12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men – 1957

Director – Sidney Lumet

Starring – Henry Fonda, Jack Klugman, and Lee J. Cobb

The legal system is a funny thing. By and large it works on the notion of truth, the differentiation between lies and provable fact. The problem is, that since all of these definitions and judgements are filtered through, and interpreted by other human beings, it’s nearly impossible to keep prejudice, opinion and point of view from clouding the “truth”, and making an unbiased result a near impossibility.

12 Angry Men seeks to scrutinize the process of determining a mans guilt or innocence by watching that process unfold. Henry Fonda plays juror number 8, the one man on the jury of a murder trial who hasn’t pre-decided the fate of a young man who is accused of stabbing his father to death. Each of the other jurors has their own individual reasons for thinking he is guilty, although none of them have anything to do with the facts in the case and have more to do with their own biases.  The entire duration of the film is tied up in the task of separating perception and fact, and as a result the internal, and is some cases subconscious motivations of each of the jurors is laid bare.

One major theme in this film is prejudice. Whether its prejudice against the young man because of where he comes from (a poor, immigrant neighborhood), or prejudice in favor of ones own interests (the man who wants the trial over with so he can get to his baseball game), the film is really asking what form of prejudice do you, the viewer, subscribe to, and are you able to understand it and take responsibility for it?  To a certain degree we are all guilty of this manner of behavior at one level or another, but like juror 8 we are also capable of standing up for what is right, understanding when we’ve made a mistake, and changing course when we are wrong. The biggest takeaway from this film is the idea of personal redemption. Yes, the personal redemption that is on display in the film, but moreover the potential for our own personal redemption.  Despite the dramatic story acting as a vehicle for the message, it is the audience that is under scrutiny the entire time.

The jurors are a vehicle through which we can see ourselves.  The young man accused of murder is not even a character that we get to know.  All we know of him is based on the impressions that we get from the completely normal,  yet flawed human beings that are charged with judging him, and we in turn make our own judgements based on what we think of them.  It quickly becomes apparent how fragile and important the system is that decides a man’s fate can be.  Not based on the color of his skin, his occupation, the neighborhood he grew up in, or much more scary, what else you have going on in YOUR life, but by the definable and provable facts of what he (or she) did or didn’t do.

As usual, Henry Fonda plays the role of our system’s super-ego to a tee (a role he has worked on and perfected in another film I had the pleasure of seeing and reviewing, “The Ox-bow Incident”).  With his furrowed brow, stoic features, and piercing eyes, he was born to take on the good guy role (precisely why he is so good as the villain in “Once Upon a Time in the West”).  Similarly, the gravely voice, gruff “angry-father” demeanor, and intense stare, make Lee J. Cobb a perfect choice as the stubborn, petulant, juror 3.  Finally, despite the fact that it took me out of the story a little, it was fun to see The Odd Couple’s Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) take a turn as a raving, racist, who doesn’t quite understand how uncomfortable he makes everyone else.

As far as cinematography goes, this film is beautiful to look at.  The fact that it takes place (almost) entirely in the same room throughout the entire film is a testament to how engaging the film’s subject matter, and how talented cinematographer Boris Kaufman actually is.  One scene in particular, just after the aforementioned racist rant, where each Juror is forced to listen to what they sound like and each responds with shame and disgust, is so well orchestrated that I kept thinking about it for days after seeing it.

When it comes to the films on this list, the ones you should see, some are good, some are not so good, and there are others, like 12 Angry Men, that transcend the boundaries between importance of message, and quality of work.  It’s a wonder that this film came out of the 1950’s, before the bulk of the civil rights movement that would come after it.  It has definitely earned it’s place on this list, and is well worth a watch.  Incidentally, if you haven’t already seen it (or read the review), go watch The Ox-bow Incident too!  It might actually be my favorite of the two films, but both are fantastic.

“Acting!” (said in a whisper) – Ashley

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Reds (1981)

Reds – 1981

Director – Warren Beatty

Starring – Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Paul Sorvino

In terms of scale and message, the films generally found on the list of 1001 movies you need to see before you die tend towards epic.  If not in actual length, then in the scope of the story, the message, or even the acting.  Reds is no exception, delivering in each of these areas, but does it live up to the critical praise that I’ve heard going into watching it?  The answer…sort of.

Reds tells the sweeping story of journalist, John Reed, and his on again-off again-on again love interest Louise Bryant, feminist and fellow journalist.  The story of their relationship plays out against the backdrop of the Bolshevik revolution in what used to be Russian, then was the U.S.S.R., and is now Russia again.  The young idealists, find first attraction, then lust, and finally passion in both their marriage, and in the people’s movement taking place across the ocean from their home in New York.  Warren Beatty, acting as director as well as the star, and lead character of the film, plays Reed, an affable yet driven man passionate about the voice of the working man.  Louise, played by Diane Keaton, is determined to be a writer yet has trouble gaining recognition for anything other than being Reed’s girl.

The smoldering relationship between Bryant and Reed is central to the success of the story, whereas the political message was muddied a decent amount for me because of the fact that the film pre-supposes a certain amount of knowledge about world history.  Since I came to the film not knowing as much as I would have liked, I feel that I missed out on a good portion of what I was supposed to be appreciating.  As such I wasn’t as enamored with the film as I feel I would have been otherwise.

In terms of production value, set-pieces, costuming, and feel, the film leaves nothing to the imagination.  We are treated to a rich tapestry of the lives of those living in the early 1900’s.  Some of this production value is seen, while more is added through the inclusion of testimony of those who had lived through these events.  This testimony often served as chapter breaks for the film, and took the form of on-camera interviews discussing the real-life people (Reed and Bryant) being played by Keaton and Beatty.  This tended to give the dramatized portion of the film more weight, more than it would have had on its own at any rate.

With the exception of Diane Keaton (of whom I am just not a fan), the casting of the film was fantastic.  I particularly liked, Beatty, Jack Nicholson as boozy writer Eugene O’Neil, and Maureen Stapleton as the impassioned and deported Emma Goldman.  With the exception of Beatty, each other character was played by someone who was perfectly matched for the role they were playing.  Again with the exception of Mr. Beatty, no one actor was able to steal the limelight and outshine the next one.  That is, of course, not to say that Beatty was bad in the role, or that he did a disservice to the film by acting in it, on the contrary, I would be willing to bet that without his star power the film would never have been made at the scale that it was.  He does, however, turn in the least compelling performance, and is most likely of every other actor and actress in the film to rest on the laurels of good looks.

All in all, Reds was a compelling work that I still don’t feel that I fully appreciate, but I do appreciate it’s and Beatty’s commitment to turning out a quality product.  Not only do I recognize that fact, but I applaud it.  Not as fun or accomplished as Bonnie and Clyde, but well deserving of its place on the list.

“Man, Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton fuck a lot in this movie, every other scene they’re humping each other.” – Ashley

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – 1975

Director – Milos Forman

Starring – Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Will Sampson, and Louise Fletcher

Based on the popular novel by Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of those iconic, larger than life movies, where the public’s impressions of it have grown beyond it’s content.  Jack Nicolson plays, well…he plays the Jack Nicholson that he always does.  The story, while it follows Nicholson’s character (R.P. McMurphy), isn’t about him.  His character acts as a catalyst for the other residents of the ward, and with all the expectations and preconceived notions about this movie, this fact is a bit of a let down.

For starters, Nicholson is playing Jack Nicholson, period.  Where in Five Easy Pieces he deviated from his usual approach to acting, here in Cuckoo’s Nest, he embraces it.  I guess the fact that he plays a character in a mental asylum makes the style more appropriate, having seen it literally a dozen times before does somehow lessen the impact.

As I hinted at before, Nicholson plays a character by the name of R.P. McMurphy, who at the beginning of the film is being admitted to a mental hospital due to his acting out repeatedly on the job.  Immediately, McMurphy manages to rile up the other residents of his ward with his antics and questioning of the status quo, normally kept in check by the imposing nurse Ratched.  McMurphy, who is there by force, is flabbergasted to find out that the other men stay in this place by choice.  He shows his disdain for the institution and its staff by consistently breaking the rules, breaking out, and challenging the authority of his captors.

So, I’ve covered my thoughts on Jack Nicholson’s acting, but luckily this film doesn’t rely solely on his performance.  The other residents of the asylum as well as the wonderfully devious turn by Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched provide a bevy of wonderful performances that truly move the plot of the film forward.  A lot of familiar faces show up as relatively minor roles, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Scatman Coruthers, were all people I knew instantly, but there are a number of other lesser known actors that inhabit some of the other roles.  One prominent, completely believable character, Billy Bibbit, is fleshed out by the character actor Brad Dourif.  Despite Nicholson’s appearance on the poster and his notoriety pushing the popularity of the film, it is these other smaller roles that completely envelop us.  Through McMurphy we are allowed to watch Dourif’s Bibbit grow, Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched fume, and scheme, and perhaps most famously Will Sampson’s Chief Bromden free himself from his self-imposed bondage.

I don’t know if this rather voyeuristic outcome was intended by the director, or by Nicholson’s performance, but thankfully that is what happened.  Nicholson represents a chaos to these people, the same way a tornado or a car accident might in another film.  His character is something almost as powerful as a force of nature, something to be endured and weathered by each of the other characters.  If that was the desired outcome, then I take back my negative criticism of Nicholson’s performance.  Unfortunately this sort of thing only works once and a while, and he’s been playing the same character for years.

The cinematography, while fitting for the setting and tone of the film, didn’t seem all that different from other films in the seventies, and as a result didn’t catch my attention so much.

Despite my initial impression of Nicholson’s performance, I did really end up enjoying the film.  I didn’t realize quite how many of the plot points I had a decent knowledge of either, thanks to pop-culture references in other movies and television shows, so there was quite a lot of material that was fun and engaging.  I’d be interested in reading more about the history of this film, and it’s appearance on this list, but for the moment I’m content with having seen the film.

“Don’t fuck with your nurse” – Ashley

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

FiveEasyPieces

Five Easy Pieces – 1970

Director – Bob Rafelson

Starring – Jack Nicholson and Karen Black

Jack Nicholson has made a career out of playing himself.  He usually does such a good job at playing himself, that I forget he can be restrained and believable as another person.  I was recently reminded of that fact by his rather mellow yet taught performance in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces.  In it, Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, who after dropping off the radar of his high society family spends his time working at a crummy blue collar job, drinking with his friends, and cheating on his girlfriend Rayette, played to the hilt by Karen Black.  He works incredibly hard to sabotage his life every chance he gets, ensuring that no one ever gets to disappoint him except himself.

The tone of the film (and Bobby’s life) is rather bleak, however the look of the film is very warm, and almost comfortable.  As a lot of movies from the seventies do, it has the color of memories that one usually associates with old photographs.  With few exceptions the set pieces seem comfortable, warm and inviting.  Everyone in the scenes seemed to be quite at ease, that is except for Bobby Dupea.  Dupea seemed the most at home when the situation had grown uncomfortable, when he was fighting with Rayette, when he was busy working his shitty job, and when he was alone.  Whenever he was put into a comfortable situation, we could see his squirm.  We would find out later that this was a trend in his life.  His past consists of a series of failed relationships with his family, most notably with his father.  This becomes especially relevant when he learns that his father has suffered from a stroke, and he decides to make the trip home to make peace before he dies.

While he’s home, we glean a bit more into the depths of his motivation, although we never truly get a clear picture.  The fogginess of his reasoning actually serves to help the story by creating a barrier between us, the audience, and Bobby.  That barrier mirrors the barrier that exists with each of the other characters.  We can see the futility of his actions, just as many of the other characters in the story can.  Seemingly the only ones who are unable to recognize his cyclical behavior are Rayette and Bobby himself.  Rayette doesn’t see it because she truly believes that he’ll change, and he just chooses not to see it.

This behavior is cemented in place through his sudden in-ability to communicate with his father.  Once this avenue is closed off, all possibility of the reconciliation that he has been putting off since he left is gone.  All that remains afterwards is the limited connectivity that comes with his seduction of the women in his life.  Some of these are successful (Rayette), and some and some are not (Catherine, his brother’s love interest), but the result is the same either way, he remains lonely.  These fleeting relationships (usually self destructive ones) are completely, emotionally unfulfilling to Bobby.  The only benefit seems to be a physical one.  These moments of connection are so foreign and uncomfortable to Bobby that he reflexively, almost instinctively destroys them by driving them into the ground.

By the end, we have man with no options.  Having spent all of his time burning bridges, he is now exiled with himself.  Five Easy Pieces is a complex movie about an unlikable man struggling with the people who are trying to like him anyway.  To define it is far from easy, yet enjoying it is far from difficult.

“I think there was something about a sandwich in it.” – Ashley