Chinatown (1974)

Chinatown_Jack_Nicholson

 

I watched Chinatown about a year ago and to be honest, I didn’t like it.  It was probably in large part because I wasn’t able to pay attention to the film.  While I dozed at times this time around, I was able to follow the story line a lot better, which made for a more enjoyable experience.

J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired bu Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to investigate and confirm her husband’s extra-marital affair.  In the process he is murdered and reveals a bigger problem with water availability, land values, and whatnot in L.A.

The number of layers to this story probably contributed to my disinterest in trying to watch this the first time.  Having an idea of what was going on to start with definitely made a difference in understanding and following the many layers to this story.

The two lead performances in this film carry the story.  While Jack Nicholson had a few memorable performances before Chinatown (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail), here you have his quick wit and brilliant stage presence.  He would do 4 films the following year, including his first of 3 Oscars in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  His charm and brunt nature as Gittes helps to cut though surface-level pleasantries and really get down to the meat of things.  Faye Dunaway is charming as always.  She handles both the light-hearted parts and the heavy heart she has in dealing with her past and how that shapes who she is very well.

Burt Young was memorable, even if he wasn’t in the film very long.

While I was initially frustrated and disappointed with how the film ended, I came to appreciate and accept that sometimes the happy ending just doesn’t happen.  People aren’t brought to justice.  The innocent suffer.  As one of Gittes former colleagues say, “Hey, that’s Chinatown.”

I originally would have given this film 2 out of 5 stars, but a second watching definitely helped change that.  It’s an enjoyable film that keeps you guessing and served as a place to showcase Jack Nicholson’s leading character strengths.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Advertisements

The Usual Suspects (1995)

usual-suspects-line-up

 

Ensemble casting chemistry.

This is the second time I’ve watched this film, and as a result the twist surprise ending wasn’t a surprise.  I think that took away from my experience this time.  However, knowing the end I felt I was able to piece together some things more easily since I knew what to look for.

One of the strengths of this movie is the chemistry between the five main characters.  They seem to play well off of each other.  Each one brings a unique personality and skill set, aside from Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) and McManus (Stephen Baldwin) who are both primarily hit men.  The way these guys interacted made it seem like they had a natural chemistry without being carbon copies of one another.  I know very little about Gabriel Byrne, but I enjoyed him as the apparent mastermind but at the same time reluctant leader of the group.  His character’s experience as an ex-cop and heister provided a voice of reason as he dealt with trying to put those habits behind him.

The complexity and layers to this story at times were hard to follow for me.  If there was a weakness in this movie, that would be it.

Kevin Spacey does a great job in this film.  It’s interesting to note that he has been nominated for two Academy Awards for his performances in The Usual Suspects and American Beauty.  He won both times.  His calm yet firm demeanor makes the end-of-movie twist all the more surprising.  Even as Kujan is convinced Keaton is the leader of the group, the audience, or at least this audience, was convinced of that as well.

Overall I thought The Usual Suspects was engaging enough to stay interesting, but sometimes to a fault.  I enjoyed it, but probably won’t see again.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

nightofthehunter

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.

Goldfinger (1964)

Goldfinger

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.

goldfinger1

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.

goldfingerdinnerjacket

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.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

As it is the end of the month, some of my movies will be going off Netflix Instant Watch, so here we are.

Aside from bits and pieces that I’d read about this film, I went in with very little expectations or pre-conceived notions of what I was in for.  Sonny (Pacino) and two accomplices, Sal (John Cazale) and Stevie (Gary Springer) are intent on robbing a bank.  Right as the robbery starts though, Stevie chickens out and takes the getaway car.  It becomes quite clear that this is their first robbery, as Sonny seems to improvise almost everything he’s doing.

There are many missteps throughout the early part when the actual robbery takes place.  Stevie leaves abruptly, there is very little money in the safe as it had been picked up earlier in the day by a money transport service.  Sonny gets travelers checks and lights the ledger for those checks on fire.  The fire and subsequent smoke that went out of the building alerted other local business owners that something was up.  All of a sudden the police arrive and it moves from a robbery to a hostage situation.

This film was based, supposedly, on a true story of a bank robbery that took place in Brooklyn.  It was in the early 70s, the main characters were Vietnam veterans, and as war tends to do to soldiers, they had changed drastically.  There are a few cutaway scenes with Sonny’s mom and wife where they describe him to the police and how he had changed.  A large crowd forms outside the bank, news crews arrive, and a vast majority of the movie is spent dealing with the exchanges between Sonny and the police, while Sal stands guard with the hostages.

It’s interesting to look back on the time period this movie takes place and how quickly the crowd polarizes and changes throughout the standoff.  It’s revealed that Sonny is robbing this bank to be able to pay for a sex-change operation for his lover and ‘wife’ Leon (Chris Sarandon, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor).  This elicits some chuckles from the police, and whistles and teasing from the crowd as Sonny frisks various people who enter the bank for various reasons.

Dog Day Afternoon came out the year after The Godfather: Part II, and Pacino was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his role in each film.  He lost both times: to Robert De Niro in 75 and Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) in 76.  I thought he was incredibly annoying and ill-prepared for the robbery, and the scatter-brained logic and way of making things up got a little redundant, but once the film became about the hostage situation a lot of that seemed to calm down.  His performance late in the film, specifically when he has one of the bank tellers write out a will for him, shows the balance and acting range Pacino had at this time.

While he was in a supporting role, I found Sal’s character to be almost if not more intriguing thank Sonny.  The way John Cazale carried himself in this film I think speaks to something of a lost art in Hollywood.  His presence in the film: the facial expressions, tone and attitude of his voice, really bring to life Sal’s character and adds so much depth.  Sidney Lumet was very skeptical when Pacino suggested he take the role.  Lumet thought he was too old, and just wasn’t a good fit.  He quickly changed his mind once they read together.  There’s a line in the film where Sonny asks Sal what country they should flee to, and Cazale improvised “Wyoming,” even though he was just supposed to remain silent in the script.

Something unique I learned about John Cazale is that he has a unique distinction.  Every one of the films he was in ended up being nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.  While his role in The Godfather: Part III was archived footage and was released twelve years after his death.  Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather, The Conversation, and The Deer Hunter are all part of the 501 Must See Movies Project, so I look forward to re-watching or watching his performances in each of these films.

Overall I enjoyed this film.  I found it dragged at times.  When it felt like I was getting to the end of the movie and checked the time, I was really only about halfway through the film.  I was not expecting most of the film to take place in the bank, as I said I knew little about Dog Day Afternoon when I first watched, but I think that adds a lot.  It reminds me of something like Twelve Angry Men where the movie takes place in one spot.  They do a good job with this one place though.  I probably won’t see this one again, but it’s nice to have a reminder of how good John Cazale was as an actor, and there was a time in Al Pacino’s career where he did great films and was far better than he’s been recently.

My Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Casino Royale (2006)

Bond. James Bond.

I would’ve liked to have written this review a week ago with the new Bond film, Skyfall.  I went and saw Skyfall opening day, but this review is not about Skyfall, it’s about Daniel Craig’s first Bond film, Casino Royale.

One other Bond film, Goldfinger, is part of the 501 must see movies, but since I don’t own it, it will probably be a while before I review it.

Over the past few years I’ve made it a point to watch all of the Bond films, as I’ve seen bits and pieces of a few of them, and never did watch them over Thanksgiving on TNT as is customary in some households.

The franchise had finished with Pierce Brosnan in 2002 with arguably the worst Bond film of them all, Die Another Day, and needed a fresh start.  What better way to make a fresh start than go back to a younger, rougher Pre-Dr. No Bond.  While the franchise seemed to be sputtering with weaker stories, Casino Royale renewed interest and brought Bond into the 21st Century.  Just as a note: I think Pierce Brosnan did a lot of damage to Bond, though a good deal of that probably falls on the writers and the weak stories they wrote.  He’s easily my least favorite Bond, but I digress.

The choice for the new Bond is the all-important decision that could’ve made or broken the franchise’s return.  Daniel Craig does a lot with this role, and I especially liked the raw and at times immature and inexperienced spy.  In a way it humanizes him as more than a martini-drinking womanizer who’s also a great spy.  I thought the next movie, Quantum of Solace, left a lot to be desired and they seemed to linger in Bond’s youth and inexperience a little too much for my liking.  However, this review isn’t about that, so I won’t venture much into that film.

Scrolling through his filmography on IMDB, only 3 movies pop out, Elizabeth, Road to Perdition, and Munich.  Casting his in a role as big as Bond was an incredible risk, but luckily a good script, good action, and a well-balanced cast all play important roles in Casino Royale’s success.

James Bond, having just been elevated to the rank of ‘OO’ status at MI6, takes his first mission after killing a mole within MI6 and one of his contacts.  Using black and white in the opening scene where Bond gets his first kill adds so much.  It makes the scene stand out, and basic format in a way reflects Bond’s youth as a spy.

One of the things that makes for a good Bond film is the chase scene.  They do a great job with the one in Uganda, and Bond shows his youth in getting caught, pictured, and published executing a low-level member in the group MI6 is trying to take down.  One of the few things that has bothered me about Daniel Craig’s Bond is his run.  I like to call it the “Craig Run,” and I cringe a little whenever I see it.  It’s something that is unique to him as far as I know.

I realize Judi Dench is older than when the Brosnan films were out, but it took a little adjusting to her ‘M’ being older during an earlier time in Bond’s career.  I think she does great at anchoring and acting as a voice of reason and moral center for Bond.

I found Eva Green to be an acting delight, an have been disappointed that she hasn’t had very much more note-worthy performances since Casino Royale.  She, as with Craig, progress and carry the weight of going from guarded people to falling in love, which if In His Majestry’s Secret Service was any indication, does not fare well for the lady.  While I did like some of the callbacks in Quantum of Solace to Bond’s relationship with Vesper ,something central to Bond film sis the fact that they stand on their own.  With Casino and Quantum, it’s more like a two-part rather than stand alone.  Nevertheless, it was good to have resolution with Vesper’s character by the end of Quantum.

Le Chiffre, though not the big fish villain of the film, works.  He’s not the greatest villain, and I’d probably put him more middle of the road as far as Bond villains are concerned.  He does a good job of being at least somewhat heartless, but I found him at times to be more desperate than anything else, especially when he’s torturing Bond.

One minor character that I enjoyed was Mathis. Giancarlo Giannini does a good job performing here, though personally I found him one of the few true good spots of Quantum.  His role in the next film is very limited, but adds so much to Bond’s character as a sounding board and voice of wisdom as Bond remains tormented with what happened in Casino Royale.

Visually this movie was very good, and pushed the envelope well without going too over the top (Roger Moore?).  Realism in film is something I find engaging and enjoyable.  When ideas start to get to far away from reality, in this type of film at least, it becomes less enjoyable for me.  The torture scene, and especially the dialogue between Bond and Le Chiffre, was hilarious.  It’s a good representation of Bond’s playfulness while remaining competent as a spy.

An interesting side note: in the car flip scene before Bond and Vesper are tortured, Bond’s car flipped enough times to break the world record.

Having watched all 3 Daniel Craig Bond films, I feel like one of the major themes in his story arch has been redemption.  With Bond as a young and somewhat inexperienced spy at this point, he tends to fall for things that older Bond’s don’t.  The way he misjudges people, especially in Casino Royale, and learning from his mistakes so they wouldn’t be repeated.  He remains polished, but still self-aware that he doesn’t always do the best or right thing.

The 501 must-see movies book proclaims at the end of their description of the film, “Best Bond since the 70’s.”  I am almost in agreement with this, though personally I think Timothy Dalton is the most underrated Bond of them all, and at least after Craig’s 3 films is a solid 3rd-best Bond behind Connery and Craig.

I have watched Casino Royale a number of times already, and it will remain one that I can watch every year or two and find entertaining and enjoyable.  For those who have been disappointed with the direction Bond had been taken with Craig’s predecessor, this movie resets the franchise and helps them move forward while keeping elements essential for James Bond.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Bonnie and Clyde.  Romanticized bank robbers in the Depression-era South.

I found the opening credits both appropriate, a little bit creepy, and after a while tedious.  The era of Bonnie and Clyde makes the type-writer noise along with pictures of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow is fitting given the subject matter.  I didn’t like that it seemed to drag on and on, but I also realize that this is still on the tail end of the era in Hollywood where the credits played before the movie starts instead of afterwards as they do now.

Both Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway turn in Oscar-nominated-worthy performances in this film, although they seem old compared to the real life Bonnie and Clyde.  That’s probably more me nit-picking that anything else.  Bonnie’s character development was nice in the sense that she still wants to go home, but also wants to take part in this different adventure.  It was a sobering reality when her mother told her she couldn’t come home, or wouldn’t last long with all the law enforcement looking for her.

I liked the progression and the difficulties Bonnie and Clyde faced early on.  It seems fitting that they’d need to figure out how to rob banks and after a while, especially after Buck, Blanche, and C.W. joined the gang.  It almost became an art-form, at least under the end of the movie when things came to their inevitable conclusion.

I found that Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons carried the movie almost as much and at times more than Beatty and Dunaway.  Estelle earned an Academy Award for her performance, and it was fitting, although I found her screaming to be more than annoying.  Her progression from the reluctant participant t a full-share earner, even though she really does little in the robbing.  The real life Blanche Barrow provided a lot of the insider information on the gang, which makes sense since she and W.D. Jones (C.W. in the movie) were the only two living members of the gang.

The shooting scenes I think are very well done, and the driving getaways were also well done.  The other Academy Award the film earned was in Cinematography, and appropriately so.

Something noteworthy is that this was Gene Wilder’s first movie.  His performance seems fitting for the type of actor he became: fun and ironic.

Overall I learned a lot about the Barrow Gang, and this film sparked some research into their role in Depression-era America.  Though romanticized, this was a good look at the Barrow Gang.  I realize that the filmmakers took liberties, but I feel they stayed close and true to the real-life events.  While I probably won’t watch this movie again, it was a treat to see young performances from Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Gene Hackman.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.