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: Dick Tracy (1990)

Release Date: June 15th, 1990
Directed by: Warren Beatty
Written by: Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr.
Based on: Dick Tracy created by Chester Gould
Music by: Danny Elfman
Cast: Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna, Glenne Headly, Charlie Korsmo, James Keane, Seymour Cassel, Michael J. Pollard, Charles Durning, Dick Van Dyke, Frank Campanella, Kathy Bates, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, Ed O’Ross, James Tolkan, Mandy Patinkin, R. G. Armstrong, Henry Silva, Paul Sorvino, James Caan, Catherine O’Hara, Estelle Parsons, Mary Woronov

Touchstone Pictures, Silver Screen Partners IV, Mulholland Productions, Walt Disney, Buena Vista Pictures, 105 Minutes

Review:

“You get behind me, we all profit; you challenge me, we all go down! There was one Napoleon, one Washington, one me!” – Big Boy Caprice

I guess, from a critical standpoint, this film didn’t get the sort of respect that it should have. I’m not really sure why or how it didn’t resonate with some critics but Roger Ebert adored it, as do I.

In fact, Dick Tracy is almost a perfect film for what it is and I’m not sure what else anyone would want from this near masterpiece. Warren Beatty directed and starred in this and he gave us something magical and marvelous. It fit the classic comic strip to a t and truly breathed live action life into it. As great as the comic strip was, I feel like this film is an improvement on the story, the characters and the ideas of Chester Gould’s beloved creation.

Unfortunately, this great launching pad for what should have been a franchise, never got to have a sequel due to copyright disputes between Warren Beatty and Tribune Media Services. The courts eventually settled in favor of Beatty but that wasn’t until 2011. He has since talked of a sequel but there hasn’t been much movement and so much time has passed. Also, Disney had hoped that this would achieve 1989 Batman numbers but it didn’t hit that mark, even though it was financially successful.

And at least this film has its fans and, at the time of its release, the public supported the picture. Some of this could be due to the film’s immense star power, boasting a cast of superstars, or because of the awesome marketing campaign this film had – one of the best of all-time, in my opinion. Especially, the tie-in stuff they did with McDonald’s. Plus, there was that great Batman picture the previous year, which finally proved that comic book movies could be something that can be taken seriously.

The film has held up tremendously well and may actually be more visually alluring today. The use of vibrant giallo-like colors and tremendous matte paintings gave the film a real pulp comic feel that felt lived in and lively. Today, the picture truly feels like a work of art and has a visual uniqueness that stands on its own.

The picture was also enhanced by the incredible score by Danny Elfman. This is one of the greatest scores of Elfman’s long career and is very reminiscent of his work on Batman, the previous year, and 1990’s short lived The Flash television show. The score is powerful and blends well with the old timey tunes and the performances by Madonna.

Being a poppy 1930s style gangster story, Beatty tapped the Bonnie and Clyde well and cast Estelle Parsons and Michael J. Pollard in small roles. The film was only missing Faye Dunaway and Gene Hackman in reuniting the gang from that classic 1967 film.

Beatty was a fantastic lead and perfect Dick Tracy. Additionally, the rest of the cast was magnificent. Al Pacino got to be a hammy mob boss and foil to Tracy. Pacino’s Big Boy Caprice is also one of my favorite Pacino characters ever put to celluloid. Both Madonna and Glenne Headly are stellar as the leading ladies and this is just one of many roles where I became a huge fan of Headly.

The cast is rounded out by so many other great actors in smaller roles. Dick Van Dyke plays a crooked mayoral candidate, Dustin Hoffman plays the gangster Mumbles and R. G. Armstrong is the sinister mob boss Pruneface. You’ve also got cameos by James Caan, Catherine O’Hara, Kathy Bates and Paul Sorvino. William Forsythe and Ed O’Ross play Big Boy’s top henchmen Flattop and Itchy. You also have the always great Seymour Cassel as one of Tracy’s cop buddies. Plus, Charlie Korsmo was cool as The Kid.

Dick Tracy is action packed and stylish but it doesn’t put that style over its substance. The narrative works, the plot moves swiftly and there is never a dull moment. Plus, who the hell doesn’t love Tommy gun shootouts in the street?

It is also worth mentioning that the character of The Blank is one of the coolest film characters to come out of this era, even if used sparingly and in the dark. Had this gone on to be a film series, it would’ve been cool seeing someone else take up that mantle or The Blank living on in some way. The character also added an interesting twist to a film that, on its surface, looks like just a straight up cops and gangsters, good versus evil, cookie cutter type scenario. The Blank added a third, unpredictable element and a noir vibe.

Dick Tracy is one of the greatest summer blockbusters ever made and it deserves more recognition today than it receives. It took some creative risks that paid off and it brought together a literal who’s who of great bad ass actors.

My initial viewing of this motion picture on the big screen is one of my fondest childhood memories. It stands alongside Batman, 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the original animated Transformers movie and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home as one of my favorite theatrical experiences of my early life.