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Old School Review: Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” (1957)

Written by Reginald Rose and directed by Sidney Lumet, “12 Angry Men” is a courtroom drama focusing on a debate over the verdict between the 12 jurors. It is also the first feature by director Sidney Lumet. This film was one that I’d been seeking for awhile now, and when the Criterion Collection had a sale on their physical media recently, it had to be part of the purchase. I’ve seen a few of Sidney Lumet’s films (“Dog Day Afternoon”, “Serpico”, & “The Verdict”) but I knew this one was heralded as excellent. The premise is simple enough, Twelve male jurors congregate in deliberation to decide the fate of a young Puerto Rican teenager. At first vote 11 of the 12 jurors vote guilty, with 1 juror, #8 (Played by Henry Fonda) voting not guilty. There must be a unanimous decision by the jury for the death penalty, and thus juror #8 stakes his claim and begins to open up the discussion.

As the film begins with the end of the court case we only get information about the details of the matter through the jurors’ dialogue. Sidney Lumet fully utilizes every trick imaginable in a one location film. The long take in the beginning of the film as each jury member enters the room is elaborate and the perfect opening to the film. We get a little bit of information on each character that will inform us as to who they are and how they operate as individuals. The film cleverly addresses why Henry Fonda’s character would have reasonable doubt about the case, and it addresses each character’s opposition and why they think he might be guilty, or not, as Fonda slowly starts to convince them one by one. After the first few rounds of voting, Fonda baits a few of the jurors into proving his point for there being reasonable doubt. It’s pure genius honestly. The way Lumet uses the camera, pushing and pulling on faces and actions, using visuals to aide the representation of changing power dynamics in each scene- it’s just brilliant.

This is a movie about the performances though, and they are some of the best in all of film history. Lee J. Cobb in particular as juror #3 was electrifying in his performance. As the film advances we get more background information about this broken man and how his past relationship with his son has heavily influenced how he maneuvers through the debate. If there was to be an argument for the antagonist of the film, juror #3 is the best case for such a label in the context of the story. Though Ed Begley as juror #10 is a close second, his personal prejudice against people of color and those unfortunate enough to live in the slums becomes clearer as his points of debate diverge from the rest of the jury’s reasoning and motives. In a stark and beautiful scene late in the film, juror #10 is quietly, and physically, shunned by the entirety of the room as his blatant racism becomes too much for the others to ignore or accept. The profound nature of the script lies in how each character’s turn to “Not Guilty” lies in the characterization that relates to their own lives. The best example of this may have been juror #4 (E.G. Marshall), the cold and calculating character defined by logic alone. He had the pillars of his argument shattered by Fonda when he used his argument of memory recall against him. The final point that convinced him to change his vote was reliant on the witness that claimed to see the murder, at night, from across the street- hadn’t been wearing her glasses. Juror #4 also wore glasses, and realized this flaw in his argument, and accepted this change.

I could go on and on about the performances in this film and Sidney Lumet’s mesmerizing use of the camera- but you’ll just have to trust me on this one, it’s a damn fine movie. I highly urge anyone and everyone to give this one a watch, I tend not to use the word Masterpiece when talking about films in general- but this one deserves the credit that word delivers.

Final Score: 12 Angry Men (duh)

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Old School Review: Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956)

Written by Jim Thompson and Stanley Kubrick and directed by Kubrick, “The Killing” is a noir heist movie that follows a gang of criminals poised to rob a racetrack during a high-stakes horse race with a large sum of cash in play. Last week the Criterion Collection had a sale on their stock of films so I took the opportunity and found a few new curiosities. Stanley Kubrick has always been a fascinating film director, but I haven’t always loved his films. Thus, I take every chance I can get when it comes to finding more of his work so I can form a more complete picture of the man’s filmography. I had never heard of “The Killing” and a Kubrick, Noir, Heist film was too tantalizing to avoid. I likely hadn’t heard of the film because it was only Kubrick’s third full length film release, but he considered this one to be his first mature feature.

The main force propelling the plot along is Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), the architect of the heist and the only one that knows all of the moving parts of the plan. Johnny gathered this gang of desperate and foolish rogues through well researched intel and earned trust. George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) and Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) work at the track as a teller and bartender respectively. Both are in need of funds for their women at home, though each for vastly different reasons. Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani) and Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey), a chess playing strongman and a farmer who’s a crack shot with a rifle, are the two major diversions designed to create chaos and panic during the heist as Johnny palms the bills in the back during all of the confusion. There’s also Leo the loan shark (Jay Adler) and the poor schmuck of a cop Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) that got in deep debt due to Leo’s high interest rates. Together, these criminals attempted to forge a fool-proof heist in the hopes of netting a cool two million dollars for their troubles.

The film has a methodical nature to its layout, the audience simply isn’t involved in all of the details until the heist is in play. The writing, editing, and narration (which was a fountain of nostalgia laced with a fond notion of the simpler times in film) all work in tandem of executing the most tension within each scene as the film glides through its runtime. We meet the cast of characters well before knowing their exact roles in the heist, figuring out how all of the pieces fall into place was half of the fun of the film anyways. Johnny’s entire plan is based on the exact schedule of events and the knowledge that each member is executing their role at the planned time, without flaw. Thus once we get near the event we backtrack to various members and their roles as they execute them. The film was far more suspenseful than expected with this technique, it keeps you guessing as to where or when the gang will foul up their plan, because once we meet enough of the players and get a peek into a select few’s personal lives- it becomes clear that the plan will fail at some point.

I won’t spoil the fun for you by ruining the film’s third act, but I will give it a hearty recommendation. If you’re hankerin’ for a fun old school heist flick, give this one a shot! It’s only about an hour and twenty minutes, and an excellent way to kill the moody blues of a rainy afternoon.

Final Score: 2 Million dreams of the crooked and the desperate

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Review: Captain Marvel

Written by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Nicole Perlman, and Meg LeFauve and directed by Boden and Fleck, “Captain Marvel” is the 21st film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and is the first film in the ongoing series to be led by a woman (Maybe next time Black Widow). Set during the 1990’s “Captain Marvel” is an origin story that can, at times, suffer under the weight of everything the film requires of it as a piece of the larger shared universe. Don’t fret though, the film has enough attitude and heart to appease most audience members. Since the film has to do a lot of legwork in unpacking Carol Danvers’ (Brie Larson) own story through her memory loss and the galactic war between the alien races of the Kree and the Skrulls- the pacing and smoothness of the script do suffer somewhat.

While the film overall may have a “stepping stone syndrome” I’m admittedly doubly excited after the credits rolled to see how the character of Carol Danvers will fare when thrown into the mix with the other Avengers. This film was a lot of fun though- Carol’s scenes with a younger Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) was my favorite part of the whole film, the charisma and chemistry between these two was palpable! I really didn’t expect Fury to be in the film all that much given the de-aging tech required to digitally craft a believable 1990’s Sam Jackson, but it was seamless and incredibly impressive given his amount of screentime. Ben Mendelsohn almost stole the show as Talos the Skrull too, he was menacing, crafty, and far more layered than I would have expected from the shape-shifting alien race. The 1990’s setting was fun to play around in and the jokes devoted to the decade weren’t overdone thankfully. More importantly though, the hints of characterization we got of Carol from both her time as a member of Star-Force and as a pilot in the Air-Force with her friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch- who was the heart and soul of this movie!) show that her personality was singular even through her memory loss. She had attitude and a punk flair that was encouraging for the character’s future. Oh, and Goose the cat- he was pretty great too.

Okay, so, I have to mention the downsides of the film. While I may have had a good time with the superheroine’s space adventure- the film has its share of structural issues. The story at its core is fine as far as origin stories go, but the way the film was pieced together was incredibly clunky. In one of the first few scenes of the film a pair of Skrulls capture Carol and take a peek through her memories to find some information- showing us what her true past was. I get it, at 21 movies in an ongoing saga there’s a lot of pressure to consistently deliver us new content while still being familiar to what the audience loves- but giving the audience all of the information that the main character is seeking for the majority of the rest of the film (with one notable exception) keeps her distant. We get whispers of who Carol is, they tell us who she is, but as we begin the film with her being a powerful hero already- we weren’t with her when she struggled. Sure, we get a cool montage of her defying defeat and getting up from being knocked down throughout her life, but that’s not truly characterization within a story. I think there’s enough in this film to make great use of the character in future outings, but given that this is the first MCU film headed by a woman, shouldn’t she deserve more care with her story? There’s also a few other nitpicky issues I have with the movie, scenes lit too dark, direction lacking in a few fight scenes, and how Nick Fury lost his eye was kind of silly and I would have preferred him losing it in a battle with an alien- but hey that’s just me.

While “Captain Marvel” may have stumbled a bit out of the gate, she stands with excellent peers in the MCU. Tony Stark, Thor, and Bruce Banner don’t have the cleanest cinematic records here either, and that’s okay. The MCU has proven that they can take stumbles and turn them into ballets. Here’s to Carol Danvers giving Thanos a glowing fist to the face in April!

Final Score: There’s only 1 Goose!

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Old School Review: The French Connection (1971)

Written by Ernest Tidyman and directed by William Friedkin, “The French Connection” is a gritty police drama based on a true story. Set mostly in New York City, but with a couple scenes in Marseilles, two NYPD detectives follow a hunch that lead them on a wild chase following suspected criminals with connections to European drug kingpins. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) tail a suspicious character at a local lounge at night’s length to discover that they appear to run a simple corner store in a run-down neighborhood. The pair stick to their instincts, particularly Doyle’s, and wiretap the suspects conversations to see if they can get a bite. They finally do and begin their real case with glee.

This is, obviously, a well known film and there’s nothing truly new that I can add to the conversation other than my own personal interest in it. This academy award winner (5 wins, look ’em up) is revolutionary for its time. The car chase sequence is legendary for crafting a chaotic, frenetic, and white-knuckle chase between Doyle and his suspect on the elevated train car above. But more than that, this film was part of a turn towards nihilism in American cinema. The protagonists of the film are mean, violent, and kinda racist New York Cops who will do everything in their power to catch the greater evil that is the supplier and mastermind of the city’s imported heroin problem, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey)- or as Hackman’s Doyle nicknames him, Frog 1. Most of the films that preceded “The French Connection” held their heroic protagonists up as outright good, or simply icons to model ourselves after. Even the poster for this film is of Hackman’s Doyle shooting a criminal in the back. The heroes of “The French Connection” are foul-mouthed and obsessive, almost destructively so. Luckily for them, that obsessive nature pays off and they’re allowed to pursue the international drug circuit.

Most of the film is a slow burn for its hour and forty-five minute runtime. We follow the two detectives on the pursuit as they follow, watch, and wait for the criminal element to slip up. In these scenes of sitting in cars and waiting, we get a window into the seemingly lost cityscape of yesteryear. Maybe large metropolitan cities are simply cleaner now, but there was an atmosphere about them that lent to the imagination. This hard-boiled crime drama wouldn’t have half of the allure that it does if it weren’t for the setting and score alone (which is bellowing and powerful, or terse and gripping when needed). The world that this film lives in is dirty, abandoned, and a desperate plane of existence- quite perfect for the story it’s telling.

The film is definitely worth a watch if you enjoy this sub-genre of police detective stories. If you appreciate similar films like “Serpico”, “Bullitt”, or the “Dirty Harry” flicks, then you’ll likely get a good time out of this one. Personally, I just enjoyed getting to see Chief Brody as a detective working with Lex Luthor.

Final Score:

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Review Catch-Up: Hail, Caesar!

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, “Hail, Caesar!” is a love letter to postwar Hollywood in the early 1950’s when big budget epics, westerns, and musicals ruled the cinematic land. Josh Brolin leads this stunning cast of Coen Bros frequent collaborators and newcomers alike as Eddie Mannix, the head of “Physical Production” of Capitol Pictures. As the fixer of the studio’s many issues Mannix corrals wayward stars, abates the rumor mill of gossip columnists, and generally solves any and all problems that occur- sometimes with charm, other times with a bit of muscle when need be. Between all of this, Mannix is caught between an offer for the easy life at Lockheed Martin and whether or not he should stay and wrangle the many personalities and problems of Capitol Pictures.

The main driving force of the film is the abduction of infamous actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of “Hail, Caesar!” a religious epic in the vein of “The Ten Commandments” or “Ben-Hur”. Once informed of the actor’s disappearance Mannix goes on the hunt for the lost star, but gets bogged down in internal studio affairs. Once contacted by the kidnappers, self-titled The Future, Mannix collects ransom money from the petty cash allotted by the studio and follows their orders until he can find the solution. Meanwhile other directors and crews must handle the consequences of Mannix’s decisions, like taking cowboy western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and putting him into the high-society drama “Merrily we dance” directed by Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes). What follows is easily the funniest scene of the film and a direct criticism of studios making huge moves like replacing stars just for favors to keep from worse studio secrets spilling out into the public. Hobie Doyle may be a world renowned movie star in westerns where he doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue, but Laurence Lorenz is a stand in for the extremely precise thespian director that desires very specific line delivery. Pairing these two together, with Doyle’s thick southern accent and Lorenz soft speaking mannerisms that quickly boil over into confused agitation- was a genius comedic choice in my opinion.

In the midst of both the ‘Red Scare’ and the beginnings of the Cold War the real Hollywood of the early 1950’s was transitioning to meet the needs of this new era of paranoia and television. The Coen Brothers satirize this period with precise detail and pitch perfect comedic timing. The large studios still very much worked on the star system of the past and watching Capitol Pictures in the film work to garner attention by investing in as many westerns, musicals of synchronized swimming, and epics of religious nature is equally funny and fascinating. With the abundance of well known stars cast in the film, from Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum to Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton (playing twin gossip columnists!) the film has a lot going for it simply on performances alone. The recreation of the early 1950’s pastel color palettes and huge set-pieces within the massive expanse of “studio city” is commendable in its own right as well! Roger Deakins again showcases his masterful use of lighting and camera movement as the frequent Coen cinematographer, and it’s easy to see why they collaborate as often as they have. The pairing between the three as writers, directors, and cinematographer is a cinematic dream team!

“Hail, Caesar!” was a lightweight affair when compared to other offerings from the Coens and everyone involved seems to have had a great deal of fun satirizing their industry’s golden age. As is often true with most Coen bros films, it may not be for everyone, but it is crafted by skilled people who are truly invested in the art form. Joel and Ethan Coen, and Roger Deakins, give a damn about the movies they choose to make, and this riff on the industry’s earlier era is full of winks, nods, and references to that time and the films that came out of the studio-orchestrated chaos. It is a pastiche of the gilded age of cinema crafted with great panache, and I definitely recommend giving it a watch!

Final Score: 10 Communist Writers and 1 Dolph Lundgren (seriously keep an eye out for him, easy to miss!)