Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

Advertisements

“THE STING” (1973) Review

the_sting_1_newman_redford

“THE STING” (1973) Review

Whenever film critics or film fans bring up the subject of Best Picture Oscar winners during the 1970s, the topic usually turned to movies like 1975s “ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO NEST”. But the two main Oscar winners usually discussed are the“GODFATHER” movies – 1972’s “THE GODFATHER” and 1974’s “THE GODFATHER – PART II”. The 1973 Oscar winner, “THE STING” is sometimes remembered . . . but not always with the same reverence. At least it seems that way to me.

“THE STING”, which was a caper film set during the middle of the Great Depression, reunited stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford with director George Roy Hill. The latter had directed the pair in the 1969 biopic Western, “BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID”. In “THE STING”, Newman and Redford portrayed a pair of grifters who set out to con a vicious crime boss who had ordered the death of a friend. Screenwriter David S. Ward was inspired by the careers of grifters Fred and Charley Gondorff, whose exploits were featured in David Maurer’s book, “The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man”.

The movie begins in 1936 Joliet, Illinois; in which three grifters – Johnny Hooker, Luther Coleman and Joe Erie – con an unsuspecting victim out of $11,000 in cash. Both Hooker and Erie discover from a corrupt cop named Lieutenant Synder that they had conned a numbers racket courier, who was carrying the $11,000 for a vicious crime boss named Doyle Lonnegan. Even worse, Lonnegan has discovered their identity and sent hit men to kill them. The killers manage to murder Coleman before Johnny and Joe can split up. On Coleman’s advice, Hooker seeks out Henry Gondorff, a world-class grifter hiding from the F.B.I. in Chicago with his girlfriend, Billie, who runs a brothel in the city. Hooker asks Gondorff’s help in getting revenge for Luther’s death. Although reluctant to pull a con against the crime boss, Gondorff decides to use an elaborate and supposedly obsolete scam known as “the wire”, using a crew of con artists to create a phony off-track betting parlor. Hooker eventually discovers that both Lonnegan’s hitmen and Lieutenant Synder have tracked him to Chicago, and he has to maintain a step ahead of them in order to keep Gondorff’s scam on track.

While watching “THE STING”, I found myself wondering if there was anything about it that did not appeal to me. I realized that most of my problems with the film were at best, ascetic. Before the turn of the 21st century, Hollywood seemed to have great difficulty in recapturing women’s fashion in the early-to-mid 1930s . . . and that includes hairstyles. In fact, this seemed apparent in “THE STING” regarding the hairstyles for actresses Eileen Brennan and Dimitra Arliss. I hate to say this, but it looked as if Brennan was wearing a wig. And Arliss’ hairstyle reminded me of one worn by women in the 1940s, not the 1930s. Only Sally Kirkland managed to escape this fate. Hmmm . . . you know what? I cannot think of any other flaws in “THE STING”. At least not now. Perhaps I need to watch it again. I could complain about Marvin Hamlisch’s use of Scott Joplin’s music used in a movie set in the mid-1930s- especially since Joplin’s music dated back at least 30 years before the movie’s setting. But for some reason it worked. It worked. I could write an essay on how songs written at the turn of the 20th century meshed so well in a movie set during the Great Depression. But I cannot explain how this happened, other than movie magic.

However, there is so much to admire in this film. Former 20th Century Fox studio head, Darryl Zanuck, once said that the backbone to any movie is the story. And I heartily agree. Apparently, the producers of “THE STING”, Tony Bill, Julia and Michael Phillips, felt the same about the movie’s screenplay written by David S. Ward. On the surface, “THE STING” is a first-class story about grifters pulling a major con against a crime boss responsible for the death of one of their own. First of all, Ward’s script gave audiences a detailed account of the con pulled by Gondorff, Hooker and the others. Audiences not only got to see the con play out from the beginning to the end, but also its planning stages and unexpected problems. There were three major problems that the grifters had to face – namely Lonnegan’s contract on Hooker for the con that he, Coleman and Erie had pulled; Hooker’s conflict with Detective Synder, who was after the grifter for passing counterfeit money as a bribe to him; and the F.B.I., who seemed to be closing in on Gondorff. And Ward’s screenplay handled all of these plot lines with a seamless skill that led to his Academy Award win for Best Original Screenplay.

I can honestly say the same about George Roy Hill’s direction. When Hill won the Best Director Oscar for his work on “THE STING”, he had responded that with Newman, Redford and Ward’s script; he could not lose. But I have come across a good number of movies that possessed a first-rate cast and a decent script. Yet, these films still managed to result in pure crap. Another director could have screwed up with the cast and script given, but Hill did not. Instead, he transformed quality material – the cast, the crew and the script – into Oscar gold. He also injected a great deal of oomph into the movie’s storytelling by shooting it with a “Saturday Evening Post style” that included page turning chapter headings and graphics. He and cinematographer Robert Surtees imitated the flat camera style of the old Warner Brothers gangster films of the 1930s, which included ending each scene with a slide across the screen or a circular motion. The most interesting thing about Hill’s direction is that he managed to inject the desperate air of the Great Depression in a movie that is generally regarded as somewhat light froth. And that is a hell of a thing to accomplish. Both Newman and Redford had expressed great admiration toward Hill’s stylized direction and his firm handling of the movie during its production. After watching the movie for the umpteenth time, I can see why they held him in such high regard.

Looking at “THE STING”, I am still amazed that aside from a few locations around Southern California and Chicago, most of it was filmed on the Universal Studios lot. As a Southern Californian, I have seen those backlot locations during many visits to the studio. But I am still amazed at how Bob Warner’s special effects, the film’s art department, James W. Payne’s Oscar winning set decorations and Robert Surtees’ cinematography made me forget about the studio lot locations and convince me that I had transported back to Depression-era Chicago and Joliet. I could also say the same about Edith Head’s costume designs, which led to her winning an Academy Award. But Albert Whitlock’s visual effects – especially his matte paintings – really gave this movie its unique visual style, as shown below:

4814bb6aa621ff03404d206656923bad 5127090_f520

I am happy to say that Whitlock also won an Academy Award.

“THE STING” marked the second screen teaming of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It seems a damn shame they never shot other films together, because those two are magic as a team. Hell, they were magic period. Newman was perfect as Henry Gondorff. He did a great job in portraying who proved that despite his world weary attitude, he was still the master grifter capable of operation a first-rate con job, acting as mentor to less experienced grifters and handling unexpected problems. I especially enjoyed the sly air that Newman injected into the character and one particular scene in which his Gondorff emotionally manipulated the Doyle Lonnegan character. Someone once claimed that Robert Redford was wrong for the Jay Gatsby character, because his personal background and “golden boy” looks prevented him from understanding the air of desperation that drove Fitzgerald’s character. I disagree. In fact, I would point to Redford’s portrayal of Johnny Hooker in “THE STING” as an example of why that particular criticism is utter bullshit. He did a beautiful job of conveying Hooker’s impatience, addiction to gambling and more importantly, air of desperation – traits that led him into trouble with Lonnegan and Stryder in the first place.

Robert Shaw’s portrayal of Red Grant is considered one of the best James Bond villains of all time. Frankly, I found his portrayal of crime boss Doyle Lonnegan to be a lot more scary. Lonnegan must have been one of the most chaotic characters that the actor had portrayed. On one hand, Lonnegan seemed to be the epitome of the cold-blooded businessman, who did not suffer the loss of even one penny. At the same time Shaw was excellent in portraying the gangster’s pride and hair-trigger temper that led him into moments of recklessness. “THE STING” was the first movie that ever made me take notice of actress Eileen Brennan . . . and this was seven years before her Oscar-nominated performance in “PRIVATE BENJAMIN”. I thought she gave a very sly and sexy performance as Gondorff’s grifter/madam girlfriend, Billie. This was especially apparent in one scene in which she was forced to deal with Lieutenant Synder, who was searching for Hooker. Speaking of Synder, this role marked the first major one on film for Charles Durning. I thought he did a marvelous job as the vindictive and crooked Joliet cop. Durning did an excellent job in conveying Synder’s venal nature in a very subtle manner.

Both Ray Walston and Harold Gould gave very entertaining performances as two of Gondorff’s trusted men – J.J. Singleton and Kid Twist. Walston injected a good deal of sardonic humor that I found particularly fun to watch. And Gould gave a very elegant performance as the charming Twist. Jack Kehoe, who was also in 1988’s “MIDNIGHT RUN”, did an excellent job of portraying Hooker’s loyal, yet slightly nervous partner, Joe Erie. Kehoe was especially effective in the one scene in which Erie had a brief conversation with Lonnegan during the con. I suspect a good number of people would be surprised to learn that Robert Earl Jones, who portrayed Luther Coleman, was the father of actor James Earl Jones. After watching the father’s performance as the aging grifter who served as Hooker’s mentor, it is easy to see from whom the junior Mr. Earl Jones had inherited his talent. Robert Earl Jones, despite a screen time of twenty minutes or less, gave a first-rate performance as the doomed elderly grifter.

What else can I say about “THE STING”? I managed to spot a flaw or two. But right, I cannot think of any more flaws. I would have to watch the movie again. However, between the film’s visual artistry, Marvin Hamlisch’s use of Scott Joplin’s music, David S. Ward’s excellent screenplay and the first-rate cast led by Paul Newman and Robert Redford; director George Roy Hill created magic. And it is due to this magic that “THE STING” remains one of my favorite movies of all time, to this day.

Favorite Films Set in the 1950s

The-1950s

Below is a list of my favorite movies set in the decade of the 1950s:

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1950s

1

1. L.A. Confidential (1997) – Curtis Hanson directed this outstanding adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1990 novel about three Los Angeles police detectives drawn into a case involving a diner massacre. Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce and Oscar winner Kim Basinger starred.

2

2. “Grease” (1978) – John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John starred in this entertaining adaptation of the 1971 Broadway musical about a pair of teenage star-crossed lovers in the 1950s. Randal Kleiser directed.

3

3. “The Godfather, Part II” (1974) – Francis Ford Coppola directed his Oscar winning sequel to the 1972 Oscar winning adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel. Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and Oscar winner Robert De Niro starred.

4

4. “Quiz Show” (1994) – Robert Redford directed this intriguing adaptation of Richard Goodwin’s 1968 memoir, “Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties”, about the game show scandals of the late 1950s. Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow and John Tuturro starred.

5

5. “The Mirror Crack’d (1980) – Angela Landsbury starred as Miss Jane Marple in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1962 novel. Directed by Guy Hamilton, the movie also starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Edward Fox.

indy127

6. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls” (2008) – Harrison Ford returned for the fourth time as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones in this adventurous tale in which he is drawn into the search for artifacts known as the Crystal Skulls. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie was produced by him and George Lucas.

6

7. “Champagne For One: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001)” – Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin starred as Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe in this television adaptation of Rex Stout’s 1958 novel. The two-part movie was part of A&E Channel’s “A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY” series.

7

8. “Hollywoodland” (2006) – Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Ben Affleck starred in this intriguing tale about a private detective’s investigation into the life and death of actor George Reeves. Allen Coulter directed.

8

9. “My Week With Marilyn” (2011) – Oscar nominee Michelle Williams starred as Marilyn Monroe in this adaptation of Colin Clark’s two books about his brief relationship with the actress. Directed by Simon Curtis, the movie co-starred Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Redmayne as Clark.

9

10. “Boycott” (2001) – Jeffrey Wright starred as Dr. Martin Luther King in this television adaptation of Stewart Burns’ book,“Daybreak of Freedom”, about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Directed by Clark Johnson, the movie co-starred Terrence Howard and C.C.H. Pounder.

10

Honorable Mention: “Mulholland Falls” (1996) – Nick Nolte starred in this entertaining noir drama about a married Los Angeles Police detective investigating the murder of a high-priced prostitute, with whom he had an affair. The movie was directed by Lee Tamahori.

Top Favorite WORLD WAR II Movie and Television Productions

Soviet_infantryinInvasionofPoland

September 1-3 marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.

On September 1, 1939; the German Army invaded Poland on the orders of its leader, Chancellor Adolf Hitler, a week following the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. While the Polish military struggled to keep the invading Germans at bay, its government awaited awaited expected support and relief from France and the United Kingdom, with whom they had a pact. Two days later on September 3, Poland’s two allies declared war on Germany and World War II; which ended up engulfing both Europe, Asia, North Africa and the South Pacific; began.

Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions about the war.

 

TOP FAVORITE WORLD WAR II MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS

1a - Band of Brothers

1a. “Band of Brothers” (2001) – Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced this outstanding television miniseries about the history of a U.S. Army paratrooper company – “Easy Company” – during the war. Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston starred. (tie)

1b - The Pacific

1b. “The Pacific” (2010) – Spielberg and Hanks struck gold again in this equally superb television miniseries about the experiences of three U.S. Marines – John Basilone, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge – in the war’s Pacific Theater. James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello and Jon Seda starred. (tie)

2 - Kellys Heroes

2. “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970) – Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Don Rickles starred in this memorable war comedy about a group of Army soldiers who go AWOL to rob a bank behind enemy lines. Brian G. Hutton directed.

3 - Inglorious Basterds

3. “Inglorious Basterds” (2009) – Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this excellent alternate history adventure about two plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent starred.

4 - Casablanca

4. “Casablanca” (1942) – Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman starred in this Oscar winning adaptation of Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s un-produced stage play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the movie also starred Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.

5 - The Winds of War

5. “The Winds of War” (1983) – Dan Curtis produced and directed this excellent 1983 television adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1971 novel. The miniseries starred Robert Mitchum, Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali McGraw.

6 - Hope and Glory

6. “Hope and Glory” (1987) – John Boorman wrote, produced and directed this 1987 excellent comedy-drama about his own childhood experiences during World War II. Sarah Miles, David Hayman and Sebastian Rice-Edwards starred.

7 - A Bridge Too Far

7. “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) – Sir Richard Attenborough produced and directed this darkly fascinating adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Operation Market Garden campaign. The all-star cast included Dirk Bogarde, Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal and Gene Hackman.

8 - Valkyrie

8. “Valkyrie” (2008) – Bryan Singer directed this detailed and first-rate account of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944. The movie starred Tom Cruise, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy.

9 - The Longest Day

9. “The Longest Day” (1962) – Darryl Zanuck produced this all-star adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Normandy invasion. The cast included Robert Mitchum, Richard Beymer, Robert Wagner and John Wayne.

10 - The Bridge on the River Kwai

10. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) – David Lean directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s 1952 World War II novel. The movie starred William Holden, Oscar winner Alec Guinness and Oscar nominee Sessue Hayakawa.

HM - Empire of the Sun

Honorable Mention: “Empire of the Sun” (1987) – Steven Spielberg produced and directed this excellent adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel about a British boy’s experiences in World War II China. The movie starred Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and Nigel Havers.

“THE GREAT GATSBY” (1974) Review

ruce-Dern-Mia-Farrow-and-Robert-Redford-in-The-Great-Gatsby-1974

 

“THE GREAT GATSBY” (1974) Review

Many years have passed since I last saw “THE GREAT GATSBY”, the 1974 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. Many years. I must have been in my twenties when I last viewed the movie on television. With the release of Baz Luhrmann’s new adaptation, I found myself curious to see how this 39 year-old movie still held up. 

Directed by Jack Clayton and adapted by Francis Ford Coppola, “THE GREAT GATSBY” is a Jazz Age tale about a World War I veteran who becomes rich via bootlegging. His story is told from the viewpoint of another war veteran and Midwestern transplant, Nick Carraway, who happens to be his neighbor. Through Nick’s narration, audiences become aware of Gatsby’s obsessive love for his former paramour and Nick’s second cousin, a Louisville native named Daisy Fay Buchanan. Gatsby became rich, purchased a Long Island estate and befriended Nick in order to be near Daisy, who lived in the more socially elite part of Long Island with her husband Tom Buchanan and their daughter. With Nick’s help, Gatsby hopes to renew his romance with Daisy and convince her to leave the brutish Tom in order to recapture their romantic past.

So . . . what can I say about “THE GREAT GATSBY”? For one thing, it is an elegant looking film. And one can thank John Box’s production designs, which beautifully recapture the super rich of the Jazz Age. Box’s designs were aptly supported by the set decorations of Peter Howitt and Herbert F. Mulligan. Good examples of Howitt and Mulligan’s work can be found in the movie’s opening shot that feature the interiors of Gatsby’s Long Island home. Another aspect of “THE GREAT GATSBY” that contributed to the film’s elegance was Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes. I must admit that they are gorgeous. Take a look:

110571-111018-mia-farrow tumblr_mmv31mtvEM1r4lsbyo1_500

Aldredge had stiff competition for the Best Costume Design Academy Award, but in the end she won. Did she deserve that Oscar? I do not know. One of her competitors was Anthea Sylbert, who was nominated for her work on “CHINATOWN”. As much as I enjoyed Aldredge’s work, Sylbert’s work struck me as equally impressive. The two designers could have easily shared an Oscar. However, I did discover something interesting – although Aldredge did most of the work for the female leads and supporting characters, producer David Merrick hired designer Ralph Lauren to design the costumes for leading male characters – Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway and Tom Buchanan. Although Lauren did not receive any recognition for his work, I must admit they looked great, even if I possess a bigger preference for Aldredge’s work.

Douglas Slocombe’s photography also contributed the elegant look and style of “THE GREAT GATSBY”. Mind you, Slocombe’s shots of the film’s locations – New York, Rhode Island and Great Britain – looked beautiful. But his photography also had that soft focus look that practically screamed PERIOD DRAMA!”. It was the kind of photography that was very popular in the 1970s and still annoys me to this day. Nelson Riddle won an Academy Award for the score he wrote for the film. I wish I could say that I enjoyed it and found it very effective. Actually, I found Riddle’s score to be incredibly boring. The music sounded as if it belonged in a television one-hour drama, instead of a Hollywood film adaptation of a classic novel. The only music that I managed to enjoy in the film were the 1920s tunes featured in the Gatsby party scenes.

What can I say about Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel? Actually, I cannot say a word. According to Coppola, what he wrote and what ended on the screen proved to be two different entities. Even screenwriter William Goldman, who had read Coppola’s original screenplay, seemed indifferent to Jack Clayton’s changes to the script. I have seen at least three adaptations of Fitzgerald’s novel. This is probably the most faithful adaptation I have come across. Unfortunately, this close adaptation did not really help the movie. I have no idea what kind of movie “THE GREAT GATSBY” would have become if Clayton had adhered to Coppola’s script. But judging from the nature of Clayton’s direction, I suspect that it would not have helped in the end. Clayton’s direction proved to be incredibly dull. In fact, he nearly drained the life out of Fitzgerald’s tale. I think Clayton took the concept of period drama a bit too far. I got the feeling that I was watching a “MASTERPIECE THEATER” production that originated on the BBC, instead of a film adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel. And honestly? I have come across “MASTERPIECE THEATER”productions that proved to be a lot more energetic.

Some of the movie’s scenes turned out well. I was impressed by the party scenes at Gatsby’s house, even if screenwriter William Goldman found them vulgar. The scenes’ “vulgarity” did not bother me, because I found them entertaining and energetic. Those scenes, by the way, featured appearances by future star Edward Herrmann, who eventually starred in his own 1920s opus, “THE CAT’S MEOW” twenty-seven years later. I also enjoyed the party held by the adulterous Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson at their own New York hideaway, even if it was nearly bogged down by Myrtle’s account of her first meeting with Tom. I also thought that Clayton handled the discovery of Myrtle’s death very well. It struck me as especially effective, thanks to a flashback of the hit-and-run that claimed her life. The movie’s best scene proved to be Gatsby and Tom’s confrontation over Daisy at the Plaza Hotel suite. This is not surprising, since this scene has proven to be the best in all of the adaptations I have seen and in the novel. My only complaint is that Clayton or the script cut it short by allowing Daisy to flee the suite before she could say anything or make a decision about her relationships with both Gatsby and Tom.

But the movie’s slow pace and reverent exploration of the Jazz Age wealth featured in the production designs nearly grounded “THE GREAT GATSBY” to a halt. I take that back. The slow pacing and obsession with the 1920s production designs proved to be impediments to the movie. But the Gatsby-Daisy love scenes nearly grounded the movie to a halt. I found them incredibly boring. Mindlessly dull. I had to hit the “fast-forward” button of my DVD remote every time Robert Redford and Mia Farrow appeared in a scene alone. They had no screen chemistry whatsoever. Between Redford’s silent intensity and Farrow’s over-the-top impersonation of Zelda Fitzgerald, there seemed to be no middle ground between them in order to form a believable romance. Daisy Buchanan was supposed to be Jay Gatsby’s “American Dream” – his final rung into the world of the American elite. But I had a difficult time accepting this, while growing increasingly bored over Redford and Farrow’s non-existent screen chemistry. Redford and Farrow are partially to blame, due to their performances. But I place most of the blame on Clayton who did not even bother to rectify this flaw.

“THE GREAT GATSBY” was also sabotaged by one particular scene in which Gatsby confronted Daisy over her decision to marry Tom and not bother to wait for his return from the war and France. I must admit that Redford did some of his best acting in this scene. Unfortunately, I found his efforts a complete waste of time. There was no need for this scene. Why would Gatsby confront Daisy on this matter? He knew why she had dumped him in the first place. Why else would he bother to get into bootlegging in order to quickly acquire a great deal of money and a mansion across the bay from her husband’s Long Island home? Even after Daisy finally admitted that “nice rich girls do not marry poor boys”, either Clayton, Coppola’s screenplay or both failed to explore the consequences of Daisy’s confession. Instead, the movie immediately jumped to the scene featuring the Buchanans’ visit to one of Gatsy’s Saturday night parties. In other words, this scene was a complete waste of time.

I also found the lack of African-Americans in this movie rather puzzling. “THE GREAT GATSBY” is set in Manhattan and Long Island, during the early years of the Jazz Age (although the movie changed the story’s setting to 1925). One would think some of the super rich had black servants. The movie did feature a few black characters in the scene at Wilson’s Garage, following Myrtle’s death in the Valley of Ashes. But that is it. I did not expect any major or supporting black characters in this story. But the servants featured in the Buchanans and Jay Gatsby’s mansions were all white. Even the jazz musicians who performed at Gatsby’s parties were white. Even more incredible, they were white, middle-aged men between the ages of 40 and 55. This sounds plausible in the post-World War II era in which one would find such bands engaged in musical nostalgia at some quaint nightclub or community event. However, we are talking about the 1920s. All white jazz bands seem plausible if the performers had been between the ages of 18 and 30. But these jazz musicians were middle-aged. White, middle-aged jazz musicians in 1925? Perhaps some did exist. But this is the only adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel in which I have come across this phenomenon.

Jack Clayton’s direction did nothing for most of the performances in this film. As I had earlier pointed out, Robert Redford’s Jay Gatsby spent most of the film looking iconic and acting mysterious. What happened to the hopeful loser from Fitzgerald’s tale? Even Redford managed to beautifully portray a similar character with great success in 1973’s “THE STING”. Perhaps he simply lost interest, thanks to Clayton’s direction. However, I must admit that Redford had at least two great moments. Despite my dislike of the scene in which Gatsby demanded an explanation from Daisy regarding her earlier rejection of him, Redford gave a perfectly intense performance. But I was really impressed by that moment in which Gatsby met Daisy and Tom’s daughter, Pammy. Redford conveyed a perfect mixture of surprise and wariness. In fact, I would say it was his best moment in the entire movie.Mia Farrow has received a good deal of praise for her portrayal of Daisy Buchanan. She will not receive any from me. I found her performance rather strident and grating. Her performance reminded me more like the wild and unstable Zelda Fitzgerald than the seductive and flaky Daisy. Another over-the-top performance came from Karen Black, who portrayed the grasping and adulterous Myrtle Wilson. She had some nice moments. Despite its protracted running time, Black’s best scene featured Myrtle’s account of her first meeting with Tom. I found it very subtle. But most of her scenes found her nearly screaming at the top of her lungs. “THE GREAT GATSBY” featured Lois Chiles’ third screen role, in which she portrayed Daisy’s Louisville friend, Jordan Baker. Honestly? I really do not know what to say about Chiles’ performance other than I found it flat and dull. She looked good. That, I cannot deny. If one wants to see both Farrow and Chiles at their best, I would recommend 1978’s “DEATH ON THE NILE”, in which both actresses gave better performances.

The movie did feature some good performances. Sam Waterston gave a nice, subtle performance as Gatsby’s neighbor and Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway. He managed to project a good deal of emotion, while being subtle at the same time. My only complaint is that both he and Redford failed to generate any kind of chemistry as two neighbors who become friends. Scott Wilson gave an emotional, yet textured performance as Myrtle’s cuckolded husband, George Wilson. The actor did a very good job in conveying both the character’s passionate love for Myrtle and whipped personality. I also enjoyed Howard Da Silva’s performance as Gatsby’s bootlegging colleague, Meyer Wolfsheim. Although brief, I found his performance very entertaining and charming. By the way, Da Silva portrayed George Wilson in the 1949 version of Fitzgerald’s novel. If I had to give an award for the movie’s best performance, I would hand it over to Bruce Dern for his portrayal of Daisy’s brutish and elitist husband, Tom Buchanan. Mind you, Dern did not exactly convey the picture of a sports-obsessed ex-jock with a powerful build. But he did an excellent job in portraying Tom’s obsession with social position, warm passion for Myrtle and possessive regard for Daisy. More importantly, he managed to inject a great deal of energy in all of his scenes – especially the one featured at the Plaza Hotel suite. I must admit that I found one of his lines rather funny for two different reasons. Tom’s complaint about Gatsby’s pink suit struck me rather funny, thanks to Dern’s delivery. But I also found it hilarious that Tom would complain about the color of Gatsby’s suit, while wearing a purple one. If you doubt me, take a gander at the following image:

603080_300

If the purple in Tom’s suit had been any deeper, one would think he was a gauche social climber . . . or a pimp. Frankly, Dern’s line would have been more effective if the actor’s suit had possessed a more conservative color in that scene.

Overall, “THE GREAT GATSBY” is a beautiful looking movie to behold. And I believe it could have become a more energetic and interesting tale if the producers had hired a better director. I realize that Jack Clayton’s reputation had been made due to his work on 1959’s “ROOM AT THE TOP”. But he really dropped the ball some fifteen years later, thanks to his dull and lethargic direction of“THE GREAT GATSBY”. Cast members such as Bruce Dern and Sam Waterson managed to overcome Clayton’s direction. Others failed to do so. This was especially the case for Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, who portrayed the movie’s two main characters. And because of Clayton’s poor direction, this version of “THE GREAT GATSBY” proved to be a big disappointment for me.

“THE CONSPIRATOR” (2010/11) Review

THE CONSPIRATOR” (2010/11) Review

Throughout Hollywood history, the topic of the American Civil War has proven to be a volatile mix in terms of box office and television ratings. Robert Redford’s new drama about President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination called “THE CONSPIRATOR”proved to be the case. 

Directed by Redford and written by James D. Solomon, “THE CONSPIRATOR” told the story about Civil War veteran Frederick Aiken’s efforts to prevent Mary Surratt, the only woman charged in the Lincoln assassination during the spring and summer of 1865. Following the 16th President’s death and near fatal attack upon Secretary of State William H. Seward, a Maryland-born boarding house owner and Confederate sympathizer named Mary Surratt becomes among those arrested in connection to the crime. The Federal government, under the authority of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, is convinced of Mrs. Surratt’s guilt because of her son John’s connections to assassin John Wilkes Booth and the other conspirators. Mrs. Surratt’s case was not helped by the fact that they had used her Washington D.C. boardinghouse as a meeting place; or that John managed to evade capture by the Federal authorities following the assassination.

Mrs. Surratt summoned a fellow native of Maryland, U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson, to defend her before a military tribunal. But political pressure from Stanton and others forced Johnson to recruit Aiken to represent Mrs. Surratt at the tribunal. Unfortunately, the 27 year-old Aiken lacked any previous experience inside a courtroom. The young attorney’s initial belief in Mrs. Surratt’s guilt and reluctance to defend her disappeared, as he became aware of possible evidence that might exonerate his client and that she was being used as a hostage and bait to lure her son John to the authorities through foul means.

“THE CONSPIRATOR” proved to be one of those Civil War movies that failed to generate any interest at the box office. Most moviegoers ignored it. Many critics bashed it, claiming it was another of Robert Redford’s thinly veiled metaphors on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I must be honest. I found this particular criticism worthy of some head scratching. Perhaps those critics had been right. But I must admit that I failed to see the metaphor. The manner in which the Army tribunal railroaded Mary Surratt to a date with a hangman’s noose sadly struck me as a very common occurrence throughout history. The wealthy and the powerful have never been reluctant to destroy someone they deemed as a threat or a convenient scapegoat.

Superficially, Mary Surratt seemed like the type of person toward whom I would harbor any sympathy. The Maryland-born woman had been a Confederate sympathizer. I personally found her political and social beliefs abhorrent. Yet, by revealing the lies and manipulations that she had endured at the hands of the Army tribunal and Federal government, both Redford andscreenwriter Solomon did an excellent job in igniting my sympathy. Mary Surratt’s experiences also reminded me that they could happen to anyone – even today. The idea of so much power against one individual or a particular group is frightening to behold, regardless if that individual is a slave, a Confederate sympathizer under arrest or an early 21st century citizen.

Aside from displaying the dangers of absolute powers, “THE CONSPIRATOR” succeeded on two other points – at least for me. I found the movie’s basic narrative well written and paced to a certain degree. Both Redford and Solomon had been wise to focus the movie’s plot on Mrs. Surratt’s case. They could have included the testimonies regarding the other conspirators, but that could have resulted in a great deal of chaos. However, the other defendants’ participation in the conspiracy against the Lincoln Administration was utilized in an excellent sequence that conveyed the events surrounding President Lincoln’s assassination, the attempt on William Seward’s life, John Wilkes Booth’s death and the subsequent arrests. With this excellent introduction, the movie smoothly segued into Frederick Aiken’s efforts to defend Mrs. Surratt.

However, no movie is perfect. And “THE CONSPIRATOR” had its own imperfections. My main problem centered on three characters – a close friend of Aiken’s named Nicholas Baker, who was portrayed by Justin Long; actress Alexis Bledel’s portrayal of Aiken’s fiancee, Sarah Weston; and the presence of Oscar winner Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. My only problem with Bledel was that her performance struck me as mediocre. No amount of romantic scenes or beautiful 19th century costumes could alleviate her performance. Justin Long’s presence proved to be a waste of time – at least for me. One, Redford and Solomon included a meaningless scene featuring the aftermath of a nameless Civil War battle with both James McAvoy’s Aiken and Long lying on the ground, wounded. What was the point of this scene? To establish Aiken’s devotion to the Union cause in the form of his friend, Baker? If so, I feel it failed to achieve this. Long was further wasted as one of the two friends who tried to convince Aiken not to defend Mrs. Surratt. Actually, James Badge Dale, who portrayed the young attorney’s other friend, William Hamilton, was used more effectively for this task. Long merely hung around slightly drunk or sober, as he grunted his disapproval toward Aiken. And I cannot understand why Redford even bothered to include his character in the plot. Also wasted was Kevin Kline’s portrayal of Edwin H. Stanton. Aside from convincing Reverdy Johnson not to personally defend Mrs. Surratt, barking instructions to government lackeys following the incidents at Ford’s Theater and Seward’s home, and ignoring Aiken’s attempts to contact him; Kline’s Stanton did nothing. I had expected some kind of confrontation between Aiken and Stanton . . . again, nothing happened.

Fortunately for “THE CONSPIRATOR”, the good outweighed the bad. This was certainly apparent in the rest of the cast. I would never consider Frederick Aiken to be one of James McAvoy’s best roles. But I cannot deny that he did an admirable job in transforming Aiken’s character from a reluctant legal defender to his client’s most ardent supporter. He also infused the right mixture of passion, anger and growing cynicism into his character. I have seen Robin Wright only in a small number of roles. But I do believe that Mary Surratt might prove to be one of her best in a career that has already spanned over twenty years. What truly impressed me about Wright’s performance was her ability to avoid portraying Surratt as some ladylike martyr that barely did or said anything to avoid conviction. Although Wright’s Surratt did suffer, she also conveyed grit and determination to alleviate her situation.

The majority of the cast for “THE CONSPIRATOR” gave solid performances. There were a few I considered standouts among the supporting cast. One of them turned out to be Danny Huston’s intense portrayal of the prosecuting attorney, Joseph Holt. Evan Rachel Wood superbly guided Anna Surratt’s character from a defiantly supportive daughter to a young woman on the edge of despair. Despite a slightly unconvincing Maryland accent, Tom Wilkinson gave an intelligent performance as U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson. I could also say the same about James Badge Dale’s portrayal of William Hamilton, one of Aiken’s friends, who proved to be a wise adviser. As for actor Toby Kebbell, I have to admit that he made a convincing John Wilkes Booth.

I cannot deny that Robert Redford and screenwriter James Solomon made a few missteps with the plot and at least two characters for “THE CONSPIRATOR”. But as I had stated earlier, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Both director and screenwriter provided moviegoers with a fascinating and frightening look into the abuse of power during a famous historic event. And they were backed by excellent performances from the likes of James McAvoy and Robin Wright. I only hope that one day, audiences might overlook Redford’s current negative reputation as a filmmaker and give “THE CONSPIRATOR” a second chance.