I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its stupidity.
The Deer Hunter is directed and co-written by Michael Cimino and stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage, along with John Cazale, Meryl Streep, and George Dzundza. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing.
Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is considered by many to be the pinnacle American film about the Vietnam War. With its breathtaking cinematography and meditative outlook on how war can drive man to pursue his own worst instincts, it's certainly a magnificent analysis of the darkness of human nature and of what was an odious period of American history (and world history, if we want to be honest with ourselves). With such a powerful film being released right at the end of the 1970's, it's easy to forget that a similarly powerful Vietnam War film came out the year before, winning the Oscar for Best Picture no less: Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter. I do not wish to spend the majority of this review comparing and contrasting The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, but it's next to near impossible to do at least a little bit of comparing and contrasting, especially when the two films were released less than a calendar year apart. I am not here to judge which of the two is the better film, but what I will comment on is that, from what I've seen, The Deer Hunter doesn't come up nearly enough in conversations about the greatest Vietnam War film. Everyone just assumes Apocalypse Now has a monopoly on the Vietnam War movie market, that it's not worth the time or effort to try and suggest otherwise.
Perhaps in terms of pure analysis, Apocalypse Now has The Deer Hunter beat, but when comparing based on controversy and emotional weight, I think The Deer Hunter takes the cake. The Deer Hunter is a marathon of a film: three hours in run time and dishing out several emotional gut-punches along the way, which is why I do not recommend it for the faint of heart. It's not without flaws though: the three hour run time serves to hinder the film more than it does to enhance it, and the movie is largely told from one character's perspective. Nonetheless, the movie cuts deep with its depiction of the Vietnam War's brutality and the effect that brutality had on the men involved. We could spend this entire review talking about The Deer Hunter's production history, because around the mid 1970's when the film was being planned, the Vietnam War was still heavily frowned-upon by major Hollywood studios. The English company EMI helped finance the film, and Universal didn't jump on board to get the movie produced until much much later. On top of trying to finance and produce a controversial film about a war America was still hot and bothered about, there were plenty of stories that came out painting Michael Cimino as something of a control freak during production. That shouldn't be much of a surprise if you know at least a little bit about Michael Cimino; the man was criticized his whole career for being an egotistical S.O.B who took on an authoritarian approach to directing. Is it surprising or not surprising at all that nothing notable came from Cimino's career following The Deer Hunter? All his directorial features after The Deer Hunter were box office bombs, and not one of them is a film I envision myself ever reviewing on this blog.
So anyway, The Deer Hunter tells the story of three men from a small, steel-working town in Clairton, Pennsylvania: Mike Vronvsky (De Niro), Nick Chevotarevich (Walken), and Steven Pushkov (John Savage). The three men are preparing to enter into military service and assist in the Vietnam War, but before that, they enjoy their free time hunting deer up in the mountains and hanging out at a local bar. Steven marries his girlfriend Angela (Rutanya Aida), and the town holds a giant wedding reception to celebrate Steven and Angela, and to wish Mike, Steven, and Nick farewell before they leave. Fast forward to Vietnam, and Mike, Nick, and Steven find themselves in a POW camp, where they are forced to play Russian roulette.
This is a difficult plot to write a synopsis for, mainly because I'm not sure what can be categorized as a "spoiler". The Deer Hunter's story has a three act structure: the first act is the opening in Pennsylvania, where Mike, Nick, and Steven enjoy the company of their family and friends. The second is the sequence in Vietnam, when Mike, Nick , and Steven are held prisoner. The third act is the aftermath, particularly watching Mike back home, as he grows closer to Nick's girlfriend Linda (Streep) while trying to reconnect with those he's been separate from for so long. Each act makes up about an hour of the film, designed to first inspire hope and confidence and then crush said hope and confidence into tiny piles of dust. The last act is supposed to be like a recovery period, until Cimino decides to throw you back into the fire at the very end, and when the end credits finally roll, you are so beaten and broken that you never want to hear the words 'deer hunter' ever again.
- There was criticism aplenty for the film's extended Russian roulette scene, most of which revolved around the fact that there were no documented cases of the Vietcong forcing prisoners to play Russian roulette during the Vietnam War. Controversy aside, the Russian roulette scene is where The Deer Hunter is at its best, because it's the ultimate metaphor for what the film is trying to say about the Vietnam War.
Robert De Niro holding a gun to his head during the controversial scene.
The Deer Hunter wants to tell us that the stakes and the outcomes of war are similar to those of Russian roulette: death is right in front of you, and you'll only survive if you're lucky enough. The player holding the gun to their head represents the soldiers fighting on the battlefield. The other player who just sits and watches represents those of us waiting and praying back home. One of two things happens: either the soldier gets a loaded chamber and dies, or he miraculously survives, only now he's traumatized from having such a near-death experience. Either way, someone loses. It's unfair, makes no sense, and ends badly for everyone, but that's exactly what the Vietnam War was. For as much flack we could give Cimino for being a grade-A asshole, there's no denying that the direction for this sequence is top-notch. Everything is raised to a fever pitch: the Vietcong verbally and physically abusing the players and the players ranging across a series of extreme emotions like red-hot anger and panic-inducing fear. Cimino primarily relies on shots that are relatively close-up, to evoke the sense that we are also at the table participating in the game. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography takes on a murkier, water-like display that achieves the two-part goal of capturing the scene's pure un-pleasantry and to give us the sense that this is a hot, humid jungle that we would rather no spend our time in. It's a scene meant to disturb you and put you out of your comfort zone, and Cimino nailed it.
- The other thing I didn't mention about what enhances the Russian roulette scene so much is the acting, especially from De Niro and Walken. The great acting is over the course of the whole movie, and The Deer Hunter ought to be the prime example as to how and why Christopher Walken is, in all seriousness, a very talented and committed actor. Movie choices over recent years has strongly suggested that Walken has stopped taking his career as seriously, and thus, people are more prone to view him as goofy and unhinged. The Deer Hunter puts Walken's Nick through the wringer, and Walken is magnificent in showing us the impact that the Russian roulette game and overall Vietnam War experience is having over Nick. This is most evident in a scene in a military hospital, where a man walks up to Nick and asks him some general questions. Nick can't find the words to respond, instead breaking down into tears. Later on, Nick grows completely numb to his surroundings, and to see what Walken put himself through physically to achieve Nick's ghostly look is something that will stick with you for a long time. Through his words, facial expressions, and general physical acting, Walken better than anyone sells the heartbreaking tragedy that Cimino wants the film to portray.
- No matter how much I praise the film for how powerful it is with its depiction of the Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter suffers from its three-hour length, specifically in that the film takes way too long to get started. The wedding reception in the film's first hour is an unreasonably long sequence that is comprised of too much dancing and celebrating and not anywhere near enough story telling that at least gives you impression that the movie is moving forward. To be fair, this scene is important, because it gives us valuable insight of these characters' personal lives and how they feel towards each other. The problem is in that Cimino doesn't know how to prioritize quality over quantity. The major beats of the wedding reception, such as showing us the love triangle between Mike, Nick, and Linda, and foreshadowing that Steven and Angela's marriage is not going to end well, could all be done by focusing more shots on these specific characters laughing and dancing, while doing away with other moments of characters just goofing around. and making small talk. Why focus time and energy on characters that we know aren't going to have much bearings on the plot in the long run? Once the movie gets to Vietnam though, it picks up considerably and never lets up.
- The other issue with The Deer Hunter is its one-sided point of view: the Vietcong are portrayed as sadistic, money-grubbing racists who don't have a shred of humanity in their bodies. Multiple bits of trivia have suggested that Cimino had a difficult time finding Vietnamese actors who were willing and able to act in the film's Russian roulette-Vietnam scene. It is also said that many of the slaps during the Russian roulette game were real, and the reactions by De Niro and Walken were genuine. What makes the portrayal of the Vietcong so problematic is that it turns The Deer Hunter into an unnecessarily political and borderline offensive film, despite Cimino's claims that The Deer Hunter is not political, literal, or anything else like that. The one-sided point of view makes the film extremely pro-American, and suggests it has little to no regard to accounting for the general attitude that Vietnam and America had toward the war. America is painted like it's a pure victim without fault, and while it may be unintentional (according to Cimino), it's still a lingering effect that weakens the film's overall impact.
Overall though, The Deer Hunter is extremely ambitious and does not hold back in its quest to pursue its ultimate goal: show us the the brutality of the Vietnam War in all its hellacious fury and thoroughly crush our spirits while doing so. The inflated three hour length and the questionable depiction of the Vietcong prevent the film from achieving true masterpiece status in its execution, but the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, and that's why The Deer Hunter should be right up there with Apocalypse Now as one of the greatest films about the Vietnam War. The Russian roulette game is one of the most memorable scenes you'll ever find in a war film, and the acting, especially from Walken, is the kind of material all aspiring actors can be inspired by. Make no mistakes about it though: this is not a happy film; the ending may very well leave you in a depressed state as you go about the rest of your day. But what happiness is there to be found in war? The Deer Hunter knows what it wants to say about war, and my gosh, does it get the point across. War is hell, and everyone is a little worse for wear because of it.
Recommend? Yes. If you can somehow find three hours on a quiet day, the film is definitely worth watching.
Just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn't mean she's your soulmate
Annie Hall is directed and co-written by Woody Allen, and also stars Allen. The film also stars Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, Janet Margolin, Shelley Duvall, Christopher Walken, and Colleen Dewhurst. The film won the Oscars for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress, along with Best Picture.
Woody Allen is a filmmaker that I have no sort of real relationship with, at least, not in the same vein that I have a relationship with someone such as Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino. For certain directors, writers, actors, and/or studios, I know the frame of mind I will get myself in when I hear about a new release from said director, writer, actor, or studio. Christopher Nolan is coming out with a new film? I expect it to be one of the best films of the year. Colin Trevorrow is writing the screenplay for a new film? Well, let's hope there's at least some semblance of logic and common sense. I am, at the time of this writing, unable to have such a mindset when it comes to Woody Allen films, mostly because I am not overly familiar with Allen's filmography and the kind of style he tries to bring to every one of his films. So that is to say I can only approach one of Allen's films like the 1977 Best Picture winner Annie Hall with an open mind with no real expectations. Actually, having no expectations is an incorrect notion: of course you should have some kind of expectation when you're dealing with a Best Picture-winning film.
Annie Hall is the second romantic comedy film to win Best Picture, the first being 1960's The Apartment. And yet, Annie Hall is known for being one of the most famous anti-rom-com's: we are told right away that this is a romantic relationship that isn't going to work out, so don't expect any happy, "drive away in the just got married limo" for these two love birds. It's so fitting that this kind of film would win Best Picture during the 1970's: the decade that really helped the award escape the grasp of mawkish romantic dramas and dated, biographical snooze-fests. Sure, Annie Hall is full of romantic scenes, but it's also a genuine look at how things are in real life when it comes to dating, romance, sex, and pretty much anything else that has to do with love. The film has a complete disregard for the whole soulmate narrative and the idea that two certain people are meant to be together. It's simply giving us an honest and effective assessment on a hard truth: a lot of relationships don't work out, because they weren't meant to be. Maybe it is a tad cynical, but that's the attitude that the 70's had.
So, Annie Hall is the story of comedian Alvy Singer (Allen) and his relationship with Annie Hall (Keaton). The two are smitten with each other at first, but over time, their relationship falls apart. Alvy wonders how it all went wrong. It's hard to say that there's something resembling a plot here: the film is told in a more non-linear format, going back and forth between various moments in Alvy and Annie's relationship, as well as showing us moments of Alvy's childhood, such as Alvy questioning his mother on existence and other philosophical questions that have no clear answers.
The one other film that comes to mind when thinking about Annie Hall is Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer, and if you've seen (500) Days of Summer, it's easy to see how Annie Hall was a major source of inspiration. Both Annie Hall and (500) Days of Summer are told from the perspective of the male protagonist, in which they ponder the story of a failed relationship: how it started, the good times that were had, and how the relationship went wrong in the end. What's important to remember is that neither Annie Hall nor (500) Days of Summer are told from a male perspective because they have some sort of agenda against women, but because they want to show us that Alvy Singer and Tom Hansen can't use their respective lovers as objects to project fantasies on to. Since we're talking about Annie Hall, I think I should just stick with that film. Anyway, Annie Hall tells us early on that Alvy Singer has never been one for love and relationships, but even when he does find someone he loves, he cannot get away with thinking that Annie is there to put him on cloud nine and to be that magical figure that can cure all his woes. Annie is still a living, breathing human being who eventually sees Alvy's insecurities, and that they're only making the relationship more difficult to maintain. The film primarily shows us Alvy's side of the story because it's his own failures that contribute the most to the failed relationship.
- The role of Annie Hall was written specifically with Diane Keaton in mind, so it's no wonder that she provides the best performance in the entire film. The thing that makes Keaton's performance so great is how down-to-Earth she is allowed to be. She doesn't need to act overly cheery or mopey because the plot demands for her to do so; she is able to treat each scene with genuine emotion, and that's why the relationship between Alvy and Annie feels whole and incredibly realistic. I think Woody Allen was very meticulous in the way he went about writing the Annie Hall character, with the mind set that Diane Keaton would agree to the role, and assuming she agreed, she could feel as if she was playing herself and not a character that would require extensive behind-the-scenes research and be something completely out of her comfort zone. Although the character was conceived by Woody Allen, Keaton is given the freedom to approach the role and act in it the way she sees fit. In other words, Allen handles the concept; Keaton makes the true magic happen in the execution.
- Woody Allen brings an unconventional style to the film, one that not only is meant to bolster the film as a comedy, but one that also likes to play around with the typical romance narrative. The film's opening scene is Woody Allen talking directly to the audience, which is just the first of many occasions in which the film passes right through the fourth wall. It's not just breaking the fourth wall- this happens repeatedly with characters stepping aside to speak directly to the camera-, though I will say that Woody Allen breaking the fourth wall is his way of getting through to the audience; he wants to interact with us and intrude our viewing space. Allen also makes satirical work out of moments that you could say are formulaic in other rom-coms. For example, there's a scene where Alvy and Annie are having their first extended talk, drinking wine and laughing together out on a balcony. In a typical romance film, this would be the, "first-meeting that is also a bit flirtatious" scene, but instead of just Alvy and Annie making friendly conversation, we see mental subtitles that tell us these two are having inner doubts, which comically contrasts with the seemingly happy and romantic small talk. There's also several moments where we see the modern day Alvy and Annie actually watching moments from Alvy's childhood. Alvy's mother would bicker with his father, and Annie would ask, "Did your mother really say that?" No matter what wacky or unexpected style trick that Woody Allen throws at you, it always has purpose and never takes you out of the movie.
- In what is an extreme rarity for older Best Picture winners, Annie Hall is nice and short at only 93 minutes. So it's odd: despite the short running time, the movie starts to drag in its second half. This is the downside of Woody Allen playing around with an unconventional narrative structure and giving the movie no semblance of a plot outside of Alvy and Annie getting together, having several romantic experiences, and then breaking up. It's fine and all that Annie Hall likes to be non-linear and go back and forth at various moments in the story, but the problem is that Woody Allen doesn't know how to keep everything organized, so that we can still see where the story is going and where it will be when all is said and done. The movie reaches a point where it's aimlessly spinning its wheels, because we're still watching the exact same thing we did in the first half: Alvy and Annie having a good time, then arguing, and then having a good time again. This cycle keeps going and going up until a discussion between Alvy and Annie in Los Angeles that represents the movie telling us, "okay, this is the end of the relationship." At least in (500) Days of Summer, we had something of a timeline so that we could keep track of the central relationship and know how much longer it will last. No such luxury in Annie Hall, which mightily struggles to stave off boredom and monotony in its second half. It's unfortunately a case of a short film feeling a lot longer than it actually is.
Even after watching Annie Hall, the 1977 Best Picture winner and Woody Allen's arguably best film to date, I still don't think I have a clear picture of how I think I should feel towards Allen and his artistic, film-making decisions. I certainly have no animosity towards the guy, and especially not towards Annie Hall: an enjoyable, anti-rom-com that is bolstered by a stand-out Diane Keaton performance and an unconventional narrative structure, where Woody Allen wants to be part of your viewing experience as much as possible. Sadly, the movie loses a lot of momentum in its second half: where the lack of a concrete plot starts to rear its ugly head. As much as the movie has to fight off boredom, it's never a complete chore to sit through, especially at just 93 minutes and when Diane Keaton's undeniable charm could carry the movie on its own. It's a very fitting film for its original time of release: the 70's. I might have a hard time though, saying that Annie Hall is an all-time classic that should sit at the top of the rom-com pedestal. Maybe it's at the top of Woody Allen's pedestal, but other wildly prestigious honors are a bit too far out of its reach.
Recommend? Yes. Watch it for Diane Keaton's performance and Woody Allen's unconventional narrative structure.
Gonna Fly Now
Rocky is directed by John G. Avildsen, written by Sylvester Stallone, and stars Stallone as the titular Rocky Balboa. The film also stars Talia Shire, Burt Young, Burgess Meredith, and Carl Weathers. The film won the Oscars for Best Director and Best Editing, along with the Oscar for Best Picture.
The 1976 sleeper hit Rocky is one of the most iconic sports films ever made, and is considerably the best film of Sylvester Stallone's acting, directing, and writing career. Shot over the course of just 28 days, with Stallone writing the first draft of the script in only three days, it's still pretty amazing to believe that a movie made in such little time and with seemingly no expectations could somehow end up with the most coveted Oscar of them all. Rocky remains as influential and feel-good today as it did back in 1976, with a sprawling franchise that is still punching and kicking with the two (and counting) recent Creed films. At this rate, the Rocky/Creed franchise is going to keep going until either Sylvester Stallone seizes total control of the rights and shuts down the franchise for good, or the box office results flame out so hard, that no one will want to hear the name 'Rocky' in a movie ever again. Whatever the case, Stallone has cemented his film making legacy, and will always be remembered as the underdog boxer who got a shot at the world heavyweight title.
This is one of those films, where, unless by some miracle you have not seen it or, unless by some even greater miracle you have never heard of Rocky, I don't feel the urge to really give a plot summary. Plot: that's something Rocky isn't all that concerned about, although I'd be lying if I didn't say that Rocky certainly has something resembling a plot. If we want to talk about the plot of Rocky, then we should talk about how much of a non-sports plot it really is. Outside of the big title bout at the very end, Rocky doesn't offer too many scenes where we see Rocky or someone else actually box, and why should it? If much of the film was composed of Rocky training montages and monologues of, "this fight has some greater meaning", it would be almost impossible for the film to distinguish itself from other, cliched sports films. One of the main reasons so many sports films try to be like Rocky and fail is because they fail to realize that less is more: the less trite, sentimental sports moments, the better.
- Everything about how Rocky succeeds as a sports film by having a non-sports plot ties back to an astounding screenwriting effort. I would say 'effort by Stallone' but even though Stallone got solo credit for the screenplay, word is is that the first draft that Stallone completed in three days went through multiple rewrites. Perhaps the better way to say it is an astounding screenwriting platform by Stallone, which then got however many patch-ups it needed before John G. Avildsen brought it to life. Anyway, Rocky spends most of its time focusing on Rocky Balboa, the human, and not Rocky Balboa, the boxer. The screenplay doesn't want to show us Rocky in the ring, unless it believes it has earned the right to show Rocky with the gloves on. In reality, there are only two scenes where Rocky is actually boxing another opponent. The first is in the opening scene, and that's because the movie is simply introducing us to Rocky. The second is the fight with Apollo Creed, which the movie has been building to for the better part of two hours.
Between these two fights, we watch Rocky work his day-to-day job as a debt collector for a loan shark, helping kids stay out of trouble, and build a relationship with the shy, pet store worker Adrian. These scenes are treated with a careful and caring human touch, which is why not a single one of them is boring. All these scenes serve the purpose of what the screenplay is trying to do most of all: have us care about the man who is fighting in the ring. It seems so simple, and yet, Rocky is so effective with accomplishing this task. The final fight is so much more intriguing because of what the movie has worked towards, what it made us want to feel for the Italian Stallion.
- It's not only the screenplay: Sylvester Stallone brings such a charming, down-to-Earth persona to the title role, that you easily fall in love with Rocky as a character. He's a hulking fighter with a heart of gold, and Stallone is the perfect fit. Stallone has never made a career out of other-worldly acting performances, but don't listen to anyone who tries to tell you that Stallone can't act. This film, and Stallone's performance as an elderly Rocky in Creed -both of which earned him a nomination for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively- are living proof that Stallone is capable of great acting. The role of Rocky is where Stallone has made the best of both worlds: his hulking frame and his charming, humble demeanor. The vast majority of Stallone's filmography has been about him showing off his hulking frame: Rambo, The Expendables, Cliffhanger, Cop Land, etc. so it's understandable why many would view him as another Arnold Schwarzenegger or Hulk Hogan. I'll say it again, though: Stallone can act, and when given the right role, he is damn good at it.
- I shouldn't get carried away with lauding the screenplay, because it does come up short in regards to a few characters, which negatively impacts the movie as a whole. Adrian's brother Paulie and Rocky's trainer, Mickey Goldmill, are developed as if they are both going to have something major to contribute to the film: Paulie is portrayed as a drinker who verbally abuses Adrian and gives in to emotional outbursts. Mickey manages the gym that Rocky trains in, but gives Rocky's long-time locker to someone else because he saw great potential in Rocky, and was angry that Rocky never capitalized on it. After hearing that Rocky was getting a fight with Apollo Creed, he approaches Rocky, asking to be his manager. Both Paulie and Mickey are given promising direction. Unfortunately, the movie loses track of what exactly it wants to do with both of them, as they end up just being on the sidelines supporting Rocky, without any sense of closure. What was the point of Paulie being a drunkard and having a bad temper? Was there supposed to be some kind of redemption for Mickey? It shouldn't matter how much more we get to see of Paulie and Mickey in the Rocky sequels: there should be some kind of beginning, middle, end arc for the two of them in this film, and I'm hard-pressed to say that either of them have one.
So the other way I would describe the low point is that Rocky struggles with its supporting characters, but hey, the film is called Rocky, because that's the man we should care the most about when all is said and done. Unlike many other sports films, Rocky spends most of its time developing and focusing on who exactly is the man that is boxing inside the ring, quarterbacking the football team, or pitching in the baseball game. We don't need endless victory montages nor any sappy monologues to understand that Rocky is a good fighter. The fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed at the end is so engaging is because the movie spent the better part of two hours showing us Rocky the man. The sports action will take care of itself.
It sounds strange, I know, but the reason Rocky works so well as a sports film is because of how un-sports like of a film it is. There's not a whole lot of actual boxing in the film, but there doesn't need to be. With careful direction from John G. Avildsen, a stand-out lead performance from Sylvester Stallone, and a screenplay that hits many, if not all, the right punches, Rocky hasn't lost an ounce of its charm, its heart, or its inspiration nearly forty five years later. It's the type of underdog, rags-to-riches story that every underdog, rags-to-riches story should strive to be like. It's also the type of sports film that every sports film should strive to be like: the focus is on the person/the people and not the gameplay. It worked back in 1976; it can work today. Thrilling sports action comes and goes, but charming, memorable characters last forever.
Recommend? Yes. While not entirely flawless, it's a sports film definitely worth your time.
Birds of a feather flock together
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest is directed by Milos Forman and is based on the 1962 novel of the same name by author Ken Kesey. The film stars Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Danny DeVito, William Redfield, Will Sampson, Sydney Lassick, Brad Dourif, and Christopher Lloyd. The film won all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best (Adapted) Screenplay.
Hollywood Golden Age actor Kirk Douglas came across Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest novel in 1961, instantly taking a liking to the novel and securing the film rights to the story. For the next decade however, Douglas failed to find a studio that was willing to make a film adaptation of the story with him, and so, Douglas sold off the rights to his son Michael (yes, that Michael Douglas), who ended up getting the production company Fantasy Films to agree to a film adaptation. Kirk Douglas was also hoping that, after playing the lead character in a 1963-64 Broadway version of Kesey's novel, he could play the lead character in the film version. However, Douglas was deemed too old for the lead role, and thus, the role eventually went to the younger Jack Nicholson.
It's kind of amazing sometimes to read into a certain film's production history and find out people whom you thought could not at all be attached, are actually quite vital to the film's production. In the case of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Kirk Douglas conceived the idea of a film adaptation, while Michael Douglas found a studio willing to make the adaptation. It wasn't the author Ken Kesey nor was it director Milos Forman who came forth about the possibility of the novel getting a film adaptation. No, it was Kirk Douglas and his son Michael: two people you probably would have never guessed were involved unless you paid close enough attention to the credits or have a vast knowledge of Kirk Douglas and/or Michael Douglas's careers.
But anyway, that's about all I'm going to say about the Douglas' and their involvement with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, because, oh man: any and all discussions about this film are most likely to be composed of Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Milos Forman, and the other wacky collection of characters on hand. When I do a review of a film that was adapted from a novel, I usually have to state that I did not read the novel- I always fail to find time out of my busy schedule to read a book- but this is a time where that is not true! I read Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest way back in my junior year of high school, and I still to this day consider it one of the more engrossing reads of my academic years. My first time watching the film version some years back was also a highly engrossing experience, with a recent second viewing being no worse for wear. The 1970's was one of the best decades for Best Picture winners, mostly because the films that won did a magnificent job of capturing a full spectrum of human emotions, while also being grand representations of the decade's cynical attitude and culture strife. Gone were the days of lovey dovey romances, happy go lucky musicals, and biographical snooze fests that, nowadays, would offer nothing but thankless viewings. And while lovey dovey romances, happy go lucky musicals, and biographical snooze fests would eventually creep their way back into the Best Picture scene years later, it is extremely satisfying to come across a film like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, knowing you can watch it in the year 2019 and still feel a sense of elation.
The specifics of that sense of elation would mean massive spoilers, particularly in the way the film ends, so I am left with no choice but to leave that vagueness as is. The story of the film is basically the same as it is in the novel: longtime criminal Randall McMurphy (Nicholson) is sent to be evaluated at a mental institution in Oregon, following a short sentence at a prison farm for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. The mental institution is run by the controlling, passive-aggressive Nurse Ratched, who frequently holds meeting with other patients, in which she tries to make them feel intimidated and basically like they are the scum of the earth. Some of the patients include the stuttering Billy Bibbitt (Brad Dourif), childish Charlie Chaswick (Sydney Lassick), delusional Martini (Danny DeVito), paranoid Dale Harding (William Redfield), and the unruly Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd). McMurphy quickly strikes up a friendship with these patients, while taking a special liking to another patient: the giant Native American "Chief" Bromden, who is thought to be deaf and mute by everyone else in the institution. While McMurphy is not mentally ill by any means, his rebellious mindset earns him the approval of the other patients, and quickly puts him at odds with Nurse Ratched.
The beauty of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is that it's a fairly easy story to analyze, and an analysis of the way the novel/film goes about topics such as mental health, the corruption of bureaucracy, and what confines the human spirit are all worthwhile topics that can still make significant headway today. And while One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is not a straight-up message film on the importance of mental health, trying to say, "all people in mental institutions are human beings too", it's an uplifting encouragement about how people should not be prisoners of their own minds, and that, under the right circumstances, it's encouraged to break out of the status quo. This kind of approach is a very interesting one. On one hand, Milos Forman is allowing the film to soak in all the cynicism and rebellious attitudes that permeated throughout American culture in the 1970's, evident in the way that McMurphy earns the trust of the other patients and encourages them to stand up and oppose Nurse Ratched: voting to watch the World Series instead of having the nightly group meeting and questioning the medicine they're told to take every day, for example. On the other hand, Forman is encouraging positive messages about soul-searching and being human, primarily seen through the relationship between McMurphy and Chief. The film's cynical attitude and messages about humanity, you would think, should contradict one another, but they don't. The cynicism and positive messages actually complement one another, as if to say there is good to be had if you know where and when to be cynical and rebellious.
- None of the film's messages would feel worthwhile had it not been for some outstanding performances, primarily Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. McMurphy and Ratched are total opposites: McMurphy is the goofy, fun-loving rebel who tries to encourage everyone around him, while Nurse Ratched is the cold-hearted, all-business enforcer who strictly imposes the rule book on others. When Jack Nicholson is giving his all, he makes sure you know it. There is a not a dull moment to be had when Nicholson is on screen. McMurphy is either going to amuse you by doing/saying something funny, or he's going to explode with frustration and anger (and when he dies, the film takes a sharp dramatic turn). Either way, Nicholson does a great job of giving McMurphy an all-around charming and upbeat feel to him, despite the fact that we know McMurphy's a criminal who we don't want to invite over as the guest of honor to a fancy dinner party.
Fletcher, meanwhile, is magnificent in the way that she makes Nurse Ratched so captivating to watch, and likewise, so despicable when she succeeds. Ratched never smiles or laughs during the film, and in the few times she gets angry or stern, she's very controlled. In the hands of the wrong actress, Nurse Ratched would more likely resemble a robot that is learning how to express emotion, but with Louise Fletcher, she gives Ratched the iron hide she needs without losing that cutting, passive-aggressive edge that makes her performance more human and all the more convincing. Nicholson and Fletcher don't have to be in the frame together in order for their individual performances to thrive. Whether they are on screen together or not, Nicholson and Fletcher show they are fully immersed in their roles, taking the film to soaring heights.
- It's something of a minor spoiler to say that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is light on plot, but but I think, when you add in the fact that the film clocks in at 133 minutes, it speaks volumes of the screenplay by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman. Good portions of the film are made up of the meetings involving McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, and the other patients, and not once do they ever get boring. That's the other part that makes the lack of plot and longer running time combination more impressive: it's never boring. The dialogue throughout the film gives us engaging and interesting dives into the lives of each patient that come to be in McMurphy's circle of friends, with each and every new meeting becoming more snappy and argumentative. None of the characters go on long monologues about what they've learned in life and what they hope to get out of being in the mental institution. All the conversations are very natural with grounded dialogue, and because of all the different personalities bouncing off one another, it never grows old. Who knows what the likes of Billy Bibbitt or Charlie Chaswick are going to say next? Just when you've think they've said the funniest or craziest thing yet, they might say something new that's even funnier, even crazier, or, hell, maybe both.
- Laughs: that's unfortunately something that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest doesn't end up having nearly enough of. I get why this movie is normally deemed a comedy-drama, but the problem is that the dramatic component overwhelms too much of the comedy component, so much that the movie struggles to balance a more lighthearted tone with a more serious one and thus, it's hard to tell sometimes when you think the movie is being dramatic, it's actually being funny, and vice versa. Nicholson is the film's main source of comedy, but knowing when and when not to laugh at the other patients feels rather dicey, because you run the risk of coming off as a sick human being who takes joy in others' misery. Then again, isn't all comedy rooted in misery? The point is: it's rather difficult to decipher what is supposed to be funny versus what is not funny from anyone that isn't Jack Nicholson. Maybe it's better if you just don't overthink it and, whatever you laugh it, you won't hate yourself later for it.
The other little bit of trivia I should mention as this review comes to a close is this: Ken Kesey hated the film, saying it "butchered" the story. That's a pretty stunning thing to hear from the author of the novel, who likely had optimistic feelings when Kirk and Michael Douglas worked on getting the film into production. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has developed a reputation over the years as being one of the greatest films ever made, on top of already being one of the greatest Best Picture winners of all time. Why should it not be? It's a marvelous feat of acting, directing, and screenwriting, taking the cynicism and rebellion that highlighted American culture in the 1960's and 1970's, and magically spinning it into an uplifting film that provides righteous commentary on how conforming to the status quo can make you a prisoner of your own mind. Nicholson and Fletcher are the obvious stand-outs from the cast, and the strong, natural-sounding dialogue from the screenplay by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman never let the film become boring. The only place the film struggles is balancing its drama with its comedy, but when the dramatic parts are as good as they are, it's hard to get too upset about not getting enough laugh-out-loud moments. It's everything a Best Picture winner should be, and the decades since the film's initial release have not harmed it one bit. This is one old bird that still knows how to fly.
Recommend? Yes. Highly recommended.
All in the Family
The Godfather Part II is produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and stars Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, Talia Shire, Morgana King, John Cazale, Mariana Hill, and Lee Strasberg. The film was the first sequel to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, while also winning Best Director (Coppola), Best Supporting Actor (De Niro), and Best Adapted Screenplay, going on to win a total of six Oscars out of eleven nominations.
The Godfather is considered to be one of the greatest films ever made in world cinema, so almost by default, any and all sequels could not possibly be as good. It just wouldn't seem humanly possible that someone, even the same people who worked on The Godfather, could extend upon the thought-provoking ideas and cultural influences that the first film introduced to world cinema and somehow make them even better. It would be like a professional athlete having the game of his life, and then to have the coach tell him/her to go out there again and have an even better game. To this day, there are many proud and accomplished movie lovers who won't hesitate to say The Godfather Part II is superior to the first film, and I have no quarrels with people who do believe as such. That is to say that I am not one of those people who will put The Godfather Part II above and beyond The Godfather. In fact, I won't hesitate to say that I do not find the film to be the all-time classic that almost everyone makes it out to be.
Put down your torches and pitchforks for a minute and hear me out:
Not by any stretch of the imagination do I find The Godfather Part II to be any sort of bad film. The acting, screenwriting, and direction are all top-notch and not even close to what you'd find in a bad movie. What I'm saying is that The Godfather Part II is a great film, but not a great great film. The first film was chock full of memorable moments: each and every one having a special meaning and moving the story forward in a powerful way. This film, however, only has a small handful of such memorable moments, although I will admit one of these moments (happening right near the end of the film) is more heartbreaking than anything the first film did. So what this is to say is that The Godfather Part II's mindset is on telling as much of its story as it can fit into its sprawling 200 minute run time, all the while giving us an even clearer picture on who exactly some of these characters are, and how they have evolved from the events that took place in The Godfather.
The Godfather Part II serves as both a sequel and a prequel to The Godfather. The sequel story follows Michael Corleone, who has become fully integrated into his role as Don of the Corleone crime family. After surviving an assassination attempt at his home, Michael travels to Miami to meet with a man he suspects to have planned the assassination: Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). At the same time, Michael must tend to other matters concerning his family's business, such as a Senate committee that is investigating organized crime. Michael's increasingly ruthless behavior and his constant time on the road causes his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) to feel alienated, as well as to feel fearful that Michael is becoming more of an endangerment to their children's' well-being. Meanwhile, the prequel parts of the film tell the backstory of Vito Corleone (De Niro) and his rise to power in the world of organized crime.
Giving a detailed plot synopsis of a Godfather film is a very challenging thing to do, especially as you try to avoid giving away any major spoilers. If someone were to ever ask what is the story of one of The Godfather films, such an explanation would boil down to explaining not necessarily a sequence of specific events that make up the story, but rather a situation that surrounds a select group of characters. Normally, a situation is the last thing you want your plot to be, but The Godfather puts on the guise o a situation so well, that first-time viewers might be a tad stumped that the movie actually does have a long string of events that do make up something resembling a plot. For the first Godfather, that was the transition of Michael Corleone from reluctant family outsider to the unforgiving new head of the family business. In The Godfather Part II, the string of events involves Michael investigating the assassination attempt on his life, and how his investigation leads him to become even more consumed with power and corruption. This is the film that truly defines Michael Corleone as one of cinema's all-time famous villains, memorable not just for his cold-blooded demeanor as the Don of the Corleone crime family, but as a man who shows to still feel something in his heart, even when it seems like his entire world is falling apart around him.
- Al Pacino's performance as Michael Corleone across all three Godfather films deserves all the praise it can get as one of cinema's all-time greatest performances. Pacino's skill with method acting is what brings out the most of Michael Corleone's character, with not one single moment of screen time implying that Pacino is giving anything less than 100 percent. Even something as simple as Michael pacing back and forth in a dark room or sitting down on a couch convey body language to tell us that whenever Michael is in a room, he is the man in charge. I think what I like the most about Pacino's acting as Michael is the intimidating look in his eyes, as if he is staring straight into someone's soul, drawing out their weaknesses, and feasting on them. There is not one single moment during the film in which Michael appears weak or vulnerable, even during more intimate moments when he tries to set things straight with Kay and save their marriage.
It's fascinating to think about that, at various times throughout the film, Michael hopes and prays that he does not have to rely on the immense power he holds, that he can resolve matters with the likes of Kay, Fredo, and Hyman Roth without having to resort to violence and other types of force. I think this is where Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo maintain a bit of Michael's humanity, in that Michael attempts to be fully conscious about who he is ruthless towards, while making sure that the violent and corrupt nature of his business stays as far away from his family as possible. Unfortunately, life doesn't go the way Michael hopes it goes, and it's as scary as it is heartbreaking to see the anger and sadness wash over Michael when he realizes that he has to make some difficult decisions. I'm purposefully being vague about this, because, y'know, giant-sized spoilers. So anyway, the monster that Michael wants to be only when he is conducting business, eventually overtakes him completely, leaving both his business partners and his own family in the crossfires. We only got a glimpse of this in the first film, so it was essential for The Godfather Part II to expand upon Michael's evolution, or should I say, descent, into the all-powerful crime boss he never thought he would become, and the film expands upon it beautifully.
- The editing as the movie goes back and forth between the past and present is as seamless as can be. While the overall plot spends more time on Michael's present-day story than on Vito's backstory, Coppola and Puzo's script make the perfect stopping points when one story pauses and the other continues, like the end of each chapter of a book that is told from several different points of view. Every segment spent with Vito, then Michael, and then Vito again gives us more insight into what drives these men and how the world of organized crime comes to affect their daily lives. It's fascinating to see the juxtaposition of one man having almost everything go to hell while another takes on a rags to riches style of life. One line of business can both tear a man's life apart and bring a man to a position of power he would never have dreamed of obtaining. It's another fine example of how essential editing is to a film production. The 70's is a goldmine of examples of masterclass editing.
- When it comes to those memorable moments that I was talking about earlier, The Godfather Part II can't help but fall short of what the first film did so well, especially in the way The Gdofather used violence to fuel its story telling and create the bridges that allowed the story to go from one point to another. It's not that The Godfather Part II has no memorable moments at all; it's just that, with the exception of one right near the end, they aren't anywhere near as hard-hitting as they should be, mostly because Coppola doesn't allow the creative juices to flow as much as he did with the first film. The kills, this time around, are a lot simpler and more straightforward, not ever transcending beyond anything but simple gun shots or lethal stabbing maneuvers, which sort of detracts from how cunning and unexpected these corrupt people can be. I suppose that's to say that it sort of ruins the organized part of "organized crime", as this time around, the Corleone family and their enemies act more like above-average criminals who know how to at least plan ahead. Unfortunately, they don't take that next step that The Godfather took on several different occasions: catch your enemy at their most vulnerable and strike with absolute precision. You won't find any horse heads or toll-booth massacres here. Just a lot of bloody, old-fashioned killing.
It certainly sounds like a chore to sit through the film's length 200 minutes, but with the seamless editing between the past and the present, as well as another awe-inspiring performance from Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II shouldn't feel anywhere near as long as it is. Trying to extend upon the film that ended up being one of the finest examples of film-making in history certainly sounded like an impossible task. Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo rose up to the challenge though, and they delivered a great sequel that gets it right in all the places it needed to, one being the next chapter in the story of Michael Corleone, and the second being the backstory of how Michael's father, Vito, rose to power. What we get this time from Michael is a character that evolves into one of the all-time greatest villains in cinema, one who, despite his unforgiving nature as the Corleone crime boss, never loses complete sight of his humanity. The violence that ensues isn't as hard-hitting and creative as before, which is what I think keeps The Godfather Part II from being on the same level as The Godfather. Still though, there's too much else to applaud, and for that, I have no hesitation to call The Godfather Part II not just one of the best Best Picture winners in history, but also one of the best sequels in cinematic history.
Recommend? Absolutely, and obviously, see The Godfather first.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
The Sting is directed by George Roy Hill and is inspired by the real-life con brothers Fred and Charley Gondorff and a book by David Maurer titled: The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. The film stars Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Robert Shaw.
There is hardly any variation in the types of films that have been blessed with the Academy Award for Best Picture over the decades, which is why it ought to have been a crime that a caper film like The Sting was able to snag the award in 1973. In a decade of film rampant with cynicism, the last thing on peoples' minds should have been enjoying a cheery, old-fashioned crime drama that never takes itself too seriously, one that scored big at the box office and was not only a Best Picture winner, it was an overall resounding success at the 46th Academy Awards, taking home the prizes for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay on top of winning the most coveted Oscar. Indeed, The Sting is a film that had everything going for it, despite looking like a divergent member of the 1970's greatest movie hits.
I shouldn't dismiss The Sting as an anomaly to the 70's, though. The only thing that The Sting is an anomaly to is the series of boring message pictures and sentimental romances that make up too much of the history of the Best Picture Award. In terms of the 70's, The Sting might as well be the perfect movie: it is an immensely rich blend of New Age cynicism and a dislike towards the changing of American societal values, evident through a story in which people are secretly having fun by showing how much they don't trust one another. And yet, it is a film that is constructed to look like something made during the early years of Golden Age Hollywood, with inter-title cards reminiscent of old Saturday Evening Post illustrations and a 1930's lighting style that is tweaked with just enough up-to-date mechanics in order to achieve the stylish visual look that Hill was hoping for. With so many nooks and crannies from so many different periods, it's hard not to think of The Sting as some kind of secret celebration of all these features that have come to shape the history of American cinema.
The story takes place in the late 1930's and follows a grifter named Johnny Hooker (Redford). In the opening scene, Hooker and his partner Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) con $11,000 out of a victim. It's a haul big enough to make Luther announce his retirement and leave Hooker to continue on and learn how to pull off the "big con". Luther advises Hooker to go and meet with his old friend Henry Gondorff (Newman), who can teach him how to pull off the "big con". Unfortunately, it turns out that the victim that Hooker and Luther conned earlier secretly works for the ruthless crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw). Lonnegan has his men murder Luther, forcing Hooker to flee to Chicago. In Chicago, Hooker finds Gondorff and is able to convince him to take on the dangerous Lonnegan and help Hooker get revenge for Luther's death. The two team up with a larger crew of con artists and begin to put together a scheme so cunning, Lonnegan will never realize he's being tricked.
- A story like the one that screenwriter David S. Ward put together here would not be complete without an ongoing series of well-designed plot twists. The Sting has such radiant confidence in its twists and turns and is one of the few movies I can think of that so openly embraces the idea of the plot twist. When executed properly, a plot twist can be one of the most powerful narrative techniques imaginable, and Ward understands that he has to be the smartest person in the room in order to pull off whatever double crosses or swindles that will move the story forward. Almost none of the movie's twists are for shock value; they're about finding just the right way to slap a big silly smile on your face and make you wag your finger and say, "Oooooh, they got him there!" The Sting should also serve as an example of how a twist doesn't have to always be for intense dramatic effect; it can be for the sake of pure fun and to achieve a prestige that the likes of magicians and other artistic performers hope to achieve. As you can imagine, the film's ending is advertised as being one of the greatest double crosses in all of film history. Personally, I think of it as a perfectly fine ending that is mildly surprising. It's not the greatest twist ever, but it's definitely one you're not likely to guess on the first attempt.
- Ward's script also deserves praise for how well it tells the story, despite using extensive vocabulary from the field of confidence tricks. Assuming you don't ever start to feel bored, this is a movie that I am confident anyone without the slightest knowledge of confidence tricks can pick up on and easily follow, a lot like how anyone can watch and enjoy L.A. Confidential without any deep knowledge of law enforcement or the world of crime. The most essential parts of the plot are fleshed out extremely well, and it's never too hard to follow what characters are saying and what they're planning to do next. Although I'd say you'd feel better about watching The Sting after you sit down for a few minutes and study some terminology of confidence tricks, there is certainly no kind of prerequisite that would make or break how much you'd enjoy the movie the first time through.
- The Sting does fall short in the pacing department, as the movie sometimes grinds to a halt and elects to be as sluggish as possible. This is especially true in the second half, as we get several scenes of Hooker, Gondorff, and the rest of the con group basically practicing the big con, which gets repetitive pretty fast. There's also several scenes in which Hooker talks with a waitress named Loretta (Dimitra Arliss) from a restaurant, eventually getting romantically involved with her. The whole thing comes off like an unnecessary subplot, but the movie attempts to justify all the time we see Hooker and Loretta together by throwing in a twist involving Loretta right near the end. Overall though, The Sting likes to take its sweet ol' time to get from one important scene to the next scene, as if it's unable to maintain its attention span, getting distracted from time to time by something else that it thinks is fun and exciting.
Fun and exciting: I'll tell you what, that is a rarity of the highest order among older films that have been graced with at least a nomination for Best Picture. Bolstered by terrific performances, an even more terrific script, and a cheerful spirit, The Sting is a delightful caper film that has not lost any of its value in the forty five plus years that it has been a Best Picture winner. Despite coming out in a decade full of cynicism, the movie is a fascinating hybrid of Hollywood's Golden Age and that very cynicism that was growing in American society. It's almost as if The Sting was a last hurrah before Hollywood finally let go of their old way of life. Films were changing, but The Sting proved that they could still be fun. Not a bad way to earn the most coveted Oscar.
'Cause a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man
The Godfather is directed and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola and is based on the novel of the same name by Mario Puzo. The film stars Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, and Diane Keaton.
A review of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather is easily one of the most useless things to be conceived in late 2018. Nothing can challenge the film's status as one of the greatest films in all of cinema, constantly in a tug-of-war match with Citizen Kane and Casablanca for the unofficial title of "Greatest Film Ever Made". Just going with the consensus and lauding the film for all of its film-making achievements and its influence within the crime/gangster genre would make this into a rather hollow review, and yet, that's exactly what I'm going to do anyway because, well, The Godfather is an excellent film from top to bottom, where any and all flaws are rendered useless by what the film does so well.
It's next to near impossible to pinpoint one exact thing that can be said to answer the question, "Why is The Godfather held in such high regard?" The truth is, there isn't one exact thing. As I've mentioned in past Best Picture winner reviews like Gone with the Wind, The Godfather is an example of a great film, the emphasis being on the word 'film' and not 'great'. That's always bothered me a little bit when I hear people say, "that's a great movie!" when talking about an MCU superhero flick or some other fun, entertaining film. Such a statement doesn't necessarily account for everything that is involved with making a film: the directing, acting, writing, editing, music, and so much more. Was said film great because the action was enthralling and it entertained you a lot, or maybe it was because the movie made you laugh a bunch of times? I don't mean to knock anybody's specific preferences in watching films; the statement, "that's a great movie!" just has much more structure and thickness to it when an argument can be made for all of the film's specific film-making components, not just one or two parts. For something like The Godfather, where every film-making component is executed with the utmost of expertise, the statement, "that's a great movie!" is almost an insult. This is film-making that will forever be in the history books, be a major topic of conversation in advanced film studies classrooms, and be influential to the crime and gangster genres for all of time.
Spanning from 1945 to 1955, The Godfather is the story of the Corleone crime family, headed by the Don Vito Corleone (Brando). The film opens with Vito hearing requests on the day of his daughter Connie's (Talia Shire) wedding. Vito's youngest son Michael (Pacino), attends the wedding with his girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), though Michael is reluctant to be any part of his family's business affairs. A series of violent events over the years, however, draws Michael into his family's business, and with Vito nearing the end of his career, Michael begins his journey as a ruthless crime lord.
I know, I know. I left out a lot of the specific plot details, which is something I usually don't do. The thing is, The Godfather's story moves like ocean waves; there is a lot of different events happening at once, but the various plot lines are all going in the same direction, working together to move things forward at a steady pace. For a film that's a shade under three hours, the plot is one of the more energetic ones you'll find for any lengthy film. At its core, The Godfather's plot is about Michael's transformation from family outsider to its new head of operations, with a series of interwoven events serving to propel Michael further along that path. The end of one violent act is the beginning of another, but there's a common denominator to it all: Michael is going down a path that he can never return from.
- It's a bit shocking to me that some people consider Vito Corleone the main character, because there's much more evidence available to suggest that The Godfather is the story of Michael Corleone and not Vito. Pacino gets much more screen time than Brando does, and I don't think there's any question that Michael is by far the more interesting character, being elevated by a stellar Al Pacino performance that is easily one of, if not his best performance ever in a film. At the start, Michael is the innocent and "pure-hearted" member of his family, wishing to go on and live a normal American life that is completely free from his family's business. That all changes when an assassination attempt on Vito practically forces Michael to not just stick his toe in the Mafia waters, but dive in head first altogether. The turning point for Michael is when he goes to an Italian restaurant to have dinner and discuss a truce with the drug lord Virgil Sollozzo and the corrupt police officer Captain Mark McCluskey.
Michael's face, moments right before he kills Sollozzo and McCluskey
Pacino's acting, particularly in this scene, is considerably some of the best ever put to film. He speaks no words as his eyes nervously bounce around the restaurant and his mouth slightly twitches, with the sound of a train rolling along in the background. This is the moment Michael knows that his life will change forever, the moment where he will become a permanent member of the world of crime and embrace the destiny that he so actively spent years avoiding.
- An interesting place where The Godfather deserves special praise is its use of violence, not just in how grisly that several character deaths are, but in how the movie uses violence as a mechanism for its majestic narrative. Every major act of violence that occurs in the film does not happen because the movie is trying to bash it into our heads that these are ruthless crime lords who go about their business with a nihilistic philosophy. Whether its waking up to find a horse head in your bed, to Michael killing Sollozzo and McCluskey in the restaurant, or to getting riddled with bullets at a toll booth, The Godfather perfectly places all of its major acts of violence in a way where every single one of them is essential to the progression of one of the plot lines. A character death always means significant consequences for one or more other characters, even if it is the death of a character that we've gotten to know for only a short while. Any time we see someone who looks as if they're about to pull a gun or a knife, it is a moment of extreme tension, drama, and excitement. There is absolutely nothing about the violence in The Godfather that is senseless or dull, and not even the most blood-filled action of an R-rated movie of the 21st century can come close to matching it.
- Yes, I do have a low point for The Godfather, but that's not going to make me downgrade the movie at all, because everything else is so wonderfully executed. Marlon Brando is a bit disappointing as Vito Corleone, which makes me wonder what exactly did the Academy see when they decided to hand Brando the Best Actor Award. Brando mumbles quite a bit throughout the film, and he lacks the poise that a man like Vito Corleone should be showing at all times. A role like this one should be something like Humphrey Bogart and Gregory Peck at their very best: commanding respect and admiration everywhere he goes, and not needing to say a word to obtain either. Even if he does get nearly shot to death early in the film, the Don of the Corleone Mafia family should not sound like he's impersonating the croaky voice of an elderly man lying on his deathbed. I can only imagine how much better that Vito Corleone would have been had Coppola worked some more with Brando to try and make the character seem more like a dignified antihero and not simply a fatherly boss head.
So then, how to conclude? Should I just go with the usual routine and praise The Godfather as one of world cinema's greatest features along with the likes of Casablanca and Citizen Kane? I could do that. Should I then go on giving endless love for the film's marvelous directing, other-worldly acting, and gruesome acts of violence that deserve immense praise, not criticism, because of how meaningful they are to the film's story? I could also do that. Instead, I'm going to end this review by praising The Godfather in a slightly different way: upon conclusion of watching the film, it's almost impossible to gather the words of what you just witnessed. It is a film that feels as if a divine presence came down and guided the actions of every person involved in the film's production, sort of ironic given the film belongs to the gangster genre. You cannot watch The Godfather in small chunks and think you can still get the same effect if you watch it scene by scene as opposed to setting three hours aside and watching it from start to finish. It is a film that you experience, a film that truly makes the most of the "move" part of what is meant by the word movie. The Godfather reaches a level of cinematic transcendence that only a small quantity of films to ever be conceived have ever been able to reach, and if you think any decent filmmaker of the 21st century can just rub his or her hands together and try to match the film's greatness, you are lying to yourself. The Godfather is the kind of cinematic work that not only transformed all of American cinema, it is living, breathing proof of how film-making is indeed, and always will be, an art form.
Recommend? Everyone should see this film at least once during their lifetime.
1971 Oscars: The time was just right for an out and out Best Picture Winner like this
The French Connection is directed by William Friedkin and is based on the 1969 non-fiction book The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy by Robin Moore. The film stars Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, and Marcel Bozzuffi and won five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was also the first R-rated movie to win Best Picture.
As of this review, there are ninety movies that have been graced with the Academy's most prestigious Oscar: Best Picture. Of those ninety movies, not a single one of them can be appropriately labeled as an action film, one in which characters settle their differences with fists, bullets, and pretty much any other form of violence one could concoct. On one hand, the inability of an action film to win Best Picture suggests that the Oscars have a historical dislike for action films, not considering them "artsy" in the way that the Oscars would consider a romantic drama or a lengthy biopic to be "artsy." But on the other hand, it could simply be a matter of the fact that action films have a harder time trying to do everything right: acting, story, editing, etc., and though several action films like Mad Max: Fury Road have been nominated over the years, one has yet to win Best Picture.
The one and only Best Picture winner that resembles the closest an action film has ever gotten to holding up that lovely golden trophy is 1971's The French Connection, which is a gritty, urban crime thriller more than a straight-up action movie. It has elements of an action movie, but it is, in and of itself, not a pure action movie. And while we're on the topic of action movies, it's worth mentioning that about ninety percent of all action movies released during the 21st century couldn't hold a candle to The French Connection, a movie whose visceral thrills have not dated in the slightest.
From start to finish, The French Connection is a fast-paced roller coaster ride that never lets you catch your breath, and even with all of the excitement to be had, there's never a slip up with the writing or the characters or anything else worth noting. Even having seen the film three separate times, I still have a difficult time wrapping my head around the masterful way the movie is able to incorporate high-energy thrills with such a smart and pragmatic story. Filmmakers frequently have it one way: You sacrifice story smarts for the sake of entertaining action, because general audiences mostly love to watch stuff go boom and watch human bodies get blasted to smithereens. And for something like the Mad Max films, you may not have the most layered story of all time, but god damn if those action scenes aren't the coolest things you'll ever see! The French Connection, meanwhile, should serve as an early example of how it is entirely possible to craft an intelligent story while also keeping your film super exciting. The only trouble is, you're not going to do it as well as The French Connection does it.
The plot appears to be basic stuff: New York police detectives Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider) are attempting to locate a narcotics ring they believe is running throughout New York, and the two go through a lot of undercover work in order to do so. However, there's much more going on than just Popeye and Cloudy attempting to uncover some secret drug deals and catch a few junkies: In Marseilles, wealthy French criminal Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is looking to smuggle $32 million worth of heroin into the United States, doing so by hiding bags containing the heroin inside the car of his unsuspecting friend, Henry Devereaux (Frederic de Pasquale). Meanwhile, Popeye and Cloudy begin to tail the young couple Sal (Tony Lo Bianco) and Angie (Arlene Farber) Boca, believing the two are involved in some kind of criminal operation.
Describing further plot details would be entering spoiler territory, and details are something that matter a lot in The French Connection. There are so many names and faces to keep track of, that on a first viewing, I am not sure how anyone could walk away fully understanding every nut and bolt of the plot, especially because of how swiftly the movie moves along. Someone playing devil's advocate might ask how can the story be so good if the movie is going at such a fast pace? To that question I answer: the screenplay by Ernest Tidyman has no gimmicks and doesn't leave anything to chance. Every little plot point and every minor character is accounted for, the movie providing closure to everything by the end. And the way the characters go about their business, there's no time to slow down and take a break. Charnier and his men want to get their operation completed as soon as possible, hoping to be back in France before the police ever realize they were there. Popeye and his team, meanwhile, know that if they don't expose the drug operation in time, all of their efforts will be in vain. Also, Charnier and his mean are no slouches. They are organized professionals and it doesn't take long for them to realize that police are on their tails. Because the characters need to work so quickly, the movie is going to be fast.
- Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, who I'll just call Popeye from here on out, is a massive force on screen, being portrayed brilliantly by Gene Hackman. As the poster says, "Doyle is bad news- but a good cop" and that sums up perfectly the kind of character that Popeye is. At his core, Popeye wants to do the right thing just like any other cop would: stop a gigantic drug smuggling operation and catch the crooks who are running the whole damn thing. But as we see several times throughout the movie, Popeye is a nasty and hot-headed individual, having no desire to wait around and think up a plan for chasing Charnier and his men. At the same time, however, Popeye doesn't make knee-jerk decisions or boast outrageous claims that would land him in hot water. When he believes something in his gut to be true, he sticks with it, no matter what anyone else tells him.
Let's be clear on one thing, though: Popeye is not a protagonist worth cheering for. There's a scene early on in which he and Cloudy go into a bar and force all the people there up on a wall. Popeye claims he's there to make sure the bar is "cleaned up" and in the process, he makes everyone empty their pockets, harassing some of the bar-goers (all of whom were real-life police officers), calling one of them a fat man, and making a "milkshake" out of some of the cigarettes and other crap he finds there. If The French Connection was released sometime within the past few years, there would hardcore, left-wingers and Black Lives Matter activists calling for William Friedkin's head. Anyway, Popeye is as ruthless as they come, Gene Hackman, without question, deserving that Best Actor Oscar.
- Of course we have to talk about that car chase. Considered by many to be one of the finest car chases in cinematic history, the car chase is something of the movie's thesis statement. Roger Ebert put it best in his review of this movie: The French Connection, as a whole, is like a chase, going beyond just its one chase scene. The chase itself concerns Hackman pursuing Charnier's hit man, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), who boards an elevated train after failing to kill Popeye moments beforehand. The flawless editing of the chase is one thing, but the absolute best part is how during the chase, there's always something of note happening outside of watching Popeye drive a car at breakneck speed. Popeye rams his car into a wall and narrowly avoids running over a lady walking with her child. Meanwhile, Nicoli makes his way to the front of the train, holding the conductor at gunpoint when he gets there. Nicoli shoots and kills a police officer on the train and forces the conductor to drive through a station. There's no time for chatter and no time for thinking up a plan. There's not even time to play exciting music, because the movie, like the car chase, is going so fast and doing so at such a heightened intensity.
- If there was any kind of low point in The French Connection, the ferocity of the entire movie would make it completely irrelevant. The movie masterfully executes everything that goes into its thrilling action and fast-paced story, that anything else isn't worth griping about. Sure, characters like Cloudy and Nicoli aren't going to be the most developed characters you'll ever meet, but they function the way they need to, and again, the movie simply doesn't have the time to do something extra like explore its characters deeply.
My most common complaints with the first forty three films to win Best Picture is that too many of those films are boring, overly long, and horribly dated. The vast majority of those forty three films I pray and hope to never ever have to watch again. The French Connection, meanwhile, is the polar opposite of the likes of How Green Was My Valley and A Man For All Seasons. It's a film with heated excitement from start to finish and a type of fast pacing that too many of the older Best Picture winners could only dream of.
I am still to this day completely awestruck by The French Connection. It's not every day you find a movie that can be so fast, and yet be so thrilling and still pack tons of wallop with its acting and writing. It's far from a nice-looking movie: being shot during a cold, depressing New York winter without any set ever being built. The movie is also shot with high levels of film grain, though I admit the Blu-ray version I watched had coloring changes that Friedkin did himself, much to the chagrin of cinematographer Owen Roizman. I don't think it mattered too much, because a movie like this needs to look unpleasant.
I can't praise The French Connection enough: it's a masterpiece of a crime thriller and is still to this day one of the finest films to ever win Best Picture. It won't be any less thrilling fifty years from now, and I could watch it time and time again and never get the least bit bored with it. The French Connection is a must for action movie lovers. In fact, I dare say it's a movie everyone should see at least once in their lifetime.
Recommend? Read that previous sentence again.
Don't smirk Patton. I shan't kiss you.
Patton is directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and stars George C. Scott as the titular General George S. Patton. The film also stars Karl Malden, Michael Bates, and Karl Michael Vogler. Patton won seven Oscars, including Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay alongside Best Picture.
I fondly remember my first ever viewing of the 1970 Best Picture winner Patton, mostly because it was one of the worst experiences that I had of watching a movie in a very very long time. It was the middle of the week. I had an open evening, and this movie was the next one on my "To Watch" list. Now bonehead me did not do enough research beforehand, so when I first learned that the movie was a shade under three hours, I winced a little, because absurdly long running times was a bad habit for older movies, and being stuck watching an incredibly long movie and ending up hating it is nothing short of a nightmare. So as I sat watching Patton for the first time ever, I'd say for about 40 or so minutes I was on board. But then something happened. I don't remember exactly when it happened, but it did.
This agonizing boredom, one I couldn't recall feeling, swelled in me. But this was not your typical, feeling-sleepy boredom. This was boredom where I felt active, intense hatred for what I was watching, because not only did I lose complete interest in what I was watching, but the movie was doing nothing to make me think, "Maybe it will get better. Maybe something will happen that I can remember." And of course, I had to remind myself that the movie was nearly three hours long, so I was stuck, stuck watching a movie I didn't care at all to be invested in, making it feel as if the movie would go on forever.
So when I began doing reviews of all the Best Picture winning movies, I knew that I would come across Patton again, and here I am. You can imagine how much it pained me thinking about having to sit through this movie again, the only happy thought I had was how much I would get to eviscerate this movie in this review.
Except, something happened. A miracle, perhaps? I watched the film for a second time and that agonizing boredom did not return. Dare I say it? I actually came to like Patton? I didn't find it a masterpiece, but it was certainly a much more pleasant experience than the first time around. I don't remember exactly what kind of mood I was in when I watched Patton the first time, but it must have not been a very caring one. I believe a large part of what made me feel such intense boredom the first time was simply a matter of not fully understanding the plot and what the movie was trying to say.
The plot of Patton is simply a depiction of General George S. Patton during World War II. The movie explores the tactics and strategies that Patton undertakes to secure various victories during the war, as well as explore Patton's highly aggressive attitude and how it landed him in some hot water.
My inability to care the first time around prevented me from truly realizing some of the great things that the film provides. And what are those great things?
- The movie's most iconic scene is its opening, in which Patton delivers a speech to a crowd of unseen troops. Patton emerges in a long shot in front of a large American flag, then we cut to a series of close-up shots of all of Patton's major articles of clothing: his boots, his helmet, his uniform, the whole nine yards. What follows is then a speech that lays the groundwork for the rest of the film. Patton opens the speech with what I think is the best quote from the entire film: "Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." From there, the rest of Patton's speech encompasses not only his passion for the Army and his country, but how he intends to display his ruthless attitude on the enemy. The entire speech is the film's thesis statement, summarizing what we are going to see from not only Patton the General, but also from Patton the man.
- Here yet again is a case of a sprawling Best Picture winner that centers on a historical male figure. And as history is destined to repeat itself, the actor portraying that central male figure is nothing short of excellent. George C. Scott's magnificence in the role cannot be stated enough. He is so successfully able to capture Patton's ambitious, tough-as-nails attitude and approach to war that every scene he is in feels like it's the first time we ever meet the General. It's impossible for us to get used to Patton, because Scott so brilliantly refuses to let us accept Patton for who he is, allowing us to watch him with never-ending admiration and a small hint of disdain for his sometimes unforgiving tactics. George C. Scott didn't feel that he fully captured Patton's character, apologizing to director Franklin J. Schaffner on set. Scott also refused to accept his Best Actor Oscar, calling acting competitions unfair. Who'd a thunk Scott would be so humble about his performance?
- No matter how much better my second viewing was compared to the first, it still stands that Patton is, at times, quite boring. That is most to blame on the script, for the movie likes to be highly repetitive of what it allows Patton to actually do, from his discussions of battle strategies with his fellow soldiers to his angry outbursts over the phone. More often than not, scenes of Patton coming up with brilliant ideas is followed by scenes of German soldiers exclaiming how dangerous that Patton is. These German soldiers don't contribute much of anything to the film, other than a brief perspective from the German point of view; their bewilderment not being something you'd need a history book to figure out.
But anyway, back to the repetitiveness. The last half of the movie suffers the most from this, despite Scott's brilliant efforts that manage to keep the movie afloat at all times. There's really nothing new that goes on, which puts a bit of a burden on Scott to find new ways to keep himself so captivating. But Scott shows the tenacity to do so, and had he not delivered such a strong performance, oh man, I can't think of what kind of cinematic crime this film would have turned out to be.
I write this review of Patton kind of stunned. I never would have guessed that I would have two entirely different viewings of the same movie. The first viewing was pure torture, a Saw game for film lovers everywhere. The second viewing was like finding twenty bucks on the ground, you didn't expect it at all, but, hey, you'll take it. Easily Patton's best feature is George C. Scott's truly unforgettable performance, even if his performance is the victim of a limited screenplay that makes the film highly susceptible to boredom. It is a film that requires a great deal of your attention, and if you are willing to give that attention to the film, it may end up being a rewarding experience. Trust me, I've learned that mistake once before.
Recommend? If you are passionate about history or have served in the military, I think the film is worth a look. If not, I'd think real hard before deciding to see it, because there's nothing worse than sitting through a three hour movie that you find boring.
You and I are So Awfully Different
Midnight Cowboy is directed by John Schlesinger and is based on the 1965 novel of the same name by James Leo Herlihy. The film stars Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight and won three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The one thing anyone would know off hand about the 1969 Best Picture winner Midnight Cowboy is its infamous "I'm walkin' here!" scene, in which Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are walking down a New York street together, then all of a sudden a taxi cab pulls out and nearly runs into Hoffman. According to IMDb, nothing about the incident was scripted. The movie didn't have a permit to close down the street for filming, so the scene had to be set up by a camera in a van driving down the street and use remote microphones for Voight and Hoffman. Fifteen some takes later, everything was going well, until the taxi ran a red light and seemingly killed the take. Hoffman, however, stayed in character and shouted the famous line. Voight, impressed by the way Hoffman handled the situation, managed to stay in character as well.
It's too bad honestly, because that one scene is as good as Midnight Cowboy gets.
The rest of Midnight Cowboy is a rather unpleasant grind, the kind of grind that eventually has you begging and pleading for the end credits to start. It won't take long before you give up all hopes of getting yourself invested in the movie in any way, so it becomes just a matter of time until those sight-for-sore-eyes credits start scrolling and you finally have a legitimate excuse to turn off the movie. Don't get me wrong. Midnight Cowboy is far from a total disaster. Hell, it blows a lot of its previous Best Picture brothers and sisters out of the water. But while there may be some small pockets of good chunks here and there over the course of the movie's 113 minutes, they're largely offset by all the larger, not-so-good chunks that will likely keep you far away from any repeat viewings.
So anyway, Midnight Cowboy tells the story of Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a young man from Texas who quits his job as a dishwasher in order to head to New York City and make a fortune. Things don't start out well for Joe, until he meets and befriends con man Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). The two develop a powerful friendship as they deal with living on the outskirts of New York.
Yeah, that's about it plot-wise.
- Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman show to be an excellent pair, with top-notch acting performances in their respective roles. This is one of the last films I would recommend if you're trying to put yourself in a good mood. The movie addresses uneasy themes of grim realism and being seen as a lowlife by society, as Joe and Ratso struggle to make themselves relevant in a world that refuses to welcome them with open arms. The New York they are in is a gritty and unpleasant one, but the acting performances have you wanting to see how our two leads will traverse their way through it.
- The majority of other reviews I've read for this film basically say, "yeah, Midnight Cowboy isn't a very nice movie, but those acting performances are just so terrific!" I'm on board with the strength of the acting, but I refuse to accept the ignorance towards a lot of the other parts of the film, particularly the plot. It will dawn on you pretty fast that the plot is paper thin, the script attempting to deceive you into thinking something is happening with petty conversations between Joe and Ratso that lack any kind of bite. There's a lengthy scene in which Joe and Ratso go to a party, but it's mostly highlighted by bizarre hallucinations, ending with Joe leaving the party and taking a girl to spend the night with. Bizarre hallucinations are a recurring part of the movie, with Joe having several different nightmare-ish visions, such as hearing a girl constantly say, "You're the only one, Joe." None of these nightmares/hallucinations add up to much of anything, only serving to fuel the film's unsettling attitude.
- It irritates me that there are claims that Midnight Cowboy is a movie about homosexuality. The extent to which Midnight Cowboy addresses homosexuality is when a girl teasingly suggests that Joe might be gay, as well as Joe and Ratso having a quip about "cowboys being fags." This is easily more of a buddy film. Nothing in the movie, dialogue or otherwise, would suggest that Joe and Ratso are developing romantic feelings for one another. I think there would have been more meat to the drama had the movie gone more in that direction, because it would draw out more details about who Joe and Ratso are, where they came from, and the type of beliefs that the two have. Would Joe be fooling himself into thinking he's actually a ladies man if he did feel some sort of romantic connection with Ratso? How would Ratso react if he knew that, even in the hell he's living, he was able to find someone to possibly share his entire life with? These kind of interesting questions go unexplored, which I can't help but think as nothing short of disappointing.
You can count me out of the fan club of Midnight Cowboy, a movie that I disliked far more than I thought I would. The acting may be stellar, but the acting in and of itself is not going to save this movie from all of its flaws. Shallow plotting limits the impact of the film's drama, and I seriously question Schlesinger's direction, with the movie not going in all the directions it should have. It's a movie that thinks it's a lot more important than it actually is, not addressing all the right themes and not taking well to the power of time. Had the movie been constructed in the right way, I think it would have been brought back into the minds of the people of the 21st century, considering all that is happening with LGBTQ rights. Is that to say I think Midnight Cowboy should have been about homosexuality? In a way, yes. I think being more specific about homosexuality would have done wonders for the film. But it doesn't take that route, at least, not in a notable enough capacity. Instead, the movie goes for some weak buddy drama that isn't very enjoyable to sit through. Midnight Cowboy is an unfortunate dud to end a decade of some superb Best Picture winners.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: