Category: Epics


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Though any look at the score distribution of my films will inform readers that my taste in movies leans towards the high-brow and artsy, I am not ashamed to admit that I am as capable of enjoying low-brow, broad cinema as anyone else. I only dismiss low-brow cinema out of hand when it’s intentionally as idiotic and crass as possible (i.e. late period Adam Sandler). Otherwise, if a film is enjoyable but meant for the masses, who cares? Funny is funny, and while no one would confuse Sex Drive with Woody Allen, I still really enjoy that movie despite it’s stupidity. However, the most unforgivable cinematic sin that I can think of is a movie that thinks it’s incredibly intelligent and profound but turns out to be as shallow as a dinner conversation at the Kardashian household.

I’ve tried to rewatch the original Matrix film years ago (and actually sat through twenty minutes of the first sequel before I started laughing uncontrollably and gave up), and, boy, is that film perhaps the shining example of a movie that will make stupid people think they’re smart. With it’s faux-philosophy and psuedo-scientific bent, The Matrix talked a big game but fell apart if you spent even half a second thinking about any of the absurd things Morpheus was saying. The Wachowski brothers (well technically, one of them’s a woman now) have managed to tread those same laughably asinine waters again with their bloated sci-fi epic, Cloud Atlas. It is not an understatement to say that Cloud Atlas is one of the most astoundingly deluded and self-important films I’ve ever forced myself to sit through for this blog.

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Cloud Atlas‘s narrative conceit probably worked much better in David Mitchell’s original novel but mostly leaves everything feeling rushed and half-cocked in the movie (despite the fact that it ran an agonizing three hours). The film is a series of six interconnected and metatextually nested tales featuring many of the same actors in a large number of roles in the different stories (including Big‘s Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant, and Jim Broadbent). Touching on themes of slavery, free will, and the eternal consequences of our mortal actions, Cloud Atlas weaves a centuries spanning tale that leaves more than a little to be desired.

Certain episodes of the film work better than others, and perhaps not surprisingly at all, it is the portions of the film most dedicated to character and actual human storytelling that shine through more than the action/sci-fi/noir-ish pretentions the film wishes to hold. There are six stories in all in the film but only two made any impression with me. One is the tragic tale of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a talented Victorian-era English musician whose homosexuality puts him on the run. He moves in with the aged but brilliant composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) as Ayrs’s assistant, but when Frobisher’s talents prove a threat to Ayrs’s legacy, Frobisher sees the elderly man’s true nature.

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The only other story worth it’s salt in the film is that of Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent again), an older literary agent who is tricked into locking himself away in a sadistic nursing home by his brother as pay back for sleeping with his brother’s wife years ago. It’s a kafka-esque dark comedy, and it was probably the only moment where the film didn’t have a cockamamie and unearned high opinion of itself. It let it’s hair down so to speak. But the other tales, ranging from typical sci-fi cloning blues, a postapocalyptic wasteland, a troubled 19th century sea voyage, and a silly detective story were all totally forgettable and generic.

And that consistent air of “generic” and “been there, done that” becomes the film’s biggest problem. A sense of deja vu in plot is not a cardinal sin of movie-making. The year is 2013 and the plot well isn’t as deep and untapped as it used to be. But, with the exception of the bisexual and doomed Robert Frobisher and the hell-raising Timothy Cavendish, not a single one of the characters in the film had any life or purpose other than to be used as plot devices. They were uniformly dull and uninteresting and when all of the stories in the film are intentionally cliche-ridden spins on classic genres, you need something sharp and fresh to hold audience’s attention. And at virtually no point did Cloud Atlas‘s writing accomplish that goal.

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I must give the Wachowski’s credit (as well as the movie’s third director, Tom Tykwer) for milking some visual inspiration out of their otherwise tepid tales. the sci-fi cloning nonsense is set in a dystopian future where rising sea levels have virtually annihilated the surfaces of many major cities and crippling poverty permeates Neo Seoul unless you’re the very elite. And when the Wachowski’s want to display their flare for science fiction splendor (which was perhaps the only redeeming quality of the Matrix sequels), they are nearly peerless, and Cloud Atlas is no exception.

That’s probably the last nice thing I can say about the film other than the performances of Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent. For a man who was old when he won an Oscar for Iris in 2001, Jim Broadbent brought a bon vivant feeling to the film that was missing throughout. He seemed like he was having fun and actually wanted to be there. It probably has something to do with the fact that he was acting in front of actual actors on actual sets and not in a never-ending sea of green screens (whose presence was painfully obvious most of the film). And Ben Whishaw (who I’m not entirely familiar with) marked himself as a potential talent with his sensitive turn as Frobisher.

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But even more than the problems I’ve laid out so far, Cloud Atlas‘s troubles can be rooted down to one major and defining issue. It believes that it as insightful, intelligent, and profound as The Tree of Life, but it is in fact as obvious and unnecessary as they come. When the deepest notions that your film can come up with is “Slavery is bad” or “Humanity is inter-connected” or “Our actions have consequences,” it becomes very easy to laugh away any philosophical ambitions you pretend to have. And, that is as deep as the film gets. Kenneth Lonergan it is not.

What astounds me the most about Cloud Atlas though is how people I respect and appreciate intellectually seem to adore and idolize this film. Either they watched a different, better movie than I did or they allowed themselves to be suckered in by the surface beauty of the movie and it’s simplistic themes. I can’t in good heart recommend this film to everyone. I feel compelled to read the novel now to see if I find it to be as much of a trainwreck as the movie was, but somehow I feel that isn’t even possible. Unless you’re looking for a chance to laugh at really awful “yellowface” make-up, give Cloud Atlas a pass.

Final Score: C-

 

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LesMiserables2012-1

Occasionally, I will watch a large-budget, Hollywood blockbuster that is such an unmitigated failure that I have to wonder how anyone, anywhere possibly thought this was a good idea. These are films that are an appalling mish-mash of over-acting, over-directing, absurd bombast, and melodramatic emoting. And it’s been a long time since I’ve watched a major Hollywood feature (let alone a Best Picture nominee) that was as much of a train-wreck as 2012’s film adaptation of the longest running stage musical of all time, Les Miserables. With a few shining rays of competence to make it even passably bearable, Les Miserables can be politely termed “catastrophic.”

Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) should have his Best Director Academy Award retroactively revoked for this pompous, unfocused, absurd drivel. Not that he should have won in 2010 (that was clearly either Darren Aranofsky or David Fincher‘s year), but his Les Miserables is such an excruciatingly unwatchable mess that one has to wonder if this was even the same man. In fact, were it not for Tom Hooper’s love of the close-up (which he abuses beyond belief in this film, but more on that shortly), I would find it impossible to believe it was the same man. As a life-long lover of musical theater, Les Miserables was one of the most painful cinematic experiences of my adult life.

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For those unfamiliar with the Broadway musical or Victor Hugo’s excellent source novel, the plot of Les Miserables is almost like something out of Shakespeare (except where characters are even more unbearably archetypal). After serving a 19 year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving son, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison but his status as an ex-con makes him unemployable in Revolutionary France. After stealing silver from a church, the bishop (the original West End Jean Valjean) refuses to press charges against Jean Valjean and gives him the silver with the charge to turn his life around. And though Valjean keeps his word, that freedom comes with a price.

Jean Valjean breaks his parole and opens a factory though he spends the next eight years on the run from honorable but imperious Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). After one of Valjean’s workers, the beautiful Fantine (Rachel Getting Married‘s Anne Hathaway), is fired by the foreman for having a child she’s kept secret, Fantine is forced into prostitution and destitution and it is only Valjean’s generosity that keeps her child from starving and dying alone. However, by showing Fantine kindness, Valjean awakens the suspicions of Inspector Javert and though Valjean plans on given Fantine’s daughter Corsette (played as a grown-up by Amanda Seyfried) a better life, he must do it knowing that Javert will hunt him for the rest of his life as the backdrop of the French Revolution takes hold.

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I’ll at least by kind enough to this disastrous film to assure you that there are, in fact, occasional bright spots to this otherwise unending torture. Anne Hathaway is only on screen for about 15 minutes, but her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” works very well even though her voice isn’t powerful enough for that iconic number. On one of the few occasions that the film’s over-use of close-ups works for its intended purposes, the song lets Hathaway show off some really impressive facial expressions and she nails the emotional subtext of the number. While I still think Sally Field did a better job in Lincoln, I can at least see why the Academy decided to give the award to Hathaway.

Sacha Baron Cohen (Hugo) and Helena Bonham Carter (Conversations With Other Women) brought some much needed levity to the film as the two inkeepers who “care” for Corsette and the performance of “Master of the House” was one of my two favorite numbers from the film (of only about three that I even enjoyed). However, the truest joy of the film was Samantha Barks turn as Eponine. It was one of the only unadulterated delights of the picture. Maybe because Eponine is the most compelling character in the musical, “On My Own” is the best song, and Samantha Barks played her in the West End production, but every too short moment that Eponine on the screen reminded me why I loved musicals and why Les Miserables failed to meet the standards of say Chicago or Sweeney Todd.

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But for those small blessings, you had to suffer through three hours of ineptitude. Even an established Broadway star like Hugh Jackman (who won a Tony for his fierce portrayal of Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz) was excruciatingly miscast as Jean Valjean. Jackman’s voice is simply too nasal for the part and it made him sound sharp on all of Jean Valjean’s high notes. Russell Crowe can not sing. That is just a scientific fact, and to quote a friend, “I think it was his singing that caused the French revolution.” Rex Harrison made it work as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady even though he couldn’t sing. Not even the kindest critique could say the same thing about Russell Crowe.

And, to watch Tom Hooper reduce one of the most beloved Broadway musicals of all time to essentially a three hour long music video was so frustrating. I say that because of the hectic, spastic directing and editing (not just because there is no spoken dialogue in the film. It’s all sung) which is frenetic without being meaningful. The only times Hooper lets the camera stay still for more than a couple seconds is during some of the more emotional musical numbers which are done in long takes, but he so overdoes the long close-up that it just becomes as gimmicky as the rest of the visual aesthetic of the film.

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Understanding that Les Miserables is a brutal and dark tale of fatalism, eternal suffering, tuberculosis, poverty, and the price of redemption, I know that Les Miserables will not be as fun or campy as most of the musicals I actually enjoy. But, the film never earns the emotional core it so desperately seeks and becomes a soulless shell of the epic tale it wishes to present. It also doesn’t help that the narrative structure of having everyone sing all of the lines adds a certain amount of “narm” to the proceedings. Because people singing about poverty and love and the French Revolution is impossible to always take seriously (especially when paired with Hooper’s catastrophic directing).

I don’t know who I can tell to watch this movie. If you’re a fan of the stage show, maybe you’ll like it. I have to question your sanity, but maybe you’d enjoy it. I disliked this movie so much that I almost have trouble believing I could even enjoy a full Broadway production of Les Miserables, and as I’ve said, I’m a lifelong fan of live musical theatre. What I will ultimately remember about Les Miserables is that it may come to define to me a film that is simply an avalanche of bad decisions and incompetence all rolled into one massive blockbuster clufsterf***. Leave this alone and just rewatch Chicago for the millionth time instead.

Final Score: C-

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The reader of this review needs to imagine a long and deep sigh to preface these proceedings. You do it? Good. I’ve watched my fair share of lengthy films for this blog. Lawrence of Arabia, Das Boot, and (more recently) Django Unchained spring to mind. And while occasionally films can make perfect use of their length from beginning to end (The Tree of Life or Margaret), the previously mentioned films all lost some points for their bloated states. Not everything needed to be there. But still (with the exception of Lawrence of Arabia which had a plethora of problems in addition to its length), the interminable length of some movies was usually a minor price to pay for an otherwise great picture. 1957’s Civil War epic, Raintree County is not a great film by any stretch, and it’s near three hour run time is torturous. The movie has its share of moments though, and Liz Taylor is truly phenomenal. It’s a shame then that a good half of the film could probably have been excised for the better.

Set in the years leading up to the American Civil War, Raintree County is a romantic melodrama cut from the distinct 1950s mold with Gone With the Wind ambitions lacking the Gone With the Wind spectacle (not that I actually think Gone With the Wind is that great of a movie either). John Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift) has just graduated high school and is deeply in love with his high school sweetheart, Nell Gaither (Eva Marie Saint). After falling under the spell of vixenish Susanna Drake (Giant‘s Elizabeth Taylor) and winning an important foot race (it makes sense in context), John accidentally impregnates Susanna after a one night stand and marries her from his sense of honor. And, it isn’t long after marrying Susanna that John discovers that she is… unstable and that the secrets from her past may come back to haunt him as the spectre of the Civil War begins to weigh over the entire nation.

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The performances in the film were actually very good. This was the first Monty Clift film I had ever seen, and he was very impressive (especially when I learned that he nearly died during principal photography and his face was terribly scarred in a car accident). One of the first big “Method” film stars, Monty Clift turned John into a wounded and sensitive young hero that went against the mold of many of the ultra-masculine film stars of the era. In fact, I also read that he was James Dean’s favorite actor, and you can see the influence he would have on James Dean in every line of his face. Every facial expression Dean used in Rebel Without a Cause is also on full display with Monty Clift in this film and apparently Monty Clift was doing it first (although this film is newer than Rebel). Also, for one of Hollywood’s most famous early homosexuals, he still had a sizzling sexual chemistry with co-star Elizabeth Taylor (although I’ve since read that he was bisexual).

And, speaking of miss Liz Taylor, she kind of blew me away in this movie. I was a big fan of her work in Giant (one of her only really high profile roles I think I’ve watched for this blog. Well, that and Life With Father, but I hated that movie), but I was not prepared for her performance in this film. She received an Academy Award nomination (she lost to Joanne Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve which I’ve never seen), and it was well deserved. Similar to Monty Clift, Liz Taylor’s acting style was light years ahead of its time. She wasn’t quite a Method actress, but her raw sexuality and ferocity as her mental illness takes over was a type of commitment to the part that was rarely seen from female actresses of that era. I wasn’t as impressed with Eva Marie Saint, although her role was slighter, and I know from On the Waterfront that she’s a great actress in her own right.

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Sadly, good acting does not a three hour long film make. And that’s where the film’s problems arise. When the electric personality of Susanna was there to create a sense of intrigue, tension, and, ultimately, danger, Raintree County become surprisingly enjoyable. Although John is perhaps, finally, too noble of a figure, his descent into the seduction of Susanna and then the price he has to pay because of how psychotic she is makes for great drama, and for a film set in the 1950s, there was clearly a slight message of civil rights written into the film (all of the “villains” opposed abolition). But, when the film turned its attention to the romantic tensions between John and Nell, I honestly couldn’t give a shit. And the film’s opening drags and drags until you finally get a feel for the characters and what the dramatic conflict of the film may be. Raintree County is not a shining example of a well-paced script and just as the beginning drags so does the end until it suddenly and swiftly closes in an absurd manner.

If you’re a fan of Civil War melodramas like Gone With the Wind, you’ll probably enjoy Raintree County much more than I did. I was actually leaning towards a “B-” for this film because despite its egregious flaws, the good stuff was actually keeping me attentive. But the aforementioned ending, which made me go from feeling like it was dragging immensely to suddenly ending without much warning (which seems as impossible as it sounds), dropped it down a grade. I think for fans of older romantic dramas (of which I usually am not), this movie’s good sides will outweigh its bad sides. For everybody else, I’m sure you can find a better way to spend three hours.

Final Score: C+

P.S. The video transfer of the copy of this film that I got from Netflix is arguably one of the worst I’ve ever seen in my entire life. This looked like a VHS copy of a film. Not a DVD copy.

 

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If there’s ever been a movie made that comes as close to absolute perfection as one can get but errs ever so slightly along the way, it’s Gangs of New York. In many ways, I have always found this film to be Martin Scorsese’s most ambitious and artful enterprise, but it’s Scorsese’s very ambition that leads the film to stray from its path. Along with Woody Allen, Marty Scorsese is arguably one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors. From the modern day cops & robbers thriller The Departed to the bustling children’s fantasy of Hugo to the lush, romantic period drama The Age of Innocence, his skills know no bounds (obvious, we include his now iconic crime epics like Goodfellas). Gangs of New York is Scorsese’s swing at bat for the historical epic, and it’s a home run like the rest of his career. In one of his darkest, most pessimistic works, Scorsese casts a prophetic eye to America’s political splits by looking back at our ethnic schisms, while wrapping it in a Shakespearean tale of revenge and American history.

If Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life became the summation of every theme and trick Malick had used in his films before hand, Gangs of New York fits into the Scorsese canon in the same way, and to be honest, none of his films have reached these heights since. As a man obsessed with the conflict between religious identity and our most base instincts and desires, Scorsese has become the definitive American director to explore religious guilt and the psychic conflict it breeds. He has also crafted tales centered around men and women defined heavily by ethnicity in worlds where that is all many others see. He loves men of great stature but even greater fallibility, and perhaps no American director besides David Simon is so acutely aware of the role that environment and birth play in our fate. And through Gangs of New York, Scorsese makes his grand, cynical statement once and for all on all the themes that have propelled his career.

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Before New York City became the commercial center of the world and Times Square was the most trafficked and wealthy spot on this planet, it was a poor city in the 1800s with rampant crime and plagued by ethnic strife. Though Tammany Hall, led by Boss Tweed (played in the film by Jim Broadbent), seduced the flood of immigrants entering the city as soon as they got off the boat, nativist xenophobic sentiment was not far behind from the strong-arm tactics of members of the Know-Nothing Party who wanted the nation’s docks closed to all foreigners. And, just as the United States is instituting its first draft to man the Civil War, foreign resentment and massive wealth disparities feed the fuel of public discontent, and the slightest disturbance would mean blood on the streets (when the gangs aren’t causing it already). It’s clear that one doesn’t have to make much of a stretch to find parallels from the film to not only the early 2000s that birthed the movie but also the increasingly polemic America we live in now.

The film begins in 1849 with a battle to the death between the Dead Rabbits, an Irish immigrant gang led by Priest Vallon (Michael Collins‘s Liam Neeson), and the Natives, a brutal American-born gang led by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (The Age of Innocence‘s Daniel Day-Lewis). When Bill defeats the Priest in hand-to-hand combat, the Dead Rabbits are no more, and the Priest’s son, Amsterdam (played as a grown-up by Inception‘s Leonardo DiCaprio), is left an orphan. Amsterdam is sent-off to the Hellgate reform school, and sixteen long years he waits and lets his anger and desire for revenge grow. When he’s finally released from the asylum sixteen years later, Amsterdam returns to the city of his birth seeking nothing less than the death of the man who killed his father. But when Amsterdam returns to New york, Bill “The Butcher” is stronger than ever, and though he is initially trying to simply infiltrate Bill’s organization, Amsterdam quickly finds himself becoming a son figure to Bill who doesn’t realize Amsterdam’s true identity.

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(side note. every part of this review before this sentence was written yesterday. I passed out writing it and I’ve only just now had time to return to it. So, my apologies if my thoughts now seem disconnected)

Much like The Age of Innocence before it, Gangs of New York is everything you could possibly want in a historical epic and it mostly avoids the trappings of the era. While the costumes and period detail are astounding (though it turns out that Scorsese used a hodgepodge of different times and looks to create the feel of the film), the “period” of the film isn’t the point. It’s not a film meant to dryly capture historical facts. History books and documentaries exist to do that. Instead, Scorsese uses the class discontent, racial animosity, and seething anger of the era to turn a mirror back onto the current age. And, in the process, he asks very uncomfortable questions about one of the few wars that everyone (at least in the North) in this country can agree on today, the Civil War. By peering into darker pages of American history and wrapping it in a tragic story of revenge, Scorsese finds universal truths of the American experience. With  a script partially written by Margaret and You Can Count on Me‘s Kenneth Lonergan, the power of the story and characters should be no surprise.

In classic Scorsese fashion though, Gangs of New York is an enthralling film to look at, not just because of the striking period detail but also because of the striking cinematography from Michael Ballhaus. When the film centers around the Five Points (the area of New York City that would later on become Times Square), there is a darkness and messiness to the film’s visual style and production design (though any history buff could tell you there wasn’t nearly enough shit on the streets). And when the film briefly takes a visit to the richer parts of the city, you could be forgiven for believing you’d stepped onto the set of The Age of Innocence, and the movie’s visual style matches the new feel. And lest we forget, the movie has one of the most famous closing montages of all time as the old New York is quickly swept away and we see the ever evolving New York City skyline til it reaches the present.

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Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest film actor that’s ever lived. If you can watch his body of work and not come to that conclusion, we evaluate acting differently. His dedication to his craft is simply peerless. To prepare for the role of Bill “The Butcher,” Lewis listened to old recordings of 19th century NY politician William Jennings Bryan in order to master a New York accent that has ceased to exist. He refused to take modern medicine when he caught pneumonia during principal photography for this film because it hadn’t been invented yet (he eventually caved when it nearly killed him). Yeah, that’s sort of crazy, but it’s that type of commitment to his parts that makes Daniel Day-Lewis such an extraordinary talent and why he’s won three Best Actor Oscars (more than anyone else). I haven’t seen The Pianist yet so I can’t say if Adrien Brody was better, but man, he must have been really good to beat Daniel Day-Lewis for this film.

This was one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s first really mature roles in a post-Titanic world and the beginning of his partnership with Martin Scorsese (which I hope just lasts forever cause the two work magic together), DiCaprio still brought his A-game even if he wasn’t able to meet the heights he would later set in The Departed. But, with Amsterdam, we got to see much of the boiling anger mixed with naked vulnerability that would help to define some of DiCaprio’s best roles. Although, hilariously like The Departed, he does have trouble maintaining his accent over the course of this film (though just like in The Departed, the script does try to hand-wave this away). Cameron Diaz also gives easily her best performance other than Being John Malkovich as the pick-pocket that catches Amsterdam’s eyes but also threatens to be his downfall.

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If the film can be faulted then, it’s that it has so much to say and not nearly enough time to say it all. I think that the film’s climax is one of the best things Scorsese’s ever done in terms of sheer Hellish, apocalyptic destruction, but it becomes so unfocused that on your first viewing (or three), it may not be terribly apparent why everything that is happening is happening and why it’s necessary for Scorsese to show it all. And the only time where the film really feels like it’s starting to lag over it’s nearly three hour running time is immediately following… well, a moment in the film that I don’t want to spoil, but the movie begins to feel a little bit more like  history lesson than the Shakespearean tale it had before. Although those moments do dovetail to give the film it’s messy, tragic finale.

I’ll draw this to a close. I’m re-making the list for this blog (I think I’ve accidentally been deleting movies from my list rather than just the one’s I’ve watched), and as someone who’s done that twice before (I straight up lost my first list. Yes, that was as terrible as it sounds), I can already tell you how long it’s going to take me to remake the list for this blog. But, now, I’ll be keeping it in the Cloud so I don’t really need to worry about losing it. Cause if I lose it again, I’ll probably just say f*** it and quit doing this blog. Anywyas, that’s a time consuming activity, and I want to finish at least one decade every day in terms of repopulating that list. I did the 2010s and 2000s yesterday. Today’s the 90s. My last words on this film then are, if you’ve managed to not see Gangs of New York yet, do so immediately. It just misses perfection, but it many ways it’s the most impactful film Scorsese’s ever made .

Final Score: A

 

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We’re going to start out with a quick discussion of Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari grading protocol before this review because it bears on my opinion of this film and how it strays slightly from my usual behavior. The Godfather: Part II marks my 317th movie review for this blog. Out of those 317 films, 16 films will have received the illusive score of “A+” (The Godfather: Part II is about to become movie #16 in that list). Generally, the films that receive this score either leave my intellectually breathless (Synecdoche, New York, 8 1/2, Persona) or they leave me emotionally devastated (The Tree of Life, Winter’s Bone, Glengarry Glen Ross). Occasionally though, films will come along that just such perfect, flawless, and thrilling demonstrations of masterful cinematic technique that there is no other score you could possibly hope to give them. Chinatown or Ran are clear examples. The Godfather: Part II is one of the most technically superb films ever made and one of the true masterpieces of the 1970s (and all of American cinema) and simply superior to its predecessor.

Expanding on every theme of The Godfather: Part I while upping the ante in the tragedy department tenfold as well as shoveling more dramatic irony than one would think humanly possible into a film (though at three and a half hours, I guess you have plenty of time to put as much in there as you want), I think it might be fair to say that The Godfather: Part II could be the greatest American epic of all time. Throw in the fact that these films (particularly this entry) are much lighter on actual violence than people seem to remember and that becomes all the more impressive. Yet, in all of American cinema, the exploration of the destruction of one man’s soul, integrity, basic human decency, whatever you want to call that last shred of “goodness” in our hearts, has never been put on more fuller display than in The Godfather: Part II.

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Set a few years after the end of the original film, Part II finds the Corleone family migrated to Nevada where Michael’s (Al Pacino) plans to get an early foothold in the Las Vegas casino business have borne marvelous fruit. Alongside strong-arming a U.S. Senator who wants to squeeze the Corleones for a gaming license, Michael’s life is complicated by the arrival of Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), a Corleone family capo who is feuding with the New York based Rosato brothers. The problem is that the Rosato’s are allied with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) and Johnny Ola (The Sopranos Dominic Chianese), Miami gangsters who are involved in a lucrative business deal in Cuba with Michael. When a botched assassination attempt on Michael in his own well-guarded compound awakens Michael’s vengeful side, Michael will stop at nothing to get revenge on those who could have harmed his family even if it ultimately means he destroys his family in the process.

Alongside the story presented in the late 1950s about Michael’s attempts to root out the rat in his family and protect his interests at all costs, the film also flashes back to the turn of the 20th century where you see the humble origins of Michael’s father Vito (Wag the Dog‘s Robert De Niro) from an exiled Sicilian boy to one of the most powerful gangsters in America. Born Vito Andolini, Vito has to flee his hometown of Corleone where a local mafia Don has a price on his head. He takes a boat to America (where he takes the name of his hometown) and after a run in with a local racketeer heavy, Fanucci, Vito quickly amasses power and respect in his community. In fact, there’s almost a victorious, triumphant feeling to the tale of Vito (although with the ultimate price his criminal activities cost his family weighing over every second) but I’ll have more to say about that important bit of ironic dichotomy later.

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As stated before, The Godfather: Part II (particularly when taken in conjunction with the first film) is a classical tragedy on a Shakespearean scale. Michael Corleone is a tragic hero to rival Hamlet or Macbeth. Here is a man who over the course of these two films starts out with at least somewhat noble intentions (and ultimately this film answers my concerns about the flimsiness of Michael’s transformation in the first film). He wants to protect his family. He wants to avenge the attempted murder of his father. He wants to provide for his screw-up siblings. But, by being so excellent at the business he was born into (but didn’t want anything to do with), Michael ultimately tears his family apart (and spoiler alert), he even orders the cold-blooded murder of one of his own siblings because the sibling betrayed him. He loses his wife Kay (Manhattan‘s Diane Keaton) and everyone is terrified of him. Yet, Michael rarely acts out of a place of pure selfishness (though he certainly ceased to be a good guy a long time ago) and he always thinks he’s doing the right thing, and it’s what makes Michael one of the greatest characters in movie history.

And compare that to the path Vito travels over the course of two films. Michael ultimately proves to be more effective as the head of the family. He makes the Corleones more wealthy than Vito could have ever imagined. But Vito achieved a modest success without alienating and ruining his family. The only casualty that Vito’s family ever suffers (besides his own near death at the hands of Solazzo in the first film) is Sonny (James Caan) but that was also about half Sonny’s fault. Yet, his sons (and daughter Connie [Rocky‘s Talia Shire]) wind up so disconnected from each other as a family that an avalanche of tragedy faces the family once Vito finally dies of a heart attack. Vito doesn’t have the same ice in his vein as his son that Michael thinks he needs to keep the family safe, but ultimately Vito proved to be a more moral man (in his own odd way) than his son transformed himself into being.

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It’s hard for me to name a way in which this film isn’t vastly superior to The Godfather: Part I, but let’s start with the performances. Al Pacino’s Michael in this film is not just the best performance of Pacino’s career (managing to even eclipse Glengarry Glen Ross for me) but arguably one of the most important of all time. This film was only made two years after the first film, but Pacino makes Michael seem decades older and more world-weary. Part of it is the excellent make-up he wears (you see what he usually looks like in the flashback that closes out the film), but you see just how dead inside Michael becomes over the course of the film. It’s one of those performances that can’t really be appreciated without seeing the other film, but Pacino is so great at losing himself in Michael’s emotional turmoil and decay, but he still finds the right moments to explode when he needs to, like when he discovers that Fredo (Jon Cazale) has betrayed him or that Kay has had an abortion.

De Niro so totally nails the mannerisms and vocal affectations of Brando’s Vito that it’s one of the all-time great cinematic impersonations although you also just have to savor the chance to see De Niro when he was so young and untested really exploring the palette of emotions and styles that would go on to define his legendary career. But like Joseph Gordon-Levitt simply became Bruce Willis in Looper, De Niro becomes Brando and it’s a sight to behold. Other stand-out performances from the film include Jon Cazale’s timid and naive Fredo, Diane Keaton’s abandoned Kay, Lee Strasburg’s scheming Hyman Roth, and, of course, the drunken and put-upon Michael V. Gazzo as Frank Pentangeli.

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There’s a moment late in the film that to me sums up not just the story strengths of the film or the acting strengths (though it contains some of the best moments of both) but just the attention to visual detail and the exceptionally strong direction that Francis Ford Coppola lends to the crown jewel in his career as one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history. Michael has brought Fredo back to his estate after discovering in Cuba (after a drunken Fredo lets slip that he knows Johnny Ola) that Fredo was the one to betray him. Although he initially wanted to forgive Fredo, Fredo’s unwillingness to take responsibility for what he did (by trying to blame Michael for treating him like a child) has finally pushed Michael over the deep edge. Michael essentially tells Fredo that he is now nothing to him. And it is so cold, that ice literally comes out of Michael’s mouth as he’s giving this speech. It’s the perfect visual metaphor for how cold and uncaring he’s becoming and it’s one of the defining moments of the film and Coppola’s career.

I could write 2000 more words about everything I love about this film, but I’d like to actually watch a movie today (or maybe get started on my third screenplay so I can rack up a hat trick of unpublished works) so I’ll draw this to a close before this becomes an academic essay on the cinematic import of this film. The Godfather: Part II won Best Picture and Best Director at the 1974 Academy Awards. It shouldn’t have. Chinatown and Roman Polanski should have, but if any film was going to beat Chinatown, I’m okay if it’s this one. Whereas the first film falters under the weights of its own ambitions, The Godfather: Part II not only meets those high standards, it exceeds them in every way. That a film that is three and a half hours long was able to carry my attention for every second of its running time should speak volumes to why this is one of the greatest films ever made.

Final Score: A+

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It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed a film that is almost without fail always counted among the top ten films ever made. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever reviewed a film this universally acclaimed. 8 1/2 is probably the closest contender if we throw foreign films into the mix. Chinatown is probably pretty high up there but only among more serious movie types (although you could say the same thing about 8 1/2). I just looked at the list of every single movie I’ve reviewed for this blog (I keep one along with the scores I gave them for my own clerical purposes), and absolutely no film I’ve reviewed is as much of a cultural touchstone as 1972’s Francis Ford Coppola opus, The Godfather. It’s the #2 highest ranked film on IMBD.com (narrowly behind The Shawshank Redemption). It is one of the most celebrated and beloved films ever made. It’s influence is immeasurable. But, it’s not quite perfect.

Thankfully, it is about as close to perfect as you could wish while still recognizing the film has one troubling flaw which distracted me for the film’s entire second half. Perhaps, it’s because the film is so well-loved and so highly considered that I was extra attentive to any flaws that I could find in the film. I’d like to believe I wasn’t going out of my way to look for things that I disliked in this movie, but there’s always a chance that I was doing it subconsciously. But I had so much trouble believing a fundamental transformation of the film that I was drawn out of the technical wizardry that Francis Ford Coppola (and cinematographer Gordon Willis) were using to wow me. Perhaps, I’m ill-suited to analyze the motivations and competing urges that seemed week and artificial to me, but the spiritual downfall of Michael Corleone still seems poorly developed.

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A generations-sprawling epic (particularly when the later two films are taken into consideration), The Godfather is ultimately the tale of the Corleone crime family. Starting on the day of his daughter’s (Rocky‘s Talia Shire) wedding in the mid 1940s, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is presented as the head of his powerful crime family. With the help of his sons, the hot-tempered Sonny (James Caan), the incompetent Fredo (John Cazale), and the adopted Tommy (Robert Duvall), Vito runs gambling and prostitution circuits in the New York area. Vito’s son Michael (Glengarry Glen Ross‘s Al Pacino) is a war hero that wants nothing to do with the family business, but when a rival family nearly murders his father, Michael takes it upon himself to run the Corleone family even if it means losing his soul in the process.

At nearly three hours long, The Godfather is a multi-layered, complex epic in every sense of the word so I fear to spoil too much about the plot. Although at the same time, this movie is 40 years old now. It’s not like there’s anybody reading this blog who is still yet to see this movie. Or at least I hope not. What I was trying to get at before though is that there is a sweeping grandeur to the film which is based off of Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name (Puzo also helped to write the screenplay with Francis Ford Coppola). The film falters on occasion but you can’t fault it’s ambition. The Godfather is as much about the price of family and how familial loyalty can undo us as it is a detailed look at the mafiosi in the 1940s. The attention to rich characterization and a bird’s eye view of the most intimate secrets of this family is what made The Godfather such a revelation upon its release.

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Much like Glengarry Glen Ross, this is truly an actors’ film. The ensemble casting is pretty superb (if not quite as seamlessly fluid as Glengarry) and it ranks among the best-cast films in cinema history. Brando won the Best Actor Oscar at the 1972 Academy Awards (though he declined it because of how Hollywood was treating Native Americans… long fucking story), and while I don’t actually consider Vito to the be the male lead of the film (that’s clearly Michael), it’s still a stunning performance. And it was probably Brando’s last great role. This was one of Pacino’s first big roles, and it was obviously what catapulted him to become the film legend he is today. And this is pre-crazy Pacino. It is a wonderful, restrained, subtle performance that helps makes Michael’s self-destruction far more believable than the script which rushes it despite the movie already being three hours long. The film didn’t nab three Best Supporting Actor nominations for nothing.

It’s also an incredibly directed and indelibly shot film. The film was shot by the “Prince of Darkness” himself, Gordon Willis. He earned the nickname because of how he flaunted the then conventional rules of how much light needed to be in any given scene. But it’s the same dark, moody atmosphere and half-lit room and deals that makes so much of The Godfather‘s visual appeal. This is a film where the mood of any given shot or scene is nearly as important as the actual on-screen dialogue and action. In fact, The Godfather is full to the brim of semi-lengthy sequences without dialogue (or without pertinent dialogue) and Coppola and Gordon Willis are able to evoke so much emotion just from the visual composition of a shot.

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And as far as direction goes, is there a better example of cross-cutting in the history of the medium than the famous baptism scene? Michael has finally taken over as the head of the Corleone family and intercut with images of the baptism of his sister’s newly born child, we see Michael’s associates brutally eliminating in one fell swoop anyone who had the temerity to cross or betray Michael’s family. That mixture of the sacred and profane is one of many things that made Coppola such an accomplished director. That moment has become a bit of American iconography. So much so that when it’s played with in The Godfather: Part III, you’re reminded why that film is so f***ing awful compared to the first two entries.

My only significant complaint about The Godfather (which is why I’ve ultimately always considered The Godfather: Part II to be a better film) is sadly, as I’ve said, tied straight to the major character arc that Michael undergoes. His steady transformation from the good-natured, straight and narrow son who doesn’t want to be involved in his family’s criminal underside into a ruthless and merciless crime boss is a shift that I just can’t buy. Much like Anakin becoming Darth Vader in Star Wars, the leap here seems hard to grasp. Although the film plays it out as Michael’s steady descent into hell because he’s trying to protect his family, Michael seemed so pure at the film’s beginning that the movie doesn’t do enough justice showing him being torn about the terrible things he does. He simply does them and there seems to be no psychological afterthoughts as to the terrible things he proceeds to commit.

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If the rest of the film weren’t so masterfully constructed, acted, and conceived, that flaw would be much more detrimental. Thankfully then, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is a masterpiece in virtually every other respect and it remains an important hallmark of American cinema. My inability to connect with the transformation of Michael Corleone ultimately keeps this film from perfection (and therefore from receiving my illusive top score of an “A+”), but it takes a special kind of movie to keep me engaged for three hours and The Godfather never loses the audience’s focus for a second. I ultimately don’t consider this film to be in my Top 10 Greatest Films of all time, but if you even have a passing interest in movies, The Godfather is simply one you can’t miss.

Final Score: A

 

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As someone who’s written one full-length screenplay (though I haven’t sold it yet) and that has also written about 30 pages or so of several other screenplays that I haven’t actually finished, I understand quite acutely the challenge of balancing attention-grabbing pacing with solid character development. It’s not an easy task and focusing too much on action or “plot spectacle” makes characters seem paper-thin and boring whereas a deficiency in action means the audience is going to fall asleep. You can’t ignore one for the other. And with 1968’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, the first hour of this satire of the snobbery and incompetence of the British aristocracy had me bored nearly to tears and it wasn’t until the doomed heroes went off to fight the Crimean war that the movie began to find its bearings and the right mix of character and spectacle.

The titular charge of Britain’s light cavalry brigade during the Crimean war remains one of history’s most famous tactical military errors that resulted in the annihilation of virtually the entire brigade as they charged head-long into oncoming artillery fire (and anyone who’s ever played Empire: Total War knows that’s a dumb idea). And The Charge of the Light Brigade focuses on the forming of the soon to be doomed cavalry, their training, and their eventual excursion to Turkey to face off against the Russians simply because England felt the need to go to war for appearance’s sake. And from the opening moments of the film, the arrogance of men such as Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard) and Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews) let you know that even the noble intelligence of the few decent men such as Captain Nolan (David Hemmings) will be subsumed by impractical and ultimately fatal notions of honor and class standing.

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I must admit that perhaps part of my struggles with the early portions of the film is that I found a healthy portion of the dialogue to be completely incomprehensible. The accents are thick enough that any non-native Brits would have trouble understanding certain characters (particularly Lord Cardigan) but when the period slang is thrown in for good measure, the film becomes far more dense than you would expect. And while I could applaud the film’s decision to spend such a large chunk of the movie focusing on the lives of the members of the Light Brigade before they are called off to war, most of the time spent in Britain feels repetitive and over-blown. While I recognize that the film is meant to be a darkly comic satire of class snobbery, those themes have been handled better by others (Gosford Park) and The Charge of the Light Brigade never generated any real emotional connection early on (except for perhaps moments with Captain Nolan). There was simply a cavalcade of characters and little reason to care for any of them.

And to add to the film’s overly theatrical nature from the first half of the movie, virtually all of the performances were totally ham-fisted. Trevor Morgan turned the incompetent and tyrannical Lord Cardigan into a cartoonish figure. There was no nuance or subtlety there. Although Captain Nolan is likely meant to be the film’s sole sympathetic figure (except for perhaps Vanessa Redgrave’s Clarissa), David Hemmings too turned his part into more of a caricature than a real human being. With his thousand mile stare, Nolan seemed like a warrior poet spouting off Shakespearean nonsense rather than a sensible man forced to follow insensible orders. The only performance with any real heart was Vanessa Redgrave’s Clarissa which is a shame because her character was so shallow and peripheral to the main parts of the film.

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The film isn’t without its moments though. The animated interludes that begin the film and then occur periodically throughout are brilliant and really hit home on the idea that though the film serves as a satire of British class machinations, The Charge of the Light Brigade also shows historic parallels between the catastrophic decision to go to war against the Russians in the Crimean war and the calls during the 1960s for military action against the Soviet Union. In certain ways, this film is almost the anti-Alexander Nevvsky in that it uses a historical disaster to deflate current nationalism (rather than the other way around). And once they do finally get to Russia, the film brutalizes any notion of military honor or the glory of war by a graphic (for its time) depiction of the actual horrors of war and the price the British paid for such a foolish venture.

It is truly a shame that the film becomes a cross-section of an almost excruciatingly slow first half (though still with the great animated sequences) and then a truly brilliant and scathing denouement. One could make the argument that the last half wouldn’t carry the same weight without the first half, but there’s just no excuse for how dull and meandering the beginning of the film seemed. It took nearly twenty minutes before any character felt truly distinguished from the rest so even as it focused on character, the film showed no knack for crafting unique and engaging characters to attach yourself to. If you’re a fan of military epics, stick around for the final half but everybody else can probably find a better way to pass their evening.

Final Score: B-

 

Back in high school, I watched a lot of films that are considered classics and hallmarks of cinema that I distinctly remember not enjoying. Citizen Kane is the most obvious offender as it’s often considered to be the greatest film of all time while I found it quite conventional, although I blame a lot of that now on the vast majority of the films I’ve enjoyed since then copying most of its style. There were other big names to add to that list such as Raging Bull, Gone With the Wind, and The English Patient, amongst several others. I watched these films when I was younger though and my tastes in movies has noticeably matured since then. So, I was sort of excited when Lawrence of Arabia came in the mail from Netflix since it was another high-profile film that makes many “greatest of all time” lists that I simply did not enjoy. Sadly, my verdict remains practically the same, although perhaps it’s for different reasons now. As it is, Lawrence of Arabia remains a gorgeously shot film that overstays its welcome and fails to deliver on any substance to its historical adventure.

Lawrence of the Arabia is the true story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a British military officer who is sent to observe the Arab revolt against the Turkish Empire in the early 1900’s. Lawrence is a very strange man however, and it’s the prime reason he was sent on this mission. He quotes ancient philosophers, has an unseemly tolerance for pain, and (this is strange for the time) has a genuine interest in Arab culture. Upon his arrival, he quickly impresses Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), the leader of a nomadic tribe of Arabs who is leading the rebellion of the Turks. At a seemingly unconquerable imapsse against the Turks, Lawrence devises a scheme that allows the Arabs to gain the first of many victories to come against the Turks while attempting to unify the various Arab tribes into one unstoppable army. What you gain is a portrait of troubled genius set against the backdrop of historical epic.

First, with the positives. Peter O’Toole made his debut role in this film, and he’s simply a natural. Lawrence is an incredibly complicated character (that the script doesn’t spend enough time exploring) with countless quirks and strange mannerisms. If the script failed to make Lawrence a complete character, O’Toole succeeded admirably. His transformation from an idealistic crusader to a shell-shocked veteran is natural and believable. He injects just the right amount of gravitas to the more emotional scenes of Lawrence’s life such as when he must kill his servant lest he be taken captive by the Turks and be tortured. Also, Omar Sharif (who was coincidentally enough in the last film I watched) was also great as one of the more important Arab characters in the film. When he is first introduced, he is seen as “barbarous and cruel”, yet he quickly learn that he is one of the more morally grounded characters in the film. The same great things can be said for Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness although not at the same level as O’Toole and Sharif.

From a technical perspective, the film is simply a marvel. The wide shots of the desert vistas never get old, and neither does the spectacular attention to period detail. If you’re a history nut, you can easily find yourself getting lost in the costumes and architecture of the film. At the same time, when the film attempts to put together an action set-piece moment, they are pulled off quite well. When the Arab troops ride on the city of Aqaba with Lawrence at their head or rob a train, you get a sense that a lot of time and effort was placed into choreographing these moments. At the same time, Lean’s camera knows just how to capture the loneliness and desolation of the desert, and while there were probably too many never-ending treks into the desert, they encapsulated the isolation to a tee.

Now for the problems. Leaving aside the fact that its four hour length led the film to be more bloated than an aging Marlon Brando with countless scenes screaming for massive editing, the film was coldly historical. Rather than attempting to gain any insight into the events occurring on screen, the film simply let them speak for themselves. T.E. Lawrence is such a fascinating person, but the film only paid pat respect to his psychology, and it wasn’t really until the very end of the film that it ever examined just why he was doing anything. Compared to the more artistic The Last Emperor, Lawrence of Arabia is very stale, but beautiful, history lesson that could have accomplished much of its goals had the film simply been a documentary with dramatic re-enactments. Throughout the entire film, I only ever found myself being emotionally attached to Omar Sharif’s Ali. When your titular character is such a marvel and you leave him so frustratingly ill-defined, that is simply a flaw in writing.

Does the film have value? Absolutely. David Lean doesn’t make bad pictures. This one is simply cripplingly flawed in a way that keeps it from achieving true greatness. David Lean is one of those directors that never truly learned the meaning of “enough”, and it shows here more than any of his other films that I’ve seen. I would have enjoyed the film much more had the length been pared down to something more manageable and had T.E. Lawrence been greater developed as a character. As it, Lawrence of Arabia stands as a film that had the potential to be a masterpiece but instead fell quite short of its lofty goals. Here’s to hoping that I’m not forced to watch any more four hour films in the near future.

Final Score: B

A Daniel Tosh joke springs to mind. “I was watching the Country Music Channel, and I fell asleep and woke up racist. I just wanted to take a nap during the Dixie Chicks, but when I woke up, there were holes in my linen.” I just watching 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, perhaps one of the most important films to ever be made in terms of the effect that it had on countless levels of the technical aspects of film making. However, it is also unapologetically and virulently racist. For decades, this film was used as one of the most integral and effective tools that the Ku Klux Klan had for recruitment, and clocking in at a lengthy three hours, I did not know that silent films could be so effective at conveying their points and messages. The film offended me at more levels than I could ever hope to describe, yet I am forced to recognize how well-constructed the film was in terms of scope and design. I might hate this film with every ounce of my being, but I was still left impressed with the power and ambition of the film.

The Birth of a Nation is a racist, propaganda film chronicling the destruction of the Civil War and then the social upheavals brought around by Reconstruction. Told from the perspective of two families, the Southern and noble Camerons as well as the Northern Stoneman’s, the film positions itself as a morality tale examining the evils of Northern aggression against the supposed nobility and gentility of the Southern aristocracy. The patriarch of the Stoneman family is a member of the Radical Republicans and wishes to impose his “evil freedom” for the Southern Blacks on an unwilling Southern white population. After the murder of his youngest sister at the hands of a freed black soldier, the eldest Cameron son becomes a central figure in the quickly rising Ku Klux Klan and bands together with fellow members to win back his South from the freed blacks. Incredibly racist moments ensue throughout the whole film.

Let there be absolutely no doubts. This film is simply reprehensible. If you have any sense of humanity or sensitivities to the terrible horrors our nation has inflicted upon minorities, then this film will leave you completely furious. D.W. Griffiths was a man of immense directorial talents who was light years ahead of his time in terms of film technique, and he uses his talents for such evil purposes as this film. Simultaneously, you can not deny how well made this film was, at least from a technical perspective. From the quick cuts and fades to the occasional uses of color (yeah, you read that right. it’s tinting, not real color but still way ahead of its time) to the sheer epic scope of the film to the way he would only allow the camera to show exactly what he wanted it to, this film was and is a technical masterpiece. I hate to say it. I want to demonize every single frame of this film. Yet, I can’t. For three hours, I was simultaneously horrified and in awe of this man’s talents, and it kind of makes me hate myself a little bit.

If you’re a student of film, it truly pains me to say that this is essential viewing. Much like the Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will, this is one of those films where genius was put to terribly destructive purposes. If I were judging this film purely on the emotional reaction it drew from me and how dangerous I think the film is, it would get an “F” and possibly a worse score if something like that existed. If I were judging this movie purely on its value on what it would do for the rest of film, it would like get an “A”. So, my score falls somewhere in the middle. I hate to even give it this high of a score, but I would be denying history if I tried to deny this film it’s value. I hate this movie. I can’t overstate that enough. It’s evil. That’s not a word I bandy around very often, but The Birth of a Nation is simply evil. However, it’s the birth of modern cinema so it pains me to say this.

Final Score: C