Blind Spot 67: The Wild Bunch

The whole point of this blind spot series is a chance to push me out of my comfort zone and finally watch classic films I’ve never seen before. Each year I try to select a variety of films just to keep things interesting for myself and you wonderful readers. One genre I have many blind spots in is Westerns and I’ve enjoyed a fair number of the classics like The Magnificent 7, Stagecoach, High Noon and last year’s blind spot pick The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

This year I picked the 1969 classic The Wild Bunch and I must own I did not enjoy this one much at all. It was incredibly violent, which would have been fine, but I didn’t like the story or any of the characters. It felt really long and I will definitely never watch it again.

The Wild Bunch is directed by Sam Peckinpah and stars William Holden, Ernest Borgine, Robert Ryan and Edmond O’Brien. It was highly praised upon its release and was nominated for best screenplay and best score at the Oscars.It tells the story of a gang of outlaws in the Old West along the Mexican border. They want to make a big last score so they can retire but their attempt leads to one stand-off after another.

I think the reason this movie didn’t work for me is it has no heroes. I was craving a John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart to come and fight for truth and justice. These men are all so decrepit and terrible I grew weary of their antics and surly ways. The violence is strong and unending with even women getting shot at point blank and innocent civilians getting caught in a outlaw shout-out.

It’s weird because I always think of these Westerns as being wholesome but they really are not. Even one’s I like such as Liberty Valance are very violent. The women are also treated terribly here and often shown topless for no reason. It was too much especially at a long 145 minute run time!

I know this movie is highly praised for its editing, music and cinematography and I can see why. They are very well done. I just didn’t care about the story or any of the characters. I think I will stick with the Westerns I have enjoyed like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or even The Cowboys. Those films have charismatic performances and are about people I understand or enjoy spending time with. The guys of The Wild Bunch are pigs and the warfare in the Old West gets old fast. Not for me!

 

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

What about you? Do you like The Wild Bunch? I know it is a classic for many so please share your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks! Yeehaw!

For a children’s western I had a lot of fun reviewing An American Tail: Fievel Goes West for Family Movie Night

Blind Spot 65: Bonnie and Clyde

Part of the purpose of the Blind Spot series is to challenge myself to watch classic films outside of my comfort zone. These are usually films I’ve heard great things about but have been hesitant to watch for one reason or another. 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde definitely fall into that description. A landmark of its time Bonnie and Clyde is a film that changed cinema with its grounded feel and shocking violence and sensuality.

Of course, Bonnie and Clyde tells the story of the outlaw couple in Depression Era America. Bonnie is played by Faye Dunaway and Clyde by Warren Beatty. Gene Hackman and Estelle Parson also play notable supporting roles (Parson won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress). Burnett Guffey also won an Oscar for the incredible cinematography.

The best thing about Bonnie and Clyde is its realism. Even though I know it plays fast and loose with the real story of the couple, when you are watching it feels real. It feels like what it might actually have been like stealing and scrounging for food and lodging- learning to dodge bullets along the way. Nothing feels clean or glossed up for the movies.

As you are watching you feel the exhaustion from the actors as if they were actually experiencing the events of the film. And by the time you get to its very graphic ending it is a relief for the chase is finally be over. I can see why critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert were so drawn to such a visceral piece of work.

All that said, the film could do a better job in helping us to get to know Bonnie and Clyde as characters better. They are always kept at a distance and that’s a weakness in the script. Also, this type of violence just isn’t my cup of tea so I don’t picture myself ever watching Bonnie and Clyde ever again.

Still, I’m glad I saw it once to see a turning point in film and to broaden the scope of the films I have seen.

Have you seen Bonnie and Clyde? What did you think of this classic?

6.5 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Blind Spot 63: Highlander

When I added Highlander to this year’s Blind Spot picks I didn’t know what to expect. I’m not the biggest fantasy fan and it being R rated made me skeptical it would be for me. However, for the sake of variety in the series I decided to give it a try.

And the verdict?…

I quite enjoyed it! Honestly the first 30 minutes or so were a little confusing with the narrative switching from 1985 to 1536. I could have used a little more exposition to lay out the world and rules of the magic. However, the action was so good and the film so well made it was still fun to watch. Then as the story progressed I picked up on what was happening.

Highlander tells the story of Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) who is an immortal starting in 1536 (think Braveheart with magic) and an immortal bounty hunter in 1986. At the start he takes out a man named Iman Fasil and when he cuts off his head there is an event called the Quickening which is like an electrical shock throughout the parking garage. This is a really fantastic sequence.

Then things move on as we switch from his life in 1536 getting trained by Egyptian from Spain Sean Connery to tracing down the evil Kurgan Clancy Brown in 1985. The women are a little bland for my taste here but other than that all the characters are a lot of fun and well cast.

One of the most impressive parts of this film is how well it is directed and made. The camera is nearly constantly moving and the the director Russell Mulcahy makes interesting choices in the angles he uses and the way the action is staged. This helps draw us in and makes the ever changing world feel consistent even when it isn’t.

I also appreciate how unpredictable and unique Highlander is. I guess the sequel and rest of the franchise tarnished its image but I legitimately didn’t know what was going to happen. It can feel a little random at times but I was still overall very entertained.

There has been some talk of a Highlander reboot happening and I find that prospect to be very interesting. I think it’s a property that has a ton of potential to improve and make even better than this original. If it was up to me I would ask Taika Waititi to direct it. His energy seems tailor-made for this film!

As I said the female characters are bland and sometimes the narrative can be confusing but I wish more fantasy films took such risks and didn’t take themselves so seriously. Highlander ends up being a good time whether in 1986, 1536 or 2021.

What do you think of Highlander? Is it a nostalgic favorite of yours? Let me know in the comments section

7 out of 10

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 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

smile worthy

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

smile worthy

Blind Spot 26: The Palm Beach Story

February is the month of romance, so I thought it would be fun to pick a classic romantic comedy for my blind spot selection. There aren’t many romcoms I haven’t seen but one I hadn’t gotten around to is The Palm Beach Story by director Preston Sturges- the king of the 1940s romantic comedy! Fortunately, it proved to be not only romantic but also somewhat shocking (for the day) in its themes and story.

The first thing to keep in mind with The Palm Beach Story is to watch the opening credits! There is a montage throughout them that comes into play later in the movie. It’s a neat touch that starts things off feeling fresh and inventive.

Claudette Colbert is amazing as Gerry, a woman struggling with a marriage that can’t seem to get above water financially. Her husband Tom (Joel McCrea) has grand ideas but can never make a steady paycheck. Through various contrivances Gerry ends up on a train down to Palm Beach where she hopes to meet a rich man who can be her second husband.

To her great fortune she meets a man named John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee) who becomes smitten and insists on showering her with all kinds of clothing and gifts.  Of course when Tom hears about this he is furious and goes to Palm Beach to try and stop it.

Things get further complicated when Hackensacker’s sister Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor) becomes interested in Tom (who Gerry says is her brother Captain McGlue!). With so many half truths it gets pretty nutty and even a little surprising.  It’s also very easy to see how this film influenced movies like White Christmas and Some Like It Hot in many ways.

As with all of Preston Sturges’ movies the true star is the terrific script. He was so great at crafting frank and honest dialogue spoken from compelling characters. The banter between McCrea and Colbert is snappy and very fast paced but thankfully the actors are up for the task. Colbert is as good here as she is in It Happened One Night, and she has good chemistry with McCrea. They even manage to keep her likable despite her taking advantage of Hackensacker and not being very honest. Not an easy task!

I was impressed with how modern the script was in both tone and candor. Sex, marriage, divorce, infidelity, loneliness and depression are all discussed in ways that must have made the censors blush back then. Sturges even asks the question ‘is marriage necessary or a good thing?’. Of course, the answer is yes but it’s still a bold question for 1942. Later on in Unfaithfully Yours he will explore these themes even more, but I appreciated there was nothing cloying about the relationships in this script.

The only real downside is not all the physical comedy worked for me. All the actors are up for it but I preferred the more dialogue-based humor. Also, I don’t know that I completely buy the ending, but I don’t know that we are supposed to. I think it is meant to be a little bit of a poke at traditional romances with perfect happily ever afters. He even adds an ‘or not’ at the end to reinforce his point.

I definitely recommend checking The Palm Beach Story out if you like classic romances with great dialogue. It’s a wonderful choice for Valentine’s Day and a whole lot of fun! Also, studios should take a look at this film and consider remaking it or paying homage to it. The story and script is definitely still relevant and it would be interesting to see the themes of marriage explored even more so with modern characters.

Overall Grade- A

Blind Spot 9: 400 Blows

400-blows2This month for my blind spot series I finally watched the seminal french new wave film The 400 Blows. Directed by the great Francouis Truffaut I had long heard about this movie but had never seen it. Now that I have I can see why it is such a classic.

The 400 Blows is about a little boy named Antoine who is growing up in the 1950s Paris. His parents don’t care for him and at best placate and put up with him. His teacher at school is constantly scolding him and he is out of place in the world.

In many ways Antoine reminds me of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, which was published in 1951. The 400 Blows came out in 1959. However, I prefer Antoine to Holden because his observations are mostly made through quiet staring at those around him where Holden’s dialogue becomes obnoxious.

400-blows3Some people will hate the 400 Blows because not a ton happens in the story. It’s really about this character and how the world seems to not be made for him. No matter what he does the world seems to scold him.

The cinematography by Henri Decaë is gorgeous and 400 Blows is great to watch just on a technical level. Each shot gives you a piercing look at Antoine’s loneliness. Most of the shots are made beneath Antoine and look up to him again showcasing his isolation both mentally and physically. There are many other unique shots and perspectives Truffaut uses to create tone and tell the story.

We also see Antoine escaping (literally one time from a fire) to the movies, which for movie lovers has significance. It’s really the only positive thing in his life for most of the film.

400-blows5There is definitely a feeling that Antoine never has been allowed to be a child. His parents are harsh including his Mother expecting him to hide her secrets from everyone. His teacher openly hates him and even with his friend they are basically adults not children.

Evidently Truffaut was commenting on the state of the juvenile treatment centers of the era, which is interesting because they are a footnote to the movie. But in a way it makes sense because the whole movie leads up to his placement there and how Antoine never really was given a fair shake. The movie does not manipulate the viewer with sentimentality or emotional sequences. It merely shows Antoine’s life and how the world has failed him.

400-blows-5In some ways I feel a little outside my skill-set to review a film like 400 Blows. The film-making techniques used are clearly masterful in ways only a cinematographer or technician could articulate, but I certainly can tell it is a beautiful and striking film. I recommend reading Roger Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’ review where he talks about Truffaut’s back story, the freeze frames and other camera work used in the film. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-400-blows-1959

If you like Catcher in the Rye and those types of stories or love to watch beautiful camera-work I think you’ve got to see The 400 Blows. It’s a classic for a reason!

Overall Grade- A+

Blind Spot 5: The Jerk

jerk3There are few films that leave me speechless- The Jerk is one of them.  I honestly don’t know what to say. I can’t decide whether it is brilliant or horrible. It certainly succeeds in being a comedy like no other.

jerkI guess you’d call The Jerk an absurdist comedy but it’s kind of making fun of the ‘down on his luck’ biographical narrative we often see in dramatic films.  For example, some of the best laughs come at the beginning when Steve Martin’s Navin finds out he is adopted in his black sharecropping family. These scenes are very non-PC and the film goes for it and it made me laugh. Lines like this I thought were funny:

Taj: “You wanna, wanna come in and sing some blues?” Navin: “No thanks Taj. There’s something about those songs. They depress me.”

Navin ends up hearing ‘crazy rhythm’ on the radio and goes to St Louis to find where the song was broadcast from. He gets a job working for Jackie Mason’s Harry Hartounian and is thrilled when his name is in the phone book.

the-jerk-snipe3Unfortunately a crazy sniper picks his name randomly out of that book to shoot but Navin evades. All of this is bizarre and mostly made me laugh.

He then ends up meeting a tough carnie woman named Patty who teaches him about his “special purpose” and then meets Bernadette Peters’ Marie who is a sweet yet shallow woman. A lot of this humor involving the women was more awkward than funny but maybe that is just my more traditional values when it comes to humor.

jerk5A lot of this movie in fact was more awkward than funny. It kind of reminded me of the first Meet the Parents where I was laughing but also cringing the entire time. I can’t decide whether I like that kind of comedy or hate it.

jerk4In a way The Jerk had the feel of a silent movie but raunchier. He starts out wide eyed and gullible and ends up a world- weary hobo. Some of the jokes really work but a lot fell flat for me. I don’t know. It’s a hard one to judge. It’s one I can see myself liking the more I see it.

Anyway, I can’t really recommend The Jerk because it is so uneven but if it sounds like something you’d like than you’ll probably like it. If it doesn’t than you might hate it. It’s just a strange little movie.

Overall Grade- C