BLIND SPOT 43: ‘THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES’

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’s Leave No Trace which was one of the best films of 2018.

10 out of 10

smile worthy

 

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BLIND SPOT 42: ‘GIDGET’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

8 out of 10

smile worthy

 

 

 

Blind Spot 41: ‘Brief Encounter’

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)

Overall Grade

7 out of 10

smile worthy

Blind Spot 31: The Last Emperor

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This month for my blind spot pick I decided to take a look at a film that took home 9 Oscars including Best Picture and Director: 1987’s The Last Emperor. I didn’t know much about it going into the film except that it was a long and sumptuously mounted production. After viewing it, I agree it is long and sumptuously mounted but aside from those qualities, I wasn’t very impressed by it.

The Last Emperor was helmed by Italian director Bernardo Berlotucci and it feels European in its grand scope and leisurely pacing. It was the first Western film authorized by the PROC to be filmed in the Forbidden City in Beijing, so naturally all of the sets and locations are authentic and grand. It is completely understandable why it won Oscars for art direction, cinematography and especially costume design. The music by Ryuichi Sakamoto is also very strong.

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However, in many ways it felt like a foreigner telling a Chinese story. The Last Emperor is about the life of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. Evidently they based the screenplay off of Puyi’s autobiography, which is odd because so much of it rang flat and false.

To begin with, having all the characters speak English feels like an almost mocking choice. It takes you out of the scenes because this is supposed to be a serious movie and they are so obviously not speaking the right language. It’s one thing for an Indiana Jones movie to have accents but an epic masterpiece like The Last Emperor? Not so much. I guess you could make the argument it is in the traditions of old school epics like The Ten Commandments but those movies had stronger narratives to make up for the cultural awkwardness.

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Speaking of story, it boggles my mind that The Last Emperor won Best Adapted Screenplay because the narrative is very weak. We see many events happen to Puyi but I never felt sorry for him or invested in his character. For most of the movie he came across as a spoiled brat without much nuance or introspection. Towards the end he grows as a person as he is incarcerated by the communists, but I still felt distant and like I never truly understood him. We are told Puyi is the “loneliest boy on earth” but he just felt like the blandest.

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Some of the side characters are more interesting like his main wife Wanrong. She kind of has a lesbian relationship yet does seem to love Puyi and want him to succeed, which could have been interesting but it isn’t really explored in a satisfactory way. She’s a lonely character and I wish we got to know her better and have more time with her. Peter O’Toole is good as Puyi’s British tutor Reginald Johnston. He both kowtows and challenges the Chinese royal establishment, but even he could have been used more effectively and challenged more as a character.

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The frustrating thing is I can tell Puyi’s story is fascinating having gone from opulence to a puppet emperor to a prisoner and a common man all in one life. But the screenplay in The Last Emperor delivers that compelling story without any tension or emotional heft. It all landed like a thud and was really quite boring. I didn’t care about his character and the interesting parts were more like reading a textbook than watching a compelling narrative. It needed a Steven Spielberg type voice to come in with sweeping moments of drama and tension to sell the soapy dialogue and characters. That might have worked better.

I kind of wish they would remake The Last Emperor. I don’t think many are too attached to this version and there is a good story in there to tell. A modern filmmaker could have all the good qualities of this film but make it in Mandarin with a better, more compelling script and it could be an amazing film.

I can see why other people like The Last Emperor, and I do commend it for its production design, costumes, cinematography and music but it didn’t work for me as a movie. It was bland, culturally awkward and plodding. I’m glad I checked it off my blind spot list but it is definitely one I will never watch again.

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Blind Spot 27: The Seventh Seal

There are certain rites of passages that go along with being a film fan: certain films or filmmakers that must be seen and experienced to have an understanding of film and how we have gotten to where we are in the artform. These include the films of Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, to name a few. For the March Blind Spot film I watched my first Ingmar Bergman film, The Seventh Seal, and I can see why it has been such an influential film.

The Seventh Seal is a very creative film about a knight named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) who is returning from fighting in the Crusades.  He is disillusioned and frustrated about religion, war and the meaning of life, which is understandable after such a brutal, pointless conflict. One day he meets the personification of Death (he looks kind of like what we think of as the Grim Reaper) and to avoid dying, Block invites Death to a spirited game of chess.

The story continues with Block meeting a group of actors who can’t see that he is accompanied by Death. There is Jof, Mia, and Jonas Skat. They all have varying degrees of faith and cynicism. Jof claims to see visions of Jesus and Mary but Mia does not believe her husband. Jonas is basically a womanizing cad

As the group moves along they confront the Black Death and those petrified of its power, and talk a lot about faith and obviously death. Block wants to be an atheist after what he has seen of humanity but there is always something holding him back from making that his belief system. He certainly does not believe in God but he can’t be a confirmed non-believer either so he is in a state of continual struggle and agony. He says:

“Why can’t I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way – despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can’t be rid of?”

He goes on:

“I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me”

He reminds me of a section of the Book of Mormon where a man requires a sign in order to believe in God (see Alma 30). This unfortunately is not how God works. Jesus even tells doubting Thomas ‘more blessed are they who have not seen but have yet believed’. Those believers have a power in their life, a knowledge of who they are, and where they are going in the afterlife that ,can help them face any pain or evil. It can lead to poor choices when mixed with the desires of men but it still at its core has power.

It is this struggle with faith for Block that is almost as painful as the war itself. It’s an internal war that Bergman seems envious of those who believe and ready to punish them in revenge. One girl is burned at the stake for consorting with the devil, a theologian is beaten and scarred and a band of flagellants beat themselves into submission. All of these images are meant to show the pain of faith and the envy of those who do not believe (and are usually the ones inflicting said pain).

It’s kind of what Martin Scorsese was trying to do in Silence but without any of the impact or effectiveness (I absolutely despised the torture-porn fest that was Silence). In Scorsese’s movie the faithful are selfish and unfeeling because of silence where here they all suffer because of faith one way or another. God never said He wanted weak Saints!

While I certainly do not agree with Bergman’s cynical outlook on faith and spirituality it is still an interesting one. I appreciate he asks the question ‘what will happen to those who don’t believe who die and where is their solace?” I can see how these people are envious of the faithful and in a way want them to feel the pain that they feel.

I have strong faith, but I can see how to some “faith is a torment.” To someone like Bergman, God is silent when He should be saving the world from evil but to believers God cannot violate the agency of man. If he did he would cease to be God (this is a topic for a whole different discussion). He can guide us and comfort us but He cannot force obedience.

The ending with the dance of the dead was interesting because it felt hopeful and joyous after a pretty cynical film, and I like it when filmmakers end their movie on an ambiguous note.

The only downside to this film is I couldn’t help but think about Monty Python and the Holy Grail a lot. They were clearly trying to parody The Seventh Seal in many scenes especially with the flagellants, which is basically recreated in Holy Grail. Obviously that is a little unfair as a criticism but since Holy Grail is the greatest comedy ever made it was a little distracting!

As I am not someone who struggles with faith, I don’t think The Seventh Seal is anything I would ever watch again, but I’m glad I saw it once. I loved the black and white cinematography and the creative choices. It was different and at only 96 minutes is definitely worth a watch. It is a subtitled film (in Swedish) but I had no problem following the captions.

Have any of you seen The Seventh Seal? What do you think Bergman is saying about faith and religion (or the after life?)?

Blind Spot 21: Manhattan

I went into this month’s Blind spot pick, Manhattan, with kind of low expectations. Despite it being a well regarded film amongst critics and film snobs nobody I know seems to like it much. So perhaps it was these low expectations that left me feeling surprised at how much I liked it. Manhattan is a funny look at how we ruin things by idolizing them. Whether it be relationships, sex, art, literature or even New York City itself, when we place things on a pedestal we take the joy out of what we are admiring.

I can see why many don’t like Manhattan. It has Woody Allen’s classic mannerisms which can be annoying to some. It also has him in a relationship with a 17 year old which can be awkward especially with Woody Allen’s own background.

My favorite part of Manhattan is the script. It shows how ridiculous we are when we love something (or are infatuated). This scene I particularly loved when the group of pedantics are criticizing everything they think is ‘overrated’.

There were a lot of scenes like that which made me laugh and could have been easily criticizing modern internet culture today  just as much as New Yorkers in 1979. These people are trying so hard to appear smart that  it is funny.

Manhattan is also a beautiful movie with amazing black and white photography. I think it is even more stunning than Annie Hall. I don’t know if I can think of a Woody Allen film that looks as good. Maybe Midnight in Paris but this might be even better.

We also see this idolization with Meryl Streep’s character who was Woody Allen’s ex but left him to be with a woman. She looks stunning in this film but she is writing a whole memoir on her relationship with Allen. This is definitely Allen puffing his own ego up but it is also about how we place past relationships on a pedestal and puff them up to protect us from new pain.

My only big problem with Manhattan is I never felt invested in the romance with Mariel Hemingway. She is so sincere and he is more than a little creepy. I think that is intentional but it also wasn’t as funny as scenes with Diane Keaton and others.

In the end Manhattan is about looking at things in our lives the way they really are and taking off the rose colored glasses. But not only that- it shows how silly we all are with those glasses on.

If you would like to purchase Manhattan click here

Overall Grade- A-

PS I didn’t even think of the fact I watched Manhattan on 9/11. How perfect 

Blind Spot 18: Paths of Glory

It’s interesting that this month’s blind spot pick, Paths of Glory, just happens to be the second movie I’ve watched this month featuring World War 1 and a No Man’s Land scene. Of course the other film, Wonder Woman, is completely different but it is still a random coincidence as there are not that many World War 1 films made.

Paths of Glory is directed by the great Stanley Kubrick and is a very interesting war movie. In some ways it feels like Hacksaw Ridge combined with Catch 22. I hated the book Catch 22 because it was so cynical. I get the point of the book is to be cynical, but I needed something to latch on to and bond with. It was a very unpleasant experience that was supposed to be funny.

Anyway, I feel Paths of Glory takes this cynical attitude and also  give us intriguing characters that we like spending time with. It’s not a satire like Doctor Strangelove but it does have a cynical sad tone to the events of war.

Starring Kirk Douglas, Paths of Glory, is set in World War 1 and tells the story of a division of French soldiers who are commanded to go on a suicide mission to attack the German stronghold called the ‘Anthill’.

Colonel Dax (Douglas) tries to convince the superiors to hold off the attack because of the heavy casualties and lack of benefit but they insist upon it. The attack goes forward and a group of soldiers refuses to leave the trench. The men are then ordered to fire upon their fellow soldiers, which they refuse without a written order.

The leader, General Mireau, is enraged at the men and blames them for the attack not working. At first he wants to court martial 100 men but 3 are eventually chosen to face trial and execution.

It is this section that Paths of Glory moves from being a war film to a courtroom drama and it is also where you get some of that Catch 22 type of cynicism. It makes sense, after all, when what they are doing to these 3 men is extremely cynical. Taking 3 men’s lives because they wouldn’t turn on their own men shows how twisted war can get.

Paths of Glory is a great film. Somehow Stanley Kubrick manages to mix these two sides together so well. The war scenes are as captivating and disturbing as anything we get in modern war films. And the scenes with the 3 soldiers are sad with a hint of social commentary. It all works.

The cinematography by Georg Krause is a master class using shadows and light in a way only possible with black and white. This is not a film that takes war lightly- the way say Michael Bay might today.  Paths 0f Glory manages to get emotion in every shot even amidst the chaos of Ant-Hill.

The acting is also really strong throughout led by Kirk Douglas. He’s fantastic as Dax who is a hardened soldier with an unsentimental love for his men. He’s basically a good person and a good military man at the same time- a tough balance to pull off.

All the other performances are unknowns to me but they did a great job. I particularly liked a scene where a minister comes to take the men’s last confession. The dialogue and acting was superbly executed.

I only really have one nitpick with Paths of Glory. It’s just that it is hard to get fully immersed in a story about the French army when everyone speaks English without French accents (at least most of them). I wish they had spoken in French with subtitles or at least had an accent.

Other than that, Paths of Glory is a classic for a reason. It gives the viewer a lot to think about without beating you over the head with its cynicism. It’s very well made and acted and over all a great film that I highly recommend.

Overall Grade- A

Treasure of the Sierra Madre Review

treasure of sierra3Tonight I didn’t have much going on so I figured why not check out the special screening of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on the big screen. I knew almost nothing about this film except that it starred Humphrey Bogart and is a classic but I figured that’s good enough for me! (With the moviepass I could basically see it for free so why not?).  I didn’t know what to expect and came out of it really impressed. I can see why it is a classic and in many ways it reminded me of the current Oscar favorite The Revenant, except it was clearly its superior in every way.  I find it fascinating to compare the two.

Released in 1948 Treasure is written and directed by the great John Huston starring Humphrey Bogart (Dobbs) , Walter Huston (Howard) and Tim Holt (Curtin).   They play 3 men who decide to prospect in Mexico for Gold in the 1920s.

treasure of sierra5They start out with the best of intentions- promising to be moral, upright and to not let the money go to their heads.  Dobbs in many ways starts off the most confident in his own morality while Curtin is more morally consistent.  Howard, on the other hand, is morally practical, even to the point of understanding why a man might kill him for the money.  He says something like ‘I don’t think I’d do it, but I’d sure be tempted’.

What’s really brilliant is the morality of the film is set up with Dobbs and Curtin getting taken advantage of by a shifty businessman in Tampico before they go prospecting.  This is somewhat of a prediction of the conflict to come.

treasure of sierra9The cinematography by 3 time academy award winner Ted D McCord is fantastic, using shadows to show the physical and moral challenges facing the men.  Watching it makes me yearn for black and white movies again! I’d take it any day over the bleak, albeit impressive cinematography in The Revenant.

Treasure 7 Bandito Treasure 2 DobbsThe three leads are so good with particularly Bogart’s Dobbs unwinding  in such a believable way.  It doesn’t happen over night. In fact, at one point he is rescued by Curtin and we think that may create some kind of obligation between the two men.  Instead, Dobbs becomes more and more suspicious of Curtin’s motives and more guarded over his money.

There is a great scene where Curtin tries to stop a poisonous lizard from going in Dobbs hiding place for his ‘share of the goods’.  Dobbs accuses Curtin of stealing from him and Curtin says ‘don’t believe me! Put your hand under the rock’. He’s challenging him to test his trustworthiness and see if the lizard will pounce on him.  The sequence works brilliantly and tells you so much about both characters.

Howard, as the practical moral compass,  never once gives a big speech but consistently warns them about the curse of the gold.   It was impressive how Dobbs becomes dirtier and more disheveled as the greed overtakes him.  In some ways his story arc kind of reminded me of Lord and Lady MacBeth as their lust for power, causes moral compromises that lead to mental instability.   It’s like I could see Dobbs trying to wipe the blood from his hands!

Treasure 6 GoldFaceThe dialogue is so well done by Huston.  It felt authentic to the characters and settings for the 3 leads the entire time.  I never felt like someone was ‘acting’ or trying to win an Oscar.  These were prospectors and I bought how they talked and the evolution of the characters.  Each man spoke in a distinct way that fit who they were and who they become.  It is also believable how Dobbs goes from begging for 2 pesos at the start of the film to a scene where 25,000 in gold is not enough.

treasure of sierra7Where the Revenant gets a lot of its character from the cold surroundings, Treasure of the Sierra Madre gets a similar effect from the heat.  You can always feel the heat of the Mexico sun on the prospectors.  It feels every bit as taxing as the scenes in Revenant, particularly towards the end.

treasure of sierra8One of the problems I had with The Revenant (which I don’t hate btw) was its bleakness and almost complete lack of humanity . It becomes kind of deadening by the end and something that should be shocking feels a little ‘meh’.  There’s just a limit to how many times you can be stunned by an actor freezing to death. It becomes kind of lifeless film-making by the end.

Treasure in contrast has many moments of humanity, even humor, which makes the eventual moral crisis and madness all the more compelling.  We care about these men because we’ve seen both their goodness and darkness.

The performances are also a lot more subtle and absorbing than in The Revenant.  This is partly due to the script but also the acting is just that good.

treasure of sierra4The only flaws I saw in the film is the complete caricatures of the various Mexican groups.  There’s the ‘Indian Mexicans’ who treat Howard as a medicine man after he saves a little boy and then the Bandits who are literally too stupid to recognize giant bags of gold. That seemed a little hard to believe.

The music also sometimes seemed a little too cute for the story but it wasn’t a big problem.

treasure of sierra2Small flaws aside, Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a must see for any movie fan.  John Huston directed and wrote a true masterpiece and the acting is some of the best I’ve seen.  It is an absorbing story with a compelling moral conflict that I think I will purchase on blu-ray.   I particularly suggest if you have seen The Revenant watch this and see if you notice the similarities like I did.  What do you like best?

Have you seen Treasure of the Sierra Madre?  What did you think?  I’m honestly kind of shocked with how much I liked this film.  It was so well done.

I give it an A+