Blind Spot 58: ‘Halloween’ (1978)

Part of the reason why I do this blind spot series is to push me out of my comfort zone. As a film critic I want to be able to review any film, with the exception of outright pornography, that an outlet assigns me. That said I’m still a human being with preferences that come into play when watching films. However, by reviewing classics outside of my preferred genres for blind spots it helps me get out of my comfort zone with hopefully well made classic films. This is an effective way of pushing myself rather than watching a new film, which may or may not be a good example of the genre.

Horror, particularly slasher movies, is a genre I especially struggle with. Ever since I was a little girl I never liked the feeling of being scared and it’s still not my favorite; although I have grown a lot over the last few years. This year trying to push myself even further I decided to watch the classic slasher film Halloween from 1978 for this month’s blind spot.

Halloween is directed by John Carpenter who wrote the film with producer Debra Hill and the entire thing was made on a shoestring budget of only $300k. Carpenter also wrote the very memorable score that does a lot of the heavy lifting to bring tension into simple scenes.

Even though Halloween is outside of my comfort zone, I can totally see why it’s a classic and a favorite of horror fans. It is very well directed by Carpenter with leering cinematography by Dean Cundey. Even when characters are doing mundane things like talking on the phone or watching television there is a sense they are being watched and they should be more careful than they are being. We as an audience know the deranged Michael Myers is out there but the characters don’t. This makes us anxious for them and the violence, when it does happen, very effective.

Surprisingly, Halloween is not a very bloody film. It’s violent and there is carnage but most of the movie is about anticipating the kills rather than luxuriating in them. I also appreciate the film doesn’t try to explain away Michael Myers or give him some complicated backstory. We see from the opening that he is the personification of evil and that’s all we need to know. Sometimes evil exists and the devil is a real force so I appreciated that approach.

There is also an ambiguity to Michael Myers as a character that makes him scary. I am sure they elaborate on his nature in the sequels but I like here how he might be human or an alien or something else. We don’t know. Dr Loomis (played very well by Donald Pleasence) tells us he is evil from the start of the picture and we see him as a child murderer and that’s all we need to know to be scared.

Jamie Lee Curtis is definitely the best of the 3 young actresses in Halloween. She’s skeptical when you need her to be and smart when faced with a threat. So many of these ‘final girls’ in horror movies are needlessly stupid (including the 2 other girls) that it’s refreshing to see Laurie as played by Curtis as a character who uses her head.

Halloween is not a movie I am likely to watch again. It’s just not my thing, but I can recognize good filmmaking and that’s what we have here. It’s very well done and I’m glad I finally checked it off my list.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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 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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Blind Spot 47: ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’

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.

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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!).

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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!

9 out of 10

smile worthy

 

 

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

 

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

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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

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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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