Film Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Release Date: May 25th, 1969 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: John Schlesinger
Written by: Waldo Salt
Based on: Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy
Music by: John Barry
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles, Brenda Vaccaro, Jennifer Salt, Bob Balaban

Jerome Hellman Productions, United Artists, 113 Minutes

Review:

“I like the way I look. Makes me feel good, it does. And women like me, goddammit. Hell, the only one thing I ever been good for is lovin’. Women go crazy for me, that’s a really true fact! Ratso, hell! Crazy Annie they had to send her away!” – Joe Buck, “Then, how come you ain’t scored once the whole time you been in New York?” – Ratso Rizzo

I’ve seen this movie three times now and I’ve always loved it. But it’s that type of film that drains on the soul and frankly, I can only watch it about once per decade, as it just weighs on me for days after seeing it.

It’s absolutely depressing and its hard to peg what it is about the film that makes it so endearing but I have to give all the credit to the two leads: Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. In fact, the men are great actors and both have done several great motion pictures but this may be the best performances that both men have ever given.

What’s amazing about the film is that both characters are pretty despicable people but you end up caring for them, pretty deeply. The film does humanize them and gives you their backstories, which show you why they are the way they are. However, by the end, Voight’s Joe Buck has probably killed a man and is on the run, even if he planned to leave New York City anyway. But you still feel for him because even though he’s done dark shit, he’s a stupid person that pretty much has the mind of a child. He tries to take life head on but continually gets his ass kicked by his own ignorance and inability to comprehend the depth of the water he keeps diving into.

As for Hoffman’s Rizzo, he’s a conman, he takes advantage of people but when you see into his world and into his past, you hurt for him. The fact that he’s sick and degenerates over the course of the story becomes a hard pill to swallow and you want him, despite all of his flaws, to find the peace he needs. The scene where he falls down the stairs and then has to walk himself home, alone and in the cold, is pretty damn heart-wrenching.

I think that the direction and cinematography greatly enhance the film. This is a fluid movie with a lot of motion, matching the quick moving world of New York City. But it doesn’t shy away from the gritty reality of New York and the dark lives these men lead. Frankly, the film doesn’t sell you a Hollywood fantasy about New York City, it shoves its harshness down your throat and force feeds it to you from the moment Joe Buck arrives in town until the moment where he and Rizzo get on the bus to Miami.

Interestingly, this motion picture was rated X. That’s not a rating that really has any meaning in modern times but for the late ’60s, this was controversial for its harshness but also because it examined sexuality in ways that were pretty taboo and uncomfortable for the general public. It’s one of the earliest films that specifically deals with a protagonist trying to figure out whether he’s gay or not. I can’t think of anything that is this open about it that came out earlier but if such a film exists, please let me know in the comments.

The sexual exploration and Joe’s uncertainty over who he is, is the driving force behind his development throughout the movie. He’s lost, confused, wants to know himself and find his place in the world but the reality of his emotions and what does or doesn’t arouse him is a hard pill for him to swallow. And this just shows how difficult these things were for people in 1969. It’s clear that Joe hates himself but the possibility that he may be gay just compounds his self-hatred. And the tragic thing, is that he’s too dumb to make sense out of his emotions and his situation.

Midnight Cowboy is a pretty important motion picture in the history of film. It’s especially important in how it addresses and looks at LGBT issues. For a lot of filmgoers who saw this when it was current, it had to be their first experience in understanding the struggle of gay or sexually unsure people.

It’s a superbly acted and produced movie; certainly one of the top social films of its time. I feel like it also sort of set the stage for what became the cinematic view of New York City in the 1970s, as seen in the films of Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet and others.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: other films of the era: Easy Rider, The Graduate and The American Friend.

Documentary Review: Spielberg (2017)

Release Date: October 5th, 2017 (New York Film Festival)
Directed by: Susan Lacy
Cast: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Richard Dreyfuss, John Williams, J.J. Abrams, James Brolin, Bob Balaban, Tom Hanks, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, Oprah Winfrey, Frank Marshall, Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Robert Zemeckis, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tom Cruise, Eric Bana, Daniel Craig

HBO Documentary Films, Pentimento Productions, 147 Minutes

Review:

This was a pretty stellar documentary for fans of not just Steven Spielberg but filmmaking and film history in general.

It reminded me a lot of the 2001 documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures, in that this spent a lot of time breaking down most of the key movies in Spielberg’s oeuvre.

Every segment here was rich, detailed and featured interviews with some major directors, actors and producers. But the film also gets into Spielberg’s personal life and how real life experiences influenced his movies.

This was a lengthy documentary, just as the Kubrick one was and rightfully so. In fact, this could have been the length of a ten part, two hour apiece Ken Burns documentary and I still would have been fully engaged.

Spielberg’s career has been long and full of at least a dozen classic films that will be remembered forever. Each segment could’ve been it’s own documentary film and it actually kind of sucks that a few films were mentioned but not given as much detail, most notably A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, the Jurassic Park sequels and some of his production work like Back to the Future.

Still, this is pretty thorough and there is so much to unpack and take away from this. It is one of the best documentaries on a filmmaker’s life and career.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries on specific directors but this reminded me a lot of Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures.

Film Review: Mascots (2016)

Release Date: September 10th, 2016 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Directed by: Christopher Guest
Written by: Christopher Guest, Jim Piddock
Music by: Jeffrey C.J. Vanston
Cast: Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, Christopher Guest, Fred Willard, Ed Begley Jr., Christopher Moynihan, Don Lake, Zach Woods, Chris O’Dowd, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge, Michael Hitchcock, John Michael Higgins, Jim Piddock, Maria Blasucci, Oscar Nunez, Harry Shearer

Netflix, 89 Minutes

Review:

“Well, my name is A.J. Blumquist, and I’m a former mascot, Danny the Donkey, and uh, I’m a judge this year for the Fluffies. For the two people that don’t know, uh, Danny the Donkey, my mascot alter ego, was the first one to have an anatomically correct costume.” – A.J. Blumquist

When you have something really good, you can ruin it by having too much. This can be said about cheesecake, high end whiskey, cocaine, sex with street walkers and well, sadly… Christopher Guest mockumentaries.

One could say that this isn’t Christopher Guest’s fault, he’s just making what he knows and he is a master of the genre. He can’t help that there has been a huge over-saturation of films like this and really, a lot of that could be due to how good his movies have been. But on the flip side of that, this falls flat in just about every way and there are recent mockumentaries that are much funnier than this: What We Do In the Shadows, for instance.

Guest rounds up his typical group of stars minus a few key people, most notably Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara. He spends more time using newer actors in main roles and most of his great collaborators take more of a backseat here. John Michael Higgins, Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge and Michael Hitchcock were severely underutilized and even Jane Lynch, who got a good amount of screen time, deserved more.

Out of the newcomers, I didn’t really connect to any of them except for Zach Woods. I liked Woods in this. But even Chris O’Dowd, who I usually find funny, didn’t hit the mark here.

It’s not that this picture is unfunny, it has some funny bits, but it doesn’t keep you as amused as Best In ShowWaiting for Guffman or A Mighty Wind. It’s nowhere near as incredibly as This Is Spinal Tap and it falls short of living up to Guest’s previous weakest film, For Your Consideration.

I’m not sure what this means for Guest’s future, as other reviews I’ve seen aren’t too fond of this film and feel the same way that I do. But if he sticks with Netflix he’s probably fine, as they’ll pump out anything with a famous name on it.

Rating: 5/10
Pairs well with: Christopher Guest’s other mockumentaries but this is the worst one so all the others are better.

Film Review: Altered States (1980)

Release Date: December 25th, 1980
Directed by: Ken Russell
Written by: Paddy Chayefsky (as Sidney Aaron)
Based on: Altered States by Paddy Chayefsky
Music by: John Corigliano
Cast: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Thaao Penghlis, Drew Barrymore, John Larroquette, George Gaynes

Warner Bros., 103 Minutes

Review:

“Fight it, Eddie. You made it real, you can make it unreal.” – Emily Jessup

I was pretty excited to see Altered States pop up on FilmStruck, a mighty fine streaming service. It’s a film I have wanted to see for a very long time but it wasn’t very accessible.

The film deals with an abnormal psychologist who gets a bit too addicted to his work and pays a hefty price for it. His work involves seeing what will happen if he mixes hallucinogenic drugs and an isolation chamber. What we get to experience is a man tripping his balls off, seeing some strange and really messed up shit. However, each trip gets more and more intense and the man starts to have physical changes. He starts regressing and at one point becomes a savage neanderthal. He even goes so far as to regress into primordial matter.

Calling this film unique and bizarre is a serious understatement. It is those things but it embraces the weird so genuinely and effectively that even if this tale is quite fantastical, you are sucked right into it.

I think the real reason why this picture works so well is the skill of its director, Ken Russell. By this point, he had already directed three Oscar winning films: Women In LoveThe Devils and The Who’s Tommy. This film would also go on to win Oscars for Best Sound and Best Original Score. But it was Russell’s uncanny vision and his ability to manufacture such vivid and intense images throughout this film that prevented this from turning into some hokey, LSD-laced, run of the mill sci-fi thriller.

William Hurt was exceptional as the psychologist, Eddie Jessup. Every single scene felt believable and he sold everything that was happening to him on screen. Not bad, as this was actually his debut film. He also had help from a young Bob Balaban, as well as Charles Haid, who became my favorite guy in the movie.

Eddie’s family was comprised of Blair Brown, who played his wife, and Drew Barrymore, as his daughter. This was also Barrymore’s debut film. We also get to see a very young John Larroquette play an x-ray technician and there’s a small role for George Gaynes, as well.

The special effects are good for its time and the hallucination sequences are amazingly orchestrated.

There are a slew of films that deal with scientists going mad over their own experiments. There are also a slew of films that are serious mind fucks. Altered States is one of the best, though. And after finally watching it, I can see where other films were inspired by it. It is a great “body horror” film and it will make you uncomfortable at times. In some regards, I think it’s comparable to earlier David Cronenberg films, as well as 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Other body horror flicks from the era: VideodromeThe FlyScannersFrom BeyondEraserhead, The Thing, etc. Also, Jacob’s Ladder.

Film Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Release Date: November 16th, 1977
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Steven Spielberg
Music by: John Williams
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, François Truffaut, Bob Balaban, Lance Henriksen, Carl Weathers

Columbia Pictures, 135 Minutes, 137 Minutes (Director’s Cut)

Review:

“I guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with Dad. It’s okay, though. I’m still Dad.” – Roy Neary

So I went to a special 40th anniversary screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the movie theater really shit the bed, as I couldn’t watch it, they were out of most food and the place was a ghost town other than employees who had no idea what this movie was. I ended up going home to stream it instead.

I hadn’t seen this picture in a really long time but I had fond memories of it as a kid, even though it wasn’t on the level of E.T. and Jaws in the early Spielberg years. The special effects were cool and the use of matte paintings for vast expanses still looks magical and taps into the otherworldlyness of the picture.

However, revisiting it all these years later, it just isn’t something that I have as much love for as Spielberg’s other early works. Looking back, I never rented this movie as much as his other films and I really never thought about it until reflecting on it while watching it. Ultimately, it just doesn’t resonate in the same way or at least not as strongly. Also, compared to his other work, it is fairly dull.

The acting is pretty good and you do care about the characters to an extent but some of the things that happen are either nonsensical or kind of horrible when put into perspective. While it is a cool looking movie about wonder and excitement and the possibility of extraterrestrial life, the main character basically goes crazy, scaring away his wife and kids and then abandons them to go away with the aliens and all the while, we’re supposed to feel his amazement and relish in this man’s opportunity to see the stars. Plus, the aliens abduct a child but that’s cool because he comes back seemingly normal. They must be a truly evolved species, stealing kids and other people and then just throwing them back when it suits them.

You kind of don’t care about these details when you’re a kid but as an adult, the film leaves me with more questions than answers. I’m not just going to accept that they are some space travelling further evolved beings and that they can just do whatever they want. Fuck these aliens, they’re assholes. And we’re America, we don’t trust our neighbor.

And who’s to say that these returned people aren’t implanted with a chip that will make them wipe out humanity so that the aliens can steal our limestone to build an amusement park on their homeworld? Our government doesn’t even like our neighbors from the south moving in and they’re just going to be like, “Aw, fuck it… these guys are cool. Besides, we can’t build a wall around the sky.”

In all seriousness, Close Encounters is a pretty good flick with great effects and yes, it does bring out your inner wonder. However, it doesn’t hold up as well as the other Spielberg classics. That’s okay, though. This was a precursor to E.T. and if making this film helped to make E.T. a better picture, it served a noble purpose. I mean, E.T. is pretty close to perfect.

Film Review: Ghost World (2001)

Release Date: September 21st, 2001 (USA)
Directed by: Terry Zwigoff
Written by: Daniel Clowes, Terry Zwigoff
Based on: Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
Music by: David Kitay
Cast: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Brad Renfro, Bob Balaban, Illeana Douglas, Steve Buscemi, Stacey Travis

Advanced Medien, Granada Film, Jersey Shore, Mr. Mudd, United Artists, 112 Minutes

ghost-worldReview:

Ghost World is a film I really liked for a few years around the time it came out in 2001. I hadn’t watched it in a very long time but felt the urge to revisit it.

The movie is based off of a graphic novel of the same name by Daniel Clowes, who also created the comic series Eightball. Both of these comics have reached cult status.

Thora Borch stars as Enid and Scarlett Johansson stars as her best friend Rebecca. This film is the first time I saw Scarlett Johansson and I remember feeling, at the time, that I would definitely see more of her. I felt the same way about Thora Birch, even since seeing her as a child star before this film but she has stuck to mainly independent work.

The cast is rounded out by Steve Buscemi’s Seymour, a lonely older guy that Enid develops affection for after a prank gone wrong, and the late Brad Renfro’s Josh, who serves no real purpose other than being the guy the two girls are crushing on. It is also worth mentioning that Bob Balaban plays Enid’s father and Illeana Douglas plays her art teacher.

Directed by Terry Zwigoff, who is known for his surreal feeling otherworldly films, the style of Ghost World doesn’t disappoint. Taking its cue from the comic series, it feels like a timeless world, more in tune with the 1950s with touches of the 60s and 70s, even though it is obvious that it is in modern day.

The soundtrack is fantastic and is still, to this day, one of my favorite of all-time. The music adds a lot to the film and it serves as the force that brings the characters of Enid and Seymour together and strengthens their bond.

Ultimately, this is a film about relationships and finding yourself lost in the world. On one hand it shows the relationship of Enid and Rebecca dissolving as they grow older and apart from one another. On the other hand, it shows the birth of something new between Enid and Seymour. In the end, Enid has to deal with everything she has known and relied on slipping away.

It is a sad film in many regards but it ends with a sense of optimism and hope. Although, some people I have talked to, interpret the ending as something really dark. I don’t quite see it as that black and white or depressing. Enid’s journey shouldn’t feel that dissimilar to things we’ve all gone through: feelings of loneliness, isolation, having nowhere to turn and feeling like everything bad that’s happened is your fault.

Ghost World is a fun movie. But it is a very human movie. Despite its subject matter, it isn’t a heavy film. It is lighthearted and you do care about the characters and hope all of them find their place in the world. With that, I think the film accomplished what it set out to do and from what I remember of the comic book, which I need to read again, it did capture its magic.