1979 – Kramer vs. Kramer

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Kramer vs. Kramer – 1979

Kramer vs. Kramer is a drama about divorce.  It looks at the subject from different points of view.  We see it through the eyes of Ted Kramer, played by Dustin Hoffman, who we remember from his performance in Midnight Cowboy.  We examine it through the mind of Joanna Kramer, played by Meryl Streep, who we just saw in The Deer Hunter.  And we experience it through their troubled child Billy Kramer, played by child actor Justin Henry.  Most of the film focused on the effects of the divorce upon the father and the child after the mother leaves.  But in the latter half of the movie, the mother returns and tries to take her son back.  The movie then concentrates on the following custody battle.

The drama was good.  I liked it because it was not preachy, it did not take sides, it didn’t go out of its way to use the kid as a cute factor.  The movie just wanted to tell a good story, which it did very well.  I wouldn’t call it powerful but it had several powerful moments.  Even the actors didn’t expect the social and cultural impact of the film.  The subject matter was very topical and relevant for the time it was released.

This was the end of the 1970s.  Women were still struggling to find their independence from a male dominated world.  The whole movie opens with Joanna doing something that was considered unthinkable.  She was leaving her child to get away from her husband.  Her behavior is that of a woman who is not emotionally or possibly even mentally stable.  She is so frantic to get away from him that when he tries to stop her from walking out by taking her suitcase, she chooses to leave it behind rather than staying to retrieve it.  She is in tears, blaming herself for her behavior.

Once she is gone, Ted is forced to deal not only with the stress of a dissolving marriage and his high pressure job, which was indirectly responsible for the divorce, but now he must take on the role of sole care-taker of his six-year-old child.  He does his best and rises to the occasion.  True, he makes mistakes, his career suffers, and his child is hurt and damages by the loss of his mother, but Ted and Billy overcome these obstacles.  The go through the pain and hardship of the troubled situation together.  Through it, Ted becomes a better man and develops a very close relationship with his son.

The writing was very realistic.  The changes in the characters were gradual – just like in the real world.  And not everything was perfect.  Ted made mistakes, and Billy was, at times, a difficult and troubled child who acted out in pain and anger.  But together, they learned how to survive and grow.  It was especially nice to see the father and son grow so close, which made what happened next all the more upsetting.

Joanna showed up again, saying she wanted her son back.  My reaction was very negative.  After all, she was the one who left.  She was the one who hurt but Ted and Billy.  She made her bed, and I thought that she deserved to lie in it.  But I’ll be darned if Meryl Streep isn’t a good enough actress to make me see Joanna’s side of the argument.  She made me actually doubt my initial opinion of her character and sympathize with her.  Her heart-felt testimony in court was delivered perfectly.  Once again, Streep was wonderful to watch.

Interesting note:  Kate Jackson was originally the front runner to play the role of Joanna, but she could not get the time away from her television schedule on Charlie’s Angels.  Streep was originally cast as another supporting role, but was given the part of Joanna when Jackson turned it down.

The real turning point in the plot was the court battle for custody of Billy.  Joanna made a very convincing case as to why she left her husband and child in the first case.  Streep has the ability to cry on cue, and we all know how effective a woman’s tears can be.  She was incredible.

But I still sided with Ted.  He was the one who had been wronged, at least more than his wife.  He was the one who had to pick up the pieces of the mess she’d made.  And when it came to his son, he really stepped up to the plate and went out of his way to take care of his responsibilities.  While he may have largely been the reason for Joanna’s departure, she seemed to me to be emotionally unstable and flighty.

Hoffman, as an actor, was doing what he usually does.  He was playing himself.  To be honest, I’ve just always seen him as an actor with a fairly limited emotional range.  He has calm, distressed, and angry, and that’s about it.  But I have to admit, he almost broke that mold several times in this movie.  Several times, he allowed his voice to crack ever so slightly and I could tell that he was getting choked up with emotion.  But he never actually showed any tears.

So what am I saying?  I’m saying that Hoffman did a good job, though no better or worse than anyone else would have done.  I thought he gave a better performance in Midnight Cowboy.  But the Academy didn’t agree with my assessment.  Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance.

Justin Henry did a very good job for a child actor.  Most child actors, I imagine, get into the business because their parents think that their children are cuter than any others out there.  Those kids learn very early on that they are treated special because they are cute.  So they go out of their way to be cute in their behavior, their appearance, their attitude.  And that is what makes them horrible actors.  Henry did not try to be cute.  His performance was real and believable, which is rare for anyone that young.

Interesting note:  Justin had several scenes in which he had to cry.  In order to help him along, Hoffman asked him, “Do you like being here on the set, making new friends?”  Apparently he liked it very much.  Hoffman then said, “You know when we are done filming, you probably won’t ever see them again.”  That got the tears going.  And what was worse was that Hoffman thought he was very clever for doing it, proudly telling this story in an interview.  What a jerk!  Badly played Hoffman!!

The supporting cast all did a fine job as well.  Special notice has to be given to two women.  First was Jane Alexander who played the part of Margaret Phepls, Joanna and Ted’s close friend.  She was a pleasure to watch.  She was an expert at delivering her lines and making them seem natural, not forced.  She seemed like someone we would all love to know.  She was also very pretty, which didn’t hurt.  I liked watching her.  She was particularly good in the courtroom scene, where she tries to speak in Ted’s favor without lying to the judge.

Second, in a very small but… ahem… memorable role, was JoBeth Williams, playing the part of Phyllis, Ted’s one night stand.  The morning after, she gets out of bed completely naked, and I mean COMPLETELY naked.  She goes out in to hall to get to the bathroom and meets Billy in the hallway.  She tries to cover herself as much as possible while Billy tries to have a conversation with her, asking her if she likes fried chicken.  Ted can hear the conversation from the bedroom and is mortified.

JoBeth Williams just happens to be the lead actress in one of my favorite movies, 1982’s Poltergeist.  So I have a bit of a soft spot in my heart for her.  But watch out for the gigantic 70s/80s style glasses they make her wear that covered half her face.  That kind of eye-wear never looked good on anyone.

Interesting note:  I caught a tiny editing error in the first scene JoBeth is in.  As she looks at some papers, she is smoking a cigarette.  She is shot from the side and the cigarette is clearly visible.  But when they cut to a front shot, the cigarette has mysteriously vanished.

Kramer vs. Kramer was really a good film.  It was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five of them.  In addition to Best Picture, it won Best Director (Robert Benton), Best Actor (Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Streep), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Benton).  Jane Alexander was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, losing it to Streep.

It was not a film on a large scale.  It wasn’t trying to be an Academy Award winner.  It never tried to be anything more than what it was:  A dramatic story that spoke to the times in which it was made.  But maybe that is what made people stop and take notice.  The film made a point of looking at the issue of divorce from both the man and the woman’s point of view, and I think that honesty is what made it good story telling, a worthy addition to the list of Best Picture winners.

1978 – The Deer Hunter


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The Deer Hunter – 1978

This was a very intense movie.  There were two scenes in particular that were very disturbing to watch.  The game is called Russian Roulette, and even though I knew what I was watching, knew what to expect, I still cringed during those two scenes.  That is the mark of effective film making.  It was the movie’s goal to make the viewer feel uncomfortable, to make you squirm in your seat.    But we’ll get back to that in a bit.

This was a drama on several levels.  It starred Robert De Niro, who we remember from The Godfather Part II, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, and John Savage.  As you might expect, De Niro was great, Streep was captivating, and Walken was incredible.  But John Savage, who was not as big a name as those three, gave a particularly inspired performance.

The film is just over three hours long but it was so involving, it didn’t seem that long.  It takes place in Clairton Pennsylvania where Stevie, played by Savage is getting married to his girlfriend who is already pregnant, though we learn that the baby is not his.  His friends Michael (De Niro) and Nick (Walken) are, of course, part of the wedding party.  Streep plays Nick’s girlfriend, Linda.  She lives with a physically abusive father, and attends the wedding with a bruised cheek.

The story really revolves around these three friends. With Linda playing a larger part later in the film.  Mike is the partly crazy and unspoken leader of the gang.  He has feelings for Linda which he keeps to himself.  Steve is described as the young lover of the trio.  Nick is the quiet and introspective one.  Mike and his two friends, we learn, are going to fight in the Vietnam War.  Nick makes Mike promise not to leave him while they are in Vietnam.  After the wedding, and before they are shipped out, Mike takes Nick and some other co-workers on a hunting trip.  Thus we get the title of the film: The Deer Hunter.  This is actually important because a running theme throughout the plot is the idea of “one shot.”  Mike liked to kill a deer with one shot when hunting.

Interesting note:  A stag which Mike hunts in the later half of the film was the same stag which was used in the Connecticut Life Insurance Company commercials.  And just to be sure, the deer which he kills in the first half of the movie was not actually killed, though it appeared to have actually been shot.  In fact, it had been – by a tranquilizer gun.

The horrors of the Vietnam War that the three friends are forced to endure and witness are enough to leave terrible emotional scars.  But when the three of them are captured by the North Vietnamese, they are subjected to a very specific form of mental and physical torture.  For entertainment, the sadistic guards force their prisoners to play Russian roulette.

For anyone who does not know this sick and twisted game, it is where a single bullet is inserted into a chamber of a six-shooter gun.  The players take turns pulling the trigger with the gun pointed at their heads until one of them dies.  If they do not participate, they are threatened with execution.  It isn’t long before their sanity is nearly obliterated.

I can’t even imagine what the characters were going through, what kind of mental breakdown I would have at even the prospect of such a grizzly game.  De Niro, Walken, and Savage were incredible.  Savage nearly kills himself in his game with Mike.  At the last second he turns the gun and the bullet grazes his skull.  Then Mike plays Nick, but his plan to get them out is so obvious.  He asks for three bullets to be put into the gun.  He points the gun at his head and pulls the trigger.  Nothing.  Nick is in tears and Mike has to slap him to get him to do the same.  He finally pulls the trigger, and nothing happens.  Then, of course, when the gun is again in his hand, Mike turns the gun on his captors.

Just watching such a horrible event on the screen is like mental torture.  But that is why it was so effective.  The director did a fantastic job of making the viewer feel like he was actually there in the prison camp.  I was practically sweating and my heart was beating fast when the three friends made good their escape.  Like I said, it was very disturbing.  But they are all separated.  Steve is injured and sent home, Mike finishes his tour and is also sent home.  But Nick, thinking that his friends are dead, is sent to a hospital.

This is where Walken really stood out.  The evaluation officer at the hospital tries to interview him, and Nick can barely bring himself to even speak.  Walken really did a great job of making you feel for him.  His sanity is just about gone.  His memories of home and family are gone.  He looks at a picture of Linda and doesn’t even seem to even recognize her.  It was heart-wrenching to watch.  Walken won the Academy award for Best Supporting Actor.

Later, we see Nick wandering the streets of Saigon.  He finds a gambling den in which the game is… you guessed it: Russian roulette.  But strangely enough, Mike is actually there.  Unfortunately, Nick has a mental breakdown and runs away before Mike can get to him.  After that, Nick goes AWOL and disappears.

Without going through the rest of the plot, I will say that the scene I described in the prison camp was only the first of two Russian roulette scenes.  The second took place later in the film between Mike and Nick.  Nick did not survive.  But the second scene was made even more poignant because, each for their own reasons, they were both willing participants of the game.  When it ended, I was nearly in tears.

Meryl Streep is currently one of my favorite actresses in Hollywood.  The Deer Hunter was only her second movie of note, her first being Fred Zinnemann’s Julia.  Her part was actually a fairly small one.  But the scenes in which she did participate were very memorable.  In the last part of the movie, she becomes Mike’s love interest while grieving over Nick, whom she believes to be dead.  She is such a versatile and professional actress, and I think I am safe in saying that she is one of the greatest actresses in the history of cinema.  Her emotions are so raw and realistic that she demands attention.  She was born to be in front of the camera.

Interesting note:  In the screenplay, which was for the most part written by Derek Washburn and the film’s director, Michael Cimino, the role of Linda was negligible.  Cimino explained the set-up to Streep and suggested that she write her own lines.

On the surface this was a war film, and it certainly did a good job of portraying that aspect.  Of course the Academy of Motion Pictures has a history of choosing war films as their Best Picture winners.  Each of them has their place.  This just happened to be the first major film to deal with the Vietnam War.  But beneath the surface, the film really had a lot to do with the deep friendship between the three men, and how their shared experience of physical and mental torture, inflicted upon them irrevocable change.  They were each severely damaged in their own ways.  Even Mike, who’s emotional injuries were more subtle than his friends, did not walk away unscarred.

Interesting note:  While there is no evidence that Russian roulette was ever employed or played by the Viet Cong in their prison camps or in Saigon, as depicted in the film, it has come to be accepted in The Deer Hunter as a symbol of the physical and psychological horrors of war in general.

De Niro and Streep both did a fantastic job, and I was surprised to learn that though they were both nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress respectively for their roles, neither of them won.  Again, I didn’t see their competition, but I thought they both deserved to win.  Aside from Best Picture, The Deer Hunter took home Oscars for Best Director (Michael Cimino), Best Supporting Actor (Walken), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound.

It was not always an easy movie to watch, but I’m glad I did.  Ultimately, I enjoyed it, but it really was an intense and disturbing film.

1977 – Annie Hall

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Annie Hall – 1977

Annie Hall was woody Allen’s first attempt at a more adult comedy.  One might say that it was a romantic comedy, except that it wasn’t overly romantic, nor did I find it terribly funny.  One might say that it was a drama, except that it wasn’t terribly dramatic.  It wasn’t a bad movie, but then again, it wasn’t anything special either.  It stars, of course, Woody Allen, and Diane Keaton.  The story itself wasn’t bad, the production values weren’t bad, the dialogue was alright.  The filming locations and costumes were appropriate.  Even the casting was perfect, with one exception.

This would have been a good enough movie if it didn’t star Woody Allen.

I’m sorry, but I should say that I’ve never been a huge Woody Allen fan.  Despite this fact, I tried to go into this film with an open mind.  I understand that there is Woody Allen, the writer/director, and there is Woody Allen, the actor/comedian.   The former is easy to stomach, even enjoyable at times.  The latter is annoying and should be avoided at all costs.  As an actor and a personality, he simply radiates a harsh kind of nervous and neurotic energy.  I think that this is supposed to be part of his appeal.  Many people find this to be cute or quirky, but I just find it unbelievably irritating.  He just sets my teeth on edge.

OK, the plot follows the ins and outs of the romantic relationship between Alvie Singer, played by Allen, and Annie Hall, played by Keaton.  The film jumps back and forth between the present time and flashbacks, sometimes several different time periods at the same time.  Allen made some fun and interesting choices both as a writer and as a director.  There were creative little tricks he used to let the viewer know what was going on inside the characters’ heads.

Interesting note:  Woody Allen said, in an interview, that he was never pleased with the end result of Annie Hall.  It was apparently supposed to be more about what goes on in a man’s mind, but nobody understood it.  Instead, it was about Alvie’s relationship with Annie, which is what people really wanted to see.

For example, there was a conversation that took place between Alvie and Annie on the day they met.  The conversation was one of those inane bits of discourse that neither participant had any real interest in.  What is really on their minds is the fact that they are each attracted to the other and they are actually making speculations and comments about how they are perceiving the other person, and how they think they are being perceived.  While the audience can hear the actual conversation, subtitles appear at the bottom of the screen that show what they are thinking.  It was cute and very cleverly done.

Another fun little trick Allen used was seamlessly combining past events and present events, showing how the characters remembered the past.  Alvie would begin to describe his childhood and the scene would cut to him as a little boy.  But then the adult Alvie would be inserted into the scene and begin commenting on the memory.  And what made these little internal monologues more interesting is that the characters within the memory would react and interact with the adult.  Again, it was very cleverly done.

Another example of a fun little trick Allen used was breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the camera.  I know I poo-pooed this gimmick in my review for Tom Jones, but Woody Allen got it right.  First of all, he did it to tell a character’s inner thoughts and feelings, not to narrate the story or spew exposition.  A subtle difference, perhaps, but to me, a significant one.  Second, Allen took it a step further in an interesting way.  He found a way to break a fifth wall.  He would be speaking to the camera while the world continued playing out all around him.  But then he would speak with and interact with the people in the background.  He would ask them questions pertaining to his thoughts and they would answer him, offering him advice or commentary on his situation.  Once again, this was very cleverly done.

Like I said, one of the biggest problems I had with the movie was Woody Allen as the male romantic lead.  The character, if you want to call it that because Allen was simply playing himself and not really acting much, was so neurotic, nervous, and downright annoying, that I can’t understand why any woman would want to be romantically involved with him.  I mean, Alvie was an ass.  He was controlling and manipulative, had a short temper, was paranoid, insanely self-centered, and yet had horrible self-image issues.

But I guess he was funny, or was at least supposed to have been funny, and women will often fall for the guy who can make them laugh.  In fact, the character of Alvie was a professional comedian.  He lived in New York and enjoyed moderate success in his trade, even going so far as to appear on the Johnny Carson Show.  But despite his successful career, he had repeating failures with women.  He had two failed marriages behind him and a subsequent fear of commitment.  Annie was an aspiring singer who had never taken any voice lessons.  I actually liked Keaton and it was nice to watch her.  She portrayed a much more realistic character.  Annie was a little goofy, and had a desire to try new things and expand her mind.  She was adventurous and yet compliant.  I thought she was well written.

Other notable characters in the film were Tony Roberts as Alvie’s best friend Rob, Carol Kane as Alvie’s first wife, Allison Portchnik, Paul Simon as Tony Lacey, a record producer interested in representing Annie, and Shelly Duvall as Pam, a girl Alvie goes on a date with.  I especially liked Carol Kane.  She has one of the best lines in the movie.  When Alvie is trying to be funny, he says to her, “You, you, you’re like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right, and the really, y’know, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper, stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself.”  Her response is perfect.  “No, that was wonderful.  I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.”

Inexplicably, she marries him, anyway.

In my research, I read a review that said one thing about the film that made a certain amount of sense.  It said that the film is not about a romance in the traditional sense, but rather a film that deconstructs the concept of romance and looks at it from a number of different viewpoints.  That is a good description except that I think it looked at love from only one viewpoint: Woody Allen’s.

Now, I must also mention, if only slightly, something else about the film that I found significant.  It was a film set in the 1970s and so it was very current.  Some of the fashions that Diane Keaton wore in the film apparently had a bit of an impact in the fashion world that lasted for several years.  She dressed in clothes that sometimes resembled men’s clothing: suit pants, vest, and a man’s tie.  But she added a hat that gave it a distinctly feminine look.  And I liked how she only buttoned the top button of the vest, allowing the tie to be seen.  It was an interesting choice of style.  For 1977, it was a very current and smart-looking fashion.

Interesting note:  Diane Keaton, herself, some sources suggest, was mostly responsible for the daring fashions that ended up on the screen.  When the film’s costume designer, Ruth Morley, saw what Keaton was wearing, Allen recalls her saying, “Tell her not to wear that!  She can’t wear that!  It’s so crazy!” to which Allen replied “Leave her.  She’s a genius.  Let’s just leave her alone.  Let her wear what she wants.”

My overall opinion of Annie Hall is fairly mixed, possibly even muddled.  I didn’t hate the movie, but I didn’t exactly like it either.  People say that you either love Woody Allen films or you hate them.  Well, with this one, I fell right in the middle.  If Allen had let someone else play the role of Alvie, I think I would have liked it more.  But then it wouldn’t have been that same “Classic Woody Allen” film that has garnered its own brand of popularity.

I liked the interesting choices Allen made as a director.  It was clearly a smart, intellectual film that made you use your brain to keep up with it and to understand all the quirky, almost surrealistic tricks used to show the audience what was going on inside the characters’ heads.  He did things that had never been done before and made them work well, something I have to give him a ton of respect for whether I liked him as an actor or not.


1976 – Rocky


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Rocky – 1976

Sylvester Stallone stars in this Oscar winning movie about a washed out boxer who is inspired by the love of a woman to be better than he thinks he can be.  Rocky Balboa has become an iconic figure in pop culture.  The movie turned into a big enough franchise to spawn five sequels.  The latest, Rocky Balboa, sometimes called Rocky VI, was released in 2006, 30 years after the movie that started it all.

Interesting note:  I’m sure that it is common knowledge, but I didn’t know until I did my research on the film: Stallone not only starred in the film, but he wrote it as well.  He was even nominated for Best Original Screenplay.  Kudos to you, Sylvester!

Rocky was called a sleeper hit.   It cost just over $1 million to make, but it earned $225 million at the box office.  And just like Rocky, himself, the movie was an underdog.  Critics did not expect it to do well.  Even today, some reviewers call the movie pure schmaltz.  That may have some truth to it, but it makes it no less fun to watch.  Everybody loves an underdog.  We love seeing him come out on top and succeeding.  You see, everybody feels like the underdog every now and then.  And when we see someone, even if it is a fictional character, it makes us feel like we can succeed as well.

And that is exactly what happened in Rocky.  Stallone plays the title character, Rocky Balboa.  He has the potential to be a serious professional boxer, but he isn’t too smart, and he has never had proper management or training.  So, to make money, he works as a debt collector for a small-time loan shark.  But when told to actually hurt someone who cannot pay, he can’t do it.  This shows that he is really a good guy who has no desire to hurt anyone.

And then there is the girl he is interested in.  Adrian is a painfully shy girl who works at the local pet shop.  She is played by Talia Shire, who was also in two recent Best Picture winners, The Godfather, and The Godfather Part II.  I thought Shire’s performance was wonderful.  She was so shy and had so little sense of self-worth, she could barely even bring herself to speak to Rocky when he shows interest in her.  When he speaks to her, asks her a question, she can barely even look at him.  But he eventually gets her to open up to him and accept his advances.  Actually, he practically has to force her.  Apparently when a girl says “no” it makes no difference to Rocky.  He pushes ahead anyway.  Fortunately, with Adrian, it was the right move.  And once she lets him in, she blooms into a more confident and socially competent woman.

Interesting note:  Another actress who auditioned for the part of Adrian was Susan Sarandon.  She did not get the part because she was apparently too pretty.

Another good performance is Burt Young, playing Adrian’s alcoholic and abusive brother, Paulie.  He is Rocky’s friend, and allows him to use the frozen sides of beef as punching bags.  The character of Paulie was, on the surface, fairly stereotypical and one dimensional.  However, there were times when Young brought a depth to the role that surprised me.  Sure, he was a drunk and he mistreated his sister horribly with mental and emotional abuse, even threatening her with physical violence, but we forgave him because Rocky did.

Through a freak turn of pure chance, Rocky is given a chance at the biggest prize in heavyweight boxing: The World Champion Title.  The current Champ is a man named Apollo Creed, a character loosely based on real-life boxer Muhammad Ali, played perfectly by Carl Weathers.  After his original opponent drops out of a highly publicized fight, Creed decides, as a publicity stunt, to fight an unknown boxer, giving him a shot at the coveted title.  He chooses Rocky’s name out of a book because he liked his nickname, the Italian Stallion.  This is what gives Balboa his big chance.

Interesting note:  Apparently Apollo Creed was a very well protected man.  In an unaccredited role, Michael Dorn played his bodyguard.  Dorn, of course is best known for his role of Warf, a Klingon warrior in the Star Trek franchise.

Burgess Meredith plays the part of Mickey Goldmill, Rocky’s trainer, who shows up and offers to train him only after the chance-of-a-lifetime opportunity comes his way.  Before that, he had written Balboa off as a bum, just as everyone else had.  Meredith did a good enough job, though his character became a little one-note.  He had a little back-story that he told Rocky at one point, but even then, I felt Meredith’s emotional range was a little lacking.  Still, he was an integral part of the plot, and now I can’t really imagine anyone else playing the part.

The character of Balboa is well written with human flaws and fears.  He is emotionally damaged, believing that he is a worthless bum.  But he agrees to take part in the fight, knowing that Creed is way out of his league as a boxer.  He knows that he has no hope of winning.   In fact, there is a scene that takes place the night before the big fight in which he confesses to Adrian that he knows he cannot win, despite all the hard work and training that he has gone through to prepare.  All he wants to do is to go the distance with Creed, meaning that he wants to last the full 15 rounds without being knocked out, something nobody has ever done before.

I must say that I found Stallone’s acting to be… adequate, though not overly laudable.  But that little scene was a rare moment of depth for him.  Still, the whole training montage was very uplifting and inspiring to watch.  The famous song Gonna Fly Now, written by Bill Conti is very memorable, despite the walk-a-chica guitar part that really nailed it to the 1970s.  It plays all the way through the montage.  Rocky climbing the steps and lifting his hands over his head in victory has become an iconic image in pop culture.

And finally, there was the big fight.  Both Stallone and Weathers did a good job.  I found it interesting that to Creed, the fight was more of a show, and to Balboa, the fight was a real fight.  He ends up nearly knocking Creed out before the first round is over.  After that, Creed starts taking the fight seriously and the two men commence to beating the hell out of each other.  And in the end Rocky meets his goal, he goes a full fifteen rounds and is still standing.  The result is a split decision which Rocky LOSES!  He loses the fight!  But he won.  He beat his fears.  He beat his low self-esteem.  He beat every person who had ever called him a bum.

Interesting note:  While filming the final fight scene, both Stallone and Weather suffered injuries, but it was the nature of those injuries which I found noteworthy.  Stallone suffered bruised ribs while Weathers suffered a damaged nose.  These were the exact opposite of the characters Balboa and Creed.

Another interesting note:  In the original script, Balboa ended up throwing the fight before the end of the 15 round, realizing that he no longer wanted to be in the world of professional boxing.  This might have put a damper on the possibility of a sequel.

And when the final bell sounded to end the fight, all he could think about was the woman who had stood by him throughout the whole thing.  “ADIRAN!!!”

The underdog may not have won the fight, but by then we understood that it wasn’t his goal.  He had won in several other ways.  He had won a number of things, the most important of which was the love of a good woman.  So, it really was a victory, of sorts.  The victories in the ring would come.  That is what the sequels are for.

1975 – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – 1975

This was an incredibly good movie. It was a drama that was dramatic on multiple levels. The casting and the acting were both phenomenal. The directing was first rate. The sets and costumes were perfect.

Interesting note, this movie was filmed at the very hospital in which the fictional story took place. With the permission of the hospital, the inmates, and in some cases, their families, real patients were used as background extras. The doctors at the hospital considered the filming experience to be good therapy for them.

The movie starred Jack Nicholson as Randall Patrick “Mac” McMurphy, a man with serious and sometimes violent mental instability. Opposite him is Nurse Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher. Her flawless performance in this film was nothing short of genius. She knocked this one out of the park.

Those two actors were beyond fantastic, but they were surrounded by a supporting cast that really knew their craft. William Redfield, Will Sampson, Brad Dourif, Sydney Lassick, Danny DeVito, and Christopher Lloyd all did a terrific job. Each character was a complex individual, every personality distinct and memorable.

In this way, the plot demanded a lot from each of the actors. There was an intensity and a realism to each of them that was captivating to watch. The plot focuses on McMurphy, a criminal sent to a mental institution from a penitentiary for the purpose of evaluation for mental stability. While there, he meets the inmates.

Redfield plays Dale Harding: High-strung, well-educated, and paranoid. Sampson plays “Chief” Bromden: a mountain of a man who is believed to be a deaf mute. Dourif plays Billy Bibbit: Intense stuttering with a history of suicide attempts. Lassick plays Charlie Cheswick: a man prone to uncontrollable fits of childish behavior. DeVito plays Martini: a man who is delusional and who often loses touch with reality. And finally, Lloyd plays Max Taber: a man who is uncontrollably belligerent and profane.

Interesting note: Brad Dourif, the youngest inmate, did such a good job, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He was 24 when filming took place.

Presiding over the ward with a practiced calm voice, a serene smile, and an iron fist is Nurse Ratched. She is a professional nurse who believes completely in what she does and the methods she employs to do it. She exudes self-righteousness and the desire to control. But working with crazy people every day can take a toll on a person if she does not maintain a professional and emotional distance from them. The problem with this attitude is that she takes the notion to the extreme, excising all emotion from herself when dealing the patients, including the most important emotion for a nurse to have: compassion.

She feels no compassion or sympathy for them at all. This translates into plain and simple cruelty at times. She treats them as things, almost possessions sometimes, not people. And she does it all in the name of trying to help them.

But when McMurphy arrives at the institution, he throws her carefully ordered life into turmoil. He actually befriends the inmates and wrests control from her, something that in her mind is utterly unacceptable. There is a constant battle fought between them for control of the ward.

Even though McMurphy obviously has anger issues and complete disregard for any authority figure, as a viewer, you instantly form an attachment to him. He seems to be a light that has been brought into the darkness of the lives of the inmates who are suddenly being treated like human beings. Mac goes out of his way to convince them that they are not crazy. And he is so persuasive that they start to believe him.

Nicholson was perfect for the part. You can see it in his eyes, his smile, his movements. The crazy was there the whole time, but contained and controlled, for the most part. He was so convincing that even now, I wonder how much of his performance was acting, and how much was simply drawn from his own personality.

His antics were sometimes close to comical, though I found very little humor in the film. The way he treated the inmates with respect, the way he interacted with them, and the way he always found a way to do what he wanted to do was inspiring to watch. When he did something that might be considered amusing, he brought a rare kind of infectious joy to the men of the ward that overshadowed the comedy. Nicholson was incredible.

And then there was Louise Fletcher. She was amazing with her cold and calculating eyes, her calm demeanor, her perfect, clean, white uniform, her flawless hair. When she feels her control slipping away, her fury can be seen boiling like magma beneath the surface of her placid face. She was frightening and mesmerizing at the same time.

Both Nicholson and Fletcher won Academy awards for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively. They were so real, so believable. Of course, much of this has to do with the script, written by Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman, and the director, Milos Forman

But one of the supporting actors whom I feel did an incredible job, though I feel he was under-recognized for his performance, was Sidney Lassick. As Mr. Cheswick, he was incredible, over the top, and yet completely human and believable. The character had the mind of a young child trapped in the body of an adult. Mentally and emotionally, I would guess he was around 4 years old. Lassick was incredible. His behavior was so appropriately infantile.

One scene in particular caught my attention. Nurse Ratched had confiscated all the cigarettes on the ward because Mac had won them all by gambling with the inmates. Cheswick wanted his cigarettes and basically threw the fantastic tantrum of a toddler who was not getting his way. A fight ensued involving Mac, Chief Bromden, Cheswick, and the ward’s guards. The three inmates are taken away for shock treatment. Shock therapy, in the film, was almost depicted as a punishment or deterrent. When it was Cheswick’s turn, he was terrified, believing he had done nothing wrong. The guards grabbed him and he started screaming and crying like a frightened child as he was forcibly dragged into the room. I was nearly in tears, myself, as he was carried away.

In the end, it was Mac’s love for his newfound and unexpected “family” that he’d created at the hospital that was his undoing. Without going too far into the details of the ending, I can say that because he treated the inmates like human beings, they all began to love him. Even the deaf mute, who, it turned out, was neither deaf nor mute, grew to love him, thinking of him as a kind of father figure. Without intending to, McMurphy had created these feeling in the inmates who had so desperately needed such a relationship.

The tragedy of the ending was heart wrenching and poignant. Nurse Ratched did something so cruel and heartless that he lost control of himself and attacked her, nearly chocking her to death. For this, he was given a frontal lobotomy in an effort to put an end to his violent behavior. But under such circumstances, even if I could not condone his act of murderous rage, I could very easily understand it.

As disturbed as he was, McMurphy was a bright light that was never meant to burn forever, and when it was gone it was clear that its brief presence had been enough to leave a profound mark on the lives it touched.

This script was so well written and the acting was so good, that this, to me, stands out as one of the best dramas ever written for the silver screen. It effortlessly drew me into the world of the insane asylum and made me feel for the poor souls living within its walls.

Interesting note: This film was the second to win “the big five” at the Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress. The first had been It Happened One Night in 1934. Though the film was nominated for 9 awards, these were the only 5 it won.

1974 – The Godfather Part II

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The Godfather Part II – 1974

Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Talia Shire, John Cazale, and Diane Keaton return for the second installment of the Godfather saga.  This time they are joined by another name that is pretty big today, Robert De Niro, along with Lee Strasberg and Michael V. Gazzo.

A good way to start is by giving a little information about the nature of sequels, based on my own observations.  First is the general opinion that a sequel is rarely as good as its predecessor.  I think that this is because a sequel usually tries to top whatever made the first film popular, but it usually tries too hard and ends up failing.  Either that, or it just gives the audience more of the same thing, making them say, “We’ve seen this all before.”  Second is that if one sequel is made, it is a good indication that they plan to make at least one more film after that.  In other words, serious filmmakers rarely stop at just two installments without going for number three.

The Godfather Part II does a good job of bucking both of these conventions.  Instead of trying to top all the excessive violence and Italian Mafia stereotypes that made the first one so popular, Director Francis Ford Coppola chose to continue the story, concentrating more on character development, plot development, and emotional drama.  He made it a different kind of film that was good standing on its own two feet, rather than standing on the shoulders of Part I.

And as for setting the audience up for The Godfather Part III, I’m not so sure it did that.  The ending seemed to complete the story.  Sure, more plot can always be written and told, but the film had the feeling of closure.  Now, it just so happens that Coppola eventually did end up making a third Godfather movie, but it was 16 years later and is widely regarded as the weakest film in the trilogy.  I could forego seeing the next film, and I’d still be satisfied with the way it ended.

The main plot picks up where the last one left off.  Michael Corleone (Pacino) is now the head of the crime family, though he is making a half-hearted effort to go legit.  He wife Kay is aware of the criminal activities of her husband’s family, and encourages him in his efforts to go straight.  However, when Michael narrowly escapes an assassination attempt that also threatened the lives of his family, he goes out of his way to find out who was behind the attempt and get his revenge.

Then there is a wonderfully portrayed secondary plot which is told along-side the first.  It is a flash-back, of sorts, that told the story of Vito Corleone from his early childhood in Sicily and his young adulthood in New York.  From this, we see how he rose to his position of power as the Don of the Corleone family.  The two stories are told simultaneously, switching back and forth between the two all the way through the film.

Pacino turned in an inspired performance.  He was nominated for Best Actor that year and many consider it to be the greatest performance of his career.  The cold ruthlessness with which he governs and protects his family was masterfully portrayed.  One scene in particular that stood out to me is the scene in which his wife tries to leave him, telling him that she had not miscarried their child.  She’d had an abortion, knowing that she was killing his unborn son.  The barely contained fury that consumed him was frightening to watch.  And when he exploded, I felt his anger along with him.  Well done Pacino!

Interesting note:  Even though his performance was considered one of the greatest performances in cinema history, he lost the Oscar to Art Carney for his role in Harry and Tonto, a film that very few people even remember today. (…meaning that I have never heard of it!)

Robert Duvall also returned with a good performance, though not much was really done with his character.  The roles of the women were increased Keaton and Talia Shire who played the role of Michael’s sister Connie Corleone were both given more to do and more screen-time.  Lee Strasberg played Michael’s main enemy Hyman Roth, a man who had been in business with his father, Vito, and who was ultimately behind the failed assassination attempt.  His conspirators Frank Pentangeli, (Gazzo) amd Fredo Coreleon (Cazale), Michael’s older brother, also did a good job.

Interesting note:  The actor Richard Castellano from the first Godfather film played the part of Peter Clemenza.  The actor had a disagreement with Paramount Studios and did not return to reprise his role in the sequel.  However, in the flashback sequences, the young Clemenza is played by an actor I always enjoy watching, Bruno Kirby.  His character was actually supposed to be the one who turned against Michael Corleone, but instead he was replaced with the character of Frank Pentangeli.

All this was an engaging drama, but for me, the most interesting part of the film was the secondary plot about Vito Corleone’s rise to power.  In the first Godfather film, Vito is the Don.  He stands apart, controlling the violence and bloodshed, but keeping his own hands clean.  But as one might expect he could not have realistically risen from the position of a poor immigrant to the head of a rich and prominent crime family without getting his fair share of dirt on his face and blood on his own hands.

De Niro did a terrific job as the young Vito Andolini, later named Corleone at Ellis Island.  As a nine-year-old in Sicily, his father and brother are murdered by Don Ciccio, played by Giuseppe Sillato.  When his mother takes him to the Don to ask that her son be spared the same fate, he refuses and murders her in front of him.  Vito escapes and is smuggled to America.  The next flashback shows him as a young man with a wife and children in New York.  De Niro does a great job creating his own character while paying obvious homage to Marlon Brando’s character, making the fictional transition very easy to believe.  It was a challenging role and De Niro really did it justice.

De Niro actually won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his fantastic portrayal, and I think it was well deserved.  As actors go, I have always preferred De Niro to Pacino.  He can play the tough guy just as well, but he has a humanizing softness that Pacino often lacks.

And finally, I have to mention the final flashback.  This was a little stroke of genius on Coppola’s part.  There is a short scene at the end that runs for maybe five minutes that brought back actors James Caan, Gianni Russo, and Abe Vigoda.  They are characters that did not survive the first film.  It is a tiny scene that tells of Michael’s decision to join the Marines in the face of World War II.  It is a masterful little piece of plot that ties the Godfather Part I to Part II very neatly.

Interesting note:  Even though this little scene only took one day to film, James Caan only agreed to reprise his role if he received the same salary he’d made for The Godfather Part I.  He got his way.

Another interesting note:  Marlon Brando was supposed to have been in this scene as well, but he felt that he was being mistreated by the board at Paramount.  He failed to show up for the one day shoot.  Coppola had to rewrite the scene on the spot to exclude Vito.  During the scene, you can hear him in another room, but the character never appears on the screen.

There is no doubt that this was a good movie.  It was engaging and well written.  But for me, it was never able to recapture the energy of the first film.  Sure, it had its own feeling and style, a different kind of energy, but I ultimately enjoyed watching the first one more.

1973 – The Sting

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The Sting – 1973

The “sting” refers to the moment when a con artist successfully takes a mark’s money.  The big pay-off, the grand finale, the moment of victory!  But in this case, the sting was the big twist in the end of the plot.  It got me!

This was a good movie on multiple levels.  True, it was not a grand epic, but it was devilishly clever and well written.  Our two lead actors, Robert Redford and Paul Newman both did a great job.  And, of course, Robert Shaw, who you might remember from A Man For All Seasons, did a fantastic job as the bad guy.  Actress Eileen Brennan, and actors Charles Durning, Harold Gould, Ray Walston, and Dana Elcar all did a great job rounding out the cast.

Just like a good con should, the film did a great job of drawing me in, making me believe everything I was told, and then pulling the old switcheroo at the end.  They got the drop on me, and yet even after it was all over, I still bought it, hook, line, and sinker.  The real star of The Sting was David S. Ward, who won his Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.  The plot was so cleverly written.

Interesting note:  The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 7.  This was the 46th academy awards where the anonymous streaker, later identified as Robert Opel, ran across the stage, naked, at the Academy Awards ceremony.  Presenter David Niven, didn’t miss a beat and quipped, “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”

But back to the film…  Robert Redford played Johnny Hooker, a grifter, or small time con-man.  As the film opens, he and his partner Luther Coleman, played by Robert Earl Jones (Yes, you guessed it: Father of James Earl Jones), successfully con a man out of $11,000.00.  Unfortunately, their victim was a numbers racketeer  for ruthless crime boss, Doyle Lonnegan, played by Robert Shaw.  Lonnegan ends up killing Luther and putting a hit out on Hooker for stealing his money.

Hooker goes to Chicago to find Henry Gondorff, once a big-time con artist, now hiding in obscurity from the FBI.  When the two meet, the real fun begins.  The rest of the film shows the great lengths the two go to in order to con Lonnegan out of all his money.  For Gondorff, it is the money he is after.  For Hooker, it is revenge on Lonnegan for Luther’s murder.  Thus the scheme is hatched.

Robert Redford and Paul Newman have a natural on-screen chemistry that is easy to see.  They seem to play off each other in a way that is easy and enjoyable to watch.  Of course, this duo had already proven this to be true in their previous collaboration, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which had also been nominated for Best Picture in 1969, although it did not win.

Redford is not only easy on the eyes, he has an ease about his acting.  It all seemed real, almost as if he wasn’t acting at all, but playing himself.  Newman didn’t have as much of that same quality, but Redford seemed to bring it out in him.  Together, they created believable characters that complimented each other very well.

I found Robert Shaw’s performance adequate, though after seeing him as King Henry VIII in A Man For All Seasons, I think I liked him better wearing a crown.  He was supposed to be an Irish man, though his accent wasn’t very consistent.  It would come and go over the course of the film.  And I’m not sure whether it was a conscious choice for the role, but he played the character of Doyle Lonnegan as very subdued which sometimes translated into the appearance of low energy.  Maybe this was his interpretation of the serious and dangerous mobster boss.

Eileen Brennan was cast in the role of Billie, Gondorff’s girlfriend who helped him on his big plan.  The part was fairly minor, but she was memorable in it.  She was pretty, though not gorgeous, and had a personal ease in her acting style as well, though with her (as compared to Redford), it seemed more practiced than natural.   I must concede, though, that her role was memorable partly because it was really the only significant female role in the film.  The only other was an assassin hired by Lonnegan to kill Hooker called Loretta Salino, played by Dimitra Arliss.  She had even less screen time.

One more actor I have to comment on is Ray Walston, only to say that he apparently does not age.  He looked exactly the same in this 1973 film as he did when he died in 2001.  Just a few more wrinkles.

Director George Roy Hill did a great job of giving the film an air of playfulness despite all the crime: the murders, the cons, the deceptions, the assassins, the danger.  He used several effective ways of accomplishing this.  First, is the way the entire movie, itself, is constructed.  Hill split it up into several separate and distinct parts that were each introduced with a hand drawn picture that looked like they might have come out of a 1930s newspaper.  Each section also had its own title.  Doing this, he made each section like a little vignette that would help move the story along to its conclusion.

While these little introductions were on the screen, music would play like the music of a silent film playing over dialogue cards.  And the music of this film was something special.  Composer Scott Joplin was known for his ragtime music that was energetic, fun, playful, and catchy.  This more than anything gave the movie its cheeky and light-hearted feel.  Several Joplin tunes were used on the soundtrack, adapted by Marvin Hamlisch.  The most famous of these was the main theme of the movie “The Entertainer.”

Interesting note:  Even though the movie took place in the 1936, Joplin’s music was actually written around the turn of the century.  The Entertainer was written in 1902, but it did a fantastic job of giving the film a 1936 feel.

And finally, the ending of the film was particularly satisfying.  Everyone got what they deserved.  Gondorff proved that he was smarter than everyone else and the con worked perfectly as planned.  It worked so well, in fact, that when the sting took place, Lonnagen walked away from his money without ever even knowing that he had been conned.  It was such a clever scheme that could only have worked in the 1930s.  The technology of today would, of course, quickly blow it out of the water.  But in 1936, I thought it a very believable plot.

This was a good movie.  It was entertaining and fun, and Redford and Newman both did a fine job.  And darn it if that Joplin tune, The Entertainer, wasn’t stuck in my head after the movie was over.  All in all, it was a good addition to the list of Best Picture winners.

1972 – The Godfather

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The Godfather – 1972

Everyone I have talked to about The Godfather has gone on and on, telling me how great the movie is.  So, going into it, my expectations were high.  Well, this time I was not disappointed.  It really was an awesome film!  Set from 1945 to 1955, this movie followed the lives of the fictional New York crime family, the Corleones.  Director Francis Ford Coppola spearheaded this epic drama that spawned that famous line “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

And epic is the right word.  The plot was a big one on a grand scale.  The music was wonderful, which was actually a noticeable relief.  After some of the most recent movies like In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy, and The French Connection, which each had more pop or jazz scores, and Patton, which had an appropriate orchestral score, but was far too dispassionate and military for my tastes, The Godfather brings back a huge sweeping score, full of emotion, passion and individuality which I haven’t heard since Lawrence of Arabia in 1962.  The score was written by Nino Rota.  It sounded unmistakably Italian, reflecting the Italian roots of the Mafia family.

Every character was incredibly well written and believable.  The casting was perfect and the acting was excellent.  The sets and costumes were spot-on.  The excessive violence was appropriate for the plot and never seemed gratuitous.  The Godfather was almost a bit of a period piece, even for 1972, the setting being 27 years prior.  The costumes and sets looked to be perfectly authentic.  Even the cars had that circa 1945 look.  Coppola really hit a home run with this one.

The film starts out at a wedding, during which Don (which means Boss) Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, is conducting business.  What this means is that people in his family or his community come to him to ask for favors that cannot be accomplished by any legal means.  He commands their respect and even their adoration, and if he agrees to help them, they are indebted to him.

One such transaction, help asked of him by his godson, Johnny Fontane, in order to get a part in a film that he is being refused, is granted.  Vito agrees to secure the part for him by putting pressure on the studio head Jack Woltz.  He sends his consigliere (family lawyer) Tom Hagen, wonderfully played by Robert Duvall, to Woltz’s home.   This is what leads to the famous horse head in the bed scene.  You see, Woltz refused to cast Johnny in his movie, even after being asked to do so by Vito’s representative.  After being refused, Hagen leaves politely.  The next morning, Woltz wakes up to find the head of his prize stallion in his bed.  OK, the severed horse head is scary enough, but to me, the most frightening part of the whole thing is that whoever decapitated the horse was able to get the head, which is no small item, into his bed WHILE HE WAS SLEEPING IN IT without waking him.  The assassins were that stealthy.  If they could do all that without even waking him, they could do anything they wanted to him, whenever they wanted to.  Now, that is creepy!

Interesting note:  Animal rights groups protested the use of a real horse head in the film.  Coppola had to assure them that the horse’s head was delivered to him from a dog food company.  No horses were harmed in the making of this film.

All that was to demonstrate how far Don Corleone was willing to go to accomplish his desires.  Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the role, even though he was not the first, second, or third choice to play the part.  It is widely considered the best film role of his career.  Once again, as in On the Waterfront, I have to acknowledge Brando as a fantastic actor.  He truly did a great job.

Vito’s two sons were also great characters.  His eldest boy, Sonny, is played by James Caan and his youngest son, Michael, is played by Al Pacino.  They did a great job and were both, along with Robert Duvall (whose character was actually really cool) nominated for Best Supporting Actor for their respective roles.

Interesting note:  Al Pacino boycotted the Academy awards that year, complaining that he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor instead of Best Actor, since he actually had more screen time than Marlon Brando.  Brando actually refused his Oscar win and boycotted the ceremony in protest to the way American Indians were depicted in Hollywood and on television.  Instead, he sent a Native American Indian in full Indian costume to the Awards Ceremony to explain his reasons for doing so.

I must admit that I have never been a huge James Caan fan, but I must concede that he was perfect for the role of Sonny.  He was hot-headed and dangerous, and his death scene is pretty spectacular.  It was also unexpected.  I didn’t see it coming.  Caan was very believable and earned my respect for the part.

But for me, the real star of the movie was Pacino.  As Vito’s son, he is a part of the family and is aware of the criminal actions of his father.  Yet he tries to maintain a distance from that side of the business.  But after Vito survives an assassination attempt, Michael is beat by a corrupt police officer while protecting him from further harm.  His response is to publicly murder the assassin and the Police officer, after which he is forced to leave the country.  A large portion of the plot follows his transformation from the innocent young man to the dangerous head of the Italian Mafia, Don Corleone.

Pacino was also very young, and a fairly unknown actor at the time.  He only had two movies under his belt, and even though producers thought him too short for the part, Coppola threatened to quit if Pacino was not cast.  I thought he did a remarkable job.  Back then, he had an innocent and youthful look that I’m sure appealed to audiences.

The story is fast-paced and action-packed with an ending that was very cool.  I don’t want to give too much away, but after Vito’s death, Michael ends up taking over the family business, including the illegal parts.  He does so with style, with brains, and with supreme vengeance.  Even though he is a mafia boss, even though he lies to his wife Kay, played very well by Diane Keaton (who was so young I honestly didn’t even recognize her as the mature actress we all know today!), even though he orders a host of murders and is a dangerous criminal of the first degree, you end up rooting for him.  He is a true antihero.

There are two fairly minor parts that I want to mention for their good acting.  First was Richard S. Castellano, playing the part of Peter Clemenza, a hit-man for Don Corleone.  He was also perfectly cast and did a great job.  His level of devotion to Vito, and then to Michael was very well done.  It sometimes seemed close to groveling, yet never over-the-top.  Second was Simonetta Stefanelli, Michael’s first wife, Apollonia, whom he met while hiding out in Sicily. She was gorgeous and really looked her part.  Her screen-time was brief but memorable.

The movie was incredibly popular with audiences.  Its original budget was only 2 million, yet it made 81.5 million in its initial release, making it the highest grossing film of 1972.  This was one of the big Best Picture winners, on par with Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, and Gone with the wind.  It really deserved that coveted Best Picture Oscar!

1971 – The French Connection

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The French Connection – 1971

Popeye Doyle does not know the meaning of the phrase “I will not kick your ass!”  Who knew that Gene Hackman could be so angry and violent?  OK, here we are in 1971 with The French Connection.  It starred, of course, Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, and Fernando Rey.  This was, in some respects, a good movie.  In other respects, I found it somewhat lacking.  The film was based on the non-fictional book of the same name.

The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won five.  Aside from Best Picture, Gene Hackman took home an Oscar for Best Actor, as did William Friedkin for Best Director, Ernest Tidyman for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Gerald B. Greenburg for Best Editing.

For my tastes, there was a lot of fast paced action and some good acting.  The story was also good.  The film starts out in Marseilles, France and within the first few minutes, a man gets shot in the face and killed.  Who is he?  Why was he killed?  And what does this murder have to do with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider?  As you can see, the movie immediately draws you in, making you want to see more.

Well, after this brief scene, we cut to New York and begin following “Popeye” Doyle (Hackman) and “Cloudy” Russo (Scheider).  They are detectives, who have been on a stakeout and are making a drug bust.  One of the suspects runs, and our first chase ensues.  After catching the man, they beat him severely before arresting him.  Then they go to a nightclub and see “Sal” Boca having drinks with known criminals.  They tail him back to his home where they pull an all-night stakeout to watch him.

They obtain permission to wire-tap Sal’s phone and apartment.  They have more stakeouts, do some more tailing and chasing.  Then they have another stakeout and a really fast car chase.  They have another long stakeout and tear apart a car.  Then…  You get the picture?  Of course, there is a lot more to it than that, but I felt that way too much time was spent with stakeouts, tailing, and chasing.

And then there was the music.  How can I describe it?  It literally sounded like a five piece chamber orchestra with a couple of saxophones making obnoxious sounds and a guy with a couple of bongos. The recording quality was, I’m sorry to say, terrible and gave the whole film a kind of cheap quality.  I felt like the score was actually distracting me from the movie – it was that bad in my ears.  Maybe the director and Don Ellis, the man who wrote the music, were going for a certain disjointed, raw effect, but to me it just translated as bad and poorly recorded.

Interesting note:  For me, the best music in the film was featured in the nightclub scene.  The performing artists were The Three Degrees, a vocal group made up of three women.  Their biggest hit was the 1974 single When Will I See You Again.

But if you can get past all that, I found plenty of things about the film that I really liked.  The action sequences, especially the fast car chase, were really exciting to watch.  The characters were cool and well-acted.  I thought Popeye Doyle was very cool with his trench coat and little hat.  He went around kicking butt and taking names.  He is ruled by his passions and goes with his guts.  True, this behavior sometimes got him in trouble with his chief, but he was generally good at his job.  That is… until the end.

Cloudy Russo was a good counterpoint to Popeye.  He was more calm, more cautious, more level-headed, and yet very trusting of his partner and his gut-feelings.  I have seen Roy Scheider in plenty of other films and he always has a kind of coolness about him.  His personality is soft around the edges.  It was a perfect trait for Cloudy Russo.

You see, Popeye’s main problem was that he often acted before thinking.  It was both his greatest strength and his greatest failing.  Nowhere is this more evident than the big car chase scene.  First, the criminal who had attempted to assassinate him, killing a mother pushing a stroller, then hijacks an elevated train as it speeds above the streets of New York.  Doyle, uses his police badge to hijack a civilian’s car and starts chasing the train.  He is driving on both sides of the street, causing and participating in car accidents all along the way.  He miraculously avoids killing anyone in his 90 mph pursuit and eventually catches his criminal.  Well… he shoots him in the back and kills him at any rate.

Interesting note:   Many of the police officers acting as advisers for the film objected to the scene on the grounds that shooting a suspect in the back was simply murder, not self-defense, but the director stood by it, saying that it was within character.

The end of the film was also not a typical end.  Not all the bad guys were caught, and Doyle screwed up in a horribly unbelievably fashion, murdering another police officer!  That’s OK for an ending, except for the fact that this movie is supposed to be based upon true events.  They even went so far as to give a few seconds of epilogue, telling the audience what happened to the surviving characters.

Apparently, the French drug trafficker, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), commonly referred to in the film as “Frog one” was never caught by American authorities.  He escaped back to France.  His real life counterpart was a man named Jean Jehan, who was eventually arrested in Paris on drug trafficking charges.  However, since France does not expedite its citizens, he never went to an American prison.

Popeye was actually a man named Eddie Egan.  His partner Cloudy was really Sonny Grosso.  The research I did didn’t say whether Egan actually shot and killed a fellow police officer, but the epilogue did state that he and his partner were transferred to different locations after the incident.

Interesting note:  The name Popeye was used because it was actually Eddie Egan’s nickname.  Both Egan and Grosso appeared in the movie in small roles.  Egan was Hackman’s supervisor, Simonson.  I remember that character looking good for the part, and his NY accent sounded unfeigned, but I thought he was hamming it up a bit much.  Now I know why: he was a professional Police Officer, not an actor.  Really, though, he did just fine.

While I can’t deny that I enjoyed the movie, there are definitely things that I thought could have been done better, like the music.  Best Picture winner…?  Sure, why not?

1970 – Patton

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Patton – 1970

Patton was a difficult movie for me to watch for two reasons.  I can’t claim that it was a bad movie, by any means.  It was good.  It was well made and entertaining.  The acting was good.  George C. Scott and Karl Malden both dis a superb job.  The production values were high, there was plenty of fast paced action, and a plot with substance.  But first and foremost, it was a ar film about World War II, which is generally not my favorite kind of movie to watch.  Second, it was about a man who, right from the famous opening scene of Patton giving his “Pep-talk” in front of the giant American flag, was portrayed as a red-neck, over-the-top, ultra-military asshole – a character who I had a tough time liking.

But I think the movie actually did its job.  It never claimed that Patton, fantastically played by George C. Scott, was supposed to be a likeable character.  The really amazing thing about the film was that by the end I really understood what it was trying to say.  It can be summed up in one statement:  Many great military leaders like General George S. Patton ARE assholes that treat most people like the dirt on the bottoms of their shoes, but in times of war, they are exactly what are needed to keep our nation safe and give us victory over those who would destroy us.

You see, despite the fact that he was hard, inflexible, and often demanded the impossible from the soldiers under him, he was also a brilliant field commander.  To his credit, when he placed his men on the front lines of battle, when he forced them to march without food or rest in horrible conditions, he was usually right there with them, enduring everything right along with them.

Scott portrayed him as being as tough as nails, as tough as any of his soldiers.  This earned him the respect and unfailing loyalty of those who served under him, despite the fact that his tactics often got a lot of men killed, earning him the name of Blood & Guts Patton.  However, in then end the soldiers saw that he save more men than he sacrificed.  Add to that the fact that he continually gave them victory after victory, and it was easy to see why he was so incredibly popular with the troops.

The film also portrayed General Patton as a man who’s red-neck attitudes and big mouth often got him into trouble.  There was one scene in particular by which I was actually incensed.  In this scene, Patton is visiting a field hospital tent and praising the wounded and dying men for their courage and sacrifices.  But then he finds a soldier who has had a mental break-down and is simply too terrified to return to the battle.  Patton calls him a coward, among other things, loses control of himself, slaps the poor man, and shouts orders that the man be taken back to the front line immediately where he is sure to be killed.  Then he goes even further, screaming that there is no place for cowards in his army, reaching for his gun, and threatening to execute the man on the spot for his despicable behavior.

Needless to say, the incident gets him removed from his command.

Another layer to Patton’s character that the film spends considerable time acknowledging, is an interesting one.  He apparently believed very strongly in reincarnation.  He believed that he had also been a military leader in several past lives.  During conversations with others concerning historical wars, he would claim that he had actually been at those ancient battles.  Most people would laugh such boasting off as some kind of a joke, but he was portrayed as a firm believer in what he was saying.  A little time was also devoted to portraying him as a self-styled poet.

All this is very well and good.  But like any historical drama, I had to do a little research and find out how historically accurate was the character portrayed.  Did the scriptwriters, Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North, get it right?  I think that if a film is about a historical event or figure, there is a certain amount of accountability as to accuracy.

Interesting note: George C. Scott certainly had the right look in the face.  He looked amazingly like the real Patton.  However, Scott’s low, gravelly voice was quite different than Patton’s voice, which was high-pitched and nasal.

The actual movements of Patton, his military campaigns and such were all very accurate.  The personality was also pretty spot-on, except that he was actually tamed-down for the film.  He was known for his use of “foul language” when such language would be effective, though most of the curse words were removed for the movie.  The slapping incident was also notable because he actually slapped two different men on separate occasions.  His military brilliance was covered very well, and they certainly pulled no punches regarding the punishments he endured because of his big mouth.  My research also uncovered the truth regarding Patton’s strong belief in reincarnation.

As a matter of fact, Director Franklin J. Schaffner seemed to go out of his way to include as much historical detail as he could.  The over-sized markers on Pattons jeep, the correct medals worn in the opening sequence, the costumes, the ivory-handled gun he wore, the dates, the locations, the battles: it was all there, just like the history books say.  I must admit that the attention given to all these details was pretty impressive.

Another actor in the film that is worthy of note is Siegfried Rauch who played Captain Oskar Steiger of the Third Reich.  He is a member of the Nazi High Command who studies Patton, trying to anticipate him, and at the last, as the Germans are losing the war, he is seen burning all the Reich’s paperwork, including a photograph of the man who bested him, General George S. Patton.  I personally thought Rauch did a great job with his relatively small part.

And lest I forget, Karl Malden was also an integral part of the story.  He played General Omar Bradley.  At first he was Patton’s subordinate, but because of Patton’s disfavor with Eisenhower over the slapping incident, he advanced in rank and became Patton’s commanding officer.  He was also Patton’s friend and was able to manage the man more than most.  Malden did a very good job, tempering his frustration with Patton’s mouth with admiration for his obvious skills as a military leader and tactician.  One of Bradley’s best lines in the film was, “There’s one big difference between you and me, George.  I do this job because I’ve been trained to do it.  You do it because you LOVE it.”

And that leads me to one final part of Patton’s personality that this film got right: his ego.  At one point the character even admitted he was a prima-donna.  He loved the glory that came along with being victorious.  He had a habit of upsetting his superiors by going out of his way to be recognized for his military feats.  And I think that as much as he loved the world watching him in his spotlight, he loved seeing himself in that same spotlight.  He fervently believed that he was better than everyone else and that he truly deserved to be in command of other men.  Just one more thing that made him an unpleasant person, and yet exactly what the Army and, indeed, the nation, if not the world, needed at that time in history.  It is what made him a true American hero.