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

Classic Movie Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)


Title: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Release Date: October 17, 1939
Director: Frank Capra
Production Company: Columbia Pictures
Summary/Review:

When I watched this movie as a child, I was gobsmacked by the depiction of rank corruption in the government. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about political corruption throughout US history, I just didn’t expect it in an old Hollywood film. For all the criticism of Frank Capra of making sentimental “Capra-corn,” this movie is cynical and dark. I mean they show flunkies of a political machine attacking children and driving them off a road, fer chrissakes!

The story begins with the death of a senator from a unnamed party in an unnamed state (Capra is very careful never to mention either of these things, ignoring the specific people and places where corruption thrived giving this movie an unfortunate “bothsiderism” undertone). The governor (Guy Kibbee) is torn between selecting a replacement suggested by his party’s political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) or a reform candidate suggested by citizens’ committees. His sons convince him to instead nominate a popular scouting leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart). Since the appointment is only for a few months, everyone believes that the noble but naïve Smith will keep his mouth shut and just occupy the seat for a short time.

Stewart does a great job of portraying Smith, at first awed by the symbolism of Washington DC and the majesty of the Senate. Smith’s mentor and the senior senator from his state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) advises Smith to work on some small legislation to keep him busy. Despite Paine’s public persona as honest man, he’s working for Taylor’s machine, and wants to keep Smith from learning about a bill which contains a dam-building graft scheme.

Smith works with his world-weary and cynical assistant Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) who teaches him how the sausage is made in the Senate while at the same time his optimism begins to rub off on her. Unfortunately, Smith’s bill for a national boys’ camp uses the same land as dam project. To cover their tracks, Paine and the Taylor machine frame Smith for corruption. Which leads to the final act, the famous and dramatic filibuster in the Senate.

This movie is considered inspirational, although I find it uninspiring that Smith only succeeds because he is able to make Paine feel shame, and then Paine makes a full confession. After all, Senators today won’t even apologize for mistakes they’ve made in the past, much less admit to corruption. In the past four years we’ve seen members of the Senate choosing to look the other way in full knowledge of corruption and crimes that affect the very heart of our democracy and the lives of millions of people. So I don’t believe that standing against corruption like Smith will change the hearts of the wicked, but I do believe it is correct to stand for America’s best ideals and what is best for the country, nonetheless.

This movie features some terrific acting, especially from Stewart, Raines, and Arthur. I particularly like the depiction of Saunders as an intelligent and independent woman within the government, something else you don’t expect to see in a movie from the 1930s. I also like Capra’s direction and some of the subtle choices he made to undergird his theme. For example, when Smith is reading the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial, an elderly Black man (possibly born in slavery) is seen in the background.

This is definitely one of the great films of all-time and one that remains relevant to our times.


Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Titanic (1997)


Title: Titanic
Release Date: December 19, 1997
Director: James Cameron
Production Company: Paramount Pictures | 20th Century Fox | Lightstorm Entertainment
Summary/Review:

I remember seeing this movie on a date shortly after it was released. I had no expectations of the movie going in, but the date was pleasant, the movie was entertaining, and the special effects really brought the ship and its tragedy to life. Also Kate Winslet was hot. I liked it. In the ensuing weeks the hype machine went out of control and suddenly Titanic was being discussed as the GREATEST. THING. EVER!!! This followed quickly by the reactionary view, picking Titanic apart, declaring it the WORST. THING. EVER!!!

Rewatching the movie many, many years later, and I’m going to have to say my initial impression was on the mark. This is a well-made and entertaining film that gets to the heart of a great tragedy. Sure, the fictional romance of the first-class Rose (Winslet) and the steerage passenger Jack (Leonard DiCaprio) is incredibly corny. But it works in terms of the film because they are renegades and thus have an excuse to be on various parts of the ship encountering different people at key times.

It is perhaps disappointing that the groundbreaking special effects are used these days more in superhero movies than in historical dramas. I am happy that DiCaprio got his due, as I recognized his acting skill here even as he was generally getting slagged. He’s proved he’s a talented actor just not so suit for leading man roles like this.


Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Goodfellas (1990)


Title: Goodfellas
Release Date: September 19, 1990
Director: Martin Scorsese
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

Well, I’ve finally found a Martin Scorcese “greatest film of all time” that I actually like. Based loosely on a true story, Ray Liotta stars as Henry Hill, a half-Irish/half-Sicilian kid drawn into a life of organized crime. The movie is similar to Trainspotting (which was probably inspired by Goodfellas) in that it starts by glamorizing the criminal life but slowly reveals the seedy underside and becomes an object lesson against that life.

Scorcese regular Joe Pesci plays the psychotic loose cannon Tommy DeVito and another Scorcese regular Robert De Niro plays the seemingly level-headed but ultimately more dangerous Jimmy Conway. Lorraine Bracco does a good job portraying Henry’s Jewish wife Karen who is drawn in by the allure of the gangster life. I think what sets this movie apart for me is that Pesci and De Niro aren’t playing the same characters they always seem to play, there’s a lot of nuance in their performances, while Liotta and Bracco don’t fit into the typical stereotypes of gangster films at all.

The movie veers between comedy and horrific violence, but avoids becoming a deeply unsettling paean to the myths of masculinity and violence like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. The final sequence is a vigorously-paced collection of cuts showing Henry Hill’s increasing paranoia and coke-fueled energy set to a full playlist of Scorcese’s favorite classic rock hits. If The Godfather depicts the elite of organized crime and The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the story of the lowest rungs of gangsterism, then Goodfellas slides in as the story of the mobster middle-class. Doubly so since Hill, and Conway, can never attain the highest ranks because they aren’t fully Sicilian.

While Goodfellas isn’t something that will make my greatest films of all time, it definitely joins the list of Scorcese films I actually enjoyed, along with The Last Waltz and The Departed.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Do the Right Thing (1989)


Title: Do the Right Thing
Release Date: July 21, 1989 
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
Summary/Review:

Do the Right Thing is a movie I watched ages ago and liked and always meant to revisit. The movie holds up startlingly well after 31 years and remains sadly relevant to our time as it deals with racism, police violence, and even global warming. It features a remarkable ensemble cast including legendary actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, John Turturro and Samuel L. Jackson before they became super famous, and the film debuts of Rosie Perez and Martin Lawrence.

The movie is set on the hottest day of the year on one block in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The film is largely vignettes of various people on the street and in Sal’s pizzeria. Over the course of the day various antagonisms and aggressions build up leading to a massive fight erupting at Sal’s. When the police arrive they kill a young Black man, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), and the people of the neighborhood vent their rage by trashing and burning Sal’s pizzeria.

Spike Lee brings his distinct style to the film. The camera adopts extreme angles and movements to accentuate the conflicts. He also has almost every shot filmed against bold background colors. I remember this style being visually stunning at the time, but partly due to Lee’s influence, it also became emblematic of the late 80s/early 90s period. Music also plays a strong role in the film, especially Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which appears 15 times in the movie from the opening credits where Rosie Perez performs a very angry dance to the recurring appearances of Radio Raheem and his boombox. The rest of the soundtrack includes an original jazz score by Bill Lee and soul and R&B tracks, many played by the DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), who watches over the day from his radio studio.

The cast does a great job of portraying the characters that are recognizable from any urban community. The movie pushes the line of being a neighborhood made up entirely of characters, but restrains itself and allows the nuances and humanity of each person to develop. Stand out performances of the movie include Ossie Davis as Da Mayor, kind of a wise fool who patrols the street in a filthy suit and has an alcohol problem. Davis’ real-life wife Ruby Dee plays Mother Sister, a neighborhood matriarch who looks down on Da Mayor despite his efforts to impress her. Danny Aiello portrays Sal as a complex character, a white man who feels a place of pride being part of a Black and Latin American community and watching the kids grow up eating his pizza, but nevertheless harboring racial animus. Turturro plays one of Sal’s sons, Pino, and despite being from the younger generation he is more openly racist and angry. Finally, there is Spike Lee himself who plays the pizza delivery man Mookie and somehow remains a likable character even though Mookie can often be a selfish jerk.

For all the realism of the movie, it also has a lot of unreality. It is virtually impossible for everything that happens to have happened on one block in one day. I don’t even think that Mookie ever has to go around the corner to deliver a pizza. The only people who ever leave the block and return are the police, the outside antagonists. In of the most startling sequences of the movie, a series of characters look straight at the camera and shout slurs about another race. Despite this movie showing a balance of views and nuance in every character it never gets preachy or reaches for easy conclusions like “Everyone is a Little Bit Racist” unlike some weaker movies that have attempted to address the same issues.

I remember when this movie came out that people said the murder of Radio Raheem didn’t resonate since he was an unsympathetic character. Critics who were indifferent to Radio Raheem’s death were nonetheless outraged by the destruction of Sal’s pizzeria. This valuing of property over human lives is all too familiar in our time where people still try to deny that Black Lives Matter. The heat of the day is also relevant as we have more and more hot days, and characters in the movie even discuss the polar ice caps melting. And the Unspooled podcast notes that New York City is getting much hotter summer days than the 92° in this film. If all that isn’t relevant enough to our times, some characters even discuss Donald Trump!

This movie remains excellent and deserves all the accolades it has received over the years.


Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)


Title: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Release Date: September 24, 1969
Director: George Roy Hill
Production Company: Campanile Productions | Newman-Foreman Company
Summary/Review:

Loosely inspired by real life events, the film tells the story of Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), who rob trains and banks in Wyoming in the 1890s. After hitting the Union Pacific one two many times, the railroad head puts together a posse of the best law officers and trackers to catch them. After a LONG pursuit, Butch and Sundance decide to flee to Bolivia with the teacher and Sundance’s lover Etta Place (Katharine Ross). There they fall back into their criminal ways and become known as Los Bandidos Yanquis before meeting their ultimate fate.

The movie is a mix of classic Westerns with gorgeous scenery, great cinematography, and lots of action and stunts. It mixes in a bit of New Hollywood brashness with two handsome and super cool male leads who exchange quips and barbs, and some anachronistic musical numbers. It subtly deconstructs the mythology of the Old West, setting the story at a time when the frontier was closing and the first Western movies were appearing on screens. They have to leave the country to find a place wild enough to operate. The movie has a lot of humor and charm, and a lot of quotable lines and I can see how it became such a popular movie.

On the downside, it doesn’t give Katharine Ross much to do. There are some hints of attraction between Butch and Etta – especially in the famous bicycle sequence, but it never emerges into a love triangle (thankfully, because that would’ve been boring). If anything, she seems to be the third wheel in Butch and Sundance’s bromance. And when she leaves it’s a fairly unceremonious departure.

This is a fairly enjoyable movie and one I might watch again, but I definitely wouldn’t rank it among the best of all time.

Rating: ***1/2