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Old School Review: Harold and Maude (1971)

*Disclaimer* Given that this film is 48 years old, there will be spoilers! 

Written by Colin Higgins and directed by Hal Ashby, “Harold and Maude” is a weird little romantic dark-comedy from the early 1970’s with the spirit of the 1960’s very much still intact. The film rests on the relationship between Harold (Bud Cort), a twenty-something introvert who’s become obsessed with death and infected with a general malaise, and Maude (Ruth Gordon), a 79 year old wild woman living life on a whim without following any of the rules dictated by society. The film is a strange balance between dark humor wrapped in whimsy with an absurdist and warm-hearted tone.

Bud Cort plays Harold, the son of a wealthy family who’s become disillusioned with life. In the opening scene Harold is seen milling about the living room lighting candles and going about an unseen task, until we see him hang himself. As his mother enters the room she remains unimpressed by the hanging body of her son, makes a quick phone call and nonchalantly chides Harold on her way out of the room- this is, we soon discover, just one of many fake suicides that he performs to get a rise out of his haughty mother. Mrs. Chasten (Vivian Pickles) finds her son’s behavior unsavory and begins to set him up for several blind dates, to which he hilariously (and creatively) performs increasingly macabre “deaths” with each new attempt. Being as quietly obsessed with death as he is, Harold frequents local funerals for deceased people he doesn’t know. At one such funeral he notices an older woman similarly separated from the families and eventually they take notice of each other.

Ruth Gordon’s performance inflects Maude with the usual hippie maxims bound to the previous decade’s counterculture, but imbues them with an authenticity hinting more towards wisdom rather than the potential kookiness that the character could have been in lesser hands. As a devout outsider of societal norms Maude is a refreshing cannon blast of life-affirming philosophies for Harold. After one of their funeral visitations Maude offers to drive Harold home, he declines at this initial offer, but as she drives away one of the funeral-goers seems almost awestruck as he watches a little old lady drive off with his car. Maude’s disregard of ownership over the material world may seem like a silly character trait at first, but after a quick shot of Maude’s forearm revealing concentration camp numbering, we’re more apt to understand her ideology on the fleeting nature of material things.


Once Harold and Maude’s relationship blooms into more of a romance than a simple mentor-to-student scale Harold informs his family of his intent to marry Maude. Which leads into one of my favorite parts of the film, where his mother, his uncle Victor (Charles Tyner portraying a dedicated Military man as a sort of one-armed comedic relief), psychiatrist (G. Wood), and the flabbergasted family priest (Eric Christmas), all lecture Harold on the woes of this decision. The film could have taken these asides as a sobering lecture on poor decision making for practicality’s sake, but instead portrays these established adults as loonier than the two leads- firmly keeping us on the side of Harold and Maude. On Maude’s 80th birthday, he asks her for her hand in marriage- but to the surprise of Harold, she had already decided to take her own life by pill minutes before. In her dying moments she’s decidedly upbeat about the notion- and Harold becomes the most animated we’ve seen him yet once faced with the death of someone he cares deeply for. Harold takes Maude’s life affirming philosophies to heart in the last scene. After Maude’s death Harold is seen ferociously speeding in his hearse towards a cliff-side. For a moment, I really though he was finally going to kill himself- but not so, he was simply stripping away his obsession with death. He then wanders off as the credits roll, strumming on the banjo Maude gave him.

Final Score: A whole soundtrack of ‘Cat Stevens’ songs

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Review: Roma

Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma” follows a family through a tumultuous year in early 1970’s Mexico City. Specifically it is the story of Cleo Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio), one of two maids that live with the family they clean and care for. While we follow the arc of the family’s overall storyline as the film develops, we see most things through Cleo’s perspective. She works with Adela (Nancy García García) cleaning the floors, preparing food, and watching over Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio’s (Fernando Grediaga) four children Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), Paco (Carlos Peralta), Pepe (Marco Graf), and Sofi (Daniela Demesa).

I won’t divulge too many details, as I believe this small film benefits from a less-is-more attitude upon first viewing. The emotional core of the film lies in the parallel storylines of Cleo and Sofia, both of whom experience cycles of neglect and trauma. The first half of the film is cleverly benign. It explores the intimacy of small moments between various characters, forcing a closeness between the audience and the family onscreen so that when the dramatic events unfold, the twisting of the narrative knife is that much more painful. In an article for Variety the director speaks about the sensation of memory, about how the film isn’t meant to be a direct representation of the time and place, but informed by how he remembers it. “[Jorge Luis] Borges talks about how memory is an opaque, shattered mirror, but I see it more as a crack in the wall. The crack is whatever pain happened in the past. We tend to put several coats of paint over it, trying to cover that crack. But it’s still there.” -Alfonso Cuarón.

With “Roma”, Alfonso Cuarón demonstrates his deft handiwork and skill behind the camera, which firmly reminds us of his place in cinematic history. This passion project of Cuarón’s has his fingerprints in nearly every department of production. Not only did he write and direct the first Best Picture nominee for Netflix, but he was also behind the camera as the cinematographer and edited the film himself too! Informed by his own childhood growing up in Mexico City, Cuarón’s semi autobiographical work is dedicated to the real Cleo of his childhood, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez. Though in a fun sidenote, there’s even a nod to the director’s other works when the family goes to the cinema to see “Marooned”- an inspiration for his own sci-fi film in the shape of “Gravity” years later.

Cuarón’s cinematography makes everyday life seem like a spectacle to behold. This works wonders in the latter half of the film when the narrative starts to weigh more, for both the audience and the characters involved. If “Roma” doesn’t sweep the Oscars with its ten nominations then it should at the very least get the cinematography award. Though admittedly, it would be a shame if Yalitza Aparicio didn’t get the Best Actress- her performance was grounded, warm, tragic and outstanding. I haven’t seen as many of the Oscar nominations as I normally do this time of year, but I’d have a hard time considering others over this performance, and the film as a whole truthfully.

What I loved most about this film was that it captured the breadth and depth of life’s circumstances. It asks how we’re supposed to wade through the vague and swirling confusion of psychological and emotional trauma that is life when we’re supposed to go about our lives and do things that are required of us, like work and the accumulation of wealth. In my humble opinion, good art makes you question life and your place in it. Really great art reaches you on a previously unseen level and makes an impact on you- but the best stuff burrows inside your mind, and it becomes a part of you, it makes you live in ITS space. Any great novel, painting, orchestra, or film can accomplish this- and it is different for everyone, but Roma was all of these things for me after the end credits had rolled.

Final Score: 4 kids, 2 maids, and 1 Borras

Check out this article (mentioned earlier in the review) about the film and the director’s complex relationship with the material from Variety: https://variety.com/2018/film/news/roma-alfonso-cuaron-netflix-libo-rodriguez-1202988695/

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Old School Review: The Fisher King (1991)

Written by Richard LaGravenese and directed by Terry Gilliam, “The Fisher King” is a fantasy drama about tragedy and guilt set in New York City before the revolutionary clean up process that the city underwent before the late 90’s and into the 2000’s. Within that dirty and chaotic realm we find our protagonist Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) doing what he does best, delivering his fork-tongued critiques against the ‘yuppie’, high society, peoples of New York City. Think of him as a mesh between Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh (Less invested in pushing the taboo boundaries of broadcasting than the former, but with more inherent heart behind his words than the latter). One day Jack’s crazed rants lead him to specifically naming a restaurant where the rich and so called elitist gather. One of his listeners greatly agrees with the motor-mouth-shock-jock so much so that he shows up at the establishment with a shotgun, after all, like Jack Lucas said, “It’s us against them”.

Jack hears about the shooting and becomes completely unraveled by the actions that his words inspired. Fast forward three years later and we find Jack in the midst of an alcohol fueled, self-despising, slump where he works at his girlfriend Anne’s (Mercedes Ruehl in an Oscar winning performance) video store. One night on a drinking bender, Jack contemplates suicide, even going so far as to tie cinder blocks to his feet and looking out into the Hudson river. At the last second some thugs assault Jack, drenching him in gasoline and beating him. Fortunately for Jack, Parry (Robin Williams) arrives on the scene with a few fellow homeless nomads. They swarm the thugs with lights and singing until they disperse.

After saving his life, Parry consorts with the “Forty tiny, flying, invisible, fat men” to agree that Jack is “The One”. Naturally Jack is freaked out about all of this, hangover or not. Parry then explains that he’s a knight ordained by God to find the Holy Grail, which he believes to be in the possession of a billionaire on the upper east side. Initially Jack is reluctant to help Parry, until he learns that he’s responsible for ruining Parry’s former life. Parry, once named Henry, had been a college professor and happily married before the massacre. Henry and his wife were at that restaurant, where he watched her die horrifically right in front of him triggering a psychotic break. From that psychological wreckage, Parry was born.

“The Red Knight”

Parry is driven by both love and fear. Jack discovers this after learning Parry’s true past and attempts to redeem himself by helping Parry. He does not simply want the grail though, he also sheepishly follows a young woman around the city on her daily routine. Parry has fallen in love with Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a quiet young woman who works at a book publishing house. So, Jack goes to great lengths to set them up on a dinner date with both himself and Anne. Jack also learns of Parry’s greatest fear, “The Red Knight”. The Red Knight appears whenever Parry is brushed by reality or when things seem too good to be true. After Parry has a particularly intense breakdown he’s attacked by the same thugs that accosted Jack earlier. This puts Parry into a catatonic state, which forces Jack to go search for the grail in an attempt to save Parry’s life.

There were a few specific aspects of this film that I found fascinating. Granted, Robin Williams drew me to this one as he’s probably my favorite actor of all time, so I’m always game to find another hidden gem of his work. But the film doesn’t go absolutely bananas with style over substance, if you’re familiar with Terry Gilliam’s work you can see flourishes of his guiding hand throughout the run-time. This is most obvious with the Red Knight, but also with the depiction of New York City itself. Gilliam uses framing, specific angles, and has the production dressed down in a sort of dirty and mythic fashion that transforms the feel of New York City into a place where the impossible seems optimistic and not so far away. The cinematography seems to be fairly character oriented in how it represents mood, how characters change over time, and how isolated or sociable a scene is for the characters. However, the single best aspect of the film is for me how the story treats trauma and how it can affect a person for a very long time. This aspect of Robin Williams’ performance was heartbreaking and how the filmmakers and crew decided to represent Parry’s fractured self was both tragic and it felt accurate. Paranoia and fear can strike at a moment’s notice, all emotions can run high at any time, and triggering events can be devastating.Fantasy Element. This was an interesting film from the early 1990’s and worth a watch in my opinion.

Final Score: 2 thugs and 40 tiny flying invisible fat men

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Old School Review: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Written by George Axelrod and directed by John Frankenheimer, “The Manchurian Candidate” is a political thriller about an international conspiracy forged by communists during the Korean War to brainwash American soldiers for use as unwitting assassins. This was the first film I saw in 2019, and not knowing the general plot of the infamous film kept the tension intact as an audience member. I went into this movie with a clean slate and my viewing experience was all the better for it and I recommend seeing it that way if possible. However, this film has been around for a long time, therefore we will be covering spoilers. You’ve been warned. Frank Sinatra stars as Major Bennett Marco leading his team of soldiers through the horrors of war. After the dust settled Major Marco kept tabs on all of the men in his unit, especially after having suspiciously realistic fever dreams of their time in the war.


After returning from the war a hero, for saving his men from capture over enemy lines, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) was also experiencing an existential angst from similar nightmares. Though everyone back home seems to love and appreciate Shaw, he feels disconnected. He remembers being a more prickly and grumpy person that wasn’t particularly loved or appreciated. The film dives into the psychological profile of Shaw and how he operates as an individual, the relationships he has with those closest to him, and how he can be manipulated by emotional triggers. It then turns into a game of cat and mouse with Shaw working as an assassin for a foreign power without even realizing it, as Major Marco tracks down the clues his friend left in his bloody wake.

One of my favorite parts of the film were the brainwashing sequences and how the editing and cinematography inform the audience of the truth of the scene. Jumping back and forth between the perceptions of the captured soldiers and their manipulative masters was brilliant! The captured soldiers were on a stage, being presented to other potential “buyers” who were seen by the soldiers as little old grandmothers at a flower shop. I thought it was particularly clever when they switched to an African-American solder’s point-of-view where all of the grandmothers were also African-American. The performances were a lot of fun, they really pulled from the paranoia and suspicious nature of the heights of the Cold War. Frank Sinatra’s casting as Major Marco was a surprise for me, I had never looked into Sinatra’s acting history so I was unsure of his acting caliber going into the film, but he was surprisingly good for playing outside of his art medium. Khigh Dhiegh was particularly entertaining as Yen Lo, I like to think of him as the carnival barker of brainwashing experiments. Angela Lansbury portrays Raymond’s mother as a boundary crossing, overbearing, and self absorbed character with gilded power gleaming in her eyes. Alongside her is James Gregory as Senator John Iselin, Shaw’s stepfather and ‘useful bulldog’ for his mother’s manipulation. This triangle of relationships is immediately established when Shaw lands back in America only to be used for political gain by his mother for Senator Iselin’s campaign, nothing more patriotic than having a picture taken with a war hero thereby framing his support for the candidate- when in reality, Shaw despises Iselin and his mother’s authoritative political nature.

“The Manchurian Candidate” is a fascinating political thriller and a classic film that I highly recommend. If you’re looking for a snowstorm movie this winter- you can’t go wrong with this one!

Final Score: 52 Queens

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Old School Review: Wild Strawberries (1957)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, “Wild Strawberries” is the famed Swede filmmaker’s twenty-fourth film and one of his most humanistic and compassionate. Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), an esteemed medical scientist in Stockholm, is to be celebrated for his contributions to the field with an honorary degree in Lund. Accompanying Isak on the 400 mile road trip is his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin). During the drive Isak is disturbed by several dreams which cause him to reexamine his past for better, or for worse. They stop occasionally to stretch their legs, check on old family vacation spots, and even to pick up a few hitchhikers.

In reviewing “Wild Strawberries” I tread on well worn pathways walked upon by generations of indie art kids, collegiate film fans, and those genuinely taken by the love that celluloid gives- but also every single hipster-trash-baby looking to be perceived as “Cool” by simply being aware of the works of Ingmar Bergman. So, I get it. Reviewing old films- especially old films that reside on a litany of lists and boxes waiting for the day it can be checked off or filled in, they can come with the baggage of appearing pretentious and reeking of seeking validation. Speaking of baggage, this whole film is essentially about just that. How does one reconcile with not just the existential issues of strangers, but of close family members, or even lovers? Not to mention the baggage that comes with simply being human?

Isak Borg, being the distinguished scientist in the medical field that he is, has become cynical over the years. His dreams force him to reexamine what was and what could have been, how his regrets and mistakes have forged who he is today. These dreams, or nightmares really, coerce the doctor to question how he treats others, to ask himself whether or not he has become calloused and cold-hearted. There are two groups of hitchhikers that inspire this reevaluation of the doctor’s life. One of these groups consists of a troupe of three college-aged youths, two men with quarreling ideologies and a woman, Sara (Bibi Andersson), that has both of their hearts in her hands- who coincidentally looks exactly like Isak’s lost love- who just so happened to marry his brother instead of him. The other pair of hitchhikers are a stubbornly vicious married couple that wreck their car nearly hitting Isak and company. After awhile the married couple become so absorbed by their contempt for each other with vitriol that Marianne pulls over and leaves them to be toxic on their own time. Both groups mirror parallels in Isak’s life and continue his assessment of self as the journey carries onward.

The other parallels of the film lie not only in Isak recognizing similar patterns in his past, but also in those closest to him. In the beginning of the trip Isak and Marianne visit Isak’s elderly mother for a few minutes, and after arriving in Lund nearing the end of the film, the pair meet up with Isak’s son and Marianne’s husband Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand). Isak recognizes this same aloofness and lonliness that plagues him in both of them. He gradually accepts who he is, connecting his past self with his present, and acknowledging his time left in this world. If you haven’t seen this film, I encourage you to give it a chance. There’s a reason the name Ingmar Bergman is still relevant in the world of cinema today.

Final Score: 5 Hitchhikers and a patch of Wild Strawberries

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Old School Review: Solaris (1972)

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and co-written with Fridrikh Gorenshteyn, “Solaris” is a sci-fi film based off of the novel of the same name by Stanislav Lem. The opening of the film begins on Earth in a future where the Soviet Union (or Humanity in general) has achieved interstellar travel. Off in a faraway star system resides ‘Solaris’, the titular ocean planet, where an orbiting space station has been experiencing strange and mysterious phenomena. Our lead, the psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), is briefed on what they know about the developing situation by cosmonaut Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), at Kelvin’s father’s home in the countryside. Once aboard the station Kelvin finds Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) dead, while the other two scientists, Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Sartorius (Anatoliy Solonitsyn), were distraught and deeply disturbed by the events unfolding on the space station.

“Solaris”, like all of Tarkovsky’s other films to some extent, is slow. Whether or not you have the patience to sit through the film’s very long shots, sometimes seemingly trying it’s very best to test your will to finish it, will inform your decision to attempt the film or not. While not the slowest pace among Tarkovsky’s films- there are several sequences that can test the rigor of any cinema-goer. Having spent the summer of 2017 getting acquainted with one of the last great American arthouse filmmakers in David Lynch’s third season of the series “Twin Peaks”, I’ve had time to digest the merit of slowness in cinema. I’m not always in the mood for such storytelling- but when I am there is hardly any greater filmmaker than Tarkovsky for such things. No one films the quiet humility of nature as he does, placing almost more emphasis on the environment than what’s happening within it.

It appears that when the station sent down X-rays to probe the planet for intelligent life, the planet responded to this by reflecting certain memories and perceptions of the remaining scientists’ minds into real physical forms. Kelvin is also quickly effected by the radiating phenomena as his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) materializes after his first night aboard the station. She is exactly as Kelvin remembers her, therefore she only has access to information that Kelvin would expect Hari to be aware of. At first he is bewildered by her presence as he expels his wife’s double into outer space in one of the escape pods. Another double of Hari appears a few hours later and Kelvin accepts this new Hari after awhile. She needs physical proximity to Kelvin’s brainwaves, and when left alone the clone punched through a steel door because she panicked and couldn’t figure out how to open the door manually. Now, that’s a bad case of monophobia!

Much like another sci-fi favorite of mine, “Blade Runner 2049”, this film debates the very notion of humanity. It asks what it means to be human, and whether or not you have to be born to be able to understand humans entirely. For Kelvin, it did not matter that this Hari was only a biological response to his literal proximity to an alien planet’s intelligence-aura. This recently formed aberration behaved as Hari would based on Kelvin’s memories of her, and the return of a departed loved one can be a powerful motivation, especially considering the circumstances of Hari’s death ten years prior. For Kelvin, this proved to be enough in the end.

After the space station goes through it’s scheduled weightlessness stage Doctors Snaut and Sartorius project Kelvin’s brainwaves towards Solaris. After awhile, the other doubles and “guests” disappear and Kelvin decides to go home. However he’s revealed to actually be on an exact copy of his father’s countryside home and estate as Solaris forms an island out of Kelvin’s memories. Now that’s a satisfactory ending!

Final Score: 2 scientists and 1 dead cosmonaut

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Review Catch-Up: Upgrade

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, “Upgrade” is a revenge-thriller with a futuristic sci-fi setting not unlike that of “Blade Runner”s. My plan was to catch this one when it was in theaters this past summer, it just never materialized, but I am so glad I came back to find it after video release. This pulpy, body-horror, grindhouse, genre flick isn’t what I expected going in, but I immediately fell in love with the concept of the film after the hook.

Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a simple man in a complex world. In a time of fully automated cars and advanced biomedical technologies Grey stands out. He’s a mechanic that works on classic American muscle cars with a deep-seated love for the analog ways of the past. With Laura (Belén Rueda), the love of his life, they lead a productive life together despite the technological gap between them. After putting the finishing touches on one of his sales cars, he brings Laura with him to drop it off to the buyer, a reclusive big-tech genius named Eron (Harrison Gilbertson). While there, Eron shows Grey and Laura his latest project set to revolutionize the world, STEM. A computer chip the size of a beetle, STEM is an A.I. capable of lightning fast processing power and immense data crunching ability. Grey, being the analog purist that he is, isn’t impressed by the reveal while Laura ogles over the new possibilities. On the way home, their automatic car disobeys orders and takes them into dangerous neighborhoods before quickly accelerating into a pole and flipping the car, killing Laura in the process. A gang of people flood the streets and pull Grey from the wreckage and shoot him in the back of the head, paralyzing him from the neck down.

Fast forward to Grey immobilized in a hospital bed when, surprise surprise, Eron waltzes into his room to offer him an.. Upgrade. Again, Grey turns down the offer. Seeing his partner die before his very eyes hasn’t exactly motivated him to want to live, and especially thrive, by technological augmentation. After he hits rock bottom emotionally and psychologically, he reconsiders and accepts Eron’s offer. After the surgery, Eron informs Grey of the need for secrecy surrounding STEM as the experimental tech isn’t exactly legal.

With his mobility regained Grey immediately goes into detective mode to find Laura’s killers. It is here that STEM (Simon Maiden) chooses to introduce itself to Grey by helping him follow the clues. STEM is also handy for a good fight. After verbally giving STEM permission, the A.I. takes control of his body and efficiently, brutally, attacks any opponents. The fight scenes in this movie are a great deal of fun! They, cleverly, have an extra layer of visual comedy in play. When Grey is fighting, his face reveals his horror to the actions of his own body with STEM at the wheel. He smashes plates over assailants heads while his face recoiles from the creative violence at hand. That’s just brilliant. Eventually a local cop, Cortez (Betty Gabriel) starts to sniff out Grey’s suspicious activities. She was fun as a threat for Grey in the film but there wasn’t a lot of characterization with her.

This film was exactly the kind of sci-fi that I enjoy. Thought provoking ideas mixed with paranoia about a changing world, and some extreme B-movie violence thrown in for good measure. It was funny, it was dark, it was just a damn good science-fiction film. I highly recommend it, but especially if you enjoy other modern sci-fi flicks like “Annihilation” or “Ex-Machina”.

Final Score: 2 Muscle Cars and 1 talkative A.I.