Saturday, September 28, 2013

Best Picture: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," 1975

Movie Stats:
Released 1975 (USA)
American, in English
Director – Milos Forman
Stars – Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson (plus a lot of people I never knew were in this film, including Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, Vincent Schiavelli, and others; look them up on IMDB to see who they played)

Plot Summary:
When chronic troublemaker R.P. McMurphy (Nicholson) lands in prison yet again, he fakes insanity to get what he thinks is going to be an easy stint in a mental institution. Once he’s been committed, he butts heads with ice-queen Nurse Ratched (Fletcher) and befriends deaf-mute Native American Chief Bromden (Sampson).

Blue language (lots of f-bombs); sexual innuendo/situations; the kind of violence you’d expect in a mental institution; very brief male nudity (butt only).

Bad Stuff:
Everybody always talks about how evil Nurse Ratched is, but she didn’t seem especially evil to me until the end of the film. I spent the whole movie expecting her to be worse than she was, which left me a little disappointed. I suppose maybe that’s the fault of the people who talk about this film, rather than a fault of the film itself. Ultimately, I don’t have a lot of complaints, though. The ending was pretty depressing but I knew that going in.

Good Stuff:
The acting was really good. Nicholson was kind of meh; he played the same character he always seems to play. But everyone else was great. I especially enjoyed DeVito (as Martini) and Dourif (as Billy Bibbit). If I hadn’t looked at the cast list beforehand, I might not have recognized either of them.

I enjoyed the sweetness of Nicholson’s character. He was a screw-up, but he was a good-hearted screw-up. He wasn’t malicious. He cared about the other men on his ward & wanted to help them. I liked the friendship & trust that he built with Chief. In a movie with so much underlying sadness, it left me feeling like perhaps things weren’t so sad after all.

The Verdict:
I expected to find this movie depressing but ultimately it didn’t get me down like I thought it would. I wouldn’t say that it’s enjoyable or gripping, but it’s certainly interesting. I see why many people who love film count it amongst their favorites. It’s not one of my favorites, but it’s a good flick nonetheless.

I give the movie 4 stars.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Best Picture: "The Godfather: Part II," 1974

Movie Stats:
Released 1974 (USA)
American, in English (Italian, Sicilian, and Spanish, most translated, some not)
Director – Francis Ford Coppola (who last brought us The Godfather)
Stars – Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert DeNiro

Plot Summary:
The continuing saga of the Corleone family, as told through two alternating storylines: one set in the early 1900s, showcasing the rise of Vito (DeNiro) as a mafia don; the other set in the late 1950s, showing Michael’s (Pacino’s) struggles to take up his father Vito’s mantle. Duvall and Keaton reprise their roles as Tom Hagan and Kay Corleone respectively.

Lots of violence.

Bad Stuff:
It’s way too long, well over three hours.

I simply didn’t find Michael’s story very compelling this time. In fact, I thought it was fairly boring and kind of confusing. What exactly happened in the whole Roth-Corleone-Pentangeli triangle? I’m still not sure. If the whole movie had been about Vito, I would’ve been fine with that.

It was really dark, as in visually dark. I couldn’t see what was happening half the time.

Good Stuff:
The acting is the best part of this film by far. DeNiro did a fantastic job of mimicking the mannerisms and speaking style that Brando used in the first movie. Even though he doesn’t look much like Brando, he was very believable as a younger version of him. I was also impressed with Pacino in this film, much more so than in the last one.

The love that the Corleone men have for their families, especially their children, is very touching to me. They’re men of questionable morals doing terrible things and yet the way they look at their children – it hurts my heart in a good way. (Again, great acting there.)

The Verdict:
I really wanted to like this movie as much as the first one. Unfortunately, I didn't. I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it either. While it’s not a bad movie, it’s definitely a letdown from the first. In my opinion, the storytelling just isn’t as good.

However, if you liked the first one, I do recommend seeing this one. You may find Michael’s story more interesting than I did, and you should certainly enjoy the fine acting and the great soundtrack.

I give the movie 3.75 stars.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Postcard Project: 1930s, Part 5

As always, all grammatical/spelling mistakes are copied verbatim from the postcards.

August 28, 1934
Addressed to my great aunt Vi. Text below.

"Dear Vi: I thought I might as well write you while I was at it. Having a swell time working here. Seen Alice lately? Of course its sort of lonesome here without the Buick & the gang. Vera."

I'm not sure why Grandma frequently had postcards in her collection that belonged to other family members (in particular her sister Violet). Perhaps she was the family archivist? The almost begrudging tone of the first sentence cracks me up.

October 30, 1934
Addressed to Grandpa. Text below.

"[Redacted]: I received a card from Rev. Ray Clearwaters and he will be our speaker. We got Bessie Todd from First Church to put out the Annuals. They are done. Don had no machine and I was so all firen [?] busy at that time. Bessie wasn't and she is good that way. Everything is O.K. now I believe isn't it? Will be in Old B.H. Friday - Alice."

This is one of my favorite cards picture-wise and one of my least favorite content-wise. I believe it is the last card from the mysterious Alice. I'm kind of glad she goes out with yet another confusing statement ("so all firen busy") and, seemingly, some snark at poor Bessie Todd.

July 8, 1936
Addressed to Grandma. Text below.

"Hello Kid! Am having a good time here in the Loop now. Be good. I'll be seeing you soon. Miss me yet. as Ever Mary."

I wonder what Mary (or her husband) did that she always seemed to be traveling so much, especially during the Great Depression.

August 1, 1936
Addressed to Grandma. Text below.

"Dear kiddo: This certainly is some swell joint. Wishing you were here. Mary."

I agree, Mary. That looks like a swell joint. 

August 29, 1936
Addressed to Grandma. Text below.

"Hi kid: Spending the weekend here visiting the exposition. Rode over on a steamer from Detroit and it surely was wonderful. Mary."

Call me crazy, but I think that riding a steamer from Detroit to Cleveland sounds like a lot of fun.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

On Loneliness: My Upbringing

You’ll have to be patient with me on this series. Writing about this stuff is a struggle for me. It’s hard to order my thoughts into coherent paragraphs. Also, thinking about all of it brings up a lot of bad feelings. The series will be finished eventually, however, no matter how much I occasionally consider abandoning it.

I come from a very small family. For most of my childhood, it was just me, my mom, and my two older brothers against the world.

My parents divorced before I turned two. My dad was never around much after that, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. People occasionally say to me, “You never mention your dad.” That’s because he’s a self-absorbed alcoholic and a pathological liar. He’s fairly harmless but essentially a waste of space. He paid the child support and, until his mom died, saw us maybe once or twice per year. Other than that, he’s AWOL to this day.

Both of my maternal grandparents died pretty young – my grandma about five months before I was born & my grandpa when I was two. My paternal grandma did her best to be a part of our lives. I think that she struggled with financial constraints, though, on top of living several towns away from us. We simply didn’t see each other as much as we would have liked. She died the summer I turned twelve.

My mom & dad each had a brother, both of whom were married and had two children each. However, we never spent a lot of time with either of their families. I grew up without ever really knowing my four cousins. If I saw them on the street now, I probably wouldn’t recognize them.

I’m telling you all of this because I want you to know that when I say I’ve been lonely for most of my life, you can see why that is: growing up, I didn't have a lot of people on my side, so to speak. And while we had little to do with our extended family, the gap that they left wasn't exactly filled with friends.

My mom had a lot of quirks. She didn’t like to ask for help from anyone. We struggled financially when I was really young, so I grew up pretty poor. Mom didn’t like for people to know how much we struggled, so we virtually never had people over to the house. She was very sensitive. She felt slighted easily. She often took things people said the wrong way, something she and I butted heads about continually once I reached adulthood (she always thought I was secretly saying something I wasn’t, which made it difficult for me to talk to her about anything). I think this is why she herself didn’t have very many friends. She never encouraged us to make friends either. When I did make friends, she never seemed to like them.

I feel like I grew up without ever being properly socialized. I spent a lot of time with my brothers and their friends (other boys from the neighborhood). I really only had one close childhood friend, the girl who lived across the street. My brothers and I virtually never engaged in any extracurricular activities like Scouts or camp or sports. We could never afford them. As a child, I never had a birthday party with friends. I never had a sleepover or went to one. We never left our neighborhood much, except to go to school.

At school, I excelled academically but struggled to make friends. Adults loved me. Kids thought I was weird. I was very shy, introverted and bookish. Due to our monetary issues, I often wore my brothers’ hand-me-downs and probably wasn’t as clean as most other kids (my mom was so ultra-frugal that she kept utility bills down in part by not allowing us to bathe every day). Also, being fatherless was still a bit of an oddity back in the early 80s. The teasing didn’t really begin in earnest until I reached junior high – when kids turn especially evil – but by then pretty much everything was wrong with me: I was poor; I wasn’t even remotely cool; I was too skinny; I had a stupid last name; I wasn’t attractive (seriously: my “awkward phase” lasted well into adulthood). I simply didn’t fit in.

I basically grew up feeling like a social reject and I was too socially inept to figure out how to fix it. I couldn’t wait to move away from my hometown for good. Nowadays, my acquaintances always seem surprised when I give them a truncated version of my sad childhood. “How did you turn out so normal?” I’ve had people ask. It makes me laugh. I don’t feel normal at all; I guess I’ve just gotten good at acting that way. Not that I’m not genuine. I really am as nice and friendly as I appear to be. On the inside, however, I always feel a little lost in social situations. “Did I just say/do the wrong thing?” I frequently wonder. “Does that person even like me?”

It makes me sad to think that you can never truly outgrow the way you were brought up no matter how hard you try. Believe me, I’ve tried pretty hard. I went through several rounds of therapy in my 20s. I feel the strongest now – mentally and emotionally – that I’ve ever felt. But the self-doubt never goes away completely. Some part of me will always feel like that lonely loser nerd who grew up with hardly any friends.

And that's pretty much that, in a nutshell. If I have a tendency toward loneliness, it's only because I've been lonely since I was a kid. As we'll see in the next part of the series, however, my checkered experience with friendships hasn't exactly helped the matter. 

I'll see you for that some time in the next few weeks.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Best Picture: "The Sting," 1973

Movie Stats:
Released 1973 (USA)
American, in English
Director – George Roy Hill
Stars – Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw

Plot Summary:
In 1930s Chicago, when grifter Johnny Hooker (Redford) pulls a con on the wrong man (Doyle Lonnegan, played by Shaw), there are deadly consequences. Hooker is forced to join forces with seasoned con man Henry Gondorff (Newman) to exact his revenge. (Note: This summary makes the movie sound very serious. It’s not.)

A small amount of blue language & relatively mild violence.

Bad Stuff:
It starts out a little slow, so it was hard for me to get into, but once it got moving, I settled into it nicely.

It’s one of those movies that’s definitely fun and entertaining, but I had to wonder what the point of it was other than that. The story is good. However, it doesn’t go anywhere that’s satisfying beyond the “revenge” aspect. There’s no character development. I guess what I’m saying is that this is fluff. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I expect more than fluff from my Oscar winners.

Good Stuff:
Great soundtrack.

Newman and Redford are both extremely easy on the eyes. Oh, and they both turned in fine performances. I enjoyed Shaw the most in this film, however, which was a relief after his turn in A Man for All Seasons.

I really enjoyed the big con, called “The Wire.” It was intricate, with a lot of layers, so it was fun to watch it unfold. I didn’t even see the final layer coming until it happened, which was a pleasant surprise. I’m not usually fooled so easy.

The Verdict:
First, a story. If you’re a regular reader of these reviews, you’ve probably seen me say “I saw this movie once about 18 years ago” on a semi-frequent basis. Here’s why. In the mid-1990s, I spent my junior year of college in a study-abroad program in Germany. My fellow American students and I often went to a local video store that rented out English-language movies. However, their selection was limited, so we ended up renting a lot of older films. That’s how I saw a lot of these Oscar winners for the first time.

That having been said, I saw this movie once about 18 years ago. I didn’t remember a whole lot about it other than that I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a second time around; I just wasn’t especially wowed. It was fun. It had some nice eye-candy. That’s about it. I’m not going to give a movie I liked a harsh rating. However, I don’t think you need to see it unless you’re feeling especially inclined.

I give the movie 3.5 stars.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Best Picture: "The Godfather," 1972

Movie Stats:
Released 1972 (USA)
American, in English (some translated Italian & some non-translated Italian)
Director – Francis Ford Coppola
Stars – Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton

Plot Summary:
It’s the story of mafia boss Vito Corleone (Brando), his sons Sonny (Caan) and Michael (Pacino), and his adopted son Tom Hagan (Duvall). Keaton co-stars as Michael’s girlfriend, Kay Adams.

Extreme violence (including toward an animal & toward a pregnant woman) and brief female nudity.

Bad Stuff:
It’s pretty long, coming in just under 3 hours.

I’m not normally one to complain about violence. Violence that I know is fake doesn’t tend to bother me. But there are some violent scenes in this film that made me very uncomfortable. I guess maybe they were a bit too realistic.

Good Stuff:
My favorite thing about this movie is that it showcases good storytelling. Watching Michael go from the one Corleone child destined to remain out of the “family business” to heir-apparent is fascinating. Even though you know the Corleones are “bad” people, you find yourself rooting for them to succeed nonetheless. To me, that’s the embodiment of great filmmaking, when moviemakers can make you feel what they want you to feel, perhaps even in spite of yourself.

There are some scenes that are so fraught with tension that it’s thrilling. I sat there, heart pounding, thinking to myself, “Oh, that guy’s gonna get it!” I knew it was just a movie but it sucked me in anyway.

All the actors did a great job, but I particularly enjoyed the performances of Brando and Duvall.

The Verdict:
I saw all three Godfather movies about 18 years ago or so but had never watched any of them again. I remembered liking the first two & hating the third (mostly because of Sofia Coppola’s horrible acting). Anyway, since it had been such a long time, I wasn’t sure that I would still like it on second viewing.

I’m happy to report that I enjoyed it thoroughly. I’m not sure that I would recommend it to anyone who can’t stomach violence, but if you can get past that, this is truly a fine piece of filmmaking. There are some movies that you see just to say you’ve seen them. This isn’t one of them. You should see it because it’s good.

I give it 4.5 stars.