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.
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.
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.
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.
One of my favorite parts of this blog is a special series called Blind Spots I have been doing each month since 2016. The idea behind the series is every month I review a classic or well-regarded film I have not seen- my movie blind spots.
Each year in January I declare what my 12 choices will be. I try to make it a variety of films, genres and styles. For instance, last year I did comedies like Garden State, to anime like Tokyo Godfathers to war dramas likeSon of Saul.
So, now is the time to declare my blind spot picks for 2020! Please let me know in the comments which of these films you have seen and what you think of my list in general! I would also love if you have a blog or youtuber to participate along with me in the project. It’s really fun!
I think the coziness of a Winter month makes for the perfect time to finally check the sprawling epic of Spartacus off of my list. This film is directed by Stanley Kubrick and stars Kirk Douglas, Sir Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Peter Ustinov and more. I love Lawrence of Arabia which came along 2 years later so we will have to see how Spartacus shakes out!
Born Yesterday (1950)
It’s always fun to pick a romantic comedy for February, and I have never seen the 1950 classic Born Yesterday. I love Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing and William Holden is super charming. The film is directed by the great George Cukor and it appears to be a political take on the Pygmalion story with Holden being hired to teach the uncouth Holliday social manners. I’m excited to watch it!
Created by the king of cinema Martin Scorsese I finally need to check his most heralded classic Goodfellas off of my list. I’m honestly not that big a fan of mob movies, which is why I’ve never seen this film. However, I am open to the genre if it is a good film. The story of Henry Hill eventually becoming an informant of the mob certainly has a lot of potential to be interesting and one cannot deny the acting talent. I hope I like it better than The Irishman, which was not my cup of tea (shocking I know).
The Three Colors Trilogy
For April I am going to be extra ambitious and watch the Color Trilogy by famed director Krzysztof Kieslowski. These 3 films are named after the colors of the French flag: Blue, White, Red and they each follow ordinary people as they face challenges to the 3 morals the flag represents: liberty, equality, fraternity. Evidently the characters from all 3 films come together in Red to make for a beautiful treatise on human behavior. One article I read said this trilogy was the big hipster status symbol of the 90s and that it ‘still holds up today,’ so I will be the judge of that!
I figure after such a heady April I deserve some fun so for May I am watching the first Lethal Weapon movie (yes I’ve never seen any of the series). In this iconic buddy cop action series Mel Gibson plays the young hothead Riggs and Danny Glover plays the old tired detective Murtaugh. They are forced to work together with some classic 80s hair from Gibson. This film is written by writer/director Shane Black who I am not the biggest fan of but we’ll see if he can win me over or maybe I’m too old for this…
As a huge fan of director Mamoru Hosoda I’m almost ashamed to admit I have never seen Wolf Children. I know many friends who consider this his best film and I’m excited to finally watch it. The story is about a young woman who raises her half-human half-wolf children after their werewolf father dies. My friend Ron said it is his favorite movie of the decade so I definitely have to check this one out!
I figure by the time July comes around I will be in the mood for a comedy and one classic I have never seen is the Goldie Hawn film Private Benjamin. So far on Goldie Hawn 80s comedies I liked Overboard and didn’t like Foul Play so we will see how this film lands. It was written by a young Nancy Meyers and is about a wealthy heiress who joins the army after her husband dies only for a very rude awakening in boot camp. I hope it will be a lot of laughs!
House of the Flying Daggers
After really enjoying director Zhang Yimou’s film Shadowthis year and admiring his film Hero from 2002 I thought it would be fun to watch another one of his famed works House of Flying Daggers. Evidently this is a love story and a martial arts film so that should be right up my ally and from what I’ve seen the production design, fight choreography and cinematography look stunning. I’m excited to watch it!
War movies are a great choice for blind spot because they are the kind of thing I don’t usually watch without a push. So for September I think it is finally time for me to watch the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now. Released in 1979 this film has an incredible cast including Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper and more. It is about a battalion during the Vietnam War who are sent on a secret mission into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade officer. I learned a lot about the making of the movie in the documentary I saw last year called Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound and I’m looking forward to seeing it.
One of my goals for next year is to try and get over some of my reservations when it comes to horror films. If I want to be a full time film critic I know I will need to watch more horror movies and I have been told by several good friends that the original Halloween film by director John Carpenter isn’t very scary. I’ve seen some scary movies like Scream, Psycho, and others so let’s hope I make it through this one! Ahhhh!
The Last Unicorn
Honestly the number of classic animated films I haven’t seen is narrowing but there are still some and one of them is The Last Unicorn. This anime released in 1982 tells the story of a unicorn that goes on a journey with a wizard to defeat an evil King that wants to kill all the unicorns. It evidently has some scary and bonkers scenes that were quite shocking for 1980s audiences so I’m anxious to see what I think! The animation looks beautiful and it is a musical with voices of Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Angela Lansbury and more on the dub. We will see what I think!
Remember the Night
My December pick is a Christmas classic I just learned about this year: Remember the Night. I don’t know how it flew under my Christmas-movie-loving radar but it is from 1940 and stars Barbara Stanwyck (who is one of my favorite Christmas movies Christmas in Connecticut) and Fred MacMurray (who is a scoundrel in the Christmas film The Apartment!). It is written by the great Preston Sturgess who was the king of romantic comedy writing in the 40s. Evidently it is about an attorney (MacMurray) who ends up going on a road trip of some kind with a petty shoplifter (Stanwyck) while heading home for Christmas. Sign me up!
So there you have it! That’s my 12 films for the 2020 Blind Spot Series. If you have a blog or youtube channel I encourage you to participate in the project. It’s a lot of fun and very rewarding at the same time.
What do you think of my choices? Have you seen any of them? I would love to hear your thoughts!
As you all know I have been heavily ensconced in the Christmas movie watching season in the month of November. Believe it or not I have watched 60 new Christmas movies from 2019 alone! This is why I almost didn’t get my Blind Spot pick in this month. There’s only so much time!
Fortunately I found time to watch the classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and not only was it a welcome change of pace but an excellent film. I can see why it is heralded as one of the great films of the Western genre.
From my admittedly limited experience it seems like there are 2 brands of Western films:
1. There are the sprawling films with cowboys on horses fighting Indians and claiming territory like The Searchers or Dances with Wolves.
2. Or there are the films that show off the isolated, lawless nature of the West. Usually these are set in town rather than on the open prairie. Examples include The Magnificent 7 or High Noon.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is definitely of the latter variety. I was actually shocked at how violent it is. I can sometimes be guilty of putting movies from the 50s in a squeaky clean box when that is certainly not always the case. Evidently they are going to be making a remake soon, which without question will be rated R if it is accurate to the original film at all. I didn’t mind the violence. It just surprised me.
The thrust of the violence comes from the outlaw listed in the title: Liberty Valance played by Lee Marvin in a really cold and calculated performance. This is a true outlaw with no feeling for anyone who comes in his way. Marvin does not play Liberty as an outlaw with a heart of gold like Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Not at all. He is a man who will kill you over a steak dinner and not give it a second thought.
Naturally everyone is terrified of Liberty including the useless Marshall named Link Appleyard (Andy Devine). The only exception is cowboy Tom Doniphon played with huge charisma by John Wayne. He picks his battles with Liberty but is not afraid to challenge him especially when he gets in his way (or messes with his steak!).
Into all this mess comes an idealistic lawyer named Ransom Stoddard played by Jimmy Stewart. Talk about perfect casting! Director John Ford uses the innocence and every-man appeal of Stewart to his full advantage. There is never a moment where we aren’t rooting for him or wanting him to defeat Liberty or his gang. And to the movies credit it is not an easy path for Ransom. The people are so afraid of Liberty he is often left standing against him alone.
The problem is Ransom believes he can solve things peacefully with Liberty and not resort to violence. This creates the central conflict of the film: Is the law abiding attorney going to give into the wild ways of the west or will his pure ideals prevail? It’s an interesting question and it plays out with a compelling script and excellent filmmaking.
You might be saying to yourself ‘I hate Westerns and have no interest in seeing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’. And I’d reply I am also not a big fan of the genre but the whole point of the blind spot project is to get out of my niches and try new things. I honestly think if you give this film a shot you will be impressed by the interesting characters, story, messaging and pacing. It is a classic for a reason and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Have you seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence? What did you think and who would you cast in the remake? Who can fill the shoes of John Wayne, Lee Marvin and Jimmy Stewart? It’s a tall order!
One of the difficult things about reviewing anime as a movie critic is so many of the films require investment into their accompanying series. Some like My Hero Academia Movie try to get you up to date on what is happening and others just throw you into the fire and hope you can figure it all out. Now, in my recent Downton Abbey review I said I didn’t think it was the job of the movie to please non-fans of the show. I’m fine with a film having a narrow audience; however, it does put me in a bit of a tough situation when I an admitted bystander doesn’t like the end product. Do I toss it up to not being in the intended audience or do I review it for the problems it has? It’s a tough dilemma but in the end I can’t imagine what the intended audience will think. I can only know what I think and share my experience in my review.
This rather long-winded lead-in, is my way of saying: I did not like Cowboy Bebop: The Movie. It clearly has lots of fans, and I respect that, but it didn’t work for me in some fundamental ways. Let me explain:
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie tells the story of a group of bounty hunters that live on the planet Mars in 2071. They are hunting down a mysterious man in black named Vincent who is intent on destroying all of humanity (supervillains are so ambitious these days). The main characters are leader Spike Spiegel, femme fatale Faye Valentine, punk kid Ed, brooding Jet Black and super intelligent dog Ein. These are an eclectic group of characters (much like Guardians of the Galaxy), but I never felt like I got to know any of them very well. Plus, we spent a lot of time on stuff I didn’t care about like what type of microwave noodles they each liked.
I never got the sense they were developing a case to follow Vincent but instead they kept accidentally running into him which made the momentum drag. There is some cool animation and some violent action scenes but rarely was the futuristic setting used to its advantage. Most of the events could have been done in any modern situation on any planet. This made the world-building and scifi elements feel generic to nonexistent.
Vincent is a cool character and his scenes are engaging, as his motivations are complex and troubling. I also really enjoyed how he was animated with the feel of an outlaw in an old-fashioned western. There are scenes some Johnny Cash tunes would have fit right in, which was a fun aesthetic.
Unfortunately a good villain can’t save a film. I found myself getting sleepy while watching Cowboy Bebop: The Movie and losing interest. The story is probably compelling for fans of the series but here in the film it felt pedestrian and bland. It was a lot of time of people sitting around, talking, mixed in with some enjoyable action, which isn’t enough to make a compelling movie for 2 hours (it’s at least 20 minutes too long).
The only reason I could recommend Cowboy Bebop: The Movie it’s one of the few anime films that has a lot of Halloween in it, which makes it an eclectic holiday choice. But even then it is more ornamentation than an actual interesting part of the plot. This movie just didn’t do it for me. It’s crazy how something with so many pieces can still feel so slow and bland? I’m sure some anime fans will be horrified by that statement but there it is.
Are you a fan of Cowboy Bebop? What do you think of this movie and should I watch the show before making a final judgement? Let me know what you think.
Originally when I made my 2019 Blind Spot selections my plan for September was to finally watch the 2002 film The Pianist. I had avoided it because Holocaust movies aren’t exactly a joyride, but more importantly, I have no desire to support criminal director Roman Polanski. However, at the time, in an effort to support the art and not the artist, I thought I’d check it off my list. But then Polanski won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, and I felt sick. I decided I didn’t want to watch any of his movies, so I asked my friends what would be a similar film to The Pianist not made by Polanski. Their resounding answer was Son of Saul, so that’s what I am reviewing today.
Son of Saul is a 2015 Hungarian film from first time director László Nemes. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film that year as well as many other prizes. The film stars Géza Röhrig as the aforementioned Saul who works as a Sonderkommando in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. In an attempt at some humanity he tries to find a rabbi to bury a small boy who survives the gas chamber only to be killed soon after.
We see the film from Saul’s perspective in almost a shaky cam technique and it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. To say Son of Saul is brutal would be an understatement. I honestly had to take pauses in order to collect myself. Nemes spares no detail as we see the gas chambers in full operation and it’s all done from such an intimate perspective, as if we were on the ground right there, that it is very upsetting. I think you’d have to be a sociopath to not be very unglued by what you see in this film.
Son of Saul is the type of film I will never watch again but the experience will always remain with me. It’s so well made yet unrelenting that it needs to be seen to be understood. Please just make sure you prepare yourself mentally and physically for what you are going to watch (if that is even possible). I’m not overstating it. This film is a tough sit.
But it is definitely worth having that raw experience. Hopefully if more people see films like Son of Saul something so horrific won’t happen again. For that purpose I’m glad I saw it and would recommend it to anyone who is prepared for the experience. This film will certainly stick with you. That’s for sure.
10 out of 10
It feels weird putting a smile worthy graphic on here but obviously it would be a recommendation.
This month for my blind spot pick I watched the film Take Shelter by the great indie director Jeff Nichols. I have loved to liked all of the movies from Nichols I’ve seen including Midnight Special and Mud, but I had never gotten around to seeing this unique entry from 2011.
Take Shelter tells the story of a man named Curtis played by Michael Shannon. He lives in Oklahoma, and one day he starts seeing visions of an apocalyptic storm that is attacking his family. As these dreams and visions become more alarming Curtis becomes more unglued. He becomes fixated on building a tornado shelter for his family and can’t understand why everyone in the town isn’t as concerned about the upcoming storm as he is.
His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) try to be supportive but struggle to understand Curtis and deal with each step of the mania. It was so nice to see Chastain as the almost ethereal mother again. She is so good at that role and we haven’t seen it in a long time (of course she will be forever remembered as the mother in The Tree of Life, which was also released in 2011).
Take Shelter definitely has a languid pacing I struggled with particularly when we weren’t in the dream sequences and it can feel repetitive (it’s pretty much just dream, mania, dream mania etc) but it also builds tension well and the performances and film-making are so good it’s hard to not recommend it. Adam Stone does a wonderful job with the cinematography leaving the viewer confused if the storms are really happening or if it is another dream.
The movie is also a bit confused with what it is trying to say. Is it talking about mental health care? Is it talking about religion? Is it talking about family? Mania? I’m not sure to be honest, which I guess you could see as a good or bad thing depending on your taste in movies. On one hand I like the ambiguity but other moments I wanted more clarity.
All that said, I would definitely recommend watching Take Shelter for the incredible dream sequences and the great performances. It will definitely leave you thinking and there’s something to be said for that experience.
Have you seen Take Shelter? What did you think of it?
When I was planning my Blind Spot series for 2019 I knew I needed to tackle one of the most heralded films that I had yet to see: William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. The film not only won 7 Oscars but it is widely considered the best film to ever win Best Picture. In addition, it’s also a favorite of many of my movie friends including the great MovieRob who has seen more than enough movies to have his opinion be taken very seriously. The only reason I hadn’t seen it is because the length and subject matter intimidated me but that’s what makes the Blind Spot project great! I finally watched this classic film, and I’m sure glad I did.
The Best Years of Our Lives tells the story of 3 veterans (Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, Frederic March) of World War 2 who meet on their way home to their small hometown of Boone City. While all soldiers, they are each quite different and they go on to each have different struggles in adjusting to home life.
Naturally we also get to know the women who are in the lives of our soldiers. I especially liked Myrna Loy who is number one on the call sheet but gives an understated supporting performance as the housewife who comes to realize her returning husband may be an alcoholic and that his recovery from fighting will be no easy task.
Probably the most memorable role in The Best Years of Our Lives is from Russell who had never acted before but plays the soldier with no arms with such humanity (probably because it is who he literally is!). I kept thinking now they would just cgi away an actor’s arms (see Dumbo from this year) and what a loss that is for cinema. What I appreciated most about his performance is most of the time he’s pretty reasonable, not looking for sympathy. He even seems proud of what he can accomplish with his hook hands, as he should be. However, he also keeps people at a distance because he doesn’t want to burden them with his struggles. This is most of all true with his fiance Wilma played with great heart by Cathy O’Donnell. Their love story together is very touching.
There isn’t a ton of plot in The Best Years of Our Lives. Even the grand moments are only grand because we know what they mean to the characters. They are simple moments like a man sitting in a used plane, another giving a speech at banquet for the bank he works at or a former soldier showing his girl how he puts on his pajamas. Simple stuff but it means a ton within the story. I particularly teared up at said banquet speech when a drunk Al promises his fellow soldiers will be supported by his bank and get the loans they need. This is probably a more of a pipe dream than anything else, which is what makes it both touching and tragic.
All of the acting is superb in The Beast Years of Our Lives and everyone has tremendous chemistry. Some will probably find it tedious, but despite my misgivings, I was fully engrossed with the characters and their journeys. It actually felt quite relevant to the struggles many veterans experience today. Often for soldiers it is very difficult to find employment, manage PTSD and relate to civilian life. However, even beyond that this film is full of human stories, and as long as they are well told, human stories will always be relevant.
If you haven’t seen The Best Years of Our Lives don’t wait as long as I did to give it a watch. You will be rewarded by a moving story of love, family, and the ability of the human spirit to turn the worst years into the best.
For a modern film with these themes I recommend Debra Granik’sLeave No Trace which was one of the best films of 2018.
When I decide on my Blind Spot picks each year I try to select a variety of films both for my own enjoyment and the interest of my readers. As important as it is to check the epic sagas and masterpieces off of my ‘to watch’ list, I also find guilty pleasures, cult hits and popcorn films of the past rewarding to discover. For June I picked the bubbly coming of age comedy from 1959 called Gidget. It’s a really interesting movie which could be easily criticized as an example of pre-feminist filmmaking, but I actually found it surprisingly modern and a delightful watch.
Gidget stars Sandra Dee in the lead role as a 17 year old girl who is struggling to balance her feminine and tomboy sides. She wants to be appealing to men but also laments the time when she could hang around with her girlfriends without much worry. On a trip to the beach she decides to give “manhunting” a try, but she ends up discovering that she loves to surf instead. Of course, she also gets more motivation when she meets handsome surfer Moondoggie (James Darren) and his group of beach bums. Immediately smitten she works all summer to become part of their group.
At first the boys do not treat her differently as a woman and some may find this surprising. They even try to drown her at one point as some kind of initiation which gives her a sore throat and fever. The whole time she puts up with all this to be accepted in the group but also in hopes that particularly Moondoggie will notice her and make her a ‘real woman’. She even talks with her Mother openly about her desire to explore her sexuality. This surprised me for a movie made in 1959.
Some may want to discount Gidget as too much a of a bubble-head or silly woman pining after undeserving men, but I disagree. From the beginning of the film she knows what she wants, and she goes after it. This is true in surfing and with the boys.
In many ways she reminded me of Baby in Dirty Dancing, just swap out surfing with dancing. She’s young and awkward, but she still always knows herself and doesn’t change even in the end, unlike other heroines like Sandy in Grease. If anything the surfing bros change more from her influence not the other way around. What’s more modern than that?
There wasn’t as much music in Gidget as I was anticipating. I assumed it was similar to Grease or Bye Bye Birdie in that regard. However, the 2 songs they have are pleasant if a little corny. James Darren has a nice voice and The Four Preps bring a poppy 1950s style to the opening credits.
As far as any negatives to Gidget go her father can be a bit of a patriarchal cliche but it was made in 1959 so I’m fine with him. Also Cliff Robertson plays a surfer named Kahuna and his character seems a little creepy and out of place with the tone of the rest of the film. Gidget is smart enough to deal with him but it comes very close to going over the line into uncomfortable territory especially with her being only 17 and him being much older.
Fortunately these are only minor quibbles. I thoroughly enjoyed Gidget, and I look forward to catching up with the sequels this summer. I don’t think I will make it to the beach so why not enjoy some surfing fun in the movies? Sounds fun to me!
Gidget is also recognized as a key player in popularizing surfing in the United States and the ‘beach party film’. I absolutely love the ocean and had the thrill of learning to surf on one of my trips to Hawaii. It is a favorite memory of mine and you can read about it here.
I always like to have a little bit of variety on this Blind Spot project and this month we are going back to 1945 and taking a look at the romantic drama Brief Encounter.
Starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, Brief Encounter tells a simple story of 2 strangers that meet in a train station ‘refreshment room’ and become fascinated with each other. Then they meet several more times until a relationship develops. Unfortunately with them both being married they cannot pursue their love so it is doomed to remain unrequited.
Brief Encounter is directed by David Lean and he, with cinematographer Robert Krasker, do a stunning job crafting this film. The black and white photography is beautiful with great use of shadows and light. You feel an intimacy with the couple like you are somehow eavesdropping on their conversations instead of watching a movie. It kind of reminded me of the Before Sunrise movies in that regard. I think it also helps that we don’t have traditional movie stars in the lead roles but more ordinary looking humans. It makes their connection feel more grounded and real.
If you are worried this is a movie that justifies cheating, it doesn’t. In fact, the ending with Laura and her husband is actually quite touching. It’s just a moment between two people and that’s it. If it was made today it would probably be tawdry and tasteless but here it strikes just the right note.
My only flaw with Brief Encounter is it is perhaps too brief. They go from strangers bumping into each other to declaring their undying love very quickly. In that sense, it feels a little hard to believe. We understand why Laura is tempted by a new and exciting love but are not entirely sure why this love with Alec fits that bill. I wish there were a few more scenes where we got to know both of them more and could understand their connection better.
That said, I definitely recommend checking out Brief Encounter. It is currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel which is a service I highly recommend. They not only have great films but tons of special features on most of the films.
(Also David Lean is such an incredible director. It’s hard to believe the person who made this also directed Lawrence of Arabia!)