Categories
5 Stars Movies

The Searchers (1956)

At the 92nd Academy Awards, when Bong Joon Ho was accepting his Oscar for Best Director (for Parasite), he paid tributes to each of his fellow nominees. The first (and most memorable) was toward Martin Scorsese, which prompted an unexpected standing ovation. It was clear that Bong Joon Ho was paying tribute to a mentor.

In the filming industry, perhaps no other career is more vocal of paying tribute to mentors than that of a director. Most (if not all) have stated they have been in total admiration of a certain director that came before them, often rewatching their films almost to a degree of pure obsession. Certain names come to mind: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Welles, Kurosawa, Spielberg, Scorsese, Eastwood, Coppola, Lucas, Tarantino, and Spike Lee, to name a few. However, all the big named directors seem to have one person they all agree on that had influenced their career. That name is John Ford. Famously, when Orson Welles was asked the directors he admired most, he said, “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”

The winner of four Best Director awards (not including two others for short films) and the first winner of the AFI lifetime achievement awards, directors around the world are in some way, shape, and form in debt to Ford. He is most associated with the western. When we envision the old west, it is most likely seen the way Ford saw it. A time long ago, a relic. In a way, it is a way we sometimes look at the bible.

Though I am still in the mist of seeing as many of his films as I can (he made over a hundred, so I got a way to go), The Searchers is more than likely his most well known, and certainty the most studied. David Lean watched it to prepare for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and even a popular song from Buddy Holly was inspired by one of the film’s lines.

 Set in Texas, 1868, the door opens to the great outdoors of the west, as a returning Civil War Veteran visits his sister’s family. The man is Ethan Edwards (John Wayne, in perhaps his best role). He is tired and worn (as his face clearly shows), and wants nothing more than to take it easy. We learn his one main character trait: he is clearly racist. Not towards African Americans, but American Indians (mainly the Comanche).

Soon enough, the Comanche arrive, and kidnap his niece Debbie. He sets out to find her, only to realize that those accompanying him (especially the Reverend, played by the great character actor Ward Bond) are slowing him down. The only one truly able to stick his own with Ethan is Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), Debbie’s adopted brother, who Ethan is not fond of at all (Martin is part Indian). Undoubtedly, Ethan is not someone to mess with. There is a moment in the movie where he sees trouble, and just whips his gun out of the cover. That is one small moment when you realize that making this man mad is a death sentence.

Set just after the Civil War, first time viewers may find it strange to know that the quest for Debby indeed takes time. Five years in fact. This is shown in small touches, such as when Martin’s love interest Laurie (Vera Miles) is told she has been written by Martin. Not just one letter, but two letters in one year. It takes so much time that when Debbie is finally seen, she is no longer played by Lana Wood, but her older (and more popular) sister, Natalie Wood. Looking back, you realize that character development sometimes takes a while. How often have we heard (or experienced) times where God works on our character for months or even years?

In my view, there is a certain unique delicacy in a John Ford film. Each time you see how the camera is placed, you realize it could not be placed anywhere else. The shots can be put on pause, and you could study each one like you would a famous painting. In short, Ford was what all directors strive to be from the beginning: an artist.

While some directors are known for reshooting scenes until they are satisfied (most notably Stanley Kubrick), Ford was not one of them. He was a fan of getting the scene done on the first take (nowadays, this is especially attributed to Clint Eastwood, who has also stated his admiration of John Ford). Perhaps it was because he wanted the first impulse of the actor saying the line to be filmed, or because he was (reportedly) not a fan of dialogue, it is hard to say. The stories I have heard of working with him are, well, interesting, to say the least. The only person who seemed able to stand up to Ford was Katharine Hepurn (whom he became romantic with for a time). Regardless, the overall outcome seemed to work.

Even the comedy of the film is effective. For one reason or another, a vast majority of them involve the character of Martin: Just in the wrong place at the wrong time. My favorite is a fight scene between him and another man trying to win the affections of Laurie. The scene is not as over the top as the fight scene in Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), but it still should make you feel unexpected uproars of laughter. The same can also be said of an very unwanted battle wound for the Ward Bond character in a very unfortunate place. How did he get that wound? If you have to ask, you were not paying attention.

Parents, I am all for kids getting a head start on old classics (especially westerns). Still, it should be noted that the racism of the film is apparent (although what the Comanche do is indeed reprehensible). Still, the film has maybe two or three minor swears, so middle school and up would be fine.

There are certain movies which are blessed to have a great opening shot, or a great closing one. Very few have both, especially when they compliment each other by being virtually the same, like bookends. Just some that come to mind include Saving Private Ryan (1998) with the American Flag, 1917 (2019) with a soldier resting under a tree, and Parasite (2019) looking out the window into the street. Then there is The Searchers. After characters have returned, there is only Ethan Edwards left in the doorway. While others have entered, he stands alone, isolated. As he walks away, the door closes on him. Closes on the story. Closes on the old west. Lost to history.

Thankfully, never forgotten.

If it were, well…that’ll be the day.

Overall:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Categories
5 Stars Movies

The Irishman (2019)

Last year, when Netflix released the masterful film Roma, it was clear they were wanting the Academy to take them seriously. While it did win a good amount of awards (including Best Director), it did lose the big one, Best Picture, to Green Book (a film that, while charming at first, may be destined to be forgotten as time goes on). Much of this had to do with voters not liking the fact that a movie on a streaming service would win the night’s biggest honor, hoping instead for the winner to be one that was released theatrically.

Somewhat ironically, during the same Oscar telecast, we got the first (and very brief) teaser trailer for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, the film I personally have waited for all year. Along with Scoresese, names like De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel filled the screen.

 With Roma, Netflix was clearly swinging for the fences. With The Irishman, they are swinging for the parking lot past the outfield bleachers, which, bluntly put, is the result we get.

I admit that it takes me more than a viewing or two to totally understand even the best of mafia themed films, but I will do my best. The film tells the story of a real life mob hitman named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro, in his first Scorsese film in almost a quarter century). Towards the end of his life, we hear him narrate as he recalls making his way through the mob with the Buffalino Family, after encountering Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), Frank’s new employer who reports to the big boss Angelo (Harvey Keitel). Eventually, they make there connections with helping the infamous union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the man now most famous for his mysterious disappearance.

There are others in the cast who fill their roles with uncanny professionalism, as we see actors like Jesse Plemons and Bobby Cannavale. Though the film is indeed a male dominated one, Anna Paquin does some of her best work in years as Peggy, one of Frank’s grown up daughters. Still, I was most delighted and surprised to see Ray Romano as Russell’s cousin who acts as Hoffa’s main attorney. I have always loved Romano ever since I saw Everybody Loves Raymond as a kid, but it never crossed my mind that he would be cast a lawyer in a Scorsese crime drama, much less be as good as he is.

The normal themes of Scorsese films are present. I am not just talking about the swearing and the violence. The master film maker has indeed been vocal about being influenced by his cathlocism, which is evident in his films (at least the ones I have seen). The thought of having one’s occupation take priority over one’s morality. The idea of characters feeling utter remorse after the act of sinning, and seeking forgiveness afterwards (similar to Raging Bull and Goodfellas).

Though The Irishman does stand as its own achievement, it probably has more in common with Goodfellas than any other Scorsese film. Both are about two separate men rising in the mob world, only to enter that aforementioned remorse at the end. Goodfellas did dive more into the “family” aspect of the mafia, as well as it being more biographical than The Irishman (which centers more on a part of life than the whole life).

Parents, there is no beating around the bush: the film is rated R for good reason. Even if there is no hint of sexual content (despite one or two times characters kiss), it is more than compensated for with the swearing and graphic violence.

It is not much of a surprise that the 2010s have not been the best of decades for either Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, or Joe Pesci (mainly since Pesci came out of retirement to do this film), at least when compared to past decades. That said, it is easy to say that it is the best any of them have been in years. Much of that credit should also be given to the film’s screenwriter, Oscar winner Steve Zallian (Schindler’s List, American Gangster, Moneyball).

We get a much more subtle De Niro than we are used to, but that does not make him any less affective. It is a little strange seeing Pesci being the authoritative figure to De Niro, but Pesci is just as brilliant even if he is not as bulldog crazy as he was in Goodfellas. The one with the most to do is Pacino. To me, Pacino has always been the only actor who you can always hear even if you put the mute button on. Here, he is not overacting because he chooses to, but because we sense that is how the character would be.

The three main lead actors are in their mid to late 70s, yet the special effects mixed with the superior acting makes us not think of anything but the story. The only flaw with the film (and it is as minor a flaw as can be) is that some moments do show the actor’s age (they can make the face look younger, but certain body movements do seem a lot slower for that young age).

One thing I have not yet mentioned is the runtime, which stands at nearly 3 ½ hours. Yes, that is a long time, but I assure you not one second of that is wasted. If the film seems slow, it is because it is patient in the storytelling (most notably in the last hour when we see Hoffa’s outcome. Nothing is on screen that does not need to be.

The Irishman clearly marked all of my expectations, and then some.

Overall:

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Categories
4 1/2 Stars Movies

Joker (2019)

One of the key aspects of the clown prince of crime was that we never really knew his backstory, which is why I was very hesitant (as I am sure others also were) to here we would be getting an origin story on a character that is possibly the greatest comic book villain ever (certainly the most popular).

In a sort of preparation for Director Todd Phillips’ (known for R rated comedies like 2009’s The Hangover) new Joker film,  I decided to revisit two films: one that was an inspiration to this current film and another that was one of the very first to galvanize the character in general. The former was Martin Scoresese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver, about a man (played by Robert De Niro) who is basically shunned by the public despite wanting to “clean up” the garbage of the city. The second (and lesser known) was the 1928 silent german film The Man who Laughs, a story (from Victor Hugo) that tells about a man who has been surgically disfigured to always be smiling (I recently posted a picture of Conrad Veidt, the actor in the titular role,  to social media, and I still got friends saying that it is eerie, even over nine decades later).

The film opens in Gotham, where we meet a struggling Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). He works on the side as a clown, as he keeps his dream somewhat alive of trying to be a stand up comic, like his hero, talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur is indeed a kind man, but troubled to the core. We learn right away he has a certain disease (somewhat like tourettes) where he can’t stop laughing. It is clear that this laughter is desperately trying to hide unimaginable pain. Despite some nice co-workers, the only guiding light in Arthur’s life is his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), and the potential to go talk more with his crush in the apartment down the hall, single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz).

The plot of the film is light and easy to follow, as Penny is trying to get Arthur to help her get a hold of her former boss, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who is currently running for Gotham Mayor. Yet the film is not about plot so much as it is about witnessing an tragic life event. In this case, it is the clear descent into madness that Arthur undertakes. The film will require more than one viewing, but the first viewing will undoubtedly be (as it was in my case) focused on one thing: the performance by Joaquin Phoenix.

The role of the Joker has been played by many actors over the years: Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill (voice only, but still brilliant), Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto. Of those, Ledger is the one who has probably had the most impact (he won a posthumous Oscar for the role he had in 2008’s The Dark Knight). It is a role that demands to have an actor who is has the ability to be give a chameleon effect in their approach, and make us realize that we are not watching an actor (think of actors like Gary Oldman, Christian Bale, and my personal favorite, Daniel Day-Lewis).

Phoenix also qualifies, and is simply astounding in this film. He even is given more work to do than Ledger had. Ledger’s Joker was already past the point of redemption, and was a sociopathic madman. When we first meet Phoenix, we can’t help but sympathize with him at times, as someone who has been shunned from society and left to the wolves.

Parents, this is not a movie for kids. While there is mild nudity (the joke book that Arthur keeps is filled with some cut outs of naked models from magazines), it more than makes up for it in the swearing and violence. That is not to mention the exuberant dark tone the film even after you left the theater. High School and above.

There is no clear cut answer to what type of mental issues that Fleck/Joker has (though it is safe to say there are many). The real question is how we react to someone with these issues. I am not trying to excuse the actions he exhibits, but trying to understand why he does them in the first place. At the core of it all, Arthur just wants some guidance, a soul to connect with (Sophie is one example). When we push those who are “different” from us away, it damages them in ways we can’t imagine.

Most of the scenes do work, but some that fail (not sure we needed another rendition of the outcome of Bruce’s parents). One that caught me off guard was when Fleck goes to try and talk to Thomas Wayne, and encounters his young son Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson). The jury is still out for me on this scene, but I would be lying if I said it did not give me goosebumps. I am sure there are a lot of people who will find this movie to speak out to them in some political way, but I was not looking at that. I was simply watching what happens when we forget to love our neighbor.

That, and one of the year’s best performances.

Send in the awards.

Overall:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.