Classic Movie Review: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Title: Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Release Date: December 29, 1972
Director: Werner Herzog
Production Company:  Werner Herzog Filmproduktion | Hessischer Rundfunk

This the first narrative film by Herzog that I’ve watched, and it is as bleak as his reputation.  It tells the story of Spanish conquistadors in 1560 traveling through the Andes in search of the legendary city of El Dorado.  Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) is the second in command of a scouting party sent down a river on four rafts.  Kinski portrays Aguirre not only as ambitious but so literally drunk on power that he staggers when he walks.

The movie features some startling shots, including the introduction when hundreds of soldiers, enslaved indigenous people, and two women (carried in sedan chairs) process in a long line on a muddy mountain trail.  It was filmed on location and must’ve required dozens of extras but it’s an impressive scene and serves also to introduce all the main characters.

The sight of armored Spanish soldiers bearing swords and guns against the wilderness is a great satire, because nothing is going to protect them from nature.  Of course the indigenous people are also a threat, but its more likely that the Spaniards will enslave them or kill them for unknowing acts of blasphemy.  Ultimately, though, the greatest threat to the party is one another as power and greed turns them against each other.

It’s a grim film, but an honest depiction of colonialism, exploitation, and in humanity.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Title: The Battle of Algiers
Release Date: September 8, 1966
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Production Company: Igor Film | Casbah Film

I’ve meant to watch this movie for quite some time but never felt I’d be “in the mood” for a grim depiction of guerilla warfare and the horrors of colonialism.  While my assumptions of the movie are correct, I also found it to be a gripping drama that tells a very familiar story. Set in the Algerian capital during the early years of the Algerian War for Independence, 1954-1957, it depicts the  atrocities committed by insurgents and the police and military in an escalating series of reprisals in neorealist newsreel style. The movie reminded me of films of conflicts in Ireland, such as The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Bloody Sunday. But it’s also familiar from just watching the news from Iraq in recent decades.

The movie focuses on Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a real life figure who is recruited and rises to a leadership position in the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). The role of counterinsurgency is taken by Colonel Philippe Mathieu (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the movie), a fictionalized character based on the leaders of the French paratroopers who are called in to suppress the revolution.  But by and large, this is an ensemble film with hundreds of non-professional actors, many of whom were veterans of the war.

The Battle of Algiers begins and ends in 1957 with Mathieu victorious, with the rest of the film being an extended flashback.  But an epilogue shows the a revived and unified movement for independence beginning in 1960, which eventually lead to Algeria winning independence in 1962.  I find it stunning that this movie was made just a decade after the events depicted, shot on location with so many people who lived through the war in the cast.  It must have been so raw for them, but it also adds to the feeling of documentary-style authenticity.

This movie is not easy to watch with its unflinching depiction of mob violence, shootings, terrorist bombings, and torture. But it is an important movie to watch as it is a document not just of the Algerian War for Independence but of the repeating pattern of colonized and oppressed people rising up for their freedom, meeting harsh reprisals, and expanding into guerilla warfare.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Title: Young Mr. Lincoln
Release Date: May 30, 1939
Director: John Ford
Production Company:  Cosmopolitan Productions

Set in the 1830s, Young Mr. Lincoln is a very loosely historical drama about Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda) as a young lawyer and aspiring politician in New Salem, Illinois, as well as some of his early courtship of Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver).  The heart of the film is a courtroom drama where Lincoln defends two brothers accused of murder that is based on a real-life event, in 1858, when Lincoln proved a witness testimony to be false by using an almanac.  The gist of the movie is to show Lincoln as a many with folksy charm and a good sense of humor, which may not be 100% historically accurate, but does make for some good comfort food viewing.

I believe that Fonda put a lot of himself into this performance, so while it may not accurately Lincoln, it does feel real.  One of the standout scenes is when an angry mob tries to break into the jail in order to lynch the accused brothers (a scene that takes on new connotations after the recent white supremacist insurrection at the US Capitol).  Lincoln talks them down using a mix of self-deprecation and humor, eventually guilting the crowd into dispersing.  This movie is no doubt corny and hokey but Fonda’s performance and Ford’s direction give it enough oomph to make it an enjoyable film to view.

Rating: ***

Recent Movie Marathon: First Cow (2020)

Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: First Cow
Release Date: March 6, 2020
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Production Company: FilmScience | IAC Films

Set in the Oregon Country of 1820, when indigenous people, Europeans, and Asians all interacted in a system of trade around a rudimentary fort, two men who don’t quite fit in with the rugged frontier meet and form a partnership. Otis “Cookie” Figowitz is an American who has come west to serve as a chef for fur trappers, and King-Lu (Orion Lee) is a Chinese man on the run for killing a Russian in self-defense. After Cookie helps King-Lu to escape, Lu returns the favor by letting Cookie share his shack.

Cookie fantasizes about the foods that he could make if only he had milk, and so ends up stealing milk under the dark of night from the first cow brought into the territory by prosperous British trader, Chief Factor (Toby Jones in possibly his least creepy role ever). Lu is more entrepreneurial of the pair, and encourages Cookie to sell his biscuits to the traders at the fort. They prove to be very popular – and profitable – and so Cookie and Lu continue to commit lactic larceny in hopes of selling enough biscuits to raise money for a future restaurant. But it’s only a matter of time before Chief Factor catches on to where these two nobodies are getting their milk and the tension slowly grows.

It’s not a huge spoiler since the opening scene set in the present day shows a bad omen for these two men that things are not going to go well. Nevertheless, the movie is oddly charged with hope for these two gentle beings to find a place of safety and prosperity in a world that doesn’t seem to have space for them. The movie is absolutely beautiful and the acting is naturalistic and well-done. The score of the movie is also quite excellent. This movie is definitely too slow-paced for some viewers, but if you’re the type who likes to soak in the details you will enjoy this excellent period piece.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Hidden Figures (2016)

TitleHidden Figures
Release Date: December 25, 2016
Director: Theodore Melfi
Production Company: Fox 2000 Pictures

This historical drama tells the story of 3 of the 20 or so African-American women who worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center in the 1960s as “computers,” mathematicians who performed vital calculations during the early days of the space race.  Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), considered “the brain” even among her peers, is assigned to the all-white, overwhelmingly male Space Task Group to use her skills in analytical geometry to calculate flight trajectories for the Mercury program.  Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who has the talent to become an engineer, goes to court in order to fight the Jim Crow laws that prevent her from attending a University of Virginia engineering program at a local whites-only high school.  And Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is the de facto manager of the women in the human computers group without the title or the pay.  When she learns that an IBM mainframe will eventually replace her group, she sees it as an opportunity to to teach herself FORTRAN and retrains her colleagues as programmers, eventually being officially promoted to supervisor of the Programming Department.

Like many historical dramas, a number of supporting characters are fictional or composites, but in Hidden Figures that helps keep the focus on our three leads. Similarly, historical facts are fudged with a lot of details compressed or presented out of order, but again for a movie its more dramatic to have John Glenn request that Katherine Johnson verify the IBM’s calculations while he’s heading to the launch pad rather than a few days earlier.  As a humanities person, I’m also grateful that they dumbed down all the mathematics in a way I could understand, while simultaneously realizing that the best minds at NASA would not have been discussing such basic issues at Langley.

All three leads are well-acted and I appreciate that they show three very different ways that these women responded to the hurdles placed before them and achieved their goals.  Kevin Costner puts in a decent performance as the leader of the Space Task Group, who seems motivated to desegregate Langley less out of a sense of justice, and more due to it causing delays.  Kirsten Dunst plays Vaughn’s casually racist supervisor who eventually grows to respect her, kind of a stock character, but keeps it subtle enough.

A fun part of this movie is how much it parallels one of my all-time favorite movies, The Right Stuff, with some scenes and dialogue being exactly the same but from different perspectives. Hidden Figures is also a great historical film that I think I’ll enjoy revisiting, and especially important for making the story of Johnson, Jackson, Vaughn, and others at NASA so well known.

Rating: ****


Movie Review: The Big Short (2015)

TitleThe Big Short
Release Date: 2015
Director: Adam McKay

I wouldn’t think that The Big Short by Michael Lewis, a book about the investors who saw through the complex shenanigans around financial instruments leading to the great collapse of 2008, would make a great movie.  But director McKay and his cast and crew do a great job of making a film that is funny, educational, and heartbreaking.  There are a lot of pomo kind of tricks like breaking the fourth wall to speak to audience and celebrity cameos that are reminiscent of 24 Hour Party People.  The movie is anchored by strong acting, including Steve Carell as the crotchety New Yorker from ” America’s angriest hedge fund,” and Christian Bale as the quirky genius who first thought to short the subprime mortgage market.

I don’t know if this was a common reaction, but as the film depicted the crash and all the suffering caused by Wall Street, I wept openly in the movie theater.  This is a terrific film that works on both the mind and the emotions and I think everyone should try to see it.  Well, unless your easily offended by foul language and strippers and those sort of things.

Most telling dialogue in the entire movie (regarding some douchey mortgage agents):

Mark Baum: I don’t get it. Why are they confessing?

Danny Moses: They’re not confessing.

Porter Collins: They’re bragging.

Rating: *****

Movie Reviews: Pride and Prejudice (2005)

In 2020 I found some old  movie reviews I wrote back before I had a blog. I’m posting each review backdated to the day I wrote it.

Title: Pride and Prejudice
Release Date: November 11, 2005
Director: Joe Wright
Production Company:  StudioCanal | Working Title Films

Yet another Jane Austen novel brought to the screen, but one of the best I’ve seen and I think faithful to the time and the book (I think – Full Disclosure: Despite being an English major I’ve never read a Jane Austen novel in its entirety). Kiera Knightly and her big brown eyes star as Lizzie Bennet one of five Bennet sisters whose hyperactive mother is desperately trying to marry them off and move them up in gentile society. Knightly puts in a good performance as the young woman ahead of her time in that she actually realizes how ridiculous these societal expectations for women are. Donald Sutherland puts in a great performance as the befuddled Mr. Bennett. I can’t remember ever seeing him in a costume drama before.

The director/cinematographer likes moving the camera about for long uncut scenes moving among people and rooms and picking up snatches of conversation which works to good effect. Everything’s in soft-focus and lit by sunset making it a beautiful film, almost too beautiful in that it undercuts the satire of what could actually be a harsh society. Still, not everything’s too nice – clothing is frayed, there’s dust on the floor, and that wall needs painting making everything more lived-in instead of museum-quality. Except for a cheesy coda at the very end this movie avoids Hollywoodization. It’s also very funny and well acted.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Gangs of New York (2002)

In 2019 I found some old Word documents with movie reviews I wrote back before I had a blog. I’m posting each review backdated to the day I wrote it.

Title: Gangs of New York
Release Date: December 20, 2002
Director: Martin Scorsese
Production Company: Alberto Grimaldi Productions | Initial Entertainment Group

Quite possibly the goriest movie I have ever seen.  This movie’s purpose to expose the un-whitewashed side of American history and does it by not shying away from anything.  From this film, we learn that violence is as American as apple pie (may be good to pair this one with Bowling for Columbine).  Hammy acting, bad accents, anachronistic music, mawkishness, and trying to cram way too much into one movie plague the film.  But I liked it.  I have long been fascinated by the immigrant experience, Five Points, and the New York Draft Riots and it is great to see such things come to life on the screen, flawed as it is.  The movies strengths include a fanatical devotion to the set which makes 1860’s New York the most dominant aspect of the film closely followed by Daniel Day-Lewis’ amazing performance as the gangster Bill the Butcher (“I’m New York!” he declares appropriately in one scene).  The historical accuracy is all muddled up, but The Gangs of New York captures the essence of the place and time it portrays.

Rating: **