First blog post

This is the post excerpt.

Hello. Thank you for reading my blog. I am a 55 year old man who has a passion for movies. As a child I would watch the late show on TV with my mother and as a college student in Toronto I belonged to a cinema club that screened two different movies every night at 6 different theatres in the city. I would see the early film at one theatre and then jump on the subway to see the film of my preference at a different theatre in the city. Movies helped me on my happy and sad days. Movies helped me live.
Almost five years ago on my 50th birthday I received as a gift the book “1001 Movies you Must see Before you Die”. This is a chronological book edited by Steven Jay Schneider. It lists along with a short intelligent critique 1001 Movies from 1902 to 2015 (in the last edition). The book is not actually a best of list but a list of movies that were influential in the big picture history of the art of making movies. The films depicted were trend setters In Technology or style and sometimes both. They are films that reflect the art and times around them. The social space, historic time as well as the psychi of society that existed at the time of their making. Well needless to say, as I consider myself being a ravid film fan I was curious in finding out how many of these 1001 films I have actually seen. I was shocked to find out that while I have seen many of them there was still quite a few that I had never even heard of. Almost all the silent films as an example. I decided right then and there to start from the beginning (the 1905 French silent trend setter which was the first filmed story “A trip to the moon”). Since I was not sure how long I had left to live and since 1001 is no small number I decided to only see those movies I had never seen before or not having remembered seeing. After each view, I would read the history of the film on wikopedia and read a critical review I would find on the WEB. It is now five years since I started and I have reached the year 1951. The experience has been illuminating and has enriched my life. I feel as if I am taking a university degree on the history of film. I have noticed influences to my favorite films and how certain ganre were developed. I have now decided to start this blog to give me an avenue of expressing my experience watching these films. I will make group posts of retain early sections until such time as I will be caught up to where I am in the viewing process. Then I will post each film as I see them. Some will be short blurbs and some will be major reviews. I hope they will be found interesting to a few. Again thank you for reading. To be continued…

Fellini Satyricon (1969)

Satyricon is a Roman work of fiction written by Gaius Petronius during the era of the Emperor Nero.  Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty line of emperors and is infamous for the unproved legend that he gleefully fiddled and sang while Rome burned.     The work gave a glimpse of the sexual culture and deviant behavior of Rome during this period.   I believe that Fellini, having been brought up a devout Catholic, saw in this work proof as to how uninhibited sexual freedom brought destruction to the Roman Empire.  The movie does not show this destruction, but does display a sort of bitter meaningless to the lives of the people who lived during this period.  The movie is titled Fellini Satyricon due to another version of this book having been produced in Italy at the same time.

Petronius’ work has only been partially discovered, and the surviving sections jump haphazardly from section to section, due to the enormous amount of missing passages not having been found.  The movie is divided into nine episodes, which follow the escapes of a young handsome Roman named Encolpius (Martin Potter) and his friend Ascyltus (Hiram Keller) as they both try to win the heart of the beautiful teenage boy Giton (Max Born).  From this simple premise Fellini bombards the viewer with visual splendor of fantastical images that include a labyrinth looking residential brothel, grotesque absurdly rich banquet, roman pirate ship of human bondage, as well as a strange erotic twist on the Minotaur legend, to name a few.   For much of the narrative there is no clear connecting plot to many of the segments, which is faithful to the incomplete original work found.   In addition, some of the sections were new additions created by Fellini, such as the battle between Encolpius and the Minotaur.   The clear connecting thread that runs throughout the movie is the immorality and sexual freedom of the world being portrayed.   The movie boasts what was probably the most open interpretation of homosexuality put to film at the time and succeeds in doing this through Fellini’s fantasy-like visualization of Nero’s Rome.   Almost all the characters in the movie are shown as being bi-sexual.

While Fellini Satyricon is a sort of historical drama that takes place in the Roman era, I found the movie quite attuned to its present time, that being the hippie psychedelic days of the late 60’s.  Free love, open sex, and brilliant colors are displayed throughout the movie.   In one segment Encolpius is shown to be unable to sexually perform in front of a gawking stadium crowd.  His supposed impotency with women is later cured through the use of a potion.  This is very similar to Joe Buck’s bout of impotency in Schlesinger’s, “Midnight Cowboy”, which came out that same year.    Both films deride the over-indulgent world of consumerism while parading psychedelic world of freedom, sex and a love for peace.   While “Midnight Cowboy” is set in grimy Manhattan, “Fellini Satyricon”, is set in Nero’s decaying Rome.   

To me it is clear that Fellini saw an opportunity with this movie to indulge himself with his unlimited surrealistic vision.   The Roman world shown here is not based on historical descriptions but rather on Fellini’s great imagination.   The result is a treat for the eyes.   In his previous films, Fellini would use dream sequences as vehicles for his surrealistic images.  In, “Fellini Satyricon”, the entire story is set in a surrealistic universe.     The effect is dizzying for the viewer.    The vision of the brothel building is breathtaking as the camera follows our hero walking throughout this fantastical world.    There are numerous cave-like rooms containing many wide and exaggerated versions of humanity.    These images are so fantastical that they gave me the impression that I was watching a supernatural world of pornography.   I was riveted by the images and could not keep my eyes of the screen for the entire running time of the movie.   There are also elements which are so grotesque that they caused me to avert my eyes for a few seconds.   An example would be the rich man’s baguette with its unappetizing assortment of wild game most of which looked almost uncooked.  

This is the type of movie where you never know what to expect.   On the slave ship for example our hero finds himself in a fight to the death with the ship master, only to have the same master revert from wanting to kill him, to wanting to have sex with him.   From there the same master becomes a transgender from the Roman period and marries the hero in a bizarre marriage ceremony on the ship.   This is only one example as to the surrealistic weirdness of this movie.  

All of the main actors in the movie were not Italian speakers and had all of their dialogue dubbed.   This was done purposefully by Fellini as he ordered the dubbing to not be in sync with the actors.     The result just adds to the surrealistic feeling of unreality and fantasy that permeates throughout the movie. 

“Fellini Satyricon”, is not a movie for everyone and every taste.  Many people will be put off by its immorality and lack of linear storyline.    However, anyone who can appreciate and enjoy watching something strange, different and full of imagination will find it an extremely satisfying viewing experience. 

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

John Schlesinger’s, “Midnight Cowboy”, is the only X-rated movie to have been awarded the Oscar for best picture.  It has since had it’s rating revised to R, as the movie is not very shocking for today’s modern viewer.    It is still portraying a powerful story of people who live in the fringes of Western society, and has influenced many gritty films such as Scorsese’s, “Taxi Driver”, Lumet’s, “Prince of the City”, and even Van Sant’s, “Drugstore Cowboy”.    

New York City, and in particular Manhattan, in the later part of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s was a linchpin for drugs, crime and sleaze. It was a cold heartless city with a widely corrupt police force. The city streets pictured many hopeless souls who were either born to despair or arrived at despair after the city left them desolate. “Midnight Cowboy”, tells the story of two such people.

In his first starring role of a major motion picture, John Voight gives what in my opinion is his greatest performance as Joe Buck, the young handsome dishwasher from down south, who saves enough money to travel to New York City, where he hopes to become a Gigolo (he refers this to hustler). He dresses like a Liberace version of a cowboy, with high heel cowboy boots, a braided colorful vest and cowboy hat. “I like to dress this way. It makes me feel good”, he claims to his newfound friend Ricco Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman in the role that showed the world that he was not an ordinary actor). When the two initially meet, Ricco sees Joe as easy prey for some easy money, but in their subsequent and coincidental second meeting realizes that he has a deep need for human companionship. He is alone in the world without another soul that he could call a friend. Joe realizes, always too late, on the extent of his own naivete, and it is Rizzo’s initial betrayal of his trust that starts Joe’s slow realization that New York City is a cold and heartless world that breeds misery. It is at this point he comes to realizes that he is alone in this terrible world and needs human companionship to survive. In the end, the two bottom feeders of our society form a bond that becomes very touching without being overly sentimental.

It is very pertinent that Joe refers to himself as a hustler instead of a Gigolo, because one of the realizations he discovers is that the sex for money industry, as it pertains to men, is much more accessible in the gay community.    While the movie is a victim of its time, I found it extremely homophobic.   It portrays gay people as predators, dishonest and self-pitying weaklings.  Derogatory statements concerning homosexuals are used freely.   This does however need to be taken into context of the 1969 America when this movie was made, which was homophobic to the extreme.  However, the portrayal of utter disgust in performing gay sex as opposed to somewhat unpleasant but still less harsh depictions of heterosexual, prostituted sex, add to the anti-gay sentiment that the movie invokes.     

This is one of the first movie’s that really strove for a realistic depiction of the cruelty and the lacking of empathy that is New York City.    During the late 60’s, all through the 70s and 80’s, and until Mayor Giuliani cleaned it up, Manhattan was known as being a drug and sex infested sewer.    Sex shops overran 42nd street at the time, and crime was rampant.   Schlesinger as an Englishman had a touristic as well as journalistic eye to the city, and his viewpoint was shocking in 1969.   Since the refurbishing of Manhattan in the 90’s has created an adult Disneyland of the City, people forgot how corrupt the city used to be.   Watching Midnight Cowboy will open their eyes.   Scorsese a few years later would expand on this with his masterpiece, “Taxi Driver”.    One of the early scenes shows Joe noticing a person who has passed out on the sidewalk.  He initially wants to help but then notices that everyone just walks past the fallen man causing Joe to stop his initial need to help.  When he walks away after his first hesitation, I realized that the city was rotting away at his insides from the moment he arrived.  

Voight is a revelation as Joe.   He is a large strong man who is timid and weak from the inside.   The movie inserts throughout its entire running time various flashbacks and inner dreamlike desires.   The flashbacks made it clear to me that this was a man deserted by his parents and molested by his loving grandmother.  In addition, there is a gang rape event from his past where his involvement is not made clear.   What is clear is that it was a traumatic event in his past.   It is no wonder that he has such a low esteem of himself and believes that the only thing he has of value is his body.   He is portrayed as a man born with inner goodness making his corruption by the cruelty of life and the harshness of the city that much more powerful.  Voight invokes this sweet, scared child in a man’s body to perfection.  

As Rizzo, who everyone refers to as Ratzo, Hoffman brings to life the lowest of the low within the non-violent society of those people that fate has dealt a bad hand to.   Rizzo is a sick, handicapped homeless and friendless piece of humanity who wants to go on living and is afraid to die.  He limps, is unshaven and washes his hair maybe once a month.  The word sleazeball comes to mind when thinking about his character type.   The type of person that when we see them on the street, we try not to look at them, preferring to deride his inner nature.    In the movie Rizzo is portrayed as a man with no friends, ridiculed by all he meets.   Yet he is human, and the great Dustin Hoffman brings out his humanity in one of the greatest performances in cinema history.   Rizzo needs another human being to survive and the fact that he failed to find one before he meets Joe attests to his terrible condition.  Mentally as well as physically.   Hoffman alternates between fake bravado, vulnerable tenderness, and surprising pride with seemingly effortless ease.   This is one of the great naturalistic performances ever.    His invitation of Joe to stay with him at the condemned apartment he found is heart breaking without being sentimental. 

Another element that Schlesinger incorporates in his movie is psychedelic and drug induces world of the privileged hipsters of New York which was personified in 1968 by the artist Andy Warhol.   Warhol does not appear in this movie, but the hippie psychedelic party scene of the movie has Warhol written all over it.  Joe and Ricco get invited to the party due to the morbid curiosity of a photographer who is attending.   I was reminded of Antonioni’s, “Blowup”, from 1966, which featured a famous Mod photographer slumming as a bum to create interesting realism in his photographs.   In Schlesinger’s film the photographer brings the bums to them, via this party.    

The success of, “Midnight Cowboy”, was instrumental in paving the way for other serious American films about the dark hidden side of the American Dream.    While its period based homophobic themes are problematic, it’s powerful performances and deep characterizations make for a riveting viewing experience.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Director George Roy Hill, and screenwriter William Goldman, in 1969, used the Western Genre to create the blueprint of making a Hollywood, “Buddy picture”.   If one wanted to know how to make a buddy movie, then this was the movie that showed you how to do it well.    The buddy movie is that film type that incorporated action and comedy together with a charming and sometimes antagonistic relationship between its two main protagonists.   “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, was the movie that paved the way for many similar type and highly entertaining films to follow.  The fact that it is a western only adds to its charm.  

Casting Paul Newman as Butch and Robert Redford as The Kid was a masterstroke for Hill.  Their chemistry together is impeccable, making the cute and amusing script that much more endearing.   Butch and Sundance are two railroad bandits based on real people, and while the basic pretense of the plot follows their real lives, most of what is displayed is pure fiction.   When the movie opens with the written statement that, “Most of what follows is true”, I kept thinking of a similarly untrue statement made by the Coen brothers at the start of their masterpiece, “Fargo”.  

The two anti-heroes are leaders of a train robbing gang called, “The Hole-in-the wall Gang”, so called because they usually use dynamite in order to get to the loot in the trains they are robbing.  There is a great scene in the movie that concerns this that is simply laugh out loud hilarious.    The railroad tycoon, being sick and tired of the robberies, eventually hires a train and then horse driven posse made up of the best trackers and lawmen money can buy.  The movie includes a long extended section depicting the posse relentlessly following our heroes.   This section includes an amusing running gag where both Butch and Sundance take turns posing the question, “who are these guys?”.    Eventually both men immigrate to Bolivia where they become bank robbers.    I kid you not, and this is actually based on the true lives of the real Butch and Sundance.  A third main character in the film is Etta Pace (the beautiful Katherine Ross) and the relationship between the three is shown as French new wave-ish manage-est- trois, as Sundance takes care of her physical needs, while Butch takes care of her emotional ones. 

What I found refreshing about the movie is that for most of its running time it is so lighthearted and carefree in its feel.   The movie depicts the lives of robbers and sometimes killers, but treats them like two really nice and charming characters for whom I enjoyed rooting for.   The bantering between the two is consistent and on many instances extremely funny.  The movie is based on a smart, entertaining script, while the charm and likeability of Newman and Redford works to enhance the scripts enjoyable elements.

 I felt that Hill was greatly influenced by Truffaut’s, “Jules and Jim”, from the film’s title to its modern view of two friends loving the same woman.   The carefree and light touch within danger and violence I believe also takes its influence from Truffaut.   The beginning of the movie, which is set at the turn of the century, is filmed like an old silent film from the same period, which is a trick that Truffaut also used in his film.    In addition, the plot emphasizes character over plot, choosing to concentrate on how the characters react to their chosen criminal lives, rather than a linear plot of an adventure.  That is also a very European style of filmmaking.   A style that when combined with the great charisma of its two leads works to create something new and refreshing for a western.

The entire film is not shown through this light and fanciful style however, as Hill will emphasize the violence that is inherent to the plot with occasional jolts of realism that served to keep the story very relevant. There is one slow motion killing scene that while short is as violent as well as similar to the much more abundant slow motion scenes found in Peckinpah’s , “The Wild Bunch”, which was released three months earlier. In addition, the extreme violence of the movie’s ending also reminded me of Peckinpah’s film. I am not sure if Hill, had seen Peckinpah’s movie before he completed editing his, but there is no denying some of the similarities. One of the charms here however is how Butch and Sundance retain their sense of humor, even when facing certain death. One great scene occurs just before both men jump into a small ravine from a high cliff. Newman’s response to Redford’s fear of drowning, just before he jumps is priceless.

Unfortunately, I disliked the movie’s soundtrack quite a bit.  It is the only element of the film that is dated.   Burt Bacharach wrote the score which included his big hit, “Raindrops keep falling on my head”.   This is a saccharine filled and slight love song that simply does not belong in the movie.  In fact, most of the score was a turn off for me.   Luckily most of the movie did not include any soundtrack music.  Only a few scenes incorporated Bacharach’s gut wrenchingly nauseating songs.   The fact that the Academy awarded two Oscars to Bacharach for his work here means nothing to me as I hated it.  This was not enough a distraction to dissuade me from enjoying the movie however. 

As a quirky character driven action comedy that features immensely likeable performances from the entire cast, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, is a hell of an entertaining movie.

A Touch of Zen (Xia nu) (1971)

The Wuxia martial arts film genre pre-dates the popular Kung Fu genre for which Bruce Lee was its greatest star.    Director King Hu took this popcorn movie field into more artistic and philosophical directions with his epic film, “A Touch of Zen”.  Hu expanded on the beautiful, choreographed fighting of his earlier films with philosophical tones of Buddhist and Zen philosophy. 

The movie is set in a remote Chinese village during the 14th century. It has a very complicated plot that concerns a former eunuch (castrated slave who acquires real power), of an eastern group of rulers in this mountainous region, who are searching for the daughter of a rich landowner who tried to warn the emperor of the eunuch’s corruption. The landowner is executed and his daughter Yang (Hsu Feng) with the help of her two trusted protectors General Shi (Bai Ying) and General Lu (Xue Han), hide out in the village. All three are superior warriors, continuing Hu’s trademark of highlighting strong fighting women as heroes in his movies. The movie is mostly told through the eyes of the kind and gentle scholar/painter Gu (Shih Chun) who helps conceal the fugitives and falls in love with Yang. The Eastern group, in addition to a large fighting force, includes two commanders who are exceptional warriors themselves. Ouyang Nian (Tien Peng) who serves as the group’s scout/spy and Hsu (Han Ying-Jie) who is the main military commander of the group. Throughout all the proceedings a group of Buddhist Monks led by Abbot Hui-yuan (Roy Chiao) appear and watch the drama play out from above. These monks will later have an important element in the movie’s fascinating ending.

I could not help but notice some very clear similarities with the way Hu filmed his epic and the magnificent Spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone.   The close-up of the Ouyang Nian’s squinting eyes peering up from his traditional Taoist hat is eerily like the Lee Van Cleef close-up squints from, “The Good the Bad and the Ugly”.  The choreographed fighting scenes have slow build ups set to music that explode in lightening quick violence.   Again, this is like the way Leon filmed his gunfights.   When taking into consideration that Leon initially developed his style by copying the Japanese Kurosawa, this Chinese interpretation of style seemed at the same time traditional as well as new and somehow closes an eastern western circle of artistic influence.    

One of the unique elements of the Wuxia films is their incorporation of the supernatural together with the adventure. The top warriors can almost fly giving some of the fighting scenes a dreamlike quality. This is especially true with the scene in the bamboo forest that pits four of the main protagonists in a fight to the death. Hu shoots this scene like he was filming an opera. Movements are interspersed beautifully to the music while blood is shed using deadly weapons. Unlike Kung Fu, Wuxia battles make use of swords, knives and shooting daggers as the main weapons of choice. This adds a shiny splendor to the proceedings, as various elements of steel move swiftly through the screen. I was captivated throughout each fight, of which are many in this nearly three-hour movie.

Another notable element of the film is that most of the story is told through the point of view of Gu, who is a scholar and painter, and not a fighter.   It is his intellect that drives the actions of the other protagonists, but he rarely gets involved in a fight.    Hu uses first person perspective through Gu which serves to impress the view of an observer onto larger-than-life events.  His portrayal as a scholar and artist is important for the larger more philosophical themes of the movie that come to light during the film’s last section.  The ending of the movie emphasizes a desire to understand the real meaning of life, and the need for repentance of sins, while at the same time reflecting on an almost trippy dreamlike state through the strength of the Buddhist Monks.  Those Monks finally interfere in the events only at the concluding section of the movie. 

“A Touch of Zen”, is a rousing colorful adventure full of colorful characters that dares to invoke spiritual themes that touch on what it is like to be human.   For an action film filled with martial arts, that is quite an achievement.

High School (1968)

Documentary filmmakers are credited by their audience at being purveyors of the truth, when, anyone can tinker with film to suit their own agendas.    A great documentary film is a film that can successfully portray a wide range of objective views to its subject matter.   This is especially true for those direct cinema documentary films which claim to be showing us real life without narration or clear objectives.   Frederick Wiseman’s, “High School” is a great example of just this type of documentary.

Wiseman’s camera follows an expansive view of the inside of one of our revered institutions.  He chose Northeast High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as his subject school.   This is an upper middle-class school, which means it is supposed to reflect on the more advantageous areas of the American School system.     We are shown interactions in the hallway, where teachers take turns dictatorial-like policing the students by questioning anyone wondering in the hallway, not in class.   Classes depicted range from English, math, to gym and even fashion (which is an all-female class).  In addition, there are disciplinary interactions between the principle and students as well as parent teacher meetings, reflecting not only problems but at one point even future guidance for the student’s Post High School life.

When watching this movie, I needed to be reminded that the cameras used to film the movie were most probably clearly within sight of everyone being filmed.  Since the movie was filmed within a two-week time span, it is entirely possible that eventually the students and faculty were able to ignore the presence of the cameras, to behave naturally.    It is also possible that the people being filmed made extra efforts to behave in the most favorable manner possible.  All the participants in the film signed off on the final film and the school faculty were shocked at the initial unfavorable responses to their behaviors after the movie was released. 

Some of the set ups shown stood out strongly for me.   In one instance one of the students, who is the type of student who gets consistently bullied by the other students, was admonished by the principle for not accepting an unfair punishment handed out to him by his teacher, due to his retaliating against the bullies.   The clear and strong message of favoritism to conformism is made clear here, as it is for most of the movie.   I believe very little has changed, as this favoritism still exists today in our school systems.    In another powerful scene, the school counselor is shown in a second parent teacher interview where the student is a girl who has a dream of being a beautician.  In this segment, the teacher/counselor tries to stamp out her dreams and instill in her their version of what she should do with her life. 

The depiction of the physical education gym class concentrates on the girl’s class where the teenage girls, wearing short tight gym shorts, are all jumping to the dictatorial direction of a “Simon says” song.   You know, where everyone is required to do exactly what Simon says.    Wiseman concentrates his camera on the girls rear ends which gives an almost voyeuristic impression on how the physicality of the girls are treated at the school.   This would then be enhanced in subsequent scenes within a fashion class, that has an extremely unfashionable middle aged overweight teacher trying to teach the girls about fashion and grace.    When I was in high school my gym teacher was very fat, making his authority on physical fitness suspect.  That is the way I felt when watching the fashion class in this movie.    Hypocritical lessons that make it impossible to take seriously.

Not all the teachers and lessons are shown negatively however, as there was an English class taught by a young teacher who would read the lyrics of a Paul Simon song before playing the song to the class.   This was a very innovative and creative way in teaching the appreciation of poetry.    This also served to emphasize the corruption of how the other more conformist classes are taught. 

The impression Wiseman brings to his movie is that of a fly on the wall who witnesses the true effects of the American education system at the time.   What I find amazing is at how little has changed since 1968, making this a riveting and important documentary.    

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Timing and a good idea are more important than money when it comes to making a successful and sometimes important movie.  George A Romero had both when he was able to scrape the bare minimum of money to create what would be become one of the most influential horror movies of all time.  The resultant film, “Night of the Living Dead”, also happened to be very scary.  I remember the first time I watched it; I had a hard time sleeping afterwards. 

This is the movie that created the modern movie Zombie.   I am not talking about black magic dummies from Haiti or hypnotized sleepwalkers.    The modern Zombie is a decayed reanimated corpse who walks in a slow lumbering gate, travels in a pack, and has a taste for living flesh and brains.    These are monsters who do not want to and can’t hide and make up for their lack of cunning by sheer numbers and an incessant drive to kill.   In 1968 this was a new kind of movie monster and all Romero had to do was use innovative makeup on real people to make his zombies the most realistic monsters ever seen on the silver screen.  

In addition, his small budget of $114,000 demanded that he shoot the movie in 35 mm black and white film, using hand-held and gorilla filming methods that gave the movie the feel of a documentary being filmed in a war zone.  The feel of realism this created just added to the sheer terror of the story.

The movie was initially based on Richard Matheson’s hallmark science fiction novel, “I am Legend”, where post holocaust earth has been overrun by flesh eating vampires.  Romero’s vampires are reanimated corpses called ghouls in the movie.    There was a previous cinematic interpretation of Matheson’s novel in the 1963 (The last man on Earth), but by turning the vampires into Zombies and placing his story at the start of the plague, when there were still a human majority, Romero succeeded in creating a horrific new terror.  

The movie places seven innocent people trapped in a farmhouse while all around them the undead are gathering, trying to get in and feast on their living flesh.   Within the farmhouse there is a main floor and an upper bedroom floor, as well as a cellar.  Five people have locked themselves in the cellar thinking that they can lock themselves more securely there.   Two more have taken control of the rest of the house and have boarded up, with wood and nails, all the windows and doors.    In the cellar there are two couples and a small child who has been bitten by one of the zombies and is very sick.   Her father has taken control of the cellar dwellers and defends his tactic of staying locked up in the small confinement as his badge of pride.   In the main house the smart intelligent Ben takes control of defending the house.  Casting African American actor Duane Jones as Ben was a master stroke for Romero, as Jones brings hard tough intelligence to the role.    Ben could easily have been portrayed as a gung-ho action hero, instead of the intellectual thinker under fire that Jones brings to the role.   Being African American during the racial sensitive era of the 60’s helped define the anger and determination that is needed of the character.   It also places a whole new meaning to the movie’s shock ending.

Another interesting and influential element to the movie is the central plot of placing a group of seven people trapped within a small confinement, (the farmhouse), while outside a murderous hoard or gang is trying to kill them.    I would go so far as to say Howard Hawks, “Rio Bravo”, was the inspiration Romero used as in that film there was a group locked up in a jailhouse while a ruthless gang tries to break in.  Here the gang is replaced by Zombie monsters, which expands the danger and terror of the situation by a large amount.   In John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13”, a similar plot theme is used as in, “Rio Bravo”, but with an added element of making the gang assaulting the police station in that film, unemotional and driven, and who appear to be almost Zombie-like.   I am certain Carpenter took his idea from Romero’s movie.   Both Carpenter’s film and this movie would pave the way for countless similar themed movies and it is Romero’s nightmarish movie that should be considered the grandfather of the action horror.  

There is more than a great idea and horrific theme that lifts the movie to its iconic stature.  At about the midpoint of the film we are treated to quiet scenes of Zombies devouring their victims like lions in an African safari.   The knowledge that they are tearing the flesh of what was once a human being was a form of cinematic terror that was unknown in 1968.   This was the movie that paved the way to the graphic violence of today’s Horror Genre.   Today any horror film not rated NA-17, and graphic in its depictions are criticized and considered an affront to the genre.   “Night of the living Dead”, is the movie that started it all.  For many that may not be a good thing.

“Night of the Living Dead”, in addition to everything else succeeds in being a reflective commentary on the period it was made.   1968 was full of turmoil in the United States, with the violence and death of the Vietnam War, anti-war demonstrations, and civil rights strife.       American audiences were bombarded at the time through their Televisions, of scenes of war and Governmental violence against the hippie culture and African Americans demanding their civil rights.     It is hard to ignore comparisons of scenes from this movie concerning red-neck zombie posse, with the random shootings at civil rights and anti-war demonstrators.     The film’s ending also reflected the turmoil happening at the time.  

There are very few movies that have had the influence that Romero’s premier low-budget horror has had.  Even when taking out the influence and the social commentary, this is a nail-biting and extremely unsettling horror masterpiece. 

Targets (1968)

Roger Corman thrived in the 1960’s by making fast quick B-movies that were mostly firmly entrenched in the exploitation genres of horror or action.    When his contract with a then 79-year-old Boris Karloff had two days of shooting still on it, Corman who hated to waste paid for resources asked one of his writers, Peter Bogdanovich, if he would like to direct a movie.   Bogdanovich who had never directed before was told that he had to complete the scenes with Karloff in two days and complete the film within its minuscule $135,000 budget.   He was also told that he had to use some unused footage from Karloff’s 17th century 1963 horror flick, “The Terror”.    Everything else was up to Bogdanovich.  That is how, “Targets” was born, resulting in a movie that has nothing to do with gothic horror or anything else even remotely related to the 17th century. 

Bogdanovich wrote a quick script, with help from his friend Samuel Fuller, that interspliced two stories who’s only connection is thematically, and is only made clear during the film’s explosive ending.   The first story concerns Karloff playing an aging horror movie actor who wants to retire.   The film opens with Karloff watching a screening of his latest movie, which happens to be the outtakes from, “The Terror”, that Bogdanovich was required to use in the movie.  This story is an uninteresting take on an embittered actor who is sick and tired of playing in stories full of fake monsters when there are real monsters committing atrocities every day, in real life.  The second story concerns the actions of Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), who is a white blond All American boy, married to a pretty blond.  For some reason the young couple live with Bobby’s parents.   Thompson is patterned after Charles Whitman who murdered members of his family and used a sniper rifle to randomly kill people at the University of Texas in 1966.    Like Whitman, Thompson looks like a clean-cut blond, white male.  He is shown being polite to all he meets with special emphasis made on his supposed respect he has for his parents.   Thompson, for no apparent reason goes on a murderous rampage that ends at a drive-in movie theatre showing Karloff’s latest film (Once again, “The Terror”).  It is a screening that Karloff had agreed to attend for publicity purposes.   It is only here that the two storylines intersect and the way Bogdanovich connects them results in a thought provoking and extremely satisfying ending.

Boris Karloff always played the heavy in his career and is best known as Frankenstein’s monster, during the early 30’s.   From then on, he would mostly be cast as the heavy, and this movie was the last of his commitments to Roger Corman.   In the movie he basically plays himself and the fact that this was his last major motion picture attests to that fact.  When his character speaks about being tired of the emptiness of fake horror as entertainment vehicles, I felt I was listening to Karloff’s true feelings.   That makes the section of the film that deals with Karloff’s character more interesting than it is. As he is basically playing himself, the performance is natural and utterly believable.

The section concerning the murderous Thompson is fascinating in its structure and detail.  By taking the real-life Whitman as the basis of this character, Bogdanovich uses only what is known about Whitman in his portrayal of Thompson.   Whitman was clean cut, polite and gentle.   Thompson is shown this way throughout the film.  Even while committing atrocities.   Whitman placed some of his victims gently back into their beds.  Thompson does the same thing, and the effect is chilling.   Whitman wrote in his diary about having terrible thoughts all the time.  Bogdonavich uses clever silent closeups and 1st person perspectives of Thompson to hint at the inner thoughts going through Thompson’s mind.   At one point in the film Thompson tries to tell his wife about them, but because his wife and family are used to a shallow cold and correct lifestyle, none of them have the ability or desire to listen to him.   By placing an emphasis on how he is perceived and how he perceives his surroundings, it becomes clear that there is nothing that can save him from his inner psychotic thoughts. 

This was Bogdanovich’s first movie, and he would go on to have a long career that included a few excellent dramas.  Here he showed a talent for psychological horror which was never prevalent in any of his later films.   There is quite a lot of Hitchcock in this movie.  From the first point perspective of the killer to the chilling behind the scenes views of the aftermath of a murder.   Bogdanovich was able to mix elements of Hitch’s, “Psycho”, and Michael Powell’s, “Peeping Tom”, within a low budget B grade movie.   That is quite an achievement, and this is an excellent movie. 

Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen) (1968)

The great Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman was always interested in the theme of insanity.    His, “Persona”, from 1966 is a masterful work of art that probed the human mind.   In 1968 he wanted to show that a man through fragility and isolation can become psychotic.  The result is his only foray into the horror genre with, “The Hour of the Wolf”.

The story concerns a popular artist isolating himself on a secluded Island with his pregnant wife.   As the days pass, he either starts to go mad, or realizes that the island is populated by supernatural beings who reside in a nearby castle.     The artist is Johan Borg, and his wife is Alma.  Bergman regulars Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann play the couple, and both give terrific performances.   Borg suffers from Insomnia which adds to his cracked psyche.   Borg explains to Alma that the hour of the wolf, refers to the hour between night and dawn, and he believes it is the hour where most people die and when most people are born.   He socializes with the supernatural beings, who look like real people, only at night, giving the film a bit of a vampire and werewolf tone.   In the end Bergman allows the viewer to decide what is real and what is in the mind of an insane man.  

Watching the movie, I believed that the inhabitants Borg and Alma meet on the island are figments of a psychotic mind.   The fact that Alma also sees the supernatural being, brings this interpretation into question, as no evidence is given that Alma is also insane.    Perhaps she is also a figment of Borg’s imagination.    The ending at one point seems to hint at that.   None of this was clear to me, making this a difficult movie to enjoy.

What is undeniable is how influential this movie has become.   There are elements here that were used in Friedkin’s, “The Exorcist” (devil humans walking on walls and ceiling), and Kubrick’s, “The Shining” (The horrific danger of a fractured mind and the effects of deep isolation).    

Bergman was an actor’s director and the performances of Von Sydow and Ullmann are terrific.  Von Sydow has a chiseled face that is cold and expressive at the same time.  His deep fears felt on the island comes across vividly.    As a pregnant woman trapped in a man’s world, Ullmann is able to portray the perfect balance of subservience and cunning intelligence.   

When they attend a party at the castle their interactions with the ghoul-like guests seems nightmarish and unreal.    Borg would later return to the castle after his mind is completely lost.   I was struck with a feeling of empathy for Borg throughout the movie as Bergman through Von Sydow makes him feel like a victim, regardless of his actions.   There have been rumors that Bergman was feeling mentally ill while making this movie and that he tried to place his current feelings into Borg’s character.  That would explain the sometimes-sympathetic feel given to Borg.

Horror movies, when they are done right, must dig into our fears and ultimately scare us.   That is where I feel, “Hour of the Wolf”, fails.   By creating a vague ending and a sympathetic villain, the movie loses its ability to frighten.  By dwelling to much on one person’s precise anxiety, Bergman fails to reach the interest and angst of his viewers.   Ultimately this is a horror movie with a fatal flaw of not being scary.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

While it is extremely difficult for me to claim which film is the best comedy, drama, action, or horror, I have no qualms in stating what I think is the greatest science fiction movie ever made.   That would be Stanley Kubrick’s, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and it is not even close.  

2001 is in my opinion, one of those films that serves as a pinnacle work of art that succeeded in changing its genre forever.    It is a movie with very little dialogue and the dialogue there is, gets delivered in a slow cold fashion, as seemingly mundane small talk or as a robotic liaison of information.  Most of the movie works in a pure audio-visual fashion.

  Kubrick took great pains in depicting space travel as realistically as possible and his research concluded that every movement in space is predicated on the tiniest of details that requires slow careful progressions.   Then Kubrick made the brilliant decision of choreographing these movements to the timeless classical music of Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss II, Aram Khachaturian and Cyorgy Ligeti.  The details shown here are truly amazing.   When watching the movie today, I still find it hard to believe that it was made in 1968.  The scenes in space look and feel as if they were actual shot in space from a NASA space station.    The realism, made without the use of computers, while impressive today, was simply unheralded and mind blowing in 1968.  So much so that there exists a growing amount of conspirators who claim that the Apollo 11 moon landing was staged by Kubrick. 

Filmed as three distinct sections, the movie deals with the evolution of man and hints at theology as well as philosophy.   The first section is, “The Dawn of Man”, and is divided by two distinct chapters. The first chapter gives an explanation to Darwin’s missing link while at the same time not dismissing an all-powerful god, which is represented by a large black rectangular monolith rectangle.    Man’s ancestors are vegetarians who live in constant fear from predators and battle against each other for the rights of natural drinking pools.   The Monolith appears out of nowhere and propagates the ape-like creatures into two-legged, tool using, weapon brandishing, meat eaters.    The first chapter of this section ends with one of cinema’s most famous match cut transitions from primitive bone to space satellite. 

The 2nd chapter of, “The Dawn of Man” section, is set in the future year 2001 (remember this movie was made in 1968), and it is in this section where the classic waltz of Johann Strauss paces the landing of a passenger shuttle to the circular space station just outside of Earth’s orbit.   The arrival of the shuttle to the station is an elegant dance of stunning visual splendor.   Inside the shuttle is a scientist from earth who has come to investigate another similar monolith found purposefully buried in one of the moons craters.  Again, we are treated to a moon landing that is so real and like the actual Apollo landings of the 60’s that conspirators, even today, believe that Kubrick staged the actual Apollo 11 moon landing.   Remember, the Apollo 11 mission occurred only a short year after this film came out.   The monolith was made by an alien intelligence and emits a loud piercing communication signal towards the planet Jupiter.

Section II is titled, “Jupiter Mission”, and deals with the mission of the spaceship discovery to the planet Jupiter, to confront the supposed alien intelligence that made the monolith.  The ship has three scientists in suspended animation, two other fully conscience astronauts and an all-powerful supercomputer named HAL, who has full control of the entire ship.   This section deals with the philosophical question of what constitutes life.   HAL is not a robot, but an entire computer whose programming was made to mimic man’s brain (including emotions).   Does this make him a living being with actual feelings?   That is one of the fascinating themes of the movie.   Since the end game of the mission is to locate an alien life form with intelligence, there is a clear correlation to HAL and the end game of the movie.   This is the section most of the movie’s dialogue exists and contains most of the film’s standard action elements.  

The final section is titled, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”, and it is the section that contains an ambiguous ending that combines the futuristic space elements with a 60’s psychedelia of the hippy generation.   It claims to interpret the theme of the man’s future and our next hyper-development.    Many people have different interpretations on the ending, and Kubrick for his part never stated what his actual intent was when he made it.   What we do know is that Jupiter has another monolith that becomes some sort of portal into somewhere else.  Whether this somewhere else is on Jupiter or in another dimension is open for discussion.  

As you can see this is not your typical motion picture.  Dealing with such deep universal issues is not something usually found in a media meant to entertain.  Yet entertain it does.   By wanting to understand how actual machines of the future would and could work, Kubrick shows us the future.   I am not talking about the future of cinema (and this film also greatly influenced all science fiction space movies going forward), but rather the future of science, religion, and man.    At the same time, we are treated to gorgeous images choreographed to elegant music.   If there ever was a movie that hypnotizes me by its images, this is it.     From the moment the movie begins, I was transfixed, touched, and forced into deep thought.  

The reactions of the human characters, and especially the two astronauts in the 2nd section, are very straight forward, colorless, and cold.      What Kubrick succeeds in these depictions is to show a stark contrast between the people and HAL the computer, who while always speaking in the same monotone computer voice, hints at emotion, that when compared to the unemotional people becomes more enforced as the drama of this section plays out.  

Stanley Kubrick had a vision in 1964 and it took him, along with his science fiction writing collaborator, Arthur C. Clarke, four years to complete the formulation of this vision.    The result is not only, what I feel, is the greatest science fiction movie ever made, but one the great works of art from the 20th century. 

Shame (Skammen) (1968)

Have you ever wondered if your marriage with all of it’s ups and downs, highs and lows, anger, and love, would survive the interference of a deadly war?   Would death, destruction and extreme terror tear apart the glue that holds binding relationships together?  Ingmar Bergman’s, “Shame”, tries to answer this question and the conclusion is inconclusive.

The movie begins with an introduction to the young childless couple Eva (Liv Ullmann) and Jan (Max Von Sydow).  They live in a small farmhouse situated on a Scandinavian island.   They are former violinists who resorted to becoming farmers due to a civil war that is raging in their homeland, and resulted in the closing of the Philharmonic orchestra, which was their previous place of employment.   The war is headed to their island as the so called “liberators”, are planning an imminent invasion and the present ruling government is mobilizing the army for the island’s defense.   Eva and Jan are a normal couple caught by circumstances in a lifestyle not to their tastes.   They bicker, show impatience to one another, but they also show a lot of love.    We find out that Eva is trying unsuccessfully to become pregnant, as she wants Jan to see a doctor about this predicament.  Jan for his part, has a lot of deep feelings for Eva which become pronounced when he sees her speaking to another man.   At one time Jan had cheated on Eva, but he dismisses this infidelity as brief and meaningless.   They are a perfectly normal western couple with all the quirks and complexities that this entails.   When the invasion happens suddenly, their world is turned upside down, changes them, and severely tests their love.  The movie’s ending is grim and inconclusive but forced me into pondering how humanity reacts to extreme situations and how people change when their very existence is threatened.

The War being depicted is a civil war that occurs in a fictional Scandinavian country. A country which includes various islands. The war has a ruling side and a liberator side, and the invasion depicted is done through air bombings and paratrooper invasions. There is a distant and numbing feel to the depictions of the war that was prevalent in the soviet cinema of the time. A lot of the violence occurs outside the camera or distanced from the view. Sounds of bombs and executions on the other hand are pronounced. When the battles starts it comes quickly and changes constantly. This cold viewpoint results in a feeling of shock.

Eva and Jan do not have a working radio so when the invasion happens, they seem surprised, even though they were warned numerous times by the more aware residents of the Island.  Both sides of the conflict confront the couple as the liberators try to use them as symbols of local support and the ruling party accuse them of being traitors, before releasing them at a price.    This price is the tearing of the very fabric of their relationship.

Bergman was one of the greatest director of actors that ever lived as he consistently gets powerhouse performances from his cast.   Ullman and Von Sydow are nothing less then magnificent as the terrified couple.  At the start of the movie their interactions are subtle and realistic in how they run the gamut of interactions with each other.  Their anger, boredom and love come across as genuine and touching.    The war changes them both and the shocking transformation that both actors go through is utterly believable.   From meek to murderous, and strong to submissive, I felt how deep trauma changed each of them to their base selves.   Bergman also has a probing camera that along with the black and white cinematography of Sven Nykvist uses close ups and extending angles to probe into the souls of the couple.   Only a brave unfiltered performance could succeed in such scenes.  Ullman and Von Sydow do not disappoint.

There are other powerful performances found in the movie.  There is a café owner who is not a young man and has been called to military duty.  His fear of death is poignant and real.   The great Swedish actor Gunnar Bjornstrand portrays Col. Jacobi, who is the local military leader of the ruling party and who at the start of the movie was a friendly neighbor, and with the onset of the war becomes a figure of dangerous power.   His obsession with Eva is a critical element on how the war changes people.   He is the key that turns the lock on the transformations of both Eva and Jan, and Bjornstrand is brilliant in his portrayal.  He never seems to be a tyrant or a Saint.  Just a man given powers he does not want or need. 

While watching the movie I could not help to see similarities between this film and Bergman’s earlier masterpiece, “The Seventh Seal”.   The black and white landscape of an inhospitable land torn by war is prevalent in both movies.  In, “The Seventh Seal”, death is personified by a figure roaming war-torn land that is lacking in love.   In, “Shame”, love exists, as the arrival of war and death works to slowly eat away at its existence.  

By making a movie set in a fictional country going through some sort of civil war, Bergman succeeds in portraying a universal vison of War and its effect on man.   The plot and story could easily be set in any real war settings.  Vietnam from the period the movie was made or even a Syria from today’s conflicts.   It is a universal story of the effects of war on the human condition.   This is a brilliant movie that never ages and is one of Bergman’s best.