AMERICAN ANIMALS (2018)
Rated R: For profanity, sexual references and cannabis use
The Sundance festival premiered American Animals is at once a heist film, a millennial morality tale, a study in the malleability of memory, and a psychological analysis of how bad influence affects group dynamics. The movie recounts the true story of the improbable theft of an extraordinarily valuable set of books from the rare book collection at Transylvania University (in Lexington Kentucky, not Romania, and the place does have a rich history, just check Google) by a bored group of college students in 2004. The film is a well executed docudrama, which cuts back and forth between interviews with the older and wiser perpetrators and their parents, and the story behind the robbery. Spencer Reinhard, the film’s primary protagonist, is plagued by the fear of leading an ordinary life. He tours the special collection as a Transylvania student, and later muses with his more disreputable friend, Warren Lipka, about how the money from such books could change someone’s life. As portrayed in the movie, the less conscientious Warren convinces Spencer that they can make their lives extraordinary and live in leisure in one fell swoop by making the heist a reality. Together, they devise an amateurish plan, and ultimately assemble a crew of four. Against a growing chorus of doubts and anticipatory guilt, Warren drives the enterprise forward. The necessity of using violence to subdue the kind and scholarly librarian who controls the rare book room (Jean “B.J.” Gooch) prompts an existential crisis in advance of the robbery, and becomes the focus of Dostoyevskian guilt in future years for each of the culprits.
The film has been criticized for trying to be too many things at once, but the blending of multiple themes and genres does work in this context. The young men’s adolescent fantasies of a grand romantic achievement as the impetus for this crime are undercut by both the reality of its execution, and also their own parents’ contention that their real motivation was to get rich quick and reap the rewards of a long life of labor with one single project before they even graduate college (mirroring the millennial delusions fueled by the idiosyncratic rise of a series of young titans in the early days of the digital revolution). At the same time, the film uses a variety of cinematic techniques and pointed interview questions to underscore the fallibility of human memory, and to emphasize how the shifty alpha leader of this group was not only able to impose his will before and during the crime, but also on shaping the recollections of his crew even to this day. Despite its modest budget, the story is compelling, the movie is very well made, its roles perfectly cast and the acting seamless and utterly believable. Highly recommended.
TRIVIA NOTES: (spoiler alert): Despite serving hard time for their crimes, the principals in this group have achieved surprising success since their release. Warren Lipka, portrayed in the movie as the one primarily responsible, has penned two books revolving around the crime and also his personal evolution as a criminal. He is currently in Los Angeles working as a public speaker and teaching writing workshops, and has helped to publicize the film. Spencer Reinhard has become an acclaimed artist with a website featuring the catalog of art he created while in prison of many of the birds found in the James Audubon portfolio, which was a focus of the theft.
The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974)
GoochGrades: A+ and A
Rated R: For profanity, sexual references and graphic violence
These movies together make up an American masterpiece, which launched the careers of a raft of some of the best actors of the 70s and 80s. Based on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name, this epic tragedy is Shakesperian in scope. Set design, costumes, superlative acting, writing and another unforgettable score transport the viewer convincingly back to an earlier age in American history. Among many other things, it is an allegory of the hardscrabble immigrant struggle, and the sacrifices and compromises some made to succeed in America, as well as how the ruthless pursuit of success and wealth can echo through generations, ironically destroying dreams of a purer life for children and grandchildren. At once a glorification and cautionary tale of the Mafia life, it reminds us of how our choices shape our futures in unexpected ways and can lead us down paths we did not wish to follow.
TRIVIA NOTES: Mario Puzo based his novel (and the screenplay for these movies he also wrote) on both the Mafia and the history of the corrupt and murderous Borgia family of medieval Italy. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro were having dinner in New York shortly after the release of Part II, when a waiter came to them and told them they were to join some gentlemen in the back of the restaurant. With some trepidation, they were escorted to a private room to find some of the biggest Mafiosos in New York seated at a table. Fearing for their lives, they were instead given seats of honor, and spent the rest of the evening hearing how much these guys loved their movie
Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
GoochGrades: Lord of the Rings A, The Two Towers A- ,Return of the King A+
Rated PG-13: For graphic violence and scenes of intense peril
The most convincing and immersive fantasy movies ever made and, beyond that, a grand allegory of the eternal human struggle between light and darkness within each of us, and the necessity of sacrifice to prevent the ultimate triumph of evil. Tolkien, like his good friend and fellow Oxford professor, C.S. Lewis, successfully translated the major tenets of Christianity into a world of Celtic legend. However good the books may be, these films add a dense layer of emotional power the written word lacks, and are some of the few movies which transcend their source material to become the definitive version of the story.
Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
GoochGrades: Frankenstein A, Bride of Frankenstein B
Unrated: Disturbing themes; real and implied violence
The original Frankenstein (book and movie) is a cautionary tale of what happens when man presumes to take control of the rightful domain of God as Creator. It has its roots in the myth of Prometheus, and in a drug and sex-fueled fever dream Mary Shelly (original author of the book) had of her demon child sitting on the edge of her bed, while she was consorting with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelly and friends in a house on Lake Geneva. The original movie deviates considerably from the novel, but remains surprisingly disturbing, and includes an extended sequence involving the death of a child and the grief which follows it (be forewarned… it is depressing). Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the human side of the monster gives the film its pathos and tragedy. It is best seen in the original greenish tint given when it was first released, available on the “Universal Monsters” DVD and Blu-Ray sets. In contrast, “Bride of Frankenstein” extends the metaphor from the Adam story to include Eve. This one is very much a product of the Art Deco age, which greatly influenced the set and production design. More than that, however, it is operatic in its emotional excess, making it a ripe target for later satire, speaking of which:
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Rated PG: For sexual innuendo, implied and cartoonish violence
This movie is the pinnacle of Mel Brook’s comedy career, and showcases some of the finest comedic talents (both writing and acting) of the 1970s at their very, very best. Brooks is prone to slapstick, which sometimes goes over the top in many of his films. However, his love of and desire to mimic the tone and directorial style of the original movies places the comedy of this film into a perfect modulation of slapstick and satire. It is filled with so many hilarious moments that it is impossible to recount them all without giving away most of the movie. Movie comedy is hard to pull off, but this film is an example of the genre in perfection. One of the funniest movies ever.
TRIVIA NOTES: Brooks found the original static electric generators and most of the laboratory set pieces used in the original films in a garage in Hollywood, bought them for a song, dusted them off and used them in Young Frankenstein. The famous “Putting on the Ritz” sequence was Gene Wilder’s idea. Brooks originally was completely opposed to it and thought it a terrible concept which would never play funny on film. However, Wilder persisted, they filmed it, and Brooks had to admit it became one of the movie’s funniest and now, iconic, moments.
Rated R: For graphic violence, profanity, disturbing themes and brief nudity
This movie is an example of how the lost cinematic art of pacing and atmosphere, created by the careful use of sound, score, dialogue and silence in combination with lingering and claustrophobic camera work, can reshape the haunted house horror movie theme into a still scary thrill ride (see also: The original “Halloween”, released about the same time). However, the story also acts as an unsettling metaphor for the terrors of infection, pregnancy and predation, and is not for those with a weak constitution or those bothered by disturbing elements. However, it is made to chill, and not to convey deep and symbolic meaning. Unfortunately, this film started an avalanche of much inferior (and grosser, though not scarier) parasite horror movies. Apart from the iconic birth scene in the white room, there is not nearly as much blood as you will think there was after you have seen this one, because of the skill of director Ridley Scott. That which is implied but not shown can be scarier than what is actually shown, because of the power of the human imagination, and this movie is a great example of that principle in action. Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score is right up there with “Psycho” as one of the creepiest soundtracks ever.
Rated R: For graphic violence, disturbing themes and intense scenes, and profanity
This movie is a different story in every sense from its predecessor. It is not a horror movie, but instead a war movie, and director James Cameron plays with the war movie motifs and stereotypes like a child prodigy in a candy store. It has much more in common with “Zulu” than any horror film, and is really the story of a hardy band of tough marines, isolated and under siege from an implacable and numerically superior enemy at a remote outpost (by comparison, “Avatar” is a weak retread of this movie). Like the “Terminator” , there is a subtext of serious anti-corporate sentiment, but unlike the “Terminator”, Cameron abandoned any attempts at serious symbolism in favor of crafting one of the most exciting action films of the 20th century. Note to fans: Stop here with the Alien franchise, as it goes seriously off track after this one and never looks back.
Rated R: For profanity, drinking/smoking, mild sexual content, brief nudity
This movie was George Lucas first full-on hit and made it possible for him to get the attention he would need to raise the funds for another little film he released four years later. In fact, one might say that without American Graffiti, there would probably have been no Star Wars, and no Indiana Jones. This movie recreates 1950’s American youth culture in a very convincing way, but is really a coming of age story, and another illustration of how luck and choice work together to move us down life’s path in directions very different from what we might have thought or wished. As with most Lucas films, the story reigns supreme and the elements of film fade to the background to service the telling of a great tale.
TRIVIA NOTES: Look for the start of a host of stellar careers, including Richard Dreyfuss (who moved next to another great role in “Jaws” thanks to Lucas’ friendship with another young upstart named Spielberg), and a brief walk-on by a young unknown carpenter and sometime stuntman named Harrison Ford, who was chosen almost at random for his tiny part in this, his first movie.
High Noon (1952)
Unrated: Old West-style gun violence
A classic study of how fear and intimidation will inevitably place power into the hands of an evil few, unless good men (and women) stand together against them. John Wayne hated this movie and publicly denounced it, because he believed it was a piece of communist propaganda showing the weakness and failure of American democracy when called upon to face down a real threat (in addition its anti-McCarthy message). Artistically, it makes perhaps the best use of any film ever of the clock motif and real time editing to convey the ever threatening and climactic passage of time towards a dreaded showdown (also a metaphor for mortality in the 11th hour of life).
TRIVIA NOTES: Gary Cooper was nursing an ulcer throughout this production, and the strain of his stomach pain showed continuously on his face throughout filming. However, the director found this to be an absolutely perfect reflection of the stress his character was under, and was very happy with his performance. So was the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which awarded him an Oscar for best actor for this role
Dracula (1931) and Nosferatu (1922)
GoochGrade: B and A
Unrated: Vintage old horror movie violence
Bram Stoker’s immortal novel is the mold from which virtually all modern vampire movies and tales originated. Because it has been copied so many hundreds of times since it was created, it now seems highly derivative, but it is important to remember that every thing else in the vampire genre started with this, and not the other way around. The 1931 film took considerable liberties with Bram Stoker’s original story, which is more primal and much more frightening. However, one of the best vampire films ever (and much more true to Bram Stoker’s book), is the original silent German film, “Nosferatu”. It is a tribute to this silent movie that it keeps your attention and elicits chills without any vocals or sound effects at all, using only the power of German expressionist film techniques and potent acting. Max Shrek created a truly frightening undead monster with his makeup and performance as Dracula in Nosferatu, far removed from the suave and debonair count portrayed by Bela Lagosi in the later 1931 “Dracula”, which became the American stereotype. To avoid offending its large body of fans, I will refrain from any comments on what I call the “Tender Lovin’ Vampire” genre, and will say only that vampiric teen angst is not in the original spirit of either Stoker’s book or the medieval vampire legend.
TRIVIA NOTES: Bram Stoker was a playwrite who won the hand of and married a beautiful London stage actress. However, unfortunately she made a cold, controlling and difficult wife throughout the many years of an unpleasant marriage. Years later, he wrote the tale of a powerful undead count with the irresistible power to hypnotize and subjugate any woman to his wishes and desires, and “Dracula” was born.
The Shining (1980)
Rated R: For very disturbing themes, intense scenes, profanity, violence, brief nudity
Stanley Kubrick is widely regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers by film critics of the 1960s and 70s, because of his skillful and artistic use of the techniques of cinema to project a universe defined by a frigid existentialism, with individual characters and humankind in general bumbling senselessly through a meaningless void. However, his movies are not for everyone, and some were designed to be deliberately repulsive (i.e. A Clockwork Orange), though they have been surpassed in this regard by a host of modern movies which seem to have been created only to be as offensive as possible to everyone. His most accessible movies include: “Spartacus”, “2001 A Space Odyssey” and “The Shining”. Kubrick’s had strong obsessive compulsive tendencies and was a notorious perfectionist, and this story of a hopelessly blocked writer driven violently mad by his futile attempts to create meaningful art undoubtedly struck a chord with the director. The movie uses Kubrick’s finely tuned techniques to brew a tale of slow burning menace building to a murderous frenzy, and Nicholson delivers a performance so powerful it is remembered as one of the most iconic performances of his long and varied career. That all of this takes place in a cavernous, deserted and completely isolated resort hotel also lends itself perfectly to Kubrick’s existential message, and his meditative pacing adds to the experience.
TRIVIA NOTES: Steven King, the author of the book on which this movie was based, had an early falling out with Kubrick, who made it very clear from the start that he had no interest in what the author of the book thought about how this film should be made. King later said that Kubrick had taken a hand grenade of a story and thrown himself on top of it. King was so upset with the director that he later financed a made-for-TV version of the story in the 1990s which he co-produced, to make sure there was a version he felt preserved his take on the story.
This page is dedicated to random reviews of films. I am a life-long movie fan, and started these reviews for my nephew when he was in his college film class. Random films will be added as time allows when inspiration strikes. NOTE: The grades are high, not because of grade inflation, but because I am generally only taking the time to review movies I really enjoy.