Chinatown (1974)

Chinatown

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Diane Ladd, Darrell Zwerling, Burt Young

Director: Roman Polanski

Summary: A Los Angeles private eye’s investigation into a case of infidelity leads to him  unraveling a massive web of corruption within the city.

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Dunaway), Original Screenplay*, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Sound, Film Editing, Original Score

Positives

-The script is one of the best (maybe the best) for a mystery noir-it keeps us on our toes guessing what’s going to come next with some great twists and turns, it’s exciting, it has great characters that are both totally tropes of the genre (the hard boiled PI who doesn’t know when to quit, the femme fatale) yet are distinctive and give new life to those kinds of characters, and I love how it really builds up the character of Noah Cross before we ever meet him and then he looms over the whole movie despite only being in it for 15 minutes. It has a little bit of everything, and the last 15 minutes are some of the best ever, even on my second viewing. On the whole, it reminds me of something Billy Wilder would write if he was in his prime in the 1970s.

-Nicholson and Dunaway are both fantastic in the leads, playing their archetypes perfectly. Nicholson is funny, charming, crass, yet until the end doesn’t let anything really get to him because his character has seen pretty much everything before. Dunaway was one of the best (maybe the best) leading woman of the era, and everything about her screams mystery and “she’s hiding something” behind her poker face, but with more style and elegance than say, Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, and she’s also better at the more emotional scenes. Last but certainly not least is John Huston; there have been plenty of people nominated (or have even won) Supporting Actor/Actress for movies they only appeared in for 15 minutes, so I don’t know how he didn’t for this one (he did get nominated for the Golden Globe), as he’s amazing every time he shows up.

-You can see why L.A. Noire pretty much outright stole the score from Chinatown-it’s big brassy sound with piano undertones is perfect for the film and is one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best efforts, if not his best.

Negatives

-Hmmmmm….Well, I don’t really like Roman Polanski as a person that much, so there’s that even if it didn’t effect my enjoyment of the movie (he also shows up on-screen briefly in an important scene). Other than that? Too much water? You’ve got me.

Overall

It’s a shame that it had to go up against The Godfather Part II, as in almost any other year it would have won Best Picture (and even won the Golden Globe for Best Drama over that movie). If you like noirs, mysteries or even are someone who likes dramas and has a healthy tolerance for cynicism, you’ll probably love this movie. Watch it if you haven’t.

Rating: A

Advertisements

The Conversation (1974)

conversation

Starring: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, Teri Garr, Robert Duvall

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Summary: A surveillance expert has a crisis of conscience when he suspects that a couple he has been spying on will be murdered.

Other Nominations: Original Screenplay, Sound

Positives

-This is a wonderful example of character building through show, don’t tell-there’s very little expository dialogue about the kind of person Hackman’s character is, and instead we learn about him through his actions and body language. The result of the script and Hackman’s excellent performance is a vivid and memorable character: a paranoid introvert who is awkward in every way, yet he feels very much like a real and original character despite many others having similarities to him.

-Besides being a character study, it also works really well as a thriller/mystery, and one with very relevant themes about secret surveillance. The movie is very vague until the last 35 minutes or so about who he’s working for and for what purpose exactly, but whereas in some movies this would be frustrating and you might feel you need a little more to go on, the character building it does for the first hour and a half is interesting enough on its own and they give you just enough to go on that you’re okay with waiting for answers. The conclusion we get is outstanding and extremely well-done with Hackman ending up in a place that feels logical (and almost deserved) considering who he is and also drives home the point about the consequences of surveillance technology and how (even now!) we really haven’t thought about the true ramifications of it on our lives now and in the future until it’s too late.

-I really think the score should have gotten an Oscar nomination, as it feels very ahead of its time. While you see plenty of movies go for light piano music when you have a character who is fragile or lonely, I don’t think that was always the case and this movie may been an inspiration for others.

Negatives

-I didn’t like the one “dream sequence” where he tries to talk to Cindy Williams’ character because it breaks the “show don’t tell” rule that the rest of the movie adhered to so well and it doesn’t actually add anything to the movie or our understanding of the character.

Other Stuff

-While it was unintentional because the movie was written in the mid 60s, the timing of this movie couldn’t have been any better: this movie about secretive surveillance using bugs and wiretaps was released in April 1974, at a time when Richard Nixon was undergoing impeachment proceedings as a result of the Watergate scandal.

Overall

Francis Ford Coppola could do more than big epic stories at the height of his powers, as this is a fantastic small character study/thriller/mystery that is very personal and yet has some big themes that still apply today.

Rating: A

*The Godfather Part II (1974)*

godfatherII

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

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Summary: The early life of Vito Corleone in 1920’s New York is depicted, while his son Michael expands and tightens his grip on his crime syndicate

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Pacino), Supporting Actor (De Niro)*, Supporting Actor (Gazzo), Supporting Actor (Strasberg), Supporting Actress (Shire), Adapted Screenplay*, Art Direction*, Costume Design*, Original Score*

Positives

-In many ways, this is a superior film to its predecessor and tells a better core story. Seeing how Michael deals with power is more interesting to me than seeing his ascent to power. The dynamic between Michael and Fredo here is the highlight of the series for me, and Cazale should have been nominated (instead of Strasberg or one of the other non-Godfather nominees). The struggle between family and loyalty vs. what’s best for business underlines the entire movie and the examination of those themes is done better than in the first movie.

-Besides Cazale, who I mentioned earlier, the cast as a whole is everything you would expect it to be. Pacino, especially over the last hour or so, puts in some of the best work of his career; Gazzo brings a lot of needed boisterous energy to the movie when he’s on screen; Duvall and Keaton don’t get quite as much screentime as I maybe would have liked but nail their bigger scenes and are good as always.

-Even if it’s derivative of the original’s (even reusing the famous theme), the score is still great for all the reasons it was for the first one.

Negatives

-The Don Corleone story was good and everything, but I would have rather seen a more streamlined movie just focusing on Michael.

-It’s a shame that they replaced Peter Clemenza with Frank Pentangeli (even if Gazzo is great) because the original actor’s demands were unreasonable (he wanted to write all his own dialogue, he wanted too much money and they wanted him to gain the weight back that he lost in the interim). The storyline would have made more sense and would have been more effective with a character we already knew really well from the last movie. Heck, I would have just replaced the actor for Clemenza instead of replacing the character entirely.

Other Stuff

-This movie was the first time an American movie had a numbered sequel; before this, Hollywood conventional wisdom was that people didn’t want to see the same story twice, something that has obviously been proven to be wrong as thoroughly as humanly possible.

Overall

It has story flaws but they don’t impede my enjoyment of the movie all that much and I still like this movie better than the original Godfather (my reaction from the first time I saw both movies) because I think it tells an even more compelling story and the core performances are even better. It’s the best ending to the series they could have done…or at least it should have been.

Rating: A

The Towering Inferno (1974)

towering

Starring: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Jennifer Jones (her final film), Richard Chamberlain, Fred Astaire, Faye Dunaway, O.J. Simpson, Robert Wagner, Susan Blakely, Robert Vaughn, Susan Flannery

Director: John Guillermin & Irwin Allen (uncredited, did the action scenes)

Summary: A fire chief and an architect join forces to save victims of a burning skyscraper

Other Nominations: Supporting Actor (Astaire), Cinematography*, Art Direction, Sound, Film Editing*, Original Song (“We May Never Love Like This Again”)*, Original Score

Positives

-He would obviously go on to do better, but even an above average John Williams score is a highlight for most movies, especially one like this.

-This is a great cast and the performances are mostly good, with Astaire and Jones probably being the best; McQueen on the other hand makes no attempt to move his facial muscles, and Faye Dunaway is clearly just there for a paycheck, especially considering how good she is in other films from this time period.

-The production values are very good, this feels like a much bigger production than Airport and anytime you go whole-hog with something like rooms on fire is impressive.

Negatives

-It has some of the same problems Airport did, mainly that there’s way too many people with their own individual stories, even if I thought this movie handled it better. It’s not as boring as that movie was either, but it becomes tedious after a while: at 2 hours and 45 minutes, you get tired of everything repeatedly going wrong or more things catching on fire and seeing windows on the outside of the building explode out.

-The sprinkler system along with all the other dozen safety precautions failing without any explanation besides “everything was built terribly” seems a bit ridiculous even for building standards in the 70s. How did it pass inspection? Yes, they say it was up to code, and it would have had to have been to open to the public, but when every conceivable thing fails on the first day, were they paid off? I know they keep saying the building codes weren’t that great and that skyscrapers aren’t built safely, but there has to be some kind of standards that at least frown upon a literal dried puddle of cement blocking an emergency exit.

Other Stuff

-This movie was based on two different, unrelated novels, “The Tower” and “The Glass Inferno” (the title of the movie being a combination of the two), with Warner Bros. owning the rights to “The Tower” and 20th Century Fox owning the rights to “The Glass Inferno.” Since the two studios didn’t want to realize competing movies about skyscrapers on fire, they decided to make it a joint production, the first time this had ever happened with two major studios; Fox got the U.S. gross, Warner got the international gross.

-Random Bay Area native observation (as this takes place in San Francisco): during the opening gala, we see KQED covering the event; KQED was/is San Francisco’s PBS affiliate, why would they be covering it? KRON (then NBC affiliate), KPIX (CBS) or KGO (ABC) would have been better choices.

Overall

It’s better than Airport because of its cast and production values not to mention its score, but it’s still not that great and is a noticeable blemish on an otherwise great year of nominees.

Rating: C-

1974 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1974

Blazing Saddles & Young Frankenstein: Mel Brooks really did release these two legendary comedies in the same year (Blazing Saddles in February, Young Frankenstein in December). In my opinion, Blazing Saddles is the funniest movie ever made, even if it falls apart at the end. The satire is sharp, laughs come a mile a minute and everybody is terrific. I haven’t seen Young Frankenstein in a long time, so I can’t really give a good opinion on it, but putting together Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman and Teri Garr with Mel Brooks is something amazing indeed. Both movies are in the National Film Registry.

A Woman Under the Influence: Many consider this John Cassavetes’ best film, and it stars her wife Gena Rowlands in a role many think she should have won Best Actress for, playing a housewife who is committed by her husband for psychiatric treatment and then returns to the family six months later. In the National Film Registry.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: For a movie called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there’s not THAT much gore in the movie and most of the really nasty stuff happens offscreen with just sound or just after the camera cuts, which actually makes it worse/more effective. It was heavily influential on the genre as an early slasher film and launched the career of its director Tobe Hooper (Poltergeist, Salem’s Lot, the extremely entertaining Lifeforce).

Murder on the Orient Express: Nominated for 6 Oscars (winning for Ingrid Bergman as Supporting Actress), but not Best Picture, this movie has one of the best casts ever: Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Martin Balsam, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York and Richard Widmark. One of the best Agatha Christie adaptations.

The Longest Yard: One of my favorite sports movies ever, starring Burt Reynolds as a former NFL quarterback who is imprisoned and is ordered to lead a prison inmate team against the guards as a warm up for the guards’ semi-pro football league. The football scenes are fantastic, it’s very funny and is Burt Reynolds at his best. We don’t talk about the remake.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Won for Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn), nominated for Supporting Actress (Diane Ladd) and Original Screenplay, but not Best Picture (or Martin Scorsese for Best Director). Not only was it a huge critical success (and is considered a great film), it also inspired the TV series Alice which ran for 9 years.

Death Wish: Much like the Rambo movies, the original movie feels completely different than the schlock that came after it and at least tries to be a decent “white guy vigilante single handedly tries to clean up the streets” film, even if its morals are questionable. The sequels (especially 3-5) are hilarious, not only for seeing 60 year old Charles Bronson as this supreme killing machine, but how every single family member/love interest of his is murdered because they keep needing new reasons for Bronson to mow down another 50 drug dealers and can’t think of anything else.

Zardoz: John Boorman followed up Deliverance with…this thing that’s one of the most infamous movies to ever come out of Hollywood. Somehow he roped Sean Connery in his prime to do this bizarre, rambling, faux-deep nonsense set in the future while wearing a red diaper with suspenders and knee-high boots.

1974 Nominees in Review

Chinatown: A

The Godfather Part II: A (Won Best Picture)

The Conversation: A

Lenny: C+

The Towering Inferno: C-

This is the first year with three “A” movies, two from the same director even. Regardless of the other two movies being a bit disappointing, this will always be remembered as one of the best years for nominees ever, as it should. I picked Chinatown over Godfather Part II as my movie of the year because it’s as close to a perfect movie as you will get; by perfect, I mean a movie that executes what it is trying to be as well as it possibly could have, not necessarily that it’s the best movie ever made. The Conversation was a great surprise, coming in with the expectations of a good movie and being really sucked into it; in most other years, it would have been my Best Picture pick, but this was a truly exceptional year. Also, I would be remiss in not mentioning one of the most infamous Oscar decisions ever: Art Carney for Harry and Tonto winning Best Actor over Al Pacino for The Godfather Part II and Jack Nicholson for Chinatown, or even Gene Hackman for The Conversation who wasn’t even nominated. While I haven’t seen Harry and Tonto, I cannot conceive of him being better than any of those performances. It’s not like it was even a “lifetime achievement” Oscar, the guy was mainly known as a TV actor on The Honeymooners, he wasn’t Peter O’Toole or something.

1975 is generally considered one of the greatest slates of nominees of all-time (and probably the best of the 5-nominee era) with no weak links in the bunch: the only one not in the National Film Registry is from Stanley freakin’ Kubrick for gods sakes. There’s: a movie where almost no artificial lighting in order to stay authentic with the 1700’s Irish/English setting; a movie based on a Life magazine article; the movie generally credited with establishing the concept of the summer blockbuster; a movie that set holds the record for Golden Globes nominations with nine including four for supporting actress; and the second of three movies to win the Big Five (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay)