Recent Movie Marathon: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title : Judas and the Black Messiah
Release Date: February 12, 2021
Director: Shaka King
Production Company: MACRO | Participant | Bron Creative | Proximity
Summary/Review:

Judas and the Black Messiah is a biographical story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, and Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), an FBI informant who infiltrated the Party.  The result of O’Neal’s work was the coordinated  assassination by the FBI, Chicago Police, and Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office  of Hampton while he slept early on the morning of December 4, 1969. The movie also depicts the budding romance of Hampton and Black Panther Party member Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who would give birth to their child only 25 days after Hampton’s death.

I’ve long felt that Hampton is one of the great overlooked activists of American history with a unique  ability to unite people across across racial lines towards common cause.  Had he lived longer (Hampton was only 21 when he was killed), I believe that he and other people he inspired would’ve changed the course of American history for the better.  This of course is why he was targeted in the first place by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and others who wanted to preserve systems of white supremacy.

Apart from doing an excellent job of telling the story of Hampton and his betrayal with great performances by Kaluuya and Stanfield, and great direction by Shaka King, this movie is deft in its storytelling and characterization. Hampton’s fiery rhetoric while giving speeches is balanced by his quiet moments of love and dedication to the people. O’Neal is treated sympathetically, albeit not without judgement, and you can understand how he was motivated by fear and misinformation.  Even O’Neal’s FBI handler Roy Mitchell (a composite character portrayed by Jesse Plemons) is depicted as sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement and suspicious of Hoover’s unbridled racist antagonism, although none of this prevents him from stopping the plan to assassinate Hampton.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a good introduction to Fred Hampton’s story and touches on many issues that remain sadly relevant today. If you like this movie, I also recommend watching the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and reading the book The Assassination of Fred Hampton by Jeffrey Haas.

Rating: ****1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: Passing (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: Passing
Release Date: October 27, 2021
Director: Rebecca Hall
Production Company: Significant Productions | Picture Films | Flat Five Productions | Film4 Productions | Gamechanger Films | Sweet Tomato Films | Endeavor Content
Summary/Review:

Set in the 1920s in New York City, Passing stars Tessa Thompson as Irene Redfield, a light skinned Black woman living in Harlem and married to a successful Black doctor.  By chance, Irene meets up with a friend from childhood, Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga), who is passing as white and is married to the nakedly racist John (Alexander Skarsgård).  Initially, Irene wants nothing more to do with Clare, but gradually they begin spending more time together. Clare enjoys reconnecting with African-American culture and becomes close with Irene’s husband Brian (André Holland) and their children.

Passing uses a delicate approach to dealing with serious issues.  A lot of the message of this movie is said in facial expressions and reactions rather than words.  The cinematography and editing also do a great job of capturing the everyday rhythms of life in 1920s New York.  Passing is a slow burn but it’s a good one and worth a watch.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Leopard (1963)


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.

Rating:

Classic Movie Review: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)


Title: Lawrence of Arabia
Release Date: 10 December 1962
Director: David Lean
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Summary/Review:

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!

Rating: ****

 

Classic Movie Review: Ben-Hur (1959)


Title: Ben-Hur
Release Date: November 18, 1959
Director: William Wyler
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

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.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Spartacus (1960)


TitleSpartacus
Release Date: October 6, 1960
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Bryna Productions
Summary/Review:

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.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: All the President’s Men (1976)


Title: All the President’s Men
Release Date: April 4, 1976
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Production Company: Wildwood Enterprises
Summary/Review:  This docudrama dramatizes the investigative journalism of Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) at The Washington Post to connect the burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices at Watergate to President Richard Nixon. It’s kind of fascinating to think of audiences watching this movie at the time of release when the events depicted had just happened but are already being shown with the sheen of historicity.

The acting is top notch with Redford and Hoffman joined by Jason Robards as the Post‘s editor Ben Bradlee and Hal Holbrook as “Deep Throat” among others. The movie does a great job of creating tension out of rather mundane tasks like making phone calls and taking notes so that it is very compelling to watch. The movie also incorporates actual tv and radio news footage from the time period which I think was something new for narrative films, although it would become more common. On the downside, there isn’t much characterization for the leads beyond that Bernstein is apparently the better writer and Woodward is more fastidious about getting the facts right.  I don’t feel that we get any sense of who Woodward and Bernstein were as people apart from being idealistic journalists.

While I won’t deny that this is an excellent film, it is a curious choice for the AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Films list.  I expect it is recognized for the film’s influence in dramatize recent political events as well as inspiring generations of idealistic journalists.  I also suspect it is considered an important film because it relates to an important event in American history.  More cynically, it could be that it’s about a significant event in the life of the Baby Boomer generation and thus deemed important because Baby Boomers remain the tastemakers of American culture.  All that aside, it’s an excellent film worth watching.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Gone With the Wind (1939)


TitleGone With the Wind
Release Date: December 15, 1939
Director: Victor Fleming
Production Company: Selznick International Pictures | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

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.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Senso (1954)


Title: Senso
Release Date:  30 December 1954
Director: Luchino Visconti
Production Company: Lux Film
Summary/Review:

Set during the Third Italian War of Independence around 1866, Senso is a sweeping Technicolor melodrama, romance, and war film.  The story centers on Contessa Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) who enters into a tryst with Austrian Lieutenant Franz Mahler (American actor Farley Granger dubbed into Italian by Enrico Maria Salerno).  Initially Livia appears to be using her womanly guiles to support her revolutionary cousin Marchese Roberto Ussoni (Massimo Girotti), but she quickly gives into her passions and lusts (“senso” in Italian) and falls madly in love with Franz.

The “romance” of this movie is a hard sell for me since it’s clear from the beginning that Franz is a cad who is totally playing Livia for his own ends.  I hate to admit this, but the battle scenes near the end of the film were the most interesting part of the film for me.  Call me a philistine, but I found this movie to be pretentious dull.  If this is the type of film the Italian neorealists were reacting too, I can better understand the impetus of their movement.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Casque D’or (1952)


Title: Casque D’or
Release Date: 16 April 1952
Director: Jacques Becker
Production Company: Robert et Raymond Hakim | Speva Films | Paris-Film Production
Summary/Review:

Casque D’or refers to the helmet of golden hair on the head of Marie (Simone Signoret), the center of a love triangle between the ex-con carpenter Georges Manda (Serge Reggiani) and the mob boss Félix Leca (Claude Dauphin).  The Belle Epoque story feels like a gentile predecessor to West Side Story. More significantly it is a predecessor to the French New Wave movement which is probably why it made it on the Cahiers du Cinéma list.  The film is well-produced and well-acted, but I found it a bit dull. The famed final scene takes on the senseless violence of capital punishment.

Rating: ***