Blind Spot 57: ‘Apocalypse Now’

 

I’ll be honest when I put Apocalypse Now on my blind spot for 2020 I did so with hesitation. I knew it was a hard R rating and a long war film so it didn’t sound like something I would love. As we got closer to the watch in September my hesitancy increased as it seemed like a big downer to watch in quarantine.

Well yesterday I had terrible insomnia so decided to finally watch it and to my surprise I found it quite exhilarating.  To be sure it is long (I watched the theatrical cut) and brutal but the characters are so well realized and the story so surprising that it really worked well. I see why it is considered one of the great films of the 1970s.

If you didn’t know Apocalypse Now is directed by Francis Ford Coppola and stars Martin Sheen as an army captain given a secret mission in the Vietnam War to go into Cambodia and kill a rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). He is given assistance along the way by a PBR or river patrol boat which includes an assortment of characters such as Chef (Frederic Forrest), The Chief (Albert Hall), and Lance B Johnson (Sam Bottoms. He is a professional surfer in the movie).

They also meet people like a hippy journalist played by Dennis Hopper and an insane war-hungry Lieutenant Kilgore (Robert Duvall). His character is a morally repugnant man who cares more for surfing and the wins of war than human life but it’s such a big performance I found myself transfixed by it. Of course, he has the iconic line of the film ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’. And the crazy thing is he actually does love it. That’s nuts but also compelling.

The movie takes a long time to get to Colonel Kurtz but the wait is worthwhile. Brando was evidently quite the diva by this time in the 70s but somehow that aloofness and pride works well for the character. The final scene with the butchering of the water buffalo and the assault on Kurtz is riveting and tense.

It probably goes without saying but the production values of Apocalypse Now are absolutely outstanding. The sound design alone by Walter Murch was a game changer. The editing is great. The spectacle of the battles and use of color throughout the cinematography is incredible. All the acting is top notch.

As far as flaws there is a moral ambiguity about war which some might question. These days we want everything to make a statement but Apocalypse Now could easily be criticized as being both pro and anti war. This no doubt reflected the divided nature of the country in 1979 (what it must have been like to watch the film in 1979 is incredible to think about). I kind of like that it is open to interpretation but some may see it as a cop-out.

This might be a weird comparison but Apocalypse Now reminded me of another epic Lawrence of Arabia. Different time periods obviously but they both have large scale spectacle filmmaking mixed with unique characters that transfixed me. I love Lawrence of Arabia more but still both movies lived up to their respective hypes in my opinion.

What do you think about Apocalypse Now? Please put your thoughts in the comment section.

The horror! The horror!

9.5 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Blind Spot 56: ‘The House of Flying Daggers’ Review

I’ll be honest with the glut of films to watch this week I almost forgot about the blind spot for August. Last year I loved Shadow by director Yimou Zhang and it made me curious to see more of his films. This is why I selected his film The House of Flying Daggers when making this year’s blind spot list. I like more grounded martial arts films such as Enter the Dragon starring Bruce Lee or Rumble in the Bronx and Drunken Master with Jackie Chan. However, I do not like more fanciful films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I know everyone else loves it but it was not for me. I particularly disliked the flying as it took me out of the movie and interrupted the action every time.

Watching Flying Daggers made me realize I don’t think I am a fan of the wuxia style of martial arts films. These are films that involve fantasy and supernatural elements including flying and magic. They are pretty but I find it hard to get into the movies when the problems can be solved with magic or simply flying away. Flying Daggers is in that style (where Shadow was more grounded) and I really did not enjoy watching it.

First of all I will concede Flying Daggers is a beautiful film with stunning cinematography and production design. I also enjoyed some fight sequences like one where they are bouncing off of trees almost like Tarzan swings through trees.

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The problem was this horrible love story where two men Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) over the love of a blind woman named Xiao Mei (Ziyi Zhang). I found all 3 of these people to be extremely unlikable especially Leo who we are supposed to be rooting for. There was no chemistry between Mei and either men and at one point Leo tries to rape her and is only stopped by her superior Nia who throws a magical dagger into his back. There are so many scenes of Mei and Leo awkwardly kissing or finally making love, and I hated every one of them. As a confirmed romantic it did not work for me at all.

Like I said, the action can be quite good but the magic of the daggers wasn’t interesting and the sequences feel repetitive and dull. It reminded me of a Chinese version of Twilight to be honest with this horrible love triangle. I was thoroughly bored by it, which I know might be shocking to some but it’s true. It wasn’t interesting, charming or exciting just lots of meaningful staring and then fighting with magical daggers. No thanks.

It’s hard to know what score to give The House of Flying Daggers because this style of movie doesn’t seem made for me but I know many enjoy them. If it seems like your kind of thing than give it a watch but I certainly won’t be revisiting it any time soon.

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Blind Spot 55: ‘Private Benjamin’ or I Like the Army Parts

 

This month for blind spot I thought it would be fun to tackle a comedy with a little bit of patriotism and 1980’s Private Benjamin seemed like the perfect choice. It’s a film I have heard about for years but never gotten around to seeing. It is written by Nancy Meyers who would go on to write and direct many films including The Parent Trap remake, The Holiday and more. A lot of people put her on the same level as Nora Ephron but I disagree. Her films have cute moments but nowhere near the wit and charm of Ephron’s writing.

In Private Benjamin Goldie Hawn plays a woman named Judy Benjamin who is tricked into joining the army when her husband dies on their wedding night. As a pampered heiress she isn’t used to the rigors of the army and the film rings a lot of comedy out of her being a fish out of water in this environment. Hawn does a good job of making the diva-like Judy likable and much like Cher in Clueless we are rooting for her despite her popular girl trappings.

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Unfortunately this time in the army is only a small part of the film. The last chunk of the Private Benjamin devotes itself to Judy getting engaged to a french man named Henri (Armand Assante). The movie lost all of its bite and wit in these rather tedious sections. I did not care about this relationship and was itching for her to get back to the army where she was growing and becoming a better person. It really bummed me out that the movie took such a turn.

I also was not a big fan of the rated R material in Private Benjamin. I feel like it almost never made anything funnier and came off as gratuitous in certain scenes. In addition, a plot thread with Judy’s officer attempting to rape her felt like it belonged in a different movie. It’s like the film couldn’t decide if it was going to be a grounded story of women in the army or a silly romantic comedy with runaway brides and slapstick antics. Either is fine but you can’t pull off both.

For whatever reason I have found a lot of the comedies from the 80s don’t transfer well. I’m sure there is a piece that could be written about this but Private Benjamin was at best a mixed bag. I enjoyed the boot camp scenes but pretty much everything else fell flat. Evidently a remake with Rebel Wilson is in the works and that might be interesting. Hopefully it will be more successful than the recent remake of Hawn’s other iconic 80s film Overboard. We’ll see.

4 out of 10

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Blind Spot 54: ‘Wolf Children’ Review

In the world of anime fans it’s actually kind of a scandal that I haven’t seen Mamoru Hosoda’s masterpiece Wolf Children. I love Hosoda so I’m not sure why I put off seeing it but now that I have I’m delighted to tell you all that it lives up to the hype. It’s not a loud movie but it is one of the most beautiful depictions of motherhood I’ve seen.

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Wolf Children tells the story of a woman named Hana who falls in love with a mysterious man while in attending college. Eventually she finds out the man is a wolfman, but not the man-eating variety we see in horror movies. Hanna and the man end up having 2 children, Yuki and Ame who share the wolfman traits of their father.

When the man dies Hana must figure out how to not only be a young single Mother of 2 but also raise 2 children that are of a different species from her own- one that she and everyone around her is entirely unfamiliar with. She ends up moving to the country to keep them safe and learning how to farm and teach her children how to manage both sides of themselves.

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What’s also interesting is the different trajectories of the children. Yuki wants to live as a human being. She goes to school, makes friends, and is able to hold her wolf side in with the help of a little song her Mom made up. On the other hand, Ame is drawn to the wolf side especially after he becomes friends with a wolf named Sohei.

If you are watching Wolf Children looking for a big narrative or strong action you will be disappointed. It’s a simple film about the every day life of our 3 lead characters. We get to know them and become invested in their journeys. The animation is absolutely stunning- right up there with the best of Studio Ghibli. The sound design is also very impressive with the lushness of nature coming to life before our eyes. It really helps us become immersed in the story.

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But mostly Wolf Children is a beautiful story about the power of a Mother’s love to save her children. Even if they are of different species that love is powerful and that says a lot. I don’t think you have to be a big anime fan to enjoy this film. If you have a mother, are a mother or long to be a mother you will be moved by this touching story. I highly recommend it.

9 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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Blind Spot 53: ‘Lethal Weapon’ Review

I try to have a variety when I am setting up this blind spot series every year and since I did a trilogy of arthouse films in April with the 3 Colors Trilogy I decided to check off a blockbuster classic off of my list for May. This month I finally saw the 80s buddy cop film Lethal Weapon.

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Lethal Weapon was directed by Richard Donner of Superman: the Movie fame and is written by Shane Black who would go on to write and/or direct many popular films such as Predator, The Nice Guys and Iron Man 3. It stars Danny Glover as the world-weary cop who is paired with the mostly insane young cop played by Mel Gibson.

Obviously there are strengths to Lethal Weapon. It would not have made such an impact on its genre of films if it didn’t do some things right. Its biggest asset is the chemistry between Glover and Gibson. Their relationship isn’t easy but you believe their evolution as friends or at least trustworthy partners.

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I also enjoyed all the Christmas themes as it created a nice contrast between the darkness of the investigation and the brightness of the holidays. Shane Black also sets Iron Man 3 at Christmas so perhaps it’s a thing of his?

Unfortunately, my problem with Lethal Weapon is I did not love the script or the action. I haven’t enjoyed any of Shane Black’s scripts so maybe he is just not for me? The machismo in his writing is a turn-off and there’s a cynicism with how his characters treat each-other, which I do not connect with or find appealing. Other people seem to think it’s hilarious but again it’s not for me.

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As for the action I found it often dark, with strange lighting making it hard to see who was fighting who and what they were doing. Also the violence didn’t seem to do anything for the story, which made it feel gratuitous. In particular, an extended sequence where Murtaugh and Riggs are tortured didn’t help the narrative much and was mostly only there for shock value.

You also have to put on your 80s cap when watching Lethal Weapon because we have such a different attitude about police brutality and violence in 2020. Riggs spends most of the movie trying to convince Murtaugh that his method of killing the bad guys is the way to go. Today we’d certainly take a step back from that line of thinking!

Basically with Lethal Weapon you probably already know if you like it. I enjoyed the chemistry between Glover and Gibson and the Christmas setting was fun; however, the action and script didn’t do it for me. Take that for what you will.

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Blind Spot 52: ‘The Three Colors Trilogy’

When I was setting up this year’s blind spot picks I took what seemed like a big risk in my pick for April. Deciding to go with a trilogy of films called the Three Colors Trilogy seemed like a big ask. Little did I know we would have a pandemic and I’d be in quarantine for the entire month! It ended up being the ideal choice!

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The Three Colors Trilogy is a trio of films by polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. The 3 films are loosely tied together stories that are named after the colors of the French flag and supposedly meant to be emblematic of the 3 political ideals associated with each color: blue=liberty, white=equality, red=fraternity. Some also feel the films are an anti-tragedy, anti-comedy, and anti-romance.

While I admire the boldness of the project, the trilogy is bookended by 2 great films with a real turkey stuck in the middle. That’s right. I enjoyed Blue and Red but found white to be a big misfire. However, as they aren’t very connected this isn’t a huge problem and I’d honestly suggest just skipping White all together.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on all 3:

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Blue

Blue stars Juliette Binoche as a widow who loses both her daughter and husband in a horrible car accident at the beginning of the film. She is a classical music composer, as was her husband, but he got most of the praise and glory. Now out of the hospital she has to try to put her life back together all the while discovering new revelations about her husband along the way.

This is a very ‘fly on the wall’ type of movie with us mostly following Binoche around as she makes choices. One minute she is reuniting with a former lover, another she is selling her house, then moving to Paris etc. Fortunately she’s a compelling enough character for this to work. Binoche does a terrific job playing this damaged woman and her responses felt real and honest- no melodrama here.

I also enjoyed the way Kieslowski brought in the color blue into the film through a blue chandelier and lots of time in or near swimming pools. It was more than a gimmick but a way to establish moods of grief and loss.

Blue is a definite great start to the trilogy!

8 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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White

As I mentioned above White is the film in the trilogy that is the big miss. It stars Zbigniew Zamachowski as a sad sap of a man who at the start of the film is getting divorced by his wife. She is played by Julie Delpy and she wants a divorce because he has failed to consummate their relationship. He then spends the rest of the movie feeling sorry for himself and planning his elaborate revenge.

At one point he gets involved with the mafia and sends himself in a suitcase to Poland to finish a job for a shady friend. I guess such gestures are supposed to be the ‘anti-comedy’ of the trilogy, but I didn’t laugh. I found him selfish, rude and irritating. I think there is supposed to be satisfaction in his ending, but I found it pathetic.

I suppose the acting and filming of White is fine but the story and characters were too insufferable and annoying for me to care about. Let’s just say it’s a slice of life I can do without!

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Red

The highlight of the trilogy is the concluding film, Red. Instead of an irritating useless male character as we saw in White, in Red you get a layered, interesting character and an ending that ties the trilogy together.

Red tells the story of a model named Valentine played by Irene Jacob. One day she has a car accident with a dog and she seeks out the dog owner. It turns out to be a former judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. Unfortunately the judge doesn’t care about the dog but he has a sophisticated technology for listening in on the conversations of his neighbors.

Like in Rear Window, as he listens he becomes more involved in their lives and starts to make assumptions about what is best for them. Valentine tries to help the judge but things become more complicated by the minute. She also has her own love problems to deal with along with some bad luck at work and in her social life.

Like Blue, Red works because it has a compelling main character we are interested in. The reason it is better than Blue is because the plot is more linear and engaging and Valentine is a more complex character (it was nominated for best screenplay). It’s also beautifully made from the lighting, music, direction, all the way to the cinematography. It’s a gem!

9 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Have you seen The Three Colors Trilogy? Which one is your favorite? I would love to read your thoughts below in the comments

Blind Spot 51: ‘Goodfellas’

When I set up my 2020 Blind Spot list I knew immediately I wanted to include something from director Martin Scorsese. He not only caused a lot of ruckus with his ridiculous and out of touch comments about superhero movies not being ‘cinema’ last year but then he achieved great critical acclaim with his film The Irishman.  I famously did not care for this Oscar nominated film, and I also hated his film before that Silence, so I began to wonder if maybe the famous director and I simply don’t mix very well (I did like Hugo and The Aviator so there’s that)?

Anyway, I knew I wanted to give his other mobster movie, Goodfellas, a shot this year to see what I thought. Now I have seen it, and I’m happy to say I liked it. It’s not a top-tier film for me but definitely entertaining and far better than The Irishman in every way. I still prefer the gravitas and messaging of The Godfather over this film but I can see why it has its ardent fans.

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Goodfellas tells the story of Henry Hill a real life mobster in 70s and 80s who works and serves the family despite not being a full-Italian ‘made’ member. We start out the film with Henry as a teenager dazzled by the lifestyle and family-connection of organized crime. He gets taken under the wing by a caporegime named Paulie played by Paul Servino. Joe Pesci plays a violent and erratic man named Tommy Devito and Robert De Niro plays a leader of the group named Jimmy Conway.

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The reason I liked this so much better than The Irishman is the characters are all more dynamic. My problem with Robert De Niro’s character in The Irishman is his come to Jesus moments come too late in the narrative. For 80% of the movie he is perfectly happy being a soldier for the mafia and someone who simply follows orders isn’t interesting for a film, especially a long film.

In contrast, Henry has many moments where he bucks against the system, especially in the 2nd half where it becomes more of a heist movie than a mafia film. He even challenges orders in his personal life with wife Karen and mistress Janice/Sandy. This makes him an interesting character. We want to root for him because he is our protagonist, but he’s such a sleazy guy that it becomes difficult. Such conflict is cinematic and entertaining. It also doesn’t hurt that Ray Liotta does a very good job playing Henry so you both want to hang out with and smack him at the same time.

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Unlike The Godfather, Goodfellas doesn’t attempt to teach us lessons through the insular society of the mob. It’s not an allegory to society at large or a treatise on group behavior and loyalty. It’s just Henry’s story- a biopic if you will, with all the highs and lows we expect from that genre. It is greatly aided by witty and engaging dialogue by screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi. It clips along and stays free from both exposition or over-narration.

As far as flaws it still feels self-indulgent at times. Scenes are stretched out longer than they need to be and certain sequences are repeated that provide no real addition to the plot. For example, we see multiple scenes with them laughing it up at the comedy club in the beginning of the film. One scene is fine and establishes the juvenile nature of these men; however, I didn’t need to see it again and again. Same with scenes with the drug-trade later in the movie. We get the idea the first time. We don’t need scene after scene of them getting blow. It’s almost like Scorsese lacks confidence in his scenes so he has to repeat them again. (Come to think of it one of the things I hated in Silence was the repeated torture. He would literally show a scene of torture and show that exact same scene again in case we didn’t get it the first time. No thank you!).

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Goodfellas is also very well edited and the production values are all top rate. It doesn’t feel dated in any way. It could be released now and hold up (honestly better than The Irishman with its distracting special effects). I also enjoyed the cinematography and music choices throughout.

If you can handle a hard R rated film for violence and language I recommend giving Goodfellas a watch. If you do, you will find a well-told story about a complex character in the form of Henry Hill. It’s got a sharp script and good performances all around, which makes it very entertaining. I can definitely see why it is a favorite of those who love the gangster genre.

What do you think of Goodfellas? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments section

7.5 out of 10

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On another note I can see why so many compared Hustlers to Goodfellas. They have a very similar structure especially in the last half of the film and have the same type of repetition and character beats.

 

Blind Spot 50: ‘Born Yesterday’ (1950)

I had always heard of Born Yesterday not because of it being a great movie but because of its impact on the Oscars. One of my favorite movies of all time is All About Eve and the actresses Bette Davis and Anne Baxter were both nominated for Oscars for Best Actress.  Both of their performances are some of the best in the history of movies, so imagine my shock that neither of them won the big prize! No, Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday won!

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It is for this reason I have long wanted to check out Born Yesterday and see if Holliday deserved the win or if it was a case of 2 actresses from the same movie cancelling themselves out. Now for Blind Spot I finally got to check this romcom off my list!

In Born Yesterday Holliday plays a woman named Billie who is a ditzy mistress for a mob-like millionaire named Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford). At first I was struggling with her character. Her squeaky voice was irritating and the way she is walked all over is uncomfortable to a modern viewer. However, as she began to learn more from William Holden’s Paul Verrall I started to warm up to her.

Holden and Holliday have such an authentic chemistry that I found myself rooting for them as a pair more than either character by themselves. They both teach each other and become better people based on the discussions they have. It’s not just the suave man teaching the silly woman how to be more genteel but a woman coming to understand her fundamental value as a human and a man realizing some principles and people are worth fighting for.

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It’s easy to be cynical these days, and I know that’s why many don’t enjoy romantic comedies. However, Born Yesterday is kind of a cynical movie. The world surrounding our 2 leads is decidedly broken and there’s no sign of any of it changing outside of the cocoon of their discussions. I got the feeling if Frank Capra had made this film there would be grand speeches and big moments of gravitas but that is not the case here. It’s just about 2 people who make it out of the cynicism kicking and screaming.

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I watched the 1993 remake of Born Yesterday and boy was that a dud. It has most of the same ingredients but without the sense of personal connection and growth we see with Holliday and Holden. There’s nobody to root for and no depth to any of the performances so it all feels quite lazy and mean-spirited. Definitely skip it!!

Now do I think Judy Holliday is better in Born Yesterday than Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve? No I do not but it’s a good performance so I’m not angry about it. She brings a humanity to a character that is easy to dismiss and has fantastic chemistry with her costar so she’s a worthy winner even if she’d still get 3rd place in my book. Also if you have never seen Judy in Bells Are Ringing it’s a very underrated musical that I highly recommend.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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Blind Spot 49: ‘Spartacus’

Happy January! I am so excited to be starting my 5th year doing the Blind Spot project. I can hardly believe I have been keeping it up that long, month by month. So, it seemed appropriate to celebrate this accomplishment by looking at an epic film and few films are more epic than the 1960 historical drama Spartacus.

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The biggest thing Spartacus has going for it is how big it is. Particularly the war scenes are truly epic. In a world where we are used to battles populated by cgi soldiers it is refreshing to see so many extras that it looks like ants moving on the hillsides towards each other rather than humans. The scope of every scene and attention to detail really is tremendous and worthy of praise.

Also the acting is top rate. I particularly enjoyed Peter Ustinov as a cold yet jolly Roman leader named Batiatus. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ustinov in a role that he didn’t shine and bring whatever funny he could to the part. All the other acting is great including Sir Laurence Olivier as Marcus Licnius Crassus and Tony Curtis as Antoninus.

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However, that’s where my praise of Spartacus must end. This film is a really long movie to not connect with any of the characters. While the acting is great, the writing and story is pretty bland. I was not drawn into the journey of Spartacus played by Kirk Douglas and found his performance the one miss of the film. I didn’t feel like I got to know him very well, and I wasn’t rooting for him the way that I should for this kind of narrative. Unfortunately, he felt miscast in the role.

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The only female of note in the film is Varinia played by Jean Simmons, and I didn’t think she and Douglas had any chemistry. Her story is as bland as Spartacus and despite some daring scenes she just wasn’t interesting to me (the film as a whole is pretty R rated both in violence and sensuality).

It’s hard to completely skunk a movie as handsomely mounted as Spartacus but when I compare it to other epics of its time like Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia or The 10 Commandments it doesn’t hold a candle to those films. Those films had compelling characters, terrific action and epic set pieces. I love those films. Spartacus? Not so much.

5 out of 10

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