Great Expectations (1946)

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As someone who has never read the Charles Dickens classic, I came into watching this movie with very little to go on and a very open mind.

I liked how the story came full circle as Pip realized who had been his sponsor.  Magwitch, an escaped convict, encounters Pip in a graveyard at the beginning of the film.  Pip gives him food and a file for his chains.  He eventually moves to London at the request of an anonymous sponsor who pays for his education and living expenses.  Realizing it was Magwitch was a nice surprise, especially in light of how creepy Miss Havisham had been at the beginning of the film.  It’s nice to see how the kindness to a stranger can have a drastic effect on one’s fortunes.

While Great Expectations was filmed before color had become commonplace, I find that the use of black and white helped, as this story is fairly dark.  I was also impressed with the lighting as teenage Estella and Pip walked through Havisham’s house.  The candlelight used seemed fairly close to what it would have actually been.

This film showcased a number of great actors.  John Mills (In Which We Serve, War and Peace, Swiss Family Robinson) as the grown up Pip is a delight to watch develop and unfold as the movie progressed.  Alec Guinness goes without saying as the adult Herbet Pocket.  It was about midway through the film when I realized who he was.  Most in my generation would identify Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars, something Guinness had said he despised.  It’s nice to see him in his first major part on-screen, his talent and diversity as an actor is admirable, even when he has a minor part like here.  The only problem I had with these actors is the significant age difference between them and the characters they were playing.  Each was supposed to be 20 to 21, but there is a drastic difference between Pip and Herbet and Mills and Guinness.

Martita Hunt does a convincing job as Miss Havisham.  You can tell the bitterness and betrayal in how she carries, or sits in this case, herself.  She comes as close to a villain as can be in this story. Jean Simmons as the young Estella was more entertaining to watch than Valerie Hobson, though both do a great job at bringing their characters to life.

The person that I enjoyed probably more than any other was Finlay Currie as Magwitch.  To see the change in his character from convicted criminal to wealthy benefactor and father searching for his daughter provides many mediums to showcase his talent.

It was nice to see redemption in the end.  As light illuminates, Pip removing the curtains to reveal to Estella the cobwebs and decay that had grown over the years at Miss Havisham’s house and the prison that Estella was going to be in if she followed the ways of her adoptive mother.  A brief look at the plot of the book showed me that this was not how it ended, and that Pip and Estella never ended up together.  That’s a Hollywood ending I suppose, but it works, and the viewer is left with a bit of a cliff-hanger.  Estella embraces Pip, but it is left to the imagination of the viewer as to what happens next.  Do they marry, remain friends, or part company with someone else?  It can be fun to hypothesize where the story goes.

This is one that I’d watch again, but it would have to be in the right circumstances.  Also if I ever get around to reading Great Expectations, that will give me a good reason for a re-viewing.  Though many films have tried, David Lean’s Great Expectations remains the standard-bearer for this Charles Dickens classic.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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The Night of the Hunter (1955)

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I went into this movie with very little expectations: I don’t know any of the cast, this was the last film the director directed, and by comparison to a lot of the other movies in the 501 Must-See Movies book it’s much less well-known.  A con man and serial killer posing as a priest is cellmates with a man who was part of a robbery that ended with two murders.  Ben Harper, the cellmate, has not revealed where the money he stole ended up, and Reverend Powell (Robert Mitchum) wants to take the money for himself.

Using his ‘priestly’ ways, Powell ends up marrying Ben’s widow Willa (Shirley Winters), and then pursues the money through the children.  Willa is eventually killed, and in a scene that was shot very well, she ends up tied to the front seat of her car which is at the bottom of a lake.  Her hair casually waves in the water as the surrounding seaweed also waves.  Powell then has no one in his way at home, and while he keeps his facade up for the townsfolk, he becomes increasingly disturbing to the children as his true nature comes forth.

The children eventually escape and are taken in by Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a woman who takes in orphans and has a genuine fear of God and strength of spirit.  Powell catches up with the kids, and is eventually brought to justice

This movie was based on a real-life incident in the 1930s where a man was hanged for the murders of two widows and three children.

The Night of the Hunter was a box-office and critical bomb in its time.  The significance of this film, though, lies in its use of things that are much more commonplace in horror films since its release.  Powell calls down to the children while they are hiding in the basement.  Who hasn’t seen that elsewhere?  Powell also has the words Love and Hate tattooed across his knuckles.

One scene that was handled well was when Rachel was keeping watch, exchanging hymns with Powell as he waited outside, ready to take his money and kill anyone in his way.  One of the other kids she takes care of turns on a light that lights Powell’s shadow through the curtains only for a couple of seconds, and then he’s gone when the light goes out.  I found myself waiting for the obligatory frightening jump into the screen taking everyone by surprise.  This was before that kind of thing was more commonplace, and I found the suspense of that scene to be engaging.

Robert Mitchum plays his part very well.  He’s the guy who you know is a phony, but at the same time can understand how the people can take him at his word and fall for his tricks.  He’s incredibly creepy, especially in how he handles his stepchildren.

This movie had its merits, don’t get me wrong.  I wasn’t all that engaged by the film.  While the plot and characters seemed pretty straightforward, the simplicity in The Night of the Hunter doesn’t work by comparison to say Rain Man (I only draw this comparison because I just watched Rain Man).  The Night of the Hunter has its place in cinematic history and laid many foundations for future horror and suspense films, but for me it just wasn’t something I’d watch again.

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Rain Man (1988)

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Tonight I watched a movie for my project with my wife.  This was one of three options, and since it has been a long time since I saw this film, I went in with a basic understanding of what would happen, but otherwise with little expectation or previous experience.

Charlie (Cruise) is left with virtually nothing when his father dies, but finds out instead that he has an older brother he’s never known about.  Charlie and his dad had a non-existent relationship for quite some time, and they parted on less than nice terms.  Charlie is egotistical, self-centered, and is willing to step on as many toes as possible to get what he wants.  He meets Raymond (Hoffman), his autistic older brother who has been institutionalized for many years, but can retain a tremendous amount of information.  They venture from Cincinnati to Los Angeles via driving because Raymond refuses to fly.  They spend 6 days together and develop an unlikely but strong brotherly relationship.  Charlie realizes there is more to his brother than a way to what he thinks is his rightful inheritance.

The plot is predictable: self-centered man serves his own interests at everyone else’s cost, struggles through a lot, and in the end changes and genuinely cares about someone else.  “The brilliance of the film is borne out more in its simplicity than any daring attempts at boundary breaking.”  While the plot is predictable, it works, and it works great.  The length to which Raymond pushes Charlie, most of the time unaware of this, stresses the limits that Charlie is pushed to, and the resulting appreciation and relationship he has with his brother.

The true star of this film, far and away, is Dustin Hoffman.  Having seen him in a number of other films, this role is unique, and the drastic change from his other roles is a testament to his acting abilities.  He took home the Oscar for Best Actor, and it is more than deserved.  “Dustin Hoffman takes character acting to a new level in this film and the rapport between the two leads is the ultimate secret of its success.”  I can’t say that I’ve been around anyone for a lengthy time who was autistic, but that has to be a stretch that takes a lot of talent to stay in character with as much genuineness that Hoffman puts into his role.

Tom Cruise also brings a lot to the film.  This was in the middle of what I consider the best acting of his career.  He becomes more than just a self-centered jerk out for money.  Whether he is repulsed by and indifferent to his brother, or fighting to retain custody of him so he doesn’t have to go back to the institution, Cruise does it with strong conviction and the chemistry between him and Hoffman is central to making this film worthy of the Best Picture Oscar.

Rain_mans A spoof of the casino scene on the episode “$pringfield,” from season 5 of The Simpsons.

Something I take from this film is a reminder and appreciation for those who work with people with mental illnesses, like autism.  The fact that I know I wouldn’t be able to handle it on a regular basis and certain not as a career.  However, I know that when it comes to family, everything changes.

I would watch this film again if I was watching it with others.  The on-screen chemistry in Rain Man makes the movie great, and the simplicity of the story adds a tremendous amount of value and depth to this film.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Paths of Glory (1957)

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I hope you all have had a blessed holiday season, and with another month coming to a close, now comes the inevitable last-ditch effort to watch and review movies about to leave my Netflix.  This is the first of seven that will go away.  We shall see how many I get through.

Paths of Glory was the first collaboration between Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick.  It is based on an incident that took place during World War I and was covered up by the French government for a long time.  A company of soldiers is ordered to take what a couple of generals believes is a key spot in WWI.  It is very clear from the onset that this is essentially a suicide mission, and after the first wave of attackers is unsuccessful, at the cost of many lives, the others do not move forward and the battle is lost almost before it began.

One of the generals, General Mireau (George Macready), orders the artillery to fire on the soldiers who won’t leave the trenches.  Colonel Dax (Douglas) defies the order and has his men retreat.  Hoping to make an example of the perceived cowardliness, Mireau orders 3 men be put on trial and eventually executed.

Something that bothered me was the way in which the army treats those seen as cowardly.  In the end three random soldiers are executed because of the failure of the attack.  These men are more pawns in the higher-ups grand scheme to inspire or instill fear in the rest of the men.  It sickens me to think that someone an put their life on the line in battle and be thrown under the bus so easily.  One of the executed was one of the few living soldiers from his group after the battle.  Another, who is selected by lot, had 2 commendations for bravery, but as one of the judges said, they didn’t matter because the soldier was being tried for his performance in that one battle.

This is a movie that was the first of many that Stanley Kubrick is known for, the next of course being Spartacus. “The bitterly ironic and moving film established Stanley Kubrick as an important figure in American cinema.”  The film, though, was met with controversy, first because of the cover-up from the French, but was also helped because it was released after the Korean War and Joseph McCarthy’s fall from grace.

This is shot entirely in black-and-white.  I find that a fitting format for war films.  It almost gives a raw, unfiltered serious tone to the film. The content cannot be taken lightly.

“A particularly poignant scene is towards the end when a young German woman (played by Kubrick’s wife Susanne Christian) stills a crowd of rowdy French veterans with a song in a cafe.  It is perhaps significant that this outspoken movie never won a major award.”

I always love and appreciate when a director can convey the great emotion and ethical dilemma in a way that tells the story while communicating the weight these issues have on characters.  Another thing that I found interesting was the fact that Colonel Dax leads his troops in the battle.  A high-ranking officer in the clear line of danger, especially in the trench warfare, was something that impressed me.

I probably won’t watch this film again, but as with so many others I am glad I’ve seen it once.  It’s also interesting to watch this as a predecessor, at least withing Kubrick’s career, to later war films like Full Metal Jacket.  I look forward to seeing how the years of experience will show through in his later works.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Goldfinger (1964)

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Bond.  James Bond. Again.

Black Friday was good for me as I was able to pick Goldfinger up on Blu-ray for a reasonable price.  I’ve thought about getting the Bond Anthology on Blu-ray, but that’ll probably be somewhere down the road.

James Bond is dispatched to monitor Auric Goldfinger in Miami.  Along the way he meets Jill Masterson, an associate of sorts to Goldfinger.  Bond begins to uncover a plot to blow up Fort Knox, causing the value of gold to skyrocket and making Goldfinger a very rich man.  Along the way he uses his usual charms, makes love to women who then end up dying, getting captured, and ultimately saving the day.

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It seems there are two types of villains in Bond movies: those who want world power and those who want personal glory and fortune.  Another category is those who want revenge.  The ones who want world power, in my opinion, make for less enjoyable films.  It seems the personal vendetta and fortune tend to be more entertaining.  This one was no exception.  There seems to be less fight scenes in Goldfinger as compared to other Bond films, and although Goldfinger is certainly an imposing figure, he acts more as a puppet master who gets others to do his dirty work.

Goldfinger (1964)

Oddjob is probably one of my favorite enemies in the Bond films.  As I’ve previously stated, I love it when a character’s presence on-screen can do more than any words could.  Being a mute, Oddjob obviously relies on non-verbal communication when making a point.

It goes without saying that Jill Masterson’s gold-painted skin is one of the more iconic images in film history.  It just seems like something you don’t ever replicate.  As I’ve previously written, I was not a fan of Quantum of Solace.  One of the things that really pissed me off about that movie was  when they had the British agent in basically the same position on the bed covered in oil.  YOU DON’T MESS WITH A MASTERPIECE.  It should have been left alone, but that’s just what I think.

As far as Bond girls goes this one was pretty straightforward, but at the same time progressive given the time Goldfinger was released.  The Masterson sisters both do a great job in the limited time they’re in the film.  Jill is clearly the more recognizable of the two, given the gold painted scene.

Pusey Galore stands out as a Bond girl in the early years because of her fierce determination and screen presence.  “Pusey Galore was one of the few Bond girls to really have much in the way of character and intelligence.  While most are simply required to looking great and sigh ‘Oh James!’ on cure, Blackman’s charm, and some neat writing, made her strong character unforgettable.”

This was also a film that started and featured more prominently the gadgets from MI6.  It was interesting to see Desmond Llewelyn as a younger man.  Most of the Bond films I’ve seen lately with him in it are when he’s much older.  This was also the film that introduced the Aston Martin DB5, a car most guys would probably like to own, or at least drive.

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There’s something special about Sean Connery’s Bond.  I was talking with my dad a while ago about the latest Bond film, Skyfall, which we’d both seen.  He commented that he was a pretty hard-line traditionalist in the sense that for him, Connery’s Bond was in a class all his own.  While both he and I think Daniel Craig is doing great thus far as 007, Connery still is our favorite.  His ability to balance being a top-notch spy, while also having fun with the character is one of the things I enjoy most about him.  Roger Moore was too much of a goof for me, Pierce Brosnan had terrible writers, George Lazenby, well that goes without saying.  Timothy Dalton was my second favorite Bond, but he’s now third being Craig.  Connery toes the line in the balancing act of being fancied by the ladies and cheered on by the men.  His appeal as Bond seems wider because he can reach more people with his acting ability.  Connery gave an interview that was on the Blu-ray, and he’d made the comment that Goldfinger was his fourth film to do that year.  I can’t imagine all that work, but hey, he enjoyed it, and was a great actor.

I actually just looked up Sean Connery and saw that he’d made his first public appearance in 2 years back in May.  The article I read said he looked great, but honestly I was a bit taken back at how different he looked even compared to his last films.  It’s understandable though, he is in his 80s.

Overall I can see why this film stand out in the Bond franchise.  It has a strong Bond, female presence, and enemies.  It has a well-balanced story and action, but also fun and more lighthearted than the first two Bond films.  I will most definitely watch this one again, if not once then a few times.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.