Category Archives: Movie Reviews: 1900’s

Christmas Movie Review: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

wonderfullife

George Bailey (played by James Steward) learns that life is worth living in It’s A Wonderful Life.

This is something new I thought I would try. I thought I would try reviewing a few Christmas movies around this time. The first movie I thought I would do is It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s a Christmas staple, but I finally saw it in its entirety last year! Here are my thoughts.

It begins as Heaven is alerted of prayers for a George Bailey from Bedford Falls, New York. As it reaches Heaven, the angel assigned to save George is Clarence Odbody. Clarence is a second-class angel who needs to earn his wings. George is about to commit suicide and it’s up for Clarence to save him to earn his wings. Clarence needs to learn about George, so he learns more about his life. He learns that George saved his younger brother Harry from drowning in a sledding accident, but lost hearing in his left ear. Also in George’s younger years, he prevented a druggist Mr. Gower from giving away a prescription after it was accidentally poisoned.

As George enters adulthood, he plans to travel the world and visit college. He is re-introduced to Mary Hatch, his childhood crush, by Harry at his graduation party and the two hit it off. However his plans have to be put on hold after his father Peter suffers a stroke and dies. Peter was head of Bailey Brothers’ Building And Loan. George agrees to continue it, mainly to keep it from being overrun by the ruthlessly hypercompetitive banker Henry Potter.

George wants to keep the Building And Loan business a family business as he promises brother Harry a job after college, and even resorts to hiring his incompetent uncle Billy. The times pass and George is successful in keeping the Building And Loan active, but not without his challenges. He had competition from Potter to face, including a tempting deal from Potter himself, although he knew Potter’s true attempt was to shut him down. He is understand when Harry receives a bigger job offer from another place. He build Bailey Park: a neighborhood of housing for low-income people while Potter made apartments of overpriced slums. He fell in love with Mary and married, eventually fathering four children.

World War II happens. George can’t fight because of his deaf ear, but Harry joins the Navy and earns a medal of honor by shooting down a kamikaze plane. Uncle Billy causes a big blunder on the day Harry is to receive his heroes’ welcome. Billy taunts Potter with the newspaper honoring Harry. Billy places $8000 to be deposited in a newspaper only to pick up the wrong paper to give to the teller. Potter knows what happened but says nothing and sees it as a chance to get the Building And Loan once and for all.

George most feels the heat. He learns that this will face scandal and that the Building And Loan will crumble. George even faces an arrest from Potter. All George does is take out his frustration on the family and on others. Then George gets drunk at the bar and receives a punch from the husband of the woman he told off over the phone. George feels he’s worthless and he needs to kill himself. As George is about to jump, he notices a man who has landed in the river. He goes to help. He learns the man is Clarence and Clarence introduces him as his guardian angel. At first George doesn’t believe him. Clarence tries to find ways to convince George not to commit suicide but they appear to be going nowhere.

Finally George says “I wish I was hadn’t been born.” That’s the perfect opportunity for Clarence; show George life if he had never been born. He shows him that Bedford Falls would be Potterville: a dark and corrupt town with amoral people. Mr. Gower was just released from prison for manslaughter, because George wasn’t there to stop him from poisoning. The Building And Loan closed down because George was not there to take over after his father’s death. George’s mother doesn’t recognize him and says Uncle Billy was institutionalized after the Building And Loan failed. The area that was Bailey Park is a cemetery and Harry Bailey is buried there; drowned from the sledding accident because no George to save him. I addition, the soldiers from the transport ship died because Harry wasn’t there to save them. Finally he learns Mary is an unmarried librarian and screams for the police as she sees George a stranger.

It’s after seeing life had he not existed that George decides not to commit suicide. He’s finally convinced Clarence is his guardian angel and begs for his life back. Back in the full present, George goes back to his house, grateful to see Mary and his children and unafraid to face arrest. He’s happy to see his family and Uncle Billy was able to get the towns people to pay the missing $8000. Right as the sheriff is about to arrest George, he sees the amount of money raised and rips up the arrest warrant. Harry returns and toasts George as the ‘richest man in town.’ In the pile of money, George sees a novel Clarence carried. Inside the novel is an inscription from Clarence: “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.” The daughter notices the sign that an angel has earned his wings. George knows it’s Clarence.

This is a film that gets replayed Christmas after Christmas. Hard to believe when it first came out, it did not do so hot at the box office. Over time, it would become beloved for many reasons such as its Christmas setting or even how it related to how people sometimes see themselves as failures. That feeling can often trigger around Christmas time. The film shows one example of a person who sees themselves around Christmas as a failure. George Bailey did a lot of great things throughout his life and meant a lot to a lot of people, especially people who feared the mere idea of the town being overrun by Henry Potter. Then a mistake happens and Henry sees it as the perfect opportunity to get George. George actually had it good for most of his life. Some people could even argue he’s the angel of Bedford Falls. But now that George fears arrest, all of that doesn’t matter anymore and George wants to take his own life. It’s Clarence who shows him the world had he not existed that changes George.

Sometimes it leaves you thinking there would be less suicides if people saw all the accomplishments they did in their lifetime and knew how many people loved them. It’s so easy to get caught and brought down in the ‘now’ of things.

The film’s ‘beloved’ status was not immediate. It didn’t do so hot at the box office. It would be relay on television around Christmas that would lead it to become one of the most beloved Christmas movies ever. The film was nominated for five competitive Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director for Frank Capra and Best Actor for James Stewart. It was given an honorary Oscar for technical achievement for the  effect of simulating falling snow. There have been numerous depictions and versions of the story redone in media from a Married With Children episode to a cartoon of The Smurfs to the Billy Joel video of “You’re Only Human.” There have been dozens and dozens of adaptations. There have even been spoofs such as one sitcom, one ‘guardian angel’ shows an oafish male how life would be if he didn’t exist… and it’s better for everyone! That’s comedy for you!

Looking back, it’s better that the film was made in 1946 than today. 1946 would be more welcoming of a story like this. Stories of people starting as down and out only to end on a happy note were quite common and quite welcome at the time. If It’s A Wonderful Life was released today, some people would think of it having a corny premise. A lot of people don’t buy into guardian angels today. Some would find the ending of the film too hokey. Even that ending where people actually give money to keep George Bailey from being arrested would seem too farfetched for today’s people to buy. Even I don’t think you’d see the same monetary support for a fallen person if what happened to George would happen to someone else today. It’s a film that came out at the right time and had what it took to go the distance all these years. Plus it’s a good reminder of past great talents and stars like James Steward, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers. Interesting enough, Travers would retire from acting three years after the movie was released!

It’s easy to see why It’s A Wonderful Life is one Christmas movie that stands the test of time. Even if the ending seems too farfetched to happen in today’s world, it’s good it came out when it did and grew in its legendary status over the years.

 

Movie Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

Robert-De-Niro-Taxi-Driver

Seeing Taxi Driver in the theatre reminds you how Robert De Niro captivated you as Travis Bickle and why you can still see its greatness after all these years.

You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking… you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here.

Every now and then, I like to check a classic movie that’s lucky enough to get shown on the big screen again. This summer I was lucky enough to catch Taxi Driver shown on the big screen. It’s one of my favorite Martin Scorsese films and it was a delight to see it on the big screen. It reminded me how much I missed the first time. Especially of its purpose at the time it was out.

The film is about Travis Bickle: a Vietnam marine honorably discharged who came to New York City from New Jersey to make a living for himself. He takes a job as a taxi driver and his job involves dealing with a lot of dirty work in the city as he’s often taken to the rubbish areas of the City.

He makes an attempt to win the love of a woman named Betsy who volunteers for presidential candidate Charles Palantine. His attempts are not that successful as he buys her a Kris Kristofferson album she already owns and takes her to a movie theatre showing a Swedish sex education film. She leaves the theatre immediately. Travis tries visiting the Palantine campaign office to win her back but is unsuccessful. Though he senses a hint she may still have feelings for him.

Two moments during his cabbie job change Bickle. One day he’s lucky enough to drive Charles Palantine when he comes to NYC. He tells Palantine he’s a supporter and wants him to clean up this town. Another case is when a child prostitute named Easy enters his car to evade her pimp Sport only to be taken away by him. Despite it being brief, he can’t forget her.

Throughout the time in NYC, Travis is lonely and disheartened to see how trashy of a city NYC has become. He’s completely disgusted and he feels he might snap any minute but his fellow cabbies believe he’ll be alright. However he goes out and purchases illegal guns from a dealer named Easy Andy, sets up some personal gun mechanisms and even rehearses what he’s about to say when confronted. On that day, he goes to a store where a robbery happens and he shoots the robber dead.

He has a chance meeting with Easy. He pays money for her but he’s not interested in sex with her despite Easy coming onto him. Instead he has a frank talk with her in a café during breakfast. He learns Easy is not simply some sleazy young teen girl but a young naïve teen runaway named Iris Steensma. He wants to take her out of the prostitution business but she is disinterest, or maybe afraid of Sport.

The following day, Travis has a letter for Iris with money in the envelope. He believes it will be a death wish. However Sport gets a hold of the letter and gives the money to Iris’ next customer. Travis attends a public rally led by Palantine telling the people of New York what he has planned. Travis appears with a Mohawk haircut and appears to attempt to assassinate Palantine but is able to run away.

Then he goes to the hotel where he knows is Sport’s brothel. He approaches Sport, asks one question, and shoots him. Sport survives but Travis is after the bouncer and Mafioso in Sport’s ring in order to free Iris. Travis shoots all three dead but is unable to shoot himself in the end like he intended to. Travis recovers from his coma of three months returning to his job. Iris is back home with her parents whom they consider Travis a hero. The film ends with Travis giving Betsy a ride, leaving us to question what will happen next.

The film rested mostly on the character of Travis Bickle. We have a Vietnam vet trying to reassimilate himself back into daily life. He possesses a set of values and beliefs but his uncoothed attitude causes a lot of social interference with those around him. On top of it, he’s disgusted with what he sees in New York City. He comes across a man who’s about to snap any minute and he knows it. However you wonder when he will snap. We think it will be an assassination the Palantine speech where he could have died a bad guy. Instead he takes a shot at redemption: one that he felt would cost him his life but didn’t. It almost made you feel like he was about to become a martyr figure but is given a second chance in life. It does seem like when Betsy quotes the lyrics from the Kris Kristofferson song The Pilgrim, she’s setting up for what Travis is about to become.

It’s the prostitute Easy/Iris whom changes him and is able to bring about a positive human side of him few notice, including himself. He knew his duty was to free Easy from Sport or whoever else got in his way and it might mean his life but he was willing to do it. He just needed the right motive to do it. He just asked Sport for Iris and he didn’t know who he was talking about. That was all the motive Bickle needed. You often wonder why he did it. For himself? For Iris?  To redeem himself in the eyes of Betsy?

Somehow I think Scorsese is trying to make a certain statement with this film. Throughout the movie we see images of Charles Palantine running for president and promising to clean up New York. However it was Bickle who did a small deed of ending crime involving a teenager in a single act. I believe Scorsese had something to say about politicians which he wanted to say through Bickle but it didn’t entirely make sense. We see Bickle dating Betsy who volunteers for Palantine’s campaign, Bickle having Palantine posters in his bedroom, Bickle driving Palantine and even speaking his support to him but we also see Bickle fake what appears to others as an assassination attempt. It’s obvious the message of politicians being cowards who are all talk was the message of that but it surprised me how Bickle would pull that on a candidate he appears to support. He’s even seen after his recovery with Palantine posters. Hard to understand.

Without a doubt, this is one of Scorsese’s best films. It still tells a story that captures people’s intrigue and lets people interpret their own version of the story. It still causes a lot of debate on what certain scenes mean and what the film is all about. One film expert claims the film is about the decline of New York coinciding with the decline of the male hero at the time. Good points. One person even stated how Bickle goes from human trash to almost like a saint-like figure.

No doubt the film was controversial in its time. It would still make people uncomfortable today. The violence however got a lot of people talking. However it’s nothing compared to the violence of movies throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Those movies went all out. Nevertheless the violence here does resonate with you. Even the theme of an act of vigilantism being made heroic in people’s eyes makes one question Scorsese’s feelings of vigilantes. Also that scene where Easy comes onto Bickle after he pays her the money would definitely anger people today. People have less of a tolerance to scenes like that today than they did back in the 70’s.

The film has you asking a lot of questions as you leave the theatre. You wonder was such a shootout necessary to free Iris from Sport? Or was it a case where Bickle was a person bound to explode any minute and it turns out this was the right minute? Also was the incident with Palatine a case where it almost happened instead of ‘faking it’ like I thought it was? Still gets you questioning once you leave the theatre.

One thing a lot of young people would not understand is how Travis Bickle would be disgusted by what he sees out in New York City. Most of us under the age of 50 have grown up accepting the trashy side of our cities as a fact of life and we’ve even seen it turned into a culture via hip-hop music and shown on videos on MTV. However this was the mid-70’s and this trashiness wasn’t as accepted. In fact, it was disheartening. I’m sure Travis represented the disgust seen by many people of how a great city can turn into a trashbin and how buildings that used to be lovely and elegant could turn into dirty places of sleaze. I’m sure that was a common feeling of many from the city. The thing is Bickle is a character who had just moved to the city. Often when I hear Bickle’s disgust of what happened to the city, I think I’m actually hearing Scorsese’s disgust. Scorsese was born and raised in the NYC area and I’m sure what Travis Bickle was seeing was stuff that was breaking Martin’s heart about the city he had always known and loved, until then.

The film is Martin’s. He does a good job of creating a melodrama that’s bound to reach a big climax any moment and you know it will come with a bang. He does an excellent job in capturing the dirt of New York and try to make a redeeming figure of a misfit like Travis Bickle. Days ago, I heard some young people talk about film. They talked how there are no longer any good directors that do film making for the love of it. All for top of the box office. And they talked about directors like Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese who did it for the love it. I do agree with them. However I also believe that the 70’s was the heyday for visionary directors. Hollywood always was a case of top-of-the-box-office. Back in the 70’s, the counterculture crowd welcomed films that defied the rules of the Hays code and took new directions. That’s why Kubrick and Scorsese are considered legends. It’s not to say their spirit has been abandoned. I remember with the increase of film festivals in the 90’s, that spurned about directors of Quentin Tarantino and Lars von Trier who wanted to do their part in film making. Nowadays it doesn’t seem as present as most of the movie going public are more demanding in what they want. They don’t want to feel guilty about ignoring a unique talent or even liking a flavor-of-the month. We’ll see in time if more visionary directors come about.

The film’s excellence is also the result of scriptwriter Paul Schrader. He himself delivers a story that keeps us intrigued as well as allowing us to make our own assumptions of what the story is even after we leave the theatre. Also adding to the excellence of the film is Robert de Niro. He’s the one who has the best sense of who Travis Bickle is both inside and out and keeps us guessing. Also adding to the excellence is Jodie Foster. She plays a prostitute whom you know doesn’t belong on the streets and neither does Travis. Her role was an excellent performance for someone so young. Cybill Shepherd was also good as Betsy but her role was rather lightweight. Nevertheless she did give more to it. Finally a very fitting score from Bernard Herrmann. He already had an excellent resume in film compositions including Citizen Kane, The Day The Earth Stood Still and North By NorthwestTaxi Driver would be his last one before he died months later in 1975. The score is not the John Williams type of score you’d expect in a drama but it does capture the unhappy feeling of the film.

I’m sure Taxi Driver stands the test of time as one of the best thrillers ever. However I feel younger people may not get it. I do believe it’s a movie that still has a loyal following all these years and still maintains its original charm.

Movie Review: Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996)

27818_BeavisButtheadDoAmerica_Images_613x463

Death Valley is one of the unexpected stops for Beavis and Butt-Head as the two Do America.

Remember Beavis and Butt-Head? Yes, the two stupid teens who somehow could make us laugh. As most of you remember, they had a feature-length film from 1996 entitled Beavis and Butt-Head do America. I had the luck to see it on the big screen in theatres.

The story is about Beavis and Butt-Head first losing their television. With nothing else to do, they go around town searching for it. However they find themselves with a drunken criminal, Muddy Grimes, who had just been done wrong by his girlfriend Dallas and wants revenge. He thinks B&B are the two hired to do the job and sends them to Las Vegas to off her.

While in Vegas, the two first make fools of themselves on the dance floor only to be led to their hotel suite: right next door to Dallas. However Dallas is one step ahead of Muddy and is able to get the two to transport a small electronic capsule which unknowing to them actually contains anthrax.

The FBI learn of B&B having the anthrax capsule and are on pursuit of them. Nevertheless they’re led astray as B&B constantly go off-path to various other areas of the U.S. such as the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone Park and Death Valley. The latter they encounter their long-lost fathers: former Motley Crue roadies.

Things become more bizarre as they meet up with a vengeful Muddy who wants to kill the two only to learn he mistook B&B for his real accomplices. Meanwhile the FBI are after B&B and the capsule and are ready to get them as they near Washington D.C. The ending sets up for what everyone would expect to be the takedown of the two only to have things change by their unwitting and temperamental neighbor. In the end, Beavis and Butt-Head save the day and are rewarded by President Bill Clinton. They return home to find their TV and return to being their stupid selves.

I remember when the project first came out, it was originally thought to be a challenge to have a consistent entertaining feature-length film of Beavis and Butt-Head. Those who remember the TV show from MTV will remember that the show was about the brainless duo going into situations that were both mind-numbing but very entertaining in a stupid kind of way. That and their critiquing of music videos where they came across as your typical teen male bozo horndogs. The series created by Mike Judge and aired on MTV turned out to be just what the young wanted as it charmed crowds from 1993 to its end in 1997.

However the series also freaked parents out and would cause a lot of debate over television ratings and parental friendliness of shows, especially after it made headlines for a lot of young people recreating a lot of destructive incidents of the show: two of which proved to be fatal. Despite the copycat incidents, Mike Judge refused to believe that his show was responsible and would ask where the parents were. The controversy surrounding the show however would be reason why there’s that scene at the end of Bill Clinton rewarding B&B for their ‘service to the country’ and saying: “You exemplify a fine new crop of young Americans who will grow into the leaders of this great country.” Talk about the right shock stuff at the right time. Mind you that’s what 90’s entertainment was all about: entertainment that rattled cages, wreaked havoc, got people’s blood boiling…but came out winners because of it.

Once B&B became a phenomenon in 1993, it paved the way for the chance for a feature-length film. Mind you it would not be easy. It had to be a consistent script that would fit the big-screen right. That would mean an actual story instead of the typical ‘incidents’ as in the series. Plus the flavor of the two characters could not be lost. The two disgustingly charming underachievers had to start that way at the film and stay that way at the end despite whatever happens throughout.

You could imagine Mike Judge and his writing team would have to make a lot of choices and some were noticeable: include Anderson, have a big of Van Driessen, have a surprise for McVicker and everyone, leave out Buzz-Cut, Daria and Stewart, include their long-lost dads, keep out music video critiquing. Yes, it was a challenge. Plus there was having actors for the right fit for the roles like Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, big names at the time, rising star Greg Kinnear, loyal fan David Letterman who gave the two an appearance on his show, and character-actors Robert Stack and Cloris Leachman. In the end, it turned out to be a winning result and it not only charmed fans but received appreciation from critics as well. Watching it in the theatres again this summer got me laughing once again.

However this leads to the big question. Does Beavis and Butt-Head Do America stand the test of time all these years later? I don’t think it does. Firstly today’s young people may not get why B&B was just just what we needed back in the 90’s. Those of us from the 80’s and 90’s remember headbangers at school and teenagers who were idiotic, clueless and even violence-obsessed. Beavis and Butt-Head were the epitome of those teenage male stupids who impulsively loved violence and used their penis instead of their head. Teenagers change over the decades and over the various waves of pop culture and I don’t think today’s teens would get B&B. In fact the show was brought back to MTV a few years ago but it didn’t even last a full season.

Secondly, I feel the biggest reason why B&B don’t stand the test of time too much is because of the shock value and envelope-pushing they did in their time. Look at entertainment nowadays. We have a lot more now than what was around 20 years ago. We have the internet which allows for free speech that’s as unlimited as it gets. We have YouTube where one can post all sorts of videos of all sorts of things. We also have channels strictly devoted to cartoons that pave the way for more adult-oriented cartoon shows than before.

Beavis and Butt-Head came during a time when there were no cartoon channels. Most adult-oriented cartoons would have to soften themselves up if they wanted to be shown on the networks. MTV was the network that dared to show a cartoon as irreverent as Beavis and Butt-Head. B&B hit the airwaves just three years after The Simpsons were rattling cages with Homer’s stupidity and Bart’s sass-mouth and just a year after Ren and Stimpy took cartoon weirdness to new levels. B&B and MTV were the right fit, especially with their music video critiques. They ruled cartoon irreverence during their entirety. However their irreverence would actually pale in comparison to the irreverence of today. In fact it wouldn’t even take a year after the films release for South Park and it’s first season consisting of Stan’s Gay Dog, Cartman dressing up as Hitler and Mr. Hankey The Christmas Poo to outdo all the irreverence and envelope-pushing Beavis and Butt-Head did in their entirety. That’s the fates of entertainment and why Beavis and Butt-Head would now be seen as something to yawn at. Heck, even the whole channel of MTV is struggling right now but that’s another subject.

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America may now lack the the shock value, the envelope-pushing and the irreverent punch it had in its time. Nevertheless it can still entertain loyal fans of the show that still love it after all these years.