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: 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: Apocalypse Now (1979)


Title: Apocalypse Now
Release Date: August 15, 1979
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Production Company: United Artists | Omni Zoetrope
Summary/Review:

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: ****

Movie Review: Hope and Glory (1987)


Title: Hope and Glory
Release Date:  16 October 1987
Director: John Boorman
Production Company: Goldcrest Films | Nelson Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Set in London from around 1939 to 1942, Hope and Glory provides a child’s-eye view of World War II and the Blitz. In the horrors of war, Billy Rowan (Sebastian Rice-Edwards) can find joy in escaping school because of an air raid, bombed-out houses become a playground, and there’s beauty in a runaway barrage balloon.  Billy’s middle-aged father Clive (David Hayman) enlists despite his advanced age and his mother Grace (Sarah Miles) has to hold things together on the home front.  She’s unable to part with Billy and his little sister Sue (Geraldine Muir) in the Evacuation so they stay in the London for the nightly “fireworks” and gathering bits of shrapnel.  Meanwhile, Billy’s teenage sister Dawn (Sammi Davis) enjoys dancing with Canadian soldiers and ends up with an unplanned pregnancy.

In the the third act of the film, the family’s house is destroyed not by a bomb but by an ordinary house fire.  They end up living in a rustic Thameside cottage with Billy’s grandparents. Thus Billy learns about rowing, fishing, and cricket from his eccentric grandfather (Ian Bannen).  The whole movie has the sheen of nostalgia, probably based on writer/director John Boorman’s own childhood experiences, which helps excuse details like the fact that the children don’t seem to age over three years or Ian Bannen’s over-the-top acting.

The story of this movie is rooted in the stories the English like to tell themselves about the home front during World War II, stiff upper lip and all that.  Yet, subtly, Boorman also satirizes all that.  We see characters being cruel, foolish, and outright stupid.  And yet, Billy’s family survives the war and even seem to be in a better place by the end of the movie, more from dumb luck than anything else. I remember really enjoying this movie in my teen years for its wry humor and its view of children running wild and thriving during the darkest times.  Revisiting Hope & Glory all these years later I still think it’s an enjoyable and underrated film.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)


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
Summary/Review:

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.

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Serbia

Author: Téa Obreht
Title: The Tiger’s Wife
Narrator: Susan Duerden and Robin Sachs
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2011)
Summary/Review:

Téa Obreht’s debut novel mixes together folklore and magical realism with the grim realities of the war-torn Balkan region in this story set in fictionalized Balkan nation.  The framing story is told by Natalia, a doctor on an errand of mercy who reminisces about her recently deceased grandfather who was also a doctor.  Natalia’s story is intercut with the story her grandfather told her about his many encounters with The Deathless Man, who claimed he couldn’t die and couldn’t age. A third story is intertwined about a Muslim girl who was deaf and mute and a child bride in Natalia’s grandfather’s childhood hometown. She befriends a tiger that escapes from a zoo during World War II and becomes known as The Tiger’s Wife by the superstitious villagers.

I confess that the shifting narratives and points of view threw me off a bit, but that’s more of a reader’s error than any fault of the book. Obreht magnificently deploys magical realism in a narrative that attempts to unlock memory in a land torn apart by violence.  She also tells a story of a family over time that parallels the region’s experience with death and war.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: M*A*S*H (1970)


Title: M*A*S*H
Release Date: January 25, 1970
Director: Robert Altman
Production Company: Aspen Productions | Ingo Preminger Productions
Summary/Review:

My mom was a fan of the tv series M*A*S*H so watching M*A*S*H was a big part of my childhood.  We could watch two old reruns every weeknight, while the new episodes on Monday night were the first show I was allowed to stay up past 9pm to watch. After the last episode of M*A*S*H was broadcast, one of our local stations showed the original movie.  As a 9-year-old, I wasn’t impressed with the movie. I liked Alan Alda and Mike Farrell a lot better than these guys I’d never heard of in the movie. I also found the movie to be very mean-spirited and was bored that so much of it took place at really stupid football game.

Revisiting the movie now as an adult, with an appreciation for Robert Altman as a director and the acting of Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, and knowing the context of the Vietnam War the movie was responding to, I figured I might like it better.  I did not.  The movie is angry and mean-spirited and really none of the jokes land for me.  And the whole football plot lasts for about 30 minutes, so it is 1/4th of the movie’s runtime.

In the context of the counterculture/antiwar movement, I guess the anti-authoritarian antics of Hawkeye Pierce (Sutherland), Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), and Trapper John McIntyre (Gould) may have been appealing. But they’re not resisting the system so much as doing whatever they want and letting other people clean up their messes (and rushing through surgery in order to play golf is the antithesis of counterculture). M*A*S*H  is described as an anti-war film but I don’t see it actually opposing war.  Instead it falls more into the tradition going back to at least to World War II of veterans creating popular entertainment that lampoons the ineptitude of the military, but not questioning the nation’s militaristic goals (this tradition includes Hiester Richard Hornberger Jr., the politically conservative veteran who authored the book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors under the name Richard Hooker).

But the worst part of the movie is its mistreatment of women. In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, the Swamp men make a bet regarding whether Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) is a natural blonde.  They set up chairs around the shower tent and watch as the canvas is lifted to expose her naked body. Kellerman’s performance captures rage, terror, and humiliation and I can’t imagine how anyone can watch it and not be on her side.  One could argue that Altman was simply reflecting an accurate depiction of how women were (and continue to be) abused in the military. But everything in the context of the film says that Houlihan is a regular Army stuffed shirt and a “bitch” who deserves her punishment and we should be laughing at her.

The Sexual Revolution that was occuring at the time this film was released brought many positive changes.  But within patriarchal thinking, sexual liberation was interpreted that women should always be sexually available to men. This attitude is prevalent in this movie which served as a progenitor to the raunchy comedies of the 70s and 80s. From Animal House to Caddyshack to Revenge of the Nerds, we see again and again that “sticking it to the Man” is accomplished by humiliating and sexually abusing women.

My feeling is that in 1970, M*A*S*H was one of the first Hollywood films to caustically lampoon the military, mock religious devotion, drop an f-bomb, and talk openly about sex. It must’ve seemed refreshing for audiences at the time to see something they’ve never seen before.  Over 50 years later, we’ve had films that addressed all of these issues in ways that are far less problematic and often in ways that actually make me laugh. M*A*S*H  will be remembered for launching the careers of Altman, Sutherland, and Gould, as well as spawning one of the most beloved tv comedy series of all-time.  But the film itself doesn’t deserve its spot on the AFI 100 or any great movies list.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Da 5 Bloods (2020)


Title: Da 5 Bloods
Release Date: June 12, 2020
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks | Rahway Road | Lloyd Levin/Beatriz Levin Production
Summary/Review:

Four African American veterans reunite in Vietnam in order to recover the remains of their inspirational squad leader Stormin’ Norman (played in flashback scenes by Chadwick Boseman, whose death in real life adds gravitas to the character who never lived to see old age).  Their ulterior motive is to also recover a cache of gold bars they hid almost 50 years earlier.  Spike Lee intercuts the narrative with documentary footage of the various injustices of the war in Vietnam and violence against Civil Rights and anti-war activists in the 60s & 70s.  The movie is kind of a bizarre combination of Apocalypse Now, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and The Black Power Mixtape. And Lee has some fun by making some very obvious allusions to older films.

The main cast is made up of veteran actors, some who’ve worked with Lee before, but none of them superstars.  It’s good to see them all get a chance to demonstrate their acting chops.  Delroy Lindo plays Paul, who suffers from severe PSTD which contributes to his anger and paranoia, as well as contrariness such as supporting Trump.  Otis (Clarke Peters) is a calmer presence who also uses the trip to Vietnam to reunite with a Vietnamese girlfriend, Tiên (Lê Y Lan).  Eddie (Norm Lewis) is a successful owner of car dealerships and likes to show off his wealth, but is also the most adamant about using the gold for Norman’s vision of supporting Black Liberation. Melvin (Isaih Whitlock Jr.) is the rock of the group who tries to hold the Bloods together when things get strained. Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors), is the uninvited guest on the expedition adding additional tension to the movie.

There is a lot going on this movie, so much it feels like it’s bursting out of the film’s 2-1/2 hour length.  It’s impossible for this movie to do justice to so many threads ranging from PTSD to landmine clearance to Black Lives Matter.  The movie is also more brutally violent than I expected and ends up a bummer despite the oddly-victorious tone Lee takes in the finale.  Although it’s a sprawling mess, the Da 5 Bloods still works, something I credit to the great cast. Despite this being a long movie, I still wish I could spend more time with these characters.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Aliens (1986)


TitleAliens
Release Date: July 18, 1986
Director: James Cameron
Production Company: Brandywine Productions
Summary/Review:

In the past few years as I’ve become something of a cinephile and watched lots and lots of movies, I often have an uneasy feeling about revisiting favorites from my childhood.  Will this movie have held up badly? Will it reflect my younger self’s bad taste?  Often, I end up delighted that I still enjoy a film I remember fondly. But what’s even better about revisiting movies is getting an entirely different perspective on a favorite movie.

As the parent of a 9-year-old girl, I was not prepared to be overwhelmed by the centrality to Aliens of the character Newt (Carrie Henn), a child who is the sole survivor of a human colony that is decimated by the parasitic xenomorphs.  Kind of like rewatching E.T. as an adult, the depiction of a child in extraordinary circumstances resonated with me more than it did when I was a child. Henn’s performance is very Spielbergian, and she joins Judith Vitter in my Hall of Fame of Child Actors Whose Great Acting Performances Somehow Didn’t Lead to Lengthy Acting Careers.

Newt plays of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley developing the star character’s maternal role in what shapes up to be a battle of mother versus mother, human versus alien queen.  It’s not subtle, but it’s fascinating that in 1986 this idea of motherhood had never really been explored in an action film.  It’s one of the many things that makes Aliens one of the great 80s blockbusters and one of the greatest sequels of all time.

It helps that Aliens is an entirely different genre than its predecessor, moving from thriller to action adventure.  Ripley is joined by the rambunctious Colonial Marines as they investigate what happened to the human colonists on the terraformed planetoid where the Nostromo’s crew found the derelict alien ship in the previous film.  Bad things happen.  And as the title promises, there is more than one Alien. The great cast includes Paul Reiser (then primarily known as a stand-up comedians) as the sleazy company rep Carter Burke and Bill Paxton steals scenes as Private Hudson who sensibly panics when they’re overrun with xenomorphs.  Game over, man!

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Summerland (2020)


TitleSummerland
Release Date: July 31, 2020
Director: Jessica Swale
Production Company: Shoebox Films | Iota Films
Summary/Review:

Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) is a writer who researches and publishes studies on folklore and mythology.  She is also the village curmudgeon living alone in a seaside town in Kent during World War II where the local children call her witch.  To her surprise, she is assigned a child evacuee from London, Frank (Lucas Bond), to live with her.  Hijinks ensue.

This movie has indication of trotting out the tired trope of Independent Women Must Learn To Embrace Her Maternal Side (As Fits Her Womanly Duty).  But this movie has a few twists.  Throughout the movie Alice remembers her younger days when she had a romantic relationship with a woman named Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  Past and present intersect and both Alice and Frank have to deal with their personal traumas as they bond.  Frank also befriends a mischiveous girl named Edie (Dixie Egerickx) who is my favorite character in the movie.

There are some historically-questionable oddities about this movie.  Like, weren’t children evacuated inland rather than to a village just across the Channel from Nazi-occupied France? But if you can avoid letting little things like that from bothering you, this is a perfectly fine drama and romance film that is sweet as much as it is predictable.

Rating: **1/2