Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Tag: Chad Picks Classic Flicks

12 Angry Men

Published in the North Central Chronicle on Feb. 22, 2008, as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”

I was about 7 years old when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder. I’ve seen the highlights—the slow-speed chase, O.J. struggling with the glove—but I don’t remember the sensational media coverage or the racial debates regarding the verdict. I can only assume the jury felt tremendous pressure to get it right; a guilty verdict would have sent Simpson to death row, while ruling him not guilty would set him free.

The question of guilty versus innocent and right versus wrong has captivated rational minds for centuries. In our justice system, the final judgment of wrongdoers is laid on the conscience and common sense of their peers. But when fallible and differing human beings must unite under one clear, unanimous decision, there is bound to be conflict. And conflict is exactly what happens in Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957).

A young ruffian has been accused of premeditated murder. The judge sends the jury into deliberation of what appears to be an open-and-shut case. The twelve jurors file into a cramped back room to debate the case, but 11 of them have already assumed the defendant’s guilt. The twelfth one, however, is not so sure. He, juror number 8 (Henry Fonda) is the only one who leaves room for reasonable doubt.

So they are forced to endure the stifling heat and convince Juror Number 8 to change his vote. As the tension builds with the humidity, the jurors sweat the details of the case and each man’s faults and prejudices surface. One man sees the defendant as a stereotypical child of the slums and makes his judgments accordingly. Another cares more about making it to a baseball game that night than deciding the fate of a man.

We learn of the case piece by piece through the jury’s deliberation, and slowly we see our own perceptions of the defendant’s alleged crime, and of the jurors themselves, change. Juror Number 8 is meant to be the hero of the film, but he represents more; he is willing to stand up for an unpopular belief amidst heavy and vocal opposition, and his voice of reason and empathy starts to convince other jurors to take change their vote. But I could see a part of myself in each one of the jurors; the reasonable, the indifferent, the stubborn, and the intolerant.

12 Angry Men is similar to Rear Window in that all but about three minutes of the film takes place in one room, creating a heightened sense of claustrophobia for the viewer and for the jurors. In a pressure-filled situation like that, the worst in a person spills out, resulting in ad hominem attacks and irrational behavior. It’s like The Real World, except well-made.

This film should not have worked. Watching twelve men sit in a room and just talk for an hour and a half does not sound very fun, but the actors inhabit their characters and make us believe we’re in that stuffy room with them. We are drawn into solving the murder mystery with the jurors, and we soon start to make our own conclusions, however unsubstantiated or unfair they are.

12 Angry Men succeeds were a good dramatic film should: it entertains us, with colorful characters waging a war of words in a stress-filled environment; and it also makes us think, about the concept of right and wrong and about our own prejudices. With a one-two punch like that, 12 Angry Men deserves no less than top billing on your Netflix queue.

Some Like It Hot

Published in the North Central Chronicle on November 2, 2007, as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”

After tackling a few different genres—film noir, thriller, crime drama—all of which can take a heavy toll on your senses, I thought it best to visit a genre much older than the film medium and more eternal than the line at the bookstore: comedy.

There are many things that make me laugh. Some are obvious: Hans Moleman from The Simpsons getting hit in the groin with a football, Ron Burgundy repeatedly insisting that he wants to “be on” Veronica Corningstone, and G.O.B. doing his chicken dance on Arrested Development.

But other things that make me laugh are more subtle: Nigel Tufnel showing off his amp that goes to eleven in This Is Spinal Tap; Lloyd Christmas saying “follow me” to Harry Dunne in Dumb & Dumber; Dwight Schrute admitting to loving Count Chocula in The Office. Those not-so-obvious ways of making people laugh are certainly more difficult to create, and that’s why good comedy can be very hard to find.

Luckily, the American Film Institute has found it for us. They made a list of 100 American comedies worth their rental price, and my choice for classic comedy just happens to be number one on that list. That film is Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959).

In Depression era Chicago, two struggling musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), witness the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre between two rival gangs. When the gangster in charge spots Joe and Jerry, they flee in a hurry and try to arrange to leave the city to escape their pursuers. The problem is that the only available gig is with an all-female big band.

But that doesn’t stop the dynamic duo. They simply disguise themselves as females and raise their voices up an octave, effectively transforming from Joe and Jerry to Josephine and Daphne. They’re convincing enough to fool everyone in the band and are soon bound for Florida, safe from their chasers.

The “girls” quickly become popular among their female companions. They meet the ukulele player and vocalist Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) and immediately beginning fighting for her attention, all the while struggling to maintain their feminine guise. This proves difficult as Jerry soon falls for Sugar and is tempted to blow his cover and run off with her, but he eventually accepts Sugar’s sultry demeanor as something he can never embrace—as a woman, at least.

Meanwhile, as the band arrives at a Florida resort, Josephine and Daphne discover that the gangsters they tried to evade had tracked them down. Soon they are running for their lives, all the while trying to sustain their alter-egos and survive unscathed.

Admittedly, this film doesn’t sound anything like a comedy, much less a good one. But, frankly, it’s hilarious. The Academy Award-nominated screenplay overflows with wickedly clever one-liners and double entendres. Jack Lemmon especially has a razor-sharp delivery. When Daphne and Josephine are first welcomed into the band, another girl asks if they are the new girls. “Brand new,” he says.

In addition to the superb dialogue, the actors maneuver through riotous sight gags and sticky situations. At one point, Jack Lemmon, who is enormously gifted at physical humor, is dressed in drag and an “uplifting” brassiere doing the tango with an eccentric millionaire. Any other actor would have overacted the moment, but Lemmon provides the perfect expression that becomes an uproarious moment.

Topping off at 2 hours, Some Like It Hot feels like a period drama that just happens to feature hilarious cross-dressing musicians jumping from one farcical scene to the next. But this film is unlike its comedy counterparts of today’s cinema. There are no penis jokes, no foul-mouthed perverts, no bikini-clad bimbos; just well-crafted, smart, knee-slapping comedy.

Billy Wilder, the director and co-screenwriter, was most well-known for his dramatic films like Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), which is why there is just as much plot as there is humor; a rarity in modern comedies. This characteristic is what sets Some Like It Hot apart from other comedies and why it topped AFI’s list.

If you’re looking for laughs that aren’t aimed at those who have been lobotomized, check out Some Like It Hot. Even if it’s not the funniest movie you’ve ever seen, it’s probably smarter than your favorite comedy. I realize that laughs don’t always coincide with intelligence (example: Epic Movie), but at least Some Like It Hot won’t cause your IQ to drop.

Taxi Driver

Originally published in the North Central Chronicle on October 19, 2007, as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”

In this edition of “Chad Picks Classic Flicks,” I’m skipping over the 1960s in favor of tackling the wide array of great movies in the 1970s. I will return to the decade of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll eventually, but for now, we’re traveling to a time when VHS and Betamax were waging a format war, when Johnny Carson was “King of Late Night”, and when the Internet was something only engineers cared about. So grab your bellbottoms, throw on your favorite ABBA album, and prepare to get funky—film style.

Beginning with the release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, and ending with the release of One for the Heart in 1982, American film was largely defined by low-budget, realist, sometimes exploitative films made by young, independent filmmakers. This era is dubbed “New Hollywood” because it threw away the standards of the old studio system and completely changed the way movies were made and marketed.

New Hollywood films were groundbreaking in their technique and style, but most notably for the themes they addressed. Anti-establishment and disaffected youth were common subjects. Sexual angst and heightened realism were pervasive. There are many noteworthy New Hollywood films that share these traits, but none stand out as much as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).

Set in post-Vietnam Era New York City, Taxi Driver follows lonely insomniac taxi driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) through his isolated and desperate life driving through the dirty streets and fantasizing about laying waste to lowlifes and criminals. He spots Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a blonde overwrought campaign aide to a presidential hopeful, and successfully woos her into a date.

But Bickle, who apparently has not been on too many dates, brings Betsy to a sleazy porno film, and she quickly leaves in disgust. Travis feels rejected and confused, and so begins his slow descent into delusion and despair.

The deep-seated anger Travis has suppressed begins to emerge as he becomes more withdrawn from the world he loathes so much. He buys a few handguns and, in a very famous scene, talks to himself as he flashes his gun in front of a mirror: “You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here,” he says. He becomes the only person in his life, and soon his deluded mind takes over, creating a whole new Travis; a ruthless and desperate assassin.

Travis then unexpectedly meets a 12-year-old prostitute (played by a very young Jodie Foster), and takes it upon himself to save her from her pimp and from a life on the streets. The problem is that she doesn’t necessarily want to be saved, and Bickle’s problem is that he can’t accept that. He has a mission in his mind, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t go for glory trying to save the girl and win Betsy back.

If you haven’t gathered it already, Taxi Driver deals with a seriously disturbed character. He’s a racist, homophobic, confrontational hermit and has illusions of grandeur. He tries to become a hero but doesn’t realize that he’s doing everything wrong in the process.

Yet equally as mesmerizing as the film’s central character is its style. The unorthodox cinematography brings out the grittiness and nuances of the streets, and the dialogue flows well while maintaining depth and insight. The taut supporting cast offers a hearty taste of authenticity with a dash of humanity, which serves as a stunning contrast to the perceived inhumanity in Bickle.

Taxi Driver was the film that pushed both Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro into the limelight. It won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and a slew of Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture. It’s my favorite Scorsese film, not only for the reasons explained, but for the film’s residual effects. It made me think long after it ended, and I give major props to films that can do that.

This weekend, consider escaping the autumn chills by watching Taxi Driver in the caged swelter of your dorm room. It’s not the greatest date movie, however, so don’t cuddle up with your significant other expecting a romantic segue into a make out session; it’s a brutally honest film that delves deep into a mad mind. If that’s not your cup of tea, just skip right to the make out session.

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