Film Review: Othello (1951)

Also known as: The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (original title), Orson Welles’ Othello (Germany)
Release Date: November 27th, 1951 (Turin premiere)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles
Based on: Othello by William Shakespeare
Music by: Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, Alberto Barberis
Cast: Orson Welles, Micheál Mac Liammóir, Suzanne Cloutier, Robert Coote

Scalera Film, Marceau Films, United Artists, 90 Minutes, 93 Minutes (TCM print)

Review:

“Oh beware, my lord, of jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” – Iago

Othello is one of my favorite plays by William Shakespeare and over the years I’ve seen several adaptations of it. I have to say though, this one is probably my favorite.

While it does alter the story somewhat, the gist of the story is here. I just feel like it’s condensed with some alterations just to keep it at a reasonable running time. But it was also filmed in segments over several years, so the pace of the production could’ve also had an effect on the finished product and the creative liberties it took.

But I think that Orson Welles truly respected the material and tried to do the best adaptation he could. He certainly didn’t fail and the end result is pretty exceptional.

Although, Orson Welles was a true filmmaking auteur and a remarkable actor. So whether he is behind the camera or in front of it, it’s near impossible not to be captivated on some level.

While this isn’t as famous as his pictures Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons, it employs a lot of what he learned on those films.

Welles is a maestro of mise-en-scène and he goes to great lengths in his shot framing, cinematography and lighting to make something so rich and alluring. Hell, just the opening sequence of robed silhouettes walking for five minutes in high contrast chiaroscuro is visually striking and sets the tone for the narrative, as well as the ocular allure.

Welles plays Othello and while in modern times white actors playing roles in blackface is considered highly offensive, it was a product of its day when this was made. That doesn’t make it right but for anyone trying to adapt Othello, this is a challenge that they had to deal with. And it wasn’t because there weren’t talented black actors, it’s due to the fact that there had to be interracial exchanges of romance, which wasn’t allowed by Hollywood in 1951.

In fact, 1957’s Island In the Sun is said to be the film with the first interracial kiss but it actually isn’t. The kisses that were shot were edited out and the filmmakers only gave viewers a passionate dance and a romantic embrace. The first actual interracial kiss didn’t come until 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and even then, it was obscured and shown in reflection.

The point is, Welles’ Othello predates Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by 16 years. Had Welles cast a black actor, this is a real issue he would have had to deal with in how the picture was filmed and ultimately, in how it would have been received by audiences and within his own industry, who were still not willing to get past their own bigotry.

I think that the point of the Othello story is its examination of racism. Regardless of how Welles had to present his vision, the film still carries that message and frankly, it’s films like this that helped eventually open some of the doors in Hollywood. I think that Welles knew this and he acted out the role of Othello with real passion. And it’s hard to deny the level of craftsmanship he put into the film as the visionary behind it.

Besides, it was Welles himself who wrote in a 1944 issue of Free World magazine that, “Race hate must be outlawed.” He would also go on to star alongside Charlton Heston (in brownface) in 1958’s Touch of Evil, a film-noir dealing with racial tensions in a California/Mexico border town.

Getting back to the film itself, I’d say that the only thing that somewhat hinders the picture is the rest of the cast. It’s not that they are bad or incapable but next to Welles, they seem out of their depth and overpowered. While Welles certainly won’t downplay his performance, his best films are well cast with other players who can hang with him and enhance his scenes. For instance, the aforementioned Charlton Heston, as well as frequent collaborator Joseph Cotton and his wife of four years, Rita Hayworth.

Now while I feel that the pace and running time were fine, I was actually so into this that I wouldn’t have minded if Welles took this motion picture to the three hour mark. I think it would have made the production more difficult than it already was but with Othello, he crafted a silvery and majestic film that carried a strong, worthwhile message.

It does what it sets out to do within 90 minutes, though. So I’ll take it and appreciate it.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other Orson Welles films, specifically Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight.

Documentary Review: Gimme Danger (2016)

Release Date: May 19th, 2016 (Cannes)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Music by: Iggy Pop, The Stooges
Cast: Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton, Scott Asheton, James Williamson, Steve Mackay, Mike Watt, Kathy Ashton, Danny Fields

Amazon Studios, Magnolia Pictures, 108 Minutes

Review:

This has been in my queue forever but I’m glad I finally got around to watching it. Being that it was in the queue for so long is why I kept forgetting about it, as it was way, way down the list.

Anyway, I usually like Jim Jamrusch as a filmmaker. While he typically does dramatic features, I don’t think I’ve seen a documentary by him. Being that this one is on Iggy Pop and The Stooges is really what peaked my interest. Iggy has been a favorite artist of mine pretty much my entire life, since I first heard “Lust for Life”, and The Stooges made what I consider to be one of the best albums of all-time with their 1969 self-titled debut.

This immediately gets right into their breakup and troubles but it’s all a set up, as the credits roll after a few minutes. Following the credits, the story goes back to the beginning to fill in what happened before the real drama.

This also goes well beyond the break up of The Stooges, focuses on Iggy’s solo career, his time in London with David Bowie and what his former bandmates were up to. Eventually, we get to see The Stooges, older and wiser, reunite and reignite their friendship.

Gimme Danger is pretty compelling and just a good rock and roll story starring a legitimate living legend.

It moves at a good, brisk pace without any wasted moments.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other recent music biopics: Joan Jett: Bad Reputation, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, Whitney, A Band Called Death, Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train a Comin’, Mayor of the Sunset Strip and David Bowie: The Last Five Years.

Film Review: Sicario (2015)

Release Date: May 19th, 2015 (Cannes)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Music by: Johann Johannsson
Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan

Black Label Media, Thunder Road, Lionsgate, 121 Minutes

Review:

“Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end you will understand.” – Alejandro

This is a film that I put off watching because there was a lot of hype about it when it came out. Had I watched it in 2015 or even 2016, I probably would’ve lost my shit.

Reason being, this is nowhere near as good as the critics and my friends led me to believe.

In fact, other than less than a handful of scenes, this is a boring fucking movie that doesn’t seem to have much of a point.

I mean, I get it, the drug cartels in Mexico are fucked up. But I’ve known this and seen this in lots of film and television shows that are far better than this.

With the cast and a very capable director I was expected an intense, badass neo-western in the vein of No Country For Old Men and Hell or High Water. Sadly, this doesn’t hold a candle to those films and it is just a few cool action sequences and one intense dinner scene, strung together with moral babble and Emily Blunt not doing much other than looking offended and confused.

I can see why she didn’t come back for a sequel but her character was completely vacant anyway and it didn’t really matter that she was in this film. And that’s not to knock Blunt, she’s an incredibly capable actress. However, they could’ve just taken all her close ups in this movie, spliced them into the sequel and no one would’ve been the wiser, as she is just sort of in the film as an observer and moral compass.

Now I can’t completely shit on the film. The high points were actually good and intense. The dinner scene has incredible tension but at the same time, the end result of that scene is not shocking and has little effect. It’s more fucked up than shocking.

Also, the cinematography and shot framing were incredible. This is a good looking film from start to finish and that’s probably its biggest positive. But I can get these things in a music video from a talented director of photography. Alluring visuals are great and they are important but they can’t be the sole driving force of a film.

For instance, The Revenant was visually breathtaking but none of that would’ve mattered if the rest of the film was a crap factory.

I absolutely love the modernized western film but they are really hard to do well. Sicario doesn’t deliver on much but I’ll still probably check out the sequel just to review it.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: the sequel and other neo-westerns, most of which are better than this.

Film Review: Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection (1990)

Also known as: America’s Red Army: Delta Force II, Delta Force II: Operation Crackdown, Spitfire: Delta Force II (working titles), Delta Force 2: Operation Stranglehold (Uruguay subtitled version), Comando Delta 2 (Brazil)
Release Date: May, 1990 (Cannes)
Directed by: Aaron Norris
Written by: Lee Reynolds
Based on: characters by James Bruner, Menahem Golan
Music by: Frederic Talgorn
Cast: Chuck Norris, Billy Drago, John P. Ryan, Paul Perri, Richard Jaeckel, Begona Plaza, Mateo Gomez, Hector Mercado, Mark Margolis

Golan-Globus Productions, Cannon Films, 111 Minutes

Review:

“Take her to my bedroom – first give her a beautiful bath – get rid of the baby.” – Ramon Cota

This didn’t really need to be Delta Force 2. I mean, it’s got Chuck Norris and he’s kicking the shit out of stuff but he didn’t need to be the same character, he could’ve been any random Chuck Norris character or a new one and it wouldn’t have mattered. I guess Delta Force had some branding and name recognition built into it but this just feels so different than the original film.

But hey, it’s still a damn fine action picture that was put out by the maestros of ’80s action, Cannon Films. It hits the right notes, it has a good level of senseless violence and not only does it star Chuck Norris but it stars the always stupendous Billy Drago.

In fact, this is one of my favorite roles Drago has ever played. He is absolute perfection as the evil and slithery villain, Ramon Cota. Hell, Drago’s performance here should be considered an acting lesson on how to play sadistic drug lords. The dude can just convey so much with so little. He speaks with his face and his eyes in a way that the best actors in the world can’t.

It’s pretty damn sad that we lost Drago and his talent a few weeks ago. In fact, that’s why I watched this movie. I wanted to be reminded as to why I became a lifelong fan of his in the first place, as this movie was my first experience seeing him haunt the minds of heroes.

Now apart from Norris and Drago, we also get John P. Ryan as an American general who doesn’t care whose toes he steps on, Mark Margolis as a Colombian general in league with Drago’s Cota, as well as Hector Mercado as an undercover agent.

The cast is stacked full of manly men who are very capable of giving this sort of film life. And despite not having Lee Marvin, Bo Svenson, George Kennedy, Robert Forster, Robert Vaughn and Steve James, I enjoy this movie a wee bit more than its predecessor.

This came out towards the end of Cannon’s dominance over the action film genre but it still measures up to their other kickass pictures.

I can see why people consider the first one to be a better movie (and it probably is) but I just love Drago, Norris and how well they play off of each other in this. Norris needed a true villain and Drago was exactly that. He was the Joker to Norris’ Batman.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: the first Delta Force, as well as the Missing In Action trilogy and other Chuck Norris films for Cannon.

Film Review: The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

Also known as: The Cars That Eat People (US alternative title), Cars (Germany, Norway), Killing Cars (France)
Release Date: May, 1974 (Cannes)
Directed by: Peter Weir
Written by: Peter Weir, Keith Gow
Music by: Bruce Smeaton
Cast: John Meillon, Terry Camilleri, Kevin Miles, Bruce Spence, Chris Haywood

Royce Smeal Film Productions, Salt-Pan, The Australian Film Development Corporation, 91 Minutes, 74 Minutes (cut version)

Review:

“As to our youth, they are idle. They are lazy. The need to work! As that American President said, eh, what was his name? Roosevelt. Roosevelt, yes. The New Deal! Build! They have got to work!” – The Mayor

This Aussie film is a strange little bird.

It’s a very dry, black comedy about a small village that causes car accidents in order to strip cars of their parts and to use the accident victims for weird medical experiments.

Writer and director Peter Weir came up with the idea while driving through the French countryside. He thought the road he was on was full of strange warning signs and found it odd how villages were sprinkled along the stretch of his rural journey.

I think that this film has a real place in history not because of its overall quality but because of its influence on other films that made more of a cultural impact, the original Mad Max for instance, which borrows some of this film’s ideas but executes them better. And then later on, the sequels would borrow some of the post-apocalyptic automobile designs from this picture. Most notably, the spiky cars that were used in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road.

This film also sprinkles in a bit of horror and sci-fi with a pinch of Bruce Spence, who would go on to be in two Mad Max films, as well as Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Matrix Revolutions.

This is a moderately amusing film but a lot of the comedy doesn’t hit. This could be because the humor is very Australian and some things might not translate, culturally. Also, it is a pretty dated movie when seen through modern eyes.

From a narrative standpoint, this explores some neat ideas but doesn’t really deliver on them. Although the mayhem in the final sequence was pretty enjoyable, as the town’s angry teens in post-apocalyptic cars overrun the big annual festival.

I wouldn’t call this a great movie and it’s almost forgettable, other than the fact that it influenced movies that are better than it.

Rating: 5.75/10
Pairs well with: other Peter Weir films and then the original Mad Max, as it has some minute similarities.

Film Review: Once Upon A Time In America (1984)

Also known as: C’era una volta in America (original Italian title)
Release Date: May 20th, 1984 (Cannes)
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Written by: Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone
Based on: The Hoods by Harry Grey
Music by: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, Scott Tiler, Rusty Jacobs, Jennifer Connelly, Danny Aiello, William Forsythe, Adrian Curran, James Hayden, Brian Bloom, Darlanne Fluegel, Mario Brega, Estelle Harris, Louise Fletcher (only in 2012 restoration)

The Ladd Company, Embassy International Pictures, PSO Enterprises, Rafran Cinematografic, Warner Bros., Titanus, 229 Minutes (original), 139 Minutes (original US release)

Review:

“Age can wither me, Noodles. We’re both getting old. All that we have left now are our memories. If you go to that party on Saturday night, you won’t have those anymore. Tear up that invitation.” – Deborah Gelly

I tried watching this about fifteen years ago but if I’m being completely honest, it bored me to tears. And I’m speaking as a guy that has a deep love for the films of Sergio Leone, a man who sits among the best in my Holy Trinity of Motion Picture Directors. The other two being Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick, naturally.

So years later, I felt that I really needed to revisit this, as maybe I wasn’t in the right head space and because I generally have a hard time sitting through movies that feel like they could take up an entire day. Well, this took up an entire afternoon and I did have to take a halftime break and make a ribeye.

But regardless of that, I really enjoyed this picture and I can’t deny that it is one of Leone’s best. In fact, I may have to edit my rankings of his films, as I would now put this third behind The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In the West.

What’s interesting, is that this movie has more in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy than Leone’s own pictures, which were mostly top tier spaghetti westerns. But like his westerns, he also employs the talents of musical maestro Ennio Morricone, who gives real life to the motion picture full of mostly understated performances.

This movie is incredibly slow paced but it’s that kind of slow pace that is more like a slow simmering stew of perfection than the chef accidentally setting the burner too low and walking away.

As far as the acting goes, this is a superb film. Robert De Niro and James Woods own every scene that they’re in. However, the supporting cast is also stupendous, especially the child actors, who play the main characters in lengthy flashback sequences.

This is also compelling in that it is full of unlikable, despicable characters yet you are lured into their world and you do find yourself caring where this is all going and how life will play out for these characters. You never like them but that’s kind of what makes this story so intriguing. With The Godfather‘s Michael Corleone, there were things you could connect with and respect about the man, despite his crimes. In Once Upon A Time In America, you don’t really have moments with these characters that humanizes them all that much, in fact it does just the opposite of that. I can see where that might be bothersome to some people but we also live in a world where people saw Walter White from Breaking Bad as some sort of hero.

Once Upon A Time In America also shines in regard to its visual components. It’s a period piece that covers different periods, all of which come off as authentic, even if the city sometimes looks more like it was shot in Europe (some of it was) than truly being Depression Era New York City. But the sets and the location shooting all worked well and this picture boasts some incredible cinematography. It should be very apparent to fans of Leone that he’s taken what he’s learned making fabulous movies and found a way to perfect it, in a visual sense, even more with this, his final picture.

There’s not a whole lot I can pick apart about the movie, other than the pacing being slow. But again, it’s not a painful slow and it certainly isn’t full of pointless filler and exposition. Every frame of this movie needs to exist. But maybe take some breaks or just approach the film like you’re binge watching a short season of a TV show.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: Sergio Leone’s other films but this has a lot in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films.

Film Review: Boyz N the Hood (1991)

Release Date: May 13th, 1991 (Cannes)
Directed by: John Singleton
Written by: John Singleton
Music by: Stanley Clarke
Cast: Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, Larry Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Nia Long, Tyra Ferrell, Redge Green, Dedrick D. Gobert, Regina King, Jessie Lawrence Ferguson, Whitman Mayo

Columbia Pictures, 112 Minutes

Review:

“Why is it that there is a gun shop on almost every corner in this community?” – Furious Styles, “Why?” – The Old Man, “I’ll tell you why. For the same reason that there is a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves.” – Furious Styles

Boyz N The Hood was a movie that had a pretty big impact on me in my middle school years. I was going into 7th grade when it came out but by the time it hit video, I rented it a lot.

What lured me into it was the edge the film had with Ice Cube in it, a rapper I listened to almost daily back then. But beyond that, I was pulled into John Singleton’s unique knack for storytelling. While this is well acted, a lot of the story and emotion comes through in more of a visual way.

Unlike many of the “gangsta” films that came out after and were inspired by this and Marion Van Peebles’ New Jack City, this one is truly a masterpiece on just about every level. And, once seeing this, it is easy to understand how this film gave birth to a new genre in the early ’90s.

To start, the acting by just about everyone in this picture is superb. The main cast delivers their performances with passion and gusto.

I love how in your face Ice Cube can be but there is a subtle gentleness under the surface that really comes out in his final scene, which is still maybe the best he’s ever been onscreen.

Cuba Gooding Jr. gave a somewhat understated performance that worked really well for his character and when the point comes in the movie for him to show real emotion, it has an impact that might have been lacking without his cool and chill demeanor leading up to it.

I also like Morris Chestnut, who is mostly just a regular guy here. He’s got issues but he’s a guy with a bright future, which makes his fate in the film extremely tough to process no matter how many times you’ve seen this play out.

The real scene stealer is Laurence Fishburne and while that shouldn’t be surprising, this was pretty early in his career and even though he’d been in many films before this, it is his role here that put his career path on a strong upward trajectory.

It’s also worth pointing out how beautiful and perfect Stanley Clarke’s score is. The music conveys real emotion and it grounds the drama in a way that the mostly hip-hop soundtrack can’t on its own. There is a great balance between hip-hop, soul and the score itself. However, in contrast to what became typical of this style of film after Boyz N the Hood, this doesn’t use a ton of rap music. It’s there where it needs to be but this wasn’t a movie that was trying to sell soundtrack tie-ins like everything that copied it. And it’s not that that’s a bad thing and I didn’t even notice it back in the day but seeing this film now, it was kind of refreshing knowing that the filmmaker relied heavily on his composer to assist with the tone and the movement of the plot. Side note: Stanley Clarke’s first score was Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, which got him an Emmy nomination.

This is a heavy and emotional film; it works because it feels genuine and real. It has aged tremendously well and is kind of timeless, even if it is set in a specific era that comes with its own stylistic and cultural tropes.

Singleton, with Boyz N the Hood, crafted a perfect motion picture that deserves to be called a masterpiece and is still above all the films that came along and tried to emulate it. Not bad for a first time director.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Menace II SocietySouth CentralColors, Baby Boy, Higher Learning and Poetic Justice.