Classic Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in America (1984)


Title: Once Upon a Time in America
Release Date: May 23, 1984
Director: Sergio Leone
Production Company: The Ladd Company | PSO International | Embassy International Pictures | Rafran Cinematografica
Summary/Review:

Sometimes it seems that all you have to do to make it on a Great Films list is to make a movie about gangsters and make it very long.  That is the formula that legendary Italian director Sergio Leone followed in making Once Upon a Time in America, which ended up being his final film, and one he spent over a decade creating.  It’s also the final part of a loose trilogy of Once Upon a Time… movies that began with Once Upon a Time in the West.  Notoriously, the production company severely cut down the movie for its American release and rearranged the scenes in chronological order.  This movie bombed in the U.S. but the nearly 4-hour “European Cut” that I watched is considered a classic.

The movie is told from the point of view of David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert DeNiro, played by Scott Tiler as a teenager) who forms a gang in the Jewish enclave of Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his friend Max (James Woods, Rusty Jacobs as a teenager) and three other friends.  The story is framed by an older Noodles returning to New York City after 35 years because someone has learned he betrayed his friends in 1933.  The bulk of the film takes place in flashback during the Prohibition Era of the 1910s to 1930s.

Noodles is the epitome of unsympathetic narrator as we see him not only carry out violent crimes, but brutally rape two different women including the one who is supposed to be his lifelong sweetheart, Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern, Jennifer Connelly as a teenager). Women in this film are seemingly just there to be humiliated, beaten, and raped.  This is no doubt and accurate depiction of how gangsters treated women and girls, but if it’s up to you if that’s something you want to watch in a movie.

I’m not sure why Leone chose to cast actors of Italian/Irish and Irish ancestry in the lead roles as Jewish gangsters.  Not only was it unfair to ethnically Jewish actors who could’ve played the parts but it’s confusing since DeNiro and Woods had already played gangsters of other ethnicities.  I found Jacobs  was a lot more charismatic as the Young Max than Woods, who is just his usually creepy-ass self. The plot hinges on the audience’s’ belief in Noodles and Max having a deep friendship but I never feel any such connection between DeNiro and Woods. Indeed, the film seems to deliberately repel any emotional connection one might make with the characters. There are huge plot twists that end up being corny and unconvincing, and at the end I was left wondering why we spent nearly four hours on this story.

The one thing Once Upon a Time in America has going for it is that it looks really good. The sets are picture-perfect recreation of the Lower East Side in the early 20th century. I’d love to learn how it was produced and how they got Manhattan Bridge to hover over so many of the street scenes in the era before CGI.  Otherwise, gangster movies aren’t really my cup of tea, so your impression of this film may vary, but I found this movie to “meh” overall.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Cabaret (1972)


Title: Cabaret
Release Date: February 13, 1972
Director: Bob Fosse
Production Company: ABC Pictures | Allied Artists
Summary/Review:

Brian Roberts (Michael York) is an English academic who arrives in early 1930s Berlin and plans to teach English lessons while working on his doctorate.  He settles into a boarding house where he meets Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), perhaps the ur-Manic Pixie Dream Girl (with emphasis on “manic”), an American who sings and dances at the Kit Kat Klub. Despite Brian believing himself to be homosexual, their friendship grows into a romance.  Then their twosome becomes a threesome as they are both pursued by the playboy Baron Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem).  All throughout the film, the decadence of the Weimar Republic transitions to the Nazi regime.

While it’s facile to say that a musical would not work without the song and dance, the plot of Cabaret is rather slight. The musical numbers performed in the Kit Kat Klub by the Emcee (Joel Grey) and Minnelli are not only outstanding but act as perfect commentaries on the characters and the plot.  I did find the Emcee a bit terrifying, both for his uncanny appearance and his willingness to indulge in anti-semitic humor when it was least expected.  The most terrifying song in this movie is the only one not sung by Grey or Minnelli, but a chorus of people in a beer garden singing the militant Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

Despite the many allusions to Cabaret that are made in popular culture, this movie was not what I expected. It’s definitely a lot weirder than I imagined, and for a musical it is very bleak (which should not be surprising for any story involving the rise of Nazism).  Nevertheless, I liked it, and maybe it’s not an all-time classic, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Hope and Glory (1987)


Title: Hope and Glory
Release Date:  16 October 1987
Director: John Boorman
Production Company: Goldcrest Films | Nelson Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Set in London from around 1939 to 1942, Hope and Glory provides a child’s-eye view of World War II and the Blitz. In the horrors of war, Billy Rowan (Sebastian Rice-Edwards) can find joy in escaping school because of an air raid, bombed-out houses become a playground, and there’s beauty in a runaway barrage balloon.  Billy’s middle-aged father Clive (David Hayman) enlists despite his advanced age and his mother Grace (Sarah Miles) has to hold things together on the home front.  She’s unable to part with Billy and his little sister Sue (Geraldine Muir) in the Evacuation so they stay in the London for the nightly “fireworks” and gathering bits of shrapnel.  Meanwhile, Billy’s teenage sister Dawn (Sammi Davis) enjoys dancing with Canadian soldiers and ends up with an unplanned pregnancy.

In the the third act of the film, the family’s house is destroyed not by a bomb but by an ordinary house fire.  They end up living in a rustic Thameside cottage with Billy’s grandparents. Thus Billy learns about rowing, fishing, and cricket from his eccentric grandfather (Ian Bannen).  The whole movie has the sheen of nostalgia, probably based on writer/director John Boorman’s own childhood experiences, which helps excuse details like the fact that the children don’t seem to age over three years or Ian Bannen’s over-the-top acting.

The story of this movie is rooted in the stories the English like to tell themselves about the home front during World War II, stiff upper lip and all that.  Yet, subtly, Boorman also satirizes all that.  We see characters being cruel, foolish, and outright stupid.  And yet, Billy’s family survives the war and even seem to be in a better place by the end of the movie, more from dumb luck than anything else. I remember really enjoying this movie in my teen years for its wry humor and its view of children running wild and thriving during the darkest times.  Revisiting Hope & Glory all these years later I still think it’s an enjoyable and underrated film.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Story of a Cheat (1936)


Title: Le Roman d’un tricheur
Release Date: 19 September 1936
Director: Sacha Guitry
Production Company: Films Sonores Tobis; Cinéas
Summary/Review:

Sacha Guitry directed, wrote (from an adaptation of his own novel) and starred in The Story of a Cheat, alternately Confessions of a Cheat. Guitry plays a man in his mid-50s writing his memoir and narrating the extended flashbacks of his life, including all the dialogue of his younger selves ( Serge Grave and Pierre Assy) have with other people. The Cheat’s story begins when he is orphaned as a 12-year-old and then runs away from his guardians after they rob him of his inheritance.  The cheat works as a doorman and elevator operator at hotels, serves in the military, becomes a croupier in Monaco, and is charmed by beautiful women into participating in various cons and crimes.  Eventually he becomes a professional card cheat, learning from his life experience that he makes money when he cheats and loses money when he’s honest.

The film is whimsical but I never find it laugh out loud funny.  I wonder if this film inspired Jean-Pierre Jeunet because the stenatorian narration and quirky life story are reminiscent of movies like Amélie.  Mostly though, I just started to feel that Guitry should shut up and let people act, because that non-stop narration got grating.  I found The Story of a Cheat a mildly-entertaining picaresque but there’s nothing really great about it.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)


Title: To Kill a Mockingbird
Release Date: December 25, 1962
Director: Robert Mulligan
Production Company: Brentwood Productions | Pakula-Mulligan
Summary/Review:

I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in junior high school, as reading this novel is basically a nationwide requirement of the United States education systems, and immediately fell in love with it.  Then we watched the movie in class and I was disappointed.  At that age, I didn’t like it when movies deviated from the books. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize that the best adaptations used the language of cinema to capture the mood and spirit of a book rather than strictly recreating it (which is why Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of that series of movies).  I also remember feeling that the kids in To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t act like real kids but I felt the same about E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial as a child while thinking the kids were actually very realistic when revisiting as an adult.

If you have somehow never read To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a story told from the point of view of a young girl living in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s named Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Mary Badham).  Scout lives with her widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck) and older brother Jem (Phillip Alford), and often plays with a boy named Dill (John Megna) who stays with his aunt in their neighborhood.  In the book, Scout, Jem, and Dill have many adventures and get into mischief.  Scout also begins to get an understanding of the differences of the adults in her lives through encounters with a cantankerous old woman who turns out to have an addiction to morphine, as well as a mysterious recluse, Arthur “Boo” Radley (portrayed without words by a very young Robert Duvall).  Atticus is a model of good parenting who attempts to instill compassion in his children, treating them with patience and never talking down to them.

The central plot to the book and even more significant in the leaner movie version is the trial of a Black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who is falsely accused of beating and raping a white teenage girl, Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox), by her drunken father Bob Ewell (James Anderson).  Atticus is assigned to defend Tom Robinson in court and demonstrates during the trial that the Ewells’ accusations can’t possibly be true.  But convincing an all-white jury in the Jim Crow South to accept the word of a Black man over white people is the impossible challenge.  In the most famous scene of this movie, Atticus delivers a nine-minute summation to the jury where he explicates his belief in the American justice system that they will find Tom Robinson innocent.

I found that this is a very well-made movie, yet it still feels like something of an appendix to an even better and more complex novel.  Gregory Peck’s performance is excellent, but it’s almost too good and having an actor of his stature portray Atticus Finch feeds into legitimate criticisms that Atticus is a “white savior” character.  I did feel legitimately moved though by the scene where the Black spectators in the courtroom balcony stand to honor Atticus and Reverend Sykes (William “Bill” Walker) says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” A scene just before that where Dill is sleeping on Reverend Sykes shoulder is sweet and intimate especially considering the time and place.

As to the acting of the children, I was impressed with Phillip Alford’s performance as Jem.  His facial expressions and gestures say a lot as the older child who understands the significance of what is happening.  Mary Badham can be a bit too precious as Scout, especially in the scene when she talks down the lynch mob.  But she is absolutely perfect in her delivery of my favorite line of all, “Hey, Boo.”

I guess I have mixed feelings on To Kill a Mockingbird as a movie because I can never see it as standing apart from the book.  But it’s a great book, so it can’t help to be a good movie as well.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Pierrot Le Fou (1965)


Title: Pierrot Le Fou
Release Date: 5 November 1965
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Production Company: Films Georges de Beauregard
Summary/Review:

I struggle with these French New Wave films, especially Godard’s, so I’m a bit relieved that this is that last one on my list.  Although I think I may have been more receptive to Pierrot Le Fou had I been more in the mood for a weird, experimental film.  The movie is about a man named Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo, who just recently passed away) who leaves his wife and family and boring middle-class life in Paris to run away with his old girlfriend Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina).

She insists on calling him Pierrot, which he hates.  They go on a crime spree across France and are chased by both the police and gangsters from a right-wing paramilitary organization opposed to Algerian independence.  Pierrot le Fou was clearly an influence on Bonnie and Clyde. The movie is more of a montage than a linear plot, linking various vignettes together.  Some are comedy, some are eccentric, some are violent, and a couple are even musicals.
There’s a lot of overlapping narration from Ferdinand and Marianne, and references to philosophy and literature. I’m probably missing layers of significance but it all feels very pretentious.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Fruitvale Station (2013)


Title: Fruitvale Station
Release Date: July 12, 2013
Director: Ryan Coogler
Production Company: Significant Productions
Summary/Review:

We “Say Their Names” but sometimes that’s all we know about Black people killed by police and vigilantes.  Ryan Coogler’s debut film as director and writer tells the story of the man behind one of those names, Oscar Grant III, who was shot by police in a Oakland metro station just after ringing in the New Year in 2009, and died later that morning.  Michael B. Jordan portrays Grant as someone dealing with the complex mess of everyday life in the 24 hours leading to his shooting.  Melonie Diaz  portrays his girlfriend Sophina and Octavia Spencer adds a lot of emotional heft as his mother Wanda.  Ariana Neal steals scenes as Oscar and Sophina’s 4-year-old daughter Tatiana. This movie feels very real to me.  While it’s not filmed in a vérité or neo-realist style, I don’t feel like I’m watching Jordan, Diaz, and Spencer as actors playing people, but real people.  This movie was released before the Black Lives Matter movement officially began but it captures the meaning of the phrase in its depiction of one precious, human life of a Black man that was taken away.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: The Graduate (1967)


Title: The Graduate
Release Date: December 21, 1967
Director: Mike Nichols
Production Company: Lawrence Turman Productions
Summary/Review:

I first watched The Graduate some time in the mid-90s because, along with Easy Rider, it is said to be an emblematic of the Baby Boomer generation.  Watching it then, I felt that Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) seemed more representative of my own generation, at a time when we were being called “The Slacker Generation.”  Watching it now, though, I think there is a feeling of directionless many people experience in their 20s that transcends generations.  My other impression of the movie was that it wasn’t very funny and I didn’t like it.

Watching it now, I realize the problem I had with The Graduate is that it makes me deeply uncomfortable, which is something that a good movie can do.  I wrote in my review of M*A*S*H that there were a lot of positives of the Sexual Revolution of the 60s and 70s, but sometimes there was a push to be transgressive which crossed the line from health to unhealthy sexual expression.  The seduction of Benjamin by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) is extremely creepy, almost predatory.  Later in the film, Benjamin becomes a creepy stalker in his pursuit of Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross).  I’m never convinced that Benjamin actually loves Elaine, he’s just looking for a way to escape the rut he’s captured in, and I think the film actually supports this interpretation.  As for Elaine, watching her respond positively to Benjamin is like watching a camp counselor in a slasher film enter the creepy house where I want to shout at the screen “NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?”

The Graduate is an extremely well-made film.  I particularly like the the montage of Benjamin schlubbing around his house intercut with scenes of his assignations with Mrs. Robinson.  The acting is all around terrific, and Anne Bancroft’s performance in the scene where Benjamin presses Mrs. Robinson about her past is magnificent.  Simon & Garfunkel’s music for the film, while repetitive (although not as repetitive as Midnight Cowboy), is perfectly synched to the movie, and I especially like the part where Simon’s guitar strumming peters out when Benjamin’s car runs out of gas.  The final sequence of the movie is ludicrously unbelievable, but it’s still very funny (and was brilliantly spoofed in Wayne’s World II). Something I didn’t notice or didn’t remember from my previous viewing is that when Benjamin and Elaine get on the bus their smiles and laughter slowly turn to looks of confusion, as if they’re thinking “What now?” I never thought there was a happy future for Benjamin and Elaine and their expressions in the final shot confirm it.

Want to know something weird?  When filming this movie, Anne Bancroft was only 36 years old, joining Vivien Leigh and Gloria Swanson among actresses playing characters who are treated as older than themselves.  Granted, Mrs. Robinson had a teenage pregnancy, so it’s entirely possible that she have a child in college at Bancroft’s age.  But here’s something weirder: Katharine Ross is less than 9 years younger than Bancroft!  Weirder still?  Hoffman is only SIX YEARS younger than Bancroft.  The leads in this intergenerational comedy were all born in the same decade!

So, I think I like The Graduate a lot more than I did on my previous viewing, but I don’t love it.  I guess I’ll check in again in another 25 years, and who knows!

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Contempt (1963)


Title: Le Mépris
Release Date: 29 October 1963
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Production Company: Rome Paris Films | Les Films Concordia | Compagnia Cinematografica Champion
Summary/Review:

Contempt is a movie about making a movie.  In this case, German director Fritz Lang plays himself directing an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey on location in Italy. Sleazy American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) thinks that Lang’s vision for the film is too artistic and wants to create a blockbuster instead, so he brings in French playwright Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) to rework the script.  Javal’s wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) accompanies him to the film shoot.  Early on it is established that they both suffer from a lack of confidence, Paul in his writing, and Camille of whether she is worthy of love.

Things are sent into motion when Paul has Camille ride with the lecherous Prokosch when going to his house for lunch, and then doesn’t show up himself until 30 minutes later.  Camille fears that Paul is offering her to Prokosch as a beautiful young woman in order to advance his career.  When Paul later sides with Prokosch over Lang on changes to the film, she is further disgusted with his lack of integrity.  The better part of the film is the argument between Camille and Paul, first in their unfinished apartment and later on the cliffs at Capri.

This movie feels like it’s the type of movie that American sketch comedy shows spoof when they do a sketch about European films.  Beautiful people in various states of undress argue past one another, shouting they’re no longer in love, while repressing why they feel that way.  For some reason, Bardot is completely naked for a good portion of the film with the camera lovingly panning over her bare bottom.  Bardot certainly has a lovely bum, but I’m not sure how presenting it to the audience repeatedly adds to the film’s plot.  This movie is supposed to be Goddard thumbing his nose at mainstream filmmaking, but it feels to me like it’s just a poorly made melodrama.  The constantly swelling music is inappropriate to the mood and Bardot and Piccoli seem to be acting wooden deliberately

I don’t know, I guess this is one of those movie I’m just not going to “get.”

Rating: **1/2

 

Classic Movie Review: Easy Rider (1969)


Title: Easy Rider
Release Date:
July 14, 1969
Director:
Dennis Hopper
Production Company:
Pando Company Inc. | Raybert Productions
Summary/Review:

I knew Easy Rider was a movie with two men on motorcycles while “Born to be Wild” plays in the background, but other than that I didn’t know what to expect.  It turns out to be a much quieter movie than I expected, the kind of movie with lots of long conversations by campfires where what’s not being said is as important as what’s actually uttered.  Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) smuggle cocaine over the border from Mexico and sell it for a profit in Los Angeles.  They then ride east with plans to go to Mardi Gras. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker (Luke Askew) who takes them to a dysfunctional commune for a few days.  Later they meet an ACLU lawyer, George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), in a Texas jail who joins them for a time.  Finally, in New Orleans they drop acid in a cemetery with two prostitutes (Karen Black and Toni Basil) in a devastatingly trippy sequence.

Probably because of the tie between Peter Fonda and his father Henry Fonda, I couldn’t help thinking of this movie as being a generational follow-up to The Grapes of Wrath. Wyatt and Billy even cross the same bridge in Arizona that the Joads crossed, just heading in the opposite direction. A farmer they eat with along the way could’ve been a Dust Bowl refugee as a child.  And just as the Okies were hassled by small-minded locals and cops, the longhairs suffer similar discrimination.  Nicholson’s George sums up the attitude best when he notes that the typical American talks a lot about individual freedom, but are scared when they see someone actually living it:

“I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.”

The movie is said to be representative of the Baby Boomer generation at its counterculture peak.  But there is no “flower power” here. This is a portrait of a hopeless and directionless time, which lacks the optimism of a Tom Joad willing to fight for the people. It’s interesting that as this generation grew older, many (but far from all) affiliated themself with Tea Party and MAGA movements that would look down on longhairs like Wyatt and Billy rather than see them as representatives of their generation.  But they do share the same sense of cynicism over losing “their” America.

The conclusion of the movie is shocking in much the same way as Bonnie and Clyde.  In fact, I’d say it’s more of a shock since it depicts an act of completely senseless violence against people who had not been violent themselves.  It’s a weird and unsettling finish to a movie that never seems certain about what kind of story it’s trying to tell and being totally okay with that too.  I wouldn’t put Easy Rider in my greatest movies of all time list but it is an interesting time capsule for an era in American history as well as the evolution of American filmmaking.

Rating: ***1/2