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.
Title: The Party Release Date: April 4, 1968 Director: Blake Edwards Production Company: The Mirisch Corporation Summary/Review:
The French magazine Cahiers du Cinema greatest films of all-time list includes a lot of selections I’ve never heard of. The Party is a strange inclusion since it is an American film with a English lead actor in Peter Sellers, but gets no attention from the American AFI or British Sight & Sound lists.
Turns out, The Party is racist as fuck. Sellers wears brownface to portray a bumbling Indian actor, Hrundi V. Bakshi, accidentally invited to a Hollywood cocktail party where he inadvertently causes chaos. Aside from the racial stereotyping, the movie is just cringe comedy of the worst kind. I gave it 30 minutes before I gave up but I don’t expect it gets any better.
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.
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.
Title: The Music Room (Jalsaghar) Release Date: 10 October 1958 Director: Satyajit Ray Production Company: Aurora Film Corporation Summary/Review:
Set in the 1920s, a landlord in Bengal, Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), neglects his responsibilities and squanders his family fortune in order to host concerts and dance recitals in the music room of his decaying palace. His need to gain prestige by hosting expensive entertainments only intensifies when a nouveau riche man, Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Bose), moves into a neighboring estate. The film shows Roys descent into monomania and willingness to sacrifice everything, including his wife and son. The film is punctuated by three recitals in the music room which are fantastic displays of music and dance.
Title: A Man Escaped Release Date: 11 November 1956 Director: Robert Bresson Production Company: Gaumont Film Company Summary/Review:
This French drama focuses on a member of La Résistance held in a prison in Lyon by the occupying forces of Germany. The film is inspired by the true story of André Devigny who escaped Montluc prison in 1943. François Leterrier portrays Lieutenant Fontaine, a young prisoner who if fully intent on escaping. Fontaine’s contact with other prisoners is limited to washing times and tapping on the wall to a neighboring cell, so much of the film is Fontaine working within the claustrophobic confines of his cell. Leterrier does a great job, especially considering that he was not a professional actor at the time in accordance with the neorealist approach to filmmaking.
While this movie may be a bit slow for modern audiences, I still find the depiction of Fontaine’s deliberate work to come up with an escape plan and the tools he needs for escape to be mesmerizing. It’s also fascinating that several key moments, Fontaine hesitates, adding an extra layer of realism. If there’s one thing that bothers me about this movie it is an overreliance on narration, especially when Fontaine narrates the exact thing we see him doing. I also don’t know how he remains clean-shaven despite not having access to a razor, but that’s a minor quibble.
This is an excellent, compelling drama and I’m glad I had the opportunity to watch it.
Welcome to the final Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ve skipped over several of the Marx Brothers later movies as they’re considered to be not so good, and this is the only one I found free on a streaming service. This will be my final review for now.
Title: A Night in Casablanca Release Date: May 10, 1946 Director: Archie Mayo Production Company: Loma Vista Productions Summary/Review:
The Marx Brothers are set in a post-World War II spy thriller parody. Groucho plays Ronald Kornblow who is hired as the new manager of the Hotel Casablanca, unaware that Nazi war criminal Heinrich Stubel (Sig Ruman) murdered the previous 3 managers as part of a plot to find stolen art hidden within the hotel. Lisette Verea plays the femme fatale Stubel sends to seduce and distract Kornblow.
The comedy isn’t as sharp as the earlier films, but I did find myself guffawing quite a bit all the same. I especially like the antics of Harpo, Chico, and Groucho in the final 20 minutes as the subvert Stubel’s attempts to escape. This may be controversial, but I found it funnier that A Day at the Races.
Title: Vampires vs. the Bronx Release Date: October 2, 2020 Director: Oz Rodriguez Production Company: Broadway Video | Caviar Summary/Review:
Vampires vs. the Bronx uses the invasion of vampires into a Bronx neighborhood as a metaphor for gentrification, and not at all in a subtle manner. The movie blends horror and social satire with humor and a lot of heart. It’s very 80s Spielberg-ian in the way that kids must team up to fight the evil threatening their community. In this case the threat is a real estate company buying up local businesses and buildings, not to make luxury condos, but to make a nest for vampires. The most chilling line in the film is when a vampire states that they want to be in a neighborhood where no one cares if people go missing.
A team of young teenagers are the lead vampire fighters. Their leader is Miguel (Jaden Michael), a young activist known as Lil Mayor. His nerdy friend Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) has the knowledge of vampire lore. The wild card is Bobby (Gerald W. Jones III) who is being recruited to join the local street gang. Their hangout is the local bodega run by Tony (a great performance by Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez). A late addition to the team is Rita (Coco Jones) an older girl who is Miguel’s crush. All the young actors are great and seem like real kids.
The movie is not a groundbreaking in horror and/or social messaging, but it’s also not overly scary or gory like, say, Get Out. So a family could potentially watch it together. It is also is feel-good movie depicting a community coming together to save their neighborhood.
Title: The Exorcist Release Date: December 26, 1973 Director: William Friedkin Production Company: Hoya Production Summary/Review:
I hadn’t planned on watching The Exorcist, but I added it at the last minute to my scary movie lineup. I can’t remember the first time I watched this movie, but I know I was definitely too young. I saw it several more times over the years – in whole or part – and then in the summer of 1990 I attended a five-week program for high school students at Georgetown University. That summer I became intimately acquainted with the setting of the movie, and of course watched the movie as a group. By that point, as a jaded 16-year-old, I found the movie more funny than scary. At any rate, I don’t know if I’ve seen it again in the past 30 years so it was worth revisiting.
There’s something about the blockbusters of the 1970s where the way they are remembered in the popular imagination is not quite what the movies were about. Jaws was not about a shark eating people, but about three men of different backgrounds learning to work together on a boat and forming a bond. Rocky was not about boxing but about a man who happened to be a boxer learning to believe in himself. The Exorcist is not about a girl possessed by demons but about a priest going through a crisis of faith.
I’d forgotten how much of the movie does not deal with possession or the exorcism and the slow build it takes to get to that point. The ten minute prologue set in Iraq completely escaped my mind. Can you think of any other movie that introduces a character, as they do with Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), and then not have him return for 90 minutes. The connection of the Iraq scenes with the rest of the movie are never made obvious but I do appreciate that they were beautifully shot and like how there’s always sound in the background (picks and shovels, blacksmiths, dogs, etc.) that are discordant but musical.
I also didn’t really remember much of the main part of the film in Georgetown, such as Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) filming on the university campus or Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) travelling to New York to see his ailing mother. There are also a lot more scenes of Regan (Linda Blair) undergoing medical procedures. I was surprised to learn that Regan getting cerebral angiography freaked out a lot of people in the audiences back in the 70s, because I don’t medical procedures disturbing for the most part. (Two movies that I’ve watched this month, Frankenstein and The Exorcist, were both said to cause extreme horror and revulsion to audiences of the time although I’d consider them tame compared with some mainstream horror that’s been released in the past four decades).
The acting performances in the movie are universally good with Miller, Burstyn, and Blair being particularly good. I’ve wondered why I never saw Miller in anything but I’ve learned that he was primarily a playwright and unfortunately also struggled with alcoholism. Still, if there’s one performance that you’re going to be remembered for, this one was excellent. The 44-year-old von Sydow, with the help of some terrific makeup, puts on a great performance as an old man and looks a lot like von Sydow would look when he actually reached that age.
Lest I go to far in my “it’s not about a girl possessed by demons” thought, this movie does have it’s fair share of horror and gross out moments, as well as disturbing behavior for a 12-year-old. But I wouldn’t let that dissuade you if you’ve never seen it, because it really does also contain a thoughtful and nuanced story as well. For me, the darkest part of The Exorcist is learning how cruel William Friedkin was on the set. He allowed stunts to get out of hand so that they caused injury to both Burstyn and Blair, and Blair was given no protection from the extreme cold on the set as well as deliberately trying to frighten or anger the actors on the set. That to me is more unsettling than anything in the movie which is beautifully made and has an underlying message of hope in humanity.
Title: A Ghost Story Release Date: July 7, 2017 Director: David Lowery Production Company: Sailor Bear | Zero Trans Fat Productions | Ideaman Studios | Scared Sheetless Summary/Review:
I’ll say it up front that this movie is not at all scary as it is basically Casey Affleck wearing a sheet with eye holes and standing still for most of its 90-minute run time. But it is a movie that cinematically deals with the ideas of grief, mortality, and what last legacy we leave during our short time on earth. So that’s a little bit scary, or at least unnerving, right?
Affleck plays a man killed in a car crash who haunts his house, observing his wife (played by Rooney Mara), and then future occupants of the house, and time travels to a future when the house is replaced by a skyscraper and a past when the land is staked out by a pioneer family. The movie is very slow-moving with minimal dialogue so it really makes you ponder the passage of time. On the other hand, if you have a fetish for Rooney Mara eating pie, well this is definitely a movie for you.
This movie is an interesting experiment, and worth watching once, but I don’t think I need to ever revisit it.