The Chase (1966)

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Of all the reasons to watch this movie, I felt compelled to as a roundabout reevaluation of Robert Redford’s career as he just recently said The Old Man and The Gun would be his last film. He more recently still, admitted he never should have said he was retiring but for all intent and purposes, he’s winding down, focusing his energies on other endeavors.

The Chase is situated at the beginning of his career and although he’s not quite the star, Redford has an integral part to play. Bubba is a local boy who breaks out of prison. Due to his dashing good looks, they don’t immediately place him as a runaway criminal type but if Paul Newman could do it, I gather Redford could do it too.

If we had to pick one central conceit this would be it, except, on the whole, The Chase proves a meandering epic, purely hit or miss, especially given such a promising cast. It’s as bloated with talent as it is convoluted by so many character arcs, each coming at us from all over the place with varying degrees of interest and importance.

The local sheriff, named Calder (Marlon Brando), lives an honest life with his loving wife (Angie Dickinson). There is talk around town that the lawman is in the coat pocket of prominent banker Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall). Though the accusations seem dubious based on Calder’s simple integrity. However, if it is true,  he wouldn’t be the only one intent on getting on the big man’s good side.

Soon it’s Saturday night and the whole town seems to be having a party. The most coveted one is thrown by Rogers and sure enough, among his guests are the Calders. Though they hardly fit into the upper echelon, they have an open invitation because Val is intent on staying on the incumbent lawman’s good side for what he might be able to do for him.

Meanwhile, an agitated bank employee (Robert Duvall) and his coquettish wife (Janice Rule) put on a shindig for the “normal folks” who never seem to get an invitation from Rogers. The means might be humbler but they similarly get a little tipsy while play fighting, dancing, and openly flirting with anything with a pulse and a pickup line.

Two of the most accomplished adulterers and partakers in sordid gossip-worthy fodder are Emily and Damon, who are quite openly lovey-dovey, given they are both married to other people. It’s telling that the status quo is getting drunk and carousing with other’s spouses.  We hardly bat an eye because the whole town is rampant with this kind of conduct.

Despite being the lead and raking in a hefty fee, Brando spends most of the film moseying around town making house calls or patrolling the streets. In fact, initially, it feels like the most mundane and understated performance from Mr. Brando I can recall. That is until the final act where for once his hand is forced and he has to struggle for his own survival and any semblance of small-town law and order.

The only other moment where he enters such terrain again is in the final moments on the steps of the sheriff’s office; this time to deliver retribution. Because this is a film where everything seems to go awry. If the hothouse dramas of the 50s were a dying breed, The Chase might be the closest thing to a reanimation of the genre, albeit with younger, newer blood.

However, amidst this southern operatic melodrama, helmed by Arthur Penn, The Chase still comes off somewhat dated, maybe due to its evocation of earlier works. It’s as if the picture is trying to push an agenda of social importance for a new decade but simultaneously lacks a compelling framework to work within. The point is made quite clear that African-Americans and Mexican migrant workers are second-class citizens and subsequently mostly forgotten in this story. But there are few interesting conclusions on this front.

Otherwise, for the first half, there’s nothing organic or terribly alive in terms of authenticity. Because while Brando gives a fine turn, admittedly easy to overlook, most everyone else is carried away by the drama. They have nothing to give us that feels truly genuine and the story freely escalates by upping the temperature in the ongoing search for Bubba.

Finally, Redford and Jane Fonda get together, an escaped convict reunited with his long lost wife. Maybe they didn’t know it at the time but it would be the beginning of a meaningful screen partnership which has been forged over 50 years. But before long, even this brief, potentially intimate moment is interrupted by first one party, then two, and before long the whole town has turned their moment into the latest county-wide social event.

The junkyard is the finest attraction as it promises to give them the most wanted fugitive for miles around and they’ve come to be a part of the show. Soon folks are yelling exuberantly, lobbing firecrackers into the heaps of old automobiles as car horns honk in this symphony of tumult. But if this is where the climax begins it actually ends on the steps of the jailhouse in a scene that evokes if not JFK’s assassination then certainly Jack Ruby’s actions the following day. The clouds of misery linger over the frames but that’s not our biggest regret.

I think, no fault of its own, The Chase boasts almost more talent than it knows what to do with. So many actors come together at so many different crossroads of their careers. Of course, Brando is front and center. He and Robert Duvall still had The Godfather and many other classics ahead of them. Redford and Fonda were both young talents. E.G. Marshall had an illustrious career on stage and screen while Miriam Hopkins was in her twilight years in a small role. Angie Dickinson was pretty much in her prime. Even Arthur Penn had pictures with more socially incisive commentary and interesting themes including the cinema-shattering Bonnie and Clyde released the following year.

The bottom line is that in each individual case it’s easy to think of at least a handful of films each of these actors was involved in which were more enthralling than this one. It’s hard to hold a candle to that type of competition and against it, The Chase looks fairly mediocre. True, it’s a rather unfair fulcrum to measure a movie by but in this case, it’s very hard not to. Taking these unfair biases into account, it has something to offer the viewer even if it’s not quite as satiating as one would like.

3/5 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

Review: The Godfather (1972)

godfather1That moment when the undertaker is first seen pleading for justice and the camera slowly pulls closer, it’s so slight we hardly even notice it, but we hear his bitter monologue about America and his disfigured daughter. A head appears in the frame and we get our first vision of the now iconic Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando as masterful as ever). It’s a brilliant little scene that introduces us to the character this whole narrative revolves around, and it really is an important point to enter his story, on the wedding day of his daughter.

But it’s not just this opening scene that’s of note. In the sprawling expanse of this film that goes from New York, to Hollywood, to Las Vegas, and even back to the old country in Sicily, there is so much to be taken in. A gruff studio head faces the wrath of Corleone when he gets a present in bed, and he learns never to cross the Godfather again. There’s the moment where Vito first utters the words, “Make him an offer he can’t refuse” and then it is mirrored by his son Michael later on.

godfather2You have the quip from the tubby Clemenza after they pull one of the many hits and then very business-like they leave the gun, but take the ever-important cannoli. There’s the turning point where Michael the war hero faces off against crooked cop McCluskey  (Sterling Hayden) and the opportunistic heroin dealer Solozzo because he wants revenge for the shot they took at his father. There’s the striking juxtaposition when Michael takes part in the dedication of his god-child knowing full well what is happening to the bosses all across town. Finally, we once more peer into the inner office now with Michael at the helm, and the door closes as a concerned Kay looks on at what her husband has become.

But not many people need to be told what their favorite scenes from The Godfather are, and they could probably rattle them off while giving color commentary. Aside from just being great scenes, however, these moments tie together a major theme that pervades this entire epic narrative. Because really, when you break it all down, with all the bloodshed, all the business, and everything else this film encompasses, it’s really about family. It becomes such an interesting paradigm, how Family can be sacred, held in such high regard, and yet violence is at times necessary and it’s also seen as a part of life. The two things are so interconnected and yet somehow they still can occupy two different spheres. Wives, children, etc. are left out of the fray. But when it comes down to business, men like Don Corleone will do what they have to do. After all, they are the men of the family and with that comes responsibility and a need to be stoic and strong. Never lose your temper, never show weakness, never say what you’re thinking, and always make them an offer they can’t refuse.

Vito Corleone played so famously by Marlon Brando is the epitome of The Godfather. A 40-year-old man was made to look decades older, he was given a distinctive mouth guard, and the rest is a giant simply delivering his lines with the nuanced — almost gasping delivery — that he was so well known for. He is in many ways the center point as the patriarch of this great family and the head of their business. Although his role does change as the circumstances change, he is a man of incredible influence with a great many friends, allies, as well as a few enemies. In other words, he’s the man with judges and politicians in his pocket, but it doesn’t come without a cost.

Sonny (James Caan) is the eldest son who is first in line to take over the role as head of the family. But although Sonny is a tough guy, his fiery temper is his downfall. He doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, and he lets his anger get the best of him. It doesn’t bode well in a business like his.

Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is another interesting addition to the family, because he’s not really one of them at all, but Vito took him off the street and he’s rather like a son, becoming a trusted member of Corleone’s inner circle. He helps carry out business and represents the Don when it comes to legal issues. He’s a good man to have around, but it also makes for an interesting dynamic with Sonny and even Michael.

Fredo (John Cazale) is the one brother who is lost in the shuffle, and he’s most certainly the weakest. All he’s good for is living it up and getting drunk so the family sends him to Las Vegas to stay out of trouble. He is unfit to be head of the family, because he simply has no guts and although his father cares about him, he would never trust him with the business.

Michagodfather3el (Al Pacino) comes back a war-hero and with a girlfriend in Kay (Dianne Keaton) who has no understanding of his culture or his people. In fact, the family wants to keep Michael as far from the fray of the family business as possible to protect him. The only possible role he might play is something unimportant so there’s no chance of him getting hurt. But while Don Vito is the focal point at first, The Godfather really evolves into the evolution of Michael from beginning to end. He starts out as an idealistic veteran so far removed from corruption. But the turn of events that deeply affect his family cause him to step into a different role, and he changes as a result. He is a far cry from the man we met during the wedding because now his almost subservient nature has been replaced by a cold-blooded dominance that is personified through his eyes. They’re like to icy black holes that can stare right through you, and they do.

The cinematography of Gordon Willis is obviously superb and generally popularized the golden tinge of The Godfather that gives it a classy and generally nostalgic touch of the 1940s. It makes locales like the open air wedding, Don Vito’s inner office, or even a cathedral all that more atmospheric. On his part, the score of Nino Rota manages to be hauntingly beautiful at one moment and even upbeat when necessary.

What more is there to say but that The Godfather is cinema at its purest and transcendent in its scope. There are few films that carry such magnitude in the vast annals of film history.

5/5 Stars

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Atticus_and_Tom_Robinson_in_courtHere is one of the rare occasions when novel and film are so closely connected in my mind that I cannot help love Harper Lee’s initial work and its adaptation to the screen. They’re both so timeless in their own ways. Don’t get me wrong. They are very firmly entrenched in a bygone era, but this story exudes certain themes that are universal.

It’s rather like visiting an old friend. It seemed like so long. I can hardly remember the last time I sat down with To Kill a Mockingbird the book, or the movie for that matter. And yet it rushes back so easily. The characters, the settings, the story. I can almost visualize the words on the page as the scenes take place on screen. It’s a wonderful experience and I wish I could connect with something like this more often. But To Kill a Mockingbird is special to me because I read it at a young age and really ate it up. Thanks to Peck’s performance the story was just moving the second time around. It never ceases to be.

It struck me that I thoroughly enjoy Gregory Peck’s iconic performance as Atticus Finch, because of Mary Badham. Finch is a stalwart father figure and that comes out in the ways he guides and leads his young daughter Scout through life. She has a very cut and dry view of the world, not getting down the nuances or complexities around her. What Atticus does is model what it is to live life with other people, pure and simple. He takes the complexities of life and simplifies them in terms his daughter can try to make sense of.

To a lesser extent, that means telling his kids to leave the Radleys be and complementing the always ornery Mrs. Dubose. He is not prone to bravado by acting his age instead of playing football and not gloating about his skill with a gun. He’s too humble a man for that. He also does not fight back. He has more self-respect for himself and other people.

He attempts to instill this and other skills like tact in his kids, especially naive Scout. He gives her the eponymous metaphor that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because they are a bird (supposedly) that brings only beauty and goodness into the world. And as he says, and I’m paraphrasing, you never understand someone else until you climb into their skin and walk around a bit. He delves into what empathy is and it’s what allows him to feel sorry for the Ewells, instead of desiring vengeance.

Atticus Finch is one of the special characters that I would actually use as a model. He makes me question my own actions as I take on a role much like Scout. He’s constantly reminding, constantly being patient, and modeling what it means to do what is right. All this is done without condescension, without lecturing. It’s done out of love.

His greatest act is, of course, defending accused African-American man Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), because after all, without this central point there is no film or book before it. But rather than focus on the depiction of these African-American characters and whether they are objectionable or not, I would rather acknowledge that this was a simpler time with a lot of evil still left in the world (as there is now), so this film speaks to me, because on a basic level, it is a story of good in the midst of all this blind discrimination and hatred.

That simple truth still speaks to me even with a story that is over 50 years old. The only adult cast member who is still with us now is Robert Duvall, and he is well into his 80s. Gregory Peck with his bespectacled visage and his soothing yet commanding voice is gone. Brock Peters is no longer with us, nor are the many other lesser known figures. But their story and these characters they embodied remain as a testament to Harper Lee’s original work.

It seems important to ask ourselves why would a man like Atticus do what he did? Why would he take that risk when no one else would? He answers Scout in this straightforward manner, “If I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.” He’s a man who holds himself to a different set of standards.

5/5 Stars

The Conversation (1974)

6d644-theconversationDirected by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman, this film begins with a commonplace conversation between a young man and woman in the relatively busy Union Square in San Francisco. As they make their way around their words seem of little importance and yet unbeknownst to them they are being followed and recorded. 

The mastermind behind it all is the surveillance expert Harry Caul who uses his know-how and a small team to track their words from a van.  As a professional and a highly respected member of his field, Caul is guarded and he tries not to concern himself with the reasons behind his surveillance. However, as he works his magic in his private lab space, Caul finally does become affected when he picks up on bits and pieces of the conversation. It deeply troubles him and he continually plays the tapes back. 

Because of his concern, Caul holds out on giving the tapes to the assistant of the Director, the man who commissioned the job. The aide pressures him more and more and then finally Caul finds the tapes are stolen. Fearing that the couple is in grave danger, Caul takes the room right next to theirs, but unfortunately despite his best efforts, his fears seem to be confirmed. After searching the empty room Caul goes to confront the Director only to find that things are not as they seem and Caul is the only one who realizes it. The disillusioned man is then threatened over the phone and informed that now the shoe is on the other foot and he is under constant surveillance. Little did he know the implications of the conversation… 

Gene Hackman may have played more memorable characters like Popeye Doyle, Lex Luthor, or even Norman Dale in the Hoosiers, however, I am not sure if he played a more complex character than Harry Caul. He is a detached man who has no telephone, tells white lies about his birthday, has multiple locks on his door, keeps his equipment caged and he has no significant relationships. The other side of him loves the saxophone and is a devout Catholic. He is no hero and not what we would normally call a villain. He is Harry Caul a lonely, confused human who has tendencies for good but still constantly struggles to reconcile that with his career. Above all, The Conversation is a thought-provoking psychological thriller which gives the audience lots to mull over.
 
4.5/5 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

The Godfather Part II (1974)

Starring a cast including Al Pacino and Robert De Niro with director Francis Ford Coppola, the film opens with a young Vito Corleone coming to America. The story switches gears to 1958 in Nevada where Michael Corleone has successfully moved the family. However, after a close call Michael goes to Miami and then Cuba to attend to some business having to do with a man named Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). The story alternates off and on to Vito as a young man who begins making a life for himself. Upon returning to Michael, he is in a senate hearing where he narrowly avoids being indicted for his activities. From that point on Michael shows no mercy to anyone who is in his way and that includes his family. By the end of the film he is no longer the former idealistic Michael but a callous, cold mobster.

This film was a good installment of The Godfather, acting as both a sequel and prequel. However, at times the split story did seem unnecessary but it does show a contrast between Vito and Michael. The acting, the score, and the directing were all very good. I will let others decide which installment is superior but I will say that this film shows the darker side of Michael. Ironically, he worked so hard to be strong for his family but as he feared he ultimately lost them.

4.5/5 Stars

The Godfather (1972)

This film is often cited by many as one of the greatest films of all time. I certainly would not be one to argue because it has so many extraordinary aspects. You have Brando as the title character and a great cast of others who reveal the honor as well as the brutality of this lifestyle. However this film is not just about the violence. It is complex and fascinating in many other ways.

*May Contain Spoilers

Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, and Robert Duvall, with director Francis Ford Coppola, this is possibly one of the greatest films ever. It begins at a wedding in the 1940s as Don Vito Corrleone takes care of some “business” as head of the family. All too soon it becomes evident that the Don is loyal to his friends and ruthless to those in his way. His youngest son Michael returns from the war and wants nothing to do with the business but at the same time conflict blows up when the family does not back a heroin dealer. When the Don comes close to death Michael finally gets involved. After a series of events he becomes head of the family and soon proves how powerful he can be. Although this film has so much fan fare I did enjoy it a lot. Like I said before it is not just about the violence by any means. It is a period piece with an intriguing story and complex and interesting characters that truly reel you in.

5/5 Stars