Missing the Train

The French Connection changed the rules in Hollywood. Considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time, The French Connection feels realistic with documentary style filmmaking, flawed protagonists, and a real life drug smuggling case at the center. Based on a 1969 book about two police detectives involved in the titular case. Before The Exorcist, Superman, or Jaws, director William Friedkin and stars Gene Hackman and Roy Schneider hit the mean streets of New York. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle is an iconic police officer distinguished by his pork pie hat. Even his entrance dressed as Santa Claus is iconic.

Popeye Doyle isn’t exactly a crooked cop, but he does drink, sleep around, disobey orders, and show many racist tendencies. Seeing him shakedown a bar full of narcotics is when I knew he meant business. Popeyes actually got its name from Doyle. Although he faced stiff competition, Hackman was the best casting choice. Just as good is Schneider as his more cautious partner Buddy “Cloudy” Russo. Together they perform stakeouts in order to track a drug smuggling ring with a French connection. I don’t always understand police procedurals, but I gathered that it was all about stopping the flow of heroin into the U.S. Alain Charnier is a dapper French criminal with multiple hitmen under his thumb.

The French Connection is best known for its exciting chase scenes. Popeye pursuing Charnier in a subway is tense, but it’s a later car chase that really steals the show. Popeye in a civilian car pursuing a sniper on a train concludes with an exhausted Doyle shooting the assailant in the back. His almost obsessive need to catch the criminal ends on a suitably ambiguous note where the chase never truly ends. The French Connection is a Best Picture winner I knew I had to prioritize. No matter how many cop movies I’ve seen. It also won Best Director, Actor, Screenplay, Film Editing, and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Cinematography, and Sound. The French Connection marked a welcomed shift towards realism at the Academy Awards.

The French Connection

Popeye Doyle waves

Followed by: French Connection II

Drummer’s Ear

Sound of Metal is a drummer’s worst nightmare. Similar to Whiplash, Sound of Metal is an angry drumming movie that deserved Best Picture (but unsurprisingly didn’t win). I’m not a heavy metal fan, but I knew I’d like Sound of Metal as soon as I learned about it on Amazon Prime. The very simple premise follows the struggle of a heavy metal drummer who begins to lose his hearing. I didn’t think much of Riz Ahmed beforehand, but his performance is captivating. Ruben Stone feels like a genuine hard rocker and former addict with an underground band.

Olivia Cooke is similarly dedicated to playing the band’s singer/guitar player and Ruben’s emotional rock Lou. Ahmed earns his Best Actor nomination by exploring the five stages of grief. Denial comes when Ruben first starts to lose his hearing. There’s no way Sound of Metal wasn’t going to win Oscars for Best Film Editing and Best Sound. Hearing loss is effectively captured with scenes of complete silence, entire conversations with no sound, and subtitles only coming in when Ruben learns sign language. Ruben experiences anger multiple times throughout, but Lou helps him by finding a community for the deaf.

Bargaining is mostly seen as Ruben looks for ways to keep drumming. His primary goal is trying to get a cochlear implant procedure. Paul Raci centers the movie as the head of his shelter’s Christian organization for the deaf. Raci earns his Best Supporting Actor nomination as a real life coda with deaf parents. They clash over opposing viewpoints, but Joe does everything he can to help Ruben. Depression comes near the end when Ruben doesn’t get exactly what he wants. Finally ending with a beautiful moment of acceptance. Sound of Metal speaks from the heart.

Sound of Metal

Ruben drums

The Turing Machine

The Imitation Game highlights an often overlooked part of history. The 2015 Academy Awards is the first show where I watched every film nominated for Best Picture. The Imitation Game was last on my list, because I thought it would be boring. Little did I know how fascinating cryptography would be. Alan Turing was an English mathematician turned cryptanalyst who asked the important question “Can machines think?” His theory led to the invention of one of the earliest computers. Though Turing faced great difficulty as a homosexual in the middle of World War II.

The Imitation Game is a suitably thrilling war movie fought behind the scenes. Some complain that Turing’s sexuality is underplayed, but that’s not the key focus of the story. Any romantic feelings are hinted at during Turing’s school boy days. Benedict Cumberbatch proved himself as a serious Oscar contender. Although the film may not be 100% factual, Cumberbatch captures Turing as a socially awkward loner. He and other cryptographers are hired to break the Nazi Enigma machine. Which sends coded messages that could be vital in winning the war. So Turing built a machine capable of outthinking Enigma.

Equally important is Turing’s non-romantic relationship with Joan Clarke. Frequent historical actress Kiera Knightly was also nominated for her effort. Clarke faces her own share of adversity as the sole female cryptanalyst, but she forms a bound with Turing that helps complete his work. Of course the truth comes out and it is distressing to see Turing endure chemical castration. Although it cost him a great deal, Turing’s machine was a major victory for all involved. Making The Imitation Game a story worth telling.

The Imitation Game

Alan Turing and his machine

Fluorescent Beige

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire turns a heavy situation into an artistic inspiration. As the unnecessary subtitle suggests, Precious is based on the deeply personal 1996 novel Push by Sapphire. Director Lee Daniels saw its potential and so did its producers Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey. In 2009, Precious became a rare predominantly black film that received significant Academy Awards attention. I’ve wanted to see Precious for years, but I thought its heavy subject matter would make it a difficult watch. So I waited until I was more ready. Precious is tough to watch at times, but it’s a lot more uplifting than I was expecting.

Claireece “Precious” Jones is an obese teenager with dark black skin. Such an uncommon character led to the casting of first time actress Gabourey Sidibe. Her raw Oscar nominated performance was perfect for a brutally honest movie. Precious can’t read or write, has image issues, lives in an abusive household, and is pregnant with her own father’s second child. More uncomfortable moments of violence or incest are filtered through Precious’ hopeful inner fantasies. Harlem is a rough neighborhood given an almost sepia color palette. The most complex character is Precious’ horrible mother who abuses her and makes her collect welfare checks.

Comedian Mo’Nique goes against type with an unpredictable Best Supporting Actress winning performance. She goes from seemingly caring to violent in an instant. Other unexpected performances include Lenny Kravitz as a genuinely kind nurse and Mariah Carey as no-nonsense social worker Ms. Weiss. A far cry from her Glitter days. Precious finds hope for a better life when she’s sent to an alternative school. Paula Patton is her teacher Ms. Rain who actually cares enough to help. Her class is another special support system, but reality sets in when she returns to her mother. We learn so many conflicting things about her near the end, but the ultimate triumph is Precious leaving forever with her children. Precious brings hope to the hopeless.

Precious

Precious rides the train

Say Hello to My Little Friend!

Scarface (1983) exemplifies the American dream. Nothing has received a bigger critical reevaluation than Scarface. At first it was hated for its excessive violence, profanity, and drug use. Scarface wasn’t even nominated for a single Academy Award. Acclaimed director Brian De Palma was actually nominated for a Razzie Award. So how did Scarface become one of the greatest gangster films of all time? I’m also turned off by its excess, but I understand why it resonates with so many people. Leading to countless pop culture references, a video game, and hip hop influence. Scarface is a remake that learns a lot from what came before. Gangster mainstay Al Pacino was drawn to the original, but writer Oliver Stone didn’t want an Italian mob picture.

The renamed Tony Montana became a Cuban refugee in 1980’s Miami. Alcohol prohibition became drug trafficking, but the American dream remained very much intact. Tony lives by “The World is Yours” as he goes from poor dishwasher without a green card to powerful drug lord. First he needs the money, then he’ll get the power, and then he’ll get the women. Pacino isn’t Cuban, but his exaggerated volatility makes Tony iconic. 2 hours & 50 minutes is more than enough time to take in the scope of his journey. Steven Bauer is the only Cuban to play Tony’s loyal friend Manny. The respectable Robert Loggia and F. Murray Abraham play their mentor Frank Lopez and his right-hand Omar. A relatively unknown Michelle Pfeiffer makes her presence known as Frank’s beautiful blonde trophy wife Elvira.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio similarly makes an impression with her film debut as Tony’s sister Gina. Their overprotective relationship is more screwed up, but not explicitly incestious. Scarface still pushes the boundaries even 5 decades after the original. There are several bloody shootouts, a torture scene involving a chainsaw, a record 207 F bombs, and mountains of cocaine. Tony becomes the bad guy when he seizes Frank’s position, marries Elvira, and offs anyone in his way. The more villainous drug dealer Alejandro Sosa turns on Tony after he fails to do a job for him. Tony gets high on his own supply and becomes increasingly paranoid. The explosive climax is a big part of cinematic history. As the coke fueled Tony Montana says the iconic phrase “Say hello to my little friend,” he lives long enough to hold off Sosa’s men. Scarface is a cautionary tale that takes an excessive lifestyle to its furthest extreme.

Scarface 1983

“Say hello to my little friend!”

Remake of: Scarface (1932)

The World is Yours

Scarface (1932) is the original gangster picture. Complete with old fashioned fedoras, striped suits, and Tommy guns. While not the very first, Scarface was influential in its own right. Of course I’ve already seen the 1983 remake, but I can still retroactively see the merit of the original. It similarly pushes the boundary on violence and the glamorization of crime. Produced by the Howard Hughes, Scarface faced lots of censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood. Until the movie became a scathing indictment of gangsters at the time. Specifically Al Capone who was currently in jail for tax evasion.

Scarface follows the Italian immigrant Tony Camonte as he rises in the ranks of the Chicago crime ring. He lives by the slogan “The World is Yours” and uses it to make reckless decisions. Having seen the remake, I was surprised with how much they were able to get away with in 1932. Shootings are at first veiled in shadow, but it all becomes clear when Tony gleefully fires on rival gangs with a newly acquired Thompson submachine gun.

Tony earns the ire of his boss Johnny Lovo when he starts messing with his blonde socialite girlfriend Poppy. The world is officially his when he bumps off Johnny for the top seat. Also intact is the uncomfortable relationship Tony has with his sister Cesca. His jealousy is made clear when he takes out his loyal coin flipping partner Guino Rinaldo. The climax isn’t coke fueled, but it is just as explosive when the police hold off a deranged Tony in his apartment. Scarface is a classic that made gangster flicks what they are today.

Scarface 1932

Tony Camonte uses a Tommy gun

Operation Neptune Spear

Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the decade long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. It was the natural follow up to The Hurt Locker for Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow and her journalist screenwriter Mike Boal. Their original intention was to make a film about the 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, but all that changed when bin Laden was killed. Zero Dark Thirty was released only a year after 2011 Operation Neptune Spear. The military themed movie was met with understandable critical acclaim and Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. It only won Best Sound Editing in a rare tie with Skyfall.

Although Zero Dark Thirty wasn’t without controversy. However factual, I view the film as matter of fact without getting into any moral or political discussions. Although I was 6 years old, I was too young to fully understand 9/11. I remember learning about bin Laden’s death very clearly. Zero Dark Thirty only depicts 9/11 as an audio recording. The true focus is on the almost obsessive manhunt by fictional CIA analyst Maya Harris. Jessica Chastain commands attention throughout. She’s joined by an all-star cast that includes Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, and Jason Clarke as fellow CIA officers.

The latter participates in uncomfortable torture methods in order to extract information. Most of the time is dedicated to finding any lead connected to bin Laden. Other terror attacks follow before the Abbottabad compound is located. The Navy SEAL compound raid is a highlight of the movie that captures the tense atmosphere in total darkness. SEAL Team 6 consists of Joel Edgerton and majority Marvel actors like Chris Pratt, Mike Colter, Frank Grillo, and Callan Mulvey. Bin Laden’s death brings a sign of relief, but the impact will never truly go away. Zero Dark Thirty does the best with the facts it was given.

Zero Dark Thirty

Maya Harris oversees Navy SEAL Team 6

King for a Night

The King of Comedy is no laughing matter. Although Martin Scorsese is best known for hard-hitting drama, Robert De Niro wanted to make a PG rated comedy. Especially after Raging Bull. The King of Comedy feels very underrated considering I hadn’t heard of it until Joker came out. Everyone knows Taxi Driver, but The King of Comedy received a renewed interest. Despite watching the film a year after Joker, I’m shocked by how well its themes were translated. De Niro plays aspiring stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin.

Pupkin is obsessed with late-night New York talk show host Jerry Langford. Although delusional to the point of imagining a friendship with Jerry, Pupkin never feels too threatening. De Niro makes him surprisingly sympathetic. When Jerry tells him to start at the bottom, he practices his act with an elaborate set in his unseen mother’s basement. Pupkin only goes a step too far when he invites his lady friend to Jerry’s house uninvited. The King of Comedy isn’t violent like Taxi Driver, but it is a realistic depiction of stalking and celebrity worship.

The legendary Jerry Lewis is perfect for the aptly named role of Jerry. I’ve never seen the comedian so serious. When Pupkin is continually turned away, he resorts to kidnapping Jerry with an even crazier fan. Sandra Bernhard is just as well cast as the romantically obsessed Masha. Calling himself “The King of Comedy,” Rupert Pupkin literally breaks into show business when Jerry is all tied up. The final stand-up routine is both funny and tragic as Pupkin lives his dream before going to jail. The ambiguous ending was the right call, since The King of Comedy is so good at blurring the line.

The King of Comedy

Rupert Pupkin on The Jerry Langford Show

Dueling Banjos

Deliverance is a story of survival I only knew by reputation alone. R rated films were already well established by 1972, but they were no less shocking to viewers at the time. Since the intense 1970 novel maintained its author James Dickey as a screenwriter. I avoided Deliverance for years with the limited knowledge that it involved banjos and hillbillies. As boundary pushing as it was, Deliverance was still an Oscar nominated hit with a soon-to-be all-star cast. Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds already made an impression, but Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox were just getting started.

Every actor is on equal footing as a group of city folk who take a male bounding canoe trip in the great outdoors. Lewis is the more experienced macho leader, Ed is less confident, Buddy complains the most, and Drew would rather play his banjo. Their trip starts off well with the iconic “Dueling Banjos” scene between Drew and a backwoods boy. The song puts you in a good mood before the terror sinks in. As the four men journey down the river, Ed and Buddy encounter a couple of malicious mountain men.

The most difficult scene to get through involves Buddy being sexually assaulted and forced to “Squeal like a pig.” It only gets worse from there when the men argue over whether to cover up the incident. They face intense rapids, drowning, life threatening injuries, and the remaining mountain man in a desperate attempt to survive. Director John Boorman maintains a realistic feel by having the actors perform stunts themselves. Even their trauma is explored where most movies would leave out the aftermath. Deliverance lures you in and never lets go.

Deliverance

Drew plays with a banjo boy

One More Game

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? changed the very course of Hollywood itself. The film is based on the 1962 play from Edward Albee that caused quite a stir with its lewd and vulgar content. The dialogue being kept intact meant the original Production Code left Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? unrated. Although PG-13 by today’s standards, audiences weren’t used to hearing profanity in pictures. Even I was a little shocked, but I knew to expect 2 hours of non-stop fighting. It feels all the more authentic with the often turbulent Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the leads. Despite its controversy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of only 2 movies nominated in every eligible category.

Best Picture for producer Ernest Lehman’s persistence and first time director Mike Nichols for his ability to translate the stage to the screen. Having only 4 actors meant the entire cast was nominated for acting. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? follows the failing marriage of George and Martha. Burton plays the passive history professor of a university and Taylor plays the aggressive daughter of the university’s president. The title refers to an in-joke that they sing to each other. They unwillingly entertain the young, good looking, and well built biology professor Nick and his hip wife Honey. George Segal and Sandy Dennis fill the remaining roles. Over the course of only one night of heavy drinking, arguments begin to escalate very quickly. It’s a unique character study that’ll make you laugh as well as wince.

George goes from timid to ruthless with his casual insults and “games” that he plays with his guests. Nick goes from non-confrontational to pushed around by almost everybody. Despite the men receiving a bit more attention, it’s the women who both won an Academy Award. Honey wants to leave at first, but Dennis becomes a very convincing silly drunk who can’t hold her liquor. Really most of the attention understandably went to Taylor playing against type. Martha is very overbearing as she puts down her husband, but she can also be flirtatious towards Nick and vulnerable when certain topics are brought up. Just about everything is discussed, but it’s George and Martha’s son that feels the most poignant. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a black & white classic with a modern sense of storytelling.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

George prepares to shoot Martha