Movie Project #32 and #33: JFK [1991] and The Untouchables [1987]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

JFK [1991]
JFK: Director’s Cut [1991, dir. Oliver Stone]
In Oliver Stone’s JFK, damn near everyone is to blame for the assassination of our 35th President — the CIA, FBI, Mafia, LBJ, Castro, the Dallas Police Department, and Southern anti-Communist radicals. These targets are all linked together by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). The film follows his obsession with the case and his desperate attempts to uncover possible conspiracies.

Whether or not any of the theories presented in the film are true is irrelevant because JFK is simply a masterclass in the art of storytelling. So many different threads are successfully weaved in and out, and once you go down that rabbit hole, there’s no turning back. Our country will never truly know who all was involved in the shooting, but considering the fallacies in the “lone gunman” argument, I wouldn’t be surprised if the film held more truth than the government’s own Warren Commission.

For a film in which the director’s cut encompasses a whopping 206 minutes, time sure does fly by. Part of that is because the mystery regarding the assassination itself is so riveting, but a large part can be attributed to an absolutely stellar cast. Costner anchors the film, but just take a look at some of the other big names involved: Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Kevin Bacon, Michael Rooker, Jack Lemmon, Walter Mattheau, Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, John Candy… Every single one of them delivers a memorable performance, all crucial to the plot in some fashion.

The film’s length is what put me off from watching it for so long, and that’s a damn shame. JFK still has me thinking to this day, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it near the top of my project at the end of the year. 9/10

The Untouchables [1987, dir. Brian De Palma]
The Untouchables [1987, dir. Brian De Palma]
Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables is a real crowd pleaser. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s got a sharp script courtesy of David Mamet, an Oscar-nominated score from the legendary Ennio Morricone, and it’s stacked with memorable setpieces featuring an all-star cast. Set during 1920s Chicago, the film follows the famous Prohibition agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his group of “untouchables” (including a tough Irish bastard played by Sean Connery) as they seek to take down Al Capone (Robert De Niro) and his illegal bootlegging operations.

There’s a lot to like here, and it starts with the characters. Ness is a straight-laced agent, but there’s something admirable about his dedication to the law. His righthand man, the local beat cop played by Connery, is a real highlight, providing a certain energy to balance out the dry Ness. De Niro isn’t given a whole lot to work with as Capone, unfortunately, though there is one unforgettable scene where he does his best Babe Ruth impression with a baseball bat (except not on a baseball, if you know what I mean..).

Since this is a De Palma film, it is beautifully shot, and it makes brilliant use of its Chicago setting. In arguably the film’s most famous scene, a staircase inside the Union Station is used as an homage to the famous Odessa Steps sequence in the silent classic, Battleship Potemkin. Although the climax is a bit too over the top for my liking, on the whole The Untouchables is a highly entertaining film that still holds up today. 8/10

Movie Project #30: Carrie [1976]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Carrie [1976]

Carrie [1976]
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Stephen King (novel), Lawrence D. Cohen (screenplay)
Country: USA
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Katt, John Travolta, Nancy Allen
Running Time: 98 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is one of my biggest horror blind spots.

Accolades: Two Oscar nominations (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress), Golden Globe nomination (Best Supporting Actress), #46 on AFI’s 100 Thrills

It appears that I watched Carrie at the best possible time, and not just because we are rapidly approaching Halloween. No sooner than the very next day after finally seeing Brian de Palma’s seminal 1976 adaptation of the Stephen King novel, I was forced to watch the trailer for its upcoming remake. Not only did the trailer give away the entirety of the film’s plot (complete with multiple shots of the penultimate prom scene), but it just reinforced the idea that a remake is entirely unnecessary.

I knew the general plot going into Carrie, and I had seen clips of it over the years, but I was surprised at just how sad of a tale this is. While still a horror film, it’s not really what I expected of the genre, as it plays out as more of a drama/thriller.

Sissy Spacek (in an absolute jaw-dropping performance) stars as Carrie White, a timid and awkward 17-year-old high school student. She is an outcast at school, almost entirely due to the extreme religious views her mother Margaret (Piper Laurie) forces on her at home. Poor Carrie is forced to learn about puberty on her own (i.e. her first period, which horrifies her and is shown in the very first scene of the film), and her mother dubs her a sinner for this. The 17-year-old is constantly bullied at school, further making her life miserable.

Carrie [1976]

However, things start to look up when one of the girls, Sue (Amy Irving), has a change of heart, feeling guilty about her role in the bullying. She convinces her boyfriend, Tommy (William Katt), one of the most popular guys at school, to invite Carrie to prom. Reluctant at first, fearing this to be a joke, Carrie eventually accepts his offer. Everyone appears to be genuine in their attempts to help Carrie; well, except for two students. Chris (Nancy Allen) and her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta, in one of his earliest roles) just want to torment her some more, and they set out to ruin her evening.

Oh, and there’s one other slightly important bit that Carrie is discovering about herself: she has telekinetic powers. Her effects are subtle at first, such as moving a small object, but as she learns more about them, she begins to realize that hey, maybe she can fight back on the constant abuse after all.

Carrie [1976]

The film itself is a bit of a slow burn before reaching the chaotic final act, but it still presents itself as a fascinating character study. We can’t help but empathize with Carrie, and her character is a strong encapsulation of the life of a teenager (albeit a bit more extreme than most). All of the praise given to Sissy Spacek’s performance is well-deserved — those eyes will haunt me forever — and Piper Laurie is also terrific as her religious nutjob of a mother.

Carrie truly does stand the test of time, and while the fashion may be dated, the tale itself is not. This is a damn good horror film and one of the finer de Palma works that I have seen. It’s a shame that the remake will likely be the next generation’s introduction to this classic story.

8/10

Movie Project #2: Blow Out [1981]

Due to the overwhelming success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a second round for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Blow Out [1981]

Blow Out [1981]
Director: Brian De Palma
Genre: Crime/Drama/Mystery
Starring: John Travolta, Nancy Allen and John Lithgow
Runtime: 107 minutes

I don’t watch the news. It’s too depressing.

Frequently cited as one of Quentin Tarantino’s top three favorite films, Blow Out is a gripping thriller that has built up a bit of a cult following since its 1981 release. Last year, the movie was treated to an expansive Criterion Collection package, which was a big reason why I became so interested in seeing this.

John Travolta stars as B-movie sound technician Jack Terry, a man who has worked on such classic titles as Blood Beach, Blood Beach Two, and Bordello of Blood. One night, while he is out recording frogs, owls and other night sounds, Jack witnesses a horrific car crash. One of the car’s tires blows out, sending the vehicle and its inhabitants plunging over a bridge and into the river below. Jack frantically dives in to help, and pulls out the girl trapped inside, Sally (Allen). The other victim, later found out to be a governor and presidential hopeful, is not so lucky, and he dies on scene.

Initial signs point to this being a “freak” car accident, but Jack, being a sound guy and all, is positive that he heard a gunshot before the blow out. Revisiting the audio from the evening seems to confirm this, and now he wants to dig deeper and try to figure out just who the hell shot out the tire.

Blow Out [1981]

Now here’s where shit gets real: there was another person at the river that evening, Manny Karp (Dennis Franz). He recorded the entire incident on film, and he begins shopping his photos around to all sorts of tabloids. With some particularly helpful prior knowledge, he was at the scene to make a quick buck. He didn’t shoot the gun, however.

That was Burke (Lithgow), an assassin who was hired as part of a greater political conspiracy. The plan (allegedly) was never to have him murder anyone, but Burke decided to take things to another level on his own. Now he is hot on the tail of Jack and Sally, with plans to kill both of them and finally cover up this political scandal once and for all.

If Blow Out sounds like a film with deep layers embedded with conspiracies, well, it is. There are obvious allusions to real life events such as Watergate, the JFK assassination and the Chappaquiddick incident. There are so many ideas in place, and all of them are covered remarkably. Just as Jack Terry methodically edits sound for B-movies, director Brian De Palma carefully crafts a film that connects on many different levels.

Blow Out [1981]

Part of the film’s brilliance also lies heavily on John Travolta’s shoulders. This may very well be his finest performance, as he is extra charismatic as a regular guy who just so happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. Much can be said about John Lithgow’s icy cold take as the assassin/serial killer, a role he would expound upon even more nearly 30 years later in TV’s Dexter. Nancy Allen is passable at best, but she does not detract from the film’s quality.

There were moments during the second act where I felt the film was kicking its tires a bit (pun intended?), but the epic conclusion really renewed my sense of appreciation. The ending, draped in patriotic symbolism, is one that I will never forget.

With its grandeur release from Criterion, Blow Out has much deservedly reached a new generation of fans (myself included). Fans of crime, mystery and thrillers ought to give this a watch.

8/10