Release Date: April 22, 2022
Director: Robert Eggers
Production Company: Regency Enterprises | Perfect World Pictures | New Regency | Square Peg
Robert Eggers first two films, The Witch and The Lighthouse, are among my all-time favorite movies, so when I heard he was making a movie based in Norse legend it immediately became one of my anticipated films. Well, it wasn’t worth the wait. The Northman is a straight up revenge story with unhealthy doses of toxic masculinity and aspects of torture porn and slasher films. Granted, all the reviews for the movie are positive, so this may just not be my thing, but I much prefer moody psychological dramas about people in New England dealing poorly with isolation.
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth, a Viking warrior whose sole goal in life is to avenge the murder of his father. As a child, Amleth witnessed his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murder his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) and abduct his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). If this plot reminds you of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (or Disney’s The Lion King), well, the legend of Amleth was a direct inspiration. Learning that Fjölnir lost his kingdom in a war and is now living in exile on Iceland, Amleth disguises himself as a slave and joins a ship of captives being shipped to Iceland. Along the journey he meets Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), a fellow enslaved person, and they become co-conspirators and romantic partners.
Much like Hamlet, there are times when Amleth can carry out his revenge but fails to act due to his faith in a prophecy which only serves to stretch out the movie. There are times when Amleth seems like he might question the whole vengeance thing and follow a more interesting path, but immediately reverts to the rote cliches of the revenge narrative. Honestly, I found the stakes of Amleth’s revenge get lower and lower as the story went along which just made it kind of sad.
Despite not liking much of The Northman, it is striking to look at, and Eggers maintains a unique directorial touch. I thought Taylor-Joy’s performance was particularly strong and wished her character got more to do than be the romantic interest of the protagonist (actually, The Northman told from Olga’s point of view would be a much more interesting story). Willem Dafoe has a memorable small part as a rude jester (who makes rude gestures) named Heimir and musician Björk makes a brief appearance as a Seerees.
Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.
Title: The Green Knight
Release Date: July 30, 2021
Director: David Lowery
Production Company: Ley Line Entertainment | Bron Creative | Wild Atlantic Pictures | Sailor Bear
Summary/Review: Film can be a lot of things but it is primarily a visual medium. The Green Knight is a visual feast that uses the language of cinema to adapt poetry from the 14th century. It has all the magic and mystery of ancient tale with the techniques of modern cinema. And while a serious story, it possibly features humorous allusions to Monty Python and Ylvis. While I enjoy movies of various styles, there are some that complain that contemporary movies are too fast-paced. For them, this is a treat, a slow-paced film with room to breathe and ratchet up the tension (albeit not so slow-paced as to feature a character eating a pie for 10 minutes).
Gawain (Dev Patel) is the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris), who aspires to be a knight, but spends much of his time in alehouses and brothels. On Christmas Day, he’s invited to sit beside the King and Queen (Kate Dickie) at a feast that is interrupted by the arrival of The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson). Gawain rashly takes up the Green Knight’s challenge which requires him to journey northward to the Green Chapel to face the Green Knight again on the following Christmas.
The bulk of the movie is Gawain’s journey and the adventures he has along the way. Patel is great in the lead role of young man who aspires to be courageous but doubts he has it in him. Alicia Vikander plays a dual role as Gawain’s commoner lover Essel and as the Lady of the manor where Gawain stops on his journey, and if I didn’t know it beforehand I wouldn’t have realized they were same actor. Joel Edgerton plays a key role as the Lord of the manor.
I’ve always enjoyed the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ever since I first read it in a Medieval Literature course in college. It was also the theme of the very first Christmas Revels I ever attended in 1996 in Washington, D.C. It’s great to see the story gain new life in such a stunning medium. This is definitely a movie I will need to watch again on the big screen.
Title: The Leopard
Release Date: March 27, 1963
Director: Luchino Visconti
Production Company: Titanus
Summary/Review: After being underwhelmed by Senso, a movie by the same director set in the same time period, I was not looking forward to watching another lengthy Italian historical drama. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a movie with Burt Lancaster in a starring role and I always like Claudia Cardinale, so I had those things to look forward to.
Lancaster plays Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina in Sicily in 1860 at the time of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s war of Italian unification. His favorite nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon, L’Eclisse) is swept up in the romanticism of the rebellion and joins Garibaldi’s redshirts. The Prince more pragmatically supports Garibaldi from afar as a means of maintaining the aristocracy as it is. When traveling to his summer estate, the Prince reluctantly has to entertain the nouveau-riche mayor of the town Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). When Tancredi falls for Don Calogero’s daughter Angelica (Cardinale), the Prince once again pragmatically approves of the match since it will bring in much needed cash from Don Calogero’s coffers.
For a movie of this length, there isn’t much plot. Instead it’s a series of subtle performances among the sumptuousness of the elite’s lifestyle of the Prince contrasted with the crumbling world of the common people of Sicily. While I’m not all too interested in films about the fading of aristocratic society, since I think aristocracy should fade away, I have to admit that Lancaster’s nuanced performance makes the Prince a sympathetic character. This movie very easily could have been a melodrama, but instead it is something more restrained and revealing.
I have to confess that I watched this movie on a 3-disc DVD from the library. I popped in the first disc and watched the movie before realizing it was actually Disc 3, and what I watched was a shortened American version dubbed into English. Ironically, this is the only version of the film that features Lancaster’s voice since he’s dubbed by an Italian actor in other versions. I suppose that I failed to watch the version of the movie that earned the laudits of Cahiers du Cinéma and Sight and Sound, but I think I got a full taste of The Leopard for the time being.
Title: Lawrence of Arabia
Release Date: 10 December 1962
Director: David Lean
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Who was T.E. Lawrence and why was he worthy of an extraordinarily-long biopic crafted by David Lean (Brief Encounter, Bridge on the River Kwai)? Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is an enigmatic British Army lieutenant during the First World War whose eccentricities make him a poor fit for the rigid military hierarchy. He’s assigned as an advisor to the Arab troops under Prince Faisail (the very English Alec Guinness who nevertheless looks a lot like the real person) who are revolting against the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence uses this opportunity to try to unite fractious tribes in a Pan-Arab cause and make daring strikes against the Ottomans. He’s also not above burnishing his own legend.
I’m sure that smarter people than me have written about the problems of casting white actors as Arabs and the “white savior’ narrative in this story so I won’t get into that. But I will also point out that this film is actually critical of Lawrence, and even more so of his superiors who nakedly betray the cause of Arab independence. This movie also does a good job of relating Lawrence’s deteriorating mental health as he is shattered by the trauma of war.
There are a lot of great supporting actors in this film. Among them is Omar Sharif (an actual Arabic actor) who plays a tribal leader Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish. Initially, Ali is an antagonist to Lawrence but over the course of the film he becomes the voice of conscience as Lawrence goes off the deep end. Anthony Quinn plays a leader of a rival tribe and Jack Hawkins plays Lawrence’s put-upon superior officer. This is one of these movies that I will need to see on a big screen. It’s full of Lean’s trademark wide shots of desert landscapes, sunrises/sunsets, and troops riding camels and horses. All in all it’s a gorgeous yet complicated film!
Release Date: November 18, 1959
Director: William Wyler
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
From 4th to 6th grades, I attended a Catholic elementary school where the teachers liked to show us Biblical Epic Movies in class. We watched today’s film, Ben-Hur, as well as Barabbas, The Robe, and Masada (which the teachers apparently didn’t realize has a scene with a topless woman until it was too late). Oddly enough, all of these movies are tangential to the Bible, and we somehow never watched any of the movies actually based on Biblical stories like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Anyhow, lest you think we were religious nuts, this same school was the first place I saw The Karate Kid, A Christmas Story, and The Ice Pirates!
I really enjoyed Ben-Hur when I saw it as a kid, but in the intervening 35+ I’ve come to assume that it was cheezy Hollywood. Rewatching it now, I found a lot to like about it: stirring action scenes, a compelling story of revenge and redemption, and a story that really sells its tangential relation the life of Christ. It tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), the scion of the most prosperous Jewish family in Jerusalem. His childhood friend, a Roman named Messala (Stephen Boyd) returns to Judea to command the garrison. Their reunion becomes an unhappy one when Judah refuses to provide names of fellow Jews who oppose the Roman occupation. Judah, as well as his mother Miriam ( Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell).
The bulk of the movie is Judah’s journey to return home and find his family. This includes two of the most memorable set pieces in Hollywood history. Who can forget the naval battle in which Judah and other enslaved people must row the ship to ramming speed? After saving the life of Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), Judah returns to Jerusalem to face down Messala in a chariot race depicted in an intense action sequence with some remarkable stunts.
Judah’s path crosses with Jesus a few times in the movie, but it’s not until the final act where he and his family stumble upon Christ’s procession with the cross and crucifixion. Ben-Hur may have the most artistic and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ in history of film. And because it’s told through the reactions of the characters, I think it is more effective than a more straightforward story from Jesus’ perspective. Ben-Hur is long and a bit old-fashioned but I think it holds up better than some of its contemporary epics.
Release Date: October 6, 1960
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Bryna Productions
I first saw Spartacus in 1991 when it was restored and re-released in theaters with previously censored scenes spliced back in. Most notable is the scene where Crassus (Laurence Olivier) attempts to seduce Antoninus (Tony Curtis) with an extended metaphor about oysters and snails to imply he is bisexual. This scene was too racy for the production code in 1960 although it would have probably been unnecessarily subtle in Ancient Rome. The other part of the movie I remember well is the gladiatorial training scenes where instructor Marcellus (Charles McGraw) has a comically gravelly voice that appears to dubbed over the film. For months after seeing this movie, my sister and I would imitate that voice saying “Kill, me Spartacus! Come on, kill me!”
I was surprised that most of what I remember of the film happens pretty early on (except, of course, the famous “I’m Spartacus!” scene near the end). Kirk Douglas stars as Spartacus, an enslaved man from Thrace who is brought to a gladiatorial training school in Capua and rebels after a series of indignities. This prompts a broader revolt of which Spartacus is chosen as leader and many successful battles against the Roman military as the freed people attempt to leave the Italian peninsula. Spartacus also forms a romance with a former enslaved woman Varinia (Jean Simmons), although I find their scenes together to not be very convincing.
It comes as no surprise that director Stanley Kubrick was more interested in focusing on the Romans as it is in their scenes that the film is strongest. The story of the corrupt Roman aristocracy plays as a sharp satire much as I read Gone With the Wind as a satire of the slavocracy of the Old South, or to be more relevant to Kubrick, a progenitor of Dr. Strangelove. Crassus is the aristocrat who outwardly stands for the greater esteem of Roman identity while privately plotting to take dictatorial power. Against him stands Gracchus (Charles Laughton), the populist who stirs up “the rabble” to his own ends. The movie even suggest the rise to power of Julius Caesar (John Gavin) is brought about by the events of this film, although Caesar himself plays only a small part in the story. Stealing scenes from everyone is Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, the unctuous slave trader and owner of the gladiatorial school.
The production of this film was a legendary mess with a cadre of strong-willed men of assholic temperament at loggerheads with each other. Nevertheless, it turns out as a very good if not great film despite the fact that it’s too long and uneven due to Kubrick’s disinterest in actually telling the story of Spartacus. It was fun to revisit Spartacus, and while it won’t end up on my list of greatest films ever, it has earned a memorable spot in Hollywood history.
Title: Gone With the Wind
Release Date: December 15, 1939
Director: Victor Fleming
Production Company: Selznick International Pictures | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
I’m not really sure what I can say about Gone With the Wind that hasn’t been said before. For good or for ill, this film is steeped in our culture. When I was a kid in the 70s & 80s, the annual broadcast of Gone With the Wind was a major event spread over multiple nights like a big new miniseries (and delightfully parodied on The Carol Burnett Show). My mom and sister loved watching the movie, but I avoided it until I was a teenager and found that it was actually better than I imagined.
Still, even if my great-grandfather hadn’t served in the Civil War defending his home state of Pennsylvania, I would find it hard to love a movie whose opening text declares the slaveholder aristocracy to be a great, lost civilization and their insurrection to be a noble cause. I decided that this movie really actually works as a satire of the South, since all the characters are universally awful in their narcissism, pettiness, duplicity, and greed. Well, except Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) who seems to have found a happy place divorced from reality.
I can’t deny that this is a technically brilliant and beautifully shot film that was innovative for its time and still holds up (although it says something about our nation that so many of the American film industry’s milestone films – from The Birth of a Nation to The Jazz Singer to Song of the South – are deeply racist). I also can’t deny that Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable are terrific in their roles. I quibble with the idea that the story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler really deserved the epic treatment and nearly four hours of run time, but it did hold my attention.
I guess I did have a few things to say about Gone With the Wind. I don’t think it really deserves the revered position it holds, but it is worth giving it a watch if you haven’t seen it yourself. I don’t think I’ll watch it again.
Title: Apocalypse Now
Release Date: August 15, 1979
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Production Company: United Artists | Omni Zoetrope
For the purposes of this review, I watched Apocalypse Now Redux, which I’d never seen before because it was streaming on Netflix and I was too lazy to go to the library for the original version. The main difference is that 49 minutes of footage was added to the film ballooning the length to 202 minutes. Apocalypse Now is definitely better without the extra footage, but I didn’t find it made the movie any less watchable. In fact the story is so episodic that it would be possible to slide in and out various scenes to make several cuts that worked.
I first saw Apocalypse Now in college where it was something of a cult film among many of the students. I watched the movie several times over a couple of years in the early 90s but hadn’t watched it since. The movie depicts the war in Vietnam through a graphic depiction of the violence and brutality of that war. Granted, it is not a very factual depiction of the Vietnam War, but one that catches the essence of the madness of that war through an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness. I read Conrad’s novel a couple of times in college and it was one of those books I struggled with maintaining my concentration. Although I do remember the narrator’s aunts advising him to wear flannel and write often from The Congo.
In the film, U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Willard (a very young-looking Martin Sheen) is ordered to sail upriver into Cambodia on a mission to assassinate Special Forces Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz has gone rogue from the Army and set himself up as a cult leader and warlord of his own army of indigenous people and other Americans gone A.W.O.L. On the journey upriver, Willard and the crew of a Navy river patrol boat (which includes Laurence Fishburne when he was only 14!) have many strange and disturbing encounters with members of the U.S. military and Vietnamese civilians (and in Apocalypse Now Redux, a family of French colonist holdouts). The structuring of the film almost follows that of a fantasy story or of a mythological heroes journey.
Except that there are no heroes in this movie. The further Willard and crew go into the jungle the further they descend into the darkest parts of their psyches. Kurtz on the other hand, has seen the madness of the war and embraced the madness. And yes the metaphor of “the jungle” and “indigenous people” representing the worst of humanity is as problematic in this movie as it was in Conrad’s novel. But beyond that this is an excellent movie with considerable skill in its production and excellent acting all around.
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
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.
Title: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Release Date: November 14, 2003
Director: Peter Weir
Production Company: 20th Century Fox | Miramax Films | Universal Pictures |
Samuel Goldwyn Films
From time to time, someone on Twitter asks “What movie do you think mosts deserves a sequel that never got one?” My answer is always Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The 2003 film is based on details from several of Patrick O’Brian’s novels in his 20 book series about Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin (I read about half of them before my interest petered out). I personally think The Fortune of War, which is primarily set in Boston during the War of 1812, would make for great source material for a movie sequel.
I saw the movie on the big screen in December 2003 and it’s the subject of one of my earliest movie reviews. Despite being wowed by the movie on the big screen, I haven’t revisited it until now, partly inspired by a recent episode of The Cine-Files podcast. Well, I have to say that this movie is still impressive on the small screen. The special effects and sound design are amazing. But best of all the movie really gives one a sense of everyday life on the ship – the drudgery and the terror of battle as well as camaraderie and beauty. It’s a movie with a lot of action scenes but not afraid to slow down to set the mood and establish good character moments.
Russell Crowe seems perfectly cast a “Lucky” Captain Jack Aubrey, while Paul Bettany is great as the scientific and introspective (albeit ignorant of anything nautical) Dr. Maturin. While they are the big stars, this is really an ensemble movie and everyone is well cast. The historical detail of young boys of noble families serving as officers in training is well represented, especially by Max Pirkis who steals scenes as Lord Blakeney. Of course, the ship HMS Surprise is a character as well. While I’m not really someone into war and masculinity as presented in this movie, it really is an excellent work that deals with themes of leadership, friendship, and persistence very well.