TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Robert Mulligan

Written by: Horton Foote

(based on the novel TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee)

Starring: Gregory Peck, John Megna, Frank Overton, Rosemary Murphy, Ruth White, Brock Peters, Estelle Evans, Paul Fix & Robert Duvall

What can I say about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD that hasn’t already been said? Nothing, but that won’t stop me from reviewing this classic. Tackling complex issues and packed with honest emotions, this film is a complete and utter masterpiece. An honest adaptation of Harper Lee’s beloved novel, MOCKINGBIRD is downright perfect in every way and should be on a list of essential movies to see before you die. It’s a fantastic, deeply moving, and all-around wonderful piece of cinema.

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Set in 1930s Alabama, the film follows the young lives of two siblings: tomboy Scout (Mary Badham) and her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford). The two children live with their widowed father, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), who works as a lawyer. Atticus does his admirable duty to the best of his ability and believes that everyone is equal…even when neither of these things are necessarily popular. His latest client is Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man who’s been accused of raping a white teenage girl. As Atticus’s case moves forward, Scout and Jem witness unwavering determination and good values through their father. The brother and sister also take up spying on their mysterious, reclusive neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall).

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One thing that’s instantly remarkable about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is how well made it is. The period setting is perfectly captured on a budget of 2 million at the time (15.7 million today) as the depression-era conditions are totally believable. The sets are so realistic that I wouldn’t be surprised if director Robert Mulligan went out and shot this entire film in a small country town that hadn’t yet been touched by the hands of time. Moving on to another technical aspect, the score perfectly captures the mood of this film. The main theme is among my favorite movie themes of all-time and instantly conveys what kind of story this is.

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Gregory Peck is perfect as Atticus Finch and won a well-deserved Academy Award for his performance. Author Harper Lee was so impressed by Peck’s talent that she actually declined the rights for any stage play of her novel to be produced, because he captured the character exactly as she had written him. A young Robert Duvall also appears for a brief, fleeting moment, but makes a big impression in his small amount of screen time. Though he’s the subject of the film’s main conflict, Tom Robinson only appears for the long, iconic courtroom sequence. However, Brock Peters is fantastic in the role nonetheless. As the antagonist, James Anderson is downright despicable as racist redneck Bob Ewell and made me intensely hate his character right from the get-go. Mary Badham and Phillip Alford also deliver two of the best child performances ever as our main protagonists.

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What should really be admired about this film (and the novel does it too) is that it tackles very mature subject matter and concepts through a coming-of-age story. Scout and Jem add an innocence that kicks off the film and puts things into an unexpected perspective. The film is full of genuine heartbreaking moments as they discover racism, poverty, and hatred in their small community. There’s a sense of innocence being lost, but important lessons being learned and good morals developing over the course of various plot points. In one scene, Atticus addresses the fact that there are a lot of ugly things in the world and he won’t be able to shield his children from them. This comes through in the film not giving into tempting clichés and opting for harsh realism instead. There were multiple points in this film where I was tearing up and was on the verge of crying.

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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD hit me right in my emotional soft spots and part of the reason the film works so well is because it feels honest. There’s not a single frame, line of dialogue, performance or detail that feels clichéd or disingenuous. I found myself at a loss for words when “The End” popped up in the closing shot, because I was choking back tears. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a heartbreaking film, but it’s an equally beautiful and rewarding experience. The story is about prejudice and racism, but also about preserving the goodness of humanity and doing what’s right in the face of adversity. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD encapsulates what it means to be a decent human being and shines as a timeless masterpiece.

Grade: A+

THE HANDMAID’S TALE (1990)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Volker Schlondorff

Written by: Harold Pinter

(based on the novel THE HANDMAID’S TALE by Margaret Atwood)

Starring: Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, Elizabeth McGovern, Aidan Quinn & Victoria Tennant

Based on Margaret Atwood’s controversial novel of the same name, THE HANDMAID’S TALE is a film that brings a unique and horrible dystopian future to the screen. The plot follows one woman’s life in this very bleak future. As cool and creative as its premise might be, the film suffers from noticeable faults. There isn’t necessarily a problem with the story per se, but the pacing and performances are where most of the problems lie in this flawed, though interesting, piece of mature science fiction.

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In the near future, the United States of America has become the Republic of Gilead and pollution has caused a massive outbreak of sterility. Kate is one of the few fertile women left in the country. On a snowy afternoon, she’s caught at the border and her husband is shot, while her daughter is simply lost in the wilderness. Placed into a cult-like program, Kate becomes a Handmaid, essentially just a womb for rich people to impregnate. In her “sophisticated” captivity, Kate discovers that the Commander (the head of her household) might be sterile himself, so she is faced with a dangerous dilemma.

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The future that HANDMAID’S TALE crafts is a shocking and somewhat believable one. The Constitution is no more and equality (a couple of throwaway lines address what’s happened to minorities, atheists, and the LGBT community) is a forgotten relic of the past. The Bible is now read as a government text, ritualized violence is seen as the norm, graphic executions are delivered for adultery, and there is no problem seen in owning sex slaves (as long as they call them Handmaids, then it’s A-Okay). I’ve seen some comments that refer to the film as appearing very ugly and plain, but I feel that was a deliberate intention on the part of the filmmakers. Four colors of outfits are mainly seen throughout (blue, red, white, and black) and this fits in very well with the cultish attitude of those in charge of this totalitarian government. Everything is about modesty and anyone not in keeping with the rest of society is shunned, shamed, or even worse. If the rest of the film was as compelling as the world HANDMAID’S TALE builds up around it, then this might be an overlooked gem.

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The biggest problem with this movie comes from the performances. You’d assume that the plot would be far more effective if Kate (later named Offred) was an emotional, quietly strong heroine. That’s not the case though as Natasha Richardson has a constant look of apathy on her face, even when she’s supposed to be very upset or happy. Some might equate this to the character being forced to become emotionless as a Handmaid, but I’d chalk it all up to Richardson simply not being able to emote enough to make this story as powerful as it could be.

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The same wooden quality also comes from two veteran performers as well. Faye Dunaway (CHINATOWN, BONNIE & CLYDE) isn’t nearly as cold as she probably should be in the role of Kate’s mistress. We’re supposed to get the sense that Dunaway’s Serena Joy (nice name for a villainess) is a calculating monster who doesn’t care that her quest for a baby involves a sexual slave, but that never comes across. Experiencing the opposite problem is Robert Duvall (THE GODFATHER, APOCALYPSE NOW) as the Commander. We’re told by a side character how ruthless, sinister and evil this guy is, but Duvall plays him as a somewhat sympathetic figure. In a better movie, this might have made for a complex villain, but instead it just seems out of character when we finally see a somewhat sinister side to the man.

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The pacing that HANDMAID’S TALE moves at doesn’t exactly leave a ton of room for character development or for its complex plot threads to be fully fleshed out. The final 20 minutes are rushed beyond belief and could have easily been made more effective and rewarding, if the running time had been stretched out for a little longer. Instead of being an effective, rewarding conclusion, the ending feels like a series of quick out-of-place action clichés that come out of nowhere.

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HANDMAID’S TALE is not a good movie, but there’s definitely a premise for a great film inside of this somewhat lackluster effort. I was interested in this nightmarish ultra-right-wing future and the film delivers a couple of powerful shocks (a scene in a night club bathroom is one of the best moments of the whole film). My biggest complaint comes from the confused performances that are simply not in line with how we’re told these characters should be acting (mainly from an exposition-spewing side character who occasionally pops up to further the story along). I don’t say this often, but this is a film that could definitely be improved with a remake.

Grade: C+

THE GODFATHER: Part II (1974)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 3 hours 20 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Written by: Francis Ford Coppola & Mario Puzo

(based on the novel THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo)

Starring: Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo & Morgana King

Though I’ve seen THE GODFATHER on numerous occasions, I’m ashamed to admit that I never got around to watching either of the sequels. Though I hear that the third film has a somewhat notorious reputation, I have heard nothing but praise for the second installment over the years from various sources. Some people even go as far as proclaiming that this sequel is superior to that acclaimed original crime epic. Having finally sat through THE GODFATHER: Part II, I can say that the film is even longer than its predecessor and far more accomplished in every possible way. GODFATHER II manages to simultaneously hold up as a prequel and a sequel to the first film, which makes it a departure from your average follow-up. GODFATHER II is one of the best gangster movies that I’ve ever laid eyes on and among the rare breed of sequels that surpass their predecessors.

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It’s 1958 and Michael Corleone has cemented a place as a powerful kingpin in the crime community. His family business remains far from legitimate, but he now has started a family with his lovely wife Kay. When Michael partners up with elderly Jewish mob boss Hyman Roth, it quickly becomes apparent that his new partner is playing multiple sides and has it in for Michael. However, Michael plays the game of “keeping your enemies closer than your friends” which may or may not work to his favor as his empire threatens to fall apart. In a parallel narrative, we see Vito (Michael’s dearly departed father and a central figure in the first film) rise to power in 1917’s New York City.

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The idea of combining dual narratives, one taking place before the events of the first film and the other holding as a traditional sequel, was a ballsy move on the part of Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo (who wrote the novels that these films are based on and helped pen the screenplay). The risk pays off in spades as the parallel plotlines weave in and out of each other with ease. Though the storylines don’t exactly mirror each other in the events playing out, they certainly blend well in tone. The switches back and forth between both narratives are lengthy and come out of nowhere. They can be seen as jarring at first, but make tonal sense in where they interrupt each other. I imagine that the film could have played out far differently if we were shown Vito’s story in full first and then Michael’s or vice versa. The decision to bounce them off each other was a stroke of genius.

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As far as performances go, Al Pacino shines again as Michael. Though the character seems to have retained far more humanity than one might expect from that bleaker-than-beak conclusion to the first film, he somehow manages to become even more corrupted and downright evil in this sequel. You’re forced to side with him as his opponents wind up being somehow worse, but there are definitely scenes that make you pause and question whether or not you should be siding with this two-faced mob boss. Diane Keaton is given much more room to emote here as Michael’s wife. She was far from my favorite part of the first film (I felt that her character was a bit one-dimensional), but she easily delivers one of the most powerful moments in this follow-up (you will know it when you see it). Robert De Niro gives one of his best performances as the young Vito. His ascent to power from shy citizen to powerful criminal is believable and haunting. Meanwhile, we are given a very unconventional villain in Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth. This guy reminded me of Robert Durst (recently chronicled on HBO’s THE JINX) in that he seems like a feeble old man, but there’s a sinister dark side to him.

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Running at over three hours (complete with an Intermission on the DVD), GODFATHER II manages to be far more interesting and compelling than its already stellar predecessor. There’s also less violence this time around that I could identify off-hand. A lot of the more violent actions happen off-screen, though we are still given our fair share of mob executions. One sequence in particular in which Vito commits his first (and only on-screen) kill is bone-chilling. The entire scene stretches for about five minutes and consists of cold, calculated stalking and hiding. Even when the deed is committed that we all knew was coming, it’s still shocking. The most brilliant thing about GODFATHER II is how it manages to further develop characters who were already extremely well-developed to begin with. In seeing these dual story-arcs, more layers have been added to Michael and Vito.

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GODFATHER: Part II didn’t disappoint. It’s easily one of the best gangster movies that I’ve seen and manages to one-up its preceding crime epic in every possible way. The performances are still brilliant, the screenplay is rock solid and complex, and there’s an air of sophistication and tension throughout this whole sequel. GODFATHER: Part II is a must-see for fans of the first movie and crime film aficionados! Easily one of the finest sequels to ever grace the silver screen.

Grade: A+

THE GODFATHER (1972)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Written by: Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola

(based on the novel THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo)

Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard S. Castellano, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, John Cazale & Abe Vigoda

Cinephile or not, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER. This mob epic is currently #2 on IMDB’s top 250, was a sensation at the Academy Awards, and is considered by many to be among the best films ever made. While I wouldn’t necessarily go that far (for a couple of reasons that will become apparent later in the review), GODFATHER is a phenomenal piece of crime cinema that should be seen by anyone who loves film. GODFATHER is essentially a Shakespearean tragedy that happens to take place in 1940’s New York with gangsters.

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Don Vito is the head of the powerful Corleone crime family. Vito has five children. There’s hot-headed Sonny (the eldest son), naïve Fredo (the middle son), Tom (an adopted family lawyer), Connie (Vito’s only daughter) and innocent war hero Michael (the youngest son). When Vito declines to make a deal to work with a violent heroin dealer, an attempt on his life is made and five other major crime families stand opposed to the Corleones. Sonny is put in charge and Michael comes home to aid his weak father. What follows is a web of violent inner politics of a deeply dysfunctional gangster family. Michael slowly, but surely, transforms from the good son into the very monster who swore he wouldn’t become.

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First things first, I want to talk about the technical aspects of GODFATHER. This is an extremely well made film. To say it’s atmospheric would be an understatement. While watching this movie, you feel like you’ve been transported back to 1940’s crime-ridden New York. There’s a gloomy, grim atmosphere hovering over every block and building, but also a sense of class to it all. The film, though not necessarily blood-soaked from beginning to end, has many shocking scenes of violence that are all masterfully executed and never go over-the-top. Assassinations of various characters still hold a lot of tension and still come off as harrowing to this day. A moment near the end that involves a Christening intercut with various bouts of violence is one of the finest sequences in film history. The film may not be perfect all the way through (more on that in a moment), but the final third of the movie is perfection brought to the screen.

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While I know that many consider GODFATHER to be an undisputed masterpiece, I find the film to feel a tad overlong in areas. The first time I watched the movie (back when I was in junior high) I figured that it was just my MTV-addled senses that were used to non-stop action at a fast pace. However, having watched the film for multiple viewings at this point, I strongly feel that the middle hour (with Michael hiding away in Italy) is out-of-place when compared to the rest of the film. To me, it’s a big tonal shift and easily could have been shortened, especially given that the pay-off to the whole Italy story-arc doesn’t feel worth the time dedicated to it. That being said, the script is still a complex web of corruption, family relationships, and violence. It’s compelling from frame one, but does drag its feet in a few scenes…mainly during Michael’s stay in Italy.

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For a movie about gangsters, GODFATHER presents an ever so slightly glamorized view of our main characters. However, I’d attribute this to GODFATHER feeling very much like a complex Shakespearean tragedy. If you’re presented with a cast of despicable people and the story being told is an interesting one, then you’re likely going to have to sympathize or feel for at least one of the aforementioned despicable villains in the cast. Though he’s become a far more outlandish version of the actor that he once was, Al Pacino’s performance holds up as the best part of this film. It’s sad to watch the innocent war hero be corrupted into the monster he becomes by the time the end credits roll. Meanwhile, Marlon Brando plays Don Vito. With a raspy voice and paper-thin moustache, Brando actually inserted cotton balls into his cheeks to aid his performance. What resulted is the most iconic gangster in cinematic history. Even if you’ve never seen this film, you’ve seen Vito referenced in one TV show or movie. The other big stand-outs for me are James Caan as the easily enraged eldest sibling and Robert Duvall as the family’s adopted son/lawyer.

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THE GODFATHER may be a little too long for its own good and drag its feet during the middle hour (the piece with Michael in Italy feels out-of-place given everything else that happens in this film), but it holds up as an iconic and hugely influential crime epic. I disagree with it being called the best gangster movie of all time (for me, that’s probably GOODFELLAS), but it’s definitely in the top-tier of mafia movies. With fantastic performances, a complex story and a feeling of class hovering over the entire film, THE GODFATHER is a film that you simply can’t refuse.

Grade: A

FALLING DOWN (1993)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Strong Language

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Directed by: Joel Schumacher

Written by: Ebbe Roe Smith

Starring: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, Rachel Ticotin, Frederic Forrest, Tuesday Weld

This is a difficult one to review. Some films have a plot, other films are character studies (AMERICAN PSYCHO), and some are a series of events told in non-linear fashion (PULP FICTION). FALLING DOWN is a bit of a character study and a series of events that substitutes for a plot. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because this film has a lot on its mind and even more to say about our society.

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William Foster is a desperate man trying to get to his daughter’s birthday party, despite the wishes of his ex-wife. In the middle of this hot and crowded day, something inside of Foster snaps as he frantically tries to swat a fly within his car. Without a word, he opens his door and abandons his car in the middle of the road. He’s attempts to walk across town, through some pretty shady areas, in order to make it to his daughter’s birthday. Along the way he makes some chance encounters that normally would just irritate a normal person, but William Foster is no longer in his normal frame of mind. Instead of reacting to these problems in a rational calm way, Foster responds with violence, all while lecturing and making observations about the rudeness and unfair nature of life itself. Sergeant Martin Prendergast, an officer on his last day on the job, has begun connecting the series of seemingly random attacks together and therefore, trailing Foster.

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Michael Douglas is fascinating to watch as a man simply slipping over the edge of sanity. It also goes to show just how easy it could be for someone under too much pressure to just go crazy. Douglas encapsulates what it means to be human and the frustration a person can go through when they’re just standing up against a situation that seems unfair. Of course, the character of Foster goes over the top and becomes a lunatic totting guns in every possible scenario he’s thrown in. There are a few situations where we actually root for Foster (an encounter with some violent gangsters who’ve picked the wrong day to mess with him or the hobo telling a story that becomes more far-fetched as he desperately tries to mooch some money off Foster) and there are a bunch where Foster reacts in ways that are out-of-control for the situation (an encounter at a convenience store or a complaint at a fast food restaurant).

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Some bits of dark comedy are thrown in here and there too. However, the film never really becomes a full-blown dark comedy. Instead, it firmly stays planted in reality as the downward spiral Foster finds himself in gets bleaker, the further he goes down. The subplot of the movie that feels a bit unneeded is Robert Duvall’s storyline. He plays the Sergeant investigating Foster and these scenes don’t really add much to the proceedings. It would have probably gotten a bit boring to follow Michael Douglas around for just under two hours as he makes cynical observations while pulling out weapons in every circumstance. That’s where the main problem of the movie comes in.

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FALLING DOWN is too long and I attribute most of this to the previously stated unneeded subplot. Michael Douglas was great and his rapidly growing frustration that escalated into violence made the movie. This was the movie in a nutshell and that’s probably why the bits of Robert Duvall, including a few what-were-they-thinking bits involving his unhinged stay-at-home wife, takes away from the power of this film.

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Overall, FALLING DOWN is worth a watch, but know that the film wears out its welcome by adding in the bits of the police procedural. If it were a tight 90 minute film that followed Michael Douglas as he made the journey across town to confront an ex-wife and see his daughter again, then this movie really would have been so much better. Instead, it’s a good film, when it could have been a great one.

Grade: B

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