Classic Movie Review: 12 Angry Men (1957)


Title: 12 Angry Men
Release Date: April 10, 1957
Director: Sidney Lumet
Production Company: Orion-Nova Productions
Summary/Review:

This is another movie I remember watching in high school, having read the play in English class.

Set almost entirely in the jury room of a New York City courthouse, 12 Angry Men is a compelling drama about the deliberations on a murder case.  Henry Fonda is the only big-name star in the movie, playing Juror #8, the only juror who feels that there may be reasonable doubt about whether the defendant, and 18 year old Latin American boy, actually murdered his father.  But there are excellent performances all around, including Lee J. Cobb as the angry man who is tough on crime, Jack Klugman as a man who grew up in similar conditions to the defendant, Jack Warden as the wiseass who is apathetic about the case, and George Voskovec as a naturalized American citizen who has a deep faith in democracy.

The movie is well-filmed, taking advantage of the confined space to build a feeling of claustrophobia.  There is also a slow transition of shots from above to close-up shots of characters’ faces over the course of the film. Keeping the camera on a character who is listening rather than talking is also an effective cinematic technique. Partway through the film a summer shower begins outside the windows and reflects the stormy mood in the chamber while also dramatically affecting the lighting.

The movie does his flaws.  Juror #8 visits the neighborhood where the defendant lived and buys a switchblade knife.  Not only are switchblades illegal but as a juror he’s doing research which is prohibited (and he somehow brought the illegal knife into the courthouse which would be harder to do today with security screening).  No less an authority than Sonia Sotomayor has declared that the jurors actions in this film is exactly what jurors should not do, and the Juror #8’s actions probably would’ve lead to a mistrial.  I also feel that it rings hollow that Juror #3’s intransigence is due to his failed relationship with his son.

I found that my experience watching this film changed significantly over 30-some-odd-years.  My teenage self saw this as a demonstration of how the American justice system works for good, or at least an idealistic presentation of such.  Nowadays, I feel the opposite.  The prosecution in this case clearly failed to make a credible case, the defense did even less to protect the defendant, and even the judge seems bored by the case.  11 jurors were ready to send a person to their death and call it a day.  In the real world, people like Juror #8 are few and far between and we’ve seen again and again that we can’t count on them to be around to protect justice and democracy when needed

  • One of the effects of the COVID pandemic is that it was very unsettling to watch dozen men together in a confined space, especially since at least one of them kept coughing.  The amount of second-hand smoke in the room also looked unpleasant.
  • I feel this movie would make a good double feature with Do the Right Thing.  Both movies are said to take place on the hottest day of the year (and thus have very sweaty actors) and deal with very heated arguments regarding race and justice.
  • All through the movie, I felt that Lee J. Cobb reminded me of George C. Scott.  It turns out that Scott played the role  of Juror # 3 in the 1997 remake.  Not only that but Scott took over the role of Lieutenant Kinderman in Exorcist III, which Cobb originated in The Exorcist!
  • I also appreciate that two actors ended up associated with The Odd Couple franchise: John Fiedler, who appeared in the movie, and Jack Klugman, who stared in the tv show.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Shane (1953)


TitleShane
Release Date: April 23, 1953
Director: George Stevens
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review: I was under the mistaken impression that this movie was a Western about a boy and his dog, like Old Yeller. In fact, Shane (Alan Ladd) is a human, a drifter who arrives on the homestead of Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur) Starrett and takes up work as their hired hand. The Starrett’s young son Joey grows attached to Shane looking up to him with hero worship.

All is not well in the valley though. The Starrets and other homesteaders are routinely harassed by cattle rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his men who want to keep the range free of farmers.  Shane, who is suspected to have a past as a gunfighter, must chose between fighting Ryker’s gang and his newfound domestic bliss. Things come to a head when Ryker brings a gunslinger, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), to do his dirty work.

On the surface, this movie appears to be aiming for a wholesome, All-American Western, but it has a lot of subtlety and nuance.  Shane never speaks of his past but we learn something of his character through his mannerisms.  There’s a definite attraction between Shane and Marian that is also never spoken aloud.  And the movie comes down against violence and guns, with only the child Joey buying into the myth of the Old West. When a saloon brawl occurs mid-film and a gunfight at his conclusion they pack a wallop because of all the tension building to these outpourings of violence.

This is a scenic film, with the jagged peaks of the Teton Range in the background of almost every outdoors scene. Having visited Grand Tetons National Park in the past year, it was fun to see it used as a film set. I also liked the scene set at a funeral which not only was a rare moment of grief in a Western, but the camera wanders around to children and animals on the edge of the crowd for a very naturalistic moment. I also appreciate that the 52-year-old Jean Arthur can look like a mother of a 9-year-old in her thirties. This is a big change from Sunset Boulevard a few years earlier, which depicted 49-year-old Gloria Swanson as impossibly aged.

Shane is an honest and nuanced film that does justice to the traditions of the Western genre without fall for its tropes and needless violence. It also would be great if it was retold in The Mandalorian.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)


Title: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Release Date: 19 December 2001
Director: Peter Jackson
Production Company: New Line Cinema | WingNut Films
Summary/Review:

I revisited this movie for the first time since it was in the theaters which was really too long to wait because I’ve always loved The Lord of the Rings. I watched with my kids who were not quite sold on Tolkien, alas.  There’s a lot to love of about this movie, mostly in that you can’t deny the imagination that went into adapting Tolkien’s work. It may not be what YOU imagined when reading the books, but you can’t deny that that it is a possible recreation of Middle Earth.  The cast is chosen well, and Elijah Wood does an excellent job at expressing Frodo’s emotion despite not having a lot of dialogue for a lead character.

The movie does have some flaws.  For example, it relies way too much on slow motion.  And like the book it based on it is overwhelmingly male. Jackson attempted to address this by giving Arwen (Liv Tyler) a bigger role although it feels like an attempt to force in a romance story without any effort to write romance well.  I do appreciate Cate Blanchett’s work as Galadriel since she appears to be really an ethereal and eerie elf in real life.

The changes this movie makes from it’s source material are largely beneficial to the story’s pacing and character development.  Tom Bombadil’s story is rightly ditched because it would be a too ponderous side trip.  And the ending is actually improved by using the climactic battle and dissolution of the Fellowship from the beginning of The Two Towers as a cliffhanger.  It’s really an excellent example of adaptation that the ensuing two movies did not live up to.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave the Best Picture to Return of the King and AFI included Fellowship on the 100 Years list.  I think they both intended to reward the entire trilogy, but it is my belief that Fellowship is the best film of the three.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Intolerance (1916)


Title: Intolerance
Release Date: September 5, 1916
Director: D. W. Griffith
Production Company: Triangle Film Corporation
Summary/Review:

This 105-year-old epic officially becomes the oldest feature film I’ve watched in its entirety, replacing Broken Blossoms (by the same director), which I watched in a high school film class. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for the movie-going public at a time when feature length films had existed only for a decade. Movies were as likely to be shown in storefronts as in theaters with many shorts running continuously as viewers wandered in and out. Now audiences were being asked to commit 3-1/2 hours to watching four different stories cut together in a single narrative.

Of course, Intolerance only made the “AFI 100 Years … 100 Movies” list because D.W. Griffith’s preceding film from 1915, The Birth of a Nation, recognized for its innovation in filmmaking was rightly also deemed to be racist a.f.  Intolerance was not an apology from D.W. Griffith for his depiction of leering Black men and inspiring the Ku Klux Klan to reform, but instead he felt that the criticism of his film and NAACP-lead protests were intolerant of him!  So, it appears that Griffith was not only a pioneer in filming techniques and creating feature length films, but he also may have invented the “You’re the real racist” trope used by white supremacists to this very day. 

Intolerance features four intertwined stories about “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages.” A recurring motif features a woman (film superstar Lillian Gish in what’s basically a cameo) rocking a baby in a cradle who symbolizes The Eternal Motherhood

  1. The main story is set in the present day and tells of the travails of a working class woman known as The Dear One (a fantastic performance by Mae Marsh). Her life is turned upside down by the forces of Puritanical moral reformers (misogynistically described in a title card as woman who go into philanthropy because men no longer consider them attractive). She and her husband, The Boy (Robert Harron), lose their jobs, have their baby taken away, and The Boy is wrongly convicted for murder, among other trials. There are some surprisingly progressive aspects to this segment as well, such as a depiction of National Guard troops firing on unarmed striking laborers (a criticism of the Ludlow Massacre of 1914) and appeal to abolish prisons.
  2. The modern American story is the only one with a cohesive storyline, but the Ancient Babylon story is the one that Griffith lavished money and attention on. Massive sets were built in central Hollywood (later recreated as a shopping center called Hollywood & Hollywood that I wandered through on my visit to Los Angeles in 2007) and cast thousands of extras for elaborate dance and battle scenes. The theme is the religious divide that lead to the fall of Babylon to Cyrus of Persia in 539 BCE, but really it’s all about the spectacle.  Kudos to The Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) for being another strong female character and a great performance in this segment.
  3. Significantly less screen time is given to the French Renaissance story which depicts the French monarchy’s massacre of Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572.  I had trouble following the story here but scenes were few and far between.
  4. The shortest segment is the story of Jesus of Nazareth (Howard Gaye) that incorporates only a small number of Gospel stories, such as the miracle at the wedding at Cana, Jesus forgiving the woman for adultery, and a brief glimpse of the crucifixion.

The movie does have an amazing amount of spectacle, especially when you consider that it was made 105 years ago, and is worth a watch for that alone.  But Intolerance is also a bit of a slog, and not very coherent. Compared with other silent films I’ve watched, this one is way over-reliant on title cards (some of them even have footnotes!!!) and great acting performances by the likes of Marsh and Talmadge are lost in the shuffle. I’d say that mostly this is a movie to watch if you’re interested in film history, but I doubt it will entertain anyone otherwise.

Classic Movie Review: Platoon


Title: Platoon
Release Date: December 19, 1986
Director: Oliver Stone
Production Company: Hemdale Film Corporation
Summary/Review:

Back in the 1980s, there were a lot of Vietnam War films that all came out around the same time, and I couldn’t remember if I’d watched this one. Upon reflection, I had not. The film focuses on the war-time experiences of Chris (Charlie Sheen), a volunteer from a more privileged background than his conscripted cohort in his platoon. The movie is filmed deliberately to make it hard to know what is going on, recreating for the viewer Chris’ experience of the “fog of war.” I think this movie was innovative in that effect although it has been repeated in ensuing films. I’ve read that veterans of the Vietnam War said that Platoon was the most accurate depiction of the war on film.

The large ensemble cast includes many actors who went on to greater fame including Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, Mark Moses, and Johnny Depp. Outside of Chris, who narrates his thoughts in letters to his grandmother, we don’t get to know the members of the platoon personally (although this movie also avoids the war movie trope of having all the characters represent a stereotype of the regions that they come from). Instead, the platoon is divided into two ideological camps. On one side, the compassionate Sgt Elias (Willem Dafoe) leads the men who just want to get through the war and relax by smoking pot during down time (knowing what we know of Sheen’s real-life habits, it unintentionally funny that he portrays an innocent being drawn into the drug culture). On the other side are the more hard edge soldiers who revel in machismo and racist dehumanizing of their Vietnam rivals. They are lead by the scarred and sadistic Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger).

The movie follows several months of conflict where Chris goes from idealistic to frightened to disillusioned. While clearly an anti-war film and one that dramatizes the traumatic affect of war on the soldiers, it does seem to want to have it both ways by also being an exciting action film with a certain amount of jingoism. This includes a disturbing sequence where the platoon attacks a village with many parallels to the Mỹ Lai massacre. The Vietnam War was very unpopular in the 1970s and early 1980s with many veterans leading the anti-war movement. And yet by 2004, John Kerry could be swift-boated for his opposition to the war as a veteran, partially because the slew of 1980s Vietnam War movies like this one recontextualized the war from an unjustifiable quagmire into a time of great valor.

Platoon is a well-made film and is an influential pioneer in the war movie genre. But I don’t feel the movie holds the courage of its convictions and thus doesn’t hold up all to well over the decades.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)


Title: The Best Years of Our Lives
Release Date: November 21, 1946
Director: William Wyler
Production Company: Samuel Goldwyn Productions
Summary/Review:

This is a movie I remember the adults in my family often having on the tv when I was a child. But I didn’t really watch it myself until I was in my 20s. Much like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I was gobsmacked that a movie from this era depicted people expressing nuance and frustrated opinions of post-war America in ways that might be considered “unpatriotic.” The movie is the story of three men return from serving in World War II and adjusting to the return to civilian life. But it is not a celebratory story and it offers commentary on things ranging from PTSD and physical disability to various changes in America’s economy, chains taking over local businesses, fears of another war and/or depression, empty words of “supporting the troops,” and even questioning the use of atomic weapons in Japan.

The three men at the heart of the story are:

  • Al Stephenson (Fredric March) – a banker who enlisted in the infantry at an untypically older age and only achieved the rank of sergeant. He returns to his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and his nearly-full grown children. He is frustrated by his bank undermining his loans to veterans of good character but without collateral and turns to alcohol to deal with his problems.
  • Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) – A bombardier in the war, Fred finds himself unqualified for jobs in the competitive post-war economy, eventually ending up back at the drug store where he had worked as a drug store (now operated as part of a corporate chain). He and his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) knew each other only briefly when they married hastily before his deployment and are now learning that they have nothing in common. Fred also finds the is falling in love with Peggy (Teresa Wright), Al and Milly’s daughter.
  • Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) – A sailor who lost both his hands in the war and now uses mechanical hook prostheses. While confident in using the prostheses he is uneasy about the pitying looks he gets from family and friends, and uncertain whether his fiancée Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) will still want to marry him. Russell was not a professional actor, but was actually a veteran who lost his hands in the war, and he puts in a phenomenal performance.

This is an all-around terrific movie with great acting, great writing, and great direction. It has a very modern feel to it and could easily be remade as movie today. In fact, a story about veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq would likely feel more alienated since there isn’t the common experience of service that there was in World War II. This remains one of my all-time favorite movies.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)


Title: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Release Date: September 23, 1927
Director: F. W. Murnau
Production Company: William Fox Studio
Summary/Review:

This film from the end of the Silent Movie Era is the first Hollywood production by F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu. Sunrise is informed by the German Expressionist movie as it depicts a simple moral tale and melodrama. A farmer (George O’Brien) has a fling with a vacationing woman from the city (Margaret Livingston). The woman tells the farmer he should murder his wife (Janet Gaynor) and run away to the city with him. The man lures his wife into a boat with a plan to drown her, but can’t go through with it when she pleads for his life.

And here is where the movie goes to unexpected places. The couple end up taking a trolley to a big city where they eventually reconcile and end up having a wonderful day together in the city. Gaynor does a great job of expressing the trauma of the near-murder by her husband and then the joy of their renewed affection. The whole “one perfect day” segment reminds me of the later film Make Way for Tomorrow. Except in this movie they attend the most fantastical fun fair and end up chasing an intoxicated pig. The final act depicts another near tragedy but I won’t spoil the details especially since I found it less interesting than earlier parts.

The movie takes advantage of newer, lighter cameras that can move freely through the scenery. Unfortunately these cameras were noisy so they had to revert to more stationery cameras when talkies emerged later in the same year. Sunrise is also one of the first films with a synchronized soundtrack that included sound effects, albeit no dialogue, so it’s not entirely “silent.” Intertitles are used sparingly and when they do appear they’re in a stylish font and sometimes even animated. The sets are brilliant creating a somewhat real but also fantastical city with forced perspective. The movie also makes great use of multiple exposures and superimposed images to represent memories and fantasies of the characters.

The moralistic and melodramatic aspects made the movie a little hard for me to simply joy. And it should be noted that the man puts up many red flags, even after their reconciling, that indicate that he’s not a good husband, at least to modern audiences. But this is definitely a movie that fans of the cinematic arts need to watch for its place in film history.


Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Pulp Fiction (1994)


Title: Pulp Fiction
Release Date: October 14, 1994
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Production Company: A Band Apart | Jersey Films
Summary/Review:

So I finally watched Pulp Fiction after avoiding it for 26 years.  And it was … okay.  Especially in the first sequence with Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), I kind of felt that I already knew every line of dialogue from repeated quoting and referencing.  Nevertheless, there were some surprises:

  • I had no idea that stars like Christopher Walken and Bruce Willis were in this movie, much less that Willis has a major role.
  • I didn’t realize that this movie is very long (154 minutes).  Granted, it’s basically three different movies intertwined. Tarantino essentially went ahead and made Pulp Fiction sequels and integrated them into the original film, which is admittedly clever.
  • The movie also features a lot of dialogue, both conversations and monologues, allowed to play out in full which is unusual for movies in recent decades and much appreciated. Although that dialogue also adds to the long running time…
  • I had absolutely no idea of the many twists and turns that occur in the “The Gold Watch” sequence with Butch (Willis), Vincent and then Marcellus ( Ving Rhames)

I avoided this movie because I assumed it was full of gratuitous violence and casual, hipster indifference to that violence.  There’s definitely some of that in this movie (a rape scene in “The Gold Watch” and a character getting his head blown off in “The Bonnie Situation” are particularly brutal to watch).  Nevertheless, the violence doesn’t seem to be as extreme as expected and as I noted above, words are more key to this movie than action. I was turned off by the gratuitous and “hipster-cool” ways that racial slurs are used in the movie and that aspect is going to only to continue to make the movie look dated as time passes.

What makes the movie for me is the moments of humanity. In three instances, in fact, people go to great efforts to save the life of another: Vincent rescues Mia (Uma Thurman) from a drug overdose, Butch goes back to rescue his rival Marcellus from their attackers, and Jules begins his transformation away from a life of crime to rescue the hapless robbers Ringo (Tim Roth) and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer).  There are great acting performances by everyone involved including smaller parts by Harvey Keitel, Maria de Medeiros, and Eric Stoltz.

I can definitely see Pulp Fiction earning a spot on a greatest movies of all-time list based on its influence on the film industry alone.  Nevertheless, I don’t believe it will make my personal lists of favorite movies.

Rating: ***1/2

 

 

Classic Movie Review: Sophie’s Choice (1982)


Title: Sophie’s Choice
Release Date: December 10, 1982
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Production Company: ITC Entertainment | Keith Barish Productions
Summary/Review:

I watched Sophie’s Choice many years ago and then read William Styron’s novel and loved them both. So I was happy to revisit this movie. It’s the story of a young aspiring writer, nicknamed Stingo (Peter MacNicol playing a character much like Styron), who moves from the South to Brooklyn. At his rooming house he meets and befriends the tempestuous couple upstairs of Sophie (Meryl Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline).

While Stingo sees Sophie and Nathan as glamorous, they each have dark secrets. Sophie survived the Holocaust in Poland and over the course of the film reveals her shame over her actions there in long flashbacks. Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic which manifests in extreme jealousy and abuse of Sophie. Most heartbreaking is that Sophie, because of her guilt over the past, seems to believe she deserves the abuse. The story ultimately leads to tragedy.

I remember watching this movie the first time and being utterly charmed by Nathan in his early scenes. This time I was more weary because I knew he was an abuser and it the patterns of abuse were more clear to see. Oddly enough, Kline’s portrayal of Nathan is very similar to his portrayal of Otto in the later film A Fish Called Wanda. We can laugh at Otto because he’s in a comedy, but since Nathan is in a drama, he is terrifying.

Meryl Streep’s performance is excellent, of course. She does a great job of portraying a person inexperienced with speaking English as well as the nuances of someone dealing with trauma. I was surprised that MacNicol portrays Stingo since it is very different from his later roles in things like Ghostbusters II and Ally McBeal. The one thing that bugs me about this movie is that when Stingo and Sophie have sex, Stingo narrates it like he’s in a frat boy comedy and he just made a great conquest. It really jars against the tone of the film and makes me wonder if Stingo learned anything from his experience.


Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Unforgiven (1992)


Title: Unforgiven
Release Date: August 7, 1992
Director: Clint Eastwood
Production Company: Malpaso Productions
Summary/Review:

This is a grim movie. I remember when it came out in the early 90s, it was hailed as the return of the Western. But thematically, Unforgiven is out to undercut every trope of the Western, especially ideas of heroism and honor among gunslingers or small-town sheriffs.

Clint Eastwood stars as Will Munny, a notorious gunslinger who settled down after marrying. When we meet him at the beginning of the movie he is widower with two young children on a pig farm, 11 years removed from his days of drunkeness and violence. The naïve (and nearsighted) Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) tracks down Will to recruit him to collect a bounty from prostitutes in a brothel against two cowboys who cut up the face of one of the women. Initially reluctant to return to the sinful life, Will changes his mind because he realizes his farm is failing and he needs the money for his children. He recruits his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to join in as well.

Meanwhile, the sadistic sheriff of Big Whisky, Wyoming, “Little” Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), the man who let the two cowboys go without punishment, is determined to prevent gunslingers from disturbing the peace in his town. This is displayed most viscerally in an extended sequence when Little Bill captures and then brutally beats the hired gun English Bob (played brilliantly by Richard Harris). Things are set up for severe bloodshed and tragedy.

This movie has a big problem with its depiction of women. Will’s wife is repeatedly discussed as an angel with magical powers of repentance but as she’s dead she never speaks for herself. Ned’s Native American wife is seen, staring scornfully at Will, but she never speaks either. Delilah (Anna Thomson), the prostitute who is the victim of the face-cutting that initiates all the other violence, seems to not want the other woman to raise a bounty on her behalf and willing to accept a horse as an apology from the cowboys, but she isn’t able to speak for herself in these situations.

Another theme of this movie is aging and the weight of the past. I find it interesting that Eastwood, Hackman, and Harris were all around 60 years old when the movie was made and all got their start in ultraviolent New Hollywood movies of the 60s & 70s. Freeman is a bit younger and didn’t gain widespread fame until the 80s. Ned seems more instantly likeable (because he’s Morgan Freeman) but also the one who doesn’t seem weighed down by his past.

This is well-made, beautifully-filmed movie with an excellent script as well. The acting is top notch, especially Hackman and Harris as well as Saul Rubinek as W. W. Beauchamp, a toady-esque writer who attaches himself first to English Bob and then to Little Bill as he fabricates heroic tales of the Old West. The movie naturally spirals into a whirlpool of violence and vengeance, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

Rating: ***1/2