Category Archives: Classic

“Mean Streets” Movie Review

With Todd Phillips’ Joker coming out this month, there is so much attention given to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I decided if we’re gonna talk about that film’s obvious influences from Scorsese, why not go back to his real roots? This crime drama was originally released in theaters by Warner Bros. Pictures on October 14th, 1973. Part of the reason it managed to see the light of day is because some of his fellow “Film School Brats” of the Hollywood New Wave helped him get it off the ground. When it finally did, it managed to gross over $3 million against a production budget of around $500,000, which was considerably low at the time. The film also managed to become extremely popular with critics and young NYC audiences when released, including a rare positive response from Pauline Kael. Co-written and directed by Martin Scorsese, the screenplay initially began as a continuation of characters from his debut feature Who’s That Knocking at My Door. The film is said to based on real events Scorsese witnessed regularly as child in the Little Italy neighborhood. The director almost made it in the style of a Blaxploitation film for Roger Corman before a connection got him in contact with producer Jonathan Taplin, who managed to secure studio funding. While it is his third directorial effort overall, it’s apparently the first one made completely of his own fingerprints. Set in a small New York City neighborhood, Harvey Keitel stars as Charlie Cappa, an Italian-American man and small-time hoodlum. He’s best friends with young gambler John “Johnny Boy” Civello, played by Robert De Niro, who’s swimming in debts to local loan sharks. Charlie is struggling to reconcile his deep Catholic beliefs with his aspirations to rise in the local mob run by his uncle Giovanni, played by Cesare Danova. However, as Johnny Boy’s behavior towards other street-level thugs becomes increasingly volatile, their chances of making it out alive get increasingly harder. This is not usually the film that people talk about whenever Martin Scorsese’s name comes up in conversation. It’s understandable why not, since it’s very early work and clearly lacking the finesse of some of his later films. But I still feel like it’s important to acknowledge where every artist gets their start, no matter how bumpy it is. Recently, almost all of the auteur’s early films appeared on Netflix, including Taxi Driver and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I thought it would be a cool change of pace to steer clear of his more well-known pictures and choose something a little more hard edge for him. And Mean Streets proves to be a pretty good starting point for the director, even if it’s more amateurish than his later works. Scorsese’s career-long fascination with Italian-American crime is evident here in the look at all these small time hustlers. The mob itself isn’t captured in as much sprawling detail as it would be in the future with Goodfellas and Casino, but there’s a certain quality to it that makes it feel lived-in and real. Everyone in this neighborhood knows everyone and what they’ve done, and that doesn’t always bode well for the protagonists. Where Mean Streets falters a little is that it’s sometimes hard to care for the characters and what they’re all doing. There are numerous scenes where multiple people are talking over one another with lots of vulgarity, which helps give it a fly-on-the-wall feeling. But seeing this and watching them do reprehensible things for about 2 hours can get exhausting, especially because none of the characters really change by the end. Harvey Keitel has always been an underrated actor in my opinion, and his performance in this film is proof of that. As Charlie, he’s very conflicted about his choice of career as it contrasts heavily with his Catholic background. He does his best to keep cool but when pressured just enough, he explodes in a fury of anger that’s hard to look away from. And in the first on nine collaborations with the director, Robert De Niro is absolutely incredible as Johnny Boy, one of his most unpredictable characters. In every scene, he’s extremely volatile and fast-moving, practically refusing to stay in the same place for very long. There’s a tinge of melancholy to his character as he just gets himself into more and more trouble as the plot rolls along. These two characters are undoubtedly the main focus of the whole movie and rightly so. De Niro and Keitel’s chemistry is excellent and you really feel like these two have been friends for a long time. This duo is also flanked by a capable supporting cast of character actors, who fill various roles with lots of appropriate gusto. Chief among them are Richard Romanus as one particularly irked loan shark trying to collect his due, George Memmoli as a pool hall owner, Amy Robinson as Johnny’s cousin and Charlie’s secret girlfriend, and Cesare Danova as Charlie’s calculating and cautious uncle in the mob. Each one has something to lose to someone else and the film’s refusal to paint a black-and-white portrait of the characters is very engaging. And when it comes to the technical aspects, Mean Streets shows Scorsese’s distinct voice gradually developing. In his professional film, Kent L. Wakeford’s cinematography has a certain cinéma vérité quality to it. Nearly every scene is handheld and follows the characters through the grimy and ugly streets of New York. There’s also a beautiful use of the color red, as it often appears in a hazy dominance over several scenes. Whether it’s a birthday party for a drunken soldier or a simply night out at the bar, the color red is almost always there as if to foreshadow the bloodshed in this lifestyle. This just about works on par with Sidney Levin’s editing job, which cuts between each scene exhaustively. While lacking real precision, its intentions are still clear as it never tries to linger too long on violence or nudity to avoid being gratuitous. A couple moments also involve freeze frame, which gives leeway for Charlie’s narration of his thoughts. Although, there are a handful of moments where it’s hard to figure out who’s saying what, but that just adds to the immersion of this world. Mean Streets is a bumpy but solid start to a great auteur’s career. Although I’d never rank it alongside his best work, Martin Scorsese still manages to paint a unique picture of crime in an environment that seems familiar yet alien. With actors that would later become his own regular collaborators, it could certainly be argued that this served as the basic blueprint for his films to follow. It gets very rough around the edges and probably not worth watching more than twice, but if it helped lead to the director’s later masterpieces, than I am content with it.

“Citizen Kane” Movie Review

Oh yeah, we’re going there now. As part of my New Year’s resolution, I’ve finally decided to takcle what is widely considered to be the best film ever made. This historical drama premiered at the Palace Theatre on May 1st, 1941, before being released in other theaters on September 5th of that year. Although it did well in larger city venues, because of outside industry pressure, numerous theaters and rural areas refused to screen it. As a result, it failed to recoup its $839,727 budget during its theatrical run and faded from public mindset despite good critical reviews. However, it was brought back to attention after it was praised by such people as Roger Ebert and André Bazin and ultimately got a re-evaluation in America starting in 1956. Since then, it has been held up as one of the greatest films of all time and has influenced countless filmmakers in the generations afterward. Directed by Orson Welles, the film was his first time working on a feature film after an extensive history with Broadway and the infamous radio show War of the Worlds. While he was only 25 at the time, RKO Pictures signed him to an unprecedented deal which gave him immense freedom, including final cut and using his own cast and crew. The screenplay is largely attributed to co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, but the true extent of Welles’ contribution to it has been fiercely disputed by many, including critic Pauline Kael. Although the true source has been debated, it’s universally believed that publisher William Randolph Hearst served as the inspiration for the title character, who consequentially did everything in his power to destroy or discredit the film. By now, you probably know the general story: Welles stars as Charles Foster Kane, a notorious newspaper business tycoon who has amassed one of the biggest fortunes in the world. At the very beginning of the film, he dies alone in his Xanadu mansion of old age, only uttering the cryptic word “Rosebud.” Soon after, newsreel journalist Jerry Thompson, played by William Alland, sets off on an investigation to figure out the word’s real meaning. As he interviews various people from Kane’s life and reads confidential files, we the audience get to see in flashbacks of the mogul’s rise to power and, ultimately, his loss of innocence. Last fall, Netflix’s finished cut of The Other Side of the Wind was the very first feature film by Orson Welles I had ever fully watched. His other works had always been on my radar, (Touch of Evil is still very high on my watchlist) but somehow his world-famous debut had always eluded me. Until now, that is. Whenever I sit down to watch a highly revered movie, I have a bit of reservation about its praise. And in this case, this is considered to be the best film ever, so I tried to distance myself from all of the hype to ensure I could watch it on my own terms. And I can personally attest that Citizen Kane is indeed worthy of all that acclaim that’s built up over the last 78 years. Before you immediately decide to write this film off as “overrated,” please just consider how it was made and how its reputation was built. It was plagued with production problems, dealt with a media mogul who went to extreme (And allegedly illegal) lengths to bury it before it even premiered, had Hollywood veterans skeptical of such a young man taking on an ambitious project, and still managed to completely change the game of cinema. Not just in terms of technical innovations but also how the storytelling challenged typical structure and plotting. By constantly moving back and forth in time, Citizen Kane becomes a tragedy as we witness a man completely indifferent to wealth become defined by it. The fact that it’s original title was The American is no accident, as the film seeks to indict the cost of power and fame at a time when unbridled capitalism was arguably at its peak. But no amount of witty quips or bad art he purchases can bring him any real sense of happiness or fulfillment. In his multihyphenate debut for a feature film, Orson Welles is nothing short of incredible as Charles Foster Kane. Although he starts out with a genuine desire to hold up freedom of the press, he gradually becomes more power hungry and surrounded by money he has no idea what to do with. When chided by his former mentor for his brand of newspaper journalism, he simply replies, “I have no idea how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher, I just try whatever I can think of.” He’s able to believably portray Kane’s downward spiral from early adulthood into an old man in his twilight years. Ruth Warrick and Dorothy Comingore are equally great as Kane’s first and second wife, respectively. It’s clear that Kane sees them both more as an object of his affection, and like everything else in his life, he seeks to control their actions. This comes into conflict with both of them, and their failed marriages with him add layers to his decline in humanity and empathy. William Alland is also great as Jerry Thompson, the newsreel reporter trying to find more truth on “Rosebud”‘s meaning. Although his face is never fully shown to the audience, his soft voice and constant movement about the frame make him an intriguing and memorable character. It’s clear that he’s deeply fascinated by the life og the mogul and how it affected those around him. Welles brings his Mercury Theatre troupe to the silver screen in various supporting roles and bit parts. These include Joseph Cotten as Kane’s longtime friend and business partner, Ray Collins as his shrewd political rival, Paul Stewart as Kane’s ambivalent butler, Agnes Moorehead as Kane’s well-meaning but financially strained mother, George Coulouris as and Everett Sloane as a kindly employee at The Inquirer. Although none had any prior cinematic experience, their professionalism and commitment is so apparent in every scene. And from a purely technical perspective, Citizen Kane has so many innovations that deserve their own whole essays. Greg Tolland’s cinematography is steady and controlled, capturing everything it needs to in the frame. Easily the biggest breakthrough is the deep focus technique, where everything in the foreground is as visible as what’s in the background. It allows many small things to be captured in gorgeous ways. The movement and placement of the camera is also key, as we get to see many great long takes and a scene where the crew literally cut a whole in the floor to get a shot. This perfectly matches up with Robert Wise’s editing job, which found new and interesting ways to move between scenes. Whether it was a slow dissolve over new audio or vice versa, each moment carried seamlessly into the next one. Not only that, it used whip pans and subtle cuts to advance the timeline, especially during a scene depicting Kane’s crumbling first marriage. And the collapsible set created to pan from a neon sign down through a rainy window into a restaurant is one of the best transitions in any film. Frequent Alfred Hitchcock muse Bernard Hermann composed and conducted the instrumental film score. It’s a unique and wide-ranging one, mirroring the life of its titular protagonist. Some tracks utilize low brass and strings to emphasize the melancholy of his greedy decline in humanity. Others, particularly during scenes of his younger years, are more exuberant and exciting with big percussion and winds. It perfectly reflects his initial optimism for The Inquirer down to his lonely final years and culminates in a big final piece. The orchestral swell as the last shots reveal the truth of everything hits its impact very well. There are only a handful of films in history that can comfortably say they had a major impact on the film industry. And it’s perfectly understandable if some viewers are hesitant to watch it because it’s put so high up on the proverbial pedestal. But that shouldn’t deter you because it’s actually much more entertaining and engaging that some people believe; within the first 10 minutes, you’ll be hooked until the very end. Citizen Kane is an extremely important cinematic landmark that’s worthy of its loft reputation. At the age of 25, Orson Welles completely disrupted the idea of how movies were and should be made. Its influence can be seen nearly everywhere after being released, just to give you an idea of its impact. It has inspired generations of aspiring filmmakers and cinephiles over the decades, including yours truly. Not bad for a film that was nearly destroyed by the very man who inspired the protagonist.

“Cinema Paradiso” Movie Review

No joke, I genuinely believe that this movie is compulsory viewing for anyone who claims to be a cinephile or aspiring filmmaker. Or at the very least, it can act as a great segue into understanding why it’s so important to many of us. This Italian romantic dramedy was released in theaters by Miramax on November 17th, 1988, before also screening at the Cannes Film Festival the following year. It managed to gross over $12.3 million at the U.S. box office alone, and become a huge hit in other territories. Garnering huge critical acclaim the world over, it went on to won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, among other accolades. Numerous filmmakers, such as Roberto Benigni and Gabriele Salvatores, have publicly credited the film with reviving the Italian film industry. Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, the film largely draws on his own childhood experiences. This goes as far as having most of the film shot in his rural Sicilian hometown, with many flashback sequences resembling an idealized version of his memories. Originally running 155 minutes long, after its poor commercial reception in Italy, the producers cut it down by over half an hour for better profits. One of the main actors spoke all his lines in his native French language, having another actor dub over his lines afterwards in Italian. Jacques Perrin stars as Salvatore Di Vita, an acclaimed Italian filmmaker living in Rome in the 1980’s. One night, he receives a phone call informing him that his mentor film projectionist Alfredo, played by Phillippe Noiret, has died. He returns to his hometown in Sicily for the funeral and becomes confronted with various memories and faces from his past. From there, we get to see flashbacks recounting his childhood self, played by Salvatore Cascio, as he begins a passionate love for film in post-World War II Italy. When people talk about films made by movie fans for movie fans, this is most definitely the one that springs to mind. Tornatore’s passionate love for the medium is clear in every frame of the film, with subtle or overt references to other works. Hell, I can personally attest that it has inspired me in several ways, and can definitely appeal to people new to foreign cinema. Even so, I wasn’t entirely sure if some, if any, of that initial magic would remain on this rewatch. Perhaps it might have been a case of a highly acclaimed or beloved picture that I liked mainly because of its enormous hype. Thankfully, Cinema Paradiso actually proves the opposite, turning out to be an improvement on repeat viewings. This film is really like a childhood blanket: warm, comforting, and filled with so many memories that it’s hard to let go. The director doesn’t just make a loving homage to cinema as a whole, but frames it as a way to project his relationships and family from childhood into adulthood. The escapism and power of the reel is an amazing foil to Salvatore’s hometown, which was in ruins following World War II and heavily censored by the people in charge at the time. At times, Cinema Paradiso does get in danger of letting nostalgia cloud the rest of what the film tries to say about maturity and letting go. It’s almost always at its best whenever Salvatore is clearly going through an emotional struggle to reconcile his dreams with his reality. But overall, it’s able to keep the course and get to one of the most beautiful final scenes in history. Salvatore Di Vita is played here in three separate stages of his life by Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, and Jacque Perrin, respectively. All three of them shine in different ways and bring new shades to the character as the timeline bounces back and forth. From an idealistic young child to a teenager with a head full of dreams to a famous yet jaded filmmaker, we get to see him evolve with cinema as his only true companion along the way. By his side as a child and teenager is Phillippe Noiret as Alfredo, one of the greatest mentors in the history of film. Initially reluctant to take Salvatore on as his protégé, his deep passion for movies and hidden compassion brings many great adventures between the two. More often than not, he is quoting a famous or obscure line from films, and frequently uses the medium to teach Salvatore lessons about life. These two central characters are flanked by a group of smaller but equally capable actors. Chief among them is Agnese Nano as Salvatore’s first (And really) only true love, Antonella Attili as his mother struggling to adjust to post-war life as a war widow, and Leopoldo Trieste as the strict priest who tries to censor the movie theater from what it can show. Each one plays an integral part in the lives of either Salvatore or Alfredo, and come in and out of play throughout the timeline. And from a technical standpoint, Cinema Paradiso plays lovingly with filmmaking conventions across the board. The cinematography by Blasco Giurato captures the filmmaker’s childhood hometown in Sicily with great authenticity and wonder. The swift push-ins and long-shots make it almost seem like something ripped right out of an old fable. The frame always stays fixated on the main subject and moves around when necessary. This plays into the idea that the film is told almost exclusively from the point-of-view of Salvatore. It is practically enhanced by the editing job by Mario Morra, who was nominated for a BAFTA for his work here. Scenes transition from one to another using classic film techniques such as the cross dissolve or slow fade out. It also cuts between different shots quite effectively with a nice variety sprinkled throughout. It also moves in and out of various establishments in the time between the different timelines, showing how much they’ve changed, if at all. The instrumental film score was composed and conducted by industry legend Ennio Morricone. It might just be his most underrated score to date, nearly on par in quality with his other, more famous work. It mostly uses strings, piano, and an oboe, and that simplicity helps cut straight to the emotion evident in the film. Several tracks blend into the same “Love Theme,” which perfectly represents the heart of the film. All of these elements culminate in one of the most memorable endings and montages in film history. Nicknamed the kissing montage, it’s a fantastic sequence as all of the themes and ideas of the film suddenly come rushing forward at once. It may be one of those moments that transcends the barrier of language and translation, as anyone watching it will understand its emotional impact. Cinema Paradiso is a heartwarming and inviting tribute to memory and the movie. Giuseppe Tornatore’s semi-autobiographical take on the story makes it feel all the more personal and intimate, as we really get to know this town and its characters. Stacked with a great cast and one of the best endings in film history, watching this film may as well be an informal version of film school. And I’m more than content with that observation.

“The Wizard of Oz” Movie Review

So this August officially marks the 80th (Yes, EIGHTIETH) anniversary of this classic movie. If that still isn’t enough reason for me to review it now, than I honestly don’t know what is. This musical fantasy film was originally released in theaters by MGM on August 25th, 1939. Budgeted at $2.8 million, the studio’s most expensive produciton at the time, it failed to make a real profit and only garnered around $3.01 million at the box office at the time, likely due to Gone With the Wind being released at the same time. However, the film became a massive success on home video and television re-runs starting in 1956, becoming an annual tradition on CBS. According to the Library of Congress, it is actually the most watched motion picture in film history. In addition, it was one of the first 25 films to be inducted into the National Film Registry, one of the few films included on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, and is considered one of the most influential films in history. Directed by Victor Fleming, (Who also helmed Gone With the Wind) the film is (quite loosely) adapted from L. Frank Baum’s wildly popular novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, whose rights had been in Samuel Goldwyn’s possession for some time. Throughout pre-production and production, numerous writers, actors, and even directors were swapped as the script constantly changed, including an early attempt to pander to young audiences. Producer Melvin LeRoy consistently toyed with the runtime and content of the picture, including almost cutting “Over the Rainbow” and abandoning a stencil-printed transition from sepia-tone to color. It’s also the source of an infamous urban legend regarding the alleged on-set suicide of a Munchkin actor, which multiple people have denied is true. The iconic story follows Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, a poor farm girl from Kansas living a dreary, seemingly unhappy life. After a major tornado strikes, she and her dog Toto leave their home to realize that they have been transported to Munchkinland, one of several provinces in the magical Land of Oz. However, she immediately draws the ire of the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Margaret Hamilton, who vows revenge on Dorothy for killing her sister with the falling house. Picking up ruby slippers off of the Wicked Witch of the East’s body, she sets off on the Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City, where the mysterious and all-powerful Oz can potentially send her home- and along the way she meets a brainless Scarecrow, a heartless Tin Man, and a Cowardly Lion. Do I really need to emphasize how important this film is to both the medium and American pop culture as a whole? All of the aforementioned honors above should already be enough to convince anyone of its significance, but the fact that it’s turned 80 years old is just remarkable. One couldn’t throw a stone very far without seeing its influence to this very day, both for better and for worse. Even though most people have already seen it in their childhood, there is a bit of worry that it won’t quite hold up watching it all grown up. Whether it turned out to hold some fairly offensive imagery or subtext or simply because of its old age, that’s always a concern for films like this. And while that fear seems true initially, The Wizard of Oz is still as magical and joyous and fun as you remember it being. Sure, the dialogue and its delivery is cheesy, some of the effects are dated, the songs are clearly written with younger audiences in mind, and a number of other things have noticeably aged. But measure it up against most other family films from the era, and it still holds up remarkably well because of its universality. The idea of home and belonging somewhere is something anyone can relate to. Granted, The Wizard of Oz removes a lot of the darker elements from L Frank Baum’s novel, but that arguably makes it more accessible. It’s not everyday that a film from 80 years ago can still be just as meaningful to kids of this era as it was to children of the time when it was released. I can only hope films of today will have a similar impact decades from now. Judy Garland is a silver screen legend who had a deeply tragic life and, for better and worse, this is the role she will always be remembered for. Her performance as Dorothy is iconic as ever, portraying an innocence and childlike wonder that’s desperate to see more of the world. She’s kind and courteous but never afraid to stand up for herself or the people she cares about, and has such a golden singing voice. She is joined by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, respectively. Their own songs are memorable in their own way, providing individual motivations and dance numbers. All of them have their own little traits that make them impossible to forget, and each has a reason to getting to the titular Wizard of Oz. Speaking of which, Frank Morgan is also memorable as the Wizard himself, even if he’s not in the movie much. He initially appears as a very intimidating figure but later turns out to be a lot more human and understanding. And while Billie Burke, Charles Grapewin, and Clara Blandick leave impressions as well, Margaret Hamilton is easily the most iconic as the Wicked Witch of the West. Covered in green makeup and carrying a terrifying screeching voice, she absolutely chews the scenery every time she’s on-screen. Her utter commitment to the role ensures her place among the most iconic movie villains of all time. And technically speaking, The Wizard of Oz had many innovations that are still impressive today. The Academy Award-nominated cinematography by Harold Rosson is still just as stunning as it was back then. Utilizing a lot of long-takes, we get the full scope of the unique fantasy world presented to us. And considering it was 1939, many of the in-camera special effects still hold up pretty well. The editing by Blanche Sewell is almost on the level of the camera work. The transitions between scenes is masterful and clean, keeping the pacing aloof for the whole 101 minute-long runtime. And while it does include the aforementioned “oners” quite often, it also includes enough cuts in each scene to keep things interesting. The first 20-30 minutes of the film are in a sepia-toned, black-and-white world. However, when we are transported to Munchkinland, we become immersed in the bright delights of Technicolor, one of the first features to be done is such a way. The shot transitioning from inside Dorothy’s house into Munchkinland is one of the greatest shots in the history of film. And the songs; oh Lord, the songs in this film. Harold Arlen and Edgar “Yip” Harburg are responsible for the soundtrack, easily ranking among the best in the industry. Ranging from “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” to “We’re Off to See the Wizard” to “If I Only Had a Brain,” each one is instantly recognizable, even if you’ve never seen the movie itself. Many of them have reprisals throughout, ensuring a sing-along with families for generations. But the clear winner is “Over the Rainbow,” sung by none other than Garland herself. Somber yet hopeful, the composition combined with her amazing voice make it a truly timeless song. It’s also sadly prescient for the singer-actress’ tumultuous life off-screen and the  With endlessly memorable songs, iconic imagery, immortal characters, and quotable lines, The Wizard of Oz is an unquestionable watershed moment for cinema in every conceivable way. Even with its troubled production, Victor Fleming and MGM managed to completely change the game of moviemaking forever. It’s nearly impossible to imagine American pop culture today without this film; its influence and reach can be seen everywhere. There may exist another film as influential as this to come, but it’s probably far away from here, laying somewhere over the rainbow.

“Inglourious Basterds” Movie Review

There might not be any action in modern world history more fundamentally American than killing or humiliating Nazis. If only our own current leadership could realize this. This unconventional war movie initially competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Although it didn’t win the big prize, one of the breakout stars won the Best Actor award, as well as a BAFTA and Academy Award later on in awards season. It was released in theaters by The Weinstein Company on August 21st, 2009, having been released the previous day in Germany. It managed to earn over $321.5 million at the worldwide box office against a budget of $70 million, making it the director’s highest-grossing movie at that point. It was also a critical smash, taking home numerous accolades that included 8 Academy Award nominations. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, the auteur had spent just over a decade writing the screenplay, at one point producing three completed scripts. It was so big that he briefly flirted with the idea of making it into a miniseries, ultimately trimming it down after finishing his Kill Bill duology. The director’s longtime distributor, The Weinstein Company, heavily accelerated production in hopes of making it to Cannes on time, and was the last collaboration between Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender. The title is a deliberate misspelling of director Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 film Inglorious Bastards, who also makes a cameo as an S.S. officer. Set during World War II, the story follows a young Jewish French woman named Shoshanna Dreyfus, played by Mélanie Laurent, who seeks revenge against the Nazi regime for the murder of her family. At the same time, a group of Jewish-American soldiers led by Aldo “The Apache” Raine, played by Brad Pitt, slowly carve a path of resistance behind enemy lines. Both parties are under the suspicion of S.S. Colonel Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz, a notorious officer with the given nickname “The Jew Hunter.” All of their paths eventually culminate in a film premiere for a Paris theater where many important Germans are attending. At the risk of bias, I’ll admit to having a bit of a personal connection to this movie because it was the first Tarantino film I ever watched. I was fairly young when I first saw it, and had heard that, at least compared to the director’s other films, it was pretty tame. And now, with the lone exception of 2007’s Death Proof, I’ve watched all of his films at least once. Most filmmakers at some point in their career feel like they have a World War II film inside that they want to make. And how would Quentin Tarantino, the same man who made people laugh when a young man was accidentally shot in the face, manage to tackle one of the most extensively covered periods in cinema history? The answer is Inglourious Basterds, a glorious and immensely satisfying film with tons of rewatch factors. Let’s just start by completely throwing out any discussions about historical accuracy because this movie clearly isn’t interested in holding to that. Instead, like most of his oeuvre, this film acts as an extensive homage to classic and foreign cinema and an examination of violence. While not as gratuitous as some of his other films, such as Django Unchained, it still uses shock factor to highlight the regular death toll in a war. This being a Tarantino joint, it’s also, of course, an homage to the medium of film in unexpected ways. As much of the story revolves around a Paris movie theater, we get to see how celluloid is developed and put into a projector for screenings. For aspiring filmmakers and devoted cinephiles such as myself, this is a wonderful thing to watch and makes me excited to see it further explored in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Brad Pitt has worked with a number of great directors to great results, and his turn as Aldo Raine is easily one of his most memorable roles. With a thick Tennessee accent and an affinity for large knives, he has a swaggering personality and forceful nature that makes him a natural leader. When rousing up his troops, he enthusiastically tells them, “Nazis ain’t got no humanity. They’re the foot soldiers of a Jew-hating, mass murdering maniac and they need to destroyed.” A newcomer to the States at the time, Mélanie Laurent also proves a leading lady to be reckoned with as Shoshanna. One of the strongest women Tarantino has created, it is very clear that she will stop at nothing to take revenge on the Nazis for what they did to her family, and internalizes much of her trauma and anger. August Diehl, Daniel Brühl, Alexander Fehling, Sylvester Groth, Léa Seydoux, and Denis Ménochet shine as locals under the French regime while B.J. Novak, Mike Myers, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth, and Diane Kruger do well as Allied members. But of course, the true standout of the movie is Christoph Waltz in his show-stopping performance as Colonel Hans Landa. The director has frequently called Landa the greatest character he’s ever written, and Waltz plays into it beautifully with tons of charm and bravado covering his truly terrifying nature. In nearly every scene he’s in, he remains in total control of the situation, gleefully manipulating his subjects while never revealing all his cards. To me, there’s no villain more intimidating than that, which is why he is one of the most memorable of the last decade. And from a technical perspective, Inglourious Basterds shows Tarantino further developing his craft and voice. With his regular cinematographer Robert Richardson, the camera is precise and deliberate as always. Many of the character interactions are captured in gorgeous medium shots and the camera often remains in one place during a scene, zooming in or panning when necessary. Numerous colors pop out in the frame, including red for blood and the Nazi flag, and black for the uniforms. There are some pretty evocative shots that reference Western and war films of the past, such a John Ford-esque shot of an open doorway. This was the last film by the director to be edited by longtime collaborator Sally Menke, who died not long after its release. With her skill, every scene is perfectly cut together and the transition between segments or “chapters” of the story feels organic. One standout Mexican standoff in a basement is expertly made, because a LOT happens in a short amount of time and we’re still able to follow the chaos. As with most of his films, there is no original score for the film. Instead, the director uses various pre-existing tracks to help create the mood. Although he wanted Ennio Morricone to compose the soundtrack, he did end up using 8 tracks of his from other films. This helps to establish the tone of a Spaghetti Western in Nazi-occupied France. There’s also an excellent montage later in the film featuring the song “Cat People” by David Bowie, which works splendidly. Inglourious Basterds is a cleverly written and fantastically performed slice of alternative history. I can confidently say that this is Quentin Tarantino’s second-best film, and definitely one of his most rewatchable ones. As always, he breaks the traditional rules for filmmaking, and it’s all the better for it; a World War II film where a beefy 70% of the dialogue is spoken in French and German. Very few other American filmmakers would attempt something like that, and that’s what I love most about him.

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“Pulp Fiction” Movie Review

Alright, since Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s 9th and potentially penultimate feature, is being released later this month, I decided it would be a great opportunity to look back at a couple of my favorite films of his. I highly doubt I’m the only cinephile to come up with this idea, but it gives me an excuse to talk about some of them. This neo-noir black comedy premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Palme d’Or despite protests from certain filmgoers. It was later theatrically released in the United States on October 14th, 1994, following a length festival run and huge word-of-mouth among critics. It managed to gross $213.9 million at the worldwide box office against a budget of $8 million, far more profitable than the average indie film at the time. It’s marketing campaign and awards season glory, including an Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay, went on to have a fundamentally huge impact not just on independent cinema but the film industry at large. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, the story was originally conceived as a short by the director and his longtime friend Roger Avary, but it later evolved into a feature with an anthology trilogy. A couple of scenes that made it into the final product were originally intended for Tarantino’s earlier screenplay True Romance. Producer Lawrence Bender originally set it up at TriStar Pictures, who dropped the project after being horrified by its depiction of drugs and violence. The script was later brought to Miramax and the Weinstein brothers, who immediately bought the rights to it, making it the first feature film Miramax ever financed. The film follows various interwoven stories concerning criminal figures in Los Angeles over a couple of days. These include two philosophical hitmen debating retirement, a violent washed up boxer on the run from a mob boss, a Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple holding up a restaurant, and said mob boss’ wife going on a turbulent night out with one of his men. And to make things even more enticing, all of these vignettes are presented out of chronological order, so characters float in and out at various moments. I feel like I shouldn’t have to emphasize how deeply impactful this film has been on the world cinema over the last 25 years. Hell, even the poster for this film has already become a staple of college dorm rooms and cinephile apartments everywhere. Even if you only have a casual or passing interest in movies, this film will always make its way into your orbit one way or another. I was extremely curious to see how well it would hold up on this rewatch, especially after developing his craft further over the years to come. Would it seem obsolete and amateurish compared to the director’s later works? As it turns out, quite the opposite; even after making 8 feature-length movies, Pulp Fiction unquestionably remains Tarantino’s magnum opus. Under most circumstances, no film should be able to keep an audience’s attention through conversations about foot massages and a 5-dollar milkshake. But one of Tarantino’s best weapons has always been and continues to be his masterful ability to write dialogue that feels both cool and natural in his characters’ mouths. He uses these extended diatribes about trivial subjects both to help characterize the individuals on-screen and subtly hint at their interpretation of certain events in the story. Speaking of story, the decision to split the narrative up into different chunks and rearrange them all out of order is kind of an ingenious idea. I’m fairly confident that if this film were told in chronological order, it would not have become nearly as successful as it is now. But thankfully, Pulp Fiction feels like one of those old magazines with different crime stories- unexpectedly interwoven in a really graceful and organic way. Another one of the director’s specialties is getting the perfect actors for various roles and really pushing them to do their best. Two prime examples are John Travolta and Bruce Willis as Vincent Vega and Butch Coolidge, a bumbling hitman and runaway boxer, respectively. Both of these men’s careers were in a rut and yet somehow Tarantino was able to resurrect them by making these two interesting and unpredictable in nature. Another huge standout for me is Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace, wife to an intimidating local mob boss. Even as the literal face of the movie on most of the marketing material, she’s surprisingly in the movie prominently only for one segment, “Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife.” Despite this, she still leaves a huge impression as a cocaine-addicted aspiring actress who just wants to have fun night out, especially during a dance sequence to “Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield. But let’s be honest here, people: it’s Samuel L. Jackson in his star-making turn as Jules Winnfield that really brings the movie to a homerun. The first of several collaborations between the actor and filmmaker, he clearly relishes the role as an efficient hitman who comes into a spiritual crisis. It’s perfectly easy to see why Tarantino wrote the role specifically for Jackson, particularly when he recites a passage from Ezekiel before offing a victim: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides y the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.” He’s had many great roles since then, but this will always be his defining role. And on a purely technical level, Pulp Fiction demonstrates Tarantino’s early prowess behind the camera. Many below-the-line team members had previously worked with the director on Reservoir Dogs, including cinematographer Andrej Sekula. His anamorphic cinematography creates a wonderful and diverse canvas with a beautiful film stock that leaves no grain. The camera almost always seems to know exactly to keep a focus on and a number of scenes are done in long takes. This is leveraged by the late Sally Menke’s fantastic editing job. Every single scene and shot is cut together to the director’s incredibly specific vision, giving us just what we need to see. It also manages to be a punchline for certain scenes featuring pitch black humor and mystery. Whether it’s the golden gleam from a McGuffin-like briefcase or the sudden cut from a guy accidentally getting shot in the face, the movie juggles a handful of tones that are beautifully interwoven. There is no original score for this film. Instead, we’re treated to a diverse and appropriate soundtrack full of songs from different eras. Starting and ending with surf rock interpretations of various songs, every selection is so obscure yet perfect for the moment. My personal favorite is Neil Diamond’s “Girl You’ll Be a Woman,” another little dance sequence for Mia Wallace. I don’t know how he does it or where he finds these songs, but the director always picks the right track for whatever scene it’s used in. And of course, with such a big, influential film like this, there came a wave of imitators in its wake. You know the types I’m talking about: fast-paced, dialogue-heavy movies with witty criminals as the central characters where violence is often used as a punchline for the humor. And yet, no matter what, none of those are ever able to measure up to what this film did because it simply did all of that right. Pulp Fiction is a cleverly written and highly rewatchable watershed moment for cinema across the board. While he’s made several other great films since this one’s release, Quentin Tarantino will always have to measure his filmography to this early masterwork. The characters and dialogue will far outlast any of the filmmakers and actors involved in this project. It’s rightfully become one of the quintessential films to watch as part of becoming a cinephile alongside Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Star Wars, and more.

“Apollo 13” Movie Review

Yeah, I know it’s not really the appropriate month, but this coming July 20th will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. And I thought it would be extremely appropriate to revisit one of the earliest films about astronauts. This space-centric historical docudrama was originally released in theaters on June 30th, 1995. Made for the budget of $52 million, it went on to gross over $355 million at the worldwide box office and brought in a little more when it was re-released in IMAX in 2002. It also garnered some of the best reviews from that year and was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It ultimately won two in technical categories and scored numerous victories elsewhere. Directed by Ron Howard, the film is adapted from the nonfiction book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, which had been optioned by several studios. After Universal Pictures got their hands on the rights, the dense script by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert had been overhauled as the film was entering production. Many interior sets were built from the ground up, but NASA did allow them to use certain tools for accuracy, such as a reduced-gravity aircraft. Set in 1970, the true-story drama takes place at the height of the Space Race during the Cold War. Following the incredible success of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise- played by Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton, respectively -are assigned to helm the third official trip to the Moon. However, 3 days into the mission, a small technical failure causes an onboard explosion which deprives the ship of most of its electrical power and oxygen supply. Reduced to a lifeboat, the trio of astronauts and the NASA members back on Earth abort the mission and scramble to find ways to get the men back home safely. Let me get this out there so that there isn’t any confusion: I fully believe that the 1969 Moon Landing and all other lunar-based missions were 100% real. I have no interest in the idea that Stanley Kubrick filmed it or if the CIA staged the whole thing or any other conspiracy theories about it being fake. I don’t usually like to get on a soapbox for my reviews, but I just needed that to be known, especially when we’re so close to the anniversary of such a historical human achievement. In any case, I’ve always been fond of movies centered around astronauts, whether they’re laced with science-fiction like Interstellar or recounting history like last year’s First Man. Many of those films partially owe their success and existence to this Ron Howard film, and for good reason. Because Apollo 13 still holds up tremendously well all these years later and leaves me on the edge of my seat the whole time. This movie has been one I’ve seen multiple times at different ages or points in my life. As a child, I was in total awe of the tense adventure and visual effects. Now, as a fully-grown adult, I can understand the very real potential for the human cost this mission caused. Every time I watch it, I appreciate the people at NASA even more for their hard work and commitment to these missions. And while Apollo 13 may not be the most historically accurate film ever made, it does a fantastic job at illustrating that teamwork. Whether you know how the story ends or not, it’s hard not to be drawn into the drama of it all. With a laundry list of incredible roles, it’s kind of odd that his performance here is relatively underrated. He’s great as Jim Lovell, the level-headed leader of the team who’s not only concerned for his crew but also wanting to get back to his family. When the big explosion happens onboard, he utters the famous words, “Houston, we have a problem.” His crewmates Jack and Fred are played by Kevin Bacon and the late Bill Paxton, respectively. Although they have different personalities, it’s clear that their combined expertise will be the only thing that might help them get through the situation alive. The three of them bounce off of each other beautifully as the likelihood of their survival gets les and less certain and they begin pointing fingers at one another. Back on Earth, Ed Harris turns in an Oscar-nominated turn as Gene Kranz, the team’s Flight Director. Although we don’t really get to see his interior life, he absolutely refuses to give up on the Apollo crew no matter what the public or his NASA superiors may think. His dialogue is delivered with the authority of an Aaron Sorkin script, which is probably one of the highest compliments I could give to him. The rest of the cast on Earth does a great job at propelling the human drama and intensity of the task at hand. These include Kathleen Quinlan as Lovell’s optimistic yet concerned wife, Gary Sinise as the deposed original member of Apollo 13’s crew, Joe Spano as the NASA director worried about public perception, Bret Cullen as a Capsule Communicator, and Xander Berkeley as the bumbling yet well-intentioned member of the Office of Public Affairs. Each of them manages to elevate the 2-hour and 20-minute runtime with humanity, even if not all of them get full characterization. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Apollo 13 show Ron Howard in full command behind the camera. Dean Cundey’s widescreen cinematography captures everything in the mission with exquisite detail. Considering that there are no archival shots from the actual ship in the film, that’s especially impressive. The practical sets make the film feel more authentic, particularly a couple of shots that simply drift through the spacecraft and show the crew. While most other shots throughout the film are static, they work for establishing the enormity of NASA’s hopes and dreams for the future. And the Oscar-winning editing job by Daniel P. Handley and Michael Hill is truly remarkable. Whenever something big is happening, it constantly cuts back between the three men onboard the ship and the people at Mission Control. Not only that, but it doesn’t forget to cut back to scenes with Lovell and Haise’s families, as a way to illustrate the potential cost if this mission doesn’t end well. If this weren’t edited as well as it is, the movie would lose all of its intensity and grip on viewers. The late great James Horner composes and conducts the instrumental film score, which can only be described as Aaron Copland in cinematic form. The use of snare drums is extremely present in many of the tracks as if to keep the intensity of the situation constant. Much like Copland, there’s a prevalent amount of strings and horns throughout the soundtrack, a sound of patriotic optimism in the face of great obstacles. It also makes occasional use of heavenly choruses as a way to capture the absolute God-like nature of the mission. It’s films like this that honestly make me wonder why we ever stopped going into space decades ago. For better and worse, it really is going to be the final frontier for mankind and abandoning it just seems foolish. We’re now wiser and more experienced thanks to the dedication of the people in this film and I think we ought to use it for exploration. Apollo 13 is a gripping and masterful thriller about perseverance and teamwork in the direst of circumstances. Ron Howard’s classic historical drama feels like the type of film that never gets made anymore, and I mean that in the best possible way. Without the needless emotional manipulation, we’re able to get straight to the point; a grand story about one of the greatest rescue-and-recover missions ever attempted.

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