her husband. Walter Neff knows how other people have gotten caught in fraudulent claims and comes up with the perfect plan: have his death appear as if it happened on the train and collect double on his insurance policy, otherwise known as double indemnity.

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