Classic Movie Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Release Date: November 19, 1975
Director: Miloš Forman
Production Company: Fantasy Films

In my teen years, I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a book by Tom Wolfe about author and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey.  This prompted me to immediately read Kesey’s most famous novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  At some point later in life, I watched the movie, but I only vaguely remember not really liking it.  Well, I’m glad that I was prompted to rewatch the movie, because it turns out to be a compelling drama.

Jack Nicholson stars as Randle McMurphy, a convict who fakes insanity in order to avoid hard labor at a prison work farm.  His free spirit and combative attitude begin to stir things up among the men in his ward at the mental hospital.  What makes this movie for me is the excellent ensemble cast who portray the other patients.  This includes Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd (before they would work together again on Taxi), Brad Dourif as the young Billy Bibbit, Sydney Lassick as the anxious Charlie Cheswick, and William Redfield as Dale Harding, who is kind of McMurphy’s biggest rival among the patients.  Another key character is “Chief” Bromden (Will Sampson), an apparently deaf and mute Native American.  Chief is the narrator of the book, but his significance in the movie is not as apparent until the final act. Nicholson’s future co-star of The Shining, Scatman Crothers, also has a key role as a night orderly.

Much of the drama in the film comes from the battle of the wills between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) who leads the therapy sessions for the men in the ward.  I find it interesting that Nurse Ratched is commonly understood as a villain and wonder if patriarchal fears of men under the control of a woman play a part in that assessment.  In the film, Ratched is clearly an antagonist to McMurphy, but she is calm and I don’t believe she is malicious, at least not until the film’s denouement.

I read that Kirk Douglas played the role of McMurphy in a stage adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and wanted to star in the movie. It occurs to me that McMurphy is very similar in temperament to Douglas’ character in Ace in the Hole. They both believe that they can take control of a chaotic situation to serve their own ends.  And their hubris leads to a tragic ending.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Apocalypse Now (1979)

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.

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Marathon: Midsommar (2019)

Title: Midsommar
Release Date: July 3, 2019
Director: Ari Aster
Production Company:

It’s hard to spoil this movie, since it’s pretty obvious that when American college students go to a remote village in Sweden to observe a folk ritual that very bad things are going to happen.  Nevertheless, I’m glad I went into this movie mostly blind. Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) joins her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and several of his friends on the trip to the Hårga commune as she deals with the grief of a traumatic event in her family.  Swedish student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites them all to observe a ritual that happens only once every 90 years, and Josh (William Jackson Harper) plans to observe it for his anthropology dissertation.

It doesn’t take long for things to start going weird in Hårga, but nevertheless the movie is a slow burn and really earns its long running time. It’s also unique for a horror film in that it’s almost entirely set in broad daylight with lots of bright colors.  Like any good horror film, it’s about more than just jump scares, with the horrific events serving as metaphors for the collapse of Dani and Christian relationships.  I also think there’s a commentary on American exceptionalism as the students go into the rituals expecting to just observe without affecting them.

This is a powerful film and I will be thinking about it for some time.  I expect I will need to rewatch at some point as well.  Even if you don’t typically like horror, this is an excellent film worth checking out.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Title: Synecdoche, New York
Release Date: October 24, 2008
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Production Company: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment | Likely Story | Projective Testing Service | Russia Inc.

When you watch a Charlie Kaufman film, you know things are going to get weird.  This was the first film Kaufman directed as well as wrote after writing the screenplays for movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director whose life begins to crumble after his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him taking their young daughter.  Not only does Caden suffer various physical ailments but he becomes obsessed with staging a large-scale dramatic work inside a massive warehouse.

Caden isn’t a very appealing person but seems to attract the attention of a lot of attractive younger women (male writer’s fantasy?)  Hazel (Samantha Morton) is a woman who works and the theater and lives in a burning house who is attracted to Caden and becomes kind of a lifelong companion.  But Caden actually marries the actress Claire (Michelle Williams).  Then he hooks up with Tammy (Emily Watson), the actress playing Hazel. Finally, Ellen Bascomb (Dianne Wiest) takes over playing Caden and directing the play.

If that sounds confusing, the whole play becomes a simulacrum of Caden’s life with the actors and real life figures commenting on and interacting with the actors.  And yes, then they need to get actors to play the actors.  I get what Kaufman is doing here, reflecting on the meaning of life and mortality, but the film can get tedious and disturbing.  Then again life – and death – can be tedious and disturbing.  Roger Ebert recommended watching this movie multiple times.  Maybe I’ll return to this film, but I find on my first viewing of Synecdoche, New York that I veer between finding it profound and finding it pretentious.

Rating: ***1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

Title: I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Release Date: September 4, 2020
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Production Company: Likely Story | Projective Testing Service

This surreal film (from the writer of Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, among others) begins with a young woman’s (Jessie Buckley) internal monologue where she considers breaking up with her boyfriend of seven weeks, Jake (Jesse Plemons). The pair are driving through an increasingly strong snow storm where she will meet Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) for the first time.

The woman notices some odd things but misses quite a few more that are readily apparent to the viewer. There are time jumps, characters age and grow younger, people change clothing, and everyone acts erratically. The woman is referred to be various names and is said to work at very different jobs but only rarely seems to notice this herself. And to add to the oddity, the movie is intercut with scenes of a janitor (Guy Boyd) cleaning a high school, later revealed to be Jake’s alma mater.

Metaphorically, this movie may work as exploring the unreality of the woman going through the motions of meeting her boyfriend’s parents when she’s already planning to dump him. It also captures that eerie experience of visiting a partner’s home town, family home, school, etc. and the feeling that it’s like visiting a museum of their past. But as the movie goes on, the underlying message feels like it could be something else entirely. In fact, the characters could just be memories or a dream or a hallucination (this last thought reinforced by a bizarre homage to A Beautiful Mind) of someone, perhaps the janitor.

I like weird movies but this one is a bit too slow moving and precious for its own good, so it’s merely a good thing to watch once and say “Huh?” rather than to dive in with revisits. But the strong acting performances and surreal cinematography do make that one watch worthwhile.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Persona (1966)

Title: Persona
Release Date: 31 August 1966
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Production Company: AB Svensk Filmindustri

This film is an eerie psychological drama about two women. Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) is an actress who stops speaking despite no obvious physical or mental problem. Alma (Bibi Andersson) is a nurse assigned to care for Elisabet. They are sent off to stay at a vacation home on a remote island with hopes the relaxing environment will help Elisabet. Alma talks about increasingly more personal matters, while Elisabet observes.

Tensions grow between the two women and they begin to assume the same identity. Lots of weird things happen and it’s never clear if it’s a dream or delirium, or even if there is just one woman having an identity crisis. To add to the artifice and uncertainty, at the beginning and the middle, the film breaks and melts and scenes from older movies appear. Bergman and his crew even appear filming Alma towards the end of the film.

This is the epitome of an “art house film” and it’s definitely open to many interpretations, some or all of which may be correct. It’s even possible that Bergman just wanted to get two incredibly gorgeous women together, touching each other in frequent close-ups, and put together a story to make that happen. Andersson, carrying the bulk of the dialogue in this film, puts in a wonderful performance, while Ullmann also acts magnificently with her face and mannerisms. It’s a strange and unsettling film, and not something I will want to watch over and over, but I’m glad I got the opportunity to view Persona.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Rebecca (1940)

Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Release Date: April 12, 1940
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Selznick International Pictures

I watched Rebecca as a teenager and one of the main things I remember about the movie is that I really liked Joan Fontaine’s hair.  Fontaine’s hair is still great, but so is psychological thriller from Alfred Hitchcock.  This is Hitchcock’s first American film the Hitchcock style is compromised by producer David O. Selznick’s Hollywood flair (especially the soundtrack which can overwhelm the film).

Fontaine plays a young woman who unjustly is given no name in this story.  She’s working as a wealthy woman’s companion traveling in the French Riviera when she meets moody and brooding wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier).  They fall in love and marry and he takes her home to his estate in England, Manderly.  The new Mrs. de Winter finds Manderly overwhelmed by the memory of Maxim’s late wife, Rebecca. The creepy housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), is especially devoted to Rebecca and strives to make the second Mrs. de Winter feel unworthy, and even suicidal.

Over the course of the movie, secrets of Rebecca and Maxim’s past are revealed with some surprising twists.  Like many Hitchcock movies, when you think about it too hard, the plot doesn’t make too much sense, but you can set that aside because the mood and tension are built up so well.

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: Gaslight (1944) #AtoZChallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Gaslight
Release Date: May 4, 1944
Director: George Cukor
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

This psychological thriller actually lent its name to the form of psychological manipulation and abuse depicted in the film.  The movie begins just after the murder of famed opera singer Alice Alquist as her niece Paula (Ingrid Bergman) leaves her London home and is told not to look back.  A decade later, Paula is pursuing her own singing career in Italy, but her instructor notices that she is distracted by being in love.  Turns out she’s fallen madly in love with her piano accompanist Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer).

Gregory and Paula marry and he manipulates her into moving back into her aunt’s townhouse in London.  Over the weeks and months that follow, Gregory isolates Paula by preventing her from going out and refusing to allow visitors to the house.  He begins to tell her that she’s not well, that she loses things, and is a kleptomaniac. He embarrasses her in front of their saucy, young maid, Nancy (Angela Lansbury).  Paula begins to question her own sanity.

In reality, Gregory is a jewel thief named Sergis Bauer, who murdered Alice Alquist and is now sneaking in the attic to search Alice’s possessions for her famous jewels.  Gregory’s time in the attic leads to Paula noticing the fluctuation in the gaslight (hence the film’s title) and footsteps that add to her sense that she is imagining things.  Inspector Brian Cameron of Scotland Yard (Joseph Cotten, with an unexplained American accent), who was a fan of Alice Alquist, becomes suspicious of what is happening in her niece’s house and reopens the investigation in her murder.  Eventually he is able to help Paula turn the tables against Gregory.  Watching Gregory abuse Paula is extremely difficult, but the ending is very cathartic.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This is one of the movies I watched in a film studies class in high school.  Imagine, if you will, a bunch of 15-year-old boys realizing that the same actress who played Jessica Fletcher was really hot when she was young.  We also were amused by Boyer’s outrageous French accent and spent weeks imitating the way he said “Paula.”

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered the basic plot, but none of the details, so it was really like watching the movie anew.

What Did I Forget?:

Most everything.  I’ll also add that watching as an adult, the severity of Gregory’s abuse hit me a lot harder, and I felt a lot of sympathy for Paula.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

The movie is melodramatic, but I think that it otherwise is a good microcosm of the very real psychological abuse that occurs in some relationships.  Boyer is convincingly evil while hiding it beneath his charm. Bergman does a great performance of how even a strong person can fall victim to these psychological attacks. It’s not your typical thriller.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

This is a 1940s movie based on a 1930s play with a story that is set somewhere around the 1890s, so it should feel dated in some way.  But I think it holds up pretty well overall.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes. And definitely a unique addition to an all-time thrillers list.

Rating: ****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with G:

  1. Genghis Blues (1999)
  2. Glory (1989)
  3. The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)
  4. Good Will Hunting (1997)
  5. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

What is your favorite movie starting with G?  What do you think will be my movie for H? (Hint: It’s set in Brooklyn in the 1960s). Let me know in the commments.