Review: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

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While I might not consider it one of the finest films ever produced, Cool Hand Luke features one of the most mythic characters ever conceived for the movies. He’s one of those figures who can seemingly only exist on celluloid. Luke Jackson comes out of a certain turbulent period in American history even as his story remains indelibly timeless.

Paul Newman realized some greats throughout the 1960s from Fast Eddie Felson to Hud and then Butch Cassidy. However, this monumental role is one of his most iconic regardless of all the others that came before and proceeded it. Newman stretches himself to the edge of the frame and then some. It’s difficult to even begin to consider who else might have managed the feat if not him — furnishing both a constant resiliency and the trademark gleam in his eye.

It’s that placid demeanor and vaguely smug attitude which is above all prepossessing. A near relentless self-subjection to suffering and malevolence follows and for the most ridiculously absurd offense. Luke was bored and so he went about town slicing the tops off parking meters while inebriated. For that, he’s given a two-year sentence on a chain gang. For that, he willingly takes on the ills, disdain, and wrath of a whole community of people without hardly batting an eye.

It begins when the “fresh meat” comes to town. They’re jeered by the veterans led by the hulking southern boy Dragline (George Kennedy) and filled out like all the quality prison movies with a bevy of talented character actors. Some fairly prominent names including Dennis Hopper and Richard Davalos as well character parts for Wayne Rogers, Lou Antonio, etc.

The new faces quiver in this foreign environment, among them Ralph Waite and Harry Dean Stanton. Meanwhile, Luke Jackson sports a stellar war record though he left the military with the same rank he had going in. He was just passing time.

There’s a mild disinterest, a silent bravado, and subtle anti-establishment slant to him. He doesn’t flaunt it necessarily but it does come out. The guards and the camp’s proprietor (Strother Martin) are wary of him and the inmates don’t believe he’ll ever come to learn their pecking order.

That’s what’s so appealing about the Luke character. He could care less what other people think. He never has to prove himself. He just does what he wants and as a result, makes himself an idol of the entire chain gang without ever trying to do so.

The script, penned by the story’s original author Donn Pearce as well as Frank Pierson, is adept at creating individual moments and bits of dialogue that are in themselves so distinctive, showcasing a remarkable ability to stand on their own merit. Even now over 50 years later.

“The Night in the Box” monologue might have its imitators but it has no equal, setting up the monotonous drudgery that makes camp life, backbreaking and yet somehow strangely comforting to some men. Strother Martin famously sums up his relationship with the troublesome prisoner as a “failure to communicate” while in another sequence the girl (Joy Harmon) saucily washes her car, tantalizing all the sex-crazed men on the job.

Dragline and Luke have a boxing bout that cements the new man’s reputation as well as a budding friendship with the camp’s resident top dog. He bluffs his way through poker games to earn his iconic nickname, “Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand” Luke grins almost matter-of-factly. Everyone else howls with delight at his exploits.

Next, overtaken by a surge of giddy energy he spurs on his compatriots turning their assignment of tarring a road into a game that captures the imagination of all involved. They are taken by his spirit which never seems to sour. It’s the same temperament that will lead him to eat 50 eggs in under an hour just for the heck of it. Whether he meant to or not the whole cohort feeds off of him, even as some spurn his attempts at individuality — most gravitate toward the man. From thenceforward, outstretched on a table like a Crucifix he is cast as their Christ-like figure.

A flurry of escape attempts is spawned by the news that his mother has died. The outcome was all but inevitable. Still, that doesn’t make it sting less. The conversation shared between the two of them earlier is only one minor scene of dialogue, and yet together Newman and Joan Van Fleet make something impactful out of it. Thus, when Arletty dies, off camera, it has critical implications for the man. For once, he shows some type of emotion; he cares about something.

Luke can be found strumming away at a banjo singing “Plastic Jesus.” Not being able to get away for the funeral he resolves to sing her a dirge of his own. The rest of the film is backed by Lalo Schrifrin’s score laced with a down-home country meandering melody contributed to by an arrangement of guitars, banjos, and harmonicas with more traditional string and brass sections. It’s the soundtrack of Luke’s exploits as he gets some jackrabbit in his blood and looks to jump the coop.

His Fourth of July escape runs the hounds ragged or else he’s “shaking the bush” to take a leak only to scramble off into the underbrush. He’s away long enough to even send the boys a souvenir from the outside featuring him gussied up with two bodacious gals. His smile lights up the page and the picture gives them something to keep their blood pumping; it’s really something to live for.

But multiple times he is brought back to confinement and “the box.” The bosses, having just about enough of his impertinence, subject him to neverending ditch digging and refilling after long days of work. They’re not about to let him forget he’s a prisoner. While his inmates helplessly watch him get worked to death in the camp yard, they sing “Ain’t No Grave” in solidarity with him. Throughout Stanton can be heard belting out Gospel spirituals accompanied by his acoustic guitar.

Director Stuart Rosenberg in his first movie after a career in TV at least ably conveys the pervasively sweaty grime of the day-to-day in such a world. Nothing is clean. Dirt clings to everyone and everything. It permeates every inch of the screen.

However, some of his visual choices come off rather clunky in execution. “The Man With No Eyes” constantly has his reflective sunglasses put on display as metaphor and the choice to end the picture in a clip show gives one last upbeat note but undermines what could have been an uncompromising ending.

Contrast Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1976) and on an external level, you have nominally similar dramas about a group rallying around one man to stick it to the institution. But there is little comparison between Randle McMurphy and Luke beyond that point just as the endings choose their own alternative resolutions.

As it is, Luke is smiling to the end of his days and Dragline canonizes him as a saint for all posterity. He becomes the vehicle for all their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. He is their Savior but he’s a fallible Christ-figure — never perfect and he never can be perfect — but they put there hope in him nonetheless. After all, he is a natural world shaker to the very last grin.

However, In his final hour, Luke can be found talking to The Man Upstairs in an abandoned church building. It is his version of Gethsemane:

“It’s beginnin’ to look like you got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all them rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Just where am I supposed to fit in? Ol’ Man, I gotta tell ya. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginnin’ to get to me. When does it end?”

Surely the implications are twofold. He maintained a failure to communicate with his fellow man as a perennial outsider turned-savior but the issue extended to his relationship with God too. He is all but alone. He’s an outsider without ever trying to be. That’s simply his God-given temperament. But that can be a wearisome existence and we cannot smile at Cool Hand Luke‘s ending without harboring a residual sense of pessimism as well.

5/5 Stars

Review: Giant (1956)

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People might come to Giant for James Dean. They might come seeking out the final film in George Stevens unofficial American Trilogy (including A Place in the Sun and Shane).  Maybe it’s even the promise of a sprawling epic of monumental length and scope that turns out to be both a blessing and a curse by most accounts.

But this adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel, despite all of this, is really a film about marriage and family in a world that’s constantly changing. Rock Hudson is a towering giant in his own right turning in a performance that works as quintessential Texan Jordan “Bic” Benedict. Elizabeth Taylor proves that far from a one-dimensional classical beauty, she has acting prowess as well delivering a spirited showing that gels with Hudson for the very fact that it often chafes against his characterization. Meaning they’re believable as husband and wife.

James Dean plays their marginalized ranch hand Jett Rink who is nevertheless treated well by Bic’s  hardy sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) as well as Leslie while harboring a life long feud with Bic over the ensuing years.

Time turns this story into a battleground of two dueling giants. One a life long rancher of great stature. The other a modern figure blessed with a meteoric rise as an oil magnate. Their resentment carries through the generations as much as their differing fields reflect the sign of the times. The tectonics shift as the old guard of the Texas plains is replaced with a new breed of powerful men.

Of course, Dean’s performance is the stuff of legend and there’s an idiosyncratic, grumbling magnetism about it as only he could do. This isn’t Brando and it’s not even Monty Clift who previously played opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Stevens’ earlier picture. It’s James Dean showcasing his personal flare.

The final moments of his “Last Supper,” after his subsequent rise to glory, are devastatingly pathetic. The mighty oil tycoon of Jetexas falls into utter disgrace crashing to the floor of the empty banquet hall with a clatter. Rolling around in a drunken stupor, making a shambles of his grand exhibition of wealth, and simultaneously concluding Dean’s last scene in front of an audience.

His life would be taken even before Giant finished filming, some of his last scenes of dialogue being reread by close friend Nick Adams, his temperamental nature and habit of mumbling lines impacting the production even after his passing. Still, George Stevens himself, despite the insurmountable hell he was put through, and the hits his shooting schedule took, even admitted that Dean was something special.

You might not like him but all of us seem to gravitate to him for some inexplicable reason. He carries our gaze with his ticks and his delivery. It’s as if he forces us to take heed even out of a necessity to understand him, his head downcast, his hands fidgeting and such, all a ploy to carry our attention. It generally works.

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Yes, we lost him so young but the beauty of Giant’s epic stature is that in cinematic terms Dean was blessed with a full life. We saw him as a fiery youth in East of Eden (1954) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and in Giant he evolved into an equally tortured man who grew old before our eyes. That’s the magic of the movies. But sometimes it’s so easy to have his legend overshadow all others.

The latter half of the film is really about the Benedict family evolving with the maturation of their children. Dean is worth a closer look certainly, but I’m inclined to enjoy the performances of Carroll Baker and Dennis Hopper nearly as much if only for the simple fact that they’re less heralded.

Baker is the daughter caught in the throes of romance and decadence who finds Jett Rink more fun partly for the very fact that her stuffy parents abhor what he has become. Meanwhile, Hopper brings a surprisingly earnest candor as the Benedict’s eldest son with aspirations to be a doctor instead of a rancher, pushing against family tradition, subsequently marrying a Mexican-American bride, and facing the unfortunate ostracization that comes with such a life.

Some of the most evocative scenes are actually held between Hudson and Taylor. To most, their careers were known for personal lives exploited by tabloids. They don’t get the same adulation as Dean as actors. Still, in this film, they do something quite spectacular in a more unassuming way. They quite authentically reflect the life of a married couple as their romance and life together waxes and wanes over the years. That includes Jett Rink’s onslaught and the trials with kids but, at the core it’s just the two of them, grappling with it together.

Because this is a film that unfolds over decades we come to appreciate the changes that come over the characters and not so much the makeup or touches of gray. More important are the strides they make in their lives or even how they remain the same.

They model what it is to be young and in love, to quarrel and bicker and to make up and to be diplomatic and to have dreams and aspirations and to want the best for your children and at the same time hold grudges and feel like the ones you love are purposely trying to undermine you.

To begin with, this is a fairy tale romance of opposites. Hudson is the formidable Texan bred as a rancher and he comes to the upper echelons of eastern society looking for a stallion and he comes back with a bride instead.

She comes to his country initially welcomed and then feeling like an outsider in a land that is so set in its ways. Men and woman are expected to exist in certain spheres. White folks don’t fraternize with Mexicans. And cattle barons tame their land and breed their stock like their fathers before them. It’s tradition and they stick to it. Bic Benedict is raised in that Texas tradition dating all the way back to the Alamo, his stock proud, fiery, and tough.

Still, his wife Leslie is just as audacious but in different ways, testing his sensibilities and testing the matrimonial bonds of their marriage. She rather comically proposes her own marriage, looks to break up the boy’s club mentality that dictates the culture, and tramples over the de facto laws of the land in favor of goodwill to all. That means if a baby is sick, she fetches a doctor. The color of its skin makes no difference. In that atmosphere, it’s radical that she extends kindness to everyone, not simply her own “kind” as it were, whether divided by class or racial barriers. Ultimately, it’s a testament to the sorry state of affairs but also of her personal convictions and they bleed into the rest of her family.

The final showcase comes not in his front and center bout with Jett Rink because although we’ve been expecting it for decades, as such it never comes. Jett’s not worth it anymore. Instead, Bic’s shining moment comes in, of all places, a roadside diner. He’s not as strapping as he used to be and he gets wailed on something awful. But in this moment as he’s duking it out with a local bigot, the platform that he stands on is not simply about his family name or his own personal honor as a Benedict but along the planes of what is morally right and wrong.

Rejecting service to people based on the color of their skin is inherently wrong. Disrespecting people of other races can and never should be accepted. Years before he would have never taken a stand on such touchy issues but he’s matured in that regard and his wife falls in love with him all over again. She sees first hand why she grew to love this man.

He lies there on the floor heaving and bloodied with food flung all around him the oddly upbeat throngs of “Yellow Rose of Texas” still whirring on the jukebox but ironically Leslie has never been more proud of her man. It’s that paradoxical maxim written about many times. Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing good.

Most modern viewers will honestly thank their lucky stars that they don’t make epics like this. But there’s something fleetingly enchanting about these old-time vehicles that managed to encompass so much space with grandiose ambitions and awesome imagery full of million dollar skies and fluffy clouds as far as the eye can see.

The West is dead as is the American genre. The stars as we knew them are no more. We are still a nation struggling with issues of race and class. Love and marriage. That mixture of nostalgia and timelessness still makes Giant a draw.  George Stevens is one of The Great American Directors and though Shane (1953) will remain his unassuming masterpiece, Giant deserves at the very least a modicum amount of respect as a dying breed of American epic.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: Entry in The Elizabeth Taylor Blogathon!

Hoosiers (1986)

hoosiers_movie_poster_copyright_fairuseThe last time I saw Hoosiers it was on VHS and I was only a boy and I hardly remember anything. Gene Hackman yelling. Dennis Hopper as a drunk. Jimmy the boy wonder, “The Picket Fence”, and of course Indiana basketball at its finest. But in those opening moments, as he drives into town and walks through the halls of his new home, I realized just how much I miss Gene Hackman. Yes, he’s still with us but the moment he decided to step out of the limelight and retire from his illustrious career as an actor, films got a little less exciting. His passionate often fiery charisma is dearly missed.

Norman Dale is a character who precisely reflects those very inclinations. He’s a man who had a long stint in the Navy following a lifetime ban from collegiate basketball. Supposedly he punched out some kid. The particulars aren’t all that important but what the town of Hickory represents for him is a second chance, a clean slate to leave his mark on.

And through a no-nonsense philosophy coupled with tough love he looks to get his pistons firing on all cylinders, the ultimate goal to lead his team to a winning season. However, his tactics early on receive the ire of most of the local fan base as well as many of his players who willfully walk out on his new regime.

Barbara Hershey is the skeptical love interest who is nevertheless a cut above most of the other locals. She went away for college and returned home in an effort to care for her family. She has the coach pegged early on but he is an individual who meets the pressure of the town’s expectations and combats them the only way he knows how, by coaching hard, fundamentally sound basketball.

Certainly, at first, his boys have their misgivings but once they buy into his system and realize that he will fight for them to the end, they really do become a team–the very word that they chant every time they leave their huddle. It’s meant to define them in every game they play. Hackman’s screaming tirades are just as good as I remember as he berates referees about every call imaginable, all in an effort to intercede on behalf of his players. Meanwhile. Dennis Hopper falls into the role of disgraced father catapulted to redemption with tremendous ease showcasing his typical savvy as a character actor.

Sometimes I consider the 1980s (rather unfairly) an era devoid of quality filmmaking but a film like The Hoosiers in its goodness, as sentimental as it is, feels so utterly sincere in all of its endeavors that it hard not to be won over. The rhythms of the plot are all there to develop one of the lasting feel-good stories of a generation and Hoosiers simultaneously set the groundwork for numerous subsequent and, more often than not, lesser sports films.

There’s one scene in particular that resonated with me. It’s not necessarily crucial but it’s poignant speaking to the character of the man before us. A young man comes to not only his teacher but to his coach questioning why Dale is giving the boy’s drunken, ostracized father a chance as an assistant coach. And essentially the answer has to do with grace. No one else will give the man a second chance. No one. But doesn’t he deserve it? Maybe not at all but Coach Dale is willing to give it to him. You get the sneaking suspicion he feels precisely this way because no one ever offered him any grace when he faltered. Small towns can often be rigid, set strictly in the ways of tradition. There’s no room for errancy or disgrace of any type but then coach comes to town and changes things. Redemption is possible.

As was commonplace at the time, every day is rife with Biblical imagery no more practical than an illusion to David versus Goliath in the State Championship. Because coach Dale and his boys are big fish in a small pond transported to a veritable ocean. But he says it all when with hands together in one final huddle he says proudly, “I love you guys.” At this point, the results really don’t matter though they play a good game. Something to be proud of, reflective of everything they’ve done the entire season, one last final exhibition of what they are — a team — first and last.

I was never a gifted basketball player hailing from the Kurt Rambis school of hustle and hard knocks and that makes me thoroughly appreciate this film. It’s fundamentally sound on and off the court. It also helps that I’ve always been a sucker for nostalgia. Whether they like it or not Indiana basketball will always be defined by Hoosiers.

4/5 Stars

Review: True Grit (1969)

truegrit1My father has always maintained that two of his favorite films are The Magnificent Seven and True Grit. The first one makes sense with its stellar cast, resplendent score, and some top rate gunslinging. The second film, well, it makes sense too, but for completely different reasons.

Director Henry Hathaway is never flashy but he is a self-assured worksmith of early film-noir and westerns such as The Sons of Katie Elder. Those are minor classics, and yet each one is gripping in its own way.

John Wayne is just John Wayne pure and simple except with an eye patch slung over his eye, but do we care? Not in the slightest. When you have such a presence in a film, it will never lack at least a shred of viewing value. He was always memorable, but he was probably never more iconic than his turn as Marshall Rooster Cogburn. He’s a gruff, tough, drinking man who is willing to take on anyone and everyone at the drop of a hair. Yet despite all of that fury, Wayne embodies him in such a way that makes him lovable all the same.

Wayne is usually a given to steal the spotlight but Kim Darby gave him more than he bargained for as the stubborn, no-nonsense Maddie Ross. Following suit, singer Glen Campbell showed he can do more than knock back a tune, playing the Texas Ranger.

Darby beautifully embodies the rational-minded young Maddie with her terse and straightforward rhetoric. She knows what she wants and she will not budge on those proclivities – whatever they might be. Glen Campbell was hardly an actor, but instead a country music superstar and yet the musician makes a handy Texas Ranger in a pinch bringing a sense of camaraderie and humor to wrangle with his counterparts.

As with many of his other great westerns, Wayne and company are surrounded by a solid group of stock characters including the likes of Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, Strother Martin, and even John Fiedler.

The film is adapted from the Charles Portis novel where Maddie, intent on catching the man who killed her father, hires Cogburn to track him down. They are joined by Laboeuf and thus begins their search.

Looking at the plot alone, this film is about a journey to apprehend a fugitive man named Tom Cheney, who killed Maddy’s father as well as a Senator back in Texas. But really what we’re watching is this unlikely trio joins forces to do things we would never expect from them. It’s certainly no coon hunt, but then again it’s hardly a single-minded mission. Maddy has one opinion, the Texas Ranger has another, and Rooster Cogburn’s mostly drunk when he’s not belittling his rival or poking fun at “Baby Sister.” Do we mind? Certainly not because time makes these three companions into friends. Their ribbing gives way to trust and their anger and annoyance breed mutual respect.

Nothing beats the adrenaline rush of seeing Wayne charge across a vast meadow towards Ned Pepper and his cronies, with his guns drawn and a bridle between his teeth. The sequence is enhanced by the spectacular Colorado landscape that adds another character to the entire film. You cannot witness such a scene and simply write it off as average. That’s part of the reason we go to the movies – to see men with True Grit.

The Coen Brothers brought us a darker, more dramatic interpretation of this film, but it is hard to beat the fun of Henry Hathaway’s version. John Wayne, Rooster Cogburn, whatever you want to call him, he has True Grit. Isn’t that right baby sister?

4.5/5 Stars

Blue Velvet (1986)

bluevelvet1It’s certainly not a news flash that I often have immense troubles dealing with black, satirical comedy. I think the difficulty for me lies in the dividing line between comedy and tragedy. Oftentimes, although I’m not always fond of violence or profanity, I can make a concession if there’s something deeper behind it. With Schindler’s List, this means watching the scenes of the Holocaust, because there are vital realities to be gleaned from that. In a Scorsese film, aside from being well made, I often see them utilizing profanity in such a way that shows the corruption and baseness that lies within mankind. Take Goodfellas for instance.

All this to say, Blue Velvet was hard to pronounce a verdict for. Without a doubt, David Lynch is a worthy director with his own surrealist vision, that is nevertheless polarizing to the viewing public. There is no doubt that his films are fascinating and in moments mesmerizing; there’s no arguing on that account.

However, Blue Velvet is a dark and brooding film, as are many others, but the big difference here is that all of that is buried under a thinly layered caricature of suburbia. These scenes are so superficial; almost stupid, because the dialogue seems torn off some billboard or magazine cover. There are flowers, white picket fences, and robins denoting the changing seasons. It reminded me of some precursor to American Beauty, except the ending was brighter and the depths seemed darker.

Under the surface lies something sinister and it all comes to a boil when Jefferey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his hometown of Lumberton to visit his injured father in the hospital. The college boy comes across a severed ear, and it leads to stakeouts, and eventually brazen attempts to break into a mysterious woman’s apartment.

And as you would expect Jefferey gets in too deep, getting sucked into a twisted, subversive spiral that includes singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosellini), a sociopathic maniac named Frank (Dennis Hopper), and a whole lot of ambiguity. All things return to the status quo in this suburbia and we can go back to singing “Blue Velvet” and “In Dreams” in peace. But there’s this nagging sensation that Lynch’s treatment of this topic is utterly cruel. Isabella Rosellini gives a stellar performance that is a constant emotional roller coaster, while Dennis Hopper is the definition of a screwed up, drugged up, lunatic. These individuals have so much darkness and twisted caverns in their characters that it’s hard to leave them like this.

After all, this isn’t a big joke, and it shouldn’t be, but it’s hard to get away from that idea since the dichotomy between the two is separated here by a hair’s length. However, for others who find it easier to parse through the tonal problems I have with Blue Velvet, there’s undoubtedly a lot to take note of. This is one of those enigmatic films we leave with more question than answers; more confusion than clarity. It’s not always the easiest, but it can certainly be rewarding.

3.5/5 Stars

True Grit (1969)

6c138-truegritposterJohn Wayne was always memorable but he was probably never more iconic than his turn as Marshall Rooster Cogburn. He is a gruff, tough, drinking man who is willing to take on anyone and everyone at the drop of a hair. Yet despite all of that fury, Wayne embodies him in such a way that makes him lovable all the same.

Wayne is usually a given to steal the spotlight but Kim Darby gave him more than he bargained for as the stubborn, no-nonsense Maddie Ross. Following suit singer Glen Campbell showed he can do more than knock back a tune, playing the Texas Ranger.

As with many of his other great westerns, Wayne is surrounded by a solid group of stock characters including the likes of Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, Strother Martin, and even John Fiedler.

The film is adapted from the Charles Portis novel where Maddie, intent on catching the man who killed her father, hires Cogburn to track him down. They are joined by Laboeuf and thus begins there search.

Nothing beats seeing Wayne charge across a vast meadow towards Ned Pepper and his cronies, with his guns drawn and bridle between his teeth. The sequence is enhanced by the spectacular Colorado landscape that adds a character to the entire film. The Coen Brothers brought us a darker, more dramatic interpretation of this film, but it is hard to beat the fun of Henry Hathaway’s version. John Wayne, Rooster Cogburn, whatever you want to call him, he has True Grit. Isn’t that right baby sister?

4.5/5 Stars

Giant (1956)

This is an epic film that stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, with direction by George Stevens. It shows the ongoing conflict between a rancher (Hudson) and his former hired hand who becomes rich off oil (Dean). As Jett Rink (Dean) exclaims, he becomes even richer than the rancher Bic Benedict (Hudson) ever dreamed. The relationship escalates when Rink makes a rude remark to Leslie Benedict (Taylor), and some punches are traded. From this point on the three main characters slowly grow older and the Benedicts have children. In his final screen appearance, Dean’s character is suppose to give a speech at a large banquet. However he is so drunk he falls flat on his face a complete wreck. Giant was ahead of his time by giving commentary about the race relations with Mexicans. It also took young actors and progressively made them look older, something that was quite unusual. Although this was Dean’s final movie I think it can be said he came full circle. He began as a youth in East of Eden and by the end of Giant he was a old man.

4.5/5 Stars

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

A film starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo,  with direction by Nicholas Ray, Rebel Without a Cause follows three teenagers, who are confused and conflicted about their lives. 

The initial sequence rolling behind the opening credits has the inebriated Jim Stark lying in the street fiddling with a toy monkey. Then, he is brought into juvenile hall, and simultaneously the story gives us a glimpse of not only the rowdy Jim, but discontented Judy, and the distant boy Plato. Each one has their own personal pain, and thus this film from the beginning really focuses on three rebels, who embody the adolescent generation. James Dean is Jim Stark: the new kid on the block, who is constantly moving with his parents. In the station when his parents retrieve him, there is obvious tension on all fronts, which include heated arguments, and outbursts on the part of Jim.

The morning after being brought in he meets Judy only to get mixed up with her friends. Stark however also befriends the isolated loner Plato, who was in the station the night before. The trouble with the other teens starts with a switchblade contest during a school excursion to Griffith Observatory, but the stakes get bigger when they compete in a “Chickie Run” over a cliff. Stark lives but the other boy, Buzz, dies in the accident. Everyone flees the scene before the police arrive.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Dean and Wood’s characters gravitate towards each other. Their parents seemingly do not understand them, and so they find comfort in each other instead. Their new found friend Plato tags along as they hold up in an abandoned mansion for the night. They spend the evening lounging around, making light of their parents and just talking. 

However, all does not bode well when some of the high school thugs come looking for Stark. Plato flees the scene with a gun, and soon he has policemen on his tail. Plato is in a paranoid and unstable state. Jim tries to console him and bring him out peacefully. But despite his best efforts, tragedy strikes one final blow.  All is not wasted, however, because Jim’s father (Jim Bachus) vows to be a better and stronger parent than he was before. 

Following his breakthrough in East of Eden, Rebel would be the movie that defined Dean’s short but iconic career. His line “you’re tearing me apart!” would further define the angst felt by many teens at the time. There is a certain aura around this film for some reason, maybe because of Dean’s portrayal that is at times so moody, and at other times so subtle, but powerful nonetheless.

I think part of the credit must go to director Nicholas Ray, who gave Dean free reign to improvise and develop his character in the way he saw fit. The film is tragic in another sense because all the primary stars died at an early age. Dean’s is the most remembered, but Mineo and Wood, both died extremely young as well. In Rebel Without a Cause, they all gave memorable performances and there are other notable players in this film including the usually comedic Jim Bachus and a very young Dennis Hopper.

I think Rebel ultimately survives today because it tells a universal tale of a generational divide and a divide between young people fighting peer pressure. In the heads of teenagers the world can become jumbled and between school, fitting in, and home life it can be a struggle. This film dramatically illustrates that fact. So maybe the kids look different, the cars are older and such, but the struggles of Jim Stark, Judy, and Plato are still relatively the same.  I must say this film really makes me want to visit the Griffith Observatory too, because it became such an integral part of this film’s story, and it is still around to this day.

James Dean only had three major film performances and you could make a case for which was the best. I think it is safe to say that this role was his most iconic. It’s hard not to identify him with his red jacket, blue jeans, and the ubiquitous cigarette. He was the Rebel Without a Cause.

 
5/5 Stars

Easy Rider (1969)

d395a-easyriderStarring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, this road film follows the two young men traveling across country from L.A. after a drug deal. Along the way they meet a Hippie colony, experimenting with drugs, and simply live life as they please. Much of the movie comprises of the many pit stops they take as they make their way to Mardi Gras. Some people welcome them, and still others are hostile, especially in the South. This film does a wonderful job of portraying the counter culture generation and the experiences they had. In some ways it seems that Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda are not really acting, but partially embodying the existence that they are already used to. One of the highlights in the film would be Jack Nicholson’s odd ball, hick lawyer who crosses paths with the two hippie bikers in a Southern jail. A stellar soundtrack including such 1960s groups like the Byrds and the Band take potentially boring biking sequences and make them some of the best moments of the film. They also often express the mindset of the generation including anthems such as “Born to Be Wild” and “I Wasn’t Born to Follow.” Although it is not the greatest movie, it holds historical importance in order to help us remember this past generation.

4/5 Stars

Apocalypse Now (1979)

10713-apocnowIn this hellish adaption of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set in Vietnam, Martin Sheen is a captain given a classified mission. He must go down the river into Cambodia to terminate a Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has gone rogue. The main part of the film follows his journey on a boat with a small crew of men. They meet up with a hardened napalm-loving colonel (Robert Duvall), watch a USO show, and witness as well as take part in senseless killing. With the crew whittled down, Willard finally reaches the outpost of Kurtz, only to witness the horror that lies there. After waiting so long to complete his mission, Willard feels conflicted about it upon seeing Kurtz. This is one of Francis Ford Coppola’s most famous films and it truly was a labor of love since it took a long time to complete. Although their parts may seem minimal, Brando, Duvall, Dennis Hopper, and even Harrison Ford contribute. Because I read the source novel, I could appreciate the film in that sense but The Godfather is a better film in my opinion.

4.5/5 Stars